Sgt. Alvarez hangs up the phone and calls across the squad room. “Detective. We got a body.”
“Where?” I ask.
“Construction site. West 116th and Lenox.”
Ten minutes later we’re rolling up in squad cars–me, Alvarez, and a bunch of uniforms from the precinct–and I’m figuring some tradesman got in a beef with some other tradesman, words were had, and you can figure the rest. One time I had to bring in an electrician who choked a guy with a length of conduit because the other guy borrowed his wire cutters without asking. People flip their shit over the stupidest things.
I step out into the dirt. Whatever building used to be here, it’s just a memory. The whole thing’s scraped clean. Alvarez follows me as we scare up the foreman, a fat, red-faced guy in a trailer at the edge of the site, talking into his phone.
“You the foreman?” I ask.
“Gotta go. Cops are here,” he says, and hangs up. “Yeah. Ethan Barnes. You guys got here fast.”
I shrug. “Flashing red lights will do that. I’m Detective Clement. This is Sgt. Alvarez.” I pass him my card. “Where’s the body?”
He heaves out of his chair. “This way.”
We cross the site. “Watch your step,” he tells me as we go around a loose piece of bent rebar.
“Did you know the person?” I ask. Alvarez has his notepad out, pen at the ready.
“Ha!” Barnes laughs, one short, sharp bark. “Not unless it turns out we went to kindergarten together or somthing.”
Alvarez and I exchange a look. Barnes leads us to the middle of the site, where there’s a knot of guys in orange vests and hardhats clustered around the end of an excavator, snapping pictures on their phones.
“Aright, aright,” Barnes yells. “Move it, guys. Let the cops do their thing.”
I give Barnes a quick nod of thanks.
He stops walking. “Hey, uh, you boys gonna take long? Time’s money on a job like this.”
I let my eyes narrow just that exact amount to tell Barnes what I think of his priorities. You’d be surprised how much practice I get at making that look. “We’ll do our best not to let the death of a fellow human being inconvenience you too much.”
Barnes goes from red-faced to scarlet. He starts laying some line on me about schedules and crews lined up from now till September, waiving his arms around. I ignore him, watching a couple of uniforms run yellow tape around the excavator and the body on the other side.
He winds down eventually. The workers drift away. A few throw shifty looks our way, and I wonder briefly how many of them have outstanding warrants. “Officers,” I call out to the uniform when they’re done with the crime scene tape. “Start taking statements. Barnes, make sure everybody stays on site until we talk to them.”
“Aright. Fuck.” He nods and wipes his meaty hand across his forehead. “You need me for this part? ‘Cause I gotta go reschedule a hell of a lot of shit now.”
I nod, dismissing him. He hightails it back to his trailer.
Alvarez and I step around the end of the excavator, and my day suddenly gets a whole lot more complicated. Whoever the body is, I’m pretty sure it’s not a tradesman.
There’s a step, about a yard down, where the excavator has been scraping the top layer of dirt away and dumping it in a pile nearby. Out of the edge of the step, pulled free from the soil, is what looks like an old, brown tarp. A shred of it hangs from the teeth of the excavator’s bucket.
Peeking out from the tarp is what looks like an arm. A very old, surprisingly well preserved arm.
“Damn,” Alvares says, his voice low.
We hop down to the lower layer and crouch for a better look.
“That’s been here a long time,” I say. I pick up a dirt clod, which crumbles to powder in my hand. The forensic photographer arrives, snapping shots over our shoulders.
“It’s in good shape,” Alvarez says. He’s right. There’s a faint whiff of rot, but mostly the body’s just dried out.
“It’s the dirt,” I say. “Dry as a bone. Sucked the moisture out of it before it could rot.”
We gently ease up the tarp. The photographer snaps away. Leathery skin, brown and stretched tight over the skull. You’d never recognize that face if you’d known them, but the glint of earrings gives away the body’s sex.
Her hair is auburn and curly. She’s wearing an earth-toned blouse with some kind of blue flowers printed on it. Looks like polyester.
“What do you make of the blouse?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” Alvarez says. “Big hair, though. ’80s hair. No obvious signs of trauma, though.”
“Coroner will find some, though,” I tell him. “Bet on it.”
“You thinking murder?”
“Yeah I’m thinking murder,” I say. “Shit, Alvarez. Somebody put this woman in the ground right underneath where a building was going in. What the hell you think it could be?”
“I think it’s a hell of a cold case.”
We climb out of the hole. If there’s any usable evidence, forensics will have to find it for us. In the meantime, we start talking to the workers.
Most everybody has the same story: doing their own thing on some part of the site when they heard the excavator operator shut down his rig and yell “holy shit.” It all tracks. And why wouldn’t it?
The ambulance arrives, but they may as well go home. That body’s not moving until forensics comes to set up their tent and dig it out real careful. This job will be shut down for a couple of days at least. I half-smile at the fit Barnes is going to throw.
I talk to the last worker and join Alvarez by the squad car. He offers me a smoke and I take it.
“You think we have any chance of closing this one, Detective?” he asks.
I shrug. “Maybe.” It’s not the first cold case I’ve cracked, though it’s probably the coldest. There was one twelve-year old case I closed after an MTA worker found a switchblade in an abandoned locker. “After this, let’s go down to city hall and find out when the old building was put up.”
“Put a date on the murder?”
I nod. “And start tracking down the crew who built it. Ten to one the killer was somebody on that crew.”
A voice behind me says, “You’d lose that bet, officer.”
I turn around. There’s an old man coming around the squad car, late seventies by the look of him, and walking slow.
He puts out a bony hand, the fingers knobby with arthritis. I shake. His skin is dry and papery. “I’m Ronald Atkins. That’s my apartment up there.” He points across the street. “Third floor. Second window from the right.”
“And you know something about all this, Mr. Atkins?”
He nods. “I know it wasn’t anybody on the old building crew,” he says. “I’ll tell you exactly who killed that woman and how she died. And why. But I think you’d better take me down to the station first.”
I stare at him. He meets my eyes, his face calm. Almost happy. He holds out his arms, wrists pressed together. Alvarez pulls the cuffs off his belt and I’m wondering if the coldest case of my career might have just turned into the easiest one too.