All the flowers are dyin.., p.39
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.39

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 39


  “Okay,” she said.

  A little after noon I got a phone call. It was the woman in the shop on Amsterdam Avenue. Number 1217 had come in again, wanting to pick up his mail, and there was no mail. So she’d thought of something. Tell me your name, she said, and I’ll look and see if any mail for you got in the wrong box.

  “So he told me, and his name is David Thompson. ”

  I thanked her, and was careful not to let on that we’d learned as much a couple of days ago. It was useful confirmation, anyway, and told us that David Thompson was not only the name on his driver’s license but also the one under which he was receiving his mail.

  All of this made him look increasingly legitimate. On the other hand, he’d been booted out of his apartment for not paying the rent, and if he was living in Kips Bay, what did he need with a mail drop on the Upper West Side?

  I had a hunch, and then my phone rang again less than an hour later, and I wasn’t really surprised when it was him.

  “This is David Thompson,” he said. “I never did get that check. ”

  “I know,” I said, “and I’m sorry as hell. You wouldn’t believe what’s been going on here. ”


  “Listen,” I said, “I’ve got your check right here in front of me, and what I want to do is hand it to you personally. And while I’m at it I’ve got some more work for you, a bigger project that I’d prefer to discuss with you face-to-face. And I promise you won’t have to wait so long to get paid this time. ”

  There was a pause, and he said I’d better give him the address again. The poor bastard didn’t have a clue who he was talking to and didn’t want to let on.

  “No, don’t come here,” I said. “This place is a zoo. There’s a coffee shop at Fifty-seventh and Ninth, the northwest corner, the Morning Star. Say half an hour? And you won’t have trouble picking me out. I’ll be the only guy there in a suit and a tie. ”

  He said he’d see me there. I went to the bedroom to pick out a suit and a tie.

  He showed up wearing a suit and tie himself. I guess he’d figured he had to dress for the meeting. He saw me, knew he didn’t recognize me, and scanned the room for another suit.

  I said, “David?”

  He turned at the sound of my voice and made a good show of recognizing me after all. “I don’t know how I missed you,” he said, and came over to shake hands. His hand was dry, his grip firm. He said something about the weather or the traffic, and I responded appropriately and motioned for him to sit. I already had coffee in front of me, and the waiter was right on the spot for a change. Thompson said he’d have tea, that coffee always made him want a cigarette.

  He looked neat and clean. His suit was pressed and his shirt unwrinkled, and he’d shaved that morning. His hair was a little shaggy, but not unfashionably so, and his mustache was neatly trimmed.

  “I’m going to start by apologizing,” I said. “I got you here under false pretenses. There’s a reason I don’t look familiar. We’ve never met. I didn’t give you any work, and I don’t have a check for you. ”

  “I don’t understand. ”

  “No, how could you? My name’s Matthew Scudder, I’m a former police officer. A woman I know met you online. She had a bad experience once, and it led her to adopt a policy of running a check on people she was interested in, to make sure they aren’t misrepresenting themselves. ”

  “Louise,” he said.

  “You don’t check out,” I said. “Your name’s so common it makes you hard to investigate, but what does come up has some pieces missing. I think I know what’s going on here. ”

  “This is making me very uncomfortable. ”

  “You’re free to leave. I can’t hold you here. But why don’t you listen to what I have to say, and then you can tell me if I’m right or wrong. Or just tell me to go to hell, whatever you want. ”


  “He had a rough time,” I said. “He had a job and a girlfriend, and he lost them both at about the same time, and he took it hard. Slept fifteen or more hours a day, watched television the rest of the time. Depression’s a self-limiting state, and sooner or later you generally find your way out of it, unless you go and kill yourself first. He managed to avoid doing that, but by the time he surfaced he was broke and three months behind on the rent, and he knew it was only a question of time before they locked him out of his apartment. He took his laptop and some of his clothes and put them in his car, and he was just in time, because two days later he went back and saw everything he owned out at the curb. He just turned around and walked away. ”

  I could have told her this over the phone, I suppose, but it seemed to me she deserved more than that. So I’d called her at work and met her at five-thirty, in a coffee shop around the corner from her office.

  “He wasn’t destitute,” I said, “but his credit cards were maxed out and he was very low on cash. He called all his contacts in the business, looking for freelance work, and a couple of people gave him some work. But that meant waiting to get paid, sometimes for months. That’s evidently the nature of the business. ”

  “It’s the nature of every business,” she said.

  “He looked for a place to live,” I said, “and he couldn’t find anything he’d want to live in for less than two thousand dollars a month. Even way out in Brooklyn or Queens everything he looked at was well over a thousand, and that meant coming up with a month’s rent and one or two months’ security deposit just to get in the door. ”

  “And he’d need furniture on top of that. ”

  “The rent alone was the killer. Even if he found a way to swing it, the monthly nut was going to be tough, because his prospects weren’t that great and he didn’t have a cash cushion to get him through the slow stretches. So he decided to hell with paying rent. He’s been living in his car. ”

  “You’re kidding. I didn’t even know he had a car. ”

  “It’s so old and beat up he can park it on the street, which is a good thing because he can’t afford to garage it. And it’s a Chevy Caprice, a big old four-door sedan with a roomy back seat. ”

  “And that’s where he sleeps?”

  “He says it’s not that uncomfortable. He slept in it while he looked for an apartment, and he had grown used to it by the time he realized he wasn’t going to be able to find anything he could afford. So he went on living in it, and the only problem is making sure he’s always got a legal parking place. If he ever gets towed, he’ll have to come up with a few hundred dollars to get his car back from the pound, and he can’t afford to let that happen. ”

  “But he doesn’t look like somebody who’s living in his car. He shaves, he combs his hair, he wears clean clothes, he smells nice…”

  “He belongs to a gym. It’s a good one, the membership costs him over a hundred dollars a month, but that’s a lot less than an apartment. He shows up every morning, pumps some iron or puts in his time on the treadmill, then showers and shaves and puts on the change of clothes he’s brought with him. He keeps all his clothes in the trunk of his car and goes to a coin laundry when he has to. ”

  “And what about work? Is he really writing advertising copy?”

  “Just like he said. He’s got his laptop, which he hides under the front seat of the car in case somebody breaks in. When he wants to go online he goes to a café with wireless access. I’m not too clear on what that is. ”

  “I know how it works. I’ve got a card for it in my laptop but I’ve never used it. My God, do I know how to pick ’em or what? I find the man of my dreams and he’s living in the back of his car. ”

  “He’s not married,” I said, “and he’s not leading a double life. ”

  “How could he? It sounds as though he’s barely leading a single life. ”

  “He’s making ends meet. It’s hard for him to get ahead of the game, but he’s staying even, and that’s no mean trick in this economy. He’s a plucky guy. I have to say I liked him. ”
  “I liked him myself. Or at least I liked the person he was pretending to be. ”

  “The pretense bothered him,” I told her. “Our conversation was an uncomfortable one—”

  “I can imagine. ”

  “—but he seemed relieved to have it all out in the open. He wanted to tell you but he didn’t know how. ”

  “ ‘Honey, it so happens I’m a bum. ’ ”

  “Well, he doesn’t intend to spend the rest of his life living in his car. He’s hoping to find full-time work, or build his freelance business into something that’ll put him back on his feet again. Anyway, he wasn’t sure how much you liked him, or whether the two of you had something that might last. If not, why bother embarrassing himself by coming clean?”

  “When we went out for dinner,” she said, “I offered to split the check. He wouldn’t hear of it. ”

  “As I said, he’s not impoverished. Just low on funds. ”

  “And homeless. You know, he could have stayed over. He could have slept in a real bed for a change. ”

  “I guess it was a point of honor for him not to. ”

  “Jesus,” she said, and drummed the tabletop with her fingers. “He’s gonna call me and I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna say to him. ”

  “I don’t think he’ll be calling. ”

  “He’s dumping me? Where did that come from?”

  “He’ll wait for you to call,” I said. “And if you don’t, well, he’ll take that to mean you don’t want to see him again. ”

  “Oh,” she said, and thought about it. “That makes it easier for me, doesn’t it? Saves us both the nuisance of a difficult conversation. ” She thought some more. “Except maybe that’s tacky. I know how much fun it is to wait around wondering if the phone’s gonna ring. Maybe it’s simpler to make the call and get it over with. ”

  I told her that was up to her. She wanted to know how much she owed me, and I told her the retainer covered her tab in full. In fact, I said, reaching for the check, there was enough left over to cover the coffee.

  “I’m glad you found out,” she said, “even if I’m not crazy about what you found out. I knew there was something. He was too good to be true, with that adorable mustache. Plus he smokes. ”

  “The mustache,” I said.

  “What? Don’t tell me it’s gone. ”

  “No,” I said. “You just reminded me of something, that’s all. ”

  I didn’t wait until I got home. I found a doorway where the street noise wasn’t too bad and called Sussman on my cell phone.

  He said, “You thought it over and changed your mind. ”

  “No, not a chance,” I said. “This is something else entirely, something you said the other day that I keep meaning to ask you about. ”

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