"You'd think I'd get the shakes, considering what I'm planning today. But I'm okay. Last night I worried that I wouldn't be able to follow through on things, but now as the saying goes, so far so good."
At 6 A.M. on a bright, happy, blue-skied morning, Wendall Nye -- failed father, failed husband, failed servant of the vast metropolis -- steps briskly along the cobblestoned sidewalk bordering Brooklyn's Prospect Park, its jewel of public places, jauntily swinging a battered leather attaché case like any well-adjusted citizen and speaking softly into a neck mike suspended two inches from his mouth. From a distance he looks like one more preoccupied early morning commuter talking on a cellphone, reminding his wife to pick up his shirts at the laundry or giving orders to his secretary or to the harried broker who buys his stocks.
Wendall Nye, striding toward the subway, joining the trickle of type-A workaholics hurrying toward Manhattan well before rush hour begins, appears to be a man not wasting one second of time that can be spent on potentially profitable commerce, on moneymaking plans.
"The real commuters would throw a fit if they knew what I'm carrying in this attaché case. They'd run."
He speaks into a tape recorder hidden in his shirt pocket, addressing only himself and the man who will eventually hear his tapes. He says, "Laws distinguish between crimes of passion and premeditation. But what is premeditation but the coldest passion? That drums into you for months, that drives you to sleeplessness and turns your dreams red, that makes you follow strangers on the street, diagram exits of their houses, phone them and lie about your name?"
He falls silent as a real commuter passes from behind, talking loudly into a cellphone about the Hong Kong stock index, which seems to be diving. The man passes, recedes briskly, and then Wendall starts up again.
"Passion's the link, and when I am finished today and you hear my tapes, you who never had to deal with failure in your miserably privileged life, remember that. Last night I stood at my window looking toward Manhattan...at thousands of lights without warmth...and I was afraid I would chicken out this morning. I was filled with despair. But then, thanks to you, I felt passion surge inside me, as if I was sucking up all the intensity off the island...and I knew then that I would use every one of the items in my attaché case. I hope you remember that every day until you die."
Electronics are wonderful. One little invention changes the whole way that thousands of strangers perceive each other in the street. There was a time -- not long ago -- when the sight of a lone man talking and gesturing to himself caused passersby to stiffen or move away.
Now the few commuters paying Wendall any attention at all admire his foresight in wearing the neck mike so as to free a hand to carry his New York Times or bag of Krispy Kreme donuts or, once he enters the subway, for gripping a pole in the packed car so he can keep chatting stupidly to his kids, wife, mistress, plumber. Any one of the people who, in the modern city, careen down sidewalks as obliviously as carnival bumper cars, shouting inanities inside their cellphone cocoons.
"What are you doing at this moment, birthday boy? Having sex with your blonde girlfriend? Opening your expensive presents? Sleeping in that fucking grand old historical house of yours?"
He halts, pauses, breathes, calms. It will be counterproductive to release his monumental rage too soon.
Across from the park, in ones and twos, men and women who are not contemplating murder emerge from the fine, refinished brownstones and condos lining Prospect Park West. They are visions of success. They have reaped the rewards that the city offers: season tickets to the Knicks; country homes near Stockbridge, Massachusetts; four-wheel-drive Range Rovers, and access for their little Johnnies and Lolitas to the finest private schools.
Suits crisp, bodies smelling of expensive musk, they form a cocky parade of surgeons, lawyers, publishers, and more prominent journalists making the daily pilgrimage to whichever tower of commerce serves as the source of their worldly success.
"But you fear failure," Wendall whispers. "Your good looks don't fool me. Fear keeps the city going. You're afraid you'll lose your retirement savings because you bought IBM instead of Municipal Bonds. That your ten-year-old will hate you one day because you hit him with a belt, or because you never punished him sufficiently for him to understand the consequences of nasty acts. That your boss will downgrade you because you took a bad risk, or missed a good one, or because you hesitated when you should have done something aggressive, or failed to remove yourself from his line of vision on a day when he was in a surly mood.
"The city enhances failure. It is a magnifying glass for falling short. The city's invisible millions have always gone through life muttering, 'I should have been better. I could have been grander. I almost became famous. Why wasn't I something more?'
"But not you," he adds, picturing the blond man, the object of his hatred at the moment. "Asshole, bastard, ingrate. Everything came easy for you."
Blending in today, Wendall has dressed in a brand-new black-and-charcoal tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, a crisp button-down white shirt and World Wildlife Fund tie with a cute panda logo above the gold tiepin. The slacks are pleated and cuffed to brush tasseled loafers. The hair, thick brown with strands of premature white, is combed to the side and falls midlength beside large ears in a boy-scoutish style.
But the chest beneath the jacket seems to push dangerously against the fabric. The eyes -- the pale green of buds forcing their way into life around the park's perimeter -- reflect force metamorphosing into something that cannot be stopped. Faint thought lines meander across Wendall's blocky forehead to enhance a natural look of innocent befuddlement. Yet from close-up, if he turns to the right, the plaintive aspect is blunted by facial damage that has healed to leave small scars: a nailhead sized crater -- in the cranial bones -- beneath the skin. Literally a small hole in the head. A pinkish half-inch-long seam corresponding to stitches that once ran between the lower lip and thrust of roundish chin, reattaching skin that had been smashed, cut, ripped away.
"I've read a lot about serial murderers over the last few months. Seen the documentaries. Pored over the books. One thing is clear when it comes to these people. They got caught because they spread their work out over time. Hell, give even a dumb cop, a moron law enforcement agent, months to find you, years to track you, and he will do it eventually. It's only natural.
"I won't make that mistake."
Smiling faintly with resolve, Wendall shows a stretched, shiny quality in the skin of his cheeks, a paperish sheen that even the most skillful plastic surgeon leaves. Even with the damage, thanks to the surgery, he does not stand out.
He pauses at Grand Army Plaza, at the huge traffic circle and gigantic Civil War arch. The self-help books all stressed the importance of paying attention to everyday pleasures when planning a large project. Small Acts Have Big Payoffs, Simon & Schuster's current smash-hit seller, had read: "If you're designing a big job, don't get so caught up in logistics that you stop appreciating daily pleasures. Small pleasures calm you down. You'll be surprised how much they help you keep perspective."
So he wills himself to look around and take a last glimpse of this lovely plaza before he leaves it forever. If the plan works today he will not be back.
Which will avoid another mistake...leaving patterns.
The May air feels wonderful. The sky is so blue. He suspects that these simple pleasures will seem different within hours. He tells himself, How fine and huge the great oaks look. How peaceful and lovely this neighborhood.
It works! It's amazing how a disciplined change in perspective can cheer you up. The gleaming yellow cabs cruising Prospect Park West suddenly epitomize the best of a smoothly bustling city. There's the scrumptious aroma of a young woman's perfume as she passes him, heels clicking on cobblestone, ass shifting back and forth nicely, shoulder blades flicking with feminine perfection beneath the loose fabric of her lime-green silk dress.
"Gotta go now," he says loudly into the mike, as if telling a spouse good-bye, when in fact this message is for the blond man. "I'll be back later. I'll give you a full report. You'll get every detail. Bye."
Heartbeat picking up, he joins the crowd funneling across the black tar expanse of Grand Army Plaza and down the portals into the subway station, through the turnstile, to the packed platforms below. The entry to hell may be such a line.
He wonders with some tension, as the number 3 train barrels into the station, Did I remember to put all the right things in the attaché case?
But no way will he unsnap the case with people around.
He surges with the hungry crowd through the opening doors, reminding himself to tell the tape later, If the cops ever checked out bags on subways the way they do at airports, they'd drag me out off to Riker's Island and I'd never get out.
But police never check bags of commuters. The city could never function under such a level of scrutiny. The simplest trip would become a nightmare of security. The whole transportation system would be disrupted into collapse.
Now the automatic doors close and the train lurches forward, lights flickering, hurtling Wendall beneath Brooklyn toward the East River...the chance to back out diminishing with each minute...and the signs of the familiar stations rush by...Nevins Street...Hoyt Street...Borough Hall, and he is tunneling beneath the great, black East River, to Chambers Street in Manhattan, where he switches to a local line, the number 9 train.
His resolve is rising with his heartbeat. The train drops him at Sheridan Square, and when he climbs up to Seventh Avenue, blinking in the intense urban sunlight -- rays magnified on the street by a thousand windows, light fractured into shards by a thousand pointy roofs and cars and white concrete edifices -- he's moving like a military scout in enemy territory, slipping through Greenwich Village. Wendall checking his watch, monitoring the crucial schedule. Wendall thinking, Every person on the street is a potential witness. Change into the first costume, now.
He does it in the bathroom of the Parthenon Diner, open twenty-four hours a day. As Muzak plays, and waiters wash their soiled hands, joking with each other in Greek, Wendall, in a locked stall, fits on the dark wig and the tortoiseshell glasses and makes sure that the nine-millimeter is on top inside the attaché case, safety off. He also removes from the case a small paper bag filled with bread crumbs and places it in his pocket. He limps when he emerges into the main room.
The place is packed with NYU students, neighborhood types, unemployed actors. Over the incessantly playing radio, people are talking about deals -- New York's favorite subject -- as they sit on stools, in vinyl booths, or wait on line for tables. They are telling each other: I wrote a new film script; I got a line on a new stock offering; I know of a two-bedroom apartment that will be available for rent soon, and in return for some key money, cash in my hand, I'll give you the phone number of the old lady vacating the place.
Nobody even glances at Wendall Nye as he walks among them, past them, back outside.
His heart is thundering louder even than the traffic on West Fourth Street. Three short blocks later he's on Sixth Avenue, Gabrielle Viera's street, where he slows as he reaches a small urban park -- an asphalt basketball court inside a chain-link fence -- between Bleecker and West Fourth.
Sit on the bench and wait for Gabrielle to arrive at work. Look busy.
The basketball court's at his back. A row of businesses -- drugstore, movie theater, pizza place, donut shop -- is across the street. The paper bag filled with bread crumbs comes out of the pocket. Wendall Nye feeds pigeons, head down, face averted except for when he checks one second-floor window across the avenue. One thing that struck him about the serial-murderer books was that witnesses notice strangers on streets when the strangers are doing nothing. Maybe it's some instinct left from caveman days, a vestigial ability to sense predators. Wendall remembers the story of one Chicago murderer, Jerome Vincent Beck. Beck knifed six women in Windy City parking lots and was finally caught because of what he did before the crimes, not during them. Before the crimes, Beck lounged around the parking lots. It was the doing nothing, the obvious watching, that got him noticed, identified, and in the end, hanged.
So Wendall Nye spreads bread crumbs on the warming sidewalk. Pigeons gather at his feet, cooing and pecking and staring into his face with their pink little eyes, begging for more. Dumb as murder victims.
Wendall is growing nervous.
Gabrielle should be at work by now.
Five minutes pass. The schedule is getting tight. Has she gotten sick, he frets? Has she changed her routine? Has the subway broken down? He keeps glancing across the street, at a darkened second-floor window, at a banner reading, ask about our patagonian eco-tours!
Inside his head he screams, Where is she?
Wendall's starting to sweat.
What's supposed to happen, what he's planned for is, she's supposed to get to work early, like he made sure she would. She's supposed to click on her high heels into that doorway between the movie theater and the donut shop, and then, after three or four minutes, the lights upstairs are supposed to go on in the Viera Travel Agency. But the only light there now is the orangy polluted tinge from reflected sun.
Wendall uses up the last of the bread crumbs, and careful not to litter, places the crumpled bag back in his case. His nervousness is rising. His senses seem more acute. All around him, from conversations of passersby and from the headlines of the newspapers they carry, he gets snatches of today's version of the city's perpetual preoccupation with success. Which opening movie will succeed beyond box office expectations? Which Yankee second baseman will be traded to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for a more successful left-handed hitter? Which advertisement for a "successful" partner in the personals section of New York magazine will attract the wealthiest respondent?
She's not coming! Even after I phoned her yesterday and made an appointment!
But at that moment he sees a light go on inside the Viera Travel Agency, and then to his vast relief the window glides upward and he is looking, from his bench, at what appears to be a very attractive woman watering potted daisies, flashes of bright yellow that line wooden boxes on her fire escape.
The woman's long blue-black hair hides half her face. Her neck is white and slender. Her crimson sweater stands out in a very alluring way.
She must have walked in when I was looking in another direction.
Sweat pouring under his arms, Wendall rises and steps across Sixth Avenue, watching carefully so as to avoid the taxis and trucks zipping northward. He steps into the doorway of the travel agency.
Last chance to change his mind.
He presses his index finger to buzzer 2B.
"Hi, it's Robert Roth," he lies. "I phoned yesterday about your Argentina packages. You said to drop by early because I had to be at work."
"Come up!" responds the bright, sexy voice, thirtyish and Latina. A buzzer sounds. Wendall pushes open the screened, locked door and mounts the steps to a second-floor landing, where Gabrielle Viera, even more lovely in person, has opened the door and stands beaming at him. Black eyes. Glossed lips. Dress long and tight. Her pumps are black Italian leather. Her bracelet, thin and gold, highlights the tan. The long hair tosses when she moves, and she moves quite nicely.
She closes the door behind him. She tells him that it was no problem for him to come early. In the travel agent business, which is very competitive, she says as if he gave a damn, every little bit of work gives an edge.
"If you want to be successful, you must get to work early and stay late," she says, shaking his hand, letting him feel the smoothness of her almond skin.
In fact, she tells him, not knowing that he has studied her every move for weeks, she often arrives at work hours before official opening time, to catch up on e-mails from other countries and to familiarize herself with dozens of airfare changes that may have been announced while the city slept.
"I'm interested in the ecotours," he says, scanning the bull-pen-style office, confirming that they are alone, but counting three desks in all, meaning that two other employees may arrive at any time. He also sees lots of potted plants, hanging ferns, a small alerce tree, and attractive outdoor posters of the Aegean, Costa Rica, Rio.
Do it now.
But he hesitates as she goes to her desk. He can't help it. He has never killed anyone before. His confidence -- so high an hour ago -- is fading now that he is here.
"You couldn't have picked a better time of year to travel to Patagonia," she says, holding out a glossy brochure. "Especially if you are," she adds, repeating the lies he told her over the phone yesterday, "a kayaker. Patagonia is an outdoor paradise. I myself just returned from there. May I ask what level of difficulty you prefer when paddling?"
"Average," he says, having never been in a kayak in his life, but having chosen this particular misrepresentation because the blond man, who Wendall hates, is an enthusiastic kayaker. The irony amused Wendall Nye.
Gabrielle's face glows with promise. "Then you will be happy with the many rivers to explore in the area around Bariloche."
Pick up the gun.
He is paralyzed, in agony. He just nods stupidly. It's different when a real person stands in front of you, not a picture you drew in a notebook. Her stupid voice drones on and on.
"The Argentinean economy is in trouble at the moment, so even the best accommodations and guides will cost you less. I used a terrific one. Diego Efron is his name."
"The pictures looked great," he manages to get out.
She winks, coming closer: "Normally travel photographs are better than the real place. But in Patagonia the opposite is true. See?" She shows a series of tantalizing shots of snowcapped mountains. It looks like Bavaria. No wonder the Nazis hid here after killing the Jews, he thinks. And here's a touristy shot of Gabrielle herself, wearing a yellow helmet and life vest, waving from an inflatable raft filled with shouting vacationers as it churns down Andes rapids.
"Should I turn on the AC? You're sweating a bit," she says. "It's hot for May."
He snaps open the attaché case while she fidgets with the thermostat. He raises the lid so she cannot see what is inside: the nine-millimeter and two silencers, ammo clips, and beside them an S & W S.W.A.T. knife, shiny sharp but not to be used at this address. There's a length of pipe stuffed with concrete and a blue velvet case that contains a pair of hypodermics filled with formalin. The small thermos carries Folgers coffee, and he's included a sandwich of Swiss cheese and Italian hard salami with deli mustard -- on seven-grain bread.
"Good diet keeps your head clear," he'd been advised by the Ballantine paperback Eating for Success.
Stalling while he mentally screams at himself to move, he asks, "Is the water safe to drink in Patagonia? My wife's picky about what she eats."
"Absolutely safe! And the steaks! These are grass-fed Argentinean animals! The meat is so flavorful! You will not have a better steak in the whole world."
"The airfare seemed high."
Suddenly he hears a door open out in the hallway. One of the other travel agents has arrived for work!
But then the door slams out there. Someone apparently arrived at one of the other offices on the floor.
What the hell is the matter with me? Coward! Stupid! Do it!
"Those prices could be reduced," she says, "if you can travel between Tuesdays and Thursdays."
His hand refuses to move. It is not attached to his brain, it seems. It hangs there like a dead animal.
"I sense some hesitation," Gabrielle remarks, stepping back, downshifting gears so that her voice becomes more modulated. Sitting, she crosses her legs. They are very nice legs, and he has a feeling that they have helped her make plenty of sales.
"It's just that my family hasn't taken a vacation in years. I want it to be perfect," he says, thinking she'll never believe this pathetic, time-wasting lie.
She nods. "It is normal to reappraise a choice. But if you don't mind me saying so, especially after hearing the eagerness in your voice over the phone yesterday, I've found in life there comes a point which separates those who do things from those who merely consider them. You reach this border and to go any further must tell yourself, I will do this! That's how I bought this agency. I made a decision and it changed my whole life."
"Changing your whole life must have been difficult," Wendall remarks with some actual interest.
"Difficulty makes a decision more rewarding," Gabrielle says, laughs, and adds, "But this is just a vacation. You know, I grew up in Buenos Aires. My parents took us to Bariloche for vacations. Later I moved to New York and had many jobs before I bought the agency...and now I send people to the country where I lived. Life's funny."
"Filled with surprises, that's for sure."
"What else can I tell you? Ready for the trip of your life?"
Wendall Nye, big strong man, fists closed, grinding his muscles. Wendall thinking miserably, I could never follow through on anything.
He hears himself say, "I guess I...I suppose I'm just not ready yet for this."
Humiliated, he asks for her business card, puts it in his wallet. He reaches to snap closed the attaché case when he hears her say, still selling, "A wife and a son, isn't that what you said? I have a boy too."
He thinks, you have no children. You live alone.
"There is so much for a boy to do in Patagonia. Hiking. Mountain biking. When you return from this vacation, he will never forget it. The loving memory of a boy for his father is a precious thing," she says.
"I said I'll think about it," he says, wanting to hide his face, the burning shame traveling from his skull into his chest. She puts a light restraining hand to his wrist, a soothing touch. "Do you have a photo of them?"
"The people you wish to surprise. A picture of them. May I see it?"
"A picture," he repeats, slowly, and he envisions a picture, all right. It is a gray-and-brown-mottled cat running in a Brooklyn street. It is a cat scurrying under an old Ford Fairlane. He thinks of the cat and his rage returns full force.
She says, "Is something wrong? Don't you have a photo of your lovely wife and son?"
In one swift move his hand drops into the attaché case, grips the handle of the nine-millimeter, and lifts. Gabrielle must have thought he was going for a photograph. Her lovely face looks puzzled but not afraid. In her mind, she must be trying to understand what she is looking at, thinking, "But that is a gun. That is not a photograph."
The report sounds thunderous to him when he pulls the trigger, even with the silencer on. She never says anything more, just stares uncomprehendingly as the light goes out of her eyes. The blood spurting from her skull is darker than the red of her sweater. Wendall smells ammonia in the room. Woolite and urine. Sheep and vinegar. Something cared for mixed with something ruined.
I did it, he thinks in massive surprise, staring down at the gun.
He waits for remorse but it does not come. The room now seems smaller and yet appears to him as if from a great distance, as if it has become a still-life diorama in which he is the doll star, watching himself through the wrong end of a long telescope. Here is the woman slumping backward, in a swivel chair, arms thrown back at a rag-doll angle. Here is her carefully arranged furniture, in her stupid fucking travel agency, dotted in places by red spray. Bits of ruby color, shiny dots, soak into a desk blotter and trickle down the computer screen and have spread in an uneven arc to smear the glassed-in tour poster showing vacationers screaming with frightened pleasure as they navigate a turgid mountain river below the headline ARGENTINA! YOU MUST COME!
He feels, actually, a kind of triumph.
A phone is ringing somewhere. He realizes he must hurry, get out of here, and, returning the nine-millimeter to the case, sees that Gabrielle Viera, in the closing minute of her life, was right about moving on to new things. He has crossed a border. He has embraced the new world. From the attaché case he leaves, beside the body, the addressed envelope he prepared earlier, at his home.
Outside, at 8:01, commuters are pouring from the subway entrances in bigger streams now. They push and bump against each other, hurrying toward their offices. They are everywhere, like mice, eyes open but seeing nothing.
By the time he joins them he is calm and determined and fairly sure that no one saw him leave the building, and even if they had, within minutes, the wig is gone, dropped down a sewer near NYU. The glasses have been replaced by today's second pair, aviator wire rims that make his face seem narrower.
A clock has been set ticking. Hour by hour, thinks Wendall Nye, I will teach that bastard a thing or two. His hesitation is gone. In its place he experiences powerful certainty.
Next appointment: 12:20.
He envisions one of the other travel agents, maybe the short fat man who usually arrives at 8:15, strolling in, stopping in shock, groping for the telephone, screaming panicked words at the operator who answers the call to 911. He recalls the message he left for the blond man, which the police will see before he does, in minutes probably, and which they will undoubtedly pass on to him.
First the personal part, for Mister Voort.
Then the part that, within the hour, will put the city in thrall.
Copyright © 2003 by Ethan Black