A drop of the hard stuff, p.44
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.44
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 44

  He studied the business card. “Says he’s your friend in Jersey City. ”

  “Half of that’s true. ”

  “The Jersey City part?”

  “I spoke to a journalist who knows him. He hangs around the courthouse, does favors, arranges things. ”

  “Lot of guys like that,” Redmond said. “Hardly an endangered species on that side of the river. Vann, it says. How’d that turn into Steve?”

  “His mother named him Evander,” I said, “and he knocked that down to one syllable, and put a second N on it to make it clear that it was his first name. ”

  “Could be Dutch otherwise. Van Steffens. ”

  “I can’t be sure of this,” I said, “but I think it dropped down to two syllables before one of them disappeared. From Evander to Evan. ”

  “Evan Steffens. ” He nodded slowly. “Which doesn’t have far to go to become Even Steven. ”

  “When Jack wrote about it,” I said, “he started out by saying he’d call his partner S. And he did, just using the single initial all the way through. Toward the end, though, he referred to him as E. S. ”

  “Which could stand for Even Steven. ”

  “But who uses initials for a nickname? Once I thought of that—”

  “Yeah, I can see how you got there. Okay, let me get another drink, because the one is barely a memory at this point. And then you can lay the whole thing out for me. ”

  By the time I was done his second drink was mostly gone. I’d switched from Coke to coffee, and my cup was empty, too.

  “Ellery gets sober,” Redmond said, “and he wants to get right with God. What’s he gonna do, turn himself in for the Love Nest Murders?”

  “Not necessarily. He hasn’t even gotten specific with his sponsor. But he wants to find some way to make amends for what he did that night. ”

  “How does Steffens find out?”

  “They’re both in a world where word gets around,” I said. “ ‘Hey, you hear about High-Low Jack? He’s going up to all the assholes he gave a screwing to years ago, looking to make things up to them. ’ Or he could have gone to Steffens himself. ‘I just wanted to tell you that something may come out about what we did on Jane Street, but you’ve got nothing to worry about, because I’ll be sure to keep your name out of it. ’ ”

  “If I’m Steffens, I don’t know that I find that tremendously reassuring. ”

  “No, of course not. If Jack ever tells anybody with a badge what he did, how long before they get the rest out of him?”

  “Or even if he doesn’t, Matt. If it lands on my desk, first thing I do is look at his known associates. Maybe Steffens’s name comes up, maybe it doesn’t, but if you’re Steffens, how can you know it won’t?”

  “One way to make sure. ”

  “And it would have worked if it hadn’t been for Stillman. Down-and-out ex-con living in a furnished room—you know how those get solved. Someone gets drunk and talks too much. Steffens never talked about Jane Street, so why should he talk about High-Low Jack?”

  “He wouldn’t. ”

  “No, he’d have gotten away with it, and I’m not happy about it, but the fact is a lot of people get away with a lot of murders. Including the ones that don’t make it into the book as murders, which I guess is the case with Gregory Stillman. But the other one came first, didn’t it? Sattenstein?”

  “And that’s a murder,” I said, “but it’ll wind up on somebody else’s tab. ”

  “The guy they grabbed for the other muggings. But you say he claims Sattenstein wasn’t his work. Well, they’ve got him cold on the others, and by the time he gets out of prison he’ll be too old to mug anybody, so it hardly matters. As far as the cops downtown are concerned, he did Sattenstein along with the others, and that case is closed. ”

  “Sattenstein called me,” I said. “The last thing I’d asked him was where the name High-Low Jack came from, and he didn’t know. ”

  “And then he remembered?”

  “I’ll never know, because I didn’t get back to him in time. My guess is he didn’t, but he thought of someone who’d know. ”

  “Steffens. ”

  “Sattenstein was a fence,” I said. “If he knew Jack, he probably knew some of the people he worked with. ‘Hey, where’d Jack get that nickname? I figured you’d know, seeing as how they used to call you Even Steven. ’ ”

  “Not too hard for Steffens to set up a meeting in Sattenstein’s neighborhood. Not too hard to get into Stillman’s place either. ‘Hello, Gregory? I’m a police officer investigating the murder of a friend of yours. I collected some belongings of his from his super, and there are a couple of articles here that I’d like to turn over to you. ’ Or ‘He had this notebook, and there’s something he wrote that I’d like to discuss with you. ’ Stillman would have let him in. ”

  “No question. ”

  “And then a choke hold? That would work, and it wouldn’t show up, not after the poor bastard spent a few hours hanging with a belt around his neck. And then to top everything off the son of a bitch tried to buy you a drink. ”

  “Shows you the depths a person can sink to,” I said, “once he starts off with a simple act of murder. ”

  “Maker’s Mark, you said?”

  “He probably bought it at the liquor store right across the street from my hotel. If he did, there was probably a little gummed tag stuck to the back of the bottle, the store’s address and phone number. They used to put one of those on every bottle they sold, to remind you where you got it in the hope that you’d come back for more. ”

  “You didn’t look for a tag. ”

  “No. I poured it out without looking at it, and I dumped it and the glass in the wastebasket, and it all went in the big trash can next to the service elevator. The porter empties it a couple of times a day. I’m sure it’s gone by now. ”

  “It doesn’t matter. ”

  “No. What would it prove? That somebody bought a bottle of bourbon across the street? He probably bought two bottles, one to leave for me and the other to pour over my bed, and I wonder how often the place across the street sells two bottles of Maker’s Mark to anybody. They’ll remember him, but so what? He’s over twenty-one. He can buy all the booze he wants. ”

  “Ellery’s super met him,” Redmond said. “When he passed himself off as a cop. That’s a crime, but it’s a hard case to make if all he did was flip his wallet open and let the man draw his own conclusions. ” He gave me a look. “A lot of people do that. ”

  “He didn’t flash his leather at Armstrong’s,” I said, “but the day bartender had the impression he was a cop, or used to be. He went there to ask him what I liked to drink. But that’s not a crime either. ”

  “No. Here you’ve got a guy who’s shaping up as a one-man crime wave. He killed two people years ago in the Village, and the one man who could put him on that one is dead. Dead because our boy shot him, but we’ve got no evidence and no witnesses for that one, or for the two men he killed to cover up the Ellery killing. As far as I can see, we can’t prove he did a thing. ”

  “He committed an act of vandalism,” I said, “by dowsing a perfectly good mattress with a perfectly good bottle of whiskey. ”

  “A misdemeanor,” he said, “and he had to commit unlawful entry in order to accomplish it, which might up the ante to a low-grade felony. I’d have to take a run at the penal code, but I don’t think I’m going to, because even there we’ve got no evidence. ”

  “I know. ”

  “It’s annoying,” he said, “because I’d like nothing better than to get this son of a bitch. I’d like to get him for Ellery, just on general principles, and I’d like even more to get him for Stillman, who struck me as a pretty decent guy. ”

  “He was. ”

  “And one who’d still have a pulse, if he’d had the sense to leave well enough alone. But yeah, I’d like to get Steffens for Stillman. And I can’t tell you what a treat it woul
d be to nail him for the man and woman in the Village. A case that was that hot and then went bitter cold for so long—Jesus, wouldn’t it be satisfying to close that one?”

  “As far as I can tell,” I said, “he never got arrested for anything. ”

  “He hasn’t got a sheet? Hard to believe. He was running with Ellery, so he must have been pulling some of the same crap, but he never got tagged with it. ” He tapped the table with Ellery’s scrolled confession. “If this is the way it went down, and there’s no reason for Ellery to embroider it—”

  “No, it figures to be straight. ”

  “Then Steffens’s ice-cold reaction was to kill the woman. And to force Ellery to fire one of the shots. Does that sound to you like the act of a man who never did this before?”

  “Probably not his first kill. ”

  “And we know it wasn’t his last. But how many do you figure he ran up in between? It’s how he solves problems. How many problems you figure he encountered over the years?”

  That hung in the air. You couldn’t answer it and it wouldn’t go away. I said, “Do you see any way at all? To get him for anything?”

  He thought about it. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t. And neither do you, and you couldn’t have expected more. So why are we here, Matt? Why did you call me?”

  “I figure he’s not done. ”

  “Not done killing? He’ll never be done, if that’s how he solves his problems. But you’d think he’d be out of problems for the time being. Who’s left?”

  “Well,” I said, “there’s always me. ”

  XLIII

  I GOT TO my regular meeting at St. Paul’s that night, and it was good that I did, as I’d signed up a while back to speak for my anniversary. I sat down thinking I’d tell my story, the way I usually did, but I wound up starting with that last drink, the one I took but didn’t take, the one I ordered and left on the bar. And I went on from there, and spent close to half an hour talking about the past year, my first year of sobriety.

 
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