The crowd huddled in a semicircle on the sidewalk with everyone speaking in hushed tones. One man took a picture with his cell phone of the body that was sprawled on the gray pavement.
A patrol car came to a stop with the siren’s wail abruptly dropping off, and two cops emerged. The older one, a white man with sandy blond hair and a total absence of body fat, began talking into his radio to cancel the ambulance and call for a few extra officers, as it was plain to see that the jumper had not survived.
His partner was a black man in his late twenties who had a shaved head and neatly trimmed goatee. He went to work trying to corral the passel of gawkers.
“Okay, everyone get back. Come on, step back!” he ordered. “NYPD. Give us some room here.”
“You in charge here?” a gruff voice asked.
The younger cop looked up. “Who are you?”
“Ed Simmons. I manage this property.”
“Officer Antoine Davis, 19th precinct,” he replied in kind. “Anybody know who this person is or where he fell from?” The police dispatcher had reported it as a possible jumper, but Antoine didn’t want to believe that someone would be so willing to give up his life.
“It’s a teenager,” Simmons said. “And he didn’t fall. All our reports say that he jumped. There’s a bat mitzvah upstairs and my guess is that he was one of the guests. We don’t know his name yet.”
A teenager. Suicide was hard enough for Antoine to fathom, let alone wrapping his mind around the idea that someone so young would give up all hope.
He had only seen three dead bodies since becoming a cop: one elderly woman (presumably homeless) who had died of exposure near Chelsea Piers, one fifty-something man who had suffered a heart attack on the V train at rush hour, and a woman who had been suffocated by her boyfriend. Death had not seemed frightening to him when he saw those bodies; there was nothing so much as an expression of peace on their faces. Even the suffocation victim looked like she was happily asleep.
A jumper was something else. Human bodies were not designed to win contests against concrete, and the knowledge of what the crash could do to skin and bone was making Antoine’s stomach churn.
The crowd still lingered, just pushed back several yards. Antoine was stunned that people would want to fix their eyes on the human wreckage that lay before him. It was like a grotesque doll whose limbs had been affixed at unnatural angles. The face was smashed against the sidewalk, and he knew it would be impossible to try to get a physical description of the boy from what remained of his face. He gingerly patted down the pockets of the boy’s pants, hoping to find some ID on his person. No luck.
He looked once more at the macabre sight and could only hope that the boy had found whatever peace he had sought. But this was not peaceful, Antoine concluded. This was frightening. This was unnatural. This was violent.
This was what death was supposed to look like.
“We’re calling for extra officers so we can speak to everyone who might know why this happened,” he told Simmons. “I’m going inside and I need you to show me who was in charge of the party. Hey, Larry!” he called to his partner. “Stay with the body, okay? I’m gonna see what I can get from the guests.” The other man nodded his assent.
Antoine walked into a hall whose festive decorations contrasted starkly with the hushed atmosphere. People were moving slowly, as if underwater. A group of caterers stood in a corner, unwilling to break the somber mood by waltzing around with trays of hors d’oeuvres. Occasionally, hungry guests would walk over to grab a crab cake or a brownie or a chicken wing, looking almost apologetic as they did so.
“That’s Mrs. Stieglitz,” Simmons said, pointing at a woman in a crimson dress and matching shawl. “Her daughter is the one having the bat mitzvah.”
“Mrs. Stieglitz?” Antoine took out his badge and showed it to her. “I’m Officer Davis. Can you tell me what happened?”
The woman just shook her head. “No. I can’t believe this. My poor daughter—to have this happen on what’s supposed to be such a happy day!”
Antoine was struck by the woman’s reaction. He was unsure whether it came from lack of sympathy or from shock, or some combination. It unnerved him either way. “I’m very sorry that this had to happen,” he said. “Do you know the name of the boy who jumped?”
“No. Josephine says that all of her friends are here inside and are safe. Our family is accounted for.”
“There are a few older kids,” Antoine observed.
“My son, Jeremi, invited several friends.” She gestured over to a blond boy who was chatting with an impossibly pretty girl; he seemed unperturbed by the tragedy that had just occurred. “But he says they’re all here.”
“Okay, I’m going to need to talk to him.”
“Are you saying he’s lying?” Mrs. Stieglitz’s voice became harsh and Antoine noticed that her forehead didn’t move along with the rest of her face.
“Ma’am, I’m just trying to sort through all this. My primary concern at the moment is to identify the boy who died so we can notify his family, and I’d like to talk to your son because he seems to be the same age. Please,” he added. The woman’s mouth was set in a firm line but she nodded. Antoine thanked her and walked over to the boy. “Are you Jeremi?”
“Yes.” He turned to the girl and gave her a shrug that was a silent gesture to send her away. “This whole thing is crazy.”
“It is. Do you know the boy who jumped?”
“No.” The answer came far too quickly and Jeremi’s eyes didn’t seem to be focusing on anything in particular. Antoine knew the boy was lying. Teen boys were great at deceiving their parents, but he wasn’t so easily fooled.
“He seems to be about your age. Your mother said you had invited a few friends. Is it possible he just tagged along with one of them?”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t know him.” He punctuated each word with a slight shake of his right hand, which was balled into a loose fist. Antoine wondered if Jeremi might even believe his own words. The boy’s eyes were still unfocused, as if his real sight was turned inward.
”Let’s talk somewhere quieter, okay?” He walked Jeremi out into an empty corridor, and the teen sighed heavily but didn’t resist. “Okay, I need you to be honest with me.” Antoine kept his voice soft, realizing he wouldn’t get anywhere by badgering the teen. “There’s a boy your age who just killed himself. He was here at this party. I understand how upsetting this must be if he was your friend, but this wasn’t anyone’s fault. I just want to know his name. I can tell there’s something you’re holding back.”
Jeremi seemed to shrink into himself now that he was away from the rest of the crowd. The cocksure attitude and suave grace that had first caught Antoine’s eye retreated, leaving a young man who wasn’t quite sure what face to present. “He wasn’t supposed to be here,” he said finally, his voice quiet and steady. “I didn’t invite him.”
“What’s his name?”
“What’s his first name?”
“No, Ballard is his first name. Ballard Stone. I go to school with him. He lives on West End in the eighties.”
“You two are friends?”
“No, not really. He’s an okay kid, I guess.” Jeremi paused. “I mean he was an okay kid.”
“Why did he jump?”
“I don’t want to talk about this, okay? I wasn’t there. I had gone back inside. I wasn’t there,” he said again. “Can I go now?”
“Yeah, go ahead.” Antoine could see the guilt on Jeremi’s face, but he wasn’t about to push further. The kid—Ballard Stone, what a name—had jumped and that was his choice alone. Antoine’s job as a patrolman wasn’t to unravel someone else’s despair; it was to serve and protect, and to deal with the undesirable elements that nobody else wanted to touch.
He wondered if Ballard had seen himself as an undesirable element. Or maybe Jeremi had been the one to define him as undesirable. Or maybe it was not that simple.
Antoine walked back into the party and made his way out to the balcony, where Ballard had jumped. The view of the sidewalk beneath showed the boy’s body still sprawled on the concrete. He stared for several long moments. There were two more patrol cars at the curb and an officer was stringing police tape around the area. The crowd had not gone away; in fact it had swelled, and he could make out two small children watching the scene with an adult. He was disgusted by their curiosity, and by his own.
An officer draped a black sheet over the body of Ballard Stone, and Antoine turned away.