Standing on line, his food stamps application clutched in his hand, Quinn had ample time to read the posters hung on the center’s walls. The most prominent was painted with black & white prison stripes and cautioned, “Assaulting an HRA worker is a felony. It’s the law and you can go to jail.” There were others that read, “Be Honest – Medicaid Fraud” and “Don’t Cheat – Food Stamps.” Quinn turned to the young woman standing on line behind him. “Isn’t it great the way they make you feel like a criminal when the only thing you’ve done wrong is to be poor?”
“Yeah, whatever,” the woman replied. She snapped her gum in Quinn’s face.
Quinn didn’t try talking to anyone else after that.
It had already been more than twenty minutes that Quinn had waited on line on the second floor of the Waverly Center on 14th Street. The room was painted in shades of lavender. There was only one worker standing behind the counter at Reception. She kept her eyes fixed on the computer monitor in front of her and never bothered to look up at the long line that stretched before her. Every so often she would glance at her watch to see if it were her lunch hour yet. When Quinn finally stood before her, she glanced at his application, handed it back to him, and printed out a green sheet of paper with a number on it. “Fifth floor,” she said.
On five, Quinn found himself in another waiting area, this one arrayed with cheap classroom desks and chairs. The room had been painted in shades of lime green, and the same threatening posters as downstairs had been placed on its walls. An electronic bulletin board hung overhead and showed the applicants’ numbers as they were announced. For some reason, though, the numbers were not always called in order and sometimes skipped back and forth. Quinn took a seat and settled in for a long wait.
Over an hour later, when his number finally appeared on the board, Quinn passed through a doorway into an office space filled with grey cubicles. He followed a slow moving heavy-set man who beckoned to him and told him to take a seat beside his desk. Although the printed information Quinn had been given had referred to this meeting as an “interview,” the man who had introduced himself as Mr. Kendrick did not look at Quinn nor address him directly. Instead, he stared straight ahead at his computer monitor as he entered information. “Do you have photo ID, proof of income and proof of shelter?” he asked.
Quinn wordlessly handed over copies of his passport, his most recent tax return and the lease he had signed with Viktor the week before. He looked down at the floor and saw a can of Raid propped beside the desk. “Do you have problems with bugs?”
“Sometimes,” answered Mr. Kendrick, still looking straight ahead. He proceeded to ask a series of yes or no questions, most of which Quinn had already answered on the application. At one point he excused himself for several minutes and left Quinn sitting alone. Finally, he returned and handed Quinn a sheet of paper on which were checked off the items Quinn had provided to him. “This is your proof I’ve met with you. Make sure you hold onto it,” Kendrick advised and only then finally looked Quinn in the eyes. “You’ll receive a determination on your application by mail within twenty-five days. If you haven’t received it by then, call me at the number on the bottom.”
“Thanks,” said Quinn. “I guess the reason you don’t make a determination on the spot is because you don’t want people who’ve been denied assistance going berserk and breaking up the place. Do I have it right?”
Mr. Kendrick didn’t answer, only stared at the computer monitor.
An hour later, Quinn was once again on Fifth Avenue after having ridden the 4 train to East 86th Street. He strolled leisurely down Museum Mile while eyeing the luxury coops that lined his way. Arriving at the Met Museum, he took a position directly opposite the high rise he had seen Ito and Penelope exit the day before. While leaning against the cyclone fence enclosing the plaza, he tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible.
Quinn had a three hour wait with a blustery November wind blowing hard against him the whole time. He had dressed as warmly as possible, but the temperature had dropped into the low 30’s the night before and soon the frozen air had numbed his arms and legs. Tourists lugging shopping bags filled with souvenirs pushed past him, and he moved about as much to avoid them as to stay warm.
Finally Quinn was rewarded by the sight of Penelope striding along the sidewalk on the other side of Fifth. She was moving rapidly and had almost reached the entranceway to her building by the time Quinn had crossed the street and come near her. “You’re Penelope,” he called out to her. It wasn’t a question.
The beautiful woman turned to look inquiringly at him. She took in his hoodie and worn leather jacket at a glance. Without uttering a single word, she took a quick step away toward the shelter of her home.
The building’s doorman, who had watched Quinn’s approach with a wary eye, now hurried forward. Before turning his attention to Quinn, he gave Penelope an ingratiating smile to show he had the situation well in hand. “Can I help you, sir?” He deliberately emphasized the word “sir” to demonstrate how little he thought Quinn deserved the title.
Quinn ignored the doorman and again addressed the woman. “You’re Penelope, aren’t you? My name’s Quinn. I was a friend of Behan’s.” As he saw her hesitate, he added. “You do remember who Behan was, don’t you? He’s the photographer that got himself murdered a little while back.”
The doorman moved between them. “Is this man bothering you?” he asked Penelope. His tone was deferential. At the same time, he directed toward Quinn a stare that was a good deal harsher than the November wind blowing about them.
Quinn held the doorman’s gaze and smiled back at him.
“It’s all right, Fred,” Penelope said in the tone of one reprimanding a dog that had been barking too loudly. By then, she’d had time to take a second look at Quinn and had made her decision. “He’s coming upstairs with me.” She entered the building and Quinn moved quickly to join her. The doorman fell into step behind them.
Quinn turned on his heel. “Why don’t you wait on the sidewalk, Fred? The fresh air will do you good.”
Penelope turned also and smiled brightly. “It’s all right, Fred. I’ll be fine.”
“He was only doing his job,” Penelope said when she and Quinn had gotten on the elevator. She nodded her head to the operator who’d already pushed the button for her floor.
“Keeping the riff raff off Fifth Avenue,” said Quinn. “That’s what Fred thinks his job is.”
The building’s top floor was taken up by a single penthouse. Quinn, his feet sinking into the rich Persian carpeting, stood behind Penelope as she inserted a magnetic key card into its slot and pushed open the door. Without looking back, she raised her hand over her shoulder and motioned Quinn to enter.
Quinn took a good look at Penelope as he passed her. He caught the scent of Chanel wafting toward him and noted the short black dress that was too simply cut not to have been fabulously expensive.
The foyer in which Quinn found himself was the sort he had only seen in the back copies of Metropolitan Home that had once littered his dentist’s waiting room. The carefully placed contemporary furniture was designed to complement the modernist metal sculptures beside which it had been placed. Quinn observed that the floor, rather than being carpeted, was instead covered with chocolate colored leather. “How do you keep it shined?” he asked.
Penelope looked at him in astonishment. “I don’t. That’s the maid’s job.” Her voice was matter of fact.
“Yes, of course. I should have guessed. Come to think of it, I can’t really picture you on your hands and knees with a buff cloth and a can of shoe polish.”
His host nodded her agreement.
“You might ruin your manicure.”
Penelope looked at the perfectly shaped nails that had been meticulously painted a deep shade of crimson.
“Is Penelope your real name? I only ask because I know models often use aliases to protect their identity.” Without waiting to be asked, Quinn seated himself on a plush sofa. He was about to hang his jacket on a nearby sculpture when he realized it was a Brancusi.
Penelope regarded Quinn for a few seconds without answering. She was too busy appraising her guest. “I didn’t think I’d be giving too much away by using only my first name. It’s the one I was born with, and the one you may call me by.” Careful to leave space between them, she took a seat opposite Quinn.
Quinn could not stop staring at Penelope’s face. The long blonde hair and arched eyebrows only accentuated her pale complexion. Her features were so perfectly symmetrical that it was difficult to believe they were natural and not the work of a cosmetic surgeon. But it was her almond shaped eyes that most commanded his attention. They were so light a shade of green that they were almost yellow; they reminded Quinn of a cat’s eyes so brightly did they glitter in the dim room light. “You’re really something,” he said as he lowered his eyes to take in the tiny waist and the small breasted figure that couldn’t have been any larger than a size zero. “I wasn’t ready for how gorgeous you were in real life. No matter how talented Behan was as a photographer, he wasn’t able to do you justice.”
Penelope didn’t bother to argue. “It’s strange you should put it that way. Behan always said the exact same thing. He was very modest about his abilities”
“I guess he was at that.”
“You said downstairs that it was about Behan that you wished to speak.”
“Yes, I’m really grateful you could spare a few moments for me. I’m sure you know that Behan is dead. He was murdered in an alleyway downtown.”
“I was totally shocked when I read it about it in the newspaper. I could never imagine anything like that happening to someone I knew.” Penelope visibly shivered. “It’s a shame this city is always so filled with violence.”
“Did you contact the police when you found out what had happened?”
Penelope appeared genuinely startled at the suggestion. “No. Why would I? I wasn’t involved and had no pertinent information to give them.”
“Behan was in love with you, though, wasn’t he? Anyone could have seen that just from looking at the photographs he took of you.”
“Even if he were, that didn’t have anything to do with his death. Those photos were a private matter, not something that would involve the police. Or you either.” Penelope sat straighter in her chair. “You haven’t told me yet how you learned of my friendship with Behan. Or how you know about the photographs he took of me. Are you a detective?”
Quinn had his explanation prepared. “No not at all. I’m staying at the apartment where he used to live and found your address and photos there.”
Penelope raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “You seem to know quite a lot.”
Quinn let it pass. “How did you and Behan happen to meet in the first place?”
“He hired me after having seen my photo on the web. I hadn’t been able to find an agency because of my short height, but back then I still had to earn a living to support myself. Behan was a godsend. He not only paid me but offered me prints for my portfolio. The other internet photographers, and I use the term loosely, I’d worked with seemed never to have encountered any fashion other than what was on sale at a Staten Island shopping mall. But even if Behan weren’t a professional fashion photographer, he still knew exactly what he was doing. There was real genius in the shots he took of me. When I showed his work to designers, even though I wasn’t a standard dress size, they were more than willing to lend me their best pieces in exchange for promotional use of the photos.”
“You never saw him except when you were working together?”
Penelope’s tone remained casual. “Oh, once a shoot was finished, he sometimes invited me to an inexpensive Thai restaurant on Broadway for a quick lunch or dinner. I’m sure he realized I hadn’t much money and wanted to be generous. And then too I suppose it was fun for him to be seen about with an attractive model. But it certainly wasn’t a date if that’s what you’re getting at. After all, attentive as he was – and he really did go out of his way to be considerate – the man was old enough to be my father.”
“Mine too,” Quinn noted. “And that was it? There was nothing else between you?”
“Behan may once or twice have asked me to go with him to a movie, but I always declined as politely as I could. You see, I didn’t want to say or do anything that might seem to encourage whatever romantic hopes he might have had.”
“It would be very difficult for any man not to want a woman as beautiful as you for a girlfriend,” said Quinn. “If you weren’t married, I’d probably ask you out myself.”
“You’re being very kind,” Penelope replied, “or at least I think you are. But, of course, I am married.” She touched the platinum band she wore on her left hand.
“Yes, I realize you’re taken, and I respect that.”
“Then you’re one of the few men who do.” Penelope glanced pointedly at a clock on the mantelpiece. The timepiece was made from quartz and was completely transparent; all its internal gears could be seen in movement.
Quinn stayed in his seat. “I’ll be leaving in a moment. There’s just one more thing I’d like to ask you about, if you don’t mind.”
“Behan had a whole collection of semi-pornographic DVD’s in his apartment. I couldn’t figure what he was doing with all that kinky stuff, so I went to see Ito, the director whose work it was. I wanted to find out if he knew anything. While I was there, I saw that Ito had somehow acquired several of Behan’s prints. One was hanging on the wall above his bed. You were the model in every single photo. Do you know anything about that?”
“So you were lying before when you told me where you’d first seen those photos?”
Quinn only shrugged. He was sure Ito had told Penelope of his visit to the studio.
Penelope, set to explode in anger, leaped halfway from her chair but then restrained herself and regained her composure. “Please don’t speak to me about that awful man Ito.”
“You do know him then?”
“Unfortunately, yes. He’s a business associate of my husband. Cecil has invested in Ito’s production company and has brought him here several times for dinner. Several times too many as far as I’m concerned. I’ve had to play the polite hostess, but I abhor the man. He makes my skin crawl.” She made a face as though she had a foul taste in her mouth.
“Why does he have your photos?”
“He asked Cecil to loan them to him. He gave a long winded explanation about needing new ideas for his films. I didn’t believe a word of it. Personally, I think he’s just a dirty old man. On the other hand, I couldn’t very well object to his request since he is my husband’s partner. What he does with those photos I don’t even want to think about.”
“It occurred to me that Ito might have wanted you to appear in his next production. I’m sure he has a starring role all picked out for you. Considering the type of films he makes, though, I’m not sure it would be that much of an honor.”
“If that’s what he wants, he will be very disappointed.” Penelope’s tone was sharp as nails. “There is only so much I will do for anyone, including my husband, and that’s a line I will not cross. If Ito should try to persuade me, I will convince my husband that some action needs to be taken against him. Cecil may do business with Ito, but he will not tolerate any disrespect toward me.”
“Fair enough,” said Quinn. He stood and put back on the leather jacket he had finally laid on the sofa beside him. “I appreciate the time you’ve given to talk with a total stranger.” He started to say something else but then stopped abruptly.
Penelope had risen too and was making her way to the door to see him out. “I wasn’t quite sure about you when you first walked through the door, but I can see now you really are sincerely interested in what happened to Behan. He was lucky to have so good a friend as you.” She held out her hand. “I hope we will meet again sometime in the future.”
Quinn ignored the outstretched hand and instead moved forward. He put his arm around Penelope’s waist and drew her to him and then kissed her passionately on the lips. The embrace lasted a full minute. Penelope didn’t struggle or try to stop him.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said when Quinn had at last released her and stepped back.
“You can slap me if you like,” said Quinn, “but that will probably just make me want to kiss you again.”
Penelope raised her hand as though she might very well strike him. Then she let it drop to her side and turned away so he couldn’t see her face. “Please go now,” she said.
Quinn gazed at her with undisguised longing, then turned and left.