Manhattan mayhem new cri.., p.20

Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories From Mystery Writers of America, page 20

 

Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories From Mystery Writers of America
 


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  “Eighty-two.”

  L. C. Crocker, ponytailed and bespectacled, looked down his eagle-beak nose. He was no fan of Jeffers, who had placed his latest police procedural at the top of an A-List roundup entitled “The Worst of Crimes.” The YouTube takeoff “L. C. Crocker Shlock Shocker” had gone viral. Still, Colleen O’Day, the brightest star in their glittery firmament, had asked L. C. to bury the hatchet (though not, as he’d gleefully suggested, in the reporter’s skull) and let him do a story on the group. Almost no one said no to Colleen.

  “Remember, Jeffers. Anything we say about works in progress is off the record.”

  The reporter cocked his finger and fired an imaginary round. “Sure, L. C. Gotcha.”

  “And stash that damned phone! No tweets, no posts. Capisce?”

  “Gotcha.”

  “Love the Diamond Slim series, Joe. Can’t wait for this one.” Stephanie Harris, an affable FBI agent turned true-crime writer, gazed over the battlefield of sauce drips and fractured breadsticks at the regal presence across the table. “Now to you, Colleen. We’ve missed you! What have you been working on?”

  The grand lady spoke in a conspiratorial hush. “Remember the Bitsy Grainger case?”

  “Vaguely,” said Tony Baker, impish author of nightmare-inducing horror tales.

  L. C. tapped his tented fingers. “Was that the psychiatrist whose patient slipped strychnine into her chai tea latte?”

  “That was Dr. Betty Barringer. Bitsy Grainger was the young woman who vanished in the early seventies.”

  “Sorry. Doesn’t ring a bell,” said Tonya Finerman, a winsome twenty-something whose novel Done to Death had been optioned by Spielberg and sold for a seven-figure advance.

  “Of course, it doesn’t.” Jeffers sniffed. “Seventies were way before your time, Tonya. Ancient history, really.”

  “Maybe so,” said Colleen. “But history can be fascinating, especially stories that lack a definite ending. Absent a complete narrative, we fill in the blanks. That’s human nature. I believe it’s also the reason many of us are drawn to writing.”

  “Beautifully put,” said Stephanie.

  “Gotcha. Not going to argue, Ms. O’Day, especially with someone who has permanent parking at the top of the Times list. But why that case? Why now?” The reporter twirled his Uniball, summoning another Maker’s Mark. “Why you?”

  “Not easy questions to answer, Mr. Jeffers. Bitsy was a friend of mine, so of course I was terribly upset when it happened and troubled by her disappearance for many years. But in time, the worst sting of memory fades.

  “Then, last October, after that freak early snowstorm, I began thinking about the case more and more, turning it over and over in my mind.

  “One night, Bitsy Grainger came to me in a dream. She was caught in a ferocious blizzard, hunched in a tattered camel coat. Matted fur around the hood obscured everything but her eyes. Howling wind swallowed her words. But in the warped logic of dreams, I heard her clearly. ‘Help me! Somebody. Please!’ I called out. I struggled to get to her. But the storm kept forcing me back. There was nothing I could do.

  “I awoke to the sound of my own screams. My throat was raw, heart stammering. It took a few moments for me to separate that horrid dream from reality. But once the fog of sleep lifted, I realized there was something I could do. I could base a book on Bitsy Grainger and solve the mystery of her disappearance at last.”

  “You mean make something up,” Jeffers said.

  “Of course I could, if need be. I write fiction, after all. But I’ve been studying the case for months, and I’ve figured out what became of her.”

  “For real? Or you trying to build a buzz?” Jeffers leveled his pen and chuckled. “Clever girl. So what’s the story you came up with? Who was this Bitsy Grainger person? And what kind of name is Bitsy anyway? Sounds like a one of those silly mix dogs: a poobrador or, maybe, a cockerdoodledoo.”

  Colleen ignored him as she would a nasty smell. Her story unspooled against the chicken scratch of Jeffers’s pen. “Bitsy was a lovely person, beautiful inside and out. When she went missing, the press infested the Grainger’s Sutton Place neighborhood. They skulked in the bushes. Rooted through the garbage. One reporter posed as a gas company repairman to get into the house. Another tried to bribe their housekeeper. Bitsy’s husband finally went into hiding to escape them. They had no boundaries, no decency. They acted as if everything was fair game.”

  “All due respect,” Jeffers said, “everything is fair game. Sure I don’t have to remind you about the public’s right to know.”

  “And I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of your right to remain silent,” L. C. said. “So remain the hell silent, will you? Now, go on, Colleen, my dear. You were saying.”

  “I couldn’t get my mind around it. How could a bright, talented young woman with everything to live for simply vanish? It defies expectation, logic, even the laws of physics.

  “I met Bitsy two years before it happened. My husband, James, was a resident at New York Hospital, working impossible hours. We were living on a shoestring in a tiny apartment on Fifty-Fifth and First. I’d always dreamt of becoming a writer, but at that point, I doubted it would ever come true. Whatever I sent out came back with one of those form rejection letters. Every publisher used different words, but the message was always the same: Dear Contributor, Thanks for letting us have a look at your precious baby. Unfortunately, we find him homely and unacceptable, so we’re sending him back wrinkled and covered in coffee stains.

  “Our real baby, Sam, was only a few months old, and the poor thing had miserable colic. He slept fitfully and screamed blue murder when I tried to set him down. He was happiest outdoors; so I’d take him out first thing in the morning in one of those baby carriers you strap on. We’d walk for hours, miles and miles.

  “Most days, I’d head east. The city was in terrible turmoil back then, with a dismal economy and soaring crime. There were endless reports of muggings, drive-by shootings, break-ins, rapes. By comparison, Sutton Place felt like an oasis of safety and calm. Stately high-rises. Elegant townhouses. Glorious private homes and manicured gardens lined the narrow streets between Sutton and the East River. Charming pocket parks perched at the foot of the Fifty-Ninth Street bridge. People sat there on slatted benches, reading, watching boats pass, taking the sun.

  “Early one mild autumn morning, I set out as usual with Sam. We’d gotten a few blocks from our building when suddenly a chill wind whipped up. The sky filled with ominous clouds and split with lightning. Rain began to fall, a few fat drops that soon spawned a drenching downpour. Startled, I ducked down the steps and sought shelter under the arched overhang at the entrance to a townhouse, but there was no escape from the driving storm. I was too afraid to knock. It was so early. I imagined the owners groggy with sleep, hearing a noise and mistaking me for an intruder. Grabbing a loaded handgun, moving stiffly, silently toward the door.

  “Sam awoke with a start and started shrieking. I tried to soothe him, but he was inconsolable. And who could blame him? Poor little thing was saddled with a hopelessly inadequate mother. Why hadn’t I listened to the weather report? Why wasn’t I prepared? What was wrong with me?

  “Just then, the door opened. Bitsy Grainger appeared in a white silk robe. She was barefoot, with no makeup and tousled copper-streaked hair, but stunning nonetheless. Pale and full lipped, and the most remarkable eyes: moonstone gray tinged with the tiniest shimmer of blue.

  “Her home was beautiful, too. Jewel-toned oriental carpets, fresh white flower arrangements in towering crystal vases, antique furnishings, stunning works of classical art. Mere blocks from our dingy little cluttered apartment, and we’d landed in another world.

  “Despite the ungodly hour, she was incredibly gracious. ‘Oh my. Y’all are soaked. Come on in. Hurry up now. You’ll catch your death.’

  “She scurried around, collecting towels, fresh clothes, even a tiny blue stretch-suit that was exactly Sam’s size. They were for t
he son she hoped to have someday, she said with a coy, dimpled smile.

  “The rain had let up by then, but Bitsy insisted I stay and have coffee. On the black granite island in the kitchen perched a spectacular red enamel-and-chrome machine. At the press of a button, a grinder crushed beans, dripped heated water, and out came rich espresso capped with foam. With great delight, she told me that her husband, Harold, had ordered the contraption as a surprise because he knew how much she adored cappuccino. I don’t think I’d even heard of cappuccino at that point, but it was delicious, sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered chocolate. ‘Heaven, right?’ she said. That was one of her favorite expressions.

  “The morning had turned from disastrous to delightful. How fortunate I felt. Meeting this miraculous stranger. Finding refuge from the storm in her glorious home. Best of all, the moment Sam laid eyes on her, he stopped crying as if someone had flipped a secret switch. He giggled and cooed and flirted, all honey and smiles. Truly, it was love at first sight. Bitsy cooed and flirted right back, ‘Look at you, Mr. Big Stuff. Bundle of sugar, that’s what you are.’

  “For months after that, Sam and I saw Bitsy nearly every day. She would fall in beside us as we strolled through the neighborhood, always with cappuccinos in to-go cups, for her and for me. ‘Well, would you look who’s here! Hey, handsome. How’s my little heartthrob today?’

  “She was so easy to talk to, funny and open and utterly without airs. From the way she looked and lived, you would have thought she was to the manor born. Turned out she was a preacher’s daughter from a flyspeck town in Mississippi. Her moonstone eyes went cloudy as she described summers there. Swampy heat laced with starving mosquitoes. ‘Myrtle is barely a wide spot in the road. One gas station, one stoplight. Poor little excuse for a church with barely enough lost souls to fill it. Easy to find, though—drive straight to nowhere and make a left. Wasn’t the best place for a girl like me who liked fun and lots of it. Of course, Mama and Daddy saw things differently. They thought I should focus on study, church, and chores. I’d sneak out of all three and go off with my friends: tattooed boys with big-hog Harleys and dreamy girls like me who thought they had everything figured out at sixteen.’

  “She told me she’d fallen in love with Ray Adlen, a strapping nineteen-year-old dropout. He’d proclaimed his love and promised to be with her always. Said they were pretty much engaged, which made everything between them all right.

  “Bitsy could see the future clearly. She would marry Ray. They’d live in one of the big cities like New York, Paris, or Waukesha, and she’d become a singer. Either she’d star in Hollywood musicals, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or sing with a band. Maybe both. And of course, she’d make records like Annette Funicello. She’d always had the best voice in her school, always been picked as female lead in the play. Ray adored anything with wheels, and he had a knack for fixing motors. He’d have a garage and a car dealership. They’d make tons of money. Do whatever they pleased.

  “When she turned up pregnant, her daddy didn’t fall on his knees and pray, like he always said you should when there was trouble. He loaded his Remington Woodmaster and went after Ray. Threatened to blow his head off if he ever set foot near Bitsy again.

  “She was desperate to see Ray. Every chance she got, she dialed his number, but no one picked up. Their friends were no help. No, they hadn’t seen Ray. No idea what he was up to. Soon as they heard from him, they’d tell him to call. ‘I figured they were scared of Daddy,’ Bitsy told me. ‘Most everyone was. Sundays when he preached, even the little babies went bone still with stretched-out eyes.’

  “Still, she was sure Ray would come for her. After all, he’d promised. Forever never changed. They’d run off, have their baby, and … cue music, cue Hollywood ending.

  “Bitsy’s parents kept her a virtual prisoner in the house. Her father forced her to polish the faded linoleum over and over, as if that might wipe out the stain on her soul. He preached at her constantly, raving about hellfire and brimstone, willing spirits and weak flesh.

  “Her mother said nothing. ‘Momma would get this empty look. All she did was sit on the porch swing in her faded blue dress, humming that song she loved: ‘Moon River, wider than a mile …’

  “Bitsy had to get away. She stole fifty dollars from the secret stash her mother kept behind the frozen okra, and she packed a suitcase. Soon as she could, she grabbed her things and ran. She was sure Ray would be at the creek, where all her friends hung out on hot days like this. And there he was, behind a clump of bushes, doing what engaged people did with her best friend Wanda.

  “What followed was a blur. Somehow, Bitsy wound up on a Greyhound bus to New York. The next night, she arrived at the bustling Port Authority Terminal with a broken heart, a terrible bellyache, and nowhere to go.

  “Bad men were on her, as she put it, like ticks on a hound. Thankfully, she knew enough to get away from them, from there. She slipped into the first church she came to and curled up between rows of pews. Hours later, she awoke in wrenching pain. Blood everywhere. The air rang with the scream of approaching sirens. Strangers hefted her onto a gurney and rushed her to the emergency room at St. Luke’s. Bitsy thought she was dying, being punished as her father had predicted for her sins. She’d never heard of a miscarriage.

  “Once it was over, a hospital social worker came around full of questions. How old was she? Where were her parents? Where was home? Did she have insurance? What kind of insurance did she have? Bitsy’s instinct was to make up a story. She claimed she was nineteen, though everyone said she looked younger. Her husband had gone away with his Army reserve unit (like Ray sometimes did). He’d be home in a couple of days. Meantime, a friend named P. J. Clarke was going to look after her at 915 Third Avenue. Bitsy had seen that name and address in an ad on the endless bus ride to New York. Sure, they had the army insurance, but her husband had the card. She promised to call with the numbers the hospital needed as soon as she could.

  “Amazingly, the social-work lady believed her. She kept inventing whatever stories she needed to keep from getting caught and sent home. No way could she ever go back to Myrtle. Daddy would kill her. Ray didn’t love her anymore. Maybe he never had.

  “She knocked around, earned a few bucks, and found people here and there who were willing to put her up. She discovered all kinds of things in garbage cans and on the street: discarded food, gloves, even a thick green wool sweater with a puffy snowman on the front. It was ridiculous but warm. She imagined her friends laughing their heads off when they saw her in it, but she quickly marched the thought out of her head. They didn’t exist anymore. Neither did home.

  “A week after Christmas, she wandered into a noisy bar one night to escape the cold. People were drinking and laughing, coupling up. In the shadows at the rear, a scrawny, bearded guy in a work shirt was playing a beat-up spinet. After Stardust, he segued into her mama’s favorite song. Moon River, wider than a mile …

  “Bitsy drifted toward the piano. So much was running through her head: loneliness, longing, the stifling weight of her shattered dreams. She didn’t realize she was singing aloud until the manager came over, a wiry man whose name badge read CHAS. She feared he’d kick her out, maybe call the police. Instead, he said he liked her voice. Was she looking for a gig? His regular singer hadn’t shown up, and he could use her. How she grinned at that memory. ‘Heaven, right?’

  “After that, things changed quickly. Bitsy had the look, and she was a quick study. She shed the drawl, learned how to move and play to the audience. Once, I coaxed her to demonstrate. Sam erupted in a baby belly laugh when she assumed the sultry look and smoky voice.

  “She developed a following. After a while, she was able to ditch the roommates and rent a place of her own. One thing led to another, and by the time she reached her early twenties, she was singing at the Plaza and at private parties for the rich and fancy. She had entrée to amazing events, a closetful of gorgeous gowns, and suitors galore. Bitsy could hardly believe what had happe
ned to her life, much less make sense of it. She felt like Cinderella, certain the fantasy would shatter at the stroke of midnight. She was dazed by her good fortune but convinced it couldn’t last.”

  “And then, poof,” said Jeffers, launching an imaginary bird.

  L. C. mimicked the gesture. “Poof.” But tragically, the reporter failed to disappear.

  Jeffers scowled. “Jeez, L. C. The lady is trying to tell her story. Go on, Colleen. What happened next?”

  “Bitsy met Harold Grainger at a private film screening. There was an instant attraction, but she was reluctant to get involved. He was decades older, widowed, with a grown son and a daughter. Since Ray, she’d had trouble trusting anyone. She worried about the age difference and the baggage both of them had. But above all, she worried about the giant gulf between their worlds. Bitsy had told Harold where and what she’d come from, but he didn’t seem to take it seriously. Someday he was bound to realize that she was, as advertised, a head-shy hayseed, and move on.

  “Harold pursued her. They became friends and, eventually, more. By the time I met Bitsy, they’d been married for three years. They’d had a fairytale wedding at the Carlyle and honeymooned on a private motor yacht off the Dalmatian Coast. As a wedding gift, Harold had bought the townhouse on Sutton Place and hired a top designer to furnish it. Bitsy described all this with the bewildered delight of a child who’d gotten the actual pony on Christmas morning.

  “I so enjoyed our time together. But as things happen, we went our separate ways. Sam outgrew his colic and began napping like an angel twice a day. I wrote while he slept, and miracle of miracles, I started getting encouraging notes from editors instead of the form rejection slips. Those were followed by my first acceptance, a short story in Ellery Queen.

 
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