Five: Opposites Attract

Bombs had to be handled carefully. It took more than just caution. It took a sort of thinking; a way of looking at them; an attitude.

Erwin Beltman had developed that attitude long ago. At least thirty-five years before. That was in 1941. Just two months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That had been when he’d laid his first bomb. It had been difficult, during the war. No one seemed to realize he wasn’t a saboteur … my goodness, not. He had tried to correct that wrong attitude on the public’s part (strange how attitudes played such an important part of things), by sending an anonymous letter to the New York Times , explaining his motives. But those who didn’t call him a saboteur now, called him insane.

It didn’t matter that he wasn’t insane, there was no sense telling them otherwise. They just wouldn’t understand. To people who derived their only pleasure from sitting in front of droning TV sets, someone who searched abroad for a more sympathetic thrill was thought insane.

Erwin Beltman had planted over one hundred and ninety bombs, big and small, in the city of New York in thirty-five years.

That was his thrill; and as he made the bombs, forming them from black powder and plumbing pipe, Erwin Beltman knew he was alone in his thrill. Anyone could watch a TV, but only Erwin could lay a pipe bomb.

But to lay a bomb properly, the right attitude had to be there from the first moment. Erwin thought on that as he rode up the escalator in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He carried the brown paper bag loosely, casually, as though he had nothing in it but his lunch. He walked off the balls of his feet, in the eventuality that he should trip, so that he could regain his balance quickly. He treated the bomb as though it were a young child who only needed slight hand-guidance to cross the street … not a temperamental baby that had to be clutched tightly. He swung the bag from his right hand, letting the sure weight of it almost propel him up the steps of the escalator.

The big bus terminal on Eighth Avenue buzzed and jabbered about him; people moved to and from ticket windows; the hollow bass voice of the announcer filled the building; Erwin Beltman rode silently to the mezzanine.

Erwin stopped at the top of the escalator, turned, and looked down at the clean crowd movement, the solid lines of the Port Authority Building. He moved to the side as a short man in a leather jacket stepped off the escalator. He excused himself politely, but the man shoved past rudely. He watched the ebb and flow of me crowd, watching too, as the leather-jacketed man became just another cell of that monstrous organism. There was so much rudeness in the world today; so little graciousness. Erwin Beltman lounged over the aluminum rail that ran around the short wall beside the stairs. There was such a full pleasure from just standing there, legs crossed, bomb in hand, watching all those scurrying people.

Erwin Beltman felt a great identification with the masses.

The blast of the bus arrival from Ridgewood shattered Erwin’s thoughts as the microphone voice filled the terminal. He turned away, continued in the direction he had been going, with a sort of indefinite sigh.

Ah, it was an indefinite life.

As he passed the candy stand he scanned the headlines of the newspapers. Yes, by jingo, he still beat out the South American revolution, the busing problem and the ball scores for top spot. The Post had a dandy comment:

MAD BOMBER TIPS COPS

ROXY THEATER PIPE BOMB NIPPED!

There was always a certain ring of cleverness to the headlines the Post copy chief dreamed up. But he did wish they would get rid of that monstrous misnomer, “mad bomber.” Erwin Beltman would have been the first one to refute any such title.

Erwin stopped momentarily in front of the black-painted glass of the closed barber shop beside the candy stand. The reflection was poor, but he caught enough of himself to be able to nod his head severely, confide to himself, “I most certainly am not a mad bomber!” His soft brown eyes stared back at him. A mild, gray-haired man in an old, but neat, suit stared back at him. A kindly, intelligent, sensitive face stared back at him.

“Mad bomber. Indeed! ” he murmured, hurrying away from the closed barber shop. “No one can seem to understand that this is just a hobby … just a hobby! A man my age, living off the welfare, well, he just has to make something of himself!”

He wasn’t mad: muggers and junkies and people like the one the papers called the Slasher were mad. He was an artist!

But the ruminations were cut short by sight of his evening’s objective. The phone booth by the escalators. Erwin studied the terrain for a moment.

The empty corridor stretching back behind him, the cool off-yellow brick walls, the lighted number glasses in the walls, announcing what buses were in — on the floor above. The escalators. The silent phone booth.

Oh, fine!

He walked quickly to the booth, and sat down inside, carefully taking the receiver off the hook, planting it under his chin. He turned his back half-toward the glass panels in the phone booth door. That way, hunched over, but with the receiver in view, seemingly in use, he would not be studied too carefully nor be disturbed till the delicate work was completed. Then he stripped the brown paper bag from the evening’s baby.

Oh, wasn’t it just as lovely as anything!

The pipe was shiny, and the powder was stuffed inside just as tightly as Erwin had been able to do it with the soft-faced plunger. The clock-mechanism was not as fancy as last week’s bomb, but then, he’d have to wait till the pension check came in before extending himself with more elaborate equipment. But the hookup device was so much more effective it made up for the lack of fanciness in the clock.

“Oh, if they only knew what a perfectionist I am,” he thought earnestly. “If they could see how seriously I take my hobby, how I’m not just a low prankster. Then they would hold me in greater esteem, I’m sure.”

He taped the bomb to the underside of the ledge beneath the coin box, making certain it was out-of-sight from a natural, normal position. He held the triggering device open with his finger. He removed a bit of cotton-batting from his pocket and wedged it between switch and terminal, allowing him to work unhampered.

The wiring was the most delicate part of all, but he accomplished it quickly, arranging the mechanism so that nothing would happen when coins were put in the slot …

Ah, but when the dial was spun!

Then he set the clock, with a one-hour limit. It was a two-way bomb. If no one came along within an hour, to make a call (and that really seemed unlikely, didn’t it?), then the bomb would go off automatically … and well, perhaps it might catch a passerby or two. There was no way of telling.

Erwin philosophized as he casually strolled back toward the candy stand: “That’s the one thing I so dislike about my hobby: the element of uncertainty, the element of doubt, of chance. Oh well …”

Though Erwin was a sportsman at heart — didn’t he call the police quite often, tell them where the bomb was, approximately? — he still liked to make that kill. Still liked to get the thrill of seeing the bull downed.

That was why he positioned himself behind the late edition of the Post (with that clever headline) near the candy stand, to see what happened. Erwin did not usually linger, as there were other considerations than “watching for the kill,” as he put it to himself. The police were most unpleasant, and once they had almost caught him.

Erwin would not have liked that.

But this time, with the new mechanism, he knew he would not rest easily till he had seen what came of this baby. He leaned against the wall, and watched carefully.

Ten minutes later the college boy bounded up the stairs, swung his head around as though desperately searching for something, and sighted the phone booth. “Hot damn!” the boy said. He chuckled and, grinning, made a sprint down the corridor to the booth. He stood outside for a moment, fumbling in his pocket for change, and finally came up with two nickels.

Erwin’s palms were wet, and he felt a stiffness in his neck. The tension was almost more than he could bear as the boy swung the booth door open and slumped down in the seat. He watched — the boy left the door open — with growing excitement, feeling a flush climb his neck; the boy put the first nickel into the slot. He dropped the second one, and for an instant, Erwin thought he would surely see the bomb when he stooped.

But the boy picked up the nickel, and slipped it in after the first one; he began to dial.

Erwin waited across the street for the arrival of the police bomb squad and the ambulance. They had roped off the corridor.

He decided not to follow the ambulance this time; it had been sweet, a sure thing. What was left of the boy would arrive D.O.A. In sections.

The trouble started for Erwin a month after the Port Authority beauty went up through the top floor, carrying the sophomore from Duke University with it. It started with the flower lady.

Erwin was trying to set a difficult one in the vestibule of the Chanin Building on 42nd and Lexington, just beside the flower shop, when the little old lady came out, and stumbled into him. The package dropped, and Erwin’s eyes leaped open as the pipe bomb appeared. His tongue wadded up like moldy bread as he saw that the woman recognized what it was; he was terribly frightened.

The woman gripped her brown wicker basket all the tighter, the violets in it neatly arranged, and walked away. But she turned and stared at Erwin for a long moment before she went out the side door of the building. Erwin gathered the bomb back into its bag, and stood there watching the revolving door. It seemed to mock him; each glass panel whipped past shusssssh, and with each one he wanted to run after her, make up some story that he was a plumber, silence her. But he knew that would be foolish.

Erwin left by the front way, and walked back up toward Broadway. That had unnerved him. It was bound to happen, of course. But this was the first time anyone had come close to discovering him laying one. The old woman was just a street peddler, and probably stupid to boot, but just the same …

When he stopped at the light, he looked behind him.

She was there.

Following him.

With the basket, with the drawn face, with the gray hair pulled back severely in a bun, like a disapproving school teacher.

The old woman.

Oh, my God!

Erwin hurried around the corner, feeling in his pockets for all the change he carried. He had slightly more than a dollar and a half … not nearly enough to get him uptown to his place, quickly.

He took a quick look behind him; she was rounding the corner. A checker cab was coming down the block, beside the stanchions of the overhead highway that led over Grand Central, and onto Park Avenue.

He flagged the cab, and it pulled into the curb.

“Q-quick, uptown,” Erwin stammered, shoving into the cab, thrusting the bomb in its brown paper bag against the cab’s upholstery.

The cabbie shoved down the flag, and then turned around. “ Where uptown, Mister?” Erwin was very conscious of the driver’s big red face, the soft clicking of the meter, and the hurrying gray shape of the old woman with her basket.

“J-just any, anywhere uptown, but go on, sir, go on, please! ” He urged the man with his hand, and the cabbie shrugged, turned around, rolled away.

As the cab passed the woman, she stopped and carefully watched it. She would get his number, Erwin was sure. Oh, goodness … this was the worst thing that could ever happen. He saw every line of her drawn, old, gray face as they whipped past. He saw her, and knew she saw him.

She was still standing there as the cab turned right, down 42nd. Erwin wasn’t certain, but as the cab turned left again, out of the traffic onto Lexington uptown, he thought he saw another taxi following.

With the flower lady in it.

But he wasn’t sure.

Erwin was frightened; he had seen her eight times since that terrible day at the Chanin Building. She obviously knew who he was and where he lived … had followed him that day. On eight separate mornings, when he had left the building to walk Jefferson, and pick up a morning paper, she had been somewhere nearby in plain sight, as if trying to torment and frighten him.

The first morning, the day after the Chanin affair, he saw her in the doorway of the building across the street, her wicker basket held close to her body, her dull green, grubby coat wrapped tightly around her round little form, and he very nearly tripped over Jefferson’s leash. He hurried away, dragging the chow till it had whimpered alarmingly; he bought his paper in a panic; and he crept back to the building by the next street.

Next day she had been there again.

And a third day.

So it had gone for eight days, till now Erwin was so frightened, and so bewildered that he only peered out through the mildewed drapes covering the lobby doors, till he caught sight of her. Then he would go back to the still, solid room where he lived alone with Jefferson in the too-silent, too-solid loneliness of his old age, and wish she had never seen him.

By the eighth day he had reconciled his problem.

She had not called the police … therefore, she was out to blackmail him. Erwin looked at the empty social security check envelope, recalled what the sum had been when it had come in, and knew instantly that blackmail was not only out of the question — it was ridiculous.

He decided to kill the old flower lady.

It was easy enough, really. All be had to do was prepare a tinier model of the others, all the many others. A smaller pipe, a lot less black powder, a percussion cap, and it was all ready. Just throw it, hit something solid like a face, or a wicker flower basket, or even the sidewalk at her feet, and she would trouble him no more.

He knew she would be out there when he left, so he waited till the late evening. At precisely eight o’clock Erwin emerged from the front of the old brownstone apartment building, and walked briskly up toward Broadway, humming “Silver Threads Among The Gold,” which his mother had sung to him when he had been ever so small back home in Minnesota.

She came out of the shadows and followed him at a respectful distance. Erwin made sure she saw him, and he went down into the subway. She came down after him, trying to keep behind the stanchions, but he saw her.

When the local came, he boarded it and rode downtown to 4th Street in the Village, and got off, making certain she was in sight before he went up the stairs onto the street.

Then past the little park with the old people — not like him, they were really old, and not making something of themselves as he was — and down the dark street, past the shops where the Villagers made inexpensive earrings and belts.

As he passed the winding darkness that was Gay Street, he hurried his steps, and came abreast of the alley he knew was there beyond Gay. He sidestepped into it quickly, knowing she would see him, hoping she would think be was going to plant the brown paper bag there.

He flattened against the wall, like one of the spies in a movie at the Orpheum; and hoping his slight belly bulge would not give him away, he waited quietly, trembling.

It did not. She came to the mouth of the alley, and hardly without a glance, stepped in. He grabbed for her, and shoved her deeper into the alley. His voice came not at all the way he had planned it; Erwin had planned it to be rough and hard, the way the man in the movie’s bad been …

But it was a bit squeaky, instead.

“So! You thought you’d blackmail me, eh? You must think I’m mad like they say, eh? Thought I’d be a sucker, eh?” (He wasn’t at all certain this was the way they talked in situations like this, but it was a bit of a thrill.)

She tried to say something, dropped her wicker basket, and rumbled with the pockets of her dull, grubby, green coat. Her mouth made a squishy sound, and Erwin dragged the bomb from its bag.

“This is the first one I’ve ever made that would kill just one person, but anything to get rid of a nasty snoop like you …”

But the policeman stepped into the alley before he could continue. And the raw light of the flash beam stopped his words dustily in his mouth. The policeman saw the bomb in Erwin’s hand.

“Hey! You! Old man, whaddaya think ya got there! Hey! That’s a pipe bomb … you must be …”

He didn’t finish, nor did he wait to utter those two words of inaccurate description Erwin so despised. He was dragging his big pistol from its holster, and Erwin saw the muzzle rising.

Then from the corner of his eye he saw the old flower lady’s hand come free of her pocket, and there was a snicking sound, and something bright and slim and shining went slashing with a hiss down the alley, passing Erwin, and entered the policeman’s throat.

The blue-coated figure sank to the cement, and Erwin almost gagged at the bubbling sound the officer made as he died. Then the old woman was beside him, saying, “Quickly, drag him back here behind these empty crates!” And then Erwin was straining mightily with the old woman, and in a few moments the policeman was concealed behind the crates.

Then she pulled her knife from his throat, and cleaned it assiduously on the policeman’s jacket, and she was smiling at him, in the dim light from the street. The flashlight was broken, lying beside the policeman.

“You — you killed him,” Erwin mumbled, and he knew he should throw the bomb now, but why?

She took his arm, led him away a step, then stopped.

She went back, got the revolver and tucked it into Erwin’s coat pocket. “That’s right. I’ve been trying to get up enough nerve to speak to you for over a week. I knew we were right for each other when I first saw you.”

Erwin’s mind tumbled and backed up and sputtered like an old car he had owned in 1928. But he could not understand what was happening.

She walked him down the streets of the Village, and after a while they went into Rienzi’s and talked over a pair of cappuccinos with lots of cinnamon.

“You. You’re the one they call the Slasher,” Erwin said softly, marveling. “You’ve bad as many press notices as I’ve had, the last few years.” He could not help but marvel at her. So old and so tired-looking, yet she was so well-known.

“That’s right. And I’ve read about you, too.”

“Well, I’m — I’m pleased to meet you. And I’d like to thank you for what you did back there.”

She waved it off, smiling a tender little smile, and Erwin felt a strange lump form inside him, he hadn’t felt that way since Ellen had died thirty-five years before.

“Where do you live?” he asked, and she told him.

Finally, they knew they would like to see more of each other, and perhaps, well, no one was that old, that a little fine, high-class companionship would not be pleasant.

“You know what they say,” Erwin philosophized, as he magnanimously paid the check and helped her on with her nice green coat, “opposites do attract.”

As they walked out onto the sidewalk, visitors from uptown — obviously tourists — sitting by the window of Rienzi’s, remarked to one another, “Aren’t they lovely. So old and yet so much in love.”

And Erwin turned to the flower lady — whose name was Martha — and he smiled. “Though we use different forms of expression, I’m sure we’ll get along beautifully, and with your check, and with mine, we’re sure to do nicely.”

They walked a little bit, and then Martha added confidentially, “And with that nasty policeman’s gun, well, we can always experiment, Erwin … and perhaps find some common ground.”

Erwin smiled back. Oh, it was compatibility, he could tell that right off.

Contents