The Lure, page 32
“Agency? You mean for the book? They’re only assisting really. It doesn’t come to that much.”
“Who are they?”
“Some social research group. It was one of a dozen my department chairman offered me. The first to respond. That’s all I know about them.”
“Do they know what your book is about?”
“They should; I had to provide a pretty comprehensive proposal when I applied. Why?”
“I did some research myself,” Eric said. “They’re funded by some really strange folks in the West. Very right wing. Very conservative. Very much against social change.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Is your book pro gay?”
“It’s neither pro nor con. It’s a study. You know, with charts and tables of statistics.”
“On gays. Which they could use against us.”
“Could,” Noel admitted. “But only by stretching or distorting. The book is really pretty technical, Eric. It’s not designed for the layman. And it will add a great deal of data about gay life and relationships to social scientists. In that sense it’s pro gay. Knowledge of that kind can’t do anything but help.”
He went on for a minute more, shocked by what Eric had said. He had given the stock, trained answers he’d prepared with the Fisherman. But if Redfern’s imputation was correct, why use that agency to fund him and not a more liberal one?
“Besides,” Noel concluded, “they have no control over the contents of the book. None. It’s to be published through the University Press. If they wanted to make trouble for gays, I would think they’d go for something more sensational, wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things lately,” Eric said glumly.
They fell silent for a while. Noel tried to get Alana’s attention, but she looked away or down at her plate. When she got up to leave the table, Noel reached out and took her hand.
“What’s this silent treatment all about, anyway?”
She pulled out of his grasp, and stood rubbing her hand.
“Well? Answer me. If you have something to say, say it.”
She looked at him now, but contemptuously. “Look at you! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Then to Eric: “And you, too. What’s wrong with you?”
“It couldn’t be helped,” Eric said.
“Couldn’t be helped,” she mimicked him.
“Eric’s right,” Noel said. “He didn’t know I’d be shot at.”
Halfway through the sentence, Noel realized he should stop. Eric began to gesture for him to be quiet.
Alana’s mouth hung open a minute.
“Shooting? So it has come to that now?”
“I wasn’t hit,” Noel said.
“You were nicked,” Eric said. “The top of your ear. No, the other place.”
Noel reached to touch his right ear, felt the small bandage. All at once the torrent of fear returned: he was pressed flat up against the wall, the wooden door swinging closed, the sickening thwut, thwut going past him. He fought it away, holding on to the table.
“Just like in the gangster movies on television, eh?”
Noel had never seen her sarcastic before.
“It couldn’t be helped,” Eric repeated.
“Of course it could be helped. Just stop, stop now.”
“Stop what?” Eric demanded, equally angry now.
“I don’t know what. Playing games with these people. Stop doing whatever it is that is endangering us all.”
“I can’t. It’s not what I’m doing, it’s what I am that they hate.”
“And what about him?” She pointed to Noel. “This man. Why is he the one getting hurt?”
“Ask him why,” Eric said. And Noel felt their trust disintegrating.
She stared at Noel, as if begging him to say something. Then, “No! I don’t want to hear about it. Not any of it.”
“Tell her, Noel. Tell her how the people you’re working for just tried to kill you. Tell her.”
When Noel didn’t say anything, Eric went on: “Of course it might be a mistake. A pretty big mistake, but still… Or maybe it was like what happened outside the Baths.”
“Stop!” she screamed. To Noel she said in a calmer voice, “Go away from this house and never come back. And you, Eric, let him go.”
Neither answered her, which was answer enough.
“Pah! You disgust me. Both of you. Don’t you understand, Noel? This is the perfect sadomasochistic fantasy for him? Don’t you care even for your own life anymore?”
“Come on, Alana. That has nothing to do with it,” Eric protested.
“Don’t tell me. I have eyes. I see. This business makes all that back-room stuff at Le Pissoir look like Tinker Toys.”
“You’re wrong,” Noel put in.
“And you defend him! Tell me, Eric, if it is true that these men are after you, what for? Tell me now, what for?”
“Because I won’t stay down. I won’t grovel.”
“Ah! Politics! I thought I’d stopped hearing about politics years ago,” she said scornfully.
“Someone’s got to do it,” Eric said. “Someone sooner or later.”
“So. I see. Like Lenin and all his friends. For an idea we all will be killed.”
“Or George Washington and his friends,” Eric reminded her.
“Fine. Good. Do what you want. You and you, too,” she said to Noel, shaking her head. “As for me, I am going away tomorrow. I’ll fly back and wear black at both your funerals. Is that what you want?”
“I thought we were going to Clouds tonight?” Eric said. But she had already started across the walkway toward her bedroom. “Come on, Alana,” Eric called after her, “you were never like this before!”
“And men were never such fools as you two!” she said before slamming her door.
“…be kind enough to leave your name, phone number, and the date you called and I’ll get back to you. Beep!”
His message repeated. This call was a hang-up. The tape ran silent for a while, then Noel heard the strangled end of the telephone’s ring and his message again.
It was the morning following the double death in the downtown bar, and Noel felt oddly calm. Being back in his apartment helped—small and alien as it had at first appeared to him last night. Listening to the phone message machine also helped at first. So far these past few weeks, while he was away from home, he’d been called a dozen times. By Mirella, of course, twice. But also by Monica’s parents, and Paul Warshaw, although Noel still didn’t know if the boy coming out of the water that night had been he. Then several hang-ups. He suspected a few were from Whisper operatives. And then the disquieting message left by Buddy Vega.
Eric couldn’t have heard that call. It had been made after Noel had gone back to the town house: the very next day. It was mercifully brief, though so enigmatic Noel could recall it word for word:
“Star here!” Vega had announced himself, using his code name. “I found out more. A lot more. It involves you, me, the whole project. Those dossiers were pigeon-shit compared to this, Noel. I’m blowing the whistle. Call me.”
Too late to call him, too late for Buddy Vega to blow the whistle on anyone.
He ought to contact Priscilla Vega. Surely she knew by now? Or should he check in with Whisper first? Just to make sure? If she hadn’t been notified, he didn’t want to be the one who dropped the megaton bomb on her.
Instead, he played out the answering machine tape to the end, sitting on a little Navajo blanket in the middle of his studio. He didn’t want to talk to Loomis. Nor to Priscilla. Nor to Eric. He just wanted to remain here, comfortable, at home, safe—for the moment. Maybe he ought to leave the city, go see Monica’s parents; they’d love to have him. Call Paul Warshaw and offer him a week in the sun, in the mountains, anywhere. Even if it meant making a commitment to being gay. What did that matter now? As Vega had said in his message, it was pigeonshit, pigeonshit!
“Fishing information?” Noel repeated. Simultaneously, he recalled that was a Whisper code. “Yes, this is.”
“I’ve a Fisherman here, wants to speak to you.”
A few seconds later: “Lure?”
“I thought you weren’t going to use the phones, Loomis? Too risky, remember?”
“Your phone’s all right now. Listen, Lure, you all right?”
“I’m talking, aren’t I?”
“There was a foul-up,” Loomis said. “I don’t know for sure what happened. But somehow Redfern must have sent someone there before you.”
Your phone’s all right now. Did that mean Whisper had had a tap on him, not Redfern?
“Sure,” Noel said.
“I didn’t want you to see…anything. That’s why you were chased out of there,” Loomis explained. He was edgy.
“You were there?”
“Not me personally, of course.”
“Whoever it was could have thrown a pebble or something. I would have gotten the message. I wasn’t armed, you know.”
“We didn’t know.”
“Stop saying that!”
“What the fuck do you want me to say, thanks for the excitement?” Who would Eric have sent? Okku? He was at home. And Eric himself couldn’t have gotten there before McWhitter. There was no one else Redfern trusted enough to do it. Dorrance? In California for the past week on business. Or was he?
“I’m telling you it was a mix-up,” Loomis said.
“Mrs. Vega know?”
“What does she know?”
“Nothing. The standard killed-in-the-line-of-duty business.”
“I’m going to call her.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. What if Redfern—”
“Loomis,” Noel interrupted, “I’m calling Mrs. Vega to offer my condolences! I don’t care what Redfern, or you, or anyone else thinks about it. It’s the fucking least thing I can do after luring her husband to his death.”
“Now don’t get feeling guilty about it.”
“Don’t worry about my feelings, huh?”
“And don’t tell her anything.”
“I don’t even know her,” he lied. “Now if you’re finished with your lame excuses, I’m hanging up.”
“We’re getting close,” Loomis said.
“Close to what?”
“To Mr. X.” There was an undertone of excitement in Loomis’s voice. “We’ve got ourselves a neat little setup for him, and he’s not going to be able to swim out of it this time. Go back to the town house and hang in there. Another week or so. That’s all we need.”
“To get him. We’re setting up something small and clean. We’ll pull him in on that small charge. Then throw the book at him.”
“Yeah, if it keeps a few of us alive, it’ll be good enough for me,” Noel said.
“I told you,” Loomis repeated, “that was a mix-up! Don’t worry. No one will get hurt this time.”
“I hope not. No wonder you don’t offer life insurance.”
Loomis was talking to someone else on his end of the line. He didn’t seem to hear that last remark. He came back to the phone with a curt, “We’ll let you know when it’s going to happen.”
“The bust on Redfern?”
“You won’t be involved in it. You’ll be our backup. Just in case. So sit tight. It’ll be over soon. Don’t call. Keep me informed with the messages.” Someone else was speaking low on his end, and he finally said good-bye.
For a long while after the call, Noel began to feel relief. He had wanted this burden off and now it looked as though it would come off. As long as he wasn’t the fulcrum between Loomis and Eric anymore, he didn’t care what they did.
After lunch he dialed Mirella Trent. She was out. Then he tried Monica’s mother. No luck there either. Paul Warshaw answered but seemed busy and said he would call back later. Finally, Noel dialed Vega’s number.
Priscilla answered in a voice so tiny Noel though at first it was her little girl. “Mrs. Vega? Noel Cummings.”
There was a sharp intake of breath, then, “Dios gracias! I hoped you would call me. Where are you?”
“At home, why?”
“Come to see me. Right now, please. Can you?”
“Right now. Don’t talk,” she commanded and hung up.
The phone. She knew it was tapped. That’s why she didn’t want to talk. Eric must have thought it was tapped, too. That would explain why he wanted to hear the messages played back, so he could hear the surveillance. Sure. But why in the hell was Noel being tapped?
Next to the pictures of John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ was one of Buddy, all of them freshly covered with flowers and each with a votive candle burning in front of it on the bureau top. That was one indication of Priscilla Vega’s loss and grief. Another was that the children were gone.
“After what happened, you don’t think I would keep them with me, do you? They’re at my great-aunt’s in San Juan by now. Except for the baby. She’s at my mother’s. I see her every day.”
Noel, remembering her fiery temperament, had expected to see her furious, vengeful, bitter. But she was very cool. Sorrowful, yes, but purposeful, too.
“Buddy said if you got to him in time, everything would be all right,” she remarked as soon as Noel had sympathized.
That meant Buddy had gone to the rendezvous knowing as much as Noel. That took courage. Noel felt even more humiliated by his role in the affair, and his fear afterward.
“I was too late,” he admitted sadly, but didn’t know how much to tell her.
“Buddy said if you were too late it was because Loomis had tricked him,” she said, waiting for his reaction.
When Noel didn’t respond, she went on: “He said I was to help you. I will help you,” she added fervently.
“Help me do what?”
“To find my husband’s murderers for one thing,” she said, with a hint of the anger he’d anticipated. “And to finish his work for him.”
“He found more dossiers?” Noel asked, already aware that she felt he owed her something for her husband’s life, that he must do something for her. The list grew every month: Loomis. Eric. Now Buddy Vega, too, from beyond the grave. And Monica, of course. His debts.
“Yes, more dossiers. Even more terrible than before.”
The big accordion folder was brought out again. Noel’s depression deepened. He’d still not gotten over the last revelations. Did he really need to see more?
Priscilla gave him not the bulky manila folder, but three finely typed pages, with photostat copies of four more assorted-sized papers attached. As he began to read the top line of the first page, she read it aloud, from memory.
“AIN memo. Re: weapon. Class B, psychological. Code name: ‘The Lure.’”
Noel reread that line three times.
“Buddy thought AIN stood for Associated Intelligence Network. A connection between the CIA, FBI, and state and municipal police. Buddy said it was constitutionally illegal, but that it existed anyway, and that the reason we didn’t hear more about it was the bulky bureaucracy that kept it from being effective.”
Noel had just fully understood the line of type. “I’m the Lure,” he said tonelessly.
“Yes. We knew that.” There was great pity in her voice.
“Three weeks. A little more.”
“I’m the weapon. Against whom?”
“Against Mr. X.”
“Read on. Page two, paragraph four.”
He turned the page. “August twenty-third! That’s today’s date.”
“By the above date,” Noel read aloud, “the subject should be in phase five, called ‘safety clip removed.’ Recent events have placed him in an all-encompassing psychosexual crisis. This, concomitant with repeated attempts on his life, ought to make him chaste, utterly confused, unable to face any major life choice such as whom to trust as his friend. He will begin to turn sharply inward. Trusting no one, he will seek seclusion, possibly even try to flee the situation. At the least, he will find psychological safety only in his own home.”
“That’s true,” Noel said. “But what’s the purpose of this?”
“It is true?” she asked.
“Pretty close, sure,” he admitted.
“You were told your mission with Whisper was to get close enough to this Mr. X so he could be trapped, right?”
Noel didn’t answer. This, too, might be a trap: or a test.
“It makes no difference,” she went on. “It says so right here on paragraph two, page one. This, however, is not your real work for Whisper. That is what is so terrible. Read, go on.” She pointed to a spot at the end of the page, but before he could read it, she said, “You are not a lure, you are the man who within two weeks will assassinate this Mr. X. You have been found, selected, and programmed to do this particular act whether you are aware of it or not, whether you want to do it or not.”
They were sitting at the kitchen table. As Noel read the page which said in different terms exactly what Priscilla had told him, he stood up, knocking the chair over behind him. Within two weeks. That meant Labor Day.
“It is very terrible,” she said.
A curious thing happened to Noel then. He felt as though he were splitting into two selves. One Noel was absolutely astonished, crushed by this final disaster, the last blow of months of confusion and pain and uncertainty, the knowledge that he was being controlled by someone else; worse, turned into a robot with a deadly mission. But the other half—his professional, intellectual self—was utterly fascinated. Here he was, playing around with minority-group social attitudes and Loomis—a genius—was performing effective social-modification behavior—not on laboratory monkeys, not on children, but on him!
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