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by Joseph Shallit


Chapter One


IT WAS A beautiful day in May, and the spring was putting on a big show outside, complete with sunshine and flowers, and a couple of birds were talking it up, and a busy breeze was distributing handbills. And I was inside the big, stuffy gym at the Meadowcroft Country Club, demonstrating how to kill a man. The things you have to do to make a living nowadays.

There were about fifty students lined up in front of me. They were cops and detectives from half a dozen township and county police forces in the suburban Philadelphia area. They were wearing shorts and jerseys. Most of them were a depressing sight. There were bumps and bulges that looked like the start of the next generation. I had been looking at the same figures every Saturday afternoon for six weeks. I was in need of relaxation. I felt like going out to the 200 and looking at the hippopotamuses. All right, hippopotami.

My job was to teach the coppers some of the fundamentals of judo. The club had got itself some free publicity and good will by offering the course to all police officers as a public service. I didn’t get any publicity or good will. I was just the athletic instructor, and I did what the board of directors said I was to do. At fifty a week.

But maybe somebody would thank me some day, I told myself. Maybe I would indirectly help some cop nab some unpleasant citizen. Maybe I would help prevent some cop’s six kids from becoming orphans. A few of the cops I liked. There was Riordan, for example; a big-boned motor patrolman from Cheltenham Township. He learned fast and he moved into the judo holds like a barracuda. Then there was Clem Vesey, a Montgomery County sergeant of detectives. A good-looking, square-cut fellow with thick black eyebrows. He was the one who got me to demonstrate how to kill a man; to settle a bet, he said.

I didn’t like the idea very much. “I’m willing to show you,” I said, looking down at the cops from my platform, “but you’ll have to understand that this is pure theory as far as you’re concerned. You’ll never have occasion to use a blow like this. Your job is to bring a guy in, not kill him. I’d have the galloping nightmares if I thought any of you cossacks might take it in your head to try this out on some poor jerk you arrested for speeding.”

The cops tittered at that. They thought I was a card.

“I’m not kidding,” I said. “I know you cops. Nothing tickles your tender little hearts more than being in a situation where you have to push somebody’s face in. But do it some other way. This way is too permanent.”

I motioned to Vesey. “Okay. You come on up and we’ll demonstrate on you.

“Number one,” I said, “is a blow under the breastbone.” I pointed to a spot on his belly just above the solar plexus, “Personally, I never heard of anybody being killed this way, but I’ve met some experts who are convinced it would work, A good hard jab right there is supposed to break the aorta, the biggest blood vessel in the body, and make the man bleed to death internally.”

“I don’t get it, Morrison,” Riordan called out. “Boxers get hit there all the time. When I used to box, I got hit there dozens of times. Why ain’t I dead?”

“The other guy was using gloves,” I said. “The glove spreads the force of the blow. Even a fist without a glove is too big to do what I’m talking about. It has to be a blow concentrated in a very small area, so that it actually pushes the belly in a good ways. You’ve got to push the tissues in against the aorta and make it bend. The way you do it is bunch your fingers together as if you were holding a pinch of salt.” I raised my hand to demonstrate, “Your thumb is touching your middle finger, and the other fingers press close to the middle finger. Then you jab the guy with the tips of your fingers, hard as you can.”

The men down on the floor began horsing around with each other, making threatening jabs at each other’s midriff. Just a lot of nice kids, with a weakness for assault and battery,

“Okay, you guys!” I hollered. “Let’s finish the lesson, and then we can all go out and have a lot of fun riding around in our cars and squashing old ladies.”

They gave another laugh. Me and Jack Benny,

“The other lethal blow Vesey asked me about,” I said, “is the one that lands at the top of the nose. You’ve got to hit right in the little hollow where the nose meets the brow. If you don’t hit just right, you won’t kill the guy but you’ll stun him, anyway—which ought to be all any reasonable man could want.

“Here again, you can’t use your fist because that would spread the blow over a large part of the nose and forehead. The only thing narrow enough to fit in this hollow and yet capable of giving you enough power is the edge of your palm, on the little-finger side. You use a backhand blow, as if you were playing tennis.”

I demonstrated with a light blow on Vesey’s face.

“What happens,” I said, “is you break off a small piece of skull—the frontal bone, I think it is, but I don’t remember the technicalities—you break off a piece and drive it into the brain.”

I stopped and looked around at the upturned faces. They were watching me with big fascinated eyes, like kids looking at a Christmas play.

“Of course, anybody who would want to go into this business seriously,” I added, “would spend a lot of time hitting at the wall with the edge of his palm to put a nice callus on it, You have to have a good hard hand to do these blows right. I heard the Japs used to practice by breaking pieces of bamboo with a slap of the hand.”

But by now I was bored with homicide. I wanted to finish the lesson I had scheduled and get out of the place.

“Okay, now,” I said. “Let’s go into something you’re more likely to use: taking a gun away from somebody who hadn’t ought to have one.” I gave Vesey a wooden model of a pistol. “Last week we took up the case where the guy who has the gun is facing you. Now we’ll suppose he gets you from the back.”

I had Vesey stand behind me and hold the wooden pistol against my spine.

“He’s ordered me to put my hands up,” I said. “But I keep my elbows slightly bent and keep them close to my sides. Then—” I swung around to the right, knocked the gun aside with my right elbow, and got an armlock on his right arm. Vesey co-operated and made me look good.

I had the men practice the trick seven or eight times on each other, and then I dismissed them. I’d had enough of cops for the day. Now I wanted to go out and associate with robbers. The robbers who push drinks across the bar.

As I walked into the dressing room, a tall, thin-haired man of about fifty, with a slight paunch but good shoulders and a springy walk, came toward me.

“Very interesting,” he said. “I enjoyed that a great deal.”

“Glad you did, Mister—uh—” and I found I’d forgotten his name. He was one of the plushy members of the club who came to the gym every once in a while, all hot and eager to beat their bellies back to normal if it could be done with ten minutes of magic exercise. Three weeks before, this fellow had stayed to watch the police class and afterwards had asked me to let him join it. I had been leery at first, because of his age, but he had said he’d take his chances on broken bones, and I had finally said okay.

“It might amuse you to know I’ve been trying some of this on the men at the office,” he said with a schoolboy grin. “It works!”

I liked this guy. I always like a guy who doesn’t let the years rot away his liking for a little exercise. But I also liked him for the straightaway manner he had when he talked to me. Most of the other members acted as if they couldn’t forget I was part of the hired help. The Meadowcroft Country Club is one of the snootiest places in the Golden Crescent that curves north and west of Philadelphia. Everybody carries his nose so high, the club announcements have to be posted on the ceiling. Nobody gets to be a member until he can prove he has snubbed at least four millionaires. The rules forbid the use of profane language, including the word Democrat. That kind of place.

“Morrison, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about,” he said. “How would you like to join me at dinner tonight?”

Democracy sure is marching on, I thought.

“That is, if you don’t have anything planned,” he said.

Planned? Sure. My evening was all planned. A shower and shave, then the eighty-cent platter at Jackson’s, then a couple of hours with the Saturday night edition of the Sunday Inquirer in my room at the Y, then a walk to Jim Parson’s bar —and a couple of hours spent turning my dollars into whiskey and the whiskey into myself—then back to my lovely little room, with the gray blanket and the buff wallpaper, peeling in three places, and the brown window shade and the beautiful view of the blank side of a clothing factory.

“Well,” I said, “I haven’t planned anything special.”

“Good! I’ll meet you by the front door in half an hour.”


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