Excerpt from Shell Game by Carol O'Connell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Shell Game

By Carol O'Connell

Shell Game

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He turned to his partner, intending to thank her again for these wonderful threads, to say something sentimental and foolish.

Naw.

"You're really off the mark this time, kid." Sentiment would have cost him too many points with her.

"You don't know it wasn't murder," said Mallory.

Yes, he did. "I trust the West Side dick's report. He said the machinery checked out. The crossbows did what they were supposed to do. The old guy just screwed up the act."

She turned away from him, for this was heresy, and she was not listening to any more of it.

Riker craned his neck to look up at the circular stage. Charles Butler was juggling five red balls. The other magicians were making birds and bouquets of flowers disappear and reappear to the applause of sidewalk spectators. Charles was clearly enjoying himself, an amateur mingling with some of the most famous magicians in memory, albeit an old memory of another time, for his companions were of the World War II generation.

Riker turned back to Mallory. She was focused on the crowd, watching for the first taxpayer to do something criminal.

"Well, kid, maybe Oliver Tree wanted to die."

"You never know," said Mallory. "But most suicides prefer the painless route over four sharp arrows."

The members of a high school marching band were warming up their instruments on the sidewalk. The trombone nearly decapitated a pedestrian as the musician turned sharply, unmindful of the press of people all around him. The French horns and the tuba were at war with the clarinet, and the drummer was in a world of his own, bored and bent on annoying everyone within earshot.

Damn kids.

A cadre of sequined baton-twirlers walked by the magicians' float. Two pretty girls waved at Riker, giving him a better opinion of teenagers as a species. In their wake, another giant was joining the parade. Riker grinned at the chubby airborne effigy of a fireman. This was a balloon he remembered from atop his father's shoulders when he was five years old. Fifty years later, many new characters had replaced his retired favorites. Ah, but now another old familiar fellow was queuing up along the cross street.

Through a spiderweb of bare tree branches, he could see the gargantuan Woody Woodpecker balloon lying facedown and floating just above the pavement. The great arms and legs were outstretched, and one white-gloved hand was covering an automobile. All of the balloon's personal handlers were dressed in woodpecker costumes, but they had the scale of scurrying blue ants with red hair and yellow shoes as they pulled back nets and removed restraining sandbags from the bird's arms and legs.

"Hey, Mallory, there's Woody, your favorite. Remember?"

She looked bored now, but when she was a child, this same giant balloon had made her eyes pop with wonder.

"I never liked that one," she said.

"Oh, you liar." Riker had the proof, clear memories of that parade, fifteen years before, when he was still allowed to call her Kathy. The ten-year-old girl had stood by his side on a cold day in another November. She had resembled an upright blond turtle, for Helen Markowitz had cocooned her foster child in layers of sweaters, woolen scarves and a thick down coat. That was the day when they had to peel little Kathy Mallory's eyes off the gigantic woodpecker, resplendent in his fine mop of red rubber hair and that magnificent yellow beak.

Riker raised his eyes to see the handlers letting out the ropes, and the horizontal balloon was on the rise. At last, the mighty bird was standing sixty feet tall, looming above the crowd and blocking out a good portion of brilliant blue sky. If Woody chose to, he could look into the upper windows of the museum and even examine its roof.

Reprinted from Shell Game by Carol O'Connell by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Carol O'Connell.

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