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City of Endless Night
Read by Rene Auberjonois
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JACOB WALKED FAST, ahead of his little brother, hands stuffed into his pockets, breath flaring in the frosty December air. His brother, Ryan, was carrying the carton of eggs they’d just purchased at the nearby deli with money Jacob had stolen from his mom’s purse.
“First, because the old man is a total asshole,” Jacob said to his brother. “Second, because he’s a racist asshole. He yelled at the Nguyens and called them ‘slopes’—remember?”
“Third, because he cut in front of me at the C-Town checkout line and cussed me out when I said it wasn’t fair. You remember that, right?”
“Sure I do. But—”
“Fourth, he puts all those stupid political signs on his yard. And remember when he sprayed Foster with a watering hose just ’cause he cut across his yard?”
“But what?” Jacob turned around in the street and faced his younger brother.
“What if he has a gun?”
“He’s not going to shoot two kids! Anyway, we’ll be long gone before the crazy old turd even knows what’s happened.”
“He might be Mafia.”
“Mafia? With a name like Bascombe? Yeah, right! If he was Garguglio or Tartaglia we wouldn’t be doing this. He’s just some old fart-biter who needs to be taught a lesson.” He stared at Ryan with sudden suspicion. “You’re not gonna wimp out on me, are you?”
“Okay then. Let’s go.”
Jacob turned and walked down Eighty-Fourth Avenue, then turned right onto 122nd Street. Now he slowed and went onto the sidewalk, moving along easily, as if out for an evening stroll. The street was mostly single-family homes and duplexes, typical of the residential Queens neighborhood, and it was festooned with Christmas lights.
He slowed further. “Look at the old guy’s house,” he said to his brother. “Dark as a tomb. The only one with no lights. What a Grinch.”
The house was at the far end of the street. The streetlights shining through the leafless trees cast a spiderweb of shadows across the frozen ground.
“Okay, we stroll along like nothing’s happening. You open the carton, we unload a bunch of eggs on his car, then we beat it around the corner and just keep going.”
“He’ll know it was us.”
“Are you kidding? At night? Besides, all the kids in the neighborhood hate him. Most of the grown-ups, too. Everyone hates him.”
“What if he chases us?”
“That old geezer? He’d have a heart attack in seven seconds.” Jacob sniggered. “When those eggs hit his car, they are going to freeze, like, right away. He’ll have to wash it ten times, I’ll bet, just to get them off.”
Jacob approached the house along the sidewalk, moving cautiously now. He could see the blue glow in the picture window of the split-level ranch; Bascombe was watching TV.
“Car coming!” he said, in a whisper. They ducked behind some bushes as a vehicle turned the corner and came down the street, headlights sweeping along, illuminating everything. After it had passed, Jacob felt his heart pounding.
Ryan said, “Maybe we shouldn’t…”
“Shut up.” He emerged from behind the bushes. There was more light in the street than he would have liked, cast not only by the streetlamps but also by the Christmas decorations—illuminated Santas, reindeers, and crèche displays on the front lawns. At least Bascombe’s place was a little darker.
Now they approached very slowly, keeping to the shadows of the parked cars along the street. Bascombe’s car, a green ’71 Plymouth Fury that he waxed every Sunday, sat in the driveway, pulled up as far as possible. As Jacob moved along, he could see the faint figure of the old man sitting in a wing chair, looking at a giant-screen TV.
“Hold up. He’s right there. Pull your hat down. Put your hood up. And the scarf.”
They adjusted their outerwear until they were well covered, and waited in the darkness between the car and a large bush. The seconds ticked past.
“I’m cold,” Ryan complained.
Still they waited. Jacob didn’t want to do it while the old man was sitting in the chair; all he had to do was stand up and turn and he’d see them. They would have to wait for him to get up.
“We could be here all night.”
“Just shut up.”
And then the old geezer stood up. His bearded face and skinny figure were illuminated by the blue light as he walked past the TV and into the kitchen.
Jacob ran up to the car, Ryan following.
“Open that up!”
Ryan flipped open the carton of eggs and Jacob took one. Ryan took another, hesitating. Jacob threw his egg, which made a satisfying splat on the windshield, then another, and another. Ryan finally threw his. Six, seven, eight—they unloaded the carton on the windshield, the hood, the roof, the side, dropping a couple in their hurry—
“What the hell!” came a roar and Bascombe burst out of the side door, wielding a baseball bat, coming at them fast.
Jacob’s heart turned over in his chest. “Run!” he yelled.
Dropping the carton, Ryan turned and immediately slipped and fell on some ice.
“Shit!” Jacob turned, grabbed Ryan’s coat, and hauled him to his feet, but by now Bascombe was almost on top of them, the bat cocked.
They ran like hell down the driveway and into the street. Bascombe pursued, and to Jacob’s surprise he didn’t drop dead of a heart attack. He was unexpectedly fast, and he might even be gaining on them. Ryan began to whimper.
“You goddamn kids, I’ll bust your heads open!” Bascombe yelled behind them.
Jacob flew around the corner onto Hillside, past a couple of shuttered stores and a baseball diamond, Ryan following. Still the old bastard chased, screeching, with that baseball bat held high. But it seemed he was finally getting winded, dropping back a little. They turned onto another street. Up ahead Jacob could see the old shuttered automart, surrounded by a chain-link fence, where they were going to build apartments next spring. A while back, some kids had cut an opening in the fence. He dove for the opening, then crawled through, Ryan still following. Now Bascombe was really falling behind, still screeching threats.
Behind the automart was an industrial area with some dilapidated buildings. Jacob spied a nearby garage, with a peeling wooden door, and a broken window beside it. Bascombe was now out of sight. Maybe he gave up at the fence, but Jacob had a feeling the old fart was still following. They had to find a place to hide.
He tried the garage door; locked. Gingerly, he stuck his arm through the broken window, felt for the knob, turned it from the inside—and the door creaked open.
He went in, Ryan following, and carefully and quietly he shut the door and turned the bolt.
They stood there in the blackness, breathing hard, Jacob feeling like his lungs might burst, trying to stay silent.
“Dumb kids!” they heard shrilly, in the distance. “I’ll bust your balls!”
It was dark in the garage, which seemed empty except for some glass on the floor. Jacob crept forward, taking Ryan’s hand. They needed a place to hide, just in case old man Bascombe somehow thought of looking for them in here. It seemed the crazy old coot really would clobber them with that bat. As Jacob’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw a pile of leaves in the back—a large pile.
He pulled Ryan in that direction and he dug into the leaves, lying down on the soft surface and sweeping his hands around, piling the leaves over himself and his brother.
A minute passed. Another. No more shouting from Bascombe—all was silent. Gradually Jacob recovered both his breath and his confidence. After another few minutes he began to giggle. “The drooling old bastard, we got him good.”
Ryan said nothing.
“You see him? He was, like, chasing us in his pajamas. Maybe his dick froze and broke off.”
“You think he saw our faces?” Ryan asked in a quavering voice.
“With the hats, scarves, hoods? No way.” He sniggered again. “I’ll bet those eggs are frozen hard as a rock already.”
Finally Ryan allowed himself a little laugh. “Dumb kids, I’ll bust your balls!” he said, imitating the old man’s high, whistling voice and heavy Queens accent.
They both laughed as they began rising from the leaves, brushing them away. Then Jacob sniffed loudly. “You farted!”
“Did not! He who smelt it, dealt it!”
Jacob paused, still sniffing. “What is that?”
“That’s no fart. That’s…that’s gross.”
“You’re right. It’s like…I don’t know, rotten garbage or something.”
Jacob, disgusted, took a step back in the leaves and stumbled over something. He put out his hand and leaned against it to steady himself, only to find the leafy surface he’d been hidden against now yielded with a soft sigh, and the stench suddenly billowed over them, a hundred times worse than before. He jerked away and staggered back even as he heard Ryan say, “Look, there’s a hand…”
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER DETECTIVE Squad Vincent D’Agosta stood in the floodlights outside the garage in Kew Gardens, Queens, watching the Crime Scene Unit work. He was annoyed at being called out so late on the night before his day off. The body was reported at 11:38—just twenty-two more minutes and the call would’ve gone to Lieutenant Parkhurst.
He sighed. It was going to be messy, this one: a young woman, decapitated. He played around in his mind with possible tabloid headlines, something along the lines of HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR, the most famous headline in New York Post history.
Johnny Caruso, the head of the CSU, emerged from the glare, slipping his iPad into his bag.
“What you got?” D’Agosta asked.
“These damn leaves. I mean, try searching for hair, fiber, fingerprints, whatever in that mess. Like a needle in a haystack.”
“You think the perp knew that?”
“Nah. Unless he actually worked on an evidence collection team once. Just a coincidence.”
“None. The beheading didn’t take place here, either—no blood.”
“Cause of death?”
“Single shot to the heart. High-caliber, high-velocity round, went right through, back to front. Maybe some frags in the wound, but no round. And that didn’t happen here, either. Given the cold and so forth, best estimate is the body was dumped three days ago, maybe four.”
“No obvious signs of it so far, but we’ll have to wait for the M.E.’s examination of, you know, the various—”
“Right,” D’Agosta said quickly. “No ID, nothing?”
“None. No documents, empty pockets. Caucasian female, maybe five six—hard to say—early twenties, toned body, obviously fit. Wearing Dolce and Gabbana jeans. And see those crazy sneakers she’s wearing? Just looked ’em up on the web. Louboutin. Almost a thousand bucks.”
D’Agosta whistled. “Thousand-dollar sneakers? Holy shit.”
“Yeah. Rich white girl. Headless. You know what that means—right, Lieutenant?”
D’Agosta nodded. The media would be there any moment—and here they were, as if he’d conjured them out of his head: a Fox 5 van pulled up, then another, and then an Uber with none other than good old Bryce Harriman, the Post reporter, stepping out like he was Mr. Pulitzer himself.
“Christ.” D’Agosta murmured into his radio for the spokesperson, but Chang was already on it, at the police barricades, talking his usual smooth stuff.
Caruso ignored the rising chorus beyond the barricades. “We’re working on an ID, looking through the missing person databases, fingerprints, the whole nine yards.”
“I doubt you’ll get a match on her.”
“You never know, girl like that: cocaine, meth. She might even be a really high-end hooker—anything’s possible.”
D’Agosta nodded again. His feeling of disgruntlement began to ease. This was going to be a high-profile case. That could cut both ways, of course, but he never shied away from a challenge and he felt pretty sure this one would be a winner. If anything so awful could be called a winner. Decapitation: that meant it was some sick, twisted perp, easily caught. And if she was some rich family’s daughter, it would mean priority for the lab work, allowing him to cut ahead of all the piece-of-shit cases waiting in line for the notoriously slow NYPD forensic labs.
The Evidence Gathering Team, all gowned up like surgeons, continued to work, crouching here and there, humped up and shuffling about like oversize white monkeys, sifting through the leaves one by one, examining the concrete floor of the garage, going over the door handle and windows, lifting prints from the broken glass on the floor—all by the book. They looked good, and Caruso was the best. They, too, sensed this was going to be a big case. With all the recent lab scandals they were taking extra care. And the two kids who’d found the body had been questioned right on the scene before being released to their parents. No shortcuts on this one.
“Keep it up,” said D’Agosta, giving Caruso a pat on the shoulder as he stepped back.
The cold was starting to creep in, and D’Agosta decided to take a brisk turn along the chain-link fence that surrounded the old car yard, just to make sure they hadn’t missed any possible points of ingress. As he moved out of the illuminated area, there was still plenty of ambient light to see, but he flicked on his flashlight anyway and moved along, probing this way and that. Coming around a building toward the back of the yard, picking his way past a stack of cubed cars, he saw a crouching figure just inside the fence—inside. It was no cop or anyone on his team: the figure was dressed in a ridiculously puffy down jacket, with a hood way too large for his head that stuck out like a horizontal piece of stovepipe.
“Hey! You!” D’Agosta hustled toward the figure, one hand on the butt of his service piece, the other hand holding the flashlight. “Police officer! Stand up, hands in sight!”
The figure rose, hands raised, face completely obscured in the shadow of the fur-fringed hood, turning toward him. He could see nothing but two gleaming eyes in the blackness of the hood.
Creeped out, D’Agosta pulled his piece. “What the hell are you doing here? Didn’t you see the police tape? Identify yourself!”
“My dear Vincent, you may put away your weapon.”
D’Agosta recognized the voice immediately. He lowered the gun and holstered it. “Jesus, Pendergast, what the hell are you doing? You know you’re supposed to present your credentials before poking around.”
“If I must be here, why miss out on a dramatic entrance? And how fortunate it was you who happened upon me.”
“Yeah, right: lucky you. I might have busted a cap in your ass.”
“How dreadful: a cap in my ass. You continue to amaze me with your colorful expressions.”
They stood looking at each other for a moment, and then D’Agosta pulled off a glove and stuck out his hand. Pendergast slipped off his own black leather gloves and they shook, D’Agosta gripping his arm. The man’s hand was as cool as a piece of marble, but he pulled back his hood and exposed his pale face, white-blond hair slicked back, silver eyes unnaturally bright in the dim light.
“You say you have to be here?” D’Agosta asked. “You on assignment?”
“For my sins, yes. I’m afraid my stock in the Bureau has declined rather sharply for the moment. I am—what is that colorful term of yours?—temporarily in shit’s creek.”
“Up shit creek? Or do you mean you’re in deep shit?”
“That’s it. Deep shit. Without the paddle.”
D’Agosta shook his head. “Why are the feds involved in this?”
“A superior of mine, Executive Associate Director Longstreet, hypothesizes the body may have been brought here from New Jersey. Crossing state lines. He thinks organized crime could be involved.”
“Organized crime? We haven’t even collected the evidence. New Jersey? What’s this bullshit?”
“Yes, Vincent, I’m afraid it’s all fantasy. And for one purpose: I am being taught a lesson. But now I feel rather like Br’er Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch, because I have found you here, in charge. Just like when we first met, back at the Natural History Museum.”
D’Agosta grunted. While he was glad to see Pendergast, he was not at all glad the FBI was involved. And despite the uncharacteristically light banter—which felt forced—Pendergast didn’t look good…not at all. He was thin, almost skeletal, and his face was hollow, dark circles under his eyes.
“I realize this is not a welcome development,” Pendergast said. “I shall do my utmost to keep out of your way.”
“No problem, you know how it is with the NYPD and the FBI. Let me bring you over to the crime scene and introduce you around. You want to examine it yourself?”
“When the EGT is finished, I’d be delighted.”
Delighted. He didn’t sound delighted. He’d be even less so when he saw the three-day-old body without a head.
“Ingress and egress?” Pendergast asked as they walked back.
“Seems pretty evident. The guy had a key to the back gate, drove in, dumped the body, left.”
They arrived back at the area before the open garage and entered the glare of the light. The EGT was almost finished, packing up their stuff.
“Where did all the leaves come from?” Pendergast asked, without much interest.
“We think the body was hidden in the bed of a pickup truck under a big pile of leaves, tied down beneath a tarp. The tarp was left in a corner, leaves and body dumped against the back wall. We’re working on interviewing the neighbors, trying to determine if anyone saw a truck or car in here. No luck so far. There’s a lot of traffic in this area, day and night.”
D’Agosta introduced Special Agent Pendergast to his detectives and Caruso, none of whom made much effort to hide their displeasure at the arrival of the FBI. Pendergast’s appearance didn’t help any, looking like he’d just returned from an Antarctic expedition.
“Okay, clear,” said Caruso, not even looking at Pendergast.
D’Agosta followed Pendergast into the garage as he strolled over to the body. The leaves had been swept away and the body lay on its back, a very prominent exit wound between the collarbones, caused no doubt by an expanding, high-powered round. The heart was obliterated; death instantaneous. Even after years of investigating murders, D’Agosta was not so hardened as to find this comforting—little comfort of any kind could be found in the death of so young a person.
He stepped back to let Pendergast do his thing, but he was surprised to see the agent not going through his usual rigmarole, with the test tubes and tweezers and loupes appearing out of nowhere and interminable fussing around. Instead, Pendergast merely walked around the body, almost listlessly, examining it from different angles, cocking his long pale head. Two times around the body, then three. By the fourth round, he didn’t even try to conceal a look of boredom.
He came back up to D’Agosta.
“Anything?” D’Agosta asked.
“Vincent, this is truly punishment. Save for the beheading itself, I don’t see anything that would mark this homicide as in the slightest degree interesting.”
They stood side by side, gazing at the corpse. And then D’Agosta heard a slight intake of breath. Pendergast suddenly knelt; the loupe finally made an appearance; and he bent over to examine the concrete floor about two feet from the corpse.
“What is it?”
The special agent didn’t answer, scrutinizing the dirty patch of cement as studiously as if it were the Mona Lisa’s smile. Now he moved to the corpse itself and took out a pair of tweezers. Bending over the severed neck, his face less than an inch from the wound, he maneuvered his tweezers under the loupe, dug them into the neck—D’Agosta almost had to turn away—and stretched out what looked like a rubber band but was obviously a large vein. He snipped off a short piece and dropped it in a test tube, dug around some more, pulled out another vein, snipped and stored it, as well. And then he spent another several minutes examining the massive wound, the tweezers and test tubes in almost constant employment.
Finally he straightened up. The bored, distant look had faded somewhat.
“Vincent, it appears we have an authentic problem on our hands.”
“The head was severed from the body right here.” He pointed downward. “You see that tiny nick in the floor?”
“There are a lot of nicks in the floor.”
“Yes, but that one has a small fragment of tissue in it. Our killer took great pains in severing the head without leaving any sign, but it is difficult work and he slipped at one point and made that tiny nick.”
“So where’s the blood? I mean, if the head was cut off here, there’d be at least some blood.”
“Ah! There was no blood because the head was cut off many, many hours or perhaps even days after the victim was shot. She had already bled out elsewhere. Look at that wound!”
“After? How long after?”
“Judging from the retraction of those veins in the neck, I should say at least twenty-four hours.”
“You mean the killer came back and cut off the head twenty-four hours later?”
“Possibly. Or else we are dealing with two individuals—who may or may not be connected.”
“Two perps? What do you mean?”
“The first individual, who killed and dumped her; and the second…who found her and took her head.”
LIEUTENANT D’AGOSTA PAUSED at the front door of the mansion at 891 Riverside Drive. Unlike the buildings surrounding it, which were gaily hung with Christmas lights, the Pendergast mansion, although in fine shape given its age, was dark and seemingly abandoned. A weak winter sun struggled through a thin cloud cover, casting a watery morning light over the Hudson River, beyond the screen of trees along the West Side Highway. It was a cold, depressing winter’s day.
With a deep breath he walked under the porte cochere, stepped up to the front door, and knocked. The door was opened with surprising speed by Proctor, Pendergast’s mysterious chauffeur and general factotum. D’Agosta was a bit taken aback by how thin Proctor seemed to have grown since the last time he’d seen him: normally he was a robust, even massive, presence. But his face was as expressionless as usual, and his dress—a Lacoste shirt and dark slacks—characteristically casual for a man supposedly in service.
“Hello, ah, Mr. Proctor—” D’Agosta never knew quite how to address the man. “I’m here to see Agent Pendergast?”
“He’s in the library; follow me.”
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