Murder Among Children – Chapter One


Three happy children came walking down the street from my right. They were chattering together in Italian, and waving their arms, and laughing at one another. As they neared me, one of them looked up and caught my eye and said something brisk and happy to me. I had no idea what he was saying, but the tone was cheerful and the smiles on all three faces seemed guileless, so I smiled back and said, “Hello, yourselves.” Then they passed me, the traffic light changed, and I crossed the street and walked deeper into the West Village, that part of lower Manhattan Island situated between Greenwich Village and the Hudson River.


I was now on Charles Street, west of Hudson; the address I wanted proved to be a block and a half farther on. Amid trucking company sheds and storage warehouses, four red-brick tenements were squared off together like pieces left over from a giant antique Monopoly board, and it was the last of these I wanted. It differed from the others both in its lack of a high front stoop and in the existence of a shop on the ground floor. The plate-glass windows flanking the shop entrance had been painted black, with white stick figures painted on to represent couples sitting at round tables, one couple and one table to each window. Above the doorway a wooden sign was suspended from a metal rod; against a black background it said, in wavery white letters:


I stood a moment outside, and looked around. This was a Sunday in late August, hot with the usual August humidity, the late morning sun beating down on a silent and deserted street. Except for these tenements there were no residences on this block, and none of the firms along here would be open today. Few people were out now anywhere in Manhattan; those who weren’t away on vacation were at the beaches or lying on beds in air-conditioned rooms. The subway I’d taken in from Queens had been almost as empty as this street.


When at last I pushed open the door and went inside Thing East, I thought at first that it too was deserted, empty except for me. It was a very dim room, made darker by contrast with the brightness outside. I stood just within the door, squinting, and tried to make out the interior.


The room was long and rather narrow. Both side walls were bare brick, liberally hung with large black and white photographs and larger abstract paintings. The ceiling was of old-fashioned tin, painted a dull black, and from it were suspended a number of amber globes containing low-wattage bulbs, as though someone had calculated to within a fraction of aluminum the minimum amount of light required to read a menu by. Three lines of small square wooden tables stretched down the length of the room, flanked by chairs of widely varying types, ranging from delicate filigree ironwork to the bluntest of wooden kitchen chairs. Centered on each table was a large full glass sugar dispenser, and next to each sugar dispenser were squat glass salt and pepper shakers. At the far end of the room was a waist-high counter, past which could be seen a brightly lit and apparently empty kitchen.


I stepped forward, put one hand on the back of a chair, and called, “Hello? Anyone here?”


I was answered by sudden movement at the far end of the room. From the last table in the right-hand row a man arose and came toward me, saying, “You want something, mister?”


My first impression of him was of a rough-hewn maleness. His hair was thick and brown, his face was dominated by a full shaggy brown mustache, and he was wearing black slacks and a maroon turtleneck sweater. A dirty white towel was tucked crosswise into the top of his trousers, apron-fashion, covering him from waist to thigh. His nose, above the Cossack mustache, was wide and flaring. He was tall, and seemed husky within the sweater.


But as he approached, the image began to crack and shatter, as in an accelerated process of decay, and I saw that he was much younger than I had at first supposed, no more than twenty or twenty-one, and his eyes belied the appearance of masculinity, being young and sullen and uncertain. He worked, like an actor on stage, only at a distance, but of course he was still young and he might yet grow into the part.


I said, “I’m looking for Robin Kennely.”


His expression grew guarded, and he said, “What do you want with her?”


I understood the expression, having seen it hundreds of times over the years. It meant that he had smelled the smell of cop on me and was prepared to protect himself and everyone he knew from me until the last bitter silence. When the New York Police Department had taken my badge away they had been unable to strip me also of that telltale scent; it entered every situation with me, adding irony to the intolerability of my life.


I couldn’t deny being a cop, however, since I hadn’t in so many words been accused of being one. But I could give this young man a different persona for me, so I said, “I’m a relative of hers.”


He looked at me in disbelief. “The cousin?”


“Second cousin, yes.”


“I thought —” He gestured vaguely, and looked over my shoulder as though someone behind me would resolve his confusion.


“Not all cousins,” I explained, “are the same age. Robin Kennely is my mother’s sister’s granddaughter. Is she here?”


“Sure. Upstairs. Up in Terry’s place.”


“How do I get there?”


“Come on through the back,” he said, and turned away, and said over his shoulder as he walked, “I thought you’d be a young guy. I don’t know why, I just got the idea.” There was nothing to say to that. We walked in single file down the long room and through a doorway on the right side into the kitchen, a wide shallow room all in white and aluminum, illuminated by garish fluorescent lights.


“The stairs are through that door,” the young man said, and as he pointed the door opened and Robin Kennely came through, smeared with great streaks of not-dry blood. The knife in her hand was carmine with it.


“There’s a certain thing,” she said, enunciating clearly in a high thin cold voice, and collapsed on the floor.


© Donald Westlake 2000