Jacob “Spinner” Jablon, a small-time snitch and blackmailer brings Matt Scudder an envelope and a request: Open the envelope only if I should die unexpectedly. The envelope contains the evidence Jablon is using to blackmail three people. The envelope also contains $3,000 as Scudder's fee for finding the person who killed him.
Scudder, an ex cop and unofficial, unlicensed private investigator, decides to pretend he's continuing the blackmail as a way to force the murderer into the open. Scudder visits the three victims and indicates that he wants a big one-time payment, and he wants it immediately.
Henry Praeger was paying Jablon to keep quiet about a fatal accident his daughter was involved in several years back. She killed a small child while driving drunk and high on drugs. Praeger paid off officials to ensure that she was never prosecuted. Then Jablon showed up, and he was getting a regular monthly check to keep the whole thing quiet.
Beverly Ethridge is at the top of New York society, with a wealthy husband and fashionable friends. But in her younger days she was a prostitute and an actress in pornographic films. Jablon's envelope contains the pictures and documentation to prove it.
Ted Huysendahl had a penchant for young boys, and again Jablon has the photographs to prove it. He's extremely wealthy and plans to run for governor. He's paying Jablon well to keep his secret.
Matt lets each of these victims know that he is taking up where Jablon left off. Several nights after he has spoken to the three victims, he leaves his favorite bar, Armstrong's, and is nearly run down by a car that careens onto the sidewalk to hit him. He is only saved by the scream of a bag lady, giving him time to hit the ground and flatten himself against a building.
The next day, he visits Praeger, and while he waits in an outer office, Praeger shoots himself. Matt comforts himself with the thought that Praeger killed Jablon, tried to kill him, and thus deserved his fate.
When he calls on Ethridge, he discovers that part of Jablon's payment was in sex – and given Ethridge's looks and experience, that was great pay. But Scudder is not interested; he says wants cash and a lot of it.
Soon after, he is attacked by a thug with a knife. He outfights the thug and, using a judo throw, accidentally kills him. That seems to indicate that he pressured a man who was innocent of murder into committing suicide.
Matt must determine which of the two remaining suspects killed Jablon and tried to kill him twice. He's under some pressure to come up with an answer quickly, because the killer is likely to try again.
This report prepared by David Gordon