A drop of the hard stuff, p.47
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.47

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 47

  “What effect did it have? Were you tempted?”

  “You have any fear of heights?”

  “Heights? What the hell has that got to do with anything?”

  “I just wondered. ”

  “I don’t mind airplanes. I’m closed in, I’ve got nothing to worry about. But, like, being out on a ledge, or near a cliff—”

  “That’s different?”

  “Very. ”

  “I’m the same way. You know what the fear is? That I’ll want to jump. I don’t want to jump, but I’m afraid I’ll suddenly get the urge. ”

  He took this in, nodded.

  “I didn’t want to drink. But it was there, and I was afraid that I would want to. That I’d be struck by an impulse I couldn’t resist. ”

  “But you weren’t. ”

  “No. ”

  “As I said, the minute I got out of there and thought about it I knew it was a bad idea. But we’re both here, aren’t we? We both survived. You know, the Mexicans have a word for it. ”

  “Oh?”

  “For our situation. But I don’t know how you say it in English. The fucking Mexicans would call it un standoff. ”

  He took out his pack of cigarettes, shook one loose, put it between his lips. “Fuck cutting down,” he said. “Why would I want to do that?”

  When I told Jim about it he took it all in and thought it over and said, “Then it’s over. ”

  “It looks that way. ”

  “You don’t have to worry about this fellow anymore? You’ve left him with no reason to kill you?”

  “And every reason not to. ”

  “So it all works out. ”

  “I suppose it does,” I said, “if you overlook the fact that the son of a bitch killed five of his fellow citizens and gets away with it. ”

  “If anybody ever gets away with anything. ”

  “I don’t think his conscience will be troubling him. I don’t think he has one. But I suppose there’s always karma. ”

  “So they say. ” He reached for the teapot, refilled both our cups. “Jasmine,” he said. “The first sip’s a nice surprise, and by the third cup you wish they’d just give you the usual green tea. Matt, whatever keeps this guy at a distance looks good to me. I just hope you’re satisfied with how it turned out. ”

  “Satisfied,” I said. “I’d like it better if he went away for it. Or if he made a move and got killed trying. But I guess I’m satisfied. And that reminds me. ”

  “Oh?”

  “I’ve been thinking about it,” I said, “and I think the Buddha’s full of crap. It is our dissatisfaction with what is that separates us from the beasts of the field. ”

  “And when did this revelation come to you?”

  “While I was shaving. ”

  “You nicked yourself and—”

  “No, that’s just it. I didn’t nick myself. Because the razor’s this new twin-blade number that shaves you closer and smoother. It’s like some sort of tag team, one blade holds the whisker down while the other cuts it. ”

  “You sound like a commercial. ”

  “And I have to say it was better than the last razor I had, and that was better than the one before. And I thought about watching my father shave. He used a safety razor, though it must have been a fairly primitive one. But his father would have used a straight razor. And why do you suppose the razors keep getting better every couple of years? And the cars, and all the other little conveniences of modern life?”

  “I’m sure you’ll tell me. ”

  “Dissatisfaction,” I said. “Every once in a while somebody throws his razor down in the middle of a shave and says there’s got to be a better way. And he looks for it and finds it. ”

  “So dissatisfaction turns out to be the mother of invention. And here I always thought it was necessity. ”

  I shook my head. “Nobody needs a double-bladed razor. Nobody needs to go sixty miles an hour in a car, or fly through the air in a plane. ”

  “There’s probably something wrong with your reasoning,” he said, “but I’m not dissatisfied enough to figure out what it is. But the next time I run into the Buddha, I’ll set him straight. ”

  “Well, if you’re looking for him,” I said, “you’ll generally find him at the midnight meeting at the Moravian church. ”

  Early One Morning…

  “A Mexican standoff,” Mick Ballou said. “I’ve often wondered why they call it that. Have you any idea?”

  “No. ”

  “If Kristin were here,” he said, “she’d take out her iPhone and consult her Google and provide a full explanation in the wink of an eye. The world is a strange place and growing stranger by the day. There was no Google twenty-five years ago, and no iPhones either. But men have always told stories, and that was a good one. Did he ever make trouble again?”

  “Steffens? As far as I know, he stayed on his side of the river. There was a state or federal task force that took on the courthouse gang in Hudson County, and a batch of Jersey City politicians went to jail, but I didn’t see his name in the papers. Then sometime after that, it must have been a dozen years ago, I got an unsigned card one Christmas. Santa Claus looking down at a plate of milk and cookies and taking a belt from a hip flask. It had a Jersey postmark, and I had the feeling it might have been from him. ”

  “Is he still alive?”

  I shook my head. “He’s been gone, oh, getting on for ten years now. A one-car accident on the Garden State. Three o’clock in the morning, and he hit a bridge abutment head-on at something like seventy miles an hour. No skid marks, so he never tried to stop. And he went through the windshield, so he couldn’t have been wearing a seat belt. ”

  “Suicide, do you suppose?”

  “Be hard to rule it out. He’d had emphysema for a couple of years, and had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. He would have had a gun around the house, and he certainly knew how to use it, but maybe he just went for a ride and made his move on the spur of the moment. Put the gas pedal down, take a hard left, and let the cops clean up after you. ”

  Somewhere along the way he’d returned his bottle to the back bar and came back with a liter of Evian water. And there we sat, two old men up past our bedtime, talking and drinking water.

  “You think ’twill come out even,” he said. “With the ends trimmed, and tied in a bow. The murderer found out, and dealt with in a satisfying manner. ”

  “Like a television program. ”

  “Even there,” he said, “they’ll surprise you now and again. The villain goes free. But your man was found out, wasn’t he? Do you suppose he had occasion to kill anyone else? In Jersey City?”

  “No way to know. ”

  “And who’s to say we’re not better off in our ignorance? What dark things did he do in the years after he killed the man and woman in the Village? He moved across the river and found a new life in politics, but did he have a use for the gun in that new life?”

  “We’ll never know,” I said, “but when the time came to pick it up he remembered how to use it. ”

  He drank some water. “All those years,” he said. “Where do they go?”

  “Might as well ask where they come from. ”

  “But we never question that, do we? Tomorrow’s always there, just over the horizon. Until the tomorrows run out. The people you spoke about, some of them are gone. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “Jim Faber. Shot dead, wasn’t he?”

  “By a man who mistook him for me. ”

  “Oh, that was a bad time. There were a lot killed in this very room around that time. ”

  “There were. ”

  “Did you blame yourself for his death?”

  “Probably. What helped was his voice in my head, telling me to cut the crap. ”

  “Ah. The woman, the one who cut her auburn hair. Did the two of you ever get together again?”

  “Twice, maybe t
hree times. After Jan and I were finally done with each other, and before I reconnected with Elaine. Donna and I would get to talking, and there’d be a current in the air, and we’d wind up in her canopy bed for an hour or two. Then she got married and moved away, and I think I heard that she got divorced. ”

  “And Jan is gone. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “I remember she wanted you to get her a gun. Did she ever use it?”

  “No,” I said. “She let the cancer run its course. But she found it a comfort to have the gun, in case she decided to take that way out. ”

  “You were the one she turned to. But you’d long since broken things off. ”

 
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