A smoky-eyed man she's just met dies in an apparent suicide, but Robin's not so sure. Could it be murder? Perhaps a genuine suicide subtly staged to look like murder and thereby frame someone? Maybe even the last word in performance art? Is it related in some way to the star-crossed and rather irritable young lovers who have appealed to Robin for help?
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Thanks to Mrs. Dulcinia Ramirez and her pathological love of Jesus, and thanks also to the Holy Toledo Religious Novelty Company of Toledo, Ohio, and Shanghai, China, my neighbors and I found ourselves out on the street in our pajamas one spring night, watching our building burn. Of course, we didn't yet know what was to blame. It took several weeks for the fire department to trace the blaze to Mrs. Ramirez's electric Ascension of Jesus display, or what was left of it after the immolation.
My name is Robin Hudson and at the time of the fire I was the programming head for the Worldwide Women's Network, a subsidiary of Jackson Broadcasting. I was forty going on fortyone, divorced and childless. Since college I had lived in Manhattan's East Village in a prewar walk-up on East Tenth Street between avenues B and C, a clean, quiet block populated largely by Hispanic working people and their families. Through many eras and transformations, I stuck it out on the Lower East Side, from its days as an anarchist slum to the current haute-bohemian paradise enjoyed by yuppies and affluent twenty-somethings from elsewhere who had seen a road show of Rent and been inspired to move here, dye their hair pink and blue, and taste la vie boheme. It was this last incarnation that got me thinking it might be time to leave the East Village and look for an apartment in a more authentic, grown-up New York neighborhood, one that was less at risk of being Disneyfied.
But it was just idle thinking, until Jesus short-circuited.
The fire alarm went off in the hallway with an unholy shriek after midnight, as I was falling asleep and into agauzy, half dream, about Pierre, this French genius with whom I'd recently had a mad fling. So appealing was this dream, I didn't react right away to the alarm. Only when I smelled the smoke did I jump out of bed, open the window, and kick away the poison ivy planters so my cat, Louise Bryant, could escape. Before I followed her, I wildly grabbed stuffmy purse, my laptop, shopping bags full of mementoes and personal papers, and an old Enfield rifle, a present from a man I'd loved and lost. I threw a black coat over my antique peach nightgown and shoved my feet into slippers. Black smoke was starting to fill my apartment when I went clanging down the fire escape.
After me on the fire escape came my neighbors, old Mr. O'Brien and his latest "housekeeper," a widow he'd met through a mailorder bride magazine he subscribed to. The way they went down together, wrapped up in one big yellow blanket, made me think they weren't wearing much underneath.
Most of my neighbors were already out of the building, standing on the street in their pajamas. It's an odd thing to see your neighbors in their nightclothes. My neighbor Sally was standing in a flowing, iridescent white nightgown, a bag under one arm and her powder blue, circa 1962 Samsonite suitcase under the other, underwear and paper sticking out of it. Phil, our saintly super, a tweed coat over his striped pajamas, was holding his scrapbook of clippings and doing a head count with Helen Fitkis, unrepentant Communist and widow of a longshoreman. She wore a quilted orange-and-yellow housecoat over gray slippers, and was holding my cat. Mr. Burpus, a subway motorman and enthusiastic philatelist, wore green pajama bottoms and a brown houndstooth blazer, no shirt. He was clutching a stamp album. Three Japanese girls, NYU film students who were subletting the apartment above me, wore identical black leather jackets over flannel pajamas, in different pastel colors. Mr. O'Brien's bare, pale legs poked out from beneath the yellow blanket, next to the pale legs of the "housekeeper." He was barefoot, while she wore one red slipper.
At this point, only old Mrs. Ramirez was missing. Mrs. Ramirez's apartment, located conveniently below mine, was full of old wooden furniture, religious candles, scrapbooks, photographs, and other highly flammable stuff. As the biggest flames were coming from her window, we all assumed the worst: When that pile of tinder ignited, she went up like Joan of Arc.
"She was very dried out. She would have burned fast," said Mr. O'Brien, displaying the sensitivity of a man who orders his concubines from the backs of magazines and calls them "housekeepers. "
"That's a great comfort," I said.
"It would have been a quick death," agreed his "housekeeper." "And now she's with Jesus.
"Who's with Jesus?" demanded a voice in the dark. "What's going on?"
Mrs. Ramirez stood there, in a trim black coat and matching hat, with her Chihuahua, Senor, just back from one of her one woman Neighborhood Watch rounds.
"Who's with Jesus?" she demanded again. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I detected a note of jealousy.
"We thought you were, luv," Phil said. "Thank God you're okay. The building doesn't look very good though."
"A fire," Mrs. R. correctly identified. Mrs. Ramirez of course had a theory to share about the fire, that our neighbor Sally, "the witch," had caused the fire by burning herbs and had been inviting divine retribution for practicing "the black arts."
Sally began to weep, and protested: "I wasn't burning anything. I was asleep."
"Then who was it?" Mrs. R. asked, looking around for suspects.
Flashing lights from emergency vehicles strobed the street. It had rained earlier, leaving a wet, reflective sheen, making the darkness seem somehow brighter. Blurry ribbons of reflected lightred, white, yellowbled into each other on the wet asphalt. Above us, burning pieces of paper and cloth came down in a rain of softly falling black ash, as though it were. . .
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I'd just exited the elevator at the McBurney Y down the street from the Chelsea Hotel on 7/13/1977 when the East Coast Blackout hit. I took the stairs back up to lead women from the gym and locker room down to the lobby, using a lighter and pen light to light the way. A crazy night driving back to Brooklyn Heights with no traffic lightsl Looting started fairly rapidly, too.
In the Big Apple, Robin Hudson is a forty-one year old power player who heads programming for the Worldwide Women's Network. She travels to more countries in a month than most families visit in their lifetimes. A fire forces Robin and her cat Louise Bryant to leave their East Village apartment. They move into a friend's apartment at SOHO's Chelsea Hotel. Robin has no time to mourn her loss of possessions. Instead, she immediately becomes involved with the problems of two eloping teenagers who are running from their menacing families. Dangerous looking thugs seem to line up the streets chasing after the runaways. Robin vows to keep them safe, not yet realizing the risk she will take for this wonderful cause. Robin is an interesting person who many readers will admire because she has a quirky charm that is beguiling. The entertaining heroine is zany, hip, quirky, and most important in this age of the disposable friendship, loyal. The story line is unusual, at times surreal, but always enjoyable as Robin co-stars with New York in the offbeat THE CHELSEA GIRL MURDERS. Sparkle Hayter lives up to her first name with this sparkling story that will appeal to urban amateur sleuth fans. Harriet Klausner