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Coward's Kiss

Lawrence Block

  Coward's Kiss

  Block, Lawrence

  Wheeler Pub. (1987)

  Rating: ★★★★☆

  Tags: Private Investigators, Mystery Detective, New York (N.Y.), Hard-Boiled, General, Large Type Books, Fiction

  Private Investigatorsttt Mystery Detectivettt New York (N.Y.)ttt Hard-Boiledttt Generalttt Large Type Booksttt Fictionttt

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  "Block is one of the best!"

  -- Washington Post (_Washington Post, DC_ )

  Product Description

  A New York Times Bestselling Author

  New York City private investigator Ed London has a problem - or rather, the problem is his brother-in-law's. Jack Enright's mistress, a woman with secrets of her own, has been shot to death in the apartment that he pays for. But when the body, moved by London to Central Park, is finally identified, London knows he must act quickly to find her killer - before the killer and the police find him.

  Coward’s Kiss

  Lawrence Block




















  IT was the right kind of night for it.

  The afternoon had been tattletale gray that slowly turned to black. It had been warm and it got warmer, with humidity hanging in the air like crepe. All afternoon New York had crouched under a dark sky and waited for the rain to come.

  I ate a quick and tasteless supper at the delicatessen around the corner, then went back to my apartment and stacked records on the hi-fi. I sat in a chair by the window, smoking a pipe and listening to the music and watching the night roll in like smoky fog.

  It was a dark night, a coat of flat black paint that masked the moon and stars. Somewhere between eleven and twelve it started to rain. By that time the winds were ready. They came in behind the rain and brought it down hard and fast. I took Mozart off the hi-fi and put on a Bartok quartet—the slashing dissonance matched the mood of the turbulent weather outside. It was the kind of night nice people stayed safe and sound in their own apartments, stared at television sets and went to sleep early.

  I hoped all the nice people who lived on East Fifty-first Street would do just that.

  When the record ended I turned off the hi-fi and went to the closet. I put on the trench coat and slouch hat that every good private detective picks up the day he gets his license. Then I rolled up the oriental rug in the front hall and took it out of the apartment with me. I walked down a flight of stairs and out of my brownstone into the rain.

  The weather was even worse than I had thought. Drops of water bounced off my trench coat. Others rolled off the hat. Still others found their way into the bowl of my pipe and put it out for me. I stuffed my pipe into a pocket and started walking. I had the rug under my arm like a king-size pumpernickel.

  I keep my car in a garage around the corner on Third between Eighty-fourth and Eighty-fifth. The kid on duty there has a bad case of acne, plus some adenoids that get in his way when he tries to talk.

  “Mr. London,” he said. “You want your car on a night like this?”

  I told him I did. He put down a Batman comic and ran off to find it while I brushed raindrops off the roll of rug. He brought the Chevy around and presented me with the keys with what was supposed to be a flourish.

  “You better keep the top up,” he said. “Convertible’s not much fun in this kind of rain. Man, you put the top down and you’ll drown in there.”

  I gave him a quarter and hoped he’d put it toward an operation. I dropped the rug in the back seat and got behind the wheel. I glanced over at the kid to see whether he was busy wondering where the hell I was carrying a rug at twelve-thirty in the morning. He didn’t seem to care. His nose was buried in the comic book and he was off in a private world inhabited by Batman, Robin and the Joker. I started the car and drove away feeling more like the Joker than Batman.

  I took Second Avenue downtown and headed for Fifty-first Street—the address Jack Enright had given me—111 East Fifty-first Street. The address was impressive. I guess if you’re going to keep a mistress you might as well do it in style. Jack’s mistress was a blonde named Sheila Kane and I was on my way to meet her.

  Traffic was light on Second Avenue. A handful of cabs cruised slowly, waiting to be hailed by the drinkers and drunks who use the avenue’s cocktail lounges as a home away from home. There were very few pedestrians. New York stays awake twenty-four hours a day, even in the middle of the week, but that only holds for a few sections of the city. Times Square, bits of Greenwich Village, parts of Harlem. The residential neighborhoods go to bed early.

  Fifty-first Street was already going to bed. A few hours later all the lights would be out and all eyes would be closed. When everyone’s asleep, a single walking man is cause for suspicion. This was the best time to pass unnoticed.

  I drove past number 111 slowly. There was no doorman; no flunkey on duty. I circled the block and found a parking space two doors east of the building. I got out of the Chevy and left it there, lugging the carpet roll to the building’s doorway.

  I stood for a moment or two in the vestibule, studying the names of the tenants. Three others shared the fourth floor with Miss S. Kane. There was a P.D. Huber, an Angela Weeks, a Mrs. Aaron Clyman. I hoped they were all sleeping peacefully. I wasn’t worried about Sheila Kane. It was a hell of an hour to pay a call on her, but I knew she couldn’t care less.

  She was dead.

  One of the keys Jack Enright had given me fit the outer door. I let myself in, carried the carpet to the elevator. It was a self-service affair and it was slower than a retarded child. I piloted it to the fourth floor, got out of it, then left my own key case wedged between the door and the jamb. That way nobody could steal it away from me. I wanted it to be there waiting when I was ready for it.

  One of the doors had a neat brass nameplate that told me Sheila Kane lived there, which wasn’t exactly true. I stuck Jack’s other key into the lock and turned it. The door opened silently. I walked inside, closed the door, then felt around for the light switch. The room was very dark. Somewhere, in another apartment, someone was listening to ‘Death and Transfiguration.’ It was in tune with everything else.

  When I switched on the light I knew how Jack must have felt. It was quite a shock.

  The living room was large and the thick gray carpeting that ran wall-to-wall made it look still larger. Well-chosen pieces of French Provincial furniture rimmed the room and left a large oval of carpeted floor in the middle. In the precise center of the oval was the girl.

  She wore stockings and a garter belt and nothing else and she looked nuder than nude. The full effect was surrealistic, a grisly joke by Dali in three dimensions. The room itself was too neat to be true. Nothing was out of place. There were no ashes in the ashtrays, no empty glasses on the table tops. There was just a girl, flat on her back, arms outstretched, almost nude, with a hole in her face. A little blood reddened the carpet near her head and matted her blonde hair.

  She must have been pretty. She wasn’t now, because the face is the center of beauty and there was nothing beautiful about that face now. Death was its only expression and death is not beautiful. Corpses do not look as though they are sleeping. They look dead.

  Her body tried to deny that death. It was so young and rounded and firm and pink it almost looked alive. The breasts were
firm, the waist slender, the legs long and lovely.

  I left her and looked around the apartment. I checked the other rooms—a bedroom, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen. The neatness was almost overpowering. The bed was made, the sink scrubbed, the dishes washed and put away. I wondered why the killer had stripped her, or half-stripped her, and I wondered what he had done with her clothes. Carried them away with him, maybe. As souvenirs of death.

  It didn’t make much sense. When one gangster shoots down another gangster it doesn’t matter a hell of a lot and the world doesn’t lose by the killing. This was something else. It doesn’t make sense when someone kills a pretty girl.

  What I had to do was tasteless. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to go home and pretend I didn’t know anybody named Jack Enright, that I had never been to a fourth-floor apartment on East Fifty-first Street. That there was no girl named Sheila Kane, that she wasn’t lying dead on her living room floor.

  I went back to the living room and stood looking at her for too many seconds. Then I grabbed the rug I’d brought and rolled it out next to her. It was just the right size. I kneeled down next to her and rolled a-little-over-a-hundred pounds of carbon and hydrogen onto the rug. Her flesh was cold and she was heavy now, cold and heavy with death. I got her onto the rug and rolled her and the carpet together until I wound up with a package that looked like nothing more than a thick roll of carpet.

  Then I went to her bathroom, her very neat and very immaculate bathroom. I lifted the lid of a spotless toilet and threw up. I felt a little better after that.

  I gave the apartment a once-over before leaving it forever. While I walked around the place I had the feeling it was a waste of time, that I wouldn’t find anything. I was right.

  There couldn’t have been anything to see there. It was a good apartment, a pleasant apartment, but I got the impression that no one could possibly have lived there. Everything was put together like a stage set. There was nothing extraneous, nothing without a purpose. A desk on stage which is never opened will have empty drawers. Sheila Kane’s apartment radiated this feeling. Her personality had left no stamp on the place. The apartment stood alone, well-furnished and well-arranged, waiting for a rental agent to show it to prospective tenants. But some fool had been dumb enough to leave a corpse in the middle of the living room.

  I found a throw rug in a closet and covered the bloody part of the carpet with it. That would do unless someone searched the apartment carefully, and when that happened the bloodstains would be found no matter what I did to hide them. Then I picked up the roll of rug with the girl’s body in it and carried it to the doorway. It was heavier now. Too heavy.

  I turned off the light again, opened the door. My key case still held the elevator for me. Somewhere somebody was ringing for it impatiently. I carried my package into it, pushed the button. The door closed and we rode slowly down to the first floor.

  A woman was waiting for the elevator. A gray, fifty-ish woman with a sable stole and a lorgnette. She held a closed umbrella in one hand.

  “That rain,” she said. “Terrible.”

  “Is it still raining?”

  She smiled at me. Everything about her told me that her husband had had the decency to die well-insured. “Just a drizzle,” she said. “But these elevators. They should have a boy to run them. So slow.”

  I smiled back at her. She got into the elevator and rode to the third floor, which meant she probably hadn’t known Sheila Kane. I left the building knowing that she wouldn’t remember me. She was a woman who lived in a world of her own. That rain and that elevator were her major problems.

  The rain had eased up, but the night was as dark as ever. Streetlights tried to brighten things and failed. I carried the rug through the gloom to the car. It went in the back seat. I went in the front seat and the car went to Fifth Avenue, then uptown to Central Park. Traffic was even thinner now. I checked the mirror now and then to make sure nobody was following me. Nobody was.

  Central Park is an oasis in a desert or a wilderness in the middle of a jungle, depending on how you look at it. I drove through it, left the wide roads for the twisting lanes, let the Chevy follow its nose. I found a spot and pulled off onto the grass at the side of the road. I killed the engine and climbed out onto grass that was soft and wet from all that rain. The air was so fresh and clean that it didn’t seem like New York at all.

  That much was good. If she had to lie dead, at least she should do so in a fresh clean spot. But it was a shame about the rain. There was something very indecent about spilling her out nude and dead in the dampness. There was something. . . .

  I opened the back door and picked up the rug again, and by this time I was beginning to feel like an Armenian delivery boy. I held onto one end of the rug and let it spill out. The rug unwound neatly and what was left of Sheila Kane hit the ground, rolled over twice and came to rest face down on the grass.

  There was a flashlight in the Chevy’s glove compartment. I got it; took a last look at the girl. The bullet hadn’t lodged in her head. There was a small and neatly rounded hole in the back of her head where it had made its exit. I thought about modern police methods and scientific laboratory techniques and decided they would figure out that she had been killed by a white male between thirty and thirty-two years of age, wearing a blue pea jacket and favoring his right foot when he walked. Science is wonderful. All I could tell from the hole was that the killer had picked up the bullet from the apartment, and I’d guessed that all along.

  I turned off the flashlight. I rolled up the damned rug and tossed it back in the car, feeling very sick of rugs and corpses, of the smell of Central Park and of the smell of death. I thought about Sheila Kane, shrouded in darkness in tall wet grass. I thought about Newton’s law of inertia. Bodies at rest were supposed to remain at rest, but the dead girl had broken that law. She wasn’t supposed to be moving around. And how long would it be—before they let her rest? A quick ride to the morgue. An autopsy. And then another ride, slow and sedate, and a final home under the ground.

  I got back into the Chevy, put it in low and got the hell out of Central Park. I dropped the rug at my apartment—there was no point shoving it in the garage kid’s nose—and ran the car back to the garage. I turned it over to Adenoids and Pimples.

  “Crazy night,” he told me.


  “That’s where it’s at.” He shifted a wad of gum from one side of his mouth to the other, knocked ashes off a filter-tipped cigarette. He gave me a grin that he could have kept to himself.

  “A night to get killed on,” he said. “That type night.”

  I didn’t have an answer handy.

  “Spooky-kooky, what I mean. Me, I’m happy. I live right, Mr. London. I don’t cut work until the sun comes up. Midnight to dawn, that’s my scene. I wouldn’t walk around on a night like this. I couldn’t make it.”

  “I’m walking home.”

  “Take a hack,” he told me. “You live far?”

  “Not far.”

  “You could get hit on the head. Knifed, even. How far do you live?”

  “Around the corner,” I said. “I think I’ll chance it.”

  “Ruck, anyway.”

  I looked at him.

  “Rotsa Ruck. Like they say in China.”

  They don’t, but I wasn’t going to argue with him. I left him there and walked back to the apartment. Nobody knifed me and nobody hit me over the head, which wasn’t much of a surprise. I put my rug back in the hall where it belonged and sponged a few drops of caked blood from it. There were probably traces of blood in the thing but I wasn’t going to stay up nights worrying about them. Nobody would come to look at my rug. Because nobody would connect me with Sheila Kane. Because there was no connection.

  Now it was time to relax, time to unwind. I found a pipe and stuffed tobacco into it. I lit it evenly all around and smoked. I poured cognac into a glass and sipped it. It was smooth and it went all the way down and left a pleasant glow in its path

  It was time to relax, but I couldn’t manage it. There was a picture that stayed in my mind—a picture of a nude blonde, dead and cold, all dolled up in stockings and garter belt, with her face shot up and her hair bloody, lying in the very middle of a room that was the essence of neatness and order.

  An ugly picture. A hard one to forget and a hard one to think about.

  But I managed to think about something else, finally. I managed to think about my sister, whose name is Kaye. A very nice person, my sister. A lovely woman. A sweet woman.

  I thought about her for a few minutes. Then I thought about her husband. His name is Jack Enright.


  HE had leaned on my doorbell around three that afternoon. I had been doing the Times crossword puzzle. I stopped trying to think of a twelve-letter word for ‘Son of Jocasta,’ put down the paper and went to answer the door. I pushed the buzzer to unlock the downstairs door, then waited in the hallway while he worked his way up a flight of stairs. He climbed quickly and he was panting before he hit the top.

  Jack Enright. My sister’s husband. A tall man, forty-two or forty-three, with a reddish complexion and a little too much weight on a broad frame. A good handball player and a fair hand at squash, even though he didn’t look the part. Now he didn’t look the part at all.

  His shoulders sagged like an antique mattress. His face was drawn, his eyes hollow. His tie was loose and his jacket was unbuttoned. He looked like hell.

  He said: “I have to talk to you, Ed.”

  “Something the matter?”

  “Everything. I have to talk to you. I’m in trouble.”

  I motioned him inside. He followed me into the living room like a domesticated zombie. I found a chair for him and he sat down heavily in it.