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A Stab in the Dark, Page 2

Lawrence Block

Page 2


  "I still want to know. "

  "You might learn things you wont like. You said it yourself-somebody probably killed her for a reason. You might be happier not knowing the reason. "

  "Its possible. "

  "But youll run that risk. "

  "Yes. "

  "Well, I guess I can try talking with some people. " I got my pen and notebook from my pocket, opened the notebook to a fresh page, uncapped the pen. "I might as well start with you," I said.

  * * *

  WE talked for close to an hour and I made a lot of notes. I had another double bourbon and made it last. He had Trina take away his drink and bring him a cup of coffee. She refilled it twice for him before we were finished.

  He lived in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County. Theyd moved there from the city when Barbara was five and her younger sister Lynn was three. Three years ago, some six years after Barbaras death, London s wife Helen had died of cancer. He lived there alone now, and every once in a while he thought about selling the house, but so far he hadnt gotten around to listing it with a realtor. He supposed it was something hed do sooner or later, whereupon hed either move into the city or take a garden apartment somewhere in Westchester.

  Barbara had been twenty-six. Shed be thirty-five now if she had lived. No children. She had been a couple of months pregnant when she died, and London hadnt even known that until after her death. Telling me this, his voice broke.

  Douglas Ettinger had remarried a couple of years after Barbaras death. Hed been a caseworker for the Welfare Department during their marriage, but hed quit that job shortly after the murder and gone into sales. His second wifes father owned a sporting goods store on Long Island and after the marriage hed taken in Ettinger as a partner. Ettinger lived in Mineola with his wife and two or three children- London wasnt sure of the number. He had come alone to Helen Londons funeral and London hadnt had any contact with him since then, nor had he ever met the new wife.

  Lynn London would be thirty-three in a month. She lived in Chelsea and taught fourth-graders at a progressive private school in the Village. Shed been married shortly after Barbara was killed, and she and her husband had separated after a little over two years of marriage and divorced not long after that. No children.

  He mentioned other people. Neighbors, friends. The operator of the day-care center where Barbara had worked. A coworker there. Her closest friend from college. Sometimes he remembered names, sometimes not, but he gave me bits and pieces and I could take it from there. Not that any of it would necessarily lead anywhere.

  He went off on tangents a lot. I didnt attempt to rein him in. I thought I might get a better picture of the dead woman by letting him wander, but even so I didnt develop any real sense of her. I learned she was attractive, that shed been popular as a teenager, that shed done well in school. She was interested in helping people, she liked working with children, and shed been eager to have a family of her own. The image that came through was of a woman of no vices and the blandest virtues, wavering in age from childhood to an age she hadnt lived to attain. I had the feeling that he hadnt known her terribly well, that hed been insulated by his work and by his role as her father from any reliable perception of her as a person.

  Not uncommon, that. Most people dont really know their children until the children have become parents themselves. And Barbara hadnt lived that long.

  WHEN he ran out of things to tell me I flipped through my notes, then closed the book. I told him Id see what I could do.

  "Ill need some money," I said.

  "How much?"

  I never know how to set a fee. Whats too little and whats too much? I knew I needed money-a chronic condition, that-and that he probably had it in fair supply. Insurance agents can earn a lot or a little, but it seemed to me that selling group coverage to corporations was probably quite lucrative. I flipped a mental coin and came up with a figure of fifteen hundred dollars.

  "And what will that buy, Mr. Scudder?"

  I told him I really didnt know. "Itll buy my efforts," I said. "Ill work on this until I come up with something or until its clear to me that theres nothing to come up with. If that happens before I figure Ive earned your money youll get some back. If I feel I have more coming Ill let you know, and you can decide then whether or not you want to pay me. "

  "Its very irregular, isnt it?"

  "You might not be comfortable with it. "

  He considered that but didnt say anything. Instead he got out a checkbook and asked how he should make the check payable. To Matthew Scudder, I told him, and he wrote it out and tore it out of the book and set it on the table between us.

  I didnt pick it up. I said, "You know, Im not the only alternative to the police. There are big, well-staffed agencies who operate in a much more conventional manner. Theyll report in detail, theyll account for every cent of fees and expenses. On top of that, theyve got more resources than I do. "

  "Detective Fitzroy said as much. He said there were a couple of major agencies he could recommend. "

  "But he recommended me?"

  "Yes. "

  "Why?" I knew one reason, of course, but it wasnt one hed have given London.

  London smiled for the first time. "He said youre a crazy son of a bitch," he said. "Those were his words, not mine. "


  "He said you might get caught up in this in a way a large agency wouldnt. That when you get your teeth in something you dont let go. He said the odds were against it, but you just might find out who killed Barbara. "

  "He said that, did he?" I picked up his check, studied it, folded it in half. I said, "Well, hes right. I might. "

  Chapter 2

  It was too late to get to the bank. After London left I settled my tab and cashed a marker at the bar. My first stop would be the Eighteenth Precinct, and its considered bad manners to show up empty-handed.

  I called first to make sure hed be there, then took a bus east and another one downtown. Armstrongs is on Ninth Avenue, around the corner from my Fifty-seventh Street hotel. The Eighteenth is housed on the ground floor of the Police Academy, a modern eight-story building with classes for recruits and prep courses for the sergeants and lieutenants exams. Theyve got a pool there, and a gym equipped with weight machines and a running track. You can take martial arts courses, or deafen yourself practicing on the pistol range.

  I felt the way I always do when I walk into a station house. Like an impostor, I suppose, and an unsuccessful one at that. I stopped at the desk, said I had business with Detective Fitzroy. The uniformed sergeant waved me on. He probably assumed I was a member in good standing. I must still look like a cop, or walk like one, or something. People read me that way. Even cops.

  I walked on through to the squad room and found Fitzroy typing a report at a corner desk. There were half a dozen Styrofoam coffee cups grouped on the desk, each holding about an inch of light coffee. Fitzroy motioned me to a chair and I sat down while he finished what he was typing. A couple of desks away, two cops were hassling a skinny black kid with eyes like a frog. I gather hed been picked up for dealing three-card monte. They werent giving him all that hard of a time, but then it wasnt the crime of the century, either.

  Fitzroy looked as I remembered him, maybe a little older and a little heavier. I dont suppose he put in many hours on the running track. He had a beefy Irish face and gray hair cropped close to his skull, and not too many people would have taken him for an accountant or an orchestra conductor or a cabbie. Or a stenographer-he made pretty good time on his typewriter, but he only used two fingers to do it.

  He finished finally and pushed the machine to one side. "I swear the whole things paperwork," he said. "That and court appearances. Whos got time left to detect anything? Hey, Matt. " We shook hands. "Been a while. You dont look so bad. "

  "Was I supposed to?"

  "No, course not. How about some coffee? Milk and sugar?"

  "Black is fine. "

>   He crossed the room to the coffee machine and came back with another pair of Styrofoam cups. The two detectives went on ragging the three-card dealer, telling him they figured he had to be the First Avenue Slasher. The kid kept up his end of the banter reasonably well.

  Fitzroy sat down, blew on his coffee, took a sip, made a face. He lit a cigarette and leaned back in his swivel chair. "This London," he said. "You saw him?"

  "Just a little while ago. "

  "What did you think? You gonna help him out?"

  "I dont know if thats the word for it. I told him Id give it a shot. "

  "Yeah, I figured there might be something in it for you, Matt. Heres a guy looking to spend a few dollars. You know what its like, its like his daughter up and died all over again and hes got to think hes doing something about it. Now theres nothing he can do, but if he spends a few dollars hell maybe feel better, and why shouldnt it go to a good man who can use it? Hes got a couple bucks, you know. Its not like youre taking it from a crippled newsie. "

  "Thats what I gathered. "

  "So youll give it a shot," he said. "Thats good. He wanted me to recommend somebody to him and right off I thought of you. Why not give the business to a friend, right? People take care of each other and that makes the world go on spinning. Isnt that what they say?"

  I had palmed five twenties while he was getting the coffee. Now I leaned forward and tucked them into his hand. "Well, I can use a couple days work," I said. "I appreciate it. "

  "Listen, a friends a friend, right?" He made the money disappear. A friends a friend, all right, but a favors a favor and there are no free lunches, not in or out of the department. And why should there be? "So youll chase around and ask a few questions," he went on, "and you can string him for as long as he wants to play, and you dont have to bust your hump over it. Nine years, for Christs sake. Wrap this one up and well fly you down to Dallas, let you figure out who killed J. F. K. "

  "It must be a pretty cold trail. "

  "Coldern Kelseys legendary nuts. If there was any reason at the time to think she wasnt just one more entry in the Icepick Prowlers datebook, then maybe somebody would of done a little digging at the time. But you know how those things work. "

  "Sure. "

  "We got this guy now over here on First Avenue taking whacks at people on the street, swinging at em with a butcher knife. We got to figure theyre random attacks, right? You dont run up to the victims husband and ask him was she fucking the mailman. Same with whats-her-name, Ettinger. Maybe she was fucking the mailman and maybe thats why she got killed, but there didnt look to be any reason to check it out at the time and its gonna be a neat trick to do it now. "

  "Well, I can go through the motions. "

  "Sure, why not?" He tapped an accordion-pleated manila file. "I had them pull this for you. Why dont you do a little light reading for a few minutes? Theres a guy I gotta see. "

  HE was gone a little better than half an hour. I spent the time reading my way through the Icepick Prowler file. Early on, the two detectives popped the three-card dealer into a holding cell and rushed out, evidently to run down a tip on the First Avenue Slasher. The Slasher had done his little number right there in the Eighteenth, just a couple of blocks from the station house, and they were evidently pretty anxious to put him away.