In lower manhattan there is an improbable point where Waverly Place intersects Waverly Place. It was there I met Veronica, on a snowy, windy night.
She was looking for her keys on the sidewalk in front of a brownstone beside the Convent of St. Zita. She communicated this to me in pantomime: turning an invisible key in a lock. She wore a black coat and a wide-brimmed hat from which long black hair streamed over her shoulders. The hat shadowed her eyes, like a mask. I found the keys—a large, odd assortment on an oval key ring. Thanking me with a nod, she put it into her handbag and glanced over her shoulder toward Christopher Street. Following her gaze, I saw nothing but the streetlight on the corner, snow slanting through its cone of light, burying the fire hydrant in a drift.
"Would you walk me to Sixth Avenue?" she asked in a low voice.
Again she glanced up the street, as if there should be someone there, but there was no one. In the silence you could hear the snowflakes brushing through the bare branches of the trees with a metallic rush.
She walked headlong, erect, into the flying snow, her hair blowing out. No one else had walked along that stretch of sidewalk, and we left deep footprints in the snow.
The cars on Sixth Avenue were moving slowly, far apart, their tires crunching the snow. For an instant, she turned her face up to me, and it was illuminated by a flashing sign. Then she flagged a taxi, and slipping an envelope into my hand, jumped in quickly. The taxi sped northward, skidding around the other cars. The clock tower on the old courthouse for women read 1:15. Up to the right, the Empire State Building was lit up green and white.
The envelope contained an invitation to an opening the following week, at a gallery on Bond Street: Arctic Floes: Oil Paintings by Remi Sing. Stuffing it into my pocket, I realized I had not said a single word to this woman. And I had never seen her eyes.Chapter Two
They were different colors: the right one blue, the left green. And her face in the light of the candle on the table startled me at first, just as it had in the icy night air. After seeing it on the street, I was afraid I had only imagined it: a still, luminous face with a silvery sheen. Finely hewn, with a long, straight nose and a wide mouth, it was nearly identical to another face, which I had photographed years before. Not on a person, but on the fragment of a frieze I found in some ruins near Verona. The frieze, which depicted a band of musicians, had once been shadowed beneath a cornice high on the temple of Mercury, god of magic. Belonging to one of the musicians, it was a riveting face—like a puzzle that could not be solved—which I had never found, or expected to find, on a living woman.
Unfazed by my stare, she was toying with the flesh of the tomato on her plate. We were sitting by the front window of a Tibetan restaurant, a small dark place on Morton Street, near the river. On the wall there was a mural of the Dalai Lama's monastery at Sera, high in the Himalayas. Clouds encircled the topmost peaks. The monastery's windows were blue and its roof was gold.
I had gone to the gallery opening on Bond Street, but she wasn't there. Remi Sing was a young Eurasian woman with a patch over her left eye. She was wearing a pink leather jacket with red zippers. Her paintings were all white, each with a single black line zigzagging through it.
The gallery was crowded. I took a glass of red wine off a tray. Remi Sing was standing in a knot of admirers beside a tall, red-haired man in his early fifties, powerfully built, who had a zigzag scar across his forehead, like the line in one of her paintings. He wore a black glove on his left hand and, tight-lipped, taciturn, smoked a succession of cigarettes rolled in zebra-striped paper. I noted that people were drawn to him, but never got too close.
I was standing near the door, glancing at my watch, when a slender, muscular young man in a suede jacket and tinted glasses bumped against me. He smiled, showing me a set of very straight, very white teeth.
"Pardon me," he said. "Are you, by chance, waiting to meet someone?"
"Could be. Who are you?"
"Yes, I thought it might be you," he said, taking a card from his pocket. "Veronica asked me to give you this."
On the card was the name and address of the Tibetan restaurant. Dabtong. When I looked up, he had disappeared into the crowd.
That was the first time I heard her name.
The waiter had taken our plates, and rummaging in her handbag for her lighter, Veronica laid the key ring I'd found in the snow on the tablecloth: a large map of Tibet with the sites of all the Buddhist monasteries indicated by red triangles.
I studied the keys. There were sixteen of them: for Medeco, Segal, and Fichet locks; also, mailbox keys, an enormous skeleton key, a tiny one, and a safe deposit box key. One of the house keys was marked with an X, in black enamel.
Veronica smoked kretek Indonesian cigarettes, crushed cloves rolled into the tobacco. When she spoke, the words slipped slowly, sometimes reluctantly, from her full lips. She was wearing an outfit consisting entirely of items with polka dots—dress, hat, scarf, and gloves. The dress and gloves were blue with black dots; the scarf was black with blue dots; and the hat was like a fez—blue on black—with black tassels and a gold feather.
"I'm into black holes," she said. "Like the black holes in outer space. You know, they think they might lead to other systems of time and space. A whole other universe of antimatter. But we would explode the instant we passed through one of the holes."
When I had entered the restaurant, she raised one hand in greeting and watched me carefully as I walked over to her.
"I was sure you would come," she said.
My nostrils filled with her perfume—a fiery scent—when I sat down. For several minutes we didn't talk. With other women, this would have been unbearable. But her silence I found comforting.
Then she asked me my name.
"Leo," I replied. "Is it always this complicated to see you?"
"Not always. I'm hungry, aren't you?"
Yet she had hardly touched her food. She drank cup after cup of hot black tea, seasoned Tibetan style, with butter and salt. And when the table was cleared, she continued to drink it, ordering a third pot from the waiter.
"How will you sleep?" I said, tapping the pot.
"I don't sleep much," she said.
Across the street, in the dark window of an antique store, I saw the full moon reflected alongside the water tower of the building we were in. It was a cold, clear night.
I called for the check, but when I reached for my wallet, it wasn't there.
"I know," Veronica said, stubbing out her cigarette, "your wallet is missing." She did not sound surprised. "I invited you to dinner, so I should pay."
I stood up and felt my pockets. "My driver's license, my—how did you know it was missing?"
"You'll have it back." She put some money on the table. "Come on."
She went outside, and through the window I saw her drinking in the night air and breathing out vapor through her nose while I searched under the table and then went through my coat.
We walked east on Morton Street. The steel taps on the heels of her black boots shot off tiny sparks on the pavement.
"What did you think of Remi's paintings?" she asked.
"Is that where we're going—back to the gallery?"
She smiled, for the first time. "No. Though I'm sure you didn't have your wallet when you left there."
"How do you know that?"
Rather than reply, she remarked, "You know, Remi and I went to school together."
We were on Barrow Street now.
"Who is the man with the scar?" I said.
She shot me a glance, and her face hardened. "You saw him?"
"How could I miss? He was the real center of attention. Didn't you go to the opening at all?"
"No," she said. "And just because you saw him doesn't mean he was there."Chapter Three
We turned suddenly into a narrow, L-shaped alley off Barrow Street. A rat shot out from behind a garbage can. A bare yellow bulb set high on the brick wall was reflected in a puddle. The twigs of trees were scratching at windows. There was an iron gate with a padlock that led into the perpendicular arm of the alley. Veronica took out her key ring and unlocked the padlock with the smaller skeleton key.
From the shadows, against a chain-link fence covered with ivy, a dog on a chain growled at us. I never saw the dog, just the glint of the chain as he dragged it. Veronica said, "Tashi," in a soft voice and the growling stopped.
"Where is he?" I asked, peering into the darkness.
"Come on," Veronica said.
We went up several mossy steps to a nearly invisible door in the wall of a four-story brick building also covered with moss. The door was low, with no knob, and could have been part of the wall. She pushed it open, and ducking our heads, we entered a narrow hallway.
On the wall, in a dull brass frame, was an old photographic portrait of an elderly Asian man—Tibetan, judging by his features and coppery skin. He was grim-faced, with a thin white moustache and a direct gaze. He was wearing a gold robe with a high, stiff collar. At the far end of the hallway Veronica pushed open another door and we climbed two flights of wooden stairs lit by dim lamps on the small landings. The dust was thick on the stairs, and when I glanced back, we had left a trail of footprints.
On the second landing, Veronica unlocked a door painted in yellow enamel with one of the Medeco keys.
"You know," she said, breaking the silence, "a good lock when it's opened should sound like a pair of stones clicking underwater."
She took my arm—the first time she touched me—and led me into a small room lit so low that even after the dim hallway my eyes had to adjust. In the corner, a cloth was draped over the shade of the one burning lamp. Directly across the room, above a door, a single red bulb was turned on, as if there were a darkroom within. The only furniture was a table, two cane chairs, a chest, and a sofa-bed covered with rumpled blankets. There were no windows. A fan was whirring on the table beside a stack of books. Next to the sofa-bed there was the sort of large, boxy floor radio that was popular in the nineteen forties.
Veronica sat down at the table, crossed her legs, and lit one of her clove cigarettes.
"Is this your place?" I asked.
She shook her head. "My brother's. We have to wait."
I glanced at the door beneath the red lightbulb. "Your brother is a photographer?"
"In a way. But not professionally. We can't disturb him, but he's never in there very long. Sit."
The fan blew her cigarette smoke across the room, toward a wide shelf which held only a few objects: a tape deck, a bottle of vodka, a triangular mirror, and a bronze statuette of a running deer.
"Like a drink?" Veronica asked.
Beside the shelf, over a black traveling trunk tattooed with stickers—Kansas City, Toronto, Seattle—a black velvet robe, lined with red silk, was hung from the wall, spread out, between a pair of hooks.
"What's that?" I said.
"My father was a magician. That was one of his robes. And that was his trunk."
"What was his name?"
"He had many names. Vardoz of Bombay, El-Shabazz of Aqaba, Trong-luk of Lhasa, Zeno the Phoenician, Cardin of Cardogyll. He was always from another place. Vardoz was his favorite. He would put reddish dye on his face and hands and wear that robe with black gloves, a black turban, and a long black scarf imprinted with moons, stars, and comets. Each name was for a different act: escape artist, prestidigitator, illusionist. As a girl, I worked as one of his assistants. Traveled around the country with him. Had my own costumes. Took care of the doves and rabbits." With a sigh she picked a piece of tobacco from her lip. "His real name was Albin White. Al the Chemist, his old friends called him, because as a kid, before he ran away, he worked in his father's pharmacy. When he started out as a magician, he was just Albin the Phantom."
The door beneath the red bulb opened and a young man in a black T-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots stepped out. When I saw his tinted eyeglasses, I recognized him as the man in the suede jacket at the art gallery.
He did not seem surprised to see us.
"You came at a bad time," he said to Veronica with some irritation.
He flicked a wall switch, and I blinked as white light flooded the room from above. I saw that the walls were painted sea-green.
"Leo, this is my brother Clement. Clement, give Leo back his wallet."
Expressionless, Clement opened a drawer in the chest, took out my wallet, and flipped it onto the table. Then, crossing the room casually, on silent feet despite his boots, he poured himself a small glass of vodka and looked at his watch.
"How did you get this?" I said, snatching up my wallet, "and what did you want with it?"
"I need to listen to the radio now," he said to Veronica, pointedly ignoring me, and taking off his glasses.
As she stood up, I saw that he, too, had one eye blue and one green.
"I apologize for my brother," she said.
Clement opened the door. "Glad to meet you, Leo," he mumbled, turning his back on us.
I was still clutching my wallet out on Barrow Street, where the wind was rattling the bare branches of the chestnut trees.
"Now you know my brother's profession," Veronica said.
"He's a thief?"
I looked at my wallet.
"Don't worry," she said, "nothing's missing."
But I wasn't thinking about my wallet anymore. Only when we reached the corner, and Veronica went into a pharmacy to use the pay phone, did I realize what had been nagging at me ever since we had descended the stairs: the footprints we had made in ascending them were all gone. The dust was still thick, but it was pristine, as if no one had walked there for weeks. And suddenly I wondered, too, why we had found no footprints of Clement's on our way up.
When I went into the pharmacy, the pay phone was off the hook, hanging from its wire, and Veronica had disappeared.
The man behind the counter said he had never seen her.
Excerpted from Veronica by Nicholas Christopher. Copyright © 2008 by Nicholas Christopher. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.