Fina Fitzgibbons is a character who lives close to my heart. She’s a twenty-something private investigator who lives with her boyfriend, Denny, in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. She mourns the loss of her mother, sometimes with an overwhelming ache. She hasn’t forgiven her father for leaving. She fears loving and losing. She’s wary of trampling on the privacy of others. She’s not perfect, not by a long shot. Sometimes she takes Denny for granted; sometimes she’s jealous of Detective First Grade Jane Templeton; sometimes she makes snap judgments. But she’s smart and she’s got that wizard thing going on. And something else about Fina–she never, ever gives up.
Fina has a room of her own. It’s her study. It’s mentioned a couple of times in the first book of her series, Too Quiet in Brooklyn, and here’s the excerpt. I’m not sure why I created the room, only that in writing the story, I knew Fina had to have a special place away from everyone else, away from any distractions. She seldom cleans the room. Mostly, she uses it to think. But it also is a place where horrible things happen, like this scene, where Fina has a hissy fit. And later, worse things happen. Anyway, here it is, the chapter called “Heights Federal.”
“I hope I’m not interrupting.” Denny stood, poised at the entrance to my study, laptop in one hand and coffee in the other. Seeing his coffee, I remembered my cup and took a sip, by now cold and bitter. He asked Cookie if she’d like a refill, but she declined and I watched him looking around the disaster of my housecleaning, turning to the window, mesmerized as he always was by the view of Manhattan. I knew Dumbo so well I could see it with my eyes closed, its gutted factories now being refurbished and the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge sparkling like fake diamonds in the distance.
“You should hire Lucy’s to clean this place up,” Denny said.
Some wayward piece of shit in me stubbornly refused to straighten my study, so I continued to look up at him while smiling and cocking my head to stare into his guileless blue eyes.
My study was on the top floor of the Vinegar Hill brownstone Denny and I bought together last year. Don’t ask me why, maybe because we saw a good deal, and thought we’d been happy here, and we were, Denny agreeing to the stipulation that this room, my world, would be my study. The only light allowed was either daylight or 40-watt incandescent bulbs, the old kind, energy expense and eye strain be damned.
On one wall was every book I ever owned, packed into floor-to-ceiling bookcases nailed to the wall and lopsided. I built them, not knowing anything about carpentry, but burning to show the world that I, a mere woman, could create on the cheap and operate a drill besides. My books were not in any order. The good ones stood next to the bad, my complete and precious Nancy Drew series scattered all over, small books with big, decrepit with shrink wrapped, books from grade school, notebooks from my great-great grandmother barely intelligible and smelling of dusty olives. Mom’s typewriter sat on one corner of the desk, a light green affair with cream buttons.
The only seats in the house were a ladder-back chair from Atlantic Avenue Antiques and the two faux leather futon chairs I’d gotten for high school graduation from a great aunt. They were worn in spots with stuffing growing in a few places, but they were comfortable and Cookie and I currently sat in them, all cozy and welcoming Denny’s presence.
Denny sat in the desk chair and hiked his feet up on the rungs. He slid the laptop and mug on top of a stack of papers I’d meant to sort three months ago and hugged his knees, leaned over, and cracked open a window. “Did Jane get back to you? I texted her asking for information.”
“So did I,” I said. “Hours ago. I guess I can feed her information, but the deal’s not reciprocal.”
Cookie yawned. “Time for me to get going.”
“No wait a sec,” Denny said. “You and Fina are working this case together, right? So stay, because I’ve got information and I don’t want to repeat it. I’m just about grasping it myself, the full import of it, but I think it may have a bearing on Mary Ward Simon’s death.”
Cookie nodded. They exchanged glances and I just about caught something in the undertone of Denny’s look that stuck in my mind like a hard piece of bacon partially swallowed.
“There’s a guy I know, actually he’s Jane’s partner, Willoughby. He knows finances a lot better than me, so I want to ask him about what I’ve found. I’ve texted him to call me.”
“Can you give us a simple preview?” I asked.
“Right. And quick, because it’s after eleven,” Cookie said.
“It has to do with mortgages and ARMs. Mary Ward Simon was knee deep in an audit of certain mortgages approved by Heights Federal from 2002 to 2007.”
“They shouldn’t have been approved.”
“Cookie, say something,” Denny said.
“Don’t look at me. I’m a writer,” Cookie said. “This was before our time anyway. We were in grade school in 2002, remember?”
“Your mom worked there in 2002,” Denny said, looking at me, his eyes soft and pleading. He was taking it slow, I knew, feeling his way, judging if the ice was thick enough before taking the next step.
I think I was thrumming fingers on one of my knees, or maybe twirling a mass of curls on one side of my head, trying for a nonchalant look. “Until she was fired,” I said, or I think I did. I was finding it hard to breathe and the room took on a yellow glow, like we were inside a balloon and the air was running out.
“Not a happy time,” I said. My voice sounded high-pitched. “Money from Lucy’s was haphazard at best, and there were days when we damn near starved. Mom was out of a job and she worried like crazy. Gran alternated between holding her daughter and playing the piano, and there were all those crashing chords. Mom paced or cried.” The pain behind my good eye was unreal, the other one had quit working about two hours ago.
“Why was she fired?” Denny asked.
I balled one hand into a fist. “I’m not sure. I mean, I know what she told me, but I didn’t understand it. She said when the shit hit the fan, which she thought it would in a couple of years, she’d be the scapegoat. It was a setup, she said. I watched my mother disappear, like there was some kind of sink hole in her head.”
Denny stopped, his foot feeling the ice and hearing it crack. But he had to say it. “I’m not sure who it was, but someone commissioned Mary Ward Simon to do an audit of the bank’s records. Not all of it, just the mortgage division.”
“But the bank folded a few years ago,” Cookie said. She flicked her eyes at me. “You know how I loved your mom, Fina, but all this talk of money, I don’t understand it. I know two things, though—she’d never hurt anyone, not ever, and she didn’t kill herself, I know she didn’t.”
“Do we have to talk about this tonight?” I was hugging my stomach and rocking only because it made me feel better. “I mean, what does Mom have to do with Mary Ward Simon? I’m sick of you both trying to think up ways to get me to talk about my mother. Sick of it. I thought something was going on between you two. This afternoon I noticed it. Just now I watched you exchanging looks. How dumb do you think I am? You aren’t shrinks, you know, and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing or how it feels to be me. You don’t have a clue.”
I could feel it building and there was nothing I could do. My voice was getting higher, louder, out of control.
“I’m just a god-damned orphan, ok? In the end everybody leaves me—my parents, my gran, but it wasn’t her fault, no. She got cancer and had to die. And what did I do? Sell her piano, that’s what. I’m such a god-damned slut. All alone, and I don’t need to be reminded of it or how my mother died on the street and left me and her mother alone and me to take care of my grandmother, ok? Mom went through hell, but I know she’d never, ever kill herself.” I was screaming now, I knew it, the veins in my neck sticking out like entrails. “She’d never do that to me or to Gran. Now just leave me alone. Get out. I knew I shouldn’t have gotten involved in this, Never, Never, NEVER! Just let Jane handle it.”
Who was this woman inside of me, screaming and balling like a spoiled brat? I sat alone in my study, breathing hard, a heap of wasted human while Denny and Cookie opened the door and without glancing back, walked out on me.
Suddenly I stopped crying. No audience, I guess. I’m such a fake. I got up and wiped the snot off my chin and swallowed the last of my coffee. I turned out the light. My temples throbbed. I sat in front of the window, seeing the black buildings wobbling like jello and the lights on the bridge winking back at me like they got the joke. My mother lying in the casket flashed back at me, then I pictured me in the casket with everyone crying. What a glutton for sleaze sorrow I am. No wonder everybody leaves me. I’ll say one thing, though, I felt better. Which was real good because my phone was having an orgasm.
Photo: Dumbo at dusk. Credit: ChrisGoldNY (Flickr), Creative Commons.