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Read by Robert Petkoff
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An ISIS-style beheading of a journalist, carried out by a New York City group pledging fealty to that rogue state, becomes more than just another case for NYPD Captain Nikki Heat when the killers announce their next target: her husband, magazine writer Jameson Rook. Meanwhile, Heat is haunted by a fleeting glimpse of someone she swears is her mother… a woman who has been dead for nearly twenty years.
Reykjavík. The mere word sent shivers of ecstasy down Nikki Heat’s spine.
Reykjavík. It was like a sumptuous gourmet meal, a fragrant bubble bath, and a shot of top-shelf tequila, joined in a way that the delights of each amplified the others.
Reykjavík. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and … Well, there was more loud than soft when it came to the very best parts of Reykjavík.
Yes, Reykjavík. To the uninformed—which included the entire world’s population, save for one incredible man—it was the capital and main fishing port of the island nation of Iceland, a lonely chunk of volcanic rock in the North Atlantic, just south of the Arctic Circle.
To Heat, it was something else entirely. Something far less lonely and far more inviting.
Reykjavík was what her husband, the ruggedly handsome and world-famous magazine writer Jameson Rook, called where he had taken her on their honeymoon. He had chosen the name in the same spirit as the island’s original Norse settlers, who dubbed their green, temperate new home Snæland—literally “snow land”—to deter Viking pillagers.
Rook wasn’t looking to throw off the Vikings, of course. He was more concerned with Us Weekly and the gossip column of the New York Ledger, publications whose journalistic sensibilities often brought to mind plundering seafaring warriors.
To be clear, Reykjavík wasn’t really Reykjavík, and it wasn’t just one place. The newlyweds’ Reykjavík turned out to be located on three different continents, in major cities and small towns, in the tropics and on the tundra.
Taken collectively, their tour of the various destinations had been like Around the World in Eighty Days, albeit not as lengthy. Jules Verne didn’t have to contend with the New York Police Department’s vacation policy. Then again, he also didn’t have access to a rich friend’s private jet, as Rook did.
Without having to bother with the inconveniences of commercial air travel, Rook had been able to show her the best of the hidden off-the-beaten-path gems he had discovered during his days as a foreign correspondent—every secret beach, locals-only restaurant, and little-known treasure you couldn’t learn about in the guidebooks.
They had relished leisurely wine-and-cheese picnics in the Alps, laughing about nothing and everything, with the Jungfraujoch smiling down on them. They had sunbathed in the nude on the Amalfi Coast, safe in the knowledge that Rook knew spots the paparazzi didn’t. They had meditated in a Tibetan pagoda, achieving an inner peace that was impossible to find when they were enjoined in the hectic pace of their daily lives.
And they had made love. Oh, how they made love. Heat was astonished at Rook’s stamina and creativity, at how even now, years into their relationship, he had found new and inventive ways to take her to ever-greater heights, elevations of bliss that made the mighty Himalayas seem like lowly foothills. She had discovered a few new tricks for pleasing him as well. The phrase “let’s go to Reykjavík”—or any of its various derivations—had taken on special meaning.
Suffice it to say the real Reykjavík was known for its unusual tectonic activity—and so was their version of it.
Heat hadn’t thought getting married would change anything fundamental about their union. She thought they would throw a big party, take a nice trip, and things would continue more or less as they always had.
But Captain Nikki Heat, whose instincts as a detective were seldom wrong, had turned out to be mistaken in that assumption about her personal life. Getting married had lowered the last barriers between them, allowing for an intimacy like she had never experienced before. Heat had thought she was in love with Rook before their wedding. She recognized that was just a prolonged crush compared to what she felt now.
And if she sighed as she lay in bed and thumbed through pictures of their honeymoon, on an early Tuesday morning in October—more than a year since they had returned from Reykjavík—it was not because she was again thinking about her husband’s magnificent ass. It was because the man who had made her the happiest woman on the planet was not around for a prework quickie.
Rook had been away on assignment since Sunday. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner was writing a profile for First Press about Legs Kline, the billionaire businessman turned unexpected independent contender for the US presidency. Kline had seized on the general dissatisfaction with the main party candidates—the Democratic nominee, Senator Lindsy Gardner, was a librarian turned politician who was said to be too nice to be president; the Republican pick, Caleb Brown, was a take-no-prisoners lawmaker who was said to be too mean—and turned it into real momentum toward the White House.
Who is Legs Kline, really? That had been the question on the lips of the electorate ever since. Jameson Rook was the one journalist America trusted for a straight answer.
And now that the election was just three weeks off, the clock was ticking. Rook had been working day and night on the profile, to the detriment of Heat’s love life. He had checked in the previous night from somewhere in the Midwest, where he had been visiting a Kline Industries fracking operation. Next it would be a smelting plant on the shores of Lake Erie and then a logging camp in the Rockies … or was it a liquid natural gas operation on the Gulf Coast?
She couldn’t keep track. Rook had been vague about when he would return. All she knew was he would finish his tour of the Kline Industries facilities, then join the candidate on the campaign trail in the hopes of scoring a one-on-one interview. And that might take a while.
Just as she was about to let out another wistful sigh, her smart-phone rang. She grabbed it off the nightstand where she kept it, its ringer always turned on high so it would awaken her from even the deepest sleep.
“Captain.” It was the voice of Miguel Ochoa, the co-leader of her detective squad. “We got something at the precinct you really need to see. How soon can you be in?”
“On my way,” Heat said, already swinging her feet to the floor.
“Is Rook with you?”
“Where is he?”
“I have no idea. Bismarck maybe.”
“That’s … Montana, right?”
“North Dakota, genius.”
“Okay. Good enough.”
She was about to hang up, but Ochoa added, “By the way, you eaten breakfast yet?”
“Good. Keep it that way.”
* * *
The New York Police Department’s Twentieth Precinct was not much to look at, unless you found visual splendor in unfinished paperwork, careworn steel office furniture, and time-stained carpeting.
Still, Nikki Heat loved it. She loved the way the way it hummed when there was a big case. She loved that so many of the people there had the brains and drive to pursue far more lucrative work but had chosen to protect and serve the people of New York City instead. She even loved the smell: all Old Spice, stale coffee, and determination.
The Two-Oh had been Nikki Heat’s work home since she was a rookie so fresh out of the academy the ink on her diploma was still damp.
No one had given her much of a chance to survive more than a year or two back then. She wasn’t some working-class kid who had spent her youth toughening herself on asphalt and glass shards, like so many of the rest of them. Everything about her—from her lack of bridge-and-tunnel accent to her flawless posture—screamed refinement. And police work wasn’t refined.
In truth, the only reason her fellow officers paid her any attention at first was because it was rare to see a fashion-model-gorgeous brunette in a beat cop’s uniform.
But they soon learned not to underestimate Nikki Heat. She quickly aced her sergeant’s exam, and that was only the start. Heat was smart, hardworking, and devoted, a combination that earned her a spot as one of the NYPD’s youngest detectives. Before long, she was a squad leader and a lieutenant.
Her latest promotion—one she had actually resisted for a time, so repulsed was she by bureaucracy—was to captain. And her experience over the past year with said bureaucracy made her hope her career would stay stalled where it was.
Ultimately, it was police work, not paperwork, which gave her satisfaction. As her management responsibilities grew—and, at times, threatened to overwhelm her—the only thing that continued to make her job worthwhile was that she was able to keep both feet in her precinct’s investigations.
Which was why she made quick work of her trip to the precinct and then to the bull pen, where she found her detectives already assembled around a computer screen.
Sean Raley, the other detective squad co-leader, was the one in front of the keyboard. Ochoa was right behind him. Also on hand were detectives Daniel Rhymer and Randall Feller, who had helped Heat crack some of her biggest cases, and Detective Inez Aguinaldo, still considered the new kid even though she had a few years and some prominent investigations under her belt.
“What you got, Roach?” Heat asked, using the mash-up nickname for Raley and Ochoa.
“Some sick shit,” Ochoa said. He turned to Raley. “You tell her, homes. I’m not sure I got the stomach for it.”
“This video was sent to the precinct’s main e-mail address earlier this morning,” Raley said. “It was routed through an untraceable IP address. I’ve already spent a half hour trying to crack it and I can already tell I’m not going to get anywhere. Whoever did this must have learned their trade from the kiddie-porn guys. They’re that good.”
“Does the account have a name on it?” Heat asked.
“Yeah,” Raley said. “It shows up as ‘American ISIS.’”
Heat took a beat to absorb that information. She had been in numerous meetings where the NYPD’s counterterrorism experts had warned about the threat from the Islamic State and the wannabe wackos who might claim to be its adherents. She had also been in meetings with Muslim clerics, teachers, and business leaders, who repeatedly reminded the NYPD brass that ISIS’s version of Islam was a narrow-minded and deranged perversion of the religion as it was practiced by 1.5 billion peaceful people around the planet.
“Okay, let’s see it,” Heat said.
“I have to warn you, it’s pretty graphic,” Raley said.
Heat, who had solved crimes in which the victims had been found in every conceivable condition and at a wide range of temperatures—from frozen in suitcases to baked in pizza ovens—fixed Raley with a you-gotta-be-kidding-me glare.
“Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said, bringing his hands up for a second, then returning his finger to the mouse button and giving it a click. “Here goes.”
The video was grainy and low-quality, the kind that didn’t seem to belong in an era when most people had eight megapixels on the phones in their pockets. It showed two men standing in a large open room, whose only structures were occasional support poles on a floor covered in prayer rugs.
The men had masks on their faces and sunglasses over their eyes. Every inch of their skin was covered. They wore sand-colored thobes on their bodies and turbans on their heads. Their hands were gloved.
Kneeling in front of them was a woman—a young woman, with a shapely, slender body. She was wearing jeans and a zip-up sweatshirt. Her head had been covered by a burlap bag with a black stripe running down one side. A few strands of blond hair protruded from the bag. Her hands had been bound behind her and may have been hog-tied to a similar binding on her ankles. Another rope was tied around her chest. It didn’t seem like she could move.
The men seemed to be looking at someone just to the left of the camera, who must have nodded or given some kind of cue, instructing one of the men to begin speaking.
“We come to you in the name of Allah, the Real Truth, the Hearer, the Seer, the Benefactor, who the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, has declared to be the One and Only God,” the man on the left said. “We proclaim our loyalty to the Islamic State and to the caliphate founded by the great and visionary Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And we proclaim our fealty to Allah. May all we do please Him and serve Him.”
“Allahu akbar,” said the man on the right, who was holding something behind his back.
The men’s voices had been distorted so they sounded muddled and mechanical, like Darth Vader at the bottom of a well.
“The devil United States of America and its devil military has attacked our lands and ourpeople for many years, waging a modern-day crusade against our blessed religion and against all who exalt Almighty Allah,” the one on the left said. “We have suffered under the imperialist thumb of the Yankee scum for too long. We have suffered as you rape our lands in your insatiable thirst for our oil. And today we say: no more!”
“Allahu akbar,” the one on the right said.
“Now we are continuing the work of the great leader, Osama bin Laden, who first taught us we must take the fight to the enemy,” the man on the left said. “We have joined the jihad that he declared but left unfinished when he was martyred at the hands of the pig enemy. And so we return to the place of his greatest triumph, here in the sin-blackened heart of America.”
“Allahu akbar,” the one on the right said again.
“There is no greater symbol of your ignorance than your lying puppet media, which only exists to spread the distorted propaganda of your Zionist government,” the man on the left said. “And there is no greater sin than the way your people allow your women to shamefully expose their bodies and flaunt that which ought to be seen only by their husbands. And so we have chosen to execute this infidel female journalist with one mighty stroke.”
He gripped the rope that had been tied around the woman’s chest, lest she get any last-second notions about trying to roll out of the way.
“Allahu akbar,” the man on the right said, before bringing a gleaming machete from behind his back, where he had been hiding it.
He held it high, brandishing it for a moment, then swung it with brutal force into the woman’s neck.
Heat took in a sharp breath as the blade plunged into the woman’s skin with a wet, meaty sound. The blow had been vicious—it just didn’t have quite enough force behind it. The human neck is thick with muscles, bone, and sinew. It has been designed through millions of years of evolution to keep the neck firmly connected to the rest of the body, and it is not so easily severed.
The “one mighty stroke” turned into a series of desperate hacks, then eventually to a clumsy sawing motion. The victim surely would have slumped were it not for the masked man holding her up from behind. And she surely would have screamed, except her vocal cords had already been severed.
Instead, the man on the right just kept sawing in eerie silence, like he was attacking a particularly stubborn piece of brush with a branch saw, until the woman’s head toppled off her neck. Heat watched in horror as it landed with a thunk on the carpeted floor, then rolled out of sight of the camera’s lens.
At that moment, Heat thought nothing could be more shocking. Then the man on the left spoke again.
“This is only the beginning,” he said. “We will soon seize another one of your journalists. It will be one of your most beloved writers, a man who represents the worst of your imperialist decadence.
“May it please Allah: our next victim will be Jameson Rook.”
Every detective in the bull pen was now staring at their captain. Heat stood there, hoping her face didn’t betray the heart-pounding turmoil the rest of her had suddenly been plunged into.
Jameson Rook. Did that masked lunatic really just say her husband’s name?
She suddenly couldn’t control her breathing. Heat had accepted that her own job came with its share of risk, and that some of that danger had a tendency to spill into Rook’s life. Likewise, she had accepted that Rook’s public profile made him a target for certain unsavory elements.
But normally that meant blind items on the gossip column and idiotic tweets from Internet trolls. Not machete-bearing masked terrorists.
This was beyond anything she had prepared herself for emotionally. It went to something she had learned from those counterterrorism briefings: ISIS didn’t play by the same rules as everyone else. They didn’t play by any rules at all. They turned women into sex slaves. They destroyed timeless masterworks of art. They burned captives alive. They had no concept of human dignity. They had no respect for human life. All they knew was brutality, violence, and destruction.
These men—and there had to be at least three, since there was someone behind that camera—would do whatever it took to get their hands on Rook, even if it meant martyring themselves. Especially if it meant martyring themselves. They wouldn’t stop until Rook’s head was the one bouncing on the floor.
Subconsciously, she brought her hand to her neck. People who study such things could have told her it was a classic gesture that signified feelings of vulnerability. The moment she realized she was doing it, she lowered her hand.
“That’s why I asked where Rook was,” Ochoa said quietly. “I figured he’d be safe enough in Montana.”
“North Dakota,” Heat said distractedly.
“Whatever,” Ochoa replied. “Don’t worry, Captain. These guys can’t get at him there. I don’t think they even know North Dakota exists.”
The other detectives weren’t saying a word. They were all just looking at her, seeing how she’d react to the crisis. Ever since she became captain, Heat felt her life had been a series of tests. And she was not only taking them on her own behalf. She was taking them for her entire gender.
She was the first female captain in the history of the Twentieth Precinct. Some of the men who had come before her had been highly competent commanders who represented the best of what the shield was all about. Others had been careerist fools who had stumbled into the top spot by some combination of luck and the Peter Principle.
Heat knew she was being judged by a different standard. Maybe it shouldn’t have been that way, there in the second decade of the twenty-first century. But Heat didn’t confuse what should be with what was.
At that moment, her detectives were wondering: Would the boss keep her cool, assess the situation, and set the squad into action? Like a man. Or would she freak out and give in to her emotions? Like a girl.
Heat blinked twice. Then she got her priorities straight. She could worry about the case in a moment. Her husband’s life came first.
“I have to make a phone call,” was all she could say. Then she stumbled into her office and closed the door.
Her hands were shaking as she pressed the button to speed-dial Rook.
“Come on,” she whispered fervently as the call connected. “Pick up.”
There was no ring. The call went straight to voice mail.
“You’ve reached the personal mobile phone of Jameson Rook,” her husband’s smooth, sexy voice said. “Press one if you want to leave a message for my first Pulitzer Prize. Press two if—”
Heat jabbed her phone’s pound button to shortcut directly to the leaving-a-message part, then waited what felt like an eternity for the beep to finish. Yet when it was through, signaling that she could begin talking, she realized she didn’t even know what she wanted to say. Her mind had been racing too quickly to formulate anything coherent.
“Hey, it’s me,” she said, her voice sounding unusually tremulous and uncertain. “Look, it’s really important. You have to call me as soon as you get this, okay? Like, immediately.”
Heat let that linger for a second. It wasn’t good enough. She had to impress upon him the danger he was in.
“If you don’t get me for some reason, go directly to the police station in whatever city you’re in. Tell them you need protection because there’s been … there’s been a credible threat against your life. And if you can’t get to the police, at least find someone with a gun who can watch your back, and … Look, just call me, okay? I love you.”
She ended the call and sagged against the wall. Then she turned and saw the blinds to her office were open. The entire squad could see her.
Very deliberately, she took a deep breath. Then another. She looked down at her blouse, which was crisply ironed and still tucked neatly into the flat waistband of her slacks. She brought her chin up and straightened her spine.
Then she opened the door of her office and returned to the bull pen.
“Play that video again,” she said.
“Cap,” Raley begin, “you sure you want to—”
“Play the fucking video, Rales,” Heat said.
Time froze for a second. Nikki Heat almost never swore, and everyone in the precinct knew it. She fixed her detectives with a steely gaze and addressed them in a raised voice that had rediscovered its resolve.
“Let’s not allow the sensationalism of this video to distract us,” she said. “This is a murder investigation, people. Murder investigations are what we do here.”
She pointed at the screen. “That video is our first piece of evidence. It’s also the killers’ first mistake. And I’m sure they’ve made others. I don’t care about untraceable IP addresses. That video is laying down all the bread crumbs we need. We’re going to follow the trail straight to those scumbags, and then we’re going to put them away. Because that’s what we do to bad guys here in the Two-Oh.”
“Hell yeah,” Feller hooted.
“We’ll get ’em, Cap,” Rhymer said.
Roach and Aguinaldo were nodding approvingly.
The video had knocked Heat off balance. But not for long. She had her legs back underneath her and her team assembled around her. And it was a group of detectives who were as good as any in the NYPD.
Those ISIS lunatics thought they were going to get Nikki Heat’s husband.
Not if she got them first.
* * *
They watched the video again, this time with what Heat liked to call “beginner’s eyes.”
It was a way of thinking as much as it was a way of looking at evidence. Heat had long ago observed that veteran detectives often became jaded. Thinking they had seen it all before, they trusted in their experience to solve the crime and overlooked some of the small details that a nervous beginner, who made sure to take in everything, did not.
Heat put on her best beginner’s eyes. She noticed the body language of the victim, who hadn’t begged for her life—too proud. She noted that the man with the machete had swung the weapon with his left hand, making him unusual in Arab culture, which considered the left hand unclean and forced children to use their right. She saw the way the men on camera kept looking at someone off camera, probably the person who was in charge.
When the video ended, Heat instructed Raley to pause it, freezing the frame just before the screen went dark. The threat against Rook was now a thing she had put in its own box. Compartmentalizing was often the only way a cop could keep doing her job, and Nikki Heat was one of the best at it.
“Okay, first we need to identify our victim,” Heat said. “We know she’s a journalist, but New York City has a lot of those.”
“Too many,” Ochoa said, then immediately buttoned his mouth when Heat glared at him.
“Rales, can you give me an estimate of the victim’s height?” Heat asked.
Raley, who wasn’t known as the king of all surveillance media for nothing, said, “Way ahead of you.”
He pointed toward the ceiling depicted in the video. It was white corkboard, with recessed florescent lighting fixtures. “Standard commercial florescent light bulbs are forty-eight inches long. All I had to do was take that known factor and use it to extrapolate the height of the victim. It got a little tricky, because the victim is kneeling. But assuming normal thigh-to-calf ratio, she is between five foot eight and five foot ten.”
“Good work,” Heat said.
She turned to Detective Feller, a streetwise city native, and said, “Head over to Missing Persons and see if anyone has recently called in a report about a white female under age forty, approximately five-nine. Start in the five boroughs but then go to the suburbs. Not many people on a journalist’s salary can afford to live here. Look at Maplewood, Montclair, Poughkeepsie. You get the idea. Weed out the homeless, the runaways, and the drug addicts, and see if there’s anyone left.”
“Got it,” Feller said.
- On Sale
- Oct 25, 2016
- Hachette Audio