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The Steel Kiss
Read by Edoardo Ballerini
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Amelia Sachs is hot on the trail of a killer. She’s chasing him through a department store in Brooklyn when an escalator malfunctions. The stairs give way, with one man horribly mangled by the gears. Sachs is forced to let her quarry escape as she jumps in to try to help save the victim. She and famed forensic detective Lincoln Rhyme soon learn, however, that the incident may not have been an accident at all, but the first in a series of intentional attacks. They find themselves up against one of their most formidable opponents ever: a brilliant killer who turns common products into murder weapons. As the body count threatens to grow, Sachs and Rhyme must race against the clock to unmask his identity–and discover his mission–before more people die.
Table of Contents
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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'd stood out in the crowd. 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 on to other investigations; Major Cases detectives have plenty to look after.
But an hour ago a patrolman 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 onto the dash and eased out of the car, minding the suicidal bicyclist who came within inches of collision. 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 sides, backpack slung via one strap over his sloping shoulder.
She wondered if the murder weapon was inside: the ball-peen 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 had come from a database that Lincoln Rhyme had created for the NYPD and the Medical Examiner's Office, the folder title: Weapon Impact on Human Bodies. Section Three: Blunt Force Trauma.
It was Rhyme's 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 twenty-nine-year-old Manhattanite had suffered, beaten to death and robbed as he approached an after-hours club named, so very meta, 40 Degrees North, a reference, Sachs had learned, to the latitude of the East Village, where it was located.
Now Unsub 40—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 140 or 150.
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 motion, like humming atoms, 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 have been in the office and students, in school, were here, spending money, eating, milling, browsing, texting and talking.
And complicating Amelia Sachs's take-down 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 40 was doing here, what did he want to buy?
Maybe shopping wasn't his plan at the moment, just sustenance; 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 waistband or 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, in the shop or in 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 meeting someone?
Making a complicated take-down even more so.
She got a call.
"Amelia, Buddy 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 deliveryman wheel by with some cartons emblazoned with 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 rear 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.
The top panel of the device, which riders stepped onto from the moving stairs, had popped open and a passenger had fallen into the moving works.
"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 backward. 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 40. Had he seen her badge, on her belt, or weapon when he, like everyone else, turned to stare?
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 now be 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—around forty-five or fifty—was trapped in the gears of the motor, which was mounted to the floor about eight feet below the aluminum panel that had popped open. The motor continued to turn, despite someone's hitting the emergency switch; she supposed that doing so 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 wore a white shirt with a name badge on it, an employee of one of the stores probably.
Sachs looked 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 cell phone pics 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 who's going to do it. So move!
She muscled the hinged panel farther open. 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 footholds of the ladder hard; if she'd fallen she'd land on top of the man and, directly beside him, 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 the heel and tugged at her jean 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. His ashen face was a knot, skin shiny with sweat.
"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 stop 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 wires to cut—she carried her very illegal but very sharp switchblade knife in her back pocket—but there were no visible cables. 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 mess. 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 the pouring sweat from his face.
"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 Chrissake, your gun!"
Amelia Sachs hesitated, then reached down and drew her Glock from her belt.
Not good. Not good.
That tall woman. 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. Oh, yeah. Seen her nice and clear. 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, something's weird. 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 40°, where I 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. Better safe… 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 thanks to 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 my 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 leaves the store and goes back into the mall. So, which way to escape? Henry Street?
No. Not smart. There'll be plenty of cops outside.
I'm looking around. Everywhere, everywhere. Ah, a service door. There'll be a loading dock, I'm sure.
I push through 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 the shiny rectangle 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 my backpack and we know what that means: cracking 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 the corner. One little black guard, skinny as me, a twig, is all. On his radio. 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 yet. Behind me, other end of the 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 three rental cops, who live for the day they too have a chance to break bones… or Tase or spray.
Me, in the middle and nowhere to go.
"Still searching, Amelia," Buddy Everett, the patrolman from the 84, told her. "Six teams. Exits're all covered, us or private security. He's got to be here somewhere."
Wiping away the blood on her boot with a Starbucks napkin. Or trying to, futilely. Her jacket, in a trash bag she'd gotten from the coffee shop too, might not be irreparably ruined but she wasn't inclined to wear a garment that had been saturated with blood. The young patrolman noted the stains on her hands, his eyes troubled. Cops are, of course, human too. Immunity comes eventually but later to some than others, and Buddy Everett was young still.
Through red-framed glasses, he looked at the open access panel. "And he…?"
"He didn't make it."
A nod. Eyes now on the floor, Sachs's bloody boot prints leading away from the escalator.
"No idea which direction he went?" he asked.
"None." She sighed. Only a few minutes had elapsed between the time that Unsub 40 might have seen her and fled, and the deployment of the backup officers. But that seemed to be enough to turn him invisible. "All right. I'll be searching with you."
"They'll need help in the basement. It's a warren down there."
"Sure. But get bodies canvassing in the street too. If he saw me he had a window to get the hell out of Dodge ASAP."
The youthful officer with the glasses the shade of cooling blood nodded and headed off.
"Detective?" A man's voice from behind her.
She turned to a compact Latino of about fifty, in a striped navy-blue suit and yellow shirt. His tie was spotless white. Don't see that combo often.
She shook his hand. He was surveying her with dark eyes, lids low. Seductive but not sexual; captivating in the way powerful men—some women too—were.
Madino would be from the 84th Precinct and would have nothing to do with the Unsub 40 case, which was on the Major Cases roster. He was here because of the accident, though the police would probably step out pretty soon, unless there was a finding that there had been criminal negligence in the maintenance of the escalator, which rarely happened. But it still would be Madino's boys and girls who ran the scene.
"What happened?" he asked her.
"Fire department could tell you better than I could. I was moving on a homicide suspect. All I know is the escalator malfunctioned somehow and a male, middle-aged, fell into the gears. I got to him, tried to stop the bleeding but there wasn't much to do. He hung in there for a while. But ended up DCDS."
Deceased, confirmed dead at scene.
"Somebody hit it but that only shuts the stairs off, not the main motor. The gears keep going. Got him around the groin and belly."
"Man." The captain's lips tightened. He stepped forward to look down into the pit. Madino gave no reaction. He gripped his white tie to make sure it didn't swing forward and get soiled on the railing. Blood had made its way up there too. Unemotional, he turned back to Sachs. "You were down there?"
"Must have been tough." The sympathy in his eyes seemed genuine. "Tell me about the weapons discharge."
"The motor," Sachs explained. "There was no cutoff switch that I could find. No wires to cut. I couldn't leave him to find it or climb to the top to tell somebody to kill the juice; I was putting pressure on the wounds. So I parked a round in the coil of the motor itself. Stopped it from cutting him in half. But he was pretty much gone by then. Lost eighty percent of his blood, the EMT said."
Madino was nodding. "That was a good try, Detective."
"Not much else you could do." He looked back to the open access panel. "We'll have to convene a Shooting Team but, on this scenario, it'll be a formality. Nothing to worry about."
"Appreciate that, Captain."
Despite what one sees on screens large and small, a police officer's firing a weapon is a rare and consequential occurrence. A gun can be discharged only in the event the officer believes his or her life or that of a bystander is endangered or when an armed felon flees. And force can be used only to kill, not wound. A Glock may not be used like a wrench to shut off renegade machinery.
In the event of a shooting by a cop, on or off duty, a supervisor from the precinct where it happened comes to the scene to secure and inspect the officer's weapon. He then convenes the Patrol Borough Shooting Team—which has to be run by a captain. Since there was no death or injury resulting from the shot, Sachs didn't need to submit to an Intoxilizer test or go on administrative leave for the mandatory three days. And, in the absence of malfeasance, she wasn't required to surrender her weapon. Just offer it to the supervisor to inspect and note the serial number.
She did this now: deftly dropped the magazine and ejected the chambered round, then collected it from the floor. She offered the weapon to him. He wrote down the serial. Handed the pistol back.
She added, "I'll do the Firearms Discharge/Assault Report."
"No hurry, Detective. It takes a while to convene the team, and it looks like you've got some other tasks on your plate." Madino was looking down into the pit once more. "God bless you, Detective. Not a lot of people would've gone down there."
Sachs rechambered the ejected round. Officers from the 84 had cordoned off both of these escalators, so she turned and hurried toward the elevators on her way to the basement, where she'd help search for Unsub 40. But she paused when Buddy Everett approached.
"He's gone, Amelia. Out of the building." His dark-red frames both enhanced and jarred.
"We had people there, I thought. Rent-a-cops if not ours."
"He called, the unsub, he shouted from around the corner near the dock, said the perp was in a storage area. Bring their cuffs, Mace or whatever. You know rentals? They love a chance to play real cop. Everybody went running to the storeroom. He strolled right out. Video shows him—new jacket, dark sport coat, fedora—climbing down the dock ladder and running through the truck parking zone."
"Narrow-focus camera. No idea."
She shrugged. "Subways? Buses?"
"Nothing on CCTV. Probably walked or took a cab."
To one of the eighty-five million places he might go.
"Dark jacket, you said? Sport coat?"
"We canvassed the shops. But nobody saw anybody with his build buy anything. Don't have his face."
"Think we can get prints from the ladder? At the dock?"
"Oh, the vid shows he put gloves on before he climbed down."
Smart. This boy is smart.
"One thing. He was carrying his cup and what seemed like some food wrappers. We looked but he didn't drop 'em that we could find."
"I'll get an ECT on it."
"Hey, how'd it go with Captain White Tie? Oh, did I say that?"
She smiled. "If you said it I didn't hear it."
"He's already planning how to redecorate his office in the governor's mansion."
Explained the posh outfit. Brass with aspirations. Good to have on your side.
God bless you…
"Fine. Looks like he's backing me up on the weapons issue."
"He's a decent guy. Just promise you'll vote for him."
"Keep up the canvass," Sachs told him.
Sachs was approached by an inspector with the fire department and gave a statement on the escalator accident. Twenty minutes later the Evidence Collection Team assigned to the Unsub 40 case arrived from the NYPD's massive Crime Scene complex in Queens. She greeted them, two thirty-ish African American techs, man and woman, she worked with from time to time. They wheeled heavy suitcases toward the escalator.
"Uh-uh," Sachs told them. "That was an accident. The Department of Investigations'll be coordinating with the Eight-Four. I need you to walk the grid at Starbucks."
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