The Lure, page 29
“Balled and met? Or just met?”
“We did it,” Noel lied.
“But not in California?” Eric asked. “We all know that was a cover-up story to get you into the bar in the first place. Right?”
Noel didn’t understand this sudden interrogation, or why it was being made so publicly. His guard went up.
“Right. So I could get information on my book. We thought it would be impossible for me to just walk into the Grip off the street and get a job. Especially with my background and all.”
“We?” Eric questioned. “Who’s we?”
“My department chairman and I. He suggested the project in the first place. You know that. What’s this all about, anyway?”
“Did Vega tell you about the Grip?” Eric asked.
“He told me it was the most popular Village bar. That’s all.”
Cal’s lover caught up with the conversation. “What book?” he asked Eric, and when Redfern didn’t answer, “What book?” he asked Cal.
“Did you know Vega was married?” Eric asked.
“I found out later. Much later.”
“Did you know he used to be a cop? That he was thrown off the force five years ago for taking graft?”
That was a face-saver. The news came as such a shock to Noel that he did nothing to hide it.
“No. I didn’t know that. Is it true?”
“Eric, what’s the point of this?” Alana interrupted.
“Let him tell you,” Eric said.
“You’re going to spoil our dinner,” she said quietly.
“Tell everyone what’s going on inside your mind right now, Noel,” Eric said. “Go on.”
“You think Vega is still working for the police. That the graft thing was fabricated in order for him to go undercover,” Noel said.
“Very good,” Eric said. “Go on.”
“And I’m in league with Vega. Is that it?”
“Eric!” Alana interrupted again. “Noel’s been with us all the time.”
“Most of the time,” Eric corrected. “Well? Deny it, Noel.”
Noel looked around the table, glancing at each face, neutral, uncomprehending, except for Eric who was waiting, McWhitter who was gloating, and Alana who seemed blank-faced with emotion of some sort. Noel would get no help from any of them. And Eric was close. So close to the truth. Too close.
“Deny what? That I’m a spy for the police in your house?” Noel asked. “Why should I deny it? If it’s true it would at least give some point to your childish paranoia.”
“What does he mean?” McWhitter asked Eric.
“Just because I don’t get off on taking drugs until I can’t stand up, going out dancing thirty-six hours a day, and having sex with a different stranger every fifteen minutes, I’m supposed to be a cop? You call that an adult’s life?”
“If it’s my choice to live that way,” Eric came back, stung.
“Well, I’m bored with it,” Noel said, wiping his mouth with a cloth napkin and pushing his plate away. “And you probably are, too, which is why you’ve invented this whole argument tonight. Just for a little excitement in your otherwise colorless little life.” Someone whistled low at the table. But Noel was off now, and didn’t stop. “And that, to tell you the truth, is why I’m going back to town. To write my book. Or even to read a book. God knows, the last one I read, months ago, was the bartender’s manual, which isn’t exactly Leo Tolstoy.”
“Wait a minute,” Eric said, “I’m not done.”
Noel had been about to get up. The neutrality that he had seen on the faces of their dinner companions was gone in his stupid attempt to escape. They all seemed to take the attack on their lifestyle personally.
“Who were you talking to at the Tea Dance?” Eric asked.
“At the Tea Dance?” Noel repeated. “Larry? Is that who you mean? Larry Vitale? You know him. He’s everywhere.”
“That doesn’t mean we like him.”
“How can you not like him?” Noel asked.
“I can and I don’t. Not him and not his friends. How do you know him?”
Jesus, but Eric was sharp today. First Vega and now Larry. Had he been saving all this up just for tonight’s barrage?
“He used to come into the Grip all the time. We balled a few times.” He said that because he supposed it was common knowledge at the table. “If I see him once a month, it’s a lot, and always by accident. I don’t have too much in common with a seventeen-year-old-kid. Come on, Eric, aren’t you pushing a little too far? If you have to have a persecution mania you might as well make some distinctions.”
“Larry Vitale is all right by me,” Geoff Malchuck said.
“Me, too,” Rick put in. “He’s never given me any trouble.”
This was unexpected support. Noel decided to use it. “Look, Eric, maybe you’ve got a problem you ought to see someone about.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Let’s face it. Not everyone sees enemies in his toilet. Be realistic for a minute.”
“You be realistic! People are being killed.”
“People? One person. And that was evidently the work of some psycho.”
“Made to look like a psycho. There’ve been more than one. There’ve been five, six that I know of. All of them related to my clubs and through them to me. Don’t give me any shit about not having enemies. Don’t you think there aren’t people who’d like to see me out of the way?”
“Who?” Noel asked. “I keep asking, who? You tell me I’m an undercover policeman. That won’t explain why the police are after you. Who’s out to get you, Eric?”
Eric was silent, then ominously said, “I know who.”
It was lame, and even Eric knew it. Noel took the opportunity to get up from his chair. “Some faceless, nameless, reasonless enemy.”
“I said I know who.”
“You need help, Eric. Not protection from this jackass!” McWhitter began to move, then turning to Eric, stopped short.
Not really certain what he was doing, Noel instinctively thought to get out of this dining room, this house.
“Where are you going?” Eric called after him, the edge of hysteria in his voice.
“Out! For a walk!” Noel answered without turning to face them. “And tomorrow, back to Manhattan.”
“You haven’t denied anything yet,” Eric reminded him.
“I’m not going to,” Noel said.
“If you leave now, don’t come back. Not ever.”
Noel slid open the screen doors to the deck.
“Not ever!” Eric called out again, his voice lunging at Noel. “Do you hear?!”
Noel stepped out onto the deck and took in the fresh, cool air. Holding on to the railing, he looked across the bay toward the low strands of lights, the towns of the Long Island shore. He was trembling so hard the balcony rail shook under his hand. He had to get away from here.
He followed the dimly lighted planking to the gate of the compound, unlatched it, and walked slowly, thoughtfully, to the ocean side of the island. The sea was spotlighted almost directly overhead by a nearly full moon. It must be close to midnight, he thought.
He wandered along the abandoned shoreline, finally sitting on a dune where the tires from police cars and contracting trucks had left deep, patterned tracks. There he allowed himself to shake violently all over. He felt all the muscles around his neck were knots that had to be untied, hoping the roaring, grating surf in front of him would pound away the tensions, and fears, and anger.
After a while, he felt some relief. The stillness helped, as did the balmy night air, sharp with fetid sea life strewn on the sands, and the regular thump of the waves. Occasionally, a large wave, its froth moonlighted like glitter, would break long and straight and very hard like a crack of cannon that thundered in his ears. Then all would be silent again.
Once, looking out over the water, directly in front of him, he thought he saw the figure of a slim, naked young man step out of the surf where
The tide began to turn. The breeze off the ocean became cool, sharp. Noel stood up and trudged through the clinging sand.
“Oh-el!” He suddenly heard a woman’s voice from behind him and turned to see her figure silhouetted on one of the raised walkways to the beach. “Oh-el!” she shouted again in long-drawn-out syllables, and he realized she was calling his name.
He was about to turn to shout back to her, he had already raised his arm in greeting when the thought hit: she had betrayed him. That was how Eric had known all those questions to ask. Alana had overheard the phone call at the Hamptons villa, and had told Eric everything she had heard.
“Oh-el!” she shouted again. He stumbled away from her voice and its treachery, until he was running along the beach, his sneakered feet barely getting wet as he fled.
“No-el!” the voice followed him. But he was way past the Pines, past all habitations, and then the voice stopped and Noel sprawled in the sand, and said, “Bitch, bitch, bitch, ” until he fell asleep.
“You’ve got to get back into that house,” Loomis insisted for the third time.
“You haven’t been listening. My cover is gone.”
“I thought you said you denied it.”
“Of course I denied it. You might not be talking to me if I didn’t do something to get out of there.”
Even now, talking to Loomis in a telephone booth of the pharmacy a half block from his apartment, Noel didn’t feel entirely out of danger. It might merely be his imagination but hadn’t two vaguely hippie-type, long-haired blonds come into the store right after him? Hadn’t they begun fooling around at the luncheon counter as soon as he had gone into the phone booth?
Don’t become like Eric, he told himself. After all, he had gotten the complete once-over from both of them: the same physical evaluation he’d come to expect from gay men. They were probably from out of town, the West Coast, he told himself. Nevertheless, not to feel safe even here, a few hundred yards from his apartment… And here was the Fisherman giving him this total bullshit about going back to Fire Island.
“What exactly did he say?” Loomis asked, hairsplitting. It made Noel sick.
“He’s onto Buddy Vega. And he asked a lot of questions about Little Larry. I don’t know what else he knows.”
“Goddamn that Vega! If he hadn’t begun plotzing around, none of this would have happened. You say he asked about Larry?”
“He said he didn’t like him, or his friends. But some of the other guys at the table stood up for him.”
“Listen, Lure. You lay low for a day or so and then call him up and apologize.”
“Apologize! You don’t seem to understand, he as much as said he knows what I am, who I am. He doesn’t need me around anymore. He’s got McWhitter, who’s a far better bodyguard than I am, and who even puts out. What does he need me for? He’d have to be nuts to let me within a mile of that place.”
Now the two guys at the counter were conferring, looking every once in a while in Noel’s direction. One of them shrugged, then got off the stool and went out. To wait outside and jump him? Or because they had somehow decided which one Noel would prefer and that one, sipping a soda, was to have the first chance to cruise him?
Loomis was asking, “What about that woman? What’s her name. Wouldn’t she want you back there?”
“I told you, it was she who heard me talking on the loop at the Hamptons.” He tried reasoning. “How else would Eric know?”
“She didn’t give you away, Lure. That’s why she went after you last night on the beach. To tell you that she didn’t. She might have heard the phone call—or at least part of your side of it, but she’s been hiding it. She’s protecting you, Lure. Why?”
Noel didn’t have an answer.
“I’ll tell you why, because she needs you. She’s fallen for you. To hell with Mr. X. You don’t need him. She’s your way in.”
Even as Noel was protesting it to the Fisherman for a half dozen reasons, he suspected the old cop was dead on target. It completely elated him. Then it shot him down. Because if Loomis were right, and Alana would eventually persuade Eric to let Noel back into their circle, then it would be using her feelings for another end—it would be the very betrayal that Noel had accused her of. It disgusted him even to think of it.
“I won’t do it, Loomis,” he said.
“You have to, Lure. We’re so close now. You can’t let him slip out of the net now.”
“You were close months ago with Randy,” Noel said. “As close as now. What happened?”
“You’re wrong, Lure. We’re building a case against Mr. X. We’re getting all the pieces together. We’re about to get him. We’ve got to keep him monitored. That’s why you’ve got to be there. Every detail you give us about them may turn out to be instrumental in his capture. It’s the only way to make certain the plan will work.”
“It’s too complicated to get into right now. But it will have to be legally airtight. Once we’ve got him on one thing, we can throw the book at him. And you’re the only one left, Cummings, the only one who will pull the strings that shut the net on him. How do you like that, eh? For Randy Nerone’s sake! Huh?”
He’d heard that particular edge in Loomis’s voice before. Now, it unnerved Noel.
“I’m not going back to Fire Island,” he said.
“Wait until they come back to town.”
“They could stay out there all summer.”
“They’ll be back soon. You take a rest. Read your books. Go to a movie. Keep in touch, though. I’ll let you know when they’ve returned. It’s going to work. Don’t worry. So long, Lure.”
The second number had left the luncheon counter by the time Noel came out of the booth. But he was waiting right outside the door, perched on the fender of a parked car, smoking a cigarette when Noel emerged.
“He had to go somewhere,” the guy said in what seemed to be a rural accent. He showed a toothpaste-ad smile, lifted himself languorously off the car fender, and began to walk alongside Noel.
“Who?” Noel asked
“My friend. He had an appointment.”
“My name’s Zach. Mind if I walk along with you?”
Noel didn’t take the offered hand; Zach didn’t seem to mind. They walked along a block or so, going west, before Noel decided to be cordial to Zach, to treat him as though he were just a pickup, without doing anything out of the ordinary, until he could make up his mind about the two of them.
“You live close to here?” Zach asked: the standard opening line of a gay pickup on the street.
Noel had led him away from where he lived.
“Uptown. The West Side,” Noel answered.
“Oh, I thought you lived here.” The ingenuous Laguna Beach smile.
“Afraid not. You?”
“No. Me either.”
“Too bad.” A subway might be too deserted, especially if Zach decided he wouldn’t mind going uptown, too. They passed first one underground entrance, then crossed a street, and passed another. Buses went up and down the avenues, but that might be too limiting, especially if the partner showed up. They’d approached Broadway, crossed it, still going west. Fewer and fewer people here. Nothing but warehouses, a few parked trucks. Where the hell could Noel go?
“I’m not doing anything right now,” Zach said. “If you aren’t, that is.”
If it was an act, it was a good one. He’s just trying to get laid for Chrissakes, Noel kept
“I’m from out of town. Me and my friend,” Zach went on. “I’ll only be here a few days.”
A subtle pressure, Noel knew. They had reached a familiar block, but Noel couldn’t say why until he spotted the curved-arch façade of the Baths. But there was no one on the street he could claim acquaintance with, to drop this guy, pickup or not.
“I am a little occupied this afternoon,” Noel said.
Disappointment was written across Zach’s face. “Later on?” he asked.
“Maybe. I’m not sure.”
“I’d really like to see you later on,” Zach said, all Southern California surfer innocence. “How about it?”
“Well…” They had passed the Baths’ entrance. No one stepped out to help break up the awkwardness.
Zach had a pencil in his hand and was holding out a matchbook cover. “Why don’t you give me your phone number? I’ll call in a few hours.”
“That might be difficult.”
“Why? You have a lover?”
“Something like that.”
“I have an idea,” Zach said. “I’ll give you my number. At the place where I’m staying. If you can get away, just call me.”
They’d stopped walking. Zach turned and went to an inset doorway of what had once been a storefront, now just black-painted glass and metal siding. He held the matchbook up to the wall and began writing,
“Here. Can you make this out?”
Noel approached, reaching for the matchbook, which Zach still held up, read the name and a telephone number. “Seems clear to me,” he said.
“Call anytime,” Zach drawled with a smile.
Noel pocketed the matchbook, realized Zach had put up his hand in the peace and brotherhood shake. What the hell? he thought.
“Didn’t you used to work at the Grip?” Zach asked.
Before Noel could answer or pull his hand out of the sudden strong pressure of Zach’s grip, the man said, “I believe we have a mutual friend. Name of Bill McWhitter.”
Noel didn’t have a chance to react. Zach’s hand tightened to a bone-twisting grasp while his other fist darted out and punched Noel low in the abdomen. Noel was flung into the deepest part of the doorway, slammed against the metal sheet, then punched again in the same place, hard. Before he could register anything but the pain and surprise, someone else had leaped into the doorway, and now there were two pairs of hands holding him, two pairs of fists jabbing at his head, at his body, alternately shoving him against the wall. His feeble attempts at defending himself were useless. Blood ran down one eye, obscuring his vision. The punches came again and again. They began kicking at his legs until the pain was unbearable and he couldn’t stop them from slapping him from wall to wall. His legs began to crumble beneath him, and he was slowly punched down and socked in the chin, in the other eye. His consciousness flashed, flickered, and finally dissolved in a series of colored spots.
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