All the flowers are dyin.., p.21
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.21

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 21

  He said, “Matt and Elaine. Sit down, sit down. This is Jodie. Jodie, Matt and Elaine. ”

  Jodie was Chinese, with utterly straight shoulder-length black hair and small perfect features in an oval face. She looked privately amused during the introductions, and indeed throughout the evening. I couldn’t decide if everything amused her or it was just her natural expression.

  “They’re on their break,” Danny said, with a nod at the bandstand. “You’ve heard the rhythm section here. ” He named the musicians. “And there’s a tenor player with them, and he’s very current, but I swear there are moments when he reminds me of Ben Webster. He’s a kid, I don’t know if he ever even heard of Ben Webster, and he certainly never caught a live performance, but wait and see if he doesn’t sound just like him. ”

  I’ve never known anyone like Danny Boy Bell, but then neither has anybody else. He’s barely five feet tall, small enough to buy his clothes in the boys’ department at Barneys, although for the past twenty years he’s had his suits made by a visiting Hong Kong tailor, which doesn’t cost any more and spares him embarrassment, along with the nuisance of leaving the house before dark. He’s the albino son of black West Indian parents, and strong light is hard on his eyes and bad for his skin. He spends the daylight hours in his apartment, reading or sleeping or on the phone, and his nights at Poogan’s or Mother Blue’s.

  His business is information. Most of his contacts have yellow sheets, but an arrest record doesn’t necessarily make a criminal. They are, I suppose, of the underworld, though Elaine thinks the French word demimonde is more suitable, if only because it’s French. Players and working girls, gamblers and grifters, people working angles or being worked by them, they all tend to turn up at Danny Boy’s table or call him on the phone. Sometimes he pays out money for the information he’s furnished, but this doesn’t happen often, and the sums are generally small. More often he pays his sources in favors, or in other information, if at all, as many people tell him things just to get the word around.

  He was a source of mine on the job, and our relationship continued after I gave back my badge. We’ve become good friends over the forty years I’ve known him, and I think I’ve already said that I met Elaine at his table.

  Elaine told him he was looking well, and he shook his head sadly. “The first time anybody said that to me,” he said, “is the day I first realized I was getting older. You ever hear anybody tell a kid in his twenties he’s looking well? Take Jodie here, she looks positively gorgeous, and I’ll tell her that, but I wouldn’t think of telling her she’s looking well. Look at her, she’s got skin like a China doll, you should pardon the expression. It’ll be twenty years before she has to hear somebody say she’s looking well. ”

  “I take it back, Danny. ”

  “No, don’t do that, Elaine. I’m an alter kocker, that’s no secret, and at my age it does my heart good to hear I’m looking well. Especially from a beautiful young thing like yourself. ”

  “Thanks, but I’ve been looking well for a few years myself. ”

  “You’re still a sweet young thing. Ask your husband, if you don’t believe me. Matt, is this just social? I hope so, but if there’s any business we should get it out of the way before the band comes back. ”

  “Just social,” I said. “We’re hoping the music will change our mood. We went to a play about the Holocaust, and Elaine left the theater convinced it was just Act One. ”

  He took it in, nodded. “I don’t look at the world any more than I have to,” he said, “but what I see I don’t like much. ”

  Elaine asked him if he was still keeping his list.

  “Oh, Jesus,” he said. “You know about that?”

  “Matt told me. ”

  A few years ago Danny Boy had surgery for colon cancer, and whatever they give you afterward. Chemo, I guess. He was up and about again by the time I heard about it, but it gave him a peek at mortality to which he responded in an interesting fashion: He made a list of everybody he’d known who had died, starting with a kid at his school who’d been hit by a car. By the time I left his table that night it was a struggle to keep from making a mental list of my own.

  Now, years later, both our lists would be longer.

  “I gave it up,” he said, “when enough time passed without a recurrence so that I actually began to believe I might beat the damn thing. But what really did it was the Trade Center. Two days after the towers came down, the guy on the corner, for twenty years now he sells me a newspaper every night on my way home, now he tells me how his kid was in the North Tower on the same fucking floor that the plane hit. If you took a deep breath that day you got some of him in your lungs. I knew the kid, when he was younger he used to spend Saturday nights helping his old man with the Sunday Times, putting all the sections together. Tommy, his name was. I went home, I was gonna put him on my list, and I thought, Danny, what the fuck do you think you’re doing? They’re dying out there faster than you can write them down. ”

  “I’m glad we came here,” Elaine said. “I feel a lot better already. ”

  He apologized, and she told him not to be silly, and he took his bottle of vodka from the silver ice bucket and filled his glass, and the waitress finally brought the drinks Elaine and I had ordered an eternity ago, a Coke for me and a Lime Rickey for her, along with another Sea Breeze for Jodie, and the band came out, not a moment too soon, and played “Laura” and “Epistrophy” and “Mood Indigo” and “ ’Round Midnight,” among other things, and Danny Boy was right, the tenor player sounded a whole lot like Ben Webster.

  Right before they took a break, the piano player, a gaunt black man with horn-rimmed glasses and a precisely trimmed goatee, announced that they’d play themselves off with a song about a French girl in England who was famous for her callipygian charms. “Ladies and gentlemen, for your enjoyment, ‘London Derriere. ’ ”

  There were chuckles here and there, bafflement everywhere else. He was goofing on “Londonderry Air,” of course, the old name of the tune that most people know as “Danny Boy,” and it’s one of the world’s most beautiful melodies but not often thought of as a good vehicle for jazz. They’d chosen it as a tip of the hat to Danny Boy Bell, who managed to look flattered and put upon at the same time. The tenor man played one chorus absolutely straight, and it was enough to break your heart, and then they took it up-tempo and worked changes on it, and it sounded okay to me, but it was essentially a novelty number. Except for the first tenor solo, which a man could listen to the whole night through, especially if he had a glass in his hand.

  They wrapped it up, acknowledged the applause, and got off the stage. The piano player came over and told Danny Boy he hoped he didn’t mind, and Danny said of course not, and that they should hang on to the tenor man. “I wish,” the pianist said. “He’s here until a week from Thursday and then he’s on a plane to Stockholm. ” Danny Boy asked what the hell he was going to do in Stockholm. “Eat blonde pussy,” the pianist said, and then he realized there were two women at our table and got all flustered, apologized profusely, and got out of there as quickly as possible.

  Danny had some vodka and said, “Christ, how I always hated that fucking song. ”

  “It’s such a beautiful tune,” Elaine said.

  “And the lyric’s a lovely thing, too,” he told her. “ ‘The summer’s gone, the roses all are fallen. ’ But I heard it all the time when I was a little kid, I was fucking taunted with it. ”

  “Because of your name. ”

  “I was going to get taunted anyway,” he said, “because I was the funniest-looking kid anybody ever saw, this white-haired white-faced little pickaninny who couldn’t play sports and had to wear sunglasses and, on top of everything, was about ten times as bright as anyone else in the school, including the teachers. ‘Yo, Danny Boy! The pipes is callin’!’ ”

  “But you kept the nickname,” Jodie said.

  “It wasn’t a nickname. Daniel Boyd Bell is what I was christe
ned. That was my mother’s maiden name, Boyd, B-O-Y-D, like a Green-pointer trying to say Bird. I answered to Danny Boyd from the time I was old enough to answer to anything, and the D just got lost because people didn’t hear it, they assumed it was Danny Boy, B-O-Y, like the song. ”

  He frowned. “You know,” he said, “with all the people I know who got cornholed by their fathers and the crap kicked out of them by their mothers, I guess I got a pretty good deal. When you think about it. ”

  We caught one more set, and Danny wouldn’t let me pay. “You had two Coca-Colas and one glass of soda water with a piece of lime in it,” he said. “I think I can cover it. ” I said something about the cover charge, and he said nobody at his table ever had to pay a cover charge. “They want to keep my business,” he said. “Don’t ask me why. ”

  Something made me pull out the photo of the elusive David Thompson. I showed it to Danny and asked him if it rang any kind of a bell.

  He shook his head. “Should it?”

  “Probably not. He has a private mailbox a couple of blocks from here, so I thought he might have come in. ”

  “He’s got a face that would be easy to miss,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. You want to make copies and I’ll show it around?”

  “I don’t think it’s worth it. ”

  He shrugged. “Whatever. Who is he, anyway?”

  “Either his name’s David Thompson,” I said, “or it isn’t. ”

  “Ah,” he said. “You know, the same can be said for almost everybody. ”

  When we got home Elaine said, “You’re a genius, you know that? You took a sad evening and turned it around. Did you ever think you’d live to hear the same person in the course of a single night describe himself as an albino pickaninny and an alter kocker?”

  “Now that you mention it, no. ”

  “And, but for you, we’d have missed that. You know what you’re gonna get, big boy?”

  “What?”

  “Lucky,” she said. “But I think you should get lucky with somebody who’s clean and smells nice, so I’ll go freshen up. And you might want to shave. ”

  “And shower. ”

  “And shower. So why don’t you meet me in the bedroom in a half an hour or so?”

  That was around twelve-thirty, and it must have been close to one-thirty when she said, “See? What did I tell you. You got lucky. ”

  “The luckiest I ever got was the day I met you,” I said.

  “Sweet old bear. Oh, wow. ”

  “Wow?”

  “I was just thinking. And you know, there’s not a soul I know in the business, so I couldn’t even go and ask somebody. ”

  “Ask somebody what?”

 
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