All the flowers are dyin.., p.24
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.24

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 24


  “He drinks Scotch,” Elaine said.

  “Now there’s something right there. She just happened to mention it?”

  “She offered him a drink, and he asked for Scotch and she didn’t have any. So he had something else, but the next day she went out and bought a bottle of what I guess was really good Scotch. And she evidently made a good choice, because the next time he was over he said it was really good, but he only had one small drink, and she was saying she wondered which would last longer, the relationship or the bottle. ”

  “The bottle,” Sussman said. “It’s still there, Glen Something-or-other. ” He made a note. “Maybe he picked it up to pour a drink on a prior visit and forgot to wipe his prints off it last night. But I wouldn’t count on it. Still, that’s exactly the kind of thing to come up with. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if she let something slip having to do with his name. Give it a chance and it might come to you. ”

  “Maybe,” she said.

  “Strega,” he said suddenly. “Speaking of things coming to you. That’s the name of the bottle he brought along. That’s one way we might catch him. It’s not exactly Georgi Vodka. If you’re a clerk in a liquor store, how often does somebody pop in for a bottle of Strega?”

  “So you’ll canvass stores in the neighborhood. ”

  “We’ll start in the neighborhood and keep going. She didn’t give you any indication at all of where he lived? You can’t put him in any particular part of the city? Well, somebody sold him the Strega, and maybe the guy who did will actually be in the store when somebody drops in to ask, and maybe he’ll not only remember but he’ll decide it’s okay to cooperate with the police, that he won’t be infringing on his customer’s inalienable right of privacy and making himself vulnerable to a lawsuit. Maybe Mr. Strega paid with a credit card, though that seems like too much to hope for. Maybe the store’s got security cameras installed, and maybe they actually work, and maybe we’ll actually get there before that night’s tapes are automatically recycled, though that’s a stretch. You don’t need to keep the tapes any length of time, because all you have to be able to do is ID the dirtbag who holds you up, not somebody who bought a bottle of high-priced booze from you a couple of nights ago. ”

  Monica’s apartment building was distinctive, which may have been why I’d recognized it right away when it showed up on New York One. It’s on Jane Street in the northwest corner of the Village, a seventeen-story Art Deco building with a facade of yellow-brown brick, and elaborately sculpted lintels and cornices. We walked uptown on Hudson Street without saying much, and when Monica’s building, taller than its neighbors, hove into view, Elaine’s hand tightened its grip on mine. By the time we were across the street from it she was crying.

  She said, “If she ever did a bad thing I never knew it. She was never mean-spirited, she never hurt anybody. Never. She fucked some married men, big fucking deal, and she quit working once her parents died and left her enough money to live on. And sometimes she’d keep candy in her purse and eat it secretly, because she was ashamed and didn’t want you to know. And she probably gave more thought to her wardrobe than Mother Teresa ever did, which probably made her a more superficial person than Mother Teresa, and a lot more fun to hang out with. And those are the worst things I can think of to say about her, and they’re not so terrible, are they? They’re not bad enough to get you killed. Are they?”

  “No. ”

  “I can’t look at her building. It makes me cry. ”

  “I’ll get us a cab. ”

  “No, let’s walk for a while. Can we walk for a while?”

  We walked north on Hudson, which becomes Ninth Avenue north of Fourteenth Street. We passed a trendy restaurant called Markt, and she said, “René Magritte wasn’t French, he was Belgian. ”

  “But you still knew he was the painter Sussman was talking about. ”

  “Because I got the same image in my mind, that surreal dissonance. It’s daytime but the sky’s dark. Or that one with a picture of a pipe with a curved stem, and writing that says ‘This is not a pipe. ’ Paradox. The reason I just thought of it now—”

  “Is that Markt is a Belgian restaurant. ”

  “Yeah, and so’s the little place across the street on Fourteenth, La Petite Something-or-other. Monica liked it, they’ve got all these different ways to cook mussels, and she was always crazy about mussels. You know what they look like?”

  “Mussels? Sort of like clams. ”

  “Up close,” she said, “after you take them out of the shell. They look like pussies. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “I told her it was her latent lesbianism shining through. We were going to have lunch there but we never got around to it. And now we never will. ”

  “You haven’t had anything to eat today,” I said.

  “I don’t want to go there. ”

  “Not there,” I agreed. “But should we stop someplace?”

  “I couldn’t eat. ”

  “Okay. ”

  “It wouldn’t stay down. But if you’re hungry…”

  “I’m not. ”

  “Well, if you decide you want something, we can stop. But I’ve got no appetite. ”

  We walked a few blocks in silence, and then she said, “People die all the time. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “It’s what happens. The longer you live the more people you lose. That’s how the world works. ”

  I didn’t say anything.

  “I may be a little nuts for the next few days. ”

  “That’s okay. ”

  “Or longer. I wasn’t ready for this. ”

  “No. ”

  “How could I be? I figured I’d always have her. I figured we’d be cranky old ladies together. She’s the only friend I have who knows I used to turn tricks. I just got the tenses wrong, didn’t I? She was the only friend I had who knew I used to turn tricks. She’s in the past tense now, isn’t she? She’s part of the past, she’s gone forever from the present and the future. I think I have to sit down. ”

  There was a Latino coffee shop handy. They had Cuban sandwiches and I don’t know what else, because neither of us looked at the menu. I ordered two coffees, and she told the waiter to make hers a cup of tea.

  “She was never the slightest bit judgmental. She was interested but not fascinated, and she didn’t see anything wrong with it, or wrong with me for having spent those years that way. Who else even knows, who else that’s still in my life? You and Danny Boy, who knew me then. And TJ. I can’t think of anybody else. ”

  “No. ”

  “Listen to me, will you? I’m making this all about me. My God, he tortured her. She must have been so frightened. I can’t imagine it, and I can’t stop imagining it. I don’t think I can handle this, baby. ”

  “You’re handling it right now. ”

  “This is handling it? I don’t know. Maybe it is. ”

  I drank half my coffee, and she had a couple of sips of tea, and we went outside and walked uptown for a few more blocks. Then she said she was ready to take a cab, and I managed to flag one.

  On the ride home she said one word. “Why,” she said, and there was no question mark in her voice. She didn’t sound as though she expected an answer, and God knows I didn’t have one.

  She sat down at her computer and spent an hour working on a paid obituary notice for the Times, then printed it out and brought it to me to see if I thought it was all right. Before I could read it she took it back and started tearing it up. She said, “What am I, crazy? I don’t need to run an ad to tell the people she’s gone. The papers and TV’ll take care of that. By this time tomorrow everybody she ever knew is going to know what happened to her, along with the rest of the world. ”

  She went over to the window and looked through it. We’re on the fourteenth floor, and we used to be able to see the World Trade Center towers from our south window. Now, of course, they’re not there to be seen, but for months afterwar
d I’d find her at that window, looking out at their absence.

  Around six the doorman called up to announce TJ. She burst into tears when she saw him and he gave her a hug. “You must be hungry,” she told him, and turned to me. “You, too. Have you had anything to eat since breakfast?”

  I hadn’t.

  “We have to eat,” she announced. “Is pasta all right? And a salad?”

  We said it was fine.

  “It’s all I ever make. God, I’m boring. How can you stand me? I cook the same meal all the fucking time, the only thing that varies is the shape of the pasta. Maybe I should start cooking meat. Just because I decided to be a vegetarian doesn’t mean the two of you can’t have meat. ”

  I said, “Why don’t you just make us all some pasta. ”

  “Thank you,” she said. “That’s what I’ll do. ”

  I hadn’t intended to go to a meeting, but when the time came Elaine suggested it. I said I’d just as soon stay home. She said, “Go. TJ and I are going to play cards. Do you know how to play gin rummy?”

  “Sure. ”

  “How about cribbage?”

  “Yeah, a little bit. ”

  “That’s no good, then. Casino? You know how to play casino?”

  “I used to play with my gran. ”

  “Did she let you win?”

  “Are you kidding? She’d cheat if she had to. ”

  “I bet she didn’t have to. There must be a card game you don’t know. How about pinochle?”

  “Takes three players, don’t it?”

  “I’m talking two-handed pinochle,” she said. “It’s a completely different game. You don’t know how to play it?”

  “I never even heard of it. ”

  “Perfect,” she said. “That means I can teach you. Matt, go to a meeting. ”

  They’ve got a men’s meeting on Wednesdays at St. Columba’s, a small church on West Twenty-fifth Street. It’s specifically for men over forty, and it’s almost exclusively gay men who attend, although that’s not a requirement. The demographics of the neighborhood support its makeup. It’s in Chelsea, where most of the male population is gay, if not over forty.

  I could have gone to my regular meeting at St. Paul’s, five minutes from my front door, but for some reason I didn’t want familiar faces, and people asking how it was going. It wasn’t going well, and I didn’t want to talk about it.

  There’s a bus that goes down Ninth Avenue, but I just missed it and took a cab, which made this a banner day for cabs, if for little else. They were reading the preamble as I got there, and had already taken the collection. I decided they could probably make the rent without my dollar, and I helped myself to a cup of coffee and found a seat. The speaker, dressed and groomed like an ad in GQ, told a story of solitary drinking at the Four Seasons bar, where he’d try to catch the eye of another unaccompanied gentleman, then repair to a wonderfully louche establishment across the street and hope his prospect would follow. If not, he’d just stay there and get drunk. “We were all so deep in the closet back then,” he said, “we had marks from the coat hangers. You’d have thought Joan Crawford was our mother. ”

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