Sometimes They Bite
by Lawrence Block
Mowbray had been fishing the lake for the better than two hours before he encountered the heavy-set man. The lake was supposed to be full of largemouth bass and that was what he was after. He was using spinning gear, working a variety of plugs and spoons and jigs and plastic worms in all of the spots where a lunker largemouth was likely to be biding his time. He was a good fisherman, adept at dropping his lure right where he wanted it, just alongside a weed bed or at the edge of subsurface structure. And the lures he was using were ideal for late fall bass. He had everything going for him, he thought, but a fish on the end of his line.
He would fish a particular spot for a while, then move off to his right a little ways, as much for something to do as because he expected the bass to be more cooperative in another location. He was gradually working his way around the western rim of the lake when he stepped from behind some brush into a clearing and saw the other man no more than a dozen yards away.
The man was tall, several inches taller than Mowbray, very broad in the shoulders and trim in the hips and at the waist. He wore a fairly new pair of blue jeans and a poplin windbreaker over a navy flannel shirt. His boots looked identical to Mowbray’s, and Mowbray guessed they’d been purchase from the same mail-order outfit in Maine. His gear was a baitcasting outfit, and Mowbray followed his line out with his eyes and saw a red bobber sitting on the water’s surface some thirty yards out.
The man’s chestnut hair was just barely touched with gray. He had a neatly trimmed mustache and the shadowy beard of someone who had arisen early in the morning. The skin on his hands and face suggested he spent much of his time out of doors. He was certainly around Mowbray’s age, which was forty-four, but he was in much better shape than Mowbray was, in better shape, truth to tell, than Mowbray had ever been. Mowbray at once admired and envied him.
The man had nodded at Mowbray’s approach, and Mowbray nodded in return, not speaking first because he was the invader. Then, the man said, “Afternoon. Having any luck?”
“Not a nibble.”
“Been fishing long?”
“A couple of hours,” Mowbray said. “Must have worked my way halfway around the lake, as much as to keep moving as anything else. If there’s a largemouth in the whole lake you couldn’t prove it by me.”
The man chuckled. “Oh, there’s bass here, all right. It’s a fine lake for bass, and a whole lot of other fish as well.”
“Maybe I’m using the wrong lures.”
The big man shook his head. “Doubtful. They’ll bite anything when their dander is up. I think a largemouth would hit a shoelace if he was in the mood, and when he’s sulky he wouldn’t take your bait if you threw it in the water with no hook or line attached to it.
That’s just the way they are. Sometimes they bit and sometimes they don’t.”
“That’s the truth.” He nodded in the direction of the floating red bobber. “I don’t suppose you’re after bass yourself?”
“Not rigged up like this. No, I’ve been trying to get myself a couple of crappies.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb, indicating where a campfire was laid. “I’ve got the skillet and the oil, I’ve got the meal to roll ‘em in and I’ve got the fire all laid just waiting for the match. Now all I need is the fish.”
“No more than you’re having.”
“Which isn’t a whole lot,” Mowbray said. “You from around here?”
“No. Been through here a good many times, however. I’ve fished this lake now and again and had good luck more often than not.”
“Well,” Mowbray said. The man’s company was invigorating, but there was a strict code of etiquette governing meetings of this nature. “I think I’ll head on around the next bend. It’s probably pointless but I’d like to get a plug in the water.”
“You never can tell if it’s pointless, can you? Any minute the wind can change, or the temperature can drop a few degrees and the fish can change their behavior completely.
That’s what keeps us coming out here year after year, I’d say. The wonderful unpredictability of the whole affair. Say, don’t go and take a hike on my account.”
“Are you sure?”
The big man nodded, hitched at his trousers. “You can wet a line here as good as further down the bank. Your casting for bass won’t make a lot of difference as to whether or not a crappie or a sunnie takes a shine to the shiner on my hook. And, to tell you the truth, I’d be just as glad for the company.”
“So would I,” Mowbray said, gratefully. “If you’re sure you don’t mind.”
“I wouldn’t have said boo if I did.”
Mowbray set his aluminum tackle box on the ground, knelt beside it, and rigged his line. He tied on a spoon plug, then got to his feet and dug out a pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his corduroy shirt. He said, “Smoke?”
“Gave ‘em up a while back. But thanks all the same.”
Mowbray smoked his cigarette about halfway down, then dropped the butt and ground it underfoot. He stepped to the water’s edge, took a minute or so to read the surface of the lake then cast his plug a good distance out. For the next fifteen minutes or so the two men fished in companionable silence. Mowbray had no strikes but expected none and was resigned to it. He was enjoying himself just the same.
“Nibble,” the big man announced. A minute or two went by and he began reeling in.
“And a nibble’s the extent of it,” he said. “I’d better check and see if he left me anything.”
The minnow had been bitten neatly in two. The big man had hooked him through the lips and now his tail was missing. His fingers very deft, the man slipped the shiner of the hook and substituted a live on from his bait pail. Seconds later the new minnow was in the water and the red bobber floated on the surface.
“I wonder what did that,” Mowbray said.
“Hard to say. Crawdad, most likely. Something ornery.”
“I was thinking that a nibble was a good sign, might mean the fish were going to start playing along with us. But if it’s just a crawdad I Don’t suppose it means very much.”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
“I was wondering,” Mowbray said. “You’d think if there’s a bass in this lake, you’d be after them instead of crappies.”
“I suppose most people figure that way.”
“None of my business, of course.”
“Oh, that’s all right. Hardly a sensitive subject. Happens I like the taste of little panfish better than the larger fish. I’m not a sport fisherman at heart, I’m afraid. I get a kick out of catching ‘em, but my main interest is how they’re going to taste when I’ve fried ‘em up in the pan. A meat fisherman is what they call my kind, and the sporting fraternity mostly says the phrase with a certain amount of contempt.” He exposed large white teeth in a sudden grin. “If they fished as often as I do, they’d probably lose some of their taste for the sporting aspect of it. I fish more days than I don’t you see. I retired ten years ago, had a retail business, and sold it not too long after my wife died. We were never able to have any children so there was just myself and I wound up with enough capital to keep me without working if I didn’t mind living simply. And I not only don’t mind it, I prefer it.”
“You’re young to be retired.”
“I’m fifty-five, I was forty-five when I retired, which may be on the young side, but I was ready for it.”
“You look at least ten years younger than you are.”
“If that’s a fact, I guess retirement agrees with me. Anyway, all I really do is travel around and fish for my supper. And I’d rather catch small fish. I did the other kind of fishing and tired of it in no time at all. The way I see it, I never want to catch more fish than I intend to eat. If I kill something, it goes in that copper skillet over there. Or else I shouldn’t have killed it in the first place.”
Mowbray was silent for a moment, unsure what to say. Finally, he said, “Well, I guess I just haven’t evolved to that stage yet. I have to admit I still get a kick out of fishing, whether I eat what I catch or not. I usually eat them but that’s not the most important part of it to me. But then I don’t go out every other day like yourself. A couple times a year is as much as I can manage.”
“Look at us talking,” the man said, “and here you’re not catching bass while I’m busy not catching crappie. We might as well announce that we’re fishing for whales for all the difference it makes.”
A little while later Mowbray retrieved his line and changed lures again, then lit another cigarette. The sun was almost gone. It had vanished behind the tree line and was probably close to the horizon by now. The air was definitely growing cooler. Another hour or so would be the extent of his fishing for the day. Then it would be time to head back to the motel and some cocktails and a steak and baked potato at the restaurant down the road. And then an evening of bourbon and water in front of the motel room’s television set, lying on the bed with his feet up and the glass at his elbow and a cigarette burning in the ashtray.
The whole picture was so attractive that he was almost willing to skip the last hour’s fishing. But the pleasure of the first sip of the first martini would lose nothing for being deferred an hour, and the pleasure of the big man’s company was worth another hour of his time.
And then, a little while later, the big man said, “I have an unusual question to ask you.”
“Have you ever killed a man?”
It was an unusual question, and Mowbray took a few extra seconds to think it over.
“Well, he said at length, “I guess I have. The odds are pretty good that I have.”
“You killed someone without knowing it?”
“That must have sounded odd. You see, I was in the artillery in Korea. Heavy weapons. We never saw what we were shooting at and never knew just what our shells were doing, I was in action for better than a year, stuffing shells down the throat of one big mother of a gun, and I’d hate to think that in all that time we never hit what we aimed at. So I must have killed men, but I don’t suppose that’s what you’re driving at.”
“I mean up close. And not in the service, that’s a different proposition entirely.”
“I was in the service myself. An earlier war than yours, and I was on a supply ship and never heard a shot fired in anger. But about four years ago I killed a man.” His hand dropped briefly to the sheath knife at his belt. “With this.”
Mowbray didn’t know what to say. He busied himself taking up the slack in his line and waited for the man to continue.
“I was fishing,” the big man said. “All by myself, which is my usual custom. Saltwater though, not fresh like this. I was over in North Carolina on the Outer Banks. Know the place?” Mowbray shook his head. “A chain of barrier islands a good distance out from the mainland. Very remote. Damn fine fishing and not much else. A lot of people fish off the piers or go out on the boats, but I was surfcasting. You can do about as well that way as often as not, and that was I figured to build a fire right there on the beach and cook my catch and eat it on the spot. I’d gathered up the driftwood and laid the fire before I wet a line, same as I did today. That’s my usual custom. I had done the same thing the day before and I caught myself half a dozen Norfolk spots in no time at all, almost before I could properly say I’d been fishing. But this particular day I didn’t have any luck at all in three hours, which shows that saltwater fish are as unpredictable as the freshwater kind. You don’t much saltwater fishing?”
“I enjoy it about as much as freshwater, and I enjoyed that day on the Banks even without getting a nibble. The sun was warm and there was a light breeze blowing off the ocean and you couldn’t have asked for a better day. The next best thing to fishing and catching fish is fishing and not and not catching ‘em, which is a thought we can both console ourselves with after today’s run of luck.”
“I’ll have to remember that one.”
“Well, I was having a good enough time even if it looked as though I’d wind up buying my dinner, and then I sensed a fellow coming up behind me. He must have come over the dunes because he was never in my field of vision. I knew he was there—just an instinct, I suppose—and I sent my eyes as far around as they’d go without moving my head, and he wasn’t in sight.” The big man paused, sighed. “You know,” he said, “if the offer still holds, I believe I’ll have one of those cigarettes of yours after all.”
“You’re welcome to one,” Mowbray said, “But I hat to start you off on the habit again. Are you sure you want one?”
The wide grin came again. “I quit smoking about the same time I quit work. I may have had a dozen cigarettes since then, space over the ten-year span. Not enough to call a habit.”
“Then I can’t feel guilty about it.” Mowbray shook the pack until a cigarette popped up, then extended it to his companion. After the man helped himself Mowbray took one as well and lit them both with his lighter.
“Nothing like an interval of a year or so between cigarettes to improve their taste,” the big man said. He inhaled a lungful of smoke, pursed his lips to expel it in a stream. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “I really want to tell you this story if you don’t mind hearing it. It’s one I don’t tell often, but I feel a need to get it out from time to time. It may not leave you thinking very highly of me but we’re strangers, never saw each other before, and as likely will never see each other again. Do you mind listening?”
“Well, there I was knowing I had someone standing behind me. And certain he was up to no good because no one comes up behind you quiet like that and stands there out of sight with the intention of doing you a favor. I was holding onto my rod, and before I turned around I propped it in the sand butt end down, the way people will do when they’re fishing on a beach. Then I waited a minute, and then I turned around as if not expecting to find anyone there, and there he was, of course.
“He was a young fellow, probably no more than twenty-five. But he wasn’t a hippie. No beard and his hair was no longer than yours or mine. It did look greasy, though, and he didn’t look too clean in general. Wore a light blue T-shirt and a pair of white duck pants. Funny how I remember what he wore but I can see him clear as day in my mind. Thin lips, sort of a wedge-shaped head, eyes that didn’t line up quite right with each other, as though they had minds of their own. Some active pimples and the scars of old ones. He wasn’t a prize.
“He had a gun in his hand. What you’d call a belly gun, a little .32-calibre Smith & Wesson with a two-inch barrel. Not good for a single damned thing but killing men at close range, which I’d say is all he ever wanted it for. Of course, I didn’t know the make or caliber at the time. I’m not much for guns myself.
“He must have been standing less than two yards away from me. I wouldn’t say it took too much instinct to have known he was there, not as close as he was.”
The man drew deeply on the cigarette. His eyes narrowed in recollection, and Mowbray saw a short vertical line appear, running from the middle of his forehead almost to the bridge of his nose. Then he blew out smoke and his face relaxed and the line was gone.
“Well, we were all alone on the beach,” the man continued. “No one withing sight in either direction, no boats in close off-shore, no one around to lend a helping hand. Just this young fellow with a gun in his hand and me with my hands empty. I began to regret sticking the rod in the sand. I’d done it to have both hands free, but I thought it might be useful to swing at him and try whipping the gun out of his hand.
“He said, ‘All right, old man. Take your wallet out of your pocket nice and easy.’ He was a Northerner, going by his accent, but the younger people don’t have too much of an accent wherever they’re from. Television, I suppose, is this cause of it. Makes the whole world smaller.
“Now I looked at those eyes, and at the way, he was holding that gun, and I knew he wasn’t going to take the wallet and wave bye-bye at me. He was going to kill me. In fact, if I hadn’t turned around when I did he might well have shot me in the back. Unless he was the sort who liked to watch a person’s face when he did it. There are people like that, I understand.”
Mowbray felt a chill. The man’s voice was so matter-of-fact, while his words were the stuff nightmares are made of.
“Well, I went into my pocket with my left hand. There was no wallet there. It was in the glove compartment of my car, parked off the road in back of the sand dunes. But I reached in my pocket to keep his eyes on my left hand, and then I brought the hand out empty and went for the gun with it, and at the same time, I was bringing my knife out of the sheath with my right hand. I dropped my shoulder and came in low, and either I must have moved quick or all the drugs he’d taken over the years had slowed him some, but I slung that gun hand of his up and sent the gun sailing, and at the same time I got my knife into him and laid him wide open.”
He drew the knife from its sheath. It was a filleting knife, with a natural wood handle and a thin, slightly curved blade about seven inches long. “This was the knife,” he said. “It’s a Rapala, made in Finland, and you can’t beat it for being stainless steel and yet taking and holding an edge. I use it for filleting and everything else connected with fishing. But you’ve probably got one just like it yourself.”
Mowbray shook his head. “I just use a folding knife,” he said.
“You ought to get one of these. Can’t beat ‘em. And they’re handy when company comes calling, believe me. I’ll tell you, I opened this youngster up the way you open a fish to clean him. Came in low in the abdomen and swept up clear to the bottom of the rib cage, and you’d have thought you were cutting butter as easy at it was.” He slid the knife easily back into its sheath.
Mowbray felt a chill. The other man had finished his cigarette, and Mowbray put out his own and immediately selected a fresh one from his pack. He started to return the pack to his pocket, then thought to offer it to the other man.
“Not just now. Try me in nine or ten months, though.”
“I’ll do that.”
The man grinned his wide grin. Then his face went quickly serious. “Well, that young fellow fell down,” he said. “Fell right on his back and lay there all opened up. He was moaning and bleeding and I don’t know what else. I don’t recall his words, his speech was disjointed, but what he wanted was for me to get him to a doctor.
“Now the nearest doctor was in Manteo. I happened to know this, and I was near Rodanthe which is a good twenty miles from Manteo if not more. I saw how he was cut and I couldn’t imagine his living through a half-hour ride in a car. In fact, if there’d been a doctor six feet away from us I seriously doubt he could have done the boy any good. I’m no doctor myself, but I have to say it was pretty clear to me that the boy was dying.
“And if I tried to get him a doctor, I’d be ruining the interior of my car for all practical purposes and making a lot of trouble for myself in the bargain. I didn’t expect anybody would seriously try to pin a murder charge on me. It stood to reason that the fellow had a criminal record that would reach clear to the mainland and back, and I’ve never had worse than a traffic ticket and few enough of those. And the gun had his prints on it and none of my own. But I’d have to answer a few million questions and hang around for a least a week and doubtless longer for a coroner's inquest, and it all amounted to a lot of aggravation for no purpose since was dying anyway.
“And I’ll tell you something else. It wouldn’t have been worth the trouble even to save him, because what in the world was he but a robbing, murdering snake. Whey, if they stitched him up he’d be on the street again as soon as he was healthy and he’d kill someone else in on appreciable time at all. No, I didn’t mind the idea of him dying.” His yes engaged Mowbray’s. “What would you have done?”
“Mowbray thought about it. “I don’t know,” he said. “I honestly can’t say. Same as you, Probably.”
“He was in horrible pain. I saw him lying there, and I looked around again to assure myself we were alone, and we were. I thought that I could grab my pole and frying pan and my few other bits of gear and be in my car in two or three minutes, not leaving a thing behind that could be traced to me. I’d camped out the night before in a tent and sleeping bag and wasn’t registered in any motel or campground. In other words, I could be away from the Outer Banks entirely in half an hour, with nothing to connect me to the area, much less to the man on the sand. I hadn't even bought gas with a credit card. I was free and lear if I just got up and left. All I had to do was leave this young fellow to a horribly slow and painful death.” His eyes locked with Mowbray’s again, with an intensity that was difficult to bear. “or.” He said, his voice lower and softer, “or I could make thins easier for him.”
“Yes. And that’s just what I did. I took and slipped the knife fight into his heart. He went instantly. The life slipped right out of his eyes and the tension out of his face and he was gone. And that made it murder.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Of course,” the man echoed. “It might have been an act of mercy, but legally it transformed an act of self-defense into an unquestionable act of criminal homicide.” He breathed deeply. “Think I was wrong to do it?”
“No,” Mowbray said.
“Do the same thing yourself?”
“I honestly don’t know. I hope I would if the alternative was leaving him to suffer.”
“Well, it’s what I did. So I’ve not only killed a man, I’ve literally murdered a man. I left him under about a foot of sand at the edge of the dunes. I don’t know when the body was discovered. I’m sure it didn’t take too long. Those sands shift back and forth all the time. There was no identification on him, but the police could have labeled him from his prints because an upstanding young man like him would have had his prints on file. Nothing on the person at all except for about fifty dollars in cash, which destroys the theory that he was robbing me in order to provide himself with that night’s dinner.” His face relaxed in a half-smile. “I took the money,” he said. “Didn’t see as he had any need for it, and I doubted he had much of a real claim to it, as far as that goes.”
“So you not only killed a man but made a profit on it.”
“I did at that. Well, I left the Banks that evening. Drove on inland a good distance, put up for the night in a motel just outside of Fayetteville. I never did look back, never did find out if and when they found him. It’d be on the books as an unsolved homicide if they did. Oh, and I took his gun and flung it halfway to Bermuda. And he didn’t have a car for me to worry about. I suppose he thumbed a rid or came on foot, or else he parked too far away to matter.” Another smile. “Now you know my secret.” He said.
“Maybe you out to leave out place names,” Mowbray said.
“Why do that?”
“You don’t want to give that much information to a stranger.”
“You may be right, but I can only tell a story in my own way. I know what’s going through your mind right now.”
“Want me to tell you? You’re wondering if what I told you is true or not. You figure if it happened I probably wouldn’t tell you, and yet it sounds pretty believable in itself. And you halfway hope it’s the truth and halfway hope it isn’t. Am I close?”
“Very close,” Mowbray admitted.
“Well, I’ll tell you something that’ll tip the balance. You’ll really want to believe it’s a pack of lies.” He lowered his eyes. “The fact of the matter is you’ll lose any respect you may have had for me when you the next.”
“Then why tell me?”
“Because I feel the need.”
“I don’t know if I want to hear this,” Mowbray said.
“I want you to. No fish and it’s getting dark you’re probably anxious to get back to where you’re staying and have a drink and a meal. Well, this won’t take long.” He had been reeling in his line. Now the operation was concluded, and he set the rod deliberately on the grass at his feet. Straightening up, he said, “I told you before about my attitude toward fish. Not killing what I’m going to eat. And there is this young man was, all laid open, internal organs exposed—”
“I don’t know what you’d call it, curiosity or compulsion or some primitive streak. I couldn’t say. But what I did, I cut off a small piece of his liver before I buried him. Then after he was under the sand I lit my cookfire and—well, no need to go into detail.”
Thank God for that, Mowbray thought. For small favors. He looked at his hands. The left one was trembling. The right, the one gripping his spinning rod, was white at the knuckles, and the tips of his fingers ached from gripping the butt of the rod so tightly.
“Murder, cannibalism, and robbing the dead. That’s quite a string for a man who never got worse than a traffic ticket. And all three in considerably less than an hour.”
“Please,” Mowbray said. His voice was thin and high-pitched. “Please don’t tell me any more.”
“Nothing more to tell.”
Mowbray took a deep breath, held it. This man was either lying or telling the truth, Mowbray thought and in either case, he was quite obviously an extremely unusual person. At the very least.
“You shouldn’t tell that story to strangers,” he said after a moment. “True or false, you shouldn’t tell it.”
“I now and the feel the need.”
“Of course, it’s all to the good that I am a stranger. After all, I don’t know anything about you, not even your name.”
“Or where you live, or—”
“Wallace P. Tolliver. I was in the retail hardware business in Oak Falls, Missouri. That’ not fare from Joplin.”
“Don’t tell me anything more,” Mowbray said desperately. “I wish you hadn’t told me what you did.”
“I had to,” the big man said. The smile flashed again. “I’ve told that story three times before today. You’re the fourth man ever to hear it.”
Mowbray said nothing.
“Three times. Always to strangers who happen to turn up while I’m fishing. Always on a long lazy afternoon, those afternoons when the fish just don’t bite no matter what you do.”
Mowbray began to do several things. He began to step backward, and he began to release his tight hold on his fishing rod, and he began to extend his left arm protectively in front of him.
But the filleting knife had already cleared its sheath.
Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 1965.
LB is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America, and a past president of MWA and the Private Eye Writers of America. He has won the Edgar and Shamus awards four times each, and the Japanese Maltese Falcon award twice, as well as the Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and the Diamond Dagger for Life Achievement from the Crime Writers Association (UK). He’s also been honored with the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award from Mystery Ink magazine and the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement in the short story. In France, he has been proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice been awarded the Societe 813 trophy. He has been a guest of honor at Bouchercon and at book fairs and mystery festivals in France, Germany, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and Taiwan. As if that were not enough, he was also presented with the key to the city of Muncie, Indiana. (But as soon as he left, they changed the locks.)