For the sake of a distant cousin, Mitch Tobin takes on an impossible case
On the outskirts of Greenwich Village, among a wasteland of warehouses and tenements, a group of young people are opening a coffee shop. They are idealistic, giddy, and beautiful—the picture of 1960s youth—but their optimism cannot last. When a corrupt detective comes around demanding regular bribes, one of the young hippies, Robin Kennely, asks for help from a distant relative, the honest but fallen former cop Mitchell Tobin. When Tobin visits the coffee shop for the first time, he finds Robin in a state of shock, clutching a knife and covered in blood.
Two corpses lie upstairs. It seems impossible that anyone but Robin could have killed them, but for the sake of a group of children whose lives are so much brighter than his own, Tobin attempts to prove otherwise.
About the Author
Westlake’s cinematic prose and brisk dialogue made his novels attractive to Hollywood, and several motion pictures were made from his books, with stars such as Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. Westlake wrote several screenplays himself, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Grifters, Jim Thompson’s noir classic.
Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was one of the most prolific and talented authors of American crime fiction. He began his career in the late 1950s, churning out novels for pulp houses—often writing as many as four novels a year under various pseudonyms—but soon began publishing under his own name. His most well-known characters were John Dortmunder, an unlucky thief, and a ruthless criminal named Parker. His writing earned him three Edgars and a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Westlake’s cinematic prose and brisk dialogue made his novels attractive to Hollywood, and several motion pictures were made from his books, with stars such as Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. Westlake wrote several screenplays himself, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Grifters, Jim Thompson’s noir classic.
Read an Excerpt
Murder Among Children
A Mitchell Tobin Mystery
By Donald E. Westlake
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1967 Tucker Coe
All rights reserved.
Three happy children came walking down the street from my right. They were chattering together in Italian, and waving their arms, and laughing at one another. As they neared me, one of them looked up and caught my eye and said something brisk and happy to me. I had no idea what he was saying, but the tone was cheerful and the smiles on all three faces seemed guileless, so I smiled back and said, "Hello, yourselves." Then they passed me, the traffic light changed, and I crossed the street and walked deeper into the West Village, that part of lower Manhattan Island situated between Greenwich Village and the Hudson River.
I was now on Charles Street, west of Hudson; the address I wanted proved to be a block and a half farther on. Amid trucking-company sheds and storage warehouses, four redbrick tenements were squared off together like pieces left over from a giant antique Monopoly board, and it was the last of these I wanted. It differed from the others both in its lack of a high front stoop and in the existence of a shop on the ground floor. The plate-glass windows flanking the shop entrance had been painted black, with white stick figures painted on to represent couples sitting at round tables, one couple and one table to each window. Above the doorway a wooden sign was suspended from a metal rod; against a black background it said, in wavery white letters:
I stood a moment outside, and looked around. This was a Sunday in late August, hot with the usual August humidity, the late-morning sun beating down on a silent and deserted street. Except for these tenements there were no residences on this block, and none of the firms along here would be open today. Few people were out now anywhere in Manhattan; those who weren't away on vacation were at the beaches or lying on beds in air-conditioned rooms. The subway I'd taken in from Queens had been almost as empty as this street.
When at last I pushed open the door and went inside Thing East, I thought at first that it too was deserted, empty except for me. It was a very dim room, made darker by contrast with the brightness outside. I stood just within the door, squinting, and tried to make out the interior.
The room was long and rather narrow. Both side walls were bare brick, liberally hung with large black and white photographs and larger abstract paintings. The ceiling was of old-fashioned tin, painted a dull black, and from it were suspended a number of amber globes containing low-wattage bulbs, as though someone had calculated to within a fraction of a lumen the minimum amount of light required to read a menu by. Three lines of small square wooden tables stretched down the length of the room, flanked by chairs of widely varying types, ranging from delicate filigree ironwork to the bluntest of wooden kitchen chairs. Centered on each table was a large full glass sugar dispenser, and next to each sugar dispenser were squat glass salt and pepper shakers. At the far end of the room was a waist-high counter, past which could be seen a brightly lit and apparently empty kitchen.
I stepped forward, put one hand on the back of a chair, and called, "Hello? Anyone here?"
I was answered by sudden movement at the far end of the room. From the last table in the right-hand row a man arose and came toward me, saying, "You want something, mister?"
My first impression of him was of a rough-hewn maleness. His hair was thick and brown, his face was dominated by a full shaggy brown mustache, and he was wearing black slacks and a maroon turtleneck sweater. A dirty white towel was tucked crosswise into the top of his trousers, apron-fashion, covering him from waist to thigh. His nose, above the Cossack mustache, was wide and flaring. He was tall, and seemed husky within the sweater.
But as he approached, the image began to crack and shatter, as in an accelerated process of decay, and I saw that he was much younger than I had at first supposed, no more than twenty or twenty-one, and his eyes belied the appearance of masculinity, being young and sullen and uncertain. He worked, like an actor on stage, only at a distance, but of course he was still young and he might yet grow into the part.
I said, "I'm looking for Robin Kennely."
His expression grew guarded, and he said, "What do you want with her?"
I understood the expression, having seen it hundreds of times over the years. It meant that he had smelled the smell of cop on me and was prepared to protect himself and everyone he knew from me until the last bitter silence. When the New York Police Department had taken my badge away they had been unable to strip me also of that telltale scent; it entered every situation with me, adding irony to the intolerability of my life.
I couldn't deny being a cop, however, since I hadn't in so many words been accused of being one. But I could give this young man a different persona for me, so I said, "I'm a relative of hers."
He looked at me in disbelief. "The cousin?"
"Second cousin, yes."
"I thought—" He gestured vaguely, and looked over my shoulder as though someone behind me would resolve his confusion.
"Not all cousins," I explained, "are the same age. Robin Kennely is my mother's sister's granddaughter. Is she here?"
"Sure. Upstairs. Up in Terry's place."
"How do I get there?"
"Come on through the back," he said, and turned away, and said over his shoulder as he walked, "I thought you'd be a young guy. I don't know why, I just got the idea."
There was nothing to say to that. We walked in single file down the long room and through a doorway on the right side into the kitchen, a wide shallow room all in white and aluminum, illuminated by garish fluorescent lights.
"The stairs are through that door," the young man said, and as he pointed the door opened and Robin Kennely came through, smeared with great streaks of not-dry blood. The knife in her hand was carmine with it.
"There's a certain thing," she said, enunciating clearly in a high thin cold voice, and collapsed on the floor.CHAPTER 2
I had first met Robin Kennely just the day before, when she had come to see me at my house in Queens. I was in back, working on my wall, when Kate came out to say, "There's a girl here to see you."
That made no sense. Because of past history I felt a flickering instant of frightened guilt, but there was nothing in the now to feel guilty about, so it went away. I rested on my shovel and said, "Who is she?"
I was standing in the hole I was digging, and Kate stood over me. If you are going to build a wall, and if it is to be a good wall, long-lasting, solid, dependable, it is necessary first to dig. The wall must start in the ground, down below the frost line. Working slowly, carefully, working perhaps no more than a day or two a week, I had in the last several months dug about half of the necessary trench, putting down one level layer of concrete block in my wake, to guard against erosion of the sides. I was in no particular hurry to finish my wall; its construction was its own purpose.
What Kate understands of my wall, or of me, I do not know. She is my wife, and she has chosen to stay with me, and I am grateful without curiosity. I fear sometimes that like a fragile flower, the life I have constructed for myself will crumble if I ever submit it to investigation, so I walk softly, I work slowly on my wall, I do not feel curiosity.
Kate said, "She says she's a cousin of yours. Robin Kennely."
"A cousin? I never heard of her."
"She says her mother is your cousin Rita Gibson."
That name I knew. I have never been much for maintaining broad family ties, but I did remember from my childhood a thin angular black-haired girl named Cousin Rita Gibson. Aunt Agnes Gibson's daughter.
I said, "All right. Tell her I'll be there in a few minutes. I have to clean up."
Kate preceded me. I carried my shovel and level to the back porch and left them there, took off my work gloves, left them outside also, and went on into the house.
Kate was already in the living room with the girl. I heard them talking. It was necessary for me to go past the living-room door to get to the stairs, which I did without looking in at them. I went up, washed, changed out of my work clothes, and came back down to find they had both transferred to the kitchen, where the girl was sitting at my usual place at the table while Kate was in the process of making coffee.
The irrational is never very far away. I found myself taking an immediate dislike to this girl, partly because of the instant of guilt she had made me feel when Kate had first announced her presence, partly because she was sitting in my chair, and partly because she was very young and very beautiful.
I would guess her age at eighteen. She was slender, fine-boned, with long neck and delicate wrists. Her hair was a smooth and glossy black, worn straight and very long, in the manner of girl folk singers on television. Her face was fine-featured and bare of makeup and dominated by large level intelligent brown eyes. She was wearing a conservative pale green suit and a white blouse with a ruffle at the throat, an outfit designed as office wear for a secretary of age thirty. That she had made such a determined child's effort to dress up for this meeting gave some indication of its importance to her.
Strangling my stupid enmity, I came on into the kitchen and said, "How do you do?"
She sprang to her feet, lithe and new as a colt. "How do you do?" She gave me a quick trusting embarrassed smile and said, "I don't know what to call you. Cousin Mitchell? Mr. Tobin?"
"I think just Mitch. And you're Robin?"
"Yes. Robin Kennely. My mother is—"
"Yes, I understood that." Then I saw by her face that I'd been rude, and I tried to produce a friendly smile as I said, "Sit down, sit down. You don't have to be ceremonious with a cousin."
Kate brought over cups and plates then, breaking the awkward moment, and I sat across the table from the girl and tried to think of some kind of small talk. But there hadn't been any small talk in me for a long while, not since my life had ended, and there wasn't any now.
Bless Kate. While she moved here and there around the kitchen, preparing coffee, getting cookies, she kept a conversation alive with the girl, asking her questions about her mother and her grandmother and all my other relatives, some of whom Kate herself knew slightly and many of whom she had never met.
When at last we were all three sitting around the table, Kate allowed the conversation to lapse, and after a minute the girl looked at me and said, "Well, I guess I ought to get to it."
"Take your time," I said. "Have another cookie."
She reflexively reached out to the plate for another, but then just held it in her hand as she spoke. "You see," she said, looking very young and very earnest, "I was the only one who even knew a policeman at all."
"I'm not a policeman," I said quickly, but then I saw Kate stiffen and I realized I'd spoken too loudly and harshly, so I said, "But I still know some. What do you need a policeman for?"
"It's hard to explain," she said, "without it being all a jumble. My boy friend is—I have a boy friend, Terry Wilford, he's opening a coffee house. Down in the Village, you know? Terry and three other boys, they put their money in together. We've got—they've got a store they rented. It was very lucky, it isn't expensive at all, and there's a contingency lease, if the shop fails in three months they don't have to keep the lease any more."
She had grown too involved in her explanation to be able to talk without her hands, so she'd put the unwanted cookie back on the plate and was now leaning over the coffee cup, elbows on the table, hands waving expressively, eyes urgent and intent on me as she talked. I could see her just this way at a table in her boy friend's coffee house; in our slow and heavy household she was out of place, improbable and slightly fabulous.
I said, "It sounds as though you already have a lawyer. I don't know the problem yet, but have you talked it over with him?"
"George isn't really a lawyer," she said, and smiled abruptly, a startlingly sunny sight. "It's actually sort of funny," she said. "George's older brother works for the Post Office and goes nights to NYU. He's been studying to be a lawyer for nine years, and George says he'll never make it. But whenever we want to know anything legal, George goes and asks his brother. But that won't do us any good now."
"Well ... We just opened last Monday. And Wednesday a man came around, a policeman. He wouldn't say what he wanted, he just kept asking questions and looking around and being very—insinuating. As though we were doing something wrong and he was onto us. And he kept talking about how it would be too bad if somebody had to close us down."
"Was he in uniform?"
"No. But George wanted to see his identification, and he really was a policeman. A detective."
"All right. What did he finally do?"
"Wednesday, he just left after a while. But then he came back Thursday night, and he kept saying about how everybody has to fit into a neighborhood, you can't have people who don't fit in, and then last night he was there again and went around asking all the customers for identification. And always insinuating, insinuating. Like because Terry lives upstairs, and Thursday when he came I was upstairs and when I came down he wanted to know if girls upstairs was going to be a feature of the place."
I could feel Kate looking at me. The cop on the take had always been a pet peeve of ours when I was on the force, and this story of Robin Kennely's had all the earmarks. I said, "So then what happened?"
She made a very young shrugging motion, dipping her head, and said, "Well, George says what he wants is money. A pay-off. That's what his brother says, the almost lawyer. And we know about things like that, I mean there were all kinds of funny fees to the Housing Department and this and that, and there was a man came around from the Fire Department and kept talking about how we had to have more entrances and more fire extinguishers, and George's brother talked to him and gave him fifty dollars. But this policeman is so weird. Everybody's afraid to offer him money, because what if that isn't it? Then we're really in trouble."
"You haven't offered him a bribe."
She shook her head. "We're not cynics, Mr. Tobin," she said, forgetting that she was supposed to call me Mitch. "But we know that if you're going to do something you have to do like everybody else does. We knew we'd have to pay some people extra money. But this policeman acts so strange, we aren't really sure. We don't know if we should pay him, or how much, or anything. And George's brother doesn't want to take the chance of offering him money because what if he wasn't there for a bribe? Then George's brother would be in trouble. Well, we'd all be in trouble."
"What other reason do you think he might have, if he doesn't want money?"
She seemed hesitant, and when she answered this time she looked more frequently at Kate than at me. "Some people," she said, "some policemen and people like that, they think young people in the Village—Well, they're down on young people. They think we're all beatniks and immoral and everything. You'll see policemen give somebody a bad time just because he has a beard, or a girl just because she's in the Village. So that's what it might be, he just wants to make a little trouble because he doesn't like us. And if that's it, we'd make an awful mistake if we tried to give him money. It would just make everything a lot worse."
I said, "Is that what your friend Terry thinks?"
A sudden blush colored her cheeks, and she said, "Terry thinks he wants a girl."
"Maybe me. Or maybe just a girl. Terry says he's one of those—one of those people who thinks everybody around coffee houses still believes in free love."
"So Terry thinks he wants a non-money bribe, is that it?"
I said, "And you want to ask me what I think, is that it?"
"In a way," she said. "But—" She hesitated, looked at Kate, looked helplessly back at me, and made her dipping-shrugging movement again.
Kate spoke up for the first time, saying, "Mitch, does it sound like a pay-off?"
"Almost," I said. "It could be something else, I don't know. But that's most likely."
Kate said to the girl, "And you want Mitch to talk to him, is that it?" I looked at the two of them, startled. I'd had no idea. I'd been thinking the girl had simply come to me for advice, for my opinion about what this cop wanted, and I'd been trying to make up my mind what I should tell her. It did sound very much like a guy on the make, wanting a little white envelope now and again to encourage him not to make trouble, but it wasn't absolutely definite as yet, and I didn't want to give these youngsters advice that would get them in worse trouble. So I'd been thinking about it, trying to find other questions to ask that might help me make up my mind, and it had never occurred to me that this new-found relative of mine might actually want me to get up and go out and do something.
Excerpted from Murder Among Children by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1967 Tucker Coe. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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