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June 16, 2022 – Birgit Brzezinski had accumulated substantial wealth during her career as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs. Her knowledge and skills were formidable, but her talent lay in seduction. She knew how to play men’s prejudices. She had come of age in finance when few women were welcome, much less hired. Birgit exploited her looks and charm ruthlessly to acquire male clients, manage them, and charge them vast sums of money for use of her firm’s resources. She was widely considered an asset to the firm and liked by those who remained on her good side. She avoided the limelight.
Birgit had never married. She seemed to cycle through men at the rate of about one every two years or so for the past 30 years. “Men are convenient until they’re not,” she concluded. “The men in my personal life are essentially fungible.”
Her sisters knew that her last boyfriend was named Carlos. Just Carlos. Birgit never shared the last name of any of her men, the better for her sisters to not get emotionally attached or to stalk them. She shared that Carlos was from Argentina and that he was a lawyer. The pandemic lockdown soon shifted the priorities of Carlos from enjoying Birgit’s pleasure to helping keep the families of his three adult children safe from the novel coronavirus.
“Look me up when this is all over,” she told him. She was not yet finished with Carlos.
Ingrid introduced Hopper to Birgit at a cocktail party at her sister’s duplex on the East River. It was the first stop of the “Hopper Approval Tour” that Ingrid had designed to gain the approval of her boyfriend from her older sisters. The second and final stop would take place at a similar gathering hosted in San Francisco by Heidi.
“My intention is to marry this man and have children with him,” she told her sisters on a conference call, “and I need the two of you to observe him and interrogate him to protect me from my blind spots.”
“What blind spots?” Heidi asked.
“Well, for instance, he’s very good at sex,” Ingrid answered, “and I like the way he looks at me after we have sex. A lot.”
“Your flesh is weak, sis,” Birgit said, “but we’re on it.”
Through the course of the cocktail party at Birgit’s apartment, Hopper spoke at least five minutes individually with the 30 people Birgit had invited to play their roles. Before they left, each would fill out a short questionnaire with their impressions of Hopper, who did not spill a drop of the two martinis he consumed, never turned down a canape when offered nor allowed a crumb to hit the carpet. He offered more than 100 compliments, never once excused himself, never laughed too loudly at a joke, and maintained his best smile without break. During his conversations, he learned that Birgit’s duplex had 10 rooms, including five bedrooms and four bathrooms, a gym, 11-foot ceilings, and a family room, all without leaving the corner of the living room Ingrid had assigned him with instructions to not move.
One thing his upbringing had taught Hopper was how to behave around money. His parents did not start out wealthy, but they were creative people on the rise whose coterie of followers included titans of industry and trust-fund millionaires seeking the sheen of cool given off by artistic types. Additionally, a tidy percentage of the fathers of Hopper’s Stuyvesant classmates were CEO’s or CFO’s or members of the boards of Fortune 500 companies. He had attended parties in larger and more lavish Manhattan apartments with better views. He knew not to be awestruck, but to offer the right kind of compliments without sounding obsequious.
Ingrid described Birgit as possessing “Fuck You Money.” It was enough wealth, Birgit explained, to tell anyone in the world “fuck you” without suffering repercussions. “I would never use that vulgarity in polite company,” Birgit continued, “but I have used it in private with two heads of state, five U.S. Senators, one White House chief of staff, and three finance ministers of South American countries who eventually became clients.”
However, all of Birgit’s wealth and connections could not save her from COVID-19. She had received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, but contracted the virus before her second shot. “I let my guard down,” she admitted to Ingrid, but she refused to disclose where and how she had been infected. “That’s a secret that will either be revealed in my memoirs or die with me.”
Birgit did not die immediately; rather, she suffered long-haul symptoms and months of seclusion in Mount Sinai Hospital before succumbing. She had no visitors for the last six months of her life. She used Zoom to communicate with the world as long as she could. Her last message was to her nephews Alexis and Max. “Don’t be assholes to the girls,” she told them. She was cremated and her ashes were divided between Heidi and Ingrid in custom, exquisite urns.
Since their sister’s passing, neither Ingrid nor Heidi had visited Birgit’s apartment, which they had jointly inherited. “Neither Heidi nor I want to own the apartment,” Ingrid explained to Hopper, “and we just can’t bring ourselves to go there.” However, before the sisters allowed a broker to inspect the residence, they asked Hopper to look it over and stay the night while he was in New York.
“You want me to find the porn stash and hide it before anyone finds it?” he asked them over a Zoom.
“Yes, essentially, that’s it,” Ingrid responded.
“Ingrid, you are oversimplifying things,” Heidi said. “Hopper, please take photos of everything. Open all the drawers and cabinets. If you find anything small and valuable or of an extremely personal nature, remove it from the apartment and FedEx it to Ingrid.”
“Why do you want me to do this instead of, I don’t know, someone who is bonded and does this for a living?” Hopper asked.
“We trust you,” Heidi answered.
“Yes, Hopper, you may be a jerk,” Ingrid said, “but you are a trustworthy jerk.”
“And why should I do you this favor?” he asked.
“Because you love us,” Heidi said.
“And because, deep down, we still love you, too, don’t we Heidi?” Ingrid added with a giggle.
Dusk was settling into night as Hopper approached Birgit’s building. The doorman had been told to expect Hopper. He handed Hopper a key with instructions to return the key in the morning when he vacated the apartment.
Hopper moved through the apartment quickly and efficiently. He calculated that he had enough time to complete the inspection and still make it to dinner with Charlize without making her wait too long. He set his phone’s camera to video and glided through the duplex in about 15 minutes. He then took photos of every room. He uploaded the files to a Dropbox account Heidi had set up for this purpose. He then began the part of the inspection he dreaded most, going through the effects of a dead woman he barely knew and who he knew had disapproved of him.
“Ingrid, I give you credit for finding a man who cleans up so nicely and has such impeccable manners,” Birgit said the day after the cocktail party. “Hopper Tilley-Blandin is a great resume.”
“You mean ‘has’ a great resume,” Ingrid said.
“I did not err in my pronouncement,” Birgit responded. “I’ve met and fucked many a man like your boyfriend. They coast through life, buoyed by privilege. They may work hard, but they don’t know the sting of rejection. They seduce you by becoming the man they think you want them to be. That Hopper of yours needs to learn that many of his character traits are actually flaws. I fear he will not recognize this about himself until the day you divorce him.”
Heidi was enthralled by Hopper.
“You just evaluated his earnings potential, Heidi,” Birgit had remarked. “Typical venture capitalist.”
Ingrid lied to Hopper about what Birgit had told her. Only after they were married did she hint at Birgit’s true assessment. Hopper shrugged off the reassessment; it was the past.
Hopper methodically moved from room to room, opening drawers, cabinets, and boxes. He was not worried about the silver or even the jewelry. He bypassed her impressive collection of vibrators and the section in her personal library devoted to erotic literature. He opened the safe in her home office using the combination Heidi had provided. He discovered a (presumably illegal) Glock 42 pistol and two clips of ammunition, her will, her DNR order, $100,000 in cash, a ring of keys, and a list of all her passwords, including to her Bitcoin wallet. He locked the safe with its contents intact, save for the keys. Their attorney could empty the safe. Ingrid and Heidi would want the keys as soon as possible.
One of the keys opened a locked drawer in Birgit’s office desk, where he discovered a cache of letters still in their original envelopes and a slim volume of Stephen’s poetry. He had inscribed it: “To Birgit, my favorite rapacious vixen. Love, Your Stephen.” As he flipped through the pages, he noticed that Stephen had annotated several of the poems with personal references to Birgit.
After opening the letters, Birgit had returned them to their envelopes and used wax with her personal seal to close them. They were letters that Ingrid and Heidi had sent to their sister when they were younger. Personal letters. Letters filled with secrets. Letters filled with thoughts and facts that only sisters could share with each other. As Hopper sorted through the envelopes, he noticed one that Ingrid had sent to Birgit days after the cocktail party. He wondered how Ingrid had responded in writing to Birgit’s assessment of him. If he broke the seal, he would be violating Ingrid’s trust. She might never know, but she would suspect. He left it unmolested.
Hopper took the keys and the letters and sealed them in a shipping box he had picked up from a Federal Express store a few blocks away. He did not include the book of poetry; rather, he laid it on the nightstand of the guest bedroom he had chosen for himself.
“Don’t you dare sleep in Birgit’s bed,” Ingrid had warned him.
“Do you think I’m a ghoul?” Hopper had retorted.
“Divorce can do strange things to a man,” Ingrid said.
If he did not tarry dropping off the box and its contents at the store, he would make it to dinner with Charlize on time.
Continue to Chapter 20 here.