In the long ago an eagle circled high above a rabbit burrow and would swoop down and lay on the ground a branch of ripe berries, and then climb high again into the sky.
The rabbit would see how high the eagle was and know there was time to leave the safety of the burrow to snatch the berries and return to the burrow before the eagle could reach him from up so high.
Again the next day the eagle would swoop down and leave a branch of berries, but this time a little farther from the burrow. Again the rabbit would see the eagle circling high in the clear sky and seize the berries and return to the burrow before the eagle might reach him.
For seven days this happened, each day the rabbit venturing farther from its burrow, and the eagle simply circled high overhead and looked very small against the pale blue top of the sky. The rabbit decided the berries were a gift, but still the eagle was an eagle and not to be trusted.
On the eighth day the branch of berries was still far from the burrow, but the eagle so small in the sky seemed no threat and like a mote in the rabbit’s wary eye.
But as the rabbit left his burrow the eagle became larger, and it wasn’t an eagle at all this time but a hawk that had seemed so high only because it was smaller than the eagle the rabbit usually saw. Too late the rabbit realized what had happened. There was no time to return to the safety of the burrow.
The weak things in the world have a time to die that is sooner than the strong. That is why the spirit made the weak and the strong. In its heart, the rabbit knew this and was still.
The hawk swooped down, and its wings spread wider and wider and covered the sun and made the sky black. The hawk’s talons cut like blades into the rabbit’s back, and the rabbit screamed as the hawk lifted it higher and higher into a blackness darker than the night. The screams became the wind and the beating of the hawk’s great wings the thunder of the coming storms.
In the long-ago day, these things did happen.
New York, the present
Vera Doaks keyed the lock on her apartment door and told herself she needed to be patient.
She’d been in New York a little more than a month. That wasn’t a long time, and already she’d placed an article in the airline magazine Nation Travels and sold a short story to a nationally published mystery magazine. Her MFA from Ohio State University was paying off. She told herself it wouldn’t be long before she wouldn’t have to wait tables in order to pay the rent. Some publisher would pay it for her.
She paused by the framed flea-market mirror in the entry hall and tilted her head to the side for a dust jacket publicity shot. The attractive redhead in the mirror smiled out at her, with wide cheekbones like a model’s, intense brown eyes, slightly upturned nose, strong cleft chin, a knowing, confident grin.
Look intelligent now.
Her famous writer look. Vera practiced it frequently. A career as a novelist was what really interested her. The short story she’d sold was going to be the basis for her first book, a suspense novel set in her new city, New York.
She was from a small town, and she loved the hurricane of activity every day in the city, then the pulsing energy that maintained it through the nights. The theater (which she could barely afford), the delis and street vendors, the wandering transfixed tourists, the underground city of subways and tragic songs and sometimes dangerous people, the rich stepping over the poor, the poor rising up to be rich, the maelstrom of races and religions, of neighborhoods and languages and the uncertainties of life; she thrilled to all of it. Here, Vera knew, was the stuff of inspiration and of great fiction.
Vera was positive she was capable of inspiration. She never gave up believing in herself. Nobody had ever explained to her satisfaction why she should.
She hadn’t given up hope on the short story and article she’d submitted, and here she was, able to pay another month’s rent on the Hell’s Kitchen walk-up apartment she’d come to love.
Love, of the romantic sort, that was the one thing missing in her unfolding life of good fortune.
There’s no need to give up hope for that, either.
She unlaced her joggers, worked her heels out of them, and kicked off the gray composite and canvas shoes so they bounced off a wall. Walked over to where her bed and a dresser were located behind a three-panel Chinese-print folding screen in the cramped efficiency apartment. From an apportioned space that passed for a closet, where one of the apartment’s many exposed water pipes served as a hanger rod, she drew out the foundation of her wardrobe --- a simple black dress. It seemed that every woman in New York owned a simple black dress and was in competition with every other woman over how to wear and accessorize it. She had uncomfortable but serviceable black high-heeled pumps to wear with the dress tonight, a white scarf and pearls, a matching knockoff Prada purse she’d bought from a street vendor. And she could do wonders with her shoulder-length red hair that was almost dark enough to be auburn. She wasn’t pale, like a lot of redheads. Her dark eyes were flecked with green. Not a ravishing beauty, to be sure, but she and her black dress could compete, and they could damn well win.
It was just that so far they hadn’t.
She peeled off her faded jeans and Yankees T-shirt, then her Macy’s panties, and padded barefoot to the sectioned-off bathroom area with its cramped shower stall.
Tonight might be the night. Tonight, tonight... The words were a melody in her mind.
What was that song from? She searched her memory.
Ah! West Side Story. A great musical, based on Romeo and Juliet. The ultimate lovers.
Well, she was on the West Side.
Vera adjusted the squeaky porcelain faucet handles and stepped beneath the water.
She picked up the smooth oblong sliver of soap and began to sing, knowing that out there in the night the city pulsed like her heart and waited, and the possibilities were endless.
Total darkness, total pain.
Where am I?
Vera tried to raise her head and look around, and a deep ache closed on the back of her neck like a claw. She let her head drop backward.
That was when she realized she was hanging from her bound wrists and ankles. Her mind flashed on photos she’d seen of large dead animals, their lifeless heads dangling, being carried that way on horizontal poles by hunters. Only she wasn’t being carried; she was stationary. The pain was from her cramped neck muscles, and from her body weight pulling down on her wrists and ankles. She could see nothing in the blackness. Hear nothing.
Her head, flush with the blood rushing to it, began to throb with almost unendurable pain behind her ears. She tried to ask if anyone was there, what was happening, but her mouth wouldn’t open. Something, tape probably, was over her lips, sealing them together. She parted them with difficulty but could only make a soft muffled sound halfway between a moan and a sob. She made the pitiful sound again. Any sound was better than the darkness and silence, and the pain.
She tried again to lift her head, but it weighed a thousand pounds.
But with the thought of motion, and another stab of pain, came memory.
Last night at Risqué Business, the man she’d had a couple of drinks with... darkly handsome...well dressed in dark pants and a gray sport jacket...a red tie... and with a cosmopolitan air, what used to be called smooth.
She tried to recall his name.
Had he ever told her?
Blinding her. She involuntarily clenched her eyes shut.
When Vera did manage to open her eyes wider than slits she saw the bottom of a floor, rough wood planks running one direction, joists another. Her wrists were tied together with thick rope that had cut off circulation so that her fingers were pale. She strained to see her ankles, her feet --- are they as pale and bloodless as my hands? --- but couldn’t pull them into her field of vision. She did see several long fluorescent fixtures, two glowing tubes in each. There must be lots of fixtures. That was where all the light was coming from. And the faint, crackling buzzing.
She realized she’d been able to raise her head slightly, almost to the horizontal, and with realization came another shot of pain at the base of her neck. Her head dropped again, dangling at a sharp angle from the thin stalk of her neck.
But she managed to turn her head slightly, before the pain stopped her. She saw that she was in what looked like a large basement. Gray concrete walls, wooden support beams, exposed steam and water pipes, round ductwork with shreds of insulation hanging from some of it like grotesque stalactites.
Asbestos? Could be dangerous.
The pain became unbearable, and she tried not to move at all other than to blink away her tears.
In the glimpse she’d had of herself, confirmed by the lack of constriction on her upper arms and her legs, she knew she was nude.
Someone --- What’s his name? I need to know it so I can plead, beg for him to stop whatever’s going to happen! --- someone had done this to her, put something in her drink, perhaps. Something had caused her to black out, to awaken here, dangling from her bound wrists and ankles like a... She didn’t want to know what. Or didn’t want to think about it.
Tears welled again in her eyes and tracked downward along her temples, beneath her hairline. Tickling as if in cruel and obscene jest.
Motion caught her gaze, and there he was in her pain-blurred vision, the man from last night. She wasn’t surprised to see him. He had to be responsible for this.
He was walking toward her, also nude, like a figure in a dream. Only it wasn’t a dream. She could only pray that it might be. That she might wake up a second time, in her apartment, in her bed. Safe.
When she saw the knife in the man’s hand her heart leaped. She did try to struggle then, but couldn’t so much as squirm. Her hyper extended arms and legs were like lifeless tense cables preventing her from crashing to the concrete floor.
She saw that the man had an erection, and at that moment he reached up with the blade and must have sliced through the rope binding her wrists to the horizontal beam, because her upper body suddenly dropped.
She flinched as she swung downward. Surely her head was going to crack open on the hard floor.
But her body swung like a pendulum, swiveling slightly, her hair brushing the floor with each pass. Though her wrists were bound together, her arms were free now. She reached over her head --- which was downward --- and her fingertips scraped the concrete floor. There was no pain though, only numbness.
As she swung she saw something circular beneath her, a drain cover.
She dragged her numbed fingertips over the rough floor again, hearing them scrape, feeling her nails bend back and tear, as she tried to stop her body from swinging. If only she could stop she might support some of her weight by pressing her fingertips against the floor, reduce the pain in her ankles. The full burden of her weight was pulling on her ankles now, and she was swinging in lessening arcs. The rope must be digging into her flesh. She could feel something warm trickling down her calves, past her knees, along the insides of her thighs toward her crotch.
The rope must have cut deeply into her ankles. She flashed a vision of her twisted, torn flesh.
There was a sudden burning sensation on the right side of her neck. Then on the left. She caught a glimpse of a bloody knife blade and knew the man had slit her throat.
It wasn’t her throat, though. It couldn’t be.
Then she accepted that it was and lifted her arms, probed with her fingers, felt warm blood and something else.
It was when she heard the trickle of her blood in the drain that the real horror engulfed her. Her life was draining away, her remaining time, her remaining everything!
She panicked and tried to suck in air through her nose, and managed to raise her hands enough to rip the tape from her mouth. She drew in a breath to scream but inhaled only blood.
The man had waited until the pendulum arc of Vera’s swinging body narrowed and was almost stopped before he cut the large carotid arteries of her neck.
He watched her.
After she’d tried to scream, he’d drawn the blade across her taut throat.
She wasn’t alive when her body slowed to describe a small elliptical orbit above the drain and finally dangled motionless from the beam.
Nor was she alive to see the man, showered and neatly dressed, leave the building’s basement, switching off the lights behind him.
She’d been dead for several hours when he returned to make sure she was completely bled out.
In the feeble light from his car’s outmoded headlights, retired NYPD homicide detective Frank Quinn didn’t see the damned thing. Not soon enough, anyway.
His old black Lincoln Town Car jounced and rattled over a pothole the size of a bomb crater, and he wondered if he’d chipped a tooth. He lifted what was left of his Cuban cigar from the ashtray and chomped down on it to use it as a mouthpiece so it might at least pad another such impact of upper and lower jaws.
He knew cigars were bad for him and had pretty much given them up, but the Cubans were too much of a temptation. Or maybe part of the appeal was that they were illegal, and he used to be a cop.
He smiled, knowing a cop was never something you used to be. He’d always figured small transgressions forestalled larger ones, so the cigars were okay.
Quinn cursed silently at traffic on Broadway as he jockeyed the big car north toward West Seventy-fifth Street and his apartment. The windows were up, and the air conditioner was humming away in its struggle with the hot summer evening. There was a slight persistent vibration of metal on metal --- possibly a bearing in the blower fan motor going out. Quinn made a mental note to have it looked at. This would be a bad time of year for the car to lose its air-conditioning.
A traffic signal changed a block up, and a string of cars near the curb accelerated and made the sharp right turn onto the cross street. This created a break in the heavy traffic, and Quinn gratefully took advantage of all that barren pavement before him and ran the car up to about forty-five --- a fast clip for most Manhattan streets.
Feeling pretty good, he puffed on his cigar and almost smiled. This was his poker night with five other retired or almost retired NYPD cops, and he’d won over a hundred dollars. It hadn’t been a high-stakes game, so he was far and away the big winner. Everybody but Quinn bitched when they stopped playing, as agreed upon, with the last hand dealt before ten o’clock sharp. Quinn always felt unreasonably triumphant after coming out ahead at poker, even though at the level of skill where he was playing luck had everything to do with the outcome. Still, his life had left him at a point where he took his victories where he could find them.
Light glinted brightly for a moment in the Lincoln’s left outside mirror. Headlights behind him. Despite the car’s brisk speed, the trailing traffic was catching up. Quinn squinted and checked the rearview mirror, but didn’t see much. The thick cigar smoke was doing something to the rear window, fogging it up so he couldn’t see out.
Is it doing that to my lungs?
He could see well enough to know the car behind was too damned close.
Tailgaters always ticked him off. He ran the Lincoln up over fifty.
Almost immediately the big car’s black leather interior was bathed in alternating flashes of red, making it damned difficult to see anything outside.
Irritated, Quinn braked down to about ten miles per hour and peered through the windshield to find a space where he could veer in and stop at the curb.
There didn’t seem to be a space.
Hell with it, he thought, and was about to double-park when a cab pulled out into traffic ahead of him, vacating a space. Quinn steered in close to the curb and saw that there was a fire hydrant there. That was the only reason there was a parking space in this part of town, and it was illegal. He braked to a halt anyway.
If there’s a fire, I’ll move.
The reflected flashing lights grew brighter, the headlights blinding, as the police car wedged in at an angle behind him. He let the Lincoln roll forward a few feet, giving the driver behind him as much room as possible.
Quinn knew better than to get out of the car. He sat still, his hands high on the steering wheel where they could be seen, and watched in the rearview mirror. In the whirligig haze of reflected light behind him, he saw doors open on both sides of the police car. Darkly silhouetted figures climbed out and advanced on the Lincoln, seeming to move jerkily in the alternating light show.
This shouldn’t take long. Quinn might even know one or both of the uniforms. And the cops might know him. He could easily talk his way out of a ticket. Quinn was much respected in the NYPD. He even occasionally heard the word “legend.” He prepared himself to exchange some friendly words and be on his way.
In the mirror he saw one of the silhouetted cops turn back toward the police car. Quinn figured the uniform was going to run a check on the Lincoln’s plates.
Odd, Quinn thought. They could have both waited in the car while the plates were run. It was also odd that the cop on the driver’s side had returned to the police car. It would make more sense for that cop to approach the Lincoln and talk to Quinn through the lowered window.
The one on the right side of the Lincoln, who should have been doing the license check, kept coming, then passed briefly from view at the edge of the mirror.
Quinn felt a prickly sensation on the back of his neck. Something was wrong here.
Brightness slid to the side, out of the mirrors, and the radio car that had pulled Quinn over whooshed past him and continued down the street, its roof bar lights no longer flashing.
The passenger-side door of the Lincoln swung open, and the cop who’d approached on that side slid into the seat.
He wasn’t wearing a uniform. Instead he had on an unbuttoned light raincoat, though it wasn’t raining, and beneath it a suit and tie. A big man, in his late forties, overweight and with dark bags beneath his eyes. His jowls and the flesh beneath his chin sagged, making him look like nothing so much as a pensive bloodhound.
Quinn recognized him immediately, but the prickly sensation didn’t go away.
The man who’d slid out of the night and into his car was New York City Police Commissioner Harley Renz.
Renz smiled, not doing a thing for the bloodhound look, and glanced around. “Smells like hell in here.”
Quinn knew Renz was right. The cigar smoke odor had seeped into the upholstery and every cranny of the car. Even Quinn sometimes found it offensive, and he was used to it.
“You can get out as easy as you got in,” he said. He and Renz had always gotten along, but not in the friendliest manner, each knowing the other perhaps too well.
“You smoking one of those illegal Cuban cigars you like so much?”
“Venezuelan,” Quinn said.
“If you insist.” Renz settled back in his plush seat, still looking over at Quinn. “You got an extra?”
“No,” Quinn said. “You can finish this one.”
“It’ll finish you first.” Renz upped the amperage on his smile. His effort at charm. Still a bloodhound. His eyes had gotten droopier since Quinn had last seen him, slanting downward more at the outer corners as if weights were attached to the sagging flesh. He held his insincere smile as he stared at Quinn. “How’d you do?”
“At the poker game.”
“Ah. Really, all that means is you quit soon enough not to lose.”
“That why you stopped me? You riding in one of the traffic cars so you can collect graft from poker winners?”
“Seeing as I’ve become police commissioner, you should speak more respectfully to me.”
Quinn didn’t bother answering. He was wondering why Harley Renz would be interested enough in his poker night to follow him when he left the game.
“So what’s this about?” Quinn asked. “You want in?”
“I know some of those guys you’re playing cards with, Quinn. They cheat.”
“Your kind of game.”
Quinn waited, tired of word games. He actually did have a sliver of respect for Renz, even though Renz represented authority and bureaucracy. Renz had at one time been a tough and effective homicide detective, and now and then it showed. And both men knew Renz was commissioner because of Quinn’s work on the Torso murders, for which Renz had skillfully garnered most of the credit. Quinn didn’t care about that. In fact, it had been part of the arrangement. The enthusiastically devious and ambitious Renz had used his newfound fame to become the most popular police commissioner in the city’s history. A media darling of monstrous proportions, his high standing in the polls translated into leverage he didn’t hesitate to use.
“I want to tell you a story,” Renz said.
Renz waved a hand dismissively. “You were going way too fast, but we can forget about that.”
Quinn pressed a button, and the window on his side of the Lincoln glided down. Sultry night air mingled with exhaust fumes tumbled into the car. He took a final pull on the cigar and tossed the glowing butt out into the street, watching it bounce and spark like a miniature fireworks display.
“Littering,” Renz said. “Illicit cigars, gambling, speeding, and now this. Jesus, Quinn! You’re a one-man crime wave.”
“It gives me something to do in retirement.” Quinn sighed and brushed cigar ash off his shirt. “It’s still hot out there.”
“Hotter than you know.”
Quinn left the window down to let in plenty of heat so maybe Renz would leave sooner and the car would air out. He leaned forward so he could reach the ignition key and killed the motor.
“This story of yours,” Quinn said. “Go ahead and tell it. And try not to be so cryptic.”
Excerpted from URGE TO KILL © Copyright 2011 by John Lutz. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.