Hope to Die Page 1


It was a perfect summer evening, the last Monday in July. The Hollanders arrived at Lincoln Center sometime between six and six-thirty. They may have met somewhere- in the plaza by the fountain, say, or in the lobby- and gone upstairs together. Byrne Hollander was a lawyer, a partner in a firm with offices in the Empire State Building, and he might have come directly from the office. Most of the men were wearing business suits, so he wouldn't have had to change.

He left his office around five, and their house was on West Seventy-fourth Street between Columbus and Amsterdam, so he had time to go home first to collect his wife. They may have walked to Lincoln Center - it's half a mile, no more than a ten-minute walk. That's how Elaine and I got there, walking up from our apartment at Ninth and Fifty-seventh, but the Hollanders lived a little further away, and may not have felt like walking. They could have taken a cab, or a bus down Columbus.

However they got there, they'd have arrived in time for drinks before dinner. He was a tall man, two inches over six feet, two years past fifty, with a strong jaw and a high forehead. He'd been athletic in his youth and still worked out regularly at a midtown gym, but he'd thickened some through the middle; if he'd looked hungry as a young man, now he looked prosperous. His dark hair was graying at the temples, and his brown eyes were the sort people described as watchful, perhaps because he spent more time listening than talking.

She was quiet, too, a pretty girl whom age had turned into a handsome woman. Her hair, dark with red highlights, was shoulder-length, and she wore it back off her face. She was six years younger than her husband and as many inches shorter, although her high heels made up some of the difference. She'd put on a few pounds in the twenty-some years they'd been married, but she'd been fashion-model thin back then, and looked good now.

I can picture them, standing around on the second floor at Avery Fisher Hall, holding a glass of white wine, picking up an hors d'oeuvre from a tray. As far as that goes, it's entirely possible I saw them, perhaps exchanging a nod and a smile with him, perhaps noticing her as one notices an attractive woman. We were there, and so were they, along with a few hundred other people. Later, when I saw their photographs, I thought they looked faintly familiar. But that doesn't mean I saw them that night. I could have seen either or both of them on other nights at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, or walking in the neighborhood. We lived, after all, less than a mile apart. I could have laid eyes on them dozens of times, and never really noticed them, just as I very possibly did that night.

I did see other people I knew. Elaine and I talked briefly with Ray and Michelle Gruliow. Elaine introduced me to a woman she knew from a class she'd taken several years ago at the Metropolitan, and to a terribly earnest couple who'd been customers at her shop. I introduced her to Avery Davis, the real estate mogul, whom I knew from the Club of Thirty-one, and to one of the fellows passing the hors d'oeuvres trays, whom I knew from my AA home group at St. Paul 's. His name was Felix, and I didn't know his last name, and don't suppose he knew mine.

And we saw some people we recognized but didn't know, including Barbara Walters and Beverly Sills. The occasion was the opening of New York 's summer music festival, Mostly Mozart, and the cocktails and dinner were the festival's thank-you to its patrons, who had achieved that status by contributing $2500 or more to the festival's operating fund.

During her working years, Elaine made a habit of saving her money and investing it in rental property around town. New York real estate has been a can't-lose area even for people who do everything wrong, and she did most things right, and has done very well for herself. She was able to buy our apartment at the Parc Vendome, and there's enough income generated by her apartment houses in Queens so that, as far as money is concerned, neither of us needs to work. I have my work as a detective, of course, and she has her shop a few blocks south of us on Ninth Avenue, and we enjoy the work and can always find a use for the money it brings in. But if nobody hired me or bought paintings and antiques from her, we wouldn't wind up missing any meals.

We both like the idea of giving away a certain amount of what comes in. Years ago I got in the habit of stuffing ten percent of my earnings into whatever church poor box came along. I've grown a little more sophisticated in my giving since then, but I still find a way to get rid of it.

Elaine likes to support the arts. She gets to more operas and gallery openings and museum shows than I do (and fewer ball games and prizefights) but we both like music, classical and jazz. The jazz joints don't hit you up for contributions, they just call it a cover charge and let it go at that, but every year we write out a lot of checks to Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. They like to encourage us with perks of one sort or another, and this evening was one of them- drinks, a sit-down dinner, and complimentary orchestra seats to the opening concert.

Around six-thirty we went to our assigned table, where we were joined by three other couples, with whom we exchanged names and chatted amiably throughout the meal. If pressed, I could probably recall the names of most if not all of our table mates, but what's the point? We haven't seen them since, and they don't figure in the story. Byrne and Susan Hollander were not among them.

They were at another table, which I later learned was on the other side of the room from us. While I might have seen them earlier, it's unlikely that I laid eyes on them during dinner. Their seats for the concert were just two rows in front of ours, but at the extreme right of the center section, while we were toward the left. So, unless we bumped into each other on the way to the rest room during intermission, I don't suppose we would have seen them at all.

The meal was pretty good, the company at dinner pleasant enough. The concert was very enjoyable, and, true to its stated theme, leaned toward Mozart, including one of his piano concertos and the Prague Symphony. There was an orchestral suite of Antonнn Dvorбk's as well, and the program notes drew some connection between him and Mozart, or perhaps between him and Prague, Dvorбk being a Czech. Whatever it was, I didn't pay too much attention to it. I just sat there and enjoyed the music, and when it was done we walked home.

Did the Hollanders walk home? It's hard to know one way or the other. No cab driver came forward to report driving them, but neither did anyone recall seeing them on the street. They could have taken a bus, but no one reported witnessing that, either.

I think they probably walked. She was wearing heels, which might have lessened her enthusiasm for a half-mile hike, but they were both in good shape, and it was a perfect night for a leisurely walk home, not too warm, not too humid. There are always a lot of cabs after a concert, but there are even more people trying to flag one, even when the weather's good. It certainly would have been simpler for them to walk, but there's no way to say with certainty just how they got home.

When the concert ended, when the conductor had taken his last bow and the musicians walked off the stage, Byrne and Susan Hollander had something like an hour and a half to live.

Though, as I said, I can't know this, in my imagination they are walking home. They talk some- about the music they've heard, about something outrageous one of their dinner companions said, about the pleasures of walking on a night like this in a city like theirs. But they are silent much of the time, and the silences are companionable, of the sort known to long-married couples. They have been close enough for long enough so that a shared silence is as intimate as a shared thought.

Crossing the avenue, he takes her hand, even as she is reaching for his. They hold hands most of the way home.

Their house is a brownstone on the downtown side of Seventy-fourth Street, near the middle of the block. They own the house, and occupy the upper three floors; the ground floor and basement are leased to an upscale antique dealer. When they bought the place twenty-six years ago with the proceeds of an inheritance, it cost them a little over a quarter of a million dollars, and the antique shop rent was enough to cover their taxes and running costs. Now the property is worth at least ten times what they paid for it, and the store rent is currently $7500 a month, and covers a whole lot more than their tax bill.

If they didn't already own the house, they are fond of saying, they couldn't possibly afford it. His earnings as a lawyer are substantial- he was able to put their daughter through four years at a private college without taking out a loan, or even dipping into savings- but he couldn't go out and buy a three-million-dollar house.

Nor would they need that much space. She was pregnant when they bought the house. She lost the baby in the fifth month, got pregnant again within the year, and gave birth to a daughter, Kristin. Two years later their son, Sean, was born, and when he was eleven years old he was killed playing Little League baseball, hit in the head accidentally with a bat. It was a senseless death, and it stunned both of them. His drinking increased over the next year, and she had an affair with a friend's husband, but time passed and the wound healed and his drinking normalized and she ended the affair. That was the first real strain on their marriage, and the last.

She is a writer, with two novels and two dozen short stories published. Her writing is not profitable; she writes slowly, and her stories wind up in magazines that pay in prestige and contributor's copies instead of dollars, and her two novels, respectfully reviewed, had modest sales and are now out of print. But the work is satisfying beyond the rewards it brings, and she is at her desk five or six mornings a week, frowning in concentration, reaching for the right word.

She has an office/studio on the top floor where she does her writing. Their bedroom is on the third floor, along with Kristin's bedroom and Byrne's home office. Kristin, twenty-three, resumed living with them after she graduated from Wellesley. She moved in with a boyfriend after a year, then came back when the relationship ended. She often stays out overnight, and talks about getting a place of her own, but rents are sky-high and decent places hard to find, and her room is comfortable, convenient, familiar. They're happy to have her there.

The lowest of the floors they occupy, the second floor, is what brownstone residents know as the parlor floor, with larger rooms and higher ceilings than the rest of the dwelling. The Hollander house has a large eat-in kitchen, and a formal dining room that they have converted into a library and music/TV room. And there's the living room, with a large oriental carpet on the floor, Arts and Crafts furniture that's more comfortable than it looks, and a working fireplace flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The living room faces out on West Seventy-fourth, and the heavy drapes are drawn.

Behind those drapes, one in a large oak frame chair upholstered in tobacco-brown leather, the other pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, the two men are waiting.

The men have been in the house for over an hour. They entered just about the time Byrne and Susan Hollander were reclaiming their seats after the intermission, and they'd finished going through the house by the time the concert ended. They were looking for things to steal, and didn't care how much of a mess they made in the process, spilling drawers, overturning tables, pulling books off shelves. They found jewelry in a dresser drawer and a vanity, cash in a locked desk drawer and on a closet shelf, silver tableware in a chest in the kitchen, and objects of some value throughout the house. They filled a couple of pillowcases with what they'd selected, and these are in the living room now. They could have shouldered them and left before the Hollanders came home, and now, as one sits and the other paces, I can imagine them thinking of doing just that. They've already done a good night's work. They could go home now.

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