It was always the same for her when she arrived to meet the body. After she unbuckled her seat belt, after she pulled a stick pen from the rubber band on the sun visor, after her long fingers brushed her hip to feel the comfort of her service piece, what she always did was pause. Not long. Just the length of a slow deep breath. That’s all it took for her to remember the one thing she will never forget. Another body waited. She drew the breath. And when she could feel the raw edges of the hole that had been blown in her life, Detective Nikki Heat was ready. She opened the car door and went to work.
The wallop of one hundred degrees almost shoved her back in the car. New York was a furnace, and the soft pavement on West 77th gave under her feet like she was walking on wet sand. Heat could have made it easier on herself by parking closer, but this was another of her rituals: the walk up. Every crime scene was a flavor of chaos, and these two hundred feet afforded the detective her only chance to fill the clean slate with her own impressions.
Thanks to the afternoon swelter, the sidewalk was nearly empty. The neighborhood lunch rush was over, and tourists were either across the street cooling in the American Museum of Natural History or seeking refuge in Starbucks over iced drinks ending in vowels. Her disdain for the coffee drinkers dissolved into a mental note to get one herself on the way back to the precinct. Ahead she clocked a doorman at the apartment building just her side of the barrier tape that encircled the sidewalk café. His hat was off and he was sitting on the worn marble steps with his head between his knees. She looked up at the hunter green canopy as she passed him and read the building name: The Guilford.
Did she know the uniform flashing her the smile? She rapid-fired a slideshow of faces but stopped when she realized he was just checking her out. Detective Heat smiled back and parted her linen blazer to give him something else to fantasize about. His face rearranged itself when he saw the shield on her waistband. The young cop lifted the yellow tape for her to duck under, and when she came up she caught him giving her a sex-ray again, so she couldn’t resist. “Make you a deal,” she said. “I’ll watch my ass, you watch the crowd.”
Detective Nikki Heat entered her crime scene past the vacant hostess podium of the sidewalk café. All the tables at La Chaleur Belle were empty except one where Detective Raley of her squad sat with a distraught family with sunburned faces struggling to translate German into a statement. Their uneaten lunch swarmed with flies. Sparrows, avid outdoor diners themselves, perched on seat backs and made bold dives for pommes frites. At the service door Detective Ochoa looked up from his notebook and quick-nodded her while he questioned a busboy in a white apron flecked with blood. The rest of the serving staff was inside at the bar having a drink after what they had witnessed. Heat looked over to where the medical examiner knelt and couldn’t blame them one bit.
“Male unknown, no wallet, no identification, preliminary age range sixty to sixty-five. Severe blunt force trauma to head, neck, and chest.” Lauren Parry’s gloved hand peeled back the sheet for her friend Nikki to have a look at the corpse on the sidewalk. The detective glanced and quickly looked away. “No face, so we’ll comb the area for any dental; otherwise not much to ID from after that impact. Is this where he landed?”
“There.” The M.E. indicated the café busing station a few feet away. It had caved in from the top so hard it was split in half. The violent splash of ice and blood had already baked into the sidewalk in the minutes since the fall. As Heat stepped over there, she noted that the café umbrellas and the stone walls of the building also wore dried blood, ice spatter, and bits of tissue. She got as close to the wreckage as she dared without contaminating the scene and looked straight up.
“It’s raining men.”
Nikki Heat didn’t even turn. She just sighed his name. “Rook.”
“Hallelujah.” He held onto his smile until she finally looked at him, shaking her head. “What? It’s OK, I don’t think he can hear me.”
She wondered what sort of karma payback it was for her to be saddled with this guy. It wasn’t the first time that month she had wondered it, either. The job was hard enough if you were doing it right. Add a reporter with a mouth playing make-believe cop and your day just got a little longer. She backed up to the long flower boxes that defined the perimeter of the outdoor café and looked up again. Rook moved with her. “I would have been here sooner except somebody didn’t call me. If I hadn’t phoned Ochoa, I would have missed this.”
“It’s just tragedy upon tragedy, isn’t it?”
“You wound me with your sarcasm. Look, I can’t research my article on New York’s finest without access, and my deal with the commissioner specifically states—”
“Trust me, I know your deal. I’ve been living day and night. You get to observe on all my homicides just like real-life detectives who work for a living.”
“So you forgot. I accept your apology.”
“I didn’t forget, and I didn’t hear any apology. At least not from me.”
“I kind of inferred it. You radiate subtext.”
“Someday you’re going to tell me what favor you did for the mayor to get this ride-along pushed through.”
“Sorry, Detective Heat, I’m a reporter and that’s strictly off the record.”
“Did you kill a story that made him look bad?”
“Yes. God, you make me feel cheap. But you’ll get nothing more.”
Detective Ochoa wrapped his busboy interview and Heat beckoned him over. “I passed a doorman for this building who looked like he was having a very bad day. Go check him out, see if he knows our Doe.”
When she turned back, Rook had curled his hands to form skin binoculars and was sighting up the building overlooking the café. “I call the balcony on six.”
“When you write your magazine article, you can make it any floor you like, Mr. Rook. Isn’t that what you reporters do, speculate?” Before he could reply, she held her forefinger to his lips. “But we’re not celebrity journalists here. We’re just the police, and darn it, we have these pesky things called facts to dig up and events to verify. And while I try to do my job, would it be too much to ask that you maintain a little decorum?”
“Sure. No problem.”
“Jameson? Jameson Rook?!” Rook and Heat turned to see a young woman behind the police line waving and jumping up and down for his attention