Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories From Mystery Writers of America, page 22
L. C. pulled a breath. “She killed herself? Wow. I didn’t see that coming.”
Jeffers’s eyes bugged. “Bitsy Grainger offed herself? You’re sure?”
“At least we finally know what happened.” Colleen raised her wineglass. “To Bitsy Grainger. She took the only way she could see to end her suffering. Rest in peace.”
The whole group joined the solemn chorus. “To Bitsy Grainger.”
Jeffers stood abruptly. “Excuse me a sec. Nature calls.”
“Off the record, Jeffers. You hear me?” But the reporter hurried toward the men’s room, tapping away. L. C. sputtered in disgust. “That wormy creep. He’s going to tweet the end of your story. He’s going to post it all over creation and claim it’s his. I’m going to go flush him and his damned phone.”
Colleen set a hand on his. “It’s okay, L. C. Truly. Let it go.”
“But he’s a lazy, nasty, unethical jerk. He doesn’t care what he steals or who he hurts.”
“And he’ll get just deserts: a life sentence with himself.”
The next morning, Colleen bundled against the morning chill and hailed a cab to Sutton Place. She took a final stroll through Bitsy’s old neighborhood and then headed toward the charming patisserie she’d discovered on First Avenue. Their cappuccino was world-class.
She perched on a bistro chair at a tiny table in the rear and placed her order: Bitsy’s favorite drink and a croissant. Then she plucked the iPad mini from her tote.
Reuben Jeffers’s scoop had garnered the lead in today’s edition of A-List. “Missing Beauty Mystery Solved!” The piece recounted all the details Colleen had hoped to see: Bitsy’s childhood in Myrtle, Mississippi; her betrayal by Ray Adlen and his downward spiral; Harold’s move to Costa Rica and his children’s lawsuit over the terms of his will. Best of all, they included a manufactured replica of the suicide note Colleen claimed to have found. Jeffers had swallowed her story whole and spat it back unverified. Unscrupulous though he was, he should have known better. Colleen wrote fiction, after all.
But there was no going back. Jeffers’s story would be reposted in predictable perpetuity, and it would gather the heft that passes today for truth.
Colleen’s order was ready. She checked to be sure the time was right, paid, and stepped outside.
Near the corner, an old woman hunched against the chill in a hooded camel coat. She appeared to be homeless. “Can you help me, please? Can you help—”
Colleen approached. “Here, my friend. For you.” She passed the croissant and cappuccino.
The woman cradled the cup and took a sip. Her wrinkled eyes narrowed with pleasure, but Colleen still caught a hint of moonstone gray.
“Bless you, my friend,” she said and sipped again. “Heaven, right?”
JUDITH KELMAN is the award-winning, best-selling author of seventeen novels, three nonfiction books, dozens of short stories, and hundreds of articles and essays for major publications. In 2008 she founded Visible Ink, a unique writing program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering that enables all interested cancer patients to reap the benefits of written expression with the one-on-one help of a volunteer writing mentor. She lives in New York City.
DIZZY AND GILLESPIE
Faded glory. That’s how I’d describe Mama’s apartment. At least, that’s what I’d say when I was feeling generous. When I wasn’t, I’d say it was a dilapidated piece of shit. But Mama loved it. Loved her seven big rooms, all sprouting from that tunnel of a hallway like branches from a tree. High ceilings, hardwood floors, and a maid’s quarters. Not really a living room, but a parlor and a dining room, with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. Sounds grand, don’t it?
Built in 1910, that place was meant for the wealthy. But that was then and this was now and it was old—past old. It exuded sadness and disappointment. It stunk of mildew and dust, of ancient asbestos and long-dead vermin. The high ceilings leaked streams of filthy water, the tall walls were buckled, and the floor was treacherous with slivers.
Mama wasn’t blind to all the problems. She simply didn’t care. The place had been her home for nearly forty years. She had grown up during the Depression, dirt poor and hungry, in a rambling broken-down farmhouse. Determined to get ahead, she left Virginia when she was fifteen and grabbed a Greyhound bus for New York. That was in 1932, when the whole country was still struggling and chances for a colored girl with a ninth-grade education were next to nil. She had gone to work in Long Island, as a maid in the homes of moneyed white folk. Not often, but sometimes, she would talk about their grand homes. And sometimes I’d wonder: did this place of faded grandeur remind her of the homes she’d worked in? Maybe in her eyes, the dull floors still shone and the sagging walls were still ramrod straight.
Mama was ninety years old. She had lived in Harlem for some seventy-odd years, and she was still proud to be there, in the legendary mecca of black folk. Nowadays, a lot of black Harlemites were heading back down South, where life was slower and money went further. But you couldn’t tell Mama that. She still believed that Harlem was the only place to be.
She was especially proud to be in Hamilton Heights. It was a historic landmarked district, with rows of stately townhouses and stone terraces. It was home to an ethnically diverse community of actors, artists, architects, professors, and other intellectual bohemians. Certainly, parts of it were lovely.
“This is one of the nicest neighborhoods in all New York City,” Mama would say.
Then I’d say, “But I’m not complaining about the neighborhood. It’s this building.”
And that, of course, was a bald-faced lie. ’Cause I was most definitely complaining about both.
The gentrification that had hit Central and East Harlem had pretty much left West Harlem alone. At least our little part of it. That stretch along 135th and 145th Streets, between Broadway and Amsterdam? It was sad. Cheap landlords, run-down tenements. There were a couple of good restaurants along Broadway, but they were probably going to close soon. The atmosphere of an open-air drug market had certainly calmed down, but sometimes it felt like the dealing had just gone underground.
Then, there was the other Hamilton Heights. It was gorgeous. Convent Avenue, Hamilton Terrace, Sugar Hill: they were stunning—but they had always been stunning. Until fairly recently, they’d been among Harlem’s best-kept secrets. Even with as well-known a place as City College being on Convent Avenue, Hamilton Terrace, for example, escaped general notice. It was a forgotten enclave. A city apart. Even the air over there was different.
Over there. That’s how I thought of it. That was over there. And this was over here, where the people were holding on by the skin of their teeth.
“Well, if you don’t like it, leave,” Mama would say.
And I would sigh. Because we both knew I couldn’t. Not without a decent job and not without her. My dream was to earn enough to get us both out of there, but she didn’t want to go.
“This is my home,” she’d say. “When I die, it’ll be yours, and you can do with it whatever you damn well please. But for now, it’s mine, and the only way I’m leaving is when I leave this world.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Why not? It’s gotta happen sometime,” she’d say, and then add, with a rueful smile, “It’s got to.”
She had a weak heart—weak, but determined. You could see it on her echocardiograph how her heart would hesitate, then give a little flutter and pump, hesitate, then flutter and pump. It amazed her doctors, and it worried me. But it only bewildered Mama. Sometimes, I’d hear her in her room, crying. Why did she have to keep on living when so many of her friends were gone? Why?
It wasn’t just a matter of being left behind. It was that she couldn’t do what she loved doing. Not anymore. She couldn’t entertain, give her dinner parties. She was known for her sweet potato pie. Everyone in the building had gotten one at one time or another, usually to welcome them or congratulate them, or just to make them feel better. She loved
I blamed the apartment. It was killing her.
It wasn’t just the dirt, the stench, and the roaches. It wasn’t just the bathroom ceiling that collapsed without fail every six months, showering down filthy rocks, rotten wood, and cracked plaster.
It was the mice.
Oh, the mice!
They were everywhere. You could hear them skittering through the walls, see them scampering across the floor. Our living room was their highway. One evening, as I rested on the couch, I set a glass of water on the floor. Next thing I knew, a mouse was raised up on all fours, taking a sip. One day Mama left a sweet potato pie on the stovetop to cool. She turned to the sink to wash a spatula and turned back just in time to see a mouse making a beeline for her pie. Man, oh, man, was he making tracks! But he sure put the brakes on when he saw her. She stared into his beady little eyes and he stared right back. Who was going to make the next move?
She was fast, but he was faster. She went to whack him with the spatula, but with a flick of his tail, he was gone. Dove right into the stove, she said, down through an eye. “That sucker jumped right into a warm oven, like it was home. Made me wonder what else was hiding in there.”
She told me the story over dinner. That pie had gone right into the garbage, and dinner that night had come out of a can.
Disappointed, I said, “If you won’t move, then at least do something about the mice.”
She knew where I was going.
“I’m not gonna get no cats. I hate cats. Just hate ’em. They are not coming into this house.”
“This is my house,” she reminded me. “Mine! Do you hear? And I say no cats.”
And that was that.
Until Martin Milford moved in. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know nothing about no Martin Milford. All we knew was that the walls of our apartment were suddenly vibrating and a river of mice was coursing through our walls. The place echoed with the sound of a buzz saw. I couldn’t tell whether it was coming from upstairs or downstairs. I tried to ignore the commotion at first, but then it got so bad, I had to check it out. I ran upstairs to the apartment above us. Nothing unusual was going on there, so I headed downstairs to the ground floor.
The door to the apartment below us was open and I could see that someone was doing some major renovations.
That someone would turn out to be Milford. He was tall and lanky, with watery blue eyes, thin blonde hair and a short scraggly beard. Reminded me of an aging hippie. He had on a dingy white T-shirt and dust-covered jeans, and he was using an electric saw to rip out a wall. He stopped when he saw me, unhooked his dust mask. As soon as he heard that I was his neighbor, he smiled and shook my hand. I had been prepared to fuss, but he disarmed me by being so friendly and all. He immediately started telling me about himself.
Was a photographer, he said, a freelancer. Had moved up from “below Ninety-Sixth Street.”
One of those, I thought. Didn’t think Harlem was good enough ’til loss of a job or income forced him to reconsider.
“Look here,” I said, gesturing toward his saw, “you—”
“I am so glad I found this place. Been looking for a real long time.”
“I understand, but—”
“Lived on the street for a while. When I got this place, I couldn’t believe it. Just hadn’t had no luck, you know?”
Yeah, I knew. I was barely making ends meet, going from one survival job to another. It was the height of the so-called Great Recession and I was earning just enough to cover expenses.
“Look—” I began again.
“Sold my Harley to get the down payment.” He shook his head. “Never thought I’d have to do that. It’s just that things got so bad, I …”
“I know, I know,” I said, finding it hard to stay angry. “But look here, I wanted to—”
“Landlord said he’d give me a good deal if I took this place as is. It’s a bit more work than I thought it would be, but I’m enjoying it. Living room’s gonna make a great studio.”
I glanced down his hallway. He had all the room doors open. The sunlight was streaming in. He’d already relaid the hallway floor. The new planks gleamed in the late afternoon light. I had to admit, he was doing good work, the kind of work I wished we could do on our place. I looked back at him. He seemed like a nice enough man, and I knew what it was like to have dreams.
“You’re going to do a whole lot more?”
“Naw, nearly finished. I think I’ll be done in just about a week. Why?”
I just waved it away. “Never mind.”
The renovations didn’t go on for another week, or two or three, but four. A whole damn month.
I tried to talk to him a couple times, but each time he grew less and less sympathetic. “The noise is driving us crazy,” I would say. “The dust is coming up in puffs through the floorboards. And the mice. The noise isn’t just driving us crazy; it’s driving them crazy, too. They’re all over us.”
“But you can’t blame me if you’ve got mice.”
“I know what you said. You can’t tell me what to do in my apartment. I’m not stopping my renovations just for you.”
I had told myself to keep a cool head, so I bit back what I really wanted to say and stayed polite. “Look, I don’t want to fight. Just tell me, how much longer?”
“For however long it takes,” he said and slammed the door in my face.
I knew he didn’t have a permit for the changes he was making, and I thought about reporting him more than once. The city inspectors would’ve shut him down but quick. If it had been the landlord, I would’ve dropped a dime in a minute. But you don’t do that to another tenant. Not in Harlem. Tenants should always stick together.
So Mama and I swallowed our aggravation over the noise—and the mice. Clearly, Milford’s renovations were driving the mice to literally climb the walls. Their population had doubled. And they were having babies. You could hear them squealing. I went out and bought rat poison, but then Mama said not to use it. The mice would eat it, crawl into some little hole and die. Then their rotting little corpses would stink up the place.
We didn’t even bother with mousetraps. We’d tried them before. Either the mice weren’t interested, or if they were—and this was the worst part—they got caught in them, but didn’t die. You’d walk into the kitchen in the middle of the night and find one of them very much alive and kicking. And that meant you’d have to kill it yourself. Not for Mama, and certainly not for me.
So, I kept pushing the idea of getting a cat, but Mama held out, No, No, NO!
That is, until the day she found mice in her bedroom, playing on her sheets. Suddenly, she didn’t want just one cat, but two.
The next day, I got them, rescues from the animal shelter. Dizzy and Gillespie. They were the cutest little things. Fast, too. And hungry. Those mice were gone within days. Fine with me.
Fine with Mama.
But not fine with Milford.
Soon, we heard a knocking on our door. Milford looked exhausted.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He had mice, he said. Not just a few, but hordes of them.
“They got into my bedroom closet, my kitchen cabinets. I found a dead one in my bathtub the other day. And yesterday, I was trying to do a photo shoot, you know, in the living room, and a mouse ran right across the client’s feet. She walked out, and now she won’t pay me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but—”
“So, I’m wondering if you guys were doing something—”
His gaze dropped and his eyes widened. I glanced down and saw Dizzy and Gillespie, standing guard at my ankles, staring up at him.
“Cats!” Milford said.
“You’ve got to get rid of
“I said, you have got to get of those … things.”
I couldn’t believe his nerve. “Ain’t happening. They’re my mother’s cats, and they are here to stay.”
And they really had become her cats. I had been the one to push for them, but she was the one they took to. And she took to them. It was Mama who came up with the idea of naming them Dizzy and Gillespie, after the great jazz musician of the 1940s. It was Mama those two cats cuddled up to at night. It was her they loved, and it was clear that she loved them. She had found renewed strength to go down the hallway to the kitchen. She couldn’t stand long enough to cook, but she could feed her cats, all the time fussing about “how you’ve got to feed them just right.” Then she would come sit in the living room with me and watch them play and get into mischief. She would laugh and clap her hands! She said she used to be afraid of cats, but she wasn’t afraid no more.
“They something else,” she said. “So pretty, and so sharp! Why, they understand everything I say!”
We’d tried every medicine under the sun to bring down Mama’s blood pressure; they’d all failed or caused bad side effects. Dizzy and Gillespie got it down to normal in a week. Between the mischief that made her laugh, the purring that soothed her nerves, and the security of knowing she could sleep in a mouse-free bed, those cats had brought Mama more joy and better health than I could’ve imagined.
So, no. We were not going to get rid of them.
“Why don’t you get cats of your own?”
He said he was going to take it to the landlord.
“Do that,” I said. “He don’t care. Saves him the cost of hiring an exterminator.”
Then I shut the door and gave Dizzy and Gillespie good ear rubs.
MARY HIGGINS CLARK SERIES:
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