It was Henrietta Ramsharan’s day off from the psychiatric clinic. Today the doctor wore a pink sweatshirt, faded jeans and bare feet. Waves of dark hair, salted with white strands, hung down her back as she sat across the kitchen table from her landlord and friend. Charles Butler was not wearing a tie with his suit this morning, and she recognized this as his idea of casual dress.
Henrietta poured herself another cup of coffee and wondered why she had ever bothered to decorate her living room. All the important conversations of life took place in kitchens. “You should have called me right away.”
“Mallory told me she didn’t want a doctor-she didn’t want anybody. And it was very late.” Charles had the sad, distracted look of loss, as though his own house had burned and not Mallory’s.
“Charles, we’re friends, aren’t we? The next time you have a problem, call me. And I don’t care how late it is. Where is Mallory now?”
“I made her coffee this morning. She’s gone now,” he said, as though Mallory had been vaporized. “She acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. But I know how important that house was to her, especially after her father died. How much can she internalize before she breaks apart? She’s taken entirely too many blows to the heart.”
Henrietta wondered if it might not be Charles who had been taking all the blows lately. Mallory would probably be just fine. Charles sometimes forgot that Mallory didn’t have a heart, and perhaps it was that which made her more resilient than the rest of them.
“Henrietta, do you think she might become more reckless now, take more chances? She really should be relieved of duty for a while.”
“Charles, I wouldn’t even suggest it to her. She’d only take it as a criticism, and you know she never takes that well.”
Henrietta leaned back in her chair and regarded his gentle face. He stared down at his plate of untouched scrambled eggs while his coffee cooled in the cup. Charles was a classic study in misery, a man in love. She had seen his counterpart in her own reflection.
“More coffee, Charles? No?” Oh, and did I ever mention that I love you?
Because he had been so straightforward, so forthcoming, she had learned a great deal about this man in the first moments of meeting him a little more than a year ago. He had left the safe, elegant aerie of an uptown high-rise to live among buildings more to human scale in SoHo. He was a warm man who genuinely liked people.
“Here,” she said, pulling a slice of bread from the toaster on the table between them. “You have to eat something.” And I’ll love you till I die.
When she had met Mallory for the first time, Henrietta understood him better. Charles loved Mallory, and Mallory loved no one. Henrietta held out no hope for any of them.
Oh, Christ! It’s in bed with me! Andrew Bliss sat bolt upright, eyes wide and frightened. As he fought with his quilts, his panicked heart pounded on the inside wall of his chest. The brown rat slithered out from under the bedding and scurried across the roof.
Andrew fell back on his pillow, exhausted and sweating, until his breathing was normal again. His hand fluttered over his head to chase the bugs out of his hair.
Perhaps the rat had taken him for dead, and thus, fair leavings. Well, was he not? He hadn’t bathed or brushed his teeth in nearly a week. Would road kill smell as sweet?
Oh, sweeter, surely.
And while he was in the revulsion mode, he had one particularly vile act to perform, and he might as well get it over with. He walked to the most distant corner of the roof, squatted down and dumped his bowels with the shame of a fanatically housebroken dog, unable to hold back anymore. This shame was the cost of the loaves of bread which dropped from the sky.
And now, of all the hours of the day, now the damn traffic-watch helicopter flew overhead. As it hovered above the roof, the wind of the whirling blades sent every loose thing flying, and stirred up funnel clouds of dust. The distressed canopy of Armani raincoats swung back and forth on its armature of ropes and wildly waved its sleeves.
Andrew pulled his robe closed and stood up as the woman in the helicopter addressed him from a bullhorn.
“How are you this morning, Mr. Bliss?”
Andrew was moving slowly as he crossed the roof against the stiff wind of the helicopter blades. He picked up his own bullhorn and turned it skyward. The woman had put away her loudspeaker to shoot him with a video camera, to take his portrait with matted hair and a scraggle of beard. He made the appropriate obscene hand gesture, and then released a golden arch of piss.
She lowered the camera.
“That blue jumpsuit is more pathetic than the last one, my love!” yelled Andrew, sinking down to a tired cross-legged sit. “Were you raised in a discount store? Do you want God to strike your helicopter down? Get a long-line girdle from Intimate Apparel on the fourth floor! And now, would you like to discuss that brassy, bimbo-blond hair while there’s still time to repent?”
Apparently not, for the helicopter was veering off. The bullhorn fell from his hand and rolled off to one side as his head sank to his chest. His chin lifted slightly as he tracked a quirky movement across the roof out of the corner of one eye.
The rat was back.
The animal was getting bolder, coming out in the broad daylight. It trotted up to his splayed hand and sniffed it, checking the fingertips for signs of life. Andrew snatched his hand back to his chest, but the rat didn’t run away. It only sat there, watching him. The creature seemed to grow in size as it walked around his knees and stood in front of him, slowly lowering itself on its haunches.
Perhaps this was the devil come to sit with him awhile. If the being who left his bread and flew from the roof was his Sunday school angel, replete with moon-gold hair, then there must be a devil, too. And didn’t the devil also have a long switching tail?
Oh, where was his guardian angel now? He looked up to the heavens, and the sun seared his eyes, but he felt no pain anymore.
Where was the angel?
Mallory stood just outside the ring of television cameras, boom mikes and round, bright lights on stalks of steel. A technician was attached to each piece of equipment. Other workers milled around inside this loop of machinery, while the pedestrian watchers stood behind the ropes which cordoned off the East Village gallery. Oren Watt’s head made furtive, jerky turns as he looked Mallory’s way from time to time, perhaps not believing she was still there, still doing this to him.
The man acting the role of Oren Watt wore clothes soaked in Technicolor blood. On cue from the director, the actor burst out the door of the old East Village gallery and ran down the street.
“You’re a lousy technical advisor, Oren.” Her voice was just behind him. Only a second ago, she had been at the edge of the crowd. “Everybody knows a junkie can’t run that fast. And you only had blood on your shoes when you left the gallery-that’s another mistake. How did you get rid of the rest of the blood, Oren?”
Watt was rigid now, never acknowledging her, but reflecting every verbal blow in some stiff movement of the head or shoulder. She looked down to his hands in spasms of clenching and unclenching.
She turned away from him to scan the crowd of pedestrians behind the ropes, wondering who else might have been attracted to the reenactment of New York’s most famous crime. Her eyes fixed on an old woman in layers of shabby clothes. The woman cradled a tea tin in her arms, rocking it like a baby. Now the gray head bowed down to speak to the tin as she tied it to the top of her wire cart with a bungee cord.
Very crazy, very old.
Or maybe this woman was not so ancient as she seemed. Life on the streets of New York was a rapid aging process. The average homeless person could expect to die in twelve years.
Mallory stripped the woman with her eyes, taking years off the bent body, looking beyond the matted strands of gray hair to see what lay beneath the deep-etched lines of the face. The gray head turned toward her, and Mallory was staring into familiar eyes, large and expressive.
The woman dragged her cart backward into the crowd. A path was made for her by those who dreaded head lice and the stench of the homeless. Mallory moved forward, crossing the space between the television crew and their audience. Her long legs easily swung over the restraining rope, and she was pushing her way through the crush of people.
A man grabbed her by the arm. “Who do you think you’re shoving, sister?”
She stopped to open her blazer and retrieve her shield and ID. The man let go of her arm. It was the exposed gun that spoke to him, not the badge. It was a very large gun.
Mallory pressed on and broke through to the other side of the crowd. Sabra was turning a corner at the end of the block and disappearing down a side street. Mallory followed from a distance as they moved south across Houston.
On Essex Street, Sabra settled her cart by the wall of a boarded-up building. Mallory watched as the woman pulled wood slats from a basement-level window. With no hesitation, Sabra lowered her cart through an exposed black hole and followed after it with the ease and confidence of long practice.
So this was home. Well, good.
It was best to meet on Sabra’s own turf. From what she’d been told of this woman, intimidation would not work. They had to talk on Sabra’s terms, or she would get nothing.
Sabra’s hands reappeared at the hole between the boards. She reached out to retrieve the slats she had removed, and now she was pulling them into place, fitting them back into the nail holes.
Mallory gave her a four-minute lead. Then she knelt on the ground and gently, soundlessly pried one board away from the basement window. She looked in on a shallow, dark space, accented by one blurred rectangle of bad light streaming in from the street. She pulled away the rest of the boards and eased herself through the opening.
Her running shoes touched down on a surface too high to be the basement floor. Her eye adapted, but there was little to see. She was standing on a large wooden shipping crate. Directly before her was a plywood wall. On her right was a crude staircase made of smaller crates in staggered sizes. It led down to the basement level and turned a corner into perfect blackness.
Mallory reached outside the window and pulled the boards back in place, fitting the wood to the window frame in the manner of politely closing a door behind her. When the last pinhole of light was gone, the space had become so dark, her eyes had lost their purpose- she was blind,
Welcome home, said the darkness as it closed in all around her in the suffocating embrace of old acquaintance, and where have you been all these years, Kathy Mallory?
One hand drifted to the gun in her holster, to the touch of something real and solid. As her hand dropped away, her mind was in free fall again, no up nor down, no compass point. She made her way down the short flight of crates which passed for stairs. Her fingers grazed the wall and trailed along its rough surface. When the wall ended, the floor became even and cement solid. She entered a space which might have been a closet or a football stadium. Picking her steps with great care, she walked forward with the sense of something looming in front of her. Her hand reached out and connected with a solid wall. Her fingertips walked along the wall, guiding her until she touched on a cluster of living, squirming things, and now one of them was crawling up her hand. She flicked her wrist and shook it off.
The nest of roaches was not the worst thing she had ever touched in the dark. Once, on a moonless night by the river, under the piers, a ten-year-old Kathy Mallory had encountered a soft obstacle in her path. Night blind and curious, she had made out the shape of the thing on the ground by running her hands over the long hair and the cold dead face of another child. Stunned by this discovery, she had sat down beside the girl’s body and not moved for hours. But before the dawn could shape the corpse and prove its reality to the child’s eyes, young Kathy had crept away in the dark to tell herself lies: that it had not happened; it was in the dark, and so it did not count, this evidence of a child’s mortality; that it could never be herself laid out like that, killed and thrown away.
She would survive. She would. And then Markowitz had found her, and she had gone to live with him and Helen in the old house in Brooklyn. From then on, it had been a life lived largely in the light. Stone blind now, guided only by the flat wall under her fingertips, she crept forward into black space, along a floor which might, at any footstep, turn into a great yawning hole. Her other senses were adapting to the loss of her eyes. The smell of roaches and dust mingled with urine and rotted food. She knew the crumbling sounds inside the walls were made by tiny feet, and something rat-size was slithering across the floor. Now there were high-pitched sounds, whistles and squeals-the conversations of vermin. And what of Sabra?
Mallory could not put one sound to a human being. Had the woman found her way out of the cellar? Mallory stood dead still in the pure blackness until she lost the sense of her own body. She reached out with her hands and encountered another wall. On again, moving slowly, listening to the rats’ feet and the sound of water dripping from a leaking pipe. Her fingers found a wet stream with the rank smell of rusted plumbing. The wall turned a corner, and the next panel was made of something less substantial, she guessed plywood. Reaching out with the other hand, she discovered another partition of the same flimsy material. She was in a narrow passage. Exploring hands found the seam of a door, and farther down, the knob. She pressed her ear to the wood and knew there was nothing living on the other side of it, nothing larger than the cockroaches. The musty odor of their pollution was everywhere. She found another door on the other side of the small passage. No one home there, either.
She stopped to listen for the larger creature, as if believing she could detect the heartbeat of a human apart from the collective life signs of rats and insects.
But the woman was here. Mallory could feel the presence, the tension of one who waited and listened. It was guarded intuition, the awareness of a nearby animal set to spring. Mallory wandered farther down the passage, passing other doors. She guessed this basement had once been rented out for storage rooms. A good guess. She turned another corner and found herself in an identical row of facing doors.
“Tell me what you want with me,” commanded a woman’s voice, floating free in the black space.
There was no way to orient the sound except by the distance, which was neither near nor far. Mallory revolved slowly in the dark.
“Tell me what you want,” said the voice.
This time, the voice came from behind her. She turned around. “My name is Mallory.”
“I know who you are, Detective. I asked you what you wanted.”
The position had changed.
“I only want to talk to you,” said Mallory. And I wonder, do you read the papers, Sabra? Or did someone tell you my name and rank?
She had a vague direction now, and she moved toward it. A rat ran over her foot and squealed in terror as she kicked it.
“Stay where you are, Mallory. Don’t come any closer. I wouldn’t like that. You may be younger, but I know the terrain and you don’t.”
“All right, Sabra, we’ll do it your way,” she called into the void, moving forward with softer footfalls than any of the other creatures in the basement.
“You have no children, do you, Detective Mallory?”
“No, Sabra. No children, no family.”
“You can’t know what it’s like to have your child slaughtered.”
“I’ve seen the crime-scene photographs.” And what had Sabra seen? The real thing?
“Photographs won’t show you the half of it, not the pain she was in, not any of the terror. Is there anything in your experience that can tell you what that was like?”
You and the priest and the rabbi. You all want a piece of me. All right, I’ll play.
“I saw my mother slaughtered before I was seven years old. I know exactly what it’s like.”
She stopped moving in the silence and waited for the voice to begin again, to give her bearings and direction.
“I’m sorry. So sorry.” The voice softened now, a mother’s voice. “It’s incomprehensible, isn’t it? You can’t quite believe that you’ll never see the one you love again. How could it be possible that this person could just cease to be? Detective Mallory, how did you feel when you finally understood that you would never kiss your mother again?”
Was the voice farther away now? Mallory moved forward in the dark, making no sound. “That was the thing I missed the most-the kiss. For a long time, I couldn’t go to sleep without it. The dark was always difficult for me. The dark of night and no mother. I’m afraid of the dark, Sabra. Can we go somewhere in the light and talk? Can we, please?‘’ Wheedle of a child to a mother.
“Perhaps.” Sabra’s voice was edging away.
Mallory stepped forward again.
“Tell me about your mother,” said Sabra.
You and the priest and the rabbi.
“I think I look like my mother,” said Mallory. “For years it drove me crazy because her face was slipping away from me. And then one day, there she was in the mirror. But by then I had another mother-Helen Markowitz. Helen was wonderful. I loved her, too. And then Helen died a few years ago. I was very angry with her. Does it sound strange to be angry with someone for dying?”
She waited for Sabra’s answer. And waited.
And now Mallory knew she had been abandoned. She had been talking to no one.
She moved forward with speed, too reckless, and her blind feet stumbled over a crate. Her shin hit the wood, but she did not cry out. Mallory felt her way along the corridor of doors to empty rooms. She stopped and listened to the sound of the boards being pushed out to the pavement beyond the window. Moving forward again, she hit a wall in a blind corridor, a dead end. She turned back, moving faster now in her familiarity with space already covered, rounding a wall of lockers, and then another. But she realized too late that she had lost her orientation. She was heading deeper into the room, and away from the window.
Sabra was gone by now, slipped away down some street in the invisible cloak of poverty. No one on the sidewalk would be able to point the way she’d gone, for who ever looked at the face of a bag lady?
When Mallory rounded the storage cabinets into the next row, she saw a flickering light leaking out from the crack beneath one of the doors, and she hurried toward it, flying through the suffocating darkness.
She pushed open the door, knowing that no one would be there. The tiny room was lit with candles. Newspapers lined one side of the room with black-and-white pictures of Oren Watt. Color photographs of a child were pinned to the opposite wall. Cracked dishes were neatly stacked in a corner. It was too familiar.
The storage room was small and close. The photo graphs of the child gave Mallory glimpses into a background of more open spaces and graceful living, a happier time in Sabra’s life. All around this cramped space were the signs of obsession. The woman must have collected every newspaper article ever printed about the murders. Mallory understood obsession. It was a basic thing. It was important to find a place to put your hate. She understood, but it would make no difference.
I have to get the press off my back and the feds out of NYPD or I lose my case.
The bedding on the floor was a rotting blanket pulled over a makeshift mattress of old clothes and newspapers. One photograph lay on a tattered pillow. It was Aubry dancing. How beautiful she was. Mallory looked closely at the photograph, then turned it over facedown.
Sabra, it’s a big mistake to get between me and a case.
She turned to see another photograph pinned to the wall, and this one was startling. Sabra smiled for the camera as she was holding Aubry on her lap. The resemblance between mother and child was a strong one. This might be the only likeness of Sabra in existence, the single breach of her fanatic rejection of portraits. It must have meant a great deal to her. It must have been hard to leave it behind. Sabra’s eyes stared into Mallory’s.
You lose, Sabra!
In the shimmer of candlelight, the walls seemed to move. The candles were everywhere. Mallory walked around the tiny room, blowing them out in the familiar manner of an old ritual, until there was only one candle left to illuminate the photograph of mother and child. Aubry was perhaps four years old. Sabra was planting a kiss on her cheek, as Aubry was squirming free to mug for the camera, eyes crossing, laughter spilling out of the photograph.
Sabra would never kiss her child again.
Mallory did understand. I was there before you, I know what you think, what you feel, I remember the kiss.
She sank down on the floor, pulled up her knees, and bowed her head. In memory, she was a child again, sitting in the discarded refrigerator carton that had once been her home for a few days in winter. She remembered lighting a candle and casting her child-size shadow on a plywood wall. She had stolen all her candles from the churches, and she lit one each night without fail, only dimly remembering the candle had some purpose beyond the light.
She remembered pulling the two dishes from her small store of belongings, which might be discarded the next time she had to run. Young Kathy had carefully emptied the food from her pockets onto the plate and poured the contents of a soda can into the cup. The dishes were somehow important, and whenever she lost a set on the run, she would steal another as the first order of business.
After the meal she would wipe her face with a dry square of cloth, in vague semblance of a forgotten bedtime ritual. As a child she had pulled together these simple conventions of home, the makings of sanity. And last, it had been her habit to blow out the candle and pull a blanket of newspapers round her, tucking herself in.
One thing that was lost to her was the kiss before sleep. But so much had been lost. The child had become resigned to this and ceased to cry over it anymore. Over time, the baby hard case had come to take some pride in the dearth of tears, and hard anger had displaced each soft and childlike thing about her.
On the night Helen Markowitz took possession of her, that good woman had gone through all the rituals of the meal, the bath, and then the forgotten customs of the nightclothes, brushing teeth and braiding hair. Last in the order of familiar and forgotten things, Helen had turned out the light and bowed down to kiss the small child in her protection.
After this gentle woman had left the room, the little hard case turned her face to the wall and cried in eerie silence, tears only, but so many-so important was this small act which was committed all over the world between mother and child.
Brilliant sunlight illuminated the stained-glass windows of the cathedral. Arches curved heaven high. The priest and his altar boys were steeped in the ritual of communion, the eating of the flesh of Christ and the drinking of His blood in the form of bread and wine. One young woman listened carefully as the priest spoke to the parishioners kneeling at the railing before the altar. He offered them the flesh and then the blood wine. This woman was at attention in every part of her being, as though committing the service to memory.
The elderly priest faltered in the words when he saw Kathy Mallory standing at the back of the church. Then the words began again, his mouth apparently not requiring his full attention, so accustomed was he to the ritual. Not one parishioner noticed his absence in spirit.
Father Brenner watched her as she walked to an altar where a score of candles were lit beneath the statue of Saint Jude. Ten years had passed since he had seen her, but he knew her at once-that face, that incredible face. God’s grace was writ into the very shape of it. Kathy Mallory even walked in grace-while Sister Ursula still limped when it rained.
So Kathy had come to God’s house. This was a miracle, or at the very least, he could tell an elderly nun her prayers for the born-to-stray lamb had been answered.
He watched the prodigal child steal a handful of candles from the altar of Saint Jude. Then she slipped out the door. Well, some things never changed.
Charles was bewildered. Mallory only slathered mustard on her sandwich and behaved as though she had just told him that the mayonnaise had gone bad. He sat down at the table, still wondering if he had heard her right.
“Sabra is living on the street?”
“That’s right,” she said. “Pass the cheese plate, will you?”
Sabra is homeless and pass the cheese plate. He remembered a time when there had been a predictable and tranquil sameness to his days. Then along came Mallory, and soon the world was a jarring, unnerving place where logic ruled if she could twist it her way-otherwise not. And humanity was a weakness she tolerated in fools like himself.
And now Sabra was homeless, and Mallory was building a triple-decker sandwich.
“You have to find her and right now. Can’t you put out an all-points bulletin or something?”
She reached over to grab the cheese plate herself. “No. Sabra hasn’t broken any laws.”
“Couldn’t you make up some plausible reason for it?”
“That would be against the rules, Charles.” She selected the Swiss cheese.
“But under the circumstances…”
“The end never justifies the means,” she said, throwing his own words back at him, shutting him down with his own rules. “And suppose one of Blakely’s boys turns her up before I do?” She cut her sandwich on the diagonal and paused to admire it. “I’ll never be allowed to talk to her. They’ll lock her up someplace. Is that what you want? You think Sabra wants that?”
“Mallory, she’s obviously not in her right mind.”
“You don’t know that.”
Perhaps he had erred here. It was never a good idea to suggest she had missed the obvious, but he was about to do it again. “She’s living in filth on the street, and her family is worth millions. That’s your idea of sane?”
“Well, she never cared about their money, did she? That’s what you told me. Her kid is dead, and she’s living with obsession and hate. Trust me, she could care less about the surroundings.”
“Maybe it is, but I understand it.”
There was a warning edge in her voice. He chose to ignore it. “You have to find her and get her to a hospital.”
“I’ll find her eventually. It’s going to take some time.”
Her responses were crisp and growing cooler.
“Mallory, you must find her right now. It’s your duty to find her. This poor woman-”
Something in her tone of voice made him lose the place-marker in his mind. Now his face was one naked question mark, and she rose from the table to come closer to him, the better to explain all the errors of his ways.
“I live in the real world,” she began, as though instructing an idiot child from some fraudulent planet.“All I care about is the murder of Dean Starr. It’s going to lead me to the evidence for the murders of the artist and the dancer. You must realize that nobody actually wants me to work that one out-not the commissioner, or the mayor, not the city attorney or the chief of detectives. It’s dirty laundry, big-time embarrassment and potential lawsuits.”
“But Sabra hasn’t harmed anyone. Justice dictates that-”
“There is no justice.” She left him to fill in her pause with the implied, but unspoken, You imbecile. “New York cops are paid to keep the city from sliding into a cesspool-that’s it! There is nothing in the job description about justice. Sabra didn’t get justice for Aubry.”
“But you could help this woman if you-”
“No, Charles, I can’t. I can’t fix the world for her and put everything back the way it was. Her kid will never come home again. But Sabra can help me. They all want the case buried, Charles. Do you like the idea of people getting away with a thing like that?”
“It’s your job to-”
He did back off, and back up, and he would have backed out of the room, but she was standing in the doorway.
“I’m doing my job,” she said-spat. “So Sabra goes on, and I go on.”
She stalked down the hallway, crossed the front room and slammed the door behind her to say she had not appreciated his criticism very much, not much at all.
Charles pulled a blanket around his shoulders and surveyed the roof which overlooked Bloomingdale’s. This was penance for crossing Mallory. This was what it had taken to pacify her. His mistake was asking what he could do to help. The next thing he knew, she was handing him a blanket, a building key, binoculars and a cellular telephone. And now he was doing time on a roof, baby-sitting the lunatic Andrew Bliss.
He turned to Henrietta Ramsharan, a good friend and a good sport, who probably had other things to do this evening. But she had come when he called. “So what do you think?”
“Long-distance psychoanalysis isn’t in my bag of tricks, Charles.” Henrietta lowered the binoculars. “But I think you may have underestimated the case. He’s not unraveling, he’s unraveled.”
“Perhaps I should try to convince Mallory to bring him down from the roof.”
“Have you considered the possibility that Andrew’s state of mind is Mallory’s work?”
“No, I just assumed it was. How badly damaged is he?” And how badly damaged was Mallory? That was the question he really wanted to ask, but he didn’t really want the answer.
“Well, Charles, talking to the mannequin is not a good sign.” She raised the binoculars again. “I’m looking at wine bottles all over the roof and no sign of food. So, the aberrant behavior might be a temporary delusion brought on by fasting and alcohol abuse. If I’m right, it’s not irreversible damage. But he’s hardly moving now. Physically, he’s in very bad shape.”
He thanked her for coming, and walked her across the roof to the door. She was reluctant to leave him alone here, but he was even more reluctant to impose on her anymore. His good-mannered insistence won out, and she left him. It was his only clear win of the day.
He returned to his lonely outpost at the ledge and focussed his field glasses on the hapless Andrew, who at least had the mannequin to talk to. Henrietta had been gone for an hour when he turned to the sound of footsteps.
“Hey, Charles.” Riker leaned a rifle against the retaining wall and glanced over the side to the roof below. “So Mallory talked you into roof duty, huh?” He set a paper sack on the ledge. “You can go home now. I’ll take it from here.”
“No, I’ll stay. Mallory’s coming to relieve me. She wanted me to tell you to go home and get some rest.”
“Thanks, I could use a decent night’s sleep.” He handed the sack to Charles. “Here, you can have my sandwiches and beer. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Look out for Mallory?”
Riker smiled. “Mallory will be all right. She knows the rules. She pushed Blakely too far. She saved Coffey’s ass, and she paid the bill with her house.”
“The house? You think Blakely did that?”
“I don’t think it, I know it. Heller jumped into the arson investigation and pulled a print from the gasoline can and another print from inside the house. We bagged the perp who set the fire. He’s one of Blakely’s men. Now we get to hold the guy for seventy-two hours without charging him. That’s gonna make Blakely real nervous, maybe nervous enough to cut a deal with Robin Duffy.”
“Robin? He’s involved-”
“He’s known Mallory since she was a puppy. We couldn’t keep him out of it. There was no arson coverage on the house. Duffy was pressuring the department for an investigation so he could sue somebody to cover the damage. We had to cut him in, or he would’ve blown the scam.”
“Yeah, it’s a thing of beauty, Charles.” Riker hunkered down beside Charles and took back the paper sack. He pulled out two sandwiches and a six-pack of beer. “Blakely keeps his payoff money in a nice fat offshore account-more than enough money to pay for the kid’s house and-”
“Just a minute. A lawyer is conspiring with police officers to blackmail the chief of detectives into paying for the arson with his bribery money. Am I following this?”
Riker nodded, popped the tab on a beer can and handed it to him. Charles thought, yes, he would very much like a drink just now.
“It gets better.” Riker slugged back his beer and grinned. “If everything goes well, Blakely is going down, resigning without a pension. That’s part of the deal. He’s going to walk away with no jail time, but he’ll be dead broke. Mallory only has to stay out of Blakely’s way for a few more days-just long enough for him to realize that he can’t dig his way out of this.”
Charles took a healthy swig of beer. “You think he might go after her again?”
“Well, she’s got him cornered, and he’s making a fight of it.”
“So Mallory’s involved in this?”
“Charles, do you know anyone else who could’ve put this scheme together?”
No, of course not. What had he been thinking of? “I don’t suppose this could’ve been managed in a clean, law-abiding fashion?”
“Naw, that almost never works.” Riker settled himself on the ground beside Charles and grabbed up a blanket from Mallory’s duffel bag. They sat together on the floor of the roof, cross-legged in the storytelling fashion of nearly forgotten summer camps.
Riker pulled a fresh pack of cigarettes from his paper sack and began the evening’s entertainment with a metaphor which was far from a child’s campfire. “Just think of corruption as cancer in an animal. So maybe forty years ago, the cancer overtook the animal that was New York City, and then the cancer became the animal.” Riker lit a cigarette, and the ember glowed in the dark. “Ah, Charles, the city even steals from the kids. You know, by the time the money travels through the bureaucrats, the kids get damn little. Stealing from babies is pretty low.” He took a long drag on his cigarette, and they watched the smoke curl up to the moon.
“Don’t I just love this town?” Riker said this as much to himself as to Charles. “But now I’ll tell you what really scares me. Mallory fits into this system so beautifully. She plays corruption like a piano. She did make Blakely back off of Coffey. Not only that, but the paperwork for his promotion is in the hopper. He’ll make captain before the month is out. You gotta wonder what she had on Blakely to pull that off.”
“You don’t know? But the payoff money in the-”
“Oh, it’s an open secret that Blakely is a dirty cop. Naw, she made her deal with him and she stuck by it. She won’t share the details. Coffey thinks it’s a mob connection, but only Mallory knows for sure. I’d bet even money she could get the dirt on any poor bastard that gets in her way. I feel sorry for Quinn if he’s holding out on her.”
“She won’t get any dirt on Quinn.”
“She can get anybody, Charles.”
“Quinn is an honorable man. His wealth comes from inheritance and a clever way with stock manipulation. He doesn’t steal, cheat or lie. I know this man.”
“Look, if you won’t bet that Mallory can stick him with a sword, I’ll bet you that Quinn is more like Mallory than you know.”
“No bet. I believe there is a sense of honor in Mallory. It’s a bit twisted but-”
“Charles, that’s not exactly what I meant, but never mind.”
“No, please go on.”
“Twelve years ago, Quinn pulled political strings to keep the police away from the family during the murder investigation.”
“But those people were falling apart, they couldn’t take any more.”
“Everybody gets ripped up in a murder investigation. There’s a lot of breakage, but it’s necessary. We couldn’t do the job with Quinn’s interference. People in high places owed him favors and he called them in. He obstructed a homicide investigation-that’s a major crime, and you’ve gotta have a lot of dirt on the right people to pull it off. That’s why Markowitz brought Quinn into the case and made him part of it. You see how it works?”
Charles shook his head. “The correct-”
“The correct procedure would have been for Markowitz to lose his job slapping Quinn with a charge of obstruction-Quinn and every politician he knew. So instead, the old man made use of Quinn and his connections. Clever? Well, Mallory learned a lot from her old man. The kid turned out to be a natural. You know, she works the weasels better than Markowitz ever did. It cost her one house to learn how far she could go, but she’s the new master.”
Riker said his good night as he stood up. He ambled off toward the roof door. Then he stopped and turned to face Charles. “The kid’s all grown up now. I feel like I’m out of a job.”
Charles smiled. Riker did not.
For another hour, Charles continued to sit on the roof with a blanket around his shoulders, staring at the lunatic on the roof of Bloomingdale’s. He looked at his watch. The minute hand was coming up on the hour when Mallory would relieve him, and she was never late.
“Hello, Mallory.” He said this to the night air, for he had not heard her open the door, nor any footsteps. He had absolutely no sense of her presence.
“So, how’s it going, Charles?” She settled a grocery bag on the ground beside him.
Did she seem disappointed that he hadn’t given her a chance to sneak up and frighten him? Yes, she did, and he was delighted. Mallory had a strange and unsettling sense of gamesmanship, but he was definitely getting the hang of it.
He lowered his binoculars. “I think Andrew might be dying.”
She took the binoculars from his hand and stared at the thin figure of Andrew Bliss lying on the down quilts, barely moving anymore. “No, he’s okay. I just saw him twitch. Good night, Charles. Thanks for the help.”
And now he pressed his luck. “You know this man is obviously not in his right mind.”
“He’s hiding out from a killer. That sounds like a pretty sane game plan to me.”
“Hiding out on the roof of Bloomingdale’s with full media coverage from dawn to dusk? This is hiding? This is sane?”
It was, now that he thought about it, and smart too. And after dark, Andrew could be assured of a hundred voyeurs among the thousand windows that looked down on the roof. If they could count on a sane killer, and Mallory certainly did, then who would be fool enough to harm the man without cover? Yet Charles could not shake the idea that this poor lunatic was Mallory’s idea of a good piece of lean meat, a bit of bait for a serial killer.
It was with some reservation that he made his way across the roof and left a helpless fellow human in the hands of Mallory. And now another thought occurred to him as he descended the stairs: She would always view civilians as a class of defenseless, witless sheep, and she would lay down her own life for any one of them, without hesitation. She was a cop.
If God was not listening to Andrew’s prayers, Mallory was, and she had grown tired of the slow drone of intonations. She lowered her directional microphone, picked up her cellular phone and dialed the number of the priest. Before she could speak, she heard the old man’s voice saying, “Yes, Kathy?”
“I want to make confession, but I don’t remember the words.”
“There’s a good reason for that, Kathy. You never made a confession in your entire life, not in or out of the church,”
“Tell me what to say.”
“Do you remember the last time we discussed confession in my office? I remember your very words. That’s not the way it works,‘ you said. ’If you can’t catch me doing it, then I didn’t do it. I’ve got rights, and you can call Markowitz, he’ll tell you. I don’t ever have to confess to anything.”
“And did you call Markowitz?”
“Yes, Kathy, I did.”
“He said, ‘The kid is absolutely right.’ Then he hung up on me.”
“So tell me the words. I want to take communion. I can’t do that until I confess my sins, and I need the damn words.”
“Actually, the church has loosened up a bit since you were with us. You can take communion if you-”
“No, I want to do this right.”
“Why don’t we just talk about it first?”
“Is this under the seal of the confessional? You can’t tell anyone, right?”
“That’s right. You were so young when your mother died. There is no fault attached to your actions. You were frightened, you ran away. That’s what children do. I only wish you had told me about this when you were still a child. You shouldn’t have had to carry that-”
“You would have told the others.”
“Still the same trusting little soul you always were.”
“Sarcasm is unbecoming in a priest. I think you spend too much time hanging out with Rabbi Kaplan.”
“An occasional poker game.”
“I knew it. If you’d known, you would’ve talked. You would have told them all.”
“No, that would never have happened. But what if they had known? Helen wanted to adopt you. If your mother was dead, that would’ve been possible. Was your father still living?”
“This is not about my father.”
“You witnessed your mother’s murder?”
“I saw her after the bastard left her for dead. She was crawling toward me, covered with blood. Any one of those wounds should have killed her. You know what kept her going? She had to crawl a long ways with mortal wounds. But she thought I would get to her in time to save her. That’s why she was holding on.”
“No, Kathy. She wanted to touch you before she died, to say goodbye. That’s what kept her going. It was for you that she kept going. She must have loved you more than her own life.”
“No. She believed I was going to save her. But I ran away.”
“And you survived. So she did not go through that ghastly ordeal for nothing. Do you know who killed her?”
“No. I never saw him.”
“You never spoke of this to anyone?”
“That would explain a lot.”
“The bruises on Sister Ursula’s shins? She had that coming.”
“I won’t argue that. But you know, there’s a kind of innocence in insanity. Ursula still wonders what you’re up to. If she knew this about your birth mother, she would send up the flames of a thousand candles each night for the rest of her life. You tend to linger in her memory. You have that effect on people.”
“You can’t tell her or anyone.”
“Of course not. Why are you telling me now?”
“I’m confessing. Now what do I do with the guilt? I’ve confessed. What now?”
“You were a blameless child.”
“I don’t want to hear that crap, Father. So let’s say I’m guilty, and I’ve confessed. What now?”
“God forgives you.”
“Yeah, right.” She hung up on him.
He walked around the roof, occasionally pausing to anchor himself by touching the corner of the table or some object, fearing he might float away if he did not hold on to something solid, something real. He picked up an empty wine bottle and set it down again. At each turn of the roof, he kept his eyes to the design of the plush rugs which carpeted the tarpaper. He avoided looking at the decorative mirror in a small art deco frame, skirting it with a tremor of terror. The last time he had looked at his reflection, it had been like viewing the remains of a familiar corpse.
His eyes, oh his eyes.
There were two dead flies lying on the table, sun-dried and so light, they were carried off on the next breeze. He turned away. His hand worked over his eyes and left them closed, the way that service was done for the deceased.
He sat down on the tarmac and addressed the upholstery of the chair. “I couldn’t stop what happened.”
There was no response from the upholstery.
“There was nothing I could have done.”
He took the chair’s quiet repose for agreement. He opened his eyes and leaned over to touch the brocade arm, as though to gain the chair’s confidence, and then he went on in a louder monotone. “What good would it have done to tell?”
He stood up and walked twice around the chair in the way of a child who believes that the circle has a magical and protective charm. He came to rest beside the chair and put one arm around the back of it. “Oh, what would have been the good of it?” His voice was rising more. Hysteria came stealing up his throat, surprising him and scaring him with a shrillness in his voice. “Well, it’s crazy, that’s all-just crazy!”
One hand clawed through his matted hair. “Am I screaming?” he screamed. “Do I sound a little frantic?”
The chair withdrew into prolonged silence. He turned away, tears running freely.
When he turned around again, a beautiful woman was sitting in the chair. He recognized the moon-gold hair, though in the better light of the standing lamp, it was closer to burnished copper, and her eyes were long slants of green. The tailoring of her blazer was superb. This was definitely his angel.
“Good evening, Andrew,” said the angel, in a soft, silken voice. It was nearly music.
“Good evening.” And now he wished he had paid more attention to the nuns’ instructions on the order of cherubim, seraphim, and assorted supernatural messengers.
“I understand you’ve been praying for a sign.” She perused the labels of a small store of wine on the side table and found a bottle of red that she approved of. “Andrew, I really worry about you, up here all by yourself.” One long red fingernail split the skin of the seal around the cork. “Anyone can get at you…Anyone.”
She held a small silver device, which she now opened to expose a cruel screw of metal. She smiled. Andrew tucked in a breath and held it. She drove the point of the screw into the heart of the bottle cork and began to work it deeper and deeper.
Her blazer opened as she leaned forward to pour the wine into a silver goblet which had suddenly appeared on the low table. He saw the gun in her shoulder holster. Well, that was intriguing.
Now he was afraid.
So this was not his guardian angel at all. She was an avenging angel. He supposed that was only fair. So be it. “I see you carry a gun.”
A vertical line appeared between her eyebrows, only a faint line to show her annoyance. Andrew lowered his foolish eyes to look down at her feet, which were inexplicably encased in rather expensive running shoes. “It’s just surprising to see a gun. I suppose I expected a sword, a great shining sword.”
“Well, the world changed, Andrew.” She replaced the bottle’s cork. “We use revolvers now.”
“I suppose vengeance is vengeance, sword or gun.”
“You got that right.” She brought a handful of communion wafers from her pocket.
“How shall I address you?”
“Mallory-just Mallory is fine.” She set the wafers on the low table near the wine goblet and her cellular telephone.
“Mallory? Is that from the order of Malakim, the Virtues?”
If so, that would be good news. The Virtues liked everybody, and never slew anyone as far as he knew.
“I don’t know that one. No disrespect intended, but what rank is that?”
“Don’t piss me off, Andrew.”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m sure it’s a very high rank. I’ll just assume it’s right up there with the archangels.”
“Right. I’m a damn angel.” She picked up one of the wafers and held it out to him. As he took it from her hand, she said, “This is the body. Take this body and eat.” And then she picked up the wine goblet and offered it to him, saying, “This is the blood. Take it and drink.”
He looked down at the wafer and the wine goblet and then looked up at her with a mixture of fear and sadness. “But I can’t take communion. You see, I haven’t made confession for my sins. I can’t even remember the last time I made confession.”
“Yeah, right. That is a problem.”
“Will you hear my confession, Mallory?”
His speech was slow and slurred as he began to describe his sins. Far into his confession, which she could make nothing of, he fell asleep, and the only sound on the roof was the steady rhythm of his snoring.
The angel brought her fist down on the arm of the chair with enough force to make a loud crack in the wooden frame.
The penitent slept on.