Everybody Dies Page 7

I called Mick at Grogan's and left word for him to call me. I tried the other numbers I had for him and nobody answered. He has a few apartments around the city, places he can go when he wants to sleep, or drink in private. I'd been to one of them once, an anonymous one-bedroom apartment in a postwar building up in Inwood, the furnishings minimal, a change of clothes in the closet, a small TV set with a rabbit ears antenna, a few bottles of Jameson on a shelf in the kitchen. And, almost certainly, someone else's name on the lease.

I'm not sure why I bothered trying those phone numbers, and I hung up not much concerned that I'd been unable to reach him. All I had to report, really, was that I didn't have anything to report. Nothing terribly urgent about that. It would keep.

When I stopped drinking and started going to AA meetings, I heard a lot of people say a lot of different things about how to stay sober. Ultimately I learned that there are no rules- it's a lot like life itself in that respect- and you follow the suggestions to whatever extent you choose.

Early on I stayed out of bars, but when Mick and I became friends I found myself spending occasional long nights with him in his saloon, drinking Coke or coffee and watching him put away the twelve-year-old Irish. That's not generally recommended- I certainly wouldn't recommend it- but so far it hasn't felt dangerous to me, or inappropriate.

I've followed the conventional wisdom in some respects and ignored it in others. I've paid some attention to the program's Twelve Steps, but I can't say they've been in the forefront of my consciousness in recent years, and I've never been much good at prayer or meditation.

There are two areas, however, in which I've never strayed. A day at a time, I don't pick up the first drink. And, after all these years, I still go to meetings.

I don't go as often as I once did. In the beginning I damn near lived in meetings, and there was a time when I wondered if I might be abusing the privilege, attending too frequently, taking up a seat somebody else might need. I asked Jim Faber- this was before I asked him to be my sponsor- and he told me not to worry about it.

These days it's a rare week when I don't get to at least one meeting, and I generally manage to fit in two or three. The one I'm most regular at attending- I'm almost always there unless we go out of town for the weekend- is the Friday night step meeting at my home group. We meet at St. Paul the Apostle, three blocks from home at Ninth and Sixtieth. In the old drinking days I lit candles in that church, and stuffed spiritual hush money into the poor box. Now I sit in the basement on a folding chair, drinking sacramental coffee out of a Styrofoam chalice and dropping a dollar in the basket.

In the early days I could scarcely believe the things I heard at meetings. The stories themselves were extraordinary enough, but more remarkable to me was the willingness people demonstrated day after day to tell their most intimate secrets to a roomful of strangers. I was even more surprised a few months later to find myself equally candid. I've since learned to take that stunning candor for granted, but it still impresses me when I stop to think about it, and I've always enjoyed listening to the stories.

After the meeting I joined Jim Faber for coffee at the Flame. He's been my sponsor for all these years, and we still have a standing dinner date on Sunday nights. One or the other of us has to cancel occasionally, but we get together more often than not, meeting at one of the neighborhood's Chinese restaurants and talking from the hot and sour soup straight through to the fortune cookies. Nowadays we're as apt to discuss his problems as mine- his marriage has had its ups and downs, and his printing business almost went belly-up a few years ago. And we always have the problems of the world to solve if we're ever fresh out of problems of our own.

We drank our coffee and paid our separate checks. "C'mon," he said. "I'll walk you home."

"I'm not going home," I said, "although I'll pass the place. I've got a call to make and you won't want to go there."

"Some gin joint, would be my guess."

"Grogan's. I did a day's work for Ballou, and I've got to drop by and tell him what I found out."

"That what you were talking about earlier?"

During the meeting I'd shared about my occasional difficulties in setting boundaries. I'd been referring to the business at hand, although I'd avoided saying anything at all specific.

"It's hard to do the right thing," I told Jim, "when you're not sure what it is."

"That's the great advantage the religious fanatics have," he said. "They always know."

"Puts them way ahead of me."

"Me too," he said, "and the gap is ever widening. Every year there's a few more things I'm not sure of. I've decided that a wide-ranging uncertainty is the mark of the true maturity of man."

"Then I must be growing up," I said, "and it's about time. Are we on for Sunday night?"

He said we were. At the corner of Fifty-seventh we shook hands and said goodnight, and he turned right while I crossed the street. I started to turn automatically toward the Parc Vendфme's entrance, caught myself, then came close to going on in anyway. I was tired, and could call Ballou and tell him what I had to tell him over the phone.

But instead I stayed with the original plan and skirted the building, heading downtown on Ninth Avenue. I walked three blocks, passing Elaine's shop, then crossed to the west side of Ninth when the light turned and walked another block. I was just stepping off the curb at Fifty-third Street when a stocky guy with dark hair plastered down across his scalp popped up smack in front of me and stuck a gun in my face.

My first reaction was chagrin. Where had he come from, and how had I managed to be wholly unaware of his approach? The crime rate's down these days and the streets feel a lot safer, but you still have to pay attention. I'd been paying attention all my life, and what was the matter with me now?

"Scudder," he said.

I heard my name and felt better. At least I wasn't a random patsy, sufficiently oblivious to blunder into the role of mugging victim. That was reassuring, but it didn't do anything to improve the short-term outlook.

"This way," he said, and pointed with the gun. We moved onto the sidewalk and into the shadows on the side street. He stayed in front of me and kept the gun in my face, while a second man, behind me throughout, was behind me still. I hadn't had a look at him yet, but I could sense his presence and smell his beer-and-tobacco breath.

"You ought to quit sticking your nose into storage sheds in Jersey," the one with the gun said.

"All right."


"I said all right. You want me out of it and I want out myself. No problem."

"You trying to be smart?"

"I'm trying to stay alive," I said, "and to save us all a headache. Especially me. I took a job that's not going anywhere and I was just on my way to tell the man to find himself another boy. I'm a married man and I'm not a kid anymore and I don't need the aggravation."

His nostrils flared and his eyebrows went up a notch. "They said you were a tough customer," he said.

"Years ago. See how tough you are when you get to be my age."

"And you're ready to forget the whole thing? Jersey, the cases of hooch, the two Irish guys?"

"What Irish guys?"

He looked at me.

I said, "See? It's forgotten."

He gave me a long look, and I read disappointment in his features. "Well," he said. "Turns out you're easier than you figured to be, but I still got to do what I got to do." I had an idea what that meant, and I knew I was right when the man behind me took hold of my upper arms and held on tight. The one in front tucked his gun under his belt and made his right hand into a fist.

"You don't have to do this," I told him.

"Call it a convincer."

He hit me right at the belt line, putting some muscle behind the blow. I had time to tense my stomach muscles, and that helped some, but he threw a good punch, getting his shoulder into it.

"Sorry," he said. "Just a couple more, huh?"

The hell with that. I didn't want to take a couple more. I set myself, visualizing my move before I made it, and he drew back his fist, and I shifted a foot and bore down full force on the instep of the son of a bitch who had my arms pinned. I felt bones snap. He cried and let go, and I stepped forward and threw a quick right, hitting the other son of a bitch a glancing blow on the side of the face.

I guess he didn't care for boxing when his opponent could hit back. He stepped back himself and tugged at the gun wedged under his belt, and I moved in on him, feinted with my right, and put everything I had into a left hook aimed at his right side just under his rib cage.

I hit what I aimed at, and it worked the way it was supposed to. I've seen boxers go down and stay down from a single blow to the liver. I don't hit as hard as they do, but I wasn't wearing gloves to cushion the blow, either. He dropped as if he'd been cut off at the knees and rolled on the sidewalk, clutching his middle and moaning.

The gun hit the sidewalk. I snatched it up and whirled around in time to catch the second man, the one whose foot I'd stomped, bearing down on me. He pulled up short when he saw the gun.

"Beat it," I said. "Come on, move! Get the hell out!"

His face was in the shadows and I couldn't read it. He looked at me, weighing the odds, and my finger tightened on the trigger. Maybe he noticed, maybe that made his decision for him. He drew back, deeper into the shadows, and scuttled around the corner and out of sight. He was limping a little, favoring the foot I'd damaged but moving quickly all the same. He had sneakers on, I noticed, while I was wearing a pair of regular leather shoes. If it had been the other way around, I might not have been able to break his hold on my arms.

The other guy, the one with the plastered-down hair, was still on the ground, still moaning. I pointed the gun at him. It had looked much larger when it had been aimed at me than it felt now in my hand. I stuffed his into my own waistband, wincing at the soreness where his opening shot had landed. My middle was tender already, and it would be ten times worse in the morning.

He didn't have to hit me, the son of a bitch.

My anger flared, and I looked down at him and caught him looking back up at me. I drew back a foot to kick him in the head. Kick his fucking head in, the son of a bitch.

But I overruled myself and held back. I didn't kick him.

My mistake.

"When I told him I was out of it," I said, "I was telling the simple truth. I'd have said the same thing anyway, because I've never seen the point of talking back to a gun, but this time I wasn't just shining him on. I'd already decided I was done with the case, and I was on my way here to tell you as much when they braced me."

He'd been spelling Burke behind the stick when I came in, and I guess something must have shown in my face, because he was out from behind the bar before I could say a word, shepherding me to his office in the rear. He pointed to the green leather sofa but I stayed on my feet, and so did he, and I talked and he listened.

I said, "I'd already decided I was wasting my time and your money. I couldn't absolutely rule out the possibility that whoever killed your men and stole your whiskey was there by chance and acted on impulse. But I couldn't turn up anything at all to support that premise. And I wasn't comfortable trying to investigate from the other end. That would mean poking around in your business affairs, and I didn't want to do that."

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