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.
Which probably explained why so many people were looking curiously our way, having overheard her outburst.
Not wanting the kids to catch on that something was seriously wrong, I take Magda by the arm and steer her toward one of the potted pines that sits outside the building—and which the students unfortunately tend to use as their own personal ashtray—so we can have a little privacy.
“What happened?” I ask her, in a low voice. “Rachel left a message that there’d been a death in the building, but that’s all she said. Do you know who? And how?”
“I don’t know,” Magda whispers, shaking her head. “I am sitting at my register, and I hear screaming, and someone says that a girl is lying at the bottom of the elevator shaft, and that she’s dead.”
“Oh my God!” I’m shocked. I’d been expecting to hear about a death from a drug overdose or violent crime—there are security guards on duty twenty-four hours a day in the building, but that doesn’t mean the occasional unsavory character doesn’t manage to slip inside anyway. It is New York City, after all.
But death by elevator?
Magda, moist-eyed, but trying valiantly not to cry—since that would tip off the students, who are prone to dramatics anyway, that something is REALLY wrong (it also wouldn’t do anything much for Magda’s many layers of mascara)—adds, “They say she was—what do you call it? Riding on top of the elevator?”
“Surfing?” I am even more shocked now. “Elevator surfing?”
“Yes.” Magda carefully inserts the tip of a finely crafted nail at the corner of her eye, and dashes away a tear. “That is why they are not letting anyone inside. The little movie stars need the elevator to get up to their dressing rooms, but they have to move the—”
Magda breaks off with a sob. I put my arm around her and quickly turn her toward me, as much to comfort her as to smother the sound of her crying. Students are glancing curiously our way. I don’t want them to catch on that anything is seriously wrong. They’ll find out, soon enough.
Only they probably won’t have as hard a time believing it as I was.
The thing is, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Elevator surfing is a problem campus-wide—and not just at New York College, but at universities and colleges all over the country. Teenagers with nothing better to do than get high and dare each other to jump onto the roofs of elevator cabs as they glide up and down the dark, dangerous shafts. There’d been account after account of kids getting themselves decapitated in drunken dares.
I guess it was bound to happen at Fischer Hall sometime.
Except that Magda kept saying “she.” That a girl had died.
Which is weird, because I’ve never once heard of a girl elevator surfing. At least not in Fischer Hall.
Then Magda lifts her head from my shoulder and says, “Uh-oh.”
I turn to see what she’s talking about and suck in my breath real fast. Because Mrs. Allington, the wife of Phillip Allington—who last spring was inaugurated as the college’s sixteenth president—is coming down the sidewalk toward us.
I know a lot about the Allingtons because another thing I found in Justine’s files—right before I threw them all away—was an article clipped from the New York Times, making this big deal out of the fact that the newly appointed president had chosen to live in a residence hall rather than in one of the luxury buildings owned by the school.
“Phillip Allington,” the article said, “is an academician who does not wish to lose touch with the student population. When he comes home from his office, he rides the same elevator as the undergraduates next to whom he resides—”
What the Times totally neglected to mention is that the president and his family live in Fischer Hall’s penthouse, which takes up the entire twentieth floor, and that they complained so much about the elevators stopping on every floor on their way up to let the students out that Justine finally issued them override keys.
Aside from complaining about the elevators, President Allington’s wife, Eleanor, seems to have very little to do. Whenever I see her, she’s always just returning from, or heading off to, Saks Fifth Avenue. She is uncannily committed to shopping—like an Olympic track athlete is dedicated to her training.
Only Mrs. Allington’s sport of choice—besides shopping—seems to be consuming vast amounts of vodka. When she and Dr. Allington return from late-night dinners with the trustees, Mrs. Allington inevitably kicks up a ruckus in the lobby, usually concerning her pet cockatoos—or so I’ve heard from Pete, my favorite university security officer.
“The birds,” she’d once told him. “The birds hate your guts, fatty.”
Which is kind of mean-spirited, if you think about it. Also inaccurate, since Pete isn’t a bit fat. He’s just, you know. Average.
Mrs. Allington’s drunken verbal assaults are a source of much amusement at the hall’s reception desk, which is staffed round the clock by student employees—the ones I’m supposed to supervise. Late at night, if Dr. Allington isn’t home, Mrs. Allington sometimes calls down to the desk to report all sorts of startling facts: that someone has eaten all her stuffed artichokes; that there are coyotes on her terrace; that tiny invisible dwarfs are hammering on her headboard.
According to Pete, the students were at first confused by these reports, and would beep the resident assistants, the upperclassmen who, in exchange for free room and board, are expected to act as sort of house mothers, one per floor. The RAs in turn would notify the building director, who would board the elevator for the twentieth floor to investigate.
But when Mrs. Allington answered her door, bleary-eyed and robed in velour—I know! Velour! Almost as good as stretch velvet—she’d just say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, fatty.”
While behind her (according to various RAs who’ve repeated this story), the cockatoos whistled maniacally.
But apparently not as spooky to Mrs. Allington as it is to the rest of us, probably because she never seems to remember any of it the next day, and heads off to Saks as if she were a queen—the Queen of Fischer Hall.
Like now, for instance. Loaded down with shopping bags, Mrs. Allington is looking scathingly at the cop who is blocking Fischer Hall’s front door, and going, “Excuse me. I live here.”
“Sorry, lady,” the cop says. “Emergency personnel only. No residents allowed back in the building yet.”
“I am not a resident. “ Mrs. Allington seems to swell amid her bags. “I’m… I’m… ” Mrs. Allington can’t seem to quite figure out what she is. But it’s not like the cop cares.
“Sorry, lady,” he says. “Go enjoy the street fair for a while, why dontcha? Or there’re some nice benches over in the park there. Whyn’t you go relax on one till we get the all-clear to start lettin’ people in again, okay?”
Mrs. Allington is looking a bit peaked as I come hurrying up to her. I’ve abandoned Magda because Mrs. Allington looks as if she needs me more. She’s just standing there in a pair of too-tight designer jeans, a silk top, and tons of gold jewelry, the shopping bags drooping in her hands, her mouth opening and closing in confusion. She is definitely a little green around the gills.
“Did you hear me, ma’am?” the cop is saying. “No one’s allowed in. See all these kids here? They’re waiting, too. So either wait with them or move along.”
Only Mrs. Allington seems to have lost the ability to move along. She doesn’t look too steady on her feet, if you ask me. I step over and take her arm. She doesn’t even acknowledge my presence. I doubt she even knows who I am. Though she nods to me every single weekday when she gets off the elevator across from my office door on her way out to her latest binge—I mean, shopping expedition—and says, “Good morning, Justine” (despite my frequently correcting her), I suppose seeing me on a weekend, and out of doors, has thrown her.
“Her husband’s the president of the college, Officer,” I say, nodding toward Mrs. Allington, who appears to be staring very hard at a nearby student with purple hair and an eyebrow ring. “Phillip Allington? He lives in the penthouse. I don’t think she’s feeling too well. Can I… can I just help her get inside?”
The cop gives me the eye.
“I know you from somewhere?” the cop asks. It’s not a come-on. With me, this line never is.
“Probably from the neighborhood,” I say, with excessive cheer. “I work in this building.” I flash him my college staff ID card, the one with the photo where I look drunk, even though I wasn’t. Until after I saw the photo. “See? I’m the assistant residence hall director.”
He doesn’t look impressed by the title, but he says, with a shrug, “Whatever. Get ’er inside, if you want. But I don’t know how you’re gonna get ’er upstairs. Elevators are shut down.”
I don’t know how I’m going to get Mrs. Allington upstairs, either, considering she’s so unsteady on her feet, I’m practically going to have to carry her. I fling a glance over my shoulder at Magda, who, seeing my predicament, rolls her eyes. But she stamps out her cigarette and heads gamely toward us, ready to offer whatever aid she can.
Before she quite gets to us, though, two young women—garbed in what I consider standard New York College attire, low rider jeans with belly rings—come bursting out of the building, breathing hard.
“Oh my God, Jeff,” one of them calls to the bhang dropper. “What is up with the elevators? We just had to walk down seventeen flights of stairs.”
“I’m going to die,” the other girl announces.
“Seriously,” the first girl pants, loudly. “For what we’re paying in tuition and housing fees, you’d think the PRESIDENT would be able to invest in elevators that don’t break down all the time.”
I don’t miss her hostile glance at Mrs. Allington, who made the mistake of letting her photo be published in the school paper, thus making her a recognizable target around the dorm. I mean, residence hall.
“C’mon, Mrs. Allington,” I say quickly, giving her arm a little tug. “Let’s go inside.”
“About time,” Mrs. Allington says, stumbling a little, as Magda moves to take hold of her other arm. The two of us steer her through the front door to cries—from the students—of “Hey! Why do they get to go in, but we don’t? We live here, too!” and “No fair!” and, “Fascists!”
From the careful way she’s putting one kitten heel in front of the other, I’m pretty sure Mrs. Allington is already a little tipsy, even though it’s not quite noon. My suspicions are confirmed when the three of us pass into the building and Mrs. Allington suddenly leans over and heaves her breakfast into one of the planters in the front lobby.
It definitely looks as if Mrs. A. had a few Bloody Marys to go with her eggs this morning.
“Santa Maria,” Magda says, horrified. And who can blame her?
I don’t know about anyone else, but when I throw up (and, I’m sorry to say, it’s something I do regularly every single New Year’s Eve), I like a little sympathy, even if the whole thing’s my own fault.
So I pat Mrs. Allington on her padded shoulder and say, “There. Don’t you feel better now?”