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The Cutting Edge Excerpt

“Is it safe?”

He considered this briefly. “Safe? Why wouldn’t it be safe?”

“I’m just saying. It’s kind of deserted.” The woman looked around the poorly lit, shabby lobby, the floor ancient linoleum so worn it looked sanded down. They were the only ones here, standing before the elevator. The building was smack in the middle of the Diamond District in Midtown Manhattan. Because it was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, many stores and companies were closed. The March wind hissed and moaned.

William, her fiancé, said, “I think we’re good. Only partially haunted.”

She smiled but the expression vanished fast.

Deserted, yes, William thought. And gloomy. Typical of Midtown offices built in the, who knew? Thirties? Forties? But hardly unsafe.

Though not very efficient. Where was the elevator? Damn it.

William said, “Don’t worry. Not like the South Bronx.”

Anna chided gently, “You’ve never been to the South Bronx.”

“Went to a Yankees game.” He’d once commuted through the South Bronx, and for some years, too. But didn’t mention that.

From behind the thick metallic doors, gears ground and pulleys pulled. The soundtrack was creaks and squeals.

The elevator. Now, that might not be safe. But the odds of getting Anna to walk up three flights of stairs were nonexistent. His fiancée, broad-shouldered, blond and pert, was in great shape, thanks to the health club and her charming obsession with the devil-red Fitbit. It wasn’t the exertion that she objected to, with that wonderful wry glance; it was, as she’d once said, girls don’t do stairs in buildings like this.

Even on joyous errands like this.

Practicality raised its head—yet again. “Are you sure this is a good idea, Billy?”

He was prepared. “Of course it is.”

“It’s so expensive!”

True, it was. But William had done his homework and knew he was getting quality for the sixteen thousand dollars. The rock that Mr. Patel was mounting in the white-gold setting for Anna’s pretty finger was a one-point-five-carat princess cut, F, which meant virtually colorless, very close to the ideal D. The stone was graded nearly flawless—IF, meaning there were only some minor flaws (Mr. Patel had explained they were called “inclusions”) detectible only to an expert under magnification. It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t huge but it was a magnificent piece of carbon that, through Mr. Patel’s eye loupe, took your breath away.

Most important, Anna loved it.

William came very close to saying, You only get married once. But, thank you, Lord, stopped short. Because while that was true in her case, it was not in his. Anna didn’t mind his past, or didn’t offer any evidence that she minded, but it was best not to bring up the topic (hence, editing out the story about the five years of commuting to Westchester).

Where the hell was that elevator?

William Sloane pressed the button again, though it was already illuminated. And they laughed at the pointless gesture.

Behind them the door to the street opened and a man walked in. At first he was just a shadow, backlit through the greasy glass of the door. William felt a moment’s unease.

Is this safe…?

Maybe he’d been a little quick with the reassurance some minutes before. He and Anna would be walking out in ten minutes with a house down payment on her finger. He looked around and was troubled to see there were no security cameras down here.

But the man walked closer and offered a pleasant smile and nod, then returned to reading his texts. He had pale skin, wearing a dark jacket and knit stocking cap, carrying cloth gloves—all necessary accessories on this unusually frosty March day. An attaché case too. He’d work in the building…or maybe was picking up a ring for his fiancée at Patel’s too. No threat. Still, William—a health-club and Fitbit aficionado himself—was in top form and could take down a guy of this size. A fantasy that, he supposed, every man engaged in every so often.

Finally, the elevator arrived and the doors squealed open. They got in and the man gestured to the couple to enter first.

“Please.” An accented voice. William couldn’t place the nationality.

“Thank you,” Anna said.

A nod.

At the third floor, the door opened and the man again gestured with his palm. William nodded in response and he and Anna continued toward Patel Designs, at the end of the long, dim hallway.

Jatin Patel was an interesting man, an immigrant from Surat, western Indian, the diamond-polishing center of that country—and of the world, now. When the couple had been here some weeks ago, placing their order, Patel had chatted away, explaining that the vast bulk of gem-quality diamond polishing was done there, in boiler rooms—tiny factories like apartment buildings, hot and filthy, with terrible ventilation. Only the best diamonds were cut in New York or in Antwerp or Israel anymore. Because of his skill, he’d risen above the pack of cutters—thousands of them in Surat—and managed to save enough money to come to the United States and open a shop.

He sold jewelry and diamonds retail—the soon-to-be-Sloanes, for instance—but he was best known for his cutting of high-end diamonds from raw stones.

On that earlier visit William had been fascinated to learn about the diamond trade, fascinated too that Patel would, from time to time, grow coy and steer the conversation away from William’s innocent questions. He supposed the diamond world was a shadowy, secretive place in many ways. Look at blood diamonds—those mined in Africa by warlords and terrorists, who used the profits to finance their horrific crimes. (The princess cut William was buying came with a guarantee that it had been ethically mined. William, though, couldn’t help but wonder how true that was. After all, was the broccoli he’d steamed last night truly organic, as the placard at Fresh Market promised?)

He was aware that the man who’d accompanied them in the elevator had stopped at a door just before Patel’s and was hitting the intercom.

So he was legit.

William chided himself for his concern and pressed the button for Patel Designs. Through the speaker came: “Yes? Who is there? Mr. Sloane?”

“Yes, it’s us.”

There was a click of the door and they stepped in.

It was at that moment that a thought struck William Sloane. As in many old-time buildings, the doors to all of the businesses on this floor had transoms above them—horizontal glass panels. Here they were covered with thick bars, for security. The one above Patel’s door glowed, revealing lights inside. But the transom next door—the one the man from the elevator had stopped at—was dark.

That business was closed.

No!

A sudden rush of footsteps behind them and, gasping, William turned to see the man, now with his head covered by a ski mask, charge toward them. He shoved them into the small room, where Patel sat behind a counter. The intruder moved so fast that Anna was knocked off her feet and fell hard, screaming. William turned but froze as the man pointed a gun his way—a black pistol.

“Jesus, no! Please!”

Despite his age, and paunchy midsection, Jatin Patel rose fast, reaching for what must have been a panic button. He didn’t get close. The man lunged forward and, reaching over the counter, slammed the pistol into his face. There was a horrific sound. William could hear the snap of bone under the impact.

The diamond dealer screamed. Patel, whose complexion was grayish all the time, grew grayer yet.

“Look,” William said, “I can get you money. You can have our ring.”

“Take it!” Anna said. Then to Patel: “Give it to him. Give him whatever he wants.”

Drawing back his gloved hand, still holding the gun, he swung it forward into Patel’s face again and again. Crying out, begging for him to stop, Patel slumped helpless to the floor, muttering, “I can get you money! Lots of money! Whatever you want! Please, please stop.”

“Leave him alone,” Anna cried.

“Quiet!” The man was looking around the room. A fast glance to the ceiling. There was a video camera pointing down toward them. Then he was studying the counter, the desk behind it and several dim rooms in the back.

With one hand toward the gunman, palm out, to reassure that he was no threat, William stepped closer to Anna. His arm went around his fiancée’s waist and he helped her up. He could feel her trembling.

The robber ripped a light cord from the wall. He extracted a box cutter—a utility knife—from his pocket and pressed the razor blade out with his thumb. Setting down the gun, he cut the wire into two lengthy pieces. He handed one to Anna. “Tie his hands.” Nodding at William. That accent again. European? Scandinavian?

“Do it,” William told her gently. “It’s okay.” He added in a whisper, “He could have shot us. He doesn’t want that. Tie my wrists.”

“Tight.”

“Yes, she will.”

With shaking hands, she did.

“Lie down.”

William eased to the floor.

Of course, he’d get the main threat out of the way—him. Then, glancing at Patel, the burglar bound Anna’s wrists and shoved her to the floor beside William, back to back

A chilling thought, cold as a winter stream, cut through him. William realized that the intruder had put the mask on before going into the store, to hide his face from the cameras.

But he hadn’t worn it before. Because he needed some customers to get him through the door of Patel’s. He’d probably been waiting for a couple to follow to a company that seemed like a good target for a robbery.

The security camera in Patel’s would have no recording of his features.

But William and Anna could describe him.

And that meant only one thing: The robber had tied them up so they wouldn’t fight back when he killed them.

The man now stepped close, standing over them, looking down.

“Look, please…”

“Shhhhh.”

William prayed, If it has to happen, let him shoot us. It’ll be fast, painless. He managed a look, twisting his head hard upward. And saw that the man had left the gun on the counter.

The gunman crouched over them, gripping the knife.

William’s back was still facing Anna’s and, sobbing, he stretched his hand out as far as he could. It found hers. He wondered if it was her left one and if the finger he was caressing now was the one that had come so close to being graced by the princess-cut, one-point-five-carat diamond, only slightly flawed and nearly colorless.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

He had not returned to the city in time.

To his disappointment.

Lincoln Rhyme directed his Merits Vision wheelchair—gray with red fenders—through the front door of his Central Park West town house. Someone had once remarked that the place brought to mind Sherlock Holmes—in two senses: First, the ancient brownstone would have fit nicely in Victorian England (it dated to that era), and second, the front parlor was filled with enough forensic instruments and equipment to awe the British consulting detective to his core.

Rhyme paused in the entryway to wait for Thom, his trim, muscular caregiver, who’d parked the disabled-accessible Mercedes Sprinter in the cul-de-sac behind the town house. Feeling the cold breeze upon his cheek, Rhyme turned the chair and bumped the door partly closed. It blew back open. A quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, he was quite adept at the high-tech accessories of those with hampered bodies: the touchpads, eye and voice recognition systems, prosthetics and the like. And surgery and implants had given him some control over his right arm. But many old-fashioned mechanical tasks, from closing doors to—oh, picking a random example—opening bottles of single-malt scotch, remained, literally, out of reach.

Thom arrived a moment later and closed the door. He removed Rhyme’s jacket—he refused to “wear” a blanket for warmth—and peeled off to the kitchen.

“Lunch?”

“No.”

The aide called back, “Phrased that wrong. I meant, what would you like?”

“Nothing.”

“Not the correct answer.”

“I’m not hungry,” Rhyme muttered. He clumsily picked up the remote for the TV. And turned on the news.

Thom called, “You need to eat. Soup. Cold day. Soup.”

Rhyme grimaced. His condition was serious, yes, and certain things like pressure on the skin or unrelieved bodily functions could have dangerous consequences. But hunger was not a potential risk factor.

The aide was such a goddamn mother hen.

After a few moments Rhyme smelled something aromatic. Thom did make pretty good soup.

He turned his attention to the television, which he rarely watched. Usually, it was to follow a particular news story, which is what he now wished to do: a story related to the disappointment created by his trip to Washington, DC, the place from which he and Sachs had just returned.

The station that had crinkled up on screen wasn’t twenty-four-hour news but a documentary network. Airing presently was a true crime show, though it seemed dramatized. The villain glared. The detectives looked thoughtful. The music flared. The crime scene officer wore a wristwatch outside his glove at the scene.

Jesus Christ.

“Were you watching this crap?” he shouted to Thom.

No reply.

Punching buttons, he found a network news channel. At the moment, though, there was no news, only commercials for prescription medicines. He didn’t have a clue what the medications did, except turn the actors from somber old grandparents into happy less-old grandparents, frolicking with young’uns in the final scene, their can’t-play-with-the-young’uns malady cured.

Then an anchor appeared and after some local news, political in nature, the story he was interested in popped up briefly: It was the account of a trial, presently under way in the Eastern District of New York. A Mexican drug lord, Eduardo Capilla, better known as El Halcon, had made the mistake of coming into the United States to meet with a local organized crime figure in the metro area and set up a narcotics and money-laundering network, along with a bit of underaged prostitution and human smuggling.

The Mexican was pretty sharp. Although he was a billionaire several times over, he’d flown commercial, coach, to Canada, entering legally. He’d then taken a private plane to an airstrip close to the border. From there he’d flown in a helicopter—illegally—to a deserted airport on Long Island, staying—in the literal sense—under the radar. The airport was a few miles from a warehouse complex that he was going to buy and, it was speculated, turn into the headquarters for his U.S. operation.

Police and the FBI learned of his presence, though, and agents and officers intercepted him there. A shoot-out ensued, resulting in the death of the warehouse owner, along with his bodyguard. A police officer was severely injured and an FBI agent wounded, as well.

El Halcon was arrested but, to the dismay of prosecutors, his American partner, with whom he’d hoped to build a drug empire, wasn’t present and his identity was never discovered; the apparent warehouse owner—the man killed in the shoot-out—was probably a figurehead. No amount of digging could reveal the true U.S. contact.

Lincoln Rhyme had so wanted a piece of the case. He’d hoped to analyze the evidence and provide expert forensic testimony at trial. But he’d committed to meet with a half-dozen senior officials in Washington, DC, and so he and Sachs had spent the week down there.

Disappointed, yes. He’d really wanted to help send El Halcon away. But there’d be other cases.

Coincidentally, just at that thought, his phone hummed and displayed a caller ID that suggested there might be one in the offing.

“Lon,” Rhyme said.

“Linc. You back?”

“I’m back. You have something knotty for me? You have something interesting? Something challenging?”

Detective First Lon Sellitto had been Rhyme’s partner years ago, when Rhyme was NYPD, but they socialized only rarely now and never just called each other up to chat. Phone calls from Sellitto usually only happened when he needed help on a case.

“Dunno if it’s any of the above. But I got a question.” The detective seemed out of breath. Maybe an urgent mission, maybe he was walking back from the grocery store with a box of pastry.

“And?”

“Whatta you know about diamonds?”

“Diamonds…Hm. Let me think. I know they’re allotropes.”

“They’re what?”

“Allotrope. It’s an element—as in chemical element—that exists in more than one form. Carbon is a perfect example. A superstar, in the world of elements, as I think even you know.”

“Even me,” Sellitto grunted.

“Carbon can be graphene, fullerene, graphite or diamond. Depends on how the atoms are bonded. Graphite is a hexagonal lattice, diamonds are tetrahedral lattice. Small thing, it seems. But it makes the difference between a pencil and the Crown Jewels.”

“Linc. I’m sorry I asked. Should’ve tried this: You ever run a case in the Diamond District?”

Rhyme thought back to his years as detective, as captain running the crime scene operation of the NYPD and, later, as consultant. Some cases had touched on the 47th Street area, Midtown. But none involved diamond stores or dealers. He told Sellitto as much.

“We could use some help. Robbery gone bad, looks like. Multiple homicides.” A pause. “Some other shit too.”

Not a term of art in the crime-solving world, Rhyme reflected. He was curious.

“You interested?”

Since the El Halcon case had slipped away from him, the answer was yes. “How soon can you get here?” Rhyme asked.

“Let me in.”

“What?”

Rhyme heard a pounding from the front hall. Through the phone Sellitto was saying, “I’m here. I’m outside. I was gonna talk you into the case whether you wanted it or not. Come on, open the goddamn door. It’s like January out here.”