The Naked Eye - A Trilogy

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PART III - Chapter 1

An oscillating fan pushes cool air across his exposed chest and back, nipping the sweat beads like hundreds of tiny acupuncture needles. Dirty clothes and empty bottles of alcohol litter the floor along with several white food boxes with red Chinese lettering and ground out cigarette butts. The room is empty, except for a sound, a long reverberating one. Beside him, the phone rattles across the night stand. Groping blindly, he takes hold of the device, hoists it to his ear.

“Furor?”

It takes a moment for him to realize he’s being asked to confirm something, and another moment after that before he realizes the answer.

Clearing his throat brings a slice of pain through his larynx as though he were choking on a razor blade.

“Speaking,” he croaks, his throat cracked and aching.

The voice on the other end is charged and aggressive, demanding answers to a series of invasive questions. “Where are you? Do you know what time it is? When did you get in last night?”

He recognizes the voice as belonging to his partner, Deputy Ops Vince Lombardo.

Furor answers his questions with a series of dispassionate, monosyllabic responses. “Home. Yes. Late.”

Lombardo informs him of a murder, asks, “How long before you can get down here?”

Furor opens his mouth again to speak, feels a flame come rushing up through his esophagus, “I’m on my way,” he rasps. “I’ll be there in fifteen.”

Furor hangs up the phone, looks down at the bed.

The sheets are wet, dirty with sweat. Eyes boil. A tide rises in his chest. He reaches for a bottle of Vodka, feels the alcohol burn the lining of his throat. The air inside his room is thick and balmy. Steam forms on the window. Opening it brings the sickening scent of bok choy and other rotting vegetables wafting up from the fetid alley below as the sound of honking cars and the shout of street vendors and pushcart taxis pours in.

Braided and narrow, the streets outside bustle with heavy foot traffic, the clack of mahjongg tiles, and the squawk of live chickens. Strung between balconies and looming from tiered towers, white crepe paper balls and red sky lanterns display brilliant gold calligraphy. Below them, brightly flashing trolley cars clang as they rattle along the busy thoroughfare where neatly ornamented shops, markets, and curios operate in an interesting mix of pseudo-Mandarin and broken English. Along the backstreets, dark-eyed women in silk kimonos wave through beaded curtains or peer out from behind sandalwood fans.

Chinatown. Eight square blocks of highly concentrated, densely populated terrain.

In a second-floor flat, overlooking a Saki bar and noodle shop, his bedroom sits on the corner with windows facing in two directions. Staring out the east facing window, dreary eyes make the long journey toward the horizon where an amber sunrise casts its warm glow across his face.

Bypassing a shower, he steps into a pair of pants slung over the back of a chair and wrestles into the least wrinkled shirt he can find. Fifteen minutes later, he steps out of a taxi and onto the rain-slicked pavement. A harsh, cutting wind circulates the streets. Puffs of white air rise from each breath he takes. As the wind’s icy chill creeps into the sleeves of his jacket, he tugs at the cuffs, sinks his chin into the collar. Behind bloodshot eyes, he checks the sign stapled on the wall above the alley. It matches the name Lombardo had texted him.

Rounding the corner, he cuts a direct path past a row of townhouses toward a half dozen uniformed officers cordoning off the entrance to one of them. Off to the side, standing with his back against the pillar of a stoop, a hard jawed, heavyset man, sees him and spits as he comes marching across the street. Lombardo. His face darkens as he walks in Furor’s direction. A three-gun cop, two holstered with a throw away at the ankle, he’s crowding sixty with that hardened look of law enforcement. His cheeks burn red, though not from the cold. One of them bulges with the heavy cud of chewing tobacco.

“Nice to see you on your feet,” he says. “Who sent the forklift?”

“What are we dealing with?” Furor says, rubbing the soreness from his eyes.

Lombardo looks his lead homicide detective up and down, “Looks like someone had a productive weekend?”

“It’ll wash,” Furor says.

A healthy spray of rusty tobacco issues from Lombardo’s mouth, landing with a weighty splat on the concrete.

“Chaw?” he offers, extending a rolled packet of chewing tobacco. “Go on, kill it.”

Furor takes the packet, stuffs it into his coat.

“Come, see for yourself,” Lombardo says, leading him up the steps through the front entrance of the building. “We’re on the fourth floor, no elevator.”

Hardwood stairs groan under the weight of their footsteps.

“What do we know about the victim?” Furor asks.

“Katherine Paige,” Lombardo says, “a forty-seven-year-old barista, found this morning when her next-door neighbor went out to walk his dog. The pooch was a former cadaver dog. The owner says he was whining all night. As soon as he opened the door to let him out this morning, the animal raced over to the victim’s porch, scratching and barking like a bitch in heat. When he couldn’t manage to pull the dog away, he knocked, then let himself in.”

“What time did the dog start whining last night?”

“The neighbor says it was no later than eight o’clock. A search of the victim’s phone shows she ordered Thai food from a local delivery place at roughly five forty-five. We called and spoke with the manager. Records verify the delivery was made just after six, giving us a narrow two-hour window.”

“And the delivery guy?”

“We’re running a check, but preliminary indications suggest he left and returned within fifteen minutes. McCloud spoke to a taxi driver who suggests the trip could be made in as little as ten. But, as you’ll see, the food is all but finished. So, either the delivery guy ate the food himself or forced her to eat it while he waited. Neither of which seem likely considering he’d only have had five minutes to finish the food, commit the murder, and make it back.”

By now they’ve reached the third-floor landing where, midway down a dimly lit corridor, a small crowd is gathered.

Lombardo hollers for them to get out of the way.

Bodies scramble as Lombardo shoves through the front door. Furor follows behind him, but as the lead homicide detective looks up, what he sees causes him to take an involuntary step back.

Vaulted ceilings, brick walls, and wooden rafter beams betray the humility of the apartment, which is modest both in design and size. Outfitted with an eclectic mix of trinkets and furnishings, it’s clear someone with expensive tastes had made a run on the local antiques shops. Even the furniture looks conspicuously high-end. In one corner of the room, beneath a sandstone relief of the Eye of Horus, sits a desk with an open laptop. But it’s what’s in the other corner that has his attention. Suspended from the ceiling, feet not touching the floor, arms outstretched, the naked body of a woman hangs suspended in midair.

In the flash of a photographer’s digital camera, a series of steel cables reaches from the woman’s body to the rafters above. Nine cords of various lengths, fitted at the ends with small meat hooks, each piercing a different joint, appear like strings on a marionette puppet.

“What the hell is this?” Furor whispers.

“I thought it best to let you see it first,” Lombardo says.

Furor shakes his head, feels something take hold of the pit of his stomach.

“What’s it been,” Lombardo asks, “four years?”

“Five,” Furor says.

“You think it’s a copycat?”

“Impossible. Details of the staging were never released to the press.”

“Then it’s the real deal,” Lombardo says. “He’s back?”

The muscles around Furor’s jaw flare as he clenches his teeth.

“Let’s ask the rapist,” Lombardo says, referencing an old Saturday Night Live skit, parodying the game show Jeopardy, in which the actor pretending to play Sean Connery mistakes the word ‘therapist’ for the words ‘the rapist’. Whistling into the kitchen, he waves over forensic psychologist Daniel Cage, a man with narrow shoulders, soft features, and a clear complexion.

“What can you tell us about this whole arrangement here?” Lombardo asks.

Cage coughs, clears his throat, “Staging often reveals a lot about a killer’s deep-seated insecurities, insecurities that are acted out on their victims. Though often sexual in nature, that’s not necessarily the case. Since we don’t know the killer’s trigger, perhaps a better place to start would be to determine all we can about the victim, her temperament, social behavior, political attitudes. Once we isolate that, we can then look at the staging and assess how that correlates to what it is that set the killer off. If for any reason—”

“Lombardo!” a voice calls out.

The men turn. Stalking across the room, Sergeant Clint Masterson, a tall, sturdy, cowboy-type approaches. Rigid, iron features and deep expressionless eyes stand as twin testaments to having spent the better part of his life staring down the worst of humanity.

“I just got off the line with Mallory in robbery. He says they picked up a suspect two blocks away from here last night around nine-thirty.”

“That fits the window,” Lombardo nods.

“He’s got no priors, but several witnesses, who’d called to report a prowler in the neighborhood, when shown a picture of this guy after the arrest, identified him as the one they’d seen.”

“We’ll need more to tie him to this murder than just loitering. Has forensics picked up anything?”

“I put McCloud in charge of—”

The trembling of a water glass on a nearby coffee table precedes a low rumbling sound that shakes the ground beneath their feet. Everyone turns to face the window as a low, rumbling train powers along elevated tracks.

“Holy shit!” a voice behind them wails.

All heads snap around. A young officer, in his first week on the job, is bent over with a balled fist to his mouth. Beside him, the medic, with nearly three decades’ experience dealing with crime scene horrors, has just lifted back the woman’s lifeless head to reveal a slit running from one carotid artery to the other, causing a spray of fresh blood to go squirting across the floor and down the victim’s shirt.

“Don’t blow on this Pat,” his partner warns. “I’m serious! Don’t fuss up this crime scene. If you need to pop, go outside.”

The young officer races for the door, disappearing into the hallway where the awful sound of retching can be heard. A couple of veteran cops chuckle to themselves.

Kace McCloud, a young man with a Clark Kent build and glasses emerges from the crowd in the kitchen.

“Were your ears burning?” Lombardo asks. “We were just talking about you. What’s the story with forensics? Have they found anything?”

McCloud shakes his head. “Nothing yet.”

“Well, when they do,” Lombardo says, “I want you to be the first to know.”

To Masterson, he says, “Sarge, I want you and Royce to run a background check on the victim, everything from her relationship status to her financials. Who is this woman and what was she doing in the weeks leading up to her murder? Don’t forget to check her phone records, as well. Meanwhile, I’ll be in touch with the pathologist. Let’s meet tomorrow morning for a little information sharing.” Looking up, he asks, “Are we missing anything?”

“What about witnesses?” Furor asks.

Lombardo looks to Masterson who signals for a uniformed officer carrying a scratchpad to come over.

“This is a list of everyone we talked to,” Masterson says, passing the scratch pad to Lombardo, “their apartment number and statement.”

Lombardo studies it. “Four floors, surrounded by neighbors on three sides and an entire hallway of doors and nobody heard or saw anything?”

Masterson’s voice is controlled. “The neighbors to the right weren’t home at the time, the neighbor to the left had his earphones in on a Skype call with his girlfriend, the downstairs neighbors say they didn’t hear anything and the guy across the hall says he was asleep.”

“Asleep at six o’clock?” Lombardo challenges.

“He’s a bouncer at a night club, says his shift started at 10pm, his alarm didn’t go off until nine fifteen.”

“What about the rest of them?” Lombardo asks. “Nobody saw anyone pull up outside or pass them in the hallway or on the stairs?”

Masterson shakes his head.

As Lombardo flips through the pages again, Furor answers the vibration of his phone and, with a single raised index finger, excuses himself. In the hallway, he silences the wake-up alarm, drops the phone into his pocket. Near the window, at the far end of the hall, Furor closes his eyes, lets his mind tumble back to the past, to her.

Puddles form beneath rain-soaked clothes slung over the backs of furniture, others left in a heap on the floor. Sheets of undulating rain pelt the windows. Straddling his waist, she stares down at him with a pair of dark, unwavering eyes. With a quivering hand, he reaches for her face. She takes it and kisses it before placing it over her naked breast.

“Jia Mei,” he whispers.

The sound of a door peeling back, yanks him out of his reminiscence. At the other end of the hall, from a narrow two-inch gap between the door and the frame, a pair of shadowy eyes stares out.

Furor lifts his foot, kicks off the wall, but the door closes as Lombardo comes barreling into the hallway.

“Where the hell did you disappear to?” he asks.

“Has anyone taken a statement from that apartment over there?” Furor says, pointing over his partner’s shoulder.

Lombardo turns to look at the number on the door before checking it against those on the scratchpad in his hand. “It doesn’t appear so.”

“Maybe they should.”

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