A drop of the hard stuff, p.15
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.15

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 15

  “That may be an understatement. ”

  “It might. They’d like him for the murder. Once you’ve got a suspect in hand, you don’t want to knock yourself out looking for another one. I don’t think they’d have made any kind of a case against him, but he’d still be the worse off for having attracted their attention. ”

  We talked some more, and then he said, “You know, it scarcely matters if we find out who did the shooting. We’re taking the appropriate action, and it will work out the way it’s supposed to. ”

  “It will?”

  “Of course,” he said. “Everything always does. ”

  Did everything always work out the way it was supposed to? I had that to think about, and I kept turning it around in my mind through most of the evening meeting. SoHo group meets at St. Anthony of Padua’s, a big redbrick church on the corner of Houston and Sullivan with a predominantly Italian congregation. I was a few minutes late getting there, and the first thing I saw upon entering was Jan, looking my way and waving an arm to indicate she’d saved me a seat.

  I immediately wished she hadn’t. There were plenty of empty seats, as there always were in that oversized room. I could have been trusted to find a seat of my own. We’d be going out for dinner, and then spending the night together, so why did we have to sit side by side while somebody with a beatific smile on his broad face told us how he used to pee in empty bottles and pour them out the window because he couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way down the hall to the bathroom? Couldn’t we share that experience just as well sitting ten or twenty yards apart?

  I kept this to myself, and sat down next to her, right where I was supposed to, and within a few minutes realized I’d have resented it at least as much if she hadn’t saved a seat for me. That gave me something else to think about, along with everything working out the way it’s supposed to.

  That particular meeting had a format I hadn’t yet encountered elsewhere. After the speaker’s qualification and the secretary’s break, the group broke up into mini-groups of eight to ten, seated at round tables. Someone at each table would suggest a topic, and the ensuing round-robin discussion would fill the remaining half hour. Jan and I automatically headed for different tables, and the topic where I wound up turned out to be acceptance. I found myself wishing it was something else, and then realizing how ironically appropriate that was.

  And the topic hardly mattered, because this was Downtown AA, and when it was your turn you said whatever you pleased. I would have happily passed, but there were only eight of us and it was easy enough for me to find something to say. I just tossed out Jim’s line—well, Buddha’s, I guess—about dissatisfaction being the cause of unhappiness. Then it was somebody else’s turn.

  The restaurant on Thompson Street was old-fashioned Greenwich Village Italian—red checkered tablecloths, straw-covered Chianti bottles as candleholders, a Sinatra record for background music. The waiter remembered us, approved our appetizer and entrée choices, and didn’t try to coax us into ordering wine. The food was good, and we took our time over the meal, and I talked about Jack Ellery and my attempts to find out who’d killed him.

  “Or who didn’t,” I said, “which is turning out to be my real mission here. If I can clear the names on his Eighth Step list, his sponsor can let it go with a clear conscience. No need to share anything with the cops if you’re sure what you’ve got isn’t worth sharing. ”

  “Is that what it says in the penal code?”

  “You’re joking, but as far as the law’s concerned, he doesn’t have to report it even if he knows for a fact who did the shooting. He’s not an officer of the court. He’s a private citizen. That doesn’t give him the right to lie to a police officer, but he can keep things to himself. ”

  “So all you have to do is clear the rest of the names on the list. That’s simpler than finding a killer, isn’t it?”

  “Well, not if the killer’s on the list. In that case it’ll be tricky to clear him. ”

  We batted that around a little, and she asked how I’d feel about walking away from the case once I’d cleared them all. I said I’d feel as though I’d earned a thousand dollars.

  “Would you, Matt? Oh, I’m not suggesting you wouldn’t have earned your money. But wouldn’t you feel as though you’d left part of the job undone?”

  “Why?”

  “Because Jack’s killer would be walking around free. ”

  “He’d hardly lack for company. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean there are a lot of killers walking around free. It used to make me crazy when we brought in a perpetrator and watched the case fall apart. Either the DA’s office fucked it up or the evidence just wasn’t there or twelve dimwits on a jury couldn’t bring themselves to do the right thing, and all our work was for nothing. I’m not sure I ever got over it completely, because it’s natural to have an emotional investment in a case. But you get used to it. ”

  We moved on to some stray observations on the meeting. “I can see peeing in empty bottles,” I said. “You’re in a rooming house and the bathroom’s at the end of the hall and somebody’s probably using it anyway. And here’s an empty bottle, and if you’re a guy you’ve got something to aim with—”

  “Which is probably good for nothing else at that point. ”

  “—so you make use of what you’ve been given. Just cap it afterward so you don’t spill it all over the floor. ”

  “Gross. ”

  “But what I don’t get,” I said, “is why it would strike him as a good idea to pour the bottles out the window. Just set them aside until you can get it together to empty them in the toilet. What’s so hard about that?”

  “I can see one advantage in pouring your pee out the window. ”

  “Entertainment?”

  “Well, I suppose, but that’s more of a fringe benefit. The main thing is, then you don’t have to worry about drinking it by mistake. Ha! Got you with that one, didn’t I? The little lady wins the gross-out contest. ”

  We both agreed it was nice enough to walk the half mile home, and she took my arm crossing Houston Street and didn’t let go when we reached the curb. We’d finished the meal with espresso, and the waiter had come over with a pair of cordial glasses, the house’s standard lagniappe for customers they hoped to see again. As he reached our table he remembered we were the ones who’d passed on the wine. “You no want,” he said tentatively, and we agreed that we didn’t, and walking home Jan wondered what we’d turned down.

  “Probably anisette,” I said, “or something anise-flavored. ”

  “Not Sambuca?”

  “It could have been Sambuca. ”

  “They wouldn’t pass it out,” she said, “because most people can’t stand the taste of it, but you know what I used to like? Fernet-Branca. ”

  “You liked that stuff?”

  “It’s pretty horrible,” she admitted, “but nothing beat it on a bad morning. The bitter taste, I think it did something for your stomach. ”

  “All it ever did for mine,” I said, “was turn it. The only cordial I developed a fondness for was Strega. ”

  “Oh, Jesus, Strega! I haven’t even thought of that in years. I hope that’s not what he had for us. ”

  “What difference does it make? Since we didn’t drink it anyway—”

  “It was definitely anisette,” she said. “Some cheapo anisette with a nasty perfumy taste. ”

  “I’m sure you’re right. ”

  “You know what Strega means? In Italian?”

  “Witch, isn’t it?”

  “That’s right. Witch. ” We walked along in a pensive silence, and then she said, “You know, here I am remembering the taste, and if they perfected some kind of faux Strega, exactly the same but with no alcohol in it—”

  “You wouldn’t want it. ”

  “Wouldn’t touch it with a stick. ” She gave my arm a squeeze. “Don’t let this
get around,” she confided, “but I just might be an alcoholic. ”

  By the time we got close to Canal Street, the acknowledged boundary between SoHo and Tribeca, I could scarcely remember how I’d felt earlier—resenting her for presuming to save me a seat, chafing under the obligation of having to spend yet another Saturday night in her company. Why on earth would I want to spend the night differently?

  For a moment it seemed to me that I’d been given a glimpse of the future. We’d go on like this, growing ever closer to one another, and sometime after my one-year anniversary I’d spend all my nights on Lispenard Street. I might keep the room at the Northwestern as an office, at least for a while, but it wasn’t really a place to meet clients, and what other need did I have for an office?

  So we’d live together, and after a year of that, or less if it felt right, I’d put a ring on her finger.

  Would she want kids? I had two sons, and sooner or later Jan would have to meet them, and I figured they’d all get along as well as they had to. But she was two years younger than I, and had been sober two years longer, and she was still young enough to have children, although that biological clock was ticking away. So how would she feel on the subject? For that matter, how would I feel?

  Stay in the moment, I told myself. It’s a beautiful night and you’re going home with a fine-looking woman. What more do you need to know?

  XV

  I DON’T KNOW what the hell happened,” I told Jim. “We were the cute little couple on top of the wedding cake, and then we crossed Canal Street and everything turned to shit. ”

  It was Sunday night and Jim and I were in a Chinese restaurant. Hot-and-sour soup, sesame noodles, orange beef, and a chicken dish named for a Chinese general, all as ritualized in its own way as my Saturday evening.

  “We got to her door,” I said, “and she was fumbling in her purse, so I took out my key and unlocked the door. ”

  “You have keys to her place. ”

  “For months now. It’s a convenience. Her building’s an old factory converted to artists’ lofts, and it doesn’t have an intercom, although there’s been some talk about putting one in. What I would have to do was phone her when I was a block or so away, and then she’d wait at the window until she saw me and throw down a set of keys, and I’d pick them up off the sidewalk and let myself in. It didn’t take too long for both of us to get tired of that system. ”

  “No, it would get old fast. So you unlocked the door and she bristled. ”

  “Exactly. ”

  “She say anything?”

  “No. ”

 
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