“What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
It was a corny remark designed to be humorous, as no one in their right mind in this day and age would say such a thing in sincerity. Still, he got the reaction he'd wanted. Even though he was in the crappy station wagon he'd boosted from in front of some apartment building on 233rd and she was a safe distance away on the sidewalk, she darted a glance at him, more annoyance than wariness in her gaze.
He smiled to himself in a way that didn't show on his face. She wasn't his usual type, but she would do for tonight. She was too old, for one thing, and too skinny. He could tell despite the short black coat she wore. He liked them thick, with big legs, big asses, big tits, sloppy. More like
. Her mouth held promise, thoughâwide, loose, painted a dark shade of crimson, like blood. He would enjoy that mouth.
He leaned farther toward the passenger door, while keeping the car at a crawl. This time he smiled for real. She had no idea of the favor he planned to do for her. He was about to make her famous. “You may not have noticed, but this isn't the best neighborhood at night.”
She cast him a look that would have translated to “no shit” if she'd spoken. This stretch of the service road of the New England Thruway was deserted from Connor Street on down to the new rows of two- and three-family houses on Baychester Avenue. Four blocks of near desolation, save for overflow from the highway, which could be heavy, but not at this hour, the couple of motels, the patrons of which were more interested in shielding their anonymity than anything going out on the street, and a couple of blocks of unfinished houses, empty and dark, their facades looking like enormous gaping faces. Some places, like the bit of road she stepped onto now, had no sidewalk to speak of.
“I'll be fine,” she said finally.
He heard it in her voice, the fear that maybe she'd stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time. He'd seen her get off the highway at Connor Street. He was at the BP station filling up the piece-of-shit station wagon when her car hobbled in with a flat right front tire.
He'd listened to her asking the attendant if she could leave it there until she came back with help in a few minutes. At this time of night all the nearby shops extolling Flat Fixed had pulled in their signs for the night.
She hadn't seen him, or at least he hadn't registered on her radar. He'd given her a five-minute head start, then followed.
Now he smiled in a self-deprecating way and held the expression until he was sure she'd noticed. “I'm not trying to be a nuisance. In truth, I'm lost. There weren't so many houses or new houses around the last time I was here.”
“What street are you looking for?”
She gestured with her hand. “It's that way. Keep going and you'll hit it.”
“Thanks. You sure I can't drop you anywhere?”
As if on cue, an Explorer rolled up on them, seemingly out of nowhere, like a huge dark specter, its stereo blazing, its headlamps casting garish light as it passed. The yahoo on the passenger side threw a beer bottle out the window. The projectile hit the ground with a dull crack, spewing liquid and glass onto the already filthy street.
For one sweet moment he watched the car pass. Sometimes the universe was just with you. He knew he had her now. “Sure you don't need that ride?” he asked, but it was a tease. He knew what she'd do. She'd get in thinking she was safer with him than she was on her own.
“Maybe I will take you up on your offer.” In one move she stepped toward the car, pulled the door open, and slid inside.
He pressed the button on the driver's-side door panel to depress all the locks. “Relax,” he said, pulling away from the curb. “You're safe now. Where do you want to go?”
“Just two blocks down, near the corner. Givan is the one after.”
He nodded, as if it made any difference to him. He concentrated on accelerating the car and the choice he had to make.
“Hey, slow down,” she said. “It's right there.”
He glanced at her sideways, grinning a little, just enough to let her know she'd miscalculated.
“Let me out,” she demanded, pulling futilely on the door handle. “Let me go. If you hurt me my father will kill you.”
Fear or pain. Pain or fear. The choice was always the same. He was close enough to the highway now to make the choice necessary. Traffic was light enough to ensure him an easy entrance if he timed it right.
Just as the girl started to launch herself at him, he reached his left hand between his legs where he kept both a .38 and a stun gun concealed beneath his T-shirt. He settled for the .38 and aimed it at her chest. “Keep still and I won't shoot you.”
The girl froze. She was crying now, her threats forgotten.
He grinned again. He'd chosen fear. The pain would wait for later.
Alexandra Waters pulled her Volkswagen Passat into her usual parking spot in the small lot behind the building on East Tremont Avenue housing Astor Health and cut the engine. She got out of the car and stared up at the two-story, redbrick structure. The first floor boasted a dentist's office, a chiropractor, and some sort of business that did both tax returns in season and realty all year round. The second floor was all hers, or hers and her partners'.
She was the lone psychologist in this practice designed to meet the health needs of the Eastchester section of the Bronx. Roberta, the social worker, concentrated on domestic issues of parenting, marriage, and abuse. Nancy, the nurse practitioner, was primarily a midwife and out on maternity leave herself. Alex took whoever walked in the door. All three were affiliated with nearby Einstein Hospital.
The partnership had been Roberta's idea. All of them had been tired of what they were doing, though Alex herself had been the only one whose career was sliding into the tail end of nonexistent.
Even Alice had tired of her well-paid position as the assistant to a prominent attorney, knowing her effort was wasted on keeping society's undesirables on the street. It hadn't taken much to convince any of them to strike out on their own.
The office was laid out with a large anteroom that included Alice's reception area. Farther down the hall were the practitioners' offices, a conference room, and several treatment rooms that varied in size and differed in purposeâfrom examination rooms for Nancy to single and group therapy rooms for her and Roberta. As usual, Alex was the first one in.
She dropped her purse, jacket, and briefcase in her office, then went to the small communal kitchen to start coffee brewing. That accomplished she returned to the front door to retrieve the daily newspapers. She hadn't bothered with the TV news that morning. She'd have to settle for getting her morning ration of gloom and doom from the
She pulled the confining rubber band off and slid it on her wrist like a bracelet. She'd add it to her stash later. Thanks to the local paperboy they'd never need to buy another one. She shook out the paper as she walked back toward the kitchen.
AMAZON KILLER STRIKES AGAIN
. Below the unoriginal headline was a gritty photograph that took her a moment to recognize as an extreme close-up of a woman's battered face.
Alex's heartbeat picked up as she flipped the page to reveal the story on page 3. Until then, she hadn't been aware there was an Amazon Killer, but apparently, he'd struck seven times since last summer. His appellation came from the fact that the right breast of each of his victims had been excised, reminiscent of the Greek Amazons said to have originated the practice. Apparently the killer had been on a two-month hiatus, but now he was back again. She felt confident in speculating that the killer was male. Not only had he brutally raped each of his victims, but it fit the percentages. Serial killers were predominantly male, predominantly white, and they predominantly preyed on the most vulnerable segments of the populationâkids, old people, or in this case young prostitutes.
But hookers didn't usually make headlines.
She scanned the article until her gaze snagged on a name: Ingrid Beltran. Daughter of Mount Vernon City councilwoman Ilona Beltran. No wonder it had made the front page. Prostitutes might not make the front page but politicians' daughters did.
“I see you heard.”
Alex gasped and turned to face Alice, who'd spoken. Alex had been so engrossed in the newspaper she hadn't heard anyone come in. “I read.”
Alice shook her head. “What a shame. Her car broke down coming off the Connor Street exit of the Thruway. She figured she'd walk the rest of the way to her friend's house. She was only seventeen years old.”
Alex dropped the paper to the table. Ingrid Beltran might have been young, but three of the killer's five victims had been youngerâgirls whose desperation had led them to sell their bodies to feed either themselves or their drug habits. As Alex saw it, the whole situation was a shame, not only the death of the one girl whose life showed promise. But no one was asking her, were they?
A lifetime ago, it might have been different. She'd been an up and comer in the forensic psychiatry department at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. A lifetime ago, it wouldn't have been unusual to be called on to evaluate a patient for competency or treatment of the convicted. But it had been a long time since anyone came calling for her opinion. A large part of her preferred it that way.
Alice sighed, a gesture that said she wouldn't waste any more time dwelling on something she couldn't change. Alex had learned that lesson long ago, the hard way.
Alex filled her cup, added milk and sugar. “Do we have any messages?” Although the office officially closed at eight o'clock, the answering machine picked up all night, listing emergency contacts for each of the women and urging all nonemergency callers to call back during business hours. The machine didn't block anyone from leaving messages; however, they had to be logged in and funneled to the right person by Alice each morning.
“Haven't checked yet, but the light was on.”
“Let me know if I've got anything,” Alex said, taking her coffee and her paper back to her office. She hoped not. She had a full day ahead, and for some reason sleep had proved elusive the previous night. It had been a long time since insomnia had dogged her, and she hoped this was not a signal of its return, especially without provocation.
She'd barely made it behind her desk when the intercom buzzed. Alex made a face at it, but pressed the necessary button. “Who is it?” she asked, before Alice had a chance to speak. “Please tell me Frieda Underwood hasn't started seeing her husband's ghost again.”
“No ghosts, just cops, if that's any better. A Sergeant John McKay called you. He wants you to call him back but doesn't say about what.”
And Alex hadn't a clue what he could be calling her about. “What's the number?” She wrote it down on the top slip of a pad of Post-it notes. “Thanks.” She checked her watch: 7:47. If McKay worked the day shift he'd be on at eight o'clock. She waited fifteen minutes and dialed the number.
“McKay,” he answered when he came to the phone.
“Sergeant McKay,” Alex said. “I received a message this morning that you called. This is Alex Waters.”
“Dr. Waters, thanks for returning my call. I'm working on a case I hope you'll be able to help me with.”
Alex's first thought was that a mistake in identity had occurred. “Are you sure you have the right Dr. Waters? I don't work in forensics anymore.”
“I know that, Doctor.”
There was a certain smugness in his voice that annoyed her. No doubt he'd had her checked out before calling. Five minutes on the Internet would have been all he needed to find out about the debacle that ended her former career. So if he knew all that, why was he calling? “What can I do for you, Sergeant?”
“I'm interested in your opinion of a case.”
Alex sighed. Although most of her was glad to have left her former life behind, there was a small part of her flattered by the prospect of someone seeking out her expertise. A little bit of ego that resisted being crushed. “What sort of case?”
“Why don't I explain that to you when you get here? Suffice it to say I'll be disappointed if I have to look elsewhere for someone else.”
. From superciliousness to sycophancy in one easy minute. Although she was tempted by the offer, his attempt at flattery fell flat. Moreover, she sensed deviousness in McKay's desire to keep her in the dark. “I'm afraid I'd have to know more than you're giving me to know if it's worth shuffling my day.”
She let her words hang there. If he wanted her badly enough, he'd tell her. If not, she'd just lost five minutes of her life she'd never recover. Either way, she didn't give a damn.
“It involves Walter Thorpe.”
Alex squeezed her eyes shut. That was the last name she expected to hear. The last name she ever wanted to hear again. Her misdiagnosis of him had been the catalyst for the destruction of her career. Thorpe had come to her at the outpatient clinic at Bellevue as a condition of his parole after being arrested on a misdemeanor sex offense. Three months later he'd been arrested again. This time as the Gentleman Rapist that had been preying on Upper East Side women. Considering the furor the city had been in to apprehend the man, no one, especially the police, had been amused to find she'd been treating him. Part of any psychologist's job was to predict a client's future behavior. Alex had never seen that coming.
And now, Thorpe was back again. She'd heard he'd been released from prison less than a year ago. Although he had been accused of raping seven women, he'd only been convicted on one count, the only one in which his semen had been found in the victim's body.
Damn. If Walter was at it again, it looked liked six years' reprieve was all she was going to get.
“Yes.” Alex squeezed the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger. A migraine was building behind her eyes. She could feel the blood vessels contracting one by one, or at least she imagined she could. If she didn't put an end to this she'd need to lie down in half an hour.
“You know Thorpe was my patient.” There was no point in denying that, considering that the fact had been plastered across the face of the
in a slightly more catchy headline than it sported that morning.
Beneath it a picture of her, openmouthed and wide eyed, taken as a reporter out for a scoop had tripped her. She hadn't fallen, at least not literally, anyway. Either way, there were plenty of photographers around to capture her at that unflattering moment.
Alex squeezed her nose harder. “You know I can't tell you anything.”
“Your diagnosis is a matter of public record, Doctor. All I'm asking you to do is come in and tell me if you think Thorpe is capable of the crime we're looking at him for.”
Was this man insane? If he knew the case he had to know her judgment wasn't the most reliable one they could go on. Her mind flashed to that morning's paper. They couldn't be trying to pin that on Walter. She might have been wrong about him once, but that she couldn't believe. “I'll think about it.”
“Don't think too long. Can we say one o'clock, Forty-first Precinct?” He rattled off an address she didn't bother to take down. If she decided to go, she could always have Alice call and find out the details.
McKay rang off with one additional plea, “We really need you, Doctor.”
And she needed this like she needed another migraine. Why now, when her life was finally smooth and boring like she wanted it? She hung up the phone, then searched in her bag for a couple of ibuprofen and a Claritin. She downed them with a swig of the tepid coffee in her cup. Luckily, her first client wouldn't be in until eight thirty. She'd have a few minutes to lie down in a dark room before the migraine's full effect claimed her.
She crossed to the doorway, flicked off the light and lay down, on the brown leather couch along one wall of the small room. A cold compress would have been nice, but having lots of options wasn't her strong suit now.
She knew she'd go to see McKay, if only to find out what was going on, what she was being dragged into. She didn't have to tell him anything and she wouldn't, regardless of what she'd gone on record about before.
She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. If she read things right, here it went all over again: another high-profile case, another media frenzy, another opportunity to be made a fool of.
No wonder she hadn't gotten much sleep last night. The second worst nightmare of her life was, in all likelihood, about to begin all over again.