Small Town

Page 46



They gave her a receipt for the tape and took it to a technician who tinkered with it electronically to sharpen the focus and increase the definition, then printed out copies. You couldn’t see the face very well, the camera was placed high and to the side, but it was something to work with.

The Sikh at the Getty station looked at one of the prints and said that it looked like the man to whom he’d sold the two gallons of gas. The witnesses who remembered a man who ordered a drink and left without touching it said it was hard to tell, but it was certainly possible that this was the man they’d seen. A man in the burn unit at St. Vincent, who’d gotten a glimpse of the man when he’d been about to launch the second Molotov cocktail at Harrigan’s, said he couldn’t tell; when he pictured the face, it morphed into the features of Satan, horns and all. Maybe it was him, maybe not. He couldn’t tell.

A patrolman, months out of the academy, came up with a suggestion. Collect surveillance tapes for the forty-eight hours preceding the massacre from every available source in the neighborhood—ATMs, liquor stores, check-cashing services, building lobbies, everywhere. Security cameras were all over the place nowadays, you couldn’t pick your nose anywhere outside your own house without a good chance of having the moment recorded.

Nobody ever looked at all those tapes unless something happened—except for the gimlet-eyed lady at the Sally Ann thrift shop, who evidently had time on her hands. They got recycled, over and over, but maybe there were some that hadn’t been recycled yet, and maybe the Carpenter—the newspapers were still calling him that, and consequently so were the cops—maybe the Carpenter had gotten his picture taken somewhere down the line.

A dozen cops went around collecting tapes. Armed with prints made from the thrift shop tape, they and others sat in front of video screens and looked for the Carpenter. A veteran patrolman named Henry Gelbfuss spotted him, on a tape from a Rite Aid drugstore, and everybody agreed it was the Carpenter. He was the man on the thrift shop tape, no question.

The Rite Aid tape, enlarged and sharpened and defined, was still a far cry from a Bachrach portrait, but it was good enough to release to the media, good enough to show on television, good enough to print on every front page, along with a number to call if you recognized the man in the photo.

A lot of people did.

N A I L E D !

That was the headline in the Post, accompanied by an artist’s rendition of the man whose security camera photo had appeared prominently throughout the media the day before. The drawing showed a disembodied hand holding a claw hammer, which had evidently been used to drive a nail through the man’s forehead, pinning him to the wall.

The Daily News showed their artist’s rendition of the photo, with the Carpenter, a hammer in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other, pinned against a similar wall, but held there in this case by searchlight beams. GOTCHA! cried the headline.

The implication seemed to be that the Carpenter had been captured. This may have been intentional—before they got to the newsstand, many New Yorkers would already have learned from radio or television that the city’s most wanted criminal had been at least tentatively identified. They’d be quicker to buy a paper if it appeared to promise a further development in the story.

The text explained that the Carpenter had been nailed, or got-

ten, only to the extent that authorities now knew who he was. A variety of callers ( our readers, the Post labeled them, staking a claim) had agreed that the man pictured in the press and on TV

was one William Boyce Harbinger, sixty-two, the recently retired director of research at Lister Durgen Augenblick/Advertising.

Several of the callers were men and women who had worked with Harbinger at LDA. All had lost touch with him since his retirement in late 2000, and none could offer a clue as to what might have sent him off on a murderous rampage. He was described as a quiet man (“It’s always the quiet ones,” readers all over the city murmured), and none of his coworkers reported having had any contact with him outside the office.

Other callers recognized him from the Upper West Side neighborhood where he had lived for decades, and some were neighbors of the Harbingers in the Amsterdam Avenue apartment building. They agreed that he was quiet, almost reclusive, and no one seemed to recall having seen either Harbinger or his wife in some months.

Police cars from all over Manhattan congregated at the intersection of Eighty-fourth and Amsterdam. Cops surrounded the building, blocked off the exits, filled the lobby. The superinten-dent, summoned from an evening in front of the television set, said that he hadn’t seen Mrs. Harbinger since sometime late the previous year, when she’d been taken from the building on a stretcher.

“They didn’t use no siren,” he said, “so maybe it was too late.” And he hadn’t seen Mr. Harbinger for a long time, either, though he couldn’t say how long. He hadn’t paid his monthly maintenance charges in a long time, but he’d owned the apartment since it went co-op thirty years ago, and paid rent there before then, and the apartment was a very valuable piece of property, owned free and clear, no mortgage, so you knew he’d pay the maintenance sooner or later.

The super had keys to all the apartments, and at one point, concerned that something might have happened to Harbinger, he’d knocked on the door, then let himself in. There was nobody home, and no signs that anything might be amiss. The place was dusty and the air stale, as if no one had lived there recently.

The super thought maybe he’d gone to Florida, something like that. And maybe he was back by now, because the super hadn’t been in the apartment since. His mailbox was never jammed up, it was always clear, so either he was living in there now, keeping to himself the way he did, or at least he was coming by to collect his mail.

The super let the cops into the apartment, and they found it as he’d described it. There were additional bills from the co-op asso-ciation for the monthly maintenance charges, slipped under the door every month, and there was the usual array of menus from Asian restaurants, and the air was stale and the horizontal surfaces coated with dust.

What there was not was any sign of William Boyce Harbinger, or any indication of where he might have gone.

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HARBINGER OF DOOM, the papers called him. Harbinger the Carpenter.

There but for the grace of God, thought Susan Pomerance, go all my favorite artists.

She wasn’t following the unfolding story that intently, the way the rest of the city seemed to be. Chloe, for one, seemed capable of talking of little else. Every new development, every further revelation about the city’s greatest nightmare, informed the girl’s every utterance. The losses the man had suffered, his son and daughter and son-in-law, all killed when the towers came down. And then his wife dying, probably of a broken heart, and was it any wonder he cracked?

Without reading much of the newspaper coverage, without spending much time watching television or listening to any radio news beyond WQXR’s hourly summary, she nevertheless found herself aware of most of the story’s developments.

She heard about the increasing body of evidence suggesting he’d simply walked away from his apartment, turned the key in the lock, and disappeared. He hadn’t collected his mail, after all; instead, he’d rented a post office box and had all his mail forwarded to it. He’d paid rent on the box for three months in advance, and never paid anything further, nor was there any indication that he’d ever visited the box to collect his mail. After several past-due notices went unanswered, a clerk opened his box, marked the first-class mail to be returned to sender, and discarded the rest.

He’d evidently lived in a series of flophouses, all of them in the general vicinity of Penn Station. Why, people wondered, would a man walk away from a comfortable apartment, filled with his furniture and the possessions of a lifetime, to live in a squalid furnished room with the bathroom down the hall?

Susan didn’t find it that incomprehensible. That was one of the things people did when they were in the process of withdrawing, of turning inside. For a fortunate handful, the energies that made them turn inward were somehow magically channeled into art.

Instead of walking onto a factory floor with an AK-47, instead of taking off all their clothes in the subway, instead of murdering their children in their beds, or drinking oven cleaner, or lying down in front of the Metroliner, they painted a picture or fashioned a sculpture. They made art.

And wasn’t all art created to preserve the artist’s sanity? Didn’t they all make art the way oysters made pearls? A grain of sand got into the oyster’s shell, which was to say under his skin, and it irritated him, it chafed him. So the oyster secreted something, squeezed out some essence of its own self, and coated the offending grain of sand with it, just to stop the pain. Layer after layer of this mystical substance the oyster brought forth, until the grain of sand and the pain it had occasioned were not even a memory.

The by-product of the oyster’s relief was the shimmering beauty of the pearl. And every pearl, every single luminous gem, had at the core of its being a grain of irritation.

If William Boyce Harbinger, Harbinger the Carpenter, had been able to so channel his own furious energies, then the roots of his discontent might have brought forth life instead of death. And yet, she thought, you could argue that Harbinger was making his own kind of art, composing it of death and destruction.

He knew so many unusual facts about New York, a neighbor had told a CNN reporter. How the streets were named, and some forgotten event that had taken place on a certain corner a hundred years ago. And a former coworker had confirmed that Harbinger’s only after-hours pastime that he knew of was the study of the city’s history. “He loved New York,” an op-ed columnist theorized, “and the city betrayed him, taking his loved ones from him all in a single horrible morning. And now he is getting his horrible twisted revenge.”

Perhaps, she thought. But perhaps not. Perhaps the city he loved was his canvas, and he was striving to paint his masterpiece in blood and fire.

W H A T E V E R T H E F O U N D A T I O N F O R the Carpenter’s acts, it was unarguable that the man was obsessed. He hadn’t just suddenly lost his temper. He was, if not an artist, unquestionably a craftsman, from the planning of his projects through the selection of his tools to the execution of the finished work. And he managed all this because he was a man obsessed.

She knew a little about that.

She found herself these days in the grip of not one but three obsessions; rather than conflict with one another, they seemed to her to be complementary. Honoring all three of them, serving all three of them, she maintained her sanity.

The first, and surely it was the one that would be most easily justified to the world at large, was her increasing obsession with the works of Emory Allgood. She’d set firm dates now for the one-man show she was giving him. It would open on Saturday, November 2, and would be up for two weeks.

In preparation for the show, she found herself making frequent visits to her storage space, sometimes with no apparent purpose beyond that of familiarizing herself with the work, of absorbing its essence. She had responded unequivocally to Allgood’s constructions from the beginning, and her certainty of its merit only grew greater over time.