There had been more trouble, as usual. In November I’d headed north to an island off the coast of Maine, hoping to score an interview that might jump-start the cold wreckage of my career as a photographer, dead for more than thirty years. Instead, I got sucked into some seriously bad shit. The upshot was that I was now back in the city, almost dead broke, with winter coming down and even fewer prospects than when I’d left weeks earlier. I dealt with this the way I usually did: I bought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, cranked my stereo, and got hammered.
When I finally came to, it was dark. Sleet rattled against a greasy window. In a corner of the apartment, a red light flashed beside a stack of old LPs: I’d turned off my phone but forgotten the answering machine. I lurched toward the blinking light, unsure if it was early morning or night, yesterday or tomorrow.
“Cass. What the hell did you do?”
I rubbed my eyes, head throbbing.
“… don’t know how you got that photo of my mother, but you better call me fast. Sheriff Stone wants to talk to you, also that guy Wheedler from—”
I hit erase and skipped to the next caller.
“This is a message for Cassandra Neary from Investigator Jonathan Wheedler of the Maine State—”
I erased that one, too, and all the rest without listening to them, just for good measure. Then I took a shower, waiting for ten minutes before the water pressure amped up to a scalding trickle. That’s what thirty-odd years in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Lower East Side will buy you. I dressed—moth-eaten black sweater, ancient black jeans, steel-toed Tony Lamas, the battered leather jacket I’d bought at Goodwill decades ago—and went outside to forage for coffee.
It was night. Streetlamps gave off a smeared yellow glow. The financial meltdown hit my neighborhood hard—not that I had any sympathy for the unemployed hedge-fund assholes and fashion models who spent their afternoons whining into their iPhones in front of the Dries Van Noten store. Before the crash, this part of the city looked like a cross between a Downtown USA soundstage and the Short Hills Mall; instead of stepping over junkies, I maneuvered around rat-size dogs in Juicy Couture sweaters and designer diapers. Now I wondered how bad things would have to get before Jack Russell terriers showed up on the menu at Terrine.
But I couldn’t afford to move. I’d been in the same place since the 1970s. The landlord had been trying to get rid of me for years; eviction notices had piled up in the weeks since I’d been gone, so I made a quick phone call to my father up in Kamensic Village.
“Talk to Ken Wilburn,” he said. “He’ll take care of it for you. Are you back from Maine, Cass? Any more trouble with that? Come home, and let’s have dinner one night.”
I said I’d think about it and hung up.
Tonight I kept my head down against the sleet and wished I owned a warmer coat. I passed a line of anorexics waiting to get into a restaurant specializing in downtown comfort food: mashed heirloom potatoes, truffle macaroni and artisanal cheese. As I walked by, one of the skinny girls laughed. I stopped, pivoting so that my boot’s steel tip grazed her Bally Renovas.
“Did you say something?” Skeletor met my eyes and blanched. “Didn’t think so,” I said, and kept going.
Back in the day, my nickname had been Scary Neary. Most of the people who called me that are dead now. No direct causal relationship, just bad drugs and worse luck. I’m nearly six feet tall, all speed-fused nerves and ragged dirty-blond hair, with a fresh scar beside my right eye, souvenir of my trip to Vacationland: a walking ad for Just Say No.
I skipped Starbucks in favor of the all-night Greek diner around the corner, found a booth in the back, ordered black coffee and a rib eye, rare. I was well into my steak when someone slid into the seat across from me.
“Hey, hey, hey. Cassandra Android.”
I winced. Phil Cohen, onetime rock journalist manqué, now the mastermind behind a celebrity blog called Early Death. Phil was a local bottom-feeder, one or two steps above or below me on the social ladder, not that anyone was counting. He was also my most reliable source for speed.
I hadn’t seen him since I’d been back. From the way he looked, alarmingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the downturn in the economy hadn’t hit his corner of Hoboken. Phil wasn’t a bridge-and-tunnel guy; more just a tunnel guy, especially when you factored in his ratlike ability to scrounge a living in the dark.
“Phil. How’s it hanging?”
“Not bad, not bad. Hey, I saw your photo got picked up by The Smoking Gun. Nice work. How the hell’d you do that?”
I pushed away my plate. “Fuck off, Phil.”
Phil looked wounded. “I told that German editor to get in touch with you—the lady from Stern? They pay good money; I figured you could use a taste.”
“You put her in touch with me?”
Phil nodded. He was fidgeting so much he looked like a life-size bobblehead. “Yeah, sure, how’d you think? Good thing your old man’s a lawyer.”
I glared at him and finished my coffee. Phil was the one who’d sent me to Maine; he’d lied about the interview he’d supposedly lined up, and lied about just about everything else, too. His connection turned out to be a photographer named Denny Ahearn, whose favorite subjects were decomposing bodies in trees. Long story short: Denny went overboard off the Maine coast and was now presumed dead. The story got some press but quickly ran out of steam since the killer was gone and the remains of only two victims had been recovered.
My own involvement in everything was a little shaky. I kept a low profile until I was safely back in New York, where an editor from the German tabloid weekly Stern had rung me a few days after my return.
“I so admire your work, Cassandra.” Her voice had risen slightly. “Your photo book Dead Girls—that was brilliant. I was a big Bowie fan then, you know? We’d give you an exclusive.…”
She had been disappointed when I told her I didn’t have any photos of the serial killer or his victims. I’d been disappointed, too, when she named the figure they’d pay. Then I remembered the roll of film I’d shot on the island but hadn’t yet developed.
It had been a weak moment for me. Most of my moments are like that. Finally I said, “You familiar with a photographer named Aphrodite Kamestos?”
“Aphrodite Kamestos? Of course. She’s very well known here. Helmut Newton admired her work.” The editor hesitated. “She just died, too, didn’t she?”
I hadn’t told her I’d watched Aphrodite die, or that I’d lied to the cops about it so I could avoid a conviction for voluntary manslaughter. I did a quick mental rundown of where I could cadge a few hours in a borrowed darkroom so I could process the film without anyone else seeing the images. “Yeah. I might have an image of her, kind of a memento mori. Like a death mask.”
“A death mask?”
“Sure, you know. Something taken right after she died.”
The editor had moaned. “Oh, that would be so great.”
Now I stared across the table at Phil. “Yeah, good thing my old man’s a lawyer. So, you got anything in that little black bag for me?”
Phil’s eyes rolled back in his head like he was communing with the spirit world. “Focalin.”
I stuck my hand under the table so he could drop a Baggie into it.
“You’ll like this, Cass. Nice and easy, timed-release, no edge. And probably I shouldn’t say this, ’cause I’d hate to lose your business, but you could see your doctor, he’d give you a scrip. Then you could get your health insurance to pay for it. Some Zoloft wouldn’t kill you, either.”
“Phil. Do I look like I have fucking health insurance?”
“Good point. Here, you want this?” He set a tiny glassine envelope on the table, then flicked it at me. It landed on my lap. “Touchdown.”
“What is it?”
“Crystal meth. Very pure, Cass; we’re talking Pellegrino, Fiuggi, all that shit. No one else wants it these days, but this is the stuff. Guy who used to be in the refrigerant industry, he still cooks with Freon. He’s got a nice little stash of CHCs, but there ain’t no more where this came from. I’ll give you a deal on it, Cassie. As a Christmas present.”
“Christmas is over, Phil. But yeah, I’ll take it.” I peeled off a few bills to cover my meal, handed him a couple more, then stood. “Later.”
He pulled my plate over and began to eat the rest of my steak. “Yeah. Write if you get work.”
I walked back to my apartment, taking care that my cowboy boots didn’t send me flying as I navigated the slush-choked sidewalk. I’d taken the Stern payment and had the boots resoled, but they still weren’t shit in bad weather. The rest of the money had gone to cover unpaid bills, plus a small retainer set aside for Ken Wilburn so I could hang on to my place for another year or two.
And that was it. I’d already gotten fired from my longtime job at the Strand Bookstore, no great loss save for the five-finger discount I’d exercised over the years, building up a small library of expensive photography books. Even that was a victim to changing times, as store security had amped up to TSA levels, with metal detectors and bag checks before you set a foot on the floor.
But being broke wasn’t really the worst thing. I’d spent most of my adult life as a burned-out underachiever, working in the Strand’s stockroom, drifting from one bed to another. For a few years in my twenties I’d been able to trade on the flash success I’d had with Dead Girls, my first and only book of photographs. Everything since then had pretty much been aftermath.
Still, through it all I’d always had the Lower East Side and the shadowy image behind my retinas of what it had once been: that 3:00 A.M. wasteland I’d fallen in love with when I was eighteen, shattered syringes and blood on the lip of a broken bottle, guitars and drunken laughter echoing through an alley where kids nodded out while I shot their pictures. The way something was always moving at the corner of my eye; the way the city was always moving, morphing into something new and terrible and beautiful.
The terror I knew on a first-name basis. On my twenty-third birthday I was raped outside CBGB. The scars are so old, as the song goes, now part of a faded tattoo I got on my lower abdomen to hide the bloody scrawl left by a zip knife. But even so, I could still sometimes find the silver-nitrate city inside the real one, if the light was right and I’d had enough to drink, scored enough amphetamine to make my heart keep pace with the strobe of my camera’s flash.
Now all that beauty was gone. I was too old and too broke to go looking for it elsewhere. I’d spent too much time alone, skating on alcohol and speed, not noticing the ice beneath me was rotten and the water killing cold.
The last person who said she loved me died on 9/11. I’d forgotten what she looked like. I was a burned-out, aging punk with a dead gaze, a faded tattoo, and a raw red scar beside one eye. In Maine I’d spent more time with other people than I had in years, maybe decades. There’d been a few moments when I’d held my battered camera and felt the way I did long ago, when I first stood in a darkroom and watched another world bloom on the emulsion paper in my hands.
But that feeling was gone; that world. Since my return to New York, I’d begun to have night terrors, paroxysms of pure horror, where I would see a black figure above my bed, smiling as he reached for my throat, and woke to my own muffled screams, heart pounding like a fist inside my chest. I felt strung out, wasted in every sense of the word, terrified of sleep and almost as afraid to leave my squalid apartment. The edge where I’d lived for all these years was starting to look like a precipice. I figured it was a good time for a short visit with my father. I crashed for a few hours back in my apartment, woke, and swallowed a couple of Phil’s white tablets; then headed to Grand Central to catch the first train to Kamensic.
Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Hand