Authors: Herbert Lieberman
TO CATCH A KILLER
“I have studied the files on all five cases and I am pretty much convinced they are the work of some kind of nut case. Maybe a religious freak of some sort who performs something like a ritual sacrifice once a year or so.
“I have noted, and called the attention of my colleagues to this, the royal dunderheads of Manhattan South and the 6th Homicide, all to no avail. The fact that all these fatal drops occur without exception in the spring of the year, three having occurred in April and two in May, appear to make no impression on them.
“It is now, as of this writing, May 13th. So far April has been quiet, but I now have the strongest gut feeling that sometime this month our rooftop friend will strike again …”
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Copyright © 1984 by Herbert Lieberman
Cover art by Sonya Lamut and Nenad Jakesavic
Designed by Richard Oriolo
Published by arrangement with G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 83-13742
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The G.P. Putnam’s Sons edition contains the following Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data:
Lieberman, Herbert H., date.
PS3562.I4N55 1984 813’.54 83-13742
First Avon Printing, February, 1985
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Many thanks to Dr. Len Rubin of Chappaqua, New York, whence, one summer night, the idea sprang.
The man stood at the edge of the rooftop, hands clasped, elbows pressed into the concrete ledge. The balmy spring breeze rustled the cuffs of his trousers and stirred his lapels. There was an imminence of rain, something one smelled in the exhalations from the sparse foliage and the full trash cans—something dank and sweetish wafting upward through the shafts below.
Periodically a gash of lightning rent the western sky. At that elevation, seven stories up, the city had the look of a dirty carpet onto which a billion gaudy sequins had been strewn. Neon and prismatic, the lights from the teeming theater district cast a glow of lurid red on the sky above, as if at that one point some vengeful, purging Old Testament fire were raging below.
In the palm of his hand the man rattled pebbles and a few chips of schist he’d gathered up off the tarred rooftop. He shook them in his hand as if he were telling beads or reading auguries from them. Then, with an air of dreamy abstraction, he would pitch one or two down into the warm pools of shimmering light where crowds of people streamed from the emptying theaters into the warm orange glow of café windows.
Of his actions the man appeared to be oblivious. On his face he wore a sweet, placid expression as if at that moment he was deep in the midst of recalling something infinitely pleasing, some point at which he existed in a dim, scarcely remembered past. Gently, and with an air of exquisite restraint, his arm rose and another pebble arched outward from his hand over the ledge top down into the void below.
Francis Mooney grunted and stooped his 240-pound frame above the mound of dirty tarpaulin that lay heaped on the corner of Forty-ninth Street, just west of Eighth Avenue. It was now well past midnight, but still crowds of people gathered silent and watchful in a circle round him.
At the curbside, the radio from a police patrol car sputtered and crackled sporadic reports of the evening’s crimes in progress.
Hunkered on his knees, Mooney lifted a corner of the tarpaulin and held it between thumb and forefinger, rather fastidiously, the way one might lift a lace doily. It was an incongruous gesture in someone of Mooney’s girth. Beneath the tarpaulin was a man, slight, fortyish, with wide staring eyes. At the side of his head a pink, bulblike excrescence like a newly bloomed hydrangea sprung whole from his skull. Mooney was careful to keep the soles of his scuffed black oxfords well back out of the way of the red puddle trickling over the pavement from beneath the tarpaulin.
Not far from the tarpaulin itself, a slab of concrete cinderblock lay, twelve inches across, four inches thick, weighing approximately forty pounds. At the elevation from which it had fallen, he judged, it had on impact reached a velocity of nearly two hundred miles an hour and had broken into four clean, nearly equal quarters.
“Hit him like a brick shithouse,” Mooney muttered, more to himself than to the reporting patrolman hovering above him. A vision of the shattered, pulpy skull beneath the tarpaulin flashed in his head.
“Looks like it just fell from the roof,” the patrolman responded. Mooney gaped upward. His slightly protuberant eyes ascended the brick facade of the building. “Probably broke off the coping up there.”
“Name’s Ransom,” the patrolman answered, flipping pages in a little note pad. “John R., age forty-three. Musician. Address given here on his union card is 443 West Forty-seventh. A few blocks down. Probably just on his way home.”
“Anyone see it?” Mooney asked without looking up.
“The kid over here,” someone in the crowd said. Mooney couldn’t tell if the black child suddenly materializing before him had come forward voluntarily or was pushed. He was simply just there. “What’s your name, friend?”
The boy uttered a surname that got lost somewhere between the noise of the street and the fright constricting his throat.
“I can’t hear you, Cleveland. Don’t talk with your hands in your mouth. What’s your last name?”
The boy swallowed hard. “Gaynes.”
Mooney gazed up at him. What he saw was a scrawny, bug-eyed kid who was clearly frightened. “How old are you, Cleveland?”
Mooney estimated his real age to be somewhere close to eleven or twelve, a part of one of the dog packs of homeless waifs who foraged regularly through the Times Square area. Bug life, Mooney thought. Lice. “You from round here, Cleveland?” The boy’s eyes widened. He appeared blank. “Where do you live? Where do you crash?”
There was a pause while the crowd pushed forward and the boy stalled for time. “A hundred and thirty-eighth.”
“You got a pad up there?”
“My cousin got a pad up there.”
Mooney regarded the child skeptically.
“You see what happened here tonight, Cleveland?”
The boy gazed down at the sticky red puddle and the impersonal humped thing lying beneath the tarpaulin with the shoes sticking out from beneath. The crowds inched forward while Mooney, still stooping on cramped legs, waited.
“You see what happened, Cleveland?” he asked again.
The boy pointed to the slab of concrete. “That come down off the roof.”
“From where? Point to it. The exact spot.”
The boy’s head turned and his eye wandered back up the gray brick facade of the building where inquisitive occupants in nightclothes leaned out over sills through lighted windows open to the street. “From there.”
Mooney’s eyes followed the boy’s finger to the top of the building to a point just above and to the left of the uppermost fire escape. “You see someone throw it?”
The boy looked around uneasily.
“You see someone up there, Cleveland?”
Mooney’s interest perked. “Anyone you know?” Dead-panned, the boy slowly shook his head right and left. “Nope.”
“But you say you saw someone drop it?”
“How come you saw that?”
The boy shrugged and made a face. “Just look up and seen him there. Then seen it comin’ down.”
“From that spot you showed me?” Mooney thrust a pudgy finger skyward.
“Uh-huh. From there.”
By that time a sizable crowd had gathered. Two more patrol cars had joined the first. Their red dome lights spun while a gray forensic van from the medical examiner’s office nosed its way through the crowds, coming to collect the remains.
“No one threw it, Mooney.” The cop scribbled in his pad. “Take it from me. It just broke off from the building. All of these old fleabags round here are falling apart.”
“Probably,” Mooney sighed. His leg had started to cramp from where he’d been kneeling above the tarpaulin. His nose made a high whistling sound as he wobbled to his feet. “I guess we oughta go up mid have a look anyway.”
Frank Mooney was an overweight, failed detective. Overweight because he was a compulsive eater with a predilection for beer and fried foods; failed because he was a malcontent, antisocial creature in an organization that bonded men on the principles of teamwork and compulsory fraternal loyalties. Like all misanthropes, he was not much on fraternal loyalties. In fact, Mooney had very little good to say about mankind in general and about cops, nothing whatever. He counted no man his brother. Moreover, he was given to a whole medley of habits that policemen have no business cultivating. He loved the ponies to the point of impecuniosity. Also, he had never married nor sought the company of any woman with serious regularity. On off-hours he was not averse to alleviating loneliness in sleazy West Side dives where professional women were known to ply their trade.
Twice he had made detective first grade—a captaincy—and twice he had been broken back down to detective second grade; this for (a) “acting unprofessionally,” (b) “exceeding his authority,” and (c) “comporting himself in a manner unbecoming a police officer.”
Now his misanthropy was such that he took a kind of perverse delight in his demotions, and seized any opportunity to flaunt them jubilantly in the faces of junior colleagues, as if daring them to follow his example.
He was fifty-nine, a veteran of nearly forty years with the force, and thrice decorated for bravery. With four years away from retirement, no one, not even the commissioner, would have had the stomach to fire him. On several occasions, pressure had been brought to bear to make Mooney take early retirement. But he would not truckle before the chief. He would not be intimidated. Though there was no love lost between them and Mooney, the Policemen’s Benevolent Association and the Detectives Endowment League both made it emphatically clear they would not brook any forced retirement in his case. But even more compelling, Mooney left little doubt that in forty years of service he had learned where all the department skeletons had been buried, and that if the situation warranted, he wouldn’t hesitate to disinter them.