"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, May 22, 2020

Spenser tropes: Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker

Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker (1975)

The antagonists

....Harold Erskine's office was small and plain. There were two green file cabinets side by side in a corner, a yellow deal desk opposite the door, a small conference table, two straight chairs, and a window that looked out on Brookline Ave. Erskine was as unpretentious as his office. He was a small plump man, bald on top. The gray that remained was cut close to his head. His face was round and red-cheeked, his hands pudgy. I'd read somewhere that he'd been a minorleague shortstop and hit.327 one year at Pueblo. That had been a while ago; now he looked like a defrocked Santa.

     "Come in, Mr. Spenser, enjoy the game?"

     "Yeah, thanks for the pass." I sat in one of the straight chairs.

     "My pleasure. Marty's something else, isn't he?"

     I nodded. Erskine leaned back in his chair and cleaned the corners of his mouth with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, drawing them together along his lower lip. "My attorney says I can trust you."

     I nodded again. I didn't know his attorney.

     Erskine rubbed his lip again. "Can I?"

     "Depends on what you want to trust me to do."

     "Can you guarantee that what we say will be confidential, no matter what you decide?"

     "Yes." Erskine kept working on his lower lip. It looked clean enough to me.

     "What did my lawyer tell you when he called?"

     "He said you'd like to see me after today's game and there'd be a pass waiting for me at the press entrance on Jersey Street if I wanted to watch the game first."

     "What do you charge?"

     "A hundred a day and expenses. But I'm running a special this week; at no extra charge I teach you how to wave a blackjack."

     Erskine said, "I heard you were a wit." I wasn't sure he believed it.

     "Your lawyer tell you that too?" I asked.

     "Yes. He discussed you with a state police detective named Healy. I think Healy's sister married my lawyer's wife's brother."

     "Well, hell, Erskine. You know all you really can know about me. The only way you can find out if you can trust me is to try it. I'm a licensed private detective. I've never been to jail. And I have an open, honest face. I'm willing to sit here and let you look at me for a while, I owe you for the free ball game, but eventually you'll have to tell me what you want or ask me to leave."

     Erskine stared at me some more. His cheeks seemed a little redder, and he was beginning to develop callus tissue on his lower lip. He brought his left hand down flat on the top of the desk. "Okay," he said. "You're right. I got no choice."

     "It's nice to be wanted," I said.

     "I want you to see if Marty Rabb's got gambling connections."

     "Rabb," I said. Snappy comebacks are one of my specialities.

     "That's right, Rabb. There's a rumor, no, not even that, a whisper, a faint, pale hint, that Rabb might be shading a game now and then."

     "Marty Rabb?" I said. When I've got a good line, I like to stick with it.

     "I know. It's hard to believe. I don't believe it, in fact.  But it's possible and it's got to be checked. You know what even the rumor of a fix means to baseball."

     I nodded. "If you did have Rabb in your teacup, you could make a buck, couldn't you?"

     Just hearing me say it made Erskine swallow hard. He leaned forward over the desk. "That's right," he said. "You can get good odds against the Sox anytime Marty pitches. If you could get that extra percentage by having Rabb on your end of the bet, you could make a lot of money."

     "He doesn't lose much," I said. "What was he last year, twenty-five and six?"

     "Yeah, but when he does lose, you could make a bundle. And even if he doesn't lose, what if you've got money bet on the biggest inning? Marty could ease up a little at the right time. We don't score much. We're all pitching and defense and speed. Marty wouldn't have to give up many runs to lose, or many runs to make a big inning. If you bet right he wouldn't have to do it very often."

     "Okay, I agree, it would be a wise investment for someone to get Rabb's cooperation. But what makes you think someone has?"

     "I don't quite know. You hear things that don't mean anything by themselves. You see stuff that doesn't mean anything by itself. You know, Marty grooving one to Reggie Jackson at the wrong time. Could happen to anyone. Cy Young probably did it too. But after a while you get that funny feeling. And I've got it. I'm probably wrong. I got nothing hard.

     But I have to know. It's not just the club, it's Marty. He's a terrific kid. If other people started to get the funny feeling it would destroy him. He'd be gone and no one would even have to prove it. He wouldn't be able to pitch for the Yokohama Giants...."

....Was it Lester? Was it Maynard with Lester as the straw? It had to be something like that. The coincidence would have been too big. The rumor that Rabb is shading games, the wife's past, Marty knew something about it. He lied about the marriage circumstances, and Lester Floyd showing up asking about the wife and Lester Floyd's name being on the mailing list. It had to be. Lester or Maynard had spotted Linda Rabb in the film and put the screws on her husband. I couldn't prove it, but I didn't have to. I could report back to Erskine that it looked probable Rabb was in somebody's pocket and he could go to the DA and they could take it from there. I could get a print of the film and show Erskine and we could brace Rabb and talk about the integrity of the game and what he ought to do for the good of baseball and the kids of America. Then I could throw up....

...."The irony is," I said, "that Linda Rabb is married to one of the all-time greats of jockdom, and she's being helped by me, with the red S on my chest and the gun in my pocket, and she's the one that saves them. She's the one, while us two stud ducks are standing around flexing, that does what had to be done. And it hurt and I couldn't save them and her husband couldn't save them. She saved herself and her husband."

The Silverman situation

.... I looked at my watch: 11:45. I was supposed to meet Brenda Loring in the Public Garden for a picnic lunch.

     Her treat. I put on my jacket, locked the office, and headed out.

     She was already there when I arrived, sitting on the grass beside the swan boat pond with a big wicker basket beside her.

     "A hamper?" I said. "A genuine wicker picnic hamper like in Abercrombie and Fitch?"

     "I think you're supposed to admire me first," she said, "then the food basket. I've always been suspicious of your value system."

     "You look good enough to eat," I said.

     "I think I won't pursue that line," she said. She was wearing a pale blue linen suit and an enormous white straw hat. All the young executive types looked at her as they strolled by with their lunches hidden in attache cases. "Tell me about your travels."

     "I had a terrific blackberry pie in Illinois and a wonderful roast duck in New York."

     "Oh, I'm glad for you. Did you also encounter any clues?" She opened the hamper as she talked and took out a red-and-white-checked tablecloth and spread it between us.

     The day was warm and still, and the cloth lay quiet on the ground.

     "Yeah. I found out a lot of things and all of them are bad. I think. It's kind of complicated at the moment."

     She took dark blue glossy-finish paper plates out of the hamper and set them out on the cloth. "Tell me about it.

     Maybe it'll help you sort out the complicated parts."

     I was looking into the hamper. "Is that wine in there?"

     I said. She took my nose and turned my head away.

     "Be patient," she said. "I went to a lot of trouble to arrange this and bring it out one item at a time and impress the hell out of you, and I'll not have it spoiled."

     "Instinct," I said. "Remember I'm a trained sleuth."

     "Tell me about your trip." She put out two sets of what looked like real silver.

     "Okay, Rabb's got reason to be dumping a game or two."

     "Oh, that's too bad."

     "Yeah. Mrs. Rabb isn't who she's supposed to be. She's a kid from lower-middle America who smoked a little dope early and ran off with a local hotshot when she was eighteen.

     She went to New York, was a whore for a while, and went into acting. Her acting was done with her clothes off in films distributed by mail. She started out turning tricks in one-night cheap hotels. Then she graduated to a high-class call girl operation run, or at least fronted, by a very swish woman out of a fancy town house on the East Side. That's when I think she met her husband."

     Brenda placed two big wine goblets in front of us and handed me a bottle of rose and a corkscrew. "You mean, he was a—what should I call him—a customer?"

     "Yeah, I think so. How can I talk and open the wine at the same time? You know my powers of concentration."

     "I've heard," she said, "that you can't walk and whistle at the same time. Just open the wine and then talk while I pour."

     I opened the wine and handed it to her. "Now," I said, "where was I?"

     "Oh, giant intellect," she said, and poured some wine into my glass. "You were saying that Marty Rabb had met his wife when she was—as we sociologists would put it—screwing him professionally."

     "Words," I said, "what a magic web you weave with them. Yeah, that's what I think."

     "How do you know?" She poured herself a half glass of wine.

     "Well, he's covering up her past. He lied about how he met her and where they were married. I don't know what he knows, but he knows something."

     Brenda brought out an unsliced loaf of bread and took off the transparent wrapping.

     "Sourdough?" I said.

     She nodded and put the loaf on one of the paper plates.

     "Is there more?" she said.

     "Yeah. A print of the film she made was sold to Lester Floyd." She looked puzzled. "Lester Floyd," I said, "is Bucky Maynard's gofer, and Bucky Maynard is, in case you forgot, the play by play man for the Sox."

     "What's a gofer?"

     "A lackey. Someone to go-for coffee and go-for cigarettes and go-for whatever he's told."

     "And you think Maynard told him to go-for the film?"

     "Yeah, maybe, anyway, say Bucky got a look at the film and recognized Mrs. Rabb. Is that smoked turkey?"

     Brenda nodded and put a cranshaw melon out beside it, and four nectarines.

     "Oh, I hope she doesn't know," she said.

     "Yeah, but I think she does know. And I think Marty knows."

     "Some kind of blackmail?"

     "Yeah. First I thought it was maybe Maynard or Lester of the costumes getting Rabb to shave a game here and there and cleaning up from the bookies. But they don't seem to bet any these days, and I found out that Maynard owes money to a shylock."

     "Is that like a loan shark?"

     "Just like a loan shark," I said.

     A large wedge of Monterey Jack cheese came out of the hamper, and a small crystal vase with a single red rose in it, which Brenda placed in the middle of the tablecloth.

     "That hamper is like the clown car at the circus. I'm waiting for the sommelier to jump out with his gold key and ask if Monsieur is pleased with the wine."

     "Eat," she said.

     While I was breaking a chunk off the sourdough bread, Brenda said, "So what does the loan shark mean?"

     I said, "Phnumph."

     She said, "Don't talk with your mouth full. I'll wait till you've eaten a little and gotten control of yourself."

     I drank some wine and said, "My compliments to the chef."

     She said, "The chef is Bert Heidemann at Bert's Deli on Newbury Street. I'll tell him you were pleased."

     "The shylock means that maybe Maynard can't pay up and they've put the squeeze on him and he gave them Rabb."

     "What do you mean, gave them Rabb?"

     "Well, say Maynard owes a lot of bread to the shylock and he can't pay, and he can't pay the vig, and—"

     "The what?"

     "The vig, vigorish, interest. A good shylock can keep you paying interest the rest of your life and never dent the principal… like a revolving charge… Anyway, say Maynard can't make the payments. Shylocks like Wally Hogg are quite scary. They threaten broken bones, or propane torches on the bottoms of feet, or maybe cut off a finger each time you miss a payment."

     Brenda shivered and made a face.

     "Yeah, I know, okay, say that's the case and along comes this piece of luck. Mrs. Rabb in the skin flick. He tells the shylock he can control the games that Marty Rabb pitches, and Rabb, being probably the best pitcher now active, if he's under control can make the shylock and his employers a good many tax-free muffins."

     "But would he go for it?" Brenda asked. "I mean it would be embarrassing, but the sexual revolution has been won. No one, surely, would stone her to death."

     "Maybe so if she were married to someone in a different line of work, but baseball is more conservative than the entire city of Buffalo. And Rabb is part of a whole ethic: Man protects the family, no matter what."

     "Even if he has to throw games? What about the jock ethic? You know winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

     Wouldn't that be a problem?"

     "That's not the real jock ethic, that's the jock ethic that people who don't know a hell of a lot about jocks believe. The real jock ethic's a lot more complicated."

     "My, we're a little touchy about the jock ethic, aren't we?"

     "I didn't mean you," I said.

     "Maybe you haven't outgrown the jock ethic yourself."

     "Maybe it's not something to outgrow," I said. "Anyway, some other time I'll give my widely acclaimed lecture on the real jock ethic. The thing is that unless I misjudged Rabb a lot, he's in an awful bind. Because his ethic is violated whichever way he turns. He feels commitment to play the game as best he can and to protect his wife and family as best he can. Both those commitments are probably absolute, and the point when they conflict must be sharp."

     Brenda sipped some wine and looked at me without saying anything.

     "A quarter for your thoughts if you accept Diners Club?"

     She smiled. "You sound sort of caught up in all this.

     Maybe you're talking some about yourself too. I think maybe you are."

     I leered at her. "Want me to tell you about the movie Mrs. Rabb was in and what they did?"

     "You think I need pointers?" Brenda said.

     "When we stop learning, we stop growing," I said.

     "And you got us off that subject nicely, didn't you?"

     I had once again qualified for membership in the clean plate club by then, and we had begun a second bottle of wine.

     "You have to get back to work?" I said.

     "No, I took the afternoon off. I had the feeling lunch would stretch out."

     "That's good," I said, and filled my wineglass again....

....[Susan Silverman] made herself another drink. We drank. There was no light on the porch, just that which spilled out from the kitchen.

     "I killed two guys earlier this evening," I said.

     "Have you ever done that before?"

     "Yeah," I said. "But I set these guys up."

     "You mean you murdered them?"

     "No, not exactly. Or… I don't know. Maybe."

     She was quiet. Her face a pale blur in the semidarkness. She was sitting on the edge of a chaise opposite me. Her knees crossed, her chin on her fist, her elbow on her knee. I drank more bourbon.

     "Spenser," she said, "I have known you for only a year or so. But I have known you very intensely. You are a good man. You are perhaps the best man I've ever known. If you killed two men, you did it because it had to be done. I know you. I believe that."

     I put my drink on the floor and got up from the chair and stood over her. She raised her face toward me and I put one hand on each side of it and bent over and looked at her close. She had a very strong face, dark and intelligent, full of kinetic suggestion, with faint laugh lines at the corners of her mouth. She was still wearing her glasses, and her big dark eyes looked bigger through the lenses.

     "Jesus Christ," I said.

     She put her hands over mine and we stayed that way for a long time.

     Finally she said, "Sit."

     I sat and she leaned back on the chaise and pulled me down beside her and put my head against her breast. "Would you like to make love?" she said.

     I was breathing in big low inhales. "No," I said. "Not now, let's just lie here and be still."

     Her right arm was around me and she reached up and patted my cheek with her left hand. The stream murmured and after a while I fell asleep.

The art of cooking

....I made two lettuce and tomato sandwiches on homemade wheat bread, poured a glass of milk, sat at the counter, and ate and drank the milk and thought about where I was at and where the Rabbs were at and where Bucky Maynard was at. I knew where Doerr and his gunner were at. I had a piece of rhubarb pie for dessert. Put the dishes in the dishwasher, wiped the counter off with a sponge, washed my hands and face, and headed for Church Park.

Quirk & Co.

...."Spenser," [Quirk] said. "Thank God you called. I've got this murder took place in a locked room. It's got us all stumped and the chief said; 'Quirk,' he said, 'only one man can solve this."'

....Quirk sat at a desk that had nothing on it but a phone and a clear plastic cube containing pictures of his family. He was immaculate and impervious, as he had been every other time I ever saw him. I wondered if his bedroom slippers had a spit shine. Probably didn't own bedroom slippers. Probably didn't sleep. He said, "Thanks, Frank. I'll see him alone."

     Belson nodded and closed the door behind me. There was a straight chair in front of the desk. I sat in it. Quirk looked at me without saying anything. I looked back. There was a traffic cop outside at the Stuart Street intersection and I could hear his whistle as he moved cars around the construction.

     Quirk said, "I think you burned those two studs up in Saugus."

     I said, "Uh-huh."

     "I think you set them up and burned them."


     "I went up and took a look early this morning. One of the MDC people asked me to. Informal. Doerr never fired his piece. Wally Hogg did, the magazine's nearly empty, there's a lot of brass up above the death scene in the woods, and there's ricochet marks on one side of the big rock. There's also six spent twelve-gauge shells on the ground on the other side of the rock. The shrubs are torn up around where the M-sixteen brass was. Like somebody fired off about five rounds of shotgun into the area."


     "You knew that Doerr was gunning for you. You let him know you'd be there and you figured they'd try to backshoot you and you figured you could beat them. And you were right."

     "That's really swell, Quirk, you got some swell imagination."

     "It's more than imagination, Spenser. You're around buying me a drink, asking about Frank Doerr. Next day I get a tip that Doerr is going to blow you up, and this morning I was looking at Doerr and his gunsel dead up the woods. You got an alibi for yesterday afternoon and evening?"

     "Do I need one?"

     Quirk picked up the clear plastic cube on his desk and looked at the pictures of his family. In the outer office a phone rang. A typewriter clacked uncertainly. Quirk put the cube down again on the desk and looked at me.

     "No," he said. "I don't think you do."

     "You mean you didn't share your theories with the Saugus cops?"

     "It's not my territory."

     "Then why the hell am I sitting here nodding my head while you talk?"

     "Because this is my territory." The hesitant typist in the outer office was still hunting and pecking. "Look, Spenser, I am not in sorrow's clutch because Frank Doerr and his animal went down. And I'm not even all that unhappy that you put them down. There's a lot of guys couldn't do it, and a lot of guys wouldn't try. I don't know why you did it, but I guess probably it wasn't for dough and maybe it wasn't even for protection. If I had to guess, I'd guess it might have been to take the squeeze off of someone else. The squeezee, you might say."

     "You might," I said. "I wouldn't."

     "Yeah. Anyway. I'm saying to you you didn't burn them in my city. And I'm kind of glad they're burnt. But…"

     Quirk paused and looked at me. His stare was as heavy and solid as his fist. "Don't do it ever in my city."

     I said nothing....

Seasons, scenery, and moods.

....I was still living at the bottom of Marlborough Street and the run up to the BU footbridge took about ten minutes. I crossed the footbridge over Storrow Drive and went in the side door of the BU gym. I knew a guy in the athletic department and they let me use the weight room. I spent forty-five minutes on the irons and another half hour on the heavy bag. By that time some coeds were passing by on their way to class and I finished up with a big flourish on the speed bag. They didn't seem impressed....

....THERE'S A BIRD I read about that lives around rhinos and feeds on the insects that the rhinos stir up when they walk. I'd always figured that my work was like that. If the rhinos were moving, things would happen....

....I BOUGHT A POUND of Hebrew National bologna, a loaf of pumpernickel, a jar of brown mustard, and a half gallon of milk and walked back to my car. I opened the trunk and got an old duffel bag from it. I put the shotgun, the shells, and my groceries in the duffel bag, closed the trunk, shouldered the duffel bag, and walked back toward Breakhart.It took about fifteen minutes for me to walk back to my gully in the hillside. I climbed up the hill past it, halfway to the top of the hill, and found a thick stand of white pine screened by some dogberry bushes that let me look down into the hollow and the road below it. I took my groceries, my shotgun, and my ammunition out of the duffel bag, took off my coat, and put it in the duffel bag. I spread the bag on the ground, sat down on it, and loaded the shotgun. It took six shells. I put six extras in my hip pocket and cocked the shotgun and leaned it against the tree. Then I got out my groceries and made lunch. I spread the mustard on the bread with my pocketknife and used the folded paper bag as a plate. I drank the milk from the carton. Not bad. Nothing like dining al fresco. I looked at my watch: 2:45. I ate another sandwich....

....On my desk were bills and some letters I should get to. I put them in the middle drawer of my desk and closed the drawer. I'd get to them later. Down the street a construction company was tearing down the buildings along the south side of Stuart Street to make room for a medical school. Since early spring they had been moving in on my building. I could hear the big iron wrecking ball thump into the old brick of the garment lofts and palm-reading parlors that used to be there. By next month I'd have to get a new office. What I should do right now is call a real estate broker and get humping on relocation. When you have to move in a hurry, you get screwed. That's just what I should do. Be smart, move before I had to. I looked at my watch: 4:45. I got up and went out of my office and headed for home. Once I got this cleared up with the Rabbs, I'd look into a new office....

Not by bread alone

.... I took a cab home and went to bed. I was working my way through Samuel Eliot Morison's The Oxford History of the American People, and I spent two hours on it before I went to sleep.

....Before I caught the shuttle back to Boston, I wanted to visit the Metropolitan Museum. On the way uptown in a cab, I stopped at a flower shop and had a dozen roses delivered to Patricia Utley. I checked my overnight bag at the museum, spent the afternoon walking about and throwing my head back and squinting at paintings, had lunch in the fountain room, took a cab to La Guardia, and caught the six o'clock shuttle to Boston. At seven forty-five I was home.

….It was about ten when I went into the Yorktown Tavern. Already there were drinkers, sitting separate from each other smoking cigarettes, drinking a shot and a beer, watching The Price Is Right on TV or looking into the beer glass. In his booth in the back, Lennie Seltzer had set up for the day.

     He was reading the Globe. The Herald American and the New York Daily News were folded neatly on the table in front of him. A glass of beer stood by his right hand. He was wearing a light tan glen plaid three-piece suit today, and he smelled of bay rum.

     He said, "How's business, kid?" as I slid in opposite him.

     "The poor are always with us," I said. He started to gesture at the bartender, and I shook my head. "Not at ten in the morning, Len."

     "Why not, tastes just as good then as any other time. Better, in fact, I think."

     "That's what I'm afraid of. I got enough trouble staying sober now."

Big gundown

....Three o'clock. The locusts keened at me. Some sparrows fluttered above me in the pines. On the road below cars with children and mothers and dogs and inflatable beach toys drove slowly by every few minutes but less often as the afternoon wore on.

     I finished the milk with my fourth sandwich and wrapped the rest of the bread and bologna back up in the paper sack and shoved it in the duffel bag. At four fifteen a silver gray Lincoln Continental pulled off the road by the gully and parked for a long time. Then the door opened and Wally Hogg climbed out. He was alone. He stood and looked carefully all over the hollow and up the hill at where I sat behind my bushes and everywhere else. Finally he looked up and down the road, reached back into the car, and came out with a shoulder weapon. He held it inconspicuously down along his leg and stepped away from the car and in behind the trees along the road. The Lincoln started up and drove away.

     In the shelter of the trees Wally was less careful with the weapon, and I got a good look at it. An M-16 rifle. Standard U.S. infantry weapon. 7.62 millimeter. Twenty rounds.

     Fancy carry handle like the old BARs and a pistol grip back of the trigger housing like the old Thompsons. M-16? Christ, I was just getting used to the M-1.

     Wally and his M-16 climbed the gully wall about opposite me. He was wearing stacked-heel shoes. He slipped once on the steep sides and slid almost all the way back down.

     Hah! I made it first try. When the Lincoln had arrived, I'd picked up the shotgun and held it across my lap. I noticed that my hands were a little sweaty as I held it. I looked at my knuckles. They were white. Wally didn't climb as high as I had. Too fat. Ought to jog mornings, Wally, get in shape. A few yards above the gully edge he found some thick bushes and settled in behind them. From the hollow he would be invisible. Once he got settled, he didn't move and looked like a big toad squatting in his ambush.

     I looked at my watch again. Quarter of five. Some people went by on horseback, the shod hooves of the horses clattering on the paved road. It was a sound you didn't hear often, yet it brought back the times when I was small and the milkman had a horse, and so did the trash people. And manure in the street, and the sparrows. All three of the horses on the road below were a shiny, sweat-darkened chestnut color. The riders were kids. Two girls in white blouses and riding boots, a boy in jeans and no shirt.

     The draft horses that used to pull the trash wagons were much different. Big splayed feet and massive, almost sumptuous haunches. Necks that curved in a stolid, muscular arch. When I was very small, I remembered, horses pulling a scoop were used to dig a cellar hole on the lot next to my house.

     The riders disappeared and the clopping dwindled.

     Wally Hogg still sat there, silent and shapeless, watching the road. I heard a match scrape and smelled cigarette smoke.

     Careless Wally, what if I were just arriving and smelled the smoke? It carries out here in the woods. But Wally probably wasn't all that at home in the woods. Places Wally hung out you could probably smoke a length of garden hose and no one would smell it. The woods were dry, and I hoped he was careful with the cigarette. I didn't want this thing getting screwed up by a natural disaster.

     I checked my watch again: 5:15. My chest felt tight, as if the diaphragm were rusty, and I had that old tingling toothache feeling in behind my navel. There was a lump in my throat. Above me the sky was still bright blue in the early summer evening, dappling through the green leaves. Five thirty, getting on toward supper. The road was empty now below me. The mommas and the kids and the dogs were going home to get supper going and eat with Daddy. Maybe a cookout. Too hot to eat in tonight. Maybe a couple of beers and some gin and tonic with a mint leaf in the glass. And after supper maybe the long quiet arc of the water from the hoses of men in shirt sleeves watering their lawns. My stomach rolled. Smooth. How come Gary Cooper's stomach never rolled? Oh, to be torn 'tween love and duty, what if I lose…

     Five forty. My fingertips tingled and the nerves along the insides of my arms tingled. The pectoral muscles, particularly near the outside of my chest, up by the shoulder, felt tight, and I flexed them, trying to loosen up. I took two pieces of gum out of my shirt pocket and peeled off the wrappers and folded the gum into my mouth. I rolled the wrappers up tight and put them in my shirt pocket and chewed on the gum.

     Quarter of six. I remembered in Korea, before we went in at Inchon, they'd fed us steak and eggs, not bologna and bread, but it hadn't mattered. My stomach rolled before Inchon too.

     And at Inchon I hadn't been alone. Ten of six.

     I looked down at Wally Hogg. He hadn't moved. His throat wasn't almost closed, and he wasn't taking deep breaths and not getting enough oxygen. He thought he was going to sit up there and shoot me in the back when Frank Doerr gave the nod, which would be right after Frank Doerr found out exactly what I had on him and if I'd given anything to the cops. Or maybe Doerr wanted to fan me himself and Wally was just backup. Anyway, we'd find out pretty soon, wouldn't we? Seven of six. Christ, doesn't time flit by when you're having a big time and all?

     I stood up. The shotgun was cocked and ready. I carried it muzzle down along my leg in my right hand and began to move down the hill in a half circle away from where Wally Hogg was. I was about 100 yards away. If I was careful, he wouldn't hear me. I was careful. It took me ten minutes to get down the slope to the road, maybe 50 yards down the road beyond the gully.

     Still daylight and bright, but under the trees along the road a bit dimmer than midday. I stayed out of sight behind some trees just off the road and listened. At five past six I heard a car stop and a door open and close. With the shotgun still swinging along by my side, I walked up the road toward the dell. High-ho a dairy-o. The car was a maroon Coupe de Ville, pulled off on the shoulder of the road. No one was in it. I went past it and turned into the hollow. The sun was shining behind me and the hollow was bright and hot. Doerr was standing by the shark-fin rock. Maroon slacks, white shoes, white belt, black shirt, white tie, white safari jacket, blackrimmed sunglasses, white golf cap. A really neat dresser.

     Probably a real slick dancer too. His hands were empty as I walked in toward him. I didn't look up toward Wally. But I knew where he was, maybe thirty yards up and to my left. I kept the rock on his side of me as I walked into the gully. I kept the shotgun barrel toward the ground. Relaxed, casual.

     Just had it with me and thought I'd bring it along. Ten feet from Doerr, with the shark-fin rock not yet between me and Wally Hogg, I stopped. If I got behind the rock, Wally would move.

     "What the hell is the shotgun for, Spenser?" Doerr said.

     "Protection," I said. "You know how it is out in the woods. You might run into a rampaging squirrel or something."

     I could feel Wally Hogg's presence up there to my left, thirty yards away. I could feel it along the rib cage and in my armpits and behind the knees. He wasn't moving around. I could hear him if he did; he wasn't that agile and he wasn't dressed for it. You can't sneak around in high-heeled shoes unless you take them off. I listened very hard and didn't hear him.

     "I hear you have been bad-mouthing me, Frankie."

     "What do you mean?"

     "I mean you been saying you were going to blow me up."

     Still no sound from Wally. I was about five feet from the shelter of the rock.

     "Who told you that?"

     I wished I hadn't thought about Wally taking his shoes off.

     "Never mind who told me that. Say it ain't so, Frankie."

     "Look, shit-for-brains. I didn't come out here into the freaking woods to talk shit with a shit-for-brains like you.

     You got something to say to me or not?"

     "You haven't got the balls, Frankie."

     Doerr's face was red. "To blow you up? A shit-forbrains pimple like you? I'll blow you up anytime I goddamned feel like it."

     "You had the chance yesterday in your office, Frankie, and I took your piece away from you and made you cry."

     Doerr's voice was getting hoarse. The level of it dropped. "You got me out here to talk shit at me or you got something to say?"

     I was listening with all I had for Wally. So hard I could barely hear what Doerr was saying.

     "I got you out here to tell you that you're a gutless, slobbering freak that couldn't handle an aggressive camp fire girl without hiring someone to help you. I was splitting my concentration, looking at Doerr as hard as I was listening for Wally, and the strain made the sweat run down my face. I almost grunted with the effort.

     Doerr's voice was so hoarse and constricted he could barely talk. "Don't you dare talk to me that way," he said.

     And the oddly quaint phrase squeezed out like dust through a clogged filter.

     "You gonna cry again, Frankie? What is it? Did your momma toilet-train you funny? Is that why you're such a goddamned freak-o?"

     Doerr's face was scarlet and the carotid arteries stood out in his neck. His mouth moved, but nothing came out.

     Then he went for his gun. I knew he would sometime.

     I brought the pump up level and shot him. The gun flew from his hand and clattered against the shark-fin rock and Doerr went over backwards. I didn't see him land; I dove for the rock and heard Wally's first burst of fire spatter the ground behind me. I landed on my right shoulder, rolled over and up on my feet. Wally's second burst hit the rock and sang off in several directions. I brought the shotgun down over the slope end of the rock where it was about shoulder-high and fanned five rounds into the woods in Wally Hogg's area as fast as I could pump.

     I was back down behind the rock, feeding my extra rounds into the magazine, when I heard him fall. I looked and he came rolling through the brush down the side of the gully and came to a stop at the bottom, face up, the front of him already wet with blood. Leaves and twigs and dirt had stuck to the wetness as he rolled. I looked at Doerr. At ten feet the shotgun charge had taken most of his middle. I looked away.

     A thick and sour fluid rose in my throat and I choked it down.

     They were both dead. That's the thing about a shotgun. At close range you don't have to go around checking pulses after.

     I sat down and leaned back against the rock. I hadn't planned to, and I didn't want someone to find me there. But I sat down anyway because I had to. My legs had gotten weak.

     I was taking deep breaths, yet I didn't seem to be getting enough oxygen. My body was soaking wet and in the early evening I was feeling cold. I shivered. The sour fluid came back and this time I couldn't keep it down. I threw up with my head between my knees and the two stiffs paying no attention.



"....See, being a person is kind of random and arbitrary business. You may have noticed that. And you need to believe in something to keep it from being too random and arbitrary to handle. Some people take religion, or success, or patriotism, or family, but for a lot of guys those things don't work. A guy like me. I don't have religion or family, that sort of thing. So you accept some system of order, and you stick to it. For Rabb it's playing ball.

     "You give it all you got and you play hurt and you don't complain and so on and if you're good you win and the better you are the more you win so the more you win the more you prove you're good. But for Rabb it's also taking care of the wife and kid, and the two systems came into conflict. He couldn't be true to both. And now he's compromised and he'll never have the same sense of self he had before."

     "And you, Spenser?"

     "Me too, I guess. I don't know if there is even a name for the system I've chosen, but it has to do with honor. And honor is behavior for its own reason. You know?"

     "Who has it," Susan said, "he that died a Wednesday?"

     "Yeah, sure, I know that too. But all I have is how I act. It's the only system I fit into. Whatever the hell I am is based in part on not doing things I don't think I should do. Or don't want to do. That's why I couldn't last with the cops.

     That's the difference between me and Martin Quirk."

     "Perhaps Quirk has simply chosen a different system," Susan said.

     "Yeah. I think he has. You're catching on."

     "And," Susan said, "two moral imperatives in your system are never to allow innocents to be victimized and never to kill people except involuntarily. Perhaps the words aren't quite the right ones, but that's the idea, isn't it?"

     I nodded.

     "And," she said, "this time you couldn't obey both those imperatives. You had to violate one."

     I nodded again.

     "I understand," she said.

     We ate for a bit in silence.

     "I can't make it better," she said.

     "No," I said. "You can't."

     We ate the rest of the entree in silence.

     The waiter brought coffee. "You will live a little diminished, won't you?" she said.

     "Well, I got a small sniff of my own mortality. I guess everyone does once in a while. I don't know if that's diminishment or not. Maybe it's got to do with being human."

     She looked at me over her coffee cup. "I think maybe it has to do with that," she said.

     I didn't feel good, but I felt better. The waiter brought the check.

     Outside on Tremont Street, Susan put her arm through mine. It was a warm night and there were stars out.

     We walked down toward the Common.

     "Spenser," she said, "you are a classic case for the feminist movement. A captive of the male mystique, and all that.

     And I want to say, for God's sake, you fool, outgrow all that Hemingwayesque nonsense. And yet…" She leaned her head against my shoulder as she spoke. "And yet I'm not sure you're wrong. I'm not sure but what you are exactly what you ought to be. What I am sure of is I'd care for you less if killing those people didn't bother you."


22 May 2020

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