Freddie Finger was used to being stared at.
As the front man and lead singer for the band Rocket Fire, he had played to stadium-sized audiences. Their records had sold sixty million copies and the royalties had made Freddie a rich man. Despite his oversized ears and cow-like eyes, hardly a woman alive seemed to be able to resist him.
Freddie had bedded hundreds of women in his sixty-three years on the planet. The first when he was just fourteen, after his mother’s friend saw him poolside at the Riviera Beach Club in New Rochelle. Their affair lasted about six months until Freddie’s mother found out and threatened to call the police. But it didn’t prevent Freddie with his now-awakened sexuality from finding other willing playmates.
During the hey-day of rock ‘n roll in the seventies and eighties Freddie and the boys toured America, Europe, and Japan, and topped the charts with such libidinous titles as: “Red Panties,” “Escalator to my Bed,” and their biggest hit, “Cream on Me.” They partied themselves into the record books with rivers of booze and mountains of cocaine. Females of all ages threw themselves at the band. The five had been friends since they were teenagers and felt more like brothers, sometimes fighting with each other but always protecting the clan against a demanding, hostile outside world.
But by the beginning of the Clinton administration the booze and drugs had taken their toll. They fought all the time. Their records, when they could work through the disagreements long enough to get one made, went nowhere, and they were forced to cancel a tour when Freddie was found unconscious in his hotel room, the result of a three-day binge. Their record company dropped them. Nobody else was willing to sign up a drugged-out has-been rock group from the dinosaur era.
After all seemed lost, a contract was offered to Rocket Fire by Dirk Warren, president of Nimble Records, under the stipulation that everyone in the band go into drug rehab and group therapy. In the past these bad boys of rock would have scoffed at the idea, but they knew this was their last chance. The boys agreed to the offer and entered Walnut Hill rehab in Oregon.
Eighteen months later they were stone cold clean and had the number one album and single in America. They put out three more hit albums, charting seven top 20s.
Even though he was sober and had no intention of ever slipping again, Freddie still liked to hang out in bars, especially in New York City.
He walked into Cantaloupe’s Restaurant on Third Avenue and hiked his lean, aging frame up onto a stool at the ancient oak bar. The place had been there for decades. Freddie used to come in for burgers and beer. The jukebox fit the place and the music never changed. It was playing one seventies oldie after another. A gray-haired man nudged his date. She looked up and they whispered something to each other. A few other patrons glanced Freddie’s way. In New York it’s considered chic to notice and then ignore celebrities.
Freddie ordered a cranberry and club. The bartender, a middle-aged buxom blonde with an infectious smile, placed it on a bev nap in front of him.
“How are ya, Freddie?” she asked, in a most familiar way. He was used to that. People thought they knew you personally if you were famous. “Fine, you?”
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
Freddie searched his memory. Nothing. For about three decades he had been either drunk or hung-over and didn’t remember many people.
She let out a big booming laugh. “That’s all right, I don’t look exactly like I used to.”
But there was something familiar about the laugh that was beginning to register. She saw the glimmer of recognition in his eyes. “Starting to come back to you, dearie?”
She smiled broadly. Then she leaned over the bar and planted a firm open-mouthed kiss on his lips for several moments, while the patrons looked on in awe.
His mind raced back. Way, way back. Back to when it all began, the summer of ’69. They were a fledgling band of kids then, mostly doing covers of old blues songs and just learning how to write their own. It would be five years before they put out their first record. He had gone to Woodstock with some high school friends. They camped by the hill, which became known as Mud Village by the second rain-soaked day. That was where he met Kitty. For two days they made love in the rain. Then they said goodbye. Years later when Rocket Fire landed on the charts, Kitty found Freddie backstage after a show in Boston. They rekindled their passion several times in those heady days and then lost touch once again.
New York cool be damned. People began to come up to him, some shaking his hand, a few just looking on. He signed a few autographs and posed next to fans for two phone camera pictures.
Suddenly Freddie was overcome with a wave of nausea. He got up and held on to the bar for support. His mouth felt dry and a thin cloud began to veil his sight. He put down a hundred, pushed through the throng, and walked toward the door.
His vision grew blurred. “Shit,” he said out loud.
He stumbled out the door, walked halfway down the street, and sat on a building stoop trying to clear his head. The streets were very quiet. It was Thursday night before the Fourth of July holiday weekend and every New Yorker who could afford it was already out of the city.
He heard footsteps on the deserted street. Someone stopped a few feet from him. He looked up, shook his head trying to focus. He squinted into the face.
“You?” he asked. “What the hell are you doing here?” “Shh,” an index finger on the lips.
Freddie tried to stand but couldn’t get his legs to respond. He looked up, tried to say something, and then passed out.
Freddie was always skinny. He weighed about one fifty after a big meal. It wasn’t difficult to haul his flaccid body over to a blue car. He was tossed into the backseat.
He had always loved cars, had a garage full of exotic and expensive automobiles from many different eras. He said that driving was the one place you could really be alone and free in this world.
This was the last ride Freddie would ever take.
David Lowell was walking down Second Avenue when the rain began. It was a little before six in the morning and promised to be a hot July day. Dressed in his usual garb of loafers, blue jeans pressed to a firm crease, and light-weight cotton turtleneck, he was strolling from his townhouse on East 93rd Street to his office on 24th as was his custom, no matter what the weather. The rain was warm. He opened his umbrella and continued to amble through the mostly empty streets.
This was the only part of the day he could call his own. No phone calls or obligations, no hysterical clients or problems to be solved. They could all wait a few hours. This was his time.
Second Avenue wasn’t the same boulevard he had grown to know over the decades. Construction for the ill-conceived new subway line had destroyed much life along this once thriving thoroughfare, forcing dozens of small businesses to close. Deep underground, the tunneling was creating a disaster for the Upper Eastside here on the surface. As he walked past a dogwood tree planted in one of the few tiny square spaces allotted for nature on this urban island, he saw a rat the size of a small dog scurry into a hole next to the tree. He shook his head at what this previously pristine district had become.
He passed Tony’s DeNapoli, a neighborhood fixture for decades, closed now, another victim of the subway and the expansionist philosophy that was pervasive throughout New York City. One empty storefront followed another, some with for-rent signs, others not even bothering until construction was completed. And all for a thirty block rail running under the affluent east side. The rich man’s subway, he’d heard it called a number of times. Or Bloomberg’s Trolley. It was the landlord’s delight. Soon they’d be able to advertise apartments along the river as “two blocks from the subway,” and charge twice the rent.
He liked the rain, even on a warm July morning. It gave him an atmosphere conducive to deep thought. His daughter would say it was depression. And he liked walking the Manhattan streets, especially when they were relatively vacant. He had begun taking these long morning walks when he’d first opened his detective business seven years ago and found that they cleared his mind and prepared him for the day’s tasks better than anything. He turned down 24th Street just as the rain let up, stopped into a deli for coffee and a muffin, and went into his office building. He took the elevator to the sixth floor and entered the suite of offices. It was empty. And quiet. He turned on the lamp in the reception area, then opened the door to his inner office and went in.
The leather couch was a pull-out with a king size, orthopedic mattress. The detective’s private bathroom contained a full-sized tub and shower and a completely modern kitchen hid behind one of the doors. Lowell would often spend several days and nights in the room when working on a case.
He switched on the ceiling fan and stood gazing out the window in admiration at his unobstructed view of the Empire State Building. A big glass tank stood next to the window, containing water, rocks, and two rather large turtles.
“Hello, Buster.” He lightly touched one of the turtles on the head. The other slowly walked the two steps to where his finger was moving and pushed its head up. Lowell obliged with a gentle scratch. “Hello, Keaton.” He sprinkled some food into the tank and watched them eat breakfast. Satisfied, the two turtles moved laboriously toward the water in the middle of the tank and tucked their heads into their shells. Lowell often envied that ability.
# # #
A little before nine Sarah came to the front door of the Starlight Detective Agency office, one hand laden with packages, a large cup of deli coffee in the other. An umbrella hung on her wrist dripping a small puddle at her feet. She struggled to remove her keys from her purse without setting down all of her belongings. After almost spilling the coffee several times, she gave up and put her things on the ground, took out her key and opened the door. She pushed her bright red hair back behind her ears, picked everything up, and entered.
Sarah set the coffee down on her desk, hung up her hat and umbrella, and sat down, immediately checking the answering machine. She scribbled down all the relevant information, drank about half of her coffee, and settled in for another day as astrologer-detective David Lowell’s assistant. When she saw the lamp on her desk had been turned on she knew Lowell was in his office. She hit the intercom and buzzed twice, their code to let him know she had arrived. Ten minutes later the intercom buzzed back.
“Any important messages?”
“Just the usual. A few clients, two reporters seeking interviews. Melinda called.”
“Okay, get her on the phone. The rest can wait.” A few moments later his phone rang.
“Hi, dad.” “You called?”
“Just wanted you to know I’m going to Dallas on a case for a few days.”
“Not really, just a malpractice suit.” “That law firm is running you ragged.”
“That’s what you get when you’re the junior associate. I’ll be fine, really.”
“Well, be careful and keep in touch.” “I’ll text you every day.”
He snorted. “Text. Why can’t you call me?’
“Okay, dad, I’ll call. But you know…”
“If you tell me one more time that the world has changed and I have to keep up with it, I’ll throttle myself. Besides, I now use an iPad, so you can’t say I’m not changing. I’d just rather hear your voice than read six words in a text.”
She laughed. “Okay, I’ll call you, I promise.”
# # #
About eleven Lowell’s intercom buzzed.
“Lieutenant Roland is here. He’d like to see you.” She whispered, “He doesn’t look happy.”
“Send him in.”
The door opened and one of NYPD’s finest entered.
“Hey, Lieutenant, what brings you around?” Lowell unconsciously pulled the band off his ponytail, straightened the long, graying hair, and retied it.
The policeman sat in a leather chair.
“Well, I’m getting serious pressure to bring you in on a case.” Lowell leaned back in his plain meshed-back chair. He had tried every fancy ergonomic chair, figuring if he was going to spend a third of his life in it, it should be the best. None felt right, until he found that the simplest model on sale at Staples suited him just fine. “That’s rather unusual. I didn’t think the police department liked to hire outside detectives.”
“Well, this is an unusual case. And we wouldn’t be hiring you directly.”
“Tell me about it?”
“There’s been another.” Roland’s raised eyebrows said it all.
Lowell rested his chin on his fingertips. “You mean another rock ‘n roll killing?”
“Yep. This is the third. First Gene Hallow, then Wally Fischer.
Two is a coincidence. Three is a trend.” “Who is the most recent victim?” “You know Freddie Finger?”
“From Rocket Fire? Hell, I saw them once.” Lowell went quiet, thinking back to all the concerts he and his ex-wife had gone to.
“Sorry, I’m back. How did it happen?”
“The body was found in a building undergoing renovation on 80th between First and Second. A five-floor townhouse in the last stages of work, recently put on the market. Some workmen came in this morning to clean up and found him on the second floor hanging from a heat pipe. The ME says he was killed last night, probably around midnight. He was shot three times first, and then strung up. The shooting went down somewhere else. No blood at the apartment.”
They were both silent for a moment.
Roland looked at his notes. “A pack of matches was found in his pocket from a neighborhood restaurant called Cantaloupe’s. The bartender remembers him being there and leaving alone. She also remembers an odd man with a heavy accent, she thought maybe German, leaving shortly after.”
“So who’s pressuring you to bring me in?”
“It’s his daughter. She lives in LA, but is here visiting and called me as soon as she heard. She asked if I would make the introductions and get you on board. Apparently your Winston case got a lot of publicity on the West Coast too, and she pretty much demanded that I include you in the investigation.”
“There’s no reason I have to be actively involved. Why don’t you just consult me and I can do my work from here.”
“I can think of two reasons right off the bat. First of all, she’s a very influential person, and if she finds out you aren’t actively working on this case she can make my life miserable…”
“…and the second reason is that every minute she’s annoying me is one less she’s on your back.”
“Absolutely.” Roland smiled.
Lowell held up his hand. “Who is this celebrated client we are about to share?”
“Vivian Younger.” The Lieutenant said it with a touch of drama.
“Vivian Younger, the actress?”
“Actress, model, singer…you name it, she’s into it. Didn’t you know she was Freddie’s daughter? Now do you see the spot I’m in?”
Lowell sat back in his chair and tugged on his ponytail, his thoughtful tic. “Hmm, yes I see your difficulty. I assume this will hit the papers today.”
“No way to keep it out. The guy was an icon, for god’s sake. I’m getting pressure from everybody, Freddie’s record company, his manager, promoters. And now I’m getting even more from Vivian Younger’s press secretary, her attorney, even the mayor’s office.”
“They all must have been about sixty, wouldn’t you say? The murder of three aging rockers.” Lowell leaned back in the chair with his hands clasped behind his head. “All right then, I’ll take the case.”
“Good. I’ll introduce you to her later today.” The Lieutenant extended his hand. “Thank you, Lowell, I appreciate it. And one more thing.”
“I know, don’t talk to the press.”
“Actually, in this case you won’t have a choice. As if Freddie weren’t enough, Vivian Younger is such hot news that you can’t avoid them.”
Lowell groaned audibly.
“Just be careful what you say.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, I don’t care too much for the press, or the public.”
“There’s a patrol car waiting downstairs to take you to the murder scene when you’re ready.”
“That’s okay. I’ll use my car and driver.”
“Fine.” Roland handed Lowell a manila folder. “Here is the address of the townhouse and the birth information of the three victims. I’ll meet you there in an hour.”
Before the lieutenant was out of his chair, Lowell had swiveled to his computer and started typing. He punched in the three victims’ information and printed out the charts. Then he grabbed his iPad, had Sarah call his driver, Andy, and headed out the door.