A drop of the hard stuff, p.28
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.28

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 28

  “You are fabulously glamorous,” Richard said. “So will you please stop that shit?”

  “Okay. ”

  “I meant Little Orphan Annie in the nicest possible way. And you have big eyes, the same as she does, except yours are this gorgeous light brown. And they really pop now that your hair’s not falling in front of them. ”

  “So now I’m pop-eyed? I’m sorry, I’ll stop. ”

  “And you don’t look at all like Raggedy Ann,” he said. “The man is a drunken imbecile. ”

  There was a long silence. Then she said, “He’s not a bad fellow, you know. When he’s sober. ”

  “He’s not sober, though, is he?”

  “No. ”

  “And drunk or sober, he was never right for you. And deep down you always knew that. ”

  “Oh, God, Richard. You’re absolutely right. ”

  “Well, of course,” he said.

  Her belongings filled the trunk and shared the backseat with me. When we got back where we started, Eighty-fourth and Amsterdam, Richard circled the block and couldn’t find a parking spot. I told him to park next to the fire hydrant, and handed him a card to put on the dashboard.

  “Detectives’ Endowment Association,” he read aloud. “And this means I won’t get a ticket?”

  “It improves the odds. ”

  “I don’t know,” he said. “I’d take my chances on a ticket, but what if they tow it?”

  Donna said, “Honey, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable staying with the car. Matt and I can manage the stuff. We’ll just make an extra trip. ”

  She lived on the fifth floor of a brownstone. It was a fine building in excellent condition, and the only smell in the stairwell was a faint hint of furniture polish. But it was a walk-up, and it took us three trips, and by the time I’d climbed those four flights of stairs for the third time I was winded.

  “Sit down,” she said, “before you fall down. Those stairs keep me in shape, but they’re killers if you’re not used to them. Plus you were carrying three times as much as I was. Can I get you a glass of water? Or maybe a Coke?”

  “A Coke would be great. ”

  “Except it’s Pepsi. ”

  “Pepsi’s fine. ”

  “Here you go. I’ll just tell Richard we’re all set now. ”

  She parked me in a Queen Anne wing chair in the living room, in front of a fireplace with a marble surround. Over it she’d hung a nineteenth-century landscape in a fancy frame, and a thick Chinese rug was centered on the dark hardwood floor. It was a very pleasing room, richer and more formal than I’d have expected, and a better match to the business attire she’d worn last night than to this afternoon’s jeans and sweater.

  I wondered what the apartment’s other rooms looked like. The kitchen, the bedroom. I stayed where I was and imagined them, and then I heard her footsteps on the stairs.

  “Now just let me catch my breath,” she said upon entering, and dropped onto the medallion-back love seat. “Richard said to give you his love, and tell you to have a happy anniversary, if he doesn’t see you before then. You’re coming up on a year, aren’t you?”

  “Pretty soon. ”

  “Another Coke? Pepsi, I mean. Can I get you another?”

  “One’s my limit. ”

  “Ha! I like that. Oh, before I forget—”

  She came over and passed me a pair of hundred-dollar bills. We argued about it. I told her it was too much, and she said that’s what she’d given Richard and that was what she was giving me. I said I’d have been happy to do what I’d done for free, out of friendship, so at the very least why didn’t we split the difference? And I handed her one of the bills, and she pushed it back at me.

  “I’d have happily paid four hundred,” she said, “or even more, so we’re already splitting the difference. And if you’ll put the money away we won’t have to discuss it anymore, and won’t that be a pleasure?”

  I agreed that she had a point there, and put the bills in my wallet. Without planning to, I said, “Well, let me spend some of this on dinner. Will you keep me company?”

  Her eyes widened. “What a lovely idea. But it’s Saturday, and don’t you have a standing date with—is it Jane?”

  “Jan. ”

  “I was close. ”

  “And she decided she’d rather spend this particular Saturday having dinner with her sponsor. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “I guess the two of them have something they feel it’s important to discuss. Me, most likely. ”

  “Oh,” she said. She was on her feet, and I stood up myself, and our eyes locked. I felt as if I were on the brink of a decision, and then I realized the decision had already been made.

  She took a step forward. “You’re a lovely man,” she said, and put her hand on my arm.

  Her bedroom was frilly and Victorian, with a canopy bed. Afterward I lay there beside her and listened to my heart. I found myself wondering, not for the first time, just how many beats it had left.

  Beside me, Donna lay on her back. She raised her hands over her head and stretched, then touched her armpit with one hand and brought her fingers to her face.

  “Oh, dear,” she said. “I stink. ”

  “I know. It was all I could do to bring myself to touch you. ”

  She had a good laugh, rich and just the least bit naughty. “I noticed,” she said, “how much trouble you had overcoming your natural repugnance. ” She laid a hand on my thigh. “But I could have had a shower. ”

  “I thought of having one myself,” I said, “but we’d have had to wait. ”

  “And that might have given one of us time to think things through. ”

  “In which case we might not have wound up here. ”

  “Oh, we’d have wound up here,” she said. “Sooner or later. ”

  “Written in the stars?”

  “Written on the subway walls,” she said, “and tenement halls. I love that song. ”

  “I haven’t heard it in ages. ”

  “Hang on,” she said, and slipped out of bed. I must have drifted off for a moment, because the next thing I knew she was curled up at my side while Simon & Garfunkel crooned softly in close harmony.

  “In my fantasies,” she said, “I never imagined we’d be all sweaty. ”

  “You had fantasies?”

  “You bet. And in all of them I came to you fresh out of the shower, with a little dab of perfume here and there—”

  “Where and where?”

  “Stop that. You’re distracting me. Where was I?”

  “Here and there,” I said.

  “You have the gentlest touch, Matthew S. Oh, my. Fresh out of the shower, subtly scented, with my long hair flowing. Well, the scent’s none too subtle, and the long hair’s no more than a memory. ”

  “In my fantasies,” I said, “the long hair didn’t really enter into it. ”

  “Hang on,” she said. “You had fantasies? About me?”

  “That surprises you?”

  “I never got any kind of vibe from you,” she said. “That’s one thing that made it so safe to have fantasies about you. You weren’t interested in me, and you were already taken. ”

  “I guess I started getting ideas when you put your hand on my arm. ”

  “You mean like this?”

  “Uh-huh. ”

  “That was just, you know, friendship. ”

  “I see. ”

  “I did it unconsciously. ”

  “Okay. ”

  “Maybe it wasn’t entirely unconscious,” she said, and thought it over. “Maybe it was just the tiniest bit sexual. ”

  “Well, don’t apologize for it, Donna. ”

  “I wouldn’t dream of it. What kind of fantasies did you have, that my hair wasn’t a part of?”

  “Well, what we just did. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “And a couple of other things,” I said,
“that we haven’t done yet. ”

  “None of them involving long hair. ”

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