The Half Monty, Part 1
A Tess Monaghan Diversion
by Laura Lippman


No, she's not hard-boiled (just ask her), but I've always found the tales of fledgling Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan to be a real hoot. Tess's creator, Laura Lippman, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, has a real eye for her town, and manages to make those mean streets come alive, even if Tess herself is not mean. So I was pretty pleased when Laura offered this one up to us. Fans of the series will recognize some of the characters in this one, who first appeared in Butchers Hill.

It was a little different, but I think folks enjoyed it. It ran in the Winter 2000-2001 issue of the site. It was a story , and a puzzle, and a contest, a little diversion to ponder during the holidays. Readers were asked to send in their solutions, and Laura generously offered up a $100 gift certificate to Baltimore's independent mystery book store, Mystery Loves Company. The winner was drawn at random from all the correct entries, and announced on March 1, 2001.

..... .Sal Hawkings had a 4.0 grade-point average from Baltimore's second-best prep school, 1540 on his SATs, a bookshelf crowded with awards for public speaking, offers for free rides from every Ivy League school except Brown, which he hadn't much liked anyway, and a Princeton dorm room waiting for him on the other side of summer.

..... .To reward him for all these things, his guardian, a man not given to impulse, had gone down to Carmax in Laurel and purchased a might-as-well-be-new VW bug as Sal's high school graduation present. Silver, with vanity license plates that read "Mandalay," an allusion to Sal's favorite Kipling poem. In fact, it had come down to a choice between "Mandalay" or "Phat," but Phats 1-10 had long been registered in Maryland's motor vehicle records. "That's okay," Sal had said. "Phat is so five years ago. Kipling is forever." From Kipling to hip-hop, that pretty much summed up the broad cultural contradiction that was Sal Hawkings, a preppie street kid who was getting out through his brains. Sal preferred top-siders to Nikes and his shaved head was an homage not to Michael Jordan, but to Montel Williams, a local man who made good through the power of his mouth.

..... .And who could blame Sal Hawkings if thought he looked phat, or fine, or whatever the current nomenclature was, behind the wheel of that silver VW, for the 128 hours he had owned it? Not Tess Monaghan, the Baltimore private investigator who had seen him through the tail-end of some hard times. In fact, Tess liked to think she could take the tiniest piece of credit for Sal's success, as if he were an Internet stock and she had picked up a few shares before the IPO.

..... .Which meant that she had to shoulder the losses when the stock plummeted.

..... ."A coffee bar?" Tess was fond of Sal, and being fond of Sal meant wanting to smack him from time to time. "Let me get this straight. You, Sal Hawkings, a certifiable genius who also happens to have an abundance of street smarts -- the kid who once ran scams all over East Baltimore -- lost your car to some goateed math major in a coffee bar?"

..... .Sal scowled. His instinct was to insist he was always right; he had even appealed his college boards, sure he had been unfairly denied a perfect score. Tess knew how hard it had been for him to seek her help today. Of course, it would have been more difficult still to go home and tell Luther Beale, the closest thing Sal ever had to a father, that he had lost his new car. In a bet! In a coffee bar! To some math nerd!

..... ."It's not like we started with the car," he said. "Things escalated."

..... ."They always do," Tess said. Her uncle ran a sports book out of his bar. But no one in Spike's place, where the IQs ran in the high double digits, had ever signed over a car title. It took a genius to do something that stupid. "When do you have to deliver?"

..... ."He gave me 24 hours," Sal said glumly. "That was 16 hours ago. I'm supposed to meet him at 8 tonight, turn over the keys."

..... ."You got a name?" She turned on her computer, waited for the Mac happy face to smile and assure her everything was all right in the plastic case of circuits that now controlled her life.

..... ."Honestly, Tess, you know my full name."

..... ."His name, Sal. I don't have time to sweet-talk anyone down on Fayette Street into doing an NCIC check for his criminal background, but I can at least run him through some newspaper databases, see if he's pulled this con before."

..... ."Montgomery, like the county." Sal hitched his chair closer to her desk, sat up a little straighter. He was a student, being called on for an answer he knew. "Montgomery Hall Jr. But he goes by Monty."

..... .Tess cradled her head in her hands, only because she was on the verge of laughing. Sal would stalk out in a huff if he suspected she found his predicament amusing in any way.

..... ."Montgomery Hall Jr. Monty for short. In other words, Monty Hall."

..... ."Yeah. So?"

..... ."Monty Hall, as in the game show host. 'Let's Make a Deal.' 'I'll trade you the box for the curtain?' 'I'll give you $1,000 if you have a ballpeen hammer in your purse?' That Monty Hall?" She took her hands away from her face, only to find Sal staring at her blankly. "Doesn't any of this ring a bell? Oh Jesus, I am old."

..... ."Well, you are," Sal said kindly, as kindly as any 18-year-old has ever said such words to any 30-year-old. "Not parent-old, but grown-up old, you know?"

..... .She knew. "Old enough to get you out of this mess you're in, I guess. As long as you're sure he cheated you. He did cheat you, right? It has to be a con, Sal. If he took the car from you fair and square, I'm not sure what I could do. You're a grown-up. Under the law."

..... .His eyes slid away from hers. "Well, you do have a license to carry, and you can talk some serious trash when you want to --"

..... .Uh-huh. I'm not going to hold my gun on this guy and demand your title back. So let me ask you again: Did he cheat you?"

..... .The question hit Sal in his most vulnerable place, the soft little belly of his pride. He wanted his car back, but he didn't want to admit he had been anyone's mark. Finally, he nodded. "He must have cheated. We ran the problem out 30, 40 times, and he won almost two out of three, when he should have won only half the time. Run a probability problem enough times, and the odds even out. I just can't figure out how he did it. Sleight of hand, I guess, but that's hindsight. I got so agitated, I just kept doubling the bet."

..... ."And gulping down caffeine all along, right?"

..... ."Cafe Americanos, one after another."

..... ."Kids today," Tess sighed. "Why can't you go to bars with fake ID's, puke on yourself in the alley and sleep it off in the back of someone's car, like we did in the good ol' days?"

..... ."You know I don't drink," Sal said, unaware of how sanctimonious he sounded. Then again, a sober life was no small achievement for Sal Hawkings, who had walked to and from elementary school with crack vials crunching beneath his feet, whose best friend had succumbed to the pipe before he was 15, then died in a fire in a vacant house when he was 17. Sal was a good kid, a smart, handsome 18-year-old, the kind of young man who made older people feel slightly better about the future. Pride was his only vice -- pride, and a perverse fondness for pretentious poetry, which had drawn him to the coffee bar in the first place. He had gone there for a slam, and ended up slammed.

..... ."All we can do is go there tonight, see if I can figure out how he tricked you," Tess said. "If we're lucky, it will be our secret. If not --"

..... ."If not?" The thought he might end up car-less was only beginning to occur to Sal.

..... ."Don't worry, Beaver. I'll go home with you, tell Ward and June how you screwed up."

..... ."Why are you calling me Beaver? And who's Ward, who's June?"

..... .Tess suppressed a smile and a sigh. "Never mind. Just take it from the top, step by step. I need to know everything that happened."

****

..... .Baltimore's lack of trendiness was its saving grace. Snubbed by Starbucks when caffeine first staged its comeback, the city had enjoyed a boom in local cafes and coffee houses. Oh, Starbucks showed up eventually, but late, and the locals owned the coffee game in Charm City.

..... .The Bean Counter, however, was a new one to Tess, a dark little cave near the Johns Hopkins campus, with the requisite ratty, overstuffed chairs, and a decorating theme that ran to lava lamps. Students curled themselves into fetal positions and stared unhappily at thick, dull textbooks. A few were laughing with friends, but most were alone, shut out from the world by their Walkmans and, in some cases, those tiny little CD players that allowed you to play your own mixes, pirated from Napster no doubt. They glanced up disapprovingly when a laugh crested too loudly and cracked through their self-made isolation chambers.

..... ."I'm beginning to see," Tess said to Sal, "why Hopkins is always in the top 10."

..... ."As a medical school? In fact, it's #1, year in, year out."

..... ."No, as a seriously unfun place to get a college education. It's like they're pumping downers into the cooling system. I'm depressed just from walking in here."

..... .Princeton-bound Sal was uninterested in the Hopkins students' ennui. It had been his safety school. "Monty's in the back, where they have chess and backgammon boards. That's how we met, playing backgammon."

..... .Montgomery Hall Jr. -- Tess couldn't help herself, she giggled just thinking about the name -- was attractive, for a preppie math major. Assuming he was a math major. Assuming he was anything he said he was. The goatee was oh-so-five-years-ago, as Sal himself might have said, the round wire rims were wrong for his narrow face, and the hair touching his collar needed to decide if it wanted to be long or short, as opposed to merely unkempt. Still, he was undeniably cute, in a WASP-y kind of way, with the kind of guileless face that came in handy, when one made his living from guile.

..... ."Sal, my man," he said, extending his hand as if he expected nothing but good cheer and warm feelings all around. "A man of honor, which I never doubted. Did you bring the keys? You did say it's a silver VW, right? That's my favorite color of the new line, the most classic. I don't think that neon green will age well, and the blue -- the blue's too bright for my taste. Silver was a good choice."

..... ."Well, yeah, I brought the keys. But my friend Tess Monaghan here, she wants to talk to you, before I turn them over."

..... .Monty's eyes squinted behind his glasses, taking her in with the practiced gaze of a man used to sizing people up. Tess, in a white T-shirt and a rumpled cotton skirt covered with poppies, her hair loose around her face, hoped he saw someone who looked young enough to be a college student, or at least a grad student. Monty preyed on young people, his name told her that much.

..... ."I won your car without any tricks, Sal. I know you don't believe it, but I did. I gave you every chance to back out. You were the one who kept raising the stakes, convinced that probability would catch up with you."

..... ."He's not trying to back out," Tess assured Monty, taking a seat opposite him. "But Sal knows how much I like games of chance, how I can't resist a new one. Blackjack, baccarat, poker. I like the horses best, though. You know why?"

..... .He shrugged, rattling a pair of dice in the leather-bound backgammon shaker, uninterested.

..... ."It's not all math. Other factors go into the outcome. Track conditions, post conditions. And there are animals involved, horses. Humans."

..... ."Yet the track always wins," Monty pointed out. "The beauty of parimutuel betting."

..... ."The track always wins," Tess agreed. "Do you always win?"

..... ."I win more than I lose. That doesn't make me a crook, or a cheater."

..... ."I told Sal the same thing. Everyone who loses, thinks he was taken. They're usually just unlucky. But I have to admit, I'm intrigued. What are the odds you could have such a fantastic run of luck two nights in a row? Show me your game, Monty. I want to play. I want to play for Sal's car."

..... ."What do you have to offer?"

..... ."Ten thousand dollars -- and my Social Security number." She took an envelope from her purse, along with her Social Security card, soft as cloth from 15 years in various wallets. It represented half her life. It represented all her life. To give away one's Social Security number was to invite a bad credit trail that could never be washed away. "If you're as big a crook as I think you are, you can wreak all sorts of havoc with this. If not, you still have $10,000. All I ask in return is that you reveal your real name if I win."

..... ."Montgomery Hall Jr. is my real name."

..... ."Okay, Monty --" Tess pushed the envelope closer to him. "Let's play."

..... .He picked up the envelope, but didn't open it, just weighed it in his hand. He looked as if he knew what $10,000 would feel like, even through an envelope. This was worrisome to Tess, but she was too far gone to pull back. She saw herself, visiting her various mentors and protectors the next day -- her Aunt Kitty, the lawyer Tyner Gray, her parents, -- looking for help to cover her losses, just as Sal had come to her today. She saw the game going on toward infinity, until Montgomery Hall Jr. had claimed everything of value owned by her, her family and her friends. Every dollar, every piece of real estate, the silver fillings in her grandmother's mouth, even Tess's greyhound, Esskay. He would possess them all.
"Okay," he said at last. "It's really very simple. Each round has two parts."

..... .He lined up three backgammon shakers. "One of these has one die in it. Two don't. I know where the die is, you don't. I move them around --" he proceeded to do just this, working above and below the table, so it was impossible to follow the cup with the die. This was not the game with the cups, played by street hustlers, but a different con altogether, one that attracted people who believed they could always out-think the other guy. "Now you tell me where you think the die is."

..... .Tess touched the cup in the center.

..... ."Fine. Now I'm going to show you that one of the ones you didn't pick is empty." He pulled the cap off, turned it upside down, and moved it to the side. "So we're down to two cups. One has the die, one doesn't. But I allow you to choose one more time. You can stick with the first cup you picked, or switch. But whatever you do the first round, you do for the rest of the game. If you choose to switch, you must always switch. If you choose to stay, you must always stay with your first choice."

..... ."So I can stay or switch?" Tess asked.

..... ."Right."

..... ."Which makes it a one out of two probability?"

..... ."It would certainly appear to be," Monty said. "Two cups. The die is in one. Not unlike flipping a coin."

..... ."Can we play a practice round?"

..... .He seemed caught off-guard. "No."

..... ."Why not? I just want to make sure I understand."

..... ."Because . . . because if you lose the first round, you'll think I rigged it and you'll walk away. And if you win, you'll think I'm setting you up. But I'm not, honest. There's no trick involved here. You pick a cup. I eliminate an empty cup, you pick again. That's all there is to it, for 30 rounds. All you have to do is win 13 out of the 30 -- less than half of the time. See, I'm spotting you four points, to prove I'm not a cheater. Probability isn't ironclad. You might flip a coin and get heads four times in a row. But over 30 tries, it should even out, see? This is a simple problem of probability."

..... ."A simple problem of probability," Tess repeated. "Sal, when you played -- did you hold, or did you switch?"

..... ."I held," Sal said. "That's how I know he cheated. It's a 50-50 chance that I picked right between the two cups. But he won almost twice as often as I did. I don't care what he says. He's palming the die, or switching them somehow. He's probably a magician."

..... .Monty's hands were big and soft. Tess couldn't imagine them manipulating anything more complicated than a cigarette lighter.

..... ."So," Monty said, affecting a tone of boredom, "you wanna play. For $10,000 and your Sosh?"
"Yeah, I wanna play."

..... .He dropped a die in a cup, moved the cups around. His fingers were clumsy; he was no magician, no sleight of hand expert. Tess wasn't even sure how he kept track of the cup with the die; there was probably a mark on the back of the cup. But that was fair. He was allowed to know where the die was. This was not about following the die with your eyes, just working out the odds of where it was after the fact.

..... .When he was through, she pointed again to the center cup. He opened the one on the far right -- empty. They were down to two cups, his and hers.

..... ."So, switch or stay," he asked Tess.

..... ."Oh, I'm going to switch."

..... .His head jerked up. "What?"

..... ."I'm going to switch," Tess repeated. "I'm going to switch every time."

..... ."But it's 50-50 chance," he argued. "No one ever switches."

..... ."If it's 50-50, why do you care what I do?"

..... ."Well, but if you switch, you have to get the 17 points. Maybe I didn't make that clear. The person who holds needs only 13 points, while the person who switches has to get at least 17."

..... ."I'm cool with that," Tess said. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I got as many as 20 points."

..... .He stared her down, then shrugged sullenly, and pulled the blue-and-white title from the inside pocket of the tweed jacket. With elbow patches, yet, on a warm June night. "He can have the car back. But I'm not giving you my name. You can't make me do that."

..... ."No, but I can make sure you leave town, take your gig to Amherst or Cambridge or Charlottesville, any place where there's a plentiful supply of kids with more money and hubris than good sense."

..... ."It's not just kids," he said, as if his pride were wounded. "Professors fall for it, too."

..... ."I bet," Tess said, taking back the envelope, relieved he had never broken the seal. There was $10,000 inside, it just happened to be in Monopoly money. "Look, you can be Rumpelstilskin for all I care. But you want to go double or nothing? I've got a trivia question that's a guaranteed stumper, good to earn you a lifetime of free beers wherever you go, as long as you're careful about your marks."

..... ."I don't need your question."

..... ."Oh, humor me. What's the immaculate conception?"

..... .Monty looked insulted. "Please. Everyone knows that. It's the birth of Jesus."

..... .Tess made a buzzing noise. "Wrong."

..... ."So what's the right answer, then?"

..... ."Sorry," Tess said, "but I don't give it away."

1) Why does Monty Hall give Tess the title back to Sal's car?
2) And what is the immaculate conception?

For the conclusion to the story, the solution, and the name of the winner, head on over to
The Half Monty, Part 2.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Laura Lippman.


Laura Lippman has now written five novels about Tess Monaghan. She has won several awards -- including the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha and the Shamus -- and cheerfully admits she "may have even deserved one or two of them, but probably not." She lives and works in Baltimore. She wanted to be hard-boiled but, to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, she just wasn't drawn that way.

And now, head here for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!


Please direct comments on the above story and inquiries about submissions to the fiction editor, or check out this page.
"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk."

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