“I have a gift for you, Lilith”
Samuel opened the leather bag very slowly. I could see that there was a small jewel inside, hooked to a matching chain.
“I know that you probably can’t wear this in public, but I still wanted you to have it; it has been in my family for generations now…”
I took the fine silver chain between my fingers, admiring the strange hexagonal star that shone under the sparkles of dawn. The church bells had already announced the beginning of the day. Young servants began to break the silence of all the streets and porches, transporting barrels of wheat and rye through the frozen stone pavers. Dulcinea, my mare, was becoming impatient; a long way back home awaited us. We first needed to make a stop by Barásoain before heading towards Javier.
“… and it’s important to me. My mother told me to give it to…”
But he could no longer finish his last sentence, as I had put my fingers on his lips. I was deeply moved. Samuel smiled and gently began to brush my cheekbones with his nose; my cheeks flushed instantly under his sweet touch. Yes, I did love that young freckled man of naughty dark curls and striking hazel eyes. And yes, I knew well what would happen next; what is more, I wanted it to happen…
… and yet, I have to confess that I was terribly nervous.
“I love you, Samuel Solomon.”
The operator arrived 10 minutes after Benjamin had hung up the phone. Without asking any questions, he went straight to the bedroom in order to (very diligently) take care of Bill (Billy) McGuire’s corpse. Ben grabbed the Irish gypsy’s sports bag and looked at the screen of the Apple Watch on his left wrist; it was almost 7 in the morning already.
“Let’s go to the living room to wait, Lilith. I’ve brought you a couple of presents from London…”
Ben placed Billy’s bag under the living room’s table and proceeded to delicately open his Barbour travel bag under the soft white light of the chandelier. I sat on the blue velvet sofa, excited and somewhat impatient. My beloved abba and his last-minute surprises…
“Well, first things first” – Ben exclaimed, handing me a heavy folder with satisfaction. I opened it with curiosity, exploring my new identity, embodied in a dark red European passport, a Chase Sapphire credit card and several business cards.
“Estíbaliz de Jasso. Born on June 22, 1990, in Pamplona, Autonomous Community of Navarra, Spain. Your parents own a small vineyard … not bad, right?” – it didn’t really matter that he was now 52 years old; Ben’s childish pride was still seeking my approval with fervor.
“… PhD candidate in cultural anthropology, Columbia University” – I giggled over those papers – “Is this a kind of joke, laztana? What kind of social pariah is still enrolled at university close to her thirties?”
“Ah, today’s youngsters grow up later and later, dear Lilith. That, and that today’s labor market is absolute bullshit, I must say. Politicians like to re-qualify this phenomenon as an “opportunity for life-long learning” – Ben accompanied this phrase with a quoted sign drawn with his two index fingers, in an effort to ridicule – “… but well, under all circumstances, I must admit you are quite lucky. You live from the family fortune while studying an area of human knowledge in total decline in 2019 Manhattan. That is, you live off your wits. Romantic, right? “
“Very much so. And speaking of romance, come sit here with me, dear. You are too far away.”
Ben obeyed like a puppy, running his left arm over my crystalline shoulders while rubbing my legs with the palm of his right hand at the same time. My body was beginning to cool down; I also observed how the tip of my curls was becoming reddish again. I snuggled back onto my dear Ben’s chest, carefree and happy, and continued to inspect the folder of emerald green color. Birth certificates, academic diplomas, false letters of recommendation, tax returns, airline ticket receipts, expired travel visas, utility bills …
“… press now the side button to turn it on. You’ll see how fun this is! Your phone number is listed on your business cards, and so is your email address.”
The awakening of my Google Pixel was the most wonderful event that I was going to witness since I had clicked on the very first window of the Internet search engine. My new mobile phone began to emit an electronic melody that, curiously, matched perfectly with the sound of the electric saw that was coming out from the bedroom.
“And last but not least…”
Ben rummaged through the pockets of his black pants and handed me a small glass bottle that contained a carmine potion. I shook the bottle to measure the pressure of the liquid and, dumbfounded, fixed my eyes on Ben’s. It’s not possible.
“I have to admit that Anboto is quite beautiful at this time of year. The lamias send you their regards, Lilith. Yes, they almost cut my head off when I first got into that lake of icy water, but…”
“Benjamin” – I did not know very well what to say next.
” Abba has trained me well, Lilith … take this gesture as a sign that you can really trust me. We could also use this bottle as an alternative option or as a lifeguard …” – his greenish eyes fixed on the bedroom door. No sound was coming from it any longer – “… in case some hunting mission is not resolved as planned”.
“I’m done here, sir.” – murmured the operator with a marked New York accent, while leaving my bedroom. He had a dark suitcase with the remains of Billy in hand – “I hope the cleaning goes well…”
“Thank you very much, sir. I will surely call you should anything else pop up” – Ben got up and walked him towards the hall. His hand had barely touched the front door’s knob when the sound of keys announced the routinary arrival of Gloria, my Caribbean maid.
“… good morning, ma’am; we will be in touch, sir” – the operator cleared his throat before disappearing.
“… G-good morning to you, as well. Mr. Solomon! What a surprise. The decorator called and …”
“Come in please, come in Gloria. You got up early today…” – Ben adjusted the collar of his shirt.
“Yes, Mr. Solomon, but there is a good reason for it. You see, I did not get to see Miss Estíbaliz yesterday and I started to worry about the impression that the girl could have taken of me. So I decided to come in earlier today to cook some arepitas for her. Please don’t tell me that the girl has already left the apartment … anyways, the decorator … “
“I am here, Gloria” – I had already stored all the documentation back in the Barbour bag. I got up from the sofa and walked towards the hall – “You can call me by my abbreviated name without hesitation, by the way. And thank you very much for the food offer, but please do not worry: I eat out quite often…”
[Trying to cook without knowing how to wash a sole dish had resulted to be a terrible mistake last night…]
“Excuse me miss Lilith, you see, Estíbaliz is a very nice name … a beautiful name for a gorgeous girl!” – Gloria left her bag on the living room table energetically. On the other hand, Billy’s sports bag was still on the floor, waiting for us expectantly like an anti-personnel mine about to explode – “Let’s clean up, then! Chévere, so as I was saying, that arrogant french lady called in relation to some bohemian mirrors… “- Gloria walked with a determined step towards the bedroom -” … and boy, I don’t know what bohemian really means but I took the message and … “
The maiden closed her mouth the moment she set foot on the oak floor of my bedroom. I took Ben’s hand and closed my eyes.
“Gloria” – Ben got rid of my hand to adjust the cuffs of his perfect white shirt – “… I wanted to make you a proposal, and I sincerely hope you accept it”
The Venezuelan turned around and left the bedroom, heading towards the hall slowly with a poker expression. Life had treated Gloria poorly, who at barely 40 years of age had a very worn out gesture already. Black and of strong complexion, her body had nothing to do with those of the ebony warriors that I had been able to admire at Equinox the previous morning.
“I knew, I knew, I already knew about all this …”
I felt a sudden surge of compassion towards her. Gloria, please accept the bribe. You see, I don’t want to hurt you. Ben had finished adjusting his fists and was already stroking the revolver under his jacket. No … we don’t want to kill you. Gloria approached us slowly. Seconds became minutes, and her footsteps became deaf shooting sounds in my head.
“… tell me the truth now, miss Lilith: where is the goat?”
I narrowed my eyes, bewildered.
“Yes, well, there’s a hell lot of blood in there, but no trace of the animal’s body. I will have to clean it, or do you want to eat it all by yourself? Be careful with that girl, you’re truly divine, but not particularly skinny… “
“Gloria, please listen to Ben now…”
“Miss, let it go, relax…I know that you are a witch. Yes, yes, niece of Mr. Solomon but still a little, naughty witch” – Gloria gave me two affectionate slaps on my left cheek “Pam, pam “, which resonated in each and every corner of the apartment on that quiet Sunday morning. I noticed how Ben was watching her, completely stunned – “You are too pretty and you have really strange eyes. Listen, Mr. Solomon! Don’t make any faces, please. Yes, I might be poor…but I’m not stupid.”
Gloria walked proudly towards the kitchen cabinet and pulled out a bottle of ammonia. She then proceeded to put on some silicone gloves with great grace and continued with her monologue towards the bedroom.
I noticed how, this time, it was Ben and not me who was looking for a hand to hold; we followed Gloria in absolute silence.
“From Barranquilla to Choroní, the female who drinks goat blood remains beautiful. My mom said it so, may she rest in peace. Good for you, Lilith!” – the maid had climbed onto the bed, from where she started launching pure jet ammonia in multiple directions – “… thank God Saint John’s evening happens once a year only, because if I had to clean this mess every week … I would then have to ask you for a very large salary increase, Mr. Solomon. “
Ben looked at me, holding back the laughter; I then noticed how my eyes were involuntarily filling up with tears already. We laughed out loud at the same time. Gloria started laughing as well, out of pure reflex. It was a truly delightful moment; Caribbean santeria would protect the life of our honest Gloria on that occasion. No bribery needed.
[Note for the future: do not bring preys back home ever again. As with one night stands, playing in a personal territory may often involve overexposing oneself unnecessarily.]
Ben let go of my hand and walked back to the living room – “Oy, oy, oy …” I took the opportunity to go find a rag at the kitchen to help with the cleaning. On my way back to the bedroom I found that my new maid had begun to dance provocatively among all the bloodstains – “Miss … imagine the face of the laundry boy … but no problem, I’ll take care of it, my cousin can help us … ” – I climbed up to the bed and we started jumping together to the beat, laughing together.
“Lilith” – a low voice, unknown to me until then, was calling me from the living room. I knew immediately what it was about: the McGuire killer’s notes. I jumped back to the floor and hurried to the living room, where I found a very focused Ben reading the notebook while wearing black paste corrective glasses. Almost as if he was a kid again.
“I have to go back to London. This is more serious than I imagined. I thought it would be a simple cargo issue, but there seems to be more … my name …”
“I get it.” – I held out his hand, helping him to stand up – “… surely the team will be able to provide us with some good clues to start working with. Don’t worry, laztana. Everything will be fine.” – I hugged him – “… have a good trip, and write to me soon with any news”.
“I’m glad you’re back, Lilith. Please be careful.”
I put my hand on his jacket, feeling the gun under it – “… you too.” Benjamin kissed my forehead, and grabbing Billy’s sports bag, left the apartment without wasting any more time.
I would not hear from him again up until 2 weeks later:
I hope you are enjoying the historic heatwave that plagues the city these days; the newspapers never cease to announce the end of this world. Sorry in advance that I haven’t written back to you up until now. Well, let’s get down to business:
1. Good news, the team has come up with a cord to throw from, and the cord happens to live in New York; you have all his data on the portal already. For our peace of mind, you have not been traced by the band (yet).
2. Bad news: we don’t know much yet, but we are dealing with an international network that enjoys high capitalization and a good investment level. These are not amateurs … we will have to be careful.
(1 + 2) In conclusion: we have to spy on this new cat very closely this time. Getting some useful information may take us a few weeks … to begin with, I’m locating the young man’s whereabouts in the city. The idea is to meet him casually in an informal environment to avoid raising any suspicions. I will write you back with the details once I have a plan figured it out.
(***) Very good news: I’m seeing you soon. How is everything going in the city? Has Gloria already cast a love spell on you? Please talk to me, I have left Vauxhall Cross a couple of times to shower (only) in order not to scare the lab’s kids off. Everyone here speaks perfect Chinese. They like to make me feel like a complete idiot.
Please take care of yourself,
I stretched out on the blue velvet sofa: Ben was still alive, and there was some progress on the matter. In this regard, there was no bad news to worry about … for now.
I entered the portal to review the new boy’s profile. Todd Lawrence was 30 years old and worked long hours for a venture capital fund. Born in Darien, Connecticut, and with an exquisite education in finance and business administration, the young man represented the best of America’s East Coast’s high society. Lacrosse State champion, treasurer for the Democratic youth association; he annually attended volunteering programs in Tanzania that combined perfectly with meetings with his boarding school peers in private hunting grounds. The criminal underworld always recruits the very best candidates.
Thank you for your email. It makes me very happy to hear from you. Perfect then, I will wait for your orders on this case. In the meantime, I will try to select a suitable dress for the occasion – we will speak about it, but I am very disappointed with the development of your aesthetic taste these past years. Speaking of aesthetics, please cut your peot loops and never dress in your religious attire when we are in public ever again. You’re supposed to be my uncle, after all …
The heatwave has been quite productive. I have been studying about the present during daytime (I already have my public library card with me) and I go for long walks in Central Park at night. You will like to know that Gloria is teaching me how to dance salsa – as positive feedback, I confess that I am very happy with your staff selection. The house is always (oh so) neat and the compliments about my physical appearance are incessant. And perhaps most importantly: her joy is truly contagious.
This summer is the summer of the anniversaries, it seems. Your generation lives from nostalgia, perhaps because it has access to fully-colored photographic memories to cling on, unlike previous generations. June had the Stonewall raids, July the landing on the Moon. August will have Woodstock and the epic murders of Charles Manson’s followers … I am very entertained observing how humans still like clean numbers that end in 0 very much, multiples of 5 in particular; Hitler’s assassination attempt was 51 years ago but nobody talks about it anymore.
Anyways, my dear Ben, I am enjoying this collective yearning – it reminds me of a time when you were small and happy, for the exhaustion of both abba and my very own. Although I must confess that I am a little worried about the growing tension between the commercial nature of these celebrations and the absolute lack of institutional support. As an example, I have received invitations to pride events of all kinds and types of brands (T-Mobile, Nordstorm, Coca-Cola, Delta, Macy’s, Mastercard, Hyatt … even from Con Edison, the electric company). At the same time, the social and political conversation is on fire, and President Trump does not leave Twitter at peace. I can observe many contradictions occurring in this 2019, but I still have so much to learn (… and much more to buy).
Please, send all my love to abba and tell him that as soon as we finish this mission I will kidnap him to go to Biarritz together, just as in the old days.
I love you, Benjamin Solomon. Now let’s get back to work.
Ben’s response reached me on the morning of July 13 via text message:
Lilith, I’m on my way to the airport. We’ll be returning to the New York opera tonight. There is a fabulous party for young patrons in the arts that we cannot miss … I hope my gray hair does not attract much attention (and please calm down, I have already had a haircut). Let it be known that I will also be missing the Sabbath tonight. The things I do for love…
Pick you up at 6:30 tonight.
Confirmed: Todd Lawrence will be there.
I opened the closet, sighing resignedly – “Gloria, please come help me …”
Jamie, Ben’s driver, was waiting for me downstairs behind the wheel of his black Mercedes exactly at 6:30 on Friday, July 13, 2019. I met the patriarch in the back seat; he was dressed in dark blue pants and was wearing a matching tweed jacket. His shirt was no longer white, but pinkish. I must confess that it gave me immense satisfaction to see how Ben was taking risky options that had nothing to do with the world of investment funds, mergers and/or acquisitions.
“You look beautiful in red, Miss de Jasso.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Solomon. I have read in a psychology manual these days that this is the best color to attract the attention of men. Hopefully, the infamous trick will work well on Mr. Lawrence tonight …”
“That’s how I like it, straight down to business. The performance season ended last week, but the MET’s board is still quite desperate to raise funds. Young people don’t like classical arts anymore …”
Jamie crossed the park through the 65th street pathway; we were heading towards the west side of the city.
“… although for some, the program is still an effective social status signaling strategy. In reality, young folks today are not educated to enjoy classical arts, so it’s not really their fault…”
“Did Abba ever take you to the ballet in my absence, laztana?”
Ben became silent. Above the trees, and in the near distance, the Dakota building, former residence of John Lennon, proudly stood in front of us. We were already on the west side of the city.
“Lilith …” – Ben cleared his throat – “… abba passed away a year ago. He … began to feel bad, and took his own life before everything got worse. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know how or when to tell you, and … “
An avalanche of emotions shook me inside. At that moment, and on the 42nd anniversary of the 1977 New York blackout that would leave over 9 million Con Edison customers without any power whatsoever, the west side of the island of Manhattan plunged into complete darkness. Jamie started shouting at the pedestrians who were crossing the streets under colorless traffic lights. I closed my eyes.
“I have decided to go away and rest for a while, laztana“
I had broken the silence with which we were observing the Rosetta Stone on that uneventful winter night.
“Oh well, I expected this. What happened wasn’t your fault, Lilith.”
I looked down. We walked hand by hand towards the west side of the museum, where the Egyptian mummies were placidly sleeping. He said nothing else but squeezed my left palm tightly instead. Dawn was about to begin in London.
“Saqqara, I guess. When are you departing? Benjamin will surely miss you …”
“Tomorrow … I think this time it won’t take me too long to return, though.” – I turned back and took him from the face with both my hands – “You will do an excellent job with the little one, I have no doubt. Now let’s go back home before they find us here.”
“… there’s something else, Lilith”
“My love …” – I took Ben’s face with both hands. I peeked a couple of tears in his eyes – “No, I’m not fine, but I will be… eventually… we knew this could happen. And you are ok. That was always the most important thing. For both abba and me. So now, let’s focus on our mission and let’s do some work.”
“Let’s do some work … there’s something else, Lilith.”
Jamie had opened the back door of the car. Holding my hand gallantly, he started helping me get out of it. I turned my head in Ben’s direction.
“Asko maite zaitut.“
The Revson fountain had a spooky look in full darkness. In the background, the majestic building signed by Wallace Harrison welcomed us in absolute silence – we were returning to the New York Metropolitan Opera, a place where I kept some of my most treasured memories of the crazy ’70s. Would the event be canceled by the blackout? I took Ben by the arm and decided to focus on how grateful I was to have him by my side again.
“Come on Lilith, you can do this. Everything is fine …”
We watched how the power suddenly returned to illuminate the opera just as we were crossing the main entrance hall. Control your emotions, control your emotions. We walked down the spiral stairs and found a group of young adults swaggering in their cocktail dresses and tailored suits while watching their surroundings nervously, glasses of champagne in hand.
“Shit, I had forgotten how there is always plenty of alcohol at wasps parties, but never any food. I’m heading to the bar …”
“I’ll wait for you here, uncle.” – I kissed Ben on the cheek and got lost in the crowd, who was dressed in a conventional (and very boring) palette of beige and blue colors. It didn’t take me too long to find Todd Lawrence. I had to blink twice; Todd reminded me quite a lot of both my brothers. Tall and large (6′ 3”, perhaps?), physically fit and extraordinarily handsome, young Lawrence turned away his perfect dark blonde hair from his forehead while happily conversing with a young, slender and elegant blonde woman who was wearing a striking dress full of pink fringes.
I did not know back then how that woman, whom Ben and I would later rename as “The Gazelle” would completely change my life in 2019.
“… but then what do you think, my dear Todd? What will increase at a faster pace because of this blackout: the fertility rate or the crime rate?”
“In Boston, they did not teach me merely to believe, my dear Courtney; they taught me how to measure facts well, above all ” – Todd spoke with the authority of a king while adjusting his round Oliver People glasses – “… tomorrow I will look up at the value of Con Edison in the stock market and I will get back to you… “
“Pardon me” – I interrupted the conversation and first focused my attention on Courtney (an old but effective hunting trick) – “… but I do like your dress. It’s very refreshing to see a touch of color at this party….could I have the name of the designer? “
“Vera Wang, and thank you very much, you are very kind!” – Bingo. Courtney was already delighted by my encouraging presence – “My name is Courtney Huth. He is my good childhood friend, Todd Lawrence. Our parents have been planning our wedding for decades …” – they both laughed in unison.
“What’s your name?” – Todd asked, almost affectionately. I was shocked. Young Lawrence had some strange hazel eyes, an unusual honey color I saw first in the streets of Pamplona back in 1609.
“I’m Estíbaliz of Jasso.”
“Es-ti…” – Todd was trying to pronounce my name correctly. The act seemed endearing to me at the time.
“You can call me Lilith. It’s really nice to meet you … both of you” – I diligently handed them two business cards, reserving a little more time to touch Todd’s hand in the process.
“Lilith, here you are” – Ben had returned from the bar with two glasses of champagne in hand – “… I see that you guys have already had the pleasure of meeting my niece. She needs new friends, because she is new to the city, and… “
“Uncle!” – I pretended to be ashamed. Todd looked at me sideways and winked at me with complicity. I noticed a pinch in my stomach.
“Delighted sir, my name is Todd Lawrence. Are you British?” – he asked, trying to save my pride – “… I travel to London quite a lot for work, and …” – my three companions looked up in unison. The light had just disappeared from the main hall, despite my best efforts to avoid this from happening. Ben tenderly scratched my back. The electricity would return to the building intermittently and capriciously a couple of times more until the organizers of the event would finally decide to evict us for security reasons.
Security? … Security for whom, exactly?
We decided to take a walk through the Lincoln Center area and plunged into a friendly and shallow conversation that would take us all the way to Columbus Circle. Courtney was feeling a little tired and Ben offered to drive her home; that gallant gesture would buy me a few more minutes to be with Todd Lawrence alone before going back home.
It was almost midnight. It’s almost July 14. We watched the neighbors and tourists of New York in total communion under the light of their wax candles, singing and enjoying the charm of the streets of Manhattan under some new lenses. The scene reminded me, inevitably, of the people of Paris celebrating in front of the Bastille castle at dusk. Todd’s low and melodic voice transported me to the palaces and parties I used to enjoy, to the frivolity of simpler yet fun times. I started feeling a bit better.
“There is a taxi, there!” – Todd exclaimed, making a signal to the driver- “It has been a pleasure to meet you, Es-tí-ba-liz …” – I smiled – “I’m flying to London tomorrow, but I will shoot you a text upon my return. It would be great to get together again soon.”
“Sounds wonderful” – I hugged him – “Have a good trip, Todd” – I said goodbye to him and opened the taxi door.
“… there’s something else, Lilith.”
I turned around; his mouth was already drawing the ever expected question. I still didn’t have an answer, but to my amazement, I was nervous. Todd crouched in the dark, his lips already caressing my cheeks, brushing them gently, testing my patience. That slight gesture was enough to shake me thoroughly and make me shiver inside.
“If you want me to stop Lilith, please tell me now…”
I remained silent. Todd smiled confidently. He then continued to brush his lips first onto my forehead, then on my eyelids, then over my almost transparent neck. I closed my eyes and inspired gently.
His lips had reached my collarbone. I expired. The young man raised his head and put his mouth over mine, trapping the air that came out of it.
I grabbed Todd from his perfect blue shirt with my two fists and pulled him urgently towards my lips; the rest of his words would die inside me. I groaned sweetly and pressed him against my chest full of passion, noticing the shape of his muscles, the warmth, and the hardness of his entire body. He groaned back from the bottom of his throat and wrapping me around his arms, pressed my hips against the taxi door. And that is how we melted together in a kiss that, at 12:07 of July 14, 2019, would return all the power to the west side of New York City.
And to my surprise, that night I did much more than not stopping Todd Lawrence.
I kissed him back.