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A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Matthew Scudder Series #17)

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Overview

"Right up there with Mr. Block's best....A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF keeps us guessing."--Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

Facing his demons in his first year of sobriety, Matthew Scudder finds himself on the trail of a killer. When Scudder's childhood friend Jack Ellery is murdered, presumably while attempting to atone for past sins, Scudder reluctantly begins his own investigation, with just one lead: Ellery's Alcoholics Anonymous list of people he wronged. One of them may be a ...

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A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Matthew Scudder Series #17)

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Overview

"Right up there with Mr. Block's best....A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF keeps us guessing."--Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

Facing his demons in his first year of sobriety, Matthew Scudder finds himself on the trail of a killer. When Scudder's childhood friend Jack Ellery is murdered, presumably while attempting to atone for past sins, Scudder reluctantly begins his own investigation, with just one lead: Ellery's Alcoholics Anonymous list of people he wronged. One of them may be a killer, but that's not necessarily Scudder's greatest danger. Immersing himself in Ellery's world may lead him right back to the bar stool.

In a novel widely celebrated by critics and readers, Lawrence Block circle back to how it all began, reestablishing the Matthew Scudder series as one of the pinnacles of American detective fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Lawrence Block's 17th Matthew Scudder novel takes his recovering alcoholic ex-cop private eye back to the early years of his sobriety. He recalls how, when still shaky in his new life, he encounters Jack Ellery, another former heavy drinker slowly ascending the A.A. steps of recovery. When his friend is murdered, that chance convergence becomes a disturbing conundrum: Who killed the man struggling to get back on the right path? A critical episode in the life's journey of Block's most popular protagonist.

Ed Park
"Totally gripping....A great American crime novel."
Thomas Perry
"A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF is a wise and fascinating addition to the Matthew Scudder cannon. It could not be more welcome, nor could it have been written with more understated craftsmanship. The dialogue sounds exactly like things people say to each other, but it isn't. It's better, quicker, smarter. Read this book attentively. It's much more fun than taking lessons."
Maureen Corrigan
"Block has so perfected a pared-down, hard-boiled style that this story--about good intentions that backfire, fatally--seems to tell itself."
Marilyn Stasio
Mesmerizing....A lament for all the old familiar things that are now almost lost, almost forgotten."
From the Publisher
"Totally gripping....A great American crime novel."—Ed Park, Time

"Block has so perfected a pared-down, hard-boiled style that this story--about good intentions that backfire, fatally--seems to tell itself."—Maureen Corrigan, Washington Post

Mesmerizing....A lament for all the old familiar things that are now almost lost, almost forgotten."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review

"A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF is a wise and fascinating addition to the Matthew Scudder cannon. It could not be more welcome, nor could it have been written with more understated craftsmanship. The dialogue sounds exactly like things people say to each other, but it isn't. It's better, quicker, smarter. Read this book attentively. It's much more fun than taking lessons."—Thomas Perry

Maureen Corrigan
Sometimes, you open up a book, and you just know: You're in the hands of a master. Different things can signal that a golden read is about to begin: the voice…the atmosphere…the setting…In the case of Lawrence Block's latest Matthew Scudder novel, the tip-off is a brazenly simple plot premise, executed faultlessly. The storyline of A Drop of the Hard Stuff is like that apocryphal tale of Leonardo da Vinci drawing a perfect circle, freehand. There's no need for red herrings or subplots here. Block…has so perfected a pared-down, hard-boiled style that this story—about good intentions that backfire, fatally—seems to tell itself.
—The Washington Post
Marilyn Stasio
Block is a mesmerizing raconteur, the kind who collects the stories he hears on the street and then reprises the voices of the storytellers, many of them long gone. Although lightly struck, that elegiac note reverberates throughout the book, which begins as one sad drunk's personal quest for redemption and becomes a lament for all the old familiar things that are now almost lost, almost forgotten.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
MWA Grand Master Block's powerful 17th novel featuring PI Matthew Scudder (after 2005's All the Flowers Were Dying) explores the challenges of an alcoholic attempting to atone for his past misdeeds. In 1970 or '71, Scudder, then a Manhattan NYPD detective, recognizes a guy he knew in grade school in the Bronx, Jack Ellery, in a police lineup to identify a robber. The victim picks someone else as the man who held her up at gunpoint, though Ellery's the guilty party. Years later, after Scudder has left the force, he meets Ellery, now an ex-con, at an AA meeting, where Ellery is trying to take the ninth step—making amends to all the people he'd harmed. Scudder's efforts to solve the murder that results from Ellery's quest for absolution place his own sobriety—and life—at risk. Block's pitch-perfect prose bolsters the elegiac plot. Accessible to first-timers, this book should add many more fans to the author's considerable following. (May)
Time Magazine
A Great American Crime Novel ... good to the last drop. Totally gripping. The perfect introduction to Scudder's shadow-strewn world and the pleasures of Block's crisp yet brooding prose, [and] a bracing distillation of Block's powers.
Wall Street Journal
"Moving ... elegiac ... right up there with Mr. Block's best."
Entertainment Weekly
"One of the finest in the entire Scudder series ... highly recommended."
NPR
"Sometimes you open a novel and you just know you're in the hands of a master. In the case of Lawrence Block's latest Matt Scudder mystery, the tipoff is a brazenly simple plot premise, faultlessly executed...Like a lot of great mystery fiction, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is also a ghost story. Matt's attempt to exorcise his phantoms results in a classic tale about the stubborn persistence of memory and regret."
The New York Times Book Review
"Block is a mesmerizing raconteur ... elegiac ... a lament for all the old familiar things that are now almost lost, almost forgotten."
Tampa Tribune
"Smart and cunning ... reminds us that the really good writers can make even familiar situations seem newfound and energized."
Lansing State Journal
"Intriguing. Strong characterization and great eye for atmospheric detail makes his latest effort a dark but enjoyable tale."
Columbus Dispatch
"A satisfyingly adult story, with a believable number of false starts and lose ends, as it pays tribute to the power of persistence and acceptance."
www.PulpSerenade.com
"Pensive and philosophical, at times bleak, and at others surprisingly warm and human ... as rich and rewarding as it is devastating ... if you haven't read any of the Scudder books yet, this might be the perfect way to introduce yourself to one of crime fiction's most enduring characters."
www.SpinetinglerMag.com
"Hypnotic. You don't realize you're being sucked in until - BANG! - the plot thickens and suddenly you can't put it down. Another solid entry in the in one of mystery's most reliable series."
Time
"A Great American Crime Novel ... good to the last drop. Totally gripping. The perfect introduction to Scudder's shadow-strewn world and the pleasures of Block's crisp yet brooding prose, [and] a bracing distillation of Block's powers."
Stephen King
"There is really only one writer of mystery and detective fiction who comes close to replacing the irreplaceable John D. MacDonald ...The writer is Lawrence Block."
Booklist
"Genius...the prose, as always, is like the club soda Scudder sips in the opening pages: cool, fizzy, and completely refreshing."
Library Journal
This 17th installment of Block's long-running series about New York private detective Matthew Scudder (the first since 2005's All the Flowers Are Dying) has Scudder reflecting on an old case from the 1980s, less than a year after he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Scudder's childhood friend (and fellow AA member) Jack Ellery is murdered while trying to make up for past deeds as part of his 12-step program, and Scudder is hired by Ellery's AA sponsor to investigate. Meanwhile, Scudder struggles to maintain his nascent sobriety. As with all of Block's Scudder novels, the mystery here is engaging but secondary to the author's sharp insights into human nature and life in the big city. The deftly handled nostalgic tone this time around adds to the appeal. VERDICT Fans will certainly appreciate this entry, which recaptures the feel of the best Scudder mysteries of the 1980s and fills in part of the series chronology. That said, it will also likely work well as an introduction to the detective for new readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/10.]—David Rapp, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews

Matthew Scudder looks back at his first year off the sauce to recall that making amends can be murder.

Years after he went to school with Jack Ellery, Scudder next sees him through a one-way mirror after Det. Bill Lonergan's pulled Ellery in for a robbery. The witness fails to pick Jack out of the lineup, but it's not long this time before Scudder runs into him again at an AA meeting. The two men get to talking about this and that, and Jack indicates that his sponsor, gay jewelry designer Gregory Stillman, is something of a Step Nazi who's making him go through each of the 12 steps in the AA program. It's step 8 that brings Jack to grief. Having prepared a list of the people he's wronged, he's determined to apologize to each of them and ask what he can do to make things right. One of them, a fence he set up to be robbed, beats him up; another, a stockbroker he sold bogus cocaine, thanks Jack for helping turn his life around; another, the mover Jack cuckolded, shrugs off his contrition on the grounds that his old lady was making it with everything in pants. But who reacted by shooting Jack in the mouth and the forehead? Accepting $1,000 from Greg Stillman to look into the people on Jack's list, Scudder (All the Flowers Are Dying, 2005, etc.) is increasingly forced to confront his own attachment to the bottle and the certainty that Jack's executioner doesn't mind killing again.

Sure, Block's written stronger mysteries. But this lonesome, wintry, compassionate tale is guaranteed to get under your skin, and make you thirsty to boot.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316127318
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 2/1/2012
  • Series: Matthew Scudder Series , #17
  • Pages: 319
  • Sales rank: 335,255
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

A Drop of the Hard Stuff


By Block, Lawrence

Mulholland Books

Copyright © 2011 Block, Lawrence
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316127332

I

I COULDN’T TELL YOU the first time I saw Jack Ellery, but it would have to have been during the couple of years I spent in the Bronx. We were a class apart at the same grammar school, so I’d have seen him in the halls or outside at recess, or playing stickball or stoopball after school let out. We got to know each other well enough to call each other by our last names, in the curious manner of boys. If you’d asked me then about Jack Ellery, I’d have said he was all right, and I suppose he’d have said the same about me. But that’s as much as either of us would have been likely to say, because that’s as well as we knew each other.

Then my father’s business tailed off and he closed the store and we moved, and I didn’t see Jack Ellery again for more than twenty years. I thought he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him right away. I don’t know whether he would have recognized me, because he didn’t get to see me. I was looking at him through one-way glass.

This would have been in 1970 or ’71. I’d had my gold shield for a couple of years, and I was a detective assigned to the Sixth Precinct in Greenwich Village when the prewar building on Charles Street still served as the station house. It wasn’t long after that they moved us to new quarters on West Tenth, and some enterprising fellow bought our old house and turned it into a co-op or condo, and tipped his hat to history by calling it Le Gendarme.

Years later, when One Police Plaza went up, they did essentially the same thing with the old police headquarters on Centre Street.

But this was on the second floor at the old place on Charles Street, where Jack Ellery was wearing number four in a lineup of five male Caucasians in their late thirties and early forties. They ranged between five-nine and six-one, were dressed alike in jeans and open-necked sport shirts, and stood waiting for a woman they couldn’t see to pick out the one who had held her at gunpoint while his partner emptied the cash register.

She was a stout woman, maybe fifty, and she was badly miscast as the co-owner of a mom-and-pop housewares store. If she’d taught school, all her pupils would have been terrified of her. I was there as a casual spectator, because it wasn’t my case. A plainclothes cop named Lonergan was the arresting officer, and I was standing next to him. There was an assistant DA in the room, next to the woman, and there was a tall skinny kid in a bad suit who pretty much had to be the Legal Aid lawyer.

When I was wearing a uniform in Brooklyn, they had me partnered with an older man named Vince Mahaffey, and one of the few hundred things he taught me was to catch a lineup any time I had the chance. It was, he told me, a much better way to familiarize yourself with the local bad guys than going through books of mug shots. You got to watch their faces and their body language, you got a sense of them that would stick in your mind. Besides, he said, it was a free show, so why not enjoy it?

So I got in the habit of viewing lineups at the Sixth, and this particular afternoon I studied the men in turn while the ADA told the woman to take her time. “No, I know who it is,” she said, and Lonergan looked happy. “It’s Number Three.”

The ADA asked her if she was positive, in a voice that suggested she might want to rethink the whole thing, and the Legal Aid kid cleared his throat, as if preparing to offer an objection.

No need. “I’m a hundred percent positive,” she said. “That’s the son of a bitch who robbed me, and I’ll say so in front of you and God and everybody.”

Lonergan had stopped looking happy as soon as she’d announced her choice. He and I stayed in the room while the others filed out. I asked him what he knew about Number Three.

“He’s an assistant manager at the market on Hudson,” he said. “Hell of a nice guy, always glad to do us a favor, but I’ve got to stop using him in lineups. This is the third time somebody’s picked him out, and he’s the kind of guy, he finds a dime in a pay phone, he puts it back.”

“He’s got a kind of a crooked look to him,” I said.

“I think it’s that bend in his lip. You barely notice it, but it makes his face the least bit asymmetrical, which never inspires confidence. Whatever it is, he’s been in his last lineup.”

“As long as he stays out of trouble,” I said. “So who were you hoping she’d pick?”

“No, you tell me. Who were you leaning toward?”

“Number Four.”

“On the nose. I shoulda had you for my witness, Matt. Is that cop instinct talking, or did you recognize him?”

“I think it was the expression on his face after she made her call. I know they can’t hear anything in there, but he picked up something and knew he was off the hook.”

“I missed that.”

“But I think I’d have picked him anyway. He looked familiar to me, and I can’t think why.”

“Well, he’s got a yellow sheet. Maybe you saw his handsome face in a book of mug shots. High-Low Jack, they call him. Ring a bell?”

It didn’t. I asked his last name, and then repeated it myself—“Jack Ellery, Jack Ellery”—and then something clicked.

“I knew him back when I was a kid,” I said. “Jesus, I haven’t seen him since grade school.”

“Well,” Lonergan said, “I’d say the two of you took different career paths.”

The next time I saw him was years later. In the meantime I had left the NYPD and moved from a split-level house in Syosset to a hotel room just west of Columbus Circle. I didn’t look for a job, but jobs found me, and I wound up functioning as a sort of unlicensed private eye. I didn’t keep track of expenses and I didn’t furnish written reports, and the people who hired me paid me in cash. Some of the cash paid for my hotel room, and a larger portion covered my tab at the bar around the corner, where I took most of my meals, met most of my clients, and spent most of my time. And if there was anything left over, I bought a money order and sent it to Syosset.

Then, after too many blackouts and too many hangovers, after a couple of trips to detox and at least one seizure, the day came when I left a drink untouched on top of a bar and found my way to an AA meeting. I’d been to meetings before, and I’d tried to stay sober, but I guess I hadn’t been ready, and I guess this time I was. “My name’s Matt,” I told a roomful of people, “and I’m an alcoholic.”

I hadn’t said that before, not the whole sentence, and saying it is no guarantee of sobriety. Sobriety’s never guaranteed, it always hangs by a thread, but I left that meeting feeling that something had shifted. I didn’t have a drink that day, or the day after, or the day after that, and I kept going to meetings and stringing the days together, and I must have been somewhere in the middle of my third month of sobriety when I next encountered Jack Ellery. I’d had my last drink on the thirteenth of November, so it would have been the last week of January or the first week of February, something like that.

I know I couldn’t have had three full months yet, because I remember that I raised my hand and gave my day count, and you only do that for the first ninety days. “My name’s Matt,” you say, “and I’m an alcoholic, and today is Day Seventy-seven.” And everybody says, “Hi, Matt,” and then it’s somebody else’s turn.

This was at a three-speaker meeting on East Nineteenth Street, and after the second speaker they had a secretary’s break, when they made announcements and passed the basket. People with anniversaries announced them, and drew applause, and the newbies shared their day counts, and then the third speaker told his story and wrapped it all up by ten o’clock so we could all go home.

I was on my way out the door when I turned at the sound of my name and there was Jack Ellery. My seat was in the front, so I hadn’t noticed him earlier. But I knew him at a glance. He looked older than he had on the other side of the one-way glass, and there was more in his face than the years alone could account for. There’s no charge for the seats in an AA room, but that’s because you pay for them in advance.

“You don’t recognize me,” he said.

“Sure I do. You’re Jack Ellery.”

“Jesus, you’ve got some memory. What were we, twelve, thirteen years old?”

“I think I was twelve and you were thirteen.”

“Your dad had the shoe store,” he said. “And you were a class behind me, and one day I realized I hadn’t seen you in a while, and nobody knew where you went. And the next time I passed the shoe store, it was gone.”

“Like most of his business ventures.”

“He was a nice man, though. I remember that. Mr. Scudder. He impressed the hell out of my mother one time. He had that machine, you stood with your feet in the opening and it gave you some sort of X-ray picture of them. She was all set to spring for a new pair of shoes, and your dad said my feet hadn’t grown enough to need ’em. ‘That’s an honest man, Jackie,’ she said on the way home. ‘He could have taken advantage and he didn’t.’ ”

“One of the secrets of his success.”

“Well, it made an impression. Jesus, old times in the Bronx. And now we’re both of us sober. You got time for a cup of coffee, Matt?”

II

WE SAT ACROSS from each other in a booth in a diner on Twenty-third Street. He took his coffee with a lot of cream and sugar. Mine was black. The only thing I ever put in it was bourbon, and I didn’t do that anymore.

He remarked again on my having recognized him, and I said it worked both ways, he’d recognized me. “Well, you said your name,” he said. “When you gave your day count. You’ll be coming up on ninety pretty soon.”

Ninety days is a sort of probationary period. When you’ve been clean and dry for ninety days, you’re allowed to tell your story at a meeting, and to hold various group offices and service positions. And you can stop raising your hand and telling the world how many days you’ve got.

He’d been sober sixteen months. “That year,” he said. “I had a year the last day of September. I never thought I’d make that year.”

“They say it’s tough right before an anniversary.”

“Oh, it wasn’t any more difficult then. But, see, I more or less took it for granted that a year of sobriety was an impossible accomplishment. That nobody stayed sober that long. Now my sponsor’s sober almost six years, and there’s enough people in my home group with ten, fifteen, twenty years, and it’s not like I pegged them as liars. I just thought I was a different kind of animal, and for me it had to be impossible. Did your old man drink?”

“That was the other secret of his success.”

“Mine too. In fact he died of it. It was just a couple of years ago, and what gets me is he died alone. His liver went on him. My ma was gone already, she had cancer, so he was alone in the world, and I couldn’t be at his bedside where I belonged because I was upstate. So he died in a bed all by himself. Man, that’s gonna be one tough amends to make, you know?”

I didn’t want to think about the amends I’d have to make. Just put that on the shelf, Jim Faber told me more than once. You’ve got two things to do today, and one is go to a meeting and the other is don’t drink. Get both of those things right and all the rest will come along when it’s supposed to.

“You went on the cops, Matt. Or am I mixing you up with somebody else?”

“No, you got it right. That ended a few years ago, though.”

He lifted a hand, mimed knocking back a drink, and I nodded. He said, “I don’t know if you would have heard, but I went the other way.”

“I may have heard something.”

“When I say I was upstate, it was as a guest of the governor. I was at Green Haven. It wasn’t exactly up there with the Brinks Job and the Great Train Robbery. What I did, I picked up a gun and walked into a liquor store. And it’s not like it was the first time.”

I didn’t have a response to that, but he didn’t seem to require one. “I had a decent lawyer,” he said, “and he fixed it so I took a plea to one charge and they dropped the others. You know what was the hardest part? You got to do what they call allocute. You familiar with the term?”

“You have to stand up in court and say what you did.”

“And I hated the idea. Just flat-out hated it. I was looking for a way around it. ‘Can’t I just say guilty and let it go at that?’ But my guy tells me no, you do it the way they want, you say what you did. Well, it’s that or I blow the plea deal, so I’m not completely crazy and I do what I’m supposed to do. And you want to know something? The minute it’s out, I got this rush of relief.”

“Because it was over.”

He shook his head. “Because it was out there. Because I said it, I copped to it. There’s the Fifth Step in a nutshell, Matt. You own up in front of God and everybody and it’s a load off your mind. Oh, it wasn’t the last load, it was just one small part of it, but when the program came along and they told me what I was gonna have to do, it made sense to me right from the jump. I could see how it would work.”

AA’s twelve steps, Jim Faber had told me, weren’t there to keep you sober. Not drinking was what kept you sober. The steps were to make sobriety comfortable enough so that you didn’t feel the need to drink your way out of it, and I’d get to them in due course. So far I had admitted that I was powerless over alcohol, that it made my life unmanageable, and that was the First Step, and I could stay on that one as long as I had to.

And I was in no great rush to get past it. They began most of the meetings I went to with a reading of the steps, and even if they didn’t there’d be a list of them hanging on the wall where you couldn’t help reading it. The Fourth Step was a detailed personal inventory, and you sat down and wrote it out. The Fifth Step was confessional—you shared all that shit with another human being, most likely your sponsor.

Some people, Jim said, stayed sober for decades without ever doing the steps.

I thought about the steps and missed a few beats of what Jack was saying, but when I tuned in he was talking about Green Haven, saying it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. It had introduced him to the program.

“I went to meetings because it was a chance to sit in a chair and zone out for an hour,” he said. “And it was easier to stay dry inside than it was to drink the awful shit cons brew up for themselves, or buy pills that the screws smuggled in. And, you know, I can’t say I blame alcohol for the turn my life took, because I chose it myself, but going to meetings it began to dawn on me that every time I got my ass in trouble, I was always high. I mean, like, invariably. It was me making the choice to do the crime, and it was me making the choice to take the drink or smoke the joint, but the two went together, you know, and I was seeing it for the first time.”

So he stayed sober in prison. Then they let him out and he came home to New York and got a room in an SRO hotel a couple of blocks from Penn Station, and by the third night he was drinking blended whiskey around the corner in a place called the Terminal Lounge.

“So called because of its location,” he said, “but the name would have fit the place even if it had been in the middle of Jackson Heights. Fucking joint was the end of the line.”

Except of course it wasn’t. The line ran its zigzag course for another couple of years, during which time he stayed out of trouble with the law but couldn’t stay out of the bars. He’d go to meetings and begin to put a little time together, and then he’d have one of those oh-what-the-hell moments, and the next thing he knew he’d be in a bar, or taking a long pull on a bottle. He hit a few detoxes, and his blackouts started lasting longer, and he knew what the future held and didn’t see how he could avoid it.

“You know, Matt,” he said, “when I was a kid, I decided what I was going to be when I grew up. Can you guess what it was? You give up? A cop. I was gonna be a cop. Wear the blue uniform, keep the public safe from crime.” He picked up his coffee but his cup was empty. “I guess you were dreaming the same dream, but you went and did it.”

I shook my head. “I fell into it,” I said. “What I wanted to be was Joe DiMaggio. And, but for a complete lack of athletic ability, I might have made that dream come true.”

“Well, my handicap was a complete lack of moral fiber, and you know what I fell into.”

He kept drinking, because he couldn’t seem to help it, and he kept coming back to AA, because where the hell else was there for him to go? And then one day after a meeting an unlikely person took him aside and told him some home truths.

“A gay guy, Matt, and I mean gay as a jay. Obvious about it, you know? Grew up in a lah-de-dah suburb, went to an Ivy League college, and now he designs jewelry. Plus he’s more than ten years younger’n I am, and he looks like a wind of more than twenty miles an hour could pick him up and whisk him off to Oz. Just the type I’m gonna turn to for advice, right?

“Well, he sat me down and told me I was using the program like a revolving door, and I’d just keep going out and keep coming back again, only each time I came back I’d have a little less of myself left. And the only way I was ever gonna break the pattern was if I read the Big Book every morning and the Twelve & Twelve every night, and got really serious with the steps. So I looked at him, this wispy little queen, this guy I got less in common with than a fucking Martian, and I asked him something I never asked anybody before. I asked him to be my sponsor. You know what he said?”

“I’d guess he said yes.”

“ ‘I’m willing to sponsor you,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know if you’ll be able to stand it.’ Well, fuck, man. Come right down to it, what choice did I have?”

So he went to a meeting every day, and sometimes two, and a three-meeting day wasn’t unheard of. And he called his sponsor every morning and every night, and the first thing he did when he got out of bed was hit his knees and ask God for one more sober day, and the last thing he did at night was get on his knees again and thank God for keeping him sober. And he read the Big Book and the Twelve & Twelve, and he worked his way through the steps with his sponsor, and he made ninety days, not for the first time, but he’d never made six months before, and nine months, and, incredibly, a year.

For his Fourth Step, his sponsor made him write down every wrong thing he’d ever done in his life, and if he didn’t want to include something, that meant it had damn well better be there. “It was like allocuting,” he said, “to every goddamn thing I ever did.”

Then the two of them sat down together and he read aloud what he’d written, with his sponsor interrupting now and then to comment, or ask for amplification. “And when we were done he asked me how I felt, and it’s not exactly an elegant way to put it, but what I told him was that I felt as though I’d just taken the biggest shit in the history of the world.”

And now he had sixteen months, and it was time to start working on the amends. He’d made his Eighth Step list of the people he’d harmed, he’d become willing to take steps to set things right, but now it was Ninth Step time, which meant actually making the amends, and that wasn’t so easy.

“But what choice do I have?” he said. And he shook his head and said, “Jesus, look at the time. You just heard my entire qualification. You sat through three speakers and now you had to listen to me, and I went on almost as long as all three of them put together. But I guess it did something for me, talking to somebody from the old neighborhood. It’s gone, you know. The old neighborhood. They went and ran a fucking expressway through there.”

“I know.”

“It probably means more to me. The neighborhood, I mean. You were there what, two years?”

“Something like that.”

“For me it was my whole childhood. I used to be able to work up a pretty good drunk out of it. ‘Poor me, the house I grew up in is gone, the streets where I played stickball are gone, di dah di dah di dah.’ But my childhood wasn’t about the house and the streets. And it’s not gone. I’m still carrying it around, and I’ve still got to deal with it.” He picked up the check. “And that’s enough out of me, and I’m paying for this, and you can call it amends for talking your ear off.”

When I got home I called Jim Faber, and we agreed that Jack’s sponsor sounded like a real Step Nazi, but that seemed to be just what Jack needed.

Before we parted, Jack had given me his phone number, and I felt obliged to give him mine. I wasn’t much on picking up the phone, and Jim was the only person I called on a fairly regular basis. There was a woman in Tribeca, a sculptor named Jan Keane, with whom I generally spent Saturday night and Sunday morning, and one of us would call the other two or three times a week. Aside from that, I didn’t make many calls, and most of the ones I got were wrong numbers.

I copied Jack Ellery’s number in my book, and figured I’d run into him somewhere down the line. Or not.

III

THE NEXT TIME I saw Jack Ellery was several months later, when I ran into him at a meeting. By then we’d spoken a couple of times on the phone. The first time was a few days after I made my ninety days. I spoke that night at my home group in the basement at St. Paul the Apostle. The church was at Columbus and Sixtieth, a few short blocks from my hotel, and I’d gone there in my drinking days to light votive candles for the dead and, while I was there, enjoy a few moments of quiet. Back then I hadn’t even known there were AA meetings downstairs.

So I sat at the table in front and told my story, or twenty minutes’ worth of it anyway, and everybody congratulated me, and afterward a bunch of us went for coffee at the Flame, and I went home and called Jan, and she congratulated me herself and then reminded me what comes after ninety days. Day Ninety-one.

It must have been Day Ninety-three or -four when Jack Ellery called to offer his own congratulations. “I was a little anxious about calling,” he said, “because I figured you’d make it, but you never know, do you? And how would you feel if you had a slip and here’s this asshole calling to congratulate you on ninety days that you haven’t got? And I said this to my sponsor, and he reminded me I’m not the center of the universe, which never fails to be news to me. And that, if God forbid you did pick up a drink, you’d have more to be upset about than some guy on the other end of the telephone line.”

He called again a week or so later, but it was Saturday and I was downtown at Jan’s loft on Lispenard Street. The following morning we caught an early meeting in SoHo, a favorite of hers. Afterward we went out for brunch, then walked through some galleries on West Broadway, and I had my standing Sunday dinner date with Jim. We always had Chinese food on those evenings, though not always at the same restaurant, and afterward we’d fit in a meeting. So it was late by the time I got back to my hotel and collected my message, and I didn’t return Jack’s call until the following day, and when I called he was out and there was no way to leave a message.

We played telephone tag for a few more days, and then one of us reached the other, and it was one of those awkward calls where neither party has a great deal to say.

I remember he talked again about the problem of making amends. “For instance,” he said, “there was this buddy I ran with. We knocked off a couple of stores together, then hunkered down with a fifth of Johnnie Black and told each other what heroes we were. Then one time, we did this little store in the Village, pots and pans and household shit. I mean, what were we thinking? How much cash were they gonna have, you know?”

I remembered the woman at the lineup.

“And I guess he got drunk and ran his mouth in front of the wrong person, or maybe I did, because who remembers that shit? But I got picked up, and the woman blew the ID, picked out the poor mope standing next to me. And when they went to pick up Arnie, Jesus, he went for his gun, the crazy son of a bitch, and they shot him full of holes, and he was DOA at Beth Israel. Now I didn’t lead him into a life of crime, and I didn’t rat him out, but he wound up dead and I didn’t have to do any time, I didn’t even have to give back the money, and what do I owe him for that? And how do I make it even?”

There was another call later on, and he left a message. He’d be speaking at a meeting on the Upper West Side, and if I wanted to come hear his story maybe we could grab a cup of coffee afterward. I thought about it, but the day came and went. I liked him okay and wished him well, but I wasn’t sure I wanted the two of us to become best friends. The Bronx was a long time ago, and we’d taken very different paths since then, even if we’d managed to wind up in the same place. There wasn’t much chance I’d ever be a cop again, although I sometimes thought about it, but I couldn’t be as sure about Jack. If he stayed sober he’d be all right, but if he didn’t, well, pretty much anything could happen, and I didn’t want to be that close to him if it did.

The next time I saw him was at a meeting of the Sober Today group on Second Avenue and Eighty-seventh Street. I’d never been there before, and went because someone had booked Jan to speak. I had never heard her tell her drinking story, although I’d been around for some of it while it was going on, so we arranged to meet there and go out for dinner afterward. I found the place, got myself a cup of coffee, and on the other side of the room I saw Jack Ellery in conversation with a studious-looking man in his twenties.

I had to look a second time to make sure it was Jack, because he was a mess. He was dressed well enough, in pressed khakis and a long-sleeved sport shirt, but his face was swollen on one side, and he had a black eye. There was a conclusion available, and I went ahead and jumped to it. People who stay sober generally don’t get to look like that unless they’re overmatched prizefighters, and I figured all his focus on the steps hadn’t kept him from tripping over the first one.

It was a shame if he’d had a slip, but that sort of thing happened, and the good news was he was at a meeting now. Still, I was in no rush to go over and talk to him, and purposely chose a seat where he’d be less likely to get a look at me. And then the meeting started.

The format featured a single speaker, followed by a general discussion. First, though, they read “How It Works” and the steps and the traditions and a few other selections from the wisdom of the ages, and I let my mind wander until they were doing day counts and anniversaries. Somewhere along the way I shifted in my seat so that I could get a look at Jack, and sure enough, his hand was raised.

No surprise there, I thought, and waited for him to get called on so he could tell us how many days he had this time around. But they were done with the day counters, they were on anniversaries, as I found out when he said, “My name is Jack, and the day before yesterday by the grace of God and the fellowship of AA, I was able to celebrate two years.”

They applauded, of course, and I joined in as soon as it all registered, beating my hands together and feeling like an idiot. Where did I get off looking at a man and assuming he’d been drinking?

Then the chairman introduced Jan, and she started telling her story, and I sat back and listened. But I leaned forward once or twice and caught another glimpse of Jack. He was sober, and that was all to the good, but why did he look as though someone had beaten the living crap out of him?

I caught up with him during the break. “I thought that was you,” he said. “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before.”

“The speaker’s a friend of mine,” I said, “and this is the first chance I’ve had to hear her qualify.”

“Well, that’s worth a trip, isn’t it? I enjoyed hearing her myself, and all I had to do was walk a couple of blocks.”

“We’ve got a dinner date afterward,” I said, and wondered as I said the words why I felt compelled to share that information with him. On the way back to my seat I figured it out. I was cutting him off at the pass, letting him know we wouldn’t be available for coffee.

I hadn’t asked about his face, not feeling it was for me to raise the subject, and he hadn’t chosen to bring it up. I couldn’t avoid wondering about it, though, and thought I’d get my curiosity satisfied when I saw his hand go up during the discussion. It took her a while to call on him, despite my efforts to influence her by force of will, but eventually she did, and he thanked her for her qualification and found something in it to identify with, some common element in their blackouts or hangovers, something that ordinary. Nothing to explain the lumps and bumps he’d taken as he reached the two-year mark in his sobriety.

After we’d closed the meeting with the Serenity Prayer, he and the fellow who’d been sitting next to him were among the ten or a dozen people who went up to shake Jan’s hand and thank her for sharing her story. I hung back, helping with the chairs, and I was still doing that when he and his friend headed for the door.

But he stopped in midstride and came over to me. “Now’s not the time for it,” he said, “but there’s something I’d really like to talk to you about. What’s a good time to call you?”

Jan and I would be having dinner, probably at a German place she’d said she’d like to try. Then I’d see her home, and I’d most likely stay the night on Lispenard Street. She’d want to work in the morning, so I’d clear out after breakfast, and then what would I do? Catch the subway back to my hotel, unless I decided to take my time and walk home, maybe stopping en route at a noon meeting. There’d be one at the Workshop on Perry Street, or I could keep walking and go to the bookshop meeting at St. Francis of Assisi, on Thirtieth Street.

I thought of something, and I guess it showed on my face, because Jack asked me what was so funny.

“I was just thinking,” I said. “Something I’ve heard people say. How the literature tells us sobriety is a bridge back to life, but sometimes it’s just a tunnel to another meeting.”

“Greg says that,” he said, and his friend approached at the sound of his name, and Jack introduced us. I wasn’t surprised to learn that this was Jack’s sponsor. He was wearing an earring, and I’d already decided he had designed it himself.

“Ah, Matt from the Old Neighborhood,” Greg said. “Now long since leveled and paved over, and far better in nostalgic recollection than ever it was in reality. I wish someone would run a highway through my own old neighborhood. Or divert a river through it.”

“Somebody did that,” I seemed to remember, and he said it was Hercules, as a way of cleaning the Augean stables.

“He had Twelve Labors, we have Twelve Steps,” he said. “Who ever said staying sober was easy?”

Jan was heading over, and I was ready to grab her and get out of there. I suggested to Jack that it might be simpler if I called him, but he said he’d probably be out most of the day. I told him I’d probably be back at my hotel in the late morning, and if he missed me then he could try me around two.

New York’s Little Germany was on the Lower East Side until the General Slocum disaster of 1904, when a ship by that name burned and sank on the East River, with thirteen hundred of the neighborhood’s residents on board for an annual excursion. Over a thousand of them died, and that took the heart out of Little Germany. It was the end of the neighborhood, as surely as if you’d run an expressway through it. Or diverted a river.

The residents moved out of Little Germany, and most of them wound up in Yorkville, in the blocks centering around Eighty-sixth and Third. It wasn’t just German, there were Czechs and Hungarians as well, but they’d all begun moving on in recent years, and the rents these days were too high for new immigrants. Yorkville was losing its ethnic character.

You wouldn’t have known that inside Maxl’s, where Jan took a long look at the menu and ordered sauerbraten and red cabbage and potato dumplings, which she called by their German name. The waiter, who looked pretty silly in his lederhosen, approved her choice or her pronunciation, or perhaps both, and beamed when I said I’d have the same. His face registered shock and dismay, though, when he asked what kind of beer we wanted and we said we’d be fine with coffee. Later we’d have coffee, he suggested. Now we would want good German beer to go with good German food.

I had a sudden sense memory of good German beer, Beck’s or St. Pauli Girl or Löwenbräu, strong and rich and full-bodied. I wasn’t going to order it, I didn’t even want it, but the memory was there. I blinked it away, while Jan made it clear that he wasn’t going to sell us any beer that evening.

The ambience was touristy, but the food was good enough to take your mind off it, and we had more coffee afterward and shared a gooey dessert. “I could do this every night,” Jan said, “if I didn’t mind weighing three hundred pounds. That fellow who looked like he took a beating, I think he said his name was Jack?”

“What about him?”

“You were talking to him.”

“I’ve mentioned him.”

“From when you lived in the Bronx. And then you wound up arresting him years later.”

“That’s close,” I said. “I didn’t make the collar, I was just there to view the lineup, and when he went away it was for something else. I never told him about that lineup, incidentally.”

“I asked him what happened to his face. I wouldn’t have said anything, but he brought it up, said he didn’t always look this handsome. You know, making a joke of it, to clear the air.”

“I met George Shearing once,” I recalled.

“The jazz pianist?”

I nodded. “Somebody introduced us, I forget the occasion. And right off the bat he reeled off three or four blind jokes. They weren’t terribly funny, but that wasn’t the point. You meet a blind man and you’re overly aware of his blindness, and he’d learned to get that out of the way by calling attention to it.”

“Well, that’s what Jack was doing, so I went ahead and asked what had happened.”

“And?”

“He said he blamed the whole thing on the steps. He slipped on one of them and landed flat on his face. I guess this meant something to his friend, because he rolled his eyes. I would have asked him which step, but before I could say anything he was thanking me again and making room for the next person in line.”

“Nine,” I said.

“As in Step Nine? Or is that German for no?

“He’s been making amends. Or trying to.”

“When I did,” she said, “what I mostly got was hugs and forgiveness. Along with a couple of blank stares from people who couldn’t figure out why I was apologizing.”

“Well,” I said, “you and Jack probably associated with a different class of people, and had different things to make amends for.”

“I threw up all over a guy once.”

“And he didn’t punch you in the mouth?”

“He didn’t even remember. At least that’s what he said, but I think he must have been being polite. I mean, how do you forget something like that?”

I reached for the check, as I generally do, but she insisted we split it. Outside she said she was exhausted, and would I be heartbroken if she went home alone? I said it was probably a good idea, that I was tired myself. It was Thursday, so I’d be seeing her in two days. I hailed a cab, and when I held the door for her she said she’d drop me at my hotel, that it was practically on her way. I said I felt like walking off that dessert.

I watched her taxi head south on Second Avenue and tried to remember the last time I’d had German beer. Jimmy Armstrong had Prior Dark on tap, and I found myself remembering the taste of it.

I forced myself to walk two blocks, then caught a cab of my own.

Back in my room, I got out of my clothes and took a shower. I called Jim Faber and said, “What the hell’s the matter with me? She said she was tired, and I was going to be seeing her Saturday.”

“You thought you’d be going home with her tonight. More or less took it for granted.”

“And she asked if I was all right with it, and I said sure, that was fine.”

“But that’s not how you felt.”

“I felt like telling her to forget about Saturday, while she was at it. That way she could get plenty of rest. All the fucking rest she wanted.”

“Nice.”

“And thank you very much, lady, but I’ll get my own cab. But what I said was I felt like walking.”

“Uh-huh. And how do you feel now?”

“Tired. And a little silly.”

“Both appropriate, I’d say. Did you drink?”

“Of course not.”

“Did you want to?”

“No,” I said, and thought about it. “Not consciously. But I probably wanted to, on some level.”

“But you didn’t drink.”

“No.”

“Then you’re okay,” he said. “Go to sleep.”

Not counting our Bronx boyhood, that was the third time I saw Jack Ellery—once through one-way glass, and twice at meetings.

The next time I saw him he was dead.

IV

I WENT OUT for breakfast at the Morning Star Friday morning, and went straight from there to the Donnell Library on West Fifty-third. In the restaurant the night before we’d talked some about the General Slocum disaster, but I’d been uncertain exactly when it had occurred and how many lives had been lost. I found a book that would answer all my questions, including some that hadn’t come to mind until I started reading about it. Just about everyone involved had been grossly negligent, from the owners and line management on down, but the only one who went to jail was the captain, and his sentence struck me as awfully light for the enormity of his actions.

As far as I could tell, nobody bothered to bring a civil suit, and I thought how the world had changed in three-quarters of a century. Nowadays people filed a lawsuit at the drop of a hat, even if it was somebody else’s hat and it hadn’t been dropped within half a block of them. I tried to decide whether the country was better or worse for all that relentless litigation, and I chose to postpone my decision, because something I’d read was leading me to another book on another subject.

That took care of the morning, and I went straight from the Donnell reading room to the Sixty-third Street Y, getting there just in time for the 12:30 meeting. It broke at 1:30, and I stopped at a pizza stand for a slice and a Coke, which would do me fine for lunch, although I didn’t suppose it would bring a smile of delight to the face of a board-certified nutritionist. It was around 2:15 when I got home, and there were two slips in my message box. The first call had come at 10:45, and I’d missed the second one by less than ten minutes. They were both from Jack, and both times he’d said he would try again later.

I went upstairs and called his number on the off chance that he was home now, or that he’d acquired an answering machine. He wasn’t and he hadn’t.

I stayed in the room until it was time to go out to dinner. I had no reason to go anywhere and I had a book to read, so I wasn’t there specifically to wait for his call, but that was probably a factor. The only time the phone rang it was Jan, confirming that we were still on for Saturday night. Then she asked if I’d walked all the way home the previous night, and I took a breath before I answered. “I walked two blocks,” I said, “and then I said the hell with it and flagged a cab.”

We established when and where we’d meet, and I hung up and wondered at my first impulse, which had been to say yes, that I’d walked all the way home from Yorkville. And what else? That my feet were sore and my calves ached? That I’d been mugged and pistol-whipped en route and it was all her fault?

But instead I’d paused for breath and told her the unremarkable truth, and she’d passed up the chance to remind me I could have saved a couple of bucks by sharing her cab. I suppose you could say we were both making progress.

Friday night I went to St. Paul’s. I saw Jim there but he complained of a headache and went home at the break. I joined a few others for coffee afterward, where the chief topic of conversation was a member who’d just come out as a lesbian. “I knew Pegeen was gay,” a man named Marty said. “I figured it out about ten minutes after I met her. I was just hoping I could get lucky before she figured it out.”

“While visions of threesomes danced in your head,” somebody said.

“No, I’m an uncomplicated guy. I just wanted to nail her a couple of times before she turned into a pumpkin.”

“But your Higher Power had other ideas.”

“My Higher Power,” Marty said, “was clueless. My Higher Power was asleep at the fucking switch.”

There was a message waiting for me at the hotel desk, the same message: Jack had called and would call again later. It didn’t say to call him, and I decided not to because it was late. Then I changed my mind and called him after all, and there was no answer.

Saturday started out cold and rainy. I skipped breakfast and wound up ordering an early lunch from the deli down the block. The kid who delivered it bore an unsettling resemblance to a drowned rat, and it earned him a bigger tip than usual.

I spent the afternoon in front of the TV, switching back and forth between a couple of college football games. I didn’t pay much attention to what I was looking at, but it was better than being out in the rain, and I figured I’d be in one place long enough for Jack to get hold of me.

But the phone never rang. I picked it up myself a couple of times and tried his number. No answer. It was frustrating in a curious way, because I didn’t really have a burning desire to talk to him, but neither did I want to be haunted by an endless stream of message slips.

So I sat there in my room, and when I wasn’t looking at the TV I was looking out the window at the rain.

Jan and I had arranged to meet at a restaurant at Mulberry and Hester, in Little Italy. We’d been there a couple of times together and liked the food and the atmosphere. I was a few minutes early, and they couldn’t find our reservation but had a table for us, and Jan showed up ten minutes late. The food was fine, the service was fine, and I could have flavored the conversation by pointing out a stocky gentleman at the bar whom I’d arrested ten or a dozen years earlier.

We might have walked around after dinner, but it was still drizzling and there was a chill in the air, so we went straight to Lispenard Street and she made a pot of coffee and put some records on—Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Eydie Gormé. It should have been just the ticket for a rainy October night, domestic and romantic at the same time, but there’d been a stiffness at dinner, a distance between us, and it didn’t go away.

I thought, Is this it? Is this how I’ll spend every Saturday night for the rest of my life?

We went to bed sometime after midnight, with an all-night jazz station on the radio, and lying together in the dark, we did each other some good. And afterward I felt something lurking in the shadows out there on the edge of thought. I turned away from it, and sleep descended like a fast curtain.

Some months ago I had taken to keeping some clothes at Jan’s place. She’d turned over one of the dresser drawers to me, along with a couple of hangers in the closet. So I had clean socks and underwear to put on after my morning shower, and a clean shirt, and I left what I’d been wearing for her to wash.

“You’re coming up on a year,” she said at breakfast. “What is it, a month away?”

“Five, six weeks. Somewhere in there.”

I thought she’d have more to say about that, but if she did she decided to leave it unsaid.

That night I met Jim Faber at a Chinese restaurant on Ninth Avenue. Neither of us had been there before, and we decided it was all right, but nothing special. I told him about my evening with Jan, and he took it in and thought about it, and then he reminded me that I was coming up on a year sober.

“She said the same thing,” I said. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

He shrugged, waiting for me to answer my own question.

“ ‘Don’t make any major changes in the first year.’ Isn’t that the conventional wisdom?”

“It’s what they say.”

“In other words, I’ve got five or six weeks, whatever the hell it is, to decide what to do about my relationship with Jan.”

“No.”

“No?”

“You’ve got five or six weeks,” he said, “not to decide.”

“Oh.”

“You get the distinction?”

“I think so.”

“You don’t have to make a change when the year’s up. You don’t have to come to a decision. You’re under no obligation to do anything. The important thing is not to take any action before then.”

“Got it.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “what we’re talking about here is your agenda. She may have one of her own. You’re sober a year, it’s time for you to shit or get off the pot. That sound about right?”

“Maybe.”

“You know,” he said, “that business about waiting a year, that’s just a general rule. Some people, they’re best advised not to make any major changes for the first five years.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Or even ten,” he said.

We took in a meeting at St. Clare’s Hospital. Most of those attending were from the detox ward, and their attendance was compulsory. It was hard to get them to stay awake, and almost impossible to get them to say anything. Jim and I had been there a few times; you rarely heard anything insightful, but it served as a good object lesson.

I walked him home, and at one point he said, “Something to bear in mind. Something Buddha said, as it happens. ‘It is your dissatisfaction with what is that is the source of all your unhappiness.’ ”

I said, “Buddha said that?”

“So I’m told, though I have to admit I wasn’t there to hear him. You seem surprised.”

“Well,” I said, “I never thought he had that much depth to him.”

“Buddha.”

“That’s what everybody calls him. And what he calls himself, as far as that goes. Big guy, must stand six-six, shaves his head, belly out to here. He’s a regular at the midnight meeting at the Moravian church, but he turns up other places as well. I think he’s a former outlaw biker, and my guess is he’s done time, but—”

The look on his face stopped me. He shook his head and said, “The Buddha. Sitting under the Bodhi tree? Waiting for enlightenment?”

“I thought it was an apple tree and he invented gravity.”

“That was Isaac Newton.”

“If it was Newton, it should have been a fig tree. Buddha, huh? Listen, it was a natural mistake. The only Buddha I know is the one at the Moravian church. Works the doors at one of those rough bars on West Street, if I’m not mistaken. You want to run that by me again? The source of all unhappiness?”

After I’d seen him home I went home myself. I’d stopped at the hotel earlier, surprised that there were no messages, and I didn’t see anything in my box this time, either. I asked the fellow behind the desk and he said that there’d been one person who’d called a couple of times but hadn’t given his name or left any kind of a message. All he could tell me was that the caller had been a man.

Jack, I thought, and he’d given up leaving messages because they didn’t do any good. I went upstairs, and I was hanging up my jacket when the phone rang.

A voice I didn’t recognize said, “Matt? This is Gregory Stillman.”

“I don’t think—”

“We met the other night at Sober Today. Jack Ellery introduced us.”

“I remember.” Jack’s sponsor, the jewelry designer, with one of his creations dangling from his ear. “I don’t think we got as far as last names.”

“No,” he said, and drew an audible breath. “Matt, I have some very bad news.”

V

THE MEMORIAL SERVICE for John Joseph Ellery was held Monday afternoon in the same church basement where I’d heard Jan tell her story on Thursday evening. There was no AA meeting scheduled, but Greg had been able to make arrangements with the church for the use of the room. As far as I could tell, all of the thirty or so in attendance had known Jack in AA.

All but two, a pair of men in suits who might as well have been wearing blue uniforms. Cops, following the long-established routine of attending a service to see who showed up. I’d done that myself a few times, and couldn’t remember ever learning anything useful in the process. But that didn’t mean it never paid off.

The service was nonreligious, and there was no clergyman in attendance. When I arrived there was a tape playing quietly, something classical that I recognized but couldn’t identify, and when it faded out Greg Stillman got up in front of the group. He was wearing a dark suit, and had left the earring home.

He introduced himself as Jack’s friend and sponsor, and spoke for five minutes or so, telling a couple of stories. There was a moment when he seemed on the verge of being overcome by emotion, but he stopped talking and waited and the moment passed, and he was able to go on.

Then people stood up in turn and shared something about Jack. It was like an AA meeting except you didn’t wait to be called on, you just took your turn. And all of the sharing was about Jack. Aside from the anecdotes, the gist of it was that Jack had had a rough life and a bad drinking story, but that he’d found real hope and comfort in the program, and was genuinely reborn through the twelve steps. And, by the grace of God, he’d died sober.

There’s a comfort.

The service concluded with a song. An ethereal young woman with big eyes and see-through skin stood up in front of the room and said that her name was Elizabeth and that she was an alcoholic. She hadn’t known Jack very well, she said, but she had sobriety in common with him, if nothing else, and Greg had asked her to sing, and she was glad to do it. She gave an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” including one verse I couldn’t recall having heard before. Not long before I got sober, I’d heard Judy Collins sing the song on a record they played at a whore’s funeral. That would have been hard to improve on, but this version came close.

There was a coffee urn—it was, after all, an AA crowd—and people gathered around it afterward. I turned to look for the cops, thinking I could see if they wanted coffee. I figured they wouldn’t take it without an invitation. But they had slipped out, and I headed for the door myself until I heard my name called.

It was Greg. He took my arm and asked me if I had a minute. “A few minutes,” he said. “There’s a conversation we ought to have, and then I’ve got a favor to ask you.”

The next time I saw Jack Ellery he was dead.

And that was at the viewing room at the morgue, where Greg and I looked for a long moment at the mortal remains of a man we’d both known. Then he said, “Yes, that’s him. That’s Jack Ellery.” And I nodded in affirmation, and they let us out of there.

Outside he turned up his collar against the chill and wondered if we’d get more rain. I said I’d missed the forecast, and he said he never knew what the forecasts meant. “They used to tell you what it was going to do,” he said, “and even if they were wrong a lot of the time, at least they gave you a clear-cut answer. Now it’s all percentages. What on earth is a fifty percent chance of rain? How do you respond to that, carry half of an umbrella?”

“This way they’re never wrong.”

“That’s it exactly. ‘Well, we said only a ten percent chance of rain and it poured all day, so all that means is a long shot came in.’ Just because you’re a meteorologist doesn’t mean you don’t feel the need to cover your ass.” He took a breath. “I never asked you this, but do you prefer Matt or Matthew?”

Either’s fine with me, but it only confuses people to tell them that. “Matt’s good,” I said.

“Matt, why do they insist on a formal identification? He was in prison, he has a police record, they’d already identified him from fingerprints. Suppose there was nobody around who could do it. They’d get along without it, wouldn’t they?”

“Sure.”

“I really didn’t want to see him like that. My father’s funeral was open-casket, and there he was, like something from a road-company Madame Tussauds, and that’s the image I was left with, this lifeless waxen effigy. We had our problems, God knows. I was not the son he’d had in mind, as he made all too clear. But we made it up during his last illness, and there was love and mutual respect there at the end, and then that final hideous glimpse of him eclipsed the strong and vigorous man I wanted to remember. I knew that would happen, I dreaded it, but at the same time I couldn’t not look. Do you know what I mean?”

“How long ago was this?”

“A little over a year. Why?”

“Because time will probably change that,” I said. “The earlier memory will supplant the other.”

“That’s already begun to happen. I didn’t know whether I could trust it, whether it was real. Or just some form of wishful thinking.”

“Wishful thinking may have something to do with it,” I said, “but it’s still real. We wind up remembering people the way they were, or at least the way we knew them. I had an aunt with Alzheimer’s, she spent the last ten years of her life institutionalized, while the disease ate her mind and her personality and everything that made her human. And that’s how I knew her, and how I remembered her.”

“God.”

“And that all faded out after she was gone, and the real Aunt Peg came back.”

Over coffee he said, “I barely looked at him just now. All I really saw were the wounds.”

He’d been shot in the mouth and the forehead. They’d shown the corpse with a sheet covering him from the neck down, so if there were other wounds we wouldn’t have seen them.

“I hope you’re right,” he said. “About the image fading. It can’t fade too soon for me. Thank you for that. More than that, thanks for making the trip.”

I hadn’t much wanted to keep him company, but it was a hard request to say no to.

“I didn’t want to go at all,” he said, “and I certainly didn’t want to go by myself. I could have found someone else to come, some AA friend of Jack’s, but you felt like the right choice. Thank you.”

We’d headed north on First Avenue when we left the morgue, and stopped at a coffee shop called Mykonos just past Forty-second Street. When he ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, I realized it had been a while since I’d eaten, and said I’d have the same.

“Besides,” he said, “there’s something else I want to talk about.”

“Oh?”

“The two men at the back of the room. They were police officers.”

“Somehow I sensed as much.”

“Well, I didn’t need radar, because I saw their badges when they interviewed me. In fact they were the ones who asked me to make the formal ID. I asked them if they were close to solving the case, and they said something noncommittal.”

“That’s no surprise.”

“Do you think they’ll solve it?”

“It’s possible they’ve solved it already,” I said, “in the sense that they may know who did it. Of course that’s not the same as having sufficient evidence to bring a case to trial.”

“Could you find out?”

“Whether or not they know who did it?” He nodded. “I suppose I could ask around. An ordinary citizen wouldn’t get a straight answer, but I still know a few people in the department. Why?”

“I have a reason.”

One he evidently preferred to keep to himself. I let it go.

I said, “I’ll see if anybody wants to tell me anything. But I can make an educated guess right now as to who killed Jack.”

“You can?”

“Not by name,” I said. “Maybe it’s more accurate to say I can guess why he was killed. Somebody wanted to shut him up.”

“He was shot in the mouth.”

“At very close range. Essentially, somebody stuck the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, and this would have been after the forehead shot killed him. Put that together with the Ninth Step work Jack kept talking about and the message is pretty clear.”

“I was afraid of that,” he said.

“Oh?”

He looked at his hands, then raised his eyes to meet mine. “I got him killed,” he said.



Continues...

Excerpted from A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Block, Lawrence Copyright © 2011 by Block, Lawrence. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 37 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    When the master writes we read, enjoy and ponder his greatness.

    If you are a follower of the Matthew Scudder books you know this series has gone from pay phones to cell phones with every book better than the last. We fans have followed Matt from his cop's days, watched him give up the bottle and find a place in his life with Elaine and his freelance PI work. But the past is always lurking around and there are nights when retelling a part of your past life tends to help make amends with what was.

    Mr. Block takes us back to the early days in the Scudder series with this book. We have Matt off the force, a month short of his one-year anniversary with sobriety and doing enough favors for friends to pay the rent and send a little home to his ex-wife. During this time Matt reconnects with a childhood acquaintance that is also walking through each of the steps to alcoholic free life. Matthew is not one to follow each step in order but his friend is on a mission to follow them one after another. To that end it seems one of the steps he took did not please someone from his checkered past and he winds up murdered. Matt is asked to look into this and do the best job he can to find out what was so awful that someone left a message in the way he was killed.

    The more Matt delves into his friend's prior life the more doors are slammed in his face than opened. Every person that should have held a grudge has long since gotten over it and the others are still in prison. Yet more people end of dead and possibly murdered and while they appear random Matt is not buying the police line of wrong place, wrong time. Matt keeps looking and getting too close to the right person at the right time that they target him in the one way they can get to him - through the bottle sitting on his table. Will he be strong enough to turn away and say no or has he reached a point of weakness where he will say yes and take that drink?

    Lawrence Block is a gifted and beyond talented writer of every genre he touches. I have read them all but this series for some reason is my favorite. Perhaps it was my first Block series but regardless this one I live for and every book out does the last one. While I am all about moving forward in a series taking us back to the lots of quarters for the pay phone days is a place Matthew Scudder still works well in. The story is fresh, plot a mysterious as any other and the characters well written and completely mesmerizing. All readers will love this book and should not pass up the chance to again see the roots of where the Scudder character cut his teeth.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 16, 2011

    Great Mystery!!

    A Drop of the Hard Stuff is the seventeenth novel in the Matthew Scudder series and is the first book that I have read in this series. It can also be read as a stand alone novel. In fact this novel actually goes back in time to the 1980s to the days when detective Matthew Scudder was approaching his first anniversary of sobriety and living alone in a hotel in New York City. This book has a heavy focus on the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the program itself. The murder of an old friend of Jack's is directly related to that friend, Jack, religiously following the steps in the program. Step 8, making amends and dredging up the past lead to the demise of Jack. Greg, Jack's AA sponsor, hires Matt because he feels responsible as he is considered a step-Nazi in the AA program. Greg believes that his encouragement to Jack to follow the steps is what has led to his death.

    This book is a great mystery and it is also an amazing chronicle of the reality of a alcoholic encountering their first anniversary of sobriety. A real eye opener and a real winner.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2013

    Sharp and smooth

    Careful reading is rewarded in this stirring potboiler of a syndicate hit that may or may not involve members of a rehab group. Block's pacing and wit will keep you turning pages avidly; his insight & empathy will linger. Top Shelf stuff, certainly.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 22, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The last two books of the series involved Matthew Scudder in a s

    The last two books of the series involved Matthew Scudder in a search for a serial killer and were below par for this excellent saga. A Drop of the Hard Stuff returns Scudder to the days when he was a newly sober alcoholic. Lawrence Block takes his protagonist back to a time where the mere sight of a drink can place him in mortal jeopardy. An inquiry into the shooting death of a fellow AA member and career criminal becomes a larger investigation when other men involved in his penance die untimely deaths. The ending is as ambiguous as any of Block’s books but that makes the book a success as both novel and hard-boiled mystery.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 29, 2011

    A treat for long-time Matthew Scudder fans

    I got the sense that Lawrence Block might have been cleaning out his Matthew Scudder archives and found this novel amidst some old notes. Not to say that the resulting novel isn't terrific. This book hearkens back to the classic early Matthew Scudder novels. I really enjoyed the trip back to vintage Manhattan noir.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 13, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Slow

    This book started off really slow and never got better. Definitely one of the worst mysteries I have ever read. Glad it was a bargain book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2013

    Hard to put down

    Good read kept the pages turning

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  • Posted February 15, 2013

    Hi, my name is Robert Downs, and I¿m a member of Lawrence Block

    Hi, my name is Robert Downs, and I’m a member of Lawrence Block Anonymous (LBA for short). I can see why he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1994. He has the damaged, hard-boiled detective figured out as well as anyone else I’ve ever read, and his prose flows better than eggnog at Christmastime. And it’s easy to keep on guzzling the way his famous PI Matthew Scudder used to swig the hard stuff. A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF indeed. Well, more than, but it’s easy to get carried away when it’s just so darn good.

    If it wasn’t for Amazon’s Kindle Daily Deals, I might have waited a bit longer before I delved into Matthew Scudder’s universe, and that would have been a serious travesty, especially considering my love of hard-boiled novels knows no bounds. I’d travel just about anywhere with a hard-boiled gumshoe at my side.

    I’d have to agree with the critics that this is one fine piece of detective fiction, even though it would have been easy for Mr. Block to let his guard down and go for the low blow. Matthew Scudder felt as real to me as if he was standing right beside me, telling me his story over a cup of joe with a determined look and a never-back-down attitude.

    The ending could have been a bit better, but it worked out just fine for the story, and it wasn’t out of character for Mr. Scudder. And this proves to be a bit of a minor detail in an otherwise gut wrenching story written with near pitch perfect lyrical prose.

    I must say this is one fine hard-boiled read, and if you’re into the hard stuff, it’s certainly worthy of a bit more attention.

    Robert Downs
    Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2013

    Heather

    Go to boot res 1

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2012

    Good book

    I am a matthew scudder fan and enjoyed tjis book it is a good read

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  • Posted October 7, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A good read

    If you're a recovering alcoholic and in AA; this is the book for you. If not, don't despair. Tis still a very good read. I'm afraid the drinking/AA issues come before the story-line tho. Actually, they are very much a part of the story. All in all, a good read. Not what I expected but would read more of Block's books. This was my first. I would recommend it tho.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2011

    Mending Fences

    My enjoyment of this formulaic book is dampened by the fact that the villain has most of the best lines, which troubles me ethically, as does the likelihood that this window on the Ninth Step may unduly deter people who badly need to do it.

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  • Posted June 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Clever

    A Drop of the hard Stuff uses AA as the base to find out that a member had revealed some crimes in doing his steps. Bodies start dropping, and investigator Matthew Scudder gets caught up in the detective work just as he approaches how own one year anniversary of freedom from drink. I liked the story, and thought the use of AA was done very cleverly. A side note is the keen instinct the author shows for relationships as they come and go.

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    Posted February 23, 2012

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    Posted May 13, 2011

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    Posted July 15, 2011

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    Posted September 17, 2013

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    Posted June 2, 2014

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    Posted June 23, 2011

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    Posted June 29, 2011

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