A drop of the hard stuff, p.7
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.7

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 7

  “Just a question of time,” he said. “So it’s the same movie, but now the cop and the crook meet up again in the same AA room, and instead of Barry Fitzgerald you’ve got Queen for the Day running the show. What’s his name, Spellman? No, Jesus, that was the cardinal. This was the gym. Stillman. ”

  “He said you talked to him. ”

  “Couple of times. Took the whole thing pretty hard, but you get the sense that he’s got some toughness to him, under all the glitter. He was Ellery’s sponsor, whatever that amounts to. Is that anything like having a rabbi in the department?”

  “That’s close. ”

  “Somebody who pulls your coat, steers you right. ”

  “There you go. ”

  “You got a sponsor yourself?” I nodded. “It’s not Stillman, is it?”

  “No. ”

  “And I don’t suppose you’re Stillman’s sponsor. ”

  “I haven’t been sober long enough to start telling other people how to do it. ”

  “How long? Or isn’t that something I’m supposed to ask?”

  “I don’t know what anybody’s supposed to do or not do. I’m coming up on a year the middle of next month. ”

  “And Ellery—”

  “Just celebrated two years. ”

  “Just in time to get shot. You know who shot him?”

  “Somebody who wanted him to keep quiet. ”

  “Yeah, that’s our thinking on the subject. ‘Here’s a little something for that big mouth of yours. Bang!’ Far as who that somebody might be, I’d say your guess is as good as mine, but what I’m hoping is it’s better. You got anything?”

  “No. ”

  “My position, where would you go with this, Matt? You made detective, and I understand you were good at it. Who would you look at?”

  “People he ran with. Guys he jailed with. ”

  “Uh-huh. And when that didn’t go anywhere?”

  “I’d probably wait for somebody who knew something to use it as a bargaining chip. ”

  “A Get Out of Jail Free card. ”

  “Right. ”

  “Other words, wait for the case to clear itself. Something to be said for that. You got a high-profile case, prominent and affluent victim, that’s another story. Then you have to look like you’re doing something, so you take action whether or not there’s much point to it. Ask you something, Matt? The vic here, you knew him way back when, and you knew him again this past year, with both of you sober. ”


  “I was just wondering how close you were with him. ”

  “Close enough to show up at the funeral. ”

  “But no closer?”

  “Not really. I’m here now because someone asked me to see what I could find out. ”

  “Somebody with an earring would be my guess. Why I ask, I don’t want to say anything’s gonna rub you the wrong way. But what it comes down to, nobody’s gonna stay up all night sweating this one out. What do they say about speaking ill of the dead?”

  “They say not to. ”

  “Well, sometimes you can’t help it. This was a low-life criminal for all but two years of his life, when he suddenly decided to get off the booze and find God. Is that what happens? You find God?”

  “Some people seem to. ”

  He thought about it, finished his drink, put down the empty glass. “More power to them,” he said. “Would I like to clear this one? Of course I would. I’d like to clear all my cases and watch all the bad guys get convicted and go away. But what are the odds? Words of one syllable, your friend was a bum, and after his dry spell what’s he gonna do but pick up a drink and point a gun at somebody? Happens all the time. ”

  Not all the time, I thought. Often, though. I had to give him that. But not all the time.

  “So I’d like to clear it,” he said, “because it’s on my plate, and my mother raised me to finish everything. ” He patted his stomach. “A lesson I learned all too well. But on the dinner plate of crime, my friend, Jack Ellery is the Brussels sprouts. ”


  MOST PEOPLE OVERCOOK them,” Greg Stillman said. “If you don’t, there’s nothing wrong with Brussels sprouts. ”

  “Next time I see Redmond,” I said, “I’ll be sure to tell him that. ”

  “Sautéed in coconut oil, just long enough to ensure that they’re cooked through, but still crisp. And a little curry powder makes all the difference. ”

  “I’ll bet it does. ”

  “But if you boil them into mush, of course they’re awful. That’s true of all the members of the cabbage family. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower. The smell when they’re overcooked—oh, you’re making a face. I take it you’re no fan of the cabbage family?”

  “There’s a smell you get in tenements,” I said. “Mice and cabbage. If poverty has a smell, I guess that’s it. ”

  “And who cooks cabbage—and cooks it to death, more often than not?”

  “Poor people. ”

  “Poor Irish people,” he said. “And poor Polish people. Poor people from northern and eastern Europe. But times have changed and they’ve all clambered up into the middle class. So what would be the smell of poverty now, do you suppose?” He gave the matter some thought. “Wet dog with garlic,” he decided.

  It was Thursday night, and I’d gone back to Second Avenue and Sober Today, where the speaker was a balding fellow from the Ridgewood section of Queens who’d held the same job as a bank teller for over thirty years. He never moved out of the house he grew up in, conveniently located three blocks from his place of employment. It was a two-family house, and his parents rented out the upper flat until their son got married, at which time he and his bride moved in upstairs.

  “The girl next door,” Greg whispered. “Who else would he marry?”

  It was as boring a story as I’d ever heard in or out of an AA meeting, and he recounted it in an affectless monotone. His father died, and then a few years later his mother died, and he and his bride and their only child moved down to the first floor, whereupon he installed a young couple as upstairs tenants.

  “With such an exciting life,” Greg murmured, “why would he feel the need to drink?”

  The story got more interesting, to listen to if not to live through, when he started making the hospital wards and the detoxes. There was this bar he’d pass on the way home from work, and he got in the habit of stopping in every day for a beer, and sometimes two. And he’d go back a couple of evenings a week to watch sports on the big screen, and of course he’d have a couple of beers in the course of an evening. He didn’t get falling-down drunk, he didn’t have blackouts, and his occasional hangovers never amounted to more than a parched feeling and a slight headache; all it took to put him right was a big glass of water and an aspirin.

  The progression of his alcoholism was achingly slow, but what did the man have besides time? The bank cut him loose, his wife told him to move out, and it got so he never had a day when he felt anywhere near all right. A counselor at one of the detoxes got through to him and managed to get him in an outpatient program, and he went to so many meetings that they finally started making some sense to him, and he was back with his wife again, and they were taking him back at the bank.

  “A true AA success story,” Greg said when the applause died down. “It’s too bad Milton already used the titles. ”


  “Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Do you know what Samuel Johnson said of Paradise Lost?”

  “I bet you’ll tell me. ”

  “He said no one ever wished it longer, which rather fits what we just heard, wouldn’t you say?”

  Afterward each of us admitted we were hoping the other would suggest leaving on the break, but neither of us took the initiative, and the meeting picked up during the second half and I got to hear some good things. We stayed through the Serenity Prayer, picked up chairs and emptied ashtrays, and headed
up Second Avenue discussing something somebody said. When that ran out we walked a block or two in an easy silence.

  I’d given him the gist of my conversation with Redmond over the phone, and it must have been on both our minds. He broke the silence by saying, “I guess they’re not going to do anything about it,” and the antecedents of the two pronouns were self-evident.

  I explained that they would go on working the case, putting the word out like a fisherman chumming the water. When you worked a case hard, I said, sometimes all you were doing was trying to push the river. And when it broke, your efforts had precious little to do with it. Some guy with a resentment dropped a dime.

  “The awesome power of resentments,” he said. “Who knew they could turn out to be a good thing? But you would still work the case. ”

  “When there was something to work. ”

  “It’s all very Third Step, isn’t it? Taking the action and turning over the result. I had a sponsee who couldn’t get a job, the man had a real Swiss cheese résumé, holes in it you could drive a van through. I had him send in job applications at the rate of one a day, and he did that for three weeks. And he didn’t get an offer from a single one of the firms he applied to. ”


  “And what he did get, during the fourth week, was an offer out of the blue from a firm he hadn’t applied to, for a job he didn’t even know about. A good one, too. Would it have come his way if he hadn’t been sending out those applications? You couldn’t prove it one way or the other, but my own belief is that the result wouldn’t have come about without the action. ”

  “Do you sponsor many people?”

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