A finalist for the Edgar and Mary Higgins Clark Awards, in her riveting debut Invisible City, journalist Julia Dahl introduces a compelling new character in search of the truth about a murder and an understanding of her own heritage.
Just months after Rebekah Roberts was born, her mother, an Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, abandoned her Christian boyfriend and newborn baby to return to her religion. Neither Rebekah nor her father have heard from her since. Now a recent college graduate, Rebekah has moved to New York City to follow her dream of becoming a big-city reporter. But she's also drawn to the idea of being closer to her mother, who might still be living in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn.
Then Rebekah is called to cover the story of a murdered Hasidic woman. Rebekah's shocked to learn that, because of the NYPD's habit of kowtowing to the powerful ultra-Orthodox community, not only will the woman be buried without an autopsy, her killer may get away with murder. Rebekah can't let the story end there. But getting to the truth won't be easyeven as she immerses herself in the cloistered world where her mother grew up, it's clear that she's not welcome, and everyone she meets has a secret to keep from an outsider.
About the Author
JULIA DAHL is a journalist specializing in crime and criminal justice. Her first novel, Invisible City, was named one of the Boston Globe's Best Books of 2014 and was a finalist for an Edgar Award and a Mary Higgins Clark Award. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and writes for CBSNews.com.
Read an Excerpt
I was in Chinatown when they called me about the body in Brooklyn.
“They just pulled a woman out of a scrap pile in Gowanus,” says Mike, my editor.
“Lovely,” I say. “So I’m off the school?” I’ve spent the past two days pacing in front of a middle school, trying to get publishable quotes from preteens or their parents about the brothel the cops busted in the back of an Internet café around the corner.
“You’re off,” says Mike.
The rest of the press is on the scene when I arrive at the gas station across from the scrap yard. Pete Calloway from the Ledger is baring his crooked teeth at the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, or as reporters call him, DCPI. DCPI is six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than Pete. It’s barely twenty degrees out and Pete’s got his hoodie up, his shoulders hunched against the cold, but DCPI is hatless, scarfless, gloveless, coatless. His uniform jacket collar is pulled up, two inches of starched wool-blend against the icy wind.
“We’re hearing she was found without clothes,” says Pete. “Can you confirm that?”
DCPI looks over Pete’s head and rubs his hands together. Behind him, in the scrap yard along the canal, two excavators stand frozen against the sky; the grapples attached to their long arms sway slowly, thin scraps of metal hanging from their teeth.
Pete stares up at the cop, who is ignoring him. Both of them are ignoring me. I’ve seen Pete at multiple crime scenes, but we’ve never introduced ourselves. Mike and the rest of the editors think Calloway is some kind of crime-reporting savant. But it seems to me, after just a few months at scenes with him, that all he is is single, dogged, and nosy. I catch his eye and smile a smile I mean to indicate camaraderie, but he doesn’t respond. Drew Meyers from Channel 2 slides up, cashmere coat to his shins, leather gloves, wine-colored scarf. DCPI loves him.
“Drew,” he says, grasping his hand like an old friend.
“Cold enough for you?” says Drew. DCPI’s ears are absurdly red. His nose and cheeks and neck glow pink. “So what’s going on?”
DCPI lowers his voice. “Female.”
“Is she still in there?” asks Drew. Pete and I step in to listen.
“Don’t have that,” says DCPI.
“The M.E. van hasn’t been here,” says Pete.
Drew looks at DCPI, who confirms Pete’s statement with silence.
“Was there a 911 call?” asks Pete.
“Yes,” says DCPI.
“What time?” I ask.
DCPI looks down at me. “Can you let me finish, please?”
“A call came in to emergency services this morning, reporting that workers loading a barge on the canal had found what they thought was a female body. We are in the process of determining identity.”
“It’s definitely female?” asks Pete.
Drew furrows his brow, doing a good impression of someone empathizing. He folds his notebook shut, though he didn’t write down a word of what DCPI said, shakes the cop’s hand, then turns and walks to the Channel 2 van, his coattails flapping behind him.
DCPI stays put, and so do I. There are several DCPI cops that work crime scenes. I know two or three by sight, and have one’s name, but I’ve never seen this man before. “Can I get your name?” I ask.
He looks down at me. “Can I see your press card?”
I dig my stiff fingers—exposed by the fingerless gloves that note-taking necessitates—into my coat and manipulate the laminated New York Tribune badge from beneath several layers of clothing. My skin scrapes against the metal zipper as I pull it out and present it.
“You don’t have a press card.”
He’s talking about the official credentials that the NYPD gives to reporters. If you want the press card, you have to submit six articles with your byline on them that prove you cover “spot news” in the city and routinely need to get past police lines. The card doesn’t actually get you past police lines, but it gives you a small measure of legitimacy in the eyes of whichever DCPI you’re dealing with. I applied for the card right before Thanksgiving, but I haven’t heard anything. I called after the New Year and the officer who answered the phone at the public information office told me to wait.
“I applied in November,” I tell DCPI. “I’m still waiting to hear.”
“Is she still … in there?” I ask.
“You’ll get information when I get information,” he says, sounding bored.
I turn away. Police tape stretches across the wide gravel entrance to the scrap yard, fastened to a tall iron fence on one end and the bow of a long canal boat on the other. There is a trailer that seems to serve as the site’s office. Officers stand at ease, protecting the perimeter. Men in hard hats, whom I take to be employees of the yard, stand pointing for men in suits, whom I take to be detectives. The workers seem to be motioning between the grapple cage above their heads and the mountain of scrap rising fifty feet beside them. I follow to where their fingers are pointing, and see a leg.
I call in to the city desk and ask for Mike. I give him the information DCPI gave me.
“She’s still up there,” I tell him. “You can see her leg.”
“Her leg?” I can hear him typing. “What else? Hold on … Bruce!” He’s shouting to the photo editor. “Bruce, who’s out there for you? Rebekah … who’s there for photo?”
“I haven’t seen anybody.”
“Hold on.” He clicks off. I try to communicate with Mike in these conversations. Every shift it’s the same: he tells me where to go and why; I tell him what I find. I’ve seen him in person twice in six months. He’s fifty pounds overweight, like most of the men in the newsroom, but unlike most of them he is polite and soft-spoken. When I walked into the office after three weeks of speaking several times a day, he said hello and avoided eye contact, then turned back to his computer.
I rock back and forth in my boots. I’m standing in the sun, and I’ve got fleece inserts over socks over tights, but I still can’t feel my toes. Mike comes back on the phone.
“Johnny from Staten Island?”
“Yeah. Larry is working sources at 1PP.” Larry Dunn is the Trib’s longtime police bureau chief. “Talk to somebody from the scrap yard. We’re hearing a worker called it in. Is Calloway there?”
“Don’t lose sight of him.”
“I’m going to the meeting with a woman in a scrap heap. We need an ID.”
“I’m on it,” I say.
The rest of the TV newspeople start rolling up in their vans. The on-air reporters always ride shotgun, camera techs squat with the equipment in the back. Gretchen Fiorello from the local Fox station steps out carrying her battery-powered microphone. She’s in full makeup, eyes lined and shadowed, lipstick just applied, and her strawberry blond hair is coiffed so that it lifts as one entity against the wind. She’s wearing panty hose and slip-on heels and a matching scarf and mittens set.
DCPI has nothing new, and the men at the scrap heap are still staring up at the steel fist with the body in it, so I push into the gas station convenience store to warm up. Working stakeouts or active scenes in the cold requires a tedious amount of energy. Hot coffee or tea warms you best from the inside out, but if you’ve got your hands wrapped around a cup, you can’t take notes. Plus, the more you drink, the more likely it is you have to find a bathroom—which usually isn’t easy. I shake powdered creamer into a white cardboard cup and pour myself some coffee from a mostly empty pot sitting on a warmer. I pay, then stand beside the front window and sip. From where I’m standing I can see most of the scrap yard.
My phone rings. It’s my roommate, Iris.
“Where are you?” she asks. Iris and I both majored in journalism at the University of Central Florida, but she works in a cubicle on Fifty-seventh Street and I’m never in the same place for more than a couple hours.
“Right by home,” I say. We share an apartment just a few blocks away. This is the first time I’ve ever been on a story in Gowanus. “The canal.”
“Jesus,” says Iris. “Hypothermic yet?”
“Can you still come?” We have plans for drinks with an amorphous group of alums from Florida tonight.
“I think so.” My shift is over around five.
“Will Tony be there?”
Tony is a guy I’ve been hooking up with. He’s very much not Iris’s type, but I like him. Iris likes metrosexuals. The guy she’s sort of seeing now has highlights and the jawline of a Roman statue. Tony is very not metrosexual. He just turned thirty and he’s balding, but he shaves his head. I wouldn’t call him fat, but he’s definitely a big guy. We met on New Year’s Eve at the bar he manages, which also happens to be the bar where UCF alums meet for drinks and where Iris and I ended up after a weird party at someone’s loft in Chelsea. He kissed me across the bar when the clock struck midnight and then we spent the next two hours kissing. He’s an amazing kisser. And despite his decidedly less than polished appearance, Iris seems to like him. Iris is the beauty assistant at a women’s magazine. We haven’t had to purchase shampoo, nail polish, lipstick, soap, or any other grooming toiletry since she started last summer.
“I think so,” I say.
“You don’t know?”
I don’t want to get into it, but I didn’t return his last text—and Tony isn’t the kind of guy who’s gonna blow up a girl’s phone.
“I’ll be there by six,” Iris says.
“Me, too,” I say.
I tuck my phone back into my coat pocket and put my face to the steam rising from my coffee. Bodega coffee almost always smells better than it tastes.
The glass door rings open and two Jewish men walk inside, carrying the cold on their coats. I know they’re Jewish because they’re wearing the outfit: big black hat, long black coat, beard, sidecurls. It’s not subtle.
The men walk to the back corner of the convenience store, and the tall one whispers fiercely at the other, who looks at the floor in a kind of long nod. Behind them by a few steps is a boy, a four-foot clone of the men, in a straight black wool coat, sidecurls, a wide-brimmed hat. His nose and the tips of his fingers shine like raw meat. He is shivering. The two men ignore him, and he seems to know not to get too close to their conversation. He stamps his feet, laced tight in neat black leather oxfords, and shoves his little hands into his pockets.
I scoot back to my perch between the coffeepot and the chip rack, where I can see the press vans in the parking lot of the gas station and the cop cars clustered at the scrap yard’s entrance across Smith Street. I’m monitoring motion. As long as the players—the rest of the reporters and photogs, the cops in uniform, the cops in suits—are just standing around, I can assume I’m not missing anything. If any group begins to move, I have to, too. If I had to choose, I’d rather be on a story like this than the one I just got off in Chinatown. In Chinatown, a reporter—especially a white reporter—is in hostile territory. Certain kinds of people love to talk to reporters—I can get an old Italian man in Bay Ridge or a young black mother in Flushing to gab and speculate about their neighbors, the mayor, their taxes, just about anything I come up with as long as I’m writing down what they say. This gonna be in the paper? they ask me. Immigrants are tougher. The Trib doesn’t have a reporter who speaks Chinese, and when you’re asking people already predisposed not to trust you if they know about the Internet café across the street selling ten-dollar blow jobs to middle school boys, without any of their language, you give them nothing but reasons not to say a word.
Active crime scenes are different. At an active crime scene, I have a role. I’m not staff at the Trib—I’m a stringer. I work a shift every day but have no job security or benefits. Every morning I call in, get an assignment, and run. I work alone, unless a photographer is assigned to the same story, and answer to a rotating assortment of editors and rewrite people whom I’ve usually never met. I have a laminated Tribune badge that identifies me as a player on the stage. I get shit about the Trib from cops sometimes—they complain about how we played some story, or the editorial page bias—and I can’t always get the same access as reporters with the official press card. But I’m in a much better position at a crime scene or official event than someone from one of the news Web sites that most of the cops have never heard of, or even worse the bloggers—who get nothing but shit.
At a crime scene, the cops secure the area. The reporters arrive. The cops inspect the body and the scene, then occasionally relay some of what they’ve found to another cop, the spokesman cop: DCPI. DCPI, when he feels like it, saunters across the street to the reporters busying themselves getting neighbor quotes (“I never heard them fighting” or “This building is usually so safe”) and checking their e-mail on their phones. Crime scenes are a relief for a new reporter. You just follow the herd.
The Indian-looking man at the counter leans on his forearms, watching the scene outside the windows. I approach him.
“Do you know what’s going on?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer, but I think he understands what I’ve said.
“I’m from the Tribune,” I say. “They found a body in the scrap yard.”
“A woman they say.”
This is a surprise. “A woman? No.”
“Terrible,” he says. He is probably in his thirties, but the ashy brown skin beneath his eyes could belong to a man twice his age. He hasn’t shaved in a few days.
The men in the back of the store stop whispering and march toward the boy in the black coat. The tall one says something and they rush out, leaving the boy behind. They walk swiftly toward the scrap yard. I assume they won’t talk to me, so I don’t bother trying to ask a question. I should follow, but I just can’t brave that wind again quite yet. If it were warm, I’d tag along a little behind, nose toward the scrap yard, try to get some detail to give the desk. Before I got anywhere near anything good, of course, I’d be told to get back. Get back with press, they’d say. I guess I’m a better reporter in the summertime. It was never once this cold in Florida, and even under all these layers I feel painfully exposed by the temperature. My bones feel like brittle aluminum rods, barely holding me up, scraping together, sucking up the cold and keeping it. One poke and I’ll crumble to the ground.
The boy takes his hands out of his pockets and carefully places them around the glass of the decaf pot. After a moment he brings his hands to his face, cupping his cheeks with his hot little palms.
“That’s smart,” I say.
He looks up at me, surprised.
“I use my cup,” I say, and lift my coffee. “And it keeps me warm on the inside.”
“You work for the newspaper?” he asks.
I look at the man behind the counter. Kids hear everything.
“I do,” I say. I point to the wire newspaper basket by the door. “The Trib.”
“My mommy reads the newspaper.”
“Oh?” I say. “Do you?”
The boy shakes his head. His mouth is a thin line. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so serious a child. But, of course, I’ve never seen a Hasid—man, woman, or child—not look serious. My mother was Hasidic. She fell in love with my dad—a goy—during a period of teenage rebellion. They had me, named me after my mom’s dead sister, and then she split—back to the black-coated cult in Brooklyn. There aren’t really any ultra-Orthodox Jews where I grew up in Florida, but now that I’ve moved to New York, I see them every day. They live and work and shop and commute inside the biggest melting pot in the world, but they don’t seem to interact with it at all. But for the costume they wear, they might as well be invisible. The men look hostile, wrapped like undertakers in their hats and coats all year long, their untended beards and dandruff-dusted shoulders like a middle finger to anyone forced against them on the subway at rush hour. The women look simultaneously sexless and fecund in aggressively flat shoes, thick flesh-colored stockings, and shapeless clothing, but always surrounded by children. I picture their homes dark and stale, with thick carpet and yellowing linoleum and low foam ceilings and thin towels. Are the little boys allowed action figures and race cars? Does somebody make a knockoff Hasidic Barbie for little girls? Barbie pushing a baby carriage and walking behind Ken. Barbie who leaves her kid.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
The boy hesitates. He lifts his face toward mine and our eyes meet for the first time.
“Yakov,” he says. “Yakov Mendelssohn.”
My phone rings. It’s an “unknown” number, which means it’s probably the city desk. I smile at the boy, then turn and walk toward the beer cooler to take the call.
“It’s Rebekah,” I say.
“Hold for Mike,” says the receptionist.
“Hey,” says Mike. “Is photo there yet?”
“Nobody’s called me.”
“Fuck. Is the M.E. there?”
“No,” I say.
“Is anybody at the scrap yard talking? Any workers?”
I haven’t asked. But I can’t say that. “I haven’t found anybody so far. They’ve got it mostly taped off.”
“Well, keep trying. See if you can talk to whoever found the body.”
“Okay,” I say. I know—and Mike knows—that whoever found the body has likely been whisked off to the neighborhood precinct for questioning. But editors in the office often suggest you do things that are essentially impossible on the off chance you get something usable. Once, after the FBI had raided a pharmacy that was selling illegal steroids to cops, I spent an entire day in Bay Ridge looking for people who would admit they’d bought steroids there.
“Look for beefy guys,” advised Mike. “Maybe hang out outside the gym.”
I took the assignment seriously for about two hours. I actually approached several men—one in a tank top with shaved calves, one exiting a tanning salon, one carrying a gym bag—and asked if they’d heard about the raid and if they knew anybody who uses steroids. Not surprisingly, no one did. I finally gave up and just started walking the streets. I struck up a conversation with some men smoking cigarettes outside a bar and told them about my assignment. They laughed and said good luck.
When I called in to report that I’d found nothing, Mike was gone and Lars, a younger editor, laughed when I told him what I’d been asked to do. “Don’t you love assignments like that?” he asked.
I tell Mike I’ll do my best and hang up. When I turn back from the cooler I see that Yakov is gone.
I approach the man behind the counter again. “Cute kid,” I say.
“He is son of owner,” says the man.
“Of the gas station?”
“No,” says the man. “The scrap yard. I watch him grow up, but he never speak to me. None of them do.”
“The Jews,” he says. “You must be special.”
“You say there is … a woman?” He points his chin toward the yard across the street.
“Someone found her this morning. I can’t believe they haven’t gotten her inside yet. Have the police been in?”
“Did they say anything? Did they ask you anything?”
The man shakes his head.
I drop my coffee in the trash can by the door and step outside. The cold air stings my face. I look down and aim the top of my head into the wind.
There are half a dozen police cars at the entrance to the scrap yard. I linger a few moments at the corner of the administrative trailer, watching as small groups of men—they are all men—rock on their heels, rubbing their hands together and gazing up at the long arm of the steel excavator, still motionless, with torn metal and a frozen limb hanging from its clenched fist. From this close, I can tell the victim is white. Good, I think. That’s one piece of info to give the desk. The Trib loves dead white women.
I wait beside the door to the office trailer, studying the men’s interactions to whittle down the number of people I’ll have to approach to get the information I need. A man in a hooded sweatshirt and work boots comes around the corner and I stop him.
“Excuse me,” I say, flashing a smile for a moment, then cringing as the cold sinks into my teeth as if I’d just bitten down on a Popsicle. “Sorry to bug you, but do you work here?”
The man doesn’t look me in the eye, but says, “Uh-huh.”
“Were you here when they found the body?”
“I was in the cab.”
“The cab,” I say, pulling my notebook and pen from my coat pocket. “What happened?”
The man shrugs and looks over my head. “I was just pulling up loads. That barge was supposed to be out hours ago.” He lifts his chin in the direction of the flat boat sitting on the canal, a pile of scrap in a low mound on its belly. “I was just pulling, and Markie started screaming over the radio. Shouting. I looked out the window and saw a couple guys running.”
I’m scribbling as fast as I can, trying to maintain eye contact with the man and write something legible enough to dictate back to the desk. In my notebook, his quote becomes: pull loads, mark scream radio, look wind saw guys run. I nod, inviting him to tell me more. “Could you see her from the cab?”
“I thought it was a guy, because of the hair.”
“Well, not the hair. There’s no hair. She’s bald.”
I stop writing. “Bald?”
The man nods and lifts his eyes to the crane. “Her head was … I could see it.”
“What could you see, exactly?”
“I saw her foot first, then, well, once I saw the foot and I knew, I could tell. Her color, she didn’t match the scrap.”
“What were you thinking?”
“I fucking picked this lady up. I didn’t fucking see her in the pile and I closed her in the hook and … I was thinking, I don’t know. I was thinking how cold she was.” He shivers and wipes his hand across his face.
I need more. I need him to say something like, “I couldn’t believe it—I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Wow,” I say. “I mean, could you even believe it?”
He shrugs and shakes his head. That’ll do.
“How long have you worked here?” I ask.
“Almost a year.”
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
“A dead body in the pile? No.”
“Can I ask your name?”
He hesitates. “Nah, I think … I think that’s enough.”
“Are you sure?” The desk frowns on anonymous quotes. “Even just a first name?”
He shakes his head. Last ditch, I smile and lean in a little. “Are you sure? It would really help me out.”
“I think I probably helped you out already.”
“What about … Markie?” I say. “Do you think he might talk to me?”
“Could you maybe point him out for me?” I’m smiling again, cocking my head, trying to make my eyelids flutter.
He looks around, his hands deep in his pockets. He nods his head toward a group of Hasidic men and workers huddled at the wheels of the excavator.
“Don’t tell him I gave you his name.”
“How can I tell him?” I ask, trying one last time. “I don’t even know your name.”
He nods. No smile of recognition. Just a nod. I wait another moment, then say thank you and turn toward the crowd at the base of the scrap pile, which is more like a mountain range than a mountain. It spans hundreds of feet along the canal, rising and falling in peaks and valleys of broken steel. The scale of the piles is dizzying. Mack trucks parked at the base look like plastic Tonkas in their shadow. The grapple is shaped like that claw you manipulate to grab a stuffed animal in those impossible games in the lobby of Denny’s. I stuff my notebook in my coat pocket and my phone rings. It’s a 718 number.
“It’s Rebekah,” I say.
“Becky, it’s Johnny!” Johnny, the photographer from Staten Island, is the only person in the entire world who has ever referred to me as Becky more than once. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the scrap yard.”
“Where? I’m here. I’m in the Camaro.” Johnny and I have worked a couple stories together. I turn around and see his silver Camaro parked across the street, near the air pump at the gas station. Johnny once told me that he “owns” Staten Island. On one of my first stories, he told me to follow him in my car to a subject’s house; then he slid through the end of a yellow light on Victory Boulevard. I gunned through the red, annoyed. Later, in the parking lot where we were scoping for a recently released sex offender, he leaned against my car and said I should be more careful going through reds. They got cameras, he said. Did you see a flashing light? I said maybe and he said he’d take care of it. Write down ya’ plate number for me. I’ll ask a buddy. I wrote down my number and gave it to him; he wrote “Rebecca” beside the numbers. I didn’t correct his spelling. I never got a ticket, though I doubt that had anything to do with him.
I catch his eye across the street and walk over to his car. My former car, a 1992 Honda Accord, died when winter came. It had never seen snow. I sold it to someone for two hundred dollars. On my first day working after it was towed away, I had to tell the desk when I called in before my shift that I couldn’t drive. I worried I might be out of a job. At my interview, Mike specifically asked if I had a car. A good stringer is an asset—we run around the five boroughs to crime scenes and press events, knocking on doors, bothering neighbors; we can get the information or the quote or the photo that sells the story—but a stringer with a car is considered an even bigger asset. Stringers with cars can get to Westchester to sit on big houses owned by sloppy, greedy politicians or doctors or professional athletes. Stringers with cars can knock on doors in Long Island for four hours and get back in time to get a quote from someone in Queens before the first edition deadline. But when I stopped having a car, nobody seemed to care. My guess is that Mike simply forgot I’d ever told him I had one.
“Becky! Get in.”
I go around the Camaro and sink into the passenger seat. The car smells like home. There is a coconut-scented palm tree hanging from the rearview mirror. Johnny’s got the heat blowing high, and I put my hands up close to the vents in the dashboard.
“Warm up, girl,” says Johnny. Johnny is a flirt, and though he’s always overfamiliar, I never feel like he’s actually leering at me. I don’t think I’m his type. Johnny likes big hair and tight sweaters and big blue moons of eye shadow. In Staten Island, he does well. Or so he says.
“Have you talked to the desk?” I ask.
“Dead lady in the pile,” he says.
I lean toward the windshield and point. “Look, you can see her. Right there. In the crane.”
Johnny looks and points. “There? That…” He’s stuck for what to call what he sees, which is a leg. “Jesus!” He twists around and grabs his camera from the backseat. “Watch the car. I’ll be back.” He throws open the long door and slams it shut behind him. As he trots across the street in his cropped red leather jacket, Johnny is adjusting his lens, snapping a photo, and then checking the image in his viewfinder. He gets to the edge of the yellow police tape and snaps away. Click click twist twist look. Click twist look. After a couple minutes, I can see the cold start to slow him. He stomps his feet and rubs his hands together. More clicking. He kneels down, maybe getting the tape in the shot, and jogs toward the trailer where the worker I spoke to is standing, smoking, staring at the crane.
I can’t imagine why they haven’t brought the poor woman down yet, though I’m sure Johnny is thrilled he got here in time to get his shot. In the time I’ve been working for the Tribune, I don’t think they’ve ever actually published a photograph of a dead body. I worked a scene out in Queens in September where a kid had tried to ride his bike Back to the Future–style behind a delivery truck and ended up with his head spread open on the pavement. The photographer took dozens of shots of the lump beneath the white sheet in the middle of the road, and the blood-dark pavement around it, but we published a picture of the truck, and the driver sitting on the sidewalk with his head in his hands. They also didn’t use the quote I got from a witness who described the sound the boy’s head made when it hit the blacktop. But photographers, like reporters, know they have to get every angle, every detail—just in case. In case their editor is in a particularly perverse mood; in case the Ledger has the image or the detail and we need to match it.
Johnny seems to be trying to talk to my worker and his friend, but neither’s lips are moving much in response to his questions. My guy points to where he pointed me, to the group of men beneath the crane: workers, Hasids, police. Johnny jogs over, staying just on this side of the yellow tape. An officer in his star-brimmed hat stands guard, and I watch Johnny show his badge and try to sweet-talk him into letting him get closer for a shot. The officer listens without engaging. His eyes dart around him. Johnny is persistent. He’s pointing and gesticulating as if this stranger was an old friend to whom he was recounting some wild encounter.
My phone rings. It’s the desk.
“I need whatever you’ve got for first edition,” says Mike. I read him the quotes from my construction worker. “Still no ID?”
“No,” I say, about to explain that the poor woman is still dangling forty feet above the canal, when suddenly everyone begins running: the crane is moving.
“I gotta go,” I say, opening the car door. “They’re bringing her down.”
Outside, Johnny is frantically changing his lens. “This shot is gonna be shit. Shit!”
I leave him be and get as close as I can to the excavator, pressing against the police tape. The cage is swaying, and as the long yellow arm guides it slowly toward the ground it makes a low, rattling moan. The workers and police step back, forming a circle around the base of the cage. The two Hasidic men from the bodega, now joined by several other men dressed just like them, stand to the side. Everyone is watching the leg. The thigh, the knee, the bare foot. And as it gets closer to the ground there is more. Her skin has color, bluish white, like skim milk. When the cage gets within a couple feet of the ground, it stops abruptly. A policeman shouts something I can’t understand to the crane operator, and the operator shouts something back. The metal arm shudders, pulling the cage up. More shouting. Now the officers all have their hands up, they’re shuffling back and forth, looking like circus clowns scrambling to catch a trapeze artist. Finally, the bottom tip of the cage touches the frozen ground. The new slack shifts its contents, pressing down on the body. There is more shouting, and the officers move in, touching the cage, touching the metal scraps, not touching the woman. It’s hard to imagine how they’re going to get her body out without crushing her.
Within moments of each other, two vans pull up. One has blue and gold Hebrew lettering on the side. The other says KINGS COUNTY MEDICAL EXAMINER. A uniformed officer lifts up the yellow tape and lets both vans enter the yard. Out of one jump Orthodox men in broad-brimmed black hats, with neon green vests over their coats and white strings hanging from their hips. Out of the other jump men in blue jumpsuits. They all run toward the body.
With the crowd beside her swelled, my stomach begins to hurt. Why can’t they get her out of there? My intestines get all fucked up when I get upset. I learned from a therapist many years ago that it’s called anxiety. I’m always afraid of stuff. Weird stuff, though. Not monsters or murderers or even airplanes. It’s more ephemeral than that. I feel fear when I feel insecure. When I feel alone or rejected. And when I feel powerless—like I do looking at this poor woman’s skin, torn by metal, bare beneath the sun on the coldest day of the year. Get her out, I think. Get her warm.
Johnny appears next to me.
“This is seriously fucked up,” he says, winded, excited.
“Who the fuck are all these people?” I say. “Get her inside and sort it out there.”
Johnny chuckles. “If only it were so easy, Beck.”
“What?” I say.
“The Jews are here,” he says, as if that explains something.
“And, the Jews take their own bodies.”
I do not understand.
“You’ve never seen them before? They were at that murder-suicide around Thanksgiving on the Upper East Side. Remember? Woman who owned the apartment is having dinner with a guy, her ex barges in and kills everybody. She was Jewish, so they came to collect the body. They cut up the rug, too. Took the sofa cushions.”
“They did not.”
“They did. Almost came to blows with a couple cops, too. Turf shit. In the Jewish religion, they’re supposed to bury you with everything, every drop of blood and hair and stuff.”
“They let them do that? Just take the body? Just take evidence?”
“In this case, they knew who did it,” says Johnny. “But, yeah. I think so.”
This seems very implausible to me. I doubt the NYPD just lets people run off with their crime scene evidence. But it’s not really worth the conversation with Johnny. He calls black people “niggers.”
Finally, some decision is made. The Jews run back to their van and emerge with a stretcher, which they unfold, wheeled legs dropping to the ground. A black bag—a body bag—lies thin atop it. They push the stretcher to the cage and consult with the officers. Everyone stands still for several more minutes, holding themselves against the cold, peering at the leg. Johnny is snapping away, ducking beneath the yellow tape and being yelled at to “get back.” Calloway and Gretchen and Drew come running.
I’m trying to make eye contact with one of the Hasidic men from the gas station. The taller man is stony faced, but the shorter one is clearly distraught, and very often distraught people talk. He looks my way and I raise my eyebrow and open my mouth expectantly. I put up a gloved hand and wave. He sees me—and then he looks away.
The metal arm groans again and lifts up a few feet. Two policemen spread a tarp beneath the cage, and then the tip creeps open, dropping scrap and, finally, the woman. She falls like the rest of the material, turgid and graceless. But as soon as she’s down, the operator swings the cage back, keeping the rest of the scrap from crushing her. A couple pieces come loose, though, and the police scramble to protect her. Johnny is snapping and I’m just staring. I can see her belly and her breasts and a mound of black pubic hair. I shiver again. It’s so fucking cold. Cover her, I think.
“Look,” says Johnny, showing me his viewfinder, pressing buttons to zoom in on her face. Her lips are blue and she has a completely shaved head.
“See,” he says. “She’s a Jew.” I look at him and he looks toward the Hasids. “They make their women shave their heads.”
“No, they don’t,” I say, but I don’t actually know whether he’s wrong.
“Yeah, they do,” he insists. “Haven’t you ever noticed all those women wear wigs?”
I stare at the woman’s image in the camera. Her mouth is open slightly and the corners of her mouth seem to be pulled back in what I can’t help but picture as a scream. White, bloodless cracks run down her lips. One of her front teeth is chipped, and her left eye is swollen shut. It looks like a giant pink and purple gumball.
“Fucking dead Hasid,” says Johnny. “You better try to talk to those dudes now. They’re gonna close up tight as a pussy soon as this gets out.”
He’s probably right, but I stay put. I’m straining to get one last glance at the woman as the men lift her up and set her into the black bag. One long zip and she’s gone.
Copyright © 2014 by Julia Dahl
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