The high-pitched laughter of crime-scene tourists drifted in from the street, unhampered by a bedsheet draped over the broken window. The basement floor was no longer covered by water, but the air was hot and dank. Mallory removed her blazer and folded it over one arm as she moved about the room, taking in each detail.
Beads of moisture trickled down the cheap metal cabinets of the kitchenette to make wet tracks through black fingerprint dust. A fold-out sofa made do for a bed, and wrought-iron lawn furniture passed for a dining room set. The wooden crucifix was the only wall decoration. Crime Scene Unit’s airtight metal canisters and plastic bags were stacked by the door, awaiting the van’s return.
Though the work of collecting evidence was done, Riker kept his hands in his pockets to pacify Heller, a great bear of a man with slow brown eyes and rolled-up shirtsleeves. The forensic expert ran a blow-dryer over a small paper box and muttered, ‘Freaking clowns.’ This was his least colorful name for the firemen who had broken the window and hosed down his crime scene. ‘My crew didn’t find a camera to go with this film box. Maybe your perp took a snapshot for a souvenir.’
A soggy cockroach was also drying out, perched on the edge of the sink and basking in the warmth of Heller’s floodlights, a bug’s idea of the Riviera. New York City roaches were not afraid of bright light. Nor did they fear fire, flood or cops with guns, and it would take more than all of that to kill them.
‘Well, this is all wrong.’ Riker stood beside the table, examining a plastic bag filled with dead insects. ‘Hey, Mallory. Ever see so many flies turn out for a body that wasn’t dead yet? There must be a thousand bugs here.’
‘At least.’ Heller switched off the blow-dryer, then turned his head with the slow swivel of a cannon. ‘And the perp brought the flies with him. He carried them in that jar.’
‘What?’ Riker leaned down for a closer look at the evidence bag that held a large glass jar coated with black dust. ‘You didn’t find any prints.’
‘That’s how I know it belonged to the perp. He wore gloves.’ Heller sorted through a stack of elimination cards marked with the fingerprints of firemen and police. ‘All I got here is the victim’s prints and that idiot Zappata’s.’ He nodded toward the plastic bags. ‘The jar’s got a crack in it. Either the perp dropped it, or the fire hose knocked it off the table. I skimmed those flies off the water, but I know they were all dead before they hit the floor. I can even tell you how they died.’
Riker raised one eyebrow to say, Oh, yeah? ‘Did they drown? Or did you find smoke in their little lungs?’
Heller’s glare of quiet disdain was an unmistakable message: Don’t fool with the master. ‘The inside of the jar smells like insecticide. So do the flies.’ He pulled four specimen bottles from his pockets and lined them up on the table. Four dead flies floated in clear liquid. ‘They’re in different stages of decomposition. I’d say he’s been collecting them for a week. And I got twenty bucks that says an entomologist will back me up.’
‘Naw.’ Riker waved him off, for he knew this was a sucker bet. In or out of court, the man from Forensics was rarely challenged.
‘So he’s been planning this for a while.’ Mallory turned to the makeshift curtain. Was the freak just passing by when he looked down, saw Sparrow for the first time – and decided to murder her? Was that the day he started collecting his flies and hoarding them? Or maybe the whore had bumped into him on the street, a New York kind of accident, a chance collision with violent insanity.
Heller crouched beside his toolbox and began the work of putting away unused razor blades and cotton swabs, brushes and bottles of dust. ‘Lieutenant Coffey called. He’s on his way over.’
Mallory wore her I-told-you-so smile. Riker ignored her and hovered over Heller, prompting him. ‘So? Was Coffey pissed off?’
‘You bet. The lieutenant heard a scary rumor that you guys accepted this case for Special Crimes. How do you plan to sell him on this one? Given it any thought?’
‘Yeah.’ Riker glanced at his partner. ‘She’s gonna handle it.’
Heller nodded. ‘Excellent choice.’
Mallory studied the scorch marks at the base of the brick wall, then turned to the evidence bag of ashes and paper fragments. ‘Did the perp use anything fancy to start his fire?’
‘Just a match,’ said Heller. ‘I’ll test for accelerants, but I don’t think I’ll find any.’
A rocking chair and a small magazine rack blocked the bathroom door. The scorched wall was the only logical place for them. ‘And you’re positive none of the firemen moved any furniture?’
He nodded absently as he placed each aerosol can in its proper compartment in the toolbox. ‘One of Loman’s detectives got statements from everybody on the fire truck.’
She pointed to a couch cushion leaning against another wall. A large square of material had been cut away. ‘What’s that about?’
‘I cut out a scorch mark and bagged it. That was the perp’s first try at arson. It should’ve gone up like a torch. The couch must’ve come from out of state. New York law doesn’t require fire-retardant upholstery. Lucky for you it didn’t burn. Inside of four minutes, the whole place would’ve gone up in flames.’
‘And destroyed all the evidence,’ said Riker. ‘You’re sure that’s not what he wanted?’
‘Yeah, I’m damn sure. This guy was looking for a fast controlled burn. Lots of smoke, but no major damage. He was real careful to clear the area around his bonfire.’
Mallory agreed. The hangman had wanted to call attention to his work, not destroy it. A wet mound of bright cloth and sequins lay at her feet. ‘Some of these clothes have scorch marks.’
‘Another experiment,’ said Heller. ‘He picked them because the material’s so flimsy. More bad luck. The law does call for fire-retardant costumes. Eventually, they’ll burn – everything does. But the guy’s in a hurry. So next, he collects all the paper – junk mail, magazines. He even burned the window shade.’
‘So our boy’s an amateur at arson.’ Riker leaned down to examine the pile of wet cloth deemed unworthy of evidence bags. ‘I spent four years in Vice. Never heard of a streetwalker with a costume collection like this.’ He drew out a scanty garment with sequins and sewn-on wings. ‘I’ve seen this one before. June, I think. Yeah, Shakespeare in the Park. The play was Midsummer Night’s Dream. I loved the fairies.’
With a rare show of surprise, Heller turned to stare at the man voted least likely to have an up-close encounter with culture.
Riker shook his head, saying, ‘Naw, must’ve been October – the Halloween Parade.’
The forensic expert sighed, then returned to the task of putting his toolbox in order.
Mallory looked down at the carefully labeled insect collection on the table. Heller was deluded if he thought Lieutenant Coffey would pay for an entomologist. It would be a fight just to keep this case in Special Crimes Unit. Among the evidence containers stashed near the door was a bag of votive candles. There were at least two dozen in various stages of meltdown. All were covered with fingerprint dust. ‘The candles belonged to the killer?’
‘Yeah. Part of his little ritual.’ Heller pointed to the area beneath the ceiling fixture. ‘Check out the wax.’ Melted droppings had survived the fire hose, and they formed a circle on the cement. ‘There were spots of red wax on the victim’s skirt. So I know she was lying on the floor while the candles were burning. I used the wicks for a time frame. The last one was lit fifteen minutes before the place was hosed down. That’s how much time he had to hang the woman and start his bonfire.’
‘That can’t be right,’ said Mallory, risking heresy. ‘We have to add on another ten or twelve minutes before Sparrow was cut down and revived. But she isn’t even brain-dead.’
‘She was starved for oxygen, but her air supply wasn’t completely cut off.’ Heller reached into the evidence pile and selected a canister. After breaking the seal, he pulled out a section of rope. ‘With a hangman’s noose, he could’ve killed her in a few minutes. But this is a fixed double knot. The noose didn’t tighten with the weight of the body. Satisfied?’
Yes, she was. Mallory could see it now – Sparrow hanging quietly, sipping air and playing dead, waiting for the freak to leave. Cagey whore. She must have had great hopes. The window had been bare and all the lights left on. Help would surely come any moment. Then her lungs had filled with smoke, and Sparrow had blacked out. Or perhaps she had been dimly aware of her rescuers, the conversation of firemen all around her, and not one hand lifted to help a lady down from the ceiling.
‘The jar of dead flies doesn’t fit,’ she said.
‘You’re right.’ Heller interrupted his work to stare at the perfect circle of wax droppings. ‘A very tidy job, meticulous. Even the scalping. You can’t trim a moustache without making a mess, but there wasn’t one stray hair on that woman’s clothes. And the candles – each one an equal distance from the next. Your perp is compulsively neat. I can’t see this guy catching bugs.’
Mallory could. She pictured a man ripping garbage bags open, then waiting patiently with his can of insecticide. He would have worn gloves to harvest the dead and dying flies, and still it would have made him queasy to touch them.
The basement door opened, then slammed with a bang. The commander of Special Crimes Unit had arrived. Before his last promotion, Jack Coffey had been a middling man with a forgettable face, hair and eyes of lukewarm brown. Now, at age thirty-seven, the stress of a command position had widened the bald spot at the back of his head and added a premature decade of worry lines and character. Riker noticed the lieutenant’s hands were balled into fists, and he counted down the seconds, waiting for the man to explode.
Coffey’s gaze passed over the two men and settled on his only female detective. His tone was too calm, too reasonable when he spoke to her. ‘Imagine my surprise when Lieutenant Loman dropped off the paperwork for a hooker.’ His voice jumped ten decibel levels when he shouted, ‘And she’s not even a dead hooker!’
Mallory never flinched. She had the slow blink of a drowsing cat, and her serenity would cost the lieutenant one game point.
‘We’re tossing this case back to the East Side squad,’ said Coffey. ‘Tonight! What the hell were you guys thinking? This is assault, not murder. Loman says it’s a damn sex game gone wrong.’
‘Autoerotic asphyxiation?’ Heller kept his eyes on his toolbox as he shook his head. ‘I’ve seen a few teenage boys strung up, and even some old guys, but no women. Her hands were tied with – ’
‘She was a damn hooker; said Coffey. ‘She did whatever she was paid to do. And bondage is part of the trade.’
‘Sparrow was never into freaks and their games.’ Riker said this so casually, an offhand line dropped into the conversation.
The lieutenant’s reaction was predictable. ‘We’re not tying up a squad so you can keep faith with one of your snitches.’
Riker shrugged, then lit a cigarette as he leaned against the wall, leaving the fight to his partner. Coffey could make no personal connection between her and Sparrow. Mallory had been ten years old the last time she had spoken to the whore.
‘The perp is a serial killer,’ she said. ‘Loman’s squad would’ve botched it.’
Riker sucked in his breath. Awe, Mallory, what are you doing? Was she trying to lose this case? No cop on the force had ever heard of a serial hangman. It would have been better to run with Heller’s portrait of a tidy psycho with a penchant for dead flies.
‘A serial killer?’ Coffey wet his lips, tasting the words. ‘So, tell me.’ His cursory glance swept the entire room. ‘Where are the rest of the bodies?’
‘In a Cold Case file,’ she said. ‘It’s the same MO. The rope, the hair – everything.’
And now the fun begins. Or this was Riker’s impression of Jack Coffey’s smile. Hands on his hips, the lieutenant squared off with Mallory. ‘And where is that file?’
‘They haven’t located it yet.’
Riker relaxed a little, for his partner was on safer ground now. The Cold Case files dated back to 1906, and the squad had recently moved this staggering inventory to new headquarters. What were the odds that they would rush to unpack a hundred cartons just to appease Special Crimes Unit?
Jack Coffey’s tight smile never wavered. ‘Then you pulled this information from the computer. Where’s the printout?’
‘The case isn’t in the system,’ she said. ‘Most of the older files aren’t. Just basic inventory – names and numbers.’
With budget problems and lack of manpower, it would take Cold Case Squad years to make complete computer entries for every unsolved murder of the last century. Mallory might get away with this.
Not so, said the look in Coffey’s eyes. ‘If you’ve never seen this file – ’
‘Markowitz told me about it,’ she said.
The lieutenant’s mouth dipped on one side. ‘Well, how neat. Your corroboration is a dead man. How damn convenient;
Riker was also skeptical. He knew she had the talent to tell a better lie than that one.
Heller slammed the lid of his toolbox. And now that he had everyone’s attention, he rose to his feet, saying, ‘I was there when she heard about the other hanging.’
Jack Coffey’s smile evaporated as he faced the man from Forensics, and so he missed the stunned surprise in Riker’s eyes.
‘I don’t know all the details,’ said Heller. ‘But neither did Markowitz. It wasn’t his crime scene. He only got a quick look at the room and the body, but he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Damn strange way to kill somebody.’
Heller would never back anyone in a lie. No one on the force had stronger credibility. And so Lieutenant Coffey’s eyes rolled up, as if his concession speech might be written on the ceiling. ‘Mallory, I wanna see that Cold Case file. Until I do, your hooker isn’t draining resources from Special Crimes. You got that?’ He was walking toward the door as he said, ‘You can use that man Lieutenant Loman gave you, but that’s all – ’
‘Two men,’ said Mallory. ‘Loman promised two.’
Jack Coffey was close to joy when he turned on her. ‘Oh, did he? Well, I guess the bastard scammed you. He only came across with one detective – half a detective. The guy’s a whiteshield, no experience. And here’s the best part, Mallory – it’s the same idiot who resuscitated the corpse. So Loman’s squad gets rid of a half-dead hooker and a screw-up cop. What a deal, huh?’
Score one for the boss.
Riker was almost happy for the man. Jack Coffey needed these small victories to keep him going. Over time, the lieutenant had learned the value of a hit-and-run game. And now that he had scored, he slammed the door on his way out.
Heller knelt on the floor to close the snaps of his toolbox, then glanced up at Riker. ‘Markowitz never told you about that hanging, did he? Naw, he’d never give up details from another cop’s crime scene. That’s a religion in my job, too. I was the only one he could talk to.’ Heller aimed his thumb at Mallory. ‘And Markowitz never told her a damn thing. She was only thirteen years old. The way I remember it, we caught her listening at the door.’
Riker stubbed out his cigarette. ‘What else can you tell me?’
‘The woman’s hands were bound. Rope or tape – I’m not sure.’ Heller stood up and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. ‘So that knocked out murder dressed up as suicide. And Markowitz said the perp must’ve planned it. He brought his own rope to the party -just like your guy. But why plan a hanging?’ The criminalist grabbed his suit jacket from the back of a chair, and only now did he notice that, despite the sweltering heat of the basement, Riker was the only one not stripped to shirtsleeves.
Before Riker could check the movement, his hand touched the button that kept his jacket closed. ‘What about money? Lou always loved money motives.’
‘No,’ said Heller. ‘On his own time, he looked into that and came up dry. He didn’t see any sex angles either.’
‘And the victim didn’t step off a piece of furniture,’ said Mallory.
‘The noose was around her neck when the perp raised her from the floor -just like Sparrow.’
‘But there was no fire,’ said Heller. ‘No candles, no jar of flies.’ He made this sound like an accusation against her. ‘And there wasn’t any hair in the victim’s mouth. Your old man never mentioned any of that.’
Riker jammed his hands in his pockets. ‘Mallory, why did you have to elaborate so much? You told Coffey the hair was – ’
‘It’s not a problem,’ she said. ‘Without a name or a case number, no one can find the file. We don’t even have a date.’
‘She’s right,’ said Heller. ‘That case was years old when Markowitz told me about it. It bothered him for a long time. Too many things didn’t fit.’ He shrugged. ‘That’s all I remember.’
The door opened, and a technician from Crime Scene Unit entered the room to pick up an armload of canisters. Heller grabbed two evidence bags and followed his man outside to the waiting van.
Riker took one last look at the departing bag of ashes and unburned fragments. He could see the charred spines of magazines, yet some miracle had preserved the brittle tinder of an old paperback novel. It had not even been scorched when he had retrieved it from the water. He could feel the wetness on his skin under the pressure of his holster’s strap.
Mallory was attracted to the damp spot spreading across the breast of his suit. Her gaze dropped lower. ‘I bet you never used that button before.’
True, he never bothered to close his jacket, but on any other night, there would be nothing to conceal.
You spooky kid. Always picking up on the oddest things.
Mallory met his eyes, and her gaze was steady. She was clearly waiting for him to say more.
Damn her, she knew he had robbed the crime scene. But she could not pose a direct question. A cop could never ask a partner, Did you break the law?
Riker went out in search of a cold beer, and Mallory stayed behind to double-check Heller’s work. On the subject of forced entry, she deferred to no one. There were no recent scratches on the outside of the lock. Even after dismantling the mechanism, she could find no sign of a metal pick.
Sparrow, why did you let the hangman in?
The prostitute had been good at reading men and sorting out the mental cases. It was unlikely that the collector of dead flies had been her customer; he would never have gotten past her radar – unless she had been dope-sick and desperate. Then she would have opened the door to any drug dealer, however squirrely. But Dr Slope had found no signs of recent addiction, and there were no syringes listed on the evidence log.
The junkie hooker had always been careful to keep a supply of clean ones. In what had passed for a childhood, Kathy Mallory had stolen boxes of needles from a local clinic – presents for Sparrow, a little girl’s idea of payments for shelter from the streets.
One hand drifted down to a tear in the couch cushion and touched a hard lump. Heller’s crew had missed something. Her fingers dug into the upholstery and pulled out an ivory comb with delicate prongs. Sparrow had always worn it in her hair. The oriental carving was elaborate, unforgettable. This was the only thing of value that the whore had not sold for drug money. The antique comb had been stolen long ago to buy the first story hour. The whore had laid her present down with a sigh, saying, ‘Baby, you don’t have to pay for stories. They’re free.’
No. Young Kathy had shaken her head to tell the woman that she was wrong. And the child’s logic had been indisputable: All hookers would be beggars if this were true; their lies would be worthless – if this were true. But then, Sparrow had never understood precisely what the little girl was buying.
How long had they kept company – and why?
Mallory’s early history on the streets was not linear, but called up in shattering events remembered out of order. And now her memories were so distant, they could be twisted any way she liked. She decided that, at best, Sparrow had been merely a bad copy of a dead mother.
A whore and nothing more.
She had not recognized the prostitute’s new face at the crime scene. On the way to the hospital, Riker had broken the news, and he had done it so gently, as if the victim were a family member -and not the dangerous debris of the past. But soon enough, Sparrow would be dead, and only Riker would know the story, but he could never tell it.
Mallory’s hand closed over the comb. It had not been dropped through the tear in the couch cushion, but buried there. So Sparrow had had some time to hide it, but when? While the hangman was knocking at the door? Perhaps he was already inside when she pushed her precious comb deep into the upholstery so it could not be stolen. Had there been time for conversation? Had Sparrow tried to talk him out of killing her?
She stared at the bedsheet covering the broken glass. Why had the man risked burning the window shade before he made his escape?
You wanted a big audience for your work – not just the cops – civilians too. Fame? That’s what you want? Yes, he had even left an autograph, a signature of dead flies.
The door opened. Mallory rose to a stand, then whirled around to face Gary Zappata. The rookie fireman stood on the threshold. His sleeveless T-shirt and chinos were a size too small, the better to show offhis gym-sculpted torso. His dark hair was slicked back, still wet from a shower, and he stank of cologne.
‘This is a crime scene, Zappata. Did you forget the rules?’ She nodded toward the door in lieu of saying, Get the hell out.
‘Hey, I’m here to help.’ He shut the door, then sauntered into the room. There was arrogance in his smile and his every move. ‘So, Detective – ’ One hand waved about, feigning frustration, as if her name might be difficult to remember. ‘How’s it going?’
‘I’m working here. What do you want?’
He hooked both thumbs in his belt loops and strolled over to the couch. ‘Just tying up loose ends.’
‘Zappata, don’t waste my time. If you’ve got something – let’s hear it.’
That made him petulant, but he forced a smile. She was forgiven. ‘I can help you, babe. I know things about that fire. For instance, the candles had nothing to do with it.’
‘Great tip. Thanks for stopping by.’ Mallory turned her back on him to study the blackened wall of the burn area. After a moment, she glanced over one shoulder with a look that asked, Still here?
The fireman ignored this blatant dismissal and flopped down on the couch. ‘The guy’s not a pro.’ He draped one leg over the upholstered arm – just to let her know that he planned to stay awhile. ‘A real arsonist would’ve made a fuse to the door. You know, when a blaze gets hot enough, the air can ignite.’
‘Did you learn that in fire school?’
He disliked this reminder that he was new at his trade. Even when he had been a cop, his police career had not lasted long enough to lose the rookie status. ‘Listen, Mallory.’ This was an order. ‘The guy’s an amateur at homicide too. These freaks always stick with what worked in the past. So this is definitely our perp’s first try at murder. ‘Cause of the botched fire.’
Mallory looked up to the window, attracted by the silhouette of a man pacing across the makeshift curtain. His hat had the crown of a uniformed officer. Riker must have requested a guard for the crime scene. Bad move. This unapproved use of manpower would not sit well with Lieutenant Coffey.
Zappata left the couch to hover over the wet pile of flashy silks and rayon. He picked up the sparkling costume that Riker had so admired. ‘I wonder what the hooker looked like in this.’
‘Drop it!’ Mallory strode across the room, aiming herself at the man, planning to walk over him or through him. He backstepped to the door, clutching the costume to his breast in a lame attempt to hide behind a swatch of sequins and fairy wings.
‘Don’t touch her things!' She ripped the garment away from him. ‘Get out!'
His hand was on the knob when he noticed the guard’s shadow rushing across the bedsheet curtain. And now there were footfalls on the cement steps leading down to the basement door.
The fireman was as nervous as a schoolgirl afraid of losing her reputation. He puffed out his chest and summoned up a bit of bravado.
The cop outside was coming closer.
Zappata opened the door, yelling, ‘I’m done here, you bitch!' He stomped out of the apartment, as if this were his own idea.
Mallory wondered if the fire department knew that their rookie was a physical coward. But he was forgotten when she looked down at the ivory comb in her hand.
Sparrow, how did the hangman get in? Did he bring you presents, too?
Sergeant Riker could smell the apartment-house odors of meals cooked and eaten hours ago. His stomach rumbled as he stepped off the elevator.
The landlord’s floor was divided in two. On one side was Charles Butler’s apartment, and across the hall was a consulting firm of elite headhunters. And here Kathy Mallory broke the law in her off-duty hours, investigating the deluded, the grifters and other poseurs to weed them from a clientele of wildly gifted and generally unstable job candidates for think tanks. Riker called them Martians.
Lieutenant Coffey had given her a direct order to dissolve this business partnership, and tonight, Riker had his first glimpse of Mallory’s response, an elegant solution. She had nailed a new brass plaque on the old familiar door. Once, this had been the entrance to Butler and Mallory, Ltd. Now it was called Butler and Company. She had become a silent partner.
Attracted by the aroma of a recent meal, the detective strolled across the hall to the private residence. His nose for fast food told him it was Chinese take-out. Before he could knock, the door opened, and he was looking up – and up – at Charles Butler.
The man was at least a head taller than most of the world, and his nose was also above average, a wonderful hook that could perch a pigeon. His heavy-lidded eyes bulged, and the small blue irises were surrounded by vast areas of white, giving Charles a startled look that he shared with frogs and frightened horses. From the neck down, Mother Nature had gotten it right – better than that in Riker’s estimation, for the body was well made, aiming for the angels in form and power.
‘Riker, hello!' When Charles Butler smiled, he took on the aspect of a lunatic, but such a charming loon. Over the past forty years of his life, he had learned to be self-conscious about this idiosyncrasy. The line of his mouth waffled with embarrassment, apologizing for every happy expression.
‘Hey, how are ya?’ Riker noted his friend’s rare departure from Savile Row suits. The denim shirt screamed of money; nothing off the rack could fit so well. And apparently Mallory had introduced Charles to a tailor shop that customized her own blue jeans. The two of them were still struggling with the concept of casual dress.
‘I hear you’re on summer vacation.’
‘Yes, Mallory’s idea.’ Charles pushed a curling strand of light brown hair away from his eyes. He was always forgetting appointments with his barber. ‘No more clients until the fall.’ And now the man looked worried. ‘She’s all right, isn’t she? You didn’t come by to – ’
‘Oh, no. She’s fine. I should’ve called. Sorry.’ And Riker’s regret was genuine, for Charles must have thought that he was here to break the news of Mallory’s premature death. ‘It’s late. I should leave.’
‘Nonsense, I’m glad you stopped by.’ Charles stood back and ushered his guest inside. ‘I was only worried because we had dinner reservations, but she wasn’t home when I – ’
‘She never called to cancel? I’ll rag her about it.’ And that neatly explained the reek of Chinese take-out in the home of a gourmet cook. Riker passed through the foyer, then paused a few steps into the front room. ‘She rewired your stereo, didn’t she?’
‘How did you – ’
‘I’m a detective.’ Perfection was Mallory’s signature, and it was writ in what could not be seen. She had made the machinery, its wires and speakers invisible. And the sound was remarkably well balanced, creating the illusion of an orchestra at the center of Riker’s brain. The concerto was bright and hopeful, a portrait of Charles Butler in strings and flutes.
There were never any CDs lying about in Mallory’s personal car, and he sometimes wondered if she ever listened to music, perhaps something metallic with New Age clicks and whirrs.
‘Can I get you a drink?’
‘I wouldn’t say no to a beer.’ Riker sprawled on the sofa while Charles crossed the formal dining room, heading for the kitchen.
Though the detective had been in this apartment many times, he scrutinized the room of paneled walls and antiques. Books and journals were piled on all the tables and chairs, the sign of a man with too much free time. Riker found what he had been looking for – food, a bowl of cashews partially hidden under a newspaper, and he had devoured them all before Charles returned with two beers foaming in frosted glass. Any man who kept his beer steins in the freezer was Riker’s friend for life.
‘I have to tell you – ’ As the detective accepted his beer, he spied a fortune cookie on a small table next to the sofa. ‘This isn’t exactly a social call.’ He grabbed the cookie, then remembered his manners and asked, ‘You mind?’
‘It’s yours.’ Charles settled into an armchair. ‘What can I do for you?’
Riker unbuttoned his suit jacket and pulled out the stolen waterlogged paperback. ‘Can you fix this?’
Charles stared at the soggy cover illustration of cowboys and blazing six-guns – so far removed from his own taste in literature. His face expressed some polite equivalent of Oh, shit, as he attempted a lame smile. ‘I think so. It might take me a while.’
‘I got time.’ Riker cracked his cookie open. His printed fortune fell out. He watched this sliver of paper drop to the floor and let it lie there, for he was that rare individual who ate the cookies for their own sake. And now he looked around for another.
Charles excused himself for a few minutes, then came back with a sandwich wrapped in a napkin, and Riker happily traded his wet book for the roast beef on rye. A moment later, his happiness was destroyed. The paperback lay open in the other man’s hands, and the detective could see a piece of paper stuck to the back cover. If he had not been so tired and hungry, he would have thought to leaf through the book before handing it over. ‘What’s that?’
‘A receipt.’ Charles gently peeled up the paper. ‘From Warwick’s Used Books. Odd. I thought I knew every bookshop in Manhattan.’ He closed the old novel and stared at the lurid cover. ‘So this is rather important to you.’ He was too well bred to ask why in God’s name this might be true.
‘Yeah, you can’t get ‘em anymore. That western went out of print forty years ago. It’s the last novel Jake Swain ever wrote.’ Riker wolfed down his sandwich, then drained the beer stein, stalling for time, for the right words. Sheriff Peety rides again. What was the other character’s name? He had blocked it out of his mind long ago and hoped it would remain forgotten.
‘I’ll have to get started before this dries out.’ Charles rose to his feet, and Riker followed him into the next room. The library walls were fifteen-feet high and covered with a mosaic of leather bindings. A narrow door set into one bookcase opened on to a small boxy room. Glue pots and rolls of tape, brushes, tweezers and spools of thread lay on a long work table where the bibliophile repaired the spines and pages of his collection. Charles swept aside volumes with gold-leaf decoration to make room for a paperback that had cost fifty cents in the year it was published.
‘You can’t tell Mallory about this,’ said Riker. ‘Promise? I don’t want her to know I wrecked it.’ Stole it, robbed it from a crime scene.
But his partner would never know about that if Charles believed -
‘It’s hers!’ Charles should never be allowed near a poker game; his face expressed every feeling, every thought. And just now, he was thinking that Riker had lied to him. The office across the hall contained all the books that Mallory owned. Most dealt with computers; none were fiction. And, before leaving college to join NYPD, she had received two years of an elite education at Barnard. No way could he believe that this book was her property. Yet he nodded and said, ‘Understood.’ Charles reached up to a shelf above the work space and pulled down a bundle of blotting papers. ‘You were never here. We never had this conversation.’
‘Great. Thanks.’ Riker imagined that he could hear the man’s beautiful brain kicking into high gear and making connections at light’s speed.
Charles teased the block of pages away from its paper spine, then noticed his guest’s anxiety and mistook paranoia for concern. ‘Don’t worry. I can put it back together.’ After setting the cover to one side, he peeled away a top sheet of advertising and stared at the underlying page. ‘Oh.’ His face conveyed that everything had suddenly been made clear. ‘Well, I can’t blot this one. I’d lose most of the ink. I can save the inscription, but Louis’s signature is gone.’
Calmly, the detective asked, ‘What?’ And inside his head, he screamed, What?
‘This is Louis Markowitz’s handwriting, isn’t it? I imagine there’ll be trouble when Mallory sees the damage.’
Startled, Riker looked down at the inscribed page. An old friend’s quirky penmanship trailed off in a wash of blue ink. ‘No, it’s okay. She hasn’t seen it yet. I was gonna give it to her later – a present.’
Charles read the inscription. ‘So it’s a gift from Louis to Mallory. Almost poetry. I gather he wanted her to have it after his demise. A posthumous goodbye?’
‘Yeah, something like that.’ Untrue. On the only day when that note could have been written, Louis Markowitz had not been anticipating his own death; he still had many years ahead of him, time enough to raise Kathy Mallory. The old man must have forgotten that the book existed, and so had Riker – until it floated past him in Sparrow’s apartment.
‘Louis’s funeral was some time ago.’ Charles used clamps and cotton batting to fix the page to a board, then picked up a palm-size heater and switched it on. ‘You’re delivering this a bit late, aren’t you?’
‘Yeah.’ Riker was slowly coming to terms with shock. A dead man had corroborated his lie – fifteen years before it was told.
An hour later, every surface in the room was covered with a book leaf pressed between blotting papers. Only the inscription page was exposed. The detective stared at the scrawl of blue ink, the words of a man who had loved a homeless child. The lines suggested that the book had been inscribed after the old man had seen convincing proof that the ten-year-old was dead and gone. Yet that grieving cop had obviously clung to the insane idea that Kathy might come back.
Riker bowed his head over the page to read the passage again.
‘Once there was a little girl. No, scratch that, kid. You were always more than that, bigger than life. I could have set you to music – the damn Star Spangled Banner – because you prevailed through all the long scary nights. You were my hero.’
After Charles had bid Riker good night at the elevator, he saw a crack of light under the door to Butler and Company. Mallory? He had not seen her face since early June. And now he forced himself to walk, not run, as he entered the office and passed through the lighted reception area, then moved quickly down a narrow hall, pulled along by the dim glow from Mallory’s room – where the machines lived.
He paused at the open doorway, staring at the back of his business partner. She sat before a computer workstation, one of three. Most of her personal office was lost in shadow, a sharp contrast to the halo, a silhouette of burnished gold made by lamplight threading through her hair.
What could he say to her? He doubted that she would regret or even recall their missed dinner date, for she was in holy communion with her machines and oblivious to human disappointment.
Years ago, he had written a rather poetic monograph on her gifted applications of computer science. Over the course of his career, he had evaluated many wizards who could force electronics to do remarkable things. But she was a creature apart, employing an artist’s sensibility similar to a composer of music. She merged with the technology, fashioning effect by thought, blending the psyches of musician and mathematician to write original notes for electronic bells and whistles.
During his study of her, Charles had indulged in a fanciful, albeit unpublishable, notion that Nature had planned ahead for this new century, that some long-sleeping gene had awakened when she was made. Later, after learning more about her childhood, his vision had altered and darkened, for Mallory had been hammered into what she was – the perfect receptacle for something cold and alien. And her intimacy with machinery chilled him.
Once, he had been ambivalent about computers. Now he saw them as perverted soldiers that blurred the demarcation line between her fingertips and the keyboards. He had sought to dilute their influence with offerings of fine art and the soft edges of antiquarian objects. Mallory had fought back, encroaching on the office kitchen with ugly technology that he could not abide. Then she had invaded his personal residence, staging a surprise attack to reconfigure his stereo system. Stunned, he had been assaulted from all sides by musical perfection via enemy components that removed the necessity of human hands for turning the knobs and fine-tuning the song. The sheer beauty of it had seduced him for a time. But now, seeing her like this, he was back in combat mode, dreaming new schemes to disconnect her computers, to unplug them all – and Mallory too.
It was a good fight.
She never looked up as Charles approached. He stood beside her chair and stared at the monitor. Her only task tonight was the harmless typing of text. All that angst for nothing. Bracketed question marks pocked the glowing screen. A battered notebook lay on the metal surface of her workstation. It was open to a page of faded coffee stains and lines of blue ink from an old-fashioned fountain pen. Charles could even describe that pen; Louis Markowitz had willed it to him. For the second time in one night, he was staring at a sample of an old friend’s handwriting. Mallory was deciphering her foster father’s shorthand scribbles between the clearly written words, duct tape and rope.
She raised her face to his, and they exchanged grins of hello. Their technology wars had caused no hard feelings between them. They still smiled and waved at one another across the great divide.