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Murder in Alphabet City

A Manhattan Mystery

Murder in Alphabet City by Lee Harris
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Newly promoted to detective first-grade with the NYPD, Jane Bauer, is back to work after a nearly fatal run-in with a killer. But while she’s happy to be back on the job, her new assignment–another cold case–seems to hold little promise of being solved.

Eight years ago, Anderson Stratton, a schizophrenic, was found dead of starvation in his apartment. Nothing on the scene indicated foul play, and although he left no note, the death was ultimately ruled a suicide. Stratton’s well-connected sister, Flavia Constantine, never accepted that conclusion, and has insisted that the case be reopened. But in their investigation, Jane and her team stumble upon another grisly suicide–and realize that the two may very well be connected. As her inquiry intensifies, Jane is led to a shocking and horrible truth–and once again finds herself on the threshold of death.

From the Paperback edition.
Random House Publishing Group; January 2005
ISBN 9780345481788
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Murder in Alphabet City
Author: Lee Harris

One good thing about working on cold cases was that no one dragged your ass out of bed at three in the morning to look at a still-warm body. The only warm bodies in cold cases were the investigators’, and occasionally there was some reasonable doubt about that. Today everybody was cold, but that was due to the weather, which wasn’t likely to change any time soon. The sky over Manhattan was dull gray, thick, and impermeable. The air held so much moisture, her skin felt wet as she walked to 137 Centre Street from the subway.

The police surgeon had given Jane Bauer, forty years old and newly promoted to detective first grade, the OK to return to work from sick report after the holidays. He suggested workouts at the gym and walking to work to get the muscles back into condition, but it was too cold to follow the second directive. She had returned last week to a desk full of paperwork and an office almost crackling with incipient spasms of electricity. Her partners dis- liked each other—she smiled at her understatement of the situation—and she was actually relieved to find them both alive and sniping when she first set foot in the office.

“Morning, Detective,” Annie, the police administrative aide, said, brushing past her on the run.


Gordon Defino was hanging his coat on the hook when she entered the office. “New case this morning,” he said.

“About time. Another day of paper pushing and I might ask for a transfer.”

Sean MacHovec, as expected, crossed the threshold at exactly eight forty-five, the start of the 935 tour, nine to five in ordinary speech. How the hell does he do it? Jane wondered. They exchanged good mornings.

“Annie says we get a new case today. Old enough to smell bad. Coffee?”

Defino grunted. Jane articulated a syllable. MacHovec, happy to have an excuse to leave the office, departed.

“Nothing changes,” Defino said.

Jane laughed.

Defino gave a grudging grin. “Sharpens your sense of humor.”

MacHovec with coffee and Annie with nothing in hand arrived simultaneously.

“You’re wanted in the whip’s office pronto,” Annie said. She looked at all of them but let her eyes rest on MacHovec, whom she hated. MacHovec returned her message and stare with a grin that told her he outranked her and she served him, regardless.

They took their Styrofoam cups and ambled over to Captain Graves’s office. He leaned over the desk to shake Jane’s hand.

“How’re you feeling?”

“I’m fine, thanks. But I think I’m scarred for life.” She said it lightly, although it bothered her whenever she looked in a mirror. A faint discoloration marred her right cheekbone, proof of the beating the rest of her body had recovered from.

“A little plastic surgery’ll take care of that. I can give you a name if you’d like.”

“I’ll think about it.” She wondered if the handsome Graves knew from personal experience.

“This isn’t exactly a cold case, Detectives.” He laid a palm on a thick file sitting on his desk. “A schizophrenic man in his thirties, Anderson Stratton, lived over near Tompkins Square Park—Alphabet City. He was known in the neighborhood, apparently liked, usually approachable, although he had his down times, spent some time in hospitals. Bottom line: He was found dead in his room, emaciated, apparently having starved to death.”

“Autopsy?” MacHovec asked.

“Yes. Other things turned up—he didn’t take very good care of himself—but nothing that could have caused his death.”

Jane waited. Something was coming. Homicide detectives, especially from a special assignment squad, didn’t spend their time looking for a killer in a case of starvation.

“Stratton came from a high-profile family. The parents didn’t live in New York, but the power extended up to the governor. And there’s a sister.” He paused and let the obvious sink in. She didn’t believe her brother had died of starvation. “She’s been pushing this as a homicide without success since the day the body was found.”

“So this is a PR job,” MacHovec said in his usual, blunt manner.

“Now we’re getting heat from One PP. What’s new is that she’s a friend of the commissioner. We’d like to put the case to rest. I’m asking you to do a stroke job,” Graves admitted.

MacHovec groaned, one of his unendearing little habits. Jane tensed. This was not the venue to vent one’s feelings.

Graves went on as though he hadn’t heard. “There’s a lot of paper in the file. I’m asking you to rustle it around and add another pound of Fives to the pile.”

“Are the parents still alive?” Jane asked.

“The mother is but she’s not well and not involved. The sister is Flavia Constantine.” That was the punch line he had held back.

“Gregory Constantine’s wife?” MacHovec asked, a hint of awe in his voice.

“Ex. But you got the connection. See if you can make her happy. I’m asking you to stroke this thing and put it back in the file. Reopen the autopsy report. See if there are any neighbors still living in the building who remember him.

“And there’s something else.” Graves pulled a sheet of paper from beneath the file. “Mrs. Constantine hired a private investigator to look into the death, guy who was on the job, name’s Wally Shreiber. He said, interview the super; the name’s here. You can interview Shreiber too, if you want. He’s not a dope and he didn’t come up with anything.”

“How long you want us to work on this?” Defino asked. A practical man, he was looking forward to the next real case, the sooner the better.

“Enough time that it looks like you did a thorough job. Talk to the sister first. Her number’s clipped to the file jacket. Be nice to her. You know what I’m saying? She’s not doing this to make a buck. She cares.”

MacHovec looked ready to get up and go. His coffee cup was empty.

But Graves wasn’t finished. “This originated as an aided case. Some neighbors called the police. They’re all in the Fives.” He tapped the file. “Any questions?”

There weren’t any. That was it. MacHovec grabbed the file and his coffee cup and led the way out of the whip’s office and over to theirs. “Babysit a fucking socialite,” he grumbled as Defino closed the door. He dropped the file loudly on Jane’s desk.

The note paper-clipped on top was in Graves’s handwriting on six-by-nine notepaper. “This is her private number,” Jane said.

“Maybe she’ll send a private car for us,” Defino said. “She can afford it. When did Stratton die?”

Jane opened the folder. “Eight years ago last November.”

“If you think she’ll take us to lunch, I’ll come along,” MacHovec offered. He was the desk man. His partners were the ones who wore out shoe leather.

“You making the call or shall I?” Jane held the notepaper out.

“Queen Flavia’ll probably be impressed by a male voice.” He snatched the paper out of her hand and picked up the phone. “Mrs. Constantine, please. Oh, yes, Mrs. Constantine. This is Det. Sean MacHovec, New York Police Department. I—” It was obvious he had been cut off. He sat nodding and rolling his eyes. “Yes, ma’am. We have reopened the case of your brother’s death. When will our team be able to speak to you?”

Jane sipped her coffee and pulled the latest flyers out of her in-box, dropping them one by one into the wastebasket as she finished reading them.

MacHovec hung up. “Flavia can’t wait to talk to you. But she has this very important luncheon engagement”—he articulated the words with a sneer—“so the soonest she can see you is two-thirty if that fits in with your busy schedules.”

“Fits in with mine,” Defino said. “Gives us time to go through the file.”

“Right. You coming, Sean?”

“Forget it. I’ll keep my seat warm.”

Homicide files are always thick. This wasn’t a homicide file, but it looked like a four-pounder. The usual aided case, a case of illness or death from natural causes, could be closed quickly. This one might never be considered closed by the sister, but officially it was a dead end.

Jane and Defino huddled at his desk, turning pages in the file, making notes. On a cold November day a call had come anonymously from someone identified as a neighbor. Two sector cops drove over, had the super open the door, and found the emaciated body of Anderson Stratton sitting in a chair facing the window of his third-floor walk-up. He had been dead for some time. The photographs were enough to turn the most experienced stomach.

On the floor, visible in two of the pictures, were pizza cartons from a local pizzeria. A Five early in the file was an interview with the manager of the store. Andy Stratton ordered regularly but hadn’t called for about a month at the time his body was found.

The super knew the sister by name. She dropped in to see her brother once in a while, even took him for a walk sometimes. She paid for the apartment through an accounting firm. The checks were always on time.

Neighbors had varying opinions of the deceased. Some were very fond of him, brought him meals from time to time. Others who had seen him, or heard him, during his bouts of illness were fearful of him. “A raging bull,” one of them commented. “Should’ve been in a straitjacket,” another said.

A woman who sometimes cooked for him wept during the interview. She had meant to look in on him, but hadn’t gotten around to it. She felt guilty that Andy had died, especially because he had gone hungry.

No one in the neighborhood knew any of Andy’s friends, if such people existed, who lived elsewhere. Few of them recalled when he moved into the apartment; he had just appeared, become part of the community, and then vanished. It was not an unusual scenario. The people who had a roof over their heads were the lucky ones, however undependable the roof might be. Alphabet City was full of homeless people, many of whom may have had afflictions as bad as Stratton’s and may have come to the end of their lives with the help of alcohol, narcotics, or worse, but they either lacked caring relatives or managed to avoid them.

“Want to call this guy Shreiber?” Defino said, looking up from the file.

“We can see him tomorrow. Sean?”

“Got it.” He was off the phone in a few minutes. “Ten tomorrow morning. But he can’t tell you much.”

“It’s another Five,” Jane said. That would be the justification for nearly every interview; it would add to the file a DD5—the Detective Division form for recording interviews and other information.

They continued through the early part of the file, the discovery of the body and the first interviews. No one suspected any cause of death except a natural one. “He was real tired last time I saw him,” a woman in a small produce market said. “I gave him an apple and told him to eat it, but he just held on to it and walked around, looking at everything like he’d never seen grapefruits and oranges before. When he went out, he put the apple back. I felt sorry for him.”

“He paid cash, always cash,” a man in a coffee shop said. “He’d put his hand in his pocket and pull out a bunch of bills, big ones, little ones. He’d peel off a couple and put ’em on the table. He never caused any trouble.”

It became a familiar refrain: He didn’t make trouble. He wasn’t any trouble. He never bothered anyone.

The autopsy indicated he hadn’t eaten for a long time. Nor had he ingested any water. A bottle half full of water lay on the floor within reach if he had bent over. It was capped and the contents were not contaminated.

Why had he stopped eating and drinking? No one in the building recalled seeing anyone enter or leave Stratton’s apartment in the weeks before the body was found. No one heard unusual noises from the apartment. His medication was in the bathroom. Some pills had been removed but the ME had not found any traces of the drugs in his system. He had stopped taking them when he had stopped eating.

“Looks like the guy gave up on life,” Defino said, pushing his chair back. “Depressing.”

“You see this about his clothes?”

“Yeah. Sharp dresser for a guy one step away from being homeless.”

“She must have bought it all for him.”

“So she tried. She was well-meaning, but she couldn’t beat the problem. Doesn’t mean someone killed him.”

“I guess we’ll get an earful,” Jane said.

“Let’s have lunch.”

From the Paperback edition.
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