by J. David Liss
“Tomorrow she’ll release the video on You Tube. Have the Commissioner call the Mayor to ask them not to run it.”
We were all shaken. We were all queasy. Getting that reaction from the Homicide Division took a special kind of crazy.
“How do you know she’s going to send it to You Tube and not just to us? Can they stop it from running?”
“I don’t know if they can stop it. Matty will know that. Tell Matty to write out in four simple sentences exactly what the Mayor will have to ask for. Never mind. I’ll ask him.”
“How do you know she’ll send it to You Tube?”
“This kind of crazy likes to show off. If folks like us are ready to puke, think about how the civilians will react.” I picked up my desk phone and called Mickey Moran, Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs.
“It’s Frank. Come downstairs. There’s something you need to know about, maybe see, if you haven’t had breakfast yet.” Moran hung up. He didn’t give me any shit, didn’t call me Sherlock, didn’t tell me to fuck myself, didn’t give me his apocryphal warning not to speak with the media. He wasn’t use to me calling him.
I called Matty. “The Mayor is going to have to call You Tube. It would be embarrassing for all of us if he did, and didn’t know what he was talking about. Come to my office. Moran is coming too. We need to figure something out.” There was no backtalk from Matty either. No, Once again your job is down the toilet, Detective Scott, and only technology can save you. I’d never asked Matty to come to my office before. He stinks, and after he leaves I was going to have to clean his chair and anything he touched with alcohol wipes. But what he and Moran needed to see had to be shown behind closed doors.
Finally, I called Dr. Goldberg, the forensic psychiatrist we worked with most closely. “Michael, please come to my office as soon as you can. Moran and Matty are on their way.”
“You invited Matty to your office?”
“I’ll be right there.”
Goldberg was smart. He picked up on clues, like a detective. I never call him by his first name. We Irish guys love to call Jews by their last names and they love doing the same to us. Just by calling him Michael, I knew I would get his attention.
Within 10 minutes everyone was in my office. Matty did stink. He does not wash frequently. In fact, his given name is Martin, not Mathew. We called him Matty because his hair was usually matted down with grease. If he wasn’t a computer genius with a fan boy’s love of detective work, we would never have let him into 1 Police Plaza. But the Department was able to hire one of the best technological minds in the City for the cost of a cop and a lot of kowtowing. So we dealt with the smell.
“I’m going to tell you all what I need you to do now, before showing you the video. I think that once you see it, it will be a while before you can focus, and we’re not going to have time to spare. Take notes.
Matty, two things from you. I’ll need you to write a very simple script for when the Mayor calls You Tube to tell them to stop this from being shown. I’m speculating that this woman will post it tomorrow and we need to stop it from being seen. Then, you need to figure out whatever you can about the woman who made it. We’re going to need to find her. Maybe there’s some way for you to trace it.”
“Detective Scott, lucky for you I speak stupid detective, because what you just said does not translate into language. You can’t stop something from being shown on You Tube preemptively. It has to be taken down after it’s posted. And then it’s too late. Too many people know how to download and repost video. Also, the Mayor would have to call Google, which is Alphabet, which owns You Tube. And I will not get involved with that pea-brain calling really smart people. My fingerprints will not be anywhere near the colossal embarrassment of that conversation, Francis.”
“Shut up. Write down what I just told you to do.” I’m usually very diplomatic with Matty. He was taken aback.
“Mickey, you’re going to need to have two things going on. You’re going to figure out how to spin this for the general public, but you’re also going to need to prepare the rank and file in the precincts if it goes viral.”
“Are you saying that I’m going to have to prepare an internal communications plan? What the hell is this?”
“Yes. Write that down — an internal communications plan. You’re not going to want to think about this for a while, but you’re going to have to move fast. You’ll need to get something out there tonight. Tomorrow is too late. You won’t have time for lunch or dinner, but you won’t want it.”
Moran scraped away in his notebook.
“Michael, you’ve got to help me figure this out.”
All three stared at me. In my nine years on the Force, no one had ever heard me ask for help. For all the shit I took from the Commissioner, who hated my father the ex-governor; for all the praise I get from the Mayor and the papers for being New York’s own version of Sherlock Holmes, the detective who figures out impossible cases; for all the politics that mixes with police work and makes the job ten times harder, I had worked with half the department and got along fine with everyone. But no one had ever heard me ask for help.
I clicked the play arrow on the big screen of my computer. The first thing you noticed about the woman who called herself Anna Prophet was the incongruity of her size and her scale. What I mean by that is if you saw her without the context of any other object, say photographed against a gray background, she would look beautiful and petite. Her red hair fell below her shoulder and had a Veronica Lake dip over one eye. But when you saw her next to other people, or common items like chairs and tables, you saw that she was a giant. She was at least 6’4”—and well muscled. You could see as she stood up from her chair how strong she was, because she moved as if gravity were for lesser beings and the only reason her feet stayed on the ground was because she willed them to.
The chair was a mid-century modern work of bent teakwood and black leather. She walked to the camera and I flinched because it felt like she was walking over to my face to punch it in – she was that threatening, even on video. She took up the whole field of view. She started to speak. Her rich, tenor voice sounded like a cello playing a dirge. Her articulation was a pleasure to hear if you loved the English language: British, elite – a slavering lioness reciting Shakespeare as her fangs ripped your jugular.
When she spoke, the depth of her silky voice was intensified by the precision of her language. “My name is Anna Prophet and don’t be fooled by this accent, I’m a true New Yorker and I LOVE New York, as the commercials used to say. Of course, Anna Prophet is a made-up name. Anna was a New Testament prophet. I’m a new media prophet.” She waved an extra-large hand at the camera. “Come along. There’s something I want to show you.”
She stepped back from the camera, which panned the entire room. It was a large space. At one end was a raised platform. On the platform was an operating table with an unconscious man strapped to it. Next to him was a man dressed as a doctor, surgical mask on. Also on the platform was a blonde woman strapped to a chair and gagged. On the other end of the room, there were about a dozen seats, all filled. I knew every one of the men in those seats and Mickey recognized most of them and guessed at the others — they were the crime bosses of New York and New Jersey.
She started speaking again, but now her British accent was gone. She spoke in unaccented American. “Enough with the accent.
“These gentlemen run the Mafia,” Anna Prophet emphasized the word Mafia and made a bit of a face as she said it, then she chuckled. “The Mafia,” she repeated, as if it were a punchline to a joke. “Here’s why they’ve joined me.” She held up a box. It was filled with fingers. “I kidnapped their first-born sons and daughters, cut off their left pinkies and kept them, cut off their right pinkies and sent them to their daddies.
“I really didn’t have to kidnap their children to get their attention since I hacked into their business systems and found out a great deal concerning their assets. I could simply have threatened them with that information. But these are stubborn men who need to learn new ways.
“This is a classroom. I’m the professor. Soon the learning will begin. But before we continue, I do want to share with you these amusing clips from their home security systems, which I also hacked.” There followed a two-minute clip of a number of the Mafioso using the toilet for different things. It was unkind, embarrassing.
“The Dons,” she again stressed the word and chuckled. “They and their antagonists, the police, are out of touch. But I arranged this get-together to really stress something with them and with you, my fellow New Yorkers. To be powerful in today’s world, one has to be bilingual, speaking both violence and technology. I’ll proceed with the demonstration of what I mean in a moment, but first I’d like to share a joke with you.
“A scientist was pursuing an important experiment. He trained a frog to jump whenever he said the word jump. After the frog had mastered the trick, he amputated one of the frog’s front legs and commanded jump. Awkwardly, the frog jumped on three legs. He then severed the other front leg and commanded, jump. The frog pushed off with his rear legs in what was more a roll than a jump. The scientist then amputated a rear leg and said jump and the frog manfully paddled with one leg but got nowhere. He then amputated the fourth leg and said jump, but the frog did not move forward at all. The scientist then wrote in his notebook, When you amputate all of a frog’s legs, it becomes deaf.” Anna Prophet gave a little chuckle.
“Now to the experiment. On the operating table we have Big Vinnie Calabria, reputedly New York’s most fearsome gangster. Yesterday, he went for a drive but his Mercedes lost control, hit a tree, and he was knocked unconscious. Actually, I took control of his car by hacking its control system and did that.
“He’s sleeping because I’ve injected him with a heroin derivative that is so powerful, so addictive, that one dose makes you an irrecoverable junky. He has had two doses.” Turning to the doctor, Anna Prophet continued. “Doctor, I don’t want Vinnie’s screams to disturb the audience, so wake him up by cutting out his tongue, about half way back. Your hands are shaking, doctor. I hope you don’t make a mess of things, the way you messed your pants when I first asked you to join me here. Use the pliers and the scissors.” She turned back to the camera. “It’s so hard to get a surgeon to make a house call nowadays.”
The camera swiveled back to the operating table and focused on Calabria’s mouth. Hands shaking, the doctor grabbed his tongue with the pliers and cut it off with the scissors. Calabria woke screaming, choking on his own blood as it spilled down his throat. Losing his tongue didn’t seem to lessen the volume of his screams.
Anna Prophet approached Calabria with a hypodermic. Speaking loudly to be heard over the screams, she said, “In this syringe is a diluted solution of my super heroin. It will be enough to blunt his pain and calm him down, but not enough to satisfy the craving.” She injected the drug directly into Calabria’s jugular. The Don stopped screaming. His eyes widened. He was tightly bound and couldn’t move, but his ruined face turned toward the syringe like a flower turning toward the sun.
“Wouldn’t you like more, Vinnie? I have plenty. In fact, look on the floor over there.” The camera shifted. There was a half dozen full syringes lined up. “They’re filled with your favorite thing, Vinnie, and I’m going to take off these straps in just a minute and let you take all of it.” Calabria was straining at the straps on his hands and feet and torso, trying to roll off the table. “But first the experiment.”
Anna Prophet took a pistol from a holster hidden in her clothing. It was a slender .22 caliber Ruger—a marksman’s gun, not a thug’s. Like a professor using a laser pointer, she aimed the slim gun at Calabria’s elbows and pulled the trigger. They smashed to a pulp. Calabria screamed that wet scream. Anna Prophet shot his knees, then his hands, then his feet, until Calabria was a pulped tomato that could scream, but not talk. His boney knee caps showed through the gaping holes in his legs.
Anna Prophet reloaded the gun and ordered the doctor to unstrap the gangster. The doctor’s hands were shaking so badly he almost couldn’t. But Anna Prophet gave the doctor a look that promised death — worse than death — and he pulled himself together and freed Calabria.
“It’s all yours, Vinnie. Go and get it.” Calabria fell off the table. He couldn’t move. He flopped a little in the direction of the syringes, but couldn’t move forward.
Anna Prophet faced the camera. “He really wants that heroin, but he isn’t going for it. My conclusion: Vinnie Calabria is deaf. She turned to the other Dons in the room, some crying, some puking, some frozen with fear, some hardened with resolve. How about you gentlemen; can you hear me?” Now she yelled: “CAN YOU HEAR ME? How about you my fellow New Yorkers? Can you hear me?
“Oh, and you may be wondering, who is the woman strapped in the chair. The answer: I don’t know. We took her this morning. Watch footage that we hacked from nearby store security cameras.” Grainy images took over the screen. The scene was obviously Madison Avenue. The blonde woman was walking into a store when she was grabbed by three masked men and shoved into a car.
“I chose her because she’s blonde and I knew it would show up well, even on the crappy security cameras.”
Now the camera shifted to the gagged face of the woman. The gag was stained with puke, her face with tears. She was shaking. Anna Prophet walked behind her, put the gun to the back of her neck and pulled the trigger, splattering the front row of gangsters with blood and brains.
“I just wanted to show you that sometimes I will take someone off the street and kill her. Or him,” she added. “One doesn’t really need something as prosaic as a reason.
Then, gunmen stepped out from the perimeter of the room, one for each Don, and shot the gangsters in the head. They all fell forward, dead. Finally, Anna Prophet casually turned to the doctor, rapidly aimed the .22 and shot him through the eye. The only person still alive was Calabria, who almost certainly wished he were dead.
To end the video she went back to the elite British accent: “This is Anna Prophet, signing off.”
The screen went dark.
Then Dr. Goldberg said, “Frank, how did you get this video? Was it delivered to you personally?”
“No. One copy went to the Mayor; one went to the Commissioner. They spoke and brought me in.”
“She doesn’t know you’re on the case. Don’t let that get out. Who knows?”
“No one yet. Only Homicide has seen this.”
Goldberg turned to Mickey and gave an order. “No one knows that Frank has the case. We can’t give her a name and face to define as the enemy. Understand?”
Matty was paralyzed. “Matty,” I said. He moved, but did not answer. “Matty?” He looked at me but seemed lost. He was pale white. “Matty,” I snapped, “the street scene in the security cameras, that was Madison Avenue.”
Matty came awake. “You’re right. I can trace the store cameras from the location. I’ll see if I can crack how the video was stolen and where it went.”
“Good. Michael, I’ll need a psychological profile. Michael.”
“You want a psychological profile? Let’s start with some questions. Does she lack resources?” No one answered.
“This is not rhetorical. Does she lack resources?”
I answered, “Obviously not. She’s got at least two dozen men under her control and huge technological sophistication.”
“Then why did she steal video from store security cameras rather than taking clear pictures of her own? It would have looked a thousand times better on You Tube.”
Matty answered. “It isn’t hard to hack into store security networks. There’s a hole you can send a truck into.”
“You didn’t answer my question. I asked why she would do it when she didn’t have to.”
I cut in, frightened now. “Matty, do not trace that video. Do not. That’s an order.”
Goldberg: “Good, you’re seeing it, Frank.”
Mickey now spoke. “Michael, Frank, what are you guys talking about? Why wouldn’t we follow up on any clue at all?”
Matty said, “I know why. You think I can be traced. You think Prophet wants us to do the forensics because she’ll hack us and find out who her enemy is. Frank, I am the best. You have no idea what I can do. She has no idea who she is dealing with.”
Goldberg: “Do you want her to know she’s dealing with you, Matty? What if she can figure that out? My brain started working on her psychological profile as I was watching the video. But you weren’t seeing the potential computer pitfalls. Frank had to focus you on the idea that security videos could be a way of tracing her. You didn’t think of that. Now, you aren’t thinking about defense, only offense. With Anna Prophet, that may be a death sentence for all of us.”
Moran: I don’t know what to tell people. Shit, I’m afraid to issue a press release with my name on it.
Goldberg: “That’s how you need to be thinking about this.”
Me: “So we’re all agreed she’s so dangerous we need to play defense as well as offense. Matty, write something for the Mayor. Mickey, let the Commissioner know what he has to do.”
Moran: “There’s something else I think I’ll have to do as well, Frank. Michael, advise me here. I know the Mayor’s press secretary, Andy Infantino, pretty well. He’ll write the press release, talking about how tough the Mayor is and how the NYPD will take care of this. He will talk about what a coward Prophet is and how he, the Mayor, knows how to deal with cowards.”
Goldberg: “That would be a disaster. She’ll will come right for him. She’s shockingly immature. The video clips from the gangsters’ toilets, the fake accents, it’s childish. She will look at any comment as a challenge to be beaten.”
I pointed out, “The Mayor is really well protected. We all know how good Spencer and his team are.”
Matty: “It doesn’t matter how good they are. They won’t know what hit them. Their pagers will direct them to call HQ and they’ll get a message telling them they’re needed at a place far from the Mayor. They’ll realize their mistake within minutes, but it will be impossible for them to travel back because the traffic light sequences will be messed up, creating a traffic jam on every corner. A series of emergencies will happen all at once as subway cars crash, computerized alarms go off in every building in the city, fire alarms ring, sending millions into the streets. The Mayor will be a sitting duck.”
Moran: “Jesus, is this possible?”
Matty: “It’s what I would do if I wanted to kill the Mayor.”
I asked, “Matty, could you actually do all that?”
“Then we have to assume Prophet can too.”
Matty looked sullen. He was quiet. Then he said, “Yes.”
“Good catch on your part, Mickey.” This from Dr. Goldberg. “Tell Infantino to emphasize the Mayor’s deep concern, and to note respect for the daring of this murderer who feels comfortable to reveal her face, if not her name. Tell him that the Mayor should express confidence in the NYPD. Tell the Mayor to say, We’re all in this together. That’s important; it will do two things. It will counteract Prophet’s trying to keep us from working together. That’s why she killed that poor woman — to create a sense that it’s every man for himself. But it will also diffuse who Anna Prophet can blame. I have some thoughts about a gigantic and immensely strong woman who is clearly a genius that I’m going to follow up.”
I took my phone and called Arnie Schultz on the Organized Crime Task Force — one of the oldest detectives on the force, and one of the smartest. “What’s up, Frank?”
“Can you come to my office right now?”
“Did your Dad get the Mayor to make you Commissioner?”
“Not a joke, Arnie. Come now.”
“You on this new thing?”
“Anna Prophet, right?”
“I’m hanging up.” I did.
In less than five minutes Schultz had joined us. “Arnie, I’m not going to show you the whole video. We’ll go to the part where all the mob bosses get killed. Okay. Look at each of the guys standing behind a Don. Take your time. Any look familiar?”
“Familiar, yes. This young guy, he reminds me of Irish Albano. Looks like him. Even holds his piece like Irish, a little sideways. I think that’s Albano’s kid, whose name is…Salvatore. They call him Sally. Pretty sure that’s Sally Albano.”
“Where’s the dad?”
“Attica. I can bring him downstate or go upstate if you want.”
“Let me think about it.”
“Lemme know. Happy to be on the case, Frank.”
“I never said what case it is, Arnie.”
“You didn’t have to. The video is all over the news. Ten minutes ago, the Mayor and the Commissioner announced they were sending New York’s finest criminal justice mind to catch Anna Prophet, our own Sherlock Holmes, the legendary Frank Scott.”
In 1984 J. David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College. Trained in writing, inclined to politics, he worked as a speechwriter and lobbyist for causes that allow him to earn a living but are worthwhile. Liss published poetry and fiction in a number of places, including a recent anthology from Between the Lines Press.