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"Admit it. You're disappointed," says the dark-haired man across the table. "Things didn't turn out the way you planned."
An old friend. A boyhood pal. A best buddy Voort hasn't seen in nine years, drunk enough to talk too much, sober enough to keep secrets. Meechum Keefe smiles at some private thought, some unshared bit of bitter knowledge. He reaches for his third Johnny Walker Red as eagerly as a cardiac patient picking up a nitroglycerin tablet. He downs the liquid as carefully as a diabetic administering his insulin shot.
"You said you needed help," Voort prompts. "You were afraid to even say the name of this bar, on the phone."
They occupy a rear table in the White Horse Tavern, on Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village, a few short blocks from the Hudson River. The hundred-and-twenty-year-old bar is all dark wood and whirling ceiling fans. The burgers are fat and the beers are dark, cold, foamy. The men, both about thirty, draw glances from admiring women at adjacent tables. Both, to females, are prime-of-life, head-turning males.
But the women might be surprised to hear the dark-haired man mutter, "It's going to sound crazy, Voort. The nuttiest story you ever heard."
"I've heard a lot."
The dark man is shorter but makes up for it with bundled energy, physical power compressed into his wide shoulders and corded neck, and shining in the half-drunken intensity of his Irish-black eyes. His hair is on the long side of acceptably corporate, slicked down on top but rebelling with a slight curl at the tail, over the collar of his fisherman's knit sweater. His hands are smooth, like an office worker's, but powerful, gripping his glass. His ring finger is bare of intimate entanglement. He hovers over his drink, protecting turf.
"People start out believing in things, but then they see the truth," he says.
The blond is leaner but equally fit, more kayaker than weight lifter. His hair is shorter and brushed to the side, his attentive eyes the vivid blue of the sky in New Mexico. He wears a pressed white shirt without a tie, and an Italian jacket of black corduroy. His jeans are stone washed. He's still on his first beer.
"In the end," Meechum says, "people find out their career was dirty. Their boss screwed them. Their girl cheated on them. Their kid shot drugs. Pick an area. The subways are collapsing. The stock market is falling. The good times are over, and getting worse fast."
Over the sounds of the televised Monday night JetsBuffalo Bills game, the place is packed with a hodgepodge of neighborhood types brokers still in their rumpled business suits after a hard day on Wall Street; writers who need to get out of their apartments each night, after pounding on a keyboard all day, alone; tourists who peruse the guidebooks that recommended this historic tavern, reading about the night George Washington spent here, during his retreat up the West Side of Manhattan, when it was forest.
"How about a steak to go with that scotch?" Voort says.
"I'm not hungry," says the deep, familiar voice that had surprised Voort over the phone this afternoon with "The prodigal best friend, old buddy, is home after nine long years."
Meechum signals the waitress for a refill by lifting his empty glass.
He says, with a half-drunken flourish, "The seven deadly sins all start with disappointment. Greed? 'I don't have enough.' Lust? 'My woman got fat, boring, older.' You know what I'm talking about. I called One Police Plaza and some secretary said you quit for awhile and just came back. Something disappointed you, didn't it?"
"I took a leave, got out of town awhile."
"Ha! For two months? All you ever wanted to do, all your whole family ever did, for three hundred years, was police work. Voorts don't disappear for two months. What went wrong?"
"We're talking about you," Voort says, thinking that the job hasn't been as satisfying, nothing has been satisfying since his return.
"We're talking about blame. How you get disappointed and blame someone for it. And then you dwell on it and it becomes all you think about. And finally you set out to destroy the thing you blame."
"Is someone trying to do that to you?"
"They did already."
"So you're the one who wants revenge on them."
"You're good, Voort, but I told you, I'll get to it when I'm ready."
"I have all night."
Meechum's eyes slide over Voort's right shoulder, across the crowded restaurant, to the front door and back.
In the oak-framed mirror above his friend's head, Voort tries to guess what Meechum sees. Is it a specific person? Or is he worried that a specific person will appear?
"Ah, you were always able to zero in on the fundamental questions, Voort. Or am I too drunk to make sense anymore? Sometimes it turns out, in the end, that a person has everything, even the little pieces, upside down in his head. The devil turns out to be an accountant. Mephistopheles needs glasses, and he's pigeon-toed to boot."
To Voort, Meechum's unexplained fear is not overdramatic. He's seen too much justifiable terror on the job. Usually it's been in women victims stalked by boyfriends, husbands, fathers, strangers. Women tracked to their apartments, offices, bedrooms, or shops. He's seen the sick mail they receive. He's listened to the perverted messages on their answering machines. Time after time he's answered radio calls, out of the sex crimes unit, to find a body someone who was once afraid, who perhaps no one took seriously bloodied and, if lucky under these perverted circumstances, at least half alive.
It had not occurred to him when he became a policeman that he would become an expert on fear. He'd started out with a more romantic vision of the Blue Life. But nine years after graduating from the police academy, Voort understands fear the way a physicist understands atoms. He smells its variations with the skill of a French chef appraising the freshness of a fish. He has come to understand, since he took a leave, that there had been a time when he could have chosen a different area of life professionally Nature perhaps, or commerce, or the arts.
My father told me to quit if things were getting to me. I just need a little equilibrium now, and I'll be fine again.
And now he sees the thousand ways New Yorkers have incorporated fear into their daily lives, weaving it into the fabric of his city. There's the quiet fear in the subway as passengers clutch bags to their laps, their wary eyes attuned to strangers. There's the nervous fear of pedestrians hurrying home, keeping to the center of dark streets at night, and away from parked cars, dark doorways, alleys. Fear makes women hide their engagement rings, their proudest possessions, in public places. It stalks workers in a suddenly failing economy. They work longer hours. They pore over financial pages, seeking magic in a stock market that may be coming apart. Their fights about money at home elevate over the cost of a new hat, a nine-dollar ticket to the cineplex, or a sixty-watt lightbulb left burning in an empty flat.
Now Voort says, "Let's change the subject if you need time to get to things. Tell me. How's the army? I figured after all these years, you'd be a general by now."
"But it's all you ever wanted to do."
"That's why we're pals. We think the same way. We get disillusioned together. I left Washington two years ago and moved back to New York. Sorry I didn't call you before. I guess I had to keep to myself while I figured things out. Now I work in a...you'll laugh...corporate head-hunting firm."
Meechum laughs at Voort's stunned expression, and glances, again, toward the front door. "Hey, remember the old army commercial, before they started firing people instead of hiring them? Learn skills for the real world? Well, I took those computer talents and now I use 'em to do psychological profiling. It's the biggest thing in hiring. You sit around with some six-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year exec, and a ten-page questionnaire, and ask questions like, 'Which would you rather do? Go fishing alone, or watch a Yankee game with friends?' You ask five hundred questions and feed 'em into our trusty analyst computer, and it gauges the guy's suitability to take responsibility to fire workers at General Motors, International Harvester, Calgary Wheat. It's astounding, the way those computers can predict the way someone will act."
"Sounds boring," Voort says.
"Boring," Meechum says, draining the glass, "is my goal in life now."
"The day you got into West Point was the proudest I ever saw you."
"And the stupidest. But now it's time to tell you why I'm here."
Meechum twists around to extract from his wallet a folded napkin, which, Voort sees, has writing on it, in Magic Marker. From his perspective the writing is backwards and has soaked through the paper, so Voort can't read what it says.
"I need a favor," Meechum says. His hand is trembling.
"I'll do it," Voort tells him.
"Don't you want to hear it first?"
"No. I want you to know that I'll do it, whatever it is, first."
A slow smile relaxes the tense expression on Voort's old buddy's face. "You know, Voort, after all these years, I still think of you as the only person, outside family, who I can trust. You and family. That's about it. Even at fifteen, with your parents dead, you were the head of your family. You had that house, and your uncles came to you for advice, not the other way around, and..."
His eyes freeze, focused, over Voort's shoulder, on the front door.
Voort is up instantly, even before he sees who is there. He swings around and strides toward the entrance, Mee-chum's "No!" dying into the general din behind the laughter and Monday night football and the Tony Bennett revival hit, "San Francisco," blaring over a jukebox, forcing people to shout to be heard.
Through the crowd, Voort catches sight of a man in a brown flight jacket pushing out of the restaurant, in a hurry.
He cannot see the face, but from the back the man has the normal quickened gait of a native New Yorker, or of someone from anywhere else, in a rush. Voort remembers seeing no such jacket in the big carved mirror over Meechum's head, although he could have missed it, or it could have been lying in one of the booths, or beneath another coat, on a peg.
Voort follows the man onto Hudson Street, a wide, northbound avenue which retains much of New York's older flavor. The buildings, three- or four-story brownstones, are smaller than structures uptown. The shops are more distinctive than sizable: a wine specialty store, shuttered and grated; a Moroccan restaurant with only ten tables inside; a tailor who's been there for twenty-five years. There are no chain stores, no A&Ps or Barnes & Nobles or McDonald's.
He's ducking into the entranceway of that closed liquor store, pulling out a cell phone.
Back when the avenue was forest, not tar, three hundred and fifty years back, Voorts patrolled a few miles from this spot in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, as night watchmen, and later, under the British, as Colonial constables, and finally, as American citizens in the growing city, Voorts passed here proudly as mounted police, beat cops with nightsticks, mobile guys in squad cars, sergeants, lieutenants, plainclothes detectives.
He's talking urgently into the phone. He's gesturing at the tavern.
Autumn in New York is the season of nature's disappointment. The maple trees on the block are bare, their dead leaves in the gutter. The wind whipping east, off the Hudson, reeks of brine, oil slicks, furtively dumped garbage. In the dark sky, vaguely threatening cumulus clouds scud through a night haze of toxic metropolitan pollutants.
Voort's shout makes passersby spin around.
He rushes toward the man in the flight jacket, a sloppy grin on his face, as if he's drunk, although he has only had the one beer. The man snaps his phone shut as Voort calls out, much too loud, "I thought that was you, Curt!"
Voort halts as he reaches the man.
"Whoops," he says, grinning. "I thought you were my old college buddy. Fifty lashes for me."
He is looking into a narrow, balding face registering equal measures of surprise and urban wariness. After all, Voort blocks the man's path from the entrance of the closed shop back to the street. He catalogs, rapidly, automatically, White man, late forties, flannel collar under the jacket. His tan makes the pale blotches on his neck stand out, as if he's had lesions removed.
Check the shoes. If you're following someone, it's better to wear rubber soles.
The man tries to inch around Voort and back to the freedom of the open sidewalk. His voice lacks any identifiable accent. "I must have one of those faces. Everyone thinks I'm their cousin Max."
He reaches the sidewalk and turns, already walking off and He's wearing Reeboks, and Voort, tagging along like a pesky drunk, says, "You could be Curt's brother. You could be his goddamn twin."
"I said, no problem." Meaning, politely, get lost.
"I didn't see you eating in there, and if you like burgers, that's the primo place around here. The fried onions are the greatest."
"I was supposed to meet someone," the man says, "but she didn't show."
"Yeah." The man is looking more put out, which is, under the circumstances, entirely and reassuringly normal. "Stood up."
"Well, if it's any help, just before you came in, there was this woman by the bar," Voort says. "I thought she was looking for someone. Man, she was gorgeous. Blond hair down to her ass. White fur coat. I thought she was an actress or something. You're a lucky guy if she was yours."
This time the man slows and his brown eyes fix on Voort's face, and linger there a fraction of a second too long. The posture remains impatient, but that barest flicker of greater interest decides the issue for Voort.
"I never had that much luck with women," the man says. "Excuse me."
He steps to the curb, scans the street for a cab, turns back, and registers Voort's scrutiny.
A cab pulls over and Voort waits until the man leaves.
When he gets back to the restaurant, his table is empty.
Then Voort sees Meechum returning from the men's room.
"You shouldn't have gone after him, Voort."
"Who is he?"
Meechum sighs. "I never saw him before, and that's the truth. The point is, you shouldn't be going after anyone. Next time it could be someone I know."
"We're getting out of here," Voort says, raising his hand, signaling the waitress that they are through.
"And you're going home, old buddy. Forget I called."
Meechum shakes his head, pulls money from his wallet. "You know what my problem is? I overdramatize things. I've been listening to myself and I sound like some nervous girl. Tell you what," he says heartily, "I'll call you in a couple of days. We'll hit the old spots. Does Arturo's still have the best pizza?"
Voort grips Meechum's wrist, stops the hand putting bills on the table.
"We're going to Collier's," he says, "where you'll finish telling me what you started."
"Hey, Herr Hitler, don't get so riled. I thought you could do me a favor and no one would know. I reconsidered."
Voort doesn't move. "Collier's," he repeats.
Meechum grins. "I'm impressed, Voort. I disappear for years. I show up drunk. I babble like an idiot and instead of laughing, you take me seriously. By the way, do you know the derivation of the word idiot? It's ancient Greek. It means 'he who has no interest in politics.'"
"Meechum, the guy was on a cell phone. If it was
me, following you, and you met someone, I'd call for backup. That way we could watch both targets when they split up."
"Targets," Meechum grins, trying to make a joke of it. "I like that. Targets."
Outside the White Horse Tavern's plate-glass window, Voort sees a cab pull to the curb, and two men get out.
"If I leave here without you," Voort continues, "I'll call your family, the army, find your head-hunting firm. Poke around. My social life's slow these days. I need something to do."
"Since when is your social life bad? Is that what went wrong two months ago?"
One of the men outside wears a gray wool overcoat and carries a black briefcase. The other, who looks ten years younger, early twenties maybe, wears a peacoat, and a black wool cap. Both men survey the restaurant from the sidewalk.
"I knew you were an asshole," Meechum sighs, surrendering. "But I forgot how much."
"That's better. Let's go."
Through the plate glass, Voort watches the two men approach the door of the tavern.
"You didn't finish your drink," the waitress tells Meechum, coming up as he lays money on the table. Is she trying to keep him here? Her expression is more flirtatious than critical. "Was something wrong with it?"
"I always order too much. I have big eyes," Meechum says.
"Maybe you need something to eat," she says, standing closer to Meechum. "If you like spicy, the stuffed haddock'll send you to outer space."
She's giving Meechum a come-on smile as the two men outside walk into the tavern. They head toward the long, wooden bar.
Voort tells the waitress, "We're in a hurry here."
Her irritated look says, The whole city is in a hurry. What makes your hurry more important than mine?
She is quite pretty, long-legged and tall, and she has the kind of confidence that beauty imparts while it lasts. The crimson neckline of her sweater highlights the soft white arc of neck. She probably works here to make money to study dancing, or modeling, considering her superb posture. She's probably pouring herself into some dream she had as a little girl. Maybe she'll be disappointed when she doesn't achieve it. Maybe, like Meechum, she'll be disappointed if she does.
"Keep the change," Voort says.
The man in the wool coat has turned around at the bar now, so he can see the big room, and he rests one elbow behind him as, with his other hand, he lifts a tall drink. He watches Voort and Meechum pass. From the corner of his eye, Voort sees the man say something to his companion.
Outside, Voort passes up the closest cab, which has lingered after dropping the men off. He ignores another which rounds the corner of Christopher Street as he and Meechum exit the restaurant. He flags the third cab, noting with interest that Meechum seems to know exactly what he's doing, and even checks to see that other cabs don't follow as they drive off.
"Hi, this is Artie West," says this month's current and irritating recorded celebrity taxi safety message. In the disappointed society, authorities do not trust citizens to read, and believe they must entertain them to convince them to pay attention to safety. The ex-star of the TV series "Cyber Man" says, "Fasten your cyber seat belt. Have a good cyber night. Enjoy cyber New York."
Meechum has turned in the seat, and monitors traffic as they make a right on Fourteenth, and cross the Village to Union Square, where Voort's grandfather, in the 1920s, helped break up AFL-CIO labor rallies, before cops joined unions themselves, and went out on strike like the men they used to arrest.
Voort waits to see if his old friend will stop the cab before they reach their destination. He wants to know just how skilled Meechum is in basic evasion.
"Drop us by the subway," Meechum says, and the driver pulls over by the green globe marking the Lexington Avenue IRT.
"Well, it's back to Queens for me, Fred," he tells Voort loudly as he pays the bill. If someone asks the driver later where he dropped these particular passengers, he will tell them about the subway station, and perhaps, if he remembers, the remark about Queens, and the phony name, Fred.
Just what did you do in the army, Meech?
They wait for the cab to round the corner, then follow Fourteenth to University Place, and turn south, until they reach Collier's, an NYU hangout, a beery, boisterous, smoky, old-style New York drinkery, with tin ceilings, a mezzanine filled with ESPN watchers, and a long bar made of a single gigantic cedar tree which the original owner had cut down on an Alabama plantation, which he occupied as a Union Army sergeant in the final year of the Civil War.
"Okay, what's going on," Voort says when they take a table upstairs. "And no bullshit this time."
But Meechum is already unfolding the napkin again, pushing it across the small, wooden tabletop, which is gouged with decades of student names. BD loves LL. SALLY & SAM. Meechum reverses the napkin so Voort sees a list of five names, addresses, and social security numbers, written in black Magic Marker.
1. Charles Farber...1320 Lincoln Pl. Evanston, Ill.
2. Alan Clark...Box 1255...Galena Gulch, Montana
3. Frank Greene...Rural Rte. 23, Lancaster Falls, Mass.
4. Lester M. Levy...888 Tortoise Lane, Seattle, Wash.
5. Dr. Jill Towne...615 Fifth Ave., New York
Meechum reaches into the side pocket of his peacoat and extracts a pack of unfiltered Camels. His fingertips are stained from nicotine.
"I know I'm being a pain in the ass," he says with a semblance, finally, of earnestness, "but what may be happening is so fantastic I barely believe it myself. I'm not sure I'm right. I don't want to hurt anyone. I need to learn if I'm right. You've already put up with more than I would have hoped for. But if you can stand it a little longer, can we do this my way?"
Despite the tense evening so far, Voort bursts out laughing. Can we do this my way? He sees his old friend, at age fifteen, toe-to-toe with their high school football coach, on the sidelines, during a play-off game for the Manhattan borough championship. The coach, an ex-marine, towers over Meechum as the stubborn wide end shakes his helmet and argues, "Can we run the play my way?" He sees Meechum at the wheel of his big brother's Jeep, during their first road trip, both of them eighteen, high school grads, crossing the red desert of Utah, bound for Los Angeles in July, to see the place, meet girls, looks for film stars in the street, stand and gape at the Pacific.
Meechum is saying, "Can we take the Zion National Park route? My way?"
Meechum's single-mindedness had been the high school joke. He'd get some notion into his head and push and push and never give up. It was how he'd gotten their congressman to nominate him for West Point. He wrote the man letters incessantly, and even visited his office. You couldn't stop him.
And the truth was, Voort remembers, Meechum was usually right. After that football game, when Meechum's fake square-out running pattern had produced the winning touchdown, the jubilant team had, in the locker room, burst into the old Sinatra hit "My Way" when Meechum walked out of the showers.
Guys singing like Sinatra, or snapping their fingers like Sammy Davis, testosterone rampant, as they stood on benches, bellowing, proud, out of pitch. It was one of Voort's favorite high school memories.
Meechum had stood still during the whole rendition, accepting homage, and then remarked, grinning, when they were through, "Not bad, but sing it my way and you'll make the 'Tonight Show.'"
Voort understands limits when he runs into them. Argument with Meechum, beyond a certain point, has always been useless.
"And what is your way?"
"Check these names out. You can do it. You have contacts in police departments all over the country, whether you're on leave or not. Make some phone calls, off the record. Ask about them."
"Don't worry about that part. Make up something. Say their names came up in an investigation and see what happens. If I'm right, if there's something to learn, you'll find it. If you come up with nothing, nothing was there. If you can't do it, just say so."
"Why don't you make the calls yourself?"
"Ha! A cop calls a cop, he gets cooperation. A civilian calls a cop, he gets investigated."
"Meaning there's something for them to investigate."
Meechum grins. "See? You sound like a cop."
"Can't you give me a better idea what I'm looking for?"
"It will be obvious if I'm right. And if I am, I'll explain everything." Meechum picks a cigarette out of the half-crumpled pack of unfiltered Camels and lights it, rolling his eyes to indicate that, technically, he understands smoking here is an illegal act. "And you'll be sorry I did."
Voort tries to get more information but finally gives up. There is simply no way he is going to send an old friend away, especially when he remembers the flash of interest in the face of the man in the flight jacket. He says, surrendering, "When do you need it?"
"Two days? How about Wednesday night. Is that enough time?"
"Where can I find you?"
"Like the old saying goes, we'll call you."
Meechum stubs out his barely smoked Camel and the harsher lines around his mouth soften.
"I'm hoping it's nothing. Next time we'll have dinner on me, and talk about you, and whatever the hell happened to make you leave the police, even for eight weeks. I should have called you earlier," Meechum says, rising, reaching for his jacket. "You were always a guy I could count on. I'm glad that hasn't changed."
Voort walks through the chilly streets of Greenwich Village, and at his town house on Thirteenth Street sees lights blazing from most of the windows and silhouettes of people moving behind the curtains. The sound of Wynton Marsalis's trumpet jazz wafts from the three-story home.
When he lets himself inside, the place is filled with Voorts cousins, uncles, nieces, and nephews. He smells the warm aromas of baked hams and turkeys, October foods, country foods, that will be laid out in the gigantic Dutch kitchen. The upstate families have been coming down each night with pies, roast chickens, squash salads, bags of freshly picked apples. He hears the happy screams of children chasing each other up and down the stairs, or through the bedrooms, study, library, pantry.
"And normally you live here all alone," says cousin Marla, taking his jacket. She provided the drinks tonight, from the SoHo liquor store she owns with her husband. "You ought to get married and have kids."
"Let's lay off Camilla for one day. How's Matt feeling tonight?"
"They gave him chemo today. He's been sick all afternoon but he's up there, listening to the usual war stories. Conrad, it was great of you to let him stay here, instead of the hospital."
"You said it yourself. There's enough room for a hundred people here."
f0 "And you were a prince to take off two months and help with his farm."
"Matt was one of my two best friends when I was a kid," Voort tells his cousin, thinking, and Meechum was the other. What a night.
Voort threads his way past the relatives, making his way upstairs, greeting people, shaking hands, kissing cheeks. The tugboat Voorts are here and the Queens cops and also the Bronx detective families. The different branches switch off, so Matt has company every night. Voort swoops up one of his little nephews on the top of the second-floor landing. The five-year-old screams in delight.
"What's that, Buddy?"
"I saw a picture in a magazine of a party, and Camilla was in it!"
"That's terrific, Buddy."
"And then Mommy told Daddy Camilla betrayed you. What's 'betrayed' mean?"
"She tricked you?"
"Who's the man in that painting, with the funny hair on his face?" asks the boy, losing interest in the first part of the conversation, and indicating one of the Voort portraits running the length of the hall.
"Those are called sideburns," Voort says. "A lot of men used to wear them. And Ulysses Voort once owned this house. He was a captain of detectives, and he arrested a lot of bad men who were rioting to stay out of the army during the Civil War."
The boy, released, runs off after one of his sisters. Voort makes his way toward a third-floor bedroom. He hears hearty male laughter coming from the room, and smells, even before he enters it, the stink of shit and the faint aroma of puke.
Matt's propped up in the electric bed, against pillows, his big frame wasted, the tangle of auburn hair gone, so his skull makes him look like an Auschwitz survivor. Tubes of clear solution run into his arms, from suspended bottles. Viler looking green liquid pours out of his body through another tube, extending from his side, emptying into a plastic container under the bed.
It's impossible to believe that this man is Voort's age, thirty-one, impossible to believe that three months ago he looked nothing like this, and that a small pain in his abdomen spread into his back, and sides, and when the doctors opened him up, they found a cancer invading his body as fast as a mechanized army taking over a poor country.
"Anyway," one of the vice cop Voorts is saying, finishing a story, leaning against a windowsill, "I arrest the porno actress, but the whole time I'm putting the cuffs on, she's grinning. Finally she figures out it's a real arrest, and says, 'Wait a minute, you're putting these cuffs on me because you're a cop?'"
The half-dozen men in the room break up in laughter, and Matt's is loudest. The emaciated man pounds his bedcovers. Tears of mirth run down his face, and drip onto his baby blue blanket.
"Hey, Conrad, I ought to start paying you rent," Matt says.
"Nah, I save big money when you're here. I won't have to buy food for years with all the groceries everyone brings every night."
"I'm serious. It's been weeks. A couple of the other guys said I could stay with them."
Voort snaps his fingers. "I never thought of that. Pack a bag, and take these liars with their bullshit stories out of here, too."
"Thanks," Matt says quietly.
"I'm going out to Long Island," Voort tells his relatives. "I have to see Mickie. Use any of the bedrooms, even mine tonight."
"A new case?" Matt asks eagerly. "Who needs TV. I'm staying at New York's longest-running cop show."
"That's next week's entertainment," Voort says. To the others, he says, "Who's turn is next?"
"Me," says the youngest man in the room, one of the rookie patrolman cousins from Queens. "Okay," he starts off, "this really happened, last Tuesday, in Flushing..."
Voort walks out.
My two best friends when I was a kid.
His heart is breaking.
Things are not supposed to happen like this.
Downstairs, in the garage, he gets into the red Jaguar. He steers the Jag to Third Avenue and turns north, toward the Midtown Tunnel. He calls Mickie on the car phone, hears ringing, out on the North Shore.
"What are you doing?" Voort asks when his partner and current best friend answers.
"Watching TV, that Arizona doctor Robertson killing one of his patients," Mickie says. "Assisted suicide, my ass. He videotaped it! Can you believe it? He likes it. You know what an expert is? A guy who uses facts to support his
preoccupations. I just hope when they legalize suicide it's not cops that have to supervise it, if you know what I mean."
Through bad static, Voort explains he's on his way out to the island. Mickie says, "Good, but there's something you'll want to..."
The static gets so bad they have to hang up. Whatever it is, it'll wait, Voort thinks.
He floors the Jag when he gets to the Long Island Expressway. When he hits the Nassau County line, at Great Neck, he holds up Meechum's list, in the dashboard light. The names mean nothing to him. They are a mystery collection of letters. They lack history, faces, problems, passions. They are not yet linked by age, or ethnicity, or sex, or even geography.
Five names, addresses, social security numbers.
He tries to suggest to himself that maybe he imagined the flicker of interest in Leather Jacket's face, outside the White Horse.
I didn't imagine it.
Boys first learn about peer society in schoolrooms and playgrounds. They form bonds with the friends who will mature with them into adults. In playing fields all over
the city, they share allies, foes, aspiration, disappointment. They learn to defend themselves. They cooperate on teams. They become representative, as Meechum will always be to Voort, of early standards for measuring friendship and for that they will remain alive in memory as long as boys live. For that, they will always give one another the extra break.
Voort takes the Roslyn exit off the expressway, heading toward Mickie's oceanfront home. He is in the suburbs now. A storm of brightly colored leaves falls in the headlights.
He envisions Meechum in the back of a cab, being driven through the impersonal metropolis. He sees large buildings going by, and imagines his old pal sunk in fear or gloom, going home perhaps, or going someplace to hide.
He does not see, at that same moment, where a real cab drops Meechum, at a small, nondescript five-story hotel, in Inwood, north of Harlem. "The King Hotel" reads blue neon script above a tattered awning. The establishment is not exactly fit for a king.
Meechum gives the driver thirty dollars, tells him to keep the change, and walks up a half-dozen cracked concrete steps into the modest but spankingly clean lobby. The linoleum smells of lemon polish. The potted palms are freshly watered. Reproduction lithographs of jockeys at Belmont Park racetrack; Angel Cordero, Julie Crone the riders responsible for the hotel owner's gambling disappointments hang by the freshly painted black, cage-style elevator that carries Meechum, all alone, to the third floor.
At Room 305, where a do not disturb sign hangs on the knob, he runs his hand along the doorjamb; he relaxes when he locates, in the exact spot where he inserted them, three strands of his black hair, between door and jamb.
He inserts the electronic keycard, a modern surprise in these older surroundings, and pushes open the door.
He'd left the light on. On the carrot-colored shag carpet he checks the undisturbed expanse of white talcum powder which, backing from the room earlier, he had sprinkled on the floor.
Meechum shoves the door forward, so it swings violently forward and strikes the wall. No one there.
When he enters, he stops and sniffs for any hint of scent, aftershave, perfume, leather, that was not there before. Detecting nothing, he locks the door behind him.
One more night hidden, but at least safe.
It isn't until he enters the bathroom, and reaches for the lightswitch, that someone blindsides him from the left. An expert blow catches the side of his throat, and even as his hands come up protectively, and he's thinking I can't breathe, he knows he's leaving his belly open and the second blow comes fast, doubling him.
The ceiling is whirling. The floor rushes at his face.
He wants to fight but whoever is behind him wields enormous strength. He is helpless as a baby. His larynx seems crushed, and now the man is on top of him, and he feels another pain, sharp and sudden and it's a needle going in, by his collarbone, at the base of his neck.
When he wakes he's in the same room, and, senses sharpening, he sees that he's in bed. He reaches to pull the covers off.
I can't move my arms. They tied me.
The TV is on, loud. Very bad sign.
I can't breathe out of my mouth. There's something over my mouth!
"Meechum," a deep, older voice says, through the darkness in his head, and the pain.
There is a pounding between his eyes, and red bursts, dots, ebb and flow behind them. His throat is on fire,
and when he tries to turn over, he can't move his legs either.
The voice says, "We lost you. But we found you. Like 'Amazing Grace.' Ever hear it with bagpipes? It makes you weep."
He opens his eyes. The light fuels his pain, spikes it higher as the voice, and vague mass of dirty brown lines above coalesce into a cotton sweater, as the voice says, plainly, matter-of-factly, "I'm going to loosen the tape on your mouth. Keep quiet or I'll kill you."
Close-up, the speaker is a study in contradiction. He is large, about fifty, with wide shoulders, giving a sense of physical power offset by the bulging stomach, as if he was once in superb shape but allowed himself to go to seed a bit. The left arm hangs at a slightly odd angle. The clothing is pressed, neat but not flamboyant. The wool trousers are the color of milk chocolate, selected well, off the rack. The V-necked cotton sweater is light beige, the crew-necked pull-over beneath that is white. He might be a corporate lawyer, lounging at home, on Sunday. But the whole subdued surface and soft voice are offset by the driving intensity in eyes of the palest blue, magnified by dark silver-rimmed glasses. The hair is steel-colored, cut short and receding from the large forehead. The face is round and Slavic, starting to go fleshy. The mass of creases at the corners of the mouth has a weather-beaten quality, as does the leathery skin, as if this man once spent an unhealthy amount of time in the sun. The entire effect is of a man put together over half a century in layers, each intense, reinforcing the other, until the final complex product was achieved.
Meechum realizes, My clothes are hanging on a chair. I'm naked.
And now he sees a second man, the one he spotted leaving the White Horse earlier, and the man is standing on a chair, holding the room's smoke alarm, which he has unscrewed from the ceiling. He appears to be replacing the battery. In his jeans and flannel shirt, he might be a building custodian who strolled into a kidnapping scene and began going about his business. He replaces the alarm.
The speaker says, "Hairs in the door? Really, Meechum. Charley broke in. I stayed outside and put the hairs back. You wrote something on a napkin, in the restaurant where you had lunch. You showed the napkin to the man in the White Horse. What did you write on the napkin?"
Charley wipes dust off his hands and approaches the bed, but stops as he breaks out coughing, a deep ugly sound coming from far inside.
Meechum says, "Napkin?"
The speaker sighs and reaches for a Windsor chair from the room's pine table, and swings it around so he can sit and drape his powerful forearms over the back. A talent at patience is indicated.
"Charley?" he says.
Leather Jacket moves fast, despite the coughing, whips down and replaces the tape over Meechum's mouth. He rears back and drives a finger, a mere index finger, into a spot on Meechum's neck. Meechum shoots up in bed, back arching. The pain blinds him.
"What did you write? Remember, no screaming."
Charley loosens the tape a little, allowing air in.
"Oh, God," Meechum gasps.
"God," the speaker remarks, "is a study in failed expectation." His expression remains bland, but the flatness of the voice shows suppressed passion.
Meechum thinks, I must protect Voort.
"Tonight's guests," blares the MC on the television, "are Jennifer Lopez! Steve Young! And that terrific actor, Tom Hanks!"
"Meechum, what did you write?"
The second man leans forward again, replaces the tape and shoves his finger into a new spot. Meechum screams through the fabric, feels saliva dripping down his throat. He can't breathe. Charley yanks him up in bed, enabling a trickle of air to reach his lungs through his nose.
"Meechum, in real life, unlike movies, people tell," the man with the twisted arm says as, eyes bulging, Meechum watches Charley undo the buttons on his flannel shirt, an act which, in its inexplicability, is more terrifying than anything that has so far happened in this room.
The MC says, "Please welcome the star of the new Disney hit, The Mouse That Snored."
"We're going to leave that tape where it is. I ask a question. You nod if you want to answer. Then Charley takes off the tape."
A few minutes later, Meechum forces out, through a world of agony, "Names. I...wrote...down names."
Meechum answers truthfully. "And the addresses," he gets out.
The speaker closes his eyes, calms himself, opens them. "Only those names?"
"Charley, I'm not positive he's sure."
Meechum convinces them, at length, that he is sure.
"And who did you give this list to?"
The speaker sits absolutely still, his breathing remain-
ing steady, his gaze never leaving Meechum's face. A small bright light flares and dies in his irises. His tone never
rises, never changes. He is perfectly in control. He says, "A New York City policeman. Just a run-of-the-mill municipal
policeman. That's what you're telling me?"
"And why did you tell this detective you were giving him the list, if that's all you told him?"
"I asked him to...I wanted him...to check...the names...to check the names."
The speaker runs a hand over his short gray hair.
"You're asking me to believe that you just gave him names and didn't explain it," he says, as much reasoning to himself as repeating information. "You're saying," he begins, but his frown is suddenly replaced by a look of understanding.
"You're saying you weren't sure you had anything to tell him yet, so you were protecting people until your suspicions were confirmed. You didn't want to divulge more unless you were sure it was real."
The speaker stands, and frowns. "Or am I fooling myself," he says, "because that's what I want to hear?
"Charley?" he says. "I'm not sure I believe him yet."
Several minutes later, when Charley has finished another round, the speaker says, "But how is the detective supposed to check the names out, if that's all he knows?"
"Make...calls. To friends in those cities."
"But why would the detective agree to this and even listen to you in the first place? He's got other things to do. Why pay attention to your request? A stranger walks off the street and tells a detective to 'check out some names,' isn't that what you said, and the detective, who I imagine has a million cases in backlog, legitimate cases, just snaps to attention and says, Yes sir, right away, sir, I have nothing to do and I'll just run off and do whatever nutty thing you want....Is that what you're trying to tell me? What aren't you telling me?"
The tape goes back on Meechum's mouth. Through the foul taste of adhesive, he screams.
"I...used to know him," Meechum says when Charley loosens the tape again.
"As in, he's an old friend."
par"And the name of this good old friend?"
Meechum shuts his eyes. He doesn't want to watch this time, doesn't want to see Charley, but he feels the hands at his mouth. He tries to bite, to whip his head away. He feels himself arching in agony, feels his spine cresting so far toward the ceiling that he sees it, in his mind, snapping in two.
Donotdonotdonotnotnot say Voort's name.
"Pretty strong," he hears Charley say with grudging admiration. "I didn't think he had anything left."
"Let's hear it for a great actor, who made sacrifices for his work. He put on thirty pounds for this part," the TV host says, and through Meechum's pain comes the tinny thunder of network audience approval.
After awhile Meechum passes out, and the phone starts ringing, which startles the man in the beige sweater. He does not like that someone is calling.
"Are you sure no one saw you come in?" he asks Charley, who now has his pants off, too.
"It's probably someone complaining about the loud TV."
"Probably," the speaker repeats, with some sarcasm. "Are you offering odds backing up this hypothesis?"
"You're the one who said to hurry." Charley breaks into coughs again. He has to wipe away phlegm from the corner of his mouth.
The speaker reconsiders, and subsides. It is the first time he has looked contrite tonight, and the change, in such a big man, a controlled and powerful-looking man, is profound. "You're right and I apologize. I took out my anger on you."
"Don't worry about it," Charley says.
"I mean it," the speaker says with real emotion. "After all you've done, and what you're about to do, I have no right to give you a hard time."
"I said forget it," Charley says.
"Thank you. Put on the pajamas and finish up. Take the pill. Give yourself ten minutes for it to take effect."
"My family?" Charley says.
"Already done," the man with the twisted arm says.
Charley pulls, from a plastic shopping bag, brand-new, cellophane-wrapped green satin pajamas. He slides the trousers over his bare legs.
"Hey! Smooth," he says. "I always laughed at people who wore, y'know, pajamas."
He folds his shirt neatly on a chair. He lays his trousers over that. There is a ritualistic quality to his movements, as if he were a husband, married for years, about to climb under the sheets, onto his side of a double mattress,and pull out a People magazine, or channel clicker, or just, tired after a hard day, reach over and turn off the bed-side lamp.
The man with the twisted elbow puts on a hooded coat of fawn-colored wool, button-up style. At the door, he turns and watches the lean man don his brand-new satin pajama top, then climb under the covers with Meechum.
"Charley, I'm sorry it came to this."
He turns his attention to the inert form in the bed.
"Meechum, I'm disappointed in you" is all he says.
Copyright © 2001 by Ethan Black