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A Moment of Wrong Thinking (Matthew Scudder Mysteries Series Book 9)

Lawrence Block


  A Matthew Scudder Story

  copyright © 2002, Lawrence Block

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales are entirely coincidental.

  All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by electronic, mechanical or other means, is forbidden without written permission of the author.

  Lawrence Block

  Monica said, “What kind of a gun? A man shoots himself in his living room, surrounded by his nearest and dearest, and you want to know what kind of a gun he used?”

  “I just wondered,” I said.

  Monica rolled her eyes. She’s one of Elaine’s oldest friends. They were in high school together, in Rego Park, and they never lost touch over the years. Elaine spent a lot of years as a call girl, and Monica, who was never in the life herself, seemed to have no difficulty accepting that. Elaine, for her part, had no judgment on Monica’s predilection for dating married men.

  She was with the current one that evening. The four of us had gone to a revival of Allegro, the Rogers and Hammerstein show that hadn’t been a big hit the first time around. From there we went to Paris Green for a late supper. We talked about the show and speculated on reasons for its limited success. The songs were good, we agreed, and I was old enough to remember hearing “A Fellow Needs a Girl” on the radio. Elaine said she had a Lisa Kirk LP, and one of the cuts was “The Gentleman is a Dope.” That number, she said, had stopped the show during its initial run, and launched Lisa Kirk.

  Monica said she’d love to hear it some time. Elaine said all she had to do was find the record and then find something to play it on. Monica said she still had a turntable for LPs.

  Monica’s guy didn’t say anything, and I had the feeling he didn’t know who Lisa Kirk was, or why he had to go through all this just to get laid. His name was Doug Halley—like the comet, he’d said—and he did something in Wall Street. Whatever it was, he did well enough at it to keep his second wife and their kids in a house in Pound Ridge, in Westchester County, while he was putting the kids from his first marriage through college. He had a boy at Bowdoin, we’d learned, and a girl who’d just started at Colgate.

  We got as much conversational mileage as we could out of Lisa Kirk, and the drinks came—Perrier for me, cranberry juice for Elaine and Monica, and a Stolichnaya martini for Halley. He’d hesitated for a beat before ordering it—Monica would surely have told him I was a sober alcoholic, and even if she hadn’t he’d have noted that he was the only one drinking—and I could almost hear him think it through and decide the hell with it. I was just as glad he’d ordered the drink. He looked as though he needed it, and when it came he drank deep.

  It was about then that Monica mentioned the fellow who’d shot himself. It had happened the night before, too late to make the morning papers, and Monica had seen the coverage that afternoon on New York One. A man in Inwood, in the course of a social evening at his own home, with friends and family members present, had drawn a gun, ranted about his financial situation and everything that was wrong with the world, and then stuck the gun in his mouth and blew his brains out.

  “What kind of a gun,” Monica said again. “It’s a guy thing, isn’t it? There’s not a woman in the world who would ask that question.”

  “A woman would ask what he was wearing,” Halley said.

  “No,” Elaine said. “Who cares what he was wearing? A woman would ask what his wife was wearing.”

  “A look of horror would be my guess,” Monica said. “Can you imagine? You’re having a nice evening with friends and your husband shoots himself in front of everybody?”

  “They didn’t show it, did they?”

  “They didn’t interview her on camera, but they did talk with some man who was there and saw the whole thing.”

  Halley said that it would have been a bigger story if they’d had the wife on camera, and we started talking about the media and how intrusive they’d become. And we stayed with that until they brought us our food.


  When we got home Elaine said, “The man who shot himself. When you asked if they showed it, you didn’t mean an interview with the wife. You wanted to know if they showed him doing it.”

  “These days,” I said, “somebody’s almost always got a camcorder running. But I didn’t really think anybody had the act on tape.”

  “Because it would have been a bigger story.”

  “That’s right. The play a story gets depends on what they’ve got to show you. It would have been a little bigger than it was if they’d managed to interview the wife, but it would have been everybody’s lead story all day long if they could have actually shown him doing it.”

  “Still, you asked.”

  “Idly,” I said. “Making conversation.”

  “Yeah, right. And you want to know what kind of gun he used. Just being a guy, and talking guy talk. Because you liked Doug so much, and wanted to bond with him.”

  “Oh, I was crazy about him. Where does she find them?”

  “I don’t know,” she said, “but I think she’s got radar. If there’s a jerk out there, and if he’s married, she homes in on him. What did you care what kind of gun it was?”

  “What I was wondering,” I said, “was whether it was a revolver or an automatic.”

  She thought about it. “And if they showed him doing it, you could look at the film and know what kind of a gun it was.”

  “Anybody could.”

  “I couldn’t,” she said. “Anyway, what difference does it make?”

  “Probably none.”


  “It reminded me of a case we had,” I said. “Ages ago.”

  “Back when you were a cop, and I was a cop’s girlfriend.”

  I shook my head. “Only the first half. I was on the force, but you and I hadn’t met yet. I was still wearing a uniform, and it would be a while before I got my gold shield. And we hadn’t moved to Long Island yet, we were still living in Brooklyn.”

  “You and Anita and the boys.”

  “Was Andy even born yet? No, he couldn’t have been, because she was pregnant with him when we bought the house in Syosset. We probably had Mike by then, but what difference does it make? It wasn’t about them. It was about the poor sonofabitch in Park Slope who shot himself.”

  “And did he use a revolver or an automatic?”

  “An automatic. He was a World War Two vet, and this was the gun he’d brought home with him. It must have been a forty-five.”

  “And he stuck it in his mouth and—”

  “Put it to his temple. Putting it in your mouth, I think it was cops who made that popular.”


  “You know what I mean. The expression caught on, ‘eating your gun,’ and you started seeing more civilian suicides who took that route.” I fell silent, remembering. “I was partnered with Vince Mahaffey. I’ve told you about him.”

  “He smoked those little cigars.”

  “Guinea-stinkers, he called them. DeNobilis was the brand name, and they were these nasty little things that looked as though they’d passed through the digestive system of a cat. I don’t think they could have smelled any worse if they had. Vince smoked them all day long, and he ate like a pig and drank like a fish.”

  “The perfect role model.”

�Vince was all right,” I said. “I learned a hell of a lot from Vince.”

  “Are you gonna tell me the story?”

  “You want to hear it?”

  She got comfortable on the couch. “Sure,” she said. “I like it when you tell me stories.”


  It was a week night, I remembered, and the moon was full. It seems to me it was in the spring, but I could be wrong about that part.

  Mahaffey and I were in a radio car. I was driving when the call came in, and he rang in and said we’d take this one. It was in the Slope. I don’t remember the address, but wherever it was we weren’t far from it, and I drove there and we went in.

  Park Slope’s a very desirable area now, but this was before the gentrification process got underway, and the Slope was still a working-class neighborhood, and predominantly Irish. The house we were directed to was one of a row of identical brownstone houses, four stories tall, two apartments to a floor. The vestibule was a half-flight up from street level, and a man was standing in the doorway, waiting for us.

  “You want the Conways,” he said. “Two flights up and on your left.”

  “You’re a neighbor?”

  “Downstairs of them,” he said. “It was me called it in. My wife’s with her now, the poor woman. He was a bastard, that husband of hers.”

  “You didn’t get along?”

  “Why would you say that? He was a good neighbor.”

  “Then how did he get to be a bastard?”

  “To do what he did,” the man said darkly. “You want to kill yourself, Jesus, it’s an unforgivable sin, but it’s a man’s own business, isn’t it?” He shook his head. “But do it in private, for God’s sake. Not with your wife looking on. As long as the poor woman lives, that’s her last memory of her husband.”

  We climbed the stairs. The building was in good repair, but drab, and the stairwell smelled of cabbage and of mice. The cooking smells in tenements have changed over the years, with the ethnic makeup of their occupants. Cabbage was what you used to smell in Irish neighborhoods. I suppose it’s still much in evidence in Greenpoint and Brighton Beach, where new arrivals from Poland and Russia reside. And I’m sure the smells are very different in the stairwells of buildings housing immigrants from Asia and Africa and Latin America, but I suspect the mouse smell is there, too.

  Halfway up the second flight of stairs, we met a woman on her way down. “Mary Frances!” she called upstairs. “It’s the police!” She turned to us. “She’s in the back,” she said, “with her kids, the poor darlings. It’s just at the top of the stairs, on your left. You can walk right in.”

  The door of the Conway apartment was ajar. Mahaffey knocked on it, then pushed it open when the knock went unanswered. We walked in and there he was, a middle-aged man in dark blue trousers and a white cotton tank-top undershirt. He’d nicked himself shaving that morning, but that was the least of his problems.

  He was sprawled in an easy chair facing the television set. He’d fallen over on his left side, and there was a large hole in his right temple, the skin scorched around the entry wound. His right hand lay in his lap, the fingers still holding the gun he’d brought back from the war.

  “Jesus,” Mahaffey said.

  There was a picture of Jesus on the wall over the fireplace, and, similarly framed, another of John F. Kennedy. Other photos and holy pictures reposed here and there in the room—on table tops, on walls, on top of the television set. I was looking at a small framed photo of a smiling young man in an army uniform and just beginning to realize it was a younger version of the dead man when his wife came into the room.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, “I never heard you come in. I was with the children. They’re in a state, as you can imagine.”

  “You’re Mrs. Conway?”

  “Mrs. James Conway.” She glanced at her late husband, but her eyes didn’t stay on him for long. “He was talking and laughing,” she said. “He was making jokes. And then he shot himself. Why would he do such a thing?”

  “Had he been drinking, Mrs. Conway?”

  “He’d had a drink or two,” she said. “He liked his drink. But he wasn’t drunk.”

  “Where’d the bottle go?”

  She put her hands together. She was a small woman, with a pinched face and pale blue eyes, and she wore a cotton housedress with a floral pattern. “I put it away,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done that, should I?”

  “Did you move anything else, ma’am?”

  “Only the bottle,” she said. “The bottle and the glass. I didn’t want people saying he was drunk when he did it, because how would that be for the children?” Her face clouded. “Or is it better thinking it was the drink that made him do it? I don’t know which is worse. What do you men think?”

  “I think we could all use a drink,” he said. “Yourself not least of all, ma’am.”

  She crossed the room and got a bottle of Schenley’s from a mahogany cabinet. She brought it, along with three small glasses of cut crystal. Mahaffey poured drinks for all three of us and held his to the light. She took a tentative sip of hers while Mahaffey and I drank ours down. It was an ordinary blended whiskey, an honest workingman’s drink. Nothing fancy about it, but it did the job.

  Mahaffey raised his glass again and looked at the bare-bulb ceiling fixture through it. “These are fine glasses,” he said.

  “Waterford,” she said. “There were eight, they were my mother’s, and these three are all that’s left.” She glanced at the dead man. “He had his from a jelly glass. We don’t use the Waterford for every day.”

  “Well, I’d call this a special occasion,” Mahaffey said. “Drink that yourself, will you? It’s good for you.”

  She braced herself, drank the whiskey down, shuddered slightly, then drew a deep breath. “Thank you,” she said. “It is good for me, I’d have to say. No, no more for me. But have another for yourselves.”

  I passed. Vince poured himself a short one. He went over her story with her, jotting down notes from time to time in his notebook. At one point she began to calculate how she’d manage without poor Jim. He’d been out of work lately, but he was in the building trades, and when he worked he made decent money. And there’d be something from the Veterans Administration, wouldn’t there? And Social Security?

  “I’m sure there’ll be something,” Vince told her. “And insurance? Did he have insurance?”

  There was a policy, she said. Twenty-five thousand dollars, he’d taken it out when the first child was born, and she’d seen to it that the premium was paid each month. But he’d killed himself, and wouldn’t that keep them from paying?

  “That’s what everybody thinks,” he told her, “but it’s rarely the case. There’s generally a clause, no payment for suicide during the first six months, the first year, maybe even the first two years. To keep you from taking out the policy on Monday and doing away with yourself on Tuesday. But you’ve had this for more than two years, haven’t you?”

  She was nodding eagerly. “How old is Patrick? Almost nine, and it was taken out just around the time he was born.”

  “Then I’d say you’re in the clear,” he said. “And it’s only fair, if you think about it. The company’s been taking a man’s premiums all these years, why should a moment of wrong thinking get them off the hook?”

  “I had the same notion myself,” she said, “but I thought there was no hope. I thought that was just the way it was.”

  “Well,” he said, “it’s not.”

  “What did you call it? A moment of wrong thinking? But isn’t that all it takes to keep him out of heaven? It’s the sin of despair, you know.” She addressed this last to me, guessing that Mahaffey was more aware of the theology of it than I. “And is that fair?” she demanded, turning to Mahaffey again. “Better to cheat a widow out of the money than to cheat James Conway into hell.”

  “Maybe the Lord’s able to take a longer view of things.”

  “That’s not what the father
s say.”

  “If he wasn’t in his right mind at the time…”

  “His right mind!” She stepped back, pressed her hand to her breast. “Who in his right mind ever did such a thing?”


  “He was joking,” she said. “And he put the gun to his head, and even then I wasn’t frightened, because he seemed his usual self and there was nothing frightening about it. Except I had the thought that the gun might go off by accident, and I said as much.”

  “What did he say to that?”

  “That we’d all be better off if it did, himself included. And I said not to say such a thing, that it was horrid and sinful, and he said it was only the truth, and then he looked at me, he looked at me.”

  “What kind of a look?”

  “Like, See what I’m doing? Like, Are you watching me, Mary Frances? And then he shot himself.”

  “Maybe it was an accident,” I suggested.

  “I saw his face. I saw his finger tighten on the trigger. It was as if he did it to spite me. But he wasn’t angry at me. For the love of God, why would he…”

  Mahaffey clapped me on the shoulder. “Take Mrs. Conway into the other room,” he said. “Let her freshen up her face and drink a glass of water, and make sure the kids are all right.” I looked at him, and he gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Something I want to check,” he said.

  I went into the kitchen, where Mrs. Conway wet a dishtowel and dabbed tentatively at her face, then filled a jelly glass with water and drank it down in a series of small sips. Then we went to check on the children, a boy of eight and a girl a couple of years younger. They were just sitting there, hands folded in their laps, as if someone had told them not to move.

  Mrs. Conway fussed over them and assured them everything was going to be fine and told them to get ready for bed. We left them as we found them, sitting side by side, their hands still folded in their laps. I suppose they were in shock, and it seemed to me they had the right.

  I brought the woman back to the living room, where Mahaffey was bent over the body of her husband. He straightened up as we entered the room. “Mrs. Conway,” he said, “I have something important to tell you.”