One Step Sideways
One Step Sideways
Tobie knocked at a canary-yellow door in a red-tiled hall on the third floor of an oddly nice apartment building. It had seemed from the outside like an average mid-century six-story tower, white stucco over redbrick forming a grid of Georgian windows. But it was as if he’d stepped through the doors and crossed an ocean, entering some huge Tuscan villa. It might have been the potted plants, equatorial, sprouting from blue glazed pots, but Tobie concluded it was the window glass, slightly yellow tinted, transforming the pale light of that city into something warm.
The yellow door in front of him opened. He’d been expecting Billy Seward, a small black female Dirty Harry. The person standing in the doorway was female, small, and maybe black, very tan anyway, with auburn hair in pigtails. But she looked to be about nine.
“Tobie Sokolofsky?” she said past her braces.
Sokolofsky was the name on his driver’s license, but, when he wrote for the People’s Voice, he went by Sanders.
“Hi,” Tobie said, and she skipped away, disappearing back into the apartment.
She’d left the door open, but he had no intention of following her. He hadn’t called ahead, or, he had, but Billy had never returned his calls.
An interview with Billy Seward would have been a big get. He’d been willing to risk a punch to the nose while politely creeping up to her den, but entering without an invite was risking a .45 to the gut. Word was, Billy always shot first and never bothered with questions.
“Come here,” the girl said.
Tobie leaned through the doorway, and saw her standing down a short hall next to a bright pink door that matched her frilly pink dress.
“…Is Miss Seward home?” he asked.
“No,” she said. The smile seemed to leave her eyes for a moment. “You can wait in here.”
He stepped through the door, taking a deep breath, and closed it behind him. The living room was Japanese style, all minimalism in blacks and whites. He’d turned to follow the little girl when a shelf filled with gold plated brass caught his eye and drew him towards it.
The shelf was neatly arranged with plaques, medals, and trophies. Except for a gold cup for a win in peewee soccer, they were all for mathematics or science and inscribed to Angie Seward, which at least meant he’d come to the right apartment.
At the center of the shelf was a photo, Billy Seward, looking much younger than she did in the papers, standing next to a very-tall very-white man in glasses. He was holding a baby, Angie, Tobie guessed.
He turned again, planning to follow the girl, planning to tell her he would rather wait in the living room, but found her standing in front of him, blushing as she stared at her feet.
“…Are you Angie?” he asked.
“Yeah…. I don’t know why they leave them out like that- I mean- I was only competing against children….”
“The trophies? They’re probably just proud of you-”
“Would you be proud of your child for beating a three legged dog in a foot race?” Angie asked, glaring up at him.
“…You like math, then?”
“I do,” she said, her pigtails bobbing as she nodded. She took his hand and dragged him along, out of the living room, and down the hall to that bright pink door.
“How’d you know my name?” he asked, entering an extremely pink room. The bed was covered in stuffed animals who seemed to be arranged in order of dinginess from left to right.
“From the paper,” Angie said, seating him at a very small table.
While most girls had play tea sets, Angie had a table arranged like the one in the break room at his office, a dozen variates of tea in foil packets, individual cream and sugars, and an electric kettle, which she flipped on as she sat across from him.
“I go by Sanders-”
“The campus paper, when you were in school.”
“You read that?”
“I was only able to find the January issue from ’79- You spelled assess, like access,” she said, slowly shaking her head as she made a tut-tut noise, sucking her teeth.
He’d noticed his error when he’d read a copy of the proof, but it had been too late. “…I know.”
“But your spelling is very adequate in The People’s Voice.”
“…Thanks,” he said. “So… are you Billy Seward’s daughter?”
“Yes.” The kettle was starting to rock on its little plastic feet, and she put a mug in front of him. “I suggest the bancha,” she said, placing a foil packet next to his mug.
Her smile was like carved stone and her eyes glassy as she stared at him. He gave up and started brewing his tea.
“Is your mom coming home soon?” he asked.
“Yes, but this isn’t her apartment- Can I assume your interest isn’t so much in my mother as it is in her work?”
“…Yeah,” Tobie said.
Billy Seward was an interesting person, but too violent to make a good subject for a racially nuanced human-interest piece. It was the prey Billy was hunting, or possibly the hunt itself, that interested Tobie’s paper.
Billy was the lone detective in charge of the Glass Virgin, a vigilante who always brought readers to the news-stands.
“With your paper’s liberal slant, I suspect you might not paint my mother a fair portrait,” Angie said.
He was forced to remind himself he was in a little girl’s bedroom, and facing a shockingly-pink-clad little girl, because it felt more like a job interview. “We aren’t big fans of vigilante justice either…. I was planning to do an even-handed piece- a kind of dark side of the city thing.”
“I only have one mother, and I would part the seas for her, but Our Lady deserves respect as well.”
It took him a moment to realize, by Our Lady Angie meant the Glass Virgin. He then noticed the slightly oversized cross hanging on her wall.
“…Of course,” he said.
“Have you heard, she had a son?” Angie asked. “Miss Greene, The Glass Virgin, had a son, he died and she began her work.”
Tobie pulled a notepad from his his pocket, and began taking notes. Even if he was getting his info from a little girl, it was new information. “…Do you know his name?” he asked.
“Tommy. He died lying on the hood of a Buick at the age of four. His father, Thomas Greene, had buckled in himself, but he forgot his child….”
“It was a car crash?”
“Yes. I’m not sure of the exact time of death, but Thomas picked up his son from school, and spent the next few hours drinking at a bar while his son stayed in the parking lot. They collided with the concrete median at the intersection of Fairview and Forty-Second.”
“He died… and that’s when she started her work?”
“Yes,” Angie said. “She began by crippling her husband- I’ve always thought…. Isn’t it strange that a wife calls her husband family, when they have no relation by blood?”
“…I never thought about it like that- but kids make them family, right? like your dad and mom.”
“The man in that photo is my step-father, but I understand your perspective, as did Our Lady, I suspect,” Angie said. She lifted a cup of tea to her lips and took the smallest sip. “With her son gone, her husband’s nature became clear. She saw him as cancer, and while another might have seen herself as a knife, Our Lady prefers the laying on of hands.”
This was great stuff, Tobie thought, more maniacal than he would have expected from her pigtails and braces, but great. Still, the idea of crediting a nine-year-old as an anonymous source was a bit depressing.
“Do you mind if I ask a question?” Angie asked.
“Sure,” Tobie said.
“The John in your story last week, was that a pseudonym for Jo, the adopted child of One Eye?”
Tobie felt put on his back foot; if he hadn’t been sitting at that tiny table he would have taken a step back.
Jo was a source, and the subject of a strange story he’d written, published in the previous Thursday’s issue of The People’s Voice. Declan, One Eye as she called him, was Jo’s father, and a killer, popular in circles where stone-killers were popular.
“…I can’t reveal my sources,” Tobie said. “Sorry.”
Angie smiled, possibly reading an answer from his face. “I understand.”
He froze as he heard a door slam, and couldn’t make himself move as he heard heavy footsteps coming down the short hall. A woman appeared in the doorway. Billy Seward was like an older Angie, in a pantsuit instead of a pink dress.
“Hey, Sweety,” she said. Her exhausted smile turned murderous as she noticed Tobie at the table. “Who’s that?” she asked, staring at him as her hand slowly floated toward a pistol at her hip.
“Tobie,” Angie said. “He is my guest.”
“I think it’s time for you to go,” Billy said.
Tobie was already getting up, and Billy followed him to the door, slamming it behind him.
Any chance he might have had at an interview had definitely fleeted. He’d have to find a new angle but wasn’t yet sure what that might be.
He was about to leave when he heard an odd whistle, like a bird call, and turned back to the yellow door.
There was a slip of paper on the red tile at his feet, a flash card. One side was scrawled with an obscure equation in fat marker, the other with what looked like Greek, impossible to pronounce.
At first he was just confused, but then he noticed more writing, small letters in pencil, Mediatrix of all Graces, it said, the I’sdotted with a little hearts, be careful.
He thought Angie might have been telling him to seek Jesus. He thought about it. His parents had never been very religious, and he’d never really considered it before, but he’d been feeling guilty lately.
Tobie had never had much luck with relationships, and Jo, who’d started as a source, was something more now. He was pretty sure Jo was a guy, there was still some question and he hadn’t had the guts to ask. Tobie felt like they’d become friends, but he wasn’t sure Jo felt the same way.
And that would have been fine if they’d just been friends, but every day Jo seemed to occupy more of Tobie’s thoughts.
He wasn’t sure why that made him feel guilty, but he did, and thinking about religion, a priest would probably make it worse.
He stepped out of that strangely-Tuscan apartment house, and back into the gray of the city. He’d parked a half block away, and, on the way back to his powder-blue Civic, he spied a payphone and made a call.
“Hello,” Jenni said, her radio announcer voice made more authentic by the crackling from the faulty phone line.
“Hey. It’s Tobie.”
“Tobie! How are you?” she said. Jenni was a big round woman who acted like the office’s den mother, but she was actually the head secretary at the research desk.
“…I’m good,” he said. They’d seen each other that morning and had talked like they hadn’t seen each other in weeks. He wasn’t sure how much small talk was required now. “…I’ve got something, a phrase, or it might be a place, can you look it up?”
“Mediatrix of all Graces.”
“Is that it?” she asked.
“You’re trying to track down Billy Seward, right?”
“Yeah, I met her actually-”
“D’you get your story?” Jenni asked.
“Got it! It’s a church- I mean, is that what you’re looking for?”
“Probably,” he said.
She fed him an address and then abruptly changed the subject, talking about her nephew’s school play until Tobie’s change ran out.
It was a church, or it had been. It was a big redbrick building in ’30s Gothic style. The plaster had chipped away in big chunks, and the left side of the roof was collapsed into the hall.
It seemed to be under repair and was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, but there weren’t any workmen in sight. He started pacing the exterior, still uncertain why he was there when he found a gap in the fence. He looked around, not so much paranoid he was being followed as worried a cop would see him sneaking in.
He slipped through the pokey wire hole, only noticing he’d stepped into a weed covered graveyard when he banged his shin on a headstone.
The church was just as decrepit up close. The front door was closed, chained and padlocked. He’d started to think this might have been a weird joke, the kind of humor believable of a tiny pink-clad mathematician, but then he found a set of concrete steps leading down to a steel door. He wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, but the door felt like it had been opened recently.
He crept down those steps, but froze with his hand on the doorknob. This place couldn’t have had anything to do with Billy Seward, other than possibly being the home of her prey. Why Angie would send him here, and not her mother, was a mystery, and it kind of felt like a trap, but he decided the story would be worth it and stepped in.
It was a basement storage room. There were tall shelves covered in things that looked like they’d sell for a fortune; the door really should have been locked. He wished he’d brought the flashlight from his trunk, but then realized it wasn’t that dark. There was a flickering orange light, fire, there must have been someone home.
“That you, Olena?” a voice called through the shelves, and Tobie restrained his impulse to run.
“I-It’s not,” he said.
“Olena!” she screamed, and he heard a loud clatter and a thump.
Tobie crept forward. As far as he’d heard, The Glass Virgin never killed anybody, and she only assaulted criminals. He wondered what her perspective would be on trespassing.
Abernathy Greene looked a bit more human without her makeup; in all the shots the papers had, her face was painted in a kind of stained-glass camo. She had frizzy brown hair, and a pretty face, even at that moment when it was twisted in anger. She was barely dressed, in panties and a t-shirt. One of her arms was in a sling and her left thigh was bound like a mummy.
She lay slumped on the floor, trying to use her right arm, the one that wasn’t in a sling, to drag herself onto a couch. Her state made her a lot less threatening than she could have been.
She noticed him standing there, and kicked at a woman lying on a pallet at the end of the couch. “Jane!” she screamed.
“I’m a journalist,” he said, holding up his hands, and Abi stopped kicking the unconscious girl.
“…What kind of journalist?” she asked.
He wasn’t sure how to answer that. “…I write for The People’s Voice-”
“What d’you want?”
He walked forward very slowly, and held his hand down to her. She glared at his hand and then back up at his face, but then reached out and shook it.
“…I meant, I can help you up,” he said.
Her glare intensified, and Tobie shivered, but she transferred her weight to his hand, and nearly toppled him over, scrabbling back onto her couch.
“…You know who I am?” she asked.
“And who’re you?”
“I don’t give interviews,” she said, smiling like it was a joke.
“…I don’t really know how I got here- I mean, I walked in…. Do you know a little girl named Angie?”
“No,” Abi said and glanced at the pallet at the end of the couch, maybe checking on her friend.
The unconscious girl, Jane she’d called her, seemed to be in worse shape than Abi, wrapped in bloody bandages at a dozen places.
“…Is she okay?” he asked.
“Just doped up,” Abi said, and, like it had reminded her, picked up a bottle of clear liquor from the floor. She took a draw, and held it out to him.
Tobie wasn’t sure of the etiquette, but he took a drink. Cheap vodka. It burned its way down his throat, and was already turning his stomach. “Do you know Billy Seward?” he asked.
“The cop who’s hounding me?”
“Do you two get along?”
“…I stopped Olena from cutting her, and one time she didn’t shoot me.”
“And who’s Olena?” Tobie asked, dragging out his notepad.
Abi stared at the pencil in his hand. “…She’s a Russian assassin, but she doesn’t kill people anymore.”
He was sure that was another attempt at humor. “She’s a friend of yours?”
“She lives here- She’s out with the girls…. It’s probly better you missed her- Hey! Do you have a car?”
“…I do,” Tobie said, but instantly regretted it, as she sat up and hopped up onto her good leg.
She hopped her way over to a pile of laundry, and started rummaging.
“…Can I help you with something?” he asked. He knew this was where he should have been pressing her for details, asking about her ideology, but he hadn’t prepped for an interview.
“Lunch,” she said.
“…It’s almost time for dinner-”
“Dinner then. Olena’s been keeping me here,” she said, struggling to pull up a pair of shiny red pants. “I want something spicy.”
“…Is she gonna be, okay?” he asked, looking down at Jane, still lying on her pallet. She looked like she should have been in a trauma ward rather than the basement of an abandoned church.
“Jane’s gonna sleep whether or not I’m watching her- Maybe it’s like boiling water,” Abi said, and giggled.
He’d only known her for a few minutes, but he was pretty sure she’d been sipping at that cheap vodka all day.
She slipped on a shiny red jacket to match her pants, and they left the basement, Abernathy using his shoulder like a crutch. The sun was setting as he helped her through the hole in the fence.
“You like Tino’s, on Forty-First?” she asked, as he helped her into the passenger side of his Civic.
“It’s alright,” he said, as alright as any bottom-dollar mob-owned pizza joint could be.
“I’ll pay,” she said, “for my share…. I’m kinda broke actually.”
“…You can catch it next time,” he said, and pulled out.
“Thanks. I’m just light because I haven’t been working… and Olena keeps forgetting to roll them.”
“So… you rob them, the criminals?”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling at him. “I mean… it’s unjust gain, right?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“That’s all you’ve been doing,” she said.
He wanted to confirm Angie’s story, to pry into Abernathy’s history, but possibly because she was tipsy, she seemed almost happy. He hadn’t given it much thought before, but, doing what she did, happiness had to be unusual.
“Why do you paint your face?” he asked. The other question could wait. “The cops already know who you are, so it’s not a disguise, right?”
“My mom was Catholic,” she said, like that was an answer.
“Not your dad, though?”
“Maybe…. Anyway, when I started out it was a disguise, but then they figured who I was…. It just feels natural.”
“When you started out…. You started with your husband?” he asked. He’d only heard that info from a little girl, and confirmation from the source would make a story.
“…Yeah,” Abi said. He’d succeeded in lowering her mood.
“You know Tino’s was one of Nerio Caiazzo’s properties?” he asked, hoping to change the subject, but, also, a quote from the Glass Virgin on the city’s biggest, recently dead, mobster couldn’t hurt.
“Yeah… it’s like a miasma- You can’t shit without it being in a mobster’s yard. But Jane took care of him.”
“The half-dead girl at my house,” Abernathy said.
“What do you mean by took care of?” he asked, and held back chuckles at her calling an abandoned church her house.
“The way she tells it she rammed a busted banister into his neck, or it coulda been a table leg-”
“She killed him?”
“Yeah…” Abi said. It seemed maybe that was something she wasn’t supposed have to shared, or she might have thought he was stupidly uninformed, but the cops seemed to think he’d been done in by the Dioli brothers.
“Is she, like, your ally?”
“No,” Abi said, firmly shaking her head. “You know the Masked Killer?”
“…Yeah,” he said. Clearly not personally, but the Masked Killer and his girlfriend had been after Jo’s father a couple of weeks before. Jo had shown up on Tobie’s doorstep with his bullet-riddled dad in tow, and Tobie had, with only begrudging willingness, helped.
“Jane’s his girlfriend,” Abi said. “Or they might have broken up. She doesn’t wanna talk about it.”
“She got hurt when she killed Nerio?”
“Yeah, Cook said he found eight bullets in her. She shouldn’t be walking around- I guess she isn’t walking, but she shouldn’t be breathing- like she should make duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh noises when she jumps.”
“So, you aren’t allies, but she’s resting at your house?-”
“You know, like the Bionic Woman?”
“Ah. So, you’re friends then?”
“We’ll settle things once she’s healed up,” Abi said.
They pulled over a half block from Tino’s, and Tobie helped her back out of his Civic.
“I know this is shitty,” Abi said, “but… do you think you could get an extra pie, for the girls back home?”
“And Olena… and the other girls.”
“That’s fine,” he said. He was at that moment considering whether to write this story gonzo style, as one long, and bizarre, blow-by-blow, or to break it up into a half a dozen pieces he could drip-feed to his editor. At the cost of an extra pizza, it was well worth it.
A little brass bell rang as they stepped through the door to Tino’s. Tobie was looking over the available checker-clothed tables, wondering if Abernathy would choose the one closest to the exit, or maybe the one nearest the back, but then he noticed Abi at his side, holding herself like a cat ready to pounce. He followed her line of sight to a table in the back corner.
There was a little girl, pigtails and a pink dress, staring back at them, looking almost starstruck. Angie was sitting between her parents, Billy Seward and the tall white guy with glasses Tobie had seen in a photo that afternoon.
“That’s a coincidence,” Abi said. He couldn’t tell if she was about to run or charge ahead.
Billy slowly stood up from her table, her hands sliding under her jacket where she must have had shoulder holsters.
“Mom,” Angie said, but Billy’s eyes were locked on Abernathy.
“Mom!” Angie yelled. “Family dinner.”
“…Right,” Billy said, sitting down again as Abi backed them out the door.
“…I was meaning to ask,” Tobie said, as they moved at Abi’s slow pace back to his Civic. “Was Billy the one who shot you?”
“No,” Abi said, climbing in again. “It was regular PD- I wasn’t even armed.”
Tobie hopped in again, and took off slowly, checking his rear-view for lights he was sure were about to flash.
“…Do you think it would be okay if I said you threatened me, if the cops ask?”
“So they don’t get you on aiding and abetting?”
“…That was my thought-”
“That’s fine. You like The Big Noodle?” she asked.
“It’s alright,” he said. As alright as any bottom-dollar Pan-Asian diner chain could be.
“Let’s go to the one on Twenty-Ninth…. It was Jack’s favorite.”
“Who’s Jack?” he asked.
“Nobody you need to know about,” Abi said with a bitter chuckle. It seemed the vodka was wearing off.