A drop of the hard stuff, p.13
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.13
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 13

  He shook his head. “You ever drink with him yourself?”

  “When I knew him in the Bronx, we were both drinking chocolate milk. By the time I met him again we were both sober. ”

  “He actually quit drinking?”

  “He was sober two years when he died. ”

  I told him a little more about Jack’s death—how he’d shown the effects of a beating, then took two bullets not long afterward. I ran my five names past him and explained where they came from.

  He said, “Making amends, did you call it? All of your crowd does that?”

  “It’s recommended. ”

  He shook his head. “Maybe it’s just as well I never tried that route. A list like that, Christ, I wouldn’t know where to start. ”

  XII

  WHEN I WAS ready to leave, Lonergan insisted on walking out onto the front stoop with me. “This neighborhood was all Irish,” he said. “Now you’ve got South Americans moving in. Colombians and Venezuelans mostly, and I forget what else. Maybe Ecuador. Some of the old joints have closed. Houlihan’s, used to be on the corner, now it’s a travel agency for the new arrivals. ” He shrugged. “I guess they’re all right, the new people. They can’t be that much worse than we were. ”

  I stopped at one of the new places a block before the subway entrance. It was a luncheonette, and I took a stool at the counter and ordered a café con leche. They used evaporated milk from a can, and it was sweet and not bad, but I didn’t like it enough to order it again.

  I thought about Bill Lonergan, and decided I hadn’t known him well enough to tell how the prospect of death had changed him. We’d gotten all the conversational mileage we could out of Jack Ellery, which wasn’t much. He didn’t recognize any of the names on Jack’s Eighth Step list, but one of them reminded him of someone else entirely, and that sent the conversation off on a diverting tangent. We told our war stories, and talked about colleagues from the Sixth, and I stayed longer than I would have because he seemed to want the company.

  The lunch counter had a pay phone, and I used it to call Mark Sattenstein. I got the answering machine, and that was response enough to keep the phone from returning my quarter.

  No problem. I had a change purse full of them.

  The train I caught in Woodside was headed for Times Square, but at Grand Central I transferred to the Lexington line. I got off at Fourteenth Street and tried another quarter in another phone, but this time I rang off the instant the machine picked up, and the phone gave me back my quarter. I seemed to be getting the hang of it.

  I walked three blocks up and two blocks east until I came to a five-story redbrick building on the uptown side of the street, a fire escape centered on the facade. The house number was the one I’d written down for Sattenstein, and in the vestibule I found his name on the buzzer for Apartment 3-A.

  I positioned my forefinger over the button, then drew it back. There were four apartments to a floor, and the A line was likely to be in front, and on the left. That wasn’t carved in stone, a building’s owner could number his apartments as he preferred, even as he could call his building whatever struck his fancy. The original owner of this particular structure had called it the Guinevere, and I knew this because it was indeed carved in stone, just above the front door.

  Outside, I stood on the sidewalk and found what ought to be 3-A’s front window. There was a light on inside, but even if it was the right apartment it didn’t necessarily prove anything. I returned to the vestibule and buzzed him, and I’d given up and started for the door when the intercom cleared its mechanical throat. I stayed put, and whatever somebody said in 3-A was completely garbled by the time it worked its way downstairs. I couldn’t make out a word of it.

  I answered in kind, making some noises that weren’t designed to be understood, and there was a long silence. Then, with what I could only assume was some reluctance, he buzzed me in.

  I guess the neighborhood hadn’t changed too much, because I picked up the scent of mice and cabbage in the stairwell. Three-A was where I’d thought it would be, and I approached the door quietly and was standing well to the side when I knocked. I didn’t really expect him to shoot through the door, but Jack probably hadn’t expected to catch two bullets in the head either.

  I heard footsteps not much louder than my own, and the sound of a peephole being drawn back. A judas, they sometimes call it, though I’ve never known why. Betrayal? Thirty pieces of silver?

  I was standing where I couldn’t be shot, and hence couldn’t be seen either. I had my wallet out, open to an old card proclaiming my membership in the Fraternal Order of Police. Its only use, as far as I know, is to induce an impressionable officer to cut an errant motorist some slack. I said my name, Matthew Scudder, and held the card to the peephole. “Like to talk to you about Jack Ellery,” I said, and I had my wallet back in my pocket well before he’d managed to get the door open.

  He was tall, six-two or six-three, big in the shoulders, small in the waist and hips. He had a rough-hewn face, but the big brown eyes could have belonged to Bambi; he looked not so much like a knockaround guy as like an actor who kept getting cast in that kind of role. He was holding the door with his left hand, and a look at his elaborately bandaged right hand explained why it had taken him so long to open it.

  He looked at once frightened and relieved, and that fit his opening words: “I’ve been expecting you. ”

  But how? I hadn’t left a message. I said something to that effect, and he said, “Well, you or someone like you. A police officer. ”

  He waited for me to say something, and I didn’t, and he said, “Ever since I heard about Jack. ”

  I looked at him, his face, his bandaged hand, and I got it. I said, “You’re the guy who beat him up. ”

  XIII

  BEFORE HE COULD tell me any more, I undid the work of the FOP card I’d flashed at him. I’d never said I was a cop, and there were times when I was willing to let someone retain that impression, but we were past the point where I felt comfortable sailing under the blue flag. I told him I was a former police officer now working privately, that I’d known Jack Ellery when we were boys together in the Bronx. “So you’re under no obligation to talk to me,” I said.

  That last would have been just as true if I’d been the commissioner himself. And it was safe to say, because I could tell he was ready to talk. Eager, even.

  First, though, he wanted me to come in and make myself comfortable. His apartment was the before version of Greg Stillman’s place in Carnegie Hill—before the exterior wall was taken down to the bare brick, before the floor was stripped and sanded and refinished, before the three small rooms were combined into one. Instead they remained coupled together like railroad cars. The door led into the little kitchen, with the living room at one end overlooking East Seventeenth Street, and the bedroom at the other. The furniture could have been gathered from thrift shops and the street, but the mismatched pieces didn’t clash enough to be labeled eclectic.

  He took me to the living room and pointed me toward an upholstered chair. He was going to make himself a cup of tea, he said, and would that suit me? Or there was beer, if I’d prefer that. I said tea would be fine.

  There were two posters on the wall, both from shows at the Whitney, both artists even I could recognize—Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper. I studied them in turn, and I was still going back and forth between them when he put a cup of tea on the table beside me. He said it was Earl Grey and I said that was fine. The posters, he said, belonged to a woman who’d lived with him for just about two years.

  “Then out of the blue she decided she was a lesbian. I mean, she was no kid. Younger’n me, but well up in her thirties, you know? How can you get to be that old and all along you’re a lesbian and you haven’t got a clue? How does that happen?”

  “I gather it happens a lot. ”

  “Does it happen to guys?”

  “I think everything happen
s to everybody,” I said, “but it seems to happen more often with women. ”

  He thought about it, shrugged. “Well, she left the posters here,” he said. “ ‘I’m done with ’em, Mark. You don’t want ’em, toss ’em. ’ Why would I do that? They look okay. I’m used to them. That tea okay?”

  “It’s fine. ”

  “You ever bust your hand? Just about everything you do becomes complicated. I still can’t tie my shoes. Thank God for loafers, huh?”

  “Where did it happen, Mark?”

  “Right here. He called me on the phone, said he’s got something to tell me, can he come over? I tried to get him to tell me over the phone, because it’s like he’s from a past life, you know? And I don’t remember him or that life with a whole lot of affection, so I’d just as soon hear whatever he’s got to say and be done with him. But no, this has to be face-to-face. I tell him I’m busy and he says okay, pick a time that works, just about any time at all will work for him. And I’m this close to telling him fuck off, leave me alone, whatever it is I don’t want to hear about it. This close. ”

  “But you told him to come over. ”

  “There was something made me think he’d be harder to shake than a summer cold, and I’m better off seeing him and getting it over and done with. And after I got off the phone with him I’m thinking, Hey, we used to be friends, and just because I’m living a different life these days, and there’s probably no place in it for a guy like High-Low Jack, that doesn’t mean I can’t be civil to him. ”

  High-Low Jack.

  “So he comes in, and there’s something different about him, some light in his eyes. Makes me a little uneasy. But it’s been years, you know? Come in, good to see you, take a load off, have a beer. Of course he wouldn’t have a beer. You know about that?”

  “He’d stopped drinking,” I said.

  “Said he was an alcoholic, which I could believe, the way he used to put it away. But then we all did back then, you know? We were kids, we partied hard, we got in trouble. Crazy shit. You grow up and it changes. ” He considered. “Or you don’t and it doesn’t. Whatever. So okay, you don’t want a beer, how about a cup of tea? But he doesn’t want anything, he just wants to get down to business. To make things right, except there was another word he kept using. ”

  “Amends. ”

  “Right, amends. I don’t think I ever heard anybody use that word outside of the context of, you know, an amendment to the Constitution. Amends. You know what he did? You know what this was all about?”

  “Something about a burglary,” I said. “He sold something to you and stole it back again, something along those lines. ”

  He was silent for a moment, thinking about it. Then he said, “What I was, I was a receiver. I never went away for it, I never even got arrested for it. You needed to sell something, I’d buy it for cash. You were looking to buy something, if I had it you’d be getting a bargain. But cash, no receipts, and don’t ask where it came from. Like, you know, stolen goods. ”

  “Not usually a young man’s business. ”

  “Well, I had someone to teach me the ropes. You ever know a man named Selig Wolf? My uncle, my mother’s younger brother. Uncle Selig had a new car every year, always dressed nice, money in his pocket. Used to slip me a couple of bucks whenever he saw me. ‘Here, Marky, you don’t want to walk around with empty pockets. ’ I’m out of school, I’m drifting from one dead-end job to another, and I team up with Jack and we do a snatch-and-grab at this credit jeweler’s on Queens Boulevard. Now what do we do with this shit we stole? So I take it to Uncle Selig, and first he gives me hell, and then he gives me a decent price for what I brought him, and finally he gives me advice. ‘Marky, you can kick in doors or hold people up, and have empty pockets most of the time, and sooner or later you get shot or do time, and what kind of life is that for my sister’s boy?’ Or I could buy and sell, the way he did, and he sat me down and showed me how. ”

 
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