A drop of the hard stuff, p.21
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.21

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 21

  “Sounds like your guy,” Steffens said. “The wife, plus he knew Whatshisname. ”

  “Jack Ellery. ”

  “Uh-huh. Ellery worked for some of the movers now and then. Funny thing—he’d move somebody, and a week or two down the line they’d have a break-in, lose their good stuff. ”

  “And you knew Ellery?”

  “I knew who he was, knew him to say hello to. That was about it. ”

  “And you’re a newspaperman?”

  “Where’d you get that idea?”

  “I don’t know. I must have figured you were following in the footsteps of your famous nonancestor. ”

  “Raking muck,” he said. “Hell, I’m on the other side of that one. I don’t rake the muck, I make it. The Shame of the Cities. That’s me, Matt. I’m in local politics across the river. Wipe out municipal corruption, and I’d have to get an honest job. ”

  He took out a slim black calfskin card case, handed me a card. Vann Steffens, I read. Your Friend in Jersey City. No address, but a phone number with a 201 prefix.

  “Everybody needs a friend,” he said. “Especially in Jersey City. You have a card?”

  My sponsor’s a job printer, and I’ll never lack for business cards. I dug one out for him.

  “And here I thought mine was minimalist,” he said. “Nothing but your name and your number, and I already had ’em both. ” He tucked the card away. “But I’ll keep it. A man gives you his card, you keep it. Be bad manners not to. But wait a minute, give me my card back, will you?”

  I did, and he uncapped a pen and printed SCOOTER WILLIAMS on the back of the card in tiny block capitals, then consulted a little memo book and added an address and phone number. The book was bound in black calf, and matched the card case.

  “There you go,” he said. “You see him, won’t take you ten minutes to rule him out. ”

  I thanked him, glanced at what he’d written. The address was on Ludlow Street, so Scooter still had his cheap apartment in a bad neighborhood. I looked across at Steffens, and wondered what he expected in return.

  He answered the question before I could ask it. “You can pay for my drinks,” he said, “and that’ll do me fine. I’m a machine pol in fucking Jersey City, for Chrissake. Doing favors for people is part of my job description, right up there with pigging out at the public trough. Someday you’ll do me a favor back. ”

  “I don’t know what it might be, Vann. They won’t let me vote in Jersey City. ”

  He laughed. “Oh, don’t you be so sure of that, my friend. You come see me on Election Day, and I’ll guarantee you get to vote at least once in every precinct. I’ll tell you what. I’ll have one more drink on your tab, and you can tell me why you give a damn who put the two bullets in Jack Ellery. ”

  I told him more than I’d planned. He was a good listener, nodding in the right places, stirring the pot with a question or an observation now and then. He’d seemed like a blowhard at first, but I warmed to him over the course of the hour or so we spent together. Maybe his manner softened when he felt less need to impress me. Maybe I became more at ease in Armstrong’s—which might or might not be a good thing.

  I took care of the check, and on the way out I remembered something. “You know everything,” I said. “Maybe you’ll know this. ”

  “If it’s a state capital, forget it. I’m lousy on state capitals. ”

  “High-Low Jack,” I said. “You happen to know why they called him that?”

  “I didn’t even know that they called him that. High-Low Jack? It’s a new one on me. ”

  “Not important,” I said. “I just thought you might know. ”

  “Damn, I hate to disappoint a new friend. ” He snapped his fingers. “You know, I just might know after all. I bet it’s because Scooter was already taken. ”

  XXI

  HEY, MAN!” Big smile, showing teeth that hadn’t seen a dentist in a while. “You’re the guy who called, right? You told me your name but that doesn’t mean I can remember it. ”

  “Matthew Scudder. ”

  “Right, right. Well, come on in, Matthew. Sorry about the place. The cleaning girl’s coming first thing tomorrow morning. ”

  Magazines were heaped on a floral-patterned armchair. He scooped them up, motioned for me to take their place. He stacked the magazines on a low table made from a door and pulled up a folding chair for himself.

  “I was joking about the cleaning girl,” he said. “Around here, I’m the closest I’ve got to household help. The good news is I don’t cost much. ”

  The apartment wasn’t really that messy, and for a pot-smoker’s Lower East Side premises it probably ranked within a few points of the top. As far as I could tell, it was clean enough underneath the clutter.

  I’d called him the morning after my late night with Vann Steffens. Before I dialed the number I checked the white pages, and there he was, Williams, Robt P. , with the same phone number and same Ludlow Street address Vann had given me. He could have saved himself all that meticulous printing and told me to look in the book, but he’d said favors were his stock-in-trade, and that one was easily performed.

  The phone rang a few times, and when Williams picked up he was out of breath, as if he’d hurried to pick up before the machine could take the call. I gave my name and said I’d like to talk to him about Jack Ellery, and he repeated Jack’s name a couple of times, and then he said, “Oh, fuck, I heard about that. What a terrible thing, huh? First I heard he killed himself, and that didn’t make sense. I mean people do it all the time and it never makes sense, but he wasn’t the type. Did you know him, man?”

  “A long time ago. ”

  “Yeah, me too. But what I heard next was someone killed him, and that didn’t make sense either, because why in the hell would anybody want to kill Jack? Wha’d they do, shoot him?”

  I said someone did just that, and he said that was what somebody had said, and it was amazing, just amazing. I asked if I could come over and talk to him, and he said sure, why not, he’d be hanging around the place all day. When did I want to come? Sometime in the afternoon?

  I had breakfast first, and caught a noon meeting at Fireside, and took the F Train to its last stop in Manhattan. I’d checked a map first, and was thus able to walk directly to Ludlow Street, and by 2:30 I was sitting in that armchair. The arms showed wear and the springs were shot, but it was holding me as comfortably as it had held the magazines.

  The cooking smells in the building’s halls and stairwell had been a mix of Latin and Asian, but the smell in Scooter Williams’s apartment was predominantly herbal. A lot of marijuana had been smoked in those three little rooms, and its aroma had seeped into the walls and floorboards, even as it had taken Scooter’s life and put it permanently on Hold.

  He had to be somewhere in his middle forties, but managed to look both older and younger than his years. His full head of dark brown hair was shaggy, and looked as though he might have cut it himself. He had a droopy mustache, irregularly trimmed, and hadn’t shaved in a couple of days.

  He wore a maroon solid-color sport shirt with long sleeves and long collar points, and over that he wore one of those khaki vests with twenty pockets. Photographers’ vests, I think they call them, although how anybody could remember which pocket he’d put his film in was beyond me. His blue jeans had bell-bottoms, which you didn’t see much anymore, and they were frayed at the cuffs and worn through at the knees.

  He talked for a while about something he’d seen on television, some science-fiction program that impressed him from a philosophical standpoint. I didn’t pay much attention, just let him ramble, then tuned in again when he said Jack’s name.

  “Out of the blue,” he said. “Hadn’t heard from him in years, hadn’t thought of him in years, and the phone rings and it’s Jack. Can he come over? Well, sure. I’m in the same place. I been here since, wow, since I ditched college. Moved in and never moved out, and can you be
lieve it’s more’n twenty years?”

  “And he came over?”

  “Couple hours after he phones, the bell rings and it’s him. You know what I figured, don’t you? Can you guess? I figured he was looking to cop. ”

  “To buy, uh—”

  “Herb,” he said. “Kills me when I hear people call it a gateway drug. Man, I never got out of the gate. Started NYU in September, and before the month was done my roomie turned me on with what was probably a pretty lame joint, but I took a deep drag and you know what happened?”

  “What?”

  “Nothing whatsoever. I smoked the whole thing and nothing, zip, zero. But I felt the tiniest little bit hungry, you know, so I got this jar of peanut butter from my desk and started eating it off a spoon. And it was the most amazing taste, like I’m suddenly noticing all the subtleties of the peanut butter, the total mystical dimension of the taste of it, and it dawns on me that I’m stoned out of my fucking mind. ”

  He finished the jar of peanut butter, and long before it was gone he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to spend it feeling just like that.

  “For a while,” he said, “you chase higher highs, but eventually you tip to the sheer futility of it. And you don’t have to get higher and higher. Just high is high enough, you know?”

  He never had any interest in other drugs—uppers, downers, psychedelics. He tried mushrooms once and mescaline once and acid twice, just to know what they were about, but as far as he was concerned there was nothing like good dope. He smoked every day, and he sold enough so it didn’t cost him, and maybe he even came out a few dollars ahead.

  “Never been busted,” he said, “which is probably a record, or close to it. But I only sell to people I know, and the cops around here know me and know what I do, and they know I’m not hurting anybody, or doing any kind of volume, so I don’t get hassled. I always get by, and I always stay high, and there’s a song lyric hiding in there somewhere, can you dig it?”

  “But Jack wasn’t looking to cop,” I said.

  “Oh, wow. Got a ways off track, didn’t we? No, he wasn’t. I offered, you know, like did he want a taste? And before I could finish the sentence he’s telling me how he’s an alcoholic, except he doesn’t drink, and that means he can’t do anything. Dope, pills, anything at all; if it does anything good for your head, he can’t have any part of it. I couldn’t figure out why at first, but he put it so I could understand it. ”

  “ ‘You can’t be high and sober at the same time,’ ” I said.

  “That’s it! His words exactly, and when he put it that way I could dig it. So I didn’t offer him anything except an orange soda, which I’ve been meaning to offer you, because I figure you and him were in the same club. I’m gonna have one, and can I bring you one?”

  We drank our orange sodas out of the can. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had one, and decided I was willing to go that long before I had another.

  “You’re an orange soda guy, you know what he came for. ”

  “I think so. ”

 
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