A drop of the hard stuff, p.10
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.10

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 10

  “All of it? Or did you give up a tenth of your crop as a burnt offering to the gods?”

  “Well,” I said.

  Some years ago I’d gotten in the habit of tithing, slipping ten percent of what money I received into the first church collection box I came to. Jim found this an amusing eccentricity, and one he assumed would fade away in sobriety. Meanwhile the Catholics got most of my money, if only because their sanctuaries were more likely to be open, and on my way home I’d detoured to pay my respects to the poor box at St. Paul the Apostle. And while I was there I lit a couple of candles, one of them for Jack Ellery.

  “You’re still a few dollars ahead of where you were yesterday,” Jim pointed out, “and you still don’t sound very happy. ”

  “I took the money,” I said. “Now I have to earn it. ”

  “By finding out who killed your friend. ”

  “By finding out if there’s a name here I feel comfortable passing on to Redmond. I suppose that amounts to the same thing. ”

  “Can’t you just eliminate the ones who couldn’t have done it and give him whoever’s left?”

  “Stillman could have done that himself,” I said. “The idea is to avoid creating a problem for someone who’s innocent of Jack’s murder, even though he may not be innocent of much else. ”

  “Some nasty people on that list?”

  “I don’t know who’s on it,” I said, “except for Jack’s father, and he’s been dead for a few years now. ”

  “Which would constitute exculpatory evidence, wouldn’t it? You haven’t read the list?”

  “I was too tired last night, and this morning I found other things to do. I guess I’ll go read it now. ”

  “That’s probably a good idea,” my sponsor said.

  But it still wasn’t something I wanted to do, and I went back to the room entertaining the fantasy that the manila envelope would have disappeared during my absence. The maid—whose weekly visit was a day away—would have come early, changing my sheets and emptying my wastebasket and consigning Jack’s Eighth Step to the incinerator. Or a burglar would have broken in and, annoyed at having found nothing worth stealing, would have walked off with it. Or spontaneous combustion, or a flash flood, or—

  It was there. I sat down and read it.

  By the time I was done I’d skipped lunch, and the sun was down. I went out and had something to eat before my regular Friday night step meeting at St. Paul’s. I had the urge to leave at the break but made myself stay for the whole meeting.

  “I’m going to pass on coffee tonight,” I told Jim. “I think I’ll go to a bar instead. ”

  “You know, there’s been many a time I’ve had that thought myself. ”

  “I read that fucking list,” I said, “and it took forever, because I kept stopping and staring out the window. ”

  “At the liquor store across the street?”

  “At the Trade Center towers, I suppose, but I wasn’t really looking at anything. Just gazing off into the distance. It was hard going, Jim. I got more of a peek than I wanted into the guy’s heart and soul. ”

  “So what else would you want to do but go to a bar?”

  I gave him a look. “I’ve got a slip of paper with five names on it, and there’s a guy I want to run them past. ”

  “And the bar’s where you have to meet him. ”

  “It’s where he’ll be. The Top Knot or Poogan’s Pub. He switches back and forth. ”

  “A man wouldn’t want to get stuck in a rut,” he said. “You think it might be a good idea to take someone with you?”

  “I’m not going to drink. ”

  “No,” he said, “you’re not, but you might be more comfortable with a sober friend along. ”

  I thought about it, weighed that against the inhibiting effect of a stranger at the table. “Not this time,” I said. “I’ll be fine. ”

  “Whichever bar you’ll find him in, I’m sure they’ll have a pay phone. And you’ve got plenty of quarters, don’t you?”

  “Quarters and subway tokens. Although I won’t need a token. I’ll be on West Seventy-second, I’ll walk there and back. ”

  “That’s fine,” he said. “The exercise’ll do you good. ”

  I walked up to the corner of Seventy-second and Columbus. Poogan’s was half a block one way and the Top Knot was about as far in the other direction, and I felt like the donkey standing midway between two bales of hay. Either you made an arbitrary choice or you starved to death. I flipped a mental coin and went to the Top Knot, and of course he was at Poogan’s, sitting at a table with an iced bottle of Stoli in a wood-grained plastic bucket.

  The man at the table was holding a Rubik’s Cube, not manipulating it, just frowning at it. I walked over and said, “Hello, Danny Boy,” and without raising his eyes he said, “Matthew, have you ever seen one of these things?”

  “I’ve seen them. I’ve never actually played with one of them. ”

  “Somebody gave this to me,” he said. “The idea is to wind up with solid colors on all six sides, though why anyone would want to go to the trouble is beyond me. Do you want this?”

  “No, but thanks. ”

  He put the device on the table, looked up at me, smiled broadly. “Sit down,” he said. “It’s good to see you. Maybe I’ll leave this toy for the waitress. I get the feeling she’s easily amused. You’re looking well, Matthew. Something to drink?”

  “Maybe a Coke,” I said, “but there’s no hurry. We can wait until she shows up to collect her Rubik’s Cube. ”

  “That’s what it’s called. I was thinking Kubek, but I knew that was wrong. Remember Tony Kubek?”

  The Yankee infielder, and I did indeed remember him, and we talked baseball for a few minutes. Then the waitress came by and I ordered a Coke, and Danny Boy took a drink of vodka and let her top up his glass.

  Danny Boy Bell is a diminutive albino Negro, always superbly dressed by the boys’ departments at Saks and Paul Stuart. His albinism has made him a creature of the night, but I think he’d keep vampire’s hours regardless of his skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. The world needs two things, I’ve heard him say, a dimmer switch and a volume control, both of them dialed way down. Dark rooms and soft music are his natural preference, all washed down with vodka, with the occasional company of some pretty young woman unburdened by much in the way of brainpower.

  When I was working out of the Sixth, Danny Boy was my best snitch, and one of only a few whose company didn’t make me feel like I needed a shower. He wasn’t looking to beat a criminal charge, or even a score, or feel important. He was in fact not so much a snitch as a broker in information, and every night he put in his hours at Poogan’s or the Knot, and people on every side of the law pulled up a chair at his table to ask him things or tell him things or both. He lived within a few blocks of both of his hangouts, and he rarely went anywhere else unless it was to watch a fight at the Garden or catch a set at a jazz club. Mostly he sat in his chair and drank his vodka, and it might have been water for all the visible effect it had on him.

  My Coke came, and I took a sip and wondered what visible effect it had on me.

  I said, “There’s a fellow who got himself killed a week ago. Lived in a furnished room in the East Nineties, made ends meet by delivering lunches for a delicatessen in the neighborhood. ”

  “The ends couldn’t have been too far apart,” he said, “if that brought in enough to make them meet. What was his name?”

  “John Joseph Ellery, but everyone called him Jack. ”

  He shook his head. “Didn’t hear about the murder, and I can’t say the name rings a bell. What did he do before he decided to give UPS some competition?”

  “A little of this and a little of that. ”

  “Ah, a useful trade. And was he still doing a little of both when he wasn’t helping them out at the deli?”

  “He went straight,” I said, and brandished my glass of Cok
e. “And found a new way of life. ”

  “A drier path, so to speak. A path I see you’re still pursuing yourself, Matthew. It’s been a while now, hasn’t it?”

  “A year next month. ”

  “That’s great,” he said, and it was clear he meant it, which pleased me. Not everyone I used to drink with was all that enthusiastic about the road I’d taken, and Jim said their reaction said more about them and their own drinking than it did about me and my sobriety. Some felt threatened, he said, while others assumed I’d disapprove of them and wanted to beat me to the punch.

  All the subject of drinking did for Danny Boy was remind him that he had a full glass in front of him, and in response he drank some of it. He said, “John Ellery, better known as Jack. Jack Ellery. Where’d he get killed?”

  “At home. ”

  “In his furnished room. How?”

  “Two bullets. One in the forehead, one in the mouth. ”

  “ ‘Keep your mouth shut’?”

  “Most likely. ”

  “As opposed to ‘You shoulda kept your mouth shut, you fucking rat bastard,’ with the penis severed and stuffed into the mouth, or sometimes halfway down the throat. Are the Italians the only ones who employ that particular calling card, Matthew, or is it in wider use?”

  I had no idea.

  “A little of this, and a little of that. I hate to press for details, but—”

  “Armed robbery, mostly. That’s what he went away for. Liquor stores, mom-and-pop groceries, walk in, show a gun, walk out with what he could grab out of the register. It’s not surprising if you never heard of him, because he was very small-time, and it’s no surprise you didn’t hear about the homicide. If there was anything in the papers, I didn’t see it myself. ”

  He was frowning in concentration. “Jack, Jack, Jack. Did he have a sobriquet?”

  “Come again?”

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