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The key to a beautiful woman's tragic death is locked in a dog's broken heart.
P.I. Rachel Alexander is stepping into a dead woman's life. Hired by the young t'ai chi teacher's grieving parents, Rachel is determined to find out why their apparently happy daughter jumped from the window of her Greenwich Village martial arts studio. Wearing Lisa's clothes, studying with her mentor, meeting her friends, provoking her enemies, Rachel soon learns that even with her pit bull, ...
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The key to a beautiful woman's tragic death is locked in a dog's broken heart.
P.I. Rachel Alexander is stepping into a dead woman's life. Hired by the young t'ai chi teacher's grieving parents, Rachel is determined to find out why their apparently happy daughter jumped from the window of her Greenwich Village martial arts studio. Wearing Lisa's clothes, studying with her mentor, meeting her friends, provoking her enemies, Rachel soon learns that even with her pit bull, Dashiell, at her side, the path to enlightenment is a dangerous place to be.
With the answer Rachel seeks as difficult to fathom as a Zen riddle, yet as close by as the victim's sad-eyed Akita, one truth begins to unfold: Lisa never would have abandoned her dog without a cruel push. . . .
Rachel's fans are advised to sit out her case of second- novel blues and wait for next year. If you missed her first, though, you may want to check out the most helpful canine sleuth since Asta.
1: If You Weren't Careful
Dashiell stood motionless on the dark, wet sand, his eyes cemented to the driftwood log I held up over my head. Just before I moved to send it spinning over him and into the ocean, as if he were able to read my mind, he turned to mark its fall; then, all speed and power, he ran flat out into the surf. Looking beyond him at the vast, gray-blue Atlantic Ocean, flattened under a bright spring sky, I remembered myself as a child playing fetch on this very beach with some other dog, now long gone.
I used to come to my aunt Ceil's house in Sea Gate, the gated community just beyond Coney Island, when I was a kid. I would race for the water the minute we hit the beach, shedding flip-flops and T-shirt as I ran, staying in until Beatrice, my mother, standing on the shore about where Dashiell stood a moment ago, hands on her hips, a line showing over the center bridge of her sunglasses, would shout to me that my lips were turning blue, and why didn't I come out and play on the sand like a good girl, as my big sister Lillian had long since done.
"I can't hear you," I'd call back, bobbing like the stick I'd just thrown for Dashiell.
"You'll be the death of me," Beatrice shouted, her voice like the roar of the waves from far away on the shore.
Playing on the hot, gritty sand under my mother's scrutiny held no charm for me. The ocean was the lure—all that power, beauty, mystery, and life. Even death, if you weren't careful. At least that's what Beatrice used to say, as if being careful could do the trick and keep you safe.
Beatrice found the scary side of everything, the don't instead of the do. That's why I grew up looking for trouble, just to defy her. At least that's what my shrink used to say. That sad fact, according to Ida Berkowitz, Ph.D., would explain what I was doing here today, even though my mother, like that pup I had played fetch with when I was a kid, was long gone.
Dashiell was riding a foamy, frigid wave back toward me, the driftwood crosswise in his mouth.
I had hesitated for only the moment it took for the guard to call ahead and make sure I had actually been invited to come to this private and protected community that occupies the point of land where the Atlantic Ocean meets Gravesend Bay. By the time he had lifted the barrier and motioned me to drive in, I knew I had a stop to make before keeping my appointment, for my sake as much as for Dashiell's. I'd headed here, to the deserted beach, so that my partner, the other unlicensed PI with whom I was in business, could dig in the sand, swim in the ocean, and roll in dead fish and used condoms, reminding me as he always did precisely how delicious it was merely to be alive. Soon enough I'd be immersed in less expansive feelings, because it was a case that had brought me to Brooklyn on this cool, clear April day.
Dashiell stood squarely in front of me, holding the stick dead center, eyes locked on mine, water running off his underside and down his legs, his one-track mind on the task at hand.
"Out," I told him. I have a way with words.
He dropped the driftwood heavily into my hand and, hoping for another toss, retreated to where the incoming waves could just reach him, washing over his feet from behind, then swirling in front of his ankles before returning, as eventually we all must, from whence it came. I gave him one last swim, sending the driftwood high and far over the waves, watching him watch it, electrified with pleasure. We saw the splash. Dashiell, the quintessential pit bull, charged forward with sufficient grit, strength, and tenacity to bring the damn ocean to its knees, if need be. Work or play, it was all the same to him. He'd use whatever force he deemed necessary to meet a challenge.
We ran around on the sand to dry off, then headed back to the black Ford Taurus that David and Marsha Jacobs, Aunt Ceil's neighbors and friends, had rented for me so that I could drive here to the quiet community where they had lived for forty-seven years and listen to them tell me about the sudden, unexpected, and violent death of their only child.
We Could Hear The Kettle Whistle
Marsha Jacobs was one of those women who wear stockings and heels even in their own homes. She'd answered the door in a dark gray silk dress, the uneven piece of black grosgrain ribbon that signified a death in the family pinned to her chest. It would leave holes in the silk, I found myself thinking, then silently berated myself for the frivolous thought.
Driving home along the Belt Parkway, I couldn't get the image of Lisa Jacobs's mother out of my mind. For that's what she was, first and foremost, the devoted Jewish mother of a beautiful, blue-eyed, curly-haired thirty-two-year-old who ten days earlier, with no clues to foreshadow the act, had opened one of the oversize windows at the t'ai chi studio where she studied and taught and jumped five stories to her death.
"We want to show you our Lisa," Marsha had said, welcoming me into the living room time forgot. "Come and sit, Rachel. Can I get you some tea?"
"Thank you," I said, feeling chilled by the room and my wet clothes. Dashiell had body-slammed me several times right before we left the beach, and my leggings felt as if I had been in the ocean, too. I wondered if we'd each get a different pattern of bone china from which to drink our tea, like the cups my mother had collected.
David Jacobs was sitting on one side of the couch, a thick, leatherbound photo album on his lap. He patted the middle seat, and hoping I wouldn't leave a big, wet ass print on their sofa, I sat next to him.
"This has been very hard on her," he said as soon as Marsha had left to make the tea. "She—" he began, but then hesitated. "She's up all night," he whispered, "pacing, pacing. She's driving me crazy. She—" he sighed before correcting himself—"we, we," he repeated, "would like you to help us, Rachel. We cannot understand what could have possessed Lisa, what made her do this awful thing." He sounded angry. "We don't have a guess. Not a clue."
David placed the album on the coffee table, stood, and went to get his cigarettes from the top of the piano. His suit pulled across his potbelly and hung too loosely around his arms and shoulders, as if he had recently lost a good bit of weight, a supposition that, considering the circumstances, I would not have had to be a detective to make.
"Lisa never complained, never complained. She never spoke of any problems. She was always cheerful, kind, a happy girl. Ach," he said, stopping to light his cigarette, "how could this have happened? We gave her everything."
I could hear Marsha talking to Dashiell in the kitchen, where she'd suggested I stash him, even though he had already stopped dripping by the time we'd arrived. Dashiell's tail tapped out his answer on the tile floor.
"She was studying to be a Zen Buddhist priest, my Lisa," Marsha said, standing in the archway at the rear of the living room. "The study and the t'ai chi gave her peace. Peace. That's what she told her father and me. So why—"
"Sit, Marsha," David said, blowing smoke into the middle of the room. Marsha sat next to me. Now I had their grief on both sides. In our silence we could hear the kettle whistle, and Marsha left again to make the tea.
"Are you cold, Rachel?" David said, as concerned as if I were his daughter.
"No, no," I lied, "I'm fine."
"Are you sure? Marsha, bring her a sweater," he shouted in the direction of the kitchen.
"No, thank you, I'm fine. Really."
"It's no trouble," he said, half to himself. "We have plenty of sweaters."
He moved the album closer but didn't open it.
"Ceil said you used to be a dog trainer. Before."
I raised my eyebrows.
David looked at me and puffed on the cigarette, ashes dropping onto his suit pants. "Before your—before you were married." He brushed at his trousers, leaving a dry, gray trail where the ashes had been.
Marsha arrived with the tray and placed it carefully next to the photo album. She handed me a cup with yellow tulips on it and gave David one with purple irises, saving the one with the tiny red rosebuds for herself.
"Marsha—the sweater, the sweater," David said impatiently.
Suddenly I had the eerie feeling I was in some relative's suffocating home. I reached for a cookie. Marsha returned with a navy blue sweater and handed it to David, who handed it to me. I put it over the arm of the sofa.
"So—" David said. "You married again? Your husband approves of this kind of work, detective work?"
Marsha was biting a small biscuit. She looked up, curious.
Ceil would have told them I hadn't married again, wouldn't she?
I reached for another cookie. "Lisa was single, wasn't she?" The eighth law of private investigation, according to my erstwhile employer and mentor, Frank Petrie, is, Don't give information. Get information.
"Lisa never married," her mother said.
"No, marriage wasn't what Lisa wanted," David said.
"Her studies were everything to her." Marsha gathered the crumbs from her silk skirt onto one hand and carefully brushed them off in one corner of the tray.
"The mother has a college degree, too. Did your aunt mention that?"
"David." Marsha flapped a hand in his direction.
"Six years she studied, three at night, three full time, at Brooklyn College, competing with all those young hotshots. She got wonderful grades, wonderful."
I smiled at Marsha, and she patted my damp leg.
"She taught school, too. A very intelligent woman. That's who Lisa took after. Her mother. A bachelor's degree. Just like the hotshots."
"Is that how you met, at college?"
"Fourteen years," he said. He took a last puff on the cigarette and put it out. "That's how long we waited for Lisa."
"David, we shouldn't—"
"Rachel needs to know these things, isn't that so, Rachel? She came here to get the facts, so that she could help us. We never thought there would be a baby, not for us. Fourteen years it took."
We sipped tea for a moment in silence. Finally David opened the album. But I had already seen Lisa. Across from us, on the baby grand piano in a standing silver frame, was a photo of a pretty young girl smiling.
"She was an extraordinary child," Marsha told me as David turned the pages, "not average."
I looked at Lisa in her carriage, Lisa in the bath, Lisa sleeping.
"She did everything early, before the books said," Marsha told me, looking at me for approval.
"Everything early," I repeated.
"This was the summer she went to camp," I heard David say, "but we missed her. Marsha kept saying, "David, we have the beach right here, we have the Atlantic Ocean at our beck and call, why does Lisa have to be in the Adirondacks with all those mosquitoes and no ocean?' So, what else, we went up on visitors' day and brought her home. At the end of July. Slow season. I could take her to the beach every day. No problem. She was some swimmer, that child. Like a fish."
"She was a varsity swimmer," Marsha said, "at Abraham Lincoln High School." She got up and brought over the medals and one of the trophies that sat on the shelves across from the couch.
"She was the valedictorian," David said. "She made a speech on graduation day. Smart. Like her mother. There was nothing that girl couldn't do, if she set her mind to it."
"When did Lisa get interested in t'ai chi?" I asked.
"While she was in college," Marsha said. "Just before she broke her engagement, the end of her sophomore year."
I could feel David tense. Marsha looked into her lap.
"You liked the boy?" I asked.
"He was going to be a dentist," she said, "like his father."
"Water under the bridge," David said.
Had Ceil told them I had been married to a dentist, that I too had let a professional man go?
"In her third year," Marsha said, "that was when—"
"China, China, she wanted only to go to China. To study. She was nineteen. What did she know? Imagine, running to China, a nineteen-year-old kid, alone, on the other side of the world."
"So, did she go? Did she study in China?"
"Go? Did she go?" David bellowed.
For a moment he looked as if he were on fire, red smoke swirling about him as his aura turned the color of his rage.
"You tell me if you'd let a kid like that go off on her own to a foreign country. What did she know, to do a dangerous thing like that, by herself? She stayed here. It was for her own good. Everything we did was for her, everything."
"She studied here," Marsha said. "At Barnard. Eastern philosophy and Chinese language."
"She spoke Chinese, what else, beautiful, just as good as if she had lived there, you should have heard her."
"After her postgraduate studies, five years at Columbia on a fellowship, that's when she met Avram, the director of the school where Lisa worked. She studied with him since then." Marsha picked up a napkin and held it to her mouth for a moment. "Avram adored her, you know. He said Lisa was his best student."
"Then she was here, living here with you?"
"Oh, no. She was at the Printing House," Marsha said. "On Hudson Street. Not far from you. She wanted to be near the school. To walk."
"She wanted the Village, the Village, so, what else, I bought her a condo," David said.
He took his checkbook out of his breast pocket. I began to protest, but his hand went up to stop me.
"It's just that—"
"The police have looked into our Lisa's death," Marsha said as David wrote, "but they're busy with many other things, there's so much crime in the city, so much."
David looked up. "What we need," he said, "it's not really police business, Rachel. They're finished now. But we're not. We're the parents. We have to know what happened, what went on. We need"—he practically bellowed—"to find out why our daughter took her own life."
"David," his wife said, trying to calm him.
"Mr. Jacobs, I—"
"David. Forget this Mr. Jacobs. You could be Lisa's friend, you're so young. You could be my own daughter."
"And call me Marsha, Rachel. We know your aunt so long, we feel we know you, too."
"David. Marsha. To find out something so intimate about a person, it might take a long time. Often the victim's best friend, or her parents, had no idea she was depressed."
"Spend the time, Rachel. We can afford it," David said. "Now tell me your fee, please."
I did. And asked for a thousand in advance.
"Money I have," he said. I heard the sound of a check being torn from a checkbook. "A daughter I don't have, but money I have." He handed me the check. Without looking, I folded it in half and put it into my shirt pocket.
"Even if I do spend the time," I said, "I might not find the answers you're looking for."
"I can't think of anything more important to spend money on than at least trying to understand what happened to Lisa. Can you, David?"
But David Jacobs didn't answer his wife's question. He had turned his back to us, and I could see his shoulders trembling. With one hand he removed his bif
Posted June 4, 2009
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