A drop of the hard stuff, p.35
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.35
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 35

  It was Joe Durkin. “I don’t even know if this is worth passing on,” he said, “but you were brooding about that mugging in Gramercy, and I thought you’d like to know it was just what it looked like. A mugger who didn’t know his own strength. ”

  “They got the guy?”

  “In the act,” he said. “Well, not in the act of hitting your guy. Saperstein?”

  “Sattenstein. ”

  “Close enough. He wasn’t the first person mugged in that part of town, just the first who died from it, so they used a decoy from Street Crimes, put him in plain clothes, poured some booze on him, and had him walk around looking like he was half in the bag. ”

  “I don’t know why I never got assignments like that. ”

  “It must have been a treat,” he said, “to see the look on the skell’s face when the perfect victim showed him a badge and a gun. What I hear, they’re about to clear ten or a dozen cases. Guy’s confessing to everything they’ve got. ”

  “Including Sattenstein?”

  “ ‘Oh, the poor man who was killed? No, that one I didn’t do. ’ But he’ll cop to it too, by the time he gets to court. His lawyer’ll see to that. Get everything listed in the plea agreement so there’s nothing left to come back at you later on. ”

  Sometimes things were just what they appeared to be. Gregory Stillman hanged himself, Mark Sattenstein got killed by a mugger.

  I got out of there and headed off to another meeting.

  Sunday afternoon I went to a meeting in a synagogue on Seventy-sixth Street a few doors west of Broadway. I’d never been there before, and when I walked in my first impulse was to turn around and walk out again, because Donna was there. I stayed, and we were cordial to each other, and she thanked me again for helping her out the previous Saturday, and I said I’d been happy to help, and it was as if we’d never been to bed together.

  I met Jim for our usual if-it’s-Sunday-this-must-be-Shanghai dinner, and we didn’t talk about Jan or Donna or the state of my sobriety. Instead he did almost all of the talking, telling stories from his own drinking days, and back before his first drink, back in his childhood. I got caught up in what he had to say, and it wasn’t until later that I realized he’d purposely avoided discussing what was going on in my life these days. I couldn’t decide whether he was giving me a break or just trying to spare himself, but whatever it was, I was grateful.

  We went to St. Clare’s, and then I walked him home and went home myself. Jacob was behind the desk, looking confused. I asked him what was the matter.

  “Your brother called,” he said.

  “My brother?”

  “Or maybe it was your cousin. ”

  “My cousin,” I said. I was an only child. I had a couple of cousins, but we’d long since lost touch with one another. I couldn’t think of one who was likely to call.

  “It was a man,” he said. “Have to be, if it was your brother, wouldn’t it?”

  “What exactly did he say?”

  “Says he calling Mr. Scudder. I ask would he like to leave his name. Scudder, he says. Yessir, I know it’s Mr. Scudder you calling, but what would your name be? So he say it again, Scudder, and I’m feeling like them two guys. ”

  “Which two guys?”

  “You know. Them two guys. ”

  “Abbott and Costello. ”

  “Yeah, them two. So I say, lemme see now, you’re also Mr. Scudder. And he say, I am the Scudder. ”

  “ ‘I am the Scudder. ’ ”

  “Yeah, just like that. So I say, then you and Mr. Scudder be brothers. And he say how all men be brothers, and at this point it’s getting way too weird for me. ”

  “Gee, I can’t imagine why. ”

  “Say what?”

  “Nothing. He leave a number?”

  “Say you have it. ”

  “I have his number. ”

  “What he say. ”

  “All men are brothers, and he’s the Scudder, and I have his number. ”

  He nodded. “I tried to get it right,” he said, “but man like that don’t make it easy. ”

  “You did fine,” I told him.

  XXXV

  I RODE UP in the elevator, feeling pleased with myself. I’d managed to figure out who my caller had to be, and that was the first detecting I’d done in longer than I cared to remember.

  I looked up his number, dialed it, and when he answered I said, “If you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop in and apologize to my desk clerk. You had the poor guy caught up in an Abbott and Costello routine. ”

  The silence stretched until I started wondering if my detection had gone awry. Then he said, “Who’s this, man?”

  “Scudder. ”

  “Oh, wow,” he said. “When I called, you know, I thought that’d be you answering your phone. But you’re at some kind of hotel. ”

  “Well, it’s not the Waldorf. ”

  “And this cat I was talking to, he’s the desk clerk?”

  “That’s right. His name is Jacob. ”

  “Jacob,” he said. “Jay. Cub. Great name, man. You don’t meet many Jacobs. ”

  “I guess not. ”

  “Though you probably meet this particular one just about every day. I was goofing with him, you know? On account of the man’s got a little bit of an accent. He from the Indies?”

  “Somewhere down there. ”

  “Yeah, well, I asked for you, and he repeated your name, like to take the message? Except the vowel sound came out more oo than uh. Like Scooder, you know?”

  “Sure. ”

  “So he asks my name, and I may have been, you know, the least bit high at the time. ”

  “Hard to believe. ”

  “Under the righteous influence of a benevolent herb, if you can dig it. And I thought, Right, I’m the Scooter calling for Mr. Scooder. And, well, you can see how we sort of went around in circles from there. ”

  “I figured it was something like that. ”

  “Abbott and Costello,” he said. “ ‘Who’s on first?’ Them the cats you mean?”

  “The very gentlemen. ”

  “Can’t keep ’em straight, though. Abbott and Costello. Which one had the mustache?”

  “Neither one. ”

  “Neither one? You sure about that?”

  “Pretty sure,” I said. “Uh, Scooter—”

  “You’re wondering why I called. ”

  “I guess I am. ”

  “High-Low Jack,” he said. “You still there?”

  “I’m here. ”

  “Because you didn’t say anything for a minute there. That was what you asked me when you were over here, right? After we talked about Lucille?”

  “Right. ”

  “You wanted to know about his name. What it meant, where it came from. Right?”

  “Right. ”

  “Well, there’s that thing from the card game. High, Low, Jack, and the Game. But why call him that? There’s Smiling Jack, there’s One-Eyed Jack, there’s Toledo Jack. Why High-Low Jack for Jack Ellery?”

  Sooner or later he’d get to it.

  “Mood swing,” he said.

  “Mood swing?”

  “Very changeable guy. He’s up, he’s down. He’s laid-back, he’s jumpy as a cat. He’ll hug you or he’ll slug you. Hey!”

  “Hey?”

  “Rhymes,” he said. “Hug you, slug you. Anyway, High-Low Jack. Now, wasn’t for the card game, wouldn’t have stuck. Like if his name was Ted, you wouldn’t call him High-Low Ted, because it wouldn’t mean anything. Or say his name was Johnny instead of Jack, which it could have been, they’re both short forms of John, right? High-Low Johnny? I don’t think so. ”

 
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