Read an Excerpt
Chapter Excerpt From "Shell Game", by Carol O'Connell
The old man kept pace with him, then ran ahead in a sudden burst of energy and fear-as if he loved Louisa more. Man and boy raced toward the scream, a long high note, a shriek without pause for breath, inhuman in its constancy.
Malakhai's entire body awoke in violent spasms of flailing arms and churning legs, running naked into the real and solid world of his bed and its tangle of damp sheets. Rising quickly in the dark, he knocked over a small table, sending a clock to the floor, shattering its glass face and killing the alarm.
Cold air rushed across his bare feet to push open the door. By the light of a wall sconce in the outer hallway, he cast a shadow on the bedroom floor and revolved in a slow turn, not recognizing any of the furnishings. A long black robe lay across the arms of a chair. Shivering, he picked up the unfamiliar garment and pulled it across his shoulders like a cape.
A window sash had been raised a crack. White curtains ghosted inward, and drops from a rain gutter made small wet explosions on the sill. His head jerked up. A black fly was screaming in circles around a chandelier of dark electric candles.
Malakhai bolted through the doorway and down a corridor of closed rooms, the long robe flying out behind him. This narrow passage opened onto a parlor of gracious proportions and bright light. There were too many textures and colors. He could only absorb them as bits of a mosaic: the pattern of the tin ceiling, forest-green walls, book spines, veins of marble, carved scrolls of mahogany and swatches of brocade.
He caught the slight movement of a head turning in the mirror over the mantelpiece. His right arm was slowly rising to shield his eyes from the impossible. And now he was staring at the wrinkled flesh across the back of his raised hand, the enlarged veins and brown liver spots.
He drew the robe close about him as a thin silk protection against more confusion. Awakenings were always cruel.
How much of his life had been stripped away, killed in the tissues of his brain? And how much disorientation was only the temporary companion of a recent stroke? Malakhai pulled aside a velvet drape to look through the window. He had not yet fixed the day or even the year, but only gleaned that it was night and very late in life.
The alarm clock by his bed had been set for some event. Without assistance from anyone, he must recall what it was. Asking for help was akin to soiling himself in public.
Working his way from nineteen years old toward a place well beyond middle age, he moved closer to the mirror, the better to assess the damage. His thick mane of hair had grown white. The flesh was firm, but marked with lines of an interesting life and a long one. Only his eyes were curiously unchanged, still dark gunmetal blue.
The plush material of the rug was soft beneath his bare feet. Its woven colors were vivid, though the fringes showed extreme age. He recalled purchasing this carpet from a dealer in antiquities. The rosewood butler's table had come from the same shop. It was laid with a silver tray and an array of leaded crystal. More at home now in this aged incarnation, Malakhai lifted the decanter and poured out a glass of Spanish sherry.
Two armchairs faced the television set. Of course-one for the living and one for the dead. Well, that was normal enough, for he was well past the year when his wife had died.
The enormous size of the television screen was the best clue to the current decade. By tricks of illness and memory, he had begun his flight through this suite of rooms in the 1940s, and now he settled down in a well-padded chair near the end of the twentieth century, a time traveler catching his breath and seeking compass points. He was not in France anymore. This was the west wing of a private hospital in the northern corner of New York State, and soon he would remember why the clock had sounded an alarm.
A remote control device lay on the arm of his chair, and a red light glowed below the dark glass screen. He depressed the play button, and the television set came to life in a sudden brightness of moving pictures and a loud barking voice. Malakhai cut off the volume.
Something important was about to happen, but what? His hand clenched in frustration, and drops of sherry spilled from his glass.
She was beside him now, reaching into his mind and flooding it with warmth, touching his thoughts with perfect understanding. A second glass sat on a small cocktail table before her own chair, a taste of sherry for Louisa-still thirsty after all those years in the cold ground.
On the large screen, a troupe of old men in tuxedos were doffing top hats for the camera. Looming behind them was the old band shell in Central Park. Its high stone arch was flanked by elegant cornices and columns of the early 1900s. Hexagonal patterns on the concave wall echoed the shape of the plaza's paving stones, where a standing audience was herded behind velvet ropes. Above the heads of the old magicians, a rippling banner spanned the upper portion of the shell, bright red letters declaring the upcoming Holidays of Magic in Manhattan.
The preview-of course.
So this was the month of November, and in another week, Thanksgiving Day would be followed by a festival of magicians, retired performers of the past alongside the present flash-and-dazzle generation. Beneath the image of a reporter with a microphone, a moving band of type traveled across the width of the screen to tell him that this was a live performance with no trick photography. The cameras would not cut away.
Malakhai smiled. The television was promising not to deceive the viewers, though misdirection was the heart of magic.
The plaza must be well lit, for the scene was bright as day. The raised stone floor of the band shell was dominated by a large box of dark wood, nine feet square. Malakhai knew the precise dimensions; many years ago, he had lent a hand to build the original apparatus, and this was a close replica. Thirteen shallow stairs led to the top of the platform. At the sides of the broad base step, two pairs of pedestals were bolted into the wood and topped with crossbows angling upward toward a target of black and white concentric ovals. The camera did not see the pins that suspended the target between the tall posts, and so it seemed to float above the small wooden stage.
Memory had nearly achieved parity with the moment. Oliver Tree was about to make a comeback for a career that never was. Malakhai leaned toward Louisa's empty chair. "Can you find our Oliver in that lineup of old men?" He pointed to the smallest figure in the group, an old man with the bright look of a boy allowed to stay up late in the company of grown-ups. The scalp and beard were clipped so short, Oliver appeared to be coated with white fur like an aged teddy bear.
"Where has he been all this time?" Even as Malakhai spoke these words, he recalled that Oliver had spent his retirement years working out a solution to the Lost Illusion.
The crossbow pedestals were made of giant clockwork gears, three intermeshing toothy circles of brass. Soon their weapons would release arrows in mechanized sequence, four time bombs set to go off with the tick of clocks and the twang of bowstrings. All the sights were trained on the oval target. The television camera narrowed its field for a close look at the magazine on one crossbow. This long narrow box of wood was designed to carry a load of three arrows.
The camera pulled back for a wide shot of two uniformed policemen on top of the platform. One of them held a burlap dummy upright while the other officer manacled its cloth hands to the iron post rings. Then they both knelt on the floorboards to attach leg irons to the wide-spread feet. And now the mannikin was splayed out across the face of the target. Standing below on the floor of the band shell, the newsman was speaking into his microphone, probably giving the history of the Lost Illusion and its long-deceased creator, the great Max Candle.
Malakhai inclined his head toward Louisa's chair. "I never thought Oliver would be the one to work it out."
Indeed. The retired carpenter in magician's silks had once been the most ordinary member of the troupe, a boy from the American heartland, stranded in the middle of a world war and without a clue to get himself home. So Oliver had only made it as far as New York City. Perhaps Paris had spoiled him for the Midwestern prairies that spawned him.
And now Malakhai remembered one more thing. He touched the arm of the dead woman's chair, saying, "Oliver made me promise you'd watch this. He wanted you to see him in his finest hour."
The camera was panning the plaza. "There might be a thousand people in that park. Millions more are watching this on television. No one in our crowd ever had an audience that size."
Oliver Tree had surpassed them all.
More lost time was restored to Malakhai as he reached down to the cocktail table and picked up the formal invitation to a magic show in Central Park. He read the words in elegant script, then turned to the woman who wasn't there. "He's dedicating this performance to you, Louisa."
The rest of the text was a bit cryptic for Oliver. A hint of things to come?
Malakhai faced the screen as the two policemen finished cocking the crossbow pistols. The gears of the pedestals were all set in motion, toothy brass wheels slowly turning. A clockwork peg rose to the top of its orbit and touched the trigger of a crossbow. The first arrow was launched and flying too fast for the eye to track it. In the next instant, the burlap dummy was losing stuffing where the metal shaft had torn its throat. The next bow fired, and the next. When every missile had flown, the cloth effigy was pinned to the target by shafts through its neck, both legs and that place where the human heart would be.
The uniformed officers climbed to the top of the platform, unlocked the irons, and the demonstration dummy fell to the floorboards. They picked it up and carried it between them. The sawdust bled down the stairs in their descent. They made one last tour of the pedestals, cocking the weapons, allowing more arrows to drop from the crossbow magazines.
Oliver Tree stood at the base of the stairs and handed his top hat to another magician. Then he donned a scarlet cape and pulled the monk's hood over his white hair. As he slowly climbed toward the target, the long train of material flowed over the stairs behind him.
When the old man reached the top of the staircase, he stood with his back to the crowd and raised his arms. The cape concealed all but the top of the oval target. The scarlet silk sparkled and gleamed with reflections of camera lights. Then the cape collapsed and fell empty to the wooden floor. In that same instant, as if he had materialized in position, Oliver was revealed facing the crowd, spread-eagle across the target, bound in chains by hand and foot, himself the target of four armed crossbows. The gears of every pedestal were in motion. Soon the arrows would fly.
Malakhai clapped his hands. So far, the timing had been flawless. If the volume had been turned up, he might have heard the first round of applause from the audience in the plaza. Oliver Tree had grown old awaiting this moment.
The magician jerked his head to one side-the wrong side-as the gears on the first pedestal stopped and the bow released its arrow. Oliver's face contorted in a scream. There was blood on his white tie and collar. His mouth was working frantically, no doubt begging his captors to stop the rest of the crossbows from firing their arrows and killing him. Oliver's cries for help went ignored by the policemen and the reporter. They had apparently been informed that the great Max Candle had used these same words in the original act-just before dying in every single performance.
Another arrow flew, and another. While Oliver cried out in pain, the young reporter was smiling broadly for the camera, perhaps not understanding that the old man high above him on the platform was mortally wounded. Possibly this grinning child of the television era did not realize that all blood was not fake blood, that the arrows pinning the old man's legs were quite real.
The crowd was staring agape. Though uninitiated in the art of magic, they knew death when they saw it, when it came with the final arrow swiftly ripping a hole through Oliver's heart. The old man's screaming stopped. He dangled from his chains, not struggling anymore. His eyes were wide, unblinking-fixed in fear.
Malakhai had much experience with death. He knew that it never came in an instant. Perhaps, just for one moment, Oliver was aware of a few people in the crowd moving toward the platform, coming to help him-as if they could.
The newsman was laughing and waving these rescuers off, yelling and gesturing, no doubt assuring them that death was part of the show, a special effect for their viewing enjoyment. Then the reporter looked up at the chained corpse, and he lost his professional smile, perhaps realizing that trick photography was not an option here.
This was what death looked like.
The police officers, better acquainted with mortality, had already reached the top of the stairs. They unlocked Oliver's manacles and gently lowered the body to the wooden floor. Women covered the eyes of their children. The cameraman was ignoring the wild, waving hands of the reporter, who was mouthing the words to make him stop the pictures. But the lens was so in love with its subject, narrowing the focus, closing in on the fear-struck face of the dead magician and his true-to-life blood.
Louisa's sherry glass fell to the floor, and the dark red liquid spread across the pattern of the carpet.
Malakhai's hands were rising of their own accord. It was an act of will to keep one from touching the other, so as not to harm Louisa with a sound that aped applause. His lips spread wide with a silent scream, a parody of Oliver, whose volume had been turned off even before his life was ended. Then Malakhai's hands crashed together, slapping loudly, again and again, madly clapping as tears rolled down his face and ran between his parted lips in warm salty streams.
What a worthy performance-murdering a man while a million pairs of eyes were watching.
Sometimes he wondered why the children didn't cry to see such monsters in the world-a giant blue hedgehog, a huge fat worm, a cat the size of a floating building. And there were more fantastic creatures that Detective Sergeant Riker could not identify.
The morning air was freezing cold. All the boys and girls were swaddled in woolen scarves and down coats. They sent up soft choruses of oohs and aaaahs when the cat with a sixteen-foot bow tie emerged from a side street. Its stovepipe hat could house a bodega. The grinning helium balloon was bound to the earth by long ropes in the hands of marching Lilliputian humans. The wind was high as the great looming cat dragged his rope handlers along with him, and it was no longer clear who was tethered to whom.
The balloon was being sandwiched into the parade route between two earthbound attractions, a Conestoga wagon drawn by four live horses and a float pulled by a car and carrying the world's largest peanut on two legs. Other wildly fanciful floats were backed up to 85th Street. They awaited instructions to alternate with the helium giants held down by sandbags and corralled in the cross streets on either side of the Museum of Natural History.
Wooden blue sawhorses barricaded the crush of onlookers along Central Park West. The crowds would be fifty-people deep at the midpoint of the parade route, and denser still in Herald Square, where Broadway performers were tap-dancing their hearts out to keep warm. But here on the Upper West Side, where it all began, the crowd was only a thick band of spectators lining the park side of the boulevard.
The detective sat on the edge of the magicians' float, his legs dangling from the wide brim of a top hat scaled for King Kong, and he wrapped his coat tighter against the high wind. Riker had the best view in town for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and he blamed his partner for this. He turned to the young blonde behind the aviator sunglasses. "Mallory, tell me again. What am I doing here?"
"You're earning a turkey dinner at Charles's place." Detective Mallory lowered her dark glasses to glare at him properly, to make it clear that she was not up for a rebellion this morning. A deal was a deal.
In the long slants of her sunlit eyes, there was a perverse green fire with no warmth. Riker found this standout feature slightly less unnerving in her adult face. As a little girl, she had frightened people.
Ah, but she still frightened people, didn't she?
Well, to be fair, Kathy Mallory was taller now, five ten, and she carried a gun. Fifteen years ago, the street kid had cleaned up well after only one bath, revealing luminous white skin in sharp contrast to a red pouting mouth. And even then, the delicate bones of her child's face were sculpted for the high drama of light and shadow.
This morning, she wore a long trench coat. The black leather was too light to offer much protection from the weather, but she seemed not to feel the bitter chill in the air. And this fit well with Riker's idea that she was from some other planet, dark and cold, farthest from the sun.
"Mallory, this is a waste of time. Even Charles thinks it was an accidental death. Ask him. I did." He knew she would never ask. Mallory didn't like to be contradicted. However, the other eight million New Yorkers believed Oliver Tree had died because of a magic trick gone wrong.
He turned around to look at the giant playing cards set into the enormous hatband of bright metal. Between an ace and a deuce, the center card was a portrait of the great Max Candle, who had died thirty years ago. Twelve feet above the top hat's brim, the late magician's younger cousin was standing on the crown with two other men in red satin capes and black tuxedos. Six feet four without his shoes on, Charles Butler created his own scale of gianthood on the high circular stage.
Though Charles was not a real magician, it was easy to see why he had been invited to appear on the float. The resemblance to his famous cousin was very strong. At forty, Charles was near the age of the man in the photograph. His eyes were the same shade of blue, and his hair was also light brown, even curling below the line of his collar in the same length and style. Both men had the same sensuous mouth. But thereafter, the similarity was distorted. The late Max Candle had been a handsome man. Charles's face was close to caricature, his nose elongating to a hook shape with bird-perching proportions. The heavy-lidded eyes bulged like a frog's, and his small irises were lost in a sea of white. Max Candle had had a dazzling smile. His younger cousin smiled like a loon, but such a charming loon that people tended to smile back.
Charles Butler was Max Candle trapped in a fun-house mirror.
And now Riker caught his own reflection in the wide hatband of polished metal. He stared at his unshaven face and veined eyes. Graying strands of hair whipped out beneath the brim of his old felt hat. He was wearing a birthday present from Mallory, the finest tweed overcoat he had ever owned, tailored for a millionaire-which explained why he looked a homeless bum in stolen clothes.
He turned to his partner, intending to thank her again for these wonderful threads, to say something sentimental and foolish.
"You're really off the mark this time, kid." Sentiment would have cost him too many points with her.
"You don't know it wasn't murder," said Mallory.
Yes, he did. "I trust the West Side dick's report. He said the machinery checked out. The crossbows did what they were supposed to do. The old guy just screwed up the act."
She turned away from him, for this was heresy, and she was not listening to any more of it.
Riker craned his neck to look up at the circular stage. Charles Butler was juggling five red balls. The other magicians were making birds and bouquets of flowers disappear and reappear to the applause of sidewalk spectators. Charles was clearly enjoying himself, an amateur mingling with some of the most famous magicians in memory, albeit an old memory of another time, for his companions were of the World War II generation.
Riker turned back to Mallory. She was focused on the crowd, watching for the first taxpayer to do something criminal.
"Well, kid, maybe Oliver Tree wanted to die."
"You never know," said Mallory. "But most suicides prefer the painless route over four sharp arrows."
The members of a high school marching band were warming up their instruments on the sidewalk. The trombone nearly decapitated a pedestrian as the musician turned sharply, unmindful of the press of people all around him. The French horns and the tuba were at war with the clarinet, and the drummer was in a world of his own, bored and bent on annoying everyone within earshot.
A cadre of sequined baton-twirlers walked by the magicians' float. Two pretty girls waved at Riker, giving him a better opinion of teenagers as a species. In their wake, another giant was joining the parade. Riker grinned at the chubby airborne effigy of a fireman. This was a balloon he remembered from atop his father's shoulders when he was five years old. Fifty years later, many new characters had replaced his retired favorites. Ah, but now another old familiar fellow was queuing up along the cross street.
Through a spiderweb of bare tree branches, he could see the gargantuan Woody Woodpecker balloon lying facedown and floating just above the pavement. The great arms and legs were outstretched, and one white-gloved hand was covering an automobile. All of the balloon's personal handlers were dressed in woodpecker costumes, but they had the scale of scurrying blue ants with red hair and yellow shoes as they pulled back nets and removed restraining sandbags from the bird's arms and legs.
"Hey, Mallory, there's Woody, your favorite. Remember?"
She looked bored now, but when she was a child, this same giant balloon had made her eyes pop with wonder.
"I never liked that one," she said.
"Oh, you liar." Riker had the proof, clear memories of that parade, fifteen years before, when he was still allowed to call her Kathy. The ten-year-old girl had stood by his side on a cold day in another November. She had resembled an upright blond turtle, for Helen Markowitz had cocooned her foster child in layers of sweaters, woolen scarves and a thick down coat. That was the day when they had to peel little Kathy Mallory's eyes off the gigantic woodpecker, resplendent in his fine mop of red rubber hair and that magnificent yellow beak.
Riker raised his eyes to see the handlers letting out the ropes, and the horizontal balloon was on the rise. At last, the mighty bird was standing sixty feet tall, looming above the crowd and blocking out a good portion of brilliant blue sky. If Woody chose to, he could look into the upper windows of the museum and even examine its roof.
"You loved that balloon," said Riker, insistent.
Mallory ignored him.
He looked down at his scuffed shoes, lowering the brim of his hat against the strong light of morning sun. He was feeling the slow onset of pain. Nostalgia always brought on a fresh spate of grief during the holidays. He missed his old friends. Sweet Helen had died too soon, too young. And following another untimely funeral, Inspector Louis Markowitz had been buried beside his wife.
Privately, Riker believed that Lou Markowitz had not gone to his eternal rest, but was probably having a very tense death. Sometimes he could almost sense the old man's spirit hovering near Mallory, trembling in wait for his foster child to revert into the feral creature found running loose on the city streets.
As if she had changed all that much.
Woody Woodpecker grandly sailed down Central Park West, dwarfing every tree and tall building along the boulevard, and Riker was reliving Kathy Mallory's first parade. That day, he had gamely volunteered for midget duty-police code for keeping an eye on the brat-so that Helen and Lou could say hello to old friends in the crowd. Her first year in foster care, Kathy could not be introduced to innocent civilians, lest they lose a hand while patting her on the head. It was fortunate that Helen had bundled the child so well, for this had restricted Kathy's movements and slowed down her tiny hands. That day, it had been easy for Riker to catch the baby thief boosting a wallet from a woman's purse. Forgetting whom he was dealing with, he had bent down low to scold her in a tone reserved for small children-real children. "Now, Kathy, why would you do a bad thing like that?"
The little girl had looked up at him with such incredulity, her wide eyes clearly stating, Because stealing is what I do, you moron. And this had set the tone for their relationship through the years.
He shook his head slowly. Lou Markowitz must have had a heart attack when his foster daughter quit Barnard College to join up with the police. Now Riker looked down at the magnificent coat she had given him to replace the old threadbare rag that more closely fit his salary-and hers.
He turned to face Mallory with another idea for needling her. "The papers said the old guy wasn't even a real magician. Just a nobody, a carpenter from Brooklyn. Maybe Oliver Tree didn't know how-"
"Charles says the old man performed with Max Candle. So I figure he knew what he was doing." She turned away from him, a pointed gesture to say that her mind was made up; this conversation was over.
So, of course, Riker went on with it. "The man was in his seventies. Did you consider that his timing might be a little off?"
"No, I didn't." Her voice was rising, getting testy.
Good. "Like you're the expert on magic?"
"Magic is a cheat," she said. "There's no risk. He shouldn't have died."
Was she pouting? Yes, she was. Better and better.
"No risk, huh? Never? Charles didn't tell you that." The younger cousin of Max Candle owned more magic illusions than a store. "You never even asked him, did you, Mallory?"
No, of course you didn't. He leaned in close for another shot at her. "What about senility? Suppose the old guy was-"
"There's no medical history of senility." She turned her back on him, as if this might prevent him from having the last word.
It would not.
Riker would bet his pension that she had never seen a medical history on the dead man. He knew for a fact that she had not even read the accident report. Mallory liked her instincts, and she ran with them.
And now he understood his own place in her schemes. She had only wanted him along today as a show of force. She was planning to turn Charles's holiday dinner party into an interrogation of elderly magicians-all witnesses to a damn accident.
"I still say it ain't right, kid. You can't go drumming up new business. Not when NYPD has a backlog of dead bodies."
Mallory had tuned him out like an off chord in the nearby marching band, which was playing loudly but not together. She was intent on the faces along the barricades.
Riker threw up his hands. "Okay, let's say it was a real homicide. How do you make the stretch to an assassination during the parade?" She could not, and he knew that. She was making up this story as she went along.
"My perp loves spectacle." Mallory faced him now, suddenly warming to the conversation. "He killed a man on local television. This parade is televised all over the country. If he's gonna do another one, today's the day."
Her perp? So she was already racing ahead to the moment when she claimed the case file and the evidence. "Mallory, before we assume the killing is an ongoing thing with a pattern, most of us wait till we got at least two homicides in the bag."
"Suppose the next homicide is Charles?"
A good point, though stretching credibility beyond all reason. She had been wise to con him into doing this baby-sitting detail on his own time. Lieutenant Coffey would never have bought into this fairy story nor given her one dime from the Special Crimes budget. And she would never have forgiven the lieutenant for laughing. Mallory could not deal with ridicule in any form.
But this is such a crackpot idea. And, for a gifted liar, it was pretty lame. But he decided she was only having an off day.
Yet Mallory's instincts were usually good. It might not be a total crock. He had to wonder why Oliver Tree had taken such chances. The daredevil stunt was a young man's trade. Maybe Mallory was right. The apparatus could have been foiled. Though the trick was very old, only one long-dead magician had known how it was supposed to work. According to Charles Butler, that was why they called it Max Candle's Lost Illusion.
A balloon in the shape of a giant ice cream cone smashed into a sharp tree branch and deflated to the cheers of jaded New York children.
And now Riker realized why Mallory hadn't asked for the case file on the fatal accident. She did not plan to challenge the work of another detective until she had something solid. So she was finally learning to play nicely with the troops. Well, this was progress, a breakthrough, and it deserved encouragement. He vowed not to bait her anymore.
"I still say it was an accident," he said, baiting her only a little.
Mallory had targeted a civilian. Her eyes were tracking him in the manner of a cat that had not been fed in days and days.
This youngster on the pavement was dressed like the men on the top hat stage. The lone magician seemed less out of place, not half as suspicious as the stilt-walkers and the strolling people in banana suits.
Mallory had locked eyes with her suspect and stopped him cold. Could the boy tell from this distance that every muscle in her body was tensing to jump him? The young magician melded back into the mob of pedestrians; Riker remembered to exhale; and Mallory stood up, the better to keep track of her new pet mouse in the crowd.
Men and women of the mounted police had joined the parade astride seven trotting horses. The officers made a smart appearance in helmets, black leather jackets and riding boots. They carried poles bearing unfurled banners of police emblems. As they reined their mounts in a line across the boulevard, the banners whipped and cracked in the wind, and the horses snorted white clouds of breath.
The kamikaze pilot of a golf cart drove toward the center of this lineup, perhaps believing the horses would stand aside for him. They did not. The driver slammed on his brakes two feet from a stallion's knees. Riker winced as the self-important fool stood up behind the wheel of the cart. Puffing out the breast of his parade-staff jacket, he gestured with one waving arm, ordering the riders to move out of his way.
The mounted police officers turned their dark glasses down toward the general direction of the civilian and his golf cart. They were not focusing on him, but seemed only mildly distracted. All of them were dead still in the saddle. Formidable wooden truncheons hung from their belts, and heavier weapons rested in holsters. And now the riders turned their faces up to the sky. Cops only took orders from cops. Their unspoken message was clear: If we notice you, we'll have to shoot you, won't we?
The golf cart ran over the curb of the sidewalk in a hasty effort to get around them.
Tiny Santa's elves, with pointed ears and long red stocking caps, gathered around the mounted police, and the children's hands reached up to pet the horses. Nearby, a camera crew was setting up to shoot the top hat float, their lenses competing with roving civilian minicams. The news camera was turned toward the corner of the museum, where another balloon was caught up in a crosswind and dragging its handlers.
In the apartment building on 81st Street, children were hanging out of windows, screaming and waving to a gigantic floating puppy, having recognized the bright golden character from their best-loved cartoon show. Even the elves had broken off their horse petting to jump up and down, pointing, yelling and waving to the balloon looming over them and casting a shadow as big as a circus tent. And he was magnificent, his great size trivializing all life on earth. Riker guessed the dog's collar must be thirty feet wide. The tail was easily the length of three limousines wagging in the wind and grazing a tenth-floor window.
The nearby gang of two-legged Christmas tree ornaments must also be children in disguise, for they were spooking the horses by spinning madly and leaping high in the air with excitement. The children's squeals vied with the cacophony of two marching bands, yet Mallory was undistracted from her suspect in the magician's costume. The boy had retreated behind the blue barricade on the sidewalk near a more familiar figure closer to Riker's age.
He waved to the chief medical examiner, who stood with his wife and young daughter. The man returned the wave and left his family to duck under the barricade.
"Morning, Riker." As Dr. Slope walked toward the float, he had the distinguished bearing of a stone-faced general, and he was just as brave. "Kathy," he yelled, risking a bullet to call her by her first name in front of all these cops. "The poker game is tomorrow night at Rabbi Kaplan's house. Can you make it?"
Mallory turned her face away from the suspect to look down at the medical examiner. "Are you old ladies still playing for chump change?"
Dr. Slope never missed a beat. "Are you still palming cards?"
"I never did that," said Mallory.
"We never caught you doing it," Dr. Slope corrected her. He turned around and cracked a smile for Riker. "She was thirteen the last time she took a chair in the game."
Riker grinned. "I heard about that little red wagon Markowitz bought her-so she could carry all her winnings home."
Dr. Slope feigned sudden deafness and turned back to Mallory. "Rabbi Kaplan wants you to come. Eight o'clock sharp. Can I tell him you'll be there?"
"I'm not playing any games with cute names or wild cards," said Mallory. "Straight poker or nothing."
"You got it," said Dr. Slope.
The wind pushed the golden dog balloon, and a platoon of handlers drifted with it, tiny ant-size leash holders trying to restrain the giant animal's gambol into the parade route. The wind bustled the dog into the lifelike enthusiasm of a real puppy. Legs with outsized paws stretched out in a goofy gallop. His bright red tongue hung low, and his eyes were wide. The huge mouth was fashioned in a joyous rubber-puppy grin.
On the stage of the top hat float, one of the old men was on his knees, arms extending toward a child, tossing out a yellow ball which had just materialized in his hands.
Riker and the camera crew were watching the balloon dog in the instant when an arrow hit the side of the giant top hat and shuddered with the vibration of sudden impact. The featherless metal shaft pinned the old man by his coattail.
A crossbow pistol disappeared under the red cape of the lone magician in the crowd. So the boy had come stealing back while they were distracted by Dr. Slope.
In the next second, Mallory's running shoes had hit the ground and she was gone.
Riker jumped off the edge of the float, jarring his bones on hard pavement. He was in motion without a prayer of catching up to his young partner. He kept track of Mallory and her fleeing suspect by the jerking ropes of balloon handlers being knocked aside like ninepins.
A gunshot banged out.
What in hell?
His stomach rose up and slammed down hard. With a rush of cold adrenaline, he put on some speed. What was Mallory thinking? She knew better than to fire a weapon in a crowd. Even a bullet shot into the air could take out innocent life, falling back to earth with enough velocity to penetrate a human skull.
All these little kids-Jesus.
Riker's heart was hammering against the wall of his chest, and his lungs were on fire. He slowed down to catch his breath, and now he could see a few out-of-towners in the crowd, mothers who held their children a little tighter. The real New Yorkers had not blinked when the gun went off. It was already forgotten, displaced by the racket of yet another high school marching band. The tiny screaming fans of the humongous dog were chanting, "Goldy, Goldy, Goldy."
When he caught up to his partner, she was sitting on top of the rogue magician and cuffing his hands behind his back. The crossbow lay on the pavement, harmless without its arrow. Her trench coat was wide open, flapping in the wind, and Riker could see that her revolver was already back in its holster. So her hunch had panned out. But there would be hell to pay for the gunfire. And something else troubled him.
What's wrong with this picture?
A police chase was the stuff of a New York sideshow. Every collar on the street was guaranteed an attentive audience. So Riker thought it odd that the crowd was staring up instead of down.
"Look at the puppy!" yelled a five-year-old boy from the sidewalk, and Riker obediently sought out the golden balloon. The behemoth's tail was losing air and hanging between the hind legs in a limp and mournful attitude. The great body listed to one side, leaning against the granite face of an apartment house. Tiny people on the balconies were running indoors, as though under attack, and Riker supposed they were. This tableau had all the makings of a vintage monster movie.
In a last act of lifelike animation, one wounded rubber paw reached out for a balcony, then lost its purchase and dipped low to graze the upper branches of a tree. The puppy's great head sagged against the twelfth floor of the stone facade and then lowered, flight by flight of windows. The rubber dog was going down, deflating, dying.
The five-year-old was pointing at Mallory. "She did it-the one with the big gun. She shot Goldy. She killed him!"
Mallory glared at the little boy, and Riker was treated to a glimpse of the ten-year-old Kathy he used to know. In her face was a child's rejoinder of I did not! The boy on the sidewalk wisely conceded the argument and hid behind his mother's coat.
A mounted policeman galloped up to Mallory and her prisoner. The cop was grinning as he reined in his horse and pointed to the damaged balloon. "Nice going, Detective."
The handlers were not holding the balloon down anymore, but running to get out from under the giant puppy as he lost helium and altitude.
"Yeah, Mallory," said the cop on horseback. "I never shot anything that big."
Riker stepped up to the mounted policeman and pulled rank. "Shut up, Henderson. That's an order. Just move along before she shoots your damn horse."
Mallory spoke to Riker's back. "I didn't do it."
Well, it was predictable that she would try to lie her way out of a suspension. Discharging firearms in a crowd was a serious violation, but shooting a balloon would cost her a great deal more. She was about to become the joke of NYPD, and Riker was already sorry for her.
The rest of the mounted officers converged on the scene, the hooves of six horses clattering on the pavement. Two men dismounted and took the prisoner into custody. They had missed Mallory's humiliation, but were just in time to witness Henderson's. His horse could cope with gunshots, but the sight of a huge dog falling from the sky was more than the startled animal could bear. The stallion reared up and dumped his rider on the road.
Two small children on the sidewalk were taunting Mallory, pointing their mittened fingers at her and chanting, "You killed Goldy, you killed him, you killed him, you-"
Mallory pulled out her .357 Smith & Wesson revolver.
The children stopped chanting.
She held out the weapon on the flat of her hand. "Touch it, Riker. The metal's cold. I didn't fire my gun. It never left my holster. There's a shooter in the crowd."
He did touch it. The metal was not warm. But the wind-chill factor of hard-blowing frigid air had tumbled the temperature below zero. How much time had elapsed? How long could a gun hold its heat?
He looked out over the faces in the dense crush of civilians behind the police barricades.
So many children.
Suppose Mallory was not lying?
Slowly, he turned his eyes to the thousand windows overlooking the parade route. A shooter in the crowd-but where? And where was that gun aiming now?
--From Shell Game, by Carol O'Connell. © June, 1999. Carol O'Connell used by permission.