There were only four words beneath the tattoo of the Grim Reaper on Aubrey Davenport’s inner left thigh. But they spoke volumes. Death is my aphrodisiac And nowhere in the entire city was her libido more on point than at the Renwick Smallpox Hospital, a crumbling three-story, U-shaped monster on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. Once a marvel of neo-Gothic architecture, Renwick was now a rotting stone carcass, the final way station for thirteen thousand men, women, and children who had died a painful death. For the city fathers, Renwick was a historical landmark. For the urban explorers, it was New York’s most haunted house. But for Aubrey Davenport, it was a sexual Mecca, and on a warm evening in early May, she and a willing partner scaled the eight-foot fence, made their way into the bowels of the moldering labyrinth, and spread a thick quilted blanket on the rocky floor. She kicked off her shoes, removed her shirt and bra, shucked her jeans, and stood there, naked except for a pair of aquamarine bikini panties. Her nipples responded to the caress of a cool breeze that drifted over her breasts, and she inhaled the earthy scent of the decay around her, mixed with the dank overtones of river water. She dropped to her knees on the blanket, closed her eyes, and waited for her partner. She shuddered as he silently slipped the noose around her neck. His fingers were long and slender. Piano player fingers, her mother used to call them. Like your father has. As a child, Aubrey wondered why a man blessed with the hands of a concert pianist never played an instrument, never even cared to.
But somewhere along the way she came to understand that Cyril Davenport’s long, slender fingers made music of another kind: the crescendo of sound that came from her parents’ bedroom on a nightly basis. Aubrey felt the rope pull tighter. Rope was a misnomer. It was a long strand of silk—the belt from a robe, perhaps—and it felt soft and smooth as he cinched it against her carotid arteries. He took her shoulders and guided her body to the ground until her belly was flat against the cotton blanket below her. “Comfy?” he asked. She laughed. Comfy was such a dumb word. “You’re laughing,” he said. “Life is good, yes?” “Mmmmmm,” she responded. “It’s about to get better,” he said, tugging at the waistband of her panties and sliding them down to her ankles. His fingers teased as they walked slowly up her leg and came to rest on the patch of ink etched into her thigh. His thumb stroked the shrouded figure and arced along the scythe that was clutched in its bony claw. “Hello, death,” he said, removing his hand. Crack! The cat-o’-nine-tails lashed across her bare bottom, burning, stinging, each individual knotted-leather strap leaving its mark.
She bit down hard and buried a scream into the blanket. Pain was the appetizer. Pleasure was the main course. Her body tensed as she waited for his next move. In a single, practiced motion he bent her legs at the knees, tipped them back toward her head, grabbed the tether that was around her neck, and tied the other end to her ankles. “Hand,” he ordered. Aubrey, her right arm beneath her stomach, reached all the way down until her hand was between her legs. “Life is good,” he repeated. “Make it better.” Her fingers groped, parting the pleats, entering the canal, tantalizing the nerve endings. The effect was dizzying: the man with the whip, the foul-smelling ruins, and the inescapable presence of thirteen thousand dead souls. He said something, but she couldn’t hear over the sound of her own labored breathing. And then— the point of no return. She felt the swell of gratification surging through her body, and with near surgical precision she gently lowered her feet toward the ground. The silk rope around her neck tightened, compressing her carotid arteries.
The sudden loss of oxygen along with the buildup of carbon dioxide made her light-headed, giddy, almost hallucinogenic. The orgasm came in waves. It left her gasping for air, but the euphoria was so powerful, so addictive, that she intensified the pressure around her neck, knowing she could go just a few more seconds. If erotic asphyxiation were an Olympic event, Aubrey Davenport would have been a world-class contender. Her brain was just on the threshold of losing consciousness when she released the death grip, and brought her feet back toward her buttocks. But the noose refused to relax. If anything, it felt tighter. Panic seized her. She thrashed, pulled her hands up to her throat, and clawed at the silk, fighting for air and finding none. She never made mistakes. Something must have snagged. She reached behind her neck, desperately trying to find some slack, when her fingers found his hand. He jerked hard on the silk cord, and her arms flailed. She slumped, too weak to struggle, all hope gone. Everything went black, and as the reaper stepped out of the darkness to claim her, tears streamed down her cheeks, because in the last seconds of her life, Aubrey Davenport finally realized that she didn’t want to die.
TWO The Cotillion Room at The Pierre hotel bubbled over with New York’s wealthiest—including a few who were wealthier than some countries. They were the richest of the rich, the ones who get invited to fifty-thousand-dollars-a-plate dinners when one of their own wants to tap them for a worthy cause. In this case, the charity with its hand out was the Silver Bullet Foundation. The thirty-foot-long banner at the front of the hall proclaimed its noble mission: FIGHTING FOR THE LESS FORTUNATE. The man in the black tie and white jacket busing tables in the rear had boiled when he first saw the sign. They haven’t done shit for me, and I’m the least fortunate person in the room. They’re like swans, he thought as he watched them glide serenely from table to table: so elegant, so regal, but fiercely territorial and vicious when they feel threatened. And like swans, he observed, they are oh so white. He counted half a dozen black swans among them, but for the most part, the people of color were there to serve. He fit right in. With his shoulders slumped, his jaw slack, and a cheap pair of clear-lens nerd glasses to dial down the intensity of his piercing black eyes, he was practically invisible, and definitely forgettable. The only human contact he’d had in the three hours since donning the uniform was with a besotted old patrician who’d slurred, “Hey fella, where’s the men’s room?” Shortly after nine, the lights dimmed, the chatter died down, and the commanding voice of James Earl Jones piped through the sound system. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the cofounder and chairman of the Silver Bullet Foundation, Mr. Princeton Wells.” The staff had been instructed to stop work during the presentation, and the busboy dutifully stepped into the shadows near a fire exit as Princeton Wells bounded onto the stage.
Wells was his typically charming, still-boyish-at-forty, old-moneyed self. And lest any man in the room suspect that someone that rich and that good-looking wasn’t getting laid, Wells kicked off the festivities by introducing his current girlfriend, Kenda Whithouse, to a captive audience. Ms. Whithouse stood up, waved to the room, and threw her billionaire boyfriend a kiss. She was only twenty-three, an actress who was not quite yet tabloid fodder, but who clearly had the talent to fill out an evening gown. Those who knew Princeton Wells had no doubt that the gown would be lying crumpled on his bedroom floor by morning. Having trotted out his latest eye candy, Wells got down to the serious business of reminding all the do-gooders in the room how much good they were doing for the city’s less fortunate. “And no one,” he decreed, “has been more supportive of Silver Bullet than Her Honor, the mayor of New York, Muriel Sykes.” The city’s first female mayor, her approval rating still sky-high after only four months in office, was greeted by enthusiastic applause as she stepped up to the podium. The busboy did not applaud. He slid his smartphone from his jacket pocket and tapped six digits onto the keypad. One, two, two, nine, nine, seven. He stared at it, not seeing a sequence of numbers but a moment in time that had changed his life forever: December 29, 1997. His finger hovered over the Send button as the mayor began to speak. “I’m not a big fan of giving speeches at rubber chicken dinners,” she said, “even when the chicken turns out to be grade A5 Miyazaki Wagyu beef.
” Everyone but the busboy found that funny. “On the second day of my administration, I had a meeting with the four founders of Silver Bullet. They showed me a picture of an abandoned old warehouse in the Bronx, and I said, ‘Who owns that eyesore?’ And they said, ‘You do, Madam Mayor. But if you sell it to us for a dollar, we will raise enough money to convert it into permanent housing for a hundred and twenty-five chronically homeless adults.’ “I accepted their offer, framed the dollar, and am thrilled to announce that next month we will start construction. I’m here tonight to thank you all for your generous contributions and to introduce one of the four men who spearheaded this project. He is the brilliant architect whose vision will turn that dilapidated monstrosity into a beautiful apartment complex for some of our neediest citizens. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Del Fairfax.” Fairfax, architect to the one percent, stepped onto the stage to show off what wonders he could create for the indigent. Spot-on handsome and aw-shucks personable, he rested a laptop on the podium, flipped it open, and said, “I know how fond you all are of PowerPoint presentations, so I put one together for you. Only ninety-seven slides.” The half-sloshed crowd warmly gave him his due. “Just kidding,” he said. “Princeton told me if I showed more than five, you’d start asking for your money back. The new facility will be called Tremont Gardens.
First, let me show you what it looks like now.” He picked up a wireless remote and pushed a button. The explosion rocked the Cotillion Room. Del Fairfax’s upper torso hurtled toward the screen behind him, while the bomb’s jet spray of ball bearings, nails, and glass shards chewed into his lower half, scattering bits and pieces across the stage like a wood chipper gone rogue. Thick smoke, flying shrapnel, and abject fear filled the air. The busboy, standing far from the backblast, slipped through the emergency exit, leaving in his wake sheer pandemonium, as four hundred New Yorkers found themselves caught up in the nightmare they had been dreading since September 11, 2001. PART ONE SEX, DRUGS, AND HIGH-STAKES POKER CHAPTER 1 Kylie and I had never been attached to Mayor Sykes’s security detail before, but once she agreed to speak at the Silver Bullet Foundation fund-raiser, she recruited us for the night. The word came down from our boss. “The mayor wants to do a little fund-raising of her own,” Captain Cates said. “She comes up for reelection in three and a half years, and as long as she’s going to spend the evening rubbing elbows with her biggest donors, she wants to assure them that she’s not just a champion of the unfortunate poor. She cares deeply about the disgustingly rich. And what better way to demonstrate her concern for their welfare than by trotting out a couple of poster cops from NYPD Red?” “Thanks, but no thanks,” Kylie said. “Doesn’t she realize we already spend sixty hours a week overprotecting the overprivileged? Now she’s inviting us to suck up to them at some—” Cates cut her off. “Did I use the word invite? Because the last time I read the department manual I didn’t see anything about invitations being passed down the chain of command. The mayor specifically instructed me to assign Detectives Kylie MacDonald and Zach Jordan to her security detail.
Consider yourselves assigned. No RSVP required.” I figured it would be the most boring night of the week. And I was right—until the podium exploded. It was one of those shock and awe explosions. The blinding flash, the deafening boom, the thick smoke, the chemical stench, and the flying chunks of wood, glass, metal, and Del Fairfax. Mayor Sykes had just come off the stage and returned to her seat when the bomb went off. Kylie and I were only an arm’s length away from her. We yanked her from her chair and, shielding her body with ours, bulled our way through the chaos toward our prearranged exit door. At least fifty other frenzied people had the same idea. I keyed my radio and yelled over the din, “Explorer, this is Red One. Vanguard is safe. Egress Alpha is blocked. We’re making our way toward Bravo.” We did a one-eighty and shoved the mayor toward the kitchen.
The path was clear, and the vast stainless steel hub of the hotel’s multimillion-dollar banquet business was almost deserted. Except for a few stragglers, the staff had beaten a quick retreat through a rear fire door and down a stairwell to the employee locker rooms. At that point, many of them decided that they were out of harm’s way, and at least twenty of them were standing in the corridor, almost every one with a cell phone to his or her ear. “NYPD. Get out of the way! Get out of the fucking way!” Kylie bellowed as we elbowed our way through the logjam. A hotel security guard saw us coming and pushed open a metal door that led to the outside world. As soon as she felt the cool night air and heard the sounds of her city, the mayor stopped. “Please,” she said. “I’m too old for this shit. Let me catch my breath.” “Sorry, ma’am,” Kylie said. “Not here. We only have another hundred feet. Keep going, or Zach and I will carry you to the car.” The mayor gave Kylie an enigmatic stare that could have been anywhere on the spectrum from contempt to gratitude.
“Nobody…” she said, breathing heavily, “carries…Muriel Sykes…anywhere. Lead the way.” We single-filed down a narrow alleyway, past a row of Dumpsters, and I radioed ahead to her team. The alley came out on East 61st Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. Just as we got to the far end, the mayor’s black SUV drove up onto the sidewalk. Her driver, Charlie, jumped out and swung open the rear door. I offered to help the mayor into the back seat, but she waved me off. “This is as far as I’m going,” she said. “Ma’am, this is not the place for you to be,” Kylie said. “A maniac just set off a bomb in my city, Detective. This is my responsibility.” “Yes, ma’am, but maniacs have a bad habit of setting off secondary bombs targeting people who have just run from the first,” Kylie said. “And it’s our responsibility to get you to safe ground.” “Madam Mayor,” Charlie said, “they’re setting up a command center at the Park Avenue Armory. I can have you there in two minutes.
” Crisis averted. The mayor got in the car, shut the door, and rolled down her window. “Thank you, Detectives,” she said. That was it. Three words, and the window went back up. Within seconds, the oversize, bulletproof Ford Explorer peeled out and, with lights flashing and sirens wailing, whisked Muriel Sykes away to the longest night of her fledgling administration. “I hate these boring babysitting jobs,” Kylie said. “Let’s go do some real police work.” The two of us ran back down the alley and up the stairs toward the smoke-filled ballroom. CHAPTER 2 Kylie and Ijoined the influx of first responders who raced to help the injured. It was just cops and firefighters at first, but when a bomb explodes in a public place, it sets off a Pavlovian response. Law enforcement agencies everywhere start salivating. By the ten o’clock news cycle, The Pierre was the most famous crime scene in America, and everyone—Feds, staties, NYPD, FDNY, even the DEA—wanted a piece of the action. Fortunately, the turf war dust settled long before the acrid gray cloud in the Cotillion Room, and Kylie and I were thrown together with Howard Malley, an FBI bomb tech we’d run into before. Malley is a hawkeyed post-blast investigator and a pull-no-punches New York ballbuster, but he can also get testy as a cobra when you disagree with him.
In short, he was a lot like Kylie. Maybe that’s why I liked him. The two of us suited up—disposable Tyvek coveralls, sock boots, face mask—and we crossed the threshold to ground zero. The rear of the room was remarkably intact. Flower arrangements and wineglasses were still sitting on several tables, waiting to be cleared. We walked toward the spot where Del Fairfax, Princeton Wells, and Mayor Sykes had stood less than an hour ago, wooing their wealthy benefactors. Windows were shattered, wood-paneled walls were peppered with shrapnel, and the floor was littered with the detritus of the blast: scorched drapery, sparkling chunks of chandelier crystal, overturned chairs, silverware, shoes, purses— thousands of puzzle pieces that had made a picture-perfect evening and now lay in tatters, covered in thick dust and splattered with blood. At the center of it all was the man who was supposed to make sense of this seemingly senseless act. He was squatting at one end of the forty-foot charred swath that had been the stage. Agent Malley, a bald-headed, gray-bearded FBI lifer, was squinting at a pair of forceps in his right hand through a pocket magnifying glass. He looked up when he heard us coming his way. “Well, if it isn’t Jordan and MacDonald,” he said. “How’s business at NYPD’s Fat Cat Squad?” “Booming,” Kylie deadpanned. “You find something down there?” “Maybe.” He stood up.
“If you think of this mess as a four-thousand-square-foot haystack, I may have just found a needle. Take a look.” Kylie and I took turns studying the prize dangling from Malley’s stainless steel pincers. It was a piece of wire. Three pieces, actually—one red, one white, one blue—twisted together in pigtail fashion. It was as thin as a strand of angel-hair pasta and no more than two inches long. “And that’s significant?” I asked. “Again, maybe. These bomb makers—we see them as mass murderers, but they like to think of themselves as artists.” He gave the word a French spin so that it came out arteests. “And like artists everywhere, they are compelled to sign their masterpieces. This little red, white, and blue twisty thing isn’t something I’ve come across before, so the thought popped into my head that maybe it’s our bomber’s signature.” “Red, white, and blue,” Kylie said. “So what does that mean—death to America?” “The bomb says death. I think the wire is about the guy who built it.
” “Red, white, and blue,” Kylie repeated. “You think he’s an American?” “Or he could be a color-blind Lithuanian. It would be nice to know what it symbolizes, but what would be really helpful is if this is his trademark, and he’s in our global database. I’ll take it back to the office and see if we get a hit.” “So, what’s your take so far?” I asked. He bagged the tiny fragment of wire, marked it, and put it in an evidence bin. “It wasn’t a terrorist attack,” he said. “You sure?” “Hell, no. I’m just a humble underpaid government employee, not Harry Potter. But you asked what’s my take, which kind of means my educated guess after snooping around for twenty minutes. It’ll never stand up in court, but right now my take is that with only one dead and twenty-two injured, this is not the handiwork of a dyed-in-the-wool, trained-in-Syria jihadi.” “Not a terrorist?” Kylie said. “Howard, this guy took out twenty-three people with a bomb.” “You’re not listening, Detective,” Malley said, his defense mechanisms going on point. “I didn’t say he wasn’t a pro.
This guy is top-shelf. But he was using a shaped charge aimed at killing one person. Those twenty-two other people were collateral damage, some from the blowback, but mostly from the stampede. I don’t know nearly as much about dealing with zillionaires as you do, but I’m guessing this was an every-man-for-himself crowd. They’d have a lot fewer broken bones if they didn’t panic. This guy was only after Fairfax. It wasn’t terrorism. It was personal.” “If it were personal,” Kylie said, “wouldn’t it have been easier just to murder him in his bed?” Malley shrugged. “I’m guessing he wanted to make a public statement. I just have no idea what he was trying to say.” He winked. “But then, that’s not my problem.”