Everybody dies, p.23
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       Everybody Dies, p.23

         Part #14 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 23


  "He hasnt yet. "

  "Hes led a charmed life. Charmed lives dont last forever. "

  Neither did the other kind. I said, "Hes a friend in need, so I should drop him. "

  "Like a hot rock. What he is is a friend in deep shit, and he earned every ounce of it, and youll go down with him if you stand too close. Jesus Christ, Matt, are you too thick to get that Im trying to do you a favor? Am I wasting my breath here or what?"

  I went home, entering as Id left, via the service entrance. There were two new messages on the machine. One was from Ray Gruliow, saying that hed spoken to Mark Rosenstein, and I was now officially engaged to investigate in the interests of Rosensteins client, one Michael Francis Ballou. The other was from Denis Hamill at the Daily News, hoping I could say something quotable for a column he was doing on the death of a great saloon. I called him back and told him Grogans wasnt dead, it was only sleeping.

  I called Ray Galindez at home after trying and failing to reach him at work. His wife, Bitsy, answered, and asked after Elaine, and brought me up to date on their kids. Then she said, "I suppose you want to talk to the boss," and I held until Ray picked up.

  "I need your professional services," I said, "but it has to be off the record. "

  "No problem. Wholl I be working with?"

  "Just me. I saw a guy the other day, and I wish I had a picture of him. "

  "Thatll be great," he said. "Youre easy to work with. Some people are just too eager to please you. Yeah, thats good, that looks like him- except it doesnt, but they dont want to hurt your feelings. When do you want to do this? Id say tonight, but we got this evening planned with Bitsys sister and her dork of a husband. Do me a favor and tell me its so urgent Ive got to cancel. "

  "Its not that urgent. "

  "Im sorry to hear it. In that case, is tomorrow okay? These days theyve got me in Bushwick. "

  "I know, I tried you there first. "

  "Yeah, ordinarily Id be working but I took a personal day. My older boy had a soccer game and I wanted to be there. Ill tell you, watching him play, I think hell have to be an artist like his old man. "

  "Theres worse things. "

  "I guess. You want me to come by your place tomorrow? Im off at four and the station house is right next to the subway. I could be there easy by five. "

  "Maybe it would be better if I came to you. "

  "You sure? Because thats great as far as Im concerned. Saves me a train ride. You want to come by the job? I got more time on my hands there than I know what to do with. "

  "It might be a little too public. "

  "Right, you wanted this off the record. So maybe thats not such a hot idea. That was quite a thing happened in your part of town last night. "

  "Terrible," I agreed. "Look, would it be an intrusion if I came to your house? Youre off at four, so say five oclock? Would that be all right?"

  "Thatd be fine. I know Bitsyd love to see you. In fact why dont you bring Elaine with you? Ive got some new work Ive been trying to get up the nerve to bring in and show to her. Come around five and youll stay and have dinner with us. "

  "I think, itll just be me," I said, "and I dont think Ill have time for dinner. "

  I tried TJ across the street, and when he didnt answer I called his beeper number. I had the TV on when he called back, and I muted it while the machine picked up and told him to leave his message at the tone. "I know you there," he said, "on account of you just beeped me, so- "

  "So you must be a detective," I said, "to figure that out. Where are you?"

  "You a detective too. Cant you tell?"

  He must have held the phone toward the crowd, because the background noise picked up in volume. "OHare Airport," I said.

  "Morning Star restaurant. "

  "Well, I was close. "

  "An I was slow callin back, count of I had to wait on a lady to get off the phone. She had me goin for a minute. What she did, she put in her quarter and dialed her number and then she just didnt say anything. Just stood there with the phone to her ear. I wanted to tell her, like, if they aint answered by now aint nobody home. How many times you gonna let it ring?"

  "She was listening to her messages. "

  "Yeah, well, I doped that out, but it took me a minute. What I been doin, I thought I might learn something on the street but they just sayin the same shit they sayin on the TV news. You been over to Grogans?"

  "No. "

  "Well, dont be wastin your time. Aint nothin to see. Its the same as we saw on TV, with the plywood panels up. And theres yellow crime scene tape over the plywood and on the doors, and notices posted sayin to keep away. "

  "Which might not be a bad idea. "

  "Fine with me. Aint nothin there worth a second look. All I did was ask a few questions. I wore a button-down shirt and carried a clipboard, so they figured I had the right. "

  "From here on in," I said, "maybe you should stick to the kind of questions you can ask electronically. "

  "Like cyber questions? There still be things got to be done the old way. You got to ask a street question to get a street answer. "

  "I asked some coffee shop questions myself," I said. "The shooter at Grogans was Vietnamese out of Born To Kill. He did time on a robbery and assault charge, and his name starts with NG. "

  "If that dont stand for No Good, its probably Nguyen. "

  "It could be," I said, "or it could be something else. I dont know if its his first name or his last name, and Im not a hundred percent sure of the NG. "

  "Lot you dont know. "

  "Seems to be more every day. "

  "Far as first name or last, Asian names is hard to figure that way. Like the last namell come first. Like Mao Zedong, Maos his family name. But if you was on first-name terms with the dude, whichd be hard even if he wasnt dead, youd call him Mao. "

  "Thats fascinating. "

  "But it might be different for Vietnamese. And two letters is all we got of his name, first or last. "

  "A little social engineering might get you the rest of it. "

  "Might. "

  "And then if there was a way to find out where he went to prison, and who he met there…"

  "Hard to do at your desk," he said. "Prisons and government agencies and like that, they got secure systems. Hard to hack your way in, and if you do you leave a trail and they can trace it back and see who came callin. You say he was in Born To Kill?"

  "So Im told. "

  "Means I best be changin my clothes, Mose. Blue button-downs too lame and too tame for where I be goin. "

  "Be careful. "

  "Got to," he said. "What the dude said, aint it?"

  "What dude would that be?"

  "One lived in the woods and didnt pay his taxes. Musta been before Lyme disease, when you could still get by with that shit. You know the dude I talkin about. Said to watch out for jobs you got to dress up for. "

  "Thoreau. "

  "Yeah, thats him. I be dressin down, not up, but it comes to the same. "

  I said, "You know, its not video games out there. They use real bullets. "

  "You mean the players dont come back to life when you put in another quarter?"

  "And I promised Elaine I wouldnt get you killed. "

  "You did? You promised her that?"

  "Why is that so funny?"

  "Well, see," he said, "she made me promise I wouldnt let nothin happen to you. How we both supposed to keep our word?"

  We ate at home. Elaine makes a mushroom-and-tofu Stroganoff that we both like, and she served it with a big green salad. After dinner I went into the other room and called Beverly Faber. Id tried her a couple of hours earlier but hung up gratefully when the line was busy. This time she answered, and I hung in there and got through the phone call. By the time I returned to the kitchen to tell Elaine Id called, I had already forgotten both sides of the conversation, what Id said and what shed said. Something about a private funeral for family members only, to be followed by a memoria
l service in a couple of weeks.

  "Hes at peace now," Elaine said.

  "He was at peace all along," I said. "He was a pretty peaceful guy. He wasnt happy all the time, for that you pretty much have to be a moron, but he was good at taking things in stride. You were right before. Shes a hard woman to like, our Beverly. "

  "I think she loved him. "

  "And he loved her. It wasnt always smooth sailing for the two of them, but they made it work. I think Ill go to a meeting. "

  I put on a sport jacket, a Harris tweed with elbow patches shed picked out for me. Id tried it on earlier, and it was a better fit over the holster than the blazer.

  "Heavier than your windbreaker," she said, rubbing the sleeve, "but it doesnt zip up. Will you be warm enough?"

  "Ill be fine. "

  "Take an umbrella. Its not raining yet but it will before the night is over. "

  I opened my mouth to argue, then shut it and took the umbrella. "I may not be back till late," I said.

  "I wont wait up," she said. "But call anytime. Ill let the machine screen the calls, so stay on the line and give me time to answer. "

  "I will. "

  She squeezed my arm. "And dont you dare get killed," she said.

  Theres a meeting every weeknight at my home group at St. Paul the Apostle. A home group is like family, and I wanted to be there, but it was too soon to face a lot of shared memories of Jim and questions about what exactly had happened to him. In a small town Id have had a problem, but I was in New York and had dozens of meetings to choose from.

  I caught the IRT at Columbus Circle and got off at Ninety-sixth and Broadway. The meeting was in the church basement- they very often are- and I got there a few minutes early and helped myself to a cup of coffee. I didnt know anybody there, and I was just as glad. I wanted to be in a meeting, but I didnt want to talk to anybody.

  At eight oclock the chairman opened the meeting. He had somebody read the preamble and then introduced the speaker, a woman who looked like a young suburban matron with two kids and a golden retriever. She told a harrowing story, mostly drugs but with plenty of booze in it, told of rapes at knifepoint while trying to score smack in Harlem, told of trading blow jobs for hits on the crack pipe in Alphabet City hell-holes. She was two years sober now and she had her life back. She also had HIV, and a T-cell count that was not so hot, but so far she was otherwise asymptomatic and she had high hopes.

  "Anyway," she said, "Ive got today. "

  During the break I put a dollar in the basket and had another cup of coffee and a stale oatmeal cookie. There were some announcements- the annual dinner dance six weeks away, some openings on the outgoing speakers list, a member in the hospital whod appreciate calls. Then the meeting reopened for a round robin.

  If Id known it was going to be a round robin I probably would have gone somewhere else. I grew oddly tense as my turn approached. I suppose I knew I ought to say something, and knew too that I didnt want to.

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