Authors: Lawrence Block
Tags: #Private Investigators, #Mystery & Detective, #New York (N.Y.), #Hard-Boiled, #General, #Fiction, #Scudder; Matt (Fictitious character)
“Will of the People” is playing vengeful God in New York, specifically identifying his intended victims in the press — a child molester, a Mafia don, a violent anti-abortion activist — before he kills them. But when “Will” targets a frightened defense lawyer, p.i. Matthew Scudder joins the hunt for the elusive vigilante — plunging into the lethal heart of urban madness in search of sanity — and a frighteningly efficient serial slayer who can do the impossible. About Scudder: Matt Scudder — ex-cop, unlicensed private eye, sober alcoholic — is an unusual hero. Consorting with cops and criminals alike, Scudder’s a man who believes in justice, but who knows that no one is innocent. He is the complex and intriguing hero of a classic contemporary noir series by Grand Master of Mystery Lawrence Block.
Even the wicked get worse than they deserve.
One of Ours
On a Tuesday night in August I was sitting in the living room with TJ, watching two guys hit each other on one of the Spanish-language cable channels, and enjoying the fresh air more than the fight. A heat wave had punished the city for two weeks, finally breaking over the weekend. Since then we’d had three perfect days, with bright blue skies and low humidity and the temperature in the seventies. You’d have called it ideal weather anywhere; in the middle of a New York summer, you could only call it a miracle.
I’d spent the day taking advantage of the weather, walking around the city. I got home and showered in time to drop into a chair and let Peter Jennings explain the world to me. Elaine joined me for the first fifteen minutes, then went into the kitchen to start dinner. TJ dropped by just around the time she was adding the pasta to the boiling water, insisting that he wasn’t hungry and couldn’t stay long anyway. Elaine, who had heard this song before, doubled the recipe on the spot, and TJ let himself be persuaded to take a plate and clean it several times.
“Trouble is,” he told her, “you too good of a cook. Now on, I wait to come by until mealtimes is come and gone. I don’t watch out, I be fat.”
He has a ways to go. He’s a street kid, lean and limber, indistinguishable at first glance from any of the young blacks you’ll see hanging around Times Square, shilling for the monte dealers, running short cons, looking for a way to get over, or just to get by. He’s much more than that as well, but for all I know there may be more to many of them than meets the eye. He’s the one I know; with the others, all I get to see is what’s on the surface.
And TJ’s own surface, for that matter, is apt to change, chameleonlike, with his surroundings. I have watched him slip effortlessly from hip-hop street patter to a Brooks Brothers accent that would not be out of place on an Ivy League campus. His hairstyle, too, has varied over the several years I’ve known him, ranging from an old-style Afro through assorted versions of the high-top fade. A year or so ago he started helping Elaine at her shop, and on his own decided that a kinder, gentler ‘do was more appropriate. He’s kept it cropped relatively short ever since, while his dress ranges from the preppy outfits he wears to work to the in-your-face attire they favor on the Deuce. This evening he was dressed for success in khakis and a button-down shirt. A day or two earlier, when I’d seen him last, he was a vision in baggy camo trousers and a sequined jacket.
“Wish they was speakin’ English,” he complained. “Why they got to talk in Spanish?”
“It’s better this way,” I said.
“You tellin’ me you know what they sayin’?”
“A word here and there. Mostly it’s just noise.”
“And that’s how you like it?”
“The English-speaking announcers talk too much,” I said. “They’re afraid the audience won’t be able to figure out what’s going on if they’re not chattering away all the time. And they say the same things over and over. ‘He’s not working hard enough to establish the left jab.’ I don’t think I’ve watched five fights in the past ten years when the announcer hasn’t observed that the fighter should be using the jab more. It must be the first thing they teach them in broadcasting school.”
“Maybe this dude sayin’ the same thing in Spanish.”
“Maybe he is,” I agreed, “but since I don’t have a clue what he’s saying it can’t get on my nerves.”
“You ever heard of the mute, Newt?”
“Not the same. You need the crowd noise, need to hear the punches land.”
“These two ain’t landin’ many.”
“Blame the one in the blue shorts,” I said. “He’s not working hard enough to establish the left jab.”
He did enough to win the four-round prelim, though, getting a decision and a round of perfunctory applause from the crowd. Next on the card was a ten-round welterweight bout, a classic matchup of quick light-hitting youth against a strong puncher a couple of years past his prime. The old guy—I think he was all of thirty-four—was able to stun the kid when he landed a clean shot, but the years had slowed him some and he missed more often than he connected. In return, the kid peppered him with a barrage of blows that didn’t have much on them.
“He pretty slick,” TJ said, after a couple of rounds.
“Too bad he doesn’t have a punch.”
“He just keep at you, wear you down. Meanwhile he pilin’ up the points. Other dude, he be tirin’ more with each round.”
“If we understood Spanish,” I said, “we could listen to the announcer saying pretty much the same thing. If I were betting this fight I’d put my money on the old guy.”
“Ain’t no surprise. You ancient dudes has got to stick together. You think we need any of this here?”
“This here” was the line of goods in the Gehlen catalog. The Gehlen Company is an outfit in Elyria, Ohio, offering electronic espionage equipment, gear to bug other people’s phones and offices, gear to keep one’s own phones and offices bug-free. There’s a curiously bipolar quality to the whole enterprise; they are, after all, promoting half their line as a defense against the other half, and the catalog copy keeps changing philosophical horses in midstream. “Knowledge is power,” they assure you on one page, and two pages later they’re championing “your most basic right—the right to personal and corporate privacy.” Back and forth the argument rages, from “You have a right to know!” to “Keep
noses out of
Where, you have to wonder, do the company’s sympathies lie? Given that their namesake was the legendary German intelligence chief, I figured they’d happily sell anything to anybody, committed only to increasing their sales and maximizing their profits. But would any of their wares increase my sales or boost my profits?
“I think we can probably get by without it,” I told TJ.
“How we gonna catch Will without all the latest technology?”
“’Cause he ain’t our problem?”
“Not as far as I can tell.”
“Dude’s the whole city’s problem. All they talkin’ about, everywhere you go. Will this and Will that.”
“He was the headline story in the Post again today,” I said, “and they didn’t have any news to back it up, because he hasn’t done anything since last week. But they want to keep him on the front page to sell papers, so the story was about how the city’s nervous, waiting for something to happen.”
“That’s all they wrote?”
“They tried to put it in historical context. Other faceless killers who’ve caught the public imagination, like Son of Sam.”
“Be a difference,” he said. “Wasn’t nobody cheerin’ for Son of Sam.” He flicked a finger at an illustration in the Gehlen catalog. “I like this here voice-changin’ telephone, but you see them all over now. They even got them at Radio Shack. This might be a better one, the price they charge for it. Ones at Radio Shack is cheaper.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Will could use this here, if he was to start makin’ phone calls ‘stead of sendin’ letters.”
“Next time I see him, I’ll pass along the suggestion.”
“I almost bought me one the other day.”
“What for? Haven’t you got enough of a repertoire of voices?”
“All I got is accents,” he said. “What this does is change the pitch.”
“I know what it does.”
“So you can sound like a girl, or a little kid. Or if you was a girl to begin with you can sound like a man so’s perverts won’t be talkin’ dirty to you. Be fun to fool around with somethin’ like that, only be like a kid with a toy, wouldn’t it? One, two weeks and you used up all the newness out of it and be tossin’ it in the closet and askin’ your mama to buy you somethin’ else.”
“I guess we don’t need it.”
He closed the catalog and set it aside. “Don’t need none of this,” he said. “Far as I can see. You want to know what we need, Reed, I already told you that.”
“More than once.”
“A computer,” he said. “But you don’t want to get one.”
“One of these days.”
“Yeah, right. You just afraid you won’t know how to use it.”
“It’s the same kind of fear,” I said, “that keeps men from jumping out of planes without parachutes.”
“First thing,” he said, “you could learn. You ain’t that old.”
“Second thing, I could work it for you.”
“A passing ability with video games,” I said, “is not the same thing as being computer literate.”
“They ain’t necessarily that far apart. You ‘member the Kongs? Video games is where they started at, and where they at now?”
“Harvard,” I admitted. The Kongs, their real names David King and Jimmy Hong, were a pair of hackers devoted to probing the innards of the phone company’s computer system. They were high school students when TJ introduced them to me, and now they were up in Cambridge, doing God knows what.
“You recall the help they gave us?”
“How many times have you said you wished they’s still in the city?”
“Once or twice.”
“More’n once or twice, Bryce. Whole lot of times.”
“We had us a computer,” he said, “I could get so I could do the same shit they did. Plus I could do all the legit stuff, diggin’ out trash in fifteen minutes that you spend a whole day findin’ in the library.”
“How would you know how to do it?”
“They got courses you can take. Not to teach you to do what the Kongs can do, but all the rest of it. They sit you down at a machine and teach you.”
“Well, one of these days,” I said, “maybe I’ll take a course.”
take a course,” he said, “an’ after I learn I can teach you, if you want to learn. Or I can do the computer part, whichever you say.”
“I get to decide,” I said, “because I’m the boss.”
I started to say something more, but the veteran fighter picked that moment to connect with an overhand right lead that caught the kid on the button and took his legs away from him. The kid was still unsteady on his pins after an eight count, but there was only half a minute left in the round. The older fighter chased him all around the ring and tagged him a time or two, but the kid managed to stay on his feet and weather the round.
They didn’t break for a commercial at the bell, electing instead to keep the camera on the younger fighter’s corner while his seconds worked on him. The announcers had a lot to say about what they were showing us, but they said it in Spanish so we didn’t have to pay any attention to it.
“About that computer,” TJ said.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Damn,” he said. “Had you the next thing to sold on it, and the old man there had to land a lucky punch and break the flow. Why couldn’t he wait a round?”
“He was just one old guy looking out for the interests of another,” I said. “We old guys are like that.”
“This catalog,” he said, brandishing it. “You happen to see this here night-vision scope? Came from Russia or some such.”
I nodded. It was Soviet Army issue, according to the Gehlen people, and would presumably enable me to read fine print at the bottom of an abandoned coal mine.
“Can’t see what we’d need it for,” he said, “but you could have fun with something like that.” He tossed the catalog aside. “Have fun with most of this shit. It’s toys is all it is.”
“And what’s the computer? A bigger toy than the others?”
He shook his head. “It’s a tool, Buell. But why do I be wastin’ my breath tryin’ to get through to you?”
I thought we might get to see a knockout in the next round, but it was clear halfway through that it wasn’t going to happen. The kid had shaken off the effects of the knockdown, and my guy was slower, having a hard time getting his punches to go where he wanted them. I knew how he felt.
The phone rang, and Elaine picked it up in the other room. On the TV screen, my guy shook off a punch and waded in.
Elaine came in, a hard-to-read expression on her face. “It’s for you,” she said. “It’s Adrian Whitfield. Do you want to call him back?”