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1979 Crown Publishers Alongside Night Cover

Alongside Night
A Novel by J. Neil Schulman
Chapter 4

After ducking through the fire exit to avoid reporters still in the lobby, Elliot started briskly down Park Avenue, the boulevard busy even without its usual flow of yellow taxicabs. He walked toward the thirty-block-distant Pan Am Building — though it was no longer owned by that airline — passing seedy hotel after seedy hotel, passing a derelict structure at Sixty-eighth Street, once Hunter College. He turned west on to Fifty-ninth Street — past Burger King, past Madison Avenue, past the plywood-and-soaped plate glass at General Motors Plaza — and continued down Fifth Avenue.

Tourists from EUCOMTO states were abundant on the avenue, buying up bargains to the bewilderment of proudly nationalistic Americans and to the delight of proprietors eager for the illegal, gold-backed eurofrancs. Where once exclusive stores had displayed apparel of quiet taste, the latest rage among the fashionable was the Genghis Khan: coats of metallic-silver leather trimmed with long, black monkey fur.

A sign was posted on a lamppost at the corner of Forty-ninth Street; Elliot passed by hardly noticing it.

to LOOTERS, VANDALS, MUGGERS, SHOPLIFTERS, PICKPOCKETS, and other assorted CRIMINALS. This area is heavily patrolled by ARMED GUARDS with orders to protect our businesses and customers from you BY ANY MEANS POSSIBLE.

– Fifth Avenue Merchant Alliance

About fifty minutes after he had left home, Elliot entered a small bookstore at 204 West Forty-second Street, just outside the Federal Renovation Zone. It was crossways to the edifice at One Times Square originally the New York Times building, most famous as the Allied Chemical Tower, now a federal building called, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the Oracle Tower. The Rabelais bookstore was without customers when Elliot arrived; a man was seated on a stool behind the counter, a sign in back of him declaring in large black lettering, “BE 21 OR BE GONE.” On one wall were such classic titles as A Pilgrim of Passion, Suburban Souls, Professional Lovers, and Saucer Sluts; the other wall offered more pedestrian titles by Salinger, Hemingway, and Joyce.

If the man seated behind the cash register was “Al,” thought Elliot, then his father had been polite as an ambassador. He was not “somewhat overweight.” He was grossly fat, perhaps tipping the scale at three-hundred pounds. His triple chin — one had to presume — was well hidden beneath a thick, black beard, contrasted by his bald pate. He was chewing what Elliot first thought was gum but soon realized was tobacco and was reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, which matched Elliot’s first reaction to the man.

Elliot approached him with caution. “I’d like a copy of Not Worth a Continental by Martin Vreeland,” he said, according to plan.

The man lowered his book, spat tobacco — into a cuspidor, Elliot was relieved to see — and inspected Elliot carefully. “You his kid?” he asked finally. Not according to plan.

Elliot nodded hesitantly. “Are you Al?”

“Yeah,” he said, lifting himself off the stool with considerable difficulty. “C’mon, it’s in the back.”

Elliot’s face fell. “But don’t you need my countersign?” he blurted.

“Nah. You look just like your old man.”

Al led Elliot through a draped door to a corner of his back room and gestured toward a large carton on the floor filled with books. “Gimme a hand with this.” Elliot got a grip on one of the corners, then the two of them lifted it aside, revealing a hole in the linoleum. Al lifted out a package sealed into a black Pliofilm bag, handing it to him. “The coins are in here,” he said. “Count ‘em if you want. I gotta get out front. Need me, just call.”

Elliot looked at Al curiously. “Uh — mind if I ask a personal question?”

“Don’t know till you ask the question.”

“Well … if you knew what’s in here, then why didn’t you just take it and run? Gold ownership is illegal. We couldn’t have reported you.”

Al laughed heartily. “I thought you were gonna ask how much I eat or somethin’. I didn’t steal the gold ’cause it don’t belong to me.” He turned and went out front.

After placing the plastic on a nearby table, Elliot broke the sealed plastic, opening it. Inside was a specially designed leather belt — forty-odd inches long, two inches high — with no tongue or eyelets but a slide-buckle instead. At the bottom was a zipper concealed between two layers of leather. Elliot slid the buckle out of the way, unzipped the belt, and peeled apart the leather.

Inside were the twenty-five Mexican fifty-peso gold pieces, built into matching cutouts in the leather that extended most of the belt’s length. They were beautifully struck, in virtual mint condition, and even in the back room’s dim light reflected considerable luster.

Each coin was about one-and-a-half inches in diameter. The traditional eagle with a serpent in its mouth embellished the obverse of each coin; on the reverse was a winged Nike — goddess of victory — bearing a wreath, to her right the 50 PESOS mark, to her left the legend 37.5 grams ORO PURO. Elliot removed his own belt, replacing it with the new one, which he had to thread through several belt loops twice as it was too long for his thirty-four inch waist. Then he replaced his jacket and overcoat.

Al was busy with a customer when Elliot came front; he stood away a polite distance, awaiting an opportunity to take his leave. Repressing a desire — more out of embarrassment than anything else — to spend his time examining Al’s erotica, he instead alternated between observing Al’s conversation — impossible to eavesdrop on because of Al’s radio playing loudly — and watching the OPI News Summary streaming across the Oracle Tower.


Elliot was suddenly struck by the strangest feeling of déjà vu. He could see that Al was doing something with his hands, but could not have told exactly what.


Al’s customer purchased a book but Elliot could not shake the feeling that he had noticed something significant that he had failed to comprehend.


It was almost dusk when a moment later Al’s customer left; Elliot walked forward to the counter and thanked Al for his help. “Don’t mention it,” said Al. “The least I can do under the circumstances — your old man being dead and all.”

“How did you –?”

“It was on the radio while you’re in the back,” Al interrupted.

Elliot felt somewhat awkward about keeping up the pretense with a man whom his father — by his actions — regarded as a confidant; nevertheless he interpreted his father’s instructions to mean that no one outside the family should know the truth. “Well, I’d better get moving.”

“Keep your eyes open,” replied Al. “This is a lousy area to be alone at night. Laissez-faire.”

Everything suddenly fell into place: Al was wearing a plain gold band on his right hand and during his parley with his customer had twirled it back and forth — the same manner as the tzigane.

Elliot briefly considered asking Al if the ring twirling meant anything but felt another question would be prying. Besides, it was silly — and he had better get home quickly if he wanted a decent amount of time to pack. “Laissez-faire,” he replied.

Al just smiled.

At almost ten to six, Elliot once again entered his apartment building. The reporters were gone from the lobby. At the door this time was Dominic, a small Puerto Rican man, whom he greeted on his way to the elevators. He waited several minutes before an elevator arrived, then rode it up to the fiftieth floor and fumbled for his keys while walking down the corridor to his apartment. After inserting the correct keys in the correct order, he opened the door and shouted, “I’m home!” There was no answer. Elliot looked into his parents’ bedroom, but no one was there, so he tried Denise’s room. It was also unoccupied. Elliot then looked into his own bedroom, the guest room, the bathrooms, and even the storage closets; there was no sign of anybody, and all the suitcases were gone.

He started over again, thinking that there must have been a sudden change in plans, and there would be a note somewhere. He checked from the bathroom mirrors to the bulletin board in the kitchen. It was only then that Elliot Vreeland understood that he was alone.

There was no note.


Next in Alongside Night is Chapter V.

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

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