We met for the first time on a handball court in Sheridan Park. It was a Saturday morning in early summer with the sky free of clouds and the sun warm but not yet unbearable. He was alone on the court when I got there and I stood for a few moments watching him warm up, slamming the little ball viciously against the imperturbable backstop.
He didn’t look my way, although he must have known I was watching him. When he paused for a moment I said, “A game?”
He looked my way. “Why not?”
I suppose we played for two hours, perhaps a little longer. I’ve no idea how many games we played. I was several years younger, weighed considerably less and topped him by four or five inches.
He won every game.
When we broke, the sun was high in the sky and considerably hotter than it had been when we started. We had both been sweating freely and we stood together, rubbing our faces and chests with our towels. “Good workout,” he said. “There’s nothing like it.”
“I hope you at least got some decent exercise out of it,” I said apologetically. “I certainly didn’t make it much of a contest.”
“Oh, don’t bother yourself about that,” he said, and flashed a shark’s smile. “Tell you the truth, I like to win. On and off the court. And I certainly got a workout out of you.”
I laughed. “As a matter of fact, I managed to work up a thirst. How about a couple of beers? On me, in exchange for the handball lesson.”
He grinned. “Why not?”
We didn’t talk much until we were settled in a booth at the Hofbrau House. Generations of collegians had carved combinations of Greek letters into the top of our sturdy oak table. I was in the middle of another apology for my athletic inadequacy when he set his stein down atop Zeta Beta Tau and shook a cigarette out of his pack. “Listen,” he said, “forget it. What the hell, maybe you’re lucky in love.”
I let out a bark of mirthless laughter. “If this is luck,” I said, “I’d hate to see misfortune.”
“You might say so.”
“Well, if it’s something you’d rather not talk about-”
I shook my head. “It’s not that-it might even do me good to talk about it-but it would bore the daylights out of you. It’s hardly an original problem. The world is overflowing these days with men in the very same leaky boat.”
“I’ve got a girl,” I said. “I love her and she loves me. But I’m afraid I’m going to lose her.”
He frowned, thinking about it. “You’re married,” he said.
I shook my head. “No, we’re both single. She wants to get married.”
“But you don’t want to marry her.”
“There’s nothing I want more than to marry her and spend the rest of my life with her.”
His frown deepened. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Let me think. You’re both single, you both want to get married, but there’s a problem. All I can think of is she’s your sister, but I can’t believe that’s it, especially since you said it’s a common problem. I’ll tell you, I think my brain’s tired from too much time in the sun. What’s the problem?”
“So who isn’t? I’m divorced and I’m remarried. Unless it’s a religious thing. I bet that’s what it is.”
“Well, don’t keep me guessing, fella. I already gave up once, remember?”
“The problem is my ex-wife,” I said. “The judge gave her everything I had but the clothes I was wearing at the time of the trial. With the alimony I have to pay her, I’m living in a furnished room and cooking on a hotplate. I can’t afford to get married, and my girl wants to get married-and sooner or later she’s going to get tired of spending her time with a guy who can never afford to take her anyplace decent.” I shrugged. “Well,” I said, “you get the picture.”
“Boy, do I get the picture.”
“As I said, it’s not a very original problem.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” He signaled the waiter for two more beers, and when they arrived he lit another cigarette and took a long swallow of his beer. “It’s really something,” he said. “Meeting like this. I already told you I got an ex-wife of my own.”
“These days almost everybody does.”
“That’s the truth. I must have had a better lawyer than you did, but I still got burned pretty bad. She got the house, she got the Cadillac and just about everything else she wanted. And now she gets fifty cents out of every dollar I make. She’s got no kids, she’s got no responsibilities, but she gets fifty cents out of every dollar I earn and the government gets another thirty or forty cents. What does that leave me?”
“Not a whole lot.”
“You better believe it. As it happens I make a good living. Even with what she and the government take I manage to live pretty decently. But do you know what it does to me, paying her all that money every month? I hate that woman’s guts and she lives like a queen at my expense.”
I took a long drink of beer. “I guess our problems aren’t all that different.”
“And a lot of men can say the same thing. Millions of them. A word of advice, friend. What you should do if you marry your girl friend-”
“I can’t marry her.”
“But if you go ahead and marry her anyway. Just make sure you do what I did before I married my second wife. It goes against the grain to do it because when you’re about to marry someone you’re completely in love and you’re sure it’s going to last forever. But make a prenuptial agreement. Have it all signed and witnessed before the marriage ceremony, and have it specify that if there’s a divorce she does not get dime one, she gets zip. You follow me? Get yourself a decent lawyer so he’ll draw up something that will stand up, and get her to sign it, which she most likely will because she’ll be so starry-eyed about getting married. Then you’ll have nothing to worry about. If the marriage is peaches and cream forever, which I hope it is, then you’ve wasted a couple of hundred dollars on a lawyer and that’s no big deal. But if anything goes wrong with the marriage, you’re in the catbird seat.”
I looked at him for a long moment. “It makes sense,” I said.
“That’s what I did. Now my second wife and I, we get along pretty good. She’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s good company, I figure I got a pretty good deal. We have our bad times, but they’re nothing two people can’t live with. And the thing is, she’s not tempted by the idea of divorcing me, because she knows what she’ll come out with if she does. Zeeee-ro.”
“If I ever get married again,” I said, “I’ll take your advice.”
“I hope so.”
“But it’ll never happen,” I said. “Not with my ex-wife bleeding me to death. You know, I’m almost ashamed to say this, but what the hell, we’re strangers, we don’t really know each other, so I’ll admit it. I have fantasies of killing her. Stabbing her, shooting her, tying her to a railroad track and letting a train solve my problem for me.”
“Friend, you are not alone. The world is full of men who dream about killing their ex-wives.”
“Of course I’d never do it. Because if anything ever happened to that woman, the police would come straight to me.”
“Same here. If I ever put my ex in the ground, there’d be a cop knocking on my door before the body was cold. Of course that particular body was born cold, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. This time I signaled for more beer, and we fell silent until it was on the table in front of us. Then, in a confessional tone, I said, “I’ll tell you something. I would do it. If I weren’t afraid of getting caught, I would literally do it. I’d kill her.”
“I’d kill mine.”
“I mean it. There’s no other way out for me. I’m in love and I want to get married and I can’t. My back is to the proverbial wall. I’d do it.”
He didn’t even hesitate. “So would I.”
“Sure. You could say it’s just money, and that’s most of it, but there’s more to it than that. I hate that woman. I hate the fact that she’s made a complete fool out of me. If I could get away with it, they’d be breaking ground in her cemetery plot any day now.” He shook his head. “Her cemetery plot,” he said bitterly. “It was originally our plot, but the judge gave her the whole thing. Not that I have any overwhelming urge to be buried next to her, but it’s the principle of the thing.”
“If only we could get away with it,” I said. And, while the sentence hung in the air like an off-speed curve ball, I reached for my beer.
Of course a light bulb did not actually form above the man’s head-that only happens in comic strips-but the expression on his jowly face was so eloquent that I must admit I looked up expecting to see the light bulb. This, clearly, was a man who had just Had An Idea.
He didn’t share it immediately. Instead he took a few minutes to work it out in his mind while I worked on my beer. When I saw that he was ready to speak I put my stein down.
“I don’t know you,” he said.
I allowed that this was true.
“And you don’t know me. I don’t know your name, even your first name.”
He showed me a palm. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Don’t you see what we are? We’re strangers.”
“I guess we are.”
“We played handball for a couple of hours. But no one even knows we played handball together. We’re having a couple of beers together, but only the waiter knows that and he won’t remember it, and anyway no one would ever think to ask him. Don’t you see the position we’re in? We each have someone we want dead. Don’t you understand?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I saw a movie years ago. Two strangers meet on a train and-I wish I could remember the title.”
“Strangers on a Train?”
“That sounds about right. Anyway, they get to talking, tell each other their problems and decide to do each other’s murder. Do you get my drift?”
“I’m beginning to.”
“You’ve got an ex-wife, and I’ve got an ex-wife. You said you’d commit murder if you had a chance to get away with it, and I’d commit murder if I had a chance to get away with it. And all we have to do to get away with it is switch victims.” He leaned forward and dropped his voice to an urgent whisper. There was no one near us, but the occasion seemed to demand low voices. “Nothing could be simpler, friend. You kill my ex-wife. I kill your ex-wife. And we’re both home free.”
My eyes widened. “That’s brilliant,” I whispered back. “It’s absolutely brilliant.”
“You’d have thought of it yourself in another minute,” he said modestly. “The conversation was headed in that direction.”
“Just brilliant,” I said.
We sat that way for a moment, our elbows on the table, our heads separated by only a few inches, basking in the glow generated by his brilliant idea. Then he said, “One big hurdle. One of us has to go first.”
“I’ll go first,” I offered. “After all, it was your idea. It’s only fair that I go first.”
“But suppose you went first and I tried to weasel out after you’d done your part?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t do that.”
“Damn right I wouldn’t, friend. But you can’t be sure of it, not sure enough to take the short straw voluntarily.” He reached into his pocket and produced a shiny quarter. “Call it,” he said, tossing it into the air.
“Heads,” I said. I always call heads. Just about everyone always calls heads.
The coin landed on the table, spun for a dramatic length of time then came to rest between Sigma Nu and Delta Kappa Epsilon.
I managed to see Vivian for a half hour that afternoon. After the usual complement of urgent kisses I said, “I’m hopeful. About us, I mean. About our future.”
“Really. I have the feeling things are going to work out.”
“Oh, darling,” she said.
The following Saturday dawned bright and clear. By arrangement we met on the handball court, but this time we played only half a dozen games before calling it a day. And after we had toweled off and put on shirts, we went to a different bar and had but a single beer apiece.
“Wednesday or Thursday night,” he said. “Wednesday I’ll be playing poker. It’s my regular game and it’ll last until two or three in the morning. It always does, and I’ll make certain that this is no exception. On Thursday, my wife and I are invited to a dinner party and we’ll be playing bridge afterward. That won’t last past midnight, so Wednesday would be better-”
“Wednesday’s fine with me.”
“She lives alone and she’s almost always home by ten. As a matter of fact she rarely leaves the house. I don’t blame her, it’s a beautiful house.” He pursed his lips. “But forget that. The earlier in the evening you do the job, the better it is for me-in case doctors really can determine time of death-”
“I’ll call the police.”
“After she’s dead I’ll give the police an anonymous phone call, tip them off. That way they’ll discover the body while you’re still at the poker game. That lets you out completely.”
He nodded approval. “That’s damned intelligent,” he said. “You know something? I’m thrilled you and I ran into each other. I don’t know your name and I don’t want to know your name, but I sure like your style. Wednesday night?”
“Wednesday night,” I agreed. “You’ll hear it on the news Thursday morning, and by then your troubles will be over.”
“Fantastic,” he said. “Oh, one other thing.” He flashed the shark’s smile. “If she suffers,” he said, “that’s perfectly all right with me.”
She didn’t suffer.
I did it with a knife. I told her I was a burglar and that she wouldn’t be hurt if she cooperated. It was not the first lie I ever told in my life. She cooperated, and when her attention was elsewhere I stabbed her in the heart. She died with an expression of extreme puzzlement on her none-too-pretty face, but she didn’t suffer, and that’s something.
Once she was dead I went on playing the part of the burglar. I ransacked the house, throwing books from their shelves and turning drawers over and generally making a dreadful mess. I found quite a bit of jewelry, which I ultimately put down a sewer, and I found several hundred dollars in cash, which I did not.
After I’d dropped the knife down another sewer and the white cotton gloves down yet a third sewer, I called the police. I said I’d heard sounds of a struggle coming from a particular house, and I supplied the address. I said that two men had rushed from the house and had driven away in a dark car. No, I could not identify the car further. No, I had not seen the license plate. No, I did not care to give my name.
The following day I spoke to Vivian briefly on the telephone. “Things are going well,” I said.
“I’m so glad, darling.”
“Things are going to work out for us,” I said.
“You’re wonderful. You know that, don’t you? Absolutely wonderful.”
On Saturday we played a mere three games of handball. He won the first, as usual, but astonishingly I beat him in the second game, my first victory over him, and I went on to beat him again in the third. It was then that he suggested that we call it a day. Perhaps he simply felt off his game, or wanted to reduce the chances of someone’s noticing the two of us together. On the other hand, he had said at our first meeting that he liked to win. Conversely, one might suppose that he didn’t like to lose.
Over a couple of beers he said, “Well, you did it. I knew you’d do it and at the same time I couldn’t actually believe you would. Know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“The police didn’t even hassle me. They checked my alibi, of course-they’re not idiots. But they didn’t dig too deep because they seemed so certain it was a burglary. I’ll tell you something, it was such a perfectly faked burglary that I even began to get the feeling that that was what happened. Just a coincidence, like. You chickened out and a burglar just happened to do the job.”
“Maybe that’s what happened,” I suggested.
He looked at me, then grinned slyly. “You’re one hell of a guy,” he said. “Cool as a cucumber, aren’t you? Tell me something. What was it like, killing her?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
“Hell of a guy. You realize something? You have the advantage over me. You know my name. From the newspapers. And I still don’t know yours.”
“You’ll know it soon enough,” I said with a smile. “From the newspapers.”
I gave him a slip of paper. Like the one he’d given me, it had an address block-printed in pencil. “Wednesday would be ideal,” I said. “If you don’t mind missing your poker game.”
“I wouldn’t have to miss it, would I? I’d just get there late. The poker game gives me an excuse to get out of my house, but if I’m an hour late getting there my wife’ll never know the difference. And even if she knew I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, so what? What’s she gonna do, divorce me and cut herself out of my money? Not likely.”
“I’ll be having dinner with a client,” I said. “Then he and I will be going directly to a business meeting. I’ll be tied up until fairly late in the evening-eleven o’clock, maybe midnight.”
“I’d like to do it around eight,” he said. “That’s when I normally leave for the poker game. I can do it and be drawing to an inside straight by nine o’clock. How does that sound?”
I allowed that it sounded good to me.
“I guess I’ll make it another fake burglary,” he said. “Ransack the place, use a knife. Let them think it’s the same crazy burglar striking again. Or doesn’t that sound good to you?”
“It might tend to link us,” I said.
“Maybe you could make it look like a sex crime. Rape and murder. That way the police would never draw any connection between the two killings.”
“Brilliant,” he said. He really seemed to admire me now that I’d committed a murder and won two games of handball from him.
“You wouldn’t actually have to rape her. Just rip her clothing and set the scene properly.”
“Is she attractive?” I admitted that she was, after a fashion. “I’ve always sort of had fantasies about rape,” he said, carefully avoiding my eyes as he spoke. “She’ll be home at eight o’clock?”
“She’ll be home.”
He folded the slip of paper, put it into his wallet, dropped bills from his Wallet on the table, swallowed what remained of his beer and got to his feet. “It’s in the bag,” he said. “Your troubles are over.”
“Our troubles are over,” I told Vivian.
“Oh, darling,” she said. “I can hardly believe it. You’re the most wonderful man in the world.”
“And a sensational handball player,” I said.
I left my house Wednesday night at half past seven. I drove a few blocks to a drugstore and bought a couple of magazines, then went to a men’s shop next door and looked at sport shirts. The two shirts I liked weren’t in stock in my size. The clerk offered to order them for me but I thought it over and told him not to bother. “I like them,” I said, “but I’m not absolutely crazy about them.”
I returned to my house. My handball partner’s car was parked diagonally across the street. I parked my own car in the driveway and used my key to let myself in the front door. From the doorway I cleared my throat, and he spun around to face me, his eyes bulging out of his head.
I pointed to the body on the couch. “Is she dead?”
“Stone dead. She fought and I hit her too hard…” He flushed a deep red, then he blinked. “But what are you doing here? Don’t you remember how we planned it? I don’t understand why you came here tonight of all nights.”
“I came here because I live here,” I said. “George, I’d love to explain but there’s no time. I wish there were time but there isn’t.”
I took the revolver from my pocket and shot him in the face.
“The police were very understanding,” I told Vivian. “They seem to think the shock of his ex-wife’s death unbalanced him. They theorize that he was driving by when he saw me leave my house. Maybe he saw Margaret at the door saying goodbye to me. He parked, perhaps with no clear intention, then went to the door. When she opened the door, he was overcome with desire. By the time I came back and let myself in and shot him it was too late. The damage had been done.”
“And poor Margaret.”
She put her hand on mine. “They brought it on themselves,” she said. “If George hadn’t insisted on that vicious prenuptial agreement we could have had a properly civilized divorce like everybody else.”
“And if Margaret had agreed to a properly civilized divorce she’d be alive today.”
“We only did what we had to do,” Vivian said. “It was a shame about his ex-wife, but I don’t suppose there was any way around it.”
“At least she didn’t suffer.”
“That’s important,” she said. “And you know what they say-you can’t break an egg without making omelets.”
“That’s what they say,” I agreed. We embraced, and some moments later we disembraced. “We’ll have to give one another rather a wide berth for a month or two,” I said. “After all, I killed your husband just as he finished killing my wife. If we should be seen in public, tongues would wag. In a month or so you’ll sell your house and leave town. A few weeks after that I’ll do the same. Then we can get married and live happily ever after, but in the meantime we’d best be very cautious.”
“You’re right,” she said. “There was a movie like that, except nobody got killed in it. But there were these two people in a small town who were having an affair, and when they met in public they had to pretend they were strangers. I wish I could remember the title.”
“Strangers When We Meet?”
“That sounds about right.”