All the flowers are dyin.., p.13
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.13

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 13


  He checks himself in the mirror and is pleased with what he sees. Could his mustache use a trim? He smiles at the thought, grooms the mustache with thumb and forefinger.

  His shoes aren’t dirty, but they could use polishing. Is there a bootblack within fifty miles? He rather doubts it. But when he picked up the ice cream at the Circle K (and he’d bought two pints, not one, and ate them both) he’d also picked up a flat tin of Kiwi black shoe polish.

  Some motel amenities include a disposable cloth for polishing your shoes, provided less for the guest’s convenience than to save the hotel’s towels. This Days Inn has been remiss, and it’s their loss. He uses a wash-cloth to apply the polish, a hand towel to buff it to a high sheen.

  Before he leaves, he uses another towel to wipe surfaces he may have touched. It’s not his habit to touch things unnecessarily, and there’s not going to be anyone dusting his room for prints, but this is the sort of thing he does routinely, and why not? He’s got plenty of time, and it’s never a mistake to take precautions. Better safe than sorry.

  He boots up his computer a final time, logs on, checks his e-mail. Vis its the several Usenet newsgroups to which he subscribes, reads a few entries. There’s been a flurry of activity in a thread dealing with the impending execution of Preston Applewhite, and he catches up on the new posts. He finds a few provocative observations, tucked in among the usual predictable cries of outrage from the diehard foes of capital punishment, balanced by the cheers of death penalty fans whose only regret is that the proceedings won’t be televised.

  Pay-per-view, he thinks. Just a matter of time.

  He logs off, finishes packing, leaves the motel by the rear door. No need to check out, as they took an imprint of his credit card. Nor is there any need to return the plastic key card. He’s read that a lot of information is automatically coded into the card, that one could in theory use it to reconstruct a guest’s entrances and exits. He’s not sure this is actually true, and even if it were, he knows the cards are automatically recycled, their coded data erased forever when they’re reprogrammed for another guest and another room. But why leave anything to chance? He’ll bring the key along and discard it in another state.

  It’s twenty minutes past ten when he pulls up at the penitentiary gate- house, where the guard recognizes him and welcomes him with a grim smile. He parks in what has become his usual spot, checks himself in the mirror, smoothes his mustache, and walks to the entrance. The sun is high in a virtually cloudless sky, and there’s no breeze. It’s going to be a hot day.

  But not inside, where climate controls keep the air cool and dry year-round. He passes through the metal detector, shows his ID to men who already know him by sight, and is escorted to the little room where witnesses sit to view the application of society’s ultimate sanction.

  He’s ushered into the room at ten-forty-five, a full hour and a quarter before the proceedings are scheduled to begin, and there are already half a dozen people present, four men and two women. One man a few years his junior, wearing a shirt and tie but no jacket, makes conversational overtures. He’s sure the man is a journalist, and he doesn’t want to talk to him, or indeed to anyone. He dismisses the man with a shake of his head.

  There is, he’s surprised to note, a refreshment table laid out for the spectators, with a coffee urn and a pitcher of iced tea, along with a plate of doughnuts and another of corn and bran muffins. He doesn’t want to eat anything, the whole idea is faintly distasteful, but does help himself to a cup of coffee.

  And takes a chair. There are no bad seats; the viewing gallery is long and narrow, with every chair adjacent to the big plate-glass window. He’s struck immediately by how close they are to what they’re going to watch. But for the intervening glass, they’d be able to smell the breath of the attending physician, and the fear of his unfortunate patient.

  The equipment is in place, the gurney, the apparatus holding three suspended bottles and an array of medical equipment. He glances to his right, at a middle-aged man and woman whose eyes are fixed upon a framed photograph the woman is holding. Their son, of course. One of Applewhite’s three victims.

  He shifts in his seat, manages a glimpse of the photo. The shock of blond hair is an unmistakable field mark; these are the Willises, parents of the first boy slain, the one whose remains were never found.

  The body’s location is the secret Preston Applewhite is evidently determined to take with him to the grave.

  The door opens to admit another man, who takes a seat, then sees the refreshment table and helps himself to coffee and a doughnut. “That looks good,” someone says, and goes to the table.

  And the coffee is in fact better than one might expect, weaker than he’d prefer but otherwise acceptable, and freshly made. He finishes it, sets the cup aside, and gazes through the pane of glass.

  And allows the memories to come…

  Richmond, Virginia, no more than fifty miles away, but further removed in time than in distance. Years ago, when the Willis boy—Jeffrey?—is alive, when Preston Applewhite is a free man, a husband and father, a respected member of his community. And a man who still enjoys a game of basketball once or twice a week at the municipal outdoor recreation area a few blocks from his office.

  And he himself, Arne Bodinson (although he has another name then, and it would take some concentration to conjure it up from his memory), happens to be passing through the grounds. He’s never walked there before, he’s barely arrived in Richmond, and he pauses to watch the men play a boys’ game.

  Two men leap for a rebound. The elbow of one collides with the face of the other, and the second man cries out in pain and crumples to the pavement, blood streaming from his nose.

  Why do things happen? Why does one man live while another dies, one prosper while another fails? It seems self-evident that one of two operating principles must apply. Either everything happens for a reason or nothing happens for a reason. Either it was all coded in the molecules from the very instant of the Big Bang or every bit of it, every left or right turn, every lightning strike, every broken shoelace, is the product of nothing but random chance.

  He could argue the question either way, but more often than not he leans toward the latter version. Random chance rolls the dice. Things happen because they happen. You get what you get.

  Consider this, then: Anyone could have paused to watch that basketball game, but it is not just anyone, it is he himself, the future Arne Bodinson, with his particular history and personality. And, although the weather renders it superfluous, he is nevertheless wearing a sport jacket, and in its breast pocket, atypically for him, there is a neatly folded white handkerchief. He’s put it there that morning, so he realizes he has it, and without conscious thought he rushes across the court to the fallen man, drawing the hanky from his pocket, using it to stanch the flow of blood from the injured (but not, it will turn out, broken) nose.

  Others, teammates and opponents, are also quick to assist Applewhite, and in no time at all they have him on his feet and are leading him away to get medical attention. And he’s left there with a bloody handkerchief in his hand, and he looks at it, and, wondrous to say, he is able to foresee everything that is to follow. Another man would have disposed of the handkerchief in the nearest trashcan, but he sees it at once as an unparalleled opportunity.

  He bears it carefully away. As soon as he conveniently can, he tucks it away in a plastic Ziploc bag

  A man in a brown suit, evidently a subordinate of the warden’s, enters the room and clears his throat, explaining in some detail just what is going to take place shortly on the other side of the window. He’s heard it all before, and suspects that’s as true of the others, the bereaved, the members of the press, and whoever else has contrived to get one of these precious front-row seats.

  But the fellow is not just there to refresh everybody’s memory. He’s the approximate equivalent of the chap whose task it is to warm up a televisio
n show’s studio audience, telling jokes to heighten their spirits, exhorting them to respond enthusiastically to the promptings of the APPLAUSE sign. The man in the brown suit doesn’t tell jokes, of course, and his goal is to mute and muffle emotions, not amplify them. “Remember the solemnity of the occasion,” he urges them. “You may feel the impulse to say something. Whatever it is, keep it to yourself until after we’ve finished here. The sight of this man who’s brought you so much pain may move you to cry out. If you feel you won’t be able to control yourself, I’m going to ask you to tell me now, and I’ll have you escorted to another part of the facility. ”

  No one is moved to do so.

  “We’re going to witness the end of a man’s life. The process will be as painless as we know how to make it, but even so you’re going to watch a man make the transition from life to death. If that’s more than you care to see, let me know now. All right. If you discover when the time comes that you don’t want to watch, close your eyes. That sounds obvious, but sometimes people forget that they have the option. ”

  There’s more, but he tunes it out. The clock, after all, is ticking, and he has more to remember…

  With the bloody handkerchief zipped in a plastic bag, all of what will follow is clear in his mind, as if the script is already written, as if he need merely follow the directions.

  When he first began to kill, he did so as a means to the twin ends of money and power. Those were the two things he thought he wanted, and killing was an occasionally useful technique for acquiring them. He was not surprised to discover that it did not bother him to kill, he’d somehow expected as much, but what he had not anticipated was the pleasure and satisfaction that accompanied the act. It brought excitement and a sense of accomplishment beyond anything attainable by other means.

  It is hard to say with certainty just when he turned the corner, coming to the realization that money and power were secondary, that killing itself was its own reward. But he suspects it’s around the time that he bought the knife.

  He holds the knife, grips it in his hand. It looks like any other bowie-type hunting knife, but he paid over two hundred dollars for it, and he can feel the value in its balance and the way it fits his hand. It was hand-crafted by a man named Randall, something of a legend among the makers and collectors of bench-made knives.

  He’s used it several times since he bought it. It’s always served its purpose admirably. And on each occasion he’s cleaned it afterward, scrubbing every trace of blood from its surface. It’s stainless steel, of course, and impregnable, but blood could find its way into the seam of blade and hilt, so he’s taken the additional precaution of soaking his knife overnight in a dilute Clorox solution. No blood, no DNA, nothing to implicate the knife or its owner in any of the several killings it has occasioned.

  Now, knowing he’s soon to use it again, and knowing the how and why of it, he feels the stirrings of excitement.

  That night and the following day he drives around Richmond, getting his bearings. He learns where the prostitutes gather. There’s no easier quarry, and he’s taken prostitutes before—off the street, in a massage parlor—when the hunger for killing has demanded quick satisfaction, and there’s been no time to make the act something special. One of them scarcely seemed surprised by her imminent fate, and he wondered if she and her sisters didn’t expect to end that way, wondered if serial murder might rank as an occupational illness, like black lung disease for coal miners.

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