The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 5

 “Well, I’m both those things myself, old friend. I cele-brated another anniversary in May.”

 “May twenty-seventh, isn’t it?”

 “How did you remember that?”

 “I remember stuff.”

 “Yours is in the fall, and I don’t remember stuff. This month or next?”

 “Next month. November fourteenth.”

 “Armistice Day. No, I’m wrong. That’s the eleventh.”

 Neither of us had been sober when we first came into one another’s lives. We’d met in the course of a case I was work-ing. Years before, a woman in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn had been stabbed to death with an icepick, osten-sibly by a serial murderer. After I’d left the force they finally pulled in the serial killer, and it turned out he couldn’t have committed this one particular murder. The victim’s father hired me to sift the cold ashes and try to find out who was responsible.

 Jan Keane had been married to a man named Corwin at the time of the original homicide, and had been a neighbor of the dead woman in Brooklyn. She had long since di-vorced and moved to Manhattan, and my investigation even-tually led me to her loft on Lispenard Street, where the first thing we did was crack a bottle and get drunk together. The second thing we did was go to bed.

 It seemed to me that we were a pretty good match at both of those activities, but before we’d had a chance to practice much she announced that she couldn’t see me anymore. She’d tried AA before, she said, and was determined to give it another chance, and the conventional wisdom held that it wasn’t a good idea to hang out with a heavy drinker while you were trying to get sober yourself. I wished her the best of luck and left her to the world of church basements and sappy slogans.

 Before I knew it I was finding my own way into that world, and not having an easy time of it. I hit a couple of emergency rooms and detoxes. I kept putting a few sober days together and then picking up a drink to celebrate.

 One night I turned up on her doorstep, unable to think of any other way to get through the night sober. She gave me coffee and let me sleep on her couch. A couple of days later I went over there again, and this time I didn’t have to sleep on the couch.

 They advise against getting emotionally involved during early sobriety, and I have a feeling they’re right. Somehow, though, we both stayed sober, and for a couple of years we kept each other company. We never lived together, but we did reach a point where I was spending more nights at her place than at my own. She cleared out a dresser drawer for me and made some room in the closet, and an increasing number of people came to know that they could try me at Jan’s if they couldn’t reach me at my hotel.

 So it went on for a while, and it was good some of the time and not so good some of the time, and there came a time when it coughed and sputtered and died like a car run-ning on empty. There were no big fights and not much in the way of drama. We didn’t run up against any irreconcilable differences. We just ran out of gas.

 “I have to talk to you,” she said now.

 “All right.”

 “I need a favor,” she said, “and I don’t want to get into it over the phone. Could you come down here?”

 “Sure,” I said. “Not tonight, though, because Elaine and I have plans.”

 “I met Elaine, didn’t I?”

 “That’s right, you did.” We’d spent a Saturday afternoon wandering through galleries in SoHo, and at one of them we’d run into Jan. “That must have been six months ago.”

 “Longer than that. I saw you at Rudi Scheel’s show at the Paula Canning Gallery, and that was the end of February.”

 “Jesus, has it been that long? I don’t know where the time goes.”

 “No,” she said. “Neither do I.”

 The words hung in the air.

 “Well,” I said, “tonight’s out. Jan, how urgent is this?”

 “How urgent?”

 “Because I could run down there right now if it’s really important, or if tomorrow’s time enough—”

 “Tomorrow would be fine.”

 “Do you still go to that Sunday afternoon meeting on Forsyth Street? I could meet you there.”

 “God, I haven’t been to Forsyth Street in ages. Anyway, I don’t think I want to meet you at a meeting. I’d rather you come here, if that’s all right with you.”

 “It’s fine with me. Pick a time.”

 “You tell me. I’ll be home all day.”

 “Two o’clock?”

 “Two is fine.”

 After I’d hung up I sat on the edge of the bed wondering what sort of favor it would turn out to be and why she hadn’t wanted to request it over the phone. I told myself I’d find out soon enough, and that I evidently didn’t care all that much or I would have gone straight down there. I didn’t have any-thing important to do before I saw Elaine later. There was a welterweight fight on Wide World of Sports that I was plan-ning to see, but no one was billing it as the Fight of the Cen-tury. I wouldn’t eat my heart out if I missed it.

 I picked up the phone again and dialed the 718 number, and when a man answered I asked to speak to Mr. Thomas. He said, “Uh, did you say ‘Mr. Thomas’? Or did you want to talk to Tom?”

 I checked the message slips. “It says ‘Mr. Thomas’ here,” I said, “but my messages tend to be more or less accurate de-pending who takes them. My name’s Matthew Scudder and somebody left two messages for me to call a Mr. Thomas at this number.”

 “Oh, right,” he said. “I see what happened. I’m the person who called you, but they made a slight mistake on the name. I didn’t say ‘Thomas,’ I said ‘Tom S.’ ”

 “I guess I must know you from the rooms.”

 “Actually,” he said, “I don’t think you know me at all. In fact I’m not a hundred percent positive I got the right person. Let me ask you something. Did you ever speak at a meeting called Here and Now?”

 “Here and Now.”

 “It’s a Brooklyn group, we meet Tuesdays and Fridays in the Lutheran church on Gerritsen Avenue.”

 “I remember now. It was a three-speaker meeting, and a fellow named Quincy had a car so he drove. And we got lost and barely got there in time. That must be a good two years ago.”

 “More like three. I can be fairly precise about the date be-cause I’d just made my ninety days. In fact I announced it at that meeting and got a round of applause.”

 I almost congratulated him.

 “Let me just make sure I got the right person,” he went on. “You were a New York City cop, you quit the police depart-ment, and you became a private detective.”

 “You’ve got a good memory.”

 “Well, nowadays I’ll hear somebody’s qualification and forget it ten minutes later, but the ones you listen to in the first few months make a deep impression. And the night you spoke I was hanging on every word. Let me ask you, are you still doing the same thing? Working as a private detective?”

 “That’s right.”

 “Good. That’s what I was hoping. Look, Matt—excuse me, is it all right to call you Matt?”

 “I guess so,” I said. “And I’ll call you Tom, since that’s the name I’ve got for you so far.”

 “Jeez, that’s right. I still didn’t say my last name. I dunno, I’m not handling this so good, am I? Maybe that’s the best place to start, with my name. The S stands for Sadecki.”

 It took a minute, but then the penny dropped. “Oh,” I said.

 “George Sadecki’s my brother. I didn’t want to leave the name before because, well, I just didn’t. Not that I’m ashamed of my brother. Don’t think that, because I’m not. He was always a hero to me. Certain ways he still is.”

 “I gather he’s been having a rough time.”

 “For years. He hasn’t been right since they brought him back from Vietnam. Oh, he had his problems before then, you can’t go and blame everything on the war, but you can’t deny it changed him. At first we kept waiting for his life to straighten out, for him to get a handle on it. But it’s more’n twenty years, Chrissake, and a while back it became clear nothing was going to change.

 “Early on he had different jobs but he never held on to one for very long. He couldn’t get along with people. He didn’t start fights or anything, he just couldn’t get along with people.

 “Then he became completely unemployable, because his manner got very strange and he would have these weird fa-cial expressions, and also he stopped being clean about his person. I know your home group’s on Ninth Avenue and you live in the neighborhood, so maybe you knew George.”

 “Just by sight.”

 “So you know what I’m talking about. He wouldn’t bathe and he wouldn’t change his clothes, and of course the beard and the hair. If you bought clothes for him you were just wasting your money because he would wear one pair of pants until they fell apart even if he had six other pairs hang-ing in his closet.

 “It was like he had a certain way to live and nothing was going to make him change. He had a place to live, you know, or maybe you don’t know. They hung that homeless tag on him and that’s all you hear, but actually he had a basement room on Fifty-sixth Street. He found it himself and he paid the rent on it.”

 “By taking back aluminum cans?”

 “He gets a couple of checks each month, the V.A. and SSI, and that covered his rent with a little left over. Right after he got the room, my sister and I made an arrangement with the landlord, that if George ever missed coming up with the rent we’d take care of it. Never happened once. You see a guy, dirty bum on a park bench, you figure here’s a person inca-pable of functioning. Yet he paid the rent on time each month. In the sense of doing the things that mattered to him, you would have to say he functioned.”

 “How is he holding up now?”

 “All right, I guess. I had a very brief visit with him yester-day afternoon. They had him on Rikers Island and I drove all the way out there only to find that they’d moved him to Bellevue for psychiatric evaluation. He was in the prison ward on the nineteenth floor. I only had a few minutes with him. I hated to leave him, but I got to tell you I was glad to get out of there.”

 “How did he look to you?”

 “Oh, I don’t know. I suppose most people would say he looks good because they cleaned him up some, but all I could notice was the look in his eyes. George tends to stare, it’s one of the things about him that puts people off, but now he’s got this haunted look in his eyes that could break your heart.”

 “I assume he has an attorney.”

 “Oh, sure. I was gonna get a lawyer for him but they had already appointed someone and the guy seems all right. He’s weighing a couple of options right now. He can plead my brother not guilty by reason of insanity or diminished capac-ity, or he can avoid a trial altogether by arranging for him to plead guilty to some sort of reduced charge and be sentenced to a long term in a treatment facility. It amounts to about the same thing either way. He winds up institutionalized, but it’s not prison and there’s the possibility he can get some help.”

 “How does George feel about it?”

 “He’s okay with it. He says he might as well plead, seeing as he figures he did it.”

 “Then he admits he killed Holtzmann.”

 “No, hefigures he did it, figures he must have done it. He doesn’t remember it but he understands the evidence against him and he’s not stupid, he knows how strong their case is. His take on it is he can’t swear he did it but he can’t swear he didn’t, either, so they’re probably right.”

 “Was he in a blackout?”

 “No, but his memory is never what you’d call reliable. He’ll recollect events but be completely wrong about their sequence, or he’ll misremember something, he’ll have an in-cident or a conversation different from the way it actually happened.”

 “I see.”

 “You’ve been very patient with me, Matt, and I appreciate it. I know I’m taking all day to get to the point.”

 “That’s all right, Tom.”

 “The thing is,” he said, “everybody’s satisfied, you know? The cops have the case cleared and the press off their backs. The D.A.’s looking at either a plea bargain or a trial he can’t lose. George is ready to go along with whatever his lawyer decides, and the lawyer’s ready to get the case off his desk with a minimum of aggravation, at the same time knowing he’s doing the best thing for all concerned. My sister says once he’s in a mental institution she won’t have to lie awake worrying he’s not getting enough to eat, or that he’s in some sort of physical danger, dying of exposure or somebody hurting him. My wife says the same thing, and she also says that he’s probably belonged in an institution for years, for his own protection and for the good of society. We’re just lucky he didn’t kill an innocent child, she says, and the real tragedy is that he wasn’t put away earlier so that Glenn Holtzmann would be alive today.

 “So everybody’s telling everybody else how it’s all work-ing out for the best, and I’m sitting here feeling like the only fly in the ointment. I’m the pain in everybody’s ass. You think my brother’s crazy? I’m the crazy one.”

 “Why’s that, Tom?”

 “Because I don’t believe he did it,” he said. “I know how ridiculous that sounds. I can’t help it. I just do not believe he killed that man.”

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