Sunrise Highway: New Excerpt
Sunrise Highway by Peter Blauner is a new thriller about a lone young cop on the trail of a powerful killer determined not just to stop her but to make her pay.
In the summer of Star Wars and Son of Sam, a Long Island schoolgirl is found gruesomely murdered. A local prosecutor turns a troubled teenager known as JT from a suspect to a star witness in the case, putting away a high school football star who claimed to be innocent. Forty years later, JT has risen to chief of police, but there’s a trail of a dozen dead women that reaches from Brooklyn across Long Island, along the Sunrise Highway, and it’s possible that his actions actually enabled a killer.
That’s when Lourdes Robles, a relentless young Latina detective for the NYPD, steps in to track the serial killer. She discovers a deep and sinister web of connections between the victims and some of the most powerful political figures in the region, including JT himself. Now Lourdes not only has to catch a killer but maybe dismantle an entire system that’s protected him, possibly at the cost of her own life.
As seagulls swarmed like screeching boomerangs, Lourdes looked out toward the shore and saw two little girls making sand castles.
They looked to be about seven and five. Both with dark hair, olive complexions, pudgy knees, and the kind of bubblegum pink bathing suits Lourdes and her sister Ysabel had worn when they were young. The girls were digging with their bare hands instead of shovels and using coffee cups instead of pails to build their towers. And just like Izzy, the younger one made a point of falling on the older one’s castle and wrecking it when it started looking too good.
A small wave came in and washed away the remnants, and the girls ran off, shrieking in fake horror, oblivious to the uniformed officers trying to shoo the birds away from the crime scene being processed some thirty yards down the beach.
Lourdes had just arrived at the tip of Far Rockaway, with her partner and fellow Brooklyn exile, Detective Robert “Beautiful Bobby” Borrelli. The call about a body washed up on the beach had come in about an hour before at the Queens Homicide Task Force and they had been crawling through traffic from Forest Hills because of city drivers’ refusal to move over for a car with a siren.
Now they were finally at the shore, under a late summer sky with a threat of rain in the wind. A familiar ripple of dread unsettled Lourdes’s stomach as she saw yellow tape blowing down the beach, threatening to catch on the gulls’ beaks. The crime scene techs were working at the water’s edge. It wasn’t just the awareness that she was taking on responsibility for a body under the tarp, but also that the sight of the narrow channel behind them, an inlet dividing New York City on her side and Long Island on the other, set off a firecracker string of wounding memories. The fat girl who couldn’t swim. Or stand to get her hair wet. Or afford to be seen in that pink bathing suit after she reached puberty. Though she was swaggeringly confident in most areas of her life, the sound of the surf could still turn Lourdes into a mass of quivering insecurities.
Don’t you even think about pushing me in, blanco. She’d cocked a fist the first time she found herself poolside with her boyfriend Mitchell Vogliano.
How can you not know how to swim? he’d asked naïvely. Half your family’s from Puerto Rico. It’s surrounded by water.
Sand crept into her black shoes as she pushed through the gathering crowd of lookie-loos and marched toward the crime scene, B.B. grunting as he tried to keep up. She could hear the slap of rubber on concrete from the handball court nearby and the bark of a pit bull getting restrained by its owner. Project people living the boardwalk life. She noted empty Bacardi bottles, crushed Capri Sun juice packs, and what could have been used condoms or dead sea urchins as she stepped over the tape. Evidence of a party spot that could prove to be salient details leading to the cause of murder. If that’s what this turned out to be. She remembered what she’d learned from weird old Kevin Sullivan when they were working together in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. Never speculate, never assume. We don’t know what we don’t know.
“Smell that?” B.B. looked at her sideways.
“That rotten cheese thing—whaddaya call it…?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Adipocere.”
A word from the police academy classroom, but a smell from the end of civilization. Decomposing human flesh. Putrefaction, which sounded bad, replaced by saponification, which sounded worse. An odor that trumped all other odors on the beach—sunblock, salt air, gasoline from passing motorboats—and declared the supremacy of death over all living things. A smell that got inside you and stilled your own internal processes. Nature demanding deference. She saw the pit bull catch a whiff and start to pull on its leash, trying to get away from the stench. Not even considering going inside the tape now.
“Hope you had a light breakfast.” B.B., still trying to be stylish in his pompadour and pinstripes, pulled a white handkerchief from his breast pocket and held it in front of his mouth. “This is gonna be ripe.”
Lourdes wasn’t sure how she felt about him these days. He’d been okay working with her on the high-profile murder of a lawyer in Prospect Park that got both of them promoted to the Homicide Task Force. But his aging Lothario routine was starting to wear thin, as he became less Marc Anthony and more Rodney Dangerfield. It wasn’t just the graying of his hair or the thickening of his waistline causing a respect deficit. A seedy desperation had set in around the time his third marriage ended and his alimony payments ramped up. The old tricks weren’t working anymore, but he didn’t have the courtliness or the intuitive ability of a Kevin Sullivan to make up the difference. Instead he’d become just a little more crude and impatient as mandatory retirement drew nigh.
A young medical-legal investigator with her ponytail coming loose hustled away from the body, mouth askew and eyes streaming.
“That bad?” Lourdes tried to stop her with a smile.
The MLI covered her mouth and didn’t look back. Detective Menachem “Thugsy” Braverman, the only Orthodox Jew in Queens Crime Scene and surely the only one who had once been a commando with the Israeli Defense Forces, came over, palms raised.
“Yo, yo,” he said. “You guys might want to take a sec.”
“What up?” Lourdes tried to see around him.
“Pit bull walker from the projects spotted something washing up on this shore at quarter past nine this morning.” Thugsy nodded toward the dog and its owner lingering at the edge of the crowd. “Came over to take a look with poochie et voila…”
He thrust his chin toward what Lourdes could now see was a large black contractor bag with a few tears and strips of silver electrician’s tape wrapped around it in several places.
“Can we tell anything yet?” B.B. asked.
“Only that the remains were inside a bag that was weighted down with rocks,” Thugsy said. “We’re thinking accidental drowning is unlikely.”
“Copy that.” Lourdes gave him a duck-face, lips pushed out like a bird’s bill.
“We’re also thinking it’s been under awhile.” Thugsy put a hand to the back of his head, securing his skullcap against a stiff breeze. “My cousin Shmuel used to be a lifeguard around here. The channel gets very deep in the middle. Whoever plunked the body down there probably thought it would stay down. But they’ve been doing some dredging this summer, and with the warm weather and storm surges…”
“Hey, who says climate change is all bad?” B.B. tugged on his collar, like he was playing a comedy club.
“Anybody contact Nassau County yet?” Lourdes asked.
She raised her eyes to the far shore, maybe less than a quarter mile away but a completely different jurisdiction.
The name and the geography always seemed misleading to her. If you looked at a map, the land mass was separate from the rest of United States, mainly connected by bridges and highways that ran straight into New York City. But on the handful of occasions she’d gone to retirement parties out there for cops she’d worked with, it seemed like a far more representative slice of America than any of the five boroughs. Suburban sprawl and strip malls. Big flags, big cars, and big lawns everywhere you looked.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Thugsy put a finger up. “Right now, we’ve got a body in Far Rock, so that’s NYPD territory.”
“Amen.” Lourdes nodded. “Out of sight, out of mind. Any chance of an ID?”
Thugsy extended his arm, playing the gracious host. “Be my guest. Maybe someone you know.”
Lourdes slowed her step as she moved past him, the smell threatening to overpower her as the crime scene detectives turned, big men in NYPD windbreakers who resembled high school football coaches without players to yell at.
She had noticed some of her brother officers giving her a wide berth these days, and not just because she’d gotten the bump from precinct detective to the task force faster than usual because of the dead lawyer case. Since her promotion, word had gotten around that she was being investigated by the Internal Affairs Bureau. A tip had been called in that she was using department resources for a personal matter. Her counterargument, if she ever got to make it, was that the disappearance of a detective’s younger sister was legitimate police business.
Off a nod from Thugsy, one of the techs moved the tarp, revealing what was little more than a skeleton with patches of adipocere on it. The soft tissues had turned into what coroners called “grave wax”: a grayish-white soapy covering that retained the basic contours of the body but made immediate identification of race and sex impossible. The arms were resting alongside the torso and the hands were crossed in front of the belly. The eye sockets were empty and the remaining teeth in the skull appeared to be clenched in a permanent grimace.
“The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the bag was taped tight around the body,” said Thugsy. “Especially around the neck area. So between that and the grave wax, it’s a little more intact than it might normally be.”
Lourdes covered her own mouth, determined not to lose her lunch in front of a dozen other officers, most of them men who would talk about it for years afterward. She dropped into a crouch and forced herself to take a closer look.
“It’s a woman,” she said.
She caught the look B.B. was throwing Thugsy.
“And don’t you be giving me the stink eye,” she warned both of them sternly.
“What’d I say?” B.B. put his hands up.
“You don’t have to say shit. I know what y’all are thinking.”
Ysabel had been missing six months now. Every time a call came in about a female body, Lourdes found herself unable to stop swallowing until she confirmed it was someone else.
“And you know it’s a woman because…?” B.B.’s voice trailed off just as he realized Thugsy was shaking his head.
“Because she was pregnant,” Lourdes said.
She pointed to the way the hands were clasped before the belly. There was a collection of small brittle bones between the fingers, which were not part of the adult anatomy. Almost like the victim was trying to hold onto a fragile little bird.
“Thugsy knows it too.” Lourdes glanced over her shoulder.
“It’s possible.” Thugsy stooped his shoulders. “But let’s not get overexcited and start talking about a second body just yet.”
B.B. squatted beside Lourdes. “Say you’re right. Wouldn’t be the first pregnant girl, got herself killed.” He bounced on his haunches. “Happens every day somewhere. If Daddy doesn’t want another mouth to feed.”
She resisted the urge to give him side-eye. There was a rumor that the third Mrs. Borrelli had asked for a divorce after getting a phone call from B.B.’s pregnant mistress—or, as she was known in Brooklyn, his goomah.
“But what’s up with that?” Lourdes pointed.
“What?” B.B. hitched up his pants, damned if he was going to mess up his Italian tailoring by getting sand in his pant cuffs.
“Check out her throat, B.B.” Lourdes took a pen from her pocket and aimed it. “Where did all those stones come from?”
The trachea was covered in a shell of whitish decomposed tissue. In all likelihood, the bag had gotten wrapped around the windpipe, keeping it from disintegrating. Little pebbles were lodged in the preserved tissue, clearly coming out from the inside.
“Come on, Robles, this is Detective 101.” Thugsy loomed. “Look around. I already told you someone used rocks to weigh the bag down. Some of them probably just broke off and got stuck in the throat area.”
“Think so?” Lourdes pressed her lips together and then relaxed them, avoiding the full duck for now.
She took out her pad and made a note about the shape and texture of the stones in the further recesses of the plastic.
“Here’s my problem.” She glanced up. “The stones used to weigh the bag down are pieces of cinderblock. The ones in the windpipe are relatively smooth. They’re not the same.”
“For real?” B.B. shrugged. “All right, so it’s different stones. The bag’s been underwater. There are a few rips in it. Stones from the bottom of the inlet got swished around.”
Lourdes stood slowly, hands on hips, taking in the depreciation of the flesh, the loss of identifying features and the hands in front of the belly.
“Hey, you still with us, L. Ro.?” B.B. asked.
Six months. Maybe that was long enough. Maybe getting pregnant was the reason her sister ran away. Izzy was always talking about how everybody was so nice to girls who were expecting. And that was why she wanted one herself. Maybe this body wasn’t too tall to be her.
“Yeah, I’m here.” The sound of the gulls broke her trance. “I’m all in.”
“I’m thinking maybe we should reach out to Nassau County.” B.B. stood up. “I’m remembering they had a gang case right before Memorial Day where MS-13 killed a pregnant girl they thought was snitching.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Lourdes shook her head. “But that was a one-off. I don’t think anybody wants to make a habit of that.”
“But if they did it to silence a snitch, it would fit your theory about the stones,” Thugsy offered. “Seems like a definitive way to shut someone up.”
Lourdes kept looking intently at the body. Still trying to reassure herself that it really wasn’t Izzy. And then finding herself trying to imagine the final moments. The position of the hands over the womb. Like she was trying to protect the unborn child. Probably not where I would have my hands, if someone was stuffing rocks in my throat.
“Anyway,” Thugsy said, “it’s a new one on me.”
“Me too.” B.B. nodded.
“Makes you wonder what’s up with Daddy,” Lourdes said. “Doesn’t it?”
“That it does,” said B.B.
Lourdes straightened up and brushed the sand off her pant leg. The gulls nearby scattered and took flight as the other detectives shooed them away. The birds rose in a whitish mass like spirits deciding that the time had come to leave this sordid business of earthly living behind. The two little girls who’d gone back to the shore to rebuild their sand castles barely looked up.
Copyright © 2018 Peter Blauner.