A Tale of Obsession and Survival

THE NYPD BOAT lurched and I almost slipped on the deck. The waves made a monotonous slapping sound against the boat’s hull, like an uneven drumbeat, as we cut through the choppy water.

I sucked in a deep breath and could practically taste the Hudson River. The toxic odors of rotting fish and garbage didn’t do anything to help the nausea I felt. I prayed it would pass. One of the officers assigned to the boat tapped me on the shoulder. He grinned and offered me a piece of beef jerky. “Very funny, asshole,”

Detective Terri Hernandez said as she snatched the jerky from the smirking cop and gave him a shove. “We’re here to work. There’s a woman’s body out there.” She turned to me. “You okay, Mike?”

“Never better. Fresh air, the sea. Who could ask for more?” She smiled and said, “That’s called karma for all the pranks you’ve played.” Terri was trying to distract me. That’s why I like working with her.

I was on edge, terrified that I’d recognize the body we were on our way to recover. Suzanne Morton, a friend of my oldest daughter, Juliana, had gone missing three weeks ago. The last place anyone saw her was at a prestigious acting class in SoHo.

Suzanne and my daughter had been in a few classes together in the past. The NYU sophomore kept a busy schedule but never missed an acting class. She had been a good influence around my house, encouraging my younger daughters to pursue their passions. I’d spent hours with Suzanne’s parents.

I had first met them six months ago when we attended a short play both the girls were in. Since Suzanne’s disappearance, they’d asked me over and over again what the NYPD was doing to find their daughter. I understood. If your child is missing, you want the whole world to stop and go look for them.

As a parent of ten kids, I always seem to have something to worry about. At least none of them was missing. I didn’t need to use my imagination to worry about what might have happened to Suzanne.

I’d seen enough as a homicide detective. It felt like a knife in my abdomen every time I pictured the young woman, her light-brown hair framing a beautiful face that had deep dimples when she smiled. I felt a change in the engine just as the pilot looked over her shoulder. She yelled in my direction, “Wind chop is really bad today!

I’ll get as close as I can.” I looked out over the whitecaps and spotted a figure floating in the water. A second boat, a Zodiac inflatable-hull outboard, discharged a diver. Recovery takes a lot of resources. We idled alongside the body. Now that we were closer, I could see more clearly that the body was a woman, floating facedown in the water, with waves of long hair fanning out around her head.

She was wearing a sparkly black cocktail dress that had attracted sea life. A fish nibbled at something in her hair. Terri stepped behind me. “Is it her?” Salt spray stung my face as I watched the grim procedure to recover the body. I shrugged. “Can’t tell yet.” I appreciated Terry’s reassuring hand on my shoulder.

The female crime-scene tech on our boat pulled the winch line so the diver could attach it to the recovery basket. The wire basket was over six feet long, with sides tall enough to keep a person firmly inside. I was relieved to see the care they used. They didn’t know about my possible connection to the victim.

They were just professionals. Against all sound judgment, I stepped closer for a better look. The other crime-scene tech, a doughy guy in his mid-thirties, leaned over the edge of the boat. He’d been the first victim of the beef jerky prank. All it had taken was a quick whiff of the smelly, dried meat, and the tech had vomited over the side of the boat.

But now he showed great concentration and focus, leaning so far out of the boat his face almost touched the water. I heard a helicopter in the distance.

When I looked up, I noticed it was a news helicopter. I hoped to God they didn’t try to get too close and film the body coming onto the boat. I couldn’t imagine a family ever seeing that on TV, but reporters continue to amaze me. I heard one of the crime-scene techs say they were bringing the body on board. I took a deep breath and steadied myself.

The crime-scene technicians and police diver struggle in the choppy water. My stomach lurched as I stepped over to help. Forensic scientists and crime-scene investigators can be territorial. The crime-scene tech waved me off.

Then the male crime-scene tech slipped during a particularly rough wave. He grabbed the basket holding the body. It tipped. I tensed, expecting disaster. The other tech sprang from the deck and managed to straighten the basket. At least temporarily. When the winch holding the basket swayed, the basket came forward onto the boat deck. That’s when it happened.

The body tumbled onto the deck of the patrol boat with a sickening thud. I kept my mouth shut.

It was an accident, and conditions were dicey. It could’ve happened to anyone. One of the basket’s black straps fluttered in the wind as both crime-scene techs carefully picked up the body, turning her so that she faced up. We all stared at the victim for a moment as the female crime-scene tech kneeled and meticulously brushed wet strands of hair away from the woman’s face.

It was not Juliana’s friend. But whoever she was, this young woman had been stunning. Not just pretty or cute but an honest-to-God beauty. Long, gorgeous dark hair, a straight, petite nose, and high cheekbones. She hadn’t been in the water long. She was fully clothed, and even still had her high heels strapped on.

She looked like a peaceful angel lying on the deck of the boat. Terri Hernandez leaned in close to me. She said in a low voice, “This is really similar to a body we found in the Bronx about two months ago. Both pretty, both in formal wear, and both discarded like an old fast-food container.” She stepped past me and pointed at the body on the deck.

“Looks like a puncture wound in the chest. It’s small but noticeable.” Terri turned and added, “See the red soles on those heels? This girl has really expensive taste. Those are Christian Louboutin stilettos, and the dress looks like a Gucci.” I just nodded. I always need a few minutes after recovering a body.

I tried to picture the circumstances that led to the victim’s death. There was something about being dumped in the water that felt extra evil. It’s one of my nightmares. I said a quick, silent prayer for this poor woman. At the moment, the only thing I could think of was catching whoever killed her. The crime-scene techs took photo after photo from every angle.

The male crime-scene tech looked up from the body and said, “No ID of any kind. I’d put her age between nineteen and twenty-two. We’ll try to get her fingerprints back at the lab. We’ll see if she ever applied for a government job or has ever been arrested, but we might have a hard time figuring out who she is.” I shook my head.

“Somebody’s missing her. She’ll match a missing person’s report. We’ll know in a day or two who she is.” The thought of this girl dying alone caused a wave of sadness to pass over me. I’d promised myself that if these kinds of feelings didn’t come to me whenever I saw a body, I’d know it was time to retire.

BY NOON, I was headed back to my office. Every time I walk through the doors of the Manhattan North Homicide unit, in an unmarked building on Broadway near 133rd Street, I am thrilled not to work anywhere near One Police Plaza. I was hoping there would be more information waiting for me at my desk.

I also intended to track down our criminal intelligence analyst to help me sift through the data from my newest death investigation. I headed to the seventh floor, where my squad took the center of the space, with half a dozen small offices and interview rooms ringing it. I slid behind my desk and took a moment to make a few entries in my notebook and just think about what to do next.

Even though we’ve moved on from physical case files to an electronic system called ECMS, Enterprise Case Management System, I still trust my own handwritten notes. Then I hustled to my boss’s office. Harry Grissom’s tall and lean frame fit well behind a desk, and I knew that sitting eased the discomfort he always felt.

Harry favored his left side when he walked, the result of a knife wound that had severed his femoral artery when he was a young patrolman. He never complained, but it was clear from his gait that it was painful for him to walk too long. I realized Harry was starting to show his age lately. The creases around his eyes were now cracks.

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