There are certain things for which you are thankful that you were around when they happened in real time. You witnessed it firsthand. Reached out and touched it, feeling the magic of that moment, be it brief or extended over what can be seen in hindsight as a mini era. Jazz Age New York. V-J Day. The Moon Landing. The British Invasion. Selma to Montgomery. Woodstock. CBGB's. Hair Metal. British Steel. The Fall of the Wall. The Seattle Invasion. POTUS #44. These are the Big Moments that certainly felt that way to those who were there, as though one's spirit could sense the heavy blows to the back of the chisel, and hear the grinding stone chip away from the slab, leaving a permanent mark in the annals of history.
While I have lived through a few of the above, I have also missed so many, and thus I certainly thank my lucky stars that I was still kicking around this beautiful marble during the writing career of Mr. Lawrence Block. I'll never know what it's like to get a brand new story just written from Poe or Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith, Flannery O'Connor or Ambrose Bierce, but I do know what it's like to wait for new books from the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Ligotti, and Lawrence Block Mr. Block, much like HST and Ligotti, is a writer apart, a Grand Master at Doing What He Does - a true icon and living legend, venerated during their time, rather than tragically afterwards. And I've been here to see it in real time. Lucky stars, indeed.
To call him a giant in contemporary Noir and crime literature doesn't seem up to snuff. In the last 55 years that Mr. Block has been professionally published, he has written under a litany of pen names, producing a nearly impossible to comprehend OVER ONE HUNDRED BOOKS (novels and short story collections), which have earned him a boatload of awards with such names as Edger, Shamus, Anthony, Maltese Falcon, Nero Wolfe, and Philip Marlowe. Add to this the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, the Diamond Dagger for Life Achievement from the Crime Writers Association (UK), the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award from Mystery Ink magazine, and the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement in the short story. Oh, and it probably bears mentioning that he was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers Association, and was proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir in France, where he was twice awarded the Societe 813 trophy. And hell, he owns a key to a city (Muncie, Indiana), which isn't something you see on the keychain of just every scribbler.
His stories and novels have been adapted for television (including on the TC favorite Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and fueled over a dozen short and feature films stretching back to the 60's. His most recent motion picture project is "A Walk Among the Tombstones," which is a collaboration with Oscar nominated writer/director Scott Frank ("Out of Sight," "Get Shorty," "Minority Report"), who wrote the screenplay based on Block's story of the same name, which stars Liam Neeson as the famed private detective Matthew Scudder. The original novel is #10 of Block's seventeen Scudder novels, and the second appearance of the beloved New York City PI, with the first screen appearance portrayed by Jeff Bridges in 80's potboiler "8 Million Ways To Die" (directed by 60's film trailblazer and Oscar winner Hal Ashby, with the screenplay written by some guy named Oliver Stone), a movie I saw long before I knew who Lawrence Block was, and what sort of life Matthew Scudder was having on the pages of crime fiction books. Thank heavens for living and learning.
On a personal level, ever since my wife Ives Hovanessian introduced me to Lawrence Block's writing (coincidentally through the story you have the good fortune of reading below), I have been hooked on the genre, and especially on Mr. Block's work. For every fan of crime, detective, and mystery fiction, there was that first story, and that first writer, who dropped that dark seed of Noir into the back of one's brain, where it can grow and blossom and attach to the bricks but never wiggle free. For me, it was Lawrence Block, after Ives read me "Like a Bone in the Throat" aloud in our living room late one Friday night. I wasn't personally reading the words, but instead listening to the cadence of the prose, literally staring out into the corner of the room and allowing my brain to wander into the story itself, becoming a fly on the wall for what unfolded. It was a jarring, transformative experience, as - while I have always been a dedicated reader - I had never read much, if any, Noir or crime fiction prior to that night. Block was my first, and will most certainly be my last, as I find him to be not just my favorite writer of crime and detective fiction, but one of the greatest writers in history, and most definitely a major contributor to that distinctive, visceral brand of authorship known as American Literature. His easy play with the language, his clean expression of character, his effortless creation of tension and atmosphere, and his extraordinary plotting (and plot twisting) make him one of the elites - not just in his genre(s), but in all fiction. Since then, I have read any Block story I could get my hands around, including but certainly not limited to Hit and Run, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, and his must-have collection of Matthew Scudder stories, The Night and the Music.
That is why I am so incredibly excited, humbled, proud, and a dozen other related adjectives to bring you a double dose of Lawrence Block here at your dear old The Cosmicomicon, through an interview conducted by Ives, and via the first ever blog publication of Mr. Block's masterful short story "Like a Bone in the Throat" (publishing rights secured by Ives), which was initially written after Otto Penzler invited Block to pen a tale for the anthology Murder For Revenge, and which was read to me for the first time in The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by both Penzler and James Ellroy, two fellas who know a bit from Noir fiction.
The Cosmicomicon Featured Interview with Lawrence Block
By Ives Hovanessian
TC: Nurture vs. Nature is an ongoing debate in the dissection of a writer’s formative years. Did you grow up in a home that encouraged reading and writing? Where did your love for the written word come from?
My parents were educated people and there were always books and magazines around the house.
TC: You were nineteen when “You Can't Lose” was first published. Had you always written stories throughout your childhood, or was “You Can't Lose” one of your first attempts?
I decided when I was 15 that I would become a writer, and wrote a handful of youthful sketches and poems over the next several years.
TC: What inspired you to first pick up the pen and enter the uncertain, murky world of fiction writing?
I had the sense that writing was something I would be able to do, and that I would find it fulfilling.
TC: Would you say your style is an amalgam of different writers you've looked up to over the years, or do you feel you've crafted your own distinctive voice independent of your peers, either dead or alive?
Not for me to determine, is it?
TC: Boasting over 50 novels and 100 short stories to your published credit, you are clearly one of the most prolific writers of our time. This level of output is simply astounding to me. How do you manage to maintain a family, travel the globe and still write at the rate that you do? What's the secret?
Laziness. When I do something, I try to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible, so as to be done with it.
TC: Your style seems so effortless and natural. I must ask if you edit your work as you're writing, or put everything down on the page first as a zero draft and then get back to it?
Most of what you see is essentially first draft.
TC: Every writer has their benchmark story; the one they feel is their best work up to date and has taken them to the next level in their career. Which of your stories or novels do you feel took you from novice to professional? More specifically, at which point in your career did you consider yourself a writer as opposed to just someone who writes?
I think I always considered myself a writer. But the first Evan Tanner book, The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, was the first book that struck me as uniquely mine in voice and concept.
TC: If you had to make the decision to only write for one of your famous characters, and abandon the others, who would it be? Rhodenbarr, Ehrengraf, Keller, Harrison, Tanner or Scudder?
You know, I’d hate to leave anyone out. Best to abandon them all.
TC: Do you ever read back through your own work for pleasure? Can you get lost in them the way one would reading another author's work or are you always cognizant of the process as you're reading it?
I remember once when the late Robert B. Parker was taking questions at a conference. Someone asked which of his books was his favorite, and he said he never read them once they came out. He had seen me in the rear of rthe room, and called out, “Larry, do you ever reread your own work?” “I read nothing else,” I said.
It got a satisfying laugh. But in point of fact I don’t often look at older work.
TC: Do you have a personal favorite of the works you have written?
TC: If you knew you’d be spending the rest of your days on a desert island, which book would you pack?
Final Exit, by Derek Humphry.
TC: How much of your characters are based on you or people you know, and how much is culled from your imagination?
It’s almost all imagination.
TC: Do you ever base the crimes in your prose on real crimes? If so, which ones?
TC: You are a life-long New Yorker. In reading “Small Town” and knowing that you were writing it when the horror of 9/11 occurred, how did the completion of this story help you deal with the enduring tragedy of that day?
I don’t know that it did. It’s just a book.
TC: Keeping on the theme of geography, how has the city of New York influenced your writing? Additionally, do you think New York Noir differs from that written in and about other cities, including my hometown of Los Angeles?
New York has been my home for most of my life, and I’m sure it has influenced me as a writer even as it has influenced me in other areas. I don’t know that writing set in the city are essentially different from writing set anywhere else.
TC: "When This Man Dies" is one of the most incredible stories I have ever read. I've shared it with several friends and paid close attention to the hair on their arms as I read the final sentence, and the trick never fails as it always elicits a physical reaction. You've said in the past that short stories should speak for themselves; writers, on the other hand, probably shouldn't, but if you would oblige me, what was the inspiration for this particular story?
Beats me. The idea just came to me, and I sat down and wrote it.
TC: Pseudonyms are rather prevalent in writing. Women especially have either written under male monikers or used only their initials to hide their gender. You have also used many pseudonyms throughout your career. Can you tell us what your reasons were for doing so?
I think I must have been trying to avoid building up a following.
TC: In your short story, "Looking For David," Horton Pollard tells Scudder, “That’s quite the nicest thing about age, perhaps the only good thing to be said for. Increasingly, one ceases to care about more and more things, particularly the opinions of others.” Does Pollard’s sentiment mirror your thoughts on writing? With each new novel or story, do you care less and less about the reception, be it from critics or readers, or is that something that never really goes away for a writer?
Via Horton Pollard, I was quoting an observation of my mother’s. And it’s true about writing, and indeed about everything else.
TC: As an innovator, standard-bearer, and icon of the genre, how has the Noir/Crime/Suspense Fiction scene changed during your lifetime? Is it in better shape today than it was, say, 20, 30, even 40 years ago? If not, and if so, what has changed?
In the wake of the previous question, I’d have to say that this is one more thing I've ceased to care about.
TC: You seem to be a writer who has done it all. What is left out there for you? Do you still have unresolved goals in your writing career? DI: What projects do you have on your plate right now, and what is on deck?
The plate is clean, the deck empty.
TC: This might sound sophomoric, but what advice do you have for the Noir writer – both beginning and pro – to keep them writing the good stuff, the kinds of stories that matter, and might make a dent in the canon?
The same advice I have for everyone. Write to please yourself.
Thank you ever so much for you time, Mr. Block. The readers of The Cosmicomicon, and I personally, do truly appreciate your participation in this interview for the debut of our magazine. We all wish you the very best in the coming year.
LIKE A BONE IN THE THROAT
by Lawrence Block
Throughout the trial, Paul Dandridge did the same thing every day. He wore a suit and tie, he occupied a seat toward the front of the courtroom, and his eyes, time and time again, returned to the man who had killed his sister.
He was never called upon to testify. The facts were virtually undisputed, the evidence overwhelming. The defendant, William Charles Croydon, had abducted Dandridge’s sister at knifepoint as she walked from the college library to her off-campus apartment. He had taken her to an isolated and rather primitive cabin in the woods, where he had subjected her to repeated sexual assaults over a period of three days, at the conclusion of which he had caused her death by manual strangulation.
Croydon took the stand in his own defense. He was a handsome young man who’d spent his thirtieth birthday in a jail cell awaiting trial, and his preppy good looks had already brought him letters and photographs and even a few marriage proposals from women of all ages. (Paul Dandridge was twenty-seven at the time. His sister, Karen, had been twenty when she died. The trial ended just weeks before her twenty-first birthday.)
On the stand, William Croydon claimed that he had no recollection of choking the life out of Karen Dandridge, but allowed as how he had no choice but to believe he’d done it. According to his testimony, the young woman had willingly accompanied him to the remote cabin, and had been an enthusiastic sexual partner with a penchant for rough sex. She had also supplied some particularly strong marijuana with hallucinogenic properties and had insisted that he smoke it with her. At one point, after indulging heavily in the unfamiliar drug, he had lost consciousness and awakened later to find his partner beside him, dead.
His first thought, he’d told the court, was that someone had broken into the cabin while he was sleeping, had killed Karen and might return to kill him. Accordingly he’d panicked and rushed out of there, abandoning Karen’s corpse. Now, faced with all the evidence arrayed against him, he was compelled to believe he had somehow committed this awful crime, although he had no recollection of it whatsoever, and although it was utterly foreign to his nature.
The district attorney, prosecuting this case himself, tore Croydon apart on cross-examination. He cited the bite marks on the victim’s breasts, the rope burns indicating prolonged restraint, the steps Croydon had taken in an attempt to conceal his presence in the cabin. “You must be right,” Croydon would admit, with a shrug and a sad smile. “All I can say is that I don’t remember any of it.”
The jury was eleven-to-one for conviction right from the jump, but it took six hours to make it unanimous. Mr. Foreman, have you reached a verdict? We have, Your Honor. On the sole count of the indictment, murder in the first degree, how do you find? We find the defendant, William Charles Croydon, guilty.
One woman cried out. A couple of others sobbed. The DA accepted congratulations. The defense attorney put an arm around his client. Paul Dandridge, his jaw set, looked at Croydon.
Their eyes met, and Paul Dandridge tried to read the expression in the killer’s eyes. But he couldn't make it out.
Two weeks later, at the sentencing hearing, Paul Dandridge got to testify.
He talked about his sister, and what a wonderful person she had been. He spoke of the brilliance of her intellect, the gentleness of her spirit, the promise of her young life. He spoke of the effect of her death upon him. They had lost both parents, he told the court, and Karen was all the family he’d had in the world. And now she was gone. In order for his sister to rest in peace, and in order for him to get on with his own life, he urged that her murderer be sentenced to death.
Croydon’s attorney argued that the case did not meet the criteria for the death penalty, that while his client possessed a criminal record he had never been charged with a crime remotely of this nature, and that the rough-sex-and-drugs defense carried a strong implication of mitigating circumstances. Even if the jury had rejected the defense, surely the defendant ought to be spared the ultimate penalty, and justice would be best served if he were sentenced to life in prison.
The DA pushed hard for the death penalty, contending that the rough-sex defense was the cynical last-ditch stand of a remorseless killer, and that the jury had rightly seen that it was wholly without merit. Although her killer might well have taken drugs, there was no forensic evidence to indicate that Karen Dandridge herself had been under the influence of anything other than a powerful and ruthless murderer. Karen Dandridge needed to be avenged, he maintained, and society needed to be assured that her killer would never, ever, be able to do it again.
Paul Dandridge was looking at Croydon when the judge pronounced the sentence, hoping to see something in those cold blue eyes. But as the words were spoken death by lethal injection there was nothing for Paul to see. Croydon closed his eyes. When he opened them a moment later, there was no expression to be seen in them.
They made you fairly comfortable on Death Row. Which was just as well, because in this state you could sit there for a long time. A guy serving a life sentence could make parole and be out on the street in a lot less time than a guy on Death Row could run out of appeals. In that joint alone, there were four men with more than ten years apiece on Death Row, and one who was closing in on twenty.
One of the things they’d let Billy Croydon have was a typewriter. He’d never learned to type properly, the way they taught you in typing class, but he was writing enough these days so that he was getting pretty good at it, just using two fingers on each hand. He wrote letters to his lawyer, and he wrote letters to the women who wrote to him. It wasn't too hard to keep them writing, but the trick lay in getting them to do what he wanted. They wrote plenty of letters, but he wanted them to write really hot letters, describing in detail what they’d done with other guys in the past, and what they’d do if by some miracle they could be in his cell with him now.
They sent pictures, too, and some of them were good-looking and some of them were not.
“That’s a great picture,” he would write back, “but I wish I had one that showed more of your physical beauty.” It turned out to be surprisingly easy to get most of them to send increasingly revealing pictures. Before long he had them buying Polaroid cameras with timers and posing in obedience to his elaborate instructions. They’d do anything, the bitches, and he was sure they got off on it, too.
Today, though, he didn't feel like writing to any of them. He rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter and looked at it, and the image that came to him was the grim face of that hardass brother of Karen Dandridge’s.
What was his name, anyway? Paul, wasn't it?
“Dear Paul,” he typed, and frowned for a moment in concentration. Then he started typing again.
“Sitting here in this cell waiting for the day to come when they put a needle in my arm and flush me down God’s own toilet, I found myself thinking about your testimony in court. I remember how you said your sister was a goodhearted girl who spent her short life bringing pleasure to everyone who knew her.
According to your testimony, knowing this helped you rejoice in her life at the same time that it made her death so hard to take.
“Well, Paul, in the interest of helping you rejoice some more, I thought I’d tell you just how much pleasure your little sister brought to me. I've got to tell you that in all my life I never got more pleasure from anybody.
My first look at Karen brought me pleasure, just watching her walk across campus, just looking at those jiggling tits and that tight little ass and imagining the fun I was going to have with them.
“Then when I had her tied up in the back seat of the car with her mouth taped shut, I have to say she went on being a real source of pleasure. Just looking at her in the rear-view mirror was enjoyable, and from time to time I would stop the car and lean into the back to run my hands over her body. I don’t think she liked it much, but I enjoyed it enough for the both of us.
“Tell me something, Paul. Did you ever fool around with Karen yourself? I bet you did. I can picture her when she was maybe eleven, twelve years old, with her little titties just beginning to bud out, and you’d have been seventeen or eighteen yourself, so how could you stay away from her? She’s sleeping and you walk into her room and sit on the edge of her bed. . .”
He went on, describing the scene he imagined, and it excited him more than the pictures or letters from the women. He stopped and thought about relieving his excitement but decided to wait. He finished the scene as he imagined it and went on:
“Paul, old buddy, if you didn't get any of that you were missing a good thing. I can’t tell you the pleasure I got out of your sweet little sister. Maybe I can give you some idea by describing our first time together.”
And he did, recalling it all to mind, savoring it in his memory, reliving it as he typed it out on the page.
“I suppose you know she was no virgin,” he wrote, “but she was pretty new at it all the same. And then when I turned her face down, well, I can tell you she’d never done that before.
She didn't like it much, either. I had the tape off her mouth and I swear I thought she’d wake the neighbors, even though there weren't any. I guess it hurt her some, Paul, but that was just an example of your darling sister sacrificing everything to give pleasure to others, just like you said. And it worked, because I had a hell of a good time.”
God, this was great. It really brought it all back.
“Here’s the thing,” he wrote. “The more we did it, the better it got. You’d think I would have grown tired of her, but I didn't. I wanted to keep on having her over and over again forever, but at the same time I felt this urgent need to finish it, because I knew that would be the best part.
“And I wasn't disappointed, Paul, because the most pleasure your sister ever gave anybody was right at the very end. I was on top of her, buried in her to the hilt, and I had my hands wrapped around her neck. And the ultimate pleasure came with me squeezing and looking into her eyes and squeezing harder and harder and going on looking into those eyes all the while and watching the life go right out of them.”
He was too excited now. He had to stop and relieve himself. Afterward he read the letter and got excited all over again. A great letter, better than anything he could get any of his bitches to write to him, but he couldn't send it, not in a million years.
Not that it wouldn't be a pleasure to rub the brother’s nose in it. Without the bastard’s testimony, he might have stood a good chance to beat the death sentence. With it, he was sunk.
Still, you never knew. Appeals would take a long time. Maybe he could do himself a little good here.
He rolled a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter. Dear Mr. Dandridge, he wrote. I’m well aware that the last thing on earth you want to read is a letter from me. I know that in your place I would feel no different myself. But I cannot seem to stop myself from reaching out to you. Soon I’ll be strapped down onto a gurney and given a lethal injection. That frightens me horribly, but I’d gladly die a thousand times over if only it would bring your sister back to life. I may not remember killing her, but I know I must have done it, and I would give anything to undo it. With all my heart, I wish she were alive today.
Well, that last part was true, he thought. He wished to God she were alive, and right there in that cell with him, so that he could do her all over again, start to finish.
He went on and finished the letter, making it nothing but an apology, accepting responsibility, expressing remorse. It wasn't a letter that sought anything, not even forgiveness, and it struck him as a good opening shot. Probably nothing would ever come of it, but you never knew.
After he’d sent it off, he took out the first letter he’d written and read it through, relishing the feelings that coursed through him and strengthened him. He’d keep this, maybe even add to it from time to time. It was really great the way it brought it all back.
Paul destroyed the first letter.
He’d opened it, unaware of its source, and was a sentence or two into it before he realized what he was reading. It was, incredibly, a letter from the man who had killed his sister.
He felt a chill. He wanted to stop reading but he couldn't stop reading. He forced himself to stay with it all the way to the end.
The nerve of the man. The unadulterated gall.
Expressing remorse. Saying how sorry he was. Not asking for anything, not trying to justify himself, not attempting to disavow responsibility.
But there had been no remorse in the blue eyes, and Paul didn't believe there was a particle of genuine remorse in the letter, either. And what difference did it make if there was?
Karen was dead. Remorse wouldn't bring her back.
His lawyer had told him they had nothing to worry about, they were sure to get a stay of execution. The appeal process, always drawn out in capital cases, was in its early days.
They’d get the stay in plenty of time, and the clock would start ticking all over again.
And it wasn't as though it got to the point where they were asking him what he wanted for a last meal. That happened sometimes, there was a guy three cells down who’d had his last meal twice already, but it didn't get that close for Billy Croydon. Two and a half weeks to go and the stay came through.
That was a relief, but at the same time he almost wished it had run out a little closer to the wire. Not for his benefit, but just to keep a couple of his correspondents on the edges of their chairs.
Two of them, actually. One was a fat girl who lived at home with her mother in Burns, Oregon, the other a sharp-jawed old maid employed as a corporate librarian in Philadelphia. Both had displayed a remarkable willingness to pose as he specified for their Polaroid cameras, doing interesting things and showing themselves in interesting ways. And, as the countdown had continued toward his date with death, both had proclaimed their willingness to join him in heaven.
No joy in that. In order for them to follow him to the grave, he’d have to be in it himself, wouldn't he? They could cop out and he’d never even know it.
Still, there was great power in knowing they’d even made the promise. And maybe there was something here he could work with.
He went to the typewriter. “My darling,” he wrote. “The only thing that makes these last days bearable is the love we have for each other. Your pictures and letters sustain me, and the knowledge that we will be together in the next world draws much of the fear out of the abyss that yawns before me.
“Soon they will strap me down and fill my veins with poison, and I will awaken in the void. If only I could make that final journey knowing you would be waiting there for me! My angel, do you have the courage to make the trip ahead of me? Do you love me that much? I can’t ask so great a sacrifice of you, and yet I am driven to ask it, because how dare I withhold from you something that is so important to me?”
He read it over, crossed out “sacrifice” and penciled in “proof of love”. It wasn't quite right, and he’d have to work on it some more. Could either of the bitches possibly go for it? Could he possibly get them to do themselves for love?
And, even if they did, how would he know about it? Some hatchet faced dame in Philly slashes her wrists in the bathtub, some fat girl hangs herself in Oregon, who’s going to know to tell him so he can get off on it? Darling, do it in front of a video cam, and have them send me the tape. Be a kick, but it’d never happen.
Didn't Manson get his girls to cut X’s on their foreheads? Maybe he could get his to cut themselves a little, where it wouldn't show except in the Polaroids. Would they do it?
Maybe, if he worded it right.
Meanwhile, he had other fish to fry.
“Dear Paul,” he typed. “I've never called you anything but 'Mr. Dandrige,' but I've written you so many letters, some of them just in the privacy of my mind, that I’ll permit myself this liberty. And for all I know you throw my letters away unread. If so, well, I’m still not sorry I've spent the time writing them. It’s a great help to me to get my thoughts on paper in this manner.
“I suppose you already know that I got another stay of execution. I can imagine your exasperation at the news. Would it surprise you to know that my own reaction was much the same? I don’t want to die, Paul, but I don’t want to live like this either, while lawyers scurry around just trying to postpone the inevitable. Better for both of us if they’d just killed me right away.
“Though I suppose I should be grateful for this chance to make my peace, with you and with myself. I can’t bring myself to ask for your forgiveness, and I certainly can’t summon up whatever is required for me to forgive myself, but perhaps that will come with time. They seem to be giving me plenty of time, even if they do persist in doling it out to me bit by bit. . .”
When he found the letter, Paul Dandridge followed what had become standard practice for him. He set it aside while he opened and tended to the rest of his mail. Then he went into the kitchen and brewed himself a pot of coffee. He poured a cup and sat down with it and opened the letter from Croydon.
When the second letter came he’d read it through to the end, then crumpled it in his fist. He hadn't known whether to throw it in the garbage or burn it in the fireplace, and in the end he’d done neither. Instead he’d carefully unfolded it and smoothed out its creases and read it again before putting it away.
Since then he’d saved all the letters. It had been almost three years since sentence was pronounced on William Croydon, and longer than that since Karen had died at his hands. (Literally at his hands, he thought; the hands that typed the letter and folded it into its envelope had encircled Karen’s neck and strangled her. The very hands.)
Now Croydon was thirty-three and Paul was thirty himself, and he had been receiving letters at the approximate rate of one every two months. This was the fifteenth, and it seemed to mark a new stage in their one-sided correspondence. Croydon had addressed him by his first name.
“Better for both of us if they’d just killed me right away.” Ah. but they hadn't, had they? And they wouldn't, either. It would drag on and on and on. A lawyer he’d consulted had told him it would not be unrealistic to expect another ten years of delay. For God’s sake, he’d be forty years old by the time the state got around to doing the job.
It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he and Croydon were fellow prisoners. He was not confined to a cell and not under a sentence of death, but it struck him that his life held only the illusion of freedom. He wouldn't really be free until Croydon’s ordeal was over.
Until then he was confined in a prison without walls, unable to get on with his life, unable to have a life, just marking time.
He went over to his desk, took out a sheet of letterhead, uncapped a pen. For a long moment he hesitated. Then he sighed gently and touched pen to paper.
“Dear Croydon,” he wrote. “I don’t know what to call you. I can’t bear to address you by your first name or to call you ‘Mr. Croydon.’ Not that I ever expected to call you anything at all. I guess I thought you’d be dead by now. God knows I wished it. . .”
Once he got started, it was surprisingly easy to find the words.
An answer from Dandridge.
If he had a shot, Paul Dandridge was it. The stays and the appeals would only carry you so far. The chance that any court along the way would grant him a reversal and a new trial was remote at best. His only real hope was a commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment.
Not that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in prison. IN a sense, you lived better on Death Row than if you were doing life in general prison population. But in another sense the difference between a life sentence and a death sentence was, well, the difference between life and death. If he got his sentence commuted to life, that meant the day would come when he made parole and hit the street. They might not come right out and say that, but that was what it would amount to, especially if he worked the system right.
And Paul Dandridge was the key to getting his sentence commuted.
He remembered how the prick had testified at the presentencing hearing. If any single thing had ensured the death sentence, it was Dandridge’s testimony. And, if anything could swing a commutation of sentence for him, it was a change of heart on the part of Karen Dandridge’s brother.
Worth a shot.
“Dear Paul,” he typed. “I can’t possibly tell you the sense of peace that came over me when I realized the letter I was holding was from you. . .”
Paul Dandridge, seated at his desk, uncapped his pen and wrote the day’s date at the top of a sheet of letterhead. He paused and looked at what he had written. It was, he realized, the fifth anniversary of his sister’s death, and he hadn't been aware of that fact until he’d inscribed the date at the top of a letter to the man who’d killed her.
Another irony, he thought. They seemed to be infinite.
“Dear Billy,” he wrote. “You’ll appreciate this. It wasn't until I’d written the date on this letter that I realized its significance. It’s been exactly five years since the day that changed both our lives forever.”
He took a breath, considered his words. He wrote, “And I guess it’s time to acknowledge formally something I've acknowledged in my heart some time ago. While I may never get over Karen’s death, the bitter hatred that has burned in me for so long has finally cooled.
And so I’d like to say that you have my forgiveness in full measure. And now I think it’s time for you to forgive yourself. . .”
It was hard to sit still.
That was something he’d had no real trouble doing since the first day the cell door closed with him inside. You had to be able to sit still to do time, and it was never hard for him.
Even during the several occasions when he’d been a few weeks away from an execution date, he’d never been one to pace the floor or climb the walls.
But today was the hearing. Today the board was hearing testimony from three individuals. One was a psychiatrist who would supply some professional arguments for commuting his sentence from death to life. Another was his fourth-grade teacher, who would tell the board how rough he’d had it in childhood and what a good little boy he was underneath it all. He wondered where they’d dug her up, and how she could possibly remember him. He didn't remember her at all.
The third witness, and the only really important one, was Paul Dandridge. Not only was her supplying the only testimony likely to carry much weight, but it was he who had spent money to locate Croydon’s fourth-grade teacher, he who had enlisted the services of the shrink.
His buddy, Paul. A crusader, moving heaven and earth to save Billy Croydon’s life.
Just the way he’d planned it.
He paced, back and forth, back and forth, and then he stopped and retrieved from his locker the letter that had started it all. The first letter to Paul Dandridge, the one he’d had the sense not to send. How many times had he re-read it over the years, bringing the whole thing back into focus?
“When I turned her face down, well, I can tell you she’d never done that before.” Jesus, no, she hadn't like it at all. He read and remembered, warmed by the memory.
What did he have these days but his memories? The women who’d been writing him had long since given it up. Even the ones who’d sworn to follow him to death had lost interest during the endless round of stays and appeals. He still had the letters and pictures they’d sent, but the pictures were unappealing, only serving to remind him what a bunch of pigs they all were, and the letters were sheer fantasy with no underpinning of reality. They described, and none too vividly, events that had never happened and events that would never happen. The sense of power to compel them to write those letters and pose for their pictures had faded over time. Now they only bored him and left him faintly disgusted.
Of his own memories, only that of Karen Dandridge held any real flavor. The other two girls, the ones he’d done before Karen, were almost impossible to recall. They were brief encounters, impulsive, unplanned, and over almost before they’d begun. He’d surprised one in a lonely part of the park, just pulled her skirt up and her panties down and went at her, hauling off and smacking her with a rock a couple of times when she wouldn't keep quiet.
That shut her up, and when he finished he found out why. She was dead. He’d evidently cracked her skull and killed her, and he’d been thrusting away at dead meat.
Hardly a memory to stir the blood ten years later. The second one wasn't much better, either. He’d been about half drunk, and that had the effect of blurring the memory. He’d snapped her neck afterward, the little bitch, and he remembered that part, but he couldn't remember what it had felt like.
One good thing. Nobody ever found out about either of those two. If they had, he wouldn't have a prayer at today’s hearing.
After the hearing, Paul managed to slip out before the press could catch up with him. Two days later, however, when the governor acted on the board’s recommendation and commuted William Croydon’s sentence to life imprisonment, one persistent reporter managed to get Paul in front of a video camera.
“For a long time I wanted vengeance,” he admitted. “I honestly believed that I could only come to terms with the loss of my sister by seeing her killer put to death.”
What changed that, the reporter wanted to know.
He stopped to consider his answer. “The dawning realization,” he said, “that I could really only recover from Karen’s death not by seeing Billy Croydon punished but by letting go of the need to punish. In the simplest terms, I had to forgive him.”
And could he do that? Could he forgive the man who had brutally murdered his sister?
“Not overnight,” he said. “It took time. I can’t even swear I've forgiven him completely. But I’ve come far enough in the process to realize capital punishment is not only inhumane but pointless. Karen’s death was wrong, but Billy Croydon’s death would be another wrong, and two wrongs don’t make a right. Now that his sentence has been lifted, I can get on with the process of complete forgiveness.”
The reporter commented that it sounded as though Paul Dandridge had gone through some sort of religious conversion experience.
“I don’t know about religion,” Paul said, looking right at the camera. “I don’t really consider myself a religious person. But something’s happened, something transformational in nature, and I suppose you could call it spiritual.”
With his sentence commuted, Billy Croydon drew a transfer to another penitentiary, where he was assigned a cell in general population. After years of waiting to die he was being given a chance to create a life for himself within the prison’s walls. He had a job in the prison laundry, he had access to the library and exercise yard. He didn't have his freedom, but he had life.
On the sixteenth day of his new life, three hard-eyed lifers cornered him in the room where they stored the bed linen. He’d noticed one of the men earlier, had several times caught him staring at him a few times, looking at Croydon the way you’d look at a woman. He hadn't spotted the other two before, but they had the same look in their eyes as the one he recognized.
There wasn't a thing he could do.
They raped him, all three of them, and they weren't gentle about it, either. He fought at first but their response to that was savage and prompt, and he gasped at the pain and quit his struggling. He tried to disassociate himself from what was being done to him, tried to take his mind away to some private place. That was a way old cons had of doing time, getting through the hours on end of vacant boredom. This time it didn't really work.
They left him doubled up on the floor, warned him against saying anything to the hacks, and drove the point home with a boot to the ribs.
He managed to get back to his cell, and the following day he put in a request for a transfer to B Block, where you were locked down twenty-three hours a day. He was used to that on Death Row, so he knew he could live with it.
So much for making a life inside the walls. What he had to do was get out.
He still had his typewriter. He sat down, flexed his fingers. One of the rapists had bent his little finger back the day before, and it still hurt, but it wasn't one that he used for typing. He took a breath and started in.
“Dear Paul. . .”
“As always, it was good to hear from you. I write not with news but just in the hope that I can lighten your spirits and build your resolve for the long road ahead. Winning your freedom won’t be an easy task, but it’s my conviction that working together we can make it happen. . .
“Thanks for the books. I missed a lot, all those years when I never opened a book. It’s funny---my life seems so much more spacious now, even though I’m spending all but one hour a day in a dreary little cell. But it’s like that poem that starts, ‘Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage.’ (I’d have to say, though, that the stone walls and iron bars around this place make a pretty solid prison.)
“I don’t expect much from the parole board next month, but it’s a start. . .
“I was deeply saddened by the parole board’s decision, although everything I’d heard had led me to expect nothing else. Even though you've been locked up more than enough time to be eligible, the thinking evidently holds that Death Row time somehow counts less than regular prison time, and that the board wants to see how you do as a prisoner serving a life sentence before letting you return to the outside world. I’m not sure I understand the logic there. . .
“I’m glad you’re taking it so well.
“Your friend, Paul.”
“Once again, thanks for the books. They’re a healthy cut above what’s available here. This joint prides itself in its library, but when you say ‘Kierkegaard’ to the prison librarian he looks at you funny, and you don’t dare try him on Martin Buber.
“I shouldn't talk, because I’m having troubles of my own with both of those guys. I haven’t got anybody else to bounce this off, so do you mind if I press you into service? Here’s my take on Kierkegaard. . .
"Well, that’s the latest from the Jailhouse Philosopher, who is pleased to be
"Your friend, Billy.”
"Well, once again it’s time for the annual appearance before parole board---or the annual circus, as you call it with plenty of justification. Last year we thought maybe the third time was the charm, and it turned out we were wrong, but maybe it’ll be different this year. . .
“‘Maybe it’ll be different this time.’ Isn't that what Charlie Brown tells himself before he tries to kick the football? And Lucy always snatches it away.
“Still, some of the deep thinkers I've been reading stress that hope is important even when it’s unwarranted. And, although I’m a little scared to admit it, I have a good feeling this time.
“And if they never let me out, well, I've reached a point where I honestly don’t mind. I've found an inner life here that’s far superior to anything I had in my years as a free man. Between my books, my solitude, and my correspondence with you, I have a life I can live with. Of course I’m hoping for parole, but if they snatch the football away again, it ain't gonna kill me. . .
“. . . Just a thought, but maybe that’s the line you should take with them. That you’d welcome parole, but you've made a life for yourself within the walls and you can stay there indefinitely if you have to.
“I don’t know, maybe that’s the wrong strategy altogether, but I think it might impress them. . .”
“Who knows what’s likely to impress them? On the other hand, what have I got to lose?”
Billy Croydon sat at the end of the long conference table, speaking when spoken to, uttering his replies in a low voice, giving pro forma responses to the same questions they asked him every year. At the end they asked him, as usual, if there was anything he wanted to say.
Well, what the hell, he thought. What did he have to lose?
“I‘m sure it won’t surprise you,” he began, “to hear that I've come before you in the hope of being granted early release. I've had hearings before, and when I was turned down it was devastating. Well, I may not be doing myself any good by saying this, but this time around it won’t destroy me if you decide to deny me parole. Almost in spite of myself, I've made a life for myself within prison walls. I've found an inner life, a life of the spirit, that’s superior to anything I had as a free man. . .”
Were they buying it? Hard to tell. On the other hand, since it happened to be the truth, it didn't really matter whether they bought it or not.
He pushed on to the end. The chairman scanned the room, then looked at him and nodded shortly.
“Thank you, Mr. Croydon,” he said. “I think that will be all for now.”
“I think I speak for all of us,” the chairman said, “when I say how much weight we attach to your appearance before this board. We’re used to hearing the please of victims and their survivors, but almost invariably they come here to beseech us to deny parole. You’re virtually unique, Mr. Dandridge, in appearing as the champion of the very man who. . .”
“Killed my sister,” Paul said levelly.
“Yes. You've appeared before us on prior occasions, Mr. Dandridge, and while we were greatly impressed by your ability to forgive William Croydon and by the relationship you've forged with him, it seems to me that there’s been a change in your own sentiments. Last year, I recall, while you pleaded on Mr. Croydon’s behalf, we sensed that you did not wholeheartedly believe he was ready to be returned to society.”
“Perhaps I had some hesitation.”
“But this year. . .”
“Billy Croydon’s a changed man. The process of change has been completed. I know that he’s ready to get on with his life.”
“There’s no denying the power of your testimony, especially in light of its source.” The chairman cleared his throat. “Thank you, Mr. Dandridge. I think that will be all for now.”
“Well?” Paul said. “How do you feel?”
Billy considered the question. “Hard to say,” he said. “Everything’s a little unreal. Even being in a car. Last time I was in a moving vehicle was when I got my commutation and they transferred me from the other prison. It’s not like Rip Van Winkle, I know what everything looks like from television, cars included. Tell the truth, I feel a little shaky.”
“I guess that’s to be expected.”
“I suppose.” He tugged his seat belt to tighten it. “You want to know how I feel, I feel vulnerable. All those years I was locked down twenty-three hours out of twenty-four. I knew what to expect, I knew I was safe. Now I’m a free man, and it scares the crap out of me.”
“Look in the glove compartment,” Paul said.
“Jesus, Johnny Walker Black.”
“I figured you might be feeling a little anxious. That ought to take the edge off.”
“Yeah, Dutch courage,” Billy said. “Why Dutch, do you happen to know? I've always wondered.”
He weighed the bottle in his hand. “Been a long time,” he said. “Haven’t had a taste of anything since they locked me up.”
“There was nothing available in prison?”
“Oh, there was stuff. The jungle juice cons made out of potatoes and raisins, and some good stuff that got smuggled in. But I wasn't in population, so I didn't have access. And anyway it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.”
“Well, you’re a free man now. Why don’t you drink to it? I’m driving or I’d join you.”
“Well. . .”
“Why not?” he said, and uncapped the bottle and held it to the light. “Pretty color, huh? Well, here’s to freedom, huh?” He took a long drink, shuddered at the burn of the whisky.
“Kicks like a mule,” he said
“You’re not used to it.”
“I’m not.” He put the cap on the bottle and had a little trouble screwing it back on. “Hitting me hard,” he reported. “Like I was a little kid getting his first taste of it. Whew.”
“You’ll be all right.”
“Spinning,” Billy said, and slumped in his seat.
Paul glanced over at him, looked at him again a minute later. Then, after checking the mirror, he pulled the car off the road and braked to a stop.
Billy was conscious for a little while before he opened his eyes. He tried to get his bearings first. The last thing he remembered was a wave of dizziness after the slug of Scotch hit bottom. He was still sitting upright, but it didn't feel like a car seat, and he didn't sense any movement. No, he was in some sort of chair, and he seemed to be tied to it.
That didn't make any sense. A dream? He’d had lucid dreams before and knew how real they were, how you could be in them and wonder if you were dreaming and convince yourself you weren't. The way you broke the surface and got out of it was by opening your eyes. You had to force yourself, had to open your real eyes and not just your eyes in the dream, but it could be done. . .There!
He was in a chair, in a room he’d never seen before, looking out a window at a view he’d never seen before. An open field, woods behind it.
He turned his head to the left and saw a wall paneled in knotty cedar. He turned to the right and saw Paul Dandridge, wearing boots and jeans and a plaid flannel shirt and sitting in an easy chair with a book. He said, “Hey!” and Paul lowered the book and looked at him.
“Ah,” Paul said. “You’re awake.”
“What’s going on?”
“What do you think?”
“There was something in the whisky.”
“There was indeed,” Paul agreed. “You started to stir just as we made the turn off the state road. I gave you a booster shot with a hypodermic needle.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You never felt it. I was afraid for a minute there that I’d given you too much. That would have been ironic, wouldn't you say? ‘Death by lethal injection.’ The sentence carried out finally after all these years, and you wouldn't have even known it happened.”
He couldn't take it in. “Paul,” he said, “for God’s sake, what’s it all about?”
“What’s it about?” Paul considered his response. “It’s about time.”
“It’s the last act of the drama.”
“Where are we?”
“A cabin in the woods. Not the cabin. That would be ironic, wouldn't it?”
“What do you mean?”
“If I killed you in the same cabin where you killed Karen. Ironic, but not really feasible. So this is a different cabin in different woods, but it will have to do.”
“You’re going to kill me?”
“For God’s sake, why?”
“Because that’s how it ends, Billy. That’s the point of the whole game. That’s how I planned it from the beginning.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Why is it so hard to believe? We conned each other, Billy. You pretended to repent and I pretended to believe you. You pretended to reform and I pretended to be on your side. Now we can both stop pretending.”
Billy was silent for a moment. Then he said, “I was trying to con you at the beginning.”
“There was a point where it turned into something else, but it started out as a scam. It was the only way I could think of to stay alive. You saw through it?”
“But you pretended to go along with it. Why?”
“Is it that hard to figure out?”
“It doesn't make any sense. What do you gain by it? My death? If you wanted me dead all you had to do was tear up my letter. The state was all set to kill me.”
“They’d have taken forever,” Paul said bitterly. “Delay after delay, and always the possibility of a reversal and a retrial, always the possibility of a commutation of sentence.”
“There wouldn't have been a reversal, and it took you working for me to get my sentence commuted. There would have been delays, but there’d already been a few of them before I got around to writing to you. It couldn't have lasted too many years longer, and it would have added up to a lot less than it has now, with all the time I spent serving life and waiting for the parole board to open the doors. If you’d just let it go, I’d be dead and buried by now.”
“You’ll be dead soon,” Paul told him. “And buried. It won’t be much longer. Your grave’s already dug. I took care of that before I drove to the prison to pick you up.”
“They’ll come after you, Paul. When I don’t show up for my initial appointment with my parole officer---”
“They’ll get in touch, and I’ll tell them we had a drink and shook hands and you went off on your own. It’s not my fault if you decided to skip town and violate the terms of your parole.”
He took a breath. He said, “Paul, don’t do this.”
“Because I’m begging you. I don’t want to die.”
“Ah,” Paul said. “That’s why.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I left it to the state,” he said, “they’d have been killing a dead man. By the time the last appeal was denied and the last request for a stay of execution turned down, you’d have been resigned to the inevitable. They’d strap you to a gurney and give you a shot, and it would be just like going to sleep.”
“That’s what they say.”
“But now you want to live. You adjusted to prison, you made a life for yourself in there, and then you finally made parole, icing on the cake, and now you genuinely want to live. You've really got a life now, Billy, and I’m going to take it away from you.”
“You’re serious about this.”
“I've never been more serious about anything.”
“You must have been planning this for years.”
“From the very beginning.”
“Jesus, it’s the most thoroughly premeditated crime in the history of the world, isn't it? Nothing I can do about it, either. You've got me tied tight and the chair won’t tip over. Is there anything I can say that’ll make you change your mind?”
“Of course not.”
“That’s what I thought.” He sighed. “Get it over with.”
“I don’t think so.”
“This won’t be what the state hands out,” Paul Dandridge said. “A minute ago you were begging me to let you live. Before it’s over you’ll be begging me to kill you.”
“You’re going to torture me.”
“That’s the idea.”
“In fact you've already started, haven’t you? This is the mental part.”
“Very perceptive of you, Billy.”
“For all the good it does me. This is all because of what I did to your sister, isn’t it?”
“I didn't do it, you know. It was another Billy Croydon that killed her, and I can barely remember what he was like.”
“That doesn't matter.”
“Not to you, evidently, and you’re the one calling the shots. I’m sure Kierkegaard had something useful to say about this sort of situation, but I’m damned if I can call it to mind.
You knew I was conning you, huh? Right from the jump?”
“I thought it was a pretty good letter I wrote you.”
“It was a masterpiece, Billy. But that didn't mean it wasn't easy to see through.”
“So now you dish it out and I take it,” Billy Croydon said, “until you get bored and end it, and I wind up in the grave you've already dug for me. And that’s the end of it. I wonder if there’s a way to turn it around.”
“Not a chance.”
“Oh, I know I’m not getting out of here alive, Paul, but there’s more than one way of turning something around. Let’s see now. You know, the letter you got wasn't the first one I wrote to you.”
“The past is always with you, isn't it? I’m not the same man as the guy who killed your sister, but he’s still there inside somewhere. Just a question of calling him up.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just talking to myself, I guess. I was starting to tell you about that first letter. I never sent it, you know, but I kept it. For the longest time I held on to it and read it whenever I wanted to relive the experience. Then it stopped working, or maybe I stopped wanting to call up the past, but whatever it was I quit reading it. I still held on to it, and then one day I realized I didn't want to own it anymore. So I tore it up and got rid of it.”
“But I read it so many times I bet I can bring it back word for word.” His eyes locked with Paul Dandridge’s, and his lips turned up in the slightest suggestion of a smile. He said, “‘Dear Paul, Sitting here in this cell waiting for the day to come when they put a needle in my arm and flush me down God’s own toilet, I found myself thinking about your testimony in court.
I remember how you said your sister was a goodhearted girl who spent her short life bringing pleasure to everyone who knew her. According to your testimony, knowing this helped you rejoice in her life at the same time that it made her death so hard to take.
“‘Well, Paul, in the interest of helping you rejoice some more, I thought I’d tell you just how much pleasure your little sister brought to me. I've got to tell you that in all my life I never got more pleasure from anybody. My first look at Karen brought me pleasure, just watching her walk across campus, just looking at those jiggling tits and that tight little ass and imagining the fun I was going to have with them.’”
“Stop it, Croydon!”
“You don’t want to miss this, Paulie. ‘Then when I had her tied up in the back seat of the car with her mouth taped shut, I have to say she went on being a real source of pleasure. Just looking at her in the rear-view mirror was enjoyable, and from time to time I would stop the car and lean into the back to run my hands over her body. I don’t think she liked it much, but I enjoyed it enough for the both of us.’”
“You’re a son of a bitch.”
“And you’re an asshole. You should have let the state put me out of everybody’s misery. Failing that, you should have let go of the hate and sent the new William Croydon off to rejoin society. There’s a lot more to the letter, and I remember it perfectly.” He tilted his head, resumed quoting from memory. “‘Tell me something, Paul. Did you ever fool around with Karen yourself? I bet you did. I can picture her when she was maybe eleven, twelve years old, with her little titties just beginning to bud out, and you’d have been seventeen or eighteen yourself, so how could you stay away from her? She’s sleeping and you walk into her room and sit on the edge of her bed.’” He grinned. “I always liked that part. And there’s lots more. You enjoying your revenge, Paulie? Is it as sweet as they say it is?”