Archive for February, 2005|Monthly archive page

First In the Series

Agatha Girls

He looked older than he was. Wearing a priest’s garb will do that for, or maybe to, you. He was only seventeen, I found out later. Later. After. Later after he had hit me from almost behind. With a short, weighted club. After I had turned almost around. After sensing his arm swing back and reach forward. After I had raised my own forearm almost just enough to deflect the blow completely. Almost doesn’t count, but it’s the thought that does, and the thought I had was to protect my head, Jewish girl that I am when it comes to these things. I deflected the blow to that soft space between my neck and collarbone that still hurts like hell all these years later. After that, I watched him make the sign of the cross. And after that, I took the fall.

From my new position, on my side on the sidewalk, my head resting uncomfortably on a bottle cap’s serrated side, I watched him run away, his Nikes swooshing against the priestly robes. Then I remembered that I was very tired. I closed my eyes thinking, “Jesus, New York can be a tough place for a girl like me to make a living.”

When I came to, after twenty two minutes, my head and the bottle cap were still there. I thought, for a moment, that the bottle cap would become part of me, presenting new challenges and opportunities to my ability to accessorize. My purse was still there, with my license, my money, my credit cards, cell phone. And my lipstick, thank god. No gun, however. I won’t carry one. Anymore. Never carry something you won’t use, I believe. And I won’t use a gun anymore. I used one once, and I didn’t enjoy the experience. Even if he was a man. Even if he deserved it.

I checked myself. Carefully, deliberately before moving. I had gotten used to the bottle cap by then, barely noticing the cookie cutter pressure it placed on the side of my forehead. I took an inventory of functions, organs, and digits. And clothing. Everything was intact. Thankfully. Not that I thought sex was the reason for the faux junior priest’s attack. At least no more than I think sex is the reason for every attack by every man on every woman. I don’t. Sometimes I think money is the reason. However, a woman can never be too careful. A woman should never assume. Especially when dealing with somebody dressed as a priest.

A girl like me, I should have seen it coming. Literally and figuratively. Intuition and profession and all that. I used to see these things coming from behind me. I don’t think getting older has anything to do with it. Nor does being tired have anything to do with it. Actually, I think a bit of exhaustion sharpens the non-cognitive mind, allows you to sense things without processing them through the arrays of gates called thought. No, I think I was just a bit off my game that night. A girl like me. An Agatha Girl.

I should have seen it coming as soon as I saw him come into our office. Our office being the office of the “Agatha Girls.” The four of us, partners on the edges of crime, female private investigators, “women keeping an eye open for women,” as it says on our business cards.
How we got that name is a short story. I saw it on a sign outside a woman’s clothing boutique in Paris. So I took it. Plagiarism? I don’t think so. Who knows where the boutique owners got the name? None of them was named Agatha either. How we became Agatha Girls is a much longer story. Maybe I’ll tell you some other time.

I should have seen it coming when he walked into my office in his beige linen suit, his white unbuttoned linen shirt, his gold chains, his hair combed straight back like a cartoon version of a tango instructor, his too large ring on his right ring finger, his sockless loafered feet. He looked like someone trying to look like someone trying to look Italian.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.

“Mind if I smoke?” he replied, ignoring my insult.

“Absolutely,” I said.
His hand, holding the unlit cigaret, stopped before reaching his mouth. He put the cigaret away.
He extended his now empty hand. “Jose Dorfman.”

“Rachel Goldstein-Perez,” I said meeting his hand with my own. It was his turn.

“You’re kidding me,” he said.

“Not yet.”

“You Jewish? Puerto Rican?”

“Both,” I replied.

“Me too. How about that?”

“This is New York, Mr. Dorfman. It’s rare, I admit, but not unheard of.”

“Maybe we’re related.”

“Let’s hope not,” I said. He was so vain, he took that as a compliment, a promise of non-incestuous sex to come. What a putz.

A girl like me, I should have seen it coming just looking at him sitting there, his legs spread apart, elbowing the empty air aside because he was a man and that’s what men are supposed to do. I wonder about that. I wonder about that watching men on the subway, sit with their legs wide open , squeezing women into places too small for them to even cross their legs.

He kept his legs open like there was something I might want to see. There wasn’t.

” Are you advertising something, Mr. Dorfman. Or are you just glad to see me?”

He didn’t get it. He was so slow he didn’t register the least flush at the remark. It’s tough work, embarrassing a narcissist.

“I need you to find someone for me,” he said.

“A woman?” I asked.

“A woman,” he replied.

“Are you involved with this woman professionally or personally?”

“Both,” he said.

“And this woman no longer wishes to see you?”

“I don’t know that,” he said. “She just hasn’t shown up at work the last two days. She’s not at home. She hasn’t picked up her messages from her phone.”

“Home or business?”

“Both ,” he said. Both seemed to be his answer for the day.

“How do you know that?” I asked. “Do you live together? Do you have keys to her apartment?” I expected him to say “both.” He said “neither.”

“Her answering machine at home picks up after two rings when there’s a message already on it and four rings if there’s none. The first time I called her it picked up on four rings. Every time since then, 2 rings. As for work, we work together. Her voice mail indicator has been flashing continuously.”

“Mr. Dorfman, we don’t refuse this type of work, but we generally try to avoid it. Our experience has been that when a woman disappears those looking for her either caused her disappearance or are exactly the people she doesn’t want to know her whereabouts. So, if we accept this case, and if we do find her, we don’t and we won’t tell you her location.”

“Well, how will I know if you’ve actually found her? I am paying you for something.”

“We’ll ask her to call you. To leave a message on a phone other than yours that you will be able to listen to at a later time. But if she doesn’t want to do that, it’s your tough luck. We understand that you might not like those terms. We understand that you might want to take your business, and your search, somewhere else. We won’t mind.” Mind? I would have, I should have, paid him to go somewhere else. It would have been in everyone’s best interest. His too.

“Look,” he said, “I have to find her. It’s important to me personally and professionally.”

“Just exactly what is it that the two of you do, Mr. Dorfman?”

He hesitated. His hand slipped inside his linen jacket, searching for his cigarets. “Are you sure I can’t smoke?”

“Positively certain. What business are you in, Mr. Dorfman?”

He hesitated. “I, we, run a website.”

“Could you be more specific, Mr. Dorfman? Last time I checked there were several million web sites, most of which I hope to remain unfamiliar with.”

“Well it’s kind of an adult-oriented brokerage website.”

“A what? What kind of brokerage? Securities, real estate?”

“Not exactly.”

“Mr. Dorfman, if I were a lawyer, god forbid, if you were paying me by the hour, I would let you ‘not exactly,’ and vague me until your money ran out. But you don’t and I won’t. By the way, you do have money, don’t you?”

“I’m not just another pretty face,” he said withdrawing a roll of new hundred dollar bills with oversized pictures of another overly important ugly man on the front.

“So,” I continued, “You said adult-oriented brokerage. Just what is that? A pornographic clearing house?”

He startled, visibly struck by the accuracy of my description. “Close. Very close,” he said. “How did you guess?”

“I am a detective, Mr. Dorfman, or did you forget why you came to Agatha Girls?”

He went on without responding to that remark. “We offer adult oriented services for our member/subscibers. The usual sexually explicit photos, videos, live webcams. Nothing that unusual. Nothing illegal. No minors. No e.pimping,” he said.

“But that’s not all you offer, correct Mr. Dorfman? That’s not what makes a brokerage a brokerage. Straddling, pardon the pun, buyer and seller, that’s what makes a brokerage. Just what, or who, are you straddling that brings you to this office?”

“I’m really not a liberty to say.”

“Then I can’t help you, Mr. Dorfman. And I can’t help her. I’m a detective not a clairvoyant. I conduct investigations not seances. Tell me, or get out.”

“That simple for you, is it?”

“Most things in this life are, Mr. Dorfman. And I know it’s the simple things that give us the most trouble. So tell me or good-bye and good luck. What bigger crime are you hiding behind the smaller crime of your pornography? What’s hiding behind those raised skirts?”

He looked like he was really uncomfortable or he had his sham act down pat because he was sweating and his mouth was dry. Real actors, and accomplished liars, can do that. I know. I used to live with one.

“I’m not a criminal. We provide a service. We bring buyers and sellers together for the purpose of arranging transactions in certain rare works of art, ornamentation, decoration, and archeological artifacts. We do not inquire as to the origin of these items or how they came into a member’s possession. We make a market, an auction market, on-line, but hidden, encrypted within our website.”

A girl like me, I should have seen that coming. He was a fence. An e.fence.

I told him as much. “You mean you’re a fence in the world of electronic commerce. How clever. When’s the IPO?”

“This is real commerce, Ms. Perez. Real objects, real cash, ….”

“Real risks?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you think one of those real risks has befallen your partner, Ms…. Just what is her name?”

He reached into his jacket, the side opposite the cigaret side and withdrew a picture, handing it to me as he said her name.

“Marieta. Marieta Morales. And I don’t know, but I’m worried.”

I took the picture from his hand. I wished I hadn’t. The picture was a full length shot of a young woman about five foot ten with long curly black her, jet black eyes, and eyebrows, brown skin, lips red enough to shame lipstick. She was smiling, posing with a hip cocked in the direction of tomorrow, her short black dress and red open-toed high heels showing off her brown legs, her hand holding a glass of wine. She looked just like my sister. Just like my sister had looked before her ex-boyfriend shot her. Before he tried to strangle me. Before I took the gun away from him and shot him. I placed the picture on the desk in front of me.

“Something wrong, Ms. Perez?”

“Everything,” I said. “Tell me, who wrote the code for your software. Who did the encrypting? Pardon me for saying this, but I can’t exactly picture you in that role.”

“I’m not insulted, Ms. Perez. And I’m not stupid. But compared to her…well, she was the brains of the operation, no doubt about that…”

He let the sentence hang in the air, like a smoke ring, gently coming apart in different places all at once.

“Who’s idea was it? The website within the website, ebaying the underworld so to speak. Was it yours?”

“I thought so, at first,” he said. “But now, I’m not so sure. She seemed to know just what to do as soon as we started talking about it. She had worked for banks on their encryption and transaction software. She knew what they had in inventory.”

“Inventory?”

“Ms. Perez, I told you what we did. We arranged for buyers and sellers to find each other, to exchange their objects, to make inquiries, to bid and offer. Objects, artwork, artifacts, antiquities, without questioning. Who do you think has the resources, the accumulated property, the network to pursue these trades?”

“Microsoft?” I offered.

He laughed. “Not a bad guess. But Gates, for all his paper, is object poor, the usual condition for a newcomer. Plus, he doesn’t really care, yet, for these objects, these emblems of eternal wealth. No, not Gates or Case or Time-Warner TNT. Banks. Banks have the resources, and the history. And the Catholic Church. Nobody has a network like the Catholic Church. Nobody, not even the Brits, have been involved in amassing ancient artifacts and modern works of art like the Catholic Church.”

I just stared at him.

“I told you I’m not just another pretty face. I told you I’m not stupid.”

“And these banks, and the Church, they use your website?”

“Yes, with, until now, complete confidence. Ms. Perez, you have to understand, every calamitous event is an opportunity to separate objects, the embodiment of a culture, from its producers, and turn them into treasure, embodying value. Every invasion of a country, every economic collapse, every colonial expedition sweeps artifacts and art into the market as it shreds the culture. Once cast into the stream, these objects are naturally plucked out by those with the resources to dam the stream.”

I stared at him, this Dorfman. He looked like his website, a pornographic picture hiding something even more insidious. He acted like his website inside the website. I didn’t like him.

“And you, Mr. Dorfman, you match buyers and sellers?”

“Not exactly. We allow buyers and sellers to match each other. It’s a market in its purest expression.”

And in its origins, I thought.

“For a commission,” I added.

“Exactly, Ms. Perez. These objects are not the kind that might appear at Sotheby’s without raising more than an eyebrow. You’ve heard of the recent controversy surrounding several valuable works that, it is claimed, where taken by the Nazis from their Jewish owners?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s just the tip, the smallest part of this iceberg. The British royalty and the Catholic Church literally bulge with stolen masterpieces and artifacts. Banks also have a sizeable inventory of these works. There are artifacts from African cultures of extreme beauty and value. Lately, Russian masterpieces have been pouring into the market. These aren’t pieces that have rightful owners to speak of.”

“You mean they’re stolen.”

“More or less. But our policy is ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell.’ “

“You and the Pentagon,” I said. “Tell me Mr. Dorfman, this is a cash business? With all these electronic transactions, does actual cash ever change hands?”

“Always, Ms. Perez.”

“I’m surprised.”

“Don’t be. The technology of the exchange doesn’t change the essence of exchange one bit. Objects only become property when they can be exchanged, transformed into cash. Exchange becomes a verification process, and cash is the reward for authenticity or deception or both. For our clients, in the current atmosphere, open exchange, open recognition of their possession of these objects would prove awkward in the extreme. Nevertheless the objects compel the owners to find a method for exchange. It’s inherent in the process. “

“And the process is one of looting, pillaging, extraction.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell, Ms. Perez. We provide a service, that’s all. We don’t make judgments or moral pronouncements.”

“Unless and until somebody tries to take back what you think is yours,” I said.

We provide a service, that’s all. How many times had I heard that? It was the slogan of capitalism throughout it’s miserable history. We provide a service, that’s all. I saw those words inscibed everywhere. On gas chambers, cluster bumbs, whips, leg irons, napalm, land mines, massage parlors, ovens, gutted apartment buildings, sweatshops, collapsed coal mines, abandoned factories. We provide a service. Serving your every need, without question. Don’t ask, don’t tell. What’s mine is mine, and what’s theirs is yours. Maybe we can make a deal. It made me sick.

“I must apologize, Mr. Dorfman.”

“For what?” he asked.

“For underestimating you. You’re far more despicable than I gave you credit for originally. At first, I just disliked you. Now I thoroughly detest you.”

He laughed. “Coming from you, I’m flattered.”

“You would be,” I answered. “That’s quite a screen you’ve got for yourself there. Quite an act.”

“What act is that?”

“The gigolo act.”

“That’s no act, Ms. Perez.”

I was silent.

“May I smoke now?”

I thought about it for a second. “Sure, I said. Go ahead, light up. I wouldn’t want to do anything to keep you alive one second longer than necessary.”

He laughed again. “Care to join me?” he said offering me a cigaret.

“Not on your life,” I said. He found that funny, too. I thought he was having too good a time.
As he smoked he gave me the background details I needed for my investigation, Marieta’s address, telephone number, her age, background, family in the area (none), friends in the area (none), length of time they had know each other (two years).

“Bank accounts?” I asked.

“Citibank.”

“Of course,” I said. If Citibank was good enough to assist the former president of Mexico in feathering a nest with funds of questionable origin, it was good enough for them.

“Tell me, Mr. Dorfman. As a broker, do you trade in these objects for your own account?”

“Of course,” he said, “You’re catching on quickly.”

I ignored that remark. “The last time you saw Marieta, or spoke with her, did it involve one of those transactions for your own account?””Yes.”

“Tell me about it.”

Marieta was making an exchange. Several paintings. For cash. For a lot of cash. Millions. Three millions to be precise. She had received the cash, but, according to the other party, never delivered the paintings. That was all he knew.

“Do you believe that?” I asked. “That she never delivered the paintings?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, that’s partly why I’m here.”

“The other party, they must be upset.”

“Extremely.”

“Violently?”

“Violence is inherent in money. Money is a compelling force. But we never had a problem before. Our service was too important for any individual, individual institution, to jeopardize. Our partners regulated each other’s greed.”

I wasn’t convinced. “And who regulates your greed, Mr. Dorfman?”

“Fear, Ms. Perez. Fear keeps things in perspective for me.”

After another hour, I had amassed enough detail to form an outline of the steps necessary to beginning the investigation. More than one thing I made a point of not asking, not knowing, not wanting to know, the domain name of the website, it’s e.address, a pass code to allow me into the website within the website.

Dorfman left, taking his cigarets with him. I emptied the ashtray and sat down to think. I stared at the picture, the picture of the beautiful young African-European-Caribbean woman who wore a little black dress like she was born in it, who wore the red open-toed high heels like it was her birthright, who radiated sex through every pore, who looked exactly like my sister, Rebecca. I thought about the case. I thought about being in over my head. Briefly. I opened my desk drawer. I kept a few pictures, not at home, where they could affect me too deeply, but here at work, where I could discipline or distract myself from these documents of grief. She stared back at me, smiling. I stared back at me smiling. We were there together, arms around each other, wearing little black dresses, our legs bold in their presentation, our hips proud in their expansion. Girls holding each other, sisters, laughing at the boys who wanted to have us, possess us, own us, parade us, and then discard us, like property.

I took both pictures, of Marieta, and of the two sisters and slipped them into my purse. I went home. I opened a bottle of dark rum. I drank a toast to us, to all of us, daughters of the sugar cane.

The next morning, Saturday, I awoke with a definite idea of where to go and a particular place to be. I dressed in my Jennifer Lopez best, short tight skirt, my booty hugger as it was known in the neighborhood, my open-toed heels, fuck-me pumps as they were known to the neighborhood of women, tight blouse, and very little makeup. I was going to visit the super of Marieta’s building, and armed with my pictures, and my costume, I would convince him that I was Marieta’s sister whom she had asked to water the plants while she was way, forgetting however to give me the keys. I would be shy, embarrassed, almost helpless. I had done this before. It always worked because men are always men. I don’t blame them for that.

Marieta’s building was a redone pre-war apartment building on Avenue B that had been gutted and refurbished during the class war days of the Reagan era. The lobby gleamed with polished brass and cool marble. There was no doorman. I rang the super’s bell and we conversed through the intercom, briefly, and in Spanish. He came to the lobby door and let me in. I showed him the pictures. His face light up.

“Ah, yes, two of you together. What a beautiful sight.” He couldn’t hand me the set of keys quickly enough. I thanked him and went up the elevator to the sixth floor like I had been there a hundred times before.

I entered the apartment and double-locked the door behind me. It was a large apartment. Larger than my own. With a southerly exposure in the living area and an easterly one in her large bedroom. The apartment was perfectly clean and perfectly in order, as if it were waiting to be shown to future tenants. I guessed the rent at $2800 a month. The furniture was spare in line and quantity. A lean couch, chair, small table, TV set, VCR. There was an eating area with a counter and stools. I opened the door to the refrigerator. It was empty. The freezer was empty. Even of ice cubes. Both compartments smelled fresh, as if recently cleaned. The cabinets were empty, except for several coffee cups. The wastebaskets were empty. The phone, cordless, was in its cradle, it’s red light blinking away, indicating three messages. I pushed the play button and listened. Message one from Dorfman. Message two from Dorfman. Message three from Dorfman. I pressed *69 on the phone and the digitized voice proceed to unreel ten numbers that were 212 and Dorfman’s phone number.

I checked the bathroom. Everything was clean, and empty. The medicine cabinet was empty. The cabinet under the sink free of cleaning supplies or towels. The soap dish without the slightest residue.

The windows were open in the bedroom, and the curtains rustled comfortably in the breeze, like horsetails swishing while the animal grazed. She had real closets. Two of them in her bedroom. I was envious. Two real closets! I remembered reading Freud, smirking at his question “What do women want?” Closet space, dummy. There was a dresser, a make-up table, and a bed. The dresser top was uncluttered and dust free. The make-up table free of bottles, jars, tubes, sticks, brushes. The bed made and not slept in.

I opened the first closet. Empty. I opened the second closet. There were dresses, skirts, and blouses. A few of each. And empty hangars, more than a few. And shoes. Marieta had an eye for shoes. The ones she left behind were beautiful. For a second, I almost started trying them on. The ones she took with her must have been outrageous. I knew this woman had planned her departure. She had taken her cosmetics. And her little black dress. And her red open-toed high heels. Wherever she was going, she was going to look good, and she wasn’t going to look back.
I bent down, bending from the knees while keeping them together, as my mother had taught us, and checked the floor of the second closet, behind the line of shoes. There, on a little leather strap, I found a set of keys. I walked back to the front door and tried the keys. They fit. The one that didn’t had to be the one to the lobby door. I slipped them into my purse, without apologies to the super.

I walked back into the bedroom and started removing the drawers from the dresser. Not that I thought anything was hidden there. Anything that had been hidden there would not have been forgotten. But things do fall out of drawers. Things do lodge in the area between drawers, in the bottom of a dresser. And there was such a thing in such a place. It was another photograph. Of Marieta and what looked to be her girlfriends. They were leaning against a waist-high stone wall, in the background was the sea. They were smiling, they’re arms around each other’s shoulders. They were all wearing maroon berets. Green poplin shirts, green poplin pants with bellows pockets on the thighs, and boots. I didn’t know where the picture had been taken, or when. But I knew what. These weren’t campfire girls. They were soldiers. I had found something. Now it was time to leave.

There were several plants in the living room, and I watered them before I left.

In the lobby, I returned the keys to the super, thanking him and promising to be back in three days. I kissed him on the cheek and left the building like the caring big sister I knew how to be. I walked with long strides, mulling over the information, or lack thereof, I had gathered in the apartment. I knew I had to call Dorfman. Something wasn’t right, to put it mildly. Something wasn’t right enough to make me not want to use a cell phone for the call. I found a working pay phone, and a quarter. He answered the phone on the first ring, like he had been expecting the call. The skin that I can never scratch, the skin I can never reach on my back, the skin I can never wash without a back scrubber or one of those loofa sponges, that skin between my shoulder blades, started to tingle. That skin was telling me something, and it wasn’t about the weather.

“Dorfman, Perez. We need to talk.”

“Did you find something?”

Was it anxiety or anticipation in his voice? Wish or fear?

“Yes. No. I don’t know, yet. But I need more information.”

“OK. Where and when?”

“Today. My office.”

“No, today’s a bad day for me. Tomorrow. And not in your office. How about at the waterfront, near my office at the World Financial Center? I’ll meet you along the walkway, just north of the plaza. Eight AM, is that OK?”

“OK,” I said. “Just one thing. Where is Marieta from?”

“The Dominican Republic,” he said.

“You sure?” I said.

“Sure I’m sure. She’s Dominican. From the Atlantic Coast.”

“OK.” I hung up.

I walked home, conscious of the effect my attire was having on the men who lounged on stoops, drinking beer, smoking, making sucking noises as I walked by. Nothing melts a woman’s heart like grunts and sucking noises, right girls?

After I changed into slacks and sandals, I sat down with an espresso and the photographs I was carrying around like visas stamped onto an invisible passport. I focussed on the picture of Marieta and her comrades. Their uniforms were without insignia, decoration, or rank. I thought that unusual, or usual only of those undergoing special training in intelligence or reconnaissance. I couldn’t place the background, but it looked familiar, almost classic. A place where a million picture had been taken, a thousand movies made, a piece of history, history that seeped into my brain even before I was aware of its meaning. Something, someplace important.

I set the alarm for 6 AM. I wanted to be up and out and at the World Financial Center before Dorfman. I wanted to watch him arrive, see if there was any change in his cocksuredness. At 7 AM, I was there, staring into the thick green waters of New York Harbor. I picked up a handful of pebbles and began tossing them into the water, listening to the soft shallow splash as each one hit the water. I watched one of the pebbles sink into the water, when something seemed to be floating up from the bottom. It was something large, with something billowing as it moved lazily to the surface. I stared, believing totally what I was seeing. It was Dorfman, and he wasn’t coming up for air. His white linen shirt waved softly in the water. His beige linen jacket trailed off one of his arms. His mouth was open. And there was a hole where his left eye used to be.
I moved away with as much nonchalance as I could muster. I would have whistled if my mouth hadn’t been so dry. I turned and headed east, away from that spot, that spot in the water that had been my client, looking for a pay phone that worked. When I found one, I dialed 911 and told the operator what and where.

“Is he breathing?” she asked.

“Not so’s you’d notice,” I said.

“Have you tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?”

I hung up.

I had never lost a client before, not like this. Not because I’m that good. I was a little beyond my normal range. Murder was a little bit outside my professional experience. I remembered my last phone conversation with Dorfman. I remembered him saying, “…today’s a bad day for me.” He wasn’t kidding. But guess what Dorfman? Tomorrow isn’t going to be any better. Or the next day. Or the day after that.

I didn’t like being in water this much over my head, not to mention Dorfman’s. I had no idea which way to turn. So I turned and went back to the office, to the home of the Agatha Girls. Our office has always been a place of our strength. Maybe because there are four of us. Maybe just because it’s ours. I went to the office, double locking the door behind me.

I sat at my desk, pulling out the pictures again. One of Marieta, one of Rebecca and me, one of Marieta and her comrades. Comrades. Comrades. Then it struck me. Comrades. The picture. The wall, the sea. The picture was taken in Havana. Along the Malecon, facing the sea. Marieta and her comrades were just that. Comrades. Soldiers of the Cuban Revolution. It was the Malecon, the sea, a place where a million pictures had been taken, a place that pictured a revolution blocked off by the sea.

I put the pictures down and waited for night. I knew where I had to go. Back to Marieta’s apartment.

It was after midnight when I turned down Avenue B. The street was empty. The lower east side had changed. Night life here, now, was governed, paid for, by those who went to work on Monday mornings. I was thinking about that when the air moved behind me and I turned almost in time and I went down to ground and met the bottle cap. And it was twenty two minutes later when I awoke, dusted myself off, stood back up, cursing the costumed little bastard, and wobbled over to Marieta’s building, pushed into the lobby, the elevator, her apartment. Rubbing my neck. Waiting for the phone to ring. It did.

“Hola,” I said, “Marieta?”

“Hola,” the voice, strong, confident, proud, replied. “Companera Perez.”

“Si.”

“Should we speak in English?”

“That’s fine.”

“Where are you Marieta?”

“Companera Perez, I bring you greetings from Havana.”

“Well, Marieta, hello from New York. Is there something you want to tell me?”

“You’re well, I trust.”

“Compared to Dorfman, I’m perfect.”

“Yes, poor Dorfman, I heard about that. Too bad.”

“Did you kill him, Marieta?”

“Do you think I could, Rachel?”

“Hell yes. I know I could.” There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“I didn’t. Despite all his shortcomings, despite his Guido-envy and his South Beachitis, he wasn’t a bad person. He never insulted me or tried to take advantage of me. And he was a gentle lover with me. His death saddens me. It wasn’t necessary. If he had done what he was supposed to do, he could have gotten away.”

“What was he suppose to do, Marieta?”

“We had agreed if one of us disappeared or if trouble threatened, that we would leave everything intact and just walk away. We would touch nothing. Move none of the inventory. Transfer none of the funds from our working accounts, taking only the cash on hand.”
“You seemed to have taken a bit more than the petty cash.”

“Yes, but there was plenty of cash remaining for him to make his disappearance. His greed got the better of him. He tried to transfer funds out of the working accounts. His clients saw the movement in the accounts and acted.”

I remembered Dorfman saying that it was fear that kept his greed in check. Not in check enough was the verdict.

“Explain it to me Marieta, please. What was your purpose, or should I say mission?”

“Companera, let me tell you something first. As we speak, the records of every transaction conducted on or through our website are being electronically transmitted to your Internal Revenue Service, Britain’s Inland Revenue office, the tax offices of every country in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. And every major newspaper in the world.”

She laughed. “Nothing is more fun than turning the tax hounds on their masters. As for our purpose, my mission. We, in Cuba, know there is going to be, what you call an ‘opening,’ with Cuba. We know also that this opening will unleash forces that we may not be able to control completely or indefinitely. We know that one of those forces is a primitive cultural accumulation for capitalists, and disaccumulation for the rest of society. We want to make that process a little more difficult, a little less bold. We know that we may not defeat capitalism in this or any battle, but we remember how to retreat, how to find our way to our mountains, how to reassemble, and fight our way back out. Such was the purpose of my mission.”

“And the three million dollars?”

“An unexpected gift to the people of Cuba from one of your real estate barons. Perhaps he’ll declare it as a charitable contribution.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “I would be lying, Marieta, if I didn’t tell you I’m impressed. I’m very impressed. Will I live long enough to remember this conversation tomorrow?”

“Definitely, companera. You were an integral part of our getaway. Our clients were supposed to follow you following me. In that way Dorfman could have escaped. The boy who struck you earlier is being taken back to his employers with a message as we speak.”

I was silent. Hopeful yet guilty about the boy’s fate.

“Companera Perez, have you ever been to Havana?”

“Not yet,” I replied.

“I invite you to Havana as my guest. We will walk together along the Malecon. Order ice cream at Coppelia. At night, we’ll go to the Casa de Musica and dance the son. Can you dance the son?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You know, companera. The Argentines call the tango a way of walking. But the son is everybody talking. Everybody talking all at once and understanding everything being said. We’ll go and dance. The men will line up around the block to dance with us, for a chance to dance with my big sister from Nueva York. We’ll break hearts and laugh about it as we walk home.”

I laughed into the phone, hard. “It’s that way in Havana, too?”

“That part of it is the same. But no man here would ever touch a woman without her permission. You can feel safe here.”

I found that, that feeling safe there or anywhere, hard to believe.

“Sounds interesting,” I said. “How will I be able to get in touch with you if I decide to visit?”

“Email,” she said. She proceeded to give me her email address, an address that ended in .cu.

I shook my head. A girl like me, I should have seen it coming. An Agatha Girl like me. I should have known.

—————

Written, I think, around 2000.

address all comments to: sartesian@earthlink.net

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Something Completely Different, A Story

Snow Angel

I know I couldn’t have gotten out of the State Supreme Court building any faster, but it wasn’t fast enough. The elevator couldn’t come quickly enough and I couldn’t wait. The stairs weren’t close, but I didn’t care and I banged through the exit door and hopped down the steps like a goat coming down a mountain in Springtime to the smell of new grasses, or the smell of new goats.

If I had been out of the building even before I entered it, that wouldn’t have been soon enough. I had spent some four weeks, twenty-two working half days, inside its linoleum, wood, and stone interior, twenty-two half days with twenty people listening to half a dozen assistant district attorneys present various versions on a single theme, “Ladies and gentlemen of the grand jury, the state believes that the evidence presented is sufficient for you to vote the indictment of ____________________ for violations of sections ______________________ of the criminal code.” The ADAs had all been white men and women. The cops were all white men and women. The accused, those few that chose to appear before us, were all men and women of color.

After each presentation of the so-called evidence, the grand jury would vote. Hands would be raised to vote the indictment. Most of the time, more hands than enough. Sometimes almost all hands. Rarely, all too rarely, less than enough.

I’ve never been selected for a trial jury. When I’m called for trial jury duty, which happens with regularity, I spend four days being rejected from panel after panel and then I’m released back to my regular life with a little white ticket stamped with my days of service to show my employer. Except I’m my employer, or one of my employers, and the other three would never ask me to prove that I was actually doing what I said I was doing. Our agency, Agatha Girls Private Investigations is a cooperative effort of four women.

Grand jury is supposed to be a completely different animal. The grand jury was intended to be the real power in the pursuit of criminal activity. It has become little more than a formality, voting indictments at the request of the prosecutors. Majority not unanimity rules the grand jury decisions, and so the ADAs feel secure despite the occasional disruptive presence of somebody like me, somebody who wouldn’t believe a prosecutor if her life depended on it.

The grand jury term had, thankfully, expired, and I was free to go.

When I exited the building, passing to the outside of the metal detectors, it was snowing. It was snowing a fine, white, dry, powder snow. It was the perfect snow for skiing. Except I was in New York.

And I wasn’t wearing skis. I was wearing black heels with gray suede toes and a gray ankle straps, the shoes matching my black suit with the silver chalk stripe.

The air was perfectly still while the snow fell, as if the snow had first surprised, then hypnotized the air, the streets, the sidewalks, the entire city. The snow fell densely, seeming to connect, to form long, almost polymer chains in the air, the chains creating geometric shapes of two dimension, rectangles, triangles, the shapes covering the ground like pieces of crystalline sod.
I hesitated for a second, transfixed by a city being hushed into silence by this simple change of weather. Then I went down the steps of the building and into the snow, suede shoes and thin woolen slacks and all, feeling a great relief at no longer being in there.

The snow flowed from beneath my shoes with, before, each step, as if it saw and felt and fled the shadow and the weight looming above its repose.

I was at the corner of Canal and Centre. I decided to turn left, head to West Broadway, to the Soho Grand Hotel and buy myself a drink.

I don’t usually frequent places like the bar at the Soho Grand Hotel. I don’t usually frequent Soho. But this was an unusual day. I had two things to celebrate. I was finished with grand jury, all juries, for several years. And it was snowing

I didn’t mind the snow melting on my ankles. I didn’t worry about the snow on the leather of my shoes. I wasn’t worried about anything. I was free. I was free, non-white, and over twenty-one.
I like the snow. Snow appears as a respite from the monotony of wind and chill. Snow at least is wind and chill with a purpose. Snow is nature’s civil disobedience to the city, its nonviolent resistance, its demonstration of a power beyond mastery. Snow stirs memories in me I never knew I had. I walk for hours in the snow, feeling it inside my skin, inside my eyes, inside my head, warm almost.

The bar at the Soho Grand is crowded at night, with younger women and men displaying more of themselves than I care to display. Youth, and discretionary, income will be served. But this was Tuesday, not Friday. And this was late afternoon. So, except for two obvious businessmen, and an obvious tourist couple, the bar was empty.

The bar offers Bruegel Anejo, a Dominican dark rum, my current favorite, and after ordering my drink at the bar, I carried the glass over to the distinctly uncomfortable chair arranged next to a cube masquerading as a table, next to the window looking over West Broadway. I extended my legs, crossing them at the ankles, sipped my drink and watched the snow shake itself out of the sky. The streetlights had come on, a meaningless, well-intentioned gesture, as the falling crystals cocooned sight and sound, breath and light.

I sipped the rum, savoring its molasses smell as it puddled on my tongue. I let myself drift in the sensations of wood, sugar, and alcohol. I closed my eyes and felt a sun that wasn’t there, saw it pouring through my eyelids, lighting me up from the inside. I heard the cane fields dancing in the wind. Meanwhile the snow rained down on a city gone into hiding. I must have sighed.

“The last time I heard a woman make that sound, she was holding a sleeping child,” a man’s voice said.

I opened my eyes and saw a tall man with short hair and big hands holding a small glass of whiskey.

“Did you bother her too?” I asked.

He laughed. “Everything I did bothered her. We were married at the time.” He extended his hand and presented me with a card.

“I’m Anthony Kennedy. I work for the district attorney’s office. I recognized you from the grand jury.”

“And now you’re allowed to talk to me, right?”

“Just my luck.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said, “and mine too.”

He was taller than six two and older than forty. Which was OK, for starters. But he was, as his card advertised, an investigator for the district attorney’s office. In other words, a New York City detective assigned to the DA. Not OK for finishers.

Neither his face nor his coloring gave evidence of an Irish lineage. The eyes were dark, the skin olive, and there were angles in the face that looked like they had been there awhile.

“Rachel Perez-Goldstein,” I said, offering my hand.

“Nice name.”

“I like it,” I said. “Makes an impression, you know?”

He nodded. “May I sit down?” he asked.

“I don’t recommend it until you’ve finished your drink and the alcohol has taken effect. The chairs aren’t very comfortable.”

He hesitated, laughed again, and then lowered himself into the chair.

“Actually, Ms. Perez-Goldstein, you, I mean you and your fellow grand jurors, made quite a stir in our office. You only returned indictments on two thirds of the cases.”

“Is that an unusually low rate of return on the state’s investment?” I asked.

“Unusual doesn’t do it justice. Unheard of is more like it. To the point of embarrassment. You and your cohorts had several ADAs in tears. They’re used to 100 percent. They’re even told by their supervisors that 99 and a half won’t do.”

“To borrow a line from the Wicked Mr. Pickett,” I said, hearing the song in my head. But the DA’s man didn’t get the reference. “Well,” I continued, “I don’t know whether to feel good or bad about that. Good that we managed to be such a disappointment, or bad that it’s such a rare event.”

“You think you should have returned fewer indictments?” he asked.

“I don’t think we should have returned any indictments.”

“You don’t have much regard for the criminal justice system?”
“I regard the criminal justice system as just that, a criminal justice system.”

“Perhaps I’m wasting my time?”

“If you intended to convince me of the righteousness of the district attorney’s office and the New York City Police Department, absolutely,” I said.

“And if my intentions are something else?”

I wanted to tell him that a man’s always at his most honest when he’s being duplicitous, that a man’s most honorable intentions are his dishonorable intentions. I wanted to tell him to show me something new, tell me something I didn’t already know.

“Then I’d say you have your work cut out for you.”

“I’m not afraid of work,” he said.

“Fear has nothing to do with it,” I said.

That made him pause. “Well, let me start by buying you a drink. Rum?” he said pointing to my glass.

“Yes, and no. Yes, it’s rum. And no thank you, one’s enough.”

He hesitated. “OK,” he said. “Something else? Espresso?”

It was my turn to hesitate. He’s trying, the softer side of me thought. “Espresso would be nice.”

I watched him as he walked to the bar. He carried himself well, his arms relaxed at his sides, his legs eating up the distance in three nonchalant strides. It was a self-confidence that could almost pace for grace.

He returned with the espresso and the sugar. I sipped the espresso.

“Sugar?” he asked.

“Never touch the stuff,” I said. “At least not in that form.”

He smiled and looked out the window. The snow was falling at a steady, even pace; like a distance runner who doesn’t know, doesn’t care, how long the distance is, but knows how to make the distance, whatever it may be. It looked, it felt, like it might snow forever. It looked like the sky had opened its strategic reserve of snow and decided to shake the bags over the city for a night, a day, a week.

“You live near here?” he asked.

He was trying again. I knew he knew, could have known, where I lived from my juror’s file.

“Not far, East Village, Second Avenue. And you?”

“Brooklyn. Moved there from the Island about two years ago after the divorce. It’s nice. Where do you work?”

I reached into the pocket of my jacket and handed him a card. He studied it and then peered at me, as if he were looking over the tops of glasses which he wasn’t wearing.

“Agatha Girls. Private Investigations. Women Looking Out For Women,” he read. “I’m not surprised.”

“You’re not?” I thought he might be trying a little too hard.

“No,” he said. “I thought, sooner or later, somebody would do this. I don’t want to betray any secret information, but the official institutions of criminal investigation are not exactly women-friendly .”

I smiled. Confirmation, affirmation, have that affect on me. They have that affect on all of us.

“How’s business?” he asked.

“Tips and all, can’t complain.”

He laughed. “Rachel, could I call you. Would you like to have dinner sometime?”

“The number’s on the card, but,” I stopped. He looked disappointed. He was hoping I would give him my home number. I wasn’t sorry to disappoint him. “as I said, you have your work cut out for you.”

“Why’s that?” he said. “Let me guess. You never date cops?”

“Yes and no. I’ve never dated a cop. But that’s not it.”

“Well, what then?”

“I never date Kennedys.”

He was stunned for a second and then began to laugh, loudly, so loudly that the businessmen turned around to look at us.

“Let me give you a ride home,” he said. “My car is parked across the street.”

“And I never get into a car with one,” I said.

He laughed again.

“But seriously, no thank you,” I continued. “I really prefer to walk. I love to walk in the snow.”

He looked at me, eyeing me up and down with something that was equal parts of caution, desire, and amusement. “You’ll ruin your shoes.”

I shrugged. “Gives me a chance to buy more.”

“You know,” he said, warming to the contest, looking for the one remark that would make me wonder about him long into the night, “I’ve dated several women since my divorce, and I really think there’s a tiny Imelda Marcos in every little girl.”

“You know,” I said, matching perfectly the cadence of his speech, “I’ve dated several men since their divorces, and I really think there’s a tiny Ted Bundy in every little boy.”

I thanked him for the espresso. We shook hands. I stood up, wrapped my coat around me and left him sitting there, knowing he would be thinking about me.

It was dark as I walked up West Broadway. The falling snow scattered light everywhere and the sky glowed with a milky opalescence, shades of gray, black, and white swirling silently. The snow was thick and fresh underfoot, so much so that I imagined that it might be fur, the fur of arctic foxes, wolves, hares. I waited for the animals beneath the pelts to raise themselves up, shake themselves, throwing all of us off balance as they licked and cleaned the fur where we had walked.

I know a body loses one-third of its heat through the head. And I know I should have been wearing a hat. I could hear my mother’s voice inside me, worrying me, “Wear a hat, carina, or you’ll freeze.” But I never did. Not then. Not now. The snow settled into my hair, melting and then refreezing until it formed a crystalline network within the black strands.

The snow settled on the shoulders of my coat draping itself on me. Flakes landed and stayed on my eyelashes, quivering on little spider’s legs. My feet plowed through the powder, the snow packing itself into the cuffs of my slacks, melting against my ankles and into my shoes. It was then against all reality that it happened again. I began to feel warm. I felt I was walking in a blizzard of sunshine, showered by dust brought up from the earth and then thrown down again by hot, wet winds.

Call it the unity of opposites, but when it snows, I feel the sugar cane inside me. I hear it whispering its secrets, telling its history in the wind that blows all around me. I feel the cane bending down, entangling itself in my damp, glistening, ink colored hair. When I walk, I’m walking inside a field of seven foot, eight foot, nine foot stalks; stalks with sharp edged flat leaves that chatter in the wind, murmur in the sun. When I walk, I’m walking in a field that sways to the rhythm of labor in chains. Buildings become islands, ships, ports, markets, mills, some with names I’ve never spoken– Elmina, Sao Tome, Mpinda, Pernambuco, Anasco, Nuestra Senora de Begona, Guines.

When I feel this, when I feel the sugar in my blood, when I smell the molasses on my breath, I think of the sugar cane as a disease, a virus commandeering my own genetic machinery, reproducing itself in every one of my cells forever, and for no reason other than reproducing itself. Then I dream the dreams of the grandparents of my grandparents’ grandparents, transported across the ocean to labor, to serve as hosts for the sugar cane, losing their own lives so that the cane, the owners of the cane, might buy more black men and women, bind them to the cane with rope and chain, reproducing forever the triangle trade of blood, gold, and sugar.

When I reached Spring Street, I turned left instead of right or going straight. I walked one block to Thompson Street and then headed north again. I take a secret, guilty, pleasure in walking on Thompson. The street is lined with small shops, most of them mostly selling things I know I shouldn’t buy, things I can’t afford. And the street is home to large rectangular buildings, once small factories, now recommissioned as lofts; places I could never afford.

I heard sirens calling somewhere in the distance, muffled by the weight of the air, their wail seeming to come from long ago and a million miles away.

When I crossed Prince Street, the sirens had ended, their place now taken by a chorus of flashing lights, blue, red, yellow and white, from the police cruisers, marked and unmarked, the fire truck, and two EMS ambulances stopped about half a block up on Thompson. The sidewalk was filled with dark shapes, rounded shoulders beneath coats, standing without movement, gathered almost in a huddle. The rest of the sidewalk was empty. The snow had driven everyone indoors. Almost everyone.

I approached the huddle and a head lifted and turned in my direction.

“Rachel?”

“Kennedy?”

He moved out of the circle.

“What’s going on?”, I asked.

“Somebody fell.”

“Fell?”

He moved aside and brought me into the huddle. The other men shifted to accommodate me. There on the sidewalk lay a woman. Not somebody, but a woman, on her back, her arms and legs spread wide, as if she had been stopped and frozen in the midst of making a snow angel. Around her the snow had been move to the sides by the impact of her body. A red stain crawled through the snow from the back of her head. More blood dripped from her ears and nose. She was wearing a short, black, cocktail dress. The dress had been forced up over her hips during her fall. She wore black stockings with garters and what appeared to be a thong. Black open-toed high heels were strapped to her ankles, her toenails shining red through the stockings.
I looked at the face, the dark hair and brows, the broad and sharp cheekbones. She was beautiful. And dead.

She lay on the sidewalk in front of a building that had once been a hat factory. In the 1970s it had been sold, floor by floor, to artists and writers. They formed the vanguard of the gentrification of the neighborhood. Some artists stayed. Some sold, their places taken by Wall Streeters and consultants.

“Who made the call?”, I asked.

“We don’t know. 911 from a pay phone.”

“How long ago?”

“Thirty maybe forty minutes. Took them some time to get here. The snow. I was just pulling away from the Grand when I heard about it.”

He looked at me, at the snow layered into my hair, caked on my shoulders, covering my feet.

“Aren’t you cold?”

“I wasn’t,” I said, “until now.” I started to shiver.

“Why don’t you sit in my car?” he said and pointed to his navy blue official Ford.

“No thanks. Fell?”

“Or jumped.”

“Or was pushed,” I said.

“Why do you say that?”

I looked again at the body, the fragile indelicacy of its position, its exposure of so much of itself to the strangers surrounding it as if warming themselves by its disappearing heat.

“No woman dresses like that and then jumps out a window or off a roof. No woman wants to be exposed, helpless, in that way in life or in death. She didn’t jump, and I doubt she fell. The body’s too far out from the face of the building. She had a trajectory.” I didn’t say what else I felt, what else I saw in the body laying in front of me, that I saw another woman thrown away.

The men in the huddle looked at me.

“It’s what she does,” said Kennedy. “She’s a private investigator.”

I heard some of them grunt.

Another shape entered the huddle.

“Goldstein, what are you doing here? Besides getting in the way?”

The voice and the sarcasm belonged to Detective Sergeant Roman Velez. I wasn’t happy knowing the voice, the sarcasm, or the detective.

“She’s with me, Velez,” said Kennedy.

“No I’m not,” I said.

A uniformed officer came up to Velez and spoke in his ear. Velez turned his head and looked toward the street. My eyes followed his. Ten feet away stood a tall, pale man. In the scattered light of the snow he looked more shadow than substance. He was wearing an expensive overcoat of dark cashmere, dark slacks, and glistening, soft loafers. He was hatless. Snow had just begun to collect in his hair. The shoulders of his coat were dusted lightly with white powder. The cuffs of his slacks were still neat and sharp. He held a briefcase in his right hand. Velez left the circle and went over to speak with him. Kennedy looked at me.

“OK, you’re not with me. Thanks for correcting me.”

“Don’t mention it. How about we find out who that guy is? And who she is.”

Velez brought the man to the circle. We moved back. The man was in his late fifties, with a narrow angular face. The eyes were pale, so pale, the little color in the cornea was there only so he might pass among others without generating alarm. His lips were thin, hidden. He stared at the woman in the snow and nodded his head.

“My poor angel,” he said. His hand went up to his chin and began to cover his mouth before he became aware of its motion and pulled it back down. He and Roman stepped back. Kennedy left the circle and joined them. I waited.

I moved out of the circle. I had seen all, more than, I needed. I looked up at the building. A few of the floor to ceiling windows on the different levels glowed from within. Most were dark. None of them were open. I looked up past the windows to the roof, the snowflakes melting in my eyes.
Kennedy walked back to me, his hands jammed into his pockets. He was muttering something that sounded profane in a language other than English.

“What?” I asked.

“Velez claimed jurisdiction. Asked me what I knew. Thanked me, told me to leave, asked me to take you with me.”

“Told you it was a mistake to say we were together. Did you find out anything?”

“Names. His name is Warren Bannister. Lives here. Her name is Carla Monterios. They were ‘friends.'”

“Friends? Come on,” I said. My voice was louder than I had intended. It surprised even me.

“What kind of friends? How long? Does she have the keys? Is her name on the mailbox? Does she live here? How did they meet? Friends?” I said. “Where was he when she was taking her fall?”

He held his hands up to his face, ducking behind the out turned palms. “Wait a minute. I told you, Velez claimed jurisdiction.”

I wanted to say ‘fuck Velez.’ I wanted to threaten to ask the questions myself, knowing, of course that that would ensure that I never got the answers.

“Maybe tomorrow?” I said, dropping my voice, trying to drain away the fear, the fear that this woman was about to be swept away, plowed to the side like the snow on the streets, and the fury, the fury that this death, like others, was regarded as just another ordinary unusual event.
“Maybe tomorrow you can find out a little more. Call me with some information?”

Kennedy nodded. “I’ll try. Let’s get out of here. I’ll drive you home.”

I hesitated. My shoulders slumped. My ankles burned with cold. I didn’t feel like walking. I nodded and we moved toward the car. Kennedy turned off the flasher and opened the door for me, still trying.

We were silent as the car moved slowly down Houston. The wipers quickly accumulated a beard of ice. Kennedy turned the heater up to high and directed the air onto the windshield. On the back window, a thousand drops of snow beaded, turning to water along the heated wire defroster. He turned left on First Avenue, left on 13th Street, left on Second Avenue and stopped in front of the Japanese restaurant that occupied the ground floor of my apartment building.

We sat there for several moments. I almost didn’t want to move.

“What are you thinking?” asked Kennedy.

“I’m thinking most women are killed by men they know; men they know as husbands, lovers, relatives, coworkers. Men they know as friends. I was thinking that most men get away with it. Pakistan, India, Brazil, United States, same story.”

“Don’t you think you’re jumping to conclusions.”

“Nice choice of words, Kennedy, but no I don’t think I’m jumping to conclusions, no more than I think she jumped off that building.”

“Innocent ’til proven guilty? How about that?”

“Nice to hear someone from the District Attorney’s office say that, but I’m not talking about due process, I’m talking about likelihood, probabilities, statistical distribution.”

He shifted uncomfortably in the seat.

“What was that you were muttering after you had talked to Velez?”

“What?,” he said, startled by someone else’s awareness of an automatic, personal act.

“What were you saying, and in what language?”

He laughed. “Something along the lines of ‘Fuck you Velez. I’ll ask the questions myself,’ in Portuguese.”

“Portuguese?”

“Yeah, surprised? My mother’s from Brazil. Taught me a few things.”

“I didn’t recognize it,” I said.

“Probably not your fault. I don’t do the pronunciations very well.”

I opened the door and stepped into the street. I leaned back inside the car. “Thanks for the ride,” I said. “Call me when you get some information, please?”

He nodded. I could feel him watching as I walked to the door of my building. He waited until I was inside before pulling away from the curb. Still trying.

Once inside my apartment I stepped out of my clothes like I was a hermit crab moving to a different shell. I balled up sheets of newsprint and stuffed them inside my shoes while wrapping the outside with paper towels. I opened my bag to clean the snow from it, picked out the cell phone and plugged it into its charger.

The shower ran hot. It filled the bathroom with steam and I let the water run on me until the steam filled my lungs and made it hard to breathe. I wrapped two towels around me, another around my hair. I took the bottle of Bruegel and poured some into a cognac glass before pouring it down my throat. When the rum hit my stomach it revived my hunger more than my spirits. I was hungry, but not hungry enough to do anything about it. I would go to bed hungry, dream hungry, and wake-up hungry enough to confront the issue. That would be then. Now I put the bottle away, unwound the towels, slipped into a tee shirt and shorts, ran a thick toothed comb through my hair and put myself to bed without setting the alarm. With the covers pulled up to my chin, I turned on my side, and tried to ignore the images of Carla Monterios falling down the insides of my eyelids in endless freeze frame. Just before sleep took me, I lost the sensation of weight in my legs, and I kicked out as if weightlessness was a trick of gravity and floating was falling

When it snowed, my younger, more beautiful, more white, sister would rush outside, bundled as only a mother can bundle her baby. I felt a different snow. I felt it fall on me, dusty, grainy, hot, while my sister chased snowflakes with her tongue.
My sister, my younger sister Rebecca and her best friend, Angela, would lay flat on their backs in the snow, sweeping their arms back and forth, first together then apart, jumping jacks without the jump. The figures gradually appeared in endless repetition, cookie cut into the snow covered lawns of the entire block. They were creating little, infinite representations of their joy at being alive.
My mother and Angela’s mother referred to their own and each other’s baby daughter as the snow angels.
Rebecca claimed she could hear the snow falling, could hear the snow before it fell, as it fluttered through the air, like feathers pulled from a silken wing.
I hear the sugar cane. I hear the music the cane makes rubbing against itself in the wind. I hear the machete swinging in the air, the steel slicing through fiber and sap.
I hear the clave beating out its story of the real origin of the species; its five clicks, three followed by two, valves of the heart opening and closing in sequence, in time, sending a message across oceans, through fields.
I smell the sugar going to ash when the cane fields burn. I see the rats run through the fields, their paws smoldering. I see the snakes burst from the inside with the heat.
My mother, mi mami, embraces me and tells me to go outside and play in the snow with my sister and Angela.
“Vamos Rachel. You look so sad indoors. Go outside and play with Rebecca and Angela. Help them make snow angels.”
I go outside, dressed not at all like my sister. I go out wearing just a jacket and jeans. No scarves, mittens. No hat. Angela and Rebecca don’t need my help. They don’t even see me, consumed as they are in their hard work of populating the neighborhood with snow angels. The angels are their glyph, their rock paintings, their guardians of the temple.
I take my hands out of my pockets. Bending down, I scoop a handful of snow from the ground and bring it close to my face. I smell the water trapped inside its own skin. The snow feels like a thousand pieces of broken glass as it melts on me. I watch it disappear, staring as the dark brown of my fingers emerges from beneath the sheet of whiteness.

When I awoke the next morning, my apartment was filled with brittle sunlight. Outside, the snow that had fallen so furiously, and had so engaged the city, lay flat and lifeless. The air was severely cold. It was as if the weather was hung over from the intoxication of the snowstorm, as if the very air felt guilty and had now promised itself to a Calvinist rigor as reward and punishment for last night’s revelry.

I washed and dressed, this time for the weather, and made myself espresso and oatmeal with molasses.

While I remembered the events, I was as yet unable to reconnect to the emotions of yesterday. I replayed what I had seen, what I suspected, without reanimating what I had felt. It came out the same, though. She didn’t jump and she hadn’t fallen.

I walked to the subway, shielding my eyes behind sunglasses, breathing through my nose, boots crunching into the snow and slipping on hidden patches of ice. The air, now stripped of all its humidity, was thin and barren, barely able, I thought, to support life. The brilliant sky made everything feel colder than it was.

I opened the office. I was alone. My partners were occupied with their cases inside and outside the city, and in one case, outside the state. After shucking my coat, I went to my desk and pulled The New York Times and The Post out of my bag. I searched both papers for a story about last night’s events. There was plenty about the storm. Nothing about the fall. Not one word. It was a death not worth reporting. As if it never happened. Or if it did, it happened all the time.

I tapped my front tooth with a pencil, thinking, planning where and how to begin. I started right at my desk, opening the laptop computer and initiating a web search on Warren Bannister. I watched the silent indications that something was about to happen, as non-cams rolled and non-gears meshed. The screen spread out like ripples in a pool. The first ten of at least a hundred links to Warren Bannister appeared. The links were to articles or books he had written about economics. All the books and articles were about the importance of free markets to developing economies. I know a little bit about economics, having studied the subject when I was in college, having kept my interest afterwards by transforming it into anti-economics. I followed a link to one of the articles. The article was crammed with the phrases of the self-conscious, self-justifying capitalist; entrepreneurship, privatization, innovation, competition, freedom, and all the evasiveness of a professional apologist, blaming government regulation, labor unions, for any and all problems in realizing the bounty of capitalism. Bannister provided charts, tables, and graphs to bolster his position. It was a classical exposition of neoclassical economics.

I didn’t need to read beyond those opening words, those didactic phrases. I was familiar with the argument, the policies, and the results of those policies. Bannister’s arguments depended on the identification of a specific form of property as a universal freedom. The policies depended upon imposing draconian discipline on the poor. The result was…. Pinochet, Thatcher, Reagan.
I searched the business pages of the telephone directory for Bannister and found “Bannister Consulting, Economic and Econometric Analysis,” with an address in Gramercy Park. I dialed the phone number after first blocking my own. An answering machine picked up after the fourth ring. I listened to the greeting and hung up.

I redirected my inquiries on the computer to the American Economics Association. There I found the biographical data on Bannister, Warren, b. 1943, BA Stanford University, 1965, Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1971. He was a Chicago Boy. A Friedman special. Not a surprise. Taught at Yale, member of various panels, blah, blah, blah, author of blah, blah, blah. And then the single line item, “special economic advisor to the government of Argentina, 1978 to 1984, author of From Junta to Market, the Argentine Economy in Transition….”

I stared at the screen. I knew what I knew. The market is only free because somebody else is in chains. But to meet it in the flesh…. What advice did Bannister gave the junta? Perhaps he calculated the cheapest way for the generals to disappear their opponents. “Special advisor on the economics of disappearance.” I added that to his credentials.

I exited from the web and shut down the computer. Pulling Kennedy’s business card out of my purse, I picked up the phone and dialed. Voice mail. I didn’t want his voice mail. I sat there thinking. One of my thoughts was how my job had changed; how I had tracked down all this information without ever leaving my seat. One of my thoughts was how much the web was saving me on shoe leather. I wondered if it was enough to offset what I cost me by walking in the snow. Still another thought was to take another look at the scene and get some perspective on the problem.

I put on my coat and sunglasses and headed back to Soho.

The building was a fourteen minute walk from the Bleecker Street stop of the No. 6 train. I walked south to Houston then west to Thompson and then south again, one half block. Fourteen minutes. I timed it. Fourteen minutes during daylight, without the storm. Then, just for comparison’s sake, I headed south to the Soho Grand Hotel. Fourteen minutes. And fourteen minutes to walk back.

Time. Distance. Velocity. Acceleration. Numbers swam up from my high school physics class. A falling body accelerates at 32 feet per second every second. In a vacuum. Terminal velocity, the ultimate speed a body reaches falling through the non-vacuum of earth is 130 miles per hour, or about 190 feet per second. I looked up to the roof of the building and estimated 60 feet. My head started doing the math against my will. Forty miles an hour, less than two seconds.
There were no cops in front of the building. There was no police tape protecting the sidewalk where Carla had lain. The sidewalk was clean. Nothing indicated that a woman had lived and died there last night. Last night and Carla Monterios had disappeared, shoveled into the street with the snow.

I was in front of the building when the deliveries started: UPS, FedEx, Airborne Express, the United States Postal Service. They rang the bells. They were buzzed in. When the DHL truck pulled up, I was holding my apartment keys in my hand. I timed my approach to the doorway and followed the man with the package inside. He held the door for me.

“Thanks,” I said.

He smiled and stepped into the elevator. I moved to the stairs, waiting to see where the elevator stopped. The “2” numeral above the elevator went dark and the “3” lit up. And stayed lit. I listened for the sound of the doors closing, waiting for the elevator to begin its descent. When it did, I started up the stairs.

The stairs were wood, painted a steel blue. There were wooden guardrails on the open side, and a steel handrail attached to the wall side. Sprinkler pipes ran overhead, fixed to the bottom of the stairway to the next level. The landings were wooden, the doors to the loft areas where industrial size and industrial strength steel fire doors. Bare light bulbs lit the area at the top of each flight of stairs.

The fifth floor was just like the lower floors except for the narrow wooden steps leading to a battered metal door. The door was secured from the inside by a massive hook and eye arrangement.

The stairs bent and creaked with my relatively light weight, making a noise similar to a nail being pulled from a wall. I released the hook. The door opened directly onto roof.
My eyes didn’t make the adjustment quickly enough and I stumbled backward when the sunlight hit me. I found my sunglasses, and stepped out and onto the roof.

From the rooftop, Manhattan is a whole different place. At street level, every action seems to run up against every other action. Actual movement seems the byproduct of near-collision. All else, particularly history, takes second place to the primary need for maneuver and avoidance. But on the roof, you could see a different life, one with breath and vision, and a history, made a million times a day for centuries, being made another million times today.

Wooden planking led from the doorway in a path. Other wooden paths branched out from the main one that ran all the way to the edge of the roof. In spots, the snow drifted over the planking, almost like sand left behind by a retreating wave. To the side of the path, there was one set of footprints, barely visible. The prints had been made by someone wearing high heel shoes. They ended at the roof edge. I crouched down, tilting my head, placing my line of vision parallel to the plane of the snow, hoping to see the faintest trace of another set of footprints. Nothing.

I walked to the edge of the roof and then turned around and looked back. The roof ran from Thompson to West Broadway, extending seamlessly over the opposite building. History had transformed a hat factory into lofts. Realtors made one building into two. Market forces at work. But there was only one roof. I thought there might be only one basement.

I followed the wooden planking and looked over the West Broadway edge. A delivery truck pulled up and the driver entered through a doorway directly below me.

“Excuse me. What are you doing up here?”

I was almost startled. The voice was pitched low, the diction perfect, without accent, inflection, or evident worry. It was voice that had been shaped, designed, to be a tool. To impress, inspire confidence, to persuade.

I turned around and looked into Warren Bannister’s eyes. In the daylight I realized they did have a color. They were the color of powdered ash.

“I’m looking around,” I said. “I like roofs.”

He looked closely at me. “You were with the police last night.”

He wasn’t asking a question. He was noting a fact.

“Yes,” I said. “I was with the police last night.”

“Why didn’t you notify me that you wanted to see the roof again?”

“Impulse, Mr. Bannister. Like buying shoes.”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“No.”

“Then you better leave.”

I nodded and made my way to the stairway. As I approached the portal, I noticed something, the top of something, a pole propped against the bricks, its full identity hidden behind the open door.

Halfway down the steps from the roof, Bannister spoke again, his voice different this time, a little bit of nervousness creeping into the perfect pitch.

“May I see your identification?”

“No Mr. Bannister, you may not,” I said, and bounded down the stairs like I had leaving the State Supreme Court Building.

Bannister watched but made no move to follow me. Reaching the ground level I spun around the handrail and walked deeper into the building, to the stairway leading to the basement. The door to the basement, like the one to roof, was secured by a hook and eye arrangement. I released the door and walked into the basement.

The light bulbs in the basement didn’t provide much in the way of illumination, even after I removed my sunglasses, but it was enough to find my way to the door leading to the West Broadway side. Unlike the Thompson Street side, the West Broadway side was equipped with a fire code door with a crash bar, allowing exit from inside. I pushed, ran up the stairs, and exited of the building. I checked my watch and began to walk. I walked north on West Broadway to Houston, west to Thompson, and south to the building. Two minutes and fifty seconds. Then I went back to the office.

Kennedy had left a message. He wanted me to call him later. At home. He left the number.
The excitement of the last hour seeped away. As it did, the feelings I had suppressed flooded me. I felt the fear of being on that roof with that man. My legs trembled. I felt the anger, certain of what he had done. Then all my bodily functions and needs seemed to hit me at once. I had to go to the bathroom. I was thirsty. I was hungry. And I wanted sex. I handled the first three. Then I returned home.

Resting in a chair, half a glass of rum in my hand, the other half having already made its way across the blood-brain barrier. Eyes drifting, slipping beneath the waves of my own breathing.

I inherited my mother’s skin color. The very same color she inherited from her mother, and her grandmother, and her grandmother’s mother. I inherited the rich soft brown of the mulata. I inherited the mixing of races. Maybe what I really hear in me is the mixing of colors as the blood roils through me in battle, in war, in conquest, in rape disguised as love.
Rebecca inherited my father’s coloring, his Mediterranean, Semitic coloring filtered through generations in Russia.
Twice I caught my father’s mother, my grandmother, staring at my mother, my self. Twice I heard her call us “schwarzes.” Schwarzes. Not with contempt, but with something worse. With pity.
I saw my grandfather’s stricken face. I saw him cast his eyes down and stare at the floor, flexing his hands, willing them to remain calm and not choke this woman he loved, knowing he would have no choice if he looked into her face, if he saw her say that word.
I liked my grandfather. I liked his smell. I liked the way his arms felt wrapped around me like a blanket. He told me he thought I was beautiful, more beautiful than any other child. He told me that he felt honored, that was the word he used, honored that my mother, and my mother’s family, had embraced his son. I held my grandfather’s hand while he spoke.
I never let my grandmother touch me. Never.

Kennedy picked up the phone on the second ring.

“Rachel?” he said, the tone of his voice mixing anxiety and hope.

“No caller ID, Kennedy?” I asked.

“Actually no.”

“I like that. What did you find out?”

“Read the interview with Bannister. He says he was at his office late, couldn’t get a cab, so he took the subway. Walked from Bleeker and Lafayette.”

“He’s lying,” I said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Snow,” I said. “More precisely, the lack thereof. On his head. On his coat. In his shoes. Remember what I looked like when you saw me there? How did he manage to walk fourteen minutes in a blizzard and show up practically untouched?”

“How do you know it’s a fourteen minute walk?”

“I timed it, today.”

He hesitated, considering that before responding. “Maybe he walked very fast. Maybe he walked between snowflakes.”

“Right,” I said. “What else? What about the girl?”

“She was twenty-three. He says she was the daughter of close friends from Argentina. She was staying with him. She had been in New York about month. He said he was trying to convince her to apply for permanent residency and continue her studies here.”

“Let me guess, economics?”

“You should have been a detective,” said Kennedy.

“Too late now. What about an autopsy?”

“The medical examiner has already determined the cause of death. For an autopsy, we need the family’s permission. They’re enroute from Buenos Aires. Might even be here by now.”

“Who notified them?”

“Bannister.”
“Can you get the number?” I bit my lip, wishing, once, just once, somebody else might be as suspicious as me.

“I don’t know.”

“It might be important. What was she doing up on the roof?”

“Bannister said she had been upset lately, depressed. She wouldn’t tell him why. He said she seemed to find relief standing on the roof, looking at the city.”

“Right, she goes up on the roof during a blizzard wearing a cocktail dress and open-toed high heels. Happens everyday.”

“It’s possible. Maybe you’re not the only one who likes walking in the snow in high heels.”

“Maybe, maybe not. What about the roof? Does Velez say anything about the roof?”

“Yeah, his report says there’s wood planking on the roof leading to the edge. He says there was one set of prints found near the edge, but none on the planking. The prints were made by high heel shoes.”

“How deep?” I asked.

“How deep what?”

“The prints. How deep? Did the extend all the way in the snow? Where the prints made by somebody carrying her own weight on her own feet?”

“Jesus, Rachel I don’t know.”

“Do they match? Do the prints match her shoes? Did they take casts?”

“I don’t know, I don’t think so.”

“Now its my turn to say ‘Jesus,'” I said. “What is this? A death not worth reporting? A murder not worth investigating?”

“Rachel, I generally don’t do this type of stuff. I investigate financial irregularities. Bribes, kickbacks, property scams. I’m not very good at the details of homicide investigation,” he sounded crestfallen, almost ashamed to make the admission.

“The devil’s always in the details, Kennedy. What about the snow on the roof, and on the planking? Did anyone measure them? Where they the same depth?”

There was a long silence. I knew Kennedy felt like a kid called to the blackboard to solve a problem for which he had no answers. I might have felt sorry for him, but he wasn’t the one dead on the sidewalk.

“OK,” I said finally. “See if you can arrange an interview with the parents when they get here. See if you can set it up so I’m there when you do.” I knew what my first question would be.

“What’s your phone number?”

“I need information Kennedy. Bannister says she was here for a month. Let’s check with immigration. What has she been doing for that month? Whatever it was, cocktail waitress, escort, nanny, it links her to something that Bannister can’t control, can’t make disappear.”

“OK,” he said. “I’ll try. No guarantees.”

More silence. I knew what question he wanted to ask.

“Would you like to have dinner Saturday?”

I know courage is the product of fear and instinct. After that inquisition, I admired his. “You’re asking me to break my cardinal rule?” I asked, prolonging his torture.

“Don’t ever let up Rachel. Not for a second. God knows what will happen if you stop.”

He was right, of course.

“Yes, Kennedy. I’d like to have dinner with you,” I said. “Is that better?” .

He sighed. “Are you always this hard?”

“Not always, Kennedy. Velez thinks I’m weak, that murder is a business, and I don’t belong in the business. I think he’s right three times.”

We said goodnight.

I made myself dinner, sat down and ate it without recognition, thinking about Carla over and over, seeing her tumbling over and over in the less than the two seconds left in her life.

I opened my notebook and made notes. I reviewed the notes. I reviewed what I recalled about what I saw and wrote more notes. I closed my eyes and tried to see what I had missed earlier and wrote notes about what was missing.

When I finished, I read my notes, all of them over, boxing the elements, linking them. Then I washed the dishes, brushed my teeth, and took myself to bed.

When I was seventeen, I was dating a Cuban boy, a white Cuban boy. He brought me home to meet his parents. The boy left me alone with his father. Just for a moment.
The father had taken the mother and left Havana when the 26th of July Movement took over, when Che and Fidel and Camilio rode in and Meyer Lansky and Standard Oil packed up to leave.
The father came over and put his hand on me. “In Cuba we say to sleep with a mulata is to know heaven without dying.”
I was frozen. Barely breathing. Hoping my stillness would stop his hand from moving on me.
“In Cuba,” he said as he continued to touch me, ” we say that the only good invention of the Spanish is the mulata, the daughter of the Spanish man and the African woman.”
I don’t know what made me say what I said. Desperation probably, anything to keep his hand from moving on me.
“What about the daughter of the Spanish woman and the African man?”, I asked.
His hand came off me furiously, as if bitten, or as if he had touched something that was dead but still moving. He left the room. I never saw him again.
Years later, when I was dating no one, when I was studying the economics of slavery in the creation of the world market, I realized why he had no answer.
The mulata was the issue of a specific property relation that determined the sexual relation between male and female. Slavery was the ownership of the African woman by the Spanish man. Concubinage and rape were part of the discourse of exchange and trade. Empire never allowed for the ownership of a Spanish woman by an African man.
In the markets of the colonial empires, there could be no equal exchange, no reciprocating love, between male and female. The mulata could never be the historical product of love between the African man and the Spanish woman. Property wouldn’t allow it. The mulata never was the historical product of love between the Spanish man and the African woman. Property extinguished that in ownership.
The hands, those hands of my boyfriend’s father, were the hands that had chained and whipped and driven those whose blood I carried within me. They were hands reaching back to and forward from centuries when power presented itself as lust, rape as commerce. He saw my color as value, my skin as property.

I knew it would take Kennedy a day, at least, to track down the information I needed, so I used Thursday to lose myself in paperwork. It didn’t work. I went to the office. I sat down. I stood up. I walked around. I sat down, managed to pay some bills and send out some of our own. Then I stood up and walked, back and forth, back and forth. I remembered watching the black leopards at the zoo sliding back and forth behind the bars of their cage, flowing so smoothly, pouring themselves across the floor, rising and falling from side to side in a tidal motion. I was thinking about what I had seen on the roof. About the one set of shoe prints, about the planking, about the object behind the door. My mind flowed back and forth, looking through the bars, desperate to see something that would explain what had happened.

After several hours, I was no closer to being outside the cage. I left the office and walked back to my apartment. The snow on the ground was already turning to rust and debris from the foot and vehicle traffic of the city.

The air was heavier this day, the light softened by the moisture suspended invisibly in the wind. Gray clouds were moving in from the northwest, jumping the Hudson, while warmer, moister air pushed up from the south. The forecast called for another heavy snowfall. New Yorkers crowded into supermarkets and stores, laying in supplies of water, milk, dark chocolate, and cheesecake. Just in case. Just in case every one of the 7000 restaurants in Manhattan shut down for a day.

I went home and studied my notes.

The snow started at daylight on Friday. I know because I was awake. Sitting in a chair, a blanket wrapped around me. Reviewing what I knew, which wasn’t too much, and what I didn’t, which was more than enough. I also wondered about the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

I pulled the cover around me and went to sleep.

A couple of hours later, the wind was blowing the falling snow horizontal. Flakes clumped and clotted in the screens on my windows. Traffic on Second Avenue had vanished. Only the trucks were out, delivering the goods in the great American market. Snow had been driven against the lenses of the stoplight at the intersection. The red that escaped through the crystals was shallow and thin, almost a shadow, like the red produced when you hold your fingers up to a flashlight.

I picked up the phone and called Kennedy. I didn’t want his voice mail.

A real voice spoke the name to me. “Kennedy.”

“It’s Rachel, Kennedy. What did you find out?”

“Can you meet me for lunch?”

I looked out the window. The snow was still horizontal. It was a little much, even for me.

“Sure,” I said. “The subways are still running.”

“I’ll come to you. Your neighborhood. Better that way.”

His voice was sharp, taut; like a wire carrying more current than its rating.

“OK. Place called Cremcaffe. Second Avenue, between 4th and 5th on the west side of the street.”

“Noon?”

“Noon is fine.”

He hung up without saying good-bye.

It took me every bit of fifteen minutes to walk the eight blocks to the cafe. The wind pushed me back when I moved ahead only to whip around behind me, knocking me to my feet several times when I bent forward into its elusive fury.

Kennedy was waiting for me, drinking an espresso, drumming the table with his fingers. He looked the way he had sounded on the phone.

“Kennedy.”

“Rachel,” he smiled briefly.

“What’s up? What did you find out?”

“Started with immigration. No record of a Carla Monterios entering the United States, not in the last six months.”

I was taken aback. I didn’t want to believe I didn’t know even more than I knew I didn’t know. Awkward, that was the word. Nothing fit.

“Maybe,” I said, “she came in through Canada as part of a family returning home, slipped through in the back-seat of a car.”

“Checked Canada too. No Carla Monterios.”

I was impressed that he had already checked. I told him so. Then I asked, “What else?”

“Nothing else. Nothing else because Velez raised a shit storm. His boss went to my boss, and I got told to cease and desist. Even used those words.”

“How uncollegial of Detective Velez. How totally like him”

Kennedy looked at me warily. “He doesn’t like you much either. Said he smelled you in every one of my questions. I mean, it’s a serious dislike. Did you two ever have, you know, a personal relationship?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a relationship,” I said. “He wanted to fuck me and I said no.”

He nodded.

“What about the parents? Don’t tell me, let me guess. ‘No’ to the autopsy. Except now it doesn’t matter, right? Since they probably aren’t her parents. So you can do the autopsy. And you can hold the so-called parents and question them. That’s good news.”

“It might be, but it isn’t. The body was released to them. They’re gone. It’s gone.”

I was more than taken aback. I was stunned. I sat there in silence. For a moment.

“How could that happen? How could you release the body to them?”

“They had passports. They submitted a birth certificate. They signed the papers. We released the body. That’s what we do.”

“Tell me the rest.”

“No record of any Monterios from Argentina entering the country in the last two days. No
record of any Monterios with a casket flying out of New York area today.

“Time to go get Bannister, don’t you think?” I said. “Invite him in for a friendly sit-down, break a few of his fingers accidentally while showing him to his seat?”

“That’s what I thought.”

“And?”

“And I was told to give my information to Velez.”

“And then cease and desist?”

“And then cease and desist,” Kennedy repeated.

“Maybe they’ll get a temporary restraining order on you. Or better yet, an order of protection, prohibiting you from coming closer than a thousand yards to violent felonies, or violent felons.”

Now I looked at Kennedy, seeing a man struggling with a truth he didn’t like having in his grasp. I saw a man who had worked at something with honor and integrity, and was now watching it disappear. It, all of it, years of it, tumbling off a building and disappearing in the snow.

. We ordered our food. Neither of us felt like eating. I reached across the table and put my hand over his. He laced his fingers between mine.

“What the hell am I going to do?” he said.

“You’re going to think about it. You’re going to suffer sleepless nights. You’re going to hate everything and everyone around you, including me. Then you’ll be ready to make a decision.”

He reached for his wallet to pay for our uneaten lunches, but I wouldn’t release his hand.

“I’ll get this,” I told him. “You’re buying dinner tomorrow night.”

He didn’t argue.

After I returned to my apartment, I couldn’t wait for the night. Unlike Kennedy, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I had a theory. I was going back to the roof to get the proof.

I took my cell phone and left the apartment at ten PM. The snow and the wind were barely present in the air but the air itself had become metallic with cold. It was one of those nights when anybody with an ounce of brains stays indoors. I cheered myself with that thought as I walked to Houston, turned right and headed west to Thompson.

Houston Street was like something out of a science fiction movie. Empty, with only an echo, a memory of the life that usually roared through it. Snowplows, three abreast, plowed east and west. Except for the plows, I was almost alone. Only the delivery men, carrying pizzas, Hunan chicken, penne rosso, yellowtail and scallion handrolls; on bicycles, on foot, and one on skis, crossed my path.

I turned south on West Broadway instead of Thompson and waited. I knew, eventually, one of the deliveries would be for the one building that was one building. I didn’t have to wait long. I started moving while he rang the bell, approaching as the buzzer sounded, talking into my cell phone, saying that I was just getting home and would call back as soon as I was inside, following the delivery man. He held the door behind himself for me.

I waited on the stairwell until I saw the elevator start back down. Then I climbed to the roof.
The door had the same crash bar arrangement as the basement and it opened easily with a slight push. The roof was a flat unbroken plane of white, so featureless, so buried in the even distribution of snow that it was breathtaking. I walked out and into the snow, not able to even tell where the planking was, until my boot slipped and my right leg went another quarter inch into the snow.

And there it was. The thing outside my vision. The pole I had barely seen on my last visit was still there and plainly in view. The pole was actually the “push” of a large push broom. Bannister had cleaned up after himself, brushing his prints off the planking, betting that the new snow would provide enough cover to disguise his actions. Simple, risky, but it worked.

I walked to the edge of the roof and waited. I listened for the door. I watched for a shaft of light to hit the snow behind me.

When the door did open, I had already removed my gloves and was holding the cell phone. I waited, counting to ten, dialed the number, and listened for the voice mail greeting. This time I wanted the voice mail. I then put the phone back in the outer breast pocket of my jacket, the microphone side of the phone facing out. I didn’t put the gloves back on.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye. I kept my back to him. When he was close I turned to face him.

“You shouldn’t have come back,” he said. He grabbed my arm. I let him pull me close.

“Couldn’t help myself,” I said. “I like roofs.”

He wasn’t wearing a coat. He wasn’t wearing boots, a hat, gloves, or a scarf. He wore a black wool sweater over a gray turtleneck, black slacks and loafers. His eyes looked like they had been rolled in flour before being put into the sockets.

“Why did you kill her?” I said. “What did she know?”

“What makes you think I killed her?”

“The same thing that makes me think you want to kill me.”

He smiled and nodded his head. “She had discovered things, certain things that could have created quite a lot of pain for many people.”

“Things about your work in Argentina?”

He smiled again. “Very good,” he said. “You must be a detective.”

“I think I have an idea what she discovered,” I said.

“Really? Go ahead, tell me what you think.”

“I think you became involved in the disappearances, the dirty war. This is how I figured it. I tried to think of the most inhuman thing a human could do and I ascribed it to you. I think somehow you started brokering the children from the murdered parents to those supporters of the junta who wanted them.”

“Very good,” he said. “I admire your incisive mind.”

“Your turn. You tell me something. Why would you get involved in that?”

“There was a need to ‘get involved,’ as you put it. I brought people with needs together. That’s what a market does. It satisfies needs through exchange.”

My skin crawled underneath my jacket. “Supply and demand, right?”

“Exactly. I myself, of course, took no part in the killings. But there were the children, infants mostly who needed care, and the adults who could provide it. I brought them together.”

“What a benign, heartwarming tale,” I said. “Except for those who were disappeared. But I also think other things happened. I think that once this started, it took on a life of its own. I think that some were killed simply to get their children. What do you think?”

He shrugged. “The markets aren’t perfect. They’re just the best mechanism we have.”

“And, of course, lucrative for the market maker, right?”

“As it should be when humanitarian and commercial interests converge.”

“Oh, I know all about the humanitarian aspects of the market. Everything from slavery to genocide coincides with the humanitarian nature of markets,” I said. “I know a couple of things about the humanitarian impulse in the world markets. Would you like to hear them?”

“Certainly,” he said. “I find your unreconstructed leftism amusing.”

“Well then, for your amusement. Do you know how many African slaves were exported to Brazil between 1576 and 1591?”

“No,” he said smiling, the professor laughing at the student.

“Fifty thousand. And do you know the slave population of Brazil in 1600?”

“Again, I’m afraid I don’t know.”

“Fifteen thousand. They were worked to death and then disappeared. And then they were replaced. Somebody always disappears when the humanitarian markets turn flesh into property. Isn’t that amusing?”

“Harsh, but perhaps necessary. Progress is never made without sacrifice.”

When he said that I wanted to kill him. In the name of progress.

“What about Carla?” I asked, forcing myself to refocus on the current crime. “What did she know?”

“She knew that the children weren’t supplied only to those in Argentina. She knew that many of the children had been taken to the United States and Europe. She herself was one of those.”

“How did she find out?”

“Her second mother, on her deathbed, told her. Told her about me,” Bannister replied. “Carla came to see me. We became close. Intimate. She found some records.”

“Records?” my skin crawled a second time. “You have records of these transactions?”

“Not anymore,” he said.

I looked at him. I saw a man who could visit Auschwitz and think about franchising.

“I have to go now,” I said and tried to twist out of his grasp. He applied more pressure.

“Yes, you have to go now. This way will be so much faster,” he said as he started to drag me to the edge.

“You think you can cover up another death?”

He laughed. “Of course. Cover up two deaths? Hardly a challenge. We covered up thousands.”

“Two women falling off the same roof within a few days of each other? You don’t think someone will notice?”

“Yours won’t be a death worth reporting,” he said.

I stepped closer to him and launched my fist, the middle knuckle extended, into his windpipe, connecting just below and to the side of his Adam’s apple, dislocating the trachea. Air rushed out him in jagged pieces. He tried to breathe in and couldn’t. He started to sag. I twisted my hips and swung my arm horizontally across my body striking the inside of his bicep. His hand opened automatically. I rotated my hips back, this time bringing my elbow down on the back of his neck, below the mastoid sinus. He staggered forward. I watched him go off the roof, gasping for air, and grasping for anything but.

I watched him for less than two seconds. I turned away at the sound of him hitting the concrete at almost forty miles an hour.

I took the cell phone from my pocket and disconnected from Kennedy’s voice mail. I called Kennedy’s home number. I listened for his living voice. I told him to come get me. I sat down in the snow and waited.

I sat down in the snow, letting it melt against my brown skin. I took off my jacket and plunged my bare arms inside its empty whiteness. I remembered the words I had heard before. I repeated them to myself. Mulata, Schwarze. I added other words. Spic. Jew.
I raised my arms and clutched a raft of snow to my chest. I said the words aloud. Mulata. Schwarze. Spic. Jew. I said them again as the snow crumbled and melted against me, freezing the space between my small breasts. Mulata, Schwarze, Spic, Jew.
My mother watched from the window. She watched all of us. She watched the lovely Rebecca and the beautiful Angela fashioning their cutout doll snow angels. She watched the dark brown me, gathering more and more snow to my chest, singing the words. Mulata, Schwarze, Spic, Jew.
I threw waves of snow against me, blinding myself with the spray of white. In the blindness I thought I saw my mother crying. I thought I heard her say the words with me. Mulata. Schwarze. Spic. Jew.
In her voice, I heard the weight of all the chains ever forced on her ancestors. I heard the clang of iron in her words.
I thought I heard the whisper of the sugar cane in the snow falling on me.

Timing the Buy

Stop Loss

For 1, 2, almost 3 years, critics on both left and right have breathlessly reported the “decline” of US capitalism, its loss of hegemony, its deterioration in lockstep with the depreciation of the dollar, the dollars replacement by the euro, the imminent creation of euro-denominated oil markets, the abandonment of US securities by the rest of the world, and last, not least, ultimately the advance of the China as the new star of industry, capital markets, and daytime television. Quite a mouthful to peat and repeat while holding one’s breath. Circular breathing is capable of taking us to the sublime, as in Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, but circular reasoning, and wishful thinkers, gets us nowhere but to the ridiculous. And fast. And hard.

So if the strategy against capitalism was once promoted as “Create 2, 3, many Vietnams,” today we’re getting to “Create 2, 3, mini bourses. And a couple more Chinas while you’re at it.”

Market Order (No Fun, Fun With Numbers)

With the US trade deficits at $600 billion dollars annually, federal deficits of approximately $500 billion, and the 35 percent depreciation of the dollar vs. the euro, this certainly appears to be the right time for international investors, official and private, to take what’s left of their money after conversion and run. Such capital flight has not occurred.

US liabilities are estimated at more than $4 trillion with more than $1.3 trillion held by “foreign” investors. Of this $1.3 trillion, 70 percent is held by central banks. Japan is the largest holder of US dollar-denominated assets, followed by China, and Russia. None of the big three has taken action to reduce these holdings, although Japan did reduce its participation in Treasury offerings during part of 2004. And they have not taken actions for reasons that are painfully clear: selling of dollar denominated assets may further devalue the dollar itself, making exports to the US more expensive.

While final figures for 2004 have not yet been published, final figures for 2003 and preliminary figures for 2004 show increases for foreign owned US assets, in direct investment in US government securities, and in US corporate debt and equity securities.

In 2003 foreign official owned assets of all kinds (as opposed to solely debt securities) increased to $1.474 trillion, a 21% increase over 2002, and a level 64.5% above the 1998 mark. Holdings of securities other than US treasury offerings increased 22% and measured 78% above the 1998 level. Holdings of corporate bonds were 156% above that level. While wishful thinkers see the dollar decline as a “loss of confidence,” international investors have voted with their wallets and increased purchases of dollar assets, particularly debt instruments. Equity purchases increased 29% in 2003, but only because such purchases had fallen off significantly in 2002. Foreign equity purchases failed to exceed their 2000 peak.

The movement, “preference” for debt instruments over equity ownership is not the result of any loss of hegemony, but rather reflects the difficulties in realizing and sustaining sufficient rates and masses of profit in production itself. That is the shared predicament of capital, a unity of distress that prefigures and predetermines the lack of unity in trade, fiscal, monetary policies of governments. It is that predicament that makes the incremental transfer of wealth, rather than its expanded reproduction the objective of the individual and collective capitals. It is that, a predicament of all, that drives both convergence and divergence of interest. And it is that predicament of all that appears as inter-national capitalist conflict, intra-capitalist class splits, and or as disappearing hegemony.

Good News, Bad News (Fun, No Fun With Numbers)

Net foreign purchases of US stocks (purchases minus sales) quadrupled between 1998 and 2000, only to fall 40% in 2001. Net purchases continued to decline in 2002 and 2003, with the net falling below the 1998 mark.

During this same period net corporate bond purchases have steadily increased. The amounts of such purchases are only a portion of the equity purchases, about one-third, but between 1998 and 2003, the value of the total transactions in debt grew from 21% to 60% of the equity values .

In the 1998-2000 period gross US purchases of foreign stocks increased 90%, but net purchases increased only modestly as increasedsales matched the purchases. The volume of total equity transactions, which had doubled to 2000 has since declined by one-third.

US investors activity in foreign bond markets declined after the Asian, Russian, Brazil crises of 1997, 1998, expanding dramatically, by some 60%, in 2003. Of significance, the value of US transactions in foreign debt exceeded the value in equity transactions by 50% in 2003, and, in 2003, for the third year in a succession, US redemptions of bonds exceeded purchases.

In the first 9 months of 2004 financial inflows into US assets exceeded the year earlier period by 68 percent, with net purchase of US government securities doubling. This hardly amounts to a capital flight.

Accumulation vs. Accumulation (Good News is Bad News)

In the capital and financial markets, as in the merchandise markets, the transaction point, and point of transactions, is the realization of an income, of earnings. Expropriated values, hidden in the commodity form, of which debt is the most acute representation, appearing both and simultaneously as ownership and against ownership, as value and the negation of value, are transubstantiated as profit, income, earnings.

Foreign holdings of US assets exceeded US holdings of foreign assets by $2.43 trillion in 2003. Still, US income receipts exceed the income paid to the foreign holders by 12.7%, some $33 billion. In the first 9 months of 2004, US income exceeded year earlier levels by $55 billion. Payments grew $49 billion, with net US income exceeding exceeding payments by $24 billion.

In 2003, US corporate profits from domestic and international activities finally exceeded the previous high recorded in 1997 and the mini-peak of 2000 (the “live-cat bounce,” hitting the wall, on the way down to hitting the floor). The distribution of earnings, however, experienced a notable shift from the 1997 and 2000 patterns.

For 1997, domestic non-financial corporate profits were 62% of total profits. Financial corporate profits were 24% of the total, and earnings from foreign subsidiaries measured 14% of the total.

In 2003, overall corporate profits were 9.6% above the 1997 high. Domestic non-financial profits however were only 80% of the previous high, and this portion of had declined from 62% to 45.4% of total corporate profits . Profits from foreign subsidiaries were 60% above the 1997 level, accounting for 20% of total profits. Financial profits, up 55%, increase from the 24% mark and represented 34% of all earnings.

This changing pattern for overall earnings is reproduced, more or less, in the breakdown of US income from direct foreign investment, and foreign earnings from US holdings.

In 2003, total earnings were 22% above 2000 earnings. US manufacturing earnings from direct investment abroad were still 12% below the 2000 level, with the manufacturing portion of the total earnings declining from 32% to 22% of the total.

Earnings from financial institutions and life insurance companies increased 25% in the 2000-2003 period, maintaining their ratio of of total earnings. Holding company earnings (excluding banks), however, increased earnings 44%. That share grew from 28% to 32% of the total.

Foreign earnings from manufacturing activities in the US similarly collapsed in 2001, recovering in 2003 to 80% of the 2000 mark. Earnings from financial activities in 2003 exceeded 2000 levels by half, increasing to 19% of the total.

So now the banks rule? Absolutely, and not so absolutely.

Banks, holding companies, and wholesale trade rules. Profits from wholesale trade for US international investment and foreign investment in the US grew 40% in 2003. The WTO’s analysis in 2003 concludes that two thirds of the growth in world trade was due to the dollar’s decline. For better or for worse, for better and for worse, the lower dollar rules.

Closing Bell

In the critique of capitalism, as in capitalism itself, it is the over-valuation of the production of production, the reproduction, that determines the over-depreciation. The hegemony of US capitalism, such as it was and is, exists not in its balance of payments, its capital accounts, its currency’s reserve status, but plainly and simply in its profitability. That profitability exists in its “superior” exploitation of its wage-labor.

The distress of US capitalism is a distress experienced in the capitalist markets as a whole; a distress manageable by the US as long as it can maintain its superior exploitation of wage-labor; a distress made manageable by trade, fiscal, currency policies, and OPEC price increases; actions that make the increase the distress for its trading partners.

And it is OPEC that is the US’s joker in its deck of aces and eights. Reports The Financial Times (January 13, 2005):

To appreciate the transformation in relative performance, one needs to look at the entire period since the second world war. In 1950, the weighted average GDP per head of the four big non-English speaking industrial countries [Japan, Germany, France, Italy] was just 35 percent of US levels. By 1991, this had risen to 79 percent. By 2004, the ratio was back to 70 percent, where it had been in 1973….

…Japan’s GDP per head rose from just 20 percent of US levels in 1950 to peak at 85 percent in 1991, only to decline to 74 percent in 2004. The patterns for…Germany, France, Italy are similar, although less dramatic…

Since the golden era of 1950-1973, the growth performance of the four non-English-speaking countries [Japan, Italy, Germany, France] has deteriorated over each successive cycle– the era of the two oil shocks (1973-1981), then the expansion of the 1980s (1981-91) and finally the most recent expansion (1991-2004)…

…Still more revealing is what has happened in return on investment. A simple way of understanding this is via the incremental-capital-output-ratio (ICOR)– the quantity of investment divided by the increase in output it generates. In the four English-speaking countries [US, UK, Canada, Australia], a given amount of gross investment has, over the last decade, generated at least twice as much ouput as in the other four countries…

OPEC was/is the cudgel the US has deployed 2,3, many times to impose austerity on its workers, to transfer income away from reproduction and into “negative accumulation.”

And until the US working class moves, nothing will threaten the dominance of the US bourgeoisie.

s. artesian 022105

address all comments to: sartesian@earthlink.net

Those who wish to check the numbers can find the data in the FRB’s Flow of Funds Analysis 12/9/2004, and the US BEA’s US International Transactions Account Data.

All errors are mine, unless someone else takes the blame.