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«Winter House», Carol O’Connell

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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 Buder, 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 icepick-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.

Mallory.

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 – lighdy 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.


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