The wicked city, p.1
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       The Wicked City, p.1

           Beatriz Williams
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The Wicked City


  Copyright

  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd

  1 London Bridge Street

  London, SE1 9GF

  www.harpercollins.co.uk

  First published in the UK by Harper 2017

  Copyright © Beatriz Williams

  Cover design by TBC © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2016

  Cover photographs ©

  Beatriz Williams asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

  A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.

  This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

  Source ISBN: 9780008132644

  Ebook Edition © January 2017 ISBN: 9780008132651

  Version: 2016-12-15

  Dedication

  To New York City, you ambitious, resilient,

  breathtaking, wicked creature

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  New York City, 1998

  Act I

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  New York City, 1998

  Act II

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  New York City, 1998

  Act III

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  New York City, 1998

  Act IV

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  New York City, 1998

  Act V

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  New York City, 1998

  Encore

  Author’s Note

  Acknowledgments

  Keep Reading …

  About the Author

  Also by Beatriz Williams

  About the Publisher

  New York City, 1998

  ELLA VISITED the laundry room for the first time at half past six on a Saturday morning at the beginning of March. Not that the timing really mattered, she decided later, when her life had taken on its new, extraordinary dimensions and she’d begun to consider the uncanny moment of that beginning. Certain things—let’s call them that, certain things—had a way of tracking you down and finding you, even when you thought you were just going to wash some clothes in a Greenwich Village basement.

  She’d moved into the building a week ago, and the hamper in the corner of the bathroom seemed pitifully empty without all the bulk of Patrick’s things. Still, it was time. Standards must be upheld. You couldn’t keep laundry in a hamper for more than a week, whatever catastrophe had interrupted your life. Too seedy. Too regressive. Anyway, Ella’s mother was bound to call her up soon for the morning welfare check, and she would surely ask whether Ella had done her laundry yet, and Ella wanted to be able to say yes without lying. (Woman could smoke out a lie like a pair of shoes on sale at Bergdorf’s.)

  She’d already gone out for a run in the damp charcoal streets, but she hadn’t showered yet. (Terrific thing about insomnia: you could do things like go running and do your laundry without having to confront your fellow tenants in a state of squalor.) As she descended the cold stairwell to the basement, she realized that its strange odor was actually the fug of her own sweat—salt and skin, not yet turning to stink. Her hair, badly in need of washing, whirled in a greasy knot at the back of her head, held from collapse by a denim scrunchie that had not been fashionable even during the heyday of scrunchies. Loose gray sweatpants, looser gray T-shirt emblazoned with her college logo—she’d peeled off her running clothes to fill out the wash load—and on her feet, the shearling L.L.Bean slippers Patrick always hated, because they were crummy and smelled like camping. Teeth furry. No bra.

  She remembered all these details because of what occurred inside that laundry room the first time she entered. Six thirty in the morning, the first Saturday of March.

  A STARTER MARRIAGE, HER MOTHER called it. Ella had never heard the term before.

  “There was an article in the Style section just a month or two ago,” Mumma said. “It made me think of you.”

  “But we only split up the week before last,” Ella said, staring at the cluster of U-Haul boxes in the center of her new bedroom.

  “I never trusted him.”

  “You could have fooled me.”

  Mumma leaned back against a stack of towels and made one of those gestures with her right hand, like she was flicking out ash from a cigarette that no longer existed. An amputee with a phantom limb. “Oh, I liked him well enough. What wasn’t to like? I just didn’t trust him.”

  “I didn’t realize there was a difference.”

  “Well, there is. Anyway, it seems the term was coined by a fellow named Douglas … Douglas something-or-other, in some sort of novel he wrote about your generation.”

  “Douglas Couplan
d?”

  “Yes! Coupland. Douglas Coupland. Have you read it?”

  “Generation X? Or else Shampoo Planet.”

  “No, the first one.”

  “Read them both in grad school. But I don’t remember anything about starter marriages.”

  “It was in a footnote, apparently. I expect you missed it. You’re all in such a rush, your generation. You miss the details.”

  “I might have read it and just forgotten.”

  “You should take your time. The footnotes are the best part.”

  Ella rose from the bed and picked up the X-Acto knife from the clutter on her chest of drawers. Her mother had a way of saying everything like a double entendre. The suggestive throatiness of the take your time. And footnotes. What were footnotes, in her mother’s secret vocabulary? Better not to know. For one thing, there was Daddy. “Starter marriage, Mumma? You were saying?”

  “A first marriage, made for the wrong reasons, or because you didn’t have enough experience to judge the merchandise. Like a starter home or a starter car. You trade up.”

  “You and Daddy didn’t have to trade up.”

  “We were lucky. I was lucky. The point is, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. As long as you haven’t got kids, you just move on. Move on, move up.”

  The X-Acto knife had one of those retractable blades, and Ella couldn’t seem to make it work. The edge came out halfway and stuck. “Look, could we not talk about moving on for another week or so? I haven’t even talked to a lawyer yet.”

  “Why not? I gave you the number.”

  “And the fact that you have a divorce lawyer on speed dial kind of stresses me out, by the way.”

  “He’s not on speed dial, and he’s not a divorce lawyer. He’s a colleague of your father’s. He can give you advice, that’s all.” Ella’s mother uncrossed her legs and rose from the bed so gracefully, she might have been Odette. Or Odile. “God knows you won’t take it from me.”

  “That’s not true.”

  “Isn’t it? What about your wedding dress?”

  “That was four years ago!”

  “And was I right?”

  Ella banged the bottom of the X-Acto knife on the toaster oven. “You were right about the dress. But you might have warned me about the groom.”

  “Oh, darling.” Mumma plucked the knife from her fingers, flicked out the blade with a single nudge of her thumb, and sliced delicately along the seam of a box labeled SWEATERS, CASHMERE. “You wouldn’t have listened to that, either. You were in love.”

  IN LOVE. ELLA COULD STILL remember what it felt like, falling in love. Being in love. She remembered it as a certain moment, the first really warm day of that year, a month or two after she met Patrick, when he was away on a business trip in Europe and she was alone for the first Saturday in weeks. She’d put on her favorite cotton sundress, which had lain squashed in her drawer since October and reminded her instantly of Granny’s house on Cumberland Island. The smell of summer. She’d gone outside into the innocent sunshine, bought an iced coffee, and walked by herself in Central Park, entering near the Museum of Natural History and making her way southeast, without any particular goal. As she strolled past the entwined couples drowsing in the Sheep Meadow, she’d gazed at them, for the first time, in benevolence instead of envy. She’d thought—actually spoke inside in her head, in conscious words that she still recalled exactly—I’m so happy, it’s the end of May and I’m in love, and the whole summer lies before us. An immaculate joy had quickened her feet along the asphalt paths, the conviction that the world was beautiful (she’d even sung, under her breath, a few bars of that song—And I think to myself, what a wonderful world—to which she ended up dancing with her father at her wedding, two years later) and that the rest of her life was just falling into its ordained pattern before her. The life she was meant to live, unfolding itself at last. Courtship, marriage, apartment. Exotic, self-indulgent vacations. Then kids, house in Connecticut, school runs and mom coffees. Less exotic, more wholesome vacations. Which shade of white to paint the trim in the dining room. Later that day, she had dinner with her sister and spilled out every detail, every silvery moonbeam over pasta and red wine at Isabella’s. And not once that entire love-struck Saturday did she suspect that Patrick was doing anything other than working—working really hard!—throughout his Saturday in Frankfurt. Thinking of her the whole time. Not once did the possibility of disloyalty enter her head. They were in love! Hadn’t he told her so, before he left on Tuesday? In between kisses. Naked in bed. Warm and secure. I’ve finally found you, he said, his actual words, while he held her face in his hands. What could be more certain than that?

  Now she had to go back and recall all those old business trips, every late night at work, every client dinner, and wonder which ones he was lying about. A painfully detailed revision of history and memory.

  And that was the worst part. Because she could still remember how wonderful it was to be in love with him.

  BUT THAT WAS SIX YEARS ago. Now she had this too-light basket of laundry and this dark, chilly stairwell on Christopher Street, painted in gray and moist against her skin. Only blocks away from the sleek SoHo loft conversion she had shared with Patrick, which had its own washer and dryer and required no stair-climbing of any kind, except on the row of StairMasters in the residents’ gym: eternally occupied, unlike the building stairwells, because you weren’t climbing those steps to go anywhere. My God, of course not. Just to stay skinny. (Sorry, to keep fit.)

  Of course, in the cold light of reason, Ella should have been the one to kick Patrick out. Damn it. He should have been the one cramming his belongings into a studio apartment in the Village—It’s charming, Mumma said last Sunday, picking her way between the boxes to peer out the window, into the asphalt garden out back—while Ella, crowned by a nimbus of moral superiority, enthroned herself on one of the egg chairs inside the two-thousand-square-foot loft on Prince Street.

  He should have been the one bumping a laundry basket into a damp basement in search of a rumored laundry room, while she flicked her sweaty running clothes into the washing machine off the granite kitchen and sipped an espresso from the De’Longhi. (Not that Patrick would ever do his own laundry, even if he knew how; in his bachelor days, he sent it out for wash-and-fold.)

  He should have been spending his weekend unpacking boxes and contemplating the miniature kitchen in the corner. The way you had to step around the toilet to exit the shower. The way you had to open said shower door and prop your foot on said toilet in order to shave your legs. (Not that Patrick shaved his legs, either; at least not since his brief but expensive flirtation with a carbon-framed racing bicycle.)

  But she’d been too shocked and angry to consider her rights as the Wronged Wife, hadn’t she? No, wait. That wasn’t right, shocked and angry. Not visceral enough. She’d felt as if a loud steam whistle were blowing inside her skull. As if her insides were melting. As if her legs and arms had no nerves. And how could you think straight when your body was in such disarray?

  So instead of waiting to confront Patrick, send Patrick to the doghouse as he deserved, she’d fled into the bedroom—trying not to look at the bed itself—and packed a few things into a gym bag and rushed to Aunt Viv and Uncle Paul’s apartment in Gramercy. Stammered an explanation she didn’t fully comprehend herself. Spent the next week in their guest room, searching the classifieds for no-fee apartments and fending off her friends’ sympathy and her parents’ advice. Fending off the manic trill of her cell phone every few hours, which she refused to answer.

  And now here she stood, instead of Patrick, in a Christopher Street basement before a metal door labeled laundry, at six thirty in the morning.

  Balancing the basket on her hip while she fumbled with the door handle.

  Thinking, At least I’ve got the jump on everyone else, washing clothes this early on a Manhattan Saturday morning. The one time when the damn city actually does sleep.

  But as the door cracked open, and
Ella stuck in her shameful shearling-lined foot to push it out the rest of the way, a wondrous and unexpected noise met her ears.

  The sound of four industrial washing machines and two industrial dryers, all churning in furious, metallic frenzy.

  NOT ONLY THAT. EACH MACHINE bore a basket of laundry on top, claiming dibs, waiting to pounce at the end of the cycle. Ella’s eyes found the clock on the wall, just to make sure that she hadn’t somehow missed daylight savings time.

  Nope. Six thirty-four.

  She let the basket slide down to the concrete floor. Put her hands on her hips. “What the hell?” she wailed. “Who are you people?”

  “Oh, hello,” said a male voice behind her, appallingly sunny. “You must be the new one.”

  Ella turned so quickly, she kicked over the basket. Jogbra spilled out. Sweaty running shirt. Seven days’ worth of lace panties in various rainbow hues. (Patrick scorned boring underwear.) She bent down and scooped desperately. “Yes, I am. Four D. Moved in last weekend.”

  A pair of legs strolled into view, clad in blue jeans and a battered pair of nylon Jesus sandals. “Geez, I’m sorry! Didn’t mean to startle you. Let me—”

  “No! I’ve got it.” Ella scooped the last article back in the basket. Tried to find something innocuous to go on top. Something without lace. Something that wasn’t hot pink. Something that didn’t smell. She straightened at last and looked up. “I just wasn’t expecting … wasn’t expecting …”

  The man laughed at her dangling sentence, as if he had no idea what had scattered her train of thought, no idea at all that he was young and dark-haired and wore a force field of tousled happiness that fried away the dampness in the basement air. “Not expecting all the washing machines full at this hour of the morning? Sorry about that, too. Just one of the quirks about life inside Eleven Christopher. I’m Hector, by the way. Top floor.” He held out his hand.

  Ella transferred the basket to her opposite hip and grasped his palm. Firm, steady, brief. “Hector?” she said.

  “My mom’s a classics professor. Was.”

  “She’s retired?”

  “No. Died a few years ago. Breast cancer.”

  “Oh, my God! I’m so sorry.”

  “Me too.” He turned away and moved to the second washing machine, which had just finished a thunderous spin cycle and now sat in stupor. “Tell you what. Special deal for the newbie. You jump the queue and take over my machine, and I didn’t see a thing.”

 

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