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by Lawrence Block
Description: Also published as Grifter's Game. The living was high and the pickings came easy--till my one wild love became my sweet, slow death. Clip artist, reamer, pigeon plucker--take your pick. They all spell confidence man. Hell--they all spell me, Joe Marlin. But then, by any other name I'd smell as sweet to bored women on the prowl--rich ladies with their baby blues tight shut and their pocketbooks wide open. That was my game--devil-may-care conning, fly-by-night living, skipped checks at plush hotels, fleeced suckers wherever I could make a touch, a well developed string of aliases. A great old life--the rolling stone gathering no moss, just the green stuff that counts. Then I met Mona--and fell like a ton of bricks, like some legendary lover ready to fight demons and dragons. Beautiful, wicked Mona--the girl who gave me a dream of a rose-covered cottage, and straight arrow living--and a nightmare involving the biggest clipping of them all--murder!
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: November 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [220 KB]
Reading time: 142-199 min.
The lobby was air-conditioned and the rug was the kind you sink down into and disappear in without a trace. The bellhops moved silently and instantly and efficiently. The elevators started silently and stopped as silently, and the pretty girls who jockeyed them up and down did not chew gum until they were through working for the day. The ceilings were high and the chandeliers that drooped from them were ornate.
And the manager's voice was pitched very low, his tone apologetic. But this didn't change what he had to say. He wanted the same thing they want in every stinking dive from Hackensack to Hong Kong. He wanted money.
"I don't want to bother you, Mr. Gavilan," he was saying. "But it is the policy of the hotel to request payment once every two weeks. And, since you've been here slightly in excess of three weeks--"
He left that one hanging in the middle of the air, smiling and extending his hands palms-up to show me that he didn't like to talk about money. He liked to receive it, but he didn't like to talk about it.
I matched his smile with one of my own. "Wish you'd told me sooner," I said. "Time flies so fast a man can't keep up with it. Look, I want to get upstairs and change now. Suppose you have the bill ready for me when I come back downstairs. I have to go to the bank anyway. Might as well kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Pick up some money and settle my tab for the moment."
His smile was wider than mine. "Of course, we'll be happy to take your check, Mr. Gavilan. That is--"
"No point to it," I said. "My account's with a Denver bank. It'd take weeks before the check would clear. But I've got a draft on a bank in town. So just have the bill ready when I get downstairs and I'll pay you in cash later this afternoon. Good enough?"
It was definitely good enough. I walked over to the elevator and settled myself in it without calling out my floor. When you stay at the Benjamin Franklin for a day or two, the operator remembers where you live.
I got off at the seventh floor and found my room. The chambermaid hadn't gotten around to it yet and it was the same mess I had left behind me when I went down for breakfast. I sat on the unmade bed for a minute or two, wondering just how much the tab was going to come to at Philadelphia's finest hotel. One hell of a lot, no matter how I figured it. Better than three weeks at ten dollars a day. And better than three weeks of signing for meals, signing for the liquor room service sent up, signing for laundry service and dry cleaning and every other service Philadelphia's leading hotel had to offer. An impressive sum.
Maybe five hundred dollars. Maybe less, maybe more.
One hell of an impressive sum.
I reached into my pocket and found my wallet. I took out my money and counted it. It came to a little over a hundred bucks. And, needless to say, there was no draft on a Philly bank, no account with a Denver bank, no stocks, no bonds, no nothing. There was a hundred bucks plus, and that was all there was in the world.
I found a cigarette and lighted it, thinking how lucky I was that they'd carried me for almost a month without hinting for money. Most people get picked up on less than that. Fortunately, I was cagy and I had been playing it cool. I didn't just come on like a deadbeat. That's important.
For instance, I never signed for tips. Two reasons for that. For one thing, I didn't see any percentage in conning bellhops and waitresses who were probably as broke as I was. And when people sign for tips they get watched closely. Everybody watched them.
So I tipped in cash and I tipped heavy--a buck to a bellhop, a straight twenty per cent to a waitress. It was expensive, but it was worth it. It had paid off.
I got out of my clothes and went into the can for a shower. I took the hot spray first, then the cold. I like showers. They make me feel human.
While I toweled off I looked at myself in the mirror. The front was still there--the hard body, the sloping shoulders, the suntan, the narrow waist, the muscle. I looked solid and I looked prosperous. My luggage was top-grain cowhide and my shoes were expensive. So were my suits.
I was going to miss them.
I got dressed in a hurry and I put everything on my back that I could. I wore plaid bathing trunks under my slacks and a knit shirt under the silk one. I stuck cashmere socks--two pairs of them--between my feet and my shoes. I wore my best tie and stuck my second best tie in my pocket. I used all four tie clips on it--the jacket covered them up.
And that did it. Anything else would have made me bulge like a potato sack, and I did not want to bulge. I stuck the wallet in my pocket, left the room a little messier than it had been, and rang for the elevator.
The manager had my tab ready for me when I hit the lobby again. It was a big one. It came to a resounding total of six hundred and seventeen dollars and forty-three cents, a little more than I had figured. I smiled at him and thanked him and left, mulling over the bill as I walked.
The bill, of course, was made out to David Gavilan.
David Gavilan, of course, is not my name.
* * * *
I needed two things--money to spend and a new town to spend it in. Philly had been kicks, but things just hadn't panned out for me there. I'd spent a week looking for the right angle, another week working it, and the third week finding out that it was a mistake to begin with.
There was a girl in it, naturally. There always is.
Her name was Linda Jamison and she smelled like money. She had short black hair and wild eyes and pretty breasts. Her speech sounded like finishing school. She looked well and dressed well and talked well, and I figured her for Main Line or something damned close to it.
But she wasn't Main Line. She was just sniffing around.
It was a panic, in its own quiet way. I picked her up in a good bar on Sansom Street where the upper crust hobnob. We drank gibsons together and ate dinner together and caught a show together, and we used her car, which was an expensive one.
Things looked fine.
I dated her three days straight before I even kissed her. I was setting this one up slowly, building it right. I am twenty-eight already, too old to be fooling around. If I was going to score I wanted to do it up brown. Maybe even marry her. What the hell--she wasn't bad to look at and she looked as though she might even be fun in the rack. And she smelled like money. I like money; you can buy nice things with it.
So I kissed her a little on the fourth date, and kissed her a little more on the fifth date, and got her damned bra off on the sixth date and played games with her breasts. They were nice breasts. Firm, sweet, big. I stroked them and fondled them and she seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.
Between the sixth date and the seventh date I used my head for something more than a hatrack. I ran a Dun & Bradstreet on her at a cost of ten whole dollars, and I discovered that the Main Line routine was as queer as a square grape. She was a gold-digger, and the silly little bitch was wasting her time digging me. Clever little moron that I am, I was wasting time and money digging her. It would have been funny except that it wasn't.
So the seventh date was the payoff all across the board. I took her out again, and in her car, and I managed to drive around for three hours without spending a penny on her. Then I drove the car to her apartment--a sharp little pad that was evidently her investment in the future, just as the room at the Franklin was mine. We went into her apartment and wound up in the bedroom after not too long.
This time I was not playing games. I got the dress off, and I got the bra off, and I buried my face in bosom-flesh. I got the slip off and I got the garter belt off and I rolled down the stockings. I got the panties off and there was nothing on the bed but little Linda Jamison, the girl of my dreams.
The battle was won, but I was still damned determined to play it to the hilt. I ran a hand over her, starting at the neck and winding up at the Promised Land. She moaned happily, and I don't think that moan was an act. She was hot as a sunburn.
"Linda," I said softly, "I love you. Will you marry me?"
Which made her ecstatic.
From there on in, it was heaven and a half. I came at her like a bull at a matador and wrapped myself up in velvety skin. She made love with the freshness of an impatient virgin and the ingenuity of a sex-scarred whore. Her nails poked holes in my back and her thighs almost choked me.
It took a long time. There was the first time, wild and free, and it was very good. There was in-between, with two heads sharing a pillow and wild sweet talk in whispers. The sour note was the fact that we were both lying like rugs. But it was fun just the same. Don't misunderstand me.
And then there was the second time--controlled now, but still more passionate. If that is possible. It was, underneath it all, a very strange sort of lovemaking. We were playing games, and I knew what the score was and she only knew half of it. It was hysterical.
Maybe it would have been worth it to string her along for a little while. She was good, damned good, in case I haven't managed to make that point yet. I could have gone on dating her, gone on sleeping with her for a week or so. But the game had already been won and the sport was losing its excitement. I decided to get it over with.
We were lying on the bed. I had one hand on her breast. It felt nice.
"Linda," I said, "I ... I lied to you."
"What do you mean?"
"I know it won't matter to you," I said. "If I didn't know you so well, I probably wouldn't be able to risk telling you. But I do know you, my darling, and there's no room for secrets between us. I have to tell you."
Now she was getting interested.
"Linda," I said, "I am not rich."
She tried not to do a take, God bless her. But I had a handful of breast and I could feel her stiffen when the words reached her. I almost felt sorry for her.
"I put on an act," I said. "I met you, you see, and I fell for you right off the bat. But there was such a gulf between us. You were rich and I was churchmouse-poor. I didn't figure I had a chance with you. Of course, that was before I knew you. Now I realize that money doesn't matter to you. You love me and I love you and nothing else is the least bit important. Right?"
"Right." She did not sound very convincing.
"But now," I said, "I had to tell you. You see, I had no idea things would progress that fast. I mean, here we are, and we're going to be married. So I had to let you know that I had ... well, misrepresented myself, so to speak. I know it won't make any difference to you, but I wanted to tell you."
And from that point on it was no contest. When I called her the next day, nobody answered her phone. I went to her building, checked with the landlord. She had moved out, bag and baggage, and she had left no forwarding address. She was two months behind rent-wise.
It was hysterical.
So now it wasn't quite as funny as it had been. Now I was on the street myself, close to broke, with no discernible prospects. It was summer and it was hot and I was bored. I needed a change of scene, a new place to operate. It had to be a town close by but out of the state, a town I knew and a town that wouldn't remember me. Too many towns remembered me. The list grew every few months.
Then I had a thought. Atlantic City. Three years ago, a Mrs. Ida Lister, pushing forty but still shapely, still hungry, still a tiger in the hay. She had reimbursed me quite amply for two weeks' worth of stud services. She had picked up all the tabs, popped for a new wardrobe, and hit me with around five hundred bucks in cash.
The jewels I stole from her set me up for another three thousand bucks.
A cruddy little town. A three-way combination of Times Square, Coney Island and Miami Beach. It was hardly the most exciting place in the world.
But it was a dollar or so away from Philly by train and on the right side of the Jersey line. It was a resort town, a town filled with floaters and a properly neutral shade of gray. It was a new place to connect. Properly, this time. No more fooling around. No more winning the battles and losing the war. No more games with chesty chickens like Linda Jamison.
I got in a cab and told him to take me to the railway station. He hurried along on Market Street and I wondered when the flunkies at the Franklin would realize I had skipped.
* * * *
It was a slow train but it didn't have very far to go. It passed through Haddonfield and Egg Harbor and a few more towns I didn't bother to remember. Then we were pulling into Atlantic City and the passengers were standing up and ready to roll.
The sun was hot as hell and I couldn't see a cloud in the sky. I was glad I'd worn my bathing suit. It would be good to get out of my suit and into the water. I've always liked to swim. And I look good on the beach. It's one of my strong points.
I was out of the railway station before I realized something. I needed to stay at a hotel, and I couldn't stay at a hotel without baggage. Oh, I could--but not very well. Without baggage it's strictly a pay-as-you-go proposition, and at the type of place I had in mind the tab was going to come to fifteen dollars a day without meals, twenty with. Rates are high in resort towns in the tourist season. Sure, there are rattraps anywhere, holes where a room is two bucks a day with no questions asked. But that wasn't for me. If you go anywhere, you go first-class. Otherwise there's no point in going, to begin with.
Luggage. I could pick up a second-hand cardboard suitcase in a hockshop, fill it with old clothes and a phone book or two. But that wouldn't do me a hell of a lot of good. The big hotels frown when a guest checks in with cheap luggage. The chambermaids don't go wild over a suitcase filled with phone books.
I had no choice.
I walked back into the railway station, walked in slow. There was a line at the baggage counter and I joined it. I looked over the merchandise set on display and tried to pick the best. It wasn't hard. Two matching suitcases, monogrammed LKB, nestled on the top of the counter. They were top-grade stuff, almost new. I liked the looks of them.
I took a quick look around. Mr. L. K. B. was taking a leak or something; nobody seemed to be interested in his luggage, including the attendant.
I took both bags.
It was that simple. No baggage check, nothing. I picked up the bags, tossed the attendant a buck, and strolled off. Nobody questions a buck tipper. Not an attendant who gets crapped on five times a day for forty bucks a week. The attendant wouldn't even remember what luggage I had taken, and I'd be long gone before L. K. B. realized just what had happened. People take their time putting two and two together, and even so they generally come up with five.
A cab took me to the Shelburne. A doorman opened the door and took my bags. A bellhop took them from the doorman and walked me over to the desk. I gave the desk clerk a quick smile and asked for the best available single. I got it. He asked me how long I'd be staying and I told him I didn't know--a week, two weeks.
He liked that.
My room was on the top floor, a pleasant palace big enough for six full-sized people. The furniture was modern, the carpet thick. I was happy.
I took off my clothes, took another shower to get rid of the train smell. I stretched out on the double bed and thought happy thoughts. I was Leonard K. Blake now. A good name, as good as David Gavilan, as good as my own.
I got up, walked over to the window, stared out. There was the boardwalk, and on the other side of the boardwalk there was the beach, and on the beach there were people. Not too many people on this stretch of beach, because it was private--reserved for guests of the Shelburne. No rubbing elbows with the garbage. Not for Leonard K. Blake. He went first-class.
There were men on the beach, and there were girls on the beach, and there were children on the beach. I decided that it was about time there was me on the beach. It was too hot a day to sit around the hotel, air conditioning notwithstanding. I needed a swim and I needed some sun. Philly has a way of turning a tan complexion to a sallow pallor.
I put the swim trunks back on, hung up the suit in the closet, put the rest of the stuff I'd brought with me in the dresser drawer. I stuffed L. K. B.'s bags in the closet. I could unpack later and find out what little goodies I had inherited from him. From the looks of the luggage, his clothes would be good enough to wear. I hoped he was my size.
I took the bathers' elevator to the beach level and accepted a towel from another faceless attendant. The Shelburne had a private pathway from the hotel under the Boardwalk to the beach, which was handy. I found a clear spot, spread out my towel, and played run-do-not-walk into the water.
It was a good day for swimming. I let the waves knock me over for a while, then got up the strength to fight back and give them a run for their money. I gave that up, stretched out on my back and floated. I managed to stay awake, though. An uncle of mine once tried floating on his back at Jones Beach and fell asleep. The Coast Guard picked him up fifteen miles off-shore. So I stayed awake.
After awhile, staying awake got to be a bit of a chore. I got out of the water and clambered up on the beach like a walrus with leaden arms. Or forelegs. Whatever it is that walruses have. And I found my towel and stretched out on my stomach.
And fell blissfully asleep.
* * * *
Her touch woke me. Not her voice, although much later I remember having heard it while I slept, about the same way you can remember the ringing of an alarm clock that you never got up to turn off.
But her hands woke me. Soft hands on the back of my neck. Fingers drumming out not-too-complex rhythms.
I rolled over and opened my eyes.
"You shouldn't sleep like that," she was saying. "Not in this sun. You'll get a bad burn on your back."
I smiled. "Thanks."
"You don't have to thank me. I wanted to wake you up. I was lonely."
I looked at her. I looked at the very good body in the one-piece red suit. The suit was wet and it hugged her like an old friend. I looked at the blonde hair that was blonde all the way to the roots. I looked at the mouth. It was red and wet. It looked ravenously hungry.
And, out of habit, I looked at the fourth finger of her left hand. There was a mark there from a ring, but she wasn't wearing the ring now. I wondered whether she had taken it off before coming to the beach, or when she spotted me.
"Where's the husband?"
"Away," she said, her eyes laughing at me. "Away from me. Not here. I'm lonely."
"He's not in Atlantic City?"
She reached out a finger and chucked me under the chin. She was just a little too good-looking. That bothered me. When a woman's beauty blinds you, your work suffers. A certain part of your anatomy leads you around. That can gum things up.
"He's in Atlantic City," she said. "But he's not here."
"The beach," she said. "Where we are."
Where half a hundred other people also were.
"Want to go swimming?"
She made a face. "I already did," she said. "It's cold. And my bathing cap is too tight. It gives me headache."
"So go without one."
"I don't like to. I hate to get my hair wet. Especially with the salt water. You have to wash forever to get it out and it ruins the hair. I have very fine hair. I mean the hairs are thin, that is. I'm not complimenting myself."
"You don't have to," said. "Everybody else must do that for you."
That one got the smile it had to get. A little experience and you learn the language. You have to.
"You're sweet," she said. "Very sweet."
"Isn't your husband sweet?"
"How can I? He's married to the most beautiful girl in the world."
"He's not sweet. He's old and he's fat and he's ugly. Also stupid. Also revolting."
It was quite a list.
"So why did you marry him?"
"He's also rich," she said. "Very rich. Very very very rich."
* * * *
We forgot her husband. She did, anyway. I didn't, because he was an important part of the picture. The fat, ugly, old husband, who was also rich. The pretty wife, who wanted more than the old husband was giving her. It was almost standard.
The deviations from the norm were small ones--they only bothered me a little. For one thing, she was too young. Not too young to marry a rich old goat, because you can do that at any age. But too young to chase.
She was twenty-four--or twenty-five or twenty-six or twenty-seven. It was perfectly logical for her to be married to the old goat, perfectly logical for her to be interested in getting into the sack with somebody else.
But at her age, and with her looks, she shouldn't be the one to do the pursuing. She didn't have to be chaste, but she should at least be chased, to coin a phrase.
Later on, when the years went to work on the high breasts and the clear skin, then she could get into the act a little more. She could do the chasing, and she could do the paying. But at this stage of the game there were plenty of guys who would chase her without any encouragement whatsoever, plenty of guys who would bed down with her without expecting to be paid for their labors.
Of course, we hadn't talked about payment yet. We hadn't even talked about bedding down.
We were swimming.
Anyway, we were in the water. Her bathing cap was trying to save her fine blonde hair from the horrors of the salt water; and the two of us were busy letting the waves knock us over. Then, of course, she wanted to learn how to swim, and I wanted to teach her.
I held out my hands and she stretched across them, learning to float on her stomach. She managed to lie with her breasts on one of my arms and her thighs across the other. I could feel the sweet animal warmth of her even in the cold water.
I her she had it down pat.
"Now what do I do?"
"Move your arms."
She moved more than her arms. She moved them in an overhand crawl so that her breasts bounced around on my arm. She kicked gently with her long legs and her thighs worked on the other arm.
I wondered who was getting a lesson.
We clowned around some more. She told me her name was Mona and I told her my name was Lennie. She was a lot of fun, besides being a sex symbol. From time to time I even managed to forget that she was somebody else's wife, a potential meal ticket. I thought we were just two nice people having fun on a beach.
Then I would remember who she was and who I was and the pleasant illusion would fade and die.
We were on the sand again and I was drying her back with a big striped towel.
"I have to get back to the room, Lennie. I think he's waiting for me. It's been a while."
I knew who he was.
"When can I see you again, Mona?"
"Can you get away?"
"Where and when?"
She thought for all of three seconds. "Right here," she said. "At midnight."
"Isn't the beach closed at night?"
She smiled at me. "You're a clever man," she said. "I'm sure you can find a way to get out here all by yourself. Don't you think so?"
I thought so.
"Midnight," she said. "I hope there's a moon tonight. I like it when there's a moon."
She turned and left. I watched her go--she had a good walk, just a step on the right side of whorishness, as much provocation as a woman could get away with without looking like a slut. I wondered how long it had taken her to learn to walk like that. Or if it was natural.
* * * *
The sun dried me. I walked back over hot sand to the passageway, through the passageway to the bathers' entrance. I tossed my towel back to the attendant and smiled at him. I rode up in the elevator to the top floor and walked to my room. I had buttoned the room key into the pocket of my swim shorts. I brought it out, wet, and opened the door.
I took another shower, this one to get rid of the salt water. It took longer than it should have, because the hotel had a cute set-up whereby you could take a salt water shower or a fresh water shower, depending upon how you felt about life in general. I goofed the first time around. It was a nice shower, but it left me as salty as ever. Then I figured out the system and rinsed with fresh water.
By the time I was done it was time for dinner. The idea of wearing the same damn clothes I'd worn on the train didn't particularly appeal, and I decided to have a look at L. K. B.'s donation. With luck, his clothes might fit. With more luck, he might have packed some cash in his suitcase. Some people do, believe it or not.
The bags were locked. But suitcase locks, like trunk locks, are all the same. I found a key that fit the little bag and opened it.
Whoever the hell he was, he was the wrong size. His pants were too short and too big in the waist and the behind. His underwear fell off me. But his feet, God bless him, were the right size. There were two pairs of expensive shoes in the little bag and they both fit me. There were also ten pairs of socks which I didn't bother to try on. If the shoes fit, the socks would fit. Unless the guy had very unusual feet.
That took care of the little bag. I put his junk in my drawers and stuck the bag back in the closet. I got the big bag and propped it up on my bed, then opened it with the key.
I hung up the jackets in the closet without looking at them. I was pretty sure they wouldn't fit anyway, and I didn't want to chance running into the bum with his jacket on. Shoes and socks he wouldn't notice, whoever he was. A suit he might.
I got lucky again with his shirts. We were built differently, he and I, but his arms were the same length as mine and his neck the same circumference. His shirts fit me, and he had a lot of shirts. I put them in the drawers.
There was the usual junk--tie pins, cuff links, shirt studs, miscellaneous junk. I went through everything and put everything away. His clothes were from New York and I wondered if he was, too, or if he simply went shopping there.
Then I came to the box.
I thought of money, first of all. It was a small wooden box made of teak or mahogany and it was about the same size and shape as a dollar bill. I took a deep breath and prayed that it held a stack of hundreds. Maybe the bastard was a doctor and he wasn't depositing his receipts, working some kind of a tax dodge. Maybe a hundred different things.
The box gave me trouble. It was locked and none of my keys fit it. I gave up fooling around after awhile and set it on the dresser. It was hinged at the back. I had a little file that went right through those hinges.
I started to open the box. Then I stopped, found a cigarette, and lighted it. I was playing a little game with myself. The box was a present, and I had to try to guess what the present was. Money? Pipe tobacco? Fertilizer?
It could be anything.
I took off the lid. There was a piece of tissue paper on top and I removed that right away.
There was nothing under the paper but white powder.
I was completely destroyed. There is nothing quite so compelling as a sealed box. I had the contents turned into a mental fortune, and now old L. K. B.'s box turned out to be a bust. Powder!
Maybe there was something underneath the powder. I got ready to blow it away, and then all of a sudden some little bell rang deep inside my head and I changed my mind.
I stared at the powder.
It stared back.
I managed to finish my cigarette and butt it in an ashtray thoughtfully provided by the management of the Hotel Shelburne. Then I turned back to the box. I put one finger to my lips and licked it, then dipped it gingerly into the powdery substance.
I licked the finger.
It was absolutely astonishing. I blinked rapidly, several times, and then licked my finger again, dipping it once more into the box.
I licked it another time.
There was no mistaking the taste, not now, not after many years. When you work in a racket, even briefly, you learn what you can about the racket. You learn the product, first of all. No matter how small your connection with the racket or how little time you spend with it, this much you learn. I had played the game for two months, if that, in a very small capacity, but I knew what I had on my dresser.
I had approximately sixty cubic inches of raw heroin.