Thursday, February 28, 2008

Book Excerpt #1

From Paranoid
The Bloomingdale’s Sequence

She woke up in the morning, knowing she needed a plan. There were two Secret Service agents posted in front of her building. That was the team she knew about. It was more than enough coverage under normal circumstances. But she was their best link to Tom, now. She would lead them to him, or they would be ready to pounce when he found her. Either way, they couldn’t afford to be short-handed. That meant there was going be at least one other team, maybe two or three other teams, involved with her surveillance today.
She had to find a way to lose them.
But that was Tom’s department, not hers. She walked over to the living room window and looked down at the street. They were there. She considered the short list of alternatives. She couldn’t out-run them, that was for sure. She couldn’t fight her way past them. Even threatening them with a gun would be foolish -- they would surely know how to disarm a nervous twenty-two year old girl. No, she had to out-think them somehow.
Something Jake said came back to her -- that business about going to ground on your home turf. Someplace you were comfortable and they weren’t, where you knew the lay of the land and they didn’t. At the time she hadn’t been able to think of any such location ... except perhaps her home town in Vermont -- especially her old high school. Now, if she could just lure the Secret Service up to Bennington! She knew all the ins and out of that old building better than anyone. She had sneaked around to make out and smoke cigarettes in hidden store rooms and abandoned stairways for years.
But there was no building on the NYU campus she knew that well.
It was kind of sad and weird to realize this, but she’d probably spent more time in Bloomingdale’s, between shopping and working there part time, than she had in any of the NYU buildings where she’d been getting her education. Of course, Bloomingdale’s was a kind of education itself: a virtual symposium in the reality of capitalist economics, human relations and stress management. Not to mention critical things like which designers got the biggest mark-ups. Her lips were sealed on that one -- but she was sticking with Donna Karan.
She wondered if Bonnie Traynor was still the third floor manager (She had been hoping for a promotion); if her gay friend Raoul was still giving our perfume samples in cosmetics on the main floor.
She had quit just before Christmas and she knew Bonnie had felt abandoned. She had felt a little lost herself. The place had become a kind of second home to her over the last couple of years and --
But that was it.
If any place in the city was home turf, it had to be Bloomingdale’s. It was perfect: all she had to do was lose some guys in a Department store. Men were sure to be clueless there, anyway. They sort of went into zombie-mode, waiting for their wives to do whatever it was that women did in such places, instantly exhausted and miserable. Her Dad even had a word for it -- “Department Store Foot.” It was real. His feet would start aching after as little as fifteen minutes. All men suffered from it -- that’s why there were chairs and couches near the changing rooms. She smiled to herself -- if you thought American soldiers seemed lost in the Vietnamese jungle, wait until you saw the Secret Service stumbling through the Bloomingdale’s lingerie department!
She felt a rush of new energy.
This might even be fun.

She showered and dressed, had a dry handful of grape nuts and a glass of water. Then she went downstairs to greet the Secret Service. She saw them from the lobby -- One at the curb, leaning down to talk to the other, behind the wheel of a Chevy Nova parked in front of a fire hydrant. She shrugged -- they didn’t really need to be inconspicuous any more.
She stepped outside into the cool bright sunshine, crossed the pavement and tapped the agent on the shoulder.
“Hi,” she said. “How are you? Beautiful day, isn’t it? Listen ...I have some shopping to do, and I’m heading uptown. I thought, you know -- since you were going to be following me anyway? Maybe you could just give me a lift. Would that be okay?”
He stared at her and she gave him her most flirtatious smile.
“It would save me a cab fare. And we could get to know each other a little.”
“Uh, sure, I guess so. Let me just call it in.”
On the ride uptown she found out that his name was Tim Evarts. The driver was named Mike Dalnegro. Mike was new on the job; Tim was breaking him in, “Showing him the ropes,” as Tim put it.
Amy squinted at him. “I’ve never understood that phrase,” she said. “What are these ropes, exactly? And why does he have to be shown? Can’t he see them for himself? Is there something special about them? Are they like ... trick ropes, or something?”
Tim was non-plussed. “Uh ... I’m not sure, Ma’am.”
“Call me Amy. I’m younger than you are.”
“Okay ... Amy.”
“But I’m serious -- I mean ... how much rope do you actually use in the course of a given day?”
“Uhh ...none.”
“That’s what I’m saying. It’s bizarre. We use these phrases all the time and we have no idea what we’re saying.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Like -- dog eat dog. What is that about? Have you ever seen a dog eating another dog? My dog wouldn’t even eat kibble.”
“I know what you mean. ‘A tough road to hoe’ I never got that one.”
She laughed. “But that one’s easy -- it’s a tough row -- like in a garden, when you’re planting seeds. A hoe is a tool -- you sort of chop the ground with it. If the soil is rocky that would be a tough row to hoe.” She patted his knee. “Guess you haven’t spent much time in the country, Tim.”
“No, Ma’am.”
She gave up after that. Whatever else they had been trained for, these guys had never learned how to keep up their end of a conversation. Which was actually just as well -- she needed a little silence now, to think about her tactics.
They parked in front of another hydrant.
“Can you do that any time you want?“ Amy asked. “Because it would be worth joining the Secret Service just for that.”
“This is official government business, Ma’am.”
It was hopeless; but she wouldn’t be saddled with these stiffs much longer. As soon as she walked into the mirrored ground floor of Bloomingdale’s, with its perfumed air, muted clatter and dinging elevators, she began to feel good. This was possible. Raoul was at his old post, dispensing puffs of Obsession. Amy broke free from her escort to give the tall, impeccably dressed queer a hug. He liked the word queer; he said it described him perfectly. And he was odd, there was no doubt about it, one of those intensely affected homosexuals who seemed to be pickled in their own lisping precision. Then there were the body piercings and the tattoos, but Amy didn’t need to dwell on that stuff right now. She threw her arms around him and said quickly, into his ear, “Raoul, you may have to help me lose the two suits behind me.”
“Good to see you, too, sweetie.”
“Sorry, how are you?”
“Same as ever. Dispensing Obsession -- isn’t that perfect? I’m the poster boy.”
“Speaking of Obsession -- how’s Claude?”
“He got a restraining order last week.” Raoul sighed dramatically. “I just don’t know what to make of that.”
“Well, my guess is ... the first flush of romance is over.”
“Don’t be so negative -- I think he’s playing hard to get.”
“Yeah -- but you think pepper spray is a form of flirtation.”
Raoul laughed and held her shoulders to study her affectionately at arm’s length. “Oh, Amy,” he said. “You always call me on my bullshit. Why couldn’t you be a man? Oh, well -- with my luck, you’d be straight.”
She stepped back, took his hands and squeezed them.
“Maybe I’ll see you later,” she said.
“Be sure to stop in and see that cute little Billy in shipping. Remember him? The one you wouldn’t kiss under the mistletoe at the Christmas party? You said it was ‘used up’ and he believed you. I just loved that. Stupidity is so cute.”
She squeezed his hands once more and then she was moving past him towards the lingerie department.
“I’m buying some bras,” she said to Tim when he had jogged into place beside her. “You should get something nice for your wife -- or girlfriend, whatever.”
“Uh, I don’t think -- “
“I’ll have them put it on my charge, no problem. Shelley can help you.”
She had a bad moment, thinking Shelley wasn’t working, but then she saw the tall blond walking away from one of the fitting rooms. There was no one in the world better qualified to distract, stall and befuddle two strait-laced civil servants.
‘Strait-laced,’ she thought -- that’s another one. What the hell does ‘strait-laced’ mean? What are they lacing up? And what kind of person does it crooked? Her kind of person, she was willing to bet.
She caught Shelley’s eye and broke away from the two Secret Service agents.
“Amy,” she said.
“Shelley, hi.”
“Look at you! You are such a celebrity. Complete with Secret Service hunks. Just like it said in People Magazine. “Not that I read People Magazine -- but ... you know. When there’s someone you know, not that I even recognized you, you looked so weird in those pictures. Didn’t you have any control over that?”
“Not really, no. Listen, Shelley, I need to get rid of those Secret Service ... hunks. Show them some lingerie. Distract them.”
“You’re not in trouble are you?”
“Not yet.”
“Amy, I don’t know -- “
“Please. It’s for a good cause. And I’ll owe you one.”
“You already owe me, like -- twelve or something.”
Amy grabbed some bras and started for the changing rooms. The Secret Service guys were actually kind of hunky. Especially Tim. That might be enough for Shelley.
And it was. She turned to them and said, “Amy tells me you’re picking out bras for that special someone in your life. And you look like you could use some help.”
“Well,” Tim began.
“Are we talking about a wife or a girlfriend?”
“Uh, she’s my wife, but I --”
“What size is she? Would you say roughly ... my size?”
She arched her back; Tim looked down but she had Mike’s full attention. She handed each of them a filmy undergarment, smiling as they blushed. “Doesn’t that feel nice. Soft but sort of ... electric.”
“It’s -- I --”
“So ... is your wife a little smaller than me? I’m actually a little smaller, too. But I’m wearing the wonder bra. Do you know about the wonder bra?” She eased them behind a corner display of slips and nightgowns. “It sort of lifts and defines, but not in any obvious way ... it’s more like ... I don't know. I can’t describe it. Let me show you. I’m wearing one now.”
By the time she had the third button undone, Amy was long gone, sprinting for the street.
For one lovely moment she thought it was over; But, it was just as she had suspected -- there was another team waiting for her on Lexington Avenue.
She spun around in front of the revolving door and dashed back towards the escalators. She didn’t look back but she could hear them behind her, grunting and excusing themselves past shoppers and clerks. She looked around for Raoul, but she had come out on the opposite side of the cosmetics department. She reached the escalator and took the moving stairs two at a time until she was stopped by a clot of people. She edged past them as the Secret Service guys started up behind her.
“What’s your rush?”
“Kids today!”
“In a hurry -- going nowhere.”
She left the disapproving chorus behind. The next flight was clear. She needed to reach the dressing rooms near the DKNY section before the agents caught up with her. She grabbed a dress at random and slipped into the changing area just as they came in sight, bobbing their heads above the racks of clothes like dogs in high grass.
Amy caught her breath. The chase had winded her.
She hung the dress -- it really was awful, it had tassels -- on a hook in one of the cubicles. She was okay, they wouldn’t follow her in here. And this changing area was special: around the corner of the short, L-shaped corridor there was an employee-only security door. It led to the workers’ lounge and the freight elevators. It was supposed to be locked but most of the time it wasn’t.
She jiggled the handle for a few seconds, but it didn’t budge. Just her luck -- today of all days someone decided to follow the rules.
She was trapped here. Unless ...
She walked back out onto the floor and asked the salesgirl to help her. The Secret Service guys were there. One of them was talking into a cell phone.
Who was he talking to? How many more of them were there?
She got the girl into the dressing room hallway.
“The door back there leads to the lounge. You have a key. Open it.”
“Excuse me?”
“I need to get into the staff lounge and the door is locked.”
“Customers aren’t permitted in that area. That’s an employee only area.”
“I know that. I worked here for two years.” She grabbed the girl by the bicep and squeezed hard. “Just open it.”
“I’m sorry -- I’d have to talk to my supervisor -- “
“I have a gun. Don't make me use it.”
The girl’s eyes widened. Amy stared her down thinking it would probably be a good idea to actually have a gun at a moment like this. But the girl believed her. She unlocked the door. Before Amy let her go she said. “Don’t say a word to anyone. Or I’ll come back for you.”
The girl was on the verge of tears.
“I hate New York,” she blurted. “Everyone says ‘I love New York.’ Well, I hate it! People pretend stuff like this doesn’t happen but it does.”
Amy felt bad. “Sorry. I just needed the door unlocked. I don't really have a gun, if that makes you feel any better.”
“It makes me feel worse! I believe any crazy girl who says she has a gun! How am I supposed to survive here? I’m going back to Mahwah.”
Amy had lived in the city long enough to have developed a native contempt for New Jersey, with its smelly refineries, monotonous tract subdivisions and its blighted suburban mall mentality. But for the moment she kept her opinions to herself.
She gave the distraught girl a quick hug. “Maybe you should do that,” she said gently, then slipped through the door and away.
She ran down the corridor toward the freight elevators, but she could see that neither one was on this floor. She didn’t have time to wait. She burst through the door to the fire stairs and leapt down them. She got to street level, tore down a couple of right angled halls and ran out onto the loading docks.
She saw the pair of Secret Service guys -- of course they would be covering all the exits -- and Billy the shipping clerk at the same moment. Billy ... what was his last name? Raoul would know. Hardesty, that was it.
“Well, Billy Hardesty.” she said, walking up to him.
“Uh -- wow! Amy! I -- uh -- hi, how are you?”
“I’m a little rushed right now.”
“Too bad you missed the Christmas party this year -- I got some real fresh mistletoe. Hardly used at all -- the florist swore up and down on it.”
“I hope it worked.”
He gave her a thumbs up. Oh, well ... if he was really bright he’d probably have been doing something else by now. She moved a little closer to him and spoke softly.
“See those two guys coming toward us?”
“Uh -- what? Yeah ... I guess ... but --”
“If you help me get away from them, you won’t need that mistletoe.”
“Really? You mean it? Cool.”
“Thanks, Billy.”
“You go. I’ll handle them.”
She turned back inside, but paused to watch. The Secret Service guys were climbing onto the loading dock.
“Here fellas-- gimme a hand.”
Billy grabbed a big box and heaved it at one of the agents; before he could respond, Billy had slung another box at his partner. They were heavy boxes. Billy was strong. The impact knocked them off balance.
“Hey! Sorry!” Billy called out. He ran between them and seemed to lose his own balance. He tripped them up and as they fell his own arms flailed for a second; then his fists connected and they sagged to the pavement.
“Whoops! I think I knocked them out.”
Amy had come back outside. She was right behind him.
“Thanks, Billy,” she said, and when he turned around she went on her tiptoes to kiss him on the lips. She lingered for a moment, and moved back down a step, smiling up at him. “I’ve owed you that one for a long time.”
He stood there stunned with delight, but before he could think of an answer, she was gone.
Amy slipped back through another door near the pay telephones and moved at normal browsing speed through the store. For the moment she was in the clear. The trick was not to call attention to herself by rushing or pushing past people. This wasn’t a sale day at Filene’s -- it was an ordinary shopping day at Bloomingdale’s. No one was in a hurry. She was just one woman among hundreds-- it was perfect camouflage if she could control her need to run.
She was a few yards from Raoul’s position, almost at the doors, when he saw her and waved and called out “Amy!” to get her attention. That was all Tim Evarts and Mike Dalnegro needed. They had been quartering the store desperately -- they had grabbed three different women who looked like Amy and then released them with gruff apologies.
Team #2 was checking the third floor dressing rooms.
Team #3 had gone off the air. A team never went off the air, it made no sense. Tim knew he should check with team #2 and get them downstairs for back-up, but there was no time, Amy was on the move, almost at the street and anyway he could handle the situation alone. She had tricked them once but it hadn’t done her any good and it wasn’t going to happen again.
Amy slammed into Raoul so hard she almost knocked him over.
“Remember why they almost fired you last year?” she asked him.
“Well, of course I do. It was a moment of pure spontaneity. I have no regrets.“
“Well, have another moment, Raoul -- I have to stop these guys.“
“I’ll be fired for sure this time.”
“Good. You were talking about quitting this job a year ago. Take some time, get your modeling portfolio together. This is fate.” She knew he liked the idea of fate. The thought of life as a chain of meaningless coincidences demoralized him.
Mike and Tim were almost upon them. They had pushed some guy who pushed back. They had to badge him before they could move on. Raoul followed her eyes, saw the two big men shouldering their way through the last of the crowd. In a few seconds they’d be on open floor.
“You run along, sweetheart,” Raoul said. “I’ll take care of it.”
She squeezed his arm once and then dashed for the front doors.
Raoul blocked the path of the two Secret Service agents.
“Care to try Calvin Klein’s Obsession?” he asked sweetly.
Then he sprayed the perfume in their faces.
As he had learned the year before, it didn’t work as well as pepper spray and it didn’t work as well as mace.
But it worked well enough for him.
The men were on their knees, screaming and clawing at their eyes. Raoul bent down in a flurry of apologies. Another pair of agents who had been upstairs were bounding off the escalators toward the front doors. They veered towards their injured comrades as Amy pushed into the street.
Raoul felt a thrill of victory as he watched her vanish into the crowds on Lexington Avenue. He didn’t know exactly who these men were, but they looked like government men, with the short hair and gray suits and military demeanor that he had always hated. When America finally decided to round up all the fags, he was sure it would be one of these guys, formal and polite -- but with a gun in his hand -- who would come to his door.
Good luck, sweetheart, he thought as they hustled him away. You run like hell.
And thank God you wore flats.

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