Winter House (Kathleen Mallory Series #8)by Carol O'Connell, Alyssa Bresnahan
"It seems cut-and-dried at first: A burglar has been caught in the act and killed by a scissors-wielding homeowner. Except that the dead man was no burglar, but a hired killer. And he was stabbed not with a pair of scissors, but with an ice pick - and then with the scissors. And the homeowner is in fact the most famous lost child in NYPD history, missing for almost… See more details below
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"It seems cut-and-dried at first: A burglar has been caught in the act and killed by a scissors-wielding homeowner. Except that the dead man was no burglar, but a hired killer. And he was stabbed not with a pair of scissors, but with an ice pick - and then with the scissors. And the homeowner is in fact the most famous lost child in NYPD history, missing for almost sixty year, thought to have been kidnapped after the massacre of her family - five siblings, father, stepmother, nanny, and housekeeper - nearly the entire household wiped out ... with an ice pick." As Mallory and her official and unofficial partners, Riker and Charles Butler, investigate, a remarkable story begins to emerge - one of murderous greed and family horror, abandonment and loss, revenge and twisted love - a ghost story peopled by all-too-real flesh and blood. And in the end, though more people will die, and not well, it is Mallory herself who will be most changed.
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By CAROL O'CONNELL
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONSCopyright © 2004 Carol O'Connell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE HOUR WAS LATE. THE TRAFFIC WAS SCARCE. A FEW CARS crawled by at the pace of bugs attracted by house lights, five flights of electric-yellow windows.
The narrow mansion was not a rarity in New York City, home to millionaires and billionaires. However, its nineteenth-century façade was an anachronism on this particular block of Central Park West. The steep-pitched roof was split by a skylight dome, and attendant gargoyles were carved in stone. Wedged in tight between two condominium behemoths, this dwelling was in the wrong place at the wrong time and regally unrepentant, though the police were at the door.
And in the parlor, up the stairs and down in the cellar.
So many police.
Nedda Winter sat quietly and watched them pass her by on their way to other rooms-and they watched her for a while. Soon they came to regard her as furniture, but she took no offense. She turned on the antique radio that stood beside her chair. No one reprimanded her, and so she turned up the volume.
White hot jazz.
Benny Goodman on the clarinet and other ghosts from the big-band era flooded the front room and infected the steps of people in and out of uniform, passing to and fro.
Lift those feet. Tap those toes.
Miss Winter repressed a smile, for thatwould be unseemly, but she nodded in time to the music. The house was alive again, drunk on life, though the party revolved around the dead man at the center of the floor.
Miss Winter was well named. She had the countenance of that season. Her long hair was pure white, and her skin had the pallor of one who has been shut away for a long time. Even her eyes had gone pale, leached of color, bleached to the lightest tint of blue. She was so well disguised by time that the police continued to ignore her, demanding no apologies, nor any explanation for her long absence. They had even failed to recognize this house, an address that was infamous when the music on the radio was young.
Fifty-eight years earlier, in the aftermath of another violent crime, which remained unsolved, a twelve-year-old girl had vanished from this house, and now the lost child, grown up and grown old, had come back home.
The medical examiner's vehicle was parked at the curb, and behind it was another van with the CSU logo of the crime-scene technicians. The front windows of the house were all alight, and the silhouettes of men and women moved across pulled-down shades and closed drapes.
A warm October breeze of Indian summer rippled the yellow crime-scene tapes that extended down the stone steps to include a patch of the sidewalk. The tape did the restraining duty of a velvet rope for theatrical productions, though tonight's audience amounted to only three stragglers, refugees from a saloon in the hour after closing time. Happy intoxication was in their stance and in their badly sung song, which was grating on the nerves of a uniformed officer. The spinning cherry lights of police units made the officer's face alternately beet red and pale white as he waved off the drunks with a loud "Get the hell outta here!"
Charles Butler parked his Mercedes behind a police car and stepped out into the street, unfolding and rising to a stand of six feet four. Smooth grace in motion served as compensation for his foolish face. Bulbous eyes the size of hens' eggs were half closed by heavy lids and pocked with small blue irises that gave him a look of permanent astonishment, and his hook of a nose might perch two sparrows or one fat pigeon. Otherwise, the forty-year-old man was well made from the necktie down and well turned out, though he had omitted the vest from his three-piece suit.
He had dressed in a hurry. Mallory was waiting.
Two uniformed policemen stood guard before the house, barring all comers from the short flight of stone steps leading up to the front door. As he approached these officers, Charles inadvertently smiled-a huge mistake. Whenever his features were gathered up into any happy expression, it gave him the look of a loon-a second cousin to the three departing drunks. Before he could be driven off, Charles pointed upward to the worst-dressed man in America, Detective Sergeant Riker, who slouched against a wrought-iron railing, cadging a light from another man, then exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke with his conversation.
"I'm with him."
At the sound of a familiar voice, Riker turned around with that crooked smile he saved for people he liked. "Hey, how ya doin'?" The detective descended the short flight of steps to the sidewalk and gripped the larger man's hand. "Thanks for coming out. I know it's late."
Indeed it was, and Riker had the appearance of a man who had slept away most of this night in his suit. But then he always dressed that way, prewrinkled at the start of every workday. The yellow light at the top of the staircase had the flattering effect of minimizing the creases in the detective's face, making him appear somewhat younger than his fifty-five years.
"My pleasure." Charles looked down at his friend of average height, feeling the need to apologize for looming over him.
"Did Mallory tell you anything useful?"
"No, nothing at all."
"Maybe it's better that way." Riker motioned him toward the stairs, then led the way up. "Two women live here. One of them killed a man tonight. Simple enough?" He flicked his cigarette over the railing. "Check 'em out. We'll talk later."
When they passed through the open door, Charles heard music, vintage jazz, and he would not have been surprised to hear the clink of ice in cocktail glasses as they entered a din of conversation in the large foyer. They walked by a cluster of men wearing badges clipped to their suit pockets, and Detective Riker nodded to them in passing. "Those guys are settling a little problem of jurisdiction." He led Charles through a louder dispute between a woman in uniform and a man in a suit. Riker explained this one, too. He pointed to the young man with the folded stethoscope squeezed tightly in one raised fist. "Now, that's one pissed off medical examiner. Mallory won't release the body. She's using it to rattle the ladies who live here."
At the threshold of the front room, Charles had only time enough to blink once before entering a spatial paradox. The inside of the house appeared to be much larger than the exterior-a trick of cunning architecture. And some of the magic was done with a score of mirrors in elaborate silver frames ten feet tall. They created a labyrinth of rooms and flights of stairs and corridors where none existed. Thus, a dozen people were transformed into a mob, and each reflection added its own energy to the fray.
The grand staircase was the focal point, a tenuous bit of engineering that seemed to have no secure supports as it curved up to a partial vista on a floor above the cathedral ceiling. Though the rest of the stairs spiraled out of sight, in mind's eye, he was swept along with them, rushing round and upward through all the dizzying flights.
Back to earth-a corpse lay on the floor, partially obscured by upright people, and Charles Butler, unaccustomed to crime scenes, was caught in a quandary of manners: perhaps he should have admired the dead man first, and maybe he should not be tapping his feet in time to the music of a clarinet.
An even less reverent police photographer stepped over the body to speak with Detective Riker, who directed the close-up shots of the deceased. After snapping pictures in quick succession, and in time to the beat of a snare drum, the photographer departed to another room, giving Charles his first clear view of the victim.
He had been prepared for something brutal and grisly, given that this case had attracted so much attention, but the man on the floor seemed to be merely resting-if one could only discount the pair of scissors protruding from the chest. The victim did not belong in this neighborhood of wealth. His pants were shapeless and dirty, the T-shirt stained with more sweat than blood, and a pointed object lay near one open hand. Thus laid out was the simple story of an ice-pick-wielding intruder felled by a homeowner who favored shears.
What could possibly interest all of these-
Following a cue of upturned heads, his attention was drawn to the second-floor landing and the slender young woman standing there in blue jeans and an attitude of privilege. Blond curls, cut by a virtuoso, grazed the shoulders of a tailored blazer worn over a silk T-shirt. Arms folded, she affected the pose of one who owned all that she surveyed, even the people in the room below and, most particularly, the corpse.
More formally, she was Detective Mallory and never Kathy anymore. She preferred the distancing surname even among those who knew her best. And, though Charles was her foremost apologist, he found the background music fitting. Louis Armstrong was belting out the lyrics of Savannah's hard-hearted Hannah.
-pouring water on a drowning man-
One cream white hand with red fingernails-call them talons-lightly touched the banister as she slowly descended the grand staircase, circling in a wide arc, her eyes fixed on one face in the crowd.
But not his face.
Two crime-scene technicians moved out of Charles's way, and now he could see the object of Mallory's fixation.
Detective Riker had told him that two women lived at this address. There had been no mention of this little girl shivering like a whippet, that nervous, tremulous breed of dog that can never quite get warm, no matter what the temperature. No-wait. This was no child, but a tiny woman with a few silver threads in her dark brown hair, someone closer to his own age. Eyes cast down, this person presented herself at the bottom of the staircase in the manner of a penitent-or a volunteer for human sacrifice.
Tall Mallory literally descended upon the smaller woman, rapidly closing the distance and causing the little householder to shrink even more. Before the small head could turtle into the cowl of a white robe, Charles noted one charming detail: the short brown hair was angled across the ears, creating the illusion that they were pointed in the elfin way.
"That's Miss Bitty Smyth." Detective Riker raised one eyebrow, as if expecting Charles to recognize the name.
He did not.
"Bitty? That's a nickname?"
Riker shrugged and splayed one hand to say Who knows? "That's how she introduced herself. If she's got another name, we can't get it out of her. We can't get anything out of her."
"She might be in shock." Charles watched on in helpless fascination as Mallory reached out to Bitty Smyth and gripped the woman's thin arm. He was about to discount the possibility that Miss Smyth was the scissor-wielding homeowner when he turned to see the other resident of the house, a woman with long white hair and a green silk robe. She was barefoot and seated beside an antique radio, the source of the music. How amazing to find this old piece in working order. By the detail on its cabinet, he could date the radio back to the middle nineteen-thirties-the woman, too. He guessed her age at seventy or thereabouts. Her hand was on the dial, raising the volume.
"That's Miss Nedda Winter," said Riker. "She's Bitty's aunt." Again, something in Riker's manner suggested that Charles should also know this person.
She caught Charles staring at her, and he could only describe her expression as one of curious recognition.
The old woman turned off the music. Her attention had quickly shifted to the young homicide detective who had hold of Bitty Smyth's arm. Nedda Winter rose from her chair. She was taller than many of the men in this room, and her strides were long as she rushed toward her niece with an obvious plan of rescue. Riker, moving faster than his usual mosey, headed off Miss Winter. And now Charles was treated to a display that simply did not fit the man he knew. Playing the consummate gentleman, Riker extended one arm to the lady, as if she might need his support, then dazzled her with a broad smile and smoothly led her out of the room.
Star treatment. Perhaps he should know that old woman.
Charles turned back to the interrogation of Bitty Smyth, who was now facing in his direction. A Bible was clutched to the tiny prisoner's breast, and her large brown eyes rolled back as her lips moved in what he took for whispers of fervent prayer.
Well, Mallory had that effect on people.
His next impression was that Miss Smyth had disconnected from the solid earth and might fly upward if not restrained. As Charles drew nearer, he heard Mallory say that, no, she had not found Jesus and had no intention of being saved. The smaller woman's head wobbled and nodded, perhaps in a fearful palsy, or maybe agreeing that this young policewoman was beyond salvation.
"Charles." Mallory quickly dropped her hold on Bitty Smyth's arm, as if caught in the act of beating a suspect. Supporting this illusion, Miss Smyth sank to an armchair, still nodding and trembling on the verge of a smile, so greatly relieved.
The long slants of Mallory's eyes were always the first thing one noticed-a strange bright shade of green not found in nature. She did not smile upon greeting him, and he had not expected that. Her expressions were usually deliberate or absent, a chilling idiosyncrasy.
She had others.
Though Charles Butler possessed a vast knowledge of abnormal psychology, Mallory sidestepped every attempt to classify her with any sense of confidence, as if she belonged to a separate species of one, a denizen of some unsentimental planet of perpetual cold weather.
"Hello," he said, smiling and standing back a pace to take her in, as if he had expected her to have grown over the weekend.
Her hand was on his arm, and, with the lightest of pressure, she was able to drag him down a narrow hallway and into a small boxy room all decked out like a tailor's shop with the tools and machines of the trade. Racks of thread spools lined one wall, and a basket of mending sat on the floor near a dressmaker's dummy.
"A sewing room," she said, "without a single pair of scissors."
"I think I noticed them back in the parlor." And here, wisely, he stopped, for Mallory's eyes widened slightly to tell him that she did not appreciate his pointing out the obvious thing-the shears planted in the dead man's chest. And neither did she care to be interrupted. Arms folding across her chest was all the warning he would ever get.
"So," the detective continued, "this woman comes downstairs-in the dark-sees the burglar. Then she runs to the other end of the house to look for the sewing shears. And the perp just stands there in the front room, waiting for her to come back and stab him to death."
Charles hesitated-always a good idea to tread carefully with her.
Excerpted from WINTER HOUSE by CAROL O'CONNELL Copyright © 2004 by Carol O'Connell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Carol O'Connell is the author of eight previous Mallory novels, including the national bestseller Winter House, and of Judas Child.
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