Authors: Carolyn Wheat
“Who's the judge?” Flaherty asked.
“O'Malley. We already agreed the guy shouldn't have to do more than two-to-four. But the D.A.'s won't come down. They insist on a plea to assault one.”
“Sounds good,” Flaherty said. “What's your client think about it?”
“Whatever I tell him to,” Sylvia answered. “That's the problem. I think it's the right thing to do, but he doesn't understand enough to know what his options are. He may have delusions that he can win this case.”
“What'd your guy do, Sylvia?” I asked.
“Stabbed his best friend,” Sylvia replied matter-of-factly. “Trouble is, he's convinced it was self-defense. Because the dead guy insulted him. And if he didn't avenge the insult, he wouldn't be a man. Everybody on the street would know he could be pushed around.”
“You know,” Bill Pomerantz mused, “that's the exact same thing a cop said to me the other day. I asked him why he beat my guy with a nightstick, and he said he had to get respect on the street or he was as good as dead. I was surprised as hell that he talked to me at all, but when he said that! Jesus!”
“Yeah,” Flaherty agreed. “It's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys out there.”
“Meanwhile,” Sylvia said pointedly.
“Waive the jury,” Flaherty advised. “O'Malley's a mensch. He won't burn you. If he has to give your guy more time, he'll let you know.”
“Yeah, it's a good deal,” Deke added. Sylvia ignored him. Bill gave him a look of mingled scorn and dislike.
Office life is funny. It's like one of those English villages in mystery stories. Everyone knows everyone else's business without really being close. I couldn't stand Deke, but I knew all about his rocky marriage. I wasn't a friend of Mario's, but I'd heard stories about his flaky girlfriend. The one exception was Bill. I shared an office with the man, but I knew less about him than anyone. No personal phone calls. No gossip, except for the persistent rumor, never confirmed, that he was gay.
Flaherty was a different story. Not just an office friend, but a real friend. He finished a story about a robbery at McDonald's. His guy had said to the girl behind the counter, “I deserve a break today, honey. Give me all your cash.”
As we all laughed, Mario intoned in a deep announcer's voice, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City.”
I disagreed. “There are eight million
I corrected him. “There are
“Yeah,” Flaherty agreed. “Story Number One: âI found it in the street.'”
“Story Number Two,” Mario chimed in, “âHe lyin'.'”
Before anyone came up with Story Number Three, one of the secretaries called out, “Is Nathan in there with you all?”
“No, Lily,” I called back. “He's at the Special Prosecutor's office.”
“No, he ain't,” she shouted. “This
the Special Prosecutor's office on the phone, and they wantin' to know where he at.”
I got up and went to the phone. I told the woman at the other end that Nathan had expected to be there at twelve thirty and as far as I knew he was on his way. It was quarter to two. I hung up the phone with a strong sense of foreboding.
On impulse, I picked up the phone and dialed Nathan's number. I didn't expect an answer, so the busy signal surprised the hell out of me. Nathan was home! What was going on?
I put the receiver back on the hook and looked at the clock again. Twelve to two. My prisoners wouldn't be produced in AP4 till two thirty. I could get to Nathan's in five minutes.
It had seemed like a good idea in the office, but as I approached Nathan's building, I began to feel silly. Nathan was a grown man. If he was sick, he could take care of himself. On the other hand, if he was sick, he'd call the office or call Parma's office, neither of which he'd done.
I didn't have a key, so I waited until someone else opened the door and followed him into Nathan's apartment complex. I walked quickly past the desk where visitors were supposed to sign in, trying to look as though I belonged there.
The ambivalence I'd been feeling grew stronger. I felt like a fool as I walked down the dim, impersonal corridor toward Nathan's door. What the hell was I doing here? There had to be a rational explanation for Nathan's absence from work. Hung up on the trains. Forgot the appointment. Was sitting in Parma's office right now, better late than never. The busy signal was only because I'd dialed the wrong number. Yet, as I stood before Nathan's door, I knew deep inside that none of those things were true. Something was wrong.
I knocked and waited. No answer. I knocked again. I was about to leave, when I decided to try the door. To my surprise, it opened. That fact alone primed my paranoia. I pushed the door open and gingerly stepped in.
The place looked as though a huge, powerful child had thrown the tantrum of his life. Books had been ripped open, the pages torn and scattered, and the bindings flung across the room to land in dejected heaps. The photograph of Nathan on the horse had been thrown at the wall near my feet, the glass cracked and the antique frame twisted with the force of the throw. Records had been smashed, the shiny black shards littering the floor. Playing cards had been ripped and tossed like confetti; the pottery chalice had been crashed beneath an angry shoe. Food had been opened and dumped. There were rice grains everywhere. Brown dried puddles where Coke had been poured over everything like gasoline at an arson site.
And the paintingsâNathan's beloved paintings. Slashed with a vengeance I couldn't begin to comprehend. Who could hate Nathan this much? The cool, detached
painting was detached no longer. It was stuck over a lamp, the sharp lamp top sticking out through it like a spear.
My first thought was of burglary, yet I could see otherwise. A burglar would have stolen the paintings, not destroyed them. And the stereo, too, why not take that instead of throwing the turntable against the wall, leaving a twisted wreck? But then nothing made sense in that unholy mess. The viciousness of the attack paralyzed me; I just stood there noting the damage like an appraiser, trying not to focus on the important question.
Where was Nathan?
I wanted with all my heart to believe he was at the police station filling but forms. But the sheer violence, the stupendous anger of the vandalism told me differently. Whoever had done this had not left Nathan to go to the police.
Slowly, reluctantly, I stepped into the hallway, passed the kitchen, and turned toward the bedroom. My hands were cold and shaking, and my stomach was jumping. I stopped and took a deep breath before looking into the bedroom.
The deep breath probably kept me from fainting. There on the bed, where we had made love three nights earlier, lay Nathan's naked body.
I knew he was dead right away. There was a heaviness to him, the flaccid look of a thing out of which all life had drained. The muscles had no life to give them tautness. He was spread-eagled, face down, tied hand and foot to the bed frame.
The bedroom had seen the same blind malice. My photographs had been taken from the frames and torn into pieces, then scattered on the floor. The phone had been thrown against the wall. That explained the busy signal. The news drawing of Nathan had been cracked and propped, with a macabre and brutal humor, at the head of the bed, as though to identify Nathan as the corpse.
don't know how long I stood there, leaning against the door jamb, my breath coming in little jerks. Part of me wanted to go to Nathan, dead as I knew he was, and touch him, my touch miraculously bringing the pinkness of life back to the gray skin. Another part of me wanted to turn around, walk out of the apartment, and start over. Maybe this time when I turned the knob I'd find everything in place, cheerfully messy. Or maybe Nathan would be sitting on his ugly vinyl couch giving a statement to a stolid but helpful member of the Burglary Squad. It's not fair that you can open a door, and in those ten seconds your whole life turns upside down. It's not fair.
Finally, I turned away and, clutching the wall for support, made my way back to the living room. My knees were so shaky I was afraid I'd fall on the slippery papers. So I made for the green plush chair, only to find when I got there that cans of soup had been opened and dumped into the seat. It looked like vomit.
My stomach lurched, and I raced to the bathroom, sliding on the way and nearly falling. I barely made it. I was on my knees, in a cold sweat, hugging the blue toilet and throwing up my Cozzoli sandwich. It felt like the worst morning after of my life. I hung over the bowl, panting, coughing, retching, trying to pour into the toilet bowl all the ugliness I had seen.
Finally I hauled myself up, threw cold water on my face and rinsed out my mouth, then looked around for a towel. I found one buried under
The New York Times
crossword puzzle shower curtain, which had been pulled down and left crumpled in the tub. Still shaking, I lifted the towel to my face, then threw it away with a scream. There was blood on it.
I had to get out of there. That was the only thing I could think about. I took a deep breath and strode through the debris with my eyes fixed straight ahead, like a self-conscious bridesmaid walking up the aisle. I stumbled a few times, but I kept going. Getting out, shutting the door behind me, those were my only thoughts.
When I'd done that, when I stood in the hallway breathing in its institutional calmness, it was with some annoyance that I realized getting out was not the whole story. The police had to be called. I would have to see the man at the sign-in desk. I panicked at the thought. How could I find words for what I had just seen?
My knees still wobbly, still holding onto the walls, I made my way to the elevator and pushed the down button. When the door opened, I saw a young woman with a toddler and a laundry basket. She smiled at me, then saw something in my face and shrank into the corner of the elevator, pulling her little boy with her. She must have been relieved to see me get off at the lobby.
I went straight to the sign-in desk. The attendant put down his paperback book and looked at me with annoyance.
“Whatcha want, lady?”
I opened my mouth, but the words wouldn't come.
“Hey, lady, what's the problem? I ain't got all day.”
“Nathan,” I began, and then the enormity of it hit me. Nathan dead. My dear, good Nathan, lying up there naked and dead. I began to cry, noisily and violently. I reached for my purse and a Kleenex, only to remember that I'd left it upstairs in the bathroom of the apartment. In my near-hysterical state, this seemed as tragic as Nathan's murder. I cried even harder, wiping my nose with my shaking hand.
Something in my voice got through to the attendant. He guided me to a little office, sat me down, and provided me with a box of Kleenex.
When I could talk, I told him as calmly as I could what had happened, and then waited while he called the police.
When he finished the call, the desk attendant gave me an apologetic look and said, “I gotta go back outside, lady. It's the rules. You gonna be okay in here?” I nodded and he left.
I was grateful for the solitude. Relieved. I took a couple of deep yoga breaths to steady myself, then got up and began to pace. The room was about the size of a prison cell; it took me four paces to go from one wall to the other. I must have logged a good five miles before the cops arrived.
Finally the door opened, and a black plainclothes detective came in. It was easy to see he was a cop. The bulge under one arm where the gun went. The old man comfort shoes. The eyes that had seen it all. He extended his hand. It was small and neat and brown, like an animal's paw. “I'm Detective Button,” he said. “I'd like to ask you a few questions.”
He sat in the other chair. It felt a lot like being in the Criminal Court interview booths. Only this time I wouldn't be the one asking the questions.
Button took out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one. When I declined, he put them back in his pocket without taking one himself. “Gave it up,” he explained. “I just carry them for witnesses.”
And prisoners, I added mentally. It's standard cop tacticâoffer a guy a smoke and win his confidence. It's especially effective if you're the good guy in a Mutt and Jeff routine. I tensed up in spite of myself. Now I really felt like a defendant.
He started with the easy stuff. Routine. Name, address, phone number. He wrote them in his memo book. My lawyer's mind flashed ahead to a future trialâhow many cops had I cross-examined on their memo books? Somehow that made it even more real. “How did you know the deceased?”
“His name,” I answered, between clenched teeth, “was Nathan Wasserstein.”
“Yes,” Button replied blandly, “that's what the desk attendant said.”
I explained that we'd worked together, that he hadn't come in to work, and that when I found out he'd missed an appointment, I came over to see what was wrong. We went through it piece by piece. It rapidly became clear that Nathan and I were more than just office friends, that Nathan hadn't called in at work, that the phone had been off the hook.
“So you came over, unlocked the door with your key, and found his body,” Button summarized. It was a neat trick. I've pulled it myself in court. You lead the witness along by weaving an assumption into something he's already testified to. With luck, he agrees with your whole statement, thus conceding something he hadn't admitted before.
But I've been around the block myself. “No, Detective, I didn't use a key to get in. I didn't have one.”
Button raised his eyebrows. “The deâMr. Wasserstein didn't give you a key to his apartment?”
“No, he didn't.” I was keeping my temper with difficulty.
“Then how did you get in?”