In our ongoing celebration of the publication of A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, we present a Matthew Scudder short story by the Grandmaster himself.
When the phone call came I was parked in front of the television set in the front room, nursing a glass of bourbon and watching the Yankees. It’s funny what you remember and what you don’t. I remember that Thurman Munson had just hit a long foul that missed being a home run by no more than a foot, but I don’t remember who they were playing, or even what kind of a season they had that year.
I remember that the bourbon was J. W. Dant, and that I was drinking it on the rocks, but of course I would remember that. I always remembered what I was drinking, though I didn’t always remember why.
The boys had stayed up to watch the opening innings with me, but tomorrow was a school day, and Anita took them upstairs and tucked them in while I freshened my drink and sat down again. The ice was mostly melted by the time Munson hit his long foul, and I was still shaking my head at that when the phone rang. I let it ring, and Anita answered it and came in to tell me it was for me. Somebody’s secretary, she said.
I picked up the phone, and a woman’s voice, crisply professional, said, “Mr. Scudder, I’m calling for Mr. Alan Herdig of Herdig and Crowell.”
“I see,” I said, and listened while she elaborated, and estimated just how much time it would take me to get to their offices. I hung up and made a face.
“You have to go in?”
I nodded. “It’s about time we had a break in this one,” I said. “I don’t expect to get much sleep tonight, and I’ve got a court appearance tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll get you a clean shirt. Sit down. You’ve got time to finish your drink, don’t you?”
I always had time for that.
Years ago, this was. Nixon was president, a couple of years into his first term. I was a detective with the NYPD, attached to the Sixth Precinct in Greenwich Village. I had a house on Long Island with two cars in the garage, a Ford wagon for Anita and a beat-up Plymouth Valiant for me.
Traffic was light on the LIE, and I didn’t pay much attention to the speed limit. I didn’t know many cops who did. Nobody ever ticketed a brother officer. I made good time, and it must have been somewhere around a quarter to ten when I left the car at a bus stop on First Avenue. I had a card on the dashboard that would keep me safe from tickets and tow trucks.
The best thing about enforcing the laws is that you don’t have to pay a lot of attention to them yourself.
Her doorman rang upstairs to announce me, and she met me at the door with a drink. I don’t remember what she was wearing, but I’m sure she looked good in it. She always did.
She said, “I would never call you at home. But it’s business.”
“Yours or mine?”
“Maybe both. I got a call from a client. A Madison Avenue guy, maybe an agency vice-president. Suits from Tripler’s, season tickets for the Rangers, house in Connecticut.”
“And didn’t I say something about knowing a cop? Because he and some friends were having a friendly card game and something happened to one of them.”
“Something happened? Something happens to a friend of yours, you take him to a hospital. Or was it too late for that?”
“He didn’t say, but that’s what I heard. It sounds to me as though somebody had an accident and they need somebody to make it disappear.”
“And you thought of me.”
“Well,” she said.
She’d thought of me before, in a similar connection. Another client of hers, a Wall Street warrior, had had a heart attack in her bed one afternoon. Most men will tell you that’s how they want to go, and perhaps it’s as good a way as any, but it’s not all that convenient for the people who have to clean up after them, especially when the bed in question belongs to some working girl.
When the equivalent happens in the heroin trade, it’s good PR. One junkie checks out with an overdose and the first thing all his buddies want to know is where did he get the stuff and how can they cop some themselves. Because, hey, it must be good, right? A hooker, on the other hand, has less to gain from being listed as cause of death. And I suppose she felt a professional responsibility, if you want to call it that, to spare the guy and his family embarrassment. So I made him disappear, and left him fully dressed in an alley down in the financial district. I called it in anonymously and went back to her apartment to claim my reward.
“I’ve got the address,” she said now. “Do you want to have a look? Or should I tell them I couldn’t reach you?”
I kissed her, and we clung to each other for a long moment. When I came up for air I said, “It’d be a lie.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Telling them you couldn’t reach me. You can always reach me.”
“You’re a sweetie.”
“You better give me that address,” I said.
I retrieved my car from the bus stop and left it in another one a dozen or so blocks uptown. The address I was looking for was a brownstone in the East Sixties. A shop with handbags and briefcases in the window occupied the storefront, flanked by a travel agent and a men’s clothier. There were four doorbells in the vestibule, and I rang the third one and heard the intercom activated, but didn’t hear anyone say anything. I was reaching to ring a second time when the buzzer sounded. I pushed the door open and walked up three flights of carpeted stairs.
Out of habit, I stood to the side when I knocked. I didn’t really expect a bullet, and what came through the door was a voice, pitched low, asking who was there.
“Police,” I said. “I understand you’ve got a situation here.”
There was a pause. Then a voice—maybe the same one, maybe not—said, “I don’t understand. Has there been a complaint, Officer?”
They wanted a cop, but not just any cop. “My name’s Scudder,” I said. “Elaine Mardell said you could use some help.”
The lock turned and the door opened. Two men were standing there, dressed for the office in dark suits and white shirts and ties. I looked past them and saw two more men, one in a suit, the other in gray slacks and a blue blazer. They looked to be in their early to mid forties, which made them ten to fifteen years older than me.
I was what, thirty-two that year? Something like that.
“Come on in,” one of them said. “Careful.”
I didn’t know what I was supposed to be careful of, but found out when I gave the door a shove and it stopped after a few inches. There was a body on the floor, a man, curled on his side. One arm was flung up over his head, the other bent at his side, the hand inches from the handle of the knife. It was an easy-open stiletto and it was buried hilt-deep in his chest.
I pushed the door shut and knelt down for a close look at him, and heard the bolt turn as one of them locked the door.
The dead man was around their age, and had been similarly dressed until he took off his suit jacket and loosened his tie. His hair was a little longer than theirs, perhaps because he was losing hair on the crown and wanted to conceal the bald spot. Everyone tries that, and it never works.
I didn’t feel for a pulse. A touch of his forehead established that he was too cold to have one. And I hadn’t really needed to touch him to know that he was dead. Hell, I knew that much before I parked the car.
Still, I took some time looking him over. Without looking up I asked what had happened. There was a pause while they decided who would reply, and then the same man who’d questioned me through the closed door said, “We don’t really know.”
“You came home and found him here?”
I nodded at the dead man. “That’s Phil there?”
Someone said it was. “He’d folded already,” the man in the blazer added.
“And the rest of you fellows were still in the middle of a hand.”
“Phil went to the door while you finished the hand.”
“And we didn’t really see what happened,” one of the suits said.
“We were in the middle of a hand,” another explained, “and you can’t really see much from where we were sitting.”
“At the card table,” I said.
The table was set up at the far end of the living room. It was a poker table, with a green baize top and wells for chips and glasses. I walked over and looked at it.
“Seats eight,” I said.
“But there were only the five of you. Or were there other players as well?”
“No, just the five of us.”
“The four of you and Phil.”
“And Phil was clear across the room answering the door, and one or two of you would have had your backs to it, and all four of you would have been more interested in the way the hand was going than who was at the door.” They nodded along, pleased at my ability to grasp all this. “But you must have heard something that made you look up.”
“Yes,” the blazer said. “Phil cried out.”
“What did he say?”
“‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’ or something like that. That got our attention, and we got out of our chairs and looked over there, but I don’t think any of us got a look at the guy.”
“The guy who. . .”
“He must have been out the door before you had a chance to look at him.”
“And pulled the door shut after him.”
“Or Phil pushed it shut while he was falling.”
I said, “Stuck out a hand to break his fall. . .”
“And the door swung shut, and he went right on falling.”
I retraced my steps to the spot where the body lay. It was a nice apartment, I noted, spacious and comfortably furnished. It felt like a bachelor’s full-time residence, not a married commuter’s pied-a-terre. There were books on the bookshelves, framed prints on the walls, logs in the fireplace. Opposite the fireplace, a two-by-three throw rug looked out of place atop a large Oriental carpet. I had a hunch I knew what it was doing there.
But I walked past it and knelt down next to the corpse. “Stabbed in the heart,” I noted. “Death must have been instantaneous, or the next thing to it. I don’t suppose he had any last words.”
“He crumpled up and hit the floor and never moved.”
I got to my feet. “Must have been a shock.”
“A terrible shock.”
“How come you didn’t call it in?”
“Call it in?”
“Call the police,” I said. “Or an ambulance, get him to a hospital.”
“A hospital couldn’t do him any good,” the blazer said. “I mean, you could tell he was dead.”
“No pulse, no breathing.”
“Still, you must have known you’re supposed to call the cops when something like this happens.”
“Yes, of course.”
“But you didn’t.”
They looked at each other. It might have been interesting to see what they came up with, but I made it easy for them.
“You must have been scared,” I said.
“Well, of course.”
“Guy goes to answer the door and the next thing you know he’s dead on the floor. That’s got to be an upsetting experience, especially taking into account that you don’t know who killed him or why. Or do you have an idea?”
“I don’t suppose this is Phil’s apartment.”
Of course not. If it was, they’d have long since gone their separate ways.
“Must be yours,” I told the blazer, and enjoyed it when his eyes widened. He allowed that it was, and asked how I knew. I didn’t tell him he was the one man in the room without a wedding ring, or that I figured he’d changed from a business suit to slightly more casual clothes on his return home, while the others were still wearing what they’d worn to the office that morning. I just muttered something about policemen developing certain instincts, and let him think I was a genius.
I asked if any of them had known Phil very well, and wasn’t surprised to learn that they hadn’t. He was a friend of a friend of a friend, someone said, and did something on Wall Street.
“So he wasn’t a regular at the table.”
“This wasn’t his first time, was it?”
“His second,” somebody said.
“First time was last week?”
“No, two weeks ago. He didn’t play last week.”
“Two weeks ago. How’d he do?”
Elaborate shrugs. The consensus seemed to be that he might have won a few dollars, but nobody had paid much attention.
“And this evening?”
“I think he was about even. If he was ahead it couldn’t have been more than a few dollars.”
“What kind of stakes do you play for?”
“It’s a friendly game. One-two-five in stud games. In draw it’s two dollars before the draw, five after.”
“So you can win or lose what, a couple of hundred?”
“That would be a big loss.”
“Or a big win,” I said.
“Well, yes. Either way.”
I knelt down next to the corpse and patted him down. Cards in his wallet identified him as Philip I. Ryman, with an address in Teaneck.
“Lived in Jersey,” I said. “And you say he worked on Wall Street?”
I picked up his left hand. His watch was Rolex, and I suppose it must have been a real one; this was before the profusion of fakes. He had what looked like a wedding band on the appropriate finger, but I saw that it was in fact a large silver or white-gold ring that had gotten turned around, so that the large part was on the palm side of his hand. It looked like an unfinished signet ring, waiting for an initial to be carved into its gleaming surface.
I straightened up. “Well,” I said, “I’d say it’s a good thing you called me.”
Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City. Learn more at www.lawrenceblock.com.
Mulholland Books will publish A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF on May 12, 2011.