Head wounds bleed a lot. Detective Ian McDaniel remembered the EMT saying so at his last CPR refresher course. And the ever-expanding crimson pool beneath this victim’s skull proved it. The cranium might be one of the strongest bones in the human body, but it was no match for asphalt. This poor woman’s skull had split open like a watermelon dropped from a balcony. McDaniel steadied himself, trying hard not to faint and smash his own head on the pavement.
The weather was unseasonably balmy for early December. Sugarcoated smells from the French bakery across the street clogged his nostrils, the air buttery and thick. He could hardly breathe. Ian hated winter—the freezing temperatures, the naked branches, dirty snow in the streets—but at this moment he longed for a cold wind to whisk away the dizziness, the bile creeping up his throat.
Sure, he’d seen plenty of blood before: mangled corpses pulled from the wreckage of car accidents, gun shot wounds, even a near decapitation behind a gas station. But this victim’s sticky halo of curls reminded him of something. Something he couldn’t stand to remember. An image seared forever into his brain. One he wished he could forget.
“Yeager just got here.” Officer Tim Martinelli interrupted Ian’s train of thought to announce the arrival of the county’s medical examiner. “You okay? You look a little green around the gills, dude.”
“I’m fine,” Ian lied, leaning up against the brick wall of the bike shop. At least he wasn’t heaving. Yet. “You get forensics, too?”
“Yup.” Martinelli eyed him. “You want me to interview the dog walker who found the body?”
“Let Niklaus handle that.” Ian was pretty sure the sergeant had never lost his lunch over a crime scene, no matter how gory, in all his sixteen years on the force.
Martinelli glanced up and down the alley. “Is it just me, or does this scene remind you of something?”
The question hit Ian like a fast fist to the gut. Tim couldn’t possibly know what painful memories were being dredged up inside his brain, could he? “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The body behind the Coven Café on Halloween. No damage to the face or hands. No defensive wounds. Nothing to suggest a fight or a robbery. Wallet intact. Remember?” Ian nodded dully, his head swimming, as Martinelli continued. “This woman’s pocketbook was untouched. Almost three hundred in cash. Plus, you got the holiday festivities happening right next door. Just like that Halloween Party at the Coven.”
Tim gestured toward the art gallery. Muted sounds of laughter and conversation drifted over from the Edward Hopper House.
“I see what you mean.” Ian hoped Tim couldn’t hear the relief in his voice. “Definite similarities. But I don’t know how that helps us. The psycho who committed that crime is dead.”
Ian spent the first half of November in the hospital, recovering from his confrontation with that particular maniac. Since then, he’d caught yet another killer and celebrated Thanksgiving.
“True. And what are the chances we’ve got another monster on the loose in Nyack?” Tim glanced over as the ME arrived on the scene. “Probably just an accident. Right, Dr. Yeager?”
Ian couldn’t see how someone could accidentally knock this woman down hard enough to split open her skull. More likely a hit-and-run. He guessed some might call that an accident. Perhaps not murder, maybe just manslaughter, but another body to add to the tally. And Nyack had racked up more than her fair share during nineteen eighty-seven. In the history books, they’d be calling this The Year of the Corpse.
Another thing: the alley was narrow and the woman had been knocked down right in the middle. Dead center. A driver coming from either end could not have missed seeing her. She was wearing a neon orange windbreaker with reflective stripes, for God’s sake.
Ian addressed the medical examiner. “What do you think, Paul?”
“Female. Caucasian. Middle-aged. And she’s definitely dead.” Dr. Paul Yeager didn’t normally joke around at a crime scene. His sarcasm was out of character.
“Having a bad night?” Ian stepped closer and lowered his voice. He got along well with the ME, considered him a friend. “We have her purse, including her driver’s license, so we’re aware of her name, age, and gender.”
“I can’t tell you much more than that. Except it looks like her skull has been fractured, so we’re talking about a substantial impact.”
“You think she was hit by a car?”
“If I said yes, I’d only be guessing. And you know I don’t make a habit of guessing.”
“Of course not. Let’s not get crazy.”
Paul Yeager pulled a latex glove off his hand, closed his eyes, and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired. We’ve had company at the house since Thanksgiving. You know things are bad when you’re glad to get a call about a dead body, just to get away from your wife’s relatives.”
“You don’t have to explain that feeling to me,” Ian said. His wife was currently in rehab for alcoholism, but his marriage had been dead for some time. Her parents had never been his biggest fans, and the feeling was mutual.
The paramedics loaded the body of Gail Hunter, fifty-four years old, into the back of the ambulance. The forensic team continued to comb the alley for any scrap of evidence that might have fallen during the altercation. Or the accident.
“I better have a look around,” Ian told the ME. “I guess you’ll wait until morning to do the autopsy?”
“Although the thought of heading into work instead of going back home is mighty tempting, I think I’ll be fresher in the morning.” Dr. Yeager heaved a sigh.
“I’ll be up there sometime after noon.” Ian ducked under the yellow crime scene tape, and entered the parking lot behind the bike shop.
No cars were parked in the small lot. No gawkers, either. Ian made his way around the building to check out the abutting storefronts.
Why was this woman walking through a dark alley all alone on a Sunday night? She carried no packages, only her handbag. Unless they were stolen. That might be an angle he could pursue. Early December was the height of the holiday shopping season. Could she have purchased something valuable enough to warrant killing her for it? But if this were the case, wouldn’t the killer also snatch her pocketbook at the same time?
Teenaged kids were routinely murdered in the Bronx for their Nike sneakers. But Nyack wasn’t the Bronx. Twenty miles north of New York City, Nyack was a totally different world. A safer, saner, suburban world. At least the locals liked to think so.
And Gail Hunter wasn’t wearing Nikes. She had wooden clogs on her feet. Well, they had presumably been on her feet before she was knocked right out of them. Underneath the garish neon windbreaker, she wore black stretch pants along with a thick, multi-colored sweater. The jacket and the leggings seemed appropriate for a fitness buff heading to the YMCA for a workout, while the sweater and the clogs shouted crunchy granola with a side of wheatgrass juice. It was a confusing outfit.
Ian peeked into the bike shop. Closed, of course. And Pickwick Books, on the corner, closed each day at six. Above the bookshop, in the third story office where Dr. Cordelia Jackson had practiced psychotherapy before being murdered on Gate Night, an accountant had set up shop. And over the bicycle store, there appeared to be a new business called Healing Light Yoga. The doors to all these establishments were locked and the windows dark. He’d have to come back on Tuesday as businesses in Nyack were typically closed on Mondays.
Across the street, Ian saw a light in the rear of Sweet Nothings, the upscale French bakery. He crossed Broadway and knocked on the shop’s front door. No answer.
Heading around to the back, he found the rear entrance unlocked. As he pulled the steel door open, he was hit square in face with the most intense buttery aroma imaginable.
A baker in a white apron was sliding an enormous tray of pastries into an industrial-sized oven. Ian pulled out his badge. “Police. Can I speak to you for a moment?”
The dark-skinned man jumped at the sound of his voice. “Merde! I didn’t hear anyone come in.”
“Sorry about that. I’m Detective Ian McDaniel. We had an incident across the street. I need to know if you saw anything out there earlier tonight.”
“What kind of incident?” The baker wiped his hands on his apron and gestured toward a table covered in flour.
Ian took a seat. He opened his notebook on his knee to avoid getting it dusty with flour. “We’re not exactly sure what happened. This is why I need your help. Can I get your name?”
“A French name for a French baker,” Ian commented.
“Oui, mais je suis Haïtien.” The man smiled broadly at the detective’s confusion. “I am from Haiti, not from France.”
Ian nodded. Nyack supported a large Haitian population. “Do you own this place?”
“No, I am the head baker. This is why I come in at night. It is my job to make sure we have all of the pastry ready for the morning. We open at seven every day.”
“What time did you arrive tonight?”
The baker looked down at a wrist with no watch. “It was nearly nine o’clock.”
Ian jotted down the time. “How did you get to work? Did you drive?”
“No, I do not have a car. I live on Depew Avenue. It is a short walk.”
“Did you hear or see anything across the street, in the alley next to the bike shop, when you arrived?”
The baker started to shake his head, then stopped. “Oh, yes. I almost forget. There was a car speeding out of the alley. I only notice because the car did not have headlights on. I thought someone was in a very big hurry.”
Ian’s eyebrows shot up. “Did you get the make and model of the vehicle? Could you see who was driving? A license plate number?”
The baker shook his head. “No. I am sorry. It happen very fast.”
Ian jumped to his feet. “Nothing? Can you at least tell me the color of the car? The shape?”
Jean-Paul frowned in concentration. “The car was blue. Or green. Maybe it was brown. It was dark, though, and I might be mistaken. And the shape of the car was square. Or possibly closer to a rectangle.”
Oh, boy. This was the worst vehicle description Ian had ever heard.
“Did you notice the driver at all? Short? Tall? Black? White?”
“No, I did not see the driver.”
Great. Just great.
Returning to the alley, Detective McDaniel called to Officer Martinelli. “Grab Donnelly and let’s pay a visit to the party next door.”
Although he didn’t think Gail Hunter was heading to the gallery opening in that odd outfit, he couldn’t be certain. Maybe she was an artist herself. They liked to ignore convention. Another possibility was one of the attendees had stepped out for a smoke and witnessed the assault. He had to get a better description of the car than the baker gave him.
Taking advantage of the warm evening, partygoers had spilled out of the gallery into both the front and back yards of Hopper House, Edward Hopper’s childhood home. Ian asked Officer Sean Donnelly to take the back entrance, while he and Martinelli herded the crowd in through the front door of the small cottage.
Once he had gathered everyone into the downstairs portion of the gallery, Ian made an announcement: “A woman was assaulted this evening in the alley next to the bike shop. If anyone heard or saw anything suspicious, I need to speak with you tonight. Everyone else should give their name and phone number. No one will be allowed to leave the building before checking in with one of the officers.”
A tall woman wearing an ivory kimono decorated with a crane swooped down the staircase and landed next to Ian. She held out a hand, her talon-like nails blood-red with shiny polish. “Georgina Pettigrew. I’m the director. May I be of assistance?” Her accent was British.
Ian shook the proffered hand. “Can I use a room somewhere? I need to interview anyone with information on the incident next door.” He cast around for a quiet place to sit, but the entire first floor was teaming with art lovers.
“Of course. Upstairs in my office. I’ll just clear my desk, shall I?” Georgina smiled, giving off a hundred watts of gleaming brilliance. She flew back up the stairs, kimono flapping.
Martinelli had disappeared, swallowed by the crowd. Ian finally found him taking names and numbers by the back entrance. After explaining the plan, Ian made his way up the stairs. Georgina’s “office” might have once been a broom closet. The single desk and filing cabinet filled the room to capacity.
“I’ll see if I can dig up another chair,” she chirped.
He settled behind the desk, thinking some more about the crime scene. The dog walker had come across the body just after nine o’clock. Ian arrived at nine twenty. It was now ten thirty. There was a good chance someone here had seen or heard something in that alley.
Georgina breezed back in, opening a folding chair with a flourish.“Voila!”
“While I’ve got you here,” Ian said, “did you notice anything happening outside tonight?”
“Me? Oh, no. I’ve been inside for the past three hours. My job is keeping everyone happy. Artists, patrons, members, guests.” She radiated more joy in his direction just to prove it.
“I see. What time did your guests begin arriving?”
“A few as early as seven thirty, which was the time specified on the invitation. But most people showed between eight and eight thirty.”
Plenty of potential witnesses, then.
“If you can remember who was outside between eight-thirty and nine, those are the people I need to speak with.” Ian tried out a smile of his own, but he couldn’t match her wattage. “Can you send them up?”
“I’ll do my best.”
As Georgina spun around to exit her office, a young man with dreadlocks peeked through the doorway. “Are you the detective?”
“Come on in.” Ian gestured to the empty chair and pulled his notepad from his front pocket. “Tell me your name.”
The newcomer attempted to squeeze past Georgina, holding his glass of red wine high in the air. His toe stubbed the leg of the folding chair. As he teetered, the contents of his wine glass sloshed out and hit Georgina in the center of her white kimono. A maroon stain blossomed across her chest like a stab wound.
Ian gasped aloud at the sight.
“Oh, God.” Aaron Brown stared at Georgina’s breasts, the soggy silk clinging dangerously to her curves. “I’m sorry.”
“No worries,” she sang out and hurried off. It appeared impossible to ruffle this woman’s feathers.
Ian’s guest sank tentatively into the folding chair as if he wasn’t sure it would support him. “I’m not drunk or anything. I just tripped.”
“I know. I saw what happened.” No matter which way the detective turned, the image of blood dogged his every step.
“Yeah. Well.” Aaron settled into his seat. “I think I might have heard something. Earlier.”
“Go on.” Ian patted his pocket and came up with a pen.
“I got here late.” The young man leaned back and crossed his long legs. He looked cramped and uncomfortable in the tiny space. "I was coming over from Tarrytown. That’s where my parents live. There was traffic on the bridge.”
Ian nodded. There was always traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge. “What time did you arrive?”
“It was about ten to nine when I parked the car. I got lucky. There was a spot on Broadway, in front of the bakery.”
“Sweet Nothings? Across the street from the bike shop?” This was right in front of the alley where Gail Hunter died.
“Yeah. While I was crossing the street, I heard a car revving its engine. It sounded close by, so I looked up and down Broadway but I didn’t see anything. Then I heard tires squeal and something like a thump. And then another squeal. But I still didn’t see any car. I figured it must have been on a side street.” Aaron shrugged his shoulders. “I was pretty late for the party, so I kept on walking.”
McDaniel scribbled furiously. “As you were walking, you didn’t hear anything else?”
Aaron looked unsure. “Well, I heard everyone up here talking and the music and stuff.”
“Right. Any idea what type of car it was? Did it sound like a sports car? A powerful engine?”
Aaron bit his lip while he considered. “Not a sports car. Just kinda average, I’d say.”
“Okay. Thanks for your help.” Ian handed over one of his cards. “If you remember anything else, please give me a call. Can you send the next person in?”
“Sure, man.” Aaron unfolded his legs and ducked through the doorway.
Ian spent the next ninety minutes interviewing every guest who volunteered. No one stayed on point. He heard stories about rude neighbors who blasted their heavy metal music into the wee hours. He was told tales of ex-boyfriends who liked to assault women after a few beers. He dutifully took down names, addresses, and phone numbers.
Midnight rolled around and the most useful information he’d gathered was from his first interview with Aaron Brown. No one else had been close enough to the alley, or sober enough, to contribute anything helpful.
With a sigh, the detective rose and stretched.
It was already Monday. He'd promised to call Janice today at the rehab center, just to check in. He wasn’t trying to mend their broken marriage; there was nothing left to mend. But he felt guilty for the part he played in her ongoing depression.
He was the one who had gotten her pregnant four years ago. It was his baby who had been stillborn, blue and lifeless. His baby who had ripped his mother’s womb open, ripped his mother’s heart out. His baby boy bathed in blood. The baby whose birth should have brought them together, but whose death instead drove a permanent wedge between them.
Ian shuddered at the memory. The blood clinging to those tiny curls. Tight little fists holding onto nothing. Janice’s face as white as the hospital sheets.
He didn’t know what he planned to say to Janice on the phone. The truth? He wanted a divorce. He’d like to close this painful chapter of his life and move on. But how could he tell his wife he was ready to split? To cut all ties when she was hanging by such a thin thread? With no one there to catch her when she fell even further? He might not love her, but he wasn’t a goddamn sadist.