The Steel Kiss Excerpt
The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we must contend.
Sometimes you catch a break.
Amelia Sachs had been driving her arterial-blood-red Ford Torino along a commercial stretch of Brooklyn’s Henry Street, more or less minding pedestrians and traffic, when she spotted the suspect.
What’re the odds?
She was helped by the fact that Unsub 40 was unusual in appearance. Tall and quite thin, he stood out in the crowd a short time ago. Still, that alone would hardly get you noticed in the throng here. But on the night he’d beaten his victim to death, two weeks before, a witness reported that he’d been wearing a pale green checked sport coat and Braves baseball cap. Sachs had done the requisite—if hopeless—posting of this info on the wire and moved on to other aspects of the investigation . . . and onto other investigations; Major Cases detectives have plenty to look after.
But an hour ago a portable from the 84th Precinct, walking a beat near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, had spotted a possible and called Sachs—the lead gold shield on the case. The murder had been late at night, in a deserted construction site, and the perp apparently hadn’t known he’d been witnessed in the outfit, so he must’ve felt safe donning the garb again. The patrol officer had lost him in the crowds but she’d sped in the direction anyway, calling in backup, even if this part of the city was an urban sprawl populated by ten thousand camouflaging souls. The odds that she’d find Mr. Forty were, she told herself wryly, nonexistent at best.
But, damn, there he was, walking in a long lope. Tall, skinny, green jacket, cap and all, though from behind she couldn’t tell what team was being championed on the headgear.
She skidded the ‘60s muscle car to a stop in a bus zone, tossed the NYPD official business placard on the dash and eased out of the car, minding the suicidal bicyclist who came within inches of contact. He glanced back, not in recrimination, but, she supposed, to get a better look at the tall, redheaded former fashion model, focus in her eyes and a weapon on her black-jeaned hip.
Onto the sidewalk, following a killer.
This was her first look at the prey. The gangly man moved in lengthy strides, feet long but narrow (in running shoes, she noted; good for sprinting over the damp April concrete—much better than her leather-soled boots). Part of her wished he was more wary—so he would look around and she could get a glimpse of his face. That was still an unknown. But, no, he just plodded along in that weird gait, his long arms at his side, backpack slung via one strap over his sloping shoulder.
She wondered if the murder weapon was inside: the ballpeen hammer, with its rounded end, meant for smoothing edges of metal and tapping rivets flat. That was the side he’d used for the murder, not the claw on the opposite end. The conclusion as to what had caved in Todd Williams’s skull came from a database that Lincoln Rhyme had created for the NYPD and Medical Examiner’s Office, the specific folder title: Weapon Impact on Human Bodies. Section Three: Blunt Force Trauma.
It was Rhyme’s own database but Sachs had been forced to do the analysis herself. Without Rhyme.
A thud in her gut at this thought. Forced herself to move past it.
Picturing the wounds again. Horrific, what the thirty-five-year-old Manhattanite had suffered, beaten to death and robbed as he approached an after-hours club named, so very meta, 40º North, a reference, Sachs had learned, to the latitude of the East Village, where it was located.
Now, Unsub Forty—the club was the source of the nic—was crossing the street, with the light. What an odd build. Well over six feet yet he couldn’t’ve weighed more than one forty or fifty.
Sachs saw his destination and alerted dispatch to tell her backup that the suspect now was entering a five-story shopping center on Henry. She plunged in after him.
With his shadow behind at a discreet distance Mr. Forty moved through the crowds of shoppers. People were always in a state of dynamics in this city, droves of people, all ages, sexes, colors, sizes. New York kept its own clock and, though it was after lunch hour, businesspeople who should be in the office and students who should be in school were here, spending money, eating, milling, browsing, texting and talking.
And complicating Amelia Sachs’s takedown plans considerably.
Forty headed up to the second floor. He continued walking purposefully through the brightly lit mall, which could have been in Paramus, Austin or Portland, it was that generic. The smells were of cooking oil and onions from the food court and perfume from the counters near the open entranceways of the anchor stores. She wondered for a moment what Forty was doing here, what did he want to buy?
Maybe purchasing wasn’t his plan at the moment; he walked into a Starbucks.
Sachs eased behind a pillar near the escalator, about twenty feet from the open entryway to the coffee franchise. Careful to remain out of sight. She needed to make sure he didn’t suspect there were eyes on him. He wasn’t presenting as if carrying—there’s a way people tend to walk when they have a gun in their pocket, as any street cop knows, a wariness, a stiffer gait—but that hardly meant he was pistol free. And if he tipped to her and started shooting? Carnage.
Glancing inside the shop quickly, she saw him reach down to the food section and pick up two sandwiches, then apparently order a drink. Or, possibly, two. He paid and stepped out of sight, waiting for his cappuccino or mocha. Something fancy. A filtered coffee would have been handed over right away.
Would he eat in or leave? Two sandwiches. Waiting for someone? Or one for now and one for later?
Sachs debated. Where was the best place to take him? Would it be better outside on the street or in the shop or the mall itself? Yes, the center and the Starbucks were crowded. But the street more so. No arrest solution was great.
A few minutes later he was still inside. His drink must have been ready by now and he’d made no effort to leave. He was having a late lunch, she supposed. But was he in fact meeting someone?
Making a complicated takedown even more so.
She got a call.
“Amelia, Lonnie Everett.”
“Hey,” she said softly to the patrolman out of the 84. They knew each other well.
“We’re outside. Me and Dodd. Another car with three.”
“He’s in Starbucks, second floor.”
It was then that she saw a delivery man wheel by with some cartons containing the Starbucks logo, the mermaid. Which meant there was no back entrance to the shop. Forty was trapped in a cul-de-sac. Yes, there were people inside, potential bystanders, but fewer than in the mall or on the street.
She said to Everett, “I want to take him here.”
“Inside, Amelia? Sure.” A pause. “That’s best?”
He’s not getting away, Sachs thought. “Yes. Get up here stat.”
A fast glance inside then back to cover. She still couldn’t see him. He must be sitting in the back of the place. She eased to the right and then moved closer to the open archway of the coffee shop. If she couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see her.
She and the team would flank—
Just then Sachs gasped at the abrupt, piercing scream close behind her. A horrid wail of a person in pain. So raw, so high, she couldn’t tell male or female.
The sound came from the top of the up escalator, connecting the floor below with this one.
Oh, Jesus. . . .
The top panel of the device, the one that riders stepped off the moving stairs onto, had popped open and a passenger had fallen into the interior of the machine.
“Help me! No! Please please please!” A man’s voice. Then the words coalesced into a scream once more.
Customers and employees gasped and cried out. Those on the steps of the malfunctioning unit, which were still moving up, leapt off or charged back down against the upward motion. The riders on the adjoining escalator, going down, jumped too, maybe thinking it was about to engulf them as well. Several landed in a heap on the floor.
Sachs glanced toward the coffee shop.
No sign of Forty. Had he seen her badge, on her belt, or weapon when he, like everyone else, turned to stare at the accident?
She called Everett and told him about the accident and to call it in to dispatch. Then to cover the exits; Unsub 40 might’ve seen her and was escaping. She sprinted to the escalator, noting somebody had pressed the emergency button. The stairs slowed and then halted.
“Make it stop, make it stop!” More screams from the person trapped inside.
Sachs stepped into the upper part of the platform and looked into the gaping hole. A middle-aged man was trapped in the gears of the motor, mounted to the floor about eight feet below the aluminum panel that had popped open. The motor continued to turn, despite shutting off the emergency switch; she supposed that the button merely disengaged a clutch to the moving stairs. The poor man was caught at the waist. He was on his side, flailing at the mechanism. The gears had dug deep into his body; blood had soaked his clothing and was flowing onto the floor of the escalator pit. He was about forty-five or fifty and wore a white shirt with a name badge on it, an employee of one of the stores probably.
Sachs, looking at the crowd. There were employees here, a few security people, but no one was doing anything to help. Stricken faces. Some were calling 911, it seemed, but most were taking cellphone pix and video.
She called down to him, “We’ve got rescue on the way. I’m NYPD. I’m coming down there.”
“God, it hurts!” More screaming. She felt the vibration in her chest.
That bleeding had to stop, she assessed. And you’re the only one going to do it. Just go.
She muscled open farther the hinged panel. Amelia Sachs wore little jewelry. But she slipped her one accessory—a ring with a blue stone—from her finger, afraid it would catch her hand in the gears. Though his body was jamming one set of them, a second—operating the down escalator—churned away. Ignoring her claustrophobia, but barely, Sachs started into the narrow pit. There was a ladder for workers to use—but it consisted of narrow metal bars, which were slick with the man’s blood; apparently he’d been slashed when he first tumbled inside by the sharp edge of the access panel. She gripped the hand and foot holds of the ladder hard; if she’d fallen it would have been right on top of the man and, nearby, the second set of grinding gears. Once, her feet went out from under her and her arm muscles cramped to keep her from falling. A booted foot brushed the working gears, which dug a trough in her boot and tugged at her jeans cuff. She yanked her leg away.
Then down to the floor. . . Hold on, hold on. Saying, or thinking, this to both him and herself.
The poor man’s screams weren’t diminishing.
“Please, oh God, oh God . . .”
She jockeyed carefully around the second set of gears, slipping twice on the blood. Once his leg lashed out involuntarily, caught her solidly on the hip and she fell forward toward the revolving teeth.
She managed to catch herself just before her face brushed the metal. Slipped again. Caught herself. “I’m a police officer,” she repeated. “Medics’ll be here any minute.”
“It’s bad, it’s bad. It hurts so much. Oh, so much.”
Lifting her head, she shouted, “Somebody from maintenance, somebody from management! Shut this damn thing off! Not the stairs, the motor! Cut the power!”
Where the hell’s the fire department? Sachs surveyed the injury. She had no idea what to do. She pulled her jacket off and pressed it against the shredded flesh of his belly and groin. It did little to stanch the blood.
“Ah, ah, ah,” he whimpered.
Looking for switches to turn, wires to cut—she carried her very sharp and very illegal switchblade knife in her back pocket—but there were no cables visible to slice. How can you make a machine like this and not have an off switch? Jesus. Furious at the incompetence.
“My wife,” the man whispered.
“Shhh,” Sachs soothed. “It’ll be all right.” Though she knew it wouldn’t be all right. His body was a bloody mass. Even if he survived, he’d never be the same.
“My wife. She’s . . . Will you go see her? My son. Tell them I love them.”
“You’re going to tell ‘em that yourself, Greg.” Reading the name badge.
“You’re a cop.” Gasping.
“That’s right. And there’ll be medics here—”
“Give me your gun.”
More screaming. Tears down his face.
“Please, give me your gun! How do I shoot it? Tell me!”
“I can’t do that, Greg,” she whispered. She put her hand on his arm. With her other palm she wiped sweat.
“It hurts so much. . . I can’t take it.” A scream louder than the others. “I want it to be over with!”
She had never seen such a hopeless look in anyone’s eyes.
“Please, for Christ Sake, your gun!”
Amelia Sachs reached down and drew her Glock from her belt.
# # #
Not good. Not good.
That tall redhead. Black jeans. Pretty face. And, oh, the red hair . . .
I’ve left her behind at the escalator and am moving through the crowds at the mall.
She didn’t know I’d seen her, I think, but I had. The scream of the man disappearing into the jaws of that machine had prodded everybody to look toward the sound. Not her, though. She was turning to look for me in the friendly Starbucks.
I saw the gun on her hip, the badge on her hip. Not private, not rental. A real cop. A Blue Bloods cop. She—
Well. What was that?
A gunshot. I’m not much on firearms but I’ve shot a pistol some. No doubt that was a handgun.
Puzzling. Yeah, yeah, was the police girl—Red I’m calling her, after the hair—planning to arrest somebody else? Hard to say. She could be after me for lots of the mischief I’ve been up to. Possibly the bodies I left in that sludgy pond near Newark some time ago, weighted down with barbells like the sort pudgy people buy, use six and a half times and never again. No word in the press about that incident but, well, it was New Jersey. Body-land, that place is. Another corpse? Not worth reporting; the Mets won by seven! So. Or she might be hunting for me for the run-in not long after that on a dim street in Manhattan, swish goes the throat. Or maybe that construction site behind club Forty Degrees, where I’d left such a pretty package of, once again, snapped head bone.
Did somebody recognize me at one of those places, cutting or cracking?
Could be. I’m, well, distinctive looking, height and weight.
I just assume it’s me she wants. I need to get away and that means keeping my head down, that means slouching. It’s easier to shrink three inches than grow.
But the shot? What was that about? Was she after someone even more dangerous than me? I’ll check the news later.
People are everywhere now, moving fast. Most are not looking at tall me, skinny me, me of the long feet and fingers. They just want out, fleeing the screams and gunshot. Stores are emptying, food court emptying. Afraid of terrorists, afraid of crazy men dressed in camo, stabbing, slashing, shooting up the world in anger or loose-wired brains. ISIS. Al-Qaeda. Militias. Everyone’s on edge.
I’m turning here, slipping through socks and underwear, men’s.
Henry Street, Exit Four, is right ahead of me. Should I get out that way?
Better pause. I take in a deep breath. Let’s not go too fast here. First, I should lose the green jacket and cap. Buy something new. I duck into a cheap store to pay cash for some China-made Italian blue blazer. Thirty five long, which is lucky. That size is hard to find. Hipster fedora hat. A Middle Eastern kid rings the sale up while texting. Rude. My desire is to crack a bone in his head. At least he’s not looking at me. That’s good. Put the old jacket in backpack, the green plaid one. The jacket is from my brother, so I’m not throwing it out. The sports cap goes inside too.
The Chinese Italian hipster goes back into mall. So, which way to escape? Henry Street?
No. Not smart. There’d be plenty of cops outside.
I’m looking around. Everywhere, everywhere. Ah, a service door. There’d be a loading dock, I’m sure.
I push through it the doorway like I belong here, knuckles not palm (prints, of course), past a sign saying Employees Only. Except not now.
Thinking: What lucky timing, the escalator, Red next to it when the screams began. Lucky me.
Head down, I keep walking steadily. Nobody stops me in the corridor.
Ah, here’s a cotton jacket on a peg. I unpin the employee name badge and repin on my chest. I’m now Courteous Team Member Mario. I don’t look much like a Mario but it’ll have to do.
Just now two workers, young men, one brown, one white, come through a door ahead of me. I nod at them. They nod back.
Hope one isn’t Mario. Or his best friend. If so, I’ll have to reach into backpack and crack bones from on high. I pass them.
Or not good: A voice shoots my way: “Yo?”
“Yeah?” I ask, hand near the hammer.
“What’s going on out there?”
“Robbery, I think. That jewelry store. Maybe.”
“Fuckers never had security there. I coulda told ‘em.”
His co-worker: “Only had cheap crap. Zircons, shit like that. Who’d get his ass shot for a zircon?”
I see a sign for Deliveries and dutifully follow the arrow.
I hear voices ahead, stop and look around corner. One little black guard, skinny as me, a twig, is all. I could break him easily with the hammer. Make his face crack into ten pieces. And then—
Oh, no. Why is life such a chore?
Two others show up. One white, one black. Both twice my weight.
I duck back. And then things get worse. Behind me, other end of corridor I’ve just come down. I hear more voices. Maybe it’s Red and some others, making a sweep this way.
And the only exit, ahead of me, has four rental cops, who live for the day they too have a chance to break bones . . . or Taze or spray.
Me, in the middle and nowhere to go.