Mary Jo Robertiello
89th Street and Park Avenue
Sunday, October 14
Manuel ducked out of the 89thStreet and Park Avenue service entrance, turned north and glanced at his watch. Through the mist he could barely see the dial. He brought it closer. 11:14 p.m. He had to move quickly. He stretched to relieve the backpack’s weight. His disposable phone vibrated in his pocket. His chatty girlfriend was checking on the delivery address again. He snapped into the phone before putting it in silent mode.The mist lifted. Standing behind a nearby tree, he glanced toward the window’s dim light. The blinds were down, but he was able to see between the slats into the softly lit room. He edged closer to the window.
What’s this? They couldn’t wait?
He watched two people snorting coke. Like little piggies they bent over the table and inhaled the stuff. They could afford to since they hadn’t paid him. The woman snorted like a pro. He figured they could have their fun. He could too. He wanted a good shot. He fished out his iPhone and focused at the window.
“We’ll give him five minutes,” Detective Jimbo Jimenez said. At 12:05 a. m. on a chilly October Monday morning, 90th Street and Park Avenue were dead.
Detective Steve Kulchek looked out through the Subaru’s tinted windows at the wet pavement. Seeing his image in the side view mirror, he forced himself to study his own hawk-like face, deep-set eyes and hair that resembled a thatched roof.
Kulchek had turned forty the week before but was feeling more like four hundred. The ashes-in-the-mouth taste wasn’t from his one-pack-a-day habit. It was from Jimbo Jimenez, his partner of two and a half years, refusing to tell him whom they were meeting off duty.
“So we’ll give him five minutes,” Kulchek repeated.
There was no response from Jimbo.
Kulchek patted his pockets one more time, feeling unsuccessfully for the reassuring outline of a cigarette pack. Forget about a full pack, even one could get him through the next five minutes. Six weeks ago he would’ve bummed one from Jimbo, but the guy had gone cold turkey on him. Kulchek remembered there was an all-night deli around the corner on Lexington. He shoved the thought out of his mind. Time he quit smoking anyway.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, Jimbo was backlit by the streetlight shining on his shaved head making it hard to see his face.
“So where is this guy? It’s a guy, right?” Kulchek crumpled up his empty pack.
Jimbo shrugged. For the umpteenth time he opened his window a crack. He turned his face to the moist fall air and sucked it in like someone having an asthma attack. Like he hadn’t been a two-pack-a-day man, Kulchek thought. He studied Jimbo’s silhouette. The chiseled stubborn look was back, reminding Kulchek of their first rocky weeks together. It had taken both of them almost a year to trust each other.
Jimbo nodded, his head brushing the roof of the car, and grunted.
Kulchek was used to the grunt. Neither detective was a talker. His thoughts went back to the day he turned ten. What a birthday present. It had hooked him worse than cigarettes. His uncle, Con Haggerty, a New York City detective, had taken him on a ride-along. Con had treated him like a man, expecting him to figure things out for himself.
Here he was thirty years later acting on a tip-off with a partner who kept sticking his nose out the window and who wouldn’t tell him whom they were meeting. Kulchek’s thoughts went back to his Uncle Con. He missed the old guy. Con had two songs on his phone. Harry James was on weekdays, trumpeting through “Flight of the Bumblebee.” On weekends, Dean Martin crooned “Relax-ay-voo.” Con had erased the songs the day he retired and was probably staring at the ceiling of his Florida condo, wondering how he’d get through another day of mandatory retirement. It was Con’s stubborn righteousness that had gotten him kicked off the force. His last investigation had uncovered police corruption at his own 19th Precinct. After a few Jim Beams at weddings or funerals, Uncle Con would raise his glass and say, “Richard Holbrook,” as if he were drinking his dead ex-captain’s blood. Sooner or later Kulchek expected to get a call about Con having a boating accident, courtesy of booze or of unfinished NYPD business.
“Let’s go,” Jimbo said. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“Huh?” Kulchek came back to the present. “Give it a minute,” he said, not wanting to ask again who hadn’t shown. Con floated back into his thoughts. He lifted his spirits by thinking of his daughter in Sicily. “Family,” he mumbled.
“You said it,” Jimbo said.
Cigarette deprivation was kicking in. Kulchek felt his anger rising. “How the fuck am I supposed to work if I don’t know the connection?”
Light from a passing car cut across Jimbo’s dark features. For a second Kulchek saw the wary look in his eyes. Then Jimbo turned to face him, cutting off the light on his face. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Be back in a minute.” Kulchek couldn’t help himself. He jerked open the door and ran down 90th Street to the all-night deli on Lexington. He tossed some bills on the counter then grabbed the pack out of the merchant’s hand. He ran back again, huffing a little up the incline to Park. He ripped open the pack thinking, Jesus, I have to stop. Nobody smokes anymore. If he can do it, I can do it. Pissed at Jimbo and at himself, he took a deep drag. The nagging thought wormed into his head: Jimbo won’t talk. Therefore, Jimbo doesn’t trust me.
As he got back to Park, he saw a hoodie leaning down into Jimbo’s window.
Then the person was running northwest toward 91st Street. Kulchek raced across Park Avenue and ran passed the Subaru after the hoodie. He smelled smoke. He circled back. Shoved next to the rear door was a pressure cooker. It fizzled then stopped. Kulchek yanked at the driver’s door handle. It opened. Jimbo wasn’t moving. He was slumped over the steering wheel, groaning, blood gushing from his neck and upper chest. “Move, Jimbo. Grab my arm!” Behind Kulchek, someone yanked on his right arm. Kulchek clutched at Jimbo. Someone pulled on Kulchek’s arm again. He turned angrily to free his arm and hit his head on the door frame. Stunned, Kulchek shook his head, steadied himself and looked back at his partner. He grabbed Jimbo, pulled his partner toward him and tumbled over the pressure cooker.
Bellevue Hospital, Tuesday, October 16, 10:15 a.m.
Kulchek opened his eyes a sliver. Was the banging and clanking going on in his head? He blinked his right eye open and shut. He couldn’t figure out the bed. His sheets at home in Stuyvesant Town weren’t this white, weren’t white at all. Hadn’t Carmen picked out beige with chocolate trim? Carmen. He thought about his ex. Three months ago, she’d married his boss, that bastard Captain Dick Holbrook, son of the recently deceased Richard Holbrook. He tortured himself with the thought, she’s pregnant.
Kulchek steadied himself and concentrated on getting up. First he inched to the bed’s edge and put his right foot then the left on the linoleum floor. He forced himself up. The room started spinning.
“Back to bed,” a voice said. Strong female hands helped him back onto the bed.
A short, plump woman stared down at him. “No getting out of bed.”
Her accent had a Latina lilt like Carmen’s, but Carmen was history.
The aide stood at the bottom of Kulchek’s bed and pushed a button raising the head to a 45 degree angle. “Remember me?”
Kulchek shook his head.
“I remember you. I saw your stomach scars and said, ‘that’s him.’” She eyed Kulchek’s gray mop and bristly chin.
”Can I have some water?”
“Wait until the doctor sees you,” the aide said.
“What the hell’s going on?” Kulchek sunk his head back into his pillows.
“You’re very lucky,” the aide said.
A white-coated doctor entered the room and glanced at the aide’s ID. “Thank you, Ms….”
“I’ll check on you later,” the aide said leaving the room. The patrolman on duty closed the door.
“Detective Kulchek, how you doing?” The doctor read the chart he was holding. “You weren’t seriously injured.”
“What happened to me?” Kulchek said. “She said I was lucky.”
“You have a concussion. You’ve been in and out of consciousness since early Monday morning. That’s when EMS brought you in.”
Kulchek shook his head once. He stopped. Dizzy, he lowered his head. “Tuesday? It’s Monday.”
“It’s 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, October 16, Bellevue,” the doctor said. He moved closer to the bed.
Kulchek tried to stretch his back and groaned. He raised his head slowly.
“Your patrol car had an explosive devise near it. It didn’t explode. Your colleague didn’t stand a chance if it had worked.”
Kulchek was too groggy to correct him. The Subaru was Jimbo’s, not the department’s. “Where’s Jimbo?”
“Intensive Care Unit.”
Kulchek threw back the bed sheet.
“Stay there, Detective,” the doctor ordered. “You can’t see him.”
Kulchek’s head sank back into the pillows. He dimly remembered hitting something.
“What about Jimbo?”
“He’s been stabbed. That’s all I can say. One of your colleagues is stopping by later today.”
Kulchek knew what that meant. Lieutenant Dominique Leguizamo, his one-time partner and now superior, was paying him a visit.
Two hours later, Kulchek woke up to the sound of his door being opened. He opened his eyes to see Lieutenant Dominique Leguizamo glaring at him from the bottom of his bed. She was in civilian clothes, head-to-toe black leather. On her, they looked like a uniform.
“Give me a mirror,” Kulchek said.
“Steve, you haven’t the balls to see what you look like.”
Kulchek felt right at home.
“What the hell were you and Jimbo doing?”
“I don’t know,” Kulchek said. He thought to himself, we sat in the Subaru, I bought cigarettes, and now I’m here. “How’s Jimbo?”
“Aside from being stabbed in the neck and chest, just missing the jugular, he’s great. Forget about Jimbo. What were you two doing?”
“He wanted to check out someone.”
“Who wants you dead? Who wants Jimbo dead? Who planted that bomb? You know they used a pressure cooker, Boston marathon shit? Shoved against the rear door like someone was trying to shove it under the car.”
“It didn’t go off.”
“Lucky you,” Dom said.
“The knife?” Kulchek put his head back on the pillows and closed his eyes.
“Gone. The guy took it.”
Neither detective said anything.
“Holbrook is going to use this against you. Start talking,” Dom said.
Captain Dick Holbrook and Detective Steve Kulchek hated each other as much as Kulchek’s Uncle Con had hated Holbrook Senior. When Holbrook Junior married Carmen that just added to the mix.
“I don’t know, Dom. Honest.”
“You better get your act together, Steve. Have you contacted Jessie?” Dom referred to Kulchek’s daughter.
“Why? She’s in Sicily.”
“Not in school?”
“Junior year abroad.” The thought of his daughter created a flutter of pride in Kulchek’s heart.
“Junior year abroad.” Dom mimicked Kulchek’s false modesty with some of the old joking sarcasm that had existed between them before he had screwed up an investigation last year. “Well, get you.”
Dominique Leguizamo and Kulchek had started out as partners in Homicide. It was a dream match professionally. They cleared a majority of their case load. Privately, Dom was Jessie’s godmother. Then, about a year and a half ago, Kulchek had ruined a case. Dom was furious. Only after Kulchek solved the Lemrow Museum case had Dom thawed. Meanwhile, Dom had climbed the ladder to lieutenant and married her girlfriend.
“So what were you doing in an unmarked car at 1:00 a.m. at 90th Street and Park?” Dom said.
Kulchek remembered that Jimbo had gone silent on him like in their early days working together.
“Come on, Dom. It was Jimbo’s car. I went for cigarettes. Coming back, I saw a hoodie leaning on Jimbo’s side of the Subaru. I chased the guy. Behind me, I heard a sound like a fizzle. It was that booby-trap. I ran back to the vehicle. It took me a minute to get why Jimbo wasn’t moving. Stabbed. So I dragged him out.”
Dom waited. Finally she said, “That pressure cooker was filled with ammo but didn’t fit under the car. It didn’t explode. Good thing.”
She reached into her tote, pulled out a plastic envelope and removed some photos from the envelope. “Take a look.”
After studying the photos of Jimbo, Kulchek said, “Can I see him?”
“I’m going home.”
Tuesday, October 16
Nine-year-old Dana Scales slumped in her cushioned rose chair and chewed on her cuticle. Her head rocked gently as Gigi Hernandez, her favorite babysitter, massaged her scalp. Like Dana, Gigi was a student at the Windsor School. The resemblance ended there.
Dana’s mother, Rina Scales, ran a successful graphics house, owned a pricey Carnegie Hill condo and was on the Windsor board. Gigi was a scholarship student whose mother had died in childbirth. Gigi lived in a rent-stabilized apartment on 124th Street with her father, Manuel Hernandez, her father’s girlfriend, Leticia Scott, and her Uncle George. Both her father and uncle were on Windsor’s custodial staff.
Gigi felt a thrill of awe and envy whenever she opened the door of Scales Studio at 93rd Street and Madison, a combination of 8,000 square feet of studio and home with 3,300 gallons of fresh and saltwater aquariums. Placed on custom-built stands that acted as cubicle dividers, the aquariums zigzagged through the studio and adjacent office. Each aquarium was called by the name of the locale from which the fish originated.
Gigi ran her long fingers through Dana’s straggly hair as if she were a salon pro on the Hair Channel. God, she was tired. It had been a long day, starting with the discovery on her dad’s phone.
She kept an eye on the kid who was pushing aside a carved pumpkin, a grubby iPad, and lots of candy wrappers, searching the vanity table for an escaped chocolate.
“No more, Dana.”
Pouty-faced Dana frowned at Gigi in the mirror as her fingers moved slyly across the mirrored surface, discovered a chocolate kiss and tossed it into her mouth.
Gigi frowned into the three-way mirror knowing that’s what Dana expected. In the mirror’s reflection she studied the lush background of French wallpaper that covered Dana’s bedroom walls. A smug Little Miss Muffet on her pink throne-like tuffet reminded Gigi of Dana’s mom.
Looking over Dana’s head into the mirror, Gigi examined herself. Raising her head to emphasize her long neck, buffed shoulders and her dark, voluminous curls, she turned her head from side to side as she practiced smiling. Only 5’ 3”, she carried herself to give the impression of being taller. She’d learned that from Noelle Holbrook, junior class president.
Out of habit, Gigi reached under her blouse to feel the necklace her Uncle George had given her. It wasn’t there. She was ashamed of her feelings about the necklace and the way she always hid it. Gigi blushed, recalling how yesterday after gymnastics she’d lifted the necklace over her head and offered it to Noelle, holding it out in her hand like Dana offering a candy. All because Noelle had examined it before saying, “Cute. 18 karat?”
Noelle was so generous. She loved the necklace so much she treated Gigi to a manicure in a fancy salon. No flashy colors for Noelle. She looked at the million colors they could choose from and pointed at Chanel’s Liquid Mirror. She chose it too. It was the first time Gigi picked gray. She showed Dana her nails from Monday. “What do you think?”
Dana shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”
Gigi was worried. Last night Uncle George had wanted to know where her necklace was. She’d lied and said she was having the clasp fixed. He said it didn’t have a clasp. He wanted to know if she had lost it. All the time George was saying this, he looked at her suspiciously. She couldn’t tell him she’d given his gift to Noelle.
“Do your Uncle George.” The nine-year-old broke into Gigi’s reverie. Dana’s eyes gleamed with pleasure as she thought of the little kitchen guy, with his funny English, who was always friendly.
“Not again,” Gigi said, feeling disloyal when she imitated her uncle. Then Gigi raised her right index finger for emphasis, lowered her voice and spoke in an exaggerated Latino accent, “Don’t show off and don’twear short short skirts.” She didn’t say aloud, And don’t hang with Noelle. Gigi hated George’s going on and on about Noelle. Gigi raised her right hand to her bare neck. She didn’t miss that stupid necklace he’d given her, but she should have kept it.
“He works in the kitchen, right?” Dana said, knowing full well the answer.
Oh, yes, Uncle George Lopez, her father’s half-brother, works in the school kitchen and informs everyone that his niece is a Windsor junior. At least she didn’t have to worry about her dad talking to anyone. He was too busy on his phone making deals to think about his daughter.
Manuel’s idea of being a father was to snap an occasional photo of her. Again, she recalled the photo on her father’s iPhone that she had seen early this morning. Before leaving for school, she had just dumped out the clean laundry on her dad’s bed and was folding a work shirt. His phone was lying on the bureau. She was curious about a shot he’d taken of her the day before. When she clicked on Photos on her dad’s phone she found a shot that showed two people snorting something. She caught her breath, feeling scared because she recognized the people. She sent a copy of the photo to her phone. That’s when she realized Uncle George was looking over her shoulder staring at the two people in the photo. George took Manuel’s phone from Gigi and sent himself a copy. Seconds later, her dad came in, grabbed his cell out of George’s hand and threw it into a drawer. “That’s the last time, you nosy bastard,” her dad said to George.
Gigi tried to brush aside the touch of fear. The important people in the photo could get her kicked out of Windsor, get her father and uncle fired. Maybe kicked out of the country.
Plus, she was envious of the rich, dopey kid she had to babysit after school to make a few bucks. All for the precious Windsor scholarship.
Dana took her thumb out of her mouth and stared in the mirror at Gigi. “Remember me?”
They heard footsteps approaching from the studio.
“You okay?” A slender woman with reddish-brown hair stood in the doorway.
“Hey, Millie. What’s with you? Looking sharp,” Gigi said. Millie was one of the good guys. Whenever Gigi asked her about private schools or what an English word meant, Millie always told her the answer without making her feel dumb and lost. Gigi noticed that Millie had on a little make-up, cool jeans and a sharp green sweater. She was glad that Millie was making an effort to snap out of her sad look. Gigi knew that Millie’s husband had died less than a year ago.
“Thanks, Gigi.” Millie gave her a wise, older sister look. “What about you, my pal?” Millie looked into the vanity mirror and into Dana’s eyes.
“I’m bored,” Dana said, turning around and facing Millie. “Are you getting a job at my school?”
“Who knows? And where did you hear that?” Millie said.
“Mom was talking about you to someone,” Dana said.
“Yes?” Millie smiled down at Dana. “Back to work.”
Gigi shot Millie a look of appreciation as she left the room, recalling how Millie
had helped her get the dried urine-smelling sheets into the washer and dryer and on the bed before Rina Scales banged her way through the door. Poor Dana, wetting her bed at nine years old, then hiding the sheets under her bed until Gigi arrived after school.
“Hey, Gigi?” Dana said.
Gigi winked in the mirror at Dana and fluffed the kid’s lousy locks. The kid looked more like a Cabbage Patch Kid than one of the American Girl dolls settled in packs on the cherry window seat. Gigi pressed a finger into Dana’s back, a signal that she had to sit up. Dana sat very straight trying unsuccessfully to lengthen her pudgy body. After a few seconds she slumped back into her cushioned chair, put in her earphones and become engrossed in music on her iPod.
Gigi checked her iPhone, a gift from George to make her feel at home with the Windsor girls. A few messages from kids in the Harlem hood, but nothing from that great Windsor girl.
The first time Gigi had seen Noelle she was parking her cherry red Vespa. No shredded jeans for Noelle. Hers were pressed. The jeans were a perfect length, following Noelle’s great legs to her ankles and to her red Tod’s loafers. Noelle reminded Gigi of that Daisy character she had read about in The Great Gatsby CliffsNotes.
Gigi thought she and Noelle looked alike. Both had thick dark brown hair and toned bodies, thanks to gymnastics. Gigi exercised in P. S. 138’s summer program. Noelle’s trim body was courtesy of her hot personal trainer who was now the gymnastics coach at Windsor.
Gigi was off to fantasyland. She and Noelle were twins. They’d arrive at school together on the Vespa. No. Gigi had a greedy rush. They’d have twin Vespas.
The door slammed, waking Gigi from her fantasy. She pulled the earphones from Dana’s ears. From the studio, they heard Rina Scales’ voice and the clicking of her heels, then her stopping.
“Gigi,” Dana said in her scared voice.
Both Dana and Gigi stared at the telltale candy wrappers. Dana swept a few under her ipad. They listened to Rina coming closer and cooing to the fish. “How are my babies?” Her heels clicked closer to Dana’s room, then she stopped. “Millie, what’s this I hear? We’ll talk later.”
Gigi grabbed a comb and rested the comb’s teeth on Dana’s dry scalp before making a straight part. It reminded her of her Uncle George’s futile attempts at raising a corn crop on his parched allotment in Harlem.
Rina marched into the room. “Homework done?” she said. The bright smile didn’t fool anyone. China-blue eyes raced around the messy room taking in the custom-made pillows on the floor, the dolls and teddy bears heaped together on the canopied bed. Rina glared at the ten candy wrappers scattered on the vanity table and the fourteen candy wrappers nestled in the flowery dust ruffle.
Rina glanced at Gigi for confirmation.
“Ma’am? Don’t call me ma’am. Call me Rina. I want you to stay an extra hour, okay?” Rina grabbed a lilac tissue from a decorative box and blew her nose.
Of course, it wasn’t okay. Since Gigi had begun her after-school babysitting gig two weeks ago, Rina had squeezed in five extra hours. Gigi checked her watch. “Well, okay.”
Rina leaned over and planted an unwanted kiss on Gigi’s cheek.
“Clean up this place.” Rina picked up one of the American Girl dolls from the heap on the bed and placed it with the others on the window seat. “These are expensive. Treat them with respect.”
She walked over to the dust ruffle, picked up a candy wrapper and held it up to the light. “Fifty calories,” she read from the label. “If I eat twenty-four candies and there are fifty calories in each one, how many calories have I consumed?” Rina had paid big bucks for a tutor during summer school since Dana’s math was lousy. “Well?”
Dana and Gigi froze.
“How many calories have I added to my body?” Rina raised her voice and ran her manicured hands down her boyish hips. “How many calories have you added to your body, Dana?” Rina’s icy tone petrified Dana, who sat frozen under her mother’s spell. Gigi backed away and started picking the wrappers out of the dust ruffle.
Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” played on Gigi’s phone. Gigi snatched her phone and glanced at Rina before looking at the screen. “Excuse me.” She walked out of the room into the hall that separated the living quarters from the studio before answering. “Hi,” she said with no trace of a Latino accent.
Gigi read the caller’s name on her screen. “Hi, Noelle.” She couldn’t think of anything to say. “How’s the Vespa?”
Noelle said to a third person, “She’s saying something about my Vespa.
Gigi, are you going to that Halloween thing?”
Gigi blew out her cheeks. The Upper School was expected to show up at the October 24th fundraiser, but she had lots of excuses for not going – no date, no car, no confidence, no money to buy a cute outfit. “I haven’t thought about it.”
“Well, think about it. You can go with me and my date.”
Gigi recalled a tall thin boy with lots of attitude who went to another fancy private school.
Keep cool. Gigi pitched her voice low. “I’ll think about it.”
“Be in touch.” Noelle clicked off.
“Yesss,” Gigi whispered to herself. A warm, loving sensation spread through her body. At last, acceptance. I’m so glad I gave her my necklace. I’d give her a thousand necklaces. Thank you, God, she whispered. She reached up to touch her necklace, then remembered it wasn’t there. She didn’t bless herself because from Dana’s bedroom, Rina was staring at her.
Gigi avoided looking at Rina as she scooted back into the room. I’m friends with Noelle Holbrook sang in Gigi’s brain as she watched Rina go back to her graphics and advertising empire.
Gigi fiddled with Dana’s hair, as she tried to eavesdrop on Rina and Millie. “Good luck, Millie,” Gigi said to herself.
“Millie, so let me get this straight. You really want to work with kids?” Rina said.
“You’re a pretty good photographer. I have some projects you can work on.”
“Rina, I can work part time for you, but I want to teach full time.” Millie stared at the half-dead avocado plant under the mirror she and Dana had planted and promptly forgotten. She thought of Momzer. After work she was taking her dying dog to the vets to be put down. Like everything else, it reminded her of Jake who had died eleven months before. She could heard Jake whispering into her ear, “Get out of there.”
The Windsor School
Wednesday, October 17
Smile. Damn it, smile. I should have cancelled this, Millie thought, walking through the rain to The Windsor School. Dumb idea taking Momzer to the vet the day before her Windsor interview. Millie thought of the schnauzer leaping to catch a Frisbee thrown by Jake the day they found out about her pregnancy. To announce it, they had emailed everyone Jake’s perky design of a fetus. How dumb was that? Her miscarriage and her husband’s cancer diagnosis occurred a few weeks later. Jake died eleven months and five days ago. Now, Momzer was dead too. In canine terms, he had been seventy-seven. It was longer than Jake’s life, and the end came a lot quicker. She had stroked Momzer as the vet inserted the lethal injection. His cigar-butt tail thumped on the white table. He had trusted her to the end.
In spite of the rain pinging off her umbrella, Millie loitered at the corner of 90th Street and Park Avenue. She checked her watch: 7:25 a.m. A barrel-chested policeman in a dark raincoat stood on the corner. Lights mounted above the apartment house canopies flashed, signaling for cabs. Doormen whistled. More and more people were rushing out of the town houses and co-ops, hands up, waving for taxis. Crossing the street, a woman Millie assumed was a housekeeper in jeans walked a dog outfitted in custom tartan rain gear.
Millie continued west on the north side of well-tended 90th Street. At five-foot intervals, trees drooped under the weight of the autumn rain. The sun was breaking through a watery sky. Millie stopped in the middle of the block, tilted her umbrella and looked up at a brick building, a four-story converted townhouse. Over the arched doorway The Windsor School was inscribed on a marble plaque. Remembering the school where she had previously taught, she was fairly certain somebody would be there by now.
It was exactly 7:30 when she pushed the brass button to the right of the imposing main entrance. She heard it ring. While she waited, she studied a banner announcing a Halloween benefit at the Hudson and Grove Club on October 24. After a few minutes, a face peered through a tiny window to the right of the door. She gestured to open the door. The face disappeared.
She turned the front entrance’s doorknob. Just as she had thought, it was locked. If Windsor were like most private schools, its main entrance would be opened at eight a.m. for the students. Millie noticed an unobtrusive door to the left of the main entrance. She figured that at one time it had been the servants’ entrance. Over the door was a discreet sign: Staff and Deliveries Only.
A gust of wind whirled down 90th Street. She ducked into the Staff and Deliveries Only doorway and rang the bell, hearing it pierce the quiet of the building. There was a sound of someone coming to the door, followed by eyes scowling at her through the white bars over the window.
“I’m Millie Fitzgerald. I’m here for an interview.” She forced a friendly smile. “I’m sorry I’m so early. Can I come in?” Come on, guy, open the door. He reminded her of Momzer with his scruffy mustache and thinning sideburns. She figured he was on the janitorial staff.
Finally, he cracked the door. “Lady, when’s your appointment?”
“Eight forty-five. I’m early. There’s nothing open in the neighborhood. It’s raining. If I could sit somewhere…”
Who cares? was written all over his face. He looked sharply toward Park and then toward Madison before motioning her inside and slamming the door shut.
“Thanks a lot,” she said, grateful. Straight ahead was a flight of stairs she assumed led down to the basement. Seeing several doors along a corridor that ran to the left side of the stairs, she assumed they were offices.
“Follow me,” the man said. Millie followed him down a hall. He opened a fire door and held it impatiently while she closed her dripping umbrella. Then he led her through a corridor that smelled of freshly polished linoleum and into a brightly lit room she assumed was the school’s reception area. A circular staircase swept up to the skylight in the ceiling four stories above them. Millie imagined it was perfect for a debutante’s entrance.
Beneath the sweep of the stairs, there was a desk laden with a computer, a cell, the free newspaper, Metro New York, a container of coffee and a half-eaten Danish. To her right, toward 90th Street, was the bolted main entrance. Above the desk was a closed-circuit TV facing the front door.
“Sit there.” He gestured with his head toward an upholstered bench that followed the circular walls.
Millie did as she was told. He seated himself at the desk.
“My name’s Millie Fitzgerald. I’m here for an interview.” Her voice bounced off the walls of the miniature rotunda.
“You told me. I’m only sitting here until the receptionist comes.” He slouched over his cell and slurped his coffee.
Millie checked out her surroundings. On the circular wall’s bulletin board, Save the Date! Halloween Party October 24 was bordered by witches on broomsticks. Julia Billington, Head of School, was inscribed on the paneled door to her right.
Over the top of the paper, Millie noticed the guy’s ears flattened like Momzer’s used to do when he had been irritated. She pulled out her tablet and clicked to the obituary section of the Times. Since Jake’s death, she preferred to read about the dead rather than the living. A virtuous failing, Jake used to say, with his weakness for oxymorons, about her inclination to see herself as others did. Since his death, self-consciousness ruled her life.
She scanned the photos of the newly dead. Not very interesting today, she thought, following her daily routine of comparing the ages of the deceased to her own thirty-five, then Jake’s forty-three, and now their old dog’s at seventy-seven. Vital statistics for her meant cause and age at death.
She unzipped her purse. It made an annoying buzz like that of a single mosquito. Then she searched for her pocket mirror, acutely aware of the slight, irritating sounds she was making. Do I have lipstick on my teeth, she wondered. She glanced at Stone Eyes who continued to ignore her and read his paper. Then she ran her tongue back and forth over her teeth.
The front page of his free newspaper was facing Millie. She saw the headline, “Monday’s Cop Attack on Upper East Side. Terrorists Ruled Out.”
“Near here?” she said. He scowled over his paper and looked confused.
“The attack?” Millie said, pointing to his paper.
He turned the paper over, checked the headlines, then jerked his head to the left. Millie figured he meant 90th Street and Park. “It happened Monday?”
His cold eyes glared into hers over the top of his paper.
Millie ran her finger over her tablet and found the Times article. She read the first two paragraphs, interested in the proximity of time and place. “I just passed there.”
He said nothing. Millie was filled with the free-floating anxiety that had settled in her bones the day she and Jake had heard his diagnosis. I suppose asking the super if I have lipstick on my teeth would be weird. “Where’s the ladies’ room?”
The guy looked up in the direction of the sweeping stairs. “You can’t go upstairs.” Suddenly, he smiled. “There’s a bathroom in the cafeteria, and you can wait down there.” He pointed at the fire door. “Go back the way you came in and take the stairs on your right.”
“Fine,” Millie said. What’s the head going to be like, she wondered, as she picked up her things. As Millie opened the fire door, she heard rapid footsteps. She had a fleeting glance of a dark-haired girl running down the corridor.
The only sound she could hear as she went down the steps to the cafeteria was the clicking of her heels. She pushed open a door. To her right were rows of white metal tables with matching chairs. Beyond them she saw a door labeled Restrooms. There was an exit sign at the other end of the cafeteria. To her left was an alcove with a kitchen extending behind a cafeteria counter. Running along the left wall were a row of lockers. One of the locker doors was opened. Millie saw a jacket and an ancient fedora.
Behind the counter, a short, dark-haired man was standing at a stainless steel sink. On the drain board beside him was a tray of carrot and celery strips cut like miniature logs. After watching him for a few moments cutting more vegetables, she approached him.
He dropped a paring knife into the deep aluminum sink and turned quickly, staring into her face.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” She smiled into his eyes that were circled by deep shadows. “The guy at the front desk told me to wait down here.”
“He’s the super. Larry’s okay. Just doesn’t like to talk in the morning.” He pointed a shaky finger at a chair near the counter. The guy dropped his paring knife on the linoleum floor. He picked it up and dropped it again. With weary grace, he grabbed it off the floor and washed it under a faucet. “Sorry, sorry. I’m short-handed. The cook’s gonna be late. You got a name?” He looked at her with his doggy brown eyes, while adding to the stacks of carrots and celery on the counter and then carrying them to the salad bar.
“I’m Millie Fitzgerald. I have an interview for a teaching position at 8:45 and was looking for a place to wait.” She sat down.
He pronounced it hor-hay. “I know it sounds like a bad word, right?” he said apologetically. “So I say George in American.” He pulled a rubber glove off his right hand and extended it. “George Lopez,” he said as they shook hands. A tinkly tune came from George’s right trouser pocket. He pulled out the cell and transferred it to his left hand.
He put the cell to his ear. Millie heard nothing. Then George held his cell in front of him and studied the text on the tiny screen. “Nothing.” He was shaking. “Excuse me for taking it. It was nothing.”
“You okay?” Millie said, touched by his old-fashioned manners.
George attempted a smile. The tune sounded again. He put it to his ear.
“Yes?” he stuttered.
Millie overheard two words in English, dead meat, and a Spanish phrase.
George was starting to sweat. He clicked off his cell.
“You replacing that lady who broke her ankle? Fourth grade, right?” George was breathing hard. He yanked on a rubber glove, dumped the mounds of carrots and celery into a three-gallon colander and doused them with a fine, hard spray.
There was the clank and bang of the pipes throughout the kitchen. On one of the gas stoves, a drip coffee pot was gurgling away. Millie inhaled deeply, savoring the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
“This place reminds me of my last school. Same kind of layout. I guess a rich family lived here a long time ago. When was it converted?”
“Converted?” George asked.
“Switched over from a townhouse to a school.” “Seventy, eighty years ago? This one is the Upper and Middle School. There’s a corridor to the other building on 91st Street where the young kids are but they all eat in here.”
“That’s where I’d be teaching, if I get the job.”
“You’ll get the job. Uncle George and his free advice, that’s what my niece says.”
He smiled, knowing he had read her mind. “Take it from me; don’t try too hard. You
know what I mean? Things work out or they don’t.”
Gold chains encircled his neck. Twinkling between heavier ones was a
delicate one with two hearts, one overlapping the other. George
patted them, embarrassed because her eyes were following his every move.
The poor guy doesn’t realize how scared he looks, Millie thought. Either he’s petrified or he has a nervous disorder.
“You sing?” George said.
“Not any more.”
“You got a nice voice. You know that?” He sliced away. “You don’t get this job, there’s always another.” He stopped slicing and looked at her. “You got family?”
“I don’t have a family,” Millie said. “Anyway, not much of one.”
George put his index finger to his lips and looked around. “Maybe you’re lucky.”
“You remind me of my niece, Gigi.”
“Did you say, Gigi?”
Without saying a word, George reached into his hip pocket, and pulled out a battered wallet. He yanked out a photo of himself linking arms with a pretty, teenage girl. In the photo, Millie recognized the gold chain with the two hearts around George’s neck. The girl had an identical necklace.
George’s smile turned to a frown. “I gave her that.” He pointed to Gigi as he placed his right hand on his chain with the two hearts.
“I know her.” Millie said, surprised. “She works for Rina Scales. So do I.”
“But you’re a teacher.”
“I work there part time.”
“Like Gigi, but Ms. Scales likes her to stay on and on and on,” George said, making a circular motion with his left hand. “She changes her eyes?” He said in a gossipy tone.
“That’s Rina, all right.” Millie recalled the horror and delight of looking into Rina’s eyes each day, never knowing if she’d find blue, hazel or brown contacts.
George laughed. “So you work with my niece.”
“She babysits Dana Scales.” And I babysit Rina Scales, Millie thought but didn’t say.
He looked over at the industrial stove. “Coffee’s ready. Want some?”
“Real coffee? Sure. Cold for October, isn’t it?”
“George Lopez, eight years in New York City, has never had instant coffee. And never will.” He handed her a cup of coffee.
“You sound like my husband,” Millie said.
“What’s his name?”
“His name was Jake. I guess it still is. He died about eleven months ago.”
He studied her. “I bet he died of a sickness.”
“ — cancer.” An acrid taste filled her mouth. She gulped.
George glanced at Millie’s wedding ring. “You ever put that away?”
“No, of course not.” He was a nice little guy but awfully nosy.
George found some Oreos and put them on a paper napkin in front of her to go along with the coffee.
“You gotta keep going,” George said, the sound bouncing off the walls. “Nobody says my life’s been easy.” He raised his right hand and pointed at his chest. The heavy gold of his pinkie ring caught the light. He saw Millie looking at it and held up his left hand to show an identical ring on his little finger.
“Great,” she said, meaning it, because he was such a kind guy.
“You gotta keep it in perspective,” George said.
“Huh?” Millie was lost.
“Money. I place a few bets — win some, lose some. I always pay back.” George pointed with his knife at the ceiling. Millie assumed he meant the super, Larry. “Don’t get in over your head like some people I could name.” He moved his head near a vent over the sink. “Sometimes I hear things,” he whispered.
The screech of the doorbell startled them both. Millie jumped and spilled some coffee. George dropped a pot cover. He had to grab twice before he caught the rolling lid. “Take it easy,” he said. “Maybe kids late for gymnastics. The early ones got here at seven. My Gigi is on the team. She’s on scholarship.”
“I think I saw her,” Millie said. She gestured with her head, indicating upstairs.
George’s face caved in with sadness.
Confused, Millie said, “Maybe it was someone else.”
The doorbell rang again. George held on to the sink, listening to the overheard sounds. “I bet that’s Ms. Billington. Larry lets her in when she forgets her key.”
“Ms. Billington? She’s the one I have to see.”
“Been the head for a year now.” George shook his head, thinking about something. He hacked off the end of a bunch of celery. “Have confidence. That’s the secret.” He worked fast, adding to the mounds of celery and carrots.
“It’s quiet here,” she said.
“After eight o’clock it’s a zoo.”
“I better get moving, George. I’ve enjoyed talking to you.” She looked at her watch and picked up the mug.
“Leave that,” George said. “You’ll get your hands dirty.”
“I mean I’ll take care of it,” he said.
“Thanks for,” she paused, searching for the right phrase, “your kindness.”
George gave her the thumbs-up sign. He yanked on the faucet. The water gushed out.
“Ever been to Puerto Rico?”
“No,” she said, confused. “You going there?”
“Beautiful,” he said, not answering her. A wall phone rang.
George stared at it, letting the water run over his hands.
He braced himself, dried his hands and picked up the receiver. Within seconds, his expression lightened. “Sure, sure,” he said, hanging up. “Gotta take up coffee to the head’s office.”
“A meeting?” Millie said.
“A big shot meeting.” George winked. “Rich big shots. Gotta take coffee.” He poured fresh, hot coffee into a carafe, picked up a plate of bagels swathed in plastic and placed them on a small trolley. “Come on. We’ll take the elevator.”