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Paradise Misplaced by Lisa April Smith
New York City, January, 1964
Careful not to jostle fellow pedestrians with the bulky case that contained her modeling paraphernalia, Charlie threaded her way through the busy Manhattan sidewalk traffic. Reaching a newsstand, she stopped. They had completed the last shoot of the day early, well before the Monday to Friday workforce would file out of skyscrapers and scramble for buses, cars, taxis, and trains. Using her free hand, she paid the vendor and tucked copies of Women’s Wear Daily and the Herald Tribune under her arm. She could read them that evening as she ate dinner. A month ago, she would have enjoyed having the extra hour to prepare dinner and freshen up before Raul came home from work. A year and a half of sharing jokes, chores, petty problems, and personal triumphs. And then for no logical reason, he had packed his things and moved out. ‘Needing time to sort things out’ was deliberately vague, particularly for a man who had no difficulty expressing his feelings, in not one, but two languages.
Another woman, Charlie decided for the thousandth time. There had to be another woman. That’s what Raul needed time to sort out. His law firm had scores of glamorous Broadway and Hollywood celebrities as clients. She envisioned Jayne Mansfield seated at his desk, smiling seductively as she leaned forward, her voluptuous breasts spilling out of her scarlet satin dress, just as in dozens of publicity photos. What man wouldn’t succumb? But Raul had too much integrity to cheat. He would leave. And that’s what he did. He moved out. What other explanation made sense?
When a young mother pushing a stroller abruptly halted to tend to a crying toddler, Charlie came out of her recurrent daydream to nimbly sidestep the near collision. As she scampered down the dingy subway steps her eyes adjusted to the dim light. A quick glance at the posted signs confirmed the direction needed for the train line that led home. Below the clamor of street traffic and swarming throngs above, sounds from the distant rumbling cars, shuffling footsteps, and multi-lingual conversations were distorted by the echoing tunnels. In the harsh artificial light, objects further than a car length away seemed to be variations of black, white and dingy gray.
From habit, she took stock of her fellow travelers. A lone woman might receive unwelcome attention. A drunk could get surly. A pickpocket could be looking for a target. Although incidents like these were more likely to occur in the first few hours of the morning, when the subways were deserted, it was wise to be alert. Standing nearby were two well-dressed, middle-aged women wearing sensible shoes, carrying B. Altmans’ shopping bags. City dwellers who had met for lunch and shopping, Charlie guessed. Fifteen steps to the right was an elderly Asian man, one arm resting on the shoulder of the small boy who stood next to him. The child held a scaled down violin case. Doting grandfather taking his grandson for a music lesson. A gaggle of teenaged girls wearing matching pleated skirts and saddle shoes, carrying overloaded book-bags, discussed plans for the weekend. Probably students from a nearby parochial high school.
Partially obscured by a column, Charlie noticed a bearded man with a dark knit cap pulled low over his brow and ears standing in the shadows. She thought she had seen him earlier when she had stopped to buy newspapers. He was wearing what appeared to be a ratty military-issued overcoat. She found it difficult to look away. The odd coat and beard fascinated her. Unusual attire was common in New York. Thanks to on and off Broadway theaters, television studios, and Madison Square Garden, the city attracted actors and musicians, circus and rodeo performers. And like every city, New York had its share of pimps and prostitutes, hobos and drunks. But something about his beard seemed incongruous – either the color or texture. She decided another casual glance wouldn’t be considered rude if she pretended to be looking for someone. When she turned the man’s face was blocked from view, but she did see one gloved hand holding a black well-made umbrella – odd for the unseasonably warm and dry day. But then, homeless people often wore and carried bizarre items.
She turned away. A child reaching into a box of Cracker Jacks reminded her that she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. The distant sound of an approaching train merged with the rumbling in her stomach. Charlie bent to lift her carry case.
A shattering blow on her right shoulder sent her crashing to her knees. A shrill screech ricocheted off the concrete. Outraged by what she perceived as a careless act of exuberance from one of the students, Charlie turned to glare. The bearded man in the military overcoat hovered above her, brandishing the furled umbrella, threatening anyone who dared intervene. His eyes were cold and determined. The grandfather was dragging the bewildered boy with the violin case away. One of the shoppers, blocking her head with her arms, screamed. The schoolgirls covered their faces or clung to one another.
“Run! Get help!” Charlie shouted at the nearest girl, fearing the crazed man would turn on one of them. No one moved. She tried crawling away from the platform’s edge. The vicious umbrella was hurling toward her head. As she dove to avoid it, the sharp tip caught her scalp. Blood streamed into her eyes, blurring her vision. “Please! Please! No more!” she begged the crazed man. She could hear the train getting closer over the chilling screams.
“Get back! Back! The train!” a woman yelled. “She’s bleeding. Leave her alone! If it’s money you want, take the damn bag and let her go!”
“The train!” a girl’s shrill voice shouted. “Oh my god. Oh my god! Look at the blood. Somebody make him stop!”
“Please! Please!” Charlie tried to shield her head with her arm and caught a wave of punishing blows on her back and shoulders. Her hand felt the platform’s edge. She flattened her torso against the concrete and inched away from the terrifying abyss. A violent jab caught her rib. She heard it snap. Instinctively, she drew her knees to her chest and tried to protect her head with her hands. A series of a searing kicks pummeled her arms, hands, and spine. She writhed in pain pleading for her attacker to stop.
And then she was falling. Locked in a fetal position – plummeting into nothingness. The sudden jolting pain of impact. She could hear the echoing thunderous roar of the train, the screeching brakes. Squealing sounds coming from every direction. The vibrating rails beneath her body grew increasingly stronger. A flashing light lit the black tunnel and the oncoming train. She had no time to think. She flung herself at the nearest wall. Her last conscious thought was the rush of air, the earth trembling, and that hideous, grating, steel against steel, endless shriek.
# # #
“We’re almost there,” the man holding her hand promised. Through her swollen eyes Charlie saw the troubled look on his dark lined face. “Hang on,” he said. “Just a few more blocks. Damn this rush hour traffic!”
She realized she was in an ambulance. She could hear the wailing siren, feel the vehicle making its way through traffic, slowing to a crawl and accelerating again. Lights flashed through the rear window. The stretcher that supported her felt like a bed of broken glass. Though every crack in the pavement increased her agony, Charlie prayed they would go faster. She was afraid she would die before they reached a hospital and help.
“Damn trucks!” a woman standing next to her said, wearing what appeared to be a man’s uniform. “Why don’t they pull over? The cops should ticket every bastard who refuses to pull over. Some lousy bum grabs her purse and pushes her in front of a train. He couldn’t just take the purse and run. He had to shove her off a subway platform in front of a train.”
“Sometimes I hate this lousy city,” the man said. “What’s her pressure?”
Charlie couldn’t hear the response. She wanted to tell them about the bearded man with the umbrella, but when she tried to speak, nothing emerged. She could feel her life slipping away, like a footprint on the beach, grain by grain erased by a receding wave. The pain disappeared when she saw Raul smiling at her. She walked toward his open arms. A stranger’s voice kept interrupting, obscuring the image. She tried to ignore the insistent voice that brought the returning pain.
“What’s your name? Tell me your name!” the muffled voice said, as though he was talking to her from behind a closed door.
Would you please keep it down, her brain pleaded. She preferred being where it was quiet and she could float.
“I don’t like her vital signs. She’s lost a lot of blood. Get her back. I’m afraid we’re going to lose her,” the woman urged.
“My name is Merlin, Merlin the Magician they call me. Now what’s your name?” the man’s voice said. “We don’t have any identification for you. Tell me your name!”
“Charlie. I got it. Now stay with me, Charlie. Open your eyes and look at me. That’s real good. Now, I need your last name.”
“Morgan. Please hurry.”
“We’re going as fast as traffic allows. See, you’re doing fine now, Charlie.”
If Merlin truly believed that she was doing fine, he couldn’t know about the fire consuming her body. “Pain,” she whispered.
“Yeah, I know. It hurts real bad. But you lost a lot of blood and you got to stay with me. You hear? Now who do you want me to call? Your husband?”
“What about your parents?”
There was a time she would have said, call Jack Morgan. Call her father. He would know what to do to make the pain stop. But he was gone. “Both dead.”
“Don’t go closing your eyes! You must have a girlfriend, a boyfriend, sisters, or brothers?”
Not Amelia. Not now. She couldn’t do this to her fragile pregnant sister.
“Keep her talking, Merlin,” the woman warned. “She’s slipping.”
“Charlie! You just keep on thinking about me,” Merlin coaxed. “We’re going to Metropolitan Hospital, where they got the best doctors in the world. They’re going to fix you up better than new. But you have to tell me who you want me to call. A pretty girl like you has to have someone.”
“Raul. That’s real good! Now I need Raul’s last name.”
“Raul Francesco. Tell me about him. Is Raul your boyfriend or just a good friend?”
“I don’t know,” she sobbed.
“Okay. Maybe Raul’s your boyfriend, maybe not. What do you want me to tell him?”
“If I die, tell him that I love him.”
“You’re not going to die, Charlie. You’re going to live for a very long time.” She closed her eyes, too weak to cry.
“Don’t go closing your eyes, Charlie. Keep them open! I need you to stay with me.”
“Terrible pain. My legs. Hurry! Please call Raul. Tell him . . .” The entire right side of her body was in flames.
“I’m going to call Raul the minute we get to the hospital,” Merlin assured her. “But you have to stay with me. I need you to stay with me. Come on. You got to concentrate on this sorry excuse for a face.”
Charlie forced herself to find the empathetic brown eyes in the sea of darkness.
“You believe in God? Course you do,” Merlin coaxed. “Only fools don’t believe in God when they got troubles.”
Charlie thought she nodded.
“I’m going to say the Lord’s Prayer and you’re going to say it with me. It’s going to help you handle the pain. Say as many words aloud as you can. Okay?”
She grimaced her response.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven,” he said slowly.
She concentrated on the words, whispering as he spoke. At some point she blacked out. When she awoke she was lying on a moving cart. Ceiling lights raced by. Strangers issued anxious orders. Once again, she relinquished control of her body and allowed the welcoming void to engulf her.
# # #
Aware of voices around her, Charlie opened her eyes. The glaring overhead fluorescent lights temporarily blinded her. She remembered the attack and then riding in an ambulance. Now she was flat on her back, dizzy, more asleep than awake. This had to be a hospital. Unless it was all a bad dream. Nightmares could seem real. Through the haze she was aware of the all encompassing, scalp-to-toe, pulsating dull pain. This wasn’t a dream.
Surrounding her gurney, backed by a white drape, three men were talking. “And you’re sure this wasn’t an accident?” the man in the pale green scrubs with his back toward her said.
“We have witnesses that saw her get attacked and pushed, just like I told you.”
“Jesus Christ, what’s happening to the world? First President Kennedy is shot and now this. Have people gone nuts? Forget the gunshots and the stabbings I see. The President of the god-damned United States is killed and then a pretty girl, in broad daylight and not bothering anyone, gets shoved off a subway platform.”
“Look, it’s very important that we question her now, before she forgets details that may be able to help us catch this lunatic,” said a man with a graying mustache and seriously rumpled tweed jacket.
“You get five minutes. She needs to rest,” the man in the green scrubs instructed. “Five minutes and not a minute longer, Nurse.”
The seriously rumpled jacket moved closer. “We’re detectives with the New York City Police Department,” he said. “A man attacked you in the subway station with an umbrella. Did you ever see the man before?”
“No,” Charlie tried to say. But no sound emerged. Not even a whisper. She needed two additional attempts before she produced an audible sound.
The face above the rumpled jacket with the graying mustache looked at a man of about her age with cropped wiry red hair.
“We can see you’re having trouble speaking, so we’re going to make this as easy for you as we can. Was there anything familiar about him – his face, his gestures, his walk?”
“No,” she croaked.
“Did he say anything to you either before or during the attack? Anything at all?”
“Some people on the platform thought he wanted your purse or your suitcase and you resisted. Do you think he was trying to take something of yours?”
“I don’t know.”
“We need the best description of the man that you can give us. Don’t bother describing his clothes. Everyone on that platform gave us a description of his clothes. Tell us what else you remember – anything about him that made him special.”
She tried to moisten her lips with a dry tongue. “Five foot eleven.”
“Five foot eleven,” the younger detective repeated. “How can you be so sure?”
“My height. Same as me.”
The mustached man’s mouth twisted into a wry sympathetic smile. “What about his hair? Eyes?”
A hat covered his hair, but she remembered the exposed portions of his face. “Light eyes. Fair skin. Light hair.”
“How do you know that? He was wearing a hat.”
“Good! That’s the details we’re looking for. What about the umbrella?”
“English. Expensive.” Like one her father had owned.
“Okay, we got it. English and expensive.”
Where was Raul? she wondered. Did he know she had been hurt? “Raul. Raul Francesco.”
“Raul Francesco,” the younger detective repeated, his eyes solemn and sincere. “Don’t you worry. As soon as we’re done here, we’re going to go find Mr. Francesco and let him know where you are. We just need your help a little longer.”
“Your five minutes are up, Detective,” the blurred outline of a woman in white said in a firm voice. “You heard the doctor’s orders. This patient needs rest.”
“She’s being very helpful. Just a few more questions, please.”
“You’re well past five minutes,” the nurse chided.
“You got kids? A dozen or so were standing not five steps away from her,” the detective with the mustache said. “He could’ve gone after one of them. That could’ve been your kid.”
The nurse shrugged. “Okay. But be quick, or her doctor will have my head.”
“Please, Charlotte,” the younger detective pressed. “Try to give us more. See if you can remember his body or the way he carried himself. How old do you think the guy is?”
She reached into her brain recreating the scene. During the attack, struggling to protect herself, she had seen virtually nothing but the umbrella and his shoes. Before that, she had seen him from a distance. But there were a few seconds when she had looked into his eyes. The skin around them was unlined. She could feel herself sinking into a black sinkhole. Sleep was battling for control. She willed her eyes open. “Young.”
“Young, twenty-five, thirty? Or a teenager?”
“Not a teenager.”
“Do you think he was drunk?”
She recalled the cold determined eyes. “Not drunk.”
“You’re doing great, Charlotte. See if you can hang on a little longer. It’s important that we stop this guy before he attacks someone else. Can you remember any distinguishing scars?”
“No.” Her voice was so faint she could barely hear it. “Beard. Funny beard.”
“I’m sorry. Did you say funny or phony?”
That was why the beard looked wrong, she realized. Something about the color or texture didn’t seem natural. Phony! It wasn’t real. The kind actors wore. Why would a crazed man wear a detachable beard? As a disguise. She could hear the drone of voices in the distance, but couldn’t understand what was being said. She opened her mouth to speak. Had her lips moved? The only sounds she could hear were those in her head. The beard wasn’t real, she wanted to shout. A disguise, she repeated over and over in her brain until it all seemed unimportant.
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