A/K/A – The Letter
By Frederick Alimonti
Prologue – Whitestone 1973
My name is Richie O’Brien, and I grew up in Whitestone, Queens, New York City, on top one of the world’s great Intersections. I’m not talking about a place where two roads cross, but a hidden world where invisible forces intersect and enable objects, or “artifacts” as we called them, to share the memories imprinted on them, good and bad.
Whitestone may be the last place you would ever expect to find anything particularly interesting, let alone extraordinary. Whitestone’s only claim to fame was the massive “Bronx-Whitestone” Bridge that stretches across the East River and connects Queens to the Bronx. Flushing (yes, I know what you’re thinking, but that’s its name), just next door, got all the glory as the home to the Mets and the site of a World’s Fair some years back.
Back then, in 1973 to be exact, my world extended to about a three-block radius from the corner of 20th Avenue and 146th Street. The courtyard at the Whitestone Garden Apartments was our personal playground. It was just big enough for a game of touch football, but way too small for baseball, or even softball. The courtyard was edged by a sidewalk that peeled off at intervals to the stoops of the six two-story, four- apartment red-brick buildings that surrounded it. Each apartment had a “courtyard view.” A few park benches were set in the corners, where the older folk could relax, but I think we kids used them more. The small park a few blocks further down 20th Avenue marked the far end of our territory. Anything beyond the Whitestone Expressway was “No Man’s Land” and the gateway to community of College Point, which seemed a world away.
Chapter 1 – Igor
“Igor” was the most despised tenant of the Whitestone Garden Apartments. We didn’t know his real name, and heck, who cared! He was mean. He was strange. He was alone. And all he ever did was yell at us. Call him a legend, an institution, whatever. It seemed he had been there as long as the courtyard grass - worn down by play to almost nothing. He walked hunched-over and with a limp, wearing the same tattered wool overcoat, winter or summer, so, naturally, he became Igor. No one remembered when.
He lived in a first floor apartment. Other than muttering to himself, he spoke to no one. Some said he had a family, once. If so, I had never seen them. He had no friends. Not a soul ever went to his door, let alone inside his apartment – just him and his cats - dozens of them would come and go when he inched the door open for them.
If we played too loud or too late, he would scream at us from his first-floor window, sometimes clacking a wooden spoon or spatula against the window shudder. “Beat it you delinquents; I’m calling the cops!” He would often admonish that we were on “Private Property” – whatever that meant.
We would mock him and yell back, “shut up you old fart!” or simply, “EEEEEGORRRR, EEEEEGORRRR!” He would rant a bit more and then finally slam his window shut in disgust.
But somehow, despite our brave noise, he always won in the end; he just sort of deflated us. Our game would invariably break up or move elsewhere. I think we had all been taught to respect adults, and somehow, we couldn’t openly defy one – at least not for long – even if he was nuts.
Samantha Davis, Bobby Laponte, Mike Cerbone, Jessica/”Jessie” Stratta, and I hung out by the courtyard bench nearest the sidewalk. Mike sat on the bench. The rest of us either leaned against it or sprawled out in the grass. My Schwinn Stingray stood nearby on its kickstand. Mike’s cobbled-together “junk bike” leaned against a nearby bush. Mike was my next-door neighbor. We were the two outsiders who didn’t live in one of the nearby apartments.
We all wore jeans, either Wrangler or Levis. Our sneakers were either ProKeds or Converse. And we all wore T-shirts. Mine was a blue tie-dye. Sam’s was red with a peace sign. Bobby’s was “Keep on Truckin.” Mike and Jessie wore plain solids tees, but Jessie’s jeans were meticulously embroidered with flowers, rainbows, and yellow smiley faces.
It was still summer-warm, and I tried to convince myself that school had not started for real - that the past three days had just been just an interruption of summer vacation. “School starts for real on Monday,” I kept telling myself. It was just Saturday morning, but I knew Monday would outrun me in the end.
The other kids liked to tease Mike and me. They called us “royalty” because we lived in “private houses,” not even a block away. You would think our homes were gated mansions the way they busted our chops. But the Garden Apartments were undeniably different. The kids there even had their own language. When Sam first told me she had a “Super,” I had visions of some hulk of a guy with a cape and a red “S” on his chest. It was so disappointing to meet the short, chubby man with the toolbox, the “Superintendent.”
“Why won’t they let me take two languages?” Sam complained. “How far can I go in the world knowing just English and either French, Spanish, or Italian? I should be able to a take second foreign language, and seriously, how about something a bit more exotic, like Chinese or Hindi? This Junior High curriculum is painfully pedestrian.” As she spoke, Sam sketched out a circle in the dirt with a stick and carved out little continents inside. “Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia. I think that’s the proper sequence of my travels.” As she spoke, she poked her makeshift continents in the order of her visits.
“Sam, what’s the rush to get out of the U.S? I mean you’ve barely even been out of New York.”
“Are you kidding, Richie? A plane trip away, and I can walk in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, Heracles, Buddha, or Confucius. I want to meet people who not only look different from me or speak a different language, but who think differently too! Won’t that be amazing?”
“Nope,” Mike replied blandly. “Bad water, bad food, malaria, parasites, diarrhea, smelly people, and no English spoken. I’ll pass.”
“Yeah, you’ll pass,” Bobby responded. “Pass gas!”
Bobby shoved Mike in the shoulder.
“Funny, fart face!” Mike replied, shoving Bobby back. Neither of them were angry. They were just “ranking,” and Mike had done a pretty good job of taking Bobby’s fart theme to the next level. Round one to Mike.
It had been a short first week at school with no homework for the weekend. We were all a bit overwhelmed with our introduction to Junior High at I.S.25. Changing classes and a different teacher for each subject, was a long way from the simple, single-classroom world of grammar school. And while just a few months ago, we owned the school as sixth-graders, now we were at the bottom of the Junior High pile. Eighth graders seemed to perpetually sneer at us, while the 9th graders ignored our very existence. We weren’t worth the trouble.
Sam and I were considered “smart kids.” We were in the “SP” program, for “special progress; Jessie too. Mike was in “regular” classes. Bobby was in the class with the trouble-makers, but he didn’t fit there. In fact, I think he was the smartest of all of us. It’s not like he was a wiz at math or anything; he had a more useful street smarts. Although our group, our “gang” as we called it, had no leader, if there was one, it would have been him. He had a confidence and charm that just made you want to follow him. Even females were beginning to notice. Clearly, Bobby was the ladies’ favorite. Girls at school got all silly and awkward around him, and he barely seemed to care. This only added to his appeal as far as I could tell. As for me, being Bobby’s friend was the closest I would ever come to being cool myself.
Bobby was also the toughest and the most athletic in our group – hands down. School just wasn’t his thing, and we all understood that. He never made us feel like dorks, and we never measured anyone by their grades. All that mattered was that he was a great kid; he was our friend; he was “one of us.”
Sam was best student of the group. Boy did she love big words. She would actually read the dictionary for the “fun of it” and to try to work her expanded vocabulary into her conversations. She had a massive corkboard in her room with cut out photos of faraway places pinned to it. She couldn’t wait to get out into the far corners of the world, and no one doubted that she would. We all knew that once Sam set her mind to something, she got it done. And while Mike liked to bust her chops at every opportunity, we all knew that Sam was pretty much unstoppable.
Unlike the strung together, cookie cutter attached houses where Mike and I lived, the garden apartments offered endless adventures. They had a personality – almost is if they were themselves alive in places. We spent most of our time in and around the courtyard, but a new world awaited just behind and down the steps. There were curving walkways with dirt paths to the side, leading behind buildings, through bushes, and to dark places where it seemed no one ever had any business going. The trails had been worn down by us kids to the point where some were as hard as asphalt. And then there were the basements; dark, damp, dripping basements accessible by ancient stairwells along the sides of the buildings – dungeons into which no one dared venture – day or night.
“Cemetery Alley,” was the strangest place of all. It looked nothing like a real cemetery, but it creeped us out like one. It cut like a trench through an overgrown area between the backsides of two massive one-story garage buildings. The brick backs of the garages were just about completely covered by ancient bushes and tangles of vines. Some of the bushes along the trail stood taller than us. In places, they arched over our heads from both sides, and the trail became a tunnel.
The Alley had its own personality. It frightened us, yet, at the same time, dared us to enter. I can’t recall ever seeing a ray of sunshine in Cemetery Alley. All my memories of Cemetery Alley are cold memories. As the day grew late and darkness descended – that could be as early 4:00 on a winter’s day – just before we all went home, we would often end our day by walking the length of the Alley. It was an unspoken agreement. No one said, “Hey, it’s time to walk the Alley.” We just naturally and quietly made our way there.
One November evening, just after some touch football, and as the sun was fading just above the buildings, we made our way down the steps and behind the garages. Bobby, Mike, and Jessie led the way. Sam and I brought up the rear. Just barely down the trail, the real world faded away. The swish of cars from nearby Parson’s Boulevard vanished unnaturally, as if somehow shut out. With each step, it became colder, damper.
“What’s the hell?!” Bobby exclaimed, as he stopped and stooped to look beneath a dying bush to the right of the trail.
We gathered around. The skeleton of some long dead animal lay in the brush. Two empty eye-sockets from the fist-sized skull stared back at me. Someone in our group let out a whaling moan. The moan grew loud and shrill, until finally, it was a full blown scream. And then, as if on cue, we all sprinted the full length of the Alley, screaming our lungs out until we squeezed our way out in the gap between two bushes at the far end. As we ran, each of us conjured up our demon of choice and did our best to outrun it. We emerged in the small parking lot just off 20th Avenue. Our fears escaped into the reassuring bustle of traffic like they had hopped a ride.
The skull was unusual. It could be the crack of a twig, branches rubbing and whining in the wind, the chatter of the clotheslines that ran above our heads. No matter their source, our fears always found us; our snail’s pace accelerated to the same wild banshee sprint through the gap and into the parking lot. Then we would all laugh, call someone or another “chicken!” and call it a day.
It was always the same. And always with the last streaks of daylight in the sky. Never at night. No one dared venture into Cemetery Alley at night. Not yet, anyway.
Chapter 2 – A Game of Monopoly
The raindrops turned and twisted on the outside of Sam’s living room window, leaving little ant- trails behind. The courtyard blurred and melted like a surreal painting on the other side of the glass. All the green in the trees and grass faded to a gray that matched the sky. There was no lightning or thunder, just a heavy, steady driving rain. Branches from the bush outside the window scraped and squeaked against the glass in the breeze.
“You’re doomed, Richie” Sam proclaimed, as she planted bright red hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. My airplane token sat on my measly Marvin Gardens with a single house on it – one of my few holdings that had not been mortgaged or sold. Monopoly could be a cruel game.
“I give up. You win. Let’s do something else.”
“No way. I’ve got you where I want you, and I will not be denied my victory and your inevitable agonizing death.”
“Awe come on.”
“Roll the dice.”
“Come on Sam, I give.”
“Roll. . . the . . .dice,” she icily repeated, as she pressed the dotted cubes into my palm. I rolled and moved.
“Park Place with a hotel. That will finish you.” Sam declared. She picked up my airplane and not so delicately dropped it back in the box with the other game pieces.
“Like I’ve told you a million times Richie, you just don’t have a head for business. Whatever you end up doing, I suggest you stick to the creative side, and leave the business end to someone else.”
“Well, if you two can take a break from buying up the world, I have some hot chocolate for you.” Sam’s mom came in from the kitchen with two steaming candy-striped mugs on a tray. She wore her usual pink terrycloth bathrobe with matching fuzzy slippers. Her hair was in a white towel, turban style. “It’s a bit off-season, but it somehow seemed like a hot chocolate kind of day.”
“Actually Mom, I already own the world, but so far I’ve decided to let Richie live in it a little longer. Technically, that would make him a squatter, but I’ll put up with him.”
“Well, that’s very gracious of you my land baron child”
“Funny, Mom. Thanks for the cocoa.” Sam’s mom put the tray on the coffee table and tapped a kiss on Sam’s cheek.
“Thanks, Mrs. D!” I added.
“And don’t be a sore winner; that’s very ungracious,” Mrs. D. added as she left the room.
We put the game away and sipped our steaming, bitter-sweet drinks.
“Do you ever wonder about Igor?” Sam asked, somewhat randomly, it seemed.
“Not really. Why would I?” I replied.
“Think about it Richie; he’s kind of a legend – at least the closest thing to a legend we have around here. We make up stories about him. He scares us. But what do we really know about him? Nothing. Some say he used to be ‘normal,’ that he had a wife, a family. Do you even know his real name? It’s on his mailbox. His name is Douglas Campbell. Quite an ordinary name, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, the other night I saw something strange. I woke up a bit before midnight and couldn’t get comfortable. I got up and heated myself up some milk in the kitchen. I shut off the lights and sipped it right here on this couch looking out the window and across the courtyard. That’s when I saw Igor come out of his building. He stepped off the stoop, walked off the courtyard, turned on a flashlight and continued back toward the garages. I tried to stay awake until he got back, but I didn’t make it. Interesting, don’t you think?”
“Not really. I mean he’s allowed to go out for a walk ain’t he?”
“Awe, come on, think about it! This strange man who scares the heck out of us slips out of his apartment in the middle of the night with a flashlight. What’s he doing? Where does he go? We have to investigate!” she implored.
“Why we? Why us?” I asked.
“Look Richie, he doesn’t drive so far as we know, and he took a flashlight. He must be going somewhere close. We have to follow him.”
“Sure. I’ll just ask my mom:
Me: Mom, can I stay out all night to follow this creepy guy behind the garden apartments?”
Mom: Sure Richie, but that sounds a little dangerous. I’ll feel much better if you take a flashlight AND A PISTOL FOR DEFENSE!
“Oh Richie, why do you have to be such an ass? Obviously, this can only be a secret mission. We’ll have to sneak out.”
“It sounds like a sure grounding to me, or worse,” I replied.
Sam sipped her hot chocolate, twirled her hair around, and stared at the ceiling. “Ohh Kaaayy,” she half sang. “Let’s talk let’s call a pow wow with the gang. We need a plan.”
Chapter 3 – Andy and Steve
I never saw Andy or Steve without the other; they were a matched set. They were both sixteen years-old, and they were downright mean. Steve was smart, and Andy was big. Steve wore an olive drab army jacket with a blue peace sign on the back just about all year round; Andy wore a brown leather bomber jacket with a fleece collar. Steve did just about all the talking, more like taunting actually, while Andy did little more than echo Steve here and there. Steve was wiry, while Andy was a brooding hulk of a guy. Steve had the look of someone on the brink of exploding; like there was a meanness in him looking for the least excuse to come out. You could see it in his face, in his cold black eyes in particular. Andy just looked dull, purposeless. It was like Steve supplied some sort of energy and purpose to Andy that Andy himself was missing. Whatever that energy was, I couldn’t understand why anyone would even want it.
They both drank a lot. When we would come out to play on a Saturday or Sunday, we would often find the courtyard littered with beer cans even though there was a garbage can in every corner. They would hang out on a bench drinking and playing loud hard rock on a big radio Andy carried on his shoulder –Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were their apparent favorites.
Even if we were not particularly nice to Igor, Andy and Steve were downright cruel. We only reacted to him; they targeted him. When they caught Igor outside, they would literally bounce alongside him, and get in his face – one on each side. Steve would threaten to drown a cat, tie a lit M-80 to its tail, or some other unspeakable horror. Igor just ignored them; I couldn’t help but feel bad for him when this happened. He looked so alone and helpless.
When we were playing touch football, Andy and Steve would often take over the game - that is if they just didn’t kick us off the field outright. They would declare themselves “team captains,” and we either played along, or got lost. We usually just gave in and tolerated having them as our forced teammates. Except for Bobby. Bobby didn’t surrender so easily.
Bobby lived alone with his mother, and his father used to beat him, often. Finally, his mother divorced him, and his dad moved out.
Bobby wore assorted scars on his arms and chest like badges of honor. If one of us got a cut or a bruise, he would roll up his sleeve and proclaim, “That’s nothing. Look what a brass belt buckle can do.” He called his father “the old man,” never “my old man.” I guess once you know you can take the worst a bully can dish out, they never quite phase you the same way again, and, as far as I could tell, Bobby feared nothing and no one. He had no problem telling Andy and Steve where to stick it, and to hell with the consequences. Doing anything less wouldn’t be “honorable,” he told us.
Bobby may have been the best friend a person could ever have. I think even back then when we were twelve, he would die for anyone of us. Somehow, I doubt I had the same resolve back then. But we were all about to learn a lot and do a lot of growing that fall and winter of 1973.
We had chosen up sides for football, when Andy and Steve rose up from the steps that led down to the driveway. Since there were five of us, Bobby, who had the best arm, was “DQ” - designated quarterback for both teams. He threw a pass to Sam, who caught it easily as she trotted in Andy and Steve’s Direction.
“Hey, Sam, over here!” Steve shouted, making a cradle for the ball with his arms just above his waist.
“No Sam, over here,” Bobby countermanded.
Reflexively, Sam threw the ball back to Bobby
“Come on Bobby, show me whatcha got. Bring it in right here.” Steve held his hands out again, this time chest-high. Bobby held the ball casually in one hand, turned his back to Steve, and walked away.
“Find your own damn game.” Bobby called out over his shoulder.
“Oh yeah, I forgot, you’re the tough guy,” Steve sneered. “We’ll just see about that.” I could see the look in Steve’s eyes. His meanness was coming out. He strided toward Bobby, with Andy trailing behind.
They rushed at Bobby, and Bobby easily dodged them. Then, he tossed the ball to me. I caught it. Andy and Steve rushed at me. But Bobby was already about ten feet to my side. I lateraled the ball back him. Andy and Steve shifted toward him. Bobby lateraled to Sam, and Sam to Mike. This went on for about a minute. Andy and Steve never came close to getting the ball, so they just focused on Bobby. Bobby probably could have eluded them forever. He laughed every time he slipped past them. Then, strangely, Bobby just stopped dead in his tracks, smiling and casually crossing his arms, daring them make a move. He stared straight into Steve’s ebony eyes, never losing his grin. Steve was about to blow.
“Oh, you’re a wise ass. I hate wise asses,” Steve announced for all of us to hear. His expression was flat. There was no emotion, just intent. “Grab him,” he instructed.
Andy grabbed hold of Bobby and held his arms back. Steve smiled widely as he brought one fist to his waist and the other outstretched in some sort of Karate stance. He paused and smiled in anticipation of striking a blow. Andy was practically lifting Bobby into the air from behind. . Bobby’s back was arched backward so much that jacket and shirt lifted up, exposing his flat, muscular belly underneath. It too had faint pink scars crisscrossing here and there.
Steve lunged at Bobby helpless body and rammed his fist into Bobby’s stomach with force all of his body weight behind him. As the blow landed, Andy released him, and Bobby hunched over and fell to ground, landing on his side. He couldn’t speak, just wheeze, and tears welled up in his eyes.
“Are you happy now?” I asked.
Steve shoved me in the shoulder. “You wanna be next?”
“Why can’t you guys just leave us alone?”
“Why would we do that? We like you kids?” Steve replied as he pinched my cheek with his icy fingers. “This was way more fun than football anyway.” Andy and Steve exchanged “High Fives,” and walked away. Before they exited the courtyard, Steve turned around. “This isn’t over, Bobby. You need a reminder on respecting your elders!”
“Yeah, respect your elders,” Andy echoed, chuckling to himself.
A few days later, Bobby showed up with a major black eye. None of us asked, but we all knew it was them. If you pissed off older kids, you caught a beating. It was that simple, and right and wrong had nothing to do with it.
We would get even with them, eventually - and in a manner far grander than any of us would dare imagine.
Chapter 4 –“Pow Wow”
With all the drama provided by Andy and Steve, our meeting about Igor had to wait til the next day.
Mike had a tool shed in his backyard. No one ever got around to putting many tools in it, and his parents eventually let Mike claim it as a clubhouse. The outside of it was tarpaper made up to look like brick; it had a peaked shingled roof. It had one door, one window, and a bench built into one wall. I doubt a grown up could’ve lied down in it without his head and feet touching opposite sides, but it was big enough for us. Mike forbade his little sister Lisa to ever go in it – she was not part of the club. He padlocked the door when the clubhouse was not in use.
Sam had called the meeting, and had the right of “first speech.”
“Okay, here’s the story,” she announced. “It’s about Igor. We have to follow him.”
“Yeah, wow, great idea. I wish I had thought of it,” Mike replied, rolling his eyes. “Who knows, maybe we can adopt a kitten.”
Enthusiasm was not a trait Mike held in great abundance.
“Seriously Mike, can you not be a complete ass for just a minute and listen,” Sam replied.
“Yeah, Sam. Whatcha got in mind?” Bobby added.
Sam explained – the restless night, Igor’s appearance with the flashlight, and his disappearing around the back.
Jessie twirled her blonde ponytail and harped in, “It’s interesting, but I think we’re moving a little too fast. It could be a fluke. He could have dropped something and went to look for it. I mean you only saw him that one night; there could be nothing more to it. How can we follow someone who doesn’t even show up?”
Jessie was the voice of reason in our group. Sam was always up for an adventure. Mike seldom wanted to do anything that wasn’t routine, and Bobby loved a challenge. Jessie had balance. It’s wasn’t that she was negative, she just tended to think things through more, and she usually made a lot of sense.
“You may have a point,” Sam conceded. “Maybe we need more information.”
Sam and Bobby lived in apartments that had a view of Igor’s apartment through their front windows. They agreed to take turns observing Igor’s late night habits. For now, Plan “A” was basic surveillance. If the strange walks continued, we would come up with a “Plan B” to see what Igor was up to on his late night strolls.
Chapter 5 – Plan “A”/Plan “B”
Sam and Bobby did their jobs and gave us regular updates. We all met after school at the courtyard on Friday afternoon to consider what had been happening, and, more importantly, what to do next.
After around two week’s worth of observations, it was pretty clear that Igor went out just about every night, always around midnight. In sixteen days, Igor had come out at least thirteen times – each time just a few minutes before midnight. He had missed a Monday and a Thursday. It had been pouring raining both those nights. We were not sure about one Sunday; Bobby had fallen asleep “on duty.” Igor always brought a flashlight, and he usually carried a box or bag with him. He always walked behind the courtyard and down the path to the driveways.
“Great Job you guys! Any idea what he does?” I asked.
“Any wild guesses?”
“Sure, I think he hacks people to death by day, freezes their bodies and then buries them piece-by-piece at night.” Mike injected. “Look, I don’t know what he does. But whatever it is, I don’t want any part of it. If we follow him, we’ll just be looking for trouble, and I bet we find it!”
“Mike, seriously, did you have your imagination removed at birth? Can’t you see a chance for an adventure when it’s looking right down that big nose of yours?” Sam asked.
“My nose is just fine. My face just hasn’t grown into it yet,” Mike calmly responded. “And as for this ‘adventure,’ all it’ll do is get us in trouble, and for what?”
I didn’t want to argue with Mike, so I changed the subject. “Okay, let’s just assume for a second that this is worth doing. How would we manage to get out so late in the first place? Midnight isn’t exactly playtime you know. If there’s no way to follow him, what he does really doesn’t matter.”
“What about Halloween?” Sam asked.
“What about it?” Bobby responded.
“Well, it’s one night that we get to stay out late. Maybe we can use it as a cover story?” Sam suggested.
“But Halloween is on a Wednesday, a school night. We’re lucky if we can stay out til ten. There’s no way we could stretch it out late enough,” I added.
“Mmm, true,” Sam agreed, as she put her fist to her chin and knitted her eyebrows together in deep concentration. “Maybe not Halloween itself, but how about a Halloween party?”
“And how does that help?” Mike asked.
“No, wait a minute; I get it,” Jessie added. “Suppose we plan a Halloween Party. Nothing suspicious about that, right? We do it on a Friday night and add a sleepover. I’ll host Sam, and Richie and Mike can sleep at Bobby’s, right?”
“Fur sure,” Bobby replied.
That gets Richie and Sam out of their houses and not expected home till morning, and that’s the hardest part of the whole thing – their parents will never be any the wiser. Getting them in and out of their sleep-over houses will be breeze. By 11:00, the sleepover parents will think we’re asleep. You know how sleepovers work, the grownups only hassle you if you’re noisy and up late, and we’ll be silent as the grave.”
“Nice choice of words,” Mike lamented.
Being that we had started it, it was a given that Sam and I were the ones assigned to make the actual midnight walk. The Halloween party and the sleepover were great covers for the real mission. We all planted the seeds of the party and the sleepover with our parents, and no one raised an eyebrow. “Operation Ghost Walkers” was a go!
Chapter 6 – “Operation Ghost Walkers”
The first weeks of October seemed to drag forever. We met regularly in the clubhouse and tried to sort out every detail. Finally, the night of the party arrived.
The plan had fully taken form. And nothing was left to chance – at least we didn’t think so. Jessie would host the party. There would be two sleepovers, just as Jessie suggested. We scrounged up three walkie-talkie’s. Sam and I would take one, while Jessie and Bobby kept the other two. We tested them out. They were only good for about a block, but it was better than nothing.
None of us really got into the spirit of the Halloween party. Our minds were on the mission to come. I dressed as a “hobo,” in some old ratty clothes. Mike and Bobby just wore masks. Jessie wore a skeleton leotard. Sam wore a football uniform along with black smudges under her eyes from a burnt cork. We went through the motions of bobbing for apples and played a few hands of poker using candy for betting money. Jessie served some amazing cupcakes with black and orange icing that temporarily distracted us from the true purpose of the evening. Then, finally, at around 10:30, the party broke up, the sleep-overs separated, and it was time to get down to business.
Sam and I agreed to meet just to the side of Jessie’s apartment building, where there would be no clear view of us from any window. Once we were together, we would head across the courtyard, lay low, and wait for Igor to come out for his walk – we hoped.
At the agreed time, 11:40 pm, Bobby opened up his bedroom window and helped me climb out. Even though it was a first-floor apartment, the drop from the window was a good ten feet. As I climbed over, Bobby grabbed both of my wrists; I grabbed his, and he lowered me to the ground as best he could. With our arms stretched out, the drop was no more than few feet when we both let go “on three.” Bobby threw me the two flashlights, one at a time.
“Wait a minute,” Mike half whispered. He threw me a couple of “fun size” Kit Kat Bars and a half-role of LifeSavers. I guess he figured we needed some snacks for our journey. Anyway, considering he had been against the whole idea, it was a nice gesture.
The air was chilly, and I zipped up my hooded sweatshirt. There was no moon but the street lights and courtyard lampposts lit up things pretty bright. I put the snacks in the sweatshirt’s middle pocket along with a spare flashlight and headed toward Jessie’s stoop. I had hoped to get there before Sam, but I found her waiting to the side of the stoop shining her flashlight under her chin, making “monster faces.”
“Turn that off. What, do you want to do, get us caught before we even get started?” I tried to whisper and yell at the same time.
“Chill out Richie, geez, such a killjoy! Okay.” She shut off the light.
We worked our way to the courtyard. We snuck behind the bushes at the apartment building diagonally across from Igor’s stoop and scoped out the area. All was calm. The bright courtyard lampposts created perfect shadows to hide in, and I was quite sure we were just about invisible, unless someone literally stumbled over us.
“This is so much fun,” Sam whispered to me.
“Yeah, it kinda is,” I had to admit. I think I even smiled, despite an uneasy feeling I couldn’t quite shake.
We waited. I wondered what Sam was thinking. I wondered what would happen. I wondered if this would all be a great big fizzle. I hoped not, but, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think about all the things that could go wrong. The death and dismemberment Mike described was a bit extreme, but getting in trouble, punished, grounded, were very real possibilities, despite all of our careful planning.
Sam reported mission status to the bases via Walkie-Talkie. “Stand by for further reports.” She turned down the volume and stuffed the yellow plastic walkie-talkie in her back pocket.
We made our way to Sam’s stoop, across the courtyard and just about opposite Igor’s place, where we would have the best view. Again, we stayed in the shadows and out of plain view, behind bushes that bracketed the stoop and steps.
Ten minutes passed. Nothing.
Then voices came from an unexpected direction.
“What’s that?” I asked Sam.
“Someone is coming up from the driveway,” She answered.
The unmistakable riffs of Led Zeppelin drowned out the voices, and Andy and Steve emerged from the depths of the driveway. Steve carried his massive radio on his shoulder, and Andy held what was left of six-pack of beer, hanging onto an empty plastic loop where a can of beer had once been. Andy finished his, crushed the can, and threw it into a bush a few doors down from us, where it hung up between the branches like a grotesque ornament. They stumbled toward us, singing and awkwardly faking guitar strokes, while carrying their beers and radio.
This was the last thing we needed! Even Mike had not thought to include a run-in with Andy and Steve in his list of possible calamities.
“Jimmy friggin Page!” Andy announced. They exchanged high fives.
“What jerks,” I whispered to Sam.
The two of them continued up the path that would take them right in front of us, past Sam’s door, and onto the main sidewalk on 146th Street. I hoped we were as hidden in the shadows as I thought we were.
Sam and I remained tucked tight behind the bushes and against the building. Andy and Steve passed us. I sighed in relief. “Amen,” I whispered.
Suddenly, Andy stopped dead in his tracks and turned back toward us. My heart was beating so hard, I could see it under my sweatshirt.
“One sec; gotta take a whiz,” he announced, continuing right at us.
As he got closer, he reached down for his zipper and walked behind the bushes just on the other side of the stoop. I could hear pee hitting the tiny leaves of the bush and dripping down.
“That is so gross,” Sam whispered.
“At least he chose those bushes,” I whispered back, gesturing right with my eyes.
Sam poked me and pointed urgently across the courtyard, and sure enough, out of his apartment and locking the door behind him, was Igor! Of all the luck! Andy and Steve were practically on top of us. Andy hadn’t even finished peeing. We might as well have been chained to the wall - we were completely trapped. We dared not try to sneak out with Andy just next to us, but if we waited much longer, Igor would be gone and likely untraceable. I couldn’t believe that all our planning and execution was about to fall victim to Andy’s beer-bloated bladder. This sucked!
After an hour-long minute, the trickle stopped, and Andy turned away from the bush.
“Whew, I think I killed that bush,” Andy announced triumphantly. Steve was well ahead of him and about to cross to 20th Road. “Hey, wait up!”
Andy was still tugging on his zipper as he jogged to catch up. In the meantime, Igor was already off the stoop, had made a right turn, and was headed for the far path that led down to the garages. He turned on a small flashlight. He carried a box under his other arm.
Still, we couldn’t move too fast. The straight course was directly across the courtyard and right behind Igor, but it was too exposed. If he looked back we were caught dead in our tracks under the light of the lampposts. And should Andy or Steve look over their shoulders, the consequences were no better. We had to creep along the edges and stay in the shadows. We kept Igor in view as we made our way around the courtyard and against the buildings. Thankfully, the sound of Andy and Steve’s radio faded in the distance. Igor moved slowly, and we managed to gain some ground. He made his way down the steps toward the driveway and garages. We paused near the top step.
Sam took out the walkie-talkie. She kept the volume barely audible
“Base 1, Base 2, this is Ghost Walker two. Target acquired. Moving into position.”
“Where the hell have you been?” Bobby asked from Base 1 through a crackling cloud of static.
““We had some distractions, but they’re clear. Maintain radio silence until we report back,” Sam instructed.
“Roger, Radio Silence,” Bobby acknowledged.
Sam rolled her eyes as if to say, “You don’t announce radio silence when you’re maintaining radio silence!” I grinned. Sam was really into her part.
Igor was about twenty paces ahead of us. He shined the flashlight down the path ahead of him. Unless we gave him a reason to look back, I didn’t think he would turn around. He reached the bottom of the steps, and proceeded across the blacktop driveway.
He angled to the left and headed toward the leftmost garage in the attached row. He turned the corner behind the garage and disappeared. I looked at Sam; she looked at me. Cemetery Alley. A chill came over me that went way beyond the cool October air.