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The dead girl lay beneath me. The pale yellow streetlamps shed just enough light to let me see her feet and legs clearly. Black heels and flesh-colored stockings faded into a dark form that curled into a fetal position. I wanted to look away, but I was here to observe. I blew on my fingers to warm them and began to take notes.
Finkel turned on his flashlight.
“This is aces,” he said.
She had sustained two bullet wounds, one in her forehead and the other in her midsection. Purplish bruises circled her neck. She wore a dark blue dress and a sleek, unbuttoned overcoat that I guessed was cashmere.
An open handbag lay a few feet from her body. Almost comically, her hat had remained on her head.
It was the middle of November in 1946. The war had been over for more than a year. With rationing at an end, people were buying whatever they could afford, although I suspected I was looking at a Manhattan society girl who was never denied anything.
She appeared to be in her twenties. The hair I could see was red, with permed curls that fell to her shoulders. Her features were pretty but too thin, as if she ate only half a meal a day. Her eyes were hazel and had the troubled glaze of a tortured soul who was, at last, at peace.
A smooth line of blood tracked down the alley toward the street. I wondered if I had stepped in it.
Finkel said he needed stuff from his car. This was gonna make a swell pitcher. He gave me his flashlight and told me not to move anything until he came back. Then he hurried away, threading through stacks of wooden crates stacked ten feet over his head.
I was left alone with the colored man who had called the city desk not more than fifteen minutes earlier. On the phone he said he was the night watchman at a warehouse on East 45th. That put him in Blood Alley, a grimy stretch of slaughterhouses, breweries and tenements wedged along the East River between the affluent enclaves of Tudor City and Beekman Place.
The watchman had told me that he found a body while he was making his rounds. He said he knew we liked to run pictures of that sort of thing. If we steered a little money his way, he’d tell us exactly where she was.
I was a rewriteman who was supposed to stay in the office. But nothing else was happening, so McCracken, the night editor, told me to take some petty cash and head to the scene with Finkel. His pictures would make the story, if there was one.
I hopped a bit from the cold as I wondered how such a proper-looking girl could have ended up in this part of the city. I asked the colored man if he had called the cops yet. He shook his head.
“What are you waiting for, Mr. --" I realized I didn’t have his name. I shoved Finkel’s flashlight under my arm and tried to scratch some more notes, but I could barely see the lines on the paper, much less what I was writing.
“Anderson. William Anderson."
“You prefer William? No nickname?”
“They’re undignified. When a man loses his dignity, he’s no longer a man." He paused, then smiled a bit. I saw a flash of a gold tooth. “We did talk about some money before, didn’t we?”
I had grabbed a fistful of bills from a metal box inside the top drawer at the desk where the copyboys sat. I had shoved the dough in my pants, but I didn’t know how much I had or should offer.
I removed a crumpled greenback from my pocket. I used Finkel’s flashlight to see what it was.
“That’ll do,” Anderson said as he snatched the money.
I heard Finkel approaching. He was carrying a makeup kit, a pair of nylons and a woman's hat. His camera was a Speed Graphic about half as big as he was.
I asked what he was doing.
“My props,” he said. “They make my pitchers look good."
I told him I thought we should call the police.
“They’ll just louse it up." He pointed his stubby fingers toward the dead girl. "Get rid of that," he said, gesturing toward her pillbox hat.
I said we shouldn’t disturb anything.
"You one of those by-the-book guys?” Finkel asked.
I said nothing. I’d never been to a crime scene before, but Finkel seemed to live at them.
“Listen up, Grimes. Lemme tell you something about by-the-book guys in newspapers." He paused, as if waiting for a drumroll. “At the end of the week, that book gets ‘em fired."
William Anderson was smiling a bit, no doubt amused by the bickering white men. “Let the man work,” he said to me.
Anderson removed the dead girl’s hat and tossed it behind a trashcan. I pointed the flashlight toward her face while Finkel fluffed out the hat he'd brought. He let it drop to the ground inches from her head. The wide-brimmed job was bigger than the hat she'd been wearing, so it would show up better in a photo. The picture itself would be more dramatic if the hat seemed to have fallen from her body.
Finkel scattered the lipsticks near the open handbag, then looked over the scene like an artist trying to figure out if his painting needed an extra dash. Nodding, he bent down and unscrewed the caps of two of the lipsticks and flicked them near her. Finally he took the nylons and slipped them halfway into the handbag.
"Why are you doing that?" I asked.
"Every dame I ever met carries nylons in her bag."
The dead girl struck me as the type who could afford stockings that never got torn. "I don't think she's like any dame you ever met," I said.
"Blow off, Grimes. I know how to make a good pitcher."
He spread his short legs (he was barely five feet tall), stood over her body and pointed the camera straight down. I heard a popping sound, followed by a flash that turned everything in front of me into blobs of purple and blue. When my vision cleared, I saw Finkel crouching close to her head. His camera stopped about a foot from her right ear. This time I covered my face with my hands.
Finkel walked a few feet away from the body, sprawled himself on the ground and pointed his Speed Graphic. The flash lit the night a third time. He clambered on top of a tin trashcan and shot her again before walking behind the body to take one more.
We all heard the sound at the same time: a faint wail that turned piercing within seconds. Finkel let out the longest string of profanity I'd heard since I got out of the Army. "Fucking cops,” he said. “They'll take the nylons. And the lipsticks. They'll say they're evidence, but they'll just give ’em to their girlfriends. "
He started shoving his stuff into his pockets. I pointed to the hat he had placed near the girl’s body.
"What about that?" I asked.
"Shit! Oh shit!"
"Better take it with you."
"You're finally using your noodle, Grimes."
The noise from the siren bounced between the brick walls of the warehouses, pushing everything out of my head except a desire for calm and quiet. Now it was my turn to display the extent of my vocabulary. I covered my ears and swore the way we all did when the German guns started up.
Finkel turned to Anderson and waved the hat around. “I’m in a jam,” he said. “Where can I stash this?”
Anderson motioned for Finkel to follow. They headed toward the far end of the alley. I began to go with them. Finkel gave me a sharp look of disappointment.
"You are the stupidest goddamn rookie in the history of newspapers," Finkel said. "You ain’t never covered a crime before, have you?"
McCracken had sent me out because I was the most expendable body in the newsroom. I was still on probation. I'd never had a byline and didn't even have a press tag.
“Go through her bag,” Finkel said. “Get an ID."
“But the cops -- "“Don’t be afraid of the cops. Be afraid of McCracken. He’ll give you the bum’s rush if you don’t know who that dame is when you get back to the office."
Anderson led Finkel into the shadows. The siren stopped. I got on my knees, turned the dead girl’s bag upright and plunged my hand into it, running through her carry-around possessions: a brush, a comb, a small nail file. Finally my fingers swept over something that felt like leather. I brought out a purse that was six inches wide, which I slid inside my coat. I stood up just as the high beam of a powerful light settled on my face.
I squinted deeply. Two dark forms that I assumed were cops stood near the street.
“Hands up! Back away from her!”
I was alone in an alley in one of the worst parts of New York, standing over a dead girl whose purse was in my possession. Finkel was right: I was the stupidest goddamn rookie in the history of newspapers.