Haven’t figured out a title yet. The plot thickens as Mr. Hersch invites Freak in for a chat and Peter Arsenal performs some alchemy. Margaret, meanwhile, has her own plans…
Take Only as Directed.
“Fuck.” Snake nodded grimly toward the apartment door. “You go over there. I’ll go get Freak.”
Margaret preceded him out into the hall and watched as Snake let himself into his friend’s apartment. Tentatively, she knocked on the door. “Mr. Hersch? It’s me, Margaret.”
Shuffling from within. After a moment, footsteps creaked to the door. “This isn’t a good time,” he answered without opening the door. “Please come back tomorrow.”
“Mr. Hersch, are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine. Please, let me be.”
The door across the hall slammed open. Freak leaped over and pounded on the wall. He had a key in his hand. “Mr. Hersch! You okay?”
Snake didn’t bother closing Freak’s apartment behind him. “Mr. Hersch, we’re gonna come in if you don’t open up.”
In the silence that ensued, they could hear Margaret’s cell phone ringing in her apartment. She blushed at the sound.
The lock snicked back, and their elderly neighbor peered out. His eyes were red. “Would you gentlemen—and lady,” he added, “mind if I spoke to Jonathan alone?”
“They don’t mind.” Without a glance at his friends, Freak gently pushed Mr. Hersch out of the way and stepped into the apartment, closing the door behind him.
Margaret’s cell phone was still ringing. “I better get that. Let me know what happens, okay?”
“Okay.” Snake stood there in the hallway by himself for a minute. When no sound came from Mr. Hersch’s apartment, he turned and went back to Freak’s couch, leaving the door open.
In her own living room, Margaret recognized the number on her cell and smiled. She hadn’t expected a call so soon. “Hello? No, I’m not really doing anything. Sure, sounds fun. What time? Great, I’ll meet you then. Bye.” She closed the phone and held a hand to her chest. Her heart was beating a mile a minute.
In his top-floor apartment in a chic Riverside Drive co-op overlooking the Hudson, Peter Arsenal’s heart was beating just as fast. He was thinking about Margaret while he sat at his laptop, scrolling through online search engines for the information he needed. The bottles of Shiraz he’d purchased earlier had been removed from the winery bag and placed on his desk, right where he could see them. The whole process was very exciting. Frankly, he was surprised he didn’t have an erection.
Peter didn’t know Margaret very well, but he remembered a few key things, which were what gave birth to his idea in the first place. She sometimes took Ambien, a popular prescription sleep aid. He knew this because she’d mentioned it one morning when he thought she looked groggy.
He was also aware that Margaret enjoyed red wines with a strong taste, and she had a pretty good knowledge of wine. She preferred quality over price, understanding that an eleven dollar bottle can be just as good or better than a similar wine that cost thirty. Peter had tested her on this once, suspecting that she had perhaps overstated her expertise. He had invited her along to a tasting after work one evening, and been pleasantly surprised by her choices. Margaret explained that she had been married to a sommelier. How very impressive.
And then there was the day, very soon after she began working at Arsenal, that she went to a nearby pharmacy to pick up a few things. While she was out to lunch, Peter took the opportunity to look in the shopping bag and see what she’d purchased. Tampons, shampoo, and a prescription for Zoloft, an anti-depressant. Another interesting fact to file away for what he was planning, and now it fell into place. Peter Arsenal clicked on a new screen and smiled. Apparently, Ambien shouldn’t be prescribed for patients suffering from depression. Or who were drunk.
He reached for the phone, punched in a number. The voice at the other end of the line sounded distracted. “Yes?”
“Les? Peter. Listen, I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.”
“Really? I can’t imagine why.” Les Rakolta was an old friend, and more importantly, a doctor.
“Les, I’m serious.”
“Oh. Sorry. You talked to your G.P. about this?”
“What with the theft and getting ready for the next show, I haven’t had time. I thought I’d get your opinion first.”
Les mulled this over. “You could try Ambien. I’d write you a scrip, but you’re better off going through your G.P.”
Peter frowned. “I don’t know, I’ve heard it’s easy to overdose on that stuff. You’d really recommend it?”
“Well, as long as you stick to the prescribed dosage, you’re fine. Don’t take one, and then five minutes later decide it’s not working fast enough and take another.”
“Why? What would happen?”
“You’d fall into a deep sleep you can’t wake up from. I don’t mean you’re groggy, I mean you’d literally sleep sixteen, twenty hours. You wouldn’t be conscious enough for your body functions to wake you, so you’d wet the bed, that sort of thing. And then when you did wake up, there’d be temporary memory loss, which isn’t much fun, either. Definitely not a drug for playing around with. But if you’re really having trouble, it’s very effective. You want to drop by, pick up some samples?”
Peter hesitated. “Well, if you really think it will help.”
“Sure. I prescribe it all the time.”
“Thanks, Les. I’ll stop by later tonight.”
The doctor hesitated. “I’m spending the night at Cynthia’s. Mind if I just leave them with your doorman? I could have them over there in twenty minutes.”
“Sounds good. Thank you.”
Perfect. Peter exchanged a few pleasantries and hung up. Back to task. Now to assemble the ingredients and materials.
Several years before, Peter had owned a pedigreed Dalmatian who developed diabetes. When Pollock had to be put to sleep (the Dalmatian, obviously, not the painter), Peter saved some of the syringes and insulin in his master bathroom, in part because god forbid a guest in his home might need it, and in part because the syringes looked elegantly brutal: a short, fat tube for the plunger and a mercilessly long, thin needle. Peter went to the bathroom and retrieved one. They came prepackaged in plastic shrouds, with a green rubber tip at the end so you wouldn’t pierce yourself accidentally. Despite its tiny circumference, the needle was incredibly strong. Peter had no concerns that it might break during usage.
Leaving the shrouded needle on the kitchen counter, Peter went to the butler’s pantry off the kitchen and opened a cupboard. A client had gifted him recently with a stainless steel mini coffee grinder, good for grinding exactly two cups’ worth of coffee. He hadn’t opened it yet, but this seemed like the perfect occasion. Being careful to rinse and dry the grinder—no sense getting any extraneous chemical residue into the mix—Peter placed it on the counter and plugged it in.
Next, he brought out his blender, a commercial-grade device that was versatile enough that it could crush ice, blend a mean margarita and whip up a smoothie in nothing flat. The pitcher had been run through the dishwasher the night before, so Peter had no qualms about its relative sterility.
Back to the study, where he grabbed both bottles of Shiraz from the desk and brought them into the kitchen. One went straight into the bottle opener, a sleek chrome device that uncorked wine automatically. The other remained intact. Peter held the open bottle to his nose and inhaled the exotic aroma. Impulsively, he poured himself a glass, swirling it and holding it up against the light. What an excellent wine. A pity so much of it would be wasted. A sip confirmed his appraisal. He’d have to buy a few more bottles when this was all over. And toast Margaret with every one.
Margaret was perfect: a depressed boozehound, new to the city and short on cash. That was how the police would see it, anyway. Of course, not all depressed boozehounds committed suicide, but in Margaret’s case, he decided, the act would be brought on by an attack of inebriated guilt.
The intercom sounded, a discreet buzz from a panel set into the hallway wall next to the front door of his apartment. Could Les have stopped by already? Christ, he was fast. Peter went to the intercom and buzzed back. “Yes?”
“Gentleman just dropped a package for you. Shall I bring it up?”
“Please.” Peter released the intercom button and opened his apartment door expectantly. After a minute or two, the elevator doors slid open and the doorman stepped out, offering a manila envelope.
“Thank you.” Peter waited until the elevator and the doorman were on their downward way before folding back the clasp and checking the envelope’s contents. Fourteen individual sample packets of Ambien. Good old Les.
Back in the kitchen, Peter emptied all fourteen packets onto a dinner plate, examining the little football-shaped pills. They were yellow on top, white on the bottom. The bi-level effect made them look like candy. “Sweets for Margaret,” he chuckled.
Peter tilted the dinner plate over the coffee grinder, depositing the pills in the bean chamber. So far, so good. He closed the grinder lid and pressed the button marked “fine grind.” Better if there were a “powder” option, but this was apparently as good as it was going to get. The grinder was surprisingly loud. Peter winced at the noise, but it didn’t matter. The walls were well-insulated, and his neighbors certainly couldn’t complain at the idea of his running a coffee grinder at seven in the evening. It wasn’t even dark out yet.
The grinder stopped automatically after thirty seconds. Peter pulled out the stainless steel cup that was intended to catch the coffee grounds and discovered a mess of whitish-yellow crumbs. Not good enough. He dumped the crumbs back into the bean chamber and tried again. This time, the results were more powdery. Excellent.
Now, Peter placed the powder in the blender, carefully scraping the sides of the steel cup with a plastic spoon to collect as much of the powder as possible. He trickled a small amount of wine into the pitcher, just enough to saturate the powder, and set the pitcher lid in place.
One hand firmly on the lid, Peter pressed puree. Ah. A lovely little mixture formed in the pitcher. Peter smiled at the sight. It looked perfect already, but to be on the safe side, he gave the fusion a full minute in the blender before switching it off.
The entire pitcher was poured into a Pyrex measuring cup roughly equivalent in size to a shotglass. Peter gave the pitcher a good shake, getting every drop into the cup.
Now came the tricky part. He peeled back the plastic shroud from the syringe and placed the needle in the liquid. Very carefully, he pulled the plunger, filling the shaft with his concoction. Gently, he took the full syringe by the sides, making sure he didn’t depress the plunger prematurely. Aiming the needle like a pencil tip, Peter pushed it down through the foil on the unopened Shiraz. He took care to place the hole in a loop of gold script, so it was hardly noticeable. Once the needle had pushed through the foil, seal and cork, down into the bottle itself, he gently depressed the plunger, ejaculating the Ambien-laced alcohol into the wine.
Finished, he extracted the needle with the same care. The bottle looked no different.
There, now. The dinner plate and measuring cup went into the dishwasher. So did the blender pitcher and all removable parts of the coffee grinder. The plastic spoon and syringe went into the kitchen wastebasket. Peter was just collecting all the little plastic packets that had contained the samples when his eye lit on the following phrase: “AMBIEN CR tablets should not be divided, crushed, or chewed, and must be swallowed whole.”
And why not? The package didn’t say. Peter plucked the cordless phone from the wall and dialed Les.
“Yes? Get the package?”
“Got it, thanks. Listen, I didn’t read the wrapper and I went ahead and crushed one of the pills. Is that going to affect it?”
Les sighed. “Well, yeah. The pills will take longer to do the job. They’re two colors, did you notice that?”
“Well, the different colored parts have different ingredients. The yellow part is a fast-acting sleep aid, puts you out in fifteen or twenty minutes, and the white part dissolves more slowly in your stomach so you stay asleep for the whole eight hours. If you crush them up, they take longer to have an effect and they might not get you through the night, because the slow-dissolving part has been broken down. I’m speaking in layman’s terms, you understand.”
Peter played dumb. “So should I take another one?”
“God, no! Never, under any circumstances, take more than one. No matter what you did with the first one. Even if you crushed it. Just lie down, put on some soothing music or something, and let the pill do its job. And tomorrow, don’t mess with it. Swallow it whole.”
“Got it. Now, I just poured a glass of wine—”
“Jesus, Peter, I wouldn’t have given you the samples if I thought you weren’t going to read the directions. Dump the wine in the sink. If you’re thirsty, try some hot milk.”
“No alcohol when I’m taking this?”
“Well, you can have a glass or two at dinner, but nothing for the last hour before you take the pill. And don’t ever take it if you’re drunk. I’m serious, Peter, this is not a drug to fool around with.”
Peter lowered his voice, sounding appropriately chastened. “I didn’t realize. Thank god I called you back.”
“Well, no harm done. Just do me a favor and go to bed, okay?”
“And no more calls. I just got to Cynthia’s.”
“Tell her I said hello.”
Peter hung up, switched on the dishwasher, grabbed the Shiraz and headed for the door.
A few minutes later, Peter was at the wheel of his BMW, headed toward the Lincoln Tunnel and Hoboken. The ride was quick, once he hit the tunnel. No toll for leaving the city, but if you wanted to come back and escape that miserable hellhole, you had to cough up six bucks, of course. New Jersey was the only state Peter was aware of that you could enter for free, but charged you to leave.
Margaret’s street seemed like the sort of solid, middle class neighborhood of gentrified brownstones you’d find in Brooklyn. Peter was surprised; he’d expected something much filthier.
He parked a couple doors down from Margaret’s building. It was a neatly maintained gray stone building, three stories high, with intricate moldings on the façade, indicating that it had been designed and built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The first floor housed a dry cleaner with a wide plate glass storefront and a dental office, marked by an elegant brass plaque and an equally elegant front door. The apartments were accessed by a set of heavy French doors on the right-hand side of the building, with an arched cornice above. Peter pushed through the doors and found himself in a five-by-twelve vestibule, with a well-worn Oriental rug on the polished wood floor. Straight ahead was a wide, solid cherry-wood door, inset with a curtained plate glass window. A row of mailboxes adorned the wall to his left, along with a brass plate inset with eight buzzers, marked by apartment number and a small card with each tenant’s name. Margaret Milton was not listed, but two of the buttons had blank cards attached. 203 and 301 were either empty or Margaret. Peter pressed 203. No answer. He shrugged and tried 301. An answering buzz signaled that the curtained door at the end of the vestibule was now unlocked. Peter went inside.
The runners on the hallway floor and stairs matched the rug in the vestibule. A wide staircase with a polished cherry banister was directly in front of the door, and the first floor hallway continued alongside it, with a door on the left hand wall adjacent to the dental office and another door under the staircase, presumably leading to the basement.
Upstairs, he could hear voices raised slightly in argument. One of them belonged to Margaret. Peter climbed the stairs and found Margaret standing in the second-floor hallway with her back to the stairwell, faced by an enormous biker.
The biker tossed his hair back, indignant, revealing a bandaged temple. “So you’re just going to leave? What if Mr. Hersch needs you?”
“If anything happens, he’s got you and Freak. He’s not going to ask for me. He barely knows my name,” Margaret countered.
“But—a date?! How can you just run out for a date at a time like this?”
She put her hand on her hip. “Snake, listen to me. I haven’t been out on a date in years, not since before I was married. This doesn’t happen to me every day.”
The biker looked up at Peter. “Is this your date?”
Margaret turned and froze. “Oh, my god. Peter. What are you doing here?”
Peter smiled pleasantly and held up the Shiraz. “I came to make a peace offering.”
“Well, at least your date brings his own fuckin’ booze.”
Margaret sighed testily. “He’s not my date, he’s my boss.”
The biker grimaced. “You mean your ex-boss?” He thumped Peter’s shoulder. “You fuckin’ fired her! She didn’t do anything!”
Peter looked down his nose at Snake. “As I said, I’m here to make a peace offering.” Turning to Margaret, he added, “I’ve been giving the matter some thought. Could we speak in private?”
Margaret hesitated, then shook her head. “No. I’m sorry, but I’ve already been offered a job at another gallery. I’m sorry for how things happened, and I hope that the medals are returned, but I’m finished with Arsenal. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late.”
The biker started clapping. “Fuckin’ ay, hot stuff! You tell him!”
Peter changed gears rapidly. “Fair enough. I was wrong, and I admit it. I’d feel better, though, if you’d accept this bottle of wine as a sign that there are no hard feelings. On my part, at least.”
Margaret took a deep breath. After a moment’s consideration, she took the bottle and shook Peter’s hand. “Thank you. No hard feelings.”
“I’m glad. Can I walk you downstairs?”
“Okay.” She turned to the biker. “Snake, could you—”
“Course.” He took the wine and tucked it under his arm. “You kids go have fun.”
Margaret rolled her eyes as she preceded Arsenal down the stairs. “My neighbor, or more accurately, my neighbor’s friend, who practically lives here.”
“Colorful neighborhood.” Peter held the curtained door open for her.
She hastened to open one of the French doors for him in return. “Yeah. It’s a real eye-opener.”
Peter held out his hand again. “Well, thanks again. I hope that you’ll think of me if you ever need anything.”
Margaret shook it, but he could see that her mind was already elsewhere, probably on her date. “Thank you. Have a safe trip back.”
“Do you need a ride anywhere?”
“No, thanks.” Margaret stood on the sidewalk, waiting for him to get in his BMW and leave. So he did.
Copyright 2006 Amy Frushour Kelly. All rights reserved.
Reproduction by any means prohibited without prior written consent.
If anybody thinks of a title for this chapter, let me know and if I go with it, I’ll include you in the book’s acknowledgements. xo, Amy