Vicious Circle cover

Vicious Circle

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1971

© 1971 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

Read through the various histories of the mystery/detective story and you will find the con man—or, from antiquity, the rogue—looming large on the literary horizon. Curious how our sympathies are enlisted by someone who robs the robber, who with finesse seems to prove what in our most rational moments we may profoundly doubt—that the end justifies the means, that frustrated justice sometimes whips off her blindfold and achieves her ends through cunning…

All in all, it was a pretty good night for the middle of the week. I was behind the bar as usual, busy and making money, but not really rushed. Best of all, there was enough of a crowd in the barroom to cover the number of cars in the parking lot, so that any copy who stuck his nose in wouldn’t have any reason to suspect that a high-stakes poker game was going on upstairs. From which the house—me—got its cut, of course.

The Mind was at his usual corner table, and by now a fair-sized group had gathered around to try to stump him. And not having any luck, because the Mind had a memory that never let go of anything it ever got hold of—who played second base for the Senators in 1934, big-band theme songs, old movies, anything, you name it. He could even recite word for word the pledge from the old “Mr. District Attorney” radio show—which, considering who and what the Mind was, was really something.

The smart money didn’t try to stump the Mind. Instead, they’d bet among themselves and use the Mind to settle it, paying the Mind off with a free drink. But, of course, there was always a sucker around who had to try it. Just as there was always a sucker in the game upstairs who was sure his luck was bound to change if he could just hang in there one more round.

And that was the reason the Mind hung around my place. Not for the suckers with the questions they were sure he couldn’t answer, but for the suckers upstairs in the poker game. The memory thing was just a sideline with him. His real business was loansharking for the Organization. And when the sucker upstairs was ripe, the Mind was right there on hand to slip him a couple of hundred or thousand at five percent a month. Of course, there’s no such thing as luck, and almost before the sucker realized it, he was well on his way to being owned body and soul by the Organization.

A lot of bartenders I know don’t like having Organization types like the Mind around. But the way I figured it, he was good for business. Besides, the world’s divided into those who take and those who are taken. I like to be on the side of the takers.

This particular evening there was only one guy in the place I didn’t know by name or by sight—a tall rangy man with fair hair and the kind of open fleshy face that seems to go with work in the outdoors. He was sitting down toward one end of the bar and listening to the group around the Mind without really being a part of it. He didn’t look like a cop, but it never paid to take chances. So the first opportunity I got, I moved down the bar to where he was sitting and stuck out my hand.

“Hi,” I said, giving him the hearty-host treatment. “I’m the Johnny they call this place ‘Johnny’s’ after. I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”

The guy jumped as if startled, then smiled sheepishly and grasped my hand across the bar. “Earl Sanders,” he said. “And you’re right. This is my first time here.”

“Well,” I said, smiling more naturally now, because he didn’t sound like a cop, “don’t let it be your last. I can use all the business I can get.”

Just then one of my regulars—a jerk named Evans—sitting about two stools down, decided to butt in. He put one elbow on the bar and leaned toward us. “That’s a laugh,” he said. The liquor hadn’t hit his tongue yet, but his eyes glittered and his face was shiny from one drink too many. “Ever since they opened that government office building across the way, this place has been a gold mine. And Johnny’s got a fat five-figure bank balance to prove it.” He grinned foolishly and let his elbow slide closer to us. “I ought to know, I’m his banker.”

I gave him a cold look. “Keep talking like that,” I said quietly, “and you won’t be much longer.”

That sobered him up in a hurry, because Evans was just a teller in the neighborhood bank, and it wouldn’t do him any good at all if I dropped the word to his bosses that he was spending his evenings drinking and blabbing bank business.

Sanders seemed to have missed the byplay between me and Evans, though. Or the last part of it, anyway. He was staring morosely at his glass. “That’s the way it goes,” he said in the half-wistful, half-bigger voice of a born loser. “Some guys get the breaks and make out, and others don’t. It’s the same in my company, Sanders Construction. Page 397 in your Yellow Pages.” He said it with such defensive pride that I was sure the listing was a single line or at best an eighth-of-a-page ad. In any case, I figured I had nothing to worry about from Sanders. So I stood him a drink on the house and let him go back to listening to the Mind.

Sanders got to be a pretty steady customer after that, dropping in maybe three or four times a week. Occasionally he’d drop by in the evening, but more often he’d come in early, before the five o’clock after work crowd hit, and have a couple of beers and shoot the breeze with me. I figured that if this was the way he ran his business, it was no wonder he wasn’t making any money. But that was his problem, not mine.

Anyway, about a month or so later, Sanders dropped in at his usual time and ordered his usual beer. But this time, instead of chatting, he sat quietly at the end of the bar, flipping through the pages of a magazine he’d brought with him. If he didn’t want to talk, I wasn’t going to push him, so I kept myself busy polishing glasses.

Finally Sanders sighed and pushed the magazine to one side. “You know, Johnny,” he said, “I sometimes wonder why I bother to subscribe to this thing. All I do is torture myself with it.”

I put down my towel now that he was showing an inclination to talk and moved closer to him. “How’s that, Mr. Sanders?” I said.

Sanders turned the magazine around so I could see it. “It’s a trade magazine for engineers and contractors,” he said. “It lists invitations to bid on construction jobs. Not little piddling jobs, either,” he added, “but the kind you always dream about. The kind that’ll put you up there with the big-money boys.”

He turned the magazine halfway around to where we both could read it and began to leaf through it rapidly. Once he almost knocked over his beer, but he caught the glass in time and moved it out of the way.

“See that?” he said, finding what he wanted in the magazine and pointing with his finger. “That’s an invitation to subcontract on a job putting in a city subway system out West.” His voice grew in enthusiasm as he went on. “Now, that’s a job that’s right up my alley! I could cut it real close on the bid to be sure of coming in low and still make a tidy profit.”

I looked down at the page without really trying to read it. “Why don’t you bid on it, then?” I said.

Sanders laughed shortly. “Because they freeze the little man out,” he said. “To get a bid even considered, you’ve got to prove you have the right equipment to do the job.” His voice took on that loser’s quality again. “And, of course, I don’t have the right equipment. Or the money to buy it with. It just goes to show—like they say, you’ve got to have money to make money.

I watched him impassively, thinking how he sounded just like the suckers in the poker game. This was a different game, but the players were divided the same way—winners and losers, takers and taken. And if anybody was ripe to be taken, it was Sanders, I thought. Somebody could pick up a nice small construction company dirt cheap. It was kind of a pity that it would be the Organization and not me. Still, there would be a nice commission for me for making the referral, and the Organization took care of its friends in other ways, too. So I wouldn’t lose by it in the long run.

“That’s a shame,” I said. “Maybe you could get a loan, though, to cover the down payment on new equipment.”

Sanders snorted derisively. “A loan!” he said. “A lot you know about banks, then. They won’t give me a loan on a job like this unless I’ve already got the contract. And I can’t get the contract unless they give me a loan. It’s a vicious circle.”

“I wasn’t thinking about a bank,” I said. “I was thinking about the Mind. He’s got money to lend. It’s Organization money, and it don’t come cheap. But it would get you your equipment.”

Sanders bit on his knuckle, “I see,” he said. He brooded on it a while, then said slowly, “I’d need at least fifty thousand dollars. Would the Mind be able to swing that much?”

It sounded a bit steep, but let the Mind worry about whether Sanders was worth it or not. “He could get it,” I said. When Sanders still looked undecided, I added, “I know you don’t cotton to the idea of dealing with a loan shark. But look at it this way—you’ll only need the money until you get your contract. Then you can get a regular loan from the bank, pay the Mind off, and be on your way.”

“That’s right,” Sanders said, catching fire. “And I could pay the bank off out of my profits from the job.” He slapped the bar with his hand and with sudden decisiveness, “Where can I find the Mind?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know where he lives,” I said. “But he’ll be in here later tonight. All you have to do is stop by his table and tell him you want to talk business. He’ll do the rest. And—uh—don’t forget to mention that I sent you over.”

“I sure won’t”, Sanders said, standing up and tossing a five-dollar bill down on the bar. “I don’t think you realize how big a favor you’ve done me, Johnny,” he said. “But thanks to you, I’ll end up millionaire yet.”

And you, I thought as I watched his departing back, don’t realize how big a favor you’re doing me. Neither did I at the time.

* * *

The Mind came in around nine-thirty that evening as usual and stopped by the bar to pick up his first drink. Generally it was the only one he paid for himself.

“Slow evening,” he said, looking around while I mixed the drink for him. He was a poker-faced little guy with a nose too large for his face and thick glasses too large for the nose. He kept his voice mild and as empty of expression as his face. Only his eyes behind the big glasses seemed alive. They moved restlessly, and you were always glad when they passed away from you.

“It’ll pick up now that you’re here, Mind,” I said, grinning and handing him his glass. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him about Sanders, but I decided not to in case Sanders had had second thoughts about getting mixed up with the Organization.

“Hope so,” the Mind said. He slid a bill across at me, waved away the change, and strolled over to his corner table.

And just as I’d predicted, things did start to pick up. He’d no sooner gotten settled when two guys went over to ask him to decide a bar bet. I didn’t hear his answer, but a minute later one of the guys was heading for the bar to order the payoff round plus one for the Mind.

It looked like it was going to be a good evening, after all.

It looked even better a half-hour or forty-five minutes later when Sanders came in and beelined to the bar.

“Is the Mind here yet, Johnny?” he said in a hushed, anxious voice as I came up to him.

“Right over there,” I said, nodding.

Sanders looked around in the direction of my nod. As anxious as he sounded, I figured he’d head straight over. But instead he ordered a Scotch and water and took his time drinking it. Getting up his nerve, I decided, because every time I had a free minute he’d call me over to talk about nothing in particular.

Finally, though, he tossed off the last of his Scotch and stood up. “Wish me luck,” he said.

I gave him the “O” sign with my thumb and forefinger and watched him walk over to the Mind’s table and speak to him. A moment later he pulled a chair around and sat down.

I got kind of busy after that and lost track of them until Sanders came back to the bar. The way he looked, I was afraid the loan hadn’t gone through and I’d lost my commission. So first chance I got, I went over to him.

“How’d it go?” I said, casual and friendly-like.

A funny little smile twisted Sanders’ mouth. “All right, I guess,” he said. “I got the loan, but it’s costing me more than I expected. Five-percent-a-month interest.”

“Well,” I said, relieved, “you knew it wouldn’t be cheap.”

Sanders nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “So I guess I can’t complain.” He put his hand in his pocket. “Oh,” he said, “by the way, the Mind said to give you this. He pulled out a roll of bills and handed it to me.

I thumbed through it rapidly before sticking it in my own pocket. Fifty bucks. That was five times what the Mind usually paid for a referral. But then I’d never referred this big a loan to him before. And in any case, who was I to argue with fifty dollars?

I caught the Mind’s eye, patted my pocket, and nodded my appreciation. The Mind made a slight gesture with his hand to say it was nothing. That was the kind of a guy he was—as long as you were on the right side of him, that is.

I didn’t see Sanders around for about five or six weeks after that. It was nothing to me, of course, and when I thought about it at all, I figured he was out West arranging the details of his contract bid.

Then one afternoon he walked in out of the blue. It was early again, and the place was empty. Only this time Sanders looked like this wasn’t the first place he’d hit. His tie was loose at the collar, and his face was flushed.

“Whiskey, Johnny,” he said, sliding into one of the bar stools. “And keep it coming until I tell you to stop. Only I won’t tell you to stop.” He didn’t look or sound like he was celebrating. On the other hand, there’s no law that says you can only serve happy people.

I poured him a shot. “What happened, Mr. Sanders?” I said. “Your contract fall through?” It was the only thing I could think of that would set him off like this. And, of course, it was what I’d expected to happen all along, anyway.

Sanders laughed bitterly. “You know, Johnny,” he said, “I almost think I’d feel better if it had.” He picked up his glass, drained it, and put it back down so hard that it rang against the bar. “No,” he said, “everything worked out just as I planned it. I was low bidder, and the job’s mine. But those damn lawyers won’t sign until all the other subcontracts are buttoned up. And that won’t be for another two months.”

“So what’s your problem?” I said. “You just wait out the two months, and then you’re in clover.”

Sanders shook his head. “That’s the problem, Johnny,” he said. “I can’t wait out the two months. I’ve got a payment coming due to the Mind tomorrow, and my credit is stretched so tight I can’t raise a dime.”

“That is tough,” I said. “The Mind doesn’t like people missing payments.”

Sanders laughed even more bitterly than before. “You think so?” he said. “There’s nothing the Mind would like more than for me to miss a payment. Then he and the Organization can take over my company and a job that practically guarantees a profit of a million bucks. And if I try to stop him, I’ll end up dead in an alley somewhere.”

I caught my upper lip between my teeth and chewed on it softly. “A million bucks,” I murmured.

“At least,” Sanders said. “And it would be mine except for a measly five-thousand-dollar payment I can’t make and can’t raise.”

I looked at Sanders for a long minute and made my decision. It was dangerous crossing the Mind, but he didn’t have to know. And the profit made the risk worth it. “I’ve got five thousand dollars,” I said.

Sanders looked up suddenly, and relief flooded his face. “Look, Johnny,” he said, his hands making little shaking motions, “you lend me that money and I’ll guarantee you’ll have it back in two months at the latest with a profit of ten—no, twenty percent.” He smiled tentatively. “So, how about it? Is it a deal?”

I smiled tightly and shook my head. “I wasn’t thinking of a loan,” I said. “What I had in mind was an investment. Like, say, a half interest in your million-dollar profit.”

Sanders looked at me aghast. “You can’t be serious,” he said.

“Why not?” I said. “The way I look at it, I’m doing you an even bigger favor than before. Because without my five thousand you’ve got nothing except a load of trouble. With is you get to keep your company and make half a million bucks for yourself.”

I had him over a barrel, of course, but I didn’t want to be unreasonable. Because a happy sucker is better than an unhappy one any day, and it wouldn’t be long before I’d squeezed him out altogether anyway. So in the end we settled on a one-fourth interest for ten thousand dollars.

I hung a “Closed” sign on the door and took Sanders over to the bank to get the money out before he could change his mind.

“You’re a good businessman, Johnny,” Sanders said as we counted the last of the money into his attaché case.

“I try to be,” I said. I patted the pocket holding the partnership agreement, all legal and binding, that I’d written out and made him sign. “No hard feelings, I hope?”

“No,” Sanders said, “of course not. Business is business, and that’s all there is to it.” He closed the case and tucked it under his arm. “Well,” he said, “I guess we both have things to do and people to see.” He crossed to the door. “I’ll be in touch. And if you see the Mind before I do, be sure to tell him I’ll meet him at his usual table tomorrow to make the payment.”

“Sure,” I said, thinking about what I was going to do with all that money.

* * *

That evening the Mind stopped in as usual, and when I handed him his glass, I said casually, as if I’d just remembered it, “By the way, I saw Sanders today. He said to tell you he’d meet you at your usual table tomorrow with the money.”

“Sanders?” the Mind said. “Who’s Sanders?”

“That big blond guy,” I said. “He borrowed fifty thousand dollars from you as a down payment to buy new equipment for a construction job out West.”

The Mind shook his head. “Not from me he didn’t,” he said.

“About five or six weeks ago,” I said, the bottom of my stomach falling out. “He went over to your table to make the loan, and afterwards you sent him back with fifty dollars for me for making the referral.”

The Mind let his eyes rest on me. Then he said, “Yeah, I remember the guy. Be he didn’t make any loan. He said he had a bet with you over who was the first to break the four-minute mile. I said it was Roger Bannister, and he said in that case he owed you fifty dollars. That’s all. Why he’d want to tell you he’d made a loan, I sure don’t know.”

I had a pretty good idea, but just to make sure, the next morning I looked up the Sanders Construction Company in the Yellow Pages. It was there on page 397, all right, but when I phoned at nine on the dot and asked to speak to Mr. Earl Sanders, the girl who answered told me that there hadn’t been a Mr. Sanders in the company since the present owner’s father-in-law died in 1953.

So, really, what can you believe in anymore? Especially these days…