The lure, p.16

The Lure, page 16

 

The Lure
 



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  He had just reached for it, and was thanking the storeowner, when he heard what sounded like a car careening out of control in front of them. Both men looked around, saw the big sedan suddenly appear from around the corner of Twenty-ninth Street, swerving wildly.

  Before they could call out, they saw Flanders—in the middle of the street—also turn to the source of the loud noise. The sedan seemed to aim away from him. Its brakes screeched. Flanders threw up his hands to protect himself, then was spun around like a top as the fender brushed against him, and the car sped past and raced up the avenue. Flanders seemed to totter for a long second before he fell straight forward as though a giant hand had slapped him down.

  Noel’s heart and breath stopped.

  “He’s hit!” the storekeeper yelled, and pulled Noel along with him toward the corner.

  Flanders was facedown in the gutter, his hands spread out on either side of him, not as if he had been breaking his fall, but as though he’d been knocked unconscious.

  The storeowner bent down to him, muttering. Noel remained on the curb, petrified, staring at the blood as it poured out of Flanders’s ears and nose in spurts, and from his forehead, which must have taken the second impact and concussed. In seconds a thin yellowish liquid began seeping out of Flanders’s head, encircling the fast-growing puddle of deep crimson blood.

  A crowd gathered quickly, and Noel was soon pushed back among them. Sirens were screaming toward them. Then someone was nudging Noel away from the corner.

  “You’d better get out of here,” the man said, as if in command, and in such an odd tone of voice that Noel stared at him. It was as if he knew something Noel did not.

  Had Flanders just been assassinated before his very eyes?

  “Go,” the man said. Noel dumbly moved away.

  9

  Dorrance was in the big first-floor office of the Redfern town house. He greeted Noel more warmly than before, but with Dorrance that was like gradations in the temperature of a refrigerator.

  “You’re very conscientious,” Dorrance said, taking the manila envelope and inspecting its contents.

  “I didn’t have anything else to do, and Rick was real swamped.” It was two hours after the street-corner hit-and-run death, and though calm again, Noel couldn’t get Flanders’s image out of his mind.

  Dorrance went through the papers thoroughly, but quickly, as though he had a photographic memory.

  Noel used this time to study him again. Something about Dorrance repelled him, even if he weren’t the mastermind of so much evil and mayhem. He was cold, efficient, extracautious, always polite and tactful, precise, well-spoken: nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that suggested more than a career diplomat or a successful bureaucrat. What was frightening was how unextraordinary he was, how dull, with his expected good grooming, his à la mode haircut and clothing. Unimaginative. That was it. Nothing unique about him; at least nothing apparent. He reminded Noel of a washed-out version of Wilbur Boyle, his department chairman. He and Boyle would get along very well, Noel thought, have a long, insincere conversation: they were of a type.

  “It all seems to be in order,” Dorrance said, getting up from his seat. He closed the envelope and locked it in a desk drawer. “Now, would you care for a drink?”

  That was a first. “Sure,” Noel said. Perhaps Loomis was right, the more Noel hung around the more he’d be noticed.

  Dorrance ordered over the intercom, and they took the elevator up to the large living room on the main floor where Okku, the manservant, was just setting the drinks onto the coffee table.

  “Help yourself to some music,” Dorrance said. “I don’t know what’s what back there. Eric and Alana usually select it.”

  The stereo system Redfern had installed in the house was magnificent. It consisted of a preamplifier, radio tuner, two phonograph decks, two reel-to-reel tape decks, and a cassette deck attached to dozens of speakers for each floor, all hooked up to a central series of powerful amplifiers somewhere on the basement level, thousands of watts strong. All the equipment was touch-operated: shiny black surfaces and subtle, scarcely marked keys were all that you saw. All the electronics were Redfern manufacture—the latest, the most expensive, Noel guessed.

  He chose an hour-long cassette copy of a tape just delivered to the Grip. He adjusted the volume and returned to where Dorrance was seated in a leather rocking chair, looking out at the back garden.

  “Eric and Alana seem to be out today?” Noel asked, trying to make conversation.

  “They’re in Bermuda for a few days.”

  Noel sat down. “So that’s why it seemed so quiet.”

  “They and their friends can get awfully noisy at times,” Dorrance said, almost wistfully, Noel thought. “Tell me something about yourself, Noel.”

  Noel almost gagged on his vodka and tonic. Here it was.

  “There’s not much to tell.”

  “You’re not a stupid young man. Educated. To what? College level?” Noel nodded yes. Dorrance went on. “Yet you’re working in a bar, why?”

  “You’re the second person to ask me that today. You might call it disillusionment with the groves of academe, I suppose.”

  “Understandable,” Dorrance said. But he didn’t sound convinced. “Go on.”

  “Well, when I came out a few years ago, on the Coast,” Noel lied, the words flowing out of him they were so well rehearsed, so often said recently, “I decided I was tired of the hypocrisy. I wanted to live my own way, and that didn’t fit in too well. The last holdout was my lover, in Berkeley. When I walked out on him it broke the last tie to my old life. That’s why I came to New York.”

  Dorrance was rapt. Bought it hook, line, and sinker, Noel thought.

  “And you like being at the bar?”

  “It’s all right.”

  “You like one-to-one contact with the public?”

  What was he getting at? “It isn’t ideal, of course,” Noel said, “but until I figure out what is, it’ll do.”

  “The reason I ask is…well, perhaps you can tell me why I’m asking all these questions?”

  Noel wasn’t certain whether he’d been led into a trap unaware, into some revelation he hadn’t meant to make. For what seemed an eternity, he sat, holding his glass, looking at Dorrance, feeling like a block of ice that had been left to melt on the expensive carpets. What did Dorrance know? What the hell was he up to? Slow down, Noel told himself. Calm down. Answer him.

  “I’m not sure I know what you mean. Unless it’s that you’re expanding and all.”

  “Exactly. We are expanding. Rick’s club. Maybe another one on the Coast. You seem to me to be the kind of person we need. Conscientious, smart, popular, responsible.”

  “To do what?”

  “Nothing right now, except what you’re already doing. You’re comfortable at the Grip. Others are comfortable with you there. We’ll see how you work out and what best fits your particular talents. Then, when we’re ready, you’ll be ready, too. For the time being, stay at the bar. Rick will be away a lot. It’ll need a steady hand.”

  “Right,” Noel said.

  “Good,” Dorrance said.

  That was it. No offer. And certainly nothing personal. Dorrance was like a corporation officer informing the junior executive he was being watched, put in line for promotion. Definitely all business. Nothing sexual. Not a hint of a come-on. Was Dorrance shy? Asexual? Or was he up to his ears in debt to Eric—the real money? Loomis would be disappointed. He’d expected so much from Noel. So far all he had was—what? A few photocopied papers? And this offer.

  There was a call for Dorrance, and he took it on the library extension. Noel refilled his drink and nursed it, trying to find a way to present this new information to Loomis in a manner that would not totally devastate him.

  “That was Eric and Alana,” Dorrance said, several minutes later. “They both said hello.”

  “Both? I’m surprised to hear that,” Noel said. “I didn’t think Eric cared for
me too much.”

  “Sometimes he shows how much he cares in odd ways,” Dorrance said. “If you’re done with your drink, I’ll drive you downtown to the bar.”

  Not another word passed between them until Noel got out of the plush, dead-silent, powder-gray Bentley sedan in front of the Grip on West Street.

  10

  The following night Noel wasn’t working at the bar. Until three o’clock the following afternoon, when he began an eight-hour shift at the Grip, he was free.

  This sudden freedom, after three hectic months, made him extremely restless. He ought to work on his thesis, or go out and investigate more gay life for it. He still hadn’t been to the Baths or any back-room clubs, and his experience of bars was limited to a few in the Village. But that wasn’t what he wanted tonight.

  Paul’s words that last day of school kept coming back to him. He suddenly found that he did care, he cared very much. But at least he didn’t have to worry what students would write about him on bathroom walls for the next three months; for the next eight months, unless Boyle changed his mind.

  Boyle might be right. Look at Mirella Trent: one class this term, and that one a seminar for advanced students, most of whom were doing fieldwork, lectures at various other universities. Mirella Trent was on easy street.

  He showered and then moped for the next hour, telling himself he was being foolish to waste a good night off, the first in months that he wouldn’t be at the Grip, at Eric’s, or working on his thesis.

  “What’s wrong with me tonight, anyway?” he asked his image in the mirror. “I’m disturbed. Emotionally charged up. Over nothing. Nothing.”

  The minute he said it to himself, he knew it wasn’t true. What he was, was horny. Just plain horny. If nothing else, the weeks of working in a gay bar had conferred that much physical honesty on him. Once Noel accepted it, he felt immediately better.

  He resolved to go have a light dinner uptown at a well-known singles bar on the East Side. The place served mediocre food but was known to attract young professionals of both sexes, who, like himself tonight, admitted they were looking for lovemaking with no entanglements.

  All I want is a one night affair.

  Hit and run son-of-a-gun.

  Don’t want to love you

  Don’t want to make you my wife;

  Don’t want to see you

  every day for the rest of my life.

  The words of Butler’s song came back to him with renewed force as he shaved, they were so applicable to his situation. He sang the song, making up new words, skipping or slurring over those he couldn’t recall, as he dressed.

  He felt a little odd in pressed slacks, sports jacket, and an open-necked shirt as he hailed a cab up Madison Avenue. It seemed too dressy, too formal, compared to the jeans and T-shirts and body shirts he’d been wearing lately, with their easy, formfitting grip.

  The place was packed when he arrived, and Noel had to wait at the bar for a half hour before a sneering waiter deigned to show him to a minuscule table in a corner. By then he’d already begun his second vodka martini and taken a look around.

  There were women all right, but in twos and threes or coupled with men. Several noticed he was looking at them: work at the Grip had taught him what constituted a heavy cruise—it worked on either sex. But the petite blonde with her movie-star face and trim body seemed more interested in her spinach and bacon salad and her dowdy female companion than in Noel. Ditto for the sultry, long-limbed brunette facing him, whose every gesture said, “You can look but you can’t touch.”

  Twice during his meal, Noel took the longest possible route to the men’s room, where he stood reading pseudointellectual graffiti until he figured it was time to come out again. Each time he saw another woman who might be picked up, if something about her were more inviting, more alluring. Each time he returned to his corner table alone.

  Then it was eleven o’clock. Surely some of these women knew the place’s reputation; one of them must be on the make, too! But the one time a fairly attractive curly-haired, reddish-blonde sauntered past him and then back again, all he could do was mutter a halfhearted hello and look out the window.

  It was then that Noel realized he was comparing them to another woman. One’s eyes were too light. One’s hips too stout. One too made up. The blonde was inane looking. The brunette too self-conscious. But who was he using as an ideal? Monica? Maybe Mirella? No.

  Noel was asking for another coffee when a group passed in front of the restaurant and lingered a few feet away from where he sat. When a woman with dark, lustrous hair became suddenly visible, Noel almost stood up. But then she turned toward the window, and of course it wasn’t—who? Alana! How could it be? She was in Bermuda. Dorrance had said so just yesterday.

  The group moved off, and left Noel with a depressing thought: he’d been comparing all these women to one of the world’s highest-paid fashion models, a woman who smelled of roses and lilacs, who lived with another man. And who didn’t care for him. Noel called for his check. By the time he reached his apartment, the depression really hit. But he still felt restless, frustrated.

  He could cab across town, pick up one of the numerous prostitutes who walked the Minnesota Strip off Forty-second Street—so called because so many of them were from the Midwest. Or he could try to settle down to work. Or take an ice-cold shower and forget about it.

  He opted for the shower. He had just turned on the water full force and was stepping in, when the phone rang.

  “Hi,” a man’s voice said, “what are you up to?”

  Noel couldn’t place the caller.

  “I was about to take a shower.”

  “Yeah? Wish I were there.”

  Now he did place the voice. “Randy?”

  “Took you long enough to figure it out.”

  “We’ve never spoken over the phone before.”

  “I thought maybe you forgot who I was.”

  “No, I didn’t forget.” How could I forget? Noel wanted to say.

  “I was at the Grip a few minutes ago. Buddy told me it was your night off. I figured you’d be out on the town.”

  Buddy, huh? Noel had been trying to avoid him ever since that night he and Miguel had followed them to Little Larry’s place. So far, Vega had stayed out of Noel’s way, doing nothing in the least bit suspicious. How did Buddy know about him and Randy?

  “I’m just here at home,” Noel said. “You know Buddy?”

  “We all sort of work together, right?” Randy said. “We know each other. I wouldn’t say we were real friendly, if that’s what you’re asking.”

  “Just curious,” Noel said. “He say anything about me?”

  “Only that you were off tonight.”

  A long pause, then Randy said, “Well, I just called to say hello and to see what you were up to.”

  It was evident from his tone of voice he had something else on his mind. Noel waited.

  “You’re not mad at me, are you?” Nerone suddenly asked. “You know, about what happened? I know I got a little carried away. I’m not usually so aggressive like that.”

  “That’s all right.”

  “You’re not busy or anything, are you?”

  “No.”

  “I just scored some dynamite grass, and I’m right in your neighborhood. Why don’t you invite me up?”

  “Really good grass?”

  “The grass is fine. What I’d really like is a replay of that pool scene the other night, what do you say?”

  Noel thought fast. Was he supposed to believe Randy just wanted to make love with him again, or was there something more? Maybe Vega had put Randy up to it. Making sure that this time Randy would blow Noel’s cover if he didn’t say yes. For whatever reasons Vega had. Buddy must know how close to Dorrance Nerone was, or maybe still was. Word would get back to Mr. X fast enough, unless Noel came up with a really good excuse, and it seemed a little late in this conversation for that. It was a test, another goddamn test! And whoever was responsible
for the test—Vega, Mr. X, whoever—knew that Noel was going to fail it unless he played by the rules: and the rules said Randy Nerone got laid by Noel tonight whether Noel liked it or not.

  “Are you still there?” Randy prompted him.

  “Yeah, still here,” Noel said. “Sorry, thought I heard someone knocking on the door.” It was a lame excuse, but better than none.

  “Should I come by?” Nerone asked. “Or what?”

  The bitch of it, Noel thought, was that Randy seemed to be innocent of how he was being used by Vega, by Mr. X. Simple, guileless, oversexed Randy would feel a little hurt if Noel rejected him tonight. Whereas Noel would be putting his neck in a noose if he did.

  “Sure, Randy,” he said, “come on by. I’d really like to see you.”

  He could hear Nerone’s relief and pleasure in his sign-off. He gave his address, then shut off the shower, changed into a pair of worn jeans and a T-shirt, threaded a tape on his reel-to-reel, dimmed the lights, and waited for the downstairs buzzer to ring.

  For a moment he thought to call Loomis and find out how he could get out of this. But after their last misunderstanding over Randy, he already knew what Loomis’s position would be. “Lots of guys do it, Lure.”

  When the doorman buzzed up to announce his guest, Noel stood in front of his mirror. He was supposed to be the Lure, the Bait. Look at me now. I’m the one who’s caught on the hook: anywhere I turn I’m caught on it.

  He hoped Randy Nerone’s grass was strong tonight. He was going to need it.

  11

  “Is Randy Nerone working for Whisper?”

  “Whatever gave you that idea?” Loomis asked.

  “Is he? Or isn’t he?” Noel insisted.

  “You know, Lure, you’re getting to be neurotically suspicious.”

  “And you’re getting to be psychotically demanding.”

 

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