A drop of the hard stuff, p.45
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.45

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 45

  It doesn’t really matter what you say. One morning I’d gone to a meeting called Bookshop at Noon, on West Thirtieth Street. They introduced the speaker and he said his name and that he was an alcoholic, and then he just looked at the twenty or thirty of us who were waiting for him to say something. He smiled and said, “It’s your meeting,” and opened it up for discussion.

  Nobody criticized him for shirking his duty, and in fact a couple of people complimented him on keeping it simple. Later I reported the incident to Jim, and we considered the possibilities—that he’d told his story so often recently that he couldn’t face repeating himself, that he was a drama queen looking to do something memorable, or that he’d had a slip within the past three months and thus felt unqualified to lead a meeting, but wasn’t ready to own up to it in public. We conjured up a few more scenarios, all of them plausible enough, and concluded that it didn’t matter. The meeting had gone on, and it had done me no harm. I was still sober, wasn’t I?

  And I was still sober now, when the meeting began and when it ended.

  “It’s hard to know what to do,” Dennis Redmond had said earlier. “There’s not going to be any evidence, hard or soft. I’ll go through the files, see if they ever even looked at him or Ellery in connection with Jane Street. Though I can’t see what difference it would make. You know what you could do?”

  “What?”

  “What’s he drink? Not Maker’s Mark. ”

  “Scotch. Johnnie Walker, I think it was. Why?”

  “Get the brand right,” he said, “and send him a bottle a day for the next year or two. As long as it takes. ”

  “As long as what takes?”

  “As long as it takes for him to become an alcoholic. Then he can join that club of yours, and he can climb up those famous steps, and when he writes out his confession we can fall on him like a ton of bricks. ”

  “How’ll we know?”

  “You can be his rabbi, except that’s not what you call it. ”

  “His sponsor. ”

  “Right on the tip of my tongue. His sponsor. You can be his sponsor, and you can rat him out. But a sponsor wouldn’t do that, would he?”

  “It’s not part of the job description. ”

  “I was afraid of that. Well, in that case I’m out of ideas. Of course we could put a wire on you, but that wouldn’t work, would it?”

  “He’d never say anything we could use. ”

  “No, and even if he did it might not be admissible. You know he’ll lawyer up the minute he gets pulled in for anything, and if he’s hooked into the Jersey City machine he’ll know what lawyer to call. Well, he got away with two murders for what, a dozen years? He’s about to get away with two or three more. Can you live with that?”

  “I guess I’ll have to. ”

  “And so will I. When you’re on the job a few years you find out you can live with almost anything. ” His eyes narrowed. “But you resigned, didn’t you? Had a gold shield and gave it back. So I guess you found something you couldn’t live with. ”

  “But it wasn’t the job,” I said. “I’d have told you it was at the time. That’s what I thought. There’s an element in a lot of stories you hear in AA, it’s called a geographical solution. Guy moves to California because New York is the problem. Then he moves to Alaska because California’s the problem. But he’s the problem himself, and wherever he goes, there he is. ”

  “So you were the problem. ” He thought about it. “Well, now you’re Even Steven’s problem, aren’t you? And we know how he solves his problems, and geography hasn’t got a lot to do with it. How are we gonna keep you alive?”

  “I’ve been wondering that myself. ”

  “I can’t even offer you police protection at this stage, and that’d be a joke anyway, wouldn’t it? We assign some cops to guard you, and they do, and nothing happens, and we reassign them, and you’re right where you are now, because he’s smart and he’s patient. He can wait as long as he needs to. You have a gun?”

  “No. ”

  “If you had, you know, an unregistered weapon—”

  “I don’t. ”

  “Well, if you should happen to get your hands on one, it might not be a bad idea to carry it. As a matter of fact…”

  His voice trailed off. I looked at him, raised my eyebrows in anticipation.

  “I want to keep this hypothetical, not that anybody but the two of us is gonna hear it. If someone’s out to kill me, and I know it, and I also know there’s not a damn thing I can do about it, well, then there’s one thing I can do about it. If you get my drift. ”

  “I’d thought of that myself. ”

  “One thing you ought to know,” he said, looking off to the side, “is if something happened to our friend, and if they were looking at you in connection with it, I wouldn’t have any recollection of this conversation. In fact I wouldn’t remember any of the conversations we had. ” His eyes met mine. “Just something for you to think about,” he said.

  I didn’t have a gun, registered or not. Acquiring one didn’t strike me as the most challenging task in the world, and I thought about it, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do.

  After the meeting, after an hour at the Flame, after some private time with Jim, I was back in my room with my thoughts for company. He was out there somewhere, and if his thoughts weren’t of me, well, in a day or a week or a month they would be.

  I was a problem for him. And I knew what solution he’d look for. When your only tool is a hammer, they say, then every problem looks like a nail.

  I lay there in the darkness and wondered if I was afraid. I decided I was, but not of dying, not exactly. If I’d died a year ago, if I’d died drunk, that would have been as awful an ending as my life could have had. But I’d stayed sober for a year, and if I didn’t feel like celebrating, that didn’t mean I didn’t cherish the accomplishment. And if I died now, well, nobody could take that away from me. Cold comfort, I suppose, but better than no comfort at all.

  What I was afraid of, I realized, was that there was something I could do about this, and that I wouldn’t be able to figure it out.

  When I woke up the sun was shining and someone was playing the radio in the room next to mine. I couldn’t make out the words, but the announcer’s enthusiasm came through all the same. I showered and shaved and got dressed, and somewhere along the way my neighbor turned off his radio. The sun was still shining. I decided it wasn’t a bad day, and that I knew how to spend it.

  I wanted breakfast, but first I found Vann Steffens’s card and dialed his number. I was surprised when he answered; I’d expected to get a machine and leave a message. He said hello, and I said, “You probably know who this is. ”

  “I might. ”

  “You bought me a drink the other day,” I said, “and I never got the chance to thank you for it. ”

  “I seem to recognize the voice,” he said, “but I can’t say I’ve got any idea what you’re talking about. ”

  “I don’t always know myself. I think we should talk face-to-face. ”

  “Oh?”

  “To clear the air. ”

  “Never a bad idea. Breathing’s easier when the air’s clear. And you probably think I got that from a fortune cookie, but I’m proud to say I made it up myself. ”

  “I’m impressed. ”

  “Which is not to say Confucius wouldn’t have said it if he’d thought of it first. You want to meet? Where and when?”

  We met at three in the afternoon in the Museum of Natural History. I got there early and waited beside the fossilized skeleton of a dinosaur, and he showed up right on time, wearing a suit and tie and carrying a topcoat over his arm. His glasses were steamed up, and he handed me the coat to hold while he cleaned the lenses with his pocket handkerchief.

  The coat would have felt heavier, I decided, if there’d been a gun in the pocket. But I hadn’t expected him to come armed. He’d suspect a trap
, and if he brought a gun he might have to explain it to somebody.

  He put his glasses on, blinked at me through them, and took his coat back. “Thanks,” he said. He walked over to the nearest dinosaur and said, “Hi there, buddy. All these years and you haven’t changed a bit. ”

  “An old friend?”

  “My daughter loved these guys,” he said. “Don’t ask me why. I’d bring her here every other Sunday to see the dinosaurs and the other divorced daddies. But that was a while ago. ”

  “I guess she outgrew them. ”

  “She would have,” he said, “but her mother took her along to the Caribbean for a winter break. There’s this island called Saba. You know it?”

  I didn’t.

  “You get there by taking a small plane from another island. I forget which one. Saba’s this volcanic island, so basically it’s a mountain with a beach at the base of it, and every once in a while one of the small planes that go there crashes into the side of the mountain. ”

  Was there something for me to say to that? I couldn’t think what it might be.

  “The divorce hadn’t become final yet,” he said, “so officially I’m a widower. With a dead kid too, but I don’t think there’s a word for that. And if you look at it a certain way it’s heartbreaking, but you don’t want to get all choked up about it. Because it was just about time for her to be getting too old for dinosaurs, and what was stretching ahead of us was a fucking lifetime of not having much of anything to say to each other. So she was spared that, and so was I. ”

  “That’s an interesting way to look at it. ”

  “Is it? If you’re wearing a wire, you can transcribe that touching little story and show it to the shrinks. God knows what they’ll make of it. ”

  “I’m not wearing a wire. ”

  “No? Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t, and if you were younger and better-looking I’d pat you down. If you were a girl, that is. Nothing queer about old Vann. ”

 
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