Till the Butchers Cut Him Down


By Marcia Muller

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P.I. Sharon McCone has struck out on her own and needs all the clients she can get – even a shady character from her Berkeley days. From the moment T.J. “Suitcase” Gordon whisks her off in his private helicopter, complaining of death threats, her life will never be the same….


Copyright © 1994 by Marcia Muller

All rights reserved.

Originally published in hardcover by Mysterious Press

Hachette Book Group

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Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

The Grand Central Publishing name and logo are registered trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

First eBook Edition: April 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-56160-0











DOUBLE (with Bill Pronzini)






For Kit, Arthur, and Tiffany Knight
Thank you'ns

Thanks also to
Marcie Galick, for organizing me Jerry Kennealy, for bringing McCone into the computer age Suzanne Rampton, for yet another piece of her life Patricia Wallace, for fine-tuning on Nevada Collin Wilcox, again, for his aviation expertise

Oh! didn't he ramble ramble?

He rambled all around

In and out of the town,

Oh didn't he ramble ramble.

He rambled till the butchers cut him down.

From Oh, Didn't He Ramble

by Will Handy


July 4

I made the best decision of my life on a high meadow in California's White Mountains, where I'd gone to watch for the wild mustangs.

At least watching for mustangs was what I planned to do when I declined to ride into Big Pine with Hy to pick up some supplies. But now that I was nestled in a drift of dry wheat-colored grass at the base of a dead-looking bristlecone pine, I realized that once again my sight had turned inward. Decision time, I thought. Middle-of-your-life crossroads, important stuff. Make the right choice and it's golden; make the wrong one—

I didn't want to think about that.

Lately too much thinking had been my chronic ailment. Sixteen days of relaxing about as far from civilization as I could get should have cured me, but instead I'd picked and prodded at my current problem—charging it from one side, sneaking up on it from another. All to no good purpose; the problem remained a stubborn, inert lump in the exact center of my psyche.

I burrowed down into the grass, sniffing its bitter fragrance. It rustled around me and tickled my face. Above me the pine's branches creaked in a light breeze; I glanced up and saw bursts of green at their very tips. Not dead, just faking it.

Lulled by the whisper of the tall grass, I leaned against the pine's rough trunk. Closed my eyes. And began obsessing some more.

Decide, I told myself. You're going home in a few days. For God's sake, just make your decision.

When I opened my eyes some moments later, I was looking a wild mustang straight in the face. He stood not five feet away, pale mane blowing in the breeze, head down, long roan neck stretched to its limits as he studied me. His soft brown eyes met mine, and he blinked. Clearly I was the most curious animal he'd ever come across in his meadow.

For a few seconds he continued to stare, nostrils quivering. Then he snorted, as if to tell me that he found humans not nearly as impressive as we find ourselves. With a shake of his head he wheeled about and ran, kicking up his hooves, tail and mane streaming proudly—a shining, free creature.

And then the solution to my problem came so clearly that I jumped up, wheeled about, and ran too. Ran through high grass, kicking up my heels; leaped over fallen branches, laughing. Ran till I was breathless and fell on my back, panting. Lay there and laughed some more—really giving the mustang something to tell his herd about.

* * *

When Hy got back to our borrowed cabin some two hours later, I was sitting on the raised hearth, my hands wrapped around a glass of wine, a big grin on my face. My lover set the box of groceries on the rough pine table and studied me, stroking his droopy mustache. He'd pretty much stayed off the subject of my decision these past sixteen days—as I'd stayed off the subject of some plans he was making—but now his curiosity got the better of him.

"You decided," he said.

I nodded.

"You're going to cut loose and go out on your own."

I nodded again.

"Good choice."

His words swelled the happy bubble in my chest. I grinned more widely, deciding not to tell him just yet about the part of my scheme that made it perfect.

Hy took a bag of ice from the grocery box and began dumping it into the cooler. "You must've known I'd like the idea."

"Well, yes. But it's good to actually hear you say so. Your opinion's kind of … an acid test for me."

"I call it a touchstone. Black siliceous rock. Metallurgists use it to test the purity of gold or silver." He hesitated, arranging beers on top of the ice, then added, "You're my touchstone, too."

There was an uncharacteristic shyness in his tone that made my eyes sting. I blinked and busied myself with lighting the fire I'd earlier laid on the hearth. When I finished, I turned and asked, "So, Ripinsky, this decision of mine—is it silver or is it gold?"

Hy raised a beer bottle in a toast. "It's gold, McCone. Pure gold."

Part One

San Francisco



"Are you sure this'll clear the bank?" Ted Smalley, All Souls's office manager, held the check that I'd just handed him up to his desk lamp and squinted at it.

I folded my arms and tried to look severe.

"Do I know this person?" he asked himself. "She looks like the old Sharon, in spite of the haircut. She talks like her, too. But McCone Investigations? A separate business checking account? Rent for an office suite? Pretty strange stuff, if you ask me."

"Not nearly as strange as what's going on upstairs in those rooms that you dignify with the word 'suite.' "As if to support my statement, an enormous crash resounded at the front of the big Victorian's second floor. I winced.

Ted rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

In the long-unused cubbyhole next to my office, a Pacific Bell woman was installing lines for my new phone, fax machine, and computer modem. Jack Stuart, the co-op's criminal law specialist, and Hank Zahn, my former boss, had just gone up there to remove my chaise longue and place it in Jack's van. I wasn't sure whether the crash had to do with the chaise, which Jack had agreed to transport to my house, or my forty-seven-hundred-dollar Apple computer and laser printer, but if one had to be sacrificed, I'd just as soon it was the well-loved but not nearly so costly piece of furniture.

Before I could run up there and check, Jack's blue-jeaned posterior appeared on the stair landing; he was hunched over and gripping the chaise as he inched backwards. In spite of my anxiety over the crash, I took a moment to admire the coop's acknowledged hunk from this vantage. Ted, the sly devil, noticed and winked. I winked back.

Next Hank appeared at the other end of the chaise, red-faced and scowling. Halfway down the stairs he began performing a series of odd maneuvers that looked as though he'd developed a severe case of Saint Vitus' dance. I watched in alarm, then realized he was trying to push up his thick horn-rimmed glasses, which had slipped dangerously low on his nose; as he passed Ted and me, I reached out and returned the glasses to their proper position. Hank smiled gratefully.

"What fell?" I asked.

"Not to worry."

"What fell?"

Jack said, "One of those stupid rabbit bookends you keep on your desk. It broke."

"Oh." I swallowed hard. The "stupid rabbit bookends" had come from Gump's and cost a minor fortune, even five years ago when a former boyfriend had given them to me for Christmas. Well, I still had one. …

A little over a month ago in that high mountain meadow, my plan to establish my own firm and rent office space from All Souls had seemed a stroke of genius—a way of turning down a slightly expanded job as head of their newly formed Investigative Services department while maintaining my connection to the people who for me were more like an extended family than coworkers. But now after weeks of negotiations and reams of legal documents and licensing and bonding applications, to say nothing of a steady stream of outgoing checks, I was beginning to think I'd been quite mad. Still, I was sure that once established, I'd be better off independent of the coop and certainly better off keeping my distance from Renshaw and Kessell International, the high-tech, ethically bankrupt security firm whose offer of a lucrative position as field investigator had been my other alternative. I'd always have a soft spot for RKI, however: the cash bonus they'd given me last July, prompted by my saving them from a disastrous situation, had put McCone Investigations in business.

I glanced at my watch. Nearly eleven. The chaise was out of my office in time to make space for the new sofa and chair that were to be delivered any minute.

Ted must have sensed that I felt a little down, because he said, "I bet I can glue the rabbit back together so you'll never notice it's been broken."

"Thanks." I smiled fondly at him. He's such an odd combination of aesthete and hardheaded administrator—a goateed gentleman who favors old-fashioned dress and quotes Latin in the course of routine conversations and who also controls a staff of close to a hundred and keeps northern California's largest legal-services plan on track with seemingly effortless efficiency. And now he was laying claim to a talent for repairing broken treasures.

"By the way," he added, "somebody's waiting for you in the parlor."

I glanced over there, saw no one. "Who?"

He checked a scratch pad on his desk. "T. J. Gordon. Said you know him."

The name wasn't familiar. I moved closer to the archway and peered into the room. A man in dark blue business attire stood in the window bay, hands clasped behind him as he contemplated the street.

I blinked. Sucked in my breath. "Suitcase," I said softly.

"What?" Ted asked.

I shook my head, staring.

T. J. Gordon—Telford Junius Gordon, according to his driver's license—had gone by the nickname Suitcase for as long as I'd known him. I hadn't given him so much as a thought in more than fifteen years.

Those years hadn't changed him much. His five-foot-seven frame was still scrawny; his narrow shoulders still slumped; his dark brown hair, now shot with gray, still rose in a cowlick at the crown and flopped limply onto his high forehead. The expensive-looking suit might have been tailor-made, the watch that he now glanced impatiently at might have been a Rolex, but something told me that not too far beneath the civilized facade lurked the Suitcase Gordon of old.

As I stepped into the parlor, he heard me and turned. His gray eyes moved shrewdly over me, and he nodded, as if my appearance matched up to some private expectation. His sharp-featured face was relatively unlined; when he smiled, I found he still reminded me of a friendly rodent. He bent and picked up a handsome leather briefcase that sat on the floor next to his equally handsome shoes, and the past came rushing back to me.

In the old days on the U.C. Berkeley campus it would have been a suitcase he picked up—one of the ancient brown-striped cardboard variety that went everywhere with him. It would have been crammed full of whatever he was peddling at the time: marijuana, term papers on an infinite variety of subjects, amphetamines, false identification, purloined copies of upcoming exams, blank airline tickets, manuals of legal tips for protesters, lists of safe houses for revolutionaries. He'd billed himself as an itinerant purveyor of prefab scams, schemes, and perhaps even dreams, with something for everyone in the shabby suitcase that had earned him his nickname.

Suits, as we came to call him, was a frequent fixture at the big old house on Durant Avenue that I shared with a fluctuating group of other students, including Hank Zahn and his now wife Anne-Marie Altman. He'd suddenly appear on the doorstep, just in from southern California or the East Coast or the Midwest, and we'd find ourselves providing him with food and drink and a place to crash. In return Suits would hand out samples of whatever he was currently selling and regale us with tales of events on campuses in such far-flung places as Boston, Ann Arbor, Boulder, and Austin. Then he'd go about his business, scurrying around Berkeley in his hunched, furtive way, suitcase in hand. One day he'd simply be gone, giving no forewarning and offering no explanation.

As Suits came toward me now, I wondered what he had in that briefcase. And I had a suspicion that I was going to find out fairly soon.

"Lookin' good, Sherry-O," he said, setting the case on the coffee table and holding out his arms for a hug.

Sherry-O! I couldn't believe I used to let him call me that. Smiling weakly, I stepped into his embrace. My body felt stiff and wooden; I extricated myself quickly.

Suits's thin lips still held a smile, but now it was … sarcastic? No, ironic. Why?

He said, "Read in the Examiner about you opening your own firm. Good going."

A reporter friend had done a long profile of me for last Sunday's business section. "Thanks," I said. "Please, sit down."

Suits shot his cuff and looked at his watch again. A Rolex all right. "Can't. I've got a meeting downtown in twenty-four minutes, so I'll cut to the reason I'm here. I want to hire you."

"To do what?"

"We'll have to talk about that later. I spent damn near half an hour waiting for you."

The remark reminded me of his less-than-endearing habit of making criticisms at inopportune moments. Social graces were not within the realm of his talents. "You could have called for an appointment," I said tartly.

"Uh-uh. Given our history, it was better to just show up."

"Our history?"

"Well, I did dump you."

"You what?"

He seemed startled by my response. Then he glanced around as if he was afraid someone might be eavesdropping. "You know, after that Halloween party. I slunk out of town the next morning. Felt guilty about it for years, but that's the way it had to be. I wasn't ready to settle down, not then."

"Halloween party? Oh …" Now I remembered what he was talking about, but his revisionist version of "our" history struck me as truly remarkable.

One wine- and dope-saturated night in the late seventies I'd lost all reason and allowed Suits to crawl into my bed. The next morning I woke horrified at what I'd done and relieved to find him gone. On his subsequent visit to campus I avoided him, and within six months I'd fallen in love—or so I thought at the time—and moved in with my new boyfriend. The disgraceful episode with Suits was relegated to the corner of my mind reserved for extreme lapses in judgment, and eventually forgotten.

Apparently not so for him, though—the man who had "dumped" me and "slunk out of town" in order to avoid further romantic entanglement!

He was watching me anxiously, no doubt hoping for absolution. I felt a nasty urge to set the record straight, but quickly suppressed it. No need to rehash an ancient and irreconcilable difference of opinion. No need to bruise his male pride at this late date. Besides, the man was here to hire me.

"Well," I said after pretending to give his words serious consideration, "you probably saved us both a lot of grief by leaving town. God knows, I wasn't ready to settle down then, either. Never have been."

He nodded, obviously relieved. "So what do you say, Sherry-O? Will you take on an old friend as a client?"

"Suits, I need to know more about the case before I can say."

He glanced at his watch again. "Later, okay? We'll talk later."


"Two o'clock." He reached into his inside pocket, took out a business card, and handed it to me. "The address where I'm living is on the back. You be on time." Then he moved toward the door, glancing from side to side, shoulders hunched, in an odd scampering gait that was vintage Suitcase.

I looked at the card. The embossed side said "Intervention Management, Inc., T. J. Gordon, President" and gave an address on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. On the other side he'd scribbled a local address in a very pricey new condominium complex on the Embarcadero in the South Beach district.

So what did this mean? Had Suitcase Gordon become a legitimate businessman? Or had he simply perfected one of his many scams?

I reviewed his unaltered mannerisms and appearance. Discounted the expensive suit, briefcase, and Rolex. Decided he couldn't possibly be legitimate. No legitimate person would act that furtive.

* * *

I pocketed Suits's card and went upstairs. The phone-company woman was still installing, the new furniture hadn't yet arrived, and my nephew, Mick Savage, lay flat on his stomach on my office floor doing something to one of the electrical sockets. He looked over his shoulder when he heard me come in and grimaced.

"Wiring must've been put in about the time Noah's Ark sailed," he complained.

I eyed him nervously. "Did you shut off the power?"

"Do I look like an idiot?"

"I won't answer that." In truth, my sister Charlene's eldest could look vacuous upon occasion, but I took that to be typical of many seventeen-year-olds and assumed he'd outgrow it. He was a big kid: sandy blond like his mother; stocky like his father, country-music star Ricky Savage; and he had the same easy, outgoing disposition as both his parents.

Mick had been sent from Pacific Palisades to San Francisco for the month because I needed someone to teach me how to use my computer. In that department my nephew was a genius—had, in fact, been suspended from school during his senior year for getting into the board of education's mainframe and selling teachers' confidential evaluations of students to the highest bidders. The night before she put him on the northbound plane, Charlene had confided over the phone that she was worried about her son: first there'd been the time he ran away to San Francisco at the holidays and I'd had to spend my Christmas Eve scouring the city for him; then there was the business of him changing his preferred version of his given name six times in the past three years; and, of course, there was the disgraceful hacker episode. Since graduation, Charlene said, Mick had been drifting and directionless; he refused to discuss his future plans. Perhaps I could counsel him while he was with me? At least persuade him to give college a try? I said I'd see what I could do.

Unfortunately, Charlene and Ricky were going to be very unhappy with the results of Mick's visit.

I went over to my desk and picked up my mail. Nothing but bills and a large manila envelope. I slit it open and pulled out a thick booklet: "P.I. & Security Mail-Order Catalog, The One-Stop Shopping Source for Your Investigation Business." On the front was a silhouette of a guy in a trench coat; the note attached to it began, "Dear Mr. Savage, Thank you for your interest …"

I looked at the address label on the envelope, realized I'd mistakenly opened Mick's mail, and sighed.

During the past couple of weeks, Mick had made up his mind he wanted to become a private investigator. Why, of all possible professions, he'd chosen mine remained unclear to me, particularly since he hadn't seen me do any actual investigating since he'd been here. But he'd decided, and if I couldn't defuse the idea, I was definitely going to be on my sister's blacklist.

First I'd pointed out that he was too young to be licensed. He'd said he would stay on and work for me, learning the trade until he was of age. Then I told him I couldn't afford to pay both him and the assistant I planned to hire. He said he'd accept room and board at my house in lieu of a salary. I insisted that I liked living alone. He said I wouldn't even know he was there. I declared the plan unworkable. He pouted. Since our latest discussion he'd become silent and secretive, but I gathered his studies were moving forward: yesterday I'd found several volumes—including Advanced Lock Picking and Getaway: Driving Techniques for Escape and Evasion—hidden under the guest room bed. Given Mick's past interest in extralegal activity, those two titles made me distinctly uneasy.

Yes, Charlene and Ricky were going to be extremely unhappy with Aunt Sharon's effect on their son. In fact, if Mick persisted in this plan, my sister would kill me.

Mick finished with the socket and stood up, dusting off the front of his jeans and work shirt. He saw the catalog in my hands and started guiltily.

"So what're you going to order from this one?" I asked, paging through the offerings. "The Hacker's Handbook? Money for Nothing: Rip-Offs, Cons, and Swindles? Or how about Counterfeit ID Made Easy?"

"You opened my mail."

"In error." I handed the catalog to him.

He pushed out his lips in a fair imitation of a bulldog. "Yeah, sure, in error. You're in such an uproar about me wanting to become a P.I. that you've probably tapped the phone."


"I don't see what's the big deal about it."

"I've told you, it's a tough business. Tough to break into, too."

"Well, yeah, maybe for you, being a woman way back then."

Way back during the Dark Ages. God, there were times when Mick could make me feel old! "That's right. But the training—for anybody, even now—is less than thrilling. You work as a security guard the way I did before and during college and hope management'll pick you out of the rank and file, or you sit in a cubicle running endless computer traces, or you go out on auto repos—"

"So? You stuck with it and got your license."

"Only because I couldn't find any other job after getting a B.A. in sociology. Only because I got lucky and ended up with a boss who was willing to train and promote me."

"Well, I got lucky when Mom and Dad sent me up here to help you."

"It's not the same, Michael."



"Why isn't it the same?"

"Because …" I hunted for an explanation. "Because you have advantages and prospects that I didn't."

"Like what?"

"Like wealthy parents who are willing to pay your way through college." There, Charlene, I though, I've talked to him about higher education.

Mick rolled his eyes. "Don't start, Aunt Shar."

The title "aunt" was one of the things that made me feel old. I figured if he could change his name all those times and expect me to remember which was current, I could insist he break himself of a lifelong habit. "Sharon or Shar," I said firmly. "Forget the 'aunt.'"

He frowned. "Uh, okay."

From outside I heard the rumble of a truck's engine. I went to the window, looked down, and saw the van from Breuner's. "The furniture's here," I told him, glad for the interruption. "You want to go down and direct them?"

He went to the door, the one-stop shopping source clutched protectively in both hands. "You know," he said, "if you don't want me working for you, I'll have to go for it on my own. I have a plan."

"What plan?"

He shook his head, grinned evilly at me, and disappeared around the doorjamb. I sighed in resignation.

Oh, yes, my sister was going to kill me.



On Sale
May 30, 2009
Page Count
339 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

Learn more about this author