Winter Tale

by J. S. Kierland

A little guy in a torn overcoat approached an oversized cardboard box leaning against a graffitied wall and as he edged closer he shouted, "ALLEY? YOU IN THERE?" There was no answer so he moved to the other side. "Some lady wants to buy us breakfast!" he shouted again and stood on his toes to peek through a small opening along the top of the box. A groan emerged and something inside moved. "She's a TV Lady...looking for you," he snorted.

"I don't have a TV, Shorty. Come back on Thursday and-"

"It is Thursday."

"What happened to Wednesday?"

"New Year's Eve...remember?" A long moan rose out of the big box. "I gave Tommy Doyle my last deuce to finger you cause I never would've found this thing you're in otherwise."

The sharp whoop of a siren shook the frozen ground and Alley began clawing his way out of the big box. The whoops threw him off balance and he rolled in the sleek cardboard until it came to an abrupt stop against a limousine parked at the curb. Shorty watched him crawl out, stagger a few feet, bounce off the limo, and regain his balance like a middleweight on the ropes. He pulled a battered fedora out of his jacket and lunged toward the flashing red and blue lights where Paramedics were bent over someone wearing black stockings. He pushed his way through the crowd into the cramped doorway where a woman's body was curled against a sprayed steel door. Kneeling next to her, he reached in past the paramedics for her pulse but her cold stare said everything. "She's froze and won't fit into your bag," he mumbled.

"We'll take care of her, Alley. Annie was special," the Medic said helping Alley out.

"Was it really Annie?" Shorty asked, trailing after him.

"Yeah, it was her."

"The TV Lady's waiting in that limo over there, Alley." He glanced at the limo's dark windows and spun toward it. The door clicked open when they arrived and he stepped into its black leather interior. A woman sat at the far corner in a fur coat and a pale knitted hat.

"Coffee?" she asked, in a husky voice. Alley nodded, and she handed him a porcelain cup with saucer and lifted a shiny chrome pot to pour hot coffee. The cup started to rattle and he had to grab on with both hands to keep from spilling the damned thing all over himself.

"Happy New Year," he mumbled.

The woman's large brown eyes looked back at him and she said, "Everyone we've talked to down here has recommended talking to you before we do anything else. We're shooting a special TV segment about this neighborhood and could use your help to expose the problems-"

"Tell your driver to go up Eleventh," Alley said. "There's a diner on the east side of-"

"I know it," the driver said and they began to roll.

Alley felt a nudge in his ribs and Shorty pointed at the array of liquor bottles on either side of them. Alley lifted a Wild Turkey out of the glittering row on the door and passed it to him. When he looked back for a reaction from the beautiful fur-wrapped woman she extended her hand, and said, "I'm Rhonda Foster. Television Journalist. A-B-C."

"Oh, for a moment there I thought you were going to recite the whole alphabet," he said, holding his coffee cup so Shorty could add a splash of the Wild Turkey.

"We've met Shorty and it's nice meeting you, Alley."

"What's your TV thing about?" he asked.

"Network. Prime time. We shine a light on things. People watch, get involved, and good things happen."

"Do you know what just happened out there?" he asked.

"It looked like someone might've been ill."

"Actually, the victim died years ago. Death just happened to be passing last night and mercifully took her with him."

"It was a woman?" Foster asked in surprise. Alley nodded. "And you knew her." Alley kept nodding and she said, "I'm sorry," like she meant it. "I'll follow's a promise."

"Her name was Annie Bigelow. Don't know if she had any family. If you can get her a tombstone...something with her name on it. For whatever reason it was important to her."

"I personally will take care of this," Foster said, writing the woman's name down.

The limo pulled up in front of the Westside Diner and Alley downed the rest of his coffee and stepped out into a biting cold wind. The Chauffeur hurried around the car to help Foster, and Shorty ran after Alley with the opened Wild Turkey and a bottle of Jack Daniels he'd swiped with it. Alley stopped at the Diner's front door and whispered something into the little guy's ear and Shorty stuffed both bottles into his oversized coat and ran up the street.

They went into the Westside Diner and Alley said to the thin man at the counter, "You painted the joint for the holidays."

"Alley...where the hell you been?" the man yelped and came running from behind the counter to hug him. "Had the place refurbished," he said, and when he recognized Foster he offered his hand. "I'm honored to meet you," he said. "Welcome, and Happy New Year."

"This is Willy and when he stops gawking he's going to give me the usual."

"And you, Ma'am?"

"I'll just have coffee and a dry English, Willy," she said tossing her fur coat on one of the empty stools and heading for the back pulling a cell phone out of her bag.

"Women, restrooms, and cell phones," Alley said checking the label on her fur coat to see if it was real...Saks Fifth.

"Can you get her autograph for me, Alley?"

"Yeah sure...make mine three eggs and don't spare the hash. Freeze got Annie last night. She passed."
"Jesus," Willy muttered, blessing himself. "She come by the back door a few days ago. I gave her what I had. I'm so sorry, Alley. Put me down for fifty and let's try to get her a marker."

"Think I might have it covered," Alley told him, waving his hand when he saw Foster coming back. She picked up her fur coat and sat down next to him. Two mugs of coffee slid across the counter. "Willy has requested your 8x10 glossy," Alley said. "It's an honor."

"I'll even autograph it for you, Willy."

"You can hang it up over the counter for the cabbies to see how elite this joint has gotten," Alley said. "It'll do wonders for the business down here, eh?"

Foster let his remark slide again, and said, "I talked to my Producer and he agreed to change the format for you. We'll do the story from your POV." Alley gave her the blank stare. "Point of view," she said. "You can show us what goes on down here and we'll try to fix it."

"Don't overcook the eggs, Willy."

"You got it, Alley," he said, sliding the hot hash and sunny-sides up onto a long dish.

"You're the best," Alley said, as his breakfast was set next to Foster's dry muffin.

"What do you think of my proposal?" she asked.

"I get the feeling you're really looking for a story. Unfortunately, I don't have one."

"Everyone has a story. Our researchers say you're highly respected down here."

"Sounds like an obituary," Alley sneered.

"Shorty's been our initial liaison and he told us you recommended a law firm to someone hit by a car a few months ago and actually won the case."

"Dippy-Dewey vs. the upstate Cadillac. We had five nights of eating and drinking."

"Are you a lawyer?" she asked.

"Helluva thing to say to a guy eating his breakfast."

She smiled and said, "You sound to communicate. We'd like to know why you're sleeping in a cardboard box?"

"He nodded at her food. "Try the coffee. Best in the City."

She took a sip from the thick mug and looked up in surprise. "It's excellent. Really is."

"Lot better than the stuff they serve up at Seasons," he said, just as her cell phone began playing, The Girl with The Flaxen Hair. "Debussy," he muttered. "Charming."

"Excuse me, I've got to take this," she said. "Do I get your story or not?"

"Depends on what you're giving...besides breakfast."

"What do you want?"

"The building across the street."

"You're kidding," she said, staring at ten floors of yellow brick with a giant FOR LEASE sign across it.

"What the hell would you do with a-"

"I'll need it for the next three months," he said.

"Of course, you want it to get people out of the cold."

"You're fast."

"And for that you'll give me your story. Exclusive. How you ended up-"

"Take it or leave it."

Her cell phone started playing Debussy again and they both looked down at it. "I have to take this," she said, and started walking again.

Alley waved for more coffee and Willy said, "I got a waitress out. Glad it's slow."

"I'll fix that," Alley said. "Give us a dozen go."

"A dozen? You sure?"

"Put it on her tab," he said. "And add a breakfast for Shorty while you're at it. He'll show up later." He saw Foster coming and grabbed what was left of the Danishes from the containers on the counter. Willy handed him a box and he threw everything into it along with the muffin.

"Where were we?" she asked from behind him.

"You get a story, I get a building and these brunches," he said heading for the door with the carton as Willy wrote up the tab. "Do you take American Express?" she asked.

"No, but I see a Visa in there," Willy said.

Outside, Alley started passing the coffees and Danishes to the gathering crowd on the sidewalk as a cab pulled up and Shorty jumped out with a well-dressed man in black-framed glasses, a fedora, alpaca coat, and a large white scarf over his mouth to cut the gusts of wind coming off the river. When the man saw Alley's crowd he ran back to the cab and Shorty had to drag him out and they struggled until he saw Foster and pushed Shorty aside to get to her.
"The little guy told me you were involved, Ma'am, but I didn't really believe him."

"Who are you?" she asked.

"I represent the building over there. He told me you might be interested in renting it?"

Foster glanced over at Alley giving away the last coffee and Danish to a man in a wheelchair. "Can it be on a month to month basis," she asked.

"We can accommodate a few months," the man said.

"It's been empty for years," Alley yelled. "Make sure the heat and plumbing work before you sign anything. It's a dump."

"The best thermostats in the world control that building," the man yelled back. "I'll give you a twenty percent discount, Ma'am," the guy said turning his back on Alley.

"I'll give you a good faith check for three months and pay the rest this afternoon," Foster said pulling out her checkbook.

"I'll take it but I think you better look around and make sure it's what you want," he said, glancing suspiciously at Alley and handing Foster his card with the amount written on it along with the key to the building. "Will you be using the place for television production?"

"Something like that...and thank you," she said, leading him back to his waiting cab. "I'll call you this afternoon." The cab pulled away and Foster turned to confront Alley.

"Must be great being famous. They just hand you the keys."

"After they get the check."

"Good point... Well, let's go in and take a look at what we bought."

"Not until I get some answers," she said, opening the limo's back door against another strong gust of wind. "Payoff time, baby. Your life story for heat, water, and the general occupancy of a building no one else wants. In other words, either I get your story or you go back to your cardboard box." Alley started to say something and she took out the Debussy cell phone, pressed the speed dial, and said, "Citibank? This is Rhonda Foster. I want to stop payment on a check I just wrote." she said.

Alley slipped the phone out of her hand and got back into the limo. "We can check on the building later." Foster grunted, got in next to him and they headed uptown.

* * *

Alley stared numbly at the excited children on the circling horses as the tinny music started its second run. From the other side of the Carousel Foster took pictures of him in his dirty gray coat and stained fedora. His lean unshaven face relaxed as he watched the laughing children gallop their rented horses to nowhere. He had asked the Chauffeur to drive them up to Central Park so he could have time to think about his past. "Bring back the pain," was his mumbled answer, and Foster sensed there'd been confusion in his life and clicked on the micro-recorder she hid in her purse.

"You're a cheap date," she said.

"The Westside Diner and the Carousel are enough for me."

"I've been spoiled," she said.

"Had your own Carousel, eh?"

"My father," she said.

"Cherchez le Pere. What was his name?"

She hesitated and then said, "Saul."

"Guys named Saul don't name their daughters Rhonda." She stared back into the dark eyes ripping at her secrets. "I have the feeling that Saul would be the kind of guy who'd name someone to remind them who they really were and always will be." She slipped out the six-pointed Jewish star hanging around her neck. "Where you from?" he asked with a smile.


"Shaker Heights." She nodded again. "And old King Saul bought you everything you ever wanted. Prep schools, Ivy education, marriage, jobs-"

"I'm not married," she shot back. "Anymore."

He laughed, pulled some crumpled bills out of his torn pocket and headed for the carousel. "Let's hit the go-round, Kid," he said. She laughed, and he asked, "What name did old King Saul actually pin on you?"

"Rhoda. I'm Rhoda Kaminski and proud of it."

"A beautiful name making you even lovelier."

"What's your name?" she asked. "Your real name."

"Take a guess," he said, putting his arm around her as they headed for the ticket booth.

"Alley's short for Alexander, isn't it?"

"Yeah, but it doesn't have the ring to it Rhoda does. Come on let's hurry and ride into the Biblical Sunset together."

"That could take all day."

"Fake horses and time is all I got, Lady."

He insisted on buying the tickets and when the floor moved he helped her up on a glowing white stallion with a golden bridle and shining brass stirrups. She grabbed the moving pole to balance herself and Alley got up on the dark horse next to her and she leaned over and hung her purse on the saddle he was riding. "Where did you pick up the yard accent?" she asked. He looked puzzled. "Haaarvaaard Yaaard," she said with a laugh.

He shrugged and said, "Never hoid of it."

"King Saul went there," she said. "I'm familiar with it."

"I'm out of Norwegian immigrants. Minnesota."

"How did you end up here?"

"In your limo," he yelled over the tinny speakers segueing into a medley from Westside Story and he caught her glance at the purse on his saddle. "I'll watch it," he said.

"Why don't you start at the beginning and your parents and where it all began?"

She noticed the women watching their children on the carousel were beginning to point at her as she went by. Alley saw it too, and said, "Looks like you've blown your cover."

"Are you going to give me your story, or not?"

"I made a deal."

"I want to know where you were born? Where you lived? Worked? Why it all went wrong?" she said, reaching for her purse. The Carousel began to slow down and she slid off the stallion. "I've got to get out of here before they start asking questions I can't answer. Trust me...we could be here for hours."
"I know," he said, getting off his horse and handing the rest of his tickets to the little boy behind them. "Take the gang for a spin on me," he told the kid and helped Foster to the edge of the slowing Carousel and handed her back the micro-recorder she'd hidden in her purse.

"You erased it," she said and he laughed.

* * *

The limo rolled out of the park and headed down Fifth. Foster threw her fur coat in the corner, took off her hat and this time positioned the recorder on the seat between them.

"I can tell you've done this before," Alley said pouring another scotch.

She smiled and opened her computer, clicked on the recorder and said, "How 'bout your full name for starters?"

Alley sipped the scotch, and said, "Alex Mitchell," into the recorder. Foster typed it into her laptop.

"Want a drink?" he asked. "Looks like you could use one."

She stared back at him. "Where you from, Alex?"

"A Catholic enclave in Indiana. Heartland stuff. Ford trucks and conservatives."

"A few minutes ago you said you were from Minnesota."

"Did I? Well I was wrong. The important thing is my mother went to a church social one night and said yes to the first guy who asked her to dance. He turned out to be my father. Mom married up in the American social order and moved into a split-level. When they weren't working to pay off the mortgage, they were working to pay for the country's never-ending wars."

"What about your dad?"

"A salesman. He wrote pharmaceutical orders out of a suitcase. After a while he began to look like the suitcase. Leathery, worn, and broken."

"Where are they now?" she asked checking the recorder.

"Some trailer park in the great American Southwest. Watching TV and wondering where their boys went."

"You don't have any contact with them?"

"Can we talk about cleaning up the neighborhood now?"

"We'll film you doing that...let you interview a few of-"

"I have lots of questions."

"Tell my producer. He loves attitude. What's your father doing now?"

"Continuing to get in his own way. An Innocent life ran over without leaving tire-marks."

"You talk as if he were dead."

"I'd rather solve problems like Annie this morning."

Foster nodded and poured more coffee. "I'm just wondering why someone with your ability is out in the freezing cold, sleeping in a cardboard box. Whether you like it or not, Annie died last night. You're still here and very much alive."

"Touché," he said, looking out at Fifth Avenue. "I see we're taking the American Splendor route.

Tiffany's, St. Patrick's, Rockefeller Center, New York's Bank Row and the finest department stores money can't buy."

A rough scraping sound rolled across the top of the limo's roof and it pulled to a jolting stop and people sprawled over the car and the Chauffeur had to fight his way out.

"Now what're you pulling?" Alley shouted.

"Where have you been for the past year, Mr. Janus?"

"It's only been six months...maybe less."

"You weren't born in Indiana or Minnesota. You're Westchester and Harvard. Top of your class and the Financial World including all its perks."

"I knew you couldn't be trusted," he muttered reaching for the door with faces pressed against the tinted glass. It didn't budge.

"It's childproof," she said taking his picture.

The door locks snapped open and the shouting and video cams pushed in from behind the Chauffeur's bulky figure. The crowd surged as the Chauffeur pulled him out between a mass of swinging arms and camcorders. They wedged forward toward the ornate stone columns and the four steps then the quick lurch through the revolving doors and the line of gray guards moved in to push back the Reporters. The Chauffeur let go and Alley tripped and slid across the polished marble. His hat flew off and the Receptionist rushed over to help him.

"Thank you, Maggie," he said.

The woman looked at him sprawled across the floor, realized who it was and squeaked, "MY GOD, IT'S MR. JANUS!"

Alley picked up his battered hat, brushed himself off and turned toward the blur of faces. "Nice seeing you all again," he said.

Foster pushed her way through the astonished crowd in time to see the man she'd spent the morning with turning into someone else. Uneasy resolve had replaced his flashing angry eyes as he moved toward his private elevator where a Security Guard hit a button and polished brass doors opened. Foster broke out of the crowd and ran after him but the Guard cut her off. Alley tipped his fedora at her and the elevator doors began to close.

"Mr. Janus never gives interviews, Ma'am," the Guard said, and by the time she got around him Alley was gone.

* * *

Mr. Alexander Janus was back at his large polished desk. The phone buzzed. He picked it up and said, "Tell Kyoto I'll call back within the hour and keep this line open to Cairo and get me Sir Haynes in London. I know it's late but get him anyway. What's our stock doing this morning?" He smiled at the answer and the confusion he'd caused in the market. Allied had jumped ten percent in less than half an hour. "Would you bring in the petty cash, Wendy?" he asked, hung up and checked the desk drawers. When he didn't find it he headed for the closet. His clothes were still there including his camel coat. He slipped it off the hanger and searched the inside pockets. A pleasant splash sounded and he pulled out the flask. Unscrewing the top he took a gulp of what had now become eleven-year old scotch.

There was a knock at the door and Wendy peeked in. "Anything in petty cash?" he asked hiding the flask behind him.

"About ninety bucks," she said.

"Beggars can't be choosy," he answered, wrote a quick IOU and signed it before jamming the bills into his pocket.

"I wasn't the one who told on you," she blurted.

"I know, Wendy. I got desperate and overreached."

"They're saying it was the TV woman who exposed you," she blurted, as The Girl with the Flaxen Hair drifted into the room. "Isn't that Debussy?" she asked, and Alley began searching through his pockets again. Wendy used the moment to diplomatically excuse herself and Alley finally found the ringing phone and swiped it with his thumb.

"Hello?" he muttered.

An open silence floated into the room, and the phone said, "'ve got my phone...whoever you are."


"Oh, my stole my phone!"

"No! It just started playing and I-"

"Don't give me that crap, Janus! You stole it!"

"Look...I did hustle you for breakfast and a few extra coffees, got a building out of you so no one else would freeze to death and the logical progression would be I-"

"You left out the two bottles of booze that Shorty stole and the tombstone for Annie Bigelow...there will also be an autopsy and an investigation of her death. I intend to make her a cause celebre."

"I owe you," Alley said.

"And what Herculean feat do I have to perform now to-"

"I owe you my real story."

"Meet me at Grand Central's Information Booth at Five!"

"If I run into a limo, smell a recording device or see a camera crew, I'll disappear so-"
"Just make sure you bring my phone," she said and hung up.

He talked to Sir Haynes in London for over an hour, shaved and showered, found some clean clothes in another office and got back into his worn shoes and battered fedora so she'd be sure to recognize him. Then he slipped into his warm camel coat, jammed the empty flask back into its inside pocket and headed for the freight elevator to stay ahead of the five o'clock rush.

* * *

Checking the clock over the circular booth at Grand Central he looked for her in the crowd rushing by him. He kept circling the booth until he saw her in the dark glasses, fur coat, and pale cloche hat and slipped his arm in hers as she went by and surprised her.

"My God, you've shaved...and where did you steal the beautiful coat?"

"I need a drink ASAP," he said handing her the cell phone.

She tapped her phone, and said, "'s Rhonda Foster. I'm about to arrive with a guest. Can you set us up in my favorite corner? Thanks," she mumbled, and hung up. "Nikos protects outlaws and has a place across the street."

"Hope it's not fancy cause I don't have any socks on."

"I'll be like having dinner with Jesus," she said pulling him toward the end of the promenade and into the small rotunda where they dodged several taxis and headed for a building across the street on Vanderbilt. Halfway there Alley realized where she was taking him and stepped back. "Oh, it won't kill you," she said, grabbing his arm and pulled him through the door. "They have great food and no ambience...and no one will notice us."

Marble floors with oriental throw-rugs and scarred wooden tables dotted the lobby. They passed the desk and one of the clerks picked up a phone. "We've been spotted," Foster said, barging into the dining room. A few early diners looked up as they strode toward the far corner where a small man in a tux was setting a table. He turned and smiled. "Nikos," she said. "Let's have a couple of Johnny Walkers. Doubles." He nodded, set the chair and helped her with the fur coat. "This is my friend. We'll be having dinner." Alley handed Nikos his camel coat and his empty flask fell out of the inside pocket hit the table and skittered across the marble floor. Foster began laughing as Nikos ran to retrieve the runaway flask. "You better fill it when you catch it, Nicos...and bring the drinks straight-up."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, hurrying away with the flask.

"You brought me to the godamned Yale Club," Alley muttered.

"I know, isn't it wonderful?" The drinks arrived and Foster raised her glass. "To a long life, Mr. Janus."

"Thanks," he muttered, gulping his drink. "And try to get rid of the pity-look you're wearing," he snapped.

"I officially rented the building for you this afternoon. It upped the budget but with you as our Official Narrator we're counting on the segment to put us in the top ten and the legal department is gearing up for an onslaught of lawsuits," Foster said, waving at Nikos to bring them another round as she casually slipped her unfinished drink across the table to Alley. "I hate seeing you like this," she whispered.

"So do I," he muttered, downing the rest of her drink.

The second round arrived and Foster eased one of the drinks toward him and he stared down at it until Nikos cleared the empties before he took another quick hit. When he glanced up she said, "I got a phone call from the Coroner about a half hour ago. Annie Bigelow died of exposure wearing a coat with your name sewn in it."

"She had my socks on too," he muttered and Nikos handed him a menu.

"The special tonight is crusted salmon in a white wine sauce," Nicos said and left.

"I'm getting the special but strongly recommend the stuffed pork chops," she told him and Alley winced.

"I feel responsible for pulling you out of the cardboard box this morning."

"I got into it myself...and I'll get out of it myself. It's just a touch of alcoholism."

"We better eat," she said.

* * *

Foster turned the lock and they tumbled into the darkness. "The light switch should be around here somewhere," she said.

"I take it your recorder's still running?" he asked and she pulled it out of her purse. "The World Turns," he said pulling out his flask and offering her a drink. "It'll warm you up."

"How can you live like this?" she asked.

"You're the only other person I know who should try least every couple of years."

"Stop tempting me," she said.

"Why?" he asked and kissed her again. "I knew we'd end up like this when I got into the limo this did too."

"Believe me, I knew it when I got out of the limo and you'd taken me for a tombstone, two bottles of booze, and everyone's breakfast. What's worse I didn't want you to stop."

"Then I won't," he said and kissed her again.

She hung in his arms and caressed his cheek. "I hate love stories like this," she moaned. "Boy meets girl...boy loses girl then all this crap goes on after it. Why don't we just walk away from each other now while we've got the chance?"

"I've been walking away from you all my life and look where it's gotten me."

"Incidentally, your wife divorced you last year."

He kissed her again and they accidentally hit the lost light switch and came up out of it with a variety of heavy video equipment on either side of them. Cameras and Klieg lights stood stolidly between locked metal boxes with a variety of cleaning sprays and materials. "I've gone too far," she said staring at the stained walls, broken flooring and bulky cameras.

He turned the lights off and took her in his arms again. "We don't have much time. They've been watching this place from across the street and probably saw the lights. Let's close out our contract while we still have a few minutes and I'll tell you why I'm down here sleeping in a box." She deftly lifted the recorder up between them, kissed him again and he said, "It started as a distraction. The streets seemed to be the only place where you didn't need a social security number or a picture ID, or a password to open something. Down here no one cares about any of that shit or who you used to be. You get one name and can change it any time you want. The only real demand is that you sleep in rundown buildings with no comforts expected...or given. Trouble arrives when these daily attractions become addictive. One day at a time turns into weekends, than weeks, and before you realize what's happening you're living it full time. You become liberated when you find out everything is fake and can actually exist without you. Nothing is real...not even you."

"Was your marriage a fake too?"

"That was the biggest fake of all."

"Am I fake?"

"I thought you might be," he said and kissed her again. "Where the hell did you come from anyway?"
"I'm the nice Jewish girl from Cleveland...remember?"

"You're the girl on the merry-go-round with the great laugh...and the recording device."

"Are you aware this love story is turning into which one saves the other?" Before he could answer a sudden pounding hit the steel door.

"They've caught us," he said, and Foster turned the lights back on, opened the door and an array of frozen faces stared back at them.

"We saw the lights and figured it was time," Shorty said, and the crowd pushed past him into the building. "I also brought your sublet just in case this is all a dream," Shorty said, sliding Alley's large cardboard box in with him and leaning it against the wall.

"Use the upper floors and turn up the thermostats," Alley said. "They're storing their equipment down here."

"You wouldn't happen to have a drink?" he asked.

Alley gave him his reloaded flask, and said, "Keep it, I won't need it anymore."

Shorty smiled, stuffed the flask in his oversized coat and headed up the stairs with the rest of the crowd. Alley picked up his cardboard box started opening it as the heat went on.

"You're not getting into that thing?" Foster asked.

"Sleeping in a cardboard box changes your whole perspective," he said, crawling in and stretching out.

"Take off your Gucci's...and the Sachs Fifth...and jump in."

"I prefer a bed," she said crawling in next to him.

* * *

Alley insisted that his interview for THE ANNIE BIGELOW CASE be filmed in the same doorway where they found her frozen body. "I want the world to see the cold, cramped place that made her death unforgiving and indictable," he told her.

"We get all that, Alley!" Foster said. "So what's wrong?"

"It's all this...Showbiz," he said, looking around at the lights and cameras. "The difference here is somewhere between reality and a Madman's ravings sprayed on a wall," he said, turning to see the people behind the cameras and microphones staring back at him. "Annie wasn't like me or any of us. She didn't choose to sleep in a doorway and no matter how bad things got she never lost her dignity. She was a quiet lady who knew and understood more than most of us learn in a lifetime." Alley looked back at the empty doorway and Foster followed him with the mic and a camera moved in on the other side. "Annie Bigelow was someone's daughter...maybe a wife...a mother, definitely a friend," he said. "She was bright and knew and understood why she had to live in the streets." He stopped to take a deep breath. "No one wanted Annie and she froze to death because we didn't care enough to make sure she was warm. Her life ended in a frozen, lonely death in some piss-ridden doorway in the richest city in the world where extreme indifference is how we manage to get through the day. The caring-game had played itself out by the time it got to Annie...and no one did anything to stop it. We go to the Moon and Mars, build skyscrapers, make fancy horrendous weapons that can kill from the sky and then disappear back into it...but we can't seem to take care of Annie Bigelow. And the question hangs over us: If we don't know Annie Bigelow how can we know ourselves? There's something terribly wrong...and I don't know how to explain it because what happened here is all about us," he said, staring straight into the camera as if he was waiting for someone to speak to him from the other side but no one did. Then someone yelled, "CUT! Let's get the lead and go for whatever background we can get." The cameramen backed away, light stands began to roll and the rest of the crew headed for the hot coffee table.

Alley stepped out of the doorway and headed down the street with Foster right behind him trying to catch up. "This is where we met. You got into the limo, I poured coffee and we went for breakfast," she said, running to keep up with him.

"It's just another TV Show that fills another time slot," he said. "No one cares."

"I care," she said.

"Your Show will get great ratings, make bags of money and maybe even get a new shelter for the homeless down here...until some other poor bastard freezes to death and we're back where we started again. I've got to straighten myself out and when I get back we'll try to straighten out this whole situation so no one ever dies in the street from exposure."

They walked into the freezing wind coming off the river in silence and Alley went through a gate onto an open pier where a large dark freighter was docked in the cold, overcast morning. A sailor wrapped in a heavy blanket was painting a new name on the ship's bow. An R an H an O and a D were already there in bright white letters. Foster pulled her collar up against the sharp wind, and asked, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"It's a Greek ship," Alley said. "And will probably end up with a name like RHODES or RHODESIA."

"HEY, EL GRECO," Foster yelled at the dangling sailor. "WHAT'S THE NEXT LETTER GOING TO BE?" The sailor laughed and went back to work and Alley started up the gangplank. "HEY, where you going, Slick?" she yelled.

"They promised me I'd stop shaking if I went with them," he said.

Foster reached over the gate and kissed him. "You can't leave me now. You're everything I don't need in my life."

A yell came down from the sailor being hoisted to the deck. He'd finished painting RHODA across the bow. "They'll paint in Kaminski when we get to the Caribbean," Alley said.

She kissed him again, and said, "I'll go with you."

"This won't be pretty," he said, grabbing the rail and heading up the gangplank. "I'll call you when I can actually stand up by myself."

" You see why I hate these crazy love stories?" she yelled as he staggered up the gangplank. "I'll hang on to your cardboard box for you." He turned to wave when he reached the top...and then he was gone. She mumbled to herself and walked back along the pier in the freezing wind whipping off the Hudson River. "What just happened?" she mumbled.