A drop of the hard stuff, p.24
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.24

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 24

  “She made a dinner date with her sponsor. ”

  “So you weighed your two options of drinking and suicide, and—”

  “I felt two things at the same time, and they don’t go together. ”

  “Relief was one of them, and the other was what? Betrayal?”

  “Something like that. I didn’t know whether I wanted to thank her or kill her. ”

  “Probably both. ”

  “Maybe. ”

  He stayed on the phone with me for a few minutes more, and afterward I took my emotional temperature and decided it was close enough to normal. Another thing I decided was that I didn’t feel like going to a movie, or taking a walk in the park, or reading any of the books on the shelf. So I picked up Jack Ellery’s Eighth Step list and took another shot at it.

  I wound up taking a walk in the park after all. Somewhere between five and six I entered Central Park at its southwest corner, at Eighth Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street, and walked where my feet led me, trying to hew to a generally northeast course. I overshot a little, emerging at Fifth Avenue and Ninetieth Street. I walked across Eighty-sixth all the way to Second Avenue, looked at my watch, and decided I ought to fit in a proper dinner before the Sober Today meeting. The first thing that popped into my mind was the smell of whatever the woman superintendent at Frankie Dukacs’s apartment building had been cooking. But there was no point going there. She’d had her chance to invite me for a meal, and she passed it up.

  I kept going to First Avenue and walked down to Seventy-eighth, where Theresa’s held the promise of a meal along the same lines. Two doors down, Dukacs & Son had closed for the day.

  I went into Theresa’s, half expecting to see Dukacs at the counter, but he wasn’t there. I settled into a booth and ordered a bowl of that day’s soup, a hearty affair thick with mushrooms and barley, and followed it with a plate of assorted pierogi. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had the little Polish dumplings. Theresa’s served them with applesauce and boiled cabbage on the side, and stuffed them variously with meat, mushrooms, potatoes, or cheese.

  I cleaned my plate, which made the waitress happy. And would I like some pie? They had pecan, they had apple, they had strawberry-rhubarb. I was tempted, but I had a meeting to get to.

  The guest speaker was a fellow I’d heard before at a downtown meeting. As far as I could tell, he didn’t say a single thing this time that he hadn’t said before.

  I’d looked around for Greg Stillman while I was helping myself to coffee, and again shortly after the start of the meeting, but I didn’t see him. During the break I got in line for some more coffee, and was trying to decide if I wanted a cookie. It seemed to me that it wasn’t the sort of thing a person ought to have to decide, that either you took a cookie or you didn’t, and while I was mulling it over there was a tap on my shoulder, and it was Greg.

  “You couldn’t stay away,” he said. “The siren song of Sober Today pulled you all the way from Columbus Circle. ”

  “That or the pierogi,” I said.


  “Theresa’s,” I said. “Seventy-eighth and First. ”

  “Oh, Lord, I haven’t been there in a coon’s age. Can you still say that? It’s not racist, is it?” He didn’t wait for an answer, which was good, because I didn’t have one. “I should go there,” he said. “They have the most wonderful pies. ”

  That settled it. I passed on the cookies.


  SO THAT’S FRANKIE DUKES’S butcher shop,” Greg said. “And look at the sign, will you? Dukacs and Son, formerly Dukacs and Sons. There’s a whole human drama lurking in that painted-out S. ”

  “I was thinking that myself. ”

  “And the most likely explanation,” he said, “is that the sign painter made a mistake, possibly but not necessarily a result of the use and abuse of drugs or alcohol, and whoever finally noticed did an amateur’s job of correcting it. Of course, I’d much rather think the second son decided chopping up dead animals wasn’t for him, and he ran off and became a ballet dancer instead. ”

  “And made his father proud. ”

  “No doubt. And here’s Theresa’s, and let’s hope they’ve got two pieces of strawberry-rhubarb pie left, or none at all. ”

  “If there’s just one,” I said, “we could split it. ”

  “I want a whole piece,” he said, “and so do you. But we’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it. ”

  There were two pieces of the pie, and thus no bridge to jump off. I ate half of mine and said, “Hell. ”

  “What’s wrong? Did you get a bad strawberry?”

  “I read Jack’s Eighth Step again,” I said, “and I meant to bring it along. ”

  “Don’t tell me you found something. ”

  “Nothing new. But I thought you’d want it back. ”

  “Whatever for?”

  “I don’t know. ”

  “I only kept a copy,” he said, “so I’d be able to follow along if and when he wanted to report progress on the Ninth Step. I certainly don’t have any use for it now. ”

  “So I should just throw it out?”

  “That’s what I did with mine. What?”

  I told him I’d taken a preliminary run at the step myself, and all I’d done to obliterate my own embryonic list.

  “All the king’s horses,” he said, “and all the king’s men. It’s hard to do the Eighth before you’ve done the Fourth. ”

  “My sponsor said something along those lines. ”

  “And yet most of us take a stab at it. If we don’t write anything down, at the very least we run names through our minds. It’s hard to be aware of the step without wondering who belongs on your own list. ” He took a forkful of pie, a sip of tea. “Jack kept adding to his list, writing down new names as fast as he could check off the old ones. I wonder what his most recent version looked like. ”

  “You mean the one you gave me—”

  “Isn’t the last word on the subject? I’m afraid not, but that doesn’t mean we missed a clue that would have pointed at his murderer. The ones he mentioned to me were all from his boyhood days. Family, friends, neighbors, and most of them were dead and he’d long since lost track of the others. ” He put down his fork. “You’re not letting go of this, are you?”

  “I’ve let go of it. ”


  “When I was on the job,” I said, “it was said of me that I was like a dog with a bone. Just because I’ve let go of something doesn’t mean I can keep from thinking about it. ”

  “I suppose there are different definitions of letting go. ”

  “What I can’t stay away from,” I said, “is the thought that his murder somehow ties in to the amends process. Those five names from the list are all in the clear, and when I reread the list this afternoon I couldn’t find anyone who’d make a plausible suspect. But it has to be related. ”

  “That was my original thought, Matt. That’s why I got all this started. ”

  “He was running around making amends,” I said, “and one guy punched him out and wound up hugging him and weeping in his arms, and another guy told him to take his amends and shove them up his ass—”

  “And one said beating me on a coke deal was doing me a favor, and the other said hey, everybody fucked my wife. What was her name again?”

  “Lucille. And the other one’s locked up, and there’s no way Jack could have reached him to make amends, and even if he did, well, it doesn’t matter, because he didn’t. Five names and they’re all clear, but that doesn’t mean there’s no connection. It just means we haven’t found it. ”

  “What you mean we, Kemo Sabe?”

  I sighed, nodded. “Point taken, Greg. It’s not on your plate, and it’s not on mine either. ”

  “But it’s on your mind. Don’t apologize, for God’s sake. It’s on my mind too. How could it not be?”

  “I keep thinking of th
at second bullet. ”

  “The one in the mouth. ”

  I nodded. “To send a message, though why you’d kill a man first and then send the message is something I’ve often wondered. A message to whom?”

  “Like killing someone to teach him a lesson. He’s dead, so how can he possibly learn the lesson?”

  Something was trying to get through. Greg was saying something, but I tuned him out and let the thought take form, then held up a hand to stop him in midsentence. “It wasn’t retribution,” I said.

  “How’s that?”

  “The shooting. It wasn’t some aggrieved person on or off his list trying to get even. It was to keep him from talking. ”

  “Not Don’t talk to me but Don’t talk to anybody. ”

  “Has to be. There was no anger in the killing. ”

  “No anger in putting two bullets into a man?”

  “There was a lot more anger in the beating Sattenstein gave him. That was anger, hitting a man in the face until you turn your own hand into hamburger. This was just quick efficient homicide. ”

  “With a purpose. ”

  “I’d say so, yes. ”

  “To keep him from talking. ”

  “It wasn’t something he’d said. It was something he might say. ”

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