The Lure, page 31
“You’re to meet at two o’clock. He ought to be waiting there,” Eric said, his nervousness now smothered by his ability to spell it all out. “The two of you will go inside. Here’s a set of keys. I gave him a set, too. It ought to be unlocked.”
The manner in which Eric spoke of his intended victim seemed to suggest no personality, no character, as though he had already dismissed from his mind everything individual and unique about Buddy Vega in order to see him as one thing only—the enemy, that which must be eliminated.
“Here are the plans you will give him,” Eric said, lifting a long cardboard tube from the unoccupied chair next to him. He took out the plans and unfurled them on the table, pointing to various parts of the diagram as he spoke. “You enter here. Make a left at the foyer, here, then go into that large room. It’s two stories high. The roof is partially open. That’s where the skylight will be.”
“Do you own this place?” Noel had to know.
“Are you kidding? A rental agent showed it to Chaffee months ago. We had a second key made.”
Eric stretched out the roll of plans again and continued: “Leave the plans with him. That’s important. Make sure he opens them and begins looking at them. Even do it for him, if necessary. Then, Noel, you go here.” He pointed to a small room off the corridor. “Make some excuse. You have to check the plumbing, the wiring, anything. Then you quietly go out the entry again to the street. Go directly to the car, sit down, and wait for Bill to come out again.”
He made Noel repeat the instructions. When they came to the part about Vega holding the plans in his hands, Noel asked why that was so important.
“So his hands are busy when I come up behind him,” McWhitter answered softly. “He won’t have a chance to move. I’ll get him from behind just perfect, then flick.” He snapped his closed fists apart as though garroting someone.
“Just do as you’re told,” Eric said. His nervousness contrasted so markedly with the bodyguard’s imperturbable, almost technical calm that Noel had the sudden total conviction that Eric had never done anything like this before, as he had the equal unshakable belief that McWhitter had, often, and with no thought but how to do it with the least trouble to himself.
Noel finished repeating the instructions, looking down at his own two uncracked soft-boiled eggs, in their neat, egg-white-colored little bowl, set in turn on a similarly colored, flatter plate, set against the slightly luminescent flat white of the tabletop, and he suddenly thought, yes, this is where my life has led me, to discussing the murder of a friend among all this elegant breakfast china. The shapes and colors in front of him made him furious with their purity and unity; he wanted to smash them, all of them, to smash all the white clean pure perfect things in the world for their hollow deception, for their utter fragility.
“Would you prefer something else to eat?” Okku asked at Noel’s elbow. “Oatmeal? Cereal?”
“Yes, thank you,” Noel said, but by the time the cereal had come, he had reminded himself that Loomis knew and Vega would be safe, and had eaten both of the eggs.
Upstairs he wrote NOW! all over a sheet of onionskin paper, and stuffed it in his denims’ pocket.
The anonymous sedan Eric had had rented for the mission was parked down the street. Noel pretended to find the paper in his pocket before he and McWhitter got into the car. He looked at it as though it were nothing of importance, tore it up, and scattered the fragments out the car window.
McWhitter drove in silence downtown, past the congestion of Sunday traffic around the bridge and tunnel, over to the West Side—almost solitary in the glaring hot weather. Below Canal Street, even scattered cars and pedestrians ceased to appear. McWhitter slowed down, turned a corner near a series of four-story warehouses with metal awnings that jutted out to the edge of the sidewalk. He seemed to be looking for the address, then advanced around a second corner, identical to the first, and stopped the car.
He sat at the wheel without making a sound. Noel saw a bright metal object transferred quickly from McWhitter’s pants to his shirt pocket. It made a bulge and so was returned to the pants. The garrote?
The street was empty. Not a car, not a parked truck. It was two o’clock by the car dial clock. What were they waiting for?
“Want to have a far-out time?” the bodyguard said so suddenly and huskily that Noel answered, “What?”
“Instead of coming back to the car, stay in the room Eric told you to go into. When I’m finished, I’ll come in and let you screw me.”
Noel was so astonished he didn’t speak.
“It’s the only time I can take it that way,” McWhitter said huskily, stroking Noel’s thigh lightly. “The only time I can relax enough. You know.”
Noel overcame his disgust by telling himself it wouldn’t happen.
“What do you say?” McWhitter asked, his big hand moving into Noel’s crotch.
“I promised Eric. But it will be too late by the time I get back to the house. And,” he added huskily, “if you listen real good from the other room, it’ll sound like he’s coming when I put it on him. It’s real exciting.”
“Let’s go,” Noel said.
McWhitter gave his groin one more stroke, then got out of the car.
Even with his sunglasses on, Noel was temporarily blinded by the glare of the white-bricked buildings reflected off the empty asphalt road. It was beating hot, airless, the way it must be on the prairie in midsummer, he thought.
At the address, a ramshackle, weather-discolored door was shut, but the padlock was opened, hanging from the bar.
“He’s here,” McWhitter whispered.
Noel wanted to get it over quickly. He opened the door.
It swung on an unoiled, creaking hinge. The concrete floor of the foyer in front of them was littered with plaster dust. The entryway, dark after the bright sun, opened up into a large, windowless room, lighted from above through broken ceiling planking. Sunlight streamed in like cathedral light, sharpening each detail of fallen wood, the big slide bar, a little balcony opposite the entrance, also cluttered with debris. Noel was going into the big room when McWhitter’s arm shot out and pulled him back.
“He’s not here,” Noel whispered.
The pressure on his forearm said to be quiet. McWhitter was listening to something. Noel only heard a slight rustle above them on the opposite balcony: probably a rat.
“He’s not here,” Noel repeated.
“He’s here,” the bodyguard said so low it was barely audible.
“Should I call him?”
McWhitter let go of his arm and began sniffing the air as if he were a beagle on a whiff of scent.
Every moment was beginning to panic Noel. What if Loomis hadn’t gotten his message? “What is it?” he asked.
“Go into the room,” McWhitter whispered. “Unroll the plans and look around. I’m going scouting. Go on!” He gave Noel a shove that sent him into the big room.
Noel opened the plans, feeling that somehow he was now doing exactly what Vega was supposed to have been doing, that he was the intended victim, and all of this a setup, a trap to get him in here to be garroted by McWhitter. Vega had been sent somewhere else, not here, and Loomis’s men would be tailing him. Noel would die here alone.
The certainty of this made him feel totally fatigued, and he determined not to fight it. He dropped the cardboard roll of plans, straightened out the diagram, and began to compare it to his surroundings. Sure enough, there was the wall with the big bar, and opposite it, the dotted lines marked balcony overhead. There, too, were the two doorways marked on the plans as lav entrances; he could even make out the ceramic fixtures in one of them. Here was the overhead opening intended to be the bar’s skylight.
The sound came from behind him somewhere, so odd that he could only think of a slap on a bare behind, or the whit of a blowgun.
He turned to face the direction it had come from. The doorway off the foyer, where
A long time seemed to pass. McWhitter still didn’t come out. What was he doing in there? Would he come out naked, slavering with a murder-incited lust? Noel tried to make out sounds, footsteps. All he heard were the rustling of rats on the littered balcony above him.
He would leave now, Noel decided. That was what he was supposed to do, what Eric had told him to do. He would try to figure out later how Loomis had fouled up. Right now he had to get away from McWhitter and out that door.
It took a great effort to move, but when he did, he went directly for the front door.
There was more rustling behind him. Noel stopped at that noise. He was only a few feet from the front door, facing the doorway, now half closed, of the little side room McWhitter had gone into. On the ground inside, amid splintered two-by-twos, was a pair of shoes, heels up.
I’m leaving now, he told himself. But something about the shoes seemed wrong. He turned around, fascinated by those heels sticking up, and crept up to the doorway, slowly opening the door until he could see not only the heels, but the legs and the back of the body lying facedown on the floor, shoulders and head in shadows. It was McWhitter!
Relief flooded him with warmth, and he pushed the door open enough to make out Vega’s tall figure standing at the head of the dead man, swaying slightly. Loomis had told him. Noel was about to step into the room and go up to Buddy when a new apprehension took over. Buddy seemed to be hurt, or drunk, or something, swaying there in front of Noel.
“Buddy!” he whispered. When there was no response, Noel fumbled in his pants pocket, found the lighter Eric had given him, and flicked it on.
It was Buddy Vega all right. But his head lay on one shoulder in an unnatural manner, the eyes closed, and a cord was wound around his neck twice, rising behind his head to a rafter some three feet above. His clothing was splattered with blood which thinned to dots on his shirtfront, but was staining his light-colored chinos almost to his crotch. Noel held the lighter down lower and saw the boot tips of Buddy’s shoes off the ground, just brushing what would have been the back of McWhitter’s head if it weren’t just a pulpy, red-and-white mass on top of his shoulders.
He snapped the lighter closed, frozen to the spot, filled with the sudden certainty that he was still in the presence not only of their assassin, but of Randy’s, and even before that, of Kansas’s in the abandoned warehouse months before—an old and well-known enemy as sardonic and grisly as he was effective.
Noel shuddered from head to foot, then calmly turned and went out the door. As he did, he heard the odd and fatal sound again, close to his ear. Thwut, thwut, answered by a sharp crack of wood lathing inches away from Noel, where a charred hole and split wood said it was a dumdum bullet from a silenced gun. From the overhead balcony!
He flattened himself against the wall, knowing he would have to put himself in range of the gunman in order to get out. Silence, then another thwut, farther away from him, closer to the handle of the door. Another. Closer to him.
He turned sideways, crouched, then fell on the floor, rolling quickly to the other side of the entry. Thwut. He heard it again and felt his right ear sting as though from a wasp bite. But he was flat against the wall, close to the front door now. How to get out? How? To one side of him was a wooden slat. That would help. Noel lifted it out of range of the gunman, brought it to the side closest the door, inserted it gently between the door and the doorway, and sprung it. The door flew open. Thwut, thwut. The bullets were aimed where his head would be. Good thing he’d tried it. The door slammed closed again, and when Noel inserted the slat and opened it again, he bent down to the floor and dove out the entry onto the sidewalk, then quickly moved behind the door, pulled it shut, got the latch across and the padlock shut, before he heard the sound again. A bullet went right through the wood, just missing him, and exploded against the wall of the opposite building where it made a mark the size of a fist.
What now? He spun around and ran to the car, but realized, as he skidded into the side of it, that he didn’t have the keys. Whoever was inside had gotten in without a key. He could climb up out of the roof. Noel had to get out of here, fast. He edged his way to the end of one block, shot around the corner to the next street, turning around to make certain no one was after him, then across the street to the next building. From there, he just ran. Ran like hell, letting the mindless energy tear out of his chest and head, racing past block after block of deserted warehouses, hardly altering his gait to drop off a curbstone onto a street, up another curbstone, and on and on, expecting that deadly thwut to sound next to him, before he was silenced forever. Racing until he reached what seemed to be a major thoroughfare, with a few cars on it. He looked up to see a sign: Varick Street, then began pounding uptown.
Someone was calling his name. He stopped and looked around. From across the street, driving downtown, he saw someone wave at him, out of the window of a low silver coupe. Eric.
Noel looked around, then dove into the first doorway.
His first thought was that he’d been caught in a doorway before. He’d have to get out. Then he thought, it was Eric, Eric who had killed both Vega and McWhitter and was out for him, too, though he didn’t know why. Have to get out of this doorway.
As he moved forward, he almost knocked Eric down. He was grabbed, one arm pulled up and behind him fast.
“Where’s McWhitter? Why are you running? Where’s the car?” Eric asked, pushing him back into the doorway.
Even with his arm twisted behind him. Noel knew it hadn’t been Eric with the gun. He couldn’t feel the icy presence now, the cold delight in death he’d felt so strongly before. No, whoever that was, it wasn’t Eric.
“Let go!” he said, and when Eric did, Noel stood up, rubbing his arm, and let the words come out of him in a torrent. “A silencer…dumdum bullets…after me…just got out…got both of them, both of them I…no head left on McWhitter…knew those weren’t Buddy’s shoes, he never wore anything but boots…wanted me to fuck him afterward…couldn’t…have to get out of here…after me…neck snapped, hung from a rafter…it was the rats in the balcony, I thought…”
The look on Eric’s face told him to stop: he wasn’t making any sense. He did stop, began trembling again. Eric looked out the doorway behind him, up and down the street.
“No one’s there. We’re going out and getting into the car. Do you understand?”
Noel tried to say yes; it came out a stream of babble.
“No one’s out there, Noel. No one will hurt you.”
Noel grabbed for Eric, was shaken off. “Let’s go. Run for it.”
They sprinted across the wide street, got into the car, with Noel trying to huddle down to make himself as inconspicuous a target as possible, as Eric gunned the car to scream on two wheels around the nearest corner onto a side street, then around another corner fast, and threading through traffic, up Sixth Avenue.
When they were at Thirty-fourth Street, stopped for a light, Noel began remembering the sound of the bullets against the walls and Buddy’s neck bent over to one shoulder, and McWhitter’s head blown off, and the fear that he’d managed to avoid and so to survive came on him: he began to babble and gesticulate wildly, until he couldn’t even make out Eric’s face or words or the fact that he was safe now, but only the arctic terror in his bones, until he saw a fist come straight at his forehead as though in a Cinerama movie, and the screen went black.
When Noel woke it was dark. He took the elevator down to the main floor, arriving in time to interrupt a tête-à-tête between Eric and Alana in the dining room.
“Feeling better?” Redfern called across the living room to Noel. “Hungry? We’ve just begun.”
As soon as Noel joined them he realized that what he h
“Sorry about what happened earlier,” Eric said quietly.
Noel didn’t know whether he was referring to the shooting, the stakeout, or to Eric’s knocking him out in the car. He decided on the last, least paranoid choice.
“I was a little out of control,” Noel replied. “I was afraid we were going to crash. You’re feeling better now, I see.”
Alana’s continued silence and distance and Eric’s surprising apology united the two men, however momentarily, however fragilely. After this day’s events, Noel felt safe with Eric, safer with him than with almost anyone else. He felt Eric finally trusted him, too. He almost had to, now. Each only had each other to rely upon. Except for Alana, of course, so aloof now, so busily, uncharacteristically concentrating on her meal that Noel was sure if he hadn’t arrived when he had the two others would have been screaming at each other.
“I almost went back,” Eric confessed.
“I had to see for myself. But I couldn’t take the chance.”
Noel let out a sigh. “You wouldn’t want to see it.”
“I was supposed to go after Vega,” Eric said bitterly. “And I fell right into it. Damn! Why him, though? Of all of them?”
Noel suspected he knew why, now that Buddy’s prediction about himself had come true. Whom else had Vega told about those dossiers? Was that enough reason for Whisper to kill him? Or had he been onto something more? It couldn’t have been just a mix-up this time. Whoever had shot at Noel had killed McWhitter. And Vega had been hanged from the rafter by the time they arrived.
“That agency that’s funding you,” Eric began intently, so suddenly and obliquely that it took Noel some time to catch up, “who are they?”
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