Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories From Mystery Writers of America, page 8
When fate delivered a chance to give her what she wanted so much, and to do what looked like a good deed in the process, Sam had grabbed it—baby blanket, warm baby, and all. And now his heart felt sick as she yelled toward the back of the house, “Eric, sweetie, your dad and I are going for a run, and I’m going to beat him as usual! Don’t go play next door without leaving us a note, okay?”
“Duh, Mom!” their son yelled back. “Go, Dad!”
“We love you!” Sam called with an aching heart. “Go over to the neighbors’ now, so we don’t have to worry about you!” He waited a moment. “Eric? Yes?”
“Okay, parental unit!”
He nodded, turning toward his wife.
“New running duds?” he asked.
She pirouetted in front of him. “You like?”
“Nice on you. Where’s your old gray hoodie?”
“In the trash, where it should have been long ago.”
“What about those navy sweatpants you love?”
“Out with the hoodie! Too many holes. You ready?”
She jogged past him and was down the front walk before he got the door closed and locked. As he turned toward her, he thought, They’re going to take Eric away. They’re going to tell him the truth about how he came to be, and how he came to be with us. He’s going to be thrown into the path of those terrible people. I’m going to prison for kidnapping a baby. She’s going to prison for killing his mother, who was dying anyway.
He heard himself making excuses for Cassity.
“Let’s run by the river,” he said as he caught up to her.
Night was falling, and soon there would be long, dark spaces between the streetlights.
He couldn’t allow these terrible fates to happen; and most of all, he couldn’t allow Eric to know the truth about himself and his birth family. Even to be left alone in the world would be better than knowing all the horrible things he might otherwise have learned about both of his families.
Sam’s cell phone rang. He nearly ignored it, but the long habit of being a doctor awaiting the birth of babies made him stop and turn it on while Cassity jogged in place by his side.
“Doc? It’s that cop again. Are you near a computer? I want to send that surveillance video to you and have you see if it looks like any of these people on her list.”
“Detective, I haven’t met them all.”
“You’ve met more of them than I have.”
“Okay. Right now?”
“Yeah. Right now, if you don’t mind. Or even if you do.”
“Wait?” Sam asked his wife.
She nodded, continuing to jog in place.
By the time Sam reached his computer, the e-mail was already there in his inbox. He clicked the video into action and watched while his heart felt as if it was hammering within every cell of his body, as if it might hammer so hard that it could beat him to death.
The quality was poor, but one thing was clear.
The figure in the hoodie and jogging pants was slouching against the wall of a building, with his hands pressed between his body and the wall and his left foot propped against it.
Sam didn’t collapse with relief while the detective was still on the phone with him. But when they hung up, he sank down onto the carpet, crossed his arms over his knees, put his face on his arms, and sobbed into them.
His wife came in, saw him, and ran to him, putting her arms around him. “What? Oh, Sam, honey, what?”
“It was the boyfriend. Priss’s boyfriend killed her.”
His wife collapsed into him, weeping, too.
“Oh, thank God it wasn’t you, Sam.”
A week passed before he could tell her the whole truth that he learned from the detective: Priss broke up with her boyfriend when he became scarily possessive and jealous, her sister told the police, and then Sydney pushed him further and further down that path. To turn him against Priscilla and toward herself, she told him about Priss’s former boyfriends, increasing the numbers to spice up the story, claiming that one or two were still in her sister’s life while Priss was seeing him. Then, to light the final fuse to his wounded ego and growing rage, she said: “And I’ll bet she never even told you she had a baby with another man.”
NANCY PICKARD’s short stories have won Anthony, Agatha, Barry, Macavity, and American Short Story awards and have been featured in many “year’s best” anthologies. She has been an Edgar Award finalist for her short fiction and for three of her eighteen novels. She has served on the national board of directors of MWA and is a founding member and former president of Sisters in Crime. She lives near Kansas City, where she is working on a novel and percolating future short stories. Her favorite short story is “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway, because it says everything that needs to be said and evokes deep feeling and understanding, and it does all that (in her opinion) in clean, well-lighted sentences.
Thomas H. Cook
She’d been found in the dilapidated Bronx apartment where she’d lived for the past seventeen months. It was a basement apartment and had only a couple small windows, but she’d made it darker still by drawing the curtains. It was so dim inside that the first cop to arrive had stumbled about, looking for a light switch. He’d finally found one only to discover that she’d unscrewed all the light bulbs, even the ones in the ceiling and the fluorescent ones on either side of the bathroom mirror. Neighbors later told police that they hadn’t seen a single sliver of light coming from her apartment for well over a month. It was as if the terrible capacity for destruction that I’d glimpsed in her so many years before had at last grown strong enough to consume her entirely.
A Detective O’Brien had related the grim details over the phone, the deteriorated condition of her body being the most graphic, the fact that the smell had alerted the neighbors. Then he’d asked me to meet him at the police station nearest my home. “Just following standard procedure,” he’d assured me, “Nothing to worry about.”
We’d agreed on a time and date, and so now here I was, dealing with Maddox again, just as I’d done so often before.
“So, tell me, what was your relationship with this young woman?” Detective O’Brien asked immediately after we’d exchanged greetings and I’d taken a seat in the metal chair beside his desk. His tone was casual enough, but there was an implication of something illicit in the word relationship.
“We took her in when she was a little girl,” I told him.
“She was ten when she came to live with us.”
That had been twenty-four years earlier. My family and I had lived in Hell’s Kitchen when there’d still been some hell left in it; sex shops and hot-sheet hotels, burnt-out prostitutes offering themselves on the corner of Forty-Sixth and Eighth. Now it was all theaters and restaurants, chartered buses unloading well-heeled senior citizens from Connecticut and New Jersey. Once it had been a neighborhood, bad though it was. Now it was an attraction.
“Us?” Detective O’Brien asked, still with a hint of probing for something unseemly. Had I abused this child? Is that why she’d embraced the darkness? Luckily, I knew that nothing could be further from the truth.
“With my wife and me, and our daughter Lana, who was just a year younger than Maddox,” I told him. “She stayed with us for almost a year. We’d planned for her to stay with us indefinitely. Lana had always wanted a sister. But as it turned out, we just weren’t prepared to keep a girl like that.”
I avoided the word that occurred to me: dangerous.
“Difficult,” I said. “Very difficult.”
And so I’d sent her back to her single mother and her riotous older brother, hardly giving her a thought since. But now this bad penny had returned, spectacularly.
“How did she come to live with you in the first place?” O’Brien asked.
“Her mother was an old friend of ours,” I answered. “So was her father, but he died when Madd
O’Brien’s expression said everything: But instead …
But instead, Maddox had ended up in the morgue.
“Did you know she was in New York?” the detective asked.
I shook my head. “Her mother remarried and moved to California. After that, we lost touch. The last I heard, Maddox was in the Midwest somewhere. After that, we had no idea where she was or what she was doing. What was she doing, by the way?”
“She’d been working as a cashier at a diner on Gun Hill Road,” O’Brien told me.
“Maddox was very smart,” I said. “She could have … done anything.”
The detective’s eyes told me that he’d heard a story like this one before; a smart kid who’d gotten a great chance but blown it.
I couldn’t keep from asking the question. “How did she die? On the phone, you just said her body had been found.”
“From the looks of it, malnutrition,” O’Brien answered. “No sign of drugs or any kind of violence.” He asked a few more questions, wanted to know if I’d heard from Maddox over the last few months, whether I knew the whereabouts of any family members, questions he called “routine.” I answered him truthfully, of course, and he appeared to accept my answers.
After a few minutes, he got to his feet. “Well, thanks for coming in, Mr. Gordon,” he said. “Like I said when I asked you to come down to the station, it’s just that your name came up during the course of the investigation.”
“Yes, you said that. But you didn’t tell me how my name happened to come up.”
“She’d evidently mentioned you from time to time,” O’Brien explained with a polite smile. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” he added as he offered his hand. “I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course,” I said, and then I rose and headed for the door, sorry that Maddox’s life had ended so early and so badly but also reminding myself that, in regard to my finally pulling the plug on the effort I’d made to help her, she’d truly given me no choice.
At that thought, her image appeared vividly in my mind: a little girl in the rain, waiting for the taxi that would take us to the airport, the way she’d glanced back at me an hour or so later as she headed toward the boarding ramp, her lips silently mouthing the last word she would say to me: “Sorry.”
But sorry for what? I’d asked myself at that moment, for by then she’d had so much to confess.
“Did you see her body?”
I shook my head. “There was no need. The building super had already identified her.”
“Odd that your name came up at all,” Janice said. “That she’d … talked about you.”
My wife and I sat with our evening glasses of wine, peering down onto a Forty-Second Street that looked nothing at all as it had when Maddox lived with us. Night was falling, and below our twelfth-floor balcony, people were on their way to Broadway, among them a few families with small children, some no doubt headed for The Lion King.
“So, she came back to New York,” Janice said in that meditative way of hers, like a philosopher working with an idea. After a moment, a dark notion seemed to strike her. “Jack?”
I turned to face her.
“Do you think she ever … watched us?”
“Of course not,” I said, then took a sip of my wine and eased back, trying to relax. But I found my wife’s mention of the possibility that Maddox might, in fact, have stationed herself somewhere near the building where we’d all once lived, and where Janice and I still lived, surprisingly unnerving. Could it be that after all these years, she’d returned to New York with some sort of vengeful plan in mind? Had she never stopped thinking of how I’d sent her back? As her life spiraled downward, had she come to blame me for that very spiral?
“It’s sort of creepy to think of her slinking around the neighborhood,” Janice said.
“There’s no evidence she ever did that,” I said in a tone that made me sound convinced by this lack of evidence. And yet, I suddenly imagined Maddox watching me from some secret position, a ghostly, ghastly face hatefully staring at me from behind a potted palm.
Janice took a sip from her glass and softly closed her eyes. “Lana called, by the way. I told her about Maddox.”
Lana was now married, living on the Upper West Side. Our two grandsons went to the same fiercely expensive private school that both Lana and Maddox had attended; Lana with little difficulty, Maddox with a full repertoire of problems, accused of stealing, cheating, lying.
“Lana and I are having dinner while you’re in Houston,” I said.
Janice smiled. “A nice little father–daughter outing. Good for you.”
She drew in one of her long, peaceful breaths, a woman who’d had remarkably few worries in her life, who liked her job and got along well with our daughter, and whose marriage had been as unruffled as could have been expected.
With a wife like that, I decided, the less she knew about the one time all that had been jeopardized, the better.
“Lana took it harder than I thought she would,” Janice said. “She’d wanted a sister, remember? And, of course, she’d thought Maddox might be that sister.”
“Lana’s done fine as an only child,” I said, careful not to add a far darker truth, that my daughter was, in fact, lucky to be alive, that the year Maddox had lived with us had been, particularly for Lana, a year of living dangerously, indeed.
“We were very naive to have brought Maddox to live with us,” Janice said. “To think that we could take a little girl away from her mother, her neighborhood, her school, and that she’d simply adjust to all that.” Her gaze drifted over toward the Hudson. “How could we have expected her just to be grateful?”
This was true, as I well knew. During the first nine years of her life, Maddox had known nothing but hardship, uncertainty, disruption. How could we have expected her not to bring all that dreadful disequilibrium with her?
“You’re right, of course,” I said softly, draining my glass. And with that simple gesture, I tried to dismiss the notion that she’d come to New York with some psychopathic dream of striking at me from behind a curtain, smiling maniacally as she raised a long, sharp knife.
And so, yes, I tried to dismiss my own quavering dread as a paranoid response to a young woman who’d no doubt come to New York because she was at the end of her tether, and the city offered itself as some sort of deranged answer to a life that had obviously become increasingly disordered. I tried to position my memory of her as simply a distressing episode in all of our lives, with repeated visits to Falcon Academy, always followed by stern warnings to Maddox that if she didn’t “clean up her act,” she would almost certainly be expelled. “Do you want that?” I’d asked after one of these lectures. She’d only shrugged. “I just cause trouble,” she said. And God knows she had, and would no doubt have caused more, a fact I remained quite certain about.
And so, yes, I might well have put her out of my mind at the end of that short yet disquieting conversation with Janice that evening as the sun set over the Hudson, my memory of Maddox destined to become increasingly distant until she was but one of that great body of unpleasant memories each of us accumulates as we move through life.
Then, out of the blue, a little envelope arrived. It had come from the Bronx, and inside I found a note that read: Maddox wanted you to have something. It was signed by someone named Theo, who offered to deliver whatever Maddox had left me. If I wanted to “know more,” I was to call this Theo and arrange a meeting.
I met him in a neighborhood wine bar three days later, and I have to admit that I’d expected one of those guys who muscled up in prison gyms, cut his initials in his hair, or had enough studs in his lips and tongue and eyebrows to set off airport metal detectors. Such had been my vision of the criminal sort toward which Maddox wo
“Maddox was a tenant in my building,” he told me after I’d identified myself.
“You’re the super who found her?”
“No, I own the building,” Theo said.
For a moment, I wondered if I was about to be hit up for Maddox’s unpaid rent.
“Sometimes Maddox and I talked,” he said. “She usually didn’t have much to say, but a few times, when she was in the hallway or walking through the courtyard, I’d stop to chat.” He paused before adding: “She’d paid her rent a few months in advance and told the super that she was going away for a while. He assumed she’d done exactly that, just gone away for a while, so he didn’t think anything of it when he stopped seeing her around.”
“She planned it, you mean,” I said. “Her death.”
“It seems that way,” Theo answered.
So, I thought, she’d murdered someone at last.
Theo placed a refrigerator magnet on the table and slid it over to me. “This is what she wanted you to have.”
“Beauty and the Beast,” I said quietly, surprised that Maddox had held on to such a relic—and certainly surprised that, for some bizarre reason, she’d wanted me to have it. “I took her and my daughter to that show.”
“I know,” Theo said. “It was the happiest day of Maddox’s life. She remembered how you bought the magnet for her and put it in her hand and curled her fingers around it. It was tender, the way you did it, she said, very loving.”
I gave the magnet a quick glance but didn’t touch it. “Obviously, she told you that she lived with us a while.”
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