Hope to die, p.31
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       Hope to Die, p.31

         Part #15 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 31

 

  If that had been one of Dannys nights at Poogans, I might never have met Helen Leich Bierman Watling, the twice-widowed mother of Jason Bierman. Id have thought of calling her at her hotel, and I might have looked at my watch and decided it was too late for a phone call. If Id failed to find a working pay phone, intending to call when I got home, Id have been that much more likely to decide it was too late and let it go until morning.

  By then Id have heard from Ira Wentworth (of Wentworth & McLaren) and a call to a dotty old lady from Wisconsin would no longer have ranked high on my list of priorities. In any event, Id have had to call her by nine that morning, because that was when she was leaving to catch an eleven-A. M. flight to Milwaukee, the airport of choice for those living in Oconomowoc.

  But Mother Blues is on Amsterdam in the Nineties, just a few minutes from the Colonial Inn, late the Paraldehyde Arms. I didnt even call, I just walked there, and a clerk who looked too well-scrubbed for the rest of the lobby confirmed that Mrs. Watling was a guest of the hotel. I picked up a house phone and he put through a call to her room.

  I said, "Mrs. Watling, my names Matthew Scudder, Im a private detective. Id like to talk with you about your son. "

  "Oh, my," she said. "You people really come out of the woodwork, dont you?"

  "I beg your pardon?"

  "I guess you smell money," she said. "Im sorry to disappoint you, but Im afraid I cant possibly afford the fees you charge. "

  And she rang off.

  "I think we got cut off," I told the clerk. "Could you put me through again?"

  When she picked up I said, "Mrs. Watling, you couldnt hire me if you wanted to. I already have a client, and I happen to believe your son is in fact innocent, that he was set up and killed by a man as yet unidentified. Im downstairs in the lobby, I walked over here to talk to you, but if you hang up on me again Ill go home, and you can go to hell. "

  I said all that in one breath, wanting to get the words in before she broke the connection, and maybe thats why my finish was a little more forceful than Id intended. For a moment I thought she had in fact hung up, because I didnt hear anything from her, and then she said, "Oh, dear. I finally act in an assertive manner, after being so namby-pamby ever since I got to this city, and I guess I picked the wrong man to hang up on. Are you still there?"

  "Im here. "

  "Do you want to come up here?"

  NO VISITORS ALLOWED IN ROOMS, a sign announced. "I dont think I can," I said. "There seems to be a rule against it. "

  "Do you suppose they think Im a prostitute? Well, it doesnt matter, theres no room for two people in here anyway. Theres not really room for one. This is the worst excuse for a hotel Ive ever seen in my whole life, let alone stayed in, and theyre charging me ninety-five dollars a night, and tax is extra. And people tell me its a bargain!"

  Welcome to New York, I thought.

  "Ill have to get dressed," she said, "but it wont take me a minute, and then Ill be right down. "

  It was more than a minute, but no more than five, before she emerged from the elevator, wearing a beige pantsuit and a bright yellow blouse. "Im dressed all wrong for New York," she said. "You dont have to tell me. "

  "I wasnt going to. "

  "Well, I am, and I know it, but Im not going to run out and buy a lot of black clothes just so I can fit in. And I dont think I would fit in even if I did. "

  I wasnt inclined to argue the point. She looked like a suburban Midwestern matron, her light brown hair carefully styled, her lipstick neatly applied, her wrinkles the kind they call laugh lines. She wasnt the stereotypical mother Id envisioned, but she seemed to fit the role shed fashioned for herself, or found forced upon her- the mother determined to salvage a dead sons good name.

  Except it wasnt all that good a name to start with, she told me, after we had settled into a corner booth at the Ninety-sixth Street equivalent of the Morning Star, or the Salonika. "Nothing ever really worked out for Jason," she said. "His father was about the handsomest boy in our high school class, and the most fun. But fun was all he cared about, and fun meant drinking, and drinking meant… well, he took off when Jason was four years old. I never heard from him, and I was told I could divorce him in absentia, or have him declared legally dead after seven years. But I didnt know that I wanted to do that, either of those things, and then I didnt have to, because he turned a car over somewhere in California and there was a card in his wallet of who to notify in the event he died, which he did. "

  Jason didnt do well in school, she said, and then when she remarried he didnt get along with his stepfather, who was, she had to admit it, a hard man to get along with. And Jason sort of drifted, and he wasnt too good at staying out of trouble, but he was never what youd call bad. There was nothing hurtful about him, nothing mean-spirited. They said hed been arrested for sneaking under a subway turnstile, and she could imagine him doing that, or even shoplifting from a supermarket or department store, but what theyd said hed done…

  I told her how I was investigating from the other direction, trying to find someone with a motive specific to the Hollanders. If I could find some common element, someone in her sons life who was in any way linked to Byrne and Susan Hollander, then I might be able to connect the dots.

  She thought it over while she spread butter on her toasted bran muffin ("one thing thats definitely better in New York, Ill grant you that") and took a little bite. She sipped some iced tea, ate more of the muffin, drank more of the tea, and looked up at me and shook her head.

  "I just dont know who he did or didnt know," she said. "He would call me just about once a week, he was good about that. He called collect, of course. I told him to, he didnt have the money to pay for his calls. In fact I helped him out a little, I sent a money order every few weeks. I didnt send checks because it was almost impossible for him to find a place that would cash a personal check on an out-of-state bank, and of course he didnt have a bank account of his own to deposit it into. He didnt have anything. "

  Except, she said, he was beginning to find himself, to get his feet planted. Not to take charge of his life, that made him sound a little more capable than he had yet become, but at least to play an active role in his own life instead of watching passively as it unfolded before him.

  "He was working," she said. "Three hours a day, Monday through Friday, delivering lunches for a delicatessen. They paid him in cash at the end of his shift each day, and it wasnt very much, but he got tips, too. And he worked nights, too, making deliveries for a package store. "

  I didnt know the term, and she said, "Dont you call it that? A store that sells packaged goods. Beverages, alcoholic beverages. What do you call it?"

  "A liquor store. "

  "Well, thats New York for you," she said. "I guess were more discreet in the Midwest, or maybe just more namby-pamby. We call them package stores. Now you didnt know that, and I didnt know there was anything else to call them, so I guess we both learned something, didnt we?"

  Jasons life didnt sound like much, she knew. A couple of part-time subsistence jobs hardly amounted to a budding career. But when you knew him and where hed come from, well, you could see that he was on the right track.

  "The last time he got in trouble," she said, "they had him see a counselor, and I have to give New York credit for this, because Jason said the man helped him see things a little more clearly. How he was just getting in his own way time and time again, and how it didnt have to be that way. And from that point on, his life began to improve. "

  Some specifics might have helped. The name of the social worker, for instance, who might have known the names of some of the other people in Jason Biermans new life. It would have been nice to know the names and locations of his occasional employers; she knew only that the deli was in Manhattan, which didnt narrow it down much. The package store ("or liquor store, Ill have to remember to call it that") might have been anywhere.

  She finished her bran muffin and iced tea, and I
decided Id had as much of my coffee as I wanted. I picked up the check, and she took a wallet from her purse and asked how much her share came to. I said it was on me. She insisted shed be happy to pay, and I told her to forget it. "Youre a visitor," I said. "Next time Im in Wisconsin, Ill let you pick up the tab. "

  "Well, thats very nice of you," she said. "And after I just about accused you of trying to drum up some high-priced business!" But shed had audiences with several private detectives, she said, and one told her to go home, that she was wasting her time, and the others wanted substantial advances before they would undertake to do a thing.

  "Two men asked for two thousand dollars, and one wanted twenty-five hundred," she said. "And there was another man who asked for two or three thousand, I cant remember which, and I said that was much too high, and he said, well, how about a thousand? And I hemmed and hawed, and he said if I gave him five hundred he could get started. And it came to me that he wanted whatever I could give him, and he probably wouldnt do a thing once he had the money in his hand. "

  I told her she was probably right. She apologized again, unnecessarily, and asked if I thought she should stay in New York. She was supposed to fly home in the morning but she supposed she could stick around for a few more days.

  I told her there was no need. I gave her one of my cards and made sure I had her address and phone number written down correctly. And I walked her back to her hotel, even though she told me not to bother. I waited until she had collected her key from the desk and boarded the elevator, then went outside and looked for a taxi.

  When I walked in the door, Elaine told me Ira Wentworth had called twice. He wouldnt say what it was about, just that I should call him as soon as I got in.

  I tried his number and a nasal-voiced male said, "Squad room, this is Acker. " I gave my name and said I was returning Detective Wentworths call.

  "Hes not in," Acker said, "but I know he wants to talk to you. Will you be staying put for the next ten minutes?"

  "Im not going anywhere. Hes got the number, but let me give it to you again. "

  He repeated it back to me and rang off, and I realized Id missed my chance to ask the number of the precinct. I picked up the phone and had my finger on the redial button but didnt push it.

  I had a feeling I knew which precinct it was.

  I put the phone down while I checked my notebook, picked it up again, and tried a number Id tried before, with no success. It rang once, twice, and then somebody answered but didnt speak.

  I said, "Ira Wentworth?"

  The voice Id heard once before, on my machine, said, "Who the hell is this?"

  TWENTY-SIX

  Half an hour later the doorman called upstairs to announce a Mr. Wentworth. I said to send him up, and was waiting in the hall when he got off the elevator. He was in his late thirties, tall and broad-shouldered, with a square jaw and a high forehead. His dark hair was combed straight back.

  He said his name and I said mine, and we shook hands. "I made a couple of phone calls," he said. "You were on the job yourself. "

 
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