The Lure, page 28
“It’s a bad spot to observe,” was all he replied.
“He’s jammed the phone out there, too; he told me.”
“We’re working on countering that. So far nothing works.”
“Well, you’re getting him real paranoid. Lay low for a while, will you? It’s getting hot in there.”
“It’s not just us. It’s Vega you ought to blame. He’s the one making trouble.”
“Why? What’s he doing?”
“I told you already,” Loomis said indignantly. “He’s fooling around. Now let’s get back to business. I want a message from you every two days at least while you’re in the town house. Early morning and late evening are best. My men will be least noticeable then. Report anything and everything. And continue to be careful. I don’t mind if he is getting scared. The more frightened, the sooner he’ll make a real slip and that’s when we go in and nab him.”
He had a few dozen more dos and don’ts. Noel only half listened, still trying to assess what it was that he couldn’t pin down about Loomis’s appearance today. The features were more prominent; perhaps he had lost weight. His lips seemed to sneer as he spoke, and the words to explode out of him with a cold anger as though they tasted bad in his mouth. He made his points with a finger poking through the wall slot. Noel was reminded of an old Alsatian dog that had belonged to some friends of his and Monica’s when they were teenagers. It had gone from being an amiable enough creature to one that would attack any living thing smaller than itself, even leaping into the air to catch low-flying sparrows. Finally, it had turned on its master and had to be killed. An autopsy had shown extreme hardening in the arteries of its brain.
Someone else came into the bathroom to use the urinal. Loomis gingerly closed the panel between him and Noel, then flushed the toilet and left the booth. Noel waited until both men had left, then went upstairs and watched the rest of the film. But he couldn’t get that Alsatian out of his mind all day.
“Fire Island?” Noel was astonished. “But we just got back from the Hamptons.”
“Fire Island Pines,” Alana said. They were just finishing breakfast on the backyard terrace. Eric and McWhitter had gone inside. “Eric has a wonderful house on the bay,” she elaborated. “We’re flying out this afternoon.”
“He’ll feel safer there than he does here?”
“Much safer. We know almost everyone.”
“I never knew he had a place there.”
“The club managers have been using it. Cal. Geoff Malchuck. Rick and Jimmy. We may have an army at times. You must go and pack. We are on a one o’clock plane.”
“But with so many other people around, won’t that be just more opportunities for Eric to be…well, you know, the way he’s been lately with us?”
“One is always safer in a crowd, no?” she asked, answering herself. She seemed so unflappable Noel wondered if the decision had been hers. “There will be parties, dinners, old friends to see, the beach, sailing. He won’t have time to think about bad things. He’ll be too distracted,” she said with glee. “I’ll like it, too.”
Then it was her idea! Noel didn’t mind. It was hotter every day, the air more polluted and close in the city. And it would provide necessary information for his book—a more difficult and distant project to him every day lately. Then, too, he wasn’t sure about Whisper. Something had changed.
“You’re sure he’ll feel safer there?” Noel asked.
“I will!” she said, laughing, rising from the table, kissing his cheek lightly, and running inside to finish her own packing.
Almost from that moment on, Noel felt he had lost the control he had so carefully built up within himself in the weeks since Randy’s death in the back room of Le Pissoir.
Not because during the two weeks on Fire Island he lost contact with Loomis and Whisper. It was a relief at first from what he considered a dangerous means of communication. Since meeting Loomis in the movie theater bathroom, he’d been uneasy about the Fisherman, about the entire operation. It was true that he hadn’t found a minute between Alana’s announcement at breakfast and the time the Silver Cloud drove off to the East River Basin where the two seaplanes Eric had chartered for them were waiting, engines revving, to write a message. Loomis would find out soon enough where they were going.
It was too large and public a caravan to escape even the sleepiest Whisper observer.
No, that wasn’t the problem. It was Fire Island itself, or at least the two predominantly gay communities: Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove, where Redfern and his friends lived and played. After a respite of several weeks, Noel was thrown directly into the center of the country’s most openly, flagrantly gay few square miles, two days before the season’s biggest holiday—the Fourth of July weekend. The Pines was a hotbed of precisely those sexual pressures and questions he’d put aside so quickly, and he wasn’t allowed to forget it for a single second. Every step he took was watched—not by spies or operatives—but by gay men on the make, cruising him, touching him, coming up to him and talking as though they’d known each other for years, hissing at him as they passed on the beach and boardwalk, making low-voiced obscene invitations, talking loudly to each other about him so he could hear, asking him for the time, though he never wore a watch out there, for a light, though he wasn’t smoking, for his phone number, for a variety of sexual activities, some of which he’d never even classified as sexual. Nothing he did, wore, or said helped. The baggiest clothes he could hunt up in the house were of no use. Being rude only brought more invitations to brutalize the infatuated pleaders. Being quiet and aloof became difficult when it brought responses like, “Who does she think she is?” and, “Get off the act, honey, we know all about you,” which infuriated Noel even more. What had pleased him at the Grip and on Christopher Street only a few months ago freaked him utterly; for the first time in his life he wished he were crippled, hunchbacked, deformed, ugly.
The setting for all this was lovely enough, Noel had to admit in his decreasing moments of objectivity during his stay at the Pines. The seaplanes had set them down on the bay shore of the island, less than ten yards of ankle-high water away from the property line of the gorgeous, cedarwood two-story house Redfern had built a few years before on the far eastern edge of the community. The top-floor deck overlooked a glorious view of the Great South Bay edged with the service communities of Sayville and Patchogue where fireworks erupted all night long, the first week of his visit. Looking east or west, the island narrowed, and from this height you could see the next few towns in either direction, each separated by considerable woods and dunes. The highest platform on the roof looked over a small grove of pine trees that stepped down to rooftops of other houses between Redfern’s land and the beachfront. Birds whistled to each other cacophonously every morning at dawn and played flight games during the day. Deer families, rabbits, even raccoons foraged quietly on the beach plum and Russian olive bushes around the house, until they heard a sound, pricked up their ears, then slid or crashed back into the foliage. A garden of lilies to one side of the house offered irises, tiger lilies, a dozen other varieties Noel had only seen in the flower show in the Coliseum where Monica had dragged him a decade ago. And the double mirrors of the bay north, the ocean south, only a quarter of a mile apart and easily seen in a single glance from several rooftop spots. But above all, the feeling of being away from it all, being out afloat, adrift, at sea, offshore. On the edge.
If it were only true, Noel told himself, he could have dealt with the sudden immersion in the social whirlpool that surrounded him, with the bizarre hours everyone kept, with the scattered household—everyone off doing exactly what he or she pleased, until as by magic or telepathy, they all suddenly converged. He could have gone along with the constant partying, the total devotion to disco dancing and drugs and public promiscuity—but once sex was added to it, he found he couldn’t cope at all.
Changes in the house were rapid, enigmatic, unexplained. Eric dropped McWhit
Noel would enter any one of the three bathrooms and find an attractive stranger stepping out of a shower or shaving. He would go to the first-floor kitchen for a morning cup of coffee and discover a blond giant he’d never seen before cooking a full breakfast for another stranger. Two dark-haired, bearded strangers would be lying out on the bayside deck, another one diving into the pool. A minute later, a young black, built like an anatomy model, would pull a wagonload of groceries into the side door, no delivery boy but a high-fashion model merely doing a favor for someone somewhere on the premises. In the living room, two blond Germans who could barely speak English would be sunk deep in the cushioned, wraparound sofas, stoned, laughing uproariously at morning TV cartoon shows. All of them knew someone in the house by name. All of them were attractive, did some work or other in the city, and were interested in him. They were like sea tar stuck to the soles of Noel’s feet: always present, unavoidable, impossible to get rid of.
Worse, the entire population of Fire Island seemed to be in love, about to fall in love, or just getting over a love affair. McWhitter found adequate compensation quickly. Everyone Noel met—Richard, Robert, Don, Bill, Jim, in endless duplication so he could never recall their names—paired up within an afternoon. Even Alana had a visit from an old friend that first week—a slender Argentinian named Guillermo, with an accent, a superb tan, and according to one of the Bills or Jims a shitload of money. She was gone from the house for two nights, which didn’t help Noel’s head a great deal. Not with couples of all genders kissing on the dance floor at the harbor disco, necking on the beach, making love at poolside, on the terrace, on the roof, in the bushes, on the boardwalks, anywhere and everywhere Noel was.
Then there were the drugs: coke in the morning, a joint of grass over breakfast, mescaline or psilocybin or simple, everyday LSD to go to the beach. A down would get them laid back enough to nap after Tea Dance. But after dinner anything went: Noel once counted thirty-eight different pills or spansules or capsules divided in a few minutes among eleven people.
He had tried to keep up with them the first few days, but just maneuvering the boardwalks was a discouraging prospect. Even when he cut his intake down to a third of the usual dose, he’d be crashing all morning, sleeping off one drug or strung out on another or sotted out on the sand, while a new party was announced to take place in six minutes.
The last straw broke two weeks after they’d arrived. Noel had gone to sleep early, at 1:00 a.m., just as everyone else in the house had gone out. He woke up at dawn. Unable to go back to sleep, he went down to the kitchen for a glass of milk and a sandwich. On the balcony overlooking the two-storied living room, he heard the low throb of taped rock music. It was a common sound by now, and he didn’t even think about it. It was only when he’d gotten down the stairs that he noticed the sofas had been pushed to the walls, the huge pillows spread, and the entire area from the kitchen to the deck and pool was covered with dozens of bodies—he’d stepped into a postdawn orgy.
He felt as though he were stranded on another planet—everything alien and incomprehensible. Which explained how sincerely glad Noel was later in the day of the big orgy to hear Little Larry Vitale’s drawl behind him, as he stood in the crowded doorway of the Tea Dance. In front of Noel, a buxom, beautiful South American girl in a dance frenzy was having her paper dress slowly but surely ripped off her body by the gleaming teeth of her equally frenetic partner.
“Do you think he’ll stop when he reaches her kazoo?” Noel asked, as the couple spun only inches away from him and Larry, and the man bent down, still dancing, and began snapping his jaws at the back of what was left of the high-hemmed skirt. “Oops! Spoke too soon.”
“I saw that old club act at Clouds in January,” Larry drawled, sipping a drink the same aqua as bathroom tiles in a suburban home. “Let’s get out of here. Too crowded. Too many losers.”
The deck was packed to the railing, so they finished their drinks and went out to the boat dock that jutted out into the bay at the harbor’s mouth. The benches were already taken by couples who were practicing necking so as to look picturesque for the spectacular sunset over the water. Noel and Larry kept away from them, sitting down on the side of the jetty, their feet almost touching the high tide water.
“You out here with the rich kids?” Larry asked.
“What do you think?”
“How do you like the island?” Larry asked. Clearly he loved it. “Have you made it down to the Meat Rack yet? No,” he answered himself, “you probably haven’t had a chance what with all the local talent falling over themselves to get a whiff of you.”
Noel knew what the Meat Rack was—a strip of woods between the two communities given over to alfresco sex, day and night. Sex! That’s all he heard about, thought about.
“The whole place is a little too frantic for me,” he admitted.
“You kidding? Get into it.”
“I can’t. Not yet. I’m sort of laying off sex for a while.”
Larry looked at Noel’s eyes. “No yellow so it ain’t hepatitis; it must be VD.”
“Then it’s mental illness,” Larry declared. “You’re out of your tree. That’s like a diabetic locked in a chocolate factory.”
“Something like that,” Noel admitted.
“No wonder you’re so upright.”
“It shows?” Noel asked. With Larry he felt comfortable; he could be himself, whatever that seemed to be at the moment. For a fleeting minute, he wondered if he ought to ask Larry about Loomis and Whisper, about Vega and the profiles he’d shown Noel.
He was gingerly leading up to the subject when Larry hushed him. Some friends of the boy had just come onto the dock, and they soon got Noel and Larry high on Thai stick, an imported Indochinese marijuana, then they dragged them back to the Tea Dance. Noel arrived just in time to bump into Eric and Alana and McWhitter. His questions to Larry were lost in intoxication and the zaniness of the dance the others pulled him into.
By the time they returned to the house it was filled with people. Having had to spend the previous long holiday weekend in town, all the club managers of Redfern’s enterprises and their boyfriends and lovers had come out to Fire Island for this one. All six bedrooms were in use, with McWhitter back in Eric’s room and Noel asked to share his with Geoff Malchuck, the quiet, cool manager of Clouds. Naturally the house was noisier and more full of people coming and going than usual. Noel’s mood, which had been irritable before he encountered Larry at the Tea Dance, worsened.
Even Dorrance arrived for dinner, flying out on the seaplane; he would be staying the night at a nearby friend’s house, he said—obviously having experienced Eric’s place on weekends. With Dorrance there, Noel couldn’t help but notice that everyone present for dinner this evening had been present at that first company dinner in the half-moon dining room at Eric’s town house. Ages ago, it seemed now. Everyone, that is, but Randy. And everyone but Noel in extreme high spirits. Even the usually dignified McWhitter was dancing through the living room with “Marge” to the incessant beat of the disco tapes that were beginning to drive Noel to destroy the expensive machinery.
“Well, here we are,”
“Marge” said, when finally everyone had gathered at the refectory-style dinner table, “just one happy family.” He surveyed the group as though it were his own doing.
“Not quite all of us is happy,” Eric said, holding up a wineglass and pressing its wet coolness against his cheek. “Look at sourpuss over there.”
It was easy enough to follow his gaze across the long table to Noel. “What’s the matter, Noel, aren’t you feeling well?” “Marge” asked.
Noel toyed with a piece of food he’d been moving from one end of his plate to the other. Without looking up, he said, “I’ve been thinking, if you didn’t particularly need me here, I’ll go into the city tomorrow for a few days.”
“On the weekend?” Cal Goldberg asked in astonishment.
“What’s the matter?” McWhitter asked, “allergic to salt air?”
Ignoring them, Noel went on: “It’ll give you more room here.” He focused on Eric as he added that.
“You aren’t taking anyone’s space,” Alana said. “Is he, Eric?”
Eric just rubbed the wineglass against his cheek.
“Doesn’t bother me,” Geoff said.
“I’ll bet it doesn’t!” Jimmy DiNadio said.
“Well?” Noel went on. “How about it?”
“What for?” Eric asked.
“For nothing. I don’t know. To work on the book. I hadn’t planned on anything in particular.”
“Perhaps to see Buddy Vega?”
“Perhaps. If I happen to go down to the Grip and he’s there.”
“Really?” Said sarcastically. “I thought you two were real close.”
“You thought wrong,” Noel said.
“He did introduce you to Rick, got you working, didn’t he?”
“He wouldn’t bring just anyone to work in the Grip, would he, Rick?”
“Never did before or since,” Chaffee said.
“How do you know Vega?” Eric asked Noel.
Everyone at the table had quieted to hear the exchange, aware that Eric was up to something. “Marge” dropped a fork; in the sudden silence, it sounded like a steel girder hitting the tabletop.
“We just met,” Noel answered, alert to something he hadn’t counted on.
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