The lure, p.27

The Lure, page 27

 

The Lure
 



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  “And McWhitter?” Noel asked.

  “I don’t know. Maybe it’s all coincidence. But none of this began out here until he arrived. His references checked out. He used to be a local hit man for the mob on the West Coast. Things got a little tight for him there. I don’t know.”

  “Do you think Okku will see us and stop?” Noel asked.

  He did see them, or at least Alana did. The Silver Cloud pulled onto the embankment and McWhitter had to be aroused from his nap and led like a big child to the SL where he was put into the passenger seat, and promptly dozed off again.

  Noel followed the Rolls for a while, then the expressway met a crossover that fed in a great deal of traffic, and Noel lost them. He had another twenty minutes to drive by himself, thinking about what would happen when he returned to the town house. Every day seemed to complicate matters more. Eric was onto Whisper, without knowing he was onto it. Yet Noel would not allow that much information to get back to Loomis through him: let him find out through someone else. That might be construed as annoyance, he knew, but something about the Fisherman’s methods was beginning to bother Noel deeply. He felt stained by it. Everything about his life these days—everything but Alana—had something rotten about it.

  “Wake up, sleeping beauty.” He shook McWhitter hard when they emerged from the Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan. As they approached the town house, McWhitter came fully awake, growling to himself.

  “All out,” Noel said at the down ramp into the garage.

  “You’re real friendly with Eric, aren’t you?”

  Noel didn’t know what the bodyguard was getting at. “Sure.”

  “Well, that’s too bad. ’Cause I don’t like you.”

  “Get over it!” Noel said in a hard voice. “I live here.”

  But he was still shaking after McWhitter slammed the door and exited, loping over the wall around the house in a single leap.

  8

  After he dropped off the bodyguard, Noel drove to find an all-night gas station where he could fill the tank and have the oil checked. He found one finally, near the Queensboro Bridge. The station attendants were all busy. While he waited, Noel opened the glove compartment. He found the fake ceiling, opened it, saw the material it had nestled in, but no gun. So Eric had taken it out of the car altogether.

  Closing the panel, he found a slim leather packet. Sure enough, the car’s registration had been made out in his name, sold to him for a dollar. All that was needed to make it legal was Noel’s signature. Weird. The last thing he expected from Eric was the Mercedes as a gift. He wondered if professional ethics would allow him to keep it. Then he wondered what Eric expected in return: what was worth twenty-five thousand dollars? Nothing about Redfern made any sense. As soon as Noel thought one thing, Eric seemed to unconsciously go out of his way to do exactly the opposite.

  When he returned to the town house, the limo wasn’t in the garage. Yet lights were on in three floors.

  Okku met him on the main floor. Eric and McWhitter had gone out to dinner and would probably be out the rest of the night, he said. Noel was to remain in.

  That seemed to be a good sign. It meant that Eric had forgiven him for his reckless behavior on the expressway. Or, having had time to think about it, probably saw how foolish his own behavior had been.

  Noel went up to his rooms on the fourth floor, showered, changed, then decided to see if Alana was still awake.

  He found her a half hour later on the top floor. She was sitting in a lounge chair on the roof garden.

  Noel’s first impulse was to take advantage of the still beauty of the warm summer night, the flowers richly, odorously in bloom, to go to her and try to reestablish the rapport they’d had that afternoon, to make it something more.

  Instead, he didn’t move, holding one hand on the sliding door leading onto the deck, watching her, sensing that she was not to be disturbed right now, that she was enjoying a few rare moments of privacy, or meditation.

  She broke the silence for him. “What are you waiting for?” she said, without turning to face him. “Come and sit.”

  “I thought I was interrupting…” he began to explain. A thin mist over the night sky here, compared to the clarity of the skies over the Hamptons, made it seem as though a gauze scrim had been pulled over them. The few distant, lighted higher buildings made the deck garden float in a pool of darkness.

  “You are very considerate,” she said stiffly, motioning him to the chaise lounge next to hers.

  “Okku said I was to stay in tonight.”

  “He meant that you were to remain here. You may go out if you wish, of course. They went to the Window Wall. It is only two o’clock. You can still go.”

  “I’ll stay. I’ve had a pretty busy day.”

  He wanted to ask her for reassurances. He knew it was asking for too much. So he said, “We had an argument. In the car.”

  “I know. Eric said you were terrible. You frightened him, I’m certain of it. Not many people can frighten Eric.”

  “I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”

  “It is your utter unpredictability that he is afraid of. His father was just so. Always, he needed him, but he could never rely on him, never trust him. Eric needs you, Noel. But you are not there for him. I don’t think he completely understands that even you are not sure what you will do next.”

  That was a pretty shrewd estimate. “Maybe you’re in the wrong business,” he suggested.

  “I know Eric inside and out.”

  “Me, too?”

  “No. I am still guessing about you.”

  “Alana,” he took her hand and she let him hold it without any protest, “tell me, why am I still here in this house? Eric doesn’t need me. Especially with Mr. Muscles around.”

  “He’ll grow tired of Bill in a few weeks. That is how Eric is. But with you it is different. You and he have a different bond.”

  Close to target again, he thought. And thanked her for taking his part on the drive back to the city.

  “I did nothing of the sort,” she declared.

  They were silent for some time, then he decided to ask her some questions. He was certain she would answer truthfully.

  “Why is Eric so paranoiac? Is he involved in crime?”

  “Crime?”

  “You know. Drugs. Smuggling. Is that why he’s acting so odd?”

  The minute he said it, her hand pulled out of his. Her tone of voice said what he couldn’t see for the darkness: she was affronted.

  “What makes you say that?”

  “I don’t know. Things I’ve heard.”

  “What things? That he is a drug pusher? Nonsense. He buys drugs, of course. Friends of his bring him cocaine from South America. But it is never enough to resell. And you see how generous he is with it. Every time you turn around it is finished.”

  “I also heard he ran prostitution rings. Women. Boys.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “I just heard it.”

  “It is not true.”

  “And that he made pornographic movies.”

  “Who told you all these lies!” she asked, angry now.

  “People.”

  “They are wrong. Wrong. They are envious. Jealous of us.”

  “Then why is he so goddamn paranoid, carrying guns, changing from one place to another so quickly, telling me we’re being followed, that the phones are tapped?”

  The last question would bring something about the phone call into the open, he supposed. But she chose not to take up the challenge.

  “He says he has enemies. People want to…throw him away.”

  “To get rid of him, you mean?”

  “Yes. To get rid of him.”

  “Who? What enemies?”

  “I don’t know,” she said with a sigh. “Eric thinks he knows. He tells me they are fanatical against him. It has something to do with the council he is forming, he once told me.”

  “I thought that was just businessmen? Gay businessme
n?”

  “It is. Don’t ask me, Noel. All I know is what he tells me. He says he must protect himself. You don’t think I prefer Eric like this, do you? He is so—changed. And all these deaths around him. He tells me he is unlucky, that he should keep away from people he likes, that they are always taken away from him. He can never do anything important without losing someone he likes. He wants me to go away.”

  “And will you?”

  “It’s you he worries about most.”

  “So he told me. And in the next breath said he didn’t trust me. It’s inconsistent.”

  “That is how Eric is. He grows wilder every day. Now with this karate and jujitsu. I never know what he’ll do next. I am losing my influence over him. So you must be careful, Noel. More careful than you’ve ever been in your life.”

  She took his hand again briefly to say that, then stood up, insisting he remain seated, while she went downstairs.

  For a moment Noel wondered whether, despite everything, he should go to her. But in the single turning glance he had of Alana’s face as she stepped into the elevator, she looked so drawn, so exhausted, that he knew he must not.

  9

  The mailbox in his apartment building was jammed full. He had not opened it for over two weeks. The bulk was subscription magazines, giveaways and other junk mail, cards from colleagues at school with whom he seldom exchanged more than ten minutes of conversation over two terms of classes, who seemed to feel compelled to send vacation postcards from all over the country, the world, covered with tiny, scarcely decipherable script detailing amusing anecdotes of their misadventures and curious local customs they’d encountered. Nothing from Mirella. The rest seemed to be bills.

  The first envelope he opened was the monthly paycheck from Whisper, sent to him through the Social Work Research Agency in Albany. Tearing it at one end, he reminded himself that he’d have to call the Fisherman before depositing this and doing other errands today.

  But here was something new. Between the check and the statement he usually received were several pieces of blank, grainy, onionskin paper. No, not all blank. On one was scrawled: “Call on the loops from OUTSIDE your apartment!”

  “Lure here,” he said into the pay phone across the street from his building.

  “One moment, please,” the motherly operator answered. When she returned to the line, she said, “You are to go fishing this afternoon, if you are able to.”

  Wasn’t that an emergency signal? Yes, but for what?

  “I’m able to,” he said, hoping it meant he was free.

  “Fine.” She named a movie theater on Broadway. “There’s a three o’clock show. Exactly three thirty in booth number two from the entry of the men’s lavatory. Do you have that?”

  He had copied the message. “Anything else?”

  “That’s all I have, darling.”

  “What’s the movie?”

  “And have a good day,” she parroted before they disconnected.

  10

  The film playing that afternoon was a James Bond spoof—but so diverting, Noel had to keep checking his watch to be certain he wouldn’t miss the meeting with Loomis. The third time he looked it was three thirty-two.

  The men’s lounge was on a lower level, to the left of the central staircase. Inside was an anteroom with built-in benches, a water fountain, and grooming-aid dispensing machines. Beyond was the marble-walled bathroom itself, ringing with a cold silence as he entered. No one at the line of wall urinals. Two rows of toilet booths. Oh, fine, he thought, she hadn’t told him that over the loop. What was it she had said, exactly? Booth number two from the door. That had to be in the first row. But wouldn’t the old detective go to the back row for more privacy? Sure enough, the only booth with a closed door was the second from the right in the back row.

  Noel slipped into the booth next to it, and sat down. There wasn’t a sound from his neighbor. He coughed. Still nothing. These old toilets were roomy, with dividing walls that dropped to within six inches of the floor. He’d have to get on his hands and knees to see who was within, if there was someone inside: the booth might merely be closed by the management, out of order. Should he knock? Surely if the Fisherman were next door he’d have heard Noel come in. Had he forgotten to tell Noel some recognition code? Fuck Loomis and all these spy games!

  Suddenly there was a cough from the next booth. It didn’t sound as though it came from a young man.

  Noel leaned back in the seat as far as possible to where the wall dividers did not quite meet the back wall, leaving a half-inch space. Carefully, loudly, he cleared his throat.

  No response.

  What the hell was Loomis up to?

  Noel coughed again, louder. When that didn’t elicit any response, he finally said hello.

  For a second or two there was silence. Then he heard a sudden barrage of noises—the rapid rolling of the toilet paper roll, the violent flushing of the toilet and what sounded like a buckle swinging to hit the wall divider. The last sound was the metallic crack of the booth door as it opened, then slammed shut. The man in the toilet was gone.

  Noel had to know for certain it wasn’t Loomis playing games. When he walked out there was only one other person, a heavy-set, middle-aged black man washing his hands at the sink. Noel stopped to stare at him, and the man finished washing his hands, hastily dried them on some paper towels, and looking either annoyed or frightened or both, scurried out.

  Before the anteroom door slammed shut, another hand was on it, coming in. The short, ambling figure of the Fisherman replaced the black man.

  “I said to wait in the booth,” were Loomis’s first words. “What are you doing here?”

  “The guy who just left was in your booth. This wasn’t such a bright idea, Loomis.”

  “Shh!” the Fisherman said.

  “No one else is here.”

  “What did you say to him?”

  “Nothing. He thought I was looking for a little tearoom trade.”

  “For a little what?”

  “Action,” Noel spelled it out. “Sex, here.”

  “Oh! Let’s get into the booths before someone else comes in.” Loomis had already headed for the back row.

  “Why can’t we talk here? There are only about twelve people in the whole theater. It’s safe, if you ask me.”

  “I didn’t,” Loomis said, opening the booth door. “Get inside.”

  “This isn’t number two. It’s number three,” Noel protested, but went in anyway, as Loomis had disappeared into his toilet and shut the door.

  He heard a soft metal clank, then saw a panel of the wall divider with the toilet paper dispenser shake a bit, and jerkily slide to one side.

  “Goddamn!” Noel said. “It’s an honest-to-God glory hole.”

  “Speak low,” Loomis said. “Stinks in here.”

  “It was your idea. I thought I’d never see a real glory hole. Who found it?”

  “An operative,” Loomis replied, all business. Through the rectangular space Noel could see him hunched over, as though looking at the floor.

  “Naturally.”

  “Let’s not waste time, Lure. We have some important business.”

  “Am I going to have to meet you here every time we talk?”

  “Didn’t you get those pieces of paper?”

  “Sure did.”

  “We’ll communicate that way. Write your message. Roll it up into a ball, wrap it in tinfoil or plastic wrap, and drop it outside the wall of the town house. Someone will pass by three times a day to retrieve it.”

  Was it Noel’s imagination or did the Fisherman look different somehow? “Why all the sudden precautions?”

  “Trouble. Bad trouble. I think Mr. X is onto one of our operatives. You know what that means. We can’t take any chances.”

  “Anyone I know?”

  “Your friend Vega.”

  “How? They never see each other. Buddy is downtown in the bar.”

  “Vega’s been snooping around. Fool
ing around. Evidently word has gotten to Mr. X. If he doesn’t already know, he will soon.”

  “What kind of snooping around?” Noel asked. He didn’t think Loomis would admit how much Vega had found out about the way in which Whisper operatives had been chosen. Still, there was no telling what the Fisherman would tell him, or why.

  “Details are unnecessary. They’re classified, anyway. But I do have a pretty good word that Mr. X knows something.”

  “Well, I haven’t heard anything about it, but who am I?” Noel said. There was something about Loomis that Noel hadn’t noticed before, but he still couldn’t say precisely what.

  “Who’s this new man in the house?”

  “Bill McWhitter. Bodyguard. Masseur. Sex toy at the moment. He’s super in defensive arts. Very, very strong. Almost threw the cook off the parapet at the villa. Some experience as a hit man out on the Coast. Small time, but deadly. I get the impression he’d kill me for the way I brush my teeth, without a thought. Doesn’t like me.”

  Loomis seemed to be nodding off. No, merely thinking; he suddenly asked, “He’s taken your place, then?”

  “Hardly. They do fuck, which I never did with Eric. On your recommendation, remember? They are together a lot. Alana says it won’t last.”

  “What else do you know about this economic council front?”

  That was out of left field. Noel had to think how to answer.

  “They were all out in some Midwest town a few weeks ago. Then last week Eric got a call that really pleased him. They’d gotten a few antidiscrimination laws passed. I could get you the details.”

  “Where in the Midwest?”

  “Kansas. Minnesota. Another state, too.”

  Noel had specified this, to show Loomis there was nothing illegal involved in what Redfern’s group was doing, and to show that it wasn’t, as Loomis called it, a front, but instead a moneyed, respectable legislative lobby group.

  “And nothing else?” the Fisherman asked, unimpressed.

  “Nothing but the rush home last night. It seems your men were too visible. I even saw them follow me from the villa during the day.” That was a lie, but it would help dig into Loomis’s mind how stupid he’d been about it.

 

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