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By RICHARD CASTLE
HyperionCopyright © 2011 Richard Castle
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Chapter OneNikki Heat pondered red lights and why they seemed to last so much longer when there was no traffic. The one she waited for at Amsterdam and 83rd was taking forever to change. The detective was rolling on her first call of the morning and probably could have lit up her gumball to make her left turn, but the crime was long since done, the medical examiner was on scene, and the body wasn't going anywhere. She used the interlude to peel back the lid of her coffee to see if it was drinking temp yet. The cheap white plastic cracked, and she ended up holding half the lid with the other half still seated on the cup. Heat cursed aloud and chucked the useless half on the passenger-side floor mat. Just as she was about to take a sip, desperately needing a caffeine jolt to lift her morning fog, a horn honked behind her. The light had finally gone green. Of course.
With an experienced hand tilting the cup so the momentum of her turn wouldn't slop coffee over the rim and onto her fingers, Nikki steered left onto 83rd. She had just straightened the wheel passing Cafe Lalo when a dog darted out in front of her. Heat slammed the brakes. Coffee sloshed onto her lap. It was all over her skirt, but she was more concerned about the dog.
Thankfully, she didn't hit it. She didn't even scare it. The dog, a small German shepherd or husky mix, boldly stood there in the street right in front of her, not moving, just staring at her over its shoulder. Nikki smiled at it and waved. And still, it just stood there. That stare unnerved her. It was challenging and intrusive. The eyes were sinister, piercing under dark brows and a permanent frown. As she examined it, something else seemed off about the dog. Like it wasn't a dog at all. Too small for a shepherd or husky, and the coloring of its rough coat was tan mottled by gray. And the muzzle was too thin and pointed. It was more foxlike. No.
It was a coyote.
The same impatient driver behind her gave another horn blast and the animal left. Not in a panic run, but a trot, displaying wild elegance, potential speed, and something else. Arrogance. She watched it reach the other curb, where it stopped, gave her a backward glance, complete with brazen eye contact, and then dashed off toward Amsterdam.
For Nikki, an unsettling way to start her morning: first the scare of almost hitting an animal; then the creepy look. She drove on, blotting herself with napkins from the glove box, wishing she had chosen a black skirt this morning and not gone with the khaki.
* * *
It never got any easier for Nikki to meet a corpse. As she sat behind the steering wheel at 86th and Broadway, parked behind the OCME van, observing the silent movie of a coroner at work, she once again reflected that maybe that was a good thing.
The medical examiner was crouched on the sidewalk in front of the shared storefront of a lingerie shop and the newest gourmet cupcake bakery. A duo of mixed messages, if there ever was one. She couldn't see the victim he was working. Thanks to a citywide garbage strike, a waist-high mound of refuse started in the gutter and encroached on a good bit of the sidewalk, obscuring the body from Heat's view. She could whiff the two days of trash rot even in the morning chill. At least the mound formed a handy barrier to keep the looky-loos back. There were already a dozen early risers up the block and an equal number behind the yellow tape down at the corner near the subway entrance.
She looked at the digital clock flashing time and temperature on the bank up the street. Only 6:18. More and more of her shifts were starting like this. The downturn in the economy had hit everyone, and in her personal observation, whether it was the city cutbacks in policing or merely the sort of economy that fueled crime—or both—Detective Heat was meeting more corpses these days. She didn't need Diane Sawyer to break out the crime stats for her to know that if the body count wasn't up, the rate was at least quickening its pace.
But no matter what the statistics, the victims meant something to her, one at a time. Nikki Heat had promised herself never to become a volume dealer in homicides. It wasn't in her makeup and it wasn't in her experience.
Her own loss almost ten years ago had shredded her insides, yet in between the scar tissue that formed there after her mother's murder, there still sprung shoots of empathy. Her precinct skipper, Captain Montrose, told her once that that was what made her his best detective. All things considered, she'd rather have gotten there without the pain, but someone else dealt those cards, and there she was, early on an otherwise beautiful October morning, to feel the raw nerve again.
Nikki observed her personal ritual, a brief reflection for the victim, forging her own connection to the case in light of her own victimhood and, especially, to honor her mom. It took her all of five seconds. But it made her feel ready.
She got out of the car and went to work.
Detective Heat ducked under the yellow tape at an opening in the trash heap and stopped short, startled to see herself staring up from the cover of a discarded issue of a First Press magazine poking out of a garbage bag, between an egg carton and a stained pillow. God, she hated that pose, one foot up on her chair in the precinct bull pen, arms folded, her Sig Sauer holstered on her hip beside her shield. And that awful headline:
CRIME WAVE MEETS HEAT WAVE
At least someone had the good sense to trash it, she thought, and moved on to join her two detectives, Raley and Ochoa, inside the perimeter.
The partners, affectionately team-nicknamed "Roach," had already been working the scene and greeted her. "Morning, Detective," they said almost in unison.
Raley looked at her and said, "I'd offer you a coffee, but I see you've already worn yours."
"Hilarious. You should host your own morning show," she said. "What do we have here?" Heat made her own visual survey as Ochoa filled her in on the vie. He was a male Hispanic, thirty to thirty-five, dressed in worker's clothes, lying faceup in a pile of garbage bags on the sidewalk. He had ghastly flesh tearing and bite marks on the soft underside of his neck. More on his gut where his T-shirt was ripped away.
Nikki flashed on her coyote and turned to the ME. "What are all these bite marks?"
"Postmortem is my guess," said the medical examiner. "See the wounds on the hands and forearms?" He indicated the victim's open palms draped at his sides. "Those weren't caused by animal bites. Those are defense wounds from an edge weapon. I say knife or box cutter. But if he'd been alive when the dog got to him, he'd have bites on his hands, which he doesn't. And take a look at this." He knelt beside the body, and Heat dropped to a squat beside him as he used a gloved finger to indicate a piercing of the man's shirt.
"Stab wound," Nikki said.
"We'll know for sure after the autopsy, but I bet that's our COD. The dog was probably just a scavenger working the trash." He paused. "Oh, and Detective Heat?"
"Yes?" She studied him, wondering what other information he had for her.
"I enjoyed your article in this month's First Press immensely. Kudos."
A knot formed in Nikki's stomach, but she said thanks and rose up, moving quickly away to stand with Raley and Ochoa. "Any ID?"
Ochoa said, "Negative. No wallet, no ID."
"Uniforms are canvassing the block," said Detective Raley.
"Good. Any eyewitnesses?"
Raley said, "Not yet."
Heat tilted her head to scan the high-rise apartments lining both sides of Broadway. Ochoa anticipated her. "We've set up a check of facing residences to see if anybody saw or heard anything."
She dropped her gaze to him and smiled slightly. "Good. Also see if any of these businesses spotted anything. The bakery is a good bet to have staff around in the early-early. And don't forget security cams. That jewelry store across the way might have picked up something, if we're lucky." She side-nodded up the block to the man holding five leashed dogs on a sit command. "Who's he?"
"That's the guy who found the body. Made the 911 call at 5:37."
Nikki looked him over. He was about twenty, had a slim figure, tight jeans, and a theatrical scarf. "Let me guess. AMDW." Working a precinct on the Upper West Side of New York, she and her team had pet codes for some of the types who lived and worked there. AMDW was their acronym for actor-model-dancer-whatever.
"Close, Detective." Ochoa consulted a page from his notebook and continued, "Mr. T. Michael Dove, in the drama program at Juilliard, came upon the body while it was being bitten. He says his dogs made a mass charge and the other dog took off."
"Hey," said Heat, "what do you mean close? He's an actor."
"Yes, but in this case AMDW is actor-model-dog-walker."
Nikki opened her blazer to cover her hand from onlookers while she gave him the finger. "Did you get his statement?" Ochoa held up his notebook and nodded, affirming. "I guess we're covered here, then," she said. And then she thought of her coyote. She looked up the block at the AMDW. "I want to ask him about that dog."
Nikki regretted her decision immediately. Ten paces from the dog walker, he called out, "Oh, my God, it is you! You're Nikki Heat!"
Onlookers farther up the sidewalk pressed forward, probably just wondering what the sudden commotion was more than knowing who she was, but Nikki took no chances. She instinctively lowered her gaze to the pavement and turned sideways, adopting the pose she'd seen in the tabloids, of celebrities ambushed by the paparazzi on their way out of restaurants.
She stepped close and tried to clue the AMDW into the decibel level she wanted him to adopt by speaking in a low one herself. "Hi, yes, I'm Detective Heat."
The AMDW not only didn't pick up on the tone, he got more effusive. "Oh. My. God!" And then could it get worse for her? "Can I have a picture with you, Miss Heat?" He held out his cell phone to her two detectives.
"Come on, Ochoa," said Raley, "let's see what's happening with Forensics."
"Is that ... Roach? It's them, isn't it?" called the witness. "Just like in the article!" Detectives Raley and Ochoa looked at each other, made no attempt to mask their disdain, and kept walking. "Oh well," said T. Michael Dove, "this will have to do, then," and he held his cell cam out at arm's length, leaned his head beside Heat's, and snapped the picture himself.
Like most people raised in the say-cheese generation, Nikki came factory-programmed to smile when her picture was taken. Not this time. Her heart was sinking so fast she was sure the pic came out looking something like a mug shot.
Her fan examined his screen and said, "Why so modest? Lady, you've got the cover of a national magazine. Last month, Robert Downey, Jr., this month, Nikki Heat. You're a celebrity."
"Maybe we can talk about that later, Mr. Dove. I'm really sort of focused on what you might have seen concerning our homicide."
"I can't believe this," he said. "I am an eyewitness for New York City's top homicide detective."
Nikki wondered if a grand jury would indict if she put a cap in him. Dropped him right there. But instead she said, "That's not really so. Now, I'd like to ask—"
"Not the top detective? Not according to that article."
That damned article.
That damned Jameson Rook for writing it.
It had felt wrong to her from the beginning. Last June, when Rook got his assignment from the magazine, it was to profile an NYPD homicide squad with a high rate of case clearance. The department cooperated because they liked the PR of cop success, especially if it personalized the force. Detective Heat was underwhelmed by the fishbowl aspect when her squad was chosen, but she went along because Captain Montrose told her to.
When Rook began his one-week ride-along, it was supposed to be in a rotation with the entire team. By the end of his first day he had changed his focus, claiming he could tell a better story using the leader of the squad as the eyes to cover the entire picture. Nikki's eyes saw his plan for what it was, a thinly veiled ruse to hang out with her. And sure enough, he started suggesting drinks, dinner, breakfast, offering backstage passes to Steely Dan at the Beacon and black tie cocktails with Tim Burton at MoMA to kick off an exhibition of his sketches. Rook was a name dropper, but he was also actually connected.
He used his relationship with the mayor to stay on ride-along with her weeks beyond his initial commitment. And over time, in spite of herself, Nikki started to feel, well, intrigued by this guy. It wasn't because he was on a first-name basis with everyone from Mick to Bono to Sarkozy. Or that he was cute, or looked good. A great ass is just that, a great ass and no more—although not to be discounted completely. It was ... the total package.
The Rook of him.
Whether it was Jameson Rook's charm offensive or her passion for him, they ended up sleeping together. And sleeping together again. And again. And again ... Sex with Rook was always smokin' but did not always represent her best judgment, she reflected in hindsight. However, when they were together, thinking and judgment took a backseat to the fireworks. As he put it the night they made love in his kitchen after dashing to his place through a torrential downpour, "The heat will not be denied." Writer, she thought. And yet, so true.
Things began to unravel for her around the stupid article. Rook hadn't shown her his draft yet when the photographer showed up at the precinct to shoot pictures, and the first clue was that they were all of her. She held out for team shots, especially of Raley and Ochoa, her stalwarts; however, the best she could get out of the shooter were a few group photos with her team arranged behind her.
The worst of it for her were the poses. When Captain Montrose said she had to cooperate, Nikki indulged a few candids, but the photographer, an A-lister with a bulldozer approach, started posing her. "This is for the cover," he said. "The candids won't work for that." So she went along.
At least she did until the photographer was directing her to look tougher peering through the bars in the lockup and said, "Come on, show me some of that avenging-my-mother fire I've been reading about."
That night she demanded Rook show her the article. When she finished reading, Nikki asked him to take her out of it. It wasn't just that it made her the star of the squad. Or that it minimized the efforts of her team, turning the others into footnotes. Or that it was destined to make her so visible—Cinderella was one of her favorite movies, although Nikki thought she'd rather enjoy it as a fairy tale than live it. Her biggest objection was that it was too personal. Especially the part about her mother's murder.
To Nikki, Rook seemed blinded by his own creation. Everything she mentioned, he had an answer for. He told her that every person he profiled freaked before publication. She said maybe he should start listening to them. Argument on. He said he couldn't edit her out of the article because she was the article. "And even if I wanted to? It's locked. It's already typeset."
That was the last night she saw him. Three months ago.
She thought if she never saw him again, it would be just fine. But he didn't go quietly. Maybe he thought he could charm his way back to her. Why else would Rook keep calling Nikki even in the face of serial no's and then a stonewall of no replies? But he must have gotten the message, because he'd stopped reaching out. At least until two weeks ago, when the issue hit the newsstands and Rook sent her a sonar ping in the form of a signed copy of the magazine plus a bottle of Silver Patrón and a basket of limes.
Nikki recycled the First Press and re-gifted the booze at a party that night for Detective Ulett who was taking advantage of the early retirement buyout to trailer his boat to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and start drowning worms. While everyone got lit on tequila shooters, Nikki stuck to beer.
It was to be the last night of her anonymity. She had hoped that, as Mr. Warhol predicted, her fame would only last fifteen minutes and be done, but for the past two weeks, everywhere she went, it was the same. Sometimes stares, sometimes comments, always a pain. Not only was the recognition aspect unpleasant for her, but each sighting, each comment, each cell phone picture, became another reminder of Jameson Rook and the busted romance she wanted to put behind her.
Excerpted from NAKED HEAT by RICHARD CASTLE Copyright © 2011 by Richard Castle. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"Nikki Heat is at it again. She comes upon the dead body of a famous journalist, only to find her nemesis, Rook, is already at the crime scene having found the body first. From here, the case just keeps getting better. This is Castle at his best."(Stephen J. Cannell, New York Times bestselling author)