Everybody dies, p.11
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       Everybody Dies, p.11

         Part #14 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 11



  "Cmon," he said. "Change seats with me. That way you can have a view of the entrance. "

  "If anybody tries anything," I said, "itll be on the street. The only thing I have to worry about in here is the mu shu pork. "

  He laughed at that, but all the same he came around the table, and I shrugged and took the seat hed vacated. "There," he said. "Ive done my part. I suppose you have to keep your jacket on, unless you want the whole world to see that youre strapped. Whats the matter?"

  "Packing heat," I said. "Strapped. "

  "Hey, I stay current on the lingo. I watch TV. " He grinned. "Im keeping my jacket on, too, but not out of solidarity. I swear the last time I was in here it was in the middle of a heat wave and it was hotter in here than it was outside. Todays a nice autumn day and theyve got the air conditioner going full blast. Did you have air conditioning at home when you were a kid?"

  "Are you kidding? We were lucky we had air. "

  "Same here," he said. "We had a fan, and everybody would huddle together in front of it, and it would blow hot air on us. "

  "But you didnt complain. "

  "No, heat was different," he said. "Heat you could complain about. Heres our guy. You want to order?"

  "I havent even looked at the menu," I said. "And I want to wash up first. If you want you can go ahead and order for both of us. "

  He shook his head. "No hurry," he said, and told the waiter wed need a few minutes.

  I found the mens room and used it. The usual sign advised me that employees were required to wash their hands, and I washed mine, even though I was unemployed at the moment. They had one of those hot-air dryers instead of paper towels, and if Id noticed it ahead of time I might not have been so quick to wash my hands. I hate the damned things, they take forever and my hands never feel dry when Im done. But Id washed them, and now I stood there and dried them, and while it took its time I thought how Id report all this to Jim in a few minutes.

  I looked at myself in the mirror and fussed with my shirt collar, trying to hide the vest without buttoning the top button. Not that anyone could really see it, or know what they were seeing. Not that it mattered. Still, if I took hold of it and tugged it down a little in front-

  Thats what I was doing when I heard the shots.

  I could have failed to notice them. They werent that loud. Or I could have taken them for something else. A truck backfiring, a waiter dropping a tray. Anything at all.

  But for some reason I knew instantly what I was hearing and realized just what it meant. I burst out of the mens room and raced the length of the hallway and into the dining room. I took in the scene there at a glance- Jim, an openmouthed waiter, a pair of customers trying to shrink into the woodwork, a thin blond woman on the verge of hysteria, another woman trying to calm her. I ran past all of them and out the door, but the shooter was nowhere to be seen. Hed vanished around a corner or jumped into a waiting car. Or disappeared in a puff of smoke, but whatever hed done he was gone.

  I went back inside. Nothing had changed. No one had moved. Jim was at our table, his back to the entrance. He had resumed reading while I was in the mens room, and the magazine section was on the table, open to an article about parents who kept their children out of school and educated them at home. Id known a few people over the years whod talked about wanting to do that, but nobody whod actually done it.

  He must have been reading when the killer approached, and he probably never saw it coming. Hed been shot twice in the side of the head with a small-caliber pistol, a. 22, as it turned out. There was a time when such weapons were ridiculed as toys or ladies guns, but theyd since become the ordnance of choice for professional killers. Im not entirely sure why. Im told that a lighter bullet tends to carom around inside the skull, greatly increasing the likelihood that a head shot will prove fatal. Maybe its that, or maybe its an ego thing. If youre really good at your trade you dont need a cannon, you can do fine with a scalpel.

  Hed been shot twice, as I said, once in the temple, once in the ear. Not much more than an inch separated the two bullet holes. The killer got in close- I could see the powder burns, I could smell scorched hair and flesh- and hed dropped the gun when he was done using it, leaving it behind along with the ejected casings.

  I didnt touch the gun or move to examine it. I didnt know then that it was in fact a. 22, I didnt recognize the maker or model, but thats what it looked like, and thats what the wounds looked like.

  Hed slumped forward, the unwounded side of his face pressed against the magazine open on the table in front of him. Blood had trickled down his cheek and some of it had pooled on the magazine. Not a lot of blood, though. You pretty much stop bleeding once youre dead, and he must have been dead before the killer cleared the threshold, perhaps even before the gun hit the floor.

  How old was he? Sixty-one, sixty-two? Something like that. A middle-aged man in a red polo shirt and khakis, wearing an unzipped tan windbreaker He still had most of his hair, though it had crept back some from his forehead and was thinning at the crown. Hed shaved that morning, nicking himself lightly on the chin. I couldnt see the place now but Id noticed it earlier, before I went to the mens room. He did that a lot, cut himself shaving Used to do that a lot.

  Ike, of Ike and Mike.

  I stood there. People were saying things and they may have been saying some of them to me, but nothing was registering. My eyes were focused on a sentence from the article on home schooling, but that wasnt registering either. I just stood there, and eventually I heard a siren, and eventually the cops showed up.

  If only.

  If only Id canceled dinner. Wed seen a lot of each other in the past several weeks. Lets skip a week, I could have suggested. He wouldnt have objected. Odds are hed have been secretly relieved.

  If only wed gone down to Chinatown. The vegetarian place down there was on Pell Street, up a long flight of narrow stairs. A pro would never hit anybody in a place like that, leaving himself with a tricky escape route.

  If only Id put on different clothes. Ive never paid much attention to what Im wearing, I generally grab the top shirt off the stack. This time the shirt happened to be red, and so did his.

  Whoever tagged me from the Parc Vend?me to the Lucky Panda was following a man in a red polo shirt and khaki slacks and a tan windbreaker. And when he (or whoever he called) entered the restaurant himself, he saw a man in those very clothes sitting alone at a table, the only person around who came close to fitting the description. He didnt need to ask to see some ID. He did what hed come to do and dropped the gun on the floor and took off.

  If only hed taken a good look at Jim first.

  If only Id worn my blazer. So what if it bulged a little over the shoulder holster? I wasnt posing for a layout in GQ.

  If only Id taken a minute to empty my goddamn bladder before I left the house. Id never have left the table, Id have been sitting across from Jim when the shooter walked in. Son of a bitch would have thought he was seeing double. He might well have decided to shoot both of us and let God sort us out, and he might have managed it, too, but hed have had a moments confusion, a few seconds while he paused and figured it out, and maybe that would have been time enough for me to spot him and go for my own gun.

  If only Id resisted his suggestion to change seats. Jim might have seen the guy walk in, might have had a chance to react. And the shooter, seeing his face instead of the back of his head, might have realized he had the wrong man.

  If only Id skipped washing my hands. Or wiped them on my pants instead of wasting time at the hot-air dryer. Id have been emerging from the mens room right around the time the shooter was approaching Jims table. I could have called out a warning, could have drawn my own gun, could have dropped the bastard before he shot my friend.

  If only…

  If only Id stood there and taken my beating like a man the other night. It wouldnt have killed me, and that would have been the end of it. Id
have learned my lesson, or seemed to, and theyd have left me alone. But no, I had to be a hero, I had to show off and fight back.

  If only Id been wearing sneakers that night. I was wearing them now. Why couldnt I have been wearing them then? When I stomped the foot of the guy behind me, hed have grunted and held on, and Id have earned an extra wallop for my troubles.

  If only Id followed through. If I insisted on fighting back and if I was lucky enough to come out ahead, why couldnt I have finished the job? If only Id acted on my impulse and kicked the slugger in the head, and kicked him again, and kept at it until I kicked his fucking head in. And put a bullet in the other ones chest while I was at it, and pressed the gun into his buddys fist. Let the cops figure that one out. With a couple of lowlife skells like that, they wouldnt kill themselves trying.

  Oh, hell. If only Id passed on the case in the first place. Told Mick I didnt want to get involved. Id wound up telling him that anyway just a day later.

  Story of my life, always a day late and a dollar short.

  If only Id fired him as a sponsor. Id been sober for years, Id evidently long since mastered the subtle art of not drinking a day at a time, so what did I need with a sponsor? Why prolong the relationship, and why maintain the silly tradition of Chinese Sunday night dinners?

  Elaine could have reminded me that I was a married man, that I ought to be having dinner every Sunday with my wife. Shed never do that, it wasnt like her at all, but if only she had.

  If only Id never picked him as a sponsor in the first place. Hed been the obvious choice, the only person who paid any real attention to me when I started coming to meetings at St. Pauls. I was still drinking on and off at first, not at all sure I wanted to be there and apparently incapable of declaring myself an alcoholic, or indeed of saying anything more than I absolutely had to. When it was my inescapable turn to speak, Id say, My name is Matt, and I think Ill just listen tonight. I didnt think anyone noticed me, and it was months later before I learned that Id had an AA sobriquet for a little while there. People referred to me as Matt the Listener.

  But he took an interest, always said hello, always passed the time of day. Invited me to join a couple of them for coffee after the meeting. Listened respectfully when I spouted nonsense in the manner of the newly sober. Offered the occasional suggestion, so gently put that I rarely realized I hadnt thought of it myself.

  I keep hearing I ought to get a sponsor, I said offhandedly one night. Said it after having rehearsed it for two days. What do you think? I said.

  Its probably not a bad idea, he said.

  No, I said, about you being my sponsor. What do you think about that?

  I think I probably already am, he said. But, he said, if youd like to make it formal, Id say it sounds okay to me.

  He was just this guy in an old army jacket. For a long time I didnt know what he did for a living, or what life he had outside the AA rooms. Then he led a meeting and I heard his story. And then we got to know each other, and drank gallons of coffee at meetings and after meetings, and sat across the table from each other on hundreds of Sunday nights.

  If only Id picked someone else to be my sponsor, or no one at all. If only Id looked around that basement room and said thanks but no thanks and gone back out for a drink.

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