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By Brian Garfield
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1972 Brian Garfield
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Later he worked out where he had been at the time of the attack on Esther and Carol.
It must have been a few minutes after the lunch broke up. It had been a bibulous meeting with the clients and Paul had felt the effect of the gibsons. A trifle unsteady, he had come outside with Sam Kreutzer and they had ambushed a cab at Fifty-fifth Street. Going down Seventh Avenue they had got caught in the jam in upper Times Square and Paul remembered half choking on the blurted noxious gases of a bus beside the cab. It must have happened right about then: the police placed the time of the attack at two-forty.
The middle of a torpid day. Tourists and hookers moved along the curbs empty-eyed in wilted clothing. On the corners men in sooty T-shirts sold toys and belts. Ordinarily you couldn't see the pollution working on your lungs so you ignored it; but the fumes from the bus started Paul coughing and that brought on a taut gin headache. He rubbed his eyes.
Sam Kreutzer lit up. "It's getting so you don't dare breathe anything that hasn't been filtered through a cigarette." Blew smoke at his match. "Christ, will you look at that monstrosity."
"One Astor Plaza."
Concrete and plastic on the site of the old Astor Hotel. "I'll meet you at the Astor Bar," Sam Kreutzer said musingly, and it stirred Paul's recollection.
"A God damn shame. The politicians complain about vandalism while they're tearing down historic monuments to make room for those egg-crates."
The cab jerked forward and made half a block. Paul said, "How's the house-hunting?"
"No progress. We spent the weekend looking in Westchester."
"Maybe you ought to try looking farther out."
"I couldn't stand a long commute. But we're starting to think about renting a house—maybe Leonia or Fort Lee. Anything to get out of Manhattan. We should've done it years ago." Sam tapped his knee. "You and Esther ought to do the same thing. Why stay here when you don't have to go on living in a war zone?"
"We tried it once," Paul said and made a negative gesture with his hand, turning it over.
"Twenty years ago. Things have changed, Paul."
Above the 42nd Street roofs the sun was weak and watery through vapors, too frail to burn the eye. "You're a nut," Sam said. "You think you can tell me with a straight face you still love the city—but I'd like to hear you explain why."
"If you need to have it explained you won't understand it anyway."
"I used to know a priest who used that argument to prove the existence of God."
"Well, it made sense to the priest because he didn't need proof."
"Yeah." Very dry. Sam flashed his keyboard-length rows of teeth under the flimsy mustache he had grown on vacation and was planning, he said vaguely, to shave off. It gave him a rakish look; he was a thin slothful Minnesotan who in eight years with the firm had assimilated all the New York styles: sideburns obscured his ears, his hair fluffed out fashionably in the back, he wore flared striped suits and modish loud ties and he had learned the accepted litanies of outspoken disrespect for every Establishment value. All that, and he would never be a New Yorker. You can't take the small town out of the boy.
The cab driver was edging frantically to the left to make the left turn off Broadway into Forty-second.
"Look at this mess." Sam waved his cigarette at Times Square, the crowds, the traffic. "It just doesn't make sense any more. You can't get a guy on the phone because he's always in a taxi stuck in a traffic jam on his way to a meeting. The phone system's no good, the mails don't get through."
Sam threw his hands up helplessly; he enjoyed exposition. "The sanitation trucks grind down my street in the middle of the night like Sherman tanks with busted mufflers and they spend a Goddamned hour slamming garbage cans around right under the window. If we get a snowstorm it takes them a week to clean the streets. It's madness. Only one answer to it."
Paul smiled a little. "All right, since you obviously want me to feed you your line. What's the answer to it?"
"Only one solution to it. Abolish the environment. There won't be anything left to pollute."
Paul gave it the polite chuckle it deserved.
Sam said, "You pay for private schools for the kids. You pay for private security guards on the door. You pay out money and flesh to burglars and muggers. You write off your freedom of movement after sundown. And so on and so forth." He looked at Paul in alarm. "Christ, what am I doing here?"
"Making a living," Paul drawled. "And reciting the standard catechism of complaints just like the rest of us."
"Well, at least I'm not carrying it one step beyond that into your lunatic extreme of liberal goodness."
"What do you mean?"
"You're a Goddamned bleeding-heart, Paul, do you know that? You and Esther actually go out into the wilderness and do things. Look at those hideous pinholes in your lapel—what was that, your Lindsay campaign button or your Support Prison Reform badge?"
"Somebody's got to give a damn," Paul said.CHAPTER 2
He had been with the accounting firm of Ives, Gregson & Co. long enough to rate a window office on the Lexington Avenue side of the eighteenth floor with his name in gilt lettering on the door's frosted pane: Paul R. Benjamin. It was a small room with a deep carpet and pushbutton phone. The air conditioner purred faintly. He settled into the chair with relief and chewed up two aspirins. Gremlins had filled his In box again but he didn't reach for it immediately. He sat absorbing comfort from the monolithic massiveness of the office and the elderly Graybar Building which contained it: there was certainty, permanence, solidity.
Thelma buzzed Bill Dundee into the office. Paul didn't get up or offer to shake hands; they never did.
"Hot," Dundee said by way of greeting. He was plump and shiny, the hair carefully combed across the baldness of bis pink scalp. Spherical enough to appear boneless. In the beginning Paul had taken him for a heavy-handed and painfully sincere paperwork man, but the air of unsophistication was a ruse and there was a sly sense of humor inside. It was evident now. Dundee had a look of satisfaction, almost glee. "I've gone to war."
"Against the revenuers?"
"The computers. I picked this up—thought you might want to read it. Maybe I can recruit you."
Dundee put the book down on the desk and Paul turned it around to read the title. Guerrilla Handbook for Computer Haters.
"Read it," Dundee said. "I've already started my campaign. I paid the Con Ed bill this morning. Made out the check for two cents less than the bill, and I cut two extra holes in the computer card. And I told Marjorie from now on all postage stamps go on sideways—it screws up their magnetized scanners." Dundee settled into the leather armchair at the corner of the desk. He glanced out toward the East River and seemed ready to make a remark about the visible smog but didn't; Dundee was a New Yorker and unlike Sam Kreutzer he didn't need to talk about the city. He said, "You busy right now?"
"No, I just walked in."
"Oh, that's right, you had lunch with their majesties the Arizona clients today. How'd it go?"
"I think we'll get to handle the audit."
"I knew you were the best one to go. You to do the soft sell and Sam to dazzle them with figures and jokes."
"I'm not even sure I want the job. Mergers like that can be messy. Remember the Bradshaw thing?"
"It gave Mel Gregson his first coronary. I could hardly forget it. Incidentally I ran into Bradshaw Junior the other day at the Harvard Club." Dundee shook his head sadly. "The blood does thin out from generation to generation. He's got no macho at all. Remember the old man?"
"Bradshaw? No, he was before my time."
"Hell, you're not that young. You're as old as I am. He only died twelve years ago."
"I meant it was before my time with the firm. I was still downtown then."
Dundee did an oh-yes-I-forgot, stupid-of-me frown. "Somehow you give the impression you've been here forever, Paul. I don't know if that's a compliment or not. Anyway, about young Bradshaw—funny, he's at least forty-five but he's still Bradshaw Junior to everybody around here. He buttonholed me with a big brag about how he made ten thousand dollars last month by selling short when the slump started. He made some wise remark like 'Only a fool holds out for top dollar.' No class at all, this second generation. The old man, now, he was something else. You must have heard the stories."
"One of the real men. He got his start down in Houston by reclaiming old bricks from buildings that were undergoing demolition."
"I never knew that."
"Most people don't. Everybody seems to think he just went out at the age of seventeen and scratched a hole in the dirt with a stick and struck oil. Not Bradshaw. He made his capital the hard way and then he bought his way into the oil business. But by God the man knew what money was really for."
"The first year he hired us to do his returns he listed seven girls on a single expense voucher and claimed he'd spent a total of four thousand dollars on them—and he told me privately he was being conservative on the voucher." Dundee shook his head in remembered admiration. "I remember one time he paid a Nieman-Marcus model three thousand dollars to take a shower naked in an oil gusher at one of his wells. I think I've still got the photo clipping from the Daily News."
"Last of the big spenders."
"You don't know the half of it. Of course he kept a high-powered gang of press agents on big retainers just to keep his name out of the papers, in his last years, but he never slowed down. He used to paint New York like nobody else—spend four, five nights in a row hitting shows and nightclubs like a cyclone. Never went to bed. Seemed to get along with a few cat naps on restaurant tables. He'd have two or three call girls in his suite around the clock so he wouldn't have to pick up a phone if he felt horny. And mind you, this is when he was well into his sixties."
Dundee smiled faintly. "Course he was a brutal old son of a bitch, he had moss growing down his north side, but he had a lot of charm too. He was a member of the Metropolitan, the Union League, he had respectable people on his boards of directors. But by Christ the man had style. There's nobody around like that any more."
"Maybe it's just as well," Paul said drily.
"No. Nowadays we're all nothing but a series of seven digits. Unless we take up arms the computers'll grind the life out of any potential Bradshaws we may have left. A pudgy finger tapped the book on Paul's desk. "You read it. I bet you'll join up."
It seemed to conclude Dundee's anecdote-for-the-day; he cleared his throat, and when he resumed, it was in his getting-down-to-business voice. "Now. About Ira Nemserman. The damn fool's done it again."
Dundee slid a couple of sheets of folded paper from his pocket and tossed them on top of the anti-computer manual. "Read it and bleed."
Paul had a look. Ira Nemserman was one of the self-made men. He had learned to count money in the millions but to him any numbers which weren't preceded by dollar signs were numbers that had to be computed on fingers and toes, and usually inaccurately. Obviously Nemserman had typed the two sheets himself—a capsule summary of income and outgo for the past quarter—and someone, probably Dundee, had circled two items in red: a common-stock block purchase on January sixteenth and the sale of the same block on June nineteenth.
Paul said, "I don't believe it. I just don't believe it."
"He's a child. You know that."
"A filthy-rich child. It's not as if this is the first time."
"I think you'd better get him on the phone, Paul."
"God, I'd like to wring his neck."
"Before you do, remember the size of the fees he pays us." Dundee got up to go. "And don't forget to read that book."
When Dundee was gone Paul reached for the phone and pushed the intercom button. "Get Ira Nemserman for me, will you, Thelma?"
It was ten minutes before she buzzed him back. "I have Mr. Nemserman for you now."
"Mr. Nemserman," he said wearily. "Where are you?"
The voice sounded like lumps of concrete rattling down a construction chute. "Steam room at the gym. What can I do for you?"
"Can you talk?"
"Sure I can talk. I got no secrets from anybody. You ought to know that—you're my accountant, haw."
Paul closed his eyes and squeezed his temples. "Mr. Nemserman, I've got your quarterly figures in front of me here."
"Good. I did a nice job for you this time. Everything organized good and neat. Hell, Benjamin, I do three quarters of your work for you—you ought to cut your fee, you know that?"
"That's funny, Mr. Nemserman, because I was just thinking about doubling it."
"You've got a problem."
"Will you listen to this. He tells me I've got a problem. Benjamin, right now I've got so many problems that if anything else happens today it'll be at least ten days before I can worry about it. What with the Dow Jones down more than eight points today, the Exchange Index down thirty-six cents——"
"Mr. Nemserman, you're trying to claim a capital gain on this block of Conniston Industries, is that right?"
"You bought it January sixteenth, you held it until June nineteenth, and you sold it for a gain of four hundred and forty-two thousand dollars."
"That's what is says on my paper, don't it?"
"Yes, sir. That's what it says. You're sure there's no mistake about those dates? You couldn't have written June when you meant July?"
"Now why the hell would I have waited for July when the stock was up that high in June?"
"Mr. Nemserman, from January sixteenth to June nineteenth is precisely five months and three days."
"Five mon—oh my God."
Paul rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "That's right. You've declared a capital gain, and your tax on that would be a little over a hundred and ten thousand, but actually this is straight unearned income because you didn't hold the securities a minimum of six months. So your total tax bill on the sale is likely to run you somewhere around two hundred and seventy thousand more than you figured."
"Jesus H. Christ." There was a moment of silence, either for thought or for prayer; finally Nemserman said, "What do I do about it?"
"Nuts. I'd sooner go to jail."
"They probably could arrange that."
"Come on, Benjamin, you're the whiz kid. Tell me what to do."
"Well, you probably know the dodges as well as I do."
"The hell. Who's got time to read all that crappy fine-print?" The man had an annual gross income in the neighborhood of a million dollars and didn't have time to read the Internal Revenue Code. Paul shook his head. Nemserman growled, "What do you suggest?"
"Well, of course you've got the standard gambits. Inflate your expenses grotesquely—they may buy part of it. You could cut thirty-five thousand off your tax bill by getting married, of course."
"You could establish some trusts, taxable at the twenty-six percent rate. That would cut you back to the capital-gain level. It's a little late in the year to try that, but if you moved fast you might swing it."
"Or foundations. You can set up your own foundation and donate money to it, and then borrow the money back from the foundation."
"How do I do that?"
"IRS Form Ten-twenty-three. You fill it out and send it in to apply for tax-exempt charitable status. If you can make your foundation look religious or educational or charitable, you're in."
"What are you waiting for then? Set me up a foundation."
"It would be better if you had your lawyer do that, Mr. Nemserman."
"Oh. Yeah. Well, okay, Benjamin. Thanks. I'll get right on it. Christ, they're bandits, these federal guys, you know that? Christ, what a puking mess we're in in this country."
"Well, maybe you'll get a sympathetic computer."
"Haw." Nemserman hung up on him without amenities and Paul leaned back in the chair filled with amused disbelief. After a moment he uttered a jocular bark of laughter. He laced his hands behind his neck and reared his head back lazily.
Excerpted from Death Wish by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1972 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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