One of two stories first published in the same mystery magazine (back-to-back, no less) under different names: Never Shake a Family Tree by Donald E. Westlake and this one, as by Richard Stark.
Just a Little Impractical Joke
Harry Chesterton, murderer, surveyed the scene of carnage. Everything was in place, everything was right. Miriam lay sprawled on her tummy on the bathroom floor, her head under the sink. The bathmat, the towel, the soap and washcloth and loofah, all were in position. The red-stained scissors lay on the floor near Miriam’s right elbow. The bread knife was clutched in Miriam’s right hand.
Perfect. Everything was perfect.
Harry nodded in satisfaction and stepped out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him. He walked down the hall to the master bedroom, removed his clothing, donned his terrycloth robe, and whistled his way back to the bathroom. He turned his face toward the kitchen. “Don’t run water for a few minutes, Miriam!” he shouted, loud enough to be heard by any neighbor in a backyard or next to an open window. “I’m going to take a shower now!”
He nodded again, whistled some more, and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind him again. He stepped over Miriam, who was in the same position, bleeding quietly on the floor, and removed his robe. He turned on the shower, adjusted the flow to the force and temperature he wanted, and stepped into the tub, pulling the shower curtain closed behind him. He lathered briskly and burst into song.
He was happy, deliriously happy. after three years of careful planning, of working on and rejecting scheme after scheme after scheme, Harry Chesterton had finally found the one absolutely foolproof way to murder his wife.
Foolproof, it was foolproof. And now Miriam was dead. After a decent interval of mourning–a safe interval–he would marry dear sweet Cathy, who would never, never, never turn into the shrill nag that Miriam had become in seven years of marriage. “When are you going to settle down, Harry? When are you going to give up these get-rich-quick schemes of yours and find a decent job, Harry? The department store called again about the payments on the furniture, Harry; they say they’re going to take it away. What are you going to do about that, Harry? You’re just lucky your schemes haven’t landed you in jail, Harry, lucky, that’s all all I have to say.”
How accurate. That was all she had to say. Over and over and over again, that was all Miriam had to say. Nag, nag, nag. How could a man concentrate on his ambitions and plans and prospects with a nagging wife hounding him all the time?
He couldn’t, that was all, he just couldn’t.
It would be different with Cathy. Cathy believed in him, that was the important thing. Cathy would stand by him, help him in countless ways. Why, the very fact that she was the daughter of a man who owned thirty-seven percent of National Atronics and was chairman of that company’s board of directors was helpful. That very fact alone.
Harry wielded the loofah and sang lustily of moon and June, while dreaming of Long Island estates, vacations on the Riviera, Porsches, and Mercedes-Benzes…
His leisurely shower done, Harry shut the water off and stepped from the tub. He was a tall, lithe, well-muscled young man of thirty-two, who didn’t look a day over thirty-one. He now sat down next to the sink and surveyed the three clipped toenails on his right foot. He had cut those earlier in the day, since the scissors would not be available for use at this stage of the proceedings.
Planning, that was all it took. Careful planning.
All at once, he shouted, “Miriam!” at the top of his voice, and thumped both bare feet against the floor. Then he stood, left the bathroom, and lay down on his stomach on the hall rug. He did fa ph-up and, completely out of breath, got to his feet again and staggered nude in the living room. He grabbed for the phone, and dialed the operator. “Operator!” he cried, gasping a bit. “An ambulance! The police! I–I’ve killed my wife!”
The house was absolutely full of people. There were people with cameras and pieces of chalk and black bags crammed into the bathroom. There were uniformed policemen by the front door, and more uniformed policemen in the living room. There were two detectives in civilian clothing in the kitchen, talking to Mr. and Mrs. Anderson from downstairs. There were reporters all over the sidewalk and front lawn and first floor porch, kept by firm silent policemen from rushing up to the second-floor flat, where the terrible accident had taken place.
And there was detective named Hotchkiss in the bedroom, listening to the rattled, grief-stricken, and totally inconsolable husband tell his story for the seventh time.
“It was a joke,” Harry was saying. He lit a new cigarette from the butt of the old and nervously stubbed the butt into an ashtray. He was sitting distractedly on the edge of the bed, dressed again in the terrycloth robe, his black hair now dry, but terribly uncombed. He had made the phone call at just a few minutes after four, and now it was well after eight. Over four hours, and he was still telling his story.
“A joke,” echoed Detective Hotchkiss. He was short and stocky, with a roundish heavy-jowled face and sad beagle eyes. His suit was gray and rumpled, his shoes black and scuffed, and his tie grey and wrinkled. He wasn’t a very prepossessing figure.
“I’m sure it was,” said Harry emotionally. He dragged on the cigarette. “I can’t believe she meant to…” He let the sentence trail away, and shook his head in agitation.
“You saw this movie last night, is that right?” asked Detective Hotchkiss.
“Yes. Like I’ve told you, it was all about a homicidal maniac, and a woman was brutally stabbed to death in a shower. We talked about it on the way home last night, joking about how neither of us would dare take a shower for months. We–it was just last night, and we were laughing together, we–”
“All right, Mr. Chesterton,” said Hotchkiss. “Take it easy.”
“Yes,” said Harry. “Thank you. Yes. Anyway, today, when I told Miriam I was going to take a shower, she joked about it again, she–she said she couldn’t see how I had the nerve.”
“Those were her exact words?”
“I–yes, I–I’m not sure. She said something about that, she–” Harry pressed a trembling hand to his forehead. “I’m no longer sure of anything,” he said brokenly.
“Yes. I understand.” Detective Hotchkiss, behind a perfunctory sympathy, was watchful and expressionless. “What happened next?” he asked.
“Well, I showered, and then I was sitting clipping my toenails, when she came in, wi-with the knife. Brandishing the knife. It was–it was just like in the movie last night.”
“A practical joke, is that it?” said Hotchkiss.
“It must have been. But then–at the time–it was so sudden, and so startling–”
“You reacted instinctively, is that it?”
“Yes, that’s it. I jumped to my feet and–well, I was holding the scissors, and–”
“You stabbed her,” said Hotchkiss unemotionally.
Harry winced. “Yes. I stabbed her.”
“I see.” Hotchkiss solemnly surveyed the lack of crease in his right trouser leg. “Did your wife go in for practical jokes often, Mr. Chesterton?”
Harry was ready for that question. The obvious answer was to say yes, that she did such things all the time. But that would have given the whole thing away. In the first place, the police would have reasoned that Harry might have expected some such stunt from his wife, and a murderous shock reaction would have been inexplicable. In the second place, it wouldn’t take much questioning of friends and relatives to determine that Miriam was anything but a jester. A more sour, stolid, down-to-earth type couldn’t be imagined.
So he said, “No, not really. That’s what made it so startling. Oh, once in awhile, I suppose. We both kidded with one another from time to time.”
“I see,” said Hotchkiss. “One more thing. The scissors. They weren’t the usual nail-clipping style of scissors, they were much larger than that. If they’d been nail-clipping scissors–”
“Yes, I know,” said Harry sorrowfully, nodding his head. “Miriam would still be alive. But my wife–well, you know how women are about tools, never using the right tools for the right job. Miriam–well, she was that way. She used scissors for screwdrivers, pliers hammers, all sorts of jobs for which they weren’t intended. That pair of scissors is the last in the house, that’s why I was using them.
That part was the truth. That had been another of Miriam’s irritating habits–a minor irritation, compared to the rest, but an irritation nonetheless, like her insistence upon squeezing the middle of the toothpaste tube–and practically all of the tools in his basement workshop bore the scars of her usage.
There was a bump-bump from the hall, and Harry dropped the cigarette in alarm. Stooping to pick it up before it could burn the unpaid-for rug, he said, “What’s that?”
“I imagine they’re taking your wife away,” said Hotchkiss.
Harry, fumblingly lit a new cigarette. His nervousness was only partially an act. It was one thing to plan something like this, work out the details as Harry had worked them out. It was something else entirely to be actually in the middle of the plan, the Rubicon having been crossed, the die having been cast, the wife having been launched into eternity and the house being full of policemen. Something else entirely. No matter how sure he was of his plan, its execution was still nerve-wracking.
But the plan was foolproof, no matter how watchful this detective was. Why shouldn’t it be? It had the impromptu idiocy of truth. Who would expect a man to murder his wife in cold blood, with such a completely inane cover-up story? The inanity of the thing is what saved it.
Hotchkiss got to his feet. “I guess that’s it for tonight,” he said. “I know you’re still upset. But I’d like you to come in tomorrow and dictate a statement. Do you know where headquarters is?”
“I think so,” said Harry. “Across the street from the Strand Theater, isn’t it?”
“Right. Is there anyone you want us to call? To stay with you?”
“No,” said Harry. “That’s all right. I’ll take a pill, I guess. I think I’d just rather be alone for awhile.”
“All right, then,” said Hotchkiss. “And you come on down to the station tomorrow, and dictate a statement. Ask for me at the desk–Hotchkiss.”
“I’ll do that,” Harry promised.
Hotchkiss paused in the doorway. “Don’t plan any extended trips for a while,” he said.
“Of course not,” said Harry.
It was a lovely morning. Spring it was, dripping with sunshine, the grass all about as green as an Irishman on March seventeenth. Birds were singing, too. All in all, a lovely morning.
Harry got up at nine thirty. He wouldn’t have awakened then, except the boss called to make inquiry as to his whereabouts. For the last couple of months, while waiting for various big prospects to break one way or the other, Harry had worked for Smiling Stanley’s Guaranteed Used Cars, as a commission salesman. And Smiling Stanley now called at nine-thirty in the morning, wondering just where in hell Harry was.
“I’m in bed,” Harry told him.
And precisely what, Smiling Stanley wanted to know, did he think he was doing in bed?
“Sleeping,” Harry told him.
And did Harry know, Smiling Stanley snarled, just what time it was?
Harry checked the alarm clock. “Nine-thirty,” he said.
Then just why, roared Smiling Stanley, wasn’t Harry at work?
“Because,” Harry told him evenly, “my wife passed away last night. Don’t you ever read the papers?”
Smiling Stanley didn’t say a word.
Harry said, “Hello?”
Smiling Stanley sort of choked.
“All right, then,” said Harry, and he returned the phone to its cradle. He smiled a bit at the telephone, looked at the emptiness in the bed beside him and smiled, looked out the window at the green and sunny spring, and smiled.
What a lovely morning!
He scrunched down beneath the covers. The whole bed to himself! He closed his eyes and composed himself for sleep.
But he couldn’t get back to sleep. No matter how lovely the morning, no matter how delicious it was to have the whole bed to himself, no matter how charming the notion that no nagging harridan was going to come bursting in from the kitchen wanting to know when he was going to drag his lazy self out of bed and go earn an honest dollar, no matter how delightful all of life had suddenly become, Harry couldn’t go to sleep.
He couldn’t go to sleep because the morning paper was on the front porch.
He just had to get up and read his press notices, right away.
He quit the bed at last, and donned his robe, glancing at himself in the full-length mirror on the closet door. Yes sir, he was a fine figure of a man. He beamed at himself, sparkle-toothed.
“Cathy,” he whispered, “you are a lucky little girl.”
Should he call her? No, not yet, wait a few days anyway. No sense doing something stupid at this point in the game, exciting anyone’s suspicions.
Harry walked through the house to the front door, and down the stairs to the porch. The newspaper was there, and so were two full quarts of milk, homogenized grade A. The newspaper had been folded by the delivery boy, for better throwing, and Harry tucked it under his arm still folded, putting off the lovely moment when he would read about himself, with all the gory details. He picked up the milk bottles, closed the front door, and went scuffing back upstairs in his old slippers.
The milk in the refrigerator, a cup of steaming coffee on the kitchen table, Harry at last sat down and opened the paper.He wasn’t on the first page, or the second page, or the third. He was frowning, just about convinced that he hadn’t made the paper at all, when he finally found the headline, on the first page of the second section. Of course. Naturally. The first section was international news–FAR EAST CRISIS–and the second section was local news.
IN PRACTICAL JOKE
Mrs. Miriam Chesterton, of 148 Coleridge Drive, was reported slain yesterday afternoon, the bizarre climax of a bizarre practical joke. According to her husband, Harry Chesterton, the good-looking Mrs. Chesterton played an unfortunate practical joke, the result of a motion picture she had seen only the night before, a joke which ended in her tragic death.
According to the grieving husband, stunned by this fantastic turn of events…
It was absolutely the most amusing thing Harry had ever read in his entire life. He read the item three times, all the way through, and then he went to get a pair of scissors to clip it out of the paper. I’ll start a scrap book, he thought to himself.
After five minutes of fruitless search, he suddenly remembered that the last pair of scissors had gone out the night before, embedded in Miriam.
He was in the process of carefully sawing the article free with a razor blade when the urge to call Cathy came over him once again.
But that would be idiocy. In the first place, he had, of course, never told her about his plan. No matter how much she loved him, he didn’t want to test her feelings quite that far. She might, if she knew the truth, be somewhat loath to pledge her troth to him. No woman could feel completely at ease with her husband, if she knew for a fact that he had hastened her predecessor’s journey to the desk of Saint Peter.
Besides which, Cathy, when all was said and done, just wasn’t very bright. She wasn’t exactly the type who could be trusted with a secret of such import. No, she just wasn’t the smartest girl in the world.
But, oh, was she rich! Or, at least, she was going to be rich, when her old man kicked the bucket.
In a year or two, given the right circumstances, perhaps he could figure out a little something for the old man, too. The thought had never occurred to him before, but now it did, and he rather liked it. What was real creativity on his part, Miriam had always called schemes. And he did seem to have a special knack for murder.
In the meantime, of course, Cathy had to be kept completely out of the picture, as she had been up till now. Detective Hotchkiss could entertain vague suspicions, but until he was given some item of proof or of motive, that was all he could do.
Cathy would be kept out of sight until all this blew over and was forgotten. And then–marriage.
This thought through, Harry finished sawing out the clipping and went whistling toward the bedroom. He suddenly stopped whistling when he remembered the Andersons, downstairs. Lord knew if they cold hear whistling from upstairs, but just to be on the safe side he should content himself with silent smiles while at home.
Well, it wouldn’t be for much longer. Soon, he wold say farewell forever to this cheap, grubby kind of life. No more living in two-family houses, no more having to take the bus downtown, no more having to con suspicious yokels into buying junky automobiles. And ry knew that at Smiling Stanley’s, the bribe paid to obtain the state inspection tag was a normal part of the overhead.
But that was all behind him now–or almost behind him. Ahead of him awaited yachts, and private estates, and maybe even a cute French upstairs maid…
Reflecting on these happy thoughts, Harry entered the bedroom and laid the clipping lovingly on the dresser. This afternoon, he decided, while he was downtown, he would have to buy a scrapbook.
He went back to the kitchen, found the remains of his coffee stone cold, and decided to make himself a new cup. Then he thought it might be a nice idea to have an entire meal–five or six eggs and lots of bacon and piece after piece of toast–because it was the kind of day that deserved a good breakfast.
It was a lovely day.
He got to the police station shortly after noon, and it was a breeze. The only troublesome part was the waiting. He kept having to wait for people, and then someone would come along and explain some legal point to him or some such thing, and he would nod, and then he would wait some more. But, finally, a male stenographer appeared, pencil and notebook at the ready, and took down in shorthand Harry’s story of the killing. Then there was some more waiting, while the statement was typed–with millions of carbons–and then he signed all the copies of the statement and left the police station, with writer’s cramp.
It was almost five o’clock, he discovered, and the bus stop was crowded with people waiting to go home. Every bus left the corner groaning with its overload of standees. The sidewalks were jammed with rushing humanity, most of it female and most of it vicious.
To be buffeted about by this rush-hour crowd, Harry felt, was just too much. Here he was on the verge of a life of leisure, and he was going to have to stand up all the way home on a bus.
No, he wasn’t either. He’d just stay downtown until the rich hour was over. He wanted to buy a scrapbook anyway.
Harry headed for the five-and-dime at once. He bought his scrapbook there–a lovely thing, blood red, with “Memories” engraved on the cover in sentimental script–and left with it beneath his arm.
He deserved a drink, he told himself. He hadn’t had a ting to drink since yesterday.
He deserved a drink.
At the same time, he wondered if it would look good for the so-recently-bereaved husband to be tilting a few at the bar? Some people might give him the benefit of the doubt, say it was simply the case of a grieving husband drowning his sorrows, but others, of a coarser nature, might get the idea it was a not-so-grief-stricken husband tasting freedom.
So Harry compromised. He went for a drink but he went into a bad that had never seen his face before, one way down by the railroad depot, and with a filthy window and a surly bartender and a bar half-full of sizzled regulars who probably hadn’t seen a newspaper since V-J Day.
There was a certain ironic sweetness in being in this particular bar. Here were the dregs of humanity, in their natural habitat. And here was Harry Chesterton, on his way from middle-class insecurity to upper-class wealth, stopping off in this lower-class dump to hoist a few before moving on. It kind of gave him a sense of history.
Sense of history or no, he wasn’t prepared to stand cheek-by-jowl with the bums at the bar. He got a bottle of beer and a not-too-clean glass from the surly bartender, and sat down in the last booth to the back, on the side wall across from the bar. He drank out of the bottle, leaving the not-too-clean glass alone.
He sat facing the back wall, the high top of the booth shielding him from the view of anyone in the street and all but one of the loungers at the bar. That one lounger was leaning against the wall at the end-curve of the bar. Harry glanced at him, recognized the man’s type, and looked immediately away.
He didn’t like the type. A stocky, large-faced, ham-handed individual in work pants and flannel shirt and brown leather truck-driver’s jacket. He was the only one in the bar making any noise at all. He was bellowing a joke of some sort at the surly bartender, who was ignoring him. It wasn’t that he was drunk; in fact, he seemed to be nearly sober. He was just one of the loud, crass braggarts and bullies of this world.
Harry knew the type. Braggarts and bullies. It reminded him of grammar school, when people like that yowling Neanderthal over there used to beat him up and make fun of him because he always managed to get good grades and always tried to get in good with the teachers.
It was the loud vicious type who had made his childhood difficult, and had later worsened his lot during his compulsory two years of goldbricking in the Army. On various jobs, he had run into loud oafs like this one, who thought their strength of arm made them superior to their intellectual peers.
The bully at the bar came to the end of his joke at last, and silence descended on the bar. Blessed silence. Harry glanced up again, and looked quickly away.
The man was looking at him. Staring at him. Studying him.
Oh no, Harry thought, oh no. He sees the clothing I’m wearing, he sees my face, he knows me for the bullyable type. If only he’ll leave me alone.
Memories of childhood, of the Army, flashed through Harry’s mind. He drank from the beer bottle, and chanced another look.
The man was still studying him, frowning in ludicrous concentration. All at once, he snapped his fingers, and cried, “Ah hah!”
Harry, baffled and frightened, looked quickly away again.
But the man was not to be put off. He left his barstool and came striding over to the table. And, of course, none of the other people in the bar paid him the slightest attention. Not that any of them would come to Harry’s aid, anyway.
The man loomed over Harry and growled, “Ain’t you the two-bit chiseler works for Smiling Stanley?”
Harry looked up in surprise, and all at once recognized the man. Of course, he remembered him now. A railroad worker. Harry, three or four weeks ago, had sold him a little old junkheap that practically ran on rubber bands.
Harry replied unhesitatingly, “No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are,” insisted the man. “You’re the chiseler works for Smiling Stanley.”
“No, I’m not,” said Harry again.
“You calling me a liar,” said the man. He reached fumblingly into his pocket. “I’ve got you now, you so-and-so!” he yelled, and withdrew from his pocket a small gun, which he pointed directly at Harry’s left eye.
Detective Hotchkiss was being patient. “Twice in a row, Mister Chesterton?” he said, and his whole tone implied that twice in a row was rather too much.
They were at a different booth in the same bar. Harry, absolutely panic-stricken, babbled, “How did I know? He pointed the gun at me–”
“And you slammed him with the beer bottle,” said Detective Hotchkiss.
“How’d I know it was just a joke? He didn’t act as though it was just a joke.”
Two men carrying a large wicker basket went by, and the basket bumped the table. Harry looked at in terror. Then it went on by and out the front door, and Harry looked back at Detective Hotchkiss. Detective Hotchkiss had the gun in his hand. He pulled the trigger. A little section in the top of the gun snapped open, and flame came out.
It was a cigarette lighter.
Detective Hotchkiss released the trigger, which closed the section in the top and snuffed out the flame. He put the lighter down on the table between them, and studied it.
“Does that thing look like a real gun, Mister Chesterton?”
“It all happened so fast,” wailed Harry. “Ask the other people in here, ask them if he didn’t–”
Detective Hotchkiss shook his head. “None of them were paying any attention at all,” he said.
“But that’s the way it happened! cried Harry.
Detective Hotchkiss sighed. “Twice in a row,” he said. “Who was he, Chesterton?”
“Just a man I’d sold a car to,” said Harry. “He acted as though he was mad me because of the car.”
“Of course,” said Detective Hotchkiss. “Of course, Chesterton. And did this gentleman–what was his name, by the way?”
“I don’t know,” said Harry. “I don’t remember.”
“I see. At any rate, did he by any chance know your wife? Your late wife, I mean.”
“Know my wife? Great heavens, what was the man thinking? “Of course not! How could he know my wife?”
Detective Hotchkiss shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “This changes the picture. “Now, if there any reason why you might have wanted this gentleman dead, or if there were any reason why you might have wanted your wife dead–”
“He came at me so fast! wailed Harry.
“Yes, yes, of course. But if there were, perhaps, a motive of some sort, something you haven’t as yet told us–”
“There’s nothing!” cried Harry. “Nothing!”
Detective Hotchkiss got to his feet. “Perhaps,” he said, “you ought to come on back to the station with me. I think we have to talk.”
They talked for fourteen hours before Harry mentioned Cathy.
Copyright © 1961 by Donald Westlake