WITHIN seconds of the girl’s collapse, Matt and I had called 911. Now we stood staring as two FDNY paramedics attempted to breathe life back into a motionless mannequin.
From the grim expressions on their faces, I knew every last vital sign pointed to one conclusion. Resigned to the inevitable, the men snapped off their latex gloves and withdrew.
I stepped back into a nearby doorway and sank like a defeated boxer onto the chilly concrete stoop. Matt followed, but he didn’t collapse beside me. Instead, he fisted his hands and paced back and forth in a tight pattern, the sizable silhouette of his muscular shoulders continually eclipsing the bloodred flashes of the police emergency lights.
I swiped my wet eyes and returned my gaze to the girl’s corpse, pale as moonlight against the dark sidewalk. For a bizarre moment, her pretty form and ruined skull reminded me of Joy’s old Malibu Barbie.
Back when I’d been raising my daughter alone in New Jersey, a slobbering pit bull had slipped into our yard and chewed up the doll’s pretty blond head. While Joy was still at school, I’d raced to the mall to replace the mangled plaything, determined as any mother to hold off my child’s inevitable encounters with the world’s brutalities. But there was no running to a store to replace this lost life, no do-over, no turning back the clock. The young woman had taken a shot to the brain, and she hadn’t survived. It sounded simple enough to understand, but so what? When death was involved, understanding and acceptance were two very different things.
I closed my eyes, said a quiet prayer, and realized how forcefully my ex-husband’s lungs were now exhaling breaths. I was horrified by the girl’s death, shocked and saddened, but Matt seemed to be struggling with a mounting rage. With nowhere to vent, he threw up his arms at the growing crowd.
“Where did all these people come from?!”
I opened my eyes, surveyed the two Sixth Precinct sector cars, their radios squawking; the boxy FDNY ambulance with its doors thrown wide; and the rubbernecking drivers now backing up traffic. Four uniformed officers were hovering around the scene. One of them asked onlookers to stand back, another made a large perimeter with yellow crime-scene tape.
“They’re gawking like it’s a sideshow.”
“Well, you know what they say.” I shrugged numbly. “Dead bodies attract everything, not just flies.”
“They say?” Matt grunted, folded his arms. “And who the hell is they? Wait, don’t tell me. That’s one of your boyfriend’s little quips, isn’t it?”
Matt was right. Mike Quinn had been the one to convey that pithy piece of postmortem philosophy. The way Matt spat out the word boyfriend, however, reminded me that he still hadn’t forgiven the detective for arresting him last fall.
I could see Matt didn’t appreciate Quinn’s use of humor, either. But his quips weren’t meant to be disrespectful, just a way to help lighten the relentlessly weighty work of evaluating crime scenes. I was about to make that point when I heard the fast click of heels on concrete. Two pairs of women’s boots approached us and stopped abruptly in front of Matt.
“Excuse me, sir. You gave a statement to Officer Spinelli? He said you were a witness to the shooting?”
I looked up. A familiar pair of detectives was standing on the sidewalk, staring nearly eye to eye with my six foot ex. Like Mike Quinn, Lori Soles and Sue Ellen Bass worked out of the Sixth Precinct on West Tenth.
“We were with the girl,” Matt told the women, “but we didn’t see much.”
Lori Soles finally noticed me far below her and smiled in recognition. “Clare Cosi? Is that you?”
I nodded and rose off the low stoop-all five foot two of me. (I may as well have stayed sitting.)
Detective Soles gazed down at me, her short, tight curls making her look like a giant cherub. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find you here. Isn’t you coffeehouse just a block away?” She held a small notebook in one hand, gestured to the Village Blend with the other.
Next to Detective Soles, Detective Sue Ellen Bass stepped closer to my ex. I put both women in their thirties, although Sue Ellen appeared older than Lori by at least five years. And where Lori had the long, friendly face of a horsey-set blond, Sue Ellen had a lean, triangular look. It suited her personality, as did her jet-black hair, much longer than Lori’s short, blond curls, though it was hard to tell, since Sue Ellen wore her hair in a slicked-back ponytail. Both women sported nylon jackets over blue turtlenecks and dark slacks, gold detective shields dangling on long cords around their necks.
I’d first met the pair when they were working undercover on a special task force headed by Mike Quinn. At that time, they were trying to bring down a ring of nightclub predators. Glammed to the max, the pair had repeatedly baited likely suspects at several area nightspots. From what I remembered, Detective Soles was happily married. For her, it had been just another assignment. But I got the distinct impression from some private banter between the two women that Sue Ellen hadn’t ruled out meeting future romantic hookups while on her eight-hour tour of club duty.
“So, Cosi, who’s this tall drink of water?” Sue Ellen asked me, jerking her thumb at my ex-husband.
I scratched my head, disconcerted for a moment by her choice of words. “Uh, this is Matteo Allegro. He’s my… business partner.” I could have said more, but what was the point?
She gave Matt’s strong form a quick, open appraisal. “Single?”
“Engaged,” I said.
“Is that so?” Sue Ellen replied, still looking him over. “Then he’s technically still available?”
Matt exhaled with what sounded like extreme irritation. “I’m standing right here, ladies, and I’m quite capable of answering my own questions.”
“He does look capable, doesn’t he?” Sue Ellen remarked to me with an arched eyebrow. Then she turned to Matt. “In cases like this, sir, it’s best if we direct initial queries to the professional on the scene. And since we have one here-”
“Professional?” Matt interrupted.
Ignoring Matt, Lori Soles now addressed me, her pen poised over her open notebook. “Tell us, Clare, did you hear the gunshot from inside the Blend?”
“No. We weren’t in the Blend. We were headed there, all three of us. Matt and I were walking with the victim. We’d just left Matt’s bachelor party at the White Horse on Eleventh. We reached this corner, and we were waiting for the traffic light to change. I heard a pop, and the woman fell-”
“One pop?” Sue Ellen Bass asked. “Only one? You’re sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Several halogen lamps were turned on just then, and I lifted my arm to shield my eyes from the glare of tiny suns. More officers had arrived on the scene, some in uniform, others in plain clothes, and they appeared to be using the light to scour the dark ground-for forensic evidence, I assumed.
I also noticed a middle-aged Asian man and a young white woman in dark-blue nylon jackets. Together they crouched next to the dead girl and began to examine her body and head.
“Then what happened, Clare?” Detective Soles prompted.
“It took a few seconds for Matt and me to realize what had happened. Then Matt called 911, and I looked around for any sign of the shooter.”
“And?” she asked almost hopefully. But I had to disappoint her.
“The street was empty, the sidewalks, too. Whoever shot her had already ducked for cover.”
Sue Ellen glanced at the girl’s body for a moment, then back to me. “Did you know this woman, Cosi? Was she a client of yours?”
“Client?” Matt sputtered. “What do you mean, client?”
I elbowed Matt. He grunted, and I shot him a look that said, I’ll explain later.
Sue Ellen stepped closer to Matt, lowered her voice. “Sorry, honey-lumps, I know you can’t wait to give me your statement.” She winked. “But don’t worry. I’ll make sure to take it personally in a minute.”
“Go ahead, Cosi.” Sue Ellen nodded. “You were saying?”
“The victim wasn’t my client,” I clarified. “We don’t even know her name. We met her tonight for the first time in our lives. She was at Matt’s party at the tavern. Actually, she was the entertainer at the party…”
I proceeded to give the detectives a rundown of the events leading up to the shooting, making sure they got a detailed description of the drunken scumbag who’d nearly assaulted the girl at the bar.
Scribbling furiously, Lori took everything down.
When I was done, Sue Ellen shook her head. “An exotic dancer, huh? It’s no surprise she came to a bad end.”
Lori Soles waved over a pair of uniformed officers. She gave them my description of the jerk at the bar and sent them to the White Horse to find the guy, if they could, and report back. Then she got on her radio and had the police dispatcher issue a BOLO, otherwise known as a be on the lookout for-an acronym I’d learned a short time ago when a Brooklyn cop (unfortunately) had issued one on me.
“So do you think he’s the one who did this?” I asked, gesturing to the girl’s cooling corpse.
Lori exchanged a glance with her partner. “Both of us started out in vice, Clare. We’ve seen this kind of thing firsthand.”
“What kind of thing exactly?”
“These women play a dangerous game,” Sue Ellen said, folding her arms. “They spend hours a day titillating men; it’s no surprise a percentage of these guys turn out to be pervs and rapists. The shooter could have been this guy at the bar-”
“That’s right, it could,” Lori jumped in. “You witnessed him harass the victim, and that’s good. We can make a case against this guy if we find the weapon on him or even powder burns, but…” Again, she exchanged a glance with her partner. “It could very well be some other guy.”
Sue Ellen nodded. “The girl may have had a boyfriend she jilted or lied to about what she did for a living. Or she could have a whole other stalker scenario going on.”
“You mean someone who saw her dance and became sexually obsessed with her?” I assumed. “Something like that?”
“Exactly.” Lori’s gaze speared me. “Did the girl mention anyone like that? An old boyfriend? A guy who might have been harassing her?”
I shook my head. “Sorry. She didn’t mention anyone like that. Just that the agency hired her to do the job tonight.”
“Did she tell you the agency’s name?”
“No, but she mentioned it specialized in look-alike strippers. She said they have male performers, too…” I told them everything the girl had said. “I’m sure our friend Koa Waipuna can give you the name and contact number for the agency. The agency was supposed to send a man to look after her-”
“That’s right. That’s how it’s usually done,” Lori said. “What happened to hers?”
I glanced at Matt. “She said he was sick with the flu, but I suppose it could also be a lead…”
“Good.” Lori continued to scribble notes.
Sue Ellen frowned at her partner’s furious writing. “I still like the scumbag from the White Horse for this,” she said quietly.
“So do I,” Lori said, “but you know what Lieutenant Quinn always says…”
Sue Ellen rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah…”
Curious, I asked: “What does Mike say?”
Lori shrugged. “Until the case is closed, any lead’s a good lead.”
“Oh, right. I’ve heard him say that.”
Sue Ellen eyeballed me. “You two still together?”
I folded my arms, not entirely comfortable with the predatory gleam in the woman’s gaze. “Yes,” I assured her. “Mike and I are seeing each other. A lot of each other.”
Sue Ellen nodded, getting the message, but I swear she muttered, “Too bad.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
The detective didn’t repeat her words. “Don’t worry, Cosi,” she said instead, punctuating her point with a teeth-rattling slap to my back. “We’ll nail this shooter, just like you helped us nail that predatory perp at Club Flux last fall.”
“She did what?!” Matt blurted as I regained my balance.
Nobody answered him, me included, apart from shushing him again.
“Excuse me, Detective…” One of the uniformed cops walked up to Lori, handed her a red leather wallet. “Here you go.”
“Thanks, Spinelli.” She opened the wallet, thumbed through the contents.
“What have you got there?” I asked. “Is the girl’s name inside?”
Lori nodded. “Hazel Boggs. Age twenty-two. She may have lived in Brooklyn, but she came here from out of state.”
“She’d told us she’d only been here a few months,” I said. “Her occupation aside, she talked more like an innocent than a hardened New Yorker. And her accent had a pronounced twang. It sounded West Virginian to me.”
Lori flattened the wallet out, showed me the driver’s license photo. “You’re good, Clare. The license is from the state of West Virginia.”
In the glare of the emergency services halogen lamps, I studied the photo on the girl’s license. Her normal look was as different from the super-sleek Breanne act as a new moon from the sun. The girl’s regular hair was a kinky dark brown (she’d obviously colored and straightened it). Her pretty, wide eyes appeared to be as blue as Breanne’s, but they needed eyeglasses to see, which explained why she’d been squinting when I first saw her. It also explained her bold temptress persona while performing.
To Hazel’s nearsighted vision, the faces of the leering men probably blurred together into a single impressionistic landscape. It would have been a good trick to help her performance. All she had to do was dance to the music, and the drooling men in her audience would appear no more menacing than Monet’s water lilies.
Still, even with her body swimming in an oversized flannel shirt, her ears holding up clunky, unfashionable glasses, Hazel Boggs’s resemblance to Breanne Summour was striking. She had the same facial shape, long patrician nose, model-high cheekbones, pointed chin, and perfectly shaped bee-stung lips.
As I studied the photograph, one of the older plainclothes officers in a suit and tie walked up to us. “A word,” said the African American man, staring directly at Lori and Sue Ellen.
The women nodded and stepped away. The older officer gestured to the other personnel around us. He pointed to the ground around the body, and the area farther out-a nearby mailbox and lamppost, some parked cars. Then he spoke some more, slightly shaking his head, which I assumed meant, No stray bullets on the ground or lodged in nearby objects.
Finally, all three stepped up to two officials who’d been examining the body: the middle-aged Asian man and the white woman in the dark nylon jackets. The group spoke for a few minutes.
Matt lightly bumped my arm. “Are you going to explain all this to me?”
Matt exhaled. “All this crap about directing initial queries to the professional on the scene. The last time I checked, Clare, the Specialty Coffee Association of America wasn’t on the NYPD payroll for third-party consulting.”
“Dial it down,” I whispered. “I helped the detectives with a case a few months ago, and the way the chips fell, they ended up assuming I was a professional private investigator. It’s no big deal. Now please be quiet. I’m trying to hear what they’re talking about.”
It was difficult to pick up the lowered voices, so I moved away from Matt and stepped closer to the powwow around Hazel Boggs’s corpse.
“… a single gunshot wound to the back of the head,” the Asian man in the nylon jacket was saying. “Entry wound is evident but no exit wound.”
“The witness assures us that she only heard one shot fired,” Lori Soles told the group.
“Then your only bullet is lodged right here,” the Asian man replied, “inside the victim’s skull.”
“Let’s hope it didn’t get pancaked against a bone,” Sue Ellen said.
“If there’s no exit wound-” Lori glanced down the block, “then the bullet lost velocity.”
“That’s correct.” The Asian man nodded. “The weapon couldn’t have been fired from a very close range.”
Sue Ellen pointed to the upper floors of buildings in the vicinity. “Could the gun have been fired from a window or balcony?”
“Not possible.” The man shook his head. “Look at the angle of entry on the wound. The victim was shot at street level from somewhere directly behind. We’ll know more after we get inside the skull.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” Lori Soles turned to the older plainclothes officer. “I guess the guys can stop looking for bullets. There was only one, and it’s in there.” She pointed to the dead girl’s cranium.
“We’re canvassing the neighborhood now. The shooter may have dropped something…”
Just then I noticed a white panel van with a satellite antenna double-parking across the street. Emblazoned on the van’s side were three words that sent a chill though my blood: New York 1.
“Oh, God…” I muttered. Hazel Boggs’s murder was about to make the local news. As a technician jumped out and began unpacking camera equipment, I hurried back to Matt. He looked positively stricken.
“Clare,” he whispered, “I have to get out of here.”
“Wait!” I grabbed his arm before he could bolt. “These cops will detain you if you try to run. It could get loud. You’ll just end up calling attention to yourself.”
“But if Breanne sees me on the news-”
“Just give me a second.”
I rushed up to Lori Soles, who’d always been the softer touch. “Detective Soles, I’m happy to stick around, but my business partner really needs to get back to our shop. Can you talk to him another time?”
Lori frowned. “Now would be better-”
“Oh, let the guy go,” Sue Ellen broke in, surprising the heck out of me with an accommodating hand wave. “Spinelli got a statement from him already. And we can track Mr. Tight End down tomorrow. On one condition…” She shot Matt an openly flirtatious smile. “He has to give me his digits.”
With New York 1’s cable news camera approaching, Matt wasn’t about to argue. He quickly reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, extracted a business card, and slapped it into Sue Ellen’s outstretched hand.
“My cell number’s on there,” he said before taking off. “Catch you later.”
The detective smiled as she pocketed my ex’s card. “Not if I catch you first…” she promised, her eyes following Matt’s posterior all the way back to our coffeehouse.