The Naked Face

Chapter Seventeen


HE WAS A LARGE, swarthy man with a pockmarked face and deep-set black eyes. An old scar ran across his throat. He was wearing Mike's uniform coat and it was too tight for him.
The taxi pulled away and Judd was alone with the man. He was struck by a sudden wave of pain. My God, not now! He gritted his teeth. "Where's Mike?" he asked.
"On vacation, Doctor."
Doctor. So the man knew who he was. And Mike on vacation? In December?
There was a small smile of satisfaction on the man's face. Judd looked up and down the windswept street, but it was completely deserted. He could try to make a run for it, but in his condition he wouldn't stand a chance. His body was beaten and sore, and it hurt every time he took a breath.
"You look like you been in an accident." The man's voice was almost genial.
Judd turned without answering and walked into the lobby of the apartment building. He could count on Eddie to get help.
The doorman followed Judd into the lobby. Eddie was in the elevator, his back turned. Judd started walking toward the elevator, every step a separate agony. He knew he dared not falter now. The important thing was not to let the man catch him alone. He would be afraid of witnesses. "Eddie!" Judd called.
The man in the elevator turned.
Judd had never seen him before. He was a smaller version of the doorman, except that there was no scar. It was obvious that the two men were brothers.
Judd stopped, trapped between the two of them. There was no one else in the lobby.
"Goin' up," said the man in the elevator. He had the same satisfied smile as his brother.
So these, finally, were the faces of death. Judd was sure that neither of them was the brain behind what was happening. They were hired professional killers. Would they kill him in the lobby, or would they prefer to do it in his apartment? His apartment, he reasoned. That would give them more time to make their escape before his body was found.
Judd took a step toward the manager's office. "I have to see Mr. Katz about - "
The larger man blocked his way. "Mr. Katz is busy, Doc," he said softly.
The man in the elevator spoke. "I'll take you upstairs."
"No," Judd said. "I - "
"Do like he says." There was no emotion in his voice.
There was a sudden blast of cold air as the lobby door opened. Two men and two women hurried in, laughing and chattering, huddled in their coats.
"It's worse than Siberia," said one of the women.
The man holding her arm was pudgy-faced, with a Mid-western accent. "Tain't a fit night out for man nor beast."
The group was moving toward the elevator. The doorman and elevator operator looked at each other silently.
The second woman spoke. She was a tiny, platinum blonde with a heavy Southern accent. "It's been a perfectly dreamy evening. Thank you all so much." She was sending the men away.
The second man gave a howl of protest. "You're not going to let us go without a little nightcap, are you?"
"It's awfully late, George," simpered the first woman.
"But it's below zero outside. You've gotta give us a little anti-freeze."
The other man added his plea. "Just one drink and then we go."
Judd was holding his breath. Please!
The platinum blonde relented. "All right. But just one, you-all hear?"
Laughing, the group stepped into the elevator. Judd quickly moved in with them. The doorman stood there uncertainly, looking at his brother. The one in the elevator shrugged, closed the door, and started the elevator up. Judd's apartment was on the fifth floor. If the group got out before him, he was in trouble. If they got out after him, he had a chance to get into his apartment, barricade himself, and call for help.
The little blonde giggled. "I don't know what my husband would say if he saw me inviting two strange men up to my apartment." She turned to the elevator operator. "Ten."
Judd exhaled and realized that he had been holding his breath. He spoke quickly. "Five."
The elevator operator gave him a patient, knowing look and opened the door at Five. Judd got out. The elevator door closed.
Judd moved toward his apartment, stumbling with pain. He took out his key, opened the door, and went in, his heart pounding. He had five minutes at the most before they came to kill him. He closed the door and started to put the chain lock in the bolt. It came off in his hand. He looked at it and saw that it had been cut through. He flung it down and moved toward the phone. A wave of dizziness swept over him. He stood there, fighting the pain, his eyes closed, while precious time passed. With an effort, he started toward the phone again, moving slowly. The only person he could think of to call was Angeli, but Angeli was at home, ill. Besides - what could he say? We have a new doorman and elevator operator and I think they're going to kill me? He slowly became aware that he was holding the receiver in his hand, standing there numbly, too dazed to do anything. Concussion, he thought. Boyd may have killed me, after all. They would walk in and find him like this - helpless. He remembered the look in the eyes of the big man. He had to outwit them, keep them off balance. But good God - how?
He turned on the small TV set that monitored the lobby. The lobby was deserted. The pain returned, washing over him in waves, making him feel faint. He forced his tired mind to focus on the problem. He was in an emergency... Yes...Emergency. He had to take emergency measures. Yes...His vision was blurring again. His eyes focused on the phone. Emergency...He moved the dial close to his eyes so that he could read the numbers. Slowly, painfully, he dialed. A voice answered on the fifth ring. Judd spoke, his words slurred and indistinct. His eye was caught by a flurry of motion on the TV monitor. The two men, in street clothes, were crossing the lobby and moving toward the elevator.
His time had run out.
The two men moved soundlessly toward Judd's apartment and took positions on either side of the door. The larger of the men, Rocky, softly tried the door. It was locked. He took out a celluloid card and carefully inserted it over the lock. He nodded to his brother, and both men took out revolvers with silencers on them. Rocky slid the celluloid card against the lock and pushed the unresisting door open, slowly. They walked into the living room, guns held out in front of them. They were confronted by three closed doors. There was no sign of Judd. The smaller brother, Nick, tried the first door. It was locked. He smiled at his brother, put the muzzle of his gun against the lock, and pulled the trigger. The door noiselessly swung open into a bedroom. The two men moved inside, guns sweeping the room.
There was no one inside. Nick checked the closets while Rocky returned to the living room. They moved without haste, knowing that Judd was in the apartment hiding, helpless. There was almost deliberate enjoyment in their unhurried movements, as though they were savoring the moments before the kill.
Nick tried the second closed door. It was locked. He shot the bolt out and moved into the room. It was the den. Empty. They grinned at each other and walked toward the last closed door. As they passed the TV monitor, Rocky caught his brother's arm. On the set they could see three men hurrying into the lobby. Two of them, wearing the white jackets of interns, were pushing a wheeled stretcher. The third carried a medical bag.
"What the hell!"
"Keep your cool, Rocky. So someone's sick. There must be a hundred apartments in this building."
They watched the TV set in fascination as the two interns wheeled the stretcher into the elevator. The group disappeared inside it, and the elevator door closed.
"Give them a couple minutes." It was Nick. "It could be some kind of accident. That means there might be cops."
"Of all the fuckin' luck!"
"Don't worry. Stevens ain't goin' nowhere."
The door to the apartment burst open and the doctor and the two interns entered, pushing the stretcher ahead of them. Swiftly the two killers shoved their guns into their overcoat pockets.
The doctor walked up to the brother. "Is he dead?"
"The suicide victim. Is he dead or alive?"
The two killers looked at each other, bewildered. "You guys got the wrong apartment."
The doctor pushed past the two killers and tried the bedroom door. "It's locked. Help me break it down." The two brothers watched helplessly as the doctor and the interns smashed the door open with their shoulders. The doctor stepped into the bedroom. "Bring the stretcher." He moved to the bedside where Judd lay on the bed. "Are you all right?"
Judd looked up, trying to make his eyes focus. "Hospital," mumbled Judd.
"You're on your way."
As the two killers watched in frustration, the interns wheeled the stretcher into the bedroom, skillfully slid Judd onto it, and wrapped him in blankets.
"Let's blow," said Rocky.
The doctor watched the two men leave. Then he turned to Judd, who lay on the stretcher, his face white and haggard. "Are you all right, Judd?" His voice was filled with deep concern.
Judd tried a smile that didn't come off. "Great," he said. He could scarcely hear his own voice. "Thanks, Pete."
Peter looked down at his friend, then nodded to the two interns. "Let's go!"