Sergeant Riker crossed the squad room of Special Crimes Unit, a haphazard arrangement of fifteen desks littered with deli bags, pizza boxes and men with guns. On the far side of the room, a wide glass panel gave him a look inside Lieutenant Coffey’s private office, where Mallory stood before the desk, her eyes cast down in the manner of a penitent schoolgirl.
What’s wrong with this picture?
The senior detective strolled into the meeting and assumed his usual position, slumped down in the nearest chair with a cigarette dangling at one side of his mouth. After a heavy lunch, Riker was not inclined to waste energy on actual words, and so his eyes merely opened a little wider to say, Okay, I’m here. What?
‘I understand you sent that kid – ’ Lieutenant Coffey paused to glare at his sergeant’s cigarette, as if that ever worked. ‘The guy from Loman’s squad – what’s his name?’
‘You sent him down to the warehouse to go through eight million boxes of old evidence. I’m guessing you hoped he’d get lost down there.’
Riker shrugged. That had been the general idea, but not his idea, and Mallory was not stepping up to claim the credit. She was busy with her upside-down reading of all the lieutenant’s paperwork.
‘Well, the kid got lucky.’ Jack Coffey lifted an evidence carton from the floor and settled it on the edge of his desk. ‘It only took him five minutes to find your hangman’s rope.’
Mallory seemed not to care. Behind the cover of the carton, she teased a red folder from the mess on the lieutenant’s blotter and opened it. Riker caught the glimpse of a full-color autopsy photograph, then turned back to his commanding officer, feigning interest in the adventures of Duck Boy. ‘So how did he do it?’
‘Last month, the warehouse roof sprung a leak and damaged a few cartons.’ Coffey opened the box flaps and pulled out a bulky object in brown wrapping. ‘A clerk remembered repackaging the evidence. The paperwork was wrecked, except for a few of the case numbers. So Duck Boy – Let’s find another name for him, okay? So the kid used the numbers to pull a file from the ME’s archive.’
The lieutenant unwrapped a coil of rope, then knocked the carton to the floor and reached out to grab the red folder from Mallory’s hands. ‘And this is a twenty-year-old autopsy report. It washes out any connection to Sparrow. So we’re kicking the hooker back to the East Side precinct. Now she’s Lieutenant Loman’s headache.’ He dropped the rope and the folder on his desk. ‘I guess we’re done here.’
With an attitude of not so fast, Mallory swept the rope off the desk and into Riker’s lap, then opened the ME’s folder and spread the contents across the blotter. She tapped a photograph in the center of her array. ‘Take a look at this one.’
Riker and Coffey leaned over for a closer inspection of a corpse bloated with gas and thriving maggots.
‘This was another scalping.’ With one long red fingernail, Mallory called their attention to the blond hair matted and plastered to the woman’s skull. ‘It was hacked off with a razor.’
The lieutenant’s smile said, Nice try, but no sale. ‘I’m looking at a woman with a short haircut, and I don’t see any hair packed in her mouth.’
‘She was a blonde,’ said Riker. ‘Like Sparrow.’
‘Not good enough.’ Coffey rooted through the companion paperwork, then handed a sheaf of stapled pages to Riker. ‘Here, read the report. The woman was found hanging, but that wasn’t the cause of death. Dr Norris was chief medical examiner in those days. He said she was strangled first.’
‘Wouldn’t be the first time that hack got something wrong.’ Mallory sifted through the other photographs. ‘Markowitz said he was drunk half the time.’
‘No.’ Riker slapped the desk. ‘I remember that old bastard. He was drunk all the time.’
Coffey clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. ‘So, you guys think a pathologist, drunk or sober, could overlook a wad of hair packed in a victim’s mouth?’
‘Last night, a pathologist pronounced Sparrow dead,’ said Mallory.
The lieutenant’s smile widened. ‘That’s pretty lame.’
The boss was entirely too cheerful, and this made Riker uneasy. Though he had no faith in premonitions, he did have a clear vision of Jack Coffey digging a deep pit for Mallory, then concealing it with twigs and branches.
And there was no way to warn her.
She picked up the old autopsy report and leaned over the desk to dangle it in front of the lieutenant’s face. ‘Did you read this?’ Her unmistakable implication was that fault had somehow shifted on to Coffey. ‘No one assisted on this autopsy. And that’s odd, because Markowitz said it took two assistants to cover the old drunk’s mistakes. Norris never worked alone.’
Jack Coffey was unimpressed. ‘Your point?’
‘He wouldn’t want any witnesses if he was suppressing evidence. So he omitted a few things from the – ’
‘No, I don’t think so.’ Coffey ripped the report from her hand.
The lieutenant was not smiling anymore. ‘All right, Mallory. Let’s talk about another fairy tale. The old file in Cold Cases? Nobody on that squad remembers a search request from you. I ordered you to requisition that file. I can guess why you didn’t waste the time.’ He looked down at the report to refresh his memory. ‘Natalie Homer. Her murder was never one of their cases.’
‘They’re lying,’ said Mallory. ‘They lost the file.’
Even Coffey had to admire gall on such a grandiose scale. ‘You’re telling me they were too embarrassed to admit they lost a file? So they lied?
‘That’s right,’ said Detective Janos. Three heads turned to the open doorway and a man built like a refrigerator with salt-and-pepper hair. ‘Natalie Homer is a Cold Case file.’ Janos’s soft voice was at odds with a face that resembled mugbook shots of the most violent offenders. ‘They assigned it to an independent.’
‘So they lost the paperwork and Mallory’s request?’ Coffey was not yet convinced. ‘And they lied about it?’ His tone of voice implied that a lying cop might be a new concept in this room.
‘Take the charitable view.’ Janos smiled. ‘Cold Cases moved to a new office. They’re a little disorganized. If the boys didn’t make a copy before they released the folder, they’d never find it again. The copy holds the transfer sheet. Very minimalist filing system. So, today, a hanged hooker is big news – front pages. And they get a request for a connected file – a lost file. Yeah, I think they’d lie to you, boss.’
‘But you found the file?’
‘Better than that,’ said Janos. ‘The name of the catching detective was in the ME’s report. So I took a ride over to his last known address. This old guy answers the door – he’s got the damn file in his hand. He says to me, „What took you so long?“ And here we are.’ Janos nodded toward the stairwell door on the other side of the squad room. ‘That’s Lars Geldorf’
Riker swiveled his chair around to face the window on the squad room and a lean, white-haired man. ‘He’s gotta be seventy-five years old.’
Lars Geldorf had grown tired of waiting for a summons, and now he walked toward the lieutenant’s office, not hobbling but making good time. No one had told this retired detective that he had grown old. He wore a silk suit in the best tradition of all the young Turks of his day. The swagger agreed with an arrogant smile, and anyone could read his mind: Geldorf was thinking, I’m going to save your damn hides.
‘He’s gonna be trouble,’ said Coffey.
Riker agreed. He was reminded of his own father, another cop who had not had the grace to take up knitting after being pensioned off. Geldorf had the same way of walking, as if he owned all the real estate under his feet. The old man strolled into the private office and shook Coffey’s hand in silence, trusting that his name and his fame had preceded him. Then he opened his suit jacket, so as not to wrinkle the silk when he sat down.
Just like Dad.
Riker noticed more trouble when the suit jacket opened. Geldorf wore a revolver holstered at the hip. The old man was definitely back in the game.
Lieutenant Coffey dropped his polite smile. ‘I understand you’ve got something for me.’
‘It’s all in here.’ The retired detective held up a zippered pouch with the smell of new leather. ‘The Natalie Homer case. I got the details on your perp’s MO from the morning paper.’ His eyes narrowed with a foxy smile. ‘Too bad you couldn’t keep the press away from the crime scene.’ This was an unmistakable criticism, for he had done an excellent job of keeping his own case details under wraps. Until today, no one had ever heard of the twenty-year-old hanging of Natalie Homer.
Jack Coffey held up the old autopsy folder. ‘But your case didn’t have the same MO.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ said Geldorf. ‘It did. Every detail matches.’
‘Natalie Homer’s autopsy didn’t mention any hair in her mouth.’ And the newspapers had made much of that. Coffey opened the red folder and glanced at the first page of the old report. ‘The chief medical examiner was – ’
‘Dr Peter Norris,’ said Geldorf. ‘A drunk and a third-rate hack. I’m glad he’s dead. And you’re wrong, son. I pulled the hair out of her mouth before the meat wagon showed up.’ He leaned back and smiled in self-congratulation. ‘In those days, all the worst press leaks came from the medical examiner’s office.’
Lieutenant Coffey read aloud from the old autopsy report, ‘„Manual strangulation.“ According to the ME, your victim was strangled before she was strung up.’
‘Oh, yeah. What a psycho.’ Geldorf smiled. ‘Or maybe he only wanted it to look that way.’ He glanced up at Mallory. ‘What’s your theory?’
‘I like the psycho,’ she said.
The old man turned to Riker. ‘And what about you? I’ll give you a hint. You wouldn’t expect the victim to have a coil of rope lying around the house.’
Riker only drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. He recognized all the signs of this ritual – Learning from the Master of Old Farts. Previously, he had believed that this was his father’s invention, a game devised to drive his son insane. He reached over to take the leather pouch from the retired detective. It was a tense moment, for this file was Geldorf s ticket to ride with Special Crimes Unit, and he would not loosen his grip. Mallory caught the old man’s eyes and silently conveyed a threat, Hey, this is going to happen, old man. And Geldorf s hand slowly opened. Riker grabbed the pouch and unzipped it, then riffled the contents. ‘So what happened to the hair you took from her mouth?’
‘It’s with the rest of the evidence. After the case went cold, I packed it myself Lieutenant Coffey shook his head. ‘No hair.’
‘So they lost it,’ said Geldorf with a casual lift of one shoulder. ‘Happens all the time.’
Riker handed the lieutenant a photograph from the pouch. Natalie Homer’s mouth was stuffed with a gag of wadded blond hair.
Detective Janos stood behind Geldorf s chair and leaned down to the old man’s ear to say, ‘Tell them about the candles.’
What the hell?
Twenty-four candles and ajar of dead flies were the only details not mentioned in the morning papers. Why would Janos confide in the old man? Riker glanced through the rest of the crime-scene photos, but found no pictures of votive candles.
‘That summer, the East Village had rolling blackouts,’ said Geldorf. ‘The electricity was off for three hours after sundown, and Natalie had three candles in her apartment.’
Mallory pulled a bag of melted red wax from the carton. The long tapers were fused together.
‘Now you see?’ said Geldorf. ‘This is how they treat evidence. Those candles were brand-new. Check out the wicks. Never been lit. So I figure the perp showed up while it was still light. Early evening works with Norris’s call for time of death.’
The candles were the right color, red, but the wrong shape.
Riker counted only three candles – not the dozens found in Sparrow’s apartment.
Geldorf was awaiting a compliment on his astute reading of three unlit wicks.
‘Nice work.’ There was no sarcasm in the lieutenant’s voice, though the old man had botched the chain of evidence. Jack Coffey was always respectful to the visiting ghosts. ‘I need a few minutes alone with my people. Detective Janos will look after you.’
When the office door had closed on Geldorf and his keeper, Coffey shook his head. ‘There’s still no case connection.’ He held up the photograph Riker had given him. ‘This perp has to be in his forties by now, and stringing up blondes is a young man’s game.’ He tossed the picture back to Riker. ‘You guys don’t have a serial killer. And Sparrow’s still alive. You don’t even have a corpse yet.’
Riker turned to his partner. Mallory had been raised by the best poker player in the universe. She was the source of all his hopes for keeping Sparrow’s case in Special Crimes Unit.
‘I say he’s picking out another victim right now.’ Mallory took the pouch from Riker’s hand and held it up as her hole card. ‘I can link these two cases.’
‘You think so?’ Coffey bent down to the carton at his feet and pulled out a plastic bag with a smaller segment of the rope. It was not a good container for water-damaged evidence. Riker could smell mildew when the lieutenant opened the bag. And now he was staring at a classic hangman’s noose with a neat row of coils below the loop.
Sparrow’s case was lost.
‘Try explaining this away.’ Coffey reached into a stack of paperwork and pulled out a photograph of the more recent hanging. ‘The nooses aren’t the same, not even close. Sparrow’s has a simple knot.’ He held up the rope used on Natalie Homer. ‘This one is guaranteed to kill. If your perp knew how to tie a hangman’s noose, why didn’t he use it on the hooker?’
Mallory kept her silence. She only stared at the noose, the last piece of evidence Coffey had been withholding, waiting for her to show him everything she had. It looked like a clear victory for the boss, yet Riker sensed that the man’s graceful-winner smile was premature, that Mallory was not quite played out.
Jack Coffey continued. ‘You know why this case bothered your old man? Markowitz didn’t know the hanging was just for show. The autopsy report was sealed. He never knew the woman was strangled before she was hung.’
Mallory pulled a battered notebook from her back pocket and handed it to the lieutenant. ‘You’re wrong about the hanging.’
Even without the reading glasses that Riker never wore, he recognized Lou Markowitz’s handwriting as Jack Coffey flipped through illegible pages of shorthand punctuated by single words.
Coffey looked up at Mallory. ‘I can’t even read most of the – ’
‘I can,’ she said. ‘The tape on Natalie’s wrists was so tight it dug into her skin. But no sign of cut-off circulation. And you won’t find that in the autopsy report – another screwup. Markowitz could read a corpse better than that drunk Norris. He knew the perp bound a dead woman’s hands. He knew she was dead before she was hanged, and that rope still bothered him.’
Lieutenant Coffey closed the notebook. ‘You just made my case. It was a garden variety murder dressed up like a psycho hanging.’
‘No! The killer always planned to hang Natalie Homer, but something went wrong.’
‘That’s reaching, Mallory.’
‘If the perp didn’t plan on a hanging, why would he bring a rope?’ She snatched the old notebook from the lieutenant’s hand, then stalked out of the office. An outsider would have read her exit as cold anger. Coffey did. In reality, Mallory simply had a flawless sense of timing.
And the time was now.
‘Makes sense,’ said Riker.
‘The hell it does. Natalie Homer’s dead body was in that apartment from Friday till Sunday night. Lots of time for the perp to come back with his rope. She’s forcing these cases to link.’
‘Everything she said panned out.’ And Riker would have regarded this as a miracle, but what were the odds that God was on Mallory’s side? ‘And you gotta wonder what else she found in Lou’s notes.’ He silently complimented his partner on her early departure with the notebook. ‘Give us a week. How’s it gonna look if another body turns up after you bounce Sparrow’s case back to Loman’s squad?’
‘That’s crap, Riker. There’s no connection here, and you know it. All you’ve got is two women with bad haircuts and lots of rope.’ Coffey covered his face with one hand, for it would never do to let the troops see his frustration. ‘So here’s the deal. You keep Geldorf and his file out of my shop. And he never gets a look at Sparrow’s evidence.’
‘Deal.’ The detective tapped out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe, then rose from the chair. He was uncomfortable with this win. It was going too smoothly.
The lieutenant gathered loose papers and photographs into the red folder. ‘And keep Geldorf away from the reporters. I don’t wanna read any headlines about a trumped-up case connection.’ He tossed the ME’s file to Riker, then dropped the rope into the cardboard box at his feet. ‘And get this crap out of my office.’
Riker leaned down and picked up the evidence carton. ‘I’ve got a place to stash everything – the old man too.’ The boss would not want to hear the name Butler and Company, no hint that Mallory’s ties to that firm were still binding.
‘Good,’ said Coffey. ‘If you can’t make a case in forty-eight hours, you lose the hooker to Loman.’ He lowered his head, pretending interest in the papers on his desk blotter. ‘I called the hospital. It doesn’t look good for the hooker. She’s going sour.’ He looked up. ‘Sorry about that. You and Sparrow go back a long ways, don’t you?’
Riker nodded. He understood everything now. His partner had entrusted him with the endgame, the humiliating part, for Jack Coffey had just made it very clear that this was only charity for an aging detective and a dying whore.
Lars Geldorf opened the door, and Mallory followed him into an apartment that stank of stale ashtrays and yesterday’s meals. The frayed furnishings and a small-screen television set were character references for an honest cop living within the means of his pension. A large mirror over the mantelpiece reflected light from windows overlooking Hell’s Kitchen along Eighth Avenue. There were no signs that a woman had ever lived here. The dust was thick, the window glass was yellowed with the nicotine of a million cigarettes, and the walls were all about Geldorf.
Framed newspaper clippings were grouped with photographs of his younger self posed with politicians and cops who had died before Mallory was born. One citation hung by itself in the most impressive frame. It was hardly evidence of a stellar career, but he obviously took great pride in it.
The retired detective paused to rock on his heels and smile, to allow time for his guest to admire these mementos. Then he led her into the next room, where another large mirror had pride of place. It almost covered a line of cracked plaster, but its real purpose was less functional. The old man stood before the looking glass, a peacock in a silk suit that was decades out of style. His gold pinky ring gleamed as he straightened his tie and smiled, loving what he saw. And now he pointed to another cluster of photographs. ‘That one in the middle was taken the night we cut Natalie down. I shot it myself.’
Mallory stared at the framed crime-scene photo. The hair had been removed from the victim’s mouth. The prone corpse lay on the floor, displayed in an open body bag, and two grinning detectives stood over the dead woman, posed as hunters with a trophy kill. But the real trophy was the third man, only a visitor on this scene, a celebrated cop who stood between the case detectives and a head above them. The two grinning men appeared to be restraining Louis Markowitz, an unwilling subject for a macabre souvenir. His face was slightly blurred by the sad shake of his head.
Below this photograph was a desk buried under papers and flanked by file cabinets. The most modern piece of office equipment was an early-generation fax machine. Cartons were piled on cheap metal storage shelves, and two large bulletin boards were littered with personal notes. The absence of a computer was no surprise to Mallory. This old man still lived in the century of the typewriter.
‘I don’t see why we can’t work out of my place.’ Geldorf pulled a large box from a shelf. ‘I’m all set up here.’
‘Coffey wants tight security,’ she lied. ‘And a downtown location is better.’
‘Tight security.’ Geldorf nodded. ‘Good idea.’
The box bearing Natalie Homer’s name had been half full when he began to load in more papers. Cartons this size did not travel with Cold Case files. A thick folder should have been sufficient for reports and statements. ‘You’ve been working this murder for a while?’
‘Oh yeah, I never let go of a case I couldn’t close on the job,’ said Geldorf. ‘After I retired, I just kept collecting stuff, scraps and pieces. When I was ready to do more interviews, I’d check out the Cold Case file and make it official.’
‘So you only work your own cases?’
‘That’s right. You should’ve seen this room twelve years ago. So many cartons, you couldn’t move. You had to go out in the hall to change your mind.’ He waited for her to smile at his little joke – and he waited. Then, slowly, he turned around to face the shelves that were bare. ‘So, one by one, I’d close another Cold Case file, get rid of another box, another ghost. Now I’ve only got a few left.’ He lowered his head and focused on the task of packing his box. ‘When I was on the job, I only got days to work a murder. Now I got years.’ His smile was sheepish when he said, ‘I shouldn’t have told you. Now you know what a lousy detective I was. But I’m gonna make it right. I’ll close ‘em – every one.’ He dropped more papers into his carton, then folded the cardboard flaps. ‘I’m all yours now – full time.’
‘And I appreciate that.’ She had already laid plans to keep him out of her way. The baby-sitting detail would be split between Charles Butler and Lieutenant Loman’s whiteshield, also known as Duck Boy.
She donned her sunglasses, then turned around for a sidelong look at the mirror and Geldorfs reflection. She had been wrong about the peacock trait. All the posturing arrogance fell away when he believed that he was unobserved. It must have been a great strain to keep up that facade. The old man in the looking-glass room shrank and sagged, and his eyes were full of worry. He must see every young cop as a potential threat to his dignity. Good.
Keeping him in line would be no problem. Geldorf sealed the box flaps with tape. ‘So now you’ll wanna talk to everybody who saw my crime scene.’ He glanced in her direction. ‘You’re wondering how your perp found out about the hair in Natalie’s mouth.’
Mallory turned around to smile at him. Crafty old man. ‘You knew it wasn’t a serial killing.’
‘Couldn’t be.’ His sly grin explained everything: He had simply wanted to come back to the job – to come in from the cold of his old age. ‘My prime suspect died nineteen years ago.’
She almost liked him. With only an exchange of nods and knowing glances, mutual admissions of lies were made and vows of silence taken. They were allies now, and neither of them would give the other away.
‘At best, what you got is a copycat.’ He lifted the heavy box in his arms, and she showed him respect by not offering to help with the load. Geldorf walked behind her, saying, ‘When I find out where your perp got his information, maybe I can close out Natalie’s case. Oh, yeah, I think we can help each other.’
You can dream, old man.
She had no intention of working Natalie Homer’s homicide. The trail was twenty years old and a cold one. She opened the door for Geldorf, then took his proffered keys and locked it.
‘The link is in the details.’ He struggled with the bulky carton as they walked toward the elevator. ‘I had complete control over my crime scene. No leaks to the media. You know how I pulled that off? I told a uniform to take bribes from the reporters. Well, this kid gets twenty bucks a piece from those bastards, then tells ‘em he found the woman swingin’ from a rope.’
‘So they figured it was a suicide.’ Mallory approved. It was always wise to tell the truth when you lied. ‘And Natalie Homer got lost on page ten.’
‘And just one newspaper, a couple of lousy paragraphs.’ He set down the box and pushed a button to call for the elevator. ‘So now you’ll wanna rule out the possible leaks. Lucky I saved my old case notes.’
‘You can handle those interviews,’ said Mallory. ‘I got you an assistant to go along as your badge.’ Then she would be rid of Geldorf and Duck Boy.
‘What about the big guy? Butler? Was that his name?’ Geldorf pulled out a card given to him an hour ago at the offices of Butler and Company.
‘Doctor Butler,’ said Mallory, though Charles had never used that title. ‘He’s a consulting psychologist with NYPD.’ Fortunately, there was no useful information on the business card to contradict that lie. ‘He’ll be working closely with you.’
Charles Butler wore a suit and tie, for this was a workday. Many thanks to Riker’s intervention, the tedium of a summer hiatus was finally at an end. He passed through the reception area of Queen Anne furniture and Watteau watercolors, then strolled down a short hall, leaving behind centuries of antique decor that separated the other rooms from Mallory’s domain of electronics, of plastic and metal and wire. Her private office at the rear of Butler and Company had some charming features. However, the tall arched windows were hidden behind cold steel blinds, and a plain gray rug strove to disguise the hardwood floor as concrete.
Her three computers sat atop workstations perfectly aligned at the center of the room, and all the monitors were lit. Square blue cyclops eyes focused upon the intruder, and Charles recalled his old dream of kicking in the glass and blinding the little bastards.
The free space of three walls was devoted to gray metal shelving units stocked with manuals lined up precisely one inch from the edge and software components keeping company with hardware. Mallory had refused his offer of paintings, preferring not to clutter the giant bulletin board that covered her fourth wall from baseboard to ceiling molding.
Sergeant Riker was still at work pinning photographs and papers to the cork surface. The detective had given Charles a new project, a present, actually two gifts: a twenty-year-old murder and a seventy-five-year-old man.
‘When will they be back?’
‘Half an hour, give or take.’ Riker sifted through the contents of a leather pouch and selected more papers. Handwritten notes and typed statements had been arranged on the wall in no particular order.
‘All this to pacify Mr Geldorf?’
‘Yeah,’ said Riker. ‘Think it might keep you busy for a while?’
‘Absolutely, and thank you.’ Charles was wondering how to broach another subject without seeming ungrateful. He decided that oblique angles were best. ‘After Louis died, did Mallory keep any of those old westerns?’
‘No!’ Riker dropped the pouch on the floor, then bent down to retrieve it.
‘What a pity.’ Charles faced the wall and studied a diagram of the murder victim’s apartment. ‘I wanted to read the books, maybe figure out what Louis saw in them. I suppose I can track down other copies, but that – ’
‘No, you can’t.’ Riker turned his back on Charles to pin up the full-color photograph of a gutted woman on a dissection table. ‘You can’t get ‘em anymore. Just cheap paperbacks. Nothing you’d find on a library shelf. ‘That’s what John Warwick said – almost the same words.’
Riker spread one hand flat on the cork and slowly leaned into the wall. He bowed his head, perhaps bracing for the accusations, a litany of deceits, years of lies, his own and Louis’s.
If that were true, he would wait forever.
Charles sat down at the edge of Mallory’s steel desk. He waited patiently until Riker turned round to face him, and then he smiled for the man. His inadvertently foolish expression had the same relaxing effect on the detective as it had had on John Warwick. ‘Perhaps you could just tell me what happened in the next book?’
‘Yeah, give me a second.’ Riker settled into a metal folding chair and remembered to exhale. He was obviously relieved, perhaps assuming that nothing more had transpired between John Warwick and a disappointed customer. ‘It’s been a while. You remember the plot of the first book?’
Charles nodded. ‘A fifteen-year-old boy shot a man in the street.’
‘An unarmed man. In the next book, you find out that cowboy had a gun after all, and it was a fair fight.’ Riker turned his head for one furtive glance at the office door. Assured that they were alone, he continued, ‘The kid took the other guy’s six-shooter ‘cause it was better than his old rusty one. But the sheriff never saw that second gun. The kid had it stashed in his belt before Peety got to the crime scene.’
Subsequently, Charles learned that the lawman had remained unaware of this exculpatory evidence – while the boy was growing into premature manhood as a fugitive.
‘Now they’re a year older,’ said Riker, ‘Sheriff Peety and the kid.’ And it was miles too late for the boy to clear his name. ‘Wichita won another gunfight and killed another man.’
Riker glanced at the door again, knowing that he would never hear Mallory coming up behind him. She was that quiet. He turned back to Charles and his story. ‘The kid’s name is no joke anymore. He’s a bona fide gunslinger, a real outlaw. At the end of the first book, the sheriff runs him right off the rim of a canyon, a three-hundred-foot drop. The kid was still in the saddle at the time. Down he goes, horse and all.’
‘But he survived.’
‘Yeah, the horse too. When the next book opens, the kid lands in the river, and the fall knocks him out. He gets washed ashore beside his half-dead horse. An Indian girl finds him and drags him back to her village. She’s his age, just sixteen. On the last page, the sheriffs chasin’ Wichita again, and the girl buys the kid some time. She throws herself under the sheriffs galloping horse.’ He splayed his hands to say, You see how it works? He tossed the leather pouch to Charles. ‘You and Geldorf can finish setting up the wall, okay? Play detective. Knock yourself out.’
Charles’s smile was brief, merely polite this time. The detective had made an interesting point, but the aspect of cliffhanger suspense did not explain why anyone would bother to read the novels twice. And young Kathy Mallory had read them again and again. Why?
The bookseller’s theory of a child needing comfort from a fictional world would not hold up. Charles glanced at the surrounding shelves of dry technical journals and reference books. Mallory never read fiction. Louis Markowitz had once told him what a fight it had been to instill a sense of make-believe in his foster daughter, and ultimately he had lost that battle. To Louis’s sorrow, she had remained a hardened realist throughout her childhood.
And though she had displayed an early penchant for cowboy movies, he had surmised long ago that it was largely for the companionship of Louis that the little girl had indulged the man in Saturday mornings of gunfights and cavalry charges. From what Charles knew of the early warfare between foster father and daughter, young Kathy would rather have died than admit to this need for his company. For all the years that man and child had known one another and loved one another, she had kept Louis at a distance, never addressing him in any form but Hey Cop and Markowitz.
Charles wondered if Kathy Mallory regretted that now. He thought she might.
Lieutenant Coffey and Detective Janos looked up when Duck Boy appeared in the doorway and hovered there in respectful silence, waiting to be noticed.
Coffey motioned him into the room. ‘Yeah, kid, what is it?’
‘Sir, I finished all my paperwork.’ He held a thick sheaf of papers in his hand.
‘If that’s the report on the warehouse – ’
‘No, sir. It’s something Sergeant Riker requested, but I can’t find him. Do you want it? Does anybody want it?’
The lieutenant accepted the report, briefly noted Duck Boy’s other name on the first page, then dumped it into his out-basket at the edge of the desk. ‘Deluthe, you did good work today. But the paperwork goes to Riker and Mallory from now on.’ He turned to Janos. ‘Did they give you an address?’ What his tone implied was clear: J don’t want to know where they are.
And now his detective was writing in his notebook, saying to Deluthe, ‘This is where you can find them.’
The younger man nodded and stared at the basket with his discarded report. ‘So you’d rather have them not read it?’
Jack Coffey leaned back in his chair and smiled. There was a brain at work here. At least, the boy had the makings of a smart mouth. And the rookie detective had earned a fair hearing. ‘Okay, sit down.’
Ronald Deluthe settled into a chair next to Janos.
‘You can report to me,’ said Coffey. ‘But I only want the gist of it, okay?’
‘Yes, sir. I spoke to the mobile news crew. The other night, they were in the area following up on a lead. That’s why they got to the crime scene ahead of the fire engines. They were just cruising up and down – ’
Damn, a speechmaker. ‘What was their lead?’
‘Well, this guy phoned in a tip an hour before the prostitute was hung. The news show has a public line called Cashtip. But that wasn’t the first call they taped. The – ’
Janos leaned forward. ‘The station taped these calls? The news director only gave Mallory video. Bastards. So they were holding out on us.’ He slapped the trainee on the back. ‘That was real nice work, kid.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ Deluthe continued his dry recital of facts. ‘They had another tip for a homicide a few blocks from the crime scene, but that one was last week, and it didn’t pan out.’
‘So let’s get past that,’ said Coffey.
‘Yes, sir. So the same guy calls back to tip them on Sparrow’s murder. This time, he didn’t give a name or address. He just told them to look for the smoke. Well, they didn’t plan to send out their mobile unit. This guy burned them once before. But then, it turned out to be a slow news day, and they decided – ’ And now Deluthe must have sensed that interest was waning. His voice trailed off as he said, ‘Well, I guess that’s the gist.’
Janos put one meaty hand on Deluthe’s arm. ‘Back up, kid. What about the first tip – the murder that didn’t pan out?’
‘That was five or six days ago. The tipster gave them a name and specific location. But when the news van got to Ms Harper’s building, the neighbors told them she was in Bermuda. Then the reporters went to the local police station, and a desk sergeant told them the same thing. He said Ms Harper had gone to – ’
‘Hold it.’ Coffey retrieved the report from his basket. ‘How did a cop know where she was? Did this woman ever file a complaint?’
‘I don’t know, sir. I only spoke to the television people.’
Detective Janos was shaking his head. ‘You never mentioned this to Mallory or Riker?’
‘It was in my report, but I – ’
‘Yeah, yeah.’Janos moved around behind the desk and scanned the pages, reading over the lieutenant’s shoulder. ‘The address is there. I’ll get a warrant on Harper’s apartment. It’s worth a look. Maybe Mallory was right about the perp going serial.’
Jack Coffey pretended not to hear that. He smiled at Deluthe. ‘Good work. Damn good work. So you got the perp’s voice on tape?’
‘No, sir. I asked the news director for a copy, but he said that would compromise the integrity of his – ’
‘Go get that tape!’
Charles stared at the old photographs taken after the body was cut down. Among Natalie Homer’s few shabby possessions, all that was hopeful were the potholders, each one decked with a red bud, the promise of a rose. He had come to think of this woman, twenty years dead, in a possessive way, for Riker and Mallory showed so little interest in her. And he had developed a bond with Lars Geldorf, the lady’s only champion.
‘I’m not sure I follow you.’ The retired detective paced the length of the cork wall with the attitude of an inspector general.
‘It’s a homage to an old friend,’ said Charles Butler. ‘Did you know the first commander of Special Crimes Unit?’
‘Lou Markowitz?’ said Geldorf. ‘Oh, yeah, I met him once. He was on my crime scene – just stopped by to talk to my partner. Great cop. It was a goddamn pleasure to shake his hand.’ He turned back to the mess on the wall. ‘Sorry, you were saying?’
‘Well, Louis’s office used to have a cork wall like this one. It took me a while to figure out his logic. You see, it emerged as he shuffled things around every day.’ Charles pointed to one cluster of papers held by a single tack. ‘The top layers have pertinent information that overrides what’s underneath. You can see the progression of the case at a glance. No time wasted on bad leads and insignificant data. And there’s relevance in the juxtaposition. Oh, and prioritizing. The least relevant items are on the outer edges.’
‘Not bad, Dr Butler. Not bad at all.’
‘Call me Charles.’ He was entitled to a doctor’s credential, in fact several of them, but his background in abnormal psychology only served as an adjunct to client evaluations. Perhaps a practicing psychologist would have predicted Mallory’s reaction.
He heard no footsteps behind him, and only turned around because of Riker’s comment from the doorway, a soft ‘Jesus Christ.’ The words were outside of Geldorfs hearing range. The old man kept his eyes on the cork, and Charles kept watch over Mallory. How long had she been standing there in the center of the room? She took no notice of him, and the moment was almost like stealing, for he was free to stare at her, unafraid that his tell-all face would say foolish things.
He had been working close to the wall for hours, and now he stepped back to see it from Mallory’s vantage point. A frozen whirlwind of papers and pictures spiraled out from the center pastiche of crime-scene images. It was the jumble of a brain turned inside out, exposing a unique thinking process, trains of thought splashed over the wall in a starburst pattern as Louis Markowitz’s mind of paper debris reached out, stretching – awakening.
Without a word, and unnoticed by Geldorf, she left the room. Riker put up one hand in the manner of a traffic cop, warning Charles not to follow her, then disappeared down the hall. A few moments later, the door in the reception area slammed shut.
Lars Geldorf called his attention to the square crime-scene photographs. ‘These are the originals. The blow-ups might be easier to read.’
‘I thought the size was unusual.’ The Polaroids were much smaller than the eight-by-ten pictures once pinned to the cork wall of Louis’s office. Charles pointed to a photograph of the corpse hanging from a light fixture. ‘What’s this dark area on her apron?’
‘Grease. And those spots are cockroaches.’ Geldorf leaned down to the cardboard carton at his feet and picked up an envelope. ‘I had enlargements made.’ He pulled out a group of pictures. ‘Now these are grainy, but you can see the bugs better.’
‘Indeed.’ They were gigantic.
‘Oh, you like bugs? I got shots of flies and maggots too.’ Geldorf opened another envelope, and this one contained twice as many insects, all in very sharp focus. ‘A medical examiner took these shots. That old bastard loved bugs. A drunk and a freak.’
Charles leafed through the images. ‘I gather he was an amateur entomologist.’ None of the medical examiner’s photographs included cockroaches. ‘It seems he preferred flies and larvae.’
The fax machine rang, bringing Riker back to Mallory’s office in an uncharacteristic hurry. The detective watched a sheet scroll out of the machine, then ripped it off and left the room.
‘I’ll be right back.’ Charles walked down the hall, following the sound of a one-way conversation. He found the detective in the reception area, slumped in a chair behind the antique desk and speaking into a telephone that was circa 1900.
‘Oh, the warrant was easy,’ said Riker to the caller. ‘But the super didn’t have keys to Harper’s apartment.’ One leg was on the rise, then settled back to the floor; Mallory had trained him not to put his feet up on office furniture. ‘I’ll make the calls for Heller and Slope… Yeah, the locksmith just opened the place… Right. Mallory’s already on the way.’
Riker set the ornate receiver back on its cradle, then looked past Charles to the young man who had just emerged from the office kitchen with a sandwich in hand. ‘Kid? You’re driving. Go get your car and pull it up front. I’ll be down in a minute.’
The recent fax wafted from Riker’s hand to the desk. Charles read the words, Guys, come home. All is forgiven. Love, Special Crimes Unit. ‘Did Jack Coffey send that?’
‘Naw, too affectionate for the boss. And he’s still pretending Mallory doesn’t work here anymore.’ Riker looked down at the fax. ‘No, I’d say this is Janos’s style.’
‘There’s been another hanging?’
The detective shrugged into the sleeves of his suit jacket. ‘Good guess, and keep it to yourself. Yeah, Mallory was right. We got a serial killer.’ He paused with one hand on the doorknob. Without turning round, he said, ‘Tell me something, Charles. Would you want to live in a world where all of Mallory’s lies came true?’