“All right, my dear, finally, to begin our little introduction,” the man standing ever-so-proudly on the observation deck of the Empire State Building instructed, “look in that direction. Take it all in.”
As he pointed, the young woman with him stared off over the side of the building. Before and below her stood quite a few skyscrapers along with numerous smaller buildings, all leading to the water’s edge nearly a mile away. Pressing as closely to the restraining fencing as she could to enhance her view, her simply cut shoulder-length red hair rippled in the crisp breeze. The color of her wavy tresses screamed out that they were dyed, but none of the men present on the observation platform seemed to mind the fact. For that matter, none of them seemed to be spending all that much time staring at her hair, either.
“Now, of course, understand that all that you can see before you, every building and warehouse, every street and lane and alley, indeed, every inch from here to the water’s edge, all of that is New York City, or as we here humbly, but correctly, like to call it, the greatest city in the world.”
“And what’s the land on the other side of the water?”
“Oh, that’s Jersey. That’s unimportant.”
The young woman smiled. Even though originally from Montana, she got the joke. Also, coming from such a mountainous, underdeveloped state, she was quite accustomed to both heights and the wide-open spaces they could reveal. Nor, despite her rural upbringing, was she completely what one might label a “small-town girl.” She had begun her studies in the west coast’s Portland, completed them in Chicago, and in her junior year had even taken a road trip with two girlfriends to Las Vegas, with a stopover in Denver. Thus she possessed more than a touch of familiarity with what her relatives back home would call big cities.
“That’s a lot of city, all right,” she admitted in a tone that implied she believed her tour was over. Grabbing her wrist, her companion gave her a gentle tug, shouting;
“Come on now; as I said, this is just the beginning.”
The man was tall enough, over six feet, but by no more than an inch, possibly two. His hair was longer than his companion’s, but cut so that when pulled back it appeared quite conservative. It was for the most part extremely dark, but run through in several spots with streaks so blond they looked to be as unnatural as his companion’s shade of red. Closer examination revealed numerous ebony strands mixed in with the straw-colored ones, however, leaving most women envying his distinctive mane. Throwing in the seductive shade of blue Nature had granted his eyes did not help very much in negating such jealousies.
“Now, this side, again, as far as the eye can see,” the man pointed toward the south of Manhattan Island this time, “here as well, everything stretched out before you, this is also our beloved New York City.”
“All the way to the water?” she asked with surprise. After a moment’s consideration, she added, “Why, that must be miles away.”
“Oh, it is,” the man responded, grinning. Delighting in showing off his city to a newcomer, he added in a playfully casual tone, “Oh, and that rather formidably large landmass out there beyond the water?”
“Yes . . . ?”
“That’s Staten Island. That’s part of the city as well.”
“I have heard of it.”
“As well you should,” admonished the professor. “Onetime home to famed photographer Alice Austen, as well as Antonio Meucci, the actual inventor of the telephone, and, of course, still home to Fresh Kills, although now closed, still the largest landfill in the world.”
As the young woman’s eyes went round as the proverbial saucers, Knight asked quietly;
“Do you know how Staten Island got its name?” When she answered that she did not, he told her;
“It was the early sixteen forties when the Dutch first settled in this area. As their first ship came into sight of the continent, all the crew marveled at the great size of the land they’d found. Then, just as I have here, one sailor pointed, asking the captain if he had noticed the island. To which, we’re told, he replied, ‘Zat’s an island?’ ”
Bridget grimaced at the professor’s horrible pun, but her amazement was hardly dented. What he was showing her, despite the movies she had seen, some of the camera angles having been shot exactly from where she was standing, it was still so much—too much.
After all, it was one thing to view something so massive, so all-encompassing, from the safety of a movie house, a place designed for fantasy—one where routinely she also watched talking mice, werewolves, alien creatures, dinosaurs, and song-filled pirates. It was, however, quite another to see it in person, to watch the concrete canyons roll on mile after mile. After mile.
It’s unbelievable, she thought, the voice in her mind small and awed, practically frightened. It’s so, so . . .
The redhead had been maintaining the cool demeanor for which she felt the situation called, but that was quickly being eroded by her companion’s utter exuberance, as well as her own desire to give in to it. Yes, she thought, she had known heights in Montana, but they looked down on endless forests and serene lakes. They were nothing like what she was being shown.
Before her, in every direction, was human life unbound—unrestrained. How many buildings twenty, thirty, forty stories tall and more had she seen? All of them filled to overflowing with people. And the streets, miles of them—scores of miles of them—all filled with traffic, with thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands.
The turmoil of it, the intoxication, the unrestrained energy of every inch before the young woman, was overwhelming, making her giddy, smashing aside her thin veneer of sophistication as easily as an excited dog’s tail might scatter unbound straw.
Not giving her mind a chance to question him or even to begin to recover, the tall-enough man took her wrist once more, gently leading his companion back the way they had come. He walked them slowly, pointing out the cruise ships and the aircraft carrier docked in the Hudson. Then, rounding the far corner, he pointed to the north, telling her;
“And that, once more, as far as the eye can see, all you survey, my dear, is also New York City.”
This time, the view extended far beyond what she had found to the west or the south. As she tried to take it all in, the never-ending buildings extending all the way to the distant horizon, she found herself utterly lost—unable to grasp all she was being shown. It was staggering; it was colossal. Indeed, it took the young woman several moments before she even realized that there was a quite massive stretch of greenery in the middle of it all.
“That’s Central Park,” she said in an amazement-filled whisper. “My God, Professor Knight, look at it. It’s got to be like . . . what? A mile long? Two miles long?”
“That’s, that’s . . . ,” she stammered, pausing to gulp, “dear Lord, that’s longer than my hometown. You could—you could fit my hometown, all of it, everything, you could just sink it and lose it, in that park.”
“And what a park. It commands such attention, one can almost miss some of its neighbors.” Pointing toward one imposing, multiple-blocks-long structure, he added, “Such as the magnificent Museum of Natural History there. No real rival to where you shall be working, of course,” he teased, “but a competent place to take schoolchildren on a rainy Saturday, to be certain.”
As the redhead simply stared, the professor caught her attention with the selfsame finger, shifting it slightly to point out another landmark.
“And there you have the both notorious and somewhat creepy Dakota Apartments, where boy director Roman Polanski shot his breakout thriller Rosemary’s Baby, and where self-absorbed musician John Lennon was murdered for reasons which even today are barely fathomable.”
“Stop,” insisted Bridget, laughing as she did so. “If you keep it up we’ll be here all day. I mean, it’s like every brick in this town has a history.”
“Well, Ms. Elkins,” answered the man, one side of his mouth curling into half a smile, one just a shade short of patronizing, “you did ask, you know.”
The young woman’s mind jumped back an hour. She had been surprised when Professor Knight himself had met her flight at New Jersey’s Newark Airport. Yes, she had been told someone would pick her up at the airport. But when she had been lucky enough to capture the paid internship allowing her to spend the summer as the assistant to one of the directors of the Brooklyn Museum, it had never occurred to her that said director would end up doubling as her personal chauffeur. Instantly the fact set off a familiar debate within her mind.
In Montana she would not have thought twice about such a thing. But as most everyone she knew there had warned her, New York City was nothing like home. People were shot down in the streets, raped in their churches, robbed and stabbed and beaten to death in their own homes—victimized and terrorized in ways the good folks of tiny, fit-inside-a-park Wolfbend, Montana, could scarcely comprehend.
Had Knight seen a picture of her beforehand, she wondered. Was the director putting “the moves” on her? Worse—could that be how she had gotten her internship in the first place?
Bridget Elkins was a stunningly attractive girl, one so beautiful there was no vanity in the fact that she knew it. Long before her first days on campus in Portland, or at the University of Chicago, her amazing good looks had forced her to learn to deal with boys and men of all ages—often harshly, sometimes with violence. Tall, with a tapered waist but plenty of curves, at the age of twenty-two she had been fending off unwanted masculine attention for nearly half her life.
“So now, Bridget,” Knight had told her in a conspiratorial tone as they claimed her luggage, “I’m going to let you in on a little secret.”
“Well, it’s not a very closely guarded fact, but it is a frightfully important bit of information you’ll need to know for your work, so it’s best I tell you immediately.”
“And that secret is . . . ?”
Leaning close, his eyes as sincere as he could make them, the professor whispered;
“I probably know far more about everything than anyone else you’ve ever met.”
“Yes, quite true.” The man gave his companion this assertion with a nod and a look so comically smug he accomplished two goals at once. The first thing he did was to put her conscious mind at instant ease. Anyone in a position of authority willing to appear that silly, she knew from long experience, was not working to seduce her. The second thing he did was make her subconscious suspect that everything he was telling her was the truth—truth merely shrouded in humor to make it more palpable.
“I tell you this because as my assistant this summer,” he said with a trace of a smile, “you’re going to need to know that I am absolutely infallible. That everything I say is correct and that you must always obey my commands exactly as given. Do you understand?”
Delighted to find that her superior could be so wonderfully playful, Bridget Elkins raised her hand quickly to her forehead, saluting Knight, responding;
“Aye, aye, sir. Message understood, sir.”
“Ah, excellent—bless all the tiny monkeys.”
The professor had slapped his hands together then, his blue eyes flashing with a devilish mischief. Bridget remembered, she had giggled at the sight, as well as his bizarre little catchphrase, feeling far more like a high school student preparing to cut class than a recent college graduate meeting her new boss. And that was, indeed, when it had happened.
“All right, since you understand, I now give you your big chance to consult the oracle. You get one question. Ask anything, any secret mystery you would like explained. Test the limits of my vast and mighty knowledge. You have sixty seconds.”
Taking only five, she posed her query:
“Okay—I have a question for you. Everyone always acts like New York is the biggest city in the world, like it’s the size of the moon or something. Tell me, what is it that makes New Yorkers think their city is so great?”
Shaking his head ruefully, as if she had passed by all the lost treasures of fabled Cathay for a fast-food burger, Knight had promised her an answer, then led her to his car. An hour later, atop the largest building in New York, on all the eastern seaboard of the American continents, he had delivered on his promise.
Taking her wrist one last time, she ran along with him to the east, needing no coaxing. Then, coming around the last corner the observation deck of the Empire State Building had to offer, Knight released the young woman, extending his hands before him as if offering the view before them as a present.
“As far as my eyes can take me,” Bridget interrupted, “all I can see is wondrous New York City.”
“You are correct, fair damsel,” the professor agreed. “But not counting lumpy, only-good-for-taking-up-the-overflow Queens out there in the background, in the grand tradition of saving the best for last what you now behold is the finest, most wondrous and magical part of New York City—”
“Or,” she said, playfully echoing his words, “as we like to call it, the greatest city in the world.”
“Indeed,” Knight agreed, chuckling slightly. Taking a moment, the tall-enough man looked at his new assistant with a calculating eye. Her enthusiasm, her joy at their little tour—he struggled for the right word, then thought;
Zest. That’s what she has, and I must admit, I think I like it.
“Oh, Professor,” said the redhead, still staring out at the city before her, “it’s all so . . . intoxicating. It reminds me of something I read; what was it? Oh, I remember, Moss Hart: ‘The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream. For those who did, it unlocked its gates and its treasures, not caring who they were or where they came from.’ ”
“A loftier description than most would grant her,” responded Knight, “but accurate enough, I suppose. Especially when you consider that all that which is laid out before you now is our most magnificent metropolis’ crown jewel, that wondrous home to happiness, Kings County, otherwise known in sonnets and ballads as Brooklyn. The center of all things great and good.”
It was truly an inspiring sight for the young woman.
Unlike the mostly flat expanses of endless cement she had seen in the other directions, Brooklyn had hills and turns, valleys and folds promising all manner of mystery. The professor stepped back to allow her a moment to soak in all she had seen, and that she had yet to see. He understood the awe and unbridled excitement his city generated in the first-time viewer, and like anyone else sharing one of their favorite experiences with another, he was having more fun than his companion simply by watching her face as she reacted to all he placed before her.
She’ll see the gray and black and the ugly New York has to offer soon enough, he thought. Let her build herself a shield now against the crap that will descend later.
And then Knight’s cell phone rang, and although he did not know it, at that exact moment the most monstrous depths of the gray and black and the ugly the universe had to offer began rushing forward at both of them from every possible direction.
Copyright © 2009 by C. J. Henderson
All rights reserved.
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.