Erik Homer’s second wife, now his widow, lived in a large apartment on East Ninety-first Street. ‘It’s rent control,’ she said. ‘Two-eighty a month. Can you beat that? This used to be such a crummy area. But look at it now.’
Detective Riker guessed that this woman’s view of her neighborhood was limited to what she could see from the nearby window. He nursed a cup of strong coffee and longed for a cigarette, a little smoke to kill the stench of a sickroom.
Jane Homer was a mountain of sallow flesh, and he could roughly guess when she had become housebound, unable to fit her girth through a standard doorway. Her hair was a long tangle of mouse brown. Only the ends had the brassy highlights of a bleach blonde. Vanity had died years ago.
On the bureau, there were dozens of photographs of her younger self posed with her late husband. Jane had once been as slender as the first Mrs Homer. There were no portraits of her stepson.
A visiting nurse bustled about in the next room, chattering at Mallory while cleaning up the debris of a meal.
Mrs Homer’s handicap worked in Riker’s favor. Like most shut-ins, she was eager to gossip, and now she was saying, ‘I saw the TV coverage the other night. Natalie’s hanging was never on TV.’
Riker smiled. ‘Yeah, the murders are a lot alike, aren’t they?’
The woman nodded absently, and this gave him hope. He waited until he heard the door close behind the departing healthcare worker. ‘Did your husband ever talk about the murder?’
‘Oh, yes. Erik and Natalie’s sister – what was her name? Susan something. No matter. They talked on the telephone for hours. Erik made the funeral arrangements – paid for it, too. He didn’t have to do that, you know.’
Riker thought otherwise. Taking possession of his ex-wife’s body fit the pathology of a control freak. Even in death, Natalie never escaped Erik Homer. ‘What about the little boy? How did you get along with your stepson? I mean – after his mother died.’
There was a touch of surprise in her eyes, or maybe guilt. ‘Junior was no trouble.’
‘No trouble? I’ll bet.’ Mallory had quietly entered the room. She held a silver picture frame in her hands as she glared at the woman on the bed, saying, accusing, ‘You palmed him off on a relative after your husband died.’
‘Yeah,’ said Riker. ‘That was in your last statement to the police. You said you gave the boy away.’
‘Well, Erik’s life insurance wasn’t exactly a fortune.’ Jane Homer’s eyes were fixed on the picture frame in Mallory’s hand. It was something she prized or something she feared. ‘And I had all these medical problems that year. My thyroid gland and all. Junior loved his grandparents.’ The woman stared at Riker, then Mallory, perhaps realizing that she had made some mistake. She filled their silence with a rush of words. ‘I couldn’t take care of him. You can see that, can’t you?’
Mallory stepped closer to the bed. ‘You told a detective the boy went to Natalie’s sister in Brooklyn.’
‘That’s right’ said Mrs Homer, trying to appease Mallory with a feeble smile. ‘I remember now. My father-in-law had Alzheimer’s. Well, his wife probably couldn’t cope with that and a little boy too. So, after a while, Junior went to live with Natalie’s sister. That’s what I meant.’
Mallory reached out across the body of Jane Homer to hand the silver frame to Riker. He turned it over to see a picture with the familiar backdrop of the Bronx Zoo. There were light creases through the image of a man and a woman, as if someone had crumpled it into a ball before it was framed. Had Jane Homer rescued this picture from a wastebasket? Yes, that was exactly what had happened. This one flattered her more than the others. The girl in the photograph was not yet wearing a wedding band, and she had been happy that day. A third person had been cut from the photograph. All that remained of the unwanted figure were the fingers of a small child caught up in the much larger hand of his smiling father.
‘Was the boy having problems?’ asked Riker.
Mallory leaned down very close to the other woman’s face. ‘How did Junior adjust to his mother’s death?’
‘Natalie died in August,’ said Riker. ‘And we know your husband didn’t send Junior to school in September.’
‘Tell me what you did with that little boy,’ said Mallory.
Jane Homer’s eyes widened with the realization that she was caught in the middle of a police crossfire. ‘His grandparents – ’
‘No!’ Riker scraped the legs of his chair across the floor, edging closer to the bed. ‘No, Jane, I don’t think so.’
Mallory leaned close to the woman’s ear. ‘I know how Erik Homer treated his first wife. He never gave her any money – never let her out of the house. Is that – ’
‘Erik did the shopping. I didn’t need to go out. I didn’t – ’
‘Your first police interview was right after your marriage,’ said Riker. ‘The cops thought you were afraid of your husband.’
‘When did the beatings start?’ Mallory raised her voice. ‘On your honeymoon? Was that the first time he knocked you around?’
‘You have lots of photographs.’ Riker nodded toward the cluster of frames on her bureau. ‘I see you and your husband, but not the little boy. You never lived with Junior, did you?’ He caught the sudden fear in the woman’s eyes. ‘What did you do to Natalie’s son? Is he alive?
Jane Homer shook her head from side to side.
‘Is that a no?’ Mallory asked. ‘The boy’s dead?’
The woman trembled, and her bosom heaved with sobs. Speech was impossible. Her mouth formed the words I don’t know.
Mallory moved closer. ‘How could you not know?’
Riker leaned toward her. ‘Did you think your husband went off on the kid, maybe killed his own son?’
The woman’s head moved from side to side, splitting her halting words between the two detectives, anxious to please them both. ‘The night they found Natalie – Erik got back – very late. I asked him where the boy was. Erik – hit me – hard.’ One hand drifted to her mouth. ‘He broke my tooth – then he – got rid of Junior’s things – toys, clothes. And the pictures – he tore them to pieces.’
Jane Homer stared at the photograph that Riker held, the image of her husband and her smiling self in better days. In a small act of defiance, she grabbed the silver frame from Riker and held it to her breast, covering it with both hands, protecting the happy times. Huge tears rolled down her face, and they could do no more with her – or to her.
Outside the SoHo police station, young actresses were ganging on the sidewalk, posing for the cameras of reporters and tourists.
Uniformed officers grinned with their good luck – they had gone to cop heaven. They worked the crowd, tipping hats to brunettes and sending them on their way, then filling out forms for all the blondes, taking down names and telephone numbers, as women filed past them and through the front door to interviews with Special Crimes detectives.
Mallory’s car pulled to the curb. She left the motor running after Riker opened the passenger door. He had one foot on the pavement. ‘You’re not coming in?’
‘No, I’m going over to Natalie’s apartment building.’ Then she added, with no enthusiasm at all, ‘Come if you like.’
‘Naw, I did a drive-by. Too much renovation. The new owner probably rearranged half the walls.’ He kept her a while longer with one foot on the floor mat of her car, acting as if a sidewalk choked with pretty women was an everyday thing with him. ‘I’m sticking a couple of uniforms on Susan Qualen. You’re gonna miss all the fun when they drag her in.’ After a few seconds of dead silence, Riker realized that she was not even tempted. He stepped out on to the sidewalk, closed the door and waved her off, then disappeared into a blond sea of actresses.
Mallory drove across town and through the East Village, heading for the twenty-year-old crime scene and blaming Jack Coffey for another fatal mistake. He had pulled men off their independent lines of investigation to work on the actress interviews, as if they could find the next victim that way. Another woman was going to die.
She turned the wheel on First Avenue and rolled along the side street toward Avenue A. Once, this area had provided cheap housing for the poorest of the poor. Now, none of the former residents could afford to live here.
Mallory parked her car in front of the building where Natalie Homer had lived and died. Only the architectural bones would match Lars Geldorf s old photograph. Peeling gray paint had been sandblasted to expose the red brick. The windows were modern, and the wrought-iron rails of Juliet balconies had been restored. According to Geldorf s personal notes, the previous owner had died, and all the old tenants had departed before the renovation.
Riker was right. This was a waste of precious time.
And a woman was going to die.
Yet she left her car and walked up the stairs to ring the bell for the landlord’s apartment. The front door was opened by a softly rounded woman with a warm smile for a stranger. The new owner was obviously not a native New Yorker, but a transplant from some smaller, less paranoid town.
‘Mrs White?’ The detective held up her badge and ID.
The woman’s smile collapsed. ‘It’s about Natalie, isn’t it? I wondered when you’d come.’
The civilian police aide for the midtown precinct was a short thin woman with brown hair and a dim view of blondes. Eve Forelli held up her favorite tabloid with the headline: actress stabbed in broad daylight. She glared at the tall, pretty woman seated on the other side of her desk. ‘You look better in person.’
And this, of course, was sarcasm, for the grainy newsprint photograph only showed the back of the actress’s head; the face was pressed to the bosom of another actor, a man holding the unconscious, bleeding victim in his arms while he postured and smiled for the camera.
The blonde’s blue eyes opened wide. ‘How could it be in the paper? It just happened this morning.’
Forelli pointed to the line below the newspaper’s banner. ‘It’s the late edition.’ She could see that the younger woman was not following this. ‘It’s a second edition.’ And it had been free, a promotional gimmick for a failing newspaper. ‘Now I need the correct spelling for your last name. The hospital only used one L. It doesn’t look right.’ She handed the newspaper to the blonde. ‘And this story didn’t even mention your name.’
The startled actress tore her eyes away from the clock on the wall to scan the article. ‘Oh, damn, you’re right.’
‘The spelling, Miss Small?’
‘Just the way it sounds. Call me Stella.’ The woman flashed a smile. ‘Look – is this going to take much longer? I’ve been waiting for over an hour. I’m already late for another appointment in SoHo.’
Eve Forelli only glared at the woman. This – blonde had left the hospital before giving a statement to the police. One of the little princes from Special Crimes Unit downtown had reamed out a desk sergeant and demanded the missing paperwork on the reported stabbing. Her supervisor, in turn, had crawled up Forelli’s own scrawny tail. Further down the food chain, the frazzled police aide had screamed at the hospital staff. And, finally, the errant actress had been identified. And now Forelli prepared to marry an illegible attending physician’s report to the crime victim’s account. ‘So you were stabbed by – ’
‘Oh, Jesus, no!’ said the actress. ‘I don’t want any trouble with the cops. Look, I’m sorry, Officer, but this – ’
‘I’m not a cop.’ Forelli pointed to the name tag pinned to her blouse, clearly identifying her as a civilian aide. ‘You see a badge here? No, you don’t. I just do the damn paperwork.’
‘Sorry.’ Stella Small touched her bandaged arm. ‘A camera did this. No big deal.’
Eve Forelli’s face was deadpan. ‘A guy stabbed you – with his camera.’’ Of course. And this added credence to her pet theory that the roots of blond hair attacked brain cells.
‘No.’ The actress waved the newspaper. ‘The reporter got it wrong. I wasn’t stabbed – I was slashed!'
‘With a camera.’
‘But it was an accident.’ The blonde slumped down in the chair. Her blue eyes rolled back, and then she sighed – a clear sign of guilty defeat. ‘Okay, this is what happened. My agent thought getting slashed with a razor was better than a guy just bumping into me on a crowded sidewalk.’
‘Yeah, that would’ve been my choice.’
‘I didn’t know the doctor was going to file a police report.’
‘Ah, doctors.’ Forelli sighed. ‘They fill out these reports for every shooting, stabbing and slashing. Who knows why? It’s a mystery.’
‘You’re not going to get me in trouble, are you?’
‘Naw, what the hell.’ Forelli was overworked, very tired and feeling giddy. Inside the appropriate box of her form, she typed the words, Professional bimbo collides with camera. Damn every tall blonde ever born.
Her supervisor would not like this entry, assuming the lazy bastard ever bothered to read it – fat chance. All her best lines were lost on that illiterate fool. And now she would have to phone in the details to a detective from Special Crimes, another brain trust who had problems with the written word.
‘But no more false police reports, okay? You can go to jail for that.’ Forelli was not certain that this was true, but it did have a frightening effect on the blonde.
After the actress had departed, the police aide opened a window and leaned outside to smoke a cigarette. She looked down to see Stella Small standing on the sidewalk below, looking left and right, lost in yet another blond conundrum – which way to go?
Forelli, for lack of any better spectacle, watched as the young woman removed a wadded-up blouse from her purse, then tossed it into a trash basket near the curb.
Before the clerk had finished her smoke, an older woman came along. This one, with ragged clothes and matted hair, fished the blouse out of the wire basket and briefly inspected it. Though the material was stained with a large X on the back, the homeless woman stripped off her shirt – right in front of a. police station – no bra – and put the trash-can find on her back.
Mallory listened politely as Mrs Alice White gave her a walking tour of the residence, rambling on about the problems of renovation. ‘The place was a rabbit warren, all broken up in small spaces. Now there’s only a few apartments left at the top of the house.’ The rest of the floors had been restored to the former proportions and appointments of a family home.
‘Where did the murder happen?’
‘If I recall the old floorplan – ’ Alice White pulled open two massive wooden doors and stepped into a formal dining room. ‘It was probably in here.’
Another doorway gave Mallory a view of the adjoining sit-down kitchen. Always go to the kitchen. This was a lesson handed down from Louis Markowitz. Interview subjects were less guarded in that more casual room, for only friends and family gathered there.
Mrs White’s voice was jittery and halting. Police had that nervous effect on civilians, but Mallory suspected another reason.
Planning to hold out on me, Alice?
The woman paused by a large oak table surrounded by eight carved chairs. ‘Yes, I’m sure of it now. This was where Natalie’s apartment used to be. And it was no bigger than this room.’
Though the new owner had been a child when the victim had died, it was obvious that they had known one another. Whenever the conversation turned back to murder, the hanged woman was always Natalie to Mrs White.
Mallory was done with the pleasantries, the getting-to-know-you courtship. She decided upon a style of bludgeoning that would leave only psychic bruises and fingerprints. She raised her face to stare at the chandelier above the table, perhaps the same spot where Natalie Homer had hung for two days in August. ‘You can almost see it, can’t you?’
Gentle Alice White was forced to see it now; the woman’s gaze was riveted to the ceiling fixture, and her mind’s eye showed her a dead body twisting on a rope, rotting in the summer heat. And from now on, she would find Natalie hanging there each time she passed through her dining room.
The detective slowly turned on the freshly wounded civilian.
Can you hear the flies, Alice?
As if this thought had been spoken aloud, the startled woman’s hand drifted up to cover her open mouth.
‘Mrs White? Could I trouble you for a cup of coffee?’ Caffeine was the best truth drug.
‘What? Oh, of course. I’ve got a fresh pot on the stove.’ Alice White could hardly wait to leave this room, this ghost, for the safety of the next room, and the detective followed her.
Mallory sat down at the kitchen table and unfolded a packet of papers, spreading them on a flower-print cloth. ‘I understand you bought this building five years ago.’
‘No, that’s wrong.’ Mrs White poured coffee into a carafe. ‘I didn’t buy it.’ Next, she opened a cupboard of fine china cups and dishes, and this was a bad sign; she was putting out her Sunday best for company.
‘I like coffee mugs, myself,’ said Mallory.
‘Oh, so do I.’ The woman smiled as she pulled two ceramic mugs from hooks on the wall, then set them on the table.
‘Maybe it’s a clerical error.’ Mallory held up a photocopy of the ownership transfer. ‘This says you purchased the building from the estate of Anna Sorenson.’
Alice White, carafe in hand, hovered over the paper and read the pertinent line. ‘No, that’s definitely a mistake.’ She poured their coffee, then sat down across the table. ‘I didn’t buy the house. Anna Sorenson was my grandmother. She willed it to me.’
‘And you visited your grandmother – when you were a little girl.’ Ten seconds crawled by, yet Mallory did nothing to prompt the woman. She sipped her coffee and waited out the silence.
‘Yes.’ Alice White said this as a confession. ‘I was here that summer.’
Their eyes met.
‘The summer Natalie died.’ Her hands wormed around a sugar bowl and she pushed it toward Mallory. ‘The coffee’s too strong, isn’t it? Norwegians make it like soup.’ She reached for a carton of cream. ‘Would you like some – ’
‘No, it’s fine.’
And now it begins, Alice.
‘So, the last time you saw Natalie Homer – ’
‘I was twelve.’ Mrs White made a small production of pouring the cream carton into a pitcher, buying time to hunt for the right words. ‘She was so pretty – like a movie star. That’s what my grandmother said. Natalie gave me her old lipsticks and a pair of high heels.’
‘So you spent some time with her. Did she talk about herself?’
‘No – not much.’ Alice White was so rattled, she stirred her coffee, though she had added neither cream nor sugar. ‘I know her people were from the old country, but not Natalie. My grandmother said her Norwegian wasn’t good.’ The woman forced a bright smile. ‘I don’t speak a word myself. My parents only used it when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying. So when Natalie spoke Norwegian to Gram, I knew I was missing all the good stuff.’
Mallory shuffled her papers, then handed the woman another document. ‘This is a copy of Natalie’s marriage certificate. Her maiden name was an odd one, Qualen. That’s Norwegian?’
‘Never heard of it.’ Alice White stared at the certificate. ‘Maybe it’s a corruption. A lot of foreign names were changed at Ellis Island. I bet the original spelling was Kv instead of Qu. But that still wouldn’t make it a common name.’
‘Good,’ said Mallory. ‘That’ll make it easier to trace her family. It would help if I knew what state they live in. The only next-of-kin we have is a sister in Brooklyn. And she hates cops.’
‘So did my grandmother. She said they were all thieves. They were always ticketing the building for fake violations. Then Gram would give them some cash and – ’ She gave Mallory a weak sorry smile, suddenly remembering that her guest was also police. ‘But that was a long time ago. I’ve never had any problems like – ’
‘Can you remember anything that would tie Natalie to relatives out of state?’
‘I think she came from Racine, Wisconsin. My parents live there, and Gram asked Natalie if she knew them.’
Mallory reached for a folded newspaper at the edge of the table. It was days old. She opened it to the front-page picture of Sparrow being loaded into an ambulance. ‘Can we talk about this now?’
Alice White’s eyes were begging, Please don’t.
‘You knew the police would come.’ Mallory pushed the newspaper across the table. ‘This hanging was a lot like Natalie’s -the hair cut off and packed in her mouth. When you read the paper, you recognized the details. That’s why you were expecting me. I know you saw Natalie’s body. We have a statement from the police officer who saw you in the hall with another kid, a little boy. How old was he?’
‘Six or seven.’ Alice White was mistaking Mallory’s guesswork for absolute certainty. She showed no surprise, only the resignation of a true believer in police omniscience.
‘The two of you saw everything,’ said Mallory, ‘before Officer Parris chased you away.’
The woman nodded. ‘Officer Sticky Fingers. That’s what Gram called him. Or maybe that was the other one.’ She looked up. ‘Sorry – the cops in uniforms – ’
‘They all look alike. I know. So you saw everything, the hair, and the – ’
‘I can still see it.’
‘Who was the little boy? Your brother?’
‘No, I never knew his name. Gram found him wandering in the hall. She took him inside and went through all the stuff in his little suitcase. I remember she found a phone number, but there was nobody home when she called.’
‘Why didn’t she turn him over to the cops?’
‘She’d never – ’ Mrs White shrugged. ‘Like I said, Gram hated the police. She’d never trust them with a child, not that one. You see, there was something wrong with the boy. He couldn’t talk, or he wouldn’t. Well, my grandmother figured somebody must be expecting him for a visit – because of the little suitcase. When she opened it up, everything was still neatly packed. He smelled bad -I think he’d messed in his pants. Gram gave him a bath and changed his clothes. Then she went from door to door, all over the building, the whole neighborhood.’
‘So you were alone with the boy when the cops showed up.’
‘Yes. My grandmother was the one who called the police, but it took them forever to get here. This awful smell was coming from next door. Gram was just frantic. She had a key to Natalie’s place, but it didn’t work. A few hours after Gram left, I heard the cops out in the hall. One of them yelled, „Oh, God, no!“ ‘
‘And you were curious.’
‘You bet. More police showed up, men in suits. One of the men in uniform was guarding the apartment and shooing people away.
I waited till he walked down the hall to talk to a neighbor. Then I went to Natalie’s door. It was wide open.’
‘And the boy was with you.’
‘I was holding his hand. Gram told me not to leave him alone. Well, I saw the body hanging there – but it didn’t look like Natalie. Her eyes and that beautiful long hair – it was just – ’ Alice White took a deep breath. ‘And the roaches – they were crawling down the rope to get at her. The men just left her hanging there while they took their pictures. Then another policeman chased us off.’
‘What happened to the little boy?’
‘That night, a man came to take him away.’
‘Did you recognize him?’
‘No, I was in bed. I only heard the voices in the other room. I think Gram knew him. Or maybe she tried that telephone number again, the one she found in the suitcase. Yes, she must’ve talked to him on the phone. He didn’t have to say who he was when he came to the door.’
‘Did you tell your grandmother what you and the boy – ’
‘God, no. Gram would’ve been so angry. She told me to take care of that boy – not give him nightmares for the rest of his life.’
Charles Butler was no stranger to Brooklyn. He frequently made the trek to this outer borough for a poker game with friends. However, like any good New Yorker, he only knew his habitual routes. Before Riker had allowed his driver’s license to lapse, every other road had been a mystery, even this broad avenue along Prospect Park.
He waited in his car as the detective crossed the street and joined two uniformed policemen standing by a squad car. They were too far away for Charles to hear any conversation, and so he eavesdropped on their body language.
One of the officers shrugged to say, Sorry. Riker’s hands rose in exasperation, and he must have uttered at least one obscenity, for now the officer’s hands went to his hips to say, Hey, it’s not our fault. Behind dark glasses, the slouching detective stared at one man and then the other, giving them no clue to his thoughts. Suddenly both officers were talking with upturned hands, offering new forms of Sorry, probably accompanied by a mollifying sir. In an economy of motion, Riker waved one hand to say, Awe, the hell with it, then turned his back, dismissing them both. He was one very unhappy man when he slid into the front seat of the Mercedes.
‘Not good news, I take it.’ Charles started the engine.
‘Natalie’s sister left town in a big hurry.’ Riker nodded toward the men in uniform. ‘And those two clowns just stood there and watched her drive away – with a suitcase.’’ His head lolled back on the soft leather upholstery. ‘They keep changing the rules on me, Charles. Apparently, if you can say the word lawyer three times without interruption, the cops have to let you go. My fault. I used the word detain instead of arrest.’
‘Bad luck. Sorry.’ The Mercedes pulled away from the curb.
‘Yeah. And I was really looking forward to scaring the shit out of that woman.’ Riker fell into a black silence until the great arches of the Brooklyn Bridge loomed up on the road before them.
Charles sensed there was more to the detective’s dark mood than a lost witness. How else to account for this sadness? When the car stopped in traffic, he turned to the man beside him. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
‘Yeah, there is.’ The detective stirred, then sat up a bit straighter. ‘I’ve been thinking about the Wichita Kid and that wolf bite.’
This was highly unlikely, but now Charles understood that the real problem was none of his business. ‘You want to know how – ’
‘Naw, here’s my best guess. I figure there’s a one-in-a-million chance the Wichita Kid could survive rabies without a vaccine.’
‘That’s actually true, but I don’t think Jake Swain was aware of it when he wrote the book.’ As they crossed the bridge, Charles launched into the story of Sheriff Peety’s travels from town to town, hunting an outlaw infected with rabies. ‘So he’s chatting up all the local doctors along the way when he meets one who’s heard the story of the rabid wolf that bit – ’
‘Hold it,’ said Riker. ‘Don’t tell me. The sheriff finds out that the wolf never had rabies in the first place. Am I right?’
‘Right you are. He discovers that someone else was bitten by that same wolf and survived. The animal actually had distemper. Looks the same as rabies, lots of frothing at the mouth, but it’s not transmissible to humans. However, the wound wasn’t cleaned properly, so Wichita suffered a massive infection – fevers, hallucinations – but no symptoms of hydrophobia.’
The detective politely raised one eyebrow, though he seemed to have lost interest. After a few moments of silence, Charles said, ‘You’ve had news from the hospital. Your friend – ’
‘Yeah.’ Riker turned his face to the passenger window and its view of the open sky over the water. ‘Her one good kidney is failing.’
And even Jake Swain could not have written an escape for Sparrow. However, pressed by deep concern for a friend, Charles now came up with the next best thing – an emergency epiphany. ‘There was an eyewitness to Natalie Homer’s murder. Does that cheer you up?’ The car came to a standstill in heavy traffic halfway across the bridge. Riker turned around to face him with a look of surprise, successfully distracted from pain.
Charles changed gears as the traffic moved forward again. ‘My theory works nicely with the problem of the locked door.’
The detective turned back to face the passenger window, his way of saying, Oh, that again.
‘Bear with me. Previously, I assumed that someone used a key to open Natalie’s door before the police arrived. But my witness wouldn’t need a key – not if he opened the door from the inside.’
‘And here’s the flaw,’ said Riker. ‘That would mean your witness was in the apartment for two days – watching a woman’s body rot.’
‘Yes. Now back up a bit. The night she died, Natalie was cooking a meal for two. She had no friends, and she was on bad terms with her sister. So the dinner guest was her son.’
‘Interesting,’ said Riker, which was his polite way of saying that it was not at all interesting. ‘So, before Erik Homer goes on his honeymoon, he leaves the kid with his ex-wife? No, Charles. This guy was a control freak. After the divorce, he never let Natalie see that kid, not once. This can’t work.’
‘Why not? Erik Homer was getting married again. He had a new woman to control. And this baby-sitting arrangement would be for his convenience. That’s what makes it work. And no one ever interviewed the boy. We don’t know where Junior was for two days in August or anytime after that.’ Charles could see that Riker was not buying any of this. ‘Only a small child would have stayed in that room with the body. The boy wouldn’t want to leave his mother. Dead or alive, she was his whole world.’
‘Let’s see if I understand this.’ Riker’s voice was strained in an effort to quell the sound of condescension. ‘It was a studio apartment. No place to hide a kid, even a small one. But Junior managed to – ’
‘Riker, all over the world, mothers tell their children to wash up for dinner. It’s a universal thing. The boy was in the bathroom the whole time that man was killing his mother.’
‘It was August,’ said the detective. ‘No air-conditioner in Natalie’s place. Rolling blackouts. The lights were off half the time. The stove burner was left on. More heat when – ’
‘Yes, and after two days, the little boy’s survival instinct overcame trauma, and he left the apartment. This explains the unlocked door. Also, it very neatly explains your contrary reports of the boy’s whereabouts. The father sent him away. Erik Homer didn’t want the killer to find out that his son was a witness.’
Charles and Riker were still at odds when they entered the back office of Butler and Company.
Mallory never acknowledged them. She was deep in conversation with her machines, speaking to them with keyboard commands. They responded with screens of data and papers pouring from the mouths of three printers. She sat with her back to the discordant men and the mess on her cork wall. Her vision was thus narrowed to a sterile field that hummed with perfect harmony.
Charles rounded the computer workstation and saw the cold machine lights reflected in her eyes. He looked down at the thick cable that fed her electronics through a dedicated line of electricity, and he played with the idea of accidentally kicking the plug from its socket and disconnecting her that way.
Riker rapped on the top of the monitor, and when this failed to get her attention, he said, ‘Charles thinks he’s got an eyewitness to the murder of Natalie Homer.’
‘Hmm. Natalie’s son.’ Mallory never lifted her eyes from the glowing screen. ‘He’s the one who unlocked the door to the crime scene. But I don’t know what name Junior’s using these days, so we’ll just stick with the scarecrow.’ She smiled at her computer, as if it had just said something to amuse her. ‘And now we’ve got a game.’