All the flowers are dyin.., p.18
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.18

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 18

 

  “You still have the medallion?”

  “I thought I was going to own it forever, but some horse collector spotted it a few months ago and away it went. I’ll probably never see another one like it. ”

  He turns the letter opener in his hands. It’s quite beautiful, and he likes the heft of it.

  “You said turn-of-the-century?”

  “I suppose DeVreese would have said fin de siècle. Or the equivalent in Flemish, whatever that might be. I can’t date it precisely, I’m afraid, but it would have to be late nineteenth or early twentieth century. ”

  “So it’s about a hundred years old. ”

  “Give or take. ”

  He tests the point with his thumb. It’s quite sharp. The blade’s edges are not. It will serve to open a letter, but you couldn’t slice with it.

  You could stab, however.

  “May I ask the price?”

  “It’s two hundred dollars. ”

  “That seems high. ”

  “I know,” she says disarmingly.

  “Do you suppose I could get a discount?”

  She considers this. “If you pay cash,” she says, “I could absorb the sales tax. ”

  “So that would be two hundred dollars even as opposed to what, two-sixteen?”

  “A few dollars more than that, actually. If you want I could look it up for you, so you’ll know to the penny how much you’re saving. ”

  “But what I’d be paying,” he says, “is two hundred dollars. ”

  “And in return you’d be getting a piece of history. ”

  “It’s always nice to get a piece”—just the slightest pause here—“of history. ” Has she even noticed the pause? This would seem to be a woman who doesn’t miss much, and his sense is that she took it in and decided to overlook it, all without any of this registering on her face.

  He frowns, has another look at the bas-relief, notes the steadfast determination of both the hounds and their quarry. It would be the work of a moment, he thinks, to wrap his hand around the handle, to strike without warning. He visualizes the act, the underhand thrust, the sharpened bronze tip entering just below the lowest rib and reaching up for the heart. Visualizes himself turning and moving to the door before she slips to the floor behind the counter, even before the life fades from her eyes.

  But he’s touched things. His prints are all over the top surface of the showcase, and nothing holds a print better than glass.

  “I think I’d like to have it. ”

  “I don’t blame you. ”

  Besides, it would be too quick. It would be over before she knew it, and that can be very satisfying sometimes, the quick kill, but in this instance he’d want her to see it coming, want to watch her lose that confidence, that irritating self-possession.

  His loins stir at the thought of what he’ll do to her, when the time comes.

  But none of this shows in his face as he sighs with resignation and counts bills from his wallet. She takes the money, wraps the letter opener in tissue paper, tucks it into a paper bag. He tells her he won’t need a receipt, then slips his purchase into the inside breast pocket of his jacket.

  “Thanks,” she says. “Just so you know, I don’t think you paid too much. They’d ask something like five hundred in a shop on Madison Avenue. ”

  He smiles, murmurs something, heads for the door. But oh, Christ, how he wants to kill her! He doesn’t want to wait. He wants to kill her right now.

  12

  I didn’t much want to give my client a report of the night’s proceedings, and not just because it might leave her wondering if she’d hired an incompetent. More to the point, any suggestion that her Mr. Thompson had given me the slip would imply that he was not what he appeared, that he had something to hide. That’s how it felt to me, but it would be premature to pass that perception to Louise.

  “Nothing conclusive,” I told her. “I should be able to tell you more in a day or so. ”

  I found Thompson’s number in my notebook, called him on my cell phone. I hoped he wouldn’t answer and felt relieved when I got his Voice Mail. “Hey, man,” I said. “We sent you a check, payment in full, and I’ve got it right here in front of me. It came back, we’ve got the wrong address for you. Oh, shit, I’ve got to take that. Listen, ring me back, if I don’t answer just leave your address on my voice mail. And while you’re at it—oh, hell, never mind. Later. ”

  I’d tried to sound rushed, like some middle-management guy with everything happening at once, and I couldn’t tell if I’d pulled it off. I’d know more when he did or didn’t call me back.

  I had my cell phone in my pocket when I left the house, but I paused on the sidewalk to turn it off. I was on my way to a meeting, and you have to turn off cell phones and pagers there; at most groups they make an announcement to that effect. But I wanted mine off, meeting or no meeting, because the last thing I wanted was to answer a call and have David Thompson on the other end of the line. The first thing he’d do was ask who I was and what company the check was from, and I’d be stuck for an answer. If he got my voice mail there’d be nobody to ask, and he’d figure somebody owed him money and he might as well collect it, and he’d leave his address.

  This was assuming that at least a portion of his story was true, that he was in some sort of business in the course of which companies sent him checks. It might or might not be direct marketing, and his name might or might not be David Thompson, which was why I’d been as vague as I had in my message to him.

  It ought to work. And if it failed, it would simply have succeeded in another direction. If he was that suspicious, then he really did have something to hide.

  I walked up to the Y on West Sixty-third and caught the noon meeting of the Fireside group. The speaker told an abbreviated drinking story and spent most of her time talking about her current dilemma, which was whether or not to face that acting wasn’t working for her, that two lines in a Rolaids commercial and a few dozen days as an extra, along with nonpaying roles in showcase productions that nobody came to, wasn’t all that much to show for five years of devotion to the profession.

  “I’m not an actress, I’m a waitress,” she said, “and that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a respectable way to make a living, but I’m not sure it’s what I want to do with my life. I’m not even so sure anymore that acting’s what I want to do with my life, as if anyone’s going to give me a chance to do it. ”

  Abie was there; I hadn’t seen him since Ray Gruliow spoke at St. Paul’s, and he said he’d been mostly going to noon meetings lately, plus one night he’d been booked to speak out in Middle Village. I had lunch around the corner with him and two women, an office temp named Rachel and a sharp-faced young woman who worked as a substitute teacher when she worked at all, which I gathered wasn’t very often. I never did catch her name.

  Whoever she was, she didn’t waste any time taking the speaker’s inventory. “The nice thing about all that theatrical training,” she said, “is that she speaks distinctly and with expression, and you can sit in the last row and hear every word. Unfortunately, every word is me me me. ”

  Rachel said she looked familiar, and maybe she’d seen her in something. Abie said she didn’t look familiar to him, and that was odd, because he never missed a Rolaids commercial.

  “She said she had two lines,” Rachel said, “but maybe it was a voice-over, and she wasn’t on camera at all. ” It was hard to tell if she was taking him literally or matching his irony with her own.

  I didn’t get around to turning on my cell phone until I was back home, and there was a voice mail message waiting for me. A voice I hadn’t heard before said, “Hey, thanks, man. Here’s the address. ” I wrote it down: 755 Amsterdam #1217, New York NY 10025. “Don‘t forget the suite number,” he said, “or it won’t get here. That’s probably what happened the last time. ”

  In Manhattan, the numbered streets run east and west, and the numbers
start at Fifth Avenue. If you know the house number, you can readily tell what avenues it lies between.

  The avenues run north and south, and each one has a different numbering system, depending where it starts. But there’s a key, printed in street maps and pocket atlases, and to be found in most editions of the White and Yellow Pages. There are slight variations for certain thoroughfares, but the basic idea is that you take the address, drop the last digit, divide the result by two, add the particular number listed for that particular avenue, and the result is the nearest cross street.

  Some realtor had had the table printed on a wallet-sized plastic card, and it was a better giveaway than a calendar, because I’d had mine five years now and used it all the time. The realtor wouldn’t get much business from me, nothing was going to move us from the Parc Vendôme, but she had my thanks, whatever that was worth.

  And I in turn had the knowledge that the address I had for David Thompson was a block or two north of Ninety-sixth Street. That was a little more than a half mile from the corner of West End and Eighty-eighth, and a whole lot farther from Kips Bay.

  I got there on the subway, walked a block east from Broadway, and found 755 Amsterdam where Amalia Ferrante’s card said it should be, right in the middle of the block between Ninety-seventh and Ninety-eighth. The building was a five-story tenement, not yet noticeably affected by gentrification, but something was wrong, because even if they’d chopped it up into a rabbit warren over the years, there was no way there could be an apartment numbered 1217.

  Maybe it was Thompson’s idea of a code; when an envelope came with #1217 on it, he’d know it was from the man who’d called him. But that didn’t make sense either.

  I went into the vestibule and looked at the row of buzzers. There were sixteen, which worked out to four to a floor for floors two through five, with the ground floor given over to a store. Nine or ten of the sixteen had a name in the slot provided for that purpose. The rest were empty. I checked the names, and most were Hispanic. None was Thompson.

  I went outside again and took a look at the store on the ground floor. It wasn’t terribly inviting, with the merchandise on display faded by time or bleached by the sun, but it tried to make up for that by offering everything a marginal neighborhood could require—check cashing, passport photos, notary public, hardware and housewares, umbrellas, shoe polish, Pampers, and assorted snacks. Three neon beer signs, one for a brand they’d stopped making ten years ago, shared window space with a Café Bustelo poster. There was so much going on that it took me a while to notice the only relevant item in the window, a yellowing sheet of paper with the hand-lettered inscription PRIVATE MAILBOXES AVAILABLE.

  The inside of the store was about what you’d expect. I didn’t see any mailboxes, and wondered where all twelve hundred and seventeen of them could be hiding. A woman behind the counter, with a stocky build and hair like black Brillo, was keeping an eye on me. I don’t know what she thought I could possibly want to steal.

 
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