Read Serial Online

Authors: John Lutz

Tags: #Dective/Crime

Serial

 

 

 

For Barbara

As are they all

I would I were alive again

To kiss the fingers of the rain,

To drink into my eyes the shine

Of every slanting silver line …

—E
DNA
S
T.
V
INCENT
M
ILLAY,

“Renascence”                      

I hear a sudden cry of pain!

There is a rabbit in a snare …

—J
AMES
S
TEPHENS,
“The Snare”       

1

Millie Graff’s feet were sore. She was a hostess at Mingles, a new and popular restaurant on West Forty-fifth Street near Times Square, and hadn’t sat down for over five hours. After work, it was a three-block walk and a long concrete stairwell descent to a downtown subway platform. In the crowded subway, someone would probably step on her toes.

She didn’t mind the work or the time at Mingles. Her paycheck was big enough that she’d soon be able to move out of her cramped Village apartment into something larger, maybe on the Upper West Side. Her job was secure, and there was still a chance she could land a spot in an off-Broadway chorus line.

Dance had been Millie’s first love. It was what had brought her to New York City from the small town her folks had moved to in New Jersey. Dance and dreams.

She’d kept her weight down and was still built like a dancer: long-waisted, with small breasts, muscular legs, and an elegant turn of ankle that drew male glances.

In fact, as she jogged up the concrete steps to the entrance to her building, holding level a white foam takeaway container from a deli she’d stopped at on her way home, a middle-aged man walking past gave her a lingering look and a hopeful smile.

Not till you grow some hair on your head,
Millie thought—rather cruelly, she realized with some regret, as she shouldered open the door to the vestibule.

She saw no one on the way up in the elevator or in the hall. Pausing to dig her keys out of her purse, she realized again how weary she was. Just smiling for seven hours was enough to wear a person down.

After keying the locks, she turned the tarnished brass doorknob and entered.

She’d barely had time to register that something was wrong when the man who’d been waiting for her just inside the door stepped directly in front of her. It was almost as if he’d sprung up out of the floor.

Millie gasped. The foam container of chicken wings and brown rice dropped to the carpet and made a mess.

The man was so close that his face was out of focus and she couldn’t make out his features. She thought at first he was simply shirtless, but in a startled instant realized he was completely nude. She could smell his sweaty male scent. Feel his body heat. She was looking up at him at an angle that made her think he was about six feet tall.

He smiled. That frightened the already-stunned Millie to the point where her throat constricted. She could hardly breathe.

“You know me,” he said.

But of course she didn’t. Not really.

“I have a gift for you,” he told her, and she stood in shock as he slipped something—a necklace—over her head carefully, so as not to disturb her hairdo.

She was aware of his right hand moving quickly on the lower periphery of her vision. Saw an instantaneous glint of silver.
A blade! Something peculiar about it.

 

He was thrilled by the confusion in her eyes. Her brain hadn’t yet caught up with what was happening.

The blade would feel cold at first, before pain overwhelmed all other feeling.

He was standing now supporting her, a length of her intestines draped in his left hand like a warm snake.

He thought that was amazing.
Incredible!
The expression on Millie Graff’s face made it obvious that she, too, was amazed. Her eyes bulged with wonder. He felt the throb of his erection.

Despite the seriousness of her injury, he knew she wasn’t yet dead. He lowered her gently to the floor, resting her on her back so she wouldn’t bleed so much. Carefully, he propped her head against the sofa so that when he used the ammonia fumes to jolt her back to consciousness, she’d be looking down again at what he’d done to her.

She’d know it was only the beginning.

2

“Why would you invite anyone sane to see this?” Quinn asked.

But he had a pretty good idea why.

New York Police Commissioner Harley Renz wouldn’t be at a bloody crime scene like this unless he considered it vitally important. Renz was standing back, well away from the mess in the tiny living room. The air was fetid with the coppery stench of blood.

The commissioner had put on even more weight in the year since Quinn had seen him. His conservative blue suit was stretched at the seams, rendering its expensive tailoring meaningless. His pink jowls ballooned over the collar of his white silk shirt. More and more, his appearance reflected exactly what he was, a corpulent and corrupt politician with the fleshy facial features of a bloodhound. He looked like a creature of rapacious appetite, and he was one.

“Look at her,” he said, his red-rimmed eyes fleshy triangles of compassion. “Jesus, just look at her!”

What he was demanding wasn’t easy. The woman lay on her back on the bloodstained carpet, with her legs and arms spread as if she’d given up and welcomed what was being done to her so the horror could end. Quinn knew it had taken a long time to end. It looked as if the tendons in the crooks of her arms and behind both knees had been severed so she couldn’t move other than to flop around, and her abdomen had been opened with some kind of knife. Small circular burns indicated a cigarette had been touched to her flesh. Shreds of flesh dangled from her corpse in a way that suggested it had been violated with a blade and then peeled from body and bone with a pair of pliers.

Quinn figured the butchery for an amateur job, not done by anyone with special medical knowledge. The killer’s primary goal was to torture. He’d burned her and stripped away skin for no purpose other than pain.

He must have done this while she was still alive.

Pink bloodstained material, what appeared to be the victim’s panties, was wadded in her mouth. The elastic waistband of the panties was looped around her neck and tightly knotted at the base of her skull.

Quinn looked over at Renz.

“Nift says she was alive and what was done to her took hours,” Renz said. “The stomach was done first.” His voice broke slightly. Not like him.

For the first time Quinn noticed the usually loquacious and obnoxious little medical examiner, Dr. Julius Nift. He was standing alongside a wall with a uniformed cop and a plainclothes detective with his badge dangling in its leather folder from a suit coat pocket. A crime scene tech wearing a white jumpsuit and gloves was over near the door. Everyone seemed to be standing as far away as possible from Renz.

“That’s why there’s so much blood,” Nift said. “A stomach wound like that looks horrible, but the victim doesn’t necessarily die right away. Whatever her condition, he somehow managed to keep her heart pumping for quite a while. There’s a slight ammonia smell around her head, too. Could be he used ammonia like smelling salts, to jolt her around whenever she lost consciousness. So she’d feel everything.”

Quinn could hear a slight hissing and realized it was his own breathing. Being here with the dead woman, where there had been so much agony, was like being in a catacomb with a saint. Then he understood why he’d made the comparison. Clutched tightly in the victim’s pale right hand like a rosary was a silver letter
S
on a thin chain that was wrapped around her neck. Careful not to step in any of the darkening puddles of blood, Quinn leaned forward to more closely examine the necklace.

“Kinda crap you find in a Times Square souvenir shop.” Renz said.

“That’s where it might have come from,” Quinn said. “It says ‘New York’ in tiny letters on the back.”

“I noticed,” Renz said, probably lying.

Quinn straightened up and looked around. The living room was tastefully decorated, with wicker furniture and a large wicker mask on one wall. On the opposite wall was a framed Degas ballerina print with “MoMA” printed on the matting. Not expensive furnishings, but not cheap. The apartment was cramped, and the block in this neighborhood in the East Village wasn’t a good one.

Quinn wondered what made this a big case for Renz. Major money didn’t seem to be involved. This woman appeared to have lived well but modestly. Politics might be at play here. Maybe the victim had been somebody’s secret lover. Somebody important.

No. If that were true Renz would be using it for leverage. He seemed emotionally involved here. It wouldn’t be because of the goriness of the crime. He’d seen plenty of gore in his long career. He—

Nift was saying, “You wouldn’t know it to look at her now…”

Careful,
Quinn thought, knowing how Nift was prone to make salacious remarks about dead female victims.

“…but she was kind of athletic, especially for her age,” Nift finished, avoiding an explosion from Renz.

“I wanna show you something else,” Renz said, ignoring Nift. He led Quinn from the bedroom and into a small bathroom.

There was a claw-footed porcelain tub there, and a washbasin without a vanity attached to the wall. Everything was tiled either gray or blue. White towels stained red with diluted blood were jumbled on the floor and in the tub. The tub, as well as the washbasin, had red stains that looked like patterns of paint applied by a madman.

“Bastard washed up in here after he killed her,” Renz said, “But more than that.” He pointed at the medicine chest mirror, on which someone, presumably the killer, had scrawled in blood the name
Philip Wharkin
.

“The killer?” Quinn asked.

“Maybe. The kind of asshole who’s daring us to catch him. It’s happened before. They’re out there.”

“Don’t we know it.”

Quinn moved closer to the mirror and leaned in to study the crudely printed red letters. “I don’t think he’s one of those. He was careful. This was written with a finger dabbed in blood, and it looks like he had on rubber gloves.” He backed away from the mirror. “If nothing else, this is a passion crime. Maybe the victim had a thing with Philip Wharkin and it went seriously bad.”

“That’s how I figure it,” Renz said. “If she did, we’ll sure as hell find out.”

Quinn could see Renz’s jaw muscles flex even through the flab. This one was important to him, all right. Maybe, for some reason, his ill-gained position as commissioner depended on it.

They left the stifling bathroom and returned to the living room. The techs were still busy, having taken advantage of the extra space created when Renz and Quinn had left. Nift was down on one knee packing his black bag, finished with the body until it was transported to the morgue.

The corpse was unaffected by any of it. Its pale blue eyes, widened in horror, gazed off at some far horizon they would all at some time see. Quinn felt a chill race up his spine. Hours ago this bloody, discarded thing on the floor had been a vital and perhaps beautiful woman.

“How old do you estimate she was?” Quinn asked Nift.

It was Renz who answered. “Twenty-three. And it’s not an estimate.”

“You got a positive ID?” Quinn asked.

“Yeah,” Renz said.

He leaned over the corpse and lifted it slightly off the carpet, turning it so Quinn could see the victim’s back.

Her shoulders and the backs of both arms were covered with old burn scars. Quinn had similar scars on his right shoulder and upper arms.

“The killer didn’t do that to her back,” Renz said, returning the body to its original position.

Quinn looked again at the victim’s features, trying to imagine them without the distortion of horror and the scarlet stains.

He felt the blood recede from his face. Then he began to tremble. He tried but couldn’t stop the tremors.

“It’s Millie Graff,” Renz said.

3

After the body of Millie Graff had been removed, Quinn walked with Renz through a fine summer drizzle to a diner a few blocks away that was still open despite the late hour. They were in a back-corner booth and were the only customers. The old guy who’d come out from behind the counter to bring their coffee was now at the other end of the place, near the door and the cash register. He was hunched over as if he had a bent spine, reading a newspaper through glasses with heavy black frames.

Renz looked miserable, obviously loathing his role as bearer of bad news. Quinn was surprised to find himself feeling sorry for him. Though they held a mutual respect for each other’s capabilities, the two men weren’t exactly friends. Renz was an unabashed bureaucratic crawler fueled by ambition and unencumbered by any sort of empathy or decency. He’d stepped on plenty of necks to get where he was, and he still wasn’t satisfied. Never would be. Quinn considered Renz to be an insatiable sociopath who would say anything, do anything, or use anyone in order to get what he wanted. Renz considered Quinn to be simply unrealistic.

“I haven’t seen Millie in almost fifteen years,” Quinn said.

“She healed up, grew up, and became a dancer,” Renz said. “Saved her money so she could leave New Jersey and live here in New York. She was gonna break into theater.” He sipped his coffee and made a face as if he’d imbibed poison. “I got all this from her neighbors. She worked in the Theater District, but was waiting tables in a restaurant.” He shrugged. “Show biz.”

“How long’s she been in the city?” Quinn asked.

“Five months.”

Quinn gazed out the window and thought back to when he’d first seen Millie Graff. She’d had metal braces on her teeth and was screaming with her mouth wide open and mashed against the closed window of a burning car.

He’d simply been driving along on Tenth Avenue in his private car, off duty, when traffic had come to a stop and he’d seen smoke up ahead. Quinn had gotten out of his car and jogged toward the smoke. When he got closer to the gathering mass of onlookers he saw that a small SUV was upside down, propped at an angle with its roof against the curb. It was on fire.

The vehicle was not only on fire. Its gas tank was leaking, and the resultant growing puddle of fuel was blazing. The crowd, sensing an explosion any second, was moving well back, occasionally surging forward slightly, pulled by curiosity and repelled by danger. The woman who’d been driving the SUV was upside down with her head at an awkward angle. Quinn figured her neck was broken.

The girl pressing her face against the window and screaming was eight-year-old Millie Graff. She’d apparently gotten her safety belt unbuckled and was trying to crawl out. But the door was jammed shut and the window remained closed. He saw the frantic girl make a motion as if she was trying to open the window, and then shake her head back and forth, desperately trying to tell someone looking on that the window was jammed.

Quinn moved toward the car and felt someone grip his shirtsleeve. A short man with brown eyes popped wide was trying to hold him back. “It’s gonna blow any moment!” he yelled at Quinn. “Smell that gas! You can’t go over there!”

When Quinn drew his big police special revolver from its belt holster the man released him and moved back. That was when Quinn saw the blue uniform over by a shop window. A young PO standing with his back pressed against a wall. Quinn waved for him to come over and help. The man didn’t move. A New York cop, frozen by fear.

Forgetting everything else, Quinn ran to the SUV and began pounding on the window with the butt of his revolver, holding the cylinder tight so it remained on an empty chamber and wouldn’t allow the gun to fire accidentally. The girl inside pressed her hand against the glass and he motioned for her to move back.

She did, and a series of blows rendered with all his strength broke the glass. It didn’t shatter much, but enough so that he could grip the shards and pull them out. He removed his shirt and used it so he wouldn’t cut his hands as he tried to pry the rest of the window out.

The girl caught fire. She began screaming over and over, trying to beat out the flames with her bare hands. Quinn could see the flames spreading across the back of her blouse, reaching for her hair.

The sight gave him strength he didn’t know he had, and what was left of the window popped from the frame.

He reached through the window, grabbed the girl’s arm, and dragged her from the vehicle. Pain made him realize he was on fire, too. Both of them were burning.

That was when Quinn glanced beyond the girl, to the other side of the car. And through his pain and fear he saw a distorted miniature face and waving tiny hands in an infant seat. A screaming child. A baby.

Aware now of more flames in the street around him, more burning gasoline, he slung the wriggling young girl over his shoulder and ran with her across the street. He gave her to reaching arms. Hands slapped at him, and someone threw a shirt over him to smother the flames.

He saw the young cop still frozen against the wall. Quinn screamed around the lump in his throat: “There’s a baby in there, other side, rear, in an infant seat!”

The man didn’t move, only stared straight ahead.

Quinn shoved people away and ran back toward the burning SUV, ignoring the pleas for him to stay away. He was aware of sirens. Fire trucks down the street, a block away.
Too far away.
The flames inside the car were spreading. The vehicle was filling with smoke.

He glanced back and saw the young girl he’d dragged from the wreck huddled on the sidewalk, surrounded by people. A man was bending over her, maybe a doctor.

Quinn continued running toward the burning SUV.

The explosion knocked him backward. He remembered being airborne, then the back of his head hitting solid concrete.

Then nothing was solid and he was falling.

 

When he regained consciousness the next day in the hospital, he was told the girl he’d pulled from the SUV had second-degree burns on her upper back and arms, but she was alive. The driver of the vehicle, a teenage sister, was dead. So was the infant in the backseat, their little brother, ten months old.

Quinn had been proclaimed a hero, and the
Times
ran a photo of him posing with the family of the dead and their one remaining child—Millicent Graff.

The young officer who’d gone into shock and been unable to help Quinn, and perhaps rescue the infant, was fired from the NYPD for dereliction of duty.

The NYPD had sort of adopted Millie Graff. Renz had used the charming child as a political prop, but that was okay because it was obvious that he also felt genuine affection for her.

And now—

“Quinn.”

Renz, across the diner booth, was talking to Quinn.

“Sorry,” Quinn said. “Lost my concentration for a minute.”

“Where’d you go?” Renz asked, with a sad smile.

He knew where.

Quinn felt the beginnings of another kind of flame, deep in his gut, and knew what it meant. In a way, he welcomed it.

This killer had taken away forever something precious that fifteen years ago Quinn had saved. Now he had to be found. He
would
be found. Quinn wanted it even more than Renz might imagine.

This was personal.

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