Banquets of the Black Widowers (The Black Widowers #4)

Chapter 2


THE HITS AND OUTS of baseball did not, as a rule, disturb the equanimity (or lack of it) of a Black Widowers banquet. None of the Black Widowers were sportsmen in the ordinary sense of the word, although Mario Gonzalo was known to bet on the horses on occasion.

Over the rack of lamb, however, Thomas Trumbull brushed at his crisply waved white hair, looked stuffily discontented, and said, "I've lost all interest in baseball. Once they started shifting franchises, they broke up the kind of loyalties you inherited from your father. I was a New York Giants fan when I was a young man, as was my father before me. The San Francisco Giants are strangers to me and as for the Mets, well, they're just not the same."

"There are still the New York Yankees," said Geoffrey Avalon, deftly cutting meat away from bone and bending his dark eyebrows in concexuration on the task, "and in my own town, we still have the Phillies, though we lost the Athletics."

"Chicago still has both its teams," said Mario Gonzalo, "and there are still the Cleveland Indians, the Cincinnati Reds, the St. Louis – "

"It's not the same," said Trumbull, violently. "Even if I were to switch to the Yankees, half the teams they play are teams Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey never heard of. And now you have each league in two divisions, with playoffs before the World Series, which becomes almost anticlimactic, and a batting average of .290 marks a slugger. Hell, I remember when you needed .350 if you were to stand a chance at cleanup position."

Emmanuel Rubin listened with the quiet dignity he considered suitable to his position as host – at least until his guest turned to him and said, "Is Trumbull a baseball buff, Manny?"

At that, Rubin reverted to his natural role and snorted loudly. His sparse beard bristled. "Who, Tom? He may have watched a baseball game on TV, but that's about it. He thinks a double is two jiggers of Scotch."

Gonzalo said, "Come on, Manny, you think a pitcher holds milk."

Rubin stared at him fixedly through his thick-lensed spectacles, and then said, "It so happens I played a season of semi-pro baseball as shortstop in the late 1930's."

"And a shorter stop – " began Gonzalo and then stopped and reddened.

Rubin's guest grinned. Though Rubin was only five inches above the five – foot mark, the guest fell three inches short of that. He said, "I'd be a shorter stop if I played."

Gonzalo, with a visible attempt to regain his poise, said, "You're harder to pitch to when you're less than average height, Mr. Just. There's that."

"You're heavily underestimated in other ways, too, which is convenient at times," agreed Just. "And, as a matter of fact, I'm not much of a baseball buff myself. I doubt if I could tell a baseball from a golf ball in a dim light."

Darius Just looked up sharply at this point. "Waiter," he said, "if you don't mind, I'll have milk rather than coffee."

James Drake, waiting expectantly for his own coffee, said, "Is that just a momentary aberration, Mr. Just, or don't you drink coffee?"

"Don't drink it," said Just. "Or smoke, or drink alcohol. My mother explained it all to me very carefully. If I drank my milk and avoided bad habits, I would grow to be big and strong; so I did – and I didn't. At least, not big. I'm strong enough. It's all very un – American, I suppose, like not liking baseball. At least you can fake liking baseball, though that can get you in trouble, too. – Here's the milk. How did that get there?"

Gonzalo smiled. "That's our Henry. Noiseless and efficient." Just sipped his milk contentedly. His facial features were small but alive and his eyes seemed restlessly aware of everything in the room. His shoulders were broad, as though they had been made for a taller man, and he carried himself like an athlete.

Drake sat over his coffee, quiet and thoughtful, but when Rubin clattered his water glass with his spoon, the quiet ended. Drake's hand was raised and he said, "Manny, may I do the honors?"

"If you wish." Rubin turned to his guest. "Jim is one of the more reserved Black Widowers, Darius, so you can't expect his grilling to be a searching one. In fact, the only reason he's volunteering is that he's written a book himself and he wants to rub shoulders with other writers."

Just's eyes twinkled with interest. '"What kind of a book, Mr. Drake?"

"Pop science," said Drake, "but the questions go the other way. Henry, since Mr. Just doesn't drink, could you substitute ginger ale for the brandy. I don't want him to be at a disadvantage."

"Certainly, Mr. Drake," murmured Henry, that miracle of waiters, "if Mr. Just would like that. With all due respect, however, it does not seem to me that Mr. Just is easily placed at a disadvantage."

"We'll see," said Drake, darkly. "Mr. Just, how do you justify your existence?"

Just laughed. "It justifies itself to me now and then when it fills me with gladness. As far as justification to the rest of the world is concerned, that can go hang. With all due respect, as Henry would say."

"Perhaps," said Drake, "the world will go hang even without your permission. For the duration of this evening, however, you must justify your existence to us by answering our questions. Now I have been involved with the Black Widowers for more than half of a reasonably lengthy existence and I can smell out remarks that are worth elaboration. You said that you could get in trouble if you faked the liking of baseball. I suspect you did once, and I would like to hear about it."

Just looked surprised, and Rubin said, staring at his brandy, "I warned you, Darius."

"You know the story, do you, Manny?" said Drake.

"I know there is one but I don't know the details," said Rubin. "I warned Darius we'd have it out of him."

Just picked up the caricature Mario Gonzalo had drawn of him. There was a face – splitting grin on it and arms with prodigious biceps were lifting weights.

"I'm not a weight lifter," he said.

"It doesn't matter," said Gonzalo. "That is how I see you."

"Weight lifting," said Just, "slows you. The successful attack depends entirely on speed."

"You're not being speedy answering my request," said Drake, lighting a cigarette.

"There is a story," said Just.

"Good," said Drake.

"But it's an unsatisfactory one. I can't supply any rationale, any explanation – "

"Better and better. Please begin."

"Very well," said Just.

"I like to walk. It's an excellent way of keeping in condition and one night I had made my goal the new apartment of a friend I hadn't seen in a while. I was to be there at 9 P.M., and it was a moderately long walk by night, but I don't much fear the hazards of city streets in the dark though I admit I do not seek out particularly dangerous neighborhoods.

"However, I was early and a few blocks from my destination, I stopped at a bar. As I said, I don't drink, but I'm not an absolute fanatic about it and I will, on rare occasions, drink a Bloody Mary.

"There was a baseball game on the TV when I entered, but the sound was turned low, which suited me. There weren't many people present, which also suited me. There were two men at a table against the wall, and a woman on a stool at the bar itself.

"I took the stool next but one to the woman, and glanced at her briefly after I ordered my drink. She was reasonably pretty, reasonably shapely, and entirely interesting. Pretty and shapely is all right – what's not to like – but interesting goes beyond that and it can't be described easily. It's different for each person, and she was interesting in my frame of reference.

"Among my abstentions, women are not included. I even speculated briefly if it were absolutely necessary that I keep my appointment with my friend, who suffered under the disadvantage, under the circumstances, of being male.

"I caught her eye just long enough before looking away. Timing is everything and I am not without experience. Then I looked up at the TV and watched for a while. You don't want to seem too eager.

"She spoke. I was rather surprised. I won't deny I have a way with women, despite my height, but my charm doesn't usually work that quickly. She said, 'You seem to understand the game.' It was just make – talk. She couldn't possibly know my relationship with baseball from my glazed – eye stare at the set.

"I turned, smiled, and said, "Second nature. I live and breathe it.'

"It was a flat lie, but if a woman leads, you go along with the lead.

"She said, rather earnestly, 'You really understand it?' She was looking into my eyes as though she expected to read the answer on my retina.

"I continued to follow and said, 'Dear, there isn't a move in the game I can't read the motivations of. Every toss of the ball, every crack of the bat, every stance of the fielder, is a note in a symphony I can hear in my head.' After all, I'm a writer; I can lay it on.

"She looked puzzled. She looked at me doubtfully; then, briefly, at the men at the table. I glanced in their direction, too. They didn't seem interested – until I noticed their eyes in the wall mirror. They were watching our reflection.

"I looked at her again and it was like a kaleidoscope shifting and suddenly making sense. She wasn't looking for a pickup, she was scared. It was in her breathing rate and in the tension of her hands.

"And she thought I was there to help her. She was expecting someone and she had spoken to me with that in mind. What I answered was close enough – by accident – to make her think I might be the man, but not close enough to make her sure of it.

"I said, 'I'm leaving soon. Do you want to come along?' It sounded like a pickup, but I was offering to protect her if that was what she wanted. What would happen afterward – well, who could tell?

"She looked at me unenthusiastically. I knew the look. It said:

'You're five – foot – two; what can you do for me?'

"It's a chronic underestimate that plays into my hands. Whatever I do do is so much more than they expect that it assumes enormous proportions. I'm the beneficiary of a low baseline.

"I smiled. I looked in the direction of the two men at the table, looked back, let my smile widen and said, 'Don't worry.'

"There were containers of cocktail amenities just behind the bar where she sat. She reached over for the maraschino cherries, took a handful and twisted the stems off; then one by one nicked them broodingly toward me, keeping her eyes fixed on mine.

"I didn't know what her game was. Perhaps she was just considering whether to take a chance on me and this was a nervous habit she always indulged in when at a bar. But I always say: Play along.

"I had caught four and wondered how many she would flick at me, and when the barman would come over to rescue his supply, when my attention shifted.

"One of the men who had been seated was now between the woman and myself, and was smiling at me without humor. I had been unaware of his coming. I was caught like an amateur, and the kaleidoscope suddenly shifted again. That's the trouble with kaleidoscopes. They keep shifting.

"Sure the woman was afraid. She wasn't afraid of the men at the table. She was afraid of me. She didn't think I was a possible rescuer; she thought I was a possible spoiler. So she kept my attention riveted while one of her friends got in under my guard – and I had let it happen.

"I shifted my attention to the man now, minutes after I should have done so. He had a moon face, dull eyes, and a heavy hand. That heavy hand, his right one, rested on my left hand on the bar, pinning it down immovably.

"He said, 'I think you're annoying the lady, chum.'

"He underestimated me, too; took me for what I was not.

"You see, I've never been any taller than I am now. When I was young I was, in point of fact, smaller and slighter. When I was nineteen, I would have had to gain five pounds to be a ninety – six – pound weakling.

"The result you can guess. The chivalry and sportsmanship of young people is such that I was regularly beaten up to the cheers of the multitude. I did not find it inspiring.

"From nineteen on, therefore, I was subscribing to build – yourself – up courses. I struggled with chest expanders. I took boxing lessons at the Y. Bit by bit, I've studied every one of the martial arts. It didn't make me any taller, not one inch, but I grew wider and thicker and stronger. Unless I run into a brigade, or a gun, I don't get beaten up.

"So the fact that my left arm was pinned did not bother me. I said, 'Friend, I don't like having a man hold my hand, so I think I will have to ask you to remove it.' I had my own right hand at eye level, palm up, something that might have seemed a gesture of supplication.

"He showed his teeth and said, "Don't ask anything, pal. I'll ask.'

"He had his chance. You must understand that I don't fight to kill, but I do fight to maim. I'm not interested in breaking a hold; I want to be sure there won't be another one.

"My hand flashed across between us. Speed is of the essence, gentlemen, and my nails scraped sideways across his throat en route, as the arc of my hand brought its edge down upon his wrist. Hard!

"I doubt that I broke his wrist that time, but it would be days, perhaps weeks, before he would be able to use that hand on someone else as he had on me. My hand was free in a moment. The beauty of the stroke, however, was that he could not concentrate on the smashed wrist. His throat had to be burning and he had to be able to feel the stickiness of blood there. It was just a superficial wound, literally a scratch, but it probably frightened him more than the pain in his wrist did.

"He doubled up, his left hand on his throat, his right arm dangling. He was moaning.

"It was all over quickly, but time was running out. The second man was approaching, so was the bartender, and a newcomer was in the doorway. He was large and wide and I was in no doubt that he was a member of the charming group I had run into.

"The risks were piling up and the fun flattening out, so I walked out rapidly – right past the big fellow, who didn't react quickly enough, but stood there, confused and wondering, for the five seconds I needed to push past and out.

"I didn't think they'd report the incident to the police, somehow. Nor did I think I'd be followed, but I waited for a while to see. I was on a street with row houses, each with its flight of steps leading to the main door well above street level. I stepped into one of the yards and into the shadow near the grillwork door at the basement level of a house that had no lights showing.

"No one came out of the barroom. They weren't after me. They weren't sure who I was and they still couldn't believe that anyone as short as I was could be dangerous. It was the providential underestimate that had done well for me countless times.

"So I moved briskly along on my original errand, listening for the sound of footsteps behind me or the shifting of shadows cast by the streetlights.

"I wasn't early any longer and I arrived on the corner where my friend's apartment house was located without any need for further delay. The green light glimmered and I crossed the street, and then found matters were not as straightforward as I had expected.

"The apartment house was not an only child but was a member of a large family of identical siblings. I had never visited the complex before and I wasn't sure in which particular building I was to find my friend. There seemed no directory, no kiosk with a friendly information guide. There seemed the usual assumption underlying everything in New York that if you weren't born with the knowledge of how to locate your destination, you had no business having one.

"The individual buildings each had their number displayed, but discreetly – in a whisper. Nor were they illuminated but by the glint of the streetlights, so finding them was an adventure.

"One tends to wander at random at first, trying to get one's bearings. Eventually, I found a small sign with an arrow directing me into an inner courtyard with the promise that the number I wanted was actually to be found there.

"Another moment and I would have plunged in when I remembered that I was, or just conceivably might be, a marked man. I looked back in the direction from which I had come.

"I was spared the confusion of crowds. Even though it was not long after 9 P.M., the street bore the emptiness characteristic of night in any American city of the Universal Automobile Age. There were automobiles, to be sure, in an unending stream, but up the street I had walked, I could see only three people in the glow of the streetlights, two men and a woman.

"I could not see faces, or details of clothing, for though I have 20/20 vision, I see no better than that. However, one of the men was tall and large and his outline was irresistibly reminiscent of the man in the doorway whom I had dodged past in leaving the bar.

"They had been waiting for him, of course, and now they had emerged. They would probably have come out sooner, I thought, but there had been the necessity of taking care of the one I had damaged and, I supposed, they had left him behind.

"Nor, I gathered, were they coming in search of me. Even from a distance I could tell their attention was not on something external to the group, as though they were searching for someone. Attention was entirely internal. The two men were on either side of the woman and were hurrying her along. It seemed to me that she was reluctant to move, that she held back, that she was being urged forward.

"And once again, the kaleidoscope shifted. She was a woman in distress after all. She had thought I was her rescuer and I had left her cold – and still in distress.

"I ran across the avenue against the lights, dodging cars, and racing toward them. Don't get me wrong. I am not averse to defending myself; I rather enjoy it as anyone would enjoy something he does well. Just the same I am not an unreasoning hero. I do not seek out a battle for no reason. I am all for justice, purity, and righteousness, but who's to say which side, if either, in any quarrel represents those virtues?

"A personal angle is something else, and in this cue, I had been asked for help and I had quailed.

"Oh, I quailed. I admit I had honestly decided the woman was not on my side and needed no help, but I didn't really stay to find out. It was that large man I was ducking, and I had to wipe out that disgrace.

"At least that's what I decided in hot blood. If I had had time to think, or to let the spasm of outrage wear off, I might have just visited my friend. Maybe I would have called the police from a street phone without leaving my name and then visited my friend.

"But it was hot blood, and I ran toward trouble, weighing the odds very skimpily.

"They were no longer on the street, but I had seen which gate they had entered, and they had not gone up the steps. I chased into the front yard after them and seized the grillwork door that led to the basement apartment. It came open but there was a wooden door beyond that did not. The window blinds were down but there was a dim light behind them.

"I banged at the wooden door furiously but there was no answer. If I had to break it down, I would be at a disadvantage. Strength, speed, and skill are not as good at breaking down a door as sheer mass is, and mass I do not have.

"I banged again and then kicked at the knob. If it were the wrong apartment, it was breaking and entry, which it also was if it was the right apartment. The door trembled at my kick, but held. I was about to try again, wondering if some neighbor had decided to get sufficiently involved to call the police – when the door opened. It was the large man – which meant it was the right apartment.

"I backed away. He said, 'You seem uncomfortably anxious to get in, sir.' He had a rather delicate tenor voice and the tone of an educated man.

"I said, 'You have a woman here. I want to see her.'

"'We do not have a woman here. She has us here. This is a woman's apartment and we are here by her invitation.'

"'I want to see her.'

"'Very well, then, come in and meet her.' He stepped back.

"I waited, weighing the risks – or I tried to, at any rate, but an unexpected blow from behind sent me staggering forward. The large man seized my arm and the door closed behind me.

"Clearly, the second man had gone one floor upward, come out the main door, down the stairs and behind me. I should have been aware of him, but I wasn't. I fall short of superman standards frequently.

"The large man led me into a living room. It was dimly lit. He said, "As you see, sir – our hostess.'

"She was there. It was the woman from the bar but this time the kaleidoscope stayed put. The look she gave me was unmistakable. She saw me as a rescuer who was failing her.

"'Now,' said the large man, 'we have been polite to you although you treated my friend in the bar cruelly. We have merely asked you in when we might have hurt you. In response, will you tell us who you are and what you are doing here?'

"He was right. The smaller man did not have to push me in. He might easily have knocked me out, or done worse. I presume, though, that they were puzzled by me. They didn't know my part in it and they had to find out.

"I looked about quickly. The smaller man remained behind me, moving as I did. The large man, who must have weighed 250 pounds, with little of it actually fat, remained quietly in front of me. Despite what happened in the bar, they still weren't afraid of me. It was, once again, the advantage of small size.

"I said, 'This young woman and I have a date. We'll leave and you two continue to make yourself at home here.'

"He said, 'That is no answer, sir.'

"He nodded and I saw the smaller man move out of the corner of my eye. I lifted my arms to shoulder level as he seized me about the chest. There was no use allowing my arms to be pinned if I could avoid it. The smaller man held tightly, but it would have taken more strength than he had at his disposal to break my ribs. I waited for the correct positioning and I hoped the large man would give it to me.

"He said, 'I do need an answer, sir, and if I do not get one very quickly, I will have to hurt you.'

"He came closer, one hand raised to slap.

"What followed took less time than it will to explain but it went something like this. My arms went up and back, and around the smaller man's head to make sure I had a firm backing, and then my feet went up.

"My left shoe aimed at the groin of the large gentleman and the man doesn't live who won't flinch from that. The large man's hips jerked backward and his head automatically bent downward and encountered the heel of my right shoe moving upward. It's not an easy maneuver, but I've practiced it enough times.

"As soon as my heel made contact, I tightened my arm grip and tossed my head backward. My head and that of the smaller man made hard contact and I didn't enjoy it at all, but the back of my head was not as sensitive as the nose of the man behind me.

'From the woman's point of view, I imagine, there could be no clear vision of what had happened. One moment, I seemed helplessly immobilized and then, after a flash of movement, I was free, while both of my assailants were howling.

"The smaller man was on the floor with one hand over his face. I stamped on one ankle hard to discourage him from attempting to get up. No, it was not Marquis of Queensberry rules, but there were no referees around.

"I then turned to face the larger man. He brought his hands away from his face. I had caught him on the cheekbone and he was bleeding freely. I was hoping he had no fight left in him, but he did. With one eye rapidly puffing shut, he came screaming toward me in a blind rage.

"I was in no danger from his mad rush as long as I could twist away, but once he got a grip on me in his present mood, I would be in serious trouble. I backed away, twisted. I backed away, twisted again. I waited for a chance to hit him again on the same spot.

"Unfortunately, I was in a strange room. I backed away, twisted, and fell heavily over a hassock. He was on me, his knee on my thighs, his hands on my throat, and there was no way I could weaken that grasp in time.

"I could hear the loud thunk even through the blood roaring in my ears and the large man fell heavily on me – but his grip on my throat had loosened. I wiggled out from below with the greatest difficulty though the woman did her best to lift him.

"She said, 'I had to wait for him to stop moving.' There was a candle holder lying near him, a heavy wrought – iron piece.

"I remained on the floor, trying to catch my breath. I gasped out, 'Have you killed him?'

"'I wouldn't care if I did,' she said, indifferently, 'but he's still breathing.'

"She wasn't exactly your helpless heroine. It was her apartment so she knew where to find the clothesline, and she was tying both of them at the wrists and ankles very efficiently. The smaller man screamed when she tightened the ropes at his ankle, but she didn't turn a hair.

"She said, 'Why the hell did you mess up the response in the bar when I asked you about baseball? And why the hell didn't you bring people with you? I admit you're a pint – sized windmill, but couldn't you have brought one backup?'

"Well, I don't really expect gratitude, but – I said, 'Lady, I don't know what you're talking about. I don't know about the baseball bit, and I don't go about in squadrons." "She looked at me sharply. "Don't move. I'm making a phone call.'

"'The police?'

"'After a fashion.'

"She went into the other room to call. For privacy, I suppose. She trusted me to stay where I was and do nothing. Or thought me stupid enough to do so. I didn't mind. I wasn't through resting.

"When she came back, she said, "You're not one of us. What was that remark about baseball?'

"I said, 'I don't know who us is, but I'm not one of anybody. My remark about baseball was a remark. What else?'

"She said, 'Then how – Well, you had better leave. There's no need for you to be mixed up in this. I'll take care of everything. Get out and walk some distance before you hail a taxi. If a car pulls up at this building while you're within earshot, don't turn around and for God's sake, don't come back.'

"She was pushing and I was out in the yard when she said, "But at least you knew what I was telling you in the bar. I am glad you were here and waiting.'

"At last! Gratitude! I said, "Lady, I don't know what – ' but the door was closed behind me.

"I made it over very quickly to my friend's apartment. He said nothing about my being an hour late or being a little the worse for wear and I said nothing about what had happened.

"And what did happen was nothing. I never heard a thing. No repercussions. And that's why it's an unsatisfactory story. I don't know who the people were, what they were doing, what it was all about – 1 don't know whether I was helping the good guys or the bad guys, or whether there were any good guys involved. I may have bumped into two competing bands of terrorists playing with each other.

"But that's the story about my faking a knowledge of baseball."

When Just was done, a flat and rather unpleasant silence hung over the room, a silence that seemed to emphasize that for the first time in living memory a guest had told a rather long story without ever having been interrupted.

Finally, Trumbull heaved a weary sigh and said, "I trust you won't be offended, Mr. Just, if I tell you that I think you are pulling our leg. You've invented a very dramatic story for our benefit, and you've entertained us – me, at least – but I can't accept it."

Just shrugged, and didn't seem offended. "I've embroidered it a little, polished it up a bit – I'm a writer, after all – but it's true enough."

Avalon cleared his throat. "Mr. Just, Tom Trumbull is sometimes hasty in coming to conclusions but in this case I am forced to agree with him. As you say, you're a writer. I'm sorry to say I have read none of your works but I imagine you write what are called tough – guy detective stories."

"As a matter of fact, I don't," said Just, with composure. "I have written four novels that are, I hope, realistic, but are not unduly violent."

"It's a fact, Jeff," said Rubin, grinning.

Gonzalo said, "Do you believe him, Manny?"

Rubin shrugged. "I've never found Darius to be a liar, and I know something happened, but it's hard for a writer to resist the temptation to fictionalize for effect. Forgive me, Darius, but I wouldn't swear to how much of it was true."

Just sighed. "Well, just for the record, is there anyone here who believes I told you what actually happened?"

The Black Widowers sat in an embarrassed silence, and then there was a soft cough from the direction of the sideboard.

"I hesitate to intrude, gentlemen," said Henry, "but despite the over – romantic nature of the story, it seems to me there is a chance that it is true."

"A chance?" said Just, smiling. "Thank you, waiter."

"Don't underestimate the waiter," said Trumbull, stiffly. "If he thinks there is a chance the story is true, I'm prepared to revise my opinion. – What's your reasoning, Henry?"

"If the story were fiction, Mr. Trumbull, it would be neatly tied. This one has an interesting loose end which, if it makes sense, cannot be accidental. – Mr. Just, just at the end of the story, you told us that the woman remarked at her relief that you knew what she was telling you in the bar. What had she told you?"

Just said, "This is a loose end, because she didn't tell me a damn thing. I could easily make something up, if I weren't telling the truth."

"Or you could let it remain loose now," said Halsted, "for the sake of verisimilitude."

Henry said, "And yet if your story is accurate, she may indeed have told you, and the fact that you don't understand that is evidence of its truth."

"You speak in riddles, Henry," said Just.

Henry said, "You did not, in your story, mention precise locations; neither the location of the bar, nor of the apartment complex in which your friend lives. There are a number of such apartment complexes in Manhattan."

"I know," interposed Rubin, "I live in one of them."

"Yours, Mr. Rubin," said Henry, "is on West End Avenue. I suspect that the apartment complex of Mr. Just's friend is on First Avenue."

Just looked astonished. "It is. Now how did you know that?"

Henry said, "Consider the opening scene of your story. The woman at the bar knew she was in the hands of her enemies and would not be allowed to leave except under escort. The two men in the bar were merely waiting for their large confederate. They would then take her to her apartment for reasons of their own. The woman thought you were one of her group, felt you could do nothing in the bar, but wanted you on the spot, near her apartment, with reinforcements.

"She therefore flicked maraschino cherries at you – an apparently harmless and, possibly, flirtatious gesture, though even that roused the suspicions of the two men in the bar."

Just said, "What of that?"

Henry said, "She had to work with what she could find. The cherries were small spheres – little balls – and she sent you four, one at a time. You had claimed to be a baseball fanatic. She sent you four balls, and, in baseball parlance – as almost anyone knows – four balls, that is, four pitches outside the strike zone, means the batter may advance to first base. More colloquially, he 'walks to first'. That's what she was telling you and you, quite without understanding this, did indeed walk to First Avenue for reasons for your own."

Just looked stupefied. "I never thought of that."

"It's because you didn't and yet incorporated the incident into the account," said Henry, "that I think your story is essentially true."


I once wrote a mystery novel entitled Murder at the ABA in which my hero was a little guy named Darius Just. I liked the book very much.

(I usually like my own books very much, which is a lucky thing. Can you imagine how miserable my life would be if I disliked my books, considering how many of them I write?)

I particularly liked Darius and I kept planning to write other books in the series, but somehow I never got the chance. In the first place there were so many nonfiction books I had to write and then, when the time came when Doubleday grabbed me by the throat and told me I had to write more fiction, they made it plain that by fiction they meant science fiction.

So my hopes for additional Darius Just novels went glimmering – for a while anyway.

But then it occurred to me that there was nothing to prevent me from putting Darius into an occasional short story and I thought up "The Woman in the Bar" specifically for him.

When Fred published the story in the June 30, 1980, issue of EQMM, by the way, he called it "The Man Who Pretended to Like Baseball" and that is an example of a title I didn't like. Too long and too off – center in my opinion. So back to "The Woman in the Bar."

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