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1979 Crown Publishers Alongside Night Cover

Alongside Night
A Novel by J. Neil Schulman
Chapter 14

The wall opposite the corridor — the wall with the “laissez-faire” modified Gadsden flag — slid several feet to the left, revealing a portable staircase five steps high, enclosed by an awning that concealed what lay beyond. The somewhat muted whine of turbines filled the Terminal.

Chin jumped off the bar, walking over to the staircase. “Okay, folks, let’s get going. Pick any seats and strap yourselves in.”

With the sole exception of Jack Guerdon, who was fixing another drink, everyone began lifting belongings and lining up near the staircase. “You’re coming, Mr. Guerdon?” Lorimer asked.

“Isn’t it customary for captains to go down with their ships? Why not shipbuilders, too?” Guerdon noticed that the two youngsters did not know whether to take him seriously, so he added, “Just some last-minute business. I’ll be out of here in time enough.”

“Well, glad to have met you, sir,” said Elliot. They all shook hands and with a “Take care, now” Elliot and Lorimer joined the departing passengers.

The steps led into what appeared from the inside to be the cabin of an executive jetliner — eight rows of seats, four across with a center aisle — allowing for a somewhat cramped ceiling and no windows. Chin had been joking — there was no stewardess taking passes — so Elliot and Lorimer found two seats, the last two together, and strapped themselves in. Lorimer immediately lit a cigarette.

Chin shut the cabin door, saying, “No smoking, friends”; then, a few moments later, the turbine whine increased in volume and pitch, and Elliot felt the craft moving.

Chin came over and glared at Lorimer. She snuffed out the cigarette and muttered to Elliot, “Damned prohibitionists.”

Elliot clasped Lorimer’s hand and smiled. She smiled back. Elliot was thinking that she had the most radiant smile he had ever seen when she was no longer there and, like the Cheshire Cat, only her smile remained. For some time after that, there was nothing at all.

Someone was shaking him, only he wanted to sleep some more. He tried saying, “Leave me alone — it’s Saturday,” but he found it hard to move his mouth.

“C’mon, now, up we come.”

His mouth was now free, and he tried focusing. There was a long haired girl a little in front of him. “Denise?” he asked.

“Are you okay?” she replied.

Elliot realized he was standing, braced against a seat in front of him. He took a deep breath and felt his mind clearing, then looked up. Chin was packing up a portable oxygen kit, with Lorimer a few feet behind him. “You know, you have us quite a scare, just now,” Chin said.

“What happened?” Elliot asked.

“They gassed us,” said Lorimer.

“Who? The FBI?”

“No, the Cadre.”

Elliot looked over to Chin.

“There was a spy on board,” Chin began explaining. “A real Mata Hari. Transmitter in a cigarette lighter. There was no real danger — we’re shielded, of course — but the pilot knocked out everyone in the passenger cabin, including me, to avoid possible gun play.”

Elliot took another deep breath, then exhaled. “I’d find that much easier to swallow if I hadn’t fallen asleep in the trunk to Aurora.”

“It happens,” said Chin. “Drink anything before the trip? Anti-nausea pills?”

“Both,” Elliot admitted. “But they were given to me by a loyal Cadre ally.” He turned to Lorimer. “When you came in, did you fall asleep?”

She shook her head. “At least I don’t think so. In sensory deprivation, how can you be sure?”

Elliot scowled. “Tell your friends I didn’t like it,” he told Chin. “Next time I’ll go to the arbiters.”

Chin shrugged. “What would you sue for? This gas leaves no permanent aftereffects. No damages to demand.”

“I’ll sue for arbitrary recompense for violation of my civil liberties.”

Chin grinned widely. “Good for you. I’d be interested in the outcome myself.”

Grabbing an attache case stashed under his seat, Chin led the two into a waiting room with the other passengers already inside; it was empty except for a table and some folding chairs. There were no windows, of course. Some of the passengers were expressing, loudly, indignation equal to Elliot’s. One man with Beacon Hill written all over him was wondering “whether this ghastly gassing is usual or not.”

“I’m getting hungry again,” said Lorimer. “What time do you have?”

“Eh?” Elliot checked his watch. “Ten to six,” he replied absentmindedly — then a thought took hold, and he felt as if he should hit himself. “Lor, what time did we leave Aurora?”

“Don’t know,” she answered, tapping her bare wrist.

Elliot began calculating time lapses. “We returned to the Cadre complex just before two — I checked — and … how long would you say we made love?”

“I wasn’t watching the clock,” she said drolly.

“Be serious. Forty-five minutes? An hour?”

“If you must measure,” Lorimer said, “then closer to an hour and a half.

“That brings us somewhere close to three thirty. How long was I out, just now?”

“No more than five minutes after everyone else?”

“Right. Then maximum possible travel time was about forty-five minutes — assuming my watch wasn’t tampered with, which I can check as soon as we hit the streets.”

“Fine,” said Lorimer. “What does all this have to do with the price of congressmen?”

“It puts Aurora within four hundred miles of New York, assuming we were knocked out to prevent us from feeling the unmistakable accelerations of a jet. Far closer if we were in a hydroplane, a submarine, or the intermodal containers they switch from trucks to trains to freighters.”

“Thank you, ‘Joe.’ Care for a banana?”

Elliot groaned, regretting his alias: Hello, Joe — Whadd’ya Know? “Television,” he muttered.

A few minutes later, Elliot and Lorimer were seated facing Chin, whose attache case was open on the table in front of him with a minicomputer inside. “You’re returning to Manhattan?” Chin asked Elliot.

Elliot looked to Lorimer. “It doesn’t matter where I am,” she said, “as long as I’m not caught.”

“Manhattan,” Elliot agreed.

“Got a safe house?”

“A what?”

“A place to hide out,” Lorimer explained.

“Oh,” said Elliot. “I have a standing invitation with allies but I doubt if it extends to two. I figured we’d take a room somewhere — probably in the Village.”

Chin took out a pad of paper and began to scribble. “Check this place out first. Not fancy, but comfortable. Weekly rates. The owners aren’t formal allies, but they’re countereconomic. They won’t ask nosy questions.”

“Will they take gold or eurofrancs?”

“If you approach it right. You don’t look like goldfingers.”

“I’ll be needing to make some other countereconomic contacts.”

“I was coming to that.” Chin wrote on a second piece of paper. “Here’s a phone number to call the Cadre — good for another week. Call only from a nonvideo pay phone. A recorder will answer. Give your identification code, the pay phone’s number, then hang up. If you don’t get a callback within two minutes, get lost — fast. If the callback comes but the person at the other end doesn’t address you by name, then it’s a trap, and there’ll be a police wagon along as soon as they’ve located your phone.”

“Why the restriction to calling from a pay phone?”

“If police capture our relay station, they can hold on to the connection from the other end whether you hang up or not — then trace it. Got all that?”

Elliot repeated it back with one minor error, and was corrected. “What if I have to contact the Cadre after the week is up?”

“Use this number at least once before it is up,” replied Chin. “Once you’re identified, you’ll be cleared for monthly phone numbers, contact points, mail drops, bannering codes –”

“Hold up,” Elliot interrupted. “Bannering codes?”

“You don’t know?” Chin asked.

Elliot shook his head, mystified.

“I thought you already knew because you’re wearing the ring.”

Tumblers clicked. The engine turned over. Queen takes pawn, Mate. “A Christmas present.”

“Oh,” said Chin. “A banner is an inconspicuous signal that allies use to flag one another during face-to-face contact. It’s useful only at street level where the sheer number of transactions makes heavy police infiltration improbable. If you want further confirmation, the two of you can head off to a pay phone for a conference call to the Cadre, call in each of your identification codes, and have the Cadre return your confirmed names.”

“I take it the current banner is a ring-twirling code?”

“That’s right, based on Morse Code. But I thought you didn’t –”

Elliot interrupted: “I saw it used twice in the same day. Once by a tzigane driver and once by . . . someone else.”

After pulling a hologram data cartridge out of his computer, sticking it into a pocket for safekeeping, Chin led Elliot, Lorimer, and two other couples out to a windowless garage in which were parked half a dozen panel trucks painted like commercial delivery vans. The van to which they were taken read “Hot Bialys” on the side. “A gambling joint or a nightclub?” Lorimer asked Elliot.

“You aren’t a New Yorker, are you?”

She shrugged. “Sounds like someone in a Damon Runyon story.”

Inside the van were two side couches facing across, seatbelts for three on each side. There was a steel partition between the rear and the driver’s compartment — in the back, again, no windows.

After a last “laissez-faire” to Chin, the six climbed into the truck and fastened their belts. Elliot found himself with Lorimer on his left and a plump, fiftyish woman with frosted hair on his right. With his coat on — for it was chilly — he felt like a slice of turkey sandwiched between two slices of bread — one wheat, the other rye.

It did not help that after Chin had slammed the doors — a heavy, metallic whoomph making ears pop — it now sounded as if they were in a recording studio. Elliot tried knocking on the sides to produce an echo; all he got for his troubles was sore knuckles: the space was absolutely dead. The situation did not improve when the van started moving; he felt changes in momentum but little vibration and no road noise — not even the comforting whine of turbines.

The bleached-blonde woman across from Elliot — middle twenties — tried starting a conversation with her male companion, an emaciated chain smoker whom Eliot thought tubercular, but the acoustics inhibited not only sound but conversation as well. Lorimer also lit up immediately. The hour in transit was spent in smoky, but silent, meditation — transcendental or otherwise.

When the van came to a halt, a gravely voice came back through an intercom: “Last stop. Get ready to leave when I give you the word.” Everyone unstrapped, lifting luggage onto their knees; Lorimer slung her travel bag over her shoulder. Elliot noticed a wire — running from the door forward to the driver compartment — suddenly tighten. “Ready … ready … go!

With a muffled crack, the van’s double doors swung open into the frosty night air. They were behind the Pan Am Building and Grand Central Station; Forty-fifth Street was deserted. Lorimer jumped out, followed immediately by Elliot and the Smokers Anonymous advertisement, the two young men helping the remaining three passengers out while Lorimer kept watch.

As soon as the Grande Dame’s feet were on solid ground, the van sped off around the corner, its double doors swinging shut as it turned. None of the passengers had even glimpsed the driver.

Leaving Elliot and Lorimer with only another “laissez-faire,” the two other couples started post-haste to the front of Grand Central Station; Chin had mentioned that tzigane cabs were lining up during the strike without police interference. “Think we ought to phone the rooming house?” Elliot asked Lorimer.

“Probably a good idea, but I wouldn’t mind eating first. Anyplace good around here?”

“Best choices are over on Fifth Avenue or down in the Village. Which way?”

“Fifth Avenue,” Lorimer said. “I’ve never been there on Saturday night. I hear it’s a real witches’ Sabbath.”

Elliot pondered this a moment.

“That’s almost adequate,” he said.


Next in Alongside Night is Chapter XV.

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

Now in production: Alongside Night. Look for it in 2013!

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