It was hard not to smile as I watched Lola Dakota die.
I clicked the remote control button and listened to the commentary
again on another network.
"New Jersey police officers have released a portion of these
dramatic videotapes to the media this evening. We're going to play
for you the actual recordings the three hit men hired by her
husband to kill Ms. Dakota made to prove to him that they had
accomplished their mission."
The local reporter was posed in front of a large mansion in the
town of Summit, less than an hour's drive from where I was sitting,
in the video technicians' office of the New York County District
Attorney. Snowflakes drifted and swirled around her head as she
pointed a gloved hand at the darkened facade of a house ringed with
strands of tiny white Christmas lights that outlined the roof, the
windows, and the enormous wreath on the front door.
"Earlier this afternoon, before the sun went down, Hugh," the woman
addressed the news channel's anchorman, "those of us who gathered
here for word of Ms. Dakota's condition could see pools of blood,
left in the snow during the early morning shooting. It will be a
grim holiday season for this forty-two-year-old university
professor's family. Let's take you back over the story that led to
this morning's tragic events."
Mike Chapman grabbed the clicker from my hand and pressed the mute
button, then jabbed at my back with it. "How come the Jersey
prosecutors got to do this caper? Too big for you to handle,
As the bureau chief in charge of sex crimes for the New York County
District Attorney's Office for more than a decade, sexual assault
cases -- as well as domestic violence and stalking crimes -- fell
under my jurisdiction. The district attorney, Paul Battaglia, ran
an office with a legal staff of more than six hundred lawyers, but
he had taken a particular interest in the investigation of the
professor's perilous marital entanglement.
"Battaglia didn't like the whole idea -- the risk, the melodrama,
and...well, the emotional instability of Lola Dakota. He probably
didn't know the story would look this good on the late news
broadcast or he might have reconsidered."
Chapman lifted his foot to the edge of my chair and swiveled it
around so that I faced him. "Had you worked with Lola for a long
"I guess it's been almost two years since the first day I met her.
Someone called Battaglia from the president's office at Columbia
University. Said there was a matter that needed to be handled
discreetly." I reached for a cup of coffee. "One of their
professors had split from her husband, and he was stalking her. The
usual domestic. She didn't want to have him arrested, didn't want
any publicity that would embarrass the administration -- just
wanted him to leave her alone. The DA kicked it over to me to try
to make it happen. That's how I met Lola Dakota. And became aware
of her miserable husband."
"What'd you do for her?"
Chapman worked homicides, most of the time relying on sophisticated
forensic technology and reliable medical evidence to solve his
cases. He rarely dealt with breathing witnesses, and although he
was the best detective in the Manhattan North Squad when he came
face-to-face with a corpse, Chapman was always intrigued by how the
rest of us in law enforcement managed to untangle and resolve the
delicate problems of the living.
"Met with her several times, trying to convince her that we could
make a prosecution stick and gain her trust to let me bring
charges. I explained that filing a criminal complaint was the only
way I could get a judge to put some muscle behind our actions."
Lola was like most of our victims. She wanted the violence to stop,
but she did not want to face her spouse in a court of law.
"No better than usual. When reasoning with her failed, we relocated
her to a temporary apartment, arranged for counseling, and sent a
couple of our detectives to talk to her husband informally and
explain that Lola was giving him a break."
"Happy to see the local constables, was he?"
"Elated. They told him that she didn't want us to lock him up, but
if he kept harassing her, that wasn't a choice I would allow her to
make the next time he darkened her doorway. So he behaved...for a
"Until she moved back in with him?"
"Right. Just in time for Valentine's Day."
"Hearts and flowers, happily ever after?"
"Eight months." I turned back to glance at the screen, motioning to
Mike to give us sound again. Flakes were caking up on the
reporter's eyelids as she continued to tell her story, reminding me
that undoubtedly snow was piling up on my Jeep as well, which was
parked in front of the building. A picture of Ivan Kralovic, Lola's
husband, appeared as an insert on the bottom right corner of the
"We've got to take a short break," the reporter said, repeating the
euphemistic phrase that signaled a commercial interruption, "then
we'll show you the dramatic footage that led to Mr. Kralovic's
Mike got rid of the noise. "And at the end of those eight months,
what happened? Did you lock him up the second time?"
"No. She wouldn't even give me a clue about what he had done.
Called me that October to ask how to get an order of protection.
After I greased the wheels to expedite it for her in family court,
she told me she had rented an apartment on Riverside Drive, moved
to a new office away from the campus, and settled her problems with
Ivan the Terrible."
"Don't disappoint me, Coop. Tell me he lived up to his name."
"Predictably. It was in January of this year that he cut her with a
corkscrew, while they were enjoying a quiet dinner for two. Must
have mistaken her for a good Burgundy. Sliced open her forearm. He
raced her to St. Luke's and it took twenty-seven stitches to close
"They were together for just that one evening?"
"No, he had coaxed her back for the holidays a month earlier. A
Chapman shook his head. "Yeah, I guess most accidents happen close
to home. You nail his ass for that one?"
"Once again, Lola refused to prosecute. Told the doctors in the ER
-- while Ivan was standing at her bedside -- that she'd done it
herself. By the time I heard about it through the university and
got her down to my office, she was completely uncooperative. Said
that if I had Ivan locked up, she would never tell the true story
in a courtroom. She had learned her lesson by trying to reunite
with him, she assured me, and wasn't going to have anything further
to do with him."
"Guess he didn't get the picture."
"He stalked Lola on and off. That's what led her to hide out in New
Jersey, at her sister's house, sometime in the spring. She called
me every now and then, after Ivan threatened her or when she
thought she was being followed. But her sister got spooked --
worried about her own safety -- and brought Lola to the local
prosecutors over there."
"Let's go to the videotape," Mike said, spinning my chair back to
the television screen and hitting the sound button on the clicker.
The film was rolling and the reporter's voice-over was providing
the narrative. The scene appeared to be the same large suburban
house, earlier in the day.
"...and you can see the white delivery van parked at the side of
the road. The two men walked up the steps in front of the home,
which is owned by Ms. Dakota's sister, carrying the cases of wine.
When the professor opened the door and came outside to accept the
gift bottles, both men put their packages on the ground. The one on
the left presented a receipt that Dakota leaned over to sign, while
the man on the right -- there he goes now -- pulled a revolver from
beneath his jacket and fired five times, at point-blank
I leaned forward and watched again as Lola clutched at her chest,
her body pushed backward by the force of the impact. Her eyes
opened wide for an instant, seeming to stare directly at the lens
of the camera, before they closed, as she fell to the ground, blood
oozing from her clothing onto the clean white cover provided by the
preceding day's dusting of snow.
Then, the camera, held by a third accomplice in the van, zoomed in
for a close-up, and the man seemed to lose control of the equipment
as it apparently dropped from his fingers.
"When the killers played their tape for Ivan Kralovic in his office
at noon today, after the Summit Police Department released the news
of Ms. Dakota's death to the wire services, they were rewarded with
a payment of one hundred thousand dollars in cash."
Back to a live shot of the chilled reporter, wrapping up her story
for the night. "Unfortunately for Kralovic, the gunmen he had hired
to kill his estranged wife were actually undercover detectives from
the county sheriff's office here in New Jersey, who staged the
shooting with the enthusiastic participation of the intended
The tape rolled again and showed the supposedly deceased Dakota now
sitting upright against the front door of the house and smiling for
the camera as she removed the outer jacket that had concealed the
packets of "blood" that had spurted and flowed so convincingly
"We've been waiting here, Hugh, hoping this brave woman would tell
us how she feels now that she has taken such dramatic steps to end
years of spousal abuse and bring to justice the man who wanted to
kill her. But sources tell us that she left the house here this
afternoon, after Kralovic's arrest, and has not yet returned." The
reporter glanced down at her notes to read a comment from the local
prosecutor. "The district attorney, however, wants us to express
his gratitude to the county sheriff for this 'innovative plan that
put an end to Ivan's reign of terror, something that prosecutors
from Paul Battaglia's office and the New York Police Department
across the Hudson River have been unable to do for two years.' Back
to the studio -- "
I pulled the remote away from Chapman and slammed it onto the
desktop after shutting off the set. "Let's go back to my office and
close up for the night."
"Temper, temper, Ms. Cooper. Dakota's not likely to win the Oscar
for her performance. You peeved 'cause you didn't get a chance to
do the film direction?"
I turned off the light and closed the door behind us. "I don't
begrudge her anything. But why did the Jersey DA have to take a
shot at us? He knows it hasn't been our choice to let this thing
drag on as long as it did." There wasn't a seasoned prosecutor
anywhere who didn't know that the most frustrating dynamic in an
abusive marriage was the love-hate relationship that persisted
between victim and offender, even after the violence
My heels clicked on the tiles of the quiet corridor as we snaked
our way down the long, dark hallway from Video to my eighth-floor
office. It was almost eleven-thirty at night, and the tapping of an
occasional computer keyboard was the only noise I heard to suggest
that any of my colleagues were still at their desks.
Only a handful of cases went to trial this time of year, in the
middle of December, with lawyers, judges, and jurors all
anticipating the two-week court hiatus for the holiday season. I
had been working late -- reviewing indictments for the
end-of-the-term filing deadline, and preparing to conduct a sex
offender registration hearing after the weekend -- when Detective
Michael Chapman came over to tell me the eleven o'clock news was
leading with the Dakota story. He had been down the street at
headquarters to drop off some evidence at the Property Clerk's
Office and called to see if I wanted a drink before knocking off
for the night.
"C'mon, I'll buy you dinner," he now said. "Can't expect me to last
the midnight shift on an empty stomach. Not with all the dead
bodies I'm likely to encounter."
"It's too late to eat."
"That means you got a better offer. Jake must be home, cooking up
some exotic -- "
"Wrong. He's in Washington. Got the assignment on that story of the
ambassador who was assassinated in Uganda, at the economic
conference." I'd been dating an NBC News correspondent since early
summer, and the rare nights he was free in time for dinner took me
away from my usual haunts and habits.
"How come they keep giving him all that Third World stuff to cover
when he seems like such a First World guy?"
The phone was ringing as I opened the door to my office.
"Alex?" Jake's voice sounded brusque and businesslike. "I'm at the
NBC studio in D.C."
"How's your story coming?"
"Lola Dakota is dead."
"I know," I said, sitting down in my chair and turning away from
Chapman for some privacy. "Mike and I just watched the whole bit on
the local news. I think she's got a real future on the stage. Hard
to believe she went for all that phony ketchup and -- "
"Listen to me, Alex. She was killed tonight."
I turned back to look at Mike, rolling my eyes to suggest that Jake
clearly had not seen the entire story yet and didn't understand
that the shooting was a setup. "We know all that, and we also know
that Paul Battaglia is not going to be thrilled when the tabloids
point the finger at me for not putting this mess to bed a couple of
"This isn't about you, Alex. I've heard the whole story with the
Jersey prosecutors and their sting operation. But there's a later
headline that just came over the newsroom wires a few minutes ago,
probably while you and Mike were watching the story run on the air.
Some kids found Lola Dakota's body tonight -- her dead body -- in
the basement of an apartment building in Manhattan, crushed to
death at the bottom of an elevator shaft."
My eyes shut tight and I rested my head on the back of my chair as
Jake lowered his voice to make his point. "Trust me, darling. Lola
Dakota is dead."
Excerpted from THE DEADHOUSE © Copyright 2001 by Linda
Fairstein. Reprinted with permission by Pocket, an imprint of Simon
and Schuster. All rights reserved.