“You want me to go jimmy the lock?”
“I’ll go in, clear the halls, chase out the spooks, you hit ’em with a club, then we both crack the padlock, spoon Fannie’s mayonnaise, and at the bottom of the third jar, we find the answer, the solution, if it’s still there, if it hasn’t spoiled or been taken away…”
A fly buzzed, touched my brow. An old notion stirred.
“Reminds me, that story, years ago in some magazine. Girl fell and froze in a glacier. Two hundred years later, the ice melts and there she is, beautiful, young as the day she was frozen.”
“That’s no beautiful girl in Fannie’s fridge.”
“No, it’s something terrible.”
“And when and if you find and take whatever it is out, do you kill it?”
“Nine times, I guess. Yeah. Nine should do it.”
“How,” said Constance, her face pale under her tan, “does that damn first aria from Tosca go?”
I got out of her car in front of the tenement just at dusk. The night looked even darker just inside the waiting hall. I stared at it for a long moment. My hands trembled on the door of Constance Rattigan’s roadster.
“Want old Ma to come in with you?” she said.
“Good grief, Constance.”
“Sorry, kid.” She patted my cheek, gave me a kiss that made my eyelids fly up like windowshades, handed me a piece of paper, and shoved. “That’s my bungalow phone, listed under the name Trixie Friganza, the I-Don’t-Care Girl, remember her? No? Nuts. If someone kicks your bung downstairs, yell. If you find the bastard, form a conga line and throw him off the second-floor porch. You want me to wait here?”
“Constance,” I moaned.
Down the hill, she found a red light and went through it.
I came up the stairs to a hall that was dark forever. The lightbulbs had been stolen years ago. I heard someone run. It was a very light tread, like a child’s. I froze, listening.
The footsteps diminished and ran down the steps at the rear of the tenement.
The wind blew down the hall and brought the smell with it. It was the scent that Henry had told me about, of clothes that had hung in an attic for a hundred years, and shirts that had been worn for a hundred days. It was like standing in a midnight alley where a pack of hounds had gone to lift their legs with mindless panting smiles.
The smell pulled me into a jumping run. I made it to Fannie’s door and braked myself, heart pounding. I gagged because the smell was so strong. He had been here only a few moments ago. I should have run after, but the door itself stopped me. I put out my hand.
The door scraped softly inward on unoiled hinges.
Someone had broken the lock on Fannie’s door.
Someone had wanted something.
Someone had gone in to search.
Now, it was my turn.
I stepped forward into a dark remembrance of food.
The air was pure delicatessen, a warm nest where a great, kind, strange elephant had browsed and sung and eaten for twenty years.
How long, I wondered, before the scent of dill and cold cuts and mayonnaise would blow away lost down the tenement stairwells. But now . . .
The room was a ramshackle mess.
He had come in and tumbled the shelves and closets and bureaus. Everything was flung to the linoleum floor. All of Fannie’s opera scores were strewn among the broken phonograph records that had been kicked against the wall or toppled in his search.
“Jesus, Fannie,” I whispered. “I’m glad you can’t see this.”
Everything that could have been searched and wrecked was wrecked. Even the great throne chair where Fannie had queened it for half a generation or more was tossed down on its back, as she had been tossed down to stay.
But the one place he had not looked, the last place, I looked now. Stumbling on the shambles, I grabbed the icebox door and pulled.
The cool air sighed out around my face. I stared as I had stared many nights ago, aching to see what was right there before me. What was the thing the stander in the hall, the stranger on the night train, had come to find but left behind for me?
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