At 4:13 Sunday morning I was awakened by a woman's scream. This was remarkable for two reasons: 1) I have, in the course of a long and misspent life, slept through two separate earth tremors measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale, and managed to snooze through the better part of Hurricane Camille; and 2) the screamer was some hundred fifty yards away from me, and inside the building, to boot. In addition, both my hatches were closed tightly against the chilly air of a January night. It was some kind of a scream.
I sat up in the V-berth, the hair on the back of my neck bristling. Had somebody really screamed, or had it been part of one of those complicated dreams I sometimes have? I had almost decided on the latter when she screamed again, and I began to hear doors opening and closing and people talking.
I swung my legs out of the berth and groped for some clothes. My jeans and sweatshirt were on the aft settee where I had put them when I went to bed. I groped, found them, and put them on. Then I woke up enough to turn on the light and gave my hair a couple of swipes with the brush. By that time the noise had assumed the proportions of a mob scene in one of those cast-of-thousands epics; I was almost certain I could hear the extras muttering "Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb."
When I got out onto the dock, I could see lights in several of the apartments, and discerned portly figures in nightwear that varied from traditional striped pajamas--all the men, to peach-colored satin and lace--Joan, blue flannelette--Esther, and pink-sprigged white plisse--Sylvia.
The five of them stood on the tiled patio of apartment four and muttered among themselves. The vertical blinds were open; through the sliding glass door I could see Vince, his arm around a sobbing Bunny. She was wearing a sheer, red-and-black nylon shortie over black lace bikini panties, and her hair was all everywhere, as if she'd been tearing at it. There was someone lying curled up in the king-sized bed, unmoving.
"Shut up, everybody," said Joan. "I can't hear a thing." Everyone obediently shut up, and Bunny's muffled voice reached us through the glass door, which was, I noticed, open about six inches. I glanced speculatively at Joan. It would be like her to arrange for maximum information retrieval on the Day of Judgment.
"He's cold, I tell you," Bunny babbled loudly into Vince's shoulder. "Cold. I know what that means. Dead. He's dead, isn't he?"
Vince was less audible. A soothing murmur, ending in "--be all right," was all we could hear.
"No, it's not," cried Bunny wildly. "Everything's not going to be all right. Nick's dead, and nothing's ever going to be all right again! I hate it when people die. I just hate it!" She was beginning to sound hysterical. I decided it was time I got out of the audience and did something.
I slid the glass door open the rest of the way and entered the apartment, to the accompaniment of shocked gasps from the onlookers. I strode over to the tableau by the bed and put my hand firmly on Bunny's shoulder.
"Agnes," I said, "shut up." She broke off in the middle of a wail and stared at me, wide-eyed.
"Not Agnes," she said, momentarily distracted. "Don't ever call me that. My name's Bunny." Then she remembered. "Why should I shut up?" she asked defiantly. "If I can't throw a hissy when Nick's dead, I'd like to know when--"
I looked at Vince. "Is she right about that?" I asked. "Is Nick dead?"
"I don't know," he said impatiently. "All's I know is I came in here after those horrible screams woke me, and this--this girl threw herself at me and started to bawl. I'll just go check--"
He went over to the bed and put his hand on Nick's shoulder as if to shake him awake, then snatched it back again as if he'd been burnt. "Oh, my God," he said in an awed tone. "She's right. He's dead. He's cold and stiff." He shuddered.
"What on earth is going on here, Gin?" Becky, the manager of the apartments, spoke behind me. "We'll have the neighbors calling the police in no time flat. You know how Liz is. I'm surprised we're not teeming with cops already." Liz managed the Captain Kidd apartments next door, and she was a terror when it came to noise, particularly at night. When the people across the canal and two houses down had an outdoor wedding reception and played Madonna CDs at ten Db at eleven p.m., Liz had called the police.
"Okay, Becky, we're going to be all right," I said. "But if Nick is dead, we may have to call in the cops."
"Well, and is he dead?" she asked.
"He's dead," said Vince. "Trust me."