I SAT ON MY LIVING ROOM SOFA AT FIVE O’CLOCK IN THE morning with a copy of the mock-up of the front page of the day’s New York Post in my hand, looking at my own obituary. The headline I was reading had been prepared hours earlier, when the cops thought that it was my head that had been blown apart by a rifle blast on a quiet country road in a little Massachusetts town called Chilmark.
SEX PROSECUTOR SLAIN—FBI, STATE TROOPERS JOIN SEARCH FOR KILLER
Mike Chapman sat opposite me as he worked on his second egg sandwich and lukewarm cup of coffee. He had brought them along with the news story, and in the fashion of an experienced Homicide detective he continued chewing even as he described to me the details of the murder scene—bullet holes, blood spatter, and body bag.
“Good thing you’ve been a source for so many stories at the Post all these years. It’s a very complimentary obit…” He stopped eating long enough for that familiar grin to emerge, then added, “And a great picture of you—looks like they airbrushed most of your wrinkles out. Your phone’ll be ringing off the hook once all those lonely guys in this city realize you’re still alive—maybe you’ll get lucky.”
Most of the time Mike could defuse every situation and get me to laugh, but I had been crying for so many hours that it was impossible to respond to his lousy cracks or to focus on anything else but the dreadful day that lay ahead. A woman had been killed on the path leading to my country house, driving a car that had been rented in my name. The body of the tall, slender, thirtyish victim was missing her face, so most of the local cops who arrived on the scene assumed that I had been the target.
• • •
We were more than two hundred miles away from the crime scene, twenty stories above the noise of the garbage trucks that rolled through Manhattan streets every morning before dawn, in the safe confines of my high-rise apartment on the Upper East Side. Too many years of investigating break-ins of brownstones and townhouses, with rapists climbing in from fire escapes or pushing in vestibule doors behind unsuspecting tenants, had driven me to a luxury building—low on quaintness and charm but high on doormen and rent. My mother had come into town for two weeks to decorate for me when I moved a few years earlier, but the French provincial antiques and lavish Brunschwig fabrics were an incongruous backdrop for this deadly conversation.
“How’d you get the call?” Mike asked, brushing the crumbs off his slacks and onto the carpet, ready to give me his undivided attention.
“One of the guys in the unit is about to start a trial in front of Torres and grabbed me just as I was going to leave the office for the night. His victim is a junkie—she came in to be prepped for court and was so high she couldn’t hold her head up. God knows if she remembers anything about the rape. I had to make the arrangements to get a hotel room for her overnight so we could try to dry her out before she gets on the witness stand. By the time we finished it was nine-thirty, and I just called my friend Joan Stafford to meet for a late supper.”
“I didn’t ask you for your alibi, for Chrissakes. How’d you hear about this?”
“I can’t even focus straight, Mike. You’ve got to take me down to my office so I can be there before everyone starts to arrive—I’ll never make it through all the questions.”
“Just talk to me, Alex.”
Reliving the events of the past few hours as a witness and not a prosecutor was an unsettling role for me. I tried to reconstruct what had happened after I walked into my apartment shortly before midnight and headed to the answering machine to play back the messages as I started to undress.
Beep one: “Hi, Alex. I’m on the Ventura Freeway, taking the baby to his play group. Tell me more about the case with the therapist who seduced his patient. It sounds fascinating. How many people do you think he’s fucked up? Speak with you later.” Nina Baum, my college roommate, still my best friend, making her regular phone car call from one of the endless L.A. roadways on which she seemed to spend her life.
Beep two: Just the deliberate click of a hang-up call.
Beep three: “Yo, Coop. Wallace here. The lieutenant asked me to give you a heads up. The Con Ed rapist hit again today. Nothing for you to do now. Lady’s been to the hospital and released, so we put her to bed for the night. You do the same, and we’ll be down at your office tomorrow. Behave. G’night.” The deep, familiar voice of Mercer Wallace, formerly of Homicide, who was now my lead detective in the Special Victims Squad, the unit which investigated all of the sexual assault and child abuse cases that occurred in Manhattan.
Beep four: “I’m trying to reach a friend or next-of-kin to Alexandra Cooper. This is an emergency. Please call me, Chief Wally Flanders, Chilmark Police—Martha’s Vineyard. It’s urgent—give a call as soon as you get this message. Area code 508-555-3044. Thanks.”
Of course I had known Wally for more than a decade—I had been going to the Vineyard since I had been in law school, and Wally was as much a local fixture as the fishing boats and the general store.
I picked up the phone to dial, wondering why he was looking for a friend or relative at my apartment instead of asking for me. When he got on the line, he expressed how surprised he was to hear my voice. “Where are you?” he asked.
“In Manhattan, in my apartment, Chief.”
“Well, Alex, there’s been a terrible tragedy here. Terrible. Was there somebody stayin’ at your house, somebody you let use it?”
“Yes, Wally, a friend of mine is there. It’s okay, she’ll be staying there for a week or two. It’s no problem, I’ve arranged everything.”
My mind was racing but I had never connected the Vineyard with any kind of crime problem except the occasional house burglary. That’s why it has always been such a refuge for me, a world away from the grim business of investigating and prosecuting rape cases. Someone must have noticed an unfamiliar person coming or going into Daggett’s Pond Way and suspected a burglary.
“Not so easy, Alex. Your friend isn’t staying for as long as you thought. She was shot sometime tonight, see, and my guys found the body a few hours ago. She’s dead, Alex, real dead.”
“Oh my God!” I repeated quietly several times into the telephone mouthpiece. I was incredulous, as people always are when they get this kind of news. And as intimately as I have worked with violence and murder for more than ten years, it had never ruptured the fragile line that separated my personal from my professional life.
“Alex? Alex? Are you alone there?”
“Can you get someone over to give you a hand with this?”
With what? I thought. What else could anyone do except stare at me while I spun out of control?
Wally continued, “See, the big problem is that we thought it was you who got killed. That’s why we were tryin’ to find your family, for notification. The press already thinks you’re the dead woman.”
“How did that happen?” I shrieked at him.
“Well, it’s really ugly. We figure that you—I mean she—was riding in a convertible, top down—and she had turned off the state road onto that wooded path that leads in to your house. Someone must have been waiting in there for you, and—excuse me—just let out a blast which hit her square in the side of her head.”
I don’t suppose Wally could hear me but I was sitting on my bedroom floor, crying as he finished his story.
“We had a call during the evening to go up to the Patterson house, out your way. My boys found the body—couldn’t tell much about anything from looking at her and she didn’t have no ID. They called in the license plate and found that the Mustang had been rented in your name. Hell, it was your driveway, a rented car, and a girl with a similar build and size—it made sense that it was you.”
“I guess so,” I whimpered back to him.
“Well I’m glad it’s not you, Alex. Everyone will be glad to know it’s not you. I figured the investigation would be a monster, tryin’ to track down every pervert and madman you’ve sent to jail. That’s why I called in the FBI—I figured we’d be huntin’ all over the place.”
Wally actually laughed a few times at that point. “It’s a relief, really. I guess the off-island papers won’t even bother with us now.”
The chief had no idea how wrong he was and how bad this was going to be for that tranquil little island.
“Can you help us, Alex? Can you give us her name and who to notify?”
I mumbled the name into the phone, but Wally heard it loud and clear. “Isabella Lascar.”
The news wires were about to explode with the information that the face of the dazzlingly beautiful actress and film star, Isabella Lascar, had been obliterated, and that what was left of her body lay in the tiny Vineyard morgue, with a toe tag mislabeled in the name of Alexandra Cooper.