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Friday, September 4, 2009
Commissioner Pippa Flatland was now the newest and most unlikely addition to a growing club whose members thought that my disinclination toward motherhood was a personal taunt, a façade I was maintaining for the sole purpose of driving them insane. My parents, Ollie and Bella Zuckerman, were the original founders and most active members, though the award for angriest protester went to Gregory Samson, the gangly, moody, wisecracking, nerdy-sexy, perfect-for-me ex-boyfriend whose departure from our relationship and apartment on West 12th Street had been the only quantifiable casualty of my new life policy.
The air-conditioning throughout the downtown Beaux Arts building on Pearl Street in which the Special Investigations Commission's offices were housed had broken down for the second time that week. It was the sweltering Friday before Labor Day weekend, and Pippa--a six-foot-tall, sinewy, laconic British ex-pat in her late forties with a pageboy haircut, a penchant for polka-dotted linen dresses, and a heart that had never fully taken leave of the cool breezes of the Lake District--had stopped by my cubicle.
She brandished two sweating Nalgene bottles fresh from the mini-fridge beneath her desk and, with a curt tilt of her head, gestured for me to follow her. Pippa's favorite office alternative, the Staten Island Ferry, was a five-minute walk from the SIC, a free ride both ways, and she had double-checked that there were no conflicts of interest in holding the occasional meeting on the windy decks of the hulking orange vessels. We all knew that when she left the office for hours at a time to "get some proper work done," she was riding back and forth, MacBook on lap, editing a report for the mayor or a press release for a news conference, freed from the temptations of the Internet and landlines.
I had been subjected to ferry meetings only twice. No one had warned me that Pippa did not begin talking until she reached the ferry; had I known that before my first meeting, I could have saved both of us five minutes of flailing and ultimately futile attempts at small talk, an item not featured on Pippa's menu. The second time, I had been with a group of senior detectives, all of whom remained uncharacteristically silent. I got the picture.
"You can't possibly be serious, Zephyr," she finally said as we waited for the glass doors of the terminal's boarding area to slide open.
I tried to guess what conversation, in her multitasking mind, we had already begun. I looked at her helplessly.
"Gregory," she said curtly.
Oh no. No, no, no. In a moment of weakness, I had allowed Pippa to eke out some personal information. Specifically, I had, some months ago, let it come to her attention that Gregory was threatening to pack up and move back to a state he loathed to live with parents he loathed. I didn't mind her knowing, but I dreaded being the object of one of her famously awkward attempts to prove she cared about her staff beyond the office perimeter. Pippa herself had risen into existence on the half shell or been dropped by a stork or simply burst into being out of cosmic debris. The woman had us all believing she possessed no past. As a result, her take on personal relationships had about as much value as an expired MetroCard.
"Oh, I'm serious," I said firmly. "Gregory left. In June." I held myself taut so that I wouldn't graze the extremely appealing shoulder of the tall, clean-shaven collection of muscles in the hard hat to my right. Apparently, I had also been unable to keep my return to single status a secret from my libido.
The doors opened and Pippa and I moved with the rest of the crowd up the gangway, an experience that never failed to make me feel simultaneously like a herded cow and also like an Astor or Vanderbilt boarding a dazzling ocean liner of yesteryear, trunks and servants in tow. Other times, I imagined I was an emigrant leaving home for the last time, terrified of what lay ahead but even more frightened of remaining behind.
Once we had deftly threaded our way through the less decisive passengers to secure outdoor seats on the starboard deck, I figured we were safely past the personal. But, like a seagull with a scrap of garbage, Pippa wouldn't let go.
"No," she said, handing me one of the Nalgenes. "I mean, I don't believe you told him you wouldn't ever have children. You can't be certain." It occurred to me that her holding meetings at sea was not unlike a floating wedding--a power play. You will do things your host's way and you will not leave until you have screeched along to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" with twenty other women.
I raised my eyebrows slightly as we sat down on a plastic bench shined to a smooth finish by hundreds of thousands of commuting butts. I assumed this self-declared spinster was putting me on, but, despite nearly three years of an easy working relationship, we were not on jokey terms. Pippa was many things--a shrewd detective, an ardent cyclist, a just boss, and, somewhat bewilderingly, a collector of Lucite handbags (specifically, sea-green Lucite handbags)--but she did not have a jokey bone in her body. The guys in the office referred to her behind her back as Poker Pippa, for her discomfitingly unreadable face.
"Pippa," I said, unsure whether to delve into my boss's personal life. Hell, she'd started it. "You've made it abundantly clear that marriage and kids aren't for you." I wiped the perspiration from the crooks of my arms and tried to tuck some damp, unruly strands of hair back into my improvised chignon. In hot weather, we were allowed to dress down, and I steadily rotated through my modest collection of thrift-shop sundresses. That morning I'd chosen a red-and-white-checked number that caused no end of "lost your sheep?" and "how many cows you gotta milk to getta gallon?" comments from my colleagues, whose first instincts were rarely to put someone at ease. As professional interrogators, it came in handy.
"Well, yes, but that's my decision about marriage and children." She sniffed and squinted out at the water. "I don't think you've thought it through for yourself."
It was such an outrageously condescending pronouncement--of the kind favored by my mother--that I was struck speechless. I opened my mouth to issue forth an inchoate protest, but at that moment the boat's horn blasted; I'm sure it looked and I know it felt like I was the one letting out the enormous honking roar. I closed my mouth, feeling as though the ship had expressed itself on my behalf. We began our glide to the far side of New York Harbor.
"Just give it a bit more thought. Yes?"
I nodded, like a child promising to do better on the next spelling test.
"Right, then, your new case," Pippa said, and I exhaled. She glanced distastefully at a small woman who had sat down too close beside her. The woman's hair was pulled into a painfully tight knot on top of her head, and she was studying the pages of a Crate and Barrel catalog as though she would be tested on the contents.
"I'm not done with my current case," I reminded her.
She fixed me with a cool stare and I sheepishly sipped from my bottle. Pippa knew exactly where each of her two hundred detectives was at every moment of the workday, where each stood in his or her caseload, who was best at surveillance, whose strengths lay in handling witnesses, who needed smoke breaks, and who preferred glazed to powdered.
"Tommy O. can finish the streetlight case. I'd like to get you in on something new involving the Greenwich Village Hotel."
I tried to look interested instead of crushed by disappointment. The streetlight vendor I was investigating had been giving cash kickbacks to a purchaser at the DOT. It was the first case for which I was going to get to wire someone with one of the sleek, 007-worthy gadgets designed by the guys in our tech office, Tommy T. and Tommy R. I had my eye on a nifty little necktie camera and had even gotten as far as arguing with our flipped informant, Eustace, about what pattern tie he wanted to wear for the handoff, which was scheduled to take place in just five days. In my opinion, paisley would ensure that the camera remained undetected, but Eustace maintained he was known for always wearing a navy-blue tie and that to stray from that habit would call attention to himself. I reminded myself that he was nervous--he was going to be the one alone in the car giving money to a mean, suspicious guy from the DOT--but I couldn't help feeling he should try to man up and set aside his sartorial concerns.
"Are you . . . unhappy with the way I'm handling streetlights?" I asked tentatively.
"Don't be absurd. Your work is always flawless." She ran her hands briskly over the black polka dots that danced across her lap.
In fact, this was the first direct compliment Pippa had ever paid me and thus the first time the rollicking parade of professional self-doubt that was forever marching through my psyche had whistled to a stop. I immediately imagined myself reporting this news to Gregory and just as quickly remembered that that was no longer an option. My stomach did its increasingly familiar aerial show, where it rose at the thought of him, then dropped when I remembered he was gone, and then dipped even farther as I recalled how uncertain I was that I had done the right thing by halting a trip to the altar.
"Thank you," I eventually remembered to murmur.
"Right, then," Pippa said, holding her hand to her brow to shield her eyes from the sun. "Shall I fill you in?"
As if "no" was a viable answer. I nodded.
"Old hotel, southeast corner of Waverly and Sixth. Owned by the same family for three generations. Ballard McKenzie, sixty-two, is the patriarch, and his only child, Hutchinson, twenty-nine, is poised to take over. The mother, Clarissa McKenzie, sixty, hand-painted the murals and whatnot on the walls of the foyer"--Pippa pronounced this foye--"the grandfather laid by hand the mosaic in the floor, the grandmother wallpapered each room herself. Odd-looking place, to tell you the truth."
Pippa paused, distracted, as was I, by the woman with the Crate and Barrel catalog. She was now openly weeping over its pages, though whether it was from joy, longing, or some other reason entirely was not apparent. Pippa cleared her throat and shifted so that her back was fully turned on the spectacle.
"Right. There's never been so much as a picked pocket reported at the hotel, not in forty years. Not even an INS dustup with the staff. It's all very homegrown, lovey-dovey, family pride and all that. Until last spring."
I felt a delicious current of anticipation spread through my limbs and an alertness crackle across my brain. This was why I loved my job, or maybe this was how I knew I loved my job. I felt this way whenever Pippa assigned me a new case, no matter how dull it might have sounded to someone else. The truth was, I didn't mind paging through blurry Xeroxes in my cubicle, trying to cobble together evidence against the nail salons, or riding to interviews in the outer boroughs with the smoke-saturated senior detectives while they mocked me and my sheltered background. My dad's definition of professional happiness was finding something you love and getting paid for it. I was getting paid to be nosy.
"Last week," Pippa continued, "the father finally called intake to tell them he thought something was wrong with the books." She raised one eyebrow at me. This was her bare-bones version of mentoring. I jumped in, as I knew I was expected to do.
"I'm guessing there's a reason he didn't ask the rest of the family to take a look?"
"Ballard McKenzie is worried that it's his son, Hutchinson, who's cooking them, and he's devastated. Noticed something nearly a year ago, but it took him this long to admit it might actually be intentional thievery by one of his own." Pippa fluttered her eyelids to indicate her opinion of family loyalties.
"Why is this an S.I.C. case?" Our jurisdiction was city employees and contractors dealing with (read: cheating) the city. As far as I knew, the city wasn't in the hotel business.
"The Greenwich Village Hotel is one of a handful that agrees to accept a discounted rate for guests visiting the city on official municipal business," Pippa said. "Guests brought here on the city's dime, that is."
"The city puts up VIPs at boutique hotels?" I asked doubtfully.
"They're not necessarily VIPs and this isn't really a boutique hotel. It's just small. Say the Board of Ed is toting in a keynote speaker for a principals' conference. They don't always want to stick someone in dreary midtown. They want to show off the city's color. Downtown."
"Okay, so how much are we talking?" I looked out over the water as we passed Lady Liberty, feeling a renewed sense of connection to the amber waves of grain that lay beyond her, a surge in my chest that had been dead from Election Day 2000 to Election Day 2008.
"A hundred grand."
I actually choked on my water and turned to stare at my boss.
"Exactly." Pippa nodded, satisfied with my reaction. "He tried to convince himself that it was acceptable not to be able to reconcile a hundred thousand dollars."
"Any leads at all?" I asked incredulously.
"Not a one."
"Great," I muttered, trying to sound annoyed, when, in fact, I could have soared the rest of the way to Staten Island on my own excitement. I was getting in on the ground floor of a completely untouched case! No one else's notes and musings and misleading hypotheses to politely consider. Virgin soil.
"You know you love it," Pippa commented drily. "Don't try to be like your world-weary colleagues. Those blokes love it, too, you know."
I blushed. Someday I'd be like Pippa--an enigma, a closed book--but for now I had to make peace with being as understated as a carousel. The construction worker with the beautiful shoulders strolled past, and it became apparent to all that his shoulders were not even close to being his best feature. I inhaled the salty air and tried to regain focus.
"Why did you want to discuss this on the boat?" I asked suddenly. This assignment could easily have taken sixty seconds in her office. "Not that I'm complaining," I added hastily.
"Two reasons," Pippa said immediately. She glanced to her left and seemed startled to discover that the catalog cryer had left. She looked around quickly, and I could tell she was disturbed that she'd lost track of someone, as if she'd failed a surveillance exercise. "First, most important, this case will not be tracked through our central system." She paused to let this sink in.