The sunlit room was racked with gleaming copper-bottom pots, more spices than the stores carried and every cooking utensil known to God and Cordon Bleu – and even here, antiques prevailed. Charles Butler lit a flame under an old-fashioned percolator. He was dressed in yesterday’s shirt and jeans, and his eyes were sore from working through the night on Mallory’s account, though he would never get credit for mending her present, a waterlogged paperback western. Riker had never understood this man’s one-sided infatuation with her. Charles was hardly a virgin in the area of abnormal psychology, and he must know what she was.
The detective sat at the kitchen table and opened the restored book to the page with the inscription. Apart from Lou Markowitz’s lost signature, there was no sign of damage, and he toyed with the idea of actually giving it to Mallory. ‘Good as new. It’s magic’
‘The paper was very brittle.’ Charles set the table with coffee cups and forks. ‘I had to treat it with a matte polymer so the pages wouldn’t crumble. Of course, that would’ve destroyed the value of a rare book. So I did some research first.’
Apparently, this was not a joke. Riker glanced at the stack of volumes on the kitchen table, all reference materials of an avid book collector. Among the titles he found, The Role of the Western in American Literature. ‘The book is worthless, right?’
‘Yes, sorry.’ Charles laid the old receipt from Warwick’s Used Books on the table alongside the paperback. ‘I can’t imagine why Louis paid so much money for it.’
‘I told you they were hard to find. It took a while to track this one down.’
‘Ah, he hired a book tracer. I use one from time to time. Well, that explains it.’ Charles leaned down and pointed to the faded date on the receipt. ‘Wasn’t that the year Louis took Mallory into foster care?’
Riker felt queer and cold, the sensation of a misstep on a ladder. There were no regrets over stealing the book; he would risk his badge to do it again. No, his great mistake was made in that sentimental moment when he had decided not to destroy it. The second error was bringing the book to the man who loved Mallory. ‘Hey, I really appreciate all the time you – ’
‘It’s not like I had something better to do.’ Charles set two plates of pie on the table, then turned down the flame on the stovetop. ‘I don’t think I care for summer vacations. Oh, I almost forgot. I found a list of Jake Swain’s work. Did you know he wrote eleven other books?’
‘Yeah, I knew that.’ Riker wondered how much of the truth he could tell before the whole mess came unraveling.
His host poured coffee into the cups, then sat down on the other side of the table. ‘Interesting that Louis would go to so much trouble.’ His tone was merely conversational and curious, not suspicious – not yet. ‘If he hired a tracer, he must’ve wanted it very badly.’
Of course, this would be confusing. Charles and the late Louis Markowitz had shared a reading list of more respectable authors. Perhaps he was hoping that this bad novel was some inside joke between Mallory and her foster father.
‘No tracer,’ said Riker. ‘The bookshop owner found it for him.’ He sipped his coffee and tasted bile rising in his throat.
‘So – how did you know about Swain’s other books? They’re very obscure. Did Louis mention them?’
‘Yeah, Lou read ‘em all.’ Riker knew he would not be believed, though he was telling the truth.
Charles was incredulous. ‘Why would he read books – like – that!’ His gigantic vocabulary had failed him. He could find no better euphemism for god-awful crap.
Riker jabbed at the pie with his fork. ‘Because it’s great literature?’
‘No, I don’t think that’s quite it. May I?’ Charles reached for the western, then opened it to a page near the end. ‘In the last chapter, there’s a rather strange gunfight.’
There was no need of the book to refresh his memory. Charles could read as fast as most people turned pages, and he retained everything in eidetic memory. Yet he kept the small conventions of normalcy – always trying to pass for a less gifted man, less of a freak. Riker wondered if this was partly his own fault. Perhaps he should stop referring to the brilliant clients of Butler and Company as Martians. He sometimes forgot that this man hailed from that same far planet.
‘Here it is.’ Charles looked up from the page. ‘First, a gun shoots a red flame like a blowtorch. Then the crowd lets out a cheer. Oh, and the mayor has a few words to say. And then, at the other end of Main Street, an aging dance-hall girl faints when she actually hears the sound of the bullet entering the opponent’s body.’ He looked up at his guest. ‘Now, given all the action and conversation between firing the shot and hitting the target, I estimate that the bullet took six minutes to travel down the street.’ He closed the book, pronouncing it ‘Wildly implausible.’
Riker gave him a slow grin. ‘You only say that ‘cause you never saw Lou on the firing range. A man could wait around all day for one of his bullets to hit a target.’ He sipped his coffee, stalling for time, hunting for words that would not sound like lies. ‘There were usually two gunfights in every book.’ And now he remembered the name of the gunslinger. ‘Now I never read this particular book, but I’m guessing that last shoot-out was between Sheriff Peety and the Wichita Kid.’ He shook his head slowly in mock sadness. ‘So that’s how it ends.’
‘You read them, too?’
‘Yeah, maybe half of ‘em.’ And he had read the books under duress. Lou Markowitz had wanted a second opinion, for he had never understood why a ten-year-old girl could be so attached to the trashy westerns.
Charles was still skeptical, crediting the detective with better taste in reading material if not suits and ties. And though it would not occur to him to call a friend on a he, he clearly required more proof.
‘In the first book,’ said Riker, ‘Sheriff Peety watches this little boy grow up in a sleepy burg called Franktown, Kansas. The kid and his mother rode in one day on the Wichita stagecoach.’ More of the story was coming back to him now, and his appetite had returned. ‘Well, the kid follows the sheriff around like a little shadow. In fact, Peety was the one who started calling him the Wichita Kid. It made the boy sound like a gunslinger. Just a joke, see? But the boy loved that name. It really made him strut.’
By the time the Wichita Kid had obtained his first six-shooter, ‘a rusty old gun he bought for a dollar,’ Riker was done with his pie. ‘It was the kid’s birthday. He’d just turned fifteen. And that morning, the sheriff wakes up to gunfire. So he comes runnin’ out to the street.’ The detective looked down at the floor and made Charles see a body there. The stranger in Franktown was an unarmed cowboy lying on his back in the blood and the dust.
‘His unblinking eyes stared into the sun.’ Riker surprised himself with this hokey line quoted verbatim. ‘And guess who’s standing over the body?’ His hand formed an imaginary gun, and he blew smoke from one finger. ‘Looks real bad for the Wichita Kid.’
The situation worsened when the boy stole a horse and rode out of town. In the next chapter, the lawman was saddling a black stallion. ‘He’s riding out after the kid.’ And Riker had finished his coffee. ‘Sheriff Peety can hardly see. He’s got tears in his eyes. He loves the boy. But Wichita killed a man, and he’s gotta hang for that. At the end of the story, the sheriff runs the kid off a canyon wall. It’s a long drop, hundreds of feet to the bottom of that canyon. But Peety’s still tracking the boy in the book after that one.’
‘So it’s episodic. A series with the same characters.’
‘Yeah, and every story has an ending like that one. I guess that’s what gets you hooked.’
Charles nodded, then slid the paperback across the table. The matter was closed.
The detective picked up the novel and quickly hid it in his pocket, as if it were a dirty book instead of a dangerous one.
The Ice Queen cometh.
Whiteshield Ronald Deluthe watched the pretty woman crossing the squad room. He recognized money when it walked in the door, shod in a brand of running shoes that no civil servant could afford. No one had to tell him what Mallory spent at her tailor’s or the hair salons. And he wondered if she was on the take.
What green eyes you have. How cold they are.
She was blind to him, looking right through him, and yet he resented her less than the others. As a merely average man with an amateur dye job of bright yellow hair, Deluthe knew he was beneath her notice and contempt. It had nothing to do with his rank.
He turned back to his work, typing a meticulously detailed explanation for the news van beating the fire engines to last night’s crime scene. Detective Riker would have nothing to criticize this time.
Mallory paused to read the paper sign taped to the side of his computer monitor. Originally, it had been taped to his back. The joke had gone unnoticed until he had removed his jacket and discovered the sheet of paper stuck to the material – and his new job title, Resurrector of Dead Whores. He had gamely put the sign on open display and earned a few smiles from passing detectives.
Mallory was not amused.
She ripped the sheet off the monitor, wadded it into a tight ball, then dropped it on his keyboard. He stared at the small white marble of compacted paper; her crumpling style was more serious than Riker’s. He looked up as she moved away from him, calling after her, ‘Ma’am?’
Did that sound too needy?
She ignored him, but all the detectives did that. He abandoned his report and followed her down a hallway that opened on to a large room with no distraction of windows. Every wall was lined with cork and cluttered with bloody photographs and the paperwork of current cases. Earlier in the day, a detective had given him a brief tour of the Special Crimes facilities, also known as the men’s room and the lunch room, but not this place. Of course not. Why bother? Folding chairs were set up in audience formation for briefings he would never be invited to attend.
Near the door, a table held a large-screen television set. Mallory stood beside it, speaking to an older man, Janos.
A real detective.
Deluthe knew better than to interrupt. But rather than hover like a schoolboy awaiting permission to take a piss, he wandered the perimeter of cork walls, perusing pinned-up pictures and paperwork. None of it pertained to the hanging hooker. Obviously, it was not an important case, and his report was only one more piece of busywork for the son-in-law of the deputy commissioner, a little something to keep him out of the way.
Mallory fed a videotape into the mouth of a VCR. Deluthe was drawn to the screen and its images of fire engines and the crowd that had turned out for last night’s hanging. Now he understood why the news director had refused to copy film and outtakes from the fire. The videotapes had already been collected by Mallory.
Detective Janos flicked the remote control and froze the picture. ‘That one?’ He pointed to a figure standing well back in the gathering, a man dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. ‘Yeah, he might be the old lady’s man in the tree.’
Deluthe winced at this reminder of Miss Emelda and all that he had missed in his first interview with her. But he had learned a lot from Sergeant Riker, the only detective who had bothered to teach him anything. Perhaps the useless trek to the television station had been a training exercise and not a total waste of time. He cleared his throat before speaking to Mallory. He would rather die than let her hear his voice crack. ‘I thought I was supposed to talk to the news people. Sergeant Riker told me – ’
‘I got there first.’ Mallory said this with no inflection, yet he drew the inference that he had been somehow remiss.
She undoubtedly knew everything that he knew and then some. Comparing his notes with hers would only be asking for more humiliation. ‘I’m almost finished with my report.’ His useless report. ‘What do I do now?’
‘I know what you can do.’ Mallory smiled.
A sucker grin? Yes, and Deluthe braced himself, wondering if she would tell him to get lost or worse.
She pulled out her notebook. ‘Never mind if this takes a few days. You just stay on it.’ The detective wrote down the address of a warehouse and the item she wanted, then ripped off the page and handed it to him. As an afterthought, she said, ‘That murder could be fifteen or twenty years old.’
And this vague time frame was supposed to help him locate an evidence carton for a homicide with no name or case number? He could search for years and never find a box with a hangman’s rope. In effect, Mallory had just told him to get lost. And now she glared at him, perhaps wondering why he was still here.
He marched down the hallway, then crossed the squad room, saying a silent goodbye to the walls and wondering if he would ever see this place again. A few minutes later, the young man slid behind the wheel of his car and discovered that he was out of gas.
My name is Fool.
Deluthe was surrounded by cops with motorcycles and cars. Any of these men could siphon out a pint of fuel, enough for him to reach a gas station. But rather than admit to one more stupid mistake, he abandoned his vehicle and walked toward the subway, hoping it would drop him close to the warehouse. And there he might spend the rest of his temporary assignment, wandering long corridors of dusty shelves stacked with ancient evidence cartons.
Count on it, Fool.
When he reached the subway track, the last car was running away into the tunnel. He sat down on a wooden bench assigned to screw-up cops who missed their trains. The public-address system came alive with an electronic squeal that hurt his ears. An inhuman voice was telling Ronald Deluthe that, wherever he was going, he could not get there, not from here, not today. There was a fire on the tracks, and no more trains were coming his way. New York was not a town of second chances.
On the other side of the grimy storefront window, an old man sat hunched over a desk as high as a pulpit, the better to catch shoplifters among the aisles of used books, though he had no customers this afternoon. The plaque on the edge of the desk said, ‘John Warwick, proprietor’.
Charles Butler entered the shop, announced by a buzzer. Near the door, a table and two chairs were cooled by the steady breeze of a fan. This told him that Mr Warwick was more than a merchant. Only a man who loved his trade would sacrifice valuable floor space to carve out this niche for weary readers.
The bookseller looked up from his work, peering through thick lenses that enlarged his pale gray eyes. And now Charles could see that the man was not elderly, but closer to his own age of forty. He had been duped by Warwick’s premature white hair and slumping shoulders that mimicked a hump. The old-fashioned spectacles had also added to the illusion of extreme age. And, although the room was warm, the sleeves of his frayed white shirt were long and buttoned at the cuffs.
This was said in a civil voice, but the bookseller seemed confused. Then he took it as a command to come down from his perch, and he was quick enough to rise from his chair, but slow to descend the short flight of steps to the floor. Moving in the cautious manner of one with brittle bones, he shuffled across the room to stand before Charles, then lowered his head and stared at his shoes.
‘Uh, could we sit?’ Charles gestured toward the readers’ table.
Obediently, Warwick eased into a chair, as if he did not trust it to hold his leaf-light body. And now he waited for further instructions. His head was still bowed in resignation, accepting another man’s authority over him.
Charles recognized the behavioral cues of a patient or a prisoner, someone who had remained too long in an institution. He quickly ruled out prison. Given Warwick’s eccentric masquerade as a senior citizen, the most likely scenario was long-term care in an asylum. The symptoms of institutionalization were so pronounced, the damage of prolonged confinement had likely begun when this man was quite young, perhaps in childhood. He wondered if the cuffs of the shirt hid scars of a razor across the frail wrists. How to proceed with such a delicate soul? Well, gendy and with references of course. ‘I got your name from a friend of mine. Perhaps you know him. Sergeant Riker?’
Warwick looked up for a moment, then lowered his face to stare at the tabletop, keeping custody of the eyes. Charles pulled out his business card and slid it across the table. The bookseller picked it up with grave suspicion in his myopic eyes. ‘This doesn’t say what you do.’
A valid point. A long string of academic degrees followed several PhDs behind Charles Butler’s name, but the card did not mention his profession, and this had been Mallory’s idea, to prod him into word-of-mouth advertising by way of explanation. ‘I’m in human resources. I evaluate people with unusual gifts, and then I place them with projects in the private sector or gov – ’
‘You’re a. psychiatrist.’ Warwick spat out this last word as if it had a bad taste.
‘No, I’m not.’ Charles looked down at the card. ‘A few of those degrees are in psychology, but I’ve never been a practicing – ’
‘And now you’re going to tell me that Riker didn’t lie to me. Am I right – Doctor!’ Warwick spoke to the tabletop when he whispered, ‘I’m crazy not to believe him. Right again?’
‘I’ve never known Riker to lie.’ Charles softened his voice, not wanting the man to acquiesce because of some imagined threat. ‘I’m sure he wouldn’t – ’
‘More tricks.’ Warwick conquered his ingrained posture of compliance and sat up straight. His eyes darted from one bookshelf to another, then locked with those of his inquisitor. As the little man drew a deep breath, he seemed to be inhaling energy. His voice was stronger now. ‘You go back and tell Riker – ’ One tremulous finger rose from a closed fist, and he pointed it like a weapon. ‘You tell him – she’s alive!’
‘Who do you – ’
‘I’m not senile, if that’s what you’re thinking. First Markowitz, then – ’
‘You think I’d forget that name? There’s nothing wrong with my memory. You tell that to Riker.’
‘I didn’t come here to examine you.’ When Charles smiled, as he did now, he knew it made him look like an escaped fool who had dodged his keeper. Such a silly face. Even the most paranoid of lunatics could not perceive him as a threat.
Warwick relaxed by slow degrees. ‘It’s been a long time, but I remember everything. She was a rare one. Most runaways are teenagers. The little ones like her, they usually go where they’re kicked – juvenile facilities, foster homes. You know how she survived the hunt? She was smarter than them. So smart.’
‘Them? The police?’
‘Markowitz and Riker. They staked out my store. What fools.’ Warwick pushed the thick spectacles up the bridge of his nose. ‘As if they could ever catch her.’
‘Who? What was her – ’
‘The little girl who loved westerns,’ he snapped, as if his interrogator should know this.
Charles called up an old photograph from an archive of eidetic memory. It was the picture that Louis Markowitz had carried in his wallet. Perfect recall included a tear in the protective plastic sleeve. ‘This child’s hair – was it long and wavy? Was it blond?’
‘And matted and dirty.’ Warwick nodded. ‘Her face was dirty, too.’ Eyes focused on some middle ground, he was also looking at a memory. ‘Her jeans were always rolled up in fat cuffs. Clothes never fit her – except for the running shoes. They were always spanking white. I think she stole a new pair every week. Markowitz said she was robbing New York City blind. But she never stole from me. She’d take a book off the shelf and put back the last one she borrowed.’ He smiled now, but not with happiness, more like defiance. ‘You see? I don’t forget anything.’
‘How long did this stakeout last?’
‘Off and on? Two months – and they couldn’t catch her.’
Charles recalled a different series of events: Louis had been enroute to his wife’s birthday party when he had just happened upon a strange child robbing a car. Rather than spend the night filling out paperwork, he had taken Kathy home to the party, and his wife had mistaken the baby felon for a present. What a lovely story – told so many times. Riker was not even mentioned in that version. And nothing had ever been said about stalking, hunting down a little girl over a period of months.
‘And what was your part in this, Mr Warwick? You just loaned her the books?’
‘No, no.’ The man was exasperated, perhaps still believing that this was a psychiatric interview, a test of trick questions. ‘The girl took the books, like she had a right to them. She’d take one, then bring it back. That’s how Markowitz figured out that she came from a small town.’
‘Markowitz said, in her part of the world, my little store was probably the size of a public library. He said to me, „The kid brings the books back because her mother raised her right.“ Then that bastard confiscated her westerns, all but the last one.’
‘The book you traced for him?’
Warwick nodded. ‘I had to track down all the buyers at the estate sale where I got the others. He paid me, then put the book on the shelf – so she would find it. But she never did. I never saw her again. The last time Markowitz came in, he told me the little girl was dead. He scribbled a few words in the book, then left it behind.’
‘So you know what he wrote on the – ’
‘It was a love letter to a dead child. The words weren’t meant for you.’ Warwick sighed, then looked down at his hands. ‘He wanted me to believe she was dead, but it was just a trick. He was crying that day. I – almost believed him.’
‘Interesting pattern,’ said Charles. ‘The little girl and her books. She must have come in here quite a few times before you reported her to the police.’
‘I never did that. I never betrayed her.’ The bookseller said this with great pride, as if he had defeated yet another trap of the inquisition.
No, that was wrong.
Charles decided that the man’s pride stemmed from honoring some unspoken pact with a child, for he was certain there had been no conversation between the bookseller and young Kathy Mallory. ‘I bet you couldn’t get within three feet of her.’ He was working with Louis Markowitz’s description of the feral child raised as his own. ‘Edgy as a cat, wasn’t she?’
Every detail dropped into its proper slot as Charles arrived at an uncomfortable conclusion: Warwick had not wanted the little girl to be caught and locked away in some institution – like the one that had imprisoned him and probably drugged him every day so he would not pose problems for the staff. Warwick had not seen the comforts of adoption or foster care in Kathy Mallory’s future. No, this ex-mental patient had seen a kindred malady in a small child, something abnormal and dark. One sick mind had reached out to a -
Charles shook his head in a futile attempt to empty out this idea. Seeking some better reason that he could believe in, he leaned toward the bookseller. ‘Her clothes, her hair – you had to know she was homeless. But you never reported her. Why not?’
He saw the question in Warwick’s eyes, Would you buy a lie? And it was all Charles could do to keep from shouting, Hell, yes!
John Warwick reacted as if mere thoughts were screams. He ducked his head under some imagined blow. His bony shoulders were rising, and his chin disappeared into his shirt collar, a frightened turtle in retreat.
With deep apology in his voice, Charles leaned forward to lure the man back out with an easier question. ‘What sort of books did she like?’
The man’s neck slowly attenuated, eyes still wary, searching the room for hidden enemies. ‘Only westerns.’ Warwick almost smiled. ‘And only one writer.’ The agitation had abated, and he seemed merely tired as he leaned back in his chair. ‘All of Jake Swain’s work went out of print long ago – and for good reason. It was terrible writing. But she read those westerns over and over, the same eleven novels.’
‘Any idea why?’
‘Who knows?’ The bookseller shook his head. ‘The child was so small and skinny, so vulnerable – always alone. I suppose she read them for comfort. She always knew what would happen in her books.’ Warwick turned his face to the window on the street. ‘She never knew what might happen out there.’