A drop of the hard stuff, p.14
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.14

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 14

  “And that’s what you did. ”

  “And that’s what I did, and I was no genius, but I did all right at it. I had this three-bedroom river-view apartment on Haven Avenue up in Washington Heights, and two of the bedrooms were my store. And the word got around. Next time I run into Jack, I tell him I’m in a different part of the business. So a couple of times he brings me stuff, and I take it off his hands. And another time he shows up, and have I got a nice fur? Because there’s a girl who let him know that’s what she wants. It happens I do, and he buys it from me.

  “And then I come home one night, I’ve been out celebrating one thing or another, and I’m cleaned out. No damage to the locks, so I always figured somebody had copies of my keys. And I was right, because when he was making his whatchacallit, his fucking amends, he told me right off. He swiped a set of my keys, had copies made, then got my keys back where I kept them. And waited until he knew I was out, and came back with a partner, and cleaned me out. Even knew where I kept my cash. ”

  “And you suspected Jack?”

  “I had a feeling. A couple of names came to mind, and he was on the top of the list. I went to him, not to confront him but just to see, you know? And he was full of plans, what I got to do to get the stuff back. There’s this saying about junkies, that first they steal your wallet and then they help you look for it. It was like that with him. He stole my wallet, and now he was helping me look for it. ”

  “So you were out a lot of money. ”

  “I was out of the business, man, and for a while there I was out of town, because I’d just bought a ton of jewelry and financed the deal by borrowing money from the shies. They don’t know from excuses. ‘Sorry for your troubles, it’s a hell of a world, and by the way you owe us money. ’ And it’s not like I can call my insurance agent, put in a claim. Everything’s gone and I’m on the hook for it. ” He shook his head at the memory. “Uncle Selig helped me work it out. Pointed me in another direction, said I was good with numbers, had me learn bookkeeping. Been doing it ever since. A couple of clients, I keep two sets of books for them, and if that ever came to light I could probably get in trouble. But aside from that I’ve been completely legit for years. ”

  “So Jack showed up—”

  “And copped to what he’d done. ‘You were my friend and I stole from you. ’ And this rage came over me. Like, not just how could you do such a thing, but how can you stand here and tell me about it? And smile while you do it?”

  “So you hit him?”

  “ ‘Mark, tell me what I can do to make it right with you. ’ I said I ought to punch his lights out. ‘Mark, go ahead, if that’s what you want. ’ And he stands in front of me with his face hanging out, like he’s fucking daring me to throw a punch at him. You ever hit anybody in the face?”

  “Not recently. ”

  “First time for me. Oh, kids on a playground, you know. I gave somebody a bloody nose once, got one myself a time or two. Nine, ten years old. Never since then, until I hit Jack. ”

  His face darkened at the memory. “He just stood there,” he said. “Maybe took a half step back but that’s all. I split his lip and there was a little trickle of blood, but it didn’t stop the crazy bastard from smiling. I asked him if that was what he wanted, words to that effect, and he said I could keep going. ‘All you want, Mark. Whatever it takes to make it right. ’

  “And I fucking lost it. I hauled off and hit him again, and he kept standing there and I kept swinging. I don’t know how many times I hit him. ” He looked at his bandaged hand. “Each time with the right hand. Three, four, five times? I don’t know. I beat the shit out of my hand but I never felt a thing at the time. Later on, Jesus, whole other story. ”

  He stopped, and I might have spoken if I could have thought of something to say. I heard a clock ticking. I hadn’t noticed it before.

  He said, “The last time I hit him he came close to falling down. His knees buckled anyway. I looked at him and there was something different in his face, and all I could think was he looked like Jesus Christ. I’m Jewish, so what the hell do I know about Jesus? Crazy what goes through your mind.

  “And he looks at me with these fucking Jesus eyes and says, ‘Mark, I’m sorry. ’ Just that. And his face is all bloody and I’m thinking, Shit, what am I doing? What have I done? And I just—this is hard to talk about. ”

  I didn’t say anything.

  “I just started crying, okay? And then we’re both crying, and we’re standing in the middle of the room hugging each other like brothers and crying like fucking babies. And I can’t stand to look at him and see what I’ve done to him, because his face is a mess. It probably looked worse later, with swelling and discoloration and all. But it was pretty bad then.

  “He wouldn’t let me take him to the hospital. Insisted he’d be all right, and he’d take care of it himself. And he wanted to know how much it had cost me, what he’d done. How much money I was out, so he could start reimbursing me, so many dollars a month, whatever he could afford for as long as it took. I told him he didn’t owe me anything, it was all money I never should have had in the first place. And if I hadn’t lost it I’d have had no reason to get out of the business, and eventually I’d have gone away for it, which happened a couple of times to Uncle Selig, who was smarter and better at it than I’d ever be. So you could say he did me a favor, which is something I never thought of before then and probably never would have, if I hadn’t just spent ten minutes smashing my hand against this man’s face.

  “Did I mention he wouldn’t let me take him to the hospital? A couple of hours later I went myself, walked over to Cabrini and had my hand looked at. It took that long before I realized how badly I’d hurt myself. I didn’t tell Jack, for fear that he’d decide he owed me another amends. I didn’t figure either of us could stand another amends. ”

  “You saw him again?”

  “No. He called once, I think it was the next day or the day after. Just making sure everything was okay, and I was positive I didn’t want any of the money back. I never heard from him again, and then I found out he was dead. Shot to death, I think it was. ”

  “That’s right. ”

  He nodded to himself. “When I had the business uptown,” he said, “I owned a gun. It came to me as part of a deal, and I kept it because a person in that line of work needs protection, right? It disappeared in the burglary along with everything else. I never had a gun in my hands before or since. Never fired one in my life. ”

  I started to say something but he held up the unbandaged hand to stop me. “If,” he said. “If I’d still had that gun, or any gun, when Jack came in with his amends, I wouldn’t have thought twice. Pick it up, point it, pull the trigger. I guess that’s what somebody else did. ”

  “It was at his apartment. ”

  “Jack’s apartment?”

  “Someone came to his place,” I said, “and brought a gun along. He was shot twice at close range, once in the forehead and once in the mouth. ”

  “I didn’t know that. It sounds cold. ”

  “And purposeful,” I said. “ ‘You talk too much. ’ ”

  “Maybe. ” He looked at me with Bambi’s big soft eyes. “He was just trying to make things right with everybody, and it doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then. What’s done is done, you know? Leave the past alone. But the point is he was trying to accomplish something, and all it did was get him killed. ”

  XIV

  THERE WAS A message in my box at the Northwestern, a call logged an hour earlier from Greg Stillman. I called him from my room, and he said he thought I might have been trying to reach him. His answering machine had been able to tell him that there had been several calls from someone who hadn’t left a message.

  “So who else could it be?”

  “You know,” he said, “I think there’s a country song along those lines. ‘If nobody answers, it’s me. ’ It wasn’t you, though, was it?”


  “I did hang up on an answering machine,” I said. “A couple of times. But it wasn’t your machine. ” And I filled him in on my meeting with Mark Sattenstein.

  “So you found out who gave Jack the beating. But he didn’t shoot him. ”

  “No. ”

  “You don’t think he could be lying about it?”

  “Not a chance. ”

  “It’s funny,” he said. “I’d more or less assumed that one person was responsible for both the beating and the shooting. ‘Oh, that’s not enough to get rid of you? All right, in that case bang. And while we’re on the subject, bang again. ’ ”

  “By the time Sattenstein finished hitting him, there was no anger left. ”

  “And his take now is that our Jack rescued him from a life of crime. It’s a shame he didn’t show up at the service. He could have told that story and had everybody in tears. ”

  “He referred to him once as High-Low Jack,” I said. “I didn’t want to interrupt him at the time, and then I forgot. I was halfway out the door before I asked him about it. ”

  “And?”

  “And he didn’t even remember that he’d used the sobriquet, but—”

  “He said sobriquet?”

  “No, of course not. Nickname, he must have said. He didn’t recall using it today, but he could have, because he’d been familiar with it in the days when the two of them did business together. But he had no idea how Jack came by the name, or what it meant. ”

  “That’s helpful, isn’t it?”

  “Not terribly,” I agreed, “but somehow I don’t think Jack’s sobriquet—”

  “You just like using the word, don’t you?”

  “—is going to point the way to his killer. ”

  “Will anything?”

  “I don’t know. If you’re losing heart for this—”

  “No, not at all! I think it’s remarkable that we’re seeing results already. You’ve told me two things just now, and they’re both important. We know who beat him up, and we know that someone else shot him. I can see right now I was right to enlist your help. ”

  “Oh?”

  “If I’d gone to the police, they’d have been the ones to show up on Mark Sattenstein’s doorstep. Somehow I think he’s better off for its having been you instead. ”

  “They’d have given him a hassle,” I said.

 
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