Excerpted from The Dead Gentleman by Matthew Cody Copyright © 2011 by Matthew Cody. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, 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.
New York City, Today
At first glance, the Percy Luxury was a sleek apartment building full of marble floors and shining brass handles. A neatly dressed doorman always waited outside to wave down taxis and tip his hat at passersby, and the smiling elevator man with too-white teeth never had to be reminded which floor was yours. But the marble and the brass were not the originals, and neither were the doorman and the elevator man for that matter--they were all part of a new renovation aimed at transforming the place into a stylish home for the very rich and the very snotty. “New” Percy had been “gentrified”--a word that, in Jezebel’s vernacular, meant it was now a good place to own a poodle or some other small, yappy dog that you could stuff into your purse.
Jezebel’s Percy was full of peepholes and cracked-open doors. No one said much of anything, she noticed, and each neighbor made a point of seeming totally uninterested as they passed her in the halls--head down, busy examining the mail, no time for a “hello” or “good morning” or even “hiya” when you’re staring at your watch. But as soon as they made it inside their apartments, you could hear the click-clack of peephole shutters sliding and the creak of doors inching open. Walking down the hallway meant you were being watched, and if you were being watched, then it only made sense that you were being talked about.
According to Jez’s dad it had been a hotel long ago. Its status as an Upper West Side landmark was the only thing that saved it from being torn down when the coffee shops and pay-by-the-hour playrooms started moving into the neighborhood. But the renovations had also exposed part of the real Percy--sections of the old building that remained untouched by double-glazed windows and new crown molding. Underneath the new clothing was a set of very old bones.
On this particular Saturday it was not yet noon, though you wouldn’t have known it to look at the sky outside. A thick pallet of black clouds lay over the city like a winter blanket. Sidewalk trees--skinny little saplings planted as part of the gentrification--swayed then snapped in the gusting winds. Jezebel watched out her bedroom window as the storm pummeled the city and churned the waters of the Hudson River beyond. She imagined the tall trees in Riverside Park whipping their branches against the blowing rain, cutting through the sheets of water. The park trees were old and strong, and they would do better in this gale than those poor saplings below.
Jezebel’s bedroom window rattled as a thunderclap chased a lightning flash through the sky. That one had seemed too close. She backed away from the window and plopped down heavily onto her bed. Even an epic thunderstorm like this could hold her attention for only so long. She rolled around, sat up and grabbed one of her dad’s books that she had started at least ten times. She read for a few minutes before giving up at the same spot she always gave up at, and then laid back down and stared at the unfinished mural her father had started on her bedroom wall. It was a scene from an enchanted forest full of lush green trees, toadstools and fairies. She stared at the open white space he’d taped off that was just begging for a unicorn.
Her dad had to be stopped.
Of course, he meant well--parents usually do. These little gestures reassured him that he was an involved and present father. Jezebel’s mom liked to say that fatherhood had hit him like a knockout punch and he’d been reeling ever since. But he’d done what was expected of him, and then some. He’d made sacrifices--trading a painter’s career for a job in advertising, for one thing, which was why Jezebel let him have his way with the enchanted-forest mural.
Parents. Her mother feared for her--she worried about the “emotional fallout” left from the divorce. Her father overcompensated by filling their weekends with quality time, but she had survived so far without any deep mental scars, so he must’ve done something right. She thought that he should accept some culpability for the twelve-year-old baby fat that was turning out not to be baby fat at all, and for her nearsightedness and tendency to freckle. In fact, she had a whole list of genetic complaints, but the actual child-rearing part he’d pulled off quite well. She’d told him that once, in those very words, and he’d kind of looked grim and defeated about it. Maybe he just didn’t know how to take a compliment.
Jezebel tried once more to go online, but the storm had been messing with the Internet all morning and she waited five minutes just for her profile page to load. Cell phone reception was spotty as well. It was like living in the Stone Age. After the connection timed out twice, she gave up and grabbed her shoes instead.
Time to check out the basement.