BACCHUS AT MERIDIAN HEIGHT
I stared at Alexandra for a moment, then quickly looked left and right down the hallway.
"Don't worry," she said. "No one followed me. I would like to be allowed inside, though."
"Uh...yeah." I stepped aside. Alexandra entered the apartment just as she had entered The Wall of Sleep -- cautious yet smooth in stride.
I closed the door. "How did you find me?" I asked.
"The same way I knew that you were Vincent's son." She looked at me from behind her dark glasses. "I knew that you would be staying with the woman who sees into the minds of killers."
I didn't know what else to say except, "Diana will be back soon."
"No. She is busy with a case."
The two of us just stood and stared at each other for a few moments. She kept her gloved hands crossed over each other and her legs perfectly balanced. She looked like a statue of a strange saint.
"You can show me your face," I said.
She raised her head an inch. "I would rather not do that."
"Look, I'm sorry about how I reacted..."
"There is nothing wrong with the way you reacted. It is the way any man would have reacted."
"If you really know who my father is, then you should know that I should be used to...certain faces."
"And how did your mother first react when she saw your father?"
"Good point." I smiled slightly. "But they eventually got along."
Did she smile behind the scarves? I sensed that she did, but I couldn't be sure. "It goes without saying," she commented in an unchanged voice. "However, I choose not to show my face."
"All right. Can you tell me why you're here?"
"I wanted to tell you that I did not order your friend's murder. I didn't even know that it had happened."
"I already figured that out."
"You...just don't seem the type to be complicit in such a thing."
She looked away from me to a corner of the room. "You may not know me as well as you think," she whispered.
I stepped toward her. "I know when I can trust..."
She quickly turned back to me, saying in a voice that stopped my approach, "My father wasn't responsible, either."
"Crown. When he found out that Garner was investigating one of my father's employees, he...reacted over-zealously."
"There's the euphemism of the week."
"Crown handles security for my family and...others. His dedication to the job is thorough."
"Meaning he has killed for you before."
"For my father."
"He's your bodyguard."
Alexandra glanced at my wound. "I'm sorry. I made a mistake coming here."
She started toward the door. Ignoring the pain in my shoulder, I ran over to her and grabbed her hand. "Wait, I didn't mean..."
We looked down at our touching hands. I wanted to pull off the glove. I didn't care about Alexandra's scaly skin. I simply desired to touch her with nothing between us.
I was prudent enough not to yank off the glove. I let Alexandra pull her hand away, but her fingers lingered briefly at the tips of mine before falling at her side.
I said, "You seem like a person caught up in something you can't control."
"I am." She pointed at the window and the buildings within sight. "I'm trapped in the world. We all are."
"I don't know what you mean."
"I may seem separated from the rest of humanity. I may look isolated in an enclave of wealth and privilege. But I'm no less cut off from the world's ebb and tide that you are in your underground realm."
I remembered Laura's words -- 'The world is all the same.' They had reflected what Alexandra was telling me. However, I still didn't quite understand what either one of them meant.
"Alexandra," I said, "you're speaking in one too many metaphors for me."
"Am I? Weren't you the young man who risked so much for the sake of poetry?"
"Well, yes. But sooner or later you have to return to concrete things. I have questions that need answering."
"I can't tell you any more about my father or Crown."
"All right. Then tell me about you. For starters, why did you really come here? Why talk to me in person?"
"Because..." She curled her hands together and looked down at the floor. "...I don't know why you came to me."
"You know. For the poetry."
"Is that all?"
I considered what to say. Finally I told her, "No."
"What then? To get revenge on my father?"
"Oddly enough...revenge wasn't really on my mind at that moment."
"You know so much about me already. Don't you have the answer to that?"
"I can tell almost everything about a person just by looking at them long enough. But there are certain areas where I remain blind." She raised her eyes. "Perhaps...you can guide me through them."
I thought again about the right words to say, then told Alexandra, "That'll be difficult."
"Still...you came this far. How did you get past Crown, by the way?"
"I learned long ago how to escape his sight. I will only be able to do it once, though. And soon he will find me. He has men working for him all over the city."
"Then I'm honored that you used your one chance for me. And I think this is the first time you've stepped in the world alone, isn't it?"
"It must have been scary."
"No. It wasn't."
"Are you serious?"
"Why would it be otherwise?"
"You stepped out..." I pointed at the window. "...into New York City after being a recluse all your life and it didn't bother you at all?"
"I've looked upon this city from my high window just as I have looked upon you. I already knew its patterns and habits before I stepped onto the sidewalk. Why should I fear it?"
I wondered again how she was able to 'know' things just through looking, but surmised that she wouldn't tell me yet. Instead I asked, "Weren't you worried about how people would see a person dressed up like this?"
"Yes. I was worried that they would think I was Michael Jackson."
I blinked, twice. I didn't laugh because I wasn't sure that Alexandra had told a joke. I sensed that she was smiling, though.
Then I got a really crazy idea. The idea swallowed up every other concern I had, including keeping my promise to Diana. I only knew that Alexandra was here with me, we were alone and a special event was happening tonight. I had been planning to attend this event a week ago, but forgot about it in the hubbub.
"If you're fine with stepping out," I said, "step out somewhere with me."
I had been a friend to the Dropkick Murphys ever since I beat them all up. A year before I met Alexandra, I had sneaked into the backstage area of the Slapjack Theater where they had been playing a show. After the performance, the band had been partying with friends and family backstage, drinking beer, laughing, apparently not paying attention to the long-haired teenager in the midst.
Then their drummer suddenly yelled, "I spy with my little eye a fucking CRASHER!" And suddenly the whole band was on top of me. I wasn't going to take that, even from one of my favorite groups. In a minute most of them were sprawled on the floor and I tossed their bagpipe player over the snack table.
"Jesus Chriiist," the bassist muttered, stretching the last word like a true Bostonian. Then he looked up at me and said, "Do you want a beer?"
After several beers I had gotten an open invitation to come backstage anytime they were in New York City. And on the night Alexandra visited me, they had returned to the Slapjack Theater.
When I told Alexandra where we were going, she said, "Who are the Dropkick Murphys?"
"What, you knew about Vincent, but you haven't heard of the Murphys?"
"As I said, there are certain areas where I'm blind."
"And you asked me to help you through those areas, so..." I went to the door, opened it and motioned for her to follow. She hesitated briefly, then left the apartment with me.
We headed for the subway. As we walked together on the streets, I watched her. I had trouble believing that a recluse couldn't get lost in New York City. It should have overwhelmed her. Instead she seemed...
I won't say the word 'calm.' Or 'serene.' That implies an inner peace, and Alexandra definitely didn't have that. She was more like a buoy standing upright in a storm -- more dependent on an odd kind of physics rather than contentment to stay balanced in the city's tumult. Her body simply reacted to every change in the flow of traffic. She understood how the crowd moved.
Yet she never connected with it. She could walk among people, but she couldn't talk with them.
Except with me. And that's what confused her. She had spent her life in the avoidance of others, but then somebody abruptly touched her -- somebody who still wanted to touch her, even though he had seen her face.
I wanted to hold her hand as we walked. I wanted to hook my arm around hers, just to let her know I was close. I didn't do those things, even as we moved perfectly aligned with the other.
We eventually reached a subway station. I used my Metrocard to get us through the turnstile. (Yep, I have a Metrocard. Sometimes you want to ride inside the subway instead of on top of it.) We waited a minute for a train.
A group of drunken college students were already on the train, all of them wearing baseball caps and braying with laughter. We sat at the opposite end of the car from them.
It didn't take long for one of them to notice us, though. He squinted at Alexandra, then whispered to his friends, "Dude, look at that..." They snickered, then the one who called attention to us wobbled to our side of the train.
"Why are you dressed like that?" he slurred at Alexandra.
She made no response. She didn't even move, just sat with perfect posture and her gloved hands in her lap.
"I said, why are you dressed like that?"
"She's not bothering you," I told him. "Why don't you go back to your friends?"
He looked at me as if I had just made a joke. He was a wide-shouldered young man in his physical prime; probably a football player. He didn't expect much trouble from some long-haired teenager.
"I'm just asking her a goddamn question, pal," he sneered at me, then turned to Alexandra. "What's your problem? You a elephant woman or something...?"
He reached for the scarves on her face. I was going to grab his wrist and wring it.
But then Alexandra spoke. Her voice was soft, but could be heard by everybody in the rattling car.
"You bought the answers."
The drunken student froze.
"Was it a history test?" She paused, then said, "No. Physics. You bought them from Albert Harrison."
The student stepped back with his eyes widening.
"During a hazing you once broke the arm of a freshman. His name was...George. No, Tom. Yes, it was Tom."
The student began to tremble.
"And then there was Rebecca..."
The student retreated to his companions. Alexandra turned her dark glasses in their direction. They looked away and became very quiet. At the next stop they scurried out of the train.
"Mind if I ask you a question?" I said.
She turned to me, and I saw my reflection in her dark glasses. I looked uneasy but also very curious.
"How do you that? How can you tell things about people just by looking at them?"
"There are connections between everyone," she said. "If you look carefully enough, then you can follow any of them to the truth."
"Then how come you didn't know that Russ Garner was killed?"
She paused, then said, "Poetry clouded my view."
She then faced forward. I knew that I would receive no better answer than that for the moment. All right, I thought with a smile. Let's see you do this trick with the Murphys.
"LET'S GO, MURPHYS!" Clap-clap-clapclapclap. "LET'S GO, MURPHYS!" Clap-clap-clapclapclap. "LET'S GO..."
As with last year the air-conditioning of the Slapjack Theater was weak, and the pipes still dripped water onto the heads of five hundred Dropkick Murphy fans. They were gathered in the wide space before the stage, already sweating as they clapped and chanted.
Alexandra peeked at them from backstage while roadies mobilized around her. They paid no attention to the young lady's covered face. I stood by her side, enjoying her puzzlement and curiosity.
I had gotten permission for us to stand here after I told security who I was. "Right," the guard had said. "You're the guy who beat up the Dropkick Murphys, you arrrggh..." After I had twisted his arm behind his back, he agreed that I was indeed Jacob.
We were waiting for the band to take the stage. Alexandra's head twitched with bird-like movements. Judging from what I had seen of her, she already knew the names of everybody in the audience, where they were from, who their parents were. What she couldn't figure out then (as she told me later) was why they were here, bellowing for a performance.
I heard, "Whoa, look who's here!" "The killer!" "The ass-kicker!" I turned and saw the Dropkick Murphys striding toward me. I slapped hands with all of them, laughed, acted very guy-like.
"Who's this?" the bassist asked, pointed at Alexandra. She turned and everybody in the band blinked.
"This is Alexandra," I explained.
"Uh, aren't you hot dressed like that?" the drummer wondered.
"I'm fine," she said. "This crowd is very loud."
The band snickered at her distant, peculiar manner of speaking. "Well, yeah," the lead singer chuckled. "That's the idea."
Alexandra stared at them for a few moments, then said, "The next time you're in Miami, don't play at your previous venue. The manager there was skimming money off the ticket sales."
Everybody stopped laughing. "How do you..." the bassist began to say.
"Hey, guys," I said, "you got a crowd waiting."
"Um, yeah, right." The bassist turned to the singer. "Ready?"
They slapped each other in the face, repeatedly. The idea was to slap the other guy right after he slapped you. The slaps get faster and faster until one of you quits. Not knowing this was a pre-performance ritual, Alexandra just watched in silence.
The bassist was the one who quit this time. Everybody laughed at this, including the bassist. "Winner!" the singer declared, then turned to the stage. "Okay, let's..."
"Wait, wait," the red-cheeked bassist said. "I want to see Jacob do it!"
The rest of the band cheered for this idea. Not wanting to back down, the singer said, "Well, I'm game."
I held back a sigh, then nodded. "You first," I said. The singer slapped me in the face. I slapped back, hard.
The singer was knocked stumbling onto the stage. The crowd cheered, thinking this was his entrance. "Now get your asses out there," I told the howling band. They did so, laughing and holding their fists up to the crowd. The singer was laughing as well and rubbing his face.
I saw Alexandra looking at me. "It's a guy thing," I explained with a shrug.
She said nothing, but I got the feeling that she was rolling her eyes. Then she turned to watch the band.
The first chords of "Boys on the Dock" burst from the speakers. She jumped back a step, and her gloved hands clenched. I patted her on the shoulder -- the second time I had made physical contact with her.
"Not exactly Hildegard, is it?" I said into her ear. She turned her covered face to me. I'm sure she smiled.
I can't say that she enjoyed the Dropkick Murphys, but she did watch and listen with interest. She noted the shared energy between them and their audience. When a guy got up on the stage and shouted lyrics into a microphone, she tensed, thinking that control had been lost by the band. Then the guy would simply dive back into the audience. Others would do likewise and hands were always ready to carry them. A potential source of chaos was subsumed into a peculiar order. Likewise the band's sound was loud, fast and angry, but the songs were about the pride of being Irish ("Rocky Road to Dublin,"), the rights of workers ("The Gauntlet,"), the comfort of friendship ("The Gang's All Here") and even being in love ("Upstarts and Broken Hearts.") Underneath all the heat, swearing, drinking and face-slapping, Dropkick Murphys were a sentimental, old-fashioned bunch.
Plus they had a bagpipe player. Top that.
Normally I would be in the crowd, swirling and banging against other bodies. On that night I stayed by Alexandra's side. I had removed my hand after patting her shoulder and didn't touch her throughout ten songs. We remained still even as the crowd jumped, the band stomped over the stage and the roadies scrambled from one task to another. I was drawn into Alexandra's calm point of observation. I had never felt more involved in the present than with her. I had long thought that living for the moment meant indulging in any pleasure you can find. I was now discovering that it meant wanting to be exactly where you are. And I wanted to be right there with her.
I was shaken out of this peaceful state by the bassist declaring, "It's time for The Spicy McHaggis Jig! You know what that means!"
I did. All the ladies were invited onto the stage. You might not think the Dropkick Murphys had much of a female fan base, but there were quite a few women in the audience. In fact, the crowd had a wide mix of bare-chested sports fans, guys with mohawks and skinny college kids in glasses.
As the women eagerly climbed onto the stage and the bagpipe player blew the opening notes, I touched Alexandra for the third time. I pressed her shoulder and said, "Go."
She looked at me, looked at the gathering of women and then back at me. "You'll be fine," I said. "I'll be watching you. Go enjoy yourself."
She definitely wasn't sure about this. At the same time she wanted to trust me, just as I wanted to trust her.
So she stepped into the glare of the bright stage lights. She found herself a bare spot near the drums, just as the ranks of the women closed around her. None of them seemed to notice her odd attire which didn't look too outlandish among all the dyed hair, pierced noses and studded jackets. What truly separated her was the fact that she kept her feet on the ground as the other young ladies merrily bounced to the music.
"Spicy was big," the bassist shouted into a mike, "burly and strong. His pipes were gigantic..."
"AND SO WAS HIS SCHLONG!!" every woman except Alexandra shouted. She looked at me again. What have you gotten me into? she must have been wondering. The young lady who had no trouble navigating through the streets of New York City was completely lost among these gleeful, jumping damsels.
One of them had to show her what to do. Alexandra almost jerked away when a teenager with a green shirt and red-dyed hair put her arm around her shoulders. The redhead didn't care about Alexandra's odd appearance. She only knew that the girl in black didn't seem to be having fun. She kicked up her heels in time to music, left then right, left then right. "Come on!" the redhead encouraged.
Alexandra didn't know what to do except imitate her, just to be polite. After a few awkward kicks she managed to get the rhythm. "That's it!" the redhead cheered.
And then something strange happened.
Alexandra started to have fun. You wouldn't have known that she had been wringing every last drop of pain and despair she could from "Lamia" a couple of nights ago. Now she was among a gang of women dancing to a song about an Irishman's sex life. She reached out and put her arm around the shoulders of a mohawked woman. Mohawk readily joined Alexandra and Redhead in a kick line. When the song reached the chorus of "Spicy! SPICY! Spicy! SPICY!" she chanted it with everyone else. I felt so proud of her for doing this and of myself for my crazy idea to come here.
Then the smile left my face. Somebody had just walked up behind me. I recognized her smell and turned.
Diana Bennett was standing before me, her arms crossed over her chest. As I've said before, her angry expression was subtler than other people's, but, boy, you didn't want to see it.
The song reached its brash end.with the thudding of drums, big chords and "Spicy McHaggis...ONE HELL OF A GUYYYYYYYYY!!!" Alexandra clapped and cheered with the other women. "Let's hear it for the ladies!" the bassist shouted.
As the ladies dispersed, Alexandra ran up to me. She sounded more like an excitable schoolgirl than the grave charge of Edward Bradbury. "Oh, Jacob, that was the most wonderful..."
She stopped when she saw Diana. The older woman shifted her gaze from me to Alexandra. She seemed to be cataloguing every dust mote on those dark clothes.
She said, "Are you a friend of Jacob's?"
Alexandra pondered the question, then answered, "Yes. Yes, I am."
"Well...any friend of Jacob's is a friend of mine." She held out her hand. "Diana Bennett."
Alexandra hesitated for one moment, then shook the hand. "Alexandra," she replied.
Diana looked straight at the black glasses. "Alexandra Bradbury?" she asked.
"Ah." Diana released Alexandra's hand and placed her own hands on her hips.
"So, Alexandra," she said, "are you hungry? I know I am."