Lieutenant Loman set down the phone and yelled loud enough to be heard all over the squad room, ‘Hey, you bastards!’
Five heads turned his way.
‘Has Deluthe been around this morning?’
‘Blondie? No,’ said one detective. ‘I’d remember that.’
The East Side lieutenant closed the door of his office and returned to his phone call. ‘No, Riker, he’s not here. So, like I was sayin’, the kid ain’t the greatest cop material, but you got him all wrong. The brass didn’t put him on any fast-track. The deputy commissioner hates his guts.’
‘His father-in-law? Why?’
‘Deluthe’s marriage fell apart four months ago, and the wife’s old man is out for blood. He ain’t too subtle neither. Came right out and told me to crush his son-in-law. But I didn’t want any part of it.’
‘And that’s why you unloaded him on me?’
‘The truth, Riker? I forgot Deluthe was alive. He was only takin’ up desk space around here. Wasn’t just me – nobody noticed him much. Then, the night that hooker got strung up, he comes walkin’ in here with a bad bleach job.’
‘And that got your attention.’
‘Oh, yeah. So how’s he doin’, Riker?’
‘Good. The kid’s doin’ good.’
Ronald Deluthe listened to the police scanner as a dispatcher reeled off codes for domestic disputes and robberies. This address was not among the calls, and another few minutes would make no difference at all.
The insecticide permeated everything in the apartment including the closet and the clothes. There was no other discernible odor, though the body in the plastic bag was badly decomposed.
‘Great!’ Riker paced the length of the back office at Butler and Company. ‘Now I got two AWOL detectives.’ He leaned over the fax machine to read the last report from the Wisconsin State Police. ‘So Mallory’s on the phone with these cops, and then what?’
‘We talked about the scarecrow.’ Charles turned to the computer monitor. ‘She was working on this machine, and then she left. Just got up and left.’
Riker glanced at his watch. ‘We’ll give it a few minutes. Maybe she’ll call in.’ He sat down at Mallory’s desk and reached for the phone. While the detective waited on hold for Sparrow’s doctor, Charles left the room to give him some privacy, saying, ‘I’ll make some fresh coffee.’
The office kitchen was only marginally more comfortable than Mallory’s domain, though it housed fewer electronics. He loathed the coffee machine of chrome, plastic and computer components. The programmed brew was sterilized in his mind before it ever reached his taste buds. Unlike Geldorf, Charles was a Luddite by choice: he could work the machines, but he would not. Instead, he returned to his apartment, four steps from the door of Butler and Company, to light a flame under an old-fashioned coffeepot. The coffee was done by the time Riker had tracked him across the hall and into the kitchen.
The detective pulled up a chair at the table, and Charles set out an ashtray, inviting him to smoke if he liked. ‘So how is Sparrow?’
„Bout the same. Still dying. They keep telling me that. She keeps hanging on. Then, an hour ago, the doctor thought she might be coming around. But he was wrong. A nurse confused a muscle spasm with a hand squeeze.’
Charles filled two large mugs with coffee. ‘You check on her frequently, don’t you?’
‘But not just because she’s a crime victim and a witness. You really like this woman.’
‘We got a lot of history, me and Sparrow. She was one smart whore, and she made my job a little easier. All the dirt she ever gave me was gold. If she’d been on the payroll, she might’ve made lieutenant by now.’ As an afterthought, he said, ‘And she was good to Kathy.’
Charles wondered how Riker could say that. According to the prostitutes, Kathy had been left to fend for herself most of the time – with a little help from the Hooker Book Salon. ‘Sparrow was an addict – hardly mother material. If she cared so much, why didn’t she turn the child over to the authorities?’
‘Because, more than clean sheets and three square meals, the kid needed somebody to love her. Sparrow loved Kathy like crazy. That was the best the whore could do – and it was a lot.’
Charles set the coffee mugs on the table, then sat down. ‘But now Mallory hates this woman, doesn’t she?’
Riker said nothing – and everything. The answer could only be yes. Charles held out a box of the detective’s favorite pastries.
‘Let me guess,’ said Riker. ‘A bribe?’
‘Just one question. It’s about the westerns and the prostitutes.’
Riker smiled. ‘What a kid, huh? We only saw ten hookers last night. Figure most of them died or left town. That means Kathy was workin’ whores all over the city.’
‘And you think that was her only use for the books – trading stories for a support network?’
‘Who knows?’ Riker shrugged. ‘Lou and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the attraction. We didn’t know about the Hooker Book Salon.’
‘You don’t think she cared much about the stories?’
‘Well, she always liked cowboys and Indians. Saturday mornings, she used to watch old westerns on TV with Lou. That was their only common ground for a while. She loved Helen at first sight, but it took Lou years to get that kid to trust him.’
‘You know,’ said Charles, ‘I always wondered why she never called him anything but Markowitz.’
The detective looked at his watch. ‘I never did read that last western.’ He looked up and smiled. ‘So the Wichita Kid takes a bullet? Did I hear that right?’
‘I guess I always knew it would end that way.’
‘If you only read the first six books, how did you – ’
‘I knew the sheriff would do his job.’
‘But the sheriff loved the Wichita Kid.’
‘That’s why he had to kill him, Charles. That’s what made Sheriff Peety a hero, bigger’n life. Now my job is a dirtier proposition. We give the bad guys a pass every day. They rat out their friends. We cut a deal, then watch ‘em walk away.’
‘But not killers.’
‘No, that’s the cut-off. Nobody walks away from that.’
‘Except Kathy Mallory. Last night, you said she was wanted for murder and arson.’
‘And the kid was posthumously charged,’ said Riker. ‘Case closed.’
‘But Kathy didn’t actually die.’
Riker drained his coffee mug. ‘And she didn’t actually kill anybody. So?’
The detective never noticed the comical look on Charles’s face as he was left hanging one more time. This would be maddening to most, but he was a patient man. ‘One more question? Are you disturbed by the parallels between Mallory and the scarecrow?’
Riker stared into his empty cup, considering his words carefully. ‘It’s an old idea that cops and killers are twins. What separates us -that’s what happens after the killing is over. You think this freak has any remorse about murder?’
Charles shook his head. ‘Not this man, no.’
‘But when a cop’s involved in a fatal shooting, we take away his gun – so he won’t die of remorse.’
‘So you don’t see Mallory identifying with the scarecrow?’
‘Never,’ said Riker. ‘I’m thinking now she knows what it was like to be Lou Markowitz.’
‘Hunting the lost child?’
‘Natalie’s son, one sick puppy. Some days you got nowhere to put your hate.’ Riker stared at his watch. ‘Why doesn’t she call?’ He pulled a crumpled fax from his pocket and glanced at the text. ‘So Odeon, Nebraska, was the last place the scarecrow called home.’
‘We were discussing a definition of home when Mallory got up and left.’
Riker’s fist banged the table hard enough to make the coffee mug dance to the edge. ‘She found him! Mallory knows where the scarecrow lives. Tell me everything you talked about.’ That was an order. ‘Every damn word.’
Mallory stood on the steps of the East Village building, Natalie Homer’s last address. She pressed the intercom button for the apartment on the parlor floor. There was no answer, and she heard no sounds within.
A man on the sidewalk was strolling toward her, regarding her with mild curiosity. He climbed the short staircase to join the detective at the front door. ‘I live here. Can I help you?’
It was Mallory’s impression that he actually had some sincere desire to be helpful, and now she coupled him with another Midwest transplant. ‘Are you Mr White? Alice White’s husband?’
Mallory held up her badge and no more words were necessary. Smiling, he unlocked his front door and opened it wide, never questioning her right to come inside. She wondered how these friendly Wisconsin folk survived in New York City. ‘Is your wife home?’
Mr White consulted a note on the glove table in the hall. ‘This says she’s gone to the store.’ He opened the large double doors to the front room and waved her toward a comfortable chair. ‘Please make yourself at home. I’m sure she’ll be right back.’
When they were both seated, he said, ‘I understand Alice gave you the guided tour. So what do you think of our renovations?’
Mr White leaned forward, eyebrows arched, expecting more from her. Then he gave up and sat back, perhaps realizing that this was her entire store of small talk. ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’
‘I hope so.’ Mallory pulled out the two sketches of the scarecrow, the poster boy for the average man, and laid them on the coffee table. Beside these portraits she set down the computer printout of another likeness.
‘Oh, he’s from Nebraska,’ said Mr White, after reading the address line of the driver’s license. ‘I have a sister in Nebraska.’ His forehead puckered as he stared at the picture. ‘Terrible photography.’
Deluthe was slowly becoming accustomed to the poison. He knew better than to touch anything, including the off switch for the machine that sprayed the insecticide into the air. He hunkered down before the body on the closet floor. The flesh was covered with green mold and black, and so was a good part of the bag’s interior surface. The age of the corpse was evident by the white hair, and he sexed the body by one mannish square hand pressed up against the clear plastic.
Next to the closet, an umbrella stand held a baseball bat, the New Yorker’s favored weapon for defending hearth and home. However, the white-haired man in the bag had no bloody wounds, no apparent cause of death.
The young detective stood up and turned round, though he could not have said why. He looked about the room. Everything was just as it should be.
‘Well now,’ said Mr White. ‘This could be most anybody.’ He looked up from the sketch, which had been no more helpful than the driver’s license. ‘Sorry. You know I’m gone all day. It’s my wife who knows all the neighbors on sight.’
‘Maybe you noticed a stranger hanging around your building at night. He wears a baseball cap and – ’ Mallory turned her head toward the sound of a small bell tinkling over the front door.
Alice White was home.