Lieutenant Coffey closed the door of his office, wanting more privacy for this delicate telephone call to Ohio. He spoke gently to Stella Small the elder, while Stella Small the younger cried on an extension phone. The mother soon faded out of the conversation, but the grandmother remained on the line until weeping made talking impossible.
He set down the telephone and turned to the small television set in the corner of his office. The live coverage from Ohio had resumed as the two Stellas returned to the reporter in their living room. Beyond the couch where the women were seated, Coffey had a picture-window view of their trailer court. A circus of media were camped outside.
The reporter was asking the mother and grandmother about their telephone interview with Special Crimes Unit in New York. ‘Do the police believe they’ll find Stella before she dies?’
The lieutenant looked up at the glass partition and counted up the whores passing by his office, ten of them. Leading this parade was Ronald Deluthe. Riker was the last one through the stairwell door. All the detectives in the squad room were smiling, heads swiveling to follow the women, and Jack Coffey had no trouble reading their minds:
More blondes. God is good.
The lieutenant opened his office door and called out to Riker. ‘Charles Butler is here. He said you sent for him.’
Charles sat in a narrow darkened room rather like a theater audience. Rows of comfortable chairs were raised in tiers, and there was not a bad seat in the house. The stage was a large bright space on the other side of a one-way glass, where Ronald Deluthe was holding the door open for a group of blondes in various stages of undress. The women took chairs around a long table. He could see them all talking at once but heard nothing of their conversation.
Riker entered the room and flopped down in a front-row seat, his tired face illuminated by the light from the window.
‘Surreal.’ The detective rolled his eyes. ‘I’m trolling for hookers with the baby cop, and the ladies are crawlin’ all over him. Now you might think they want Deluthe’s sweet young body.’
‘No,’ said Charles. ‘That would be too easy.’
Riker sighed. ‘They wanna discuss literature with him.’ He held up the old western as he stared at the larger room beyond the glass. ‘What you’re lookin’ at out there – that’s the Kathy Mallory Hooker Book Salon. Those women can name all the characters from Kathy’s westerns. They used to read to her when she was a kid, but only for an hour at a time. Some of them knew the beginning of a story, and some knew the middle or the end.’
‘But none of them ever read an entire book.’
‘Right. So this is what they used to do between tricks – they’d marry up the plots of the whole series. Other hookers joined up from word of mouth. And then they started running ads in the Village Voice. It took them years to find each other. And tonight they see Deluthe come along with a book by their favorite author, and it’s one they’ve never seen before.’
‘The last western,’ said Charles. ‘They wanted the story.’
‘Yeah. Well, Deluthe tells ‘em he’s only gotten a few pages into it. So he opens the book and starts reading to a gang of whores. Now the traffic really slows down. Nobody’s ever seen anything like that in New York City. Then the kid stops reading, and he says, „Hey, I know somebody who’s read the whole book.“ So now the hookers think it’s a great idea to go to a police station. It gets better. They invite some more blondes with street-corner addresses. I had to send out squad cars to pick ‘em all up.’
‘And how can I help you?’
‘I’ve read maybe half those books, but that was fifteen years ago. You’re the only one who’s read ‘em all. We’re gonna trade plots for information. At least half of these women know Sparrow on sight. I need a time line for the week before the hanging.’
‘And you’re hoping one of them got a look at the scarecrow.’ Charles turned to the glass and watched Deluthe set up room dividers to create two small cubicles and the illusion of privacy.
Following Riker’s lead, he rose from his seat, and the detective put one hand on his arm, saying, ‘Just one more thing, Charles. Listen carefully. None of those whores know Mallory’s right name. Sparrow was the only one who ever called her Kathy. But you’re gonna hear stories about a little girl with blond hair and green eyes. That kid is officially dead. If she doesn’t stay dead, she’s facing charges of murder and arson.’
On that warning note, a startled Charles Butler was quickly ushered out of the room. Riker locked the door behind them, then opened his hand to display three keys. ‘That’s all of’em.’ For added security, he inserted a toothpick into the lock and broke it off at the lip of the metal. ‘We don’t want any eavesdroppers.’
The detective strolled into the interview room, saying, ‘Ladies, you came to the right place.’ He clapped one hand on Charles’s shoulder. ‘We know how all the stories end.’
And this earned them a round of applause.
If Riker had intended to shelter her from the hooker reunion of Sparrow’s friends, he should have posted a guard. Locked doors had always intrigued her, though this one did not pose much of a challenge. Mallory teased the toothpick out with her fingernails, then made short work of picking the lock. Upon entering the darkened room, she removed her sunglasses and sat down in the front row of chairs facing the one-way glass. And now she waited for the performance to begin.
Something was wrong.
Mallory leaned closer to the glass. She recognized most of these prostitutes from the story hours of her childhood, even women who had been badly altered by scars and broken teeth. It was surprising how many had survived, though this was but a fraction of their original number. The common denominator for these women was not Sparrow, but herself.
What was Riker playing at?
Deluthe stood at the head of the table of whores, writing furiously in his notebook, probably taking orders for a deli run. Riker would not want him in the room when this interview started.
Mallory turned on the sound system. It was another shock to hear Charles Butler’s voice. When he stood up, she could see his head above the gray partition of the far cubicle. Riker was introducing him to a prostitute. Would Charles have enough sense to wash up after shaking hands with Greta? His new friend, the whore, was missing half an ear, old damage from long ago.
Deluthe was on his way out the door to fetch the orders from the delicatessen, and now the interrogation would begin. Mallory raised the volume on the intercom. The sound system was intended to eavesdrop on one voice at a time, not six conversations. She closed her eyes to all distractions, then sifted through the babble, seeking out one man’s voice and then the other’s.
How did Charles know the plots of her westerns?
She listened a while longer, concentrating on a single voice. Charles had finished telling Greta how Far Trails had ended, and now he was asking her questions about Sparrow’s movements.
Mallory shifted her attention to Riker’s cubicle, where he was seated with another whore. A few minutes into this conversation, she knew he was trying to solve the wrong murder.
‘Markowitz didn’t know Sparrow was tight with the kid, he just wanted a pair of eyes on the street,’ said Belle. ‘You know, like if she saw the kid – ’
‘A little blond girl,’ said Riker, attempting to speed up the interview, for he already knew this part of the story. He had been the one who had approached Sparrow for information, but Lou Markowitz had put up the money.
‘Uh, huh. The cops were really hot to find that girl. Offered Sparrow cash – not chump change either. And then, up front, she got a get-out-of-jail-for-free card, and it was signed by Markowitz himself.’
Riker gave up the idea of moving this woman along any faster. Whatever drug she was doing, it was not laced with speed.
‘So Sparrow started out the day as a hooker,’ said Belle. ‘Then she turned into a snitch that afternoon. And that same night, she was warehousing stolen goods for a ten-year-old thief. So you can see how her career just wasn’t going real well.’
‘Warehousing goods?’ Riker feigned skepticism. He was hoping this was the shipment of VCRs. ‘It’s not like the kid was ever more than a small-time thief.’
‘Hey, who’s telling this story? Well, I’m walking down the street with Sparrow. She’s already decided to blow off Markowitz. And along comes the kid wheeling a grocery cart full of VCRs. Brand-new, still in the cartons. I ask her if she wants me to read her a story, and she says no. Well, that was a first. The kid looks to Sparrow and says she needs a place to stash her stuff.’
And now Riker listened to another version of the great truck robbery. In this one, Kathy took all the credit for the theft.
‘So now the kid wants to change the goods into cash. Tall Sally’s the only fence Sparrow knows, but the kid won’t deal with Sal. Never would say why. So they got another buyer for the VCRs.’
‘Would that buyer be Frankie Delight?’
Belle shrugged off the question. ‘Who the hell knows? I sure don’t. Now what happens at the end of Shadowland?’
Riker knew this book well. It was his personal favorite, and he did not even care about the glaring flaw of long-range shooting in the dark of a moonless night. ‘It ends with an ambush. Forty rustlers are up on the cliffs, guns aimed, waiting for Sheriff Peety to come through the canyon. And he’s got a bad feeling about this trail, like he knows what’s coming, but he’s got no choice. He has to follow the Wichita Kid.’
„Cause that’s his job.’ Belle recited words from the first page of almost every book. ‘His life is the law.’
‘Right. But all he’s got is two six-shooters and no extra bullets. It’s a cloudy night, no stars, not one, and that’s the worst of it for him. He believes he’s never gonna see their lights again. And he’s lost without ‘era – no markers in the sky to help him find his way. So he reins in his horse and sits awhile. He wonders what his life is all about. He’s lost his faith, he’s lost his way. Can’t even see the badge on his chest – it’s so damn dark. The book ends when the sheriff digs in his spurs. He rides into the canyon at a gallop, knowing it’s a trap – a fight he can’t win. The rustlers open fire. He looks up and sees the bright lights of guns firing from every ridge – like stars.’ ‘That’s beautiful,’ said Belle, rising from her chair. Riker nodded to the next woman in line. ‘Your turn.’ The second prostitute’s name was Karina, and she had a few questions of her own. ‘Did I hear right? You talkin’ about Frankie Delight? Whatever happened to him? Not that I care about that squirrelly little bastard. Just curious is all.’ ‘Last time I saw him,’ said Riker, ‘he was toast – dead on a slab in the morgue.’
Mallory’s eyes snapped open. How could Riker know about the murder of Frankie Delight? The drug dealer’s body had been destroyed in the fire. No one could have put a name on that charred corpse.
She closed her eyes again and called up the jittery image of a drug dealer in a deserted building on Avenue B, a skinny white boy in dreadlocks, ripped jeans and gold chains.
The jewelry? Was that how Riker had identified the body?
She could see the deserted building again, deep in shadow, half the interior walls knocked down and rats everywhere – only one way out. She could pinpoint the moment when Sparrow had realized that Frankie planned to rob her, to take the VCRs without paying. No knives had come out, not yet, but whore and dealer circled round and round.
Unconsciously, Detective Mallory’s hand made the shape of a pistol as Kathy the child drew her pellet gun on the drug dealer. It was happening all over again. Frankie Delight was in her sights when he dropped to one knee, holding his sides because he was laughing so hard it hurt. Pointing to her plastic gun, he giggled out the words, ‘Oh, you’re gonna make a big hole with that sucker.’ He turned to Sparrow, saying, ‘Hey, bitch. Your needles make bigger holes.’ Not done with humiliating a child, he turned back to Kathy as he rose to his feet, still in good humor. ‘You could really mess up a big-assed cockroach with that thing. You shoot that bug in the leg, and he’ll never walk again.’
And Sparrow was laughing, too – when he jammed his knife into her side, then twisted it to rip her up some more.
Oh, the look of surprise in the whore’s eyes.
How Frankie had laughed at the comical sight of Sparrow sliding down the wall, leaving a smear of blood in her slow descent. His laughter had drowned out the screams of a child.
Riker lit Karina’s cigarette. ‘So you’re the one who set up the meeting.’
‘Yeah, Sparrow wanted to unload some VCRs. A little kid ripped ‘em off. Can you beat that? Well, I knew this half-assed drug dealer, the only one who’d deal for goods. Everybody else was cash or nothin’.’
‘Sparrow wanted to swap the VCRs for drugs?’
‘Yeah, but what she really needed was cash. Her rent was way past due. So she figured to get drugs for the VCRs, then change the drugs into money on the street – selling to the Johns.’ Karina exhaled a cloud of smoke. With all the authority of a jailhouse lawyer, she said, ‘That’s twice removed from the truck robbery.’
Riker smiled. It was the first instance ever of laundering illegal proceeds with drug money – very creative.
May smiled at Charles, showing him all her broken teeth and one gold cap. ‘What happened after that ambush in Shadowland?'
‘It’s still going on when the next book opens,’ said Charles. ‘The gunslinger was clear of the canyon before the rustlers opened fire on the man who was chasing him.’
‘Right. Well, it looks like there’s no way out for the sheriff. He’s almost out of bullets. But then the Wichita Kid turns his horse around and conies riding back into the canyon to save him.’
‘I knew he would,’ said May. ‘But there were forty rustlers up on the ridge. How did Wichita shoot all of them?’
‘Oh, he didn’t shoot any of them. He shot the sheriff.’
May’s head tilted to one side to say, What? And now she leaned far forward, her expression clearly implying, You’re nuts. And aloud she said, with great conviction, ‘Wichita would never do that.’
‘I swear that’s what happened.’ Charles was perplexed by the sudden hostility. It was only a story. ‘He shot the sheriff. Mind you, it was only a shoulder wound, but it knocked Sheriff Peety right out of the saddle. Actually, it was quite a clever ruse. You see, when the rustlers thought the old man was dead, they stopped shooting at him.’ Not that there had been much danger of them hitting their target in darkness described as absolute. ‘The rustlers even cheered the Wichita Kid for making this really great shot from a galloping horse.’ In fact, it was an impossible shot, but logic was not the author’s forte.
‘I love that boy.’ The prostitute clapped her hands together.
‘My turn,’ said Charles. ‘Now the last time you saw Sparrow was how long ago?’
‘Four months, maybe longer.’
Charles looked up at the woman behind May’s chair. ‘Madam, you’re next.’
Mallory found it difficult to concentrate on conversations in the next room. A cascade of pictures were dropping into her mind, and she could not block them out. Through the eyes of a child, she watched Sparrow writhing on the floor, losing a river of blood from the knife wound in her side and crying, ‘Jesus! Jesus!’
Kathy knew Jesus, too. He was the King of Pain, crowned with thorns and stabbed with nails. And she had sometimes called on Him in this same way, with no expectation of help -just another ritual like the story hour.
Riker recognized the woman now, but not by her face, not even by her name. The prostitute’s neck scarf dropped to give him a glimpse of a familiar scar, a souvenir from the man who had slit her throat rather than pay for her services. He would tread carefully with this one. She was the hooker who had tied Sparrow to the little girl who died in the fire, and all for three seconds of fame on the evening news.
The whore gave no sign of remembering the detective. All cops and customers must look alike to this aging parody of a dead actress. Marilyn’s red mouth was drawn well outside the lines of her thin lips, but her voice was breathy and sexy, so close to the real thing.
‘Sure I remember,’ said Marilyn. ‘It was maybe fourteen, fifteen years ago. I brought Sparrow’s stuff to the hospital. That was the day after she got stabbed.’
‘Her stuff. You brought her heroin?’
‘Oh, just a taste, a snort. Not enough to mess her up. I had a personal interest in Sparrow’s health. She owed me money. God, she was strung out. What I gave her didn’t help much.’
Riker leaned over to light the woman’s cigarette. ‘Did the little girl ever visit her?’
‘Uh huh. When I came in, she was sittin’ on the edge of the bed. Sparrow was feeding her off the hospital tray. The kid was eating an apple one minute, and then she was dead asleep. Her eyes closed, and the apple just rolled out of her little hand. Ain’t it funny – the things that stay with you for years?’
‘What else happened that day?’
‘Sparrow shook the kid till she woke up. Reminded her she had something to do – and fast. I never found out what that was about.
So the kid climbs down from the bed. So tired. Poor baby. She was weavin’ on her way out the door. And that was the last time I ever saw that child alive.’
Mallory leaned forward, straining to catch the details of her hospital visit. That was the day Sparrow had sent her back to the deserted crackhouse – the day of the fire. This was a memory she did not want to relive, but images broke into her conscious mind against her will – the rats were eating the dead man, and she could hear the sucking sound that Sparrow’s knife made when it was pulled from the body.
‘No, babe,’ said Crystal. ‘Sparrow ain’t worked the tunnel in a while. Last time I saw that whore, she was planning to get her nose fixed. Later, I heard she was working uptown hotels. I’m telling you, that must’ve been one hell of a nose job. I wouldn’t last six seconds in one of those hotels before they threw my ass out the door. So what’s the rest of the story?’
‘First, tell me something,’ said Charles. ‘Why do you care about these books?’
Crystal gave this some careful thought, then smiled with her broken mouth. ‘It’s like you’re always waiting for the other shoe to fall. You know that saying? You do? Good. Well, babe, I’ve been waiting for fifteen years. Now give me the rest of my damn story.’
‘All right. Remember the first cowboy Wichita ever killed?’
Exasperated, she said, ‘Of course I do. All the girls know that story. That was the only one we got paid for.’
‘That first story – the kid paid for it. Well, she paid for the first hour. She’d give a whore something she stole, something real fine. I gotta say, the girl had good taste. Then, after that first time, all her stories were free. All she had to do was say, „Read me a story,“ and some whore would take her home.’
‘And you all read to her – because you had to know how the books ended?’
‘Now you got it. But it was never the same book twice in a row. You’d wind up an hour into a completely different story – and no end. Or maybe you’d get the end, but you wouldn’t know how it started.’
‘Well, in Homecoming, you discover that the first dead cowboy was a murderer. He was part of a gang that killed Wichita’s father and stole his cattle.’
‘So that’s how the kid’s mother wound up as a dancehall girl. I always wondered about that. She was the only church-going slut in Franktown.’
‘Right,’ said Charles. ‘It was either work in a saloon or starve, and she had a child to support. Well, in this book, Wichita’s almost done. He’s tracked down the last gang member, a man hiding out in Franktown. And he kills him in a gunfight.’
‘Does the sheriff arrest the Kid?’
‘So the Kid just left town, right? He got away again?’
‘Well, not in this one.’ Now Charles realized that this woman was unaware that Homecoming was the end of the series.
‘You don’t mean Wichita gave himself up?’ She read a worse fate in Charles’s giveaway face. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell me he died? Don’t you dare tell me that!’ She shouted, ‘How can the Kid be dead?’’
All around the room, conversations stopped abruptly as ten hookers went into mourning for the Wichita Kid.
Mallory sat in darkness, eyes closed, slowly moving her head from side to side. She could not remember a book called Homecoming.