The Chalk Girl
The eight-year-old girl appeared in New York’s Central Park one day: red-haired, blue-eyed, dirty-faced, smiling widely. She looked perfect, like a porcelain fairy—except for the blood on her shoulders. It fell from the sky, she told the police. It happened while she was looking for her Uncle Red, who had turned into a tree. Right, they thought, poor child. And then they found the body in the tree.
For Mallory, newly returned to the Special Crimes Unit after three months’ lost time, spent she will not say where, there is something about the girl that she understands. Mallory is damaged, they say, dangerously unstable, but she can tell a kindred spirit when she sees one. And this one will ultimately lead her to a story of extraordinary crimes, to murders stretching back fifteen years, to blackmail and complicity and a particular cruelty that perhaps only someone with Mallory’s history could fully recognize. In the next few weeks, she will deal with them all…in her own way.
They’re not monster size, but adults are afraid of them. Not Dad, of
course. My father doesn’t believe in monsters. And he doesn’t believe in me.p>
The detective closed the door to the lieutenant’s private office, perhaps sensing that his boss’s voice was about to rise a few octaves—a good instinct.
“Let Mallory out of her cage? Are you nuts?” The commander of Special Crimes Unit raked one hand through his light brown hair. A few years shy of forty, Lieutenant Coffey had a bald spot at the back of his head. It was his only outstanding feature and a reminder of what stress could do to a man. “It’s not like it’s the first time she’s done this.”
“And she’s not the first cop to walk off the job with no goodbye,” said Detective Sergeant Riker.
However, this man’s partner was the only one ever to fight her way back from desk duty, that graveyard of damaged cops.
But that was last time.
“This time is different!” Whoa. Deep breath. In a lower voice that would not slip under the doorsill, Jack Coffey said, “She was gone for three months, and I still don’t know why.”
Riker shrugged this off. “Since when does a cop have to explain lost time?”
Lost time? For most detectives that meant taking a walk around the block to clear their heads when the job got too crazy. But Mallory had taken a drive around the lower forty-eight states of the country, an area of six million square miles—not quite the same thing.
“The department shrink won’t sign off on active duty.” Lieutenant Coffey retrieved a psychologist’s report from his wastebasket and handed it to Riker. “Cut to the top of page three—where Dr. Kane says she’s dangerously unstable. I’ll tell you why that got my attention. Your partner is so good at beating psych tests.”
“And I’m sure she aced this one.” Riker tossed the report on the desk. “Dr. Kane’s afraid of women—especially women with guns. That quack probably wets his pants every time he sees her.”
“You knew what was in her psych report before I did. She told you, right?” Jack Coffey held up one hand to signal that a bullshit denial was unnecessary. Mallory could pick the locks to any data bank, and those computer skills had been sorely missed. In her absence, his detectives had been reduced to begging for warrants.
Closed venetian blinds covered a window that spanned one upper wall of his private office. The lieutenant lifted a long metal slat for a covert view of the squad room and his youngest gold shield. He was not the only one watching her. Other cops were stealing glances. Were they wondering if they could work with her again? These days, she could jack up the anxiety of any room just by walking in the door, and that had to stop.
Going by mere appearance, she was unchanged, still wearing silk T-shirts and custom-made blazers. Even her blue jeans were tailored, and her running shoes cost more than his car payment. Mallory would wear money if she could, flaunting the idea that she might be on the take, though he suspected her of being semi-honest. Her blond curls were styled the same old way, framing a porcelain mask with a cat’s high cheekbones. So pretty. So spooky. And what did that damn haircut cost?
And why didn’t she fight back?
As a condition of reinstatement, he had humiliated Mallory by making her handmaiden to the squad. For the past month of probation, she had done all their grunt work without complaint, filling out reports and filing them, making phone calls and tracking down leads for other detectives, tethered all the while to a desktop computer. She daily took this punishment with no sign of reproach, got so much as the arch of an eyebrow.
So how did she plan to get even with him?
And when might that happen?
The lieutenant watched her sort paperwork—busywork—and he knew those neat stacks would line up precisely one inch from the edge of her desk. Her other name was Mallory the Machine, and this worked well with the unnatural color of her eyes—electric green. Sorting done, she just sat there. So still. So quiet. He could not shake the idea that she was spring-loaded.
Jack Coffey was a man in a perpetual state of waiting.
She turned his way to catch him staring at her like a common peeper.
The metal slat snapped shut as he backed away from the window. “I don’t make the rules.” He turned around to face Mallory’s partner. “No fieldwork till she gets a pass from a shrink.”
“Got it covered.” Detective Riker reached into his pocket and pulled out a twice-folded ad of papers. “Charles Butler signed off on her. She’s officially sane.”
As if that could make it so, simply because Butler had more Ph.D.s than God did. “Does Charles know why she walked off the job?”
“That might be in here somewhere.” Riker unfolded the new psych report and scanned it—as if its contents might be a mystery to him.
Jack Coffey snatched the papers but never even glanced at them. He knew everything would be in order, and this new psych evaluation would trump Dr. Kane’s bad review. Mallory’s personal psychologist had better credentials than any department shrink, but the poor hapless bastard had one unfortunate weakness: Kathy Mallory. If she were barking at the moon, Charles Butler would just assume that she was having an off day. “Not good enough, Riker. She can’t just waltz back in here like nothing happened.”
Foolish words. He wished he could call them back—for that was exactly what she had done: Four weeks ago, Mallory had appeared in the squad room, hovering by the staircase door like a visiting wraith. And then, when all eyes were on her, she had taken up residence at her old desk by the window, a coveted spot that no one had encroached upon while she was away. During those months of lost time, other detectives had avoided going near her desk, as if it might be haunted, and some had even mentioned that the air was always colder there. The squad room had gone deadly quiet on that morning of her return; fifteen men with guns had sat helpless as hostages waiting for a bomb to go off. Riker, whose desk faced hers, had been the first to speak, saying, “The coffee sucks since you’ve been gone.” Only Mallory had ever thought to wash out the pot.
Today, sanguine as ever, Riker said to his boss, “You want her to quit?”
“For now, she stays on desk duty.” The lieutenant lifted one slat of the blinds and resumed his vigil on the squad room. Mrs. Ortega had arrived. He watched the cleaning lady pull up a chair close to Mallory’s and sit down for a visit. Well, that was normal enough. The two of them shared a mania for cleaning solvents. And now he glanced at the detective’s neat desk. All her work was done. How many hours had he devoted to dreaming up new things for her to do? He had stopped short of handing Mallory a broom and dustpan. She might have liked that.
Riker flopped down in a chair. In the only concession this man ever made to his boss’s rank, he had not lit the cigarette that dangled from his mouth. The dejected detective stared at the television set in the corner of the office and watched silent news clips of rats and running people. “Why not send Mallory to Central Park for the day? That’s harmless enough. Worst-case scenario—she rounds up a missing kid.”
Jack Coffey’s smile said it all: Not a shot in hell. “I just got off the phone with the park cops. All the kids from the day camp are accounted for.”
“And the one Mrs. Ortega reported?”
“No, not that one.” Charles Butler’s cleaning lady had filed today’s only missing-person report on a damn pixie. “I figure Mrs. Ortega was going for a psycho defense after she beat the crap out of the pervert.”
“I heard that!” The cleaning lady stood in the open doorway, her jaw jutting out, defiant and up for a fight. “I only said the kid looked like a fairy.” She reached into a deep pocket of her dress and pulled out a figurine. “Like this one.” The small ceramic creature had a wide smile, curly red hair and the wings of a giant housefly. “The mayor’s limo driver took me home so I could get it for you.” She walked into the office and set her fairy down on the corner of his desk. “Take a picture. It looks exactly like that little girl.”
“So the kid had wings?” Coffey turned to his detective. “Riker, you left that out of your report. And what’s this crap about the mayor’s limousine?”
“No wings,” said the cleaning lady. “She’s just a little girl, and she’s lost. Her T-shirt had blood on it. Was that in Riker’s report?”
“Blood?” The lieutenant smiled. “Maybe a little backsplatter from your trusty baseball bat?”
“No!” Mrs. Ortega held her breath for a count of ten. Then she dropped her scowl and the New York bravado; this matter was that important to her. The little woman’s tone was almost placating when she said, “There was blood on that kid before I creamed the pervert.”
“Then she’s probably one of the Jersey kids,” said Coffey. “While you were in lockup, did the park cops tell you about the rat attack in Sheep Meadow?”
“The rats were on the ground. The blood was on the shoulders of her T-shirt—nowhere else.” Mrs. Ortega folded her arms. “Good try, though.”
The telephone rang, and Riker leaned forward to pick up the receiver, as if expecting a personal call on his lieutenant’s private line. “Yeah? . . . Oh, yeah.” The detective listened for a moment and then held out the phone. “Boss, it’s the mayor. He wants to talk to you.”
A rat fell to earth, squealing all the way down, and landed with a thump at Coco’s feet. She had seen this miracle before. The lifeless creature lay with its pale yellow underbelly exposed, and the shiny eyes stared at the sky from whence it came. Red droplets fell down to disappear in the dirt at the base of the tree. The rat twitched, and Coco felt icy. Fluttery.
She could hear her heart beating.
The rodent’s body convulsed. Magically reanimated, it scrambled away in the underbrush, snapping twigs and making small mechanical squeaks and peeps. In a child’s game of statue, she stood still as death, and her heart—da dum, da dum, da dum—was louder now and faster.
Lieutenant Coffey settled into the chair behind his desk. He had concluded his telephone call from City Hall, and now he gave the cleaning lady his best political smile. “The mayor loves you, Mrs. Ortega.”
The city’s top politician was indeed her biggest fan, so happy that a civilian— not a cop—had broken the pedophile’s bones in full view of a dozen witnesses, most of them under the age of six. The mayor also suffered from the delusion that Mrs. Ortega’s heroism might balance out the bad press of rats eating a park visitor.
What a fool.
“The mayor tells me his limo driver was supposed to take you to City Hall—not Brooklyn. You’re overdue for a photo op and a press conference.”
“I told you,” she said, “I had to go home and get my fairy.”
“Of course, and thank you for that.” Jack Coffey stared at the winged figurine perched on the corner of his desk, and he picked his next words with care, electing not to tell her that the missing pixie would have to murder three or more people before Special Crimes took an interest. With great diplomacy, he splayed his hands, a New Yorker’s gesture to show that he held no animosity and no weapons. “The limousine is downstairs waiting for you . . . and the mayor’s waiting . . . and the television cameras.”
“No way,” said Mrs. Ortega. “I’m not leaving here till you—”
“I’ll tell the park precinct there’s still one kid missing.” Coffey picked up the figurine. “And I’ll send them a picture of this thing, okay?”
“Sure you will.” The little woman sat well back in her chair to let him know that she planned to stay awhile. Screw the mayor.
The lieutenant had only turned his head for a moment, and Detective Mallory appeared beside him, as if she had simply materialized from some other planet. Coffey knew that she did this trick to stop his heart, and he was about to point the way back to her desk when she smiled—never a good sign.
“I wonder,” said Mallory, in the off hand manner of opining on the time of day, “how bad does the mayor want to see Mrs. Ortega?”
Jack Coffey could only stare at her, fascinated, though he knew what would happen next. The game was blackmail. The young detective wanted out of her cage. And she was entirely too confident of her second psych evaluation.
“The little girl is disabled,” said Mallory. “She has Williams syndrome.”
“That’s right,” said Mrs. Ortega. “Charles Butler says she’ll never find her own way home. You can’t let her wander around the—”
“Just a damn minute,” said Coffey. “Charles saw her, too?”
“No,” said Mrs. Ortega, “I called him on the way to Brooklyn. He diagnosed her over the phone—the mayor’s car phone.”
The lieutenant smelled collusion.
“You might want to find that little girl.” Mallory was oh, so casual. “Pedophiles love Central Park. If the kid gets raped, it might wreck the mayor’s whole day.” It was unnecessary to mention that, via Mrs. Ortega, this detective now had the mayor’s ear. And the word payback also remained unspoken.
In the darkest region of Jack Coffey’s brain, a hobgoblin jumped up and down, screaming, “Shoot Mallory! Shoot her now!” But instead, the lieutenant turned back to the cleaning lady and forced a smile. “Okay, this is my best offer. I’ll get the park precinct to spot you ten cops to find that lost kid. Deal?”
Mrs. Ortega rose to her feet and leaned over his desk. One thumb gestured back toward the detectives behind her. “You throw in those two, and we got a deal.”
Mallory sat down in the chair next to Riker’s and stretched out her long legs. She opened her pocket watch, an antique handed down to her from thelate, great cop Lou Markowitz. She usually trotted out this prop to advertise the generations of police in her foster father’s lineage—and to call in favors owed to that good old man. On the day of her return, she had laid the watch on her desk as a plea and a dare to take her back. But today she held it up as an illustration of time passing. The mayor would be waiting, fuming, only moments from imploding.
Jack Coffey shrugged, and this was akin to waving a white flag of surrender. Sometimes losing was a good idea. Failure could be so restful. His tension headache was gone even before his two detectives had been dispatched uptown to Central Park. Mrs. Ortega was sent downtown to City Hall—a problem solved—and, by the scales of wins and losses, this might be a break-even day.
The lieutenant allowed half an hour before he turned on the volume of the television set. It was tuned to the cable channel for city coverage, and he expected to see the cleaning lady and the mayor in a press conference. Instead, he saw a picture of Columbus Circle, and around it ran a river of vehicles flowing from the tributaries of broad avenues. The camera narrowed its field and shifted to the sun-washed plaza of Merchants’ Gate, the southwest entrance to Central Park. The lens zoomed in on a monument, and atop this high pylon stood the golden statue of Columbia Triumphant riding her chariot drawn by three sea horses. The camera panned down to the tight shot of a little boy with many microphones framing his face.
And the lieutenant heard the second fairy sighting of the day.
The boy on camera invoked a celebrity pixie of storybook fame to describe a child who was still at large in the park. “But she wasn’t blond like Tinker Bell. This girl had red hair.” The boy’s smile became sly. With special glee and a touch of the ghoul, saving the best for last, he announced, “She was covered with blood!”
Oh, great. Just great.
“I bet you’re wondering how I know you’re lying.” Mallory did not say this unkindly, but her partner thought she did stare at the boy in the way a cat might gaze at its food—no eye contact. Riker wondered if she saw the child as all of one piece, like a slab of meat that wore a little baseball cap.
The young day camper was slow to realize that he was no longer safe in the company of smiling, solicitous reporters. This tall blonde was an altogether different sort of creature—and he was in deep trouble. His mouth hung open when he looked up at her, as if she outsized the golden statue that was merely larger than life.
Mallory grabbed the little boy’s hand and marched him around to the back of the monument that marked the entrance to Central Park. Riker followed close behind them to shield this kidnap from cameras on the other side of the plaza, where reporters interviewed the rest of the Jersey children, and where street musicians cranked up the music to compete with the honking horns of crazed drivers. Cars were frozen in a massive gridlock around Columbus Circle, and uniformed officers ran along the curb of the plaza, waving ticket pads at news vans insane enough to double-park. A civilian audience lined up to watch this circus, and food vendors appeared out of nowhere to
cater the party.
No one noticed the child snatched by the detectives.
“That girl did have blood on her.” The six-year-old’s voice was whiny now, but he did not cry, and Riker gave him points for that. The little boy looked down at his shoes, a sure sign of guilt.
“Last chance,” said Mallory, as if the authority to send him to hell was hers alone. “Tell me what—”
“He lied.” A second tiny camper, a girl with a ponytail, stepped out of Riker’s shadow and crept up to Mallory, saying, “That girl wasn’t covered in blood.” The child cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered confidentially, “It was just a little blood.” She pointed to her own T-shirt and described the small red stains as they appeared on the missing girl’s shoulder and one sleeve. “Here, and here, too. Oh, and her name is Coco.”
Riker opened his notebook. “Coco, huh?” After jotting this down, his pen hovered over the page. “So . . . about this blood. Did you see a wound or a cut?”
“No, she was just spotty, and she looked like this.” The little girl put two fingers into her mouth and stretched it into a wide Halloween grin with gaps of missing baby teeth.
“Well, that sort of fits.” Riker held up a photograph of Mrs. Ortega’s fairy figurine, and he showed it to this more reliable witness. “Did Coco look something like”
“That’s her!” The little girl squealed as she jumped up and down, so excited she could hardly stand it. “I forgot about the wings!”
And the little boy, the confirmed liar, nodded. “Yup, she had wings, all right.” Small hands jammed into his pockets, he looked up at the sky with newfound nonchalance. “She’s probably in Mexico by now.”
Mallory hunkered down, her face a bare inch from the boy’s. No escape, no mercy. And Riker winced.
“Tell me something,” she said. “About those stains on Coco’s T-shirt—did you see that blood before the rats ate Mrs. Lanyard?”
The little boy’s body jerked to attention, eyes gone wide with the shock of a popped balloon. Evidently, this runaway camper had never looked back to see the rat attack. And the reporters—those jackals—had been too sensitive to tell him that the old lady was dead. All of this was apparent with the child’s tears, big ones and so many of them.
The detectives had an answer of sorts, and they moved on to enter Central Park.
If asked, Coco would say she had walked two hundred and eighty-three miles in the past hour to cross a span of parkland equal to four city blocks. In her reckoning, time and space were arbitrary things, though she did strive to be precise with her numbers.
The child followed four steps behind a woman whose face she had yet to see. Coco planned to ask if this stranger would please hold her hand. She badly needed to hold on to someone, anyone. It was a flyaway day with no anchors to a solid world, and tears were a near thing from moment to moment. But now her attention strayed to a man with a blue shirt and gray pants just like Uncle Red’s clothing. But this could not be him.
Uncle Red had lately turned himself into a tree.
The lady ahead of her stopped and looked up. During Coco’s travels through the park from nights into days, she had noticed that other visitors never looked up—only this woman. Maybe the stranger had heard a tree crying. Trees did that sometimes. But not this one. Oh, and now the red rain came down here, too, but only a few drops, and they landed on the back of the lady’s dress.
“You’re spotted,” said Coco. “You’ve got red spots—like mine.”
The woman whirled around, and a rat fell from the tree to land on her head. The lady screamed and batted at it, but the rat was tangled in her long hair, and now it was also screaming. Trembling, Coco rose up on her toes, poised for flight, and then she was off , feet touching lightly to ground as she ran, outrunning sound, chasing it out of her brain. Now there were footfalls behind her—too heavy for rodent steps, even if all the rats in the world stood on one another’s backs. But she never looked over her shoulder to see what was behind her. After a long time, forever and ever, she found herself safe among the lions.
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