As my dad pulled his black Lexus into Mere’s parking garage, he sighed and looking exhausted said, “Now a break in. Listen Z, we have to get rid of Mom’s apartment and all the contents. I want to move on. Do you know what we are paying each month to run this apartment? So make up your mind about what you want to keep. The rest we are going to give away or, throw away.”
“Daddy, this can’t be done in a hurry. What is the matter with you? Mere loved those books. Those characters were real to her. Maybe more real than her family.”
“Zoe, please don’t be ridiculous.”
Mere’s books haunted me, especially since I had stopped reading books. I knew that Mere saved each book for a special reason, a spellbinding story, an unforgettable character, an enchanting place, an undeniable truth. For some books it was the bindings and the quality of the paper, or the photographs which were art works themselves. Some simply marked an important moment in Mere’s life too important to forget. Mere loved them all. How could I let them go?
As we neared the open door to the apartment, all we could see were books thrown all over the floor, paintings pulled off the wall, and furniture cushions overturned. Even the kitchen cabinet had been rifled. The silverware and utensils spilled over the black and white tiles.
“Holy shit, don’t go in Z,” dad yelled, pulling me back. Ruiz was already inside.
It reminded me of the murder scene. Cops descended on the apartment, sweeping it for evidence. Inside, the living room was torn apart and Mere’s bedroom had been ransacked. The dresser drawers dumped on the bed. Clothing, letters, and photographs thrown everywhere.
“Well, our perp wants more than a world famous Bible and your grandmother’s life,” Detective Ruiz said.
“What the hell is going on here?” my father asked.
“That’s what we trying to figure out,” said Ruiz. He had just returned from knocking on neighbors’ doors. Many of the neighbors were home tonight, but strangely no one heard or saw the break in.
Ruiz looked stressed while saying, “No one is admitting it yet, but someone here had to have seen or heard something. What did you mother have here that was valuable?”
My dad said, “Nothing that I can think of. Some books maybe.”
“Zoe would know more than me.”
I thought for a minute and replied, “Well I know she had some autographed books like Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann which was written at the Forty Second Street Library. Then there is that first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird and an early print of Pride and Prejudice.”
“Enough, enough,” Ruiz shouted. “Make a list of the valuable books or any other expensive possessions. We will go through these books. See if we can find what’s missing and what the robber missed and what the robber left behind in terms of evidence.”
Standing here with cops was too painful.
I just had to get out of there. I said to my dad, “I’m gonna check the mail. I’ll be right back.”
As I opened the mailbox, I felt Noah’s hand gently touch my cheek. I quickly turned to look into that handsome face.
“Oh, you.” I was still furious. Mostly at myself for not being able to challenge Noah about his past.
He put his finger across my lips and said, “Sh… just listen.” We moved to the stairwell and sat side by side.
Here was my chance to face him head on with the information Ruiz had given me. I couldn’t do it. Was I spooked so much by the robbery or was I just a coward? I definitely didn’t want to lose this hot musician.
I simply replied, “Have you seen what’s going on at my grandmother’s?”
“What’s up with all the police?”
“A robbery in my grandmother’s apartment. Did you hear anything?”
“No, as you already know, I was out most of the night.”
My brain replayed his kiss, the thumping music, the look on his face when I left last night.
“Zoe, what are the cops saying?”
They don’t know nor do I. Isn’t it enough, she’s been murdered?”
I let out a scream.
As Noah went to put his arms around me, I yelled, “Don’t touch me. I’d like to pick up Percy.”
“Oh, Percy. He’s not feeling himself. Actually he’s high on pot. Maybe you better give him a day or two.”
“Stoned? Are you for real?”
Noah just shrugged.
I had neglected the cat - even forgotten about it. My grandmother must be so angry.
“I want to get our cat now!”
“Don’t panic, Zoe. The cat has got enough food and a clean litter box. If he doesn’t feel better, I’ll even take him to detox.”
“Noah, that’s not even funny.”
“Maybe you should just chill and let me take care of the cat.”
“I was suddenly totally exhausted. So I relented. “Okay, Noah.”
“Was your grandmother’s cleaned out?”
“Nah- the police think it’s something to do with the books.”
“Really? Zoe, the next thing, cops will be looking in my pad. I still have some of your Gma’s books. Don’t mention those books.”
I wondered why I just agreed so easily to whatever Noah said and was immediately confrontational with Ruiz? The difference in their style had a lot to do with my response to them. I was attracted to Noah’s laid back reactions and his carefree lifestyle. Ruiz, highly organized, focused in on his agenda with little room for an outside point of view. Or maybe Noah was hot and that’s all that mattered.
When I went back upstairs, the police were wrapping it up for the day.
My Dad and I drove home in silence. This break- in at Mere’s apartment was another blow –after already being beaten to the ground.
The next morning on my camera roll, several pictures of the cellar windows of the library showed up. Shadows clearly dangled in the light. In each successive picture the shadows were growing larger like gargantuan spiders that were sinking down into the sub basement. Terrified, I wondered how many dead could convene seven stories down in the library stacks?
I checked the time. My cell phone indicated 10:00 AM. I overslept and was already way behind schedule but I needed to exercise and get some air. Maybe if I just bicycled around the city, I could find Horatio and he could help me understand the shadows in the photos. Perhaps I would run into Dylan and get his take on digital photos sent from the supernatural. I knew that I could never I trust him or Chase now.
As I quickly pedaled up the apartment driveway, the bike’s small silver bell rang without me touching it. Mere showed up in the most unexpected moments. I remembered the birthday when she had the bike assembled in her living room. We both loved the little silver bell. Ringing this bell always made me happy. I felt close to Mere and just rode uptown on the West Side. Suddenly Morningside Park was in my line of sight. For a few blocks, I pedaled free and easy and glided toward the Hudson River. At 79th street I headed down the ramp and through the underpass beneath the West Side Highway where I could ride right up to the Hudson River and watch the boats sail by. Then I bought a tortilla at the café behind the rotunda. As I scanned the empty benches along the river, I heard Ruiz call, “Hey Donovan.”
“Aren’t you sick of following me yet?” I asked.
“No, as a matter of fact. How much did you pay for that cheap imitation of Spanish food?
“None of your business”
“I’m off duty now. I’m about to do something I could get my ass fired for?
“Yea, really. What’s that?”
“ I’m headed to the Bronx to visit my abuella and I’m bringing a guest - you. Since I’m the detective on your grandmother’s murder investigation, me taking you home in my car would be unprofessional to say the least ”
“ Well first of all, you didn’t even bother to ask me. Do you think I even want to go there?”
“It doesn’t matter; you have to.”
“There is something you don’t understand about me.”
“Me going to your grandmother’s is going to fix that?”
“ My abuella can fix anything. Once you spend a little time with her, you will understand me better.”
“I can’t. I have my bike.”
“Where is it? We will throw it in my jeep. I’m off duty. Remember? So for the next few hours, forget the names Detective and Ruiz. Just call me, Emilio. You might like me better if you call me by the name my friends and family use.”
“What about your grandmother? Shouldn’t you ask her if it’s okay that I come?”
“My grandmother lives in a three room apartment in the Bronx with an open door policy, especially on weekends. Who knows what aunts are there gossiping over pots of coffee, or what cousins will stop by to show Abuella how big their kids got. The woman across the hall may need help sewing a hem. Her apartment is like Grand Central Station in a box.”
“Ruiz, I mean Emilio, she won’t have enough food.”
“Believe me food is one thing she never runs out of. Pots are always on the stove with soup, beans, chicken, and rice. You probably can smell her cooking from here.”
So I texted my dad that I was with Ruiz and would see him later. On the ride up, I said, “So you live in the Bronx?”
“No, I have my own apartment in Astoria. I lived in the Bronx when I was a kid.”
“Was it dangerous growing up in that tough neighborhood?”
My parents knew the neighborhood was bad. They were strict with my brother and me. Sent us to Catholic school. We had to come right home after classes. We weren’t suppose to play out on the streets. Well that was the rule. I was the kind of kid who always looked to break the rules. My parents worked. My father owned a fruit store while my mother managed an insurance office. So I snuck out whenever I could to pick up a handball game or shoot hoops. Go down to the avenue to get food. Even as a little kid I loved the vibes on the street with all kinds of people and music blasting.”
“Did you get caught?”
“Sure. My father yelled, threatened me, but I wasn’t scared. However, my older brother, the rule follower sitting home all afternoon, cried. My sneaking out got so bad, my father hid my sneakers in the trunk of his car. Finally, my father said, “Emilio, you love the streets. You like trouble. You better join the police, before you make a mistake and become one of those bad guys that ruins your and our family’s life.”
“So that’s why you joined the police?”
“First ,I joined the army and did a tour in Afghanistan.”
“How was that?”
“I’m not worried about hell - already been stationed there. When I came home, I easily qualified for the police. I never liked sitting around. I volunteered for some heavy duty units in bad neighborhoods and scored very high at target practice which led me to the detective division. Enough about me. What about you, Zoe?”
I was only up to the part of my life story when I was a shy seventh grader who loved to window shop in vintage stores in Greenwich Village when Ruiz found a parking space. He stopped short, backed up behind a humongous truck and parked his jeep in a space big enough for a tiny Fiat.
We walked into an old brick apartment building with a small elevator. As soon as we stepped into the long hallway, I could smell the food.
When the door opened, Abuela stood over the stove frying onions. On the side board were piles of chopped peppers, tomatoes, and mushrooms.
’Emilio,” the small thin woman with grayish hair yelled. “Is that beautiful girl with you?”
“This is Zoe.”
“Come in, Zoe. Come in.”
“This is my nephew Carlos. He’s visiting from Florida. Staying with me for a few weeks.” A thin dark haired man waved from the kitchen table.
“Emilio, get plates for you and your friend. Here sit down. Don’t make her stand there.”
“In a matter of minutes a plate of Paella sat in front of me. Delicious just as Emilio promised.
The time flew by quickly. Everyone at the table talked, often at the same time. One funny story followed another. I couldn’t remember when I laughed this much.
When we left, even Carlos kissed me good bye.
On the way out, Abuela yelled to Emilio, “Hey Detective, there are crimes in the Bronx too you know. You could stop by for coffee and a visit. Don’t make yourself a stranger.”
”You got an awesome grandma,” I said on the way to the car.
“Definitely, I’m her favorite.” Then Ruiz burst out laughing.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Well each of my seventeen cousins would tell you that he or she is the favorite.”
On the ride home, I told Emilio about my own grandmother. He laughed at the stories of the crazy times Mere and I had together like when we rented a rowboat in Central Park. I was showing her a yoga move and tipped the boat and fell right into the lake. Then one New Year’s Eve at Rockefeller Ice Skating Rink, Mere tried to skate backwards and fell over a champion skater performing for the crowd.
What I realized from my afternoon with Ruiz, even though he was a by the book know it all, was that he understood the most important part - the love of a grandmother. So now I was glad he was the detective on the case.
When he dropped me off at my Dad’s, Ruiz said, “You know Zoe, you are not going to believe this, but this case has changed me.”
“I’m becoming interested in books.”
“On Amazon I just ordered Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss.”
“That’s great,” I said and meant it. I thanked him again for taking me to meet his grandmother and for the delicious meal. After he left, I smiled at the idea of Ruiz now becoming a reader. It made sense though because the more I thought about my grandmother’s murder, I realized all clues related to books-future books, rare books, digitized books. Wasn’t I the one trying to escape books?
Though I hated to admit it Dad was right – follow the money trail. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know enough about the price of rare books from the past or the cost of software for future books. I decided to start with the rare books. I definitely needed a better feel for the antiquarian market, considering the Gutenberg was among the rarest. Anyway I was curious why my grandmother made so many visits to the Antiquarian Book store on Madison Avenue. I had scoped it out. The place was intimidating. I didn’t want to go alone and the next morning, I did something I thought I’d never do.