A drop of the hard stuff, p.46
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.46

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 46

  “That’s reassuring. ”

  “But what good would it do me? What would it prove? The cloak-and-dagger boys keep coming out with newer and better gadgets. Ballpoint pens with microphones in them, and just the other day I heard about a recording device the size of an aspirin tablet. You swallow it, and along with all the intestinal gurgles it picks up any conversation within a twenty-yard radius. Of course you wind up having to pick through your own crap, but those clowns are doing that metaphorically anyway, aren’t they? Come on, let’s get out of here. We can’t really talk here, and they don’t allow you to smoke. Like it’s gonna bother the bronto-fucking-saurus. ”

  XLIV

  HE LIT UP as soon as we were out the door. We crossed Central Park West and walked a few hundred yards into the park. Steffens considered three benches and rejected them all for unspecified reasons. Then he found one he liked and wiped the seat with the handkerchief he’d used earlier to clean his glasses. He sat down, and I sat beside him without bothering to wipe the seat.

  “It’s your meeting,” he said. “Let’s hear what you’ve got to say. I’m just gonna sit here and take it all in. ”

  I took three sheets of paper from my jacket pocket, unfolded them, handed them to him.

  I’d reached the age where reading was more comfortable with glasses, especially if the print was small or the light dim. Steffens was the opposite, he wore glasses all day long and took them off to read. He’d removed them when I handed him Jack’s confession, and when he was done he didn’t put them on again right away. Instead he sat looking off into the distance.

  There were trees across the way, their leaves mostly gone now. Bare ruined choirs, a poet had written, but I couldn’t remember his name or anything else from the poem.

  He said, “This is a Xerox copy. ”

  “That’s right. ”

  “There an original?”

  “In a safe place. And there’s another photocopy. ”

  “In another safe place, I’ll bet. ”

  Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet bird sang. That was the whole line, but what came before or after it, and who was it who’d written it?

  I noticed that he’d put his glasses back on. For a moment I thought he was going to return Jack’s account, but instead he folded the papers and put them in his pocket, then got a fresh cigarette going.

  Bare ruined choirs. Was it bird or birds? It made sense either way. And was sweet right?

  “You have to wonder,” he said, “how much of it is true. ”

  “Hard to say. ”

  “Hard? Try impossible. The writing’s good, though. I’d have to say that. The choice of words, I mean. The phrasing. The narrative flow. I’m not talking about the penmanship. ”

  “I didn’t think you were. ”

  “Because outside of the nuns, who gives a rat’s ass about penmanship? It has a flow to it. It’s easy to follow. But you have to ask yourself, where does memory leave off and imagination take over?”

  “That’s always hard to know. ”

  Birds, I decided. It had to be. If a single swallow didn’t make a summer, then it certainly took more than one bird for a choir.

  “This fellow he calls S. Does he even exist? He could be a figment of the writer’s imagination. ”

  “Could be. ”

  “Suppose S stands for self? It’s his own self that decides the woman has to die, because she’s a witness. The whole thing with S. wrapping his hands around the writer’s hands, that’s a perfect example of a psychotic break. The guy becomes two people at once, and the bad part makes the good part do something he’s ashamed of. ”

  Bare ruined choirs. Was it Keats? I’d have to look it up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Two minutes with Bartlett’s and I’d know the poet and the poem, and then I’d spend another two hours skipping around, reading no end of other fragments that I’d half remember on other occasions.

  Jan had a copy of Bartlett’s, and sometimes I’d turn to it when she was busy in the kitchen, or fitting in a little work on the current sculpture-in-progress.

  Maybe I’d go to the Strand and pick up a copy of my own. That was probably simpler than searching for another girlfriend who already had the book on her shelf.

  “But if there is an S. ,” he said, “he doesn’t strike me as a guy with a whole lot to worry about. It might be different if the writer was around to back up what he wrote, but the document all by itself, well, I don’t see it as enough to put a man in jail, do you?”

  “No,” I said. “But that’s if the document’s all by itself, and it isn’t. ”

  “Oh?”

  “There’s what you might call an interpretation. A few pages identifying Mr. S. and telling us what else he’s been up to since those days. ”

  “Written by somebody else. ”

  I nodded.

  “Handwritten? Copies made?”

  “The penmanship’s not as nice as in the specimen you saw,” I said. “But as you said, who cares about penmanship?”

  “Only the nuns. ”

  “Right. ”

  “And damn few of them. Still, you say the penmanship’s not so hot, and the content has to be mostly conjecture. If the writer could prove it, he wouldn’t have to go through all this crap. ”

  “And S. would be in a cell in the Tombs. ”

  “Assuming there’s an S. ”

  “Right. ”

  He lit another cigarette, smoked for a few minutes, blew the smoke at the trees across the way. Maybe he had the same line rattling around in his head. Bare ruined choirs. Maybe he knew the rest of the poem, and the name of the poet. Who knows what’s going on in somebody else’s head?

  “What do you want, Matt?”

  “To go on living. ”

  “So? Who’s gonna stop you?”

  “S. might try. ”

  “And if he did, those two documents, similar in theme but differing in penmanship, would find their way to parties who might take an official interest. Does that sound about right?”

  “It does. ”

  “But if nothing happens to you—”

  “Then nothing happens with the documents, and S. gets to go on living his life. ”

  “It’s not a bad life. ”

  “Neither is mine. ”

  “That’s all fine,” he said, “but nobody lives forever. ”

  “I’ve heard that. ”

  “I’m not wishing it on you, God knows, but you could die of natural causes. ”

  “I hope to, eventually. ”

  “And if that should happen—”

  “It’d be exactly the same as if somebody shot me in the mouth and the forehead,” I said. “The two documents would get delivered. But the odds are you’d have nothing to worry about by then. ”

  “How do you figure that?”

  “Well, you’re three years older than I am. You’re carrying more weight, and how much do you smoke? Three packs a day?”

  He’d just taken a cigarette from his pack, and he put it back. “I’ve been thinking about cutting down. ”

  “Ever try cutting down in the past?”

  “Maybe a couple of times. ”

  “Have much luck with it?”

  He returned the pack to his pocket. “You never know,” he said. “What’s your point exactly?”

  “You’re overweight and you smoke. You drink, too. ”

  “Not that much. ”

  “A lot more than I do. What’s my point? My point is you’ll probably die before I do, in which case you’ve got nothing to worry about. And if you wind up outliving me, well, that’ll be time enough to worry about some charges that nobody could make stand up in court anyway. ”

  “Jesus,” he said, and frowned. “What happens if you start drinking again?”

  “It would be better for both of us,” I said, “if I don’t. So the next time you get the urge to pick up a bottle
or two of Maker’s Mark, make sure you drink it yourself. ”

  “I knew that fucking bourbon was a bad idea. I got carried away with the beauty of it all. You know, you walk in, there’s the glass, there’s the bottle. I figured it would have an impact. ”

  “Well, you were right about that. ”

 
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