A drop of the hard stuff, p.32
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.32
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 32

  I didn’t smell mice, or cabbage. Or wet dog with garlic. What I did smell sent me out of the building and down the street, looking for a working pay phone.

  XXXI

  YOU SEE SOMETHING like that,” Redmond said, “you want to cut him down. It’s heartless, somehow, leaving him like that. But you do the humane thing and you catch hell from the crime lab crew. Just opening a window pisses them off, but that’s just too fucking bad. ”

  He’d opened all the windows, and that was a help. The odor I’d caught a whiff of in the hallway hit us in the face when the super opened the door for us, and we walked into a stench that made me grateful I’d skipped lunch.

  Aside from the smell, the living room was as I remembered it, and in perfect order. The kitchen was immaculate, but for a half-finished cup of coffee in its matching saucer.

  In the bedroom, wearing nothing but a pair of blue-and-white-striped boxer shorts, Greg Stillman had a black leather belt looped around his neck, the wide brass buckle mostly hidden by his swollen throat. The other end of the belt disappeared over the top of the closet door, which had been closed to anchor it there. A folding step stool lay on its side, where it would have landed when he kicked it away.

  “Nobody would ever do this,” Redmond said, “if they had the faintest fucking idea what they’d wind up looking like. Or what they’d smell like. ”

  The head swells, the neck stretches, the face blackens. The bowels and bladder empty themselves. Noxious gases form in the internal organs and find their way out. Flesh rots.

  “The poor son of a bitch,” Redmond said. “You hate to leave him hanging there. But a fat lot of good it’d do him to cut him down. ”

  The man from the medical examiner’s office thought it was a very bad way to kill yourself. “Because you’re a long time dying,” he said. “And you’re conscious. You flop around like a trout on a line, and it’s too late to change your mind. Look here, on the door. Scuff marks from kicking. There’s pills you can take, you just go to sleep and you don’t wake up. And if you have second thoughts after you swallow them, well, you’ve generally got time to get over to the emergency room and have your stomach pumped. ”

  “Or you eat your gun and at least it’s quick. ”

  “Makes a goddam mess, though,” the ME told him. “But you’re not the one has to clean it up, so what do you care?”

  “Me?” Redmond said. “Let’s leave me out of it, huh? I’m not about to eat my gun. ”

  He said, “You don’t smoke, do you? I quit years ago, but whenever I walk in on something like that, I wish I still smoked and I wish I had a cigar. One about a foot long and an inch thick. Something to smell instead of what we had to smell in there. ”

  We were in the Emerald Star, a Second Avenue bar I’d noticed on my first visit to Greg’s apartment. The bartender was a gaunt Hispanic with long sideburns and a pencil-line mustache. Redmond, who’d had whiskey and water when I met him at the Minstrel Boy, said he’d have a double Cutty Sark, neat, no ice.

  I thought that sounded like a very sensible choice. But what I ordered was a Coke.

  “My first partner,” I said, “was addicted to those little Italian cigars that look like pieces of twisted rope. They came in a little cardboard box, five or six to the box. I think the brand was De Nobili, but Mahaffey always called them guinea stinkers. ”

  “Nowadays they’d write him up for uttering an ethnic slur. ”

  “They might, and he wouldn’t care. I hated the smell of the things, but when we walked in on something like just now, he’d light one up and he’d give me one, and I’d light it and smoke it. ”

  “And be glad for it, I’ll bet. ”

  “It helped,” I said.

  He picked up his glass, looked through it at the overhead light. I wondered why he did that. I’d done it often enough myself, and never knew why.

  “No note,” he said.

  “No. ”

  “My impression of him was that he’d be the type to leave a note. You knew him better than I did. ”

  “My impression,” I said, “was he wasn’t the type to kill himself. ”

  “Everybody’s the type,” he said. “The miracle is there’s so many of us who never get around to it. ”

  “Maybe. ”

  “My father killed himself. You know what that means?” I did, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “Means my odds aren’t good. I forget the numbers, but the sons of suicides are thus and so many times as likely to kill themselves as the rest of the world. ”

  “That doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice. ”

  “No,” he said, and took a drink. “I have a choice. But have I got a choice what choice I make?” He grinned. “Run that little question through your mind a few times, and see where it gets you. So let’s run some other questions instead. When’s the last time you saw him?”

  “I don’t remember,” I said, “but the last time I spoke to him was Saturday. ”

  “I played his messages. The tape starts on Monday morning. The ME said what, a couple of days?”

  “I think so. ”

  “A person could go nuts listening to those messages. You must have heard them, you were standing a few feet away. ”

  “AA friends of his, mostly. ”

  “And some woman describing a piece of jewelry she wanted him to repair. Unbelievable. She goes on and on about it, the size, the materials, this, that, and the other, and then she says how she’ll bring it over so he can have a look at it. ‘So I don’t know why I’m describing it in such detail,’ she says. I felt like calling her up, telling her I don’t know either. ”

  “I more or less tuned her out. ”

  “I kept waiting for her to say something significant. Then there were the ones telling him they weren’t going to drink. Today, they said. Meaning they might drink tomorrow?”

  “The idea is, you can’t know about tomorrow until it comes. But all you have to deal with is today. ”

  “Makes sense. Why tell him? Or were they just telling themselves?”

  “A little of both,” I said. “I think they were probably his sponsees. ”

  “What’s that, the opposite of a sponsor?”

  “They used to call them pigeons,” I said, “and some of the old-timers still do. But the consensus seems to be that the word pigeon is demeaning. ”

  “Because a pigeon’s a dirty bird that squawks and flies around and shits on your head. ”

  “That must be it. ”

  “No note,” he said again. “Other hand, the door was locked. When Rafael—was that his name?”

  “I think so. ”

  “When he opened up for us, he turned the key twice, first to draw the bolt, then to snick the catch back. So if somebody helped him on his way, they didn’t walk out the door and just pull it shut after them. ”

  “They’d have had to use a key. ”

  “Which they could have done, and how would we know? How can we rule it in or out?”

  “There was another lock,” I said. “The Fox, the big police lock. Plate in the floor, bar fits into it and braces against the door. ”

  “Keeps the whole world on the other side of the door,” he said. “If he really wants to avoid being disturbed, why not engage the police lock? Other hand, he doesn’t want to keep people away forever. Just long enough for him to do the deed and be done with it. ”

  With it and everything else.

  He said, “Say he did it, because right now I don’t see anything that says he didn’t. Why would he do it? Aside from he’s an alcoholic and he’s gay, which are both pretty decent reasons, but can you come up with anything more specific?”

  “He blamed himself for Jack Ellery’s death. ”

  “How?”

  I furnished a very sketchy explanation of the amends process. “Jack was poking around in the past,” I said, “and as far as I can tell all that got him was a punch in the n
ose—”

  “Yeah, he’d taken some lumps a week or more prior to his death. That was in the medical report. Tell me something. Why is this the first I’m hearing about any of this? Whose idea was it to withhold evidence, yours or Stillman’s?”

  “There was no evidence for either of us to withhold. That’s what he hired me for, to look for evidence. And turn it over to you if I found anything. ”

  “But you came up empty?”

  I’d already said more than I’d wanted to. But a couple of people were dead. Maybe one got mugged and the other killed himself, but maybe not.

  “Jack had a list of people he’d harmed,” I said. “People to whom he intended to make amends. I went through the list and managed to rule them all out. ”

  “You cleared them. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “The people on his list. ” He looked off into the distance. “You know, I’m sure your detective powers are fucking legendary, but why didn’t you bring me the list and let all the resources of the New York Police Department determine whether or not those suspects ought to be cleared?”

  “That’s not why I was hired. ”

  “And you didn’t want to lose a fee. ”

  “I put in a lot more work than the fee was worth. And if I’d told him to bring it to you, you’d have done one of two things. Either you’d have shined him on and stuck the list in a file—”

 
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