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Authors: Carol Lea Benjamin

Lady Vanishes

BOOK: Lady Vanishes
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CAROL LEA BENJAMIN
LADY VANISHES

A RACHEL ALEXANDER MYSTERY

For
Zachary Elijah Joubert,
one with everything

The beginning and the end reach out hands to each other.

CHINESE
PROVERB

Contents

“Hurry,” Chip said, “we can make the light.”

He grabbed my hand and began to run across Hudson Street, the Don’t Walk sign flashing. Dashiell broke into a run too, hitting the end of his leash as if he were in a weight-pulling contest.

We stopped in front of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame to catch our breaths, and I gave Dash the eye to stop him from lifting his leg against the flimsy faux Western fence that separated the outdoor diners from the rest of the sidewalk. Had he marked one of the wagon wheels, the patron dining at the adjacent table would have gotten what’s called a golden shower, not everyone’s cup of tea, even here in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood that invented
de gustibus non disputatem est.

I didn’t ask Chip why we had to risk getting mowed down in the prime of life. It’s not as if Waterloo took reser
vations. But New Yorkers don’t argue about their relationship with time. It’s always of the essence. You never kill it. More often than not, it kills you. Worst of all, if you’re caught in the act of not rushing, people will think you’re from Kansas.

We headed uptown a block, turning left on Charles Street, passing the little farmhouse that had been moved down here intact from the Upper East Side. On the other side of Greenwich Street, we passed a co-op that used to be a couple of warehouses, then a rental building called the Gendarme because that’s where the cops were before they moved to Tenth Street. Waterloo was on the corner of Charles and Washington. It used to be a garage. Like it or not, things change.

It was midnight, and the place was in full swing. We were greeted cheerfully and shown to the only empty table, one near the pull-down frosted glass wall, which was raised high enough for us to see passersby only from the waist down, but allowed a full view of any dog who passed. Dashiell positioned himself to enjoy the show while Chip ordered a bottle of Vouvray.

“You look especially beautiful tonight,” he said after the waiter left to get our wine.

A thick-set little man with ruddy skin delivered our bread, crusty rolls that, as soon as we began to tear them apart, would cover everything with fine white flour.

Chip was grinning. He reached across the table and took my hand.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just that I love you very much.”

A waiter with a ponytail came with our wine.

My cell phone rang.

Listening to the caller, I watched the waiter pull an
opener from the back of his belt and begin to uncork the wine.

I said, “Uh-huh” and “I do,” then “I’ll be there,” before hanging up and slipping the phone back into my jacket pocket. Then I picked up my glass of wine and held it, thinking about what I’d just heard.

“Work?”

I nodded.

His eyes darkened with concern.

“You’ll be careful?”

“I promise.” I took a sip of wine. “When do you have to leave for the airport?”

“Seven.”

“We shouldn’t have left Betty home alone.”

“She’ll be fine.”

I tapped my nails on the thick white paper that covered the table.

“I’m not all that hungry,” I said. “Are you?”

Chip grinned. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Still.”

He took a sip of wine.

I slipped off my sandal and slid my bare toes up under the bottom of his pants leg.

He raised a hand to get the waiter’s attention.

“Check, please,” he said.

The waiter nodded.

Chip paid in cash, leaving a generous tip. Hand in hand, we followed Dash into the dark, quiet night, walking home without saying another word.

Afterward I got up, slipped on his shirt, stepped over Betty, who, typical shepherd, was sleeping in the doorway, and tiptoed through the dark cottage, Dashiell padding along behind me. Once outside, I sat on the steps, looking up at the
night sky, the air I inhaled coming from the heavens, the air I exhaled returning to the stars, feeling completely alive and one with everything.

She’d said her name was Venus White and that she was the manager of Harbor View, on West Street between Twelfth and Jane, a small, privately owned residential treatment center for throwaways, high-maintenance people who needed more care than their families were willing or able to provide. Those who even had families.

She was whispering.

“Can you hear me?” she’d asked.

There was a pause then.

“Right,” she said. Loud. “Remember that pin of mine you
love,
the Art Smith with the tiger’s eye? Well, there’s an exhibition of his work over at the gallery across the street from Florent, on Gansevoort Street. Do you know it? I’m going tomorrow, about noon,” she’d said, for whomever she thought was listening. “Can you meet me? We can look at it together.”

She whispered again. “Noon, tomorrow, the Gansevoort Gallery.”

Why was someone at Harbor View calling a detective? If she were calling for pet therapy, she wouldn’t have been whispering. She simply would have asked. And she wouldn’t have called so late at night.

I looked down at Dashiell. Lying near the bottom step, he was asleep again, his big head leaning against the side of my foot, the way he’d always slept leaning on Emily, an autistic eleven-year-old we’d worked with at a small Brooklyn shelter. I would sit next to her and hand her crayons, and she would copy pictures out of old magazines, Dashiell snoring under the table, using her foot as a pillow. Without his presence she wouldn’t have sat there, wouldn’t have drawn those
pictures and colored them in so carefully, wouldn’t have let me sit so close or touch her once in a while.

I remembered the last visit we’d made, right before her parents had moved her to an institution upstate: how she’d stood in the window of the little front room where I hung my coat, watching me leave with Dashiell, how she’d put her hand up on the cold windowpane, as if to wave good-bye, as if she understood that she was never going to see us again, how when I’d lifted my hand to wave back to her, the tears rolling down my cheeks, her face had remained expressionless and her hand had stayed where it was, an aura of moisture surrounding it, the tips of her fingers white against the glass.

At noon, I pointed my finger at the bell for the Gansevoort Gallery, and Dashiell did a paws-up, one big foot smacking the bell dead center. A moment later we were buzzed in.

It was easy to spot Venus. She was the only one there. She was leaning over a round, glass-topped display table, dreadlocks covering her face like a beaded curtain. I picked up the price list and moseyed toward the back of the gallery.

Venus glanced up as I approached.

I began to look at the jewelry too, graceful silver pieces, mobiles and stabiles to be worn instead of exhibited on pedestals. Venus walked around the table and began to look at the pieces near me.

“What are they asking for that one?” She pointed to an elaborate necklace, a rigid, graceful arc of silver that would circle the neck, a green stone surrounded by delicate silver leaves dangling down from the center.

When I opened the book, she took a step closer, as if to read the price over my shoulder.

“Thirty-five hundred,” she said. “I wonder what my pin is worth.”

The pin was on her lapel, a free-form bow with a tiger’s eye on one side and a matching hole cut out on the other, the white linen of her jacket showing through.

“It’s lovely,” I told her, turning back to the display of necklaces, watching her out of the corner of my eye.

“I couldn’t speak last night,” she said softly, even though there was no one near us, the manager off in the other room. “I was calling from work. It’s been chaotic, and I’ve been staying over, to keep an eye on things, be there if I’m needed. You never know who might be outside your door, listening.”

I looked through the Plexiglas shield at pins and earrings, each sitting on a round red circle attached to a tall pole, like the leaves of a surrealistic tree.

“One of the owners died two days ago,” she said, her voice a monotone, as if she were reading from the newspaper. “He was on his way home. He’d barely stepped out of the door when he was hit by a bicycle, riding on the sidewalk. It plowed right into him and killed him.”

“One of those freak accidents you hear about,” I said, remembering the coverage on the news Saturday night, thinking, good lord, what next, a hit-and-run on the sidewalk. And on Sunday morning, when Dashiell brought in the
Times,
there was a small article in the Metro section, saying the police didn’t know who it was, riding where people walk, going so fast he couldn’t stop, hitting this old man on his way home from work.

“Only this isn’t something that happened to a stranger,” Venus said. “This is the man I’ve worked for for fourteen
years. And try as we may, keeping up as usual, the grief, the loss, it’s getting to the kids.”

“His children?” I asked.

“No. He never had children of his own. I mean the people we take care of at Harbor View, the kids. Well, none of them are really kids. The youngest, Charlotte, turned twenty in April. On the ninth. The oldest, the Weissman twins, are ninety-two. Dora’s eleven minutes older than Cora and never lets her forget who came first.”

What did she want? I wondered. Was I supposed to go undercover as a bike messenger, ride around in spandex shorts, a canvas bag full of padded envelopes on my back, listen to rumors, hunt this guy down? I was the wrong sex, the wrong color, the wrongest possible person for the job. If that’s what she had in mind.

Or was she thinking the accident had been caused by some little Asian guy, delivering someone’s egg foo yung? Rain or shine, day and night, the streets were full of diminutive men on bicycles delivering for the Chinese restaurants, keeping the folks in the Village from starving to death. Maybe Charlie Chan could do the job, but not Rachel Kaminsky Alexander.

Or was it someone out exercising, looking for a place to get by the never-ending reconstruction of the Westside Highway so he could ride along the Hudson, catch a breeze or two? This I could do, but toward what end? I’d never find out, no way. There’d be no connection, no bridge from the doer to the done.

“We always call them that,” Venus said, “the kids, because, well, they can’t take care of themselves, can’t live on their own. Some of them you can talk to, though at times it makes you feel like
you
need residential care. Some of them
talk back, say a few words when they feel like it. Some don’t talk at all.”

Venus shook her head, the clumps of hair twirling one way, then the other, finally landing on her shoulders.

Jackson’s been with us nine years. All he does is paint. We don’t even know his name.”

“But—”

“We call him Jackson because of the way he paints. Well,
paints.
He dribbles it, you know, like Jackson Pollock. Only not quite that good.” Venus smiled for the first time. “Don’t get me started on my kids,” she said. “I love them to pieces, and I’ll bore the hell out of you.”

Her eyes teared up, and she wiped them with the heels of her hands, then flapped a hand at me and let it land, finally, on her chest. She closed her eyes for a moment before continuing.

“Here’s the irony of the situation. I was going to call you anyway. After Lady disappeared, the whole joint was a disaster, no one eating, no one sleeping, it was something awful. Lady was our resident therapy dog.” Venus looked down at Dashiell, then back up at me. “Eli Kagan, he’s the other owner, our shrink, he saw this show on PBS about pet-facilitated therapy and felt that instead of having a volunteer come in once a week, we should have a full-time dog of our own. If it helped, he said, how could we limit it to an hour or two a week?

“I began the search for the right dog, and within two weeks I found her, a female puli.” Venus lifted up a handful of her hair and smiled. “The kids love to touch my hair. It fascinates them. I thought a puli would be a good choice for them. She was one year old and had actually done a little visiting, at a local nursing home. She was perfect for us. She loved everyone and was patient, more than most humans. Of
course, her owner loved her, she wasn’t looking to give her up. But she had eleven of them and lived in a three-dog town. Her neighbors had gone to the zoning board more than once. Even if she let them out three at a time, figuring a puli is a puli is a puli, the neighbors weren’t fooled. It’s not that they knew one from another. It’s that one day the snoop next door saw two dogs in the window when three were in the yard.”

Venus checked her watch.

“So we lucked out, because she said if she couldn’t keep her, she couldn’t think of a more appropriate place for her, and the next day Ragmop’s Lady Day came to live at Harbor View.”

“That’s some name for a Hungarian dog.”

“Tell me about it,” Venus said. “Rachel, I know you’ve done pet therapy with Dashiell, so I don’t have to tell you what happened. It was fantastic.”

I nodded.

“It was one of those small miracles you pray for in a place like this. That was a year ago. Then two weeks ago, Lady vanished. I left one day after work, she was there. I came in the morning, she was gone.”

“Had someone left the door open?”

“At Harbor View? No way. The door is always locked. That’s rule number one. The kids can’t go out without an escort. Not only would they get scared, confused, and lost, even right out in front of the building, but we’re right on West Street. The West Side Highway is steps away from our front door. Even with the construction, there are still six lanes of moving traffic.”

“And no one saw anything?”

“You got it. No one saw anything. No one knows anything. It’s not like there’s anyone around
to
see anything. We
don’t have neighbors anymore. The place to the north of us burned to the ground. Last winter. You heard about it?”

I nodded.

“We’re lucky we didn’t go up along with it. The other side, there’s a bar. But it closed one night and never opened again the next.” She shrugged. “Maybe tax problems, too much cash going into the pocket, not enough going to Uncle Sam.”

“That happens,” I said.

“So we’re alone on the block. And our residents, they’re with us because most of the essentials of reality don’t factor into their lives. You don’t ask these people who, what, where, why, and when. Information? Forget about it. We don’t have one iota of information in the whole damn building. What we do have is frantic human beings, people who need everything to stay exactly the same, and now things are different and it’s no damn good.”

“You looked around the neighborhood, of course?”

“We looked. We called the shelters. We put up signs.”

“Any response to those?” I asked, remembering seeing one, wincing at the thought of yet another lost pet.

“Yeah, two calls. One lady had a brown dog she’d found two months earlier. The other was from a man I wouldn’t mind strangling. Hard voice. Sounded like a lawyer. He offered us his own dog, in case Lady didn’t turn up. Said he didn’t want her anymore, she was way more work than he expected. That’s it so far, so we still don’t have a clue as to what happened to our Lady Day.

“Finally, in desperation, I called the Village Nursing Home, hoping they could recommend one of their volunteers who might come in with a dog until we found Lady. Or replaced her. That’s where I got your name and number.”

“So all this secrecy has to do with asking me to come with Dashiell and—”

“No. That’s just how I got your name. And in that conversation, Muriel, at Village Nursing, mentioned that you didn’t keep a regular schedule. She said it didn’t matter there, no one knew the time of day anyway. She asked if it mattered to us, if we needed someone who could commit to the same time every day. She said you and Dashiell were especially gifted with her residents, but that you kept weird hours, that sometimes you’d visit after breakfast, sometimes at bedtime, sometimes not for weeks at a time, that you did what you could, and would that work for us? Then she told me why, that you were a private investigator.”

Venus turned to face me now, her eyebrows raised, as if she wasn’t sure it were true and I was supposed to tell her it was or it wasn’t.

“And that’s what you need, a private investigator? To find out who mowed down—”

“Harry Dietrich,” she said. “Yes, that’s what I need.”

I waited for more.

“I’m not buying that it was a random accident, Rachel. I just don’t believe it. Maybe I don’t want to believe it, I don’t know.”

“Terrible things happen for no discernible reason. Look at the population you take care of at Harbor View.”

“I know,” she said. “Still.”

“And are you hiring me on behalf of Harbor View?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “That’s why we’re talking here, not there. I’m hiring you on behalf of myself.”

Once again, I waited for more. It seemed to me that there was no end of more I hadn’t been told. I didn’t need a tarot deck or a crystal ball. It’s just how human beings are, always keeping the most difficult stuff for last. Or not telling it at all.

“What I want you to do is this. I want you to come in with Dashiell and work with the kids, but you’ll be working undercover. I want you to find out who killed Harry. And I need you to do it as fast as possible.”

What had the cops found out? I wondered. But I figured I’d get that answer straight from the horse’s mouth.

“Do you know what kind of bike rider hit him, Venus?”

She shook her head.

“I know I’m not giving you much right now. But something’s wrong. I just feel it, and I’m scared.”

“Of what?” I asked, thinking I should have said, Of whom? But it wouldn’t have made any difference. She wasn’t going to answer me either way. I could see it in her eyes. The conversation was over.

“I have to get back now,” she said. “I’m already late. Come later this afternoon, two-thirty, can you do that? I go to the gym every day after work, Serge’s on Bank and West, just a couple of blocks from Harbor View. I’ll arrange a pass for you. It’s a good place for us to talk. We can meet there every day and fill each other in. Five-thirty. On the treadmills.”

“Then there’s more you want to tell me?”

“Lots more,” she said. “But it’ll have to wait. I’m never late, and I don’t want to draw attention to myself right now.”

“Venus, if I’m looking for a bicycle messenger or a delivery man, then why—”

“I don’t know
what
you’re looking for,” she whispered. “But whatever it is, we only have until Friday for you to find it.”

“Why?” I asked. “What happens on Friday?”

“I’m late,” she said, turning to leave, but not before I saw the fear creep into her dark eyes.

Then she was gone, and I was standing there alone, holding the price list, wondering what was going to happen on Friday. Would her coach turn back into a pumpkin, her fine white horses into mice?

BOOK: Lady Vanishes
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