I'd only been at the party a few minutes when I noticed him standing in the corner, almost completely hidden from view by the Christmas tree. The first thing I noticed about him was the brown suit he was wearing, for I have an eye for such things even from a distance. It wasn’t an ugly suit; from what I could see it was well-tailored and it looked like it had probably cost him quite a bit. But a brown suit after dark! I’ve always been led to believe that a brown suit at night is the height of tackiness, so I immediately eyed him the way one would any ill-dressed slob. Nevertheless there was something interesting about the way he stood there. He had what I can only describe now as a featureless face. From my vantage point he looked just like anyone else in the world, exactly the kind of guy you meet and forget about two minutes later. I suppose it was the way he stood there that really caught my interest. It was almost as though he was trying to hide. I doubt anybody else noticed him; the other partygoers seemed quite engaged with one another, everybody sipping their champagne and talking and flirting with one another. I don’t think I would have noticed him either if Terry Delaney had kept his word and shown up to the party.
Terry Delaney is a friend of mine, or to put it more accurately, he’s a drinking buddy. I qualify him as such because I only really see him when we’re out drinking together. I can’t remember ever having a serious conversation with Terry, and upon consideration I’m not really sure he’d be capable of having one. We don’t talk on the phone other than to make plans for an evening’s drinking. I couldn’t tell you much at all about how he earns his living, and I have no idea what his family is like, or what religion he practices, or where he buys his clothes. I’m not even sure what color eyes he has. He’s just a guy I drink with. His main pursuit in life is women, with drinking a close second. He’s the kind of guy who, bless his soul, can meet a woman anywhere. He’ll pick up girls in coffee shops, in grocery stores, on a cross-town bus even, not to mention bars and clubs. He’s prolific, really. For this very reason he’s also completely unreliable. When he gave me the address of a loft apartment on Broome Street (a friend’s place, he assured me) and told me he would meet me there around 11 p.m., I should have known better than to believe him.
I showed up at the party at the agreed-upon time, knowing nobody. I didn’t even know who Terry’s so-called friend was, the owner of the apartment. After a half hour spent watching the crowd and sipping vodka and checking my cell phone for missed calls, I decided to engage the brown-suited stranger in a conversation for the very reason that I had nothing else to do. It was too early to rule Terry out entirely, and I hadn’t made any other plans, so I figured I’d bide my time at least a little while longer before I gave up on him. Now I’m no expert at starting up conversations with strange men, believe me. I only decided to do so because I was bored and because it was quite clear that he was alone as well. I started up by asking him for a cigarette.
“Hey buddy, can you by any chance spare a cigarette?” I asked. He looked at me for several long seconds before replying, “Sorry, don’t smoke.”
“Smart man,” I replied. “I plan on quitting tomorrow, like I’ve done the last eight every New Years’ for the past eight years, but tonight I plan on enjoying myself, if you know what I mean.”
He glanced at me with languid eyes and said “Good luck” in a voice so faint it was barely audible.
I managed to bum a smoke from a girl standing nearby, but I decided I would keep talking up this stranger just to see if I could. It was quite obvious that he didn’t want to be bothered, but I figured it would be fun just to see what I could get out of him.
“So, do you know most of the people here?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied. He was monosyllabic, this fellow. I realized that talking to him was going to be a challenge, but as I said, I had nothing better to do. I hadn’t drunk enough yet to be talking to the girls and I wasn’t even sure I was going to stay. I’d decided to give Terry until midnight to show up before I headed elsewhere. At the very least I could find a decent bar over on Spring Street if he didn’t show but I didn’t want to miss the ball drop, as ridiculous as that may sound. In the meantime, if something came up, so much the better for me.
“I don’t know anyone, myself,” I said, starting up again. “I’m a friend of Terry Delaney’s. Of course he’s not even here yet, which leaves me out in the cold, so to speak. You know Terry at all?”
“No,” he replied. “Might know him if I saw him.”’
“Well, I can’t say you’re missing much.” I said with an awkward, forced laugh. “I’m kind of asking myself why I’m here, to be honest. I haven’t seen any girls yet that I’m dying to know, although that might change in a few hours, if you know what I mean.”
“Indeed,” he said softly.
While we were engaging in this decidedly one-sided conversation, I noticed that he stood there almost completely immobile. From the way he had positioned himself, directly in the corner where one wall met the other, it seemed to me that he could survey the whole apartment. I figured this was by design and my guess was that he was waiting for someone to show up, just as I was. Most likely he was waiting for a girl; that would account for his suit, brown though it was, and for the uncomfortable way he stood in the corner. I’d been in that situation before, left waiting for a girl or left alone by her among total strangers, just hoping that someone will bring up college football so I’d have something to talk about without seeming awkward. I could empathize with this man. When I spoke to him only his eyes acknowledged me. The rest of him never moved.
“It’s fun to observe from a distance, though, isn’t it?” I said, trying to kill some time. I had just spotted a short little brunette girl in a silver cocktail dress who I thought was glancing at me over her champagne glass. It was too early to approach her and I was too sober to feel confident talking to her so I’d decided to give it another ten or fifteen minutes. Right after midnight, right when everyone is toasting each other and kissing complete strangers. Ten or fifteen minutes more should do it, I remember thinking. Let the chump she was talking to soften her up a bit with banalities. I needed something to occupy those ten minutes, though, and being conscious of her glance I resolved to appear lost in intent conversation with my friend in the brown suit.
“Take that group of guys over there, for example. Look at how they dress, almost exactly the same, the whole lot of them. I call that the yuppie uniform: dark blazer over striped shirt and jeans. These guys don’t even wear a tie for New Year’s! If I had it my way everyone would be in black-tie, like the old days. It’s an irrefutable fact, if you ask me, that everyone looks better dressed up. Guys, girls, especially girls, everyone!”
“That’s a very interesting point,” he responded. I felt as though I had really made a breakthrough.
“I’m glad you agree,” I continued. “Although take a look at that Asian girl in the little black mini-skirt. I’m not sure a ball gown would improve her appearance any. That thing barely covers her ass, and this on the 31st of December! It takes real commitment to outfit yourself like that in this weather. I might have to have a word with her later.”
I saw the trace of a smile playing on his lips now and I felt like one of the world’s great conversationalists. A caterer walked by with a tray full of plastic champagne flutes and I grabbed two, offering one to my new friend.
“Cheers,” I said, touching my glass to his. “Like I was saying, it’s fun to just sit back and observe others. It’s rare that I actually do this, though. I’m always out there interacting, talking to others, you know? But then I guess you probably noticed that, huh?”
He just smiled again, his eyes meeting mine momentarily before scanning the room once more.
“I wonder where the hell Delaney is,” I asked myself aloud. “You’ve never met a more unreliable guy, I swear. He’d leave you anywhere, anytime, for a girl. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if he met some girl on the subway and followed her to another party. Still, he’s a great one for picking them up, though. Look at that group that just walked in, will you? This is when you need a guy like Delaney around. Just a few minutes to midnight now. Got to love their timing, don’t you?”
A group of five very attractive girls had just entered the apartment. They always seem to roam in packs, I remember thinking. You never just see one at a party. There’s always a few of them together, the better to intimidate any men who might dare approach them. These girls were loud and quite obviously drunk and I laughed to see how everyone checked them out, men and women alike. They were the type that men can’t fail to notice; women, too, I suppose. After unloading their coats on a grateful host, Delaney’s friend, apparently, they held on to each other’s arm and fell over each other and cried out in unison, “Champagne, bartender! Champagne at once!” Their laughter took over the party, quite by design I’m sure, and I noticed that my new friend was now studying them intently as well.
He was squinting his eyes a little now and his jaw was clenched so that I could see its muscles quivering and twitching. I watched his head turn as he followed them across the center of the apartment. Just as the party of girls had reached the wet bar in the center of the room, he turned to me and said, “You’ll excuse me please. Oh…and Happy New Year.”
I guess I was surprised just to hear him utter such a mouthful. I managed to reply with “Thanks, same to you,” as he set his glass down and began walking towards the wet bar. No one was watching him but me, I’m sure, so I’m probably the only one who saw the whole thing happen. He stopped a few feet from the girls and said a name, “Tracy”, I thought it was. One of the girls, I guess it was Tracy, turned at the sound of her name and that’s when he produced a small automatic and shot her three times in the chest. I saw her stagger backward a moment, an utterly blank look on her face, and then she leaned against the wet bar and slid to floor in what seemed like slow-motion. There was silence for probably three seconds and then there were screams and shouts and everyone made a mad rush for the door. Because of where I was positioned, in the back corner away from the door, I was in about the worst possible place to make a getaway. I worried for a second that he might start shooting everyone. He didn’t, though. I saw him place the pistol on the bar and pour himself a glass of champagne and after that I was through the door, down the stairs and onto the street.
Like everyone else I ran a few blocks in a sheer panic and stopped only when I was sure he wasn’t on my tail, pistol blazing. Out of breath, my heart racing, I sat on the bumper of a parked car and put my hands on my knees and took in deep breaths of icy cold December air. I sat like that for a minute or two, trying to catch my breath, and I saw it all again in my head. I saw the little smile he gave me when he wished me “Happy New Year” and I saw the girl’s body slowly sliding to the floor. In a minute I started puking between two parked cars. A crowd of people had congregated on the next corner so I made my way over there. A few minutes later a half dozen police cars arrived. After they had arrested him in the apartment they rounded us up inside a human cordon of sorts and went from one person to the next, taking down names and addresses and statements about what we saw. I was there longer than everyone else. The detective who questioned me was very polite, very professional. He actually bummed me a handful of cigarettes while I talked to him. I told him everything I remembered, just as I’m doing now, and as I went through the story and really thought about what had happened I became even more shaken up.
I didn’t know what to make of it, I guess. It was really something, seeing a girl gunned down like that, and by a guy I had been talking to only moments before. I wanted to know why. Why a man would kill a girl in the middle of a New Year’s party? What had caused that, what transgression real or imagined had provoked that response. Or perhaps he was simply insane. I didn’t know, I still don’t know and I guess I won’t until they cover the trial in the papers.
When I had told the whole story in detail and the detective finally dismissed me, I knew I needed something to get my mind off what had just happened. In spite of the cold night air I decided to walk all the way home. It took me an almost an hour, though I didn’t even notice the cold, and I went to bed immediately. A little after 3 a.m., I got a phone call from Delaney, which I answered gratefully as it was impossible for me to fall asleep. He had met a couple of girls in a liquor store while he was buying champagne and had followed them to a party. They were all going back to his apartment now and they wanted me to join them. Get over here quick, he said, this is one opportunity you don’t want to pass up. I didn’t tell him what I had witnessed earlier. I simply told him I was tired and hung up the phone. Laying there in bed, though, I knew I had hours of sleeplessness ahead of me. I still felt a little sick, and I kept seeing an image of the man in the brown suit wishing me a Happy New Year’s with cold eyes and an expressionless face. After thinking it over a little while longer I got back up out of bed, dressed again and decided to walk the six blocks to Delaney’s apartment.