- Published: 5 January 2022
- ISBN: 9781787461871
- Imprint: Arrow
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $19.99
The Inner Life of Animals
Surprising Observations of a Hidden World
I CHECKED THE street in both directions in front of an upscale coffee house called Flat Bread and Butter on Amsterdam Avenue near 140th Street. The street was about as quiet as New York City gets.
There’s never a good time to be breaking in a new detective on the squad, but this moment was one of the worst. The new detective’s name was Brett Hollis. He was a sharp up-and-comer. He may not have been experienced, but he looked good. Full suit and tie. Not a hair out of place. He almost looked like he could be one of my kids dressed for church.
Occasionally I have a hard time trusting a well-put-together cop. I figure cops who take the job seriously have a permanent disheveled look. Like mine.
Hollis was also young. Maybe too young.
My lieutenant, Harry Grissom, hadn’t used the word babysit, but he’d said to make sure this kid didn’t get into any trouble. Sort of what a babysitter does. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but we were in the middle of a major murder investigation.
Chloe Tumber, a first-year student at Columbia Law, had been found stabbed to death with some kind of sharp tool. One Police Plaza was keeping recent developments quiet, but Chloe was the third victim—after one in the Bronx and another in Brooklyn—to die by similar means. The stab wounds had been made by blades with slightly different markers. We suspected the killer had a toolbox full of sharp implements.
I turned to the rookie and said, “Remember, this guy Van Fleet is a person of interest. Not necessarily a suspect. Follow my lead.”
Hollis nodded his head nervously, saying, “We need to call in our location.”
“Policy says we have to check in on the radio for safety reasons.”
I smiled at the young detective. “I appreciate your knowledge of the NYPD policy manual, but in real life, if we called in every location we stopped at, we’d do nothing but use the radio all day.” I stepped into the coffee house without another word, trusting Hollis would follow.
The coffee house was narrow, with about ten tables and a bar with ten stools. A good-looking young man wearing the name tag JESSE stood behind the counter and welcomed us.
I said, “Is Billy around?”
“You guys cops?”
Hollis stepped forward and said, “What about it?”
Jesse shrugged. “You got the look. Listen, Billy doesn’t steal from me and he shows up for his shifts—that’s all I care about.” Jesse set down his rag and jerked his thumb toward the rear of the narrow coffee house. “He’s in the back.”
I followed Hollis through the constricted hallway, boxes of paper towels and toilet paper stacked along the walls. Hollis walked past the bathrooms and storage room into the kitchen. That’s where we found Billy Van Fleet. The tall, slim, pale twenty-eight-year-old was busy washing dishes. He looked up and smiled, clearly making us for police officers. Guess we did have the look.
I saw Hollis take a step forward, and I placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, saying, “Be cool.”
“What can I do for you, Officers?” the dishwasher asked, drying his hands and straightening his shirt.
I held up my shield. “Billy Van Fleet?”
“When was the last time you saw Chloe Tumber?”
Hollis’s demeanor changed in an instant. “We’re asking the questions,” he snarled.
Van Fleet held up his hands and said, “Okay, okay, just asking.”
Hollis kept going. “How about you tell us where you were last night between 8 and 11 p.m.”
Van Fleet kept his eyes on Hollis, which I figured I’d use to my advantage. Maybe I’d let my new partner lead the interview. That way I could watch Van Fleet and see what made him nervous.
Right now he seemed very calm. Until suddenly he wasn’t. Without warning, he spun and sprinted away from the sink, blasting through the rear exit. He was fast.
Hollis broke into a run, calling over his shoulder almost cheerfully, “He’s our man!” just as Van Fleet hit the safety bar on the door, letting sunshine flood into the dark kitchen.
I COULD’VE BROKEN into a run with Brett Hollis. But that would’ve been counterproductive. Hollis was trying to keep the suspect in sight. I was sure he’d give this guy a good run for his money. But veteran cops don’t engage in foot chases. Experience is supposed to teach you something. It taught me to either find a car or use my head.
I knew this neighborhood. Every block of it. Traffic had picked up on Amsterdam Avenue, and no one runs toward a busy street. This guy had a plan. I figured he’d take the alley a block down and move away from any pedestrian traffic. If I were him, I’d head toward St. Nicholas Park. It wasn’t that far away.
I broke into a light jog. We needed this guy—make no mistake. Van Fleet was the first lead we’d had in Chloe Tumber’s homicide. Which, despite the different blades used, looked to be connected to those two other cases. All three victims were young women who’d suffered gruesome injuries moments before their deaths. And the three crime scenes looked similar. Messy. Though I couldn’t shake the feeling that the mess was deliberate, almost designed for effect. We were still developing a theory as to why.
I found the garbage alley I was looking for between two buildings, with its gates, as usual, left wide open. Then I saw an abandoned dog leash. A long one. Maybe twelve feet, and already hooked to a pole behind a pizza place. I took the leash in my hand and stepped to the other side of the alley.
Ten seconds later, as if on cue, Van Fleet slid around the corner, ducked a drainage pipe that stuck out into the alley, and picked up the pace again. He never even saw me. As he neared the dog leash, I jerked the line. His feet tangled and he tumbled down onto the alley’s nasty asphalt, slipping in some pizza grease congealed in the middle of the alley and knocking over an empty forty-ounce beer bottle like it was the last bowling pin in the lane.
Before I could even reach Van Fleet, Hollis barreled around the corner. He didn’t notice the drainage pipe, and ran full speed into it, headfirst. The impact made the pipe reverberate like a gong and knocked him completely off his feet. I could only imagine what the collision sounded like inside his brain.
I cuffed the suspect, then looked over at Hollis. His nose was flattened, blood spraying from it like a busted sprinkler attached to his face. “You okay, Brett?”
He mumbled, “I’m good,” as he struggled to his feet. Blood poured onto his clean white shirt and made dark stains on his power tie.
With Van Fleet’s hands cuffed behind his back, I helped him up and started to lead him back to the coffee house. I didn’t want to embarrass Hollis, so I walked slowly as he tried to keep up.
Hollis’s wound was so spectacular, a corner bodega owner abandoned the outdoor displays she was stocking and rushed inside for a handful of crumpled paper towels. She forced them on Hollis, who held them to his nose.
Hollis wasn’t complaining. I had to admit, I liked his toughness.
AS SOON AS we got back to Flat Bread and Butter, we slipped in the same back door we’d all burst out of. I don’t think Jesse even realized we’d left the building.
I sat Van Fleet down on a stool next to an oven. “Why’d you run when we asked you about Chloe, jerk-off ?”
“She’s always complaining that I’m too clingy, that she’s too busy with law school and her part-time job to have time for me. She said if I didn’t give her some space, she’d call the cops on me.” He sighed.
“What’d you do when she said that?”
“Nothing. I haven’t called her in a week.” He paused and cut his eyes to Hollis and me. “Okay, maybe I tried to call her a couple of times.”
Hollis plopped down on a chair next to a metal desk built into the wall. He didn’t look good. I said, “Why don’t you go get that checked out, Brett?”
“I’m fine.” He’d added some paper towels from the kitchen to the ones from the bodega. It was a giant ball of paper, slowly turning dark red.
I turned back to Billy Van Fleet. “Three days ago Chloe Tumber made an official complaint against you, said that you’d been stalking her. I don’t suppose you can tell me where you were last night, can you?”
“Here.” He shrugged. “I was here from 6 p.m. until one o’clock. Never left. Jesse was here with me the whole time.”
I shot a quick look at Hollis, who jumped off his chair and headed to the front of the restaurant to talk to Van Fleet’s boss. A minute later, he came back and nodded. “It checks out.”
“Someone slipped into Chloe’s apartment last night and murdered her. Your history of harassment, plus the running, makes you look like a good suspect. Convince us otherwise.”
For his part, Van Fleet looked legitimately stunned. “Chloe’s dead?”
I quickly filled him in, leaving out the details of the bloody scene at her apartment.
It had been gruesome. I could tell Hollis had been trying hard to hold it together back at Chloe Tumber’s apartment. He’d choked up. “He stabbed her in the eye?” he’d said, his voice breaking.
He’d picked right up on the most distinct detail, the kind that could never be revealed to the media for fear of giving ideas to budding criminal minds.
I’d held his arm for a moment and said, “Everyone gets a little shaky in the aftermath of a violent murder, Brett. This is bad. Really bad. I wanted you to see how bad things can get.”
All cops are human. Any one of us who tells you crime scenes don’t affect them is lying. Yes, we’re professionals. Yes, we’ve seen it before. It’s especially hard for those of us with children. Every time I view a messy crime scene, it’s hard not to think of the victim as someone’s kid, and I always say a silent prayer for them and their families.
But Billy Van Fleet was taking the news remarkably well.
“If you didn’t kill her, who did?” I asked.
Total silence from Van Fleet.
I looked at him and said, “We need to find out what happened to Chloe, if there was anyone who wanted to hurt her. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t talk to us.”
“Never talk to the cops. Never snitch. It’s bad for the reputation,” he said, like it was a mantra.
“What reputation? Aside from a lot of petty arrests, you live with your parents and work at a coffee house that makes Starbucks look like a hellhole,” Hollis scoffed.
The skinny white guy had a smile on his face as he said, “I’m a gangsta—that’s what we do. I learned a long time ago that nothing happens to me if I run from the cops. I figured it out on my second arrest. I’m up to sixteen arrests and haven’t been proven wrong. I’ve never gotten one extra day in jail for running from the cops. I even have a blog about it.”
Gangsta? Give me a break. Van Fleet had none of my young partner’s toughness. And I was less than impressed at how quickly he seemed to have already moved on from the news we’d just delivered—that the woman he’d been obsessed with had been murdered. Then I made a connection. “Has this got something to do with your half-ass acting persona?”
“There’s nothing half-assed about staying in character. It will serve me well when my one-act play opens Off-Broadway next month. I’m playing a convicted felon who doesn’t put up with any shit.”
I said, “Well, I’m playing a cop who’s tired of putting up with shit.”
I was pissed off. And we were no closer to finding Chloe Tumber’s killer.
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