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All the Flowers Are Dying (Matthew Scudder Mysteries), Page 2

Lawrence Block

  “Art and antiques,” he said. “I pass it all the time, I never see anyone go in or out. Does she make any money there?”

  “She’s got a good eye, and a head for business. The rent’s no bargain, and there are months she comes up short, but now and then she spots something for ten bucks at a thrift shop and sells it for a few thousand. She could probably do the same thing on eBay and save the rent, but she likes having the shop, which is why she opened it in the first place. And whenever I get tired of long walks and ESPN, I can take a turn behind the counter.”

  “Oh, you do that?”

  “Now and then.”

  “You know enough about the business?”

  “I know how to ring a sale and how to process a credit card transaction. I know when to tell them to come back and see the proprietor. I know how to tell when someone’s contemplating shoplifting or robbery, and how to discourage them. I can usually tell when somebody’s trying to sell me stolen goods. That’s about as much as I need to know to hold down the job.”

  “I guess you don’t need a partner in the gumshoe business.”

  “No, but if you’d asked me five years ago…”

  Five years ago the answer would still have been no, but I’d have had to find a different way to phrase it.

  We ordered coffee, and he sat back and ran his eyes around the room. I sensed in him a mixture of disappointment and relief, which was about what I’d feel in his circumstances. And I felt some of it myself. The last thing I wanted was a partner, but there’s something about that sort of offer that makes one want to accept it. You think it’s a cure for loneliness. A lot of ill-advised partnerships start that way, and more than a few bad marriages.

  The coffee came, and we talked about other things. The crime rate was still going down, and neither of us could figure out why. “There’s this moron in the state legislature,” he said, “who claims credit for it, because he helped push the death penalty through. It’s hard to figure that one out, given that the only time anybody gets a lethal injection in New York State is when he buys a bag of smack laced with rat poison. There’s guys upstate on Death Row, but they’ll die of old age before they get the needle.”

  “You figure it’s a deterrent?”

  “I figure it’s a pretty good deterrent against doing it again. To tell you the truth, I don’t think anybody really gives a shit if it’s a deterrent. There’s some guys that you’re just happier not having them breathe the same air as the rest of us. People who just ought to be dead. Terrorists, mass murderers. Serial killers. Fucking perverts who kill children. You can tell me they’re sick people, they were abused as children themselves, di dah di dah di dah, and I won’t disagree with you, but the truth is I don’t care. Let ’em be dead. I’m happier when they’re dead.”

  “You’re not going to get an argument from me.”

  “There’s one set to go a week from Friday. Not here, nobody gets it in this fucking state. In Virginia, that son of a bitch who killed the three little boys. Four, five years ago it was. I forget his name.”

  “I know who you mean.”

  “The one argument I’ll even listen to is suppose you execute an innocent man. And I guess it does happen. This guy, though. You remember the case? Open and shut.”

  “So I understand.”

  “He fucked these kids,” he said, “and he tortured them, and he kept souvenirs, and the cops had enough physical evidence to convict him a hundred times over. A week from Friday he gets the needle. I put in my last day on the job, and I go home and pour myself a drink, and somewhere down in Virginia that cocksucker gets a hot shot. You know what? It’s better than a gold watch, far as I’m concerned.”


  He’d originally suggested dinner at seven, but I’d pushed it back to six-thirty. When the waitress brought the check he grabbed it, reminding me that dinner had been his idea. “Besides,” he said, “I’m off the job in a matter of days. I better get in practice picking up the tab.”

  All the years I’d known him, I was the one who picked up the checks.

  “If you want,” he said, “we could go somewhere else and you can buy the drinks. Or dessert, or some more coffee.”

  “I’ve got to be someplace.”

  “Oh, right, you said as much when we made the date. Taking the little woman out on the town?”

  I shook my head. “She’s having dinner with a girlfriend. I’ve got a meeting I have to go to.”

  “You’re still going, huh?”

  “Not as often as I used to, but once or twice a week.”

  “You could miss a night.”

  “I could and would,” I said, “but the fellow who’s leading the meeting is a friend of mine, and I’m the one who booked him to speak.”

  “So you pretty much have to be there. Who’s the guy, anybody I know?”

  “Just a drunk.”

  “Must be nice to have meetings to go to.”

  It is, though that’s not why I go.

  “What they ought to have,” he said, “is meetings for guys who drink a certain amount, and have no reason to stop.”

  “That’s a terrific idea, Joe.”

  “You think so?”

  “Absolutely. You wouldn’t need to hang out in church basements, either. You could hold the meetings in a saloon.”

  “My name is Joe D.,” he said, “and I’m retired.”

  The meeting was at my home group at St. Paul’s, and I was there in plenty of time to open it up, read the AA Preamble, and introduce the speaker. “My name’s Ray,” he said, “and I’m an alcoholic,” and then he spent the next fifteen or twenty minutes doing what we do, telling his story, what it used to be like, what happened, and what it’s like now.

  Joe had asked if the speaker was anyone he knew, and I’d avoided a direct answer. If he didn’t know Ray Gruliow personally, he certainly knew him by reputation, and would recognize the long Lincolnesque face and the rich raspy voice. Hard-Way Ray was a criminal lawyer who’d made a career out of representing radicals and outcasts, championing the country’s least sympathetic defendants by putting the system itself on trial. The police hated him, and hardly anyone doubted that it had been a cop, some years ago, who’d fired a couple of shots through the front window of Ray’s Commerce Street town house. (No one was hurt, and the resultant publicity was a bonanza for Ray. “If I’d known I’d get that much of a bounce out of it,” he’d said, “I might have done it myself.”)

  I’d run into Ray in May, at the annual dinner of the Club of Thirty-one. It had been a happy event, we hadn’t lost any members since last year’s gathering, and toward the end of the evening I told Ray I was booking the speaker every other Wednesday at St. Paul’s, and when would he like to speak?

  There were forty or fifty people at the meeting that night, and at least half of them must have recognized Ray, but the tradition of anonymity runs deep among us. During the discussion that followed his lead, no one gave any indication that he knew more about him than he’d told us. “Guess who I heard at St. Paul’s last night,” they might tell other members at other meetings, because we tend to do that, although we’re probably not supposed to. But we don’t tell friends outside of the program, as I had not told Joe Durkin, and, perhaps more to the point, we don’t let it affect how we relate to one another in the rooms. Paul T., who delivers lunches for the deli on Fifty-seventh Street, and Abie, who does something arcane with computers, get as much attention and respect in that room as Raymond F. Gruliow, Esq. Maybe more—they’ve been sober longer.

  The meeting breaks at ten, and a few of us generally wind up at the Flame, a coffee shop on Ninth Avenue almost directly across the street from Jimmy’s original saloon. This time there were seven of us at the big table in the corner. These days I’m often the person in the room with the longest continuous sobriety, which is the sort of thing that’s apt to happen to you sooner or later if you don’t drink and don’t die. Tonight, though, there were two men at our table who’d been sober lo
nger than I by several years, and one of them, Bill D., had very likely been at my first meeting. (I didn’t remember him from that night, having been only peripherally aware of my own presence.) He used to share with some frequency at meetings, and I always liked what he said; I might have asked him to be my sponsor if Jim Faber hadn’t emerged as the clear choice for that role. Later, after Jim was killed, I decided that if I ever felt the need of a sponsor I’d ask Bill. But so far I hadn’t.

  These days he didn’t talk much, although he went to as many meetings as ever. He was a tall man, rail thin, with sparse white hair, and some of the newer members called him William the Silent. That was an adjective that would never be attached to Pat, who was short and stocky and sober about as long as Bill. He was a nice enough fellow, but he talked too much.

  Bill had retired a while ago after fifty years as a stagehand; he’d probably seen more Broadway plays than anyone I knew. Pat, also retired, had worked downtown in one of the bureaucracies quartered in City Hall; I was never too clear on which agency he worked for, or what he did there, but whatever it was he’d stopped doing it four or five years ago.

  Johnny Sidewalls had worked construction until a job-related injury left him with two bad legs and a disability pension; he got around with the help of two canes and worked from his home, carrying on some sort of Internet-based mail-order business. He’d been very sullen and embittered when he showed up at St. Paul’s and Fireside and other neighborhood meetings a few years ago, but his attitude leveled out over time. Like Bill, he was a neighborhood guy, who’d lived all his life in and around Hell’s Kitchen and San Juan Hill. I don’t know why they called him Johnny Sidewalls, and I think he may have had the name before he got sober. Some sort of sobriquet’s almost inevitable when your name is John, but no one seems to know where this one came from.

  When your name is Abie, on the other hand, neither a nickname nor an initial is required. Abie—short for Abraham, I supposed, but he always gave his name as Abie, and corrected you if you truncated it to Abe—was sober ten years and change, but new in New York; he’d sobered up in Oregon, then relocated to northern California. A few months ago he moved to New York and started showing up at St. Paul’s and a few other West Side meetings. He was in his early forties, around five-eleven, with a medium build and a clean-cut face that was hard to keep in your mind when you weren’t looking at him. There were no strong features there for the memory to grab onto.

  It seemed to me he had a personality to match. I’d heard his AA qualification at a noon meeting in the Sixty-third Street Y, but all I could remember of his drinking story was that he used to drink and now he doesn’t. He didn’t share often, but when he did it tended to be bland and unexceptionable. I figured it was probably a matter of style. The sharing tends to be less personal and more pro forma at small-town meetings, and that’s what he was used to.

  At one of the first meetings I went to, a gay woman talked about having realized that drinking might be a problem for her when she noticed that she kept coming out of blackouts on her knees with some guy’s dick in her mouth. “I never did that when I was sober,” she said. I have a feeling Abie never got to hear anything like that in Dogbane, Oregon.

  Herb had been coming around about as long as Abie had, and he’d made ninety days the previous week. That’s a benchmark of sorts; until you’ve put together ninety days clean and dry, you can’t lead a meeting or take on a service commitment. Herb had qualified at a daytime meeting. I hadn’t been there, but I’d probably get to hear his story sooner or later, if he and I both stayed sober. He was around fifty, pudgy and balding, but almost boyish with the enthusiasm that’s characteristic of some members’ early sobriety.

  I hadn’t been that way myself, nor was I as bitter about the whole thing as Johnny had been. Jim Faber, who’d watched the process, had told me I was at once dogged and fatalistic, sure I would drink again but determined not to. I couldn’t tell you what I was like. I just remember dragging myself from one meeting to the next, scared it would work for me and scared it wouldn’t.

  I don’t remember who brought up capital punishment. Somebody did, and somebody made one of the standard observations on the subject, and then Johnny Sidewalls turned to Ray and said, “I suppose you’re against it.” That could have been said with an edge, but it wasn’t. It was just an observation, with the tacit implication that, given who Ray was, he’d be opposed to the death penalty.

  “I’m against it for my clients,” Ray said.

  “Well, you’d have to be, wouldn’t you?”

  “Of course. I’m against any penalty for my clients.”

  “They’re all innocent,” I said.

  “Innocent’s a stretch,” he allowed. “I’ll settle for not guilty. I’ve tried a few capital cases. I never lost one, and they weren’t cases where the death penalty was a real possibility. Still, even the slimmest chance that your client might go to the chair concentrates an attorney’s mind wonderfully. ‘Go to the chair’—that dates me, doesn’t it? There’s no chair anymore. They let you lie down, in fact they insist on it. Strap you to a gurney, make a regular medical procedure out of it. And the odds against you are even worse than in regular surgery.”

  “What I always liked,” Bill said, “is the alcohol swab.”

  Ray nodded. “Because God forbid you might get a staph infection. You have to wonder what latter-day Mengele thought that one up. Am I against the death penalty? Well, aside from the fact that it can’t be established to have any deterrent effect, and that the whole process of appeals and execution costs substantially more than feeding and housing the sonofabitch for the rest of his natural life, that it’s essentially barbaric and puts us on the same side of the line as China and the Muslim dictatorships, and that, unlike the rain which falls equally upon the just and the unjust, it falls exclusively upon the poor and underprivileged. Aside from all that, there’s the unfortunate fact that every once in a while we get our signals crossed and execute the wrong person. It wasn’t that long ago that nobody even heard of DNA, and now it’s getting a ton of convictions reversed. Who knows what the next step in forensics will be, and what percentage of the poor bastards the state of Texas is busy killing will turn out innocent?”

  “That would be awful,” Herb said. “Imagine knowing you didn’t do something, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it from happening to you.”

  “People die all the time,” Pat said, “for no good reason at all.”

  “But the state doesn’t do it to them. That’s different, somehow.”

  Abie said, “But sometimes there’s just no fit response short of death. Terrorists, for example. What would you do with them?”

  “Shoot them out of hand,” Ray said. “Failing that, hang the bastards.”

  “But if you’re against capital punishment—”

  “You asked me what I would do, not what I think is right. When it comes to terrorists, home-grown or foreign, I don’t care what’s right. I’d hang the fuckers.”

  This made for a spirited discussion, but I tuned out most of it. In the main I enjoy the company of my fellow sober alcoholics, but I have to say I like it less when they talk politics or philosophy or, indeed, anything much beyond their own immediate lives. The more abstract the conversation got, the less attention I paid to it, until I perked up a little when Abie said, “What about Applewhite? Preston Applewhite, from Richmond, Virginia. He killed those three little boys, and he’s scheduled for execution sometime next week.”

  “Friday,” I said. Ray gave me a look. “It came up in a conversation earlier tonight,” I explained. “I gather the evidence is pretty cut-and-dried.”

  “Overwhelming,” Abie said. “And you know sex killers will do it again if they get the chance. There’s no reforming them.”

  “Well, if life without parole really meant life without parole…”

  And I tuned out again. Preston Applewhite, whose case hadn’t interested me much at the time and of whose guilt or innocenc
e I had no opinion, had unwittingly found his way into two very different conversations. That had caught my attention, but now I could forget about him.

  “I had the Irish breakfast,” I told Elaine, “complete with black pudding, which Joe is crazy about so long as he can manage to forget what it is.”

  “There’s probably a kosher vegetarian version,” she said, “made out of wheat gluten. Did it feel strange going there?”

  “A little, but less so as the evening wore on and I got used to it. The menu’s not as interesting as Jimmy’s, but what I had was pretty good.”

  “It’s hard to screw up an Irish breakfast.”

  “We’ll go sometime and you can see what you think. Of the place— I already know what you would think of the Irish breakfast. You’re home early, incidentally.”

  “Monica had a late date.”

  “The mystery man?”

  She nodded. Monica’s her best friend, and her men run to type: they’re all married. At first it would bother her when they’d hop out of her bed to catch the last train to Upper Saddle River, and then she realized that she liked it better that way. No bad breath in your face first thing in the morning, plus you had your weekends free. Wasn’t that the best of all worlds?

  Usually she showed off her married beaus. Some of them were proud and some were sheepish, but what this one was we seemed unlikely to find out, as he’d somehow impressed upon her the need for secrecy. She’d been seeing him for a few weeks now, and Elaine, her confidante in all matters, couldn’t get a thing out of her beyond the admission that he was extremely intelligent and—no kidding—very secretive.

  “They don’t go out in public together,” she reported, “not even for a charming little dinner in a charming little bistro. There’s no way she can reach him, not by phone or e-mail, and when he calls her the conversations are brief and cryptic. He won’t say her name over the phone, and doesn’t want her to use his. And she’s not even sure the name he gave her is his real name, but whatever it is she won’t tell me.”