A drop of the hard stuff, p.36
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.36

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 36

  “High-Low Jack,” I said.

  “Right. Mood swing. Up one minute, down the next. ”

  Well, that was at least slightly interesting. Maybe it even made sense. One thing it didn’t do was shed any light on the question of who killed him, or why.

  “He like that as a little kid?”

  “How’s that?”

  “You knew him when you were kids, right? Was he like that then, up one minute and down the next?”

  “Not that I remember. ”

  “Maybe he was manic-depressive,” Scooter said. “I don’t know, everybody’s got good days and bad days, don’t they? Shrinks want to hang a label on everybody. ”

  I was beginning to tire of the conversation. The bottom line seemed to be that Jack was a moody guy, and I didn’t see that leading me anywhere. Whatever moods the man had had, one could only assume they ended at the grave.

  “The world’s a heartless place,” I said, and Scooter said he couldn’t agree with me more. I had that right, he assured me.

  “High-Low Jack,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it the first time you asked. Seems so obvious now. ”

  “Now that you think what a moody fellow he was. ”

  “Yeah, that’s a fact. One minute he’s cool as a cucumber, next minute he’s hot as a pistol. Wow!”

  “Wow?”

  “Just thinking, man. It came to me just like that. ”

  “What did?”

  “Expressions, man. How you can turn ’em around and have fun with ’em. Like you could say cool as a pistol, you know?”

  “I guess you could. ”

  “Or hot as a cucumber. Oh, man, can you dig it? ‘That chick is hot as a cucumber. ’ I mean, wow. ”

  “Wow. ”

  “Just switching things around, you know? Or think how everybody always says they searched every little nook and cranny. Turn it around—every little cranny and nook. Makes just as much sense that way, and yet you never hear it. ”

  “Remarkable. ”

  “You said it, man. Why does it always have to be lo and behold? From now on I’m gonna make a point of saying behold and lo! instead. Can you dig it?”

  “Right,” I said.

  “Right as a whip. Smart as rain. ”

  “Uh—”

  “Even Jack. High-Low Steven. ”

  I was hanging up when the last phrase came through. I brought the receiver back to my ear. “Say that again,” I said.

  “What?”

  “What you just said. About Jack. ”

  “Oh, just more switching, man. Like you say High-Low Jack and Even Steven, and I switched ’em around. ”

  “Oh, just expressions. ”

  “Right, having to do with Jack and his buddy. ”

  “His buddy. ”

  “Yeah, Steve. ”

  “Steve. ”

  “You’re like an echo, man. Scooder and Scooter, and there’s another echo right there. ”

  “Tell me about Steve,” I said.

  He couldn’t tell me much.

  Jack had this running buddy, and if Jack was a creature of changeable temperament, Steve was just the opposite, always steady, always calm and cool. Hence Even Steven, as opposed to High-Low Jack.

  He didn’t even know how close the two had been, or what common interest might have bound them in friendship. It was the coincidence of their names that linked them as much as anything else.

  “Like with Jack,” he said, “and calling him High-Low Jack, because there’s already the expression from the card game. But you wouldn’t call him High-Low Ted. ”

  “So you said. ”

  “And the same with Steve. If it doesn’t rhyme, you don’t pin the label on him. Even Steven, but not, like, Even Ted. ”

  “Steady Teddy,” I suggested.

  “Oh, wow!”

  That sent him zooming off on a tangent, but it wasn’t too hard to get him back on course. He didn’t know Steve’s last name, and didn’t know that it was a matter of memory, as he had the sense that he’d never known Steve’s last name. Lucille, who’d very likely been to bed with Steve, probably hadn’t known his last name, either, and might or might not remember him, and anyway it was all academic, since Lucille had long since vanished somewhere out west.

  And if it hadn’t been for Jack, nobody’d call his buddy Even Steven. The two names seemed to go together. It was funny with names, he said.

  “Like I had a Vespa for about ten minutes,” he said. “Little motor scooter? And that was enough, and to some people I’ve been Scooter Williams ever since. I mean, people who never even knew me when I had the bike. ”

  “Like Jacob. ”

  “Jacob,” he said. “Oh, your Jacob! Scooter and Scooder!”

  “Right. ”

  “Yeah,” he said. “Like Jacob. Funny, isn’t it?”

  I agreed that it was. And, he wondered, was this helpful, any of it? About Jack’s name and where it came from, and Even Steven?

  I said we’d have to see.

  I called Poogan’s, and Danny Boy came to the phone. “One quick question,” I said. “Even Steven. ”

  “That’s not a question, Matthew. ”

  “You’re right,” I said. “It’s not. Does the name Even Steven—”

  “Mean anything to me?”

  “That’s the question. ”

  “Not out of context. Is there a context?”

  I told him what I knew.

  “An old pal of Jack Ellery’s,” he said. “High-Low Jack and Even Steven. You know, the fact that a man’s unflappable, that he doesn’t have to take Librium to keep from bouncing off walls, that’s not the kind of trait that makes him instantly identifiable. ”

  “I know. ”

  “What it is, it’s the absence of a trait. It’s sort of like ‘Oh, you know who I mean. He’s the guy who hasn’t got a wooden leg. ’ ”

  “Well, if you happen to hear anything. ”

  “We’ll see,” he said. “I gather you’re still on that case. ”

  “Sort of. ”

  “Well, if the client’s still footing the bill—”

  “My client’s dead. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “He killed himself. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “Hanged himself with his belt. I liked him too. ”

  Danny Boy didn’t say anything for a long moment, and I’d already said more than I’d intended. Eventually he said he’d let me know if he came up with anything, and I told him not to worry if he didn’t, and that’s where we left it.

  XXXVI

  IN THE MORNING I made a couple of phone calls before I went out for breakfast, then worked the phones some more after I’d eaten and read the paper. I had a name to try on people—Even Steven—and I bounced it off everybody I could think of, including Bill Lonergan in Woodside and Vann Steffens in Jersey City. Could anybody come up with a fellow named Steve who’d hung out with Jack Ellery? Did anybody get any kind of a hit off the name Even Steven? I kept busy, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.

 
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