THURSDAY, 9:05 A.M.
As Jason Hansvoort stepped off the curb and into the path of the oncoming taxi, his eyes never wavered. From a park bench on the far side of the street dangled a pair of female legs, sweetly agape, their northern reaches discreetly sheathed in a slack blue-jean wrap skirt. It was this steadily improving celestial view that had blotted out all earthly considerations; a last, curious image absurdly poised to fizzle with his soul into universal static at the crush of metal and bone.
Had Jason peripherally glimpsed the yellow behemoth bearing down on him, or heard the anguished squeal of badly abused brakes, or otherwise sensed the rusty creak of the scissors yawning open to snip short the thread of his life, there might have been just enough time to pointlessly brace for the impact. But he remained oblivious, right to the end. His perception of the event did not collapse into a series of staccato images, like photographs flipping through his consciousness; he did not suddenly see all the colors of the world framed in unusual clarity. His life in no way flashed before his eyes, even as a deadly metallic juggernaut the color of sunshine desperately ground to a halt a few feet from his knees.
"Asshole!" shouted the irate Indian cabdriver, leaning out the window. "Doo you tink dot you are Shuperman?" he wondered angrily. In the center of his turban, a purple stone glowed dully.
Suddenly the world was filled with sound and light, and Jason's brain scrambled to untangle the knot of input that assaulted his senses: the braying of horns, the pungent incense of burnt rubber and roasted peanuts, the sudden, undeniable presence of a steaming vehicle practically in his lap.
"My bad," Jason mumbled reflexively, heart belatedly thudding as he rewound, stepping backward onto the curb.
The morning crowd took little notice, but here and there pockets of diverted bystanders watched expectantly, hoping for further drama from the scene. A single white male, twenty-three and reasonably good-looking in dirty blond hair and a clean gray suit, Jason saw himself reflected in their eyes as the perfect urban straight man for a bit of cosmic slapstick. Any minute now, his briefcase would unlatch comically and scatter white papers like doves all across Columbus Circle, to roars of canned laughter.
"Asshole!" the cabbie repeated apoplectically, punctuating his rage with a cryptic two-handed gesture that was probably quite obscene in his country of origin. Without waiting for a response, he floored the pedal with another screech and exited, stage right.
"That's Mr. Asshole to you, buddy," said Jason bravely into the cabbie's exhaust, but his audience had already dispersed.
Jason's near-death experiences were the stuff of legend among his friends. He had fallen in front of a city bus; he had toppled, arms windmilling in the expected way, from the edge of a subway platform, clambering to safety just in time. He had witnessed a stabbing outside the Port Authority bus terminal late one night, scarcely ten feet from him, a noisy act of public violence that had sent adrenaline shooting around his bloodstream like fireworks trapped in an air-conditioning duct. In Washington Square, two summers ago, he'd been part of a crowd that had scattered like spilled marbles when a limousine hopped the curb and careened into the park, killing two Ohio tourists paralyzed by the sheer interestingness of what was unfolding. The limo had also critically injured a street mime performing at the time; the poor bastard's animated back spasms were misinterpreted by many as a sick attempt at black humor.
Jason reached behind the knot of his tie to undo the "choke" button, as onlookers lost their cohesion and devolved into the usual pedestrian chaos, and the traffic stream reassuringly resumed its course. From a rational standpoint, he had long suspected these recurrent near misses could not be attributed to mere chance. But warning himself to be more careful was an empty ritual; it always felt disturbingly as if he were trying to be his own parents.
Jason switched back to his left hand a burgundy hand-tooled leather briefcase, the gift of his mother and father on the occasion of his landing his first real job, at Young & Rubicam advertising. The case's elegance belied Jason's moderate income -- it was pretentious and overstated, relentlessly adult, and it had always felt somehow wrong in his hand, though of course he would never part with it now. He stretched the knuckles of his free hand, wiped the palm on the convenient leg of his trousers. Once more unto the breach, my friend, he rallied himself, looking uptown and downtown like a five-year-old. When the light changed, he stepped into the crosswalk and successfully forded New York's only traffic circle.
One bystander waited a moment, then stealthily crossed the street after Jason, following him to the far corner and watching him head east on 59th Street, holding safely to the sidewalk along the southern edge of Central Park. She peered after his retreating figure for a moment before leaning lightly against a utility pole, dizzy with relief. Glancing down, the stranger saw that her hands were actually shaking, and she thrust them into the pockets of her raincoat as she glanced around, inscrutable behind cheap sunglasses.
If she'd been looking for a sign that the iron was hot, this surely had been it. The screech of the taxi's brakes had chilled her heart; twenty yards or so behind, she'd found herself literally unable to scream or even speak, incapable indeed of any action beyond groping spastically toward him as if trying to propel him to safety through the sheer force of her panic. Now she closed her eyes, relaxed, and breathed deeply, seeking out a familiar inner pool of strength, not yet to tap it, but simply to reassure herself that it was intact and primed.
Jason had turned out to be as expected: somewhere around twenty-five or so, she guessed, roughly her own age. A nice coincidence. In closeup he had genial, good-guy looks: tall, with green eyes and blond hair. No wedding ring, which presumably meant no children -- the important thing, of course. He seemed approachable, anyway...but perhaps that was hope speaking. The thrill of the prospect of fulfilling a destiny more than three hundred years in the making was tempered by visceral worries: apprehension at the sheer weight of the task ahead, and a dread of ramifications unknown.
When her eyes opened, the girl was pleased to find that her clever hands had drawn two cigarettes from the pack in her coat pocket. She lit one and inhaled deeply, snapping the other cigarette in half and grinding its broken body into the sidewalk with the toe of her cowboy boot. Stepping lightly over the legs of a sprawled homeless person clad in a mink coat mottled with red spray paint, she hopped the four-foot crumbling brownstone wall that girdles Central Park and disappeared into its abruptly green interior.
* * *
Jason hit the light switch of his office and laid his suit jacket over the back of the extra chair, where it promptly doubled over in a half gainer and collapsed onto the seat. Seven point five from the Russian judge, he mused. That's gotta be a disappointment. The voice-mail indicator on his phone console blinked sleepily in the sudden light.
After grimly zipping through the familiar sequence of buttons that would play back his messages on speakerphone, Jason took up a position by the window, clasping his hands behind his back and flaring his nostrils like an executive. The view was dominated by the imposing glass-and-steel forest of Midtown's skyscrapers. But twenty-six flights below, Madison Avenue snaked along the base of his building in multicolored scales of morning traffic, and at the extreme right of the view, up beyond the East 60s, a small but treasured corner of grassy park could be glimpsed -- slightly more, if he pressed his cheek against the glass.
There were two messages. Nick, his best friend from Princeton, called to relate "a tale of disgusting, unspeakable debauchery that I hope you'll find inspiring," and to remind him about their lunch today. Jason smiled at this, anticipating a welcome break from his usual solo routine.
The other message was less benign. Pete Halloran, his project manager, wanted him to come around to his office as soon he got the chance, and could he please bring the Hair Peace file. Jason's lip curled into an involuntary sneer as his easy morning dipped sharply toward earth, flames streaming from both engines.
Jason's sudden gloom didn't spring from the fear of reprisal. Halloran was a notorious soft touch, relaxed and genial to an absolute fault, the textbook hands-off manager. But Hair Peace -- the nightmare of the moment, an ill-conceived combination hair gel and scalp treatment -- had stubbornly thwarted Jason's every attempt at a coherent positioning strategy. After two weeks of gale-force brainstorming, the requested file remained a pitifully thin manila sandwich. And while he thought Halloran genuinely understood the problems endemic to the new account, Jason's continuing failure to come up with a creative breakthrough appeared, to himself if not yet to his boss, more and more of a personal statement.
"Knock, knock," said a voice at his half-open door, to a harmonizing chorus of knuckles, and they swept in.
It was Nivens and Walters, an inseparable pair of dorks from personnel who periodically swooped down on Jason's office like wacky sitcom neighbors. Nivens was the more loathsome of the two, small and froggy, with a shockingly pale freckled face framed by thinning orange clown hair. Walters, bald and pear shaped, wore ridiculous Buddy Holly glasses on a face billowing with flabby jowls and permanently transfixed by a snarky, murderous smile.
By virtue of their positions, perhaps, the two had an inside line on company gossip, and for some arcane reason usually invited Jason to feast on the first fruits of their inside knowledge. For all his disdain, though, he could never quite bring himself to throw them out. They were legendary office fixtures, and their intermittent presence suggested some mythic, eternal quality that he had no right to challenge; therefore, he endured them patiently.
"Howdy," he said.
"Nice tie," said Walters, with an oddly brazen sincerity that stopped just short of sarcasm.
"Thanks." Jason had no idea what tie he was wearing and resisted the temptation to investigate. "Made it myself."
"Yeah...right," Nivens replied nerdily. Walters -- who did little of the talking, although he gave most of the knowing glances -- slapped his hands on his formidable paunch and looked slowly around the office, nodding his head in a way Jason found deeply disconcerting.
"So what's up, guys?" said Jason, feeling itchy and unproductive. "I'm kind of in a rush this morning."
"Nothing much," said Walters. "How was your weekend?"
"Fine," Jason replied woodenly. "And yours?"
"Oh, you know," said Nivens. "The usual."
Jason tried to will some dramatic event into being to break up the tedious scene that loomed -- the long and terrible endgame of extracting from these two the information they were so desperately eager to unload. A terrified executive bursts through the door, gurgling blood and clawing at a knife in his back, and does a face plant into the fica; a muscular reptilian arm crashes up through the floor, splitting the carpet and dragging somebody screaming down to hell.
"Someone get fired, or something?" Jason prodded, opening his briefcase and removing an orange from an infinitely wrinkled brown paper bag inside. As Nivens and Walters looked sideways at each other, he began denuding the fruit, tossing the little orange scabs with practiced ease over the edge of his desk, where they dropped through the miniature hoop that hung above his wastebasket, just out of sight.
Suddenly he paused, thumb buried in orange rind, and looked up slowly, scanning both of their idiotic faces. "Wait a minute. It's not me, is it?"
Nivens smiled slightly. "No, it's not you, you paranoid asshole."
Jason nodded suspiciously. "But it's somebody."
The pair again exchanged schoolgirl glances. "Okay," Nivens gave in. "Let's just say somebody's leaving. But it's not official yet, so don't spread it around. We're only telling you this because it concerns you directly." He paused as if expecting still more encouragement, but Jason abstained by popping an orange segment into his mouth.
"It's your boss," said Walters in a melodramatic whisper.
"My boss?" mumbled Jason semicoherently through the citrus, keeping up a show of disinterest. "Who, which boss? Halloran?" Since the merger with Grey, his company had become the biggest of the Big Five ad firms, and "boss" now had all kinds of orders of magnitude.
But Nivens grinned impishly and touched his finger to his nose. "Bingo," he confirmed, and Jason resisted the impulse to smash the fruit into that pasty little face.
"That's a stupid rumor," declared Jason. "A month ago, you told me we were supposedly getting bought by Disney/ABC. Where the hell do you guys hear this crap?"
"Don't get your panties in a bunch," Nivens assured him. "You're not scheduled to go down with the ship. Even if you don't get along with the new guy, you'll probably just get shifted to another account group."
"Or the new gal," chimed in Walters.
"Or the new gal," Nivens agreed.
But Jason was shaking his head. "I don't think so," he declared, out of equal parts loyalty and conviction. "Halloran's the golden boy." He looked down at his hands, then the orange, a suddenly pointless prop, and set it down, trying to maintain a credible nonchalance.
"Suit yourself," shrugged Nivens. "But I get his file cabinet."
"You can have it," said Walters. "I get his office."
"You can't call offices," said Nivens. "They're assigned, you moron."
"Guys, thanks for the scoop," said Jason, holding up his hands as if preparing to applaud, "but I've really gotta get some work done."
"Beware, O unbeliever," said Nivens. "Seriously, though, you didn't hear anything from us."
"I certainly didn't," said Jason. "Mark my words, gentlemen: Halloran will still be here when we're all wearing mahogany overcoats."
After they finally left, Jason sat in quiet contemplation for a few moments. He'd never bothered to track the always-dire forecasts of the Brothers Grim over his three years of employment, but they seemed to be right at least half of the time, making them difficult to dismiss out of hand. It was preposterous...and yet, there the notion remained, a grinning barnacle securely attached to his forebrain.
His still-tentative grasp of office politics encouraged him to keep the information under his hat, although he had no idea what private use he could possibly make of it. In the end, he based his decision to say nothing to his boss on purely practical concerns. Even if Halloran did have his walking boots on, what could calling attention to the situation prematurely accomplish beyond embarrassing them both?
The buzz of the phone called Jason back to reality, and he decided to make haste and let the machine answer. Picking up the Hair Peace file and grabbing a notebook to pad his insubstantial load, he stepped out and headed for that big, quiet corner office at the end of the hall.
* * *
Pathologically tidy, furnished in a colorless, antiseptic institutional style, Pete Halloran's office had all the plastic charm of a suburban model home. On the far wall, behind a smooth, gray art-deco desk subdeveloped with pristine little stacks of neatly clipped papers, a three-paneled picture window anchored the room's preternatural symmetry. Identical file cabinets graced the end walls; a pair of chairs on the left balanced a small couch on the right; twin ferns buttressed the window, arching in gently opposing angles toward the sunlight. As usual, Jason felt oddly compelled to run a comb through his hair before entering.
As the room's sterility made clear, Halloran no longer engaged in any messy acts of creation, and Jason could not avoid reading the evidence here of some desperate, alien thirty-something crisis of the soul.
The opening door revealed his boss in the act of chain-smoking, a fresh cigarette caught in the corner of a Popeye sneer, the still-smoldering cherry of another held tenderly to its naked tip. "Howdily-doodily, neighbor," said Jason from beyond the threshold.
"Morning," Halloran replied between puffs, drawing in the fire. His haircut was a well-manicured auburn lawn, his suit crisp and unruffled.
"There's a lung surgeon out in the lobby to see you," said Jason.
Halloran managed a wan smile as he inhaled deeply to establish the flame, dropping the old butt in a smokeless ashtray and closing a teeny garage door to pinch off the smoke. "Tell him to come back tomorrow," he replied. "I'm having a drink with my liver specialist."
Jason pulled up a chair and watched in mute fascination as his boss wet his little finger and picked up single ashes from his desktop.
"You're not interested in half a ten-K share at the Jersey shore this summer, are you?" said Halloran. "It's all the weekends."
"Not unless you called me in here to give me a fat raise."
Halloran smiled. "So...not in this lifetime. Well, I had to ask. It's been a complete nightmare. Yesterday, I interviewed a woman who wanted to bring her entire group-therapy group down for the month of July. She's already called twice to let me know she's not taking my rejection personally."
Jason smiled. "I think I'll just skip the traffic again this year," he replied. "I see enough New Yorkers in New York."
"Fair enough," said Halloran.
Though Halloran had assumed the paternal duty of guiding Jason through his fledgling corporate ascendancy, the two enjoyed an almost peer-level friendship, limited only by their age difference and the asymmetric power axis. Halloran had once even tried to set Jason up with his younger cousin, a dismal experiment that was never, ever spoken of, even in jest.
"That's the Hair Peace project, I take it?" Halloran wondered, indicating the folder. "Looks rather...svelte."
Jason tried not to wince visibly. The casual humor only underscored his unshakable concern that his inability to come through for Pete amounted to some sort of personal betrayal. "I've got some ideas cooking," he replied.
Halloran nodded. "But nothing you're ready to share just yet."
"That's pretty much it, yeah."
"I warned you that this was going to be a tough one," said his boss. "Talk to me."
Jason laid the file on the desk and took a deep breath. "I don't even know where to start. It's problematic pretty much across the board."
"Well, let's see," said Halloran, checking his ceiling for inspiration. "For one thing, it's an idiotic product."
Jason smiled, relieved already. "Yeah," he agreed enthusiastically. "That's it in a nutshell. It's supposed to soothe itchy scalps and provide an appetizing 'wet' look. But it doesn't actually, medically, address dandruff or any of the causes of itchy scalps; it just sort of greases the itch. Which is soothing, I guess, if you're in deep denial. And the 'wet' look hasn't been appetizing since Fonzie."
"True," said Halloran. "This is one of those miracle products conceived by some sixty-year-old would-be Ron Popeil while he's sitting on the john. So start by fine-tuning your demographics: What kind of consumer is likely to think this sort of thing is cool?"
Jason was shaking his head. "But it's more than that," he complained. "I mean, Hair Peace, for Christ's sake. It's a lame pun on toupees, which aren't that funny to start with. And the whole thing's a blatant attempt to latch on to enviro-chic. Borderline-toxic, animal-tested ingredients, in a conscience-soothing forest-green package. I mean, look at the damned bottle," he protested, opening the folder and pulling out a product shot, a photograph of a green Hair Peace bottle illustrated by several lines of glowing text. "These guys actually had the temerity to press a damn peace sign right into the petroleum-based, landfill-gagging plastic of the bottle. It's the most baldly cynical thing I've ever come across."
"'Hair Peace' also sounds like 'herpes,'" Halloran noted, looking up from the photo. "If you say it with sort of a French accent."
Jason grinned. "Right. So you agree."
Halloran took a healthy drag from the cigarette, and guided a precarious ash cone to the tray. "Well, what does that mean? That it's impossible? It's a tough sell, granted," he continued, forestalling Jason's interruption with an upraised hand. "But so what? If it were easy, they'd do it in-house."
"I know, I know," said Jason, signaling his perfect understanding with an exaggerated nodding of his entire upper body. "I guess...I guess it's just hard to get fired up extolling the virtues of a product you don't stand behind."
"Well, let's not get all starry-eyed," said Halloran dismissively. "The reason it's hard to extol its virtues is because it hasn't got any, that's all. But that's the challenge, Jason. Don't be so concrete." After a perfunctory puff of his cigarette, he began waving it around as an abstract pointer. "I mean, really, a potbellied pig with a number-two pencil can sell Coke and Pepsi. If you can peddle this piece of shit" -- here he tapped the product shot with his free hand -- "it will mark you as a player. This is a made-to-order opportunity to prove yourself."
In the unbearable floodlight of Halloran's scrutiny, Jason's thoughts kept twisting themselves into maddening phone-cord tangles. "Maybe...it's just hard for me to get away from the idea that it's already taken a lot longer than it should have."
"Listen, this is not worth choking over," said Halloran. "Hair Peace is just an ill-conceived product that needs a lot of help -- that's all." Jason started to speak, but was again silenced by an upraised finger as Halloran exhaled a smooth stream of smoke out of one side of his mouth. "I understand how paralyzing this kind of pressure can be, believe me. Just try and think more abstractly; don't tie yourself to the product. Think lifestyle. Think joy, happiness, dancing supermodels. Think sex."
"Yeah," Jason agreed, smiling. "Okay, that sounds good."
"Don't be so concrete," Halloran reiterated, sliding the Hair Peace photo back into the folder, which he then closed and held out before him. "And don't abuse my leniency. I still very much expect you to produce."
"I understand," Jason replied with a sober nod, accepting the folder and rising to his feet. "Listen, thanks, Pete. I appreciate the vote of confidence."
"Give me something in a week," said Halloran.
* * *
Running his fingers through his own shaggy blond mop, Jason closed his eyes and pictured great disembodied tufts, cute dangling braids and ringlets, embarrassingly spare comb-overs. He focused in further, on slender individual fibers, long tendrils of dead cells excreting themselves backward out of the head and into the waiting jaws of eager clippers, tumbling end over end to the barbershop floor. He was running through a forest of hair on the head of a giant, sidestepping sweat-oozing sinkhole pores, hacking his way through gently curling thickets with a nanomachete. Suddenly the heavens darkened: Looking skyward, he yelped as an immense plop of noxious Hair Peace, impelled by a monstrous hand, blotted out the sky.
The buzz of the phone broke up his reverie; hungry for the interruption, he scrambled forward to pick it up on the first ring and barked his knee on the desk. "Y and G," he said wearily.
After a long moment of silence, a female voice tentatively began. "Jason Hansvoort?"
"That's me," he replied cautiously. "Can I help you?"
Another long pause. "I think so," the voice continued at last. "Yes, I definitely think so. I'm sorry, it's just...amazing to hear your voice."
Jason frowned. "Who is this?"
"My name's...Amanda," the caller said haltingly, as if constructing a pseudonym on the fly. "You don't know me."
True enough. Her voice was wildly unfamiliar...unprecedented, really, with a gently modulated, almost musical quality he couldn't quite identify. The effect was quite hypnotic, and Jason had to remind himself of the danger of first impressions made over a phone. He shuddered at the mental image of a nude four-hundred-pound woman on the other end of the line, swatting a cockroach on her naked belly with a wet slap.
"Amanda," he affirmed, glad for the handle. "What can I do for you, Amanda?"
Again the caller remained silent, and Jason frowned. "I'm not really sure where to begin," she said at last. "I've been watching you for a while now." A pause, then an audible breath. "Well, that isn't it. I'm not a stalker, or anything. I'm calling you because...our lives are connected, in a strange way."
Curiouser and curiouser, thought Jason, as a faint aroma of prank reached his nostrils. The handful of Princeton friends he hung out with in the city were not above enlisting a stranger's help to pull off a practical joke, and a woman with a sexy voice was a famous Achilles' heel of Jason's.
Ever since high school, he hadn't had -- or desired, for that matter -- any real long-term relationships, confining himself instead to balmy summer romances and a string of one-night to one-week stands. He had become a sort of catch-and-release fisher of women, and flirting had become a virtual end in itself -- not just a carefully honed skill, but a raison d'être. He was strictly a vegetarian when it came to relationships, but by God, he loved the hunt.
"You're that woman who breaks into Letterman's house, aren't you?" he wondered idly, in no particular hurry to get back to smacking his head against the wall.
"No," she replied, with a devastating little laugh -- an easy mark. "Let me explain...I'm sorry, but I need to make absolutely sure I'm talking to the right person. Are you from Westchester?"
"I grew up there," he confirmed warily, eyebrows narrowing. "What's this about, Amanda?"
"I'm sorry; I must be making you terribly nervous."
"No, no, I'm intrigued," he said. "Just promise me you're not pregnant with my baby."
Another laugh; she had a dangerously fetching little chuckle, this one.
"Okay. Last question," she promised. "Has your family ever changed the spelling of its surname?"
The bizarreness of the question caught Jason off guard; unable to scramble a witty riposte, he had no choice but to deliver. "Yes, I believe we did. It used to be spelled with a double a, or so I've been told, anyway. Haansvoort," he pronounced, elegantly spreading the dipthong.
"Bingo," said Amanda in quiet triumph. "Oh, my God, I found you, you elusive son of a bitch."
"Excuse me?" said Jason, as the amorous daydream coughed up a spray of dust.
"Nothing, I'm sorry -- that's not about you. Listen, Jason, I...I have to see you," said Amanda. "Can you meet me for lunch? I'll explain everything, I promise."
Jason pulled the handset away from his face and regarded it strangely, the bewildered bushman wondering how they got that tiny person into the phone. "Of course not," he said, returning the phone to his ear. "No."
"No?" she said in real surprise. "Why not?"
"Why not?" he repeated. "Are you serious? Because I can't just go around having lunch with escaped mental patients -- this is New York City."
He was only toying with her now, but her voice took an agitated turn. "I swear I'm not crazy," she protested. "Jason, I -- I just need to talk to you face-to-face. It could mean a lot to you...a lot. Oh, my God, more than you could possibly imagine. I know this probably isn't making much sense, but just hear me out. A lunch -- that's all I ask."
"Listen, you sound like a nice person," Jason replied, "but you've got to give me something to go on."
Having apparently sensed his crumbling resistance, the stranger brightened. "Lunch today. I'll meet you in any well-lit public place," she urged. "If you're not overjoyed that I tracked you down, I'll buy."
"No," said Jason.
"Why not, damn it?" she demanded.
He grinned involuntarily. Whoever she was, the girl had attitude. "Because I already have a lunch," he said.
"Oh. Okay, okay," she said hopefully. "Well, how about after work, then?"
"You're relentless, aren't you?"
"You have no idea," she replied smoothly. "How's seven o'clock?"
"Fine," said Jason, crossing himself. "Where do you want to meet?"
* * *
Jason watched, entranced, as his pal Nick shook clotty Parmesan cheese onto a slice of pizza already swimming in tangerine grease. The two occupied one of five tiny tables in the frenetic shoe box of a Midtown pizza joint, the smell of bread thick in the air, faux-Venetian mosaics on the wall, plastic bottles of pizza spices loitering in intimate trios on every horizontal surface. A line of lunchers straggled along the length of the counter, sizing up the pies to the tinny call and response of the swarthy doughboys on the other side.
Nick, the lady-killer, looked tanned and dashing in tailored ocean-blue pinstripes, with an authoritative, almost swashbuckling jade tie and a patterned, yet somehow coordinated, shirt. He was preparing two slices of some meat-lover monstrosity; shake-shake-shake went his little off-white blizzard, clogging and coagulating the sprawling system of greasy rivers and lakes that spread over the raw, red meat-strewn landscape.
"That may be the most disgusting sight I've ever seen," Jason observed, grabbing a sheaf of napkins from the dispenser. "I can hear your arteries gasping from over here." He began laboriously blotting the grease from the top of his own plain slice.
"Actually," Nick replied, putting down the nearly exhausted shaker, "did you know that sausage has, ironically, been shown to reduce the risk of some types of coronaries?"
"That's a filthy lie," said Jason. "Even you ought to be ashamed."
Nick shrugged. "It may be a slight exaggeration," he allowed, dark eyes flashing as he leaned his body into the edge of the table, protecting his Brooks Brothered lap. "Ah, the glorious first bite," he said, addressing his slice, which was now poised, curled and aimed, just outside his mouth. "The heart meat, sliced from the pizza's soft belly." He closed his eyes in anticipation and sensuously sank his teeth in with a low murmur. "From here on in," he proclaimed, still chewing, "it just gets colder and stiffer as you inch your way toward the dry and dusty hills of the baked crust-bubbles."
"Uh-huh," Jason nodded, still blotting.
"When I win the Lotto, I'm never eating two bites out of the same slice again."
"When I win the Lotto," Jason countered, "I'm never eating anything in the shape of a triangle again."
"Snob," sniffed Nick.
The two munched in silence for a few moments, watching through the blocked-open front door as jacketed passersby braved the light rain that had begun to fall. The sky was bright but overcast; it would probably shower on and off all day. A bicycle messenger rocketed by, scattering terrified citizens in his wake.
"What do you think their life span is?" Jason wondered, still focused outside.
"Four years," Nick asserted distractedly. Jason didn't bother to spare his friend a glance; he'd almost certainly made up the number on the spot.
A young mother soldiered by, squinting, trying to keep her oversize umbrella from buckling in the wind as she pushed a stroller sealed in plastic like a miniature oxygen tent.
"I've been thinking I might want to start looking into possibly getting a new job," said Jason.
Nick paused in midbite, intrigued, then continued chewing. "You sound awfully sure," he laughed. "New position? New company? New career?"
"I'm not sure. That's actually the first time I've put that thought into a sentence."
"And what a sentence it was," said Nick. "Does this have to do with that Afro-Sheen stuff?"
"Hair Peace," Jason reminded him, for the dozenth time. "That's part of it. It's turning out to be a really phenomenally hard sell. I just don't know if I can do it. I don't even know if I want to do it."
"You know what your problem is?" said Nick.
"Tell me," Jason encouraged, with all the sarcastic patience he could muster. "What's my problem?"
"Well, you've mastered perspiration," said Nick. "But you don't have any feel for inspiration. You stack bricks as fast as you can, but you never design the building." He folded the slice deftly with one hand and waved it before him. "Instead of throwing more and more hours at the problem, you need to work smarter. Step away from the engine and look around and let your cerebral cortex make wild, magical connections for you."
"What a delicious blend of metaphors," Jason replied. "Unfortunately, the reality isn't that romantic. A positioning strategy doesn't just come to you while you're eating a Pop-Tart. There's actual work involved."
"How long have you been beating your head against the wall on this thing?" Nick wondered.
"I'm not beating my -- "
"I'm not beating my head against the wall," Jason insisted.
"This falls right in line with your usual M.O.," said Nick. "You put all this pressure on yourself because you can't be satisfied unless you change the course of Western civilization with your trailblazing approach to this particular fish sauce or whatever. And then, surprise! You can't focus because there's too much at stake."
"Thank you for your adorable, childlike insights into the creative process, you fucking banker," said Jason with all the disdain he could muster.
Nick laughed at this. "You can't be implying that you don't think I'm creative."
Jason grinned. "You're right; I can't say that."
"You may not remember this," Nick continued, "but right out of college I was offered a job in Saatchi and Saatchi's creative department."
Jason's eyes opened wide. "Really?"
"I've never told you this story?"
"Nick, I'm kidding. It's the biggest whopper you've told in...well, in minutes."
"Jesus," said Nick. "What a jaded old skeptic you've become. I was having a Sapphire martini with this account executive at the Temple Bar, and -- "
"Don't," said Jason, shaking his head, a ghost of a smile still on his lips. "Don't waste a goody on little old me."
Nick shook his head sadly and took another bite. "I frankly don't know why you stayed in advertising this long. What do you get out of it that makes it worth all this busy work?" He paused, shrugged. "Do you get any kind of orgasm at the end?"
Nick's predilection for asking the big questions was at once his most and least endearing quality. On the positive side, going for the conversational throat turned dialogue into a rich, layered experience; the pale conversations that sufficed for most people seemed, in comparison, like so much insipid banter. At the same time, though, friendship with Nick meant subjecting your soul to constant, often harrowing scrutiny; his conversational excesses were at their most charming when their object was anybody else.
"Let me put it this way," said Nick, filling the pause. "You're either doing what you want to do for the rest of your life, or you're paying the rent while you figure it out. So which is it? You ought to at least know that much about yourself."
Jason gave him a quizzical look. "Well, come on -- there's a big middle ground there. Who knows for sure what they want to do for the rest of their life? That's like saying, 'Promise me you'll love me forever.'"
Nick was smiling. "Ah, but you see, lots of people do promise they'll love each other forever. There's a whole diamond industry predicated on the concept. It doesn't mean they're necessarily right; couples break up all the time. It just means they know they're right."
"Say again?" said Jason.
Nick shrugged. "They're not paralyzed by inaction."
"But they may be acting wrongly. Or foolishly."
"Okay...," Jason began slowly. "So can you look me in the eye and tell me you're sure you want to be a currency trader for the rest of your life?"
Nick leaned calmly into the table and said methodically, "I'm sure I want to be a currency trader for the rest of my life."
A moment of silence followed. "Jesus," said Jason, running one hand through his hair. "Look at me. I'm playing Truth or Dare with a pathological liar."
"I'm sure it's what I want to do for the rest of my life right now," Nick clarified. "And the instant I'm no longer sure, I'll make the necessary changes, or I'll move on."
Jason marveled, not for the first time, at his friend's uncanny sense of conviction. Nick had been cocky when they were roommates in college, but in the years since their graduation, his brazen swagger had blossomed into an absolute certitude, an authority. It no doubt served him well in poker-faced trading; clearly, Wall Street had been good to Nick, and Jason didn't doubt for a minute that his friend really did intend to make the Street his permanent home. He envied Nick's confidence and resented it, too, as it stood in such embarrassingly stark counterpoint to his own wheel-spinning postcollegiate limbo.
"Well, maybe that's where I am," Jason said.
"Which...ready to move on?"
"Maybe," Jason replied. "I'm not sure." He looked out the open doorway again, where the rain was coming down harder now, graying the afternoon sky and sweeping the street in thin, misty sheets. "Maybe I just need a vacation. A nice little three-day bender."
"You just need to get laid, my friend," prescribed Nick, the eternal sybarite.
"Hey, that reminds me," said Jason. "This morning I got a phone call from this girl who says she's been following me."
"Interesting," said Nick, clearly amused. "Old squeeze?"
"I don't think so," replied Jason. "Not that I recall, anyway."
"They're the most vindictive," Nick observed. "The ones you can't recall, I mean. Almost by definition. Did I ever tell you about the time an old girlfriend chased me through Tijuana with a machete?"
Jason ignored him. "Anyway, she doesn't sound dangerous."
"Okay," sighed Nick, rolling his eyes. "Look, if you need to do the witness protection thing, I know a good plastic surgeon."
"I'm surprised you aren't a plastic surgeon."
"So what does she want?"
Jason recounted the mysterious morning call, ignoring Nick's ineffable grin and self-consciously leaving out his own odd attraction to the mystery girl.
"I'd roll with it," Nick advised, semi-surreptitiously checking his watch. "Go have some drinks. Don't look a gift babe in the mouth."
"Oh, I'm definitely intrigued," Jason assured him. "I'd just feel more comfortable if I knew what she wanted."
"Assume she wants a ride on your banana boat," he advised. "If you're wrong, she'll let you know." He stood up and grabbed his plate.
Jason shook his head. "I don't think she wants my banana boat."
* * *
Outside, they joined a bedraggled handful of pedestrians huddled under the awning as the rain pounded the street. Jason, noticing that Nick was unarmed against the elements, tapped his own umbrella on the ground with a jaunty little Gene Kelly lilt.
"So when are you meeting her?" Nick asked, ignoring him.
"Tonight, after work."
"Nice," Nick observed. "Go for the kill."
"Her idea." Suddenly, Jason brightened. "Hey, maybe she does want a ride on my banana boat."
"Aye aye, cap'n."
Jason grinned. "I'll keep you posted."
They shook hands, an absurd piece of formality Jason always wished could be accomplished with a bit more irony. "Good luck tonight," said Nick. "If you have any equipment trouble, tell her she can give me a call."
Nick stepped into the rain with one arm upraised, and managed to haul in a taxi on the first cast. The choreography was incredible -- the cab swooped in to the curb just as he arrived, and a single giant step over the swollen rain gutter took him into the warm, dry interior of the car. As the door slammed, Jason shook his head in amazement, trying to lock open the stupid, capricious umbrella as Nick's window rolled down.
"Make sure she pays!" shouted Nick over the rain. "This ain't 1960." His friend's hair, Jason couldn't help noticing, had acquired an appetizing wet look.
* * *
Ye Olde North Taverne, two and a half stories of peaked wood gables, shuttered eight-pane windows, and a faded swinging sign lettered in bony Old English script, crouched like a decrepit old rummy among the strapping young glass-and-steel titans of Midtown.
It was a calculated deception. In truth, there was nothing olde about ye taverne at all, not the calibrated sag in the roofe, not the artificially lumpy bricke floore, not the broade, fake beams spanning the quaintly lowe ceilinge. The building itself dated only to the mid-seventies, when the marketable cachet of Old World architecture was at a relative high. Naturally, Ye Olde North proved much more popular than the authentically ancient bars that dotted New York, with their déclassé locations, their messily crumbling facades, and their inconsistent multigenerational decoration.
Jason smirked contemptuously; even a naturalized New Yorker is entitled to some sneering rights. Now a journeyman of the urban scene, he reveled in his disdain for places like this, which were useful only insofar as they tended to centrifuge out the most obvious and clueless tourists.
Checking his watch as he entered, Jason found he had plenty of time for a preliminary cocktail before his appointment. An early buzz conferred a certain positional advantage on a first date...if that's what this was. An afternoon of expenses and busywork had forged in him a powerful thirst, the type o' thirst that can only be slaked by an ale served in an authentic replica pewter tankard.
Finding an empty booth beyond the end of the bar, Jason leaned his briefcase against the seat back and carefully folded himself into the narrow seat, taking pains not to foul his suit on the unwiped vinyl tablecloth. Bouncing once on the too-cushiony Naugahyde perch, he cast an eye around for waitress service, watched a few mute moments of ye olde basketballe on the little TV behind the bar, and gradually let himself be absorbed by the quaint local fauna. A trio of women in identical blue dresses -- flight attendants? -- erupted in laughter over some petty scandal; a pair of nerdy double-breasted vultures (mustaches, furtive eyes darting down blouse tops) made a lazy infinite loop around the bar.
As always, Jason paid particular attention to the female denizens, unabashedly poring over their forms and faces with voyeuristic intensity from the shelter of his booth. None of those immediately visible warmed his gravy in particular, but girls would come and go over the course of the evening, naturally, and all available plays would eventually make themselves known. Of course, he wasn't here alone, he reminded himself, resisting his mind's impulse to continue pointlessly speculating about the morning's enigmatic phone call.
With authentic replica waitresses apparently in scant supply, Jason hauled himself up with a sigh and strolled to the bar, leaving his briefcase to guard his seat. There, he watched with mounting annoyance as the unconcerned barkeep squeaked glasses with a hand towel, oblivious to all entreaties and crumpled offerings, shifting his weight in a casual way that made it clear he hustled for nobody, bub. It was minutes before Jason could lure him over with a twenty so crisp it felt counterfeit to the touch.
A woman in red glanced over from a nearby stool, and Jason smiled conspiratorially but noncommittally -- Jeez, can you believe how slow this joker is? -- waiting until she turned back to her friends to check her out. Nice face, okay smile, sort of a jumbo can. He fiddled with a pressed-paper St. Pauli Girl coaster and relented; nothing deforms the human posterior like a bar stool.
Sauntering back toward his seat with beer in hand, Jason was jostled hard, perhaps intentionally, by a harried, scowling waitress in period dress, an impact that cost him most of the beer.
He looked up angrily from the disaster, but the protest died on his lips because there she was, sitting in his very booth as if it had actually been hers all along.
It had to be Amanda; she stood out from the undifferentiated bar-scene background like a Cadillac in a swimming pool. She was attractive, to be sure, but in a strange, exotic sort of way that seemed somehow incidental to her...presence. Or maybe it was the hat, a flat, straw-colored number, almost a boater, bound with a black ribbon and set jauntily askew, that seemed so out of place in the dry-cleaned conformity of the crowd she was beckoning him through with one cupped hand: Come on, come on.
He tried to stare as casually as possible while threading his way toward her. She wore a tan suede vest over a black button-down shirt, a simple outfit that just managed to clamber over the threshold of his natural reluctance to notice such things. Her long, black hair was drawn back in a couple of waves; a smoothly tanned face and a pair of dark, smiling almond eyes became gradually distinguishable as he approached and sidled smoothly into the seat across from her, Naugahyde squeaking unhelpfully.
"Hi," she said brightly.
Jason smiled and shook her proffered hand in a presumptuous, finger-contact-intensive way. "Hi. Jason Hansvoort," he replied, adding, "as if you didn't know."
An almost goofy grin spread across her face. "Yes, I know. It's nice to finally meet you."
"So -- am I your prisoner?" he said with a smile, firing up the flirting engines as she sat back and adjusted the rolled-up sleeves of her shirt. Overall, he decided, quite a package.
"It's a long story," she laughed. "You -- "
"Wait one sec," Jason interrupted, freezing her with an upraised finger and smoothly catching the lacy sleeve of a different, but equally sullen, waitress quite intent on swooping past.
"Could we get a couple of -- " Jason paused, turned to Amanda. "What would you like?"
"Oh -- um, yeah," she replied, glancing at his beer before looking up at the waitress. "I'll have, um...uh...planter's punch."
"We don't have that," replied the waitress, late for something and straining at the leash.
"I know, I know," Amanda confessed. "I panicked. I'll just have what he's having."
"Two Basses," said Jason. "Bass. Whatever."
The waitress nodded her dull comprehension and sped away, and Jason hooked a thumb at her retreating form as he turned back to Amanda. "Take a good look," he advised, "because you will never, ever see her again."
Amanda made a face. "I should have gotten a rum and Coke."
"You want that? I can get it from the bar," he said, half-rising. The chivalry card was an easy one; he'd already planned to make every effort to buy all the drinks.
She shook her head. "No, no; this'll be fine. I can wait."
"I'm warning you -- the last time she came by she was only this tall," said Jason, holding his hand at chest level.
Amanda smiled wanly. "You're kind of a class clown, huh?"
Wounded slightly, he shrugged. "I thought you knew aaaaall about me."
She shook her head. "I know almost nothing about you."
"Well, in that case...why are we here, exactly? If you don't mind my being blunt. But you did say it was a long story."
Amanda leaned toward him, taking a deep breath as she gathered her weight on her elbows and pressed her palms together, interlacing long musician's fingers as she flashed him a conspiratorial grin. "I'm here to unravel an ancient mystery," she said at last, not quite under her breath. Her eyes sparkled with electric excitement.
"You sound like Leonard Nimoy," he said, to break the spell. He turned to check on the waitress, simultaneously reaching for his wallet. "I'm thinking we should run a tab, right?" he queried, seeing the waitress returning.
"Oh, yeah," Amanda confirmed with a nod. "You're going nowhere, buddy."
* * *
"I hardly know where to begin," Amanda confessed after a preliminary sip. "You'd think that after all this time I'd have it written out on three-by-five cards."
"Who the hell are you?" he asked gently, with a shrug. "That seems like a good place to start."
But she continued to trace her own path. "I think I'll begin with the story," she replied, "and then tell you where you fit in, and why I've been trying to find you. And then everything will become clear, I promise." She gave him a reassuring smile.
I'm thinking flake, said Jason to himself. I turned her down at an eighth-grade dance, and she's been tracking me ever since. In her studio apartment is a shrine to me: candles, yearbook pictures, a lock of my hair. And all over the walls is scribbled, over and over again, a thousand times: "'Sorry, I don't dance to Foreigner. Sorry, I don't dance to Foreigner.'"
Amanda stared at him blankly, maybe confused by the sudden wary look in his eyes, maybe running her fingers over a ten-inch steak knife strapped to her thigh. Her question, when it surfaced at last, took Jason completely unawares.
"How much do you know about the European settlement of this country?" she asked simply.
Jason blinked. "Excuse me?"
"You know, when the -- "
"Yeah, yeah, I know," he interjected, then shrugged. "All right, it's your game. Let's see," he began. "'In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.' Except the Vikings were here first, I seem to recall."
"And this is all going to make sense?"
She nodded sincerely. "Yes, yes. I promise."
"There was Columbus," Jason continued, "who I believe actually went to the Caribbean first, and then Florida, and then later there were the Pilgrims, fleeing England, I guess...for religious reasons, who came over on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock."
He looked up, trying to gauge her intentions, but as Amanda only nodded expectantly, there seemed nothing to do but continue. "The Pilgrims set up colonies in New England, where a lot of them died of beriberi and syphillis and tomahawks. If the revisionist historians haven't decided that that was all bullshit."
"Very good," she said. "There were a lot of settlers, though, who weren't English. French, Swedish...Dutch."
"That sounds familiar." Jason nodded. "I think I vaguely remember my grandmother trying to drill that into my young skull." He added, "Her husband was Dutch. That whole side of my family is Dutch."
Amanda nodded and continued. "The Spanish had St. Augustine, in Florida, and the English set up a colony in Virginia, at Jamestown, which you may have heard in your history class was wiped out. Cholera. The Pilgrims up in Rhode Island made a better go of it. But it was the Dutch who were the first to really grasp the...earning potential of the new land. They were traders -- they didn't care so much about establishing colonies. What they saw in the New World was a bottomless supply of goods, with no one to keep them from it but essentially unarmed indigenous people. In 1621, the Dutch West India Company was chartered, with the express purpose of looting the New World of furs, gold, and whatever else of value could be carted back to Europe."
"Whatever they could keep the pirates from getting," Jason suggested.
"Well...that really became more of a problem later on," said Amanda. "Anyway, England's star was only just beginning to ascend, and at this point, Holland's power on the sea was still more or less uncontested. They were able to thwart French efforts to establish colonies in Maine and Maryland, and eventually laid claim to the entire North American coast from Newfoundland to the Chesapeake Bay."
"Jeopardy scout," said Jason.
"You're a Jeopardy scout," said Jason. "Or a grad student."
Amanda raised an eyebrow. "NYU law," she acknowledged.
Jason raised an eyebrow at this. "They teach you this in law school?"
"No, no," she replied, shocked, shaking her head. "God, no. Law school is dull -- deathly, deathly dull. This is all independent research." She staved off his next question with a wave of her hand. "Wait -- let me do this in order, or I'll never get through it all. You just nod and drink your beer."
He nodded, and took a sip. The wench grows bold. Confidence held an almost narcotic attraction for Jason, and though he still burned with curiosity as to where this could possibly be heading, he was more than content to drink deeply as she boldly held forth on whatever she damn well pleased.
And for the next twenty minutes or so, he let her guide him back through the earliest days of New York history. How Henry Hudson, an Englishman working for the Dutch government, had been charting the Delaware Bay in 1610, heading north along the coast, looking for the Northwest Passage to India, apparently a sort of Holy Grail for navigators at the time.
"When Hudson reached the northeast corner of what we now call New Jersey," said Amanda, "he came upon this enormous bay. To the left there was a mighty river cascading out of the woods, jumping with fish. And to the right -- or, more precisely, sort of dead ahead -- there lay a beautiful, pristine little island, covered with deep forest. Manhattan. It was in the fall, so all the colors would have been out. Must have been an unbelievable sight. So guess which one he chose to explore?"
"The Hudson River. I mean, the river."
"Exactly," she said. "You are paying attention. Hudson was a sailor, after all, and who can blame him? But he always remembered the island fondly; in his diaries, he actually describes it as being an ideal spot for a trading post. He was right, of course. Unfortunately, two years later, he was dead."
"Not exactly," said Amanda with a wry smile. "He was set adrift by his own men -- in Hudson Bay, between Canada and Greenland. But his dream was eventually realized. The Dutch established settlements all over the mouth of his river, and in 1626, the Dutch West India Company, through their colonial governor Peter Minuit, bought the island of Manhattan from its native inhabitants."
"Now, that I remember," said Jason. "For thirty pieces of silver, or something."
"Well, that's Judas Iscariot." Amanda smiled.
"Right," said Jason, nodding. "How ugly American of me." Here I am, he thought, just sitting in a bar, getting a history lesson from a hot chick. Concentration was proving more difficult than he'd hoped; this felt tantalizingly like a dating scenario, yet the one-sided conversation yielded little opportunity for him to dazzle her with his wit and charm.
Amanda kept up the brisk pace. "They also didn't buy Manhattan with a trunkful of junk jewelry, as a lot of history books have it," she asserted. "It was quality Dutch merchandise -- tools, clothing, knives -- worth about sixty guilders at the time. It's historically translated as about twenty-four dollars, though with inflation it should be up to a couple of hundred bucks by now."
"Still, the deal of the century."
She nodded. "No question. The deal of four centuries."
"Crazy Injun Joe: His prices are in-sane!" said Jason in an extravagant TV voice, hands outstretched to suggest the extent of Injun Joe's insanity.
She smiled thinly. "Yes, now pay attention, please. So anyway, the Dutch bought the island from the natives, a tribe called the Manahatas -- that's where the island gets its name -- and they set up a fort and a major trading post at the south end of the island. What's now the Wall Street area."
"That's kind of funny," Jason interjected.
Amanda glanced quickly both ways as if to see if anyone else was laughing. "Why is that funny?"
"Just the idea that Wall Street used to be a trading post," he replied. "It's what it is today, too, if you think about it."
Amanda shrugged. "Sure, but there's nothing ironic about that -- it never stopped being a trading post."
While Jason mulled this over, she stole the opportunity to sip her beer. "Anyway," she continued, "the Manahatas, like many other Native Americans, were a primitive, migratory people with no real idea of 'property.' They've sold the island to the Dutch, but they aren't even sure what that means. So they take all their new stuff back to their huts and continue to inhabit the island, which is technically no longer their own. Essentially, they just move north, off the beach."
"Makes sense," said Jason. "The housing's better north of Fourteenth Street anyway."
"But the point is, they don't really know what they've done; they aren't culturally capable of figuring out what's happened to them." She paused, as if to let this take effect, and Jason realized with a start that Amanda was Indian. Or part Indian, he amended, as her hazy, exotic looks began at last to resolve in his mind into distinct features: high-swept cheekbones, a generous mouth with an upper lip that curled smileward with every few dozen words, as if endlessly amused by some running in-joke playing hide-and-seek beneath the surface of her commentary. Her skin tone was on the olive side, and her hair had a defining wave that didn't fit the native stereotype, but the context made the conclusion inescapable. Still, it seemed the wrong time to bring it up, and Jason tried quickly to recall the conversation.
"So the natives were taken advantage of," Jason summarized.
Amanda nodded. "They were a Stone Age culture dragged to the bargaining table of colonial Europe. It was much, much easier than taking candy from a baby."
He concentrated on drinking as she went on; he was clearly going to have to focus on buzz management this evening. For her part, Amanda slid her thumb up around and around the rim of her beer mug as if trying to coax out a resonant hum, as she described New York's subsequent history. By the 1650s, the Dutch were hopelessly overextended, and starting to lose it. The Portuguese had driven them out of Brazil; the French had retaken Quebec; and in 1664, the English had counterclaimed the territory from Delaware to Connecticut, including Dutch New Amsterdam, a.k.a. Manhattan. Ultimately the island was surrendered by its one-legged governor, Peter Stuyvesant, much against his wishes. He'd declared his willingness to fight the entire English army himself if he had to, until all his men called his bluff by defecting.
Tempting though it was to construe the girl's excited energy state as an unquenchable jones for his man flesh, there was no point in deluding himself. It was becoming disturbingly clear to Jason that Amanda had no carnal interest in him whatsoever. Oh, he amused her in a general sort of way; they seemed to get along well conversationally. But he'd seen all kinds of romantic prospects melt away over the years...it was the curse of the comic, and he knew the signs too well. And while the raw fact of her platonic disinterest didn't dissuade him from persevering, it was more than a little disheartening.
"And now," said Amanda, leaning back dramatically, "we're at the turning point. Everything I've told you so far is history; you could find it in a hundred textbooks. I did," she added parenthetically. "But now we dive into uncharted waters. Some of what I'm about to tell you is only conjecture; some of it is surely not quite right. But taken all together, there is truth to it."
"Sounds like a good time to break for more drinks," Jason decided, flashing a peace sign to a nearby waitress. "Oh, wait -- " he said, turning back to the table. "You wanted a rum and Coke, or something."
"Oh, please, I don't care," replied Amanda, opening her purse and withdrawing a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. "What's your time frame like?"
"I'm definitely a night owl," he assured her. It wasn't precisely true, but he had optimistically blocked out the entire evening, as was his habit on those rare occasions when he had actual formal dates. "What about you -- you live in the city?"
"Upper East Side," she replied. "I can just catch a cab back whenever." She pulled two cigarettes from the pack, and before he could decline, broke one of them in two and dropped it into the ashtray, then nonchalantly placed the other between her lips. Following his intrigued gaze, she lifted the pack: Want one?
"I'm on the Upper West," said Jason, refusing the cigarette with a shake of his head, wondering what sort of ritual he'd just witnessed. "Eighty-first and Amsterdam. We're ten minutes from my apartment."
"Good," she said, lighting the spared cigarette, "because we're only about halfway done."
Holy shit. "Listen, Amanda," Jason began, wincing slightly. "Don't take this the wrong way, I'm having a good time. But where's this all going?"
Amanda frowned in real surprise. "I'm not boring you, am I?" she asked, as if fascinated by the notion.
Jason shook his head. "No, no, that's not it. It's just that...well, none of this seems to have anything to do with me."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I know, I get carried away. You've been very patient with me; I appreciate it. But I really do find this story fascinating, personally, so it's hard for me to -- "
"I do, too," said Jason. "Really. I mean, I'm not a history guy, but I'm definitely intrigued. I just need...a context. The 'Why me?'"
"It's coming," Amanda promised. "Or rather, that was the context. The story, the reason I asked you here, is coming right up."
"Okay," he said warily.
"I promise," she said sincerely, crossing her heart with one index finger, giving him an excuse to steal a glance at her grapefruit breasts. The waitress clunked the drinks on the table with one hand and scribbled a few digits on their bill.
Amanda watched her leave as if waiting for her to drop out of range. "Okay, you ready?" she said.
"Let's do it."
Amanda took a deep drag, then sneered at the cigarette and abandoned it on the edge of the ashtray, where it began slowly cremating itself, thin soul departing in a long gray wisp. Turning her head, she exhaled away from him. "Here's where the story takes...sort of a mythic turn," she asserted. "Most schoolkids learn about Peter Minuit and the Manhattan sale from that famous painting by, um, someone or other. It shows the Dutch traders shaking hands with the about-to-be-defrauded savages, as they were known."
"The natives," Jason suggested.
"Yes, the Manahatas. As I said, that was in 1626. And by the 1660s, Stuyvesant had surrendered the town to the British, and the Dutch occupation was done. New Amsterdam became New York, the city we all know and love today."
Jason tried to come up with a quick caustic remark, but couldn't formulate it in time.
"Now, Jason," Amanda continued quickly, as if to forestall any further interruption, "what would you say if I told you that I believe that storied sale never in fact took place? Or that, if it did, it was rescinded not long after our little painting?"
Now we're getting somewhere, thought Jason as he considered this. "I could believe that," he decided. "It wouldn't be the first time history's lied to us; Randy Johnson couldn't throw a silver dollar across the Potomac, for example."
"I have reason to believe that there was a mysterious benefactor," Amanda said. "A Dutch settler who was very, very close to the Manahatas, probably lived among them. He may even have been married to one. Somehow, this man came into legal possession of the island, and agreed to hold it in perpetuity for the Manahata people, who clearly had no business transacting for themselves."
She had paused again, expectantly, but Jason only shrugged in confusion. "Okay...," he said simply.
"There was a document," she went on, "or a deed -- some sort of bill of sale -- that established this guy's ownership of the island, and all it entails, devolving it on his heirs in perpetuity. Essentially, giving him and his descendants clear title to the land forever," she paraphrased. "But, again, he was to hold it for the Manahata people. This may be explicit in the document, or it may not."
"I'm guessing we're deep in conjectureland now, right?" said Jason.
But Amanda was shaking her head slowly. "No. Jason, the document exists. Now. Today."
This genuinely surprised him. "You've seen it?"
"Well, no," she conceded. "Not yet."
"Well, if you're right, that's amazing," he acknowledged, taking a slug of beer. "That's got Discovery Channel written all over it."
"No, no; you're missing the point," she complained, putting her hands to both temples as if preparing to communicate the point telepathically. "I'm not talking about a historical curiosity; I'm talking about a valid deed to property."
"What, to Manhattan?" he said incredulously. "This guy's been dead for how long?"
"I told you, the deed confers the land on all his heirs, in perpetuity."
A perceptible shift in Amanda's tone brought his attention into sudden sharp focus: She was quietly assertive now, her eyes ablaze with passion, and suddenly he had it.
"And I'm the heir," he said. "The great-great-great et cetera grandkid."
Amanda smiled and sat back in a sort of ecstasy of relief. "Bingo," she confirmed.
"You seem awfully sure," he said suspiciously, eyes narrowing.
"Yes," she replied, nodding soberly. "I am. I can't prove it yet, but yes, I'm quite sure."
"But come on, Amanda," he said. "You're a law student. You have to know a document like that would never be enforceable. Not after four hundred years, or whatever. There must be half a million landowners in this city."
"You're wrong, you're wrong," she insisted, shaking her head violently. "Why do you think they run title searches every time anyone transacts property anywhere? Why do you think they have title insurance in the first place? The courts at every level, including the Supreme Court, have always upheld prior titled ownership. Always. And there's no statute of limitation, either. Old wills, old deeds, et cetera are sufficient evidence to oust long-established residents. If someone can firmly establish prior title, they own the land, free and clear. It really is just that simple."
Jason suddenly remembered his beer and took a long, hard swallow. He needed time, needed to drag himself out of the conversation and steady his whirling thoughts. But Amanda had no patience for him.
"In 1972," she continued breathlessly, "the Supreme Court overturned an 1892 act that had opened up the Klamath River reservation to white settlement, and restored it to the aboriginal Indians. In 1991, in Connecticut, local tribes successfully sued the state and won a significant plot of land, including part of downtown freaking Hartford, that had been unlawfully settled." She paused, waiting for input that wasn't coming. "I go on like this for days when nobody stops me."
They stared at each other across the table for what seemed like minutes, not speaking. Her dark eyes kept him riveted; the rest of the bar had long ago faded into peripheral darkness. Apparently, fate had fiendishly decided to present Amanda to him as some vague agent of mystery: not the Lady, but the tiger. He clasped his hands together as part of a monumental effort to focus, but Amanda grabbed his hands between hers and pulled him forward, into the table. Their faces were now inches apart, and Jason felt a physical rush. The din of the crowd swelled hotly around his ears, closed his throat.
"This is real, Jason," she said quietly, without blinking. "You're the descendant...it's your deed."
She released his hands and clasped her own together as she sat back in the seat, touching her forefingers to her lips as if in prayer.
Copyright © 2003 by Keith Blanchard