When Charles closed his tired eyes, he saw a tiny thief who ran with whores and lived by guile, surviving on animal instinct to get through the night – an altogether admirable child. Louis Markowitz’s hero.
His heavy lids flickered open, and Kathy grew up before his eyes. She was so lovely, and he wanted to tell her that, for how else would she know? The tragedy of Kathy Mallory was some malady that had no name but was akin to an aspect of vampirism. This sad insight had come to him by simple observation. She did not look for herself in mirrors, nor in the reflections of shop windows, never expecting to find herself there. He turned to the antique looking glass above his mantelpiece. Literally a magic mirror once used in a stage act of the last century, it was full of wavy lines and smeared realities.
‘Yes,’ he said, without turning round.
‘I want you to keep an eye on Riker tonight.’ Mallory walked back and forth across his front room, impatient with a cell-phone caller who had put her on hold. ‘You’ll find him in that cop bar down the street.’ She was still in motion as she resumed her phone conversation. Red designs in the weave of the mirrored carpet seemed to track the floor behind her.
Charles stared at the ancient glass, his gigantic nose, her wonderful eyes. He was fascinated by her form elongating and twisting, her legs bending back to form the hocks of a padding cat. Beast and Beauty were trading places. The reversal went far beyond their positions in the backward space of the mirror room, where she continued to walk to and fro. Her human face was gone, distorted and stripped down to the bestial aspect of Mallory in the panther cage, badly wounded by her life, elegant paws bleeding as she paced. She bore the scars, he felt the pain. How insane -
The SoHo saloon was crowded with cops and one civilian. Charles Butler had lost his jacket and tie somewhere between one death and another. His white shirt was wrinkled, sleeves rolled back, and his face was showing the wear of long days broken by catnaps.
Riker stared at his own tired image in the mirror behind the bar, then quickly looked away, saying, ‘Thanks anyway, but I’m taking a cab tonight. So pull up a glass. I hate to drink alone.’ Of course, this was a polite lie, for the detective did his best binge-drinking all by himself.
Charles obliged him and ordered two rounds of Chivas Regal. ‘So Sparrow is dying. And you’re not going to the hospital?’
‘No.’ He prayed that Sparrow would be long dead before an old enemy turned up.
Awe, Mallory, what a gift you have for payback.
It made her the ultimate cop. She was the paladin everyone wanted, a perfect instrument of vengeance. In Riker’s view, people should be more careful about what they wished for. Absent all humanity, its bias and fragility, the law was a sociopath.
Their drinks had appeared on the bar in front of them, and Charles had been left hanging again, awaiting some explanation for this failure to visit the deathbed of a whore. Riker cut the man off before he could ask one more time. ‘So tell me, how did Sheriff Peety outdraw the Wichita Kid?’
‘The usual way. The other man drew his gun too late.’
‘Impossible,’ said Riker. ‘Drunk or sober – even with the damn sun in his eyes – that gunslinger was the best man.’
‘Yes, if you mean faster. And that day – ’ Charles’s eyes were in soft focus now, and Riker knew he was projecting book pages on his cocktail napkin and quoting verbatim when he said, ‘ „That day, the gunslinger was a young god, walking out of the whirlwind of dust, growing larger, step by step. His birthright was dominion over all other men.“‘ He shuddered, then tipped back his shot glass, as if to kill a bad taste. ‘Terrible prose. You’re right – Wichita was fast with a gun, but Sheriff Peety was bigger.’
‘What?’ And now Riker was left to dangle while his barstool companion sipped his drink, taking his sweet time. Charles’s expression worried him. It was almost a Mallory smile.
‘A hero bigger than life. Your words, Riker. Well, he was Wichita’s hero, too – always had been. The boy loved the man. So you might wonder – did Wichita deliberately draw too slow? Or did he lose that gunfight in his own mind before he drew his weapon? Perhaps, at the end, he still believed that Sheriff Peety was a great man, the better man. Maybe that’s how the sheriff won… Or maybe it was a suicide.’
‘Thanks, Charles. That might drive me nuts for another fifteen years.’
‘Happy to return the favor.’
Riker recognized his own twisted signature in this exchange, and he smiled with the grace of a good loser. ‘Okay, you get one free question. Anything you want. Shoot.’
‘You said Kathy was posthumously charged with arson and murder.’
‘Though she didn’t die, and she didn’t kill anybody. But I’ve still got a corpse and a fire. Does this have anything to do with why Mallory hates Sparrow?’
Charles waited for the rest of the explanation. And he waited. Now the two men engaged in a contest to see who could outcreep whom with the most insipid smile.
Riker broke down first. ‘Okay, this is the deal. It took me a long time to piece this story together. You can’t repeat it to anyone. And when I’m done, you’ll wish I never started. Kathy Mallory’s death is gonna drive you crazy till the day you die.’
‘Word of honor, I’ll never tell.’
‘Charles, are you sure you understand? When you know the truth, you have to eat it.’
‘Some of it’s guesswork.’ Only two people knew the real story. One was a gifted liar, and the other was a dying whore with a scrambled brain. ‘Fifteen years ago, Sparrow did a drug deal with a really scurvy character. She was trading stolen VCRs for heroin.’
‘The VCRs that Kathy stole?’
‘Yeah. So the hookers told you about the great truck robbery? Well, I’m guessing the drug dealer picked the location for the meet, a place with boarded-up windows and no back door. No neighbors either. The buildings on both sides were torn down, and this one was due for a midnight demolition.’
‘The owner was planning to torch the place for the insurance money. He had accelerants stashed on every floor, kerosene, paint thinner. But that came out later – after the fire.’
‘The fire that killed Kathy?’
‘That’s the one. I figure this dealer – ’
‘Yeah.’ Riker wondered what else Charles had pieced together with the help of the Hooker Book Salon. ‘Frankie was gonna double-cross Sparrow. So he would’ve been the first one to draw a knife.’
‘The one that made that huge scar in Sparrow’s side?’
Riker nodded. ‘And she won that fight, but she left her knife behind. I’ve got a witness who saw it buried in Frankie Delight’s dead body. An ambulance picked up Sparrow three blocks away.’
‘She saw the whole thing. Another whore can place the kid in Sparrow’s hospital room the next day – one real tired little girl. And that’s when Kathy was sent back to the crime scene to get the murder weapon.’ This was the picture Riker wanted out of his head – that child pulling a knife from a corpse.
‘Lou and me, we’re in the car when we hear a call on the radio. A dispatcher’s sending all available units to investigate a puddle of blood on Avenue B. We would’ve blown it off, but then another call placed a little blond girl at the same address – following a blood trail into an empty building. We got there just in time to see the flames. That’s when Kathy came out the front door. One look at us and she runs back inside – back into the fire.’
‘But that’s not – ’
‘Not normal? No, you wouldn’t expect a kid to do that. But she was carrying a knife with Sparrow’s initial on the hilt and probably a good set of prints. If the kid was caught near Frankie’s body with the murder weapon, her favorite whore would go to jail.’
‘So she ran into a burning building, knowing she could die?’
‘Naw, we never figured that – not for a second. This kid had a world-class survival instinct. Lou figured she was heading for the roof, maybe counting on a fire escape.’
‘Could Kathy have staged her own death?’
‘That was one theory, and she was that smart. But there was no fire escape. That morning, the owner sold the iron for scrap. We tried to follow her into the building. Then the first explosion blew out the boards on the downstairs windows. Cans of kerosene and paint thinner were goin’ off like bombs. And now, there’s no way in, no way out.’ He recalled the open doorway as a wall of fire. Flames had boiled out of the ground-floor windows like the tail burners of a rocket. ‘I thought the building was gonna take off and fly away. The back door was boarded up. The firemen didn’t even try to break it down. All they could do was contain the blaze to one building.’
Riker slapped his hand on the bar. ‘Bang, bang, bang! All the accelerants were blowing up in sympathetic explosions – all the way up to the top of the building. Then the roof went up in a ball of fire, and we knew the kid was dead… Well, I did.’ It had taken more than Armageddon to convince Lou Markowitz.
‘The fire marshal showed us the kid’s shoes – proof that she made it up to the roof. They were still laced, blown off her feet in the final blast. One shoe was clean, thrown clear. The other one burnt black. The arson team figured she was at the center of the last explosion, and they didn’t expect to find her in one piece.’
‘So Kathy was presumed dead?’
‘Well, they didn’t know her name. All they had was one of her books, half fried… and her shoes. Later, a snitch tied the western and the kid to Sparrow. Two cops showed up in Sparrow’s hospital room and told her that Kathy was dead.’
‘Except that she wasn’t.’ Charles ticked off the points on his fingers. ‘Boarded windows, no back door, no fire escape, no neighboring roof. How did she escape?’
‘Kathy wouldn’t tell. She never will. She knows it still drives me crazy. Damn kid never misses an opportunity to get even.’
‘With a concussion,’ said Charles, ‘she might not remember.’
‘But that won’t explain how she got off the roof alive. Who knows? Maybe she flew. That was Sparrow’s favorite theory.’
‘I like it. If a shoe can be thrown clear, why not a little girl? With something soft like garbage bags on another roof – ’
‘No, Charles, we checked. No soft landing. And remember, this building was an island – twenty feet to the next roof. We caught Kathy that same night – no cuts, no bruises, not a mark on her. If you think about it long enough, it’ll give you a headache.’
‘All right.’ Charles covered his eyes with one hand. ‘You thought she was dead, but that was the night you found her -which suggests that you were still looking for her.’
‘Right.’ Riker slapped the mahogany. ‘We were in this same bar, me and Lou.’ He looked up at the television set mounted on the wall. ‘Watching TV. The lead story was a little girl with green eyes who loved westerns. The kid was famous for two minutes on the news.’ And she would have gotten more air time if a city garbage strike had not stolen her thunder.
‘Suddenly the place gets real quiet. I turn to the door, and there’s Sparrow. Well, this is a cop bar, and she’s lookin’ every inch a hooker. Just begging for a twisted arm and a short flight through the front door. I tried to get rid of her. Junkies are always messing with your head, and Lou was in a bad way. I didn’t think he could take anymore. But now I see the blood leaking through her clothes and a hospital bracelet on her wrist.’
‘And that’s when you guessed she’d killed the drug dealer?’
‘No, they hadn’t even found his bones yet. It was the next day when they brought him in tagged for a John Doe. The autopsy turned up a thigh bone chipped twice by a blade. Dr Slope figured the knife cut an artery and it bled out. He even diagrammed the angle of the strike. That put Sparrow on her knees when she sank her knife into Frankie Delight. And it fit with the wound in Sparrow’s side. The shock would’ve brought her down.’
‘But Kathy was charged with the murder.’
‘Charles, you’re gettin’ ahead of the story. So we’re in the bar with Sparrow, and we wanna take her back to the hospital. But the whore won’t go. She’s sweatin’ and she’s got the shakes real bad. Lou figures she’s strung out from withdrawal pains. So he empties out his damn wallet. It was maybe eighty dollars, a fortune to a sick junkie. And he slides the money down the bar. Now Sparrow says, „Her name is Kathy, and I’m tellin’ you that kid is unnatural. She could be alive.“ And Lou says, „No, Sparrow – only if you believe in Superman comic books. Kathy was just a little girl… She didn’t fly away… She died.“‘
Riker held up his glass and stared at the last drops of liquid gold. ‘There’s not much difference between me and a junkie. As long as I got my booze, I’m an okay guy. But take it away from me?’ He shook his head. ‘Much as I like you, Charles, I’d slit your throat for the next drink. With Sparrow it was heroin. Well, she’s too bloody to work the street. No money to score her next needle. She’s dope-sick, dying for a fix, but she pushes Lou’s money back across the bar and says, „You gotta find the kid. She might be hurt.’„
‘So she knew Kathy was alive.’
‘No, she didn’t. That’s the kicker. Sparrow was going on faith. And that’s what the whore was buying when she gave the money back. She had to make Lou believe in Kathy, too. Because the kid might be out there alone in the dark, maybe hurt real bad.’
Riker drained his glass. ‘That night, Sparrow was more of a man than I was. Well, she’s got our attention. She says this drag queen commissioned the kid to steal parts off a Jaguar. Sparrow only found out ‘cause Kathy had to ask what a Jag was before she could rob one. Now this happened way before the dicks tell Sparrow the kid is dead. She’s still in the hospital and thinkin’ ahead to her next needle. She tells Kathy about this rich yuppie who trolls East Village clubs and whores every weekend. And he’s got a Jag. Well, it’s Saturday night. I’m three sheets to the wind when Lou grabs my arm. And off we go with Sparrow.’
Three fools with absolute faith in comic-book heroes.
Riker could still see Lou Markowitz driving through the wet streets at a crawl of ten miles an hour, haunting every place where they had ever seen Kathy, chased her and lost her. It was insane to believe that the child had escaped from that fire. Yet they drove on through drizzling rain. ‘We knew she was dead, but we couldn’t stop looking for her. How crazy was that?’
As if it were happening all over again, Riker watched his old friend tune the car radio. Rock ‘n’ roll did not suit him that night. Lou picked a station that played bluesy music from an earlier era. There were pauses between the sad notes and phrases, like a conversation with the sorry man behind the wheel. ‘And then we found the Jag. Lou pulls over to the curb and cuts the lights.’
The three of them listened to a sweet ripple of ivory keys tapering off in the low notes. Three pairs of eyes were trained on the sports car parked across the street. Piano chords dropped into spaces of silence, like footsteps of a child. And then, as if Duke Ellington had orchestrated the moment – along came Kathy. The golden head was bobbing and dodging behind the garbage cans. Out on the open street now, barefooting down the pavement, homing in on the Jaguar’s trademark hood ornament.
Baby needs new shoes.
In and out of the lamplight, her small wet face glistened through the rain and the smoky gray cover of steam hissing up through a subway grate. The child was coming closer. Sparrow sank low in the back seat. Lou Markowitz and Riker slumped down behind the dashboard and watched, fascinated, as a little girl worked bits of metal in a lock. No crude coat hangers or broken windows for this kid. She opened the door with the finesse of a pro.
Once the child was inside the Jaguar, the two policemen left their vehicle, moving quickly, silently. It was a fight not to laugh out loud – or cry. When Markowitz bent down to the open door of the Jaguar, the little girl was sitting on the front seat, calmly dismantling the dashboard toys, tape deck and radio, using Sparrow’s knife as a screwdriver. Lou leaned in close, saying, ‘Hey, kid, whatcha doin’?’
The little girl smelled of sulfur and smoke; that should have been a warning. How indignant she was, and so angry, pointing her knife and yelling, ‘Back off, old man, or I’ll cut you.’
Lou’s right hand flashed out, and startled, Kathy looked down to see that her tiny fist was empty.
‘So then, Lou says to the kid, „Pretty fast moves for a fat man, huh, Kathy?“ He pulled her out of the car, but she got away from him. Ran straight into Sparrow’s arms. And then, what happened next – well, the kid never saw that coming. It was brutal. The whore drags Kathy back to Lou, and she’s saying, „Baby, if you don’t go with the man, how am I gonna get paid?“ ‘
‘So she did accept the – ’
‘Not one dime. At the end of the day, that whore showed a lotta class.’ The detective lifted his glass in a salute, not noticing that it was empty, for he was still looking at Kathy’s face, the confusion in her eyes. Her world was collapsing all around her, above and beneath her. ‘The kid’s survival was geared on running. Sparrow made sure she had no one to run to – no one who cared.’
And that was the moment when the little girl died, her bones going to liquid as she was sliding to the ground, trying to save herself by grabbing Sparrow’s skirt, then collapsing and crying at the whore’s feet. ‘Kathy risked her life – and this was her payback. Sparrow just walked away. No goodbye, nothin’.’ Riker looked down at his glass for a moment. ‘So Kathy thinks she’s been sold for money, right? That’s all she’s worth to the whore, another damn needle – and still she tried to run after Sparrow.’
‘Because she loved her?’
‘Because that whore was all she had.’ Riker could hear the small needy voice crying, begging Sparrow to come back, please, please. So much pain – the child’s and his own. Oh, the panic in Kathy’s eyes when Sparrow turned a corner and disappeared.
‘And then the kid went wild. All the guns and knives came out. I mean that literally. She drew on us with a damn pellet gun. God, how she hated Lou. He’d run her ragged, took everything away from her – first her books and then her whore.’
‘Well, that explains the early animosity,’ said Charles. ‘Why she never called him anything but Markowitz.’
‘Yeah, she blamed him for turning Sparrow against her. He spent years paying for that. So did I. That brat never forgets, never forgives.’ Riker pushed his glass to the edge of the bar. ‘So now we’re headin’ for Brooklyn. I’m in the back seat, and the kid’s up front with Lou.’ He recalled every detail of that drive, the smell of rain-washed air, the suburban lawns Uttered with bicycles and tricycles. The car radio was cranked up all the way, breaking the peace in a rock ‘n’ roll celebration. Dogs barked to the high notes, and the lights of fireflies winked in sync with the beat of a golden oldie by Buddy Holly.
And a feral child was manacled to the dashboard. Kathy was a hellmouth of obscenities, a small storm of energy fighting against her chains, though she must have known she could never break them.
‘Now it gets a little spooky.’ And the music had changed to the Rolling Stones. ‘But it helps if you know that Lou’s wife could hear lost children crying on other planets.’ The old green sedan pulled up to the curb in front of the house, where Helen Markowitz was framed in a square of yellow light – waiting. Suddenly, she was drawn away from the window and moving toward the front door with a sense of great urgency.
The car and the music should have reassured her that nothing was wrong. Bad news was so seldom announced by loud rock ‘n’ roll. And Lou’s wife could not have seen the baby thief in the dark of the car, nor heard one small angry voice above a chorus of wailing rockers, steel guitars and drums. Yet Helen was clearly on a mission when she burst through the front door, flew down the porch steps and ran across the wet grass.
The little girl was screaming death threats at the top of her tiny lungs while Lou Markowitz grinned broadly and foolishly. His life was complete. His wife was busy ripping the passenger door off its hinges, and Kathy was almost home.