Charles stood apart from the others as they argued in Mallory’s private office at Butler and Company.
Chief Medical Examiner Edward Slope said, ‘No, Riker, I’m not going back to that hospital, not for at least ten years.’ And now that the subject of the dying coma patient was closed, he turned back to his study of Natalie Homer’s new and improved autopsy photographs blown up to many times the original size.
Mallory’s magic had created sharp definition from grainy enlargements, using her computer to refine light and shadow, replacing ambiguity with certainty and exposing details never seen in the originals. Although it appeared to be the camera’s eye of truth, Charles suspected that she had cheated the pieces, the pixels that made the pictures, and the result was only the best guess of artificial intelligence.
‘Okay,’ said Riker, somewhat testy. ‘Can you give me a second opinion on this?’ He handed the pathologist an X-ray of Natalie’s head, something Mallory had not retouched.
The doctor held up the film to the light of the windows. ‘You’re right. It looks like my predecessor missed everything but the cause of death. It’s a skull fracture. I can’t tell if it rendered her unconscious, but it certainly stunned her. The fracture agrees with a blunt object. I could swear to that much.’
Next, Riker handed him an enlarged photograph of Natalie’s right hand. ‘This is the burn shot.’
Dr Slope shook his head. ‘Can’t help you on this one. No way to tell if the flesh was burned before the insects got at it.’
Riker consulted a transcription of Louis Markowitz’s notes and pointed to a line of type. ‘Right here. Lou says the hand was burned.’ And another argument had begun.
‘That’s because of the roaches,’ said Charles, stepping into the conversation in the role of a peacemaker. ‘Louis saw them clustered on her hand. That would indicate the presence of grease. If it was hot from the frying pan – ’
‘Speculation,’ said Edward Slope. ‘I only testify to facts.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘Unless there’s something else – ’
‘About Sparrow,’ said Riker. ‘Maybe you could just talk to her doctor on the – ’
‘Not a shot in hell,’ said Dr Slope. ‘Now Charles could take on that lightweight intern. He knows all the jargon.’
‘Sparrow’s dying,’ said Riker. ‘I need a medical opinion.’
‘If it’s coma related, then Charles is your man.’ Edward Slope walked toward the door, saying, ‘I promise you, nobody on that hospital staff knows more about the human brain.’
The door closed, and a defeated Riker slumped into a chair behind the desk. ‘Sparrow’s doctor hates cops. He won’t even talk to me. Can you help?’
‘Well, Edward exaggerates,’ said Charles. ‘I only published one paper on the comatose brain. However, I could probably negotiate a conversation with her doctor.’
‘Sounds good. Thanks. But Mallory doesn’t need to know, okay?’
Riker closed his eyes and put his feet up on her desk, a sign that she was not expected back for the duration of a catnap. And Charles was left to wonder why Riker would keep the hospital visit a secret. Surely his own partner had an equal interest in this crime victim. It was an interesting problem, and the solution lay in the certain knowledge that Mallory would not forgive any act of concern for an enemy.
Both men jumped at the sound of a crash in the next room.
‘Kids.’ Riker’s feet hit the floor. ‘You can’t turn your back on ‘em for a second.’
When they entered the office kitchen, they found Ronald Deluthe dressed in a replica of Natalie Homer’s apron, ruffles and all. He was holding an unplugged electric skillet. There were spills on every surface and puddles of water on the floor. Wet enlargements of crime-scene photos were spread across the tabletop.
‘This is my fault,’ said Riker. ‘I told him to work out a fly-on-the-wall scenario.’
Charles looked down at a splash of water near the stove. ‘So that’s supposed to be grease from Natalie’s sausages?’
‘Yes, sir. Watch.’ Deluthe filled the frying pan with more water, then treated them to a demonstration of backswings and overhand strikes. Most of the liquid spilled behind him, and the remainder sloshed forward toward an imagined assailant, splattering an innocent refrigerator. His right hand was wet, and the rest of him remained dry. ‘It never spills on the apron. So she wasn’t using the frying pan for a defensive weapon. I figure the killer was holding it.’
‘That makes sense,’ said Riker. ‘Slope confirmed the skull fracture. Maybe the perp used the pan on her head. Good job, kid.’
‘Now clean up the mess.’ Mallory had materialized in the doorway. Her eyes roved over the wet floor and the rivulets streaming down every wall. She turned to Deluthe in stone silence.
He scrambled to grab a sponge from the sink, then knelt on the tiles and began to wipe the puddles.
‘You’re wrong about the frying pan,’ said Charles. ‘Natalie did use it as a weapon. But the mistake is understandable.’ He pointed to the electric skillet with its built-in computer panel for timing meals. ‘That’s aluminum, and the handle never gets hot.’
‘What?’ Deluthe slowly rose from his crouch on the floor.
Charles excused himself for a few moments, then returned to the kitchen, holding the frying pan found at the crime scene. ‘This is Natalie’s – solid iron. The handle would’ve been very hot. She’d need a potholder.’ He pointed to one of the pictures on the table. ‘See the hooks on this wall? Here by her stove – one hook for each potholder, and they’re all in place. But the sausages weren’t done yet. See? The front burner is still glowing. She was interrupted.’
‘Right,’ said Deluthe. ‘She died.’
‘But first – something less dramatic,’ said Charles, ‘like a knock on the door. Natalie had time to hang her potholder on a hook before she opened that door to her murderer. She wouldn’t leave sausages unattended for long, so you know the fight began immediately.’ He took the sponge from Deluthe and wiped spots offa crime-scene photo. ‘Judging by the number of sausages, I’d say you used too much water for your experiment.’ He glanced at a photo of Natalie’s apron. In Mallory’s enhancement, the longest borders of the grease stain were more sharply defined. Louis Markowitz’s notebook entry had been correct. This was not a splash or a splatter. It was a smear.
After separating one photo from the rest, Charles pointed to a mass of roaches on Natalie’s right hand. ‘Let’s assume she burned her hand. She also had a bad fall, and it knocked her out or stunned her. Natalie never got to swing the skillet. But she intended to use it as a weapon. Oh, and the killer never touched it at all.’
Deluthe folded his arms. ‘How could you know if – ’
‘Because your apron is dry, and the rest of the kitchen isn’t.’ Charles ran the frying pan under the tap, then returned it to the stove’s front burner. ‘Natalie’s facing her killer. No time to pull down a potholder – she grabs the skillet – ’ He grasped the handle and raised the pan quickly, spilling a bit of the water on his hand and arm. More liquid hit the floor behind him on the backswing. ‘The hot iron and grease burn her hand. Natalie lets go of the handle before she can swing the skillet forward.’
Charles released the pan, and it clattered to the floor beside him. ‘The killer advances. She backs off.’ He edged away from an invisible man. ‘She has grease on her shoes and loses traction. Her legs fly out from under her, and she falls facedown.’
Deluthe was in denial. ‘How do you know she fell? Or how she landed?’
‘Logic,’ said Charles. ‘If all the facts only fit one scenario, that’s the way it happened. May I?’ He held out one hand to take the proffered apron, then spread it on the floor. ‘Natalie’s down. She’s not moving. Probably hit her head on the corner of the stove. I know her skull fracture wasn’t made by an iron skillet. That would’ve caved in her skull.’ He straightened up and turned to Deluthe. ‘You’ll notice that my grease puddle is smaller than yours. It’s covered by the breast of the apron.’ He tapped the photo of the garment. ‘The edges of the grease stain wouldn’t be this straight if she struggled. So she was stunned or unconscious when he dragged her across the floor.’ Charles reached down and pulled the apron toward him. When he picked it up, the wet spot was the size and shape of the stain on Natalie Homer’s apron.
‘And that’s what the fly on the wall saw.’ Charles’s tone was almost apologetic when he said to Deluthe, ‘I’m sure you could’ve worked this out. But you’ve never cooked anything, have you?’
The floor had been recently mopped, and it bore the same chlorine odor as the city morgue. Riker could hear Charles Butler speaking to the young intern in the hallway outside the hospital room.
The rolling of Sparrow’s eyes was involuntary; Riker knew that, but this guise of dementia might be a window on her mind – what was left of it. He resisted the temptation to close her eyelids, a service performed for the dead.
The detective sat beside the bed, making confetti out of the hospital’s request to give the patient a more complete identity. He knew her full name, but he would never surrender it. Sparrow would not have wanted that. She had told him so one rainy night when he had given her coffee and shelter in his car. The prostitute had been sickly and bone thin all that winter. He had believed that she was only days away from dying, and that was before she had mentioned the plans for her gravestone.
He remembered laughing when their macabre conversation had turned to braggadocio. Sparrow – that was all she had wanted on her monument – no dates, no message, only the one name engraved in bold letters like a Las Vegas marquee, a token of fame. It fit her character so well, this gross presumption that cemetery visitors would know who she was… who she had been.
Done with his hallway consultation, Charles Butler entered the room and closed the door softly, as if Sparrow were not beyond being disturbed. ‘Well, you were right about her doctor. He hates policemen, but he’s giving her the best of care. One might say he’s on a mission to keep her alive.’ He nodded toward the pole beside the bed. It supported a plastic bag of liquid that flowed into the patient’s arm. ‘That’s an antibiotic to fight infection. And a collapsed lung explains the tube down her throat. Apparently this woman had a very hard life. For one thing, her doctor suspects a history of chronic respiratory ailments.’
Riker nodded. ‘She got sick every winter.’
‘And then there’s the long-term damage of malnutrition and drugs. Given her history as a prostitute, the doctor thinks venereal disease might account for a dysfunctional kidney. So it isn’t just the coma – it’s a gang of complications.’ He rested one hand on the detective’s shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Riker stared at the woman on the hospital bed – his friend until she died. ‘Could she be in there? I mean – with a brain going on all cylinders?’
‘It’s possible.’ Charles stared at a machine by the bed, watching the dip and spike of lines running across its screen. ‘Her present condition is best described as a dream state. In all likelihood, she’ll be dreaming when she dies. No pain, no fear. Does this help you?’
‘Yeah, it does. Thanks.’ Riker listened to her mechanical breathing and stared at the tubes running in and out of her body.
‘We should be leaving soon,’ said Charles. ‘I promised Mallory I’d get you to Brooklyn on time.’
‘Yeah – soon.’ The box of tissues on the nightstand was empty. Riker set the paperback novel on the bed, then searched all his pockets for a handkerchief.
‘I might have something to cheer you up,’ said Charles. ‘A lead on William Heart, the photographer who dropped his camera at Natalie’s crime scene. I called a gallery that – ’ He picked up the western and idly leafed through the pages. ‘Did you finish this yet?’
‘Never started it.’ Riker wiped away Sparrow’s drool.
‘I don’t blame you. The writing is terrible.’ Charles stared at the woman on the bed. ‘I imagine Mallory was a child when she met Sparrow – maybe ten? Younger than that?’
Riker froze in the act of dabbing Sparrow’s lips. He wanted a drink so badly. He was damned if he lied or told the truth, and even his continuing silence said too much.
Charles looked down at the book in his hand. ‘I managed to find a complete set of these westerns. I read them all last night.’
The handkerchief dropped to the floor. Riker closed his eyes and hoped that his voice conveyed only weariness when he said, ‘Bet that took all of four minutes.’
‘Longer, I read them twice. And I still don’t understand why Kathy read them so many times.’
These days, it was rare to hear Mallory’s first name said aloud. He knew Charles was speaking of Kathy the child he had never known. She had been all grown up when Lou Markowitz had introduced this man to his pretty daughter, the cop. On the day they met, Mallory had arrived at the SoHo cafe for a ritual breakfast with her foster father. Charles, normally a graceful man, had risen too quickly, knocking over his chair in a rush to play the gentleman. In another departure from grace, he had stared at her remarkable green eyes throughout the meal and smiled a foolish apology each time she looked his way. His every gesture, the food spilled in his lap and an overturned juice glass had said to her, I love you madly.
‘No accounting for her taste in reading,’ said Charles. He was still turning the pages of the last western. ‘Even at the age of ten, she would’ve been brighter than most adults.’
Only the bookseller could have revealed the little girl’s obsession with westerns. Riker would never have believed that John Warwick, paranoia incarnate, would open up to a stranger. But how had Charles sussed out Kathy’s childhood relationship to Sparrow?
‘The paper seems to be holding up well.’ Charles fanned the pages of the book, testing his handiwork. ‘Have you made a decision yet? Do you plan to give this to Mallory? Or will you destroy it?’
The detective settled into a chair beside the bed. His smile was one of resignation, and he was only half joking when he said, ‘You’re a dangerous man, Charles.’
‘Oh, I already burned my copies. Don’t let that worry you. They went into the fireplace last night. I suppose Louis did something similar while Kathy was still very young. He wouldn’t want evidence to tie his child to a little thief who loved westerns. I gather her early days were more – more colorful than I thought. So Louis destroyed all her books? All but the last one?’
Riker only nodded. The less said, the less this man would have to work with. ‘I can’t tell you any more about the westerns.’
‘Especially the last one,’ said Charles. ‘Yes, I imagine you’re giving me deniability of a crime. Something like that?’
Riker took a moment to digest these words. Was there anyone left who did not know that he had robbed a crime scene? That was the problem with spontaneous criminal acts, no planning, no time to cover tracks. And here he was still holding stolen goods. Any half-bright petty thief would have made a better job of it.
‘I guess I’ll never know what she saw in them.’ Charles looked down at the cover illustration of Sheriff Peety on a rearing stallion, two six-guns blazing fire, and the ricochet of sunlight from a golden badge. ‘Do you think she believed in heroes?’
Riker shrugged. Lou Markowitz had once held the darker idea that Kathy had identified with all the cattle rustlers and the stagecoach robbers.
A nurse entered the room to bathe the patient, and the two men took their leave. As they strolled down the corridor, Charles told the story of The Cabin at the Edge of the World, a book that Riker had never read. As they neared the parking lot, the Wichita Kid had been bitten by a mad wolf frothing at the mouth a century before the rabies vaccine was invented. When they reached the other end of the Brooklyn Bridge, the outlaw lay unconscious in a burning cabin surrounded by a mob of angry farmers with torches and pitchforks. A preacher was denouncing a witch, an old woman also trapped in the fire, and blaming her for the drought that was killing the crops.
‘No, don’t tell me,’ said Riker. ‘This con man, the preacher, he actually brings on the rain. That puts out the cabin fire and ends the drought. So now the farmers are real happy, and they decide not to kill the old lady. And then the preacher does another miracle and cures Wichita’s rabies.’
‘Not even close,’ said Charles. ‘When the next book opens, the Wichita Kid is still surrounded by flames. There’s no way out.’
Riker knew a better escape yarn, a true one, but there was no one he could share it with now that Sparrow was dying. He had missed her company over these past two years, and now he was grieving for her, though she was not altogether gone.
The Mercedes was approaching the Brooklyn Bridge when Charles asked, ‘How did Louis trace Kathy to Warwick’s Used Books?’
Riker stared out the window ay the water. Shoot me – shoot me now. ‘We just got lucky one night.’
He had a demoralizing old memory of running out of breath as he watched the child’s shoes skimming along the sidewalk, outdistancing him with no effort at all. She had laughed as she dusted off Lou Markowitz, a man with fifty pounds of excess weight. Poor Lou had been wheezing when he caught up to Riker, who was hugging a lamppost, convinced that his heart had stopped.
‘Then we spotted the kid in Warwick’s window.’ He recalled the baby thief leaning one small hand on a bookshelf as she nonchalantly perused her westerns. Though she had just run two cops into the ground – nearly killed them – only Kathy’s eyes seemed weary, just like any other child at the end of a busy day.
‘So we go inside the store, and Lou tells the owner no more customers for a while. Then we go to collect the kid, but she’s gone, and the back room was locked up from the inside. It drove us nuts. You’ve seen that place. There was no way she could’ve made it out the door without being seen.’ Then they had noticed the fear in the bookseller’s eyes. Lou had gathered his hound-dog jowls into a dazzling smile to win over the merchant with personal charm – or so he had believed at the time.
The mystery of Kathy’s escape had not been solved that night or the next. ‘Lou spent a week of off-duty hours staking out the store and reading all of Kathy’s westerns.’ He had also developed a rapport with the fragile bookseller. ‘Finally, Warwick tells him how Kathy got away that night. For maybe three seconds, our backs were turned from the rear wall while we talked to the owner. That’s when she climbed up the bookshelves – quick as a monkey, quiet as smoke – all the way to the top, where there was just enough room to squeeze between the shelf and the ceiling.’
‘Then the bookseller must have watched her do it.’
‘Yeah, and he never gave her up, even though just the sight of a cop scared the shit out of him. The whole time Lou was talking to this frightened little man, Kathy was up there listening to him, laughing at him.’ The detective shrugged. ‘So we were outmatched by a ten-year-old girl. Not our best night.’
That was when Lou Markowitz had begun to realize who and what he was dealing with – no ordinary child, but a full-blown person. And he had amended the resume of a street thief to include the grand title of Escape Artist. Kathy had earned Lou’s respect. She had also cut out his heart, but that was another night, and the child had almost won that time, almost destroyed the man.
Though it would have been some comfort to him, Riker could never share the story of Kathy’s best escape act. And now his mind reached back across the bridge, across the water to the sleeper in her coma dreams to tell her that she was not dying alone. Sparrow, the secrets are poisoning me.