THE NYPD BOAT lurched and I almost slipped on the deck.
The waves made a monotonous slapping sound against the boat’s hull, like an uneven drumbeat, as we cut through the choppy water. I sucked in a deep breath and could practically taste the Hudson River. The toxic odors of rotting fish and garbage didn’t do anything to help the nausea I felt. I prayed it would pass.
One of the officers assigned to the boat tapped me on the shoulder. He grinned and offered me a piece of beef jerky.
“Very funny, asshole,” Detective Terri Hernandez said as she snatched the jerky from the smirking cop and gave him a shove. “We’re here to work. There’s a woman’s body out there.” She turned to me. “You okay, Mike?”
“Never better. Fresh air, the sea. Who could ask for more?”
She smiled and said, “That’s called karma for all the pranks you’ve played.”
Terri was trying to distract me. That’s why I like working with her. I was on edge, terrified that I’d recognize the body we were on our way to recover.
Suzanne Morton, a friend of my oldest daughter, Juliana, had gone missing three weeks ago. The last place anyone saw her was at a prestigious acting class in SoHo. Suzanne and my daughter had been in a few classes together in the past. The NYU sophomore kept a busy schedule but never missed an acting class. She had been a good influence around my house, encouraging my younger daughters to pursue their passions.
I’d spent hours with Suzanne’s parents. I had first met them six months ago when we attended a short play both the girls were in. Since Suzanne’s disappearance, they’d asked me over and over again what the NYPD was doing to find their daughter. I understood. If your child is missing, you want the whole world to stop and go look for them.
As a parent of ten kids, I always seem to have something to worry about. At least none of them was missing.
I didn’t need to use my imagination to worry about what might have happened to Suzanne. I’d seen enough as a homicide detective. It felt like a knife in my abdomen every time I pictured the young woman, her light-brown hair framing a beautiful face that had deep dimples when she smiled.
I felt a change in the engine just as the pilot looked over her shoulder. She yelled in my direction, “Wind chop is really bad today! I’ll get as close as I can.”
I looked out over the whitecaps and spotted a figure floating in the water. A second boat, a Zodiac inflatable-hull outboard, discharged a diver. Recovery takes a lot of resources.
We idled alongside the body. Now that we were closer, I could see more clearly that the body was a woman, floating facedown in the water, with waves of long hair fanning out around her head. She was wearing a sparkly black cocktail dress that had attracted sea life. A fish nibbled at something in her hair.
Terri stepped behind me. “Is it her?”
Salt spray stung my face as I watched the grim procedure to recover the body. I shrugged. “Can’t tell yet.” I appreciated Terry’s reassuring hand on my shoulder.
The female crime-scene tech on our boat pulled the winch line so the diver could attach it to the recovery basket. The wire basket was over six feet long, with sides tall enough to keep a person firmly inside. I was relieved to see the care they used. They didn’t know about my possible connection to the victim. They were just professionals.
Against all sound judgment, I stepped closer for a better look.
The other crime-scene tech, a doughy guy in his mid-thirties, leaned over the edge of the boat. He’d been the first victim of the beef jerky prank. All it had taken was a quick whiff of the smelly, dried meat, and the tech had vomited over the side of the boat. But now he showed great concentration and focus, leaning so far out of the boat his face almost touched the water.
I heard a helicopter in the distance. When I looked up, I noticed it was a news helicopter. I hoped to God they didn’t try to get too close and film the body coming onto the boat. I couldn’t imagine a family ever seeing that on TV, but reporters continue to amaze me.
I heard one of the crime-scene techs say they were bringing the body on board. I took a deep breath and steadied myself.
I WATCHED THE crime-scene technicians and police diver struggle in the choppy water. My stomach lurched as I stepped over to help. Forensic scientists and crime-scene investigators can be territorial. The crime-scene tech waved me off.
Then the male crime-scene tech slipped during a particularly rough wave. He grabbed the basket holding the body. It tipped. I tensed, expecting disaster.
The other tech sprang from the deck and managed to straighten the basket. At least temporarily. When the winch holding the basket swayed, the basket came forward onto the boat deck.
That’s when it happened.
The body tumbled onto the deck of the patrol boat with a sickening thud. I kept my mouth shut. It was an accident, and conditions were dicey. It could’ve happened to anyone.
One of the basket’s black straps fluttered in the wind as both crime-scene techs carefully picked up the body, turning her so that she faced up. We all stared at the victim for a moment as the female crime-scene tech kneeled and meticulously brushed wet strands of hair away from the woman’s face.
It was not Juliana’s friend. But whoever she was, this young woman had been stunning. Not just pretty or cute but an honest-to-God beauty. Long, gorgeous dark hair, a straight, petite nose, and high cheekbones. She hadn’t been in the water long. She was fully clothed, and even still had her high heels strapped on. She looked like a peaceful angel lying on the deck of the boat.
Terri Hernandez leaned in close to me. She said in a low voice, “This is really similar to a body we found in the Bronx about two months ago. Both pretty, both in formal wear, and both discarded like an old fast-food container.” She stepped past me and pointed at the body on the deck. “Looks like a puncture wound in the chest. It’s small but noticeable.” Terri turned and added, “See the red soles on those heels? This girl has really expensive taste. Those are Christian Louboutin stilettos, and the dress looks like a Gucci.”
I just nodded. I always need a few minutes after recovering a body. I tried to picture the circumstances that led to the victim’s death. There was something about being dumped in the water that felt extra evil. It’s one of my nightmares. I said a quick, silent prayer for this poor woman.
At the moment, the only thing I could think of was catching whoever killed her.
The crime-scene techs took photo after photo from every angle.
The male crime-scene tech looked up from the body and said, “No ID of any kind. I’d put her age between nineteen and twenty-two. We’ll try to get her fingerprints back at the lab. We’ll see if she ever applied for a government job or has ever been arrested, but we might have a hard time figuring out who she is.”
I shook my head. “Somebody’s missing her. She’ll match a missing person’s report. We’ll know in a day or two who she is.” The thought of this girl dying alone caused a wave of sadness to pass over me.
I’d promised myself that if these kinds of feelings didn’t come to me whenever I saw a body, I’d know it was time to retire.
BY NOON, I was headed back to my office. Every time I walk through the doors of the Manhattan North Homicide unit, in an unmarked building on Broadway near 133rd Street, I am thrilled not to work anywhere near One Police Plaza.
I was hoping there would be more information waiting for me at my desk. I also intended to track down our criminal intelligence analyst to help me sift through the data from my newest death investigation.
I headed to the seventh floor, where my squad took the center of the space, with half a dozen small offices and interview rooms ringing it.
I slid behind my desk and took a moment to make a few entries in my notebook and just think about what to do next. Even though we’ve moved on from physical case files to an electronic system called ECMS, Enterprise Case Management System, I still trust my own handwritten notes.
Then I hustled to my boss’s office. Harry Grissom’s tall and lean frame fit well behind a desk, and I knew that sitting eased the discomfort he always felt. Harry favored his left side when he walked, the result of a knife wound that had severed his femoral artery when he was a young patrolman. He never complained, but it was clear from his gait that it was painful for him to walk too long.
I realized Harry was starting to show his age lately. The creases around his eyes were now cracks. The mustache that drooped below his mouth, contrary to NYPD grooming policies, was now almost completely gray. Recently, I’d heard whispers that the big shots at One Police Plaza wanted Harry to retire. I hoped it wasn’t true. Work was all Harry knew. I worried that without the NYPD, Harry, with three ex-wives and no kids, might become one of the many suicides in the police ranks. It’s an issue no one inside or outside police agencies wants to talk about. The pressure of the job can be intense. But the pressure of losing the job can be overwhelming.
Harry gave me a little wave and his version of a smile. “What do you got?”
I filled him in on the recovery from this morning, and told him about Terri Hernandez’s mention of a similar victim. “I’d like to work with Terri on this and look at both homicides together. Just in case we’re dealing with another serial killer, I don’t want anything to put us behind the eight ball. For a change, I wouldn’t mind being a step ahead of an asshole like this.”
Harry gave me a nod. That meant to move full speed ahead. Other lieutenants might ask for memos or extra admin, but Harry’s nod carried a lot of information. It told me to catch this killer any way I could. I almost ran from his office before things could be slowed down.
I looked toward the criminal intelligence analysts’ room as I left Harry’s office and felt my first relief of the day. Sitting by himself in the corner of his office was Walter Jackson, arguably the best analyst in the NYPD.
Without a doubt, Walter was the biggest analyst with the NYPD.
He stood six foot six and was every bit of three hundred pounds—the word imposing didn’t completely capture the thirty-five-year-old African American. The big man’s smile tended to lift everyone’s spirits. Walter had always been interested in helping his community, but he didn’t like some of the risks associated with being a police officer. He found he had a knack for piecing together information and solving puzzles when he studied English literature at Virginia, so when he saw a job announcement for criminal intelligence analyst, he thought he’d give it a try. Now he was a legend in the department.
I popped my head in the room. “Hey, Walter, I just caught a homicide and I’ve got a lot of information to put together. Any chance you’re free?”
“I got plenty to do, but it’s tough to turn down a new homicide. What do you need?” he asked.
I stared at him. He didn’t say anything.
He returned my stare as he slowly smiled. “What is it?”
“That’s one of the first times you’ve ever answered a question without a pun.”
The big man laughed, his belly jiggling. “I bet my daughter, Janine, I could go a week without making a pun. I have to give her a dollar every time I slip up. Whether she hears it or not.”
“What made her want to bet?”
“I asked her, when does a joke become a dad joke?” He paused, then added, “When the punch line becomes apparent.”
I guess most dads share a little bit of the same sense of humor, but I couldn’t help but groan at that one. I didn’t tell him I’d use that pun almost as soon as I got home.
I gave Walter the recovery information I had and what I had learned from Terri Hernandez about her homicide in the Bronx. Walter didn’t have to be told what needed to be done. He’d call the medical examiner’s office to get the latest information, track down all the outside sources, like news stories, on the other homicide. Then he’d give it to me in a concise manner.
In short, it’s people like Walter Jackson who make homicide detectives look efficient.
I’D BEEN IN the office less than an hour, searching the ranks of missing persons, hoping to find a match for the girl we had pulled out of the Hudson, when a shadow fell across my desk like an eclipse. I turned to see the towering figure of Walter Jackson.
He eased down onto the hard, wooden chair across from my desk. Walter never sat down with force. He’d learned better, after a similar city-purchased chair had once crumpled under his weight. Now he instinctively tested each chair.
He gently placed a photo on my desk. It was clearly a recent picture of the beautiful victim from this morning. It hurt my heart a little to see her smiling in the photo. I said, “That was fast.”
“Me and Fotomat promise to develop photos in less than an hour.”
“Jesus, Walter, Fotomat? You’re not that old. How do you even remember them?”
“You’re not much older than me and you remember them.” He looked at the photo. “I got lucky. The ME’s office picked up immediately. They have a fingerprint scanner connected directly to the FBI. Turns out the girl had once applied to work at a preschool in SoHo. We were able to match her fingerprints to that application.
“Her name is Estella Abreu. Nursing student at Pace. Lived in East Harlem with her family on 116th Street.” He bent his head for a silent prayer. Walter did that any time he talked about a recent homicide victim. A common practice around people who deal with tragedy every day.
“Good work, Walter.”
“Autopsy is scheduled for tonight. Aurora Jones is the assistant medical examiner on duty.”
I was glad to hear it. Aurora was a hell of a coroner. I nodded and looked at Walter. “That’s outstanding. Can you see if there’re any connections between this victim and the one from the Bronx? When you have more information, we’ll compare them.”
Walter didn’t waste a second. “The girl in the Bronx, Emma Schrade, was a student at Juilliard. There is one connection right there. Both were students. Emma was a soprano.” He tossed an envelope onto my desk.
I opened it to see a bright-eyed blonde with a spectacular smile. “Where did these come from?”
“I just pulled them off the internet. I printed them so you could take them on interviews. I saved the original photo in ECMS.”
“Walter, just when I think you’re out of surprises, you pull one more out of the hat. This is impressive for just a few minutes.”
“I’ve got two daughters. You think I’m not motivated when I see a photo of a girl who’s been murdered? I don’t understand how you guys ever sleep at night. I’d be consumed with all the leads that come into a case like this. How do you handle it with your ten kids?”
“It’s definitely a balancing act. Between sports, homework, and just trying to spend some time with them, this is a tough job.”
Walter shook his head. “I don’t know how you do it, Mike. With your crazy-ass cases and all those kids, how do you find time in the day?”
“It’s all about being efficient and keeping moving like a shark. I’m afraid if I ever stand still, it’ll kill me. Believe it or not, I also start coaching my daughter Fiona’s basketball team this week.”
“All school officials see when they look at me is a potential football coach,” Walter said. “No one can believe it when I tell them I’ve never even seen a football game all the way from beginning to end.” He sighed. “I don’t know that I’d give up my steady daytime hours and comfortable desk for your job. I’d already be burned out and barely able to talk to my family.”
“Walter, I know your family. It doesn’t matter if you talk to them or not, they’d be talking to you.” We both laughed because we both understood what it meant to be true family men.
“I know what you mean. Questions at work, questions at home. Sometimes you want someone to answer your damn questions.”
I nodded. “Elementary school math and science can baffle me.”
Walter paused. “You mean like what weighs more, a gallon of water or a gallon of liquefied butane?”
“They weigh the same, right?”
Walter grinned. “No, butane is lighter fluid.”
I groaned and said, “You owe your daughter another dollar.”
“Totally worth it.”
I STUDIED THE information Walter Jackson had come up with on both victims. It was during times like this, slouched at my desk, that I appreciated the padded chair I’d bought for myself. The city didn’t care if hours at my desk hurt my back.
As usual, Walter Jackson’s packet on my homicide victim was outstanding. The right criminal intelligence analyst makes any case easier. Walter always sticks in little bits of information other analysts might ignore, putting in data on siblings and old addresses, giving investigators more options to pursue when starting out on a case.
Sometimes, as a homicide detective, you’ve got to re-create the victim’s world in your head. You’ve got to be able to live their life and see the world through their eyes, at least briefly.
I was deep into Emma’s and Estella’s worlds and was startled when my phone rang. The kids had installed a new ringtone, the start of the piano solo from Eric Clapton’s original “Layla.” As soon as I heard it, I remembered that my wife, Mary Catherine, was going to call me after her doctor’s appointment.
The first words out of my mouth were “How’d it go?”
Instead of a concise answer, I heard a series of shrieks and laughing in the background.
Using my razor-sharp detective skills, I made an assessment and said, “You have the kids with you?”
“Only sixty percent of them. We’re on our way to buy some school clothes.”
“I thought you were going to call as soon as you were done at the doctor’s office.”
“Things got crazy and I was running late.”
I heard my youngest child, Chrissy, whine that she wanted to talk to me. That started her sisters Fiona and Shawna doing the same thing. I could barely hear Mary Catherine as she tried to explain things in code.
“Michael, I know I said I wanted to go to this first appointment on my own, but there was a lot to absorb. It was almost like the…” She searched for another word. “The cashier was trying to talk me out of any purchase.”
I was careful with my reply. I said, “To be clear, the doctor tried to talk you out of fertility treatment.”
“I have no idea why crime is rising with brilliant detectives like you running around.”
I snorted a laugh. I didn’t want her to think I was trying to influence her one way or the other about her efforts to get pregnant. Finally, I came up with “How do you feel about it?”
“I really don’t know. I think I’d like you…to come next time.”
I knew her pause was a last-second change from I’d like you at the next doctor’s appointment.
All I said was “Anything you want.”
“I think about how great our life is now in a home filled with children.” Mary Catherine paused to yell at the kids. “Everyone quiet for two minutes!”
I heard Trent sneak in an “Or what?”
The silence over the phone was terrifying. I knew those kids were facing the toughest of Irish glares. I felt sorry for them.
She came back on the line and her voice betrayed no hint of anger. Mary Catherine said, “I look at it two different ways. I think how happy another”—there was a pause—“visitor would be in our house. I also think we have the perfect balance now.”
“No matter what, we can’t lose. We have a great life, and a baby would make it better.”
Mary Catherine said, “I thought irrepressible optimism was supposed to be my thing.”
We both laughed as she broke the tension. We chatted for a few moments about the rest of our day. Then I built up the nerve to tell her, “Listen, I caught a homicide earlier today. I’ll probably be home late.” A homicide detective’s spouse hears this phrase dozens of times a year. But it felt harder to say, knowing she was having a rough day.
There was silence for a few moments on the other end of the line. Then Mary Catherine haltingly asked, “I know you’ve been looking for Juliana’s missing friend, Suzanne…”
“No, it wasn’t Suzanne. Suzanne’s father left another message for me this morning. I’ve been over to Missing Persons at One Police Plaza several times, hoping to find out something. So far there’s nothing on her. But Suzanne wasn’t the girl we fished out of the Hudson.”
“Oh, my Lord. Someone dumped a body in the river? That’s horrible.”
I try not to bring home the terrible things I see on my job. I guess I have achieved my goal because Mary Catherine was still reeling from the few details I had told her. I never want my family to become numb to the horrors that happen. Just like I don’t want to lose sight of what each homicide means, especially when the victim is young. Somewhere a family had lost a child. Every homicide victim means potential that won’t be reached. I know in my heart someone feels the loss every time a person is murdered.
Mary Catherine said, “Don’t worry about a thing, Michael. I have a plan for the afternoon that includes helping the twins with a project, then showing Ricky how I make my Irish stew.”
Her kind understanding—especially when she said things with that light Irish accent—made me want to rush home that much faster.
TERRI HERNANDEZ MET me in East Harlem near where Estella Abreu, the young woman we’d pulled out of the Hudson, had lived. I caught Terri up on everything I’d learned about our victim.
“The only address listed for her is this one, with her parents, on 116th Street. A patrol sergeant made notification almost as soon as we knew who she was.”
We were about to do one of the most challenging things all homicide detectives do: interview the family of a homicide victim. You never know what you’re going to find. A family in denial. A family grieving so deeply they can’t focus. A family so shattered by the loss of the child they don’t know how to cope. There’s a wide array of responses to losing a family member to homicide, and none of them are positive.