They were exiles now, locked out of the room. This was Heller’s punishment for breaking a commandment of Forensics: Thou shalt not disturb my freaking crime scene.
The detectives’ walk-through had turned into a run-through, battling fat black insects on the wing and biting back vomit all the way to a rear window that had not been dusted for prints. Now Mallory sat outside on the steps of the fire escape, keeping her partner company. The air was sweeter here, but muggy and almost too thick to breathe. The sun was hot, the day was dead calm, and cigarette smoke hung about Riker in a stale cloud.
On the other side of the locked window, most of the insects were still trapped in the apartment. Their buzzing penetrated the glass, loud and incessant. A ripe corpse had emptied its bowels postmortem, attracting every blowfly in the neighborhood and adding to the odor of putrid flesh.
Mallory looked down through the metal grate. More civilians had joined the gathering below. There was nothing to see, but New York was a theater town, and the yellow crime-scene tape was the cue to form a sidewalk gallery. Last week, the killer had probably stood on that same patch of pavement. After calling the reporters to his crime scene, he would have stayed to watch them enter this building, then leave, unimpressed with his work. ‘I wonder how long the perp waited for the cops to show. Hours? Days?’
‘Must’ve driven him nuts.’ Riker took a drag on his cigarette. ‘I’ve got uniforms canvassing the block. We might get lucky.’
No, Mallory doubted that they would turn up any witnesses who recalled a man loitering on the sidewalk. Too much time had passed between the death and the discovery of the corpse.
Riker flicked his cigarette over the rail of the fire escape. ‘I wonder if we’ll find any more bodies, maybe a few in worse shape.’
‘Not likely. Janos said there were only two calls on the Cashtip line.’ And despite the killer’s telephoned confession and a reporter’s visit to the local police station, Kennedy Harper’s body had been left to rot for six days in the heat of August. ‘He must’ve figured the cops just weren’t paying attention.’
‘Well, he got that part right,’ said Riker. ‘And now we know why he burned Sparrow’s window shade. Hard to miss a woman hanging in full view of the street. He wanted a guaranteed audience for his second show.’
Heller stood on the other side of the glass, raising the sash. ‘Okay, all the windows are open, and the worst of the stink is gone. You two delicate little pansies can come back inside.’
Without being asked, the tenants kept their distance from the stench of the crime scene. They were gathered at the other end of a long hallway, where Ronald Deluthe questioned a man with greasy coveralls. A large cluster of keys dangled from his utility belt.
‘You’re the building handyman, the super?’
‘Good guess, kid.’
Deluthe could translate that to mean Who else would I be, you moron? Not a promising beginning for his first interview of the day, but he pressed on. ‘So a body is rotting away for maybe a week, but you never smelled anything? He paused a moment to flick a fly off his face. ‘Nobody complained?’ An army of insects walked up the walls, and some were strolling across the ceiling.
The high-pitched whine of a woman chimed in behind the detective’s back. ‘Oh, we complained all right! You think this lazy slob would take six minutes to check it out?’
The far door opened and Mallory stepped into the hall in time to catch the handyman demonstrating a New York gesture for love and friendship, his middle finger extended from a closed fist.
‘Harper got new locks!’ The man edged closer to the whining tenant so he could yell in her face, ‘And I got no keys for ‘em! You want I should break down her damn door?’
At the other end of the hall, Mallory called out to Deluthe, ‘Chase down the locksmith. Find out when he was here.’
‘Oh, I can tell you that.’ The handyman’s keys jangled as he turned to flash a lewd grin at the pretty detective. ‘It was two weeks ago. I watched him do the work.’ His eyes undressed Mallory layer by layer, removing her blazer, her T-shirt, her bra.
And now he was the focus of her attention. ‘Was Kennedy Harper home that day?’
‘Yeah.’ His eyes traveled all over her body. ‘So?’
The detective’s long legs were encased in blue jeans, but in the handyman’s eyes, they were naked. He looked up, suddenly startled. She was moving toward him with long strides and swinging a camera from its strap like a weapon.
Ronald Deluthe wondered if she was only pissed off, or had he missed something – again.
Mallory stood toe-to-toe with the man in coveralls. ‘You had keys to the other locks.’ This was an accusation.
‘Sure. I got keys for the whole building.’
That was so obvious. The buckle on the man’s utility belt sagged from the weight of his keys, each one tagged with an apartment number. And now Deluthe waited for some caustic comment from the witness, but the handyman kept a respectful silence, for Mallory stood with one hand on her hip, exposing the shoulder holster and a very large gun. Her eyes were even more intimidating. Did she ever blink? She took two quick steps toward the handyman, who had nowhere to go but flat up against the wall.
‘Why don’t you have the new keys? You were here with the locksmith. Harper was home that day.’
‘I asked for ‘em. She wouldn’t give ‘em to me.’
Mallory looked down at the cluster of tags and metal hanging in front of the man’s crotch. He squirmed when she reached for it.
‘You’ve still got the old ones.’ Mallory stared at the key tag for apartment 4B. ‘You had access before she changed the locks.’
‘And she had no problem with that.’ He was a model citizen now, eager to help and talking fast. ‘Five years and no complaints. Then one day, out of the blue, I’m a suspicious character. She can’t trust me with her damn keys. Go figure.’ He turned to Deluthe. ‘Don’t write that down, kid.’
Deluthe folded his notebook into a pocket, then took out his Miranda card to read the prime suspect his rights. ‘You have the right to remain – ’
‘What are you doing?’ Mallory took his card away, then handed him the camera. ‘We’re done with this man. Go outside and take pictures.’
Deluthe nodded. He was growing accustomed to humiliation and busywork. The killer had no way to know that the body had been discovered, not this time. He would not be among the onlookers. This was Mallory’s way of telling him, once again, to get lost.