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Granny catches two desperadoes with an apple pie.
Friday, April 12. 8:15 a.m. the FDR drive.
The wail of sirens. Police cars screaming northward. Ambulances following in hot pursuit. Up ahead, the gray spidery latticework of the Queensboro Bridge. Across the water, the candy-striped chimneys of the Con Ed Ravenswood plant belching smoke skyward. Just beyond that, the ugly sprawl of the Queens skyline. Barges and tugs push sluggishly upriver. Gulls wheel and shriek overhead.
A blur of motion as the patrol cars plunge into the 90th Street overpass, whoosh through the dark wet shade, then burst into the sunlight on the other side. Startled, drivers veer off to the side, scurrying to get out of the way.
A left at 96th Street and west to Madison. From there, north and on up into Harlem—108th, 116th—then left at 126th into the huddled, dingy street of squalid, front-stoop tenements. This is the 6th Homicide zone—an area famed for the highest murder rate in the city of New York. Traffic clogs the trash-lined street. Ragtag schoolchildren, satchels of books, greasy bags of lunch, squealing and darting round the stoops, ecstatic with the unexpected excitement.
Up ahead, patrol cars nose their way in through waves of milling people—a soft wall reluctantly yielding before the wailing sirens, the rotating dome lights, and the black stub-nosed police vans.
The lead car wheels into an area cordoned off by ropes, the wail of its sirens slowly dying. The police forensic unit is already there, rear-receiving doors flung open. A dozen patrolmen struggle to hold back the surging crowd.
A tall, gray-haired man climbs out of the rear seat of the lead car, confronted suddenly by a wall of black faces—sullen, anxious, resentful.
"All right—step back—move back—move it on back."
"Come on—let the man through."
"This way, Chief."
The crowd pauses, holds back a bit, as the tall, powerfully built man limps past. Then slowly it closes behind him. An ominous silence descends over the place. You can almost touch the resentment.
Inside 315 West 126th Street—a dingy hallway tattooed with street graffiti. Shaz 135—Cool Fezito 116—Mamasuck 139. The stench of fried fish and urine. Frightened eyes peering out the cracks of partially opened doorways; faces peering down over the crumbling banisters two stories above. The man they call the Chief ascends the stairs moving slowly up past and through the hushed crowd from one flight to the next.
"All right—let the man through."
"This way, Chief. Right up here."
"Who you shovin', man?"
"Move it on, buster—move it on."
"All right—everyone back inside. Go on back to bed. Have some breakfast. How about it?"
The Chief is led down a choking, fetid corridor—raw garbage littering the floor, doors all shut, defaced by more graffiti; ushered finally to one apartment door that is open.
Inside, the place is already swarming with police and detectives. The periodic white flash of police cameras exploding; lab technicians on their knees dusting for prints; the intent and purposeful rasp of pencils as police artists scrawl diagrams onto sketch pads.
The Chief inches his way forward into what is obviously a bedroom. A soiled, bare mattress is flung across the floor. Over the mattress a single naked light bulb depends from a frayed electric cord. On a sheet of greasy paper beside the bed lies an uneaten piece of moldering fried fish.
"All right, what d'ya got here, Flynn?"
"A goddamned mess." Detective Sergeant Edward Flynn glowers about the squalid room. "That's what I got here."
"Spare me the huffing and puffing, will you?"
"Huffin' and puffin', my ass. Nine o'clock in the mornin' and already I'm up to my eyeballs—six homicides, a pack of long-haired freaks walkin' picket around the station house, and I've just had about a dozen Maalox."
"I'm not interested in your problems, Flynn. I've got enough of my own. All right, where is it?"
"In the toilet," Flynn sulks, "Follow your nose. You can't miss it."
Two beefy, strapping patrolmen step aside. The tall, gray-haired man enters an abhorrent little privy—a communal end-of-the-hall toilet in an end-of-the-line apartment—a dank, foul-smelling cubicle with peeling paint and a punched-out window to which lethal shards of glass still cling. Its main feature is a slimy porcelain tub with curved, incongruously elegant legs. The tub is half-filled with water, and in the water sits a handsome young black—late twenties—eyes open, jaw clamped tight, the mouth twisted into a hideous grin that makes him appear to be laughing at the ceiling. The handle of an ice pick projects from the center of his chest. Blood seeping from the wound has turned the tepid water around him to a pale rose.
The tall, gray-haired man mutters something, stoops painfully to his knee, and a moment later, with the flash bulbs popping and exploding all about him, he proceeds to examine the wound in the center of the chest The pick has gone straight through the sternum, right up to the hilt.
"I knew you'd appreciate it."
Still stooped there painfully beside the tub, the Chief jots notes hurriedly onto a pad. He notes the degree of rigor mortis in order to affix a time of death; examines the throat area for ligature marks; checks the whites of the eyes for traces of petechial hemorrhage.
Putting the note pad away in his inside pocket, his eye catches a small cut on the inside surface of the young man's left wrist another on the inside of the right thumb.
"Defense cuts," the Chief murmurs to himself.
"Poor bastard didn't have a chance," remarks the detective hovering above him.
The Chief rises painfully to his feet. "All yours. When you're finished, call my office. Have them wrap it up and send it down to me. Make sure they bind the hands. I want to examine those fingernails later today."
Even as he moves out amid the flashing of police cameras, the lab technicians of the forensic unit are moving into the vile little privy, already on their knees before the wet, grinning figure in the tub, dusting the handle of the ice pick in his chest for prints.
Out in the hallway again, the crowd mutters and yields begrudgingly before the tall, gray-haired man.
"All right—go on home—it's all over now."
"Step back—let the man through."
Two cops with a canvas bag move up past the Chief.
"Got time for one more?" asks Morello, Lieutenant of Detectives.
"Where is it?"
"Just a few blocks down—113th Street."
"Okay," the Chief sighs. "Let's get over there." He turns for a moment, staring back at the small, truculent figure of Detective Flynn scribbling into a pad. "Call me this afternoon, Flynn. I should have the serology reports by then. You go get this bastard now. And Flynn—get off the Maalox. It's constipating."
Then out on the street again, and even as the patrol car inches its way through the mobs, the sound of fists pounding on the right rear fender reverberates through the vehicle. The grim, silent occupants do not even bother to look back.
8:45 A.M. 113th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. More clogged traffic. More police vans. More wailing patrol cars with rotating dome lights. More police cordons and megaphones. Outside, up on the rooftops, six stories up, the heads of patrolmen peer down onto the choked and littered street.
Six flights up on a filthy landing, near a door leading to the roof, more detectives, more lab men, more flashing bulbs.
"Watcha got?" the Chief says.
The sergeant in charge reads from identification cards found in a cheap red vinyl wallet. "Rosales, Barbara. Nineteen. Hooker. They know her around here."
Once again this morning the Chief stoops down—this time to the torn and crumpled form of a rather coarse and plain-looking Spanish girl with bad skin.
"Junkie, too," the Chief says, permitting the still-limp arm with the needle tracks to fall back down onto the cold floor of the stairwell.
"Probably turning a trick up here," says Morello, looking around. "Picked the wrong John this time."
"Hazard of the profession." The Chief kneels, makes a series of mental notes while examining the body.
The girl is half sitting, half lying on her side, right shoulder propped against the wall, obscene graffiti figures scrawled on the moldy plaster above her. A huge wad of Kleenex has been stuffed down her mouth all the way into the windpipe. A single shredded edge of the stuff dangles out of the corner of her mouth. A pair of cheap black rayon panties have been yanked down below the knees, which are badly bruised and bleeding, showing how and in what position the girl struggled. Great white splotches of dried semen are all about the inside of the thighs and pubic area, and extruding from between the buttocks, an unfinished half pint of Southern Comfort, the neck of the bottle rammed up hard into the rectum.
"Okay." The Chief, completing his survey, rises to his feet. "When you finish up here, wrap it up and send it down to me."
"Hey, Doc," says a burly Italian patrolman, stooped over the body, "what's all the funny little puncture marks around her face?"
"Rat bites," the Chief says, turning to his driver. "All right, let's get out of here."
As he is leaving, the burly Italian cop tugs the unfinished bottle of Southern Comfort down from its snug berth and holds the mouth of it up to his partner. "Hey, Fazello—how about a shot?"
Loud, raucous laughter cascades down the narrow stairway, following the descending figure of the tall, gray-haired man.
Back in the patrol car again, tooling down the FDR Drive. The Chief sits hunched far back in the rear seat. Long, cramped legs sprawled out sideways for comfort, he watches the wide brown swatch of the East River slide backward past the window, unraveling like a filthy carpet. His face wears a perpetual scowl. He seems a harsh, vindictive sort. Not one of your enlightened liberals. He'd known too many murderers. He abhorred violence and mourned the passing of the electric chair. He was suffused with a kind of Old Testament eye-for-an-eye morality. Though now in his sixties, his job had turned him gray at twenty-nine.
April again. Burgeoning spring. Tax time and the month of suicides. Gone now are February and March, season of drowned men, when the ice on the frozen rivers melt, yielding up the winter's harvest of junkies, itinerants, and prostitutes. Soon to come are July and August—the jack-knife months. Heat and homicide. Bullet holes, knife wounds, fatal garrotings, a grisly procession vomited out of the steamy ghettos of the inner city. Followed by September—early fall—season of wilting vegetation, self-guilt, and inexplicable loss. Battered babies with the subdural hematomas and the petechial hemorrhages. Then October—benign, quiescent; the oven pavements of the city cooling while death hangs back a little while, prostrate from all the carnage. Only to rush headlong into November and December. The holiday season. Thanksgiving and the Prince of Peace. Suicides come forth again.
Like so many other thriving enterprises, Paul Konig's is a cyclical business. He has his slack season and his busy season. Salad days and dog days. His good times, which, he knows, always proclaim the certainty of the approaching bad. He is, after all, subject to the same pressures and uncertainties as any other businessman, but his trade is unique. He is a forensic pathologist. Chief Medical Examiner, City of New York.CHAPTER 2
9:15 a.m. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Konig at his desk. Crystals of doughnut sugar melting on his lips. The bitter morning taste of paper-container coffee and the first cigar, muzzy on his palate. Stacks of reports are strewn before him. A calendar agenda with that day, April 12, circled in red—an 11 A.M. lecture and laboratory at the University; a 2 P.M. call at the Criminal Courts Building. There is, in addition to the regular avalanche of correspondence he carries on with pathologists all over the world, the usual assortment of invitations to address conferences, teaching offers for prestigious university seats, letters from coroners, doctors, and medical missionaries halfway round the world petitioning his advice on some tiny, arcane point of pathology. Sensing the absurdity of it all, he would answer each letter himself, feeling that doctors, just like clergymen, had an obligation to at least pretend to a wisdom they didn't really possess. For his part, the longer he practiced and studied, the deeper and more inescapable grew his conviction that he knew nothing. Nothing that really mattered.
On his desk, too, are the department's budget, which has to be completed for the City's fiscal planners; a number of bills, including a mortgage payment for a beach house in Montauk; and a stack of recent protocols, death reports: "This is the body of a well-developed, well-nourished white male, approximate age 26, height 5' 9"—" Finally, separate from all the rest, is an envelope marked "Personal." He picks that up first, his fingers trembling ruefully on the flap before he tears it open. In it he finds a birthday card—an outlandish caricature of a large, shaggy bear in a doctor's robe with a stethoscope around its neck. It's signed with a big, untidy scrawl of red letters—"Dear Daddy, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry. Love."
Once again he lights the dead cold ashes of his cigar from a Bunsen burner, ponders the card, then reaches for a pot of coffee bubbling on a cooking ring behind him. Then he is reading and riffling through his reports. A short time later he's moving around the office with a sprinkling can, watering the jungle of pots and planters lining the long wall of windows—the begonias and the azaleas, the narcissus, the hyacinths he is forcing, the huge lantana, the spider plants, the long, muddy rows of spiny succulents, and the fabulous green-pink profusion of wandering Jew. His movements have a precise rhythm—several steps and a splash, several steps and a splash. On he goes from one pot to the next, cigar screwed into the center of his mouth, pausing only to flick off a wilted blossom or a dead leaf. He moves slowly and easily through the impeccably ordered chaos of his office, through the controlled disarray, past a brain floating in a tank of formalin, a table stacked with innumerable tissue slides, a slope of mortuary records stacked on the floor and reaching to the ceiling—the threatened landslide of the past fifteen years. It all has an order and rhythm perceptible only to him.
Halfway through the thrice-weekly ritual of the sprinkling can, the phone rings. Picking it up, he hears Carver's throaty Voice through the receiver at the same moment that he hears her speaking just outside his door in the anteroom.
"You've got your lab at the University at eleven and you're due at court by two."
"I know. So what?"
"You asked me to remind you, so I'm reminding you."
"So you reminded me. Good for you."
"The Skardon people are here now. Wanna see them?"
He sighs dismally. "I s'pose this is as good a time as any."
"Up on the Thruway." Konig again ignites the cold ashes of his expired cigar. "Just north of Pelham—about a mile south of the exit." Over the flame of his lighter Konig's eyes search the harried faces of two people—a man and a woman—seated opposite him. "About thirty feet from the road, in some bushes. Have any idea what she was doing there?"
"Where?" the man snaps. "In the bushes?"
"No. On the Thruway."
"Coming home from school. She was coming home for spring vacation."
The woman whimpers softly into a handkerchief. Red, teary, sleepless eyes show above the expensive fabric. Cambric, Konig observes and says, "Hitchhiking?"
"I s'pose so." The man nods impatiently. "She always hitched. Said it saved money. What the hell she had to save money for, I don't—"
The woman sobs out loud. The man glares at her. "For Chrissake, Emily, will you quit the goddamned whining. We don't even know yet if this girl is actually—"
Konig makes a grunting sound. "You say she's been missing about three days?"
"That's right," Mr. J. Phelps Skardon says. "Started out Tuesday afternoon right after classes."
Excerpted from City of the Dead by Herbert Lieberman. Copyright © 1976 Herbert Lieberman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 31, 2013
City of The Dead is one of the grittiest crime novels I’ve read in a while. Paul Konig is Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, which means he spends most of his time with the dead. His job has taken the best of him for many years – his marriage failed, his wife eventually passed away, his daughter won’t speak to him anymore, and overall, he’s lost most of the things he loves. But this new case is particularly gruesome, and Konig vows to solve it, catching the mad man who has committed a series of brutal crimes and carved a bloody path across the city.
But the clearer the picture Konig gets of the killer, the more the last thing he cares for becomes endangered. For his own daughter has been kidnapped, and with every second wasting away, so do his chances of seeing her alive. With political blackmail on the agenda, someone stealing unclaimed corpses, and a murderer to catch, Konig may be up for his toughest days yet.
This book was originally published in the 70′s, and it’s like an early example of Temperance Brennan. Konig is a medical examiner forever scarred by the long list of people he’s seen ending up on his tables. He’s grumpy, old and has a sarcastic sense of humor not everyone can appreciate. He’s a ruthless man as well, the kind of person whose job is everything for him, who will go to the end of the world and beyond to solve a crime. But at the same time, we see him as a man at the end of the line, who is constantly under stress, who hasn’t got a moment of peace, the kind of man urging toward an emotional breakdown. He is flawed, but his flaws make him come to life, turn him into one of the most endaring, intriguing protagonists I’ve seen for a while.
The unique thing about the story is that it isn’t just a murder to solve. There are several cases going on at once, which adds to the urgent feel of the book. When all the cases come together at the end, it feels like a nice closure, and actually made me think about the brilliance of the mind who could conjure so many storylines and then add them neatly together. There’s the kidnapping of Konig’s daughter, the gruesome murders, some other murders, and the cases of political blackmail going on at Konig’s office. We get glimpses of Konig’s past mixed in as well.
Another bonus is that the author doesn’t shy away from giving the readers heartbreak and doesn’t guarantee happy endings for everyone. Just like in the real world. There is also heaps of technical stuff about the world of forensics that I thought was very intriguing to read, and certainly shows the author did his homework.
If you’re a fan of gritty murder mysteries, check out “City of the Dead“. It has amazing writing, one of the best protagonists I’ve come across in a while, and a suspenseful storyline.
Posted July 31, 2013
This was first published in the 70s and it hasn't received the recognition it deserves.
Think Tempe Brennan or Kay Scarpetta but male, old and grumpy.
Lieberman has created a character walking the tightrope of emotional instability, constant professional pressure and his fear of loss.
The main character Konig finds himself wandering between nostalgic moments of reminiscence, whilst dancing the game of internal politics and to top it all off his daughter is missing.
It is dark and certain parts leave a sense of melancholy.
All in all it is realistic, detailed and a heck of a good read.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley.