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A NEW MYSTERY IN THE CAROL ROSSI MYSTERY SERIES
The subway was dangerous.
But the three girls wouldn’t take no for an answer. Kelly Singleton was moving from her Connecticut home into her NYU dorm, and the subway was part of her new life, she told her concerned parents.
Jamie Ryan and Christina Moore were her two best friends and would be visiting Kelly whenever they could. They insisted that they needed to learn how to navigate mass transportation.
For all three of them, riding the subway was a rite of passage. That was their final plea.
The old, rusted trains they were so anxious to ride broke down regularly, leaving passengers to wait, sometimes forty minutes and longer, in dangerous circumstances, their parents argued. The Daily News and The New York Times frequently reported gang violence on the trains, which in the last ten years had become the symbol of the city’s rising crime rate.
Gangs, boldly wearing identifying colors, often openly roamed the cars, intimidating passengers, bullying them to hand over their pocket money with no fear of recrimination, as if they owned the trains. Gang-tagged graffiti covered every inch of the filthy trains, including the windows.
It was August 1984 and a crisis situation for New York City, with two thousand homicides expected yearly.
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However, the girls argued that millions rode the subway every day, and crimes usually occurred in the early morning hours. The girls would travel during morning rush hour, and to keep everybody from worrying, they would return home during rush hour in broad daylight.
Jack Singleton, a New York City attorney and managing partner of the firm, didn’t take well to losing the subway debate; he was only too familiar with the city’s crime rate and the subway system. So the Singletons were the last of the parents to acquiesce and Jack only after some arm-twisting from his wife Nina. He wasn’t too happy about his daughter attending NYU in the first place.
He’d be relieved when the three girls got this trip out of their systems, saw the dangers of the trains and got back home.
The train clanked into the 42nd Street Station that morning, forty-nine minutes late. It was a stiflingly hot Wednesday, August 14, and in the subterranean commuter hub, sweat-drenched clothing stuck to the body like wallpaper. The anxious crowd of commuters finally boarded the eight-fifteen number six train at four minutes after nine.
Out in front were the three Wilton girls.
When the doors slid open, Kelly was swept into the train while her two friends, Christina and Jamie, followed closely behind. They, however, clung to the metal pole just inside the opened doors. The two girls wanted to stay close to the door to avoid breathing in the air of the filthy train.
The squalid conditions went beyond the graffiti that welcomed them at the subway station. The old, battered
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train limped in, every inch coated as if in the stranglehold of a deadly black vine.
Gripping the metal pole, the girls took in the floor’s filth. Its black grime traveled up the walls and circled the painted windows. The vandalized train, much like the station, seemed unrecognizable to them, more like a crime scene. Graffiti in thick black figures with touches of color here and there, bubble-letters and symbols, names and numbers, was scribbled on all available spaces on the ceilings, walls, windows and even the tattered and split seats.
Kelly, her pink cotton top now soaked with sweat, glanced back, smiling, as she disappeared into the crowd, obviously delighted to be there. The graffiti to her was art, and the artists were victims of a society that was failing them.
Her friends looked askance while keeping an anxious eye on her. This was all her idea. She wanted to experience a New York City rush hour because, she told them, “There is nothing like it in Wilton.”
As the two clung to the pole, they were grateful the air conditioning worked. Jostled by the train when it jerked and squealed to a start, the two girls firmly planted their feet and settled into the trip as best they could. The subway stops came up fast, even on the clunking train. In order to read the marred signs, they squinted at the graffiti windows as if they suffered poor eyesight.
None of the swaying straphangers who flanked them looked directly at them. Heads were cast downward to avoid glancing into the eyes of the total strangers, as they were crushed against one another by the whims of the train.
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No one talked. The passengers, whether seated or clinging to the metal straps, were tense and alert.
The plan was to get off at 14th Street and walk to NYU. They’d take in the campus, which was New York City itself, Kelly had explained. They’d walk the narrow and crooked tree-lined streets of the village, seeking out the nooks and crannies, the little bistros and cafes, college hangouts, set underground or in the once-elegant brownstones.
As she hung onto the pole, Jamie recalled with appreciation Mr. Singleton’s warnings. He had cautioned them that cars malfunctioned and doors often failed to open, and they should be prepared to rush to another door. She and Christina attempted without success to see Kelly between and above the heads of the swaying passengers, and their anxiety heightened, since they felt like they were in a strange land.
As the train pulled up to the first stop, 33rd Street, the two strained to make out the station name. It was boldly written in black on the once beautiful white ceramic tiles, now obscured by graffiti and sitting under dull lights. They couldn’t make out the garbled announcement over the loudspeaker, so they asked a woman standing next to them, who seemed eager to help.
“This is the 33rd Street stop,” the middle-aged African American woman told them with a smile.
As they approached the station and the sea of people parted, Jamie could see for one brief second that Kelly had a seat by the far door about eighteen feet away. As departing passengers left, a wave of new passengers entered, which sent currents of steamy air rolling about the
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car as people positioned themselves to get off at the next stop.
They lost sight of Kelly again.
At the 14th Street stop they rushed out, grateful the doors had properly opened, and were met with the subway tunnel’s unimaginable heat. Their eyes were on the rear door, waiting for Kelly to emerge.
They anticipated seeing her pink shirt, grateful for the precautionary measure they’d taken to wear pink tops, as rush hour commuters going in both directions flooded the station.
The number six train, however, creaked out of the 14th Street station with no Kelly in sight. A fresh burst of sweat trickled down their backs, and their mouths were wide open in shock as they stood on the platform amid the tide of commuters.
”Did she forget to get off?” Christina shouted to Jamie above the roar. She gazed around at the backs of people and the anxious expressions of oncoming commuters, who had entered the station from the 15th Street entrance.
With trains heading uptown and downtown, people raced in all directions. Then there were those hell bent to reach street exits and cooler air. To the stunned girls searching the crowd for their friend, a subterranean drama played as clanging trains echoed in the vast cement cavern and disappeared into or shot out of dark tunnels. The stairways in both directions bore the crush of commuters, six and seven deep, who were slowed to a crawl by the sheer volume of the crowd heading to the 14th Street exit. Others raced past the stairs to other exits.
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They had never seen anything like this in their young lives. Their eyes scanned the moving throng, searching the organized pandemonium.
Kelly was nowhere. Nowhere.
“She didn’t get off. I saw her. She was in a seat by the back door after the first stop.” Jamie continued to comb the human traffic with her eyes as she talked. “She was smiling and totally happy to be in this mess. But an old man was sitting in the same seat when we got off. I figured she’d be waiting for us, that she’d gotten off already.” Jamie turned from side to side as she spoke, her eyes searching in disbelief.
“It’s so easy to panic,” Christina said. “Maybe she thought she’d missed the stop. God, you couldn’t read the street signs with all the graffiti. You could barely see out the windows. Maybe she got off earlier by mistake. She couldn’t see us with the crowd either, if she looked for us.”
“I remember the stops,” Jamie jumped in. She stood directly in front of Christina now to be certain she could hear her clearly.
“There are only four stops, 33rd, 28th, 23rd and 18th Streets. She has to be there! You saw her at the 33rd Street stop. She’s either at the 28th, 23rd or 18th Street. She could be waiting at any of them.”
Christina stared at her, stunned. “Just like you to remember all the streets,” she shouted.
“I’m good with numbers,” Jamie said defensively.
“We did say we should wait if we got separated or lost,” Christina said uncertainly. “That would be the smart thing to do,” she added. “Do you remember, Jamie? We
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specifically agreed to wait, don’t move, stay in one spot, if someone got lost, right?”
Jamie dug in her small shoulder bag for an elastic band. “I’m getting this hair off my neck. I’ve never been this hot, not even in the Bahamas.” She pulled her chestnut brown hair up and put it in a ponytail. Christina followed suit, rooting in her shoulder bag for an elastic band and sweeping up her thick, long blonde hair, murmuring, “It must be eight hundred degrees down here.”
Sweat began to seep into their shoes, and soon they were sloshing around in puddles. They were finally still and quiet, lost in thought as they faced the subway track. The peak-time foot traffic raced behind them as they went over the trip, wondering where Kelly could be.
The two suburban girls looked as lost and out of place as tourists abandoned in a foreign country. They stood on the subway platform for a half-hour, sweltering and watching as the number six trains creaked in and out of the 14th Street station. They were lost amid the unimaginable flow of humanity coming and going with no signs of stopping and no signs of their friend.
Jamie finally said, “It’s time to do something. We should go back to Grand Central. We should start all over again from the beginning. Kelly is probably waiting at one of those three stops. She’s got to be there. Where else could she be?”
Christina silently agreed. They walked up toward the uptown trains resolute and sure in their powers of deduction. All their parents’ warnings, which had seemed to be drummed-up scare tactics at the time, echoed loudly. As they waited on the platform to catch the number six
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train to search for their friend, it felt like a sure ride into a hell that neither of them knew anything about.
They boarded the filthy train once again with their fingers crossed that it wouldn’t break down, that the doors would open properly, that they’d make it to the next stop without being mugged or worse—and most of all, that Kelly would be waiting at the next stop.
They got off at 33rd Street to find no smiling Kelly welcoming them. They allowed the train to pull out so they could look around. Maybe Kelly was leaning against something that was obscuring her. They waited for the next train, which, thank heaven, came quickly. They got off at the 28th Street stop. Again nothing. Again they were back on the next train and got off at 23rd Street, still without success.
They took the train back to 42nd Street, riding in silence with sweat-drenched clothes plastered to them. They were thirsty, but they did not dare take the time to find a place to buy water, fearful that would be just the moment Kelly would show up. They didn’t dare separate. Finally, they purchased bottles of water at the variety shop at the bustling Grand Central Station and headed downstairs to the restrooms, each wondering what they’d tell Kelly’s mom.
In the restroom they washed sweat and grime off their arms and faces. At one point they stared at each other in the wall mirror, noting their harried faces. Jamie finally broke the silence.
“Of all three of us, Kelly would have known when to get off. She planned this trip. She knows more about New York City than either one of us.” She was talking to Christina’s reflection in the mirror. Christina looked back
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at Jamie with a stricken face. “We managed to get off the subway at 14th Street. Why didn’t she?”
They decided on one more try before giving up. They’d go back to the subway station and take the number six train one more time. This time, however, they traveled straight to the 14th Street stop in case Kelly got off at the wrong stop and broke their rule about waiting. Maybe she’d decided to get on a train to 14th Street, and they had crossed paths in the interim.
Unfortunately, no Kelly awaited them. They took the next train back to Grand Central. Their formerly abated panic was now full blown. They crossed the main concourse of the terminal and looked at the iconic clock in the middle of the floor near the circular information desk: it was ten minutes past ten. Their futile search for Kelly had taken almost two hours. With nervous footsteps they wove between other commuters coming from all directions to reach a bank of phones at the bottom of the wide promenade that led to 42nd Street.
That’s when they spotted the young uniformed policeman outside the terminal’s glass doors. With unspoken agreement they rushed to tell him about Kelly.
“Report the disappearance of your friend to the Transit Police,” he urged. His young face was serious, his eyes darting from one to the other.
“Go back to the Lexington Avenue subway line,” he said and pointed to the entrance of Grand Central. “There’s a Transit Police Station at the 14th Street stop,” he said, raising his voice to be heard above the city’s din. “If you were going to meet your friend on 14th Street, that’s where you should go. They’re security for the subway trains.”
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Both girls fought tears when the officer said the disappearance of your friend.