The lure, p.35

The Lure, page 35

 

The Lure
 



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  Several single men had already entered the place in the last ten minutes since two o’clock. None was Loomis. Any of them could have been his contact.

  Noel finished the third section of the paper and gazed with a slight groan at the first page of the business section. Downstairs, Priscilla Vega passed the huge windows again, coming from the left. At the same time, from the right, the small, chunky, familiar figure of the Fisherman appeared.

  Buddy’s widow reached the door at the same time Loomis did. She ignored him, looking up at Noel. Loomis must have thought she was going in, since he pushed the door open a bit, hesitated (was he looking inside for his contact?), then pushed the door open all the way, standing back for her to enter.

  The Fisherman’s courtesy disarmed Noel momentarily. More overwhelming was the realization that Loomis was actually here, about to have this meeting, that he was totally responsible for the shape and context of the entire last half year of Noel’s existence.

  He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, as though a sharp gust of icy wind had brushed him. Priscilla looked in confusion at the middle-aged man holding the door open for her, glanced down at her baby in its stroller, then up sharply.

  In time to see Noel take off his sunglasses—the signal that she was to enter.

  She said a word to Loomis, thanking him probably, and made a great fuss of getting the stroller inside. Loomis entered right after her, walked past where she had stopped, into the depths below the balcony. Hesitantly, Priscilla knelt to arrange the folds of her baby’s little smock, and looked up at Noel again.

  He’d put on his sunglasses again, but had folded down the newspaper so she could see him run his index finger across his throat: their code for Loomis.

  She turned around to the door, then back up at Noel, puzzled. He signaled again, then again, hoping she would understand. She looked hopelessly confused, then her eyes shot forward toward the serving area. Slowly, even though it wasn’t a signal, Noel nodded yes.

  The next few minutes were agony for him. Both Priscilla and Loomis were out of sight.

  Noel had put the newspaper back up again; it would only be folded down again to warn her of danger. He toyed with the idea of taking the second Valium. The scene at the doorway had been almost unbearable to him. What else would happen to jangle him?

  He decided the second tranquilizer would fuzz his perceptions too much. To calm himself, he looked over the newspaper at the various tables, checking for a single man, recently entered, who seemed to be waiting for someone else.

  What if Loomis’s contact were that greasy-haired, raincoated man at the only two-seat table in the place, in the far corner of the Automat? There were no tables closer to him than six feet. Priscilla would never get near enough to tape them.

  As he observed, the Fisherman’s foreshortened figure appeared under the balcony, carrying a full tray—hot sandwich, coffee, juice, a piece of institutional dessert that might have been coconut cream pie—and came to a stop. Looking for a table, anyone else would think. Looking for his contact, Noel thought. Or for a table where they could be alone.

  The place he walked to was in the center of the room in perfect view from above, although Loomis would be facing away from the balcony, toward the window, which made it doubly safe for Noel. The table was large, designed for six to eight diners, but now had only one occupant—a man in his sixties, Noel guessed, who’d been in the Automat when Noel had come in. He’d been reading what looked to be a foreign-language newspaper, drinking one orange crush after another, alternately gripping a wrinkled, slim, dark cheroot between his teeth. The top of his head was glossily bald, as though the skin were waxed. He had a round yellow face, with deep-set dark eyes, wore a blue short-sleeved shirt, and almost identically colored rayon pants. He scarcely looked up when Loomis set his tray down opposite, then sat one seat to the left. The Fisherman didn’t say a word either; at least he didn’t appear to from Noel’s angle of vision. Was this old man Loomis’s contact? Where was Priscilla?

  There she was, pushing the stroller with one hand and approaching their table. The situation—doubtless deliberately planned by the two men—was an awkward one. She stopped, looked around. Both men glanced at her.

  Confusion at what to do next must have gripped her. She kept looking around her and finally appeared to be losing control. The tray in her hand closest to their table began to tip down. Noel wanted to jump up and shout to her. First the heavy ceramic cup and saucer, then the sandwich plate, then the glass of milk started to slide irrevocably, unbalancing the tray until it was certain to fall over. Noel had to close his eyes to wait for the crash.

  It didn’t come. When he opened his eyes again, Loomis was half standing, leaning over the table, holding the tray steady for her, then setting it down on the table edge. Priscilla made a great show of thanking him, and as he regained his seat, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, she moved the tray in farther, pushed the stroller around to the side opposite Loomis, took the chair one seat away from the old man, and once more thanked Loomis.

  The Fisherman moved down one seat, until he was facing the other man directly. From where Noel sat, it seemed that the two of them began talking a little.

  Meanwhile, Priscilla—clever, clever woman that she was, Noel had to admit, for pulling that off so welll—busied herself with lifting her baby out of its stroller and onto her lap, fiddling around with the packages still stuck in the stroller. One, Noel knew, held the tape recorder and was now switched on, as she glanced up sharply to signal him.

  In order to block others from joining them on their exposed side, both the Fisherman and his contact moved objects to those seats—Loomis his hat and a folder (Would that change hands? What was in it?), the older man his perforated sun hat, sitting next to him on Priscilla’s side of the table. Evidently they had decided she was no threat to them—she seemed preoccupied with her child, speaking to him in Spanish loud enough for Noel to catch a few words.

  Not too preoccupied, Noel noticed, to take advantage of the hat’s change of locale. She shifted the chair out of its place and pushed the stroller right in, flashing a smile at the old man as she did so.

  As they all settled down to eat, Noel relaxed, exchanging his immediate anxieties for other ones. How long could she remain at the table, if the men decided to linger, without making it too obvious? Then he saw her take out the photonovel she had used as a screen in the park, and knew it might be a long time. But wouldn’t the tape run out? Would she be able to change it there? Wouldn’t it click off loud enough to be heard? It was so close to them now.

  Overriding these arguments, he knew, was the real question: when he did finally hear those tapes, would they, in fact, corroborate everything Buddy and Priscilla had shown him, told him? Would they say, definitely, unambiguously, that Loomis was being paid off for engineering Redfern’s assassination and that Noel was the hit man? Only if that were clear would he believe it himself. And only if he believed it would the police commissioner accept it—no matter what else happened.

  Below him all was as before. Priscilla had her photonovel open on the table, was smoking a cigarette and slowly drinking her coffee, the infant in her lap catching at the paper’s edge or toying with her frilled blouse. Loomis and his companion were also done eating. As they had throughout the meal, they talked not as though they had anything of interest to discuss, but in the usual, fragmented, desultory manner of retired men on park benches all over the city, with little to say and a great deal of time to say it.

  “Dr. Cummings?”

  Noel’s head swiveled left so violently he felt a tendon pull.

  “That is you, isn’t it, Dr. Cummings?”

  He located the source of the nasal female voice—a young woman standing at the top of the balcony stairs, holding a tray filled with food. Antonia Something-or-other. From one of his more advanced classes last term.

  Having been so bold, she now seemed to regret it. “I didn’t mean to dis
turb you,” she apologized. “Antoinette Guardi. I was in your soc. crit. class last semester.”

  Two men were lingering on the stairs behind her. She looked behind, then smiled weakly at Noel. “Well! Nice to see you.”

  After his initial surprise, Noel had an idea. She would be a good cover in case he’d already been spotted here.

  “Sit down, Antoinette.”

  “Are you sure?”

  He moved his tray over, clearing a space for her. Downstairs all was as before.

  “I never see any of my professors in the summer,” she began, sitting down and carefully arranging the food on her tray in what Noel suspected was the order in which she planned to eat it. Then, noticing that his food was off his tray, she carefully removed every one of her many plates and cups and put her empty tray atop his. She rearranged the food again, ready to eat, all the while saying, “I never see any of my professors during the summer. Unless they teach, of course, I always assumed they went off to exotic places to do fieldwork and all.”

  On the first floor, the baby had fallen asleep in his mother’s arms. Nothing else had changed.

  “Some of us stay in town,” he said. She must be twenty-one or so, he thought, very attractive in her fresh, freckled, red-haired youth. How young she seemed. He realized he must look awfully strange to her today. How the hell had she recognized him?

  “I know some teachers don’t do any work at all during the summer. I know your case is different.”

  “How do you know that? Because I’m sitting in an Automat reading a newspaper?”

  She giggled. “No. Mirella Trent’s my adviser. She mentioned your project to me.”

  “Oh.”

  “Well, she was pretty secretive about it. But I managed to worm it out of her. I think it’s a fab idea.”

  She smiled prettily, then her even, lovely—capped?—white teeth bit daintily into her sandwich. Antoinette Guardi. Guardi? How did she end up with that name? She looked as though she’d walked off the streets of Dublin a minute ago.

  “You know what I think?” she asked, and answered herself in the next breath. “I think Miss Trent’s a little impressed.”

  “I doubt it.”

  “No. I think she is impressed. She told me your lifestyle transformation shows a deep commitment to your work. She’s still kicking herself for not going to any of the orgies at the women’s prison when she had the chance.”

  “I wouldn’t believe everything Mirella says.”

  “You wouldn’t?”

  Noel wondered if she would explain why she looked so Irish with such an Italian name. He glanced aside, past his newspaper. Downstairs everything was—gone! Loomis, the contact, Priscilla, the baby, the stroller, the tapes—all of them gone!

  7

  Antoinette was speaking again, asking him a question. Noel had jumped to his feet and was already halfway down the stairway.

  Downstairs, he saw someone he thought was Priscilla Vega, pushing her stroller along Fifty-seventh Street.

  “Hey,” Antoinette called behind him, “you forgot your bag!”

  He turned around and gestured for her to throw it, caught it, and bounded out the door in the direction he’d seen Priscilla go.

  She was supposed to have waited until the two men were gone before she gave him the tape and left the Automat. They’d agreed on that. That had seemed the simplest part of the arrangement. Why had she left? She wouldn’t be fool enough to leave with Loomis and his contact because they were still talking, would she?

  Between Sixth and Seventh avenues, Fifty-seventh Street is a long block, crowded with people day or night, no different this afternoon. Only when he’d reached the Russian Tea Room, going west, did he see Priscilla Vega and her stroller ahead: at the corner of Seventh Avenue.

  Sure enough, there was Loomis and his contact. And she was close enough to tape. Close enough to arouse suspicion. What in hell was she up to?

  The two men were stopped, waiting for the light to change, Priscilla and the stroller hidden among others waiting behind them, Noel a good seventy-five feet away.

  Without saying another word to each other, the two men turned in different directions—Loomis crossing the avenue, the older, heavier man turning north toward Central Park. Priscilla remained where she was, letting the people stream around her. Then she bent down and adjusted something in the stroller.

  She turned the stroller back in the direction she had come and, spotting him, approached with a look of absolute triumph on her face. Her gambit had paid off. She had to follow the men out of the Automat to get what she felt was needed. She was pleased, exultant.

  What happened next confused Noel. He’d started forward to meet her. She kept coming toward him, but suddenly her eyes darted to either side of him, startled. Noel whirled just in time to see someone move by him fast on the left, then out of his peripheral vision. Someone else was on his right, also moving quickly. The two men who’d come up behind Antoinette in the Automat? He had looked at them then, only briefly, before turning deliberately aside. Now he recognized their clothing.

  As they rushed past him, Priscilla swerved her stroller through the crowd toward the entrance to Carnegie Hall. Noel’s view of her was suddenly blocked. When he had pushed past the pedestrians in his way, he saw the two men approaching the corner of Seventh Avenue, looking around, gesturing. Priscilla was nowhere in sight. Then, there she was! Behind Noel, on the opposite side of the street, moving fast toward Sixth Avenue, at the curbside. She looked back over her shoulder once, then moved on again. Noel went after her. But as he neared, she glanced back. A shudder of a nod jerked her head and shoulders. Trouble. She didn’t want him to join up with her. He let her pass by—keeping to the curbside, while he followed behind, wondering what was wrong.

  When he looked back toward Seventh Avenue again, following the source of her evident distress, neither of the two men was visible. They might merely have been purse snatchers working as a team that she had avoided. Unless…? Then Noel made out the two of them, one darting around the corner of Fifty-seventh and Seventh, the other turning and rapidly approaching Noel along the storefronts of Fiftyseventh Street.

  Now he understood Priscilla’s puzzling tactics. She had seen them in the Automat also, knew they had seen her and were after her. The second man was probably running around the block, hoping to catch up with her when she reached the corner. Then they would have her from in front and behind. Noel would have to reach her before that.

  He kept Priscilla Vega in sight, following slightly ahead of the man, keeping against the storefronts now that this one had taken to the middle of the sidewalk, dawdling as though looking into store windows once or twice, to try for a better look at their pursuer.

  The second time Noel paused, in the windowed entryway of a Zen Japanese bookshop, he got a nasty shock. The man passed right by, his eyes fixed ahead on his quarry. And the view was close enough, unobstructed enough, so that he could see the face, even with the large sunglasses that half covered it. No doubt about it, it was one of the two bastards who’d jumped him on Twenty-eighth Street. Not Zach. The other one. And they were after Priscilla. They were animals! Fucking animals!

  When Noel emerged from the doorway, the man was gone. He almost walked past him without being aware of it, as the thug was now doing exactly what Noel had done—pretending to gaze into a store window while looking ahead up the street, at Priscilla.

  Noel went to the curb, and saw why. She was stopped at a telephone booth, half facing away, talking into the receiver. To whom?

  Noel crossed to the north side of the street to have a better view, then stood, frozen, hidden in a tobacconist’s shop doorway.

  Mrs. Vega was still on the phone, talking, writing down something on a piece of yellow paper, looking all around her as she talked—at the man still pretending to linger at the store window, then toward Sixth Avenue, as though expecting the other one there. Then she was done writing, and was folding something, which Noel recognized as the
envelope in which he had brought the cassette to her at her West End apartment. Noel watched her place the cassette into the envelope, seal it, and place it in her shoulder bag.

  At that moment, Zach rounded the corner of Sixth Avenue. Noel saw him stop short, panting hard from his run, and look around for his partner. Damn them!

  Noel charged back, across the street, threading through the line of slow-moving autos. A taxi stopped short as he raced in front of it and he nearly stumbled.

  His heart was racing; he didn’t care. He had a score to settle.

  Priscilla had begun walking with the stroller again toward the corner. Didn’t she see the thug in front of her?

  Another car slid in front of Noel. They were bumper to bumper. He leaped across them, one hand on a hood, the other on the trunk of the car in front of it.

  When he reached the curb, Zach had spotted Priscilla. The second tough had left his place at the storefront and was running toward her.

  Noel sprang to the curb, circled a small tree set in a planter, and rushed up. He shot by the man with a full-shouldered shove to the side, and saw him stumble, fall to the sidewalk right into the oncoming path of two fashionably dressed women who’d been sashaying down the street arm in arm. They shrieked, backed off, as he clutched at their skirts to regain his balance, hitting at his grasping hands. He sprawled.

  Zach looked uncertain what to do—to shoot forward, or to go for Priscilla. Noel decided to make up his mind for him.

  The one on the ground was getting to his feet. The two women had retreated to a doorway, brushing themselves off and talking alarmedly. Noel pivoted and, sprinting back, bypassed the women, and expertly kicked the thug in his chest just as he was getting balance from behind. He sprawled again with a loud moan. The women screamed.

  Noel turned to see Zach, no longer undecided, racing at him. Behind him, Priscilla was fiddling around with the corner mailbox, trying to shove the apparently too thick parcel through. She was mailing it to him! Not taking any chances.

 

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