A drop of the hard stuff, p.34
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.34

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 34

  “That’s great,” I said, and finally managed to hang up.

  So they were alive, all three of them.

  I got to the noon meeting at Fireside. There was a message in my box when I got back. Red Man, it said, and there was a number. It took me a minute, but I figured out that it was Dennis Redmond, and made the call from my room.

  “I figured Monday for the autopsy results,” he said, “but either they’ve got a light load over there or Stillman jumped the queue. No sign of blunt force trauma to the head. Or to any other part of him, as far as that goes. ”

  “So it looks like he did it himself. ”

  “It always did,” he said. “Of course somebody could have drugged him and strung him up. But that didn’t happen either. No drugs in his system, no blood alcohol. ”

  So he’d died sober.

  “In fact,” he said, “all the physical evidence supports a verdict of suicide. Strangulation’s the cause of death. There ought to be a law. ”

  “Against suicide? I think there already is. ”

  “Against belts,” he said. “Where do they get off making them strong enough to support a man’s weight? You might as well be putting a loaded gun in the hands of a child. ”

  “How else are people going to keep their pants up?”

  “What the hell’s wrong with suspenders? Or you could do like they do with fishing line. A certain amount of pressure and it snaps, gives the fish a sporting chance. Why not do the same with belts? A weight of more than a hundred pounds and it breaks. Think of the lives that would be saved. ”

  “And what about children?”

  “Never thought of it,” he said. “But you’re right, it’d just trigger an epidemic of juvenile suicide. I guess there’s only one answer. ”

  “And that would be?”

  “Warning labels. Works with cigarettes. Matt, I just thought you’d want to know. Your friend killed himself. Though I don’t suppose it makes you happy to hear that. ”

  “No,” I said. “How could it? But at least it saves me having to figure out what to do next. ”

  I was watching television when the phone rang. ESPN was showing a Gaelic football game, or a match, whatever they call it, and I sat there while a lot of young men in shorts and long-sleeved jerseys showed enormous energy doing something entirely incomprehensible. There was running and passing and kicking involved, and the score kept changing, in what struck me as a wholly arbitrary way.

  I hit the Mute button and picked up the phone, and it was Jan. She said, “I think we should talk. ”

  XXXIV

  TIFFANY’S IS THE FAMOUS Fifth Avenue jewelry store, and if I’d told a friend I was off to meet my girlfriend at Tiffany’s, he’d probably assume we’d be shopping for rings. But Tiffany’s is also the name of a coffee shop on Sheridan Square, open twenty-four hours a day, and Jan had picked it as a meeting place because it was midway between her neighborhood and mine.

  I took my time walking to the subway, but even so I had to wait for her, and she showed up with a companion, a sharp-featured woman in her fifties with unconvincingly black hair. They came to my booth, each carrying a shopping bag, and Jan introduced the woman as Mary Elizabeth. We nodded at each other, and I motioned for them to sit down, and Jan looked at Mary Elizabeth, who shook her head.

  “We won’t stay,” Jan said. She put her shopping bag on the table, and Mary Elizabeth placed hers alongside it. “I think this is everything,” Jan said.

  I nodded, lost in thought, and then when nobody moved or said anything I remembered my assigned role in the proceedings. I reached into my pocket and took out a ring of keys. I put them on the table, and they just sat there for a beat, and then Jan reached for them, picked them up, weighed them in her hand, put them in her purse.

  She turned to go, and Mary Elizabeth turned with her, and then Jan turned back to face me again. All in a rush she said, “I really hate this, and what I hate most of all is the timing. Right before your anniversary. ”

  “In a couple of days. ”

  “Tuesday, isn’t it?”

  “I guess so. ”

  “I was going to wait until afterward,” she said, “but I thought maybe that would be worse, and—”

  “Let it go,” I said.

  “I just—”

  “Let it go. ”

  She looked on the point of tears. Mary Elizabeth said, “Jan,” and she turned and walked after her, to the door and out.

  I stayed where I was. Two shopping bags shared the top of my table with the cup of coffee I’d ordered but so far hadn’t touched. One shopping bag was from a department store, the other from a company that sold art supplies. Each was a little more than half full, and Jan could have managed both of them herself. Mary Elizabeth, I decided, was there for moral support.

  I went to St. Paul’s for the evening meeting. Afterward I followed the crowd to the Flame and sat there until everybody went home. I walked down Ninth to Fifty-seventh, then walked on past my hotel and all the way across town to Lexington Avenue. I turned on Lexington and walked down to Thirtieth Street and got there just in time to help set up chairs for the midnight meeting.

  There were a few familiar faces in the room but nobody I really knew. They didn’t have a speaker, and the chairperson asked me if I had ninety days clean and sober. I said I’d spoken recently, and didn’t feel up to it. She found somebody else. They can always find somebody.

  I sat there for an hour and drank a couple of cups of bad coffee and ate a few cookies. I didn’t pay much attention to the speaker and didn’t raise my hand during the discussion. At the end I thought about finding someone to go out for coffee with, and decided the hell with it. I walked up to Forty-second Street and caught a cab the rest of the way home.

  My two shopping bags were as I’d left them, unpacked, standing side by side on the floor next to the bed. I went to bed, and they were still there the next morning. When I came back from breakfast, the maid had serviced my room, making my bed with clean sheets, emptying my wastebasket. And the shopping bags remained right where I’d left them.

  I picked up the phone, called Jim. “I’ve got two shopping bags on my floor,” I said, “and I can’t seem to figure out what to do with them. ”

  “Empty shopping bags?”

  “About half full. ” He waited, and I said, “Clothes of mine. That I’d left at Jan’s place. ”

  “What I like about you,” he said, “is you always come right to the point. ”

  So I talked and he listened, and I waited for him to ask me why I’d waited the better part of a day before telling him what was going on, but he never said a word about my silence. He waited until I’d run out of words, and then he said, “You knew it was coming. ”

  “I suppose so. ”

  “That make it easier?”

  “Not especially. ”

  “No, I didn’t think so. How do you feel?”

  “Devastated. ”

  “And?”

  “Relieved. ”

  “That sounds about right. ”

  I thought for a moment. Then I said, “I keep thinking that I made this happen. ”

  “By going to bed with Donna. ”

  “Right. ”

  “You realize, of course, that just because you keep thinking it doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t make any sense. ”

  “It doesn’t?”

  “Think about it, Matt. ”

  “She didn’t know about Donna. ”

  “No. ”

  “She didn’t even pick it up subliminally, because we haven’t spent any time together since then. We’ve barely even talked on the phone. ”

  “Right. ”

  “I’m just looking for a way for it to be my fault. ”

  “Uh-huh. ”

  “I went to the midnight meeting last night. ”

  “Probably didn’t hurt you. ”

  “Probab
ly not. I think I’ll spend most of the weekend in meetings. ”

  “Not a bad idea. ”

  “SoHo meets tonight. I think I’ll go somewhere else. ”

  “Good thinking. ”

  “Jim? I’m not going to drink. ”

  “Neither am I,” he said. “Isn’t that great?”

  I went to meetings throughout the weekend, but I was in my room Saturday afternoon just long enough to get a phone call.

 
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