Peril, Page 2Thomas H. Cook
“Not my thing,” Stark said coolly.
The dealer looked as if he’d been gently pushed away, perhaps with the nose of a silver derringer. “Well, if I may be of help . . .”
“I’ll let you know,” Stark said.
“Of course,” the dealer said, then vanished.
Alone again, Stark strolled back down the aisle toward the shop’s front door. Scores of beautiful objects lined his path, but nothing called to him, and because of that he knew that he’d slipped out of the old reality, the one that had held him for so many years. Even though Mortimer would arrive that night with the latest payment, he would never spend another dime on what he now suddenly dismissed as collectibles.
He walked out of the shop and headed south down Madison Avenue. He knew that dressed as he was, in a fashionably cut black suit, he looked like a successful Manhattan business executive. It was a look he’d cultivated over the years and which he scrupulously maintained. It went with the false and decidedly metaphorical name he’d chosen for himself, and for the secret life he lived, and it was incontestably appropriate for the elegant bars where, if he sat long enough, a woman would finally approach him.
For years he’d tried to tell himself that she was just a woman, that if she’d lived and they’d remained together, they would have grown apart, their passion faded. But she had died horribly and thus became Helen still on the walls of Troy, and he had never been able to bring her down from that mythic height. He’d tried to find another woman, fall in love again, but the ghost of Marisol lingered in the air around him. She slithered between himself and any woman he caressed. Her breath stained every kiss.
And so for the last few years he’d pursued only sex, sex without affection, and except for Kiko, always with strangers. He could sense that this was just another detour from the road he truly sought and which he now imagined leading off into the shadowy and impossible distance, Marisol at the end of it, perfect and unchanged, her arms opening to receive him. He could almost hear her sensuous whisper, Welcome home.
Sitting in Dr. Langton’s office, he felt small and uneducated, both of which he knew he was, a dull, pudgy little man with a mind that had precious little in it, at least precious little of the stuff educated people had in their minds—dates and names and bits of poetry. If he had it all to do over, he thought, he’d have gone to college, even if nothing more than Bunker Hill Community College, gotten a little polish, a little class, so that he could look a doctor in the eye and not feel the way he did now, two pegs up from a bug.
“Good afternoon,” Dr. Langton said as he came into the office.
Dr. Langton sat down behind his desk, a wall of diplomas arrayed behind him. He placed the folder he’d brought with him on his desk and opened it. For a moment he flipped through the pages, then he lifted his eyes and Mortimer saw just how bad it was. His stomach emptied in the way it had during the war when someone yelled “Incoming!”
“I have the test results,” Dr. Langton said. “It’s not good news, I’m afraid.”
“How long?” Mortimer didn’t want to be curt, but he didn’t want to string it out either, because he knew that if he didn’t get it quick and straight, he’d end up feeling even worse than he already did.
“That’s always a guess,” Dr. Langton answered. “But I’d say we’re probably looking at around three months.”
To his surprise, Mortimer felt a screwy sense that it couldn’t be true, that a man couldn’t sit in an office, feeling more or less okay, and hear a death sentence like that, three lousy months. My God, he was only fifty-six. “You’re sure?” he asked.
“I wish I had a treatment for you. But in this case . . .”
“Okay,” Mortimer said. The incoming round exploded somewhere deep inside him and he suddenly felt already dead. Then his mind shifted to the living, to Dottie, the wife he’d leave behind . . . with nothing.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Langton said.
“Me too,” Mortimer said, though it was not for himself he felt sorry now, but for how little he’d accumulated. Nothing in the bank. Nothing in the market. Not even a little row house in Brooklyn or Queens. All of that had galloped away from him one horse at a time, galloped away on the back of some nag that finished fifth on the track at Belmont. Leaving him with nothing. No. Worse than nothing. In hock fifteen grand to a guy Caruso claimed was capable of anything. Breaking thumbs. Cutting out your tongue. And if Mortimer were, so to speak, beyond reach? What would Labriola do then? Was it really unthinkable that a guy like that, a crazy, brutal thug, might go after Dottie just to get even?
“Is there anything else?”
Mortimer looked at Dr. Langton. “What?”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” the doctor asked.
“No,” Mortimer answered. Not you. Not anybody.
Once outside the office, Mortimer glanced down Eighty-fifth Street, trying to decide what would do him the most good now, the bustle of Broadway or some secluded corner of Central Park.
He decided on the park, and after a few minutes found himself seated on a large gray stone, watching dully as the park’s other visitors made their way down its many winding paths. Not far away a fat black woman bumpily pushed a wheelchair across the lawn. An old man sat in the chair, his legs wrapped in a burgundy blanket. The old man’s eyes were blue, but milky, and little wisps of white hair trembled each time the wheelchair rocked. He was deathly thin, his long, bony fingers little more than skeletal. Even that fucking guy, Mortimer thought, ninety if he’s a day, but even that fucking guy will outlive me.
But it was not the speed of his approaching death that rocked Mortimer now. It was how little time he had to make things right with Dottie. Poor Dottie Smith, the girl who’d been desperate enough or hopeless enough or just plain dumb enough to marry him. He had no illusion that she would miss him. He had not been an attentive husband. In fact, he’d hardly been around at all. Was that not reason enough to leave her something to make up for the thirty wintry years she’d spent with him, a guy who had never taken her out dancing, or even given her a little kiss when he left in the morning or came back at night. What could her life have been, he wondered, without that kiss? And now, after so many dull, dead years, the only kiss he had to leave her was his kiss of death.
No, he decided. No, he couldn’t do that. He had to find a way to leave something for Dottie. That, he concluded, was his mission now.
When the cab arrived, she opened the door and strode swiftly down the walkway, the click of her heels so loud she felt sure it would alert the neighbors, summon them to their windows, all eyes on her now, intent, quizzical, Where’s Sara Labriola off to?
The driver placed the suitcase in the trunk. “Getting an early start,” he said.
She nodded briskly, then got into the cab, careful to gaze straight ahead as it pulled away, afraid that if she didn’t, the fear would reach out like a grappling hook and haul her back across the lawn and into the house, where the voice would begin to make its hard demand—Kill him!—growing louder with each passing day until, inevitably, she would obey it.
At the station, the driver placed the suitcase on the curb and touched his cap. “Have a nice trip,” he said.
Her fear spiked as the cab pulled away, and she was seized with the irrational suspicion that the driver worked for her father-in-law, that he was even then reaching for a cell phone, Hello, Mr. Labriola, I just dropped your son’s wife at the bus station in Montauk. Her hands were trembling, and she struggled to still them. Her fear had reached the panic stage, so that she had to remind herself that it was the long years of listening to Labriola’s stories that had created this paranoid sense that his henchmen were everywhere, whispering into cell phones, tracking her every move.
But none of that mattered now. The only thing that mattered was that she had to leave. She grabbed the suitcase and marched to the ticket
“New York,” she said.
The woman at the booth wore glasses so thick they magnified her eyes. The frames were bright red plastic, a gaudy splash of color in the gray bus station. “One way or round-trip?” the woman asked.
So that was what it came to, Sara thought, whether you stopped at the brink of action or pressed on against all odds, boldly took the outbound road or the circular one that forever wound you back to the scene of the crime.
“One way,” she said, lifting her head, choking back her fear, pronouncing the words loudly, determinedly, as a soldier might call out Charge!
The woman told her the price. She paid in cash, her credit cards left behind because she knew Leo Labriola would trace her if she used them.
“Bus leaves at ten-fourteen,” the woman said.
She walked to the departing gate and waited for the bus, the fear rising steadily so that she continually glanced about nervously, wondering if Labriola had somehow guessed she was leaving, already assigned people all along the route to keep track of her. She could hear their voices in her mind, Leo Labriola’s minions. Her bus is just pulling out now. She’s headed down Sunset Highway. She just reached Cold Spring Harbor. Her bus just pulled into Port Authority. She’s hailing a cab at Forty-second and Ninth. Looks like she’s headed downtown.
Her eyes scanned the station for her father-in-law’s shadowy agents and she saw them all around her. The teenage runaway flicking her pierced tongue; the soldier snoozing softly, his face concealed behind a newspaper; the old black man reading a tattered Bible; the businessman tapping at his laptop. Could all of them be working for the Old Man?
Of course not, she told herself, think about something else, put him out of your mind. She drew in a long breath. Think about something else. Something before Tony. Before the Old Man. Something good.
She returned to her first days in New York, the small-time cabaret singer she’d invented as herself. She’d even given her a name, Samantha Damonte, then created a person to go with it, a smoky-bar woman with plenty of experience, a burnt-out case at twenty-five. Not a bit of it had been true. In fact, as she’d finally come to recognize, Samantha Damonte was just a young woman who’d been afraid to grow up, afraid to go to college, afraid that she wasn’t really special or all that talented, and so, despite the smoky-bar persona, just another girl who wanted to be taken care of. That was what Tony had dangled before her, a safe life, a chance to quiet the voice in her head, its incessantly murderous demand. She’d gone for it because she was weary of short gigs in out-of-the-way clubs, tired of agents and club owners who saw her as a mark, tired of fingers raking up her thigh, tired of the rage that swept over her like a hot wind every time some boozy customer sidled up to the piano, tossed a twenty in the glass, and nodded toward the room at the back, tired of the voice that kept rising from the smoldering center of herself, Kill him!
She might have gone back to Virginia, she thought now, but that door had closed long ago when her father had thrown her out, told her that her dead mother was rolling in her grave, that a singer was just a slut, that she’d either marry Billy Preston, if she could even be sure it was Billy who’d gotten her pregnant, or never show her face at his door again. She’d screamed, “Never, never, never,” moved in with her cousin Sheila, lost the child three weeks later, then split for New York like a million girls before her. At a bus stop outside Philly, in a greasy diner over black coffee and a cigarette, Samantha Damonte had been born.
Okay, so Samantha Damonte was totally made up, Sara told herself, like a character in a book. But who was Sara Labriola, this woman in this particular bus station? She didn’t know, and that struck her as more frightening than anything else, the fact that she could define herself now only as a woman in a rage, half wishing she had done it long ago, drawn back the hammer, pulled the trigger, given up the foolish fantasy that there had ever been a choice.
After the sixth ring he hung up, irritated that it was ten-thirty in the morning, for Christ’s sake, and Sara wasn’t home. He’d been calling her every half hour since seven-thirty but gotten no answer. So where had she gone so early? She had no relatives to visit. No kids to take to school or walk to the bus stop. He glanced out the office window, noted the flurry of activity, men packing fish in ice, loading crates of sea bass and bluefish that would soon be served in restaurants throughout the East Coast. In the distance, Eddie Sullivan was hosing out a truck. Seven feet away Joey Fanucci slumped against a fishing boat, smoking a cigarette, the lazy bastard, who he wouldn’t have hired on a bet if he weren’t a cousin and the Old Man hadn’t insisted that “family is family.”
He jerked open the window. “Hey, Joey. What the fuck? You got nothing to do?”
Joey tossed his cigarette into the churning water and disappeared into the warehouse.
He can hide in there, Tony thought, he can get behind a stack of shipping crates and beat his meat all fucking day. He slammed the window closed, snapped up the phone, dialed home. When no one answered, the dreadful unease flared, the corrosive feeling that something was wrong in the tidy little house he’d left only a few hours before.
He was still nursing that disturbing idea when his father burst through the door.
“Why you keep that fucking mick on the payroll, Tony? He’s dumber than shit.”
“He’s a nice guy,” Tony said.
“So what?” Labriola demanded. He strode to a chair in front of Tony’s desk, plopped down in it, and spread his long, thick legs out across the floor. “So what are you telling me, that you’re so rich you can keep some lazy mick on welfare forever?”
“He’s not lazy, Dad,” Tony said. He grabbed a pencil from a cup that bristled with them and rolled it nervously between his fingers.
Labriola eyed the pencil, then said, “What you so jumpy about?”
“Nothing? I don’t think so, Tony. You got something on your mind, spit it out.”
“Nothing,” Tony repeated.
Labriola laughed. “That wife of yours, she’s probably not giving you any.”
Tony slid the pencil back into the cup.
“You want to get even with her, I could have Belle fix you up.”
Tony shook his head. “Stop it.”
Labriola laughed again. “I told Belle I wanted her to make that thing with sole your mother used to make. You remember, with tomatoes, garlic, capers.”
“So, you got sole?”
Labriola pulled himself to his feet. “The mick can gimme it?”
“His name is Eddie.”
Labriola walked to the door, then looked at Tony. “Don’t let that wife of yours fuck with you, Tony.”
“I won’t,” Tony assured him.
“Good,” Labriola said curtly. “Because they try to get between us, these fucking broads.”
“Guys. Set one against the other. Father and son.”
“Sara would never do that.”
Labriola laughed and waved his hand. “Yeah, sure, you know all about women, kid.” He turned and headed out the door.
Tony watched as the Old Man slammed down the stairs and strode out across the marina, waving to Eddie with one of his get-the-hell-over-here-asshole gestures, like Eddie was his slave. He knew he should have insisted on defending Sara, but he’d been frozen by his father’s mocking laughter, a laughter that had become even more hard lately, tinged with an edgy craziness, as if the Old Man were unraveling in some way, growing more violent, something in him going haywire.
Tony shrugged helplessly. What could you do with such a man? Nothing, he decided as always. Nothing but stay out of his way.
Brandenberg handed him the envelope. “Tell your man he did a good job.”
Mortimer tucked the envelope into the inside pocket of his jacket.
They were sitting in the lounge of the
St. Regis Hotel, a place whose sumptuous decor made Mortimer feel poor and ragged. Glancing about, he wished he’d met Brandenberg in the park, where there were guys digging soda cans and scrapes of food out of the garbage. Instead, he had only the plush carpet and the thick, luxurious curtains and the well-dressed gentleman at the table to the right, some actor he vaguely recognized, though he couldn’t recall the name.
Brandenberg sipped his brandy, then said, “You want a drink?”
Mortimer shook his head. “You need anything else? Some other job?”
Brandenberg considered Mortimer’s questions for a few seconds, then said, “Not for myself. But I have an associate. A businessman from Saudi—”
“No.” Mortimer shook his head. “Two types he don’t work for. Foreigners is one of them.”
“And the other?”
“I see.” Brandenberg took another sip. “And why does he draw this line?”
“He got fucked. Years ago, but he don’t forget.”
“So you screen his clients?”
“Well, then it could be kept strictly between us. I mean, as regards this associate of mine. Which is strictly a business matter, by the way. A question of internal security. Nothing . . . messy. And as far as payment is concerned, the money could come through me. So in a situation like that, how would your man know if—”
“It ain’t his job to know,” Mortimer interrupted.
“Fine,” Brandenberg said in the crisp, cold tone of a man unaccustomed to being refused. “I suppose I admire your . . . honesty,” he added grudgingly. He brought his finger to his lips, and the polished nail gave off a glint of light.
To be dolled up like that, Mortimer thought, to be all elegant and refined that way, what would that feel like? “So, I guess we’re done,” he said.
“It would appear so.”
“Okay,” Mortimer said, and on that word got to his feet and made his way out into the cheerless light.
On the street he sucked in a quick breath, felt a searing ache in his abdomen, and remembered that he was dying. He’d been close to death only once before, that day in the war when they’d come under attack from all directions. He’d felt the ground tremble, the whizzing bullets, the heat from the burning hutches, and finally the shell that had torn into his side. If it hadn’t been for Stark, he’d have died right then, he thought, and suddenly the prospect of that earlier death appealed to him as few things ever had. To die abruptly, without waiting. To die owing nothing. To die young and stupid and before you’d fucked yourself over and fucked other people over, and married the first woman who’d have you, and accumulated nothing but a string of useless days. Before you’d learned just how goddamn worthless the future was. That, Mortimer decided, was a good death, and the only regret he felt as he turned and headed down the street was that he’d managed to escape it.