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Fred Fitch, a hapless sucker for any type of con, inherits three hundred thousand dollars from his Uncle Matt, an ex-crook murdered by persons unknown
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Donald E. Westlake is generally regarded as the greatest writer of comic crime fiction of all time. Many of his books have been made into movies, including The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Cops and Robbers, and The Hunter, first filmed as the noir classic Point Blank with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson and then as Payback, starring Mel Gibson. He has won three Edgar Allan Poe Awards and has been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He and his wife live in New York.
Friday the nineteenth of May was a full day. In the morning I bought a counterfeit sweepstakes ticket from a one-armed man in a barbershop on West 23rd Street, and in the evening I got a phone call at home from a lawyer saying I'd just inherited three hundred seventeen thousand dollars from my Uncle Matt. I'd never heard of Uncle Matt.
As soon as the lawyer hung up I called my friend Reilly of the Bunco Squad at his house in Queens. "It's me," I said. "Fred Fitch."
Reilly sighed and said, "What have they done to you this time, Fred?"
"Two things," I said. "One this morning and one just now."
"Better watch yourself, then. My grandma always said troubles come in threes."
"Oh, my Lord," I said. "Clifford!"
"I'll call you back," I said. "I think the third one already came."
I hung up and went downstairs and rang Mr. Grant's bell. He came to the door with a large white napkin tucked under his chin and holding a small fork upright in his hand, a tiny curled shrimp impaled on it. Which was a case of sweets to the sweet, Mr. Grant being a meek curled-shrimp of a man himself, balding, given to spectacles with steel rims, employed as a history teacher at some high school over in Brooklyn. We met at the mailboxes every month or so and exchanged anonymities, but other than that our social contact was nil.
I said, "Excuse me, Mr. Grant, I know it's dinnertime, but do you have a new roommate named Clifford?"
He blanched. Fork and shrimp drooped on his hand. He blinked very slowly.
Knowing it was hopeless, I went on anyway, saying, "Pleasant-looking sort, about my age, crewcut, white shirt open at the collar, tie loose, dark slacks." Over the years I've grown rather adept at giving succinct descriptions, unfortunately. I would have gone on and given estimates of Clifford's height and weight but I doubted they were needed.
They weren't. Shrimp at half-mast, Mr. Grant said to me, "I thought he was your roommate."
"He said there was a COD package," I said.
Mr. Grant nodded miserably. "Me, too."
"He didn't have enough cash in the apartment."
"He'd already borrowed some from Wilkins on the second floor."
I nodded. "Had a fistful of crumpled bills in his left hand."
Mr. Grant swallowed bile. "I gave him fifteen dollars."
I swallowed bile. "I gave him twenty."
Mr. Grant looked at his shrimp as though wondering who'd put it on his fork. "I suppose," he said slowly, "I suppose we ought to..." His voice trailed off.
"Let's go talk to Wilkins," I said.
"All right," he said, and sighed, and came out to the hall, shutting the door carefully after himself. We went on up to the second floor.
This block of West 19th Street consisted almost entirely of three- and four-story buildings with floor-through apartments sporting fireplaces, back gardens, and high ceilings, and how the entire block had so far missed the wrecker's sledge I had no idea. In our building, Mr. Grant had the first floor, a retired Air Force officer named Wilkins had the second, and I lived up top on the third. We all three were bachelors, quiet and sedentary, and not given to disturbingly loud noises. Of us, I was at thirty-one the youngest and Wilkins was much the oldest.
When Mr. Grant and I reached Wilkins' door, I rang the bell and we stood around with that embarrassed uneasiness always felt by messengers of bad tidings.
After a moment the door opened and there stood Wilkins, looking like the Correspondence Editor of the Senior Citizens' Review. He wore red sleeve garters with his blue shirt, a green eyeshade was squared off on his forehead, and in his ink-stained right hand he held an ancient fountain pen. He looked at me, looked at Mr. Grant, looked at Mr. Grant's napkin, looked at Mr. Grant's fork, looked at Mr. Grant's shrimp, looked back at me, and said, "Eh?"
I said, "Excuse me, sir, but did someone named Clifford come to see you this afternoon?"
"Your roommate," he said, pointing his pen at me. "Gave him seven dollars."
Mr. Grant moaned. Wilkins and I both looked at his shrimp, as though it had moaned. Then I said, "Sir, this man Clifford, or whatever his name is, he isn't my roommate."
"He's a con man, sir."
"Eh?" He was squinting at me like a man looking across Texas at midday.
"A con man," I repeated. "Con means confidence. A confidence man. A sort of crook."
"Yes, sir. A con man is someone who tells you a convincing lie, as a result of which you give him money."
Wilkins put his head back and looked at the ceiling, as though to stare through it into my apartment and see if Clifford weren't really there after all, in shirtsleeves, quietly going about the business of being my new roommate. But he failed to see him--or failed to see through the ceiling, I'm not sure which--and looked at me again, saying, "But what about the package? Wasn't it his?"
"Sir, there wasn't any package," I said. "That was the con. That is, the lie he told you was that there was a package, a COD package, and he--"
"Exactly," said Wilkins, pointing his pen at me with a little spray of ink, "exactly the word. COD. Cash on delivery."
"But there wasn't any package," I kept telling him. "It was a lie, to get money from you."
"No package? Not your roommate?"
"That's it, sir."
"Why," said Wilkins, abruptly outraged, "the man's a damn fraud!"
"Where is he now?" Wilkins demanded, going up on tiptoe to look past my shoulder.
"Miles from here, I should think," I said.
"Do I get you right?" he said, glaring at me. "You don't even know this man?"
"That's right," I said.
"But he came from your apartment."
"Yes, sir. He'd just talked me into giving him twenty dollars."
Mr. Grant said, "I gave him fifteen." He sounded as mournful as the shrimp.
Wilkins said to me, "Did you think he was your roommate? Makes no sense at all."
"No, sir," I said. "He told me he was Mr. Grant's roommate."
Wilkins snapped a stern look at Mr. Grant. "Is he?"
"Of course not!" wailed Mr. Grant. "I gave him fifteen dollars myself!"
Wilkins nodded. "I see," he said. Then, thoughtfully, ruminatively, he said, "It seems to me we should contact the authorities."
"We were just about to," I said. "I thought I'd call my friend on the Bunco Squad."
Wilkins squinted again, under his eyeshade. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's part of the police force. The ones who concern themselves with the confidence men."
"You have a friend in this organization?"
"We met in the course of business," I said, "but over the years we've become personal friends."
"Then by all means," said Wilkins decisively. "I've never seen going through channels accomplish anything yet. Your friend it is."
So the three of us went on up to my place, Wilkins still wearing his eyeshade and carrying his pen, Mr. Grant still wearing his napkin and carrying his fork and shrimp. We entered the apartment and I offered them chairs but they preferred to stand. I called Reilly again, and as soon as I said who I was he said, "COD Clifford."
"COD Clifford," he repeated. "I didn't connect the name at first, not till after you hung up. That's who it was, wasn't it?"
"It sounds about right," I said.
"He was some other tenant's new roommate."
"And a COD package had come."
"That's him, all right," Reilly said, and I could visualize him nodding at the telephone. He has a large head, with a thick mass of black hair and a thick bushy black mustache, and when he nods he does so with such judicious authority you can't help but believe he has just thought an imperishable truth. I sometimes think Reilly does so well with the Bunco Squad because he's part con man himself.
I said, "He got twenty dollars from me, fifteen from Mr. Grant on the first floor, and seven from Mr. Wilkins on the second."
Wilkins waved his pen at me, whispering hoarsely, "Make it twelve. For the official record, twelve."
Into the phone I said, "Mr. Wilkins says, for the official record make it twelve."
Reilly laughed while Wilkins frowned. Reilly said, "There's a touch of the con in everybody."
"Except me," I said bitterly.
"Some day, Fred, some psychiatrist is going to do a book on you and make you famous forever."
"Like Count Sacher-Masoch?"
I always make Reilly laugh. He thinks I'm the funniest sad sack he knows, and what's worse he tells me so.
Now he said, "Okay, I'll add your name to Clifford's sucker list, and when we get him you'll be invited to the viewing."
"Do you want a description?"
"No, thanks. We've got a hundred already, several with points of similarity. Don't worry, we'll be getting this one. He works too much, he's pushing his luck."
"If you say so." In my experience, which is extensive, the professional workers of short cons don't usually get caught. Which is nothing against Reilly and the others of the Bunco Squad, but merely reflects the impossibility of the job they've been given. By the time they arrive at the scene of the crime, the artist is invariably gone and the sucker usually isn't even sure exactly what happened. Aside from dusting the victim for fingerprints, there really isn't much the Reillys can do.
This time he had me give him my fellow pigeons' full names, assured me once again that our complaint would go into the bulging Clifford file downtown, and then he asked me, "Now, what else?"
"Well," I said, somewhat embarrassed to be telling about this in front of my neighbors, "this morning a one-armed man in a barbershop on West--"
"Counterfeit sweepstakes ticket," he said.
"Reilly," I said, "how is it you know all these people but you never catch any?"
"We got the Demonstration Kid, didn't we? And Slim Jim Foster? And Able Mabel?"
"All right," I said.
"Your one-armed man, now," Reilly said, "that's Wingy St. Charles. How come you tipped so soon?"
"This afternoon," I said, "I suddenly got a suspicion, you know the way I always do, five hours too late."
"I know," he said. "God, how I know."
"So I went up to the Irish Tourist Board office on East 50th Street," I said, "and showed it to a man there, and he said it was a fake."
"And you bought it this morning. Where?"
"In a barbershop on West 23rd Street."
"Okay. It's soon enough, he might still be working the same neighborhood. We've got a chance. Not a big chance, but a chance. Now, what else do you have?"
"When I came home," I said, "the phone was ringing. It was a man said he was a lawyer, Goodkind, office on East 38th Street. Said I'd just inherited three hundred seventeen thousand dollars from my Uncle Matt."
"Did you check with the family? Is Uncle Matt dead?"
"I don't have any Uncle Matt."
"Okay," said Reilly. "This one we get for sure. When do you go to his office?"
"Tomorrow morning, ten o'clock."
"Right. We'll give it five minutes. Give me the address."
I gave him the address, he said he'd see me in the morning, and we both hung up.
My guests were both staring at me, Mr. Grant in amazement and Wilkins with a sort of fixed ferocity. It was Wilkins who said, "Lot of money, that."
"Three hundred thousand dollars." He nodded at the phone. "What you're getting."
"But I'm not getting three hundred thousand dollars," I said. "It's another con game, like Clifford."
Wilkins squinted. "Eh? How's that follow?"
Mr. Grant said, "But if they give you the money..."
"That's just it," I said. "There isn't any money. It's a racket."
Wilkins cocked his head to one side. "Don't see it," he said. "Don't see where they make a profit."
"There's a thousand ways," I said. "For instance, they might talk me into putting all the money into a certain investment, where my so-called Uncle Matt had it, but there's a tax problem or transfer costs and they can't touch the capital without endangering the whole investment, so I have to get two or three thousand dollars in cash from somewhere else to pay the expenses. Or the money's in some South American country and we have to pay the inheritance tax in cash from here before they'll let the money out. There's a new gimmick every day, and ten new suckers to try it on."
"Barnum," suggested Wilkins. "One born a minute, two to take him."
"Two," I said, "is a conservative number."
Mr. Grant said, faintly, "Does this happen to you all the time?"
"I couldn't begin to tell you," I said.
"But why you?" he asked. "This is the first time anything like this ever happened to me. Why should it happen to you so much?"
I couldn't answer him. There just wasn't a single thing I could say in response to a question like that. So I stood there and looked at him, and after a while he and Wilkins went away, and I spent the evening thinking about the question Mr. Grant had asked me, and trying out various answers I might have given him, ranging from, "I guess that's just the breaks of the game," to, "Drop dead," and none of them was really satisfactory.
Copyright © 1967, 1995 by Donald E. Westlake
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Book Description Popular Library, 1987. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0445406127