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The morning was chilly, damp, and gray, an April Friday morning in a Brooklyn cemetery. Early April shouldn’t be so cold, but such cruel days descended on New York almost every spring. The damp, chilly air, portending rain, reminded Raymond Ambler of playing baseball as a boy on such a day, the grass recently starting to grow in green, forsythia bright yellow against the dull gray of the day, daffodils bobbing in the cold wind in the yards of row houses across the street from the parade grounds in Windsor Terrace. Your hand stung if you caught a line drive and both hands stung unmercifully if you held the bat too loosely when you hit the ball.
Ambler shivered as he waited in the chilly wind, flecked with drops of rain, for Harry Larkin, his friend and supervisor at the 42nd Street library. That Harry was late wasn’t surprising. A medieval historian, former Jesuit, and absent-minded scholar, Harry wasn’t noted for his promptness. He ran the library’s Special Collections Division as haphazardly as the proprietor of one of the dust-covered odds-and-ends stores you once found along Broadway below 34th Street before the garment district began to gentrify. What you were looking for might be there in the store, but the proprietor was the only person with a hope of finding it.
Adele Morgan, who also worked in Special Collections, where Ambler was the curator of the collection in crime fiction, asked Harry, even though he was no longer a priest, to perform the Catholic burial service for her mother. Ambler hadn’t known Adele was Catholic. He came to the funeral because in recent years she’d become his best friend.
For reasons not clear to Ambler, Adele took a liking to him the first day she arrived at the main branch of the library and hung her diploma from the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa on the wall of the cubicle next to his. Since then, with the exuberance of an Iowa cheerleader and the smart-alecky cynicism of a Brooklyn roller-rink queen, she’d taken him under her wing, defending him against the not infrequent fallout from his lack of social graces, pugnacity, and proclivity to take on quixotic battles for truth and justice that no one else much cared about.
He didn’t know how old her mother was when she died. He suspected still in her fifties, not much older than him. She’d died quickly after a diagnosis of lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking—Brooklyn girls of her era began smoking cigarettes in front of candy stores and on neighborhood stoops when they were around thirteen.
On the morning of the funeral, he rode in the funeral home limousine with Adele, an arrangement that caused him some embarrassment because Adele’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Peter should by rights have been her escort. With no explanation, she took his arm and walked with him from the church to the car, leaving Peter standing on the sidewalk in front of the church. Wearing a black dress, a black veil over her pale face, her lips red with a thin line of lipstick, his friend, whom he’d always thought pretty, became, in her grief, hauntingly beautiful.
“It’s not that she died young, still in her prime,” Adele said three days earlier when she told Ambler of her mother’s death. “She never lived. She died four blocks from the house she grew up in, married young, never left the neighborhood. She went into Manhattan a half-dozen times in her life.”
Adele cried in his arms after that, her head pressed against his chest, her tears dampening his shirt. He’d gone with her from the hospital back to the house where she’d lived with her mother since she was a child, except for her time away at college. She’d made him dinner, leftover chicken casserole of some sort that seemed appropriate to the modest, working-class neighborhood in South Brooklyn.
They drank wine. When neighbors called on the phone, she spoke to them briefly. The few who knocked on the door, she spoke to on the stoop. When it got late and Ambler made to leave, she asked him to stay. He slept with her nestled in his arms, both of them fully clothed. Yet at some time during the night, their mouths met. They kissed gently and went back to sleep, Adele still in his arms. When he left in the morning, neither of them mentioned the kiss or their night together.
At the cemetery, by the time Harry finally arrived, tumbling out of a taxi a few rows of gravestones from the burial plot, the chilly wind whipped droplets of rain against Ambler’s face. He’d worn only his suit, no topcoat. The same wind pressed Adele’s black knit dress against her thighs and carried most of Harry’s words off toward Jamaica Bay. The group around the grave was small, mostly women from the neighborhood, most of them past middle age. Fewer than expected showed up because of an informal boycott by the strict-constructionist Catholics who saw the proceedings as sacrilegious because of Harry’s defrocked status. Ambler found it strange that Adele seemed to have no relatives.
Harry, normally a cheerful, roly-poly sort, a veritable Friar Tuck, was this day distracted and out of sorts but didn’t explain why until after the handful of folks who’d gathered after the funeral at what was now Adele’s home, or stopped by carrying chafing dishes of meatballs, tuna salad, and such things, were gone—and after he’d gulped down a good-sized tumbler of brandy.
“Someone was shot in the library?”
“Killed,” Harry said. “Murdered. Right in front of my eyes.”
“A man who came to my office.”
“Who shot him?”
“God, if I know … a crazed killer.”
“Is there any other kind?” Adele asked. She was frozen to the spot, a glass in one hand, bottle in the other, about to pour Ambler a glass of wine.
“A philosophical question,” said Ambler. “Does someone need to be insane to commit a murder? Perhaps. Practically speaking, insanity doesn’t provide much of a murder defense.”
“It wasn’t really a question,” said Adele.
“The killer got away?”
“It seems so.” Harry looked helplessly at Ambler, seeming bewildered by what happened, drifting off into his thoughts or memory every few seconds, staring blankly into space.
* * *
“What now?” Ambler asked Adele. He was helping her wash dishes and wrap and put away leftovers after they’d poured frazzled, tipsy Harry into a car service cab and sent him off.
“I want to get out of this neighborhood as quickly as I can. I’m terrified I’ll end up like my mother.” Her face was drawn, with lines at the corners of her mouth he hadn’t seen before. Her voice was strained.
“Your life will be different than hers,” Ambler said.
She straightened up from stuffing the last of the plastic containers of leftovers into the refrigerator and faced him. “How different, Raymond? How will it be different?” She sounded irritated, angry, but really she was sad. “Life is pretty miserable for most people, isn’t it? Sad, painful, lonely—” Her eyes sought his, a rebuke; then, in seconds, the sadness returned; her lip quivered. He hesitated before walking closer to her and placing his hand on her shoulder. Leaning into him, her voice small, she said, “I’m missing so much in my life.” In another few seconds, she broke away from him.
Adele was pretty, with blondish hair cut short, soft, full lips, and dimples so she looked impish when she smiled. Her prettiness seemed a kind of afterthought, as if she didn’t pay much attention to it; even so, he sensed she knew she was pretty. Her sadness made her seem fragile. He didn’t know what to say to comfort her. Like her voice, she seemed to have grown smaller. He wanted to take her in his arms. But he didn’t think she wanted that. She did want to talk, so he let her.
“She had a house. She made a living,” Adele said. Her mother had worked for the telephone company since she graduated high school. “And she had a child she raised by herself. A child was something, even if it was only me.” Adele’s voice held a good deal of regret. Things had gone wrong in her life. Her father left her mother and her early on. She’d had her own difficulties, an early romance that went badly. She didn’t explain and he didn’t ask. He sensed that what they spoke about made little difference. Talking kept her connected to someone. When he left, she’d be alone, alone in a different way than she’d ever been.
Later, on the long, jerky train ride back to Manhattan, mired in Adele’s sadness, as if it were contagious, he began to think about the murder at the library. The subway car, dingy and dimly lit, with only a few other passengers, tired and bedraggled as he was, had an ominous feel, reminding him he was in the city late at night and danger wasn’t far away—not as much danger as in years past, but reason to keep alert. He eyed his fellow passengers and checked the subway’s doors each time they opened.
Thinking about the murder depressed him. At the same time, an unsolved, or yet to be solved, homicide piqued his interest. He’d believed since he read Camus in college that taking someone’s life for any reason could not be justified. He saw no irony between this belief, a kind of pacifism, and his interest in homicide investigation. Camus’s characters battled pestilence without hope but without despair. “The task is impossible,” Camus said, “so let us begin.”
Copyright © 2016 by Con Lehane