Mallory stood in the office kitchen and poured another cup of coffee. Her eyes were closing. When had she slept last?
Old pictures were breaking into her thoughts again, wreaking havoc with her concentration. The rats were coming for the whore. Greedy vermin. Not content with the blood and meat of Frankie Delight, they wanted Sparrow too.
Mallory turned on the faucet, then leaned over the sink and splashed her face with cold water. She sat down at the kitchen table. Her coffee cooled in the cup. Her eyes closed, and down came the curtain between waking and sleeping dreams. Though she had never had the smoker’s habit, one hand went up to her mouth as she lit a cigarette that was not there. She was ten years old again. Sparrow was bleeding, saying, ‘Don’t cry, baby.’
But Kathy could not stop crying. The frantic child shook Sparrow to keep her from drifting into sleep and death. ‘I’ll get help!’
‘Don’t leave me,’ said Sparrow. ‘Not yet.’ The prostitute nodded toward the shadows where the rats were fighting over the corpse of Frankie Delight. ‘Keep ‘em off me – till it’s over.’
‘You can’t die.’
Sparrow gently touched the child’s face. ‘Baby, I’m always telling you stories. Read me a story – that’s all I hear from you. Suppose you tell me one. But mind you, don’t make it a long story.’ Sparrow’s eyes were closing as she smiled at her own little joke.
‘You need a doctor!’ Kathy shook Sparrow until the blue eyes opened. The child put her hands over the open wound, trying to keep the prostitute’s blood from leaking out.
‘Don’t leave me for the rats,’ said Sparrow. ‘Tell me, how did that book end? The Longest Road, yeah, that one. The Wichita Kid decided he was goin’ home. Did he ever say why?’
‘It ends when he’s on the trail.’ Kathy emptied Sparrow’s purse on the floor, straining to see by the daylight streaming in from the street door. ‘Wichita stops his horse in front of the sign for Franktown.’ The room was growing darker; the day was ending; Sparrow was dying. The child found a handkerchief. ‘He just stares at that sign for a while.’ She used the square of white linen to cover the stab wound. The cloth was soaked with blood the moment she pressed it to Sparrow’s side. ‘Then there’s these lines near the end. But I don’t – ’ Though the little girl knew all the books by heart, her panic was overwhelming her. Sparrow could not die.
‘What lines, baby?’
Kathy bit her lip until it bled into her mouth. She needed this pain to concentrate, and now the passage came into her mind, clear as the spoken word, and she recited, ‘ „It was more than the call of home. He was riding toward his redemption.“ ‘
‘You know what that means, baby?’
‘No.’ And she did not care. Kathy undipped a long strap from Sparrow’s purse and used it to hold the red handkerchief in place. ‘I’m going for help. I’ll come right back.’
‘No, baby. Stay with me.’ Sparrow’s next word was hardly more than a whisper, a sigh. ‘Redemption.’ Her voice was stronger when she said, ‘How can I put that so a little thief can understand?’
The rats were coming. The child stamped one foot and screamed at them, ‘You stay away! She’s not dead! She’s not!’
‘That’s right, baby. You tell ‘em.’ Sparrow’s voice was failing. ‘Redemption – that’s when you buy back all your bad karma – so you can steal heaven.’
What was karma?
The prostitute closed her eyes again, and this time Kathy could not wake her. The child’s head snapped toward the shadows and the sound of a rat’s feet. She waved her arms, but the creatures had no fear of her anymore. The lure of blood was strong. And now another rat appeared at the edge of the failing light from the street door.
‘Stay away!’ Kathy pulled out her pellet gun and fired on the rat, missing her mark. She was crying, vision blurring, yelling, ‘She’s not dead! Not yet!'
The child reached down to the debris from the prostitute’s purse and found something hard, a missile to throw. It was a silver lighter she had stolen for Sparrow. She held it tight, then picked up one of the cigarettes that had spilled on the floor alongside a can of hair-spray. Kathy hunkered down beside the purse, smiling – inspired.
Once, Sparrow had nearly set her hair on fire, smoking a cigarette while waving the hairspray can.
Kathy lit the cigarette, puffing and coughing until it burned. She stared at the glowing ember and waited, fighting down the panic until the rat was close to her feet. She pointed the aerosol can at the animal, then pressed down on the nozzle, wetting the rat through and through. It squealed with the pain of hairspray in its eyes. The child dropped the cigarette on its fur and stood back as the animal burst into flames and screamed.
Another rat came out of the shadows, drawn by the smell of live cooking meat. Hunched over, Kathy crept forward to meet the creature. Holding the cigarette lighter low to the ground, she pressed the nozzle of the hairspray, aiming it at the tiny flame, and the chemical spray became a blowtorch. The second rat was burning, running in circles, streaking fire round and round. It was crying in a human way and drawing cannibals from the corpse of Frankie Delight.
Kathy was numb, too stunned to care what the rats were doing to one another. Working by slow inches, the child struggled with her burden, dragging Sparrow out of the dark building and into the waning daylight where more rats awaited them, scrabbling out from between the garbage cans on the sidewalk.
In the kitchen of Butler and Company, Mallory lurched to one side. Chair and woman crashed to the floor. Her face was pressed to the tiles, and she lay there for a few seconds of absolute stillness, quietly seeking her true place in time and space. Then she rose to her feet and gripped the edge of the counter for support. Her hands were shaking when she splashed more water on her face. If she could not stay awake, Stella Small would die.
‘It’ll never work.’ Riker turned his back on Mallory’s computers. ‘There’s gotta be ten million people in Wisconsin.’
‘Closer to four and a half.’ Charles could quote the atlas statistic to the last individual, but that would be showboating. ‘And we’re only looking at one small county where the boy went into foster care.’
Riker shook his head. ‘We’re running out of time. Stella Small could be hanging by her neck right now – still alive.’
Mallory looked up from her monitor. ‘What do you want me to do, Riker? Go door to door with those worthless cartoons?’ She nodded toward the cork wall where he had pinned up the hooker sketches.
Indeed, Charles thought the images were more of a guide to what the man did not look like. He was not thin or fat, not African or Asian descent, and his hair was neither long nor short.
Mallory turned back to her computer monitor. She was also showing signs of strain. ‘I’m checking every newspaper with a database. If anything jumps out – ’
‘It’ll take forever,’ said Riker.
‘And thank you for your support,’ said Mallory.
Charles watched the screen over her shoulder, scanning text as fast as she could scroll down the columns of newspaper archives, and in another compartment of his brain, he addressed Riker’s concerns. ‘You have two possibilities. Some recent event triggered these hangings, or the scarecrow started acting out antisocial behavior with early juvenile offenses.’
‘Then we’re still screwed,’ said Riker. ‘The criminal records of juveniles are sealed.’
‘But not newspaper archives. The county is mostly small towns. Any sort of stand-out behavior would be worth a mention in a local newspaper.’ Charles could see that Riker was unconvinced. The man was looking at his watch, a reminder that Stella Small was running out of time, and now he left the room. A moment later, the door to the reception area slammed shut.
Mallory handed a cell phone to Charles. ‘I’ve got a Wisconsin detective on the line. She works in Juvenile. Can you give her a profile for the scarecrow?’
The small phone all but disappeared into Charles’s larger hand as he described a tortured child to the caller, explaining that the boy had lost everything, his parents, his home. He was sent away to live with strangers, and they were also taken from him. Then police custody, foster care, more changes and strangers to deal with. ‘Too many traumas in quick succession. I’d look for a history of petty criminal acts and small-scale violence.
Sociopathic behavior could’ve started as early as nine or ten years old. Or even – ’
Charles watched Mallory’s eyes close. Her fingers ceased to tap; her hands were suspended over the keyboard. And he wished he was dead. He had just created a general profile for her as well.
He quickly added one qualification never mentioned in Kathy Mallory’s own childhood history and said to the caller, ‘You might find incidents of torturing and killing small animals.’
Stella Small listened to the public-address system. A small fire had broken out on an upper floor, and all customers were urged to make an orderly evacuation of the store.
What fabulous timing. The new suit was paid for, and she was wearing it. However, she had not yet replaced her snagged pantyhose with the new ones, and a saleswoman was barring her way to the changing room. Stella shrugged. There was time enough to go home and change hosiery before the evening audition in Tribeca. She joined a stream of shoppers moving toward the escalator with great resolve despite the protests of store employees who tried in vain to turn the herd toward the fire doors and a stairwell.
There was one motionless stand-out among the onward-marching shoppers and the arm-waving clerks. A man was waiting near the bottom of the escalator. Though he wore dark glasses, Stella recognized him from her last shopping expedition. This was the soap-opera fan who had stood behind her in the mirror of the discount store. Yes, it was the same baseball cap and stiff posture. She was sure of it now. He was the vandal, the stalker, the giver of gift certificates. And the gray bag, she had seen that before too, but where? She stared at him, wondering, How crazy are you?
He climbed up the steps of the down escalator, unhampered by all the people who blocked his way. He passed through the press of bodies, crushing them into the sides of the escalator as he closed the distance to Stella while the mechanical steps sought to take them both down. He came abreast of her and slapped a note on the lapel of her new suit jacket. The man never looked into her eyes. He might as well have taped his message to a kiosk instead of a living woman. She ripped the note off her jacket and read the words, I can touch you any time I want.
Charles sprawled on the leather couch, one of few office furnishings that was not an antique, but custom-made to fit his longer-than-average legs. He was nearly done with the last batch of fax transmissions. Occasionally, he interrupted his reading to glance at the portable television set. Mallory had given it to him so he could keep track of local news bulletins. And now he was startled to see a familiar face on the screen. ‘Mallory!’ he yelled, to be heard in her office across the hall. ‘Riker’s on TV!’
No response. Well, she was busy.
Charles turned back to the screen to watch Detective Sergeant Riker being introduced to the viewers. Poor man. He looked so pale beside the healthy orange glow of the anchorman’s stage makeup. He held up a photograph of a fugitive witness, Natalie Homer’s sister.
Stella fought against the tide of the crowd spilling off the escalator. She saw another exit sign and ran toward it, only glancing back once to see the baseball cap bobbing above the heads of the shoppers. Everyone was being turned away from the bank of elevators. Store employees barred the doors, shouting that the elevators had been disabled. Others directed people to the fire doors where a line of people filed through to a stairwell.
First Stella caught a whiff of insecticide, and then a hand grazed her face. She turned to see the stalking man walking away from her, moving toward the line for the stairwell. He turned around to look in Stella’s general direction, never making eye contact, perhaps perceiving her as a store manikin. Was he waiting for her to join him in the line?
You think I’m crazy, too?
She turned around full circle, searching every wall for another red-lettered sign to show her a way out. The escalator was barred by three women with folded arms. Drunk with power, they turned shoppers back to the stairwell, shouting, ‘That’s the fire exit!’ And they were so unimpressed with Stella’s note from a madman. ‘Lady, look around. You see any cops? No.’ And once again, she was directed to the stairwell, the only approved exit, where her personal stalker stepped out of line to wait for her by the fire door. This was so unfair. She had obeyed all the rules regarding New York wildlife. She had never tried to pet the lunatics grazing on the city sidewalks, never fed them or looked them in the eye.
Now Stella saw another sign and ran toward it. After closing the restroom door behind her, she depressed the lock button on the brass knob, for it was unlikely that a lunatic would be put offby the ‘Ladies Only’ sign of sanctuary. All the stall doors were open, and there were no sounds but her own footsteps as she walked toward the line of sinks to lay her packages down on the long marble countertop. Stella never considered the possibility of burning alive in a blazing building. She had lived in this town too long to take any fire drill as seriously as the more immediate threat of a deranged stalker – or shopping – and she planned to wait it out until the store refilled with customers and clerks, a simple matter of killing time.
After stripping off her ruined pantyhose, she fumbled with the cellophane wrapper of the new pair. A clock on the wall gave her hours to make the late audition. She stared at the mirror, in love with the new suit. Her lipstick had been bitten off, but there was time for a complete overhaul of makeup, and she rifled her purse for cosmetics. Oh, wait. She should use the toilet before the fire drill ended. Stella gathered up her purse and packages from force of habit. No New Yorker would leave a possession unguarded.
She was sitting on the toilet when she heard the door open. Heavy steps, a man. He would have to be a store employee. Who else would have a key to the lock? The door closed again, and she sat very still, holding her breath and holding her water. After what seemed like forever, Stella knelt down on the floor and looked toward the stalls left and right.
No one there. And yet, after leaving the stall, she could not lose the feeling of being watched. And what was that sound? A fly? More than one?
‘This woman is wanted by the police.’ The newscaster held up the photograph of Susan Qualen. Though the woman was in her forties, Charles thought the family likeness was striking. The picture of Natalie’s sister was joined by a portrait of Stella Small.
‘If you’ve seen either of these women today,’ said the voice behind the photographs, ‘call the number on your screen. And now a few words from Detective Sergeant Riker.’
Riker leaned into the microphone. ‘Miss Qualen has information on the whereabouts of the missing actress. We have to find Stella tonight. She’s in a lot of trouble, and she needs your help.’
‘As we speak,’ said the anchorman, ‘our broadcast is also being shown on our sister station in Wisconsin.’ He turned to his guest. ‘So you believe Susan Qualen is hiding in the vicinity of Racine?’
‘Yeah, she could be enroute right now,’ said Riker. ‘But I’m hoping she’s still in the tristate area.’
‘If this woman has important information, why is she evading the police, Detective Riker?’
‘Because she doesn’t care if Stella Small lives or dies.’
Very impressive, Riker.
No one could have put the case more eloquently.