A drop of the hard stuff, p.12
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.12

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 12

  “Because he’s Scottish?”

  “That may have been a factor, but I think it had less to do with bagpipes than the kind you hit people over the head with. ”

  “That was his weapon of choice?”

  “So far as I know,” Danny Boy said, “he only used it once, but he did time for it, and the name stuck. You know the story about poor Pierre the Bridge Builder. ”

  “Sure. ”

  “ ‘Ah, monsieur, I, Pierre, built zat bridge. I have built dozens of bridges. But do zey call me Pierre ze Bridge Builder? Zey do not. ’ ”

  “That’s the one. ”

  “ ‘But suck one cock. ’ Jesus, the old jokes are the best jokes. That’s why they lasted. ” He picked up the Rubik’s Cube, gave it a look, put it down again. “I’m pretty sure Piper’s back inside. He was middlemanning a heroin transaction and the Rockefeller drug laws got him a long sentence. That was a few years ago, but I’d be surprised if he got out yet. ”

  The next two names didn’t register at all. “Crosby Hart. I don’t recall ever hearing about anybody with Crosby for a first name. Seems to me I’d remember if I had. On the other hand, this next one goes to the other extreme. Robert Williams? How many folks do you suppose answer to that one?”

  “I’m not even sure he was a crook,” I said. “He was a friend of Jack’s, and Jack screwed his wife, and thought he might have fathered a child. ”

  “In other words, start looking for a Robert Williams with a wife who fucks around. Narrows it down. ”

  There were two more names, and Danny Boy recognized them but didn’t know what they’d been up to or where to find them. “There was a Sattenstein, an uptown fellow. Cabrini Boulevard? Somewhere up there. A small-time fence, if I’ve got the right person, and then he fell off the radar. Frankie Dukes, now there’s a name I know, though I can’t think why. Is Dukes a surname or did they call him that because he was handy with his fists?”

  Not too handy, I thought. Gave him a bad beating, Jack had noted on his list. Broke his nose and two ribs.

  “Well, somebody will probably know something,” Danny Boy said, “or they’ll know somebody who does. You know how it works. ”

  I knew how it worked. In my hotel room I looked at my list of names and crossed off Alan MacLeish. Got him in trouble, Jack had noted after his name, and if he’d been responsible for getting him sent away, I’d have to call that an understatement. But he’d also noted the difficulty in making things right with the man, and a closer reading showed that the Piper was indeed behind stone walls, and that Jack had known as much. Have to be on visitors’ list, have to be approved correspondent. How?

  How indeed?

  That left Crosby Hart, Mark Sattenstein, Frankie Dukes, and the cuckolded Robert Williams. I opened the Manhattan phone book and let my fingers do the walking. There were Harts but no Crosby, Dukeses but no Frank. There was a single Mark Sattenstein, with an address on East Seventeenth Street.

  Easy choice. I dialed the listed number. It rang four times, and then an answering machine picked up and a male voice invited me to leave a message, sounding as though he didn’t much care if I did or not.

  I hung up and copied down Sattenstein’s address and phone number. Then I let my feet do the walking as far as Columbus Circle, where I caught the subway downtown.

  Up until recently I’d have made another phone call, one to Eddie Koehler, who’d been my rabbi in the NYPD and had a lot to do with my assignment to the Sixth, where he headed the detectives squad. He’d have helped me out over the phone, thus saving me a trip downtown, and while he was at it he’d go through the motions and urge me to apply for reinstatement as a cop.

  I put in my papers not long after a stray bullet of mine killed a young girl in Washington Heights. That incident didn’t cause my resignation from the department any more than it caused the end of my marriage, but it would be accurate to say it precipitated both of those events, and left me with something to spend the next several years drinking about.

  As far as the NYPD was concerned, it was a righteous shooting. I’d been chasing two holdup men who’d already killed a bartender, and my bullets killed one of them and brought down the other, which is pretty good when it’s night and your targets are moving. The bullet that struck the child did so on the hop, ricocheting wildly and to chilling effect. Her death was a tragedy, but I didn’t get a reprimand because I hadn’t done anything wrong. What I got was a commendation.

  I never felt it was justified. I discharged my service revolver and a child died, and it’s not as though the two phenomena were unconnected. When I write out my own Eighth Step list, Estrellita Rivera’s name will be up there near the top, though what I can ever do in the way of amends is beyond me.

  But all that is beside the point. When I got sober, Jim and I had one of those talks about the future, and one question that came up was what I was going to do to earn a living. Resuming my career as a cop was one option we discussed, and I talked about it with Jan as well, and then Eddie Koehler, who’d already stayed in harness a couple of years past retirement age, put in his papers, and sold his house and moved to Florida.

  I suppose I still had the option of applying for reinstatement, but a day at a time I left that road untaken, and it began to seem less and less realistic. I’d been away long enough so that some strings would have to be pulled to get me back in, and Eddie wasn’t around to pull them, and what friends I had in the department didn’t have his clout.

  And, on occasions like this one, I had to use the subway instead of the phone.

  I could picture the cop with whom I’d watched Jack Ellery’s lineup, saw the high forehead and the bright blue eyes and the bulldog jaw, but I couldn’t remember his name. I got to within a block of the station house on West Tenth before it came to me. Lonergan—but I still couldn’t come up with his first name. I asked the desk sergeant for Detective Lonergan, and his face clouded.

  “That’d be Bill Lonergan,” he said, and told me he’d retired back in March or April. He gave me a phone number, and I was heading for the door when he called me back and told me I could use the phone. “Save you the price of a call,” he said, “and the six-block hike looking for one that actually works. ”

  I made the call and a woman answered on the second ring. She put him on the line, and I recognized the voice. I told him who I was and he repeated my name and said he couldn’t place me. I told him I was looking into the death of Jack Ellery, and that name didn’t seem to ring much of a bell, either.

  “It was a case of yours,” I said, “but this was some years ago. ”

  “It’ll come to me,” he said. “Listen, why don’t you come out here? I’ll remember you once I get a look at you, and this Ellery too, most likely. ”

  “High-Low Jack, you called him. ”

  “Now that’s familiar,” he allowed. “Time you get here, I’ll see if I can’t get my memory working. ”

  He lived in the Woodside section of Queens, in one of a row of small single-family houses with tiny front lawns and asphalt siding. The ride took the better part of an hour, I had to take two trains to get there, and on the way I considered the fact that he couldn’t have been more than a few years older than I, which made him young for retirement. And I remembered how the desk sergeant’s face had darkened when I mentioned Lonergan’s name.

  I put that in the hopper, along with the sergeant’s quickness to supply a phone number and even to provide a phone, and I tossed in Lonergan’s willingness, even eagerness, to have me visit. There was really only one way all those elements added up, and so I wasn’t much surprised when Mrs. Lonergan opened the door to my knock and led me in to meet her husband. He was wearing a robe and pajamas, and he was sitting in an easy chair watching a TV with the sound turned off, and his face was gaunt and his complexion jaundiced, and he was dying.

  Because I was prepared, I don’t think my face showed much in the way of shock, but Lonerga
n was a detective, so he probably got a reading. But all he said was “Yeah, sure, Matt Scudder. Came to me the minute I got off the phone. I don’t recall that we ever worked a case together, but there was a time or two we went out and had a few. What was that joint on Sheridan Square? Not the Lion’s Head but the place next door to it. ”

  “The Fifty-five. ”

  “That’s it. Jesus, that was a good place for serious drinking. You didn’t go there to sip a fucking white wine spritzer. Speaking of which, what’ll you have? There’s Scotch and Scotch. Or, unless someone grabbed it, there’s a stray can of Ballantine’s Ale in the icebox. ”

  “I think I’ll pass,” I said. And added, quite uncharacteristically, “I quit drinking a while back, Bill. I joined AA, went the whole way. ”

  “Did you. When was this?”

  “It’s almost a year now. ”

  “Let me look at you,” he said, and did. “You look all right. I hope you stopped in time. Would you drink a ginger ale?”

  “Sure, if it’s no trouble. ”

  He assured me it wasn’t, called out to summon his wife. “Edna, sweetie, could you bring the two of us a couple of ginger ales? They’re cold already, don’t bother with ice. In fact right out of the can is fine. ”

  But she brought in highball glasses, with a few ice cubes in each. He thanked her, and when she’d left he said, “The doc gave me the green light, said drink if I want to, that at this point it doesn’t make any difference. If you were drinking I’d keep you company. But the booze doesn’t sit well on my stomach these days. ” He held his glass to the light. “Looks enough like booze,” he said. “Little dark for Scotch, but it could be bourbon and soda. ” He took a sip, said, “Nope, ginger ale. Isn’t that a relief and a disappointment? You’re too much of a gentleman to ask, so I’ll tell you, and then we can put it on the shelf. It’s cirrhosis, with a side order of liver cancer. So it doesn’t matter if I drink but it feels better if I don’t. End of story. ”

  He said, “Jack Ellery. You say somebody killed him? You told me that a year ago, I’d have said something along the lines of good riddance. Still, your perspective changes when you’re staring at it yourself. Lately I’m not so quick to wish death on anybody, you know?”

  “Sure. ”

  “But the guy was a lowlife. No way around it. You’re working this on a private ticket?”

  Not quite, in that I didn’t have a license. But that was close enough, and I nodded.

  “So you got a client. Somebody who cares enough to pay money to find out who put him away. ”

  “A friend of his. ”

  He thought about it. “He’s a guy who could have a friend or two,” he allowed, “though he wouldn’t hang on to them for long. Kind of guy who’d be a friend of his, assuming he’d want to know who killed him, is he gonna go to an ex-cop to find out?”

  He was still a pretty good detective. “The friend’s straight,” I said, wondering how long it had been since anyone had applied that adjective to Gregory Stillman.

  “It’s not a girlfriend, or you’d have said so. ” He looked at me. “AA. ”

  “Good catch, Bill. ”

  “I never thought of Ellery as a drunk,” he said. “I mean, he drank, but who the hell didn’t? You drank, I drank—” He broke off, shook his head. “Well, there you go, huh? Look at us now. Anyway, I can’t say I ever got to know the son of a bitch. All I wanted to do was put him away, and the case fell apart, and at that point I lost interest. ”

  “The two of you never bellied up to the bar at the Fifty-five. ”

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