A Stab in the DarkLawrence Block
I didn't see him coming. I was in Armstrong's at my usual table in the rear. The lunch crowd had thinned out and the noise level had dropped. There was classical music on the radio and you could hear it now without straining. It was a gray day out, a mean wind blowing, the air holding a promise of rain. A good day to be stuck in a Ninth Avenue saloon, drinking bourbon-spiked coffee and reading the Post's story about some madman slashing passersby on First Avenue.
Sixty or thereabouts. High forehead, rimless eye-glasses over pale blue eyes. Graying blond hair combed to lie flat on the scalp. Say five-nine or -ten. Say a hundred seventy pounds. Light complexion. Cleanshaven. Narrow nose. Small thin-lipped mouth. Gray suit, white shirt, tie striped in red and black and gold. Briefcase in one hand, umbrella in the other.
"May I sit down?"
I nodded at the chair opposite mine. He took it, drew a wallet from his breast pocket and handed me a card. His hands were small and he was wearing a Masonic ring.
I glanced at the card, handed it back. "Sorry," I said.
"I don't want any insurance," I said. "And you wouldn't want to sell me any. I'm a bad risk. "
He made a sound that might have been nervous laughter. "God," he said. "Of course you'd think that, wouldn't you? I didn't come to sell you anything. I can't remember the last time I wrote an individual policy. My area's group policies for corporations. " He placed the card on the blue-checked cloth between us. "Please," he said.
The card identified him as Charles F. London, a general agent with Mutual Life of New Hampshire. The address shown was 42 Pine Street, downtown in the financial district. There were two telephone numbers, one local, the other with a 914 area code. The northern suburbs, that would be. Westchester County, probably.
I was still holding his card when Trina came over to take our order. He asked for Dewar's and soda. I had half a cup of coffee left. When she was out of earshot he said, "Francis Fitzroy recommended you. "
"Francis Fitzroy. "
"Detective Fitzroy. Eighteenth Precinct. "
"Oh, Frank," I said. "I haven't seen him in a while. I didn't even know he was at the Eighteenth now. "
"I saw him yesterday afternoon. " He took off his glasses, polished their lenses with his napkin. "He recommended you, as I said, and I decided I wanted to sleep on it. I didn't sleep much. I had appointments this morning, and then I went to your hotel, and they said I might find you here. "
"Do you know who I am, Mr. Scudder?"
"I'm Barbara Ettinger's father. "
"Barbara Ettinger. I don't-wait a minute. "
Trina brought his drink, set it down, slipped wordlessly away. His fingers curled around the glass but he didn't lift it from the table.
I said, "The Icepick Prowler. Is that how I know the name?"
"That's right. "
"Must have been ten years ago. "
"She was one of the victims. I was working over in Brooklyn at the time. The Seventy-eighth Precinct, Bergen and Flatbush. Barbara Ettinger. That was our case, wasn't it?"
I closed my eyes, letting the memory come back. "She was one of the last victims. The fifth or sixth, she must have been. "
"The sixth. "
"And there were two more after her, and then he went out of business. Barbara Ettinger. She was a schoolteacher. No, but it was something like that. A day-care center. She worked at a day-care center. "
"You have a good memory. "
"It could be better. I just had the case long enough to determine it was the Icepick Prowler again. At that point we turned it over to whoever had been working that case all along. Midtown North, I think it was. In fact I think Frank Fitzroy was at Midtown North at the time. "
"That's correct. "
I had a sudden rush of sense memory. I remembered a kitchen in Brooklyn, cooking smells overladen with the reek of recent death. A young woman lay on the linoleum, her clothing disarrayed, innumerable wounds in her flesh. I had no memory of what she looked like, only that she was dead.
I finished my coffee, wishing it were straight bourbon. Across the table from me, Charles London was taking a small tentative sip of his scotch. I looked at the Masonic symbols on his gold ring and wondered what they were supposed to mean, and what they meant to him.
I said, "He killed eight women within a period of a couple months. Used the same M. O. throughout, attacked them in their own homes during daylight hours. Multiple stab wounds with an icepick. Struck eight times and then went out of business. "
He didn't say anything.
"Then nine years later they catch him. When was it? Two weeks ago?"
"Almost three weeks. "
I hadn't paid too much attention to the newspaper coverage. A couple of patrolmen on the Upper West Side had stopped a suspicious character on the streets, and a frisk turned up an icepick. They took him into the station house and ran a check on him, and it turned out he was back on the streets after an extended confinement in Manhattan State Hospital. Somebody took the trouble to ask him why he was toting an icepick, and they got lucky the way you sometimes do. Before anybody knew what was happening he'd confessed to a whole list of unsolved homicides.
"They ran his picture," I said. "A little guy, wasn't he? I don't remember the name. "
"Louis Pinell. "
I glanced at him. His hands rested on the table, fingertips just touching, and he was looking down at his hands. I said that he must have been greatly relieved that the man was in custody after all these years.
"No," he said.
The music stopped. The radio announcer hawked subscriptions to a magazine published by the Audubon Society. I sat and waited.
"I almost wish they hadn't caught him," Charles London said.
"Because he didn't kill Barbara. "
Later I went back and read all three papers, and there'd been something to the effect that Pinell had confessed to seven Icepick Prowler slayings while maintaining he was innocent of the eighth. If I'd even noted that information first time around, I hadn't paid it any mind. Who knows what a psychotic killer's going to remember nine years after the fact?
According to London, Pinell had more of an alibi than his own memory. The night before Barbara Ettinger was murdered, Pinell had been picked up on the complaint of a counterman at a coffee shop in the east twenties. He was taken to Bellevue for observation, held two days and released. Police and hospital records made it quite clear that he was in a locked ward when Barbara Ettinger was killed.
"I kept trying to tell myself there was a mistake," London said. "A clerk can make a mistake recording an admission or release date. But there was no mistake. And Pinell was very adamant on the subject. He was perfectly willing to admit the other murders. I gather he was proud of them in some way or other. But he was genuinely angry at the idea that a murder he hadn't committed was being attributed to him. "
He picked up his glass but put it down without drinking from it. "I gave up years ago," he said. "I took it for granted that Barbara's murderer would never be apprehended. When the series of killings stopped so abruptly, I assumed the killer had either died or moved away. My fantasy was that he'd had a moment of awful clarity, realized what he'd done, and killed himself. It made it easier for me if I was able to believe that, and from what a police officer told me, I gathered that that sort of thing occasionally happens. I came to think of Barbara as having been the victim of a force of nature, as if she'd died in an earthquake or a flood. Her killing was impersonal and her killer unknown and u
nknowable. Do you see what I mean?"
"I think so. "
"Now everything's changed. Barbara wasn't killed by this force of nature. She was murdered by someone who tried to make it look as though her death was the work of the Icepick Prowler. Hers was a very cold and calculating murder. " He closed his eyes for a moment and a muscle worked in the side of his face. "For years I thought she'd been killed for no reason at all," he said, "and that was horrible, and now I can see that she was killed for a reason, and that's worse. "
"I went to Detective Fitzroy to find out what the police were going to do now. Actually I didn't go to him directly. I went to one place and they sent me to another place. They passed me around, you see, no doubt hoping I'd get discouraged somewhere along the way and leave them alone. I finally wound up with Detective Fitzroy, and he told me that they're not going to do anything about finding Barbara's killer. "
"What were you expecting them to do?"
"Reopen the case. Launch an investigation. Fitzroy made me see my expectations were unrealistic. I got angry at first, but he talked me through my anger. He said the case was nine years old. There weren't any leads or suspects then and there certainly aren't any now. Years ago they gave up on all eight of those killings, and the fact that they can close their files on seven of them is simply a gift. It didn't seem to bother him, or any of the officers I talked to, that there's a killer walking around free. I gather that there are a great many murderers walking around free. "
"I'm afraid there are. "
"But I have a particular interest in this particular murderer. " His little hands had tightened up into fists. "She must have been killed by someone who knew her. Someone who came to the funeral, someone who pretended to mourn her. God, I can't stand that!"
I didn't say anything for a few minutes. I caught Trina's eye and ordered a drink. The straight goods this time. I'd had enough coffee for a while. When she brought it I drank off half of it and felt its warmth spread through me, taking some of the chill out of the day.
I said, "What do you want from me?"
"I want you to find out who killed my daughter. "
No surprise there. "That's probably impossible," I said.
"I know. "
"If there was ever a trail, it's had nine years to go cold. What can I do that the cops can't?"
"You can make an effort. That's something they can't do, or at least it's something they won't do, and that amounts to the same thing. I'm not saying they're wrong not to reopen the case. But the thing is that I want them to do it, and I can't do anything about it, but in your case, well, I can hire you. "
"Not exactly. "
"I beg your pardon?"
"You can't hire me," I explained. "I'm not a private investigator. "
"They have licenses," I went on. "I don't. They fill out forms, they write reports in triplicate, they submit vouchers for their expenses, they file tax returns, they do all those things and I don't. "
"What do you do, Mr. Scudder?"
I shrugged. "Sometimes I'll do a favor for a person," I said, "and sometimes the person will give me some money. As a favor in return. "
"I think I understand. "
"Do you?" I drank the rest of my drink. I remembered the corpse in that Brooklyn kitchen. White skin, little beads of black blood around the puncture wounds. "You want a killer brought to justice," I said. "You'd better realize in front that that's impossible. Even if there's a killer out there, even if there's a way to find out who he is, there's not going to be any evidence lying around after all these years. No bloodstained icepick in somebody's hardware drawer. I could get lucky and come up with a thread, but it won't turn into the kind of thing you can spread out in front of a jury. Somebody killed your daughter and got away with it and it galls you. Won't it be more frustrating if you know who it is and there's nothing you can do about it?"