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
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
..... .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
..... .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
..... ."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
..... ."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
..... ."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
..... ."I'm beginning to
see," Tess said to Sal, "why Hopkins is always in the
..... ."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
..... .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
..... ."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
..... ."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
..... ."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
..... ."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.
..... ."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
..... .He seemed caught off-guard.
..... ."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
..... ."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
..... .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
..... .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
..... ."I don't need your
..... ."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.
..... ."So what's the right
..... ."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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