Authors: John Lutz
|The Night Watcher|
Set in post 9/11 Manhattan, Lutz's gritty psychological thriller finds
NYPD homicide detectives Rica Lopez and Ben Stack on the hunt for a
vengeful serial killer whose modus operandi includes binding and burning
his prey in their high-rise co-ops. The only clue they have to go on is
that the Torcher has an apparent penchant for wealthy victims, so they
start at square one and investigate all of the known arsonists in the
city. In the end, Rica and Stack prove to be no match for the Torcher,
who manages to stay several steps ahead of them until the very end, but
their lack of leads doesn't make this book any less compelling. Lutz's
details concerning police procedure, fire-fighting techniques and FDNY
policy ring true, and his clever use of flashbacks draws the reader deep
into the killer's troubled psyche. The novel's primary weaknesses
include the tenuous romantic link between Ben and Rica, frequent
point-of-view shifts and an overwhelming parade of possible suspects
ranging from an avaricious real-estate magnate and her aging male escort
to a lesbian mayoral campaign manager. Unlike many authors in the
genre, however, Lutz manages to present a fully realized villain who
simultaneously inspires the reader's sympathy and revulsion.
Kreiger couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t talk. He was lying on his back on the kitchen floor, his arms behind him.
Somebody had slapped him as he entered the kitchen, he realized, then tied him up. Tight!
He heard something…a slight noise above. Somebody was here with him.
Terror struck him and made his eyes bulge. His chest heaved, his heels hammered. Very cold liquid—gasoline!—splashed over his body.
When he opened his eyes he saw something dark mushroom above him. An umbrella! And then light, impossibly bright, and exquisite pain.
The scream echoing inside his skull carried him like a dark bird into death.
The Torcher backed from the kitchen. As always there would be no fingerprints. The flames were high. Though the sprinkler system sprayed water, Kreiger lay under the umbrella, burning steadily.
Everything was as planned.
The Torcher took the elevator downstairs, walked slowly through the lobby, and went out.
Into the dark. Alone. Smiling.
Kensington Publishing Corp.
When you walk through the fire you will not be burned, The flames will not set you ablaze.
Yet from these flames
No light, but rather darkness visible.
—Milton, Paradise Lost
It had been gusty as well as bitterly cold most of the day in New York, but by nightfall the wind no longer blustered and danced through the canyons of Manhattan. The cold remained.
Hugh Danner had decided to stay in tonight. He’d stopped at the deli down the street from his apartment in the Ardmont Arms and bought a dozen eggs. He’d hard-boil a couple of them to eat with some cut vegetables he already had in his refrigerator. That, along with some dietary yogurt dip, would be his dinner. Danner was determined to lose a few pounds so his suits fit better.
Halfway to the Ardmont, he stopped walking and ducked into a doorway, where he removed a straight-stemmed meerschaum pipe from a pocket and stuffed its bowl with tobacco. He tamped the tobacco firmly with his thumb, added a bit more, and repeated the process. Smoking a pipe wasn’t all that pleasurable to Danner, who’d quit smoking cigarettes two years ago, but he was trying to get used to it as a career move. Most of the senior partners at Frenzel, Waite and Conners smoked pipes in the firm’s air-purified conference room, while associates and lesser employees had to elevator to the lobby and huddle outside the building if they wanted to smoke. Danner much preferred the conference room and concluded a pipe might be a valuable aid to promotion and access.
He decided he liked this latest brand of tobacco, which burned with a somewhat sweet taste. He was already enjoying the necessary constant tinkering with a pipe. It brought him attention and could be used to good advantage in a courtroom—provided the pipe was never lit.
He struck a match and stared hypnotized into the flame as it flared and sank, flared and sank, while he held it over the bowl and sucked on the pipe stem. Best not to make too many wheezing, lip-smacking sounds, like old Vickers. An art, Danner decided. There was definitely an art to pipe smoking, and he would master it.
Finally the tobacco was burning well, and he flicked away the paper match and stepped from the shelter of the doorway. Though it was cold, he’d stroll around the block and finish this smoke before going home. He was tightly bundled against the weather, liked to walk, and there was something comforting about the pipe’s glowing bowl nestled between his thumb and forefinger, a tiny, tamed, and fiery force he possessed almost as if it were a pet.
After returning to his apartment fifteen minutes later, Danner hung up his coat with the dead pipe in its right side pocket. He’d just started the eggs on the stove when there was a slight sound behind him. Like a sudden intake of breath.
He didn’t have time to turn around before an explosion of pain behind his right ear made him bunch his shoulders and bend forward at the waist, almost as if he were taking a bow. When he attempted to straighten up, everything around him suddenly started whirling with dizzying speed. He was vaguely aware of his left leg buckling.
He knew nothing more until he regained consciousness.
Danner lay quietly with his eyes closed, disoriented rather than afraid, trying to put the pieces together.
Did I have a stroke? A cerebral hemorrhage like my father?
He couldn’t be sure. He did know he couldn’t move his body. It felt as if he was tightly bound. His arms were twisted around behind him, and with one exploring fingertip he could feel rough grout and the sharp edge of a kitchen floor tile. And he was wet. His clothes, his entire body. Why was he wet?
He knew he wasn’t thinking clearly but could do nothing about it.
Cautious here…be cautious…Do nothing sudden….
Slowly he opened his eyes, and immediately a stinging sensation made him clench them shut. As he did so, his vision registered movement nearby, and he knew he wasn’t alone. He realized also that he
bound, tied up and lying on his kitchen floor.
And now he
Don’t panic! Oh, God, don’t panic!
He forced his eyes open narrowly, trying to make out what was happening, trying to make some sense of this. His eyes still stung, bringing tears. Something must have splashed into them. He could see, but barely, blearily.
There was dark movement and a soft sound close above him, like the single unfolding rush of vast wings spreading wide. Against the looming darkness appeared a pinpoint of light. The light grew in size and intensity, then became brilliant.
It was so sudden. Light, pain, time, all converged in and around Danner. Someone was screaming. Einstein was right: time was relative. It could even stop. Time and pain were unending. The dark thing had carried Danner to an unimaginable height and dropped him into the sun.
He was burning on the surface of the sun and it would never end!
She thought about how large and strong his hands were, and gentle. He even punched the elevator button with a kind of softness, as if he knew his strength and didn’t want to harm the mechanism.
Rica Lopez removed her gloves and stuffed them in the pockets of her wool coat, then stamped her feet. It was below freezing in New York City, and what was left of the snow had turned to hardened clumps of gray slush. The two police cruisers parked outside were splattered with grime, as was the unmarked Ford Victoria that Rica and Ben Stack had arrived in. A knot of people, probably residents of the building who were still uneasy about going back inside, stood off near one of the radio cars. They were huddled together as if for warmth and staring curiously at Stack and Rica, like a small herd of sheep wary of what might be wolves.
It took only seconds for a chime to sound in the high-speed elevator and the doors to slide open onto the thirty-first floor of the Ardmont Arms. Stack waited as he always did for Rica to leave the elevator first. He was that way with doors and turnstiles and every other known kind of egress and ingress, Rica thought with a smile. Ladies first. An old-fashioned kind of gent was Ben Stack, for an NYPD homicide detective.
It was easy enough to find the right co-op unit. There were three uniforms lounging outside its door, keeping an eye on the hall and elevators, waiting for further instructions from Stack or Rica, maybe trying to keep away from what was inside the apartment. As Stack and Rica walked along the hall’s plush blue carpet, past gilded white apartment doors identical but for identifying brass numbers and letters, Rica began to smell the faint burnt scent wafting from the luxury co-op unit with the open door. Mingled with the burnt smell was the scent of something sweet, a distinctive odor Rica had experienced only once before, when a truck driver had been trapped in his burning cab after an accident on the Veranzano Bridge. The scent had clung to her clothes, her flesh, her dreams, for weeks. It still clung to her memory. Now here it was again. Seared human flesh.
The three cops in the hall knew Stack. Everyone on the force seemed to know Stack and admire him, the cop who could instantly calm a panicked child with his touch and smile, and who had taken down three Gambino family members in a Brooklyn restaurant, two with his service revolver, one with his fists.
“We got a homicide, sir,” the youngest of the uniforms said. He had brown eyes, long lashes, hair so black it looked dyed.
Too pretty to be a cop,
Maybe prettier than I am.
“Bill and I got the call half an hour ago. Then Ray, here.” He nodded toward one of the other three cops, a tall, laconic-looking man with a bushy gray mustache. “We handled traffic for the FDNY.”
Stack looked at Rica, who shrugged.
“We didn’t see any fire department downstairs,” Stack said. “Just your cars, and some of the residents standing around looking confused.”
“The FDNY already left,” the uniform said. “The fire was out when they got here. They knew right where to go. I mean, which unit. This building’s got a sophisticated alarm system tells ’em all that up front when they get the alarm forwarded. The door was unlocked so they barreled ass on in here. When they saw the body, they got out and turned everything over to us.”
“Anyone been in since?”
“No, sir. Scene’s clean except for some big footprints on the carpet from the fire department’s boots.”
“So what makes this a homicide?” Rica asked.
“All I know is, the fire department said it looked fishy. I mean, maybe it’s not a homicide. Ray and me, we only gave it a look. Guy on the kitchen floor, cooked. That don’t happen a lot.”
“Not according to the Gallup Poll,” Stack said.
Rica thought, as even
Stack politely stepped aside and let her enter the apartment first. Miss Manners would approve, Rica thought.
When at a homicide scene, the gentleman always…
“Looks like the kitchen’s this way,” Stack said, stepping in front of Rica now to take the lead.
The gentleman should always be first to look at a dead body.
As they approached the short hall to the kitchen, their soles began making squishy sounds on the soggy gray carpet. The apartment’s sprinkler system was unitized, as in many expensive co-ops where priceless art or furniture might be a room away from a simple kitchen or wastebasket fire; no need to saturate the entire unit and cause unnecessary water damage.
Stack broke stride as he entered the kitchen, as if what he’d seen gave him pause. Not like him, Rica thought.
She went in and edged around him so she could see better.
Great kitchen. The kind she would kill for. White European cabinetry, marble sink, stainless steel refrigerator, large window with a view of the park. It struck her that while this was a fairly expensive co-op (and what co-op wasn’t in Manhattan?), it was the apartment’s furnishings that made it seem so luxurious. Like the glass-fronted wine cooler with divided sections set at different temperatures for red and white wines; the glass and wrought-iron table; the array of expensive copper cookware suspended on hooks above a cooking island and breakfast bar.
She heard her own involuntary gasp as she gazed beyond Stack at what was left of the man on the floor. His body was blackened and curled, reminding Rica of nothing so much as overdone bacon. Most of his legs were burned away; she knew that could happen, a human being’s fat could catch on fire and blaze like meat in a frying pan.
Stack and Rica put on their rubber gloves. Rica hadn’t seen the results of a serious kitchen fire before, but that was what this looked like. A cooking accident, maybe a heart attack while the deceased had been holding a match, lighting a cigarette. Or maybe burning grease had leaped from a pan to his clothes that were particularly combustible. She glanced at the stove. No frying pan. But there was a pot without a lid, centered on a lighted gas burner; he had been preparing something to eat. She peered into the pot and saw a couple of eggs dancing around in boiling water. She didn’t turn off the burner. It could wait for the techs.
She turned her attention back to what was on the floor.
“Ever seen anything like this?” Stack asked in a calm voice.
“Only in training films.” Rica swallowed. “There’s hardly anything left of him—or her.”
“I’d guess him,” Stack said, “by the size and what’s left of the shape.”
The corpse’s hair had been completely burned away, leaving an odor much like that created when Rica used a too-hot curling iron. She felt her stomach kick.
“You gonna be okay with this?” Stack asked.
“Yeah!” she almost shouted at him.
Don’t ever think I can’t keep up with you, big boy.
He glanced over at her and smiled, reading her mind. “So what do you think?”
“So far, it looks like an ordinary cooking accident. The sprinkler system did its job and put out the fire. Everything in this room and the hall is soaked.”
“So why wasn’t the body soaked before it burned to that condition?”
That was a good question. Rica moved beyond Stack and started looking around the kitchen, being careful where she stepped. Stack didn’t move, looking almost straight up.
“There’s a sprinkler head right over the body,” he said. “The victim might as well have burned to death in his shower as lying where he is.”
“He looks plenty wet now,” Rica said, “but obviously he took his shower too late.”
“That could explain it,” Stack said.
Rica looked where he was pointing, then stood motionless, realizing what he meant.
Propped in the corner where the stove met the wall was a partially folded black umbrella. It was wet, like just about everything else in the kitchen, and it reminded Rica of a huge bat that had roosted there.
“It’s been three days since we’ve had any snow or rain,” Stack said.
Rica had been thinking the same thing. She understood why the sprinkler system hadn’t extinguished the burning man before it was too late. Someone had stood over him, holding the umbrella so he’d burn bright and long.
“Madre de dios,”
she said. “Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“You’ve been a cop too long to ask that question,” Stack said. “You know there’s no answer that won’t drive you crazy.”
“One answer we have,” Rica said, “is why the FDNY figured we had a homicide here. They must have seen the umbrella.”
“Or something else,” Stack said. “Look at that.” He took her arm and gently led her closer to the body, as if escorting her onto a dance floor. He pointed. “See that blackened piece of cloth near what’s left of the legs?”
He stepped carefully around the body, keeping his distance, as she followed.
“I doubt if he died in that position naturally,” he said. “Or if he had a choice, with his arms behind his back.”
“His arms and legs were bound,” Rica said. “After he was tied up, then probably soaked with something flammable, he was set on fire.”
“And whoever did it stood holding an umbrella over him, shielding him from the water from the sprinkler system, watching to make sure he burned to death and then some.”
Rica tried to push away the vision of someone seemingly politely holding an umbrella over a fellow human being who was on fire. Her stomach lurched again. It was the smell, mainly. She went over to the window and was relieved to see it was the kind that could be cranked open. She worked the metal handle, leaned forward, and breathed in some high, fresh air.
“Ain’t we just in a hell of a business?” she said, when she finally felt steadier and straightened up.
But Stack had already gone down to the street to use the detectives’ band radio in their unmarked to call for the techs and the medical examiner, leaving her with the burned man and the questions that hung in the air like smoke.