A drop of the hard stuff, p.9
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.9
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 9

  “Very much so. Matt, my own Fourth Step had no end of things of which I was deeply ashamed. And in program terms what matters is how your deeds weigh on your conscience, not how far down they rank on some consensus of morality. But I felt like a lightweight sinner, a positive dilettante of turpitude. My only crimes were jaywalking and cheating on my taxes. Oh, and sneaking under subway turnstiles a couple of times. You won’t report me, will you?”

  “I’ll let it go this time. ”

  “Don’t worry, it won’t happen again. I did things that weren’t crimes, but that were morally reprehensible, and that I don’t feel the need to mention now. But, you know, I never robbed anyone, I never hit anyone with a club. I never, Christ, I never killed anyone. ”

  “And Jack did?”

  His silence was answer enough.

  After a long moment he said, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing what he told me. And his character defects and his resentments didn’t get him killed, and neither did his bad actions, so my feeling is they can go to the grave with him. ”

  “That seems reasonable. ”

  “Except there won’t be a grave to go to. I’ve made arrangements to have him cremated, as soon as they’re able to release the body. My thought is to scatter the ashes at sea. There are people who’ll take you out in a boat, and you just empty the container of remains overboard. ” He rolled his eyes. “Or cremains, as the insiders would say. If I had a copy of his Fourth Step inventory it could go to the oven with him, if not the grave. And into the water, and—”

  He’d been speaking almost cheerfully, and then it all caught up with him and choked him up. I watched him set his jaw and blink back the tears, and when he resumed speaking, his voice was steady and strong.

  “My dilemma,” he said, “is with his Eighth Step. I think I said it was detailed. ”

  “A paragraph about each person. ”

  “And some of them were long paragraphs. I would think that the person who killed him would almost have to be on that list. ”

  “And you have a copy. ”

  “Did I already mention that?”

  “No, but you wouldn’t have much of a dilemma without it. You’ve got his Eighth Step list and you have to decide what to do with it. ”

  “If the police had leads, if they knew who did it whether or not they could make a case, then I wouldn’t have a problem. I’d destroy his list and that would be the end of it. But they don’t, and they very likely won’t, and won’t try very hard. So I’m in possession of information that might help them, and it’s my duty as a citizen to make it available to them. ”

  “But?”

  “But there are around two dozen names on that list, Matt! That doesn’t mean there are that many suspects, because he’s got his dead father on the list, and a couple of other dead folks, and he’s got a high school girlfriend whose pants he lied his way into, and other people who’d be unlikely to respond with a couple of bullets if he turned up and said he was sorry. But that still leaves a third or more with mean lives and criminal histories, and only one of them could have killed him, and how can I chance getting all the others in trouble?”

  “And if his purpose all along was to make it up to these individuals—”

  “Exactly! One minute he turns up and says he’s sorry, it was the drink that made him do it, and here’s that ten bucks I never paid you, or a new lamp to replace the one I knocked off the table. And the next minute he’s dead, and the cops are knocking on the door. ”

  “And the men on the list aren’t the sort who welcome the attention of men in blue uniforms. ”

  “Or Robert Hall suits. Although Mr. Redmond was quite nicely dressed, as a matter of fact. ”

  “He’s a detective. ”

  “Oh, do they dress better than the others? I never knew that. ”

  Two days after I got my gold shield, Eddie Koehler took me to a Fifth Avenue men’s shop called Finchley’s. The building’s facade looked like a Norman castle, and I walked out feeling like a lord, having just bought a suit for three times what I normally spent.

  I’d bought the suit to impress the public, because I’d been assured that I was a detective now, and had an image to protect. But there were other benefits; my wife had admired that suit, and so had my girlfriend.

  There had been other suits, of course, but that was the one I remembered—two-button, single-breasted, the medium-blue glen-plaid fabric almost silky to the touch. (“A nice hand,” the salesman had said. ) Uncuffed pants. (“I don’t believe we want cuffs, do we?”)

  I wonder what happened to that suit. Far as that goes, I wonder what happened to Finchley’s. The last time I happened to look, it was gone. The crenellated building had a new tenant, with a window full of fake ivory and Orientalia for the tourist trade.

  Something’s there and then it’s not.

  Greg’s problem was clear enough. If he turned Jack’s Eighth Step list over to the surprisingly well-dressed Dennis Redmond, he’d be making trouble for people who’d had nothing to do with the murder. If he didn’t, he’d be helping a killer go free.

  I asked him if he’d talked it over with his sponsor.

  “I wish I could,” he said. “Do you know about the gay cancer? Kaposi’s sarcoma, it’s called, although I may be mispronouncing it. It’s extremely rare, or at least it used to be, but now every gay man starts the day checking himself for purple blotches. Adrian got very sick, and we were afraid he was going to die of it, because there’s no cure. But what actually killed him was pneumonia. A very rare form of pneumonia, except it’s not that rare anymore either, not if you’re a homosexual male. ”

  I’d heard a little about it. There’d been a death in my home group at St. Paul’s, and another member had been hospitalized several times with persistent fevers that they didn’t know how to treat.

  “No one knows what causes it,” he said. “A friend of mine thinks it has something to do with the synergistic effect of leather and quiche. We may all die of it, Matt, but we’ll have some laughs along the way. ”

  His sponsor, Adrian, had died just over a month ago, and he hadn’t picked a replacement. “I’ve been holding silent auditions,” he said, “trying people out without letting them know about it. It’ll have to be someone older than I, and with longer sobriety, but someone who still goes to meetings on a daily basis, or close to it. I don’t want a gay man because I don’t want to go through this again, and I don’t want a straight man because I just don’t. Lately I’ve been thinking I should get a female sponsor, but do I want a straight woman or a lesbian?”

  “Another dilemma,” I said.

  He nodded. “And one that will solve itself in the fullness of time. As opposed to my other dilemma, which requires action. Matt, you were a policeman. Are you likely to go back to that?”

  “Get reinstated?” I’d thought about it early on, talked it over with Jim Faber. “No,” I said. “That’s not going to happen. ”

  “So now you’re a private detective. ”

  “Not exactly. Private investigators are licensed. After I left the department, I started working privately for people, but in a very unofficial off-the-books kind of way. I would be doing favors, and they’d be giving me money as an expression of gratitude. ”

  “And now?”

  “I’m looking for a job the way you’re looking for a sponsor,” I said. “Someone suggested a free program, EPRA, I forget what the initials stand for—”

  “Employment Program for Recovering Alcoholics. Jack started going, but he wasn’t able to stick with it. He got by delivering lunches for a deli. Not exactly a career, but a pretty good get-sober job. ”

  “Well, my get-sober job seems to be the one I had when I came in. In the past eleven months I’ve had enough work come my way so that the rent keeps getting paid and I don’t miss any meals. ”

  “You do favors for people, and they show their gratitude. ”

  “
Right. ”

  “Well,” he said, “I’d like you to do me a favor. ”

  IX

  IT WAS WELL past midnight by the time I got home. There were no messages waiting for me, just the usual run of junk mail. I tossed it when I got to my room, but I kept the 9x12 manila envelope addressed to Gregory Stillman, with the hand-stamped return address of a firm in Wichita, Kansas. It had once held a catalog of jewelers’ supplies, but now it contained Jack Ellery’s Eighth Step, the list of people he had allegedly harmed, among whose number one might well expect to find the name of his killer.

  I’d glanced at the first page of the list, just to make sure I’d be able to read Jack’s handwriting, and had then watched Greg slip it into the envelope and fasten the metal clasp. Now I put it on my dresser unopened and got out of my clothes and under the shower.

  The envelope was still there when I got out of the shower. I opened it and drew out a sheaf of unruled pages held together by a paper clip. The pages were numbered, and there were nine of them, all covered with Jack’s compact but legible handwriting, dark blue ink on white paper.

  The first name at the top of the first page was Raymond Ellery, who turned out to be Jack’s late father. I read a couple of sentences and felt a wave of tiredness wash over me. This could wait, all of it. I put the pages back in the envelope, refastened the clasp, and got into bed.

  I remembered that I hadn’t prayed. I didn’t see the point of it, it wasn’t really my style, but I’d spent almost a year now doing things that weren’t my style and that I only occasionally saw the point of. So I kept it simple, starting the day by asking for another day of sobriety, ending it with thanks for another sober day.

  But only when I remembered. I remembered now, but I was in bed with the light out, and I didn’t really feel like getting out of bed and down on my knees—which wasn’t really my style either.

  “Thank you,” I said to whatever might be listening. And let it go at that.

  “He gave me a thousand dollars,” I told Jim. “Ten hundred-dollar bills. He didn’t have to count them, he had them set aside in his wallet, so I don’t guess he was making things up as he went along. ”

  “I trust you remembered your police training. ”

  “I put it in my pocket. ”

  Another thing Vince Mahaffey had told me, years ago in Brooklyn. That’s what you did when somebody handed you money.

  “You don’t sound happy,” Jim said, “for somebody with a thousand dollars in his pocket. ”

  “Most of it’s gone. I paid the next month’s rent, and I sent Anita a money order. I put a couple of bucks in the bank, and what’s left is in my wallet. ”

 
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