Charles Butler stood at the center of the Special Crimes incident room, only glancing at the flanking walls, each one devoted to a hanged woman. Now the rear wall – that was fascinating. The halo of dead flies around the scarecrow’s baseball cap was definite proof of creativity. He turned to the detective beside him. ‘Seriously? Ronald Deluthe did this?’
‘Yeah.’ Riker diddled the controls of a small cassette player. ‘I may wind up liking that kid.’
‘Then why not stop treating him like a half-bright child?’
‘Okay, I’ll buy him a beer. That’s the highest honor I’m allowed to confer on a lame trainee.’ Riker raised the volume of the cassette to play a few words spoken in an empty monotone. This was the voice of the scarecrow alone in a gray landscape, a monotonous plain with no rise of emotion, no depth of despair. The only relief in this flatline existence was the ambient sound.
Charles stared at the other walls papered with handwritten notes and typed reports, fax sheets and photographs. He could perceive no order in this work of many hands and minds. ‘Can we take the paperwork back to – ’
‘No,’ said Riker. ‘We can’t remove anything from this room. Can’t copy it either. Coffey’s orders. So just read everything.’
And now that Charles understood his role as a human Xerox machine, he walked along the south wall, committing the paperwork of Kennedy Harper’s murder to eidetic memory. Obviously all the autopsy information had been pinned up by Mallory. It was a small oasis of perfect alignment on an otherwise sloppy wall where neighboring papers hung straight only by accident.
The detective walked alongside him, working the volume of the cassette player as they crossed over to the opposite wall. ‘Listen to this one more time.’
‘Regular intervals,’ said Riker. ‘We know it’s automated. Our techs think it might be a plant mister in a florist shop or a commercial greenhouse.’
‘I’d rule out a workplace,’ said Charles. ‘If the scarecrow was worried about being interrupted, you’d hear that in his voice. But it’s level, isn’t it? Utterly flat.’ He listened to another sentence fragment, then – Pssst. ‘There – a breath pause. The rhythm of his speech works around the ambient sound. It’s like punctuation. I’d say he’s been living with that noise for a very long time. It might come from a machine related to health issues.’ While Charles was speaking to Riker, in another compartment of his mind, he was absorbing the text of Edward Slope’s autopsy report on a living woman. ‘Doesn’t this coma patient have a last name?’
‘Sparrow,’ said Riker. ‘That’s it.’
Mallory was in the room, but Charles could not say just when she had arrived. Cats made more racket with soft padding paws. He sometimes wondered if this was her idea of fun, watching startled people jump – as Riker did when he noticed her strolling along the wall behind them. She showed little interest in the photo array of Sparrow’s nude body. Only one picture at the edge of the group attracted her, a close-up of a vicious wound on the victim’s side. The scar was an old one, a gross knot of flesh grown over a hole. Mallory closed her eyes, a small but telling gesture, and he read much into it. She had more in common with Sparrow than a paperback western retrieved from a crime scene.
Mallory looked up to catch Charles staring at her. ‘What?’
‘There’s something I’m curious about.’ He stepped back to the group of photographs taken at the hospital. Edward Slope’s signature appeared on the last page of notes in Mallory’s rigid handwriting. He pointed to the picture of Sparrow’s scar framed by the gloved hands of the medical examiner. ‘Evidently, Edward spent some time exploring this wound, but you didn’t mention it in any of your notes.’
‘It’s old history,’ she said. ‘Nothing to do with this case.’
‘So you know how it happened.’
Riker was suddenly leaving them with uncommon speed, moving to the other side of the room, and that was the only warning that Charles had trodden on some personal landmine.
‘It’s an old knife wound. Very old. A waste of time.’ She ripped the photograph from the wall. ‘It shouldn’t even be here.’
‘But you told Coffey this woman was good with a knife.’
‘None better.’ She crumpled the photograph in one hand, and Charles could see the bright work going on behind her intelligent eyes.
Because he was handicapped with a face that could not run a bluff in a poker game, most people wrongly assumed that he could not tell when he was being lied to. Mallory never made that mistake. He guessed that she was simply wondering what half-truth might be most misleading.
‘It wasn’t a fight,’ she said. ‘Sparrow never saw the knife coming.’
‘So she had a blind side?’
‘No!’ She wadded the photograph into a ball, then rolled it between her palms, making it smaller and smaller. ‘Yes.’ And now her voice was smaller too. ‘You could say she was blindsided by a joke.’ The little ball of paper disappeared into her closed fist. ‘Sparrow was laughing when he did it to her.’ And while Charles was watching this little magic show, her other hand flashed toward him, and he was lightly stabbed in the chest by one red fingernail.
‘And now you can forget the scar,’ she said to him, ordered him. ‘We’re clear on that?’
Oh, yes, the threat was very clear. Mallory crossed the room with long strides. She could not leave him fast enough. Charles wished she had slammed the door on her way out; that would have told him that she was merely angry, that he had simply annoyed her. But that was not the case; he had damaged her somehow. There would be no more mention of Sparrow’s scar, not ever, for he sensed that it was also Mallory’s scar. However, the photograph was locked in his memory. He could not let go of it, and now it began to grow, attracting other bits of paper, a fifteen-year-old receipt from Warwick’s Used Books, an inscription to a child on the title page of a western. When had Mallory witnessed that piece of violence?
If one truly wanted to maim a human being for life, it was best to start when the victim was very young – ten years old?
Now that the field was clear of explosives, Riker was strolling back to him, folding a cell phone and saying, ‘Okay, Charles, you got your wish. I gave Duck Boy a real job. He’s taking the old man on a field trip – an interview with the cop who found Natalie Homer’s body. Are you happy now?’ Hardly.
At the top of the page, Ronald Deluthe had identified the interview subject as the first police officer to enter Natalie Homer’s crime scene. During a testy silence, he wrote down a careful description of Alan Parris’s apartment, noting worn upholstery, cracked plaster and all the dust and grime of a man who had hit bottom before the age of forty-two.
Parris’s personnel file had listed only the dry statistics of a short career with NYPD, but the garbage pail overflowing with beer cans indicated a serious drinking problem. The sink in the galley kitchen was piled high with dirty dishes and one cracked teacup with a delicate design, perhaps something the man’s ex-wife had left behind when the marriage ended twenty years ago – only a few months before Natalie Homer’s death.
Alan Parris’s T-shirt was stained; his boxer shorts were torn; and dirty toenails showed through the holes in his black socks. The man was so underwhelmed by the interview style of Lars Geldorf that he appeared to be nodding off.
No, Alan Parris was drunk.
‘You’re lying!' Geldorf paced the floor and raised his voice to rouse the man from lethargy. ‘I know one of you bastards leaked the details. It was you or your partner. Now give it up!’ The old man leaned down, bringing his face within inches of Parris’s. ‘Don’t piss me off, son. You won’t like me when I get mad.’
All the incredulity that Parris could muster was a small puff of air escaping from pursed lips, a lame guffaw. He kept his silence, showing remarkable patience with the retired detective and his ludicrous threats.
Lars Geldorf s promised anger was unleashed, and Deluthe took faithful shorthand, recording every obscenity. The old man finally succeeded in triggering Parris’s temper. And now the four-letter words were flying both ways as Deluthe’s pencil sped across the page of his notebook, not resting until Geldorf stomped out of the apartment.
This was Deluthe’s cue to pull out his list of prepared questions. The script Geldorf had outlined for him was reminiscent of days in uniform and visits to elementary schools in the role of Officer Friendly. ‘Just a few more questions, sir.’ He gave Parris a lame smile, and the man rolled his eyes just as the schoolchildren had done. Another tough audience.
Deluthe dropped his smile, then folded the paper and slipped it back into his pocket. ‘What about neighbors? Do you remember anyone in the hall near the crime scene? Maybe there was a – ’
‘It was a long time ago, kid.’ Parris leaned down and moved a newspaper to one side, exposing a beer can crushed and discarded after some previous binge. He upended it over his open mouth to catch the last drops of flat warm liquid.
Though the ex-cop showed no sign of anxiety, soon he would be eager to get to a liquor store and replenish his supply of booze.
‘Take your time,’ said Deluthe. ‘I’ve got all damn day for this.’ Now he had the man’s attention. ‘I saw the photographs of the crime scene. If it was me, I couldn’t have forgotten anything about that night.’
‘You got that right, kid. But I never talked about the murder. The leak didn’t come from me.’ Parris stared at the front door left ajar, then raised his voice, correctly sensing that Geldorf hovered on the other side. ‘And you can tell that old bastard – it wasn’t me he posted outside in the hall. It was my partner] Maybe somebody got by him.’ His voice dropped to a mumble. ‘But I couldn’t say for sure. Harvey never talked about that night, either – not even with me. We worked together for years, and we never talked about it.’
‘If your partner was posted at the door, then you were inside the apartment the whole time.’
‘No – only a few seconds. I’m the one who found the body. God, the smell. It was enough to knock a man down. When I went home that night, it was still in my clothes, my hair. I can smell it now. I can still feel the cockroaches crawling up my legs. And the flies – a million of ‘em. Jesus’
‘So you closed the door and waited for the detectives and Crime Scene Unit?’
‘Naw. The way that woman was hanging, I couldn’t see the tape on her wrists. Me and Harvey figured it for a suicide. Like I said, I was only in there a few seconds. Suicides don’t rate a visit from CSU. The dispatcher only sent detectives.’
Deluthe flipped back to notes of yesterday. ‘Wasn’t there someone else on that scene?’
‘The photographer? Yeah, he came with the dicks – just a kid. Younger than me, and I was only twenty-two. He got sick and dropped his camera – broke the damn thing. So I borrowed another one from a neighbor. Then the dicks sent me out to buy more film. I think I made two runs to the store that night.’
‘Did your partner mention any civilians around the crime scene while you were gone? Harvey – ’ Deluthe checked his notes, as if his own lieutenant’s name might be easy to forget. On Riker’s orders, no one would be apprised of the case connection to a command officer. He put his finger to a blank page. ‘Loman, right? Harvey Loman? Was he outside the door the whole time?’
‘Yeah. Well, no. When I got back from the store, he was down the hall settling a beef with some old lady.’ Parris paused for a moment, then covered his eyes with one hand. ‘Awe, what the hell.’
Deluthe’s pencil hovered over his notebook. ‘What?’
‘There were two kids right outside the door – real young, a boy and a girl. Harvey – he never saw them. Well, the door was open ‘cause of the smell, and those kids got an eyeful before I chased them away. That always bothered me. Probably gave them nightmares. I felt bad about it, sure, but I had no – ’
‘So your partner lost control of the crime scene. He screwed up. And you didn’t want him to get in trouble, right?’
Parris’s head lolled on his chest, as if he could no longer support the weight. ‘Geldorf, bad as he is now – he was worse in those days. He would’ve nailed Harvey’s hide to the wall for letting those kids get past him. That old prick still thinks he’s God. I hate detectives. No offense, kid.’
‘Did the kids see the hair in the victim’s mouth?’
‘Yeah, they saw everything. The body hadn’t been cut down yet. The dicks were still shooting pictures.’
Neither of them had heard the door open, but now Lars Geldorf was standing on the threshold. The old man was smiling, and Deluthe could guess why. The retired detective was relieved that another cop had lost control of the crime-scene details. And now no one could ever say that this major screwup was his fault.
Charles Butler studied the stalker’s notes to Kennedy Harper. By comparison, the old ones left for Natalie Homer were almost poetry. He turned to Riker. ‘Did you tell Deluthe to ask if Natalie’s door was locked when the police arrived?’
‘No, Deluthe can’t ask about that, and I’m hoping Alan Parris won’t volunteer anything.’ Riker turned off his cassette player. ‘We have the old statement from Natalie’s landlady, and she says that door was locked.’
‘I’m sure it was when she called the police. But when they arrived – ’
The detective put one hand on Charles’s shoulder. ‘If the door wasn’t locked when the first cop showed up, then eight million New Yorkers had access to the crime scene. That makes it hard to narrow it down to a boyfriend with his own key. The district attorney won’t like that if the case goes to trial. You see the problem?’
Charles nodded absently. He was still preoccupied by the difference in the notes. ‘The man who killed Natalie Homer loved her obsessively. He crushed her windpipe with his bare hands – an act of passion. I rather doubt that he made a habit of it. Emotionally, the scarecrow is his polar opposite.’ He tapped the autopsy report on Kennedy Harper. ‘And the date – an anniversary murder suggests long-term planning. The man who did this was only obsessed with the act itself. A hanged woman, a few dozen candles, ajar of flies – all props. The scarecrow decorates his stage and goes away. It’s that cold. Oh, and he’s quite insane.’
‘Suppose we bypass a jury trial?’
‘What are the odds of getting the scarecrow to confess?’
‘Nothing easier. All you have to do is catch him. He’ll tell you everything he knows. In fact, he’s doing that right now, but no one is listening.’ Charles unpinned the plastic bag containing a bloodstained note. It was disconcerting to see that the scarecrow’s rigid printing so closely resembled Mallory’s.
‘You analyze handwriting?’ asked Riker.
‘No, sorry, I don’t do voodoo.’ Charles turned the bag over and showed Riker the deep grooves on the back of the paper. ‘If his pen had pressed down any harder, he would’ve torn the paper. I suppose you could read frustration or anger into that.’
‘He staked that note to a woman’s neck with a hatpin – a live woman. Yeah, I’d say he was angry.’
‘Oh, the rage is limited to his penmanship. It wasn’t directed at Kennedy Harper. I don’t think he expected her to feel any pain from the hatpin. She was an object – a bulletin board. But I think he definitely has issues with your people. He had to know she’d head for the nearest police station. This note was meant for you.’ Charles crossed over to Sparrow’s wall and stood before the photographs of the coma victim. ‘A recent razor slash on Sparrow’s arm – I’m guessing that’s an escalation because the police clearly were not getting his message. Incidentally, why didn’t she report that assault?’
‘Because she had a whore’s rapsheet. Sparrow didn’t think the cops would care. And she was right about that.’
Riker handed a cup of coffee to Charles, who must be uncomfortable at the small table built for people of normal size. But the man had wanted privacy, and there was no more secure room than the one that housed the lock-up cage. ‘We can finish this up at your place if you like.’
‘No, I’m fine, really.’ The man sipped from his cup and pretended to find the brew passable. ‘Just one more question.’
‘Shoot.’ The detective turned a chair around and straddled it, bracing his arms on the wooden back. ‘Anything you want.’
‘I gather Louis took an interest in Kathy some time before the night he brought her home. When exactly was that?’
Riker’s blood pressure soared, but he had to smile. Brilliant, Charles. A police station was the perfect location for stressful questions. But this time the truth was harmless. ‘This is just between us?’
‘Late one night, a social worker turns up in the squad room. Now Lou owes the woman a favor, so she begs him to find this kid – a very special kid. I guess Kathy was nine, almost ten. She used subway tunnels to get around town, but she didn’t always ride the trains. Earlier this same night, the kid played a game of chicken with an engineer in the tunnel. She stood on the track till the train was almost on top of her. At the last possible second, she jumped out of the way.’ Riker’s own private theory was that the child had wanted to die that night.
‘She almost gave this poor bastard a heart attack. So now the engineer’s afraid she’ll electrocute herself on the third rail. He calls out the Transit cops, and they block off the tunnel. Six of those clowns couldn’t catch one little girl. She laughed at them. So now the social worker arrives. This woman walks into the tunnel and rounds up the kid in two minutes flat. You know how she did that? Kathy walked right up to her, this tall blonde – ’
‘Like your friend Sparrow.’
‘Yeah, and the kid was real happy to go anywhere with this woman. Kathy even held the social worker’s hand while they were filling out paperwork at Juvie Hall. So the kid’s in custody. She’s been cleaned up and fed, all settled in for the night. But now the social worker goes home and leaves her alone in that place. Well, no tall blonde – no Kathy. The kid left five minutes later, and the guards never figured out how she got away. She was their only escapee – ever.’
‘Sounds like she picked up bad habits from the Wichita Kid.’
Riker froze. How long had the door been open? How long?
Jack Coffey stood on the threshold, saying to him, ‘You’ve got a visitor.’
And then, as if Charles Butler knew how dangerous the westerns were, he said, ‘I’m so sorry.’
When Riker returned to his desk in the squad room, an old friend was waiting for him. There was nothing in Heller’s expression to say that he had good news or bad, for he was the king of deadpan. He held up a business card. ‘You know this guy, right?’
Riker took the card and read the name aloud, ‘Warwick’s Used Books’. His stomach knotted as he eased into the chair behind the desk, and his mouth was suddenly dry. ‘Yeah, I interviewed him.’
Heller slowly swiveled his chair, turning away to look out the window. ‘John Warwick came in while I was here, and Janos palmed him off on me. So this little guy’s all excited. He waves a newspaper in my face. Then he goes into a ramble about some paperback book. He doesn’t ask – he tells me I found it in Sparrow’s apartment. Says he knows I found it – and he wants it back. Seems the hooker stole it from his store an hour before she was hung.’ He turned back to face the desk and the sorry-looking detective. ‘Warwick says you’ll vouch for that ‘cause you took his statement.’
‘Yeah, I did.’ Riker tapped the side of his head, a gesture to say that the bookseller was not quite sane. ‘The paperback probably went into the fire, but I didn’t tell that to Warwick.’
‘I told him,’ said Heller. ‘And you’re right – he is nuts. The little guy broke down and cried. I guess that book was pretty important to him – and Sparrow.’
‘I guess.’ Riker was recalling his suit jacket all buttoned up – very fancy for a sweltering crime scene. And Heller, a man who could do a postmortem on a dead fly, would have noticed the damp spot on the breast of that jacket – and every other detail of that night in Sparrow’s apartment.
Heller looked down at an open notebook in his hand. ‘Warwick says the title is Homecoming, by Jake Swain.’ He looked up. ‘But I figure you already knew that.’
This man had run cops off the force for stealing trinkets from crime scenes. If Heller developed a case for tampering with evidence, he would prosecute in a New York heartbeat, no exceptions for friendships that spanned twenty years. They stared at one another, and the silence went on for too long.
‘After Warwick left,’ said Heller, ‘I went back to the lab and sifted through ashes and fragments. Some of the magazines were intact, but no sign of a paperback. Now that’s strange – even with the age of the book, the brittle paper. You’d think the core would’ve survived, a good chunk of pressed pages. There are tests I could run. You want me to keep on looking?’
Riker slowly shook his head, and this must have passed for a confession.
Heller nodded, then ripped the sheet from his notebook and dropped it into a wastebasket. ‘Well, I guess that’s the end of it.’ With no goodbye, he rose from his chair and crossed the squad room to the stairwell door.
Riker knew he would keep his badge for lack of physical evidence to hang him – but this man was no longer his friend. And that was what Heller had dropped by to tell him.
Cafe Regio on MacDougal Street was filled with the metropolitan babble of foreign languages. Charles Butler looked around the large single dining area crammed with people, paintings and eclectic furnishings. He spied an acquaintance at a corner table.
Anthony Herman was a child’s idea of a pixie, not quite five feet tall, with a small bulbous nose and pancake ears sticking out at right angles. His light brown hair was swept back to display a pronounced widow’s peak, a sure sign of witchcraft, though his true profession would seem rather boring to most. The little man nervously adjusted a red bow tie while doing his best to hide behind a menu, though it was long past the dinner hour.
When Charles sat down at the table, the antiquarian book dealer handed him a package wrapped in brown paper and said, ‘That’s the whole set. Don’t open it here.’
A very generous check crossed the table and found its way into Herman’s pocket. The little man looked around, as if the other late night diners might be watching this exchange and making notes or taking blackmail photographs. His toes just barely reached the floor to tap it, and his fingers rapped the table. ‘If you ever tell anyone I was tracing those – ’
‘I know,’ said Charles. ‘You’ll hunt me down and kill me. Your reputation is safe.’ He set the package of books on the table. ‘How did you find them so fast?’
‘There’s a collector,’ said Herman. ‘Well, hardly that – not at all discriminating, but the man’s a repository of every western ever written. I had to go to Colorado. That’s why the bill is so high. The books didn’t cost a dime. I won them shooting pool with a rancher who thinks that crap is high art.’
While Charles was grappling with the odd idea of Anthony Herman as a pool hustler, the man added, ‘The rancher also has first editions from the penny-dreadful era. If you want them, you go shoot pool with the old bastard.’
‘I don’t suppose you read any of these novels?’ Charles watched Herman’s eyes grow a tad fearful. ‘You did read them, didn’t you?’
‘I might’ve glanced at one on the plane.’ The little man’s mouth dipped down at the corners, silently intoning, What a question, making it clear that he was hardly the type to read this sort of trash, and his client should know better.
Charles opened the package, despite the book detective’s sudden violent shaking of the head, begging that he not do this in public. After leafing through a chapter of the first volume, he smiled at Herman, another great speed reader, for this was a talent that went along with the trade of manuscript comparisons. ‘Light stuff, isn’t it? Lots of white space. How long was the plane trip? Three or four hours?’
‘All right.’ Herman bowed his head. ‘I read them. All twelve.’
‘I’m sure you had other reading material with – ’
‘It’s your fault, Charles. I just had to know why you wanted them so badly. Then I got caught up in the whole thing.’
‘They’re not very good, are they?’
‘No. The writing is awful, the plots are thin. Very bad – very – all of them.’
‘But you read the entire series.’
‘Don’t do this to me.’
‘So what did you think of the resolution to the ambush?’
‘Oh, that was the best.’ Herman’s sarcasm was surprisingly light, and his face had gone suddenly sly. ‘No, wait. The best one starts in The Cabin at the Edge of the World. In the previous book, the Wichita Kid was bitten by a mad wolf. The animal was frothing at the mouth, the whole nine yards.’
‘But there was no rabies vaccine in Wichita’s century.’
‘I know that,’ said Herman, no dilettante in the field of history. ‘Rabies was a death sentence in that period.’
‘So he’s cured with a folk remedy,’ said Charles. ‘Something like that?’
The little man’s smile was coy. ‘No, that’s not it.’
‘Well, I know he’s alive in the last book, so he can’t possibly die of – ’ Charles leaned back in his chair and smiled, for he had just exposed himself as another victim of Jake Swain. ‘Touche.’
And now – a turnabout.
He spread the books over the table for all to see, then studied the lurid covers of smoke and guns and rearing horses, much to the discomfort of Anthony Herman. ‘I know someone who thought the world of these novels. She read them over and over. Now that you’ve had a chance to evaluate the lot of them – any helpful insight?’
‘Well, no.’ Herman seemed honestly mystified. ‘The only reason for reading any of them is to find out what happens next. I assure you there’s no reason to read them more than once.’
‘There has to be more to it than that.’ Charles gathered the westerns into a stack, then looked up at the book detective. ‘So what’s it all about?’
‘Ultimately,’ said Herman, ‘it’s about the redemption of the Wichita Kid.’
Riker had finished his first drink by the time he came to the end of the written interview. The detail was fanatical, right down to Alan Parris’s dirty toenails. ‘And all this conversation – this is word for word?’
‘I take shorthand.’ Deluthe sipped his beer, then tried to make his voice sound casual when he asked, ‘So what’re my chances for getting a permanent assignment to Special Crimes Unit?’
‘Today? Slim and none. You got no experience, kid.’ Only a handful of detectives were ever promoted to first-grade, and ten of them were in Special Crimes Unit. ‘We don’t take whiteshields. And you’re what – twenty-five, twenty-six? Most of the guys are in their thirties and forties. We only got one cop your age.’
‘And coincidentally Mallory is the daughter of the former commander of – ’
‘You’re out of line, Deluthe. She grew up in Special Crimes Unit. When she was still in grammar school, she logged more time on the job than you’ve got.’
‘He’s right.’ Their bartender had been introduced to Deluthe as Riker’s former partner from younger days. Peg Baily leaned into the conversation to replace Riker’s empty glass with a fresh bourbon and water. ‘That kid was our only technical support. In those days, we had crappy secondhand computers. Didn’t work half the time. The kid got the whole system up and running when she was thirteen years old.’ Peg set down a beer for Deluthe. ‘But you’re wondering how Mallory got the rank of detective first-grade. She chased down the perp who murdered her old man. Highest-priority case in New York City. That’s getting ahead the hard way.’
Peg Baily wandered down the bar to fill another glass, and Riker completed the trainee’s education, giving equal weight to every word, ‘Nobody ever questioned Mallory’s right to a place in Special Crimes.’ As he leaned toward the younger man, his face relaxed into a smile. ‘Now, as the son-in-law of a deputy commissioner, you’ve got a lot more to overcome.’
‘Suppose I divorce my wife?’
‘It’s a start.’ Riker pulled a wad of papers from the pocket of his suit jacket and slapped it on the bar. ‘This is your background check on the cops at Natalie’s crime scene. We already had this information. Mallory pulled it off the computer. Took her two minutes.’
‘So that assignment was just busywork.’
Riker ignored this statement of fact and spread the sheets flat on the bar. ‘This is only worthless because you took a computer spit-out, something a clerk gave you over the counter. Now a look at the original files – that might’ve turned up some dirt. But you can still learn a lot from the official fairy tale. I’ll teach you how to read the disappearing ink.’ He put the first sheet aside, saying, ‘There were five cops on the scene, three dicks, two uniforms. Four of them left the precinct in a group. That’s a stand-out fact.’
‘I saw that,’ said Deluthe, defensive now. ‘But it had nothing to do with the murder. That was six years later.’
‘But all in the same four-week period. That tells you Internal Affairs was all over that copshop.’
‘There are no charges on their records, nothing to say – ’
‘Deluthe, I told you this was a fairy tale. Now do you want your bedtime story, or do we call it a night?’
‘Just drink – quietly.’ Riker’s finger moved across the lines of text. ‘So, one of the uniforms, Alan Parris, was fired for insubordination. Now that’s bogus. You’d have to shoot a sergeant to get fired on a charge like that.’ Riker turned to the next page and the next man. ‘The week before that, his partner, your boss Harvey Loman – he gets reassigned to another precinct. That tells you Loman rolled over on his partner to cut a deal with Internal Affairs.’
He moved on to another sheet. ‘Here we got one detective who resigned to take a job in the private sector. The real story? They forced him out. Not enough proof to hang him. This guy’s next job was cleaning out toilets. He drank himself to death years ago.’
Now the final sheet. ‘And here we have one more dead detective, a suicide. So, dead or alive, four out of five men leave the department at the same time. The man who shot himself was probably looking at jail time. That means he was the last one to give it up, but there was nobody left to rat on. If he hadn’t died, he would’ve been the sacrifice, the cop who went to prison.’
Of course, Riker was cheating. The nest of shakedown artists in that stationhouse had been the worst-kept secret in NYPD. ‘Your interview with Alan Parris only looks good on paper. The two witnesses – the little kids in the hall? Parris gave you a lot of convincing details, but nothing to help you find them. That story could be smoke. So Parris goes on the short list.’
‘But the FBI profiles for serial killers – ’
‘And that’s another fairy tale,’ said Riker.
The remainder of Stella Small’s night was a self-imposed blur. She was using rum concoctions to drown the image of a subway full of dead and dying flies and stampeding passengers. Another hour had ended in yet another crowd. On the next bar stool was a tourist in a T-shirt emblazoned with the city motto, ‘I love New York’.
New York sucks.
The young actress’s sinuses were clogged with cigarette smoke, and she fancied that she could still smell the insecticide from the
subway fiasco. Her head was swimming in rum, and the world swirled around her. Perhaps it had been a mistake to order drinks decorated with paper parasols. But she was not up for the humiliation of tears in a room full of out-of-towners, and the booze, so much tastier than Valium, kept her eyes dry.
One of the customers slammed into her back as he moved toward the men’s room. Stella turned to yell at him, but he was lost among a gathering of drinkers.
Another patron took advantage of her distraction to cop a feel of one breast. Stunned for a moment, she spun her stool around too late. The man who had sat beside her was gone, lost in the crowd. Stella laid her head down on the bar and knocked it twice against the wood.
I will not cry, I will not cry.
And she did not. She gathered up her house keys and left the bar. Haifa block down the street, she noticed a man who was definitely on a mission, marching in the perfect parade-time of a soldier. No – more like a toy soldier, so mechanical, all springs and levers. Mimicry was her art, and she employed it now, stiffening her limbs to follow the marching man.
When he arrived at the broad avenue, he turned left, then stopped, and so did Stella. By the better light of a street lamp, she could see the gray gym bag in his hand. This was the bastard who had cupped her breast in the bar.
The mechanical man turned sharply on his heel, suddenly changing his direction. Stella saw the spinning red light before she reached the avenue where two police officers were padding down a teenager pressed to the hood of their car. She turned to look for the wind-up man and found him escaping, marching off in double time, afraid that she would report him as a deviant. Well, that was a small victory, but one to savor.
A few minutes later, she was fitting her key into the door lock, though she had no memory of having climbed the stairs to her apartment. Her blue linen blazer was neatly folded over one arm. Miraculously, the material was unmarked despite the subway panic, the rain of flies and the assault of the mechanical pervert. It had come through the day-long odyssey stain-free and hardly wrinkled – certain proof that the suit was magical.
Stella opened her front door and walked into a muggy wall of heat at least ten degrees higher than the outside air. Her one-room apartment had the decor of student housing with mismatched furniture dragged off the street one step ahead of the garbage truck. And all the houseplants had succumbed to neglect, even the artificial varieties. Never once dusted, her plastic ivy had taken on the gray color of authentic death.
She stepped out of her skirt, then clipped it on to a hanger with her blazer. When her lucky suit was in the closet and out of danger, she switched on the air-conditioner and stood in the cool breeze as she stripped off her blouse. Before she could toss it on the couch, which was also her bed, she noticed the black ink stain on the white material, a large X made with a thick marking pen.
Weary beyond belief, the actress whispered somewhat insincerely, ‘I love this town.’ What was she doing here? She stared at the family photograph on the wall, and the Abandoned Stellas smiled back at her. Gram and Mom were so hopeful for her prospects far from the roadside diner and the randy, fertile truck drivers, the fathers of them all.
Stella held up the blouse, shaking her head in deep denial, as if this might make the big black X fade away. She sank down on the couch, then cradled her head in both hands and cried, finally releasing the day in tears.
Had a fellow thespian done this to her during the morning cattle call? The blouse had been fully exposed when the actors were herded into the waiting area. She had put on the blazer just before walking onstage to deliver her lines to a casting director.
No, most likely the vandal had been in that crowded subway car. Was he the same freak who had unleashed the downpour of dead and near-dead insects? Maybe he had been one of the local barflies in the last crowd. Yes, the tourist who had slammed into her back to distract her while he mutilated her only good white blouse.
‘Creep.’ Her other suspect was the pervert who had cupped her breast. ‘Creep number two.’
She wadded up the shirt and dumped it in a wastebasket lined with a plastic bag. And now, since it was trash night, she picked up all the stray bits of debris around her one-room apartment. She held her nose before braving the door of the refrigerator, knowing the smell of rancid milk would make her vomit. And there were other horrors growing on the wire shelves, unidentified critters with coats of furry fungus, abandoned bits of fruit which had crawled off to die in the back of the box. But she never attempted the door to the freezer, for there an arctic winter had settled in to seal half a package of peas in a block of ice, preserving it for future generations.
All the rest was swept into the trash bag, a major job and an important step in making a fresh start. There was another audition tomorrow, and her lucky blue suit had come through the day unscathed.
A good omen.
The X on the discarded blouse was now covered with rotted garbage, solidified milk, bottle caps, candy wrappers and deli containers. Stella never saw the folded note in the garment’s small breast pocket; it was lost in the clutter of her life. And so she never read the words, I can touch you any time I want.