A drop of the hard stuff, p.38
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.38

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 38

  “Because I might be running an elaborate scam,” I said, “where I go around paying fifty dollars to gain access to rooms of people who don’t own anything. ”

  He wasn’t happy, but he went out into the hall and I closed the door, and used the hook-and-eye gadget to keep him out. Then I got to work looking for anything Jack might have tucked away where it wouldn’t be easy to find.

  A piece of carpeting covered most of the floor. It was a bound remnant, and it hadn’t been tacked down, so it was easy enough to roll it up after I’d moved a couple of pieces of furniture. And it was almost as easy to replace everything after I’d established that the carpet hadn’t been hiding anything.

  The next place I looked was the dresser, a dark wood chest of drawers, its top scarred by neglected cigarettes. I took out each drawer in turn, stacking its contents on the floor, turning over the empty drawer to check its bottom, then putting everything back. One drawer, the wood warped with age, didn’t want to come out, but I coaxed it, and had no more luck with it than with the one before it, but the next drawer, just one up from the bottom, was the charm. There was a 9×12 manila envelope Scotch-taped to its underside. An envelope just like it had held Jack’s Eighth Step.

  I picked at the tape, freed the envelope. One wing of the metal clasp broke while I was opening it. If the contents turned out to be the new tenant’s can’t-miss formula for picking winners, I’d be hard put to leave it as I found it. But I wasn’t really worried on that score.

  The envelope held three sheets of unlined notebook paper, covered in what I was able to recognize as Jack’s careful handwriting. There was a newspaper clipping as well, and I took a look at it before I read what Jack had written.

  It was from the Post, and it ran to the better part of a full page. I read it all the way through, although I could have stopped after the first paragraph.

  I remembered the case.

  When I’d finished the clipping I read the first paragraph of what Jack had written, then decided the rest could wait. I put the dresser drawer back, then returned everything to the envelope, fastened it with what remained of the clasp, and tucked the envelope inside my shirt. I can’t say it improved the fit of that garment, but with the shirt buttoned over it there wasn’t much chance anyone would take notice. And I could leave Jack’s old room as empty-handed as I’d entered it.

  I let myself out. Pardo was a few steps down the hall.

  “Nothing,” I told him.

  “What did I tell you? These people had anything, they’d live somewhere else. ”

  XXXVII

  I WALKED DOWNTOWN, looking for someplace to have a cup of coffee while I read what Jack had written. I wound up at Theresa’s. I skirted the counter, where Frankie Dukacs was giving his full attention to a bowl of soup, and took a booth where all he’d see of me was the back of my head.

  I didn’t want a meal, but I remembered the last time I’d been here and ordered a piece of pie with my coffee. They didn’t have strawberry-rhubarb, but they had pecan, and I decided that would do just fine.

  The newspaper clipping told of a man and woman who’d been shot dead in what the Post called a “Bohemian love nest” on Jane Street. It was Bohemian because it was not only in the Village, but in a back house, a onetime carriage house located to the rear of the Federal-period town house that fronted on the street. And it was a love nest because the two victims were nude, and in bed, and the man was married to somebody else.

  He was a big player in the financial world. His name was G. Decker Raines, with the G standing for Gordon, and his name got in the papers a lot in connection with corporate takeovers and leveraged buyouts. Her name was Marcy Cantwell, and she’d come to New York to be an actress. What she’d become instead was a waitress, but she’d taken some classes and had a turn in some showcase and workshop productions.

  One night she waited on Raines’s table, and caught his eye, and he was back the next evening all by himself. He was still there at closing time, and walked her back to where she was staying at the Evangeline House, a residence for young women on West Thirteenth Street. Male guests weren’t allowed upstairs, but they were able to sit together in the parlor.

  A week later she was living in the Jane Street back house, and she wasn’t waiting tables anymore.

  A few months later she was dead, and so was he.

  I didn’t get all of this from the clipping, or from Jack’s account of the incident. I read through everything a couple of times, then got myself down to the microfilm room at the library, where I read everything the Times had. The story had stayed alive a long time. It couldn’t really miss. She was a beauty and he was a rich guy, and his wife was socially prominent and his kids went to private schools, and best of all the case never got solved. That meant it might be just what it looked like, a home invasion that turned violent, but it might be something else—a contract killing arranged by a business rival of Raines’s, or something spawned by jealousy, either the wife’s or that of a prior boyfriend of Marcy’s. She’d had a couple, including a bartender with a history of violence toward women, and the cops knocked on a lot of doors and asked a lot of questions, but they never caught a break.

  Or maybe I should say we and not they, because I was still with the NYPD when it happened, and in fact still attached to the Sixth Precinct. Our house caught the case, but I was never assigned to it, and we didn’t have it long before all the publicity led the Major Case Squad to take it away from us.

  A while ago, this was. Before the bullet that killed Estrellita Rivera swept me along in its wake, out of my job and marriage and into a room at the Northwestern. Before Jack Ellery got tagged for something else, and went away for it, and came out and got sober. A full dozen years ago, and more than enough time for the case to go very cold. There were cold cases where you knew who did it, even though you couldn’t do anything about it. And there were cases where you didn’t know a thing, and this was one of those.

  But I knew. Jack did it. Jack and Steve.

  “I’m writing this out separately,” Jack’s account started out. “This is part of my Fourth Step, and I’ll discuss this in my Fourth Step and talk about it with G. when I do my Fifth Step. But there is someone else involved, so I am going to write this out now just for myself. And of course for my Higher Power, who might be reading over my shoulder, or listening to my thoughts. ”

  Then there was some speculation on the nature of that Higher Power, or God. It was interesting enough, but nothing special, and really just Jack thinking some thoughts of his own on paper.

  After a couple of paragraphs of that, he got back to the matter at hand. He told how an acquaintance, whom he neither named nor identified, had pointed out Marcy Cantwell as a former actress-waitress who now had plenty of time for auditions and acting classes, because she’d found a sugar daddy with a fat wallet. And how he’d shared this information with a friend. “I will call him S. ,” he added, and that’s what he called him for the rest of the document, never revealing any personal information about him, never describing or identifying him.

  He didn’t say how they got the keys, only that they’d had access to the locked passage leading back to the carriage house and to the house itself. It was early evening when they let themselves in, and they burst into the bedroom before either of the two lovers was aware of their presence.

  “I had a gun in my hand,” he wrote, “and when the man went for a gun, I shot him without thinking. He was naked and was grabbing for his pants to cover himself. I don’t know why I thought he was going for a gun. I shot him in the chest and he fell back and I said we have to do something, we have to call somebody. And then S. took the gun from me. He told me to shut up. He told me I had to calm down. He said she’d seen our faces, she could identify us. She was crying and begging, and trying to cover herself with her hands, and I was like No, you can’t do this, and he was ice-cold the way he always was and he just shot her between the
breasts and she fell back next to the man. I don’t know if she was alive or dead. And E. S. took the gun and put it back in my hand, and wrapped his own hand around mine, and said, Come on, you have to do this. And I had my finger on the trigger and his finger was over mine, and together we shot her in the forehead. And he took the gun and shot the man one more time, also in the head, to make sure. ”

  And that was that.

  He’d changed it when he recounted it to his sponsor. Shifted the scene from the Village to the Upper West Side, recast the personnel, changing a money guy and his playmate to a drug dealer and his Spanish girlfriend. The most vivid image of all, S. pressing the gun into his hands and making him shoot the girl, somehow never made the final cut.

  Some of it had likely been designed to render the event less identifiable, and it had certainly worked; I’d been unable to find a case that fit the account I got from Greg. Beyond that, I had to believe he’d tailored the story to lessen its impact on his sponsor. Jack had wanted to be honest, but he hadn’t been capable of one hundred percent honesty right off the bat. He had to work his way up to it.

  It was getting dark out when I left the library. I’d lost all track of the time, and when I checked my watch I saw that it was past five. It wasn’t fully dark, but the sun was down, and a gray day was drawing to a close. Every day the sun disappeared a little earlier than the day before. There was nothing out of the ordinary about that, it happened every year, but there were times when I felt there was a sadness attached to it, that the poor old year was dying a day at a time.

  One more day and I’d be a year sober.

  I hadn’t even thought of it, not on this particular day, not until this moment, standing on the library steps between the two stone lions, weighed down by the encroaching darkness and by the greater and deeper darkness of what I’d been reading. Gordon Decker Raines, Marcia Anne Cantwell, John Joseph Ellery—all dead. And one man, S. or Steve or Even Steven, who’d put bullets in all three of them. And I was alive and sober, and in another day I’d have a year.

  I knew I ought to go to a meeting. I’d been too busy to go at noon, but it’s a rare time of day when Manhattan doesn’t have a meeting on offer somewhere, and there were several in and around midtown in the hours between five and seven, designed to catch the office worker on his way home. I’d been to one called Happy Hour a couple of times, and there was Commuters Special, near Penn Station, and another around the corner from Grand Central. I was at Forty-second and Fifth, just a few blocks west of Grand Central, and there might be another even closer, but I didn’t have my meeting book with me. It’s always in my back pocket, but I’d evidently not transferred it to the pair of pants I had put on this morning, and I didn’t know where the meetings were or exactly what time they started.

  I decided I could go home and shower and shave and maybe even go so far as to eat something. And I could put away the manila envelope, which now held some notes I’d made at the library, along with the clipping and Jack’s account of the twelve-year-old killing on Jane Street. And I’d be able to show up at my regular meeting at St. Paul’s, and I could raise my hand and announce that tomorrow would be my anniversary.

  Or I could wait until tomorrow, and announce it then.

  Either way, people would applaud. They’d clap for me, as if I’d done something remarkable. And maybe I had.

  But not yet I hadn’t. The announcement could wait, I decided, until the year was complete.

  I was tired, and was all set to hail a cab until I remembered that it was the heart of the rush hour, and the traffic would be impossible. I didn’t want to sit in an unmoving taxi while the lights changed and changed again, but neither was I ready to face the sardine-can crush of the rush-hour subway.

  It had rained a little earlier. It felt as though it might rain some more. But maybe it would hold off, at least for as long as it took me to walk home.

  I was four or five blocks from my hotel when the rain started. I was just passing a chain drugstore when I felt the first drops, and I thought about stopping for an umbrella, and decided it wasn’t coming down hard enough to justify spending the three or four dollars. I already had four or five of them in my room, and if I bought another I’d have five or six, and I never remembered to take one unless it was already pouring when I left my room.

  I walked another block or two and the rain slackened, and I was congratulating myself on my good judgment when the skies opened up. I ducked into a shoe repair shop, and the only umbrellas he had cost ten bucks. I bought one, and by the time I got outside and opened it, the rain had stopped altogether, and not another drop fell all the rest of the way home.

  There are days when that sort of thing gets a laugh out of me, or at least a chuckle, but this wasn’t one of those days. I wanted to smash something, perhaps the umbrella, perhaps the man who sold it to me. But I didn’t. I was, after all, a model of sobriety, one day away from my anniversary, and I reminded myself of this as I carried my umbrella into the hotel.

 
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