A drop of the hard stuff, p.18
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.18
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 18

  Then I got home from St. Paul’s one night and there was a message to call Mr. Bell. I dialed the number on the slip and they answered at the Top Knot and called Danny Boy to the phone. “You could stop by,” he said, “and I was going to suggest that, but it’s easier to pass this on over the phone. Unless you feel the need to compare the Top Knot’s Coca-Cola with Poogan’s, in which case I’d welcome your company. ”

  I told him I was just about ready to call it a night.

  “Then write this down, Matthew. Francis Paul Doo-kosh, except that’s not how it’s spelled. ” He spelled it out for me. “It’s Hungarian, I think, or maybe Czech. One of those countries that get in the papers whenever the Russians send in their tanks. ”

  “Frankie Dukes. ”

  “The man himself. And that is all I know about him, though I could probably find out more. But that may be all you need to track him down. ”

  And indeed it was. I opened the book as soon as I got off the phone, and there he was, with a listed phone and an address all the way east on Seventy-eighth Street. That put him south and east of the furnished room where Jack had been shot to death, but not more than ten minutes away. It would have been easy enough for Jack to find him, I thought. Or for him to find Jack.

  I called a couple of times the following morning and couldn’t even reach an answering machine, so I took a bus across Seventy-ninth and found his address in the middle of a row of brownstones. I pushed the buzzer for Dukacs, got no answer, and a framed note on the wall led me next door, where I was able to find the super. She lived in a basement apartment, and I don’t know what she had on the stove, but I wanted some. It smelled terrific.

  I told her I was looking for one of her tenants, a Mr. Dukacs. I must have pronounced it correctly, because her face registered approval. In good but accented English she told me I would probably find him at his shop on First Avenue, Dukacs & Son. He was the son. Dukacs, God rest his soul, was his father. If the younger Dukacs wasn’t there, he was most likely taking a break next door at Theresa’s. He had all his meals there.

  “Whatever he gets,” I said, “I’ll bet it’s not as good as what you’ve got cooking. ”

  “My lunch,” she said levelly. “Only enough for one. ”

  Theresa’s would have been a standard New York coffee shop, but the specials were kielbasa and goulash instead of spanakopita and moussaka. Two women shared a booth, having either a late breakfast or a very early lunch, and an old man with a patterned cloth cap sat at the counter stirring a cup of coffee. I suppose he could have been Frankie Dukes, but the odds were against it.

  The shop next door was a Korean greengrocer, but next to it was a meat market, and the sign overhead read DUKACS & SON. You could see where a final S had been long since painted out. A man my age or a little older stood at a counter, cutting a rack of lamb into individual rib chops. He was short and stout, a fireplug of a man with a full head of glossy black hair and a luxuriant mustache. There were a couple of gray hairs in the mustache, and in his abundant eyebrows. He wielded his cleaver with an efficiency that made it clear he’d done this before.

  When I went in he put down the cleaver and asked what he could get for me this morning. “Beautiful chops here,” he said, and held one up for me to admire. “On special, matter of fact. ”

  “I’m afraid I’m not here as a customer. ”

  “Oh?”

  “You’re Francis Dukacs?”

  “Why?”

  I dug out a wallet, flipped it open at random, flipped it shut. He might not be holding the cleaver, but he was standing close enough to it so that I was just as happy to have him assume I was an officer of the law.

  “I have a couple of questions,” I said, “about a man named Jack Ellery. ”

  “Never heard of him. ”

  “I believe you had a recent visit from him. ”

  “Did he come to buy meat? That’s the only people come here. Customers. ”

  “He would have come to make amends, to offer an apology—”

  “That son of a bitch!”

  I took a step backward. In an instant Dukacs was transformed from a stolid shopkeeper into a wild-eyed madman.

  “That fucker! That cocksucker! You know about him, that son of a bitch? You know what he did?” He didn’t wait for my answer. “He walked in here, he waited until my other customers left, then he stuck a gun in my face. ‘Give me all your money or I shoot you. ’ ”

  “This was some time ago. ”

  “So? Not so goddamn long I don’t remember it. You got a gun in your face, you remember. ”

  “Then what happened?”

  “I was shaking. My hands, shaking. I tried to open the register. I couldn’t open the fucking thing. ”

  “And he struck you?”

  “With the gun. Back, forth. Split my head open, blood down my face like a curtain. Here, you see the scar? I woke up in the hospital. Stitches, concussion, two teeth out. ” He tapped an incisor. “Bridgework,” he said. “All thanks to him. And you know what he got out of it? Nothing! He couldn’t open the cash box either. Fucking thing was jammed. Neither one of us could open it and he gave me a beating for nothing. ”

  “Did the police—”

  He waved a hand, dismissing the question. “Nothing,” he said. “They showed me books full of pictures. I got a headache looking. What did he look like? It’s like I went blank, I couldn’t see his face in my mind. And then I’d go to sleep and I’d see it in my dreams. ”

  “His face?”

  “Perfectly clear in the dreams. Drove me crazy, those fucking dreams. I didn’t want to go to sleep because I’d have the dream, and he’d be there and I’d be trying to open the register and it wouldn’t open and he’d beat me like a drum. Every night, that damn face of his, and I’d wake up, and the face would be gone. I had to go to sleep to see it, and I didn’t want to see it. ”

  Sleeping pills made it worse, and for a while he couldn’t sleep without them. Then he got off the pills, and eventually the nightmares became a rare event, only returning at times of great stress. A friend’s death, a relative’s illness, and he’d dream of the robbery. And then one day the man who’d starred in the nightmares had the colossal nerve to walk into Dukacs & Son.

  “And I’m standing here, and I don’t recognize him. And he starts talking and there’s something about the voice, it’s a voice I recognize but I can’t place it. And he says he owes me something, and he uses a word you used before, that he has to make. ”

  “Amends. ”

  “Yeah, that’s the word. And I don’t know what he’s talking about, and then there’s all this shit about how he used to be a drunk, he used to be a drug addict, he used to rob people, and all of a sudden the years fall away and it’s him, that son of a bitch, that bastard. In my store, can you believe it? Standing in front of me, saying he wants to apologize!”

  “What did you do?”

  “What did I do? What do you think I did? Get the fuck out of here, I tell him. Go fuck yourself, drop dead, take your apology and shove it up your ass!”

  “And he left?”

  “Not right away. ‘Oh, tell me what I can do to make it right. Can I pay money? Can I do anything?’ Fucking cocksucker. What’s he gonna do, grow me two new teeth? All I wanted was for him to get the hell out of my store. So I picked this up. ”

  The cleaver. “And he left?”

  “This he understood. ‘Easy, easy,’ and he backs away, and he’s out the door, and I can put this down again. And then, when he’s gone, the shakes come. ”

  “And the nightmares?”

  He shook his head. “No, thank God. Not so far. ” He looked at me. “Why?”

  “Why did he come? Well, as I understand it—”

  “No, what do I care why he came? He’s a crazy bastard, he’s a son of a bitch. He beats up a man whose fingers can’t open a cash box? A fucker like that, who cares why he does what h
e does?”

  “Then—”

  “You,” he said. “Why are you here? What do you want from me?”

  “Ellery was killed,” I said. “I’m investigating his death. ”

  “Somebody killed him? You’re standing there and telling me the son of a bitch is dead?”

  “I’m afraid so, and—”

  “Afraid? What’s to be afraid? You couldn’t bring me better news. You know what I say? I say thank God the bastard is dead!” He leaned forward, both hands on the counter. “ ‘Mr. Dukes’—’cause of course he gets the name wrong—‘Mr. Dukes, just tell me what I can do to make it right. ’ What can he do? I tell him what he can do is drop dead, that’s what he can do. Just drop fucking dead. And he did!”

  “Actually,” I said, “he had help. ”

  “Huh?”

  “Somebody killed him. ”

  “Yeah? You find him, I’ll buy him a drink. How? Beat him to death, I hope?”

  “He was shot. ”

  “Shot dead. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “Good,” he said flatly. “Good, I’m glad. A man’s dead and I’m glad. Wait a minute. You don’t think I did it, do you?”

  “No,” I said. “Somehow I don’t. ”

  XVIII

 
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