Robert is standing, binoculars in hand, at the windowed wall of the swank Upper West Side apartment he shares with Ernesto, parting the thick velvet curtains just enough so he can see out but no one can see in. It’s Sunday morning; he’s wearing his maroon smoking-jacket with the gold family crest. On a small, ornately carved table beside him is a round white mug filled with coffee and rum, an open bag of wheat-free bread, an ashtray, a pad of paper and a digital SLR with 600mm zoom lens. He watches the joggers trek endlessly by in the park fifteen storeys below.
Ernesto should be there with him, but is in his bedroom, trying to sleep off a hangover. A sudden wind snaps against the curtains and Ernie’s sure the morning sun creeping through the bedroom window like a cat burglar is someone sneaking around his room. He’s a bit paranoid, didn’t have much privacy growing up. Even though he’ll be thirty this year, Ernesto Cavallo only just moved out of his dad’s fortress into his own place. Well, he’s not completely on his own; Bert’s there. Living alone was awesome at first – so unexpectedly liberating. Even through his twenties he had been woken every morning by Lupe coming into his room; he’d lie there embarrassed in his underwear as she walked around, hunched over, putting away his clean laundry, collecting used glasses and muttering in Portuguese; or by his father’s voice barking down the intercom: ‘Rise and shine, Son. We’ll have breakfast by 0800 hours, so we can get out to the range by 0900.’ But after the first few days alone in his new place he started acting like an in-patient, paralysed by his solitude. Hours would pass and he’d just sit in his plush Lay-Z-Boy, staring blankly at the flat-panel widescreen whether it was on or not.
Bert answered his ad, and Ernesto is grateful for his contribution of constant noise to their life. Now he can hear the pounding techno beat from Bert’s stereo in the next room; notices that it is making the golfing trophies on his dresser vibrate. He reaches for his bedside walkie-talkie as he climbs to his knees, parts the curtains and reaches for the monocular that hangs from the cord.
‘Red Eagle to Blue Panther. Red Eagle to Blue Panther.’ He drops the radio amongst his pillows.
Is she there yet? Has he overslept? Desperation gallops across his face as he nervously scans the park for the object of his obsession. His crush, the love of his life, the woman about whom he keeps a detailed log of sightings and activities, is nowhere to be seen. She jogs on a strict schedule. He searches his room in vain for the time – a watch, a clock. Does he own either of these? It looks as if it’s rained all night, but the warm autumn sun, muddy jogging paths and glorious smell of wet asphalt never fail to pack the park with leisuresuits and take-away coffee cups. When he doesn’t immediately see her he panics and rushes into the den where he knows Bert will already be in position, binoculars in hand, taking notes.
‘What time is it?’ Ernie says urgently. His hands go through his dark bed-ruffled hair. How will he maintain authority with this behaviour? he scolds himself in his father’s voice.
‘Time for you to get a watch!’ Bert, as expected, is already immersed in surveillance, his hand scribbling madly at a notebook on the table as his gaze remains glued to the park. Doesn’t this guy ever sleep? Ernie scowls at the jacket with the gold crest of that fake pretentious family Bert does not belong to.
‘Why are you so chipper this morning?’ Ernie grunts, sarcastic. ‘You been up all night, junkie?’
‘Nah, nah. Stayed at one of the Jennifers’ last night. You know, the one with the ass? Rrrruff! That’s one nasty little girl! She wanted to do it all night, man. Couldn’t get a wink in. I was gonna try and go back to bed but on my way home I saw your girl Raquel go into the park and then she was talking to one of the Pretty Boy Blues. So I couldn’t let it go. You’re missin’ all the action, man.’
‘What? When? Is she still there?’ Ernie quickly selects his favourite pair of SuperVision goggles from the stainless-steel briefcase open on the coffee table, straps them to his head and joins Bert at the windows. His gaze pauses on his own balcony, as he remembers the Real Estate Barbie who showed him the apartment. How her hair and skirt were blowing around in the wind as she had stood at the rail, telling him how much chicks loved a place with a view. That its proximity to Central Park made it ‘priceless’. But they never went out there any more; the Super looked after the plants and they had decided it was better, safer, to stay behind the thick velvet curtains that separated their den of deception from the street, the park, the city.
‘So, out with it, what’d I miss? You been logging it all?’
‘Of course, baby. I got your back! So, this morning, I’m on my way home, right? Minding my own business and then suddenly, bam! There’s your girl, Raquel Welch, coming out of the Parkside Manor! I almost said hi to her – you know, wasn’t expecting to see her there so just thought, There’s someone I know.’
‘What was she doing at the Parkside? She lives on the other side of the museum.’
‘I know! I think she’s getting some on the side. But when I look on the spreadsheet we got no one who lives at the Parkside. So, Ernie: you, my man, have a new mission.’
Bert pokes a finger at Ernie’s shoulder and he flinches. Raquel is Ernie’s mark, exclusively; he feels a sharp pang of jealousy at the thought that Bert has seen her doing something so personal, so dangerous.
‘All right, I’ll find out who she visits there.’ Ernie tries hard not to show his annoyance. He is supposed to be the leader of The Project, give the orders.
The Project: a title that validates their unconventional pastime. At first Ernie could not imagine a more perfect room-mate. From the first day it was so easy. He had the lush apartment, invited people round to see it, to rent out a room. Such a professional, businesslike thing to do. Ernie felt very grown up having gained authority over his own space. The buzzer rang and he opened the door, full of his own bravado. Bert. Ernie. They’d found the joke amusing in their email correspondence. But they both swore the sweaters were not planned. There was Robert in a new blue and green striped number from the Gap, eighty per cent cashmere, dry clean only. Before meeting eyes they had stared at the sweaters. Ernesto was wearing the exact same one, but in red and orange. Then they laughed.
‘Good look,’ Robert said, giving Ernesto a playful fake upper-jab, undercut punch.
‘Hey, Ernie.’ He charged into the room. ‘Hey, you mind if we put on the end of the Knicks game? I’ve got five Franklins on it.’ He grinned, grabbed the remote from the marble coffee table and moved in a week later.
It only took about a week for them to settle in, and realize that neither had much to do, they were both homebodies during the days. They had the same taste in everything, from women (yes) to drugs (please) to attitude (whatever), career (yes, Father, I understand), hobbies (all of the above). They even had similar trust funds. Imagine that! So a month later they were stoned and hung over, slumped on the couch, when the infomercial for the radio headsets came on television: ‘**Call Now! Just $49.99 when you buy a pair of limited-edition SpyTech v2.0 Professional Binoculars. Call within the next hour and receive FREE shipping!**’
Bert and Ernie simultaneously reached for their cellphones.
Once the binoculars arrived things escalated quickly. Really getting to know their neighbours was far more addictive then either had anticipated. The obvious thing to watch from their window was the park. It was like a real-life soap opera playing out before them, just for them. And it was a well-rounded cast, complete with couples arguing and making up, artists loitering on the lawnsand health-nuts doing tai chi. Plenty of transgressive behaviour with the drug deals and occasional night-time violence, the intermittent conspiracy-based meeting of smart-suited gentlemen, searching for a place to talk away from the threat of wire taps.
The logs had started casually, they thought they might start a blog, and The Project was born. For the first time Ernie felt like he had something to get out of bed for in the morning. With Bert beside him he developed a new self-confidence. The structure of it, the careful recording, the occasional embellishment; his hours were filled, and fulfilling.
After the binoculars came the Soviet Spy Monocular that Ernie hung by his bed, the SuperEar Sound Enhancer System systematically deposited in trees within range, the Tele Monitor 2000 (why they decided to tap their own phone is still unclear), and the 007 Wristwatch Cameras with 10x digital zoom, every spoiled boy’s wet dream. Inspired by their new props they let their innocent hobby evolve into a full-blown obsession.
So here they are now, watching, recording everything.
‘The Parkside, huh?’ Ernie looks at a street map taped to the curtain before them. ‘And did she spend the night?’ He inserts a pushpin.
‘She had to’ve. Sun wasn’t even up when I was coming home, and she was rushing out of there like she didn’t want no one to see her, you know?’
‘What were you doing there again?’
‘Wait, it gets better.’ Bert ignores Ernie’s suspicion. ‘So I rush home, right, grab my eyes and run up to the lookout to get a better view. I lie down in position and guess who comes out of the Parkside Manor not five minutes later?’
‘Who?’ asks Ernie.
‘Mussolini!’ Bert jumps a little into the air, causing his spiked hair to wobble back and forth before the sculpting gel reaffirms its authority.
‘Well, that must just be a coincidence. No way she stayed there with him.’ Ernie shoves an entire piece of bread into his mouth, hands one to Bert.
‘Yeah, I know, but now we know where he lives, too.’
‘Man, that guy gives me the creeps. You want to go diggin’ in his life, that’s your job. I’m keeping my hands clean of that one.’
‘Whatever. He’s harmless, just some crazy old guy. I wouldn’t have expected him to be at the Parkside, though. Always imagined him living in some project with like twenty women and babies wrapped in wool blankets ’n’ shit.’
‘You’re an asshole, Bert.’
‘C’mon! That creepy Hitler moustache!’ Bert raises his index finger below his nose and purses his lips together. ‘The dirty trench coat. The fur hat! You can’t tell me he’s Fifth Avenue material.’
‘You never know. Maybe he’s in the Mafia or some shit. There’s something about him. He’s no run-of-the-mill immigrant. Not like your shady German ass.’
‘Ah, piss off, Ernie. My parents came here like for ever ago. So did yours.’ Bert pauses and stares out at the park. His eyes are following a middle-aged Middle Eastern woman power-walking a pit bull. ‘At least I’ve been up and recorded it all in the log. If I had been sleeping all day like some people we would have missed it.’
‘I’m gonna get some coffee.’ Ernie slides the goggles up on to his forehead and stretches his arms above his head. He doubts Bert has recorded it all in the log, as he glances back into the room and notices the Project computer is not powered on.
‘Wait, wait! There she is!’ Bert pulls at his arm. ‘And she’s with that Pretty Boy Blue I told you about!’
Ernie snaps the goggles back into position and re-parts the curtains. Sure enough, there she is. He hasn’t missed her after all. Raquel Welch is jogging, as she does every morning, past their luxury apartment. But it is not every morning that one of the Pretty Boy Blues has the courage to talk to her, let alone jog with her.
About the joggers: they’re the most consistent presence in the park, the easiest for the boys to keep tabs on because they tend to have regular schedules. The dog walkers will be there most days, but their intrigue gauge is much lower, as they’re usually just on their cellphones or throwing balls and following their mutts around with plastic bags on their hands. But the joggers, sweating, determined, desperate: they are worth watching. Worth following.
So there are the Jen Jenny Jennifers, groups of college-aged girls who come to the park together around noon, barely work up a sweat in their assorted university hoodies before sitting down to gossip. Then there are the Juicy Girls, their sworn rivals, Puerto Ricans down from Harlem, all made up and decked out in velour sweatsuits, trying to meet some Wall Streeters. Of course there are the John Johnsons and the Steve Stevensons, the beer-bellied middle-aged men who leave their poor wives in Queens with the kids on the pretence of going jogging, but once in the park will find any excuse to not actually exercise.
But Ernie doesn’t really care about any of them. He only has eyes for Raquel Welch, an obsessive jogger who pushes herself hard, sometimes runs until she staggers. She runs every morning, sometimes in the evenings, too. She has an endless catwalk of tracksuits, Puma and Prada mostly, and when it’s cold she wears a sexy headband of white fur around her forehead, her dark-brown hair swaying from a tight, impossibly high pony-tail. She has long legs and an ample bosom that bounces as she runs, as she apparently hasn’t caught on to the sports-bra trend. He wonders if this gives her back problems. He’s bought her numerous support bras, but never worked up the courage to give one to her. She has thin tanned fingers and high cheek-bones. He’s sure she’s European.
Sometimes during the day at his father’s office Ernie catches himself doodling, fantasizing about her. His dad’s in politics, and runs a CCTV monopoly in mid-town. Ernie only makes it in once or twice a week, but even then he can’t concentrate: the army of sensuous, overly friendly women who work for his father all remind him of her. And the way they all listen to, obey, his father; the Senator seems to have control over all of them.
One such fantasy involves going around to Raquel’s apartment during the day when her rich old husband isn’t at home and being invited in, ostensibly to help her fix something, then ravishing her on the kitchen table, or in the laundry room, or some other vortex of domesticity.
With his eyes closed he pictures her when he is screwing the ditzy Jimmy Choo girls he and Bert bring home from the bars every weekend. They giggle and bat their eyelashes, thinking it will make up for the fact that they have no idea what to do with a cock. But Raquel Welch, she is a sex goddess. She would do anything asked of her, with precision and skill, could get him off without a tedious tutorial. He owns all her films on DVD, and usually puts on Le Fate, his favourite, before he goes to sleep, whether he is alone or not.
As he watches her in the park now, Ernie tries to imagine what she would have been doing at the Parkside Manor that morning. Most likely, she is having an affair. This sort of woman is not likely to be sincerely in love with the seventy-plus man she lives with. At least it will go into the log that way. Ernie has followed her enough times to know that the man she lives with is not her father, although he is certainly old enough. Once a week the old fart puts on a suit and is chauffeured to Madison Ave and East 62nd: board meeting. But here is a new piece of the puzzle: Raquel Welch seen leaving Parkside Manor, 5 a.m. Sunday.
Ernie pulls an orange corduroy beanbag up to the windows and sits down, crossing his legs. He makes some notes in a sketchpad. Bert brings him another mug of rum and pulls up next to him in an electric-blue bag of the same sort. Raquel looks like she’s been at it for hours, and he wonders if she has been doing the full six-mile loop and, if so, how many times. In the evenings she tends to take the short cuts, but it’s almost always full laps in the mornings. It’s good exercise for Ernie, trying to keep up with her.
Now Ernie looks over at Bert, whose face is magnified five times by his goggles. He sees Bert’s pale pink lips, his unshaven chin. He is sucking on a joint, passing it to Ernie.
‘’Ere, hold this, man. I’ll be right back.’ Bert hands the thin paper to Ernie, rolls out of his seat and monkey-crawls, then trots off down the hall towards his bedroom. Ernie waits, holding the joint, smokes some, waits some more. Bert doesn’t come back.
Ernie shrugs it off, goes over to the table and boots up the computer, begins surfing through the logs. In the beginning they had divvied up the ‘joggers’, basically everyone who frequented the park, thus making it into their story, and each was given their own marks to watch. It made it easier. But as Ernie skims through Bert’s logs, he notices, as he had begun to suspect, that Bert is watching and following only women, all the women, and following them too closely. He hadn’t bought Bert’s story about how he just happened to be passing the Parkside that morning. Now he reads about date after date that Bert has been on with nearly every woman they have a record of setting foot in the park. Sure, they both date the Jennies, but that’s different. They’re college girls, young and single, and they want to go out with hot rich faux-European guys. They love it.
But Bert is going after the elderly women with dogs, the multi-tasking moms with strollers, the female halves of the arguing couples. He has followed them all.
They started out on the same page. At least Ernie thought they had. They know what they are doing is wrong on some level, but they don’t feel they are really breaking any of the important laws. It’s just for fun. Anyone who chooses to leave their curtains open cannot possibly fool themselves that no one can see in from the surrounding towers. And the park is fair game, plain sight, public domain. They are just people-watching, after all. Everyone does it.
He reads on, file after file. How much of it can possibly be true? Could Bert really have slept with the power lesbians who play tennis on their lunch break? Would he actually steal a collection of antique Fabergé eggs from the sweet old granny with the Scottie? Does he have it in him to chase down and bludgeon a teenaged mugger? The more Ernie reads the more he becomes convinced it is all fiction. It has to be. Where could Bert even have found the time to do all these things? He would have to be sat in the apartment all day. He would need to have disguises if he was going into the park that often.
Ernie can hear Bert in his room working out, screaming out with each bench press or bicep curl. Wasn’t he supposed to ‘be right back’? What’s he getting pumped up for? Ernie knows the entries are most likely the result of a few nights of cocaine and whisky dinners, but can’t help feeling suspicious. At the very least Bert has undermined The Project by filling the logs with fantastic adventures of deceit and deliverance. At worst, he is a psychotic lunatic with delusions of grandeur who has taken it upon himself to single-handedly make an impression on the entire neighbourhood.
Ernie gets up from the desk and paces the room. Running his fingers through his hair he thinks about what he should do. He won’t have The Project made a mockery of. His suspicions have been right. He will have to confront Bert. But it won’t be pretty. Bert is bound to get defensive. If it comes to blows now, Bert will win for sure: he’s been working out, his muscles warmed. No, now is not the time. Give the information some time to sink in; form a plan of attack. Yes, Ernie will watch him a bit, see if he really is doing the things he says; in that way regain control.
He creeps into the top of the hall, stopping opposite the bathroom, just feet away from Bert’s door. From this position, Ernie knows from experience, he can quickly duck into the bathroom if he hears Bert coming. He presses his ear to the wall, holding up between them a palm-sized flat metal disc. An Invisible Walls sound amplifier, $19.99 on spy.com. Ernie ruffles his eyebrows. Bert is no longer working out, but smashing about; sounds like he’s throwing things against the walls. What is that maniac up to? Ernie takes his notepad and pencil from his robe pocket and scribbles a few words.
Returning to the den he tiptoes over to the leftmost window and pulls back the curtains. Quietly he cracks open the door and extends a small mirror on a hinged metal arm towards Bert’s window. Damn, the paranoid bastard has drawn the curtains. The mirror goes back into his pocket. He hears Bert’s door fly open abruptly, footsteps in the hall. Ernie turns around expecting to face him, but there is no one there. He waits. Silence. Cautiously he slippers across the room, just far enough that he can see into the kitchen, grab a reflection off the black glass oven. He thinks he sees a movement, a flash of gold. The crested jacket? Then nothing.
Ernie backs across the room and resumes a position at the farthest window from the hall. There is no way Bert can cross the entire room without him hearing it. Raquel has finished her run, is stretching by the small pond over towards the Met. Lunges, squats, calisthenics. In his notepad he records it all and returns to the computer to log the morning’s events, keeping one eye on the hallway. But when he opens the Raquel folder he finds there has been a new entry since he last wrote. And since Raquel is his mark this is uncalled for.
Double-click: open file. It is not in his style of writing at all. The font is different; the typeface tiny; it begins with sprawling run-on sentences populated with ‘dude’, ‘man’, ‘you know’, and other such unprofessional colloquialisms that Ernie keeps out of his own writing. The Raquel File has been polluted. And when he reads the report his temper flies out of control. His nostrils flare, his face grows hot and swollen with anger. When he has finally had enough he stands up so violently the chair goes flying backwards across the polished hardwood floor.
Ernie charges down the hall, ready to confront him. But Bert meets him at the door to his bedroom, as if he knows Ernie is coming.
‘Did you take my knife?’ Bert asks as Ernie runs right into him in the doorway.
‘What? No, why would I take your knife?’ Ernie steps back.
‘It’s not where I left it. I keep it in a specific spot, always, I always put it there.’ Bert turns and points vaguely back into the stuffy room. ‘And now I can’t find it. It’s not anywhere in my room. It’s not where I put it.’ He’s ranting, sweating.
‘Oh, it’s not where you put it after you used it to attack Raquel on Thursday?’ Ernie throws it out there. It’s now or never.
Bert is taken aback. For a moment he forgets about The Maniacal Rage of the Lost Knife and looks up to the right, searching for words with which to defend himself.
‘What are you talking about? I didn’t attack anyone! What the fuck . . .?’
‘Give it up, Bert! I read the logs. What, you thought I wouldn’t see it? You know she’s mine. That’s my project! How could you? You know, you’ve really gone over the line this time.’ Ernie pushes him back into the room.
‘Hey! Get off me!’ Bert stumbles back. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’
‘Oh, don’t I? I read what you did, you sick freak! Aren’t there enough bitches in the park? Why’d you have to go after mine?’ Ernie pushes him again. Bert retaliates with a strong shove that sends Ernie flying back against the wall.
‘I didn’t do anything! She wanted me there. And half the stuff you read in that stupid log didn’t even happen. I made it up, you dick!’
‘Oh, she wanted you there? Yeah, I don’t doubt that when you showed up and started sweet-talking her she let your sleazy ass in. But that’s no excuse for what you did!’
‘What? What is it you think I did?’
‘Oh, you don’t remember now? So you didn’t push her down on the couch and cut her dress off when she tried to throw you out?’
‘She didn’t try to throw me out! That bitch was begging me to stay, stripping off all her clothes. She wanted me, man!’
‘Fuck you! I saw what you wrote! How she asked you to leave and what she said to you and you went mental and pulled your knife on her! You fucking prick! Are you trying to get us both arrested! You’re way out of control!’
‘I’m out of control?! You are the one going mental now! You’re in my room all screaming and shit, accusing me of all sorts! This whole thing was your fucking idea, remember?’
‘You wrote it down! You might have been fucked up, but you wrote it down, you miserable shit. You can’t lie about it now. That is not what The Project is about!’
‘Oh and what is The Project about then?’ Bert mocks him, waves both hands in the air next to his face. ‘Huh, Ernie? You’re so obsessed with just watching everyone and recording. For what? I’m sorry but I can’t watch someone’s behaviour and get to know them and follow them and then hide in the bushes like a coward and not talk to them. They’re a part my life, too, you know!’ Bert’s voice quivers, and Ernie thinks he sees a tear well up in Bert’s eye.
‘That does not mean you can take advantage of them and use them!’
‘Oh, you don’t take advantage of them!? You don’t follow the Jennies to school and pretend to be in their classes? I’ve seen their notebooks in your room, I know you follow them to acting or dance or whatever-the-fuck. Don’t you dare act like you are all Mr Perfect and you haven’t ever gotten into one of those bitches’ bedrooms under false pretences!’
Now Ernie is taken aback. How does Bert know all that? He’s been so careful.
‘That’s different and you know it! I’ve never pulled a knife on anyone! I’ve never forced myself on them if they ask me to leave. You’re a fucking psychopath if you’ve done half the things you wrote in that journal! And if you haven’t you’re going to end up paying for it anyway when the cops come round and haul us both in for the shit you wrote!’
Ernie shoves Bert’s left shoulder back with his right hand.
‘I told you to stay the fuck off me, man.’
Bert shoves him back, opposite shoulder, opposite hand. Ernie returns it; back and forth they push each other until Bert takes a swing at his chin.
This sets it off and they wrestle each other to the floor. Over and around they roll, knocking into bookshelves and emptying Bert’s mini-bar of its assorted bottles, until Bert gets Ernie into a headlock and holds his forearm flexed tight against Ernie’s throat. Ernie claws at him and kicks his legs out on the floor. He flails and fights, and tries to wriggle out of the hold.
Finally he gets his elbow back into Bert’s side, and Bert lets go. Ernie coughs and pants and crawls across the room to slump against the wall that is now dripping with liquor. He catches his breath as Bert climbs to his feet and slowly crosses the room towards him.
‘What the fuck, man?’ Ernie breathes. ‘You could have fucking killed me!’
‘Oh, and you weren’t trying to kill me just now?’
‘No, Bert. I wasn’t.’
They stare at each other for what seems like ages. Finally Bert moves towards the door.
‘I’m going for a walk. Somewhere other than the park.’
He leaves Ernie in the room and storms out. Ernie hears ceramic smashing on the kitchen tiles, what sounds like a book hitting the wall, the slamming of the hardwood door. He hears the elevator ding, the heavy doors squeak open and close, then silence.
Ernie drags himself to his feet, into the bathroom where he sticks his head in the sink and drinks the stale tap water, spitting it back mixed with his own warm blood. Wiping his face with his bathrobe sleeve he walks wearily into the den and back to the windows. He picks up Bert’s binoculars from the beanbag where they were abandoned and parts the curtains. Bert is crossing the road, jogging through the gate, into the park.
‘There you go, that’s right,’ Ernie says aloud as he watches his room-mate through the binoculars. He picks up his schedule book from the floor next to the beanbag, checks the clock. Nearly noon. Mussolini will be out for his morning walk any time now. Yes, there he is, right on cue. Walking towards Bert. But what’s that he has in his hand? Shiny, silver. Is that . . .? Ernie turns the focus wheel on the front of the binoculars to zoom in closer. Yes, he’d recognize it anywhere. It is Bert’s knife. But how did he . . .?
‘Ooh, this is gonna be good,’ Ernie says as his grin widens and he reaches for his notepad.