Chance said one man had to die. But there are ways of fixing Fate.
|"You know what they used to do on the Continent, Mulligan," I said, "when a man disgraced the uniform?" I turned the beer glass around a couple of times, and closed my eyes so I wouldn't see which way the handle ended up pointing. "They'd put him in a room with a revolver. A loaded revolver, you understand. Spare everyone a lot of trouble that way, and take some of the stain off at the same time."
Mulligan lifted my glass to polish the wood beneath it. "Seems to me something like that would leave an awful big stain, Lieutenant," he rumbled.
"Not the kind of stain I'm talking about," I told him. "But one wonders, doesn't one, why that tradition never made it across the ocean."
"Maybe because no one on our side ever disgraced no uniform."
I eyed him narrowly as he busied himself at my end of the bar. He wasn't being obviously satirical, but he wouldn't meet my gaze, either. I pushed my glass toward him and asked for another. He obliged.
"You familiar with Russian roulette, Mulligan?" I said.
"I know the theory."
"Six chambers," I said. "Six chambers and one bullet." I closed my eyes and rotated the glass. The handle was a gun barrel, and I tried to imagine it rotating into any position except the one that left it pointing at my gut. But it was very hard. In my mind's eye—hazy though it was with the effects of three boilermakers drunk in rapid succession—it kept taking dead aim at me.
"One bullet," I said. "Five chances in six of winning. Better odds'n most houses give."
"I never thought of it that way, Lieutenant," Mulligan said.
"But you need a steady nerve. If you're not to funk it."
"I wouldn't call it 'funking it,' Lieutenant, if I didn't play."
I looked up to reply, but he was looking down at the other end of the bar, at a man who'd just come in.
I flinched, to my eternal dismay.
But it was a stranger, and I felt more dismay still as my heart started beating again.
Then I saw he wasn't a stranger.
It was Hardesty.
At first I wondered if he was the one I'd been waiting for. Then I almost went to the phone to call the station to have him picked up. Sanity prevailed though, and as Hardesty watched me I put back most of my boilermaker, to show him I wasn't in the cop business for the rest of the night.
"Yes," I told Mulligan loudly. "It takes a steady nerve. But there are other ways of arranging it." I held up a finger, lecturing.
"You could have somebody else pull the trigger. You could arrange to be in a certain place at a certain time—a bar like this one, say—where you could be found. And when you stepped outside at a pre-arranged time—" The bar spun as I looked at the hands of the clock. "He could be waiting for you."
"Yes," said Mulligan. "Though I wouldn't like it to be outside my bar where such a thing happened."
"Doesn't have to be," I assured him. "Because there might be five other men, in five other bars, also waiting. But only one of them has an appointment. He doesn't know he's the one with the appointment, though, not until he steps out of the bar, you see. But for him—" I made a gun with my hand. "It's a certain thing."
I brushed the bar. "Six players. Five of them go home." I grinned. "But not the sixth."
"An interesting variation, Lieutenant," said Mulligan. "But why would six men play such a game?" He polished a glass with studied indifference.
Because, I didn't tell him, suppose the six men are police officers, and they've been taking bribes from the Syndicate. Only the D.A. gets wise. One of them has to be a fall guy, so the other five can go free.
So Civello can go back to his kids, and Fitzgerald can give a paycheck to his invalid mother, and Sikora can marry that girl he's so sweet on, and Belkin can put his brother through medical school, and Larkin can retire his father's debts.
And so Butler can continue supporting his bookie.
They got five chances out of six, same as you, I told myself. The Syndicate'll play it square. They're experts at games of chance.
At rigging them, I tried not to think.
Then I thought: Hell, if you wasn't yellow, Butler, you could rig it too.
Except it had to look like a chance killing, if the D.A. wasn't to smell anything fishy about the death.
So I was comforting myself by thinking about the great odds each of those five swell fellows was enjoying, when Nico and Tom slid in beside me.
I didn't know whether to be sick or relieved when Nico murmured, "Scram, you're slick."
"Sure. Just don't be nowhere near Civello, that's all." They slid away.
For a minute I was numb.
I almost asked for another boilermaker.
But instead I went to the pay phone and called Murphy's. "You can scram," I told Civello when they gave him the receiver. "It was Belkin."
"No!" he exclaimed, but I hung up before he could say more.
Hardesty gave me the fish eye as I settled next to him. "You ever do a job that was a sure thing?" I asked him.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he muttered.
"I think you do," I said, "and if we continue this talk in the back alley"—I flashed him some green—"I will explain myself."
I turned to go. After a moment's hesitation, the East Coast's premiere contract killer followed.
"Oh." I turned back to Mulligan. "When Nico Mazzetti comes back, give him this. He'll understand."
I set a bullet on the bar.
Prompt: "Suicide Sweepstakes"