Twenty-two slices of life—and death—from New York-area crime writers.
Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices is a collection written by local members of the New York/Tri-State chapter of Sisters in Crime, featuring tales from the most ethnically diverse and densely populated city in America. By turns funny, tough, and somber, the authors reveal slices of life beyond the tourist’s view, rich and poor neighborhoods where old-timers desperately protect their secrets and brand-new arrivals indulge dangerous appetites. There’s as much variety in the tones, settings, and approaches as in the city itself. And yet, each of these crime stories also reflects Gotham’s most infectious and unifying principle, that special combination of adaptability and assertiveness dished out more often than any pizza or street meat. Enjoy every helping of New York attitude.
“A Morbid Case Of Identy Theft” is a short story by Clare Toohey from Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices, edited by Terrie Farley Moran and published by L&L Dreamspell.
In a fourth-floor Brooklyn walk-up, summertime is a battle for survival, and the computer where I edit video and my apartment’s overloaded A/C refused to co-exist electrically. I’ve known Joanna since my first crop of peach fuzz, concurrent with my first failure at sneaking into a Roger Corman horror movie marathon, so I wasn’t suspicious of her offer. Free computing in her climate-controlled library of unusual tomes and oddities. I didn’t even have to open to the public, she said, just “babysit the curiosities” while she took her first week’s vacation since founding the place. That seemed overprotective for a bunch of junk, but I was grateful anyway.
The Morbid Anatomy Library stands within a sprawling warehouse of art galleries. The industrial building hosting this cooperative is a former box-factory squatting beside the historic and toxic Gowanus Canal. July’s heat enhanced the canal’s olfactory pleasures, but that wasn’t the most revolting aspect of my trudge to the library. All the way down Union Avenue, I was obstructed by sweating throngs assembled for a parade. No summer Saturday in New York City remains unblemished by lame public events. As a cinephile, I adore the medium of film, but not necessarily audiences, if you get me. I couldn’t wait to escape the heaving scrum.
Upon reaching the library’s inner threshold and unlocking the door, simple relief was replaced with a tingle of illicit discovery. I felt as if I were sneaking into an explorer’s most private, strangest trophy room or breaking into Houdini’s prop closet.
I began to understand some of Joanna’s feeling for it, and wondered why I hadn’t visited earlier. If the crowded room that composes the Morbid Anatomy Library isn’t quite a library, it isn’t purely morbid either. The subject matter isn’t hamstrung to the anatomical or even the human. The bookshelves contain art and legend, metaphysics, superstitions, and the mysteries of death. Medical marvels share space with unapologetic frauds and freaks. I dumped my gear bag and found a delectable lemon muffin in a string-tied box on the desk. I noshed blissfully in the dry, impersonal mustiness.
I hadn’t anticipated how much of the beautiful and bizarre I’d find worth filming. All I had with me was my mini-cam, but I got straight to capturing incidental imagery. A filmmaker of the macabre never knows when he might require a few frames’ worth of empty prosthetic legs. And what about a miraculous saint figurine, a plaster cast of the inner ear, convicts’ teeth, an empty hive, antique syringes, dangerous toys, or a reptile skull? As I panned and zoomed, the back of my neck prickled with a sense of being observed in return, of vague movement just beyond the lens.
I stopped filming and jerked my head up fast to catch whatever it was, but found only a flea-bitten, stuffed squirrel sneering at me from the top of a bookshelf.
I had the immediate, distinct feeling the collection didn’t appreciate my collecting it.
Of course, a certain, twitchy sensitivity on my part might be explained by the number of energy drinks I’d had, but that doesn’t explain what happened next. The room flickered with venomous green light and filled with the sudden smell of ozone. At least, I thought it did. I could’ve been hallucinating, I guess, like Nicholson’s epic breakdown in The Shining. Who can say whether a place is truly haunted or its observer is going insane?
In any case, I took the hint to stow my camera, and pretend nothing unusual happened, like any New Yorker would. I settled into my computer editing, the reason I’d come in the first place. I was re-working a stubborn scene transition, but the seeping bagpipe corps from the parade outside disrupted the ambience of menace I wanted to achieve. I only looked down for a second, really, just to dig out my earphones and a fresh orange soda. But when I looked up, a gray-haired stump in a pink cardigan had sprouted in front of the desk.
“We’re not really open, and the bathroom’s not public. Sorry, ma’am.” Insincere remorse makes us city-dwellers seem civilized.
“I’m a victim of identity theft, putz! Where’s Joanna?” For a relic, she had surprisingly clear elocution. The little ragbag didn’t sound like a tourist either. In that wadded Kleenex of a face, intensely black eyes twinkled, as beady and untrustworthy as a ferret’s. Even a squirrel’s.
“Identity theft’s more of a cop issue than a library issue,” I said. “There are loads of nice officers leaning on blue sawhorses just a block away.”
“Can’t you see I’m an eighty year-old woman?!” She seemed overly excited about the obvious. “I got…lost somehow.” Was that moisture gathering in those ball-bearing eyes?
I scooted out of my chair, patted her shoulder, and ushered her toward the door. “You must’ve been trying to find the South Brooklyn Casket Company and gotten confused. My sympathy on your bereavement, or on picking out your own coffin, whatever. Parades are monstrosities. Just go out to the corner at Union and take a left.”
Ungrateful, she stuck a surprisingly painful fingertip in my sternum. “Stop talking down to me, or I’ll kick you in the ankles first and work my way up. I can’t believe you didn’t hear anything. It was like an explosion!” She sank into one of the reading chairs, staring at her gnarled hands as if she’d never seen them before. I retreated behind the barrier of the desk. “I’ll forgive you for being an ass, because you think I’m a lunatic, Randolph.”
“If we’d ever actually met, you’d know I prefer being called Dolph now.”
She snorted, but her eyes had gone cold and sharp, diamond-tipped drillbits. We glared at each other, stalemated. A knobby finger tapped her temple. “Oh, I know lots of things about you, Randy. What I’ll mention aloud is your stash of pirated Hong Kong vampire movies.” My open-mouthed expression seemed to make hers soften. “That’s part of my condition. Somehow, I know the dirty secrets of everyone I see. I sense people’s misdeeds and what they’re capable of doing. I had to get away from those crowds, and I thought maybe this place . . . I only wish I knew how to stop knowing all this stuff . . . and what the hell’s happened to my body!”
I didn’t comprehend, but as she retracted further into her sweater, I felt compelled to help the sad, pink turtle.
“Joanna’s out of town. If the answer’s in here somewhere, I don’t know enough to find it, um, ma’am.” Then, something more important caught up with me. “Did you say explosion?”
“That’s right, Sherlock. A statue on a float went poof in a cloud of plaster dust. The horses freaked! I was standing right next to it when it happened.” She raked vigorously through her snowy hair, releasing faint puffs of dust.
I groaned. “Don’t tell me something actually worth filming happened!”
The crone leaped from the chair with unexpected agility. “You self-centered jerkwad! Listen to me! Half an hour ago I was out there, my normal self, with bakery samples. And then—blammo! Everybody was yelling and running. I wasn’t me anymore. I had a pounding head full of other people’s sins, and I looked like this!”
I fired up the internet. “Maybe my awesome skills can be of some help after all.”
“Really?” Smiling briefly, her teeth were unexpectedly white and even looked real. The youthful glee in that wizened face was disturbing. As my fingers flew, I realized she had a different notion of what I was researching.
“The name’s Melanie P. Fitzroy.” She sucked in a quick, deep breath. “Born June 18th, 1980.”
The girlish first name poorly suited that prehistoric corpus. “Hold on a minute. That would make you only . . . ”
“Thirty years old.” She offered it as a dare, her jaw jutting like a dog’s I’d cross the street to avoid. “I opened the new bakery down the block. I dropped off those muffins yesterday.” She pointed accusingly at the crimped paper cup at my elbow, empty but for microscopic lemony crumbs. More frighteningly, she advanced toward me, holding her crabbed, road-map hands before her like battle flags.
“They look perfect to me for kneading pretzels,” I said to mollify her.
“Moron! I can’t even reach my top oven now! This is not me!”
Before I could formulate an intelligent reply, she aimed a bent fingertip over my shoulder. The monitor now displayed a screen shot from the parade at the intersection two blocks away.
“There!” she yelled like a mad scientist says Eureka. “Everything went crazy after the plaster woman disintegrated. You found it!”
“Sure I did. With that many spectators, figures someone would’ve posted by now.” My search had returned a video from less than ten minutes previously. Hot off reality’s presses. “Now we can relive the magic without leaving climate control.”
Unfortunately, Granny Mel tottered around the desk, leaning a scratchy woolen forearm across the back of my neck to watch along.
The clip’s disembodied narrator sounded like a proto-nerd, however, the establishing shot of the crowd-lined sidewalk was stable enough to assume he’d used a tripod. Go, go geekdom. A tall, shapely woman with a long, dark braid and a blue chef’s shirt crossed in front of him.
“There I am, Randy. Or was. Just look at me,” said a cracked voice that had, inexplicably, acquired a British accent like my college roommate after his semester abroad.
“1777, Excelsior!” The video’s narrator cheered as what he identified as the Great Seal of the State of New York rolled into view. I’d never seen the thing before, but the fifteen-foot plaster circle was elevated above the street on a chariot-style cart drawn by two white horses with feathered hats.
The dark-haired woman re-entered the frame balancing two trays full of paper cups like the one I’d emptied. In seconds flat, her freebies were cleaned out. Two guys scuffled over the last sweet morsel: a slick, young Asian dude, who I thought had the edge, and a paunchy, balding guy who obviously had the experience. The nerdy narrator wished aloud that the visual impediments would am-scray, and the woman in blue edged out of the picture with her warring admirers as if she’d heard.
The plaster Seal was as garish as a kindergarten art project. Against the navy background, a giant pair of Grecian goddess-types were sculpted in relief on either side. They hovered barefoot, painted in pale blue and yellow togas, with official-looking symbols molded in their free hands.
The nerd, who must prefer his ladies inanimate, glossed over Liberty and her pole on the right, or ‘dexter.’ He saved his painstaking description for the blindfold and disheveled hair of left-most, and therefore, ‘sinister’ Justice. The shield centered between the goddesses depicted a Hudson River landscape. A full-color globe was its cherry topping. If that weren’t enough understated heraldry, a golden eagle spread its wings over the whole kaboodle. “The Seal was last revised in 1882,” the nerd continued, “but we’re cheating to celebrate its quasquicentennial!”
That’s the 125th anniversary. I had to look it up, too.
Suddenly, the narration and equine clip-clopping halted with a concussion of sound. Nothing like the pyrotechnic boom I’d hoped, more like the ear-bursting pop of a giant metal cap off an enormous soda bottle. A pale cloud blanked the scene.
After an eternal five seconds, the haze cleared, revealing blurred bodies zipping across the camera’s sight line. Even that close to the chaos, the nerd kept rolling frames with a dedication I had to respect. The pair of horses reared, all hooves and teeth, while a handler tried calming them back to earth. It would’ve been better footage if he hadn’t succeeded, but finally the chariot settled and exposed the damage.
Liberty was going to have to look for solo gigs. The colorful Seal’s leftmost two-thirds ended as raggedly as torn paper. The entire figure of Justice had been obliterated.
“Cool!” I said. “Not that it wouldn’t be simple enough to fake with digital editing, or even in real-time with stage magic.”
“Did you not just see the whole figure vaporize into nothingness?” Granny Mel asked.
I shook her off my shoulders and rotated to face her accusatory stare.
“I don’t know what you expect. I wasn’t there. I only have your word.”
The kicked-puppy look on her face shut me up. “Randy, I can’t return to my home or to my shop, because I can’t explain my appearance to anyone I know. I have a craving to go to the police and volunteer to investigate open cases. Every two minutes, I feel like unraveling this sweater and re-knitting the whole thing.” She yanked miscellaneous shreds of paper out of her pocket, finding one to blow her nose. “I’ve never been crafty in my life! Now, I’m a full foot shorter and decades older. I need a bra with a waistband, not shoulder straps!”
Imagine the Queen Mother’s voice saying all that, and you’ll have some idea of my cognitive dissonance. Curious, I picked up one of her discarded pastel scraps.
“I didn’t think they made pound notes anymore,” I said.
“I’m getting worse!” Granny Mel unleashed a firehose of profanity, truly admirable in both its hipness and filth.
It was that spontaneous, heartfelt outburst that convinced me. At minimum, the woman contained multiple personalities warring for dominance. Or, she was possessed. Was the diagnosis more of an All About Eve or The Exorcist? No wait, I had it.
“Identity theft isn’t really the best description of your situation,” I said, doing the finger point and shrieking Donald Sutherland face from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She wasn’t tracking with me. “Look, if you want to find yourself, maybe you should return to the scene of the crime.” I retrieved the mini-cam from my gear bag. “I hate the public as much as anybody, but I’ll even go with you. Just in case there’s some traumatic aftermath worth recording for art’s sake.”
Granny Mel’s eyes glittered with hardened purpose, and she cackled. “To the scene of the crime! And you’ll be my sidekick!”
I hated the ‘associate producer’ sound of that term, but as I locked up, I ridiculously warned the squirrel I’d hold him responsible for hijinks. I couldn’t shake my weird suspicion that the varmint would come out to play the instant this cat shut the door.
When Granny Mel and I rounded the corner toward Gowanus canal, she looked dazed by the dispersing crowd. I took her elbow to keep her from stumbling while she muttered pronouncements about everyone we passed. Men, women, children alike.
“Embezzler. He stole a hotel robe, too.”
“Thirty parking tickets?!”
“Forged his report card. 2 D’s and an F.”
“Returned her prom dress after wearing it. Yuck.”
This last was loud enough that the lady-in-question overheard, and I’d swear she looked guilty. I can’t prove it though, because I didn’t have my camera rolling while I gallantly steadied the listing H.M.S. Melanie. An annoying voice in my head reminded me of the impossibility of even an imaginative lunatic guessing out-of-the-blue about my cache of martial-arts bloodsuckers. I told that voice to shut up.
Suddenly, Granny Mel halted again, gasping, and I wondered whether she was having a grabber in the stinking heat.
She yanked my arm and my attention toward a pair of overdressed, middle-aged men, who were jamming fedoras onto their heads like they had oozing brain tumors with a side of migraine gravy. Other passersby didn’t seem to notice, and there weren’t any police idling nearby. In fact, the thinning herd of pedestrians avoided that whole section of sidewalk where the remaining half-lozenge of the Great Seal was propped against the canal’s railing. However, I couldn’t let another second elapse without filming it and its hungover-looking sentries.
The much-shorter man had a fish face and a dark suit. Though weaving on his feet, obviously distressed, he firmly gripped a glowing cigar that smelled like a burning latrine even from across the street. The taller man was Asian. His suit was as white as melted marshmallows and he sported a tight Fu Manchu. In recent years, Brooklyn’s attracted ever more artsy eccentrics, but these two were armpits-deep in character. With a stab of certainty, I knew I’d seen them before.
I backed up the footage to review what I’d just shot. I always think better when I can see things on screen. But, with both my hands thus occupied, Granny Mel was unanchored to dodder across the street toward them. I yelled a warning as she barely missed being flattened by a street-meat cart evacuating the area. I hustled across to follow, alternately glancing down at the LCD screen, until I realized what bothered me about the men I’d filmed.
“You’re not black and white!” I shouted at the confused-looking trio.
The fish-faced man spoke, waving the his cigar at me, “Your closet is overflowing with illegal copies of Hong Kong…”
“Fine, fine. I admit all that, dude. Or should I call you Barton Keyes?” Melanie looked sharply at me, snapped out of her daze. “I don’t consume as much noir as horror these days, so it took me longer to recognize him.” Her eyes were clearer, but not comprehending. “Barton Keyes was the tenacious insurance investigator, right? Closing in on his murderous, adulterous colleague, Walter Neff. You know, Keyes! Played by the immortal Edward G. Robinson! Can’t you see this guy is the spitting image?” I prodded. “Double Indemnity, anyone?”
“Oh, the movie? I’ve always been more of a reader,” Granny Mel said.
I could’ve screamed in frustration. I hate readers and their superiority complexes. The fish-faced man goggled like he was trying to breathe black mayonnaise from the canal. And instead of congratulating me on my astounding insight, Melanie looked distracted again.
“That isn’t enough?” I asked, robbed of glory. “Then you really won’t care that the other guy’s probably Charlie Chan.” I shrugged toward the ice cream man without nearly as much zest. “Zanuck produced a lot of those at Fox, but they were no Billy Wilder films. Sorry. Anticlimax.”
But it was at that moment Granny Mel cracked a horrible grin, like a prune giving birth to the Cheshire Cat. “That’s it, Randy! This is all a frame-up.” She turned that incredibly scary face to the sky, stretching her arms overhead like she was calling down lightning. “Hear me, Justice! The jig is up! Olly, olly oxen free!”
The street around us hazed pale and winked out, just like in the parade video. The only thing still in sharp focus was one, amazing girl, coming toward us in a gauzy yellow gown.
Wavy, black hair floated under its own breeze. Glossy lips pouted, manga red. She wore a windshield of tinted shades that would make me look like a praying mantis. I did find myself praying for a sudden downpour, however, as every unimpeded curve swayed beneath ridiculously thin fabric. I decided my Xena and Whedon-girl fantasies were merely the tasteless infatuations of youth.
“How was vacation, Justice?” Granny Mel asked.
Lifting the hem of her gown, the goddess revealed a pale foot with white wads between the toes, freshly-pedicured nails as red as her lips.
As crimson as the arterial spray when she pierces my heart beneath the stilettos of her gorgeous contempt.
“Randy, do you realize you’re speaking aloud?” Granny Mel drew everyone’s attention back to herself by knuckle-rapping the Great Seal’s intact plaster goddess. “I see Liberty didn’t take a powder, did she? Maybe that’s why the saying goes ‘liberty means responsibility.’” She cocked her fuzzy gray head like she was listening. “Who’s being catty? You bailed!”
The other two guys seemed to be included in the conversation, satisfied to hang out in this weird bubble-cloud and let Granny Mel duke it out as their spokesperson. Hearing no voice except the ancient one’s, I felt left out.
“But you didn’t exactly hire temps, did you?” she continued. “Your playing hooky created an instant vacuum of justice . . . Yes, I do think every woman deserves to feel pampered occasionally, but . . . Oh, yeah? Well, I got shrunken like an apple head and stuffed into a Marple-shaped hole in the universe!”
“Marple’s a funny word,” I said. Granny Mel glared at me. “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m still trying to understand what you’re talking about. Plus, I’m blanking on the movie you’re from.”
“They’re mostly novels, Randy, except for programs on PBS.” I shuddered and winced. “Agatha Christie’s detective lives in books.”
Now, that was horrible. But I thought I was getting the picture.
“So, when the goddess ditched her role for a mani-pedi, the unmet need for justice sucked in whoever was closest to fill the job? And, since you don’t watch movies, your pathetic subconscious had precisely zero cool crime-fighting identities to work with. Oh man, if only you read comic books, you could’ve mutated into something awesome!”
At my explanation, Justice’s ivory shoulder raised with the tiniest of acknowledgments. That scintilla of remorse made me want to weep forever.
Granny Mel concurred with another assertion I couldn’t hear. “…but what about the serious crimes that didn’t get handled, because we didn’t know we were supposed to be covering for you? Can you fix them all?”
The glistening cherry lips quirked. Justice drew the bad-ass shades down her nose like she had her own television series.
Shark’s eyes swirled metallic black.
In that endless moment of awful, I felt like I’d been smeared onto a glass slide. Everything I’d ever done or thought about doing was inspected and dissected from the inside out. Justice wears her blindfold as a mercy.
As fast as that, the fish-faced guy paunched back into the parade video’s bald guy in a golf shirt. Chan was transformed back into a model for hair gel. Out of habit, I looked downward for the withered gnome to find she’d gained height and lost years. The woman beside me was a real Melanie.
“One last question?” asked the rejuvenated Melanie in a whiskey voice straight from the Bronx, not Buckingham Palace. “Why today, on the quas-qui thing, and why right here, of all places, did you get the uncontrollable impulse to go AWOL?”
Justice didn’t seem to reply, but before she concealed her all-knowing orbs, they flicked toward the library. I’d swear it in court.
Melanie moved between Chan and Keyes, her arms bridging their shoulders. “Gentlemen, might we arrange to give Justice a spa day every so often to avoid such mayhem in the future?”
The goddess bounced up and down, clapping her hands in delight. I nearly had an aneurysm.
No one had asked whether I was available, but Chan and Keyes agreed like bobble-heads. The new J-league members leaned together, best buddies, hands-in. I felt totally disposable.
The goddess sashayed away, scented like the best fabric softener ever. I decided watching her shimmy up the canal’s railing was more than adequate recompense for my inconvenience. She positioned herself across the plaster, and then…
The Great Seal of New York was perfect again.
The cityscape cleared and regained its crisp edges.
Part of the surreal magic, I guess, but none of the suddenly visible passersby even slowed their strollers or texting to notice. Except for capturing two wobbly guys in fedoras, none of my video survived.
For all of this, I blame Joanna.
It was her doing that placed the uneasy contents of the Morbid Anatomy Library in their dangerous hinterland between hoax and science, industry and art, history and modernity, water and land. Where nothing’s clearly defined, anything goes. That’s what happened Saturday.
For an orange soda, I’ll tell you about Sunday.
Copyright © 2011 Clare Toohey
Clare Toohey has had many careers, just-plain-jobs, and fantastically futile passions. She considers herself to have earned journeyman’s cards in General Usefulness and Unnatural Curiosity, and is delighted to be in the company of many better writers in this anthology to benefit NYSinC. She’s clare2e here at CriminalElement.com and also blogs at Women of Mystery.