an excerpt from
Face Down InThe Park
by Leonard Foglia & David Richards
Copyright © 2014 Leonard Foglia & David Richards
and published here with their permission
I was the first thing he saw. The letter I. The capital letter.
Was he really seeing it? Or dreaming it?
He wasn’t sure. It filled his entire field of vision, a black I—floating against a swirling white … something. He couldn’t make out the background. Didn’t want to try for the time being. The I was puzzling enough.
What did it mean? Was it a message? God speaking to him in some way? “I am the way, the truth and the life. He who believes in Me will never die.”
Maybe he was dead and this was the beginning of the aftermath, the slow sorting out that the priests had told him about as a boy, when his eternal self would emerge from its earthly shell and his true essence would finally shine clear, as the letter was clear. His body felt numb, heavy, as if he would never get up again. His right cheek was cold. So all physical sensation had not left him. He heard a faint voice inside his head, arguing that numbness wasn’t death. Not yet anyway. And the isolated patch of cold on his cheek was growing colder. So, no, he couldn’t be dead.
It had to be a dream then—the swirling and the heaviness that rooted him to the spot and the stark letter I that kept coming toward him, bigger and bigger, like a soldier on the march.
He blinked his eyes and slowly lifted his head. A wave of nausea swept over him, and he quickly put his head back down again. He had the sensation of spinning through space and remembered another time he had fallen down.
He must have been three or four. He had scraped his knees badly on the pavement. As he sat there, stunned, blood had risen to the surface of his skin. Bright, tiny drops at first that formed a trickle, then a ribbon of red that snaked down his leg. He had begun to cry. Someone had picked him up and held him high in his arms.
The image was suspended in his mind, like the letter I was suspended in the whiteness. But he couldn’t say who the man was or, indeed, if he was even the boy with the tear-stained face in the man’s arms. It all looked familiar enough, like a photograph in a family album. But it promptly faded away, and the swirl returned.
He lay there for a while.
The next thing he was aware of was a hand touching the I. He assumed it was his. Whose else could it be? The proof would be if he could move the fingers. He concentrated hard. The index fingers rose and fell several times in a faint tapping motion. Aha! It was his hand, after all. He had pretty much concluded beforehand that he wasn’t dead, but this confirmed it. He was putting things together, making progress.
He lifted his head a second time, shifted it slightly to the side, and saw two more letters. G-I-N He had an urge to laugh, but that physical reflex didn’t seem available to him now, no sound came from his lips. “Gin.” He couldn’t remember whether he liked gin or not. Had he ever drunk it? It would come back to him when he woke up. Vodka, yes. That much he knew. Gin was clear like vodka, though. Had he gotten the two confused?
Maybe gin was responsible for the dull ache he was starting to feel in the back of his head. He was going to have one hell of a hangover, if that was the case. But something told him it wasn’t so simple. That wasn’t why he was lying here, his body leaden and his cheek icy cold, with visions of the alphabet passing before him. It was more complicated than just too much liquor and an incipient hangover. There was some other reason for what he was experiencing.
But finding an explanation required too great an effort. It was taking all his strength just to keep his head up. He decided to lie back down. He would puzzle things out later. Tomorrow. Whenever he woke up. Gently, as if he were sinking into a downy pillow, not onto the hardness of stone, he rested his cheek next to the capital I.
As he did, his only desire was to be clean. Washed clean in the blood of the lamb. No, that wasn’t right. That’s what the priests said. A different boyhood image flashed into his mind—the blackboard in his first-grade classroom. If you were good, you got to wipe it with a wet cloth for the teacher. Back and forth, until all the chalk marks were gone. After the water dried, the blackboard looked brand-new.
Yes, that’s the answer, he thought, before he lost consciousness and slipped into a tunnel of darkness. I can wipe it all away. I can be clean again. A clean slate.
“He is the most popular box office star in the world. She, the highest paid actress ever and, many say, the sexiest. Together, they epitomize Hollywood’s new royalty—young, privileged, successful beyond anyone’s dreams and very much their own bosses.
“Tonight in a rare television interview, their first as husband and wife, Christopher Knight and Jennifer Osborne on the Deborah Myers Special. Join us at nine as we go up close and personal with the new breed of superstars, who are turning the tinsel of tinseltown into solid gold.
Deborah Myers, dressed in a blazing red suit, sat back in the white armchair and wrinkled her brow in displeasure. “Too flat. Let me take it again.” She looked over at her producer. “How are we doing for time, Pete?”
“Don’t worry. Our time is their time,” replied a compact man in a black turtleneck and sports jacket. “If they want to stay upstairs all morning, we are more than happy to wait. Hell, if they want us all to stand on our heads, we’ll stand on our heads.”
“Don’t count on me. My new stylist would never forgive me.” But Deborah Myers knew Pete was right. Just getting an interview with the two stars was a big coup. To be able to conduct it in their Malibu beach house, well, she could imagine the ratings already. If this didn’t flatten Emergency Squad, nothing would.
Behind her, sliding glass doors opened onto a wooden deck on which the set designers had arranged several large pots of pink hibiscus in full flower. The sky was cloudless and glints of sunlight flashed off the flat ocean, like sparks off an anvil. She had to admit it was the perfect backdrop—America’s enduring image of all that was desirable about Southern California. In spite of the mud slides and the fires and the earthquakes, people persisted in believing the place was some kind of earthly paradise, populated by the fit and the underdressed. They really believed in stardom, too, as if it were a higher state of existence, with flattering lighting and music playing in the background. Far be it from her to wise anyone up.
Deborah checked her wandering thoughts and prepared to run through the promo again, when the click of footsteps at the top of the stairs stopped her. Jennifer Osborne was putting in an appearance at last. The room fell silent as the crew turned to gawk. Deborah couldn’t help noticing that they were like a bunch of high school boys in the presence of the prom queen.
Objectively speaking, Jennifer Osborne was no more beautiful than dozens of Hollywood starlets with well-endowed bodies and blonde hair that fell to their shoulders. The thing is, it was impossible to be objective about her. “Not since Marilyn” was the phrase the columnists had used when she first appeared on the scene in low-budget potboilers and tight sweaters. But she had proved to be Marilyn without the neuroses. She didn’t need anyone to reassure her that she was sexy or tell her that she could act. She knew it. Confidence seemed bred into her.
It was said that the camera adored her, but it was really the studio lights that adored her. Where they washed out others and flattened their features, they lent a radiance to her face. Her skin—smooth, unblemished, white as alabaster—was responsible for that. One of the lessons that her mother had drummed into her as a child was never to go outside without a hat, “unless you want to look like that.” Since “that” was Aunt Hattie, a flashy widow from Naples, Florida, with cheap jewelry and a leathery tan that aged her a full fifteen years, the lesson had taken.
Jennifer Osborne’s outfit was casual, the off-white slacks emphasizing the length of her legs as she came down the stairs, and the matching silk blouse showing off the fullness of her breasts. If she were walking by a construction site, Deborah thought, the wolf whistles would be deafening by now.
“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said, looking around. “Am I interrupting?” Her voice was barely a whisper, but in the silence, everyone heard her.
“Of course not.” Deborah sprang from the armchair, sidestepped a camera and several reflectors, and went to Jennifer with outstretched hands.
“You look absolutely stunning.”
“Not too informal? It isn’t every day you bare your soul for forty million television viewers. Christopher should be along in a second. He couldn’t decide between two blazers. And they say women take forever to dress! By the way, that’s a terrific suit.”
“Armani. Just on loan. Thanks for noticing, although how could you not? Back home in Texas, we call this ‘chile-pepper-red.’ Let’s hope Christopher doesn’t wear blue or the three of us are going to look like the French flag.”
“Actually, he was leaning toward gray,” Jennifer said.
“Is there a red, white, and gray flag, Pete? With our luck, it belongs to some Middle Eastern liberation movement, and we’ll be flooded with irate letters next week.”
She laughed. On the surface, Deborah Myers didn’t give the impression of being a tough interviewer, but nobody doubted that she was a canny one. Like most of the celebrities on her specials, she had worked her way up the ladder and knew the costs of success. Her hour-long telecasts were as much a celebration of her own fame as her guests’. She wasn’t out to destroy anyone’s career, although she was perfectly willing, if the career had fallen apart, to explore the wreckage. Her reputation rode on capturing that “special moment,” when her guests divulged an intimate detail about themselves, displayed a flash of temperament, or rarest of all, told the unvarnished truth.
She didn’t know what it would be today, but counted upon the easy, free-wheeling approach to work in her favor. You couldn’t badger people like Christopher Knight and Jennifer Osborne, but you could sometimes cajole them into a state of relaxation that let them forget the presence of the camera momentarily.
“What’s this talk about flags?” Christopher Knight bounded down the stairs and slipped his arm around his wife’s waist. He had opted for the gray blazer and a pale yellow shirt, opened at the neck. “Sorry to hold things up, dear. Will this do?”
“Perfect,” Jennifer said. “It matches the gray in your eyes.” She ran her hand playfully through his jet black hair and gave him a peck on the tip of his nose. Then she turned back to Deborah. “Am I married to the most handsome man in the world or not?
“It wasn’t a question that needed answering. Six foot three inches tall, thirty-three years old, Christopher Knight was a Cary Grant for the 1990s—expensively tailored, impressively muscled, exquisitely mannered. “The impeccable hulk,” some critic had quipped. He’d started out as a rebellious juvenile on a daytime soap opera but had long since blossomed into a leading man of some versatility. To many, he personified the American heartland and American decency, but he could also project an aura of brooding and danger that his female fans loved. There was something almost tyrannical at times about his good looks, and his most recent screen roles acknowledged the ambiguity of his heroic personality.
He returned Jennifer’s kiss. “Ah, flattery, flattery, thy name is woman!”
“It’s frailty, darling,” she said.
“That, too.” He gave her an amused grin.
The crew wasn’t even pretending not to stare. A few jaws hung open dumbly. Even Clinton hadn’t gotten this kind of reaction, Deborah mused, when she’d snagged that first exclusive interview. It had something to do with secret fantasies. Movie stars triggered them; politicians didn’t. Except for Kennedy. And maybe Reagan briefly, when he was younger, before his cheeks got so rosy and he started shellacking his hair. Beyond that, she wasn’t able to say why certain people had this power over the imagination of others without doing anything really, just by being. The words ordinarily used to describe the phenomenon—magnetism, chemistry, charm—belonged as much to the vocabulary of sorcery as that of science.
The hush was broken by a middle-aged woman who slipped into the room as unobtrusively as possible, whispered into Christopher’s ear, then stepped back and waited dutifully. Earlier that morning, the woman had been introduced to Deborah as the stars’ press agent, but Deborah knew she wasn’t the big gun—not the one who had called her office no fewer than twenty times a day over the last month in an attempt to regulate every aspect of this interview. His calls had become so frequent, in fact, that her secretary began referring to him as “the stalker.”
“Stalker, holding on line two.”
“Stalker insists you ring him up immediately.
Whenever Deborah eventually got him on the line, she had trouble keeping the laughter out of her voice.
This woman, altogether more self-effacing, had turned out to be an assistant from the office, pressed into service at the last moment. The situation was unorthodox. Stars of Christopher’s and Jennifer’s magnitude always had the top man (or woman) dancing attendance on their every move.
Just as well, Deborah thought now.
In her opinion, most public relations honchos were overpaid pains in the butt—intent, like the stalker, on demonstrating their indispensability and proving to their clients that they had a potentially damaging situation in hand. In reality, they controlled nothing and made everybody else’s job twice as difficult. If this assistant seemed out of her depth, she was at least conveniently meek and wouldn’t speak up in the middle of the interview, demanding that some juicy tidbit be stricken from the record.
A flicker of annoyance registered on Christopher’s face. “Tell him that we’re busy,” he said to the mousy woman.
“But he’s been desperate to talk to you for two days now. Please?”
“Explain to me again why His Lordship isn’t here today?”
“Um, personal business, I believe.”
“Really? I thought we were his personal business.”
“Of course, you are—
“Christopher cut her off. “Fine. I’ll be right there. Sorry to be a nuisance,
Deborah, but could you spare me a second to take a quick phone call?”
“Please. Our time is your time,” replied Deborah, who suspected that “His Lordship” referred to the stalker.
A man in a powder blue smock fluttered up to Jennifer Osborne to inspect her makeup for any infinitesimal flaws that might have escaped eyes less practiced than his. Finding one, he emitted little squeaks of disapproval and said, “My, my! Would you mind coming with me for just a teeny, tiny minute, Miss Osborne?” The crew roused itself out of its stupor, and the living room came alive again. There was a growing charge in the air that this wasn’t going to be just another show.
Deborah took her position in the armchair, opposite the empty sofa where the stars would sit. “Okay, Pete,” she said. “I’ll redo the promo afterward. Let’s go straight to the intro.
“She fixed on the camera lens, as if it were a friendly neighbor who had just dropped by for coffee, and held the expression until the audio man called out, “Tape is rolling.”
Her face muscles relaxed.
“Good evening. I’m Deborah Myers. Tonight, the new royalty. Two of the biggest stars in Hollywood. They are powerful, they are self-assured, they are sexy. For one full hour, Christopher Knight and Jennifer Osborne talk about their careers, their marriage, and their biggest gamble yet—the controversial $100 million epic In the Beginning, in which they play Adam and Eve. We’ll have a preview. Stay with us.”
The man in the charcoal gray suit, white button-down shirt, and gray and plum striped tie watched as the maid came out of 1201, gave the cart a shove with her hip, then guided it another ten feet until it came to rest in front of 1203. She rapped on the door, waited long enough to determine there was no one in the room, then inserted a white plastic card into the electronic lock. With a click, the door opened. Leaving her cart on the threshold, she scooped up a stack of fresh towels and disappeared inside.
The man adjusted his tie in the mirror at the far end of the hallway. It was his favorite suit and tie, and he prided himself on his appearance. His fastidiousness was cause for some ridicule from his associates, who liked to remind him that there was no dress code for his line of work. Nobody used his real name, Spieveck, which had been inevitably (and logically) shortened to Spiff. The nickname didn’t displease him. Why wear a Knicks sweatshirt and old jeans, he reasoned, when you could get your clothes at Armani Exchange? If others wanted to look like slobs, that was their affair. He liked being taken for a lawyer or a businessman. People did all the time.
Only minutes ago, as he’d walked across the lobby, the concierge had nodded deferentially and said he hoped that everything was satisfactory. “Most satisfactory,” he’d replied, before stepping into the elevator. And he wasn’t even staying at the hotel!
Reassured that the knot of his tie listed neither to the left nor to the right, Spiff strode down the corridor, edged by the cart, and entered the room. It was almost antiseptically neat, he noted with approval. As he automatically checked out the premises, he heard the maid singing along with her Walkman. He was about to make a noise to alert her of his presence, when she shuffled out of the bathroom and caught sight of him.
“Ah, madre mia!” She shrieked and jumped back.
“Terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you like that. As you can see, I never made it home last night.” He flashed a sly smile. “I guess I won’t need maid service today.
“Before she had time to turn down the volume of the Julio Iglesias tape on her Walkman, he ushered her to the door and pushed her cart into the hallway.
“Gracias. Muchas gracias,” he said, smiling and waiting for her to move on.
“De nada, señor.” How ridiculous to pay for an expensive room and not use it, she thought. But one look at the attractive stranger was all it took to know that he’d probably been out all night cheating on his wife. She recognized the type—salesmen, eager to have a good time in the big city. If it meant one less room to clean this morning, far be it from her to voice an objection.
Once she had rounded the corner of the hall, Spiff hung the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the outside doorknob and double-locked the door. Then, he put on a pair of latex gloves, snapping them the way medics did on TV: He knew that no one had spent the night here, as the plump pillows and unruffled bedspread testified. He crossed to the open suitcase on the luggage stand by the window, carefully examining the contents—underwear, socks, T-shirts, cotton sweaters—then depositing them systematically in neat piles on the floor. He saw no reason to toss things around; it paid to be orderly. If you made a mess, you could inadvertently cover up what you were looking for. In the side pockets of the suitcase, he came on a pack of stale gum, a half-filled bottle of aspirin, and a dirty comb.
He ran his hands over the lining of the empty suitcase, searching for hidden compartments.
“Fucking nothing!” he said.
He didn’t like talking to himself. It implied a lack of control. But sometimes, like right now, the words just popped out of his mouth by themselves.
Fucking nothing was secreted in the publications on the coffee table, either, save an airplane ticket, which was tucked between the pages of an in-flight magazine called Destinations. The drawers in the nightstand by the bed yielded only the standard items supplied by a gracious management: stationery, a pen, a Gideon Bible (he flipped through it just in case), plastic laundry bags, and a menu for room service pushing the continental breakfast at $15 a head. The NO SMOKING plaque on the wall explained the absence of matchbooks and ashtrays. What, he wondered fleetingly, did tourists steal for souvenirs these days?
In the closet, a plaid work shirt, a pair of jeans, and a suit had been hung up on wooden hangers—the theft-proof variety that hook onto metal rings permanently attached to the bar, thereby further frustrating the ashtray collectors. The left shoulder of the suit jacket felt suspiciously stiff to him, so he took the Kershaw Talon out of his pocket and flipped it open. The blade, three inches of stainless steel shaped like an eagle’s claw, sliced cleanly through the fabric. The stiffness was only padding meant to give the jacket body and its owner the reassurance of a broad physique.
Spiff regretted spoiling such a nice piece of goods. From the touch, he could tell that it wasn’t run-of-the mill Sears. He made a mental note of the label, Hugo Boss. Just to be on the safe side, he sliced open the other shoulder.
The shaving kit on the marble counter in the bathroom contained the usual toiletries, a package of condoms, and a prescription medicine in an amber plastic container. The bathroom, as spotless as the bedroom, hadn’t been used, either. Or else he was dealing with the original Mr. Clean. He checked his watch. Six minutes so far. Another few minutes and he’d be out of there.
He stripped the double bed of its linens, as the maid would have done, pulled the pillows from their cases and patted them down. Then he stood the mattress against the wall and lifted up the box spring, exposing a few hairpins and some dust balls. His nose wrinkled instinctively in disgust, and he let the box spring fall back on its frame with a thud. He was drawing blanks everywhere.
The cushions of the sofa hid no surprises, not even loose change. That left the service bar, an unlikely spot, but one to be checked nonetheless. The shelves were stocked with fruit juices, snacks, and liquor miniatures, which he swept into a wastebasket with a couple of brisk gestures. He strongly disapproved of drinking. Peanuts were another matter. He pocketed a package for later, taking care to enter a check mark in the corresponding square on the “Service Bar Consumption Form” on the Formica counter. What was the point of an honor system, if everybody didn’t obey it?
Convinced that he had explored every corner of the room, he took out his cellular phone and dialed a number. He was still waiting for someone to answer when he heard people coming down the hall.
In another minute, he would have been gone. He tapped his foot impatiently. “Come on. I haven’t got all day. Pick up the damn phone.”
Spiff held his breath. In the hall, the sound of raucous laughter grew louder, followed by a door slamming sharply. Whoever it was—revelers returning after a drunken binge on the town, no doubt—had entered the room across the way. Didn’t anybody keep normal hours around here?
“Yes? Who is this?” God how that voice irritated Spiff. “Is anyone on the line?”
“Yeah, it’s me, Spiff. Nothing here.”
“What do you mean? Are you sure?”
It was too early for peevishness. Of course I’m sure, you twit. I’m a pro. I do my job, Spiff wanted to reply. But all he answered was, “Yes, zip.”
“First you said there was nothing on him. Now you’re telling me there is nothing in his room?”
“You got it. Clean as a whistle.”
“Where is it then?”
“Damned if I know.”
“But you’re being paid to find out. Well, aren’t you? I wouldn’t call this doing your job very well. In fact, I’d say you were doing it rather poorly.”
Spiff resisted the urge to talk back. When clients were upset like this, it was best to let them run their mouths, blow off steam. Eventually, they shut up.
“He has been far more clever than I would have anticipated,” the voice concluded at long last. “I’ll be in touch.”
Spiff heard a click, and the line went dead. He folded up the cellular phone and slid it back into his pocket. His clients didn’t always like the way things turned out, but he tried not to let that bother him. All he cared about was holding up his end of the deal. He didn’t like a shoddy performance any more than he liked shoddy dress. Standards were going to hell everywhere, and he, for one, wasn’t about to contribute to the deterioration.
There was certainly no need to yell, as the client had just done. No need at all. Yelling accomplished nothing and was bad for the blood pressure … everybody’s blood pressure. What it showed was … a complete absence of respect … of … of … professionalism. Yes, that was it! As if he, Spiff, were a pissant just starting out … some kind of … rank amateur!
To calm himself, he flicked open the Kershaw Talon again and walked over to the bed. Then, taking a deep breath and exhaling it slowly, he ran the blade down the center of the mattress from top to bottom. A thin layer of white padding oozed out.
“There! Much better.”
The anger was all gone. He felt good again.
He put his ear to the door and, satisfied that no one else was approaching, ducked out into the hall. Instinctively, he readjusted his tie and slicked back his hair. Halfway to the elevator, he remembered that he had forgotten something.
Hastily retracing his steps, he removed the plastic DO NOT DISTURB from the door handle, flipped it over, then put it back, so that it read PLEASE MAKE UP ROOM.
As he lay there, facedown on the stone, his body slowly began to register the morning chill. It crept into his legs and arms and settled into his joints with a persistent ache that pulled him out of his dream and brought him closer to consciousness. It wasn’t much of a dream, anyway. Just bizarre, fragmented images. Woods in the spring. A car speeding along a highway. And hands, reaching out from the trees and rising up from the pavement, clutching at the speeding car as it passed, trying to stop it.
Whatever it meant, it wasn’t the sort of dream you tried to prolong. There was nothing pleasant about it, nothing to postpone waking for. The images grew progressively fainter while the sensation of cold grew stronger. Then, the man opened his eyes.
He seemed to be lying on a stone mosaic, made up of small black and white tiles. He pushed himself up with his forearms. There beside his left hand was a capital I. He looked at it with momentary fascination until the ache coming from every part of his body sapped his concentration. He rolled onto one side and maneuvered himself into a sitting position. He was surprised to see that he was wearing a suit. The knee was torn. He must have fallen and ripped it. Otherwise, it was a nice suit. Dark green. New. Soft to the touch.
He breathed in the crisp morning air, waiting for his surroundings to come into focus. It seemed to be a circular mosaic of some sort that he was sitting on. The black and white tiles formed letters and patterns. The I was part of an inscription. He didn’t remember that several hours earlier it had set him off on a flight of metaphysical speculation. He’d forgotten that and a lot more, too.
He studied the other letters—M-A-G-I-N-E—and realized he’d been lying on a word. Like a child learning to read, he sounded it out.
“I-ma-gin-e,” he whispered to himself. “Imagine!”
He looked around and saw wooden benches and, overhead, a canopy of trees. Beyond them, he could make out streetlights and a row of tall buildings. He concluded that he was in a park in a big city. But what city?
The muffled sound of automobile traffic confirmed his conclusion. He tried to stand. As he did, a shooting pain raced up the back of his neck, causing him to gasp. He automatically reached up with both hands to steady his head. When he brought his hands back down, his fingertips were covered with blood. All he could think was that something was wrong. Not what or how or why. Just something. Questions were beyond him for the time being.
Panic rose in him, along with the sense that his life was in danger. He had to go where the cars were, stop one of them maybe. Struggling to his feet, he managed only a few steps before the ground began spinning. He reeled backward and collapsed on a bench. He gripped the metal armrest and closed his eyes, putting all his concentration into breathing deeply—in and out, in and out—until the dizziness lifted and the ground spun to a stop, like a carnival ride winding down.
The trees came back into focus, their leaves forming lacy patterns against the sky. The sun was striking the topmost floors of the taller buildings, so that the windows appeared to be made of gold foil, not glass. He blinked in wonderment. Then his eyes went to an older, heavier structure to the right. It looked like a nineteenth-century fortress, or perhaps a castle, with its gables and turrets and a roof that came to several sharp peaks in a row. The copper flashing that outlined the building’s fantastically shaped roof had oxidized bluish green. From a pole planted on top of the middle peak, an American flag flapped silently.
He stood up and started toward it, oblivious that he was walking over the tile mosaic with the curious word at its center. On the gently curving path that led to the street, he nearly collided with a jogger.
“Watch it, buddy,” the jogger snapped.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you.”
“Well, maybe if you looked where you were going … Hey, are you all right?”
No, the man thought. I’m not all right. I need help. But before he could articulate the words, the jogger had resumed his pace and moved on down the path.
At the street corner, he had a better view of the massive building. It was constructed out of yellow brick and brownstone, and from the deep inset of the windows, he judged the walls to be several feet thick. Dark wooden shutters and curtains had been drawn across most of the windows on the lower floors. If there was life stirring within, it was not discernible from the sidewalk.
As he examined the imposing facade, he thought he caught sight of something moving in one of the corner windows, three stories up. A person was hovering in the window, staring down at him, unless his eyes were fooling him and he’d been taken in by an apparition. His senses weren’t all that reliable this morning. The form moved ever so slightly, and a pale face flashed briefly in the dark pane. It was a person. With silver hair.
Don’t go away, thought the man in the green suit. Help me. He lifted his arm and waved at the figure in the window, even though the movement sent splinters of pain through his head. The pain no longer mattered. He had to make contact. “I can see you,” he cried out. “You must be able to see me. Please wave back.”
The person in the window pulled back into the shadows.
“Don’t go away,” shouted the man in the street. Desperation took hold of him, and he swung both his arms over his head, crisscrossing them furiously, like a sailor who has lost his semaphores but still continues to spell out a message of distress.
“I see you. I know you’re there.”
But the figure had disappeared altogether. The third-story window, like those around it, was dark.
The man let his arms fall to his side. He saw some lights blink on in the dormer windows under the gabled roof, then realized it was another optical illusion created by the morning sun. He told himself it didn’t matter. The windows were too high up for anyone to take notice of him anyway.
“He’s waving at me … No, I’m not kidding … He’s standing right there on the far corner, waving his hands over his head like some demented person. I don’t believe it.”
Without taking his eyes away from the sight that had so startled him, the silver-haired man stepped back and fumbled in the pocket of his paisley dressing gown for a pack of Benson & Hedges. Trapping the telephone receiver against his right ear in order to free his hands, he lit the cigarette and then shot a stream of smoke at the ceiling. Although it was still early, he was on his fifth cigarette already, which meant that it was going to be another two-pack day.
“I don’t know what he’s up to,” he said, resuming his conversation. “I rather thought you might have an explanation for it.” He spoke with a clipped British accent, even though he’d lived in the United States for more than twenty years and could easily have modified his speech, if he so chose. He chose not to, feeling that good diction and adenoidal vowels gave him an edge in his dealings with Americans, who tended to be intimidated by singular pronunciations.
“Oh, I know what you wanted to do. But for the moment, one must show a bit of restraint. Once this is settled, you can pitch him in the Hudson River for all that I care. Not yet, though …”
He pulled back the damask curtain and checked on the activity in the street. “He seems to be waiting for the light to change … A bit unsteady on his feet, which should come as no surprise to you.”
To keep his voice from rising, he took a deep puff on the cigarette. Stupid people irritated him, and the irritation showed up first in his voice, which lost all its urbanity as it rose in pitch. When he screamed, he could be as shrill as any fishwife, which is why he tried never to lose his temper. Aesthetically, it was simply unacceptable. Staying calm was requiring an increasing effort of him, though.
“No, he’s not waving any longer … He seems to have stopped looking up here … Wait, he’s crossing the street … He’s coming toward the building. My God! What’s possessed him! … The bloody fool is headed straight for the entrance.”
Once the man in the forest green suit had successfully navigated the street, he noticed that a moat surrounded the turreted building. He approached it with curiosity, until a startling sight stopped him dead. Black sea monsters were writhing up out of the depths, their gaping jaws ready to devour the unwary.
The monsters were accompanied by a king, whose blazing eyes and tangled hair served as further warning to back off. The man in the green suit sensed he must be hallucinating. Sea monsters in the city didn’t make sense. As he stared at them dumbly, their undulations slowly ceased and the ferocious king reverted to what he was—cold metal.
He had been transfixed by the sculpted figures on a wrought iron railing. The king was that god of the sea—the one whose name began with an N. Newton! No, not
Newton. Not Nestlé, either. Why was he having such trouble coming up with words? His mind was functioning so oddly this morning.
Neptune! That’s the one he was trying to think of.
His eyes followed the railing to the middle of the building, where a vaulted passageway led to an inner courtyard. Off to one side was a brass sentry booth. As the man started to turn into the passageway, the door of the booth swung open and a figure in a burgundy uniform stepped out onto the pavement.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said. “May I help you?”
The uniform puzzled the man, because it seemed to belong to another time. Palace guards dressed like this in movies and in children’s books. He waited patiently for this storybook character to reveal his true identity, as the sea monsters had done. When no transformation came, he pushed on in the direction of the courtyard.
The doorman’s arm caught him at chest height and blocked the way. “Hey, wait a second. Where are you going?”
It took all the man’s concentration to get the one word out. “Inside.”
“Yeah, and who exactly do you want to see?”
He was unable to answer. The whirling sensation had come back.
“Hey, buddy, you doing all right? You look like you had a rough time last night. I think you’d better move on now, okay?” The doorman had seen his share of bums and crazies, not to mention the tourists, who fell somewhere in between. The wisest tactic, he had learned, was to keep up a running patter while ushering them back out onto the sidewalk and pointing them toward the subway. Firmly, he slipped his arm around the man’s shoulders.
“Sure must have been one helluva party. Well, happens to the best of us. A few hours sleep ought to fix you up fine. Come on, now. Let’s keep going.”
Just as he was about to release his grip on the man—and give him a last helpful push—a voice called out, “Is that your new boyfriend, Joey? I always suspected you were cheating on me.” Tina stood in the passageway, a pale cherry windbreaker tied around her hips. Watching her go in and out of the building in her skintight exercise gear, a dance bag slung over her shoulder, was the chief advantage of Joey’s shift. Her body, although aerobically trained and maintained, had lost none of the natural voluptuousness he had always admired in women, while her face with its dark eyes and full cheeks, reminded him pleasantly of his Mediterranean relatives. He liked her frankness, too, which contrasted with the snootiness of the residents.
“Very funny. This guy had some night last night. Doesn’t know where the hell he is. He was trying to get inside.”
“He seems awfully attached to you right now!” As she came toward them, her expression changed. “Joey, what’s that on your hand?”
The doorman glanced down. The fingers of his right hand were reddish purple. He looked over at the stranger, who was weaving back and forth on the sidewalk, then at his hand again. “Holy shit! It’s blood.”
“Jeez, Joey. Maybe you should call the police. This guy’s not some derelict.
Look at his clothes.”
“Are you all right?” she asked, reaching out a hand to steady the wavering man. “Would you like us to call somebody for you?”
“I dunno. You tell me.”
“Nobody. I can manage by myself.”
“You sure of that?”
An incongruous smile broke across his face. “You are very pretty.”
“Looks like you’re the one got a new boyfriend now,” said Joey.
“Well, he wouldn’t be half-bad cleaned up.” Tina was only partly jesting. The man had sandy blond hair and eyes that, even in their glassy state, were penetratingly blue. He seemed to be about thirty-five, and his build, from what her quick, professional evaluation told her, was that of someone who had been an athlete in his youth, probably a runner or a swimmer, and had never let himself get out of shape. “But I haven’t started picking up men off the street yet. Excepting you, Joey. I’d pick you up anywhere.”
“Ready whenever you are,” replied the doorman, who enjoyed his running flirtation with Tina, not that it would lead anywhere. “Say the word, Tina, and I’m yours.”
The man in the green suit spoke up. “Tina?”
“Okay, boys, let’s not both of you fight over me.”
“You got it. That’s my name. Don’t wear it out. So why don’t you tell us yours?”
Without warning, the man’s knees buckled, and he crumpled to the sidewalk, pulling Tina with him.
“Shit! Joey, call 911.”
“Leave him alone, Tina.”
“I said call 911!”
As Joey retreated into the sentry booth, Tina loosened the man’s tie and checked his breathing. His hands gripped her windbreaker so tightly she had to pry his fingers open one by one. Finally she gave up and let him hold on.
“They’re on their way,” Joey said on his return. Several commuters, heading for the subway stop on the corner, checked out the odd scene on the sidewalk—curious, but not curious enough to break their stride. The wail of a siren grew louder. The man on the ground opened his eyes.
“How ya doin’?” Tina gave him a look of encouragement.
“Not so good.”
“Just hang in there for a few more minutes.”
“Am I dying?”
“If you are, that makes me the Virgin Mary.”
The crack brought a smile to the man’s lips, and he relaxed his grip on her windbreaker.
“There you go. Improving already. You’ll be good as new in no time. Just in case, we called for an ambulance.”
“Thank you, Tanya.”
“The name’s Tina, but you’re welcome anyway … You sure we can’t get in touch with somebody? You got a wife? A girlfriend?”
“If that ain’t typical,” piped up Joey. “You can be out like a light and the first thing they want to know, when you come to, is if you’re taken. Better watch out, guy.”
“Don’t mind this one, mister. He’s just jealous because he hasn’t been laid since the Bicentennial.”
Within minutes, a squad car and an ambulance had pulled up in front of the building. The police car disgorged two cops. The burlier of the two—a Sergeant Edward Callahan, according to his nametag—had the lumbering and unexcitable manner of one who has seen it all. He did the talking. His wiry partner scanned the street nervously, as if half-expecting an insurrection to break out.
“Okay, what do we have here?
“It didn’t take Joey long to reveal what he knew. Even with his proclivity for embroidering a story, the details were scant. Callahan made a few notations in his notepad.
Tina had even less to offer.
“Did someone do this to you or did you fall by yourself or what?” Callahan asked, leaning over the man. When no answer was forthcoming, the officer pulled himself back up and shrugged. “A mystery man, eh? I guess you guys better take him to Roosevelt.”
The paramedics had already flung open the back doors of the ambulance and rolled a stretcher onto the sidewalk. At Callahan’s signal, they eased the man onto the stretcher and belted him into place. Tina could see that the restraints frightened him.
“Hey, it’s nothing to worry about,” she reassured him. “They don’t want you to fall off, that’s all.” He didn’t seem to believe her. In his eyes, she could read the same unfocused terror that seized her daughter in the middle of the night. The kid got so scared sometimes that she wouldn’t stay in her own bed, and Tina never had the heart to force her. The stranger seemed every bit as lost and alone right now.
“Lady,” one of the paramedics asked. “You prefer to ride in the front or the back?”
“Oh, no. I wasn’t planning to come with—”
“Please, Tina,” the man cried out. It wasn’t until he squeezed her hand that she realized he had been holding it. “Don’t leave me.”
“Oh, shit!” she muttered to no one in particular. “Why me?” His eyes were locked on her, beseeching and scared.
“Let him go. They’ll take care of him,” advised Joey.
She made up her mind in a flash.
“I don’t know about that, Joey. Hospitals are pretty scary places these days. You can never tell what’s going to happen. They’re always giving people the wrong medicine. Hell, they can cut off your leg by mistake.” She turned to the paramedic. “The back, I guess.”
“Saint Tina! Our lady of the Stairmaster.”
“Can it, Joey. All I’m doing is making sure he gets to the hospital in one piece.”
“Don’t you have any more clients to work out this morning?”
“No, I had a coupla cancellations at the last minute. And they all want to know why they’re not getting any thinner!” She climbed into the back of the ambulance, and Joey handed her the oversize dance bag in which she carried her exercise gear. “Mrs. Shriver in 4-D was my only bubblebutt of the day.”
Munching peanuts, Spiff passed through the hotel lobby and out the glass door, then paused on the sidewalk to consider his options. A brisk stroll in Central Park was a possibility, but he was wearing his good shoes, the Guccis, and didn’t want to risk scuffing them.
He contemplated grabbing a cup of coffee and a bagel and taking in a movie later. A new Sony Cineplex—fourteen theaters under the same roof—was just a couple of blocks over. The idea of playing hooky appealed to him. Then he remembered that the movie he was really looking forward to, In the Beginning, didn’t open until the end of the week. Jennifer Osborne in the buff—that was all anyone was talking about on TV: The posters that had recently bloomed in the subway showed her discreetly covered by foliage, but the R rating meant there wouldn’t be much foliage in the movie.
He wouldn’t let his sisters carry on like that. Of course, his sisters had better sense than to think of even trying. They respected themselves. Someone like Jennifer Osborne was little more than a highly paid stripper, when you came right down to it.
He wondered how he would feel if he were Christopher Knight, knowing that the whole world was salivating over his wife’s breasts and who could say what else. Did he get off on that? The film took place in the Garden of Eden, so they both probably pranced around in the raw. That was Hollywood for you today. The actors were all exhibitionists. Even the big, expensive movies were nothing but jack-off films in disguise. They sure didn’t make them like they used to.
He’d read in one of the tabloids that between them Jennifer Osborne and Christopher Knight were paid twenty-five million bucks for the film. While he didn’t like to think that that put a different slant on things, he recognized that for most people it did. A $50 hooker was a whore, but a $2,000 call girl was an escort. Hell, who was he fooling? His sisters would show their tits in Times Square in an instant, if they thought they’d get a fur coat out of it. People did anything for the almighty dollar!
Fortunately, the plainness of his sisters made the issue purely theoretical, so he told himself that there wasn’t much point in getting too worked up about it. The cellular phone in his pocket beeped. Any further musings about In the Beginning were going to have to wait. He’d think about Jennifer Osborne’s breasts later, when he was alone and could give the whole pornography problem his undivided attention.
He recognized the voice immediately and stepped out of the flow of pedestrian traffic. “Yeah?”
“Our friend has been taken to hospital.”
“No shit! By who?”
“By the police, that’s who. They just put him in a bloody ambulance.”
“Roosevelt, I would imagine. It’s the nearest. What do you think he’s telling them?”
“I don’t have a clue.”
“Well, maybe you should get over there and find out. See if he’s come to his senses and is willing to cooperate now. I want this problem solved.”
“If I’d finished him off in the first place, you wouldn’t have this problem.”
“But I still wouldn’t have the goods, as you say, now would I?”
“If you’d like my opinion—” Spiff didn’t get the opportunity to say any more. The caller had hung up on him again. It was getting to be a habit with the man.
He stood there with the dead phone in his hand and contemplated calling the man back to say that this arrangement wasn’t working out. He wasn’t a lowly servant, for Chrissakes. He’d been hired for his expertise.
Instead, he bent over, picked up a rock and, flinging it with pinpoint accuracy, caught the backside of a pigeon perched on the edge of a trashcan. The bird flapped its wings and fell to the ground, unable to fly. Spiff watched it flutter pathetically in circles for a while.
When he headed west to Roosevelt Hospital, there was a spring in his step. . .
“Knock, knock.” Tina parted the white curtain. “How we doing?
“The wound on the back of the man’s head had been dressed and bandaged, and his forest green suit was hung up on a hook.
“Where am I?”
“So, we’ve decided to talk, have we? You’re at Roosevelt Hospital.”
“New York. The Big Apple. Ever heard of it?”
“That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.” He was trying to sit up.
“Easy now.” She helped him swing his legs over the side of the bed. A little color had come back into his face.
“Tell me a secret.”
His features stayed blank.
“Have it your way. Where you from?” Still no answer. “Well, you remember me, don’t you? Tina. Tina Ruffo.”
“Yeah. Italian. Can’t you tell? … Sicilian, actually … My grandparents came from Messina … My grandfather had a fruit stand. No kidding! … Apples, oranges, pears. That sort of thing … Yeah, he used to bring all the best stuff home for us … What’s wrong? Am I babbling?”
He smiled broadly, then raised his hand to the back of his head and the smile vanished.
“Oh, your bandage. You got roughed up pretty bad and collapsed a few hours ago by the Dakota.”
“No. It’s a big-deal apartment building. Where John Lennon was shot. You know
somebody there, perhaps?”
He slowly shook his head in puzzlement.
At least, she thought, he was sitting up and speaking. “I wonder where the doctor is. If they keep us waiting much longer, we’ll both qualify for Medicare.”
She stepped outside the curtain, just as an Indian orderly, steering a laundry cart full of dirty sheets, padded by. “Excuse me … sir … mister … hey you!” Another American who didn’t speak English, she thought. Hardly anybody did in the city anymore. Across the room, a woman on crutches was cursing loudly in Spanish.
“John Lennon was shot?” The surprise in the man’s voice drew Tina back into the cubicle. “When?”
“Only about a hundred years ago. Where have you been all this time?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
His brow furrowed.
“Okay, forget about John Lennon for a sec. Let’s begin at the beginning. Who the hell are you?”
He stared at a dark crack in the linoleum floor, as if it were some sort of magic code that contained the answer to the riddle. Right now, he couldn’t imagine anyone asking him a more perplexing question.
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