BY NAOMI RAND
This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
FREDDIE RILEY is going full tilt, on her way to her last delivery of the day. Then the yellow cab veers in front of her, trying to cut her off. That’s so not happening, she thinks, pumping hard on the bike pedals. She swerves around the cab and makes it across just as the light goes red.
Eat my dust, asshole.
Brakes squeal behind her. Twisting around, she catches sight of the cabbie scowling. Service with a smile, that’s what Fleet Feet says it offers its customers. In keeping with that, she offers him her best. He doesn’t seem appreciative. So be it.
Eight blocks later, her bike is bumping up over the curb of 1501 Broadway. It’s her last delivery of the day. She lifts the frame up onto her shoulder. The rest of the world streams through the revolving doors, but, being a service professional, she pushes the one on the far right open and steps inside the cavernous lobby.
Bennie, the doorman, comes rushing over to help.
“How’s it hanging, Freddie?”
“Can’t complain,” she lies.
Bennie could. He’s wearing that hangdog look on his face.
“No winners today?”
“I was this close to the trifecta,” he says as his first finger pinches his thumb.
“That’s too bad.”
“Story of my life.”
It kind of is.
Bennie can’t quit the ponies. He’ll be placing more bets tomorrow. It’s where his salary goes. He’s also a prince among doormen because he lets her leave her bike inside instead of forcing her to remove the front tire and lock the frame to a pole with her Kryptonite bike lock. So strong even Superman can’t boost it, right?
Actually wrong. But on a busy street, you’re likely to find it there on your return.
Passing his desk, she spots the latest Racing News. It’s May 22nd, in the year of our Lord, 1968. In a week exactly, she’ll turn twenty-three. Twenty-three years living on this earth and here she is, a bike messenger. Not exactly how she’d planned it. Not even remotely close.
Freddie sighs and wheels her bike into the alcove. She leans it up against the wall. Her delivery is inside the messenger bag, slung around her shoulder. She steps out into the lobby and catches sight of her reflection in the gleaming copper elevator doors. They used to call her string bean. She sure hasn’t outgrown that. Five eight, long-limbed, flat-chested. She’s got broad shoulders and narrow hips, a boyish girl. The look suits her just fine. Her hair is lush, but it’s pinned and tucked into the cap, still, if she released it, it would fall past her shoulders. It’s a bold, bright red.
Al, her boss, insists that they wear the cap and the matching shirt, both emblazoned with the insignia on the white background, the golden wings extended, the red lettering that reads Fleet Feet Messengers. Al is proud of designing the logo himself. The wings are a reference to Mercury, he says to anyone and everyone. Freddie doesn’t tell him that she ditches the shirt as soon as she leaves the office. What someone doesn’t know can’t hurt them, or really, in this case, her.
Freddie’s been working for Al since the summer of eleventh grade. She’s the best messenger he has, first in on-time deliveries. And she’s also the only female risking life and limb as she races through midtown traffic, so what she also doesn’t point out to Al is that Mercury wasn’t just quick on his feet, he was also the guide who led dead people down into the underworld.
Now, where is the elevator?
One is stuck on seven, the other one’s trapped on fourteen. A few minutes ago, Freddie was the only one in the lobby, now, a crowd has gathered. By the time one comes, they’ll pack in like pickles in a jar.
Freddie sighs again.
This was going to be the summer she broke free. Freddie had come up with exactly the right wording for the note. Dear Al, You took a chance on hiring a girl, when it just wasn’t done. I can’t thank you enough. The knot in her stomach as she remembers her hubris. All her years of being a grind, getting straight A’s, was going to pay off, even if she was the scholarship kid who had to prove she was smarter and better just to get noticed. She was finally going to get a chance to work at a job doing something she loved.
She’d prove all the doubters wrong, the number one doubter being Yvette.
Instead, here she was, grimy, sweaty, one of those invisible people whose job was to make the elite’s lives easier.
Don’t Freddie. You can’t let yourself.
Freddie winces and looks up at the quivering elevator needles. The one on the right is going up, wasn’t it going down before? And the one on the left is now on five. It doesn’t budge. Are they loading in a herd of elephants?
The lobby is jammed with men in business suits and exactly one other woman. She’s wearing an outfit that screams modesty, the long skirt is below her knees, even the top button of her shirt is done up. Not that it saves her from the man next to her, who’s giving her a wolfish grin.
In this crowd, Freddie’s the outlier. She’s got on a light blue rayon bowling shirt instead of the one that reads Fleet Feet, gathering dust in her pack. It has some other Freddie’s name in script on the pocket. She spotted it in the dollar bin at Goodwill. Underneath, instead of a bra, she wears a man’s white sleeveless undershirt, commonly known as a wife-beater. Her jeans are worn down by time and love to a comfortably soft fit. Her hi-top Cons are great for gripping the pedals. She’s dressed for the work she does. It’s the polar opposite of alluring, yet that same man is now ogling her. Freddie stares him down. Just then, the elevator door opens, and they push inside till no one else can fit.
On seven, Freddie shoves her way free and exits the elevator, package in hand. She purposely put this delivery last on her schedule. It’s not just because it’s close to home, though it is a ten-minute ride back. It’s because Celia works at the front desk.
She looks up and smiles, “Miss Riley, I presume?”
Freddie’s heart expands exponentially.
They’ve known each other since kindergarten. Best friends for all that time.
Celia’s dressed in her own version of business casual, wearing a bold black and white Mary Quant sleeveless dress she found in a thrift shop on the Upper East Side. She’d brazenly bargained the owners down to almost nothing, pointing out the defects. Look, there’s a rip in the seam, and what about the sweat marks on the underarms. It’s been cleaned, repaired, and made perfect again. She’s a vision of Carnaby Street hipness in it. Celia works here now, but one day soon, she hopes to make money doing what she loves. In her case, it’s acting.
When they met back in kindergarten, the two of them were the children on scholarship in their class at the Convent of the Sacred Heart school. Back then, Celia had this ash-blond hair. Now it’s dirty blonde instead, and she’s got the blue eyes to go with it. The contours of her face are sharply delineated. High cheekbones. A thin, angular nose. If Freddie could get paid for every time, Celia gets hit on with the line, “Are you the Shrimp?” Guys in bars seem to think they’re geniuses coming up with it. She does resemble Jean Shrimpton, who currently graces the covers of both Glamour and Vogue, but the Shrimp would definitely consider getting a drink at the West End or the White Horse Tavern slumming. Plus, isn’t she in London?
“Excited about tonight?” Celia asks.
“Of course, I am.”
“You better be.”
Celia has procured backstage passes to The Fillmore. A certain gentleman by the name of Larry works there, and he’s always after Celia, telling her he’d do anything for her. She said if he happened to have a way to get into the sold-out Tim Buckley show? He absolutely could help. He was thrilled she’d asked. Anything he could do by way of getting into her pants, Freddie thinks. Which is never going to happen, and it’s not just because Larry’s married though has he no shame?
Freddie isn’t going to be the one to burst that bubble tonight. She’s a huge Tim Buckley fan. She has Goodbye and Hello on repeat. The ringlets of dark hair, the soulful eyes, he’s the kind of boy a girl could fall in love with if a girl were so inclined.
“Veselka at seven,” Celia says, firmly, referring to the dinner they’re going to grab before the show, downtown.
“I’ll be there.” Because prompt as Freddie is at work, she’s the opposite when she’s off the clock. Fashionably late, she likes to say. Celia has called it other things, but tonight it’s not going to happen.
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” she says, using a throwback line from childhood complete with visual. She hands her delivery over. “How did your parents take it?”
Celia purses her lips and doesn’t answer.
“You didn’t tell them yet? Celia, come on!”
“I will, I promise.”
“It’s been three weeks since we signed the lease and put down the deposit.”
“I know it has.”
“You’re being really immature about this.”
“That’s not fair!” Celia insists, “I have to tell them in my own way, that’s all.”
“Which will be when? After you move out?”
“Of course not.” But she doesn’t look Freddie in the eye.
“Celia, come on.”
“I’m going to talk about it, I am. I just need to find the right time to do it.”
And break their hearts. Freddie lets it go. She doesn’t have actual parents, just Yvette, her foster mother. And telling her, she was moving out was no picnic. Their lease starts June first. Freddie cannot wait to move into that railroad flat in the East Village and finally be on her own. True, there’s a bathtub in the kitchen and windows overlooking a backyard that’s basically an airshaft, but there are metal security gates installed on all the windows, and the apartment’s been recently fumigated, Freddie spotted zip-zero cockroach eggs. It’s reasonable at a hundred and eighty a month, and the landlady was fine with just a month’s security.
“I’ll tell them this weekend,” Celia promises.
“Do you want me there.”
“No!” Then, hearing herself, she amends, “I’m fine, Freddie. I can handle this.”
“I want it as much as you do,” Celia insists. Her smile seals the deal. Warmth courses through Freddie. It’s what they’d planned on, a life of their own but one that they embarked on together. When they were little, they’d come up with scenarios for themselves, through the wardrobe into a different Narnia, explorers coasting down the Amazon to find some lost city. Real-life is much less glamorous but no less daunting.
“Hey, did they call you yet from the museum?”
Freddie’s smile freezes. “I left another message,” she says.
“You were promised that job, I can’t believe you’re getting the runaround like this. You should call up your Professor and tell him. I’m sure he could do something.”
“Maybe I will,” Freddie says, when maybe she won’t, ever. The last person on earth she’s going to call for help is him. Ever. “I better get home and shower.”
“Don’t forget, seven!” Celia calls out as she steps inside the elevator and the doors close.
In no time at all, she’s pedaling up her own block, Forty-Ninth Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. Freddie lives smack dab in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. Two humid days are all it’s taken for the stench of garbage to overpower everything else. Trash cans on the street are stuffed to the brim, the excess overflowing out onto the street. The garbage collection is erratic at best. Not like living where she went to school, the tony Upper East Side.
Down here, it’s a mix of tenements and Single Room Occupancy hotels. Once upon a time, the hotels must have at least been clean, if not appealing. Now they’re decades away from their former glory days. The tenants are the junkies who nod off on the front stoops, elderly retirees who hand over their social security checks for the pleasure of living there get a room with a hot plate, and welfare families crowd in, living, eating, sleeping together in one room.
It’s not exactly a tourist destination, although being this close to the theatre district, the out of towners sometimes get lost. When they stumble onto her block, heading the wrong way from a theatre, they clutch their bags, keep their heads down, and probably pray to get out alive.
Okay, Freddie thinks, that’s a slight exaggeration; still, those suburbanites aren’t exactly thrilled with the ambiance. Perhaps, they’d be intrigued by the back story, how there was an actual person named Boeker Hell, and that’s who the neighbourhood’s really named after so it’s not meant as descriptive as in a little bit of hell right here on mother earth. Then again, these days, it’s definitely not paradise either. Hell’s Kitchen is home to a local gang, the Westies. And of course, there’s the murder that took place in the park nearby. It’s not exactly scenic, essentially a cement square with basketball hoops and a lonely, dying tree but it’s where kids play pick-up games, and mothers and babies hang out when the temperature soars and it’s also where the Capeman nee Salvador Agron knifed two boys who weren’t in a rival gang at all, just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As Freddie wheels up, Mick is setting out the last of the trash cans.
“Good day?” he asks.
“When is it not?” she counters, slyly.
“I sense a note of sarcasm.”
Mick emits a belly laugh. He’s a big, brawny guy, standing well over six feet tall. He’s got a head of dark brown curly hair and a sparkle in his eye. He used to be thinner, but beer, his drink of choice, has given him a gut. Mick holds the metal gate open for her, and Freddie hoists her bike up onto her shoulder, then carries it through the alley and down the stairs into the basement. He and Yvette were a thing until they weren’t anymore, but even after it was over, he stayed faithful. Mick’s really the closest thing she’s had to a father. Thinking that Freddie feels the lump in her throat. She’s getting sentimental. How silly. It’s not like she’s moving cross country, it’s downtown. She can visit anytime she wants.
Inside the padlocked store-room, there’s the ever-changing inventory, boxed-up RCA TVs, KLH stereo systems, Frigidaire fridges, basically everything that’s “fallen off the back of a truck.” Mick’s a fence, not a Westie, but definitely a trusted affiliate. Freddie has grown up doing errands for him, nothing illicit, Mick would never, ever put her in harm’s way. She picks up repair supplies for the building for him from Royal Hardware, and his standing Saturday night order of suckling pork from Little Brazil. The closest she comes to being on the wrong side of the law for him is when she stops by Optimo Cigars for the box of smuggled-in Cuban Montecristos.
All of it.
She’ll miss doing it.
Freddie leans her bike against the far wall and heads up five flights to their apartment. She slides the key into the lock and steps inside, and her feet go out from under her. She just manages to stay upright by putting her right hand against the wall.
“What the . . .” she lets out as she looks down. The red liquid is there, underfoot. “Did you break a bottle out here, Yvette?”
Knowing the answer must be yes, even as she’s asking.
It’s happened before, hasn’t it?
Only this time, the answer’s a no because her eyes follow the liquid trail to its source, and she gasps aloud, then reels back.
“What the fuck?” It’s a man, lying there in her way. He’s got red liquid leaking out of his windpipe. It comes from the spot where someone stuck a pair of scissors into it.
Naomi Rand is the author of Surviving Amelia (Bink Books, 2018) a literary novel and three mysteries featuring divorced criminal investigator, Emma Price, The One That Got Away, Stealing For A Living, and It’s Raining Men (all from HarperCollins). She has stories in two great collections, Crime Plus Music (Three Rooms Press) and Hard Boiled Brooklyn (Bleak House Books). Her fiction and literary criticism have appeared in The Flexible Persona, Other Voices, Melus, Cutbank,The Florida Review, The Spirit That Moves Us Press, Invisible City, and The North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of Baby Basics, a pregnancy guide published by the What to Expect Foundation. Her personal essays and non-fiction have appeared in Ravishly, Redbook, Parents, Ladies Home Journal, Huffington Post.