A drop of the hard stuff, p.11
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.11

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 11

  “A nickname, for Christ’s sake. And don’t tell me you didn’t know the word. ”

  “I knew it,” I said. “I’ve come across it in print, but I’m not sure I ever heard anyone say it before. I certainly never heard anyone say it in Poogan’s. ”

  “It’s a perfectly fine word. And it’s not exactly the same as a nickname. Take Charles Lindbergh. His nickname was Lindy—”

  “As in hop,” I suggested.

  “—and his sobriquet was the Lone Eagle. George Herman Ruth, nickname was Babe, sobriquet was the Sultan of Swat. Al Capone—”

  “I get the idea. ”

  “I just wanted to keep on saying it, Matthew. Sobriquet. I know it from reading, and I don’t think I ever heard it before, and I know for certain I never said it before. I wonder if I’m pronouncing it correctly. ”

  “I’m the wrong person to ask. ”

  “I’ll look it up,” he said, and he picked up his glass and put it down without drinking. “High-Low Jack,” he said. “Wasn’t that his fucking sobriquet? Isn’t that what they called him?”


  HIGH-LOW JACK,” Greg Stillman said.

  “They didn’t call him that in the rooms?”

  “They just called him Jack, which is what he called himself. Oh, and Jailhouse Jack or Jack the Jailbird, but not to his face. ”

  One result of anonymity is that we mostly know each other by our first names, so we come up with handles to distinguish one Jack from another. At St. Paul’s, we’ve got Tall Jim and Jim the Runner and my own sponsor, Army Jacket Jim, because of the beat-up garment he’s rarely seen without.

  If I’ve got a nickname—or a sobriquet, if you prefer—I don’t know what it might be. Matt the Cop? Gumshoe Matt? I’m the only Matt at St. Paul’s, so they probably haven’t needed to come up with a name for me.

  “There was no insult implied,” Greg added. “Jack’s prison experience figured in a lot of his shares. How he got what he deserved, and how he’d never have wound up in prison if he hadn’t been drinking. So if you were looking for something to call him, it was a logical choice. But High-Low Jack. What does it even mean?”

  “I don’t know. I heard the phrase from a cop at the Sixth when I was on the job myself, and I never heard it since until this evening. ”


  “A source,” I said, and wondered if Danny Boy was a nickname or a sobriquet. I’d never heard him called anything else, and for all I knew you’d find Danny Boy Bell right there on his birth certificate.

  “And this source knew Jack?”

  “Never met him, and didn’t know very much about him. ”

  “But he knew what people called him, or used to call him, which is more than I knew. It wasn’t in his Fourth Step, and I think I’d remember the phrase if I’d ever heard it before. ”

  “Was he a gambler? A cardplayer?”

  “Jack? I don’t think so. He did mention a day he’d spent at a racetrack some years ago, but more in the context of drinking than gambling. Something about how he couldn’t ever seem to get to the window in time to get his bet down, because he’d hang around at the bar and have one more drink. ”

  “In other words, drinking saved him money. ”

  “So it wasn’t all bad. ”

  They did have a pay phone in Poogan’s Pub, and I know it was in working order because I’d seen people talking on it while I sat watching Danny Boy drink enough Stolichnaya vodka to restore the Soviet economy. It was free when I was ready to leave, but instead I walked to the corner. The first phone I tried was out of order, but there was a working one across the street, and the first call I made was to my sponsor.

  “No, it’s not too late,” he assured me. “I hear the squeal of brakes, not the cries of the inebriated, so my guess is you’re calling me from the street. ”

  “You’re the one who should have been a detective. What do the words High-Low Jack mean to you?”

  “There’s a card game,” he said, “the name of which is Spit in the Ocean, if I remember correctly. Or just Spit for short. I forget how you play it, but there are four things you get points for—high, low, jack, and the game. That’s the phrase, as I recall. ‘High, Low, Jack, and the Game. ’ That help?”

  “I don’t know. ”

  “I can’t see how it would,” he said. “High-Low Jack. High-low in poker is what you call it when the best and worst hands split the pot. I don’t know how Jack enters into the equation. ”

  “Jacks or better,” I suggested.

  “Which brings to mind another game, a form of draw poker. You need a pair of jacks to open—”

  “Right. ”

  “—but if nobody has jacks or better, then the hand turns into lowball, and the low hand takes the pot. That would be five-four-three-deuce-ace, or six-four-three-deuce-ace, or even seven-five-four-three-deuce, depending on the house rules. ”

  “I didn’t know you were a poker player. ”

  “Just buck-limit games, mostly printers, we played in the back room of a shop on Hudson Street. I lost my enthusiasm for the pastime when I came out of a blackout in the middle of a hand with no idea why I’d been betting it so hard. Jacks and Back, that’s what we called that particular variant. But that can’t be any help either. It go all right this evening?”

  “It went okay,” I said. “It was good to see Danny Boy, and I put some things in motion. ”

  “And you didn’t pick up a drink. ”

  “No, I didn’t. When I left, Danny had just given the waitress a Rubik’s Cube and you’d have thought it was the Hope Diamond. ”

  “Isn’t that the one with the curse?”

  “Well, unless she’s the one with the curse, I’d say he’s going to get lucky tonight. ”

  “I teed that one up for you, didn’t I? You can thank me another time. High-Low Jack. You hit ’em high and I’ll hit ’em low. Or is it the other way around?”

  After he’d agreed to sponsor me, one of the first things Jim did was give me a little red leather change purse as a present. There was a quarter in it, and a subway token.

  “That’s a starter,” he’d said. “Make sure you’ve always got a dozen quarters in there, and half a dozen tokens. So you can always make a phone call and you can always hop on a bus or a subway home. ”

  “Like a mob guy,” I said, and explained that every wiseguy we brought in always had a ten-dollar roll of quarters in his pocket. They’d learned to avoid wiretaps by making all their calls from pay phones, and a roll of quarters came in handy other times as well; wrap your fist around it, and you could punch a whole lot harder.

  I hadn’t felt the need to hit anybody since I got sober, nor was I worried that someone was tapping my phone. But I never left my room without my supply of quarters and tokens, and I spent a second quarter on a call to my client, and learned as little from him as he did from me. He seemed pleased that I was working the case and putting things in motion, but I got the sense that he wasn’t hugely concerned about how my investigation was going.

  Walking home, I figured out why. He’d had a dilemma—what to do?—and he’d resolved it by passing the ball to me. What happened now didn’t matter all that much to him. He’d done what he needed to do, and now he could turn it over.

  It was very much in the spirit of the Third Step: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.

  I’d heard the words no end of times—in specific discussions of the step, and in “How It Works,” the Big Book selection read at the beginning of most meetings. I liked the idea of it, but I didn’t have a clue how to do it. There was something in the literature about using the key of willingness, and sooner or later it would open the lock; that was nicely poetic, but I still didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

  The Third Step doesn’t mean God will do the laundry and walk the dog. That was another of the things I’d hear
d people say. In other words, what? Turn it over and do it all yourself? That didn’t sound right.

  Don’t drink, Jim told me. Don’t drink, and go to meetings. That’s all you need to know for now.

  There was a message from Jan at the desk. Call anytime before midnight, it said, but it was well past the hour. We hadn’t confirmed our standing date, and I’d have to remember to do that in the morning. Or I could invent a reason to skip it this week, but wasn’t it too late to do that? It seemed to me that Saturday morning was too late to break a Saturday night date, and I’m sure it’s all explained logically in the Big Book and the Twelve & Twelve, with the proverbial key of willingness playing a starring role.

  I remembered, for a change, and hit my knees before I got into bed. “Thank you for another sober day,” I said, feeling righteous and stupid at the same time. It’s remarkable how often the two feelings coincide.


  I READ THE TIMES with my breakfast, then went back to my room and called Jan. We agreed we’d go to the SoHo meeting at St. Anthony’s, and I said I’d rather have dinner after than before, if that was all right with her. She said that was fine, she’d have a late lunch.

  “I’d have called last night,” I said, “but it was too late by the time I got home. I had to see a fellow, a dedicated night-owl type. ”

  “It sounds like you’re working. ”

  “I am,” I said. “I’m not sure there’s much point to it, but I’m getting paid. ”

  “Isn’t that point enough?”

  “It may have to be. There are some people I want to see, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I’m going to spend the day trying. That’s why I’d like to wait and have dinner afterward. ”

  Why was I explaining? Why did I always feel I had to explain everything? We weren’t married, for Christ’s sake, and even if we were—

  “So I’ll see you at SoHo,” she said, cheerfully oblivious to the silent argument we were having, “and afterward we can go to one of those Eyetie places on Thompson Street, and you can tell me all about your case. ”

  Besides Jack Ellery’s, I’d had five names to try on Danny Boy. He’d scanned the list, then tapped one name with his forefinger. “Alan MacLeish,” he said. “Or Piper MacLeish, as I’ve heard him called. ”

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