A Good Lie
The first of the men had arrived at a quarter to seven, and by ten after the hour, all who were going to attend the meeting had shown up in the small, irregularly-shaped Roosevelt Conference Room of the Marriott on Old Walt Whitman Road in Melville, New York, on Long Island (not nine miles from the Peninsula Golf Course in Massapequa). The six men who came to the hotel that evening—like those who'd come the previous two evenings—did so because of an 1/8-page display ad in the Suffolk County edition of Newsday soliciting focus group participants to discuss golf clubs—J. Archer clubs in particular, the new J. Archer driver (the "Mjollner," named for the hammer of Thor) more in particular. The ad had called the meetings for six-thirty; had that been a tee time and not that of a purely voluntary conference, Ted Harris knew, all of the men who came out—all between forty and fifty, like Ted himself—would have been there promptly, likely early. But considering the price of J. Archer's highest-end equipment (and membership and greens fees) each man—with one exception, perhaps—was probably wealthy enough to do things at his own pace, on his own schedule. So it was that only at 7:15 that Thursday night in June did Ted Harris introduce himself and get the give-and-take underway.
"Welcome," Ted said, closing the door of the conference room and taking the seat at the head of the conference table. "And thank you for coming out tonight. Of course, we're all here because we love to golf, and we love to golf with J. Archers." The others around the table nodded in enthusiastic agreement. "As you know from the ad, one of you will win a day of play for four at Bethpage Black, site of the '02 Open. If you've played Black, I don't need to tell you that it's an experience. And if you haven't had the pleasure...well, if you're lucky, maybe you will soon. For the drawing, I'll need a card from each of you, if you've got one on you. In fact, why don't we take care of that now," Ted suggested, as if it had just occurred to him. "Oh," Ted added. "Do me a favor and jot your home address on the back. Thanks."
Ted had a fresh yellow legal pad on the table before him. The tape at the top of the pad displayed the imprint Gutnick, Harris & Irslinger, LLP. He was the Harris, of course. Irslinger was Gutnick's insufferable son-in-law. And Gutnick was...well, the less said about Harold Gutnick, the better, may he rest in peace. Ted uncapped a fountain pen and fought the urge to cross out the first name in the firm name...then wondered, though he hadn't the previous nights, if he shouldn't try to obscure the tape in its entirety, lest he give away too much about himself...but ultimately he dismissed the thought as overkill (and stifled an inappropriate smirk at that thought).
When cards from all six of the other men in the room had reached him, Ted arranged them around his legal pad in the same order as the men were sitting around the table. "Great," he said. "So, speaking of courses...let's get to know each other a little by finding out where you gentlemen like to play. Wait—Does anybody already know anyone else?" The men looked at each other, then shook their heads. "Sometimes it happens," Ted commented. "There are only so many of us." He should not have said us, Ted realized, but was confident that the slip went unnoticed. He couldn't have said why, but his...game was off that third night. He forged ahead. "We'll go around the table. Just start by giving your name. First name is good enough. You're up," he said to the man to his right, allowing himself to stop speaking for a bit and find his groove again.
"Ah, sure, hi. My name is Dave. I've been golfing since I was...I'd say eleven. My dad taught me. I've played mostly here in the States—Pebble Beach, Scottsdale, Sawgrass, Doral...but I've also played Royal Troon, and it was everything I'd heard."
"Great, Dave," Ted said, taking notes. Bill went next, then Jim, then Larry, then Steve, then, improbably (but confirmed by his card), another Steve, each mentioning what he thought were the most impressive courses he'd played on, or the most interesting or most challenging. Each man must have appreciated that one-upsmanship could easily keep them there all night, and yet there'd be little point to it, for no man in the room had anything to prove, not to the other men in the room, anyway, did he? In the end they'd all probably wind up having similar stories about the same or similar rounds on the same or similar courses. And the point of the evening, in any event, wasn't to talk about themselves but to talk about a company's product and maybe to offer some suggestions about how that company could make that already excellent product even better. Or so they were meant to believe.
"Did you say you've played Fox Hill...uh, Jim?" Ted asked, consulting his notes.
"I did. I have. Real nice."
"Way out there, though, right?"
"Calverton's not around the corner from where most people live," Jim allowed with an admirable lack of snobbish disapproval, "and it's tucked away, but it's worth looking for and getting to."
"Anyone else ever play Fox Hill?"
Larry raised a hand.
"No kidding. I was there last month. Maybe you were in the slow group ahead of mine!" Ted kidded, and the group laughed. "Recall what day you played?"
"Um...good question. When was I there? Oh, I remember: the nineteenth. I know because it was my buddy's birthday. He took me."
"Nice. It's good to have friends like that. When were you there, Jim?"
"Oh, months before that. On my wedding anniversary." The group laughed again. "I brought the wife! She plays too!" Jim assured them.
With that, Ted discontinued talk of courses and turned the men's attention to clubs. The zealous discussion that followed—of such things as loft and spin...metalwoods and hosels...cavities, blades, "whip," and clones...and the wisdom of certain rulings of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the USGA, respectively—would have been of utterly no consequence to any but the most fanatic of golfers.
Even Ted Harris himself wasn't all that interested in what was said from then on, his purpose for arranging the meeting having been satisfied already. It was all he could do, truly, to keep from sending all but one of the other men home immediately and then perhaps having a private discussion, of a very different tenor, with that one.
At 8:30, Ted finally did wrap things up, saying, "Listen, I want to thank you all again for coming out tonight and sharing your stories and thoughts." He was careful not to suggest that his gratitude was institutional or in any other manner expressed on behalf of anyone or anything other than himself, or that the other men's opinions would influence anything at all. Even though the meeting was a sham from start to finish, Ted did in fact have a fondness for J. Archer clubs, and he didn't feel comfortable giving any more of a false impression than he needed to. That was almost certainly the lawyer that Ted Harris was, by profession, thinking.
Ted the lawyer also didn't like having lied about a prize of a free foursome at Black, but he figured that as long as the men didn't know each other—a fact he'd confirmed—none would realize that none had ever gotten a congratulatory call or email from him; each could assume that someone else had. Whereas the one of them to whom Ted did have more to say—about not Bethpage but Fox Hill—would be hearing from Ted soon, maybe even as soon as the next day. That man, of course, was Larry. Larry Pratt, his card read.
So it was very much to Ted's surprise that, when the other men left, Larry stayed behind. To talk to Ted.
"You work for J. Archer, then?" Larry asked.
Ted didn't like the question, and he didn't like being asked the question by Larry. "No," Ted answered. "Private firm." True enough.
"Oh. I was wondering," Larry mentioned, unnecessarily.
"Sure," Ted said. "Listen, though," Ted said before Larry could ask him anything further, "I've got to get going. I've got to get the key to the room back to the front desk—"
"Yeah, okay. I was just wondering if maybe you get any stuff from J. Archer for free. You know, for doing these groups. And if maybe you could, you know..." Larry trailed off.
"Well..." Larry said, "get me something?"
And that tore it. Ted Harris had not intended to speak alone that night with the man who had stolen his golf club, if indeed he identified him, much less confront him, if he was ever going to confront him at all. Truth be told, Ted Harris had not planned what he would do if and when he discovered where his club had gone, and with whom. But this Larry Pratt had now added insult to injury, tactlessness to thievery. Ted and other lawyers had a saying, typically used in reference to the other side of a case in settlement negotiations: be a pig, but don't be a hog. Larry Pratt was being a hog, and it galled Ted.
"You like getting something for nothing, don't you? You thought 'maybe' I could get you some free equipment?" Ted asked. "You thought maybe I could set up a complete stranger with two-thousand-dollar J. Archers? Maybe a bag to carry them in, too, when you stroll around private courses that your friends take you to? Well, let me tell you something, friend: you and I aren't complete strangers. In fact, you've already gotten something from me, for free. When you were at Fox Hill last month, on May nineteenth, the driver you took from a bag outside the clubhouse, the Mjollner, that was mine." By now, Ted was glowering. He hadn't expected to confront the crook that night, but once he'd begun, he found it easy. "And I want it back," he added. While talking, he'd put himself between Larry and the door to the conference room, which he then slammed shut again.
"Whoa," Larry said, stepping back away from Ted. "Whoa. I don't—I didn't steal anybody's clubs!"
"Not clubs. One club. A driver. And not anybody's. Mine."
"Where are you getting—you lost your driver? Maybe you dropped it somewhere!"
"No. It was in my bag when I got to the clubhouse. It wasn't there when I came out. Someone took it from my bag when it was in the rack. Not someone. You."
"Just because we were both there that day doesn't mean—"
"It was you. I'm sure of it. How long have you had your Mjollner?"
"Um...I don't know, a year?"
"The Mjollner hasn't yet been out for a year. Where'd you buy it?"
Larry named a sporting goods store that Ted had never heard of.
"Not a chance. The Mjollner's only sold in four stores, and that's not one of them. How much did you pay?"
"Don't even bother." Ted looked at his watch. He didn't want to return the key to the conference room late and have to pay for an additional half-hour. "Let's go," he said to Larry. "We'll continue this outside."
"Son of a bitch," Larry said, not moving. "I didn't steal your club. It wasn't your club."
"You're right-handed," Larry accused Ted. "When you looked at your watch just now..."
"So the club I stole—and, fine, I stole it—is a left-handed driver. That's why I took it. I'm left-handed." Ted said nothing yet. Larry continued. "So you caught me. But now I caught you. It wasn't your club. Who'd you steal it from?"
Larry was correct: it was not Ted's club that Larry had pilfered from Ted's bag in the rack outside the clubhouse at Fox Hill in Calverton on May nineteenth. It was Ted's (left-handed) law partner's club...though Ted had used the club, awkwardly, at the eleventh hole, and the much-touted heft of the Mjollner had been just what Ted had needed there.
"I was carrying it," Ted said, not that he thought Larry deserved an answer, "for a friend."
"Sure," Larry said. "You were carrying one club for a friend." Ted admitted to himself that it was extremely unlikely. But why was he now on the defensive?
"Where is it?" Ted asked, attempting to reassume control.
"Is it in your car? Let's go see."
"Drop dead. Get out of my way."
Ted was still between Larry and the door to the room, and Ted easily had forty pounds on Larry. If it came to it, Ted could restrain the other man without difficulty. Restrain him, or incapacitate him.
But to what end? Where was this confrontation going? Ted had to ask himself. He now knew that Larry had taken the club he, Ted, was missing, but short of knocking Larry out, taking his keys, and looking in his car for the driver, there wasn't anything more to be done that night that Ted could imagine...and doing such a thing in fact was not a terribly good idea, under any circumstances. Ted couldn't help but catalogue in his head the various crimes it would entail committing. As it was, he thought, he was probably already guilty of false imprisonment...
"Get out of here," he said to Larry, opening the door and stepping aside. "Go."
Larry didn't ask questions. He just went.
Ted looked at his watch again. He would now have to pay for an extra half-hour's use of the room, so he sat back down at the table and leisurely collected his thoughts, his notes, and the cards the other men had provided him. He flipped through the cards and stopped when he came to Jim's—maybe he'd see if Jim wanted to play a round sometime. Jim seemed like a nice enough guy.
But what kind of bastard steals a club out of someone else's bag? Ted wondered.
After returning the key to the Roosevelt Room at the front desk, signing the charge slip, and taking his receipt, Ted Harris located a payphone in the lobby of the hotel and called Toll-Free Directory Assistance for the non-emergency number of the Suffolk County Police Department information hotline. He let the automated system connect him directly, and then, when a woman answered and advised him that he could speak confidentially and anonymously, Ted Harris said, without preface, "The body of Harold Gutnick is in the woods bordering the eleventh hole of the Fox Hill golf course in Calverton. He was killed by a blow to the head with a driver—a left-handed J. Archer 'Mjollner' driver in particular. You'll find the murder weapon at the home of one Larry Pratt." Ted took Larry Pratt's card from his pocket and turned to the reverse. "I'll give you the address..."
And that, Ted thought, should be the end of it.