April Henry's
SQUARE IN THE FACE
A Claire Montrose Mystery
 
 
 
 
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SQUARE IN THE FACE
Chapter One
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Standing in front of the kitchen sink in Dante's co-op, Claire slid another plate into the wooden dish rack. The view from his window, eight stories above Fourth Avenue, was still something she had a hard time believing. If she pressed her cheek against the cold pane, she could even see a slice of the Empire State Building.

"I have a feeling we're not in Portland anymore, Toto," she murmured to herself. Even without the Empire State Building, a glance across the street would be enough to let her know she wasn't in Oregon. Buildings here were squeezed up against one another, without even an alleyway for breathing room. Directly across the street, two brick buildings bracketed an older one of stone, complete with carved gargoyles on the corners. Behind each window was another life she could scarcely imagine. Actors, editors, students, and dancers. Old women who could talk for hours about seventy years before, when the streets bustled with fat Checker cabs and people had streamed into the Horn and Hardart Automat on the corner. Palm readers, chanteuses and cellists, writers of advertising catchphrases. People from every country in the world, because this was New York City, after all. And Claire was just one more person among seven million.

In a way she was glad that she was just visiting. New York demanded the persona she had perfected during years of riding the bus in Portland (and happily discarded as soon as she got a car). No smiling, no chance eye contact, no talking to yourself, no making yourself stand out from the herd. It was the only way to stay safe from the wolves. You walked fast and didn't let your eyes catch on anything.

Behind her, the CD player switched to another of the discs Dante had loaded before he went to a meeting at the Met, a meeting that was unavoidable even if he was officially on vacation. When he came back, they were going to a photography exhibit at a gallery down

town. To Claire, everything in New York felt like what Portlanders called downtown, i.e., tall office buildings and crowded sidewalks, but to Dante the city lay neatly divided into downtown, midtown, and uptown. Afterward they were going out to dinner with some of his old friends. The idea filled Claire with a barely suppressed nervousness that went far beyond wondering which fork she should use. Every time she met an old friend of Dante's she would wonder again what Dante saw in her. Their conversations were filled with references she barely caught. Like Alice in Wonderland, in New York Claire sometimes felt as if she had to run in place just to keep up. She told herself that dinner would go fine, but the part of her that still thought in the language of license plates added a sarcastic SHRSHR.

As her mind moved from thought to thought, her hips began to move, too, echoing the beat of the music, a hard-to-pin-down mix of folk, Celtic, and Middle Eastern sounds. Claire walked over to the empty CD cases and flipped through them until she figured out which one it was. Loreena McKennitt. The singer's long red curls looked something the way Claire's hair used to, until she had been forced to cut it all off last fall and dye it black to keep herself from being so easily recognizable.

Susie, Claire's hairdresser sister, had done what she could to restore her. She had dyed Claire's hair back to its original color, and the match was so close that the roots of the new growth couldn't even be seen. But Susie couldn't do anything about the length, which now brushed Claire's shoulders instead of the middle of her back. Claire missed the familiar weight of it. Sometimes, after she put on her coat, her hands would automatically reach back to pull her hair free from the collar and meet only air.

The next song was a ululating melody, a Middle Eastern sound complete with bells and drums. She turned the music up a tick and began to walk back to the sink. Without conscious thought, Claire's body found the pattern of the camelwalk. The memories of the dance were steeped in her bones, laid down in eighth grade when she had taken a five-dollar beginning belly-dance class from Minor's Department of Parks and Rec.

The teacher had not only taught them how to dance, but how to dress the part. After stops at FabricLand and Newberry's, Claire had made her own belly-dancing outfit. The skirt was sheer nylon, layers and layers of black with a final hidden underskirt of scarlet. She sewed silver bells on a heavily padded black bra and then in class she was taught the secret of making them jingle. Surrounded by housewives and secretaries, Claire learned how to snake her arms and shake her hips and even how to hold her curved arms overhead, back of one hand pressed to the back of another, while she slid her head from side to side. For the first time in her life, Claire began to feel that she might be graceful and coordinated.

Although she was by far the youngest person in the class, for once she didn't mind feeling different. The other women fussed over her as if she were exotic and special. No one teased her for being too skinny or too tall. Instead, they touched her curls, marveled at her pale skin, exclaimed over her flexibility. When the talk turned to men and babies and blood, as it always seemed to do, they hadn't shooed her away, but let her listen.

The dishes forgotten, Claire thought about all this as she camelwalked across the faded scarlet of Dante's Oriental rug. The camelwalk was a dance that required coordination.

SQUARE IN THE FACE
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