A drop of the hard stuff, p.17
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.17

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

  I don’t know that I did. I tend to look like a cop irrespective of what I wear.

  The Cattle Baron was new to me, but pretty much what the name and location had led me to expect. It was a steak house, all dark wood and red leather and polished brass, with Bass Ale and three German beers on tap and a good selection of single-malt Scotch on the back bar. The clientele were all men and they all wore suits, and most of them spoke in loud voices. I stood in the doorway looking for a skinny guy with a skinny tie, and my eyes kept passing over one fellow until it registered that he was looking right at me.

  I approached him, and he said, “Mr. Scudder? Hal Hart. If you weren’t with a law firm I’d guess you might be with the investment house. Very reputable line of mutual funds. But I don’t suppose there’s any connection. ”

  “Nor with the Scudder Falls Bridge. ”

  “Well, I’d be more worried that you might try to sell me mutual funds. I’ve already bought my quota of bridges. ”

  His tie had narrow diagonal stripes of red and navy, and it wasn’t skinny, and neither was anything else about him. He’d replaced the cocaine with food and drink—beef and beer, by the look of him, and plenty of both. His face was round and red, and there was a Rorschach of broken capillaries in both cheeks.

  I sat at his invitation, and when the waiter appeared I ordered club soda. Hart’s glass stein was still half full of dark beer, but he tapped it with a forefinger and gave the waiter a nod. “Dos Equis,” he told me. “Best legal substance ever to come out of Mexico. Sure you won’t have one?”

  “Not right now,” I said.

  I could have crossed him off the list then and there, because there was no way this hearty stockbroker had put two holes in Jack Ellery. But that was the subject at hand, and I might as well get to it. The room was noisy, and the place smelled of booze and cigars and avarice, and I didn’t want to stay in it any longer than I had to.

  We talked sports until the drinks came. He too had watched the Giants lose to Green Bay, and had stronger feelings than I about the coaching. He was draining his glass just as the waiter arrived with a replacement, along with my club soda in a matching glass stein of its own. Hart beamed at both our drinks, picked up his, and said, “Mr. Scudder, I hope I’m wrong, but if I ever had an Uncle Kelvin this is the first I heard of him. ”

  “I think I said Kelton,” I said, “but it doesn’t matter, because he never existed. And I’m not an attorney. ”

  “Oh?”

  “I’m an investigator,” I said, “looking into a recent homicide. ”

  “Well, Jesus Christ. Who got killed, if it wasn’t my long-lost uncle Kelvin?”

  “A man named Jack Ellery. ”

  He was slightly pop-eyed, but I hadn’t really noticed it until I said the name. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “You can just go ahead and fuck me with a stick. Why in the hell would anybody kill Jack Ellery?”

  “Uh—”

  “If that crazy bastard doesn’t wind up giving me a stroke,” he said, “it’s not for lack of trying. He’s surprised the shit out of me twice in the past month. First by turning up alive, and then by turning up dead. How’d he die?”

  “He was shot to death. ”

  “And they ruled out suicide?”

  “Two bullets,” I said. “One in the forehead, the other in the mouth. ”

  “If that’s suicide,” he said, “it shows remarkably strong will. Jesus Christ. ” He drank some beer. “I never expected him to turn up. Never gave him a thought in God knows how many years. Then one night I get home from the office and my doorman points to a guy sitting in the lobby, says he’s waiting for me. I turn and look, and he stands up and says, ‘Crosby?’

  “So it has to be somebody from way back when, because it’s that long since anybody called me Crosby. That’s my middle name. I never liked Harold, which is what everybody called me all through high school, and as for Harry, well, forget it. So when I got to Colgate I met my freshman roommate and stuck out my hand. ‘H. Crosby Hart,’ I announced, ‘and everybody calls me Crosby. ’ And from then on, everybody did. ” His eyes sought mine. “Until I got into a little trouble. You know about that, right?”

  I nodded.

  “I was lucky enough to get out of it,” he said, “because I had a clean record, and because I was a white middle-class guy with a house in the suburbs. I got a fresh start, and I decided I ought to have a new name to go with it, and what’s funny is I already had one, because my wife had been calling me Hal all along. You know, Prince Hal? Shakespeare?” He shook his head. “These days it’s Harold, as in Harold-you’re-late-with-the-child-support. ”

  “But this guy in the lobby called you Crosby. ”

  He grinned. “Bringing me back on track, aren’t you? Very nicely done, and I can see why they named that bridge after you. Across the Delaware, isn’t it?”

  “I believe so. ”

  “Guy in my lobby, and he calls me by a name I never hear anymore. I can’t place him right away. He looks vaguely familiar, and he also looks, you know, a little bit seedy, a little bit down on his luck. Somebody I used to know who maybe didn’t do so good for himself in the years since. He’s dead, huh?”

  “Yes. ”

  “That’s a shame,” he said, and took a moment to think about it. “So he tells me his name, which doesn’t register at all, not right away. And he’d like to talk to me, and could we maybe go somewhere private?

  “So here’s a guy, clean shirt but the collar’s frayed, his shoes are polished but they’re down at the heels and scuffed under the polish, he shaved that morning but he’s overdue for a haircut—you get the picture?”

  “Respectable but broke. ”

  “Exactly. So this has to be a touch, right? Old time’s sake, gotta be good for a couple of bucks. I figure fifty, maybe a hundred, and then he’ll stay away from me until he’s in a position to pay it back, which means forever, and you’d have to call it a bargain. Fine, but I don’t need him inside my apartment. Right here’s private enough, I tell him, and I take him over to the corner, where there’s two sofas at right angles to each other. And we sit down, and I find out it’s not a touch after all, because what he says is he owes me an apology. And maybe something more than that, he says. ”

  He tilted his head, looked me over. “You know about this, right? You’re an investigator, which I guess means private, and you’re looking into his death, and you’re sitting there drinking club soda. I can’t help connecting the dots. ”

  “You’re not a bad investigator yourself. ”

  “Well, two plus two, you know? He owes me an apology, he wants to make amends. He used to be an alcoholic, but he’s not drinking anymore, and part of staying sober is what he’s doing now. There was an expression he used, something about cleaning up the mess he made—”

  “The wreckage of the past. ”

  “That’s it. ” He drank some beer. “The hell, I know a little about addiction. Fucking blow took me down big-time. And right about this time I place the guy. If I ever knew his last name I long since forgot it, but I’m listening to him and he’s talking about a coke deal, how he beat me for a couple of grand, and of course, Jesus, he’s High-Low Jack. ”

  “That’s what you used to call him?”

  “Well, I don’t know that I ever called him that. I called him Jack. Or man, we all called each other man all the time. Hey, man. Where’s it at, man? But if somebody wanted to know which Jack I was talking about—”

  “High-Low Jack. ”

  “Right. And I remembered the deal. Not the numbers, whether it was two grand or five or whatever it was, but I was making this quantity buy and I was no rube, I checked it out first, laid out a line and had a taste, and it was very good and righteous coke. ”

  “And you got it home and it wasn’t. ”

  “It magically turned into baby laxative,” he said, “somewhere between Googie’s men’s room and my a
partment. Not the first time I got burned, and not the last, either. I was mad as hell, believe it, but at the same time I had to admire how slick he’d been. And now here he is, parked in my lobby, perched on the edge of this sectional sofa, asking if I remember the amount because he wants to make arrangements to pay me back. Just so much a month, but for as long as it takes to make it right. ”

  I hadn’t seen him signal the waiter, who appeared magically with another Dos Equis. I had barely touched my soda.

  He said, “Cheers,” and took a sip. “You can probably guess what I told him. I said he didn’t owe me a thing. Whatever he beat me out of would have gone straight up my nose. And the money wasn’t mine in the first place. It was my firm’s, and it was a drop in the bucket I siphoned out of that place. I had to make restitution, and I did, but you never pay back everything you took, because they didn’t know just how bad I hurt them and neither did I. Whatever my debt was, they’d marked it paid in full, and that’s how I felt about whatever Jack thought he owed me. ”

  “And that’s what you told him. ”

  “Yes, and I had to spell it out, because he didn’t want to get off the hook that easily. What I didn’t say, but I have to admit it was going through my mind, was what did I want with a guy in a thrift-shop overcoat showing up once a week to slip me a ten-dollar bill? Makes you feel better, I said, find a charity you like and give them a few bucks. But as far as you and I are concerned, I said, we’re square. ”

  “And he accepted that. ”

  “Finally. He said he guessed he could cross me off his list. I guess I wasn’t the only person he burned. ”

  “One way or another,” I said, “there were quite a few people he felt he needed to make amends to. ”

  “And everybody in your crowd goes through something like that?” He didn’t wait for an answer, brandished his stein of beer. “Might find out for myself,” he said. “One of these days. ”

  I didn’t say anything.

  “Except I pretty much stick to beer these days. Cocaine was my problem, you know. I got one noseful of blow, and nothing was ever gonna be the same. But I stopped, and I never had a taste since. And I got to tell you it’s all over the place. There’s a guy at the bar, I’m not gonna point him out, but all I’d have to do is tip him a wink and go to the can, and he’d follow me there and sell me whatever I want. And he’s here all the time, and wherever you go there’s somebody just like him.

  “So these days just about the only thing I allow myself from south of the border is this here, and maybe a small glass of brandy after a big meal. Can’t turn into an alcoholic that way, can you?”

  “It’s not what you drink,” I said, as I’d heard others say. “It’s what it does to you. ”

  “That the party line on the subject? Well, who knows where I’ll end up. But that doesn’t mean I’m asking you to save me a seat. ”

  Lord, make me sober. But not yet.

  XVII

  FRANCIS PAUL DUKACS was easy to find, once I had that name to work with. By then I’d called every Dukes in the Manhattan book, and every Duke, too; there weren’t all that many of either, and it seemed reasonable that one of them might be related to Frankie Dukes, or at least know of him. But plural or singular, nobody could help me out.

 
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