I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent. That’s always been my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again. But life’s a gamble, is what I say, and not all the eloquent people in this world are in Congress.
Where I am is in a cab in New York City. Fares frequently ask me how it is somebody as eloquent as me is driving a cab, and I usually give them a brief friendly answer which doesn’t really cover the territory. The truth is, my eloquence comes from reading rather than formal higher education, which limits the kind of job open to me. Besides, driving a cab gives me a chance to pick my own hours. Day shift when the track is closed, night shift when it’s open. If there’s a game somewhere I’m particularly interested in, I skip a night and nobody cares. And if I’m broke, I can work as many hours as I want till I make it up.
Also, driving a cab is a lot more pleasant than you might think. You’re dealing with the public all day long, but only as individuals, one or two at a time. People are best one or two at a time. Also, economics being what they are, you’re generally dealing with a better class of customer. You get to talk with lawyers, businessmen, actors, tourists from Europe, all sorts of that kind of people. You get to look at a certain number of pretty girls, too, and sometimes have nice friendly conversations with them, and on rare occasions make a date with one. Like the girl I went with last year, Rita, the one where it looked serious for a while, until the Big A opened and it turned out she didn’t want to go to the track with me. She was down on gambling, is what it was, and the funny thing was she worked for a stockbroker. She kept wanting me to put money in the stock market. "Aerospace is undervalued right now," she’d say, and things like that. Then I’d tell her I’d rather play the races than the market because I knew the races and I didn’t know the market, and she’d get mad and start claiming that horse-racing and the stock market weren’t the same thing, and I’d say of course they were and give her analogies, and she’d get madder and insist the analogies were false, and so it went until finally we gave the whole thing up and she went her way and I went mine, and that was about the last steady girl I had up to the time of which I wish to speak.
The time of which I wish to speak began with a customer I took from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan. He started the whole mess I got into, and I never saw him again after that one time. He started it indirectly and inadvertently, but he did start it.
He was a heavy-set red-faced guy of maybe fifty, he smoked a really rotten cigar and had two expensive suitcases, and he went to an address on 5th Avenue below 14th Street. With a doorman. It was January and a snowstorm had been threatening for three days without yet showing up, and also he’d just come back from somewhere warm, so naturally we got into a discussion of New York City weather and what should be done about it. I cracked a few jokes, made some profound statements, threw in a few subtle asides about politics and scored a few good ones off the automobile industry, made a concise analysis of the air pollution problem around the city, and all in all I would say I was at my most eloquent.
When we got to his address the meter read six ninety-five. I got out and unloaded the suitcases from the trunk while the building’s doorman held the cab door open. The fare got out and handed me a ten, I gave him change from my pocket, and then we just stood there on the sidewalk together, luggage on one side of us and doorman on the other, my customer smiling as though thinking about something else, until finally he said, "Now I give you a tip, right?"
"It’s the usual thing," I said. It was cold outside the cab.
He nodded. "That paper I noticed on the seat beside you," he said. "Was that the Daily Telegraph?"
"It was," I said. "It is."
"Would you be a horseplayer?"
"I’ve been known to take a chance," I said.
He nodded. "How much of that six ninety-five do you get to keep?"
"Fifty-one per cent," I said.
"That’s three fifty-four," he said, faster than I’d have been able to. "All right. I like you, I like the way you talk, you gave me a pleasant ride in, so here’s your tip. You put that three fifty-four on Purple Pecunia, it will bring you back a minimum of eighty-one forty-two."
I guess I looked blank. I didn’t say anything.
"Don’t thank me," he said modestly, smiled and nodded, and turned away. The doorman picked up the luggage.
"I wasn’t going to," I said, but I don’t think he heard me.
It happens every once in a while you get beaten out of a tip for one reason or another, and my philosophy is, you have to be philosophical about it. It also happens every once in a while you get a really big tipper, so it all evens out. So I just shrugged and got back into the cab in the warm and went looking for a really big tipper.
This was at about nine in the morning. Around eleven-thirty I went over to my usual diner on 11th Avenue and had coffee and a Danish even though I’m supposed to be on a diet. Sitting in a cab all the time there’s a tendency to spread a little, so every once in a while I try to take off a few pounds. But after a while you begin to get hungry, you don’t want to take the time for a whole meal, so you stop for a quick coffee and Danish. It’s only natural.
Anyway, I brought the paper in with me and looked it over and my eye got caught by this horse Purple Pecunia, the one I got stiff-tipped on. I’d thought he’d said Petunia, like the flower, but it was Pecunia, which was peculiar. He was running down in Florida, and judging from past performance he’d be lucky to finish the race the same day he started. Some hot tip.
But then I got to thinking about it, and I remembered how the guy had been friendly all the way into town, how he obviously had money, and how fast he’d been at figuring my fifty-one percent of the meter, and I wondered if maybe I should listen to him after all.
I remembered the numbers. Three fifty-four was my percent, and eighty-one forty-two was what he’d said I would make if I bet that amount. At least eighty-one forty-two.
I did some long division on the margin of the Telegraph and it came out at exactly twenty-two to one. To the penny.
A man who can do numbers that fast in his head, I told myself, has got to know what he’s talking about. Besides, he was obviously not hurting for money. And further besides, what was the point in giving me a bum steer?
If there’s one thing a horseplayer or any other kind of player learns early in his career it is this: Play your hunches. Get a hunch, bet a bunch, that’s what the poker players say. And all of a sudden, I had a hunch. I had a hunch that fare of mine—who had just come up on a plane from some place warm, let’s not forget that—knew what he was talking about, and Purple Pecunia was going to romp home a winner, and some few people on the inside were going to walk away twenty-two times richer than they started. A minimum of twenty-two times.
And I could use the money. There’s a couple of regular poker games I’m in, and for about five weeks I’d been running a string of bad cards to make you sit down and cry. The only thing to do with a run like that is wait it out, and I know it, but in the meantime I was spreading a lot of paper around, there were half a dozen guys with my marker in their pockets now, one of them for seventy-five dollars, and frankly I was beginning to get worried. If the cards didn’t turn soon, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
So if I was to put some money on this Purple Pecunia, and the tip should turn out to be good, it would be a real lifesaver and no fooling. The only question was—how much did I want to risk? Just in case, just in case.
It seemed to me I should leave that up to Tommy. Tommy McKay, my book. I was going to have to do it on credit anyway, so I might just as well go as steep as he’d let me.
I finished the coffee and Danish, paid my check, and went to one of the phone booths in the back. Tommy works out of his apartment, so I called there and got his wife. "Hi, Mrs. McKay," I said. "Is Tommy there? This is Chet."
"Chet. Chet Conway."
"Oh, Chester. Just a minute."
"Chet," I said. I hate to be called Chester.
She’d already put the phone down. I waited, thinking things over, having second thoughts, and so on, and then Tommy came on. His voice is almost as high-pitched as his wife’s, but more nasal. I said, "Tommy, how much can I put on the cuff?"
"I don’t know," he said. "What are you in to me for now?"
He hesitated, and then he said, "I’ll go to fifty with you. I know you’re okay."
Second thoughts came crowding in again. Another thirty-five bucks in the hole? What if Purple Pecunia didn’t come in?
The hell with it. Get a hunch, bet a bunch. "The whole thirty-five," I said, "on Purple Pecunia. To win."
"No, Pecunia. With a c." I read him the dope from the paper.
There was a little silence, and then he said, "You sure you want to do that?"
"I got a hunch," I said.
"It’s your dough," he said. Which was almost true.
After that I was very nervous. I went back to work, and I even began to let the midtown traffic get to me. I never do that, I’m always insulated inside my cab. The way I figure, I’m in no hurry, I’m at work. I’ll go with the flow of the traffic, I’ll take it easy, I’ll live longer. But I was very nervous about that thirty-five bucks on Purple Pecunia, and the nervousness made me edgy with other drivers. I kept hoping for a fare out to one of the airports, but it never happened. Nothing but short hops through the middle of the mess. Eighth Avenue and 53rd Street. Then Park and 30th. Then Madison and 51st. Then Penn Station. On and on like that.
I keep a transistor radio on the dashboard, so in the afternoon I turned it on for the race results, and at ten minutes to four in came the word on Purple Pecunia. She won the race. I had an old lady in the cab at the time. She had a hundred packages from Bonwit Teller’s and she kept looking out the window and saying, "Look at that, just look at that. Look at that black face. It’s a disgrace, right on 5th Avenue. Look at that one, walking along as nice as you please. They ought to stay down South where they belong. Look at that one, with a tie on if you please!" She was a ten-cent tip if there ever lived one, but I no longer cared.
She got out at a townhouse in the East Sixties. I switched on the Off Duty light and headed for a phone booth. Using her dime I called Tommy, and he said, "I thought I’d hear from you. That was some hunch."
It sure was. At twenty-two to one, that hunch was going to bring back eight hundred and five dollars. I said, "What does it pay?"
"Twenty-seven to one," he said.
"How much is that?"
"Nine eighty," he said. "Less the half yard you owe me, that’s nine thirty."
Nine hundred and thirty dollars. Almost a thousand dollars! I was rich!
I said, "I’ll be over around six, is that okay?"
"Sure," he said.
I couldn’t turn the cab in before five, so I headed uptown to try to stay out of the midtown crush, so naturally I got flagged down right away by somebody wanting to go to the PanAm Building. What with one thing and another, it was twenty after five before I clocked out at the garage over on 11th Avenue. I immediately became a fare myself, hailing a cab for one of the first times in my life, and headed down to Tommy’s apartment on West 46th Street between 9th and 10th. I rang the bell, but there was a woman coming out with a baby carriage, so I didn’t have to wait for the buzz. I held the door for the woman and went on in. There still hadn’t been any buzz when I got into the elevator.
He must have heard the bell, though, because the door was partly open when I got to the fourth floor. I pushed it open the rest of the way and stepped into the hall and said, "Tommy? It’s me, Chet."
The hall light was on. I left the front door partly open like before and walked down the hall looking into the rooms as I went by. Kitchen, then bathroom, then bedroom, all lit up and all empty. The living room was down at the end of the hall.
I went into the living room and Tommy was lying on his back on the rug, arms spread out. There was blood all over the place. He looked like he’d been shot in the chest with antiaircraft guns.
"Holy Christ," I said.
Copyright © 1969 by Donald E. Westlake.