A drop of the hard stuff, p.25
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.25

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 25

  “And this clearly would keep him from saying it. But…”

  “The Ninth Step,” I said. “How does it go?”

  He looked at me, puzzled. “How does it work? You take your Eighth Step list—”

  “No, I know how it works, how you do it. How does it go? The language of the step, I’ve heard it before every meeting, it’s in the chart that’s always hanging on the wall. How is it worded?”

  “Watch me get a word wrong, now that I’m called upon to perform. ‘Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. ’ I think that’s word for word, but—”

  “Who would it injure?”

  “Jack’s amends? Only Jack, unless you want to count Mark Sattenstein’s hand. No, I understand, Matt. It’s not amends to any of the people we’ve been looking at. If it’s something else he did, it might not even be on the list we’re looking at. ”

  “Didn’t you tell me he killed somebody?”

  “It was during a robbery. But I think there’s a special term for it. When you rob people in their own home?”

  “A home invasion. ”

  “Yes, that’s right. It’s a term I’ve only heard recently. The news stories give the impression that it’s happening more lately. Part of the continuing decline of everything and everybody. ”

  “Do you remember the details?”

  “I don’t think I heard them. ” He frowned, as if to bring the memory into sharper focus. “He wrote about it in his Fourth Step, and I learned about it and everything else when I heard his Fifth Step. ”

  He thought about it while I signaled the waitress for more coffee. After she’d filled our cups he said, “What I heard was vague. He didn’t read that part aloud. He read a sentence or two, then looked up from the page and summarized. So I just heard a condensed version. ”


  “The person he robbed was another criminal. A drug dealer, I think. They broke in and—”


  “Jack had a partner. The two of them went into this home, I think it was somewhere on the Upper West Side, and held the man up, and he went for his gun and they shot him. ”

  “Jack did the shooting?”

  “I can’t remember. I’m not sure he told me. Matt, I didn’t really want to hear this part. I wanted him to go through it, but I didn’t want to take in the information. He was a sponsee, he was a friend, he was someone I was trying to help, and I didn’t want to deal with the fact that he was also a killer. ”

  “Just tell me what you remember. ”

  “The man’s death didn’t bother him that much,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I can’t say whether it was Jack or his partner who did it. ”

  “It didn’t bother him?”

  “There was a woman present. The dealer’s wife or girlfriend, I’m not sure which, and again I don’t know that Jack was specific. ”

  “It doesn’t matter. ”

  “No. ” He drew a breath. “She was there, she’d seen their faces. The partner shot her. ”

  “Not Jack. ”

  “He said he couldn’t pull the trigger. She was begging in Spanish. He didn’t understand the words but she was pleading for her life, and he had the gun in his hand and couldn’t shoot her. ”

  “So his buddy did it. ”

  “Matt, it’s strange, but I think he felt guilty twice over. ”

  “For each victim?”

  “No, I’m just talking about the woman. For not being able to pull the trigger, and for the fact that she wound up dead. And he thought it was his fault the man went for a gun, that if he’d done something differently it wouldn’t have happened. ”

  I knew how that worked. I remembered running out of that ginmill after the two holdup men, remembered emptying my gun at them. If I’d just done any of that the slightest bit differently, if I’d fired one bullet fewer, a little girl might have had a chance to grow up. Oh, I knew exactly how that worked, with the mind throwing up no end of alternate scenarios, but remaining unable to rewrite the past.

  I said, “They never got arrested. ”

  “No. ”

  “Not him, not his partner. ”

  “No. ”

  “I didn’t see anything about this on his Eighth Step list. ”

  “It may have made it into a later version. Or stayed in his mind, whether or not he wrote it down, because we’d talked about how one could make amends to the dead. ”

  Someday I’d get to have that conversation with Jim.

  I said, “The partner. ”

  “All I know about him is that he shot the woman. I’m pretty certain Jack never said his name. He went out of his way to use pronouns or just refer to him as his partner. As if he were protecting his anonymity. ” He looked up. “Is that who killed him? His partner?”

  “For all we know,” I said, “this mysterious partner is long dead, or locked up tight in a cell upstate. But it might be good to know who he is. ”

  “Would he have a motive? After all these years?”

  “There’s no statute of limitations on homicide. ”

  “So he wouldn’t want Jack talking about it. ”

  “No. ”

  “And we know he’s capable of murder. Whichever of them shot the man, it was the partner who shot the woman. ”

  “While she was begging for her life,” I said. “Because she’d seen him, and could identify him. What else did Jack have to say about this paragon of virtue?”

  But if he’d said anything else, Greg couldn’t remember it. I went home. There was a note in my box, and my first thought was that Jan had called to tell me our date was on after all. But the caller had been someone named Mark, who’d provided a phone number, along with an initial in lieu of a surname. An AA acquaintance, it would appear, and I wondered if it was Stuttering Mark or Motorcycle Mark.

  I went upstairs, looked at the message again, then crumpled the slip and tossed it in the wastebasket. Whoever he was, it was too late to call and find out more. And by now he’d found someone else to hear his problems and tell him not to drink, and by morning he’d have forgotten why he called me in the first place.


  I PICKED UP the Times in the morning and read it while I had my breakfast. In Woodside, a family of Colombian immigrants had been murdered in what police believed to be a home invasion. Three adults dead, and four children, with the bodies mutilated. Authorities seemed uncertain as to whether the motive was robbery or revenge, and I decided it sounded like a little of both. Somebody in the drug world had cheated someone else, or constituted unacceptable competition. So why not kill him? And why not walk off with his cash and inventory while you were at it? And, of course, kill his family, because that was the way you did business.

  The first thing I thought of was Bill Lonergan. The Times story didn’t provide a street address, so I didn’t know how close he lived to the scene of the crime, but Woodside isn’t that large. I wondered how closely he followed the local crime scene, and decided he’d have trouble overlooking this one. Seven people murdered in their home, four of them children. It’d be on the TV news, at least until the police ran out of leads and some other horror displaced it from the public consciousness.

  After that, of course, I thought of Jack Ellery and his partner.

  I called Greg Stillman, who began the conversation by telling me he’d been trying to remember more about the partner. “But it seems to me he was trying to avoid saying anything that would make him identifiable,” he said. “I don’t know if they worked together more than that one time. ”

  “Do you know when it happened?”

  “The killing? It was before he went to prison. And after he’d started committing crimes, but I guess that’s pretty obvious. There were a lot of years in there, but there was nothing chronological about his Fourth Step. If I had to guess, I’d say ten or twelve years ago. ”

p; “And all you know is it was uptown?”

  “And on the West Side. When I picture it I see an address on Riverside Drive, but I don’t know why. ”

  “Did he say something about looking out at the Hudson after the other guy shot the woman?”

  “Not that I remember. ”

  “Was it a house? An apartment building?”

  “No idea. Matt?”

  “Because I can’t help being interested. ”

  “Nice. You answered the question before I could ask it. ”

  “Well, it’s one I’ve been asking myself. But there’s nowhere to go with this, is there? A man and a woman shot to death in their home somewhere north and west of Times Square. ”

  “I seem to have the impression it was quite a ways uptown. ”

  “Fine. Somewhere north and west of Central Park. ”

  “Not much easier that way, is it?”

  “I don’t suppose he mentioned their names. The victims. ”

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