David Lowell was up before five. He left his townhouse on East Ninety-third Street and walked out into the darkness. Only Wall Streeters headed for the subway and diner workers serving the first coffee were up this early. Although it was an unseasonably mild November, the early morning chill forced him to pull the collar of his leather jacket up around his neck. He left his ponytail tucked in.
It was late autumn, and most of the trees had long since lost their flamboyant costumes. A few luminous oaks and maples had stubbornly refused to relinquish their bright skirts and stood out strikingly against a canvas of aging brick and cold steel. He touched the hair around his ears, his own foliage, faded grey from so many turns on the merry-go-round. How drab is humankind, he thought, so unadorned in its final days. Not gallantly lit up like autumn leaves, a brief colorful flair of brilliance against death’s pale pallet, but washed out and ominous, like the sky before a coming storm. No thought of the inevitable spring, only of the seemingly endless winter.
He needed to take a long walk. Lost in his thoughts, he strolled from the Upper East Side all the way to Soho, the dark city passing in a fog. He walked up and down the city’s subtle hills as he made his way south. He crossed Spring Street and went down to Canal where he turned left and passed jewelry stores and knock-off purse kiosks. Most were still closed, their barren metal gates stark and uninviting, but a few enterprising souls were already open for business, maybe hoping for a flush insomniac tourist.
He swung onto Elizabeth and headed north again. The city had changed so much in the past decade it was hardly the same New York. Rezoning, overexpansion, and the continued demise of rent-stabilization had changed the face of Manhattan neighborhoods seemingly overnight. Except for Chinatown, which stubbornly tried to keep its ethnic barriers in place, there were no neighborhoods anymore. Not in the traditional sense. This area was still called Little Italy and had once been the center of communities transplanted from Naples and Rome and the refuge of the “families.” For almost a century, apartments in this neighborhood were rarely robbed and parked cars were hardly ever broken into for fear of retribution. But now walk-ups rented for three thousand a month, and there were more upwardly mobile financiers and rich out-of-towners than tough-looking men in gray suits and old women sitting on stoops trading recipes.
He continued to stroll uptown toward his destination, walking slowly and methodically. Gradually the city awoke and people spilled out of the buildings onto the roads and sidewalks. He meandered through midtown, jostled by commuters and harried employees hustling to work, most glad to still have a job.
At the corner of Twenty-fourth Street, he stopped into a deli for some pre-cut fresh melon and a corn muffin to get him through the morning’s paperwork and phone calls. He had picked up a donut but put it back down with a sigh.
Leaving the store and turning down the side street, he went into the second building, took the elevator up to the sixth floor, entered the offices of the Starlight Detective Agency and began his day.
# # #
The prospective client, arriving promptly for his afternoon appointment, was a tall nervous man, almost totally bald. His large misshapen nose twitched repeatedly. He shouldered into the office, pushing through the mahogany door hard enough to make it to bang against the wall.
“May I help you, sir?” Stationed at the reception desk, Sarah unconsciously pushed her bright red hair back behind her ears in preparation for battle.
“Is this a detective agency?” He let the question fly with disdain.
“That’s what the sign says, unless the business changed overnight.” Sarah couldn’t resist the wisecrack delivered with a big smile. She was used to the type of clientele her boss attracted, and this guy wasn’t going to get her goat.
“What the hell kind of name is Starlight Detective Agency, anyway?”
“Do you have an appointment, sir?”
“An appointment? Yeah, yeah, I made an appointment. Name’s Waldo Jefferson. A friend recommended your company, said this guy’s some sort of genius. But I’m beginning to have my doubts.”
He looked around at the office, its Spartan decorations rather dreary-looking, save for the fresh flowers that Sarah brought in every few days. She was amused when he actually ran his finger across her desk looking for dust. She thought people only did that in the movies.
“What a dump,” he said.
“I like it.” She beamed again. “Anyway, yes, Mr. Jefferson, you are scheduled for 1:00. If you’ll just have a seat, Mr. Lowell will be with you in a few moments. Would you like some coffee while you wait?”
“Huh? Coffee? No thank you.”
Sarah got up to close the door, and returned to her typing. Jefferson walked over to the couch, sat, and fidgeted. “Listen,” he said, “I’m having second thoughts about this.” Just then the door to the inner office opened and David Lowell exited with an elderly woman, her frail hand holding his arm for support.
The woman was drying her eyes. “Oh,” she said, her voice quivering, “I can’t thank you enough. I’m just glad to put closure to all this mess.”
Lowell smiled empathetically, and patted her hand. “The truth is always better. It will free you from all your burdens.”
“It will, and thank you, you dear man.” She got up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek, then exited.
“Dearest Sarah, what’s up next?” Lowell tugged on his neatly-tied salt-and-pepper ponytail. Although not quite five-nine, his bearing and body language gave the impression of a taller man. “Mr. Jefferson is here to see you.” She tilted her head toward the couch, her eyebrows lifting.
“Ah, Mr. Jefferson, yes. David Lowell. Please, come in, come in.”
Lowell pointed the way to the inner office. Just before disappearing, Lowell turned and gave Sarah a wink, a tacit thank you for her patience with the client.
Sarah winked back as the inner door closed with a click.
# # #
Lowell walked around his huge desk, gesturing toward the two large, leather chairs.
“Now Mr. Jefferson, what can I do for you?” Lowell sat after his client seated himself.
“You were recommended by a friend, Jake Lerner,” he grunted.
“Yes, Mr. Lerner. I did some work for him a few years back, and he was quite satisfied, as I recall. I trust you will be as well.” Lowell turned toward a computer screen and began typing.
“Well, that remains to be seen. My problem is a bit more complex than Lerner’s. You see my wife is missing…”
“What’s your birthday?” “I beg your pardon?”
“Your birthday. Date, month, year.”
“Well, I ah, that is…June 14th, 1948. But for God’s sake what does that have to do with anything.”
“Hmm, born around noon, I would guess.”
“At 12:17 p.m. to be exact,” Jefferson replied, obviously annoyed.
“Of course,” Lowell said, looking at the man’s features, “a Virgo ascendant.” He studied the screen for a moment. “Ah, you’ve got a T-Square with the Moon in Virgo, squaring Jupiter on one side, and the Sun-Uranus conjunct on the other. You’ve got quite a temper, haven’t you? It probably stems from your parents’ relationship and their ultimate divorce.”
“What the hell is this, astrology?”
“I thought you knew my technique, Mr. Jefferson. Didn’t Mr. Lerner tell you?”
Jefferson jerked his hands up off his knees and slapped them back down. “Oh, my God! I’m in a nut house.”
“Mr. Jefferson, I assure you that I am just as sane as you. Perhaps more so, now that I see your chart.” Lowell chuckled and pulled on his ponytail again.
“This is great. I’ve got a missing wife, two screaming kids, and Lerner sends me to a psychic Sherlock-freaking-Holmes.” The detective snorted. “If you must compare me to a fictional character I would much prefer Sherlock-freaking-Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, the intelligent member of that family. He never had to deal with the public.”
“I didn’t know Sherlock Holmes even had a brother.” “Nasty and illiterate, nice combination.” Lowell regarded him steadily.
“This is too much. I’m leaving.”
“I figured you would.” Lowell looked down at the man’s natal chart. “But before you go let me just tell you. Your wife isn’t missing; she ran away from you with a man who is more likely than not an Aquarian or a Leo. It is someone you’ve known for a long time, whom you considered a friend. You may hear from her around the full moon on the tenth. You are a brutish and cruel man who pushed her to this. She should have left you years ago.”
“Why you… I should sue you.”
Lowell barged ahead. “You also seem to have a problem with your kidneys; probably a susceptibility to recurring infections. Venus squares Neptune in the natal chart. It should manifest again in the next few months. Also you may have a heart attack in about eighteen months if you don’t deal with your blood pressure. Whether it is fatal or not has to do with you and your attitude. The Sun-Uranus conjunct shows a propensity toward heart trouble or strokes, and you are about to have some difficult aspects.”
“I didn’t ask you…”
“When you were about seven, your parents divorced and you lived with your father until his death, when you were around twenty-one. After that you probably lived alone until your marriage. You never forgave your mother for deserting you, and you have taken it out on every woman who has been unfortunate enough to come into your circle.”
Jefferson’s face had turned bright red. His breathing was short and, as he tried to stand, he had to steady himself against the arm of the large chair. “How could you know all that?”
“Of course, all of this is just a guess, and should not be mis- construed as a diagnosis or an opinion.”
Jefferson got up from the chair, never taking his eyes off of Lowell. “You’re the devil,” he said, as he headed for the door.
“There’s no charge for this visit. Good day.”
Jefferson opened the inner door and strode quickly through the small waiting area.
Sarah looked up from her computer. “Shall I make you another appointment?”
Jefferson’s turned back to her, his eyes opened wide. Shaking his head, he grabbed the carved knob of the door, pulled it open and rushed out into the hallway, rudely leaving the door open. Sarah shrugged, got up, gently closed the door, then came back to her desk and called in an order for a late lunch for two.
# # #
When Sarah brought lunch in, Lowell was sitting at his oversized desk engrossed in his work, his head bowed. Three computer screens sat on top, and all were aglow. Against the far wall on a wooden console, a TV was muted and set to CNBC. Stock and commodity quotes passed unceasingly across the bottom of the screen.
“Where should I put it?” said Sarah.
He picked his head up. “Oh, I don’t care. Put it on the table.” Then he put his head back down.
Sarah had been working at Starlight Detective Agency for about three years. Her boss was snobbish and demanding. And he was the smartest man she had ever met. He also paid her more than twice what she might have made anywhere else.
The workload wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle. True, there was the occasional extra job that required her to impersonate someone or engage in some leg work, which had so far resulted in her being shot at several times and almost run over once. But each time she had been well compensated for her efforts. He was a little strange, and his friends and clients tended toward the unusual, but considering the uniqueness of the situation, it wasn’t as bizarre as it could have been.
Maybe working for an astrological detective in New York qualified her for some sort of reality show. She’d look into that. She put the food on the coffee table and returned to her desk.
# # #
Lowell stood up, stretched and went over to the table. He had been engrossed in his work for hours and had forgotten about lunch. He unwrapped the wax paper and walked over to the window with half the sandwich. He leaned over a glass tank and spoke to two large black and red turtles.
“Hello, Buster,” he said to the first, as it stuck its head out for a noon scratch. The second lumbered toward his outstretched finger and received its reward. “Hello, Keaton,” he said to the second. They were red-eared sliders he had bought on Canal Street when he opened the offices. The size of his thumb when he got them, they were now each a foot in length and growing. They would soon need a bigger home.
He gave them some of his sandwich and went back to his desk, picked up the phone, and hit speed dial #3.
“Solomon Smith Barney,” said a female voice. “I mean Citi Smith Barney… oops, Morgan Stanley.” A big sigh. “I’m sorry, who do you want?”
“Roger Bowman,” said Lowell.
A moment later, a man came on the line. “This is Roger.” “It’s David Lowell.”
“Hey, Starman, when are you coming down to say hello?” “Soon. What do you see in the metals?”
“The spreads look a bit bearish, as does the daily moving average.”
“I’m getting a strong sell signal as we head into the waning moon.”
“You getting out?”
“Yes,” replied Lowell, a mouthful of sandwich muffling his response. He swallowed. “Sorry, I haven’t had time to stop for lunch all day. I’m going to flatten my position. The New Moon on Sunday is void of course, so I would look for a false run-up the early part of the week. After it drops again you should buy —sometime around Thursday.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, as usual.
But if you’re getting out, so am I.” Lowell laughed.
“On tomorrow’s open, I want you to sell ten December gold at the market and twenty December silver, and buy fifty November beans market with a stop at, hold on a minute,” he grabbed a piece of paper, “put the stop at twelve-forty.”
Roger repeated the order for confirmation. “Done. I’ll email you the fills.”
“Thanks, Roger. We’ll have lunch soon, I promise. Oh, and please send half of this month’s profits to the ASPCA, as usual. Thanks.”
He hung up and worked for a while, occasionally nibbling at his sandwich until the intercom buzzed.
He picked up the phone. “Yes, Sarah, what is it?”
“You have a visitor.”
“I’m much too busy to see anyone without an appointment.
And it’s getting near the end of the day.”
He clicked off the intercom and went back to work. It buzzed again.
“Yes, Sarah, what is it this time?” “You, uh that is, um…”
Lowell sighed. “All right, Sarah,” he sighed, “send them in.” The door opened and a woman entered. She smiled and nodded at him and then walked over to the turtle tank without saying a word.
Lowell turned his swivel chair around and watched her. She was so beautiful, standing there next to the window, the afternoon sun blazing around her dark brown hair like an angel’s aura. She looked out the window at the unobstructed view of the Empire State Building glistening in the distance, so magnificent, so unreal.
“I always loved this view,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m inside a postcard, or one of those things you shake to make snow.”
She absently petted the turtles. She turned and faced him.
She looks older, he thought, more mature, more distinguished.
At five-eleven, she carried herself with a graceful-awkwardness. Her pinstriped business suit looked new.
They both remained mute, the silence quite maddening to Lowell.
Finally she said: “I want to hire you.” “That’s it? No hello?”
“Hello, Dad,” she smiled. “I want to hire you.”