The Lure, page 26
“With Alana. If she wants to come. You’ll have to wear a bikini top, though, I’m warning you.”
“To Tiana?” she asked. “That’s so far.”
“We’ll find a closer beach. A public beach. I want to see some people.”
She looked at Eric. “What about you two?”
“We’ll just hang around here, discuss theology,” Eric said.
Several hours later Noel and Alana arrived at Southampton Beach. The nearest occupied blanket was twenty-five feet away.
“Well,” Alana said, “here are all your people!”
Noel ignored her remark and began to spread suntan lotion on her shoulders.
“I can do that,” she said, but he held the tube away from her and went on meticulously covering her already butterscotch-colored skin with a thin veil of rapidly melting liquid. “I think I didn’t need to wear a top at all,” she said. “Don’t do that, Noel. It tickles.”
Unable to resist, he had followed his index finger inside her navel with the tip of his tongue. She gently pulled his head away and finished putting on the lotion herself.
The sun beat down stronger here than at the Redfern villa. The water in front of them was calm as the Caribbean, with a tide breaking languorously on the shore. Noel had wanted to be alone with her, away from Eric, from the villa. But the minute he realized she wouldn’t allow him even to begin lovemaking, he fell back on the blanket, letting the glaring sunlight break up the ocean surface like a pointillist painting in golds and blues and whites, until his vision—even through polarized lenses—seemed to fragment, and spot red when he closed his eyes.
When he turned over and looked at her, Alana was sitting up reading a magazine.
“What is it you want, Alana? Really want?” he asked.
She looked over the top of the magazine, then around at the various objects spread on the blanket. “Nothing,” she said.
“I mean what do you want out of life?” he asked.
The upper part of her face was in shadow from the brim of her sun hat. “Nothing,” she said again, slowly, deliberately.
“Everyone wants something,” he argued. “If not for themselves, then for someone else. Their children. Those they love.”
“One grows up,” she said. “One realizes certain things one longed for a great deal mean nothing.”
She put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t make me think about the past anymore. Please. You are restless. Let’s go swim.”
It was like diving into a huge blue pool, the water was warm, calm. They swam along shore, then frolicked, diving and coming up under each other, then walked side by side at the surfline.
Her hair dried in long ringlets that were so black they seemed tinted with blues and browns and reds, as though all the shades of the spectrum were signaling their presence. He felt even more frustrated.
“Do you know why I asked you here today?”
“Because you wanted to see people.”
“Because I wanted to see you alone. I never see you at the villa.”
“You exaggerate. I am there all the time.”
Now, Noel told himself. It had to be now. “Remember last week, when I called my friend?”
She didn’t answer.
“Remember, Alana, the day McWhitter came to work for Eric?”
“I am not sure,” she said inattentively, heading them back to the blanket.
“I was calling that friend because I felt so lonely out here.”
“Oh?” The word came out of her toneless.
“Really. Or…did you think it was something else.” When she didn’t answer, he prodded, “Alana?”
“I don’t remember, Noel.” She was facing him, her eyes suddenly growing large. “Why don’t you take a nap? That’s what I am going to do.”
His defeat filled a sigh. She gave him the tiniest kiss on the cheek, then sat down, lay back, and closed her eyes.
Noel sat down, too, looking at her for a long time as she relaxed, then fell asleep.
He couldn’t help but compare her to Monica, whom he had awakened next to for so many years, and to Mirella Trent, whom he’d also awakened next to a dozen times in the months they were sleeping together. How inaccessible they had been to him while they slept—how private, how quiet, how different from their waking selves. But not Alana. Oddly, she seemed no different sleeping, as inaccessible awake as now. Why was that? Because they had never made love together, didn’t share that important physical bond? Or because he suspected that even having her body would never be enough for him, that he wanted more from her—what she could never give him: what it seemed she had already given to Eric.
Finally, Noel fell asleep, too. When she awakened him it was near sunset. They decided to have dinner in Southampton.
Alana met friends at the restaurant they had chosen. Would Noel mind if they joined their table? Another man she knew, and some friends of his, arrived, expanding the party. They were laughing, speaking French, drinking. By the time the party was breaking up, it was eleven o’clock. Noel was content that she had at least had a good time, even if he had gained nothing but the bitter knowledge of how distant she still was from him.
At the top of the ascending drive to the Redfern villa, the porte cochere was lighted up; for them, Noel guessed, until they drove closer and saw figures moving about the Silver Cloud, the trunk and two of the doors open. What was going on?
“It’s them,” Noel heard Eric shout in the dark, as he swept the Mercedes over to the Silver Cloud and stopped, without shutting off the headlights.
“Where in hell were you two?” Eric demanded.
“What’s wrong, darling?” Alana asked.
“We’re going back to the city.”
“Tonight?” Noel asked. But Alana was already out of the car.
“I can’t explain why, Alana,” Eric was saying to her, “but we really have to leave. Go pack. Follow us in the big car.”
“What is wrong?” she asked again, angry, her accent thick.
“I don’t have time to explain,” Eric said. “But we aren’t safe here anymore. None of us.”
He had been holding her by the shoulders. Alana turned and went into the house with small, determined steps.
“I’m coming with you,” Eric said to Noel. “How’s the gas?”
“More than half full.”
“Bill? Do you have my leather bag?”
McWhitter brought it over, and Eric tossed it into the back storage compartment. Okku had brought out the coupe top and was fitting it onto the SL. Noel helped him.
“I’ll have to pack, too.”
“It’s ready,” Okku said, and moved the bag from the trunk of the limo to the back of the sports car.
Eric was embracing McWhitter. “Keep it hot for me. We’ll party tonight in town. Get some rest, will you?”
“We’ll be right behind you,” McWhitter said.
Eric turned to Noel. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
Twenty minutes later, as they were passing the exits for Center Moriches on the Long Island Expressway, Eric began turning around in his seat.
“Someone’s following us,” he said, after he had done it the third time. He opened the glove compartment. “Is that gun still here?”
“I don’t know. I never looked for it.”
Eric found it: there was a clang of metal on metal.
After what Noel considered the first “normal” day of his existence in months—minimal worries, suspicions alleviated—the sudden announcement that they had to leave, the sudden return to a life of perils and suspected perils, of no explanations and hasty behavior, irritated him. He’d been slowly steaming since they’d driven away from the house. Now he said:
“Put it away. I don’t want you hurting anyone out of sheer paranoia.” He didn’t care if Eric accused him of being sarcastic, nonsupportive now.
“It’s not paranoia,” was all that Eric replied.
“We were being watched.” He put the gun back, and shut the glove compartment.
“Come on, Eric, give me a break, will you?”
“We were. I saw them. McWhitter saw them, too. They followed you. When you and Alana went out today, McWhitter and I were up on the roof fooling around. They were waiting for someone to come from the house, exactly where the driveway reaches the road. You must have seen them. A lighting maintenance truck and a smaller pickup. Pretending to fix something. They had binoculars. We saw them. The pickup followed you.”
Noel had noticed the two vehicles, but hadn’t noticed that they followed. That was interesting. As was Eric’s seeing them.
“What if the pickup had a reason to take off just then? I mean, there’re only two directions he could go, aren’t there?”
“He followed you,” Eric insisted.
“Assuming that’s true, why…?”
“They’ve been snooping around all week in one way or another. We saw some guys pretending to fish at the cove directly in front of the terrace two days ago. Naturally they would have a perfect view up.”
“To the edge of the terrace? What could they see there? You two making out?”
“Okku had two strangers call during the week. Both with really lame excuses. One was selling equipment for digging wells. The other was calling for someone Okku had never heard of.”
“But who are they?” Noel insisted.
“I don’t know.”
“Then why are they spying on you?”
“You’re in as much danger as any of us, Noel. Maybe more.”
“Who are they?”
“My enemies.” Eric turned around again. “See that big sedan in the first lane? It’s beginning to pull up now.”
Noel checked the rearview mirror. There were few enough cars speeding along the highway this late at night: it was easy to see the headlights of the sedan in the first lane. It was pulling up.
“Move over a lane,” Eric said. “Now!”
Noel swerved to the next lane. The sedan slowed to parallel them. A mid-sixties Continental, black, chunky, long, tinted glass.
“Keep her steady,” Eric said, tense.
Noel thought it was unlikely that the car would be following them. Even if all Eric had said were true, Loomis wouldn’t be foolish enough to follow them so openly. Or would he?
“Can you see who’s inside?” Eric asked. Almost involuntarily, Noel speeded up. The Continental moved to the outer edge of its lane, but kept pace.
Maybe the Fisherman was trying to scare Eric. But what was Noel supposed to do? Whoever was driving must realize that Noel would be as liable to any danger that resulted from this as Eric. If the sedan made the wrong move, who knew what crazy stunt Eric might pull? Noel decided to play it down.
“Someone might be in the back seat,” Eric said, looking around.
“With a machine gun?” Noel asked
“You think I’m overreacting, don’t you?”
“Think you are?”
“Then why are they holding steady with us?”
“It’s a free road, Eric, really.”
They were cruising at seventy-five now, the two cars gliding side by side along a curve in the highway, then descending into a straight stretch, slipping past other cars in the slow lane.
“Slow down a little,” Eric said.
Noel brought their speed down to sixty; the big sedan did the same.
“There! Satisfied?” Eric asked.
“Why don’t you put on some music?” Noel suggested. “Is that Keith Jarrett tape still here?” He rummaged with his free hand in the little compartment under the armrests, and looked up to see the big sedan falling out of sight.
Only to come up directly behind them.
“Shit!” Eric said. “Move over. I’ll take the wheel.”
“At this speed? No way!”
“They’re tailgating us.” The headlights shone right into the Mercedes, illuminating the dashboard.
Noel had never seen Eric so jittery before, so anxious to take over. He almost expected him to pull out the gun and start shooting. He had to do something, had to stay in control of the car. No cars ahead. So he gunned it.
The sports car leaped like a big cat let out of a sack, almost with a life of its own. Noel hoped it would steer as easily as it did at lower speeds. Eighty. Ninety. Over a hundred miles an hour. They were slashing past landscape and trees until they were a blur, past slow-lane cars as though they were stopped.
“I think we lost them,” Eric said.
They seemed to be on a different part of the highway. More cars were feeding in from some large access road. Noel had to slow down.
Minutes later, the sedan was on their tail again.
Noel saw it before Eric, slipped the car into the fast lane, and jumped out again. Because of the traffic, he had to zigzag.
“They’re following,” Eric said. His hand was in the glove compartment now—for the gun.
“Playing with us,” Noel mumbled.
“You call it playing?” Eric asked, incredulous. “Move over. Let me take the wheel.”
He made a grab for it. Noel knocked his hand away.
“I’ll lose them,” he said, furious now, not at Eric, who had every right to be frightened, but at the driver of the Continental, and at the Fisherman, and all those bastards in Whisper who’d sit around laughing their heads off when they heard. “You watch!”
He was cutting dangerously in and out of lanes, pushing the Mercedes up to ninety again. The sedan followed.
“Keep your eyes on them, tell me everything they’re doing,” Noel said between his teeth. “Every move.”
In front of him, cruising traffic was also switching lanes. Noel maneuvered into a spot behind two fast cars, went around them, leading them.
“Get off the highway,” Eric said. “Now. The exit.”
Noel remained in the fast lane until a gap appeared between the two cars in front of him, one in each lane. He could see the exit sign just ahead, then the ramp itself. No other cars in the right-hand lane.
“He’s right behind us, Noel,” Eric said, panicked. “Get off the road. Go! Now!” Noel calculated the space between the two cars ahead, close to their back bumpers.
“Noel! Do as I say!”
“Shut up, Eric!” he shouted, and at the same time rammed the Mercedes through the space, leaning on the horn. The cars’ fenders were only inches away on either side of them, one car honking and swerving away.
“He’s coming in after us,” Eric said.
They cleared the two cars, Noel gunned the Mercedes, swerving, onto the exit ramp, praying that the wheel would turn in time, that they would clear the trees on the side of the road.
“You’re going to kill us!” Eric screamed.
But the tires squealed and held; the car rocked into the curve dangerously, then up the ramp. Noel braked it slowly to a stop. Out the side window he could see below on the highway. Ahead, the Continental had broken through the other two cars only to find itself alone. It had worked!
“We lost the fuckers!” Noel shouted, banging both hands on the steering wheel in glee. “They don’t know where we are!”
Eric was sitting still, pale, drawn, as though someone had shoved him back against the seat. “You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” he asked in a tight voice.
“We got away, didn’t we?”
Only as he said it did Noel realize what an incredible risk he’d taken. One mistake and they would have been totaled. They—and at least three other cars.
“Go back down on the highway,” Eric said, and when they were driving along the road again, “pull over.”
“Right there,” Eric said. “I’m getting out.”
The car bumped over the abutment and came to a rest on grass. “Drive on to the house. Let yourself in. We’ll catch up.”
Eric got out.
“I wanted to drive myself,” Eric said.
“Why are you getting out now?”
“Because I can’t stay in the car with you driving. I’m not safe.”
Noel was suddenly very serious. “I thought we were becoming friends, Eric. If this is the way you trust me, maybe I’d better get out. I’ll hitch back.” As he got out of the SL, he added, “Better not wait up.”
“I can’t use this car,” Eric said.
·Why not? It’s yours.”
“No, it’s not. I had the registration put in your name.”
Noel could barely make out Eric’s face in the dim light of the overheads. “In my name? What for?”
“I was going to surprise you with it.”
They leaned against the car. Eric lighted a joint, took a drag, handed it to Noel. Behind them was the whoosh of auto tires on asphalt. In front of them the rustle of trees. Noel was exhausted after the recent escape and exhilaration. He didn’t know what to say, what to do. The least he’d expected was thanks from Eric. Maybe even shared triumph. He got nothing.
Nothing but the SL. They passed the joint back and forth.
Finally, he asked, “You’re really waiting for them?”
“McWhitter will ride with you,” Eric said. “I don’t completely trust him either.”
Silence, until the joint was only a glowing spark, too short to grab hold of.
“They tapped the phones,” Eric said, “until I baffled them with a device I put together. Okku picked up the phone once to dial, right after you had finished talking to someone, and heard two men talking.”
The loops! Noel tried to control his panic.
“What?” he asked. “When?”
“What were they saying?”
“Okku was so surprised he didn’t recall. They heard him and clicked off. I’ve had baffles on in the city for the last few years. I didn’t think we’d need them here.”
So, Eric didn’t know about the phone call. It was all guesswork, deduction, and the ridiculous visibility of Loomis’s operatives. What a stupid thing to do! Yet it answered what could have been the worst possible discovery—the loops.