Collecting ackermans, p.1
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       Collecting Ackermans, p.1

           Lawrence Block
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Collecting Ackermans


  Lawrence Block - Collecting Ackermans

  From "The Collected Mystery Stories"

  On an otherwise unremarkable October afternoon, Florence Ackerman's doorbell sounded. Miss Ackerman, who had been watching a game show on television and clucking at the mental lethargy of the panelists, walked over to the intercom control and demanded to know who was there.

  "Western Union," a male voice announced.

  Miss Ackerman repeated the clucking sound she had most recently aimed at Charles Nelson Reilly. She clucked this time at people who lost their keys and rang other tenants' bells in order to gain admittance to the building. She clucked at would-be muggers and rapists who might pass themselves off as messengers or deliverymen for an opportunity to lurk in the hallways and stairwell. In years past this building had had a doorman, but the new landlord had curtailed services, aiming to reduce his overhead and antagonize longstanding tenants at the same time.

  "Telegram for Miz Ackerman," the voice added.

  And was it indeed a telegram? It was possible, Miss Ackerman acknowledged. People were forever dying and other people were apt to communicate such data by means of a telegram. It was easier to buzz whoever it was inside than to brood about it. The door to her own apartment would remain locked, needless to say, and the other tenants could look out for themselves. Florence Ackerman had been looking out for her own self for her whole life and the rest of the planet could go and do the same.

  She pressed the buzzer, then went to the door and put her eye to the peephole. She was a small birdlike woman and she had to come up onto her toes to see through the peephole, but she stayed on her toes until her caller came into view. He was a youngish man and he wore a large pair of mirrored sunglasses. Besides obscuring much of his face, the sunglasses kept Miss Ackerman from noticing much about the rest of his appearance. Her attention was inescapably drawn to the twin images of her own Peephole reflected in the lenses.

  The young man, unaware that he was being watched, rapped on the door with his knuckles. "Telegram," he said.

  "Slide it under the door."

  "You have to sign for it."

  "That's ridiculous," Miss Ackerman said. "One never has to sign for a telegram. As a matter of fact they're generally phoned in nowadays."

  "This one you got to sign for."

  Miss Ackerman's face, by no means dull to begin with, sharpened. She who had been the scourge of several generations of fourth-grade pupils was not to be intimidated by a pair of mirrored sunglasses. "Slide it under the door," she demanded. "Then I'll open the door and sign your book." If there was indeed anything to be slid beneath the door, she thought, and she rather doubted that there was.

  "I can't."

  "Oh?"

  "It's a singin' telegram. Singin' telegram for Miz Ackerman, what it says here."

  "And you're to sing it to me?"

  "Yeah."

  "Then sing it."

  "Lady, are you kiddin'? I'm gonna sing a telegram through a closed door? Like forget it."

  Miss Ackerman made the clucking noise again. "I don't believe you have a telegram for me," she said. "Western Union suspended their singing telegram service some time ago. I remember reading an article to that effect in the Times." She did not bother to add that the likelihood of anyone's ever sending a singing telegram to her was several degrees short of infinitesimal.

  "All I know is I'm supposed to sing this, but if you don't want to open the door-"

  "I wouldn't dream of opening my door."

  "-then the hell with you, Miz Ackerman. No disrespect intended, but I'll just tell 'em I sang it to you and who cares what you say."

  "You're not even a good liar, young man. I'm calling the police now. I advise you to be well out of the neighborhood by the time they arrive."

  "You know what you can do," the young man said, but in apparent contradiction to his words he went on to tell Miss Ackerman what she could do. While we needn't concern ourselves with his suggestion, let it be noted that Miss Ackerman could not possibly have followed it, nor, given her character and temperament, would she have been likely at all to make the attempt.

  Neither did she call the police. People who say "I am calling the police now" hardly ever do. Miss Ackerman did think of calling her local precinct but decided it would be a waste of time. In all likelihood the young man, whatever his game, was already on his way, never to return. And Miss Ackerman recalled a time two years previously, just a few months after her retirement, when she returned from an afternoon chamber music concert to find her apartment burglarized and several hundred dollars worth of articles missing. She had called the police, naively assuming there was a point to such a course of action, and she'd only managed to spend several hours of her time making out reports and listing serial numbers, and a sympathetic detective had as much as told her nothing would come of the effort.

  Actually, calling the police wouldn't really have done her any good this time, either.

  Miss Ackerman returned to her chair and, without too much difficulty, picked up the threads of the game show. She did not for a moment wonder who might have sent her a singing telegram, knowing with cool certainty that no one had done so, that there had been no telegram, that the young man had intended rape or robbery or some other unpleasantness that would have made her life substantially worse than it already was. That robbers and rapists and such abounded was no news to Miss Ackerman. She had lived all her life in New York and took in her stride the possibility of such mistreatment, even as residents of California take in their stride the possibility of an earthquake, even as farmers on the Vesuvian slopes acknowledge that it is in the nature of volcanoes periodically to erupt. Miss Ackerman sat in her chair, leaving it to make a cup of tea, returning to it teacup in hand, and concentrated on her television program.

  The following afternoon, as she wheeled her little cart of groceries around the corner, a pair of wiry hands seized her without ceremony and yanked her into the narrow passageway between a pair of brick buildings. A gloved hand covered her mouth, the fingers digging into her cheek.

  She heard a voice at her ear: "Happy birthday to you, you old hairbag, happy birthday to you." Then she felt a sharp pain in her chest, and then she felt nothing, ever.

  "Retired schoolteacher," Freitag said. "On her way home with her groceries. Hell of a thing, huh? Knifed for what she had in her purse, and what could she have, anyway? Livin' on Social Security and a pension and the way inflation eats you up nowadays she wouldn't of had much on her. Why stick a knife in a little old lady like her, huh? He didn't have to kill her."

  "Maybe she screamed," Ken Poolings suggested. "And he got panicky."

  "Nobody heard a scream. Not that it proves anything either way." They were back at the stationhouse and Jack Freitag was drinking lukewarm coffee out of a styrofoam container. But for the styrofoam the beverage would have been utterly tasteless. "Ackerman, Ackerman, Ackerman. It's hell the way these parasites prey on old folks. It's the judges who have to answer for it. They put the creeps back on the street. What they ought to do is kill the little bastards, but that's not humane. Sticking a knife in a little old lady, that's humane. Ackerman, Ackerman. Why does that name do something to me?"

  "She was a teacher. Maybe you were in one of her classes."

  Freitag shook his head. "I grew up in Chelsea. West Twenty-fourth Street. Miss Ackerman taught all her life here in Washington Heights just three blocks from the place where she lived. And she didn't even have to leave the neighborhood to get herself killed. Ackerman. Oh, I know what it was. Remember three or maybe it was four days ago, this faggot in the West Village? Brought some other faggot home with him and got hisself killed for his troubles? They found him all tied up with things carved in him. It w
as all over page three of the Daily News. Ritual murder, sadist cult, sex perversion, blah blah blah. His name was Ackerman."

  "Which one?"

  "The dead one. They didn't pick up the guy who did it yet. I don't know if they got a make or not."

  "Does it make any difference?"

  "Not to me it don't." Freitag finished his coffee, threw his empty container at the green metal wastebasket, then watched as it circled the rim and fell on the floor. "The Knicks stink this year," he said. "But you don't care about basketball, do you?"

  "Hockey's my game."

  "Hockey," Freitag said. "Well, the Rangers stink, too. Only they stink on ice." He leaned back in his chair and laughed at his own wit and stopped thinking of two murder victims who both happened to be named Ackerman.

  Mildred Ackerman lay on her back. Her skin was slick with perspiration, her limbs heavy with spent passion. The man who was lying beside her stirred, placed a hand upon her flesh and began to stroke her. "Oh, Bill," she said. "That feels so nice. I love the way you touch me."

  The man went on stroking her.

  "You have the nicest touch. Firm but gentle. I sensed that about you when I saw you." She opened her eyes, turned to face him. "Do you believe in intuition, Bill? I do. I think it's possible to know a great deal about someone just on the basis of your intuitive feelings."

  "And what did you sense about me?"

  "That you would be strong but gentle. That we'd be very good together. It was good for you, wasn't it?"

  "Couldn't you tell?"

  Millie giggled.

  "So you're divorced," he said.

  "Uh-huh. You? I'll bet you're married, aren't you? It doesn't bother me if you are."

  "I'm not. How long ago were you divorced?"

  "It's almost five years now. It'll be exactly five years in January. That's since we split, but then it was another six months before the divorce went through. Why?"

  "And Ackerman was your husband's name?"

  "Yeah. Wallace Ackerman."

  "No kids?"

  "No, I wanted to but he didn't."

  "A lot of women take their maiden names back after a divorce."

  She laughed aloud. "They don't have a maiden name like I did. You wouldn't believe the name I was born with."

  "Try me."

  "Plonk. Millie Plonk. I think I married Wally just to get rid of it. I mean Mildred's bad enough, but Plonk? Like forget it. I don't think you even told me your last name."

  "Didn't I?" The hand moved distractingly over Millie's abdomen. "So you decided to go on being an Ackerman, huh?"

  "Sure. Why not?"

  "Why not indeed."

  "It's not a bad name."

  "Mmmm," the man said. "This is a nice place you got here, incidentally. Been living here long?"

  "Ever since the divorce. It's a little small. Just a studio."

  "But it's a good-sized studio, and you must have a terrific view. Your window looks out on the river, doesn't it?"

  "Oh, sure. And you know, eighteen flights up, it's gotta be a pretty decent view."

  "It bothers some people to live that high up in the air."

  "Never bothered me."

  "Eighteen floors," the man said. "If a person went out that window there wouldn't be much left of her, would there?"

  "Jeez, don't even talk like that."

  "You couldn't have an autopsy, could you? Couldn't determine whether she was alive or dead when she went out the window."

  "Come on, Bill. That's creepy."

  "Your ex-husband living in New York?"

  "Wally? I think I heard something about him moving out to the West Coast, but to be honest I don't know if he's alive or dead."

  "Hmmm."

  "And who cares? You ask the damnedest questions, Bill."

  "Do I?"

  "Uh-huh. But you got the nicest hands in the world, I swear to God. You touch me so nice. And your eyes, you've got beautiful eyes. I guess you've heard that before?"

  "Not really."

  "Well, how could anybody tell? Those crazy glasses you wear, a person tries to look into your eyes and she's looking into a couple of mirrors. It's a sin having such beautiful eyes and hiding them."

  "Eighteen floors, that's quite a drop."

  "Huh?"

  "Nothing," he said, and smiled. "Just thinking out loud."

  Freitag looked up when his partner entered the room. "You look a little green in the face," he said. "Something the matter?"

  "Oh, I was just looking at the Post and there's this story that's enough to make you sick. This guy out in Sheepshead Bay, and he's a policeman, too."

  "What are you talking about?"

  Poolings shrugged. "It's nothing that doesn't happen every couple of months. This policeman, he was depressed or he had a fight with his wife or something, I don't know what. So he shot her dead, and then he had two kids, a boy and a girl, and he shot them to death in their sleep and then he went and ate his gun. Blew his brains out."

  "Jesus."

  "You just wonder what goes through a guy's mind that he does something like that. Does he just go completely crazy or what? I can't understand a person who does something like that."

  "I can't understand people, period. Was this somebody you knew?"

  "No, he lives in Sheepshead Bay. Lived in Sheepshead Bay. Anyway, he wasn't with the department. He was a Transit Authority cop."

  "Anybody spends all his time in the subways, it's got to take its toll. Has to drive you crazy sooner or later."

  "I guess."

  Freitag plucked a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket, tapped it on the top of his desk, held it between his thumb and forefinger, frowned at it and returned it to the pack. He was trying to cut back to a pack a day and was not having much success. "Maybe he was trying to quit smoking," he suggested. "Maybe it was making him nervous and he just couldn't stand it any more."

  "That seems a little farfetched, doesn't it?"

  "Does it? Does it really?" Freitag got the cigarette out again, put it in his mouth, lit it. "It don't sound all that farfetched to me. What was this guy's name, anyway?"

  "The TA cop? Hell, I don't know. Why?"

  "I might know him. I know a lot of transit cops."

  "It's in the Post. Bluestein's reading it."

  "I don't suppose it matters, anyway. There's a ton of transit cops and I don't know that many of them. Anyway, the ones I know aren't crazy."

  "I didn't even notice his name," Poolings said. "Let me just go take a look. Maybe I know him, as far as that goes."

  Poolings went out, returning moments later with a troubled look on his face. Freitag looked questioningly at him.

  "Rudy Ackerman," he said.

  "Nobody I know. Hey."

  "Yeah, right. Another Ackerman."

  "That's three Ackermans, Ken."

  "It's six Ackermans if you count the wife and kids."

  "Yeah, but three incidents. I mean it's no coincidence that this TA cop and his wife and kids all had the same last name, but when you add in the schoolteacher and the faggot, then you got a coincidence."

  "It's a common name."

  "Is it? How common, Ken?" Freitag leaned forward, stubbed out his cigarette, picked up a Manhattan telephone directory and flipped it open. "Ackerman, Ackerman," he said, turning pages. "Here we are. Yeah, it's common. There's close to two columns of Ackermans in Manhattan alone. And then there's some that spell it with two n's. I wonder."

  "You wonder what?"

  "If there's a connection."

  Poolings sat on the edge of Freitag's desk. "How could there be a connection?"

  "Damned if I know."

  "There couldn't, Jack."

  "An old schoolteacher gets stabbed by a mugger in Washington Heights.

  A faggot picks up the wrong kind of rough trade and gets tied up and tortured to death. And a TA cop goes berserk and kills his wife and kids and himself. No connection."

  "Except for them all having the same
last name."

  "Yeah. And the two of us just happened to notice that because we investigated the one killing and read about the other two."

  "Right."

  "So maybe nobody else even knows that there were three homicides involving Ackermans. Maybe you and me are the only people in the city who happened to notice this little coincidence."

  "So?"

  "So maybe there's something we didn't notice," Freitag said. He got to his feet. "Maybe there have been more than three. Maybe if we pull a printout of deaths over the past few weeks we're going to find Ackermans scattered all over it."

 
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