/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

The Vanished Man

Jeffery Deaver

The New York Times bestselling author of The Stone Monkey is back with a brilliant thriller that pits forensic criminologist Lincoln Rhyme and his partner, Amelia Sachs, against an unstoppable killer with one final, horrific trick up his sleeve. The Los Angeles Times calls his novels "thrill rides between covers." The New York Times hails them as "dazzling," and The Times of London crowns him "the best psychological thriller writer around." Now Jeffery Deaver, America 's "master of ticking-bomb suspense" (People) delivers his most electrifying novel yet. It begins at a prestigious music school in New York City. A killer flees the scene of a homicide and locks himself in a classroom. Within minutes, the police have him surrounded. When a scream rings out, followed by a gunshot, they break down the door. The room is empty. Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs are brought in to help with the high-profile investigation. For the ambitious Sachs, solving the case could earn her a promotion. For the quadriplegic Rhyme, it means relying on his protégée to ferret out a master illusionist they've dubbed "the conjurer," who baits them with gruesome murders that become more diabolical with each fresh crime. As the fatalities rise and the minutes tick down, Rhyme and Sachs must move beyond the smoke and mirrors to prevent a terrifying act of vengeance that could become the greatest vanishing act of all.

Jeffery Deaver

The Vanished Man

The fifth book in the Lincoln Rhyme series, 2003

"A conjuring trick is generally regarded by magicians as consisting of an effect and a method. The effect is what the spectator sees… The method is the secret behind the effect and allows the effect to take place."

– Peter Lament and Richard Wiseman, Magic in Theory

I . EFFECT

SATURDAY, APRIL 20

"The expert magician seeks to deceive the mind, rather than the eye."

– Marvin Kaye, The Creative Magician's Handbook

Chapter One

Greetings, Revered Audience. Welcome.

Welcome to our show.

We have a number of thrills in store for you over the next two days as our illusionists, our magicians, our sleight-of-hand artists weave their spells to delight and captivate you.

Our first routine is from the repertoire of a performer everyone's heard of: Harry Houdini, the greatest escape artist in America, if not the world, a man who performed before crowned heads of state and U.S. presidents. Some of his escapes are so difficult no one has dared attempt them, all these years after his untimely death.

Today we'll re-create an escape in which he risked suffocation in a routine known as the Lazy Hangman.

In this trick, our performer lies prone on the belly, hands bound behind the back with classic Darby handcuffs. The ankles are tied together and another length of rope is wound around the neck, like a noose, and tied to the ankles. The tendency of the legs to straighten pulls the noose taut and begins the terrible process of suffocation.

Why is it called the "Lazy" Hangman? Because the condemned executes himself.

In many of Mr. Houdini's more dangerous routines, assistants were present with knives and keys to release him in the event that he was unable to escape. Often a doctor was on hand.

Today there'll be none of these precautions. If there's no escape within four minutes, the performer will die.

We begin in a moment… but first a word of advice:

Never forget that by entertaining our show you're abandoning reality.

What you're absolutely convinced you might see might not exist at all. What you know has to be an illusion may turn out to be God's harsh truth.

Your companion at our show might turn out to be a total stranger. A man or woman in the audience you don't recognize may know you far too well.

What seems to be safe may be deadly. And the dangers you guard against may be nothing more than distractions to lure you to greater danger.

In our show what can you believe? Whom can you trust?

Well, Revered Audience, the answer is that you should believe nothing.

And you should trust no one. No one at all.

Now the curtain rises, the lights dim, the music fades, leaving only the sublime sound of hearts beating in anticipation.

And our show begins…

• • •

The building looked as if it’d seen its share of ghosts.

Gothic, sooty, dar. Sandwiched between two high-rises on the Upper West Side, capped with a widow's walk and many shuttered windows. The building dated from the Victorian era and had been a boarding school at one point and later a sanatorium, where the criminally insane lived out their frazzled lives.

The Manhattan School of Music and Performing Arts could have been home to dozens of spirits.

But none so immediate as the one who might be hovering here now, above the warm body of the young woman lying, stomach down, in the dim lobby outside a small recital hall. Her eyes were still and wide but not yet glassy, the blood on her cheeks was not yet brown.

Her face was dark as plum from the constriction of the taut rope connecting her neck to her ankles.

Scattered around her were a flute case, sheet music and a spilled grande cup from Starbucks, the coffee staining her jeans and green Izod shirt and leaving a comma of dark liquid on the marble floor.

Also present was the man who'd killed her, bending down and examining her carefully. He was taking his time and felt no urge to rush. Today was Saturday, the hour early. There were no classes in the school on the weekends, he'd learned. Students did use the practice rooms but they were in a different wing of the building. He leaned closer to the woman, squinting, wondering if he could see some essence, some spirit rising from her body. He didn't.

He straightened up, considering what else he might do to the still form in front of him.

• • •

You’re sure it was screaming?

"Yeah…No," the security guard said. "Maybe not screaming, you know. Shouting. Upset. For just a second or two. Then it stopped."

Officer Diane Franciscovich, a portable working out of the Twentieth Precinct, continued, "Anybody else hear anything?"

The heavy guard, breathing hard, glanced at the tall, brunette policewoman, shook his head and flexed and opened his huge hands. He wiped his dark palms on his blue slacks.

"Call for backup?" asked Nancy Ausonio, another young patrol officer, shorter than her partner, blonde.

Franciscovich didn't think so, though she wasn't sure. Portables walking the beat in this part of the Upper West Side dealt mostly with traffic accidents, shoplifting and car theft (as well as holding the hands of distraught muggees). This was a first for them – the two women officers, on their Saturday morning watch, had been spotted on the sidewalk and motioned urgently inside by the guard to help check out the screaming. Well, upset shouting.

"Let’s hold off," the calm Franciscovich said. "See what’s going on."

The guard said, "Sounded like it was comin' from 'round her somewhere. Dunno."

"Spooky place," Ausonio offered, oddly uneasy; she was the partner most likely to leap into the middle of a dispute, even if it involved combatants twice her size.

"The sounds, you know. Hard to tell. You know what I’m sayin'? Where they’re coming from."

Franciscovich was focusing on what her partner had said. Damn spooky place, she added silently.

Seeming miles of dim corridors later, finding nothing out of the ordinary, the security guard paused.

Franciscovich nodded to a doorway in front of them. "What's through here?"

"Be no reason for students t'be there. It's only -"

Franciscovich pushed the door open.

Inside was a small lobby that led to a door labeled Recital Hall A. And near that door was the body of a young woman, trussed up, rope around her neck, hands in cuffs. Eyes open in death. A brown-haired, bearded man in his early fifties crouched over her. He looked up, surprised at their entry.

"No!" Ausonio cried.

"Oh, Christ," the guard gasped.

The officers drew their weapons and Franciscovich sighted down on the man with what she thought was a surprisingly steady hand. "You, don't move! Stand up slow, move away from her and put your hands in the air." Her voice was much less firm than the fingers gripping the Glock pistol.

The man did as he was told.

"Lie facedown on floor. Keep your hands in sight!"

Ausonio started forward to the girl.

It was then Franciscovich noticed that the man's right hand, over his head, was closed in a fist.

"Open your -"

Pop

She went blind as a flash of searing light filled the room. It seemed to come directly from the suspect's hand and hovered for a moment before going out.

Ausonio froze and Franciscovich went into a crouch, scrabbling backward and squinting, swinging the gun back and forth. Panicked, she knew the killer had kept his eyes shut when the flash went off and would be aiming his own weapon at them or charging forward with a knife.

"Where, where, where?" she shouted.

Then she saw – vaguely thanks to her frizzled vision and the dissipating smoke – the killer running into the recital hall. He slammed the door shut. There was a thud inside as he moved a chair or table against the door.

Ausonio dropped to her knees in front of the girl. With a Swiss army knife she cut the rope off her neck, rolled her over and, using a disposable mouthpiece, started CPR.

"Any other exits?" Franciscovich shouted to the guard.

"Only one – in the back, around the corner. To the right."

"Windows?"

"No."

"Hey," she called to Ausonio as she started sprinting. "Watch this door!"

"Got it," the blonde officer called and blew another breath into the victim's pale lips.

More thuds from inside as the killer beefed up his barricade; Franciscovich sprinted around the corner, toward the door the guard had told them about, calling for backup on her Motorola. As she looked ahead she saw someone standing at the end of the corridor. Franciscovich stopped fast, drew a target on the man's chest and shone the brilliant beam from her halogen flashlight on him.

"Lord," croaked the elderly janitor, dropping the broom he held.

Franciscovich thanked God she'd kept her finger outside the trigger guard of the Glock. "You see somebody come out of that door?"

"What's going on?"

"You see anybody?" Franciscovich shouted.

"No, ma'am."

"How long you been here?"

"I don't know. Ten minutes, I'd guess."

There was another thud of furniture from inside as the killer continued to blockade the door. Franciscovich sent the janitor into the main corridor with the security guard then eased up to the side door. Gun held high, eye level, she tested the knob gently. It was unlocked. She stepped to the side so she wouldn't be in the line of fire if the perp shot through the wood. A trick she remembered from NYPD Blue, though an instructor might've mentioned it at the Academy too.

Another thump from inside.

"Nancy, you there?" Franciscovich whispered into her handy-talkie.

Ausonios voice, shaky, said, "She's dead, Diane. I tried. But she's dead."

"He didn't get out this way. He's still inside. I can hear him." Silence.

"I tried, Diane. I tried."

"Forget it. Come on. You on this? You on it?"

"Yeah, I'm cool. Really." The officer's voice hardened. "Let's go get him."

"No," Franciscovich said, "we'll keep him contained till ESU gets here. That's all we've got to do. Sit tight. Stay clear of the door. And sit tight."

Which is when she heard the man shout from inside, "I've got a hostage. I've got a girl in here. Try to get in and I'll kill her!"

Oh, Jesus…

"You, inside!" Franciscovich shouted. "Nobody's going to do anything. Don't worry. Just don't hurt anybody else." Was this procedure? she wondered. Neither prime-time television nor her Academy training was any help here. She heard Ausonio call Central and report that the situation was now a barricade and hostage-taking.

Franciscovich called to the killer, "Just take it easy! You can -"

A huge gunshot from inside. Franciscovich jumped like a fish. "What happened? Was that you?" she shouted into her radio.

"No," her partner replied, "I thought it was you."

"No. It was him. You okay?"

"Yeah. He said he's got a hostage. You think he shot her?"

"I don't know. How do I know?" Franciscovich, thinking: Where the hell is the backup?

"Diane," Ausonio whispered after a moment. "We've gotta go in. Maybe she's hurt. Maybe she's wounded." Then, shouting: "You, inside!" No answer. "You!"

Nothing.

"Maybe he killed himself," Franciscovich offered. Or maybe he fired the shot to make us think he'd killed himself and he's waiting inside, drawing a target gut-high on the doorway.

Then that terrible image returned to her: the seedy door to the recital lobby opening, casting the pale light on the victim, her face blue and cold as winter dusk. Stopping people from doing things like this was why she'd become a cop in the first place.

"We have to go in, Diane," Ausonio whispered.

"That's what I'm thinking. Okay. We'll go in." Speaking a bit manically as she thought of both her family and how to curl her left hand over her right when firing an automatic pistol in a combat shooting situation. "Tell the guard we'll need lights inside the hall."

A moment later Ausonio said, "The switch is out here. He'll turn 'em on when I say so." A deep breath that Franciscovich heard through the microphone. Then Ausonio said, "Ready. On three. You count it."

"Okay. One… Wait. I'll be coming in from your two o'clock. Don't shoot me."

"Okay. Two o'clock. I'll be -"

"You'll be on my left."

"Go ahead."

"One." Franciscovich gripped the knob with her left hand. "Two."

This time her finger slipped inside the guard of her weapon, gently caressing the second trigger – the safety on Glock pistols.

"Three!" Franciscovich shouted so loud that she was sure her partner heard the call without the radio. She shoved through the doorway into the large rectangular room just as the glaring lights came on.

"Freeze!" she screamed – to an empty room.

Crouching, skin humming with the tension, she swung her weapon from side to side as she scanned every inch of the space.

No sign of the killer, no sign of a hostage.

A glance to her left, the other doorway, where Nancy Ausonio stood, doing the same frantic scan of the room. "Where?" the woman whispered.

Franciscovich shook her head. She noticed about fifty wooden folding chairs arranged in neat rows. Four or five of them were lying on their backs or sides.

But they didn't seem to be a barricade; they were randomly kicked over. To her right was a low stage. On it sat an amplifier and two speakers. A battered grand piano.

The young officers could see virtually everything in the room.

Except the perp.

"What happened, Nancy? Tell me what happened."

Ausonio didn't answer; like her partner she was looking around frantically, three-sixty, checking out every shadow, every piece of furniture, even though it was clear the man wasn't here.

Spooky

The room was essentially a sealed cube. No windows. The air-conditioning and heating vents were only six inches across. A wooden ceiling, not acoustic tile.

No trapdoors that she could see. No doors other than the main one Ausonio had used and the fire door that Franciscovich had entered through.

Where? Franciscovich mouthed.

Her partner mouthed something back. The policewoman couldn't decipher it but the message could be read in her face: I don't have a clue.

"Yo," a loud voice called from the doorway. They spun toward it, drawing targets on the empty lobby. "Ambulance and some other officers just got here." It was the security guard, hiding out of sight.

Heart slamming from the fright, Franciscovich called him inside.

He asked, "Is it, uhm… I mean, you get him?"

"He's not here," Ausonio said in a shaky voice.

"What?" The man peeked cautiously into the hall.

Franciscovich heard the voices of the officers and EMS techs arriving. The jangle of equipment. Still, the women couldn't bring themselves to join their fellow cops just yet. They stood transfixed in the middle of the recital space, both uneasy and bewildered, trying vainly to figure out how the killer had escaped from a room from which there was no escape.

Chapter Two

"He's listening to music."

"I'm not listening to music. The music happens to be on. That's all."

"Music, huh?" Lon Sellitto muttered as he walked into Lincoln Rhyme's bedroom. "That's a coincidence."

"He's developed a taste for jazz," Thom explained to the paunchy detective. "Surprised me, I have to tell you."

"As I said," Lincoln Rhyme continued petulantly, "I'm working and the music happens to be playing in the background. What do you mean, coincidence?"

Nodding at the flat-screen monitor in front of Rhyme's Flexicair bed, the slim, young aide, dressed in a white shirt, tan slacks and solid purple tie, said, "No, he's not working. Unless staring at the same page for an hour is work. He wouldn't let me get away with work like that."

"Command, turn page." The computer recognized Rhyme's voice and obeyed his order, slapping a new page of Forensic Science Review onto the monitor. He asked Thom acerbically, "Say, you want to quiz me on what I've been staring at? The composition of the top five exotic toxins found in recent terrorist laboratories in Europe? And how 'bout we put some money on the answers?"

"No, we have other things to do," the aide replied, referring to the various bodily functions that caregivers must attend to several times a day when their patients are quadriplegics like Lincoln Rhyme.

"We'll get to that in a few minutes," the criminalist said, enjoying a particularly energetic trumpet riff.

"We'll get to that now. If you'll excuse us for a moment, Lon."

"Yeah, sure." Large, rumpled Sellitto stepped into the corridor outside the second-floor bedroom of Rhyme's Central Park West townhouse. He closed the door.

As Thom expertly performed his duties Lincoln Rhyme listened to the music and wondered: Coincidence?

Five minutes later Thom let Sellitto back into the bedroom. "Coffee?"

"Yeah. Could use some. Too fucking early to work on a Saturday."

The aide left.

"So, how do I look, Linc?" asked the pirouetting middle-aged detective, whose gray suit was typical of his wardrobe – made apparently from permanently wrinkled cloth.

"A fashion show?" Rhyme asked.

Coincidence?

Then his mind slipped back to the CD. How the hell does somebody play the trumpet so smoothly? How can you get that kind of sound from a metal instrument?

The detective continued: "I lost sixteen pounds. Rachel has me on a diet. Fat's the problem. You cut out fat, you'd be amazed how much weight you can lose."

"Fat, yes. I think we knew that, Lon. So…?" Meaning, get to the point.

"Gotta bizarre case. Found a body a half hour ago at a music school up the street from here. I'm case officer and we could use some help."

Music school. And I'm listening to music. That's a piss-poor coincidence.

Sellitto ran through some of the facts: student killed, the perp was nearly collared but he got away through some kind of trapdoor that nobody could find.

Music was mathematical. That much Rhyme, a scientist, could understand. It was logical, it was perfectly structured. It was also, he reflected, infinite. An unlimited number of tunes could be written. You could never be bored writing music. He wondered how one went about it. Rhyme believed he had no creativity.

He'd taken piano lessons when he was eleven or twelve but, even though he'd developed an enduring crush on Miss Osborne, the lessons themselves were a write-off. His fondest memories of the instrument were taking stroboscopic pictures of the resonating strings for a science-fair project.

"You with me, Linc?"

"A case, you were saying. Bizarre."

Sellitto gave more of the details, slowly corralling Rhyme's attention. "There's got to be some way outta the hall. But nobody from the school or our team can find it."

"How's the scene?"

"Still pretty virgin. Can we get Amelia to run it?"

Rhyme glanced at the clock. "She's tied up for another twenty minutes or so."

"That's not a problem," Sellitto said, patting his stomach as if he were searching for the lost weight. "I'll page her."

"Let's not distract her just yet."

"Why, what's she doing?"

"Oh, something dangerous," Rhyme said, concentrating once more on the silken voice of the trumpet. "What else?"

• • •

She smelled the wet brick of the tenement wall against her face.

Her palms sweated and, beneath the fiery red hair shoved up under her dusty issue hat, her scalp itched fiercely. Still, she remained completely motionless as a uniformed officer slipped up close beside her and planted his face against the brick too.

"Okay, here's the situation," the man said, nodding toward their right. He explained that just around the corner of the tenement was a vacant lot, in the middle of which was a getaway car that'd crashed a few minutes ago after a high-speed pursuit.

"Drivable?" Amelia Sachs asked.

"No. Hit a Dumpster and's out of commission. Three perps. They bailed but we got one in custody. One's in the car with some kind of Jesus-long hunting rifle. He wounded a patrolman."

"Condition?"

"Superficial."

"Pinned down?"

"No. Out of the perimeter. One building west of here."

She asked, "The third perp?"

The officer sighed. "Hell, he made it to the first floor of this building here."

Nodding toward the tenement they were hugging. "It's a barricade. He's got a hostage. Pregnant woman."

Sachs digested the flood of information as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, to ease the pain of the arthritis in her joints. Damn, that hurt.

She noticed her companion's name on his chest. "The hostage-taker's weapon, Wilkins?"

"Handgun. Unknown type."

"Where's our side?"

The young man pointed out two officers behind a wall at the back of the lot.

"Then two more in front of the building, containing the H-T."

"Anybody call ESU?"

"I don't know. I lost my handy-talkie when we started taking fire."

"You in armor?"

"Negative. I was doing traffic stops… What the hell're we going to do?"

She clicked her Motorola to a particular frequency and said, "Crime Scene Five Eight Eight Five to Supervisor."

A moment later: "This is Captain Seven Four. Go ahead."

"Ten-thirteen at a lot east of six-oh-five Delancey. Officer down. Need backup, EMS bus and ESU immediately. Two subjects, both armed. One with hostage; we'll need a negotiator."

"Roger, Five Eight Eight Five. Helicopter for observation?"

"Negative, Seven Four. One suspect has a high-powered rifle. And they're willing to target blues."

"We'll get backup there as soon as we can. But the Secret Service's closed up half of downtown 'cause the vice president's coming in from JFK. There'll be a delay. Handle the situation at your discretion. Out."

"Roger. Out."

Vice president, she thought. Just lost my vote.

Wilkins shook his head. "But we can't get a negotiator near the apartment. Not with the shooter still in the car."

"I'm working on that," Sachs replied.

She edged to the corner of the tenement again and glanced at the car, a cheap low-rider with its nose against a Dumpster, doors open revealing a thin man holding a rifle.

I'm working on that…

She shouted, "You in the car, you're surrounded. We're going to open fire if you don't drop your weapon. Do it now!"

He crouched and aimed in her direction. She ducked for cover. On her Motorola she called the two officers in the back of the lot. "Are there hostages in the car?"

"None."

"You're sure?"

"Positive" was the officer's reply. "We got a good look before he started shooting."

"Okay. You got a shot?"

"Probably through the door."

"No, don't shoot blind. Go for position. But only if you've got cover all the way."

"Roger."

She saw the men move to a flanking position. A moment later one of the officers said, "I've got a shot to kill. Should I take it?"

"Stand by." Then she shouted, "You in the car. With the rifle. You have ten seconds or we'll open fire. Drop your weapon. You understand?" She repeated this in Spanish.

"Fuck you."

Which she took to be affirmative.

"Ten seconds," she shouted. "We're counting."

To the two officers she radioed, "Give him twenty. Then you're green-lighted."

At close to the ten-second mark, the man dropped the rifle and stood up, hands in the air. "No shoot, no shoot!"

"Keep those hands straight up in the air. Walk toward the corner of the building here. If you lower your hands you will be shot."

When he got to the corner Wilkins cuffed and searched him. Sachs remained crouched down. She said to the suspect, "The guy inside. Your buddy. Who is he?"

"I don't gotta tell you -"

"Yeah, you do gotta. Because if we take him out, which we are going to do, you'll go down for felony murder. Now, is that man in there worth forty-five years in Ossining?"

The man sighed.

"Come on," she snapped. "Name, address, family, what he likes for dinner, what's his mother's first name, he have relatives in the system – you can think of all kinds of real helpful stuff about him, I'll bet."

He sighed and started to talk; Sachs scribbled down the details. Her Motorola crackled. The hostage negotiator and the ESU team had just showed up in front of the building. She handed her notes to Wilkins. "Get those to the negotiator."

She read the rifleman his rights, thinking, Had she handled the situation the best way she could? Had she endangered lives unnecessarily? Should she have checked on the wounded officer herself?

Five minutes later, the supervising captain walked around the corner of the building. He smiled. "The H-T released the woman. No injuries. We've got three collared. The wounded officer'll be okay. Just a scratch."

A policewoman with short blond hair poking out from under her regulation hat joined them. "Hey, check it out. We got a bonus." She held up a large Baggie full of white powder and another containing pipes and other drug paraphernalia.

As the captain looked it over, nodding with approval, Sachs asked, "That was in their car?"

"Naw. I found it in a Ford across the street. I was interviewing the owner as a witness and he started sweating and looking all nervous so I searched his car."

"Where was it parked?" Sachs asked.

"In his garage."

"Did you call in a warrant?"

"No. Like I say, he was acting nervous and I could see a corner of the bag from the sidewalk. That's probable cause."

"Nope." Sachs was shaking her head. "It's an illegal search."

"Illegal? We pulled this guy over last week for speeding and saw a kilo of pot in the back. We busted him okay."

"It's different on the street. There's a lesser expectation of privacy in a mobile vehicle on public roads. All you need for an arrest then is probable cause. When a car's on private property, even if you see drugs, you need a warrant."

"That's crazy," the policewoman said defensively. "He's got ten ounces of pure coke here. He's a balls-forward dealer. Narcotics spends months trying to collar somebody like this."

The captain said to Sachs, "You sure about this, Officer?"

"Positive."

"Recommendation?"

Sachs said, "Confiscate the stuff, put the fear of God into the perp and give his tag number and stats to Narcotics." Then she glanced at the policewoman. "And you better take a refresher course in search and seizure."

The woman officer started to argue but Sachs wasn't paying attention.

She was surveying the vacant lot, where the perps' car rested against the Dumpster. She squinted at the vehicle.

"Officer -" the captain began.

She ignored him and said to Wilkins, "You said three perps?"

"That's right."

"How do you know?"

"That was the report from the jewelry store they hit."

She stepped into the rubble-filled lot, pulling out her Glock. "Look at the getaway car," she snapped.

"Jesus," Wilkins said.

All the doors were open. Four men had bailed.

Dropping into a crouch, she scanned the lot and aimed her gun toward the only possible hiding place nearby: a short cul-de-sac behind the Dumpster.

"Weapon!" she cried, almost before she saw the motion.

Everyone around her turned as the large, T-shirted man with a shotgun jogged out of the lot, making a run for the street.

Sachs's Glock was centered on his chest as he broke cover. "Drop the weapon!" she ordered.

He hesitated a moment then grinned and began to swing it toward the officers.

She pushed her Glock forward.

And in a cheerful voice, she said, "Bang, bang… You're dead."

The shotgunner stopped and laughed. He shook his head in admiration. "Damn good. I thought I was home free." The stubby gun over his shoulder, he strolled to the cluster of fellow cops beside the tenement. The other "suspect," the man who'd been in the car, turned his back so that the cuffs could be removed. Wilkins released him.

The "hostage," played by a very unpregnant Latina officer Sachs had known for years, joined them too. She clapped Sachs on the back. "Nice work, Amelia, saving my ass."

Sachs kept a solemn face, though she was pleased. She felt like a student who'd just aced an important exam.

Which was, in effect, exactly what had happened.

Amelia Sachs was pursuing a new goal. Her father, Herman, had been a portable, a beat cop in the Patrol Services Division, all his life. Sachs now had the same rank and might've been content to remain there for another few years before moving up in the department but after the September 11 attacks she'd decided she wanted to do more for her city. So she'd submitted the paperwork to be promoted to detective sergeant.

No group of law enforcers has fought crime like NYPD detectives. Their tradition went back to tough, brilliant Inspector Thomas Byrnes, named to head up the fledgling Detective Bureau in the 1880s. Byrnes's arsenal included threats, head-knocking and subtle deductions – he once broke a major theft ring by tracing a tiny fiber found at a crime scene. Under Byrnes's flamboyant guidance the detectives in the bureau became known as the Immortals and they dramatically reduced the level of crime in a city as freewheeling back then as the Wild West.

Officer Herman Sachs was a collector of police department memorabilia, and not long before he died he gave his daughter one of his favorite artifacts: a battered notebook actually used by Byrnes to jot notes about investigations.

When Sachs was young – and her mother wasn't around – her father would read aloud the more legible passages and the two of them would make up stories around them.

October 12, 1883. The other leg has been found! Slaggardy's coal bin, Five Pts, Expect Cotton Williams's confession forthwith.

Given its prestigious status (and lucrative pay for law enforcement), it was ironic that women found more opportunities in the Detective Bureau than in any other division of the NYPD. If Thomas Byrnes was the male detective icon, Mary Shanley was the female – and one of Sachs's personal heroines. Busting crime throughout the 1930s, Shanley was a boisterous, uncompromising cop, who once said, "You have the gun to use, and you may as well use it." Which she did with some frequency. After years of combating crime in Midtown she retired as a detective first-grade.

Sachs, however, wanted to be more than a detective, which is just a job specialty; she wanted rank too. In the NYPD, as in most police forces, one becomes a detective on the basis of merit and experience. To become a sergeant, though, the applicant goes through an arduous triathlon of exams: written, oral and – what Sachs had just endured – an assessment exercise, a simulation to test practical skills at personnel management, community sensitivities and judgment under fire.

The captain, a soft-spoken veteran who resembled Laurence Fishburne, was the primary assessor for the exercise and had been taking notes on her performance.

"Okay, Officer," he said, "we'll write up our results and they'll be attached to your review. But let me just say a word unofficially." Consulting his notebook. "Your threat assessment regarding civilians and officers was perfect. Calls for backup were timely and appropriate. Your deployment of personnel negated any chance the perpetrators would escape from the containment situation and yet minimized exposure. You called the illegal drug search right. And getting the personal information from the one suspect for the hostage negotiator was a nice touch. We didn't think about making that part of the exercise. But we will now. Then, at the end, well, frankly, we never thought you'd determine there was another perp in hiding. We had it planned that he'd shoot Officer Wilkins here and then we'd see how you'd handle an officer-down situation and organize a fleeing felon apprehension."

The officialese vanished and he smiled. "But you nailed the bastard."

Bang, bang.

Then he asked, "You've done the written and orals, right?"

"Yessir. Should have the results any day now."

"My group'll complete our assessment evaluation and send that to the board with our recommendations. You can stand down now."

"Yessir."

The cop who'd played the last bad guy – the one with the shotgun – wandered up to her. He was a good-looking Italian, half a generation out of the Brooklyn docks, she judged, and had a boxer's muscles. A dirty stubble of beard covered his cheeks and chin. He wore a big-bore chrome automatic high on his trim hip and his cocky smile brought her close to suggesting he might want to use the gun's reflection as a mirror to shave.

"I gotta tell ya – I've done a dozen assessments and that was the best I ever seen, babe."

She laughed in surprise at the word. There were certainly cavemen left in the department – from Patrol Services to corner offices at Police Plaza – but they tended to be more condescending than openly sexist. Sachs hadn't heard a "babe" or "honey" from a male cop in at least a year. "Let's stick with 'Officer,' you don't mind."

"No, no, no," he said, laughing. "You can chill now. The AE's over."

"How's that?"

"When I said 'babe,' it's not like it's a part of the assessment. You don't have to, you know, deal with it official or anything. I'm just saying it 'cause I was impressed. And 'cause you're… you know." He smiled into her eyes, his charm as shiny as his pistol. "I don't do compliments much. Coming from me, that's something."

'Cause you're you know…

"Hey, you're not pissed or anything, are you?" he asked.

"Not pissed at all. But it's still 'Officer.' That's what you call me and what I'll call you."

At least to your face.

"Hey, I didn't mean any offense or anything. You're a pretty girl. And I'm a guy. You know what that's like… So."

"So," she replied and started away.

He stepped in front of her, frowning. "Hey, hold on. This isn't going too good. Look, let me buy you a coffee. You'll like me when you get to know me."

"Don't bet on it," one of his buddies called, laughing.

The Babe Man good-naturedly gave him the finger then turned back to Sachs.

Which is when her pager beeped and she looked down to see Lincoln Rhyme's number on the screen. The word "URGENT" appeared after it.

"Gotta go," she said.

"So no time for that coffee?" he asked, a fake pout on his handsome face.

"No time."

"Well, how 'bout a phone number?"

She made a pistol with her index finger and thumb and aimed it at him. "Bang, bang," she said. And trotted toward her yellow Camaro.

Chapter Three

This is a school?

Wheeling a large black crime-scene suitcase behind her, Amelia Sachs walked through the dim corridor. She smelled mold and old wood. Dusty webs had coagulated near the high ceiling and scales of green paint curled from the walls. How could anybody study music here? It was a setting for one of the Anne Rice novels that Sachs's mother read.

"Spooky," one of the responding officers had muttered, only half jokingly.

That said it all.

A half-dozen cops – four patrol officers and two in soft clothes – stood near a double doorway at the end of the hall. Disheveled Lon Sellitto, head down and hand clutching one of his notepads, was talking to a guard. Like the walls and floors the guard's outfit was dusty and stained.

Through the open doorway she glimpsed another dim space, in the middle of which was a light-colored form. The victim.

To the CS tech walking beside her she said, "We'll need lights. A couple of sets." The young man nodded and headed back to the RRV – the crime scene rapid response vehicle, a station wagon filled with forensic collection equipment. It sat outside, half on the sidewalk, where he'd parked it after the drive here (probably at a more leisurely pace than Sachs in her 1969 Camaro SS, which had averaged 70 mph en route to the school from the assessment exercise).

Sachs studied the young blonde woman, lying on her back ten feet away, belly arched up because her bound hands were underneath her. Even in the dimness of the school lobby Sachs's quick eyes noted the deep ligature marks on her neck and the blood on her lips and chin – probably from biting her tongue, a common occurrence in strangulations.

Automatically she also observed: emerald-colored studs for earrings, shabby running shoes. No apparent robbery, sexual molestation or mutilation. No wedding ring.

"Who was first officer?"

A tall woman with short brunette hair, her name tag reading D. FRANCISCOVICH, said, "We were." A nod toward her blonde partner. N. AUSONIO. Their eyes were troubled and Franciscovich played a brief rhythm on her holster with thumb and fingers. Ausonio kept glancing at the body. Sachs guessed this was their first homicide.

The two patrol officers gave their account of what had happened. Finding the perp, a flash of light, his disappearing, a barricade. Then he was gone.

"You said he claimed to have a hostage?"

"That's what he said," Ausonio offered. "But everybody in the school's accounted for. We're sure he was bluffing."

"Victim?"

"Svetlana Rasnikov," Ausonio said. "Twenty-four. Student."

Sellitto turned away from the security guard. He said to Sachs, "Bedding and Saul're interviewing everybody in the building here this morning."

She nodded toward the scene. "Who's been inside?"

Sellitto said, "The first officers." Nodding toward the women. "Then two medics and two ESU. They backed out as soon as they cleared it. Scene's still pretty clean."

"The guard was inside too," Ausonio said. "But only for a minute. We got him out as soon as we could."

"Good," Sachs said. "Witnesses?"

Ausonio said, "There was a janitor outside the room when we got here."

"He didn't see anything," Franciscovich added.

Sachs said, "I still need to see the soles of his shoes for comparison. Could one of you find him for me?"

"Sure." Ausonio wandered off.

From one of the black suitcases Sachs extracted a zippered clear plastic case. She opened it and pulled out a white Tyvek jumpsuit. Donning it, she pulled the hood over her head. Then gloves. The outfit was standard issue now for all forensics techs at the NYPD; it prevented substances – trace, hair, epithelial skin cells and foreign matter – from sloughing off her body and contaminating the scene. The suit had booties but she still did what Rhyme always insisted on – put rubber bands on her feet to distinguish her prints from the victim's and the perp's.

Mounting the earphones on her head and adjusting the stalk mike, she hooked up her Motorola. She called in a landline patch and a moment later a complex arrangement of communications systems brought the low voice of Lincoln Rhyme into her ear. "Sachs, you there?"

"Yep. It was just like you said – they had him cornered and he disappeared."

He chuckled. "And now they want us to find him. Do we have to clean up for everybody's mistakes? Hold on a minute. Command, volume lower… lower."

Music in the background diminished.

The tech who'd accompanied Sachs down the gloomy corridor returned with tall lamps on tripods. She set them up in the lobby and clicked the switch.

There's a lot of debate about the proper way to process a scene. Generally investigators agree that less is more, though most departments still use teams of CS searchers. Before his accident Lincoln Rhyme, however, had run most scenes alone and he insisted that Amelia Sachs do the same. With other searchers around, you tend to be distracted and are often less vigilant because you feel – even if only subconsciously – that your partner will find what you miss.

But there was another reason for solitary searching. Rhyme recognized that there's a macabre intimacy about criminal violation. A crime scene searcher working alone is better able to forge a mental relationship with the victim and the perpetrator, gather better insights into what is the relevant evidence and where it might be found.

It was into this difficult state of mind that Amelia Sachs now slipped as she gazed at the body of the young woman, lying on the floor, next to a fiber-board table.

Near the body were a spilled cup of coffee, sheet music, a music case and a piece of the woman's silver flute, which she'd apparently been in the act of assembling when the killer flipped the rope around her neck. In her death grip she clutched another cylinder of the instrument. Had she intended to use it as a weapon?

Or did the desperate young woman just want to feel something familiar and comforting in her fingers as she died?

"I'm at the body, Rhyme," she said as she snapped digital pictures of the corpse.

"Go ahead."

"She's on her back – but the respondings found her on her abdomen. They turned her over to give her CPR. Injuries consistent with strangulation." Sachs now delicately rolled the woman back onto her belly. "Hands're in some kind of old-fashioned cuffs. I don't recognize them. Her watch is broken. Stopped at exactly eight A. M. Doesn't look accidental." She closed her gloved hand around the woman's narrow wrist. It was shattered. "Yep, Rhyme, he stomped on it. And it's nice. A Seiko. Why break it? Why not steal it?"

"Good question, Sachs… Might be a clue, might be nothing."

Which was as good a slogan for forensic science as any, she reflected. "One of the respondings cut the rope around her neck. She missed the knot." Officers should never cut through the knot to remove a cord from a strangulation victim; it can reveal a great deal of information about the person who tied it.

Sachs then used a tape roller to collect trace evidence – recent forensic thinking was that a portable vacuum cleaner, which resembled a Dustbuster, picked up too much trace. Most CS teams were switching to rollers similar to dog-hair removers. She bagged the trace and used a vic kit to take hair combings and nail scraping samples from the woman's body. Sachs said, "I'm going to walk the grid."

The phrase – of Lincoln Rhyme's own creation – came from his preference for searching a crime scene. The grid pattern is the most comprehensive method: back and forth in one direction, then turning perpendicular and covering the same ground again, always remembering to examine the ceiling and walls as well as the ground or floor.

She began the search now, looking for discarded or dropped objects, rolling for trace, taking electrostatic prints of shoeprints and digital photos. The photo team would make a comprehensive still and video record of the scene but getting those images took time and Rhyme always insisted on having some photographic record available instantly.

"Officer?" Sellitto called.

She glanced back.

"Just wondering… Since we don't know where this asshole got to, you want some backup in there?"

"Nope," she said, silently thanking him for reminding her that there was a missing murderer last seen nearby. Another of Lincoln Rhyme's crime-scene aphorisms: search well but watch your back. She tapped the butt of her Glock to remind herself exactly where it was in case she needed to draw fast – the holster rode slightly higher when she wore the Tyvek jumpsuit – and continued the search.

"Okay, got something," she told Rhyme a moment later. "In the lobby. About ten feet away from the victim. Piece of black cloth. Silk. I mean, it appears to be silk. It's on top of a part of the vic's flute so it has to be his or hers."

"Interesting," Rhyme mused. "Wonder what that's about."

The lobby yielded nothing else and she entered the performance space itself, her hand continuing to stray to the butt of her Glock. She relaxed momentarily, seeing that there was in fact absolutely no hiding place where a perp could be, no secret doorways or exits. But as she started on the grid here she felt a growing sense of discomfort.

Spooky…

"Rhyme, this is strange…"

"I can't hear you, Sachs -"

She realized that in her uneasiness she'd been whispering.

"There's burned string tied around the chairs that're lying on the ground. Fuses too, it looks like. I smell nitrate and sulfur residue. The reportings said he fired a round. But it's not the smell of smokeless powder. It's something else. Ah, okay… It's a little gray firecracker. Maybe that was the gunshot they heard… Hold on. There's something else – under a chair. It's a small green circuit board with a speaker attached to it."

"'Small'?" Rhyme asked caustically. "A foot is small compared with an acre. An acre's small compared with a hundred acres, Sachs."

"Sorry. Measures about two inches by five."

"That'd be big compared with a dime, now, wouldn't it?"

Got the message, thank you very much, she replied silently.

She bagged everything, then left by the second door – the fire door – and electrostaticked and photographed the footprints she found there. Finally, she took control samples to compare against the trace found on the victim and where the unsub had walked. "Got everything, Rhyme. I'll be back in a half hour."

"And the trapdoors, the secret passages everybody's talking about?"

"I can't find any."

"All right, come on home, Sachs."

She returned to the lobby and let Photo and Latents take over the scene. She found Franciscovich and Ausonio by the doorway. "You find the janitor?" she asked. "I need to look at his shoes."

Ausonio shook her head. "He told the guard he had to take his wife to work. I left a message with maintenance for him to call."

Her partner said solemnly, "Hey, Officer, we were talking, Nancy and me? And we don't want this scumbag to get away. If there's anything more we can do, you know, to follow up, let us know."

Sachs understood exactly how they felt. "I'll see what I can do," she told them.

Sellitto's radio crackled and he took the call. Listened for a moment. "It's the Hardy Boys. They've finished interviewing the wits and're in the main lobby."

Sachs, Sellitto and the two patrolwomen returned to the front of the school.

There they joined Bedding and Saul, one of them tall, one short, one with freckles, one with a clear complexion. These were detectives from the Big Building who specialized in canvassing – post-crime interviewing of witnesses.

"We talked to the seven people here this morning."

"Plus the guard."

"No teachers -"

"- only students."

Also called the Twins, despite very different appearances, the duo were skilled at double-teaming perps and witnesses alike. It got too confusing if you tried to tell them apart. Lump them together and consider them one person, they were a lot easier to understand.

"The information was not the most illuminating."

"For one thing everybody was freaked out."

"The location's not helping." A nod toward a wad of cobwebs hanging from the dark, water-stained ceiling.

"Nobody knew the victim very well. When she got here this morning she walked to the recital room with a friend. She -"

"The friend."

"- didn't see anybody inside. They stood in the lobby for five, ten minutes, talking. The friend left around eight."

"So," said Rhyme, who'd overheard on the radio, "he was inside the lobby waiting for her."

"The victim," the shorter of the two sandy-haired detectives said, "had come over here from Georgia -"

"That's the Russia Georgia, not the peachtree Georgia."

"- about two months ago. She was kind of a loner."

"The consulate's contacting her family."

"All the other students were in different practice rooms today and none of them heard anything or saw anybody they didn't know."

"Why wasn't Svetlana in a practice room?" Sachs asked.

"Her friend said Svetlana liked the acoustics better in the hall."

"Husband, boyfriend, girlfriend?" Sachs asked, thinking of rule number one in homicide investigations: the doer usually knows the doee.

"None that the other students knew."

"How'd he get into the building?" Rhyme asked and Sachs relayed the question.

The guard said, "Only door's open is the front one. We got fire doors, course. But you can't open them from the outside."

"And he'd have to walk past you, right?"

"And sign in. And get his picture took by the camera."

Sachs glanced up. "There's a security camera, Rhyme, but it looks like the lens hasn't been cleaned in months."

They gathered behind the desk. The guard punched buttons and played the tape.

Bedding and Saul had vetted seven of the people. But they agreed that one person – a brown-haired, bearded older man in jeans and bulky jacket – hadn't been among those they'd talked to.

"That's him," Franciscovich said. "That's the killer." Nancy Ausonio nodded.

On the fuzzy tape he was signing the register book then walking inside. The guard glanced at the book, but not at the man's face, as he signed it.

"Did you get a look at him?" Sachs asked.

"Didn't pay no attention," he said defensively. "If they sign I let them in. That's all I gotta do. That's my job. I'm here mostly to keep folk from walking out with our stuff."

"We've got his signature at least, Rhyme. And a name. They'll be fake but at least it's a handwriting sample. Which line did he sign on?" Sachs asked, picking up the sign-in book with latex-clad fingers.

They ran the tape, fast-forward, from the beginning. The killer was the fourth person to sign the book. But in the fourth slot was a woman's name.

Rhyme called, "Count all the people who signed."

Sachs told the guard to do so and they watched nine people fill in their names – eight students, including the victim, and her killer.

"Nine people sign, Rhyme. But there are only eight names on the list."

"How'd that happen?" Sellitto asked.

Rhyme: "Ask the guard if he's sure the perp signed. Maybe he faked it."

She put the question to the placid man.

"Yeah, he did. I saw it. I don't always look at their faces but I make sure they sign."

That's all I gotta do. That's my job.

Sachs shook her head and dug into the cuticle of her thumb with another nail.

"Well, bring me the sign-in book with everything else and we'll have a look at it here," Rhyme said.

In the corner of the room a young Asian woman stood hugging herself and looking out the uneven leaded glass. She turned and looked at Sachs. "I heard you talking. You said, I mean, it sounded like you didn't know if he got out of the building after he… afterward. You think he's still here?"

"No, I don't," Sachs said. "I just meant we're not sure how he escaped."

"But if you don't know that, then it means he could still be hiding here, somewhere. Waiting for somebody else. And you don't have any idea where he is."

Sachs gave her a reassuring smile. "We'll have plenty of officers around until we get to the bottom of what happened. You don't have to worry."

Though she was thinking: The girl was absolutely right. Yes, he could be here, waiting for somebody else.

And, no, we don't have a clue who or where he is.

Chapter Four

And now, Revered Audience, we'll take a short intermission.

Enjoy the memory of the Lazy Hangman… and relish the anticipation of what's coming up soon.

Relax.

Our next act will begin shortly…

The man walked along Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When he reached one street corner he stopped, as if he'd forgotten something, and stepped into the shadow of a building. He pulled his cell phone off his belt and lifted it to his ear. As he spoke, smiling from time to time, the way people do on mobiles, he gazed around him casually, also a common practice for cell-phone users.

He was not, however, actually making a call. He was looking for any sign that he'd been followed from the music school.

Malerick's present appearance was very different from his incarnation when he'd escaped from the school earlier that morning. He was now blond and beardless and wearing a jogging outfit with a high-necked athletic shirt. Had passersby been looking they might have noticed a few oddities in his physique: leathery scar tissue peeked over the top of his collar and along his neck, and two fingers – little and ring – of his left hand were fused together.

But no one was looking. Because his gestures and expressions were natural, and – as all illusionists know – acting naturally makes you invisible.

Finally content that he hadn't been followed, he resumed his casual gait, turning the corner down a cross street, and continued along the tree-lined sidewalk to his apartment. Around him were only a few joggers and two or three locals returning home with the Times and Zabar's bags, looking forward to coffee, a leisurely hour with the newspaper and perhaps some unhurried weekend-morning sex.

Malerick walked up the stairs to the apartment he'd rented here a few months ago, a dark, quiet building very different from his house and workshop in the desert outside Las Vegas. He made his way to the apartment in the back.

As I was saying, our next act will begin shortly.

For now, Revered Audience, gossip about the illusion you've just seen, enjoy some conversation with those around you, try to guess what's next on the bill.

Our second routine will involve very different skills to test our performer but will be, I assure you, every bit as compelling as the Lazy Hangman.

These words and dozens more looped automatically through Malerick's mind. Revered Audience.… He spoke to this imaginary assembly constantly. (He sometimes heard their applause and shouts of laughter and, occasionally, gasps of horror.) A white noise of words, in that broad theatrical intonation a grease-painted ringmaster or a Victorian illusionist would use. Patter, it was called – a monologue directed to the audience to give them information they need to know to make a trick work, to build rapport with the audience. And to disarm and distract them too.

After the fire, Malerick cut off most contact with fellow human beings, and his imagined Revered Audience slowly replaced them, becoming his constant companions. The patter soon began to fill his waking thoughts and dreams and threatened, he sometimes felt, to drive him completely insane. At the same time, though, it gave him intense comfort, knowing that he hadn't been left completely alone in life after the tragedy three years ago. His revered audience was always with him.

The apartment smelled of cheap varnish and a curious meaty aroma rising from the wallpaper and floors. The place had come lightly furnished: inexpensive couches and armchairs, a functional dining-room table, currently set for one. The bedrooms, on the other hand, were packed – filled with the tools of the illusionist's trade: props, rigs, ropes, costumes, latex molding equipment, wigs, bolts of cloth, a sewing machine, paints, squibs, makeup, circuit boards, wires, batteries, flash paper and cotton, spools of fuse, woodworking tools… a hundred other items.

He made herbal tea and sat at the dining-room table, sipping the weak beverage and eating fruit and a low-fat granola bar. Illusion is a physical art and one's act is only as good as one's body. Eating healthy food and working out were vital to success.

He was pleased with this morning's act. He'd killed the first performer easily – recalling with shivery pleasure how she'd stiffened with shock when he'd appeared behind her and slipped the rope around her neck. Never a clue he'd been waiting in the corner, under the black silk, for a half hour. The surprise entrance by the police – well, that'd shaken him. But like all good illusionists Malerick had prepared an out, which he'd executed perfectly.

He finished his breakfast and took the cup into the kitchen, washed it carefully and set it in a rack to dry. He was meticulous in all his ways; his mentor, a fierce, obsessive, humorless illusionist, had beaten discipline into him.

The man now went into the larger of the bedrooms and put on the videotape he'd made of the site of the next performance. He'd seen this tape a dozen times and, though he virtually had it memorized, he was now going to study it again. (His mentor had also beaten into him – literally sometimes – the importance of the 1001 rule. You rehearse one hundred minutes for every one minute onstage.)

As he watched the tape he pulled a velvet-covered performing table toward him.

Not watching his hands, Malerick practiced some simple card maneuvers: the False Dovetail Shuffle, the Three-Pile False Cut then some trickier ones: the Reverse Sliparound, the Glide and the Deal-Off Force. He ran through some actual tricks, complicated ones, like Stanley Palm's Ghost Cards, Maldo's famous Six-Card Mystery and several others by the famous card master and actor Ricky Jay, others by Cardini.

Malerick also did some of the card tricks that had been in Harry Houdini's early repertoire. Most people think of Houdini as an escapist but the performer had actually been a well-rounded magician, who performed illusion – large-scale stage tricks like vanishing assistants and elephants – as well as parlor magic.

Houdini had been an important influence in his life. When he first started performing, in his teens, Malerick used as a performing name "Young Houdini."

The "erick" portion of his present name was both a remnant of his former life – his life before the fire – and an homage to Houdini himself, who'd been born Ehrich Weisz. As for the prefix "Mal" a magician might suspect that it was taken from another world-famous performer, Max Breit, who performed under the name Malini. But in fact, Malerick had picked the three letters because they came from the Latin root for "evil," which reflected the dark nature of his brand of illusion.

He now studied the tape, measuring angles, noting windows and the location of possible witnesses, blocking out his positions as all good performers do. And as he watched, the cards in his fingers riffled together in lightning-fast shuffles that hissed like snakes. The kings and jacks and queens and jokers and all the rest of the cards slithered onto the black velvet and then seemed to defy gravity as they leaped back into his strong hands, where they vanished from sight. Watching this impromptu performance, an audience would shake their heads, half-convinced that reality had given way to delusion, that a human being couldn't possibly do what they were observing.

But the truth was the opposite: the card tricks Malerick was now performing absently on the plush black cloth were not miraculous at all; they were merely carefully rehearsed exercises in dexterity and perception, governed by mundane rules of physics.

Oh, yes, Revered Audience, what you've seen and what you're about to see are very real.

As real as fire burning flesh.

As real as a rope knotted around a young girl's white neck.

As real as the circuit of the clock hands moving slowly toward the horror that our next performer is about to experience.

• • •

"Hey, there."

The young woman sat down beside the bed where her mother lay. Out the window in the manicured courtyard she saw a tall oak tree on the trunk of which grew a tentacle of ivy in a shape that she'd had interpreted a number of ways over the past months. Today the anemic vine wasn't a dragon or a flock of birds or a soldier. It was simply a city plant struggling to survive.

"So. How you feeling, Mum?" Kara asked.

The appellation grew out of one of the family's many vacations – this one to England. Kara had given them all nicknames: "His Kingness" and the "Queenly Mum" for her parents. She herself had been the "Royal Kid."

"Just fine, darling. And how's life treating you?"

"Better than some, not as good as others. Hey, you like?" Kara held up her hand to show off her short, evenly filed fingernails, which were black as a grand piano's finish.

"Lovely, darling. I was getting a bit tired of the pink. You see it everywhere nowadays. Awfully conventional."

Kara stood and adjusted the down pillow under her mother's head. Then sat again and sipped from the large Starbucks container; coffee was her sole drug but the addiction was intense, not to mention expensive, and this was her third cup of the morning.

Her hair was cut in a boyish style, currently colored auburn-purple, having been pretty much every color of the spectrum at some point in her years in New York City. Pixieish, some people said of the cut, a description she hated; Kara herself described the do simply as "convenient." She could be out her door minutes after stepping from the shower – a true benefit for someone who tended not to get to bed before 3:00 A. M. and who was definitely not a morning person.

Today she wore black stretch pants and, though she was not much over five feet, flat shoes. Her dark purple top was sleeveless and revealed taut, cut muscles.

Kara had attended a college where art and politics took precedence over the cult of the physique but after graduating from Sarah Lawrence she'd joined Gold's Gym and was now a regular weight-pumper and treadmill runner. One would expect an eight-year resident of bohemian Greenwich Village, hovering somewhere in her late twenties, to dabble in body art or to sport at least a latent ring or stud but Kara's very white skin was tattoo-free and unpierced.

"Now, check this out, Mum. I've got a show tomorrow. One of Mr. Balzac's little things. You know."

"I remember."

"But this time it's different. This time he's letting me go on solo. I'm warm-up and main bill rolled into one."

"Really, honey?"

"True as toast."

Outside the doorway Mr. Geldter shuffled past. "Hello, there."

Kara nodded at him. She recalled that when her mother had first come to Stuyvesant Manor, one of the city's best aging facilities, the woman and the widower had caused quite a stir.

"They think we're shacking up," she'd told her daughter in a whisper.

"Are you?" Kara had asked, thinking it was about time her mother struck up a relationship with a man after five years of widowhood.

"Of course not!" her mother had hissed, truly angry. "What a thing to suggest."

(The incident defined the woman perfectly: a hint of the bawdy was fine but there was a very clear line – established arbitrarily – past which you would become The Enemy, even if you were her flesh and blood.)

Kara continued, rocking forward excitedly and telling her mother in an animated way about what she planned for tomorrow. As she spoke she studied her mother closely, the skin oddly smooth for a woman in her mid-seventies and as healthy pink as a crying baby's, hair mostly gray but with plenty of defiant wiry black strands scattered throughout. The staff beautician had done it up in a stylish bun. "Anyway, Mum, some friends'll be there and it'd be great if you could come too."

"I'll try."

Kara, now sitting on the very edge of the armchair, realized suddenly that her fists were clenched, her body a knot of tension. Her breath was coming in shallow sibilant gasps.

I'll try…

Kara closed her eyes, filling with slivers of tears. Goddamnit!

I'll try…

No, no, no, that's all wrong, she thought angrily. Her mother wouldn't say, "I'll try." That wasn't her sort of dialogue. It might be: "I'll be there, hons. In the first row." Or she'd say frostily, "Well, I can't tomorrow. You should've let me know earlier."

Whatever else about her mother, there was nothing I'll-try about her. Balls-out for you, or hell-to-pay against.

Except now – when the woman was hardly a human being at all. At most a child, sleeping with her eyes open.

The conversation Kara had just had with the woman had occurred only in the girl's hopeful imagination. Well, Kara's portion had been real. But her mother's, from the Just fine, darling. And how's life treating you? to the glitch of I'll try, had been ginned up by Kara herself.

No, her mother hadn't said a single word today. Or during yesterday's visit. Or the one before. She'd lain beside the ivy window in some kind of waking coma. Some days she was like that. On others, the woman might be fully awake but babbling scary nonsense that only attested to the success of the invisible army moving relentlessly through her brain, torching memory and reason.

But there was a more pernicious part of the tragedy. Once in a rare while, there'd be a fragile moment of clarity, which, brief though it was, perfectly negated her despair. Just when Kara had come to accept the worst – that the mother she knew was gone forever – the woman would return, just like in the days before the cerebral hemorrhage. And Kara's defenses vanished, the same way an abused woman forgives her slugging husband at the slightest hint of contrition. At moments like that she'd convince herself that her mother was improving.

The doctors said that there was virtually no hope for this, of course. Still, the doctors hadn't been at her mother's bedside when, several months ago, the woman woke up and turned suddenly to Kara. "Hi there, hons. I ate those cookies you brought me yesterday. You put in extra pecans the way I like them. And heck with the calories." A girlish smile. "Oh, I'm glad you're here. I wanted to tell you what Mrs. Brandon did last night. With the remote control."

Kara had blinked, stunned. Because, damn, she had brought her mother pecan sandies the day before and had stocked them with extra nuts. And, yes, crazy Mrs. Brandon from the fifth floor had copped a remote and bounced the signal off the windows next door into the nursing home's lounge, confounding the residents for a half hour by changing channels and volume like a poltergeist.

There! Who needed better evidence than this that her vibrant mother, her real mother remained within the injured shell of a body and could someday escape.

But the next day Kara had found the woman staring at her daughter suspiciously, asking why she was there and what she wanted. If this was about the electric bill for twenty-two dollars and fifteen cents she'd paid it and had the canceled check for proof. Since the pecan-sandy remote-control performance there'd been no encores.

Kara now touched her mother's arm, warm, wrinkle-free, baby pink. Sensing what she always did here on her daily visits: the numbing trilogy of wishing that the woman would mercifully die, wishing that she'd come back to her vibrant life – and wishing that Kara herself could escape from the terrible burden of wanting both of those irreconcilable choices.

A glance at her watch. Late for work, as always. Mr. Balzac would not be happy. Saturday was their busiest day. She drained the coffee cup, pitched it out and walked into the hallway.

A large black woman in a white uniform lifted a hand in greeting. "Kara! How long you been here?" A broad smile in a broad face.

"Twenty minutes."

"I would've come by and visited," Jaynene said. "She still awake?"

"No. She was out when I got here."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"Was she talking before?" Kara asked.

"Yep. Just little things. Couldn't tell if she was with us or not. Seemed like it… This is some gorgeous day, hm? Sephie and me, we're gonna take her walking in the courtyard later if she's awake. She likes it. She always does better after that."

"I've gotta get to work," Kara told the nurse. "Hey, I'm doing a show tomorrow. At the store. Remember where it is?"

"Sure do. What time?"

"Four. Come on by."

"I'm off early tomorrow. I'll be there. We'll drink some more of those peach margaritas after. Like last time."

"That'll work," Kara replied. "Hey, bring Pete."

The woman scowled. "Girl, nothing personal, but th'only way that man'll see you on Sunday is if you're playing the halftime show for the Knicks or the Lakers an' it's on network TV."

Kara said, "From your mouth to God's ear."

Chapter Five

One hundred years ago a moderately successful financier might've called this place home.

Or the owner of a small haberdashery in the luxurious shopping neighborhood of Fourteenth Street.

Or possibly a politician connected with Tammany Hall, savvy in the timeless art of growing rich through public office.

The present owner of the Central Park West townhouse, however, didn't know, or care, about its provenance. Nor would the Victorian furnishings or subdued fin de siècle objets d'art that had once graced these rooms appeal to Lincoln Rhyme at all. He enjoyed what surrounded him now: a disarray of sturdy tables, swivel stools, computers, scientific devices – a density gradient rack, a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, microscopes, plastic boxes in myriad colors, beakers, jars, thermometers, propane tanks, goggles, latched black or gray cases of odd shapes, which suggested they contained esoteric musical instruments.

And wires.

Wires and cables everywhere, covering much of the limited square footage of the room, some tidily coiled and connecting adjacent pieces of machinery, some disappearing through ragged holes shamefully cut into the hard-earned smoothness of century-old plaster-and-lath walls.

Lincoln Rhyme himself was largely wireless now. Advances in infrared and radio technology had linked a microphone on his wheelchair – and on his bed upstairs – to environmental control units and computers. He drove his Storm Arrow with his left ring finger on an MKIV touchpad but all the other commands, from phone calls to email to slapping the image from his compound microscope onto computer monitors, could be accomplished by using his voice.

It could also control his new Harmon Kardon 8000 receiver, which was currently piping a pleasant jazz solo through the lab.

"Control, stereo off," Rhyme reluctantly ordered, hearing the front door slam.

The music went silent, replaced by the erratic beat of footsteps in the front hall and the parlor. One of the visitors was Amelia Sachs, he knew; for a tall woman she had a decidedly light footfall. Then he heard the distinctive clump of Lon Sellitto's big, perpetually out-turned feet.

"Sachs," he muttered as she entered the room, "was it a big scene? Was it huge?"

"Not so big." She frowned at the question. "Why?"

His eyes were on the gray milk crates containing evidence she and several other officers carried. "I was just wondering because it seemed to take a long time to search the scene and get back here. It is okay for you to use that flashing light on your car. That's why they make them, you know. Sirens are allowed too." When Rhyme was bored he grew testy. Boredom was the biggest evil in his life.

Sachs, however, was impervious to his sourness – she seemed in a particularly good mood – and said merely, "We've got ourselves some mysteries here, Rhyme."

He recalled that Sellitto had used the word "bizarre" about the killing.

"Give me the scenario. What happened?"

Sachs offered a likely account of the events, culminating in the perp's escape from the recital hall.

"The respondings heard a shot inside the hall then they did a kick-in. Timed it together, went in through the only two doors in the room. He was gone."

Sellitto consulted his notes. "The patrol officers put him in his fifties, medium height, medium build, no distinguishings other than a beard, brown hair. There was a janitor who says he didn't see anybody go in or out of the room. But maybe he got witnessitis, you know. The school's gonna call with his name and number. I'll see if I can refresh his memory."

"What about the vic? What was the motive?"

Sachs said, "No sexual assault, no robbery."

Sellitto added, "Just talked to the Twins. She hasn't got any present or recent boyfriends. Nobody in the past that'd be a problem."

"She was a full-time student?" Rhyme asked. "Or did she work?"

"Full-time student, yeah. But apparently she did some performing on the side. They're finding out where."

Rhyme recruited his aide, Thom, to act as a scribe, as he often did, jotting down the evidence in his elegant handwriting on one of the large whiteboards in the lab. The aide took the marker and began to write.

There was a knock on the door and Thom disappeared momentarily from the lab.

"Incoming visitor!" he called from the hallway.

"Visitor?" Rhyme asked, hardly in the mood for company. The aide, though, was being playful. Into the room walked Mel Cooper, the slim, balding lab technician whom Rhyme, then-head of NYPD forensics, had met some years ago on a joint burglary/kidnapping case with an upstate New York police department. Cooper had disputed Rhyme's analysis of a particular type of soil and had been right, it turned out. Impressed, Rhyme had dug into the tech's credentials and found that, like Rhyme, he was an active and highly respected member of the International Association for Identification – experts at identifying individuals from friction ridges, DNA, forensic reconstruction and dental remains. With degrees in math, physics and organic chemistry, Cooper was also top-notch at physical-evidence analysis.

Rhyme mounted a campaign to get the man to return to the city where he'd been born and he finally agreed. The soft-spoken forensic tech/champion ballroom dancer was based in the NYPD crime lab in Queens but he often worked with Rhyme when the criminalist was consulting on an active case.

Greetings all around and then Cooper shoved his thick, Harry Potter-style glasses high on his nose and squinted a critical eye at the crates of evidence like a chess player sizing up his opponent. "What do we have here?"

"'Mysteries,'" Rhyme said. "To use our Sachs's assessment. Mysteries."

"Well, let's see if we can't make them a little less mysterious."

Sellitto ran through the scenario of the killing for Cooper as he donned latex gloves and began looking over the bags and jars. Rhyme wheeled up close to him. "There." He nodded. "What's that?" He was gazing at the green circuit board with a speaker attached.

"The board I found in the recital hall," Sachs said. "No idea what it is. Only that the unsub put it there – I could tell by his footprints."

It looked like it'd come from a computer, which didn't surprise Rhyme; criminals have always been in the forefront of technological development. Bank robbers armed themselves with the famous 1911 Colt.45 semiautomatic pistols within days of their release even though it was illegal for anyone but the military to possess one. Radios, scrambled phones, machine guns, laser sights, GPS, cellular technology, surveillance equipment and computer encryption ended up in the arsenal of criminals often before they were added to law enforcers'.

Rhyme was the first to admit that some subjects were beyond his realm of expertise. Clues like computers, cell phones and this curious device – all of which he called "NASDAQ evidence" – he farmed out to the experts.

"Get it downtown. To Tobe Geller," he instructed.

The FBI had a talented young man in its New York computer crimes office. Geller had helped them in the past and Rhyme knew that if anyone could tell them what the device was and where it might've come from Geller could do it.

Sachs handed off the bag to Sellitto, who in turn gave it to a uniformed policeman for transport downtown. But aspiring sergeant Amelia Sachs stopped him. She made sure he filled out a chain-of-custody card, which documents everyone who's handled each piece of evidence from crime scene to trial. She checked the card carefully and sent him on his way.

"And how was the assessment exercise, Sachs?" Rhyme asked.

"Well," she said. A hesitation. "I think I nailed it."

Rhyme was surprised at this response. Amelia Sachs often had a difficult time accepting praise from others and hardly ever bestowed it on herself.

"I didn't doubt you would," he said.

"Sergeant Sachs," Lon Sellitto pondered. "Gotta good ring to it."

They turned next to the pyrotechnic items found at the music school: the fuses and the firecracker.

Sachs had figured out one mystery, at least. The killer, she explained, had leaned chairs backward on two legs, balancing them in that position with thin pieces of cotton string. He'd tied fuses to the middle of the strings and lit them. After a minute or so the flame in the fuses hit the strings and burned through them. The chairs tumbled to the floor, making it sound like the killer was still inside. He'd also lit a fuse that ultimately set off the squib they mistook for a gunshot.

"Can you source any of it?" Sellitto asked.

"Generic fuse – untraceable – and the squib's destroyed. No manufacturer, nothing."

Cooper shook his head. All that was left, Rhyme could see, were tiny shreds of paper with a burned metal core of fuse attached. The strings turned out to be narrow-gauge 100-percent cotton, generic and thus also impossible to source.

"There was that flash too," Sachs said, looking over her notes. "When the officers saw him with the victim he held up his hand and there was a brilliant light. Like a flare. It blinded both of them."

"Any trace?"

"None that I could find. They said it just dissolved in the air."

Okay, Lon, you said it: bizarre.

"Let's move on. Footprints?"

Cooper pulled up the NYPD database on shoe-tread prints, a digitized version of the hard-copy file Rhyme had compiled when he'd been head of NYPD forensics.

After a few minutes of perusal he said, "Shoes are slip-on black Ecco brand. Appear to be a size ten."

"Trace evidence?" Rhyme asked.

Sachs picked several plastic bags out of a milk crate. Inside were strips of adhesive tape, torn off the trace pick-up roller. "These're from where he walked and next to the body."

Cooper took the plastic bags and extracted the adhesive tape rectangles, one by one, over separate examining trays, to avoid cross-contamination. Most of the trace adhering to the squares was dust that matched Sachs's control samples, meaning that its source was neither the perp nor the victim but was found naturally at the crime scene. But on several of the pieces of tape were some fibers that Sachs had found only in places where the perp had walked or on objects that he'd touched.

"Scope 'em."

The tech lifted them off with a pair of tweezers and mounted them on slides. He put them under the stereo-binocular microscope – the preferred instrument for analyzing fibers – and then hit a button. The image he was looking at through the eyepiece popped onto the large flat-screen computer monitor for everyone to see.

The fibers appeared as thick strands, grayish in color.

Fibers are important forensic clues because they're common, they virtually leap from one source to another and they can be easily classified. They fall into two categories: natural and man-made. Rhyme noted immediately that these weren't viscous rayon or polymer-based and therefore had to be natural.

"But what kind specifically?" Mel Cooper wondered aloud.

"Look at the cell structure. I'm betting it's excremental."

"Whatsat?" Sellitto asked. "Excrement? Like shit?"

"Excrement, like silk. It comes from the digestive tract of worms. Dyed gray. Processed to a matte finish. What's on the other slides, Mel?"

He ran these through the scope too and found they were identical fibers.

"Was the perp wearing gray?"

"No," Sellitto reported.

"The vic wasn't either," Sachs said.

More mysteries.

"Ah," Cooper said, peering into the eyepiece, "might have a hair here."

On the screen a long strand of brown hair came into focus.

"Human hair," Rhyme called out, noting hundreds of scales. An animal hair would have at most dozens. "But it's fake."

"Fake?" Sellitto asked.

"Well," he said impatiently, "it's real hair but it's from a wig. Obviously. Look – at the end. That's not a bulb. It's glue. Might not be his, of course, but it's worth putting on the chart."

"That he's not brown-haired?" Thom asked.

"The facts," Rhyme said tersely, "are all we care about. Write that the unsub is possibly wearing a brown wig."

"Okay, bwana."

Cooper continued his examination and found that two of the adhesive squares revealed a minuscule bit of dirt and some plant material.

"Scope the plant first, Mel."

In analyzing crime scenes in New York, Lincoln Rhyme had always placed great importance on geologic, plant and animal evidence because only one-eighth of the city is actually on the North American mainland; the rest is situated on islands. This means that minerals, flora and fauna tend to be more or less common to particular boroughs and even neighborhoods within them, making it easier to trace substances to specific locations.

A moment later a rather artistic image of a reddish twig and a bit of leaf appeared on the screen.

"Good," Rhyme announced.

"What's good about it?" Thom asked.

"It's good because it's rare. It's a red pignut hickory. You hardly ever find them in the city. The only place I know of are Central and Riverside Parks. And… oh, look at that. That little blue-green mass?"

"Where?" Sachs asked.

"Can't you see it? It's right there!" Feeling painfully frustrated that he couldn't leap from his chair and tap the screen. "Lower right-hand corner. If the twig's Italy then the mass is Sicily."

"Got it."

"What do you think, Mel? Lichen, right? And I'd vote for Parmelia conspersa."

"Could be," the tech said cautiously. "But there're a lot of lichens."

"But there aren't a lot of blue-green and gray lichens," Rhyme replied dryly. "In fact, hardly any. And this one is most abundant in Central Park… We've got two links to the park. Good. Now let's look at the dirt."

Cooper mounted another slide. The image in the microscope – grains of dirt like asteroids – wasn't forensically revealing and Rhyme said, "Run a sample through the GC/MS."

The gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer is a marriage of two chemical-analysis instruments, the first of which breaks down an unknown substance into its component parts with the second determining what each of those parts is. White powder that appears uniform, for instance, might be a dozen different chemicals: baking soda, arsenic, baby powder, phenol and cocaine. The chromatograph has been compared to a horse race: the substances start out moving through the instrument together but they progress at different rates, becoming separated. At the "finish line" the mass spectrometer compares each one with a huge database of known substances to identify it.

The results of Cooper's analysis showed that the dirt Sachs had recovered was impregnated with an oil. The database, though, reported only that it was mineral-based – not plant or animal – and couldn't identify it specifically.

Rhyme commanded, "Send it to the FBI. See if their lab people've run across it." Then he squinted into a plastic bag. "That's the black cloth you found?"

Might be a clue, might be nothing…

She nodded. "It was in the corner of the lobby where the victim was strangled."

"Was it hers?" Cooper wondered.

"Maybe," Rhyme said, "but for the time being let's go on the assumption it's the killer's."

Cooper carefully lifted out the material. He examined it. "Silk. Hemmed by hand."

Rhyme observed that even though it could be folded into a tiny wad it opened up to be quite large, about six-by-four feet.

"We know from the timing he was waiting for her in the lobby," Rhyme said. "I'll bet that's how he did it: hid in the corner with that cloth draped over him. He'd be invisible. He probably would've taken it with him except the officers showed up and he had to get away."

What the poor girl must've felt when the killer materialized as if by magic, cuffed her and strung the rope around her neck.

Cooper found several flecks adhering to the black cloth. He mounted them on a slide. An image soon popped up on the screen. Under magnification the flecks resembled ragged pieces of flesh-colored lettuce. He touched one with a fine probe. The material was springy.

"What the hell is that?" Sellitto asked.

Rhyme suggested, "Rubber of some kind. Shred of balloon – no, too thick for that. And look at the slide, Mel. Something smeared off. Flesh-colored too. Run it through the GC."

While they waited for the results the doorbell rang.

Thom stepped out of the room to open the door and returned with an envelope.

"Latents," he announced.

"Ah, good," Rhyme said. "Fingerprints are back. Run them through AFIS, Mel."

The powerful servers of the FBI's automated fingerprint identification system, located in West Virginia, would search digitized images of friction ridges – fingerprints – throughout the country and return the results in hours, possibly even minutes if the latents team had found good, clear prints.

"How do they look?" Rhyme asked.

"Pretty clean." Sachs held up the photos for him to see. Many were just partials. But they had a good print of his whole left hand. The first thing Rhyme noticed was that the killer had two deformed fingers on that hand – the ring and little fingers. They were joined, it seemed and ended in smooth skin, without prints. Rhyme had a working knowledge of forensic pathology but couldn't tell whether this was a congenital condition or the result of an injury.

Ironic, Rhyme thought, gazing at the picture, the unsub's left ring finger is damaged; mine is the only extremity below my neck that can move at all.

Then he frowned. "Hold off on the scan for a minute, Mel… Closer, Sachs. I want to see them closer."

She stepped next to Rhyme and he examined the prints again. "Notice anything unusual about them?"

She said, "Not really… Wait." She laughed. "They're the same." Flipping through the pictures. "All his fingers – they're the same. That little scar, it's in the same position on every one of them."

"He must be wearing some kind of glove," Cooper said, "with fake friction ridges on them. Never seen that before."

Who the hell was this perp?

The results from the chromatograph/spectrometer popped onto a computer screen. "Okay, I've got pure latex… and what's this?" he pondered. "Something the computer identifies as an alginate. Never heard of -"

"Teeth."

"What?" Cooper asked Rhyme.

"It's a powder you mix with water to make molds. Dentists use it for crowns and dental work. Maybe our doer'd just been to the dentist."

Cooper continued to examine the computer screen. "Then we have very minute traces of castor oil, propylene glycol, cetyl alcohol, mica, iron oxide, titanium dioxide, coal tar and some neutral pigments."

"Some of those're found in makeup," Rhyme said, recalling a case in which he'd placed a killer at the scene after the man wrote obscene messages on the victim's mirror with a touch-up stick, smears of which were found on his sleeve. Running the case, he'd made a study of cosmetics.

"Hers?" Cooper asked Sachs.

"No," the policewoman answered. "I took swabs of her skin. She wasn't wearing any."

"Well, put it on the board. We'll see if it means anything."

Turning to the rope, the murder weapon, Mel Cooper looked up from his slump over a porcelain examining board. "It's a white sheath of rope around a black core. They're both braided silk – real light and thin – which is why it doesn't look any thicker than a normal rope even though it's really two put together."

"What's the point of that? Does the core make it stronger?" Rhyme asked. "Easier to untie? Harder to untie? What?"

"No idea."

"It's getting mysteriouser," Sachs said with a dramatic flair that Rhyme would have found irritating if he hadn't agreed with her.

"Yup," he confirmed, disconcerted. "That's a new one to me. Let's keep going. I want something familiar, something we can use."

"And the knot?"

"Tied by an expert but I don't recognize it," Cooper said.

"Get a picture of it to the bureau. And… don't we know somebody at the Maritime Museum?"

"They've helped us with knots a few times," Sachs said. "I'll upload a picture to them too."

A call came in from Tobe Geller at the Computer Crimes Unit at New York 's FBI headquarters. "This is fun, Lincoln."

"Glad we're keeping you amused," Rhyme murmured. "Anything helpful you might be able to tell us about our toy?"

Geller, a curly-haired young man, was impervious to Rhyme's edge, especially since there was a computer product involved. "It's a digital audio recorder. Fascinating little thing. Your unsub recorded something on it, stored the sounds on a hard drive then programmed it to play back after some delay. We don't know what the sound was – he built in a wiping program so that it destroyed the data."

"It was his voice," Rhyme muttered. "When he said he had a hostage it was just a recording. Like the chairs. It was to make us think he was still in the room."

"That makes sense. It had a special speaker – small but excellent bass and mid-tone range. It'd mimic a human voice pretty well."

"There's nothing left on the disk?"

"Nope. Gone for good."

"Damn. I wanted a voiceprint."

"Sorry. It's gone."

Rhyme sighed in frustration and rolled back to the examination trays; it was left to Sachs to tell Geller how much they appreciated the help.

The team then examined the victim's wristwatch, which had been shattered for reasons none of them could figure out. It yielded no evidence except the time it was broken. Perps occasionally broke watches or clocks at crime scenes after they'd set them to the wrong time to mislead investigators. But this was stopped at close to the actual time of death. What should they make of that?

Mysteriouser…

As the aide wrote their observations on the whiteboard Rhyme looked over the bag containing the sign-in book. "The missing name in the book." He mused, "Nine people signed but there're only eight names in the log… I think we need an expert here." Rhyme ordered into the microphone, "Command, telephone. Call Kincaid comma Parker."

Chapter Six

On the screen the display showed a 703 area code, Virginia, then the number being dialed.

A ring. A young girl's voice said, "Kincaid residence."

"Uhm, yes. Is Parker there? Your father, I mean."

"Who's calling?"

" Lincoln Rhyme. In New York."

"Hold on, please."

A moment later the laid-back voice of one of the country's preeminent document examiners came on the line. "Hey, Lincoln. Been a month or two, hasn't it?"

"Busy time," Rhyme offered. "And what're you up to, Parker?"

"Oh, getting into trouble. Nearly caused an international incident. The British Cultural Society in the District wanted me to authenticate a notebook of King Edward's they'd purchased from a private collector. Note the tense of the verb, Lincoln."

"They'd already paid for it."

"Six hundred thousand."

"Little pricey. They wanted it that badly?"

"Oh, it had some real nice juicy gossip about Churchill and Chamberlain. Well, not in that sense, of course."

"Of course not." As usual Rhyme tried to be patient with those from whom he was seeking gratuitous help.

"I looked it over and what could I do? I had to question it." The innocuous verb, from a respected document examiner like Kincaid, was synonymous with branding the diary a bad-ass forgery.

"Ah, they'll get over it," he continued. "Though, come to think of it, they haven't paid my bill yet… No, honey, we don't make the frosting till the cake cools… Because I said so."

A single father, Kincaid was the former head of the FBI's documents department at headquarters. He'd left the bureau to run his own document-examination service so he could spend more time with his children, Robby and Stephanie.

"How's Margaret?" Sachs called into the speaker.

"That you, Amelia?"

"Yup."

"She's fine. Haven't seen her for a few days. We took the kids to Planet Play on Wednesday and I was just starting to beat her at laser tag when her pager goes off. She had to go kick in somebody's door and arrest them. Panama or Ecuador or someplace like that. She doesn't give me the details. So, what's up?"

"We're running a case and I need some help. Here's the scenario: perp was seen writing his name in a security desk sign-in book. Okay?"

"Got it. And you need the handwriting analyzed?"

"The problem is we don't have any handwriting."

"It disappeared?"

"Yep."

"And you're sure the writer wasn't faking?"

"Positive. There was a guard who saw ink going on paper, no question."

"Anything visible now?"

"Nothing."

Kincaid gave a grim laugh. "That's smart. So there was no record of the perp entering the building. And then somebody else wrote their name over the blank space and ruined whatever impression there might've been of his signature."

"Right."

"Anything on the sheet below the top one?"

Rhyme glanced at Cooper, who shone a bright light at an acute angle on the second sheet in the log – this, rather than covering the page with pencil lead, was the preferred method to raise impression evidence. He shook his head.

"Nothing," Rhyme told the document examiner. Then asked, "So how'd he pull that off?"

"He Ex-Laxed it," Kincaid announced.

"How's that?" Sellitto called.

"Used disappearing ink. We call it Ex-laxing in the business. The old Ex-Lax contained phenolphthalein. Before it was banned by the FDA. You'd dissolve a pill in alcohol and make a blue ink. It had an alkaline pH. Then you'd write something. After a while, exposure to the air would make the blue disappear."

"Sure," said Rhyme, recalling his basic chemistry. "The carbon dioxide in the air turns the ink acidic and that neutralizes the color."

"Exactly. You don't see phenolphthalein much anymore. But you can do the same thing with thymolphthalein indicator and sodium hydroxide."

"Can you buy this stuff anyplace in particular?"

"Hm," Kincaid considered. "Well… Just a minute, honey. Daddy's on the phone… No, it's okay. All cakes look lopsided when they're in the oven. I'll be there soon… Lincoln? What I was going to say was that it's a great idea in theory but when I was in the bureau there were never any perps or spies who actually used disappearing ink. It's more of a novelty, you know. Entertainers'd use it."

Entertainment, Rhyme thought grimly, looking at the board on which were taped the pictures of poor Svetlana Rasnikov. "Where would our doer find ink like that?"

"Most likely toy stores or magic shops."

Interesting…

"Okay, well, that's helpful, Parker."

"Come and visit sometime," Sachs called. "And bring the kids."

Rhyme grimaced at the invitation. He whispered to Sachs, "And why don't you invite all their friends too. The whole school…"

Laughing, she shushed him.

After he disconnected the call Rhyme said grumpily, "The more we learn, the less we know."

Bedding and Saul called in and reported that Svetlana seemed to be well liked at the music school and had no enemies there. Her part-time job wasn't likely to have produced any stalkers either; she led sing-alongs at kids' birthday parties.

A package arrived from the medical examiner's office. Inside was a plastic evidence bag containing the old handcuffs the victim had been restrained with. They were unopened, as Rhyme had ordered. He'd told the M. E. to compress the victim's hands to remove them since drilling out the locks could destroy valuable trace.

"Never seen anything like this," Cooper said, holding them up, "outside of a movie."

Rhyme agreed. They were antique, heavy and made of unevenly forged iron.

Cooper brushed and tapped all around the lock mechanisms but he found no significant trace. The fact they were antique, though, was encouraging because it would limit the sources they might've come from. Rhyme told Cooper to photograph the cuffs and print out pictures to show to dealers.

Sellitto received another phone call. He listened for a moment then, looking bewildered, said, "Impossible… You're sure?… Yeah, okay. Thanks."

Hanging up, the detective glanced at Rhyme. "I don't get it."

"What's that?" Rhyme asked, in no mood for any more mysteries.

"That was the administrator of the music school. There is no janitor."

"But the patrol officers saw him," Sachs pointed out.

"The cleaning staff doesn't work on Saturday. Only weekday evenings. And none of 'em look like the guy the respondings saw."

No janitor?

Sellitto looked through his notes. "He was right outside the second door, sweeping up. He -"

"Oh, goddamn," Rhyme snapped. "It was him!" A glance at the detective. "The janitor looked completely different from the perp, right?"

Sellitto consulted his notebook. "He was in his sixties, bald, no beard, wearing gray coveralls."

"Gray coveralls!" Rhyme shouted.

"Yeah."

"That's the silk fiber. It was a costume."

"What're you talking about?" Cooper asked.

"Our unsub killed the student. When he was surprised by the respondings he blinded them with the flash and ran into the performance space, set up the fuses and the digital recorder to make them think he was still inside, changed into the janitor outfit and ran out the second door."

"But he didn't just strip off throwaway sweats like some chain-snatcher on the A train. Linc," the rotund policeman pointed out. "How the hell could he've done it? He was out of sight for, what, sixty seconds?"

"Fine. If you have an explanation that doesn't involve divine intervention I'm willing to listen."

"Come on. There's no fucking way."

"No way?" Rhyme mused cynically as he wheeled closer to the whiteboard on which Thom had taped the printouts of the digital photos Sachs had taken of the footprints. "Then how 'bout some evidence?" He examined the perp's footprints and then the ones that she'd lifted in the corridor near where the janitor had been.

"Shoes," he announced.

"They're the same?" the detective asked.

"Yep," Sachs said, walking to the board. "Ecco, size ten."

"Christ," Sellitto muttered.

Rhyme asked, "Okay, what do we have? A perp in his early fifties, medium build, medium height and beardless, two deformed fingers, probably has a record 'cause he's hiding his prints – and that's all we goddamn know." But then Rhyme frowned.

"No," he muttered darkly, "that's not all we know. There's something else. He had a change of clothes with him, murder weapons… He's an organized offender." He glanced at Sellitto and added, "He's going to do this again."

Sachs nodded her grim agreement.

Rhyme gazed at Thom's flowing lettering on the evidence whiteboards and he wondered: What ties this all together?

The black silk, the makeup, the costume change, the disguises, the flashes and the pyrotechnics. The disappearing ink.

Rhyme said slowly, "I'm thinking that our boy's got some magic training."

Sachs nodded. "Makes sense."

Sellitto nodded. "Okay. Maybe. But whatta we do now?"

"Seems obvious to me," Rhyme said. "Find our own."

"Our own what?" Sellitto asked.

"Magician of course."

• • •

"Do it again."

She'd done it eight times so far.

"Again?"

The man nodded.

And so Kara did it again.

The Triple Handkerchief Release – developed by the famous magician and teacher Harlan Tarbell – is a sure-fire audience-pleaser. It involves separating three different-colored silks that seem hopelessly knotted together. It's a hard trick to perform smoothly but Kara felt good about how it'd gone. David Balzac didn't, however. "Your coins were talking." He sighed – harsh criticism, meaning that an illusion or trick was clumsy and obvious. The heavyset older man with a white mane of hair and tobacco-stained goatee shook his head in exasperation. He removed his thick glasses, rubbed his eyes and replaced the specs.

"I think it was smooth," she protested. "It seemed smooth to me."

"But you weren't the audience. I was. Now again." They stood on a small stage in the back of Smoke & Mirrors, the store that Balzac had bought after he'd retired from the international magic and illusion circuit ten years ago. The grungy place sold magic supplies, rented costumes and props and presented free, amateur magic shows for customers and locals. A year and a half ago Kara, doing freelance editing for Self magazine, had finally worked up her courage to get up on stage – Balzac's reputation had intimidated her for months. The aging magician had watched her act and called her into his office afterward. The Great Balzac himself had told her in his gruff but silky voice that she had potential. She could be a great illusionist – with the proper training – and proposed that she come work in the shop; he'd be her mentor and teacher.

Kara had moved to New York from the Midwest years before and was savvy about city life; she knew immediately what "mentor" might entail, especially when he was a quadruple divorcee and she was an attractive woman forty years younger than he. But Balzac was a renowned magician – he'd been a regular on Johnny Carson and had been a headliner in Las Vegas for years. He'd toured the world dozens of times and knew virtually every major illusionist alive. Illusion was her passion and this was a chance of a lifetime. She accepted on the spot.

At the first session her guard was up and she was ready to repel boarders. The lesson indeed turned out to be upsetting to her – though for an entirely different reason. He tore her to shreds.

After an hour of criticizing virtually every aspect of her technique Balzac had looked at her pale, tearful face and barked, "I said you have potential. I didn't say you were good. If you want somebody to polish your ego you're in the wrong place. Now, are you going to run home crying to mommy or are you going to get back to work?" They got back to work.

And so began an eighteen-month love-hate relationship between mentor and apprentice, which kept her up until the early hours of the morning six or seven days a week, practicing, practicing, practicing. While Balzac had had many assistants in his years as a performer he'd been a mentor to only two apprentices and in both cases, it seemed, the young men had proved to be disappointments. He wasn't going to let that happen with Kara. Friends sometimes asked her where her love of – and obsession with – illusion came from. They were probably expecting a movie-of-the-week tormented childhood filled with abusive parents and teachers or, at least, a little slip of a mousy girl escaping from the cruel cliques at school into the world of fantasy. But they got Normal Girl instead – a cheerful A-student, gymnast, cookie baker and school-choir singer, who started on the path of entertainment undramatically by attending a Penn and Teller performance in Cleveland with her grandparents, followed a month later by a coincidental family trip to Vegas for one of her father's turbine-manufacturing conventions, the trip exposing her to the thrill of flying tigers and fiery illusions, the exhilaration of magic.

That's all it took. At thirteen she founded the magic club at JFK Junior High and was soon sinking every penny of baby-sitting money into magic magazines, how-to videos and packaged tricks. She later expanded her entrepreneurial efforts to yard work and snow shoveling in exchange for rides to the Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil whenever they were appearing within a fifty-mile radius.

Which is not to say that there wasn't an important motive that set – and kept – her on this course. No, what drove Kara could be easily found in the blinks of delighted surprise on the faces of the audience – whether they were two-dozen of her relatives at Thanksgiving dinner (a show complete with quick-change routines and a levitating cat, though without the trapdoor her father wouldn't let her cut in the living room floor) or the students and parents at the high school senior talent show, where she did two encores to a standing ovation.

Life with David Balzac, though, was quite different from that triumphant show; over the past year and half she sometimes felt she she'd lost whatever talent she'd once had.

But just as she'd be about to quit he'd nod and offer the faintest of smiles.

Several times he actually said, "That was a tight trick." At moments like that her world was complete.

Much of the rest of her life, though, blew away like dust as she spent more and more time at the store, handling the books and inventory for him, the payroll, serving as webmaster for the store's website. Since Balzac wasn't paying her much she needed other work and she took jobs that were at least marginally compatible with her English degree – writing content for other magic and theater websites. Then about a year ago her mother's condition had begun to worsen and only-child Kara spent her little remaining free time with the woman. An exhausting life.

But she could handle it for now. In a few years Balzac would pronounce her fit to perform and off she'd go with his blessing and his contacts with producers around the world.

Hold tight, girl, as Jaynene might say, and stay on top of the galloping horse.

Kara now finished Tarbell's three-silk trick again. Tapping his cigarette ash onto the floor, Balzac frowned. "Left index finger slightly higher."

"You could see the tie?"

"If I couldn't see it," he snapped angrily, "why would I ask you to lift your finger higher? Try again."

Once more.

The goddamn index finger slightly goddamn higher.

Wshhhhhh… the entangled silks separated and flew into the air like triumphant flags.

"Ah," Balzac said. A faint nod.

Not traditional praise exactly. But Kara had learned to make do with ahs. She put the trick away and stepped behind the counter in the cluttered business area of the store to log in the merchandise that had arrived in Friday's afternoon shipment.

Balzac returned to the computer, on which he was writing an article for the store's website about Jasper Maskelyne, the British magician who created a special military unit in World War Two, which used illusionist techniques against the Germans in North Africa. He was writing it from memory, without any notes or research; that was one thing about David Balzac – his knowledge of magic was as deep as his temperament was unstable and fiery.

"You hear that the Cirque Fantastique's in town?" she called. "Opens tonight."

The old illusionist grunted. He was exchanging his glasses for contact lenses; Balzac was extremely aware of the importance of a performer's image and always looked his best for any audience, even his customers. "You going to go?" she persisted. "I think we should go." Cirque Fantastique – a competitor to the older and bigger Cirque du Soleil – was part of the next generation of circuses. It combined traditional circus routines, ancient commedia dell'arte theater, contemporary music and dance, avant-garde performance art and street magic.

But David Balzac was old school: Vegas, Atlantic City, The Late Show. "Why change something that works?" he'd grumble.

Kara loved Cirque Fantastique, though, and was determined to get him to a performance. But before she could pitch her case to convince him to accompany her the store's front door opened and an attractive, redheaded policewoman walked in, asking for the owner.

"That's me. I'm David Balzac. What can I do for you?"

The officer said, "We're investigating a case involving someone who might've had some training in magic. We're talking to magic supply stores in town, hoping you might be able to help us."

"You mean, somebody's running a scam or something?" Balzac asked. He sounded defensive, a feeling Kara shared. In the past magic has often been linked to crooks – sleight-of-hand artists as pickpockets, for instance, and charlatan clairvoyants using illusionist techniques to convince bereaved family members that the spirits of their relatives are communicating with them.

But the policewoman's visit, it turned out, was prompted by something else.

"Actually," she said, glancing at Kara then back to Balzac. "The case is a homicide."

Chapter Seven

"I have a list of some items we found at a crime scene," Amelia Sachs told the owner, "and was wondering if you might've sold them."

He took the sheet she handed him and read it as Sachs looked over Smoke & Mirrors. The black-painted cavern of a store in the photo district, part of Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, smelled of mold and chemicals – plastic too, the petrochemical body odor from the hundreds of costumes that hung like a limp crowd from racks nearby. The grimy glass counters, half of them cracked and taped together, were filled with card decks and wands and phony coins and dusty boxes of magic tricks. A full-size replica of the creature from the Alien movies stood next to a Diana mask and costume. (BE THE PRINCESS OF THE PARTY! a card read. As if no one in the store even knew she was dead.)

He tapped the list and then nodded at the counters. "I don't think I can help. We sell some of this, sure. But so does every magic store in the country. A lot of toy stores too."

She observed he hadn't spent more than a few seconds looking it over. "How about these?" Sachs showed him the printout of the photo of the old handcuffs.

He glanced at it quickly. "I don't know anything about escapology."

Was this an answer? "So that means you don't recognize them?"

"No."

"It's very important," Sachs persisted.

The young woman, with striking blue eyes and black fingernails, looked at the picture. "They're Darbys," she said. The man glanced at her coolly. She fell silent for a moment then: "Regulation Scotland Yard handcuffs from the eighteen hundreds. A lot of escapists use them. They were Houdini's favorites."

"Where could they've come from?"

Balzac rocked impatiently in his office chair. "We wouldn't know. Like I was saying, that's not a field we have any experience with."

The woman nodded, agreeing with him. "There're probably escapology museums somewhere you could get in touch with."

"And after you restock," Balzac said to his assistant, "I need you to process those orders. There were a dozen came in last night after you left." He lit a cigarette.

Sachs offered him the list again. "You did say you sold some of these products. Do you have records of customers?"

"I meant, products like them. And, no, we don't keep customer records."

After some questioning, Sachs finally got him to admit that there were recent records of mail-order and on-line sales. The young woman checked these, though, and found that nobody had bought any of the items on the evidence list.

"Sorry," Balzac said. "Wish we could be more help."

"You know, I wish you could be more help too," Sachs said, leaning forward. "Because, see, this guy killed a woman and escaped by using magic tricks. And we're afraid he's going to do it again."

Giving a frown of concern, Balzac said, "Terrible… You know, you might try East Side Magic and Theatrical. They're bigger than us."

"We have another officer over there now."

"Ah, there you go."

She let a moment pass, silent. Then: "Well, if you can think of anything else, I'd appreciate a call." A good civil servant's smile, an NYPD sergeant's smile ("Remember: community relations are as important as criminal investigations").

"Good luck, Officer," Balzac said.

"Thanks," she said.

You apathetic son-of-a-bitch.

She nodded farewell to the young woman and glanced at a cardboard cup she was sipping from. "Hey, there anyplace around here to get some decent coffee?"

"Fifth and Nineteenth," she replied.

"Good bagels too," Balzac said, helpful now that there was no risk, or effort, involved.

Outside, Sachs turned toward Fifth Avenue and found the recommended coffee shop.

She walked inside, bought a cappuccino. She leaned against a narrow mahogany bar in front of the flecked window, sipping the hot drink and watching the Saturday-morning populace here in Chelsea – salespeople from the clothing stores in the area, commercial photographers and their assistants, rich yuppies who lived in the massive lofts, poor artists, lovers young and lovers old, a wacky notebook scribbler or two.

And one magic store clerk, now entering the shop.

"Hi," said the woman with short reddish-purple hair, carrying a battered faux zebra-skin purse over her shoulder. She ordered a large coffee, filled it with sugar and joined Sachs at the bar.

Back at Smoke & Mirrors the policewoman had asked about a venue for coffee because of a conspiratorial glance the assistant had shot Sachs; it seemed that she'd wanted to say something out of Balzac's presence.

Sipping her coffee thirstily, the woman said, "The thing about David is -"

"He's uncooperative?"

A frown of consideration. "Yeah. That says it pretty well. Anything outside his world he doesn't trust or want any part of. He was afraid we'd have to be witnesses or something. I'm not supposed to be distracted."

"From what?"

"From the profession."

"Magic?"

"Right. See, he's sort of my mentor more than my boss."

"What's your name?"

"Kara – it's my stage name but I use it most of the time." A pained smile. "Better than the one my parents were kind enough to give me."

Sachs lifted a curious eyebrow.

"We'll keep that a secret."

"So," Sachs said, "why'd you give me that look back at the store?"

"David's right about that list. You can buy those things anywhere, in any store. Or on the Internet in hundreds of places. But about the Darbys, the handcuffs? Those're rare. You should call the Houdini and Escapology Museum in New Orleans. It's the best in the world. Escapism's one of my things. I don't tell him, though." Reverent emphasis on the third-person pronoun. "David's kind of opinionated… Can you tell me what happened? With that murder?"

Normally circumspect about what she gave away on an active case, Sachs knew they needed help and gave Kara an outline of the killing and the escape.

"Oh, that's horrible," the young woman whispered.

"Yeah," Sachs replied softly. "It is."

"The way he disappeared? There's something you ought to know, Officer – Wait, do I call you 'officer'? Or are you like a detective or something?"

"Amelia's fine." Enjoying a brief memory of how she'd aced the assessment exercise.

Bang, bang…

Kara sipped more coffee, decided that it wasn't sweet enough and unscrewed the top of the sugar bottle then poured more in. Sachs watched the young woman's deft hands then glanced down at her own fingernails, two of which were torn, the cuticles bloody. The girl's were perfectly filed and the glossy black finish reflected the overhead lights in exact miniature. A jealous twinge – at the nails and the self-control that kept them so perfect – flared momentarily and then was put quickly to sleep by Amelia Sachs.

Kara asked, "You know what illusion is?"

"David Copperfield," Sachs replied, shrugging. "Houdini."

"Copperfield, yes. Houdini, no – he was an escapist. Well, illusion's different from sleight of hand or close-in magic, we call it. Like…" Kara held up a quarter in her fingers, change from the coffee. She closed her palm and when she opened it again the coin was gone.

Sachs laughed. Where the hell had it gone?

"That was sleight of hand. Illusion is tricks involving large objects or people or animals. What you just described, what that killer did, is a classic illusionist trick. It's called the Vanished Man."

"Vanishing Man?"

"No, the Vanished Man. In magic we use 'Vanish' to mean 'to make disappear.' Like, 'I just vanished the quarter.'"

"Go on."

"The way it's performed usually is a little different from what you described but basically it involves the illusionist getting out of a locked room. The audience sees him step into this little room onstage – they can see the back because of a big mirror behind it. They hear him pound on the walls. The assistants pull the walls down and he's gone. Then one of the assistants turns around and it's the illusionist."

"How does it work?"

"There was a door in the back of the room. The illusionist covers himself with a large piece of black silk so the audience can't see him in the mirror and slips through the back door just after he walks inside. There's a speaker built into one of the walls to make it sound like he was inside all the time and a gimmick that hits the walls and sounds like he's pounding. Once the illusionist's outside he does a quick change behind the silk into an assistant's costume."

Sachs nodded. "That's it, all right. Could we get a short list of people who know the routine?"

"No, sorry – it's pretty common."

The Vanished Man…

Sachs was recalling that the killer had changed disguises quickly to become an older man, recalling, too, Balzac's lack of cooperation and the cold look in his eyes – almost sadistic – when he was talking to Kara. She asked, "I need to ask – where was he this morning?"

"Who?"

"Mr. Balzac."

"Here. I mean, in the building. He lives there, above the store… Wait, you're not thinking he was involved?"

"These're questions we need to ask," Sachs said noncommittally.

The young woman seemed more amused than upset by the inquiry, though. She gave a laugh. "Look, I know he's gruff and he has this… I guess you'd call it an edge, you know. A temper. But he'd never hurt anybody."

Sachs nodded but then asked, "Still, you know where he was at eight this morning?"

Kara nodded. "Yeah, he was at the store. He got in early because some friend of his is in town doing a show and needed to borrow some equipment. I called to tell him I'd be a little late."

Sachs nodded. Then a moment later asked, "Can you take a little time off work?"

"Me? Oh, no way." An embarrassed laugh. "I was lucky to sneak out now. There're a thousand things to do around the store. Then I've got three or four hours of rehearsing with David for a show I'm doing tomorrow. He doesn't let me rest the day before a performance. I -"

Sachs held the woman's crisp blue eyes. "We're really afraid this person's going to kill someone else."

Kara's eyes swept the sticky mahogany bar.

"Please. Just for a few hours. Look over the evidence with us. Brainstorm."

"He won't let me. You don't know David."

"What I know is that I'm not letting anybody else get hurt if there's any way I can stop it."

Kara finished her coffee and absently played with the cup. "Using our tricks to kill people," she whispered in a dismayed voice.

Sachs said nothing and let silence do the arguing for her.

Finally the young woman grimaced. "My mother's in a home. She's been in and out of the infirmary. Mr. Balzac knows that. I guess I could tell him I have to go check on her."

"We really could use your help."

"Oh-oh. The sick-mother excuse… God's gonna get me for this one."

Sachs glanced down again at Kara's perfect, black nails. "Hey, one thing: What happened to that quarter?"

"Look under your coffee cup," the girl replied.

Impossible. "No way."

Sachs lifted up the cup. There sat the coin.

The bewildered policewoman asked, "How'd you do that?"

Kara's answer was an enigmatic smile. She nodded at the cups. "Let's get a couple more to go." She picked up the coin. "Heads you buy, tails it's on me. Two out of three." She flipped it into the air.

Sachs nodded. "Deal."

The young woman caught it and glanced into her cupped palm. She looked up. "We said two out of three, right?"

Sachs nodded.

Kara opened her fingers. Inside were two dimes and a nickel. The dimes were heads-up. No sign of the quarter. "Guess this means you're buying."

Chapter Eight

" Lincoln, meet Kara."

She'd been warned, Rhyme could see, but the young woman still blinked in surprise and glanced at him with the Look. The one he knew so well. Accompanied by the Smile.

It was the famous don't-look-at-his-body gaze, accompanied by the oh-you're-handicapped-I-never-noticed grin.

And Rhyme knew she'd be counting down the moments until she could get the hell out of his presence.

The spritely young woman walked farther into the parlor lab in Rhyme's townhouse. "Hi. Nice to meet you." The eyes remained rooted in his. At least she didn't start forward with that minuscule lean that told him she was stifling an offered handshake and then cringe in horror at the faux pas.

Okay, Kara. Don't worry. You can give the gimp your insights then get the hell out.

He offered her a superficial smile that matched hers crease for crease and said how pleased he was to meet her too.

Which on a professional level, at least, wasn't sardonic – Kara was, it turned out, the only magician lead they'd snared. None of the employees at the other shops in town had been any help – and everyone had alibis for the time of the killing.

She was introduced to Lon Sellitto and Mel Cooper. Thom nodded and did one of the things he was known for, whether Rhyme wanted him to or not: offered refreshments.

"We're not really in a church social mode here, Thom," Rhyme muttered.

Kara said no that was all right but Thom said no he was insisting.

"Maybe coffee?" she asked.

"Coming up."

"Black. Sugar. Maybe a couple sugars?"

"We really – " Rhyme began.

"For the whole room," the aide announced. "I'll make a pot. Get some bagels too."

"Bagels?" Sellitto asked.

"You could open a restaurant in your spare time," Rhyme snapped to the aide. "Get it out of your system."

"What's spare time?" came the trim blond man's fast quip. He headed for the kitchen.

"Officer Sachs," he continued to Kara, "told us that you had some information you thought might help."

"I hope so." Another tight perusal of Rhyme's face. The Look again. Closer this time. Oh, for Christ's sake, just say something. Ask me how it happened. Ask me if it hurts. Ask me what it's like to pee into a tube.

"Hey, what're we calling him?" Sellitto tapped the top of the evidence whiteboard. Until the identity of the unsub – for "unknown subject" – was learned, many law enforcers gave perps nicknames. "How 'bout the 'Magician'?"

"No, that sounds too tame," Rhyme said, looking at the pictures of the victim. "How's the 'Conjurer'?" Surprising himself by offering this decidedly right-brained suggestion.

"Works for me."

In handwriting far less elegant than Thom's the detective wrote the words on top of the chart.

The Conjurer…

"Now let's see if we can make him appear," Rhyme said.

Sachs said, "Tell them about the Vanished Man."

The young woman rubbed her hand over her boyish hair as she described an illusionist's trick that sounded almost identical to what the Conjurer had done at the music school. She added the discouraging news, though, that most illusionists would know about it.

Rhyme asked, "Give us some idea about how he does the tricks. Techniques. So we'll know what to expect from him if he tries to target somebody else."

"You want me to tip the gaff, huh?"

"Tip the -?"

"Gaff," Kara said, then explained: "See, all magic tricks're made up of an effect and a method. The effect is what the audience sees. You know: the girl levitating, the coins falling through a solid tabletop. The method is the mechanism of how the magician does it – wires holding up the girl, palming the coins then dropping identical ones from a rig under the table."

Effect and method, Rhyme reflected. Kind of like what I do: the effect is catching a perp when it seems impossible. The method is the science and logic that let us do it.

Kara continued, "Tipping the gaff means giving away the method of a trick. Like I just did – explaining how the Vanished Man worked. It's a sensitive thing – Mr. Balzac, my mentor, he's always hounding magicians who tip the gaff in public and give away other people's methods."

Thom carted a tray into the room. He poured coffee for those who wanted some.

Kara dumped sugar into hers and sipped it fast, even though to Rhyme it seemed scalding-hot. He glanced at the Macallan eighteen-year-old single malt on a bookcase across the room. Thom noticed his eyes and said, "It's mid-morning. Don't even think about it."

Sellitto gave a similarly lustful gaze toward the bagels. He allowed himself only half. Without cream cheese. He looked pained with every bite.

They went over each item of evidence with Kara, who studied it carefully and delivered the discouraging news that there were hundreds of sources for most of the items. The rope was a color-changing rope trick, sold in F.A.O. Schwarz as well as magic stores throughout the country. The knot was one Houdini used in his routines when he planned to cut the cord to escape; it was virtually impossible for a bound performer to untie.

"Even without the cuffs," Kara said softly, "that girl never had a chance of getting away."

"Is that rare? The knot?"

She explained that, no, anyone with a basic knowledge of Houdini's routines would know it. The castor oil in the makeup, Kara continued, meant that he was using very realistic and durable theatrical cosmetics, and the latex was, as Rhyme had suspected, probably from the fake finger cups, which were also popular magician's tools. The alginate, Kara suggested, wouldn't be from dental work but was used to make molds for latex casting, probably for the finger cups or the bald cap he'd worn in his janitor disguise. The disappearing ink was more of a novelty, though some illusionists occasionally used it in their shows.

Only a few things were unique, she explained: the circuit board (which was a "gimmick," she said, a prop the audience can't see), for instance. But he'd made that himself. The Darby handcuffs were rare. Rhyme ordered someone to check out the escapology museum in New Orleans that Kara had mentioned. Sachs suggested they take the responding officers, Franciscovich and Ausonio, up on their offer to help. This was the sort of assignment that'd be perfect for a couple of eager young officers. Rhyme agreed and Sellitto arranged it through the head of the Patrol Services Division.

"How about his escape?" Sellitto said. "What's the deal where he changed into janitor clothes so fast."

"'Protean magic' it's called," Kara said. "Quick change. It's one of the things I've been studying for years. I just use it as part of my routines but there're some people, it's all they do. It can be amazing. I saw Arturo Brachetti a few years ago. He could do three or four dozen changes in one show – some of them in under three seconds."

"Three seconds?"

"Yeah. And see, true quick-change artists don't just change clothes. They're actors too. They walk differently, hold themselves differently, speak differently. He'll prepare everything ahead of time. The clothes are breakaway – they're held together with snaps or Velcro. Most of quick change is really quick strip. And they're made of silk or nylon, real thin, so we can wear layers of them. I sometimes wear five costumes under my top outfit."

"Silk?" Rhyme asked. "We found gray silk fibers," he explained. "The officers on the scene reported that the janitor was wearing a gray uniform. The fibers were abraded – sort of buffed to a matte finish."

Kara nodded. "So they'd look like cotton or linen, not shiny. We also use collapsible hats and suitcases, shoe coverings, telescoping umbrellas, all kinds of props that we hide on our bodies. Wigs, of course."

She continued, "To alter a face the most important thing is the eyebrows. Change those and the face is sixty, seventy percent different. Then add some prostheses – we call them 'appliances': latex strips and pads you put on with spirit gum. Quick-change performers study the basic facial structures of different races and genders. A good protean artist knows the proportions of a woman's face versus a man's and can change genders in seconds. We study psychological reactions to faces and posture – so we can become beautiful or ugly or scary or sympathetic or needy. Whatever."

The magic esoterica was interesting but Rhyme wanted specific suggestions. "Is there anything concrete you can tell us that'll help find him?"

She shook her head. "I can't think of anything that might lead you to a particular store or other place. But I do have some general thoughts."

"Go ahead."

"Well, the fact he used the changing rope and finger cups tells me he's familiar with sleight of hand. That means he'll be good at picking pockets, hiding guns or knives or things like that. Getting people's keys and IDs. He also knows quick change and it's obvious what kind of problem that'll be for you. But more important – the Vanished Man routine, the fuses and squibs, the disappearing ink, the black silk, the flash cotton means he's a classically trained illusionist."

She explained the difference between a sleight-of-hand artist and a true illusionist, whose acts involved people and large objects. "Why's that important for us?"

Kara nodded. "Because illusion is more than just physical technique. Illusionists study audience psychology and create whole routines to trick them – not just their eyes but their minds too. Their point isn't making you laugh because a quarter disappears; it's to make you believe in your heart that everything you see and believe is one way when in fact it's the opposite. There's one thing you'll have to keep in mind. Never forget it."

"What?" Rhyme asked.

"Misdirection… Mr. Balzac says it's the heart and soul of illusion. You've heard the expression that the hand is quicker than the eye? Well, no, it's not. The eye is always quicker. So illusionists trick the eye into not noticing what the hand is doing."

"Like, you mean, diversion, distraction?" Sellitto asked.

"That's part of it. Misdirection is pointing the audience's attention where you want it and away from where you don't want it. There're lots of rules he's been drumming into me – like, the audience doesn't notice the familiar but're drawn to novelty. They don't notice a series of similar things but focus on the one that's different. They ignore objects or people that stand still but they're drawn to movement. You want to make something invisible? Repeat it four or five times and pretty soon the audience is bored and their attention wanders. They can be staring right at your hands and not see what you're doing. That's when you zing 'em."

"Okay, now there're two kinds of misdirection he'll be using: first, physical misdirection. Watch." Kara stepped near Sachs and stared at her own right hand as she lifted it very slowly and pointed to the wall, squinting. Then she dropped her hand. "See, you looked at my arm and where I pointed. Perfectly natural reaction. So you probably didn't notice that my left hand's got Amelia's gun."

Sachs gave a faint jump as she glanced down and saw that, sure enough, Kara's fingers had lifted the Glock partway out of the holster. "Careful there," Sachs said, reholstering the pistol. "Now, look in that corner." Pointing with her right hand again. This time, though, Rhyme and the others in the room naturally looked at Kara's left hand.

"Caught my left hand, didn't you?" She laughed. "But you didn't notice my foot, pushing that white thing behind the table."

"A bedpan," Rhyme said acerbically, irritated that he'd been tricked again but feeling he'd scored a point or two by mentioning the indelicate nature of the object she'd moved.

"Really?" she asked, unfazed. "Well, it's not just a bedpan; it's also a misdirection. Because when you were looking at it just now, I got this with my other hand. Oh, here," she said. "Is this important?" She handed a canister of Mace back to Sachs.

The policewoman frowned, looked down at her utility belt to see if anything else was missing and replaced the cylinder.

"So, that's physical misdirection. That's pretty easy. The second kind of misdirection is psychological. This is harder. Audiences aren't stupid. They know you're going to try to trick them. I mean, that's why they've come to the show in the first place, right? So we try to reduce or eliminate the audience's suspicion. The most important thing in psychological misdirection is to act naturally. You behave and say things that're consistent with what the audience expects. But underneath the surface you're getting away with…" Her voice faded as she realized how close she'd come to using the word that described the death of the young student that morning.

Kara continued, "As soon as you do something in an unnatural way, the audience is on to you. Okay, I say I'm going to read your mind and I do this."

Kara put her hands on Sachs's temples and closed her eyes for a moment.

She stepped away and handed Sachs back the earring she'd just plucked from the policewoman's left ear.

"I never felt a thing."

"But the audience'd know instantly how I did it – because touching someone while you're pretending to read minds, which most people don't believe in anyway, isn't natural. But if I say part of a trick is for me to whisper a word so that nobody else can hear." She leaned closer to Sachs's ear, with her right hand over her own mouth. "See, that's a natural gesture."

"You missed the other earring," Sachs said, laughing; she'd lifted a protective hand to her ear when Kara had stepped close.

"But I vanished your necklace. It's gone."

Even Rhyme couldn't help but be impressed – and amused, watching Sachs touch her neck and chest, smiling but troubled to keep losing accessories. Sellitto laughed like a little kid and Mel Cooper gave up on the evidence to watch the show. The policewoman looked around her for the jewelry and then at Kara, who offered her empty right hand. "Vanished," she repeated.

"But," Rhyme said suspiciously, "I do notice that your left hand's in a fist behind your back. Which is, by the way, a rather unnatural gesture. So I assume the necklace is there."

"Ah, you're good," Kara said. Then laughed. "But not at catching moves, I'm afraid." She opened her left hand and it too was empty.

Rhyme scowled.

"Keeping my left fist closed and out of sight? Well, that was the most important misdirection of all. I did that because I knew you'd spot it and it would focus your attention on my left hand. We call it 'forcing.' I forced you to think you'd figured out my method. And as soon as you did that your mind snapped shut and you stopped considering any other explanations for what had happened. And when you – and everybody else – were staring at my left hand that gave me the chance to slip the necklace into Amelia's pocket."

Sachs reached inside and pulled the chain out.

Cooper applauded. Rhyme gave a grudging but impressed grunt.

Kara nodded toward the evidence board. "So, that's what he's going to do, this killer. Misdirection. You'll think you've figured out what he's up to but that's part of his plan. Just like I did, he'll use your suspicions – and your intelligence – against you. In fact, he needs your suspicions and intelligence for his tricks to work. Mr. Balzac says that the best illusionists'll rig the trick so well that they'll point directly at their method, directly at what they're really going to do. But you won't believe them. You'll look in the opposite direction. When that happens, you've had it. You've lost and they've won." The reference to her mentor seemed to upset her and she glanced at the clock and offered a faint grimace. "I really have to get back now. I've been away too long."

Sachs thanked her, and Sellitto said, "I'll get a car to take you back to the store."

"Well, near the store. I don't want him to know where I've been… Oh, one thing you might want to do? There's a circus in town. The Cirque Fantastique. I know they have a quick-change act. You might want to check it out."

Sachs nodded. "They're setting up right across the street in Central Park."

The park was often the site for large-scale outdoor concerts and other shows during the spring and summer. Rhyme and Sachs had once "attended" a Paul Simon concert by sitting in front of the criminalist's open bedroom windows.

Rhyme scoffed. "Oh, that's who was rehearsing that god-awful music all night."

"You don't like the circus?" Sellitto asked.

"Of course I don't like the circus," he snapped. "Who does? Bad food, clowns, acrobats threatening to die in front of your children… But" – he turned to Kara – "it's a good suggestion. Thanks… Even though one of us should've thought of it before," he said caustically, looking over the others on the team.

Rhyme watched her sling an ugly black-and-white purse over her shoulder.

Escaping from him, fleeing into the crip-free world, taking the Look and the Smile with her.

Don't worry. You can give the gimp your insights then get the hell out.

She paused and looked at the evidence board once more with a cloud in her striking blue eyes then started for the door.

"Wait," Rhyme said.

She turned.

"I'd like you to stay."

"What?"

"Work with us on the case. At least for today. You could go with Lon or Amelia to talk to the people at the circus. And there might be more magic evidence we uncover."

"Oh, no. I can't really. It was hard for me to get away now. I can't spend any more time."

Rhyme said, "We could use your help. We've just scratched the surface with this guy."

"You saw Mr. Balzac," she said to Sachs.

In nomine patri…

"You know, Linc," Sellitto said uneasily, "better not to have too many civilians on a case. There are regs on that."

"Didn't you use a psychic one time?" Rhyme asked dryly.

"I didn't fucking hire her. Somebody at HQ did."

"And then you had the dog tracker and – "

"You keep saying 'you.' No, I don't hire civilians. Except you. Which gets me into enough shit."

"Ah, you can never get into enough shit in police work, Lon." He glanced at Kara. "Please. It's very important."

The young woman hesitated. "You really think he's going to kill someone else?"

"Yes," he replied, "we do."

The girl finally nodded. "If I'm going to get fired, at least it'll be for a good cause." Then she laughed. "You know, Robert-Houdin did the same thing."

"Who's that?"

"A famous French illusionist and magician. He helped out the police too, well, the French army. Sometime, I don't know, in the 1800s, there were these Algerian extremists, the Marabouts. They were trying to get local tribes to rise up against the French and they kept saying they had magic powers. The French government sent him to Algeria to have a sort of magical duel. To show the tribes that the French had better magic – you know, more power. It worked. Robert-Houdin had tighter tricks than the Marabouts." Then she frowned. "Though I think they almost killed him."

"Don't worry," Sachs reassured her. "I'll make sure that doesn't happen to you."

Then Kara looked over the evidence chart. "You do this in all your cases? Write down all the clues and things you've learned?"

"That's right," Sachs confirmed.

"Here's an idea – most magicians specialize. Like the Conjurer doing both quick-change and large-scale illusion? That's unusual. Let's write down his techniques. That might help narrow down the number of suspects."

"Yeah," Sellitto said, "a profile. Good."

The young woman grimaced. "And I'll have to find somebody to replace me at the shop. Mr. Balzac was going to be out of the store with that friend of his… Oh, man, he's not going to like this." She looked around the room. "There a phone I can use? You know, one of those special ones?"

"Special one?" Thom asked.

"Yeah, in private. So there's nobody around to hear you lie to your boss."

"Oh, those phones," the aide said, putting his arm around her shoulders and directing her toward the doorway. "The one I use for that's in the hall."

THE CONJURER

Music School Crime Scene

Perp's description: Brown hair, fake beard, no distinguishing, medium build, medium height, age: fifties. Ring and little fingers of left hand fused together. Changed costume quickly to resemble old, bald janitor.

• No apparent motive.

• Victim: Svetlana Rasnikov.

• Full-time music student.

• Checking family, friends, students, coworkers for possible leads.

• No boyfriends, no known enemies. Performed at children's birthday parties.

• Circuit board with speaker attached.

• Sent to FBI lab, NYC.

• Digital recorder, probably containing perp's voice. All data destroyed.

• Voice recorder is a "gimmick." Homemade.

• Used antique iron handcuffs to restrain victim.

• Handcuffs are Darby irons. Scotland Yard. Checking with Houdini Museum in New Orleans for leads.

• Destroyed victim's watch at exactly 8:00 A. M.

• Cotton string holding chairs. Generic. Too many sources to trace.

• Squib for gunshot effect. Destroyed.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Fuse. Generic.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Responding officers reported flash in air. No trace material recovered.

• Was from flash cotton or flash paper.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Perp's shoes: size 10 Ecco.

• Silk fibers, dyed gray, processed to a matte finish.

• From quick-change janitor's outfit.

• Unsub is possibly wearing brown wig.

• Red pignut hickory and Parmelia conspersa lichen, both found primarily in Central Park.

• Dirt impregnated with unusual mineral oil. Sent to FBI for analysis.

• Black silk, 72 x 48". Used as camouflage. Not traceable.

• Illusionists use this frequently.

• Wears caps to cover up prints.

• Magician's finger cups.

• Traces of latex, castor oil, makeup.

• Theatrical makeup.

• Traces of alginate.

• Used in molding latex "appliances."

• Murder weapon: white silk-knit rope with black silk core.

• Rope is a magic trick. Color-changing. Not traceable.

• Unusual knot.

• Sent to FBI and Maritime Museum – no information.

• Knots are from Houdini routines, virtually impossible to untie.

• Used disappearing ink on sign-in register.

Profile as Illusionist

Perp will use misdirection against victims and in eluding police.

• Physical misdirection (for distraction).

• Psychological (to eliminate suspicion).

• Escape at music school was similar to Vanished Man illusion routine. Too common to trace.

• Perp is primarily an illusionist.

• Talented at sleight-of-hand.

• Also knows protean (quick change) magic. Will use breakaway clothes, nylon and silk, bald cap, finger cups and other latex appliances. Could be any age, gender or race.

Chapter Nine

They sensed many smells as they walked: blooming lilacs, smoke from the pretzel vendors' carts and families barbecuing chicken and ribs, suntan lotion.

Sachs and Kara were making their way to the huge white tent of the Cirque Fantastique through the damp grass of Central Park.

Noticing two lovers kissing on a bench, Kara asked, "So, he's more than your boss?"

" Lincoln? That's right."

"I could tell… How'd you meet?"

"A case. Serial kidnapper. A few years ago."

"Is it hard, him being that way?"

"No, it's not," Sachs replied simply, which was the complete truth.

"Can they do anything for him, the doctors?"

"There's some surgery he's been thinking about. It's risky, though, and it probably wouldn't do any good. He decided not to last year and hasn't mentioned it since. So the whole thing's been on hold for a while. He may change his mind at some point. But we'll see."

"You don't sound like you're in favor of it."

"I'm not. A lot of risk and not much gain. To me, it's a question of balancing risks. Let's say you want to bust a perp real bad, lots of paper on him, okay? Warrants, I mean. You know he's in a particular apartment. Well, do you go ahead and kick the door in even when you don't know if he's asleep or if he and his buddies have two MP5s pointed at the door? Or do you wait for backup and take the chance that he'll get away? Sometimes the risk is worth it, sometimes it's not. But if he wants to go ahead with the surgery I'm with him. That's the way we work."

Then Sachs explained that he'd been undergoing treatments that involved electronic stimulation of his muscles and a series of exercises that Thom and some physical therapists had been administering – the same exercises that the actor Christopher Reeve had been doing, with remarkable results. "Reeve's an amazing man," Sachs said. "Incredible determination. Lincoln 's the same. He doesn't talk about it much but sometimes he just disappears and has Thom and the PTs work on his exercises. I don't hear from him for a few days."

"Another sort of vanished man, hm?" the young woman asked.

"Exactly," Sachs replied, smiling. They were silent for a moment and she wondered if Kara expected more about their relationship. Stories of perseverance over the obvious obstacles, some hint about the knobby details of life as a quad. People's reactions when they were out in public. Or even some hint about the nature of the intimacies. But if she was curious she didn't pursue it.

In fact, Sachs detected mostly envy. Kara continued, "I haven't had much luck lately in the man department."

"Not seeing anybody?"

"I'm not sure," Kara replied pensively. "Our last contact was French toast and mimosas. My place. Brunch in bed. Way romantic. He said he'd call me the next day."

"And no call."

"No call. Oh, and maybe I should add that the aforementioned brunch was three weeks ago."

"Have you called him?"

"I wouldn't do that," she said firmly. "It's in his court."

"Good for you." Pride and power were born joined at the hip, Sachs knew.

Kara laughed. "There's an old routine a magician named William Ellsworth Robinson did. It was way popular. It was called How to Get Rid of a Wife, or The Divorce Machine." A laugh. "That's my story. I can vanish boyfriends faster than anybody."

"Well, they're also pretty good at vanishing themselves, you know," Sachs offered.

"Most of the guys I'd meet working at my old job, the magazine, or the store're interested in two things. A one-night romp in the hay. Or else the opposite – wooing then settling down in the 'burbs… You ever get wooed?"

"Sure," Sachs said. "It can be creepy. Depending on the wooer, of course."

"You got it, sister. So hay-romping or wooing and 'burb-settling… they're both a problem for me. I don't want either. Well, a romp now and then. Let's be realistic."

"What about men in the business?"

"Ah, so you noticed I excluded them from the romp/woo equation. Other performers… naw, I don't go there. Too many conflicts of interest. They also claim they like strong women but the truth is most of them don't want us in the business at all. The ratio of men to women is about a hundred to one. It's better now. Oh, you see some famous women illusionists. Princess Tenko, an Asian illusionist – she's brilliant. And there're a few others. But that's recent. Twenty, thirty years ago you never saw a woman as the star, only the assistant."

A glance at Sachs. "Kind of like the police, huh?"

"It's not as bad as it used to be. Not my generation. The sixties and seventies – that's when women were breaking the ice. That was the hard time. But I've had my share. I was a portable before I moved to crime-scene and -"

"A what?"

"A portable's a beat cop. If we ever worked Hell's Kitchen in Midtown they'd partner a woman with some experienced male cop. Sometimes I'd have a knuckle-dragger who hated being with a woman. Just hated it. He didn't say a word to me for the entire watch. Eight hours, walking up and down the streets, this guy not saying a word. We'd go ten-sixty-three for lunch and I'd be sitting there trying to be pleasant and he'd be two feet away, reading the sports section and sighing 'cause he had to waste his time with a woman." Memories came back to her. "I was working the Seven-five house -"

"The what?"

Sachs explained, "Precinct. We call them 'houses.' And most cops don't say Seventy-fifth. In numbers it's always Seven-five or Seventy-five. Like Macy's is on Three-four Street."

"Okay."

"Anyway, the usual supervisor was off and we had a temporary sergeant who was old-school. So it's one of my first days at the Seven-five and I'm the only woman on this particular watch. I go to roll call in the assembly room and there're a dozen Kotex taped to the lectern."

"No!"

"Kid you not. The regular supervisor never would've let anybody get away with that. But cops're like kids in a lot of ways. They push until an adult stops 'em."

"Not what you see in the movies."

"Movies're made in Hollywood. Not in the Seven-five."

"What'd you do? About the pads?"

"I walked up to the front row and asked the cop sitting right in front of the lectern if I could have his seat – which is where I was going to sit anyway. They were all laughing so hard I'm surprised some of them didn't pee their pants. Well, I sat down and just started to take notes about what the sergeant was telling us – you know, outstanding warrants and community relations things and street corners with known drug activity. And about two minutes later, no more laughter. The whole thing became embarrassing. Not for me. For them."

"You know who did it?"

"Sure."

"Did you report him?"

"No. See, that's the hardest part of being a woman cop. You have to work with these people. You need them behind you, watching your back. You can fight every step of the way. But if you have to do that you've already lost. The hardest part isn't having the balls to fight. It's knowing when to fight and when to just let it go."

Pride and power…

"Like us, I guess. My business. But if you're good, if you can bring in audiences, management'll hire you. It's a catch-22 though. You can't prove you'll draw crowds if they don't hire you, and they won't hire you if you can't bring in door receipts."

They walked closer to the massive, glowing tent and Sachs watched the young woman's eyes light up as she gazed at it.

"This the sort of place you'd like to work?"

"Oh, man, I'll say. This's my idea of heaven. Cirque Fantastique and doing TV specials." After a moment of silence as she gazed around her, she said, "Mr. Balzac has me learning all the old routines and that's important – you've got to know ' em cold. But " – a nod toward the tent – "this is the direction magic's going. David Copperfield, David Blaine… performance art, street magic. Sexy magic."

"You should audition here."

"Me? You're kidding," Kara replied. "I'm nowhere near ready yet. Your act has to be perfect. You have to be the best."

"Better than a man, you mean?"

"No, better than everybody, men and women."

"Why?"

"For the audience," Kara explained. "Mr. Balzac's like a broken record: you owe it to the audience. Every breath you take onstage is for your audience. Illusion can't be just okay. You can't just satisfy – you have to thrill. If one person in the audience catches your moves you've failed. If you hesitate just a moment too long and the effect is dull you've failed. If one person out there yawns or looks at his watch you've failed."

"You can't be at a hundred percent all the time, I'd think," Sachs offered.

"But you have to be," Kara said simply, sounding surprised anyone would feel different.

They arrived at the Cirque Fantastique, where rehearsals for the opening show tonight were underway. Dozens of performers were walking around, some in costumes, some in shorts and T-shirts or jeans.

"Oh, man…" came a breathy voice. It was Kara's. Her face was like a little girl's, eyes taking in the brilliant white canvas of the sweeping tent.

Sachs jumped at the sound of a loud crack above and behind her. She looked up and saw two huge banners, thirty or forty feet high, snapping in the wind, glowing in the sunlight. On one was painted the name CIRQUE FANTASTIQUE.

On the other was a huge drawing of a thin man in a black-and-white-checkered bodysuit. He was holding his arms forward, palms-up, inviting his audience inside. He wore a black, snub-nosed half-mask, the features grotesque. It was a troubling image. She thought immediately of the Conjurer, hidden by masks of disguise.

His motives and plans hidden too.

Kara noticed Sachs's gaze. "It's Arlecchino," she said. "In English, that's 'Harlequin.' You know commedia dell'arte?" she asked.

"No," Sachs said.

"Italian theater. It lasted from, I don't know, the fifteen hundreds for a couple of hundred years. The Cirque Fantastique uses it as a theme." She pointed to smaller banners on the sides of the tent that displayed other masks.

With their hook noses or beaks, arching brows, high serpentine cheekbones, they appeared otherworldly and unsettling. Kara continued, "There were a dozen or so continuing characters that all the commedia dell'arte troupes used in their plays. They wore masks to show who they were playing."

"Comedy?" Sachs asked, lifting an eyebrow as she looked at a particularly demonic mask.

"We'd call them black comedies, I guess. Harlequin wasn't exactly a heroic figure. He had no morals at all. All he cared about was food and women. And he'd just appear and disappear, sneak up on you. Another one, Pulcinella, was way sadistic. He played really mean pranks on people, even his lovers. Then there was a doctor who'd poison people. The only voice of reason was this woman, Columbine." Kara added, "One of the things I like about commedia dell'arte was that her part was really played by a woman. Not like in England, where women weren't allowed to perform."

The banner snapped again. Harlequin's eyes seemed to stare off slightly behind them as if the Conjurer were easing up close, an echo of the search at the music school earlier.

No, we don't have a clue who or where he is…

She turned away to see a guard approaching, looking over her uniform. "Help you, Officer?"

Sachs asked to see the manager. The man explained that he was away but did they want to talk to an assistant?

Sachs said yes and a moment later a short, thin, harried woman – dark, gypsy-like – arrived.

"Yes, I can help you?" she asked in an indeterminate accent.

After introductions, Sachs said, "We're investigating a series of crimes in the area. We'd like to know if you have any illusionists or quick-change artists appearing in the show."

Concern blossomed in the woman's face. "We have that, yes, of course," she said. "Irina and Vlad Klodoya."

"Spell those please."

Kara was nodding as Sachs wrote down the names. "I know about them, sure. They were with the Circus of Moscow a few years ago."

"Right," confirmed the assistant.

"Have they been here all morning?"

"Yes. They rehearsed until about twenty minutes ago. Now it is they are shopping."

"You're sure this's the only time they've been away?"

"Yes. I supervise myself where everyone is."

"Anyone else?" Sachs asked. "Maybe somebody who's had training at illusion or magic? I mean, even if they're not performing."

"No, nobody. Those are only the two."

"Okay," Sachs said. "What we're going to do is have a couple of police officers parked outside. They should be here in about fifteen minutes. If you hear about anyone bothering your employees or the audience, acting suspicious, tell the officers right away." This had been Rhyme's suggestion.

"I will tell everyone, yes. But can you please to tell me what is this about?"

"A man with some illusionist experience was involved in a homicide earlier today. There's no connection to your show that we know of but we just want to be on the safe side."

They thanked the assistant, who offered a troubled farewell, probably sorry that she'd asked the reason for the visit.

Outside, Sachs asked, "What's the story on those performers?"

"The Ukrainians?"

"Yeah. Do we trust 'em?"

"Husband-and-wife team. Have a couple of children who travel with them. They're two of the best quick-change artists in the world. I can't imagine they'd have anything to do with the killings." She laughed. "See that's who gets jobs at Cirque Fantastique – performers who've been pros since they were five or six."

Sachs called Rhyme's phone and got Thom. She gave him the Ukrainian performers' names and what she'd learned. "Have Mel or somebody run them through NCIC and the State Department."

"Will do."

She disconnected the call and they started out of the park, walking west toward a slash of livid clouds, like striations of bruise, in the otherwise brilliant sky.

Another loud snap behind her – the banners again, flapping in the breeze, as the playful Harlequin continued to beckon passersby into his otherworldly kingdom.

• • •

Refreshed, Revered Audience? Relaxed?

Good, because it's time now for our second routine. You may not know the name P. T. Selbit, but if you've been to any magic shows at all or seen illusionists on television you're probably familiar with some of the tricks this Englishman made popular in the early 1900s.

Selbit began his career performing under his real name, Percy Thomas Tibbies, but he soon learned that such a mild name didn't suit a performer whose forte wasn't card tricks, vanishing doves or levitating children but sadomasochistic routines that shocked – and therefore, of course, drew crowds throughout the world.

Selbit – yes, his stage name was the reverse of his surname – created the famous Living Pincushion, in which a girl was apparently skewered with eighty-four needle-sharp spikes. Another of his creations was the Fourth Dimension, a routine where audiences watched in horror as a young woman was seemingly crushed to death under a huge box. One of my favorites of Selbit's was a routine he introduced in 1922. The title says it all, Revered Audience: The Idol of Blood, or Destroying a Girl.

Today I'm delighted to present to you an updated variation of Selbit's most renowned illusion, one that he presented in dozens of countries and that he was invited to perform at the Royal Command Variety Performance in the London Hippodrome.

It's known as…

Ah, but no…

No, Revered Audience. I think I'll keep you in suspense and refrain for the moment from mentioning the name of the illusion. But I'll give you one clue: when Selbit was performing this routine he instructed his assistants to pour fake blood into the gutters in front of the theater to tantalize passersby and get them to buy tickets. Which, naturally, they did.

Enjoy our next routine.

I hope you will.

I know of one person who most certainly won't.

Chapter Ten

How much sleep? the young man wondered.

The play had ended at midnight then there'd been drinks at the White Horse until who knew when, home at three, on the phone for forty minutes with Bragg, no, maybe an hour. Then the ridiculous plumbing had started up its ridiculous banging at 8:30.

How many hours' sleep was that then?

The math eluded Tony Calvert and he decided that it was probably better not to know too much about the extent of his exhaustion. At least he was working on Broadway and not doing advertising shoots, where you started work sometimes at – heaven help us – 6:00 A. M. His afternoon call at the Gielgud Theater tidily made up for the fact that he had to work Saturdays and Sundays.

He surveyed the tools of his trade and decided he needed some more tattoo concealer since chisel-chin boy was standing in today and the ladies from Teaneck and Garden City might wonder about the credibility of a leading man who lusted after the ingénue starlet when his ample biceps said "Love Forever Robert."

Calvert closed the big yellow makeup case and glanced in the mirror by the door.

He looked better than he felt, he had to admit. His complexion still retained a bit of the tan from the glorious March trip down to St. Thomas. And his trim build belied the dumpy sluggishness churning in his belly. (God's sake, keep it to four beers. Okay? Hello, can we live with that?)

His eyes, though: yep, pretty red. But that's easily taken care of. A stylist knows hundreds of ways to make the old look young, the plain look beautiful and the weary look alert. He attacked with eyedrops and then followed through with the coup de grace – a swipe or two with an under-eye touch-up stick.

Calvert pulled on his leather jacket, locked the door and started down the hallway of his East Village apartment building, quiet now, a few minutes before noon. Most of the people in the building, he guessed, were outside, enjoying the first truly nice spring weekend this year or were still sleeping off their own debaucheries.

He used the back exit, as he always did, which deposited him in the alleyway behind the building. Starting for the sidewalk, forty feet away, he noticed something: motion down one of the cul-de-sacs leading off the alley.

He stopped and squinted into the dimness. An animal. Jesus, was that a rat?

But no – it was a cat, apparently injured. He looked around but the alleyway was completely deserted, no sign of its owner. Oh, the poor thing!

Calvert wasn't a pet person but he'd sat for a neighbor's Norwich terrier last year and remembered the man telling him that, just in case, Bilbo's vet was around the corner on St. Marks. He'd take the cat in on the way to the subway.

Maybe his sister'd want it. She adopted children. Why not cats?

Lingering in alleys wasn't the best idea in this neighborhood but Calvert saw that he was still completely alone. He moved slowly over the cobblestones so he wouldn't spook the animal. It was lying on its side, meowing faintly.

Could he pick it up? Would it try to scratch him? He remembered something in Prevention about cat-scratch fever. But the animal looked too weak to hurt him.

"Hey, what's the matter, fella?" he asked in a soothing voice. "You hurt?"

Crouching down, he set his makeup case on the cobblestones and reached out carefully in case the cat took a swipe at him. He touched it but then drew his hand back in shock. The animal was ice-cold and emaciated – he could feel stiff bones beneath the skin. Had it just died? But, no, the leg was still moving. And it uttered another faint meow.

He touched it again. And, wait, those weren't bones under the skin. They were rods, and inside its body was a metal box. What the fuck was this?

Was he on Candid Camera? Or was some asshole just ragging him?

Then he glanced up and saw someone ten feet away. Calvert gasped and reared back. A man was crouching -

But, no, he realized. It was his own image, reflected in a full-length mirror sitting in the corner at the end of the dark alley. Calvert saw his face, shocked, eyes wide, frozen for a moment. He started to relax and laughed. But then he frowned, watching himself slowly falling forward – as the mirror pivoted to the cobblestones and shattered.

The bearded, middle-aged man hiding behind it charged forward, raising a large piece of pipe.

"No! Help me!" the young man cried, scrabbling away. "My God, my God!"

The pipe swung down in a fierce arc directly toward his head. But Calvert grabbed the makeup case fast and thrust it toward the attacker, deflecting the blow. He struggled to his feet and began to run. The assailant started after him but slipped on the slick cobblestones and went down hard on one knee.

"Take the wallet! Take it!" He pulled his billfold from his pocket and flung it behind him. But the man ignored it and rose, continuing after him. He was between Calvert and the street; the only escape was back into the building.

Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Lord… "Help me, help me, help me!"

Keys! he thought. Get them now! Fishing them out of his jeans as he gave a brief glance behind him. The man was only thirty feet or so away. If I don't get the door unlocked on the first try, that's it… I'm dead.

Calvert didn't even slow down. He slammed hard into the metal door and, a miracle, slid the key home instantly, turning it fast. The latch opened, he pulled the key out and leaped through the doorway, slamming the steel door shut behind him. It locked automatically.

Heart pounding fiercely, gasping in fear, he rested only for a moment. Thinking, mugger? Gay-basher? Druggie? Didn't matter, he thought. I'm not letting the prick get away. He ran up the hall to his apartment. This door too he opened fast. He leaped inside, swinging it shut after him and locking it.

Hurrying into the kitchen, he seized the phone and dialed 911. A moment later a woman's voice said, "Police and fire emergency."

"A man! A man just attacked me! He's outside."

"Are you injured?"

"No, but you have to send the police!" he shouted. "Hurry!"

"Is he there with you?"

"No, he didn't get in. I locked the doors. But he could still be in the alley! You have to hurry!"

What was that? Calvert wondered. He felt a sudden breeze against his face. The sensation was familiar and he realized that it was the feeling of cross-ventilation when someone opened the front door to his apartment.

The 911 operator asked, "Hello, sir, are you there? Can you -"

Calvert spun toward the door and cried out, seeing the bearded man with the pipe, standing only a few feet from him, calmly unplugging the phone line from the wall. The doors! How did he get through the locks?

Calvert backed away as far as he could – against the refrigerator; there was nowhere else to go.

"What?" he whispered, noting the scars on the man's neck, his deformed left hand. "What do you want?"

The assailant ignored him for a moment and looked around – first at the kitchen table then at the large wooden coffee table in the living room. Something about the sight of it seemed to please him. He turned back and when he brought the pipe down on Calvert's raised arms the swing seemed almost like an afterthought.

• • •

They rolled up, silent.

Two RMPs, two officers in each.

The sergeant climbed out of the first squad car before it'd braked to a stop.

Only six minutes had elapsed since the 911 call came in. Even though the call had been cut off, Central knew which building and apartment it had been placed from, thanks to caller-ID technology.

Six minutes… If they were lucky they'd find the vic alive and well. If they were less lucky, at least the doer'd still be in the apartment, shopping through the vic's valuables.

He called in on his Motorola. "Sergeant Four Five Three One to Central. I'm ten-eighty-four on the scene of that assault on Nine Street, K."

"Roger, Four Five Three One. EMS bus en route. Injuries, K?"

"Don't know yet. Out."

"Roger, Four Five. Out."

He sent one of his men around to the back to cover the service door and the rear windows and told another to stay in the front. The third officer trotted with the sergeant toward the lobby.

If they were lucky the perp'd jump out a window and break an ankle. The sergeant wasn't in any mood to run assholes to ground on this fine day. This was Alphabet City, its name courtesy of the north-south avenues here – A, B, C how fast I can cook some smack and shoot up. It was improving slowly but was still one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Manhattan. Both cops had their weapons drawn by the time they approached the door.

If they were lucky he'd be armed only with a knife. Or something like what that cluck-head gone on crack had threatened him with last week: a chopstick and garbage can lid for a shield.

Well, they got one break at least – they didn't have to find somebody to let them through the security door. An elderly woman, listing against the weight of a shopping bag that sprouted a huge pineapple, was on her way out. Blinking in surprise, she held the door open for the two cops and they hurried inside, answering her question about their presence with a noncommittal, "Nothing to be concerned about, ma'am."

If we're lucky…

Apartment 1J was on the ground floor toward the back. The sergeant positioned himself to the left of the door. The other officer, opposite, glanced at him and nodded. The sergeant rapped hard with his big knuckles. "Police. Open the door. Open it now!"

No response from inside.

"Police!"

He tried the knob. More luck. It was unlocked. The sergeant shoved the door open and both men stood back, waiting. Finally the sergeant peeked 'round the corner.

"Oh, Christ on earth," he whispered when he saw what was in the center of the living room.

The word "luck" vanished from his thoughts entirely.

• • •

The secret to successful protean magic – quick change – is making distinct but simple changes to your appearance and demeanor while simultaneously distracting your audience with misdirection.

And no change was more distinctive than turning yourself into a seventy-five-year-old bag woman.

Malerick had known the police would arrive quickly. So after the brief performance in Tony Calvert's apartment he did a fast change into one of his escape outfits: a high-necked blue dress and a white wig. He pulled his elasticized jeans above the hemline of the dress, revealing opaque support hose.

The beard came off and he applied a heavy base of eccentric-lady rouge. He painted on excessive eyebrow liner. Several dozen strokes with a thin sienna pencil gave him septuagenarian wrinkles. A change of shoes.

As for the misdirection, he'd found a shopping bag and filled the bottom with newspaper – along with the pipe and the other weapon he'd used for his routine – and added a large fresh pineapple from Calvert's kitchen. If he met anyone as he left the building they might glance at him but they'd focus on the sizable pineapple, which is just what happened as he politely held the door open for the arriving officers.

Now, a quarter mile from the building, still dressed as the woman, he stopped and leaned against the wall of a building as if he were catching his breath.

Then he eased into a dim alley. With one tug the dress, held together by tiny Velcro dots, came off. This garment and the wig went under a foot-wide elastic band he wore around his stomach, which compressed the items and made them invisible under his shirt.

He tugged his pants cuffs down, took makeup-removal pads from a Baggie in his pocket and wiped his face until the rouge, wrinkles and eyebrow pencil were gone, checking to make sure with a small pocket mirror. The pads he dropped into the shopping bag with the pineapple, which he in turn placed in a green garbage bag. He found a car illegally parked, picked the lock to the trunk and tossed the bag inside. The police would never think to search the trunks of parked cars and, anyway, the odds were that the car would be towed before the owner returned.

Back on the street, heading for one of the West Side subways.

And what did you think of our second act, Revered Audience?

He himself thought it had gone well, considering that because he'd slipped on the damn cobblestones the performer had gotten away and managed to close and lock two doors.

But by the time Malerick had gotten to the back door of Calvert's building he had his picking tools in hand.

Malerick had studied the fine art of lock-picking for years. It was one of the first skills his mentor had taught him. A picker uses two tools: a tension wrench, which is inserted into the lock and twisted to keep pressure on the locking pins inside, and the pick itself, which pushes each pin out of the way so the lock can be turned to the open position.

It can be time-consuming to push aside the pins one at a time, though, so Malerick had mastered a very difficult technique called "scrubbing," in which you move the pick back and forth quickly, brushing the pins out of the way.

Scrubbing only works when the lock-picker senses exactly the right combination of torque on the cylinder and pressure on the pins. Using tools that were only a few inches long, it had taken Malerick less than thirty seconds to scrub open the locks in both the back door and the apartment door of Calvert's place.

Does that seem impossible, Revered Audience?

But that's the job of illusionists, you know: rendering the impossible real.

Pausing outside the subway he bought a New York Times and flipped through it as he studied passersby. Again, it seemed that no one had followed him. He trotted down the stairs to catch the train. A truly cautious performer might have waited a bit longer to be absolutely sure he wasn't being tailed. But Malerick didn't have much time. The next routine would be a difficult one – he'd set quite major challenges for himself – and he had to make some preparations.

He didn't dare risk disappointing his audience.

Chapter Eleven

"It's bad, Rhyme."

Amelia Sachs was speaking into the stalk mike as she stood in the doorway of apartment 1J, in the heart of Alphabet City.

Earlier that morning Lon Sellitto had ordered all dispatchers at Central to call him immediately with news of any homicide in New York City. When a report came in about this particular killing they concluded that it was the work of the Conjurer: the mysterious way the killer had gained access to the man's apartment was one clue. The clincher, though, was that he'd smashed the victim's wristwatch – just as he'd done with the student's at the first killing that morning.

One thing that was different was the cause of death. Which had prompted Sachs's comment to Rhyme. While Sellitto gave commands to the detectives and patrol officers in the hall Sachs studied the unfortunate vic – a young man named Anthony Calvert. He lay on his back in the middle of the coffee table in the living room, spread-eagled, hands and feet tied to the legs of the table. His abdomen had been sawn completely through down to his spine.

Sachs now described the injury to Rhyme.

"Well," said the criminalist unemotionally. "Consistent."

"Consistent?"

"I'd say he's keeping with the magic theme. Ropes in the first killing. Cutting someone in half now." His voice rose as he called across the room, presumably to Kara. "That's a magic trick, right? Cutting somebody in half?" A pause and then he was addressing Sachs again. "She said it's a classic illusionist trick."

He was right, she realized; she'd been shocked at the sight and hadn't made the connection between the two killings.

An illusionist trick…

Though grotesque mutilation described it better.

Keep detached, she told herself. A sergeant would be detached.

But then a thought occurred to her. "Rhyme, you think…"

"What?"

"You think he was alive when the perp started cutting? His hands're tied to the table legs, spread-eagle."

"Oh, you mean maybe he left something for us, some clue about the killer's identity? Good."

"No," she said softly. "Thinking about the pain."

"Oh. That."

Oh. That…

"Blood work'll tell."

Then she noticed a major blunt-object trauma to Calvert's temple. That wound hadn't bled much, which suggested that his heart had stopped beating soon after the skull had been crushed.

"No, Rhyme, looks like the cutting was postmortem."

She vaguely heard the criminalist's voice talking to his aide, telling Thom to write this on the evidence chart. He was saying something else but she wasn't paying any attention. The sight of the victim gripped her hard and wouldn't let go. But this was as she wanted it. Yes, she could give up the dead – the way all crime-scene cops had to do – and in a moment she would. But death, she felt, deserved a moment of stillness. Sachs did this not out of any sense of spirituality, though, or abstract respect for the dead; no, it was for herself, so that her heart would resist hardening to stone, a process that happened all too frequently in this calling.

She realized that Rhyme was talking to her. "What?" she asked.

"I was wondering, any weapons?"

"No sign of them. But I haven't searched yet."

A sergeant and a uniformed officer joined Sellitto in the doorway. "Been talking to the neighbors," one of them said. Nodding toward the body then doing a double take. She guessed he hadn't seen the carnage up-close yet.

"Vic was a nice, quiet guy. Everybody liked him. Gay but not into rough trade or anything. Hadn't been seeing anybody for a while."

Sachs nodded then said into her mike, "Doesn't sound like he knew the killer, Rhyme."

"We didn't think that was likely now, did we?" the criminalist said. "The Conjurer's got a different agenda – whatever the hell it is."

"What line of work?" she asked the officers.

"Makeup artist and stylist for one of the theaters on Broadway. We found his case in the alley. You know, hair spray, makeup, brushes."

Sachs wondered if Calvert had ever been hired by commercial photographers and, if so, if he'd worked on her when she'd been with the Chantelle modeling agency on Madison Avenue. Unlike many photographers and the ad agency account people, makeup artists treated models as if they were human beings. An account exec might offer, "All right, let's get her painted and see what she looks like," and the makeup artist would mutter, "Excuse me, I didn't know she was a picket fence."

An Asian-American detective from the Ninth Precinct, which covered this part of town, walked up to the doorway, hanging up his cell phone. "How 'bout this one, huh?" he asked breezily.

"How 'bout it," Sellitto muttered. "Any idea how he got away? The vic called nine-one-one himself. Your respondings must've got to the scene in ten minutes."

"Six," the detective said.

A sergeant said, "We rolled up silent and covered all the doors and windows. When we got inside, the body was still warm. I'm talking ninety-eight point six. We did a door-to-door but no sign of the doer."

"Wits?"

The sergeant nodded. "The only person in the hall when we got here was this old lady. She was the one let us in. When she gets back we'll talk to her. Maybe she got a look at him."

"She left?" Sellitto asked.

"Yeah."

Rhyme had heard. "You know who it was, don't you?"

"Goddamn," the policewoman snapped.

The detective said, "No, it's okay. We left cards under everybody's door. She'll call us back."

"No, she won't," Sachs said, sighing. "That was the doer."

"Her?" the sergeant asked, his voice high. He laughed.

"She wasn't a her," Sachs explained. "She only looked like an old lady."

"Hey, Officer," Sellitto said, "let's not get too paranoid. The guy can't do a sex-change operation or anything."

"Yes, he can. Remember what Kara told us. It was her, Lieutenant. Want to bet?"

In her ear Rhyme's voice said, "I'm not taking odds on that one, Sachs."

The sergeant said defensively, "She was, like, seventy years old or something. And carrying a big bag of groceries. A pineapple – "

"Look," she said and pointed to the kitchen counter, on which were two spiky leaves. Next to them was a little card on a rubber band, courtesy of Dole, offering tasty recipes for fresh pineapple.

Hell. They'd had him – he was inches away from them.

"And," Rhyme continued, "he probably had the murder weapon in the grocery bag."

She repeated this to the increasingly sullen detective from the Nine.

"You didn't see her face, right?" she asked the sergeant.

"Not really. Just glanced at her. It was like, you know, all made up. Covered with, what's that stuff? My grandmother used to wear it?"

"Rouge?" Sachs asked.

"Yeah. And painted-on eyebrows… Well, we'll find her now. She… he can't've got that far."

Rhyme said, "He's changed clothes again, Sachs. Probably dumped them nearby."

She said to the Asian detective, "He's wearing something else now. But the sergeant here can give you a description of the clothes. You should send a detail to check out the Dumpsters and the alleyways around here."

The detective frowned coolly and looked Sachs up and down. A cautionary glance from Sellitto reminded her that an important part of becoming sergeant was not acting like one until you actually were. He then authorized the search and the detective picked up his radio and called it in.

Sachs suited up in the Tyvek overalls and walked the grid in the hall and the alleyway (where she found the strangest bit of evidence she'd ever come across: a toy black cat). She then ran the gruesome scene in the young man's apartment, processed the body and assembled the evidence.

She was heading for her car when Sellitto stopped her.

"Hey, hold on, Officer." He hung up his phone, on which he'd apparently just had a difficult conversation, to judge from his scowl. "I've gotta meet with the captain and dep com about the Conjurer case. But I need you to do something for me. We're going to add somebody to the team. I want you to pick him up."

"Sure. But why somebody else?"

"'Cause we've had two bodies in four hours and there're no fucking suspects," he snapped. "And that means the brass aren't happy. And here's your first lesson about being a sergeant – when the brass ain't happy, you ain't happy."

• • •

The Bridge of Sighs.

This was the aerial walkway connecting the two soaring towers of the Manhattan Detention Center on Center Street in downtown Manhattan.

The Bridge of Sighs – the route walked by the grandest Mafiosos with a hundred hired kills to their names. Walked by terrified young men who'd done nothing more than take a Sammy Sosa baseball bat to the asshole who'd knocked up their sister or cousin. By edgy cluck-heads who'd killed a tourist for forty-two dollars 'cause I needed the crack, needed the rock, needed it, man, I needed it…

Amelia Sachs crossed the bridge now, on her way to detention – technically the Bernard B. Kerik Complex but still known informally as the Tombs, a nickname inherited from the original city jail located across the street. Here, high above the governmental 'hood of the city, Sachs gave her name to a guard, surrendered her Glock (she'd left her unofficial weapon – a switchblade – in the Camaro) and entered the secure lobby on the other side of a noisy, electric door. It groaned shut.

A few minutes later the man she was here to pick up came out of a nearby prisoner interview room. Trim, in his late thirties, with thinning brown hair and a faint grin molded into his easygoing face. He wore a black sports coat over a blue dress shirt and jeans.

"Amelia, hey there," came the drawl. "So I can hitch a ride with you up to Lincoln 's place?"

"Hi, Rol. You bet."

Detective Roland Bell unbuttoned his jacket and she caught a glimpse of his belt. He, too, in accordance with regs, was weaponless but she noticed two empty holsters on Bell 's midriff. She remembered when they worked together they often compared stories of "driving nails," a southernism for shooting – one of his hobbies and for Sachs a competitive sport.

Two men who'd also been in the prisoner interview room joined them. One was in a suit, a detective she'd met before. Crew-cut Luis Martinez, a quiet man with fast, careful eyes.

The second man wore Saturday business clothes: khaki slacks and a black Izod shirt, under a faded windbreaker. He was introduced to Sachs as Charles Grady though Sachs knew him by sight; the assistant district attorney was a celebrity among New York law enforcers. The lean, middle-aged Harvard Law grad had remained in the D.A.'s office long after most prosecutors had fled to more lucrative pastures. "Pit bull" and "tenacious" were just two of the many clichés the press regularly applied to him. He was likened favorably to Rudolph Giuliani; unlike the former mayor, however, Grady had no political aspirations.

He was content to stay in the prosecutor's office and pursue his passion, which he described simply as "putting bad guys in jail."

And which he happened to be damn good at; his conviction record was one of the best in the history of the city.

Bell was here thanks to Grady's current case. The state was prosecuting a forty-five-year-old insurance agent who lived in a small rural town in upstate New York. Andrew Constable was known less for writing homeowners policies, though, than for his local militia group, the Patriot Assembly. He was charged with conspiracy to commit murder and hate crimes and the case had been moved down here on a change-of-venue motion.

As the trial date approached, Grady had begun to get death threats. Then a few days ago the prosecutor had received a call from the office of Fred Dellray, an FBI agent who often worked with Rhyme and Sellitto. Dellray was currently in parts unknown on a classified anti-terrorist assignment but fellow agents had learned that a serious attempt on Grady's life might be imminent. Thursday night or early Friday morning Grady's office had been burglarized. At that point the decision was made to call Roland Bell.

The soft-spoken North Carolina native's official assignment was working Homicide and other major crimes with Lon Sellitto. But he also headed up an unofficial division of NYPD detectives known as SWAT, which wasn't the same famous acronym that every viewer of Cops knows; this version stood for the "Saving the Witness's Ass Team."

Bell had, as he expressed it, "this sorta knack for keeping people alive other people want dead."

The result was that in addition to his regular investigation caseload with Sellitto and Rhyme, Bell ended up doing double duty running the protection detail.

But now Grady's bodyguards were in place and the brass downtown – the unhappy brass – had decided to gear up the effort to nail the Conjurer. More muscle was needed on the Sellitto-Rhyme team and Bell was a logical choice.

"So that was Andrew Constable," Grady said to Bell, with a nod through the greasy window into the interview room.

Sachs stepped to the window and saw a slim, rather distinguished-looking prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, sitting at a table, his head down, nodding slowly.

"He what you expected?" Grady continued.

"Don't reckon'," Bell drawled. "Was thinkin' he'd be more hill country. More of a blueprint bigot, you know what I mean? But that fella, he's fair mannerable. Fact is, Charles, I have to say, he didn't feel guilty."

"Sure doesn't." Grady grimaced. "Gonna be hard to get a conviction." Then a wry laugh. "But that's what they pay me the big bucks for." Grady's salary was less than that of a first-year associate at a Wall Street law firm.

Bell asked, "Anything more about the break-in at your office? The preliminary crime scene report ready yet? I need to see it."

"It's being expedited. We'll make sure you get a copy."

Bell said, "We got another situation needs looking into. I'll leave my fellows and girls with you and your family. But I'll be a phone call away."

"Thanks, Detective," Grady said. He then added, "My daughter says hi. We've got to get her together with your boys. And meet that lady friend of yours. Where's she live again?"

"Lucy's down in North Carolina."

"She's police too, right?"

"Yep, acting head of the sheriff's department. Metropolis of Tanner's Corner."

Luis Martinez noticed Grady start for the door and he was instantly at the prosecutor's side. "You just want to wait here for a minute, Charles?" The bodyguard left the secure area and retrieved his pistol from the guard who oversaw the lockbox behind the desk and looked over the hallway and bridge carefully.

It was then that a soft voice sounded behind them.

"Hello, miss."

Sachs detected in the words a particular lilt, formed by a history of service labor and contact with the public. She turned and saw Andrew Constable standing next to a huge guard. The prisoner was quite tall, his posture completely erect. His salt-and-pepper hair was wavy and thick. His short, round lawyer stood next to him.

He continued, "Are you part of the team looking out for Mr. Grady?"

"Andrew," his lawyer cautioned.

The prisoner nodded. But kept his eyebrow raised as he looked at Sachs.

"It's not my case," she said to him dismissively.

"Ah, no? Was just going to tell you what I told Detective Bell. I honestly don't know anything about those threats against Mr. Grady." He turned to Bell, who gazed back at the suspect. The Tarheel cop could sometimes look bashful and reserved but that was never the case when confronting a suspect. A cool glare was his response now.

"You have to do your job. I understand that. But believe me, I wouldn't hurt Mr. Grady. One of the things that made this country great is playing fair." A laugh. "I'll beat him at trial. Which I will do – thanks to my brilliant young friend here." A nod toward his lawyer. Then a look of curiosity at Bell. "One thing I wanted to mention, Detective. I was wondering if you might have some interest in what my Patriots've been doing up in Canton Falls."

"Me?"

"Oh, I don't mean that crazy conspiracy nonsense. I mean what we're really about."

The prisoner's lawyer said, "Come on, Andrew. Better to keep quiet."

"Just conversing here, Joe." A glance at Bell. "How 'bout it?"

"How d'you mean, sir?" Bell asked stiffly.

The expected allusion to racism and the detective's southern roots didn't rear its head. He said, "States' rights, working folk, local government versus federal. You should go to our website, Detective." He laughed. "People expect swastikas. They get Thomas Jefferson and George Mason." When Bell said nothing a thick silence filled the close air around them. The prisoner shook his head then he laughed and looked abashed. "Lord, sorry me… Sometimes I just can't stop myself – all this ridiculous preaching. Get a few people around me and look what happens – I outstay my welcome."

The guard said, "Lessgo."

"All right then," the prisoner responded. A nod to Sachs, one to Bell. He shuffled down the hall to the faint clink of the shackles on his legs. His lawyer nodded to the prosecutor – two adversaries who respected and yet were wary of each other – and left the secure area.

A moment later Grady, Bell and Sachs followed, and joined Martinez. The policewoman said, "Doesn't seem like a monster. What're the charges exactly?"

Grady said, "Some ATF folk working undercover on a weapons sting upstate found out about this plot we think Constable was behind. Some of his people were going to lure state troopers to remote areas of the county on fake nine-one-one calls. If any of them were black they were going to kidnap them, strip them naked and lynch 'em. Oh, there was some suggestion of castration too."

Sachs, who'd dealt with plenty of terrible crimes in her years on the force, blinked in shock at this horrific news. "Are you serious?"

Grady nodded. "And that was just the start of it. It seems the lynchings were all part of a grand plan. They were hoping that if they murdered enough troopers and the media televised the hangings, the blacks'd rise up in some kind of revolt. That'd give the whites around the country the chance to retaliate and wipe them out. They were hoping the Latinos and Asians would join the blacks, and the white revolution could take them out too."

"In this day and age?"

"You'd be surprised."

Bell nodded to Luis. "He's in your care now. Stay close."

"You bet," the detective responded. Grady and the slim bodyguard left the detention lobby while Sachs and Bell retrieved their weapons from the check-in desk. As they returned to the courthouse portion of the Criminal Courts building, walking over the Bridge of Sighs, Sachs told Bell about the Conjurer and his victims.

Bell winced, hearing about Anthony Calvert's gruesome death. "Motive?"

"Don't know."

"Pattern?"

"Ditto."

"What's the perp look like?" Bell asked.

"Little dicey on that part too."

"Nothin' at all?"

"We think he's a white male, medium build."

"So nobody's got a look at him, huh?"

"Actually a lot of people have. Except the first time they did, he was a dark-haired, bearded male in his fifties. Next time he was a bald janitor in his sixties. Then he was a woman in her seventies."

Bell waited for her to laugh, signifying that this was a joke. When she remained grim-faced he asked, "This for no foolin'?"

"'Fraid it is, Roland."

"I'm good," Bell said, shaking his head and tapping the automatic pistol on his right hip. "But I need a target."

Now there's a prayer for you, thought Amelia Sachs.

Chapter Twelve

The evidence from the second scene had arrived and Mel Cooper was arranging the bags and vials on examining tables in Rhyme's parlor.

Sellitto had just returned from a tense meeting at the Big Building about the Conjurer case. The deputy commissioner and the mayor wanted details on the progress of a case about which there were few details and had been no progress.

Rhyme had heard back about the Ukrainian illusionists with the Cirque Fantastique and learned that they had no record. The two police officers stationed at the tent had also been checking around the circus and reported no leads or suspicious activity.

A moment later Sachs strode into the room, accompanied by the even-keeled Roland Bell. When Sellitto had been ordered to add another detective to the team Rhyme had immediately suggested Bell; he liked the idea of a streetwise cop, who was a crack shot, backing up Sachs in the field.

Greetings and introductions all around. Bell hadn't been told about Kara and she answered his querying glance with: "I'm like him." A nod toward Rhyme. "Sort of a consultant."

Bell said, "Nice to meetcha." And blinked to see her absently rolling three coins back and forth over her knuckles simultaneously.

As Sachs went to work on the evidence with Cooper, Rhyme asked, "Who was he, the vic?"

"Name was Anthony Calvert. Thirty-two. Unmarried. Well, no partner, in his case."

"Any connection with the student at the music school?"

"Doesn't seem to be," Sellitto answered. "Bedding and Saul've checked it out."

"What was his job?" Cooper asked.

"Makeup stylist on Broadway."

And the first one was a musician and music student, Rhyme reflected. One straight female, one gay male victim. Lived and worked in different neighborhoods. What could link the killings? He asked, "Any feel-good stuff?"

But since the first crime hadn't been sexual in nature Rhyme wasn't surprised when Sachs said, "Nope. Not unless he takes his memories home to bed with him… And he gets off on this." She stepped to the whiteboard and taped up the digital photos of the body.

Rhyme wheeled closer and studied the gruesome images.

"Sick fuck." Sellitto offered this lethargic observation.

"And the weapon was?" Roland Bell asked.

"Looks like a crosscut saw," Cooper said, examining some close-ups of the wounds.

Bell, who'd seen his share of carnage as a cop both in North Carolina and New York, shook his head. "Well, now that's a tough shell."

As Rhyme continued to study the pictures he was suddenly aware of an odd noise, an erratic hissing from nearby. He turned to see Kara behind him. The sound was her frantic breath. She was looking at the pictures of Calvert's body. She ran her hand compulsively over her short hair as she stared, transfixed, at the photos, tear-filled eyes wide in shock. Her jaw trembled. She turned away from the board.

"Are you -?" Sachs began.

Kara held up a hand, closed her eyes, breathing hard.

Rhyme knew then, seeing the pain in her face, that this was it for her. She'd reached the end. His life – crime-scene work – entailed this type of horror; her world didn't. The risks and dangers in her profession were, of course, illusory and it was too much to expect civilians to confront this revulsion voluntarily.

This was a true shame because they needed her help desperately. But, seeing the horror in her face, he knew they couldn't subject her to any more of this violence. He wondered if she was going to be sick.

Sachs started toward her but stopped when Rhyme shook his head – his message: he knew they were losing the girl and they had to let her go.

Except that he was wrong.

Kara took another deep breath – like a high diver about to plunge off the board – and turned back to the pictures, a determined look in her eyes. She'd just been steeling herself to confront the photos again.

She studied them closely and finally nodded. "P. T. Selbit," she said, wiping her blue eyes.

"That's a person?" From Sachs.

Kara nodded. "Mr. Balzac used to do some of his routines. He was an illusionist who lived a hundred years ago. He did that routine. It's called Sawing a Woman in Half. This's the same, tied down, spread-eagle. The saw. The only difference is he picked a man for the performance." She blinked at the benign word. "I mean, the murder."

Again Rhyme asked, "Would only a limited number of people know it?"

"Nope. It was a famous trick, even more famous than the Vanished Man. Anybody with the slightest knowledge of magic history'd be aware of it."

He had expected this discouraging answer but said, "Put it on the profile anyway, Thom." Then to Sachs: "Okay, tell us what happened at Calvert's."

"Looks like the vic left through his building's back entrance on his way to work – like he always did, the neighbors said. He walked past an alley and saw that." She pointed to the black toy cat in a plastic bag.

"A toy cat." Kara looked it over. "It's an automaton. Like a robot. We'd call it a feke."

"A -?"

"F-E-K-E. A prop that the audience is supposed to think is real. Like a fake knife with a disappearing blade or a coffee cup with a hidden reservoir in it."

She pushed a switch and suddenly it started to move, giving off a realistic-sounding meow. "The vic must've seen the cat and walked over to it, maybe thought it was hurt," Sachs continued. "That's how the Conjurer got him into the cul-de-sac."

"Source?" Rhyme asked Cooper.

"Sing-Lu Manufacturing in Hong Kong. I checked the website. The toy's available in hundreds of stores around the country."

Rhyme sighed. "Too common to trace" was the theme of the case, it seemed.

Sachs continued, "So Calvert walked to the cat, crouched down to check it out. The perp was hiding somewhere and -"

"The mirror," Rhyme interrupted. A glance at Kara, who was nodding.

"Illusionists do a lot with mirrors. You aim them just right and you can vanish whatever or whoever's behind them completely."

Rhyme recalled the name of her store was Smoke & Mirrors.

"But something went wrong and the vic got away," Sellitto continued. "Now, this is the crazy part. We checked the nine-one-one tape. Calvert got back inside and into his apartment then called emergency. He told them the attacker was outside the building and the doors were locked. But then the line went dead. Somehow the Conjurer got inside."

"Maybe the window – Sachs, did you search the fire escape?"

"No. The window on the escape was locked from the inside."

"Still should've searched it," Rhyme said shortly.

"He didn't get in that way. There wasn't time."

"Well, then he must've had the vic's keys," the criminalist said.

"There were no latents on them," Sachs countered. "Only the vic's."

"He must have," Rhyme insisted.

"No," Kara said. "He picked the lock."

"Impossible," Rhyme said. "Or maybe he'd gotten in before and had a mold made of the key. Sachs, you should go back and check out if he had -"

"He picked the lock," the young woman said adamantly. "I guarantee it."

Rhyme shook his head. "In sixty seconds he got through two doors? He couldn't possibly."

Kara sighed. "I'm sorry, but, yeah, in sixty seconds he got through two doors. And it might've taken him less than that."

"Well, let's assume he didn't," Rhyme said dismissively. "Now -"

The young woman snapped, "Let's assume he did. Look, we can't skip over this. It tells us something else about him – something important: that locked doors don't even slow him up."

Rhyme glanced at Sellitto, who said, "I gotta say, working Larceny I busted a dozen burglars and none of 'em could get through locks that fast."

"Mr. Balzac has me practicing lock picking ten hours a week," Kara said. "I don't have my kit with me but if I did I could open your front door in thirty seconds, the deadbolt in sixty. And I don't know how to scrub a lock. If the Conjurer does he could cut that time in half. Now, I know you like all this, like, evidence stuff. But you're wasting your time to have Amelia go search for something that isn't there."

"You sure?" Sellitto asked.

"If you don't trust my opinion, then why'd you want my help?"

Sachs glanced at Rhyme. He grudgingly accepted Kara's assessment with a stony nod (though privately he was pleased that the woman had shown some grit; it made up a lot for the Look and the Smile). He said to Thom, "Okay, put down on the chart that our boy's a master lock-picker too."

Sachs continued, "No sign of whatever the Conjurer used to knock him out. Blunt-object trauma. Looks like a pipe probably. But he took that with him too."

The report from Latents came in. Eighty-nine separate prints from areas of the crime scene near the victim and the places the Conjurer most likely touched. But Rhyme noticed immediately that some of the prints looked odd and, on closer examination, he could see that they were from the finger cups. He didn't bother to scan the others.

Turning to the trace Sachs had collected at the scene, they found minuscule amounts of the same mineral oil they'd recovered at the music school that morning and more of the latex, makeup and alginate.

Detective Kuan from the Ninth Precinct called and reported that a search of the Dumpsters around Calvert's building had turned up no sign of the man's quick-change outfit or the murder weapons. Rhyme thanked him and told him to keep at it. The man said he would but with such fake enthusiasm that Rhyme knew the search had already ended.

The criminalist asked Sachs, "You said he smashed Calvert's watch?"

"Yep. At noon exactly. A few seconds after."

"And the other victim was at eight. He's on a timetable, looks like. And probably has somebody else lined up for four this afternoon." Less than three hours from now.

Cooper continued, "No luck with the mirror. No manufacturer – that must've been on the frame and he scraped it off. A few real prints but they're covered up by his finger-cup smudges so I'd guess that they're from the clerk where he bought it or the manufacturer. I'll send ' em through APIS anyway."

"Got some shoes," Sachs said, lifting a bag out of a cardboard box.

"His?"

"Probably. They're the same Ecco brand we found at the music school – same size, too."

"He left ' em behind. Why?" Sellitto wondered.

Rhyme suggested, "Probably thought that we knew he was wearing Eccos at the first scene and was worried the respondings'd noticed them on an elderly woman."

Examining the shoes, Mel Cooper said, "We've got some good trace in the indentation in front of the heel and between the upper and sole." He opened a bag and scraped the material out. "Horn o' plenty," the tech said absently and bent over the dirt.

It was hardly a cornucopia but for forensic purposes the residue was as big as a mountain and might reveal a wealth of information. "Scope it, Mel," Rhyme ordered. "Let's see what we've got."

The workhorse of tools in a forensic lab is the microscope and although there've been many refinements over the years the instrument isn't any different in theory from the tiny brass-plate microscope that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek invented in the Netherlands in the 1500s.

In addition to an ancient scanning electron microscope, which he rarely needed, Rhyme had two other microscopes in his homegrown laboratory. One was a compound Leitz Orthoplan, an older model but one he swore by. It was trinocular – two eyepieces for the operator and a camera tube in the middle.

The second – which Cooper was preparing to use now – was a stereo microscope, which the tech had used to examine the fibers from the first scene. These instruments have relatively low magnification and are used for examining three-dimensional objects like insects and plant materials.

The image popped onto the computer screen for Rhyme and the others to see.

First-year criminalistics students invariably click immediately on a microscope's highest power to examine evidence. But in reality the best magnification for forensic purposes is usually quite low. Cooper began at 4x and then went up to 30x.

"Ah, focus, focus," Rhyme called.

Cooper adjusted the high-ratio screw of the objective so that the image of the material came into perfect clarity.

"Okay, let's walk through it," Rhyme said.

The tech moved the stage, with imperceptible twists of the controls connected to the stage. As he did, hundreds of shapes scrolled past on the screen, some black, some red or green, some translucent. Rhyme felt, as he always did when looking through the eyepiece of a microscope, that he was a voyeur, examining a world that had no idea it was being spied upon.

And a world that could be very revealing.

"Hairs," Rhyme said, studying a long strand. "Animal." He could tell this by the number of scales.

"What kind?" Sachs asked.

"Dog, I'd say," Cooper offered. Rhyme concurred. The tech went on-line and a moment later was running the images through an NYPD database of animal hair.

"Got two breeds, no, three. Looks like a medium-length-coat breed of some land. German shepherd or malinois. And hairs from two longer-haired breeds. English sheepdog, briard."

Cooper brought the screen to a stop. They were looking at a mass of brownish grains and sticks and tubes.

"What's that long stuff?" Sellitto asked.

"Fibers?" Sachs suggested.

Rhyme glanced at it. "Dried grass, I'd say, or some kind of vegetation. But I don't recognize that other material. GC it, Mel."

Soon the chromatograph/spectrometer had spit out its data. On the monitor a chart appeared, giving the results from the analysis: bile pigments, stercobilin, urobilin, indole, nitrates, skatole, mercaptans, hydrogen sulfide.

"Ah."

"Ah?" Sellitto asked. "What's 'ah'?"

"Command, microscope one," Rhyme commanded. The image reappeared on the computer screen and he replied to the detective, "It's obvious – dead bacterial matter, partially digested fiber and grass. It's shit. Oh, excuse me for being indelicate," he said sarcastically. "It's doggy do. Our perp stepped where he should not have."

This was encouraging; the hairs and fecal matter were good class evidence and, if they found similar trace on a suspect, at a particular location or in a car there'd be a strong presumption that he was, or had contact with, the Conjurer.

The fingerprint report on the shards of mirror in the alley came in from the AFIS system. It was negative, to no one's surprise.

"What else from the scene?" Rhyme asked.

"Zip," Sachs said. "That's it."

Rhyme was scanning the evidence charts when the doorbell rang and Thom went to answer it. A moment later he returned, accompanied by a uniformed officer. He stood timidly in the doorway, as many young law enforcers did when they entered the den of the legendary Lincoln Rhyme. "I'm looking for Detective Bell. I was told he was here?"

"That's me," Bell said.

"Crime-scene report. From the break-in at Charles Grady's office."

"Thanks, son." The detective took the envelope and nodded to the young man, who, with a brief, intimidated glance at Lincoln Rhyme, turned and left.

Reading the contents, Bell shrugged. "Not my expertise. Hey, Lincoln, any chance you could take a look at it?"

"Sure, Roland," Rhyme said. "Pull the staples out and mount it in the turning frame there. Thom'll do it. What's the story? This about the Andrew Constable case?"

"Is." He told Rhyme about the break-in at Charles Grady's office. When the aide was finished mounting the report Rhyme drove into position. He read the first page carefully. Then said, "Command, turn page." He continued reading.

The break-in had been accomplished by simply shattering the corner of the glass window in the door to the hall and unlatching it from the inside (the door between the secretary's outer office and prosecutor's interior office was double-locked and made of thick wood; it had defeated the burglar).

The CS searchers, Rhyme noted, had found something interesting – on and around the secretary's desk were a number of fibers. The report indicated only their color – mostly white, some black and a single red one – but nothing else about them.

They also found two tiny flecks of gold foil.

The CS team had learned that the break-in had occurred after the cleaning service had finished with the office so the fibers probably had not been left by Grady's secretary or anyone legitimately in her office during the day. Most likely they'd come from the intruder.

Rhyme came to the last page. "That's it?" he asked.

"Reckon so," Bell responded.

A grunt from the criminalist. "Command, telephone. Call Peretti comma Vincent."

Rhyme had hired Peretti as a crime-scene cop some years ago and he'd proved talented at forensics. What he'd truly excelled at, though, was the far more esoteric art of police department politics, which, unlike Rhyme, he preferred to the work of actually running crime scenes. He was now head of the NYPD's Investigation and Resource Division, which oversaw the crime-scene unit.

When Rhyme was finally put through, the man asked, " Lincoln, how are you?"

"Fine, Vince. I -"

"You're on this Conjurer case, right? How's it going?"

"It's going. Listen, I'm calling about something else. I'm here with Roland Bell. I've got the report on the Grady office break-in -"

"Oh, the Andrew Constable thing. Those threats against Grady. Right. What can I do?"

"I'm looking at the report now. But it's just the preliminary. I need some more information. Crime Scene found some fibers. I need to know the exact composition of each one, length, diameter, color temperature, dyes used and amount of wear."

"Hold on. I'll get a pen." A moment later: "Go ahead."

"I also need electrostatics of all the footprints and photos of their patterns on the floor. And I want to know everything that was on the secretary's desk, credenza and bookshelves. Everything on any surface, in any drawer, on the wall. And its exact location."

"Everything the perp touched? Okay, I guess. We'll -"

"No, Vince. Everything that was in the office. Everything. Paper clips, pictures of the secretary's children. Mold in the top drawer. I don't care whether he touched it or not."

Huffy now, Peretti said, "I'll make sure somebody does it."

He didn't see why Peretti didn't do it himself, which is what Rhyme would have done, even as head of IRD, to make sure the job got done immediately.

But in his present role as consultant he had only limited clout. "Sooner is better… Thanks, Vince."

"Don't mention it," the man said coolly.

They hung up. Rhyme said to Bell, "Not much else I can do, Roland, until we get that information."

A glance at the break-in report. Fibers and backwoods militiamen…

Mysteries. But at the moment they'd have to remain somebody else's. Rhyme had his own enigmas to unravel and not much time in which to do so: the notations on the evidence chart about the broken watches reminded him that they had less than three hours to stop the Conjurer before he found his next victim.

THE CONJURER

Music School Crime Scene

Perp's description: Brown hair, fake beard, no distinguishing, medium build, medium height, age: fifties. Ring and little fingers of left hand fused together. Changed costume quickly to resemble old, bald janitor.

No apparent motive.

Victim: Svetlana Rasnikov.

• Full-time music student.

• Checking family, friends, students, coworkers for possible leads.

• No boyfriends, no known enemies. Performed at children's birthday parties.

• Circuit board with speaker attached.

• Sent to FBI lab, NYC.

• Digital recorder, probably containing perp's voice. All data destroyed.

• Voice recorder is a "gimmick." Homemade.

• Used antique iron handcuffs to restrain victim.

• Handcuffs are Darby irons. Scotland Yard. Checking with Houdini Museum in New Orleans for leads.

• Destroyed victim's watch at exactly 8:00 A.M.

• Cotton string holding chairs. Generic. Too many sources to trace.

• Squib for gunshot effect. Destroyed.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Fuse. Generic.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Responding officers reported flash in air. No trace material recovered.

• Was from flash cotton or flash paper.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Perp's shoes: size 10 Ecco.

• Silk fibers, dyed gray, processed to a matte finish.

• From quick-change janitor's outfit.

• Unsub is possibly wearing brown wig.

• Red pignut hickory and Parmelia conspersa lichen, both found primarily in Central Park.

• Dirt impregnated with unusual mineral oil. Sent to FBI for analysis.

• Black silk, 72 x 48". Used as camouflage. Not traceable.

• Illusionists use this frequently.

• Wears caps to cover up prints.

• Magician's finger cups.

• Traces of latex, castor oil, makeup.

• Theatrical makeup.

• Traces of alginate.

• Used in molding latex "appliances."

• Murder weapon: white silk-knit rope with black silk core.

• Rope is a magic trick. Color-changing. Not traceable.

• Unusual knot.

• Sent to FBI and Maritime Museum – no information.

• Knots are from Houdini routines, virtually impossible to untie.

• Used disappearing ink on sign-in register.

East Village Crime Scene

Victim Two: Tony Calvert.

• Makeup artist, theater company.

• No known enemies.

• No apparent connection with first victim.

• No apparent motive.

Cause of death:

• Blunt-object trauma to head followed by postmortem dismemberment with crosscut saw.

• Perp escaped portraying woman in her 70s. Checking vicinity for discarded costume and other evidence.

• Nothing recovered.

• Watch smashed at 12:00 exactly.

• Pattern? Next victim presumably at 4:00 P.M.

• Perp hid behind mirror. Not traceable. Fingerprints sent to FBI.

• No matches.

• Used cat toy ("feke") to lure victim into alley. Toy is untraceable.

• Additional mineral oil found, same as at first scene. Awaiting FBI report.

• Additional latex and makeup from finger cups.

• Additional alginate.

• Ecco shoes left behind.

• Dog hairs found in shoes, from three different breeds of dog. Manure too.

Profile as Illusionist

Perp will use misdirection against victims and in eluding police.

• Physical misdirection (for distraction).

• Psychological (to eliminate suspicion).

• Escape at music school was similar to Vanished Man illusion routine. Too common to trace.

• Perp is primarily an illusionist.

• Talented at sleight-of-hand.

• Also knows protean (quick-change) magic. Will use breakaway clothes, nylon and silk, bald cap, finger cups and other latex appliances. Could be any age, gender or race.

• Calvert's death = Selbit's Cutting a Woman in Half routine.

• Proficient at lock-picking (possibly lock "scrubbing").

Chapter Thirteen

In 1900 Manhattan 's horse population was over 100,000 and, space being at a premium on the island even in those days, many animals were housed in high-rises – at least that's what their second- and third-story quarters would have been considered at the time.

One such elevated stable can still be found in the borough, the well-known Hammerstead Riding Academy on the Upper West Side. Still in its original structure, built in 1885, the academy features hundreds of stalls above the ground-level arena, which is the site for both private riding lessons and shows.

A large, busy stable like this seems an anomaly in a city like Manhattan in the twenty-first century until you consider that Central Park 's six miles of well-tended bridle paths are only a few blocks away.

Ninety horses reside in the academy, some privately owned and some for rent, and one of these latter variety was now being led down a steep ramp from his stall by a groom, a redheaded teenage girl, to a waiting rider.

Cheryl Marston felt the same thrill she did every Saturday at this time of day when she saw the tall, feisty horse with the mottled rump of an Appaloosa.

"Hey, Donny Boy," she called, her pet name for the animal, whose real name was Don Juan di Middleburg. A ladies' man, she often said. A joke but true enough: under a male rider the animal would shy and whinny and resist from the git-go.

But with Marston he was putty.

"See you in an hour," she told the groom, swinging up onto Donny Boy, gripping the supple reins, feeling his astonishing muscles beneath her.

A touch to the ribs and they were on their way. Out onto Eighty-sixth Street, moving east slowly toward Central Park, the shod feet clopping loudly on the asphalt, drawing everyone's attention, as they examined both the gorgeous animal and, high atop him, the thin-faced, serious woman dressed in jodhpurs, a red jacket and black velvet helmet, out of which dangled a long blonde French braid.

Crossing into Central Park itself, Marston glanced south and saw in the distance the office building in Midtown where she spent fifty hours a week practicing corporate law. There were a thousand thoughts that might have overwhelmed her now about the job, projects that were "front-burnered," as one of her partners said with irritating frequency. But none of these thoughts intruded at the moment. Nothing could. She was invulnerable to everything when she sat here, on one of God's most magnificent creations, feeling the sun-warmed, loam-scented air on her face as Donny Boy trotted along the dark path, surrounded by early jonquils and forsythia and lilacs.

The first beautiful day this spring.

For a half hour she circled the reservoir slowly, lost in the rapture of that unique connection between two different, complementary animals, each powerful and smart in its own way. She enjoyed a brief canter and then slowed to post in a trot as they came to the sharper turns in the deserted northern part of the park, near Harlem.

Completely at peace.

Until the worst happened.

She wasn't sure exactly how it occurred. She'd slowed to make the turn through a narrow gap between two stands of bushes when a pigeon flew directly into Donny Boy's face. Whinnying, he skidded to a stop so fast that Marston was nearly thrown off. Then he reared and she almost went backward over his rump.

She grabbed his mane and the front edge of the saddle to keep from falling eight feet to the rocky ground. "Whoa, Donny," she cried, trying to pat his neck. "Donny Boy – it's all right. Whoa!"

Still, he kept rearing, crazed. Had the collision with the bird hurt his eyes? Her concern for the horse, though, was mixed with her own fear. Sharp rocks jutted from the ground on either side of them. If Donny Boy kept rearing he could lose his balance on the uneven ground and go down hard – possibly with her under him. Nearly all of the serious injuries among her fellow riders weren't from tumbling off a horse but were from being caught between the animal and the ground when it fell.

"Donny!" she called breathlessly. But he reared again and held the position, dancing in panic on his hind legs and edging toward the rocks.

"Jesus," Marston gasped. "No, no…"

She knew then she was going to lose him. His feet were clattering on the stones and she felt the huge muscles quivering in his own panic as he sensed his balance go. He whinnied loudly.

Knowing she'd crush her leg in a dozen places. Maybe her chest too.

Almost tasting the pain. Feeling his pain too.

"Oh, Donny…"

Then, from nowhere, a man in a jogging suit stepped from the bushes. Wide-eyed, he looked at the horse. He jumped forward, grabbing bit and bridle.

"No, get back!" Marston shouted. "He's out of control!"

He'd get kicked in the head!

"Get out of the…"

But… what was happening?

The man was looking not at her but directly into the brown eyes of the horse.

Speaking words she couldn't hear. Miraculously the Appaloosa was calming. The rearing stopped. Donny Boy dropped forward onto all four hooves. He was fidgety and he still trembled – just like her own heart – but the worst seemed to be over.

The man pulled the horse's head down, close to his and he said a few more words.

Finally he stepped back, gave the horse an approving once-over and then glanced up at her. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"I think so." Marston inhaled deeply, touching her chest. "I just… It was all so fast."

"What happened?"

"A bird spooked him. Flew into his face. It might've hit him in the eyes."

A close examination. "Looks okay to me. You might want to have a vet look at him. But I don't see any cuts."

"What'd you do?" she asked. "Are you…?"

"A horse whisperer?" he replied, laughing, glancing away from her shyly. He seemed more comfortable looking into the horse's eyes. "Not hardly. But I ride a lot. I have this calming effect, I guess."

"I thought he was going down."

He gave her a tentative smile. "Wish I could think of something to say that'd calm you down."

"What's good for my horse is good for me. I don't know how to thank you."

Another rider approached and the bearded man led Donny Boy off the path to let the chestnut by.

He was examining the horse closely. "What's his name?"

"Don Juan."

"You rent from Hammerstead? Or is he yours?"

"Hammerstead. But I feel like he's mine. I ride him every week."

"I rent there too sometimes. What a beautiful animal."

Calm now, Marston examined him more closely. He was a handsome man in his early fifties. He had a trim beard and thick eyebrows that met above the bridge of his nose. On his neck – and chest too – she could see what looked like bad scarring and his left hand was deformed. Though none of that mattered to her, considering his most important trait: he liked horses. Cheryl Marston, divorced for the last four of her thirty-eight years, realized that they were both sizing each other up.

He gave a faint laugh and looked away. "I was…" His voice faded and he filled the silence by patting Donny Boy's rippled shoulder.

Marston lifted an eyebrow. "What's that?" she encouraged.

"Well, since you're about to ride off into the sunset and I may never see you again…" He tromped on the shyness and continued boldly, "I was just wondering if it'd be out of line to ask if you want to get some coffee."

"Not out of line at all," she responded, pleased by his straightforward attitude. But she added, to let him know something about her, "I'm going to finish my hour. I've got about twenty minutes left… Got to get back up on the horse, so to speak. How's that fit with your schedule?"

"Twenty minutes is perfect. I'll meet you at the stable."

"Good," Cheryl said. "Oh, I never asked: You ride English or Western?"

"Bareback mostly. I used to be a pro."

"Really? Where?"

"Believe it or not," he answered shyly, "I rode in the circus."

Chapter Fourteen

A faint ding resounded from Cooper's computer, indicating he'd received an email.

"A note from our friends on Ninth and Pennsylvania." He proceeded to decrypt the message from the FBI lab and a moment later he said, "The results from the oil. It's commercially available. Brand name Tack-Pure. Used to condition saddles, reins, leather feeding bags, equestrian-related products."

Horses…

Rhyme spun his Storm Arrow around and looked at the evidence board.

"No, no, no…"

"What's the matter?" Sachs asked.

"The manure on the Conjurer's shoes."

"What about it?"

"It's not from dogs. It's from horses! Look at the vegetation. What the hell was I thinking of? Dogs're carnivores. They don't eat grass and hay… All right, let's think. The dirt and the mold and the other evidence placed him in Central Park. And the hairs… You know that area, the dog knoll? That's in the park too."

"It's right across the street," Sellitto pointed out. "Where everybody walks their dogs."

"Kara," he snapped, "does the Cirque Fantastique have horses?"

"No," she said. "No animal acts at all."

"Okay, that lets the circus out… What else could he be up to? The dog knoll's right next to the bridle path in the park, right? It's a long shot but maybe he rides or has been checking out riders. One of them could be a target. Maybe not his next one but lets just go on the assumption that it is – since it's our only goddamn solid lead."

Sellitto said, "There's a stable someplace around here, isn't there?"

"I've seen it nearby," Sachs said. "It's in the eighties, I think."

"Find out," Rhyme called. "And get some people over there."

Sachs glanced at the clock. It was 1:35 P. M. "Well, we've got some time. Two and a half hours till the next victim."

"Good," Sellitto said. "I'll get surveillance teams set up in the park and around the stable. If they're in place by two-thirty that'll be plenty of time to spot him."

Then Rhyme noticed Kara frowning. "What is it?" he asked her.

"You know, I'm not sure you do have that much time."

"Why?"

"I was telling you about misdirection?"

"I remember."

"Well, there's also time misdirection. That's tricking the audience by making them think something's going to happen at one time when it really happens at another. Like, an illusionist'll repeat an act at regular intervals. The audience subconsciously comes to believe that whatever he's doing has to happen only at those times. But what the performer does then is shorten the time between the intervals. The audience isn't paying attention and they completely miss whatever he's doing. You can spot a time-misdirection trick because the illusionist always lets the audience know what the interval is."

"Like breaking the watches?" Sachs asked.

"Exactly."

Rhyme asked, "So you don't think we have until four?"

Kara shrugged. "We might. Maybe he's planned to kill three people every four hours and then he'll murder the fourth victim only one hour later. I don't know."

"We don't know anything here," Rhyme said firmly. "What do you think, Kara? What would you do?"

She gave a troubled laugh, being asked to step into the mind of a killer. After a moment of hard debate she said, "He knows you've found the watches by now. He knows you're smart. He doesn't need to hammer it home anymore. If I were him I'd be going after the next victim before four. I'd be going after him right now."

"That's good enough for me," Rhyme said. "Forget surveillance and forget soft clothes. Lon, call Haumann and get ESU into the park. In a big way."

"It might scare him off, Linc – if he's in disguise and doing his own surveillance."

"I think we have to take that chance. Tell ESU we're looking for… who knows what the hell we're looking for? Give him a general description, as best you can."

Fifty-year-old killer, sixty-year-old janitor, seventy-year-old bag lady…

Cooper looked up from his computer. "Got the stable. Hammerstead Riding Academy."

Bell, Sellitto and Sachs started for the door. Kara said, "I want to go too."

"No," Rhyme said.

"There may be something I'll notice. Some sleight or a quick-change move by somebody in a crowd. I could spot it." A nod toward the other cops. "They might not."

"No. It's too dangerous. No civilians on a tactical operation. That's the rule."

"I don't care about the rules," the young woman said, leaning toward him defiantly. "I can help."

"Kara -"

But the young woman silenced him by glancing at the crime-scene photos of Tony Calvert and Svetlana Rasnikov then turning back to Lincoln Rhyme with a cold expression in her eyes. In this simple gesture she reminded him that it was he who'd asked her here, he who'd brought her into his world and transformed her from an innocent into someone who could now look at these horrors without flinching.

"All right," Rhyme said. Then, nodding toward Sachs, he added, "But stay close to her."

• • •

She was cautious, Malerick observed, as befitted any woman who'd just been picked up by a man in Manhattan, even if that stranger was shy, friendly and able to calm rearing horses.

Still, Cheryl Marston was relaxing little by little, enjoying the tales of his times riding bareback with a circus, all of which were embellished considerably to keep her amused and to whittle down her defenses.

After the groom and the vet on call at Hammerstead had examined Donny Boy and declared him in good health Malerick and his next unwitting performer strolled from the stable to this restaurant, which was just off Riverside Drive.

The woman now chatted amiably with John (his persona for their date) about her life in the city, her early love of horses, the ones she'd owned or ridden, her hopes of buying a summer place in Middleburg, Virginia. He responded with occasional bits of equine lore – what he could deduce from her comments and what he knew from circuses and the world of illusion. Animals have always been an important part of the profession. Mesmerizing them, vanishing them, turning them into different species. An illusionist created a hugely popular routine in the 1800s – instantly transforming a chicken into a duck. (The method was simplicity itself: the duck made his entrance wearing a quick-change chicken costume.)

Killing and resurrecting animals was popular in less politically correct times, though they were rarely actually harmed; after all, it's a rather inept illusionist who has to really kill an animal to create the illusion that it's dead. It tends to be expensive too.

For his routine in Central Park today to snare Cheryl Marston, Malerick had drawn on the routines of Howard Thurston, a popular illusionist in the early 1900s, who specialized in animal acts. The trick Malerick performed wouldn't've met with Thurston's approval, though; the famous illusionist had treated the animals in his act as if they were human assistants, if not family members. Malerick had been less humane. He'd captured a pigeon by hand. He'd then turned it on its back and stroked the neck and sides slowly until it was hypnotized – a technique magicians have used for years to create the appearance of a dead bird. As Cheryl Marston approached on her horse, he'd flung the pigeon hard into the horse's face. Donny Boy's rearing in pain and fright had nothing to do with the bird, though, but was caused by an ultrasonic pitch generator, set to a frequency that stung the horse's ears. As Malerick stepped out of the bushes to "rescue" Cheryl he shut the generator off and by the time he grabbed the bridle the horse was calming.

Now, little by little, the equestrian was growing even less cautious as she learned how much they had in common.

Or appeared to.

This illusion was due to Malerick's use of mentalism, not one of his strongest skills but one that he was competent at. Mentalism has nothing to do with telepathically discerning someone's thoughts, of course. It's a combination of mechanical and psychological techniques to deduce facts. Malerick was now doing what the best mentalists did – body reading, it was called, as opposed to mind reading. He was noting very subtle changes in Cheryl's poses and facial expressions and gestures in response to comments he made. Some told him he was straying from her thoughts, others that he was on the mark.

He mentioned, for instance, a friend who'd just been through a divorce and he could see easily that she had too – and she'd been on the receiving end. So, grimacing, he told her that he was divorced and that his wife'd had an affair and left him. It had devastated him but he was now recovering.

"I gave up a boat," she said, sourly, "just to get away from that son-of-a-bitch. A twenty-four-foot sailboat."

Malerick also used "Barnum statements" to make her think they had more in common than they did. The classic example was a mentalist sizing up his subject and offering gravely, "I sense you're often extroverted but at times you find yourself quite shy."

Which is interpreted as insightful but, of course, applies to nearly everybody on earth.

Neither the fictional John nor Cheryl had children. Both had cats, divorced parents and a love of tennis. Look at all these coincidences! A match made in heaven…

Almost time, he thought. Though he was in no hurry. Even if the police had some leads to what he was up to they'd be thinking he wouldn't kill anyone again until 4:00; it was now just after two.

You may think, Revered Audience, that the world of illusion never intersects the world of reality but that's not wholly true.

I think of John Mulholland, the renowned magician and editor of the magic magazine, The Sphinx. He abruptly announced his early retirement from magic and journalism in the nineteen fifties.

No one could figure out why. But then the rumors began – rumors that he'd started working for the American intelligence community to teach spies how to use magic techniques to deliver drugs in such subtle ways that even the most paranoid Communist didn't know he was being given a mickey.

What do you see in my hands, Revered Audience? Look closely at my fingers. Nothing, right? They seem empty. And yet, as you've probably guessed, they aren't…

Now using one of Mulholland's smoother clandestine drugging techniques, Malerick picked up his spoon with his left hand. As he tapped it absently on the tabletop Cheryl glanced at it. A mere fraction of a second. But it gave Malerick enough time to empty a tiny capsule of tasteless powder into her coffee as he reached for the sugar with his other hand.

John Mulholland would've been proud.

After a few moments Malerick could see that the drug was having its effect; her eyes were slightly unfocused and she was weaving as she sat. She didn't sense anything was wrong, though. That was the good thing about flunitrazepam, the famous date-rape drug Rohypnol: you didn't know you'd been drugged. Not until the next morning. Which in Cheryl Marston's case wasn't going to be an issue.

He looked at her and smiled. "Hey, you want to see something fun?"

"Fun?" she asked drowsily. She blinked, smiling broadly.

He paid the check and then said to her. "I just bought a boat."

She laughed in delight. "A boat? I love boats. What kind?"

"Sailboat. Thirty-eight feet. My wife and I had one," Malerick added sadly. "She got it in the divorce."

"John, no, you're kidding me!" she said, laughing groggily. "My husband and I had one! He got ours in the divorce."

"Really?" He laughed and stood. "Hey, let's walk down to the river. You can see it from there."

"I'd love to." She rose unsteadily and took his arm.

He steered her through the doorway. The dosage seemed right. She was submissive but she wasn't going to pass out before he got her into the bushes next to the Hudson.

They headed toward Riverside Park. "You were talking about boats," she said drunkenly.

"That's right."

"My ex and I had one," she said.

"I know," Malerick said. "You told me."

"Oh, did I?" Cheryl laughed.

"Hold on," he said. "I have to get something."

He stopped at his car, a stolen Mazda, and took a heavy gym bag from the backseat, locked the car again. From inside the bag came a loud clank of metal. Cheryl glanced at it, began to speak but then seemed to forget what she was going to say.

"Let's go this way." Malerick led her to the end of the cross street, across a pedestrian bridge over the parkway and down into an overgrown, deserted strip of land on the riverbank.

He disengaged her arm from his and gripped her firmly around the back and under the arm. He felt her breast with his fingers as her head lolled against him.

"Look," she said, pointing unsteadily into the Hudson, where dozens of sailboats and cabin cruisers moved over the sparkling dark-blue water.

Malerick said, "My boat's down there."

"I like boats."

"So do I," he said softly.

"Really?" she asked, laughing and adding in a whisper that, guess what, she and her ex-husband had had one. But she'd lost it in the divorce.

Chapter Fifteen

The riding academy was a slice of old New York.

Smelling powerful barn scent, Amelia Sachs looked through an archway into the interior of the woody old place at the horses and, atop them, riders – all of whom looked stately in their tan pants, black or red riding jackets, velvet helmets.

A half-dozen uniformeds from the nearby Twentieth Precinct stood in and outside the lobby. More officers were in the park, under the command of Lon Sellitto, deployed around the bridle path, looking for their elusive prey.

Sachs and Bell walked into the office and the detective flashed his gold shield to the woman behind the counter. She looked over his shoulder at the officers outside and asked uneasily, "Yes? Is there a problem?"

"Ma'am, do you use Tack-Pure to treat the saddles and leather?"

She glanced at an assistant, who nodded. "Yessir, we do. We use a lot of it."

Bell continued, "We found traces of some and of some horse manure at the scene of a homicide today. We think the suspect in that killing might work here or be stalking one of your employees or a rider."

"No! Who?"

"That's what we're not sure about, sorry to say. And we're not sure of the suspect's appearance either. All we know is he's average build. Around fifty years old. White. Might have a beard and brown hair but we aren't sure. Fingers on his left hand might be deformed. What we need is for you to talk to your employees, regular customers too if there're any hereabouts, and see if they've noticed anybody fitting that description. Or anybody who seems like they'd be a threat."

"Of course," she said uncertainly. "I'll do whatever I can. Sure."

Bell took several of the uniformed patrol officers and disappeared through an old doorway into the pungent sawdust-filled riding arena. "We'll do a search," he called back to Sachs.

The policewoman nodded and looked out the window, checking on Kara, who sat alone in Sellitto's unmarked car, parked at the curb next to Sachs's deep-yellow Camaro. The young woman wasn't happy being confined in the car but Sachs had been adamant about her staying out of danger.

Robert-Houdin had tighter tricks than the Marabouts. Though I think they almost killed him.

Don't worry. I'll make sure that doesn't happen to you.

Sachs glanced at the clock – 2:00 P. M. She radioed in to Central and had the transmission patched into Rhyme's phone. A moment later the criminalist came on the line. "Sachs, Lon's teams haven't seen anything in Central Park. Any luck with you?"

"The manager's interviewing staff and riders here at the academy. Roland and his team are searching the stables." She then noticed the manager with a cluster of employees. There were assorted frowns and looks of concern on their faces. One girl, a round-faced redhead, suddenly raised her hand to her mouth in shock. She began to nod.

"Hold on, Rhyme. May have something."

The manager beckoned Sachs over and the teenager said, "I don't know if it's, like, anything important. But there's one thing?"

"What's your name?"

"Tracey?" she answered as if she were asking. "I'm a groom here?"

"Go ahead."

"Okay. What it is, is there's this rider who comes in every Saturday. Cheryl Marston."

Rhyme shouted into Sachs's ear, "At the same time? Ask her if she comes in at the same time every week."

Sachs relayed the question.

"Oh, yeah, she does," the girl said. "She's like, you know, clockwork. Been coming here for years."

The criminalist noted, "People with regular habits're easiest to target. Tell her to go on."

"And what about her, Tracey?"

"Today she comes back from a ride? About a half hour ago? And what it is is she hands off Don Juan to me, that's like her favorite horse, and she wants me and the vet to check him out careful because a bird flew into his face and spooked him. So, we're looking him over and she's telling me about this guy who came along and calmed Donny down. We tell her that Donny looks fine and she's going on about this guy, yadda, yadda, yadda, and how interesting he is and she's all excited 'cause she's going to have coffee with him and he might be a real horse whisperer. I saw him downstairs, waiting for her. And the thing is, I'm like, what's wrong with his hand? 'Cause he kinda hid it, you know. It looked like he only had three fingers."

"That's him!" Sachs said. "Do you know where they were going?"

She pointed west, away from the park. "I think that way. She didn't say where exactly."

"Get a description," Rhyme called.

The girl explained that he had a beard and his eyebrows were odd. "All kind of grown together."

To alter a face the most important thing is the eyebrows. Change those and the face is sixty, seventy percent different.

"Wearing?" she asked.

"A windbreaker, running shoes, jogging pants."

"Color?"

"The jacket and pants were dark. Blue or black. I didn't see his shirt."

Bell returned with his officers and muttered, "Not a burr on the dog."

"Got a lead here." She explained about the rider and the bearded man then asked the girl, "And you're pretty sure she didn't know this guy?"

"No way. Ms. Marston and me, we've known each other for a while and she told me she's like totally off dating. Doesn't trust men. Her ex, he cheated on her and then, in the divorce, he got the sailboat. She's still pissed about that."

• • •

The best illusionists, my friends, engage in a practice known as "routining."

That means planning the order and the pacing of their acts carefully – to make the performances as intense as possible.

For our third act today we first saw our animal illusion, featuring wonder-horse Donny Boy, in Central Park. Then we slowed the pace with some classic sleight of hand, combined with a touch of mentalism.

And now we turn to escapism.

We'll see what is perhaps Harry Houdini's most famous escape. In this routine, which he developed himself, he was bound, hung by his heels and submerged in a narrow tank of water. He had only a few minutes to try to bend upward from the waist, release his ankles and open the locked top of the chamber before he drowned.

The tank was, of course, "prepared." The bars apparently intended to keep the glass from shattering were actually handholds that let him pull himself up to reach his ankles. The locks on his feet and the top of the tank itself had hidden latches that would instantly release his ankles and the lid.

Our re-creation of the famous escapist's popular feat, needless to say, doesn't offer such features. Our performer will be on her own. And I've added a few variations of my own. All for your entertainment, of course.

And now, courtesy of Mr. Houdini, the Water Torture Cell.

Now beardless and dressed in chinos and a white dress shirt over a white T-shirt, Malerick wrapped chains tightly around Cheryl Marston. Her ankles first then her chest and arms.

He paused and looked around again but they remained hidden from view of the road and the river by thick bushes.

They were beside the Hudson River, next to a small stagnant pool of water, which at one time had apparently been a tiny inlet for dinghies. Landfill and debris had sealed it long ago and created this foul-smelling pond about ten feet in diameter. On one side was a rotting pier in the middle of which was a rusty crane that had been used for lifting boats out of the water. Malerick now swung a rope over the crane, caught the end and began tying it to the chains holding Cheryl's feet.

Escapists love chains. They look impressive, they have a wonderfully sadistic flavor to them and seem more formidable than silks and ropes. And they're heavy – just the thing to keep a bound performer underwater.

"No, no, noooo," whispered the groggy woman.

He stroked her hair as he surveyed the chains. Simple and tight. Houdini wrote, "Strange as it may appear, I have found that the more spectacular the fastening to the eyes of the audience, the less difficult the escape really proves to be."

This was true, Malerick knew from experience. Dramatic-looking masses of thick ropes and chains wound around and around the illusionist were in fact easy to get out of. Fewer restraints and simpler fasteners were much harder. Like these, for instance.

"Noooooo," she whispered groggily. "It hurts. Please!… What are you -?"

Malerick pressed duct tape over her mouth. Then he braced himself, took a good grip and slowly pulled down on the rope, which in turn lifted the whimpering lawyer's feet and began dragging her slowly toward the brackish water.

• • •

On this glorious spring afternoon a busy crafts fair filled the large central square of West Side College between Seventy-ninth and Eightieth Streets, so dense with visitors it would be virtually impossible to spot the killer and his victim in the crowd.

On this glorious spring afternoon customers filled the scores of neighborhood restaurants and coffee shops, in any one of which the Conjurer might at this moment be suggesting to Cheryl Marston that she go for a drive with him or they stop at her apartment.

On this glorious spring afternoon fifty alleyways bisected the blocks here and offered, in their dim seclusion, a perfect killing ground.

Sachs, Bell and Kara jogged up and down the streets, looking through the crafts fair, the restaurants and the alleys. And every other place they could think to search.

They found nothing.

Until, desperate minutes later, a break.

The two cops and Kara walked into Ely's Coffee Shop near Riverside Drive and scanned the crowd. Sachs gripped Bell 's arm, nodding toward the cash register.

Next to it were a black velvet riding hat and a stained leather crop.

Sachs ran to the manager, a swarthy Middle Easterner. "Did a woman leave those here?"

"Yeah, ten minutes ago. She -"

"Was she with a man?"

"Yeah."

"Beard and a running suit?"

"That's them. She forgot the hat and that whip thing on the floor under the table."

"Do you know where they went?" Bell asked.

"What is happening? Is there -"

"Where?" Sachs insisted.

"Okay, I hear him say he going to show her his boat. But I hope he took her home."

"How do you mean?" Sachs asked.

"The woman, she was sick. I figure that why she forgot her stuff."

"Sick?"

"Couldn't walk steady, you know what I'm saying? Seem drunk but all they drank was coffee. And she was fine when they got here."

"He drugged her," Sachs muttered to Bell.

"Drugged her?" the manager asked. "Hey, what is story?"

She asked, "Which table were they at?"

He pointed to one where four women sat, talking and eating, and doing both quite loudly. "'Scuse me," Sachs said to them and gave the area a fast examination.

She saw no obvious evidence on or beneath the table.

"We've gotta look for her," she said to Bell.

"If he said boat, let's go west. The Hudson."

Sachs nodded to where the Conjurer and Cheryl had sat. "That's a crime scene – don't wash it or sweep under it. And move them to a different table," she shouted, pointing to the four wide-eyed and momentarily silent women, and ran outside into the dazzling sunlight.

Chapter Sixteen

She saw her husband crying.

Tears of regret that he had to "end the marriage."

End the marriage.

Like taking out the trash.

Walking the dog.

It was our fucking marriage! It wasn't a thing.

But Roy didn't feel that way. Roy wanted a stubby assistant securities analyst instead of her and that was that.

Another gagging flood of hot slimy water shot up her nose.

Air, air, air… Give me air!

Now Cheryl Marston saw her father and mother at Christmas, decades ago, coyly wheeling out the bicycle Santa had brought her from the North Pole. Look, honey, Santa even has a pink helmet for you to protect your pretty little noggin…

"Ahhhhhh…"

Coughing and choking, gripped by constricting chains, Cheryl was hauled out of the opaque water of the greasy pond, upside down, spinning lazily, held by a rope looped over a metal crane jutting over the water.

Her skull throbbed as the blood settled in her head. "Stop, stop, stop!" she screamed silently. What was going on? She remembered Donny Boy rearing, somebody calming him, a nice man, coffee in a Greek restaurant, conversation, something about boats, then the world uncoiling in dizziness, silly laughter.

Then chains. The terrible water.

And now this man studying her with pleasant curiosity on his face as she died.

Who is he? Why is he doing this? Why?

Inertia spun her slowly in a circle and he could no longer see her pleading eyes, as the inverted, hazy line of New Jersey miles away across the Hudson came into view.

She revolved slowly back until she was looking at the brambles and lilacs. And him.

He in turn looked down at her, nodded, then played out the rope, lowering her into the disgusting pond again.

Cheryl bent hard at the waist, trying desperately to keep away from the surface of the water, as if it were scalding-hot. But her own weight, the weight of the chains pulled her down below the surface. Holding her breath, she shivered fiercely and shook her head, struggling vainly to pull free from the unbreakable metal.

Then Cheryl's husband was here again, in front of her, explaining, explaining, explaining why the divorce was the best thing that could've happened to her. Roy looked up, wiped away crocodile tears and said it was for the best. She'd be happier this way. Look, here was something for her. Roy opened a door and there was a shiny new Schwinn bike. Streamers on the handle grips, training wheels in the back and a helmet – a pink one – to protect her noggin.

Cheryl gave up. You win, you win. Take the goddamn boat, take your goddamn girlfriend. Just let me go, let me go in peace. She inhaled through her nose to let comforting death into her lungs.

• • •

"There!" Amelia Sachs cried.

She and Bell ran forward over the pedestrian walkway toward the thick cluster of bushes and trees on the edge of the Hudson River. A man stood on a rotting pier, which had apparently been a dock years ago before access to the river had been filled in. This area was overgrown, filled with trash and stank of stagnant water.

A man in chinos and a white shirt was holding a rope that arced over a small rusting crane. The other end disappeared below the surface.

"Hey," Bell called, "you!"

He had brown hair, yes, but the outfit was different. No beard, either. And his eyebrows didn't seem that thick. Sachs couldn't see if the fingers of his left hand were fused together.

Still, what did that mean?

The Conjurer could be a man, could be a woman.

The Conjurer could be invisible.

As they jogged closer he looked up in apparent relief. "Here!" he cried. "Help me! Over here! There's a woman in the water!"

Bell and Sachs left Kara beside the overpass and sprinted through the brush surrounding the brackish pond. "Don't trust him," she called breathlessly to Bell as they ran.

"I'm with you there, Amelia."

The man pulled harder and feet and then legs in tan slacks emerged, followed by a woman's body. She was wrapped in chains. Oh, the poor thing! Sachs thought. Please let her be alive.

They closed the distance fast, Bell calling on his handy-talkie for backup and medics. Several other people who were on the east side of the pedestrian bridge were gathering, alarmed at what was going on.

"Help me! I can't pull her up alone!" the rescuer called to Bell and Sachs. His voice was a gasp, out of breath from the effort. "This man, he tied her up and pushed her into the water. He tried to kill her!"

Sachs drew her weapon and trained it on the man.

"Hey, what're you doing?" he asked in shock. "I'm trying to save her!" He glanced down at a cell phone on his belt. "I'm the one called nine-one-one."

She still couldn't see his left hand; it was enclosed by his right.

"Keep your hands on that rope, sir," she said. "Keep ' em where I can see them."

"I didn't do anything!" He was wheezing – an odd sound. Maybe it wasn't exertion but asthma.

Staying clear of her line of fire, Bell grabbed the crane and swung it toward the muddy shore. When the woman was in arm's reach he tugged her toward him, as the man holding the rope let out slack until she was lying on the ground. She lay on the grass, limp and cyanotic. The detective pulled the tape off her mouth, unhooked the chains and began to give her CPR.

Sachs called to the dozen people gathered nearby, drawn by the commotion, "Is anybody a doctor?"

No one answered. She glanced back at the victim and saw her stirring… Then she began choking and spitting out water. Yes! They'd gotten to her in time. In a minute she'd be able to confirm the man's identity. Then she looked past the scene and noticed a wad of shiny navy-blue cloth. She caught sight of a zipper and sleeve. It could be the jogging jacket he'd quick-changed out of.

The man's eyes followed hers and he saw it too.

Was there a reaction, a faint wince? She thought so but couldn't tell for sure.

"Sir," she called firmly, "until we get things sorted out here, I'm going to put some cuffs on you. I want your hands -"

Suddenly a man's panicked voice shouted, "Yo, lady, look out! That guy in the jogging suit – to yo right! He got a gun!"

People screamed and dropped to the ground and Sachs crouched, spinning to her right, squinting for a target. "Roland, look out!"

Bell too dropped to the ground, beside the woman, and looked in the same direction as Sachs, his Sig in his hand. But Sachs saw nobody in a jogging suit.

Oh, no, she thought. No! Furious with herself, she understood what had happened – he'd mimicked the voice himself. Ventriloquism.

She turned back fast to see a brilliant fireball explode from the rescuer's hand. It hovered in the air, blinding her.

"Amelia!" Bell called. "I can't see anything! Where is he?"

"I don't -"

A fast series of gunshots sounded from where the Conjurer had been standing. The onlookers fled in panic as Sachs aimed at the sound of the shooting. Bell did too. They both squinted for targets but the killer was gone by the time her vision returned; she found herself aiming at a cloud of faint smoke – from more of the explosive squibs.

Then, to the east, she saw the Conjurer on the other side of the parkway. He started up the middle of the street but saw an RMP speeding his way, its lights and sirens frantic, and he leaped up the wide stairway that led to the college and vanished into the crafts fair, like a copperhead disappearing into tall grass.

Chapter Seventeen

They were everywhere…

Dozens of police.

All searching for him.

Gasping from the sprint, his lungs stinging, the muscles in his side on fire, Malerick leaned against the cool limestone of one of the college's classroom buildings.

In front of him a fair spread out over the large plaza, which was jammed with people. He looked behind him, west, the direction he'd come from. Already the police had cut off that entrance. On the north and south sides of the square were tall concrete buildings. The windows were sealed and there were no doors.

His only exit was east, on the other side of a football-field-size expanse of booths and dense crowds.

He made his way in that direction. But he didn't dare run.

Because illusionists know that fast attracts attention.

Slow makes you invisible.

He glanced at the goods for sale, nodded in pleasure at a guitarist's performance, laughed at a balloon-tying clown. He did what everyone else did.

Because unique attracts attention.

Similar makes you invisible.

Easing east. Wondering how the police had located him. Of course he'd expected they'd find the drowned body of the woman lawyer sometime today. But they'd moved too fast – it was as if they'd anticipated that he'd kidnap someone in that part of the city, maybe even at the riding academy itself. How?

Farther east.

Past the booths, past the concession stand, past a Dixieland band on a red, white and blue draped stage. Ahead of him was the exit – the east stairway leading from the square down to Broadway. Only another fifty feet to freedom, forty. Thirty…

But then he saw flashing lights. They seemed nearly as bright as the burst from the flash cotton he'd used to escape from the redheaded officer. The lights were atop four squad cars that squealed to a stop beside the stairway. A half-dozen uniformed officers jumped out. They scanned the stairs and remained with their cars. Meanwhile other officers, in plain clothes, were arriving. They now climbed the stairs and merged into the crowd, looking over the men at the fair.

Now surrounded, Malerick turned and headed back toward the center of the festival.

The plain-clothed officers were slowly moving westward. They were stopping men in their fifties who were clean shaven, wearing light shirts and tan slacks.

Exactly like him.

But they were also stopping fifty-year-olds who were bearded and were wearing other clothes. Which meant they knew about his quick-change techniques.

Then he saw what he'd been dreading: The policewoman with the steely eyes and fiery red hair, who'd tried to arrest him at the pond, appeared at the top of the stairs at the west end of the fair. She plunged into the crowd.

Malerick turned aside, lowering his head and studying some very bad ceramic sculpture.

What to do? he thought desperately. He had one remaining quick-change outfit left, under what he now wore. But after that, there was no backup.

The redheaded officer spotted someone who was built and dressed similarly to him. She examined the man closely. Then she turned away and continued to scan the crowd.

The trim, brown-haired cop who'd been giving Cheryl Marston CPR now crested the stairs and joined the policewoman in the crowd. They conferred for a few moments. Another woman was with him – she didn't seem like a cop. She had brilliant blue eyes and short reddish-purple hair and was quite thin. She looked over the crowd and whispered something to the woman officer, who headed off in a different direction. The shorthaired girl stayed with the male cop and they began to work their way through the crowd.

Malerick knew he'd be spotted sooner or later. He had to get out of the fair now, before even more cops arrived. Walking to the row of Porta Potties, he stepped inside the fiberglass box and executed a change. In thirty seconds he stepped out again, politely holding the door open for a middle-aged woman, who hesitated and turned away, deciding to wait for a John whose prior user wasn't a pony-tailed biker with a beer gut, wearing a Pennzoil cap, a greasy long-sleeved denim Harley-Davidson shirt and dirty black jeans.

He picked up a newspaper and rolled it up, gripping it in his left hand to obscure his fingers, then moved toward the east side of the fair again, checking out stained glass, mugs and bowls, handmade toys, crystals, CDs. One cop looked right at him but the glance was brief and he turned away.

Malerick now returned to the eastern edge of the fair.

The stairway that led down to Broadway was about thirty yards wide and the uniformed police had managed to close off much of it. They were now stopping all adult men and women who left the fair and asking for IDs.

He saw the detective and the purple-haired girl nearby, next to the concession stand. She was whispering to him. Had she noticed him?

Malerick was swept by a burst of uncontrollable fury. He'd planned the performance so carefully – every routine, every trick choreographed to lead up to tomorrow's finale. This weekend was supposed to be the most perfect illusion ever performed. And it was all crumbling around him. He thought of how disappointed his mentor would be. He thought of letting down his revered audience… He found his hand, holding a small oil painting of the Statue of Liberty, beginning to shake.

This is not acceptable! he raged.

He put the picture down and turned.

But he stopped fast, giving a sharp gasp.

The red-haired policewoman stood only a few feet from him, looking away. He quickly turned his attention to a case of jewelry and asked the vendor, in a thick Brooklyn accent, how much a pair of earrings cost.

From the corner of his eye he could see the policewoman glance at him but she paid him no mind and a moment later made a call on her radio. "Five Eight Eight Five. Requesting a landline patch to Lincoln Rhyme."

A moment later: "We're at the fair, Rhyme. He has to be here… He couldn't've gotten out before they sealed the exits. We'll find him. If we have to frisk everybody we'll find him."

Malerick eased into the crowd. What were his options?

Misdirection – that seemed to be the only answer. Something to distract the police and give him just five seconds to slip through the line and disappear among the pedestrians on Broadway.

But what would misdirect them long enough to let him escape?

He didn't have any more squibs to simulate gunshots. Set a booth on fire? But that wouldn't cause the sort of panic he now needed.

Anger and fear seized him again.

But then he heard his mentor's voice from years ago, after the boy had made a mistake onstage and nearly ruined one of the man's routines. The demonic, bearded illusionist had pulled the youngster aside after the performance. Close to tears, the boy had gazed down at the floor as the man asked, "What is illusion?"

"Science and logic" had been Malerick's instant response. (The mentor had drummed a hundred answers like this one into his assistants' souls.)

"Science and logic, yes. If there's a mishap – because of you or your assistant or God Himself – you use science and logic to take charge instantly. Not one second should pass between the mistake and your reaction. Be bold. Read your audience. Turn disaster into applause."

Hearing those words in his mind now, Malerick grew calm. He tossed his biker braid and looked around, considering what to do.

Be bold. Read your audience.

Turn disaster into applause.

• • •

Sachs scanned the people near her again – a mother and father with two bored children, an elderly couple, a biker in a Harley shirt, two young European women bargaining with a vendor over some jewelry.

She noticed Bell across the square, near the food concession area. But where was Kara? The young woman was supposed to stay close to one of them. She started to wave to the detective but a cluster of people ambled between them and she lost sight of him. She walked in his direction and her head swiveled back and forth, scanning the crowd.

Feeling, she realized, as unsettled as at the music school that morning, despite the fact that the sky was clear and the sun bright, hardly the gothic setting of the first scene. Spooky…

She knew what the problem was.

Wire.

When you walked a beat, either you had wire or you didn't. A cop expression, "having wire" meant you were connected to your neighborhood. It was more than a question of knowing the people and the geography of your beat; it was knowing what kind of energy drove them, what kind of perps you could expect, how dangerous they were, how they'd come at their vics – and at you.

If you didn't have wire in a 'hood you had no business walking a beat there.

With the Conjurer, Sachs now understood, she didn't have wire at all. He could be on the number 9 train right now, headed downtown. Or he could be three feet away from her. She just didn't know.

In fact, just then, someone passed close behind her. She felt a breath or wafting of cloth on her neck. She spun around fast, shivering in fear – hand on the butt of her gun, remembering how easily Kara had distracted her as she'd lifted Sachs's weapon from its holster.

A half-dozen people were nearby but no one seemed to have stirred the air behind her.

Or had they?

A man was walking away, limping. He couldn't be the Conjurer.

Or could he?

The Conjurer can become somebody else in seconds, remember?

Around her: an elderly couple, the pony-tailed biker, three teenagers, a huge man wearing a ConEd uniform. She was at sea, frustrated and scared for herself and for everyone around her.

No wire…

It was then that a woman's scream filled the air.

A voice called, "There! Look! God, somebody's hurt."

Sachs drew her weapon and headed toward the cluster gathering nearby.

"Get a doctor!"

"What's wrong?"

"Oh, God, don't look, honey!"

A large crowd had formed near the eastern edge of the plaza, not far from the concession stand. They gazed down in horror at someone lying on the bricks at their feet.

Sachs lifted her Motorola to call for a medical team and pushed through the crowd. "Let me through, let me -"

She stopped inside the ring of onlookers and gasped.

"No," she whispered, shuddering in dismay at the sight.

Amelia Sachs was staring at the Conjurer's latest victim.

Kara lay on the ground, blood covering her purple blouse and the bricks around her. Her head was back and her still, dead eyes stared toward the azure sky.

Chapter Eighteen

Numb, Sachs lifted her hand to her mouth.

Oh, Lord, no…

Robert-Houdin had tighter tricks than the Marabouts. Though I think they almost killed him.

Don't worry. I'll make sure that doesn't happen to you…

But she hadn't. She'd been so focused on the Conjurer that she'd neglected the girl.

No, no, Rhyme, some dead you can't give up. This tragedy would be with her forever.

But then she thought: There'll be time to mourn. There'll be time for recrimination and consequences. Right now, start thinking like a goddamn cop. The Conjurer's nearby. And he is not getting away. This is a crime scene and you know what to do.

Step one. Seal the escape routes.

Step two. Seal the scene.

Step three. Identify, protect and interview witnesses.

She turned to two fellow patrol officers to delegate some of these tasks. But as Sachs started to speak she heard a voice in her clattering radio. "RMP Four Seven to all available officers on that ten-twenty-four by the river. Suspect just broke through perimeter at the east side of the street fair. Is now on West End approaching Seven-eight Street, heading north on foot… Wearing jeans, blue shirt with Harley-Davidson logo. Dark hair, braid, black baseball cap. Can't see any weapons… I'm losing him in the crowd… All available portables and RMPs respond."

The biker! He'd ditched his businessman's clothes and quick-changed. He'd stabbed Kara to misdirect them and then slipped through the perimeter when the officers started toward the girl.

And I was three feet from him!

Other officers called in their acknowledgments and joined the chase though it seemed that the killer had a good head start. Sachs caught sight of Roland Bell, who was looking down at Kara, frowning as he pressed the headset of his Motorola closer to his ear, listening to the same transmission that Sachs was. They caught each other's eyes and he nodded in the direction of the pursuit. Sachs barked orders to a nearby patrolman to seal the scene of Kara's murder, call the medical examiner and find witnesses.

"But -" the balding young officer began to protest, none too happy, she guessed, to be taking orders from a peer his own age.

"No buts," she said, not in the mood for a pissing contest about weeks or days of seniority between them. "You can bitch to your supervisor about it later."

If he said anything else she didn't hear; ignoring the painful arthritis, she leaped down the stairs two at a time after Roland Bell and began pursuit of the man who'd killed their friend.

• • •

He's fast.

But I'm faster.

Six-year-vet Patrolman Lawrence Burke sprinted out of Riverside Park onto West End Avenue, only twenty feet behind the speeding perp, some biker asshole in a Harley shirt.

Running around pedestrians, broken field, exactly the way he used to do in high school, going after the receiver.

And just like back then, Legs Larry was closing in.

He'd been on his way to the Hudson River to help secure a 10-24 assault crime scene when he'd heard a further-to pursuit call and turned about-face to find himself staring at the perp – a scuzzy biker.

"Yo, you! Hold it!"

But the man hadn't stopped. He'd dodged past Burke and kept right on going north in a panic run. And so just like at the Woodrow Wilson High homecoming game when he'd sprinted seventy-two yards after Chris Broderick (managing to bring him down with a breathless wallop two feet shy of the end zone), Legs went into overdrive and started after the perp.

Burke didn't draw his weapon. Unless the perp you're after is armed and there's an immediate danger he's going to shoot you or a passerby you can't use deadly force to stop him. And shooting anybody in the back looks very bad at the shooting incident inquiry, not to mention at promotion reviews and in the press.

"Hey, you fuck loser!" Burke gasped.

The biker turned east down a cross street, glancing back with wide eyes, seeing Legs steadily closing the distance.

The guy skidded to the left, down an alley. The cop took the turn even smoother than Mr. Harley and stayed right on the man's ass.

Some police departments issued nets or stun guns to stop fleeing felons but the NYPD wasn't so high-tech. Besides, it didn't matter, not in this case. Larry Burke had more skills than running. Tackling, for instance.

From three feet away he launched himself into the air, remembering to aim high and use the guy's own body for padding when they went down.

"Jesus," the biker gasped as they crashed to the cobblestones and skidded into a pile of garbage.

"Goddamn!" Burke muttered, feeling skin flay off his elbow. "You motherfuck."

"I didn't do anything!" the biker gasped. "Why were you chasing me?"

"Shut up."

Burke cuffed him and because the guy was such a fuck-all runner he used a plastic restraint on his ankles too. Nice and tight. He examined his bloody elbow. "Damn, I lost skin. Ow, that hurts. You fuck."

"I didn't do anything. I was at that fair is all I was doing. I just -"

Spitting on the ground, Burke inhaled deeply a number of times. He gasped, "What part about shut up're you having trouble with? I'm not gonna tell you again… Fuck, that stings!"

He frisked the man carefully and found a wallet. There was no ID inside, only money. Curious. And he had no weapons or drugs either, which was pretty odd for a biker.

"You can threaten me all you want but I want a lawyer. I'm going to sue you! If you think I did something, you're way wrong, mister."

But then Burke tugged up the guy's shirt and T-shirt and blinked. His chest and abdomen were badly scarred. It was creepy to look at. But even stranger was a bag around his waist, like those belly packs he and the wife'd worn on their European vacation. Burke expected a stash, but no, all that the guy was hiding was a pair of jogging pants, a turtleneck, chinos, white shirt and a cell phone. And – this was really weird – makeup. A ton of wadded-up toilet paper too, stuffed in the pack, as if he was trying to make himself look fat.

Pretty weird…

Burke inhaled deeply again and got an unfortunate whiff of garbage and urine from the alley. He pushed the button on his Motorola. "Portable Five Two One Two to Central… I've got the perp in that ten-two-four in custody, K."

"Injuries?"

"Negative."

Except for one fucking sore elbow.

"Location?"

"Block and a half east of West End, K. Hold on a minute. I'll get the cross street."

Burke walked to the mouth of the alley to look for the street sign and wait for his fellow cops to show up. It was only then that the adrenaline began to subside, leaving in its wake a tasty euphoria. Not a shot fired. One bad-ass loser belly-down… Godlovingdamn, it felt nice – almost as good as that game twelve years ago, bringing down Chris Broderick, who gave a girlie yelp as he slammed into the turf on the one-yard line, having covered the whole length of the field without a clue that Legs Larry had been right behind him all the way.

• • •

"Hey there, you okay?"

Bell touched Amelia Sachs on the arm. She was so shaken by Kara's death that she couldn't answer. She nodded, breathless with grief.

Ignoring the pain in her knees from the earlier jogging, Sachs and the detective continued quickly up West End toward where Patrolman Burke had radioed that he'd collared the killer.

Wondering if Kara had siblings. Oh, God, we'll have to tell her family.

No, not we.

I'll have to do it. This's my fault. I make that call.

Sick with the sorrow she hurried toward the alleyway. Bell glanced at her again, inhaling deeply to catch his breath.

But at least they'd caught the Conjurer.

Though she was, in her private heart, sorry she hadn't been the arresting officer. She wished she'd found herself alone in the alley facing the Conjurer, a gun in his hand. She might've used the Glock before the Motorola and tapped his shoulder with a single round. In movies shoulder shots were just flesh wounds, inconveniences, and the heroes survived with nothing more than a sling. The truth, though, was that even a small bullet wound changed your life for a long, long time. Sometimes forever.

But the killer had been caught and she'd have to be satisfied with multiple murder convictions.

Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry…

Kara…

Sachs realized she didn't even know her real name.

It's my stage name but I use it most of the time. Better than the one my parents were kind enough to give me.

This small bit of missing information brought her close to tears.

She realized that Bell was saying something to her. "You, uhn, with us here, Amelia?"

A curt nod.

They turned the corner onto Eighty-eighth Street, where the patrolman had downed the perp. Both ends of the street were being sealed off by RMPs. Bell squinted up the block and noted an alleyway. "There," he said, pointing. He motioned several cops – both plainclothes detectives and uniformed patrol officers – to follow them.

"Okay, let's go wrap him up," Sachs muttered. "Man, I hope Grady goes for the needle."

They stopped and looked into the dim canyon. The alley was empty.

"Isn't this it?" Bell asked.

"He said Eight-eight, right?" Sachs asked. "A block and a half east of West End. I'm sure that was the call."

"Me too," a detective said.

"This's gotta be the place." She looked up and down the street. "No other alleys."

Three more officers joined them. "We get it wrong?" one asked, looking around. "This the place or not?"

Bell called on his Motorola, "Portable Five Two One Two, respond, K."

No answer.

"Portable Five Two, what street are you on, K?"

Sachs squinted down the alley. "Oh, no." Her heart sank.

Running forward, she found, resting on the cobblestones near a pile of garbage, a pair of handcuffs, open. Next to them was a plastic hog tie, which had been severed. Bell ran up beside her.

"He got out of the goddamn cuffs and cut the restraint." Sachs looked around.

"Well, where are they?" one of the uniformed officers asked.

"Where's Larry?" another one called.

"In pursuit?" somebody else offered. "Maybe he's out of reception area."

"Maybe," drawled Bell, the concern in his tone reflecting the fact that the workhorse Motorolas rarely malfunctioned and their reception in the city was better than most cell phones'.

Bell called in a 10-39, escaped suspect, with an officer missing or in pursuit.

He asked the dispatcher if there'd been any transmissions from Burke but was told there'd been none. No third-party reports of shots fired in the vicinity either.

Sachs walked the length of the alley, looking for any clues that might suggest where the killer had gone or where the Conjurer might've dumped the patrol officer's body if he'd gotten control of Burke's gun and killed him. But neither she nor Bell found any sign of the officer or the perp. She returned to the cluster of cops at the mouth of the alley.

What a terrible day. Two dead this morning. Kara too.

And now a police officer was missing.

Her hand rose to the speaker/mike of her SP-50 handy-talkie and pulled it off her shoulder. Time to tell Rhyme. Oh, brother. Don't want to make this call. She called in to Central on the radio and asked for a patch. As she was waiting for the call to go through she felt a tug on her sleeve.

Sachs turned. As she inhaled a shocked breath the mike slipped from her hand and swung at her side, a pendulum.

Two people stood in front of her. One was the balding officer Sachs had been giving orders to at the fair ten minutes ago.

The other was Kara, wearing an NYPD windbreaker. Frowning, the young woman looked up and down the alley. She asked, "So where is he?"

Chapter Nineteen

"Are you all right?" Sachs stammered. "What… Wait, what happened?"

"All right? Yeah, I'm fine…" Kara took in the woman's astonished gaze and said, "You mean you didn't know?"

The balding officer said to Sachs, "I tried to tell you. But you ran off before I had a chance."

"Tell me…?" Sachs's voice stopped working. She was so stunned – and riddled with relief – that she couldn't speak.

"You thought I was really hurt?" Kara said. "Oh, God."

Bell walked up, nodding a greeting to Kara, who said, "Amelia didn't know."

"About?"

"Our plan. The fake stabbing."

The expression on Bell 's face was pure shock. "Lord, you thought she was really dead?"

The patrol officer repeated to Bell, "I tried to let her know. First, I couldn't find her and then, when I did, she just tells me to seal the scene and call the M. E. and takes off."

Kara explained, "Roland and I were talking? And we figured that the Conjurer was going to hurt somebody for real – maybe set a fire or shoot or stab somebody. You know, to misdirect us so he could get away. So we thought we'd make up our own misdirection."

"To flush that boy outta the brush," Bell added. "She got some catsup at the concession stand, squirted it on herself, screamed then fell down."

Kara opened the blue windbreaker to reveal the red stain on her purple tank top.

The detective continued, "Was worried a few folks at the fair'd be all tore up over it -"

Well, I'd guess…

"- but we were thinking that'd be better than somebody really getting clocked or stabbed by the Conjurer." Bell added proudly, "Was her idea. No foolin'."

"I'm getting a feel for how he thinks," the young woman said.

"Jesus." Sachs found herself trembling. "It was so real."

Bell nodded. "She does dead good."

Sachs gave her a hug then said sternly, "But from now on, stay close. Or keep me in the loop. I'm too young for heart attacks."

They waited a short while but no reports came in of suspects spotted in the area. Finally Bell said, "You search the scene here, Amelia. I'm going to go interview the victim. See if she can tell us anything. Meet you back at the fair."

A crime scene bus was parked on Eighty-Eighth Street. She walked to it and began to collect her equipment to run the scene. A voice clattered through her dangling speaker, startling her. She pulled her hands-free headset off her belt and plugged it in. "Five Eight Eight Five. Repeat, K."

"Sachs, what the hell's going on? I heard you had him and now he's gone?"

She told Rhyme what had happened, about flushing the Conjurer from the fair.

"Kara's idea? Playing dead? Hmm." The final sound – a grunt really – was a high compliment, coming from Lincoln Rhyme.

"But he's disappeared," Sachs added. "And we can't find that officer either. Maybe he's in pursuit. But we don't know. Roland's interviewing the woman we saved. See if she has any leads."

"Okay, well, run the scene, Sachs."

"Scenes plural," she corrected sourly. "The coffee shop, the pond and the alley here. Too damn many."

"Not too many at all," he replied. "Three times the chance to find some good evidence."

• • •

Rhyme had been right.

The three scenes had yielded a good amount of evidence.

They'd been difficult to work, though for an unusual reason: the Conjurer had been present at each one – his phantom, at least. Hovering nearby. Making her pause often to tap the grip of her Glock, turning around and making sure the killer hadn't materialized behind her.

Search well but watch your back.

She never actually saw anyone. But then Svetlana Rasnikov hadn't seen her killer shed the black camouflage and creep up behind her from the shadows.

Tony Calvert hadn't seen him hiding behind the mirror in the alley when he'd walked toward the fake cat.

And even Cheryl Marston hadn't truly seen the Conjurer though she'd sat and talked with him. She'd seen someone else entirely, never suspecting the terrible death he had planned for her.

Sachs walked the grids at the various locations, took digital photos and released the scenes to Latents and Photo. She then returned to the fair, where she met Roland Bell. He'd interviewed Cheryl Marston at the hospital. They of course couldn't rely on anything the killer had told her ("Pack of goddamn lies," Marston had summarized bitterly) but she remembered some details from before the drug reached its full effect. She gave a good description of him, including particulars about the scars. She also recalled that he'd stopped at a car. She remembered the make and the first few letters of the tag. This was good news. There are a hundred ways to trace a car to a perpetrator or witness. Lincoln Rhyme called cars "evidence generators."

DMV had reported that a car matching the description – a 2001 tan Mazda 626 had been stolen from the White Plains airport a week ago. Sellitto put out an emergency vehicle locator request to all law enforcement agencies in the metro area and sent officers to check the blocks around the site of the attack to see if they could find the car, though neither officer had much faith that it would still be there.

Bell was concluding his narrative about Cheryl Marston's harrowing ordeal when a patrol officer taking a radio call interrupted him.

"Detective Bell? What was that car again? The one the perp was driving?"

"Tan Mazda. Six two six. Tag's F-E-T two three seven."

"That's it," the officer said into his mike. Then to Bell and Sachs he added, "Just got a report – RMP spotted him on Central Park West. They went after him but – get this – he drove over the curb into the park itself. The RMP tried to follow but got stuck on the embankment."

"CPW and what?" Sachs asked.

"Around Nine-two."

"He probably bailed," Bell said.

"He will bail," Sachs said. "But he's going to get some distance first." She nodded to the evidence crates. "Get all this to Rhyme," she called and ten seconds later she was in the seat of her Camaro and had the big engine rattling.

She snapped the race-car harness on and pulled the canvas straps snug.

"Amelia, wait!" Bell called. "ESU is on the way."

But the squeal of rubber and the cloud of blue smoke the Goodyears left behind were her only response to Bell 's words.

• • •

Skidding onto Central Park West, heading north, Sachs concentrated on avoiding pedestrians, poky cars, bicyclists and Rollerbladers.

Baby strollers too. They were everywhere. Man, why weren't these kids home taking naps?

She pitched the blue flasher onto the dash and plugged it into the cigarette lighter outlet. The brilliant light began rotating and as she hurtled forward she found herself slapping the horn in time to the flash.

A streak of gray in front of her.

Shit… As she braked hard to avoid the U-turner the Camaro ended up a scant foot from the side of a car that was worth twice her annual income. Then she crunched the accelerator again and the General Motors horses responded instantly. She managed to keep the needle under fifty until the traffic thinned out, around Ninetieth Street, and then she went to the floor.

In a few seconds she hit seventy.

A clatter through the headset of her Motorola, which lay on the front passenger seat. She grabbed it with one hand and pulled it on.

"'Lo?" she called, dispensing with any pretense of requisite police radio codes.

"Amelia? Roland here," Bell called. He'd also given up on standard communication protocols.

"Go ahead."

"We've got cars on the way."

"Where is he?" she asked, shouting over the roar of the engine.

"Hold on… Okay, he drove out of the park on Central Park North. Sideswiped a truck and kept going."

"Headed where?"

"That was… It was less'n a minute ago. He's going north."

"Got it."

Heading north in Harlem? Sachs considered. There were several routes out of the city from that area of town but she doubted that he'd take them; they all involved bridges and most were via controlled-access highways, where he'd easily be trapped.

More likely he'd abandon the sedan in a relatively quiet neighborhood and carjack a new one.

A new voice resounded in her headset. "Sachs, we've got him!"

"Where, Rhyme?"

He'd turned westbound on 125th Street, the criminalist explained. "Near Fifth Avenue."

"I'm just about at One-two-five and Adam Clayton Powell. I'll try to block him. But get me some backup," she called.

"We're on it, Sachs. Just how fast are you going?"

"I'm not really looking at the speedometer."

"Probably just as well. Keep your eyes on the road."

Sachs honked her way into the busy intersection at 125th Street. She parked crosswise, blocking the westbound lanes. She jumped out of her car, her Glock in her hand. Several cars were stopped in the eastbound lanes. Sachs shouted to the drivers, "Out! Police action. Get out of those cars and get under cover. The drivers – a delivery man and a woman in a McDonald's uniform – instantly did as they were told.

Now all the lanes of 125th Street were blocked.

"Everybody," she shouted. "Get under cover! Now!"

"Motherfuck."

"Yo."

She glanced to her right to see four gangbangers leaning against a chain-link fence, staring with jaded interest at the Austrian gun, the Detroit car and the redhead they belonged to.

Most other people on the street had taken cover but these four teenagers stayed right where they were, looking casual as Sunday. Why move? It wasn't often that a Wesley Snipes movie came to their 'hood.

In the distance Sachs saw the Mazda weaving frantically through traffic as it sped west toward her impromptu roadblock. The Conjurer didn't notice the blockade until he was past the street that he could've taken to avoid her. He skidded to a halt. Behind him a garbage truck making a turn braked hard. The driver and the trash collectors saw what was happening and they bailed, leaving the truck to block him from the rear.

She glanced at the teens again. "Get down!" she called. Sneering, they ignored her.

Sachs shrugged, leaned over the hood of the Camaro and centered the blade sight on the windshield.

So here he was at last, the Conjurer. She could see his face, his blue Harley shirt. Beneath a black cap his fake braid whipped back and forth as he looked desperately for some way to escape. But there wasn't any.

"You! In the Mazda! Get out of the car and lie down on the ground!" No response.

"Sachs?" Rhyme's voice came through the headset. "Can you -" She ripped the unit off and centered the sight once more on the silhouette of the killer's head.

You have the gun to use, and you may as well use it.

Hearing Detective Mary Shanley's words looping through her head, Sachs breathed deeply and kept the gun steady, a bit high, a bit to the left, compensating for gravity and the pleasant April breeze.

When you shoot, nothing exists but you and the target, connected by an invisible cable, like the quiet energy of light. Your ability to hit your target depends exclusively on where this energy originates. If its source is your brain you may hit what you're aiming at. But if it's your heart you almost always will. The Conjurers victims – Tony Calvert, Svetlana Rasnikov, Cheryl Marston, Officer Larry Burke – now seated this power solidly in the latter and she knew that she couldn't miss.

Come on, she thought, you son of a bitch. Put the goddamn car in drive. Try for me. Come on!

Give me an excuse…

The car edged forward. Her finger slipped inside the trigger guard. As if he sensed this the Conjurer braked. "Come on," she found herself whispering.

Thinking about how to handle it. If he just tried to get away she'd take out the fan blades or a tire and try to capture him alive. But if he drove toward her or aimed for the sidewalk, endangering someone else, then she'd drop him.

"Yo!" one of the teens on the sidewalk called. "Shoot the motherfuck!" "Cap his ass, bitch!"

You don't have to convince me, homes. Ready, willing and able…

She decided that if he drove ten feet toward her, at any kind of speed, she'd nail him. The engine of the Band-Aid-colored car revved and she saw – or imagined – that the vehicle shuddered.

Ten feet. That's all I'm asking.

Another growl of the engine. Do it! she pleaded silently.

And then Sachs saw a slow-moving mass of yellow ease behind the Mazda.

A school bus from Zion Prophetic Tabernacle Church, filled with children, pulled away from the curb into traffic, the driver unaware of what was happening. It stopped at an angle between the Mazda and the garbage truck.

No…

Even a direct hit might not stop the slug, which could careen into the bus after it passed through its target.

Finger off the trigger, muzzle safely in the air, Sachs looked through the windshield of the Mazda. She could see the faint motion of the Conjurer's head as he glanced up and to his right, locating the bus in the rearview mirror.

He then looked back toward her and she had the impression that he smiled, deducing that she couldn't fire now.

The raw squeal of the Mazda's front tires filled the street as he floored the pedal and headed toward Sachs at twenty, forty, fifty miles an hour. He bore straight down on the policewoman and her Camaro, which was a far brighter yellow than the Bible school bus, whose presence had cast its blessing of holy protection over the Conjurer.

Chapter Twenty

As the Mazda headed straight at her, Sachs ran to the sidewalk to try for a cross-fire shot.

Lifting the Glock, she aimed at the dark form that was the Conjurer's head, leading him by three or four feet. But beyond him were dozens of store windows and apartments and people crouching on the sidewalk. There was simply no way to fire even a single round safely.

Her chorus didn't care.

"Yo, bitch, lessee you waste that motherfuck."

"Whatcho waitin' fo'?"

She lowered the gun, shoulders slumped as she watched the Mazda streak straight for the Camaro.

Oh, not the car… No!

Thinking of when her father had bought her the '69 muscle car, a junker, and how together they'd rebuilt much of the engine and suspension, added a new transmission, and stripped it, to goose the horsepower skyward. This vehicle and a love of policing were his essential legacies to his daughter.

Thirty feet from the Camaro the Conjurer turned the wheel hard to the left, toward where Sachs crouched. She leaped aside and he turned the other way, back toward the Chevy. The Mazda skidded, cutting diagonally toward the sidewalk. At a glancing angle it slammed into the passenger door and right front fender of the Camaro, spinning it in a circle over two lanes onto the far sidewalk, where the four kids finally showed some energy and scattered.

Sachs dove out of the way and landed on her knees on the concrete, gasping at the pain in her arthritic joints. The Camaro came to rest a few feet from her, its rear end off the ground, jacked up by the battered orange metal trash basket it had rolled over.

The Mazda went over the far sidewalk then back into the street and turned right, heading north. Sachs climbed to her feet but didn't even bother to lift her gun in the direction of the beige car; there was no safe shot. A glance at the Camaro. The side was a mess, the front end too, but the torn fender wasn't binding on the tires. Yeah, she could probably catch him. She jumped in and fired up the engine. First gear. A roar. The tach shot up to 5000 and she popped the clutch.

But she didn't move an inch. What was the problem? Was the drive train cracked?

She glanced out the window and saw that the rear wheels – the drive wheels – were jacked up off the ground, thanks to the trash basket. She sighed in frustration, slammed the steering wheel with her palm. Damn! She saw the Mazda, three blocks away. The Conjurer wasn't escaping that fast; the collision had taken a toll on his car too. There was still a chance to catch him.

But not in a car up on goddamn blocks.

She'd have to -

The Camaro began to rock back and forth.

She looked in the rearview mirror and saw that three of the gangbangers had shed their combat jackets and were straining as they tried to shove the car off its perch. The fourth, bigger than the others, the leader of this crew, walked slowly up to the window. He leaned down, a gold tooth shining bright in the middle of his dark face. "Yo."

Sachs nodded and held his eye.

He looked back at his friends. "Yo, niggers, push the fuckin' car! You makin' like you jerkin' off with it."

"Fuck you," came the winded reply.

He leaned down again. "Yo, lady, we gonna get you down. Whatcha gonna shoot that motherfuck with?"

"A Glock. Forty caliber."

He glanced at her holster. "Sweet. Be the twenty-three. The C?"

"No, the full size."

"That a good gun. I got myself a Smittie." He lifted his throwaway sweatshirt and, with a mix of defiance and pride, showed her the brushed-silver handle of a Smith and Wesson automatic. "But I'ma get me a Glock like yo's."

So, she reflected, an armed teenager. How would a sergeant handle this situation?

The car bounced down off the trash can, rear wheels ready to roll.

Whatever a proper sergeant would say or do, she decided, didn't matter under the present circumstances. The way she handled it was to give him a solemn nod.

"Thanks, homes." Then the woman with wire added ominously, "Don't shoot anybody and make me come lookin' for you. You got that?"

A wide gold grin.

Then, snap, into first gear and the gutsy tires burned wormholes into the asphalt. In a few seconds Amelia Sachs was doing sixty.

"Go, go, go," she muttered to herself, focused on the faint blur of tan in the distance. The Chevy wobbled like crazy but it drove more or less straight. Sachs struggled to get the Motorola headset on. She called Central to report the pursuit and redirect the backup along this route.

Accelerating fast, braking hard… the streets of crowded Harlem aren't made for high-speed pursuits. Still, the Conjurer was in the same traffic as she was – and he wasn't half the driver. Slowly she closed the gap. Then he turned toward a schoolyard, in which kids were playing half-court basketball and whacking softballs into fake outfields. The playground wasn't crowded; the gate was padlocked shut and anybody wishing to play here either had to squeeze through the gap like a contortionist or be willing to scale a twenty-foot chain-link fence.

The Conjurer, however, simply gunned the engine and went though the gate. The kids scattered and he narrowly missed some of them as he sped up again to take out a second gate on the far side.

Sachs hesitated but decided not to follow – not in an unstable car with youngsters around. She sped around the block, praying she'd pick him up on the other side, then skidded around the corner and stopped.

No sign of him.

She didn't see how he'd gotten away. He'd been out of sight for only ten seconds or so as she made the sweep around the playground and the school. And the only other escape route was a short dead-end street, terminating in a wall of bushes and small saplings. Beyond that, she could see the elevated Harlem River Drive, beyond which was just a scuzzy mud bank leading down to the river.

So, he got away… And all I've got to show for the pursuit is five thousand bucks of bodywork. Man…

Then a voice crackled. "All units in the vicinity of Frederick Douglass and One-five-three Street, be advised of a ten-five-four." Car accident with probable injuries.

"Vehicle has gone into the Harlem River. Repeat, we have a vehicle in the water."

Could it be him? she wondered. "Crime Scene Five Eight Eight Five. Further to that ten-five-four. You have the make of the vehicle? K."

"Mazda or Toyota. Late model. Beige."

"Okay, Central, believe that's the subject vehicle of the Central Park pursuit. I'm ten-eight-four at the scene. Out."

"Roger, Five Eight Eight Five. Out."

Sachs sped her Camaro to the end of the cul-de-sac and parked on the sidewalk.

She climbed out as an ambulance and Emergency Services Unit truck arrived and rocked slowly through the brush, which had been crushed by the speeding Mazda.

She followed, walking carefully over the rubble. As they broke from the vegetation she saw a cluster of decrepit shanties and lean-tos. Dozens of homeless, mostly men. The place was muddy and filled with brush and garbage, dumped appliances, stripped, rusting cars.

Apparently the Conjurer, expecting to find a road on the other side of the bushes, had gone through the brush fast. She saw the panicked skid marks as he slid uncontrollably through the slick muck, careened off a shack, knocking it apart, then went off a rotting pier into the river.

Two ESU officers helped the residents of the shack out of the wreckage – they were unhurt – while others scanned the river for any sign of the driver. She radioed Rhyme and Sellitto and told them what had happened and asked the detective to call in a priority request for a crime scene rapid response bus.

"They get him, Amelia?" Sellitto asked. "Tell me they got him."

Looking at the slick of oil and gasoline on top of the choppy water, she said, "No sign."

Walking past a shattered toilet and a ripe-smelling trash bag, Sachs approached several men who were talking excitedly in Spanish among themselves. They held fishing rods; this was a popular place to use bloodworms or cut bait to catch stripers, bluefish and tommycod. They'd been drinking but were sober enough to give her a coherent account. The car had sped through the bushes fast and gone straight into the river.

They'd all seen a man in the driver's seat and they were positive he hadn't jumped out.

Sachs talked briefly with Carlos and his friend, the two homeless men who lived in the now-demolished shack. They were both stoned and, since they'd been inside when the Mazda struck it, they hadn't seen anything that could help. Carlos was belligerent and seemed to feel the city owed him some compensation for his loss.

Two other witnesses, ripping open trash bags for refundable bottles and cans at the time of the accident, reiterated the story of the fishermen.

More police cars were arriving, TV crews too, turning their cameras on what was left of the shack and on the police boat, off the stern of which two wet-suited divers were rolling backward into the water.

Now that the emergency activity had shifted to the river itself, the land-side operation became Amelia Sachs's. She had little crime scene equipment in the Camaro but she did have plenty of yellow tape, with which she now sealed off a large area of the riverbank. By the time she finished the RRV had arrived.

Hooking up her headset, she called Central and was patched through to Rhyme once more.

"We've been following it, Sachs. The divers haven't found anything yet?"

"Don't think so."

"Did he bail out?"

"Not according to the witnesses. I'm going to run the scene here on the riverbank, Rhyme," she told him. "It'll be good luck."

"Luck?"

"Sure. I go to the trouble to run the scene. That means the divers'll be sure to find his body and a search'll be a waste of time."

"There'll still be an inquiry and -"

"It was a joke, Rhyme."

"Yeah, well, this par-tic-ular perp doesn't make me feel like laughing. Get going on the grid."

She carried one of the CS suitcases to the perimeter of the scene and was opening it when she heard an accented voice call out urgently, "My God, what happened? Is everyone all right?"

Near the TV7 crews a well-coiffed Latino in jeans and a sports jacket pushed forward through the crowd. He squinted in alarm at the damaged shack and then began to run toward it.

"Hey," Sachs called. He didn't hear her.

The man ducked under the yellow tape and made straight for the shack, tramping over the Mazda's tire treads and possibly obliterating anything that the Conjurer might have thrown from the car or had fallen out – maybe even destroying the killer's own footprints if he had bailed, despite what the fishermen believed they'd seen.

Suspicious of everyone now, she checked out his left hand and could see that the index and little finger weren't fused together. So he wasn't the Conjurer. But who the hell is he? Sachs wondered. And what was he doing in her crime scene?

The man was now wading through the wreckage of the shack, grabbing planks and sheets of wood and corrugated metal, flinging them over his shoulder.

"Hey, you!" she called. "Get the hell out of there!"

He shouted over his shoulder, "There could be somebody inside!"

Angry now, she snapped, "This's a crime scene! You can't be in there."

"There could be somebody inside!" he repeated.

"No, no, no. Everybody's out. They're okay. Hey, you hearing me?… Excuse me, buddy. Are you hearing me?"

Whether he was or not apparently didn't matter, not to him. He continued to dig feverishly. What was his point? The man was dressed well and wearing a gold Rolex; crack-head Carlos was clearly not a relative.

Reciting to herself the famous cop's prayer – Lord, deliver us from concerned citizens – she gestured to two nearby patrol officers. "Get him out."

He was shouting, "We need more medics! There could be children inside."

Sachs disgustedly watched the officers' footprints adding to the slow erosion of her crime scene. They grabbed the intruder by the arms and pulled him to his feet. He yanked his arms away from the officers, haughtily called his name to Sachs as if he was some kind of mafioso that everybody should know and began to lecture her on the police's shameful treatment of the neglected Latino population here.

"Lady, do you have any idea -"

"Cuff him," she said. "Then get him the hell out of there." Deciding that the community relations part of the sergeant's handbook slogan took second place to criminal investigation in this case.

The officers ratcheted the cuffs on the red-faced man and he was led, fuming and cursing, out of the scene. "Want we should book him?" one officer called.

"Naw, just put him in time-out for a while," she shouted, drawing laughter from some of the onlookers. She watched him being deposited in the back of a squad car, yet another obstacle in the seemingly impossible search for an elusive killer.

Sachs then dressed in the Tyvek outfit and armed with camera and collection bags, and with rubber bands at last on her feet, she waded into the scene, starting with the remains of Carlos's destroyed mansion. She took her time and searched carefully. After this harrowing daylong pursuit Amelia Sachs was accepting nothing at face value. True, the Conjurer might be floating forty feet below the surface of the gray-brown water. But he could just as easily be crawling safely up the riverbank nearby.

She wouldn't even have been surprised to find out that he was already miles away, dressed in a new disguise, stalking his next victim.

• • •

The Reverend Ralph Swensen had been in town for several days – his first visit to New York City – and he'd decided he could never get used to the place.

The thin man, somewhat balding, somewhat shy, ministered to souls in a town thousands of times smaller than and dozens of years removed from Manhattan.

Whereas at home he looked out the window of his church to see rolling acres of land where placid animals grazed, here he looked out the barred window of his cheap hotel room near Chinatown and saw a brick wall with a swirl of grainy spray paint that was part of an obscenity.

Whereas at home when he walked down the street of his town, people would say, "Hello, Reverend," or "Great sermon, Ralph," here they would say, "Gimme a dollar," or "I got AIDS," or simply "Suck me."

Still, Reverend Swensen was here only for a brief time so he supposed he could survive a little culture shock for a bit longer.

For the past several hours he'd been trying to read the ancient, crumbling Gideon Bible the hotel had provided. But finally he gave up. The Gospel according to St. Matthew, as compelling as that story was, couldn't compete with the sound of a gay hooker and his client banging away at each other and howling loudly in pain or pleasure or, most likely, both.

The reverend knew he should be honored to have been picked for this mission to New York but he felt like the Apostle Paul on one of his missionary quests among the nonbelievers in Greece and Asia Minor, greeted with only derision and scorn.

Ah, ah, ah, ah… Right there, right there… Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it that's it that's…

Okay, that was it. Even Paul hadn't had to put up with this level of depravity.

The concert recital wasn't scheduled to start for several hours but Reverend Swensen decided to leave early. He brushed his hair, found his glasses and tossed the Bible, a map of the city and a sermon he was working on in his attaché case. He took the stairs to the lobby, where another prostitute was sitting. This one was – or appeared to be – a woman.

Our Father in heaven, full of grace…

A knot of tension in his gut, he hurried past, staring at the floor, anticipating a proposition. But she – or he, or whatever it was – merely smiled and said, "Beautiful weather, ain't it, Father?"

Reverend Swensen blinked and then smiled back. "Yes, it is," resisting the urge to add, "my child," which is something he'd never said in all his days as a minister. He settled for, "Have a nice day."

Outside, into the hard streets of the Lower East Side of New York City.

He paused on the sidewalk in front of the hotel as taxis shushed past, young Asians and Latinos hurried by purposefully, buses exhaled hot, metallic fumes and Chinese delivery boys on battered bicycles zipped over the sidewalk. It was all so very exhausting. Edgy and upset, the reverend decided that a walk to the school where the recital would be held would relax him. He'd consulted the map and knew it was a long way but he needed to do something to bleed off this mad anxiety. He'd do some window-shopping, stop for dinner, work on his sermon.

As he oriented himself for the walk he sensed that he was being watched. He glanced to his left, into the alley next to the hotel. A man stood half hidden by a Dumpster, a lean, brown-haired man in overalls, holding a small toolkit. He was looking the priest up and down in a way that seemed purposeful. Then, as if he'd been caught, he turned and receded into the alley.

Reverend Swensen tightened his grip on the attaché case, wondering if he'd made a mistake not staying in the safety of his room – foul and noisy though it was – until it was time for the recital. Then he gave a faint laugh. Relax, he told himself. The man had been nothing more than a janitor or handyman, maybe an employee of the hotel itself, surprised to see a minister step out of the sleazy place.

Besides, he reflected as he started walking north, he was a man of the cloth, a calling that surely had to give him some degree of immunity, even here in this modern-day Sodom.

Chapter Twenty-one

Here one second, gone the next.

The red ball couldn't possibly get from Kara's outstretched right hand to the spot behind her ear.

But it did.

And after she'd plucked it away and tossed the crimson sphere into the air it couldn't possibly have vanished and ended up inside in the fold of her left elbow.

But it did that too.

How? Rhyme wondered.

She and the criminalist were in the downstairs lab of his townhouse, waiting for Amelia Sachs and Roland Bell. As Mel Cooper was setting the evidence out on examination tables and a CD pumped jazz piano into the room Rhyme was being treated to his own sleight-of-hand show.

Kara stood in front of a window, wearing one of Sachs's black T-shirts from the closet upstairs. Thom was currently washing her tank top, removing the Heinz 57 bloodstain from her improvised illusion at the crafts fair.

"Where'd you get those?" Rhyme asked, nodding at the balls. He hadn't seen her take them out of her purse or pocket.

She said with a smile that she'd "materialized" them (another trick magicians enjoyed, Rhyme had wryly observed, was transforming intransitive verbs into transitive ones).

"Where do you live?" he asked.

"The Village."

Rhyme nodded at some memories. "When my wife and I were together most of our friends lived down there. And SoHo, TriBeCa."

"I don't get north of Twenty-third much," she said.

A laugh from the criminalist. "In my day Fourteenth was the start of the demilitarized zone."

"Our side's winning, looks like," she joked as the red balls appeared and disappeared, moved from one hand to the other, then circulated in the air in an impromptu juggling act.

"Your accent?" he asked.

"I have an accent?" she asked.

"Intonation then, inflection… tone."

" Ohio probably. Midwest."

"Me too," Rhyme told her. " Illinois."

"But I've been here since I was eighteen. Went to school in Bronxville."

"Sarah Lawrence, drama," Rhyme deduced.

"English."

"And you liked it here and stayed."

"Well, I liked it once I got out of the 'burbs and into the city. Then after my father died my mother moved out here to be closer to me."

Daughter of a widowed mother… like Sachs, Rhyme reflected. He wondered if Kara had the same problems with her mother as Sachs'd had with hers. A peace treaty had been negotiated in recent years but in Sachs's youth her mother had been tempestuous, moody, unpredictable. Rose didn't understand why her husband wanted to be nothing more than a cop and why her daughter wanted to be anything other than what her mother wanted her to be. This naturally drove father and daughter into an alliance, which made matters worse. Sachs had told him that their refuge on bad days was the garage, where they found a comfortably predictable universe: when a carburetor didn't seat it was because a simple and just rule of the physical world had been broken – machine tolerances were off or a gasket had been cut wrong. Engines and suspensions and transmissions didn't subject you to melodramatic moods or cryptic diatribes and even at the worst they never blamed you for their own failings.

Rhyme had met Rose Sachs on several occasions and found her charming, chatty, eccentric and proud of her daughter. But the past, he knew, is nowhere as present as it is between parents and children.

"And how does it work out, her being nearby?" Rhyme asked skeptically.

"Sounds like the sitcom from hell, huh? But, nope, Mum's great, my mom. She's… hey, you know, a mother. They're just a certain way. They never outgrow that."

"Where does she live?"

"She's in a care facility, Upper East Side."

"Is she very sick?"

"Nothing serious. She'll be fine." Kara absently rolled the balls over her knuckles and into her palm. "As soon as she's better we're going to England, just the two of us. London, Stratford, the Cotswolds. My parents and I went there once. It was our best vacation ever. This time I'm going to drive on the left-hand side of the road and drink warm beer. They wouldn't let me the last time. Of course, I was thirteen. You ever been there?"

"Sure. I used to work with Scotland Yard from time to time. And I'd lecture there. I haven't been back since… well, not for a few years."

"Magic and illusion were always more popular in England than here. There's so much history. I want to show Mum where Egyptian Hall was in London. That was the center of the universe for magicians a hundred years ago. Sort of like a pilgrimage for me, you know."

He glanced toward the door. No sign of Thom. "Do me a favor."

"Sure."

"I need some medicine."

Kara noticed some pill bottles against the wall.

"No, over on the bookcase."

"Ah, gotcha. Which one?" she asked.

"The one on the end. Macallan, eighteen years." He whispered, "And probably the quieter you poured it, the better."

"Hey, you're talking to the right person. Robert-Houdin said there were three skills you needed to master to be a successful illusionist. Dexterity, dexterity and dexterity." In a moment a healthy dose of the smokey whisky had been poured into his tumbler – indeed silently and almost invisibly. Thom could've been standing nearby and would never have noticed. She slipped the straw into the cup and fitted it into the holder on his chair.

"Help yourself," he said.

Kara shook her head and gestured toward the coffeepot – which she alone had nearly drained. "That's my poison."

Rhyme sipped the scotch. He tilted his head back and let the burn ease into the back of his mouth then disappear. Watching her hands, the improbable behavior of the red balls. Another long sip. "I like it."

"What?"

"This idea of illusion." Don't get fucking maudlin, he told himself. You get maudlin when you're drunk. But this self-insight didn't stop him from taking another sip of whisky and continuing, "Sometimes reality can be a bit hard to take, you know." Nor could he avoid an unfortunate look down at his motionless body.

Instantly he regretted the comment – and the glance – and he started to change the subject. But Kara didn't offer any canned sympathy. She said, "You know, I'm not sure there is much reality."

He frowned, not getting her meaning.

"Isn't most of our lives an illusion?" she continued.

"How's that?"

"Well, everything in the past is memory, right?"

"True."

"And everything in the future is imagination. Those're both illusions – memories are unreliable and we just speculate about the future. The only thing that's completely real is this one instant of the present – and that's constantly changing from imagination to a memory. So, see? Most of our life's illusory."

Rhyme laughed softly at this. A logician, a scientist, he wanted to poke a hole in her theory. But, he couldn't. She was right, he concluded. He spent much of his time with memories of the Before, prior to the accident, and of how his life had changed after.

And the future? Oh, yes, he often dwelt there. Unknown to almost everyone except Sachs and Thom he spent at least an hour most days exercising – working through manual range-of-motion exercises, doing aqua therapy at a nearby hospital or riding the Electrologic stimulation bicycle tucked away in a bedroom upstairs. This exercise regimen was partly to regain some nerve and motor functions, improve his stamina and prevent the adjunct health problems that can plague quads. But the main reason for his efforts was to keep his muscles in shape for the day when a cure was possible.

He applied Kara's theory to his profession too: working a case, he continually scanned his vast memory banks for knowledge about forensics and past crimes while he anticipated where a suspect might be and what he might do next.

Everything in the past is memory, everything in the future is imagination.

"Since we've broken the ice," she said, adding sugar to her coffee, "I've got a confession."

Another sip. "Yes?"

"When I saw you for the first time I had this thought."

Oh, yes, he remembered. The Look. The famous escape-from-the-crip look. Served up with the Smile. The only thing worse than that was what now loomed: the ever-so-awkward apology for the Look and the Smile.

She hesitated, embarrassed. Then said, "I thought, what an amazing illusionist you'd be."

"Me?" a surprised Rhyme asked.

Kara nodded. "You're all about perception and reality. People'd look at you and see that you're handicapped… Is that what you say?"

"The politically correct call it 'disabled.' I myself just say that I'm fucked."

Kara laughed and continued, "They see you can't move. They probably think you've got mental problems or you're slow. Right?"

This was true. People who didn't know him often spoke slower and louder, explained the obvious in simple terms. (To Thom's disgust, Rhyme would sometimes respond by muttering incoherently or feigning Tourette's syndrome and driving the horrified visitors out of the room.)

"An audience'd have instant opinions about you and be convinced that you couldn't possibly be behind the illusions they were seeing. Half of them'd be obsessing with your condition. The other half wouldn't even look at you. That's when you'd hook 'em… Anyway, there I was meeting you and you were in this wheelchair and'd obviously gone through a tough time. And I wasn't sympathetic, didn't ask how you were doing. I didn't even say, 'I'm sorry.' I was just thinking, damn, what a performer you'd be. That was pretty crass and I had a feeling you picked up on it."

This delighted him completely. He reassured her, "Believe me, I don't do well with sympathy or kid gloves. Crass scores a lot more points."

"Yeah?"

"Yep."

She lifted her coffee cup. "To the famous illusionist, the Immobilized Man."

"Sleight of hand'd be a bit of a problem," Rhyme pointed out.

Kara replied, "Like Mr. Balzac's always saying, sleight of mind's the better skill."

Then they heard the front door open and the voices of Sachs and Sellitto speaking as they walked into the hallway. Rhyme lifted an eyebrow and leaned for the straw in the tumbler. He whispered, "Watch this. It's a routine I call Vanishing the Incriminating Evidence."

• • •

Lon Sellitto asked, "First of all, do we think he's dead? Sleepin' wit' da fishes?"

Sachs and Rhyme looked at each other and simultaneously said, "No."

The big detective said, "You know how rough that water is in the Harlem? Kids try and swim it and you never see 'em again."

"Bring me his corpse," Rhyme said, "and I'll believe it."

He was encouraged about one thing, though: that they'd had no reports of a homicide or disappearance. The near-capture and the swim in the river had probably spooked the killer; maybe now that he knew the police were close on his trail he'd either give up the attacks or at least go to ground for a while, giving Rhyme and the team a chance to find where he was hiding out.

"What about Larry Burke?" Rhyme asked.

Sellitto shook his head. "We've got dozens of people out searching. Lot of volunteers too, officers and firemen off-duty, you know. The mayor's offering a reward… But I gotta say, it's not looking good. I'm thinking he might be in the trunk of the Mazda."

"They haven't brought it up yet?"

"They haven't found it yet. Water's black as night and, with that current, a diver was telling me a car could drift a half mile before it hit the bottom."

"We have to figure," Rhyme pointed out, "that he's got Burke's weapon and radio. Lon, we should change the frequency so he can't hear what we're up to."

"Sure." The detective called downtown and had all transmissions about the Conjurer case changed to the citywide special-ops frequency.

"Let's get back to the evidence. What do we have, Sachs?"

"Nothing in the Greek restaurant," she said, grimacing. "I told the owner to preserve the scene but somehow it didn't translate. Or he didn't want it to translate. By the time we got back the staff had cleaned the table and mopped the floor."

"How 'bout the pond? Where you found him."

"We found some things there," Sachs said. "He blinded us with more of that flash cotton and then set off some squibs. We thought he was shooting at first."

Cooper looked over the burned residue. "Just like the others. Can't source it."

"All right," Rhyme sighed. "What else is there?"

"Chains. Two lengths."

He'd wrapped these around Cheryl Marston's chest, arms and ankles and secured them with snap clasps, like on the end of dog leashes. Cooper and Rhyme examined all of these items carefully. There were no manufacturers' markings on any of them. The story was the same with the rope and the duct tape he'd gagged her with.

The gym bag that the killer had collected from the car, presumably containing the chains and rope, was unbranded and had been made in China. Given enough manpower, it was sometimes possible to find a source for common items like this by canvassing discount stores and street vendors. But for a cheap, mass-produced bag a search of that magnitude was impossible.

Cooper inverted the bag above a porcelain examining tray and repeatedly tapped the bottom to dislodge whatever might be inside. A bit of white powder drifted out. The tech did a drug analysis and the substance turned out to be flunitrazepam.

"Date-rape drug of choice," Sachs told Kara.

There were also tiny pellets of a sticky translucent material inside. It looked like a similar substance was lodged in the zipper and smeared on the handle. "I don't recognize it," Cooper said.

But Kara looked it over, smelled the substance and said, "Magician's adhesive wax. We use it to stick things together temporarily onstage. Maybe he had an open capsule of the drug stuck to the palm of his hand. When he reached over her drink or coffee he tipped it in."

"Sources for the wax are?" Rhyme asked cynically. "Let me guess – any magic supply store in the free world?"

Kara nodded. "Sorry."

Within the bag Cooper also found some tiny metallic shavings and a circular black mark – as if from some residue on the bottom of a small bottle of paint.

An examination through the microscope revealed the metal was probably brass and there were unique machining patterns on the metal. But any deductions were beyond Lincoln Rhyme. "Send some pictures down to our friends in the bureau." Cooper took the images, compressed them and sent them off via encrypted email to Washington.

The black stains turned out not to be paint but permanent ink. But the database couldn't identify what kind specifically; there were no markers to individuate it.

"What's that?" Rhyme asked, looking toward a plastic bag containing some navy-blue cloth.

"We were lucky there," Sachs said. "That's the windbreaker he was wearing when he picked up the Marston woman. He didn't get a chance to take it with him when he bolted."

"Individuate?" Rhyme asked, hoping that there might be some initials or laundry marks inside.

After a lengthy examination of the garment Cooper said, "Nope. And all the tags've been removed."

"But," Sachs said, "we found some things in the pockets."

The first item they examined was a press pass issued by one of the big cable-TV networks. The CTN reporter's name was Stanley Saferstein and the photo on the pass revealed a thin, brown-haired man with a beard. Sellitto called the network and spoke to the head of security. It turned out that Saferstein was one of their senior reporters and had worked the metro desk for years. His pass had been stolen last week – lifted during or after a press conference downtown. The reporter had never felt a thing as the thief had apparently cut the lanyard and pocketed the ID.

The Conjurer had snatched Saferstein's card, Rhyme assumed, because the reporter bore a slight resemblance: in his fifties, narrow-faced and dark-haired.

The stolen pass had been canceled, the security chief had explained, "but the guy could still flash it and get past a checkpoint. Guards and police don't check too close if they see our logo."

After they hung up, Rhyme said to Cooper, "Run 'Saferstein' through VICAP and NCIC."

"Sure. But why?"

"Just because," Rhyme answered.

He wasn't surprised when the results came back negative. He hadn't actually thought that the reporter had any connection with the Conjurer but with this particular perp Rhyme was taking no chances.

The jacket also contained a gray plastic hotel key card. Rhyme was delighted at this find. Even though there was no hotel name on it – just a picture of a key and an arrow to show the guest which end to insert in the lock – he assumed it would have codes in the magnetic strip to tell them which hotel and room it belonged to.

Cooper found the manufacturer's name in small type on the back of the card: APC INC., AKRON, OHIO. This, he found out from a search of a trademark database, stood for American Plastic Cards, a company that made hundreds of different identification and key cards.

In a few minutes the team was on the speakerphone with the president of APC himself – a shirtsleeve CEO, Rhyme imagined, who had no problem working on Saturday or picking up his own phone. Rhyme explained the situation to him, described the key and asked how many hotels in the New York City metro area it was sold to.

"Ah, that's the APC-42. Its our most popular model. We make them for all the big locking systems. Ilco, Saflok, Tesa, Ving, Sargent, all the others."

"Any suggestions on narrowing down which hotel it belongs to?"

"I'm afraid you'll just have to start calling hotels and see who uses gray APC-42s. We have that information here someplace but I wouldn't know how to dig it up myself. I'll try and track down my sales manager or his assistant. But it could be a day or two."

"Ouch," Sellitto said.

Yeah, ouch.

After they hung up, Rhyme decided he wasn't content to wait for APC so he had Sellitto send the key to Bedding and Saul with instructions to start canvassing hotels in Manhattan to find out who used the very fucking popular APC-42. He also ordered both the press pass and the key card fingerprinted – but the results were negative on this too. They revealed just smudges and two more of the finger-cup prints.

Roland Bell returned from the scenes on the West Side and Cooper briefed him on what the team had learned so far. They then returned to the evidence and found that the Conjurer's running jacket contained something else: A restaurant check from a place called the Riverside Inn in Bedford Junction, New York. The bill revealed that four people had eaten lunch at table 12 on Saturday, April 6 – two weeks ago. The meal consisted of turkey, meatloaf, a steak and one daily special.

No one drank alcohol. It was soft drinks all around.

Sachs shook her head. "Where the hell's Bedford Junction?"

"Way upstate, I do believe," Mel Cooper said.

"There's a phone number on the receipt," Bell drawled. "Call ' em up. Ask Debby or Tanya, or whoever's the charmin' waitress if any regular foursome sits at" – he squinted at the receipt – "table twelve. Or at least if she remembers who ordered those things. Long shot, but who knows?"

"What's the number?" Sellitto asked.

Bell called it out.

It was a long shot – too long, as Rhyme had expected. The manager and the waitresses there had no idea who might've been in on that Saturday.

"It's a 'bustlin' spot,'" Sellitto reported, rolling his eyes. "That's a quote."

"I don't like it," Sachs said.

"What?"

"What's he doing having lunch with three other people?"

"Good point," Bell said. "You think he's working with somebody?"

Sellitto replied, "Naw, I doubt it. Pattern doers're almost always loners."

Kara disagreed. "I'm not sure. Close-in artists, parlor magicians – they work alone. But he's an illusionist, remember? They always work with other people. You've got volunteers from the audience. Then assistants onstage that the audience knows're working with the performer. And then there're confederates too. Those're people who're working for the illusionist but the audience doesn't know it. They might be disguised as stagehands, members of the audience, volunteers. In a good show you're never quite sure who's who."

Christ, Rhyme thought, this one perp was bad enough, with his skills at quick change, escape and illusionism. Working with assistants would make him a hundred times more dangerous.

"Mark it down, Thom," he barked. Then: "Let's look at what you found in the alley – where Burke collared him."

The first item was the officer's handcuffs.

"He got out of them in seconds. Had to've had a key," Sachs said. To the dismay of cops around the country most handcuffs can be opened with generic keys, available from law-enforcement supply houses for a few dollars. Rhyme wheeled over to the examination table and studied them carefully. "Turn them over… Hold them up… He might've used a key, true, but I see fresh scratches in the hole. I'd say it was picked…"

"But Burke would've frisked him," Sachs pointed out. "Where'd he get a pick?"

Kara offered, "Could've been hidden anywhere. His hair, his mouth."

"Mouth?"

Rhyme mused. "Hit the cuffs with the ALS, Mel."

Cooper donned goggles and shone an alternative light source on the cuffs. "Yep, we've got some tiny smears and dots around the keyhole." This meant, Rhyme explained to Kara, the presence of bodily fluid, saliva most likely.

"Houdini did that all the time. Sometimes he'd let somebody from the audience check his mouth out. Then just before he did the escape his wife'd kiss him – he said it was for luck but she was really passing a key from her mouth to his."

"But he'd be cuffed behind his back," Sellitto said. "How could he even reach his mouth?"

"Oh," Kara said with a laugh. "Any escapist can get cuffed hands in front of his body in three or four seconds."

Cooper tested the saliva traces. Some individuals secrete antibodies into all bodily fluids, which lets investigators determine blood type. The Conjurer, though, turned out not to be a secretor.

Sachs had also found a very tiny piece of serrated-edge metal.

"Yeah, it's his too," Kara said. "Another escapist tool. A razor saw. It's probably what he used to cut through those plastic bands on his ankles."

"Would that've been in his mouth too? Wouldn't it be too dangerous?"

"Oh, a lot of us hide needles and razor blades in our mouths as part of the acts. With practice it's pretty safe."

Examining the last of the trace from the alley scene, they found more bits of latex and traces of the makeup, identical to what they'd seen earlier. More Tack-Pure oil as well.

"At the riverside, Sachs, when he went into the river? You find anything?"

"Just skid marks in the mud." She pinned up the digital photos that Cooper had printed out from his computer. "Some helpful citizen managed to screw up the scene," she explained. "But I spent a half hour going through the muck. I'm pretty sure he didn't drop any evidence or bail out."

Sellitto asked Bell, "What about the vic, the Marston woman? She have anything to say?"

The Tarheel detective gave a summary of his interview with her.

An attorney, Rhyme considered. Why pick her? What the hell was the Conjurer's pattern with the victims? Musician, makeup artist and attorney.

Bell added, "She's divorced. Husband's out in California. Wasn't the friendliest divorce in the world but I don't reckon he's involved. I had LAPD make some calls and he was accounted for today. And there's no NCIC or VICAP sheet on him."

Cheryl Marston had described the Conjurer as slim, strong, bearded, scars on neck and chest. "Oh, and she confirmed his fingers were deformed, like we'd thought. Fused together, she said. He was hush about the neighborhood he lives in and he picked the alias 'John.' Now there's a clever boy for you."

Useless, Rhyme assessed.

Bell then explained how he'd picked her up and what had happened afterward.

Rhyme asked Kara, "Anything sound familiar?"

"He could've hypnotized a pigeon or gull, pitched it at the horse then used some kind of gimmick to keep the horse agitated."

"What kind of gimmick?" Rhyme asked. "You know any manufacturers?"

"No, that's probably homemade too. Magicians used to use electrodes or prods to get lions to roar on cue, things like that. But animal-rights activists'd never let you get away with that now."

Bell continued, describing what had happened when Marston and the Conjurer had gone to have coffee.

"One thing she said that was odd: it was like he could read her mind." Bell described what Marston had told him about the Conjurer's knowing so much about her.

"Body reading," Kara said. "He'd say something and then watch her close, check out her reactions. That'd tell him a lot about her. Coming on to somebody like that's called 'selling them the medicine.' A really good mentalist can find out all kinds of things just by having an innocent conversation with you."

"Then when she was gettin' comfortable with him he drugged her and took her to the pond. Dunked her upside down."

"It was a variation of the Water Torture Cell routine," Kara explained. "Houdini. One of his most famous."

"And his escape from the pond?" Rhyme asked Sachs.

"At first I wasn't sure it was him – he'd done a quick change," she said. "His clothes were different and" – a glance at Kara – "his eyebrows too. I couldn't get a look at his hand, to see the fingers. But he distracted me, used ventriloquism. I was looking right at his face – I never saw his lips move."

Kara said, "I'll bet he picked words that didn't have any b's or m's or p's. Probably no f's or v's either."

"You're right. I think it was something like, 'Yo, look out, on your right, that guy in the jogging suit's got a gun.' Perfect black dialect." She grimaced. "I looked away – the same direction he looked, like everybody else. Then he set off that flash cotton and I got blinded. He fired the squibs and I thought he was shooting. He got me cold."

Rhyme saw the disgust in her face. Amelia Sachs reserved her worst anger for herself.

Kara, though, said, "Don't take it too hard. Hearing's the easiest sensation to fool. We don't use sound illusions much in shows. They're cheap shots."

Sachs shrugged this reassurance off and continued, "While Roland and I were still blinded from the flash he took off and disappeared, slipped into the crafts fair." Another grimace. "And then I saw him fifteen minutes later – this biker, wearing a Harley shirt. I mean, for God's sake, he was right there in front of me."

"Man," Kara said, shaking her head, "his coins definitely don't talk."

"What's that?" Rhyme asked. "Coins?"

"Oh, an expression magicians use. Literally it means you can't hear any clinking when you do coin tricks but we use it in general when somebody's really good. We'd also say he's got 'tight tricks.'"

Walking to the whiteboard reserved for the magician profile, she picked up the marker and added to it, commenting, "So, he does close-in and mentalism and even ventriloquism. And animal tricks. We knew he does lock-picking – from the second murder – but now we know he's an escapist too. What kind of magic doesn't he do?"

As Rhyme leaned his head back, watching her write, Thom brought a large envelope into the room.

He handed it to Bell. "For you."

"Whatsis?" the Tarheel detective asked, pulling the contents out and reading them. He nodded slowly as he read. "This's the report on the follow-up search at Grady's office. The one you asked Peretti to run. You mind taking a gander, Lincoln?"

The curt note on top read: LR – As requested. – VP.

Rhyme read through the details of the report, Thom flipping the page for him with every stern nod. The CS techs had completed a thorough inventory of the secretary's office and had identified and mapped out all the footprints in the room, exactly as Rhyme had asked. He read this carefully several times, closing his eyes and picturing the scene.

Then he turned to the complete analysis of the fibers that'd been found.

Most of the white ones were a polyester/rayon blend. Some were attached to a thick cotton fiber – also white. Most were dull and dirty. The black fibers were wool.

"Mel, what do we think about the black ones there?"

The tech scooted off his stool and examined the images. "Photo work isn't the best," he said. After a moment he concluded, "From some tight weave, twilled fabric."

"Gabardine?" Rhyme asked.

"Can't tell without a bigger sample to see the diagonal. But I'll go with gabardine."

Rhyme read down the page and learned that the single red fiber found in the office was satin. "Okay, okay," he mused, closing his eyes and digesting everything he'd read.

The criminalist asked Cooper, "What do you know about fabric and clothing, Mel?"

"Not a lot. But if I can quote you, Lincoln, the important question isn't 'What do you know about something?' It's 'Do you know where to find out about it?' And the answer to that is yes, I do."

THE CONJURER

Music School Crime Scene

Perp's description: Brown hair, fake beard, no distinguishings, medium build, medium height, age: fifties. Ring and little fingers of left hand fused together. Changed costume quickly to resemble old, bald janitor.

No apparent motive.

• Victim: Svetlana Rasnikov.

• Full-time music student.

• Checking family, friends, students, coworkers for possible leads.

• No boyfriends, no known enemies. Performed at children's birthday parties.

• Circuit board with speaker attached.

• Sent to FBI lab, NYC.

• Digital recorder, probably containing perp's voice. All data destroyed.

• Voice recorder is a "gimmick." Homemade.

• Used antique iron handcuffs to restrain victim.

• Handcuffs are Darby irons. Scotland Yard. Checking with Houdini Museum in New Orleans for leads.

• Destroyed victim's watch at exactly 8:00 A. M.

• Cotton string holding chairs. Generic. Too many sources to trace.

• Squib for gunshot effect. Destroyed.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Fuse. Generic.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Responding officers reported flash in air. No trace material recovered.

• Was from flash cotton or flash paper.

• Too many sources to trace.

• Perp's shoes: size 10 Ecco.

• Silk fibers, dyed gray, processed to a matte finish.

• From quick-change janitor's outfit.

• Unsub is possibly wearing brown wig.

• Red pignut hickory and Parmelia conspersa lichen, both found primarily in Central Park.

• Dirt impregnated with unusual mineral oil. Sent to FBI for analysis.

• Tack-Pure oil for saddles and leather.

• Black silk, 72 x 48". Used as camouflage. Not traceable.

• Illusionists use this frequently.

• Wears caps to cover up prints.

• Magician's finger cups.

• Traces of latex, castor oil, makeup.

• Theatrical makeup.

• Traces of alginate.

• Used in molding latex "appliances."

• Murder weapon: white silk-knit rope with black silk core.

• Rope is a magic trick. Color-changing. Not traceable.

• Unusual knot.

• Sent to FBI and Maritime Museum – no information.

• Knots are from Houdini routines, virtually impossible to untie.

• Used disappearing ink on sign-in register.

East Village Crime Scene

• Victim Two: Tony Calvert.

• Makeup artist, theater company.

• No known enemies.

• No apparent connection with first victim.

• No apparent motive.

• Cause of death: Blunt-object trauma to head followed by postmortem dismemberment with crosscut saw.

• Perp escaped portraying woman in her 70s. Checking vicinity for discarded costume and other evidence.

• Nothing recovered.

• Watch smashed at 12:00 exactly.

• Pattern? Next victim presumably at 4:00 P. M.

• Perp hid behind mirror. Not traceable. Fingerprints sent to FBI.

• No matches.

• Used cat toy ("feke") to lure victim into alley. Toy is untraceable.

• Additional mineral oil found, same as at first scene. Awaiting FBI report.

• Tack-Pure oil for saddles and leather.

• Additional latex and makeup from finger cups.

• Additional alginate.

• Ecco shoes left behind.

• Dog hairs found in shoes, from three different breeds of dog. Manure too.

• Manure from horses, not dogs.

Hudson River and Related Crime Scenes

• Victim: Cheryl Marston.

• Attorney.

• Divorced but husband not a suspect.

• No motive.

• Perp gave name as "John." Had scars on neck and chest. Deformed hand confirmed.

• Perp did quick change to unbearded businessman in chinos and dress shirt, then biker in denim Harley shirt.

• Car is in Harlem River. Perp presumably escaped.

• Duct-tape gag. Can't be traced.

• Squibs, same as before. Can't be traced.

• Chains and snap fixtures, generic, not traceable.

• Rope, generic, not traceable.

• Additional makeup, latex and Tack-Pure.

• Gym bag, made in China, not traceable.

Containing:

• Traces of date-rape drug flunitrazepam.

• Adhesive magician's wax, not traceable.

• Brass (?) shavings. Sent to FBI.

• Permanent ink, black.

• Navy-blue windbreaker found, no initials or laundry marks.

Containing:

• Press pass for CTN cable network, issued to Stanley Saferstein. (He's not suspect – NCIC, VICAP search negative.)

• Plastic hotel key card, American Plastic Cards, Akron, Ohio. Model APC-42, negative on prints.

• CEO is searching for sales records.

• Dets. Bedding and Saul canvassing hotels.

• Restaurant check from Riverside Inn, Bedford Junction, NY, indicating four people ate lunch, table 12, Saturday, two weeks prior. Turkey, meatloaf, steak, daily special. Soft drinks.

• Staff doesn't know who diners were. (Accomplices?)

• Alley where Conjurer was arrested.

• Picked the cuff locks.

• Saliva (picks hidden in mouth).

• No blood type determined.

• Small razor saw for getting out of restraints (also hidden in mouth).

• No indication of Officer Burke's whereabouts.

• Harlem River scene:

• No evidence, except skid marks in mud.

Profile as Illusionist

• Perp will use misdirection against victims and in eluding police.

• Physical misdirection (for distraction).

• Psychological (to eliminate suspicion).

• Escape at music school was similar to Vanished Man illusion routine. Too common to trace.

• Perp is primarily an illusionist.

• Talented at sleight-of-hand.

• Also knows protean (quick-change) magic. Will use breakaway clothes, nylon and silk, bald cap, finger cups and other latex appliances. Could be any age, gender or race.

• Calvert's death = Selbit's Cutting a Woman in Half routine.

• Proficient at lock-picking (possibly lock "scrubbing").

• Knows escapism techniques.

• Experience with animal illusions.

• Used mentalism to get information on victim.

• Used sleight of hand to drug her.

• Tried to kill third victim with Houdini escape. Water Torture Cell.

• Ventriloquism.

Chapter Twenty-two

Harry Houdini was renowned for his escapism but in fact there were many great escapists who preceded him and many who were his contemporaries.

What set Houdini apart from all the others was a simple addition to his act: the challenge. A major part of his show involved an invitation to anyone in the town where he was appearing to challenge Houdini to escape from a device or location that the challenger himself provided – maybe a local policeman's own handcuffs or a cell in the town lock-up.

It was this competitive, man-versus-man element of performing that made Houdini great. He thrived on these challenges.

And so do I, Malerick now thought, walking into his apartment after his escape from the Harlem River and a bit of reconnaissance work. But he was still badly shaken up by the events that afternoon. When he'd been performing regularly, before the fire, there was often an element of danger in the routines. Real danger. His mentor had beaten into him that if there was no risk how could you possibly hope to engage your audience? There was no sin worse to Malerick than boring those who'd come to be entertained by you. But what a series of challenges this particular act had turned out to be; the police were far better than he'd expected. How had they anticipated that he'd target the woman at the riding academy? And where he was going to drown her? Trapping him in the crafts fair then finding him in the Mazda, chasing him again – getting so close that he'd had to send the car into the river and get away in a very narrow escape.

Challenges were one thing – but he was now feeling paranoid. He wanted to do more preparation for his next routine but he decided to stay in his apartment until the last minute.

Besides, there was something else that he needed to do now. Something for himself – not for his revered audience. He drew the shades of his apartment and placed a candle on the mantelpiece, next to a small inlaid wooden box. He struck a match and lit the candle. Then sat on the rough cloth of the cheap sofa. He controlled his breathing. Inhaled slowly, exhaled.

Slowly, slowly, slowly…

Concentrating on the flame, drifting into a meditation.

Throughout its history the art of magic has been divided into two schools.

First, there are the sleight-of-hand artists, the prestidigitators, the jugglers, the illusionists – people who entertain their audiences with dexterity and physical skill.

The second school of magic is far more controversial: the practice of the occult. Even in this scientific era some practitioners contend that they actually possess supernatural powers to read minds and move objects mentally, predict the future and communicate with spirits.

For thousands of years charlatan seers and mediums have grown rich claiming to be able to summon the spirits of the deceased for their distraught loved ones.

Before the government began cracking down on such scams it was legitimate magicians who'd protect the gullible by publicly revealing the methods behind the supposedly occult effects. (Even today the brilliant magician James Randi spends much of his time debunking fakes.) Harry Houdini himself devoted much of his life and fortune to challenging fake mediums. Yet, ironically, one of the reasons he took up this cause was out of his desperate search for a legitimate medium who could contact the spirit of his mother, whose death he never completely recovered from.

Malerick now stared at the candle, the flame. Watching, praying for the spirit of his soul mate to appear and caress the yellow cone of illumination, to send him a sign. He used the candle for this medium of communication because it was fire that had taken his love away from him, fire that had changed Malerick's life forever.

Wait, did it flicker? Yes, maybe no. He couldn't tell.

Both schools of magic vied within him. As a talented illusionist, Malerick knew, of course, that his routines were nothing more than applied physics, chemistry and psychology. But still there was that one splinter of doubt in his mind that perhaps magic actually did hold the key to the supernatural: God as illusionist, vanishing our failing bodies then palming the souls of those we loved, transforming them and returning them to us, His sad and hopeful audience.

This was not unthinkable, Malerick told himself. He -

And then the candle flickered! Yes, he saw it.

The flame moved a millimeter closer to the inlaid box. Very possibly it was a sign that the soul of his dead beloved was hovering near, summoned not by mechanics but by the fiber of connection that magic might reveal if only he could stay receptive.

"Are you there?" he whispered. "Are you?"

Breathing so very slowly, afraid that his exhalation would reach the candle and make it shiver; Malerick wanted proof positive that he was not alone.

Finally the candle burned itself out and Malerick sat for a long time in his meditative state, watching gray smoke curl toward the ceiling then vanish.

A glance at his watch. He could wait no longer. He gathered his costumes and props, assembled them and dressed carefully. Applied his makeup.

The mirror told him that he was "in role."

He walked to the front lobby. A glance out the window. The street was empty.

Then outside into the spring evening for a routine that would be, yes, even more challenging than the prior ones.

Fire and illusion are soul mates.

Bursts of flash powder, candles, propane flames over which escape artists dangle…

Fire, Revered Audience, is the devil's toy and the devil has always been linked to magic. Fire illuminates and fire obscures, it destroys and it creates.

Fire transforms.

And it's at the heart of our next act, one I call The Charred Man.

• • •

The Neighborhood School just off Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village is a quaint limestone building, as modest in appearance as in name. One would never suspect that the children of some of the richest and most politically connected families in New York City learn reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic here.

It was known not only as a quality educational institution – if you can refer to an elementary school that way – but was also an important cultural venue in this part of the city.

The 8:00 P. M. Saturday music recitals, for instance.

To which the Reverend Ralph Swensen was now making his way.

He'd survived his lengthy stroll through Chinatown and Little Italy to Greenwich Village without any harm other than your average accosting by your average panhandler, to which he was by now almost oblivious. He'd stopped at a small Italian restaurant for a plate of spaghetti (that and ravioli were the only dishes on the menu he recognized). And since the wife wasn't with him he ordered a glass of red wine. The food was wonderful and he remained in the restaurant for quite some time, sipping the forbidden drink and enjoying the sight of children playing in the streets of this boisterous ethnic neighborhood.

He'd paid the check, feeling somewhat guilty about using church funds for alcohol, then continued north, farther into the Village along a route that took him through a place called Washington Square. This appeared at first to be a miniature Sodom in its own right but when he plunged into the heart of the chaotic park the reverend found that the only sins were youngsters playing loud music and people drinking beer and wine out of containers in paper bags. Although he believed in a moral system that sent certain transgressors straight to hell (like noisy homosexual prostitutes who wouldn't let you get to sleep), the spiritual offenses he found here weren't the sort that'd guarantee a one-way ticket to the big furnace.

But partway through the park he began to grow uneasy. He thought again of the man who'd been spying on him, the one in overalls with the toolkit by the hotel.

The reverend was sure he'd seen him a second time in a store-window reflection not long after he'd left the hotel. The same sense of being watched came over him now. He turned fast and looked back. Well, no workmen. But he did catch sight of a trim man in a dark sports coat watching him. The man looked away casually and veered off toward a public rest room. Paranoia?

Had to be. The man didn't look anything like the worker. But as the reverend left the square, walking north along Fifth Avenue, dodging the hundreds of strollers on the sidewalk, he sensed again that he was being followed. Another glance behind him. This time he saw a blond man, wearing thick glasses and dressed in a brown sports coat and T-shirt, looking his way. Reverend Swensen also noticed that he was crossing to the same side of the street that he'd just crossed to.

But now he was sure he was paranoid. Three different men couldn't've been following him. Relax, he thought and continued north on Fifth Avenue toward the Neighborhood School, the street dense with people enjoying the beautiful spring evening.

Reverend Swensen arrived at the Neighborhood School at exactly 7 P. M., a half hour before the doors would open. He set down his briefcase and crossed his arms. Then he decided that, no, he should keep a hold on the attaché case and picked it up again. He lounged against a wrought-iron fence surrounding a garden next to the school, glancing uneasily in the direction he'd come.

No, no one. No workmen with toolkits. No men in sports coats. He was -

"Excuse me, Father?"

Startled, he turned quickly and found himself looking at a big, swarthy man with a two-day growth of beard.

"Uhm, yes?"

"You here for the recital?" The man nodded toward the Neighborhood School.

"That's right," he answered, trying to keep his voice from quavering with uneasiness.

"What time's it start?"

"Eight. The doors open at seven-thirty."

"Thank you, Father."

"Not a problem."

The man smiled and walked away in the direction of the school. Reverend Swensen resumed his vigil, nervously squeezing the handle of his attaché case. A look at his watch. It read 7:15.

Then, finally, after an interminable five minutes, he saw what he'd been waiting for, what he'd traveled all these many miles for: the black Lincoln Town Car with the official government license plates. It eased to a stop a block from the Neighborhood School. The minister squinted in the dusk as he read the plate number. It was the right vehicle… Thank you, Lord.

Two young men in dark suits got out the front. They looked up and down the sidewalk – including a glance at him – and were apparently satisfied that the street was safe.

One of them bent down and spoke through the open rear window.

The reverend knew whom he was speaking to: Assistant District Attorney Charles Grady, the man prosecuting the case against Andrew Constable. Grady was here with his wife for the recital that their daughter was participating in. It was the prosecutor, in fact, who was at the heart of his mission to Sodom this weekend.

Like Paul, the Reverend Swensen had entered the world of the nonbelievers to show them the error of their ways and to bring them truth. He intended to do so in a somewhat more decisive way than the apostle, though: by murdering Charles Grady with the heavy pistol now resting in his briefcase, which he clutched to his chest as if it were the ark of the covenant itself.

Chapter Twenty-three

Sizing up the scene in front of him.

Carefully noting angles, escape routes, how many passersby were on the sidewalk, the amount of traffic on Fifth Avenue. He couldn't afford to fail. There was a lot riding on his success; he had a personal stake in making sure Charles Grady died.

Around midnight last Tuesday Jeddy Barnes, a local militiaman, had suddenly appeared at the door of the double-wide that served as Reverend Swensen's home and church. Barnes had reportedly been hiding out in a camper deep in the woods around Canton Falls after the state police raids against Andrew Constable's Patriot Assembly a few months ago.

"Make me some coffee," Barnes had commanded, looking over the terrified reverend with his fierce fanatic's eyes.

Amid the staccato tap of rain on the metal roof, Barnes, a tough, scary loner with a gray crew cut and gaunt face, had leaned forward and said, "I need you to do something for me, Ralph."

"What's that?"

Barnes had stretched his feet out and looked at the plywood altar Reverend Swensen had made himself, thick with sloppy varnish. "There's a man out to get us. Persecuting us. He's one of them."

Swensen knew that by "them" Barries was referring to an ill-defined alliance of federal and state government, the media, non-Christians, members of any organized political party and intellectuals – for starters. ("Us" meant everybody who wasn't in any of above categories, provided they were white.) The reverend wasn't quite as fanatical as Barnes and his tough militia buddies – who scared the soul out of him – but he certainly believed there was some truth to what they preached.

"We need to stop him."

"Who is it?"

"A prosecutor in New York City."

"Oh, the one going after Andrew?"

"That's him. Charles Grady."

"What'm I supposed to do?" Reverend Swensen had asked, envisioning a letter-writing campaign or a fiery sermon.

"Kill him," Barnes had said simply.

"What?"

"I want you to go to New York and kill him."

"Oh, Lord. Well, I can't do that." Trying to put on a firm front although his hands were shaking so bad he spilled his coffee on a hymnal. "For one thing, what good'll it do? It won't help Andrew any. Hell, they'll know he was behind it and they'll make it even harder – "

"Constable's not part of this. He's out of the equation. There're bigger issues here. We need to make a statement. You know, do what all those assholes in Washington 're always saying in their press conferences. 'Send a message.'"

"Well, just forget it, Jeddy. I can't do it. It's crazy."

"Oh, I think you can."

"But I'm a minister."

"You hunt every Sunday – that's murder, if you want to look at it one way. And you were in Nam. You got scalps – if your stories're true."

"That was thirty years ago." Whispering desperately, avoiding both the man's eyes and the admission that, no, the war stories weren't true. "I'm not killing anybody."

"I'll bet Clara Sampson'd like you to." Stony silence for a moment. "Chickens're coming back to roost, Ralph."

Lord, Lord, Lord…

Last year Jeddy Barnes had stopped Wayne Sampson from going to the police after the dairy farmer had found the minister with Sampson's thirteen-year-old daughter in the playground he'd built behind the church. It occurred to him now that Barnes had played mediator solely to get some leverage on him. "Please, look -"

"Clara wrote a nice letter, which I happen to have. D'I mention I asked her to do that last year? Anyway, she went and described your private parts in more detail than I personally wanna read about but I'm sure a jury'd appreciate it."

"You can't do this. No, no, no…"

"Don't wanta argue the matter with you, Ralph. Here's the situation. If you don't agree then come next month you'll be doin' the same thing to niggers in prison that you had Clara Sampson doin' to you. Now, what's it gonna be?"

"Shit."

"I'll take that as a yes. Now, lemme walk you through what we have planned."

And Barnes had given him a gun, the address of a hotel and the location of Grady's office then shipped him off to New York City.

When he'd first arrived, a few days ago, Reverend Swensen had spent several days doing recon work. He'd gone into the state government building late Thursday afternoon and, with his slightly baffled demeanor and wearing his minister's garb, had wandered the halls unchallenged until he found a broom closet in a deserted corridor, where he hid until midnight. Then he'd broken into Grady's secretary's office and found out that the prosecutor and his family would be attending the recital at the Neighborhood School tonight; his daughter was one of the young performers.

Now, armed and edgy with cat nerves, the reverend stood fidgeting in front of the school and watching Grady's bodyguards talking with the prosecutor in the backseat. The plan was to kill Grady and his guards with the silenced pistol then drop to the ground himself, screaming in panic that a man had just driven by and was shooting from a car. The minister should be able to escape in the confusion.

Should be…

He now tried to say a prayer but, even though Charles Grady was a tool of the devil, asking help from the Lord our God to kill an unarmed white Christian bothered Reverend Swensen considerably. So he settled for a silent Bible recitation.

I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lit up by his glory…

Reverend Swensen rocked on his feet, thinking that he couldn't bear to wait any longer. Cat-nerves, cat-nerves… He wanted to get back to his sheep, his farmland, his church, his ever-popular sermons.

Clara Sampson too, who was nearly fifteen now and for all intents and purposes fair game.

And the angel cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit…

He considered the matter of Grady's family. The prosecutor's wife hadn't done anything wrong. Being married to a sinner wasn't the same as being a sinner yourself or choosing to work for one. No, he'd spare Mrs. Grady.

Unless she noticed that he was the one shooting.

As for the daughter Barnes had told him about, Chrissy… He wondered how old she was and what she looked like.

And the fruits that thy soul lusted after are departed from thee, and all things which were dainty and goodly are departed from thee, and thou shalt find them no more at all…

Now, he thought. Do it. Go, go, go.

And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all…

Thinking, the stone of retribution I've got, Grady, is a well-built Swiss gun and the messenger isn't an angel from Heaven but a representative of all right-thinking people in America.

He started forward.

The bodyguards were still looking away.

Opening the attaché case, he took out the Rand McNally and the heavy gun. Hiding the weapon inside the colorful map, he strolled casually toward the car. Grady's bodyguards were now standing together on the sidewalk, with their backs to him.

One reached down to open the door for the prosecutor.

Twenty feet away…

Reverend Swensen thought to Grady, God have mercy on your -

And then the angel's millstone landed squarely on his shoulders.

"On the ground, on the ground, now, now now now!"

A half-dozen men and women, a hundred demons, grabbed Reverend Swensen's arms and flung him hard to the sidewalk. "Don't move don't move don't move don't move!"

One grabbed the gun, one snatched away the briefcase, one pressed the reverend's neck down into the sidewalk like the weight of the city's sin. His face scraped against the concrete and pain shot through his wrists and shoulder sockets as handcuffs were ratcheted on him and his pockets turned inside-out.

Crushed to the concrete Reverend Swensen saw Grady's car door open and three policemen leap out, wearing helmets and bulletproof vests.

"Stay down, head down down down!"

Jesus our Lord in Heaven…

He watched a man's feet walk closer to him. In contrast to the fierceness of the other officers this man was quite polite. In a southern-accented voice he said, "Now, sir, we're going to roll you over and then I'm going to read you your rights. And you let me know if you understand 'em."

Several cops turned him over and pulled him to his feet.

The reverend started in shock.

The man speaking was the one in the dark sports coat he'd thought was following him in Washington Square. Next to him was the blond man in glasses who'd apparently taken over the surveillance. The third, the swarthy man who'd asked about the time the concert began, stood nearby.

"Sir, my name's Detective Bell. And I'm going to read those rights now. You ready? Good. Here we go."

• • •

Bell looked over the contents of Swensen's attaché case.

Extra ammunition for the H &K pistol. A yellow pad inscribed with what looked to be a very bad sermon scrawled on it. A guidebook, New York on Fifty Dollars a Day. There was also a beat-up Gideon Bible stamped with the name and address: THE ADELPHI HOTEL, 232 BOWERY, NEW YORK, NEW YORK.

Hmmm, Bell thought wryly, looks like we can add a count of Bible larceny to the charges.

He found nothing, though, that suggested a direct connection between this attempt on Grady's life and Andrew Constable. Discouraged, he handed off the evidence to be logged in and called Rhyme to tell him that the impromptu operation by the Saving Asses team had been successful.

Back at Rhyme's an hour earlier the criminalist had continued to pore over the revised crime scene report while Mel Cooper had researched the fibers the CS team had found in Grady's office. Finally Rhyme had made some troubling deductions. The analysis of the footprints in the office revealed that the intruder had stood for some minutes in one spot – the right front corner of the secretary's desk. The inventory of the office showed only one item in this portion of the desk: the woman's daily calendar. And the only entry for this weekend was Chrissy Grady's recital at the Neighborhood School.

Which meant that the person who broke in undoubtedly noted this. As for the attacker himself, Rhyme had ventured that he might be disguised as a minister or priest. With the help of an FBI database Cooper managed to trace the black fibers and dye to a cloth manufacturer in Minnesota, which – Cooper and Rhyme learned from its website – specialized in black gabardine for clerical-clothing makers. Rhyme also noted that several of the white fibers CS had found were polyester bonded with starched cotton, which suggested a white lightweight shirt with a stiff clerical collar attached.

The single red satin fiber was the sort that could've come from a ribbon bookmark in an old book, as could the gold leaf. A Bible, for instance. Rhyme had run a case years ago in which a smuggler had hidden drugs in a hollowed-out Bible; that CS search team had found similar trace in the man's office.

Bell had ordered Grady and his family not to attend their daughter's recital. In their place a team of ESU troopers would drive to the school in Grady's city car. Teams stationed themselves north of the school on Fifth Avenue, on cross streets west at Sixth Avenue and east at University Place and south in Washington Square Park.

Sure enough, Bell, who'd taken the park, had spotted a minister walking nervously toward the school. Bell had started to tail him but was spotted so he'd peeled off. Another SWAT officer picked up and tracked him to the school. A third detective from Bell's SWAT group approached and asked about the concert, checking visually for signs of weapons, but not finding any obvious ones – and hence having no probable cause to detain and search him.

But the suspect remained under close surveillance and as soon as he was seen pulling the gun from his attaché case and starting for the decoys he was taken down.

Expecting a fake priest, they'd been surprised to find that they'd caught a real one, which the contents of Swensen's wallet confirmed – despite the contrary testimony of the embarrassingly bad sermon. Bell nodded at the H &K automatic.

"Pretty big gun for a priest," he said.

"I'm a minister."

"Meant to say."

"Ordained."

"Good for you. Now I'm wondering: I read you those rights. You want to waive your right to remain silent? Tell you, sir, you bow up to what you just did and things'll go a lot easier for you. Tell us who wanted you to kill Mr. Grady."

"God."

"Hmm," Bell said. "Okay. How 'bout anybody else?"

"That's all I'm saying to you or to anybody. That's my answer. God."

"Well, all right, let's getcha downtown now and see if He's inclined to throw bail for you."

Chapter Twenty-four

They call that music?

A thud of a drum and then the raw sound of a brass instrument rehearsing short passages penetrated Rhyme's parlor. It was coming from the Cirque Fantastique, across the street in the park. The notes were jarring and the tone gaudy and brash. He tried to ignore it and returned to his phone conversation with Charles Grady, who was thanking him for his efforts in collaring the minister who'd come to town to kill him.

Bell had just interrogated Constable, down at the Detention Center. The prisoner said he knew Swensen but had drummed him out of the Patriot Assembly over a year ago because of an "unhealthy interest" in the daughters of some parishioners.

Constable had had nothing to do with the man after that and he'd fallen in with some backwoods militiamen, according to local gossip. The prisoner adamantly denied that he knew anything about the attempted killing.

Still, Grady had arranged to have delivered to Rhyme a box of evidence from the crime scene at the Neighborhood School and one from the Reverend Swensen's hotel room. Rhyme had looked through it quickly but found no obvious connection to Constable. He explained this to Grady and added, "We need to get it to some forensic people upstate, in – what's the town?"

" Canton Falls."

"They can do some soil or trace comparisons. There might be something linking Swensen to Constable but I don't have any samples from up there."

"Thanks for checking, Lincoln. I'll have somebody get it up there ASAP."

"If you want me to write an expert's opinion on the results I'd be happy to," the criminalist said then had to repeat the offer; the last half was drowned out by a particularly raucous horn solo.

Hell, yes, I could write better music than that, he thought.

Thom called time-out and took Rhyme's blood pressure. He found the results high.

"I don't like it," he said.

"Well, for the record, I don't like a lot of things," Rhyme responded petulantly, frustrated with their slow progress with the case: a tech at the FBI lab in D.C. had called and said that it would be morning before they'd have any report on the bits of metal found in the Conjurer's bag. Redding and Saul had called more than fifty hotels in Manhattan, but had found none that used APC key cards that matched the one found in the Conjurer's running jacket. Sellitto had also called the relief watch outside the Cirque Fantastique – fresh officers had replaced the two who'd been there since that morning – and they'd reported nothing suspicious.

And, most troubling of all, there'd been no luck in finding Larry Burke, the missing patrol officer who'd collared the Conjurer near the crafts fair. Dozens of officers were searching the West Side but had turned up no witnesses or evidence as to where he might be. One encouraging note, though: his body wasn't in the stolen Mazda. The car hadn't yet been raised but a diver who'd braved the currents reported that there were no bodies inside the car itself or the trunk.

"Where's the food?" Sellitto asked, looking out the window. Sachs and Kara had gone up the street to pick up some takeout from a nearby Cuban restaurant (the young illusionist was less excited about dinner than the prospect of her first Cuban coffee, which Thom described as "one-half espresso, one-half condensed milk, and one-half sugar," the concept of which, despite the impossible proportions, had instantly intrigued her).

The bulky detective turned to Rhyme and Thom and asked, "You ever have those Cubano sandwiches? They're the best."

But neither the food nor the case meant anything to the aide. "Time for bed."

"It's nine thirty-eight," Rhyme pointed out. "Practically afternoon. So it's not. Time. For. Bed." He managed to make his singsong voice sound both juvenile and threatening at the same time. "We have a fucking killer on the loose who keeps changing his mind about how often he wants to kill people. Every four hours, every two hours." A glance at the clock. "And he might just now be perpetrating his nine thirty-eight killing. I appreciate that you don't like it. But I have work to do."

"No, you don't. If you don't want to call it a night, all right. But we're going upstairs to take care of some things and then you're taking a nap for a couple of hours."

"Ha. You're just hoping I'll fall asleep till morning. Well, I won't. I'll stay awake all night."

The aide rolled his eyes. He announced in a firm voice, " Lincoln 'll be upstairs for a few hours."

"How'd you like to be out of work," Rhyme snapped.

"How'd you like to be in a coma?" Thom shot back.

"This is fucking crip abuse," he muttered. But he was giving in. He understood the danger. When a quad sits too long in one position or is constricted in the extremities or, as Rhyme loved to put it so indelicately in front of strangers, needs to piss or shit and hasn't for a while – there was a risk of autonomic dysreflexia, a soaring of the blood pressure that could result in a stroke, leading to more paralysis or death. Dysreflexia's rare but it'll send you to the hospital, or a grave, pretty damn fast, and so Rhyme acquiesced to a trip upstairs for the personal business and then a rest. It was moments like this – disruptions of "normal" life – that infuriated him most about his disability.

Infuriated and, though he refused to let on, deeply depressed him.

In the bedroom upstairs Thom took care of the necessary bodily details. "Okay. Two hours' rest. Get some sleep."

"One hour," Rhyme grumbled.

The aide was going to argue but then he glanced at Rhyme's face and, while he probably saw anger and don't-fuck-with-me eyes, which wouldn't have affected him one bit, he observed too the criminalist's heartfelt concern for the next victims on the Conjurer's list. Thom conceded, "One hour. If you sleep."

"An hour it is," Rhyme said. Then added wryly, "And I'll have the sweetest of dreams… A drink would help, you know."

The aide tugged at the subtle purple tie – a gesture of weakening that Rhyme seized on like a shark lapping a molecule of blood. "Just one," the criminalist said.

"All right." He poured a little ancient Macallan into one of Rhyme's tumblers and arranged the straw next to his mouth.

The criminalist sipped long. "Ah, heaven…" Then he glanced at the empty glass. "Someday I'll teach you how to pour a real drink."

"I'll be back in an hour," Thom said.

"Command, alarm clock," Rhyme said sternly. On the flat-screen monitor a clock face appeared and he orally set the alarm to sound in one hour.

"I would've gotten you up," the aide said.

"Ah, well, just in case you were occupied and somehow forgot," Rhyme said coyly, "now I'll be sure to be awake, won't I?"

The aide left, closing the door behind him, and Rhyme's eyes slipped to the window, where the peregrine falcons perched, lording over the city, their heads turning in that odd way of theirs – both jerky and elegant at the same time. Then one – the female, the better hunter – glanced quickly at him, blinking her narrow slits of eyes, as if she'd just sensed his gaze. A cock of her head. Then she returned to her examination of the hubbub of the circus in Central Park.

Rhyme closed his eyes though his mind was speeding through the evidence, trying to figure out what the clues might mean: the brass, the hotel key, the press pass, the ink. Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.… Finally his eyes sprang open. This was absurd. He wasn't the least bit tired. He wanted to get the hell back downstairs and return to work. Sleeping was out of the question.

He felt a breeze tickle his cheek and was angrier yet at Thom – for leaving the air-conditioning on. When a quad's nose runs, there goddamn well better be somebody nearby to wipe it. He summoned up the climate control panel on the monitor, thinking about telling Thom that he would've gotten to sleep except that the room was too cold. But one look at the screen told him that the air-conditioner was off.

What had the breeze been?

The door was still closed.

There! He felt it again, a definite waft of air on his other cheek, his right one. He turned his head quickly. Was it from the windows? No, they too were closed. Well, it was probably -

But then he noticed the door.

Oh, no, he thought, chilled to his heart. The door to his bedroom had a bolt on it – a latch that could be closed only by someone in his room. Not from the outside.

It was locked.

Another breath on his skin. Hot, this time. Very close. He heard a faint wheeze too.

"Where are you?" Rhyme whispered.

He gasped as a hand appeared suddenly in front of his face, two fingers deformed, fused together. The hand held a razor blade, the sharp edge aimed toward Rhyme's eyes.

"If you call for help," said the Conjurer in a breathy whisper, "if you make a noise, I'll blind you. Understood?"

Lincoln Rhyme nodded.

Chapter Twenty-five

The blade in the Conjurer's hand vanished.

He didn't put it away, didn't hide it. One moment the metal rectangle was in his fingers, aimed at Rhyme's face; the next, it was gone.

The man – brown-haired, beardless, wearing a policeman's uniform – walked around the room, examining the books, the CDs, the posters. He seemed to nod approvingly at something. He studied one curious decoration: a small red shrine, inside of which was a likeness of the Chinese god of war and of police detectives, Guan Di. The Conjurer seemed to think nothing of the incongruity of such an item in the bedroom of a forensic scientist.

He returned to Rhyme.

"Well," the man said in his throaty whisper, looking over the Flexicair bed. "You're not what I expected."

"The car," Rhyme said. "In the river? How?"

"Oh, that?" he said dismissively. "The Submerged Car trick? I was never in the car. I got out in the bushes at the end of that street. A simple trick: a closed window – so the witnesses would see mostly glare – and my hat on the headrest. It was my audience's imagination that saw me. Houdini was never even in some of the trunks and barrels he pretended to escape from."

"So they weren't skid marks from braking," Rhyme said. "They were skid marks from accelerating tires." He was angry that he'd missed this. "You put a brick on the accelerator."

"A brick wouldn't've looked natural when the divers found the car; I wedged it down with a shoe." The Conjurer looked Rhyme over closely and asked in a wheezing voice, "But you never believed I was dead." Not a question.

"How did you get into the room without me hearing you?"

"I was here first. I slipped upstairs ten minutes ago. I was downstairs too in your war room, or whatever you call it. Nobody noticed me."

"You brought that evidence in?" Rhyme recalled being vaguely aware of two patrolmen carting in boxes of the evidence collected outside the Neighborhood School and the Reverend Swensen's hotel room.

"That's right. I was waiting on the sidewalk. This cop came up with a couple of boxes. I said hello and offered to help. Nobody ever stops you if you're in a uniform and you seem to have a purpose."

"And you've been hiding up here – covered up with a piece of silk that was the color of the walls."

"You caught on to that trick, did you?"

Rhyme frowned, looking at the man's uniform. It seemed genuine, not a costume.

But contrary to regulations there was no nameplate on the breast. His heart suddenly sank. He knew where it had come from. "You killed him, Larry Burke… You killed him and stole his clothes."

The Conjurer glanced down at the uniform and shrugged. "Reverse. Stole the uniform first," came the whispery, disembodied voice. "Convinced him that I wanted him naked to give me a chance to escape. He saved me the effort of stripping him afterward. Then I shot him."

Repulsed, Rhyme reflected that he'd considered the danger that the Conjurer had taken Burke's radio and his weapon. It hadn't occurred to him, though, that he'd use the man's uniform as a quick-change costume to attack his pursuers. He asked in a whisper, "Where's his body?"

"On the West Side."

"Where?"

"Keep that to myself, I think. Somebody'll find him in a day or two. Sniff him out. The weather's warm."

"You son-of-a-bitch," the criminalist snapped. He might be civilian now but in his heart Lincoln Rhyme would always be a cop. And there is no bond closer than that between fellow police officers.

The weather's warm.

But he struggled to remain calm and asked casually, "How did you find me?"

"At the crafts fair. I got close to your partner. That redheaded policewoman. Very close. As close as I was to you just now. I breathed on her neck too – I'm not sure which I enjoyed more… Anyway I heard her talking to you on her radio. She mentioned your name. Then it just took a little research to find you. You've been in the papers, you know. You're famous."

"Famous? A freak like me?"

"Apparently."

Rhyme shook his head and said slowly, "I'm old news. The chain of command passed me by a long time ago."

The word "command" zipped from Rhyme's lips through the microphone mounted to the headboard into the voice recognition software in his computer. "Command" was the latch word that told the computer to be prepared for instructions. A window opened up on the monitor, which he could see but the Conjurer could not.

Instruction? it asked silently.

"Chain of command?" the Conjurer asked. "What do you mean?"

"I used to be in charge of the department. Now, sometimes the young officers, they won't even return my telephone call."

The computer seized the last two words of the sentence. Its response: Whom would you like to call?

Rhyme sighed. "I'll tell you a story: I needed to get in touch with an officer the other day. A lieutenant. Lon Sellitto."

The computer reported: Dialing Lon Sellitto.

"And I told him -"

A sudden frown from the Conjurer.

He stepped forward quickly, swinging the monitor away from Rhyme's face and looking it over. The killer grimaced, ripped the phone lines from the wall and unplugged the computer. With a faint pop it went silent.

As the man hovered a few feet from him Rhyme pressed his head into the pillows, expecting the terrible razor blade to appear. But the Conjurer stepped back, breathing hard with his asthmatic wheeze. He seemed more impressed than angered by what the criminalist had tried.

"You know what that was, don't you?" he asked, smiling coldly. "Pure illusionism. You distracted me with patter and then did some classic verbal misdirection. Ruse, we call it. That was good. What you were saying was very natural – until you mentioned the name. It was the name ruined it. See, telling me that wasn't natural. It made me suspicious. But up until then you were good."

The Immobilized Man…

He continued, "I'm good too, though." The Conjurer reached forward with an open, empty palm. Rhyme cringed as the fingers passed close to his eyes. He felt a brush against his ear. When the Conjurer's hand appeared a second later there were four double-sided razor blades gripped between his fingers. He closed his hand into a fist and the four blades became a single one, now held once more between his thumb and index finger.

No, please.… Worse than the pain, Rhyme feared the horror of being deprived of yet another of his senses. The killer eased the edge close to Rhyme's eye, moved it back and forth.

Then the killer smiled and stepped back. He glanced across the room into the shadows on the far wall. "Now, Revered Audience, let's begin our routine with some prestidigitation. I'll be assisted by a fellow performer here." These words were spoken in an eerie, theatrical tone.

The man's hand rose and he displayed the glistening razor blade. In a smooth gesture the Conjurer pulled out the waistband of Rhyme's sweatpants and underwear and tossed the blade like a Frisbee toward his naked groin.

The criminalist winced.

"What he must be thinking…" the Conjurer said to his imaginary audience.

"Knowing that a razor blade is against his skin, perhaps cutting into his skin, his genitals, a vein or an artery. And he doesn't feel a thing!"

Rhyme stared at the front of his pants, waiting for blood to appear.

Then the Conjurer smiled. "But maybe the blade's not there… Maybe it's someplace else. Maybe here." He reached into his own mouth and pulled the small rectangle of steel out. He held it up. Then frowned. "Wait." He removed another blade from his mouth. Then more. He now had the four blades back in his hand. He fanned them like cards then tossed them into the air above Rhyme, who gasped and cringed, waiting for them to hit him. But… nothing. They'd vanished.

In his neck and temple Rhyme felt his heart pounding, harder now, sweat trickling down his forehead and temple. Rhyme glanced at the alarm clock. It seemed like hours had passed. But Thom had left only fifteen minutes ago.

Rhyme asked, "Why are you doing this? Those people you killed? What was the point?"

"They weren't all killed," he pointed out angrily. "You ruined my performance with the equestrian by the Hudson River."

"Well, attacked then. Why?"

"It was nothing personal," he said and broke into a coughing spell.

"Not personal?" Rhyme spat out, incredulous.

"Let's say it was more what they represented than who they were."

"What does that mean? 'Represented'? Explain."

The Conjurer whispered, "No. I don't think I will." He walked slowly around Rhyme's bed, breathing hard. "Do you know what goes through the mind of the audience during a performance? Part of them hopes that the illusionist isn't going to escape in time, that he'll drown, he'll fall on the spikes, burn up, get crushed to death. There's a trick called the Burning Mirror. My favorite. It starts out with a vain illusionist looking in a mirror. He sees a beautiful woman on the other side of the glass. She beckons to him and finally he gives in to temptation and steps through. We see they've changed places. The woman's now on the front side of the mirror. But there's a puff of smoke and she does a quick change and becomes Satan."

"Now the illusionist is trapped in hell, chained to the floor. Flames begin shooting up from the floor around him. A wall of fire moves closer. Just as he's about to be engulfed by flames he gets out of the chains and leaps through the fire at the back of the mirror to safety. The devil runs toward the illusionist, flies into the air and vanishes. The illusionist shatters the mirror with a hammer. Then he walks across the stage, pauses and snaps his fingers. There's a flash of light and, you've probably guessed, he becomes the devil… The audience loves it… But I know that part of everyone's mind is rooting for the fire to win and the performer to die." He paused. "And, of course, that does happen from time to time."

"Who are you?" Rhyme whispered, despairing now.

"Me?" The Conjurer leaned forward and passionately rasped, "I'm the Wizard of the North. I'm the greatest illusionist who ever was. I'm Houdini. I'm the man who can escape from the burning mirror. From handcuffs, chains, locked rooms, shackles, ropes, anything…" He eyed Rhyme closely. "Except… except you. I was afraid that you were the one thing I couldn't escape from. You're too good. I had to stop you before tomorrow afternoon…"

"Why? What's happening tomorrow afternoon?"

The Conjurer didn't answer. He looked into the gloom. "Now, Revered Audience, our main act – the Charred Man. Look at our performer here – no chains, no handcuffs, no ropes. Yet he can't possibly escape. This is even harder than the world's first escape routine: St. Peter. Thrown in a cell, shackled, guarded. And yet he escaped. Of course, he had an important confederate. God. Our performer tonight, however, is on his own."

A small gray object appeared in the Conjurer's hand and he leaned forward fast, before Rhyme could turn his head. The killer slapped a piece of duct tape over his mouth.

He then shut out all the lights in the room except a small night-light. He returned to Rhyme's bed, held an index finger up and flicked his thumb against it. A three-inch point of flame rose from the digit.

The Conjurer wagged the finger back and forth. "Sweating, I can see." He held the flame close to Rhyme's face. "Fire… Isn't it fascinating? It's probably the most compelling image in illusionism. Fire's the perfect misdirection. Everyone watches flame. They never take their eyes off it onstage. I could do anything with my other hand and you'd never notice. For instance…"

The bottle of Rhyme's scotch appeared in the man's grip. He held the flame under the bottle for a long moment. Then the killer took a sip of liquor and held the flaming finger in front of his lips, looking directly at Rhyme, who cringed. But the Conjurer smiled, turned aside and blew the flaming spray toward the ceiling, stepping back slightly as the stream of fire vanished into the darkness of the ceiling.

Rhyme's eyes flickered to the wall in the corner of the room.

The Conjurer laughed. "Smoke detector? I got that earlier. The battery's gone."

He blew another flaming stream toward the ceiling and set the bottle down.

Suddenly a white handkerchief appeared. He wafted it under Rhyme's nose. It was soaked in gasoline. The astringent smell burned Rhyme's eyes and nose. The Conjurer coiled the handkerchief into a short rope and, ripping open Rhyme's pajama top, draped it around his neck like a scarf.

The man walked toward the door, silently opened the deadbolt and then the door, looked out.

Rhyme's nose detected another scent mixed with the gasoline. What was it? A rich, smoky scent… Oh, the scotch. The killer must've left the bottle open.

Except that the smell soon overtook the gasoline's aroma. It was overpowering.

There was scotch everywhere. And Rhyme understood with dismay what the man was doing. He'd poured a stream of liquor from the door to the bed, like a fuse. The Conjurer flicked his finger and a white fireball flew from his hand into the pool of single malt.

The liquor ignited and blue flames raced along the floor. Soon they'd set fire to a stack of magazines and a cardboard box next to the bed. One of the rattan chairs too.

Soon the fire would climb up the bedclothes and begin devouring his body, which he wouldn't feel, and then his face and head, which he horribly would. He turned to the Conjurer but the man was gone, the door closed. Smoke began to sting Rhyme's eyes and fill his nose. The fire crawled closer, igniting boxes and books and posters, melting CDs.

Soon the blue and yellow flames began lapping at the blankets at the foot of Lincoln Rhyme's bed.

Chapter Twenty-six

A diligent NYPD officer, perhaps hearing an odd noise, perhaps seeing an unlocked door, stepped into a West Side alleyway. Fifteen seconds later another man emerged, dressed in a lightweight maroon turtleneck, tight jeans, baseball cap.

No longer in the role of Officer Larry Burke, Malerick began walking purposefully up Broadway. Glancing at his face, noting the flirtatious way he glanced around him – a cruisin' look – you'd suspect that he was a man on the prowl, heading for some West Side bar to defibrillate his ego and his genitalia, both in arrest lately as he approached middle age.

He paused at a basement cocktail lounge, glanced inside. He decided this would be a good place in which to hide out temporarily until it was time to return briefly to Lincoln Rhyme's and see how much damage the fire had done.

He found a stool at the far end of the bar, near the kitchen, and ordered a Sprite and a turkey sandwich. Looking around: the arcade games with their electronic soundtracks, a dusty jukebox, the room smoky and dark, smelling of sweat and perfume and disinfectant, the liquor-induced brays of laughter and hum of pointless conversation. All of which transported him back to his youth in the city built from sand.

Las Vegas is a mirror surrounded by glaring lights; stare at it for hours but all you'll ever truly see is yourself, with your pocks, squinty wrinkles, vanity, greed, desperation. It's a dusty, hard place where the cheery illumination of the Strip fades fast just a block or two from the neon and doesn't penetrate to the rest of the city: the trailers, sagging bungalows, sandy strip malls, pawnshops selling engagement rings, suit jackets, prosthetic arms – whatever can be transformed into quarters or silver dollars.

And, everywhere, the dusty, endless, beige desert.

This was the world that Malerick was born into.

Father a blackjack dealer and mother a restaurant hostess (until her growing weight put her behind the scenes in a cash room), they were two of the army of Vegas service people treated like ants by casino management and guests alike. Two of the army who spent their lives so inundated with money that they could smell the ink, perfume and sweat on the bills, but who were forever aware that this astonishing flood was destined to pause in their fingers for only the briefest of moments.

Like many Vegas children left on their own by parents working long and irregular shifts – and like children living in bitter homes everywhere – their son had gravitated to a place where he found some comfort.

And that place for him was the Strip.

I was explaining, Revered Audience, about misdirection – how we illusionists distract you by drawing attention away from our method with motion, color, light, surprise, noise. Well, misdirection is more than a technique of magic; it's an aspect of life too. We're all desperately drawn toward flash and glitz and away from boredom, from routine, from bickering families, from hot, motionless hours on the edge of the desert, from sneering teens who chase you down because you're skinny and timid and then pound you with fists as hard as scorpions' shells…

The Strip was his refuge.

The magic shops specifically. Of which there were many; Las Vegas is known among performers around the world as the Capital of Magic. The boy found that these shops were more than just retail outlets; they were places where aspiring, performing and retired magicians hung out to share stories and tricks and to gossip.

It was in one of these that the boy learned something important about himself.

He might be skinny and timid and a slow runner but he was miraculously dexterous. The magicians here would show him palms and pinches and drops and conceals and he'd pick them up instantly. One of these clerks lifted an eyebrow and said about the thirteen-year-old, "A born prestidigitator."

The boy frowned, never having heard the word.

"A French magician made it up in the eighteen hundreds," the man explained. "'Tresti – ' As in presto, fast. 'Digit.' As in finger. Prestidigitation – fast fingers. Sleight of hand."

So maybe, he slowly came to believe, he was someone more than odd man out in the family, something more than knuckle bait at the playground. Every day he'd leave school at 3:10 and head directly to his favorite store, where he'd hang out and sop up method. At home he practiced constantly. One of the shop managers would hire him occasionally to put on demonstrations and brief shows for customers in the Magic Cavern in the back of the store.

He could still picture clearly his initial performance. From that day on Young Houdini – his first stage name – would talk, or bully, his way up onto stage at any opportunity. What a joy it was to mesmerize his audience, delight them, sell them the medicine, trick them. To scare them too. He liked to scare them.

Finally he got busted – by his mother. The woman eventually realized that the boy hardly spent any time at home and raided his room to learn why. "I found this money," she snapped, rising from her dinner and waddling into the kitchen one evening to confront him as he walked in the back door. "Explain."

"It's from Abracadabra."

"Who's that?"

"The store? By the Tropicana. I was telling you about it -"

"You stay off the Strip."

"Mom, it's just a store. That magic store."

"Where you been? Drinking? Let me smell your breath."

"Mom, no." Backing away, repulsed by the massive woman in the pasta-sauce-stained top, her own breath horrific.

"They catch you in a casino, I could lose my job. Your father could lose his."

"I was just at the store. I do a little show. People give me tips sometimes."

"That's too much for tip money. I never got tips like that when I was a hostess."

"I'm good," the boy said.

"So was I… Show? What kind of show?"

"Magic" He was frustrated. He'd told her this months before. "Watch."

He did a card trick for her.

"That was good," she said, nodding. "But for lying to me I'm keeping this money."

"I didn't lie!"

"You didn't tell me what you're doing. That's the same as lying."

"Mom, that's mine."

"You lie, you pay."

With some effort she stuffed the money into a jeans pocket sealed closed by her belly. Then she hesitated. "Okay, here's ten back. If you tell me something."

"Tell you…?"

"Tell me something. You ever seen your father with Tiffany Loam?"

"I don't know… Who's that?"

"You know. Don't pretend you don't. That waitress from the Sands was over here with her husband a couple months ago for dinner. She was in that yellow blouse."

"I -"

"Did you see them? Driving out to the desert yesterday?"

"I didn't see them."

She examined him closely and decided he was telling the truth. "If you do see them you let me know."

And she left him for her spaghetti, coagulating on a TV tray in the living room.

"My money, Mom!"

"Shut up. It's the Daily Double."

One day, performing a small show in Abracadabra, the boy was surprised to notice a slim, unsmiling man enter the store. As he walked toward the Magic Cavern all the magicians and clerks in the store fell silent. He was a famous illusionist and was appearing at the Tropicana. He was known for his temper and his dark, scary illusions.

After the show the illusionist gestured the boy over and nodded at the handwritten sign on stage. "You call yourself 'Young Houdini'?"

"Yeah."

"You think you're worthy of that name?"

"I don't know. I just liked it."

"Do some more." Nodding at a velvet table.

The boy did, nervous now, as the legend watched his moves.

A nod, which seemed to be an approving nod. That a fourteen-year-old boy would receive a compliment like this stunned the magicians in the room to silence.

"You want a lesson?"

The boy nodded, thrilled.

"Let me have the coins."

He held his open palm to offer the coins. The illusionist looked down, frowning.

"Where are they?"

His hand was empty. The illusionist, laughing harshly at the boy's bewildered expression, had already dipped them; the quarters were in his own hands. The boy was astonished; he hadn't felt a thing.

"Now I'll hold this one up in the air…"

The boy looked up but suddenly some instinct said, Close your fingers now! He's going to put the coins back. Embarrass him in front of a roomful of magicians. Grab his hand!

Suddenly, without looking down, the illusionist froze and whispered, "Are you sure you want to do it?"

The boy blinked in surprise. "I -"

"Think twice." A glance down at the boy's hand.

Young Houdini looked at his palm, which was tensed to catch the great illusionist's. He saw to his shock that the man had placed something there, but not the coins: five double-sided razor blades. If he'd closed his fingers as he'd planned, Young Houdini would've needed a dozen stitches.

"Let me see your hands," he said, taking the blades out of them and vanishing them instantly.

Young Houdini held his palms up and the man touched them, stroked them with his thumbs. It felt to the boy that there was an electric current running between them.

"You've got the hands to be great," he whispered for the boy alone to hear. "You've got the drive and I know you've got the cruelty… But you don't have the vision. Not yet." A blade appeared again and the man used it to slice through a piece of paper, which began to bleed. He crumpled the paper and then opened it up. There was no slash and no blood. He handed it to the boy, who noticed that on the inside was an address, written in red ink.

As the small audience of onlookers cheered and clapped with genuine admiration, or jealousy, the illusionist whispered, "Come see me," leaning forward, his lips brushing Young Houdini's ear. "You have a lot to learn. And I have a lot to teach."

The boy kept the illusionists address but he couldn't work up the courage to go see him. Then, at his fifteenth birthday party, his mother changed the course of his life forever by flying into a tirade and flinging a platter of fettuccine at her husband over some recently received intelligence about the notorious Mrs. Loam. Bottles flew, collectibles shattered, police arrived.

The boy decided he'd had enough. The next day he went to visit the illusionist, who agreed to be his mentor. The timing was perfect. In two days the man was starting an extensive tour of the United States. He needed an assistant. Young Houdini cleaned out his secret bank account and did just what his namesake had done: he ran away from home to work as a magician. There was one major difference between them, however; unlike Harry Houdini, who'd left home only to make money to help his impoverished family and who was soon reunited with them, young Malerick would never see any member of his again.

"Hey, how you doing?"

The woman's husky voice woke him out of these durable memories as he sat at the bar of the Upper West Side tavern. A regular here, he guessed. Fiftyish trying unsuccessfully for the illusion of ten years younger, she'd picked this hunting ground based largely on the dim lighting. She scooted onto a stool next to his and was leaning forward, flying a flag of cleavage.

"Sorry?"

"Just asked how you're doing. Don't think I've seen you in here."

"Just in town for a day or two."

"Ah," she said drunkenly. "Say, I need a light." Conveying the irritating impression that he should consider it a privilege to light her cigarette.

"Oh, sure," he said.

He clicked a lighter and held it up. This flame flickered madly, he observed, as she wrapped her red, bony fingers around his to guide the lighter to her lips.

"Thanks." She shot a narrow stream of smoke toward the ceiling. When she looked back Malerick had paid the bill and was pushing away from the bar.

She frowned.

"I have to go." He smiled and said, "Oh, here, you can keep that."

He handed her the small metal lighter. She took it and blinked. Her frown deepened. It was her own lighter, which he'd dipped from her purse when she'd leaned toward him.

Malerick whispered coldly, "Guess you didn't need one after all." Leaving her at the bar, two tears leading the mascara down her cheeks, he thought that of all the sadistic illusions he'd perpetrated, and had planned for, this weekend – the blood, the cut flesh, the fire – this one would perhaps be the most satisfying.

• • •

She heard the sirens when they were two blocks away from Rhyme's.

Amelia Sachs's mind did one of those funny jogs: hearing the urgent electronic catcall from some emergency vehicle, thinking the sound seemed to be coming from the direction of his townhouse.

Of course it wasn't, she decided.

Too much of a coincidence.

But then, the flashing lights, blue and red, were on Central Park West, where his place was located.

Come on, girl, she reassured herself, it's your imagination, stoked by the memory of the eerie harlequin on the banner in front of the Cirque Fantastique tent in the park, the masked performers, the horror of the Conjurer's murders.

They were making her paranoid.

Spooky…

Forget it.

Shifting the large shopping bag containing garlicky Cuban food from one hand to the other, she and Kara continued down the busy sidewalk, talking about parents, about careers, about the Cirque Fantastique. About men too.

Bang, bang…

The young woman sipped her double Cuban coffee, to which, she said, she'd become addicted at first taste. Not only was it half the price of Starbucks', Kara pointed out, but it was twice as strong. "I'm not sure about the math but I think that makes it four times as good," the young woman said. "I'll tell you, I love finds like this. It's the little things in life, don't you think?"

But Sachs had lost the thread of the conversation. Another ambulance sped by.

She sent a silent prayer that it keep going past Rhyme's.

It didn't. The vehicle braked to a fast stop at the corner next to his building.

"No," she whispered.

"What's going on?" Kara wondered. "An accident?"

Heart pounding, Sachs dropped the bags of food and began sprinting toward the building.

"Oh, Lincoln…"

Kara started after her, spilled hot coffee on her hand and dropped the cup. She kept up the pace beside the policewoman. "What's going on?"

As she turned the corner Sachs counted a half-dozen fire trucks and ambulances.

At first she'd suspected he'd had an attack of dysreflexia. But this had clearly been a fire. She looked up to the second story and gasped in shock. Smoke was drifting out of Rhyme's bedroom window.

Jesus, no!

Sachs ducked under the police line and ran toward the cluster of firefighters in the doorway. She leaped up the front stairs, her arthritis momentarily forgotten. Then she was through the door, nearly slipping on the marble floor. The hallway and the lab seemed intact but a faint haze of smoke filled the downstairs hallway.

Two firemen were walking slowly down the stairs. It seemed their faces were filled with resignation.

" Lincoln!" she cried.

And started for the stairs.

"No, Amelia!" Lon Sellitto's gruff voice cut through the hallway.

She turned, panicked, thinking that he wanted to stop her from seeing his burned corpse. If the Conjurer had taken Lincoln away from her he was going to die.

Nothing in the world would stop her.

"Lon!"

He motioned her off the stairs and embraced her. "He's not up there, Amelia."

"Is -"

"No, no, it's okay. He's all right. Thom brought him down to the guest room in the back. This floor."

"Thank God," Kara said. She looked around in dismay at more firefighters coming down the stairs, large men and women swollen even larger by their uniforms and equipment.

Thom, grim-faced, joined them from the back of the hall. "He's all right, Amelia. No burns, some smoke inhalation. Blood pressure's high. But he's on his meds. It'll be okay."

"What happened?" she asked the detective.

"The Conjurer," Sellitto muttered. He sighed. "He killed Larry Burke. Stole his uniform. That's how he got in. Somehow he snuck up to Rhyme's room. He set a fire around his bed. We didn't even know it down here; somebody saw the smoke from the street and called nine-one-one. And Dispatch called me. Thom and Mel and I got most of it out before the trucks got here."

She asked Sellitto, "I don't suppose we got him, the Conjurer?"

A bitter laugh. "Whatta you think? He vanished. Thin air."

• • •

Following the accident that left him paralyzed, after Rhyme had graduated from the stage of grief that called for him to spend months willing his legs to work again, he gave up on the impossible and turned his considerable focus and strength of will to a more reasonable goal.

Breathing on his own.

A C4 quad like Rhyme – his neck broken at the fourth vertebra from the base of the skull – is on the borderline of needing a ventilator. The nerves that lead from the brain down to the diaphragm muscles may or may not be functioning. In Rhyme's case his lungs appeared at first not to be pumping properly and he was put on a machine, a hose implanted in his chest. Rhyme hated the device, with its mechanical gasping and the odd sensation of not feeling the need to breathe even though he knew he himself wasn't. (The machine also had the nasty habit of occasionally stopping cold.)

But then his lungs began working spontaneously and he was freed from the bionic device. The doctors said the improvement was due to his body's natural post-trauma stabilizing. But Rhyme knew the real answer. He'd done it himself. With willpower. Sucking air into his lungs – meager breaths at first, yes, but his own breaths all the same – was one of the greatest accomplishments of his life. He was now working hard at those exercises that might lead to increased sensation throughout his body and even movement of his limbs; but however successful he was with these he didn't think his sense of pride would match what he'd felt when he was taken off the ventilator for the first time.

Tonight, lying in his small guest room, he recalled seeing the clouds of smoke flowing from the cloth and paper and plastic burning all around him in his room. In his panic he thought less about burning to death and more about the terrible smoke working into his lungs like metal splinters and taking away the sole victory he'd won in the war against his disability. It was as if the Conjurer had picked his single most vulnerable spot to attack.

When Thom, Sellitto and Cooper burst into the room his first thought was not about the fire extinguishers the two cops held but the green oxygen tank the aide wielded. He'd thought, Save my lungs!

Before the flames were out Thom had the oxygen mask over his face and he hungrily inhaled the sweet gas. They got him downstairs and both EMS and Rhyme's own SCI doctor had examined him, cleaning and dressing a few small burns and looking carefully for razor cuts (there were none; nor were any blades found in his pajamas). The spinal cord specialist declared that his lungs were all right, though Thom should rotate him more frequently than normal to keep them clear.

It was only then that Rhyme began to calm. But he was still very anxious. The killer had done something far more cruel than causing him physical injury. The attack had reminded Rhyme how precarious his life was and how uncertain his future.

He hated this feeling, this terrible helplessness and vulnerability.

" Lincoln!" Sachs walked fast into the room, sat on the old Clinitron bed and dropped to his chest, hugged him hard. He lowered his head against her hair. She was crying. He'd seen tears in her eyes perhaps twice since he'd known her.

"No first names," he whispered. "Bad luck, remember. And we've had enough of that today."

"You're okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine," he said in a whisper, stung by the illogical fear that if he spoke louder the particles of smoke would somehow puncture and deflate his lungs. "The birds?" he asked, praying that nothing had happened to the peregrine falcons. He wouldn't have minded if they moved to a different building. But it would have devastated him if they'd been injured or killed.

"Thom said they're fine. They're on the other sill."

She held him for a moment then Thom appeared in the doorway. "I need to rotate you."

The policewoman hugged him once more then stood back as Thom stepped close to the bed.

"Search the scene," Rhyme told her. "There's got to be something that he's left behind. There was that handkerchief he put around my neck. And he had some razor blades."

Sachs said she would and left the room. Thom took over and began expertly to clear his lungs.

Twenty minutes later Sachs returned. She stripped off the Tyvek suit and carefully folded and replaced it in the crime scene suitcase.

"Didn't find much," she reported. "Got that handkerchief and a couple of footprints. He's wearing a new pair of Eccos. But I didn't find any blades. And anything else he might've dropped got vaporized. Oh, and there was a bottle of scotch too. But I assume it's yours."

"Yes, it is," Rhyme whispered. Normally he would've made a joke – something about the severity of the punishment for using eighteen-year-old single malt as an arson accelerant. But he couldn't bring himself to be humorous.

He knew there wouldn't be much evidence. Because of the extensive destruction in a fire the clues in most suspicious-origin fire scenes usually reveal only where and how the fire started. But they already knew that. Still, he thought there must be more.

"What about the duct tape? Thom pulled it off and dropped it."

"No duct tape."

"Look behind the head of the bed. The Conjurer was standing there. He might've -"

"I did look."

"Well, search again. You missed things. You must have."

"No," she said simply.

"What?"

"Forget the crime scene. It's toast – so to speak."

"We need to move this goddamn case forward."

"We're going to, Rhyme. I'm going to interview the witness."

"There was a witness?" he grumbled. "Nobody told me there was a witness."

"Well, there was."

She stepped to the doorway, called down the hall for Lon Sellitto to join them.

He ambled inside, sniffing his jacket and wrinkling his nose. "A two-hundred-forty-fucking-dollar suit. History. Shit. What, Officer?"

"I'm going to interview the witness, Lieutenant. You have your tape recorder?"

"Sure." He took it out of his pocket and handed it to her. "There's a wit?"

Rhyme said, "Forget witnesses, Sachs. You know how unreliable they are. Stick with the evidence."

"No, we'll get something good. I'll make sure we do."

A glance at the doorway. "Well, who the hell is it?"

"You," she said, pulling a chair close to the bed.

Chapter Twenty-seven

"Me? Ridiculous."

"No. Not ridiculous."

"Forget it. Walk the grid again. You missed things. You searched way too fast. If you were a rookie -"

"I'm not a rookie. I know how to search a scene fast and I know when it's time to stop searching and go on to more productive things." She examined Sellitto's small recorder, checked the tape, and clicked it on.

"This is NYPD Patrol Officer Amelia Sachs, Badge Five Eight Eight Five, interviewing Lincoln Rhyme, witness in a ten-twenty-four assault and ten-twenty-nine arson at three-four-five Central Park West. The date is Saturday, April twentieth." She set the recorder on the table near Rhyme.

Who glanced at the unit as if it were a snake.

"Now," she said. "Description."

"I told Lon -"

"Tell me."

A sarcastic look at the ceiling. "He was medium-built, male, approximately fifty to fifty-five years of age, wearing a police officer's uniform. No beard this time. Scar tissue and discoloration on his neck and on his chest."

"His blouse was open? You could see his chest?"

"Excuse me," he said with bright sarcasm. "Scar tissue at the base of his neck presumably continuing down to his chest. Little and ring fingers of his left hand were fused together. He had… appeared to have brown eyes."

"Good, Rhyme," she said. "We didn't have his eye color before."

"And we may not now if he's wearing contacts," he snapped, feeling he'd scored a point here. "I could probably remember better with something to help." He looked toward Thom.

"Something to help?"

"I assume you have an unincinerated bottle of Macallan somewhere in the kitchen."

"Later," Sachs said. "Let's keep a clear head."

"But -"

Worrying her scalp with a nail, she continued, "Now. I want to go through everything that happened. What did he say?"

"I can't remember very much," he said impatiently. "It was mostly crazy ramblings. And I was hardly in the mood to pay attention."

"Maybe they sounded crazy to you. But I'll bet there was something we could use."

"Sachs," he said sardonically, "do you think I might've been a little spooked and confused? I mean, just a little distracted maybe?"

She touched his shoulder, a place where he could feel the contact. "I know you don't trust witnesses. But sometimes they do see things… This's my specialty, Rhyme."

Amelia Sachs, the people cop.

"I'll walk you through it. Just like you walk me through the grid. We'll find something important."

She rose, walked to the door and called, "Kara?"

Yes, he distrusted witnesses, even those who had good vantage points and weren't part of the action itself. Anyone involved in the actual crime – especially a victim of violence – was totally unreliable. Even now, thinking about the killer's visit, all Rhyme could see was a random series of incidents – the Conjurer behind him, standing over him, lighting the fire. The razor blades. The smell of the scotch, the boiling smoke. He didn't even have a sense of the chronology of the killer's visit.

Memory, as Kara had said, is only an illusion.

A moment later the young woman appeared. "Are you all right, Lincoln?"

"Fine," he muttered.

Sachs was explaining that she wanted Kara to listen; she might recognize something the killer had said that could be helpful to them. The policewoman sat down again and pulled her chair close. "Let's go back there, Rhyme. Tell us what happened. Just in general terms."

He hesitated, glanced at the tape recorder. Then he began to recount the events as he remembered them. The Conjurer appearing, admitting he'd stolen the uniform then killed the officer, telling Rhyme about the officer's body.

The weather's warm…

He then said, "It was like he was pretending he was performing a show and I was a fellow performer." Hearing the man's odd rambling in his mind, Rhyme said, "I do remember one thing. He's got asthma. Or at least he sounded winded. He was gasping for breath a lot, whispering."

"Good," Sachs said. "I'd forgotten he sounded that way at the pond after the Marston assault. What else did he say?"

Rhyme looked at the dark ceiling of the small guest room. Shaking his head.

"That's about it. He was either burning me or threatening to slice me up… Oh, did you find any razor blades when you searched the room?"

"No."

"Well, there. This's what I'm talking about – evidence. I know he threw a blade in my sweatpants. The doctors didn't find it. It must've fallen out. See, that's the sort of thing you should be looking for."

"It was probably never in your pants," Kara said. "I know the illusion. He palmed the blade."

"Well, my point is that you don't tend to listen to people real close when they're torturing you."

"Come on, Rhyme, go on back there. It's earlier this evening. Kara and I're getting dinner. You've been looking over evidence. Thom's brought you upstairs. You were tired, right?"

"No," the criminalist said, "I wasn't tired. But he brought me up there anyway."

"Imagine you weren't too happy about that."

"No, I wasn't."

"So you're up in the room."

Picturing the lights, the silhouette of the birds. Thom, closing the door.

"It's quiet -" Sachs began.

"No, it's not quiet at all. There's that goddamn circus across the street. Anyway, I set the alarm -"

"For what time?"

"I don't know. An hour. What difference does it make?"

"One detail can give birth to two others."

A scowl. "Where'd that come from, a fortune cookie?"

She smiled. "Made it up. But it sounds good, don't you think? Use it in the new edition of your book."

"I don't write books about witnesses," Rhyme said. "I write them about evidence." Feeling victorious again with this comeback.

"Now, how do you tell he's here at first? Did you hear anything?"

"No, I felt a draft. I thought it was the air-conditioning at first. But it was him. He was blowing on my neck and cheek."

"Just to – Why?"

"To scare me, I guess. It worked, by the way." Rhyme closed his eyes. Then he nodded as a few memories came back. "I tried to call Lon on the phone. But he" – a glance at Kara. "He caught my move. He threatened to kill me – no, he threatened to blind me – if I tried to call for help. I thought he was going to. But – it was odd – he seemed impressed. He complimented me on my misdirection…" His voice faded as his memory trailed off into dimness.

"How did he get in?"

"He walked in with the officer who brought the evidence from the Grady hit."

"Shit," Sellitto said. "From now on we check IDs – everybody who walks through the friggin' door. I mean, everybody."

"He's talking about misdirection," Sachs continued. "He's complimented you. What else is he saying?"

"I don't know," Rhyme muttered. "Nothing."

"Nothing at all?" she asked, her voice a whisper.

"I. Don't. Know." Lincoln Rhyme was furious. At Sachs because she was pushing him. Because she wouldn't let him have a drink to numb the terror.

Furious mostly at himself for disappointing her.

But she had to understand how hard it was for him to go back there – to the flames, to the smoke that slipped into his nose and threatened his precious lungs -

Wait. Smoke…

Lincoln Rhyme said, "Fire."

"Fire?"

"I think that was what he talked about the most. He was obsessed with it. There was an illusion he mentioned. The… right, the Burning Mirror. That was it. Flames all over the stage, I think. The illusionist has to escape from them. He turns into the devil. Or somebody turns into the devil."

Both Rhyme and Sachs glanced at Kara, who was nodding. "I've heard of it. But it's rare. Takes a lot of setup and it's pretty dangerous. Most theaters owners won't let performers do it nowadays."

"He kept going on about fire. How it's the one thing you can't fake onstage. How audiences see fire and they secretly hope maybe the illusionist'll get burned. Wait. I remember something else. He -"

"Go on, Rhyme, you're on a roll."

"Don't interrupt me," he snapped. "I told you he was acting as if he were giving a performance? He seemed delusional. He kept looking at the blank wall and talking to somebody. It was like, 'My something audience.' I don't remember what he called them. He was manic."

"An imaginary audience."

"Right. Hold on… I think it was 'respected audience.' Talking to them directly, 'My respected audience.'"

Sachs glanced at Kara, who shrugged. "We always talk to the audience. It's called patter. In the old days performers would say things like 'my esteemed audience,' or 'my dear ladies and gentlemen.' But everybody thinks that's hokey and pretentious. Patter's a lot less formal now."

"Let's keep going."

"I don't know, Sachs. I think I'm dry. Everything else is just a big blur."

"I'll bet there's more. It's like that one bit of evidence at the scene. It's there, it might be the key to the whole case. You just have to think a little differently to find it." She leaned closer to Rhyme. "Let's say this is your bedroom. You're in the Flexicair. Where was he standing?"

The criminalist nodded. "There. Near the foot of the bed, facing me. My left side, closest to the door."

"What was his pose?"

"Pose? I don't know."

"Try."

"I guess facing me. He kept moving his hands. Like he was speaking in public."

Sachs stood and took up a position. "Like this?"

"Closer."

She moved in.

"There."

Her standing in this pose did in fact bring back a memory. "One thing… He was talking about the victims. He said killing them wasn't anything personal."

"Nothing personal."

"He killed… yes, I remember now. He killed them because of what they represented."

Sachs was nodding, scribbling notes to supplement the tape recording.

"Represented?" she mused. "What does that mean?"

"I didn't have any idea. One musician, one lawyer, one makeup artist. Different ages, sexes, professions, residences, no known connection to one other. What could they represent? Upper-middle-class lifestyles, urban dwellers, higher education… Maybe one of those is the key – the rationalization for picking them. Who knows?"

Sachs was frowning. "There's something wrong."

"What?"

She finally said, "Something about what you're remembering."

"Well, it's not fucking verbatim. I didn't exactly have a stenographer handy."

"No, that's not what I mean." She considered for a minute. Then she nodded. "You're characterizing what he said. You're using your language, not his. 'Urban dwellers.' 'Rationalization.' I want his words."

"Well, I don't remember his words, Sachs. He said he didn't have anything personal against the victims. Period."

She shook her head. "No, I'll bet he didn't say that."

"What do you mean?"

"Murderers never think of the people they kill as 'victims.' It's impossible. They never humanize them. At least a pattern doer like the Conjurer wouldn't."

"That's hogwash from police academy psych 101, Sachs."

"No, it's the real world. We know they're victims but the perps always believe they deserve to die for one reason or another. Think about it. He didn't say 'victim,' did he?"

"Well, what difference does it make?"

"Because he said they were representative of something and we have to find out what. How did he refer to them?"

"I don't remember."

"Well, he didn't say 'victim.' I know that. Did he talk about any of them specifically? Svetlana, Tony… How about Cheryl Marston? Did he call her the blonde woman? Did he say lawyer? Did he say the woman with big boobs? I guarantee he didn't say 'urban dweller.'"

Rhyme closed his eyes, tried to go back there. Finally he shook his head. "I don't -"

And then the word came to him.

"'Equestrian.'"

"What?"

"You're right. The word wasn't 'victim.' He called her 'the equestrian.'"

"Excellent!" she said.

Rhyme felt a burst of unreasonable pride.

"How 'bout the others?"

"No, she was the only one he referred to." Rhyme was positive about this.

Sellitto said, "So he thinks of the vics as people doing a particular thing – that may or may not be their jobs."

"Right," Rhyme confirmed. "Playing music. Putting makeup on people. Riding horses."

"But whatta we do with that?" Sellitto asked.

And as Rhyme had said to her so often, when she posed this very same question about crime-scene evidence, she replied, "We don't know yet, Detective. But it's a step closer to figuring him out." The policewoman then consulted the notes she'd been taking. "Okay, he did the razor-blade tricks, mentioned the Burning Mirror. He talked to his respected audience. He's obsessed with fire. He picked a makeup artist, a musician and a horseback rider to kill because of what they represent – whatever that is. Can you think of anything else?"

Eyes closed again. Trying hard.

But kept seeing the razor blades, the flames, smelling the smoke.

"Nope," he said, looking back at her. "I think that's it."

"Okay. Good, Rhyme."

And he recognized the tone in her voice.

He knew it because it was the tone he'd often use.

It meant she wasn't finished.

Sachs looked up from her notes and said slowly, "You know, you're always quoting Locard."

Rhyme nodded at the reference to the early French forensic detective and criminalist, who developed a principle that was later named for him. The rule held that at every crime scene there's always an exchange of evidence between the perpetrator and the victim or the locale itself, however minute.

"Well, I'm thinking there might be a psychological exchange too. Just like a physical one."

Rhyme laughed at the crazy idea. Locard was a scientist; he'd have balked at having his principle applied to something as slippery as the human psyche.

"What're you getting at?"

She continued, "You weren't gagged the whole time, were you?"

"No, just at the end."

"So that means you communicated something too. You took part in an exchange."

"Me?"

"Didn't you? Didn't you say anything to him?"

"Sure. But so what? It's his words that're important."

"I'm thinking he might've said something in response to you."

Rhyme observed Sachs closely. A smudge of soot the shape of a quarter moon on her cheek, sweat just above her buoyant upper lip. She was sitting forward and, though her voice was calm, he could sense the tension of concentration in her pose. She wouldn't know it, of course, but she seemed to be feeling exactly the same emotions that he felt when he was guiding her through a crime scene miles away.

"Think about it, Rhyme," she said. "Imagine that you're alone with a perp. Not the Conjurer necessarily. Any perp. What would you say to him? What would you want to know?"

His reaction was to give a tired sigh that somehow managed to sound cynical.

But, sure enough, her question jogged something in his mind. "I remember!" he said. "I asked him who he was."

"Good question. And he said?"

"He said he was a wizard… No, not just a wizard but something specific."

Rhyme squinted as he struggled to go back to that hard place. "It reminded me of The Wizard of Oz… The Wicked Witch of the West." He frowned. Then he said, "Yeah, got it. He said he was the Wizard of the North. I'm sure that was it."

"Does that mean anything to you?" Sachs asked Kara.

"No."

"He said he could escape from anything. Except, he didn't think that he'd be able to escape from us. Well, from me. He was worried we'd stop him. That's why he came here. He said he had to stop me before tomorrow afternoon. That's when he was going to start killing again."

"Wizard of the North," Sachs said, looking over her notes. "Now -"

Rhyme sighed. "I really think that's it, Sachs. The well. Is. Dry."

Sachs clicked the tape recorder off then leaned forward and with a tissue wiped the sweat off his forehead. "I figured. What I was going to say was now I need a drink. How 'bout it?"

"Only if you or Kara pour," Rhyme said to her. "Don't let him measure it." Nodding sourly toward Thom.

"Would you like something?" Thom asked Kara.

Rhyme said, "She'll want an Irish coffee, I'll bet… Why doesn't Starbucks start selling those?"

Kara declined the liquor but put in an order for a straight Maxwell House or Folgers.

Sellitto asked about the likelihood of some food since his anticipated Cubano sandwich hadn't survived the trip back to the townhouse.

As the aide vanished into the kitchen Sachs handed Kara the notes she'd taken and asked if she'd write down anything she thought was relevant on the magician profile board. The young woman rose and went into the lab.

"That was good," Sellitto told Sachs, "that interviewing. I don't know any sergeants could've done it better."

She nodded an unsmiling acknowledgment but Rhyme could tell she was pleased at the compliment.

A few minutes later Mel Cooper walked into the doorway, his face smudged too. He held up a plastic bag. "This's all the evidence from the Mazda." The bag contained what seemed to be a four-page folio – a single folded sheet – of The New York Times. It was clear that Sachs hadn't run the scene; wet evidence should be stored in paper or fiber mesh containers, not plastic, which promotes molds that can quickly destroy it.

"That was all they found?" Rhyme asked.

"So far. They haven't been able to raise the car yet. Too dangerous."

Rhyme asked him, "Can you see the date?"

Cooper examined the soggy paper. "Two days ago."

"Then it has to be the Conjurer's," Rhyme noted. "The car was stolen before then. Why would somebody save just one sheet from a newspaper and not the whole section?" The question, as many of Rhyme's, was purely rhetorical and he didn't bother to let anyone else have a shot at it. "Because there's an article in it that was important to him. And therefore maybe important to us. Of course maybe he's a dirty old man and likes the Victoria 's Secret ads. But even that might be helpful information. Can you read anything on it?"

"Nope. And I don't want to unfold it yet. Too wet."

"Okay, get it over to the document lab. If they can't open it at least they can image the headlines with infrared."

Cooper arranged for a messenger to take the sample to the NYPD crime lab in Queens and then called the head document examiner at home to expedite the analysis. He disappeared into the lab to transfer the newspaper to a better container for transport.

Thom arrived with the drinks – and a plate of sandwiches, which Sellitto promptly assaulted.

A few minutes later Kara returned and gratefully took the coffee mug from the aide. As she started pouring sugar in, she said to Sachs, "I was writing those things we found out about him on the board? And I got an idea. So I made a phone call. I think I found his real name."

"Whose?" Rhyme asked, sipping his heavenly scotch.

"Well, the Conjurer's."

The faint ring as Kara stirred the sugar into her coffee became the only sound in the otherwise dead-silent room.

Chapter Twenty-eight

"You've got his name?" Sellitto asked. "Who is he?"

"I think it's a man named Erick Weir."

"Spelled?" Rhyme asked.

"W-E-I-R." More sugar into the coffee. Then she continued. "He was a performer, an illusionist, a few years ago. I called Mr. Balzac – nobody knows the business like he does. And I gave him the profile and told him some of the things he'd said to Lincoln tonight. He got kind of weird – not to mention mad." A glance at Sachs. "The way he was this morning. He didn't want to help at first. But finally he calmed down and told me that it sounded like Weir."

"Why?" Sachs asked.

"Well, he'd be about the same age. Early fifties. And Weir was known for dangerous routines. Sleights with razor blades and knives. He's also one of the few people who's ever done the Burning Mirror. And remember I said illusionists always specialize? It's really unusual to find one performer who's good at so many different tricks – illusion and escape and protean and sleight, even ventriloquism and mentalism? Well, Weir did all of them. And he was an expert on Houdini. Some of what he's been doing this weekend are Houdini's routines or are based on them."

"Then that thing he also said – about being the wizard. There was a magician in the 1800s, John Henry Anderson. That's what he called himself – the Wizard of the North. He was real talented. But he had bad luck with fires. His show was nearly destroyed a couple of times. David told me that Weir was badly burned in a circus fire."

"The scars," Rhyme said. "The obsession with fire."

"And maybe his voice wasn't asthma," Sachs suggested. "The fire might've damaged his lungs or vocal cords."

"When was Weir's accident?" Sellitto asked.

"Three years ago. The circus tent he was rehearsing in was destroyed and Weir's wife was killed. They'd just gotten married. Nobody else was badly hurt."

It was a good lead. "Mel!" Rhyme shouted, forgetting his concerns about imperiling his own lungs. "Mel!"

A moment later Cooper stepped into the room. "Feeling better, I hear."

"Lexis/Nexis search, VICAP, NCIC and state databases. Details on a Erick Weir. W-E-I-R. Performer, illusionist, magician. He may be our perp."

Kara added, "First name spelled E-R-I-C-K."

"You found his name?" the tech asked, impressed.

A nod toward Kara. "She found his name."

"My."

After a few minutes Cooper returned with a number of printouts. He riffled through them as he addressed the team. "Not much," he said. "It's like he kept everything about his life under wraps. Erick Albert Weir. Born Las Vegas, October 1950. Virtually no early history. Weir worked for various circuses, casinos and entertainment companies as an assistant then he went out on his own as an illusionist and quick-change artist. Married Marie Cosgrove three years ago. Just after that he was appearing in the Thomas Hasbro and The Keller Brothers circus in Cleveland. During a rehearsal a fire broke out. The tent was destroyed. He was badly burned – third degree – and his wife was killed. No mention of him after that."

"Track down Weir's family."

Sellitto said he would. Since Bedding and Saul were fully occupied the detective called some Homicide task force detectives in the Big Building and put them on the job.

"A few other things," Cooper said, flipping through the printouts. "A couple of years before the fire Weir was arrested and convicted of reckless endangerment in New Jersey. Served thirty days. A member of the audience was badly burned when something went wrong onstage. Then there were some civil lawsuits by managers for damage to theaters and injuries to employees and some suits by Weir for breach of contract. In one show the manager found out Weir was using a real gun and real bullets in an act. Weir wouldn't change the routine and so the manager fired him." More reading. Then the tech continued, "In one of the articles I found the names of two assistants who were working with him at the time of the fire. One's in Reno and one's in Las Vegas. I got their numbers from the Nevada State Police."

"It's earlier their time," Rhyme pointed out, glancing at the clock. "Dig up the speakerphone, Thom."

"No, after everything tonight you need some rest."

"Just two phone calls. Then beddy-bye. Promise."

The aide debated.

"Please and thank-you?"

Thom nodded and vanished. A moment later he returned with the phone, plugged it in, set the unit close to Rhyme on the bedside table. "Ten minutes and I'm pulling the main circuit breaker," the aide said with enough threat in his voice to make Rhyme believe he'd do it.

"Fair enough."

Sellitto finished his sandwich and dialed the number of the first assistant on Cooper's list. The recorded voice of Arthur Loesser's wife answered and told them that the family wasn't home but please leave a message. Sellitto did so then he dialed the other assistant.

John Keating answered on the first ring and Sellitto explained they were in the middle of an investigation and had some questions for him. A pause then a man's nervous voice rattled out of the tiny speaker. "Uhm, what's this about? This's the New York City police?"

"That's right."

"Okay. I guess it's okay."

Sellitto asked, "You used to work for a man named Erick Weir, didn't you?"

Silence for a moment. Then the man launched into a staccato reply. "Mr. Weir? Well, uh-huh. I did. Why?" The voice was edgy and high. He sounded as if he'd just had a dozen cups of coffee.

"Do you happen to know where he might be?"

"I mean, why are you asking me about him?"

"We'd like to talk to him as part of a criminal investigation."

"Oh, my God… About what? What do you want to talk to him about?"

"We just have some general questions," Sellitto said. "Have you had any contact with him lately?"

There was a pause. This was the part where the nervous man would either spill all or run for the hills, Rhyme knew.

"Sir?" Sellitto asked.

"That's funny, okay. You asking me, I mean about him." The words clattered like marbles on metal. "Here it is. I'll tell you. I hadn't heard from Mr. Weir for years. I thought he was dead. There was this fire in Ohio, the last job we were working. He got burned. Real bad. He disappeared an