A drop of the hard stuff, p.33
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.33
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 33

  “That wouldn’t have happened. ”

  “It might. Some bum’s AA sponsor, some faggot with an earring, has a list of people the dead guy may have done a bad turn a hundred years ago? Would that keep you up nights?”

  “Scudder, you’ve got no fucking idea what keeps me up nights. ”

  “Fair enough,” I said. “But if you took action, what would it be? You’d focus a lot of official attention on people with reasons of their own to stay out of the spotlight. ”

  “If they’re clean they’ve got nothing to worry about. ”

  “Really? You cheat on your taxes?”

  “Huh? Where did that come from?”

  “Do you?”

  “Of course not. My income’s all from the City of New York, so I couldn’t hide anything if I wanted to. And I file on the short form. It’s all a hundred percent straightforward. ”

  “So you’d have nothing to worry about in that area. ”

  “Absolutely not. If you’d like to pick a better example, one that might apply to me—”

  “Which is to say that it wouldn’t bother you much if you got a notice from the IRS that they were doing a line audit of your returns for the past three years. ”

  “They’d have no reason. I just told you—”

  “Strictly random,” I said, “and just the luck of the draw. Make you happy?”

  “All right,” he said at length. “I get the point. ”

  “These were men,” I said, “who got on the list for one reason only. Somewhere along the way, Jack fucked them over. He burned one in a drug deal, he set one up for a burglary, he beat up the owner in the course of a store holdup, and he went to bed with another guy’s wife. ”

  “Nice guy we’re talking about. ”

  “He was turning into a nice guy,” I said, “or at least he was trying to. I don’t know that it would have worked, I’m not sure to what extent anybody’s capable of changing, but I’d be hard put to argue that he was wasting his time. ”

  “On paper,” he said, “you’ve got a guy who looked for all the world like a total rat bastard. And yet there were an awful lot of people who showed up for his funeral, and they weren’t there just to make sure he was dead. ”

  “The only thing missing,” Redmond said, “is the note. And the fact of the matter is, you can kill yourself in this world without writing one. It’s not an absolute requirement. ”

  Once, back when I still had a gold shield and a wife and a house on Long Island, I sat up late one night in my living room with the business end of a gun in my mouth. I can still remember the metallic taste of it. It seems to me I never had any real intention of going through with it, but I did have my thumb on the trigger, and it wouldn’t have taken much pressure to send a round through the roof of my mouth.

  And they wouldn’t have found a note. I’d never even thought about writing out a note.

  “Aside from that,” he said, “everything looks right. He had the petechial hemorrhages in the eyes, showing strangulation as cause of death. Chair was right where it ought to be if he stood on it and kicked it over. Place was neat as a pin otherwise, showing no evidence of a struggle, no sign that there was ever another person in the room. ”

  “Maybe the autopsy will show something. ”

  “Like blunt force trauma to the head? They’ll look for that, of course. Because somebody could have knocked him out and then hoisted him up there, though it’s not the easiest thing in the world. Plus the killer would have had to strip him to his shorts, because Stillman would have been dressed when he let the guy into his place. ” He frowned. “And why fucking bother? Say you’re the guy, you want to kill Stillman, want to make it look like suicide. You get behind him, you conk him over the head, and he’s out cold. ”

  “So?”

  “You’re gonna take the time to undress him? And risk that he’ll come to while you’re doing it? Why not just string him up and be done with it?”

  “You’d need the belt,” I said.

  “So? You take it and put it to use. You figure his pants’d fall off without it?”

  “A lot of people undress before they kill themselves. ”

  “Or just stay undressed, if he was sitting around his apartment in his shorts. But do you go to the trouble of undressing a guy to make it look more like suicide? I don’t know, I suppose you could, but it sounds like more trouble than it’s worth. ”

  “Maybe. ”

  “Most things,” he said, “are more trouble than they’re worth. And maybe that’s all it was. Stillman got up, had his morning coffee, watered his plants, and took a long look at his life. And decided it was more trouble than it was worth. ”

  XXXII

  THAT NIGHT I thought of going to Sober Today, Greg’s regular Thursday night meeting on Second Avenue. As if by going there I might slip into an alternate universe, one in which he was still alive. We’d chat on the break, and after the meeting we’d go out for coffee. Maybe we’d see what kind of pie they had at Theresa’s. And we’d talk about High-Low Jack, and the perils of the Ninth Step, and whatever else came to mind.

  I didn’t go to that meeting, or any other. I thought I might go over to St. Paul’s, but didn’t, and then I thought I might catch some of the St. Paul’s crowd at the Flame. But I stayed in my room.

  I sat at the window, and at one point I realized I was looking down at the liquor store across the street. It got to be ten o’clock, and I stayed where I was, and sometime between ten and ten thirty they turned off the lights. They would have closed at ten, but if someone showed up while they were still in the store, someone they’d known for years, they’d open the door and sell him what he needed. But once the lights were off, once the neon sign no longer glowed with promise, then they were well and truly shut for the night.

  Of course the bars were still open. The bars would be open for hours yet, some of them until the legal closing hour of four a. m. And there were after-hours joints, any number of them, if you knew where to go. The Morrissey Brothers were out of business, but that didn’t mean a man with a thirst couldn’t find someone to sell him a drink after hours.

  Now and then I glanced at the phone. I thought of calling Greg’s number, and I thought of calling Mark Sattenstein’s number, but those were just passing thoughts and I didn’t feel the need to make the calls. I also thought of other calls I might make, to living people—Jim Faber, for example, or Jan Keane. But I never picked up the phone.

  If it rang, would I answer it? It seemed to me that I might, but it seemed just as possible that I might not. I envisioned myself sitting there while the telephone rang and rang and rang. Wondering who it might be, and yet unwilling to find out.

  At twenty minutes of twelve I thought of the midnight meeting. All I had to do was go downstairs and flag a cab. I’d get there in plenty of time. They drew a raffish crowd, with active drunks apt to put in an appearance, and it wasn’t unheard-of for a punch or a chair to be thrown, but there was plenty of sobriety in the room all the same, and there had been times when it had helped me get through a bad night.

  And maybe Buddha would be there. Maybe he’d explain to me that it was my dissatisfaction with what is that was the cause of all my unhappiness.

  Right. I stayed where I was.

  XXXIII

  I HAD TO FORCE myself to go out and eat breakfast. I’d skipped dinner, and couldn’t remember if I’d had lunch. It seemed to me that I hadn’t.

  Don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. The acronym is HALT, and it’s standard advice for beginners, and remains applicable no matter how long you’ve been sober. Ignore it and your mind begins working against you, and the next thing you know you’ve got a glass in your hand.

  I’d been all those things the previous night, hungry and angry and lonely and tired, but I’d managed to get through the night in spite of myself. I had a plate of bacon and eggs with toast and home fries, and once I got the
first bite down my appetite returned, and I cleaned my plate and drank three cups of coffee. I’d bought the Times on the way to the Morning Star, and someone had read and abandoned the Daily News, and I read each paper carefully, looking for stories of violent death. There were plenty of them, there always are, but for a change none of the newly dead were people I knew.

  Back in my room, I looked up phone numbers and made calls. I rang Dukacs & Son, and recognized the proprietor’s voice when he answered. But I made sure: “Mr. Dukacs?”

  “Yes?”

  I broke the connection, called Crosby Hart at his office. He picked up the phone and said, “Hal Hart. ”

  “Wrong number,” I said, and rang off.

  I made a third call to Scooter Williams. The phone rang and rang, and I wondered if a quick trip down to Ludlow Street would be overreacting. Then he picked up. He was out of breath, and something made me ask if he was all right.

  “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “I just got out of the shower, I had to run to the phone. Uh, who is this?”

  I gave my name.

  He said, “Matthew Scudder. Matthew Scudder. Oh, right! Jack’s friend. ”

  “Right,” I said, figuring that was close enough.

  “Yeah, I remember. I was gonna call you, man. ”

  “Oh?”

  “Can’t remember why. It came to me, you know, and then it went away. Something you asked me, but don’t ask me what it was. Oh, wow. You asked me but don’t ask me?”

  “You can’t remember. ”

  “Hey, if it came to me once it’ll come to me again. Like swallows to Capistrano, you know? You want to give me your number again? You gave it to me, but I don’t know what I did with it. ”

  I gave it to him again. He said, “Matthew Scudder. Okay, got it. Hey, you know what? You’re Scudder and I’m Scooter. ”

  “And to think some people doubt the existence of God. ”

  “Huh? Oh, right. Years since anybody called me that, though. Ages. Hey, it’ll come to me and I’ll call you. ”

 
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