The Devil Knows Youre DeadLawrence Block
On the last Thursday in September, Lisa Holtzmann went shopping on Ninth Avenue. She got back to her apartment between three-thirty and four and made coffee. While it dripped through she replaced a burnt-out light bulb with one she’d just bought, put away her groceries, and read the recipe on the back of a box of Goya lentils. She was sitting at the window with a cup of coffee when the phone rang.
It was Glenn, her husband, calling to tell her he wouldn’t be home until around six-thirty. It was not unusual for him to work late, and he was very good about letting her know when she could expect him. He’d always been thoughtful in this regard, and his solicitousness had increased in the months since she’d lost the baby.
It was almost seven when he walked in the door, seven-thirty when they sat down to dinner. She’d made a lentil stew, enlivening the recipe on the box with garlic, fresh co-riander, and a generous dose of Yucateca hot sauce, and she served it over rice, with a green salad. As they ate they watched the sun go down, watched the sky darken.
Their apartment was in a new high-rise on the southeast corner of Fifty-seventh Street and Tenth Avenue, diagonally across the street from Jimmy Armstrong’s saloon. They lived on the twenty-eighth ?oor with windows looking south and west, and the views were spectacular. You could see the whole West Side from the George Washington Bridge to the Battery, and on across the Hudson and halfway across New Jersey.
They were a handsome couple. He was tall and slender. His dark brown hair was combed back from a well-de?ned widow’s peak, with just the slightest touch of gray at the temples. Dark eyes, dark complexion. Strong features, soft-ened the least bit by a slight weakness at the chin. Good even teeth, a con?dent smile.
He wore what he always wore to the of?ce, a well-tailored dark suit and a striped tie. Had he taken off the suit jacket before sitting down to dinner? He might have hung it over the back of a chair, or on a doorknob. Or he might have used a hanger; he was careful with his things. I picture him sitting at the table in his shirtsleeves—a blue pinpoint Oxford shirt, a buttondown collar—and tossing his tie over one shoulder, to protect it from food stains. I’d seen him do that once, at a coffee shop called the Morning Star.
She was ?ve-two and slender, with straight dark hair cut modishly short, skin like porcelain, and startling blue eyes. She was thirty-two but looked younger, even as her husband appeared a little older than his thirty-eight years.
I don’t know what she was wearing. Jeans, perhaps, turned up at the cuffs, showing a little wear at the knees and in the seat. A sweater, a yellow cotton crewneck, the sleeves pushed up to bare her arms to the elbow. Brown suede slip-pers on her feet.
But that’s just a guess, an exercise of the imagination. I don’t know what she was wearing.
Sometime between eight-thirty and nine he said he had to go out. If he had removed his suit jacket earlier, he put it on again now, and added a topcoat. He told her he’d be back within the hour. It was nothing important, he told her. Just something he needed to take care of.
I suppose she did the dishes. Poured another cup of cof-fee, turned on the television set.
At ten o’clock she started to worry. She told herself not to be silly and spent the next half hour at the window, looking out at their million-dollar view.
Around ten-thirty the doorman called upstairs to tell her that there was a police of?cer on his way up. She was wait-ing in the hall when he got off the elevator. He was a tall cleanshaven Irish kid in a blue uniform, and she remem-bered thinking that he looked just the way cops were sup-posed to look.
“Please,” she said. “What’s the matter? What happened?”
He wouldn’t say anything until they were inside the apart-ment, but by then she already knew. The look on his face said it all.
Her husband had been at the corner of Eleventh Avenue and West Fifty-?fth Street. He had evidently been in the process of making a telephone call from a coin-operated public phone at that corner, when someone, presumably at-tempting to rob him, had ?red four bullets at close range, thereby causing his death.
There was more, but that was as much as she could take in. Glenn was dead. She didn’t have to hear any more.
I met Glenn Holtzmann for the ?rst time on a Tuesday evening in April, which is supposed to be the cruelest month. T. S. Eliot said so, in “The Waste Land,” and maybe he knew what he was talking about. I don’t know, though. They all seem pretty nasty to me.
We met at the Sandor Kellstine Gallery, one of a dozen housed in a ?ve-story building on Fifty-seventh between Fifth and Sixth. It was the opening of their spring group show of contemporary photography, and the work of seven photographers was on display in a large room on the third ?oor. The friends and relatives of all seven had turned out for the occasion, along with people like Lisa Holtzmann and Elaine Mardell, who were taking a course Thursday evenings at Hunter College called “Photography as Abstract Art. ”
There was a table set with stemmed plastic goblets of red and white wine, and cubes of cheese with colored toothpicks stuck in them. There was club soda, too, and I poured my-self some and found Elaine, who introduced me to the Holtzmanns.
I took one look at him and decided I didn’t like him.
I told myself that was ridiculous and shook his hand and returned his smile. An hour later the four of us were eating Thai food on Eighth Avenue. We had something with noo-dles, and Holtzmann drank a bottle of beer with his meal. The rest of us had Thai iced coffee.
The conversation never quite got off the ground. We started off talking about the show we’d just seen, then made brief forays into other standard topics—local politics, sports, the weather. I already knew he was a lawyer, and learned he was employed at Waddell & Yount, a publisher of large-print editions of books originally brought out by other publishers.
“Pretty dull stuff,” he said. “Mostly contracts, and then every once in a while I have to write a stern letter to some-body. Now there’s a skill I can’t wait to pass on. As soon as the kid’s old enough I’ll teach him how to write stern let-ters. ”
“Or her,” Lisa said.
He or she was as yet unborn, due sometime in the fall. That was why Lisa was drinking iced coffee instead of a beer. Elaine was never much of a drinker, and doesn’t drink at all these days. And, one day at a time, neither do I.
“Or her,” Glenn agreed. “Male or female, the kid can plod along in Daddy’s boring footsteps. Matt, your work must be exciting. Or am I only saying that because I’ve watched too much TV?”
“It has its moments,” I said, “but a lot of what I do is a matter of routine. Like anything else. ”
“You were a policeman before you went on your own?”
“That’s right. ”
“And now you’re with an agency?”
“When they call me,” I said. “I work per diem for an out-?t called Reliable and take whatever free-lance work comes my way. ”
“I suppose you get a lot of industrial espionage. Disgrun-tled employees peddling company secrets. ”
“But not much?”
“I’m unlicensed,” I said, “so I don’t tend to get corporate clients, not on my own. Reliable gets its share of corporate work, but most of the stuff they’ve used me on lately has in-volved trademark infringement. ”
“Everything from fake Rolex watches to unauthorized lo-gos on sweatshirts and baseball caps. ”
“It sounds interesting. ”
“It’s not,” I said. “It’s the street equivalent of writing somebody a
stern letter. ”
“You’d better have kids,” he said. “That’s a skill you’ll want to pass on. ”
After dinner we walked to their apartment and did the req-uisite oohing and aahing over the view. Elaine’s apartment has a partial view across the East River, and from my hotel room I can catch a glimpse of the World Trade Center, but the Holtzmanns’ view had us badly outclassed. The apart-ment itself was on the small side—the second bedroom was about ten feet square—and it sported the low ceilings and construction shortcuts characteristic of most new housing. But that view made up for a lot.
Lisa made a pot of decaf and started talking about the per-sonal ads, and how she knew perfectly respectable people who used them. “Because how are people supposed to meet nowadays?” she wondered. “Glenn and I were lucky, I was at Waddell & Yount showing my book to the art director and we happened to run into each other in the hallway. ”
“I saw her from the other side of the room,” Glenn said, “and I made damn sure we happened to run into each other. ”
“But how often does that happen?” Lisa went on. “How did you two meet, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“The personals,” Elaine said.
“No. As a matter of fact we were sweethearts years ago. Then we broke up and lost track of each other. And then we happened to run into each other again, and—”
“And the same old magic was still there? That’s a beauti-ful story. ”
Maybe so, but it was on the thin side. We’d met years ago, all right, at an after-hours joint, when Elaine was a sweet young call girl and I was a detective attached to the Sixth Precinct, and a little less ?rmly attached to a wife and two sons on Long Island. Years later a psychopath turned up out of our shared past, dead set on killing us both. That threw us together, and yes, Lisa, the same old magic was still there. We stuck, and the bond seemed to be holding.
I’d call it a beautiful story, but since most of it went untold you couldn’t get much conversational mileage out of it. Lisa told about a friend of a friend, divorced, who responded to a personal ad in New York magazine, went to the designated meeting place at the appointed hour, and met her ex-hus-band. They took it as a sign and wound up getting back to-gether again. Glenn said he didn’t believe it, it didn’t make sense, he’d heard half a dozen variations on the theme and didn’t believe any of them.
“Urban folklore,” he said. “There are dozens of stories like that. They always happened to a friend of a friend, never to somebody you actually know, and the truth of the matter is they never happened at all. Scholars collect these stories, there are books ?lled with them. Like the German shepherd in the suitcase. ”
We must have looked puzzled. “Oh, c’mon,” he said. “You must know that one. Guy’s dog dies, he’s heartbroken, he doesn’t know what to do, he packs it up in a big Pullman suitcase and he’s on his way to a vet or a pet cemetery. And he sets the suitcase down to catch his breath when some-body grabs it and takes off with it. And ha-ha-ha, can’t you just picture the look on the poor bastard’s face when he opens the stolen suitcase and what does he ?nd but a dead dog. I’ll bet you’ve all heard at least one version of that story. ”
“I heard it with a Doberman,” Lisa said.
“Well, a Doberman, a shepherd. Any large dog. ”
“In the version I heard,” Elaine said, “it happened to a woman. ”
“Right, sure, and a helpful young man offers her a hand with the suitcase. ”
“And inside the suitcase,” she went on, “is her ex-hus-band. ”
So much for urban folklore. Lisa, indefatigable, shifted from personal ads to phone sex. She saw it as a perfect metaphor for the nineties, born of the health crisis, facili-tated by credit cards and 900 numbers, and driven by a growing preference for fantasy over reality.
“And those girls make good money,” she said, “and all they have to do is talk. ”
“Girls? Half of them are probably grandmothers. ”
“So? An older woman would have an advantage. You wouldn’t need looks or youth, just an active imagination. ”
“You mean a dirty mind, don’t you? You’d also need a sexy voice. ”
“Is my voice sexy enough?”
“I’d say so,” he said, “but I’m prejudiced. Why? Don’t tell me you’re considering it. ”
“Well,” she said, “I’ve thought about it. ”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Well, I don’t know. When the baby’s sleeping and I’m stuck here—”
“You’ll pick up the phone and talk dirty to strangers?”
“Remember before we were married when you were get-ting the obscene phone calls?”
“That was different. ”
“You freaked out. ”
“Well, he was a pervert. ”
“Oh, really? Who do you ?gure your customers would be, Boy Scouts?”
“It would be different if I was getting paid for it,” she said. “It wouldn’t feel like a violation. At least I don’t think it would. What do you think, Elaine?”
“I don’t think I’d like it. ”
“Well, of course not,” Glenn said. “You haven’t got a dirty mind. ”
Back at Elaine’s apartment I said, “As a mature woman you’ve got a de?nite advantage. But it’s a shame your mind’s not dirty enough for phone sex. ”
“Wasn’t that a hoot? I almost said something. ”
“I thought you were going to. ”
“I almost did. But cooler heads prevailed. ”
“Well,” I said, “sometimes they do. ”