A drop of the hard stuff, p.19
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.19

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 19

  IF HE’D KILLED JACK,” I told Greg Stillman, “he’d have called the cops himself and claimed full credit for it. He was so happy to hear Jack was dead I thought I was going to get some free pork chops for being the bearer of good news. ”

  “ ‘Ding-dong, the witch is dead. ’ He must have felt like the Munchkins after Dorothy’s house made that famous crash landing. And you did say he was short, didn’t you?”

  “I don’t think you’d mistake him for a Munchkin. ” I’d called Greg after I left Dukacs, met him at a coffee shop a few blocks away. “And he’s not the type to burst into song. But I think he felt liberated in about the same way. ”

  “No more bad dreams. ”

  “I guess not. ” I drank some coffee. “If that’s what you get when you make amends, I may take my time getting to that step. ”

  “That was Jack’s reaction,” he said. “I had to tell him he was mistaken. ”

  “Oh?”

  “He wasn’t specific. He called me right after he got his apology thrown back in his face. He didn’t tell me who the man was or any of the circumstances, just that he’d been rejected and cursed out and ordered off the premises. He regarded the whole incident as a complete and total failure, and wondered if he could cross the fellow off his list or had to find a way to take it a step further. ”

  “And?”

  “And I told him he’d done it perfectly. That the object of the action wasn’t to be forgiven. That’s just a fringe benefit. He got the point, but he remained troubled. Said he hadn’t realized just how much damage he’d done. Or that you couldn’t entirely undo it. ”

  I was still thinking that one over when he said, “Unless I’ve miscounted, we’ve only got one name left. And it’s cloaked in John Doe–style anonymity. ”

  “Robert Williams,” I said.

  “Whose name is Legion, or might as well be. Robert Williams, with a cheating wife. What are the odds?”

  “That I’ll be able to find him? Or that he’ll turn out to be the killer?”

  “Either. ”

  “Slim and slimmer,” I said.

  “That’s as I thought. Matt, are we done?”

  I looked at my cup. There was still coffee in it.

  “No,” he said, “I mean overall. I think you’ve done what I hired you to do. There were five names on the list, four after you ruled out the one in prison—”

  “Piper MacLeish. ”

  “—and you’ve cleared Sattenstein and Crosby Hart and now Mr. Dukacs, and the object was to see if there was a name on the list that we ought to give to the police. The only name left is Robert Williams, and to give that to the police—”

  I nodded, and imagined the conversation with Dennis Redmond. Years ago he had an affair with this guy’s wife, and he may have tried to find him and tell him he was sorry. Yeah, right.

  “I don’t know how many hours you’ve put in,” he said, “but it seems to me you’ve more than earned the thousand dollars I gave you. Did you have to pay for information?”

  “A few dollars here and there. ”

  “So you didn’t even clear the thousand. Do I owe you money, Matt?”

  I shook my head. “You can pay for the coffee. ”

  “And that’s all? Are you sure?”

  “I made out all right,” I said. “And there’s still a chance I’ll be able to clear Williams. I put the word out and I might hear something. You never know. ”

  And I guess you never do, because the following night I got home a little before midnight. Jacob was behind the desk, in what I’d come to recognize as a terpin hydrate fog, and he told me I’d had a batch of calls and no messages. “All the same gemmun,” he said, “each time sayin’ he’d try you later, and not once leavin’ a name or a number. ”

  I went to my room, showered, and was glad my caller hadn’t left a number, because I was exhausted. I’d gone to a meeting, then over to the Flame for coffee, and the conversation had gone on longer than usual. I decided to tell Jacob to hold my calls, and the phone rang even as I was reaching for it. I picked it up, and a voice like thirty miles of bad road said, “Don’t tell me I’m finally talking to Matthew Scudder. ”

  “Who’s this?”

  “You don’t know me, Scudder. Name’s Steffens, like the muckraker. I’ve been trying you all night. ”

  “I’d have called you back,” I said, “if you’d left a message. ”

  “Yeah, well, I was on the move. It’s no way to gather moss, so I leave that to the north side of trees. I’m parked now, in a place I understand you know right well. ”

  “Oh?”

  “Right around the corner from you,” he said, “and I thought I’d find you here, which is why I’m here myself. But the fellow behind the stick says you don’t come in so much these days. ”

  I knew where he was. But I let him tell me.

  “Jimmy Armstrong’s Saloon,” he said, “except the guy doesn’t know how to spell saloon. It’s got a star where it oughta have an A. ”

  S*loon. There was a law still on the books, a piece of inane legislation dating back before Prohibition, that made it illegal to call an establishment a saloon. The law had been designed to placate the Anti-Saloon League, the idea being that, if you couldn’t keep a man from running a saloon, at least you could force him to call it something else. That was why Patrick O’Neal’s joint across from Lincoln Center was called O’Neal’s Baloon; he’d already ordered the signage when someone told him about the law, so he decided to change one letter and be done with it. There was, he’d been known to say, nothing illegal about misspelling balloon.

  Jimmy had managed the Baloon before opening his own place five blocks down the avenue, and his way around the law was a star where the A would have been. I could have reported all of this to the mysterious Mr. Steffens, but I had a feeling he already knew it.

  “He may be a lousy speller,” he said, “but the son of a bitch pours a decent drink, I’ll say that for him. I just wish he had a jukebox. Any luck at all, Kenny Rogers’d be there to remind me of her name. ”

  A drunk, calling me late at night. The impulse to hang up was strong. “I’ll help anyone who’s trying to stay sober,” Jim Faber had told me. “Any hour, day or night. But that’s if they call me before they pick up the drink. After that you’re just talking to a glass of booze, and I’ve got no time for that. ”

  “Lucille,” he said. “How do you like that? Picked it out of the air, with no help from Mr. Kenny Rogers. ”

  “I’m afraid you lost me. ”

  “Mrs. Bobby Williams. Isn’t that who you were looking to find? Right around the corner, Scudder, waiting for you to come buy me a drink. ”

  XIX

  WHEN A THWARTED holdup in Washington Heights eased me out of the police department and away from Anita and the boys, I took a room at the Northwestern and decided its Spartan confines suited me well enough, and that’s where I stayed while my drinking got worse and my life went on falling apart.

  But it wasn’t much more than a place to sleep when I could and stare out the window when I couldn’t. For a combination living room and office, I ducked around the corner to Jimmy Armstrong’s joint.

  I passed a lot of hours there. It was where I saw friends, where I met clients, where I took many of my meals. I had a tab there, and I drank a lot of bourbon there, some of it neat or on the rocks, some of it stirred into strong black coffee.

  I was a regular at Armstrong’s, and I knew the other men and women who put in long hours there. Doctors and nurses from Roosevelt Hospital, academic types from Fordham, musicians whose lives centered on Juilliard and Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and a whole mixed bag of people who just happened to live in the neighborhood. They were all drinkers, and whether some of them were drunks was not for me to say. They’d talk to me when I wanted conversation and leave me alone when I didn’t, and the bartenders and waitresses would keep the drinks coming.
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  Once in a while I might go home with a nurse or waitress, but none of those last-call cures for loneliness ever turned into a romance. One time one of the waitresses, one I hadn’t ever gone home with, took a dive out a high window, and her sister showed up and couldn’t accept the official verdict of suicide. She’d hired me to look into it, because looking into things for people was what I did after I gave up the gold shield. And it turned out she was right, and her sister had had help getting out that window.

  Armstrong’s. When I first got sober I couldn’t see why I couldn’t go there anymore. Whether or not you were drinking, it was a good place to sit, a good place to eat, a good place to meet prospective clients. I heard it said at meetings that one way to avoid a slip was to stay out of slippery places, but on the other hand I kept running into bartenders who’d held on to their jobs after they sobered up. It is, after all, the drink that gets you drunk, not the place where they sell the awful stuff.

  I don’t remember anybody at St. Paul’s coming out and telling me to stay away from the joint. I figured it out on my own. The more days I put together away from a drink, the more value I attached to this new condition called sobriety. All those days would vanish the minute I picked up a drink, and each day there was one more of them at risk.

  So I found myself less and less comfortable at my old table at Jimmy’s, even if all I was doing was having a hamburger and a Coke and reading the paper. And then one day I picked up my coffee and smelled bourbon. I took it back to the bar and reminded Lucian that I wasn’t drinking these days.

  He swore he hadn’t added whiskey, even as he took the cup to the sink and poured it out. “Unless I did it without thinking,” he said. “And if that’s what happened, I wouldn’t remember, would I? So let’s start over. ” I watched him select a clean cup and fill it from the coffee pot, took it to my table, and smelled bourbon once again.

  I knew the coffee was all right, I’d watched him pour it, but I also knew I couldn’t drink it, and in the hours that followed I realized I needed to stay away from Armstrong’s. It was a week or two later when I told Jim Faber about it, and he nodded and said he’d figured I’d come to that conclusion sooner or later. “I was just hoping it’d happen before you picked up a drink,” he said.

  I’d gone back one last time to make sure I didn’t have an outstanding tab, and to leave word that anyone looking for me could try my hotel. But it had been months since I’d crossed the threshold.

  At least I could walk by the entrance without a problem. At meetings I heard a woman talk about her attachment to a particular ginmill near her office. She had to pass it twice a day. She’d tried walking on the other side of the street, but that wasn’t enough to keep her from feeling its magnetic pull. “So I get out of the subway and walk a block out of my way, and another block back, and I do the same thing at night. That’s four blocks a day, which is what, a fifth of a mile? All to keep from getting sucked into the door at K-Dee’s, which I don’t honestly think is very likely to happen, but I don’t care. And it burns a few extra calories, and that’s all to the good, isn’t it?”

 
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