Or, at least, she did. That was before she left the pop-idol life behind after she gained a dress size or two—and lost a boyfriend, a recording contract, and her life savings (when Mom took the money and ran off to Argentina). Now that the glamour and glory days of endless mall appearances are in the past, Heather's perfectly happy with her new size 12 shape (the average for the American woman!) and her new job as an assistant dorm director at one of New York's top colleges. That is, until the dead body of a female student from Heather's residence hall is discovered at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
The cops and the college president are ready to chalk the death off as an accident, the result of reckless youthful mischief. But Heather knows teenage girls… and girls do not elevator surf. Yet no one wants to listen—not the police, her colleagues, or the P.I. who owns the brownstone where she lives—even when more students start turning up dead in equally ordinary and subtly sinister ways. So Heather makes the decision to take on yet another new career: as spunky girl detective!
But her new job comes with few benefits, no cheering crowds, and lots of liabilities, some of them potentially fatal. And nothing ticks off a killer more than a portly ex-pop star who's sticking her nose where it doesn't belong.
“Oh, hey,” Less Than Zero says, sobering suddenly. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Being assistant director of a dorm. And you’re not, like, offended I said that you look like Heather Wells, are you? I mean, I totally had all her albums. And a big poster of her on my wall. When I was eleven.”
“I am not,” I say, “the least bit offended.”
Less Than Zero looks relieved. “Good,” she says. “Well, I guess I better go and find a store that actually carries my size.”
“Yeah,” I say, wanting to suggest Gap Kids, but restraining myself. Because it isn’t her fault she’s tiny. Any more than it is my fault that I am the size of the average American woman.
It isn’t until I’m standing at the register that I check my voice mail to see what my boss, Rachel, wanted. I hear her voice, always so carefully controlled, saying in tones of barely repressed hysteria, “Heather, I’m calling to let you know that there has been a death in the building. When you get this message, please contact me as soon as possible.”
I leave the size 8 jeans on the counter and use up another fifteen minutes of my recommended daily exercise by running—yes,running — from the store, and toward Fischer Hall.
I saw you two
Kissin’ and huggin’
You told me
She’s just your cousin
If you want me
You gotta be true
So what does that mean
About me and you?
Performed by Heather Wells
Written by Valdez/Caputo
From the albumSugar Rush
The first thing I see when I turn the corner onto Washington Square West is a fire engine pulled up on the sidewalk. The fire engine is on the sidewalk instead of in the street because there’s this booth selling tiger-print thongs for five dollars each—a bargain, actually, except that when you look closer, you can see that the thongs are trimmed with this black lace that looks as if it might be itchy if it gets, well, you-know-where—blocking the street.
The city hardly ever closes down Washington Square West, the street where Fischer Hall is located. But this particular Saturday, the neighborhood association must have called in a favor with a city councilman or something, since they managed to get that whole side of the park shut down in order to throw a street fair. You know the kind I mean: with the incense guys and the sock man and the cartoon portrait artists and the circus-clown wire-sculpture people?
The first time I went to a Manhattan street fair, I’d been around the same age as the kids I work with. Back then I’d been all “Ooooh, street fair! How fun!” I didn’t know then that you can get socks at Macy’s for even less than the sock man charges.
But the truth is, it turns out if you’ve been to one Manhattan street fair, you really have been to them all.
Nothing could have looked more out of place than a booth selling thongs in front of Fischer Hall. It just isn’t a thong kind of building. Towering majestically over Washington Square Park, it had been built of red bricks around 1850. I’d learned from some files I’d found in my desk on my first day at my new job that every five years, the city makes the college hire a company to come and drill out all the old mortar and replace it with new, so that Fischer Hall’s bricks don’t fall out and conk people on the head.
Which is a good idea, I guess. Except that in spite of the city’s efforts, things are always falling out of Fischer Hall and conking people on the head anyway. And I’m not talking about bricks. I’ve had reports of falling bottles, cans, clothing, books, CDs, vegetables, Good & Plentys, and once even a whole roasted chicken.
I’m telling you, when I walk by Fischer Hall, I always look up, just to be on the safe side.
Not today, however. Today my gaze is glued to the front door of the building. I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get through it, considering the huge crowd—and New York City cop—in front of it. It looks as if, along with dozens of tourists who are milling around the street fair, about half the student population of the building is standing outside, waiting to be let back into the building. They have no idea what’s going on. I can tell from the questions they keep shouting to one another in an attempt to be heard over the pan flute music coming from another booth in front of the building, this one selling, um, cassettes of pan flute music:
“What’s going on?”
“I dunno. Is there a fire?”
“Someone prolly let their potpourri boil over again.”
“Naw, it was Jeff. He dropped his bhang again.”
“Jeff, you suck!”
“It wasn’t me this time, I swear!”
They couldn’t know there’d been a death in the building. If they’d known, they wouldn’t be joking about bhangs. I think.
Okay, I hope.
Then I spy a face I recognize, belonging to someone who DEFINITELY knows what’s going on. I can tell by her expression. She isn’t merely upset because the fire department won’t let her back in the building. She’s upset because she KNOWS.
“Heather!” Magda, seeing me in the crowd, flings a heavily manicured hand toward me. “Oh, Heather! Is terrible!”
Magda is standing there in her pink cafeteria smock and leopard-print leggings, shaking her frosted curls and taking long, nervous drags on the Virginia Slim she’s got tucked between her two-inch-long nails. Each nail bears a mini replica of the American flag. Because even though Magda goes back to her native Dominican Republic every chance she gets, she is still very patriotic about her adopted country, and expresses her affection for it through nail art.
That’s how I met her, actually. Almost four months ago, at the manicurist. That’s also how I heard about the job in the dorm (I mean, residence hall) in the first place. The last assistant director before me—Justine—had just gotten fired for embezzling seven thousand dollars from the building’s petty cash, a fact which had enraged Magda, the dorm—I mean, residence hall—cafeteria’s cashier.
“Can you believe it?” Magda had been complaining to anyone who would listen, as I was having my toes done in Hot Tamale Red—because, you know, even if the rest of your life is going down the toilet, like mine was back then, at least your toes can still look pretty.
Magda, a few tables away, had been having mini Statues of Liberty air-brushed onto her thumbnails, in honor of Memorial Day, and was waxing eloquent about Justine, my predecessor.
“She order twenty-seven ceramic heaters from Office Supply and give them to her friends as wedding presents!”
I still have no idea what a ceramic heater is, or why anyone would want one as a wedding gift. But when I’d heard someone had been fired from Magda’s place of work, where one of the job benefits—besides twenty vacation days a year and full health and dental—is free tuition, I’d jumped on the information.
I owe Magda a lot, actually. And not just because she helped me with the job thing, either (or because she lets me eat free in the caf anytime I want—which might be part of the reason why I’m no longer a size 8, except in vanity sizing), but because Magda’s become one of my best friends.
“Mag,” I say, sidling up to her. “Who is it? Who died?”
Because I can’t help worrying it’s someone I know, like one of the maintenance workers who are always so sweet about cleaning up spilled bodily fluids, even though it’s not in their job description. Or one of the student workers I’m supposed to supervise—supposed tobeing the operative words, since in the three months I’ve worked at Fischer Hall, only a handful of my student employees have ever actually done what I’ve told them to (a lot of them remain loyal to the sticky-fingered Justine).
And when any of them actually do what I ask, it’s only because it involves something like checking every single room after the previous residents have moved out and cleaning out whatever they’ve left behind, generally half-full bottles of Jägermeister.
So then when I get to work the next day, I can’t get a single one of them to come downstairs and sort the mail, because they’re all too hung over.
But there are a couple kids I’ve genuinely come to love, scholarship students who didn’t come to school equipped with a Visa that Mom and Dad are only too happy to pay off every month, and who actually need to work in order to pay for books and fees, and so will take the 4 P.M. — midnight shift at the reception desk on a Saturday night with a minimum of begging on my part.
“Oh, Heather,” Magda whispers. Only she pronounces it Haythar. She is whispering because she doesn’t want the kids to know what’s really going on. Whatever it is. “One of my little movie stars!”
“A student?” I can see people in the crowd eyeing Magda curiously. Not because she’s weird-looking—well, she IS kind of weird-looking, since she wears enough makeup to make Christina Aguilera look as if she’s going au naturel, and she’s got those really long nails and all.
But since it’s the Village, Magda’s outfits could actually be considered kind of tame.
It’s the “movie star” thing people don’t get. Every time a student enters the Fischer Hall cafeteria, Magda takes his or her dining card, runs it through the scanner, and sings, “Look at all the byootiful movie stars who come to eat here. We are so lucky to have so many byootiful movie stars in Fischer Hall!”
At first I just thought Magda was trying to flatter the many drama students—and there are tons, way more than pre-med or business majors—that go to New York College.
Then one Fix Your Own Sundae day, Magda dropped the bomb that Fischer Hall is actually quite famous. Not for the reasons you’d think, like because it’s on historic Washington Square, where Henry James once lived, or because it’s across the street from the famous Hanging Tree, where they used to execute people in the eighteenth century. Not even because the park was once a cemetery for the indigent, so basically all those benches and hot dog stands? Yeah, they’re sitting on dead people.
No. According to Magda, Fischer Hall is famous because they shot a scene from the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles there. Donatello or Raphael or one of the turtles—I can’t actually remember which one—swung from the Fischer Hall penthouse to the building next door, and the kids in the building all acted as extras, looking up and pointing amazedly at the stunt turtle’s feat.
Seriously. Fischer Hall has quite an exciting history.
Except that the kids who acted in the movie as extras have long since graduated and moved from Fischer Hall.
So I guess people think it’s weird that Magda is still bringing it up, all these years later.
But really, you can see how the fact that a scene from a major motion picture was shot at her place of work would be, to someone like Magda, just another of the many things that make America great.
But you can also see how, to someone who doesn’t know the story behind it, the whole “my little movie star” thing might seem a little… well, wacko.