Dead Famous (Kathleen Mallory Series #7)by Carol O'Connell
Jurors on a controversial trial are being killed off one by one, and only Detective Kathleen Mallory can figure out why. But the FBI has told her to lay off and leave it to the Feds. That's never stopped Mallory before.
Read an Excerpt
JOHANNA COULD HEAR CAT'S PAWS MADLY THUDDING on the bathroom door, and the animal was crying in a human way-so frightened. Or was he merely hungry? She had fed the poor beast, but how long ago? No matter. The cat's cries receded, as though her front room had decamped from the hotel suite, floating up and away with utter disregard for gravity.
And time? What was that to her?
The whole day long, Johanna had not moved from her perch at the edge of a wooden chair. She sat there, wrapped in a bathrobe, as the sun moved behind the window glass, as shadows crawled about the room with a slow progress that only a paranoid eye could follow. One of the shadows belonged to herself, and the dark silhouette of her body was dragged across the wallpaper, inch by inch, extending her deformity to a cruel extreme.
Inside her brain was the refrain of a rock 'n' roll song from another era. "Gimme shelter," the Rolling Stones sang to her, and she resisted this mantra as she always did, for there were no safe places.
Perhaps another hour had passed, maybe three. She could not say when night had fallen. Johanna unclenched her hands and looked down at a crumpled letter, as if, in absolute darkness, she could read the words of a postscript: Only a monster can play this game.
THE BLACK VAN HAD NO HELPFUL LETTERING ON THE side to tell the neighbors what business it was about on this November afternoon. Here and there, along the street of tall brownstones, drapes had parted and curious eyes were locked upon the vehicle's driver. Even by New York City standards, she was an odd one.
Johanna Apollo's skin was very fair, the gift of Swedes on her mother's side. And yet, from any distance, she might be taken for a large dark spider clad in denim as she climbed out of the van, then dropped to the pavement in a crouch. Dark brown was the color of her leather gloves, her work boots and the long strands of hair spread back across the unnatural curve of her spine. Her torso was bent forward, her body forever fused into a subtle question mark as her face angled toward the ground, hidden from the watchers at their windows. They never saw the great dark eyes-the beauty of the beast. And now the neighbors' heads turned in unison, following her progress down the street. Dry yellow leaves cartwheeled and crackled alongside as she walked with a delicacy of slender spider-long legs. Such deep grace for one so misshapen-that was how the neighbors would recall this moment later in the day. It was almost a dance, they would say.
And none of them noticed the small tan car gliding into Eighty-fourth Street, quiet as a swimming shark. It stopped near the corner, where another vehicle had just taken the last available parking space.
The young driver of the tan sedan left her engine idling as she stepped out in the middle of the street. Nothing about her said civil servant; the custom-tailored lines of her designer jeans and long, black leather coat said money. And the wildly expensive running shoes allowed her to move in silence as she padded toward a station wagon. She leaned down and rapped on the driver's window. The pudgy man behind the wheel gave her the grin of a lottery winner, for she was that lovely, that ilk of tall blondes who would never go out with him in a million years, and he hurried to roll down the window.
Oh, happy day.
"I want your parking place," she said, all business, no smile of hello-nothing.
The wagon driver's grin wobbled a bit. Was this a joke? No man would give up a parking space on any street in Manhattan, not ever, not even for a naked woman. Was she nuts? He summoned up his New Yorker attitude, saying, "Yeah, lady-over my dead body." And she raised one eyebrow to indicate that this might be an option. The long slants of her eyes were unnaturally green-unnaturally cold. A milk-white hand rested on the door of his car, long red fingernails tapping, tapping, ticking like a bomb, and it occurred to him that those nails might be dangerous.
One hand had gone to her hip, opening the blazer for just a tease, a peek at what she had hidden in her shoulder holster, a damn cannon that passed for a gun.
"Move," she said, and move he did.
Kathy Mallory had a detective's gold shield, but she rarely used the badge to motivate civilians. Listening to angry tirades on abuse of police power was time-consuming; fear was more efficient. And now she drove her tan car into the hastily vacated parking space. After killing the engine, she never even glanced at the black van.
It was her day off and this covert surveillance was the closest she could come to an idea of recreation.
The routine of the van's driver was predictable, and Mallory was settling in for a long wait when a large white Lincoln with rental plates rounded the corner. This motorist was less enterprising, settling for double-parking his car across the street from the vehicle that so interested Mallory-until now. The driver of the rented car became her new target when he craned his neck to check the black van's plates. His head was slowly turning, eyes scanning the street, until he located the deformed figure of Johanna Apollo walking down the sidewalk in the direction of Columbus Avenue.
Mallory smiled, for this man had just identified himself as another player in the mother of all games.
The company uniform was stowed in Johanna Apollo's duffel bag along with the rest of her gear. She never wore it when meeting the clients. The moonsuit was far more unsettling than the sudden appearance of a hunchback at the door.
A man her own age, late thirties, awaited her on the front steps of a brownstone built in the nineteenth century. He wore a flimsy robe over his pajamas, and, though his feet were bare, he seemed not to mind the cold. When Johanna lifted her head to greet him, his face was full of trepidation, and then he nearly smiled. She could read his mind. He was thinking, Oh, how normal, so glad to see her conventional human face. He adjusted his spectacles for a better look at her warm brown eyes, and he took some comfort there, even before she said, "I'll be done in an hour, and then you can have your life back."
That was all he wanted to hear. Relieved, he sighed and nodded his understanding that there would be no small talk, not one more chorus of I'm so sorry, false notes in the mouth of a stranger.
Johanna followed him into the house and through another door to his front room. It was decorated with period furniture and smeared with the bloody handprints of an intruder. She recognized the spots on the wall as a splatter pattern from the back-strike of a knife. The chalk outline sketched on the rug was that of a small, lean victim who had died quickly, though her blood was spread thin all about the room, giving the impression that the attack had gone on forever. She wondered if anyone had told the husband that his wife had not suffered long. Johanna turned to the sorry man beside her. It was her art to put disturbed people at ease; she did it with tea.
"You don't have to stay and watch. Why not wait in the kitchen?" She pulled a small packet of herbal tea from the pocket of her denim jacket. "This is very soothing."
The client took the packet and stared at it, as though the printed instructions for steeping in hot water might be difficult to comprehend. He waved one hand in apology to say that he was somewhat at sea today. "My wife usually handles these-" Suddenly appalled, he lowered his head. His wife had usually handled the messes of their lives. How could he have forgotten that she was dead? His hands clenched tightly, and Johanna knew that he was silently berating himself for this bizarre breach of etiquette.
The murder was recent, and she would have guessed that even without the paperwork to release the crime scene. Judging by the growth of stubble on the man's face, only a few days had passed since his wife's death. Unshaven, unwashed, the widower walked about in a stale ether that the bereaved shared with the bedridden. His head was still bowed as he edged away from her and ambled down a narrow passageway. Upon opening a door at the far end of this hall, he raised his face in expectation, perhaps believing that he would meet his dead wife in the kitchen-and she would make him some tea.
Johanna knelt on the floor and opened her duffel bag. One hand passed over the hood and the respirator. No need for them today. She pulled out a protective suit and gloves for working with blood products in the age of AIDS-even the blood of children, nuns and other virgins. Her employer had given her the basic vocabulary of the job: fluids and solids and hazardous waste, though she had never seen the common debris of brains and shattered bone, feces and urine as anything but human remains. She had also been encouraged to remove photographs of the victim before she began, and this was another trick to dehumanize the task. But Johanna never disturbed the wedding portrait on the wall, and the bride with downcast eyes continued to shyly smile at the chalk outline of her own corpse.
Johanna sponged the stains on the cream-white wall and charted a thief's progress around this room, going from drawer to pulled-out drawer. She knew where he had been standing when a policeman had barreled through the door with a drawn gun. The bullet had been pried out of the wall, but the hole remained. The thief must have had the knife in his hand, and the officer must have been very young, untried and nervous.
She filled the hole with a ready-mix plaster. A small brush and a few deft strokes of tint made it blend into the paint. Below this patch were red drops of hazardous waste from a murderer. He was wiped away with one wet rag, and, though no one would ever know, she placed it in a separate bag so the blood of the innocent woman would not mingle with his. Next, she replaced the contents spilled from the drawers, then went on to the problem of a torn lampshade and resolved it with a bit of mending tape. Last, she pulled out a hair dryer and moved it across the wet areas where she had spot-cleaned the rug, the couch and the drapes. Some of her services went beyond the job description, but she wanted the widower to find no trace of murder, no damp ghost of a stain that he might commit to memory.
No more than an hour had passed, as promised, and now the client inspected her work. She watched his fearful eyes search the wall for the bullet hole, but there was no sign of it anymore. And, by his wandering gaze, she could tell that he had forgotten the exact location of that scar in the plaster and his wife's chalk silhouette on the floor. The room seemed so normal, as though no violence had ever taken place here-and his wife had never died-so said his brief smile as he wrote out a check.
Four months ago in another city, her first crime scene had required less work, and she had been her own client on that unpaid job. The armchair had absorbed most of the FBI agent's blood, and so it had been a simple matter of furniture disposal after mopping up the puddle on the floor and the red drops spattered on the wall. In that room, death had been a drawn-out affair, for Timothy Kidd had not struggled enough to spend all his blood at once, and there had been ample time for him to be afraid.
However, that event had occurred in a previous life lived by another version of herself, though the dead man did remain with her as a constant presence, a haunt. And so it was neither odd nor coincidental to be thinking of Timothy when she emerged from the building to find an unpleasant reminder of his death.
Marvin Argus was waiting for her on the sidewalk. His trench coat flapped open in the wind, exposing a dark gray suit with a slept-in look. She guessed that he had taken the red-eye flight from Chicago to New York, and there had been no time for a change of clothes after landing, that or his fastidious grooming habits were deteriorating. Perhaps there had been some urgency in tracking her down today.
No, that was not it.
Argus had found time to carefully style his sparse brown hair so that no strand could escape the gelled fringe of bangs covering his receding hairline. The effect was juvenile and so at odds with his forty-year-old face.
"Hello, Johanna." He smiled to show her all of his perfect teeth, acting as if this meeting might be a happy chance encounter and not an ambush, not a defiance of the court order to keep him at a distance.
Did he seem a little jittery-just on the verge of a tic or a twitch? She looked through him, then passed him by on her way back to the black van.
He walked alongside her, keeping his tone light, fighting down all the high notes of runaway anxiety. "You're looking well."
"Still alive, you mean, and you're wondering why."
"No, seriously, I think physical labor agrees with you," he said. "But I suppose this new line of work is your idea of penance."
Much could be read into that clumsy little barb, perhaps some desperate situation coming to a head. Johanna's bent posture had made her a student of footwear, and now she gleaned more from his shoes than his words. The black leather was, as always, fanatically shiny, but both laces had been broken and repairs effected with knots. The man was coming undone.
She raised her face to his, not bothering to hide her contempt. "You don't look well, Argus. You seem a little shaky today. Under a lot of stress?" Did that sound like a taunt, like getting even? She hoped so. "And you're losing weight."
He dismissed this with a wave of one hand, saying, "Long hours." He drew back his shoulders in an effort to appear larger and less the nervous rabbit. Eyebrows arched, he folded his arms to strike a condescending pose, exuding an arrogance that invited every passerby to punch him in the face.
"I met your boss today." Argus staged a pause. "We had a long talk about you."
"Really?" That was unlikely, for Riker was tight with his words. And so she could surmise that this lie was an implied threat. Yes, Argus would want her to worry about what he might have shared with her employer. She stared at him, wondering, How frightened are you?
"That guy Riker, he's a heavy drinker, isn't he? Yeah," said Argus. "Couldn't help but notice. You can tell by the eyes, all those red veins." He was still pressing what he believed was his advantage over her. A few seconds of silence dragged by before he realized that she was not at all threatened, and neither was she inclined to banal conversation. The man looked up at the sky, unwilling to meet her steady gaze anymore.
"He tried to grill me on your background." The old familiar pomposity was back in his voice. "I could tell Riker was an ex-cop by his interrogation style. They never lose that, do they? On or off the job, they can never have just a normal conversation. I figure he doesn't know the first thing about you, Johanna. That or you fed him some fairy tale-and he knows it." Argus smiled, awaiting praise for this insight. Failing in that, he flicked imaginary lint from the sleeve of his coat. "Of course, I didn't tell him anything. Not who I was or what I-"
"So you lied to him. You think Riker didn't pick up on that?" She swung her body up into the driver's seat and slouched deep into worn upholstery that received the hump on her back like a cupped hand. She faced the windshield.
Marvin Argus rushed his words. "Does your boss know-"
"I told Riker my history was none of his damn business." She slammed the door and put the van in gear.
Argus reached up and gripped the door handle, as if that could prevent her from driving away. He yelled to be heard through the rolled-up window. "Johanna! About Timothy! Did you believe him-while he was still alive?"
If the man had held on to the van another moment, he would have lost his hand when she pulled into the street. Johanna pressed the accelerator pedal to the floor and sped toward the broad avenue at the end of the street. She passed through a red light amid the screech and squeal of braking cars and a cabdriver's hollered obscenities.
Marvin Argus had grown smaller in her rearview mirror, only insect high when she rounded the corner.
The young detective slouched down behind the wheel of her tan car and watched the black van speed away. Her eavesdropping device was picking up a clear conversation between the van's driver and the radio dispatcher for Ned's Crime Scene Cleaners. The vehicle was heading for the company parking lot in Greenwich Village.
Mallory reached out for the small silver camera on her dashboard. It contained a photographic record of the hunchback's meeting with the driver of the white Lincoln. After downloading the new images into her laptop computer, she admired the array on the glowing screen. No public record had such clear likenesses of Johanna Apollo. The blurry portrait on a Chicago driver's license had been, in Mallory's view, deliberately sabotaged by the subject, who had moved in the moment the picture was taken. A perusal of prep school and college yearbooks had been of no help either, for the camera-shy hunchback had always been absent on the days when school photographs were taken.
The last photograph was the best of the lot, for the wind had swept the hair away from Apollo's body. With one red fingernail, Mallory traced the outline of the hump that rode the woman's back, bending her spine and bowing her head. This was the soft spot.
With a tap of keys, her computer returned to another file and an official portrait of the man in the double-parked Lincoln. Not content with running the rental plate and billing for his car, she had spent the past hour acquiring a dossier on the renter, Marvin Argus from Chicago, who now smiled at her from the glowing screen. His brow was fringed with ludicrous bangs, but she did approve of the double-breasted blazer and the tie.
Argus was the solid connection that she had been waiting for-living proof.
The detective closed her laptop and set it on the passenger seat where her partner used to ride. Riker had been a constant fixture in her life since she was ten years old, but now he would not return her phone calls. And he was never home to her when she came knocking on his door, looking for a word with him alone. But that would change when he read her report on the hunchback. It mattered nothing to Kathy Mallory that this case belonged to federal investigators, that it was well outside the purview of a New York City cop. This was a national contest, and anyone with the stomach for it could play the game on the radio five nights a week.
Marvin Argus slid behind the wheel of the white rental car and drove off. Detective Mallory's vehicle eased up the street at a discreet distance, then crept into the southbound stream of traffic on Central Park West, following the man from the FBI.
from Dead Famous by Carol O'Connell, copyright © 2003 Carol O'Connell, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Carol O'Connell is the author of eight previous Mallory novels, including the national bestseller Winter House, and of Judas Child.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The cast gets better and better. I liked the changes and growth in the characters. I liked that Charles voiced his disagreements with Mallory. I laughed out loud a few times. Ryder falling in love was delectable. I fell right into that story line. It was nice to see him ¿heal¿ a bit. It was awesome to read how Mallory could not control all aspects of life. She can not stop the inevitable.
I love Mallory and her attitude. Sometimes we need a woman with an I DONT CARE attitude. I find it hard for her to have feelings with all she's gone through. I love her I love her I love her!!!
This was awful. Yes, I understand that Mallory is supposed to be really strange due to her traumatic childhood, but she was just plain obnoxious in this latest outing. I need to care about the characters to enjoy a book and I just wanted them all to die (except Charles of course, what a sweetie). Mallory was at her worst. And of course, she is ALWAYS right, which is supposed to justify her mean and cruel behavior. Poor old Ryker is featured prominently but unfortunately he was never a very interesting character to me so I don't really care what happens to him here. More Charles please!! Oh, and the murder mystery? Stupid and over-the-top, with plenty of gratuitous violence. O'Connell uses that annoying mystery trait where lead characters figure things out along the way but the reader is left in the dark until the end, at which point the author reveals what the other characters knew a long time ago. I don't like that, it just feels like lazy writing to me.