Charles said a silent goodbye to Louis Markowitz. His old friend’s personality was being erased from the cork wall by layers of lopsided pictures and papers.
Mallory walked along the cork wall, ripping down reports and sending tacks flying through the air. Photographs of fat black flies hit the floor where they mingled with enlarged cockroaches and smiling portraits from Natalie Homer’s actress portfolio. Given that Mallory was a pathologically tidy creature, Charles thought this might qualify as a loss of control, a display of temper, though she never raised her voice when she said, ‘So Natalie’s sister got away.’
‘Yeah,’ said Riker. ‘I put the dogs on her. We might get lucky before she ditches the car for a plane or a bus. Maybe Susan’s more afraid of her nephew than us.’
‘She should be,’ said Charles. ‘If Natalie’s son is the scarecrow – ’
‘He is.’ The soft plof of papers and pings of pushpins followed Mallory to the end of the wall, where she tacked up the print bought from William Heart. ‘It all fits.’ She pointed to the open bathroom door in the background of this photograph. ‘Charles is right. The boy was probably in there while his mother was being murdered. Two days later, he was found wandering in the hall with a suitcase and all the symptoms of shock. And that was before the first cop opened the crime scene.’
‘Okay,’ said Riker. ‘Say the scarecrow is Natalie’s kid all grown up and not too shy about cold-blooded murder. If he knew who killed his mother, he’d just off the bastard.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘The boy was hiding, watching through a keyhole or a crack in the door. Maybe he never saw the killer’s face.’
‘Or even the actual murder,’ said Charles. ‘The scarecrow doesn’t imitate his mother’s death by strangulation – only the postmortem hanging.’ And now he noticed the dead quiet in the offices of Butler and Company. ‘So where’s Lars Geldorf?’
‘I had Deluthe take him home. The old man is out of the loop. We’re consolidating all the hangings. From now on, he doesn’t get past the front door.’ She turned her eyes on Charles. ‘You’ve got a problem with that?’
‘Well, he has so much invested in Natalie’s murder.’ And now, judging by the hand gravitating to her hip, Charles realized that the correct response would have been, Oh, hell no. But he rather liked the old man, and so he persisted. ‘Lars could still contribute to the – ’
‘Wrong.’ She turned her back on him. ‘All Geldorf ever had was a stalker pattern and an ex-husband, every cop’s favorite suspect. He spent all his time trying to break Erik Homer’s alibi.’ A more linear personality was taking shape on the cork wall as Mallory finished pinning up a straight line of text and pictures. One red fingernail tapped the statement of Susan Qualen. ‘Natalie’s sister hated her brother-in-law. Every other word on this paper is bastard. But later the same night, she was talking to Erik Homer for hours, and they weren’t discussing funeral arrangements.’
Charles nodded. ‘You think they conspired to hide the boy.’
‘Right,’ said Mallory. ‘They didn’t want the killer to know there was an eyewitness. That’s why no one could find Junior. He was shipped off to relatives out of state.’
A computer beeped to call for Mallory’s attention, and she sat down at a workstation to watch the text scrolling down her screen. ‘An hour ago, I found rapsheets for Rolf and Lisa Qualen, a husband and wife in Wisconsin. They were arrested for kidnapping a little boy, but the age doesn’t match Natalie’s son.’ Mallory scrolled down the single-spaced text. ‘One hell of a lot of material.’ She watched bundles of paper pouring into all the printer beds. ‘I’ve got a time problem here.’
Laden with Mallory’s printouts, Charles had retreated to the comfort of his own private office, a soft leather chair and a wooden desk from a less technical age. When he had finished speed-reading the last of the court documents, a trial transcript and attendant reports from social workers and police, he looked up at his audience. The weary detectives were pressed deep into a plush sofa. They were raiding delicatessen bags and awaiting his synopsis on the arrest and trial of Rolf and Lisa Qualen.
‘Mr and Mrs Qualen had a son named John, who drowned shortly before his eighth birthday, and that was a year before Natalie Homer’s murder. Two days after Natalie’s body was found, the Qualens abandoned their house in Racine, Wisconsin, and resettled in a small town a hundred miles away. That’s where they enrolled their dead son, John, in grammar school.’
‘Freaking amateurs,’ said Riker.
‘Hmm.’ Mallory finished her bagel. ‘Bad match for Natalie’s son. The dead boy’s birth certificate was off by two years.’
‘The school principal noticed that, too,’ said Charles. ‘He was told that the boy’s scholastic records were lost in a fire. Eventually, he located those records in Racine – along with a death certificate for the real John Qualen.’
‘So that’s when the cops were called in?’ This was Riker’s polite way of moving the story along, for it was not his habit to state the obvious. And now he glanced at his watch in yet another attempt at being subtle.
‘Yes,’ said Charles. ‘The police suspected kidnapping, but the Qualens wouldn’t cooperate with the investigation and neither would the little boy.’
‘Junior was scared,’ said Mallory.
‘That was the case detective’s opinion,’ said Charles. ‘The police had no idea where the boy came from. He didn’t match any reports on missing children. So they put him in foster care, and the Qualens went to trial. The kidnap charge was never proved, but they were found guilty of falsifying records, and that got them a stiff fine. The foster-care records were sealed, and the boy disappeared into the bureaucracy.’
Riker pulled out his notebook and pen. ‘What’ve you got in the way of case numbers?’
‘For the boy? There’s nothing attached to the court documents. Sorry.’ He held up a sheaf of papers. ‘This is a brief filed by the Qualens’ attorney. They tried to adopt the boy, but they weren’t even successful in getting visitation rights.’
‘That’s why I can’t find him,’ said Mallory. ‘Social Services saw the Qualens as a threat. So they changed Junior’s name again and gave him a new case number. We don’t even know what age they settled on.’
‘With what we got so far,’ said Riker, ‘we’ll never get a court order to open sealed juvenile records. And he’s probably out there right now stringing up another woman.’
‘Then we’ll know soon enough,’ said Mallory. ‘He escalated with Sparrow. This time, he’ll put on a bigger show.’