The long summer fever was over. The heat was dying off in cool wet gusts of air and rain. The two men stepped out on to the sidewalk and stood beneath the awning.
‘Louis must have told Mallory about the murder charge,’ said Charles. ‘When she joined the police department, he would’ve – ’
‘Yeah.’ Riker was on the lookout for a cab to carry him home. ‘He told her that much. Now she thinks it was Sparrow who pinned the murder on her. Lou couldn’t set her straight. She would’ve wondered why he didn’t make a case against the whore.’
Charles kept silent for a moment and listened to the steady rain. ‘Mallory will never have any peace.’
‘Neither will you… Me either.’
Disregarding Riker’s plans to take a cab, Charles opened the door of his Mercedes and guided him into the passenger seat, then politely looked the other way while the man wrestled with a drunk’s problem of fastening a safety belt.
Charles started the engine, then pulled into traffic. ‘Did Sparrow tell you she was defending Kathy when she got stabbed?’
‘No, we couldn’t ask her anything about that night. Guilty knowledge. If you know about a murder, then you’re part of the crime. But it wasn’t hard to work out. Frankie Delight was outmatched, a real flyweight. But good as Sparrow was in a street fight, she was never the aggressor. She would’ve kicked off her high heels and run when that knife came out. But she’s got the kid with her, and little legs can’t run as fast as a barefoot whore. So we figured Frankie stabbed her while she was shielding Kathy. I know he made the first cut, ‘cause the whore was on her knees when she put her shiv in his leg.’
Charles vividly recalled the photograph of Sparrow’s scar. He could see it now – not a slit, but a gaping hole dug into her side. Yet she had found the strength to drive a knife through a man’s clothing and muscle.
Riker read his mind and said, ‘Sparrow’s knife was razor sharp, and she got damn lucky when she hit that artery.’
Charles nodded absently, listening to the rain on the roof. ‘Mallory’s at the hospital now, isn’t she? That’s why you didn’t go. She wouldn’t allow it.’
His friend wore a look of surprise, perhaps wondering what he might have said to give that away. One hand on the armrest, he tapped his fingers to the beat of the windshield wipers.
‘So,’ said Charles, ‘you’re planning to let her bludgeon a dying woman? Oh, not with her fists – but you know what’s going on in that hospital room. You know.’
‘I can’t tell her the truth. And neither can you. I had to pick a memory she could believe in. I’m gonna let her hold on to Lou.’
So she would never discover that Louis had ripped out her ten-year-old heart with a conspiracy of lies. ‘And she goes on hating Sparrow until it’s too late?’
‘It won’t be long now.’ Riker rolled down the window and sent his cigarette flying into the rain.
Charles sensed a door closing here, and he picked up the thread of the previous conversation. ‘Lucky the wound was in Frankie’s thigh. I suppose that made it easy to blame a child.’
‘You make it sound like we framed the kid.’ Riker almost smiled. ‘It wasn’t even our case. Two other detectives closed out the paperwork. The death was self-defense, but connected to felony arson. Sparrow would’ve gone to prison.’
‘So you kept silent, and Kathy took the blame.’
‘Well, the kid was guilty on the arson charge. Kathy decided to get rid of all the evidence. She soaked the body with kerosene. Very thorough. All the medical examiner had to work with was some charcoaled meat and bone. So a nameless, dead kid took the blame for everything.’ Riker yawned. ‘Case closed.’ And then his eyes closed.
Twenty minutes passed in silence before Charles pulled up to the curb at Riker’s address. Rather than disturb his sleep, Charles gathered the man into his arms, then carried him through the door and up the stairs to the apartment. He laid the detective down on an unmade bed, then removed the revolver and put it away in a drawer. After slipping the shoes from Riker’s feet, Charles followed the last of Mallory’s instructions. He entered the bathroom and flicked on the switch for a plastic Jesus night-light.
On the lonely ride home, he thought about Riker’s version of events and then the way it had really happened. On one point, he and the detective agreed. The drug dealer had made the first strike before his artery became a fountain of spraying blood. Sparrow’s wound had come first – but not while shielding a child. That woman had been laughing when Frankie Delight put his knife in her side – Mallory’s own words, the testimony of an eyewitness.
Caught by surprise, Sparrow had fallen to her knees, crippled with blood loss and shock, then a sudden drop in blood pressure and the resulting lightness in head and chest – the weakness of limbs. He could see her hands trying to plug that hideous hole.
Perhaps there had been time to pull a weapon, but no strength to drive it home. And the dealer would have been on his guard against reprisal.
There were two chips in the thigh bone of Frankie Delight, an act of violence powered by rage and fear. Only a ten-year-old girl could have taken him down by stealth and surprise. Charles could see the small thief stealing the knife from the hand of the fallen prostitute, then driving it into a man’s thigh once – twice – getting even. How surprised the child must have been to see Frankie Delight fall and die, wondering then, how could such a wound be mortal?
The little girl had killed a man for Sparrow’s sake, then risked her life in trial by fire, and Kathy’s reward was not the ongoing love she needed so badly, but betrayal and desertion. That was the only scenario to fit every fact and explain why the prostitute remained unforgiven.
Charles knew what was happening in Sparrow’s hospital room. The dying woman, though deep in coma dreams, had been defeating the death sentences of her doctors for days. And this will to live suggested the stuff of her dreams, unfinished business. All this time, Sparrow had been waiting for Mallory.
His car rolled to a stop, and he closed his eyes in pain, not wanting to imagine this reunion, a chanted litany of hateful acts and trespasses, music to die by.
And so he turned his mind to the last riddle, expecting to make short work of it: how had Kathy escaped the fire?
Logic could not carry him everywhere, but damned close. He liked Sparrow’s theory best. The child must have been thrown clear in the explosion. He envisioned Kathy surrounded by fire and running past the corpse of Frankie Delight as it burned brightly head to toe. Kathy’s feet barely touched the ground, all but flying to gain that staircase before the flames could eat her. Behind her, the boards were awash in roiling liquid fire. He could hear her scream the only prayer a child knows to ask for pity and mercy, ‘Mama!’ Or had she called out for Sparrow? The flames raced up the stairs with her, singeing hair as she climbed higher and higher. Bombs were going off on the floors below.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Kathy pushed through the rooftop door and saw the sky and – then what? No fire escape, no way out. She raised her arms like thin white wings. And what happened next? The whole world exploded under her feet. She must have been thrown clear, but how to account for her lack of injuries? How far could one throw a child without harming her? Given the probable force of the blast, the speed of propulsion, and the sudden impact – the child lay dead or badly broken in every logical scenario all night long.
Over the ensuing years, Charles would come to understand the persistence of whores, their book salon and the maddening quest for the end of a story. The problem of the escape would never be solved – unless one counted the last words he would write in his journal toward the end of a very long life. Because he had never betrayed his role as a keeper of secrets, an eater of sins, his children and grandchildren would be forever confounded by his homage to Sparrow’s faith in comic-book heroes, a single line at the center of the page, ‘Kathy, can you fly?’