Read an Excerpt
VINCE Haller invited me to lunch at the Clarendon Club on Commonwealth Avenue with the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Taft University, Haller’s alma mater.
“No sneakers,” Haller told me. “No jeans, no open shirts with that idiotic gold chain you wear that’s at least six years out of fashion.”
“Susan gave it to me,” I said.
“Sure,” Haller said and gave me a look I’d seen him give witnesses during cross examination. It was a look that said you are a bigger simp than Michael Jackson.
Which is why, on the last day of February, I was strolling up Commonwealth in my gray suit wearing a blue oxford shirt with a traditional roll in the collar, and a yellow silk tie that whispered power. My cordovan loafers gleamed with polish, and I had a brand new Browning 9mm on my belt just back of my right hip. The Browning was flat and the holster canted forward so that the gun snuggled into the hollow over my right kidney and didn’t disturb the rakish drape of my suit. I was dressed to the nines, armed to the teeth, ready to lunch with the WASPs. If I hadn’t been me, I’d have wished I were.
Haller was waiting for me in the entry hall. He was wearing a double breasted camel hair coat, and a winter vacation tan that seemed even darker around his gray hair and mustache. Haller said, “Spenser,” in his big courtroom voice, and put out his hand. I took it. A retainer in a black suit took Haller’s coat and hung it for him, and Haller and I went up the stairs toward the main dining room.
The Clarendon Club looked as it should. Twenty foot ceilings, curving marble staircase, dark oak paneling. It had been once the enclave of Bostonians of English descent, a redoubt outside of which the masses had huddled in appropriate exclusion. Now it was an ecumenical enclave, accepting anyone with money and pretending they were WASPs.
Baron Morton was waiting for us at a table. He stood when we approached. Haller introduced us and we shook hands and sat down.
“Drink to start, Mr. Spenser?” Morton said.
“Sure,” I said.
A white-coated waiter was instantly there. I ordered beer, Morton had Chivas-and-soda-tall-with-a-twist, Haller had a martini. The waiter scuttled off to get the drinks and I sat back to wait. I knew how this would go. Morton would fiddle around for a while, Haller would prompt him, and after a bit he’d tell me why we were having lunch.
“So you’re a detective,” Morton said. Haller’s eyes were sweeping the room, picking out former clients and prospective clients; much of his work was criminal, but Vince was always alert.
“Yes,” I said.
“How does one get into that line?”
“I was a cop and after a while I decided to go on my own,” I said.
“Spenser had a little trouble conforming,” Haller said. “He’s, as I told you, Baron, a bit of a free spirit.”
“Like a stormy kestrel,” I said.
The waiter brought the drinks.
Morton took a dip into his and said, “Stormy kestrel, by God!” He laughed and shook his head. “What kind of living can someone make doing this, if I’m not being too nosy.”
“Varies,” I said. “Averages out to sufficient.”
“Is there much danger?”
“Just enough,” I said.
Morton smiled. The waiter handed out menus.
We ordered lunch.
“So what do you need from Spenser?” Haller said.
Morton looked apologetic. “I should be getting to the point, shouldn’t I?”
I smiled politely.
“Just that I was so interested. I mean, you know, a private eye and all that.”
I flattened my upper lip over my front teeth and said, “You ever stood out in the rain with your guts beat out?”
It sounded exactly like Humphrey Bogart. Morton looked at me blankly.
Haller said, “Spenser thinks he does impressions.”
“Oh,” Morton said. “Well, ah, I need some help on a fairly delicate matter.”
The waiter brought our lunch. Chicken pot pie for Morton. Scrod for Haller. Red flannel hash for me. I drank some Sam Adams.
“You’re familiar with Taft University?” Morton said.
“I’m the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, at Taft.”
I put some ketchup on my hash.
“Do you follow college basketball, Mr. Spenser?”
“Some. I like the pros better.”
“Well, Taft, as perhaps you know, is a major basketball power. Not only in the east, but nationally.”
“Made the final four, couple years ago,” I said.
“Yes, and we’re ranked in the top twenty again this year,” Morton said.
“Kid, Dwayne Woodcock, is a piece of work,” Haller said.
“Yes,” Morton said. “Best power forward in the country.”
“So what can I do for you,” I said. “You looking for a point guard?”
Morton took in some air, slowly, and let it out slowly, through his nose.
“I guess I’ll have to finally say it,” he said.
I drank some Sam Adams and ate some hash.
“There’s rumors of point shaving,” Morton said.
“Ah,” I said.
“The student newspaper first reported it, and a couple of sportswriters have said something about it to Brad Walker.”
“Who’s Walker?” I said.
“How about the coach?”
“People don’t like to give Dixie bad news. He reacts, ah, poorly to bad news,” Morton said.
“Tends to kill the messenger,” Haller said. He’d finished his scrod and was nearly through his second martini. It always puzzled me he could have that kind of lunch and then go into court and win cases.
“So no one’s asked the coach,” I said.
“No,” Morton said.
“Anyone ask the players?”
“No. Dixie doesn’t like people upsetting the players,” Morton said.
“Does the college paper say where it got its rumor?”
Morton shook his head. “Kids say they’re protecting their sources.”
“How about the sportswriters?”
“Well, we haven’t actually pressed this very far, Mr. Spenser. We didn’t want to lend credence to the rumor, and we didn’t want to encourage the rumors to circulate, if you see what I mean.”
“So what is it you want me to do?”
“We want you to track the allegations down, establish their truth or falsity, put the matter to rest.”
“What if they’re true?” I said.
“If they are true we will turn the matter over to the district attorney. The university is not prepared to cover up illegal things,” Morton said. “We care about our student athletes, and we care about a winning program at Taft. But we also care about rule of law.”
“I may have to annoy your coach,” I said.
“I understand. He’s a difficult, proud, volatile personality; but don’t misjudge him. Dixie Dunham is a good man.”
“We’ll get along fine,” I said.
Haller made a noise in his throat and then coughed into his clenched fist. Morton glanced at him and said nothing.
“If we can agree on the costs, are you willing to sign on for this?” Morton said.
“Sure,” I said. “My fee increases twenty percent, though, if your coach is mean to me.”
“Mr. Spenser,” Morton said, “I can’t promise …”
“He’s kidding,” Haller said. “He does that a lot.”
“Oh, of course. Well, let’s talk money.”
We did. It wasn’t hard, and when it was over I was employed again.
“Am I working for you, Mr. Morton, or the University?” I said.
“You are employed by the Board of Trustees and empowered to act on their behalf.” He glanced at Haller for confirmation.
“Baron,” Haller said. “It doesn’t make any difference how you say it. He’ll do what he wants to.”
“Well, we will need a contract spelling out the parameters of the job, I think,” Morton said.
“Sure,” I said.
Haller made the sound in his throat again.
“I’ll have the corporate counsel draft up something,” Morton said.
“Fine,” I said. “Are you the one I talk with when I need some access, or whatever?”
“If you’ll come by the University, I’ll introduce you to our President,” Morton said. “He will be more effective in seeing that you get what you need.”
The waiter came with the bill, and Morton discreetly signed it.
“Perhaps you could meet me at the President’s office tomorrow,” Morton said, “and we can talk about details and meet President Cort.”
“What excitement,” I said.
PRESIDENT Adrian Cort was a tall guy with a big Adam’s apple and very energetic eyes. He told me I’d have full access to any information or facility I needed at the University, though he hoped I would find no need to be intrusive, and that the students and Coach Dunham both would be treated respectfully. I promised to do my best. He asked if I wanted someone to show me around the campus, and I said I’d rather wander on my own. Then we all said good bye. Morton and Cort called each other Baron and Adrian.
Alone at last, I strolled over toward the campus police station, walking extra softly in case Coach Dunham was in the area. From a cop at the desk I got a map of the campus, and took a one-hour stroll of orientation. Taft University occupies about forty acres west of Boston in a town called Walford. It had grown rapidly since the Second World War and the core campus of ivy-covered brick buildings had been extensively augmented with a variety of architectural styles that blended like pieces from different puzzles. The dominant feel was of brutish slabs and confusion.
I found the Taft Daily Collegian in the Student Union Building on the second floor, looking out over the long narrow quadrangle that led to the angular glass and granite library. It was early afternoon. The thaw had departed and the hard sun was without warmth as it glinted on the snowy campus.
The newspaper office was busy. It looked like a small daily newspaper office, which it was, except that the staff was younger. A young woman wearing pink Reeboks directed me to the sports department in the far corner of the room, where three desks were pushed together to define a sort of horseshoe space underneath sports glossies stuck to the wall with map tacks. Most of the photographs had curled up around the single tack that held them. At one of the desks a young blond kid with a ragged crew cut was working on an Apple word processor. He wore jeans and a white shirt buttoned to the neck and he kept typing when I arrived at his desk. I consulted the list of names that President Cort had given me. Actually Cort hadn’t given me the list. He’d spoken to his secretary and she had given it to me.
“Barry Ames?” I said.
The kid didn’t look up. He kept typing, his eyes on the screen, but he paused long enough to raise his right hand for a moment and waggle it at me in a gesture that said, wait. He continued typing for maybe another full minute while I waited. Then he paused and looked up.
“Who was it you wanted?” he asked.
“Barry Ames,” I said.
“That’s me,” he said. “Sorry to put you on hold like that, but when you’re hot, you like to get it down before you lose it.”
“Certainly,” I said. “My name is Spenser, and the University has asked me to look into the question of point shaving by your basketball team.”
“Are you a cop?”
“Private,” I said.
“Holy shit, a private eye?”
“You wrote the column in which the allegation about point shaving was made, Barry?” It was the oldest of cop tricks. Use the guy’s first name when you talk to him. He doesn’t know yours, puts him slightly on the defensive.
“Why do you want to know?” Barry said.
“Because I want to know where you heard the rumor.”
“That’s privileged,” Barry said.
“Barry, I’m too old to listen to horse shit. You made an allegation of criminal behavior based on hearsay. That in itself is irresponsible, maybe libelous.”
“And maybe I want to talk to my lawyer,” Barry said. Calling him by his first name had really softened him up.
“Let me put this another way,” I said. “You printed a rumor that your team was shaving points. What did you expect would happen next?”
“That someone would investigate, for crissake.” Barry was outraged.
“Right,” I said.
Barry opened his mouth, and then paused, and then did a smart thing: he closed it.
I nodded encouragingly.
“Well, I still can’t tell you my sources,” Barry said.
“Is it a reliable source?” I said.
“It was a girl who dated one of the team guys.”
“She should know,” I said.
“She didn’t say she knew. She just said she’d heard somebody sort of hint at it, you know, joking.”
“Who was she dating?”
Barry shook his head. “I won’t tell you. I’m not going to get her in trouble.”
“Why would she get in trouble?” I said.
Barry shook his head some more.
“At the moment no one’s talking about prosecuting on this thing, but if they do, and your rumor is correct, then you’re going to get asked this question again under the threat of a contempt citation,” I said. “Then it’s grown up time, kid.”
“You think I’m a kid and a kid doesn’t know shit, don’t you,” Barry said.
“Exactly,” I said.
A number of Barry’s colleagues had gathered silently about during this interplay. None of them seemed to be rooting for me.
“Whyn’t you get off his case, Mister,” said a young woman with very large pink-rimmed glasses.
“You happen to know the source of his rumor?” I said.
“No, but if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
I looked at the rest of the kids, slowly, one at a time. Nobody said anything.
“What’s too bad,” I said, “is you’ve fastened on to the wrong principle. The heart of the business is not protecting your sources. It’s spreading the truth.”
None of them said anything except one in the back, who said, “Yeaa!” And another kid said, “It’s Lou Grant.”
Then a girl giggled and three or four others laughed. It is hard to remain dignified when being laughed at by a group of adolescents. I succeeded, however. I left without giving them the finger.