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It was the most elegant office I'd ever seen, but the flowers on the desk made me think about death. They were the same white lilies that hovered on the edge of every funeral I'd ever been to, and their sweet, sickening smell seemed to hit me no matter where I turned my head. I pushed them out of my mind and tried to focus on the woman dressed in the red Chanel suit and sitting across from me.
Her name was Mandy Magic, at least that was what she called herself these days, and she'd clawed her way out of the projects where we both grew up to become the best known radio personality in Essex County. She had a pretty face the color of Kenyan coffee, hair as black and straight as a wig, and a ruby on her finger that was too big not to be real. When she'd called last Friday and requested a Monday morning meeting about a "delicate matter," I couldn't believe my good luck. I still didn't believe it.
"I know you're supposed to be a top-notch private eye, but that's not why I am hiring you," she said in her seductive just-this-side-of phony voice that had pulled radio confessions from hundreds of people and made her a very rich woman. "We have common roots, the Hayes Homes, so I know I can trust you with what I have to say."
"I'm just glad to be of service. Thank you so much for considering me," I said in my fawning just-this-side-of-phony voice that I pull out for people who can pay my fee. I didn't know how common our roots were, but I had no doubt that Mandy Magic could pay the bill. Since most of my clients are as broke as I am, that was enough for me.
"The Magic Hours," her midnight radio show, was the most popular talk/confession show in three states. Everybody listened to it-from Wyvetta Green, the owner of Jan's Beauty Biscuit, who sang her praises daily, to my best friend, Annie, who routinely denied ever tuning in. Mandy Magic's "magical" blend of gossip, weird confessions, and common sense had made her the most admired woman in the city. Her good deeds put many a sanctimonious preacher to shame. High school and community groups regularly counted on her for inspiring keynote speeches and generous donations. She had personally paid the nursing bills for a severely brain-damaged infant, financed the college education of an orphaned teenage boy and recently adopted a troubled, homeless girl. Needless to say, women's groups showered her with tributes, and newspapers sang her praises. She was, as folks were fond of saying, a credit to her race and then some. Yet there were those doubtful cynics who suspected that she was too damned good to be true. I'm ashamed to admit I was one of them.
But my doubts didn't keep me from slipping into my taking-care-of-business gray suit, popping into the Biscuit for an early morning manicure (bestowed, in honor of the occasion, by Wyvetta Green herself), and appearing in Mandy Magic's office bowing and scraping, eager for a liberal helping of her hard-earned bucks. Truth be told, I was a bit in awe of the sister and was flattered that she was prepared to throw her "delicate matter," whatever it was, in my direction.
I guess you're wondering what I have on my mind" she said, demurely sipping the coffee that we had been served in fragile Limoges CUPS.
"Whenever you feel ready to share it," I said like some two-bit therapist, as I savored the coffee's caffeine jolt and tried not to spill it down the front of my suit. She put down her cup and handed me a crumbled sheet of yellow paper, holding it by its edge like she might catch something from it. I took it and quickly spread it open. Three words - MOVIN' ON up - were printed in red block letters across the center. I glanced up, as puzzled as she obviously was. "You're hiring me to find out who wrote you a note?" I tried hard not to sound incredulous.
"And other things."
"What other things?" She shrugged uncomfortably without answering me, her eyes shifting away from mine. "What do these words mean to you?" I asked after a moment, deciding not to push it.
"Just the obvious."
"The obvious being?"
"You know, from that 1970s TV show you can still catch in reruns. What was it called, The Jeffersons? It's funny how things like that, theme songs from shows, from commercials even, will stay with you like a prayer.
"What were the lyrics?"
"'Movin' on up. Movin' on up. To the big time. To that deluxe apartment in the sky. Movin'on up. . .'something like that." She shook her head in frustration.
I remembered and added the words for her. "'We finally got a piece of the pie'?"
"Yeah. A piece of the pie." She said it as if it embarrassed her, which made me wonder just how much her slice had cost her.
And if you were talking hard, cold cash, this suite of offices had obviously cost her a chunk. There were two other offices besides the one we were in, a modest reception area, and what looked like a small gym in a far corner. This office was, as she emphasized when I came in, her "personal" rather than professional space, which I assumed could be found in one of the radio stations she owned. I couldn't identify the dark, rich wood of the furniture, but every stick matched, and that was more than I could say for the secondhand junk I own. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a twinge of serious envy when I walked in.
When Newark had been a center of finance and commerce in the early part of the century, this address had been the place to be. But that aura, like everything else after the 1967 riots, had faded even though things were beginning to look up, and thanks to it its proximity to NJPAC, the newly built performing arts center, the building was enjoying renewed popularity. But even during its hardest days, there had been a grandness about it- in the stylishly high ceilings, polished parquet floors, and leaded windows big enough to let in a lot of sun, which put a golden glint on everything this morning, from the red brocade on the seats of the chairs to the ruby in Mandy Magic's ring. She studied that ring for a moment, turning it around on her finger as if she had something heavy on her mind.
"So when did the note come?"
"Is this the first strange letter you've gotten in the mail? You have a lot of listeners, surely some of them are-" She cut me off.
I didn't get it through the mail. It was left at the front door of this office. But there have been small acts of vandalism, too. Obscene graffiti cut into my door. The tires of my car slashed when it's parked on the street. Small, annoying things that grate on my nerves."
"It could be somebody you know." I chose my words carefully.
She gave me a worried look and rushed her answer, as if she were convincing herself. "Many people have access to this building."
"From the tone of the note, the person who left it is probably resentful of your success" I continued, stating the obvious.
"I really doubt that," she snapped and took a sip of her coffee.
"Then what do you think it means?"
"Why do you think I hired you?" she said with a bitchy twist, and I took a sip of my coffee.
"Why not call the police, Ms. Magic? Don't you think this may be a matter for them, especially if you really think there is some kind of a-"
"Threat?" she interrupted me. "And please call me Mandy. I didn't call the cops because I don't want my business in the street. You never know where it will go from there, who will overhear you talking to them. There is no threat. The vandalism could be unrelated -it could have been a kid. It's really just the note, that's all."
"Just the note?" I tossed her words back at her, not quite mocking her but saying I knew she wasn't saying all there was to say. She thrust out her chin with a toughness that told me she didn't give a damn what I thought and that she was still the kid who had fought her way out of the ghetto. But she finally gave me the whole story. Or some of it anyway.
"My stylist was stabbed to death in Lotus Park about a week ago. His name was Tyrone Mason. They said he was the victim of one of several robberies that have turned violent recently, but this note came the day after he was killed."
"So you don't think his death was random?" She didn't answer me.
"Actually, he was more than just my stylist. He was my cousin's son. A second cousin, I guess I'd have to call him. Actually, he was closer to my daughter. My adopted daughter, Taniqua. Much closer. He had only been working for me for about six months." The lack of expression on her face, as she explained his death and her connection to him, told me more about the state of their relationship than her words did.
"And this note came?"
"The day after he died. I told you that."
"So you think this note means that he was murdered by someone who has something against you and that he or she is moving on up, from your second cousin to you?" I put it bluntly, and the way she cringed told me I was right. I picked the note up and examined it for some clue that I knew probably wasn't there. "It could still mean nothing," I said, placing the thing back on the edge of her desk yet handling it too carefully for it to mean nothing. "It could just be some cruel prank from somebody who knew about the death of your cousin and wanted to get your attention or scare you for some reason. It could even be from someone who feels you owe them something. A message, maybe, from somebody who knew you back when."
"There is nobody left who knew me back when," she said with dead certainty.
"Do you think it could be from someone close to you? Somebody you trust and rely on? And could you be afraid that a person who would write a vague, nasty note like that right after your cousin's death is probably capable of other kinds of betrayals?" I was pushing it, and I knew it, but the way she wouldn't look at me told me that fear was part of it, too. Then her eyes shifted to mine with a sadness that hadn't been there before.
"You ever get the feeling that something horrible is right around the corner waiting to get you, some big old nasty something that will turn your life to dirt and make you wish you'd never been born?"
Her sudden vulnerability touched me, and I smiled both because I wanted to reassure her and because I knew what she was talking about. "A kind of free-floating anxiety? Yeah, sometimes I feel that way, too."
Her eyes left mine again. "That's what that note is to me, Tamara. It's like, whatever it is, whoever it came from, is waiting for me, and I've got to know who and what it is before it takes my life."
I was sure she was exaggerating, but I nodded as if I took her seriously.
"I'd like to take this with me" I said, picking up the note again.
Without saying anything, she reached in her desk and handed me an envelope to put it in. I handled it carefully, even though I was sure there were no fingerprints or anything else that would warrant special precaution. "Id also like to talk to the people on your staff if I could, assistants, secretaries, driver-"
"All I have is family," she said with surprising bitterness.
There was an abrupt knock, and three people filed in as if they'd been listening at the door or silently beckoned. A thin woman dressed in a dull brown suit led the group. She was followed by a younger lightskinned man, who could have passed for white or Latino, and finally a startlingly pretty young woman, who brought up the rear. The man pulled over three chairs from corners in the large room, and they all sat down.
"I told you what I thought about this idea, Starmanda. There is too much to risk here. Too much could get out. We can get to the bottom of this by ourselves. We don't need some woman nobody knows poking her nose around in your business." The thin woman spat out the words, and her eyes bore into me. But I hardly heard her. I was struck by the name she'd just said.
Starmanda. It was an old-fashioned name I hadn't heard since I was a kid, and it had belonged to my grandmother's sister who had died as a child. But she had lived for me through my grandmother's stories - through the games they played and the toys they made -paper dolls cut from newspapers, jacks made from nutshells, rhymes and hand-claps and foot-stomps that brought back her childhood and made mine richer. I could glimpse Starmanda's presence when my grandmother laughed, and Id grown up loving that name as much as my g randmother did. Star-man-dah. A mother's way of hanging her daughter's spirit on a star.
So Mandy Magic and I had common roots after all. They were in that name and the star the somebody had dreamed for her once, too.
She may have tacked that Magic business on to make some money, but she had kept enough of "Starmanda" to bind her to her past, and I liked her better for it.
"You've decided then" the thin woman said, bringing me back to her presence and that she was clearly one person who knew about that past.
"Obviously, I have."
"You're asking for trouble, Starmanda. I'm telling you that. Digging up shit, spreading it around."
"Asking for trouble, Pauline? I already have it."
"You're making too much of this whole damn thing. It's a goddamn note, for Christ's sake," said the man in a voice with a bored, rough edge to it that made him sound older than he probably was. He looked to be in his early thirties and had a placid, pretty-boy face that was too soft to be fine. He was shorter than I like men to be, but built like a wrestler, his biceps straining against the seams of his brown-and-gray Harris Tweed sport coat. A gold watch-a Movado, I figuredpeeked delicately from his sleeve. His fingernails were buffed and neatly manicured.
"Mind your own goddamn business, Kenton," Pauline's eyes were hard, and her voice was high and sharp. He gave a loud, rude snort, showing her what he thought of her.
"This is my own goddamn business, Pauline, don't you get that yet?" His face looked familiar when he walked in, but it wasn't until she said his name that I realized who he was. Kenton Daniels III was the only son of Dr. Kenton Daniels, Jr., a revered Newark doctor and a member of a wealthy family who had founded and supported one of the first free clinics for pregnant teenagers in the city. Although the son had inherited his father's name and money, the good doctor's soul had clearly gone the way of his corpse. Kenton Daniels was a spoiled and lazy spendthrift, who traded on his family's reputation and had gone through nearly all of their small fortune in less than ten years. But his gray eyes, what they used to call "good" hair and "old-Negro-money" contacts, kept him in nice clothes and in the presence of women foolish enough to pay for his company.
"Will you all talk to her, tell her everything you can about everything she asks? About Tyrone?" Mandy asked, her voice a pleading whine. Pauline sucked her teeth. Kenton leaned back in his chair, his disapproval written in the smirk on his face.
"Will she find out what happened to him?" The last member of the party spoke, and everyone shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I turned toward the woman, curious about the reaction her words had evoked. I could see the child who peeked through the tight black jersey dress and flash of cheap gold jewelry. Her face was perfectly oval, and the hair that fell in ringlets to her chin was the kind that some folks buy. Her full lips were outlined in a jarring dark maroon lip liner and her large eyes were ringed in black. Except for the gaudy makeup and her haunted, wounded look, she could have passed for a young Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge. I assumed she was Taniqua, the homeless teenage girl Mandy Magic had adopted. But whatever age she was trying to be, she was much younger than she tried to look. She threw Kenton a sly, sideways glance. He dropped his eyes with a grimace that looked like shame.
"I'll do the best I can," I answered in a matter-of-fact take-charge voice that I hoped was convincing. "Id like to start right away. I'll have to talk to you further, Ms. Magic - Mandy -as soon as I can." I glanced at her for approval, but she had stiffened like an animal does when it senses danger, her eyes questioning mine as if they were searching for an answer in my soul. "Will tomorrow afternoon be too soon? I'll call you to confirm?" My question stayed unanswered so long I wasn't sure she'd heard it. She nodded finally and stood up, handing me a sealedenvelope that I assumed contained my retainer, then she shook my hand to seal our agreement. Her fingers were cold and trembling.
"Thank you," she said.
"Hey, don't thank me yet. You don't know what I'm going to find out," I spoke casually, too lightly, and regretted the remark the moment I'd said it. What in God's name had made me say something so dumb and indiscreet? Embarrassed, I mumbled an overly formal good-bye, grabbed my bag, and headed for the door. But something made me turn around for one last look before I left them. They hovered around her like vultures after a kill.