All the flowers are dyin.., p.6
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.6

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 6

 

  They talk some more about the vagaries of human behavior. Applewhite is intelligent, as he’d known he would be, with an extensive vocabulary and a logical mind.

  “Tell me again why you’re here, Arne. ”

  He thinks for a moment. “I guess because you meet the criteria for what seems to be my interest these days. ”

  “And that is?”

  “There must be a better phrase, but what comes to mind is ‘doomed innocence. ’ ”

  “Doomed innocence. You and I are the only two people on earth who think I’m innocent. The doomed part, that’s pretty clear to everyone. ”

  “I’m interested,” he says, “in how a person in your position faces the inevitable. ”

  “Calmly. ”

  “Yes, I can see that. ”

  “When I think about it, everybody with a pulse is under a death sentence. Some of us are under more immediate ones. People with terminal illnesses. They’re as innocent as I am, but because some cell went haywire and nobody caught it in time, they’re going to die ahead of schedule. They can beat themselves up, they can say they should have quit smoking, they shouldn’t have put off that annual physical, they should have eaten less and exercised more, but who knows if that would have made any difference? The bottom line is they’re going to die, and it’s not their fault. And so am I, and it’s not my fault. ”

  “And every day…”

  “Every day,” he says, “I get a day closer to the end. I told my lawyer not to bother trying for any more stays. I could drag it out for another year or two, if I pushed, but why? All I’ve been doing is marking time, and all it would get me is a little more time to mark. ”

  “So how do you get through the days, Preston?”

  “There aren’t that many. Friday’s the day. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “Until then, I get through the hours. Three times a day they bring me something to eat. You’d think I’d have lost my taste for food, but one’s appetite doesn’t seem to have much to do with one’s long-term prospects. They bring the food and I eat it. They bring a newspaper and I read it. They’ll bring books if I ask for them. Lately I haven’t felt much like reading. ”

  “And you have the TV. ”

  “There’s a channel that has nothing but reruns of cop shows. Homicide, Law & Order, NYPD Blue. For a while I was addicted, I watched them one after another. Then I realized what I was doing. ”

  “Seeking escape?”

  “No, that’s what I’d assumed, but that wasn’t it. I was looking for an answer, a solution. ”

  “To your own dilemma. ”

  “Exactly. Surely one of those programs would hold the key. I’d see something, and there’d be that aha! Moment, that instant of revelation that would enable me to save myself and pinpoint the real killer. ” He shakes his head. “Listen to me, will you? ‘The real killer. ’ I sound like OJ, for Christ’s sake. ” He purses his lips, emits a soundless whistle. “Once I knew why I was watching the shows, I couldn’t watch them anymore. Lost my taste for them completely. There’s not much I can watch, actually. Football, during the season, but that’s over until the fall. I’ve seen my last football game. ”

  “Other sports? Baseball? Basketball?”

  “I used to play a little basketball. ” His eyes narrow for a moment, as if reaching for a memory, but it eludes him and he lets it go. “I watched the college games. The tournament, the Final Four. When the college season ended I lost interest. I put a pro game on a few days ago but I couldn’t keep my mind on it. And I never could work up an interest in baseball. ”

  “So you don’t watch much television. ”

  “No. It passes the time, which is part of its appeal, but it wastes the time, and I don’t have that much time left that I can afford to waste any of it. You asked how I get through the days. There’s nothing to it. I just sit here, and one way or another the hours pass. And the next thing you know it’s Friday, and that’s as far as I have to go. ”

  “I’d better go,” he says, rising from the white plastic chair. “I’m taking up all your time, and you already said you don’t have that much of it left. ”

  “I’ve enjoyed this, Arne. ”

  “Have you?”

  “This is the first time I’ve been in the company of anybody who thought I was innocent. I can’t tell you what a difference that makes. ”

  “Really?”

  “Oh, absolutely. There’s been an element of stress in every conversation I’ve had since they cuffed me and read me my rights, because every single person, even the ones who’ve tried to help me, have believed me to be this monster. It was always there, you know? And today for the first time it wasn’t, and I could have an unguarded conversation and relate to another human being. I haven’t talked like this in, well, I couldn’t say how long. Since I was arrested, but maybe longer than that. I’m glad you came, and I’m sorry to see you leave. ”

  He hesitates, then says, tentatively, “I could come back tomorrow. ”

  “You could?”

  “I don’t have anything I have to do for the next several days. I’ll come back tomorrow, if you’d like, and as often as you want after that. ”

  “Well, Jesus,” Applewhite says. “Yes, I’d like that. Damn right I’d like that. Come anytime. I’m not going anywhere. ”

  5

  At a meeting over the weekend a woman whom I knew by sight came up to me and said she’d heard I was a private investigator. Was that true?

  “Sort of,” I said, and explained that I was semiretired, and didn’t have a license, which meant I lacked any official standing.

  “But you could investigate someone,” she said.

  “Anyone in particular?”

  “I have to think about this,” she said. “Is there a number where I can reach you?”

  I gave her a card, one of the new ones with my cell phone number on it, along with the phone in our apartment. I avoided a cell phone as long as I possibly could, until the realization that I was being ridiculous gradually overcame the stubbornness that seems to be an irreducible part of me. I still forget to carry it half the time, and don’t always remember to turn it on when I do, but I’d done both Monday morning, and when it rang I even managed to answer it without disconnecting the caller.

  “This is Louise,” she said. “You gave me your card. The other night, I asked if you could investigate someone, and—”

  “I remember. You had to think about it. ”

  “I’ve thought all I need to, and I’d like to talk to you. Could we meet somewhere?”

  I was having breakfast with TJ, who’d kept a remarkably straight face while I’d fumbled with the phone. “I’m at the Morning Star,” I said.

  “Are you really? Because I’m at the Flame. ”

  The Morning Star’s on the northwest corner of Ninth and Fifty-seventh; the Flame’s at the Fifty-eighth Street end of the same block. They’re both New York–style Greek coffee shops, and neither one’s a candidate for the next edition of Zagat, but they’re not terrible, and God knows they’re handy.

  She said, “Will you still be there in fifteen minutes? I want to finish this cup of coffee, and then I want to stand around outside long enough to smoke a cigarette, and then I’ll come to the Morning Star, if you’ll still be there. ”

  “They haven’t even brought my eggs yet,” I told her. “Take your time. ”

  “I feel funny about this,” she said. “Here I’m having this romance, and it feels as though it might really go somewhere, and a relationship ought to be based on trust, and how trusting am I if I hire a detective to investigate the guy? It’s like I’m sabotaging the whole process from the get-go. ”

  Louise was somewhere in her late thirties, medium height and build, with dark brown hair and light brown eyes. She’d had acne in adolescence, and its legacy was a light pitting on her cheeks and pointed chin. She was dressed for the office in a skirt and blouse, and she’d put on some col
ogne, a floral scent that blended imperfectly with the smell of cigarette smoke.

  She’d joined us at our table, a little taken aback to discover that I wasn’t alone. I introduced TJ as my assistant, and that mollified her some. He’s a black man in his twenties—I don’t know his exact age, but then I still don’t know his last name, for all that he’s a virtual member of the family—and this morning he was dressed for comfort in baggy bleached denim shorts and a black T-shirt with the sleeves and neckband cut off. He didn’t look much like my assistant, or anybody else’s, except perhaps a dope dealer’s. I could tell she’d be more comfortable if it were just the two of us, but I’d only have to fill TJ in afterward, and I figured she could get over it, and she did.

  I said, “Trust is at the basis of most enduring relationships. ”

  “That’s what I keep telling myself, but—”

  “It’s also a key component of most scams and con games. They couldn’t work without it. You might have an easier time trusting this guy if you can establish that there’s no abiding reason not to trust him. ”

  “And that’s the other thing I keep telling myself,” she said. “It seems tacky, but I can’t get past the fact that I don’t really know a thing about him. It’s not like my parents and his parents are friends, or I met him at a church social. ”

  “How did you meet?”

  “On the Internet. ”

  “One of the dating services?”

  She nodded, and gave its name. “I don’t know how the hell else people are supposed to hook up in this city,” she said. “I work all day. In fact I’m supposed to be at my desk in twenty minutes, but Tinkerbell’s not gonna die if I’m ten minutes late. I spend my days at the office and my nights at AA meetings. My last relationship was with somebody I knew from the program. That gets you past the small talk, but then when things don’t work out one of you has to start going to different meetings. ” She glanced at my left hand. “You’re married, right? Is she in the program?”

  “No. ”

  “How’d you meet, if you don’t mind my asking?”

  We met in an after-hours gin joint, at Danny Boy Bell’s table. She was a young call girl then, and I was a cop with a wife and two kids. But that was a lot more than she needed to know, and what I said was that Elaine and I had known each other years ago, that we’d met up again after having lost contact, and that this time it had worked out for us.

  “That’s romantic,” she said.

  “I suppose it is. ”

  “Well, the men in my past, I hope to God they stay there. My boyfriend in high school was cute, but he never got over it when I threw up in the middle of… well, never mind. Jesus, I wish you could smoke in here. If you can have a cup of coffee you ought to be able to have a cigarette with it. Our tightass mayor should go fuck himself. Can you believe he wants to ban smoking outside, too? Like it’s not bad enough you have to go out in the street for a smoke? I mean, who does he think he is?”

 
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