High Heeled Bullets
It took five full days for him to feel like a free man. Still, he kept looking over his shoulder every time he did something independently, like walk to the corner store, get up and change the channel, stay awake all night. There was no schedule. No organization, nobody telling him what to do. Somehow, the days seemed longer, these free days, these paroled hours. He had a week to get a job, sign up with the supervisor of his non-custodial status, clock into the system. Until then, he could make of the day and night whatever he wanted to make of it. It was all so propitious. Free time. Anonymity. What he would do, of course, was inevitable. He was savoring, anticipating, toying secretly with the where and when of it. Not the who, yet. No, no. That would come. He knew what he was going to do. He was aware of his time, alive with it, breathing in and out with it. Time was just a moving arm on the world’s clock, dividing life into manageable quadrants of morning, afternoon, evening, night. He was no longer imprisoned by it. Time for him was only Before and During. Then it began again. Before, During. Perhaps a little bit of After, but only to relish. Now, he was savoring the Before. How long until During? Not a question of if. Not a worry. A patient tickle of anticipation, a widening hole that would engulf – not him – but whoever came near. That came after he played with it in his mind for a while. That came after he decided, just decided, that this was the one. Right now, he felt only as if he were coming back to life after being sequestered for these many years. And the incarceration lulled him into a waiting phase. He was patient. He could wait. He took the classes, read, pretended interest in religion, abided by all the schedules and rules. Model. He was a model prisoner. But the other prisoners smelled it on him. They knew. They left him alone, sensing with their animal instincts what he was. Fine by him. He never had to fight back a Bubba, or join the separate gangs. He didn’t need to pony up to one of the murderous leaders. The other prisoners knew he wasn’t there because of the pedestrian reasons they were. He had never acted out in rage against society, or hurt someone out of a longing, crazed passion, or was twisted by mental demons. Not him. No. He was singular. He was rare. Only the deeply ingrained criminal – the ones who would continue to be locked up, over and over again – sensed, but didn’t care enough, to know him. Nobody knew. But they knew enough not to tread near. Even in the worst prison system in the country, with the worst kinds of criminals, he was remarkable. He was rare, indeed. In his own way, he was humbled by his own magnificence. For he was magnificent, pure. He was evil. He was out.
It would have been just a night out on the town; just the girls; a celebration of independence, graduation, summer. It would have been the kickoff to a new life of being on their own, impending adulthood, free time to chill out and party. The girls met each other early that evening, geriatric time, 6:00. Sally drove her father’s car, even though she had her own car. Her car was too new; she was afraid to drive it to the city. It was parked in front of her driveway – she liked to look at it from her bedroom window, or be surprised by it as she came out the front door of her house. Oh yeah, that’s my car. But not tonight. Tonight Sally was driving Lindy and Jennifer into the city where the car didn’t matter.
Graduation and the daily, nightly round of parties was winding down. Most of their friends had started their summer jobs; a couple of the kids in the class of ’06 were managers now, having worked at local Appletrees or Waldbaums for almost three years already. Sally herself was promoted to order taker at her part time job at 1-800-Flowers. Lindy was starting her camp counselor job this coming Monday. Jennifer babysat so often that she could almost be called a full-timer. Her job was the reason they were leaving so early for dinner in the city. Jennifer was babysitting the DeStefano babies later tonight, around 10:00, so the young parents could see the new Martin Scorcese picture everyone was raving about. Jennifer never turned the DeStefano’s down, no matter how late they wanted to go out. They were the best tippers and the kids were usually already put down by the time she got there. So Jennifer would either watch a movie from Mr. DeStefano’s serious classic movie collection, or she could get a good two hours of reading done. Plus she was welcome to have any snack she pleased from the well-stocked kitchen. Sitting for the DeStefano babies was too easy to pass up. Thankfully, the girls all really wanted to be out together so it didn’t matter if Lindy and Sally had to come up with a plan for their post-dinner activities. Jennifer secretly hoped the girls would want to just come back with her to babysit. She knew this was a slim hope, though.
When Sally got to Jennifer’s, Lindy was already in the front seat. The two of them, Sally and Lindy, looked older than 18, painted in makeup inspired by models in glossy magazines. Green and blue eyeshadow rising up from blackened lashes, stiff and preposterously curled. Eyebrows exclaiming themselves. Beaten, pulped lips the colors of rubies and blood. Blush pulling up along hollowed cheeks in bronze inverted parentheses. Tight, skinny jeans ending in audacious high heels. Jennifer looked negated next to them, a faded black & white snapshot next to a pair of oversized pop-art posters. She squeezed into the back seat.
“Hey, you. Ready to rock n roll?” Lindy said, playing on the gently understood fact that Jennifer wasn’t rocking or rolling, ever. Great girl. Good friend. But way straight.
All of them snorted in response. Sally made her left at the corner, heading to the Palisades Parkway, the George Washington Bridge, the Henry Hudson Parkway, the West Side Highway, to The City! Just 40 minutes away, their own private Hollywood. Most important thing first – ditch the car with the Jersey plates. Park it way over on the West Side, then walk – like they owned the place – crosstown to the cool restaurant Lindy found in New York magazine. This was their favorite pastime, really. It wasn’t about going out to eat, or to the bar (though that was a very close second). The feeling of walking in the city was like nothing else. It only took a few steps for them each to catch the rhythm, the beat, the underground, overhead, surround sound pulse of Manhattan. Even way over on the West Side, by the relative emptiness of 56th Street and the Highway, the strains of this invisible pulse could be felt. Before they even reached 10th Avenue, they were walking faster, harder, stronger than they ever did at home. Well, they were city girls, weren’t they? Just because they lived in the hushed and fluffed hamlet of their New Jersey suburb did not mean they could not, too, be defined by the familiar pull of excitement – of life! – offered by their neighboring city. They’d been coming into the city for years. Christmas shows at Radio City, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, the museum trips, the shopping for winter coats….okay, all chaperoned, all guided by the schedules and intents of loving adults. Still.
Tonight, though, tonight they were not meeting up with their parents in two hours, or checking in with the high school guidance counselor. They were on their own. Free. Even Jennifer, in her muted makeup and babysitting jeans, looked authentically New Yorkerish as she walked taller, more confidently, towards Third Avenue. Because in the city, in.the.city, girls with full-blown makeup and kick-ass heels blended well with the irony of a plain jane sister by their side. They didn’t have to play matchey-matchey. It was cool to telegraph a mixed message.
Six days. ‘Before’ time almost over. The light was brighter, everything outlined in gold, faces sharp and clear. This was the choosing part. He was viciously calm.
Unpack the crisp white shirt. Careful toileting. Shaving a work of patience and precision. Check fingernails for specks of dirt, rout them out. He must be immaculate. This was part of his friendly persona. A nice, clean-cut, white man in a nice, clean white shirt, impeccably groomed. Smelling fresh, soapy, fairly pinging with virtue. Excuse me. Or, forgive this intrusion, but… Standing far enough away so personal space seemed inviolate, a considerate interruption, a wonderful stranger asking a shy question.
No practice necessary; he was expert. He would, however, admire his physique, his wholesome face, the crease of his slacks for quite some time in the mirror. This, he was greedy for. Welcome back, Charles. Or, later, as he made them say, **Chaz.**
But he was getting ahead of himself – it had been a long time! Patience, he counseled himself. All the time in the world. A smooth pat of his hair, a twinkling smile, the room prepped and ready, and he was out the door, descending into the early summer night, in time for his waning shadow to lay out on the sidewalk before him, larger and darker, crawling toward the street.
“Let’s play a game!” Jennifer said, as she finished up her plate of pasta. The restaurant Lindy found was glorious….exactly what they all had in mind. Old Italian style decorations, authentic food, good cheap wine, and best of all, a bocce court right next to the tables. None of them had played bocce before, so they surreptitiously and casually watched the older couples play. The restaurant was just off 2nd Avenue, in the low 60s. From the outside, it was just a storefront with a darkened window painted the red, green, and white of the Italian flag. Inside, it was warmly dark, candle lit, smelling of sauce and garlic and toasting bread. There was a hint of clean dirt in the smell, and when they were seated, they saw that the bocce court was cordoned off by the natural boundary made up of lines of tables, and a wooden barre that ran the length of the restaurant. The barre cut the restaurant in half; one side was café tables, clean but old tablecloths, candles in red jars, and wall lighting giving the wattage and effect of gaslight. The other side was solidly packed dirt, a decided lane, cluster of balls on either end. It looked as though it could have been breaking ground for a bowling alley, minus the electricity and the smooth laminated flooring. This bocce court was real and true.
The friends each asked for a half order of pasta and a house salad, which they supplemented with the generous bread basket filled with sesame breadsticks and hunks of Italian bread. They split the last three glasses of their second bottle of wine, so cheap!, and they were feeling fine. Sally and Lindy were doing mental arithmetic to figure out if they could afford a third bottle of wine, and still have enough money left for the mojitos they had planned on their next stop. Jennifer was ready to jump up and claim the court the moment the previous game ended. Her friends, her wonderful friends, promised to get her back to the DeStefanos by 10:00. They had plenty of time. It wasn’t even eight o’clock.
“Jenns, we can play a game, or we can go to Maxwell’s Plum,” Sally said. “We don’t have enough time to do both. What do you think, Lindy?”
“I think I love you guys. I feel so good right now, I don’t care where we go,” Lindy said. Lindy’s eyes were soft and round, her cheeks flushed a natural rosey color, her voice deep and full. The arched and loping caricature of a sophisticated New York woman was gone; in its place was the real girl, feeling lucky, loving, lit.
“Listen to her – ‘she loves us’ – you are such a cheap date, Lindy!” Sally was feeling good, too, but she didn’t want to waste time playing a bocce game. She liked the idea of other people playing around them while they ate. She didn’t have to partake. What she wanted to do was get to the bar, but she knew that getting there before 9:00 was desperate and … too late. Jennifer was on the court, lining up the balls as if she played bocce every day of her life. Jennifer. She was such an innocent. Sally knew her well enough to know that this was the highlight of her night. This would be her “New York night” and then she would go back to Jersey and the DeStefano mansion, satisfied and full. But Sally had other plans; Lindy would be up for them. They just had to take Jennifer back first. Even as she got up to take her turn at this bowling in dirt game, Sally made a decision to drive Jennifer back to Jersey as soon as they left the restaurant. Then, she and Lindy would still have hours until the bars on Third Avenue closed.
Later, officers and detectives pieced together the facts from discordant clues jammed together into a 12-hour time frame. Back to New Jersey, dropped off one friend, the other two about-faced to the City. Parking on a lonely stretch of the old West Side Highway, now 12th Avenue. Hoofing over to Third Avenue. Drinking. Drinking. Mojitos. Mojitos. Laughing and weaving back to the car, way late into the near-morning summer night. Towed! The car was towed, stamped out at 2:00 am from its illegally parked drop point. Using the girl Lindy’s cell phone to find out where a towed car was taken. Further downtown, relatively empty streets. Not laughing so much now. Just tired, drunk, slightly blacked-out. Until they came to the police impound, with locked gates and no guard in the booth. Tired, they both sat down on the sidewalk and almost immediately passed out.
After that, it’s fuzzy how, and why, the girl Lindy woke up and started walking back uptown, alone. Not quite daybreak. Sally’s call to Lindy, maybe 20 minutes later?, asking her where she was and why wasn’t she still with her. Sally crying. Lindy sorry, saying that she was with a nice man who was going to help them get the car back, who knows the town they live in, who wants to make sure they get back home safe. Lindy is so tired. She wants. Lindy wants to go home. Don’t worry, Sally, we will come and get you as soon as the nice man gets his car keys. Have to hang up now. Almost here. Call you when we’re on our way. Lindy sounding far away, out of it, small. Sally screaming at Lindy to stop, get in a cab, run into a 24-hour Duane Reade store, knowing this is all wrong, everything is wrong now, they should be together, please, please, don’t go anywhere alone. Lindy’s phone being handled, and onto the line, a man’s voice, telling Sally that everything’s in hand and she will have her friend back real, real soon. Sally stunned silent. Wide awake now. Stone cold sober, as if all traces of liquor had been wrung out of her in one gigantic squeeze of every organ inside her body. Screaming Lindy’s name over and over again, loud enough to wake up the night guard, who was asleep on the plush seats of a brand new Cadillac parked deep inside the impound facility. It was the last call signal tracked on Lindy’s cell phone.
They found her body the next day, stuffed inside a suitcase, near a dumpster outside of the Port Authority. Clues abounding as to what she suffered. Not a single print or fiber of another human being, as though Lindy had somehow managed to break her own skull, rape and mutilate herself, cut her hair off on one side almost to the scalp, stuff her own tan high-heels in her mouth, wrap her head in masking tape, then crush herself into a large cloth suitcase.
The suitcase stood, bulging and misshapen, several feet away from the dumpster as if disassociating itself from it. Or calling attention to itself. The only clue detectives took here was that the bastard who did this figured on a New York City that was calloused and indifferent. Probably figured the suitcase would sit there until the dumpster was carted off, taking the case with it. Whoever this perverted, sick, motherfucker was, he didn’t know New Yorkers. Didn’t know that this object was called in almost minutes after it was left, and then four more times in the eight minutes it took for a patrol car to muscle up to the dumpster, wheels up on the sidewalk. Stopping traffic. Creating an instant crowd. Backup arriving almost instantly. Detectives right behind them. That’s what Maura Collins, detective first grade of the Five-Four precinct, started calculating as she rolled up to the scene. Whoever did this – that would be her reason for living in the immediate future – either knew exactly the kind of effect a suitcase left on the sidewalk would cause? Or didn’t know jack about this city and the level of don’t-fuck-with-us New Yorkers walked around with on a daily basis. Standing a foot away from it, Maura knew, before the thing was unzipped, what was going to be inside.
Maggie Hill is a writer and teacher; this is an excerpt from a weirdly creepy novel she’s exploring.