A drop of the hard stuff, p.42
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.42

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 42

  “Don’t drink,” he said, “and don’t die. ”

  I told him I’d see what I could do.

  When he left I decided I needed more than a shower. I drew a hot bath and soaked in it until the water wasn’t hot anymore. It took the tension out of my muscles and the back of my neck, but what it didn’t do was make me sleepy. I lay in bed with the lights out, and of course the new mattress felt unfamiliar, and so did the pillow. There was nothing really wrong with either of them, and it was clear to me that they weren’t keeping me awake. It was my mind that was keeping me awake.

  I got up and turned the light on. Jim had once suggested I read the chapter on Step Seven in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions as a cure for insomnia. “It’ll stop a charging rhino in his tracks,” he said. “Years ago I’d read the first chapter of Swann’s Way, which is as far as I ever got with Monsieur Proust. Put me out every time. But the Seventh Step is almost as good. ”

  I read the first couple of paragraphs, then put the book back on the shelf and hauled out Jack Ellery’s account of the double homicide on Jane Street. I read it through and set it aside and thought about it, and decided I wasn’t any closer to sleep than I’d been before, and that it felt out of the question, at least for the time being.

  I thought about Motorcycle Mark, and how there’d been more to him than I would have suspected. People surprise you that way, especially the sober ones. It had been sheerest happenstance that led me to call him: a phone call from someone else had led me to ask if he’d called, and he’d responded by asking for my number and giving me his, and I’d taken it from him more out of politeness than anything else. And, because I didn’t have my phone book with me, and because I still had his number in my wallet, he’d been the one I’d called. And I couldn’t have made a better choice.

  Funny how it works.

  I decided I ought to have his number in my book, and that the task of copying it, along with the other cards and slips of paper in my wallet, was just the right sort of task for my current state of mind. I sorted everything, put a batch of receipts in the cigar box where I stow them when I remember, and found a fine-point pen to copy Mark’s number and the others I’d accumulated since I last forced myself to perform this particular task.

  Halfway through, something brought me up short. I stared at the card in my hand, copied the number into my book, stared at the card some more, and returned it to my wallet.

  I picked up Jack’s confession, read it through one more time, and noticed something I’d missed the first time through. “I will call him S. ,” he wrote of his partner, and so he did, S. for Steve. And then when he described the killing itself, he called the man E. S. For Even Steven, obviously.

  Maker’s Mark, I thought. There was Mark Sattenstein, and there was Motorcycle Mark, and now there was Maker’s Mark.

  Why had he picked that brand?

  It wasn’t a very popular bourbon. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen it advertised—but then I tried not to pay much attention to liquor ads these days. It was expensive, but less so than Dickel or Wild Turkey, and it didn’t have their reputation. Nor was it a brand I ordered often.

  At bars I didn’t always specify the brand. I might just order bourbon, or I might look at the bottles on the back bar and name whatever label caught my eye. Old Crow, Old Forester, Jim Beam. Jack Daniel’s. There were bourbons I’d try because I liked the sound of their name, or the look of the bottle they came in. And when I went across the street for a bottle I generally came back with Early Times or Ancient Age, or maybe J. W. Dant—something modestly priced and serviceable, smooth enough to go down easy, strong enough to do the job.

  It was Carolyn Cheatham who had a fondness for Maker’s Mark. She was Tommy Tillary’s girlfriend, and one night she turned up at Armstrong’s without him. She lived nearby on Fifty-seventh Street, just a few doors west of Ninth Avenue, in an Art Deco building with a sunken living room and high ceilings, and that night the two of us began consoling each other and wound up sharing her bed, along with a fifth of Maker’s Mark.

  She killed herself in that apartment, shot herself with a gun Tommy had given her. She called me first, and I got there too late, but in plenty of time to commit a felony of my own, and so arranged things that Tommy Tillary, who’d gotten away with killing his wife, wound up going to prison for killing his girlfriend.

  I thought about all of this, and while I was thinking I was getting dressed—undershorts, shirt, pants, socks, shoes. I grabbed a jacket and went out of my room and down to the street. I turned right and walked to the corner and turned right again.

  I got as far as the Pioneer—or Piomeer, as you prefer. The dingy little market was still open, and so of course was the ginmill next door to it. I could go in and belly up to the bar, and the fellow standing behind it would probably be able to answer the question I’d come to ask him.

  And who could say what else I might ask? Whatever it was, he’d have the answer.


  BUT I TURNED around and went home instead. It was late enough for the newsstand at the corner of Eighth and Fifty-seventh to have the early edition of the Times, but when I got to my hotel I let my feet do the smart thing for a change and take me inside. I went upstairs and got undressed again and pulled the chair over to the window and sat for a little while looking at nothing in particular.

  I’d headed for Armstrong’s because I had a question to ask. And I’d turned back because I’d just spent a day that had put me physically closer to a drink than I’d been in the past year, and I was one day away from the one-year anniversary of my last drink. I didn’t want a drink now, I didn’t feel like drinking, but enough had sunk in during the previous 364 days to make me realize just how vulnerable I was and just how dangerous that room was for me now.

  Oh, I could have called someone, some sober friend to keep me company while I asked my question. But I didn’t have to do that either. I could just go home and get to bed. My question would still be there in the morning.

  I didn’t know if I’d be able to sleep. I got in bed, turned off the light, stretched out on the unfamiliar mattress, settled my head on the unfamiliar pillow.

  The next thing I knew it was morning.

  The first thing I did after breakfast was call Dennis Redmond. I got him at the station house, and he was on his way out when I reached him. I told him I was pretty sure I had something. He said, “On Ellery? Because it’s gonna take a lot to make Stillman look like anything but suicide. ”

  “Try G. Decker Raines,” I said. “And Marcy Cantwell. ”

  “Now why are those names familiar?”

  “A few years back,” I said. “A double homicide on Jane Street in the West Village. A Bohemian love nest, according to the Post, and—”

  “I remember the case. Still unsolved to this day, if I’m not mistaken. Why? You’re saying you know who did it? Well, who was it?”

  “Jack Ellery. ”

  “You’re shitting me. ”

  “He confessed to it. In writing. ”

  “And you’ve seen this confession. ”

  “I have it in hand. ”

  He thought about it. He said, “I don’t suppose he did it all by his lonesome. ”

  “He had a partner. ”

  “And Ellery got religion, or whatever you want to call it, and the partner was afraid he’d talk. Hell, I’ve got to get out of here. You remember that place I met you before? The Minstrel Boy? Say two this afternoon? And Matt? Bring that confession, will you?”

  I hung up and the phone rang almost immediately. It was Jan, calling to wish me a happy anniversary. It was a curious conversation, because the things we weren’t saying drowned out the things we said. She said how happy she was for me, and how hard I’d worked for that year, and I told her how grateful I was for the unwavering support she’d given me from the very beginning, and when she was off the line I wanted to call her right back. But wh
at would I say to her?

  I had a couple of other calls to make, but the phone rang right away and this time it was Jim. He asked me gruffly if I was still sober, and I said that I was, miraculously enough, and he said damn right it was a miracle, and I should never forget that. And he congratulated me, and told me the first year was the hardest. “Except for all the ones that come after it,” he said.

  “After you left last night,” I said, “I had trouble falling asleep. ”

  “So you took three Seconal and washed them down with a pint of vodka. ”

  “I put my clothes on and walked over to Armstrong’s. ”


  “I had a question I wanted to ask the bartender. ”


  “I decided it would keep, and that probably wasn’t a good place for me to be. The point is, I’m going over there now, on the chance that the day-shift barman will be able to answer my question. And if he can’t I’ll be dropping by again this evening. ”

  “You could call around, find someone to keep you company. ”

  I said I’d think about it.

  * * *

  Armstrong’s generally opened around eleven, and it was twenty or thirty minutes past that by the time I got there. I’d put in some time on the phone and managed a quick visit to the squad room at Midtown North. What I didn’t do was call someone to back me up when I went around the corner, so I was by myself when I walked into a room that smelled not unpleasantly of beer and tobacco smoke.

  Two tables were occupied, and there was a fellow at the end of the bar, nursing a beer while he worked his way through the Daily News. Lucian was behind the stick, assembling a Bloody Mary, and he paused in midpour at my approach. He was surprised to see me, and trying to hide it.

  “It looks beautiful,” I said of his handiwork, “but it’s not what I’m here for. I just stopped by to ask you a question. ”

  “Go right ahead, Matt. If I don’t know the answer I’ll make something up. ”

  “I was just wondering if anybody came around recently asking questions about me. ”

  “Questions. I don’t think so. What kind of questions?”

  “What I used to drink. ”

  “Why would anybody ask that? But you know, there was an old friend of yours in here the other day. ”


  “He sat here, had a couple. Paid for his drink when he got it, waved away the change. ‘That’s good, have one yourself. ’ So, you know, guy’s like that, you fill the glass a little fuller on his next round. ”

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