In our ongoing celebration of the publication of A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, which has been called “the perfect introduction to Scudder’s shadow-strewn world and the pleasures of Block’s crisp yet brooding prose” (Time), “a book right up there with Mr. Block’s best” (Wall Street Journal) and “as rich and rewarding as it is devastating” (Pulp Serenade). To read an interview with the man himself, visit Ransom Notes. we present part two of a Matthew Scudder short story by the Grandmaster himself. (If you missed Part I, start reading here.)
“There are a couple of problems,” I told them. “A couple of things that could pop up like a red flag for a responding officer or a medical examiner.”
“Like. . .”
“Like the knife,” I said. “Phil opened the door and the killer stabbed him once and left, was out the door and down the stairs before the body hit the carpet.”
“Maybe not that fast,” one of them said, “but it was pretty quick. Before we knew what had happened, certainly.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, “but the thing is it’s an unusual MO. The killer didn’t take time to make sure his victim was dead, and you can’t take that for granted when you stick a knife in someone. And he left the knife in the wound.”
“He wouldn’t do that?”
“Maybe he panicked.”
“Maybe he did,” I agreed. “There’s another thing, and a medical examiner would notice this if a reporting officer didn’t. The body’s been moved.”
Interesting the way their eyes jumped all over the place. They looked at each other, they looked at me, they looked at Phil on the floor.
“Blood pools in a corpse,” I said. “Lividity’s the word they use for it. It looks to me as though Phil fell forward and wound up face downward. He probably fell against the door as it was closing, and slid down and wound up on his face. So you couldn’t get the door open, and you needed to, so eventually you moved him.”
Eyes darted. The host, the one in the blazer, said, “We knew you’d have to come in.”
“And we couldn’t have him lying against the door.”
“Of course not,” I agreed. “But all of that’s going to be hard to explain. You didn’t call the cops right away, and you did move the body. They’ll have some questions for you.”
“Maybe you could give us an idea what questions to expect.”
“I might be able to do better than that,” I said. “It’s irregular, and I probably shouldn’t, but I’m going to suggest an action we can take.”
“I’m going to suggest we stage something,” I said. “As it stands, Phil was stabbed to death by an unknown person who escaped without anybody getting a look at him. He may never turn up, and if he doesn’t, the cops are going to look hard at the four of you.”
“Jesus,” somebody said.
“It would be a lot easier on everybody,” I said, “if Phil’s death was an accident.”
“I don’t know if Phil has a sheet or not,” I said. “He looks vaguely familiar to me, but lots of people do. He’s got a gambler’s face, even in death, the kind of face you expect to see in an OTB parlor. He may have worked on Wall Street, it’s possible, because cheating at cards isn’t necessarily a full-time job.”
“Cheating at cards?”
“That would be my guess. His ring’s a mirror; turned around, it gives him a peek at what’s coming off the bottom of the desk. It’s just one way to cheat, and he probably had thirty or forty others. You think of this as a social event, a once-a-week friendly game, a five-dollar limit and, what, three raises maximum? The wins and losses pretty much average out over the course of a year, and nobody ever gets hurt too bad. Is that about right?”
“So you wouldn’t expect to attract a mechanic, a card cheat, but he’s not looking for the high rollers, he’s looking for a game just like yours, where it’s all good friends and nobody’s got reason to get suspicious, and he can pick up two or three hundred dollars in a couple of hours without running any risks. I’m sure you’re all decent poker players, but would you think to look for bottom dealing or a cold deck? Would you know if somebody was dealing seconds, even if you saw it in slow motion?”
“Phil was probably doing a little cheating,” I went on, “and that’s probably what he did two weeks ago, and nobody spotted him. But he evidently crossed someone else somewhere along the line. Maybe he pulled the same tricks in a bigger game, or maybe he was just sleeping in the wrong bed, but someone knew he was coming here, turned up after the game was going, and rang the bell. He would have come in and called Phil out, but he didn’t have to, because Phil answered the door.”
“And the guy had a knife.”
“Right,” I said. “That’s how it was, but it’s another way an investigating officer might get confused. How did the guy know Phil was going to come to the door? Most times the host opens the door, and the rest of the time it’s only one chance in five it’ll be Phil. Would the guy be ready, knife in hand? And would Phil just open up without making sure who it was?”
I held up a hand. “I know, that’s how it happened. But I think it might be worth your while to stage a more plausible scenario, something a lot easier for the cops to come to terms with. Suppose we forget the intruder. Suppose the story we tell is that Phil was cheating at cards and someone called him on it. Maybe some strong words were said and threats were exchanged. Phil went into his pocket and came out with a knife.”
“That’s. . .”
“You’re going to say it’s farfetched,” I said, “but he’d probably have some sort of weapon on him, something to intimidate anyone who did catch him cheating. He pulls the knife and you react. Say you turn the table over on him. The whole thing goes crashing to the floor and he winds up sticking his own knife in his chest.”
I walked across the room. “We’ll have to move the table,” I went on. “There’s not really room for that sort of struggle where you’ve got it set up, but suppose it was right in the middle of the room, under the light fixture? Actually that would be a logical place for it.” I bent down, picked up the throw rug, tossed it aside. “You’d move the rug if you had the table here.” I bent down, poked at a stain. “Looks like somebody had a nosebleed, and fairly recently, or you’d have had the carpet cleaned by now. That can fit right in, come to think of it. Phil wouldn’t have bled much from a stab wound to the heart, but there’d have been a little blood loss, and I didn’t spot any blood at all where the body’s lying now. If we put him in the right spot, they’ll most likely assume it’s his blood, and it might even turn out to be the same blood type. I mean, there are only so many blood types, right?”
I looked at them one by one. “I think it’ll work,” I said. “To sweeten it, we’ll tell them you’re friends of mine. I play in this game now and then, although I wasn’t here when Phil was. And when the accident happened the first thing you thought of was to call me, and that’s why there was a delay reporting the incident. You’d reported it to me, and I was on my way here, and you figured that was enough.” I stopped for breath, took a moment to look each of them in the eye. “We’ll want things arranged just right, “ I went on, “and it’ll be a good idea to spread a little cash around. But I think this one’ll go into the books as accidental death.”
“Or an idiot savant,” I said. “Here I was, telling them to fake exactly what had in fact happened. At the beginning I think they may have thought I was blundering into an unwitting reconstruction of the incident, but by the end they probably figured out that I knew where I was going.”
“But you never spelled it out.”
“No, we maintained the fiction that some intruder stuck the knife in Ryman, and we were tampering with the evidence.”
“When actually you were restoring it. What tipped you off?”
“The body blocking the door. The lividity pattern was wrong, but I was suspicious even before I confirmed that. It’s just too cute, a body positioned where it’ll keep a door from opening. And the table was in the wrong place, and the little rug had to be covering something, or why else would it be where it was? So I pictured the room the right way, and then everything sort of filled in. But it didn’t take a genius. Any cop would have seen some wrong things, and he’d have asked a few hard questions, and the four of them would have caved in.”
“And then what? Murder indictments?”
“Most likely, but they’re respectable businessmen and the deceased was a scumbag, so they’d have been up on manslaughter charges and probably would have pleaded to a lesser charge. Still, a verdict of accidental death saves them a lot of aggravation.”
“And that’s what really happened?”
“I can’t see any of those men packing a switch knife, or pulling it at a card table. Nor does it seem likely they could have taken it away from Ryman and killed him with it. I think he went ass over teakettle with the table coming down on top of him and maybe one or two of the guys falling on top of the table. And he was still holding the knife, and he stuck it in his own chest.”
“And the cops who responded—”
“Well, I called it in for them, so I more or less selected the responding officers. I picked guys you can work with.”
“And worked with them.”
“Everybody came out okay,” I said. “I collected a few dollars from the four players, and I laid off some of it where it would do the most good.”
“Just to smooth things out.”
“But you didn’t lay off all of it.”
“No,” I said, “not quite all of it. Give me your hand. Here.”
“A finder’s fee.”
“Three hundred dollars?”
“Ten percent,” I said.
“Gee,” she said. “I didn’t expect anything.”
“What do you do when somebody gives you money?”
“I say thank you,” she said, “and I put it someplace safe. This is great. You get them to tell the truth, and everybody gets paid. Do you have to go back to Syosset right away? Because Chet Baker’s at Mikell’s tonight.”
“We could go hear him,” I said, “and then we could come back here. I told Anita I’d probably have to stay over.”
“Oh, goodie,” she said. “Do you suppose he’ll sing ‘Let’s Get Lost?'”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” I said. “Not if you ask him nice.”
I don’t remember if he sang it or not, but I heard it again just the other day on the radio. He’d ended abruptly, that aging boy with the sweet voice and sweeter horn. He went out a hotel room window somewhere in Europe, and most people figured he’d had help. He’d crossed up a lot of people along the way and always got away with it, but then that’s usually the way it works. You dodge all the bullets but the last one.
“Let’s Get Lost.” I heard the song, and not twenty-four hours later I picked up the Times and read an obit for a commodities trader named P. Gordon Fawcett, who’d succumbed to prostate cancer. The name rang a bell, but it took me hours to place it. He was the guy in the blazer, the man in whose apartment Phil Ryman stabbed himself.
Funny how things work out. It wasn’t too long after that poker game that another incident precipitated my departure from the NYPD, and from my marriage. Elaine and I lost track of each other, and caught up with each other some years down the line, by which time I’d found a way to live without drinking. So we get lost and found—and now we’re married. Who’d have guessed?
My life’s vastly different these days, but I can imagine being called in on just that sort of emergency—a man dead on the carpet, a knife in his chest, in the company of four poker players who only wish he’d disappear. As I said, my life’s different, and I suppose I’m different myself. So I’d almost certainly handle it differently now, and what I’d probably do is call it in immediately and let the cops deal with it.
Still, I always liked the way that one worked out. I walked in on a cover-up, and what I did was cover up the cover-up. And in the process I wound up with the truth. Or an approximation of it, at least, and isn’t that as much as you can expect to get? Isn’t that enough?
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 atwww.lawrenceblock.com.
Mulholland Books will publish A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF on May 12, 2011.