Down in the darkness it waits. Down in the subbasement of the Gateway Corporate Tower. From its open maw comes the stench of rotting flesh. Its single eye glows red. The tenants of the Gateway Corporate Tower include lawyers and accountants, architects and insurance agents, advertising executives and business consultants. None have ever ventured down to the subbasement. None have ever imagined what is down there, waiting silently.
The trash chute of the Gateway Corporate Tower is essentially a 240-foot stainless steel tube that runs from the subbasement to the top floor, eighteen stories above Olive Street. It drops through fifteen floors in a straight perpendicular near the north elevator shaft, veers north at a forty-five-degree angle through two levels of the aboveground parking garage and then makes a final, two- story descent, emerging at a steep angle through the ceiling of the subbasement near the northeast corner of the building.
Motionless, it waits beneath the open end of the trash chute. By any standard, it is huge. Twenty-four feet from end to end, nearly eight feet wide, just shy of seven feet at its tallest point. It weighs at least fourteen tons, although, for obvious reasons, no one has ever tried to maneuver it onto a scale for a more precise measurement.
The night cleaning crews cherished that chute. There was access to it on every floor, usually in a utility closet around the corner from the elevators. Better yet, the building’s designers had specified access doors large enough to accommodate just about any form, shape, or quantity of trash that the office tenants and the ground-level restaurant and newsstand were likely to produce during a busy day. As a result, there was never need for a time- consuming trip down the freight elevator from the upper floors to the subbasement to unload a cumbersome cloth hamper. Just shove the trash down the chute and get on to the next office.
It is squat and massive, with all that weight resting upon four small legs. Those legs seem almost dainty in contrast to the bulk they support.
The eight-person night crew from Ace Office Maintenance arrived each weekday shortly after 5:00 p.m., started on the lower floors and gradually worked their way up, usually reaching the top floor a little after midnight.
The consulting firm of Smilow & Sullivan, Ltd. occupied the entire ninth floor. Those at the firm who regularly worked late knew that the cleaning crew reached their floor around nine o’clock and left before ten. The pattern held that night. The first two members of the night crew (Darlene Washington and LaTisha Forest) got off the elevator on the ninth floor at 9:06 p.m. The last departing member of the night crew (Yao-Wen Hsieh) boarded the elevator for the tenth floor at 9:45 p.m.
The police eventually interviewed all eight members of the crew. All remembered seeing him up there, as did Cynthia O’Malley (who saw him in the hall) and Mr. Sullivan (who poked his head in his office on his way out). According to the night crew, he was definitely alive and hard at work when they left, and by then Cynthia and Mr. Sullivan were definitely gone. Yao-Wen Hsieh was in the firm’s lobby vacuuming the carpet at 9:15 p.m. when Cynthia boarded the down elevator carrying her purse and jacket. Three members of the crew saw Mr. Sullivan. He arrived in his tuxedo straight from the Barnes
Hospital fundraiser around 9:30, picked up a few papers from his desk, and left ten minutes later. The time of Cynthia’s depar- ture and Mr. Sullivan’s brief visit were both confirmed by the guard downstairs, who saw Cynthia sign out when she left and watched Mr. Sullivan sign in and out.
In short, according to the eyewitnesses and the sign-in sheet, there should have been only one person left on the ninth floor at quarter to ten that night. He was definitely up there.
Unfortunately, he was just as definitely not alone.
Although it has stirred only once in the last twenty hours, it is ready. Day or night, summer or winter, it’s always ready. It is, quite literally, programmed for vigilance. Its single red eye, hard-wired into its tiny brain, never closes. And that brain—assuming that something so limited can still be called a brain—is primed to issue the one command that defines its existence.
The command—like the command issued from any brain—is just a weak electronic blip that travels quickly from brain to receptor. Here, that blip means “GO!” And here, the receptor is a crushing jaw, technically known as a power wedge. The power wedge is hidden within the open maw and aptly named: it can exert more than 122,000 pounds of force. Under that kind of pressure, a man’s skull will crumple like a soft-boiled egg beneath the wheels of a Mack truck.
He often worked late. It had been his style ever since joining the firm as the hotshot boy wonder out of Purdue seven years ago. His promotion to manager last winter had not diminished his capacity for long hours. He typically stayed late two or three nights each week. On Saturdays—true to his nickname FILO— he was usually first in and last out.
Looking back, Mr. Sullivan told the police, the young man had seemed a tad jumpy that night, although, he cautioned, his observation was based on a conversation that lasted less than sixty seconds. Nevertheless, Mr. Sullivan was on target. The young man had been a tad jumpy. More than just a tad. Distressed was a better word.
At 10:20 on the night in question he was standing at the worktable just outside the copy room collating a stack of documents to make a working copy to take home with him that night. The hallway was carpeted, he was agitated, he hadn’t been sleeping well, and the document on top of the pile was clearly the most troubling one—all of which may explain why he didn’t hear the approach. The attack was swift, professional, and nearly painless—a powerful arm grabbing from behind, a sharp pressure on the side of the neck, and then fade-out.
Echoing down the steel tube comes the sound of an access door opening.
It doesn’t hear the sound.
It doesn’t hear a thing. Unable to hear, or to even detect the presence of sound waves, it remains unaware of the noise above, unaware that something is about to come sliding down the tube.
But that doesn’t matter. It’s programmed for vigilance. It simply waits. Patiently.
Unconscious, he plummeted down the chute in total darkness. The medical examiner surmised that he may have stiffened just before his body hit the forty-five-degree bend, which would have only made it worse. The impact shattered both ankles and splintered his right tibia, jamming shards of bone through the skin of his lower leg. If he was unfortunate enough to regain consciousness during that descent, he surely lost it upon impact. It took a full five minutes for his limp body to work its way through the bend in the tube. The blood helped lubricate the passage. Once through the bend, his body started sliding, feet first, down the tube, which passed at an angle through the two levels of the aboveground parking garage. His body gradually accelerated as it approached the final drop-off. Unconscious, he slid over the edge and plunged the final fifteen feet, landing facedown on top of several large bags of trash.
The single red eye detected motion. The falling body briefly broke the narrow beam of red light when it dropped into the open maw—barely a flicker, far too quick to trigger the countdown.
Perhaps it was the stench. Perhaps it was the pain. Perhaps it was the thud of yet another bag of trash landing on his back. Whatever the cause, he regained consciousness inside the chamber, according to the medical examiner.
It was pitch-black, the air heavy with the stench of putrefaction. The large bags beneath him felt like bunchy, crinkly cushions. When he opened his eyes, he saw the eye. It was directly in front of him, about two feet above his head. There was a thin beam of red light emanating from the eye.
He would have been confused, of course. In the total darkness, the red beam would have seemed almost unearthly. He may have reached up to pass his hand through the beam. It would have made a fuzzy red dot on his palm.
The interruption is long enough to trigger the count- down: ten…nine…eight—
He let his hand fall forward onto the bag of trash.
—seven. The countdown stops. The timer resets.
Somehow, despite the excruciating pain, he managed to pull himself into a sitting position. It took a long time, and the effort left him shaking and drenched with sweat.
The sensor triggered the countdown: ten…nine… eight…seven…six—
As he waited for his jagged breathing to return to normal, the intense pain muddling his thoughts, perhaps he looked down at the beam. The red dot would have been centered on his chest.
According to the medical examiner, he probably lunged toward the front wall, toward the single red eye.
The brain fires its one command: GO!
Exactly 2.5 seconds later, the power wedge system responds, precisely in accordance with the manufacturer’s specs.
He was leaning against the wall when the 35-horsepower engine kicked on with an electric growl. The noise came from somewhere just beyond the wall. At first he would not have realized the deadly relevance of the sound.
And then the lurch.
It would have seemed as if part of the wall was moving toward him—which is precisely what was happening. The lower half of the wall was actually the business end of the power wedge ram system, pressing toward him at the rate of two inches per second. As the power wedge slowly shoved him backward into the bags of trash, he must have strained for the answer. The stench, the bags of trash, his plunge down the metal chute. Where am I? What the hell is happening?
Based on his final body position, he must have tried to shove the power wedge back, grunting and gasping, struggling to hold it at arm’s length. But the trash behind him began to compress, to solidify. His arms strained against the advancing metal. Perhaps he screamed for help. The increasing pressure would have constrained his voice.
Eventually, his arms buckled.
As designed by the mechanical engineers at the Vanguard Trashpacker Corporation, the compacting cycle on the Model 7800 lasts 42 seconds. The power wedge ram is designed to push forward 84 inches into the receiving chamber without stopping. That distance, in the industry jargon, is known as the “ram stroke.” With 122,000 pounds of pressure supplied by the latest in hydraulic cylinder technology, the Model 7800’s ram stroke is as close to unstoppable as modern engineering techniques can achieve.
On this occasion, the power wedge performs as designed. When it completes the 84-inch journey forward into the chamber, the gears shift and it slowly retracts until flush again with the rest of the front wall. The electric motor shuts off with a metallic shudder.
Other than the occasional crinkling sound of a bag of compressed trash expanding, there is no motion and there is no sound inside the compactor.
Bags of trash continued to plunge down the chute from higher and ever higher elevations within the Gateway Corporate Tower. The mound grew closer and closer to the red beam until, around 12:30 a.m., a falling bag came to rest in the middle of the beam, triggering one last compacting cycle for the night.
The cleaning crew left the building at 1:05 a.m.
Down in the darkness it waits. Down in the sub- basement of the Gateway Corporate Tower. From its open maw comes the stench of rotting flesh. Its single eye glows red.
Friday the rabbi slept late.
He was sleeping peacefully when I awoke a few minutes after seven o’clock. I glanced over and smiled. He was on his back, his chest bare. An arrow of curly black hair started at his navel and disappeared beneath the bedsheets, which were low on his slender hips. This was definitely not your grandfather’s rabbi. He looked like a male model in one of those sexy ads for men’s jeans. I turned on my side toward him, careful not to disturb his sleep. He had a delicious musky smell. It made me want to growl. Rabbi David Marcus. My brilliant, gorgeous expert witness.
He had been wonderful and masterful. In court, that is. Well, last night, too. I still couldn’t believe that we’d known each other for less than a month.
I had called him three weeks ago because I needed an authority on the Holocaust to serve as an expert witness in a probate case on the trial docket for the following week. The decedent was Yetra Blumenthal, a survivor of Auschwitz who’d lost her husband and children in the death camps. She’d come to America after the Allies liberated Auschwitz, never remarried, and died childless and alone. In her will, she left her entire estate to the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the original document was never found—only a photocopy of the will. Under Missouri law a photocopy isn’t enough. I represented the State of Israel, which was the party trying to reinstate the missing will.
In my final trial preparations, I decided I needed an expert witness on the psyches of Holocaust survivors. A friend at the Jewish Federation told me to call David Marcus, the new assistant rabbi at Temple Shalom, a huge reform congregation in the western suburbs. “He’s written a book on Holocaust survivors,” she told me, “and he’s a doll.”
I had called him later that day. He was polite and low-key over the telephone and agreed to meet me the following afternoon. I offered to drive out to the synagogue, but he insisted on coming to my office in the city, explaining that he would be in the Central West End earlier that day anyway. I had assumed that he was coming to the city for the usual rabbinical visit with ailing members of the congregation who were in one of the hospitals along Kingshighway; it was only later that I learned that Wednesdays and Saturdays were his days to work in the shelter for battered women that he had helped establish.
I must confess that my preconceived image of Rabbi David Marcus was based in part on his profession, in part of his soft-spoken manner over the telephone, and in part on my grandfather’s rabbi. I assumed he was short and overweight, with thick glasses (probably horn-rimmed, probably crooked), a wrinkled black suit, a baggy white shirt, an unkempt beard, and pudgy fingers. Well, that was not the Rabbi David Marcus who arrived at my office that Wednesday afternoon. He was tall and good looking, with gentle brown eyes, dark hair, a strong nose, and large, powerful hands. The few points of overlap with my grandfather’s rabbi were actually points of contrast. Both wore yarmulkes, although David’s was small and embroidered. Both wore white shirts, although David’s covered broad shoulders and a slender waist. Both had a slightly rumpled look, although David’s look was rugged rumpled, as if he had paused at a playground on the way over to shoot some hoops. The image fit. Despite a slight limp, he moved across the room with the grace of an athlete.
I was strongly attracted to him from the start and had to force myself to remain in my professional role as attorney interviewing a prospective expert witness. It was quickly obvious that he not only possessed impressive credentials for the task but had a calm reassuring manner that would make him a compelling witness. Money was no issue, since he didn’t want to be compensated for his testimony. And best of all, I told myself, given that the trial was just a week away, if I retained him as my expert witness we would have to spend many hours together between now and then.
My initial attraction continued to grow. David Marcus was an unusual man. Earnest and committed were adjectives that fit. He was serious about his Judaism, about his Holocaust studies, about his involvement with the shelter for battered women. He was no lightweight. But fortunately, he also had a sense of humor. Otherwise, as I told him after the trial, he’d be an insufferable bore.
“A bore?” he had repeated with a perplexed smile.
That was four nights ago. The trial had ended well, and we’d gone out to celebrate with dinner at Baliban’s in the Central West End. We were walking back along Maryland toward my office to get our cars. I’d had one too many glasses of wine at dinner, and during dessert had had an almost overwhelming urge to lean across the table and kiss him. Really kiss him. A wine-spilling, silverware-clanking, busboy-blushing kiss. The urge passed somewhere between the first and second cups of espresso, leaving me almost ashamed for having such lustful thoughts about a rabbi, especially since I had no clear sense of what his feelings were for me.
“A bore,” I had answered mischievously, looking up at him as we walked along. “You men don’t seem to realize that a sense of humor is not merely vital. It’s sexy.”
“Sexy?” he repeated. “Very.”
He stopped to study me. “I don’t think so,” he finally said. “Oh, no?” I responded, fighting back a smile. “And what do the great Talmudic rabbis have to say on the subject?”
“All I know is what this rabbi thinks.” He put his arms around my waist and gently pulled me toward him.
“And what does he think?” I whispered, looking up at him. He kissed me tenderly on my forehead. “He thinks your forehead is sexy.” He kissed me on each eyelid. “He thinks you’re sexy here, too.” I shivered as he moved his lips down my nose. “And he thinks your nose is exquisitely sexy.” He kissed me on each side of my nose and then pulled back. He stared into my eyes, and then dropped his gaze slightly to my lips. “And definitely here,” he whispered. He leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. Our first kiss, slow and gentle.
I let it last until I could just sense that all of my defense systems were shutting down. I opened my eyes as I leaned back in his arms. “Maybe you’re right,” I said hoarsely. “That sure beats a joke.”
Two days passed, and then a client called with a pair of box seat tickets to the Cardinals game that night. It was the first of May, and I hadn’t been to a game since opening day. I called David, who seemed delighted to hear from me but unenthused about going to a baseball game.
“Come on,” I told him. “They’re playing the Pirates. Our seats are fabulous.”
Reluctantly, he agreed to go.
He probably doesn’t like baseball, I told myself after I hung up. Or maybe he didn’t even understand how the game was played. Don’t forget, I said, you’ve never really known a rabbi before—at least outside of a synagogue. Don’t assume a thing.
But to my surprise, David Marcus turned out to be an extremely knowledgeable student of baseball. Several times during the game he quietly pointed something out that I never would have spotted on my own—a subtle shift in the infield alignment, a change in the pitcher’s motion or the catcher’s position, a batting strategy based on the next two players in the lineup.
On the way home from the game I made my decision. “Come on in,” I told him when he pulled in front of my house. “I’ll make us some coffee and you can meet Ozzie.”
“Who is Ozzie?”
I raised my eyebrows impishly. “A gorgeous redhead I’ve lived with for the past seven years.”
David and Ozzie hit it off immediately, although I must admit that I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t hit it off immediately with Ozzie. I’ve had Ozzie since he was six weeks old, and as far as I am concerned, he is the most lovable, gentle, loyal, and tolerant golden retriever in the Western Hemisphere.
When the coffee was ready, I let Ozzie out in the backyard and David brought the steaming mugs into the living room. When I came into the living room, he was kneeling next to the stereo system flipping through my old albums. A good sign, I told myself. He had ignored the rack of CDs.
“What are you in the mood to hear?” he asked. “Your choice,” I said.
Any lingering doubts vanished when I saw the album he selected: The Greatest Hits of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I knew then it would be a wonderful night, and it was. We kissed on the couch to “Shop Around.” We made love on the bed to a medley that ended with “I Second That Emotion.” We awoke at three in the morning and made love again, this time to our own music.
And now, at 7:15 in the morning, I gazed at my handsome sleeping rabbi. He had actually carried me from the couch to the bedroom last night, scooping me up as if I weighed nothing. I was surprised by his strength, but as I studied his bare arms and chest I could see how powerful they were. A weight-lifting rabbi? You could do worse. I stretched with contentment. You could do a whole lot worse than a strong, dark, and handsome rabbi who knew baseball, enjoyed good food, and could sing all the words to “Tracks of My Tears.”
“Good morning, Rachel.”
I turned to find him looking at me, a twinkle in his eyes. I leaned over and kissed him on the nose. “Good morning, David,” I said, nuzzling against his neck.
# # #
An hour later, barefoot and wrapped in my terrycloth bathrobe, I came into the kitchen, fluffing my hair with a bath towel. The sight I found made me smile. David was dressed and at the kitchen table, reading the front page. Ozzie was curled on the floor at his feet. A fresh pot of coffee was on the counter and a basket of croissants, rolls, and Danish was on the table.
“Wow,” I said as I joined him at the table. “Where did you get the goodies?”
He smiled. “The St. Louis Bread Company. I ducked out while you were in the shower.”
I leaned across the table and kissed him on the lips. “Thanks.” I sat back and ravenously surveyed the basket of pastries. I picked out a raspberry croissant, took a bite, and got up to pour myself some coffee.
“I thought rabbis only ate bagels,” I said when I returned to the table.
“Not when we’re romancing beautiful, long-legged attorneys.” He winked. “There’s a special exception set out in the Torah.”
I reached for the sports page.
“By the way,” I said a few moments later, “your friend never showed up.”
David looked up from the newspaper. “My friend?” “That guy you sent me. Bruce Rosenthal.”
“He’s not really a friend. He’s a member of the congregation. He came to me Saturday morning after services. He was agitated, but didn’t tell me much. From what he was willing to say, it sounded to me like he needed to talk to a lawyer. I suggested he give you a call. I thought he did.”
“He did,” I said. “He called last Thursday.” “Were you able to help him?”
I shrugged. “Not yet.” “What happened?”
“He was real nervous. He was calling from his car phone. He didn’t want to talk about it over the phone, only face-to-face. ‘Strictly confidential,’ he told me, which was fine. Most new clients are reluctant to describe their problems over the phone, especially a car phone. We scheduled a meeting for eleven o’clock the next day—that was last Friday.”
“And?” David said.
“I had to reschedule. He got to my office right on time, but I was still stuck in a court hearing downtown. I called him from court and apologized. We rescheduled the meeting for Tuesday morning at nine.”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. He never showed up, never called to explain, never called to reschedule. I haven’t talked to him since last Friday. Has he said anything to you?”
David leaned back in his chair and scratched his neck pen- sively. “He was at Shabbat services on Saturday morning. I haven’t talked to him since then.”
I stood up with a shrug. “Well, let’s hope his problem went away.” I glanced up at the kitchen clock. “I’m going to get dressed. It won’t take me long.”
Five minutes later I was zipping my skirt when David Marcus came into the bedroom. I turned with a smile, which faded when I saw his ashen face. He was holding the newspaper in his hand.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Here.” He handed me the paper. It was open to page three of the metropolitan section. He pointed to the headline at the top of the page:
LOCAL CONSULTANT DISCOVERED INSIDE TRASH COMPACTOR; APPARENTLY DEAD FOR DAYS
I started reading the story:
The body of a 29-year-old engineering consultant was discovered yesterday afternoon when the contents of an industrial trash compactor container were dumped out at the Chain of Rocks landfill near Granite City,
III. Workers at the site watched in horror and disbelief as a male corpse, still attired in a conservative business suit, came tumbling out of the compactor container along with dozens of large brown bags of trash.
Police at the scene identified the man as Bruce
- Rosenthal of Clayton, Mo. His employer had reported him missing the day before his body was discovered. A homicide investigation has com- menced, according to Captain Ron Price of the St. Louis Police Department.
Rosenthal was employed as a manager at the engineering consulting firm of…
I looked up from the article. David was sitting on the bed, his head down. I glanced at my watch. I had to be downtown for a deposition in forty-five minutes, but I didn’t want to act rushed. David was shaken by Rosenthal’s death. I could tell that he was trying to shoulder some of the blame, as absurd as that was.
“You did what you could,” I said.
He turned to me, puzzled. “Pardon?”
“He needed an attorney, not a rabbi,” I explained. “I gather he wanted to talk to an attorney about a matter he was working on. I assume he had discovered something about one of his firm’s clients and wanted to know who he could tell.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You told me that he said he wanted to talk to an attorney about two things. One of them was the accountant-client privilege, right?”
I scanned the rest of the newspaper article and looked up. “It says he had a degree in accounting. If he told you he had a question about the accountant-client privilege, I assume it had to do with one of his firm’s clients. He must have learned something disturbing and wanted to know if he could tell anyone.” I glanced down at the newspaper article. “He worked at Smilow and Sul- livan, Ltd. An engineering consulting firm.” I looked at David. “What kind of things does an engineering consulting firm do?” “I don’t know,” he said with a frown. “He never told me.”
He shook his head sadly. “I never even asked.”
“David,” I said gently, “you did the right thing. Both of you decided that he needed to talk to an attorney. You’re not an attorney. You gave him my name. You did exactly what he asked you to do. I was the one who wasn’t able to make that first appointment. If anyone’s to blame, it’s me, not you.”
He wasn’t persuaded. I sat next to him on the bed and took his hand. “I’m sure the police will do a thorough investigation.”
David sighed. “I hope so.”
A few minutes later, we were in the front hall getting ready to leave. Ozzie was waiting at the front door, his eyes moving back and forth between David and me.
“What do you make of the other issue?” David asked. “What issue?” I said, reaching for my purse.
“In addition to the privilege issue, Bruce told me he wanted to talk to an attorney about some sort of statutory limits.”
“Do you remember what kind of statutory limits?” David shook his head in frustration. “No.”
“There are lots of possibilities,” I explained. “The law books are filled with statutes that put limits on things—limits on the amount of damages you can recover, limits on the types of actions a board of directors can take without a shareholder vote, limits on the number of branch offices a bank can operate, and so on and so on. Unless you know who the client was, it’ll be hard to figure out which statutory limits might apply.”
I held the door open for Ozzie, who ran out, and then I locked it behind me.
“Where does Ozzie go during the day?” David asked. “Next door.” We watched Ozzie trot toward my neighbors’
porch. “It’s a great arrangement. They have adorable little twin girls. They’re home all day with a babysitter. They love Ozzie, and he keeps them company.”
Ozzie climbed onto my neighbors’ porch and turned back toward me as he sat down. David’s car was in the driveway behind mine. As we walked to our cars I tried to decide whether to raise the subject of when we’d see each other again. His distraction over Bruce Rosenthal’s death made him seem distant. Having never before spent the night with a rabbi, I wasn’t quite sure of the protocols.
David stopped when we reached my car and took my hand. “That was a marvelous evening, Rachel,” he said softly. “When can I see you again?”
I blushed with pleasure and squeezed his hand. “Whenever you’d like.”
He thought for a moment. “How about Sunday afternoon?” “Sunday?” I repeated, mentally checking my calendar. “Well,
I have a game—hey, how would you like to play softball on Sunday afternoon?”
“Softball?” he said with a frown. “I don’t—”
“Come on, David. It won’t be so bad. I’m on a coed team in the lawyers’ league. We’re going to be one short on Sunday. They’ll let us play that way, but we could really use another man.”
“I haven’t played in a long time,” he said reluctantly.
“Big deal. It’s not like we’re major leaguers out there. It’s fun. My best friend Benny Goldberg’s on our team. I really want you two to meet. We can all go out to dinner after.”
He sighed in surrender. “Okay.”
I stood on my toes and kissed him on the lips. “It’s Diamond Number Two at Forest Park. The game starts at three-thirty.”
He beeped his horn as he pulled away, and I honked back. Ozzie was curled up on my neighbors’ front porch as I backed out of the driveway. I waved and called, “Bye, Oz.” He lifted his head and his tail flopped three times on the porch.
I drove off with a feeling of total contentment, humming a Smokey Robinson tune, blissfully unaware that Bruce Rosenthal’s grisly death had sounded the opening chords of a nightmare symphony.