The Peeper was up early, right on schedule. Shaved, showered, ready to go. The wife was still sound asleep. He liked the toasty smell of her in the morning. No point waking her, though. A peck on the cheek, a little mumbling out of her, and he was off.
He didn’t understand why she liked those pills so much. He had tried one, just to please her, but he didn’t like the dopey sensation. What’s the big deal he wanted to know. Art, she said, you’re hopeless. Maybe so. He loved her and everything, but sometimes he wondered.
He chewed on a danish and sipped from a container of coffee while he drove. The sky looked hollow. There was hardly any color in it at all. Everything pointed to yet another scorcher. The Peeper didn’t mind so much now he had picked up the redhead’s scent again.
Because our Peeper was a singleminded soul. Tenacious as a bulldog. It was his forte. In the smarts department it was a different matter. But Yerden knew that, and tried to correct for it with his methodical, determined approach to things, like trailing the redhead for instance.
His main handicap was his failure to imagine. So preoccupied with what was directly before him, he was incapable of such paranoid daydreams as he might be followed. It never occurred to him. So it was like a pair of blinders, this dutiful concentration of his.
The traffic was stop and go, stop and go, all the way downtown. There were opportunities to spot them, were he predisposed to cover his tail. But he wasn’t, so he didn’t see them.
He returned down Mercer and parked behind a truck, about 50 feet away and across the street from the doorway. At 11:30 she came out, alone. The Peeper left his car and followed her down Mercer, past Spring, past Broome, and then east on Grand Street. He crossed to the other side and gave her half a block lead. She set a brisk pace. But she didn’t look back and there was no sign she suspected anything.
The old Police Headquarters loomed up and they were into Little Italy. Mulberry Street was festooned with metal ribbon. The smell of sausage and oil reminded him of his appetite, which he had to ignore until an opportunity arose. Maybe soon, maybe later.
He followed her into the grimy outskirts of Chinatown. The sun blasted away and the sidewalks stank. But the Peeper didn’t mind. As long as she was in sight his duty was clear. No judgment necessary, nothing to skewer his sense of well being. Just donkey work. Only don’t lose her, Art. You’ve got to be there when the time comes.
They reached the Bowery. He watched her pass a gaggle of bums nodding out on the corner. He admired the haughty way she went by them. Then she was past the last one, a shoeless shredded specimen on the curb. The Peeper waited to cross. A tour bus went by. He stared back at the faces behind the smoked windows. The bus passed. She was gone. Yerden lost his head for a moment. He charged across the street, against the light. Tires squealed and horns blared in his wake. He pulled up when he reached the opposite curb.
There was a dingy coffee shop on the corner. He peered through the big window facing the Bowery. There she was, just inside, craning about like she was looking for someone. It was not yet noon, and the place was fairly deserted. She looked very conspicuous in there. Art felt pretty conspicuous himself. His heart was thumping and the sweat rolled over his brow, greasing the bridge of his nose so his shades slipped down.
The girl approached a window booth. The Peeper figured it was time to withdraw. He crossed back to the other side of Bowery, where he took up a surveillance position near a row of payphones. Only one of them worked. The Peeper commandeered it.
He had a little leather change purse fitted with coin slots. It was green, his favorite color. The wife thought it was ridiculous, even after he explained how practical it was. Like now, for instance. Besides, he didn’t like his change to jingle when he walked. In this business, nothing conspicuous is good.
The wife was a slob, but he loved her anyway.
Behind him an old bum lay in a sliver of shade, a pint tucked into the folds of his ratty jacket. Further down the block a fat man screamed into the doorway of a seedy bar. The Peeper, however, did not pause to muse over the anthropology of the Bowery. Nor could he spare—and here’s the pity—nor could he spare such attention as was required to notice, among the throngs of vehicles rumbling past, one car in particular come creeping by. No. The Peeper’s whole concentration was devoted to the redhead in the diner across the street (he could see her plainly; she was looking at the menu), and to the business of maintaining his claim on the telephone. He called the wife. It woke her up. She said she had a headache.
“Well take some aspirin.” He was a little annoyed.
“Yeah except there isn’t any. I’ll have to go out for it.”
“Do you good.”
“Whatever you say, Doc. Speaking of that, my supply of pills is running low.”
“Come on, Arty, for your baby?”
“You’ll get addicted.”
“It’s just Quaaludes, for Christ sake! You don’t get addicted to Quaaludes.”
Art had better things to do than haggle, and besides, he wanted her to be happy, truly happy.
“All right, I’ll see about it. But I’m not promising.”
“That’s my Arty. You gonna work late tonight?”
“Me too. Call me later. And don’t forget the pills.” She smooched into the telephone and hung up.
The Peeper surveyed the diner once more. The redhead was still sitting at the booth, still alone. Her left profile was to him.
So far so good. His stomach grumbled. Otherwise he couldn’t complain.
Then they grabbed him.
It was very smooth the way they did it, as if they had practiced. It certainly took Art in. And for this succumbing he had mainly himself to blame. That it might be a ruse, or even something worse, never occurred to him. The car pulled up to the curb. The driver slid to the window.
“Hey, buddy.” Art looked over. “How do I get to JFK?”
Well that’s simple enough, thought Art. He ambled over to the side of the car, and was already pointing uptown, preparing to do a good turn, when he saw the gun in the driver’s hand. The weasel’s face above it meant business.
“All right. Get in.”
The back door opened. Art stooped in, and was greeted by a huge black guy.
“Hullo, Mister.” Upon his face, a countenance of good will, as harmonious as his deep West Indian voice.
Art was good at voices.
The driver slid over to the wheel. The car lurched into the traffic. The Peeper glanced over at the diner. Was he set up? The redhead sipped from a glass of water.
“Just turn about and be looking out the window.” The black guy’s pitch was like a tonic to the driver’s—very calm, very deliberate. The Peeper did what he was told to do. The best policy in such situations. The first cool trickle of air conditioning settled, like a mentholated breath, into his left ear. It made him tremble.
“You needn’t fear, Mister. Do he Jimmy?”
“Let’s just get on with it, OK Henry? Like, did you frisk him?”
Henry’s hands poked under his arms, in the small of his back, at his ankles. The Peeper wasn’t wearing a piece. It wasn’t that kind of job. Henry’s hands felt like pistons. There was something hydraulic about them.
“Mister is clean. Now what?”
“Time to show him, Henry.”
Yerden stared at the passenger in the cab stopped next to them. The woman took off her wig and became a man. They glanced at one another. Yerden mouthed an appeal. He was a fish gasping for air. The man in the cab smiled. Then he puckered his crimson lips and pressed them against the window. The light changed.
“My goodness,” said Henry, “The sights you see.”
“Come on, Henry, just show him,”
Henry pulled a sap from his pocket. The Peeper was really depressed. Henry snapped his wrist at the side of the Peeper’s head. He showed him.
If He Can’t Do It, The Whole Team Can.
Basically, Art was out of action. Oh, certain parts of him were working—heart, lungs, brain, the involuntary functions still churned away. But by and large, the Peeper was out.
Before unconsciousness came to relieve him from the blow, as the sweet drift of Henry’s cologne trailed away, the car’s interior seemed to swell into dream proportions. While he lay still, nary a twitch out of him, flopped on the seat like a twisted cocoon.
Henry hummed a gospel tune. Jimmy threw in a sardonic whinny now and then. It spurred Henry on. He belted out a chorus while Jimmy drove. Each booming verse met with a resounding thud on the steering wheel.
The racket got to Yerden after a while.
Here, he’s back. A grunt from him proved it. His eyes were open but it was black and he felt awfully sick as the first violent thud echoed from head to spine. Pulse after pulse. In the first interval he recognized he was blinded and his hands were cuffed behind him and there was a blanket or something flung over him.
Another blast of pain, another groan. He couldn’t help it.
“Hey, the Mister’s up. I give him another pop?”
Yerden received the voice, deep and calm, like a riddle. Dutifully he went to work on the problem, indifferent to the meaning of the words. He was thinking through a snorkel; his first duty was to clear the passageway. And when the driver replied, “save it for later,” he didn’t feel relief at being spared so much as a detached interest in the accent, West Virginia or Tennessee he figured.
Art was good at voices.
Meanwhile, where was this new sound coming from, this droning hum? It was accessible, a sound he ought to recognize. Enclosed in a wax-paper memory of sallow fluorescent light, the windows down, a trip through the tunnel. The smell of exhaust. It’s the tunnel.
But which tunnel. Midtown, heading for JFK? One of those long term parking lots? Weeks before some airport security man finds the body. Or what’s left of it. The rot billowing through his brain made him tremble. Poor Art. It wasn’t death, it was the rot, the picture of himself corroding into a stinking pulp in this stinking car in some stinking parking lot. It gave him the willies.