Chapter One : Cobalt
Missing toes on my left foot sabotaged my balance on the best of days. In this deep winter slush, I traded speed for caution. I slogged through the mire left from yesterday’s snowfall, wary of sliding on ice patches invisible on the black pavement. I kept my head down, eyes forward. Given the uncertain footing, even offering strangers the chin nod Harlemites toss one another in passing was dangerous. In these conditions, being neighborly could send me tumbling to the ice. My six-block walk home took twice as long as usual; twenty ungainly minutes turned into a frozen forty.
I couldn’t get into my building when I arrived. Uniformed police officers patrolled the block and formed a living cordon in front of the lobby entrance. My building, like its neighbors on both sides of the street, was a dirty-blonde rectangular tower with a flat façade. Seventeen stories high, a glass-enclosed entry level made the brick structure seem light, even inviting. At a distance. From the sidewalk, you could look straight through glass walls and across the lobby to the alcove housing rows of brass mail slots. We didn’t rate a doorman or a concierge, but steel-legged sofas with black faux leather cushions gave the place a modern look. The phony oriental rug, with its threadbare patches of blue and maroon, subtracted from the sleek effect.
When I got to my corner, four squad cars were angled across the street to halt traffic, their blue and red flares casting a queasy light on the nightscape. I showed my driver’s license to two sets of patrolmen to reach the front door of my building. Then another pair of uniforms blocked me. Twenty-five cops on the scene and no one would answer even a simple question about the cause of this commotion.
If it had been June, I would have hung around. Watching cops hustle was amusing, as long as I wasn’t their target. But a January night froze all the fun. I was just about to start the frigid walk back to the office when I saw a familiar face in the swarm of blue: my old friend Detective Archibald Lin. Calling him an old friend was shorthand; it didn’t describe our relationship. We’d worked several cases together in the past two years. I’d come to respect his diligence and native smarts. He was tough and straightforward, more or less. Most of the time, he appreciated my insights. He profited from my off-brand neighborhood contacts and my willingness to cut corners in pursuit of an answer. I bent the rules he was sworn to uphold. Together, private eye and cop, we made a pretty good team.
“Rook, your nose for disaster is impeccable.”
Nice greeting. Although his voice carried a sneer, Lin’s black eyes sparkled over his high cheekbones. The half grin said he was glad to see me. I figured he was already in a tight spot even though the case was only minutes old.
“What’s up, Detective? Homicide Task Force not keeping you busy these days?”
A sharp breeze lifted the hem of his long tweed jacket and he flipped the collar to protect his neck. I was glad of my own black topcoat and the black watch cap pulled over my ears. When Lin eyed my getup with envy, I wondered if eminent domain rules applied to outerwear.
“The locals asked for backup, so here I am. Why’re you here?”
“I live here.”
“I thought you still slept at the Ross Agency.”
He knew I’d moved out of my office after spending three months camped on the leather sofa. Miserable wasn’t the word for that experience: a safe, warm place was precious in those perilous days. But I’d been glad to move into a room of my own, even if it was a bland cube in an anonymous apartment block. Lin was needling me, just because he could.
“I’ve been in this apartment almost eighteen months, Archie. Too bad the mailman lost your invitation to the housewarming.”
Lin’s grimace broadened at my flimsy snap. He was waiting for me to call him ‘fortune cookie’ so he could puff up with fake outrage, but I wasn’t playing. So he cranked up the probe.
"What’s the matter? Not shacking up with old man Ross’s girl? You’re slipping, mi amigo.”
The fact was she hadn’t offered and I hadn’t asked. But Lin could guess all he wanted about my relationship with Brina, I wouldn’t dignify that crack with an answer. My boss’s daughter, my boss, my woman, my anchor, my angel. He didn’t need to know anything about my complicated bond with Sabrina Ross. And if I ever figured it out for myself, Archie Lin would be the last person I’d give a clue.
“Let me get to my apartment. Or fill me in on what’s happening, Archie. It’s too cold to bullshit out here with you.”
I stamped my boots and moved toward the lobby entrance to drive home my point. Lin walked with me and nodded at the patrolmen guarding the door who stood aside to let us pass. My foot was killing me. I wanted to sit on one of the fake leather couches for our chat. But Lin continued walking, so I trailed along. Curiosity might kill this cat, but it’d warm him first.
He led me through the lobby toward the rear of the building, down a long corridor, and outside into the cold again. Bad. He pointed at a pile of canvas crumpled on the concrete next to the garbage dumpsters. Worse. I could tell from the outline that this lump was a human body, certainly dead. Horrible.
Curiosity shriveled. I didn’t want to approach the corpse. Not my business, howled in my mind. But Lin crouched beside the pile, his gloved hand extended toward its head. I stood over him but kept my distance.
“What happened here?”
The wind lifted his voice to me, snatching away some of the words as he spoke. “That’s what we’re trying to piece together. Maybe she bought it somewhere else, but it looks like she fell right here. Once we get an ID we can go to the right apartment and start figuring out what happened. We got officers out looking for the super, but he seems to be AWOL. And none of the tenants we talked to so far can tell us who she is.”
He turned his face to the sky, as if seeking an answer to urban anonymity there, then stared down at the body again.
“Maybe you know her.”
“I keep to myself. Only know a few people here. Mostly from seeing them at the mailboxes or in the laundry room.”
Emphasizing this disconnect from my neighbors felt pathetic in these sad circumstances. Doubling down on loser status like that made me shrink. If he noticed, Archie didn’t seem to care.
“Take a look anyway. Maybe one of the people you know is her.”
Lin pulled back the tarp so I could see her face. The left side was smashed against the pavement, black blood pooled in the frozen ridges of slush below her cheek. Her right eye was open and stared at us with a combination of horror and accusation that sent bile vaulting in my stomach. Blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth, now frozen to her chin and neck, like gruesome marionette strings. I couldn’t see the rest of her broken body, but the arched nose, round cheeks, full lips, and rich brown skin were enough.
“She’s Nomie George. Maybe Norma’s her real name. The apartment could be 1506, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I used to run into her in the mailroom. Once a week we’d get home from work at the same time and I’d see her then.”
I told Lin about the fleeting conversations as we fumbled to find our mailbox keys. Nomie George always had more correspondence than I did. Her magazines, bills, letters, postcards, flyers, and newspapers testifed to a life of interactions. I was still a stranger in Harlem, without connections or mail. She was in her early fifties; short, heavy-bosomed and plain, with an easy, soft-spoken manner. She never asked me questions and I returned the favor.
“What about family, friends?”
“Never saw any.”
This one I could answer. Relief washed through me as I slipped from dolt to informant. My eagerness was pathetic, but it warmed me all the same.
“She has a roommate. Once she complained because all the correspondence the two of them received didn’t fit into the narrow mailbox. She had to get the overflow from a table in the lobby.”
“Where’d she work?”
"She wore low heels and boring pantsuits, so I’d guess she worked in an office. Probably civil service. Neutral colors and neat hairdos make a jittery public feel comfortable, right?”
“Never saw a wedding band.”
These shallow observations shamed me. I owed more to Nomie George’s shattered life than a few casual sentences and weak guesses. Red splotches blooming across his sharp cheekbones told me Lin wanted more too. But I couldn’t give him what I didn’t have. He pushed anyway.
“Do you think she killed herself ?”
“How would I know?”
“Maybe jumped out the window at the end of a long day’s grind at the office? Couldn’t take it anymore?”
“She never seemed blue. Or agitated. But like I said, we hardly spoke. You need her roommate for insight into her mental state.”
At that point, a policewoman in cornrows yelled out the back door: Mr. Greene, the building superintendent, had been located. In the lobby, Lin questioned the quivering little man for a few minutes and then motioned for several uniforms to accompany him to Nomie George’s fifteenth- floor apartment. I trailed them. squeezing into the elevator beside Lin. I figured my positive ID of the dead woman had earned me backstage access. If I wasn’t a member of the band, at least I could be a groupie.
Now that I was away from the body and the freezing air, my curiosity had warmed up, along with my fingers and toes.