All the flowers are dyin.., p.3
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.3

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 3

 

  At one of the first meetings I went to, a gay woman talked about having realized that drinking might be a problem for her when she noticed that she kept coming out of blackouts on her knees with some guy’s dick in her mouth. “I never did that when I was sober,” she said. I have a feeling Abie never got to hear anything like that in Dogbane, Oregon.

  Herb had been coming around about as long as Abie had, and he’d made ninety days the previous week. That’s a benchmark of sorts; until you’ve put together ninety days clean and dry, you can’t lead a meeting or take on a service commitment. Herb had qualified at a daytime meeting. I hadn’t been there, but I’d probably get to hear his story sooner or later, if he and I both stayed sober. He was around fifty, pudgy and balding, but almost boyish with the enthusiasm that’s characteristic of some members’ early sobriety.

  I hadn’t been that way myself, nor was I as bitter about the whole thing as Johnny had been. Jim Faber, who’d watched the process, had told me I was at once dogged and fatalistic, sure I would drink again but determined not to. I couldn’t tell you what I was like. I just remember dragging myself from one meeting to the next, scared it would work for me and scared it wouldn’t.

  I don’t remember who brought up capital punishment. Somebody did, and somebody made one of the standard observations on the subject, and then Johnny Sidewalls turned to Ray and said, “I suppose you’re against it. ” That could have been said with an edge, but it wasn’t. It was just an observation, with the tacit implication that, given who Ray was, he’d be opposed to the death penalty.

  “I’m against it for my clients,” Ray said.

  “Well, you’d have to be, wouldn’t you?”

  “Of course. I’m against any penalty for my clients. ”

  “They’re all innocent,” I said.

  “Innocent’s a stretch,” he allowed. “I’ll settle for not guilty. I’ve tried a few capital cases. I never lost one, and they weren’t cases where the death penalty was a real possibility. Still, even the slimmest chance that your client might go to the chair concentrates an attorney’s mind wonderfully. ‘Go to the chair’—that dates me, doesn’t it? There’s no chair anymore. They let you lie down, in fact they insist on it. Strap you to a gurney, make a regular medical procedure out of it. And the odds against you are even worse than in regular surgery. ”

  “What I always liked,” Bill said, “is the alcohol swab. ”

  Ray nodded. “Because God forbid you might get a staph infection. You have to wonder what latter-day Mengele thought that one up. Am I against the death penalty? Well, aside from the fact that it can’t be established to have any deterrent effect, and that the whole process of appeals and execution costs substantially more than feeding and housing the sonofabitch for the rest of his natural life, that it’s essentially barbaric and puts us on the same side of the line as China and the Muslim dictatorships, and that, unlike the rain which falls equally upon the just and the unjust, it falls exclusively upon the poor and underprivileged. Aside from all that, there’s the unfortunate fact that every once in a while we get our signals crossed and execute the wrong person. It wasn’t that long ago that nobody even heard of DNA, and now it’s getting a ton of convictions reversed. Who knows what the next step in forensics will be, and what percentage of the poor bastards the state of Texas is busy killing will turn out innocent?”

  “That would be awful,” Herb said. “Imagine knowing you didn’t do something, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it from happening to you. ”

  “People die all the time,” Pat said, “for no good reason at all. ”

  “But the state doesn’t do it to them. That’s different, somehow. ”

  Abie said, “But sometimes there’s just no fit response short of death. Terrorists, for example. What would you do with them?”

  “Shoot them out of hand,” Ray said. “Failing that, hang the bastards. ”

  “But if you’re against capital punishment—”

  “You asked me what I would do, not what I think is right. When it comes to terrorists, home-grown or foreign, I don’t care what’s right. I’d hang the fuckers. ”

  This made for a spirited discussion, but I tuned out most of it. In the main I enjoy the company of my fellow sober alcoholics, but I have to say I like it less when they talk politics or philosophy or, indeed, anything much beyond their own immediate lives. The more abstract the conversation got, the less attention I paid to it, until I perked up a little when Abie said, “What about Applewhite? Preston Applewhite, from Richmond, Virginia. He killed those three little boys, and he’s scheduled for execution sometime next week. ”

  “Friday,” I said. Ray gave me a look. “It came up in a conversation earlier tonight,” I explained. “I gather the evidence is pretty cut-and-dried. ”

  “Overwhelming,” Abie said. “And you know sex killers will do it again if they get the chance. There’s no reforming them. ”

  “Well, if life without parole really meant life without parole…”

  And I tuned out again. Preston Applewhite, whose case hadn’t interested me much at the time and of whose guilt or innocence I had no opinion, had unwittingly found his way into two very different conversations. That had caught my attention, but now I could forget about him.

  “I had the Irish breakfast,” I told Elaine, “complete with black pudding, which Joe is crazy about so long as he can manage to forget what it is. ”

  “There’s probably a kosher vegetarian version,” she said, “made out of wheat gluten. Did it feel strange going there?”

  “A little, but less so as the evening wore on and I got used to it. The menu’s not as interesting as Jimmy’s, but what I had was pretty good. ”

  “It’s hard to screw up an Irish breakfast. ”

  “We’ll go sometime and you can see what you think. Of the place— I already know what you would think of the Irish breakfast. You’re home early, incidentally. ”

  “Monica had a late date. ”

  “The mystery man?”

  She nodded. Monica’s her best friend, and her men run to type: they’re all married. At first it would bother her when they’d hop out of her bed to catch the last train to Upper Saddle River, and then she realized that she liked it better that way. No bad breath in your face first thing in the morning, plus you had your weekends free. Wasn’t that the best of all worlds?

  Usually she showed off her married beaus. Some of them were proud and some were sheepish, but what this one was we seemed unlikely to find out, as he’d somehow impressed upon her the need for secrecy. She’d been seeing him for a few weeks now, and Elaine, her confidante in all matters, couldn’t get a thing out of her beyond the admission that he was extremely intelligent and—no kidding—very secretive.

  “They don’t go out in public together,” she reported, “not even for a charming little dinner in a charming little bistro. There’s no way she can reach him, not by phone or e-mail, and when he calls her the conversations are brief and cryptic. He won’t say her name over the phone, and doesn’t want her to use his. And she’s not even sure the name he gave her is his real name, but whatever it is she won’t tell me. ”

  “It sounds as though she’s getting off on the secrecy. ”

  “Oh, no question. It’s frustrating, because she’d like to be able to talk about him, but at the same time she likes that she can’t. And since she doesn’t know who he is or what he does, she can make him into anything in her mind. Like a government agent, and she can’t even be sure what government. ”

  “So he calls her and comes over and they go to bed. End of story?”

  “She says it’s not just sex. ”

  “They watch Jeopardy together?”

  “If they do,” she said, “I bet he knows all the answers. ”

  “Everybody knows the answers. ”

  “Smartass. The questions, then. He knows all the questions. Because he’s superintelligent. ”

 
“It’s a shame we’ll never get to meet him,” I said. “He sounds like a whole lot of fun. ”

  3

  The Greensville Correctional Center is located just outside of Jarratt, Virginia, an hour’s drive south of Richmond. He pulls up to the gate-house, rolls down his window, shows the guard his driver’s license and the letter from the warden. His car, a white Ford Crown Victoria with a moonroof, is immaculate; he spent the previous night in Richmond, and before he left this morning he ran it through a car wash. This car’s a rental, and it hadn’t gotten all that dirty in a few hundred miles of highway travel, but he likes a clean car, always has. Keep your car washed, your hair combed, and your shoes shined, he likes to say, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

  He parks where the guard indicates, no more than thirty yards from the main entrance, over which the facade is filled with the institution’s name: GREENSVILLE / CORRECTIONAL / CENTER. The name’s scarcely necessary, the structure could hardly be anything else, squat and rectilinear and hinting at confinement and punishment.

  There’s a briefcase on the seat beside him, but he’s already decided not to take it inside, to avoid the nuisance of having to open it time and time again. He opens it now, takes out a small spiral-bound notebook. He doubts he’ll need to take notes, but it’s a useful prop.

  Before leaving the car he checks himself again in the rearview mirror. Adjusts the knot of his silver tie, smoothes his mustache. Tries on a few expressions, settling on a rueful half-smile.

  He locks the car. Hardly necessary, as the likelihood of someone breaking into a car in a prison parking lot in the very shadow of the guards’ tower strikes him as infinitesimal. But he always locks the car upon leaving it. If you always lock it, you’ll never leave it unlocked. If you’re always early, you’ll never be late.

  He likes catchphrases like that. Pronounced with the right degree of certainty, even of solemnity, they can make a remarkable impression on others. Repeated over time, their effect can verge on the hypnotic.

  He strides across the tarmac toward the entrance, a trimly built man wearing a gray suit, a crisp white shirt, an unpatterned silver tie. His black cap-toe shoes are freshly shined, and the rueful half-smile is in place upon his thin lips.

  The warden, one John Humphries, is also wearing a gray suit, but there the resemblance ends. Humphries is the taller by several inches and heavier by fifty or sixty pounds. He carries the weight well and has the look of an ex–college athlete who never lost the habit of gym workouts. His handshake is firm, his authority unmistakable.

  “Dr. Bodinson,” he says.

  “Warden. ”

  “Well, Applewhite’s agreed to see you. ”

  “I’m glad of that. ”

  “For my part, I wish I had a better sense of your interest in him. ”

 
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