All the flowers are dyin.., p.26
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.26

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 26


  The Richmond Times-Dispatch has a website, of course, where he’d found the city editor’s e-mail address. He enters that in the appropriate space and sits for several minutes, the cursor poised over the SEND button. To send it or not, that is the question, and there is no obvious answer. The whole matter of Preston Applewhite has been resolved in a most satisfactory manner, which argues mightily for leaving well enough alone.

  On the other hand, it seems to him that it would be more interesting to send the message, to stir the pot, to see what happens. For something will most certainly happen, whereas if he leaves well enough alone, why, nothing will happen, nothing beyond what has happened already.

  And interest is everything, isn’t it?

  But he’s not too sure of that last paragraph. It will strike a chord with some of the people who read it, and send them rushing madly off in several wrong directions, but it’s really just a private joke, and would deprive him of an opportunity to sign his work. He highlights the last paragraph, hits DELETE, thinks for a moment, and replaces it with this:

  I’ll leave you to your work, dear friends, even as I return to my own. I’ll be abandoning my present e-mail address forthwith, so I regret that you’ll be unable to contact me. Should I have occasion to communicate further, I’ll do so from another e-mail address, which, alas, will be as untraceable as this one. But you’ll know me by my signature; I have the honor to be, sir, your most obedient servant,

  Abel Baker

  He smiles his rueful smile, and hits the SEND button.

  He rather likes New York.

  He has lived here before, for several years, and he would have stayed longer if circumstances hadn’t compelled him to leave. At the time those circumstances looked like a turn of bad luck, but attitude is everything, as he often says, and he was wise enough to will himself to regard what looked like adversity as opportunity. Hasn’t his exile from New York given him a chance to see something of the country? Hasn’t it furnished him with any number of grand adventures, culminating so recently in the remarkable affair of Preston Applewhite?

  When he left, the Twin Towers stood proudly at the foot of Manhattan. He wonders sometimes what it would have been like to be present in the city when it suffered such an unfathomable blow.

  That day’s loss of life has no great personal impact upon him. What he does wonder at, though, and what does inspire him, is the awesome power of the man who pulled the strings, the puppet master who convinced his followers to fly planes into buildings. It bespoke an enviable talent for manipulation.

  He’s done some manipulation himself. When he lived here he was no mean hand at it, although no subject of his ever did anything all that dramatic. Still, his people were bright, and success demanded his employing a sort of psychological jujitsu; he won by using their own mental strength against them.

  He has been walking as he’s had these thoughts, and he notes with some delight that his steps and his thoughts have brought him to the same place, a house on West Seventy-fourth Street. He was on the outside of this house on many occasions, and inside it once. There were three other people with him on that occasion, and he killed two of them right here, in this very house, one with a gun and one with a knife, and killed the third an hour later in a house several miles to the south.

  He’d thought at the time that the house would be his reward, that the killings would make it his. He thought that was what he wanted, a fine brownstone house a block from Central Park.

  He’d thought that was why he killed.

  How much freer he is now that he knows the truth about himself!

  He’d wondered, on his return to the city, if this house would even still be standing. Years ago, downtown on West Eleventh Street, one brown-stone in a row of brownstones had simply disappeared. The place had been a bomb factory for student radicals, owned by the parents of one of them, and how better to fulfill their unconscious motivations than by blowing up a parental home? Wasn’t that, all things considered, the underlying purpose of their politics?

  By the time he first came to New York, the house had already been replaced. The new structure, sized to match its neighbors, looks to have been given a twist by its architect, with a section jutting out at an oblique angle from the rest of the facade. The ostensible purpose, he knows, was to wed the contemporary to the traditional, but he senses a deeper explanation, a desire to let the plosive force that gutted the first building express itself in its successor.

  But there had been no bomb factory here on West Seventy-fourth Street, and so there is no reason for this fine house to have disappeared, merely because it has ceased to hold a place in his day-to-day consciousness. It still stands, and the same young woman still occupies it, all but the lowest floor, where the same old woman, older now, maintains the same undistinguished antique shop.

  He thinks of another shop, of the letter opener he bought there. Of the woman who sold it to him, calling it a paper knife. The term itself, he thinks, could be ambiguous, meaning either a knife to cut paper or a knife made of paper. Or a knife in name only, like a paper tiger.

  Gone now, whatever you called it. Oh, it still exists, even as the house still exists, but it’s no longer part of his life.

  Is this house part of his life? Does it, like so much else here in this extraordinary city, come under the heading of Unfinished Business?

  He’ll have to think about that.

  On his way home he stands for a few moments directly across the street from another much larger building, this one on the southeast corner of Fifty-seventh and Ninth. There’s a doorman on duty twenty-four hours a day, and there are security cameras in the elevators and the lobby. Still, how difficult a hindrance are they likely to prove? Created and installed and maintained by men, surely they can be subverted by a man.

  But it’s not yet time.

  He walks home. He sometimes thinks of himself as a hermit crab, taking up homes and discarding them when he outgrows them. The shelter that suits him now, his home for the present, consists of three rooms on the top floor of a tenement on Fifty-third Street west of Tenth Avenue. The building shows some of the effects of gentrification. Its brick facade has been repointed, its halls and stairways renovated, its vestibule entirely redone. Many of the apartments have been done over, too, as their occupants have moved or died off, replaced by new tenants paying full market value rents. Only a few of the old rent-controlled tenants are left, and one of them, Mrs. Laskowski, probably doesn’t have much time left. She’s fifty pounds overweight and diabetic, and suffers as well from something that makes her joints ache in bad weather. But she’s out there on the front stoop, smoking a malodorous little Italian cigar, when he mounts the steps.

  “Well, hello,” she says. “How’s your uncle?”

  “I was just visiting him. ”

  “I wish I could, I’ll tell you that. You see somebody for so many years, you miss seeing them. It’s a shame you couldn’t get them to take him at St. Clare’s. My cousin Marie was at St. Clare’s, God rest her soul, and I was able to visit her every single day until she passed. ”

  And what a rare treat that must have been.

  “They’re taking good care of him at the VA,” he reminds her. “The best possible, and it’s all free of charge. ”

  “I never even knew he was in the service. ”

  “Oh, yes, and very proud to have served. But he didn’t like to talk about those days. ”

  “He never said a word on the subject. The Veterans, that’s up in the Bronx, isn’t it?”

  “Kingsbridge Road. ”

  “I don’t even know where that is. I guess it’s a long ride on the subway. ”

  “You have to change trains,” he says, “and then it’s a long walk when you finally do get there. ” He has no idea if this is true, he’s only been to the Bronx once, and that was years ago. “And visiting him can be difficult. Today he didn’t know me. ”

  “You went all that wa
y and he didn’t know you. ”

  “Well, you have to take the bitter with the sweet, Mrs. L. And you know what my uncle always used to say. ‘You get what you get. ’ ”

  He climbs the stairs, lets himself into the apartment, locks the door. The apartment is run-down and shabby. He’d have cheerfully hired someone to clean it, but that could have caused talk, and so he’d done it himself as best he could, scrubbing the floors and walls, spraying air freshener. But one can only do so much, and the place still holds the stench of fifty years of Joe Bohan’s cigarettes, mingled with the persistent aroma of Joe Bohan himself, a man who lived alone and evidently never made too much of a thing of personal hygiene.

  Still, in a city where even the shabbiest hotel room is ridiculously expensive, there’s much to be said for a free apartment, especially one so close to so much of his unfinished business.

  In a delicatessen on Tenth Avenue, where he’d stopped for a sandwich and a cup of coffee, he’d heard two old men talking about poor Joe Bohan, who wasn’t getting out much anymore. Always kept to himself, one man said, but a nicer guy you wouldn’t want to meet.

  He’d found a Joseph Bohan listed in the phone book. He called the number, and a man with a scratchy voice answered. No, the man said, there was no Mary Eileen Bohan at that address. He was an old man, he lived by himself. Close relatives? No, none at all. But there were lots of Bohans, although he didn’t remember hearing of a Mary Eileen.

  He gave the old man a day or two to forget the phone call, then packed up and moved out of the room he’d been living in, an overpriced flophouse a few blocks from Penn Station. He mounted the stoop on West Fifty-third with a suitcase in each hand, rang the buzzer marked BOHAN, and climbed to the third floor, where an unshaven old wreck stood in the doorway, wearing a gray nightshirt and at least a week’s worth of body odor.

  “Uncle Joe? I’m your nephew Al, come all this way to see you. ”

  The old man was confused, but let him inside. He was smoking a cigarette, sucking on it as if it were a breathing tube connected to an oxygen tank, and spitting out questions between puffs. Whose son is he, then? Is he Neil’s boy? And what’s in the suitcases? And is he alive, Neil? He’d thought his brother was dead, thought he’d died without ever marrying.

  The old man was wheezing, unsteady on his feet. There were two growths on his faced that looked cancerous, and his color was bad, and God above did he ever stink. He took hold of Bohan, one hand cupping the bristly chin, the other grasping the bony shoulder, and had little trouble snapping the old man’s neck. How nice when the expedient act was humane as well!

  Over the next several days he let the building’s other tenants get used to him, while he made the place his own, getting rid of the old man’s clothes and possessions even as he got rid of the old man himself. Every day he’d haul a few trash bags down the stairs and out the door. Cleaning up, he told the neighbors. These past few years, my uncle never threw anything out. It’s hard for him, you know.

  Some bags he left at the curb for the trash pickup. Others, containing pieces of the old man’s body, couldn’t be discarded quite so casually. He’d put the corpse in the tub, drained it of its fluids, and cut it into portable chunks with a bone saw from a Ninth Avenue kitchen supply store. Portions of Joe Bohan, wrapped up like cuts of meat, he carried a few at a time across the West Side Highway to the Hudson. If they ever surface— and that’s unlikely, as there won’t be any gases to lessen their specific gravity—he can’t imagine that anyone will make anything of them. And, if by some forensic miracle they do, the hermit crab will have long since outgrown his shell, along with the name of Aloysius Bohan.

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