Statement No. 3
Simeon Von Runck
"Have you ever planned a murder?"
That's some introduction, courtesy of Mr. Simeon Von Runck, the party of interest as you call him. Oddball's more like it. Loony tune. Menace. Lush.
That's what he said, all right. "Have you ever planned a murder?" Right off the bat I'm trying to figure him. Just another eccentric, right? You meet all kinds in this racket. Sure. That's how it played at first.
A little more gab and you take it the guy must have a screw loose. Any of you boys expert in neurosis, psychosis, phobias and whatnot? I don't see any wall plaques around here. You probably have loads of personal experience with dementia. Me, I've never been on the couch, but I had to figure Von Runck popped a circuit breaker. So I watched him. I watched him close. Real close.
Then snap! Things turned dark for good. For all that light, frivolous affectation, a sinister thread weaves through Von Runck's eccentricity. It bubbles up, breaks loose. Von Runck's got his dangerous side, all right. I heard it. I felt it. You can't help taking him seriously. Sure, the manner's light enough, but to ignore the danger is to ignore every gut instinct you're born with. That's why you have to give credit to his menace. You know the guy's not right. You know it in your bones. His lightness of nature is mere camouflage. Frankly, the contrast in his character gave me the willies.
Sure, he impressed me as all those things. But you boys don't give a damn for impressions—if you wanted impressions, you'd catch the stage show at the Panther Room or Chez Paree. No, the bureau insists on only the essential details. The bureau wants facts. You're after evidence, any evidence. You're all hot and bothered for something you can sink your investigative teeth into and put on the record. What have you got so far? My guess? You've got nothing.
I'll talk plenty, but I can tell you right now you'll keep coming up empty. Regarding that night, when Mr. Simeon Von Runck introduced himself? Something along the lines of the truth, the whole truth, and so on? All it'll amount to is so much hot air.
"Have you ever planned a murder?"
We've got Von Runck's question, we've got a few statements, and that's it, brother. As far as anything else, something tangible to pin a rap on? I don't see how you boys have a leg to stand on. I'll give you my account, for what that's worth. Sure, he's as suspect as they come, but what'll you do with that? You'll do nothing. Not unless you've made suspicion an offense in Cook County. I didn't see anything or experience anything. Nothing first hand. So I have to wonder what I can tell you. It only adds up to a collection of words, just the conversation of a man pretty well under the influence. If you had some kind of case, any kind of case, someone from the DA's office would be here, right? So you've got nothing. And that's what you'll get from me. But I'll cooperate, all right. We'll sit here and pass the time and go through the motions. We have to go through the motions. Sure, let's go through the motions, by all means.
"Have you ever planned a murder?" I can only shake my head. Sure.
I met Mr. Simeon Von Runck at his luxury penthouse on south Wabash. Any of you boys ever seen a penthouse suite that wasn't luxurious? This one, you right away walk into this jumbo living room. It's even got this sunken area, smack in the middle. There's more than enough space for the full-size, built-in bar. You can make out part of the dining room through an archway, and that's even bigger than the living room.
The joint was swinging when I happened in. A three-piece jazz outfit in one corner—did I hint at the scope of the living room? The undercurrent of syncopated rhythm beat throughout the place. A non-stop parade of guests milled about in endless circles.
See, I got the message from my service late in the afternoon. The message put it simply. Von Runck wanted to see me about a job. I gave him a ring and he told me to drop around. Seven o'clock would be delightful—his words. Make a note that he told me to come by, he never asked. A privileged boy, I figured. I didn't know it at the time, but I'll wager he doesn't have a real pal in the world.
Imagine my surprise, expecting to drum up some business, and stumbling into a full-blown shindig. I wound my way through the revelers, stopped at the bar, pretty much took in the scene and all it didn't have to offer—I presumed it was a washout, job-wise. That's when Von Runck showed up at my side. Out of thin air. He looped one arm around mine and led me to a corner. He gave me his name, thanked me for coming, and got right to that question—no way he could hold it in.
"Have you ever planned a murder?" His thin mouth wavered between a smile and a smirk, his eyes wide and full of anticipation.
"One hell of an opener you got there," I said.
"Well, yes, I suppose," he said. Von Runck smiled to himself. "Now as to my question, as to that..."
"Actually planning it, that is altogether different from wanting to do it. And then actually doing it, well, I say is again an altogether different proposition. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Of course, one could always hire a killing, couldn't one?"
"If you know the right sort," I said.
"I'd have to say, just as an observation, you understand, that you are not that sort. Are you?"
"But you already knew that when you telephoned."
Von Runck smiled to himself again. "Yes. I suppose I did."
"What I didn't know was that I'd be waltzing into the middle of a party. I thought you wanted to talk."
"Oh, this?" Von Runck eyed the room with an aloof turn of the head. "These people. This isn't so much. There always seems to be so many of these people, endless people, endlessly hanging about.
"I thought you wanted to discuss a job."
"Of course I do, dear fellow. Don't trouble yourself about the peasants."
"You always conduct business in a crowd?"
"It's the only way to conduct it. Mind you, I really am a most private individual. Here, surrounded by all these so-called acquaintances, we can discuss anything and everything without fear of being overheard. It's also, most importantly, the perfect excuse to enjoy one's favorite drink. We aren't stuck in the middle of a tired office or some dusty, old boardroom—here we are! Do you see? Do we understand each other?"
"You're saying that as soon as you go off to a private room, you think people take notice. They begin to suspect."
"There you have it. I'm so pleased you understand."
"And you like to hide your drinking problem behind a ready-made excuse."
"Hmm." Von Runck looked me up and down. "You might be quicker than you look."
"Sure. I was born with this pan. So why'd you want to see me?"
"We're getting to it. Aren't you drinking?"
"The moose behind the bar didn't have any coffee."
"You don't realize how funny that is. He's actually a mule."
"Call him whatever species you like."
"Excuse me for stopping you right there, for I must. Mules are not a species, you see? We should classify them as a type, best termed Equus assinus—isn't that suggestive?"
"Whatever his breeding, he looked like he was sucking down a whole lot more than he was serving."
"But why coffee, my dear fellow? Have anything you like."
"This is supposed to be a professional visit."
"Hmm." Von Runck eyeballed me up and down. He did a lot of that.
I hitched up my pants and planted my hands on my hips. "So how about it?" I'd grown tired of being strung along.
"How about what?"
"How about getting to the reason I'm here, or do you need to get tight, first?"
"You are a pushy fellow, aren't you?"
"Yeah. Sometimes my line of work calls for it. It also calls for me getting paid. You see, until you offer me some work, and until I accept your offer, I'm on my own nickel." The impression evolved in my mind. Von Runck's stringing me along came by design. The intention was anybody's call. "Do you need a private investigator or not? If you've changed your mind, I can take it on the arches right now."
Von Runck gazed down into his glass and spoke softly. "Have you ever planned a murder?" He smiled to himself, then brought his gaze squarely to mine. "Now before you start making all kinds of faces, we both know the answer. Of course you have. Haven't we all? All of these creatures have. They have wanted to. They have all had the thought, but they never did anything about it."
"Is this your roundabout way of telling me you've done something about it?"
"Hmm. Now we are in dangerous waters."
"Yeah, and me with my lifejacket at the dry cleaners."
"You make me smile. You really do."
"It's impossible to say how much that pleases me, Mr. Von Runck."
"Get on with it."
"Actually, yes, I have planned a murder." Von Runck nodded to himself.
I stood with my arms folded. Waiting for it.
"Actually," he went on, "actually, I am killing someone." He gazed down into his drink. "At this very moment."
That called for a pause. A whole lot of pause.
"How's that?" I asked.
"Hmm. Isn't this fascinating?" Von Runck shot me the coyest glance he had, and he nodded. He'd gone beyond the point where you could take it as a joke. He knew it. I knew it. Way beyond, where the humorous purpose turns in on itself and grabs you by the throat. Then he knocked back the last of his drink. "Let's have another and talk it over, shall we?"
Von Runck threaded his arm in mine and we strolled to the bar. Without a word the human tree trunk behind the counter shoved a large tumbler toward us. Von Runck retrieved the glass and escorted me across the room.
"Where'd you find him?" I asked. "Ex-prizefighter or ex-wrestler?"
"Right the first time." He took a sip. "You may have heard of The Mule? No? Walter and I go way back."
"Our time together began on the occasion of his very last bout. Or shortly thereafter." Von Runck released my arm in order to gesture without spilling his hooch. "The Mule always had brute force going for him. But he decidedly lacked grace of any kind, you see? The older he got, the more leaden his offense. So on this occasion, there he stood, poised with fists like cement and legs to match, failing to keep up with this Mexican sparkplug. The Mexican simply ran him in circles for three exhausting rounds before proceeding to fairly tear the skin right off the poor soul. Now, I should mention, I'm apt to wager a bit on the fights now and then. Quite a bit, actually. One of my weaknesses."
"I'm having trouble keeping up with them."
"I made an awfully, awfully large killing on the contest. And you know what? I actually felt quite guilty afterward. I had read that the Boxing Commission examined The Mule after the fight. The Boxing Commission ruled that The Mule had been pulverized just once too often. The Boxing Commission ruled that Walter would not fight another day. The Mule was permanently out of the running, so to speak."
"Or put out to pasture. So you put him in harness."
"He's been with me ever since. We've been through a tremendous lot together."
"You mean you've put Walter through a lot."
"Yes, all right. Have it your way." Von Runck threw back a shot from the tumbler.
"But we're wandering."
"I tend to do that. Have you noticed? Please forgive me."
"I'm not in any position to accuse or forgive."
"Hmm. That's really very good. Bringing me back in line."
"Enough tap dancing, Von Runck. What do you mean you're killing someone?"
"Provocative, no? I am confessing to you that I, Simeon Von Runck, am taking a human life at this very moment. Even as we speak." That last line he rendered flat and cold, in slow monotone.
Von Runck tossed a good belt down his throat, then smiled into his glass. He looked me up and down with an ugly smirk. He fed off my response. He must've read it in my eyes.
"I can see you take me in earnest. That truly pleases me, otherwise where would it get us? I should, I suppose, make myself as clear as possible. Just for emphasis, you see? Someone is about to die."
Sure, I could've cracked wise, but not when I saw the look of hot coals in Von Runck's eyes. The heavy lids slanted up at the ends, giving him a serious, deadly somber quality. The small mouth, whenever he stopped drinking or yapping, returned to a thin-lipped smirk. I have to say he could muster a warm smile when he bothered, but his expression always wrenched its way back into that smirk. My gut registered the threat of Von Runck as no laughing matter.
"Have I intrigued you at all?" he said.
"You intrigue me just fine."
"It's too early to make you out. I can't decide whether you're just plain evil or just plain cuckoo."
"Hmm." He smiled into his drink. "Nevertheless. Somebody is. Being. Murdered."
I didn't want to give in or let on, but by then we were trapped by his words. We'd gone too far. Von Runck had committed us both. "Why tell me?"
"I should think a fellow like you would adore the opportunity of playing hero. The lone, stalwart knight, riding to do thrust and parry with the dragon. Rescue the princess and whatnot. Wouldn't you like to do that?"
"Sure, sure. Why me?"
"Oh, that. I was given your name by a Mr. Jupiter."
"Mr. Jupiter holds you in the very highest regard. He failed to go into why."
"So I come recommended."
"By a thug who puts on airs. Who runs a gambling house in the sticks where he's safe from any real influence."
"Mr. Jupiter is a bit of a raconteur, is he not?"
"I'll just say I owe him a kiss on the skull with an anvil."
Von Runck tilted his glass into smiling lips. I gave him a long, hard look. The grin grew self-satisfied. I decided to press the situation.
I said, "I think I'll be going."
"I wouldn't. I wouldn't, really. How can you even consider leaving me? With life and death in the balance?"
I knew Von Runck was right. I knew I wasn't going anywhere and he knew it. "I could call the cops."
"Yes, contacting the authorities is one choice. We can entertain that idea. What exactly would you tell them? What could you show them? I, of course, would have to play perfectly innocent. I can do that, you know. They'd be in precisely the same predicament in which you find yourself. Wouldn't that all prove such a terrible waste of valuable time? The wheels, you know, the wheels are already in motion, you see? Tick tock."
"Are you so bored you have to play games like this?"
"The game is already afoot when we first come into this world. We're all born with a death sentence, aren't we, really? After all? I'm merely urging it on. Giving a little push, you see? Yes? Unless, of course," he paused for a sip and emphasis, "unless you can stop it."
Von Runck took his sweet time about it, but we were getting somewhere. "So now we're finally onto it. How exactly do I do that?"
"By finding the victim, my dear!" He smiled with his head tilted to one side. "Your prey is already here. Someone, somewhere, in one of these rooms." He threw back a slug. "I'll introduce you to anyone, everyone. Ask me anything about anyone. I am here to answer your every question."
"Are you telling me this all pans out?"
"With absolute certainty! Do you take me for ah, ah, a senseless killer? Murder on a whim?"
"I can't see any reason why not."
"Let me clear your mind on that count. Please! There is a perfectly justified motive in this instance."
"Uh-huh." My eyes narrowed as I studied his. How do you figure this guy? "I could lean on you, try to make you spill."
"Hmm. Yes, you could. Of course I would try to stall you. Hmm. No, I don't think that's the best use of your time."
"How much time do I have?"
"Not all that much, I'm afraid. Could be any time, now. Really."
"So who would you like to meet first? Tick tock, tick tock."
"How's about meeting the victim?"
"That's good. Yes it is. Very good."
I surveyed the mix of guests in the living room. I gave the adjoining dining room a quick look-see. What about the wait staff? House servants? The musicians?
"Getting the lay of the land?" Von Runck took a sip. "Mm! I do hope you're not counting yourself. Please! That wouldn't be playing fair."
"Let's play fair, by all means."
"Touchy, touchy," Von Runck said.
Von Runck could have skipped that last thought and it would've been jake with me. I felt spooked enough without adding myself to the potential guest list. I let it pass.
It could be anyone in the entire layout? By a quick head count, that made it anyone out of one hundred, give or take. How far are you going to get just yapping? How do you narrow down that field? The idea of interviews sounded like a wild goose chase. No, better skip all that and concentrate on Von Runck. He had all the dope I needed, didn't he? If Von Runck was on the level, he'd be my only clue.
"Do I learn anything else? Any more info?"
"No. I don't think so."
"But your plans are already in motion. Right now."
"Oh, most assuredly."
"And you have a motive?"
So what had he already told me? Had he given anything away? I needed to start ruling out options, but fast. Something in the works, in the middle of a party, and the murderer all the time preoccupied with me and his thirst. I dismissed the idea of anything direct like gunplay. I dismissed anything requiring physical violence. Von Runck wasn't that type of kook, he wasn't up for it, and the idea of creating a bloodbath in the middle of a party seemed bizarre even for Von Runck—at the very least it would be in very bad form.
Von Runck gazed into his drink, "Tick tock. I do wonder what he's thinking."
I saw one choice that made sense. That's if you can find any sense in lunacy. Poison. Von Runck could set that up in advance. The catch, of course, is that poison is indiscriminate. A revolver fires where you point it. How do you aim poison? You dump a bag of arsenic in the punchbowl and it'll go after any gink who dunks his glass. How do you control it? Either you find some gag to isolate the dose, or you get someone else to work it for you. I nixed the second option. I couldn't buy the idea of Von Runck taking on a partner. Too much trouble. Too big an ego. Too much risk. Sure, Von Runck had found some kind of scheme. Something he could set up in advance. For all I knew it could turn out to be something deceptively simple.
"Who would you like to meet first?"
"I want to see the bedroom."
"My, my. Anyway, it's locked."
"Entirely irrelevant. At least to this proceeding."
"How about the kitchen?"
That actually caught Von Runck off guard. He turned and swayed lazily ahead. I grabbed him by the shoulder and told him I'd find it myself. He left me to it with a dismissive flourish of his fingers.
I made my way from the living room through the dining room, through a swinging door, and down a short corridor. Another swinging door brought me to a shining, white service kitchen. Uniformed servers and cooks buzzed about preparing various finger sandwiches and the like, arranging desserts, stacking dishes and glassware, unstacking dishes, unstacking glassware.
"Can I help you, sir?"
I needed help, all right. I needed help by the yard-full.
"Can I get you anything, sir?"
I turned to the waiter in the monkey suit. "No thanks. Any of these people regular staff?"
"Most are hired just for the evening, sir. Is there a problem?"
I winked, "No fair guessing."
I threaded my way back through the corridor, the hall, the dining room, the living room. The kitchen didn't fit. I crossed it off as all wrong for this murder plot. Besides, wouldn't Von Runck want to be on hand to take in every detail? The fact that he didn't follow me to the kitchen should have tipped me off PDQ.
I cornered Von Runck. "I've seen enough."
"I should think you have. Ha! You are an amusing fellow."
"Wish I could say the same."
That damn "tick tock" annoyed the hell out of me.
Poison. Control. I tried working backward from that. How else could it figure? I stepped to the center of the living room. The party swirled about me. The guests more animated. The music sped up. Pick out one person. Just one. Isolate a single victim. How is the victim isolated?
I swung around to face my host. He parted his smirk with another shot of rye. I swiveled in the other direction, gradually, until I stood squarely facing the bar. I stepped across to the counter. I pivoted to take in the entire room and all its potential victims, its one potential criminal. I leaned my back into the wood frame and brought up my elbows to rest on. My thoughts kept spinning.
The Mule leaned in close behind me, "What are you drinking, bub?"
Through the crowd I caught glimpses of Von Runck. He slinked his way along the wall, pausing for a sip from his glass or to nod insincerely to a guest.
"What are you drinking, Mule?"
"I'm good. Anyhow, if you don't mind my saying, you're drinking enough for both of us."
That's when it struck me. It started adding up and it started to click. Sure. I forgot about trying to dope out a penthouse full of targets. Nix that. Instead, I turned the whole thing around. What if Von Runck wanted me to figure it out? Just suppose, crazy as it sounds, that he meant for me to piece it together. That's why he got hold of me. That's what he had in mind all along. If that was true, call it a tall if, then the solution had to be basic. It had to be plain. Plain and in plain sight. With that lightbulb fully lit, I brought myself around to face Walter, The Mule.
Talk about overgrown in every possible way—large head, broad body, thick limbs. A beer mug looked like a shot glass when The Mule held it in one of those massive paws. The only small things about the Mule, strictly by contrast, were his nose and eyes. His nose looked flat and pinched on one side, and it jutted to the other side where the bridge met the eyebrows. His eyes, tiny and sparkling blue, hid in narrow, sunken slits enveloped by a swollen brow.
"You always drink so much, Walter?"
"I do lately," he shrugged.
"Yeah, I know. It helps, doesn't it?" Sure I was fishing, but with calculated purpose.
"I don't know if I should talk about it."
I jerked my head over my shoulder and narrowed one eye. "It's okay, Walter. Von Runck sent me over"
"Isn't he a swell guy?"
"Swell isn't the word."
"Well, the doc, he gave me a powder for the headaches, but now they're getting real bad. Worse than ever."
"And the booze helps."
"It sure does. Lucky I'm built so big or I couldn't handle it."
He handled it, all right. He handled it with only the slightest hint of swaying.
"I think you're about the biggest guy I've ever seen."
"I'm six-nine. I used to be."
"And you've got your own, special stock. Am I right?"
"Mr. Simeon must a clued you in."
"He wised me up. In his own fashion."
"He's the nicest man I ever, ever met."
"Is that a fact?"
"My only pal. In this whole, stinking world."
"I'm thinking he'll miss you, Walter."
"How long have you got?"
"It makes me sore to think about it."
"That's better than crying in your soup."
He hunched his oversized shoulders and sighed through his nose. "No one knows. Nobody really knows how much time I've got. Not long, I guess. Not a one of them knows."
"Sounds like a whole group."
"Oh, sure. Mr. Simeon told me to see as many docs as I wanted. He told me you have to see a second doc just to double-check the first doc. On account of it being so serious. You know how that goes."
"Right as rain, Mule."
"I just don't get how a thing like that can grow inside you."
"Does it make any sense to you?"
"No. No it doesn't. I'll tell you, Walter. I have enough trouble just trying to figure out people."
"Now that's the truth. How about that drink, now?"
"Sure, sure. Whiskey and soda."
"Oak." The Mule prepared my drink with the greatest care, like it took all his concentration. There's no room for casual conversation during such an undertaking. Twice, briefly, he squinted his left eye and a wince overtook his mouth. He fought through it and served me with a kind of delicacy, placing the glass before me using two hands.
The Mule eyed his own glass—empty. "Mr. Simeon put in this awful good stash of bourbon for me." The Mule reached down to a cabinet behind him, then interrupted to bob back up. "Time to break open a new one." He turned away once again, reached down, and came back with a fresh bottle. He poured himself a tall, stiff one. I gave the bottle the once over.
For a moment we stood quiet, dismissing the festival surrounding us, each gazing upon the gleaming pool of alcohol before him.
"What'll we drink to, bub?"
I meant to smile. I didn't pull it off. "Whatever you say, Mule."
"Aw, to my pal." I heard the pride in his deep, scratchy voice. Not an inebriated, sentimental pride, but an honest pride, straight from the gut. "To Mr. Simeon. Who's getting me out of all this mess."
"You really need his help?"
"Can I tell you?" His voice fell low as can be. I leaned in close. "Those docs. They really scare me. They don't mean to. I know that. They can't help that. They told me the headaches are going to get worse. They'll get something worse and then I'll feel sick all the time. You get me? I'll just become weaker and weaker and weaker—"
"Sounds about as bad as it gets."
"I've been slammed plenty in this life. Mostly in the ring."
"That's the kind of thing I can take. I could always take it. Even when I lost bad I could. I could always take it and hold my head up. Know what I mean?"
I gazed deep into Walter's blues and never broke contact.
"But this other stuff. It's like it won't never stop. So I take another drink. I'm no good at that kind of hurt, see? Aw, that's not how I want to go out. I don't think no one should have to go out that way."
I knocked back a good slug.
"But I just can't do it myself. I just can't."
"So you need a little help."
"You probably find it kind of funny. A big lug like me. I didn't know what to do until I told Mr. Simeon. He didn't say 'boo.' Not one kick. He worked it all out. Told me not to worry about it. Told me not to think about it and he'd take care of everything. He said I won't know it, I won't feel a thing, but there'll come a time when I'll just drop off. I'll just go to sleep. I'll go to sleep and won't have to wake up again. The pain'll be gone for good and I won't go through nothing bad no more."
The Mule's tone grew softer as he spoke, as though he recalled a dream. He wasn't looking at me or anything else in the room. I don't know what he saw.
"Sounds peaceful, Walter."
The Mule drew in a deep breath. "Yeah."
"But it does call for a witness," I thought out loud. "Just in case."
"In case of what?" The Mule made the most honestly bewildered face I'd ever seen.
"How's that drink?"
"Fine, just fine. You know Mr. Simeon—nothing but the best." His lips curled into a smile, but his left eye flashed that odd squint.
My thoughts raced beyond our little corner of the world, beyond that immediate moment. I saw the future, I did. I suspected that The Mule would find his peace later that evening. Later that evening, the police would discover a bottle of the finest bourbon laced with enough poison to knock off a battalion. They'd find traces of the poison in The Mule, too. Of course, they'd also locate a note in his jacket or pants pocket. In Walter's own words. In his own awkward hand. Would the cops come up with more than that? Would they find any direct trace of Von Runck? Would they discover that the vain, eccentric, anti-social Simeon Von Runck was really a pussycat, a diehard pragmatist of the sentimental order?
I shared one more drink and one more conversation with The Mule. We didn't have anything important to say, and we enjoyed saying it. When I left him at the bar, he looked worry-free. I could imagine it, hearing his big-barreled voice crowing, "Mr. Trouble? Never heard of him."
I wound my way through the revelers. Meandered my way to the door. I hesitated before exiting and turned about. Peering through and around the crowd, I spotted Von Runck in a far corner. He stood as still as an owl, an owl with a drunken smirk. He'd been watching.
I motioned to Von Runck with an index finger raised to the brim of my fedora. He returned the salute with a slight raise of his glass, then faded back within himself. His face bowed down to his drink. A crooked smile screwed across his lips, then faded. I exited the penthouse, shutting the door behind me, real quiet. Like I didn't witness a thing.
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by Stanley Kubrick as a staff photographer for Look Magazine. Copyright in the photograph was donated to the United States by Cowles Communications, Inc. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/cph/item/2004672402/.