It Happens in the Dark
The astonishing new Mallory novel from the New York Times–bestselling author and one of the most acclaimed crime writers in America.
The reviews called it “A Play to Die For” after the woman was found dead in the front row. It didn’t seem so funny the next night, when another body was found—this time the playwright’s, his throat slashed.
Detective Kathy Mallory takes over, but no matter what she asks, no one seems to be giving her a straight answer. The only person—if “person” is the right word—who seems to be clear is the ghostwriter. Every night, an unseen backstage hand chalks up line changes and messages on a blackboard. And the ghostwriter is now writing Mallory into the play itself, a play about a long-ago massacre that may not be at all fictional. “MALLORY,” the blackboard reads. “TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT. NOTHING PERSONAL.”
If Mallory can’t find out who’s responsible, heads will roll. Unfortunately, one of them may be her own.
ROLLO: To cadge a line from Blake, ‘Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than to nurse unacted desires.’ (He turns to Susan)Oh . . . sorry. Did that make you nervous?
—The Brass Bed, Act I
The Theater District did not shut down for winter storms. East and west of the Great White Way, streets were electrified. Bright lights and the dazzle of animated signs hawked comedy and drama, dance and song. Up and down the sidewalks, ticket holders shielded their eyes with mittens and gloves to gawk at the gaudy marquees.
Peter Beck’s bare hands were jammed into his pockets, and, head bowed, he only saw the pavement. His scarf was a crusted band of ice, feeble protection from stinging snow, but it served to hide the playwright’s moving lips. His voice was low, and so there was no fair warning for passersby. If other pedestrians had seen his face, they might have found him odd, but, had they heard what he was saying, they would have given a wide berth to the mumbling man who was alternately angry and insanely sad.
The woolen cap was ripped from his scalp, and he turned back to watch it sail over a lamppost on the corner of Forty-ninth Street and Broadway. He raised one naked hand, and it was an effort to form his numb fingers into a fist. “Thieving wind!”
His other enemies were all theater folk.
He was done with crying, but the tears had not dried. They had frozen. Muttering, shivering, Peter walked past the theater’s main entrance, where he might well be told to wait in line. Farther down the sidewalk, he paused at the stage door, but decided against the humiliation of proving his worthiness to a rent-a-cop and perhaps being turned away if his name was not on the list of those who had made the cut.
When he had rounded a corner and then another to enter a blind alley, the wind was at his back, blowing him down the narrow lane of fire escapes and dumpsters to a dead end at the rear door. And there was the damn security guard he had hoped to avoid. The stranger in the tri-cornered cap hunched beneath a glass-caged light bulb, smoking a cigarette.
Would this man stop him? Oh, let him try.
As Peter reached for the doorknob, he knew there would be no challenge. He was invisible to the guard. At best, he was perceived as insignificant. And then there was that other word, the one used by women to neuter men—harmless.
Well, not tonight!
After the final curtain, the whole theater company, players to grunts, would bow to him on bended knee, wet their pants and crawl away.
Once he was inside, the alley door banged shut behind him, and Peter’s fingers, red as lobsters, fumbled with the buttons of his overcoat. As he made his way toward the broad scenery flats, the backstage lights flickered. Apparently, the glitches in the wiring were an ongoing thing. He looked up to see the young lighting tech, a tall stick with big feet, clambering down the catwalk ladder to stand with a pimple-faced stagehand in the wings. Neither of them gave so much as a nod to the sad man swaddled in wet, black wool.
Had he been stark naked, they would not have acknowledged him.
Snowflakes melted on Peter’s shoulders and his hatless, almost hairless head. Unwinding his scarf as he walked, he glanced at the blackboard on the wall behind the stage manager’s desk.
And his heart stopped—
For one beat—
New line changes were scrawled on the slate in white block letters.Opening night had come and gone, but the play was still evolving by an unseen hand, a chalk-wielding haunt, who gave new meaning to the word ghostwriter.
The playwright burped. A hiccup followed. The floor tilted and spun.
Hours ago, Peter Beck had left his apartment, dead drunk, and then lost both his gloves in two different bars twixt home and the theater. Listing to one side, he nearly toppled over when he heard the warning call, “Curtain in thirty minutes!” Threatening to pitch forward with every step, he lurched down a short flight of stairs to find his seat in the audience before—
The lobby doors opened wide, and people were coming down the aisles.
Peter found a place card on his reserved chair in the front row—but not front-row center. He had been shunted off toward a wall, brushed aside by a lackey’s seating arrangements. More cards appeared on three neighboring seats, and these were marked for the playwright’s guests, though he had invited no one.
Lacking the energy to shrug off his heavy coat, saving his strength for the final act, he sat down and fell asleep. Now and then, his watery eyes opened to catch snatches of the night. The front row was filled to his right. On his left side, the three complimentary seats remained empty, advertising that he was a man with no friends, certainly none among the cast and crew. He had missed the first performance, and not one of those bastards had thought to call and ask if he was well—or had he done them all the favor of a final exit, perhaps a long fall from some high window.
Rousing from lethargy for a slow turn of the head, he counted the house. According to the only critic in attendance last night, the play had opened to a sparse audience of twenty souls in a space built to hold more than a thousand—though not a bad turnout for foul weather, a theater with a blank marquee and a play with no advertising. Ah, but owing to that bizarre review in The Herald, tonight’s crowd had grown. At least seventy people had braved this second night of horizontal wind and snow. They formed a cluster in the center rows, and all of them had better views of the stage than he did.
The houselights dimmed. The curtains parted. Peter’s eyelids drooped and fell. Laughter woke him in fits as the first act was drawing to a close. He came fully awake to screams from the audience, cued by an actor’s swing of a baseball bat.
A bat? And when had that piece of business been added to the play?
The lights went out. All the lights. Curiously, even the red exit signs were turned off. Peter sweated in his thick wool coat and shifted his head to work out the crick in his neck, a quick slice of pain. His shirt collar was soaking wet, yet he felt oddly buoyant in his body, and his mind was floating elsewhere. The only sound was that of a small object striking the floor. And now, like the darkness, the silence was absolute.
When the stage lights came up, a woman seated on Peter’s right was the only one to scream this time, but she was not facing the stage. She was shrieking at him. He turned to her and gurgled a response as his chin nodded down to his chest.
* * *
Onstage, two actors transgressed when they stepped out of character and turned to the invisible fourth wall. Peering into the audience, they saw the bloodied corpse of the playwright slumped in a front-row seat, and one thespian said to the other, “Oh, crap. Not again.”
ROLLO: It’s locked. My brothers rarely open my window. They’re afraid the flies might get out.
The Brass Bed, Act I
The man from Special Crimes Unit had all the props: the salt-and-pepper hair of seniority, a gold shield on display and hooded eyes that said to everyone he met tonight, I carry a gun. Don’t piss me off. Even so, he had to shoulder and shove his way through the mob in the lobby, where people from the audience were giving statements to uniformed officers. Regrettably, Detective Riker had tempered his drinking this evening, only two shots of booze at his niece’s wedding reception, and that was hardly enough to take the edge off a theatergoer’s elbow to his kidney.
A smaller man, half Riker’s age, followed close behind him, yelling to be heard above the fray, identifying himself as the theater company’s gopher. “I go for this, I go for that. Whatever ya need.” His more formal name was Bugsy, he said, “— ’cause I gotta bug people to get stuff,” and then he added, “Detective Mallory’s already here. She beat the local cops.”
Of course she did. And the Upper West Sider had won that race with a forty-block handicap. Vehicular maniac. If only ambulances and fire trucks could match Mallory’s speed on the streets of Manhattan. Riker had no car of his own. Faced with an easy choice of drinking or driving, he had allowed his license to expire long ago. And so he had begged a ride back to the city with a fellow wedding guest, a slower motorist than his partner, one with regard for icy roads and human life.
The detective pushed through the lobby doors, and his vista widened with a jolt of space expanding, all tricked out in Technicolor. Halfway along the aisle of lush red carpet and beyond the overhang of the balcony, Riker looked up to a ceiling painted with dancers, high-kicking jazz babies weirdly blending with wall decorations of plastered-on Grecian urns. And scores of ornate sconces illuminated row upon row of red velvet chairs. Not a Broadway kind of cop, most of his theater experience came from Hollywood films, and now he was walking around inside an old movie made before he was born. Drop-dead glamorous was not a phrase he would say aloud, but here it was.
And there she was.
Framed by red curtains, his young partner, Kathy Mallory, stood at the center of the stage, motionless under a single unflattering light that made her seem flat like a cardboard cutout. But now other lights were trained on her, angling down from all sides to give the blond curls a weird halo effect, to sculpt a cat’s high cheekbones and round out her tall, slim body—bringing her to life.
Detective Riker had to smile.
Whoever was working the stage lights tonight, that guy was falling in love with Mallory.
A paunchy midtown detective, Harry Deberman, stood beside her, waving his arms and ranting in shadow, clearly unloved by the lighting guy. And Mallory also ignored the man from the local copshop, though she was the interloper in this precinct.
Riker followed his guide to the end of the aisle. The gopher was quick, but not a sprinter, more of a scrambler. Years down the road, whenever the detective thought of this young man, he would forget the details of tangled sandy hair and blue eyes that were way too bright; he would always picture Bugsy with twitchy whiskers and a tail.
No need of directions to the corpse, the locus of the medical examiner’s team and a crew from Crime Scene Unit. The local cop from Midtown North came down from the stage to stand with this small crowd, to hitch up his pants and splay his hands and yell, “Hey, let’s get on with the show! Get to work here, guys!”
No one obeyed Harry Deberman. None of them moved, except to raise their eyes to Mallory, who stood in the authority of a spotlight, arms folded and so in charge of all that she surveyed. She could also win the vote for best dressed. That cashmere blazer was custom made, and even the designer jeans were tailored. Her dress code of money on the hoof said to everyone around her, Pay attention! And they did. Her audience below, those who dressed down to the pay grade of civil servants, awaited her okay to bag the body and process the crime scene—her crime scene.
On her partner’s account, Mallory had held up the removal of Peter Beck’s bloody corpse for a solid hour.
How sweet. How thoughtful.
Riker hunkered down before the front-row seat of the balding dead man, who might be in his forties, maybe younger. The face had an unfinished look: hardly any lip, more like a pencil line for a mouth; and the nose was small, a kid’s nose that had failed to grow up with the man. The black woolen coat was open to expose a shirtfront soaked with the blood of a slit throat. On the floor at the victim’s feet was an old-fashioned straight-edged razor, and the corpse conveniently reeked of alcohol—liquid courage for the long, deep cut.
Well, how neat was that?
Detective Deberman bent down to Riker’s ear. “What’re you doin’ in my patch? Your partner won’t tell me squat.”
As yet, Riker had no idea why his unit had been called in, and so he shrugged. “I go where I’m kicked. I do what I’m told.”
Harry Deberman squatted on his haunches and pointed to the bloody weapon on the floor. “Odds are—that belonged to my stiff. The crew tells me this wimp used to brag about shavin’ with a cutthroat razor. I got this covered. . . . You can go now.”
The cut angled down from the victim’s right.
“You said you knew this man?” Riker looked up to catch a nod from Bugsy. “Was he left-handed?”
“Yeah, yeah, “ said Deberman, answering for the gopher. “And the cut angle matches up with a lefty. Now take a whiff. Smell the booze? The guy had to get stinking drunk to do it. So you got no business here. Everything fits with a suicide.”
“Murder,” said Mallory in the tone of Boo!
The man from Midtown North jumped to his feet and spun around to face Riker’s partner. He had never heard her step down from the stage to steal up behind him. Given a sporting chance to see her coming, the long slants of her eyes also made people jumpy. They were electric green. If a machine had eyes—
Mallory glanced at the corpse. “Deberman took a loose key from the coat pocket. The right pocket of a left-handed man.” Turning on the local detective, she said, “You thought I wouldn’t notice that?”
“One key.” Riker snapped on latex gloves and probed underneath the corpse’s winter coat to reach the pants pockets, and there he felt a bulge with the hard edges of a key ring. In New York City, most house keys traveled in fives: a mailbox key, one for a building’s outer door, and three more for the deadbolts that secured the average apartment in this lock-down town. Now the loose key from the overcoat was more interesting. Riker stood up, held out one hand and said, “Gimme.”
After a testy few seconds, Harry Deberman handed over an evidence bag containing a single key. Before he could be asked what else had been stolen, the man melted back through the ranks of the ME’s people and the crime-scene crew. Making a show of leaving on some more urgent matter, Deberman checked his wristwatch twice as he made an escape up the aisle.
“You better run,” said Mallory, though her voice was soft, and the departing detective was well out of earshot.
“Nice catch.” Pulling off his gloves, Riker stepped back from the body and stared at the bloody weapon on the floor. “But we don’t have the makings of a homicide. Not if it turns out the guy owned that razor.”
Mallory held up a closed hand, showing him one corner of a twenty-dollar bill. “I say that key was planted. The coat pocket was the only one the perp could reach.”
“No bet,” said Riker. The black overcoat had a mangled, slept-in look about it. One of its pockets was trapped under Peter Beck’s left thigh, and the most light-fingered killer could not have accessed either pocket of the tight-fitting pants. He hefted the bagged key in one hand, as if testing its weight as court evidence. There had to be more to it than this. With only the rise of one eyebrow, he managed to say to his partner, I know you’re holding out on me.
Mallory gave a curt nod to the ME’s man, the one holding a long, zippered bag sized to carry a corpse. While the body snatchers and forensic gatherers converged on the dead man, she threaded one hand under Riker’s arm and led him off to the side, where she held out her bet money in plain sight. “I say the loose key fits the victim’s front door, and the razor does belong to him. That makes it murder.”
He shook his head, not game enough to take her bait. “But why call us?” A death like this one rarely got the attention of Special Crimes. Their unit favored a higher body count. “I say . . . let the local cops have it.”
He smiled. She did not.
“Unless there’s more to it.” Riker’s smile got a little wider, a signal that she should pocket her twenty and just give it up. To bring this point home, he glanced at his watch. “Why waste time on a—”
“The play opened last night,” said Mallory, “but it shut down before the second act. And a city councilman was in the audience. Well, he comes back tonight to see the rest of the play. Again, it shuts down before the finish. So he calls a friend—a good friend. He’s got the commissioner’s home phone number, and Beale agrees with the councilman. Two dead bodies—one for each performance—that’s a bit much.”
“And Beale calls in Special Crimes.” So it was not just his partner’s reckless driving that got her to the crime scene ahead of the locals. He also understood why the midtown cop had wanted this homicide so badly. It had all the elements of a career case for a mediocre detective like Harry Deberman.
And now they had a game.
Riker felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to face a younger man with long dark hair. If not for the clipboard and the microphone headset, the civilian might have stepped out of a photograph from the 1800s. His shirt had an old-fashioned collar, and a bolo tie was strung around his neck. The detective knew he would see pointy-toed western boots when he looked down. Yup. This man was good-looking, and he had movie-star teeth, but he introduced himself as the stage manager, Cyril Buckner.
The urban cowboy turned to Mallory. “I think you have the wrong idea about—” “I’ve been looking for you,” she said. “Where’ve you been for the past hour?”
“I was trapped in the lobby with the audience.” Only this minute, he explained, the officers had released him with orders to report to her. And following an apology for eavesdropping, Cyril Buckner added, “This was a suicide. And that first death? That one doesn’t count.”
And Riker said, “Huh?”
“The woman who died last night had a heart attack.” The stage manager freed a folded page of newsprint from his clipboard. “That’s how we got this smash review.” He held it up so they could both read the bold-type words, A Play to Die For. “The drama critic only reviewed the first thirty minutes. That’s when the lady keeled over, and the cops shut us down. We didn’t get past the first act tonight, either.”
Mallory, the detective who did not need reading glasses, snatched the review from Buckner’s hand. After scanning the column, she smiled, not at all troubled over one death by natural causes. “The woman who died last night also had a front row seat. . . . She also died at eight-thirty.” Mallory lifted her chin a bare inch to silently ask if her partner was a great believer in that sort of coincidence.
He was not.
A lobby door swung open, and a young officer ran down an aisle, yelling, “We talked to everybody!” With the hands-up flourish of a boy sliding into home plate, he came to a stop beside Mallory. “Nobody sat behind the dead guy. There was a lady in the seat next to him. She’s got blood in her hair. But she didn’t see a thing—not till the lights came up. The whole place was pitch black for maybe a minute.”
Mallory turned her head slowly until her eyes locked onto the small man with the designation of everyone’s errand boy, and Bugsy froze in midstride. She called out to him, “Where’s that lighting guy? Get him out here!”
In the hour before Riker’s arrival, the gopher had come to know Mallory well enough to run for his life on command. And though his legs were short, Bugsy shot up the steps to the stage at light’s speed. Once he was on the other side of the footlights, his head craned all the way back as he looked straight up to yell, “Gil, come down! She wants you!” No need to give a name; he was obviously referring to She Who Scares Me.
Sheets of dropped paper wafted down from an unseen perch high above the floorboards. Apparently, Mallory also made the lighting guy nervous. After a distant patter of feet slapping stairs, a tall youngster, gawky and shovel footed, appeared onstage, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He only had eyes for her—big eyes.
Mallory pointed to a row of small bulbs lodged at the foot of one wall and leading to the red glow of an exit sign. “When the house lights go down, how bright are those emergency lights?”
“J-j-just bright enough for people to find their way out during a performance,” said Gil. “Except near the end of the first act—that was the blackout cue. All the lights were out for forty seconds. The lobby, too. Even the exit signs.”
The stage manager yelled, “That’s a violation of the fire code! What the hell were you—”
“I followed your instructions, okay?” Gill dropped to hands and knees, madly searching the fallen pages that littered the stage. Clutching one, he waved it like a white flag. “Here! Look for yourself. You added that cue to my—”
“No,” said Cyril Buckner, “I didn’t make any changes for lighting cues.”
“So those lights were on the whole time last night,” said Mallory, “but not tonight.” She faced the stage manager, daring him to lie to her. “Who else makes changes like that?”
* * *
Backstage, a wooden staircase led up to a loft platform. Its railed walkway was lined with dressing rooms, and Mallory longed to see what was behind those locked doors, but the supervisor of the CSIs had been taken ill and taken away, and the detective had not yet convinced the remaining team to violate laws of search and seizure.
She stood beside the gopher in the wings. Here, Cyril Buckner’s desk had a view of the stage through an open doorway in a scenery flat, but Mallory faced the other way, reading words on a large blackboard bolted to a more solid wall of brick.
“That board’s really old,” said Bugsy. “It’s been there forever. The ghostwriter’s the only one who uses it. That’s how he talks to us.”
“He’s never screwed with a change sheet before.” Cyril Buckner walked into the end of this conversation, accompanied by a uniformed escort. The stage manager turned to read the message on the blackboard. “Oh, shit! Well, you know that’s new.” He flicked through pictures on his cell phone to show the detective what had been written there earlier in the evening.
Mallory confiscated the phone and gave a nod to the waiting officer, who led the stage manager away. Bugsy remained, never drifting far from her side, as if tethered by a leash. This little man was her creature now.
With her back turned to the blackboard, the detective looked through the door in the scenery. Amid the stage furnishings of a brass bed, a table and a wheelchair, CSIs stood on taped Xs, standing in for actors while they reconstructed the moment when the playwright’s corpse was discovered in the front row. The cast and crew members, under the watch of officers, were tucked into widely spaced theater seats. But one of these people had slipped out of captivity for a while. The theater hummed with the comings and goings of cops and techs, and none of them had noticed the escapee at work on the blackboard.
“That spook’s the only one who uses chalk,” said Bugsy. “The stage manager uses a computer.” He unlocked a drawer in the desk and lifted a laptop to show her a stack of printouts. “Here ya go. Rehearsal notes, lighting cues, line changes. I post ’em on the callboard by the stage door.”
Riker walked up behind them as the gopher explained the odd history of one play replacing another, line by line, via anonymous changes printed on the blackboard.
Was her partner listening to any of this? No, he was not.
Sloughing off his winter coat, Riker sat on the edge of the desk. Though it only took a moment to read the words on the blackboard, he continued to stare at them—and Mallory stared at his suit. There were no wrinkles or stains, though he rarely resorted to dry cleaning until it was well past time to throw away his worn-out threads. A brand-new suit? Only a family wedding would rate this extreme measure; he was more lax about the funerals. She had not been invited, perhaps because she never showed up at these events. But when had he tired of asking her to come?
“Look at this.” She held up the stage manager’s cell phone to show him the small photograph of block letters in white chalk. “The ghostwriter was rewriting Peter Beck’s play.”
Because Riker would not wear bifocals in public, he only nodded, never taking his troubled eyes off the actual blackboard in front of him.
Bugsy leaned in close to look at her picture of it on the small screen. “Oh, that’s the spook’s line change for the second act.”
Those chalked words had since been erased and replaced with a new message: GOOD EVENING, DETECTIVE MALLORY. HOW YOU INSPIRE ME. FORGIVE ME, MUSE. CRUEL, I KNOW, BUT YOU MUST LOSE YOUR LOVELY HEAD. OH, THE BLOODY THINGS I DO FOR ART.
“Very formal,” said Riker. “Even for a first date.”
Praise for It Happens in the Dark
“Mallory continues to be an enigmatic and fascinating character . . . [her] closest counterpoint in mystery fiction is Lisbeth Salander.”—Mystery Scene Magazine
“Fans won’t want to miss another solid mystery from O’Connell”—Library Journal
“NYPD Special Crimes Detective Kathy Mallory is one of the most intriguing characters in crime fiction today.”—New York Daily News
Praise for the Kathy Mallory series by Carol O'Connell
“The Chalk Girl is an event – any Mallory book is. She is as fine a fictional creation as the crime genre offers.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Like every mother’s child, every author’s detective is exceptional. But Carol O’Connell takes it way over the top with the mythic scale of her mad-genius New York City cop, Kathy Mallory.” – Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“O’Connell’s awesome ability to weave a taut, complex plot works with Mallory’s equally awesome detective skills as she unearths each crystalline facet of crimes both past and present.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A remarkable series. O’Connell delivers shock after shock, held together by exquisitely detailed police and forensic procedure and by the riveting, punishing figure of Mallory herself.” – Booklist (starred review)
“O’Connell offers more than a suspenseful tale; she portrays a complex world of dark and light, corruption and love. Another must-read in a compelling and rich crime series.” – Library Journal (starred review)
“My new favorite in a long line of mysteries by Carol O’Connell that I have greatly admired and enjoyed. Mallory is one of the great characters ever in detective fiction. She’s tall, beautiful, scary smart and…just plain scary. A great read, filled with O’Connell’s command of humor, pathos and drama.” – San Jose Mercury News
“O’Connell’s writing is electric, her plots multilayered, and her cast of characters fascinating.” – Sacramento Bee
“Wow, my vote for the most terrifying and gripping January read. It will chill you to the bone with a plot rising right out of the Brothers Grimm.” – Barbara Peters, Poisoned Pen
“Mallory is one of the most fascinating characters in crime fiction. Before Lisbeth Salander, there was Mallory.” – Joanne Sinchuk, Murder on the Beach
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