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By Richard Castle
HyperionCopyright © 2013 Richard Castle
All rights reserved.
NYPD Homicide detective Nikki Heat double-parked her gray Crown Victoria behind the coroner van and strode toward the pizza joint where a body waited. A uniform in short sleeves finger-looped the caution tape for her to duck under, and when she straightened up on the other side, Heat stopped, letting her gaze fall down Broadway. At that moment, twenty blocks south, her boyfriend, Jameson Rook, was taking bows at a Times Square press event to celebrate publication of his big new article. An article so big the publisher had made it the cover story to launch the magazine's Web site. Heat should have been happy. Instead she felt gut-ripped. Because his big article was about her.
She took one step to go inside, but only one. That corpse wasn't going anywhere, and Heat needed a moment to curse herself for helping Rook write it.
A few weeks before, when she gave him her blessing to chronicle her investigation into the murder of her mom, it had seemed like a good idea. Well, maybe not a good idea, just a prudent one. Heat's dramatic capture of the surprise killer after more than a decade became hot news, and Rook put it bluntly: Somebody would write this story. Would she prefer a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist or some tabloid hack?
Rook's interviews were intense and took both days of a weekend. With his digital recorder as sentry, Heat started with Thanksgiving eve, 1999. She and her mom were about to bake pies, and Nikki called her from the spice aisle of the supermarket, only to hear her mother get stabbed to death over the phone while she ran home, frantic and helpless. She told Rook about changing her college major from theater to criminal justice so she could become a cop instead of the actress she'd dreamed of becoming. "Murder," she said, "changes everything."
Heat shared with him her frustration in the quest for justice during the decade that followed. And her shock a month ago when a break came and a suitcase that had been stolen from her mother's apartment the night of her murder turned up at one of Nikki's crime scenes—with a woman's body inside it. The path to solve the fresh homicide of the lady in the luggage put Heat on an unexpected journey into her mother's hidden past. The trail led to Paris, where Nikki was stunned to learn that Cynthia Heat had been a spy for the CIA. Instead of the piano tutor she pretended to be, her mom had used music instruction as a cover to gain access to spy on the homes of diplomats and industrialists.
Nikki learned all this at the deathbed of her mother's old CIA controller, Tyler Wynn. But, spies being spies, the old man had only faked his death to throw her off. Nikki discovered this the hard way when her mom's mentor showed up, gun in hand, to relieve her of the secret, incriminating documents Cynthia Heat had died over. Why? Because Cynthia Heat had discovered that her trusted friend, Tyler Wynn, was a traitor.
During the interview, Nikki confessed she didn't have to imagine her mother's sense of betrayal. She had felt it herself when her college boyfriend, Petar, stepped out of the shadows beside Wynn, holding his own gun on her. And, more deeply, as the old spy slipped away with the pouch of damning evidence and a final instruction to Nikki's ex, to kill her—just as Petar had killed her mother.
At that point, Rook had paused his Olympus recorder to change batteries, but really to allow Nikki to gather herself emotionally. When they resumed, she admitted that, in her heart, she'd always assumed once she captured her mom's murderer, the wound could finally scar over. Instead, everything tore open and bled. The pain didn't lessen, it seared. Yes, she managed to arrest Petar, but the mastermind who called the shots had escaped and gone off the grid. And Petar would be no help tracking him. Not after one of Wynn's other accomplices brazenly poisoned his jail cell dinner.
Heat opened up to Rook with an intimacy she couldn't have imagined a year ago when she got saddled with the celebrity journalist for a research ride-along. Pre-Rook, Nikki had always believed that there were two pairs of natural enemies in this world—cops and robbers, and cops and writers. That belief softened in last summer's heat wave, when they ended up falling in love working their first case. Softened, maybe, but even as lovers, cops and writers would never have it easy. And this relationship constantly tested them.
The first test had come last autumn when the product of Rook's homicide squad ride-along got published as a national magazine cover story, and Nikki's face stared out at her from newsstands for a month. That attention made her uncomfortable. And seeing her personal experiences turned into prose gave Nikki an unsettling feeling about her role as Rook's muse. Was this life they were living theirs, or just source material?
And now with his new article about to hit the Internet with a splash, what were once mere misgivings about going public had erupted into full-blown anxiety. This time it wasn't about fearing the glare of personal publicity, but her worry that it would harm her active investigation. Because for Detective Heat, this case didn't have loose ends; they were live wires, and Nikki saw publicity as the enemy of justice. And at that moment, a mile away in Times Square, the genie was about to come out of the bottle.
Nikki was glad she'd at least held one big secret back. Something so explosive, she hadn't even told Rook.
"Coming in?" Detective Ochoa jarred her back to the present. He stood holding the glass door of Domingo's Famous open for her. Heat hesitated, then let go of her preoccupation and crossed the threshold.
"Got one for the books here," said Ochoa's partner, Sean Raley. The pair of detectives, nicknamed Roach, a mash-up of their names, led Heat past the empty Formica tables that would have been filled for lunch in a few hours if it hadn't been for the murder. When they got to the kitchen, Raley said, "You ready for a first?" He put his gloved hand on the topmost door of the pizza oven and drew it down to reveal the victim. Or what remained of him.
He—it looked like a he—had been shoved in there on his side, bent to fit, and baked. Nikki looked at Raley then Ochoa then back to the corpse. The oven still gave off a hint of warmth, and the body in it resembled a mummy. He had been clothed when he went in. Remnants of scorched fabric dangled off his arms and legs, and shrouded patches of the torso like a disintegrated quilt.
Raley's look of dark amusement faded and he stepped to her. Ochoa joined him, studying her. "You gonna be sick?"
"No, I'm fine." She busied herself gloving up with a pair of blue disposables, then added, "I just forgot something." Nikki said it dismissively, like it was no big deal. But to her, it was. What she had forgotten was her ritual. The small personal ceremony she went through on arrival at every homicide scene. To pause silently a few seconds before going in, to honor the life of the victim she was about to meet. It was a ritual born of empathy. A rite as common as grace before a meal. And today, for the first time ever—Nikki Heat had forgotten to do it.
The slip bothered her, yet maybe it was inevitable. Lately, working routine homicides had become a distraction that kept her from focusing fully on her bigger case. Of course she couldn't share that with anyone on her squad, but she did complain to Rook how hard it was to try to close a chapter when people kept opening others. He reminded her of the words of John Lennon: "Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans."
"My problem," she'd said, "is that death happens."
"Kitchen crew found him, when they opened for lunch prep," began Raley.
Ochoa picked right up. "They thought it was hinky that the oven felt warm. They popped the oven door and found our crispy critter." Roach exchanged self- satisfied grins.
"You do know that just because Rook isn't here, you don't have to guest-host." She held her palms to the oven. It felt warm but not hot. "Did they turn it off?"
"Negative," said Raley. "Cook said it was off when they came in."
"Any idea who our vic is?" she asked, peering inside the oven. The heat damage would make him hard to recognize.
Ochoa flipped to his notes. "We assume the victim to be one Roy Conklin."
The medical examiner, Lauren Parry, rose up from her lab kit. "But that's a guess until we can run dental records and DNA."
"An educated guess," said Ochoa. Heat read the gentle tease of Dr. Parry, his not-so-secret girlfriend. "We did find a wallet." He indicated the stainless steel prep table and the evidence bag on it holding the disfigured leather block and a buckled New York State license.
"And the weird gets weirder," said Raley, taking a Mini Maglite from his vest pocket and focusing it on the corpse. Heat moved closer, and Raley said, "Weird enough?"
Nikki nodded. "Weirdest." Around the victim's neck hung the laminated ID of Roy Conklin, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Ochoa moved beside her. "We already put in a call to DHMH. Ready for this? The body in that oven is a restaurant health inspector."
"That's definitely a violation." All heads turned toward the familiar voice. And the wisecrack. Jameson Rook strolled in, a vision to Nikki in his perfectly cut navy Boss suit and a purple and white spread-collared shirt—plus the charcoal and purple tie she'd chosen for him. "This joint will have a Grade-B in the window by tonight, you watch."
Heat came up beside him. "Not that I don't appreciate your help, but what happened? Don't tell me you got bored by your big red-carpet event."
"Not at all. I was going to stay for the after-crowd handshakes, but then Raley texted me about this. And thank God he did. Why hang around for another grip- and-grin when you've got a chance to see ..." He peered in the oven. "Hot damn. An alien from Area 51."
Roach appreciated the gallows humor. Lauren Parry, not so much. "What's that on your shoulder, glitter?" said the ME. "Out, before you contaminate my area."
Rook grinned. "If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that." But he stepped out to the dining room and left his coat on the back of a chair. He returned just as a pair of techs from OCME were removing the body from the oven. Ochoa handed him a pair of blue nitrile gloves to put on.
"Check out this badge," said Raley. Heat got on one knee beside him for a closer look. Conklin's ID badge and its lanyard showed absolutely no signs of scorching or melting.
Rook knelt with them. "This means whoever killed him must have waited for the oven to cool down or come back later and put this around his neck." Nikki turned and gave him a look. "Hey, not fair. That's your wild conjecture face. Don't tell me you're also going to bust my balls for a timely summary of facts."
Ochoa, who was standing at the oven, said, "Detective?" Heat stood and followed the beam of his flashlight. In the back corner of the oven, where it had been blocked from view by the body, sat a folded coat. Just like the badge and lanyard, it showed no signs of scorching. Detective Ochoa used a long-handled pizza paddle to shovel it up. When he slid it forward to them, nobody spoke. They just stared at the coat and what was on top of it: a neat coil of red string and a dead rat.
Detective Feller had completed his interviews with the cook and the busboy by the time Heat, Rook, Raley, and Ochoa emerged from the kitchen. "Their stories square up," he reported. "They served their last pies at midnight, tore down, closed up at one A.M., came back at nine, and found the vic." He flipped through pages of notes. "No unusual activity in the days prior, no sign of burglary or forced entry. They do have a closed-circuit camera system, but it died last week. No beefs with customers or vendors. As for the health inspector, Conklin's name or photo didn't ring a bell with either one. I held back the info about where you found the ID, of course, but when I asked, generally, if they touched or tampered with the body, it was a double no."
Heat said, "Soon as we rustle up some better head shots from family or DHMH, have them take a look. Meanwhile, go ahead and kick them loose."
Determining exact time and cause of death would be tricky, since a baked corpse corrupted cellular structures and body temps. So while Heat left her BFF the medical examiner to take the body to 30th Street for its postmortem, she plotted the immediate moves for her crew. Ochoa would deploy a team of uniformed officers to canvass the neighborhood with cell-capture copies of Conklin's ID photo. Once the unis got launched, Ochoa would go to Conklin's home to notify family and see what could be learned there. Raley would do his usual spot check for area security cameras that might have caught something. Heat put Detective Feller on a trip to the Health Department to get the victim's employment records and to interview his supervisor about his case work and office relationships. As for Rook, he offered to be an extra brain at the squad briefing, and Nikki couldn't resist saying, "You flatter yourself, but sure."
When the two of them stepped out of Domingo's Famous, Rook wagged his head in disdain at the gathering of onlookers behind the yellow tape. "You know, Nikki, I can't get over the looky-loos who hang out for whatever macabre thrill they get out of watching a body bag loaded into a van. More like looky-loozahs."
A voice called out from the crowd. "Jameson? Jameson Rook?" They stopped. "Here, over here!" The waving arm belonged to a big-haired young woman in black leather pants and what could charitably be described as fuck-me heels. She pushed to the front of the rubberneckers and pressed the fullness of her leopard-print vest against the yellow tape. "Could I get a picture with you?... Please?"
Sheepish, Rook muttered to Nikki, "It occurs to me that, after my Times Square thing, I may have Tweeted that this is where I was going ..."
"Make it quick." And as Rook headed over to the woman, Nikki added, "You do know this is why Matt Lauer Purells."
Heat waited in the undercover car while Rook posed with not just the one fan, but each of three additional babes who materialized from the crowd. At least he wasn't signing their breasts this time.
She made a quick e-mail check. "Yesss," she said aloud to the empty car when she saw one from a private investigator she'd been waiting to hear back from. "You about done?" she said as Rook got in the passenger seat.
"The photo was just the beginning. She wanted me to Tweet the picture myself and add hashtag-ruggedlyhandsome." He put his head back on the headrest and said, "Apparently, I'm trending as we speak."
Nikki started the car. "Remember Joe Flynn?"
Rook sat upright. "That PI. The one who has the hots for you?—No."
"Well, that PI did me a favor and dug through his archives and found some old surveillance photos of my mom. He wants to have lunch."
"I thought you called a squad meeting in an hour about Krusty the Corpse." And then he added solemnly, "May he rest in peace."
Heat drummed her fingertips on the steering wheel, once again feeling the conflict of the daily homicide grind. She did some quick calculations. "We'll tell him it has to be a quick bite."
"OK," said Rook with a side glance at the crime scene. "But no pizza. Just sayin'."
Since Heat and Rook didn't have time to be trapped in a restaurant for two hours of small talk and dessert-tray recitations, Joe Flynn had arranged for a deli buffet in the conference room of Quantum Recovery, his elite investigation service headquartered atop the exclusive Sole Building. He had brought in a charcuterie platter from Citarella stacked with Parma ham, roast beef, Jarlsberg, Muenster, as well as rustic mustards and herbed mayo. They declined the microbrews poking out of tubs of shaved ice and opted for the Saratoga springwater, which their host poured for them.
"You've come a long way from your roots, Joe," said Rook, who munched a cornichon, standing at the huge window looking out over Midtown Manhattan.
"You mean from staking out adulterers at hot sheet motels for a three-hundred- dollar per diem?" He joined Rook and admired the spring day with him. "I'd say fine art recovery has made life a little easier. Plus I don't feel like I need a shower after I cash the check."
Before Joe Flynn climbed to elite ranks and the express elevators that came with them, Nikki's mom had been the subject of one of his adultery investigations—commissioned by Nikki's dad. Worried about Cynthia Heat's increasingly secretive life, her husband hired Flynn in 1999 because he suspected his wife was having an affair. Flynn never found evidence of infidelity, but he did have stakeout photographs of Nikki's mom which could be useful now in her search for Tyler Wynn.
Excerpted from Deadly Heat by Richard Castle. Copyright © 2013 Richard Castle. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
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