East of A

A Classic Payton Sherwood Reprint

by Russell Atwood

Finding a teenage runaway in New York City is easy. The hard part is finding the one you're looking for.

I was in my office/apartment at the computer, hooked up to the Department of Justice's database, downloading a file on evidence seizure for a lawyer friend, when call-waiting interrupted the transfer. My modem crackling, I switched the phone cord and picked up the receiver.

They were calling from a payphone at Veselka's deli three blocks down. Walter and Louise Strich had come to the city to find their daughter Melissa. After a day of looking on their own, they wanted me to find her.

I asked them to pick me up a coffee--dark, three sugars--and come right over. My place was a mess but there was enough time to empty the ashtrays, fold the couch bed, and gather all the dirty glasses into the sink. I met them at the top of the stairs.

Mr. Strich said, "Thank you for seeing us on such short notice, Mr. Sherwood."

"Thank you for the coffee." He waved away the dollar I offered. "Please come in."

It took them awhile to get it all out, but my guest chairs are comfortable and I was patient. Their story was a familiar one:

Melissa Strich, fifteen, had left her home in Keene, New Hampshire five months before, in mid-April, telling a friends she was going to Manhattan to be with her boyfriend, Gary Stadnicki, a would-be guitar player. The New Hampshire police's efforts to locate either Melissa or Stadnicki had turned up nothing; Stadnicki's last known address had been a squatter's building on East 13th Street that the NYPD had evacuated for demolition the previous week.

For five months the Strichs didn't hear from their daughter. Then, two days ago, Tuesday, she called asking for enough money to get her home. So happy to hear her voice, they didn't pressure her for details, just wired the hundred dollars where she told them to, a Western Union on Avenue A, the Lower East Side. The next day, when there was no word from her, the Strichs checked with Western Union and discovered the money hadn't been claimed. Not knowing what else to do, frantic after so many months of worrying, they left their home before dawn the next morning and drove the six hours to New York. By 10 A.M. they were parked in front of the Western Union on Avenue A. They watched all day, but no one ever came for the money.

I asked Mr. Strich what kind of car they drove.

Mrs. Strich answered. "You can see it from your window, Mr. Sherwood. The stationwagon on the corner."

I craned back and, through the wide oval window overlooking 12th Street and 2nd Avenue, saw a pale blue stationwagon parked across the street. It had New Hampshire license plates and, sitting on its hood, a rangy hooker--probably little older than the Strichs' daughter--applying badly needed flesh tone to her face.

"Your daughter could've picked your car out from five blocks away," I said. "You may have scared her off."

"Our daughter's not scared of us," Mr. Strich said, almost a challenge.

"But we didn't know what else to do," Louise Strich said. "I got so desperate I started stopping people on the street, showing them Missy's picture, asking if they'd seen her."

She handed me the photograph, a head and shoulders shot of Melissa taken the year before: round hazel eyes, cornsilk hair fluffed back, feather earrings brushing her long, slender neck. She was hugging a golden retriever. If she'd been roughing it on the street for five months, I wondered if even her own mother would recognize her now.

"Some people wouldn't even stop," Louise Strich said. "But... then there were these children sitting by--"

"Children!?" her husband groaned. "One was shaved bald. A tattoo of a bat on his forehead. I couldn't believe she went over to 'em."

Mrs. Strich set the record straight. "They were very polite. I showed them Missy's picture, but they said they didn't know her."

I shrugged. "They probably wouldn't have told you if they did. These kids are down here living on the streets for a lot of different reasons; some are just slumming rich kids, playing homeless. Others are fugitives from their families, running from abusers, hiding out."

"But listen, Mr. Sherwood, when we got back to the car, the one with the bat on his head came over. He said that he did know Missy and where she was."

"He knew your daughter?"

"He knew she was from New Hampshire."

"He could've gotten that from your license plates."

She looked unsure.

"But he said he could go and get her for us, if only..."

Her voice trailed off.

I could see what was coming next. "How much did you give him?"

Mr. Strich answered, disgusted. "Fifty dollars!"

"But he needed it," his wife insisted. "He owed money to the person she was staying with and he--"

"We waited over two hours," Mr. Strich said. "Then we called you."

I nodded.

"Is there anyone at your house in case your daughter calls?"

"My sister's there," Walter Strich said.

"How long do you plan to stay in the city?"

"We don't have any plan, really." He was a little ashamed. "Do you think...how long usually do...?"

I told them I'd have a better idea how things stood in the morning, suggested they check into a hotel for the night, and gave them the address of the Lincoln Towers on 34th Street; it had an underground garage.

At the door, we shook hands. Their skin was cold and frail to my touch. In their watery, sleepless eyes I saw a desperation that embarrassed me. Against my better judgment I told them there was nothing to worry about, their daughter was fine.

I'd looked for a lot of runaways since I took up the trade, first as an apprentice at Metro Security Inc. and for the last three years working freelance. The usual route was to canvass the youth hostels, shelters, and halfway houses, looking for Missy or anyone who may have seen her, but it was too late to start that process now, a little after eight P.M.

It bothered me that Melissa never picked up the money. A hundred dollars pulled a lot of weight on the street. Something obviously prevented her from getting it; I just didn't know what. Rather than rely on my psychic powers, I put my mouth to work for an hour calling the area hospitals and asking if Melissa Strich or a Jane Doe fitting her description had been admitted in the last two days. Everywhere I called Louise Strich had preceded me. I guess calling hospitals is a parent's first reflex.

I indulged a reflex of my own and called my "in" at the 9th Precinct on the Lower East Side.

Billie Mallow had only been on the force three years, but she'd already perfected her professional tone of bored hostility. Of course, that all changed when she heard my voice: the hostility was no longer bored.

"What do you want?"

"Fine, thanks, and yourself, Billie?"

"Look, I'm busy here, Payton."

We used to date. It was more than five years ago, when we were both enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and only lasted four months, but I never lost the urge to hear her voice. As for Billie, I don't think she'll ever forgive herself for going out with me in the first place.

I quickly gave her Melissa Strich's description and asked if anyone matching it had been collared over the last couple of days. At least it would've explained why Missy hadn't claimed the cash.

Billie laughed gruffly. "Is that what you think I do? Stand by the door, stamping their hands as they pass through? Goodbye, Payton."

Click.

Still, it'd been nice to hear her voice.

A minute later, the phone rang and it was Billie.

"Hey, Payton, you said Tuesday, right?"

"Yeah."

"Uh-huh. Your runaway got a name?"

"Sure. Why, what you got?"

"Maybe nothing. What's her name?"

There was an official edge to her voice that made me sit up and squeak my swivel chair.

"That depends who's asking, Bill."

"How about a couple of first grades who'd love to spend the whole evening asking? They're looking for a kid like yours, snatched a purse outside the Outsiders Cafe Tuesday noon."

"Things must be slow, detectives working on a purse-snatching."

"They're homicide. The purse belonged to Charles Marburger's niece."

The name was fresh in my memory. I thanked Billie for the information, but hung up on her angry demands for the girl's name. I dug yesterday morning's Post out of the garbage, shook out the cigarette butts, and read the article:

I read another account in the Times that provided a lengthy obit for Marburger, highlighting his career as an autograph expert (his crowning achievement the denouncement of a diary purported to be Hitler's). I dropped the papers back in the trash.

I had to hand it to myself. I was really giving the Strichs their money's worth, an hour on the job and already trying to tie their daughter in with a homicide. Brooding over it did no good. I got out the white pages and looked up Celia Janssen, but she wasn't listed. I did find a Charles Marburger on East 20th Street though. I dialed the number, closed my eyes, and let it ring.

Long after I'd lost count, a woman's voice answered, standoffish at first, until I assured her I wasn't "yet another reporter" (not that being a private investigator endeared me to her).

"I'm calling about the purse-snatching."

I could hear her breathe. I wondered what she looked like.

"Well, what about it?"

I hate interviewing witnesses over the phone: Half of what you can learn from somebody is lost on their unseen gestures and facial expressions. I told Ms. Janssen I had to see her in person, offering to meet at her convenience the next day.

"If it's that important," she said. "I could see you now."

I glanced at my watch. Nine o'clock. I said that would be fine.

The neighborhood of Gramercy Park appears like the last holdout to a forgotten age of gentility in Manhattan, the elegant era of Edith Wharton. At its center is the park, completely enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, its locked gates protecting the green grass, gravel lanes, and flower gardens from the outside world. Its small forest towered above the surrounding buildings, two- and three-story townhouses dating back to the 1800s in Italianate, Greek revival, and Victorian Gothic styles. It must've been a quaint place to live until Marburger's murder.

Curved white marble steps led up to the entrance of the dead man's townhouse, a gaslit globe flickered over its doorway. There were separate buzzers for Marburger and Ms. Janssen. I touched hers once and the door opened to a black-haired young woman with long, coltish limbs and a boyish physique. She had on a dark blouse and a white satin skirt that clung to her like a layer of thick cream.

She looked at me with a kind of happy relief. I don't know what she saw in my eyes, but her dazzling smile was easy to take.

"Mr. Sherwood?"

I handed her my identification. As she read, I looked over her shoulder into a hallway of cozy Victorian decor. To the right a spiral staircase led to the upper floors, the walls decorated with autographed photos of celebrities and statesmen. Over her other shoulder, I saw down the facing passage to a closed oak door wrapped up like an unwanted present in yellow ribbon: CRIME SCENE--DO NOT ENTER.

Grabbing a black knee-length coat and a Chanel shoulder bag, Ms. Janssen stepped out and closed the door behind her.

"I'd rather not talk here, Mr. Sherwood. We can go to the park."

The gates to the park are locked twenty-four hours a day, keys belonging solely to the residents of the square. When I first moved to the city, I'd occasionally climb the fence late at night, usually drunk. I'd grip the spearhead tips of the fence and hoist myself up, over, and down into the soft black earth on the other side. In an instant the stink of exhaust would be replaced by the aroma of dirt, dewy grass, and cedar chips. Back then it felt like breaking into the Garden of Eden.

Celia Janssen had a key.

We went in the east entrance. When I started toward a statue I remembered, a surreal copper sculpture of a two-faced sun/moon, she tugged my sleeve and led me along another path, into shadows.

"I had to get out of there," she said. "The phone kept ringing. I finally took it off the hook after you called."

"I'm lucky I got in under the wire. I'm sorry I have to disturb you at all."

"Are you? People only say that when they want something. What do you want, Mr. Sherwood?"

"I'm trying to locate a young girl. A runaway. I think you might've seen her the other day."

She stopped in a patch of light. Eyeing me, she fished in her shoulder bag for a thin brown cigarette, lit it, and let the smoke drip from her wide, dark lips.

"You mean the girl who stole my purse?"

"Well, that's what I'm trying to determine." I handed her the photo of Melissa Strich.

She angled to catch more light from a streetlamp, studied the photo, then handed it back without a change of expression.

"Could have been her. If so, she's changed a great deal."

"In what way?"

"Dirtier. Much dirtier. There's a green tint to her hair now, sort of chartreuse, and braided into dreadlocks. It's hard to tell from the photo. Also she had a silver stud through her nose and silver rings that looked like barbed wire pierced through her lower lip."

"How tall?"

"I was seated at the time. Maybe five-three."

"Color of her eyes?"

"I didn't really get a good look. A glimpse as she turned away. Then my eyes were drawn to her nose and mouth. I didn't even know my purse was gone until she was halfway down the block."

"How much did she get?"

"A couple hundred dollars and my credit cards."

"Cancel them?"

"Naturally." She blew out smoke. "What makes you think it's the same girl?"

"Timing."

Whatever she made of that, she didn't say. We walked to the center of the park to a white flagpole with a bleached-out stars and stripes clinging to the top as if it were afraid to fall. The sky was soft black velvet. Starless to the city. A breeze shook the leafy heads of the high trees with an innocuous sound like waves stroking a pebbled shore.

She said, "I can't believe any of this is happening. It's like living a nightmare."

I asked if she knew what leads the police were working on.

"They're looking for this girl, too, but she couldn't have killed Charles. I mean, he wasn't strong, but...She looked so starved."

"According to the papers, your uncle was a leading expert in his field. Was he working on anything special?"

Her face was shadowed, but a glint of teeth appeared. "The police asked me not to say anything but yes, he was. A lost fragment by Keats, in Keats' own hand, an abandoned poem entitled 'Cupid.' It was taken in the robbery."

"Not the kind of thing your average thief would grab. How'd your uncle come by it?"

"He never said. The police are questioning collectors he dealt with regularly." We rounded the statue of Edwin Booth. She asked, "How will you look for this girl?"

"Trade secret," I said. I had no idea.

"Maybe I could help. I've seen her. And maybe as a woman..."

I spent a moment pleasantly filling in that blank. The offer was tempting for more than one reason.

"I don't think so," I said. "I'd feel responsible for you."

"That's sweet."

We walked along the remainder of the path in silence to the gate at Irving Place. As we reached it, she turned toward me and looked into my eyes.

I leaned in and our lips formed a perfect seal, her mouth moist and sweet. We parted an inch and rested forehead to forehead, breathing each other's hot breath.

"Thanks," she said softly.

"For what?"

She shook her head and turned away from me, out of my arms.

I watched her for a moment against the backdrop of million-dollar homes. She looked very alone. It was time for me to go.

I handed her one of my cards. "In case the police call about the girl," I said, but it wasn't what I was thinking.

It was just after 10 P.M., a busy time, shows getting out, dinners ending, people rushing to get home. I had to wait five minutes for a vacant cab on Third, and then they came three in a row. I rode straight down to the Village.

By the lights of passing neon signs, I looked over Missy's picture again. I couldn't see her involved in any of this. I tried picturing her with green hair and a pierced lip, but it wouldn't take. It gave me an idea though. I told the driver to drop me a St. Marks Place.

For the three blocks between Third Avenue and Avenue A, 8th Street in the Village became St. Marks Place, a major passage through this historic neighborhood. Its string of T-shirt stands, CD stores, and bars attracted the college crowd from NYU and tourists from around the world, who in turn attracted the homeless and the criminal to peddle sob stories or drugs. It was a sultry night for early September and people on all sides were taking advantage of it.

I stepped from the cab into a fog of sandalwood incense snaking from a cardtable set up on the corner. A pack of kids in baggy clothes ground by on skateboards, and jumped the curb, almost hitting a man wearing a black wig, high heels, and a flower-print dress crossing the street. He/she shook his/her parasol at them. Two severe-looking women with close-cropped black hair, walking hand-in-hand, noticed the man, glanced at each other, and broke into giggles like schoolchildren.

Rounding the corner, I saw a young guy sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. He was dressed in grimy fatigues and a torn T-shirt that said "The Dukes of Biohazard" in cracked white letters. As I got closer, he sang out, "Hey, buddy, spare change for beer and drugs?"

I had to laugh. I looked down at him. His flesh was pale, almost translucent. A front tooth was missing from his grin and there was a brass ring pierced through his nose like a bull.

I placed the change from my cab ride into his waxy hand and offered him a cigarette.

"Awesome, man."

I gave him three.

"Nice ring," I said. "You get it done at that shop around here?"

"Naw, did this one myself. Ugly, huh?"

"Oh, very." I admired it. "But there is a body-piercing place around here, right?"

"Sure. My man Lyle's place over there." He jerked his head, not taking his eyes off me. "If you're thinking about getting plugged, it's the place to go. Tell Lyle 'Poker' sent you."

"Poker. Right."

It was a second-floor walk-up over a used-CD store, past a bar spilling over-amped heavy metal and the yeasty stench of stale beer. The front sidewalk was crowded with young people passing a paper bag, smoking, laughing, singing. Sometimes you get lucky; I looked them over carefully and they met my scrutiny with stonefaced tolerance. None of them was Missy.

Posted on the shop's door was an anatomy chart pinpointing the thirty-odd places (some odder than others) where a human being could conceivably be pierced. One, called a "Prince Albert," hurt me deeply just to look at. Inside, a dull buzzer announced my entrance.

"We're closed," a gravelly voice bellowed from behind a red velvet curtain at the rear.

Along one wall of the store was a glass display case filled with an array of exotic body jewelry: studs, rings, ear clamps, miniature chains, and collars. What caught my attention, though, was the wall by the cash register, covered from baseboard to tin-paneled ceiling with hundreds of Polaroid snapshots. A visual record of satisfied customers.

I gravitated toward them, but the velvet curtain parted and the gravelly voice stopped me.

"Yeah, whadaya want?"

He was fireplug stocky with a hard Buddha belly. His head was bald but not entirely hairless, a black Kentucky-colonel beard sprouting from his chin. He tugged it, assessing me with his leaden eyes.

I told him Poker sent me.

"Poker? What's a poker?" He crossed his arms, his manner as pedantic as a professor emeritus.

I tried another tack. "My editor at the Voice. He said he'd call ahead."

"The Village Voice?"

"Yeah, I'm putting the finishing touches on this article that was started by this other guy who o.d.-ed last week and now's in rehab till October, and we're going to press in two days."

"Article on what?"

"A season round-up on the newest innovations in your craft. You know, design, equipment, method."

The leaden eyes melted a little.

"That's a great idea," he said. "You know, you came to the right place. I've trained with some of the masters like--"

From behind the velvet curtain a man's voice screeched, "Lyle, I'm bleeding here. What the hell are you doin'?"

"Oh, shut it!" Lyle yelled over his shoulder, then said to me, "Look, I've gotta finish up with this dork. Can you hang?"

"Sure, no problem. I'll just check out some of your work." I motioned to the wall of photos.

He grinned, slapped my back, and went back behind the curtain.

Studying the snapshots was like screening applicants for the Coney Island freak show. There were men and women, young and old, some with rows of tight rings threading their eyebrows or studded balls cleaved straight through the center of their tongues. Some photos were only body shots of elaborately impaled nipples and bellybuttons. I almost missed what I'd been scanning for--a tight row of barbed-wire rings on a girl's bottom lip--but there it was low to the floor.

The flash camera had been too close to the subject, bleaching out her face, her eyes glowing orange, but she fit Celia Janssen's description of the girl who had taken her purse. I tried to match the face with my photo of Missy, but the Polaroid's quality was too poor for comparison. I could make out what she was wearing though: a white T-shirt and a black leather jacket with green-flaming skulls painted down the sides.

I pried loose the staples and walked out of the shop with the Polaroid cupped in my hand.

Once on the sidewalk I lost myself in the slow parade of people, hoping my quick departure didn't make Lyle suspicious.

Turning the corner onto Second Avenue I ran into an impromptu flea market being broken up by the cops, two officers ordering the people to pack up the clothes, jewelry, appliances, and books they'd laid out on the sidewalk for sale. I crossed the street and stopped for a Coke and a greasy slice of pizza. I chewed and considered my options.

I had a picture of the girl--or at least someone I thought was the girl. Celia Janssen could've told me if it was the same one, but it was too late to call her--even if she had put her phone back on the hook. I'd done a lot for one evening, I could've called it quits (maybe should've), but I felt like I was on a roll. And there was still one other place I could check: the scene of the crime, the first crime. The Outsiders Cafe.

It wasn't far away. I followed St. Marks east, past First Avenue toward Avenue A. While I was waiting for a light to change, a man with ashen-black skin came up to me, made eye contact, and asked, "Sense, man? You want some good sense?"

He was trying to peddle weed, but sense---common sense--was really what I needed. I was fresh out, otherwise I would've looked behind me, just once, and noticed that there was someone dogging my trail.

A row of gleaming Harleys was parked in front of the Outsiders Cafe on the corner of East 6th Street. The tables out front, surrounded by a low white fence, were all occupied. A line of people waited anxiously for one to open up. I went inside where it was less crowded.

The harried woman making margaritas behind the bar pointed me to the manager, a young black man dressed in blue jeans and a green silk shirt open at the collar. He was ordering a busboy to clear a table for four as I came up to him. I asked if he knew anything about the purse-snatching on Tuesday, maybe the names of any waiters who'd witnessed it.

"It happened on my shift," he lamented. "Stuff like that always happenin' on my shift. You know, I once had a guy die of a brain aneurysm just as I came on."

"Tough."

"Not that it was his fault, but...well, take this lady. Just stupid. Comes down here, looking fine, flashing presidents. You'd think she had something on the ball, you know? But she goes and puts her bag down by her chair, right near the fence. Asking for trouble, you know? And I told her so, but she just shrugs, like, 'Big deal.'"

"See it happen?"

"I saw. Just didn't believe it right away the way she just sat there watching this kid take off. Where I grew up, if somebody stole from you, you let the whole world know."

"Was this the girl?"

I showed him the Polaroid snapshot. He took his time.

"Yeah, that's her. Same clothes and everything. You a cop?"

I shook my head, thanked him, and left somewhat distracted by an idea that was taking shape in my mind. I was trying to smooth its edges when I glanced to my left and saw Melissa Strich on the opposite corner of Avenue A.

I don't think I could have recognized her from either of the photos in my pocket if she hadn't still been wearing the leather jacket decorated with burning green skulls. Her dreadlocks had been chopped off and the remaining bristly hair dyed ink black.

She stepped off the curb and cut across to my side of the street, but walking away from me. I followed.

Passing a fruit stand outside a Korean deli, she casually grabbed two oranges and kept walking at an even stride. I didn't bat an eye until the owner came running out after her, then suddenly all three of us were running up the avenue. The deli owner gave up at the first corner, but Missy didn't slow her pace, and neither did I. She hopped the short gate closing off the path into Tompkins Square Park and fled into darkness.

I went in after her.

The tar path snaked smoothly past trees and junglegyms and dry fountains reeking of urine. Irregular shadows cast from the arching branches whipped around my head. I couldn't see her anywhere at first, but a soft breeze blew up, carrying the sweet fragrance of orange. I stood sniffing the air like a golden retriever. As my eyes adjusted, I made her out, slumped on a park bench a few yards ahead. I crept toward her as she chewed.

Softly, I said, "Missy?"

She sprang up and spat out orange, barking a swear, but standing her ground.

"Don't come near me."

"It's okay," I said. "I'm a friend. I was hired by your parents."

She laughed.

"Yeah, my parents would have to hire friends."

"They hired me to find you."

"My parents? You're nuts."

"They're here. They want to take you home."

"Yeah, right."

"It's true," I said. "But first, we have a few things to sort out. Tell me about the purse, what did you do with the keys?"

She stiffened, tensed for either fight or flight.

She said, "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Look, I don't care about the purse. I just need to know who you gave the keys to."

She started to say something, then checked herself. In the dark I couldn't tell what was passing over her face.

"Wise up," I said, "if I found you, the cops will too. Maybe I can help."

She swore. "You're not 5-0, so what's it to you if I lifted that bitch's purse?"

"The keys, Missy?"

"What keys? There weren't any. Not even a wallet, just a wad of bills, no change, not even a stick of gum. No friggin' keys, mister!"

I was starting to get a bad feeling about things. A little too late as it turned out.

"Never mind," I said. "Come one."

She stiffened. "Come on where?"

"You've got to talk to the police."

"Like hell I do!"

She started to run, but I was close enough to grab one wrist. A feral noise in her throat, she clawed at my face with her free hand, her blunt, broken fingernails scented of orange. I knocked her arm away.

I'd just succeed in getting both her narrow wrists into one hand when a number 6 train hit me low from behind. I didn't remember falling, just my cheek skidding across the tar, sparking my attention. I was eye level with the earth, listening to Melissa's running feet receding.

I sat up, tried to stand, but my legs wobbled under me like collapsible poker chairs.

A voice behind me warned, "Don't get up."

"Don't worry," I said, but tried again anyway.

"I'm telling you, don't get up."

I turned. A sweat-soaked man in jogging shorts was standing over me, fists clenched, chest pumping. He started yelling for the cops. He had a powerful voice, but suddenly it was like a whisper, blotted out by another of much greater urgency.

The girl's scream ripped across the evening sounds of the city, paralyzing time. I thought it would never end. But when it finally did the void it left was a hundred times worse.

By the time we found her, she was already dead, lying near the handball courts in a gathering moat of her own blood. So much of it. A neck wound. The short-bladed knife still inserted in her throat, her chin propped up by its blunt handle.

I couldn't bear the sight of her eyes.

Stepping closer I saw a piece of paper in her hand. An age-yellowed sheet inscribed with a cramped, ornate writing, one word foremost on the page: "Cupid."

My torn pants and scraped face didn't discourage the responding officers from jumping to the wrong conclusion. They handcuffed me and left me in the backseat of their cruiser while they went off to direct the arrival of the EMS van and the crowd forming around the park's northeast entrance.

More police, uniformed and plainclothes, converged on the scene. Through the side window of the cruiser I watched two sour-faced detectives question the jogger who'd attacked me. It obviously helped my situation that he'd been standing over me at the moment the girl was killed, because when the detectives came over to talk, they removed my handcuffs.

Before I answered any questions, I asked them to call Billie Mallow at the 9th (the precinct was just a few blocks away). Not only would she be a good character reference, but I knew she'd get a kick out of seeing me raked over the coals.

Then I told them what I knew, what I thought I knew, and one way I hoped I could prove it. During my third telling, Billie arrived. They asked if she knew "this yo-yo."

Reluctantly, she admitted it. Gritting her teeth, she vouched for me.

She looked sensational. She'd cut her long red-brown hair to neck length, the silky tresses forming around her cheeks. I wanted to say something, but there was no time--if what I believed was true, proving it meant acting fast.

Nobody liked my idea, except for its expediency. The police wanted to send one of their own men, but I convinced them I had a better chance of getting in. If I saw anything incriminating, something that might be destroyed before they could get a warrant, I could admit them to the Gramercy townhouse.

I climbed the marble steps for a second time that evening and pushed the intercom buzzer several times to the tune of "Fur Elise."

A scratchy voice came back, "Who is it?"

"Payton Sherwood. More questions."

"Go away."

I didn't know if she was listening, but I said, "You never lost your keys."

Silence. A curtain moved behind a narrow stained-glass window of the upper floor. I saw a distorted view of her face behind one ruby panel. Seeing if I was alone.

The door lock buzzed and I went inside.

The hallway's coziness had diminished, the warm glow now a murkiness casting the corners of the stairwell into shadow.

A door creaked open on the upper landing and from the wedge of light, Celia Janssen stepped out wearing a white terrycloth robe. Her hair was wet, but not as if she'd been in the shower, more like she'd been sweating.

She walked to the head of the stairs and stared down at me.

"What do you want?"

"Your key to Gramercy Park."

"What?"

"Your keys were stolen two days ago, but you still have your key to the park." I advanced a step up the stairs. "That bothered me. I guess it's hard to part with privilege."

"You're not making sense."

"It doesn't mean anything, of course," I said. "But it got me thinking. Then there was the way you acted at the restaurant, as if you wanted someone to steal your purse. Maybe you did. Part of your plan."

"Are you insane?"

"Have your purse stolen and claim your keys and wallet were inside. Make it look like someone used them to get in here and kill your uncle." I gripped the banister as I moved up, my dry palm squeaking on its smooth surface. "Too bad you didn't snag some homeless guy or junkie, you might've pulled it off. But you had to settle for a runaway girl."

"You're trying to protect her. Is that why you're making all this up?"

"No one can protect her anymore. You killed her tonight."

Celia tried to look surprised, but all I saw was her fear. I took two steps at a time.

"You got scared when I asked to see you about your purse. You thought I was a threat, maybe a blackmailer. Is that why you brought me to the park, kept us in the shadows? Did you have your knife with you then?"

She didn't seem to hear or sense me in any way, distracted as if she were busy dividing multiple fractions in her head.

I shouted, "I was a threat. I knew who the girl was. What if I found her? What would she tell me? Would I believe her? You couldn't take that chance, so when I left, you followed. And I led you to her. I helped you kill her."

"Get out of her! Or I'll--"

I didn't remember getting to the top of the stairs but suddenly I was on the landing, my hands reaching out for her.

She backed away from me, collided with the wall, and knocked one of the hanging photos to the floor, the glass shattering.

She tried to get by me but I grabbed her arms and twisted them. I wanted to hurt her. I could feel the slender bones in my grip. And something else, a dampness under my left hand, seeping through my fingers.

I held up her arm and examined where I'd grabbed her. The sleeve was wet with blood. She must've walked home from the park and hadn't had time to change. Beneath the robe, her blouse was still soaked with the dead girl's blood.

She tried to shake me loose, but I held on and dragged her with me into the next room until I found the intercom and buzzed in the police. Then I went and washed my hands.

I only got to see Billie for a moment outside the townhouse before they escorted me to a car and downtown for more questioning. Her smile and quick wink were the only good things about the new day.

It was dawn before they finally cut me loose. The sky was the color of faded blue jeans. Outside I saw people jogging, walking their dogs, slurping coffee in one hand and skimming headlines in the other. I hadn't slept in thirty-three hours, but didn't feel the fatigue. Didn't feel anything. Missy Strich was dead and in some way I'd help make her that way. And now I had to face her parents and tell them.

I smoked a cigarette, then flagged down a cab and told the driver to take me to the Lincoln Towers Hotel.

Before I could ask the desk clerk to ring the Strichs' room, someone shouted my name across the climate-controlled marble lobby. In the Rose Lounge, Walter and Louise Strich waved table napkins at me from where they sat eating a continental breakfast.

Mrs. Strich's eyes were fretful with concern over my bruises and torn pantleg.

"Oh dear, you look awful, Mr. Sherwood. What's happened to you?"

"Rough night."

Mr. Strich was forking fried egg into his mouth and smiling.

"Not working for us, I hope," he said between chews.

"I'm afraid I was...I'm sorry." I breathed deeply. "I have some news--"

"--Nooo," Mrs. Strich cooed, "we're the ones who are sorry. We should've called you last night."

"It's bad news, Mrs. Strich."

"Don't be silly. We have wonderful news. Missy called."

"What?" I said. "Called you? When did you talk to her?"

"A little after ten."

Ten o'clock, I thought. Two hours before--

"You'll never guess where she is," Mr. Strich said.

On a cold steel table, her flesh gray under lights without warmth.

"She's home! In New Hampshire." He raised his coffee cup in a toast.

I couldn't quite process it, wasn't sure I'd heard right.

"That's right," Mrs. Strich said. "We must've literally passed each other on the highway. She got a ride from a Vermont family coming back from dropping their son off at NYU. She didn't need the money after all. Can you believe we made such a big deal of that?"

"I don't understand."

"She got a ride home with a friend's parents. A new boyfriend, I think. The Lord was looking after her," Mrs. Strich said, tears welling up in her eyes. "I'm just sorry we put you to so much trouble."

"No trouble," I said. "It's fine."

I stood up. I wanted to get out of there. I took Melissa Strich's photo from my pocket and handed it to her father.

"I won't be needing this then."

As it left my hand, I saw it was the wrong photo, the Polaroid of the girl with the green dreadlocks and pierced lower lip. Mr. Strich stared at it, looking lost.

"What is this?"

"It's...someone else's daughter."

Copyright (c) 2009 by Russell Atwood.

Russell Atwood submitted his first mystery for publication when he was 14. In college, he co-founded and edited his campus literary magazine at American University in Washington, D.C. After graduation, he moved to New York City and went to work for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as an assistant editor. After leaving as its managing editor in 1996 to concentrate on his own writing, the magazine published his first story (reprinted here) in 1997. He later expanded it to his first novel-length murder mystery, East of A, which was published iby Ballantine Books in 1999. His new novel, Losers Live Longer, is being published by Hard Case Crime as a paperback original in September 2009. In addition to his work in publishing, he's also been involved in theater, serving as a house manager for such off-Broadway shows as Sandra Bernhard's Without Me, You're Nothing, Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock'n'Roll, and John Leguizamo's Spic-O-Rama.

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