Felix Novak crossed into Manhattan at about half-past one in the morning, on the last of what had been a succession of unusually hot March nights. He came off the George Washington Bridge and coasted down Broadway. He told himself again that he knew where he was headed and fought to keep cool against the great human surge of the city.
Within minutes he'd made eye contact with a man who told him to go the fuck on back home, with a woman who smiled and ran her hand over the sparkling purple paint on the hood of his car. Soon he was caught up in late night Times Square traffic. He found himself banging on his horn for what felt like the first time in his life. Then he eased back, remembered what he was here to do, turned down the old Nirvana that always helped him think. He looked away from the tourists who stared at his '70 Roadrunner, beaten down but still beautiful, Plum Crazy and powerful as any production ever built, by every standard Detroit ever set.
When he'd called Soraya Navarro that morning, she'd said to meet her at a place called Eden-Roc. He had the address. He'd been driving straight for a day and hadn't slept since Cleveland. But he couldn't stand the idea of waiting anymore.
He drove fast, one hand on the map he'd bought, and soon got down to the south edge of Chinatown. He slid along Chrystie Street and stared around him. He smelled the hard mix of hot oil and food and exhaust fumes. He looked out at Chinese men in white shirts, black pants, and sneakers, sitting on benches in front of something that looked like a garbage-strewn highway median. His map called it Roosevelt Park. Behind the men, he saw bunches of kids chasing one another through pools of yellow light.
He found Canal Street on his third try. He circled around, cut right onto Eldridge Street, and parked. Salsa music came pulsing out of the brightly lit store on the corner -- Richie's Bodega. More men stood there, all Latin, drinking Coronitas poorly hidden in brown paper bags. They ignored him. A low doorway across the street was marked by a black awning that had the street number written across it in dark blue script. That was all. Felix checked the address Soraya had given him. It matched. He leaned against his car, his tan suede cowboy hat pulled low over his dirty brown hair, blue jeans stiff from sitting, a rumpled white windbreaker covering his sweatshirt.
A doorman with a shaved head opened the mirrored door and a couple dressed in black came out and turned west, acknowledged no one. Felix waved at the doorman, who did not react. Felix came across the street. Still the doorman was unseeing.
"I'm looking for Soraya Navarro," Felix said. "She knows me."
Felix heard the steady bump of hand-scratched bass coming from inside the club. The doorman disappeared. Felix went back and stood by his car. The doorman came out with a pink-eyed albino pit bull on a short metal chain. He stepped into the street.
"She'll be along," the doorman said.
Felix said nothing. The dog pulled toward him and the man tugged hard on the chain. He saw the dog wince and cower. The man kicked the dog behind its rib cage. The dog whined and sat down on the curb.
"She likes you," the man said.
Felix squatted down and looked the dog in the eyes, said, "That makes one of us."
The man stopped smiling and got ready to kick the dog again. But he stopped when Soraya Navarro came fast through the doors and moved across the street. She was in low-cut black cords and a black gypsy tee, with her hair shooting out at all angles. She came up and hugged Felix hard. He felt the tension ease out of him, like breath released after cars don't collide. And then he was crying.
Soraya said, "I'm sorry we've got to say hello like this."
Felix crushed into her like there hadn't been a dozen years since he'd seen her, and then he knew he'd never hugged her before, certainly not when she was eight and he was eleven. But still, he didn't let her go. Then he felt the doorman's gaze and made himself stop.
"Walk with me," Soraya said. He saw her nod to the doorman. She was definitely grown. Just nineteen now and no more tomboy about her. She was as tall as him in her boots, with brown skin, long black hair. But there was the same dark scar below her left eye, in the shape of a crescent moon.
"Don't worry about your car," Soraya said. "Danny will look after it. My boyfriend, Gus Moravia, manages the place."
They walked east, toward the river. The sidewalk was slick with oil and the remains of the day's markets, fish scales and rotting vegetables. Felix let his steps grow careful. They were surrounded by redbrick tenements, with dozens of open windows. They heard a radio playing songs in Chinese. A squirrel-sized rat ran out of an open black garbage bag on the curb and disappeared between close-set iron bars over a restaurant. Felix looked at Soraya. She'd jerked back but then moved on without comment.
"Tell me about Penelope," Soraya said. "I'm sick about what happened to her and I know I can help you. But first -- tell me good things about her."
He kept it brief, which wasn't hard. He hadn't seen his sister for over three months before she'd died. She'd been running away on and off for years before that, and in the last year, no matter what he'd said, he couldn't get her to come back home to Oregon and see their mother. Then she'd stopped talking to him. Now nothing was left but nightmares and the half hour of funeral that he'd had to run himself.
"I miss her," Felix said. "My mom keeps getting so frustrated with me. She says she feels like since we left this place, Penelope was the only person I ever trusted. And she's right. Then Penelope comes back here, and a few months later, she's gone."
Soraya put her arm around Felix's shoulders. He just kept shaking his head. To their left were acres of vast gray projects, which blotted out most of the eastern sky. Cars hurtled past them on Allen, turned hard on Delancey, and headed down to the Williamsburg Bridge.
Felix said, "All I know is what's long past. She was running with some serious users by the time she left Portland, I can tell you that for sure. Of what happened here, you probably know more than me."
"I saw her, back there at Eden-Roc, just one time, about a week before she passed." Soraya stopped. "One of the men she was with is called Max Udris. He does contracting for Gus's boss, Terrence Cheng."
"What kind of work?"
"Interiors, that kind of thing. Gus told me Max doesn't deal, but...he must've known the group she was with. There's always drugs around clubs. It's something you can't avoid, like drunks in a bar. Felix, I saw her using. And I asked Gus to bring me to Max, but he doesn't want to cross his boss."
"Max Udris. That's one more name than the police were able to give me."
"The police don't know anything about what goes on inside Terrence Cheng's clubs," Soraya said. "That much I know for sure. Pick me up tomorrow."
She wrote out information on an Eden-Roc card. Felix looked north, at the lights of Midtown, and felt the gas-heavy air blow around him. Then he looked at Soraya and saw that she'd grown beautiful. Her face was intense, and he imagined that her look was sought after, and further, that she probably knew it. He decided to say something before his own face betrayed his thoughts.
"You really turned out incredible looking, Soraya. Who'd have thought it, considering what a tough little tomboy you were."
She looked up at him, fast, searched his face.
"Liar," she said. "You always thought I was hot. Probably you think it less now and so you're talking to cover up. Here's my numbers. You have a cell phone with you?"
He shook his head.
She bit her lip and her face was suddenly open and young. "Don't think I'm not sorry," she said. "This has been bothering me for months. I feel like Penelope was my sister, too."
Felix breathed in, slow. He'd felt utterly alone since the funeral -- and he thought it was wrong to lose that feeling now. But Soraya was like family. And he needed somebody, that was for sure. He wouldn't go to the old man, and there was no way he could search the city alone.
"I know how to say goodbye to people," Felix said. "But her -- I didn't think I'd have to say goodbye to her."
"Back when we were kids, you used to trust me, too."
"I've gotten harder since then," Felix said.
"You can still trust me. I promise. I know I can help."
Felix left her. He drove north and then west and parked on a quiet street next to some dark row houses. He pored over his five-borough map by a streetlight. He closed his eyes and thought, Horatio Street. He leaned forward to look up through his dirty windshield and the sign above showed him he was learning fast.
He fell asleep, cowboy hat pulled down low, head back. He rested his right hand on the steering wheel, his left on his money clip and the short aluminum billy club he kept tucked under his thigh. Everything else he'd brought was in the trunk. A few minutes before dawn, a patrol car stopped next to him. A policeman rapped on the window and woke him up.
"Welcome to New York, huh?" Felix said.
"That's right, genius. You want to sleep in this town, go get yourself a room with a bed in it," the cop said.
Felix nodded. He eased his hand off the club and started his engine.
The last phone call he'd gotten from Penelope had found him in his trailer on the land he shared with his mother outside of Washburn, in Oregon. He'd been fencing the property all day and was dead asleep. This time, she said she was in New York. In a hotel -- some place called the Official.
She talked fast, said, "It's not trouble I'm in exactly -- it's just, these aren't Portland street kids here, you know, these folks are way tougher than the space cowboys I used to hang with and I feel like I got brought up from the minor leagues and...I don't know. You know what?"
"What?" Felix asked. He got ready for her to ask for money.
"Scared of what?" Felix said.
"Ah, there's all this stuff here -- they think I can run with them and the truth is I'm freaked out of my fucking mind. They're into volume like I've never seen before. Felix, I know you hate this stuff, but please, I need you to help me think of a way to get out of here."
And then Felix had made his mistake. She'd never said she was scared before, and she'd been on her own since she was fourteen. He was tired and angry at her for going to New York and he wanted to go back to bed. Because of all that, he read her voice wrong. He thought for sure she was fooling with him.
Felix said, "Come on, if you're so scared, then why don't you suck it up and call the old man? You're in his town now."
Penelope pulled in some air. Right at the moment where he was sure she would laugh, she said, "I left him a message. He didn't call back."
"Penelope, wait -- "
But she hung up on him. There'd been some yelling in the background, people telling her to hurry up, it was time to go.
Neither of them had ever once called their father, and if she had, then she'd broken a pact, and only true fear could have made her break it. They hadn't seen or spoken to him since their mother had left him in New York, eleven years before.
"I wonder what our old man would say," they'd say to each other when they refused to do their chores. Ellie, their mother, grew furious at even this low allusion to Franklin Novak. She never mentioned his name, never acknowledged that he even existed.
Felix sat up in bed, in his trailer, and wondered how the hell Penelope had gone from hustling change on West Burnside in the Pearl District in Portland to charging calls to some hotel room in Manhattan. It bugged him, but he didn't tell Ellie or anybody.
So she'd made it to New York, apparently, and now the big time was freaking her silly. They'd never been further apart and he had no idea how to help her. He didn't even know where to begin. But he wouldn't call the old man. If she said she'd called and he hadn't called back, that was good enough for Felix. The bastard double-crossed everyone. No reason to think he'd turn straight now. The fact that Felix had idolized Franklin Novak right up to the moment he'd found out the truth about him made it all the worse. He felt nothing but humiliation at how much he'd loved his father and about how wrong he'd been.
A few days passed and then Ellie had gotten a call. The police had found Penelope, dead from an overdose of OxyContin at the Official Hotel in downtown Manhattan, Tribeca. She'd been dead only a few hours when somebody from room service went through the open door to her room and found her. Ellie refused to claim her, said she couldn't bear it. Though she confided to Felix that she'd been dreading this very thing for years.
So Felix flew to New York, accepted Penelope's body, and flew back to Oregon ten hours later. He didn't want to be there, wasn't curious, wouldn't see the old man, though the police had said that he'd asked to view the body, and Ellie had allowed his request. But Franklin's phone calls had gone unreturned. And that seemed right to Felix. He didn't believe he'd ever get past the last thing he heard her say: "He didn't call back."
After the funeral, things went on much as before. Except that when he was thinking about nothing, tending to the vineyard or mucking the horse stalls, he apologized to his sister. And he kept asking himself, How many times can you apologize while you sit and do nothing?
The police called his mother and explained that they'd found nothing to indicate that what had happened was more than a simple overdose. They'd checked in with the Portland police. They understood that Penelope had a history of minor drug arrests. She'd been found with a dozen bottles of OxyContin and no prescription. They figured she was holding with intent to deal, and she'd taken more than she could handle. Apparently she'd snorted over three hundred and twenty milligrams of straight OxyContin and drunk nearly twenty ounces of Absolut over the course of four hours. They said a combination like that could take down a man twice her size. They'd sent scrapings from her fingernails, blood, tissue samples from vital organs, and specimens of everything found in her stomach to the state police lab. But they hadn't learned anything new. They concluded that she'd overdosed and ended the investigation.
Yes, they said when Ellie pressed them, they understood that Penelope was the daughter of Franklin Novak. But Franklin Novak had left the police force twelve long years ago. Beyond viewing the body, he had no legal right to review their investigation materials. Ellie was welcome to contact him, but they were unwilling to convey messages between an estranged wife and Franklin Novak. They had no more information and were sorry.
Felix wondered whether he should go to New York. He was in the middle of a none-too-good relationship with a girl called Iris who worked on a horse farm in Willamette, and she didn't want him to go back to New York, not even for a few days. She wanted to get married, didn't want him to get mixed up in whatever horrible thing had happened to his little sister. He kept saying they were too young to talk that way.
During the rainy evenings he sat outside his trailer and watched smoke dribble from his mother's chimney. He walked the muddy paths of their property with the dogs and checked the fences. He went to visit Iris and they argued about marriage. He'd been with three women in his life: He was shy and he knew it, and it didn't matter to him that girls found him handsome. Inside, he felt broken.
Finally he ended it with Iris. When he felt like crying he went out and chopped wood, swept the tears away with his chamois gloves, kept his eyes focused on the point of his ax.
And then one day he saw his mother coming fast over the hill from the big house. He'd been looking up at the Cascades and for a second he could swear he saw the range shaking behind her. She was in her overalls and green wellies. Her blond-and-gray hair was tied back so he could see her ears. Her eyes were red and her skin was windblown and coarse.
"I couldn't stand it if you went," Ellie said. "But I can't stand waiting here and not knowing the truth."
"Something went wrong before she died. I don't believe it was so simple," Felix said.
"Then go find out what happened," she said. "Go to New York. One of us has to, and I've got to stay here. You know I can't trust anyone else with this place. If you need money, see your grandfather. Just because I don't talk to him doesn't mean he won't talk to you."
"How do I find him?" Felix asked. He could barely remember his grandfather, Starling Furst. Starling had hated Felix's father and so they'd visited him rarely. Ellie's father was just another man she no longer spoke to, someone else she'd turned against when she left New York.
"Just go to the offices of the New York Spectator. They'll bring you to him."
That evening he got his Roadrunner and backed it up to his trailer. He packed clothes into a duffel bag, along with his billy club and several hundred dollars in cash.
He reached into a space he'd hollowed in the wall underneath one of the trailer's windows and pulled out the old Thompson 1911 that he'd found years before, forgotten along with some left-handed scissors and dried-out duct tape in the back of a kitchen drawer. He figured the old man had given the handgun to Ellie. Or maybe she took it when she left. Now he hefted it. At nearly four pounds of soot-colored steel, it was an ugly, dangerous weapon, loaded or not. He wrapped wool socks around it and dropped the bundle into an old saddlebag. When he'd packed everything tight, he slammed the trunk of his car and stretched. He saw his mother standing there, watching him.
"Promise me you'll come back," Ellie said.
"Of course I will," Felix said. "I'd never stay there."
She punched the door of the car. Then she reached in and kissed him on the forehead. He felt her dry lips, and then she turned and went into her house. He knew she wouldn't watch him go.
He took one last look down at the lights in the Willamette Valley and then out at the dark waters of the Pacific. Then he drove away. Out on the Wilson River Highway he ran his fingers along the outside of the door. Her knuckles had left dents.
Copyright © 2003 by 17th Street Productions, an Alloy company, and Alex Minter