COLD DAY IN HELL
"I wouldn't have thought you could be even more beautiful. This is so nice. Very nice."
Her short bangs slipped away from the instructor's flirting fingers, and a slight blush no larger than the size of a nickel dotted both her cheeks. As the instructor moved over to the wall and slid a CD into the boom box, she smoothed off a corner of her mat with her toe, then raised her foot and tucked it against the inside of the opposite thigh, folding her palms together as she balanced perfectly on one leg, like a flamingo. She gave a little shake of her head, her new hair falling quicker than usual, then gently closed her eyes. The floodgates of serenity opened.
She had three hours to live.
* * *
The best I figure it, I was on the witness stand at about that exact moment. Actually, I can be more specific. I was on the witness stand, yawning. I'd just checked my watch as the big yawn was building quarter to four then turned my attention from the watch face to the slender pale face of the defense attorney who was fidgeting in front of me. The yawn wasn't entirely intended as commentary, although the sentiment was shared by any of the dozen or so people sitting in the stuffy windowless courtroom. The pale defense attorney shot a wounded look at the judge, who in turn did an admirable job of keeping a straight face as she doled out her reprimand.
"Mr. Malone, the court is aware that outside this room you lead a most fascinating life. But perhaps you'll make a concerted effort to at least pretend that you have the same interest in the seriousness of these proceedings as the rest of us?"
Her rounding out the statement with the question mark was, I recognized, shortcut for, Can you cut me a freaking break here, Fritz?
I nodded. "Of course, your Honor. My apologies to the court. I assure you, my yawning has nothing to do with these proceedings. I've been having a little trouble with my sleep lately."
The judge addressed the defense lawyer. "I've been having some trouble with my sleep as well, counselor. Perhaps we can start trimming the sails here?"
"But your Honor-"
"Proceed, counselor. The air in this room is finite. We're wasting it."
He proceeded. I sent my next yawn down to my feet. You can do that; it's a trick you can perform so long as you're ready. I turned my glassy eyes on the defense lawyer as he continued his attempts to take little bites out of my testimony. It wasn't going to work. My testimony was solid. I'd been hired back in the fall to set up a sting on an outfit that had been taking the notion of trademark infringement to a whole new level. The scammers had devised a method of sidelining as much as a quarter of legitimate orders earmarked for certain retail stores and replacing the merchandise - at bloated mark-ups - with their own identical knock-offs. They then arranged for the return of the originals while hiding the return on the retailer's end through timely hacking into the retailer's electronic bookkeeping. Legitimate stores all over the city had been unwittingly moving the knock-offs right alongside the real deals. It was only when rumors of the scam reached a certain level of management that I'd been contacted and asked to bring along my magnifying glass. It took me about a month to locate a coward among the scammers, but once I did it was a fairly easy matter of putting the fear into him. His legs went jelly, I got from him what I needed, and I proceeded to set up the sting. My end of things was airtight, which was why the pasty-faced defense lawyer's attempts to puncture my story was boring me to tears.
"Mr. Malone..." He grasped his hands behind his back and took a few stiff-legged steps, as if his knees were no longer working. "…as you well know, my client has a completely differently recollection of the events you have laid out for us this afternoon…"
I glanced up at the bench. The judge was sending a yawn down to her feet, I'm convinced.
* * *
The woman's name was Robin Burrell. She was 27 years old. 5' 8", 128 pounds. Chestnut brown eyes, chestnut brown hair. There was a farm girl freshness to the face, even a few pale freckles on the bridge of her nose. She had been raised a Quaker, just outside of New Hope, Pennsylvania, and she still attended meetings every Sunday morning at the Quaker Meeting House on East 15th Street. I would be told that the Sunday before she died, Robin stood up to address the circle at her meeting, made a halting start as she fought to make eye contact with her fellow worshippers, then dropped back into her chair as sobbing tears overtook her. Support from the Friends had been unstinting. Everyone knew that things had been brutally rough for Robin, especially the past several months. And not just the Friends. Everyone in the damn country knew it.
By all reports, Robin was graceful and limber on her final day, even though she was apparently suffering a little cold. The class was an advanced Vinyasa class, which Margo tells me is for fairly committed practitioners. Margo herself sticks with what's called Hatha yoga, which isn't all that slouchy either, as far as I'm the judge. I've let myself into her apartment more than once and been confronted with a Margoesque pretzel in the middle of the floor.
Robin Burrell had set her mat up next to the large plate glass window that serves as an entire wall of this particular yoga studio. The studio is above a hardware store on upper Broadway. The day after Robin died I spent some time sitting on a bench outside a Ben & Jerry's across the street from the hardware store and got a sense of how visible the yoga students were who set up near the large window. A tall, striking woman like Robin Burrell, balancing sideways on a yoga block while moving her long legs like a nutcracker…it's a show that could have given a curious passer-by a reason to pause.
"She was one of my most devoted students," the Iranian instructor would tell me. "When I tell the class to hold pose for several minutes, Robin would become like a sculpture. She made exquisite lines. Quite extraordinary."
Robin made her exquisite lines in the large window for an hour, then left class thirty minutes early, rolling her mat into a tight tube and mouthing, "Gotta go. Sorry," to her instructor, who at the time was head over heels against the front wall, looking like a frozen salamander.
The fellow at the front desk reported that Robin didn't slip into the small changing room, but instead simply pulled on a pair of Uggs and shrugged into a large navy coat that came down all the way to her boot tops. Her ten-class membership had expired with this class, but she told the guy at the desk that she was in a hurry and that she'd re-up on her next visit. She pulled a copper-colored wool cap from her pocket and tugged it down over her new haircut.
I'd say I was just outside the courtroom talking to a cop friend of mine about the time Robin took off from the yoga place. He was telling me that apparently there had been some sort of ruckus with the Marshall Fox jury and that Judge Deveraux was calling in the several armies of lawyers. That explained the tsunami of reporters and cameras that was hurtling toward courtroom 512.
* * *
A fine powdery snowfall had begun by the time Robin left the yoga studio and started for her home. Her apartment was seven blocks away, on 71st, half a block from Central Park. She stopped at an ATM on 79th, then at Fairway, where she picked up a half dozen oranges, a half dozen kiwis, two green apples, a wedge of Manchego cheese and a box of Throat Coat tea.
A few blocks later, on Amsterdam, she stopped at a Korean market and scored a package of tissues, some throat lozenges and a dozen packets of a product called Emergen-C. The clerk was watching a tiny black-and-white television on the counter next to the cash register. The fluffy five o'clock news was being over-ridden with live courthouse coverage of the latest development in the months-long drama of the Marshall Fox trial. The clerk took the twenty that Robin offered and made change. As he counted the bills into her hand he looked up at her face.
"You her." His eyes lit up and he indicated the television excitedly with his chin. "You her!"
Several other people in the shop turned their heads. Robin Burrell took the change and hurriedly left the shop. She reached her building a five-story brownstone several minutes later and let herself in. Hers was a floor-through on the first floor. She'd lived there for six years, the lucky legal holder of a rent-controlled lease. The entire east wall of the apartment was exposed brick. The kitchen was in the rear, overlooking a small patch of backyard that Robin shared with the gay couple in the basement apartment. Her bedroom was a narrow windowless room just off the kitchen, accessible by a heavy sliding wooden door that rumbled noisily on its tumblers. She often referred to it jokingly as 'the crypt.' Some joke. The front room was the largest room in the apartment, with high ceilings, a large marble non-working fireplace, and a curved front wall featuring nine-foot-high bay windows. Normally, Robin kept her curtains pulled on the windows when she was home, especially so the past several months. However, the week before Christmas she had purchased a monstrously large Douglas fir and with the help of one of her downstairs neighbors, set it up in front of the windows. Huge. It filled the entire space. She told her friend Michelle that decorating the oversized tree was therapeutic. For two generations, Robin's family had owned and operated a Christmas tree farm just outside New Hope until her father's unexpected death the previous summer had forced them to sell the property. This had been Robin's first ever Christmas without a home grown tree. According to Michelle, Robin had felt especially close to the street-bought tree, saying that she'd bonded with it, orphan to orphan. The tree was nearly as wide as it was tall, and because of this it blocked from view anything and everything that took place in Robin's front room.
Robin came home from yoga class and plugged in the tree's all-white lights. In the kitchen, she sliced one of the oranges she had purchased at Fairway into quarters and ate them whole, standing at the counter. She set the cheese on a wooden cheese tray, along with a small knife and one of the apples. She brought this into the living room.
She stripped off her yoga clothes, tossing them into a corner of her small bedroom, then got into the shower. As she stood under the hot jets, she would have seen her own body reflected in the mirror that was mounted on the wall opposite the showerhead. This was one of the details that the Gentleman Jew (as Robin had dubbed the lead prosecutor) had skillfully managed to prod from her on the witness stand: at her lover's request, she had purchased the mirror and mounted it on the shower wall.
He liked to watch.
After her shower, Robin probably hand-dried her hair then pulled on a pair of jeans and a green V-neck sweater. She put on some music. Ravel's Bolero. I have a friend who can't listen to Bolero without climbing the walls. He describes his problem as 'aural claustrophobia'. The slow relentless build drives him nuts. I sort of know what he means. After Robin put on the Bolero she lit a number of candles, two new tapers (she dug out the old nubs and tossed them into the trash), three block candles, four tea candles in holiday holders. There's no telling precisely when she turned on her television or when she checked her answering machine. What is known is that the Bolero went on around ten past six. The basement neighbor recalled hearing it beginning its build as he left to meet his boyfriend and some friends for drinks on Columbus.
The coroner put Robin Burrell's death at anywhere from 6:30 to 8:00, eight being roughly when the stringer for the Post leaned precariously over the railing from the top steps of Robin's stoop and saw her mutilated half-naked body lying in its grotesque twist beneath her Christmas tree. No fool this guy, he snapped the picture, called his contact at the Post, the columnist Jimmy Puck, and waited until Puck had roared uptown to the scene before then heading with his camera down to the diner next to the Post's offices and phoning the police from there.
It was around that same time across the park, that Rosemary Fox's maid accidentally dropped a garlic press on her boss's phone machine and heard the same gravelly-voiced message word for word that the police would soon be retrieving from Robin Burrell's machine.
"I'm coming, you whore. Can you taste the blood yet?"
© Richard Hawke