A drop of the hard stuff, p.26
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.26

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 26

  “No. ”

  “Or anything to set them apart. ”

  “Those kinds of details might have been in his Fourth Step, Matt. ”

  “But he kept them to himself. ”

  “Or if he told me, it sailed right by. I told you I was trying not to dwell on what I was hearing. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “A fine time to play Second Monkey. ”

  “How’s that?”

  “You know, Hear No Evil. If I’d been paying closer attention—”

  “You don’t want to go there, Greg. ”

  “No. ”

  “It’s a shame you don’t have a copy of his Fourth Step. ”

  “I never read it. I just got to hear it, or to hear the parts he read to me. ”

  “I know. Then what did he do with it?”

  “I told him to throw it out. ”

  “Toss it in the garbage?”

  “Well, tear it up first. ”

  As I’d done with my own half-assed attempt at Step Eight.

  “That’s what I tell my sponsees,” he was saying. “ ‘You got all of that out of your system, and you shared it with God and with another person—’ ”

  “How do you share it with God?”

  “I’ve often wondered. I guess you just assume he’s listening when you share it with your sponsor. Where was I? Oh, right. ‘You shared it with another person, and now it’s time to let go of it. ’ ”

  “And they take it home and burn it. Or shred it, or whatever. Is that what you did with yours?”

  “What else?”

  Shortly before noon I decided I could stand a change from Fireside, and that it was a nice enough day for a longer walk. I went to a group called Renaissance, on Forty-eighth off Fifth Avenue. The midtown location drew a lot of commuters whose offices were nearby and who would go home to the suburbs after work. That made for more suits and better grooming than was the norm at my meetings, but there was certainly no dress code, and the unshaven guy seated next to me had the air of having spent the night sleeping in a cardboard box.

  Afterward I called one of my cop friends. I told him I was looking for an unsolved home invasion, the double murder of a drug dealer and his wife or girlfriend. Both shot dead, and it would have taken place on the Upper West Side sometime in the early ’70s.

  He said, “My first thought is there’s been hundreds, but you got two people dead, both of gunshots, and the case is still open. That narrows it down. I’ll see if it rings a bell for anybody. ”

  I had essentially the same conversation with two other old friends, and hung up fairly certain that I wasn’t going to get anywhere that way. I walked a few blocks down Fifth to the main library, where I spent an hour with bound volumes of the New York Times Index and another couple of hours in the microfiche room, hunting for a needle in a pasture full of haystacks.

  Pointless.

  At St. Paul’s that night a woman named Josie asked if I wasn’t getting pretty close to my one-year anniversary. Pretty soon, I said. She said she was sure it would be the first of many, and advised me to remember that it was a day at a time.

  Stuttering Mark wasn’t there, I was more apt to run into him at Fireside, but I caught up with Motorcycle Mark at the coffee urn and asked if he’d called the night before. He said he hadn’t, that he didn’t even have my number. I said it must have been someone else, and he said that since I’d brought up the subject, could I let him have my number? I gave him one of my minimalist cards and he found a home for it in his shirt pocket. Then he borrowed a pen and wrote out his own name and number on a scrap of paper. It seemed only polite to thank him and tuck it away in my wallet.

  Donna was there, and her clothes suggested she’d come straight from the office. Her hair was pinned back, and not falling over her eyes. She confirmed that I’d be able to show up as scheduled.

  “Three tomorrow afternoon,” I said. “Eighty-fourth and Amsterdam. ”

  She reached out, gave my arm a squeeze.

  Maybe it was the habit she had of touching my arm, or maybe it was more the result of how she looked in the well-tailored skirt and jacket. The last conversation I’d had with Jan may have had something to do with it, too. Whatever it was, I spent the second half of the meeting wondering if she’d join the crowd at the post-meeting meeting, which is what some people had taken to calling the gathering afterward at the Flame.

  She didn’t show up, which was hardly surprising. I couldn’t recall that I’d ever seen her there in the past. I didn’t stay long myself. I had coffee and a sandwich—I’d managed to skip dinner—and said my good-byes and went home.

  No messages, but I wasn’t in my room for ten minutes before the phone rang. I thought first of Jan, then Donna, and finally Mark—Motorcycle Mark, making use of my number, or the Mark who’d called before.

  I settled the matter by picking up the phone, and it was Greg.

  Without preamble he said, “I gave a false impression before. I’ve written out several Fourth Step inventories in the course of my sobriety. I still have copies of two of them. ”

  “You know,” I said, “I think that’s between you and your Higher Power. ” I’d almost said sponsor, but remembered in time that his sponsor was filling a chair in the Big Meeting in the Sky.

  “That’s not the point. ”

  “Then what is? Oh. ”

  “You see, don’t you? If I didn’t destroy my own Fourth Step…”

  “Then who’s to say that Jack didn’t hang on to his?”

  “My thought exactly. I’ll check his room tomorrow. Or do you suppose they’ve sealed it with that yellow Crime Scene tape?”

  “I’m sure they have,” I said, “but they’ll have long since unsealed it by now. Once the crime lab crew is finished, there’s no real reason to maintain a seal. He had a furnished room, didn’t he? Did he pay his rent weekly or by the month?”

  “By the week. ”

  “Then the odds are it’s been rented by now. ”

  “And if he left his Fourth Step behind, some other tenant’s reading it even as we speak. But won’t they pack up his possessions? Isn’t that what they do when somebody dies?”

  I said that sounded about right. “And they give it to the heirs, or the next of kin,” I said. “I don’t suppose Jack had a will. ”

  “Just the sort every alcoholic has, along with a whim of iron. A Last Will and Testament? No, hardly. I don’t think he had anything to pass on, or anybody to leave it to. ”

  “My guess is the super’ll wait a decent interval, then keep what he wants and throw the rest out. ”

  “That’s what I thought. So what I’m going to do is go over there tomorrow and tell them I’m his cousin and I’ve come to collect his effects. There shouldn’t be a problem, should there?”

  “I can’t see why. A box of old clothes and personal papers? He’ll be glad to see the last of it. ”

  “I can give the clothes to the Goodwill or the Sally. And if there’s, you know, some sort of personal item like a pocketknife, I’ll take it for a keepsake. ” He was silent for a moment, perhaps recalling other dead friends and other souvenirs. “And if there’s a Fourth Step,” he said, “I’ll call you. ”

  “Good. ”

  “Matt? You wouldn’t want to keep me company, would you?”

  “What time?”

  “It would have to be in the afternoon. ”

  That saved me from having to invent a reason I couldn’t go. Donna had already supplied me with a perfectly good one. “I can’t,” I said. “I have to go to Brooklyn. ”

  “Really? Were you a bad boy? Are you being punished?”

  “It’s work,” I said. “I have to help a member of my group move her stuff out of her boyfriend’s apartment. ”

  “Oh, God,” he said. “That takes you off the hook, but at what price? You’ve got a worse day ahead of you than I do. Matt, if I find anything interesti
ng I’ll call you. ”

  Won’t they pack up his possessions? Isn’t that what they do when somebody dies?

  Well, it depends who it is, and how and where he dies. If he’s a respectable member of society, and is considerate enough to leave a detailed will, his property is apportioned as specified therein. (Of course that’s after the in-home nurse pockets a few things that she just knows the deceased wanted her to have. ) Then the relatives get to fight over the small stuff, and siblings get to drag out and act on every grudge and resentment left over from childhood.

  If there’s no will, they get to fight over the big stuff too.

  But if the deceased takes his last breath in a Bowery flophouse or an SRO welfare hotel, if the cops zip him into a body bag and cart him down a couple of flights of stairs, then anything worth the taking is pretty sure to get taken. The little stash of emergency cash, the couple of bucks left over from the most recent government check, the folded ten-dollar bill in the shoe—if a relative does turn up, it will have long since disappeared. The cops take it.

  I always did. I learned from a partner, who explained the ethics of the situation. The ethical thing, he told me, was to divvy up with your partner.

  And so I robbed the dead. It didn’t keep me up nights, or lead me to drink a drop more bourbon than I’d have had anyway. I can’t imagine it amounted to much over the years. Usually it was five dollars, ten dollars, certainly well under a hundred dollars. But one time I got to share $972 with my partner du jour. I remember the amount, remember how precisely we split it down the middle, remember what a nice windfall the $486 made, and how it left me with a feeling of gratitude and respect toward the derelict who’d unintentionally bestowed it upon me. (He’d gotten drunk, fell in his bathroom, gashed his head open, and bled out before recovering consciousness. We were ready to hate him for the mess he’d created, but the money he left us changed our attitude. Of course you don’t have to be on the Bowery to die like that; the actor William Holden managed it just about a year before I had my last drink. )

 
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