Zoe McCabe is a beautiful young actress on the verge of stardom who has been basking in the standing ovations and rave reviews she’s been getting from critics and fans alike for her portrayal of Desdemona in an off-Broadway production of Othello. As she takes her final bows, Zoe has no idea that, seated in the audience, a man has been studying her night after night, performance after performance. A man whose carefully crafted plans are for the young actress to take a starring role in a far deadlier production he has created just for her.
Portland, Maine detectives Mike McCabe and Maggie Savage are settling into the new rhythm of their relationship when McCabe gets a late night call from his brother Bobby that Zoe, McCabe’s favorite niece and Bobby’s daughter, has suddenly disappeared. The NYPD is certain Zoe’s abduction is the work of the man the tabloids have dubbed “The Star Struck Strangler,” a killer who has been kidnapping, abusing and finally strangling one beautiful young performer after another. Bobby begs McCabe to return to the New York City crime beat he’d left behind so many years ago, to work his old connections, and to help find Zoe before her time runs out. The stakes for McCabe and Savage have never been higher. Or more personal. And suddenly the race is on to stop a vicious attacker, before the McCabe family is torn apart beyond repair.
The worst thing about the rage was its randomness. Tyler Bradshaw never knew what might trigger one. A tone of voice. A look. An innocent or perhaps a not so innocent remark. Tonight he could feel it starting to build just seconds after he’d begun walking down the center aisle of the small McArthur/Weinstein Community Theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Having attended all eleven previous performances in this limited-run production of Othello, Tyler knew exactly where he wanted to sit for tonight’s finale. The same seat he’d occupied for every performance so far. The same seat he was going to sit in tonight no matter what. A12. On the aisle. Front row. Right-hand side. By far the best seat in the house in terms of offering him the most intimate view of the death of Zoe McCabe, the young actress cast in the role of Desdemona.
This would be Tyler’s last chance to watch the woman he wanted so desperately, the woman who’d been haunting his dreams for months, meet death at the hands of Randall Carter, the well known black actor who was playing Othello the Moor. And if all went according to plan, this closing night would become opening night for a much more intimate relationship.
But Tyler had taken only a few steps down the aisle when he was stopped short by the sight of some son of a bitch sitting in his seat. The theater was practically empty, and some asshole had actually had the nerve to plant his butt in the seat Tyler claimed as his own. He stood for a few seconds watching the guy as the anger grew. Some skinny twerp with a shaved head and black-framed hipster glasses leaning over and talking to the woman next to him as if unaware of his transgression. Tyler barely managed to suppress an urge to run down the nearly empty aisle to the first row, pull the guy up by his ears and kick the shit out of him right then and there.
Take it easy, Tyler told himself. Don’t start a fight. Don’t cause a scene. Don’t get your ass thrown out of here. Do that and you’ll miss Zoe’s final death scene, and you really don’t want to do that. Still, when something he so desperately wanted was denied him, when something he considered rightfully his was withheld or taken away, Tyler found it nearly impossible to suppress the anger filling his brain. But he knew he had to try. Taking a deep breath, he managed to walk at a measured pace the rest of the way down the aisle. He stopped and stood directly in front of the guy in A12. He looked down. “Sorry, buddy,” he said in a voice filled with no more than a hint of threat, “you and your girlfriend are gonna have to move. This seat’s taken.”
“I beg your pardon,” the guy said in what Tyler thought was a condescending tone. Tyler hated it when people condescended to him. New York was full of them. It was one of the reasons he really didn’t like spending time in the city even though he’d been born here. Even though he still kept an apartment here. Even though he’d worked three years at his uncle’s fancy Wall Street law firm. That job had gone down the crapper the day Tyler totally lost it when one of the other associates had condescended to him. Told Tyler in front of like ten other people that the only reason the firm had hired Tyler was because his uncle happened to be managing partner. Tyler reacted by slugging the guy right then and there in front of six other lawyers. Knocked the bastard flat on his ass. Then followed up with a kick to the gut. A deliciously satisfying kick even though it marked the end of his legal career. The only reason Tyler hadn’t been charged with assault was that his uncle convinced the other guy his own career would go much better if he simply forgot about the whole thing. Tyler still got pissed off when he thought about that asshole.
“You heard me,” Tyler said to the guy who’d taken his seat, making sure he kept his voice quiet and controlled. “You’re sitting in my seat. This has been my seat for the last two weeks. The entire run. And it will continue to be my seat for tonight. That means it’s time for you to tell me how sorry you are and get up and move.”
Condescension changed to huffiness. “I don’t know who you think you are but there’s no reserved seating in this theater. We took these seats first. That means they’re ours. There’s plenty of empty seats all over the place. Just take one of those and leave us the hell alone.”
“This is my seat and you are going to have to move.”
For exactly twenty-three seconds the guy said nothing. Tyler knew it was twenty-three without having to consult his watch. It was this brain thing he’d had ever since the so-called accident. He always knew precisely to the second what time it was and precisely how much time was passing. Just as he knew how many steps it would take to get from one place to another without having to think about it. It hadn’t always been that way. Just since his old man had tossed him headfirst into the shallow end of the swimming pool at their country place when he was fourteen and he’d bashed his head against the concrete. That’s when the rage problems started as well.
For the entire time, the guy just sat where he was and looked up at Tyler. Maybe he was debating whether to challenge someone who, at six foot three and two hundred and twenty pounds, was way the hell bigger than he was.
Tyler was getting closer to hoisting the guy out of the seat and tossing his skinny little ass out into the aisle. Which would have ruined everything. Thankfully, one second before he would have done just that, the guy’s wife or girlfriend or whatever she was, broke the impasse.
“Come on, Richard,” she said. “Let’s move. I don’t like being this close to the stage anyway.”
“I oughtta call the police,” said Richard.
“Call whoever the fuck you want, Richard. Just get your ass out of my seat.”
“Richard. Please,” said the woman. “This guy’s unhinged.”
“Yeah, Richard, I’m unhinged,” said Tyler, putting as much menace in his voice as he could.
“And if you want to know the truth, I’m getting more fucking unhinged by the second.”
The woman rose, took Richard’s hand and pulled. “Please,” she said.
The guy finally stood. No doubt relieved not to have to confront someone as big and angry-looking as Tyler. But, Tyler figured, also ashamed that he lacked the cojones to stand up to the bully who’d shamed him in front of his girlfriend. A lot of people responded to Tyler that way. He usually enjoyed it when they did. He especially liked it when people backed down and did exactly what he told them to. Which was most of the time. Most people were too chicken-shit to stand up for themselves.
Tonight was no different. The guy named Richard picked up a canvas messenger bag from the floor and let the woman lead him across to the other side of the small auditorium, where they found seats a couple of rows back. Tyler watched them go. Neither looked back at him. Neither noticed the small, satisfied smile he threw at them. Confrontations that ended like this and the adrenaline rush that came with them always made him feel better.
Before sitting down, Tyler unzipped his backpack, pulled a pair of latex gloves from the package he’d put in there, and put them on. Then he took out a packet of antibacterial wet wipes and used three of them to wipe down the seat, the backrest and the arms before easing his large frame down into seat A12. His seat. That done, he closed his eyes and focused on breathing deeply in and out. Pictured the rage that had come from the confrontation slowly dripping out of him, drop by drop, like water from a leaky faucet. That’s what Dr. Steinman, the therapist he started seeing a year after the swimming pool incident, had taught him to do when he felt this way. He watched the drops falling . . . exactly one drop per second . . . and knew without counting that one hundred and forty-four drops had fallen before he’d totally emptied himself of the anger and felt calm enough to open his eyes.
Tyler had another twenty-one minutes and twelve seconds to wait before scheduled curtain time. Maybe even more minutes and seconds before the curtain actually went up, because they never seemed to get the timing right. To pass the time he popped a couple of sticks of Juicy Fruit gum in his mouth and started chewing. Then he pulled a week-old copy of the New York Daily News from his backpack and unfolded it. He stared for what had to be the hundredth time at the banner headline, the big black letters seeming to leap out at him from the front page. StarStruck Strangler Strikes Again. He wondered if that was just one headline or if that was the nickname they were going to give the killer. He wondered if the name would stick. Tyler thought about it. Star-Struck Strangler wasn’t nearly as interesting as, say, Son of Sam. Though it was, he supposed, equally alliterative. Both had multiple S’s, which had always been one of Tyler’s favorite letters. He repeated the headline to himself. Star-Struck Strangler Strikes Again. Four ST words in a row. Tyler preferred S words when they were followed by L’s. Words like slasher. Slimy. Sleazy. Slippery. Slinky. Slick. Slutty. Yes, SL words were much better than ST words. His favorite SL word, slithy, wasn’t a real word at all. Just something made up by Lewis Carroll. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. Wonderful creepy-crawly sounds.
Beneath the headline that dominated the front page was a subhead set in slightly smaller black type. It read, Missing Ballerina Found Murdered on Beach. No alliteration there unless you counted the M’s in Missing and Murdered and the B’s in Ballerina and Beach, and Tyler didn’t think that really counted. Tucked next to the headline and subhead was a color photo of an attractive young blonde, her hair pulled back in a bun, smiling at the camera. A happy smile, he thought, for a woman who’d turned up dead over a week ago. Tyler flipped open the tabloid and read full the story once again:
Friday, October 2, 2015. The body of 21-year-old Sarah Jacobs, a dancer with the New York City Ballet who had been reported missing two weeks earlier on September 15, was discovered late last night lying in a shallow, sandy grave on a stretch of beach in Sherwood Island State Park., The beach is located on the Long Island Sound in the affluent suburb of Westport, Connecticut.
Investigators say Ms. Jacobs’s body was discovered at approximately six a.m. by Westport resident Edward Todd. Todd told police he was walking his dog on the beach as he does every morning, when the dog raced ahead and started sniffing at something in the sand. When Mr. Todd was close enough to see it was the remains of a human body, he immediately dialed 911 on his mobile phone and informed Westport police, who arrived moments later. After identifying the body, Westport detectives notified the NYPD, which had been searching for Ms. Jacobs since her disappearance.
The victim, Sarah Jacobs, was a well-regarded dancer who was considered a rising star with the New York City Ballet. According to police sources, the victim’s body, when found, was wearing a black leotard and black ballet slippers, an outfit identical to the one she wore on stage during her last performance at Lincoln Center on September 12, three days prior to her disappearance. Her hair was also arranged identically to the way it had been during the performance.
Ms. Jacobs was the daughter of prominent Broadway producer Frederick Jacobs and Chelsea art dealer Marjorie Hanscomb Jacobs. Both parents refused to comment on the discovery of their daughter’s body. André Komar, the company’s ballet master, told reporters, “Sarah was an exceptionally gifted young dancer with a bright future ahead of her. All of us who knew and worked with her here at the New York City Ballet are grieving along with her parents. This is a real tragedy and we will all miss her enormously.”
Assistant New York City Medical Examiner Dr. Peter Weisman told reporters the apparent cause of death was strangulation. He also said the body was badly bruised and there were clear signs that Ms. Jacobs had been sexually assaulted prior to death. Her body is scheduled to be autopsied by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to determine, among other things, time of death and if strangulation was indeed the cause.
The victim has been the subject of an intense New York Police Department manhunt ever since her disappearance. She was last seen leaving a private party at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on the evening of September 15th. Her father told reporters she left the party early after complaining of feeling “queasy” and said that she was going to take a cab home to her Greenwich Village apartment.
Ms. Jacobs is the third young member of New York’s performing arts community to have disappeared from Manhattan since the beginning of the year. The body of an earlier victim, Ronda Wingfield, 28, an actress who appeared frequently in musical productions in Manhattan and elsewhere, was discovered last May 19th in a wooded section of Manhattan’s Highbridge Park.
A third performer, actress Marzena Wolski, who also lived in Manhattan and who, for the last two years, had a starring role in the TV crime drama Malicious, was reported missing September 28th. Police have reportedly found no clues as to Ms. Wolski’s whereabouts.
When asked if police believed the three kidnappings and two confirmed deaths were the work of a serial killer, the NYPD’s chief of detectives, Charles Pryor, told reporters, “While we can’t be absolutely sure at this point in the investigation, given the obvious similarities in the choice of victims, all of whom performed on television or on stage, as well as similarities in the cause and manner of death of the two victims found so far, we are fairly certain that that is the case.” Pryor added, “There are currently no suspects but we are hopeful that the discovery of Ms. Jacobs’s remains will provide some relevant leads.”
Tyler reread the article a couple of times even though he already knew it pretty much by heart, as he did just about everything else that had been published about the kidnappings and murders. He then turned back and examined the front-page photo of Sarah Jacobs. With her long, narrow face, Sarah wasn’t really all that pretty. At least not compared to Zoe McCabe. For Tyler Bradshaw, there was no one who could compare to Zoe.
Tyler finally returned the paper to his backpack, relaxed in his seat and waited patiently until the curtain rose, and Roderigo and Iago entered a bare-bones version of a sixteenth-century Venetian street. Tyler watched the beginning of the play with minimal interest. It wasn’t Iago or Roderigo he’d come for. Tyler’s only reason to sit through this part of the play over and over again was to make sure he got the right seat to feel the closeness of the woman he so desperately wanted. His gaze never strayed from her from the moment she first came on stage in Act I, Scene III, until she was finally done to death in Act V, Scene II, bloodlessly smothered by the actor who played the title role. When the play got to that point, Tyler whispered Desdemona’s last words to himself, doing his best to mimic the way Zoe spoke them.
That death’s unnatural that kills for loving.
Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Tyler sometimes practiced gnawing his nether lip when Zoe said the lines. She was right. It didn’t seem natural. Still, the most famous writer who ever lived had written it that way.
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope
They do not point on me. . . .
A guiltless death I die.
Oh yes, my love, he whispered to himself, a guiltless death you die. But not too soon I hope. For I’m quite sure I want you with me for a much longer time than the Star-Struck Strangler had allowed either of the others.
And then, when it came time, he mouthed the famous lines spoken by the Moor.
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well . . .
Tyler had fixated on these words since he’d watched the first performance two weeks ago, for he believed they precisely defined who he was. They were his lines because he believed that he too was one who loved not wisely but too well.
When the play finally ended and the curtain fell two hours, twenty-seven minutes and thirty seconds later, it was the third longest of the twelve performances he had attended. It irritated Tyler that the actors couldn’t do a better job of getting the timing right. Yes, in one performance, the actor playing Iago had even screwed up one of his lines and Othello had to ad-lib filler dialogue until Iago got his brain back on track. But that was the only time they had an excuse.
He let the irritation go when Zoe and the rest of the cast stepped in front of the curtain to take their bows. He stood with the audience and applauded as loudly as, if not more so than, anyone else in the theater. Took the overchewed ball of gum from his mouth and whistled loudly.
Of course, Tyler’s applause was only for Zoe. His gaze fixed only on her. Her dark and penetrating eyes. Her glorious smile. The slender perfection of her figure. At last, when the curtain calls were finally finished and the actors gone from the stage, Tyler slung his pack around one shoulder and walked out, once again practically the last to leave the theater. For the first time, his mind was finally and truly made up. He could wait no longer. He pulled a crushable Aussie outback hat from his backpack and put it on. Kind of goofy-looking, but what with all the damned surveillance cameras on the streets these days, the wide brim did a good job of hiding his face. And on a cold, drizzly night like this, it wouldn’t even attract much attention. Tyler left the theater by a side exit, crossed the street and stood in the shadows of a darkened computer repair shop, waiting for Zoe to emerge from the stage door dressed in her own street clothes.
When she finally walked out, she wasn’t alone. She was with Randall Carter, the big black dude who played Othello. They stood together on the sidewalk talking. Tyler felt rage once again building as they talked. Especially when Carter leaned down and kissed Zoe on the lips. Nothing passionate. Nothing sexy. But still. The woman Tyler considered his own kissing some hotshot Hollywood bastard? A black hotshot Hollywood bastard no less, which made it even harder to take. Tyler could barely keep his rage from roaring back, barely restrain himself from rushing across the street and kicking the shit out of Carter. While he stood there seething, a black Lincoln SUV pulled up. Randall Carter got in. Zoe waved. The car drove off. Zoe pulled up the hood on her rain jacket and started walking by herself along the street. Tyler watched and waited until she was a little ahead before following.
Excerpt from A Fatal Obsession by James Hayman. Copyright © 2018 by James Hayman. Reproduced with permission from Witness Impulse. All rights reserved.
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