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1979 Crown Publishers Alongside Night Cover


Alongside Night
A Novel by J. Neil Schulman
Chapter 6


Elliot had not run more than a few blocks before shortness of breath forced him into an alleyway. There he just leaned against a concrete wall, allowing the day’s events to bear down upon him. After a few minutes, though, when the shakes had stopped, when his fears for his family had tripped out from overload, when he realized how cold it was, the improbabilities of his situation began to take on melodramatic — even comic — overtones. Echoing the punch line of a classic television sitcom he had seen on videodisc, he silently exclaimed, What a revoltin’ development this is!

He faced several problems, each of which seemed insurmountable. First, to survive. Second, to escape the combined forces of city, state, and federal government. Third, to devise some plan to rescue his family. Until today, his most pressing problem had been how to get a passing grade from a stupidly dogmatic teacher.

Elliot still had no idea what the authorities intended for his family or why they now wanted him. He considered that they might have known, when they first came to the apartment, that his father was still alive. Or that they had come on a totally unrelated mission and upon finding his father alive were now holding his family for conspiracy to evade arrest.

He wondered if his father’s FBI informant had been mistaken or treacherous, and the Bureau wanted them for a totally different — perhaps harmless — reason. Maybe they simply wanted to place them in some kind of protective custody.

Perhaps he was taking all this in entirely the wrong way. Maybe the best thing he could do would be to retain a lawyer to find out what was going on. Conceivably –

He stopped short, realizing that shivering in an alley was not the best condition in which to think things through. He had to go some place warm and quiet where he could take stock of what had happened.

Elliot decided that, for the moment at least, he could risk the streets. The chance of being recognized at night in mid-Manhattan was rather slim. Nonetheless, by morning the situation might be changed drastically. Who might be questioned on his whereabouts: Mrs. Allen? Dr. Fischer? Phillip Gross?

He moved out into the street. He was on Seventy-third, just off Lexington Avenue. Almost instinctively, he turned downtown, not having any specific destination in mind, but moving just to keep warm.

A question started gnawing at his mind: To whom could he turn? He was not foolish enough to believe for a moment that he could single-handedly bring about his family’s release. He was going to need potent help — and quickly. All right, who?

Neighbors were out, for obvious reasons. Family? The only relative within half a continent was an uncle in Chicago, but Elliot doubted this uncle had either the resources or the inclination to be of any use. Martin Vreeland had given his brother the same investment advice he himself was following; Georg Vreeland had ignored his brother’s insight, and by some unfathomable logic now blamed Martin for his own resulting financial collapse.

Friends or university associates of his parents? Elliot had never paid them any attention, thus he knew nothing useful about them. Ansonia? Elliot did not have anything in particular against Dr. Fischer or Mr. Harper — or any of his still employed teachers, for that matter — but he did not have anything favoring them, either. They might very easily help him, but they might turn him over to the police. Classmates or friends? Aside from Marilyn Danforth, whom he had occasionally slept with, Elliot’s only real friend was Phillip. Marilyn was apt to be unreliable, and while he trusted Phillip completely, Elliot did not see how his friend could be of any real help in a rescue attempt.

The bookstore proprietor he knew as Al? His father had obviously trusted him, but Elliot was by no means certain that it had not been Al who had tipped off the police. That business with the rings made him uneasy. Could it have been some kind of signal? Had his own movements been monitored all that day?

Was the tzigane a police agent?

Elliot decided to contemplate a possible link between Al and the tzigane on the theory that it might illuminate any obvious treachery.

First, each man had been wearing a plain gold ring on his right hand. Well, nothing unusual here. Jewelry, being the only legal form in which the public could own gold since it had been renationalized, was presently quite popular as an inflation hedge. Elliot himself was wearing a plain gold band Denise had given him that past Christmas. Two particular men wearing undistinguished rings was no more of a coincidence than if they had been wearing the same style of shoes.

Second, both men had been twirling their rings back and forth, repeatedly. How many ways were there to play with a ring, anyway? Elliot managed to generate four categories: twirling, up and down the finger, a screwing action combining the first two motions, and a final category involving removal of the ring entirely from the finger. As an afterthought, he added two more categories: a null set of ring wearers who did not play with their rings, and a set comprising combinations within and permutations among the four primary categories — a likely possibility for any code requiring more than a minimal vocabulary.

Elliot turned west onto Fifty-ninth Street.

Then he thought of behavioral aspects. What percentage of ring players fell into each category? Come to think of it, how many ring wearers regularly played with their rings in the first place — and how frequently?

In despair, Elliot decided he had insufficient data even to start considering any other probability than that of Al and the tzigane’s coincidence of ring twirling being just that.

So, logically, there was no reason to assume any conspiracy involving Al and the tzigane. For the moment — on the basis of his father’s trust in the man — he could assume that Al was a free agent who might be useful in aiding his family.

Elliot was on Fifty-ninth Street nearing Fifth Avenue when a boy who looked about eleven, raggedly dressed and scarcely protected against the cold, approached him. “Mister, can I have a couple hundred blues to buy somethin’ t’eat?” The boy said it mechanically. Elliot wondered how long he might have been surviving this way. He took out his wallet, removing a wad of blue money much more impressive than its purchasing power, and peeled off five $100 bills. The boy took it, then — instead of thanking Elliot — he backed off, making a rapid arm gesture.

Suddenly — out from behind parked cars, garbage cans, and alleyway — came five more boys ranging in age from fifteen to one about twenty whom Elliot tagged as the leader. They did not have the polish of the more professional gangs of Harlem or the Bronx: no club jackets, no racial identity, no firearms. But they had Elliot surrounded and were armed with knives, broken bottles, a chain, and a hooked tire wrench.

The leader — his hair dyed in blond and black stripes — stood back just a bit, looking Elliot up and down. Elliot suddenly felt extremely self-conscious about the quality of his clothing. “Hot shit,” said the leader. “A brownie.” He brandished a knife.

This was his first mistake. An experienced knife fighter would have held his weapon low — at his hip — blade forward, ready to strike; instead, the leader stood in a semi-crouch with his arms extended, the knife in his right hand. He grinned. Even so, Elliot was not in a good position to defend himself if he lunged.

Then the leader made his second mistake. In an attempt to show off, he began tossing the knife back and forth between his hands. Elliot edged back — feigning panic in an attempt to get the space he needed — then kicked the knife away while it was in flight between the leader’s hands.

Elliot did not wait to see the expression on the leader’s face before he went for his gun.

He had only managed to withdraw it from its holster — but not from his jacket — when one boy swung at him with the tire wrench. Elliot blocked the blow — painfully — with his left shoulder and found himself rolling with the force onto the ground. Nonetheless, he managed to free the gun and get a shot off in the direction of the leader. He missed. The leader shouted, “The motherfucker’s got one!” and scurried down the street, followed in close order by his compatriots.

Elliot was still dazed when half a minute later a police car pulled up nearby. A blue-uniformed officer got out to see if Elliot needed medical assistance; another drove off in the direction of the gang. The officer helped Elliot up.

Somehow, without quite knowing how, Elliot found that the gun was no longer in his hand, but on the sidewalk next to him. The jumble of thoughts following added up to, Well, I’ve had it now.

“You all right, son?” Elliot just nodded. Then the officer noticed Elliot’s revolver and picked it up. She examined it a moment, looked at Elliot, and handed it to him. “Better put this away before my partner sees it, or I’ll have to take you in.”

Elliot was still too dazed to be sure what was going on. Was this an attempt at entrapment? He coughed, managing enough air to get out “Thanks.” Then he risked taking the gun from the officer, holstering it.

“Sure you’re all right?”

“Uh — I think so.”

“Then I’d better get my partner back before the blood-thirsty fool gets herself killed.” She started running down Fifty-ninth Street in the direction the police car had driven.

“Thanks a million,” Elliot shouted to his samaritan. Upon reflection, he realized a million was not very much thanks these days.

Fifth Avenue at night was even busier than in daytime, though the bumper-to-bumper traffic of automobiles and motor scooters had been replaced with an equally dense population of bicycles and pedestrians. Each night, between Fifty-ninth and Forty-second streets, the avenue was closed off to all motorized traffic except the electric patrol carts of Fifth Avenue Merchant Alliance Security — and FAMAS had justified the privilege. By totally ignoring any nonviolent, noninvasive behavior — no matter how outrageous or vulgar — and concentrating exclusively on protecting its clients and their customers from attacks and robbery, FAMAS made Fifth Avenue a safe haven from the city’s pervasive street violence. Anything else went, from sexual displays of every sort to the street merchandising of neo-opiates or — for several hours, at least — your own personal slave.

Within his first five minutes Elliot was approached by two beggars (one of whom looked as if he had taken a graduate degree in mendicancy from the University of Calcutta), had been invited to a gay dance hall, watched a man in a dress and high heels chase a midget, and been approached by a black-market currency dealer. Elliot might have made a deal with this last if his rates had been better.

Nor was this discouraged by the avenue’s property owners. They knew it was precisely this atmosphere that attracted their customers. Neither did the city government interfere; its own OTB gambling casinos on the avenue were one of the city’s few remaining reliable sources of revenue — and more than one city council member had secret business interests in the enclave.

As a result, Fifth Avenue had evolved into the center of the city’s nightlife, maintaining a carnival atmosphere — dazzling, noisy, and sensual — in which its patrons were as often as not more interesting than its own diversions, which were plentiful.

Elliot checked his watch; it was only a little after eight thirty. He found it astonishing, but his entire life had been pulled apart in just over six hours. More immediate, though was the thought that the Rabelais Bookstore might still be open.

After locating a pay phone, Elliot searched his pockets for a vendy. Officially named Federal Vending Machine Tokens, vendies were the same size and weight as the old dimes, nickels, and quarters, but had completely replaced coins in common exchange. By official definition vendies were not money: NOT LEGAL TENDER was conspicuously stamped on the obverse. They circulated as change anyway. Though vendies were sold legally only by banks and post offices at a price set daily by the Treasury Department, the official price tended toward the black-market one to prevent the hoarding that had greshamed all fixed-value coins out of exchange. In turn, the black-market price was a fixed ratio to the stable eurofrancs.

Depositing a dime vendy — today worth about fifty New Dollars or EFR .04 — Elliot obtained the Rabelais Bookstore’s telephone number and called it. There was no answer.

It was still early. Surely it was prudent that he should avoid the streets as much as possible, but he was not sure where else was completely safe, either. Perhaps Phillip could be useful after all. Elliot redeposited his vendy, punching in Phillip’s number from memory. Ten rings later he gave up, deciding to try again later.

Casually Elliot started down Fifth Avenue again, observing the gaudy spectacle around him. Two male transvestites passed by arm-in-arm. New Orleans jazz mixed in the street with infrasonic rock. Pushcart odors — sweet, then garlicky — wafted by his face. Brief clouds of warm, moist smoke vented out of cinema cabarets into the street, slowly there to dissipate. He was smiled at several times by streetwalkers, managing to ignore them until a more assertive one — his own age, quite pretty, and wearing an expensive evening gown with stole — started walking alongside him. “Hi,” she said.

Elliot continued walking and nodded curtly. “Hello.”

“Would you like to have a date with me?”

Elliot could not resist looking her over but answered politely, “Thank you, but no.” He speeded up a bit.

She matched his pace. “I’m different from the others.” Elliot glanced over as if to say, Oh? “For five thousand blues I’ll do it in my pants.”

Elliot reflected that all the weirdoes were certainly out, than gave her another glance. He couldn’t resist. “Run that by me again?”

She smiled, continuing to match his pace. “I said that for five thousand blues, I’ll go to the bathroom in my panties. I’ve been holding it in all day. You can watch me — even feel it if you want to. I wet myself, too. How about it?”

Elliot studied her with a fascinated horror mounting within him. He was almost jogging now. “You can’t be serious.”

“But I am. You’ll like it. It’s really –”

Her voice cut off as she stopped short, her face losing all expression. Almost automatically Elliot also stopped, thinking that she was about to faint. But several seconds later when she did not, Elliot knew with certainty what had caused her to stop. He backed slowly away.

“Oh, damn,” she said in a baby-soft voice. “Now you’ve made me do it.”

Five minutes later, he escaped into the lobby of the New York Hilton from its Sixth Avenue entrance. After hurrying into a telephone booth, he tried both the Rabelais Bookstore and Phillip again. There were still no answers.

Elliot then sat in the booth, taking account of his assets. He found that he had twenty-six thousand and some-odd blues in his wallet — a fair-sized sum. This surprised him. His allowance was generous, but not that generous. Then he remembered closing out his savings account just several days before to prevent the final erosion of his few remaining New Dollars.

For the first time in hours, he remembered the gold he was carrying. The idea started percolating through his mind that perhaps this might be the means of financing his family’s release, whether through bribery, lawyer’s fees, or even hiring criminals for a prison break. He knew that the gold was not his but his father’s; nevertheless, his father had said that if by “‘losing it’ or paying it as a bribe” he could improve their escape chances one iota, he wouldn’t have hesitated “for one second.”

In the meantime, though, the gold was illegal and unconverted — of no immediate use.

He was hungry and still not sure whether he wanted to take a room. After first visiting the lobby magazine shop, where he bought a paperback copy of Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein, he rode the escalator down to the Taverne Coffee Shop on the lower level. There he ate a Monte Cristo sandwich with several cups of quite good coffee (but then eating out always seemed a luxury; hotels and restaurants were not rationed at consumer level) and he read about half the novel.

Elliot was a science-fiction fan, Heinlein by far his favorite author. This particular novel was an old friend that he had read many times before. Its seventeen-year-old protagonist was in a similar predicament. Unfortunately, the specific problems he encountered had their solution on Venus, not Earth. At half past ten, Elliot paid his check and called Phillip again.

No answer.

Ten minutes later, Elliot had taken a single room for $11,500, registering as Donald J. Harvey, the hero of the Heinlein novel. An exorbitant bribe to the room clerk, added to advance cash payment, forestalled any questions about identification or travel permits.

The room was clean, comfortable, warm, and well lit. Though as functionally nondescript as a thousand other hotel rooms, its very anonymity made it more beautiful to Elliot than almost any other place he had seen. He punched a do-not-disturb notice into the hotel computer, locked and chained the door, then undressed for a leisurely whirlpool bath, hanging his precious belt on the towel rack so he could keep an eye on it.

He took the opportunity to examine his shoulder. On it was a purple-and-red bruise. He thought it strange that such an ugly wound did not hurt very much, but restrained from questioning his luck. The injury did not seem to require any immediate attention, though, nor would he have known what to do if it had.

After bathing, Elliot got into bed — with belt under his pillow and gun on the night table — and finished reading the Heinlein. Finally, he called the desk, leaving a wake-up Picturephone call for eight o’clock.

Momentarily overcome by an attack of lonely fright, he soon managed to guide his mind to other matters. Thinking about the poor streetwalker made him feel a bit less sorry for himself.

What a revoltin’ development that was!

#

Next in Alongside Night is Chapter VII.

Alongside Night is
Copyright © 1979 J. Neil Schulman &
Copyright © 2010 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust.
All rights reserved.


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