Everyday life is the greatest detective story ever written. Every second, without noticing, we pass by thousands of corpses and crimes. —
Money Over Broke-Ass Bitches
This is written on the wall in the stairwell of my new office building. It’s my first day at work, but instead of thinking about that I’m thinking about this comment. “Who are these broke-ass bitches?” I’m thinking about those broke-ass bitches, and won- dering who’s spending money on them and pissed off about it when I see a two-hundred-or-so-pound guy storming down the stairwell at me. Close up, his face is red and scarred-looking. Rivulets of busted blood vessels spread all around his nose and chin, even in his eyes, which look like they’re crying red, and tributaries seem to be spreading down the creases in his face to his gullet. I duck down into the corner of the winding stairs below more graffiti written in blood-colored ink that says stranger things have happened.
“Unlikely,” I say out loud.
I had arrived on the first morning of my first day in a close-fitting Italian gray flannel suit that hadn’t fit well since I’d bought it on sale at Daffy’s two years earlier. Being nervous is an excellent diet. In the last several weeks I’d lost the five or six pounds that I’d accumulated since the last time I was this nervous.
I’d spent fifteen minutes in the lobby of my new building, pushing the up arrow on the elevator until Tommy the Building Super and All-Around Troubleshooter came and got me. It was 8:50 a.m. No one else was at work yet.
“It ain’t working. Follow me, sweetheart.” Tommy winked and led me outside, across an icy sidewalk, where we reentered on the other side of the building. He pulled on a huge steel arm to open the service elevator. Nothing happened. A few more tugs on the cargo winch yielded nothing, so he took me back past the elevator and unlocked the stairwell. “Go on up, honey.” The office was on the fifth floor. As far as stairwells go, this one was particularly rank-smelling and sketchy. Years of people taking pisses and treacherous flights down these stairs had left a sticky patina on the wood floors. After the red-faced bull of a guy blazes past, I sit down on the stairs to catch my breath.
I realize my Starbucks latte is sideways across my Italian wool–wrapped lap. From a few floors above me, I hear what sounds like the approach of another desperate character. The sound grows louder. Boom. Thud. Crack. “Mutherfucker” muttered. Boom, boom, boom. BOOM!
Bounding past me, red-faced, is my new boss, George, holding a baseball bat, wearing no shirt, and Tevas. He jumps over the five steps I’m sitting on and keeps on going. “Hey, Gray,” he mutters on his way down. Following him down minutes later are Evan, Gus, and Wendy. They are investigators in my new office. They’re all out of breath and grayish-looking. Everyone else is late for work; as I later learn, they always are. “You picked a great first day,” Evan says, smiling.
“What’s going on?” I demand, standing up as my empty latte cup primly rolls off my lap and down the stairs. Was this the disgruntled subject of an investigation come to exact revenge? What had I done with myself?
A Short Runway to a Sure Death
At the same time I was preparing with half an eye to start my new job as a private investigator, with the rest of my attention I was planning for the end of the world.
On New Year’s Eve, 1999, two days after I’d accepted my new gumshoe assignment, I roamed New York City’s icy streets with an exhilaration that can only come from the knowledge of—and acceptance of—impending doom. A layer of ice enveloped the city in what seemed like the perfect embodiment of our inexorable destiny: clear, unmoving, and deadened. I got up at ten-thirty and jumped out of bed—absolutely out of character—and walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, and then along Centre Street, up through Chinatown, then over to Mulberry Street through NoLita, and then over to the Lower East Side by way of Rivington.
It was a tour of mourning for the New York that I was just starting to fall in love with. A New York that, with its inimitable defiance, appeared perfect and vivid in a way that seemed to taunt its unalterable fate. I was leaving the second job I’d ever had in my short working life, as the assistant (read: slave) to two top New York book editors (read: frustrated writers who have watched their friends get rich on the NASDAQ while they struggle to maintain summer shares in Southampton) and my new enterprise seemed to present only more doubts—a blank, vast expanse of the unknown. I hated that feeling of Not Knowing. In comparison, total chaos seemed more manageable and more plausible.
I was on Broome Street just off Mulberry when it started to snow, at first cautiously, and then, like a gift, the sky cast millions of tiny grayish particles down, each one a miniscule and vast testament to the unknowable. The air hung with the honeyed smell of bread from the nearby Angel’s bakery, and with the smoky perfume of an incoming storm. Surveying the city, I breathed in the rush from passersby, recording the contours of an archway of crumbling cement in a public garden on the Bowery, the pink shock of a child’s earmuffs against the flecking of snow.
“Jesus Christ mudafucka!”
I felt a moment of lightness, and then in a clumsy ballet of sinking limbs I slid into an icy puddle, my foot wincing below me and my left knee giving out with a pop. I was kneeling in the middle of Clinton Street, right off Delancey, and a pock-faced taxi driver with a white turban and a bushy unibrow was slamming the door of his taxi, saying, “Miss, what da hell are you doing, Jesus! Miss, Goddamn muda . . .” A skinny Puerto Rican woman with a tiny white chihuahua in a stroller was staring at me, and a crowd of busty girls on the other corner, scratching their butts and chewing gum. “She crazy,” I heard a Puerto Rican grandma saying to nobody in particular, as I limped around the block into a McDonald’s.
The bathroom key, which was tied to a toilet plunger, was given to me reluctantly by a girl at the counter who had nails with little palm trees painted on them. She kept asking, “Kin I help da next person?” I locked the door, washed my face, and realized with horror and some perverse satisfaction that the arm of my white parka was steeped with blood. The quiet spell of my witness-bearing was broken, transformed by my blood, the apotheosis of my suffering. I took off my coat and tried to wash it a little, and steeled myself to at least walk by my new office in the Flatiron District.
From Avenue A I hobbled along up to Stuyvesant Town and caught the M1 bus over to Sixth Ave. Out the window of my bus, separated by a wall of condensation and fingerprints, I willed everything outside to be reduced to its most elemental essence, and tried to savor the New York to come that would be a mass of small clues, a snarl of exquisite singularity with no grand theme. When I walked by a Bed, Bath & Beyond, a block from my new office, I gave up strolling and hailed a cab to my friend Andrew Levy’s apartment in Chinatown. Andrew was a publishing friend who was working as a business-book editor, even though he really wanted to launch his own nail spa just for men.
“Hi, pumpkin pie! To what do I owe this pleasure?” he chirped as I brushed past him, grabbed a can of frozen juice concentrate out of his freezer, and collapsed on the floor, clutching it to my knee.
“I’m fine. I just got hit by a fucking cab.” I started to get up and planned to throw myself onto his bed and summon a much-deserved shower of pity.
I didn’t realize he had company. Standing above me was a blond, curly-haired pre-Raphaelite work of art who was naked but for Andy’s ancient pee-stained GI Joe sheets wrapped around him like a toga.
“Andrew . . .” I paused, looking around for him. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your . . . fun?”
“Um, darling, I tried to tell you when you buzzed up.” His face was beety. “We met last night at Colin’s art opening . . . remember I invited you to that . . . didn’t I? Amy, meet Cristoff, Cristoff, Amy . . .” He trailed off. I normally would have been pleased to see Andrew getting some action. But this windfall was ill-timed. He put me in a cab whispering the send-off, “Angel pie, he’s titanic.” Now I would have the image of his German hunk’s extraordinary member in my fertile unconscious for the near and distant future. Not to mention my jealousy that my gay friend’s boyfriend was much cuter than any of my boyfriends, current and former. The End of the World couldn’t come soon enough.
On what was supposed to be the Night to End All Nights, I sat in my boyfriend Elliott’s parents’ Upper West Side apartment with our friends Patrick and Lily, and at eleven fifty-nine and thirty-six seconds we were all holding hands in a candlelit Ouija-style circle over Elliott’s camp trunk-cum-living-room-table, waiting breathlessly as Dick Clark called out the seconds to oblivion, 8 . . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . .
We were enthusiastically preparing for the greatest man-made disaster since Hiroshima. Y2K, I had surmised, would be my generation’s assassination of JFK, blackout of 1965, and Challenger disaster all rolled into one. In my fantasy, in a moment of Luddite poetry, the whole of New York’s infrastructure would collapse because our ATMs and elevators, electricity, Motorolas, and Lotus Notes would simply halt. The result would be an enormous, open, undetermined time-space where now there was none. The excruciating void of my future would then have a structure and modality. It would be a tangible entity to be shared and not to bear alone. An offering for my generation.
But it was not to be.
At least eight seconds after the Big Ball hit the ground, I remember pushing my hand to Elliott’s mouth, struggling to eke out a First Kiss, and shouting, “Oh My God, it’s happening!” A shudder shook the room and a chorus of collisions and explosions and screams and bursts of light followed. I squeezed his hand and then everyone ran to the window to watch and wait for the last blow. I hobbled over, wincing as I felt a swelling pain in my left knee from my earlier fall. This was it. The city was erupting in a final dazzling burst.
The groans of a great city in the throes of its final moments thundered around us. When we realized—about fifteen minutes later—we probably didn’t have a cataclysm on our hands, but a fuckload of fireworks and screaming drunk people, Elliott deflatedly opened four bottles of Korbel—one for each of us. We were, after all, on Eighty-second Street, and a straight shot up Broadway, transformed into a huge sound tunnel from the Times Square Millennium 2000 debacle. We scanned the television for some signs of crisis.
“How can this be happening? What about the electricity grid? What about that guy in Vancouver with the underground bunker made out of old soup cans I saw on Nightline last week!” I was yelling.
“Maybe we should have something harder to drink,” Lily said, giving Patrick an Amy’s-Losing-Her-Fucking-Mind look.
Barring a stuck elevator in Japan and some AM radio transmission problems in Australia, we had escaped annihilation. Elliott squeezed in next to me on the couch, making a kissy face. Through puckered lips he taunted, “So it looks like it’s straight to the bowels of New York for you, Spygirl.”From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Spygirl by Amy Gray. Copyright © 2003 by Amy Gray. Excerpted by permission of Villard, 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.