You’d think it would be impossible to find yourself alone in New York City. Especially on a bright Sunday morning in December, only a couple of blocks from the dazzling supersigns of Times Square.
A short distance away, elbows and shoulders overlapped at crowded intersections. Couples and families had to hold hands to stay together. Holiday shoppers, packed as close as particles in a nucleus, strained their necks toward the glittery, animated ads for cameras and underwear, baby clothes and whiskey, surround-sound systems and Dianetics.
But here I was, the only person in the tiny, dark lobby of a narrow brick building, about to enter the smallest, oldest elevator I’d ever seen. Picture a dusty reddish-brown box with metal construction on three sides and a rickety accordion gate on the fourth. I hoped the indentations peppering its walls were only coincidentally shaped like bullet holes.
The blast of heat, comforting at first after the near-freezing temperature and gusty wind outside, now added to the swirls of dust around my nostrils.
I stepped inside the cage and pulled the squeaky gate across the opening. In the back corner, a janitor’s bucket and mop took up a quarter of the floor space. The smell of chlorine tickled my nose.
I could hardly breathe.
I looked up at the dented metal ceiling. Too bad there were no oxygen masks, like those demonstrated by our flight attendant on the plane from Boston’s Logan Airport.
I was no stranger to creepy environments—hadn’t I lived above my friends’ funeral parlor for more than a year? Done my laundry a few meters from their inventory of preservative chemicals and embalming fluid? Still, an uneasy feeling crept over me in the unnatural quiet of this space. I hunched my shoulders and pushed a scratched button with a worn-down label. Number 4, I hoped. I worked my jaw to loosen it.
The elevator jerked into motion.
I longed for a sign of life, some sound other than the creaking machinery of the old cage. Where were the alleged eight million citizens of the nation’s largest city? Not to mention the hundred thousand or so tourists supposedly passing through JFK every day. Where were the blaring car horns, the noisy taxis, the thundering buses? Where were the sirens of the famous NYFD? The old building seemed soundproof, leaving no noise inside except that of the whirring, rasping gears taking me upward toward . . . what?
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Four of us had flown into La Guardia two days ago, but everyone else was too busy for this errand. My best friends, Rose and Frank Galigani, were having breakfast with relatives, the parents of their daughter-in-law, Karla, who was originally from New York. My husband of four months, homicide detective Matt Gennaro, was tied up, so to speak, at a police conference, which is what had brought us all to New York City in the first place.
So it had fallen to me to go to the home-cum-workplace of thirty-something Lori Pizzano, Matt’s niece. His late wife Teresa’s niece, more accurately. We’d had dinner with Lori last night, and she’d left her prescription sunglasses at the restaurant. As the only one of us truly on vacation this morning, I’d offered to return them.
I’d pictured something more exotic when Lori gave me directions to her “film studio in Times Square.”
The old elevator took forever, fitting and starting its way up, past two other red metal doors, each with its own blend of scuff marks. I saw graffiti-lettered fagettaboudit twice and wondered what daredevil wrote it, swinging around, hovering over the open shaft. Here and there bleached-out streaks hinted at unmentionable stains.
At the fourth floor, the cage jerked to a stop, landing me across a narrow hallway from the threshold to Lori’s apartment, the large metal door of which stood wide open.
I checked my watch. Quarter to nine. I was cutting it close. Lori had said she usually went ice-skating around nine on Sunday mornings. Surely she couldn’t have gone already, leaving her door open for me? My stereotypical New Yorker used two dead bolts and a chain to secure her door even when she was home.
From my place in the elevator I scanned the area, noting an eclectic blend of work and living furnishings, with an occasional partition in the form of a standing screen, a drape, or a curtain. Easy chairs in muted colors mixed with high-tech-looking worktables and computer stations.
“No more cutting room floor,” Lori had told us last night, expertly twirling spaghetti in a half-indoor, half-outdoor Little Italy restaurant. She’d worn a purple scarf, a lacy knit that seemed to offer no warmth against the cold air coming under the door from Mulberry Street but had much to recommend it as a fashion statement. “It’s all videocam to computer or TV screen, direct. The editing is all done electronically, and the product is a videotape or a DVD.”
“Imagine,” said Rose, my lowest-tech friend.
“I have to admit, though, I have a soft spot in my heart for film,” Lori said. “As far as prints go, you can’t beat the resolution of fine-grain film. I still have a little darkroom in my studio.”
I’d enjoyed hearing Lori talk about her latest success, winning an award for a short film on September 11 families. “Not that it translates to a lot of money,” she’d said. “But I love my work, and there’s always that huge grant out there waiting for a documentary filmmaker.”
Her Uncle Matt seemed proud, and I guessed that at times like these he thought of his first wife, Teresa, Lori’s aunt. Judging from photos in Matt’s albums, there was a striking resemblance between Lori and the young Teresa, both petite in stature but with soft, round features, both with an intense and confident air.
I realized I’d been standing in the stopped elevator, going nowhere. I grasped the metal slats of the accordion door, unwilling to leave what had come to feel safe. The cage. The yellow mop and me.
“Lori?” I squeaked.
No answer. Except for a slight scratching sound. Mice? I felt a deep shiver and looked around me, as if someone might have managed to slip in beside me during what had seemed a long ride.
I shifted my body and stuck my head as far through one of the diamond-shaped openings as I could. My feet seemed glued to the tacky floor.
One more time, a little louder. “Lori?”
No answer, until—a siren, finally, from the street. The blast of noise shook me out of my inertia. I took a breath. All I had to do was enter the loft, deposit the glasses on a table, and make my exit. Nothing to it. Nothing to be afraid of. Maybe I’d take the extra minute to leave a note, that’s how unafraid I was.
I pulled Lori’s glasses, encased in hard plastic, from my purse and tapped twice on a metal slat.
I sang out a warning. “Hi, Lori. It’s me, Gloria. I have your glasses.” I’d been going for light and cheery but instead heard strained.
Finally, I pulled at the elevator’s rusty door: I’m coming in. Mice beware.
Only four steps into the apartment, long before I reached the small wooden table, I saw her. The glasses fell from my hand and crashed to the floor.
A woman was sprawled on the bare wooden floor, in front of a rack of electronics. A soft upholstered couch had been overturned, its flowery pillows scattered near her body.
My heart jumped and my pulse raced. The light was dim, blocked by a neighboring brick building not five feet away from the window, but I could see the woman’s hair: an unusual color, almost gold, closer to amber.
A wave of relief went through me.
Not Lori’s tight dark curls. A large frame, not Lori’s petite shoulders and short legs.
Not Lori, but still a woman in trauma.
I felt, rather than saw, a figure at the far end of the loft, leaving by the window.
I hurried toward the woman, skirting around one of the loft’s many posts, at the same time pushing 911 on my cell phone.
Rumble. Crash. Crash.
Loud noises from outside sent an adrenaline rush through me. The noise was close—too close. And too many decibels for mice. I stepped back, hovering between wanting to help the woman and longing to rush back to the elevator and flee the building.
I heard a moan from the woman. I leaned down to say something soothing. More likely, something foolish, like Are you okay? I touched her rich golden hair and shrank away from the stickiness. I smelled her blood. There was a large pool of it under her head, or maybe a small pool, I couldn’t tell, but it was enough to make me woozy.
Help her, I told myself. But I was unable to move.
I clung to the cell phone as if that in itself were productive.
Finally, the dispatcher’s voice came over the line. “What’s your address, please?”
I took a breath and rattled off the West Forty-eighth Street address.
“Yes, they’re already on their way,” the dispatcher said. “Please don’t hang up this time. Now, is anyone else there with you?”
“I didn’t hang up.” I said. “This is my first call to you.”
Had I given the wrong address?
I could already hear the ambulance stopping at the entrance four floors down.
So this was what they meant by a New York minute.
Copyright © 2006 by Camille Minichino. All rights reserved.