The early morning temperature was eighty-two degrees, and the East Villagers were already showing some wear as they moved down First Avenue in the rush-hour traffic of wheels and feet.
The tour guide stood at the front of the bus beside the driver. Microphone in hand, she pointed out the more colorful examples of New Yorkers in the wild. However, most of the Finnish tourists were fixated upon one specimen; though this man was clad in the common uniform of T-shirt and jeans, he stood out from all the rest. His torso and head appeared to be made of one rigid piece of wood, and his hands swung by his sides to the beat of a metronome – tick, tick, tick. He carried a gray canvas bag, but its weight never hampered the synchronous movement of both arms, and every step was of equal length and speed, never slowing to avoid other people on the sidewalk, never deviating from a straight line.
For the past hour of gridlock, the bus passengers had been bored out of their minds. Their translator had taken sick this morning, and the American tour guide had not yet grasped that they neither spoke nor understood English, except for the word tourist and a few helpful obscenities. Now they crowded together on one side of the vehicle, their sense of expectation heightened as they watched the strange man moving down the sidewalk.
Something was about to happen.
The traffic was beginning to move again, and the bus kept pace with the wooden man, following him as he turned a corner and marched down a side street. Most of the other pedestrians moved out of his way, but two smaller people collided with him. Their bodies yielded to the impact – his did not. Crossing Avenue B in advance of the bus, the man kicked a dog, but not in anger. The spaniel was simply in the way of his foot. The animal’s owner yelled at him, and he passed this woman by, blind to her raised fist and every living thing in his path.
He pivoted neatly to march in front of the bus, and the driver slammed on the brakes. The riders smiled in unison. Finally, something of interest – a near-death experience.
The Finns moved to the windows on the other side of the bus, and every pair of eyes followed the man’s progress to the opposite sidewalk, where he took a baseball cap from his gray bag and pulled it low to shield his face. Then he reached into his pocket for the giant I-Love-New-York button and pinned it to his T-shirt. He moved through a crowd of people, pushing them out of his way without raising a hand, walking into their bodies, never seeing or hearing them, and they fell off to the side with angry shouts and obscene gestures.
The Finnish tourists heard a loud bang, and some of them ducked, for they had seen entirely too many movies about New York and its heavily armed residents.
The man stopped, and so did the bus. It knelt down on one blown-out tire as the driver muttered a word for defecation and frustration. The tour guide cautioned her disembarking passengers not to wander off before the replacement bus arrived. Even if the Finns had understood what she was saying, her warning would have been unnecessary, for they had no intention of going anywhere.
They formed an audience on the sidewalk, and, behind the safety of their sunglasses, they watched the wooden man. He stood near the door of an apartment house. A fence of bars protected a tiny courtyard and a bed of daisies gamely growing in the heat. The man moved closer to the iron gate. He opened his canvas bag and pulled out a camera, then stared at his wristwatch.
The Finns understood that he was also waiting for something to happen. They waited with him, watching him between the bodies of pedestrians marching toward the subway. Except for the large souvenir button on his T-shirt, many of the commuters were dressed in the same casual clothes, but the wooden man could not quite blend in with real life.
He glanced at his watch again, and the tourists nodded to one another. It would not be long now.
The man turned his entire body to face the door in the courtyard fence, and twenty pairs of Finnish eyes were looking over his shoulder.
Beyond the iron bars, a red door flew open. A slender blonde crossed the small courtyard with a fast click of white high heels. Her blouse was also white, and the pale blue skirt matched the garment slung over her arm. The young woman opened the iron gate and hurried to the curb, one hand raking through her long hair, combing it on the run. She lifted a waving arm to fish a cab from the stream of traffic.
The Finns stared at this attractive woman, wondering if they should recognize her from television or the cinema. They wanted her to be an actress, for they had not seen one celebrity in the past two days.
After donning sunglasses, the man moved toward the pretty blonde as a tight group of pedestrians passed between them. The sun glinted off a piece of metal when the man lurched forward through the press of bodies and collided with the young woman.
She yelled, ‘Damn tourist!’ And the twenty Finns were startled, but took no offense.
The man pointed his camera at her. Some reflex made the woman toss her hair and pose for him with a smile. A cab stopped, the blonde stepped in and rode off, never noticing what the wooden man had done to her.
The show was over. The man moved on. And the Finnish tourists looked the other way. In the best tradition of New York City, they had elected not to get involved.
The cab was trapped in midtown traffic, and Stella Small’s anxiety was climbing with every dime on the meter. She banged on the bulletproof glass that separated her from the driver. Of course, he would not turn around. What was the point? He spoke no English, and Stella knew that when she yelled, ‘There won’t be any ransom! I’m dead broke!’
The turbanned cabby nodded to assure her that they would be moving soon. He was very polite, more proof that he was not a native New Yorker.
She looked down at her watch for the third time in as many minutes, and she was still late.
‘Okay, you win!’ She waved money so the man could see it in his rearview mirror. After paying him, she stepped out of the cab two blocks from the hotel. Her pale blue blazer was carefully folded over one arm to protect it from soot and the droppings of low-flying pigeons.
She was swept up in the crowd of pedestrians and moving along the sidewalk at a fast clip. Two women walking toward her were actually slowing down, completely misunderstanding the concept of rush hour. And now they were breaking the prime law of survival in New York City, going beyond dangerous eye contact to overt staring. Stella wondered if they had recognized her from a recent walk-on part in a television soap opera.
Dream on, babe.
An old man stopped to gawk at her, and Stella smiled for him.
Yes, it’s me, the famous actress with no speaking roles.
She was attracting hard looks from everyone she passed. A middle-aged couple stopped to point at her, their mouths working in silence, obviously starstruck. The daytime soaps must be more popular than she had supposed.
Don’t you people have regular jobs?
The actress pushed through the hotel door and walked into an icy wall of machine-made air. Near the entrance, a bored young man never even glanced her way. He plucked a sheet of paper from his stack and waved it in her general direction. A woman near the closed doors to the ballroom was calling out the names that began with R. Stella Small sighed – saved by her rank in the alphabet.
She donned her suit jacket and joined the other actresses in an area roped off for the cattle call. None of these women paid any attention to her. Each pair of heavily made-up eyes was glued to a line of script on the hand-out sheet. Stella looked down at her own sheet. One line, six words. How much study did that require?
She stood near the wall behind a potted fern, away from the press of other bodies, determined that no one would wrinkle her lucky suit or stain it. When her name was called, she entered the ballroom beyond the great doors and stood before a long dais decked with bottles and glassware, paperwork and food trays. On the other side of the linen tablecloth, the casting director and producer were seated in the company of assistants. Before Stella could even say her line, these men and women were all agog, eyes popping. She flashed them with her best smile. They were dazzled, riveted, stunned – though still awaiting her first word.
The actress felt a slick of something wet on her hand and looked down at a long thick line of blood seeping through the sleeve of her blazer. Inside the casing of linen, more blood was rolling down the skin of her arm and dripping off the tips of her fingers.
‘I hate it when this happens.’ Line delivered, though it was the wrong line, Stella Small closed her eyes in a dead faint, and the back of her head met the hardwood floor.
Green curtains formed three walls of the emergency-room cubicle, a thin layer of privacy for the young couple. Stella Small’s legs swung from the edge of the metal examination table, and the physician’s smile was shy as he treated her wounded arm.
The doctor’s head snapped to one side, suddenly distracted by a shadow looming close to the flimsy curtain. Though the silhouette was all wrong, Stella instantly recognized this scene from the movie Psycho. One shadow hand was on the rise, reaching higher, higher, and then – the green curtain was violently ripped to one side. And now the startled young doctor was staring at a stout woman with a pyramid of dark hair and a long black dress that flowed like a nun’s habit.
Stella had always suspected that her agent could smell fresh blood from great distances. Martha Sutton was a formidable woman, a drama queen extraordinaire and scarier than real nuns.
‘Oh, Stella, Stella.’ The woman’s gleaming eyes appraised the lacerated arm and the bright red stains on her client’s clothing. ‘You look marvelous!' In agentspeak, this meant publicity worthy.
The young doctor turned back to his chore of irrigating a long thin wound. ‘I think we can get away without stitches.’ He applied a few small bandages shaped like butterflies. ‘It’s a clean cut – very shallow. But I don’t see how a camera could’ve done this. Even if a piece of broken metal was – ’
‘I’m telling you,’ said Stella, ‘this tourist bumped into me with his damn camera. I was standing outside my building, hailing a cab – ’
‘All right, have it your way.’ The doctor walked away from the examination table, saying, ‘But it looks like you’ve been slashed with a razor.’
Martha Sutton’s eyes turned gleeful and sly. She whispered to her client, ‘Great line. We’ll keep it in the act.’
‘But it was a camera.’ Stella was more insistent now.
The agent pointed toward the far wall, where a man was standing behind a glass door. ‘See that guy? He’s a reporter. Now how bad do you want a career, baby doll?’
‘Oh.’ And by this, Stella meant, I’ve got religion – I’ve seen the light. Aloud, she said, ‘I’ve been slashed with a razor.’
‘That’s my girl,’ said Sutton. ‘And play up the idiot who carried you across that hotel lobby. He’s one of my clients. Lucky he didn’t have the brains to stop your bleeding. That trail of blood on the carpet was priceless. Now remember to spell your name for the reporter. He’s another idiot.’ The agent turned to leave, then stopped with an afterthought. ‘I made you an appointment for another audition. Something different – a police station. I just got off the phone with a cop in SoHo. He only wants blond actresses with dry cleaning problems. Do you by any chance have a blouse with a big X drawn on the back?’
Stella nodded. ‘Some bastard got me with a black pen.’
‘Wonderful. The cops are looking for a serial vandal. Pray for a slow news day. Maybe we’ll get your face on TV. And take that blouse with you. It’ll make a great prop.’
‘But I don’t have it anymore,’ said Stella. ‘I threw it away.’
‘No, honey, don’t tell me that. Look me in the eye and tell me you saved that blouse.’
Well, how hard could it be to mark up another one?
‘Okay, I saved it.’ ‘That’s my girl.’
Two hours later and home again, fresh from the shower and clean of blood, Stella Small opened a can of beer in hopes that it might dull the throb in her wounded arm. She spotted a pair of sneakers only partially hidden by her cast-off clothes. No, bad idea. Her agent had given her too much Valium, and tying shoelaces might be too hard. She reached under a chair for a pair of sandals.
Stella flopped down on the couch in a cloud of dust and consulted a copy of Backstage, the only newspaper she ever read. The turned-back page with the schedule of auditions listed nothing for today. Yet she could not lose the nagging idea that she was supposed to be somewhere this afternoon.
She picked up her TV remote and flicked through the channels until she found a children’s program.
Good. Cartoons were easy.
The television screen went black, and no button on the remote control could bring it back to life. This was a bad omen, but Stella was not completely shattered – not yet. She had a fascination for how long a disaster streak could go on and how awful it could become before playing itself out. The young actress was also determined that no life experience would ever go to waste if she could only stay alive in this town.
A bug was moving up her leg. Mid-scream, she stopped and smiled. It was only a spider. She flicked it off her skin and watched it crawl across the floor. It was a big one, but the Abandoned Stellas had always said that a spider in the house was good luck. However, it was a big one. She rolled up her newspaper and smashed the creature flat.
The Abandoned Stellas had said a lot of things.
She reached down to the floor and picked up the bloodstained suit jacket. While going through the pockets, preparing to throw it away, she found a note in her agent’s handwriting.
Oh, right – the cattle call. She read the address of the SoHo police station and the time when she was expected – along with a few hundred other actresses. The stationhouse was within easy walking distance, and there was at least an hour to kill.
The telephone rang, and Stella cringed. She let her answering machine take the call. The young woman from Ohio was much too fragile to deal with New Yorkers right now.
She paid more attention to the machine when the words police department filtered through her Valium fog. Stella grabbed up the phone. ‘Hi! Is this about the actress interviews in SoHo?… No? Midtown? I thought – Oh, right. Sorry. I didn’t know… Yes, I’ll be there.’
And now she recalled her agent dragging her out of an emergency room, though she had been told to wait there until a police officer arrived. She had left the hospital in the company of a tabloid reporter who had taken precedence over the law.
How much trouble was she in?
The timing would be close. With a little luck and a functional subway, she could make the appointments at both police stations, but only if the SoHo interviews went by alphabetical order. Martha Sutton’s note reminded her that she needed a vandalized blouse for a prop.
After rummaging through the closet and the drawers, every article of clothing was strewn about the small apartment, and all the effort of last night’s cleaning binge had been undone. This was so disheartening. Just looking at the mess made her weary. She turned to the smiling portrait of the Abandoned Stellas, but they had no homilies to cover a life spinning out of control.
In the pile of clothes at her feet, she found an old thrift-shop garment that would do nicely. Then she went off to make another mess of the kitchenette, emptying the catch-all drawers in search of a pen to make a large X on the back of the blouse.
The ground floor of the SoHo police station was packed with actresses, all sizes and every color of hair, though Special Crimes Unit had specifically requested blondes. Jack Coffey stood near the street door and stared at the double-parked news vans. Reporters were roaming the sidewalk in gangs.
He turned to Detective Wang. ‘Exactly what did you say to the talent agencies?’
‘Just what you told me. I said we were investigating vandalism on the subway.’
Detective Desoto folded his cell phone and turned to the lieutenant. ‘One of the agents tipped the reporters. She told them we were hunting a sex maniac with a thing for blondes.’ He looked toward the open door and its view of reporters milling on the street. ‘But none of those bastards made a connection to Special Crimes Unit.’
Lieutenant Coffey silently thanked the city accountants for being too cheap to paint the name of his unit on the door at the top of the stairs. ‘Okay, take the actresses up to the squad room, ten at a time. And pass the word – nobody mentions Special Crimes. I don’t want anybody handing out cards to these women – I don’t care how pretty they are. Now weed out the brunettes.’
Coffey watched the actresses being herded toward the staircase, where Desoto pulled out the women with dark hair. The first group of blondes climbed the stairs behind Detective Wang. They were all so young, so unprepared for what was going to happen to them.
A few minutes later, when Lieutenant Coffey entered the squad room, the actresses were lined up in a tight row, all but standing at attention. Detective Janos played the part of their drill sergeant, pacing back and forth in front of them, inspecting his troops. ‘If you’re jerking us around to get your names in the paper, you’ll be charged with obstruction of justice. That means time in lockup.’
Though the man had a gentle voice, he also had a thug’s face and the gravitational mass of a small planet. The blond heads turned in unison, following his movements back and forth.
‘Our lockup isn’t very clean. Fleas, lots of fleas.’
Two dishwater blondes were edging toward the stairwell door while the other women were still debating flight.
‘Oh, and lice are a problem, too.’ Janos sighed. ‘So you’ll be stripped and deloused in a gang shower.’
After the mass exodus of actresses, all that remained was one intrepid blonde in the fairest range, and the large detective engaged her in a staring contest. She burst into tears, then ran toward the door, where another ten women were waiting in line. And Janos hollered, ‘Next!’