Authors: Donald E. Westlake
My nice, quiet, relaxing night had been shot to hell. I cursed when I slammed the window again, and I cursed all the way into the bedroom. Ella was there, back in bed again, sitting up the way she’d been before. “What’s the matter now?” she asked me.
“He’s gone,” I said. “I’ve got to call Ed again.”
I did, and Tony Chin answered, and we grunted at each other. Then Ed came on the line, and I told him what had happened. “Fine,” he said. “You go get him. Find him and hide him somewhere. Meeting of the board at nine o’clock, in Clancy Marshall’s office. You find Billy-Billy, stash him somewhere, and be at Clancy’s office at nine. After the meeting, you can take him up to Grandma’s.”
“He’s running scared, Ed,” I told him. “God knows where he’ll go next.”
“He’s got to go somewhere. You know him, you know the people he knows. He’ll go to somebody. Get him. And be at Clancy’s at nine.”
“Okay, Ed,” I said. I hung up and grimaced at Ella. “I’ve got to go look for the punk,” I told her. “You might as well go to sleep. This just isn’t our night.”
“Do you have to go right away?” she asked me. “Couldn’t you stay here for a few minutes?” The troubled expression was gone from her face now, and she was smiling at me, letting me know everything was all right again.
“I guess I don’t have to leave right this minute,” I said. I could give the law waiting outside a chance to get lazy.
I left half an hour later.
Outside was the city, and it had halitosis. The air was hot and damp, and breathing was a conscious matter.
I thought about Grimes, and the boys he would probably have somewhere across the street, waiting for me to lead them to Billy-Billy Cantell. I was the only one moving on either sidewalk, and most of the windows across the way were dark, except for a couple of night owls on the upper floors. Cars were parked along both sides of the street, though they’d all be gone in a little over four hours, at eight in the morning, when the no-parking ban goes into effect. In daylight, most of these cars would be two or three different colors, pastels, pinks and blues and all the other nursery shades, but now, in the hot darkness of almost-four in the morning, they were all black. Even the chrome spattered all over them looked subdued.
There was one street light on this side, way down to my left, and one across the street, off to my right. Grimes’ boys would probably be in one of the cars parked directly across the way, in the blackness just out of reach of both street lights.
My street, in the West 80’s, is a one-way east. The parking garage where I keep my Mercedes is down at the western end of the block, with entrances both on my street and on Columbus Avenue. If a cop was planning to tail me, and he was in the middle of this block, aimed at Central Park, and I was to go out the Columbus Avenue way and head straight downtown, that cop would have to circle all the way around the block to get where I’d started from. It shouldn’t be too tough to avoid being tailed.
I plodded down the street toward the garage, and as soon as I moved, the sweat broke out all over me. I could feel the drops gathering on my forehead, getting ready for the straight run down through my eyebrows and into my eyes. Under the charcoal grayness of my suit, my white shirt was already sticking to me, and my tie was a hunk of warm rope around my neck. It was too hot and muggy to move, or to think, or to go running out of an air-conditioned apartment and look all over New York for a two-bit hophead with friends.
An orange cab cruised by, the dim yellow vacancy light lit on its top, and it looked like a big, wide-mouth, toothy fish, mooching around in the seaweed at the ocean’s floor. That was a nice cooling thought, and I clung to it for a minute, until I got a look at the cabby behind the wheel. He looked twice as hot as I felt, and my shirt, in sympathy with him, got a tighter grip on my back.
I walked into the garage office, and the Puerto Rican kid who works nights was sitting there behind the desk, reading a comic book. He grinned and nodded at me and went away, without having said a word, to get my car.
The office was hot and bright yellow. The kid had left the comic book open on the desk and I leafed through it while I waited for him to come back. The lettering in the balloons was all in Spanish, but you don’t need the lettering to read a comic book. What was that the comic-book publisher was quoted as saying? “We are retooling for illiteracy.” I flipped the pages over and looked at the pictures.
The Mercedes hummed down the ramp and the kid climbed out, looking happy. It didn’t matter to him that he didn’t own any of the cars in this building. Just so he got the chance to drive them up and down the ramps, he was happy. How many Puerto Rican kids get the opportunity to drive a Mercedes-Benz 190SL?
He climbed out of the car and held the door for me, grinning. “All set, mister,” he said.
“Thanks.” I got in behind the wheel, and he closed the door for me.
“Pretty late,” he said, looking through the open window at me. “You goin’ out of town?”
“Naw. I’ll be back after a while.”
We grinned at each other, and I pulled out onto Columbus Avenue. The Puerto Rican kid, I knew, was confused by me. So was the doorman at my apartment building. I look and dress like a rising young executive, age thirty-two, height six foot one, hair brown and cut short, face squarish but kind of post-collegiate-looking. I blend right in on Madison Avenue.
But I keep strange hours. Sometimes, I’m out of town for a couple of weeks. Sometimes, I hang around the apartment for days. I come and go at a schedule even I can’t figure out. And once or twice there have been cops around, asking questions about me. The doorman has never said a word to me about it, but the Puerto Rican kid tries to pump me from time to time, in a casual, offhand sort of way. It gives us something to talk about while we hand my car back and forth.
Now, I drove down Columbus Avenue one block and turned right. I went over to West End Avenue and headed downtown. I’d kept a close watch in the rearview mirror, and when the car that had been behind me on Columbus Avenue was still behind me on West End, I knew I hadn’t ditched the cops so readily after all. They must have had two men on watch, in two cars, with radio contact or something.
But it just might be a fluke, so I tested him. I turned left at the next corner, back over to Columbus, turned right, right again at the next cross street, and the son of a bitch was still on my tail, half a block behind me. When I got to West End Avenue again, I turned left and waited to be stopped by a traffic light.
It happened, finally, and I stopped well back from the intersection. Way down ahead of me, I could see the gliding lights of cruising taxis, but the tail and I were the only ones motorized in the immediate neighborhood. The tail was driving a black ’56 Chevy, which figured. A cop will do a thing like that every time. There are maybe twelve million cars in this country, and ten million of them look like plastic toys from Japan, all chrome and pink and yellow. So when a cop is trying to be inconspicuous, what does he drive? A black Chevy. With opposition like that, it’s a wonder Ed Ganolese hasn’t taken over the whole country.
This particular cop was even more inconspicuous than that. Instead of pulling up in the other lane beside me, the way any normal red-blooded licensed hot-rod would do, he waited out the traffic light behind me. And that’s the way I got rid of him.
The light switched to green, and I slammed my foot on the accelerator. The Mercedes leaped out into the intersection like a panther diving off a branch, and then I stomped down on the brakes. The cop behind me, figuring we were in for a chase, had jammed his own accelerator to the floor, and the Chevy rumbled forward, just slightly out of control. Before he could get the foot over to the brake pedal, he’d rammed me.
I allowed myself the luxury of a grin, for just a second, then wiped it off, put an annoyed expression on my face instead, left the Mercedes in neutral, motor running, and climbed out of the car. I marched back and glared at my rear bumper, where the cop had dented it.
The cop, being a believer in the safety rules of the road, killed his engine and pulled on his emergency brake before he got out of the Chevy. I switched my glare to him and said, “Okay, buddy, who handles your insurance?”
He was a big, beefy type, dressed in the shapeless, baggy suit some manufacturer makes especially for plainclothesmen. “All right, you smart-aleck punk,” he said, blustering because he couldn’t figure out what I was up to.
“I hope for your sake you carry insurance,” I told him. “It’s compulsory in New York State now, you know.”
He reached into his hip pocket, dragged out his wallet, and flipped it open to show me his badge. “You hit the brakes on purpose,” he said.
“A cop!” I said, as though I was surprised. “And crowding me! Okay, friend, let’s see the number on that badge.”
“You can go to hell,” he said.
“Foul language to a citizen,” I said. I marched to the back of the Chevy, pulling pencil and notebook out of my inside jacket pocket, and copied down the license plate number.
“What the hell you think you’re doin’?” he shouted. And he really didn’t know.
He was still standing by the front end of the car, confused but belligerent. I walked back toward him, looking just as smug and righteous as I possibly could. The driver’s-side door of the Chevy was open, and I casually closed it on the way by. I also casually pushed the lock button down as I was closing it.
I stood in front of the cop for a second and just grinned at him. Then I said, “I want to make this just as legal as possible. I’ve got a card from my insurance company in the glove compartment. Just a second, I’ll get it for you.”
“I don’t want no goddamn card,” he said.
“Still and all,” I said. I brushed by him, climbed into the Mercedes, and slammed door, gearshift and accelerator all at the same time. I was three blocks away before the simple son of a bitch behind me even got his car door unlocked. I turned left, cut over across town to Second Avenue, and headed downtown to Billy-Billy Cantell’s normal camping grounds.
I knew there was no sense looking for Billy-Billy at home. He was smart enough to know that two-room cockroach farm of his would be swarming with cops by now. He’d go to somebody he knew, somebody he thought he could trust. And the most likely prospect was a guy named Junky Stein.
Junky Stein, like Billy-Billy, is a user-pusher, but there the similarity ends. Junky has managed to keep a nice lightweight monkey on his back, and he isn’t a retailer. He’s the middleman who supplies the retailers, after the stuff has been cut and capsuled higher up. Billy-Billy is one of his oldest and steadiest customers and I guess you could say he and Junky were close friends. Junky would let Billy-Billy ride on credit every once in a while, and the two of them often hit the needle trail to Nirvana together. If Billy-Billy needed a friend to hide him out, Junky would probably be the guy he’d head for.
Junky lived in a run-down fire hazard on East 6th Street, between Avenues C and D. I found a parking space half a block from the address, and climbed out of the Mercedes, wondering if I’d still have hubcaps when I got back. The Lower East Side is full of amateurs, who wouldn’t recognize me or my car.
I walked along the filthy sidewalk, threading my way through the garbage cans and the empty baby carriages and the drunks, and went up the steps and into Junky’s building. He lived on the fourth floor and it was a walk-up. The stink in that place was almost thick enough to be seen, a bilious green-gray stench, and I breathed as little as possible as I went up the paper-littered stairs to the fourth floor. Cute sayings in a variety of languages were scrawled on the crumbling walls, and every apartment was pumping out its own individual perfume. There was no air conditioning in a rat’s nest like this, and the heat was even worse in here than it was out on the street.
I made the fourth floor after a while, and knocked on Junky’s door. There wasn’t any answer, so I tried the knob. It turned, and the door opened in, and I went inside.
It was pitch black in there. I fumbled along the wall until I found the light switch, flicked it on, and shut the door behind me. There was Junky, sprawled out on the floor.
At first, I thought he was dead. I rolled him over on his back, and his mouth was open, and I could hear the air being forced in and out of his lungs. He’d pumped himself full of the stuff tonight, and looked good for hot storage all day long.
But I didn’t have all day long. I poked him in the rib cage and said, “Junky. Junky, this is Clay.”
He didn’t move. He didn’t even groan.
Normally, I let a guy alone when he’s under like that. He paid hard cash for his little snooze, let him get his money’s worth. But this time, I was in a hurry. So I poked him again, and said, “Junky. Dammit, Junky, wake up.” I prodded him and slapped his face and pulled his hair, and he rolled his head back and forth, moaning and grumbling and fighting it all the way.
I heaved and shoved, and I finally got him standing on his feet. His eyes were still closed, and his head hung loose, but at least he was standing. I let him go and he swayed, but he didn’t fall.
“Junky,” I said. “This is Clay, Junky. Wake the hell up.”
But he didn’t wake up. He didn’t know anybody named Junky. He didn’t know anybody named Clay. He didn’t know anybody.
“Okay, little man,” I said. “Let’s just wake you up.”
I turned him around and walked him into the head. There wasn’t a shower, but there was a tub, and I made him get into it. I helped him sit down, and he mumbled, “Thanks, buddy,” and for just a second I felt sorry for the poor stupid clown, and I wanted to go away from there and look some place else and leave Junky Stein to his own private hell all alone. But he was still my best bet. Billy-Billy obviously wasn’t here, but Junky might know where he was. So I put the plug in the drain and turned the cold water on.
By the time the tub was half full, he was beginning to come out of it. Just beginning to. He opened his eyes and he saw me, but he didn’t recognize me. “What you doin’ to me?” he wanted to know.