“I want you to open the door for me.”
“Look through the peephole,” I said. “I’m not a cop. I’m an assistant district attorney.”
I stepped back and squared off so the woman inside the basement apartment could check me out. The hallway and staircase had been cleared of men in uniform, including the detail from Emergency Services poised to knock down her door with a battering ram, which was there when I arrived at the scene a short while ago at one o’clock in the morning.
I didn’t hear any sound from within. No sense of her movement.
“My name is Alexandra Cooper. You’re Tina, aren’t you? Tina Barr.” I didn’t say what my specialty was, that I was in charge of the DA’s Office Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit. The police weren’t certain she had been assaulted by the man who had earlier invaded her home, but several of them thought she might reveal those details to me if I could gain her confidence.
I moved in against the metal-clad door and pressed my ear to it, but heard nothing.
“Don’t lose your touch now, Coop.” Mike Chapman walked down the steps and handed a lightbulb to the rookie who was holding a flashlight over my shoulder. “The money on the street’s against you, but I’m counting on your golden tongue to talk the lady out so those guys can go home and catch some sleep.”
The young cop passed the bulb to Mercer Wallace, the six-foot- six-inch-tall detective from the Special Victims Unit who had called me to the brownstone on the quiet block between Lexington and Third avenues in the East Nineties.
Mercer reached overhead and screwed it in, illuminating the drab, cracked paint on the ceiling and walls of the hallway. “Somebody --- most likely the perp --- shattered the other one. There are slivers of glass everywhere.”
“Thanks, kid,” Mike said, dismissing the rookie. “No progress here, Detective Wallace?”
“We haven’t got a homicide,” I whispered to Mercer. “And they sell lightbulbs at the bodega on Lex. I don’t know why you think we needed Mike, but please get him off my back.”
“Damn, I’ve listened to Blondie charm full-on perverts into boarding the bus for a twenty-five-to-life time-share at Sing Sing. I’ve seen her coax confessions from the lying lips of the deranged and demented. I’ve watched as weak-willed men---”
Mercer put his finger to his lips and pointed at the staircase. “Tina, these two detectives are my friends. I’ve worked with them for more than ten years.” I paused to cough and clear my throat. There was still a bit of smoke wafting through the hallway. “Can you tell me why you don’t want to open up? Why it is you won’t trust us? We’re worried about your safety, Tina. About your physical condition.”
Mercer pulled at my elbow. “Let’s go up for a break. Get some fresh air.”
I stayed at the door for another few minutes and then followed Mike and Mercer to the small vestibule of the building and out onto the stoop. It was a mild October night, and neighbors returning to their homes, walking dogs, or hanging around the ’hood were checking on the police activity and trying to figure out what was wrong.
The uniformed sergeant from the Twenty-third Precinct, whose team had been the first responders, was on the sidewalk in front of the building, talking to Billy Schultz, the man who had called 911 an hour earlier.
“What’s the situation behind the house?” Mike asked Mercer as I caught up with them on their way down the front steps.
“Two cops stationed there. Small common garden for the tenants. Back doors from both the first floor and Barr’s basement apartment, but no one has moved since they’ve been on-site.” “What do you know about the girl?”
“Not much. Nobody seems to,” Mercer said. He turned to the man standing with the sergeant, whom I guessed to be about forty, several years older than Mike and I. “This is Mike Chapman, Billy. He’s assigned to Night Watch.”
Mike worked in Manhattan North Homicide, which helped staff the Night Watch unit, an elite squad of detectives on call between midnight and eight a.m., when precinct squads were most understaffed, to respond all over Manhattan to murders and situations, like this one, that the department referred to --- with gross understatement --- as “unusuals.”
“Billy lives on the first floor,” Mercer said. “He’s the guy who called 911.”
“Good to meet you,” Mike said. He turned to me. “What’s her name?”
“She your friend?” he said to Billy.
“We chat at the mailboxes occasionally. She’s a quiet girl.
Keeps to herself. Spent a lot of time gardening on weekends in the summer, so I ran into her out back every now and then, but I haven’t seen her much since.”
“Lived here long?”
“Me? Eighteen years?”
“Tina sublets. A year, maybe more.”
Mike ran his fingers through his thick black hair, looking from Billy to me. “You sure she’s in there?”
“I could hear a woman crying when I first got here,” I said. Whimpering was a more accurate word.
“Tina was sobbing when I knocked on her door,” Billy said.
“But she wouldn’t open up for you?”
Billy Schultz adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose while Mike scrutinized him. “No, sir.”
“Why were you knocking? What made you call 911?”
“Mercer gave us all this, Mike. Let me get back inside.”
He held his arm out at me, palm perpendicular like a stop sign. “Don’t you want the chronology from the horse’s mouth? Primary source. Catch me up, Billy.”
I had one hand on the wrought-iron railing but stopped to listen.
“I’m a graphic designer, Detective. Worked late, stopped off for a burger and a couple of beers on my way home,” Billy said. He was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. There were smudges of ink or paint on his jeans, too dark in color to be blood, I thought. “It was about twelve-thirty when I got near the building. That’s when I saw this guy come tearing out the front door, down the steps.”
“What guy? Someone you know?”
Billy Schultz shook his head. “Nope. The fireman.”
Mike looked to Mercer. “Nobody told me about that. The fire department got here first?”
“Not for real,” Mercer said.
“I mean, I assumed he was a fireman. He was dressed in all the gear --- coat, boots, hat, even had a protective mask of some kind on. That’s why I couldn’t see his face.”
“Did you stop him? Did he talk to you?”
“He flew by me, like there was a forest fire on Lexington Avenue he had to get to. Almost took me out. Even that didn’t seem odd until I looked up the street for his truck but there wasn’t one around. Just weird.”
“What did you do then?”
“I unlocked the door to the vestibule, and as soon as I got inside, I could smell smoke. I could see little waves of it sort of spiraling upward from the basement,” Billy said. “We don’t have a super who lives in the building, so there was no one for me to call. I figured whatever happened had been resolved. By the guy I thought was a fireman. But I wanted to check it out, make sure there was nothing still burning.”
“Sarge, you want to get me that mask?” Mercer said.
The older man walked to the nearest squad car and reached in for a paper bag while Billy Schultz talked.
“I went downstairs first. It was pretty dark, but I could make out a small pile of rubble in the corner of the hallway, a couple of feet from Tina’s door. Nothing was burning --- no flames --- but it was still smoldering. Kicking off a lot of smoke. That’s when I knocked on her door.”
“Did she answer?” Mike asked.
“No. Not then. I didn’t hear anything. I figured maybe she wasn’t home. I ran up to my apartment, filled a pitcher with water, and came back down to douse whatever was still smoking. Figured the other firemen must have gone off to a bigger job and that the last one --- the guy who almost plowed me down --- was trying to catch up with them.”
The sergeant passed the bag to Mercer, who put on a pair of latex gloves from his pocket before opening it.
“It’s when I went downstairs the second time that I heard Tina.”
“What did you hear, exactly?” I asked.
Billy cocked his head and answered. “I knocked again, just because I was worried that the firemen might have left her there even though there was still something smoldering in the hallway. She was weeping loudly, then pausing, like to inhale.”
“Words,” Mike said. “Did she speak any words?”
“No, but I did. I told Tina it was me, asked her if she was all right. I was coughing myself from the smoke. I told her she could come up to my apartment.”
“Did she answer you?”
“No. She just cried.”
“How do you know it’s Tina Barr you were talking to?” Mike asked.
Billy hesitated. “Well, at that point --- I, uh --- I just assumed it,
Detective. She lives there alone.”
“I went home to get a bucket and broom. Swept some of the trash into the bucket to throw out on the street---”
Mike glanced at the sergeant. “Yeah, we got it, Chapman. Looks like amateur smoke bombs.”
“The sobbing was so bad by then, I called 911, from my cell. Maybe she was sick, overcome by the smoke. I waited out here on the stoop till the officers came. Three minutes. Not much longer. That’s when Tina went berserk. That’s when I knew it was her, for sure. I recognized her voice, when she was yelling at the cops.”
Mercer removed a large black object from the bag and dangled it in front of us.
“Yeah,” Billy said. “That’s what the fireman had on his face.”
“Found it halfway up the block,” the sergeant said. “Right in the perp’s flight path.”
“That’s not department gear,” Mike said. “It’s a gas mask. Military style.”
It was a black rubber helmet, with two holes for the eyes, and
a broad snoutlike respirator that would fit over the mouth, with a long hose attached.
“Couldn’t see a damn thing,” Billy said. “It covered his entire face.”
“What did the cops do?” Mike asked.
“I led them down to the basement. They knocked on Tina’s door and one of them identified himself, said they were police. That’s when she started yelling at them to leave her alone. I mean screaming at them. Freaked out. Sounded like she collapsed --- maybe fell onto the floor --- crying the whole time.”
“What makes you think she’s alone in there?”
“We’re guessing,” Mercer said. “She’s the only one to make a sound --- no scuffling, no struggling, no other voices. But that’s another reason ESU won’t leave.”
Mike prodded my side with his fingers as we started up the
front steps. I went back in the vestibule toward the basement staircase.
“One of the cops told Tina he just wanted to make sure that the fire hadn’t affected her,” Billy said, drawing a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his smoke-fogged glasses. “Asked her if she could stand up and look through the peephole at his badge, for identification. She went wild.”
“What do you mean?” Mike asked.
“Tina screamed at the cop. Told him that’s how the guy got in. The fireman. That he showed her his badge and she opened the door.”
“It was the fireman who was inside her apartment? You knew, Coop?”
“That’s why Mercer called me. We don’t know who the man was, why he was using such an elaborate disguise, why he went inside, and what he did to this woman. Okay? Don’t come any closer, Mike. Let me talk to her.”
I walked the short corridor to the rear of the hallway, glass crunching under the soles of my shoes.
“Tina? It’s Alex Cooper. We’re all still here. The police officers won’t leave until I convince them that you’re unharmed. I’ll keep them outside the building if you’ll let me in for just a few minutes.”
“I’d rank that a toss-up,” Mike said. “Ten minutes with you or the quick punch of a battering ram? Tough call.”
“You think this helps? You think she can’t hear you?” I threw up my arms in frustration as I turned to Mike. “Mercer, please take him upstairs.”
The men marched back to the first floor as I made another attempt to persuade Tina Barr to let me in.
“I’m the only one in the basement now, Tina. The men are all outside. I don’t want them to break down your door any more than you do. But they’re worried that you’ve been injured. There was a lot of smoke down here. Can you just tell me if you’re hurt?”
There was no answer for more than a minute. Then a soft voice spoke a word or two, which sounded as though the woman was still sitting or lying on the floor inside. I couldn’t understand her, so I crouched beside the door and put my ear against it.
“Sorry. What did you say?”
“Not hurt. I’ll be okay.”
She spoke haltingly, her words caught in her throat.
“Tina, are you having trouble breathing?”
“We can give you oxygen, Tina. Is it the smoke? Is there still smoke in your apartment?”
“The man who was dressed like a fireman, did you let him come into your apartment?”
She was crying again as she tried to speak. “No, no, I didn’t let
“But you told the police officer that---”
“I only opened the door because he showed me a gold badge and told me there was a fire. I could smell the smoke and then saw it. I believed him.” Tina Barr’s words came out phrase by phrase, embedded in sobs. “He forced his way inside. I didn’t let him in.”
“You can trust us, Tina. Now you know that man wasn’t actually a fireman. His badge wasn’t real.” Mercer had already checked that with the department and had been telling that to Barr before I got there. “The cops think the man started the fire himself in order to break in to your apartment.”
She was taking deep breaths on the other side of the door.
I took one, too, and tried to get at what had so far been unspoken. “I work with victims of sex crimes, Tina. That’s all I do. It’s why the police thought I might be able to help. I deal with the most sensitive cases you can imagine,” I said, closing my eyes, which burned from the lingering smoke. “Did this man assault you tonight?”
She coughed again.
I didn’t know how long he’d been within the apartment before Billy Schultz saw him running from the building at twelve-thirty
in the morning.
“Did he awaken you when he knocked, Tina?”
“Do you know what time it was when you first went to the door?”
“Five,” she said.
“Five o’clock in the afternoon?” She must have been confused.
“Look, I’m going to have to let the police work on your door, or the back window in your kitchen, Tina. You may be a little woozy. He couldn’t have been inside there that long.”
There was a noise before Tina Barr spoke next, as though she shifted her position. She had gotten to her feet, perhaps angered by my comment. I stood up, too, as she pounded on the door. “I know exactly what time it was when the man knocked, do you understand? It wasn’t the middle of the night, Ms. Cooper. It was five o’clock.”
All the cops and I had assumed the events had occurred within minutes of Schultz’s arrival home. Fast, like most break-ins, and while the smoke bombs were steaming. We were wrong.
“I apologize, Tina. That’s even more reason for me to know what he did to you.” I didn’t want to suggest the word rape to her. I needed her to reveal to me what had occurred.
“I don’t want to talk to any cops, Ms. Cooper. I’ll tell you what happened if that will make them go away.”
“I’m alone down here now. The men won’t come in.” I paused before I spoke again. “I give you my word.”
Tina Barr sniffled, then was quiet. I heard the dead bolt turn. The door opened a few inches and I could see the young woman peering out from behind it, clutching the lapels of her white chenille robe with one hand. Her dark brown hair was disheveled, her eyes reddened from at least an hour of crying, and what looked to be remains of adhesive tape forming a rectangle on the skin around her mouth, where she had probably been gagged.
I reached out a hand to her, hoping to comfort her with a touch, but she recoiled at the movement in her direction.
“You’re mistaken if you think this was about a sex crime, Ms. Cooper. He wanted to kill me,” Tina Barr said. “That man left me for dead.”