IN THE FURY OF THE HOUR
By Nene Adams ©2009
New York City, New York
Wilburton University, Manhattan
Jackie Quick did not like the campus library. The fluorescent lights offended her eyes, the musty smell of books offended her nose, and the students—the jocks, preppies, betties, stoners, dexters, dickweeds and geeks—offended her, period.
Her upper lip curled in a sneer as she slouched her way along a row of desks. Most of the desks were occupied by students too busy studying their books to notice her, which annoyed her further. Bunch of Kool-Aid slurping drones, she thought, deliberately kicking an empty chair with the toe of her boot.
The oppressive silence scraped at her nerves. When the air conditioner kicked in, belching barely cooled air through the vents, she jumped slightly, cursing under her breath. Sweat tickled between her shoulder blades. She paused to read a framed poster proclaiming, Dare to be your best, and you will achieve future success, the message illustrated by a basketball player slam-dunking a ball. What bullshit! The impulse to scream, “fuck the future!” at the top of her lungs burned in her chest, in her belly and her bowels. Jackie balled her hands into fists, hunched her shoulders and hurried on, putting more speed in her step. She had a mission to accomplish, which would be mighty damned difficult if she got arrested for causing a public scene.
Finally, Jackie spotted the person she had come to see, a plump brunette seated alone at a table, scribbling in a notebook. She knew the woman’s name was Connie Armstrong.
Jackie stood watching the oh-so-preppy Connie for a long moment, taking in the plastic framed eyeglasses, and the banana clip holding back the young woman’s hair from her round, rather plain face. Connie was dressed in khaki trousers and a pink polo shirt, a white sweater tied round her shoulders. A gold add-a-bead necklace glinted in the hollow of her throat. Jackie would bet Connie also wore ankle socks and penny loafers.
The more she stared, the lower her heart sank. Why had she let Izzy talk her into coming here? Had she actually believed a goodie two-shoes like Connie Armstrong would help them out? This was a stupid idea. Frustrated, Jackie turned away, only to be stop after a few steps and turn around, disgusted by her own cowardice. Christ on a bike! What was she afraid of? Connie would say yes or she’d say no. Either way, Jackie could get on with her life. Badda bing! Stick it in a box marked ‘DONE.’
She approached the table and stood next to it until she was noticed, Connie setting down the pencil she was writing with and glancing up at her. The way Connie’s pupils dilated behind the lenses of her glasses was immediately gratifying. Amused, Jackie preened, very aware of how much her appearance contrasted with Connie’s staid preppy fashion.
Jackie’s head was freshly shaved along the sides and back, leaving a bright red-dyed thatch of hair on the top that she let her friend Izzy style into spikes. Her left ear bristled with silver rings, and a silver stud glinted in the curve of a nostril. That morning, she had pulled on a tattered London Calling T-shirt (the pits were getting stinky, but not too bad yet), a pair of jeans from Goodwill that were on the verge of falling off her scrawny hips and ass, and a vintage motorcycle jacket stolen last year from a consignment shop on Madison Avenue. Jackie knew she appeared wild and fierce—not only because of her punk look, but also the thin white scars that slashed upward from the corners of her mouth in a parody of a wide-stretched smile. This evidence of past violence scared the crap out of most people.
“What… um… what do you want?” Connie asked, her gaze darting around the room as if seeking either help or material witnesses.
“You’re Connie Armstrong, right?” Jackie asked, keeping her tone friendly. “Mind if I sit down?” She did not wait for a reply, grabbing a plastic chair and turning it around so she could straddle the seat. She wished she could light a cigarette, but the smell would draw the Chief Librarian, whom she remembered had a nose for rule breaking, and campus security would come running. Jackie was not afraid of any rent-a-cops, but there was no point getting into a rumble when she had business to do. “Hey, lighten up, chill out,” she told Connie. “I’m not here to mug you or shit like that, okay? I just wanna talk. That’s it. You got a minute?”
“O-o-okay,” Connie said, “I guess so.” She took off her glasses and sat stiffly in her chair, staring at Jackie with big brown eyes.
Under the table, Jackie sensed movement and figured Connie was sticking her foot through the strap of her handbag to prevent theft. That kind of reaction no longer bothered her much. “You know about Freddie Noyles?” she asked without preamble.
The question clearly startled Connie, who hesitated before asking, “You mean Frederica Noyles, the artist?”
“From the nineteen-forties?”
Connie blinked . “What do you want to know about her? I mean, I can recommend some books…”
“No, no, no books.” Jackie flapped a hand. “I mean, I know Noyles and her work.”
Connie’s disbelief was too obvious to pass unchallenged. Jackie snitched a piece of paper from Connie’s notebook and worried it into tiny pieces while she spoke. Sitting still was hard work. “Freddie Noyles had a distinctive ‘soft cubist’ style, sometimes described as sensual Art Deco—bold, precise, geometric and clean,” she explained, enjoying the renewed surprise on Connie’s face when she proved she was not entirely uneducated. “In the twenties and early thirties, Noyles lived in Paris with the bohemian crowd, used to hang out with Picasso and Cocteau, paint portraits of the haute bourgeoisie as well as street girls and whoever else she wanted. She screwed around with her female models. In ‘35, she moved to New York and later took up with a German baron’s mistress—”
“Karolina Mary?ka, Frederica Noyles’ favorite model, who was the mistress of Prince Viktor Günter of Eberschwartzburg,” Connie interrupted, looking nervous but determined “As far as Noyles having affairs with any woman, including Karolina… well, that’s just speculation, never proven, probably started because Noyles never married, so of course she must be a lesbian..” Connie snorted softly. “That’s like the talk still going around about Pablo Picasso and his friendship with Georges Bracque. Just because two people enjoy each other’s company doesn’t mean they’re having a torrid love affair, but I guess some folks would rather listen to gossip than believe the truth ‘cause fiction’s way more exciting.”
Jackie chuckled. “Ouch, that stung,” she said with a mock wince, splaying a hand over her chest. “Look, for the record, I don’t listen to gossip, okay? From the stuff I’ve read about her, I think Freddie Noyles was a dyke, but like a lot of dykes, she kept quiet about it. My opinion, nothing else, and I swear I won’t spread it around.”
“You’re entitled to an opinion. I suppose I didn’t mean to sound so preachy. It’s just that sometimes, it seems like people are so fixated on who somebody slept with, they can’t appreciate the beauty of the art.” Connie began tapping her pencil against the notebook’s cover. “If you know about Frederica Noyles already, and you don’t want book recommendations, what do you want from me?” she asked. “And who are you, anyway?”
Somewhat impressed by Connie’s speech—Izzy was right, the chick knew her stuff— Jackie let the last bits of paper drift to the table. “Jackie Quick. As for what I want, me and my friend found something, a journal. We think you can help us translate it.”
Connie frowned, shifting in her seat. “I don’t know. I mean, I’m an art history major, so languages aren’t exactly my thing. You should probably ask somebody else, maybe a professor or a TA, ‘cause I can’t really help you out.”
“It’s okay, pretty girl, everything’s cool. Don’t get your panties in a twist.” Jackie covered Connie’s hand with her own to cut off the flow of babble and stop the pencil tapping, a nervous tic that was starting to irritate her.
At the word ‘panties,’ Connie flushed and withdrew her hand. “There’s nothing I can do for you, I’m sure,” she said primly.
Her stomach souring, Jackie stood, feeling exposed and vulnerable under the bright lights. She wanted to cut her losses and go home, not stand here trying to persuade Little Miss Priss to do her a favor. Was she supposed to go on her knees here? She decided to try one last time. “You remember Izzy, don’t you?” At Connie’s blank look, Jackie went on, “Izzy Rabbotino. You guys had a couple of classes together last year.”
Connie still seemed confused, then her expression cleared. “You mean Desiree Rabbotino? Yes, I remember her. She sat behind me in Professor Schlitz’s English class.” Abruptly, Connie giggled. “Desiree called him ‘Professor Shits.’ I didn’t know her nickname was Izzy. She never told me. I used to call her Dee-Dee. When she dropped out, I really missed her. Is she doing okay?”
“Yeah, fine, whatever.” Jackie did not want to get into Izzy’s circumstances at the moment. “Anyway, Izzy says you used to live in France, and you speak French.” She watched in bewilderment as Connie flushed again, a dull brick red color creeping into her cheeks that clashed horribly with the pink polo shirt. What the hell? Jackie mentally reviewed what she had just said, and could find nothing offensive in it.
“My mother was French, from the Vendée region,” Connie said quietly, her gaze fixed on the confetti that littered the table top. She swallowed. “I went to a private Catholic girls’ school in Les Brouzils for a while, until Mom died and Daddy moved us to New York. ”
“Boo fuckin’ hoo, poor little rich girl,” Jackie muttered, immediately remorseful when Connie’s eyes went wide and wet, her face crumpling in hurt. “Ah, crap. I’m sorry, okay?” Jackie blurted. “I didn’t mean nothing by it… hey, wait up!” She scrambled to follow Connie, who had stood without a word, bent to retrieve her Gucci handbag, scooped up the notebook and her glasses, and started walking towards the library exit.
“Leave me alone. Just leave me alone!” Connie said, bright crimson slashes burning on her cheekbones. For a chubby girl, she walked fast, but Jackie was faster.
“Will you take a chill pill already? Jeez!” Jackie snapped, taking hold of Connie’s arm. Connie resisted, trying to pull away, and Jackie tightened her grip. “I said I was sorry!”
Connie whirled around, her mouth set in a stubborn line. “Let go of me right now.”
Jackie took a calming breath. “I’m sorry. Really, truly, a hundred-percent sorry. That remark was rude and totally fucked up and I shouldn’t have said it.” She lowered her voice, aware they were attracting attention. Any second, the Chief Librarian would come sniffing around. “I lost my mom, too, a few years back” she confessed, feeling a very slight empathy with Connie despite their differences. “So I know how much it utterly, utterly sucks.”
After a good thirty seconds of letting Jackie fidget and wonder if she had come to the university for nothing, Connie asked, “Is that the truth, or are you telling me what you think I want to hear ‘cause you think a sob story will get you what you want?”
“Hell, no! It’s the truth, I swear,” Jackie exclaimed. “I wouldn’t lie about that.” She leaned closer to Connie and whispered, “I’m sorry about your mom.”
Connie’s flush subsided. She shrugged. “Okay, fine. Even though you were mean to me for no reason, I accept your apology.” She remained upset, but at least it seemed she was no longer on the verge of bawling. “And I’m sorry about your mom, too.”
Sighing in relief, Jackie released Connie’s arm, glad when the woman did not run away. “Look, I’d rather talk about the journal at my place. It’s safer, more private. And Izzy’s my roommate. I’ll bet you guys have some catching up to do,” she added when Connie appeared dubious. “How ‘bout I sweeten the deal?” Jackie tried her most irresistible smile, the one she used when cadging drinks at local bars. She might not be good looking, but she was goddamned charming when she wanted to be. “My car’s parked a couple of blocks down the street. I’ll give you a ride home when we’re done.”
“I shouldn’t,” Connie said, shaking her head. “I’ve got a test tomorrow.”
“I’ll have you home in plenty of time to study, I swear.” Jackie sensed Connie’s resistance was wearing thin. “It won’t take long. An hour, maybe.”
Connie considered, finally saying, “Before I decide, you’ve got to tell me more about this journal you said you found. What does it have to do with Frederica Noyles?”
Jackie gnawed her thumbnail, wondering if telling Connie anything else was the wise thing to do. At last, she shrugged. If it helped persuade Connie, she was willing to reveal a little more information, but not here, not out in the open. “C’mon, pretty girl, let’s do this confab someplace else,” she said, leading Connie towards the public restrooms in an out-of-the-way corner of the library, close to the administration offices.
The ladies room reeked of disinfectant, pine cleaner, and a nasty fake lemon air freshener that made Jackie’s nose itch. She glanced around, rubbing her upper lip to prevent a sneezing fit. Some wag had used black permanent marker to scribble, “Grout Minds Think Alike” on a tiled wall. Ha ha ha, very funny… not, she thought. One of the sinks had a leaky faucet that dripped a steady plink-plink-plink of water. As a public facility, it was fairly clean; a lot cleaner than the bus station restroom she used sometimes. Jackie believed the room was unoccupied until she heard a muffled giggle.
Signaling to Connie to stay put, Jackie went to the last stall in the row and banged on the door with her fist. “Out!” she hollered. “Get out or I’ll come in there and drag you out!”
The lock clicked, the door opened and a couple of girls in their twenties spilled out, clutching each other for balance. The throat-catching scent of Aquanet hairspray flooded into the room with them. Jackie took a step backwards to let the girls pass, thinking they looked like whores with their big back-combed hairstyles, leopard print jackets, mini-skirts, leggings, high heels and heavy make-up. Both of them had red, raw-looking nostrils. Jackie figured they had been snorting cocaine in the stall.
“Screw you,” one of the girls slurred, teetering towards the sinks.
“Not if you were the last skanky coke-head on Earth,” Jackie retorted in disgust, grimacing. “Beat feet and haul ass, bitches, or I will fuck you up. Believe it!”
Glaring and muttering, giving her the stink-eye, the girls left. As soon as the door closed behind them, Jackie looked around and found Connie huddled against the wall. It looked like she was trying to hide behind the warm air hand dryer.
“You okay?” Jackie asked, concerned. Connie had gone pale..
“Would you really have hurt them?” Connie asked, sounding frightened.
Jackie hated being judged when she had done nothing wrong except mouth off to a couple of blow-snorting junkies. “Not so much, no. I’m tough, yeah, sure, and I can kick heads when I have to, but I don’t go around whalin’ on people just because they piss me off,” she said. “I did that, there’d be damned fewer assholes walking around today.”
Connie had the decency to murmur, “Sorry.”
“Whatever.” Jackie reminded herself she did not care what other people thought about her, as long as they gave her no hassles. She shoved a hand in the pocket of her motorcycle jacket, taking out a crumpled cigarette pack and a disposable Bic lighter. “You want to hear about the journal or not?” she asked. After dismissing Connie’s wordless sound of protest, she decided to be considerate, prying open a tiny rectangular window high on the wall at the end of the row of stalls, and standing under it while she lit her cigarette.
“You shouldn’t be smoking in here, it’s a fire hazard,” Connie said, pointing at the NO SMOKING /NO FUMAR sign screwed to the back of the door.
“Do I give a crap? What are they gonna do, arrest me for smoking? Fuck that noise. Still a free country, last time I checked.” Jackie offered the pack to Connie. “Want one?” she asked, feeling the need to yank Connie’s chain.
“No, thank you.” Connie’s chin tilted up. “I don’t smoke, or drink, or swear, or anything like that.”
“Bet you don’t screw around either. Eh, suit yourself. More fun for the rest of us.” Jackie smoked silently a moment, aware of Connie’s disapproving glare on her as she blew smoke rings out the window. At last, she decided it was time to drop the bomb and said, “The journal me and Izzy found… it belonged to Freddie Noyles, and it talks about The Fury of the Hour, where she hid it all those years ago.”
Connie’s mouth dropped open. She gaped for several seconds while Jackie snickered under her breath. “You’re not serious,” Connie said stiffly. “This is a joke.”
“Nope, I shit thee not.” Jackie grinned, took a last hit off the cigarette, dropped it, and ground the butt under her boot heel. “We find that painting, Miss Connie Armstrong, and we’re rich. Filthy, stinking rich, and famous, too. You get it now?”
Connie clutched the notebook to her bosom, staring at Jackie. “One of Noyles’ paintings sold at Sotheby’s last year for $30 million,” she said.
“That was a work from her later abstract period,” Jackie said, a tide of excitement rising in her blood, same as it had when she first realized what she was holding in her hand, and how important the journal was. “The Art Deco stuff is way more valuable.”
“How do you know The Fury of the Hour is in her cubist style?” Connie asked. “Nobody’s ever seen it, except Noyles and maybe Karolina Mary?ka, who supposedly posed for it but never admitted the painting even existed.”
Jackie’s grin was beginning to make her face ache. “The painting exists, all right. Noyles talks about it in the journal.”
A glimmer of interest sharpened Connie’s gaze. “And you need me… why?”
“Because the journal is partially in French, and that includes the location of the painting, we think.” Jackie stepped closer to Connie. They were about the same height, and she had no difficulty speaking into the other woman’s ear. She kept her voice a warm buzz, knowing the vibration would cause shivers. “You help us, we’ll cut you in on a percentage.”
To her surprise, Connie did not draw away. “Okay,” she replied in a husky whisper. She coughed and repeated, “Okay, I’ll help you translate the journal.”
The easy agreement caused a prickle of suspicion in Jackie’s mind. She narrowed her eyes. “Ten minutes ago, you were ready to tell me to take a long walk on a short pier.”
Connie nodded. “True, but ten minutes ago, I didn’t know a major artwork by one of the most iconic artists of her time had been found. So yes, I’ll help.” She licked her lips, her expression turning apprehensive. “But only if you promise that if the journal’s the real thing, and we find The Fury of the Hour, you’ll donate the painting to a museum so everybody can enjoy it, not sell it to a private collector who’ll stick it in a vault.”
Jackie had no intention of donating a damned thing to any museum. Finding that painting would make her rich enough to fulfill her dreams, although it was clear that telling Connie as much would be a mistake. Jackie owned nothing except what she could beg, earn or steal. A well-off girl like Connie did not understand what money meant to somebody like her, and trying to explain would only start a debate and give her a headache.
“Sure, yeah, you’re right,” Jackie lied, nodding slowly and thoughtfully as if the idea had only just occurred to her because of Connie’s condition. “Now that I think about it, I got no problem with donating the painting to a museum. No problem at all.”
It was Connie’s turn to narrow her eyes in suspicion. “You said before that you were going to be rich and famous, so how come you changed your mind?”
“Hell, pretty girl, what would I do with all that money, huh? And I’m an artist, you know, so it’s better to be known for my art than finding somebody else’s painting. Just hadn’t thought about it that way till now.” Jackie slid a companionable arm around Connie’s waist, half-expecting the woman to draw away, and feeling an odd satisfaction when she seemed untroubled by the gesture. “Like I said, you’re right,” Jackie went on. “People ought to be free to see the painting, to study and learn from it, to be awed by Freddie Noyles and what she created. And I believe that people ought to share stuff more, you know? Spread the wealth around. Greed’s the biggest problem in the world.”
Perhaps she had laid it on a bit thick, but Jackie hoped Connie would buy it. She bit back a triumphant smile when the woman relaxed further.
“Fine,” Connie said. “Let’s go to your place.”
Jackie almost hugged her.
She released Connie, but stuck close as they exited the library and started walking across the campus. Jackie decided it was difficult sitting still, but more difficult not to do the end-zone funky chicken when everything she wanted was about to fall into her lap. Millions, baby, millions of dollars! Sure, she would have to share with Izzy, and Connie would no doubt want a cut, but still, it was hard to imagine all those zeros.
While they walked, she and Connie garnered some weird looks from students, which did not faze Jackie. She was used to being stared at. On the other hand, Connie seemed to retreat in on herself, clutching her notebook even tighter as if it was a shield against the world. Jackie recognized the posture of somebody who had learned the hard way that being noticed was a bad thing. Connie had probably been bullied in school, and Jackie hated bullies like she hated heavy metal hair bands. Feeling protective, she scowled at a couple of the worst offenders, who actually pointed at them and laughed. What nerve!
Had she had been alone, she might have gone over there to intimidate the rude bastards. However, recalling how Connie had been frightened by the threat of violence in the restroom gave Jackie pause. It was no good if Connie refused to do the translation because she got scared. A fuming Jackie settled for giving the rubber-neckers a vigorous one-finger salute, and tucking her arm through Connie’s to make it clear they were together. Connie’s grateful glance made Jackie put a little a swagger in her step.
Just as they reached her car—parked illegally, a ticket already fluttering under the windshield wiper—Jackie caught sight of the person she least wanted to see, and froze as her plans to go home without any trouble suddenly crashed and burned.
Shit! This is not good, she thought in dismay. Not good at all.
Jackie attempted to act casual as she turned to face ‘Dog’ Lester, a somewhat masculine looking woman who got the nickname from her habit of wearing a spiked leather dog collar strapped around her throat. Dog was a forklift driver and dock worker, jobs that gave her solid muscle beneath a layer of fat and biceps like cannonballs, but she also freelanced as a knee-breaker for members of the Tomaselli family, low-level mobsters. When Dog turned up, the shit was about to hit the fan and blow back into some poor schmuck’s face. Today, it looked like Jackie was the schmuck scheduled to get a smelly brown facial.
“Yo, Quick, hope you’re not planning on going anywhere soon,” Dog said, standing on the sidewalk so she could loom over Jackie.
“Just cruising on home,” Jackie replied. The ghost of an ache in her face reminded her that it was not a good idea to start something with Dog, who despite that sheer bulk was fast with her fists. The last time they tangled, Jackie had nursed a broken nose and a cracked cheekbone for a while. “What’s up? You get bored hauling crates around for union wages?”
“Nah, Tommy Tomaselli sent me to give you a message.”
“The hell?” Jackie stared, a sudden torrent of unease turning her guts to liquid ice. “What’s Tommy want? I don’t owe him no money.”
“Your old man does,” Dog replied with a nasty grin. “He laid down five gees with Tommy on a horse at the Aqueduct that came in dead last. Bad luck, huh? Anyways, Tommy knows your scumbag father ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, so he reckons to collect the debt from you. That’s eight gees with the vig.”
“Eight thousand dollars? I don’t have that kind of cash, and I sure can’t raise it, even if I sold my fucking body to science. You know that.” Jackie could not contain her shock. Why had Tommy Tomaselli trusted her worthless, lying shit-hole of a father with that much money? “And three grand’s a lot of vigorish, more than usual,” she added.
Dog shrugged, her broad shoulders rolling under the flannel shirt she wore. Her shaggy haircut concealed her left eye; the right eye bored into Jackie, pitiless and cold.. “Your problem ain’t my problem, Quick. Tommy says you owe him, I collect.”
“Wait a second, okay?” Jackie tried to think. “He can’t be serious about the eight gees. What does Tommy really want?”
When Dog moved, it was quicker than Jackie could dodge. A fist sank into her stomach, hard enough to wind her. Jackie doubled over, gasping in pain. Dog took hold of her ear, thankfully not the one with the piercings, and said pleasantly, “Mr. Tomaselli wants his money. That’s the only message. We clear?”
“Yeah,” Jackie wheezed, blinking away tears.
“Fan-fuckin’-tastic.” Dog released her, taking a step away. “You puke on my shoes, I’ll kick your teeth in,” she warned.
“Hey, Dog, I’m cool. No problem here.” Jackie straightened up, wincing when her bruised stomach protested. Getting punched there hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.
“Tommy wants to talk to you. Be at the Candy Bar tonight, and bring your girlfriend along if you want.” Dog jerked a thumb at Connie, who looked terrified. “Jeez, Quick, I feel sorry for you,” Dog went on, her disdain plain. “Couldn’t you hook up with a halfway decent broad instead of that four-eyed lard ass over there?”
Jackie bristled, seized by a sudden sick fury. “Shut the fuck up,” she growled, her body tensing with the need to smack the sneer off Dog’s face. “Say another word,” she spat, “and I’ll rip out your eyeballs, you piece of shit, and skull-fuck you to death.”
Dog was taken aback by the threat, then she chuckled, not intimidated at all. “Sure, Romeo, whatever you say. Just don’t miss your appointment at the Candy Bar tonight. If I got to come looking for you again, I’m not gonna be nice when I find you. Tommy said he wanted you in one piece, not necessarily undamaged. Get it?”
“Good.” Dog winked at Connie. “See you later, sweetheart.”
Jackie stumbled forward, ready to take another hit from Dog if it meant getting her own shot in, but Dog was sauntering away and she had hesitated too long. Fuck! Rage flickered crimson at the edges of Jackie’s vision. Frustrated, she punched the car door, ignoring the searing pain in her hand, and punched the door a second time. The crunch of flesh hitting metal was satisfying, though not as much as, say, stomping Dog to death, setting her on fire, and pissing on the remains. As the mist in her head cleared, she became aware that Connie was cradling her injured hand, talking quietly. She made an effort to concentrate.
“…don’t want to contract tetanus,” Connie was saying, dabbing the blood from Jackie’s busted knuckles with a clean handkerchief. “That car door’s kind of rusty, you know. We’re still close to the campus… you could go to the student health center for a shot.”
“’M not a student,” Jackie mumbled. “I used to take a couple of classes at Wilburton, but I stopped.” The admission lodged in her throat. She had to choke it out against a wave of renewed fury. Not that she cared about dropping classes—hell, she had barely managed to graduate high school because the teachers did not appreciate her ‘attitude.’ Education was overrated anyway. She had taken classes to learn a bit of painting technique, that was all. She just hated people thinking she was a loser or a quitter. Curling her injured hand into a fist hurt, but it was a fresh, clean pain, a bolt of electricity easier to endure than degradation.
Late afternoon sunlight caught the lenses of Connie’s glasses and turned them silver, making it impossible to read the expression in her eyes. “How about the free clinic?” she asked, her tone carefully nonjudgmental. “That’s not too far away.”
“I’m fine.” Jackie yanked her hand out of Connie’s grasp. Irritated almost beyond her control now that the adrenaline spike was beginning to subside, she wanted nothing more than to leave the scene of her humiliation. “Get in the car,” she said.
“But you’re hurt!”
Snarling, Jackie rounded on Connie. “Get. In. The. Goddamned. Car,” she gritted.
Connie’s mouth opened, but she clearly thought the better of continuing the argument. She went around to the other side of the car, opened the door, and slid into the passenger seat. Jackie ripped the ticket off the windshield and took her place behind the steering wheel, digging her keys out of her jacket pocket. Connie remained silent, thank God. At the moment, Jackie felt way too bitter and angry to make conversation, polite or otherwise.
Once she had nosed the car into the street, she stuffed a cassette tape into the player bolted to the dashboard, and let the throbbing strains of Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray wash over her. As always, loud music helped soothe her jangled nerves. Slowly, she eased her white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, blowing out a breath when the traffic light turned red and she coasted the car to a halt behind a yellow taxi cab.
“What kind of car is this?” Connie asked, her voice almost inaudible over Lou Reed’s quavering vocals.
“1975 Chrysler Imperial,” Jackie answered after a moment, settling further into the torn leather seat. The car was a rusty land-yacht that gobbled gas and oil, and the interior was held together with duct tape, but it was her baby. “The finest automobile ever made, bar none,” she went on. “Okay, yeah, there’s a lot of Bondo and primer on the body, but the engine’s sweet. I’m restoring it when I can. This friend of mine lets me use his garage.”
“Uh-huh.” Connie bit her bottom lip, hesitating. “Are you okay?” she finally asked.
Jackie forced a chuckle. “You mean Dog Lester’s love-tap? No big deal. I’ve taken worse from pussies like her.” The traffic light turned green, but the cab in front of her did not move. “Hey, wake up, dickhead! Nap time’s over!” Jackie yelled impatiently out the window, banging on the horn a few times for emphasis.
Connie twitched, but did not comment.
After the driver leaned out his window to spit a stream of foreign profanity at her, the taxi rolled through the intersection. Jackie stepped on the accelerator, wishing the street was not so crowded with other cars, the air so thick with exhaust fumes. On the mix tape in the cassette player, Lou Reed gave way to the Dead Kennedys. Jackie tapped out a rhythm on the steering wheel with her fingertips as she drove, resisting the impulse to sing along. The bruise on her stomach made simple breathing painful, much less singing.
Connie studied the asphalt rolling by, visible through a ragged hole in the floorboards between her penny loafers. “Where are we going?” she asked
“My place is on the Lower East Side, not that far, but I gotta park the car in my friend’s garage or the City’ll tow it.. It’s about a three block walk,” Jackie replied, swerving the Imperial into another lane to avoid a bus. Behind her, the Volvo driver she cut off signaled his displeasure with a short staccato horn blast. Smirking, Jackie tapped the brakes to flash her taillights, making Mr. Boxy-but-Safe Volvo slam on his brakes, and earn a bunch of angry toots from the drivers behind him. Take that, sucker! She accelerated and breezed through a yellow traffic light, pretending not to see Connie clinging to the door handle.
Sheldon Wightman’s garage was located in a mini-storage facility near Orchard Street. The business had no sign, since Sheldon and his crew earned most of their money chopping up stolen cars for parts. As she drove towards the bays, Jackie noted a teenage look-out loitering by the chain-link fence, pretending to read a comic book.
Jackie parked the car, getting out when a blonde guy in dirty mechanics’ overalls came out from one of the bays. He resembled Don Johnson, including a rash of designer stubble on his cheeks and chin, but it was Sheldon Wightman himself, wiping engine grease off his hands with a rag. “Heard Tommy Tomaselli sent Dog sniffing after you,” he said after greeting Jackie. “Better watch out, my friend. How deep you in with Tommy, anyway? You could’ve come to me if you needed money, you know.”
“I’m not in to him at all, goddammit,” Jackie muttered. “S’not my debt. It’s my old man’s. He owes Tommy eight grand, and Tommy decided I’m the one gonna pay in full.”
Sheldon whistled. “Damn, babe, that sucks. Listen, I’ve got some cash in the shop, not enough for the full payment but you’re welcome to it, and I can get you more next week.”
“Nah, I’ll be alright. Got a meeting with Tommy tonight. We’ll get this shit straightened out.” Jackie loved Shelly like a brother, but she would crawl on her belly over broken glass and lick Tommy Tomaselli’s hairy balls before she took charity from a friend. “You can take care of my car for me? I’ll pick it up in a couple of hours, if that’s okay.”
“Yeah, yeah, no problem.” Sheldon smiled down at her, but he looked worried. “You need anything, babe, call me. Day or night.”
“Sure.” Jackie tossed the car keys to Sheldon. “Later, Shelly.”
His frown deepened. “Don’t make me have to go downtown to the morgue and identify your skinny body.”
“As if,” Jackie chuckled, as though he had said it as a joke, when they both knew the possibility existed. “See you round, dude.”
Connie had gotten out of the car during Jackie’s brief conversation with Sheldon, and stood there staring, not saying a word. Jackie joined her, steering the woman out of the storage yard and back to the street. The shops in this neighborhood were small mom-and-pop places crammed with cheap merchandise that spilled out onto the sidewalk, creating little islands of clothes racks, tables and stacked crates that pedestrians had to walk around.
The delicious scents of tomato sauce and cheese lured Jackie to a take-out window squeezed between two buildings that seemed far too narrow to house a pizza joint. “You hungry? Want a slice?” she asked Connie, calculating the amount of money she had in her jacket pocket, just a few dollars earned that week from picking up discarded aluminum cans and turning them in to the recycling center.
“My treat, I insist,” Connie said, already switching the notebook to her other hand so she could dig a wallet out of her purse.
Jackie was inclined to argue, but her mouth was watering and she was so hungry her belly felt like it was kissing her spine. Pride did not fill an empty stomach, she told herself. It was just a slice of pizza, for Christ’s sake, not begging for a hand-out! Besides, breakfast had been half an Egg McMuffin dug out of a trashcan, and lunch a no-go since the university’s student cafeteria kept its dumpster locked. Connie had money, Jackie thought, and it was clear she had no problem shelling out for a snack.
“Okay, fine,” Jackie agreed, shrugging and trying to be cool. Since Connie was paying, she decided to order two slices, slapping them together to form a big ‘sandwich’ of dough, grease and molten stringy cheese. It was the best thing she had put in her mouth ever, and it took an effort not to moan her pleasure.
Connie ordered a single slice, eating it neatly in quick, small bites. When Jackie ordered a third slice, she paid for it without a murmur.
“C’mon,” Jackie said, wiping her mouth with a thin paper napkin that shredded almost instantly. “Izzy’s probably home already.”
Fortunately, she did not have to juggle the third slice of pizza—hot, hot, motherfuckin’ hot!—for long. Home was an abandoned low-rise tenement building, the ground floor outside covered in graffiti, the door boarded up and plastered with CONDEMNED and KEEP OUT notices. Jackie went through the alley to a discreet side entrance, kicking garbage out of her way. Connie followed, her eyes growing rounder by the second.
Jackie paused to hand the extra pizza slice to Crazy Don, a homeless guy who lived in a cardboard box under the metal skeleton of the fire escape. All the squatters in the building watched out for Don as much as he allowed. In return, he acted as an early warning system in case cops or fire department showed up to evict the squatters.
“Hey, Donny, how’s it hanging?” she asked him.
“Mighty low, kid, mighty low,” Don replied, taking the pizza from her with a shaking hand. His skin was engrained with dirt, and lice crawled in his scraggly beard. “Thanks. You maybe got a couple of bucks you can lend me, just till my ship comes in?” He seemed to find that funny and laughed, showing the decaying stumps of his teeth.
“Out of Thunderbird?” Jackie fought not to turn her head. Don’s breath was rank with corruption, worse than the summer-baked dead dog she had stumbled over last year.
“It’s all Jesus’s fault, you know?” Don suddenly crammed the pizza slice into his mouth, spraying bits when he continued speaking, “Sumbitch stole m’ bottle! He stole my bottle, my bottle, my bottle…”
“Chill, Donny, chill,” Jackie said while he trembled and whined. “Be cool. I’ll tell Rafael, okay? Rafe’ll take care of you.”
Don snuffled, pulling a tattered blanket closer around his shoulders. “Thanks, kid.” He began humming to himself, a tune Jackie did not know.
“Is that… is that your father?” Connie whispered, cutting a sidelong glance at Don as if afraid of offending him.
Jackie could have told her Don was too far gone to care, nor was she offended herself. He might be seriously messed up in the head, but he was a much better human being than the fuckwit who had screwed her mom and donated some sperm. Opening the door, she stepped into the building, replying, “He’s just a sad old soak, not my dad.”
Since the electricity had been cut off long ago, the interior of the building was shockingly dark, as though she had been stricken blind the moment she came inside and shut the door. Beside her, Jackie sensed Connie stumbling to a halt.
A door opened at the other end of the lobby, spilling out a strain of salsa music, horn-heavy and vibrant. Jackie waved at the figure silhouetted against the rectangle of grey light. “Hey, Rafe, Crazy Don needs his fix,” she called to the Puerto Rican man.
“Ñoña es! Already?” Rafael Quiñones groaned. “That’s the second bottle this week, and it’s only Tuesday. He eat anything yet?”
“Slice of pizza,” Jackie informed him.
“Okay, okay, I’ll give him the medicine. Don’t want him to go loco on us, end up in the drunk tank again, seeing Vietcong and shit.” Rafael’s glance fell on Connie, and he smoothed a palm over the polyester shirt clinging to his thin chest. “Que pasa, mai?” he asked Connie, putting on a bright smile as he strutted forward. “You gonna be moving in?”
Jackie shook her head. “Give it up, mano.”
“Hey, mami, give me some rice to go with all that meat,” Rafael murmured, gazing at Connie with clear appreciation. At Jackie’s snort, his hands fluttered upward. “Ay, bendito, don’t give me that look!” he said. “I was being polite.”
“You were flirting. Keep it in your pants, Rafe. Jeez!” Aware that Connie was staring at her, and feeling uncomfortable under that steady regard, Jackie started up the concrete steps. Flaking paint and pockmarks of rust on the metal banister scraped against her palm. Her footsteps echoed hollowly as she ascended into an even deeper darkness. When she reached the first landing, she paused to wait for Connie. “One more flight,” she said, reaching out to touch the woman she could not see. The stairwell acoustics distorted her voice.
“That’s fine,” Connie replied. She sounded calm but Jackie felt her shiver.
“Stick tight,” Jackie said, giving what she thought was Connie’s arm a squeeze. She tugged the woman gently toward the next flight of steps. Someone shuffled by them, invisible in the dark, but Jackie thought it might be Toby, a fifteen-year old hustler. He had recently acquired a pair of Reeboks that squeaked when he walked. She said nothing to him. Toby was not the chatty kind.
Connie flinched violently away from Toby, almost pitching down the steps. Fortunately, Jackie still had a hand on her. Yanking Connie to safety, she ended up with the woman’s warm, solid body crushed against her. Jackie could not help it; she sniffed Connie’s hair, which smelled like flowers, and let herself enjoy the soft round breasts pressing into her chest. She also spread a hand over Connie’s ass in the guise of helping steady her.
“Sorry,” Connie said in a strangled tone, pulling away.
“No harm, no foul,” Jackie replied, glad Connie could not see the shit-eating grin on her face, which might have earned her a slap. “You okay?”
“Then let’s roll. Like I said, stick tight. Don’t want you to take a tumble.”
The rest of the climb was uneventful. Jackie was simultaneously regretful and grateful when they reached her apartment door. Darkness gave license to misbehave, like copping a feel from a pretty girl without consequences. On the other hand, she had no intention of getting to know Connie any better beyond the necessary. She dug curvy chicks, but the woman was otherwise so not her type—that preppy pink crap made her want to scream. Besides, Connie was probably straight as an arrow.
Inside the apartment, the last of the day’s sunlight poured through the window, golden yellow and apricot fading to umber. There was not much furniture in the living room, just a long sofa leaking stuffing from several rips, a table covered with jars and bottles of paint, and a small black-and-white television set with an antenna. Canvases were stacked along a wall.
“Yo, Iz! I’m home. Shake your lazy ass outta bed! We got company!” Jackie cried, flicking on the television set on her way to the kitchen. No appliances here, not even a refrigerator, but a kiddie pool filled with water kept the beer stash cooler than leaving it on the counter. She snagged a can and popped the tab, slurping the foam that ran down her knuckles. The alcohol stung her open cuts, making her hiss in annoyance.
“Maybe she’s not here?” Connie suggested.
“Yeah, like she’s working for the weekend… not.” Jackie took a swallow of beer. “Want one?” she asked, abruptly remembering her manners.
“No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” Jackie grunted, gesturing towards the sofa. “Sit down, take a load off. It don’t got cooties, you know.” Without waiting to see if Connie obeyed, she went to the bedroom. Although they were friends, not lovers, she and Izzy shared the mattress and blankets—a boon in winter, an inconvenience tolerated in summer.
A kerosene lantern sat next to the bed, useful in case one of them had to go to the toilet at night. Rather than private bathrooms in each unit, the pre-WWII building had a single communal bathroom at the end of the hall on each floor. It could have been a nightmare except for a sympathetic clerk at the water company, who used some accounting sleight-of-hand to keep the taps and toilets running without charging the tenants.
When Jackie entered the room, Izzy was sprawled on the bed, face down as usual. Jackie frowned. “Iz, wake up,” she said impatiently.
The woman did not twitch.
Jackie bent to shake her. “Goddammit, Iz, wake up!”
Her hand came away covered in sticky red stuff. Jackie blinked, momentarily stupefied until the realization the stuff was blood-blood-blood pounded through her skull.
She dropped the beer can and stood there, frozen in shock, as foam gushed over her boots, and horror rose to clamp her throat shut.
“What’s wrong?” Connie gasped. She was standing in the doorway, her face colorless. “Oh my God, what happened? Is she dead?”
Breathless, Jackie could not speak.. She managed to suck in sufficient air to let out a scream when Izzy suddenly sat up, touching her red-smeared shirt.
“The hell’s goin’ on?” Izzy mumbled, her eyes opening wide. “Damn… there goes my jelly donut! It was only a day old. I was saving it for later.”
“Motherfucker!” Jackie howled, raising her hand and sniffing. The cloying scent of strawberries was overwhelming. How had she mistaken jelly donut filling for blood? “You dumb-ass, demented, fornicating fucknut, Iz! I thought you were hurt or something!”
Unfazed by Jackie’s outburst, Izzy cackled “Man, you should’ve seen your face! Hee, hee, hee! You thought I got whacked? Shit, dude… you totally crack me up!”
Furious, Jackie wanted to throttle the idiot. “You can clean this shit up, damn it, before the cockroaches and rats show up,” she said, indicating the spilled beer and the crushed jelly donut smeared over Izzy’s side of the bed. “And oh, by the way, doofus, we got company.”
Izzy glanced towards the doorway, grinning when she recognized Connie. “Hiya, Cons, girlie-girl! What’s shaking?” she asked, clambering to her feet.
Jackie smacked back of Izzy’s head. “For fuck’s sake, act normal!”
“Ow! Take a chill pill, dude!” Izzy rubbed her short-cropped hair, dyed blue but with dark roots showing at least an inch. “Cons, how you been?” she asked Connie.
“I missed you in Professor Schlitz’s class,” Connie said with a sweet smile. “You look… well, you dyed your hair, and you’ve lost weight, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, been on the dumpster diet. Great for keeping you lean and mean.” Izzy padded over to Connie. Unlike Jackie, who was wiry muscle and sinew, Izzy was simply skinny. She was very pale, too, her skin drawn tight over the bones of her face. “So how’s college life?” she asked, giving Connie a hug, careful not to press the sticky stained shirt against her.
Connie’s reply was muffled against Izzy’s bony shoulder. Jackie watched the two of them, her guts twisting in knots at the familiar way they interacted. “You two gotta grope each other,” she barked at last, “get a goddamned room!”
Izzy released Connie, patting her on the back. “Don’t mind Jack, honey, she needs to get laid. Some pussy’ll clear that bad attitude right up, you betcha!”
Connie blushed and giggled, ducking her head. Jackie forced herself not to grind her teeth. She had said ‘panties’ in the library and Connie had stuck her prim little nose into the air. Okay, so they had just met, and maybe Jackie had come on a little strong, but still… it seemed like Izzy could say whatever she liked and get away with it.
Flashing a smile, Izzy went to a cardboard box on the floor under the window, stripping off her soiled shirt as she walked. “Mmmm, you guys eat already? I smell pizza,” she said, rummaging in the box and finally emerging with a worn Army surplus camouflage jacket and another dingy sleeveless t-shirt.
“Yeah, we had a couple of slices,” Jackie took malicious satisfaction in telling her, “and I even got an extra slice, but I gave it to Crazy Don.”
“Shit.” Izzy pulled a dismayed face. “Oh, well,” she continued, shrugging, “not like I was that hungry anyway. Got to watch my figure.” She stood by the window, naked from the waist up. Faint honey-tinted light gilded the sharp angles of her collarbone and the tiny bumps of her breasts. Connie was carefully not watching.
Jackie could count every rib standing out under Izzy’s skin, and she wished she had not been so mean. Digging into her pocket, she came up with the couple of dollars she had been hoarding. “Here,” she said gruffly, thrusting the money at Izzy. “Go eat.”
“I’m not taking your money,” Izzy said, though she made an aborted gesture at the bills. She pulled the T-shirt over her head, tugging at the ragged hem.
“Don’t be stupid,” Jackie said, grabbing Izzy’s hand and slapping the dollars into her palm. “Goddammit, who’s gonna have my back tonight if you don’t eat, huh?”
“Tonight?” Izzy’s eyes widened. “Shit, no, dude… not so soon,” she moaned.
“I gotta go to the Candy Bar and talk to Tommy Tomaselli later.”
“That’s it? Just talk? Yeah, right. I heard that one before.” Izzy let out a bitter laugh, her hand curling around the dollar bills. “Okay, fine, I’ll go get a slice or something, but you’re on your own at the Candy Bar. I hate that place.” She picked up the camouflage jacket, saying, “Yo, Cons… see you in a few. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” She left the bedroom. Shortly afterward, Jackie heard the front door open and slam shut.
“Shit,” Jackie breathed, scrubbing at her face with the palms of her hands.
“So what was that about?” Connie asked. “Are you and Izzy…um… you know?”
Jackie shook her head. “We’re not fucking, if that’s your question.”
“No! No, I mean, I didn’t mean to pry or anything…” Connie ground to a halt. After a moment, she went on, “Look, you guys squat in an abandoned building and eat out of dumpsters. Excuse me if I’m a little concerned. Izzy was my friend.”
“If you and Izzy were such buddies, how come you didn’t try to find her or nothing after she left school?” Jackie burst out. Izzy was her best friend, her brother, her sister, her family of choice, and Jackie hated to see her in pain.
“I tried,” Connie protested. “You think I didn’t try? But no one knew where she lived. I went all over the university, then I checked the phone book. There were three Rabbotinos listed, but none of them admitted to knowing Izzy.”
Jackie breathed hard through her nose, remembering Izzy’s pain, physical and mental. “It’s not my story to tell. You want details, you ask Izzy yourself.”
“Okay, okay, just don’t assume I don’t care.” Connie took off her glasses, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “I don’t want to argue. Let’s change the subject. Tell me about how you and Izzy found the journal. Where is it, by the way?”
“The journal’s in a safe place. I’m not stupid enough to keep it here where any asshole can steal it.” Jackie went to the living room, where the television set showed a flip-flopping, static-filled I Love Lucy episode. The sound was a crackling hiss. After fiddling with the antenna, Jackie managed to get decent picture and sound, not that she planned to watch the idiot box anyway. She flopped down on the sofa, gesturing for Connie to join her.
Connie settled on the other end of the sofa, turning so that she could lean against the armrest. She put the notebook on the floor by her feet.
“Me and Izzy, we’re urban explorers,” Jackie began. At Connie’s puzzled look, she explained, “We go around the city exploring abandoned buildings, factories n’ shit, storm drains and old subway stations.”
“Because it’s cool. Because we see things that nobody’s seen in maybe a hundred years. Because sometimes we find stuff we can sell, make a little money..” Jackie shrugged. She had never really considered the reasons she loved poking around in crumbling buildings, or creeping through the darkness underground. It gave her a thrill every time, an elation like nothing else, a buzz no drug could mimic. It made her feel alive.
“You and Izzy endanger your lives because it’s cool?” Connie asked sharply, as if it was the most bone-headed thing she had ever heard.
Jackie pretended to watch Lucille Ball cram chocolates into her mouth, just until she felt she could answer without shouting. “I don’t expect you to understand,” she said, picking at a loose thread on her jeans. “You’ve got everything you want.”
“Know what? I’m getting tired of your attitude,” Connie said, her nostrils pinched white with anger. “You think because my family has money that I’m a spoiled brat? Let me inform you, Jackie Quick, that my dad is a lawyer. He works hard for a living. I’m on scholarship to Wilburton. It’s not a free cruise. And every weekend, I do my uncle Henry’s bookkeeping—he owns a sporting goods store in Amagansett—to earn some money and help pay for my food and board. Yes, I have nice clothes. Yes, I can afford to treat my friends to pizza once in a while. I’m not living on the street and eating out of dumpsters, but I’m not driving to school in a BMW, either. I take the bus.” She paused, inhaling deep, then went on, “You want my help, fine. I’ll do it for Izzy’s sake. Just please, quit thinking I’m the enemy, ‘cause I’m not.”
Impressed, Jackie nodded. She admired a woman who stood up for herself. “Yeah, okay, I’m sorry,” she said. “I do respect you. Sorry for making you think I didn’t.”
Connie sniffed. “Fine. Apology accepted.” She inhaled again, letting the breath out slowly. “So… the journal?”
“Sure, the journal.” Jackie leaned against the sofa cushions, stretching her arm over the back. “Me and Izzy, we heard about this ghost station under the Waldorf-Astoria—”
“Excuse me, what’s a ghost station?”
“A subway station or railway station that was once open to the public but isn’t in use anymore, like the City Hall station that closed in 1945,” Jackie said. “Sometimes you can glimpse a ghost station when you’re on the regular subway. Get it?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Mostly what you see in ghost stations is trash and graffiti, but still, it’s worth having a look, you know? So anyhow, we heard there’s a ghost station under the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and Izzy went to the library to check it out. She said it’s actually a railway siding, Track 61, not a proper ghost station, but it’s under the Waldorf, all right, and there’s a freight elevator that used to open on 49th Street, an elevator big enough to hold a Pierce Arrow armored car used by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was President. And there’s supposedly homeless people living on the Waldorf platform, but that was five years ago, so I figured probably the transit cops had moved them on already.”
Connie leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees, her attention locked on Jackie. “How did you get to the railway track?” she asked. “I’m guessing you didn’t just walk through the hotel to the basement.”
“Are you shitting me?” Jackie laughed. “Izzy and me in the Waldorf? Pretty girl, they’d have called the cops and had us hauled off by the tits.” She was pleased when Connie giggled instead of playing prim and proper. “Anyhow, Izzy scared up some newspaper articles, and one of them talked about this door on 49th Street that was next to the hotel’s garage bay, and how it led to the old freight elevator. We paid a visit to check it out.”
“You mean you broke in,” Connie interrupted, frowning. “Which is illegal.”
“Legal, schmeagle, whatever.” Jackie waved a hand. “Can you believe the elevator still worked? And damn, it’s big. Seriously big. You could get a one bedroom apartment in there, easy. Weren’t for the lack of working toilet, I might consider moving in.”
That earned her a small smile. “Okay, you broke into the freight elevator and took it down to… Track 61, I think you said?” Connie asked.
“Yeah, it was dark, but we had flashlights. You could tell there had been people living down there on the platform once, but not anymore. The cops cleared ‘em out. And there was less graffiti than I expected, too. We saw a couple of railway lines, even an old freight car. Man, that was crazy! Freight car from World War II, I guess. We went inside. It didn’t have no chairs or nothing, just an empty space. Izzy thought maybe it was FDR’s freight car. She figured we might find something in there, a coin or whatever, something collectible, something valuable. It was worth a shot. We searched the freight car, didn’t find nothing except a panel on the side that sounded hollow when I knocked on it. Cool, huh? I opened the panel up with my jackknife and found a metal box hidden behind it. Inside the box was Frederica Noyles’ journal. How it got there, I have no clue,” Jackie added hastily, forestalling Connie’s question. “Turns out the sucker’s mostly written in French. Couple of days ago, Izzy said I ought to go and look you up. She thought you’d help us.”
“Where’s the journal now?”
“Wait till Izzy gets back. She’ll kill me if she misses anything,” Jackie said.
Connie fell silent. Finally, she sighed. “What’s wrong with Dee Dee… I mean Izzy? It’s more than not eating, I think. She doesn’t look healthy at all.”
Jackie did not want to tell her. “Ask Izzy,” she said evasively.
“I’m asking you.”
“And this is me, not answering.”
Connie scowled. The expression made her glasses slide down to the end of her nose. “Why won’t you tell me? Is it…” She gasped. “Is it cancer?”
“Ask Izzy,” Jackie snapped. She could sit still no longer. Jumping to her feet, she went to the kitchen for another beer. While she was in there, she heard the front door open. “Yo, Iz, ‘bout time you came home! What’d they do, send to Napoli for the pizza?” she said as she returned to the living room to find Izzy sitting next to Connie on the sofa. They seemed very cozy together, so cozy Jackie was tempted to throw the beer can at Izzy’s head.
“Got one of those for me?” Izzy asked, laughing when Jackie told her no. “Fuck you, too, dude. Fuck you very kindly,” she added good-naturedly.
“I told Connie all about the journal we found,” Jackie said, popping open the can. She sat down between them, ignoring Izzy’s pout. “Where we found it and crap like that. She says she’ll help us with the French parts.”
Izzy leaned over Jackie to address Connie. “You’ll do it? You’re the best, kiddo. The absolute, number one best, and don’t never let anybody tell you different.”
Jackie swallowed half the beer in a couple of swallows, well aware of Izzy’s pleading look. Smacking her lips, she let out a loud belch and, laughing, passed the rest of the beer to Izzy. “I’ll go and get the journal,” she said, standing. “Back in a minute.”
She made her way out of the apartment, down the hall to the communal bathroom—a large square room tiled from floor to ceiling. The bathtub, double sink and two toilets were white enameled and old-fashioned, probably original to the building. It was as hygienic as daily scrubbing could make it, every squatter taking turns keeping the room clean. Jackie grimaced at the toilet seat left up by an inconsiderate man, and flicked it down with a curse.
A small window let in the last of the graying twilight, enough for Jackie to see what she was doing. She removed the top from a toilet tank and removed a plastic bag, dripping water. The journal was inside the bag, and seemed to have suffered no damage. After replacing the tank top, Jackie went back to the apartment.
Connie and Izzy were not there.
“Shit!” Jackie spat, turning around in a circle. Where the hell were they? When Izzy and Connie came out of the kitchen, laughing and chatting, her chest tightened painfully. She held up the dripping plastic bag and announced, “Got the journal, if anybody gives a crap.”
Connie gave her a strange look, but Izzy’s grin was knowing. “Dude, we were just talking ‘bout the old days, I swear,” she said. “I never touched her.”
“Jeez, whatever, stick it in a box marked DONE.” Without warning, Jackie tossed the bag at Connie, who caught it, much to her surprise. “It was hidden in the toilet tank down the hall,” she added, smirking as the woman let the bag fall, a horrified expression on her face.
Izzy scooped the bag off the floor and wiped it dry on the front of her shirt. “Hey, Cons, it’s cool,” she said. “The water in the tank is clean.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” Connie said to Jackie, scowling. “I thought you were going to quit being mean to me.”
“Aw, it ain’t no fun if she don’t pull your pigtails a little,” Izzy said, giving Connie a wink. She opened the plastic bag, pulling out the journal. “You’re going to need more light to read this. Lemme go get the lantern in the bedroom.”
Jackie peeled off her motorcycle jacket and thumped down on the sofa, out of sorts and wanting to hit something. Was Izzy implying she liked Connie? It was absurd. Besides, Izzy was the one acting like she was crushing on the woman. Jackie thrust her legs out in front of her, slouching down further into the sofa cushions.
Izzy returned with the lantern, already lit. She spent a few minutes fussing around, cleaning all of Jackie’s painting materials off the table, borrowing a wooden chair from Lawanda across the hall, getting Connie settled comfortably with the journal.
“For God’s sake!” Jackie finally snapped, sick of watching Izzy hover around Connie. “Will you sit down already? You’re getting on my last nerve.”
“Excuse the fuck outta me!” Izzy retorted.
“Will you both be quiet?” Connie said, her head bent over the journal. She used a finger to mark her place on the journal page while she scrawled with a pen in her notebook. “This isn’t French, by the way, it’s Occitan, and not easy to translate.”
“What’s the difference?” Jackie asked.
Connie glanced up at her. “Occitan is used in the Languedoc region of France. It’s actually closer to Catalan than French, so I’m having to guess at some of the phrases and what they mean. When I lived with my mom, we had a housekeeper who spoke Occitan to me a lot, but it’s been a while, and I kind of need to concentrate here, okay?”
Izzy smirked and sank down on the floor, sitting cross-legged with her back against the sofa, quickly becoming engrossed in the sitcom playing on television. Jackie stood and went to the window, cracking it open so she could smoke.
An hour passed before Connie straightened in her chair, wincing as her spine crackled. “I’m not finished,” she warned, “but I’ve made a start.”
“How much did you get done?” Jackie asked, going to peer over Connie’s shoulder.
“Not as much as you’d like, I’m sure,” Connie replied. “I started at the last entries, since I figured that working my way backwards made more sense.”
Jackie snatched the notebook from the table, eager to read the translation. Connie’s handwriting was neat and precise, only marred, in Jackie’s opinion, by the tiny oootsy-foo hearts the woman used above every “i” and “j.” Making a face, Jackie scanned the written lines, her mouth going dry in anticipation.
August 1, 1947—
My darling Karo!
I am betrayed. She has made me love’s fool.
She came to the studio today, my dark goddess, and gave me
the news. I cannot bear it. Karo is leaving me. She has found
another protector—Joseph Rendell—and will be marrying
him in May. My God! How can she tolerate his touch when
she has given herself to me? When the memory of our love-
making is so strong, I can feel her touch on my skin even now.
She has told me that we are done. Well, I will not grovel
before her, supping on whatever crumbs she permits where
once I glutted and feasted on every delight as I wished.
She may not tell me our love is finished when I know this
is a lie. Rendell is making her say these cruel things.
If I have my way, she will have no husband. Karo is mine.
There are way to be rid of an inconvenience.
August 4, 1947—
A visit from Rendell himself today.
He has nerve, this man of Karo’s. Handsome, too. And all
the arrogance of one born to the purple. He offered me ten,
twenty, thirty, even fifty thousand dollars for the painting,
The Fury of the Hour. I refused. He said I would be sorry
if I did not sell him the painting. I laughed in his face.
What does he know of sorrow? He will learn, though.
The lesson will do him no good, but he will perhaps know,
in a final moment, that Karo will always be mine.
Jackie stopped reading. The date was significant, and she went through what she knew about the artist. Eventually, she turned to Connie. “Didn’t Joseph Rendell die on August 4, 1947? I seem to remember that.”
Connie nodded. “His body was found in Room 39 at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel by a maid. He’d been shot twice in the chest. Nothing was missing from the room, no clues, no evidence, no witnesses, the murder weapon never found. As far as I know, the crime remains unsolved. Plenty of conspiracy theories, though. Rendell’s father had a lot of enemies.”
“Who’s Joseph Rendell?” Izzy asked.
“Son of an oil tycoon, Hartley Rendell,” Connie told her. “Joseph was one of the richest playboys in America at the time, a very eligible bachelor worth millions. If he really planned to marry Karolina Mary?ka… wow, that would’ve set off a bombshell in New York’s high society.” She took off her glasses, polishing the lenses on the hem of her polo shirt. “I mean, Karolina was a baron’s mistress and an artist’s model, which most people equated with loose morals, to say the least, and she was also Polish.”
“Three strikes,” Jackie muttered.
Connie continued, sliding her glasses on her nose, “Such a marriage would’ve been way too much for Rendell’s family to swallow. He must have really loved her.”
Izzy sniffed. “Fuck ‘em, the snobs.”
Connie turned to Jackie. “Noyles doesn’t say anything else about Joseph Rendell. She doesn’t confess to killing him.”
“I’ll bet she did it, though,” Jackie said. Everything she had read about Frederica Noyles suggested the artist was not the type of woman to take betrayal lightly. “In the journal entry, she specifically says Karolina will have no husband.”
“That isn’t a confession of intent to commit murder,” Connie insisted.
“Bang, bang! My baby shot me down,” Izzy warbled, pointing a finger at Jackie.
“Dude, shut your pie-hole. I’m busy over here.” Jackie quickly read the last entry in the journal.
August 12, 1947—
It is done.
Arrangements have been made to protect our secrets.
Karo, how I love you! Karo, how you wound me!
Yet you are, and will forever remain, my own.
My words will be preserved in silence and darkness,
as my secrets are secure in the Beach. Hades guard
me. The fury of the hour has been spent.
“What the hell does all that mean?” Izzy asked, frowning.
“I don’t know yet, but it sounds like Noyles hid the painting like she hid the journal. Maybe underground, too,” Connie said. “Hades is the Greek God of the underworld.”
Jackie re-read the passage thoughtfully. “Freddie died on Halloween night,” she said, “just a couple of months later. Poisoned, they say. She was found in her apartment on 5th Avenue. Hey, you think maybe Karolina did it in revenge for Freddie whacking Rendell?”
“Ooooh,” Izzy exclaimed, an excited light dawning in her eyes, “yeah, sure, I get it. That’s made a hell of a movie, right? Or a Broadway play. Check it out: two lesbians in love, looks like happily ever after, only one of ‘em decides she’d rather drive stick. Angst by the bucket-load, love you, hate you, blah, blah, blah, then the bullets fly, and the boyfriend is dead. Grieving fiancée poisons ex-girlfriend to pay her back for sugar daddy’s death. Curtain closes, encore, standing ovation, break-out Broadway smash of the year.”
“Iz, you are seriously fucked up,” Jackie said, shaking her head. “Is this the last entry?” she asked Connie, who nodded.
“Like I said, I started with the final entry in the journal.”
“You know a lot about Freddie, Karo and Joseph Rendell,” Jackie commented.
“It’s one of the more famous love triangles in art history,” Connie replied. She glanced away for several seconds, then faced Jackie once more and added, “By the way, in case you didn’t know, Freddie Noyles was at the Waldorf-Astoria on the night Rendell died. She was attending a party thrown by the poet Philippa Hake, to unveil a portrait commissioned by Hake’s husband. However, Noyles was not considered a suspect by the police.”
“Probably because they didn’t know her girlfriend was leaving her to marry the victim,” Jackie pointed out. “She’s still a strong suspect.”
“That may be true, but it doesn’t get us any closer to the painting. I need to do some research.” Connie rose, putting both hands on the small of her back and stretching with a wince “Can you take me home now?”
Jackie snapped the notebook closed. “What about the rest of the translations?”
“Tomorrow’s another day. Like I said, I need to do some research.” Connie reached out, taking the notebook from Jackie’s lax grasp. “Come see me in a couple of days. Oh, you have an appointment somewhere tonight, don’t you? I don’t want to put you out. Just point me in the direction of the subway. I’ll get home myself.”
“No, no, I said I’d drive you home and I’ll do it.” It was full dark outside. No way Jackie was going to let a soft little thing like Connie venture through the night-time streets in this neighborhood. If the hookers and junkies didn’t knock her on the head and strip her bare, there were always worse things that could happen to the helpless.
“Do you need me for anything?” Izzy asked.
“Nah, I told you, Tommy just wants to talk, and you hate that place, remember?” Jackie shrugged, reluctant to tell Izzy about the money Tomaselli claimed she owed him. They had enough troubles, and she did not want to add to Izzy’s stress without cause. For all she knew, Tommy just wanted a favor but didn’t know how to ask nicely, so he tried to strong-arm her instead, the dumb goombah. “You want to come to the bar and have a drink, you’ll have to pay for it yourself, or convince the bartender to give you a freebie,” she said.
“That asshole’s only interested in big titties,” Izzy complained, looking mournfully at her flat chest. “I don’t got enough to interest him. Nothing to flash.”
“Not my problem. You coming or not?”
“Think I’ll stay home, watch this new show, MacGuyver,” Izzy said, sitting on the sofa. “You girls have fun. Cons, see you in a few, yeah?”
“Absolutely,” Connie said, leaning down to give Izzy a hug.
Jackie rubbed her chest where a burning ache had started. She blamed the pizza, all that damned spice and grease. Turning away, she went to the front door, calling, “Let’s roll!”
Outside on the sidewalk, Jackie felt better, less hemmed in. The light spread by the streetlamps was piss-yellow, deepening the shadows in alleys between the buildings. Overhead, tattered clouds obscured the moon and made the stars near invisible. She saw Carlos Mendoza and some of his buddies loitering near the corner, holding up the wall of Rosenbaum’s Repair Shop—now closed for the evening, the front protected by metal shutters. She quickly averted her gaze when a car came slowly to a stop and Mendoza moved to speak to the driver. He and his crew trafficked drugs in the area. It was best to pretend blindness than let Mendoza think he was being watched. Jackie had no desire to be tagged as a nark and earn a ‘Cuban necktie’—a slit throat would put a serious kink in her plans.
She motioned for Connie to follow and led the way down the street, only to stop when a sleek Mercedes 380-SL convertible, as out of place in the neighborhood as a diamond on a dog turd, glided towards them. ‘Dog’ Lester was behind the wheel. Jackie wanted to keep walking, but knew things would go from bad to worse if she ran.
“Boss sent me to pick you up, take you to the bar in style,” Dog said, bumping the Mercedes up onto the curb and bringing the car to a halt. A grin stretched her mouth. “Get in.”
“I gotta take her home first,” Jackie said, jerking her thumb at Connie.
“Hey, you over twenty-one?” Dog asked Connie.
“Yes,” Connie replied, “but I have to study for a test tomorrow—”
Dog cut her off. “Whatever. Get in the car, thunder thighs. You can call a cab from the bar.” When Jackie and Connie hesitated, Dog snarled, “Both of you, get in the goddamned car. You can ride in the back or you can ride in the trunk. Makes no difference to me.”
Jackie considered open defiance. If she could land a lucky blow, maybe incapacitate Dog, jump in the Mercedes and… do what? She could not leave New York City. Her life was here. She had nowhere else to go. And if she gave Tommy Tomaselli the screw-you finger, there would be no safe place for her on earth. Reluctantly, Jackie accepted her fate. “You promise Connie can go?” she asked, determined to protect the woman if she could.
“Christ! Yeah, okay, I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die, Scout’s honor, all that crap. My word good enough for you?” Dog mocked.
Ignoring Dog, Jackie turned to Connie. Under the yellow lights, it was impossible to tell if she was paler than usual, but she did look scared. “Don’t worry, pretty girl,” Jackie said, attempting a reassuring smile. “At the bar, you can call a cab.”
“Sure.” Connie still seemed apprehensive, but she got into the Mercedes’ backseat.
Her bowels feeling like they were filled with icy slush, Jackie slid in next to Connie.
Not giving them time to settle, Dog gunned the engine, slammed a foot on the accelerator to let the wheels spin and squeal and smoke, then released the brake, sending the Mercedes careening down the street. At the first red light, she shoved a cassette into the player, blasting Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax and singing along in a tone-deaf soprano.
Jackie flinched at the music. She became aware that Connie’s fingertips grazed the edge of her hand where it rested on the leather seat between them. She turned her hand over, grasping Connie’s. The simple gesture of support made her feel the tiniest bit better.
The Candy Bar was in Alphabet City on Avenue C, on the ground floor of a tenement buildings surrounded by other tenements—abandoned by their owners more than a decade ago—that were mostly squats. Jackie was glad she had chosen to live elsewhere, as Alphabet City was prone to massive paramilitary attacks by the police in a drive to dispossess squatters. However, the Tomaselli family owned the Candy Bar’s building outright. Of course, Jackie remembered the squat group that had rehabilitated the old tenement, replacing the rotted joists and doing other repairs to make the building livable, only for the Tomaselli family to buy the building out from under them, which sucked.
Neon signs in pink, blue and green sizzled along the bar’s frontage. A muffled wild thump-thump-thump of music could be heard in the street, louder when the door opened to spill a drunk onto the sidewalk. Dog parked the Mercedes beside a fire hydrant, right in front of the bar. “Out,” she ordered over her shoulder. A splash of bright blue neon light emphasized the harsh angles of her face. “I’m done with taxi service for the night.”
Connie exited the Mercedes. “Where’s the payphone?” she asked.
“Inside,” Dog told her shortly.
Jackie escorted Connie into the bar. The music was ear-splitting, some god-awful Madonna song that had couples grinding their hips on the dance floor. She checked the busy bar for familiar faces, spotting a couple of women she knew. Unfortunately, none of them was in a position to help her. Taking Connie by the arm, Jackie leaned down to speak directly into the woman’s ear, the only way to communicate through the pop music noise pollution.
“Payphone’s next to the ladies’ room,” she half-shouted in an effort to be heard. “Go ahead,” she added as Connie peered at her doubtfully. “I’ll be okay.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Connie nodded and disappeared into the crowd.
There was no point trying to put the interview off any longer. Jackie made her way to the back, to the familiar door that led to Tommy’s private office. The door was flanked by a pair of tall, heavy-set men who did not bother concealing their guns. Jackie forced herself to walk up to them although every nerve in her body screamed at her to flee.
“Jackie Quick,” she said. “Tommy wanted to see me.”
The goon on the right nodded. “He’s waitin’ for you.”
Jackie gulped, nodded, and turning the doorknob, walked into the dragon’s den.
Tommy Tomaselli had a phone jammed against his ear, speaking rapid Italian into the mouthpiece. He waved a hand at Jackie, grunting to acknowledge her presence, but continued his conversation. Finally, he barked something that sounded deadly, and banged the receiver into the cradle. Tommy was a fairly handsome man, dark haired and dark eyed, but his lips were too full, his eyes too small and set too close together, and his habitual expression was either greedy or petulant. Jackie thought he looked like a pig.
“You wanted to see me?” she said, fighting to keep her voice and her knees steady.
He kept her waiting while he lit a cigar—clipping the end with a silver cutter, using a wooden match and puffing until the cigar was drawing to his satisfaction. The strong tarry smell of the smoke made Jackie queasier.
“Your old man owes me money,” Tommy said, blowing a stream of smoke towards her. “Eight gees today, ten gees next week.”
“You know he can’t pay,” Jackie protested.
“Ah, sometimes I like to take a chance on a bum, find out what he’s made of.” Tommy’s grin revealed a gold incisor. “Turns out your old man ain’t made of much.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
He chuckled. It was not a humorous sound. “So here’s the deal… you ain’t got the money, I make an example of your old man. Business is business, kid.”
“You can chop him into bite-sized pieces and feed him to stray dogs for all I care,” Jackie said. “He never did nothing for me or my mother. Probably better off dead anyway.”
“Your blood’s not thicker than water, huh? I’m not surprised.” Tommy took another puff of the cigar. “Okay, you don’t care if your father dies a long, painful death. Fair enough. There’s members of my own family, was they on fire, I wouldn’t piss on ‘em. However, a little bird tells me you’ve maybe got somebody you do care about.” His eyebrows waggled.
Was he talking about Izzy? Shit! Jackie dug her fingernails into her sweaty palms, trying to control her breathing. “Don’t know what you mean,” she said when she was certain her voice would not falter.
“I mean that blue-haired junkie friend of yours.”
“Motherfucker!” The exclamation burst out of her mouth without her volition.
“Miss Desiree Rabbotino. Did you know her old man has put out a reward? Yeah, seems his missus wants her little girl to come home, by which I mean a rehab center, a psychiatrist to straighten her out, fix those nasty habits of hers.” He cocked his head to the side. “You understand? I don’t got to spell it out?”
Jackie ached all over with the desire to leap over the desk, straight at Tommy’s throat. Last year, Izzy’s father had thrown his daughter out when he caught her kissing another girl behind the house. The bastard had beaten her up, verbally and physically, while her mother, a staunch Catholic, cried and wailed about Izzy’s lost soul but did nothing to save her. Jackie had literally stumbled over Izzy abandoned at a gas station, bleeding and bruised and shell-shocked. That was why Izzy had left school; probably why she took heroin despite everything Jackie could do. Izzy felt the loss of her family keenly, but she was also terrified of her father, who had sworn to kill her if she tried to contact him or his wife. Now the homophobic dickhead wanted Izzy to go home? Over my dead body! Jackie fumed.
“Izzy’s my friend,” Jackie said, looking Tommy in the eye. “You turn her over to her family, and I swear to God, Tommy… I swear to God I will make you regret it.”
His smile turned lopsided. “You threatening me?”
“Let’s call it a promise.”
“I gotta respect a woman who means what she says,” Tommy said after a thoughtful pause. “Fine, no more threats. How’s this: you do me a favor, I’ll forgive the debt.”
“What about Izzy?”
Tommy shrugged. “I don’t owe Rabbotino nothing, so he can go fuck himself.”
“Okay, what favor do you want from me?” Jackie asked, satisfied Izzy was safe.
He leaned both arms on the desk, piercing her with his glittering greedy gaze. “I gotta fight coming up on Friday. You’ll be in it.”
“Look, last time I fought, the bitch almost killed me.” Jackie touched her side where the ribs had healed at last. Tommy ran an illegal fight ring in the bar’s basement, a fight ring with a twist—all of the fighters were women. Vicious bare-knuckle bouts, naked to the waist, blood and sweat and spit splattering the ring. Tommy ran a book on the fights. Word was that he cleared thirty grand or more every Friday night, while the fighters made a few hundred bucks each. Desperate for money, Jackie had fought sometimes in the past, but her last opponent had come close to beating her to death before the referee belatedly stopped the fight.
“Did I ask you to die? Hell, Quick, don’t be such a pussy. You only got to take a beating, nothing you haven’t done before, and you’re going to take a dive in the sixth round.” Tommy punctuated the order by thrusting his cigar at her, the crimson-glowing end like a baleful eye. “You do that, I’ll forgive your old man’s debt, and I’ll pay you a grand, besides.”
“A thousand dollars?” Suspicious, Jackie squinted at him. “What’s the punchline?”
Tommy threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, that’s a good one! The punchline! Jeez, Quick, that’s funny!” He wiped his eyes. “You want to know what’s even funnier? You’re gonna be fighting Betty Ortiz. How do you like that?”
“La Guerra?” Jackie gasped in disbelief at the unwelcome surprise. Betty Ortiz was a champion fighter, fast and strong and lethal. Her nickname ‘The Warrior’ was well-earned. “You want me to fight her?”
“Only for five rounds,” Tommy told her, tapping crumbling ash off his cigar onto the floor. “The sixth round, you dive.”
Jackie was afraid she might puke when a wave of acid rose to burn the back of her tongue. Betty Ortiz had killed another fighter last month, landing a blow that snapped the woman’s neck. She had heard the body was hustled away to a concrete coffin in the foundation of a new office building being constructed in Manhattan. “Why me?” she asked at last. “I mean, there’s better fighters around here.”
“What I want is a good show and a predictable end. I can get that from you,” he said flatly. “Look, I need to pump up Ortiz’s fight stats, so when she goes to the champion bout next year, she’ll have a killer reputation. Tell you a secret: that’s when Ortiz will take her dive, and I’ll make a killing off some other bookie. You dig?”
.”This is important to me. You tell me no, Quick, I will fuck up your life. You tell anybody what’s going on, I will kill you. That’s a fuckin’ promise.”
She swallowed, knowing herself trapped. If she refused, the first victim of Tommy’s wrath would be Izzy, and that was not going to happen. “Make it two thousand,” she said with a bravado she did not feel, “and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
“Yeah, sure, kid. Why not? Two gees it is.” He ground out the cigar in a glass dish on his desk. “Now get the hell outta my office. Oh, and don’t worry about forgetting our little appointment on Friday night. I’ll send Dog over to pick you up.”
Jackie turned around, blindly fumbling for the doorknob.
In the bar, the rhythm of the music perfectly matched the throbbing in her head. She was a dead woman walking. No way would Betty Ortiz just ‘put on a show.’ The upcoming fight was going to be brutal and nasty. Somehow, a dazed Jackie found herself at the bar, a shot of whiskey and a glass of beer in front of her, neither of which she remembered ordering. She dropped the shot glass into the beer boilermaker-style, watching the violently fizzing bubbles, the beer foam rising dangerously close to the rim. Jackie drank quickly, her throat working as the liquid poured into her stomach, warm and cold at the same time.
“Are you okay?” a familiar voice asked.
Startled, Jackie choked, spilling beer down the front of her jacket. “Goddamn it!” she shouted, throwing the half-empty glass on the floor where it shattered, sending several people jumping back, cursing. The bartender reached under the bar, probably for a baseball bat, but a man standing next to Jackie shook his head. She recognized one of Tommy’s goons, who had probably been sent to make sure she did not do anything stupid. Jackie rounded on Connie, who stood there with her chin tilted at a stubborn angle.
“The hell?” Jackie yelled, swiping at her wet chin. “What’s your damage, huh?”
“I thought maybe you were in trouble or something,” Connie said, crossing her arms over her chest—not an easy task, considering the generous size of her breasts.
“Trouble? Oh, pretty girl… me and trouble are old, old friends. Buddies, even.” Jackie ignored the shards of glass and spilled alcohol on the floor. “Gimme another shot,” she told the bartender. “And start a tab, ‘cause I intend to get shit-faced.” She might not have a dollar to her name, but she doubted Tommy was going to bitch about a bar tab.
The bartender shot a questioning look at the goon, who nodded and bent towards Jackie. He was a big guy, broad and solid as a concrete wall, his face pitted with acne scars. A hand roughly the size of a ham wrapped around Jackie’s upper arm. “Mr. Tomaselli says you can get drunk on his dime tonight,” he said. “After that, you don’t show your nose in the door till Friday night. We clear here?”
“As crystal, man, exactly like crystal,” Jackie said, stunned by the goon’s sheer size as well as the garlic on his breath. She sighed in relief when he rose to his full height and walked away, scattering drinkers and dancers out of his path.
“Whoa,” Connie said, staring after the goon. “You sure he’s not related to Godzilla?”
Jackie snorted, regaining her composure. “You have any luck with that cab?”
“I didn’t call a cab.”
“I’m worried about you.”
“Fuckity-fuck-fuck.” Jackie scrubbed her face with both hands, suddenly weary. “You need to go home, Connie. Just go home, okay? Do your research, take your test, whatever.” A glass of beer and a shot of whiskey was put on the bar in front of her, the bartender scowling at her as he walked away. Jackie picked up the shot glass and hesitated, watching Connie out of the corner of her eye. “You deaf? I said, go home.”
“Nuh-uh.” Connie stumbled slightly as a man bumped into her.
Jackie kept hold of the whiskey, but used her free hand to steady Connie and draw her closer to the bar. “You want a drink?” she asked.
Connie retorted, “No, I want an answer.” A light sheen of sweat shone along her hairline, tinted red from the lights behind the bar.
“Maybe you should ask me a question.” Jackie threw her head back and tossed the whiskey down her throat, enjoying the liquid burn chased by a gulp of beer.
“Oh. Okay, then… what did that guy want with you?”
Instead of answering immediately, Jackie signaled the bartender, who shuffled over with clear reluctance. “Give my friend a Coke with plenty of ice and cherries,” she told him. When the drink was delivered, she said to Connie, “C’mon, my head’s killing me.” Taking the beer, she led Connie to the back. The ladies room was not quite as crowded as the bar and dance floor, and sound-proofing kept the loud music somewhat at bay.
Jackie skirted a small slick pool of vomit, and nudged her way over to the last stall, shouldering through a flock of chattering, giggling mall chicks fixing their make-up or hair, or passing a joint at the sinks. The sickly sweet odor of marijuana smoke filled the room. She suffered a brief moment of déjà-vu, remembering how she and Connie had sought privacy in the campus library ladies room.
Connie managed to maneuver herself so that she was standing pressed against Jackie’s side, out of the way and somewhat sheltered. She sucked on the straw sticking out of her Coke, then delicately picked a cherry out of the glass and popped it into her mouth. Jackie slanted a glance at the add-a-bead necklace nestled in the hollow of Connie’s throat, the subtle gleam of gold against lightly tanned skin. She felt warm, far too warm, and took a mouthful of beer in the vain hope of cooling off.
“So what happened?” Connie asked around the cherry.
“Tommy runs fights down in the basement,” Jackie replied, “and Friday night, he wants me to be in a match. No big deal.”
“You look like it’s a big deal.”
“It’s cool. Nothing I haven’t done before and hey! He’s paying me two grand. Can’t argue with that.” Jackie drank another gulp of beer.
The explanation clearly did not satisfy Connie, who took another sip of Coke and said, “Izzy told me you got really hurt in a fight.”
“Not that bad. Look, sometimes we need money, and I’m pretty good with my fists. It’s only one fight, then Tommy cancels my old man’s debt. Everybody wins,” Jackie said, setting the empty beer glass on the nearest sink. Her tongue was slightly numb, though she was far from drunk yet. The night was still young. “Totally worth a few bruises,” she lied.
Connie licked her lips, apparently nervous. “Um, you know, maybe I can borrow the money for you. My older brother’s a lawyer, he has an office on the Upper West Side. He’d lend me eight thousand dollars if I asked him, and he wouldn’t tell Dad, either.”
Jackie was torn between angrily rejecting Connie’s offer, or giving her a sloppy kiss for wanting to help. She settled for putting an arm around Connie’s shoulders. “Thanks,” she said, “but I’ll never be able to pay your brother back. We both know it..”
“I could pay him back when I’m finished with school,” Connie insisted. She echoed Jackie’s words, “No big deal.”
Chuckling, Jackie tucked Connie closer. “Yeah, right, I hear you. Now it’s your turn to hear me, pretty girl. I appreciate this, I really do. You’re a good person. But I am not gonna let you borrow your brother’s money. No… seriously. ‘Nuff said, okay?”
“Okay,” Connie replied with clear reluctance.
“Now here’s the thing… Izzy don’t like it when I fight, so you don’t tell her. Don’t say a word about Friday night. I’ll let her know in my own time.” Jackie waited for Connie’s agreement, but the woman appeared doubtful.
“Izzy ought to know what’s going on,” Connie argued. “She’s your friend. She cares about you.” A blush mounted her cheeks, and she added almost shyly, “Izzy likes you.”
For a moment, Jackie was dumbfounded. Did Connie mean what she was saying? Finally, she had to laugh. “Jeez, that’s rich!” she wheezed. “Izzy and me? No way! I told you we’re just friends. Where here the hell did you get that from?”
“Uh, there’s only one bed,” Connie said, blushing brighter.
“Izzy sleeps with me, yeah, but we don’t have sex.” Jackie felt suddenly shy herself, and coughed to cover a hint of roughness that crept into her voice. “It’d be like fucking my brother, you know? Me n’ her are kind of like family.”
“Oh! I’m s-s-sorry,” Connie stammered, “I didn’t mean to insult you or…”
“S’okay, really, you don’t know no better.”
Connie paused. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
The question took Jackie aback. “Do I look like I need a boyfriend?” she asked. “Fuck! Don’t be such a dumb-ass.”
“Sorry.” The silence lasted a full thirty seconds before Connie ventured softly, “What about a girlfriend?”
.Jackie wished she had another beer. She glanced away from Connie’s bright smile. The woman seemed to be flirting with her, but it did not matter. Not getting involved, she reminded herself. “You should call that taxi,” she said, removing her arm from Connie’s shoulders and giving her a push. “Payphone’s to the right of the door.”
The dismissal worked. Connie’s smile faltered. She turned and walked out of the ladies’ room, her spine stiff with affront, leaving Jackie feeling like a heel.
Jackie neither saw nor heard anything from Connie for three days. She was ready to head over to Wilburton, but Izzy did not think she should.
“Give Cons a chance, will you? She’s a good kid. She’ll come through,” Izzy said, but her attention was drawn back to the small chunk of black tar heroin she was ‘cooking’ with water in the torn-off bottom of a cola can, running a lighter underneath as the solution bubbled. There was already a rubber tourniquet knotted above her elbow.
“Shit, Iz, where’d you get the money for a dime bag?” Jackie hated watching Izzy get high on smack, but she did not want the woman to die alone of an overdose, either, so she usually remained in the apartment. “What did you do?”
Izzy gave her arm an experimental tap, seeking a good vein. “Ran an errand for Carlos this morning,” she mumbled.
Jackie leaped to her feet, furious and frightened. “You did what?” she demanded. “Tell me you didn’t do anything for that asshole!” When Izzy did not answer, she went on, her heart in her throat, “You know what Mendoza’s like. He’ll use you, and when he can’t use you no more, he’ll either kill you or toss you to the curb like garbage.”
Concentrating on loading the syringe with heroin, Izzy nevertheless answered, “Jeez, Jackie, it was jut an errand, okay? Deliver a package to a guy. No biggie. Carlos paid me in trade, so everything’s cool. Quit your bitchin’.” After some fumbling, the needle shot home in her vein and Izzy pressed the plunger. Almost at once, a dreamy expression crossed her face. She relaxed on the mattress with a crooning sigh, leaving Jackie’s rage without a target.
Jackie’s head gave a vicious throb. What had Izzy gotten herself into? Worried, she went to the kitchen, only realizing they were out of beer when she saw the kiddie pool was empty. Muttering obscenities, Jackie dug a handful of scavenged change out of her jacket pocket and counted it, stirring the quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies with a finger. There was just enough money for two cans of beer from the liquor store around the corner. A brief wish that Izzy had gotten paid in cash instead of heroin entered her mind.
“Dumb cunt,” Jackie spat, jumping when a knock sounded on the door. “What the fuck? Hey, quit your banging, goddammit! I ain’t deaf,” she called, yanking the door open.
Connie stood in the lightless hallway, blinking, her fist still raised mid-air. “Um, hey there,” she said tentatively, peering at Jackie. “Is this a bad time?”
For a moment, Jackie did not know what to do. As far as she knew, Connie was ignorant of Izzy’s heroin habit. Dumping that knowledge on her like this, without any warning and without Izzy’s permission, seemed kind of underhanded and mean. Making a decision, she took a step back and gestured for Connie to come inside, snarling when the woman hesitated on the threshold, “For fuck’s sake, get in here already!”
“Sure, Jackie, since your invitation is so gracious,” Connie muttered, brushing past Jackie to step into the apartment.
Jackie left her in the living room while she went to close the bedroom door. When she returned, Connie had taken one of the canvasses from the stack against the wall, flipped it over, and was staring at it, a faint frown marring her brow. Jackie went cold, a visceral shock rolling through her. “What… what are you doing?” she choked.
“This is really good,” Connie said, her gaze remaining fixed on the painting.
“Nah,” Jackie replied after several seconds of trying to decide what to say, “nothing special. Just personal stuff. Doodling around.” She glanced at the canvas, which was covered in brisk clashes of turquoise, yellow, red and black paint, so thickly applied the brushstrokes were visible. Crude petroglyphic sketches of human and animal figures danced and posed amid the vivid colors. Arrows zigzagged down the bottom of the canvas. Scratched into the arrows were lines of text: words like RAPE and EXIT STRATEGY written larger and more prominent than the quotations and poetry scraps surrounding them, a smattering of literary debris she remembered from library books. “
Connie shook her head. “No, seriously, this is better than good. Have you shown it to a gallery? I’ll bet you’d get an exhibition like that.” She snapped her fingers, then looked thoughtful. “You ought to try Soho or maybe the East Village. I can ask around if you want.”
“Look, I got no interest in selling out to a bunch of rich pricks. Fuck them! Fuck that to a backbeat! Art can’t be controlled. I won’t be controlled!” Jackie turned away, her mouth twisting. She had created that particular painting in a marathon session over three days, mostly still punch-drunk after a fight at the Candy Bar. She had no idea what any of it meant or why she felt compelled to create such abstract yet viscerally disturbing scenes, only that painting made it somehow easier for her to breathe. She grabbed the canvas and turned it around to face the wall with the others. “Leave it alone,” she ordered.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Connie touched Jackie’s arm. “I was trying to help, that’s all.”
“Whatever. You want to help, stay out of my business.” Jackie shrugged off Connie’s touch. “So are you just slumming today, or did you have a reason for visiting our Chateau de Shithole?” she asked.
Connie’s frown deepened. “Wow, you’re in a mood today.” She dropped her notebook on the sofa. “Is everything okay?”
Jackie counted silently to twenty. Izzy was high as a kite in the next room, Connie was right there in her face being all concerned and friendly, and it was getting harder not to scream her head off and maybe hit something, or at least drink a beer, but hell, they were out of beer. “Christ on a bike! We’re fine. Everything’s fine,” she stated through gritted teeth. “The whole fuckin’ world’s fine. Happy? Do I need to put it on a billboard for you?”
Connie gave her a narrow-eyed look and sat on the sofa. “I found out some stuff at the library. Where’s Izzy?”.
“Izzy’s out,” Jackie said shortly, angry with herself for being an utter asshole to Connie, who was doing them a favor, not to mention being one of the few nice people she had ever met. She sat on the opposite end of the sofa, careful to avoid the broken spring.
“O-o-o-okay.” Connie picked up her notebook, thumbed through the pages, then set it on her lap with a sigh. “When’s Izzy coming home?”
“Where’d she go?”
“Do I look like her babysitter?” Jackie demanded, her irritation flaring anew. “Look, why don’t you tell me what you found out, and I’ll tell Izzy when she gets here.”
“I’d rather wait, if you don’t mind,” Connie said in that prim tone that made Jackie want to shake her, mess up that perfect façade a little.
“Suit yourself.” Jackie got up, went to the television and flicked it on, fiddling with the antenna. After a minute or two, she managed to adjust the reception to pick up a popular game show, although the soundtrack was, bizarrely, in Spanish rather than the usual English. A tinny voice-over boomed, “Bienvenido a El Precio es Correcto!”
Jackie returned to the sofa. She dared not go out for a beer, not without some excuse to get Connie out of the apartment as well. Sighing in frustration, she settled down but the game show could not hold her interest. Her gaze kept drifting to Connie, who wore acid-washed jeans and a blue-and-white striped Oxford shirt. The woman’s brunette hair was pulled up in a ponytail, leaving the back of her neck exposed.. The more Jackie looked at that pale, vulnerable bit of flesh, the more she wanted to plant her lips on it. To save her sanity, she sought some neutral topic. “You ever think about dying your hair?” she asked.
Connie’s horrified gaze jerked to Jackie’s head, the shaved sides and back, the thatch of bright red spiky hair. “Well, not as such, no,” she finally said in a weak voice.
Unable to help herself, Jackie let her hand drift to Connie’s ponytail, combing her fingers through the glossy dark strands. “Maybe pink, a nice cotton candy pink,” she mused, “though the real color would have to be stripped out first.”
“Where do you go for your ‘do?” Connie asked, twisting in her seat so Jackie was forced to release her ponytail or risk pulling her hair.
“Izzy can do that stuff. Mrs. Guzman has a hair salon around here; she gives us dye n’ shit when we clean her place sometimes.” Jackie was jolted by the sound of her friend’s name, half afraid Izzy might hear and be conjured like a demon, reeling into the living room. When nothing happened, she relaxed.
Connie shook her head. “I don’t know if I’d like pink hair.”
“Pretty girl, there’s a lot of stuff in life, you don’t know if you like it till you try it.”
“Mmm, okay, that makes sense. I guess I’m not as adventurous as you. Can I… can I ask you a question?” Connie hesitated. “It’s kind of personal.”
“Why the hell not?” Jackie shrugged. “Shoot.”
Connie scooted into the space separating them, moving until her fingertips grazed the corners of Jackie’s mouth. “How’d you get these scars?”
“Being a dumb-ass,” Jackie mumbled, trying and failing to avoid the feather-light touch. Maybe she was not trying hard enough. It had been a while since someone caressed her so gently and with such concern. She fought not to lean closer.. “When I was a kid, I thought I was hot shit, you know? Tough as nails,” she said. “Got into a rumble with this other kid behind the school, only the other kid brought a bunch of his friends. They held me down and cut my face with a jackknife. Hurt like a bitch, bled like a pig, but I learned a lesson.” She glanced away, the compassion in Connie’s eyes bringing a rush of mixed feelings she did not care to examine very closely. “I learned there ain’t no such thing as a fair fight.”
“Oh, Jackie,” Connie breathed. “I’m so sorry…”
Shivering, Jackie stood, wanting to put distance between them . “You gotta go.”.
“I told you, I found out some stuff—”
“I don’t care right now, okay? Just go.”
Connie got to her feet and confronted Jackie, a rich color suffusing her face. “I’m not leaving,” she snapped, “and you’re not going to chase me out, either.”
“Oh, really?” Jackie rolled her shoulders, suddenly itching to start a fight. “I think you’ll leave when I tell you, pretty girl.”
“Or what?” Connie asked with a mulish expression..
Jackie’s jaw clenched hard, a hot spark of pain traveling up her neck as tension bled into her muscles. It was clear that Connie was not intimidated. She was spared from making further threats or promises by Izzy stumbling unexpectedly into the living room.
“Hi, Cons, how you doin’?” Izzy slurred. Loose-limbed, she tripped over her own feet and fell on the floor.
Connie’s shriek hurt Jackie’s ears. “Oh my God, Dee-Dee, what’s wrong?” She rushed to kneel beside Izzy’s prone body. “Jackie, what’s wrong with her?” Suddenly, her gaze dropped to the unconscious woman’s bare arm, taking in the needle tracks. When Connie glanced at Jackie, her eyes were bright with anger. “Heroin, right?”
“Yeah.” It was something of a relief to admit the truth. “She’ll be okay.” Before Connie could respond to that patently false assertion, Jackie bent, grabbed Izzy under her armpits, and heaved her back into the bedroom, laying her out on the mattress. Returning to the living room, she found Connie standing by the window.
“You want to tell me what happened?” Connie asked, sounding brittle. “When I knew her, Izzy wasn’t a junkie.”
The implied accusation was like a punch to Jackie’s gut, leaving her winded and breathless. Abruptly, fury filled the void. “You want to know what happened?” she asked hoarsely. “Life happened! Bad fucking luck happened! Shit happened!” She marched forward, grabbing Connie’s arm in a bruising grip. “Izzy’s dad found out she’s a dyke, and he beat the crap outta her. He beat her bad—broken ribs, fractured arm, broken cheekbone. He loaded her up in the car, drove to the city, and dumped her at a gas station. Told her he’d kill her if she ever came back.” Jackie glared at Connie, who looked wretched.
“Why didn’t she call me? I’d have helped her. I would!” Connie cried.
Jackie ignored the woman’s distress. “I found Izzy, you know. Broken, not just in her bones, but everywhere. Her heart, her soul… Jesus Christ!” Releasing Connie, she began to pace. “I took her to the free clinic to get fixed up. She wouldn’t go to the hospital. She was so afraid… and after, she was in so much pain. For days I listened to her moan and cry. I couldn’t stand it. My first fight at the Candy Bar, I used the earnings to buy a bottle of Demerol from the neighborhood dealer.” Jackie scrubbed her mouth with the heel of her hand, sickened by the memory of Izzy’s helpless agony. “At first, it was just pain pills,” she went on. “I thought she was getting better, then I found out the dealer let her try heroin. She got hooked. I couldn’t protect her, damn it, and she got hooked.”
“There are rehab programs,” Connie began, but Jackie interrupted her.
“Izzy’s a junkie, okay? She don’t want help. She don’t want to stop. She wants to get high, period.” Jackie decided to be brutally honest. “I’m sure Izzy wants to die, but she’s too much of a goddamned coward to take herself out. She’s letting the heroin do it for her.”
“God!” Connie paled and her hand flew to her mouth. “Don’t say that!”
“If there was anything I could do for her, I would, only she don’t want to live. She’s dying without her family,” Jackie said. After keeping her mouth shut for so long, making the confession was like lancing a wound to let the poison out. “Izzy’s my friend, but I think she’s past saving. I think her dad killed her the day he threw her out, only she’s still walking and talking and shooting up. She hasn’t OD’d yet only because I keep an eye on her.”
Connie was silent a long time, seemingly digesting Jackie’s confession. “Izzy likes girls?” she finally asked, latching on to the one piece of information that mattered least, as far as Jackie was concerned. “Does that mean what I think it means?”
“Jeez! What difference does it make?” Jackie huffed.
“No! I mean, I don’t care, I just didn’t know,” Connie said defensively.
Jackie sneered. “Right. Well, Miz Armstrong, Izzy and me are what you might call les-bi-ans,” she said, over enunciating the word. “We like pussy, by which I don’t mean we’re crazy cat ladies. Clear enough? Want me to draw you a diagram?”
“You don’t have to be nasty about it.” Connie drew a breath, and let it out slowly. Some color returned to her face. “Izzy’s my friend. I don’t care if she’s a lesbian. I don’t care if she’s a junkie. I just care about her. I want to help her if I can.”
“Aw, that’s mighty damned heartwarming.” As soon as she said it, Jackie realized she had hurt Connie, who had done nothing to deserve such sarcasm. It was becoming a bad habit. She took a breath of her own. “Sorry. I guess Izzy needs all the friends she can get.”
Connie rubbed her arms as if chilled. “How long…” She coughed. “How long do you think it’ll be before she’s… you know.”
“Come down from the high? A while,” Jackie replied, staying casual with an effort “I was going to the liquor store for some beer. Want to take a walk with me?”
“Is it okay to leave her alone?”
“Sure, she’s out for the count.”
“Tell you what, is there a good place to eat around here? My treat.” Connie said, picking up her notebook and purse. “I didn’t have time for breakfast and I’m starving.”
Jackie’s fist clenched. She peered at Connie suspiciously, but the offer seemed born of friendship, not charity. “Next time, my treat.” She wanted to make that clear.
“Fine with me.”
“I’m not in the mood for the Jewish deli. Is Puerto Rican okay?”.
“I never had any, but like you said, don’t know if I like it till I try it.” Connie’s smile was a trifle wan but it warmed Jackie nonetheless. She had to flee to the bedroom with the excuse of retrieving her motorcycle jacket to avoid grinning like a fool.
Four blocks north, Mama’s was a small family-owned restaurant that served Puerto Rican food, very much a neighborhood place known for its generous servings and homely atmosphere. Jackie had never eaten inside, but she had gleaned enough makeshift meals from the dumpster to know Mama Acosta was a good cook.
As it turned out, Connie loved the beef turnovers and potato balls filled with meat, but refused to try the mofongo, claiming a bad childhood experience with bananas. Jackie was not picky; she ate everything on the plate, including the iceberg lettuce and tomato garnish.
After the entrée was served and eaten—roast pork with rice and pigeon peas—Connie wiped her mouth and let out a discreet belch behind the paper napkin. “My, my, my,” she murmured, “that was delicious. Thank you, Jackie.”
“No problem.” Jackie patted her full stomach happily. “Got room for dessert?”
“I really shouldn’t.” Connie grimaced. “I’m fat enough.”
On impulse, Jackie reached across the table and caught Connie’s hand. “Listen, you’ve got curves, you’re pretty and so damned smart… nothing wrong with you, yeah? Other people say different, they’re assholes and you shouldn’t listen to ‘em.”
Connie ducked her head, blushing. The hair at her temples was damp, curling in the heat and humidity that the restaurant’s wheezing air conditioner could not keep at bay. Jackie ran her thumb over the soft bumps of Connie’s knuckles, and she had to look elsewhere or be lost as Connie glanced at her from beneath a sweep of dark eyelashes.
Her gaze traveled to the nearby plate glass window with its view of the busy street outside—a lot of trucks with construction logos on the side, some family cars, and plenty of foot traffic, mostly young mothers pushing strollers,. A bag lady with a man’s porkpie hat jammed over her tangled grey hair wheeled a shopping cart filled with junk down the sidewalk, her toothless mouth working silently. Jackie became aware she was still holding Connie’s slightly sweaty hand, and that Connie was talking, but a big-ass, low-riding Cadillac Eldorado pimpmobile cruised down the street past the restaurant, a deep heavy bass-line thumping so loud from its speakers, she missed the first part of what Connie said.
“…underground, you see?” Connie paused, frowning, and withdrew her hand. “Hey, did you hear anything I said?”
“Sorry. Distraction.” Jackie waved at the departing Cadillac. “What’s underground?”
Connie snorted. “Okay, try to keep up, will you?” She pushed aside her empty plate to make room for her notebook, which she flipped open to a page covered in handwriting.
Suddenly realizing she had just skirted the edge of romantic—holding hands across the table in a restaurant, for Christ’s sake!—Jackie decided she had had a narrow escape. Not getting involved, she reminded herself. “I’ll do my best,” she said aloud, grimacing at the slightly strangled tone of her voice.
“I found out some interesting things at the library,” Connie said, no longer so appealingly shy and sweet but all business as she focused on her research. “Remember Noyles’ last journal entry? She talked about her secrets being secured by the ‘Beach.’ The word was capitalized, and the phrasing seemed awkward to me. Since she hid the journal in the ghost station under the Waldorf-Astoria, I wondered if she might’ve hidden the painting underground, too. That was my theory, and it’s what I’ve been checking up on.”
Jackie sat up straight, an electric tingle of excitement prickling her spine. “What did you find out? Do you know where the painting is?”
Connie looked smug. “What do you know about Beach’s Pneumatic Transit System?”
“Not a damned thing.” Jackie flagged the waitress, ordered coffee, and after a thought, added a coconut pudding as well.
When the coffee and pudding arrived—Jackie nudged the dessert Connie’s way without a qualm—Connie consulted her notes and went on. “To make a long story short, in the nineteenth century, around 1870, a guy named Alfred Beach got permission to construct a tunnel below Broadway between Warren and Murphy Streets to demonstrate a new rapid-transit system, a pneumatic railway.”
“Pneumatic… it ran on air?” Jackie asked, trying to wrap her mind around the concept. “Like those little tube-things at the bank?”
“Yes, it was an air-driven demonstration line. The carriages were blown or sucked through the tunnel by a giant fan, and… will you stop laughing?” Connie chided. “What are you, a ten year old boy? This is serious.”
“Yeah, blowing and sucking is serious stuff,” Jackie chuckled. “Okay, okay, sorry, I’m done. You were telling me Beach built a pneumatic tunnel in Manhattan.”
“It’s really fascinating. I read the station and carriages were very opulent and luxurious, as was the station with frescoes and a fountain. Real upscale. Beach might’ve gone on to build more pneumatic tunnels, but stuff happened which I’ll tell you about later if you want. Beach’s project failed for several reasons and the station was sealed up and forgotten.” Connie closed the notebook, pinning her spectacled gaze on Jackie. “Forgotten until 1912, that is, when Public Service Commission officials re-opened the tunnel.”
“How’d you get this information?”
“I asked a research assistant to help me find references to anyone named Beach in connection with the New York City underground: subways, that kind of thing. It seemed like a promising avenue to explore.”
“Cool. So what happened with the Commission?” Jackie propped an elbow on the table, perilously close to knocking the cooling coffee into her lap.
“Oh, well, Beach’s pneumatic transit tunnel was actually destroyed during construction of the BMT Broadway subway line.” Connie swallowed a bite of pudding..
“What about the station?” Jackie asked, hope warring with despair.
“The station, offices and machine rooms were in the basement sub-level of Devlin’s Clothing Store at 260 Broadway, the southwest corner of Warren Street,” Connie said, another spoonful of pudding poised halfway to her mouth. “The store burned down in December 1898. If there had been anything left of the old station, which is doubtful after twenty-eight years, it was removed when a new building was constructed on the site.”
Jackie’s heart clenched in disappointment. She shoved her chair back from the table. “Shit!” The outburst earned her the fish-eye from Mama Acosta behind the cash register.
Connie dropped her spoon. “Don’t yell!” she cautioned, keeping her voice low. “I’m not done. There’s more to the story.”
“Oh, yeah?” It occurred to Jackie that if Beach’s pneumatic tunnel was destroyed around 1912, Frederica Noyles would not have been able to hide a painting there more than forty years later. She was missing something. “Yeah, okay, my bad,” she said, her pulse returning to normal. “I jumped the gun. Just tell me, Connie… where did Freddie Noyles hide the painting? Do you know or not?”
“Let’s say I have an idea.” Connie’s eyes gleamed, and she grinned. “Not a lot of people know this, but Alfred Beach was building a second pneumatic railway.”
A second railway? Jackie’s face ached as she returned Connie’s grin with interest. This was turning into an urban explorer’s wet dream.
“Where’s the second station?” Jackie asked eagerly, leaning forward.
“As far as I can tell, Beach was supposed to build a privately financed pneumatic tunnel running between New York and New Jersey,” Connie said, “from Manhattan to Hoboken. A second station and waiting room were built beneath Broadway adjacent to the original demonstration line’s station but separate, and the tunnel cut as far as 19th Street before Beach was forced to abandon the project when his financing ran out.”
Jackie’s heart sank again. “There’s a ghost subway terminal at 19th Street built by the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad in 1908, which was closed in 1954,” she said. “I’ve been there with Izzy. Not much to see, really. It’s a safe bet the old pneumatic tunnel was demolished when the new subway line was built.”
“You’re probably right, but I think the second Broadway station might still exist. I didn’t find any mention of a second station being found in 1912. I did manage to located one magazine article that talks about Beach’s Manhattan to Hoboken project, and that was written in 1907. There’s only a couple of sentences about ‘Mr. Beach’s folly,’ as the author put it.”
“But why build a second station on Broadway?”
Connie shrugged, pushing away the remains of the coconut pudding. “The original pneumatic tunnel was limited, meant for demonstration purposes only, as was that particular station. You know, to show what was possible. They charged people for riding in the carriages after it opened, but the money had to go to a charity for soldiers’ and sailors’ orphans because Beach’s charter from the city didn’t include the right to collect fees for his own company’s benefit. I guess Beach intended the Manhattan-Hoboken tunnel to be the real thing, a profit-making venture. Like I said, I haven’t been able to find out much in the way of detail yet, but the research assistant promised to locate some old plans for me.”
Jackie swallowed the last mouthful of cold coffee, wrinkling her nose at the bitterness. “How long’s that gonna to take?”
“I don’t know. A couple of weeks, maybe.”
“A couple of weeks?” Jackie blew out a sigh, collapsing back in her chair. “Shit.”
“Research takes time. That can’t be helped.” Connie took off her glasses, polishing the lenses on a clean paper napkin taken from the holder on the table. “Don’t worry about the research assistant; I didn’t tell him anything about the painting.”
Jackie nodded in approval. “Good. Keep that between us.” A memory prodded at her. “There’s this guy I know, he’s really into the whole urban exploration thing,” she said. “Maybe he knows about that lost station. If I can find him, I’ll ask him about it.”
After Connie paid the bill—including a half dozen beef turnovers in a bag, which she insisted upon—she refused to return to the apartment. “I’ve got to finish a paper for my art history class,” she said. “Please tell Izzy I’ll come see her tomorrow or the next day.”
“Sure,” said Jackie, taking the bag. “Want me to walk you to the subway?”
“No, that’s okay, I’ll be fine.” Connie suddenly darted in and kissed Jackie’s cheek, the briefest and softest touch imaginable. “See you,” she murmured. Without giving Jackie time to react, she took off at a brisk walk down the sidewalk, soon vanishing from sight.
Jackie touched her tingling cheek, stunned. What the hell was she supposed to do with that? Was it a romantic gesture? A signal of intent? A friendly buss? Caught between the possibilities of like and like, she shook her head, annoyed with herself. Had she given Connie the impression that she had an interest in her? Recalling her behavior, Jackie realized that despite her intentions to the contrary, she had indeed been flirting with Connie, goddammit!
Walking home, lost in her own chagrin, Jackie almost failed to notice a twenty dollar bill floating in a pool of water next to the curb. She bent and quickly snatched at it, crowing in delight. Twenty dollars was a lot of money, at least a week’s worth of beer if did not splurge. Stuffing the bill in her jacket pocket, she continued down the street, stopping at the liquor store to buy a six-pack of Budweiser.
Refusing to think about Connie any longer, she decided to drop the turnovers and beer at the apartment, then go in search of Daniel Finch, the urban explorer she had mentioned. Sometimes he hung out at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. If anybody had information about Beach’s second Broadway station, it would be Finch. Legend had it he had lived among the underground homeless, and was familiar with every tunnel, ghost station, lost platform and abandoned basement under New York City.
When she entered the apartment, she first checked on Izzy, who was showing signs of rousing from her stupor. Jackie dared not leave the turnovers from the restaurant in the kitchen unattended, since rats would chew through the bag in seconds. She fetched an old-fashioned enameled tin bread box; the container was rust-spotted but still solid. Putting the turnovers inside, she shut the lid and placed the bread box near the mattress, where Izzy would find it when she woke. Jackie put a can of Budweiser next to it, although she thought sourly that Izzy did not deserve a treat.
Going outside, Jackie went south on foot to Grand Street, then west to the Grand Street subway station in Chinatown. Walking was much faster than driving such a short distance. Along the way she passed discount retail stores, dry cleaners, fast food places, restaurants, bakeries, and other shops with signs in English and Spanish soon becoming English and Chinese. The closer she came to the station, the more Asian people she saw: glimpsed through a restaurant window behind a heap of fried chicken parts, dishing up steamed snacks at a food cart, bickering with a female customer in a jewelry store.
Jackie dodged a sidewalk stall piled with fruits and strange vegetables, stealing an orange for the hell of it. Her stomach contracted as she continued walking, waiting for an outraged scream of “thief!” to sound behind her, but nothing happened. She relaxed. Smiling, she tucked the stolen fruit in her pocket for later.
When she reached the station, the ocean-rich odor of fish wafted from the nearby busy seafood markets. She considered not buying a token—it would not be the first time she jumped over the turnstile and took a chance on not getting caught—but a blue uniformed transit cop happened to wander by, giving her a distinct once-over and muttering into his radio. Jackie figured he was checking her description for outstanding warrants, the paranoid fascist pig. She made a point of buying a token from the subway attendant, flashing the metal disk at the cop as a way of saying ‘fuck you very much’ without courting arrest.
At this time of day, the narrow platform was uncrowded Jackie did not have a long wait before a familiar distant roar signaled the subway train’s approach.
The car she chose was not very full: a woman with a kid dozing in her lap; a drunk man in a stupor sprawled over two seats, the New York Times covering his face; a skinny black guy jittering near the end, headphones over his ears and a cassette player sticking out of his pocket; and a few middle-aged Chinese men huddled together. No one made eye contact. Taking the orange out of her pocket, Jackie peeled it, eating the sections while juice ran down her chin, and the subway car rushed through the tunnel.
Jackie exited at the DeKalb Avenue station, walking past Long Island University, Brooklyn Hospital, and Brooklyn Tech High School to reach the entrance of Fort Greene Park. Like most parks in Jackie’s experience, this one had trees, bushes, grass and walking paths, none of which she cared anything about. Strolling rapidly down a path, she kept an eye out for Finch, finding him standing near the Prison Ship Martyr’s monument, a hundred forty-nine foot stone column that resembled a lighthouse in Jackie’s opinion.
“More than eleven thousand men, women and children were imprisoned by the British in decommissioned ships during the American Revolution because they would not swear allegiance to the Crown,” Finch murmured as Jackie approached him. “The crypt marked by the monument holds some of their poor bones. I’d like to see that.”
“Not me. That’s breaking and entering, ten-to-fifteen years you get caught. I want to see bones, I’ll head over to a slaughterhouse,” Jackie told him.
“You’ve not a shred poetry in your soul,” Finch reproached, but he smiled when he turned towards her. “How the hell you been, Quick?”
“Can’t complain.” Jackie studied him, finding the man unchanged since the last time she had seen him. Finch was wiry and lean, standing a few inches shorter than Jackie. His curly chestnut hair was cropped shorter than she remembered, but his eyes were just as green, and his smile just as bright. “Listen, I got a question for you,” she said.
“Aw, you didn’t seek me out just to say hello? I’m crushed.” He shook a cigarette out of a pack, lit it with a match, and offered the pack to Jackie. “What’s cooking, toots?”
She accepted a cigarette, waiting until it was lit before saying, “You ever hear of some guy named Alfred Beach?”
In the middle of taking a drag from his cigarette, Finch choked and started laughing Jackie had to pound him on the back until the fit passed. “Jesus!” he gasped, wiping involuntary tears from his eyes. “Damn it, Quick, a little warning next time.”
“What’s so funny?” she asked, scowling.
“Every few years, some newspaper or book writer with nothing better to do drags out the legend of Beach’s pneumatic transport tunnel,” Finch said, his disdain for such idiots clear. “Puh-leeze! Of course I’m standing here laughing my ass off because there is no tunnel. No station, either. It’s all gone, long gone, and there’s no point looking for it. I promise you there isn’t a tribe of homeless people living in some old subterranean station with a crystal chandelier on the ceiling and frescoes on the walls. It’s an urban legend.”
Jackie flushed. “That’s not the station I’m after.”
“Oh?” His eyebrow rose. “What is it, then?”
She was unsure if she ought to clarify her meaning—this could be a really bad idea if he got wind of Frederica Noyles’ lost painting, and damn it, she ought to have thought of that before she came all the way down here—but Finch’s encyclopedic knowledge of New York City’s underground might provide a clue that would save Connie weeks of research. “I heard Beach built a second tunnel,” she said, attempting a casual tone.
Finch narrowed his eyes. He smoked a long moment, his face shuttered. Finally, he said, “Yes, he did. The beginning of a proposed Manhattan to Hoboken pneumatic line.”
Unable to garner a hint of what Finch was thinking, Jackie was torn. Should she risk asking more questions, trying to pick Finch’s brain with the danger of giving her goal away? Or should she shut her pie-hole, make an excuse, finish the cigarette, and go home empty-handed? Before she could decide what to do, he gripped her arm.
“You’re looking for Beach’s other underground railway station, aren’t you?” he asked pointedly.
Even as she stuttered a denial, Jackie knew he was on to her. She sighed and nodded.
Finch released her, dropping his cigarette on the ground and walking away from the monument without another word. At a loss, Jackie followed him. He stopped at a bench and sat down, facing an open grassy area where a group of high school kids were tossing a Frisbee around. Jackie sat down next to him, too nervous to relax.
“I’ve seen the other station,” Finch said after a minute, glancing at Jackie. “I’ve been there. It’s not easy to find..”
A dozen questions crowded Jackie’s mouth but she spoke none of them, sensing the surest way to get what she wanted was silence.
“You need to be careful.” Finch drummed his fingers on his denim-covered knee, his gaze drifting to the grass in front of him .“Back in ’79, a friend of mine, Jim, accidentally found that ghost station under Broadway. He didn’t know what it was at the time. There wasn’t much of the tunnel left—it was mostly filled in with rubble—but the station was intact, he said. We made a second trip together, ran afoul of a transit cop clearing homeless people out of the area. The cop chased us. Jim ran, fell over some debris and landed bad, busted his head open.” Finch’s lips thinned. “Jim was in a coma for eight weeks before he died.”
“Jeez, that sucks, man,” Jackie said, knowing what it was like to lose a friend. She touched the back of his hand. “That truly sucks. Mother fuckin’ cops.”
“Damned straight , toots, it sucks the big hairy root.” Without asking permission, Finch plucked the cigarette from Jackie and took a drag, tilting his head back to blow smoke at the sky. “The moral of the story is that you should watch your step, don’t panic in the dark, and for all that’s holy, avoid the pigs if you want to live.”
“Amen, brother. The police state’s out there, run by a bunch of dirty, big-necked, sticky fingered bigots, every last one of ‘em.” Jackie hawked and spat, narrowly avoiding hitting the shoes of a jogger running past the bench. The jogger threw her a look, but Jackie snarled and he sped up. She went on speaking to Finch, “Sorry about your friend.”
Finch cleared his throat. “So what’s your interest in Beach’s station?”
Still thinking about how much better life would be if the cops, politicians and lawyers were the ones in jail, Jackie was caught off guard by the question. She froze, then made an awkward shrug. “I just heard it was there, that’s all.”
“Fine,” Finch said, looking amused. “Just don’t be stupid and get killed. I’d hate to have to chip in for your pine box.” A warm breeze scented by summer-scorched grass ruffled his curls. “Don’t forget you’re not the first; you walk in the footsteps of your betters.”
Jackie snorted. “Betters, my ass.”
“You want the info or not?”
“What, I gotta go on my knees here?” Jackie grumbled, but she knew he was teasing.
Finch shook his head. “Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not my type. Get ready to receive the benefit of my wisdom, young grasshopper: if you want to go underground and plant your flag, you should probably start at City Hall Park.”
Jackie waited for him to elaborate. When he did not say anything else, she nudged him gently in the ribs. “Dude, you gonna leave me hanging?”
“Do you really want me to draw you a map? What’s the fun in that? I don’t want to spoil you, and you wouldn’t want me to, either. Discovery’s a major percentage of the fun.” Finch dropped the cigarette and stood, scrubbing his hands together. “City Hall Park. That’s it. The rest is up to you.” He paused, adding more seriously, “And if you happen to see Jim’s ghost down there, give him a kiss from me.”
“Will do.” Jackie watched him walk away, making a silent promise to seek him out more often. She liked Finch, who was pretty cool for a guy.
She remained in the park a while, firmly keeping her thoughts focused on finding Beach’s station and the lost painting rather than the ticklish problem of Connie Armstrong. When she found sitting still too difficult, she wandered around, taking in the tennis courts and children’s playground, absorbing ideas for a new painting. Dusk began to color the sky in lavender and dull orange streaks before she was ready to go .
Returning home by retracing her route, eventually Jackie went inside the building and took the stairs two at a time to her apartment. Izzy was awake and sitting in the living room on the sofa.
“Hey, Iz, you eat yet?” Jackie asked, peeling out of her jacket.
“Yeah, good stuff,” Izzy replied tersely, picking at a tear in the upholstery.
Jackie frowned, her radar pinging like mad. “Something happen while I was gone?” she asked. When Izzy did not answer, Jackie went to the sofa. “Yo, pay attention!” she said, snapping her fingers in the woman’s face. “Did something happen? You okay?”
Izzy huddled in on herself, drawing her bare feet up beneath her. She had borrowed one of Jackie’s T-shirts—her favorite Black Flag concert shirt, in fact, which made Jackie’s molars grind together—and was wearing nothing else except a pair of men’s boxers, grey with age. Her legs appeared painfully thin to Jackie. She believed she could probably circle those meager thighs within the span of her hands, and that scared her.
Jackie controlled the impulse to snatch Izzy off the sofa and smack an answer out of her. “You want to tell me what the hell’s your problem? The silent act don’t fly with me,” she said with exaggerated patience.
“No problem here,” said Dog Lester, coming into the room from the kitchen. She had a half-eaten beef turnover in one hand, a Budweiser in the other. “I thought I’d help myself.”
“What the fuck?” Jackie choked, swamped by a surge of fury so strong, it left her light-headed. “What’d you do to Izzy, you sorry sack of shit?” she raged through the tightness in her chest. “What did you do? If you hurt her, I’ll kill you, I swear.”
“Bah! Shut up, ya dumb cunt. I never touched your skank-ass junkie bitch,” Dog said around a mouthful of turnover. Crumbs spilled down the front of her sleeveless shirt. “She’s still high on smack. You better calm the fuck down, Quick. You got a fight tonight, remember?” She smirked and drank from the beer can. A thin fluid trickle slipped down her chin to gleam on the spiked leather dog collar around her throat.
Jackie trembled, but not from fear. A sound from the sofa drew her attention. Izzy was sitting up, giving her an accusing stare. “Damn it, you didn’t tell me you were fighting at the Candy Bar!” she cried, followed by a jaw-cracking yawn. It was clear to Jackie that Izzy was slipping back into a ‘heroin nod’, close to dozing off despite her upset.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ!” Jackie exploded. She could not take this shit a moment longer! She had to do something or die. Turning and taking a wild swing at Dog, she missed when the woman stepped out of the way, dropped the turnover on the floor, and slapped her across the face. Dog’s palm was as unyielding as cured concrete, and she put her shoulder into the blow. Pain flared through Jackie’s face from jaw to eyebrow, hot and deep.
“Don’t try that again, you stupid hump,” Dog warned.
Jackie clutched her aching face, wriggling her tongue against her teeth to check for looseness. Dog hit hard. “Screw you,” she mumbled, defiant to her bones.
“Naw, you ain’t cute enough to suck my dick.” Dog wound a fist into the back of Jackie’s shirt. “Let’s go, Tinkerbell. You got an appointment in the ring.”
Jackie did not resist being marched to the door, realizing she needed all her stamina to survive the upcoming bout with Betty Ortiz. She did manage to squirm around to catch a glimpse of Izzy on the sofa, already fallen back asleep.
The sight of her best friend lying there hurt Jackie’s heart worse than any blow.
The Candy Bar was busy as usual on a Friday night, pop music blaring at a deafening volume. Despite her anxiety, Jackie felt relieved to bypass the gyrating bodies on the dance floor, following Dog to Tommy’s empty office, then going through a hidden door and clumping down a narrow wooden staircase to the basement.
It was almost as noisy in the basement as above in the bar, but not because of Huey Lewis or Billy Ocean’s Top 40 efforts. Men and a few women crowded the room, a buzz of excited voices bouncing off the bare concrete floor, ceiling and walls. Strong fluorescent lights overhead bleached almost everyone to a ghostly pallor. Dog took hold of Jackie’s elbow and steered her to an oversized chair where Tommy Tomaselli held court, overseeing the men at a nearby table who took care of the betting.
When he caught sight of Jackie, Tommy waved his cigar at her. “And here’s the other star of the show,” he boomed. His smile did not reach his eyes. “Everything okay?”
“Hunky-dory,” Jackie mumbled. The side of her face still burned from Dog’s humiliating slap.
“Looks like you got started a little early.” His greedy mouth sucked at the cigar, which was not lit. “She good to go?” he asked Dog.
“Yeah, no problem,” Dog assured him.
“Better get ready, Quick. I hear Betty’s eager to meet you in the ring. She’s a goddamned firecracker, that girl. Should be a real show, the kind of bout that grabs you by the nuts.” Tommy chuckled. Abruptly, he sobered and stabbed a finger at Jackie. “I saw your old man today,” he said. “Seemed a little down on account of a horse race.”
Aware Tommy was hinting about their arrangement—and correctly reading the warning in the look he gave her—,Jackie nodded to show her understanding. Mama Quick didn’t raise no fool. “It’s been a while since I seen the old man, Mr. Tomaselli, but I ain’t forgot him, that’s for sure,” she replied.
Apparently reassured, Tommy dismissed her with a grunt.
Jackie suffered Dog’s continued presence as she went to a corner of the basement shrouded by a tattered shower curtain to form a changing room. “What, you think I’m gonna run?” Jackie spat. “This crowd would kick me to death before I got to the door.”
“They smell blood,” Dog replied with a malicious grin. “Don’t keep ‘em waiting.”
Stripping out of her shirt, Jackie shivered a little in the cool damp air. Tommy insisted the women fight bare-breasted as well as bare-knuckled, claiming it was a tradition from the Old Country. Jackie figured the assholes who watched the boxing matches appreciated swinging titties as much as swinging fists. Either way, she did not give a damn. She took off her boots and her threadbare jeans, and ignoring Dog’s snicker at her tattered cotton underwear, pulled on a pair of lime green polyester shorts.
Dog helped tape her hands, the only padding allowed. It hurt to make a fist, the sticky part of the tape pulling at the scabs on her knuckles—a reminder of losing her temper and punching the car door a few days ago. Jackie rolled her head from side to side to loosen neck muscles gone tight. She had no huge talent for boxing. Her training consisted mainly of watching matches, picking up tips from eavesdropping on other fighters’ training sessions, and bitter experience earned one punch at a time in the Candy Bar.
Nerves jangling, sick anticipation twisting her guts into knots, Jackie stepped out of the makeshift changing room. Instantly, a scattered cheer sounded, followed by louder booing and unintelligible shouts. Jackie let everything roll off her, trying to stay focused. It did not matter that Betty was the crowd’s favorite. All that mattered was getting in there, taking her licks while suffering as minimum damage as possible, and going home to heal.
This was the last fight, she promised herself. The very last one, period. After she and Connie found the painting, she would tell Tommy to go fuck himself with extreme prejudice. And if that goombah dickhead dragged her old man into it again… well, Daddy dearest could take his own lumps. Jackie was not going to bail him out of trouble anymore.
Following Dog, she made her way through the swarming crowd. Jostled by bellowing strangers, she was unable to distinguish one contorted face from another. The spectators’ raised voices roared in her ears, an unholy din that threatened to burst her brain It was a scene out of a nightmare, confusing and jarring in the extreme.
In the center of the basement, a makeshift boxing ring was defined by plastic gym mats on the floor. Jackie stepped onto one end of a mat, facing her opponent on the opposite side. Betty Ortiz was tall and sleek and golden-skinned, too pretty to fit most people’s idea of a boxer, but sloping shoulders and well-developed arms and legs attested to many hours spent in training. She gave Jackie an indifferent glance in return. It was clear to Jackie that Betty did not regard her as a ‘real’ challenge to her winning streak.
For an instant, Jackie’s temper flared. Who did this bitch think she was? She snarled, earning a startled look from Betty that quickly changed to a narrow, assessing gaze. Jackie nodded. That’s right, pay attention ‘cause I ain’t no pussy, she thought. I might have to bend over and take it, but not until the sixth round. Before then, you and me are gonna rumble.
Betty shrugged, clearly unimpressed by the silent message.
Jackie wondered if Betty even knew about Tommy’s arrangement, but there was no longer time for speculation when the referee staggered into the ring amid renewed shouting. The fat bald man in the black-and-white striped shirt appeared more than a little drunk. He gestured for Betty and Jackie to approach him.
“I think you ladies know the rules, but I’ll tell you anyway,” he said, letting out a sour beer-tainted belch that stung Jackie’s nose. “No kicking, no gouging, no pulling hair, no biting, no scratching—these gentlemen are her for a boxing match, not a goddamned cat fight. Is that clear? Good.” His bloodshot gaze roamed over Betty’s breasts. Distracted by the sight, he licked his lips and reached for a brown nipple, crooning something indistinct. Betty shoved him away, earning laughter and hoots from the spectators.
The referee bumped into Jackie, who pushed him off as well. “Watch where you’re going, ass-wipe!” she barked.
He straightened, attempting to assume a drunkard’s dignity. “Gentlemen and ladies!” he cried, his voice cracking. Nevertheless, the crowd hushed. “In this corner, we have the undefeated champion, the one, the only, Betty ‘La Guerra’ Ortiz!” He paused to allow the applause and whistles to fade. “And in this corner, we have a rude ugly flat-chested bitch with an attitude pro… pro… problem—who cares who the fuck she is!”
The crowd booed on cue. Jackie did not throw her first punch of the bout at the referee, although it was a near thing.
“When you hear the bell, come out fighting,” he concluded, moving off the mats to collapse into a lawn chair just outside the defined area of the ring. A bottle of vodka sat at his feet. Jackie sneered at him. What a tool! And what a fuckin’ farce! The guy was not there to actually watch the match to ensure both fighters obeyed the rules. Tommy paid some random idiot to pretend to referee because he thought that made the fights seem more legitimate.
How the hell had she gotten into this mess?
The bell rang, struck by a pimply teenage boy.
Jackie shuffled forward, her fists raised, keeping her gaze locked on Betty’s eyes. That was the place to watch, she had learned, not the body. A fighter’s intent was telegraphed by the creasing of an eyelid, the shrinking of pupils, the quirk of an eyebrow. She let her shoulder dip slightly, an invitation that Betty ignored in favor of a jab at Jackie’s upper chest.
The first blow always hurt the worst, the shock of it expected but breathtaking, since the human brain had no real memory for pain. Jackie struggled to control her reaction, lashing a left-handed punch at Betty that glanced off the woman’s forearm. Pain lanced through Jackie’s knuckles and the bones of her hand. Boxing was all about the hurt—giving and receiving pain with each hit that landed on flesh.
She and Betty sparred lightly, trading blows in an almost friendly way, although by the time the bell rang to signal the end of the round, the tape over Jackie’s knuckles was spotted with blood seeping from newly opened scabs. Jackie went to her corner of the ring and accepted a sealed bottle of water thrust at her from someone in the crowd. After she opened the bottle, she did not drink but merely swished the water around in her mouth before spitting it out on the floor. Curses from the owners of spit-splattered shoes made her smile.
The teenage boy struck the bell.
The next round started with Betty’s punch flying straight at Jackie’s temple. Jackie cursed her complacency and ducked, only realizing it was a feint when Betty shifted and struck her unprotected stomach as if she was trying to put her fist all the way through to Jackie’s spine. Agony blazed through her entire body; her stomach was still bruised and tender from the hit she had taken from Dog several days ago.
For a long moment, her vision went white. Jackie shook her head to clear away the fog, aware on some level that she needed to get up, get up, get up, you worthless piece of shit! She wondered distantly when she had dropped to the mat, then levered herself up from her knees with an effort. This was bad, really bad, a pooch-screwing event that filled her with dismay. Betty had learned Jackie’s chief vulnerability. There was no doubt she would exploit it. Jackie was not sure if she could withstand another punch like that. Her stomach burned, as if she had swallowed hot coals, and the pain made her sweat.
To Jackie’s surprise, Betty did not attempt to hit her stomach again, settling for punches to her chest and breasts that left bruises in their wake. Jackie managed a right hook to Betty’s cheek, keeping her elbow tight, and followed it up with a jab to the woman’s throat that sent her stepping backwards to avoid it. Jackie went with her, feinting at the side of Betty’s head. Betty dropped her guard for a second, allowing Jackie to land a blow directly on the woman’s right breast, her fist sinking into the soft tissue.
Betty did not cry out, but her mouth drew into a thin severe line, and her dark eyes glinted. Jackie was not allowed to enjoy her triumph very long. Betty’s revenge was a strike at Jackie’s chest that skidded off her collarbone, and a wicked hook to Jackie’s skull that left her ears ringing so loud, she almost did not hear the bell that signaled the end of round two.
The next three rounds could not pass quickly enough for Jackie, her world reduced to a toe-to-toe battle, trading blows until her muscles screamed in protest. Sweat dripped down her face. One of Becky’s hits split her eyebrow, and she blinked the blood away, her tongue flicking out to catch the metallic taste. Her eyesight blurred. Close to weeping from sheer exhaustion, Jackie felt as if her fists weighed a hundred pounds apiece, dragging at her arms and shoulders. Her abused knuckles had been bashed to an aching mush. Stubbornness kept her on her feet, as well as the desire to prove to Betty she was a genuine opponent, not a bimbo hired to give Tommy’s champion an easy victory.
The bell rang.
Jackie pushed herself towards the center of the mats where Betty waited. The woman appeared tired as well, her golden skin marred by rising bruises. Her right breast was already the color of ripe grapes, the nipple visibly swollen. Jackie figured that had to hurt like a bitch. She dragged air into her lungs. This was it, the final round. Another couple of hits, and she could stick this fucked-up match in a box marked DONE.
She curled her back a little, posture drooping, and allowed Betty to land a half-hearted jab to her upper arm. Needing the end to look good for pride’s sake, when Betty made her next strike, Jackie scraped the heel of her hand over her injured eyebrow, opening the cut and bringing a fresh wave of blood. So much blood, in fact, that it dripped enthusiastically from her chin and jaw, sending a rain of crimson drops pattering to the blue plastic mats. The flood looked more dramatic than it actually was, and Jackie found herself momentarily bemused.
In that unguarded second, Betty punched Jackie in the stomach, putting her weight behind the blow.
If the first stomach punch was like a bomb exploding inside her, the second was akin to Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Jackie’s mind went blank except for an insistent throbbing agony trapped in the center of her body, blazing hot. Consciousness faded in and out, her reality flickering as if lit by strobe lights: Betty’s bare feet, the toenails painted metallic blue; a shimmering halo around the heads of roaring spectators; the room tilting at a sickening axis, all interspersed with too-brief periods of darkness and silence.
She became dimly aware of Betty speaking in her ear, a venomous whisper in Spanish, “Hija de puta,” and a soft spitting sound.
Jackie understood the feeling behind the words, if not the actual meaning. She almost laughed at how stupid and complacent she had been. The Latina bitch had been biding her time, waiting to throw a last punishing punch to make sure Jackie knew her place.
Had she been capable of doing anything other than laying there, her body leaden, the side of her face pressed to the blood-smeared mats, Jackie would have grabbed a blunt instrument and let Betty Ortiz have it. As it was, she could only chuckle feebly, which made her stomach hurt worse. Nausea rose, and she gagged. Gasping, she managed to twist around on her side in case she threw up, so she would not suffocate on her own vomit.
At least the match was over. Tommy had no more hold over her. It was done.
A chorus of male voices suddenly shouted, “Police! Stay where you are! Do not move! Show us your hands, right now!”
“Ah, crap,” Jackie muttered, closing her eyes. “Just my goddamned luck.”
Then some clumsy bastard tripped over her, his foot planted directly on her stomach, and the resulting flare of white-hot pain sent her deep, deep, deep into the welcoming black.
Jackie spent a night and a day in a dingy hospital ward, hating every second of it. The food was crap, worse than dumpster cuisine in her opinion; the other patients were noisy or smelly or both; and the nurses irritating. Still, the painkillers were wicked good, though not quite good enough to compensate for the annoyance of being handcuffed to the bed until word filtered down from the District Attorney’s office that they were not pressing any charges against her. She did not make an immediate escape; apart from the drug-haze, her clothes were still somewhere in the Candy Bar’s basement, and the only thing covering her bare ass (and maybe not so much at that) was a flimsy gown that tied in the back
An unshaven doctor with pouches under his eyes and coffee stains on his white coat cruised by for approximately five seconds early in the morning of day two to inform her she had not suffered any severe internal injuries, prompting Jackie to remark, “No shit, Sherlock.”
His unexpected response, “Fuck you, Watson,” earned him a smidgeon of her respect.
Shortly afterward, a nurse appeared with paperwork for her to fill out. Jackie decided it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. No way was she going to put her real name and address on an official form. Pushing aside the untouched breakfast tray, she slid her legs over the side of the bed. Despite the painkillers, her deeply bruised stomach protested with a pang that froze the breath in her throat. Jackie eyed the floor, which looked a lot further away than it should, and wondered if she ought not to lie down again.
“Oh my God, should you be doing that?” Connie blurted, rushing into the ward.
For once, the surprise was pleasant. “Hey, pretty girl!” Jackie said, grinning as much as her swollen face allowed. “What’s up?”
“Are you okay? You should get back into bed.” Connie moved in front of Jackie, standing in the vee between her dangling legs. The intimacy of the position, the closeness of their bodies, made Jackie wish she had not just had the crap beaten out of her.
She cleared her throat. “So how’d you find me?” she asked. “Is Izzy here?”
Connie ignored the questions. “Are you okay?” she repeated.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m cool. Nothing broken.” Jackie paused. “How’d you find me?” she repeated, curious to hear what had happened.
““Izzy got hold of Sheldon Wightman, your garage guy, and he made some calls.”
The answer was as unexpected as Connie’s visit. “Sheldon? Huh. He’s one of the good guys. Guess I owe him.” Jackie braced her hands on the mattress. “Izzy with you?”
“Yes.” Connie looked slightly shifty as she said it.
Jackie shuddered as suspicion roiled in her belly. “Don’t tell me Izzy borrowed my car,” she pleaded. “I’m begging you. Not my baby!”
Connie shuffled her feet. The scoop-neck T-shirt she wore was watermelon pink; her blush was close to the same color. “Izzy said it was okay.”
“Christ on a bike! That numb-nut can’t drive even when she ain’t high!” Moved by concern for her beloved Chrysler, Jackie struggled to get off the bed without falling down.
“Will you… be… careful… Jackie, stop!” Connie exclaimed.
Sick and woozy, her stomach protesting every movement with vicious throbs, Jackie bit her lip. Staying put seemed the wise option, but she was not going to sit on her ass while Izzy destroyed her car. Despite Connie’s protests, she tried to stand. When her feet touched the floor, she let go of the bed—which proved a mistake. Her knees refused to support her weight. Jackie fell forward, right into Connie, who grunted but did not drop her. She ended face-down in Connie’s ample décolletage, clinging to the woman.
“Oof!” Connie grunted, staggering.
Jackie’s balance was gone, but she regained it after a momentary struggle. She was tempted to pretend further helplessness; Connie’s breasts were soft and warm and scented with baby powder. It would be nice to spend the day right here, she mused. However, the demands of her injuries made her straighten up as much as she was able.
“I’m just going to set you down here,” Connie said, helping Jackie sit on the edge of the bed. “Do you need the nurse?”
“I told you, I’m cool.” Her upper lip was sweaty. Jackie wiped her mouth on her forearm. “Just need a minute to catch my breath.”
“Looks like you need more than a minute, dude,” said Izzy, walking into the ward.
Jackie was glad to see her, but she was also annoyed that Izzy had borrowed her car without permission. Giving the woman a critical once-over, she noted her hair had been re-dyed a darker blue with green highlights. Izzy was pale, her clothes hanging loosely on a too-thin frame, but she did not look strung out. Jackie did not know whether to be relived or worried. “Where’s my car?” she snapped.
“What, no hello?” Izzy grinned and tossed a paper grocery bag at Jackie’s head..
“Will you act normal? Jeez!” Jackie caught the bag, opened it and sighed in relief. Inside were a pair of jeans, a plain black T-shirt, and a pair of Converse sneakers. No underwear. Everything looked new, fresh out of the package. She glanced at Connie, who gave her an innocent wide-eyed look she did not believe for a second.
“Thought maybe you wanted to get sprung outta here,” Izzy told her, smirking. “Sheldon said the cops said you weren’t hurt bad”
“I survived.” Jackie could not figure out why the cops had not tried to push her into testifying against Tommy Tomaselli. Maybe the raid wasn’t about illegal fighting, she decided, but an excuse to arrest Tommy and attempt to coerce him into rolling over on the rest of his family. She shrugged. Good luck with that, Mr. D.A. Man. Reaching behind her back, she tugged at the knots that held her hospital gown closed, and slid the garment off. Connie’s horrified gasp made her glance down at herself for the first time.
A huge dark purple bruise spread over her stomach, shading into deep lilac and blue at the edges. The center of the bruise looked almost black. When she pressed the area lightly, hissing between her teeth, it felt pulpy and unimaginably tender. More bruises were scattered over her torso and upper arms, and the knuckles of both hands were bandaged. The doctor had muttered something about ‘hairline fractures’ in a couple of her fingers. All in all, Jackie thought she had come out of the fight fairly intact.
Connie started to reach out, but Jackie’s instinctive wince made her drop her hand. “That looks… like it really, really hurts,” she finished with a concerned frown.
“Yeah, well, the painkillers take the edge off.” Jackie took the T-shirt from the bag and pulled it over her head with some difficulty, her muscles stiff and sore. She let Izzy help her with the jeans and tennis shoes because the thought of bending over made her want to puke. Aware that Connie had turned away, but kept darting quick glances in her direction as she dressed, Jackie snickered and said, “What, did you think the rug was dyed red to match the curtains?” A hand swept in the direction of her crotch made her meaning clear.
Connie gasped, her blush deepening to brick red.
Izzy echoed Jackie’s snicker. “Knew this chick in high school,” she said, “who plucked her bush so it was heart-shaped. Should’ve been an arrow with ‘Get It Here’ tattooed below the belly button ‘cause she really got around, if you know what I mean.”
“Will you two stop?” Connie whispered. “People can hear you.”
“Do I give a flying fuck?” Jackie retorted, aiming the remark at the rubber-necking woman in the next bed, who shrank back and pressed the call button for a nurse.
Once dressed, Jackie steadied herself with a hand on Izzy’s shoulder and stood, groaning as she stretched some of the kinks out. This time, she stayed upright, more or less. She still had to hunch over a little to accommodate her aching stomach. “Where’d you park my car, Iz?” she asked. “And there had better not be a single ding anywhere, not a scratch, not a dent, or so help me God, I’ll rip off your head and piss down your neck.”
“You’re welcome, and oh! In case I forget, screw you sideways,” Izzy replied without any heat. “Hey, the doc give you a ‘script for pain meds?”
Interpreting the glint in Izzy’s eyes, the shining avaricious curve of the woman’s mouth, Jackie lowered her voice and said, “You want to poke around here and try to steal doctors’ prescription pads to tide you over till you score more H, you go ahead. I’m not waiting around, and I sure as hell won’t bail your ass out of jail when you get caught.” Not that she had any money for bail—she had a feeling the money Tommy had promised her for taking a dive would never be paid—but it was the principle of the thing.
“Whatever.” Izzy did not deny Jackie’s accusation. Shoving her hands in the pockets of her black jeans with studied casualness, she asked, “You ready to roll or what?”
It was easy to elude the nurses and exit the hospital, although Jackie found it necessary to lean on Connie until they arrived at the car parked in the furthest lot from the building. Jackie made an inspection of the Chrysler Imperial, checking for any damage. She found none, and settled behind the steering wheel over Izzy’s protest.
“You’re not driving,” Jackie said, turning the key in the ignition. The engine started sweetly, a sound that never failed to please her. “Goddammit, Iz, you drive like a monkey with a head injury. Get in and shut up. Connie rides shotgun,” she added hurriedly.
“Aw, shit,” Izzy grumbled. “You know the backseat has that funky smell.”
Jackie gave her the finger. “Zip it.” To Connie, she said coaxingly, patting the passenger seat, “Come on, pretty girl. You can sit next to me.”
“Why do you call me that?” Connie asked when she was in the car.
Jackie glanced at her. “Because you are,” she said on impulse.
Connie ducked her head, smiling shyly.
From the backseat, Izzy’s snort sounded loud and clear.
To cover her embarrassment, Jackie shoved a tape into the cassette player and accelerated the car out of the parking lot to the hardcore driving ferocity of Black Flags’ Rise Above. Even Izzy fumbling the lyrics from behind her head could not take away Jackie’s enjoyment at being free.
The distance from the hospital to Sheldon’s garage was not great, but the usual heavy New York traffic added time to the journey. As she drove to Delancey Street, Rise Above ended, and a song from the British band Flux of Pink Indians began. “Is there anybody there?” Jackie sang along with the music, though not at full volume to avoid disturbing her bruises. “Is there anybody there?” With the windows rolled down, the wind in her face, pounding punk rock music in her ears, she felt whole, if not in body then in soul.
A glance at Connie showed the young woman staring ahead, a hand braced for impact on the dashboard. Dark hair fluttered around her face. In the sunlight pouring through the windshield, her plain features were lent a touch of flattering gilt, so that she looked almost as pretty as Jackie had named her.
Bah! Realizing her thoughts were turning sentimental, and over a middle-class (sweet, good-hearted, smart) chick at that , Jackie gave herself a mental slap and blew the horn viciously at a delivery truck going too slow for her liking
Leaving the car at Sheldon Wightman’s garage (the man was not there, so Jackie decided to visit him later), she walked towards Orchard Street, Connie and Izzy hovering close, much to Jackie’s aggravation. Her good mood soured. She was not made of glass, goddammit! But her injured body kept betraying her, and every move made the grinding ache in her stomach sharpen to a stabbing pain. Shaking off Connie’s attempt to help, angry at her own weakness, she doggedly continued to the brick tenement building that was home.
Entering the alley around the side, she glimpsed something at the other end that made her chest go cold: a shaft of buttery summer sunshine gleaming on a man’s chestnut curls. It had to be Daniel Finch… what the hell was he doing here?
Apparently noticing where Jackie was staring, Izzy said, “You know that guy? He’s been hanging around since Saturday.”
“Yeah?” Jackie squinted. That was Finch, all right, furtively lurking at the end of the alley like a process server. “He say anything to you?”
“Nope. Not a peep.” Izzy shrugged. “You think he’s a cop?”
“He’s not a cop. His name is Daniel Finch, and he’s an explorer like us.” Another chill went through Jackie, and she turned to face Izzy. “Did your new friend Mendoza notice him? I don’t want Mendoza thinking he’s undercover surveillance or shit like that.”
Izzy licked her lips. “I’m not… look, dude, Mendoza’s not my buddy. I could care less about that asshole.”
“Jackie, maybe this isn’t a good time,” Connie said, slipping between them. “Let’s go inside to the apartment. You need to sit down.”
Jackie paid not attention to her, continuing to glare at Izzy. “You gonna answer my question? Or do I gotta take a wild guess?”
“Mendoza’s crew is taking over a new territory in Queens,” Izzy said, sounding sullen. “He won’t be in our neighborhood till Tuesday.”
“Was that so hard? Jeez, you’d think I was asking for State secrets.” Jackie fished her keys out of her jeans pocket, handing them to Izzy. “You two go inside. I need to have a word with Finch, find out why he’s here. Seriously, go upstairs. I sort of know the guy, and I can take care of this without help. ” She started in the man’s direction, only to watch him bolt, disappearing from sight. Cursing, she went as fast as she could to the alley’s end, but there was no sign of Finch. She limped back to where Connie and Izzy waited by the door.
“Damn, the man can run!” Izzy whistled, jingling the ring of keys until Jackie took them out of her hand. “What do you suppose he wants?”
“No friggin’ clue,” Jackie muttered, unlocking the door.
“He saw you and took off.” Izzy bounced a little on the balls of her feet. “Want me to ask Don to keep an eye out for this Finch guy?”
Jackie glanced at a large cardboard box under the fire escape that housed Crazy Don, the homeless veteran. A pair of men’s legs stuck out of the box’s opening, filthy corduroy trousers and ragged tennis shoes with a hole in the toe; the rest of him was hidden from view by a thin dirty towel taped to the top of the box like a curtain. A scattering of empty beer cans showed evidence of a spree. She decided Don must have found a little money while collecting stuff to sell to the recycling center. “Looks like Don’s off in la-la land,” she said, opening the door. “Let him sleep. You can talk to him tomorrow.”
Inside the building, groping her way up the darkened staircase was not easy. Jackie had to pause on a landing to catch her breath before continuing, while Izzy struck match after match to light their path, often scorching her fingertips. Connie remained behind Jackie during her struggle, presumably to break her fall if she dropped from the effort. Jackie snarled under her breath, grateful beyond words when she finally—finally!—arrived at the apartment.
“Beer,” she croaked at Izzy, collapsing on the sofa.
Connie shook her head. “Not while you’re on pain meds.”
“I just dragged my poor ass over hell’s half acre,” Jackie countered, appalled by the whine in her voice. Coughing, she continued, “I deserve a beer.”
“Later.” Connie remained firm. She opened her purse, rummaged in it, and produced a huge bottle of aspirin, adding, “Also for later. And you need to eat before you start drinking.”
“Chinese is good,” Izzy put in. “You need won ton soup.”
“Who the fuck died and left you in charge?” Jackie could not summon the energy to get up, go over there, and kick Izzy in the head. “You ain’t my mother.” She closed her eyes, leaning back into the sofa cushions. “No money, no Chinese, Iz,” she roused herself to say. “We sponge off Connie enough.”
“I don’t mind,” Connie said hastily. “I haven’t had dinner yet.”
“That’s what you always say. Damn, girl, do you ever eat?” Jackie opened her eyes, not angry but wanting to make her point. “You can’t keep buying us food, Connie. We ate before you came here, we’ll eat after you’re gone.”
“I’ll go check behind that kosher grocery store on Delancey,” Izzy offered. “They do those rotisserie chickens on Sunday. I get lucky, I can score some when they throw out the unsold ones.” She went out the door without waiting for a reply.
As the sound of the door closing echoed in the near-empty living room, Connie sat down on the sofa next to Jackie, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “I get that you don’t want to accept charity,” she said in a low voice. “I get that. It’s just… look, I want to help you and Izzy with this lost painting thing. I am helping you, right?”
“Yeah, pretty girl, no question you’ve helped us out.” Jackie wondered where Connie was going with this. “And I’ll take care of you when the time comes, don’t worry.”
Connie frowned. “What do you mean?”
Abruptly, Jackie remembered Connie had given one condition for her assistance in translating Frederica Noyles’ journal: that the painting, if found, would not be sold but donated to a museum. Jackie had lied, of course, when she had agreed with that condition. The painting was going nowhere except under the hammer at Christie’s auction house. Wide awake now, panic coiling tight in her gut at the almost-betrayal, she blurted, “Uh, nothing! I mean… shit! I was almost asleep. You can’t blame me for anything I say when I’m sleeping.”
“I guess you were sleeping with your eyes open,” Connie said, still frowning.
Was the narrowing of Connie’s eyes a sign of suspicion? Jackie knew she was not running a hundred-percent due to the painkillers and her injuries, but she also knew she had to save the situation fast. Going on the offensive, she snarled, “Jeez! I was punched in the head a lot, I’m in pain, I just got out of the hospital, so excuse the hell out of me for whatever meaningless shit comes out of my mouth, okay?” She flattened a hand over her aching stomach. “I don’t want to fight,” she went on, letting her weariness show. “I’m too tired.”
“I’m sorry,” Connie said at once, her shoulders slumping.
“Will you quit apologizing already? We’re cool.” Relieved, Jackie decided to change the subject. “Hey, I talked to Finch the day before the fight. He’s an urban explorer like me and Izzy. Anyway, Finch gave me a clue about Beach’s second station.”
Connie perked up a bit. “I think I’ve got a line on it as well, but you go ahead.”
“Well, he only told me to look in City Hall Park,” Jackie said. She remained confused about why Finch had been hanging around close, but ran away when she would have spoken to him. “He said he didn’t want to spoil me with too much info”
“City Hall Park? That jibes with what I learned. I might be able to narrow down the location if I can dig up a map or plans filed with the City.” Connie sighed suddenly. “I’m not leaving, you know. Even after we find the painting… I want to be your friend.”
Until you find out the painting isn’t going to a museum. The thought of losing Connie from her life made Jackie’s resolve falter. What was more important—millions of dollars in her pocket, or keeping the respect of someone she had come to view as a friend?
Jackie was too much a realist not to recognize the world ran on the politics of profit and greed; that those with money were in a position to do much more with their lives than those who were barely scraping by. If she had to lift herself and Izzy out of poverty by breaking her word and losing Connie’s respect forever, so be it.
“Yeah,” she murmured to Connie, her eyelids drifting shut. “We’re friends.” She felt rather than saw Connie’s smile.
Despite her fatigue, sleep did not come to her as easily as lying.
“Goddammit!” Heartsick, Jackie watched Izzy tie a rubber tourniquet above her elbow and ready the syringe.
“Leave me alone,” Izzy mumbled.
“You can’t keep doing this, Iz.” Jackie tried to make eye contact, but Izzy’s concentration was focused on the heroin she was cooking. Sighing, Jackie leaned over and shook the woman’s bony shoulder. “Hey, don’t get high today. Let’s do something else, sneak into a movie or whatever. ”
“Please, please, stop working for that prick Mendoza. He’s not your friend. He got you hooked, he gives you drugs, he’s not your friend.” Jackie paused, drawing a breath. The impulse to snatch up the heroin and throw it out the window was an insistent throb in her head, but she knew better than to get between a junkie and her fix. “Dude, this flat-out sucks,” she said. “You’re doing more smack, you’re not eating, you look like death warmed over—”
“Fuck off! You can’t tell me what to do! You’re not my father, and you’re not my mother, either!” Izzy suddenly screeched, her face turning red. “Shut up! Just shut up and get the hell out of my face, bitch!” She bared her teeth. “I’m not gonna take any more crap from you. I’m tired of you acting so righteous, like your shit don’t stink. Fuck off and fuck you!”
Jackie stumbled back a step, shocked by the attack. After a second, anger bubbled, hot and vicious. “Know what? I’m done,” she spat. “Right now, right this second, I am done.”
“Good. Go get drunk or something, and leave me alone.” Not waiting for a reply, Izzy loaded the syringe with heroin and jabbed the needle into her vein.
Jackie closed her mouth tightly and left the bedroom before she lost control and punched Izzy in the face. Fuming, she grabbed her motorcycle jacket and slammed out of the apartment. Down the stairs and in the street, she leaned against the side of the building, the rough texture of the bricks rubbing through her worn T-shirt to the skin beneath
“Fuck you, too, Desiree,” Jackie muttered, rubbing a hand over the shaved parts of her head. Stubble pricked against her palm, sharp as the unshed tears that burned her eyes . She shook herself, wanting a cigarette, but she had run out that morning and had no money to buy a pack. Fishing a cigarette butt out of the gutter, she took a moment to straighten the crumpled paper, pinch off the lipstick stained filter, and tamp the tobacco down. As she smoked, the bitter taste of nicotine filled her mouth, familiar and comforting.
Rage guttered and died.
Izzy’s addiction was getting worse, fed by Mendoza. Short of calling Rabbotino Senior and informing him of the whereabouts of his daughter—not for the reward, but in the certain knowledge that Izzy would be put into rehab—Jackie did not know what to do. If things went on as they were, her friend was going to die sooner rather than later.
She decided to go to City Hall Park: get away from the apartment, clear her head, let Izzy do her thing. While at the park, she could have a look around for the entrance to Alfred Beach’s long-lost pneumatic railway station. There had been no word from Connie since Sunday; Jackie reckoned it could not hurt to get a view from the ground rather than wait for maps and plans, which she found difficult to comprehend anyway.
To get to City Hall Park would take less than fifteen minutes by subway, Jackie thought. Driving, less than ten minutes, but she would have to get the car from Sheldon’s garage first. Same difference. After a brief internal debate, she decided to take the Chrysler. By the time she managed to scrounge enough loose change from the street to pay for a subway token, she could be at the park already.
At the garage, Sheldon was elbows-deep in the engine of a cherry red ’65 Mustang. His crew were swarming around a no-doubt stolen Mercedes, reducing the luxury automobile to a steel frame, and disassembling that as well. Jackie did not like to disturb Sheldon when he was working, so she fetched the car keys herself, waving at him as she exited the storage bay.
The drive to City Hall Park was uneventful. Jackie cranked up the volume on the cassette player, letting music blast out the windows as she drove from Delancey Street to Bowery to Canal to Broadway. Finding a parking space was not easy in the busy downtown Manhattan area; in fact, it proved impossible. Cursing, Jackie backtracked and left the car on Canal Street, parked illegally in an alley behind a dumpster.
It was lunchtime, she discovered, and City Hall Park was crowded with office workers from the historic government buildings that surrounded the space, including City Hall itself. A blonde bride in a strapless white dress, with masses of white net veils thrown back over her head, was posing for photographs by the famous fountain. Jackie skirted the wedding party, squeezing onto a bench between two women wearing business suits. Fucking yuppie drones, she thought. Look like linebackers with those stupid shoulder pads.
The women gave her disgusted looks, but Jackie refused to budge, slouching to take as much room as possible. She knew they were assessing her punk hairstyle, her T-shirt held together with safety pins, her big black Doc Marten boots, and coming to the conclusion that making a fuss was probably not the prudent thing to do. As Jackie predicted, the women took off, whispering to each other as they walked away.
“Toodle-oo, bitches,” Jackie said under her breath. “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya!”
To Jackie’s delight, one of the office workers had left behind half a tuna salad sandwich and an apple, while the other had abandoned the remains of a chef’s salad with no dressing and a can of diet Coke. Her stomach rumbled, demanding to be fed. She ate quickly, using her fingers to scoop up the salad. When she finished, she was still somewhat hungry, but at least the edge was taken off. A glance showed a few homeless people loitering near the garbage bins, probably waiting for the lunch rush to end.
Sitting alone on the bench, Jackie tilted her face to the sun and just breathed, letting calm steal over her. She had no idea how long she sat there, drowsy but not asleep. Eventually, the back of her neck started to prickle. Someone was watching her.
Immediately alert, Jackie nevertheless remained still. Several years of street living had honed her instincts; she sensed no hostility from the watcher, but she was not dumb or naïve enough to assume a stranger’s attention was kindly meant.
Cautiously, Jackie straightened, stretching as if wakening from an impromptu nap. A scan of the people standing around or walking by revealed no one who seemed interested in her, and not a cop in sight. At last, Jackie shrugged, dismissing the sensation of being watched as an illusion. Perhaps she was more paranoid than usual today.
She walked to the Broadway side of the triangular-shaped park, thinking about the demonstration pneumatic railway station that had been destroyed. It was here, near Murray Street, that a large air vent, covered by a wrought iron grate, had provided fresh air for Beach’s first station. She assumed the grate had been removed in 1912, around the same time as the pneumatic tunnel was consumed by the BMT Broadway subway line.
Jackie kept her gaze on the ground, seeking any clue at all. Another air vent, perhaps? But that was way too much to hope for. She scouted around without really knowing what she was looking for, only hoping that she might know it when she saw it, whatever it was. After most of an hour spent walking back and forth without discovering much apart from a lost silver earring, a ballpoint pen with a chewed-up cap, a small handful of dropped change, and several dog turds, Jackie chafed with frustration.
Should she go see Connie? Find out what the woman had learned since Sunday? The more Jackie considered the idea, the more it appealed to her since she was getting nowhere at the moment. Decision made, Jackie left the park, retrieved her car, and drove to the university, making good time despite having to pull over to let an ambulance pass.
Connie was not in the library. Jackie also checked the cafeteria, but it was virtually empty now that lunchtime was over. Realizing she did not know where Connie lived or what classes she took apart from art history and English, Jackie was stumped. On impulse, she went to the admission’s office to inquire about Wilburton’s art history program.
Armed with a list of required courses, teachers and classroom locations, Jackie walked across the campus to the Tandeski building, a 1960’s concrete structure in the raw, unfriendly, Brutalist style. The young men and women standing around outside the building in small groups presented an eclectic mix of fashions including Connie’s favorite preppie style. Jackie also recognized Miami Vice pastels; and the ripped sweatshirts, leg warmers and dancewear inspired by the movie Flashdance. Jackie snorted to herself as she pushed through the glass door and turned left, following a long, dimly corridor to the end. Sure, Jennifer Beals was hotter than hell, she thought, but the music sucked, and the movie’s plot sucked as well.
Jackie paused at a door. This was Professor Richard Golan’s class, required for an art history degree: Contemporary Women Artists and the Feminist Movement. According to the timetable given to her by the admission’s office secretary, the class was due to end any second. Unwilling to wait, she eased the door open and slipped inside, hoping to spot Connie.
The school bell rang, loud and brazen, and the students were dismissed, filing out clutching their books, notebooks and backpacks. Jackie stayed out of the way in an unobtrusive corner of the room where she could see everyone who passed. As the classroom emptied, Jackie saw Connie standing near the front, next to a bearded guy she assumed must be Professor Golan. Not wanting to interrupt and get Connie into trouble, Jackie stuck close to the shadows and inched closer, curious. Connie looked upset. Jackie wanted to know why.
“…sorry I missed the test,” Connie was saying, not quite wringing her hands but appearing close to it. “Why can’t I make it up? I told you, I was—”
“Excuses, excuses, Miss Armstrong,” Golan interrupted, turning to gather a sheaf of papers from his desk. “I really don’t care why you missed the test. You knew it was an important part of your grade, but you chose to be elsewhere.” He shrugged.
Connie flushed. “Professor Golan, please. I need to pass this class.”
“You should have thought of that before you skipped the test.” Golan’s lips pursed. Jackie did not like the way the man’s gaze kept dropping to Connie’s breasts. “I might be persuaded to let you make up the test, Miss Armstrong. Quid pro quo, you understand?” he asked, stroking two fingers along the underside of Connie’s arm.
“I don’t know what you want,” Connie said nervously, jerking away from him.
Golan leaned in closer, his mouth about an inch from Connie’s. “Don’t play stupid, girl. You’re chunkier than I like—I prefer slender blondes—but as John Heywood wrote, all cats are grey in the dark.” He chuckled dryly at his own attempt at wit. “Come to my office today after hours, around six o’clock Don’t keep me waiting. If your performance is adequate, you may take a make-up test tomorrow. Otherwise, your grade isn’t my problem.” He added almost as an afterthought, “Are you on birth control? If not, bring a condom.”
Connie’s stricken stammer and shocked pallor acted like gasoline on the flame of Jackie’s fury. White light exploded across her brain. She surged towards the professor, already swinging. Her fist struck him on the nose, the weight of her shoulder behind it. He collapsed, the lower half of his face a mask of blood. Jackie drew back her booted foot, kicking the pervert hard in the groin for good measure. “Touch her again, mother fucker,” she rasped, “and I’ll put you in the ground!”
“Oh my God! Jackie! Jackie! Stop!” Connie cried. “You’re killing him!”
Golan was curled into the fetal position, animal sounds of distress bubbling from his blood-filled mouth. Jackie kicked him again. “You fucking cunt,” she growled at him, aiming a kick at his kidneys, but Connie pulled her off balance.
“We need to go,” Connie said, gulping. “Jackie, we need to go now.”
For a long heartbeat, Jackie hovered on the verge of murder. The impulse to grind her boot heel into Golan’s throat ran cold and hot under her skin, a feeling akin to euphoria. A voice whispered in her head insistently: it would be so easy to kill him, so easy to let go of control for once in her useless goddamned life and do it! Do it! Do it! Stomp him, crush him, break his bones, rip his flesh, drink his blood! Wipe out this reeking offense of a man, obliterate him and all others like him! Kill them all! Let the fucking world burn!
Connie’s soft voice cut though the haze. “Come on, we need to go now.” She sounded unnaturally calm. Taking hold of Jackie’s wrist, she tugged her in the direction of the door. “Let’s go, okay? Just come with me. Leave him. He’s not important. Just come with me.”
Jackie froze, struggling to control the part of her that howled to throw Connie on the floor next to Golan and just kill them both. Do it! The refrain beat relentlessly inside her skull. She forced herself to focus, beating down the murderous impulse by force of will. Connie stood next to her, pale but resolute, clearly unafraid of the predator raging in Jackie’s head. Trembling, Jackie reached out and cupped Connie’s cheek.
“Come with me,” Connie repeated.
Abruptly, the air curdled in Jackie’s lungs. She retched, bile flooding her mouth as the madness passed, leaving her sick and weak and hollowed out. Stumbling forward, she almost tripped over Golan’s prone body, Was the professor even breathing? At Connie’s urging, she stepped over a splash of blood on the floor, vivid crimson against the dingy linoleum.
Her next breath was harsh, knifing painfully into her chest. Fighting an opponent in the boxing ring was one thing; attacking a man with the intent to kill him was another. She had seen something in herself that shocked and appalled her: a mirror image of her father in one of his violent drunken rages, kicking and punching, cursing and spitting. Christ!
When Jackie realized Connie was weeping, she cursed silently. Professor Golan had deserved the punch in the nose for being such an asshole, but the rest…well, she admitted that was excessive. Connie had probably been more frightened of Jackie than Golan.
Hooking her arm through Connie’s, Jackie led the woman out of the classroom, down the corridor, and outside the Tandeski building. As they walked, she expected any moment for the campus cops to arrest her for assault. However, by the time they reached the place she had parked the car, she had not heard ambulance or police sirens, and no one tried to stop them. Jackie opened the passenger side door for Connie, who paused to remove her glasses and dig a paper napkin out of her purse, blowing her nose before getting in the car.
Jackie drove for a while without any particular destination in mind, though remaining within the Manhattan borough. Quiet suited her mood, so she did not bother playing any music. Now that she had calmed, she realized her bruised stomach ached from the exertion, and her hand was throbbing in time to the beat of her heart. She wondered if she had worsened the hairline fractures gotten in her fight with Betty Ortiz. A bag of ice or frozen peas would be great, she thought, but there was no chance of that happening anytime soon. She would have to take aspirin when she got home
In the passenger seat, Connie sniffled and blew her nose some more, dropping crumpled snotty paper napkins one after another through the gaping hole in the floor. At last, Jackie unhooked a hand from the steering wheel and gestured. “Get over here,” she said, trying to sound less brittle than she felt.
Connie obeyed after a moment’s hesitation, sliding over the seat to cuddle against Jackie’s side, her head resting on Jackie’s shoulder.
“You okay?” Jackie asked.
“Yes.” Connie’s reply was somewhat nasal. She looked awful, twin spots of hectic red burning in an otherwise colorless face, her nose and eyes swollen from crying.
“Look…” Jackie’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat. “Sorry about what happened back there.”
She was surprised when Connie replied fiercely, “I’m not sorry, not one bit. Professor Golan… what he wanted… I’m so glad you hurt him. I’m glad!”
“Oh, pretty girl, don’t say that.”
“I mean it. I wish I hadn’t stopped you, only if you killed him, you’d get into trouble, and I didn’t want that.” Connie twisted her neck to gaze at Jackie. Without her glasses, her features appeared incomplete, open and vulnerable. “I don’t think he’ll call the police. If he does, I’ll tell them he tried to rape me, and I hit him in self defense.”
Jackie shook her head. “The cops won’t believe you.”
“They will! They have to!” Connie started shaking. “You shouldn’t go to jail because of him, and you won’t. I swear you won’t.”
“Hey, hey, don’t cry.” Jackie stroked Connie’s hair. “It’s cool, okay? Don’t borrow trouble. Whatever happens, happens.”
“I won’t let them take you,” Connie hiccupped.
“Don’t worry.” Listening to a good impulse, Jackie pressed a kiss to Connie’s hair, her heart fluttering in a weird but not unsettling way. “Hush, pretty girl,” she said. “Let me take care of you now.”
After a while, apparently soothed by Jackie’s caresses, Connie relaxed further until she fell into an exhausted sleep, snoring quietly into Jackie’s shoulder.
Jackie continued driving around Manhattan, her arm going numb from holding the sleeping woman, but not minding that at all.
“You can spend the night at my place if you want,” Connie offered once she woke up from her nap.. “My roommate Liz is in Hawaii with her family.”
Spotting a rare open space, Jackie pulled the car up to the curb, put it in park and turned off the engine. She had been driving for about two hours by her estimation, just cruising with the flow of traffic while listening to Connie’s snores, wondering why the hell she found the noise endearing rather than annoying.
The thought of returning to the squat and facing Izzy (who would still be in the middle of her heroin nap) was not appealing. On the other hand, when Connie said ‘spend the night,’ did she mean actually sleeping or something else, like sex? Jackie did not want to assume anything and risk destroying the fragile rapport she and Connie shared at the moment. “Yeah, okay,” she replied, deciding to wait and see what developed.
“Great!” Connie’s smile seemed a trifle forced, but Jackie put it down to nervousness, or perhaps lingering upset over Professor Golan. “Liz’s father pays an annual fee for a parking space in a private lot near our apartment building,” Connie went on. “Liz left her car at the airport, so you could park there. Um, in her space, I mean, not the airport. The attendant knows me. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”
“Where do you live?” Jackie asked, turning the key in the ignition, and easing the Chrysler out of the parking space.
Connie sat up as Jackie drove, pushing locks of dark hair out of her face. Her nose and eyes were much less swollen, although her cheeks remained blotchy. “Fifth Avenue between 81st and 82nd Streets, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” she said.
Startled, Jackie whipped her gaze off the road and stared at Connie until a blown horn reminded her there were other cars on the road. She automatically stuck an arm out of the window to give the horn-blower a one-finger salute while exclaiming, “Fuck me blind, girl! How the hell do you afford an apartment in that neighborhood when you’re on a scholarship?”
“Liz’s dad is an investment banker or a broker or something like that. His company bought the apartment when the building went co-op. Anyway, Liz and I went to the same school, and I used to tutor her brother, so when she decided to go to Wilburton and she needed a roommate ‘cause her dad said she can’t live alone, she asked if I wanted to share.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a good thing going.” Despite her words, a poisonous prick of envy stabbed deep. Jackie would have given her left nut, if she had one, to live so close to the art museum. However, she had learned not to let jealousy rule her life. There was no point wasting energy gnawing her liver about the things she lacked, or who could afford the stuff she wished she owned. If she found the painting, everything would change for the better.
“My dad thinks I’m lucky. He was hoping I’d be accepted to Delta Zeta sorority, but when I tried to pledge, they said I didn’t fit their recruitment goals.” Connie fell silent a moment. “Liz is pretty nice, and it’s really wonderful to be able to visit the museum whenever I want. The sorority doesn’t matter,” she concluded. “I’m happy where I am.”
“The sorority didn’t want you because you’re not a skinny blonde Barbie wanna-be hunting for a husband with a yacht club membership and a trust fund. Bunch of stuck-up rich bitches,” Jackie muttered. “Their loss, you ask me.”
“Thanks.” After spending a few moments finger-combing her hair, Connie began fiddling with the radio, finally settling on a station playing jazz.
Deciding to be polite, Jackie did not protest the tweedly-dum-dum music..
As they neared 5th Avenue, Connie directed her to a fenced parking lot. The attendant popped out of his box on sighting the primer-painted Chrysler coming through the open gate.
“Hey, hey, hey! Hold up! You can’t park that piece of crap in here!” he cried, stooping to peer through the driver’s side window at Jackie. “This is a private lot! G’wan, get outta here, you freak, before I call the cops!”
Freak? Who was this black dude calling a freak? Jackie tightened her grip on the steering wheel, making an effort to remain calm. Losing her shit twice in one day was not an option. Plastering a mask of indifference on her face, she gave him a thousand-yard stare.
“Jacob, this is my friend who’s staying with me tonight,’ Connie said, leaning over in the seat so he could see her. “I thought it would be okay if she parks in Liz’s space since Liz isn’t here. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Miss Armstrong, good to see ya!” Strong white teeth gleamed briefly in the darkness of Jacob’s face, then his grin collapsed. “Ah, Miss Armstrong, I don’t know, I really don’t know,” he said. His gaze darted between Connie and Jackie, and he patted his corn-rowed hair, clearly doubtful. “Maybe that’s not such a good idea.”
Jackie understood Jacob’s reluctance, even if she disliked it. The lot was filled with nice cars belonging to the nice people who lived and worked in the nice buildings around the area. As much as she loved her Chrysler, she privately admitted the beat-up car would stand out among the Mercedes, BMWs and Cadillacs in the parking lot like a pimple on the end of a beautiful woman’s nose. Jacob was afraid of complaints getting back to his employer.
“Maybe I ought to tell Liz’s dad—you’ve met Mr. Merriman, right?—well, I should tell him the parking space he leases isn’t available to his daughter’s roommate when his daughter isn’t using it,” Connie told him coolly.
“C’mon, Miss Armstrong, give a guy a break, will ya?” Jacob asked, looking nervous.
Connie shook her head. “We’ll take a space in the back,” she said.
Jacob hesitated another moment. Finally, he asked, “You sure Miss Merriman’s not due home from vacation yet?”
“ Liz won’t be home until next Tuesday, and we’ll be out of here tomorrow morning, promise.” Connie offered him a friendly smile. “Girl Scouts’ honor.”
“Go straight to the back; there’s a free space you can use next to the fence,” Jacob said, addressing his directions to Connie. He stepped back, waving them through. “See you tomorrow, Miss Armstrong. You have a good night now.”
Dismissing the man’s rudeness—it was not the first time someone had pretended she did not exist—Jackie drove to the indicated space and parked the car. She remained quiet on the brief walk to the building,. Passing under the canopied entrance, she watched Connie exchange greetings with the uniformed doorman. In the elevator, she stood beside Connie, feeling out of place and out of sorts as a result. Jackie keenly felt the contrast between her ragged appearance and the elegant settings that surrounded her.
She resented the other passengers in the elevator who edged away, giving her sidelong glances as if afraid she was a wild animal who might attack them. Suckers, she thought, scowling and slouching, giving off her meanest ‘don’t fuck with me’ aura. Connie seemed oblivious, bobbing her head to some god-awful Muzak coming through the elevator speakers. Jackie was relieved to get out of the confined space once they reached the ninth floor.
Entering Connie’s apartment, Jackie winced, overwhelmed at once by suffocatingly fluffy pinkness: blush pink wallpaper, fuchsia carpet on the floors, curtains with cabbage rose prints at the windows, the sofas and chairs in the living room covered with pink-and-white striped throws and flowery pillows. Even the coffee table was painted pearl pink. Jackie blinked, feeling as if she was drowning in a pastel sea.
“Sorry about that,” Connie said, grimacing as she turned on a table lamp with a salmon colored shade. “Liz is crazy about pink, as you might have guessed.”
“Crazy sums it up all right,” Jackie agreed, trying not to think about how the color of her dyed hair must be clashing with the décor. She went with Connie to the kitchen, which was decently decorated in black and white without a trace of any other color.
Connie opened the refrigerator. “No beer, but I’ve got Coke.”
“Coke’s fine.” Jackie took the can from Connie, opened it and took a sip. Syrupy sweetness—far sweeter than it ought to have been—flooded her mouth, and she gagged, nearly spewing the offending liquid on the floor. “What is this?” she asked, squinting at the can. “Looks like Coke, tastes like crap.”
“New Coke,” Connie told her. “They took all the old Coke off the shelves at the grocery store. I heard New Coke’s here to stay.”
“Bah! That sucks.” Scowling, Jackie sat at the table and drank half the can despite the flavor, which was nothing like regular Coca-Cola. At least it was cold.
Connie continued rummaging in the refrigerator, eventually emerging with a head of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, Swiss cheese slices and several different kinds of cold cuts. “Sandwiches okay?” she asked, putting the items on the kitchen counter, and pulling a loaf of whole wheat bread from an overhead cupboard.
“Sure.” While she waited for Connie to fix sandwiches, Jackie tapped a thumbnail against the Coke can, feeling more and more uncomfortable. What the hell was she doing here? This was an unknown world where everything was clean and shiny and new; where people wore designer clothes and lived designer lives. She did not fit in, but she would never admit out loud to anyone that the surroundings made her uneasy—a fish not only out of water, but stranded in the middle of a barren desert. She thrust her legs out, crossing her feet at the ankles, and slumped further down in the chair, only sitting up when Connie put a plate in front of her, sliding a large bag of plain potato chips on the table as well.
The sandwich was good, piled high with ham, turkey, salami and cheese. Hungry in spite of the leftovers she had eaten in the park, Jackie wolfed the sandwich down, accepted a second, and polished off most of the potato chips as well. Connie sat opposite, watching Jackie eat more than eating herself. Oddly, Jackie was not bothered by Connie’s attention. She did try to mind her manners, not chew with her mouth open or make gross noises.
“So I heard from that research assistant I told you about,” Connie said, picking an uneaten crust off her plate. Her fingernails were cut short, coated with a glossy clear polish that had a bluish sheen when it caught the light. The iridescence made Jackie think of gasoline rainbows in a puddle of rainwater. “He managed to dig out some maps and plans in the archives relating to Beach’s pneumatic railway,” Connie went on.
Jackie raised an eyebrow. “He who?”
“Jeffrey Sato. Haven’t I told you his name? He’s majoring in architecture, and he spends a lot of time at the Department of City Planning.” Connie popped a potato chip into her mouth, chewing and swallowing before adding, “He’s also a Dungeon Master.”
“He runs a local Dungeons & Dragons game. You know, the role-playing game with the polyhedral dice, the wizards and elves, that kind of stuff. You’ve got to have heard of it. Very popular among a certain section of the university’s students.”
“Nerds, I’ll bet.”
Connie grimaced. “Let’s say, guys who never got over playing pretend. Anyway, Jeff runs a game on weekends at his mom’s house in Brooklyn… not in the steam tunnels underneath the campus.” She chuckled at what was obviously a private joke.
“Uh-huh.” Not for the first time, Jackie had no clue what Connie was talking about. “Did you tell him what we’re looking for?” she asked.
“Only that I’m trying to locate a second pneumatic railway station built by Alfred Beach. I’ve told him nothing about the painting.”
Jackie nodded, satisfied their secret was safe. “Did this Jeffrey guy tell you anything? My friend, Finch, said we needed to start looking in City Hall Park.”
“I kept that hint in mind.” Connie jumped up and walked out of the kitchen, returning after a few moments with her notebook and a sheaf of papers. “It jibes with the information I got from Jeffrey. Here, take a look at this.” She removed the plates and empty potato chip bag—Jackie hastily rescued her cola—then unfolded a large sheet of thin paper covered in blue lines and faded text, spreading it flat over the table’s surface.
“What am I looking at, pretty girl?” Jackie asked, frowning. She had never been a very good map reader, and this one was more confusing than most.
Connie smoothed the slightly crumpled surface. “This is where Beach’s demonstration pneumatic tunnel extended,” she said, pointing at a line on the map. “There used to be an air ventilation shaft here in City Hall Park on the Broadway side that serviced the terminus of Beach’s original tunnel.”
Jackie groaned impatiently. “I know this stuff already.”
Connie leaned over the table, giving Jackie an eyeful of her abundant cleavage, the add-a-bead necklace she wore swinging free to dangle above the map. “Look, Beach’s second tunnel was supposed to run in this direction, from Manhattan to Hoboken, New Jersey,” she said, her fingertip tracing a line. “The terminus in Manhattan was built somewhere near the location of the demonstration tunnel. Jeffrey found some references to the Manhattan terminus and tunnel in the records of a construction company hired by Beach to lay the brickwork. According to those records, Beach’s second underground station should be right about here.” She touched a spot on the side of an open triangle.
City Hall Park was written in the center of the triangle. Jackie bent over the map, struggling to make sense of a geography reduced to lines and geometric shapes. Her eyes widened when the lines finally clicked together into a coherent whole, and understanding sunk in. “Shit,” she murmured. “Are you sure about this?”
“As sure as I can be,” Connie replied, straightening. Her glasses had slid to the end of her nose; she pushed them back up, grinning. “We won’t know till we go there.”
“How the hell are we supposed to get into the basement of City Hall?” Jackie asked. “Public areas, okay, but I’ll bet the basement’s off limits.”
Connie opened her mouth to reply, but the shrill ringing of a telephone interrupted whatever she was going to say. Giving Jackie an apologetic look, she went into the living room, and the ringing stopped. Left alone in the kitchen, unable to eavesdrop on Connie’s telephone conversation, Jackie studied the map a little longer, thinking. The underground station was probably not in the actual basement; perhaps a sub-basement, and maybe the basement simply housed a long-forgotten entrance.
Jackie glanced up when Connie returned to the kitchen, a desolate expression on her face. “You okay? Who was that? What happened? Is it your dad?” she asked, steering Connie to a chair and pushing her down gently. Worried, Jackie knelt on the floor, holding Connie’s hand. Nameless dread squirmed in her guts.
“Your friend, Rafael,” Connie said woodenly, her gaze focused beyond Jackie. “I gave him my phone number in case… in case the police raided the squat, or you got arrested and needed bail, or it was an emergency.”
“Rafael called here? Why?” Jackie’s mouth went dry as sudden prescience slammed into her, white and blinding as a supernova. Jesus Christ! The pain was sharp, every breath a knife driven deep into her chest, shredding her apart. From a distance, as if listening at the bottom of a well, she heard Connie telling her what she already knew.
“It’s Izzy,” Connie said, her stoic expression dissolving into bewildered anguish. “Rafael found her. He wanted to talk to her about something, and he knew she was home but when she didn’t answer the door, he went in and found her, and he called an ambulance. The paramedics said she overdosed.” She began to cry.
Numb, Jackie petted Connie’s hand, kneeling on the floor while her heart broke into a hundred million pieces. “That stupid cunt!” she muttered, her voice choked with grief and guilt. “That stupid fucking junkie cunt!”
After a while, she dimly realized she was crying, too.
Babbling in Spanish, Rafael Quiñones grabbed Jackie the moment she came into the apartment, breathless from the headlong drive to Orchard Street from 5th Avenue. She let him hold her a second before grabbing the skinny man by the elbows, giving him a shake and growling, “Goddammit, speak English! Which hospital did they take Izzy to?”
His eyes were shocked wide, a rim of white visible all around the dark irises, but he drew a deep breath, making an effort to calm himself. “Ay, bendito, what a mess,” he muttered. Jackie shook him harder, making him blurt, “Okay, okay, I’m cool. I’m cool.”
She released him. “Which hospital?”
He smoothed a shaking hand over his hair. “The paramedics said they were taking her to Community General on Eldridge Street. She looked bad, Jackie. Real bad. Dios mio! I thought she was dead,” he said, crossing himself.
“She’s alive, right?” Connie asked, radiating worry. “That’s what you said on the phone. You told me she was alive.”
“Alive as far as I know, mami,” Rafael replied, glancing at Jackie. “Hey, you want to go over there? To the hospital? The doctors, they’ll keep her there, I guess.”
Connie nodded. “Maybe that’s a good idea.”
Jackie stood there fuming while Rafael and Connie made plans. She clenched her fists, aching with a near overwhelming need to punch a hole in the wall to relieve some of the pressure building inside her. Bad enough Izzy couldn’t lay off the smack, the idiot had to overdose and almost die! It was the nightmare scenario Jackie had feared since Izzy started using heroin. She was not only furious with her friend, she was angry at herself. Bottom line, Jackie knew should not have left Izzy alone in the apartment, no matter how abusive the woman became. She should have stayed and kept Izzy safe.
“Fuck it. I’m not going to go see that dumb bitch,” Jackie said abruptly, interrupting Rafael and Connie’s conversation. She turned towards the window, shutting them out as much as possible. Despite the stuffy summer heat, she felt chilled.
Connie broke the stunned silence. “Rafael, would you excuse us?”
“Sure thing, mami. See you later, okay? Come by my place before you go.” He left the apartment, closing the door behind him.
Jackie shrugged, affecting indifference. “Look, I don’t want to talk about it. You and Rafe want to visit Iz, that’s your choice. I want nothing to do her.” If she focused just right, she could see her own reflection in the window glass instead of the street below. After a moment, she saw Connie’s reflection appear beside hers. A hand settled on her arm.
“I’m sorry,” Connie said softly. “Jackie, what happened to Izzy really stinks…”
“It’s her own stupid fault!” Jackie exploded, unable to keep her anger in check any longer. “Izzy’s the one who puts the needle in her arm. She’s the one who’d rather get high than stay in the crappy real world.” With me, her mind added, but she would never confess how much her feelings hurt.
“Izzy needs you. No, don’t shake your head,” Connie said, leading Jackie to the sofa. “She does need you. You’re her friend.”
“I tried to fix her, but I did a shit job. Is that what you want to hear?” Agitated, Jackie resisted sitting down. “I did everything...” The rest of the words caught in her throat.
Connie wrapped her arms around Jackie from behind, resting her head against the back of Jackie’s shoulder. When she spoke, her voice was a gentle vibration Jackie felt buzzing through the T-shirt she wore, burrowing under her skin. “I know you did the best you could,” Connie said. “Listen, you can’t control anything in life except yourself. That’s the truth.”
“Damned straight,” Jackie muttered, stilling in the circle of Connie’s arms. Part of her wanted to pull free, fretful and impatient at the illusion of being restrained; the rest of her wanted to stay right there, soak up the warmth, and let it settle in her bones.
“Here’s another truth: Izzy’s making really bad choices, but they’re her choices.” Connie tightened the embrace. “She’s only going to quit taking drugs when she’s ready to choose recovery over getting high, or until the heroin kills her. There’s no middle ground. You didn’t cause Izzy’s addiction, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.”
Jackie closed her eyes, gritting her teeth until her jaw ached. She managed to choke out, “So what am I supposed to do? Nothing?”
“If Izzy won’t go into rehab on her own, there’s nothing you can do.” Connie paused. “Have you thought about contacting her family?”
“Those fuckers!” Jackie nearly tore herself away. Instead, she forced her body to remain in place, allowing Connie to continue to hold her. “I told you, Izzy’s old man is the one who beat her up and threw her out like trash.”
“Didn’t you also tell me Izzy misses her family?”
“Yeah, but they don’t deserve her.”
Connie said nothing for several minutes. Jackie stiffened at first, unused to being held, then finally began to relax, imagining she could detect the slow, even pulse of Connie’s heart.
“Her family may not deserve her, but that’s Izzy’s choice, too,” Connie said at last.
Jackie opened her eyes, a denial hovering in her mouth, but it went unuttered. She realized Connie was right. Days ago, when she learned from Tommy Tomaselli there was a reward offered by Mr. Rabbotino for information on his daughter’s whereabouts, she ought to have told Izzy about it. Contacting her family (or not) was Izzy’s choice. “I was trying to protect her,” she said, wincing at how lame the excuse sounded.
“Tell her,” Connie urged. “Maybe this is the thing Izzy needs to change her life.”
Carefully, Jackie turned around, breaking out of Connie’s grasp. “What Izzy needs is a swift kick in the ass,” she said, more tired than angry,, “but okay, you’ve got a point. I’m not her keeper. Izzy has to decide for herself if she wants to get back together with her fucked-up family.” She sighed. “I need a smoke, goddammit.”
“Only one addiction at a time, please,” Connie said primly, smiling to show she was joking. “Do you need to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes?” she asked, sitting on the sofa and patting the cushion beside her.
“No, and there’s no point going to the hospital tonight, either,” Jackie said, accepting the invitation to sit next to Connie. “I’m not saying that to put you off, I swear. They’ll have Izzy on oxygen and stuff for the overdose, and she probably isn’t conscious anyway. I’ll take you in the morning. You and Rafe, if he wants to tag along.”
“That’s fine with me.”
Unwilling to lose the closeness between them, Jackie lay down, swinging her legs over the arm of the sofa. Resting her head on Connie’s thigh, she pressed her face into the gentle feminine bulge of Connie’s belly. Christ, she loved a woman with curves! Connie was voluptuous and sexy, a real sweet armful with tits and hips and a full round ass she could sink her teeth into. Jackie really hoped Connie would stick around a while.
Connie began stroking Jackie’s hair, soothing and hypnotic. The touch tickled a little where the woman’s fingers brushed against the shaved parts of her head, the scalp now heavily stubbled since she had not used a razor on it in a few days. As she lay there, Jackie became hideously aware that she had not bathed in a few days, either, and her hair must be a greasy mess. She considered moving, but Connie did not seem to mind.
“I didn’t thank you for… for what you did, you know… in Professor Golan’s class,” Connie said after a while.
The import of that quiet statement trickled into Jackie’s drowsy consciousness, finally jerking her out of a doze. “I hope that rat bastard is in a world of hurt,” she said, sitting up. “He ever lays a finger on you, I’ll break his fuckin’ neck.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow about that test. I missed it because I overslept,” Connie said, flushing pink. “I was up late the night before, translating the journal you found. Frederica Noyles’ story is so fascinating.” She suddenly looked afraid. “What if he called the police? What if he has me arrested?”
“For what?” Jackie snuggled Connie close to her side. “If the dude’s smart, he’ll keep his mouth shut. Bet you anything he’s pulled that shit on other girls,” she said. “That kind of perv can’t afford to call attention to himself; might bring other victims out of the woodwork. Did your roommate, what’s-her-name… did she take any classes with Golan?”
“Liz… yes, she had a class with him last year. She said…” Connie’s flush deepened. “Well, in hindsight, she did try to warn me. Liz said I should never be alone with Professor Golan, not even in his office unless his T.A. was present. At the time, I thought my father put her up to it. He’s a bit over-protective sometimes.”
“There you go. Should’ve listened to your pal, Liz.”
“I was upset. My scholarship depends on my grades, and I need to pass his class.”
“Don’t worry, pretty girl. If Golan tries to fail you, he gives you any kind of grief, let me know. I’ll persuade him to change his mind.” Jackie grinned, lifting a fist.
“Oh, your poor hand!” Connie cried, surveying Jackie’s busted knuckles in dismay. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Jackie glanced at the scabs, which had torn open when she hit the professor. The wounds were already crusted over. “Just listen, about Golan… he won’t call the cops. Trust me. He does that, he risks his dirty secret coming out in an official investigation.” She had had time to think about it, and she was certain she had the professor pegged correctly.
“Suppose you’re wrong? What if he says I attacked him?”
Jackie ran her thumb over the smooth, unscarred back of Connie’s hand. “The cops’ll never believe you slugged that asshole. There’s not a mark on you. Believe me, you don’t hit somebody that hard and get away without bruises. And,” she added as Connie seemed ready to interrupt, “if he gives them my description, so what? You tell ‘em you don’t know any such person. They can’t prove nothing. You’re a good girl from a good family. No reason you should know some punk with a crazy haircut, pierced nose, and a bunch of rings in her ear.”
“People have seen us together.”
“Students,” Jackie corrected, “who won’t talk to cops, either, in case Mommy or Daddy finds out they’ve been smoking weed, snorting coke and screwing their way around the campus instead of earning their expensive degrees. Besides, nobody likes a nark.”
“You make it sound easy,” Connie said, her nose wrinkling.
“You got to tell a lie, believe with all your heart it’s the truth,” Jackie said, “and everybody else will believe it, too. First lesson I ever learned.” She sighed. “About Izzy… thanks for the advice. I was feeling shitty, and what you said really helped.”
“I can’t take all the credit. When I found out Izzy was doing heroin, I went to see one of the student counselors. She gave me some pamphlets and put me in touch with a man who runs an off-campus Narcotics Anonymous group. He was a lot of help..”
“Still, you said some stuff I needed to hear. Thanks.”
Connie smiled. “I love Izzy, too, you know.”
“Oh! You mean… in the bedroom,” Connie said faintly. “With you. Sleeping.”
“Yeah.” Panicking, Jackie opened her mouth to make herself clear. To her horror, a flood of verbal diarrhea spilled out instead. “I mean, there’s just the one mattress, but the sheet has jelly stains on it,” she babbled, “and the rats peed on the blanket, and I haven’t done laundry in a while, so maybe it’s better I take you home, ‘cause everything’s dirty and not clean like your place, and you don’t really want to be here, do you?” She ran out of breath and inhaled sharply, her heart slamming into her ribs as humiliation flushed hot in her face. Way to go, ass-wipe, she berated herself. You sound like a dork.
Connie stared for several seconds, her eyes wide behind the lenses of her glasses. “I guess… I guess I could, um, take the sofa, if you don’t mind?” Her voice rose to a squeak. She cleared her throat, blinked, and continued with forced brightness, “It is late, like you said, and I doubt I can get a cab to come to the Lower East Side at this time of night.”
Jackie was simultaneously relieved and disappointed. “Sure, sure, good idea. That’s cool. Sleeping on the sofa. Watch out for the broken spring.”
“Down the hall.”
Connie smiled her thanks and left the apartment. Jackie watched the woman go, her stomach sinking. In the beginning, she had not wanted to get close to Connie. She had flirted without any intention of letting things go any further. However, the attraction was growing stronger. Forget keeping her distance. Jackie wanted to peel off Connie’s staid preppie clothes, expose that ripe body, and lose herself in sensation. It had been a long time since she got off with anyone other than Miss Rosy Palm.
Jackie shrugged, telling her libido to shut the hell up, and walked to the bedroom. She could have sex with any warm body. Friendship was a damn sight harder to find.
Lying on the mattress without bothering to remove her jeans and T-shirt, Jackie heard Connie return to the apartment and putter around, getting a drink of water from the kitchen sink, settling on the sofa. Fatigued, she closed her eyes and tried to fall asleep, but small sounds disturbed her: the faint creak of the fire escape outside the bedroom window as the building shifted; a rat squealing angrily; the scritch-scratch scuttle of cockroaches in the walls. The deep bruise on her stomach also made it difficult to find a position that did not worsen the ache. Exasperated and sore, Jackie finally got up to fetch an aspirin.
Moving to the living room, careful not to disturb her guest, Jackie stopped on her way to the kitchen to watch Connie sleeping on the sofa. Light from the streetlamps seeped upward through the windows, a dim illumination tinted pink and yellow from a neon sign attached to the roof of the building across the street. Aspirin forgotten, Jackie stared, her fingers twitching with a sudden need to sketch.
Connie had removed her shirt and pants, leaving only a white bra and white cotton panties to cover her as she lay curled on her side, her head pillowed on her arm. Jackie’s fascinated gaze followed the lines of Connie’s body: the soft rounded curve of a shoulder leading to a shadowed dip at the waist, then flaring out to form a generous hip and thigh, solid calves and surprisingly dainty feet. Her full breasts quivered with each snuffling breath. The faint light flattened Connie’s form, making it seem as if she was made of paper—a complex origami sculpture. There was a simple beauty in the composition that Jackie yearned to capture, an innocent expression in the face partially concealed by a spill of dark hair.
Jackie went to the table that held her art supplies, grabbing a sketchbook and a pencil, then sitting cross-legged on the floor. She made a rough sketch at first. It did not take long before her muscles remembered the subtle motions necessary for drawing and shading.
At one point Connie’s eyelids flickered; her mouth dropped further open, and light briefly glistened on the wet pink flex of her tongue. A crease appeared between her brows. Jackie held her breath, afraid Connie was about to awaken. But the woman muttered and sighed and relaxed, her troubled expression smoothing and fading to peacefulness, so Jackie shook the tension out of her shoulders and continued to sketch.
At long last, as the sky lightened from indigo to lilac to dawn’s muddy orange, Jackie dropped the pencil, massaging her cramping hand. The sketch was a good beginning, she thought, but what she really wanted to do was paint.
Propping a canvas against the wall, Jackie squatted in front of it and set out her paints. The canvasses she used were recycled from amateur paintings she got for a dollar or less from the local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, scraped and sanded to remove as much of the old crap as possible. Unable to afford new materials, she also scavenged the almost-empty acrylic paint tubes thrown out by students taking art courses at Wilburton, and squeezed the contents into clean baby food jars gleaned from other people’s trash. Good brushes had to be bought, though, and they were not cheap. Checking the worn bristles on her two remaining brushes, Jackie scowled. It would have to do. She had nothing else.
Jackie began to paint, her conscious mind soon disengaging while her brush moved over the canvas, lifted to dip into paint-filled jars, and returned to the canvas. Dream-like images filled the spaces behind her eyes. Unalarmed, she became a passenger in her own body, watching from a distance as the painting formed itself under the direction of a stranger in her head. Vaguely aware the sun had risen, Jackie continued to work in a trance until startled by a gentle tug on the silver rings in her ear.
“Hey, good morning,” Connie said with a smile.
“Um, hi there yourself,” Jackie replied, swishing her brush in a can filled with water to clean the bristles. She tried to stand, but her legs were stiff from staying in the same position too long. With Connie’s help, she managed to rise. “How long you been up?” she asked, surprised that Connie had been able to wake, get dressed and leave the apartment without her noticing. On the other hand, when she was in serious painting mode, not much disturbed her.
“Not long. You were busy, so I went out and bought breakfast from a deli down the street.” Connie handed her a large paper bag.
“Aaron’s Deli? That’s cool.” Jackie went into the kitchen, opening the bag and lining the contents up on the counter. A half dozen bagels, still warm; tubs of cream cheese, lox spread and chicken salad; a bottle of orange juice, and two Styrofoam cups of coffee. The deli had even provided napkins and plastic cutlery. She picked up a cup and opened the lid, happy to discover coffee ‘regular’—with milk and two sugars. Gr-r-r-r-reat! Sipping hot sweet coffee, she returned to the living room to find Connie examining the painting.
“It’s not finished,” Jackie said quickly. Feeling awkward and self-conscious, she bent to turn the canvas to the wall.
“No, please, let me see it,” Connie pleaded.
Reluctantly, Jackie relented, standing back to allow Connie a full view of the painting. There was still detail work to be done, but the bones of the idea were already there.
The canvas’ background was covered in grays and blacks, every hue from palest ash to charcoal painted in abstract blocks that nevertheless invited the eye to infer a heavily stylized Manhattan skyline. In the center, a nude woman lay curled in sleep. She was hardly more than a series of sketchy paint strokes, her figure defined by exaggerated breasts and hips and thighs. The luminous whiteness of the woman’s body was interrupted by a mass of dark serpentine hair that twisted and crawled downward, disappearing into the bottom of the painting. Great dripping slashes of scarlet lake clawing up from the woman’s shoulders like raptor’s wings. Scratchy black words followed the contours of the wings: UP and DOWN the BAD GIRLS go to WATCH the GOOD GIRLS cry, among other random sentences dumped from her subconscious. Jackie had no idea what it meant.
“Wow.” Connie sounded impressed. “This is… I don’t have the right words, but it’s a powerful piece. Really powerful.” She lifted her gaze from the painting, looking at Jackie. “I wish you’d let me try and help you. Professor Miriam Blais, who teaches Introduction to Modern Art. You know her? She and my mom were best friends in Paris a long time ago, and she’s my godmother. I bet she’d put you in touch with some galleries if I asked her.”
Panic tightened Jackie’s grip on the Styrofoam cup. It crumpled, the lid popped off, and a wave of hot coffee spurted over the rim to burn her fingers. “Mother fucker!” she yelled, almost dropping the cup. Apprehension turned to annoyance. She licked the spilled coffee off her hand, glaring at Connie, who was giggling.
“Sorry, sorry,” Connie gasped, “are you hurt?”
“I’ll live.” Jackie transferred her glare to the offending cup, which had cracked on one side, allowing a continuous drip of coffee to seep through. “Shit, I’m gonna have to dump this in the sink before it all ends up on the floor.”
“That’s okay, you can drink mine. I’ll take the orange juice.” Connie took off her glasses to wipe her eyes. “Seriously, you should go to a gallery—”
“Goddammit, not now, okay? Not now. Maybe not ever.” Jackie went to the kitchen to get rid of the ruined coffee cup. While she was there, she cut open a bagel with a plastic knife—not the easiest thing to do—and smeared it with lox spread, taking a big bite.
“I guess it’s hard for me to understand why you don’t want anyone to see your art,” Connie said, coming into the kitchen to stand at the counter with Jackie. She began to fix a bagel sandwich for herself, choosing chicken salad. “Don’t artists want to influence viewers with their work?” she asked. “Coax some kind of emotional reaction from their audience? You told me once you didn’t want to sell out to rich people. Fine, I respect that choice, but is it the real reason you won’t even consider an exhibition?”
“You saying I’m chickenshit? ‘Cause I’m not. It’s just…” Recognizing Connie spoke out of concern rather than malice, Jackie shrugged, making an effort to view the matter objectively and not get mad. “Look, my painting ‘s private stuff,” she said, “and I’m not in the mood to share my private stuff with every dickhead who thinks he’s got an opinion, and the right to shove that opinion down my throat. And I can’t stand those pretentious artsy-fartsy humps who can’t wait to eat your shit and pretend it’s chocolate cake when someone tells them you’re the next big thing, then they drop you flat when they’re told by some equally pretentious hump that you’re not so hot after all. So can we please not talk about it anymore and just eat some breakfast?” she ended on a plaintive note. “I’m starving.”
Connie stared a second longer. At last, she said in a curiously gentle tone of voice, “Sure, if that’s what you want. Consider the subject dropped.”
Jackie finished the rest of her bagel in silence, then ate another smeared with cream cheese. Connie handed her the rest of the chicken salad, which she finished along with the other cup of coffee. “Hey, want to blow off school and go to City Hall with me?” Jackie asked, a full stomach making her feel a little more charitable towards the world. “We can try to figure out how the hell we’re going to sneak into the sub-basement.”
Connie hesitated. At last, she drank the last few swallows of orange juice, and set the empty bottle on the counter. “Yes, okay, I’m not that keen on school today anyway. I think I’ve got an idea about City Hall,” she said, “but you’re probably not going to like it.”
“Lay it on me,” Jackie said confidently. “I’m up for most anything.”
As Connie outlined her plan, Jackie realized the woman was right.
She did not like it much at all.
In all the times she had walked through City Hall Park, Jackie had never felt so many eyes on her, watching her progress down the pedestrian path. She smoothed a self-conscious hand down the front of her borrowed ruffled shirt and tuxedo jacket, wishing it was not such a sweltering day. The air was muggy and still, shimmering from the heat wave rolling over the city, and scented with festering garbage. Jackie was sweating like a day laborer already, and wearing a wig (a buck-fifty from Goodwill) to disguise her punk hairstyle did not help.
Walking beside her, Connie wore full bridal gear: a frothy multitude of tulle veils, a puffy skirted white dress with ruffles and a dipping neckline, and a somewhat wilted bouquet of red roses and baby’s breath rescued from the trash behind a florist’s shop. The outfit, as well as Jackie’s tuxedo (complete with cummerbund and bow tie), were borrowed from a wedding shop where Connie’s friend Sandy Hoffman worked part-time.
Sandy had been told the whole thing was a set-up for a prank to be pulled on some uber-bitch queen bee on campus whom Jackie did not know, but Sandy apparently did and had a grudge against. She had enthusiastically helped, pinning Connie’s hair into an elegant French twist, and lending Jackie a sock to stuff into the crotch of her pants. Jackie’s lean physique, lack of feminine hips, and small breasts made it fairly easy for her to pass as a man. If she lowered her voice to a gruff growl and looked menacing at anyone who stared too long or too obviously, she ought to get away with playing groom to Connie’s bride.
“Nobody pays any attention to people going to get married in City Hall,” Connie had told her that morning, outlining the plan, “whereas two women—one of whom is kind of conspicuous with the Doc Martens and multiple piercings, sorry—will probably be remembered, and for sure the security guards will keep an eye on you in case you’re there to make trouble. Sorry. So once we’re inside, we head for the basement level. If anybody sees us, they’ll think we got lost on the way to the Clerk’s Office.”
Jackie did not mind having delicious arm-candy like Connie to escort around in public; she just wished she could do it openly as herself, not as some anonymous guy in an itchy mullet-style wig. She was not certain the plan would work, either, and a criminal record for being arrested while trespassing in unauthorized areas of City Hall would not look good on Connie’s resume—the main reason she did not like it. However, Jackie decided that she could not hurt the woman’s feelings by refusing to play along. If they were caught and it looked like an arrest was imminent, she would tell the cops that she forced Connie to do it.
Angry shouts from behind shocked Jackie out of her thoughts. She yanked Connie to the side of the path in time to avoid being run over by an aggressive bicyclist shooting fast southward, heedless of pedestrians. “Slow down, you reckless mother fucker,” Jackie hollered, shaking a fist as the idiot almost crashed into a couple pushing a baby stroller. She hoped he got clipped by a bus on Centre Street.
Panting, Connie threw back her veils. “I’m fine. Let’s go,” she said, waving the bouquet. Withered red petals floated to the ground.. “Phew! I’m melting in this dress.”
“It’s hot as hell for all of us, pretty girl,” Jackie agreed, using her jacket’s sleeve to wipe her forehead. “We’re almost there. Just think… air conditioning.”
“Ooooh, air conditioning…” Connie’s face assumed a dreamy expression.
Perhaps it was the wedding outfits. Perhaps it was insanity brought on by the miserable heat. Despite her resolution to keep things on a friends-only basis, Jackie drifted closer and kissed Connie slowly, the lightest press of mouth against mouth. Connie’s startled breath fanned her cheek. The sticky sweet taste of cherry gloss clung to her own lips when she pulled away, breathless, her pulse fluttering, a different kind of warmth pooling in her belly.
Connie’s eyes were closed, her face tilted as if asking for more. Jackie did not dare kiss her a second time, afraid if she started, she would not be able to stop.
“Hey, I thought you were melting,” Jackie murmured.
“I still am, but in a much nicer way,” Connie confessed. Her eyes opened, and she smiled shyly. “I want to do that again later, okay? When we’re home.”
“Sure thing, pretty girl, sure thing.” Jackie took Connie’s arm as they resumed walking along the pedestrian path. Feeling proud and smug, she strutted at Connie’s side, mindful of onlookers’ stares but feeling happier now, like the groom she pretended to be.
Closer to City Hall, sunlight glinted from the copper statue of Justice mounted on top of the building’s cupola. Despite the hour, they were not the only bride and groom marching up the long line of stone steps and walking under the columned portico to pass within the halls. Even at two o’clock in the afternoon, a confusing tidal wave of people rushed over the marble floor, many of them going up and down the double stairway to the second floor—not only wedding parties in their finery, but also business men and women toting briefcases, delivery people in uniforms, and what seemed like half of the rest of New York City come there just to get in Jackie’s way as she shoved through the mob.
Finally getting away from the crowd, she and Connie slipped along a seemingly endless corridor with numbered doors on either side. Jackie remembered to keep a slightly befuddled and anxious expression on her face, in case any of the City employees or security guards they passed decided to challenge them, but no one did. Everyone was in a hurry, no dawdling, no loitering, no making eye contact in case their very busy schedule was interrupted. Jackie smirked, amused by the image of rats scurrying around a maze with Rolodexes and Filofaxes clutched in their paws.
According to a thirty-year old blueprint acquired by Connie through Jeffrey Sato, the basement was divided into offices and meeting rooms, accessible via a public stairway. However, the blueprint also showed a secondary staircase on the north side that seemed to lead to a sub-basement level. Connie believed they would find Beach’s second pneumatic railway station somewhere in the sub-basement, or at least access to it.
“I hope the station’s more or less intact,” Connie whispered as they walked another corridor checking door numbers. She had abandoned the bouquet in a trash can because the roses were shedding too many petals in their wake. “There’s been so much construction in New York since the 1870s,” she fretted. “What if the station was destroyed like the original demonstration line? What if there’s nothing left and the painting is lost forever?”
“We’ll worry about that when the time comes. You know, I hope you aren’t going to ruin that dress you borrowed from your pal, Sandy,” Jackie said, stopping in front of a door at the end of the corridor. A number plate screwed into the door at eye level read 74C. “Underground is a dirty place, and white satin’s not exactly easy to clean.”
Connie made an impatient sound. “It’s not satin, it’s a nylon/cotton blend. But I’ll take care of it, don’t worry. Now will you please open the door before somebody sees us?”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t get your panties in a bunch.” Jackie jiggled the doorknob. It was unlocked. She opened the door, tensed and ready to make an excuse, but the office was unoccupied. A desk at the rear had a layer of gritty dust on the surface, which Jackie took as proof they were unlikely to be interrupted. Going inside, she went straight to the west wall. “Start checking here?” she asked. “That’s what the blueprint said, I think.”
Reaching under the wide puffy skirt of her dress, Connie pulled out a couple of dark blue overalls. “Yes, start in the middle and work your way to the sides. And that’s the outer wall, which is granite, so I know nothing’s there,” she continued, pointing behind the desk. She paused, following the line of Jackie’s stare to the overalls she was holding, and added, “I tucked the sleeves around my waist. Here’s a flashlight, too. And a hammer.”
“I’m not asking where you hid those,” Jackie murmured, chuckling under her breath when Connie blushed. She began knocking lightly on the wall, listening for the hollow sound that would indicate a doorway. “Okay, I think I’ve got it,” she announced after a few minutes of searching.
Connie handed over the hammer. “I’ll stay by the door. If somebody comes—”
“You let me know,” Jackie interrupted. She removed the tuxedo jacket, unhooked the cummerbund, then took off the ruffled shirt and pants, draping the clothing over a chair. She quickly pulled on a set of overalls, snapping the front closed. The last item to go was the hated wig, ripped off her head and flipped into a corner of the room where it lay, Jackie thought in disgust, looking like a flattened guinea pig. Grunting, she scratched her scalp until the itch subsided. How people wore those things without going nuts was beyond her.
“Will you unzip me?” Connie asked, turning around.
The white dress had narrow straps, exposing almost the full breadth of Connie’s lightly tanned shoulders. Jackie gulped at the sight of all that smooth skin, but she confined herself to pulling down the zipper as requested, the two halves of the dress peeling apart all the way down past Connie’s ass. Beneath the wedding gown, Connie wore a slip that fit tight across the fullness of her belly and breasts. She wriggled to make the dress fall, stepping out of the circle of fabric, then pulled the slip over her head. “That’s better,” she sighed. “Honestly, that thing’s like an oven.”
Jackie’s mouth dried. Connie stood in the middle of the room, dressed only in a bra and panties, stockings and low-heeled shoes. Her head was surrounded by a corona of tulle anchored to her dark hair by a glittering rhinestone tiara, and her voluptuous curves were on full display. She was a wet dream in the flesh. Jackie wished she had a pencil and sketchbook handy. Under Jackie’s fixed regard, Connie blushed beet red. She grabbed the other overall and hastily pulled it on, much to Jackie’s regret.
“You really are a pretty girl,” Jackie said, capturing Connie’s hands before she could rip off the tiara and unpin the veils. “Believe me, yeah? When we get home later, I swear I’ll prove it to you if you let me.”
Connie nodded, taking a deep breath. “When we get home. Whose home?”
“Mine… yours… does it matter?”
“I guess not.” Connie freed her hands from Jackie’s grip, and removed the tiara and veils, bundling them up with the dress and slip. “But if we find the painting,” she went on, “I want to go right away to the hospital and tell Izzy. She deserves to know first.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever you want, it’s cool.” Jackie picked up the hammer, hiding her anxiety. She had hoped to put off talking to Izzy because she hated admitting she was wrong, and she hated emotional scenes, and she knew—the certainty burned in her gut like acid—that given the chance, Izzy would return to her family. Jackie cared for Izzy so much, she could not bear to see her throw away their friendship. Oh, Izzy might be grateful, she might intend to stay in touch, but that would not last, Jackie thought sourly. Out of rehab, clean and sober, Izzy would no doubt mend her ways, give up kissing girls, and soon forget about living rough in a squat with a freak like Jackie Quick. What stung worst was the knowledge that if Izzy stayed, she would probably be dead before Christmas.
Angry at herself as well as Izzy and the unfairness of the world in general, Jackie swung the hammer hard at the wall, knocking open a fist-sized hole. She used the claw end of the hammer to tear the hole wider, ignoring the plaster dust that flew up to tickle her nose. As she worked at demolishing the drywall, Connie moved to the office door and cracked it open, watching the corridor in case the noise attracted a security guard.
It was not long before Jackie exposed an old-fashioned wooden door hidden under the wall. Above the door was a sign reading STAIRS with a downward pointing arrow. “Looks like this is our stop,” she said, sneezing as she inhaled more dust.
Connie joined her, reaching out to press a hand against the door panel. Her touch left a clean mark in the dust. “I guess somebody wanted to prevent access to City Hall’s sub-basement,” she said, wiping her dirty hand on the leg of her overalls.
“I read some Italian anarchists tried to blow up Wall Street in 1920,” Jackie replied, shrugging. “Could have something to do with that.”
“Don’t forget, the stairway was open in 1947, otherwise Frederica Noyles wouldn’t have been able to hide the painting there,” Connie reminded her. “Here’s the flashlight,” she continued, her voice cracking to betray her excitement. “You go first.”
Jackie tucked the hammer into her pocket and took the flashlight, her whole body buzzing with an excitement of her own. This was it, the moment when she would enter and explore a world that no one had seen for decades. The thrill of discovery was potent. She inhaled, coughing a little on the dust still lingered in the air, and opened the door.
The smell hit her first: hot stale air, rodent droppings and rotten meat rushing out of the doorway to slam into the back of her throat, already irritated from the plaster dust. Jackie almost dropped the flashlight as she struggled to bring her convulsing lungs under control.
“Oh my God!” Connie wheezed, drawing back a step with a horrified expression
“Welcome to summer in the city,” Jackie managed to croak. “Jeez, I think some of the rats bit the big one.” It took a few moments, but she got used to the foul odor. “Come on, pretty girl. You wanted to take a stroll underground. This is your chance.”
Connie braced herself, saying, “I’ll be right behind you,” with a small rueful smile.
Jackie shone the flashlight’s beam into the dark shaft, revealing a narrow, filigreed iron staircase spiraling into the pitch blackness below. “Why do you think Beach built his station’s entrance here?” she asked, taking hold of the enameled metal banister and giving it a shake to test the staircase’s sturdiness. It held to the wall without moving an inch, so she put her weight on the first step, ready to leap back if it buckled. Nothing happened. Jackie stepped more confidentially down the stairs, motioning for Connie to follow.
“Beach built it here because it was convenient,” said a male voice behind her.
Jackie whipped around, coming close to falling until she made a grab at the banister with her free hand. On the step above, Connie shielded her eyes from the flashlight’s dazzle. Jackie redirected the light to a familiar figure standing behind Connie.
“What the hell?” Jackie cried, unpleasantly surprised to see the man. “Finch, what do you think you’re doing here?”
“Coming along for the ride,” Daniel Finch replied, holding up a high intensity Maglite flashlight. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t share,” Jackie snarled, bristling with suspicion. “Fuck off.”
“Would you rather I told the security guards there’s a couple of trespassers in here destroying City property? They probably wouldn’t like your redecoration effort very much.” He smirked. “Come on, Quick. I gave you the clue to find the place, didn’t I? You owe me.”
“What are we going to do?” Connie whispered, leaning over precariously to put her mouth close to Jackie’s ear.
“Give me a minute to think, will ya?” Seething, Jackie realized the day she had sighted Finch in the alley near her squat, he must have been hanging around in the hope of following her, although his purpose remained a mystery. “Look,” she said to him, “how about you let us go by ourselves first. You’ve been there already.”
“Uh, actually… no, I haven’t.” Finch gave her a sheepish grin.
“You said you and your buddy Jim found the station in ’79, and Jim got killed by a transit cop,” Jackie said, angry at the deception. “Now I’m pretty sure I wasn’t drunk or high or otherwise out of my mind at the time, so that means you didn’t tell the truth.”
Finch sighed. “Right, about that… years ago, I heard about a second pneumatic railway line from an old guy in a bar, and he told me the entrance was somewhere in City Hall Park. That’s it. That’s all I know. I never looked for it ‘cause I figured it was a legend.”
“So why’d you lie to me?” Jackie asked, almost choking on disbelief..
“I was busy with other things.” He shrugged. “And you were so cute, trying not to let too much slip. I had to tell you something.”
“Goddammit!” Jackie considered bounding up the few stairs separating them, and giving Finch a well-deserved ass kicking, but Connie presented a major obstacle, and she did not want to knock the woman over. “You son of a bitch!” she shouted at Finch. “Get out of here before I seriously beat the crap out of you.”
“Yeah, well, I thought you and Izzy are so tight, there’s no way you’d let me in on the action if you chased the myth and actually had the dumb luck to find something.”
“You’re digging that hole deeper every time you open your mouth,” Jackie warned.
“Okay, I’m a dishonest bastard. Sue me. I talked to Izzy, by the way, when you weren’t home… she told me you guys were close to finding Beach’s ghost station, so I loitered around your place and followed you here. Can’t blame a guy for wanting to be part of something big.” He stuck the Maglite under his arm, took a pack of cigarettes and a disposable lighter out of his jeans pocket, and held them out to Jackie. “Truce?”
Jackie glared. “Dude, you suck.”
“Like a Hoover,” Finch agreed, making Connie clap her hands over her mouth to stifle a giggle. “Who’s your friend?” he asked Jackie.
“Connie Armstrong. She figured out where to look for the station entrance,” Jackie said proudly, “which makes her a fuckin’ lot more intelligent than you.”
Finch’s whistle echoed weirdly in the shaft. “Aren’t you a smart cookie, Miss Connie Armstrong! I totally want you on my team.”
Connie smiled at him, but spoke to Jackie. “We can’t stand here for hours and hours. Let’s just go now and sort out the other stuff later, okay?”.
“Fine,” Jackie growled, swiveling around to continue her descent down the stairs. She was not going to forget Finch’s dishonesty anytime soon. “But you listen to me, Danny boy,” she added over her shoulder, “we get dibs on anything sellable. Agreed?”
He shrugged. “Suits me. I’m in it for thrills, not pocket change.”
Jackie ignored the slight. “You fuck with me, your body won’t be found.”
“Perish the thought.”
The staircase wound deeper beneath the building. Jackie had to edge mummified mouse carcasses off the steps a couple of times. The rotten rancid stench grew stronger, probably the result of recent mass rodent poisoning by the city in the name of pest control. It always amazed Jackie how a dead rat or mouse could create a god-awful stench all out of proportion to the corpse’s actual size.
Clammy coolness brushed the back of Jackie’s neck, making her shiver. Underground, it was always colder and more humid. Although visual clues were lacking—she might have been descending into any sub-basement in New York—she still sensed the oppressive weight of the stone and steel and brick above her head, the earth itself pressing close on every side.
The space at the bottom of the staircase was small, surrounded by mildew-stained walls. Jackie flashed her flashlight around, soon joined by Connie and Finch. The floor was concrete, covered in grit that crunched under every step. A jumble of pipes ran overhead.
“This is plastered drywall, but I know the sub-basement is granite block construction,” Connie said, rapping a knuckle on a wall.
“Sounds hollow,” Finch agreed.
“I read in a book,” Connie went on, giving Jackie a significant look, “that in the 1940s, people came down here and had parties where they used a Ouija board to try and contact the dead. It was quite a popular thing among a certain artistic set.”
“I’ll bet there were plenty of cocktails and cocaine, too,” Finch commented, aiming his flashlight at a corner where greenish-black mold spread in a pattern that resembled a human hand, the long thin fingers outspread. “Not to mention sex… got to love that emerging youth culture. What book did you get this from? I’d like to read it.”
“Just a library book,” Jackie put in hastily. “The title’s not important right now.”
“O-o-o-okay,” Finch drawled, cutting a glance in Jackie’s direction, then returning his attention to Connie. “Which people? Or am I not allowed to know that either?”
“The fashionable 40’s set like Henry Bronner, the sculptor,” Connie answered after looking at Jackie for permission, “Betsy Conway, the aviatrix; ‘Black’ Speranza Furst, the Fifth Avenue madam; Julian Rose, the poet; Elissa L’Ecuyer, the actress who married a billionaire and poisoned him for his money—she was acquitted, by the way—and Frederica Noyles, the artist, and some others… they were like the ‘Rat Pack’ of the day, you know?”
Finch cut in, saying, “Live fast, die young, yadda yadda yadda..”
“You want to tell the story?” Jackie asked, folding her arms across her chest.
“Sorry. Go on, please.”
“Anyway, one of the group had a friend who worked in City Hall and knew about the sub-basement,” Connie told them. “It had been off-limits since the Second World War, but this friend found the staircase entrance hidden behind a stack of boxes. And the friend told the group, who came here to have Ouija parties, like I said,” she finished, her voice trailing off.
Jackie could not believe what she was hearing “When were you going to let me know about this… this?” she asked Connie, narrowly avoiding mentioning the journal.
“The book isn’t written in chronological order, as I found out when I was reading it,” Connie said, her cheeks turning pink, “and I haven’t had time to tell you, what with Izzy in the hospital, and the thing with Professor Golan, and everything else that’s happened… I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to keep the information from you. I just got busy and forgot.”
“Damn it, Connie, you were supposed to keep me in the loop!” Jackie exclaimed in disappointment.
“I’m sorry,” Connie replied miserably.
“Ladies,” Finch interrupted, “much as I hate to get in the middle of a lover’s quarrel, I’d like to know where we go from here. I don’t see any doors.”
Jackie gritted her teeth, forcing herself to forget Connie’s mistake and concentrate on the matter at hand. She soon realized Finch was right.
There did not seem to be a way beyond the walls.
Jackie took the hammer out of her pocket. “I had a feeling this would come in handy,” she said. “Connie, you got any idea which way we’re going?”
“Uh, not as such, no,” Connie replied. “The book didn’t give many details.”
“Okay, how do you feel about straight ahead?” Jackie passed her flashlight to Connie, then approached the chosen wall, rotating her shoulder to limber up the muscles. “Put your light over here,” she said to Finch, “and keep it steady.”
“Yeth, mathter,” he lisped.
“Smart ass,” Jackie muttered. Wielding the hammer, she soon knocked a large hole in the plaster, then she had to stop, coughing and sneezing, as mildew and dust rose in a black smutty cloud around her head. Finch whipped off the red bandana around his neck, handing it to her without a word. She nodded her thanks. After knotting the bandana around the lower half of her face and waving Finch and Connie back, she used her hands to tear apart the rotten drywall—an easy job taking just a few minutes before the hole was wide enough to let them pass through.
Connie led the way through the hole, coughing and batting at the dust motes lingering in the air like a veil. Finch followed. Jackie brought up the rear.
She forgot about her irritated, scratchy eyes and throat when she entered the next room, which was three times the size of the first. It took a moment for her to realize what she was seeing. Sweeping her flashlight around to illuminate the walls, she suddenly understood why an unknown bureaucrat had ordered City Hall’s sub-basement sealed away. In fact, she was unsure why the person responsible had not taken more drastic action.
An artist—no, more than one, Jackie thought, recognizing various styles—had painted huge murals that covered the walls from floor to near ceiling in places. The murals depicted a vast, nightmarish orgy where men and women writhed together with each other and with pigs, dragons, sea monsters, lions, griffons, hawk-headed demons, nymphs, satyrs, and crimson-coated hounds. Every sexual act was depicted, every deviance luridly detailed. Jackie felt as if she was looking at the bastard love child of Hieronymus Bosch and the Marquis de Sade.
Painted vines scrolled above and through the scenes, tipped by blowsy black roses. Presiding over the whole, at the far end of the room rose a great gilded throne, incredibly ornate. Seated on the throne was a naked toothless old woman, her head crowned with poppies, her withered breasts like empty wine sacks. A golden cartouche on a chain around her neck declared her name: LOVE. Standing at her side, a middle-aged woman with a cartouche reading DESIRE held a pair of flambeaux in the shape of boys wearing eighteenth century dresses, the wide skirts drawn up to expose their penises. On the other side of the throne was a smiling young girl in a pinafore, her hair dressed in ringlets, her mouth and hands smeared with what appeared to be blood. She was called DREAM.
“Holy crap,” Finch muttered, leaning closer to examine part of the orgy scene. “I can’t decide if this is symbolism gone nuts, or the work of a crazy person. Maybe both.”
Connie shook her head. “At least six artists contributed, I’m sure.”
“I count seven,” Jackie added. At Finch’s disbelieving snort, she shrugged, not taking offense at his skepticism. If people underestimated her because of her appearance, that was their loss. “What? A girl can’t read? The library’s public, you know. They let anybody in there, even ignorant jamokes like you,” she said.
Connie took off her glasses, polished the lenses on her sleeve, and said, “I guess this is where they held séances. Wow. I wish my art history professor was here.” It was impossible to tell in the limited light, but Jackie was certain Connie was blushing at the explicit murals.
“Why’s that?” Finch asked, poking at a flake of peeling paint.
Jackie caught his hand before he could inflict further damage. On closer inspection, the murals were not in great shape. Damp had caused a lot of damage to the paint and the plaster beneath, leaving some of the figures looking as if they suffered from the pox.
“Because these murals need to be preserved,” Connie replied, her distress obvious. “It’s a collaborative artwork made by some of the greatest neo-expressionists of the twentieth century. Professional conservators need to be hired. The American Institute for Conservation should be notified, too. It’s a major find, and it’s literally rotting away.”
“Are the murals really worth anything?” Finch took a step backwards under Jackie’s immediate glare. “Chill out, Quick. Just chill, alright?” he said. “I’m curious, that’s all, not trying to horn in on your profits.”
“You can’t put a price on something priceless,” Connie told him.
“Damned straight, pretty girl,” Jackie agreed for the sake of being agreeable. “We’ll see about getting those people down here when we’re done checking things out ourselves.” She had no idea if the murals were worth anything money-wise, but there might be some kind of finder’s fee she could claim for re-discovering an historic artifact of such importance. However, Noyles’ lost painting remained her number one priority. Seeing the state of the murals made her wonder if the painting would be in any better condition. The anticipation of failure rose up, strong and bitter. “Hey, where do you think we should we start looking for the ghost station?” she asked, trying not to let her apprehension show.
Finch scratched his head. Dust streaked the chestnut curls, making it seem as if he had aged twenty years. “There’s still a lot of sub-basement behind these walls,” he said. Turning to Connie, he asked, “Does your book say anything about Beach’s station?”
Connie shook her head, replying, “Not much, and nothing that would help us find it.”
“So we’re on our own. Okay, fine… let’s think about this before we start smashing up the place—“ Finch began, but Connie interrupted him with a horrified yelp.
“Smash? Nobody’s smashing anything!” she cried in protest. “Jackie, tell him! We can’t destroy the murals!”
“Shhh, be cool,” Jackie said soothingly, taking hold of Connie and reeling her in close, pressing their bodies together. “It’s cool, yeah? Nobody’s doing anything right now.” She swallowed her own nervousness, pushing it aside in favor of comforting Connie. She held the shivering woman until the tremors died down. “Look, we know people used to go into Beach’s station, right?” she asked, trying to be logical. “Around the same time the murals were painted. How did they get in there? There’s got to be a door or an entrance around here.”
“Yes, yes, okay,” Connie replied more calmly, “I see what you mean.” But she did not attempt to move out of Jackie’s embrace.
Finch cleared his throat. “I’ll be over there, looking for a door,” he said, jerking his thumb at the furthest corner of the room.
When he was out of earshot, Jackie said to Connie, “Don’t get so upset.”
“I’m sorry.” Connie grimaced Sweat streaked the fine coating of dust clinging to her face. “I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the murals.”
“I told you, pretty girl, nobody’s destroying nothing. And will you quit apologizing every five minutes? This stuff is important to you. Damaging an art treasure… it’s understandable you’re against that, and I’m behind you a hundred percent.” Wetting her thumb in her mouth, Jackie wiped a black smudge from Connie’s chin. “Feeling any better?”
“Yes, I think—“ Connie stopped speaking as Finch called, “I found it!”
Jackie gave her a final squeeze before they joined Finch. “So where’s this door at?” she asked. They were standing near the painted throne and its grotesque occupant.
“Check it out!” Finch grinned, pointing at the blood-smeared little girl. “If you look really close, you’ll see there’s a door under all that paint.”
Jackie examined the area, grunting as she identified what appeared to be a doorknob painted to look like part of the girl’s dress.
“Trompe l’oeil,” Connie said, shining her flashlight to the side to make the doorknob’s shadow appear as if by magic. “Very well done, I’d say by Neville Birtwhistle. He specialized in trompe l’oeil before he met Juan Gris in 1916 and embraced Synthetic Cubism.”
“You clever girl,” Finch said, grinning. He reached for the doorknob, but once again, Jackie prevented him.
“Take it easy,” she said. “Go slow. You wreck the mural, I’ll wreck your face.”
“Didn’t anybody ever tell you that you catch more flies with honey? Lighten up and keep your meathooks to yourself. Right, right, easy does it.” His tongue clenched between his teeth, Finch grasped the doorknob gingerly and turned it with infinite slowness, wincing as a rain of small paint chips pattered to the floor. The hinges had been thickly coated in paint as well, and squealed a protest when he finally cracked the door open.
“Well?” Jackie practically danced in impatience while Finch shone his flashlight through the crack, his body preventing her from seeing into the next room. “Is it the station? C’mon, dude… what do you see?”
“Wonderful things,” Finch answered, his voice hollowed by an echo.
Unexpectedly, Connie giggled.
“What’s so funny?” Jackie asked, frustration sharpening her tone.
“Howard Carter said something like that when he opened Tutankhamen’s tomb,” Connie explained. “Honestly, what’s back there?” she asked Finch, who shook his head.
“Sorry, I was kidding. I can’t see shit,” he confessed.
Jackie muttered, “Useless S.O.B.,” kicking a heap of mouse dropping at him.
Connie spoke up before Finch could respond to Jackie in kind, asking, “Can you get the door open without damaging the painting too much?”
“Pretty sure, yeah,” Finch answered. He eased the door open, stopping at the halfway point. “That’s as far as I can go,” he said. “The hinges are really stiff.”
Jackie eyed the opening. “Seems good to me. Connie, you want to go first?”
Connie nodded, turning sideways to step through the doorway and vanishing into the darkness, out of sight. “Oh! Oh my!” she exclaimed a second later.
“What’s wrong?” Jackie asked, pushing Finch aside to hasten into the next room.
“Nothing’s wrong.” Connie’s flashlight beam flicked to the ceiling where the remains of a chandelier hung, the crystals dulled by more than a century’s worth of filth. “I think we’re getting close.” She walked forward, scuffing through the remains of carpeting long reduced to tatters and dust, and stopped where a rectangular enameled metal sign hung on the wall. Grime peppered the once-white surface, but the elegant lettering remained clear:
Broadway Underground Railway Co. & Beach Pneumatic Transit Co.
Manhattan, New York City to Hoboken, New Jersey
ENTRANCE & TICKET OFFICE This Way Please
The text was followed by an old-fashioned illustrated hand holding a card with an arrow pointing straight ahead. This was it. Jackie grinned, an icy shiver at the base of her spine. She fancied it was the ghost of Frederica Noyles, prodding her to move on and find the treasure hidden below the earth so many decades ago.
Jackie stayed behind Connie as they moved through a short, high-ceilinged tunnel into the next room, which she estimated to be forty-feet long and twelve-feet wide. One end seemed to be set up as an office containing a scattering of dust-covered desks, chairs, stools and a huge wooden cabinet riddled with pigeon holes. The other end of the room was dominated by an enormous cylinder, at least eight-feet in diameter. The cylinder’s casing was decorated with a beautiful floral pattern.
“That must be the rotary blower that moved the railway cars,” Finch whispered, shattering the silence and making Jackie jump a little.
Connie studied the cylinder a moment, though she did not move any closer to it. “Yes, but it can’t be the aeolor’s main engine, it’s not big enough,” she replied, also in a whisper. “The fan must be near the actual tracks as it had to blow or suck air through the railway tunnel.” She turned to Jackie. “I had no idea Beach had gotten this far in constructing the second station. Frankly, I expected a building site.” Her voice quavered a bit. “This is so exciting!” she added, her eyes shining. “We’re the first people to be here in a hundred years!”
Jackie started to smile, then her mood plummeted when memories of Izzy flooded into her mind. The two of them had explored miles of New York City’s underground together, laughing and egging each other on to try more and more dangerous stunts. The thought of losing Izzy to her real family was a blow harder than any she had endured when boxing at the Candy Bar. Jackie swallowed, glad the darkness hid her face. She might not have said good-bye to Izzy in person, but she was already mourning her friend in her heart.
A small ticket office stood on the left as they entered, the window glass long since cracked. Jackie noted a sign hanging from the ceiling, directing them to the right. “Seems kind of awkward,” she said, “having passengers walk through your offices to buy a ticket.”
“This probably wasn’t the main entrance,” Finch said, shining his flashlight around. “There would have been a more public entrance, maybe on Broadway.”
Keeping her flashlight beam trained ahead, Jackie walked towards a doorway on the right which led to a longer tunnel, the ceiling pierced with round ventilation holes that had been sealed at some point in the distant past. The tunnel walls were painted with bucolic landscapes in an anonymous mediocre artist’s hand, which Jackie believed had been commissioned by Beach to alleviate the claustrophobic atmosphere underground.
The tunnel ended in three steps down to a space that opened into a large saloon with sofas and chairs that overlooked the pneumatic railway track. Jackie swept her flashlight here and there, taking in the details. A line of gas brackets was fastened to a wall, the shades heaped with little pyramids of the ever-present dust and grit. . The saloon’s space was divided, but this time into two distinct areas designated, by more signs, to be for GENTLEMEN and LADIES. On the ladies’ side stood a grand piano. Another flight of steps descended to the platform. Glancing around, Jackie found a sign that directed them to the waiting room, which was quite long—at least a hundred feet, she thought
While Finch prowled around looking utterly fascinated, Jackie pulled Connie aside. “Okay, where do we find the painting?” she asked, keeping her voice low.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Connie said, frowning. She fumbled with her glasses, leaving a fingerprint in the grimy film that covered the lenses. “Noyles didn’t write a huge amount of detail. Why should she? As far as she knew, no one else would ever see the journal.”
“Ain’t that peachy,” Jackie said bitterly, tension tightening her neck muscles until they twanged with pain. “Throw me a fucking bone here, Connie, okay? We need a starting point.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin!” Connie replied in a strangled half-whisper that drew Finch’s attention. At Jackie’s urgent hiss, she lowered her voice. “Let me think a minute,” she said. “You go have fun poking around.”
“You sure? I take the flashlight, you’ll be standing there in the dark.”
“I’m not five years old. I’ll be fine.”
Jackie moved away to check out the LADIES side of the saloon. She idly ran a finger over the piano keyboard, unsurprised to find it out of tune. The sofas and chairs appeared undamaged by time, but an incautious touch sent an armchair chair collapsing in a heap of springs, disintegrating upholstery, and fragments of wood. Embarrassed as well as annoyed, Jackie waved at Finch, who had turned towards her, to let him know she was not hurt.
Leaving the piano, Jackie wandered out of the room to the station platform, where she discovered the brick keystone arch at the beginning of the pneumatic railway tunnel was intact, but beyond that bit of track, the way was blocked by tons of dirt and rubble. It was clear that later construction had destroyed the tunnel itself, but luck and its proximity to City Hall had allowed the underground station to be preserved.
An odd cylindrical passenger-car remained on the tracks, the door hanging ajar. Carefully, Jackie went inside, hoping the whole thing would not fall down around her ears. On either side, padded benches ran the length of the car, interrupted occasionally by lamps bolted to the wooden floor. Everything seemed solid. Jackie made her way further along the eighteen-foot cylinder, finding a heap of debris in the rear—evidence of occupancy, though when it had been occupied remained a question. Imagining Frederica Noyles sitting here, Jackie’s pulse skipped a beat, but she told herself the occupant might just as well have been a modern homeless bum huddling alone in the dark.
Poking through the trash revealed a few yellowed newspapers, cigarette butts, empty vodka bottles, burnt matches, pencil ends, crumbled balls of paper, and most exciting of all, a piece of what Jackie recognized as artist’s charcoal. She set her flashlight aside, angled so the light fell in front of her. Picking up one of the balls, she smoothed the paper out, her breath catching. Sketched in charcoal on the surface was the nude figure of a woman, her hair twisted into a sloppy knot at the top of her head. Ringlets had escaped to frame a face that was more striking than beautiful. Large dark sloe-eyes seemed to gaze directly into Jackie’s soul.
Jackie knew who it was, of course. She had seen those eyes staring out of paintings hung on museum walls or reproduced in books: Karolina Mary?ka, Polish courtesan, the favorite model and lover of Frederica Noyles.
Noyles had never painted Karolina nude. Was this a study she had made for a work? Eagerly, Jackie reached for the other paper balls. When she finished smoothing them out, she found a half-dozen sketches of Karolina in various poses. In all of them, she wore nothing apart from an Egyptian-style collar that spread over the tops of her breasts.
It was clear to Jackie that Karolina and Frederica had been in the passenger-car at least once. The newspapers provided more evidence since they were dated from the 1940s. Hoping to find further clues, she dug around beneath the bench. It was not long before her fingers brushed against something fastened to the underside. Slowly, she traced the object’s shape, a flat square with sharp corners. It seemed familiar, yet she could not place it. She needed to see, and she dared not risk yanking the thing out of there in case it was damaged.
It took a few minutes of blind investigation, but Jackie eventually figured out the object was being held in place by a coil of wire, likely part of a spring under the bench seat. She carefully worked the object out, finally pulling it free. Drawing it into the light, Jackie saw it was an artist’s portfolio, the leather surface powdered with greenish mold.
Her hands shook so hard she had trouble untying the tape that held the flap closed. If The Fury of the Hour was here in Beach’s station, as Frederica’s journal stated, it made sense the artist would have hidden it inside the protection of a leather portfolio.
Jackie closed her eyes against a roil of excitement so strong, her stomach flopped over and she wanted to vomit. This was like sitting at the very top of a roller coaster, looking down at the yawning slope, waiting in sick apprehension as the seconds ticked by, then the lurch and slide and gathering speed of gravity letting go, unchaining her body from her bones… she shook her head, wondering what the hell she was waiting for.
Sticking her hand inside the portfolio, she grasped nothing. The portfolio seemed empty. Beginning to panic, Jackie scrabbled around, finally locating the crackle of paper. She frowned. That made no sense; Frederica had always painted on canvas, occasionally board. She drew out the papers and scanned them quickly. The handwriting she recognized; it was definitely Frederica’s scrawl, recognizable from the woman’s journal, and written in Old French, too, or whatever language Connie had mentioned. The last page was different, written by someone else, but still not in English. Jackie cursed, her disappointment tempered slightly by the thought that perhaps the papers contained the painting’s location.
She sighed, stuffing the papers into the front of her overalls, and got to her feet. They knew the way to the underground station now. Unless a City Hall employee discovered the hole in the wall in an empty office, this place would remain a secret. She and Connie could return another day, preferably without that pesky Finch tagging along.
Picking up the flashlight, she left the passenger-car, feeling let down. On the platform, depression became anger. Jackie turned and lashed out a foot, catching a brass spittoon. The spittoon flew through the air, impacting the wall with a loud reverberating clang. Her chest tight with frustration, she spat, “Fuck! Fuckity-fuck-FUCK!”
Jackie stopped in her tracks when a male voice—not Finch’s light tenor but a deep gravelly baritone—shouted, “Stop right there!” and a searing white flashlight beam speared out of the darkness, blinding her.
Cop! her mind screamed at her, her body frozen in place by a surge of fear, but only for a second before instinct kicked in and she took off running. FIFTEEN:::
Jackie headed towards the saloon. She did not trust Finch to get Connie out safely, not just abandon her in the dark. She flicked off her flashlight as she ran. The police officer’s flashlight was powerful, shedding enough diffuse illumination for her to see by even as she pulled ahead of him, calling out at the top of her lungs, “Cops! Haul ass!”
Scuffling footsteps told her at least one person had taken her warning to heart—probably Finch, that cowardly sack of shit. Jackie skidded into the saloon at a run, spotting Connie crouched near the piano by the reflection of light on her eyeglasses. Simultaneously relieved and furious, she said tersely, “Come on!” Every inch of her skin tingled with the knowledge of a pursuer only steps behind and rapidly catching up.
The saloon was a dead end, she thought, gesturing frantically to make Connie hurry. They needed to get the hell out of there before the exit became blocked. Thankfully, Connie wasted no time coming at Jackie’s summons. Jackie grabbed the woman by the hand, tugging her along as she started to backtrack out of the room. The officer was almost on them, she noted. Jackie debated taking a swing at the guy or throwing something at his head as a distraction, but felony charges for assaulting a police officer were far heavier than mere misdemeanor trespassing, so she dismissed the idea.
Had she been alone or with Izzy, Jackie would have led the officer around in circles before losing him altogether. However, the danger of losing Connie as well was too great to risk. Keeping her grip on the woman’s hand tight, she turned on her flashlight just long enough to get her bearings, then made her way towards the office
Going up the steps, Connie stumbled and fell on her knees, nearly pulling Jackie off balance. Her soft cry sounded loud. In too much of a hurry to check if Connie was injured, afraid the officer would hear and know where they were, Jackie hauled the woman to her feet and pushed her onward, hissing at her to be quiet.
Connie managed to keep up with Jackie’s frantic pace, but her labored breathing turned to gasps as they continued towards the ticket office, where Jackie barked her shin on something unseen but sharp enough to send a bolt of pain racing up her leg. Biting the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood, Jackie managed to keep from cursing. The officer was not as lucky; she heard a bang and a continuous stream of baritone obscenities that told her he was having trouble navigating. Perhaps his flashlight had run out of juice.
Aware the office might have a partner stationed near the exit to catch fleeing trespassers, Jackie decided if it came to that, she would help Connie escape alone while she drew the pursuit away. Ignoring the wet warmth on her leg that told her she was bleeding, she took the papers out of her overalls and shoved them at Connie, who fumbled the sheaf in surprise. “Don’t lose them,” Jackie whispered. “Now stay close to me unless I tell you to run. Got it? I tell you to run, you go for it. Don’t wait for me, yeah?”
“O-okay,” Connie stammered slightly. Her mouth pulled into a tense unhappy line. “I don’t want you to get arrested on my account,” she said in an undertone.
“Will you shut the fuck up and don’t argue with me? I say run, you haul that pretty ass!” Jackie insisted impatiently. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“Do I look like I give a shit? He’s outta here, like we need to be.” Hearing a noise, Jackie pressed her fingers to Connie’s lips. After listening intently a few moments, she decided it was safe to continue.
At the door to the mural room, Jackie paused. They had left the door wide open, but now it was half-closed. Evidence of a police officer waiting on the other side? she wondered. Or had Finch knocked against the door as he fled the scene? Jackie peered through the crack, seeing nothing. Shutting her eyes, she tried to focus past the pulse-beat thundering in her ears, hoping to get a sense of another person nearby.
To her horror, Connie pushed past her. Jackie snatched at the woman’s arm, but Connie managed to squirm through the door. Growling under her breath, Jackie followed after turning on her flashlight. If there was a police officer on the other side, maybe she could dazzle him long enough for Connie to get away. Much to her relief, on entering the mural room she found it empty except for Connie.
Her relief was short-lived. “Hey, stop right there, ya hear me?” the pursuing officer cried, his footsteps echoing into a continuous thunder as he came closer.
Crap! Jackie turned off her flashlight and shoved Connie along. If they could make it to the staircase… but a beefy hand wrapped around her upper arm, bringing Jackie to a halt. She struggled, shouting at Connie, “Go on! Go! Go!”
After a bare second’s hesitation, Connie fled.
The officer’s beer-scented breath fanned hot against Jackie’s cheek. “Quit moving, ya punk!” he grunted, tightening his grasp. “Yer under arrest!”
Snarling, Jackie jack-knifed her body, lifting her feet clear off the floor. As she hoped, the officer was unable to support her full weight with his one-handed grip. He dumped her on her butt, the landing jarring up her spine and clacking her teeth together painfully, but Jackie kept moving, rolling away from him and jumping to her feet. He had dropped his useless flashlight, but she still had hers. Turning it on, she took in the officer in an eye-blink—white guy, about twenty pounds overweight but solid, chin and cheeks blue with beard stubble. His uniform was not NYPD, so she figured he was a security guard.
Regardless, she did not move to hit him; assault was still assault, cop or not. Jackie feinted left, and when he lunged to catch her, she turned on her heel and jinked around him, dodging his outstretched hands. Psych, dumbass! she thought with a mental grin, feeling like Roadrunner evading a bumbling Coyote. Running through the doorway, she tossed the flashlight behind her as she speeded up, knowing the path was clear to the staircase.
She did not pause but pounded up the stairs, feeling the iron staircase creak with each heavy step. If the structure pulled loose from the wall, she would be screwed, but Jackie kept going until she reached the top, bursting out of the hole, and slamming the door shut behind her. She braced her back against the door, panting.
Connie stood there, the stupid wedding dress dangling from her hand.
“Goddammit, we don’t have time for that!” Jackie almost shouted.
“I’m not going to get Sandy in trouble!” Connie snapped. She scooped up the abandoned tuxedo jacket, pants, cummerbund and bow tie, thrusting them at Jackie. “I won’t leave without this stuff,” she said, her chin tilting at a stubborn angle
“Fine, fine, just come on already! He’s right behind me!” Jackie snatched the outfit from Connie, waiting in an agony of impatience while the woman gathered an armful of tulle veils, tucking the bundle with wedding dress under her arm.
The moment Connie was done, Jackie chivvied her out of the office. Their filthy bedraggled appearance did not garner much attention. Surprised, Jackie realized that dirty maintenance workers (as the overalls suggested) must be a common sight around City Hall. Although she slowed down when they were outside, Jackie did not allow Connie to rest until they were on the other side of the park, well away from the building.
Jackie finally halted, pulling Connie behind a tree. “Where’s the papers I gave you?” she asked a little breathlessly.
In answer, Connie patted the front of her overalls. “Don’t worry, they’re right here,” she replied. “Where did you find them, anyway?”
“Tell you later.” Jackie allowed herself to really look at Connie, and she had to laugh. “Jeez!” she chuckled. “You’re covered in dust. You look like a bag lady.”
“You’re not that great yourself, you know,” Connie said with a wry twist to her lips. “My glasses are so dirty, I can barely see.”
“Well, those overalls ain’t exactly clean, either. No, no, let me do it.” Carefully, Jackie slid the glasses from Connie’s face, then cleaned the lenses on the cummerbund she carried. “Here you go. Better?” she asked, handing the glasses over.
“Much, thanks.” Connie returned her grin, but quickly sobered. “So I guess you didn’t find the painting.”
“Nope.” Jackie’s good mood evaporated. Shrugging, she went on, “Those papers were written by Freddie Noyles. I found them in an artist’s portfolio.”
Connie’s interest piqued. “Really? Was there anything else?”
“Mostly old trash, but a few charcoal sketches of a naked Karolina Mary?ka, too. They’re in with the other papers. Oh, wait, I bet that’s why he did it,” Jackie said, an idea striking her. “What if The Fury of the Hour is a nude portrait of Karolina? Remember, according to the journal, Joseph Rendell, Karolina’s fiancé, offered Freddie fifty gees for it. Why would he do that unless the painting might embarrass him somehow?”
“Yes, I think you might be to something there,” Connie said excitedly. “Bad enough he wanted to marry an artist’s model, but if Frederica exhibited a nude portrait of his wife in a public place… the potential for more scandal might’ve been too much for Rendell to take.”
“Maybe Freddie hid the painting because she was afraid he might try to steal it.”
“That makes sense. Ooooh, I feel like we’re getting close!”
Jackie nodded, grimacing when a scattering of grit and dust fell off her head. “Jeez, I seriously need to shower,” she said, brushing ineffectively at the filth on her overalls.
Connie bent over and shook some dirt out her hair. Straightening up, she said, “Tell you what, why don’t you go home? I’ll take this stuff back to Sandy, and work on translating the new material tonight. Meet you tomorrow at your place. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Jackie answered, automatically patting her pockets. “Crap… you got a subway token for me?” she asked.
“Yes, of course, but didn’t you have…” Connie shifted the bundle of clothing in her arms, digging into the pant’s pocket. “Aha! Here, you forgot these.” A handful of subway tokens mixed with coins glinted in the palm of her hand.
“Thanks.” Jackie took the tokens, finding herself reluctant to leave. She could not think of an excuse good enough to warrant further delay, and had to settle for saying, “Um… okay, so yeah, I’m headed home. You take care. See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” Connie replied, a flush rising to stain her cheeks pink under a coat of grime. She stepped closer to Jackie, her face tilted, her lips pursed.
Jackie accepted the invitation without thinking twice. She pulled Connie into her arms, touching their lips together gently at first, then bolder as Connie responded, pressing closer with a faint moan. Controlling the hunger that urged her to take-take-take, Jackie deepened the kiss—not devouring, not intense, not greedy, just slow and deliberate, a blunt scrape of teeth over Connie’s lower lip, then the tip of her tongue.
Connie started to draw away at the first touch of Jackie’s tongue, then opened her mouth to accept it. Jackie shivered. Connie tasted good, fruity and sweet like Lifesavers candy, and she felt good, too, all velvety warmth. Jackie wanted to wrap herself around Connie, cover the woman with her own body, melt into her. The word luscious ran through her mind; it was the best description of Connie she could find.
Jackie kissed Connie for what seemed like hours, until her lips were hot and swollen, and she knew the shape of Connie’s mouth better than her own. She shifted, rubbing her thighs together as the pang of pleasure between them intensified. Christ, she was wet! A sharp wolf-whistle jolted Jackie out of her trance. Pulling away, she saw a grinning man strolling down the path near their hiding place, and realized they were not really hidden from view.
“I need to go,” Connie whispered, her eyes wide.
Unable to think of an excuse to keep Connie there except I want you—and fearful of rejection despite the way the woman had responded to her kisses—Jackie cleared her throat and said roughly, “Yeah, okay, I’ll see you around.”
She watched Connie walk off, the dampness in the crotch of her panties turning clammy and uncomfortable. Scowling, feeling frustrated on more than one front, Jackie stomped along the path, headed back towards Broadway to catch the J train home.
That evening, Jackie settled down on the bed to a dinner scrounged from the dumpster behind McDonald’s. For a change, the local gang of teenage runaways/prostitutes had chosen to hang out around Dunkin’ Donuts on Grand Street, meaning Jackie did not have to fight them for the leftover hamburger scraps and cold limp French fries. She had also treated herself to a two-liter bottle of New Coke from a convenience store.
Without Izzy, she found the apartment too quiet. Jackie ate, but the burgers and fries tasted like grease and salt, and little else. The Coke was warm and syrupy, flat on her tongue. She told herself she did not miss Izzy, but her heart said otherwise. Sure, Izzy drove her crazy, but it was a good crazy, the kind of affectionate mutual annoyance shared with a beloved sibling. That camaraderie would be gone forever when her friend left, and that would happen as soon as Izzy was told her old man was looking for her. After all, what did she have to offer? Jackie thought bitterly. A run-down squat, a dirty mattress, dumpster cuisine, a daily scramble to survive. Not to mention with drug dealers on the corner, Izzy would never quit using. Appetite gone, Jackie shoved the rest of the food into the tin bread box for later.
Someone knocked on the door. Figuring it was Rafael or someone else who lived in the squat, Jackie went to the door, relieved to have company to break the awful silence.
Connie hurried inside, breathing hard. “I had to come,” she panted. “I couldn’t wait.”
A couple of possible explanations flew through Jackie’s mind as she shut the door. The most flattering, of course, had Connie burning with a lust so irresistible, she had rushed over to throw herself at Jackie and beg to be fucked all night long. However, that seemed out of character, so it must be something else. Suddenly, Jackie remembered a reason why Connie might be there, and she turned to the woman, her heart in her throat.
“Is it him?” she asked sharply to cover her panic. “The professor? Did he threaten you? Press charges? Are the police coming?”
“No, I haven’t heard from Professor Golan or the police or the Dean, for that matter, and that’s not why I’m here,” Connie said, going into the living room to sit on the sofa. Her hands clenched around her knees. It was clear she was upset. “Listen, I couldn’t sleep so I translated the pages you found.”
Relieved they were not on the verge of arrest, Jackie sat next to Connie. “And whatever it is couldn’t wait until morning? Jeez, pretty girl like you shouldn’t be running around the city at this time of night, not even in a cab,” she said, smiling.
“This is serious!” Connie half-shouted, startling Jackie.
“Hey, hey, it’s cool, go ahead, tell me what you want,” she said meekly, Connie’s distress melting the grin off her face. “I’m listening, I swear.”
Connie took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, then reached into her purse and pulled out her notebook. “You need to read this,” she said, offering the book to Jackie.
Obediently, Jackie opened the notebook to a page marked by a slip of paper, and read:
October 14, 1947—
Karo has discovered the undiscoverable. I wonder who
told her? That wordy mealy-mouthed bitch, Philippa Hake?
I’ve seen her eating up Karo with her greedy eyes. Yes,
I’m sure Philippa told Karo that I was at her stupid party
in the hotel with her so-called friends and her pig of a
husband, and that I left for a while, long enough to pull a
trigger. I did not think Philippa would notice me missing,
surrounded as she was by sycophants and ass-lickers.
Well, Rendell is dead and not any of Philippa’s tattling
will bring him back. The police know nothing. I will warn
Philippa to be quiet, or the police will also learn that her
husband enjoys the company of very, very young girls.
But Karo came to me today, the dark vision of a Fury!
Her rage-storm broke over my head, a hurricane of tears
and threats and accusations. How could I do it? she asked.
How could I kill the man she loved? Liar! She does not love
him. Our hearts, our lives, our fates are intertwined.
I know her as I know myself. I did not deny what I had done,
but neither did I confess the truth. Some day, when time has
passed and healed old wounds, when the disappointment
of losing a fortune has lessened, I will tell her. Let her
cherish her suspicion for a while, and I will smile and hold
her in my arms, and endure her tempers, and give her
my devotion, as always. She will stay with me. No matter
who tries to come between us, Karo returns to me in the end.
Jackie stopped reading. “So Freddie killed Rendell… okay, we already decided that was a possibility.” She fingered the edge of the page. “Sounds like Freddie and Karo has a pretty fucked-up relationship, which is no surprise. Most people do.”
“Neither of them had it very easy. Karolina Mary?ka’s whole family was executed in Auschwitz in 1940.,” Connie said, frowning. “She was seventeen years old. Karolina survived when an S.S. officer took her as his mistress. During a trip to Berlin, she escaped and ended up with the impoverished Prince Viktor Günter of Eberschwartzburg, who was sponsored to come to America by a New York socialite. He brought Karolina with him to America, and she met Frederica Noyles at a party.”
“I didn’t know Karolina was Jewish, or that young, either.”
“She had a hard life. It showed in her face. As for Frederica, not much is known about her past, but if her behavior’s anything to go by, she was a troubled woman.”
“Yeah, Freddie raised all kinds of hell, shocked the shit out of those stuck-up boring normal people. She was cool. So what do you think?” Jackie asked. “Did Karo hook up with Freddie because she fell in love, or because she was looking for protection?”
“I don’t know. She was certainly a beautiful woman, and could have taken many lovers if she chose,” Connie replied. “Maybe she was tired of being a man’s possession, but I think she really felt something for Frederica. They weren’t together long, just a couple of years before Frederica died—“
“Was poisoned,” Jackie interrupted, feeling the point was important.
“Right. Anyway, they had a very tempestuous relationship including public fights, shouting matches, the whole works. I remember reading that once in a restaurant, Karolina threw a glass ashtray at Frederica, hitting her in the mouth. The scar was permanent,” Connie said, “but Frederica refused to get the police involved. She laughed it off. If I had to guess, I’d say Karolina loved Frederica, and Frederica was completely obsessed.”
“Or passionately devoted.” At Connie’s skeptical expression, Jackie went on, “Look, you say ‘obsessed’ like it’s a bad thing.”
“I have to admit, in the journal, Frederica comes off as a little… well, crazy is the best way I can put it.”
“Jealous, sure, I get that. If you were my girl…” Jackie broke off, seeing Connie’s eyes widen. She bit her lip and continued in a rush, “If you were my girl, and you wanted to leave me to marry some asshole because he was rich—or even because you loved him, same difference—I’d buy a gun and kill the S.O.B. People kill people all the time because they’re jealous. Don’t matter if you’re straight or gay or lesbian or AC/DC or all of the above or none of the above: when love’s involved, you go a little nuts.”
Connie had turned her head away to gaze at the blank television screen, but the curve of her cheek told Jackie she was smiling. “I suppose you have first-hand knowledge? Of the love-thing driving you nuts, I mean,” Connie murmured.
“Yeah, something like that. Jealousy’s understandable.” Jackie laid a hand on Connie’s leg; the fabric of her khaki trousers was soft, the muscle beneath yielding. “You want to tell me what brings you out to the Lower East Side in the middle of the night?” she asked. “What’s the big deal? It’s not like we can go to the police and tell them we’ve got Freddie Noyles’ confession to a murder that happened in 1947. Who cares? The case is cold. Everybody’s dead.”
“Keep reading,” Connie said, nodding at the notebook. “No, Jackie, just finish it. You need to see for yourself.”
Reluctantly, Jackie removed her hand from Connie’s leg and turned the notebook’s page to read the next entry.
October 31, 1947—
All Hallows’ Eve. Someone is coming, a new patron
who promises many commissions—Jack Kent, whom Karo
tells me is a most generous man. It is a piece of good
luck. My dark goddess requires more and more tribute
since her would-be husband met a well-deserved end.
Karo is a magpie, wild for gold and jewels and pretty
things. I vowed to take care of her when she was a
starveling fresh from Auschwitz, and I will. This Kent
has money. I will take it from him and give it to Karo to
make her happy. When she is happy, so I am.
The final entry was dated November 5, 1947. Jackie’s brows rose. Frederica Noyles died on Halloween. How could she have written in her journal five days later? She glanced a silent question at Connie, who nodded.
“The next part was written in a different handwriting, and in Polish, too.” Connie said. Her glasses had slipped almost to the end of her nose, and she peered at Jackie over the top of the frames. “I found a Polish exchange student who agreed to do a translation of the original document. I think Karolina used a razor blade to cut these pages from Frederica’s journal after she wrote the entry, and she must have hidden the pages underground in the passenger-car.”
“The sketches prove she and Freddie spent time there. So it must have been Karolina who hid the journal in the railway station under the Waldorf where Izzy and me found it. Why’d she do that?” Jackie asked.
Connie glanced away again. This time, she was not smiling. “Listen, I called a friend… no, not really a friend,” she said, “Eileen takes a couple of art history classes with me, and we sometimes sit together in the cafeteria for lunch—”
“Are you breaking up with me?” Jackie blurted, forgetting about Frederica Noyles, the journal, the painting, everything else except the awful sinking feeling in her stomach.
“What?” Connie’s voice rose an octave. “Breaking up… no! God, no!”
Going limp with relief, Jackie sagged against the sofa cushions.
Connie went on, “I can’t believe… and anyway, since when are we together?” She flushed. “I mean, okay, you kissed me a couple of times, but that’s it, and you never said we were, um, like going out or anything. I though we were sort of friends, and yes, I like you, really like you that way, and I didn’t think you did…” She gulped, looking stricken. Raising a hand to her mouth, she muttered, “Now you think I’m an idiot, right?”
“No, pretty girl, never.” Jackie rolled on her side, cuddling against Connie, and flinging an arm over her waist. “Want to do more than kiss?”
Connie’s flush deepened until her face blazed red. “Oh! Oh, um, w-w-what about the journal and stuff?” she stammered.
That shyness was appealing on many levels. Screw the journal, this is more important, Jackie tried to say, but her lungs were suddenly empty. Caught by the shining light in Connie’s eyes, affection and doubt and apprehension clearly written there for anyone to see, Jackie tried to reassure the woman without words. Bracing her feet on the floor, licking her lips, Jackie thrust herself upward, hoping to clash her mouth to Connie’s. To her surprise, Connie turned away, fending her off with a hand on her chest.
“Hey, what gives?” Jackie asked, hoping the question had not come out as petulant as it sounded.
“Let me tell you this first, okay?” Connie said, still pressing on Jackie’s chest, her fingertips grazing the side of Jackie’s small breast. “Don’t you want to know what happened? Don’t you want to know about the painting?”
The painting. Jackie sobered but she did not draw away. Instead, she placed her hand over Connie’s. “Yeah, sure, whatever,” she said, settling her head on Connie’s shoulder. For once in her life, despite the urgings of desire, she found the patience to wait for what she wanted. “Talk to me now. Later, we won’t need to talk. That’s a promise.”
Connie’s breath quickened. “Sure.”
Jackie let her remain silent for a couple of minutes before saying dryly, “Didn’t you want to tell me something, babe?”
Connie inhaled, letting the breath out in a soft chuckle. “Yes, yes, I did.” Her smile changed to dismay, and she sat up straighter, no longer touching Jackie. “Like I was saying, I called Eileen because the name of Frederica’s new patron, Jack Kent, she mentions him in the October thirty-first entry… I knew it somehow, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen it,” she said. “Then Eileen told me Jack Kent was Joseph Rendell’s brother-in-law.”
“Okay,” Jackie said, puzzled. “What’s so important about this Kent guy?”
“Well, apart from his connection to Rendell, Kent was accused of murdering eight women in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1950s,” Connie said. “There are a couple of books about the case. Supposedly, he poisoned them with cyanide and watched them die. Kent’s family had him committed to an insane asylum to avoid the trial.”
Jackie went cold. “You think he murdered Frederica Noyles?”
“I know he did.” Connie tapped the notebook’s cover. “Go on, finish it. The November fifth entry talks about The Fury of the Hour. Your questions will all be answered. I know mine were.” She looked sick and a little bit angry as well.
“What happened to the painting?” Jackie demanded, the sudden chill in her body plummeting until her fingertips went numb. “Tell me.”
“Read it for yourself.”
Jackie swallowed. She let her gaze drop to the notebook page and read:
November 5, 1947—
There is nothing left to me now.
It is my own fault. I told Jack Kent about my
suspicions. I was angry because Frederica did not
understand why I agreed to marry Joseph. I did
it for her! But she would not listen. Her art is
her life, but no one can live on paint and promises.
As Joseph’s wife, I could have done so very much
for her. She saw the marriage as a betrayal.
I love her! So I would give my body to Joseph…
that is such an unimportant thing. For her, I
would have whored myself ten times over.
We quarreled. I was hurt and angry. Then came
Kent with his charm and fine words, and in
an unguarded moment, I let slip the suspicion.
I had no proof, but he looked thoughtful as he
left. I should have known. I should have known!
I have no proof Kent killed her, but he did. He
came to the funeral, secrets in his eyes and lies
in his mouth. He asked me about that damned
painting, told me Joseph had wanted it badly
and he would pay any price for it. I laughed at
him but quietly, privately in my breast, for one
does not laugh openly at such a man. Yet he is
a fool like so many others!
There is no painting. The Fury of the Hour never
existed. It was Frederica who spread rumors
about a masterpiece of decadence hidden away
from all eyes. She hinted at profane things, like
the murals made by her and her friends below
City Hall. It was meant to stimulate the appetites
of collectors and patrons, to make them eager
to buy what was for sale. Ah, my Frederica!
Kent returns to Texas tomorrow. I have put him
off for now, but he expects me to sell him the
painting. I will instead return to Poland, and leave
my poor dead heart here in the New Country.
No one will ever know the secrets I keep, but I
cannot destroy Frederica’s journal, so instead I
will hide it where it will never be found.
“Christ,” Jackie breathed, her gorge rising as disappointment struck her like a blow. There was no painting. The Fury of the Hour was a lie, a marketing ploy begun by a clever artist and perpetuated by history. Jackie dropped the notebook, grinding the heels of her hands into her eye sockets until crimson and white sparks exploded in the darkness. Her breathing went wet and ragged, and she wanted to throw up. All her hopes of getting out of poverty were as dead as Frederica Noyles, that goddamned lying bitch!
“I’m sorry,” Connie said, touching Jackie’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
Jackie gritted her teeth, close to lashing out and not wanting to vent her fury on Connie, who had done nothing except try to help. It was not Connie’s fault everything had turned to a big steaming pile of shit. She let out a quivering sigh, her muscles trembling.
“Karolina disappears from history,” Connie was saying in a rush, as if she was trying to impart comfort with the information, “and no one knows what happened to her after she vanished from New York, but if she went back to Poland…”
“Connie, shut up… please,” Jackie choked. “Just shut up.”
Jackie’s patience cracked, and savage rage rose to stain her vision red. “Shut up and get the fuck out!” she shouted, spittle flying out of her mouth. “Get out! Get out! Get out!” She found herself on her feet, a fist cocked. “Get the fuck out of here!”
White-faced, Connie got to her feet and stumbled towards the door.
Jackie stood still for several moments, her chest heaving. She was vaguely aware her cheeks were hot and wet with tears. Finally, unable to bear the seething chaos of emotions any longer, she picked up the television and threw it at the window, smashing through the glass.
That felt good.
Her burning gaze fell on the stack of paintings against the wall.
“No!” Connie had not left yet. She put herself between Jackie and the paintings. “Don’t do it. Please, Jackie… you’ll regret it so much if you destroy your work.”
It took a huge effort, but Jackie managed to unhinge her jaw and croak, “Take them and get out.” When Connie hesitated, she barked, “Go! Now!”
Connie gathered the canvases and fled, the door banging shut behind her.
The moment she was alone, Jackie screamed, “MOTHER FUCKER!” at the top of her lungs. Surrendering the last shred of control, she felt her lips draw back from her teeth as pure rage crashed over her, obliterating the world and everything in it, including herself.
Jackie paused at the door to Izzy’s hospital room.
Destroying the apartment in a frenzy the night before had left her wrung out physically and emotionally once the rage had spent itself. Remembering the mess she had left behind that morning—fist-sized holes in the walls, window shattered, bathroom sink busted off the wall, paint flung everywhere, broken glass underfoot, what little furniture she possessed destroyed—Jackie felt empty and exhausted. She did not regret so much tearing the place apart, but she was sorry she had frightened Connie. Would the woman forgive her? She did not know, but she hoped forgiveness was possible.
Jackie took a deep breath. First things first, she thought. Talk to Izzy. Get some shit straight. As Connie had told her, it was Izzy’s choice whether to continue living in the squat or return to her family. Withholding information about her father trying to find her was not fair to Izzy. After the visit, Jackie decided she would head over to Connie’s place. Hesitating no longer, she pushed through the door into the hospital room.
Izzy sat propped up in bed, so thin she looked as small as a child in a sea of white sheets. Her blue-dyed hair was clean at least, Jackie noted, and the scabs on her inner arms and the crook of her elbow were healing nicely. On sighting her, Izzy smiled. “Hey, man, you’re a sight for sore eyes!” she said, patting the side of the bed. “Come and talk to me. I’m going ape-shit here with nothing to do except play pinochle with Edna, the hernia next door.”
Jackie settled on the edge of the mattress as directed. “There’s some stuff I need to tell you,” she began, but Izzy cut her off.
“Yeah, I know I’m a stupid, selfish, thoughtless cunt for overdosing,” Izzy said hastily, “and I promise it will never, ever happen again. I swear, okay? I swear to God I’m off the junk. I signed up for a rehab program. I’m going to get clean and stay clean.”
Izzy sounded so sincere, Jackie had no choice but to nod, fumbling for words. “Uh, that’s great,” she said, “that’s really cool, Iz.”
“Mom says if I stay in the program—“ Izzy stopped speaking and her eyes went comically wide. “Crap. I was going to save that as a surprise.”
Relief flashed hot and cold through Jackie, followed by a sense of loss so profound, she was on the verge of tears. She averted her face to hide her expression, settling for asking gruffly, “You’re going back to your family, right?”
“I have to.” Izzy sounded subdued. “Living with you is a blast, and you saved my life, man, you really did, and I love you. You’re like a big brother to me. We’ve had some great times, but I know if I stay… I’ll never stop using. The drug dealers are right on the corner, Jackie. Sooner or later, I’ll pick up the needle again because getting high makes me feel like I can cope, like maybe my life isn’t a big ol’ shit sandwich I have to eat every day. Don’t get me wrong—the parts of my life with you are great—but I want to go home.” She added plaintively, “My dad says he’s sorry. My mom cried. I miss them.”
Once a junkie, always a junkie. You’ll never stop using anyway, no matter if you go home to ordinary Dullsville or not, Jackie considered saying, but she knew that was not a real argument, just a mean-spirited way to make Izzy hurt as much as she did. She thought she had been prepared for the agony of losing her friend, but the fresh pain was unbearable. “So how’d you find out about… you know,” she forced herself to ask, not completing the question because she was half afraid of the answer. Jackie figured Izzy had heard about her father’s reward somehow, and gotten in touch with her family. Did she also know Jackie had been told about the reward by Tommy Tomaselli? It seemed a reasonable assumption. Guilt made Jackie squirm a little, stilling when Izzy touched her shoulder.
“You look like six kinds of hell,” Izzy remarked, not at all what Jackie expected to hear. “You been fighting at the Candy Bar again?” she asked.
Jackie glanced at her newly busted knuckles, the lines of her skin still ingrained with plaster dust and paint from hitting the walls last night. The question took her off-guard, and she replied without thinking, “I got mad.”
Izzy whistled. “At who?”
“Myself, mostly,” Jackie said honestly. “Listen, Iz… I gotta tell you something.”
“Sure, lay it on me,” Izzy said, reclining against the pillow behind her back. This close, Jackie did not miss the bruised pouches under Izzy’s eyes, the chapped lips, the slight tremor in Izzy’s hands. The scoop-neck of the papery hospital gown she wore revealed Izzy’s collarbone, sharp as a razorblade under the tightly stretched skin.
“Me and Connie found Beach’s station under City Hall,” Jackie said, forestalling Izzy’s whoop of glee with an upraised hand. “There ain’t no painting, Iz. The Fury of the Hour is a hoax.” She told Izzy the whole story, only leaving out the details of her increasing attraction to Connie. When she finished, she stopped speaking, waiting for a reaction.
“Aw, damn it,” Izzy said, her eyes closing. “That sucks big time.”
“Yo, Iz, you want to stay awake or what?” Jackie snapped, annoyed.
Izzy’s eyes popped open. “Sorry. I’m pretty tired all the time. Doctor says it’ll get better,” she said, yawning and scrubbing at her face. Her wrist and arm were so painfully thin, the hospital bracelet slid down almost to her elbow. “What’re you going to do now?”
“I don’t know.” Jackie fell silent. During the search for Frederica Noyles’ painting, she had never once thought it might be false. Disappointment tightened her throat anew. After a few moments, she made an effort and asked, “You going back to college?”
“I want to finish my degree, so yeah,” Izzy replied with a renewed grin. “But I’ll probably go somewhere closer to home, not Wilburton. That’ll be nice, staying in my old room, eating Mom’s home cooking for a change.”
“Gonna quit kissing girls, Iz? Keep that family money train rolling by spreading your legs for some guido, marry him, have a kid, forget about being a dyke? Live a lie?” Jackie lashed out, her anger stirred by Izzy’s apparent indifference. Didn’t Izzy care she was leaving her alone? Pain throbbed in her temples and her battered hands. The sharpest pain lodged under her sternum like a knife.
Clearly taken aback by Jackie’s accusatory tone, Izzy flushed, then went pale and started picking at the hem of the sheet. “Shit, you know I can’t… you don’t know what it’s been like, Jackie. You don’t know.” She bit her lip, refusing to meet Jackie’s gaze. “Look, it’s only until I graduate, and I can do what I want after I have my degree.”
“Are you a dyke or not?” Jackie persisted.
“Dad says I have to go to therapy sessions at church that are supposed to make me normal, or so the priest says, and Dad thinks Father Russo walks on water. I think Father Russo told him I’m sick in the head because I kissed a girl.” She shrugged. “.Anyway, I’m going along with it ‘cause otherwise I can’t go home, and I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry.” She added in a little voice. “I can’t live like this. I’m not brave like you.”
Jackie’s laugh was bitter. “You think I enjoy eating out of garbage cans?” she asked. “Picking change out of the gutter? Living in a rat-hole? Goddammit, Iz! I got nobody, nobody but you!” She saw tears gather in Izzy’s eyes, and steeled herself to continue. Some things needed to be said. “You know why I started fighting at the Candy Bar? No, don’t turn away, look at me when I’m talking to you!” She grabbed Izzy’s chin and forced her head up, saying, “Tommy paid cash, and I can take an ass-whipping, and you needed medicine when you were hurt. I sure as hell didn’t get the crap beaten out of me every other week because I liked it.”
Izzy tried to twist out of Jackie’s grip. “I never asked you to do that,” she mumbled.
“No, you didn’t.” Jackie agreed, releasing her. “You want to live at home, go ahead. You want to deny who you are, be my guest. Just don’t ask me to be happy about it. You’re my brother, Iz,. You’re my family, and I love you, and I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”
“I’m sorry,” Izzy repeated, tears trickling down her face. “Jesus, I’m so, so sorry! You took good care of me, Jackie, you really did.”
“I tried. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough, I don’t know anymore. I could hate you, Iz, really I could, but I don’t. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive. Hell, I’m living proof of that.” No longer angry, Jackie gazed at Izzy in resignation. “We had some good times, yeah,” she said, “but we also had to eat those shit sandwiches you talked about. I don’t blame you for wanting to get out. You’ve got to take care of yourself. I understand.”
“It’s not that I don’t love you, too, but…”
“I know, I know,” Jackie said, her chest constricting. The time she had spent with Izzy had been some of the best moments of her life. Letting go of that bond was as hard as sawing off her own arm. “Don’t sweat it. I’ll be fine. You just have yourself a better life, stay out of trouble, stick with the rehab program, keep that monkey off your back. Don’t make me read about your funeral in the obits,” she said.
“We can stay in touch!” Izzy protested . “I’ll come visit you, I promise.”
“Yeah, sure, we’ll do lunch when you come to the city.” Jackie regretted the flip answer at once. This was a big enough wrench for both of them, and it was wrong to add to their mutual misery. “Listen, if you need any help, you know where to find me, okay?” she said much more gently. “Be happy, Iz. Do what it takes and be happy.”
Izzy did not answer. She stared at the wall, her fists knotted in the sheet. As Jackie opened the door to leave, she let out a harsh sob. “I told the nurse to call my mom after I woke up,” she said, replying to the question Jackie had asked earlier. “Mom and I talked a while on the phone, and I told her what happened, then I talked to Dad and he wanted me to come home. I had to say ‘yes.’ Maybe I’m not a dyke. Maybe I’m just confused, like he says.. I don’t care. I’m sick and I just want to go home.” Izzy sounded lost, so forlorn that for a moment Jackie considered embracing her.
However, she did not turn around but continued on her way, walking fast through the hospital corridors until she was outside in the sunshine, the heat radiating from the parking lot asphalt soaking through her clothes. A clean break was best, she told herself. Emotional scenes were not her thing. Jackie tried to catch her breath. Her heart hurt, a pang so fierce she feared she might die. Her eyes burned. She stumbled along the sidewalk towards the subway station, her breath hitching, trying to reign in the threatening tears.
She took a seat on the subway car and ignored everything going on around her. Her body felt as leaden as her mood. The thought of returning to her wrecked apartment made her groan. If she asked, Rafael would taken her in. Sheldon Wightman would let her bunk in the office of his garage as long as she needed. She had options, but there was only one place she wanted to be, only one person she wanted to see.
Would Connie welcome her? Jackie did not know, but she had to take the risk.
The four-block walk from the subway station to Connie’s apartment building was a blur to Jackie. Going past the doorman sitting at his desk in the lobby, she hunched her shoulders, ready to run or try to jive the guy with some story if necessary, but the doorman did not try to stop her. She assumed he remembered her coming in the other day with Connie, or perhaps he was too engrossed in his conversation with a busty young honey-blonde whom Jackie thought must be some corporate ninja’s trophy wife. Jackie did not really care which speculation was true. She continued to the elevator unchallenged.
Once she stood outside Connie’s apartment door, Jackie rang the bell. All at once, cold sweat sprang out over her body, and her mouth flooded with saliva as nausea churned her guts to water. What the hell was she doing here? What if Connie did not want to see her? An inner voice yammered at Jackie to run. She was too vulnerable, her feelings too raw, her habitual mask of toughness too cracked. All her sorrows showed on her face, she was certain. Connie would never respect her like this. She needed to pull herself together, take a drink to drown the echoes of Izzy in her head, and smoke a cigarette to calm her nerves.
Decision made, Jackie half-turned, ready to retreat back down the corridor to the elevator, when the door opened and Connie stood there, looking surprised, then some other emotion crossed her face that was difficult to read. Still, Jackie might have fled had Connie not suddenly flushed to the roots of her hair.
“Oh! It’s you!” Connie did not sound hurt . She sounded… guilty, Jackie decided after a moment. It was weird enough to catch her attention. “I didn’t expect you to come over,” Connie went on nervously. “Um… not that I don’t want you to come over, because I hoped to see you, but I knew you were really kind of, well, upset yesterday, and I didn’t expect—“
“I went to see Izzy in the hospital, to say good-bye,” Jackie broke in. “She’s headed home upstate to mommy and daddy.”
“I’m sorry,” Connie said, giving her a sympathetic look. However, he did not budge from the doorway. “Are you doing okay?”
“Not really.” Jackie rubbed the back of her neck, which prickled. “You letting me in there sometime today?” she asked, wondering why Connie was behaving so awkwardly.
“Well, I don’t… I mean, I wasn’t expecting company…” Connie seemed at a loss. Finally, she cleared her throat and went on in the face of Jackie’s disbelieving stare, “It’s not a good time for me. Maybe you could come back later?”
A voice asked called out from behind Connie, “Who’s there, darling? Are you going to be much longer?”
It was a male voice. Jackie stiffened, suffering a wave of jealousy that rose to absolute fury. Just a day after kissing Jackie, less than twenty-four hours after virtually promising to sleep with her, Connie had a man in the apartment, a man who called her ‘darling.’
“What the fuck?” Jackie growled. “Who’s the hell is that?”
Visibly flustered, Connie tried to close the door further, but Jackie thrust her booted foot into the crack to prevent her. “It’s nobody,” Connie said with a hysterical edge to her voice that only made Jackie angrier.
“Uh-huh, nobody, right.” In the past, Jackie’s rages had blazed hot, but now she had gone completely cold, as if the inner workings of her body were transformed into glacial ice. Or maybe just died, she thought. “Get out of my way,” she ordered.
“Move your ass, pretty girl,” Jackie said, reaching out to push Connie from the doorway, her muscles stiff with the effort of not simply shoving the woman backwards. She stepped into the apartment, her gaze seeking and finding the man seated on a sofa in the midst of the hideous pink décor. A skinny guy, she noted through narrowed eyes, his dark hair pulled into a ponytail. He was dressed in a soft pink T-shirt paired with a grey Armani suit jacket and trousers, and sported a little comma-shaped goatee on his chin. As far as Jackie was concerned, he looked like the scumbag drug dealer-of-the-week from Miami Vice.
“And who’s this?” he asked, rising to his feet and gazing speculatively at Jackie.
“I told you about her, this is Jackie Quick,” Connie said hurriedly, but before she could go on, Jackie spoke up.
“Mother fucker,” she said, “you picked the wrong time, the wrong place and the wrong girl to mess with.” Automatically, she settled into a fighter’s stance, her weight centered on the balls of her feet, her shoulders tight. He was taller but she could take him; even easier, she thought, if she got in a sucker punch first and put him on the ground.
He snorted. “Connie, I think you ought to set your friend straight.” For some reason he found this hilarious; throwing back his head and laughing.
The sound of his laughter washed over and through Jackie, shattering the ice and leaving an explosion of fury in its wake. She quivered with the need to smash this asshole who dared mock her, who dared take what was hers. Connie was speaking rapid-fire, but the meaning of her words was swept away by the roaring in Jackie’s ears.
Crimson crept around the edges of her vision. Stepping forward, Jackie cocked a fist, ready to hit the guy so hard, he’d be shitting teeth for a week, but for some reason, she could not raise her arm. Glancing down, she realized Connie was desperately hanging on to her wrist. Part of Jackie wanted to shake the woman off, but another part feared hurting her. Instead, she stopped and tried to hear to what Connie was saying.
“… gallery! Listen to me, Jackie, please! Josh owns a gallery in Soho. I showed him your paintings, and he thinks they’re good, and he wants to put on an exhibition!” Connie shouted, dragging at Jackie’s wrist like an anchor.
Josh had gone around behind the sofa, putting an obstacle between himself and Jackie’s wrath. “Damn, Connie, you didn’t tell me she was crazy!” he cried, but he was smiling. “The papers will eat this with a spoon! The critics will go bonkers! Everybody loves a self-destructive rebel. Can you get her to smash up some furniture at the opening?”
Jackie stopped moving and let out a shuddering breath. She remained angry, but the thoughtless animal rage had fizzled as Connie’s explanation sank in. Glad she had not lost control completely, she peeled Connie’s fingers off her arm, asking, “Want to tell me what the fuck’s going on?”
Connie blinked at her, mouth agape, then she rallied. “This is Josh Harwood,” she said. “He owns a gallery in Soho. He wants to do an exhibition of your paintings.”
Josh nodded, coming out from behind the sofa. “Yes, absolutely,” he said, the goatee on his chin waggling as he spoke. “Neo-expressionism is the new black, darling: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Chuck Connelly… all the collectors are gagging for it these days, neo-ex is so hot it’s smoking, and they especially love ‘discovering’ new talent. Ms. Quick, I’m happy to say you’ve got talent. You need exposure. I can give you that.”
“I told you I didn’t want to exhibit my paintings,” Jackie said to Connie, ignoring Josh for the moment. “I told you they were private.”
“Yes, you did, you told me that,” Connie said, a bit shame-faced, but her chin was tilted at a familiar defiant angle. “After what happened yesterday, when we found out—” her voice dropped, “—you know, Frederica Noyles’ work being a hoax, I thought… well, you deserve success, Jackie. You’re a great artist. So after I took your paintings, I got in touch with my professor. You remember I told you about Professor Miriam Blais, right? She was friends with my mom. Professor Blais called Josh after she saw your work.”
“Miriam has an excellent eye and very good judgment,” Josh said, nodding. “Your artistic style is very marketable right now, Ms. Quick. Five figures to start, guaranteed. More if we can get Warhol interested. He’s good for publicity.”
Jackie closed her eyes, battling with conflicting emotions. At last, she said, “Mr. Harwood, could I come and see you tomorrow?”
“Sure, sure, I’ll give you my card. Call me if you need anything at all.” Picking a pen off the coffee table, Josh scribbled on the back of a business card he took out of his jacket’s inner pocket. “My home phone,” he explained.
“Thanks,” Jackie replied, opening her eyes and taking the offered card. “Sorry about the…” She waved a hand in a vague circle through the air between them.
“No problem.” Josh’s grin did not dim at all. “Trust me, almost getting punched isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened me. Remind me to tell you about how I went to a meeting with a performance artist, and ended up in the ER covered in Paris Green paint, cat turds, and a chocolate éclair that had to be removed from a very delicate spot in my anatomy.” Hardly pausing for breath, he turned to Connie and continued, “If you come across any other artists, feel free to give me a call. You’re studying art history or something like that?” At Connie’s nod, he continued, “Get your degree and come work for me, even if it’s just for a couple of years while you doing your Ph.D. I can introduce you to people.” He breezed out of the apartment, his ponytail swinging, calling over his shoulder, “Ciao, ladies!”
When the door shut behind him, Jackie put the business card in her pocket, sighing.
“C’mere, pretty girl, we need to talk,” Jackie said, leading Connie to the awful pink sofa piled with awful floral cushions, which she swept onto the floor with the edge of her hand. Feeling Connie shrinking away from her, she gave up on finesse, yanking the woman down beside her on the sofa before she could bolt.
“You’re not still super mad like yesterday, are you?” Connie whispered. “Only I did something else I haven’t told you about, and you can’t wreck this place ‘cause it belongs to Liz’s dad’s company, not me, so if you need to blow off steam, you’ll have to go outside or something.”
Jackie’s mouth tightened, but she said mildly, “So tell me now.”
“Get it over with, okay?” Jackie tried to smile reassuringly, unsure if she succeeded since the worried look did not leave Connie’s face.
“Frederica Noyles’ journal,” Connie began, then stopped speaking. She removed her glasses, laying them on the coffee table, and pinched the bridge of her nose.
Afraid of the suspicious glitter in Connie’s eyes, Jackie said,. “Look, I’m not going to go King Kong on you or your apartment, so just spit it out. I promise I won’t tear you a new one. I get mad or whatever, I’ll go kick some rich bitch’s toy poodle.”
A corner of Connie’s mouth quirked, but she sobered quickly. “Well, even though you told me to keep it a secret, I also showed Professor Blais the journal. The original, not the translations I did,” she said, watching Jackie sidelong. “Professor Blais said the journal is priceless. And the murals below City Hall need to be preserved, it’s a real buried treasure, and I couldn’t not tell somebody, you see? The professor said we’d get credit for the discovery.”
“Did she?” Jackie shrugged, unimpressed. “What good’s credit to me?”
“Don’t you understand? No, no, wait… I’m not explaining this right..” Connie put on her glasses and took a deep breath, obviously composing herself. “Okay, here’s how it goes—the journal and the murals are a big deal to Wilburton. Really, really big. The journal has the answers to several historical mysteries, including who killed Joseph Rendell and Frederica herself, and what happened to The Fury of the Hour. This is going to hit the academic world like a bombshell. They’ll be papers and books written about it, maybe even documentaries or a TV special. After Professor Blais told him the news, the Dean called an emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees, but he’s already said Wilburton is prepared to offer us both full scholarships in exchange for donating the journal. You can go back to school, Jackie.”
Jackie scowled. “What if I don’t want to go back to Wilburton?” she asked defensively, crossing her arms over her chest. Getting her name in the newspapers sounded kind of cool, but she did not want her face broadcast everywhere, and she sure as hell did not want some Z-list Hollywood bimbo playing her in a TV show. “School’s not exactly my bag,” she went on, “and besides, you know Professor Golan might decide to press charges against me if he sees me swanning around the campus. Out of sight, out of mind.”
At the mention of Golan, Connie grimaced. “He quit.”
“Still, no school. That’s final.”
“You don’t have to go to school, I’m just saying you’ve got options,” Connie said. “If you don’t want the scholarship for whatever reason, I’m sure the Dean will offer you financial compensation. And the publicity sure won’t hurt when you exhibit your paintings with Josh.”
“If I agree. Maybe I don’t want an exhibition.” Jackie did not like it that Connie had ignored her wishes, gone behind her back and showed her work to a gallery. In the privacy of her own mind, she acknowledged it was the sort of lucky break most starving artists would sell their sweet old grannies for, but Jackie’s pride had been pricked. Feeling stubborn, she set her jaw and added brusquely, “Maybe you should’ve done what you were told. Maybe you should have minded your own goddamned business.”
Connie gulped, but it was clear she was bracing herself to say something. “Maybe you should believe in yourself a little more,” she finally told Jackie, “and quit being so afraid.”
“Why says I’m scared?” Jackie muttered, irritated because this was a conversation they had had before. “I told you, I don’t want to play games with the artsy-fartsy crowd.”
“So don’t play games!” Connie exclaimed impatiently. “Do you want to live in a squat the rest of your life? Don’t you want to show the world your art? Jackie, you have an amazing talent. Yes, there are going to be critics who’ll have nothing nice to say, but there are others who will love your work. There’ll be people who’ll suck up to you, flatter you, b-b-bullshit you,” she stammered slightly on the word, blushing, “but you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Don’t you get it? You’ll call the shots. You might alienate the collectors and ruin your career, but at least you’ll have tried.”
Jackie snorted, but what Connie said got her thinking. What did she really want? To be free, was the answer that popped into her head. She hated being told what to do, how to dress, what to say, how to behave. Jackie could not remember a time when she had not viciously opposed anyone’s effort to control her. In the current situation, Connie had good intentions—Jackie did not deny that fact—but it still seemed as if the woman was trying to pressure her, and Jackie resented it. Restless, feeling like she was going to twitch out of her skin, she jerked to her feet, saying, “Izzy always wanted me to show my paintings, but I told her no, and she respected that.” Desperate to see something other than pink, she moved to the window.
Connie stayed on the sofa. Dressed in a subdued grey T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, she was an island of visual calm against the busy upholstery and pink walls. “Want to talk about Izzy?” she asked, changing the subject.
“I’d rather stick a spork in my eye,” Jackie muttered, rubbing her aching forehead. It would be a while before she stopped hurting over losing her friend.
“You guys were real close.”
“Yeah, and that counts for two things: Jack and shit, and Jack ain’t home.” Jackie was aware she sounded as bitter as she felt. “Izzy made her choice. Now she’s somebody else’s problem, not mine. Let Mommy and Daddy deal with her junkie habit. I’m through.”
“I think… please don’t take this the wrong way,” Connie said, “but I think going back to her family will make Izzy a lot healthier, get her off the drugs, keep her clean. You did your best, I know you did, but Izzy wasn’t happy being apart from her family, no matter how bad they treated her.”
Jackie’s shoulders tensed. She forced herself to relax. “Good riddance,” she snapped. “Why the hell do I need to waste my time with a loser like her?”
Connie shook her head. “You don’t mean that.”
“Fuck!” Jackie bit the inside of her cheek to check her desire to tell Connie to mind her own business. “I know how things went down, Connie,” she said when she trusted herself to speak. “I know Izzy wasn’t happy, which is why she used heroin, ‘cause her life was shitty. Any time she decided she wasn’t in the mood to face reality, the bitch got high. Nothing I said to her mattered. Nothing I did for her was enough. Now Izzy’s going to rehab, going to clean up her act, go home, and pretend she never met me. Like I said, good riddance. Friends like that, I don’t need,” she concluded on a sour note.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Connie said sadly.
“Yeah, it does, so let’s drop it, okay? ‘Me and Izzy are through. ‘Nuff said.” Jackie turned away from the window, taking a deep breath. She was determined to hash things out here and now, though inwardly she quaked at the thought of losing Connie, too. “Okay, so I appreciate you want me to have a life that doesn’t include the squat and being poor and shit like that,” she said. “But I don’t want… look, pretty girl, there’s all this stuff!”
Connie frowned. “What stuff?” she asked.
“Rent, and landlords, and bills, and taxes, and credit cards, and… and… you know, all the crap you have to deal with when you’ve got money,” Jackie said, practically spitting the last word out. “Screw that noise. I might live in a roach hotel without electricity, but I don’t have to pay for nothing, either, ‘cept smokes and beer..”
“But if you make money, you can buy cigarettes and beer whenever you want,” Connie pointed out in such a reasonable way, Jackie longed to smack her. “If you make enough money, you can hire a business manager to take care of it for you.” Connie paused, biting her bottom lip, and went on, “Not too long after we met, Jackie, you told me you wouldn’t show your paintings to a gallery because you didn’t want to ‘sell out’ to rich people. Later, when I mentioned galleries again—after you painted me sleeping, remember?— you said you didn’t want to deal with the pretentious art crowd. Now you say you won’t exhibit because you don’t want to take on any financial responsibilities. Is that right?”
“Damned straight.” Relived she would not have to make further explanations, Jackie started for the kitchen, only to stop when Connie said, “And you think you’re not scared.” She sounded somewhat disdainful
Jackie turned around, her whole body going stiff. “What did you say?”
“You’re a coward, Jackie Quick, otherwise you wouldn’t need to make three different excuses not to do something with your life.” Connie stood, coming towards her. “What future do you see for us?” she asked, apparently veering off-topic. “I like you. I want us to be together. But—“
“But you don’t want to get stuck with a pathetic nobody like me,” Jackie interrupted harshly, understanding hitting her like a punch in the gut. “Well, fuck you very much!” It was hard to believe Connie would drop her like that, but Jackie decided she had only herself to blame. She knew no one could be trusted, not really, yet she had gone ahead and given her heart to Connie and Izzy, and look how well that turned out!
“Let me finish!” Connie cried, exasperation furrowing her brow. “And quit putting words in my mouth. It’s very annoying.”
“Fine. Whatever! You talk, Miss Connie Armstrong,” Jackie sneered. “You talk and I’ll just stand here holding up the goddamned wall.”
“Stop that,” Connie said much more mildly, laying the flat of her palm against Jackie’s cheek. The caress was warm and whisper-soft. “I’m not saying you have to exhibit your paintings, or accept the Dean’s offer of a scholarship, or do anything other than what you want. I’m just asking you to think beyond the next five minutes.”
“So now I can’t think,” Jackie said. At Connie’s glare, she rolled her eyes and mimed closing an invisible zipper across her mouth.
Connie’s glare softened. She went on, “I’m going to finish school. I’m getting my degree in a couple of years. I might take Josh up on his job offer or not, but I will have a career in the art field. I’ve got a plan for the future—it’s not set in stone, but it is a plan—but I don’t know what you intend to do, so I have to ask: where do you see us going,? Is this thing between us… is it just until we sleep together? Or will we be together for a little while, until you get bored and go looking elsewhere to scratch your itch? Is it until I graduate? Until I have to go away to Paris?”
Jackie had been ready to hotly deny any intention of leaving Connie for someone else—at least not anytime soon—but all other thoughts fled at the mention of Paris. “You’re going to France?” she asked in shock. “When?”
“Eventually, I’m going to do post-grad work at the Sorbonne,” Connie replied, taking her hand away. For a second she stared at Jackie, a muscle in her jaw twitching, then color flooded her face. “I worry about you so much!” she burst out fiercely. “I worry whether you’re going hungry, or if you’re cold, or if you got into a fight, or if you’re hurt, or got arrested. You can take care of yourself, that’s a given, but your life is one big risk, so I worry. I don’t want you to accept Josh’s offer because you’ll have money or be famous. Whether you’re successful or not, I don’t care. I just want you to have the means for a better, safer life so I don’t have to stay up half the night wondering if you’re okay.”
Jackie was stunned. “You… you worry about me?” she asked. Her mother was the last person who had showed Jackie she cared. Despite their closeness, even Izzy had often taken her for granted, Jackie realized. In her whole life, damned few people had showed any real concern for her, and of those, only two loved her: Mom, and now Connie.
Suddenly, she was stunned all over again with the dizzying realization that she had put her finger on why Connie showed such concern for her well being: Connie loved her for real. Not just as a friend, not just as a potential lay, but genuine romantic love. Her chest seized up, making it hard to breathe. Connie loves me. But how did she feel about Connie?
Sure, she liked the woman. The attraction had been there from the beginning. Connie was plump and pretty, adorably innocent but also smart as hell, and a lot braver than most. Jackie wanted to do a lot of things with and to Connie, some of them deliciously obscene, but mostly she just wanted to spend more time with her. Was she in love? Was it enough?
At that moment, Jackie saw her future clearly. Money meant freedom, she said to herself. Money equaled choices. Hadn’t she meant to sell The Fury of the Hour and use the proceeds to help herself and Izzy? Was she going to let stupid pride or just plain stupidity keep her from getting out of poverty? Sharing the dream with Connie would make it so much better. The thought of them living together, loving together, made her smile.
“God, I worry about you all the time, you idiot!” Connie said, snapping Jackie out of her thoughts. “I wish I didn’t love you, then I’d get a lot more sleep, I’m sure!”
A dopey affectionate grin stretched Jackie’s lips. “You really love me, don’t you?” she asked, her heart doing cartwheels. Without waiting for Connie’s answer, she dipped her head and kissed the woman, breaking free after a minute to repeat, “You love me.”
Connie looked dazed, her mouth swollen, her hair ruffled. “Um, yes?” she replied.
“Cool? Cool? Is that all you can say, you… oof!” Connie’s indignant protest was muffled by Jackie’s mouth, her words turned to whimpering sounds by Jackie’s tongue.
“I’m not going to Wilburton. They can take their scholarship and stick it where the sun don’t shine,” Jackie said when she released Connie again. Her body tingled with the need to continue kissing Connie, preferably forever, but there was something important she had to get straight first. “Listen to me, pretty girl—I’m going to take the Dean’s money and find myself a decent apartment, buy some second-hand furniture and a better TV than the one I chucked out the window. I’m going to finish fixing my car, and take you out to the best dinner in New York City. Wherever you want, okay?”
“Oh?” The dazed expression returned to Connie’s face. “But you said—“
“Hush.” Jackie stopped Connie speaking by bringing their lips together gently, until the woman went quiet in her arms. Jackie pulled back far enough to say “I’m also taking Josh’s offer to exhibit my paintings, so thanks for saving them yesterday. Hey, I may be kind of stubborn, but I’m not stupid. You’re right. I was scared.” Jackie dropped the tough girl act, confessing,. ”I’m still scared shitless, I need brown trousers, but I’m going to do it anyway. I forgot sometimes you’ve got to take a chance and just do it. Screw the world! The moneybags collectors and critics don’t like my work, they can go fuck themselves.”
“You don’t have to do anything alone,” Connie promised at once. “I’ll help you.”
“Yeah, I get that now.” Jackie used her thumb to trace a line down the side of Connie’s face. “You and me, pretty girl, we’re going to have us some fun.”
Connie grinned. “When the time comes, want to come to Paris with me? I’d love to show you the Eiffel Tower, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Musée d’Orsay…”
“One thing at a time, damn it,” Jackie grumbled, but there was no heat in it.
The future was looking mighty goddamned bright, she thought.
Badda-bing! Stick it in a box marked DONE.
THE END Return to the Academy