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SMOKE

BY

DONALD E WESTLAKE

© 1995 by Donald Westlake.

This is for Knox Burger and Kitty Sprague, with affection, admiration, and gratitude

1

Freddie was a liar. Freddie was a thief.Freddie Noon his name was, the fourth child of nine in a small tract house in Ozone Park. That's in Queens in New York City, next door to John F. Kennedy International Airport, directly beneath the approach path of every big plane coming in from Europe, except when the wind is from the southeast, which it very rarely is. Throughout his childhood, the loud gray shadows of the wide-body jets swept across and across and across Freddie Noon and his brothers and his sisters and his house as though to wipe them clear of the table of life; but every shadow passed and they were still there.

Freddie's father worked, and still does, for the New York City Department of Sanitation, hanging off the back of a garbage truck. He's in a good union, and gets a decent salary and benefits, but not quite enough for a family with nine kids. And that may be why, at the age of seven, in the local five-and-dime's toy department, Freddie Noon became a thief.

His becoming a thief is why he became a liar. The two go hand in hand.

Freddie's junior high school was the big rock-candy mountain. In no time at all, Freddie became enthralled by, and in thrall to, any number of products that could set him up to soar above the flight paths of the inbound jets. The trouble was, the more potent the product and the higher it let him soar, the more it cost. By the age of fourteen, Freddie's reason for being a thief had changed; he did it now, as they say in the solemn magazine articles, to support his habit. His other habit, really, since his original long-term habit was already set: to be a thief. Habit number one supported habit number two.

Freddie took his first fall at sixteen, when he set off a silent alarm in an empty house he was burglarizing out in Massapequa Park on Long Island — they hadn't stopped their Newsday delivery when they went on vacation — an error he didn't know he'd committed until all those police cars showed up outside. He was sent to a juvenile detention center upstate, where he met youths his own age who were much worse than he was. A survivalist, Freddie quickly caught up. Fortunately, the joint was as awash in drugs as any high school, so the time passed more quickly than it otherwise might.

That was the end of Freddie's formal schooling, though not the end of his incarceration. He did one more term as a juvenile, then two clicks as an adult, before he found himself in a drug-free cell block, a situation that almost seemed against nature. What had happened, the white inmates who'd been born again as Christian fundamentalists and the black inmates who'd converted to Islam joined together for once, and policed that prison like a vacuum cleaner. They were more efficient, and they were a lot more mean, than the regular authorities, and they kept that building of that joint clean. You're found with so much as a Tylenol on you, you'd better have a damn good explanation.

Freddie was twenty-five when he went in for that stretch. He'd been flying above the flight paths for eleven years. The landing he made inside that clean house was a bumpy one, but he did walk away from it, and as the pilots say, any landing you walk away from is a good landing.

And here Freddie met a new self. He hadn't made his own acquaintance since he was fourteen years old, and he was surprised to find he liked the guy he'd become. He was quick-witted, once he had his wits about him. He was short and skinny, but also wiry and strong. He looked pretty good, in a feral-foxy sort of way. He liked what he saw himself doing, liked what he heard himself thinking, liked how he handled himself in the ebb and flow of life.

He never reformed, exactly, never became born again or changed his name to Freddie X, but once he was clear of drugs he saw no reason to go back. It would be like infecting yourself with the flu all over again; back to the stuffy nose, the dull headache, the dulled thought processes, the dry and itchy skin. Who needed it?

So that was why, when Freddie Noon hit the street once more, two years later, at twenty-seven years of age, he did not go back on drugs. He stayed clean, alert, quick-witted, wiry, good-looking in a feral-foxy way. He met a girl named Peg Briscoe, who worked sporadically as a dental technician, quitting every time she decided she couldn't stand to look into one more dirty mouth, and she also liked this new Freddie Noon, and so they set up housekeeping together. And Freddie went back to being a thief. Only now, he did it for a different reason, a third reason. Now he was a thief because he liked it.

And then one night — just last June, this was — when he was twenty-nine and had been two years out of prison, Freddie broke into a townhouse on East Forty-ninth Street, in Manhattan, way east over near the UN Building. He chose this particular townhouse because the front entry looked like a piece of cake, and because the bottom three floors of the four-story building were dark, and because a little brass plaque beside the main entrance read

LOOMIS-HEIMHOCKER

RESEARCH FACILITY

A research facility, in Freddie's extensive experience, was a place with many small valuable portable salable machines: word processors, faxes, microscopes, telephone switchboards, darkroom equipment; oh, all sorts of stuff. It made this particular townhouse seem a worthwhile place to visit.

So Freddie found a legal parking space for his van only a few doors away from the target, which was already a good omen, to find a parking place at all in Manhattan, and he sat there in the dark, eleven o'clock at night, and he watched the research facility across the street, and he bided his time. Faint candlelight flickered behind the top-floor windows, but that was okay. Whoever lived up there wouldn't get in Freddie's way. He'd be quick and quiet, and he wouldn't go above the second floor.

No cars coming. No pedestrians on the sidewalks. Freddie stepped out of the van, whose interior light he had long since removed, and stepped briskly across the street. He hardly paused at the front door for his busy fingers to do their stuff, and then he was in.

2

"Uh-oh," said David.

Peter peered across the candle flame, then turned his head to follow the trajectory of David's eyes. In the dimness beyond the kitchen alcove, in the hall, on the elaborate alarm panel mounted on the wall beside the maroon elevator door, a dull red light burned. "Ah-huh" Peter said.

"Do you suppose it's a malfunction?" David asked. It was clear he hoped it was.

But a sudden idea had come into Peter's mind, connected with what they'd just been discussing. "Someone has broken in," he said, sure of it and glad of it, and got to his feet, dropping his napkin beside his plate.

Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker were lovers. They were also medical researchers, both forty-three years of age, currently funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute to do blue-sky cancer research. Their work, reports of which looked good in tobacco-company annual reports, and references to which invariably formed a part of tobacco-industry spokespeople's testimony before congressional committees, was sincere, intelligent, and well funded. (Even the alarm system had been paid for with tobacco money.) David and Peter were encouraged by their funders to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race's battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.

David and Peter had met twenty years earlier, in medical school, and had soon realized how much they had in common, including a love of non-result-oriented research and an infinite capacity for guile and subterfuge in the suspicious sight of the outside world. Their coming together strengthened both. They'd been inseparable ever since.

     

 

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