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Thursday, August 2
I. Repairman Jack awoke with light in his eyess, white noise in his ears, and an ache in his back.
He had fallen asleep on the couch in the spare bedroom where he kept his VCR and projection TV. He turned his head toward the set. A nervous tweed pattern buzzed around on the six-foot screen while the air conditioner in the right half of the double window beside it worked full blast to keep the room at seventy.
He got to his feet with a groan and shut off the TV projector The hiss of white noise stopped. He leaned over and touched his toes, then straightened and rotated his lower spine. His back was killing him. That couch was made for sitting, not sleeping.
He stepped to the VCR and ejected the tape. He had fallen asleep during the closing credits of the 1931 Frankenstein part one of Repairman Jack's unofficial James Whale Festival.
Poor Henry Frankenstein, he thought, slipping the cassette into its box. Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what everyone around him thought, Henry had been sure he was sane.
Jack located the proper slot in the cassette rack on the wall, shoved Frankenstein in and pulled out its neighbor: Bride of Frankenstein, part two of his private James Whale Festival.
A glance out the window revealed the usual vista of sandy shore, still blue ocean, and supine sunbathers. He was tired of the view. Especially since some of the bricks had started showing through. Three years since he'd had the scene painted on the blank wall facing the windows of this and the other bedroom. Long enough. The beach scene no longer interested him. Perhaps a rain forest mural would be better. With lots of birds and reptiles and animals hiding in the foliage. Yes…a rain forest. He filed the thought away. He'd have to keep an eye out for someone who could do the job justice.
The phone began ringing in the front room. Who that could be? He'd changed his number a couple of months ago. Only a few people had it He didn't bother to lift the receiver. The answerphone would take care of that. He heard a click, heard his own voice start his standard salutation:
"Pinocchio Productions…I'm not in right now, but if you'll--"
A woman's voice broke in over his own, her tone impatient "Pick up if you're there, Jack. Otherwise I'll call back later."
Jack nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to reach the phone. He turned off the answerphone with one hand and picked up the receiver with the other.
"Gia? That you?"
"Yes, it's me." Her voice was flat, almost resentful.
"God! It's been a long time!" Two months. Forever. He had to sit down. "I'm so glad you called,"
"It's not what you think, Jack."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not calling for myself. If it were up to me I wouldn't be calling at all. But Nellie asked me to."
His jubilation faded, but he kept talking. "Who's Nellie?" He drew a blank on the name.
"Nellie Paton. You must remember Nellie and Grace--the two English ladies?"
"Oh, yeah. How could I forget? They introduced us."
"I've managed to forgive them."
Jack let that go by without comment. "What's the problem?"
"Grace has disappeared. She hasn't been seen since she went to bed Monday night."
He remembered Grace Westphalen: a very prim and proper Englishwoman pushing seventy. Not the eloping sort.
"Have the police--?"
"Of course. But Nellie wanted me to call you to see if you'd help. So I'm calling."
Does she want me to come over?"
"Yes. If you will."
"Will you be there?"
She gave an exasperated sigh. "Yes. Are you coming or not?"
"I'm on my way."
"Better wait. The patrolmen who were here said a detective from the department would be coming by this morning."
"Oh." That wasn't good.
"I thought that might slow you up."
She didn't have to sound so smug about it. "I'll be there after lunch."
"You know the address?"
"I know it's a yellow townhouse on Sutton Square. There's only one."
"I'll tell her to expect you."
And then she hung up.
Jack tossed the receiver in his hand, cradled it on the answerphone again and flipped the switch to On;
He was going to see Gia today. She had called him. She hadn't been friendly, and she had said she was calling for someone else--but she had called. That was more than she had done since she had walked out He couldn't help feeling good.
He strolled through his third-floor apartment's front room which served as living room and dining room. He found the room immensely comfortable, but few visitors shared his enthusiasm. His best friend, Abe Grossman, had, in one of his more generous moods, described the room as "claustrophobic." When Abe was feeling grumpy he said it made the Addams Family house look like it had been decorated by Bauhaus.
Old movie posters covered the walls along with bric-a-brac shelves loaded with the "neat stuff" Jack continually picked up in forgotten junk, stores during his wanderings through the city. He wound his way through a collection of old Victorian golden oak furniture that left little room for anything else. There was a seven-foot hutch, intricately carved, a fold-out secretary, a sagging, high-backed sofa, a massive claw-foot dining table, two end tables whose legs each ended in a bird's foot clasping a crystal sphere, and his favorite, a big, wing-back chair.
He reached the bathroom and started the hated morning ritual of shaving. As he ran the razor over his cheeks and throat he again considered the idea of a beard. He didn't have a bad face. Brown eyes, dark brown hair growing perhaps a little too low on his forehead. A nose neither too big nor too small. He smiled at himself in the mirror. Not an altogether hideous grimace--what they used to call a shit-eating grin. The teeth could have been whiter and straighter, and the lips were on the thin side, but not a bad smile. An inoffensive face. As an added bonus, there was a wiry, well-muscled, five-eleven frame that went along with the face at no extra charge.
So what's not to like?
His smile faltered.
Ask Gia. She seems, to think she knows what's not to like.
But all that was going to change starting today.
After a quick shower, he dressed and downed a couple of bowls of Cocoa Puffs, men strapped on his ankle holster and slipped the world's smallest .45, a Semmerling skeleton model LM-4, into it. He knew the holster was going to be hot against his leg, but he never went out unarmed. His peace of mind would compensate for any physical discomfort.
He checked the peephole in the front door, then twisted the central knob, retracting the four bolts at the top, bottom, and both sides. The heat in the third floor hall slammed against him at the threshhold. He was wearing Levi's and a lightweight short-sleeve shirt He was glad he had skipped the undershirt. Already the humidity in the hall was worming its way into his clothes and oozing over his skin as he headed down to the street.
Jack stood on the front steps for a moment. Sunlight glared sullenly through the haze over the roof of the Museum of Natural History far down the street to his right. The wet air hung motionless above the pavement. He could see it, smell it, taste it--and it looked, smelled, and tasted dirty. Dust, soot, and lint laced with carbon monoxide, with perhaps a hint of rancid butter from the garbage can around the corner in the alley.
Ah! The Upper West Side in August.
He ambled down to the sidewalk and walked west along the row of brownstones that lined his street to the phone booth on the corner. Not a boom, actually; an open chrome and plastic crate on a pedestal. At least it was still in one piece. At regular intervals someone yanked out its receiver, leaving multicolored strands of wire dangling from the socket like nerves from an amputated-limb stump. At other times someone would take the time and effort to jam a small wedge of paper into the coin slot, or the tips of toothpicks into the tiny spaces between die pushbuttons and the facing. He never ceased to be amazed by the strange hobbies of some of his fellow New Yorkers.
He dialed his office number and sounded his beeper into the mouthpiece. A recorded voice--not Jack's--came over the wire with the familiar message:
"This is Repairman Jack. I'm out on a call now, but when you hear the tone, leave your name and number and give me a brief idea of the nature of your problem. I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
There was a tone and then a woman's voice talking about a problem with the timer on her dryer. Another beep and a man was looking for some free information on how to fix a blender. Jack ignored the numbers they gave; he had no intention of calling them back. But how did they get his number? He had restricted his name to the white pages--with an incorrect street address, naturally--to cut down on appliance repair calls, but people managed to find him anyway.
The third and last voice was unique: smooth in tone, the words clipped, rapid, tinged with Britain, but definitely not British. Jack knew a couple of Pakistanis who sounded like that. The man was obviously upset, and stumbled over his words.
"Mr. Jack…my mother--my grandmothers-was beaten terribly last night. I must speak to you immediately. It is terribly important." He gave his name and a number where he could be reached.
That was one call Jack would return, even though he was going to have to turn the man down. He intended to devote all his time to Gia's problem. And to Gia. This might be his last chance with her.
He punched in the number. The clipped voice answered in the middle of the second ring.
"Mr. Bahkti? This is Repairman Jack. You called my office during the night and--"
Mr. Bahkti was suddenly very guarded. "This is not the same voice on the answering machine."
Sharp, Jack thought. The voice on the machine belonged to Abe Grossman. Jack never used his own voice on the office phone. But most people didn't spot that.
"An old tape," Jack told him.
"Ahhh. Well, then. I must see you immediately, Mr. Jack. It is a matter of the utmost importance. A matter of life and death."
"I don't know, Mr. Bahkti, I--"
"You must! There can be no refusal!" A new note had crept in. This was not a man used to being refused. The tone was one that never set well with Jack.
"You don't understand. My time is already taken up with other--"
"Mr. Jack! Are the other matters crucial to a woman's life? Can they not be put aside for even a short while? My…grandmother was mercilessly beaten on the streets of your city. She needs help that I cannot give her. So I've come to you."
Jack knew what Mr. Bahkti was up to. He thought he was pushing Jack's buttons. Jack mildly resented it, but he was used to it and decided to hear him out anyway.
Bahkti had already launched into his narrative.
"Her car--an American car, I might add--broke down last night. And when she--"
"Save it for later," Jack told him, happy to be the one doing the cutting-off for a change.
"You will meet me at the hospital? She is in St. Clare's--"
"No. Our first meeting will be where I say. I meet all customers on my home turf. No exceptions."
"Very well," Bahkti said with a minimum of grace. "But we must meet very soon. There is so little time."
Jack gave him the address of Julio's Bar two blocks uptown from where he stood. He checked his watch. "It's just shy of ten now. Be mere at ten-thirty sharp."
"Half an hour? I don't know if I can be there by then!"
Fine! Jack liked to give customers as little time as possible to prepare for their first meeting.
"Ten-thirty. You've got ten minutes grace. Any later and I'll be gone."
"Ten-thirty," Mr. Bahkti said, and hung up.
That annoyed Jack. He had wanted to hang up first.
He walked north on Columbus Avenue, keeping to the shade on the right. It was opening time for some of the shops, but most had been going strong for hours.
Julio's was open. But men, Julio's rarely closed. Jack knew the first customers wandered in minutes after Julio unlocked at six in the morning. Some were just getting off their shift and stopped by for a beer, a hard-boiled egg, and a soft seat; others stood at the bar and downed a quick bracer before starting the day's work. And still others spent the better part of every day in the cool darkness.
"Jacko!" Julio cried from behind the bar. He was standing up but only his head and the top half of his chest were visible.
They didn't shake hands. They knew each other too well and saw each other too often for that. They had been friends for many years, ever since the time Julio began to suspect that his sister Rosa was getting punched around by her husband. It had been a delicate matter. Jack had fixed it for him. Since then the little man had screened Jack's customers. For Julio possessed a talent, a nose, a sixth sense of sorts for spotting members of officialdom. Much of Jack's energy was devoted to avoiding such people; his way of life depended on it. And, too, in Jack's line of work he very often found it necessary to make other people angry in the course of serving a customer's interests. Julio also kept an eye out for angry people.
So far, Julio had never failed him.
"Beer or business?"
"Before noon? What do you think?"
The remark earned Jack a brief dirty look from a sweaty old codger nursing a boilermaker.
Julio came out from behind the bar and followed Jack to a rear boom, drying his hands on a towel as he swaggered along. A daily regime with free weights and gymnastics had earned him thickly muscled arms and shoulders. His hair was wavy and heavily oiled, his skin swarthy, his mustache a pencil line along his upper lip.
"How many and when?"
"One. Ten-thirty." Jack slipped into the last booth and sat with a clear view of the door. The rear exit was two steps away; "Name's Bahkti. Sounds like he's from Pakistan or someplace around there."
"A man of color."
"More color man you, no doubt:"
Jack thought about seeing Gia later today. A nice thought. They'd meet, they'd touch, and Gia would remember what they'd had, and maybe…just maybe…she'd realize that he wasn't such a bad guy after all. He began whistling through his teeth. Julio gave him a strange look as he returned with a coffee pot, a cup, and the morning's Daily News.
"How come you're in such a good mood?"
"You been a grouch for months now, man."
Jack hadn't realized it had been so obvious. "Personal."
Julio shrugged and poured him a cup of coffee. Jack sipped it black while he waited. He never liked first meetings with a customer. There was always a chance he wasn't a customer but somebody with a score to settle. He got up and checked the exit door to make sure it was unlocked.
Two Con Ed workers came in for a coffee break. They took their coffee clear and golden with a foamy cap, poured into pilsner glasses as they watched the TV over the bar. Phil Donahue was interviewing three transvestite grammar-school teachers; everyone on the screen, including Donahue, had green hair and pumpkin-colored complexions. Julio served the Con Ed men a second round, men came out from behind the bar and took a seat by the door.
Jack glanced at the paper. "Where Are the Winos?" was the headline. The press was getting lots of mileage out of the rapid and mysterious dwindling of the city's derelict population during the past few months.
At ten-thirty-two, Mr. Bahkti came in. No doubt it was him. He wore a navy blue Nehru-type tunic. His dark skin seemed to blend into his clothes. For an instant after the door swung shut behind him, all Jack could see was a pair of eyes floating in the air at the other end of the dim tavern.
Julio approached him immediately. Words were exchanged and Jack noted the newcomer flinch away as Julio leaned against him. He seemed angry as Julio walked toward Jack with an elaborate shrug.
"He's clean," he said as he came back to Jack's booth. "Clean but weird."
"How do you read him?"
"That's jus' it--I don't read him. He's bottled up real tight. Nothing at all out of that guy. Nothing but creeps."
"Something 'bout him gives me the creeps, man Wouldn't want to get on his wrong side. You better be sure you can make him happy before you take him on."
Jack drummed his fingers on the table. Julio's reaction made him uneasy. The little man was all macho and braggadocio. He must have sensed something pretty unsettling about Mr. Bahkti to have even mentioned it.
"What'd you do to get him riled up?" Jack asked.
"Nothing special. He just got real ticked off when I gave him my 'accidental frisk.' Didn't like mat one bit. Do I send him back, or you wanna take off?"
Jack hesitated, toying with the idea of getting out now. After all, he probably was going to have to turn the man down anyway. But he had agreed to meet him, and the guy had arrived on time.
"Send him back and let's get this over with."
Julio waved Bahkti toward the booth and headed back to his place behind the bar.
Bahkti strolled toward Jack with a smooth, gliding gait that reeked of confidence and self-assurance. He was halfway down the aisle when Jack realized with a start that his left arm was missing at the shoulder. But there was no pinned-up sleeve--the jacket had been tailored without a left sleeve. He was a tall man--six-three, Jack guessed--lean but sturdy. Well into his forties, maybe fifty. The nose was long; he wore a sculptured beard, neatly trimmed to a point at the chin. What could be seen of his mouth was wide and thin-lipped. The whites of his deep walnut eyes almost glowed in the darkness of his face, reminding Jack of John Barrymore in Svengali.
He stopped at the edge of the facing banquette and looked down at Jack, taking his measure just as Jack was taking his.
Copyright © 1984 by F. Paul Wilson