I looked at the pool of dried blood that covered the third-floor landing of a brownstone on one of the safest residential blocks in Manhattan and wondered how the young woman who'd been left here to die yesterday, her chest pierced by a steak knife, could still be alive this afternoon.
Mercer Wallace crouched beside the stained flooring, pointing out for me the smaller areas of discoloration. "These smudges, I figure, are partial imprints of the perp's shoe. He must have lost his footing over there."
The blood streaked away from the door of the victim's apartment, as though her attacker had slid in the slippery fluid and stumbled to the top of the staircase.
"So there's likely to be some of this on his clothing?"
"Pants leg and shoes for certain, until he cleans them. Look here," he said, and my eyes followed the tip of the pen he was using as a pointer. Outlined on the light gray paint of the door to 3B was another bloody design. "That's hers, Alex. She must have braced herself with one foot against that panel to push the guy off. She put up a fierce struggle."
I could make out the V-shaped tip of a woman's shoe sole, and inches lower the circular mark that confirmed it was a pump rather than a flat.
"High heels and all, she did pretty well for herself. Just lucky." The uniformed cop who had been assigned to safeguard the crime scene for the past twenty-four hours spoke to Mercer as he straightened up.
"That's what we're calling it now when someone resists a rapist and ends up in the intensive care unit with a few holes in her chest and a collapsed lung?"
"Sorry, Ms. Cooper. I mean the girl is fortunate to be alive. You know she went DOA when they pulled up to the docking bay at the emergency room?"
Mercer had told me that. Annika Jelt had stopped breathing on the short ride to New York Hospital. The cops who were dispatched to a neighbor's 911 call reporting screams in the stairwell knew there was no time to wait for an ambulance. The young officer who carried the victim down to the patrol car had served in the army reserves as a medic during the war in Iraq. Annika owed her life to the fact that he revived her in the backseat of the RMP, on the way to the ER, before she was rushed into surgery to inflate her lung and stanch the bleeding.
Mercer led the way down the staircase. The traces of black fingerprint dust on the banister and walls reminded me that the Crime Scene Unit had done a thorough workup of the building when they were summoned by Mercer, shortly after the 3 a.m. attack on a frigid morning in late January.
"He never got her inside the apartment?"
"Nope. She fought like hell to keep him out."
"Did he take anything?" I asked.
"Keys. He took the ring with the keys to both the vestibule door and the apartment. The super's changed both locks already."
"But money? Jewelry?"
"Her pocketbook was lying on the ground next to her. Cash and credit cards were inside and she still had on her earrings and bracelet. He wasn't there for the money."
Mercer had double-parked outside the five-story walk-up on East Sixty-sixth Street. He had awakened me yesterday at six o'clock to tell me about the case. We had worked together for the better part of the decade that I had run the sex crimes prosecution unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, while he had been assigned to the police department's Special Victims Squad. He knew I'd want the first heads-up about the crime, before it was reported on the local network news and before the DA, Paul Battaglia, hunted me down to get enough details so that he could answer the flood of calls from local politicians, concerned citizens, and the ever-curious media. Violent crime, especially sexual assault, was always fodder for headlines when it happened in the high-rent district of the Upper East Side.
I left my desk in the criminal courthouse this afternoon to join Mercer at the victim's apartment. It always helped me begin to frame an investigation and prosecution if I could see exactly where the attack had occurred and what evidence there was of a struggle, or any clues to the perpetrator's method of operation. What the lighting conditions were, the size of the area involved and distances between the beginning of the attack and its conclusion, as well as potential evidence that might be cleaned up or altered in the days to follow -- I liked to see those things with my own eyes. The cops had still been too busy processing the scene themselves to allow me access when Mercer called me yesterday morning, but now they had given the green light to let him walk me through it.
In addition, my years of work on these cases often added another experienced perspective to that of the police team -- and sometimes it resulted in recalling a distinctive detail or trait that would lead the investigators to a repeat offender in this category of crimes in which the recidivist rate was so extraordinarily high.
Mercer started the engine and turned up the heat in the old department Crown Vic that had responded to more sexual assaults than most officers ever would in a lifetime. "So, did anything there speak to you?" Mercer said, smiling at me.
I rubbed my gloved hands together against the harsh winter chill that had seeped through the cracks around the car windows. Lots of veteran cops got vibes at crime scenes, claiming to be able to figure out something about the assailant by being in the same space. I shook my head. "Nothing you don't already know. Yet one more sick puppy who was somehow aroused by forcing a woman he'd never seen before to engage in a sexual act."
"There are buildings with doormen on both corners of the block. This is a fully occupied brownstone on a well-lighted street. He's a cool case, this guy. He got her at the front door on top of the stoop, as she was unlocking it -- "
"She told you that?"
Mercer had been waiting at the hospital when the young woman emerged from the anesthetic late last evening. "Too many tubes coming out of the kid to speak, and the docs only gave me fifteen minutes with her. I asked some basics until she ran out of steam. She squeezed my hand like I told her for some yes-and-no kind of questions."
We were driving to the hospital, just a few blocks away on York Avenue at Sixty-eighth Street. Mercer stopped in to check on his victim on the way to his office this morning, and insisted on seeing her again, as he would every day until she recovered. He wanted to tell the young exchange student that he had telephoned her parents, in Sweden, and that they were flying here tomorrow. Until they arrived, he would be the closest thing to family she would have at her side.
"Did Annika know he had the knife when he accosted her?"
"She never even heard him coming. I figure the first thing she felt was his arm yoking her neck and the blade of the knife scratching the side of her throat."
"Not a particularly distinctive MO," I said.
"You looking for creative, too, Alex?"
I shook my head.
"It's all in the details, as you know. Exactly what words he said, how he touched her, what he smelled like. It may be a couple of days until we can get all that from her."
"And hope in the meantime that he doesn't feel it necessary to finish the job with another victim tonight or tomorrow."
Mercer flashed his badge at the security guard in front of the hospital driveway, who motioned him to leave the car right at the curb.
Sophisticated monitors beeped their familiar noises as we pushed open the doors into the surgical ICU. Nurses were engaged in every one of the eight cubicles, tending to patients in the most critical phase of care.
Mercer walked to the glass-enclosed area where Annika Jelt lay in bed.
"She's awake, Detective. You can come in," the nurse said.
I remained in the doorway as Mercer took a step to the bedside. He reached out his large hand and placed it on Annika's arm, above the intravenous needle that carried fluids back into her slim body. As she felt his touch, the young woman turned her head toward us and tried to smile, recognizing her new friend and protector.
"Hello," she whispered, barely able to move her mouth because of the tubes coming out of her nostrils.
Mercer leaned his six-foot-six-inch frame over the bed railing and gently stroked Annika's forehead. "Don't try to talk. I just came back to check on you. Make sure they're treating you right."
The nurse walked to the far side of the bed and adjusted the pillows behind her head. "Detective Wallace told me he'd haul me off to the clink if we don't get you up and out of here as soon as possible."
She twisted her head back toward the nurse and forced another smile.
"I spoke with your mother, Annika. It's okay. She and your dad will be here tomorrow."
At the mention of her parents, the girl's eyes filled with tears and a guttural cry escaped from her mouth. She wanted to speak but couldn't find the strength, or the right words.
"They know you're going to be fine. They want to come over here and be with you."
I couldn't understand what she was mumbling. Her head was moving back and forth, causing all the monitors to go into high gear. It was something about what she wanted.
"I know you want to go home," Mercer said. Her hand was clasped in his and he continued to try to calm her by stroking her hair.
I bit my lip and thought of how isolated and frightened she must be. Alone in a foreign country, victim of a crime that almost took her life, and not even able to speak on the telephone to assure her family that she would survive.
"Remember the lady I told you about, my friend Alex? I've brought her here to meet you," Mercer said, stepping back from the bed that was surrounded with medical equipment so that Annika could see me.
I came in closer and she dropped his hand, gesturing toward mine. I took his place by her side, covering her cold fingers with my own, and let Mercer finish speaking. "Alex and I are going to find this man, Annika. All you have to do is get strong again. That's your only assignment."
"Mercer's right. You need to get all the rest you can. We'll be back to see you every day. We'll get you everything you need."
"Home?" This time I could hear her clearly.
"Of course you can go home as soon as you're well enough to travel," I said.
"She's almost due for her pain medication," the nurse said. "She gets agitated whenever anyone mentions her family. She doesn't want them to see her this way and she worries about how upset they must be. They never wanted her to come to New York for school."
We waited until she had composed herself, and the MorphiDex that the nurse added to the drip began to take effect.
Annika's watery brown eyes blinked repeatedly, like she was fighting sleep, determined to make sure that Mercer stayed by her side. She closed them at last, her small head barely making a dent in the firm pillows behind her, looking pale and sallow against the crisp white hospital linens. The lifesaving machinery that surrounded her outweighed her twofold. Its blinking lights and beeping noises wouldn't disturb her medicated slumber, and I hoped as well that nightmare visions of her attacker couldn't penetrate the veil drawn around her by the strong painkillers.
It was not even five o'clock when we got back into the car for the ride downtown to my office, but it was already pitch-black and the windchill factor had dropped several notches.
Mercer's cell phone vibrated and he unhitched it from his belt to flip it open as he pulled out of the driveway onto York Avenue.
"Sure, Bob. I'll take a preliminary," he said, looking over at me.
It was Bob Thaler, the chief serologist at the medical examiner's office, who had worked up a quick analysis, less than twenty-four hours after getting the evidence found at the scene of Annika's assault. These tentative findings would later be validated with further testing. This first run wouldn't hold up in court, but it would give us an immediate idea if there was evidence of value.
"Yeah, we picked up those four cigarette butts from the stoop in front of the building. You find something?"
Thaler gave him an answer, which caused Mercer to turn and wink at me. Good news, I assumed.
But their conversation went on, and as he listened, Mercer's smile faded to a serious expression, almost an angry one. He hung up the phone, dropped it on the seat between us, and accelerated onto the FDR Drive.
"There's that word 'lucky' again. I was afraid we were hopeless on the serology because there was no semen. Thaler's got Annika's blood on one of the cigarette stubs. That's why he wanted to know where we found them. Looks like the guy stepped on it on his way out of the building, with wet fluid still in the creases of his shoes from where he dropped her on the landing."
"You heard something else you didn't like."
"They were able to work up a profile from the saliva on the same butt, too. I'd say it's our man, without a doubt."
It would be a stretch for Mercer to get excited about a random item that wasn't even found inside the apartment hallway, where the crime occurred. He knew better.
"Didn't you just say there were four -- "
"I'm not talking about a foreign profile, Alex. It's a very familiar one. Three of the cigarettes are useless. The butt with both blood and saliva on it was dropped there -- maybe on his way up the steps when he spotted his prey -- by someone you and I haven't seen in a very long time."
"We know him?" Someone we sent away who got out of jail, I expected Mercer to tell me. Someone we'd put away who was back to haunt us. A paroled convict who would be easy to track down through new sex offender monitoring laws. The surprise chance of something breaking in our favor so early shot through me like a burst of adrenaline.
"If I knew who he was, if I could tell you his name, then I wouldn't be cruising you downtown right now. I'd be knocking on his door and throwing the cuffs on him tonight," he said. "The bastard beat us cold four years ago then disappeared long enough for me to begin to believe he'd come to his own violent end. Now here he is again, obviously more dangerous than before."
"You think you know -- ?"
"I do know, Alex. Thaler just confirmed it for me. The Silk Stocking Rapist is back in business."
Copyright © 2005 by Linda Fairstein