In Dead Letter, Digger’s boss’s daughter is the next name on a college chain letter that has led to a string of murders—and her daddy is afraid she will be next.
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By Warren Murphy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Warren Murphy
All rights reserved.
Earl, the piano player, might be black. And Larry, the bartender, might be Italian. And Max, the owner, might live in White Plains and wear a yarmulke, but there was a neon shamrock in the window, so the place qualified as an Irish bar. That was why it was called "Paddy's Ould Sod."
Julian Burroughs explained all this very precisely to his boss, Frank Stevens, who explained in turn:
"Digger, it is also qualified to be called a dump by a hell of a lot more objective criteria. So why don't they call this place Quintessential New York Dump. How about Max's Unsanitary Landfill? And what the hell does Ould Sod mean anyway? Sod is a lump of grass. That's a stupid name for a country. We Irish don't have a brain in our heads. I opt for Max's Dump. What a great name for a bar. Especially this one."
"If you named a bar something like that in New York, all the pain-freaks who live in this town would storm the place like it was giving away money," Digger said. "You remember when some magazine analyzed the drinks in that big singles joint and found out that the Bloody Marys didn't have any vodka in them? Terrific. So what do you loony New Yorkers do? You pack the place fuller than it ever was."
"I didn't," Frank Stevens said. "I sent back my house charge card. I told them they might not know how to put vodka in Bloody Marys, but I hoped they'd be able to figure out how to put my charge card up their ass. I won't drink in a place that stiffs the customers."
He turned away from Digger to watch the piano player, who sat in a well in the middle of the circular bar. The bar was filled and a man across the circle from them had the customer's microphone in his hand and seemed determined to sing every George M. Cohan song ever written. He had just finished shakily sending his regards to Broadway and was now explaining in song how Mary was a grand old name. The man on Digger's left was trying to clap in rhythm, but he kept losing the beat.
"It's a dump, Digger," Stevens said. "It looks like a dump and smells like a dump, so call it a dump."
"Call it a dump," Digger said, "and pretty soon everybody'll be coming here and the owner doesn't want that?"
"Why not? He'll make more money."
"You don't understand, Frank. This is one of the most unique saloons in the United States."
"Why's that?" Stevens asked.
"Because it doesn't exist," Digger said. "Nobody knows it's here."
"You mean all these tone-deaf bastards sitting around the bar are the product of my boozy brain? That's it. I'm quitting drinking."
"What it is is that the owner, Max, is a friend of mine," Digger said. "Now I knew Max back when I ran that loan company. Max used to come to New Jersey to borrow money from me because somehow he had this idea it was a disgrace to borrow money in New York, where he lived. Even then, Max was making forty, fifty a year. That was a lot of money a long time ago, he was in the garment business. But he never kept up with his taxes and he was always borrowing money to pay Uncle. I always lent him the money and he always paid it back, but I always used to tell him he ought to do taxes pay as you go. 'Julius,' he'd say—he thought I was Jewish, that's why he borrowed from me—'how can you pay as you go when it already went? My wife spends money like the goddam defense department. I expect to come home some day and find an experimental fighter-bomber parked in our goddam yard that she bought just to see how it works and if she ought to order a hundred from Lockheed.' Did I ever tell you about my name, Frank?"
"No," said Stevens. "What about your name?"
"That was one of my father's jokes, my big Irish old man. I was born and my mother wanted me to have a nice Jewish name and my father said no son of his was ever going to be called Mel. But she kept after him and finally he let her name me Julian. He gave her the idea. She thought it was a nice Jewish name. I still don't think she knows I was named after a pope and a pagan. My father is remorseless."
"I love him," Stevens said. "He's as nutty as you are."
"So, anyway, Max keeps coming over every six months to Jersey to borrow from me and then takes six months to pay me back and I never knew how he did it. I used to ask him how he could keep borrowing and paying back more counting the interest, because someday he had to reach a point where he went belly up, and he said it was all right, he stole money from his wife to pay me back. Max didn't mind his wife spending money. He said to me once, 'Julius, you're Jewish, so you understand. My wife's going to spend my money. That's what she was made by God for. I don't argue about not eating pork. I don't argue about my wife spending money. What I hate is the thought of all those bastards in Washington living it up on my tax money. That drives me nuts. I can just see those bastards down there with their little bent pinkies drinking imported Kowloon tea that I'm paying for.'
"I told him 'You spend more on your wife than you spend in taxes. You can't get rid of the government. Get rid of your wife.' 'And then what would I do? Julius, I'm fifty-five years old. I let my hair grow eight inches long on one side so I can comb it across my head and look like I have hair. I don't fool anybody. I'm a bald man with eight-inch-long sideburns. You think I'm going to start picking up teenyboppers? You think some little twiff with big tits and the morals of a shiksa is going to go with some guy who's got hair that after I take a shower, lays on one shoulder? But my wife is always going to be there. She hates me, maybe, but I belong to her. But that freaking government doesn't belong to anybody. It's their fault I'm broke!'"
"Anyway," Digger said, "his wife dies and leaves him seventy-five thousand in insurance. By this time, Max is nuts about taxes. Then one day he comes into my office looking like Sammy Sunbeam. He is paying his note for the very last time, he said. Then he explained to me that he bought this bar. He paid cash for it from his wife's insurance. And he never let anybody know he had it. He never registered it. He never pays any sales tax. He pays for everything in cash. There are no records. He explained to me once that this is the way to do it. 'File just one piece of paper, Julius, and the bastards'll have you forever. But if you never file that first piece of paper, they don't know you exist and they'll leave you alone. Let somebody else pay for their fucking Kowloon tea that they drink with their little pinkies bent.'"
"You mean he doesn't declare anything?" Stevens asked.
"What about his license?" Stevens pointed to the framed document hanging on the wall behind the service bar.
"Forged. He has somebody forge him a new one every year so the dates are always current."
"What about the alcoholic beverage boys from the state? The sales tax people? The health department? Don't they come in and bust his chops?" Stevens asked.
"Most all those people work days, and he only opens at night," Digger said. "So they never see him. They think the saloon's abandoned. The alcoholic control guys come in at night, but he bribes them. The same guys always work the same beat. When they come in, he dukes them with a lot of money and they go away. Why should they bother him? He runs a nice place, he doesn't cause anybody any trouble. So they take the money and they leave. Remember, he's not listed anywhere in the world as the owner of this place. The license on the bar back there is made out in his wife's maiden name and she's dead. Who's going to find her anyway from her maiden name? Max has had this place for six years and he's taken out so much money that if he ever gets bagged for anything, he'll just turn out the lights one night and go to Florida. Who's going to know he ever existed?"
"Good for him," Stevens said. "Too bad we can't run our insurance company that way. I hate those tax bastards. Maybe when I retire I'll go into the saloon business, too."
"You can open the Quintessential New York Dump," Digger said. "You'll be a star."
"Why are you going to Boston anyway?" Stevens asked.
The man next to Digger tried to pass him the microphone to sing but Digger shook his head and turned back to Stevens.
"Arlo Buehler. He was in the Jesuit college with me. He's a doctor now and I go to Boston every year so he can look me over and see if I'm going to live. Except for you and Koko, he's the closest thing I've got as a friend in the world."
"The way you drink, I don't think I'd want anybody to look me over," Stevens said.
"I don't mind," Digger said. "Arlo drinks damn near as much as I do. I don't mind bad medical reports. What I mind is sanctimony from some bastard who tells me that I really have to stop smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and drinking a quart of vodka a day and looks at me like I'm some kind of immoral curiosity. Bullshit. Give me a doctor with bad breath from a Scotch hangover and yellow fingers from tobacco stains. Him I can deal with. He's not going to tell me to stop drinking or smoking, just because it amuses him to be smugly superior to me."
"What if this Buehler tells you to stop smoking or drinking? What then?" Stevens asked.
"Then I'll know it's for real. A real medical thing. And then I'll have to make a decision."
"What's to decide?"
"If I want to live in a world without another cigarette or another glass of vodka. But I'll worry about that when and if the time comes."
"It's coming, Digger. You know that."
"I don't know," Digger said. "I keep seeing those yogurt commercials of all those hundred-year-old Russians who drink vodka out of water glasses and smoke unfiltered cigarettes and they're dancing at their mother's 140th birthday party. It's supposed to be because they all eat yogurt."
"You eat yogurt?"
"I hate yogurt. It makes me throw up," Digger said.
"You don't have a prayer, Digger. Yogurt was your only hope."
"I don't think it's yogurt anyway that does it," Digger said. "It's throwing up. I think they eat yogurt and they throw up and the throwing up keeps them alive. I throw up all the time. Why should I die and Russians live?"
"I want you to do me a favor while you're in Boston," Stevens said. "That's why I asked you to meet me."
"My daughter, Allison, is up there at Waldo College. I wish you'd look in on her."
"Okay. Any special reason?"
"I don't know. She was home last weekend and she didn't seem like herself. Usually, she's always happy—like she invented happy," Stevens said. "But this weekend, she just kind of moped around."
"Did you ask her if anything was wrong?"
"How can you ask your kid if anything's wrong? She's twenty-one. It'd be easier talking to a Martian. Then when she left, I found this clipping in her room." He dug inside the jacket pocket of his three-piece pin-striped suit and brought out a newspaper clipping. He handed it to Digger who put it on the bar to read it. The man next to Digger shoved the microphone in front of him again and Digger pushed it away. He read the clipping and said, "Wally Strickland. Rick's Place. Was he a friend of hers or something?"
"You don't know my daughter," Stevens said. "She wouldn't have any friends in the saloon business. This is the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth, number one nice girl of the western world. I don't know why she had that clipping. I don't know why it would bother her if some barkeep died. If that was bothering her. I don't know. You've got how many children?"
"Two," Digger said.
"What are they?"
"Sub-human," Digger said.
"No. I mean sex. How old are they?"
"There's what's-his-name and the girl. A boy and a girl. I don't know how old they are. What's-his-name is pretty big so he must be pretty old. The girl is younger—I think."
"See. You can't talk to your kids, either," Stevens said.
"I don't want to, though," Digger said. "If I wanted to, I'd talk to them. Just right up and talk to them, just as if they were human."
"No, you couldn't," Stevens said. "No father can talk to his kids. You start wanting to tell them something, for their own good, just to let them in on something you learned so that they know it without investing the same kind of pain you did to learn it. But it starts sounding like a goddam lecture or a sermonette and you get mad because it sounds like you're picking on the kid, so you stop halfway through and they think you've got a loose upper plate, their sweet old man who tells these stupid, fucking half-stories that don't go anywhere. I can't talk to Allison. I can't tell her anything and I can't ask her anything."
"Okay," Digger said. "I'll talk to her."
"We'll make it a deal. If you ever want somebody to talk to your kids, I'll talk to them."
"They're doing experiments now in communicating with apes. Maybe one of these days soon," Digger said. He turned and pushed away the microphone again. "No, I don't want to sing."
"Why not?" the man next to Digger asked. He had a face so booze-blotched it looked like an uncooked, unhealthy pizza. "Around here everybody sings."
"Not us," Digger said. "We don't sing."
"Actually, I sing pretty well," Frank Stevens told Digger. "I was in my college glee club. Allison's in the college glee club, too. Straight A's. Magna cum laude probably. Doesn't even smoke. I don't want anything to be upsetting her. You'll go see her?"
"Sure. Where's she live?" Digger asked.
"Girls' dorm on campus. Two-fifteen LaPointe Walk. It's right on the campus off Beacon Street."
The blotch tapped Digger on the shoulder again. "You ought to sing," he said.
"I don't want to sing."
"The Irish always sing."
"The Irish also always make pains in the ass of themselves," Digger said.
"That's not nice," the man said.
"Neither are you. Buzz off, will you pal?" Digger asked.
"Only if you sing."
"You want me to sing? A real Irish song?"
"Right. Irish," the man said.
"Sure," said Digger. "Give me that microphone. You want something to honor our heritage?"
"Okay. Keep playing that song," Digger said as he took the microphone and nodded to the black piano player, who expertly slid back into an introduction to the song and then muted it to quiet holding chords until Digger started to sing.
In a clear, pure baritone, Digger sang:
"H-A-J Double E. B-I-A-N spells Hajeebian. When you see a rug you like, I sell it. When I see an Irishman, I smell it. H-A-J Double E. B-I-A-N you see. It's a name that brings tears to the hearts of all Armenians. Hajeebian. That's me."
"Digger, that's awful," Stevens said.
"You ain't funny," said the man with the blotchy face.
"Go take a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut," Digger said. "Do it to music." He handed him the microphone.
The man swung it as a club to hit Digger alongside the head. Digger ducked backward and the microphone missed and hit Frank Stevens on the shoulder.
And Stevens, six-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year president of the Brokers Surety Life Insurance Company, punched the blotch-faced man in the mouth and knocked him ass over teakettle off his stool and onto the floor.
"Goddammit, Digger," Stevens whooped. "I knew there was something about this ginmill that I liked. Who's next?"CHAPTER 2
Digger had tried, over the years, every single way to sneak into Boston, but he had finally given up. There was just no good way to drive from the civilized world into Boston and then find a tavern or cocktail lounge without first getting hung up in Boston traffic, which always seemed to look like a rehearsal for a riot.
Digger had read once that Paul Revere's ride was a myth, a legend with no basis in fact, and he absolutely believed it. By the time he got through traffic to let anybody know the British were coming, they would have come and gone.
But Digger knew that the traffic wasn't the real reason for his annoyance. The real reason was his promise to Frank Stevens that he would look in on his daughter Allison. Pretty, rich, vivacious, a scholar, happy, sweet, and virginal. In other words, an insipid simp. He knew he was going to hate her. Why did Frank insist upon ruining his trip to Boston this way? But it was the price one paid, Digger thought smugly, for hanging around with alcoholics. They only cared about themselves.
As his car crossed Boylston Street, he saw a tavern and he spun right madly from the center lane, cutting off another car, and jumped into the narrow opening of a parking lot.
Excerpted from Dead Letter by Warren Murphy. Copyright © 1982 Warren Murphy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Digger #3: “Dead Letter” by Warren Murphy. Digger (Julian Burroughs) is going to Boston for his annual physical. His boss, and drinking partner, the night before asks him to look in on his daughter Allison at Waldo University while he’s there. It seems on her last visit she appeared depressed, and her father Frank Stevens found a newspaper clipping about the death of a bar owner in her possession. Why would his daughter be upset about a bar owner’s death? When Digger arrives he discovers everything is mixed up at the university, and there appears to be a chain letter circulating – a letter with a list of people to be murdered. Although Tamiko Funucci isn’t with him, he can still reach her in Vegas for help with the mystery. And he must solve it before Allison’s name is listed on the dead letter. This was the usual fun story not cluttered with a lot of people or too much mystery. The best of Warren Murphy is his dialogue, which is some of the best of any writer. A quick and fun read