From CORPSE WITHOUT FLESH
DR. LESTER LAWSON
I never could get much of a kick out of the ordinary man telling a detective story. The usual stunt is for the lad who’s doing the talking to submerge his personality as far as possible under the exploits of his master. The participation of the party of the first part in the events of the narrative is usually confined to a lot of ooohs and aaahs brought forth by the mental and physical acrobatics of the great detective working on the case; like Watson watching the detection of Holmes, or Van Dine watching the splendid triumphs of his boss, Philo Vance, or the girl stenographer going into raptures over the brightness of Perry Mason.
Reading these self-effacing accounts of the recorders of crime and detection always gives me a feeling that the bloke writing the story has a silly simper on a sillier face and is a complete washout as far as being human is concerned. He’s just a lavender note in a blotchy red background and so faint that you have to employ a microscope to know he’s around at all.
Then he keeps harping on that note of being brainlessly modest. If he does get into the limelight for a minute, coming through with a valuable idea, for instance, or picking up a lead that helps the Big Shot to break his case, he tells you about it as if the whole thing was an accident, or just plain dumb luck with the accent on the dumb.
There won’t be any over-abundance of false modesty in this bit of writing. In the first place, I don’t have to hide behind the mental brilliance of a Number One Guy, because I draw twenty-five thousand dollars a year from the Continental Insurance Company for saving them millions in phoney claims. I earn every cent of the money they pay me, and if I sometimes hand in an expense account that looks like the January accounting of the World War Reparations Committee, I consider I’m due for the extra cash.
The company must have the same idea, because they never turn me down. And the auditors ask no questions. In my game I’m supposed to be pretty good, or I wouldn’t have that twenty-five thousand a year salary. Besides, if I tried that shrinking violet stuff, the chaps who know me would hoot their heads off and laugh whole handkerchiefs wet with alligator tears.
To get squared away for this yarn I suppose I should write down here that my name is John Nichols. When men like Winchell or Sobol or Ed Sullivan give me a mention in a column they do it like this: “John (Toughy) Nichols.”
There’s no use in my trying to ease out from under the nickname. If I weren’t tough, and if I didn’t have a reputation for toughness, I wouldn’t last for ten minutes. To guys like Johnny Broderick and his wrecking crew on the Broadway Squad I’m just plain “Toughy” Nichols. And that should be sufficient from a fellow who is turning literary at this late minute in life, and trying to put down in black and white just why crime does not pay, especially putting the gyp on the insurance companies.
I’m about five-ten in height. I weigh a hundred and eighty pounds without an ounce of suet on the frame. I’m no Park Avenue prayer in dress; but I don’t get my front from any up-one-flight and save-a-fin joint either. I manage to look in the dough all right, but I don’t splash loud with the scenery.
I’ve got one scar across the bridge of my nose, running over on to my left cheek, where a firebug decided to cut his way through me after I got the goods on him and trapped him while he was making his third touch-off. I’ve got another couple of scars across my chest and stomach, where Nick the Rod, the machine-gunner for the Mills mob, put the heat on me with a tommy-gun before I could remember to duck.
I’ve got funny green eyes, a nose that’s kind of pug from having it mashed a couple of times, a hard-looking mouth, a tight chin, and a bull neck. I can still take plenty of fists in the breadbasket, even at thirty-five, and it doesn’t do a lot of good to let me have it on the jaw, either. I don’t go down easy.
In my game I’ve got to handle all kinds of people. From Southampton socialites to smoke-joint bums. When the snooty Mrs. Payson Blitterbeck decides to get a little pin-money through mislaying her insured diamonds and, after hiding the diamonds for later reference, yells for the cops and the insurance company, little Toughy Nichols is the adjuster who goes out on the claim. And when a stiff is found in a gutter downtown, and the coroner says: “Wood alcohol,” and the stiff has a thousand or two in life insurance with the owner of some smoke-joint the beneficiary, little Toughy is given the concession, and goes into his act.
I’ve had to do business with international jewel rings, and with little girls who figure it’s a cinch to get some loose cash by forgetting where they left a mink coat. I’ve been called in by banks to find a teller who’s skipped with everything the bank had in the way of assets except the spittoon in the president’s office. I’ve been in on snatches, counterfeiting, murder, suicides, grave robberies, ghosts, lunatic asylums, window jumpers, fake drownings, crooked jewellers, crooked public officials, crooked doctors, crooked lawyers, crooked dentists, crooked bank officials—Hell, pull the human family apart, see what makes it tick, and you’ll understand the kind of a job I have.
Naturally in my racket a chap gets to circulate a lot. He travels. He gets to know people. Important people, and people who just think they’re important. Big shots and little shots on the shady side of the law. He gets to know ministers as well as street walkers, and he marks ’em all down in the little case book. If he sticks to it he will eventually become the greatest authority in the world on the behaviourism of human misbehaviour. He can give any psychiatrist cards and spades on mental twists.
He gets like that because the queerest people have an idea they can get easy money by gypping insurance companies. But you can take it from me that when you get money out of an insurance company in this day and age on a trumped up claim you’re entitled to it! Anybody who can beat the insurance companies wastes enough grey matter getting his few dollars to make a million in a legitimate business.
Take it from me! I know. I’ve got a hundred and seventy-three major cases in the files, for everything, and not one person has ever collected on a phoney claim. Most of them are now in places that are far removed from the angry mob, and some of them scorched a bit when they got it.
But there was one business that had me licked. I suppose everyone sooner or later runs head-on into a stone wall, and all his smartness gets him is a headache. It was like that with the Corpse Without Flesh. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, which is why this yarn is being written. The man who solved that case for me is a fellow by the name of Lawson—Lester Lawson, M.D., Harvard Medical School.
He’s the only man I ever met who can get me to lift my hat to him when it comes to brains. That ought to give you some idea.
The first time I ever saw this Lawson chap was when he was called in by my company for a special piece of medical investigation. We had a claim originating from the Hiltshire Hospital, where Lawson was the chief surgical consultant and chief resident surgeon. It’s a swanky outfit off Fifth Avenue—the kind of a place that’s furnished in white leather and chromium, with rugs two inches deep on the floors; the whole thing as though it’s wrapped in cellophane, and drowned in silence. The sawbones who use the place charge you fifty bucks just to look at your tongue.
Anyway, I get a call from downstairs, and it’s my boss, the chief of the claims division, on the phone.
“Toughy,” says he, “we’ve just got the tip from the police that one of our cases has been trundled into the Hiltshire Hospital—emergency ambulance case, and d.o.a. We’ve got fifty thousand bucks tied up in the gentleman in question, and I wish you’d amble up there and see that everything is on the up and up . . .”
“What kind of a case?”
“Suicide, shot through the head, blew out his brains. Policy has been in force for seven years, which makes it incontestable, so we’ll have to pay—if it’s on the level. The cops say it looks all right. But the guy was dead when they got to him—and the hospital said he was dead when he got there.”
“Parsons, William H. Apartment Six B, Park Towers. Broker—and busted.”
I took up the kelly. “I’ll be telling you,” I told him, and the old bloodhound was on the scent.
Well, I looked over the address. I got all I could from the servants, the police, and the hospital. Everything was straight. It looked like another discouraged broker taking the easy way out, and not living high enough up to do a good window job. The guy was broke. He hadn’t paid his rent for four months and the servants hadn’t seen a month’s pay since Hoover got dizzy turning corners before he came to ’em.
I called back to the office and reported.
Nelson—that’s Gregory H. Nelson, claim chief for Continental, my boss—told me: “I guess it’s all right. But we’ve retained Dr. Lawson to do an autopsy on the remains. You better go over to the Hiltshire Hospital and stick around to see if he finds anything.”
And that’s how I met Lawson. He was standing at the side of an operating table. He had a scalpel in his hand. He was making instant, beautiful, precise incisions with the scalpel, like a man who knew exactly where he was going and why. I’ve seen a lot of autopsies in my day. This one fascinated me, and only because of the way Lawson was handling the job.
He was dictating to a nurse as he worked. Rapid fire, exact dictation: “The body is that of a male, well nourished, fully clad, five feet eleven and one-quarter inches in length, approximately fifty-five years of age. Rigor mortis is not yet present and there is no coagulation of the blood. There is a gunshot wound in the right temple, destroying a cranial area of approximately four inches. Examination discloses the wound to be of the ‘contact’ nature, the surrounding flesh being deeply impregnated with powder stains. Death was instantaneous . . .”
He looked up. He was wearing a surgical mask and white surgical garments. In that first instant I saw nothing but his eyes staring at me from over the top of the mask. The strangest, most intense, most piercing eyes I had ever seen. They seemed to look through you, to transfix you with one glance, to read everything inside you, and then to turn away as if there wasn’t a scrap of anything worth knowing left.
I said: “I’m Nichols, from the insurance company.”
He said: “I talked with Mr. Nelson.”
I said: “Well? Is it suicide—or isn’t it?”
He grinned. I couldn’t see the grin behind the mask, but I saw the muscles of his face move and the eyes laugh.
“You’re out fifty thousand dollars,” he said. “Your Mr. Parsons signed the cheque with that hole in his skull.”
“Not surgically. The picture checks. I’m not finished yet, but he died from that hole in his skull. I’m expecting to get a forty-five slug out of there which will be Exhibit A. The police have the pistol.”
He went on working as he talked—and dictating too, the incisive comment of a practised autopsy surgeon at work. I stood and watched, and the more I watched the more fascinating it became to watch. I was seeing a man taking another man apart, organ by organ, piece by piece, like a fine machinist working on an expensive and complicated mechanism.
But the main thing I noticed was that Lawson never made a mistake, never made an excess movement of hand or body, never lost for one instant his complete command of the situation. In this room he was master. You could see it in the faces of his nurses and in the eyes of the other medicos who dropped in now and then to watch Lawson work.
Of course I’ve seen autopsies performed pretty often. They’re no novelty to me, and rate about the same in entertainment value as watching a taxidermist take the real stuffings out of an elk and stick in the sawdust guts. Most doctors go at an autopsy as if they were just tinkering around because they had nothing to do until it was time for tea. Or else as if they resented like hell being pulled out of a nice, warm bed to attend to something that any kid could have done as well.
Lawson didn’t give that sort of impression at all. He was more like a Swiss watchmaker working on a particularly delicate and special job.
Of course, there isn’t a lot of repair work you can do on a dead body, but then it may help in checking on things later on. Lawson seemed to find a personal excitement in every fine, little stroke of his thin, bright blade. Nothing was a repetition. Everything was new and interesting to him, just as if this were the first time he’d ever looked inside a corpse.
I’ve learned never to go off the deep end about a chap until I really know what makes him tick. And I began to put the brakes on my enthusiasm for Lawson. He’s just another sawbones, I kept reminding myself; keep your hair on. But it didn’t do any good. I knew right in that first second that Lawson was aces. And he always was with me. A man who knew his job and did it. He’s never let me down, and he’s never opened his mouth until he was absolutely sure.
That way he’s always sort of reminded me of the Sphinx. Except that when he says something it isn’t riddles.