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1979 Crown Publishers Alongside Night Cover

Alongside Night
A Novel by J. Neil Schulman
Chapter 5

On his third time around the apartment — still wearing his coat — Elliot noticed signs of visitors who must have come before his family had left. Several ashtrays held cigarette butts, and no none in his family smoked. No one except Denise — Elliot amended — and she only when their parents could not see her. Whoever it was must have stayed more than a few minutes, too, otherwise there would not have been time for more than one or two smokes.

But who was it, and what could he — or she — or they — have said to make his family leave without even writing a note?

Elliot approached the problem systematically. He first went over to the video intercom and buzzed the lobby. The doorman appeared on the small screen, answering with a thick Puerto Rican accent, “Dominic here.” Elliot Vreeland, 50L. Had he sent up any visitors in the past couple of hours? “No, sir. Nobody.” What time had he come on duty? “Five o’clock.” Had he been at the door all the time since five? Dominic looked as if he had been accused of desertion during wartime. “Yes, sir.” Elliot thanked him, then cleared the screen.

Next, he checked across the hall with Mrs. Allen, his mother’s closest friend. She was a rather plump, jolly widow in her seventies, but when she saw Elliot, she was not very jolly. “Oh, my dear boy. What a tragic day this is! I know how hard this must be on you. When I lost my poor Gustav –”

Before she could tell him about her poor Gustav, Elliot said, “Mrs. Allen, do you know where my mother and sister have gone?” He maintained the cover, just in case.

“Why, certainly, dear.”

“Where?” he asked anxiously.

“They’ve gone to your mother’s sister-in-law. My dear, didn’t they tell you?”

“Uh — yes,” Elliot replied as his stomach sank. “I guess in the confusion I forgot.”

“Oh, you poor thing. Perhaps you’d come in for a cup of hot cocoa to settle your nerves.”

Elliot thanked her warmly but declined, saying that he had better go over there before they worried about him.

He returned to his apartment and, after looking up the listing for Air Quebec, went to the Picturephone in his parents’ bedroom, calling to ask if there were any messages for him. He used the family code name his father had given him, saying they were supposed to leave for Montreal that evening on Flight 757 and were accidentally separated. An attractive Air Quebec reservation hostess told him with a Québécois accent that company policy prevented accepting personal messages between passengers. However, she could have the airport page them. “Uh — no thanks.” Then, a flash of inspiration. “Is the reservation still intact?”

She punched data into a computer console, then turned back to the video camera. “Yes, the reservation is still intact. Do you wish to change it?”

“No, thank you,” Elliot answered, delighted. “Thank you very much!”

The reservation was intact; it had not been changed or canceled. Whatever had necessitated leaving the apartment so early, his family had to be expecting him to rendezvous with them on Park Avenue as scheduled at seven o’clock. He checked his watch. It was only half-past six. He had wasted thirty minutes but still had time to pack and meet them on time — if he hurried.

Elliot was just about to start back to his own room when he heard the apartment’s front door open.

It could only have been his mother or Denise.

He was about to call out but stopped himself. He heard voices. Unfamiliar, male voices. His reaction now raised to full alert, Elliot backed again into his parents’ bedroom in time to hear one voice say, “Better check the master bedroom.”

Quickly, Elliot slipped into the bedroom’s storage closet and shut the door. He waited in pitch blackness, listening to his heart race, as footsteps passed by the closet, checked in the bathroom, then left the bedroom again. When he was certain whoever it was had left the room again, Elliot slipped back out of the closet, shut the bedroom door until just two inches remained, then pressed his ear close enough to pick up conversation.

After a half-minute pause, another voice — a lighter voice belonging to a young-sounding man — asked, “How long d’ja think we have to wait?”

“Don’t know,” said the first — heavier, gruffer — voice. “He could come any time.”

That narrowed it down somewhat. They were — most probably, at least — waiting either for himself or his father.

The younger voice spoke again, “Jesus, I’ve never seen the chief so pissed before.”

“We’ll be seeing a damn sight more if you let the kid slip through your fingers again.”

My fingers? How the hell was I supposed to know you hadn’t –”

“Shut up.”

Elliot sensed how the cards had been dealt. But what did “the chief” want with him?

The logical answers were discouraging. His father’s cover story might have been broken, the authorities — most probably the FBI — wanting Elliot as bait to catch him. They might have wanted Elliot to answer questions about his father’s political activities — especially if they did still think him dead. They even might have found out Elliot was carrying a fortune in gold.

This last preyed upon his mind. How might the authorities know? So far as he had been told, the only person outside his family with knowledge of the gold was Al. But if Al had been so inclined, he could have informed any previous time, or simply have invented some reason not to have turned over the belt. Besides, Elliot had been careful not to let slip to Al that he was heading home . . . although if he were important enough to go after in the first place, they might have sent men to his apartment as a matter of course.

Nonetheless, the important question had been answered. The men outside were enemies, and he had to escape.

Armed confrontation was just too risky. What other way out of the apartment was there? The only door out to the apartment house hallway was in the living room. Wait a second. There was also that window right over there. He could easily fit through, but he was still on the fiftieth floor, and even jumping terrace to terrace, there was no way he could rappel himself down that far. But if he could find a rope, perhaps he could lower himself down to the terrace below, break in, escape through that living room. If the neighbors were away . . . 50L, 49L . . . That would be the Herberts. Only the Herberts had moved out last month when Mr. Herbert’s realty company went under. The apartment was still vacant.

Elliot returned to the bedroom’s storage closet, flipped on the light, and began scratching around. First he needed a strong rope — at least twenty feet — and he began searching for the nylon rope used to tie up the family’s speedboat on Lake Winnipesaukee. They always took it home for the winter after having had two such ropes disappear from the boathouse. He did not find it. Damn! His father must have forgotten, and by now somebody else would have stolen it, too. Elliot smiled to himself as he realized that it did not matter anymore.

A few additional minutes provided nothing more promising than twenty-five feet of plastic clothesline that he found on top of a carton filled with copies of Not Worth a Continental. Elliot measured out the line to a bit over four arm spans, then tested it. The line would stretch like all hell, but perhaps if he were to double it over, it might support his weight. If he swore off sex and hard liquor for the rest of his life . . . and there were a full moon for good measure.

Wasting no time, Elliot went over to the terrace window. He had opened it only an inch when he heard a loud thud from behind. Elliot whirled around, but no one was there. Then he realized what had happened. The change in air pressure from opening a high-rise window had caused the slightly ajar bedroom door to slam.

Immediately Elliot drew his gun, then dropped automatically into a one-knee shooting stance, aiming directly at the door. He was breathing very heavily — nervous, sharp breaths.

No one entered.

He waited in that position but still no one entered. Then he quietly crept to the door, pressing his ear against it. He heard — just barely — the two men still talking in the living room. Either they had not heard anything, or they had discounted it.

Relaxing enough to reholster his gun, Elliot returned to the window, now opening it without difficulty.

It seemed somewhat colder than during daylight hours. As he climbed out, he could see his breath illuminated by the bedroom lights.

The moon was about as far from full as it could get.

The terrace faced Park Avenue, extending half the apartment’s length; the bedroom window was at the far end away from the living room. Nothing short of a small explosion could be heard by anyone there. Closing the window to prevent invading cold air from eventually betraying him, he glanced across the street to the opposite highrise and suddenly realized what a foolish risk he had taken. If anyone had been watching his apartment, the watcher would have seen his figure silhouetted against the window. Nonetheless, this was no time for recriminations, and there were no observers Elliot could detect.

After doubling over the clothesline, Elliot looped it around the bottom of the railing; this was not only to maximize the usefulness of his now only twelve-odd feet of rope, but also to minimize leverage on the rail. Now he tested the hookup by pulling against the line. It held. He wished there were a way to secure the rope around his waist but there just wasn’t enough for that. He satisfied himself with wrapping the line several times around his right wrist.

The terraces were stacked directly on top of one another so there would be nothing but air between himself and the ground, six hundred feet below, while he was lowering himself. He would also have to swing himself out several feet, once he was lowered, so he would have enough momentum to drop into the terrace underneath.

Swearing not to look down, Elliot climbed over the railing, supporting himself with his left hand, until he was standing with his back to the air and his toes wedged into the slim space between bottom rail and terrace concrete. He took a deep breath. Now came the tricky part — gradually transferring support to the line without dropping onto it like a hanged man. He did not think the plastic line would stand such a sudden jolt.

No point delaying.

Holding tight onto the line with his right hand and the railing itself with his left, Elliot began lowering himself to his knees until he was precariously balanced with his legs sticking out and his kneecaps tight against the bottom rail. Then, still holding the railing, he lowered his knees off the concrete and began transferring his weight to the clothesline.

The rail began pulling out of the concrete.

The next few moments blurred in Elliot’s mind. All he knew was that he was suddenly hanging in midair with his legs flailing. There was a sharp pain in his right wrist as the rope bit into it. And there was no way he could lower himself any farther without letting go of the thin line that was between him and the ground.

Don’t look down, he told himself again, then slowly — excruciatingly — he began pulling himself up.

The rail moved out another half an inch.

He succeeded in raising himself high enough to grab the rail directly again and, in an endless moment he was never able to recall clearly, managed to pull himself — one knee at a time — back onto the concrete. In another few moments he climbed back onto his toes again and from there over the railing onto the terrace. He lay there for several minutes, almost unconscious.

When he was able to, he examined his wrist where the line had burned it; aside from a deep red mark and a stinging, it seemed all right. He examined the line. It was also undamaged. He looked at the posts holding the railing and learned that only the first was loose. If he anchored the line farther down — and this time looped the line so it would slip along — he could try it again.

But he knew he wouldn’t. It was not that he was a coward — though at the moment he could see the merits of being one — but climbing down a plastic clothesline on a rail with at least one loose post was not Elliot’s notion of heroism. It was his notion of death. His luck had held out once, but he didn’t feel like pressing it. He would have preferred to take his chances with shoot-out any day. Moreover, he was willing at the moment to defy anyone in his position to try climbing that line again.

There had to be another option. There had to be.

Elliot belly-crawled across the terrace until he was in front of the door and could see into the living room from under the lowered Venetian blind. This gave him a first sighting on his adversaries. There were only two. Both men were plain- clothed. One looked in his thirties, the other was middle-aged. The older man had his jacket off, revealing a shoulder holster and pistol . . . and this man was muscular enough that Elliot had no desire to tangle with him. In any case, both were still in the living room, which is what he had crawled over to confirm.

Sliding back to concealment, Elliot hooked the rope over the top of the railing, letting the ends hang directly down to the terrace below. He then reopened the window, climbing back in, but this time he left the window open. By no means was he certain his brainstorm would work. But it felt a good deal less uneasy than the alternatives.

Drawing his revolver, Elliot aimed out the window toward the empty sky and fired. Though expected, the reverberating explosion startled him. Elliot made a dash for the bedroom door, went through, then closed it from the other side, now pressed against the wall that cornered the living room.

Had they fallen for it? Elliot risked a look around the corner. Yes! Both men had rushed out to the terrace to learn what the explosion had been; the older man was just dashing onto the terrace when Elliot checked.

Waiting a split second more, Elliot darted through the living room and escaped to the hall.

It would be only a few seconds before they concluded that someone had just climbed the rope, rushing out to search the apartment below. Thinking quickly, Elliot ran into the laundry room, shutting the door.

A few seconds later he heard running in the hallway. The two voices seemed to pause just outside the laundry room. “He’s armed,” the older voice said. “Probably went off accidentally while he climbed down.”

“Think he knows we have his family?”

Elliot was too stunned to notice whether there had been any response; perhaps the older man had shrugged or shaken his head. “But he knows we want him. I’ll take the lower apartment. You phone the chief. Now move.”

Elliot heard the fire door open and slam, then a softer slam seconds later as his apartment door was used again.

His ears were ringing as he tried to regain his composure. He had escaped with the intention of rendezvous with his family.

They would not be there.

He knew who the earlier visitors had been.

He knew why there had been no note — why the flight reservation had been undisturbed.

His father’s plan had been brilliant. What could have gone wrong? Dr. Vreeland’s words echoed back at him. “One slip — even one you might think insignificant — may prove our downfall.”

Was it his fault? Had he caused his family’s arrest by failing to secure a proper countersign from Al?

Elliot found himself shaking and got angry with himself. This was no time to lose control. He had to get out fast. The stairs? No, the older man would be down there.

He stuck his head out into the hall, followed it, then pressed for the elevator, withdrawing into the laundry room until it arrived. An endless minute later it showed up. Empty.

Elliot got on — riding it straight down — ran out through the Seventy-forth Street fire exit, and from there to the dead chill of the city.


Next in Alongside Night is Chapter VI.

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

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