Blink of An Eye

by Anthony Rain


......It was snowing and the wind blowing up from Riverside Park was making the flurries do a danse macabre across the width of West End Avenue. I was outside Harold Brooks' one bedroom apartment on West 80th Street, and my plan was to get some information out of the super, who was putting the week's garbage out front.

......He was a short dark-haired man who seemed stressed, with a worried look etched on his face. I wasn't sure if it was the weather that had soured his disposition.

......"Excuse me. I was wondering if you could give me some information on the apartments for rent?" I pointed to the sign above the awning advertising one and two bedroom apartments. He stopped and wiped the snow off his coat sleeves with work gloves that were grimy. He leaned on the toes of his feet, like a scared animal ready to flee.

......"You have to speak to the managing agent about them. I can't show them, only him." The super said it like he had been warned.

......"That's fine with me. By the way, my friend Harry lives here. He's the one who mentioned that there were places to rent."

......"Harry Brooks in 3A?" His countenance lightened.

......"Yeah. I was wondering if the vacancies faced the street, or the rear?"

......"Only A and B apartments face West End, like Mr. Brooks'. The ones for rent are C's and D's and they face the rear. Like I said though, you have to call the managing agent."

......"Sure. Hey, would you happen to know if Harry and his girlfriend are home right now?"

......The man looked at me with dirt brown eyes that shifted gradually from my face to the ground, like a mudslide gaining momentum. "I haven't seen Mr. Brooks today. I wouldn't know about a girlfriend." He bent back down to the garbage. The worried look returned, like his face muscles had it memorized.
I thanked him and walked away. So, it was possible Janet Brooks was mistaken about her husband, her soon-to-be ex-husband, that is. Sitting across from me in my office the day before, she had seemed so certain that her husband was cheating on her. She was a strong-minded woman who wore her convictions hard and bright, like a diamond, but maybe she had lost the truth in the glare of her collapsing marriage.

......Janet wanted me to collect evidence of adultery, and then her lawyers would slap Harold Brooks in the face with it. No-fault divorce may have hurt PI's in some ways, but there were always people, like Janet, who wanted leverage for their support proceedings, or who just wanted revenge. I wasn't quite sure which she was after, but she was willing to pay me to get it.

......I walked away from Harold's building stopping midpoint up the block, my steps silent on the white powder. If the super knew nothing about a girlfriend, it could mean Brooks was being careful, or maybe Brooks had paid him to be quiet.

......In any case, I'd found out what I wanted to know -- that I could see Brooks' apartment from the street. I looked up to the third floor. Both corner apartments were dark.

......I waited a few hours, keeping watch on the building. The snow had stopped falling. I saw nannies walk by holding hands with their bundled up charges, and later, men and women come home from work. I saw streetlights flicker on and dogs come out with their owners for an evening walk. By the time I left, heading for the subway on Broadway and 79th Street, I hadn't seen Brooks.

......The following day, I went to the apartment again in the afternoon and stationed myself a few doors down from a New York Sports Club facility. At twilight, the long shadows of the apartment houses stretched out. I watched a blood-orange sun sink behind Riverside Park. Then the shadows vanished and were replaced by thousands of lights.

......Brooks came walking down the block at roughly seven. He was about my height, six foot, and was wearing a suit and tie and overcoat. A few minutes after he went in, lights came on in the north apartment. Eventually Brooks passed by the living room window. He was talking on the phone and had a drink in his right hand. He was smiling.

......Two hours passed, the lights in the apartment were turned off and Brooks came back outside. He was dressed casual in tan chinos and a black cashmere coat and he carried a backpack. He seemed relaxed and I could hear him whistling. If the divorce--or anything else, for that matter--was bothering him, he didn't show it. He walked erect and cut through the night chill with squared shoulders.
There were no cabs on West End, so he walked over to Broadway and hailed one going downtown. I jumped into a cab behind him and told the driver to follow Brooks' taxi. The driver looked at me through the rear view mirror with hooded eyes under a green wool watch hat.

......I handed him a twenty to lessen his reluctance and told him not to lose the cab. He took off and didn't speak for the remainder of the ride, and he drove with the precision of a surgeon. Indian music played from the radio.

......I watched restaurants and bars fly by, too many to count, crowds of people dressed up or casual, moving en masse like a giant wave seeking the shore at night's tide. Overhead, the tall massive buildings made everything else seem so vulnerable and fragile.

......Brooks got out on Sixth Avenue. The streets were filled with NYU students and the usual downtown bridge and tunnel crowds juiced up for Friday night action. He walked a few blocks over to a jazz supper club on Grove Street, where he greeted a young redhead seated at a table under soft lights and next to the window. The lights and her aloneness made her stand out, like a rare jewel. Brooks and his sweet young thing didn't kiss hello, which seemed strange. She looked to be in her early twenties, and she couldn't have been more unlike Janet Brooks. Janet had been the quintessential uptown, Junior Leaguer, perfectly turned out even when her marriage was falling apart. This one was bohemian looking, black turtleneck and funky black glasses, with turquoise earrings pointing down to her thin shoulders. She raised a Cosmopolitan to full lips covered with a glossy brown lipstick.

......I stationed myself diagonally across the street and snapped a few pictures with my .35mm. The camera was beat-up, but using black and white film and a Kodak infrared filter, it still took good night pictures. A tourist couple walked by, and seeing me taking photos, they decided to ask me to take one of them with their disposable. I told them no and walked away from their shocked faces. Someone had to keep up the New York bad ass attitude.

......I put my camera away and went into the restaurant. I asked the hostess for a table close to the bar, which was behind and diagonal from Brooks. The restaurant was painted in warm yellows and burgundy, with lots of drapery and a hip looking wait staff. I asked how the steak was and the waiter said "fabulous." So I ordered a "fabulous" steak, well done, and a "fabulous" glass of Merlot.
Across the restaurant, Brooks took a folded piece of paper out of his backpack, and he and the woman consulted it while Brooks spoke. He had a strong chin, but the overhead lights revealed a soft, feminine mouth. She looked up occasionally and touched her hair a couple of times, but kept her blue eyes on the paper. They seemed more like teacher and pupil than lovers.

......When waiters brought plates of food over, Brooks put the paper away and they ate dinner. A jazz ensemble had finished setting up and started playing a Mingus cover called Cryin' Blues. The jazz and the Merlot were mellowing me out. Brooks and the redhead were just beginning to eat, so I focused my attention on the band. If I could've been something else, I would have been a musician. As it was, I stuck to being a PI, which was fortunate for me. My musical talent was all in my ear.

......Two hours later, Brooks and the redhead finished their meal, and the band was taking a breather at the bar, knocking back a few and smoking. Brooks tossed some cash on the table, the redhead picked up her own black leather backpack from the floor, and they split. I did likewise.

......When they were outside, I snapped a few more photos from a discreet distance. Janet Brooks and her lawyer wouldn't be able to do much with them. Walking down the street with another woman was hardly evidence of an affair. I needed to see some French kissing, some butt grabbing. But it wasn't happening. With any luck, though, they'd go back to his place and heat up the sheets. He would let loose his fantasies and she her tempered passion, and his lawyers wouldn't stand a chance.

......My two subjects crossed Sixth Avenue and walked over to St. Mark's Place, where they went into a Barnes and Noble. I followed them inside and saw them both head towards the restrooms. No point in following them in there. I went back outside and waited. By now it was 11:30.

......A half-hour later, I saw a female police officer come out of the store and stand in front. Since I was looking that way watching for Brooks and the woman, I gave the cop a once-over and then recognized the features under the cap bill. It was the redhead, minus the black glasses. I checked her uniform and badge with my zoom lens, and though the uniform was authentic, the badge was bogus. She didn't have precinct numbers on her collar points either, and her belt only held a gun. Five minutes later, Brooks came out also dressed as a police officer. I snapped another photo and followed them.

......They walked south on Sixth Avenue at a leisurely pace, looking like any other patrol. At Spring Street, they turned left and headed east into Soho. I knew the area well.

......Brooks and the redhead crossed West Broadway and stopped at an alleyway gate halfway up the avenue. I watched them unlock the gate and go through.

......I waited, unsure what to do. Uneasiness settled into my bones and snaked its way through the marrow, coming out by my throat and coiling tight, making it hard to breathe. Above me, a thin and vaporous half-moon dissolved into the evening sky.

......After ten minutes, I could detect a flashlight beam in the Brickman Gallery, a high-end art place to the left of the alley. I crossed West Broadway and tried the gate. They had left the lock open, and I passed through, making sure to lock it behind me.

......I cautiously tried the back door to the gallery and it was open, too. I went in and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. I was standing in a small back office, desks and filing cabinets around me. A security guard was lying on the floor by one of the desks, with heavy black tape over his mouth and eyes. He had more heavy tape binding his wrists behind his back. He smelled slightly of alcohol and I figured that Brooks had interrupted his good time. He was unconscious, and his breathing was labored.

......Brooks had probably whacked him over the head, for good measure. I undid his hands and brought his arms forward and removed the mouth tape, all quietly, to make sure he could breathe more comfortably.

......Standing back up, a security box was immediately to my right. Someone had unscrewed the cover and I could see the wires were covered in ice. My guess was that Brooks had used liquid nitrogen to disable the alarm.

......I walked through the entryway into the next room, which was a gallery space. In the darkness, I could faintly make out paintings on the walls, a funky paper collage hanging from the ceiling, which looked like a mutated spider in the dark. Several standing sculptures completed the room. There was an opening into another, smaller room, which faced the street.

......Near the right wall were two standing figures. I could hear a knife cutting against stiff material. I saw a light switch to my left. I took out my gun, raised it, and threw the light switch.

......Brooks had a knife in his right hand and a dangling canvas in his left. His eyes registered surprise for an instant, then settled down. One of the overhead lights reflected off his fake badge.

......"Let me guess," I said. "You saw it and you just had to have it."

......A large grin crossed his face. He held up the stiff canvas covered in a mass of colors and textures. "I'm taking this for an interested gentleman."

......"We're in a gallery. Why doesn't he do it the old-fashioned way, come in and buy it?"

......"This one's not for sale. It's a loan from the Museum of Modern Art. Hence the security guard you passed on your way in. You can buy the rest, but the bulk of them are shit. This one is the real deal." He unfolded it and looked at it, like he had to reassure himself. "At least, that's what the buyer says. I'm really just filling the order."

......I focused my eyes upon the woman. She didn't seem like a jewel now, more like a paste diamond. "I know who he is, but who are you?" She didn't respond, so I looked over at Brooks.

......"She's my protegee," he said. "How did you find out about this, and who the hell are you?" He seemed curious, more like a child trying to figure out a puzzle than a man about to face felony charges.
"The name is Beckett. I'm a PI hired by your wife. She thinks you're having an affair. It would have been better for you, if you had been balling this chick."

......"Fuck you," said the redhead. She pointed the knife she was holding at my face. Her blue bloodless eyes told me she could cut me as easily as she helped cut away the canvass. Woven cloth, or tendon and muscle, it was a flip of the coin for her.

......"She's easily offended," said Brooks, "and sometimes a hothead. Besides, we're professionals." He grinned in a relaxed manner, though his shoulders were bunched up with tension.

......"You're a pro, all right," I said. "Dummy keys, cop uniforms to fool the security guard, the liquid nitrogen. You the man, Brooks. Unfortunately, your bad luck was having me on your ass. I want you and the protégée to put the knives and the canvas down, slowly. Take out your guns with the thumb and forefinger of your left hands. Do that slowly, too."

......"Are you punching a clock? Hold on. I'm willing to split this three ways. That's sixty grand for you. I'm meeting the buyer in an hour. Some German dot com guy with way too much money." He glanced at the girl who didn't react, then back at me. "Sixty grand, man." He gave me a wide frat boy smile.

......Unluckily for him, I didn't have a frat boy's sensibility. Since I'd become a private eye, I'd never stolen or killed for hire. If shit happened, it happened. Sometimes it even helped me out. But I wouldn't knowingly help it along. I shook my head.

......He made a face and then a clumsy move to his gun with his right hand. Reflex took over and I pulled off two quick shots, which struck Brooks square in the chest. He dropped his Glock and fell face first to the floor.

......While I was pumping two into Brooks, the redhead took the opportunity to run into the next room. I ran after her. She was trying to break open the front door, then quickly turned and took several shots at me, missing wide to the left and hitting a piece of sculpture. It was obvious she had never fired a gun before. I moved slightly to the right and fired twice, hitting her first in the gun hand and second in the upper arm. She yelled and dropped the gun. Her arm wound was probably superficial, but she slumped to the floor anyway.

......I picked up the Glock and pulled her away from the door, dragging her by her gun belt. Her wounds were not life threatening. I was more concerned about Brooks. I took out a pair of cuffs that I always carry as a precaution and cuffed her hands behind her back and went into the main room.
Brooks' body was gone.

......I put the girl's gun down on a table and looked at the floor. There was no blood, but I saw a flattened bullet head. The sonofabitch had been wearing a bulletproof vest.

......I raced out to the alleyway and saw Brooks trying to climb the chain link fence. He must have been surprised to find I locked the gate and then couldn't find the key in his panic.

......"Brooks, get down or I'm going to shoot you in your sorry ass."

......He looked over his left shoulder and grinned. He climbed back down, and dropped gently to the ground.

......"I guess the warden won't have to worry about you making a break over the top."

He took his police cap off and ran his fingers through his hair. "I swore I would never eat pork butt and macaroni and cheese again."

......"Sounds like you're speaking from experience, Harold."

......He nodded. "I did state time when I was twenty-five. Five years for robbing houses in Coral Gables. They sent me to Marianna. I was in with a bunch of morons and psychopaths."

......"It's not supposed to be Club Med. How long did you stay straight?"

......"Totally straight? Six years. I studied computers and started my own business. What can I say? I'm not the kind of guy who does well with routine. Life got predictable. Doing heists again was the only way for me to juice it up. And it paid well. Janet knows nothing about any of this."

......I found myself liking Brooks. There was something about his disregard for the norm that I empathized with. I became a PI for almost the same reasons. The chase juiced me up, and while I upheld the laws of society, I remained on the sidelines looking in.

......"Listen, forget the girl," he said. "I'll split this two ways. You and me. That's ninety grand. Come on." I saw a trapped energy in his eyes shining out at me. His voice was edged with desperation.

......"No can do. So let's just drop it, Brooks. Take your gun out and place it on the ground. And no stunts this time."

......The light faded from his eyes and he started to get the Glock out of his holster. Behind me I heard a sound. At first, I thought the girl had managed to make it to her feet and come outside. Then, three shots registered and I felt the bullets breeze past my left ear. I saw Brooks take hits to the shoulder and the head. He grunted, buckled and fell to the ground. I turned and looked. The security guard was standing there, his right hand holding onto the doorframe, his left holding the redhead's Glock that I had left inside. He still had tape stuck to his chin.

......"The son of a bitch was drawing on you chief."

......I went over to Brooks and felt for a pulse under his jaw. I didn't expect to find one. His skin was still warm, but there was no subtle thumping coming from the artery. His head was a mess.

......I walked back to the guard and took the Glock away from him carefully with the sleeve of my shirt, so I didn't mar the prints. The alcohol smell was still on him.

......He walked over to the body and then back to me. "He was drawing on you, right? I saw it."
I took out my cell phone and dialed 911. After the police arrived and after I gave them my statement at the precinct, I would go over to Janet Brooks' apartment and tell her the bad news, much as I didn't want to. There was no telling how she would react.

......It was getting colder now and the night sky was thick with clouds. I was pretty sure it would start snowing soon. I hoped it would be a big fall, a couple of feet at least. I went back inside the gallery.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Anthony Rain

Anthony Rain lives in New York City. He has previously published with EWG Presents: Without A Clue and with Plots With Guns. He is currently working on his first mystery novel.

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