Authors: Lawrence Block
Tags: #Private Investigators, #Police corruption, #Mystery & Detective, #Private investigators - New York (State) - New York, #New York (N.Y.), #Hard-Boiled, #General, #Mystery Fiction, #Fiction, #Scudder; Matt (Fictitious character)
In the Midst of Death
For an absent friend
October is about as good as the city gets. The last of the summer heat is gone and the real bite of cold weather hasn't arrived yet. There had been rain in September, quite a bit of it, but that was past now.
The air was a little less polluted than usual, and its temperature made it seem even cleaner than it was.
I stopped at a phone booth on Third Avenue in the Fifties. On the corneran old woman scattered bread crumbs for the pigeons and cooed to them as she fed them. I believe there's a city ordinance against feeding pigeons. We used to cite it in the department when explaining to rookies that there were laws you enforced and laws you forgot about.
I went into the booth. It had been mistaken at least once for a public lavatory, which is par for the course. At least the phone worked.
Most of them do these days. Five or six years ago most of the phones in outdoor booths didn't work.So not everything in our world is getting worse. Some things are actually getting better.
I called Portia Carr's number. Her answering machine always picked up on the second ring, so when the phone rang a third time, I figured I'd dialed a wrong number. I'd begun to take it for granted that she would never be home when I called.
Then she answered the phone. "Yes?"
"Yes, this is she speaking." The voice was not pitched quiteso low as on the tape of the answering machine, and theMayfair accent was less noticeable.
"My name is Scudder," I said. "I'd like to come over and see you.
I'm in the neighborhood and- "
"Terribly sorry," she cut in." 'Fraid I'm not seeing people anymore.
"I wanted to- "
"Do call someone else." And she broke the connection.
I found another dime and was set to drop it in the slot and call her again when I changed my mind and put the dime back in my pocket. I walked two blocks downtown and one block east toSecond AvenueandFifty-fourth Street , where I scouted up a lunch counter with a pay phone that was in view of the entrance of her building. I dropped my dime in that phone and dialed her number.
As soon as she came on the line I said, "My name is Scudder, and I want to talk to you about JerryBroadfield ."
There was a pause. Then she said, "Who is this?"
"I told you. My name is Matthew Scudder."
"You called a few moments ago."
"Right.You hung up on me."
"I thought- "
"I know what you thought. I want to talk to you."
"I'm terribly sorry, don't you know, but I'm not giving interviews."
"I'm not from the press."
"Then what is your interest, Mr. Scudder?"
"You'll find out when you see me. I think you'd better see me, Miss Carr."
"I think not, actually."
"I'm not sure you have any choice. I'm in your neighborhood. I'll be at your place in five minutes."
"No, please."A pause. "I've just tumbled out of bed, don't you see?
You'll have to give me an hour. Can you give me an hour?"
"If I have to."
"One hour, then, and you'll come round. You have the address, I suppose?"
I told her I did. I rang off and sat at the counter with a cup of coffee and a roll. I faced the window so that I could keep an eye on her building, and I got my first look at her just as the coffee was getting cool enough to drink. She must have been dressed when we spoke because it only took her seven minutes and change to hit the street.
It wasn't much of an accomplishment to recognize her. The description pinned her all by itself- the fiery mane of dark red hair, the height. And she tied it all together with the regal presence of a lioness.
I stood up and moved toward the door, ready to follow her as soon as I knew where she was going. But she kept walking straight toward the coffee shop, and when she came through the door, I turned away from her and went back to my cup of coffee.
She headed straight for the phone booth.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Enough telephones are tapped so that everyone who is either criminally or politically active knows to regard all phones as tapped and to act accordingly. Important or sensitive calls are not to be made from one's own phone. And this was the nearest public telephone to her building. That's why I had chosen it myself, and it was why she was using it now.
I moved a little closer to the booth, just to satisfy myself that it wouldn't do me any good. I couldn't see the number she was dialing, and I couldn't hear a thing. Once I'd established this, I paid for my roll and coffee and left.
I crossed the street and walked over to her building.
I was taking a chance. If she finished her call and hopped into a cab I would lose her, and I didn't want to lose her now. Not after all the time it had taken me to find her. I wanted to know who she was calling now, and if she went someplace I wanted to know where and why.
But I didn't think she was going to grab a taxi. She hadn't even been carrying a purse, and if she wanted to go somewhere, she would probably want to come back for her bag first and throw some clothes in a suitcase. And she had set things up with me to give herself an hour's leeway.
So I went to her building and found a little white-haired guy on the door. He had guileless blue eyes and a rash of broken capillaries on his cheekbones. He looked as though he took a lot of pride in his uniform.
"Carr," I said.
"Just left a minute ago.You just missed her, couldn't have been more than a minute."
"I know." I took out my wallet and flipped it open quickly. There was nothing there for him to see, not even a junior G-man's badge, but it didn't matter. It's the moves that do it, that and looking like a cop in the first place. He got a quick flash of leather and was suitably impressed. It would have been bad form for him to demand a closer look.
"I sure hope you don't get me in trouble."
"Not if you play it by the book. Which apartment is she in?"
"Give me your passkey, huh?"
"I'm not supposed to do that."
"Uh-huh. You want to go downtown and talk about it?"
He didn't. What he wanted was for me to go someplace and die, but he didn't say so. He turned over his passkey.
"She'll be back in a couple of minutes. You wouldn't want to tell her I'm upstairs."
"I don't like this."
"You don't have to."
"She's a nice lady, always been nice to me."
"Generous at Christmastime, huh?"
"She's a very pleasant person," he said.
"I'm sure you've got a swell relationship. But tip her off and I'll know about it, and I won't be happy.
You follow me?"
"I'm not going to say anything."
"And you'll get your key back. Don't worry about it."
"That's the least of it," he said.
I took the elevator to the fourth floor. The G apartment faced the street, and I sat at her window and watched the entrance of the coffee shop. I couldn't tell from that angle whether there was anyone in the phone booth or not, so she could have left already, could have ducked around the corner and into a cab, but I didn't think so. I sat there in a chair and I waited, and after about ten minutes she came out of the coffee shop and stood on the corner, long and tall and striking.
And evidently uncertain.She just stood there for a long moment, and I could read the indecision in her mind. She could have gone in almost any direction. But after a moment she turned decisively and began walking back toward me. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding and settled down to wait for her.
WHEN I heard her key in the lock, I moved from the window and flattened out against the wall. She opened the door, closed it behind her, and shot the bolt. She was doing a very efficient job of locking the door but I was already inside it.
She took off a pale bluetrenchcoat and hung it in the front closet.
Under it she'd been wearing a knee-length plaid skirt and a tailored yellow blouse with a button-down collar. She had very long legs and a powerful, athletic body.
She turned again, and her eyes did not quite reach the spot where I was standing, and I said, "Hello, Portia."
The scream didn't get out. She stopped it by clapping her own hand over her mouth. She stood very still for a moment, her body balanced on the tips of her toes, and then she willed her hand to drop from her mouth as she settled back down on her heels. She took a deep breath and made herself hang onto it.
Her coloring was very fair to begin with, but now her face looked bleached. She put her hand over her heart. The gesture looked theatrical, insincere. As if she recognized this, she lowered her hand again and breathed deeply several times, in and out, in and out.
"Your name is- "
"You called before."
"You promised to give me an hour."
"My watch has been running fast lately."
"Has it indeed." She took another very deep breath and let it out slowly. She closed her eyes. I moved out from my post against the wall and stood in the middle of the room within a few steps of her. She didn't look like the sort of person who faints easily, and if she were she probably would have done it already, but she was still very pale and if she was going to flop I wanted a fair shot at catching her on the way down. But the color began to seep back into her face and she opened her eyes.
"I need something to drink," she announced. "Will you have something?"
"So I drink alone." She went to the kitchen. I followed close enough to keep her in sight. She took a fifth of Scotch and a split of club soda from the refrigerator and poured about three ounces of each into a glass. "No ice," she said. "I don't fancy the cubes bumping up against my teeth. But I've got into the habit of taking my drinks chilled. Rooms are kept warmer here, you know, so that room-temperature drinks won't do at all. You're sure you won't join me?"
"Not right now."
"Cheers, then." She got rid of the drink in one very long swallow. I watched the muscles work in her throat.A long, lovely neck. She had that perfect English skin and it took a lot of it to cover her. I'm about six feet tall and she was at least my height and maybe a little taller. I pictured her with JerryBroadfield , who had about four inches on her and could match her with presence of his own.
They must have made a striking couple.
She drew another breath, shuddered, and put the empty glass in the sink. I asked her if she was all right.
"Oh, just peachy," she said. Her eyes were a very pale blue verging on gray, her mouth full but bloodless. I stepped aside and she walked past me into the living room. Her hips just barely brushed me as she passed. That was just about enough. It wouldn't take much more than that, not with her.
She sat on a slate-blue sofa and took a small cigar from a teak box that rested on a clear Plexiglas end table. She lit the cigar with a wooden match,then gestured at the box for me to help myself. I told her I didn't smoke.
"I switched to these because one doesn't inhale them," she said.
"So I inhale them just the same and of course they are stronger than cigarettes. How did you get in here?"
I held up the key.
"Timmiegave you that?"
"He didn't want to. I didn't give him much choice. He says you've always been nice to him."
"I tip him enough, the silly little fuck. You gave me a fright, you know. I don't know what you want or why you're here.Or who you are, for that matter. I seem to have forgotten your name already." I supplied it. "Matthew," she said. "I do not know why you are here, Matthew."
"Who did you phone from the coffee shop?"
"You were there? I didn't notice you."
"Who did you call?"
She bought time by puffing on her cigar. Her eyes grew thoughtful.
"I don't think I'm going to tell you," she said at length.
"Why are you pressing charges against JerryBroadfield ?"
"Why, Miss Carr?"
"You called me Portia before. Or was that just for shock value?
The peelers always call you by your first name. That's to show their contempt foryou, it's supposed to give them some sort of psychological advantage, isn't it?" She pointed at me with her cigar."You. You're not a policeman, are you?"
"But there's something about you."
"I used to be a cop."
"Ah." She nodded, satisfied. "And you knew Jerry when you were a policeman?"
"I didn't know him then."
"But you know him now."
"And you're a friend of his? No, that's not possible. Jerry doesn't have friends, does he?"
"Hardly.You'd know that if you knew him well."
"I don't know him well."
"I wonder if anyone does."Another puff on the cigar, a careful flicking of ash into a sculptured glass ashtray. "JerryBroadfield has acquaintances.Any number of acquaintances. But I doubt he has a friend in the world."