Crossing the avenue, he takes her hand, even as she is reaching for his. They hold hands most of the way home.
Their house is a brownstone on the downtown side of Seventy-fourth Street, near the middle of the block. They own the house, and occupy the upper three floors; the ground floor and basement are leased to an upscale antique dealer. When they bought the place twenty-six years ago with the proceeds of an inheritance, it cost them a little over a quarter of a million dollars, and the antique shop rent was enough to cover their taxes and running costs. Now the property is worth at least ten times what they paid for it, and the store rent is currently $7500 a month, and covers a whole lot more than their tax bill.
If they didn’t already own the house, they are fond of saying, they couldn’t possibly afford it. His earnings as a lawyer are substantial-he was able to put their daughter through four years at a private college without taking out a loan, or even dipping into savings-but he couldn’t go out and buy a three-million-dollar house.
Nor would they need that much space. She was pregnant when they bought the house. She lost the baby in the fifth month, got pregnant again within the year, and gave birth to a daughter, Kristin. Two years later their son, Sean, was born, and when he was eleven years old he was killed playing Little League baseball, hit in the head accidentally with a bat. It was a senseless death, and it stunned both of them. His drinking increased over the next year, and she had an affair with a friend’s husband, but time passed and the wound healed and his drinking normalized and she ended the affair. That was the first real strain on their marriage, and the last.
She is a writer, with two novels and two dozen short stories published. Her writing is not profitable; she writes slowly, and her stories wind up in magazines that pay in prestige and contributor’s copies instead of dollars, and her two novels, respectfully reviewed, had modest sales and are now out of print. But the work is satisfying beyond the rewards it brings, and she is at her desk five or six mornings a week, frowning in concentration, reaching for the right word.
She has an office/studio on the top floor where she does her writing. Their bedroom is on the third floor, along with Kristin’s bedroom and Byrne’s home office. Kristin, twenty-three, resumed living with them after she graduated from Wellesley. She moved in with a boyfriend after a year, then came back when the relationship ended. She often stays out overnight, and talks about getting a place of her own, but rents are sky-high and decent places hard to find, and her room is comfortable, convenient, familiar. They’re happy to have her there.
The lowest of the floors they occupy, the second floor, is what brownstone residents know as the parlor floor, with larger rooms and higher ceilings than the rest of the dwelling. The Hollander house has a large eat-in kitchen, and a formal dining room that they have converted into a library and music/TV room. And there’s the living room, with a large oriental carpet on the floor, Arts and Crafts furniture that’s more comfortable than it looks, and a working fireplace flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The living room faces out on West Seventy-fourth, and the heavy drapes are drawn.
Behind those drapes, one in a large oak frame chair upholstered in tobacco-brown leather, the other pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, the two men are waiting.
The men have been in the house for over an hour. They entered just about the time Byrne and Susan Hollander were reclaiming their seats after the intermission, and they’d finished going through the house by the time the concert ended. They were looking for things to steal, and didn’t care how much of a mess they made in the process, spilling drawers, overturning tables, pulling books off shelves. They found jewelry in a dresser drawer and a vanity, cash in a locked desk drawer and on a closet shelf, silver tableware in a chest in the kitchen, and objects of some value throughout the house. They filled a couple of pillowcases with what they’d selected, and these are in the living room now. They could have shouldered them and left before the Hollanders came home, and now, as one sits and the other paces, I can imagine them thinking of doing just that. They’ve already done a good night’s work. They could go home now.
But no, it’s too late now. The Hollanders have arrived, they’re climbing the half-flight of marble steps to their front door. Do they sense an alien presence within? It’s possible that they do. Susan Hollander is a creative person, artistic, intuitive. Her husband is more traditionally practical, trained to deal in facts and logic, but his professional experience has taught him to trust his intuition.
She has a feeling, and she takes his arm. He turns, looks at her, can almost read the thought written on her face. But all of us get feelings all the time, premonitions, vaguely disquieting intimations. Most of them turn out to be nothing, and we learn to ignore them, to override our personal early warning systems. At Chernobyl, you may recall, the gauges indicated a problem; the men who read the gauges decided they were faulty, and ignored them.
He has his key out, and slips it into the lock. Inside, the two men hear the key in the lock. The seated man gets to his feet, the pacer moves toward the door. Byrne Hollander turns the key, pushes the door open, lets his wife enter first, follows her inside.
Then they catch sight of the two men, but by now it’s too late.
I could tell you what they did, what they said. How the Hollanders begged and tried to bargain, and how the two men did what they’d already decided to do. How they shot Byrne Hollander three times with a silenced.22 automatic, twice in the heart and once in the temple. How one of them, the pacer, raped Susan Hollander fore and aft, ejaculating into her anus, and then thrust the fireplace poker into her vagina, before the other man, the one who had been sitting patiently earlier, out of mercy or the urge to get out of there, grabbed her by her long hair, yanked her head back forcefully enough to separate some hairs from her scalp, and cut her throat with a knife he’d found in the kitchen. It was of carbon steel, with a serrated edge, and the manufacturer swore it would slice through bone.
I would be imagining all of this, just as I imagined them holding hands as they crossed the street, even as I imagined the two men waiting for them, one sitting in the tobacco-brown chair, the other pacing before the fireplace. I have let my imagination work with the facts, never contradicting them but filling in where they leave off. I don’t know, for example, that some inner prompting warned either or both of the Hollanders that danger waited within their house. I don’t know that the rapist and the knife-wielder were different men. Maybe the same man raped her as killed her. Maybe he killed her while he was inside of her, maybe that increased his pleasure. Or maybe he tried it out, thinking it might heighten his climax, and maybe it did, or maybe it didn’t.
Susan Hollander, sitting at her desk on the top floor of her brownstone, used her imagination to write her stories. I have read some of them, and they are dense, tightly crafted constructions, some set in New York, some in the American West, at least one set in an unnamed European country. Her characters are at once introspective and, often, thoughtless and impulsive. They are, to my mind, not much fun to be around, but they are convincingly real, and they are clearly creatures of her imagination. She imagined them, and brought them to life upon the page.
One expects writers to use their imaginations, but that portion of the mind, of the self, is as much a part of the equipment of a policeman. A cop would be better off without a gun or a notebook than without an imagination. For all that detectives, private and public, deal in and count on facts, it is our capacity to reflect, to imagine, that points us to solutions. When two cops discuss a case they’re working on, they talk less about what they know for a fact than what they imagine. They construct scenarios of what might have happened, and then look for facts that will support or knock down their constructions.
And so I have imagined the final moments of Byrne and Susan Hollander. Of course I have gone much farther in my imagination than I have felt it necessary to recount here. The facts themselves go farther than I’ve gone here-the blood spatters, the semen traces, the physical evidence painstakingly gathered and recorded and assessed by the forensic technicians. Even so, there are questions the evidence doesn’t answer unequivocally. For example, which of the Hollanders died first? I’ve suggested that they shot Byrne Hollander before they raped his wife, but it could have been the other way around; the physical evidence allows for either scenario. Perhaps he had to watch her violation and hear her screams until the first bullet mercifully blinded and deafened him. Perhaps she saw her husband killed before she was seized and stripped and taken. I can imagine it either way, and have in fact imagined it every possible way.
Here is how I prefer to imagine it: Almost as soon as they are inside the house and the door is kicked shut, one of the men shoots Byrne Hollander three times, and he is dead before the third bullet enters his body, dead before he hits the floor. The shock alone is enough to induce an out-of-body experience in his wife, and Susan Hollander, disembodied, hovers somewhere near the ceiling and watches, emotionally and physically disconnected, while her body is abused on the floor below her. Then, when they cut her throat, that body dies, and the part of her that has been watching is drawn down that long tunnel that seems to be a part of all near-death experiences. There’s a white light, and she’s drawn into the light, and there she finds the people who loved her and are waiting for her. Her grandparents, of course, and her father, who died when she was a child. Her mother, who died just two years ago, and her son, of course, Sean. There’s never been a day that she hasn’t thought of Sean, and he’s there now, waiting for her.
And her husband’s there, too. They were only apart for a few minutes, really, and now they’ll be together forever.
Well, that’s how I prefer to imagine it. And it’s my imagination. I guess I can do as I please with it.