Everybody dies, p.15
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       Everybody Dies, p.15

         Part #14 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 15

 

  "I told those two bozos the other night that I was done working for Ballou, and I told Mick the same thing. And that was that. "

  "But?"

  "But I must have known it wasnt going to be that easy," I said, "or I wouldnt have gone straight to Jovines for a shoulder rig. I told myself if I stayed away from Mick and kept close to home theyd find it easy to forget about me. But obviously theyd already made a decision to kill me, and tonight was the first chance they got, and they took it. " I frowned. "It shouldnt change anything. Oh, Im raging inside over Jims death. Most of my angers at myself for getting him killed, but- "

  "You didnt get him killed. "

  "I put him in harms way. Blame or no blame, thats hard to argue with. He was killed because someone mistook him for me, and that happened because I met him for dinner. And because Id given someone cause to want me dead. "

  "I could argue with you, but I wont. "

  "Good. As I was saying, most of my angers with myself. But theres some left over for the shooter, and for whoever sicced him on me. "

  "Two different people?"

  "Two minimum. Somebody made the decision, either the slugger with the slicked-down hair or the guy who gave him his orders. Somebody else staked out our building and followed me from here to the Chinese restaurant. He could have been the slugger or his chum- theyd both recognize me without trouble- or there could have been a third person, someone who wouldnt have to worry that I might recognize him. "

  "If so, maybe he doubled as the shooter. "

  "Maybe, but Id bet against it. I think he followed me to the restaurant, then posted himself across the street, making a quick call on his cell phone…"

  "I guess theyve all got cell phones these days. "

  "Everybody but you and me, it seems like. Even Micks got one, if you can believe that. He used it the other night to call ahead to the farm and say we were on our way. "

  "Leave a light burning, and a shovel on the back steps. "

  "The tail calls the shooter, who gets in his car and hurries to the scene. They meet on the street and the tail points to the Lucky Panda. Red shirt, tan jacket, Gap khakis, sneakers, he says. You cant miss him.

  "Then he gets behind the wheel, unless theres already a driver in addition to the shooter. Whoevers doing the driving puts the car someplace handy and keeps the motor running, and the shooter goes in with a gun and comes out without it, and he jumps in the car and theyre gone. "

  "And a mans dead," she said.

  "And a mans dead. "

  "It could have been you. "

  "It was supposed to be me. "

  "But God had other ideas. "

  That was one way to look at it. I said, "Two men on Ninth Avenue the night before last. A third who ordered the hit. A fourth man to trail me to the Lucky Panda, and a fifth to walk in and pull the trigger. And maybe a sixth man to drive the car. " I looked at her. "Thats a lot of people to get even with. "

  "Is that what you want to do?"

  "You cant help wanting to," I said. "The urge is pretty basic, and I suppose its instinctive, even cellular. They did it to us, were gonna do it to them. Look at human history. "

  "Look at Bosnia," she said.

  "But its five or six people, as I said, and I dont even know who they are. And I cant make myself believe Jims spirit is crying out for vengeance. If theres a part of you that survives, Im inclined to believe its not the part that takes things personally. Didnt you ask what Jim would tell me now? Well, what he wouldnt tell me is to get out there and kill one for the Gipper. "

  "No, that doesnt sound like Jim. "

  "I hate the idea of sitting back and letting them get away with it," I said, "but Im not sure anybody ever really gets away with anything, and I think Ive largely outgrown the notion that the world cant get along without my help. "

  "Its a pretty common delusion," she said, "and the more religious a person is, the more hell subscribe to it. If theres one thing the fundamentalists of the world have in common its the conviction that Gods work wont get done unless they pitch in and do it. Their Gods all-powerful, but Hes screwed unless they help Him out. "

  I drank some coffee. I said, "Its not my job to punish them. Im not appointing myself judge and jury, and Im not volunteering for the firing squad, either. I told them I was off the case, and I told Mick the same thing, and Jims death doesnt change that. I still want to walk away from it. "

  "Thank God for that. "

  "But theres a problem. See, I dont think I can. "

  "Why not?"

  "I walked away from it two nights ago," I said, "and it didnt do me any good. Their response was to send somebody to kill me. As far as they were concerned I was still on the case. Or maybe they didnt care. On or off, I was the son of a. bitch who kicked their asses, and maybe thats all you have to do around here to get Madame Defarge to knit your name in the shawl. Because one way or another I got my name on the Death List, and Jims dying isnt going to get me off it. "

  "So even if you dont do a thing…"

  "Im still marked for death. By now they probably know they killed the wrong guy, and if not theyll know by morning. I may be inclined to think of Jim as having died for my sins, but that wont make them accept his death as a substitute for mine. "

  "Your names still in the shawl. "

  "Im afraid so. "

  She looked at me. "So? What do we do?"

  What we tried to do was make love, but that didnt really work, so we just held each other. I told a few stories about Jim, some shed heard before, others that were new to her. A couple of them were funny, and we laughed.

  She said, "I probably shouldnt say this, but its rattling around in my head and making me crazy. Im terribly sorry for what happened to Jim. Im sorry for him and Im sorry for Beverly, and of course Im sorry for you.

  "But sorry isnt all I feel. Im glad it was him and not you. "

  I didnt say anything.

  "Its something I find myself thinking all the time," she said. "Its what the voice in my head says every time I read the obituaries, and sometimes I think thats why I read the obituaries. So I can say Better her than me whenever some dame my age dies of breast cancer. Better him than Matt when some poor guy drops dead on the golf course. Better them than us whenever theres an earthquake or a flood or a plague or a plane crash. Whoever they were, whatever happened to them, better them than us. "

  "Its a pretty natural response. "

  "But for a change it really resonates, doesnt it? Because it was pretty much a case of one or the other. If Jim went to the bathroom and you stayed at the table…"

  "It might have turned out differently. Id have been facing the door when he walked in. And I had a gun. "

  "And would you have gone for it in time?"

  If Id looked up when the door opened, Id have seen a stranger, a black man who looked not at all like the pair of white guys who jumped me. And thats if I looked up. I might well have been engrossed in the menu, or reading Jims magazine.

  "Maybe," I said. "But probably not. "

  "So better him than you is what I say. My heart aches for Beverly, it makes me sick to think of what shes going through right now, but better her than me. These arent noble sentiments, are they?"

  "I dont suppose they are. "

  "But God knows theyre heartfelt And you have to feel the same way, baby. Because you can tell yourself it should have been you there slumped in your own blood, but it wasnt you and in your heart youre glad of it. Im right, arent I?"

  "Yes," I said after a moment. "I guess you are. I almost wish it werent so, but it is. "

  "All that means is youre glad to be alive, sweetie. "

  "I guess so. "

  "Thats not necessarily a bad thing. "

  "I guess not. "

  "You know," she said, "it probably wouldnt hurt you to cry. "

  She may have been right about that, too, but we werent going to find out. The last time I remember crying was at an early AA me
eting, when I spoke up for the first time to identify myself as an alcoholic. The tears that followed took me completely by surprise. My eyes have stayed dry ever since, except for the occasional movie, and I dont think that counts. Those arent real tears, any more than the fear that grips you at a horror film is genuine fear.

  So I couldnt cry and I couldnt make love, and it turned out I couldnt sleep, either. I almost drifted off and then I didnt, and finally I gave up and got out of bed and got dressed. I put the vest on under my shirt, and the holster over it. I zipped the windbreaker just far enough to conceal the gun.

  Then I went into the other room and made a phone call.

  "A black man," Mick said, looking across the table at me.

  "According to the witnesses. "

  "But you never saw him yourself. "

  "No, and I didnt get to question the witnesses, either, but I understand they all agreed the shooter was black. Medium height, medium build, twenties or thirties or forties- "

  "Narrows it down. "

  "And he had a beard or a mustache. "

  "One or the other?"

  "Or both," I said. "Or neither, I suppose. He was in and out in less time than it takes to tell about it, and nobody had any reason to look at him before the shooting started, and then all they wanted to do was keep from getting shot themselves. "

  "But he was black," Mick said. "On that point theyre in rare agreement. "

  "Yes. "

  "Is it niggers then? And what am I to them, or they to me?" He picked up his glass of whiskey, looked at it, set it down untouched. "The two men who gave you a beating," he said, "or tried to. Were they black?"

  "They were both white. The one with the gun sounded like a born New Yorker. I didnt get a good look at the other one, or hear him talk, but he was white. "

  "And the man who shot your friend…"

  "Was black. "

  "A white man could hire a black assassin," he said thoughtfully. "But would this man bring in someone from outside? Wouldnt he use one of his own?"

  "Who is he?"

  "I dont know. "

  "But someones trying to…"

  "Take it all away," he said. "And I dont know who he is, or why its me hes after. "

  I didnt really think thered be anyone staked out at the Parc Vend?me, but Id just had my horse stolen and I wasnt about to leave the barn door unlocked. I went down to the basement and slipped out of the building by the rear service entrance. On my way to Grogans I looked over my shoulder a lot. Nobody tailed me, and no one popped up out of the shadows in front of me.

  Mick had said hed make a pot of coffee, and he was at a table when I got there, with a bottle and glass in front of him and a stoneware coffee mug across from him. I scanned the room from the doorway. It was getting on for closing, but there were a fair number of people who didnt want the weekend to end, pairs and singles at the bar, a few couples at the tables. I spotted Andy Buckley and Tom Heaney way in back at the dartboard, Burke behind the bar, and old Eamonn Dougherty on the other side of it. Mick had pointed him out once as a legendary IRA gunman. He was killing men before you were born, hed said.

 
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