All the flowers are dyin.., p.17
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.17

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 17

 

  “Then he just a man going home. ”

  “A man who lives around the corner from a woman and tells her he lives a couple of miles away in the East Thirties. ”

  “Maybe he don’t want her coming over every other day to borrow a cup of sugar. ”

  “More likely a pack of cigarettes. I can see that, actually. You go fishing for a girlfriend online, hoping she doesn’t live in the outer reaches of Brooklyn or Queens, some bus-and-subway combination away from you, and then you find out she’s right around the corner, and you realize there’s such a thing as too close. ”

  “I don’t know,” he said. “Wouldn’t she recognize him? From seeing him in the neighborhood?”

  “You’d think so. New Yorkers may not know our next-door neighbors, but we’re generally able to recognize them by sight. He made a phone call, let’s not forget that part. ”

  “Right before he lit up a cigarette. ”

  Elaine had come in to fix herself a cup of tea. “He was phoning his wife,” she said, “to find out if he should pick up a quart of milk on the way home. ”

  “Or a cup of sugar,” I said. “Or a carton of Marlboros. If he was married, would he get himself a girlfriend around the corner?”

  “Not unless he had a well-developed death wish,” she said. “Who was he talking to on the phone, a man or a woman?”

  “We couldn’t even hear him,” I said.

  “Couldn’t you tell by his body language? Whether it was a man or a woman on the other end of the call?”

  “No. ”

  “TJ?”

  “I had to guess, I’d say a woman. ”

  “You would?” I said. “Why?”

  “Dunno. ”

  “He was just with a woman,” I said, “and from what Louise said he gave a good account of himself. If he wasn’t calling his wife to say he’d had to stay late at the office—”

  “And he wouldn’t,” TJ said, “not if he lived five minutes away. He’d just show up. ”

  “You’re right. So it wasn’t a wife he called. ”

  “ ’Less it was somebody else’s wife. ”

  “Jesus,” I said.

  “He could have called his wife,” Elaine said. “In Scarsdale, to say he’d be late, or that he wasn’t going to make it home at all. And then he went to the building around the corner. ”

  “Who’s in the building around the corner?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “You’re the detective. ”

  “Thanks. ”

  TJ said, “Could be another woman. ”

  “In the corner building?”

  “Everybody got to be someplace. ”

  “So he’s two-timing Louise with somebody who lives around the corner from her?”

  “Three-timing, if he got that wife in Scarsdale. ”

  “Maybe she’s a working girl,” Elaine offered.

  “Louise? I honestly don’t think—”

  “Not Louise. The late date, the woman around the corner. Maybe she’s in the game. ”

  “But he was just with Louise. ”

  “So?”

  “From what she said—”

  “He screwed her brains out?”

  “Not the words she used,” I said, “but that was the general impression I got, yeah. ”

  “Maybe the earth moved for her but not for him. Or maybe he was going for the hat trick. That’s what, hockey?”

  I nodded. “When one player scores three goals in a game. ”

  “I knew it was three goals, I just couldn’t remember if it was hockey or soccer. ”

  “It’s migrated into other sports, but it’s a hockey term. ”

  “I wonder where it comes from. Anyway, if he knows a working girl right around the corner from Louise, why not drop over and see her?”

  I summoned up the image of him in front of Louise’s brownstone, phone in hand. “He didn’t have to look up her number,” I said. “But he’d have it on his speed dial, wouldn’t he?”

  “Probably. That’s what people have nowadays, instead of a little black book. ”

  “If he was still in the mood,” I said, “why didn’t he just stay upstairs a little longer?”

  “Gee, I don’t know,” she said. “Do you suppose it could be that Y chromosome he’s been carrying around all his life?”

  “In other words, he’s a guy. ”

  “When I was working,” she said, “I’d have johns who would get themselves off before they came over, so they could last longer. I had one who was the opposite, he wanted me to keep him right on the edge for like an hour or more and not let him get off at all, so he could go home and give his wife a bounce she wouldn’t forget. That one baffled me, I’ve got to say. I felt like a picador at a bullfight. ”

  I glanced at TJ to see what he made of her remembrance of things past. If it had any impact on him, it didn’t show on his face. He knew about her career history, he and Monica were about the only people we saw regularly who did, but she rarely talked about it in his presence as she was dong now.

  TJ had never known his own mother. She’d died when he was less than a year old, and his grandmother had raised him until her own death. Things she’d told him had led TJ to speculate that his mother had been a working girl, and that he himself might have been a trick baby, an unplanned bonus from an unwitting client. No way to tell, he’d said, and he seemed comfortable enough with not knowing.

  But the conversation had lost its way, having essentially abandoned David Thompson for a dissertation on the Men Are Strange theme. I said, “I’m not convinced he went into that building. ”

  “It might have been another one?”

  “Or no building at all. Maybe he knew he was being followed. ”

  “He wouldn’t,” TJ said, “ ’less he was suspicious to start with. You think he picked up something from Louise?”

  “Not if he used a condom,” Elaine said.

  “If he’s married,” I said, “he might have suspected his wife was having him followed. That could have made him wary enough to sense us. ”

  “Way he stood there lighting that cigarette,” TJ said. “Like he wanted a minute to figure out what to do as much as he wanted that nicotine hit. ”

  “So he turned right instead of left,” I said, “and turned right again at West End, turned against traffic. Then he ducked into a building, or found a doorway or an alleyway to hide in. ”

  “Why would he do that? To shake the two of you, obviously, but why? Wouldn’t it be suspicious behavior, and wouldn’t you think the last thing he’d want to do if he thinks his wife is having him followed is act suspicious?”

  “ ’Less it’s more important that she don’t know where he’s going next. ”

  I said, “Maybe there was a cab there. Around the corner on Eighty-eighth. ”

  “He had a cab waiting for him?”

  “No, but there could have been one standing there, discharging a fare. And he could have grabbed it and been on his way by the time I turned the corner. ”

  “Wouldn’t you have seen a cab driving away?”

  “If I was looking for it. If it was already halfway down the block, and I was looking around for a man on foot, well, I might not have noticed it. Or he could have had a car parked there. ”

  “And started it up and pulled out without being seen? Only if you was limpin’ round the corner. ”

  “He could have parked there,” I said, “and got in and pulled the door shut, but not started up. Because he didn’t want to be spotted. ”

  “Or because he had something to do first,” Elaine offered, “like make a phone call or look up an address. ”

  “Or smoke another cigarette,” I said, “or anything at all. There’s too much we don’t know and too many avenues for speculation. ”

  “Plus all the side streets,” TJ said.

  We batted it back and forth a little more, and Elaine said he sounded to her like a man with something to hide, and he
r guess would be that he was a sex addict. That was a new term, she added, for what used to be just a guy who liked to party, or what earlier generations had called a good-time Charlie, or a gentleman with an eye for the ladies.

  That got us talking about how the world didn’t cut you much slack anymore, how yesterday’s pastimes were today’s pathologies. TJ finished his Coke and went home.

  “Leo wouldn’t take any money,” I told Elaine, “and neither will I. Tonight’s not going to come out of Louise’s retainer. ”

  “The $500? Didn’t that get used up a while ago?”

  “I’ve barely put a dent in it. ”

  “You’re a real hard-nosed businessman, aren’t you?”

  “The money doesn’t really matter. ”

  “I know that, baby. ”

  “I just want to see if I can figure it out,” I said. “It shouldn’t be that hard. ”

  11

  He holds the bronze letter opener in his hands, turns it over, runs a finger over the design in low relief on the handle. A pack of hounds are holding a stag at bay. It is, he notes, quite artfully executed.

  The woman, every bit as artfully executed as the letter opener, stands patiently on the other side of the counter. He asks her what she can tell him about the piece.

  “Well, it’s a paper knife, of course. Art Nouveau, probably French but possibly Belgian. ”

  “Belgian?”

  “It’s signed,” she says. “On the reverse. ” He turns it over and she hands him a magnifying glass with a staghorn handle. “It’s hard to see with the naked eye, or at least with my naked eye. See?”

  “DeVreese. ”

  “Godfrey DeVreese,” she says, “or Godefroid, if you prefer. I’m not sure which he’d have preferred. He was Belgian. I had a bronze medallion of his for years, a gorgeous thing, a good three and a half inches in diameter. Leopold the Second on one side, with a beard that was a hell of a lot nobler than the man sporting it. You know about Leopold the Second?”

  He grins easily. “I would suppose,” he says, “that he came between Leopold the First and Leopold the Third. ”

  “Actually his successor was his son, Albert. Leopold Three came a little later on. Number Two was the gentle fellow who ran the Belgian Congo as his personal fief. He treated the local residents as slaves, and he’d have had more respect for the inhabitants of an ant farm. Remember all those photos of natives with their hands chopped off?”

  What can she be she talking about? “It rings a bell,” he says.

  “But he looked good,” she says, “especially in bronze. There was a horse on the other side, and he looked even better than Leo. It was a draft horse, one of those big boys you don’t see anymore outside of a Budweiser commercial. Except this one was a Percheron and the Budweiser horses are Clydesdales. The medal was an award from some sort of agricultural fair. Probably the turn-of-the-century equivalent of a tractor-pulling contest. ”

 
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