Indigo – Charlaine Harris

Nora could have vanished into the shadows, but she didn’t need to. The people crowded around the sidewalk memorial for Maidali Ortiz were so lost in their grief she might as well have been invisible. Normally she had to work a little harder to hide in plain sight, but not today. It made her job much simpler. The girl’s body had been dumped at the top of the steps that connected Heath and Bailey Avenues, a broad set of concrete stairs with black wrought-iron railings, shaded by lush oak trees. Fall had arrived at last, and a cool breeze rustled the leaves of those trees. During the day, the long descent from Heath to Bailey would be pleasant enough, but at night, with streetlamps that were constantly broken, the stairs would be dark and forbidding. She wove through the crowd to get a better look at the steps. Stout, middle-aged Dominican women clustered together, keeping mostly to themselves, but the high school and middle school kids weren’t so discriminating. The Irish and Dominican and Cuban kids stood together, girls holding each other, while others added flowers and stuffed animals and framed photos to the memorial that had grown up around the graffiti-covered US mailbox to the left of the stairs. Nora listened to the quiet weeping and the words of comfort and shock spoken by those around her. Inhaling the scent of the flowers, she glanced around at the homes on either side of the stairs. The small, three-story apartment house with a façade of tan bricks and the squat little single-family row house had only two things in common: each had a small patio in front and bars on all the windows. This was Kingsbridge. While other Bronx neighborhoods were being gentrified, Kingsbridge had been sliding in the other direction for years.

“Did you know her?” Nora blinked and frowned at the man who’d appeared beside her. Early thirties, sweater pushed up to his elbows, facial scruff, and two-tone brown wing tips. She marked him as a former hipster who missed his glory days, but he was handsome. Odds in Kingsbridge suggested Cuban or Dominican, but she wasn’t going to guess. “Not at all,” Nora admitted quietly, turning aside to move the conversation away from the gathered mourners. “I’m new to the neighborhood. Just out for a run, to be honest, but it seemed disrespectful not to at least stop and offer up a prayer.” The former hipster cocked his head, brown eyes warm. “That’s kind of you.” “It’s a horrible thing.

” Nora hugged herself with a shudder. “I know it’s not the safest neighborhood, but I never expected something like this. Three kids in a row.” Though she had her magenta-streaked hair tied back and was dressed for it, the out-for-a-run story was only a cover. The shudder, however, was real. “It’s awful, no argument,” he said. “But you just got here. Don’t give up on Kingsbridge yet. There are a lot of good people here, families that go back generations—” “Yours?” A news van pulled up at the curb and the crew began to climb out. The former hipster scowled at their presence and nodded to a spot farther up the sidewalk, away from the crowd and the cameraman.

A police car rolled silently up the block, and Nora could see a competing news van approaching as well. “Both sides of the family, yeah. Half–Puerto Rican, half-Albanian, but a hundred percent Kingsbridge.” He offered his hand. “I’m Rafe Bogdani.” They shook, and she lied, “Shelby Coughlin.” Rafe commented on her Irish name, how down on Bailey Avenue there were still clusters of Irish families that went way back, but she wasn’t paying much attention now. Church bells were ringing inside the Dominican church at the bottom of the steps, echoing out across the bright autumn morning, and the people at the top of the stairs moved to either side, waiting for the procession they knew was coming. Nora saw pain in Rafe’s eyes. “You knew her?” Rafe glanced at her, hesitant.

But then he nodded. “I teach history at the high school. I had Maidali in class last year. She was a smart kid, thoughtful in a way so few of them are.” Nora forced herself not to look too interested. She shifted to get a better view past the crowd and down the stairs, where a procession ascended from the church on Bailey Avenue. “What about the other two?” “The boy was an eighth grader, I hear. Never met him. Supposedly the other girl, Corinnasomething, was from Yonkers. Down staying with her cousins, was it?” Nora nodded.

“Sounds right.” Corinna’s last name had been Dewar. A fifteen-year-old ginger with more freckles than there were stars in the sky. The eighth grader had been Tomas Soares, a future track star, tall for his age and unafraid of running at night. Nora and Rafe stood in the midst of the crowd on the Heath Avenue sidewalk, watching as Maidali Ortiz’s parents and grandfather and little brother climbed the stairs. The fall breeze had stilled as if the morning held its breath, and the murmuring on the sidewalk also fell silent. The only sounds were the quiet sobs of the family members and their dearest friends, the people who had been in the church for this morning’s memorial. The police wouldn’t release Maidali’s body yet, but the family hadn’t wanted to wait any longer to offer up prayers, both in the girl’s memory and in search of some comfort. Some small bit of grace that might alleviate the screaming pain in their hearts. Nora wondered if they had found even a sliver of that grace, of peace.

She hoped so, but from the looks on their faces as they were confronted by the neighbors and spectators waiting, she doubted it. “How could someone do that to a child?” Rafe whispered. She didn’t have to ask what he meant. Nora had seen a couple of the crime-scene photos thanks to her police contacts. Maidali had been mutilated, her face and body marked with a knife, her eyes removed postmortem. The girl had been murdered elsewhere, her body dumped down the steps sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Whoever had killed Maidali had returned her to her neighborhood, dumped her seven blocks from her house, like some car thief who’d gone for a joyride and then left the car nearby in apology. Not an apology, Nora thought.

They were done with her. Tossed her back where she’d come from. The idea made her clench her fists. Whoever had killed Maidali had to be stopped before doing it again. The police might find the killer, but if they didn’t … Nora hadn’t yet been able to get her hands on the autopsy reports for Corinna Dewar and Tomas Soares—she had no informants in the Fiftieth Precinct—but Maidali’s killing had made the murders a serial crime, which bumped the whole thing up the ladder. The entire city was paying attention now. Nora expected to get access to the complete file eventually, but today it had been important for her just to be here, to get a feeling for the crimes. Nora stuffed her hands into the pockets of her fitted hoodie and made herself small, hoping to draw as little attention as possible. Some of the relatives of the first two victims were on the stairs as well, and she had already spoken to several of them while working on the larger story. At thirty-one, she had already paid her dues as a journalist, both in print and digital media.

Early on, she had written about her generation and its place in American culture, about social justice and modern media, and occasionally about New York City itself. Over time, New York took over, with Nora focusing more and more on crime and corruption. For the past two years she’d worked as an investigative reporter at NYChronicle, the premier urban-news source in the region, and one with a global readership. The job was perfect for her for other reasons also, but those were after-dark reasons, not thoughts for the bright of day. The priest reached the top of the stairs just as Maidali’s mother saw the sprawl of flowers and mementos and photographs that had been placed around the graffitied mailbox. Somehow the graffiti added to the beauty and the pain of the memorial. Lit candles burned in tall glass cylinders, their flames dancing as the late-September breeze kicked up again. The dead girl’s parents held hands and lowered their heads. The two news teams crowded in at the edges of the mourning circle, cameras rolling. Some of the spectators took out their phones, and only then did Nora do the same.

Rafe frowned at her, a ripple of distaste crossing his features, but she forced herself to ignore him, taking thirty seconds of video and then snapping a few quick photos of Maidali’s little brother—You don’t know his name, Nora … you should know his name—kneeling by the mailbox and picking up one of the flowers there. A white-and-purple lily, its head fat and wilting. The past year had seen a growing concern about children going missing in New York. Statistics suggested a certain percentage of them were runaways—some kids’ day-to-day nightmares were too dark, or dreams were too big, and they wanted to find their own corner of the sky. But every law enforcement source she’d spoken to off the record had indicated that the past few years had seen a slow but steady rise in these numbers that could not be attributed to runaways. The other options were abduction and murder. Her ex-colleague, ex-boyfriend, and current friend-with-benefits, Sam Loh, had been working on an in-depth series on human trafficking in the northeastern United States, and how traffickers—so long unpunished for the thousands upon thousands of immigrants they’d tricked or stolen and sold into slavery—were now feeling bulletproof and had been expanding their business, snatching children who were sure to be missed. Children the police were going to make a real effort to find. Those kids never came back. As Nora stood and let the grief of Maidali Ortiz’s family wash over her, she wondered if it would have been better if Maidali had never been found.

Was it better to have a missing child, one you could imagine might in time have escaped harm, might have found a way back into the sunlight … or better to know for certain that the baby you’d held swaddled in your arms, the one whose every fever had filled you with fear, the one whose laughter had filled your heart to bursting … was it better to know that child was dead? God help her, she thought it might be. It was the ugliest question, and the most hideous answer, that had ever planted roots in her mind. Nora snapped several more photos with her phone, pictures of the people gathered in that mourning circle, even a few shots of the news teams that filmed the scene. She avoided taking a shot of Rafe, mostly because of the guilt she felt pinking her cheeks, knowing he must think her just another vulture. The priest cleared his throat, sighing heavily before he launched into a prayer. Nora had thought Maidali’s father might say something to those who had come out to honor the memory of his daughter, but she could see the pain in his eyes and realized that he barely registered the presence of others. Rafe lowered his head while also shifting slightly away from her. She saw his disapproval, the wrinkle of his brow, and she wanted to speak to him—tell him she wasn’t as heartless as he thought, that her photos weren’t gruesome souvenirs but a vital part of telling Maidali’s story. The feeling frustrated her, that need to apologize for who she was and what she did, and she felt herself drawing away from him, too. At least she wasn’t crowding the dead girl’s family with a TV camera, van parked at wrong angles against the curb, turning their daughter’s murder into a ratings grab, with a warning that if you didn’t watch their report on the killings, the same thing might happen to your child.

The media didn’t like to do stories about human trafficking because those stories never had an ending. Murder, though, was an ending of its own. Even without answers to the who and why of it, people could understand mourning. But a missing child … those stories haunted. Lingered. The public didn’t like those stories. The priest finished his prayer. He put a hand on the father’s shoulder and faced the crowd, offering a blessing to them for their support of the Ortiz family in their time of need. The boy handed the mother his wilting lily and she took it, eyes wide with such pain that she must have slipped into a world of numb incomprehension. Nora had wanted to blend.

To get the story from inside the sorrow, not merely as an outside observer. Now she wished she were anywhere else. Rafe gave her another disapproving glance, and she moved away from him even farther, barely even aware of the priest’s intonations. Circling behind Rafe and the rest of the onlookers, she moved toward the stairs. She had left her car down on Bailey Avenue, thinking she’d return to it when the family was gone and the crowd had mostly dispersed. Now she did not want to wait. She had the information and the photos. The one thing she didn’t have was the only thing that mattered—answers. The sun had shifted in the sky, moving the shadow of the house to the top of the stairs so that she could not avoid passing through it. Five steps from the summit, adjacent with the first lamppost, she entered the shadow and faltered, sucking in a tremulous breath.

Her limbs felt leaden and cold, and a sharp pain stabbed at her eyes. A dreadful stink washed over her, along with a wave of nausea. Just go, she told herself, and staggered down two or three more steps. Pain lanced through her skull again, and her knees felt weak. The shadow around her seemed to breathe with malice. Angrily, she pushed it back, casting the shadow away so that it clung to the wall of the house and left the stairs in full sunlight for an eye blink before she allowed the shade to return to normal. The shadows were hers. She refused to fear them. * * * The block of Seventy-Fourth Street between Columbus and Amsterdam was lost in time. The sidewalks were broken and uneven and interrupted at regular intervals by old trees whose branches created a canopy over the street, their leaves rustling pleasantly three seasons a year.

Cars parked on either side narrowed the one-way street to the bare minimum needed for vehicles to pass. Despite its location in a busy part of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, that block tended toward a kind of quiet much of the city never achieved. Nora always imagined that her little block had changed hardly at all in the past half century. Only the cars gave it away. She lived in a third-floor studio in a building that looked even narrower than the street. Three flights of stairs kept her in decent shape, but she nearly always stumbled on the way to her floor, as if the stairs conspired against her, with steps taking turns being the one that unaccountably grew in height on a given day. An extra inch or so, just enough to catch the toe of a shoe. The banister had saved her many bruised shins. The original advertisement for the apartment had described it as a “loft,” but she’d quickly discovered that this was code for “studio so small that you’ll put your mattress in a loft space not much bigger than the top shelf of a closet.” Still, for all the time that she spent at home, the studio suited her needs well enough.

A bathroom, a tiny galley kitchen, a closet, and a high-ceilinged living room complete with a ladder that let her climb up to the shelf above the kitchen. Her mattress smelled like food 24-7. A tiny space, but enough room for Nora and her three cats. Kelso, Red, and Hyde had been named after her three favorite characters from That 70’s Show, which turned out to have been a generous gesture on her part because the cats were assholes. Nora told anyone who would listen, My cats are assholes. But at least they’re my Assholes. She regretted it every time, but somehow she couldn’t stop herself from saying it. Just after eight o’clock that night she sat on her sofa, a thirdhand piece of furniture whose original color was lost to history and its fabric threaded through with cat hair that the vacuum cleaner never drew out. “I hate you little shits,” she told Kelso. He arched his back and sneered down his nose before marching away.

Hyde jumped onto the sofa, walked onto her lap as if he’d barely noticed her, then curled into her lap. He knew a lie when he heard it. Nora preferred dogs, but she spent too much time out of the apartment to be a dog owner. In truth, she disliked other people’s cats and other people’s cats disliked her, but she loved her three Assholes. Sometimes, though, they watched her with more than typical feline interest. On early mornings when she stumbled out of bed or on exhausted late nights when she fell asleep watching television, she would mutter accusations that the three of them were hatching some sinister plot. Joking, mostly. Hyde purred as she stroked his fur. On her TV screen, Jason Statham used his fists and a sharp knife to avoid being killed by a trio of grim men with guns. Nora had been channel surfing when she stopped at the sight of Statham’s chiseled features.

She had no idea what the movie might be, but it didn’t matter. After a full day at work, she needed to unwind with something that did not demand much of her attention. One thing she refused to do was watch the news. She’d spent the entire day writing about dead kids and grieving parents, with tangents into New York City politics and various criticisms of the police investigation into the Kingsbridge murders. She’d had enough of reality.

.

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