A fence of iron bars protected a tiny courtyard and the red door to Stella Small’s apartment building. Mallory stood outside the gate and pushed the intercom buttons. When none of the residents responded, she pulled a small velvet wallet from the back pocket of her jeans, then unfolded it and perused her collection of lock picks. At the age often, she had stolen this set from her mentor Tall Sally, then lost it for a time – the rest of her childhood. The velvet wallet had turned up in the safety deposit box of the late Louis Markowitz. Sentimental man, he had not been able to throw away baby’s first toys.
Before she had made her selection of tools to work the fence lock, Ronald Deluthe came through the red door and crossed the small courtyard to open the gate. ‘There was nobody home,’ he said, ‘so I left my card under her door.’
‘How do you know she’s not home?’
‘I’m telling you,’ he said, ‘there’s nobody in there. I checked.’
Mallory pocketed the velvet wallet, though she did not believe that he would recognize burglar tools. ‘You checked. And how did you do that?’
‘Well, I banged on the door. No answer. I couldn’t hear anybody moving around inside. It didn’t sound like – ’
‘What does a hanging woman sound like, Deluthe?’
‘Right.’ He walked back to the red door and unlocked it.
‘Where did you get that key?’
‘The management company down the street.’ Deluthe held the door open for her, then slipped past her to lead the way up the stairs to the second floor. ‘They wouldn’t give me a key to her apartment – not without a warrant.’ He stopped at the door to 2B. ‘This is it. You’re sure it’s legal to go in there?’
‘Yes, if we believe she’s dying.’ Mallory did not appreciate having to repeat a lesson that he should have learned at the police academy. Deluthe had obviously not excelled in academics. So far, in every way, the son-in-law of the deputy commissioner was a mediocre candidate for the NYPD Detective Bureau.
He motioned for her to move away from the door. ‘I’ll take care of it.’
Mallory stood to one side, arms folded.
Apparently, Deluthe had learned nothing on the subject of locked doors either. Putting all his might behind his right foot, he kicked the door dead center, and, of course, the locks held. There was not even a dent on the heavy metal surface. Mallory decided that some lessons should be learned the hard way, and so she waited patiently as he made a second attempt to break his foot, then asked, ‘Are you done?’
It was gratifying to see him limp as he backed away from the door. She pulled out the velvet wallet, selected two pieces of metal and worked close to the door, blocking Deluthe’s view. First she opened the top lock, the one reputed to be pick-proof.
He edged around to one side of her, trying to see. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m using a bobby pin,’ said Mallory, who owned no hair pins. ‘I always carry one for emergencies.’ And now she was done.
Like most New Yorkers, Stella Small had not bothered with the other two locks. The knob turned easily, and the door opened on to a room of cheap furniture and cheaper clothes strewn about amid the general clutter of dirty dishes and an unmade bed. A couch cushion lay on the floor, half covering a copy of Backstage.
‘Looks like she’s been robbed,’ said Deluthe.
Mallory shook her head. She recognized Riker’s modus operandi in this mess. ‘Stella was only looking for something to wear.’ In Riker’s case, he would have been hunting for the wardrobe item with the fewest stains and cigarette burns.
‘No corpse hanging from the ceiling.’ Deluthe looked up at the light fixture and smiled. ‘I told you she wasn’t home.’ A pale blue garment lay in a heap on the floor – in plain sight, yet he did not find this at all interesting.
‘That woman you guys were chasing,’ said Mallory. ‘What was she wearing?’
‘A light blue suit,’ said Deluthe. And now he noticed the material on the floor. Sheepish, he picked up the blue blazer and unfolded it to display an X on the back.
‘Stella Small is the next victim,’ Mallory said, believing that this needed to be spelled out for him. She took the suit jacket from his hands and checked the label of a very respectable designer. The lines were good and so was the material. She walked among the piles of clothing and hangers on the floor. With an eye for what was out of date, she could tell that most or all of the wardrobe was secondhand. Yet there was an innate sense of style in a few good pieces of vintage clothing. The ruined blue suit was the best of the lot. Though Mallory’s blazers were all tailor made, she pronounced this one excellent. A cash receipt in the pocket bore out her suspicion of a discount house, a liquidator of unsold designer stock.
A pile of unopened letters lay on a table near the door. The loose stack was labeled with a yellow Post-it that bore the words hate mail – all bills and none of them paid. Mallory opened the table drawer and hunted among the contents till she found a checkbook. All the actress had listed in the register were check recipients – no amounts, no running balance, and none of the checkbook entries were for credit card companies. So the woman was flat broke and would not be doing any more shopping today.
Mallory turned to the window on the street. It cost money just to walk out the door in this town. The impoverished actress would probably be home soon. ‘Deluthe, stay here and wait for Stella. I don’t care if it takes all day – all night. You got that?’
Given his choice of interview rooms, Riker had selected the lockup, the smallest space in Special Crimes Unit. The walls were brownish yellow, and it had taken years of cigarette smoke and the projectile vomit of junkies to produce this special patina. Half the room was taken up by a flimsy coop of chain-link steel and wood. The door of this cage stood open, as an invitation and a threat to the tallest platinum blonde in New York City.
The transsexual sat on a metal folding chair and knocked knees on the underside of the table. ‘Where have you been, man? I’ve got a date tonight.’
Riker closed the door behind him – slowly – and glanced at his watch. ‘This shouldn’t take long, Sal. Tell you what. If you’re in a rush, we can do it tomorrow. Suppose I have a police car pick you up at the store on your lunch hour?’
‘Oh, yeah. Now that’s a favor and a half. No thanks.’ Tall Sally was staring at the clock on the wall and fidgeting with brassiere straps and flyaway strands of hair. ‘I already talked to that other cop. The blonde with the Armani sunglasses.’ And now, the ex-prostitute, ex-male, ex-thief forgot the ladylike facade. ‘Armani. Tell me that bitch ain’t on the take.’
‘I know what you told that detective.’ Riker dropped an old folder on the table. ‘And I know you lied.’ He sat down and put his feet up on the table in the posture of a man who had all the time in the world. ‘Let’s talk about Sparrow. Or, if you like, we can talk about old times.’ Riker turned the folder around so that Sal could read the name of the subject in capital letters, frankie delight. ‘It’s been fifteen years, but his murder is still an open case, and I can put you on the scene.’
The transsexual was backing up while sitting in a chair, all four metal legs scraping the floor. ‘I had nothing to do with it! Frankie was seriously crazy. Must’ve been a hundred whores lined up to kill that little bastard.’
‘You’re probably wondering how I know you were with him the night he died.’ Now that Tall Sally had decamped from the male gender and joined the ladies, Riker was the only man alive who knew that Frankie Delight was the corpse found in the ashes of a fire. ‘There’s no statute of limitations, Sal. Murder never goes away.’
‘If Sparrow says I’m the one that knifed him, she’s a liar.’
Frankie Delight, known to the medical examiner as John Doe, had indeed been killed with a knife. Sal was reaffirming a long-held belief that criminals as a class were stupid to the bone.
‘Now that’s another problem,’ said Riker. ‘Sparrow got stabbed the same night Frankie died.’ He opened the folder and scanned the four sheets of paperwork necessary to requisition an electric pencil-sharpener. ‘Here’s a statement from the ambulance driver. He was heading for the scene when he saw a seven-foot-tall blonde hightailing it down the street.’ That was actually true. However, fifteen years ago, Riker had been the only one to hear that statement, and he had never written it down. ‘So, Sal, can you – ’
‘If it wasn’t for me, that junkie whore would’ve bled to death.’ Sal’s hand waved in the air in a girlie affectation. ‘Or the rats would’ve got her. I saved her damn life.’
This did not work with what Riker knew about the ex-convict’s character; Tall Sally did not have one.
‘I know you used a ten-year-old girl to heist VCRs off a delivery truck.’ He opened the folder again, feigning interest in another piece of paper. This one was blank. ‘I got two cops who can place you on that scene. When their patrol car showed up, you left that poor kid behind.’
‘What makes you think that I – ’
‘You answer my questions, Sal. That’s how it works. I know that little kid gave the VCRs to Sparrow. Then you caught Sparrow fencing them for heroin. You stabbed her and killed the drug dealer. I’ve got motive, opportunity – everything I need to close this case.’
‘Frankie was dead when I got there. You know my rapsheet. Any knives, any weapons? No!’ Hysteria was rising in Tall Sally’s voice. ‘Frankie stabbed Sparrow. And I carried that bleeding whore on my back for three blocks.’
‘You moved her body away from a crime scene – so you could go back and get your goods without wading through ten cops.’
‘No, that was the kid’s idea. The brat drags me to this empty building on Avenue B. Used to be a crackhouse before the cops raided it. And there’s the whore laid out on the sidewalk. So I’m carrying this half-dead whore, and the kid runs up ahead, looking for a phone that wasn’t broke. She used my damn change to call 911! Then I laid Sparrow down – ’
‘And you went back to the crackhouse to get your VCRs. So that’s when you saw Frankie’s body? Is that your story, Sal?’
‘Damn kid didn’t mention that – a dead man lying next to my VCRs. So much blood. I swear, every drop in his body bled out. Still had the knife in his leg.’ Sal pointed one finger at Riker, saying, ‘And that was Sparrow’s knife. Big ol’ S on the hilt.’
‘Too bad we never recovered the murder weapon.’ That was a lie. Riker had personally disposed of that knife long ago. ‘Maybe the kid can back you up. Got a name for her?’
‘No, just street names. I called her the Flying Flea. Damn, that girl could run. Anyways, she’s dead now. Sparrow said the kid got cooked in a fire.’
Riker was finally convinced that this ex-con would never connect the name Kathy to a cop with the same green eyes. ‘The evidence makes you look bad, Sal. We can get you a lawyer, or we can make this old business go away. You run into Sparrow now and then, right? If you lie to me, I’ll have your parole revoked.’
They played a waiting game, and finally Tall Sally leaned forward, saying, ‘That other cop, the tall blonde? She said the whore got her nose fixed. Now if I did see Sparrow – it would’ve been before that.’
‘You can do better, Sal. I need to know how Sparrow was spending her time the week before she died.’
‘Man, I can’t give you what I don’t have. Three months ago, I was leaving town for the weekend, so I’m sittin’ in traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel, and there’s Sparrow, working the cars with all the other busted-up whores. Damn queen of the commuter blowjob.’
‘You’re lying. There haven’t been any hookers around that tunnel for over a year.’
‘You don’t drive much, do you, Riker?’
Why would Sal spin him a lie that was so easy to break? The detective heard voices on the other side of the door, and one of them was Ronald Deluthe’s.
‘Okay, you can go.’ He actually felt a breeze when Tall Sally sprinted from the room. Deluthe smashed himself against the door frame when the giant blonde sped by him. And Riker could not help but notice that Sal’s hair color looked more natural than the cop’s.
‘Okay, kid, what’ve you got for me?’
‘All the stuff you wanted me to copy for Mr Butler.’ Deluthe set a pile of paperwork on the table, then took the chair that Sal had vacated. His back was turned to the door when Mallory appeared on the threshold.
Riker patted the paperback in his pocket. He had been hoping to find a private moment to give her the old western, but this was not the time. She was wearing dark glasses, her idea of hiding. Tall Sally would not be back, but there were more interviews to come, other whores who would remember Sparrow’s golden shadow, a child with strange green eyes. Mallory must feel trapped.
No, there was something else on her mind. Her attention was focused on the young cop seated at the table. Soundlessly, she moved into the room and stood behind Deluthe’s chair. She bent down to his ear and said softly, ‘I told you to stay at Stella Small’s apartment – her unlocked apartment.’
She might as well have shot him.
Deluthe’s hand went to his chest as he lifted his head and stammered to the ceiling, ‘I got a uniform to stand guard in front of her door.’
Mallory sat down at the table, the picture of calm, shaking her head slowly from side to side. ‘No, you don’t get to issue orders to the uniforms. That’s not your job, and you don’t have the rank.’
‘And it pisses off their sergeants,’ Riker added.
Mallory lowered her glasses so Deluthe could see that she was three seconds away from doing some real damage. ‘That uniform was pulled off guard duty to settle a domestic dispute in another building. Nobody bothered to tell his sergeant that waiting for Stella Small was a matter of life and death.’
Deluthe could not look away from her. He was waiting for the explosion of temper, but Mallory was only stringing out his imagination, his anticipation of what she might do.
‘I’ll go back.’ Deluthe was rising from his chair.
‘No you won’t.’
He froze in an awkward stance, half sitting, half standing, awaiting permission to wet his pants.
She never raised her voice. ‘I patched things up with the cop’s sergeant. He gave me a guard for the door and another man to canvas the neighbors in her building. That was also your job.’
‘You didn’t tell me that you wanted – ’
‘I shouldn’t have to tell you every damn thing, Deluthe. Sit down.’
He sank to the chair.
‘The uniforms will do the job,’ she said. ‘You stay the hell out of it. Just sit on your hands.’
Riker kept silent until she left the room, and then he turned to the problem of rebuilding the shattered whiteshield. ‘How long were you with Loman’s squad? Four months?’
The younger man nodded.
‘Did they teach you anything?
‘Yes, sir.’ There was a curious lack of sarcasm in Deluthe’s voice when he said, ‘I know which guys take cream and sugar, and who likes their coffee black. I know who wants mayo on their sandwiches and who wants butter. And I never get their deli orders wrong.’
‘Yeah,’ said Detective Janos. ‘The tunnel’s crawling with whores.’ Hookers had reinvaded old territories while the mayor was concentrating on a new psychosis, exterminating all winged insects that might be carrying the East Village virus. This summer, insecticides had killed two elderly people with severe emphysema, and the insects, who had killed no one, were being executed en masse. But the hookers had escaped the city-wide extermination of bugs and old people, or so said Janos as he lumbered down the sidewalk with Riker.
‘You gotta see it for yourself Janos’s large hands were rising, thick fingers fluttering, delicately plucking words from the air. ‘All those whores at the mouth of the tunnel. Well, the whole tableau is just gorgeously phallic’
This from a man with the face and physique of a bone-crushing hitman. Riker turned around and waited for Deluthe to catch up. ‘Hey, kid. You wanna go down to the Lincoln Tunnel and roust some whores?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Deluthe was grinning.
‘You can’t wear gloves. That’s the giveaway that we’re gonna chase ‘em down. So think about it, kid. We’re talkin’ body lice and head lice, crabs and herpes – every disease in the world is down there.’
Janos smiled. ‘It’s God’s little waiting room for dying whores.’
‘Should be fun,’ said Riker. ‘Still wanna go?’
Lieutenant Coffey watched the television set in the incident room. Stella Small was now the subject of a fifteen-minute news segment. The police were requesting public assistance in the hunt for a potential crime victim. ‘Prime-time news. This is too good to be true.’
‘Oh, they were happy to do it,’ said Detective Wang. ‘It’s ratings week. This’ll send advertising revenues through the roof. They loved the part about the serial hangman.’
The reporter on screen interviewed a bartender in Stella Small’s neighborhood. The tavern’s customers leaned into the shot and waved to the audience. The camera panned to the window, then out the door and into the street, turning left and right. The reporter asked, ‘Where is she now? Have you seen her?’ His voice had the tenor of a game-show host inviting the home viewers to play.
A banner ran across the bottom of the screen with telephone numbers for the police tip line as the picture changed to a group of small children in costumes. Coffey wondered how a local news station had obtained this video of a kindergarten play in Ohio. A child-size Stella Small wobbled onstage, precariously balanced atop a pair of grown-up’s high heels. The little girl promptly fell off her shoes and landed on her little backside, endearing her to two homicide cops and eight million New Yorkers. Tiny snow-white socks waved in the air while the child cried, ‘Mommy!’
‘Oh, no.’ Coffey knew where the film had come from. ‘It was that damn agent. She turned the reporters loose on Stella’s family.’
Ronald Deluthe parked the car some distance from the mouth of the tunnel, where a battalion of women were working the lanes of congested traffic. Slow-stepping in high heels, the whores flashed bosoms pearled with sweat. Cars crawled through the street market of skirts hiked up to buttocks, twin moons in every shade of skin, spangles and cheap wigs in copper and gold – red, red mouths.
Some of the women were diving into cars, heads down and disappearing from view, then emerging with cash.
‘Hookers never file complaints,’ said Riker, turning to the young cop behind the wheel. ‘And they never identify suspects. You know why? When the perps get out on bail, they beat the crap out of the women – or they kill them. Dead witness? Case dismissed. That’s our criminal justice system. So we need to convince the ladies they’ll never make a court appearance. But leave that to me, kid. I’ve got more experience lying to women.’
He loosened his tie and buttoned his suit jacket so the gun and holster would not show. ‘Give me fifteen minutes. I’ll pick out some likely whores. Then we’ll try to bag two or three.’
Riker stepped out on the pavement and raised the hood of Deluthe’s car, disguising it as a disabled vehicle. Then he wandered toward the women, weaving slightly and snapping his fingers, but not in time to the blaring music from a slow moving car, for he was playing the role of a harmless drunk out of tempo with the rest of the world, so as not to trigger the hookers’ cop radar.
Twenty minutes later, he had picked out three junkies, older prostitutes in Sparrow’s age bracket. They would be climbing the walls inside of an hour in custody, and a dope-sick whore was a talkative whore. One looked familiar, but if he had ever arrested her, she did not remember him either. He had asked no questions about Sparrow, for these women were streetwise, but he had managed to pick out regulars who had worked this part of town when Sparrow was last seen whoring.
The detective looked at his watch. Where was Deluthe? More than the allotted time had passed, and one of his best whores was getting away.
A red sedan crawled by, and a pair of high-heeled sandals clacked alongside the moving vehicle as a woman leaned down to smile at the driver, singing to him, ‘Hey, sweet thing.’ The prostitute rolled on to the hood of the car and rode it into the mouth of the tunnel, shouting into the windshield, negotiating her price with the driver.
Riker turned around to see the rookie cop make a hasty exit from his car. Now Deluthe remembered to slow his steps as he approached the women. What was he carrying? Riker squinted, and then his hand went to his own jacket pocket.
The paperback western must have fallen out in the car.
Deluthe was trying not to stare at all the undressed skin, and this attracted immediate attention. Alerted now, the women lifted their heads, all but sniffing the wind for the smell of a cop. Some edged away, and some stayed to watch from a distance, wary and tense, ready to fly. And Riker knew he would be lucky to catch a single whore.
Could it get any worse? Oh, yeah.
There was only one stiff breeze in the entire month of August and it had to be tonight. Deluthe’s suit jacket was blown open. Three of the hookers could see the gun in his brand-new shoulder holster. And now they were melting away in the heat.
The whore-store was closing.
All the brunettes edged away, but one blonde sang out to other blondes as she strolled toward Ronald Deluthe.
Riker had seen hookers gang together by race, but never by hair color. Two more blondes were drifting toward the young detective. And now the dark-haired whores had forgotten their fear and proceeded to steal all the trade, picking off commuters, climbing in and out of cars, raking in cash by tens and fives.
Deluthe was deep in peroxide heaven and mounds of pale skin escaping from halter tops. The women stroked his hair, his chest and thighs. They smiled at him with broken teeth and gold teeth, with a ‘Hey, baby’ and ‘Hi, sugarman.’ One whore tapped the book in his hand, saying, ‘So – you know how this story ends?’
Riker’s jaw went slack as he watched Deluthe open the paperback western. The young cop then read aloud to a group of very attentive, nearly naked book fiends.