WSPS: Part 2

The Woman in Simon Park Station


Officer Escobar (wants to . . . do something mysterious.)
The Woman in Simon Park Station (identity unknown.)
Larry (King of the Bums.)
Peter Hamlin (knows a new song.)
Louisa “Dizzy” Hamlin (aspiring jazz musician, film director, and criminal investigator.)
A number of other summer law clerks (impressed, but probably still not important.)
Officer Tang (lost her prey.)
Mom and Dad (two parents with unknown professions.)
Sourdough (a more sociable cat.)
Cicero (a less sociable cat.)
Rocky the Squirrel (free!)

Day 234:

The thunder of chugging wheels, the rush of wind through the tunnel, the screech of over-used brakes.

5:19. Time to get up.

The woman in Simon Park Station had no use for alarm clocks, with their revolutionary ideas and rebellious ways. She got up at the same time every day, except Sundays. At 5:19 the first train rolled in, its awful noise undampened by the sounds of human activity, for at that time—and for several hours before that—she was the only human there. They say that people can get used to even the most horrendous racket, that soldiers in the trenches learn to sleep through artillery barrages. The old woman could never sleep through the arrival of the first Downtown-bound Green Line train of the day.

She had a morning routine, like we all do. When the angry noise forced her eyelids open, she would first make sure the train was not coming straight for her, as it often did in her dreams. Then she would glance at the still-closed stands, in the hope that the mere memory of coffee might help to keep her awake. Then she would lay her head against the cold concrete of the pillar and fall immediately back to sleep, because there was nothing to do in Simon Park Station at 5:19 in the morning. On weekdays, the first Downtown-bound train was a sparsely attended affair. On Saturdays it was completely pointless, deserted, a ghost train (yet another image that she did not need invading her fragile subconscious).

The real wake-up call came about forty minutes later, when the first Outbound train came in from downtown. The 5:19 was just a train. The woman did not care about trains. She was only interested in passengers. Unlike the crack-of-dawn Inbound train, the super-early Outbounds usually produced a couple. Sure enough, here came a woman in her early 30’s wearing scrubs.

Here we go again, the old woman thought.

“Don’t you feel . . .”

With a shock nearly as strong as if that dream train had finally collided with her frontal lobe, the events of the previous day came back to her. The new strategy. The slap. The handcuffs. The boy and the Beherrschunglied. The extremely mediocre flute. Freedom. And most importantly . . .

“. . . will you agree to help me?”


The old woman experienced the joy of the worker who has just looked up and realized that her shift ended five minutes ago. She didn’t have to do this anymore. Her call had been answered.

“Don’t you feel,” she started again, smiling more brightly than any normal human should at just after six on a Saturday morning, “that it’s going to be a beautiful day?”

The doctor stared at her. Or, to be more accurate, she stared at a spot a couple inches to the left of her forehead. Or, to be even more accurate, she started at something that was not in Simon Park Station at all.

“I just got off the graveyard shift at St. Gregory’s,” she replied, with all the emotion of a cardboard tube. “A twelve-year-old kid came in. He and his friends were playing by the train tracks. His foot got stuck. A train came. We—we had to take his leg.”

“Oh.” The obnoxious smile vanished. Nightmares crept back into the old woman’s waking mind.

“No, they didn’t run,” the doctor continued, answering a question that had not been asked, at least not since she had gotten off the subway. “They tried to save him. I was going to either compliment them on their bravery or berate them for their stupidity, but I never saw them. They went straight to the morgue.”

The doctor stood there for a while longer, her face full of silent horror (inside her head, presumably, it was not silent at all). Eventually some instinctual urge must have convinced her to keep moving. She walked awkwardly out of the station, as if she was overly-conscious of her legs.

The old woman remained suitably dumbstruck for a while, but she was able to move on much more quickly than the doctor would. She told herself that nothing was going to get her down on that day, that it was the first day of the rest of her life, and whatever other positive platitudes she could think of. Without the task of constantly asking for help to keep her busy, she chose to spend her time simply taking in the organically woven tapestry that was Simon Park Station.

She watched her home for the past seven-and-a-half months go through a morning ritual not entirely unlike her own. Dragged to reluctant wakefulness at 5:19 sharp, it gradually became more and more active over the hours that followed. Small-time merchants came down the steps, unlocked their stands, and began to aggressively peddle their remarkably cheap (both in terms of price and quality) merchandise. A few more dead-eyed overnight shift people fell off the early Outbound trains, but soon the station was taken over by families. Parents representing the full spectrum of eagerness were dragged by children who had been driven to the peak of hyperactivity by breakfast cereal, early-morning cartoons, and the promise of a visit to the zoo or the aquarium. Finally, a flow of people getting off of trains developed to complement that of the ones getting on, and the place was truly in full swing.

God, she thought, this is so boring.

Since the woman was no expert observer of the human condition, she eventually fell to brooding. She believed that her search was over, but what proof did she really have? The kid had agreed to help her, but those were just words. She had heard a lot of words during her time down there, and she had seen very little action. And, just in case that wasn’t a big enough concern, there was always the matter of effectiveness. He could try to help all he wanted, but would he be able to do it? The trick with the squirrel had been surprisingly effective, but it didn’t instill her with a whole lot of confidence.

Maybe the doctor was right. Maybe doom and gloom was the only appropriate outlook for a day like that. If she had even one tiny shred of evidence to make her think that—

“Good morning,” said Peter, standing above her.

“I didn’t expect you to come back so soon.” The woman tried to act nonchalant and conceal her happiness, but she didn’t do a very good job of it. She hadn’t had anything to be happy about in a long time.

“I was out and about anyway.” Despite his strong desire to remain comatose, Peter had been unable to resist the summons to Friday Night Family Dinner. For one thing, he had said he would be there, and Peter Hamlin did not go back on his word—unless he had a very good reason, or the word was ambiguous in the first place. Also, after the phone call he realized that he had not eaten anything since the half a bowl of Caffeinated Cereal Catastrophe that morning. So he dragged himself out of bed, lurched over to Carmine Street, and headed home for the second time that day. He was greeted energetically by Sourdough, rather coolly by his human family members (who were impatient to eat), and not at all by Cicero.

After everything that had happened, however, he was unable to stomach the thought of yet another subway ride, so he decided to crash at his parents’ house for the night.

“I thought you could use something to eat,” he continued, reaching into a small paper bag and producing a muffin. It was smaller than the last one she had been given, dotted with one of those berries with a name you think just has to be made up, like the nannyberry. The top was a swirl of golden brown and a deeper, more granulated brown. It was no longer warm, but even so the smell was at the same time both heavenly and devilish.

The woman couldn’t stop smiling. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had to work her cheek muscles so much. “Why do you people keep bringing me muffins?”

“What?” Peter was still only really familiar with the woman’s bitter, aggressive side. He wasn’t sure why anyone else would go out of his way to bring her breakfast. He wasn’t sure why he was doing it either. “Who else brought you a muffin?”

“Oh . . . I don’t know, actually. It just sort of appeared one day.”

“. . . and you ate it?”

“Yeah. Listen, when you’re trapped somewhere for a long time, you do a lot of stupid things.” Then, either because she wanted to avoid going into a list of those things or because she didn’t want to admit that she had eaten the mystery muffin after only having been down there a week, she took a bite. It had a kick, more of a kick than muffins should really be allowed to have. But it was the exciting, invigorating kind of kick, not the “Ohymygodwhereismywater?” kind.

“Fanks,” she said, chewing. “Buh I fough you be cahing up on yo seep?”

“I did. I went to sleep right after dinner.”

Well, almost.

* * *

Peter’s mom had no objection to him spending the night, because it is the secret goal of every mother to get her children to spend as many of their hours as possible under her roof. As soon as dinner was over, she set about fixing up the living room couch for him. Peter’s old room had been converted into what his father called a “study,” which was basically code for “book storage.” His father owned more books than some small libraries; storing them was a never-ending, Sisyphean battle. His mother—who had nothing against books, per se—would always try to get rid of some at garage sales, but Dad would always snatch them up before anyone else could get their hands on them (really, it was a doomed strategy to begin with, because the average garage sale patron would have no interest in the kind of books he tended to collect).

“But you haven’t read that one in thirty years!” Mom would cry. Dad would just give her a look to say that she had completely missed the point.

Peter’s sleeping in the living room immediately after dinner did not present a problem either. Mr. and Mrs. Hamlin were both believers in the “Early to bed, early to rise” system, and it had ended up being a late meal anyway. Dizzy’s schedule was considerably more irregular, but she was going out with her friends. She did not go out directly, though.

“You lied to Mom.”

Peter was lying on the couch, scratching Cicero, who was making a rare appearance. Earlier in the day he would have been in no mood for this kind of banter, but dinner had refreshed him. “What do you think I lied about?”

“Any number of things.” Dizzy was leaning on the back of the couch; her preposterous amount of hair was draped down onto it. A casual flick of her head would easily have sent Cicero scampering back to the safety of the basement. It might even have knocked Peter clean off the couch. “Your saying that you were late to dinner because you were stuck at work didn’t have a lot of verisimilitude. But I’m talking specifically about why you borrowed her flute.”

The flute had not been a subject of major inquiry at the dinner table. Mom had started off by telling him that he looked like he wasn’t eating or sleeping enough (and, on this particular occasion, she was quite right). Then she had demanded—politely, of course—an explanation for his lateness. Much later on, and quite casually, she had inquired regarding the whereabouts of her flute. Equally casually, Peter had responded that he felt the sudden urge to try playing again, and that he was considering taking lessons, and that he had borrowed the flute to practice a little, so as not to completely embarrass himself in front of a new teacher.

“Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with lying to your parents,” continued Inspector Dizzy. “I certainly do it all the time. It’s how the system works. But I don’t think it’s fair to let you go around thinking that you’re actually getting away with it.”

“Mom seemed to take me at my word.”

“She’s your mother. It’s her job. She’s been pretending to take you seriously since before you knew how to talk. I don’t think she believed you any more than I did. She just was too polite to say anything about it.”

“Whereas you, clearly, are not.”

“No such thing as politeness between siblings.”

“Nor honor among thieves.” The average person, when caught in a lie, thinks he has two options: cover it up with another lie, or give up and tell the truth. A cleverer person knows about option three: cover up the lie with truth. “I needed the flute to help a friend.” Okay, so the “friend” part may have been a bit of a stretch, but the rest was true.

The mountain of hair shifted. Cicero skedaddled. “What kind of friend could you help by playing the flute for him?”

Peter decided not to comment on the “him.” “So I’m really that awful, huh?”

“I never said that.”

This was true. In all their years of good-natured (well, largely good-natured) sibling rivalry, Dizzy had never once insulted his musical talent. Peter’s decision to give up on the flute was more about what people didn’t say than what they did.

Rather than thank his sister for her years of silent support—or at least, years of not actively trying to sabotage his confidence—he decided to go with another obscuring truth: “Did I say anything about playing it?”

* * *

“Besides,” Peter added, “who could sleep when they had just learned that there are magic songs that can control people’s minds?”

“Is that sarcasm?”

“It’s . . . not entirely sarcasm.”

While he slept on the fold-out couch in his parents’ living room, Peter had had a dream. He dreamt that he was in Paris. The setting of the dream was quite clearly the alleyway behind his old dorm, but for some reason in the dream he thought—no, he knew that it was Paris. He was talking to David, who had been his friend in the third grade and whom he had never seen since. David left, and all of a sudden Peter realized that he had something very important to tell him, so he ran after him. While he ran, someone said, “Look out! There’s a fire!” Peter turned, and saw smoke in the distance, and he immediately thought, That’s not Uncle Jim’s house. (Naturally, there was no sensible reason for Peter to think that Uncle Jim’s house would be on fire. Nor was there any reason for him to think that he had an uncle named Jim.) Peter passed the Eiffel Tower, which had a large clock on it. The clock read 3:57 AM. Then Big Ben started ringing, and Peter thought, I bet I’m about to wake up. Then he ran for a while longer. Then he woke up.

When he had collected his thoughts, Peter decided that, after all the interesting things that had happened to him the day before, it was really stupid of him to have had a dream like that.

“So are you going to be carrying that around all the time now?” the woman asked, pointing to the flute—out of its case, already assembled—in his right hand.

Peter spun the flute absent-mindedly. “You never know when you’re going to need to summon the squirrels of Simon Park to your aid.”

“Now that was sarcasm.”

“Yes. One hundred percent.”

“So . . . what’s Simon Park like, anyway?” The woman cast a reflexive glance toward the stairs.

Peter was temporarily torn. Reassure her by telling the truth? Or would the knowledge that the world above ground wasn’t so hot either break her mentally?

“It’s a park,” he said with a shrug. Ever the strategic liar.

She nodded. “It’s just a little odd that I’m called ‘The Old Woman of Simon Park Station’ and I’ve never even seen Simon Park.”

He chuckled. “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“You’re sealed in a subway station by an invisible, inexplicable force, you assault and then teach strange musical hypnosis techniques to strangers, and that’s what you think is odd?”

The woman smiled. It was good to talk to someone. Not to pitch him on a quest or try to explain herself: just to talk. But talk wasn’t going to get her out of there. “Don’t forget: I eat mystery muffins. Odd is in the eye of the beholder. Now did you come here to offer me treats and make small talk or did you come to discuss business?”

“Both.” Peter looked at the ground, hesitated, and then sat down anyway. He was still wearing the grungy clothes he had changed into to go home for dinner: no great loss. “When I start a new job, I like to find out what I’ll be doing as soon as possible.”

* * *

“So, are you going to tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“What you were really doing with Mom’s flute yesterday, of course.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be meeting your friends?”

“There’s no rush. Most of them have older siblings, too. They understand that it’s important to take some time out of every day for harassment.”

“How about I list all the things that I didn’t do with the flute, and you can figure it out from that?”

Peter had no intention of telling Dizzy what really happened to him that day. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, or that he was afraid she wouldn’t believe him; on the contrary, he was a little worried that she would believe him. They just weren’t that close. They got along well, they teased and they bantered, but it’s hard to have an “I tell you everything and you tell me everything” sibling relationship when you’re six years apart in age, especially when there’s no domineering older sibling against whom it becomes necessary to join forces and bond.

“That sounds pointless and potentially disgusting,” she said, glancing at her watch. “And ordinarily I would be all for it, but you’re right; I don’t have the time.”

“You’re just going to let me get away with it? I could be using this flute to commit crimes or something.”

“They’re not crimes if you don’t get caught,” she answered coolly, leaving Peter to wonder what exactly his little sister was going out to do on a Friday night. He was also briefly distracted by the image of the old woman in handcuffs, preventing him from getting in the last word. The honor thus fell to Dizzy. “But I don’t think you could be getting in too much trouble. You are my brother after all. Just remember: if you break that flute, Mom’s going to be really disappointed.”

He thought of Mr. Abrahamson and his inaudible fury. For most people, disappointment was a tame, barely noticeable emotion. In the hands of some, however, it was a devastating, soul-crushing force.

* * *

“Like I said yesterday, you need to break me out of here. And, as I demonstrated yesterday, that’s not going to be so easy.”

“Sorry about that.” Peter didn’t know if a muffin was an appropriate way to apologize for making someone run into an invisible wall. It wasn’t a situation he found himself in often.

The woman chuckled. “At least you only had me do it once. You have no idea how many times I tried it before I believed.”

“And this jailbreak,” Peter said, gazing at the old flute as if it were something completely unfamiliar. “It’s going to involve some sort of song with weird, inexplicable powers, isn’t it?”

She watched him closely for signs of sarcasm before proceeding. “How did you know?”

“Otherwise you wouldn’t have bothered teaching me one yesterday. It was a pretty ridiculous plan. There were any number of simpler ways to get you out of those handcuffs, and you had hours to think of one. But you decided to go with the preposterously complicated strategy because you knew that I would need to become familiar with this sort of thing anyway, and also as a test to see if I could handle it.”

She grimaced and decided not to tell him that she really hadn’t been able to come up with a better idea. “You’re a lot smarter today than you were yesterday.”

“Anyone’s smarter when they’ve had time to think things over,” he replied drily.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. I’ve had all the time in the world to think about my situation, and as you can see, I haven’t made a lot of progress.”

“And why is that? You say that music is the way to escape, and music seems to be your field of expertise. So why are you still here?”

His tone was casual, but his questions had a strong, demanding force to them. He seemed so different from the helpless youth of the day before that the woman was put on guard. The interrogation wasn’t outright unpleasant, but it was a little unnerving.

“There are two reasons, I think.” The woman spoke very hesitantly, afraid of stretching the belief of her only potential helper to the snapping point. She wasn’t quite sure why she believed these things herself. “Keep in mind that I don’t know who put me down here or why, so I’m sort of guessing, here. But the first reason’s obvious: I don’t know the right song. There’s a lot of music out there that can . . . affect the world in ways beyond the ordinary, and I know . . . more of it than I can remember offhand. But I sure don’t know any ‘Subway Station Escape Song.’”

“And you think that I do?

“I think that someone does. But you can work on that later. Because the other problem, I think, is that we’re going to need more people.”

Peter frowned. Part of the reason he had agreed to help was that he had naively believed that no one else would have to know about it. “How many more?”

“I’m not sure. But I do know that some songs are too potent to be performed by one person. Whatever’s holding me in here is a doozy. I don’t think a solo number’s going to cut it.”

“And where do you suggest I find these other band members?”

* * *

“Hey, Dizzy. I was wondering . . . I mean, if you had the time . . . would you be interested in helping me out with something? Playing your trumpet, that is. It’s no big deal or anything, but I need some musicians for this project, and . . .”

Of course Peter didn’t actually ask his sister. He didn’t learn that he would need to look for additional musicians until the following morning. But even if he had known, he probably wouldn’t have asked her. It may have been partly out of jealousy and a desire to not be overshadowed. Deep down he understood that any halfway competent musician would be better than him, but . . . he just didn’t want it to be his sister. On the other hand, even Peter had enough musical sense to realize that flute and trumpet would make a pretty poor duet combo.

* * *

“I don’t know. That’s up to you. You’re the one with all the freedom, here.”

“You’re going to be playing that card a lot, aren’t you?” Peter said, grimacing.

“Hey, my deck only has one card. But don’t worry about it. I’m sure you can find people. You seem resourceful.”

Peter shook his head. “First I’m smart, now I’m resourceful . . . I don’t know what you’re basing all these claims on.”

“I’m basing them on the fact that if you’re not these things, then I’m going to stay stuck down here.”

“So . . . no pressure, then.” Peter stared at the ceiling. It wasn’t quite yellow, it wasn’t quite brown, and it wasn’t quite white, but it was certainly unpleasant-looking. He wasn’t afraid of pressure—was he?

“You said you have a large repertoire of songs with mysterious powers,” he said. “What are some of them?”

The woman suddenly felt tired. It was a tiredness that had nothing to do with sleep or the lack thereof. A week ago she would have thought that she’d be overjoyed to spend hours talking to someone who actually wanted to hear what she had to say, to explain in detail every aspect of her proposed escape plan and, really, her life in general. But in actual practice, it was just tiring. The kid was relentless with the questions, and she found there was actually a lot that she didn’t feel like explaining. There was also a lot that she couldn’t explain.

“I don’t know. There are hundreds, maybe millions of them.” Out of those potential millions, the one she had thought of most over the preceding months inevitably came to mind. “Like, suppose there’s a song that you associate so strongly with a particular place, it’s almost like they’re the same thing inside your head. You hear the song, and all of a sudden it’s as though you’re actually in that place; you smell the smells and see the sights perfectly clearly in your mind. Well, from there, it’s not much of a stretch for playing or singing that song to physically take you there, now is it?”

“You’re saying the song can teleport you?”

“I don’t know what the scientific term is, but one second you’re in one place, and then the next, you’re there.”

“It could be any sort of place?”

“Pretty much. Any spot you have a particularly strong emotional connection to.”

“Could you teach me one of them?”

The woman’s irritation level was gradually rising. “That’s . . . not the kind you can teach. It’s kind of a personal thing.”

“Well, what’s one you can teach me?”

She scowled. “Look, I don’t think I should be teaching you anything right now. Your job is to go find musicians. Surely you don’t need a magical song to do that. Besides, you’re not ready. You think this is something you can just leap into headfirst? It could be dangerous.”

“Says the woman who threw me into the deep end yesterday by all but forcing me to learn a song that can control people’s minds.”

“That was . . . come on, that was different! I was desperate!”

“Aren’t you still?” Peter stood up and looked down on her. It was a very basic trick, but a good lawyer will use any advantage, including height, to get the upper hand on a witness. “According to your plan, I—along with some group of mystery people to be named later—am going to have to perform one of these songs. I think I proved yesterday that I’m not very good right now. I need the practice. And unless you want me going around working on the Beherrschunglied, which sounds pretty dangerous to me, you’re going to teach me something else.”

“I don’t feel like it,” she said, groaning. “Come back tomorrow.”

He crossed his arms. “I can wait just as long as you can.”

It was an absurd statement. The old woman had literally waited more than seven months just to meet someone. This was longer than Peter Hamlin had waited for anything in his entire life. And yet . . .

“You’re not going anywhere, are you?”

“You can add ‘persistence’ to that list of traits I may or may not possess.”

“Fine.” She scowled again as she tried to think of the most meaningless thing she could teach him. “Here, learn this; it’s absolutely pointless.”

“I’m so glad you decided to be so helpful.” But he knew when to compromise. Peter raised his flute to his lips and waited.

The image of the loyal pupil forced the woman to back off a little from her cantankerousness. “I mean, it might not be totally pointless. It’s something that just came to me a few months back. But I can’t ever figure out if it does anything, because every time I try to sing it, a train pulls up and interrupts me.”

He glanced over at the empty platform. “Haven’t you ever thought that maybe the song is what’s making the trains arrive?”

Something about being down here all the time must be making me stupider, she thought. Maybe it’s the bad air. “Oh. Hey. I bet you’re right. Well, sounds pretty useless to me, but since you’re so eager to learn, here goes.”

The shapeless pile of rags that was the woman’s body expanded slightly, her cracked lips parted, and then a sound that made those images seem even uglier in comparison emerged. It was a gentle, faintly mournful tune that in no way called the image of a speeding subway train to mind. It was the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. Peter tried to tell himself that he hadn’t put up the fuss about wanting to learn simply to hear her sing again. He was not entirely convinced.

And, right on cue, in the middle of a phrase, a train pulled into the station.

“There you go,” the woman said, after the mechanical shrieking had cut out. “Practice that. Just don’t do it while you’re standing on any train tracks, I guess.”

Peter nodded. Years of having to memorize songs for band had given him an excellent memory for tunes, and this one wasn’t especially complicated, so he didn’t need her to go through it more than once. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers along the flute once without blowing. “Thanks,” he said, lowering the instrument. “Now then, I suppose I’d better let you get back to . . . whatever it is you do here.”

The woman laughed unpleasantly. Peter started to walk away, but then he paused and turned back. Oh great. What now? “One last thing. I realized that I went through all of yesterday without ever introducing myself. I’m Peter Hamlin.” He extended a hand.

She took it. Her hand was not as unpleasant as he had expected. Then again, his only previous contact with her hands had been when they were either twisting his arm or striking his cheek. “Nice to meet you,” she said. I hope, she added silently.

Peter stopped shaking and frowned. “Um, this is the part where you introduce yourself.”

She smiled. It was an extremely fragile smile, like a suspension bridge made out of toothpicks, or a skyscraper made of playing cards, or anything else that could collapse from a slight change in the wind. “People call me the Old Woman of Simon Park Station.”

“And what do you call yourself?”

“I call myself ‘me.’ Or sometimes ‘I.’”

“You know what I mean.”

The Old Woman of Simon Park Station sighed and looked down at her lap. “I really don’t.” Her possible train-summoning song had been slow and sad, but her tone of speech now made it seem like a five-year-old’s birthday party in comparison. “I don’t remember my name. I don’t know who I am, or where I came from. I don’t remember anything before I showed up here.”

She expected another barrage of questions from her interrogator, questions she had pointlessly asked herself time and time again. But instead she just heard him say, “Okay.” She looked up to see him headed back toward the exit, but he stopped one last time. “If you don’t remember where you came from,” he said gently, “how do you know it wasn’t worse than here?”

“Worse than here?” She looked around at the noisy children, the bedraggled parents, the humorless faces of people who had to go into work on a Saturday. She heard the subway doors bump roughly shut and the train pull out of the station for the twentieth time that morning. She smelled bad coffee and oil and a number of things even grosser than that. Simon Park Station was a world without sunlight, a world without music, a world without hope.

“That’s not possible.”

* * *

Escobar didn’t know what a jib was, but he liked the cut of Peter Hamlin’s.  He approved of the move of bringing the old woman a muffin, which he immediately recognized by sight and by smell as a Gingerberry Jazz (since the previous fall he had expanded his dining options at the Dough-Re-Mi.  He had even eaten a scone once or twice.)  He thought that the kid’s handling of her was firm but fair; like a champion jockey, he seemed to know when to push and when to pull back.  Most of all, though, he appreciated the fact that Peter’s presence was getting the woman to reveal the mystery of who she was and what she was doing there.

Escobar wasn’t really supposed to be there.  Mrs. Escobar was under the impression that he was out grocery shopping.  Plus, if he were to be recognized by either the woman or the kid, it could lead to a lot of awkward questions.  Fortunately, he had the perfect disguise: a police uniform.  Or rather, the lack of a police uniform.  In Escobar’s experience, when he was in plainclothes he could walk straight up to someone he saw every day while on duty, say “Hello,” and still not be recognized.  It was better than Clark Kent’s glasses.

But even if he had been in uniform, even if he had been on duty, even if his radio was telling him to get to the other side of town on the double or risk losing his badge, he still would have been down there.  Although he had given up on ever finding out the woman’s secret, he had never truly forgotten about her.  He had to know.  And now that he knew, he had to help.

After listening to their conversation, Escobar had an idea.  It was a wild, foolish idea.  It would never work in a thousand years.  It would irritate his wife, possibly cost him his job, and in all likelihood accomplish nothing.  But he was going to try it anyway.

Despite this mad plan, Escobar might have been comforted to learn that he was at worst the second-craziest person in Simon Park Station that morning.

* * *

Renewing observation.  Must discover secret behind suspect’s remarkable ability to resist arrest.  Have consulted with lab technicians, local science teachers, and radio psychics, but they refuse to take me seriously.  The only solution is constant vigilance.  Everyone slips up eventually.  Even me.

Officer Tang had no choice but to admit that she had not merely “slipped up” but very nearly jeopardized the whole operation.  She had underestimated her opponent.  The woman’s disguise was good, she had to give her that; what officer wouldn’t think that arresting a fragile old woman would be no more than an afterthought?  And therein lay the beauty of it.  Officer Tang had spent so much time deciding why she would be arresting the suspect that she hadn’t been able to spare a moment to figure out how.  But she would not be making that mistake again.

Actually, Officer Tang was not supposed to be there, either.  After the judge had refused to dignify her suggestion to dispatch the National Guard—along with various other more ridiculous requests—with a response, the captain had called her aside and told her in no uncertain terms to take Saturday off.  But she had not taken a day off of anything (work, school, crossing guard duty) since Reagan was president.  The concept was entirely foreign to her, like the details of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, or the words “inadmissible evidence.”  She was not about to start now.

Like Peter, Tang had spent a lot of time thinking since the previous day.  Unlike Peter, she had spent very little time sleeping.

11:13:42 AM: contact made.  Conspirator is tall, blond, mid-twenties, clean-shaven, hatless.  Offers suspect a bag containing some variety of baked good (cupcake?  cookie?  Is this relevant?).  In previous observations, have seen passersby give suspect advice, money, garbage, pamphlets, political campaign buttons, pieces of paper containing the words “Here, you throw this away.”  Cannot recall suspect ever before receiving food.  Need to consult past notes.  Is this evidence of a more significant connection?

She wished she could hear their conversation, but she was standing considerably farther back than she had on her previous investigations.  By showing herself to the suspect before she had adequately prepared to make the arrest, Officer Tang had tipped her hand.  This time around she would be playing things much closer to the vest, which in her case meant that she would probably be playing inside her vest.

Now, to be fair, Officer Tang had been very focused on the old woman on Friday, and for every day before that.  She had developed extreme tunnel vision, to the point where she could see only the suspect and those who came into direct contact with her—and even those she could only make out vaguely.  So it’s probably forgivable that it took her ten whole minutes to recognize Peter as the man who had gotten slapped the day before.

And then everything clicked.  She knew what she had to do.

The slap had clearly been a ruse, designed to convince her that these two were no more in cahoots than any other two random subway passengers.  In fact, they were co-conspirators, locked deep in a plot to . . . okay, that part could come later.  But this, this was her man on the outside, her means of communication with the rest of the world.  Through him the entire scheme was orchestrated.  And Officer Tang knew what happened to an orchestra when you take away the conductor.  At least, she assumed she did.  I mean, a bunch of musicians without a clear authority figure?  Come on.

The old woman was—so far, at least—untouchable.  But no woman is an island.  Everyone has a link, a connection, a weak point.  And Officer Tang had just found it.  She knew her mission: get . . . whoever this guy was.

Note: acquire high-tech long-range listening equipment before next observation.

Fortunately, not long after she had this realization, the young man left.  This was it.  The perfect opportunity to catch him on his own.  She would start off casually, asking him a few questions about a completely unrelated topic (which, since she was a police officer, he would have no choice but to answer).  She would get some key information: his name, address, phone number.  And then she would DESTRO—

Before she could deal out any biblical wrath, however, she collided with a large, soft individual.

“Where the hell do you think you’re . . .?” she started to roar.  And then she looked up.  Officer Tang clearly had much sharper eyes than the average person he saw every day on duty.  “Escobar?  What are you doing here?”

Neither of them was supposed to be there, but only one had been specifically ordered by their boss not to be there.  The guilt scale shifted decidedly toward Tang.  “Good morning, Officer Tang,” he said.  Escobar had a low, slow voice that was easy to miss if you weren’t listening for it.  And since he rarely used it, few people ever were.  “I thought the Captain said you should take the day off.”

“I am.”  She had . . . almost no qualms with lying for the sake of the greater good (when she did it, that is).  “I’m off-duty.”

“You’re wearing your uniform.”

“I—I’m doing laundry.  Nothing else is clean.”

“And your gun—?”

“Listen, Officer Escobar, I’d love to stay and catch up, but I’m in the middle of something very important right now, so . . .”

She looked around.  The conspirator had disappeared.  DAMN! Oh well.  She knew he had to come back to the station eventually.  And when he did, she would be ready for him.

Escobar wondered why she was staring at the exit for so long, but he decided it was safer not to ask.  Actually, he realized that her distraction might be the ideal backdrop for his next question, which he was hoping could fly under the radar, at least for a while.  “Say, Officer Tang, do you happen to know if we still have any of the stuff impounded in the Neuberger case?”