Start reading A Drop of the Hard Stuff
Missed out on the“totally gripping….Great American Crime Novel” (Time) the first time around? Now’s your chance! A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF is now available in paperback. An excerpt from the novel follows:
LATE ONE NIGHT . . .
“I’ve often wondered,” Mick Ballou said, ” how it would all have gone if I’d taken a different turn.”
We were at Grogan’s Open House, the Hell’s Kitchen saloon he’s owned and operated for years. The gentrification of the neighborhood has had its effect on Grogan’s, although the bar hasn’t changed much inside or out. But the local hard cases have mostly died or moved on, and the crowd these days is a gentler and more refined bunch. There’s Guinness on draft, and a good selection of single-malt Scotches and other premium whiskeys. But it’s the joint’s raffish reputation that draws them. They get to point out the bullet holes in the walls, and tell stories about the notorious past of the bar’s owner. Some of the stories are true.
They were all gone now. The barman had closed up, and the chairs were on top of the tables so they’d be out of the way when the kid came in at daybreak to sweep up and mop the floor. The door was locked, and all the lights out but the leaded-glass fixture over the table where we sat with our Waterford tumblers. There was whiskey in Mick’s, club soda in mine.Our late nights have grown less frequent in recent years. We’re older, and if we’re not quite inclined to move to Florida and order the Early Bird Special at the nearest family restaurant, neither are we much given to talking the night away and greeting the dawn wide-eyed. We’re both too old for that.
He drinks less these days. A year or so back he got married, to a much younger woman named Kristin Hollander. The union astonished almost everyone—but not my wife, Elaine, who swears she saw it coming—and it could hardly fail to change him, if only because it gave him a reason to go home at the day’s end. He still drinks twelve-year-old Jameson, and drinks it neat, but he doesn’t drink as much of it, and there are days when he doesn’t drink at all. “I still have a taste for it,” he has said, “but for years I had a deep thirst, and the thirst has left me. I couldn’t tell you where it’s gone.”
In earlier years, it was not that unusual for us to sit up all night, talking the hours away and sharing the occasional long silence, each of us drinking his chosen beverage. At dawn he’d don the bloodstained butcher’s apron that had belonged to his father. He’d go to the Butchers’ Mass at St. Bernard’s, in the meatpacking district. Once in a while I’d keep him company.
Things change. The meatpacking district is trendy now, a yuppie bastion, and most of the firms that gave the area its name have gone out of business, their premises converted to restaurants and apartments. St. Bernard’s, long an Irish parish, is the new home of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
I can’t remember the last time I saw Mick wearing that apron.
This was one of our rare late nights, and I suppose we both felt the need for it, or we’d have gone home by now. And Mick had turned reflective.
“A different turn,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“There are times,” he said, “when it seems to me that there was nothing for it, that I was destined to follow the one particular course. I lose sight of it these days, because my business interests are all as clean as a hound’s tooth. Why a hound’s tooth, have you ever wondered?”
“I’ll ask Kristin,” he said, “and she’ll sit down at the computer and pop up with the answer in thirty seconds. That’s if I remember to ask her.” He smiled at a private thought. “What I lose sight of,” he said, “is that I became a career criminal. Now I was hardly a trailblazer in that respect. I lived in a neighborhood where crime was the leading occupation. The surrounding streets were a sort of vocational high school.”
“And you graduated with honors.”
“I did. I might have been valedictorian, if they’d had such a thing on offer for young thieves and hoodlums. But, you know, not every boy on our block wound up leading a life of villainy. My father was respectable. He was—well, I’ll honor his memory enough not to say what he was, but I’ve told you about him.”
“All the same, he was a respectable man. He got up every morning and went to work. And the road my brothers took was a higher one than mine. One a priest—well, that didn’t last, but only because he lost his faith. And John, a great success in business and a pillar of his community. And Dennis, the poor lad, who died in Vietnam. I told you how I went down to Washington just to see his name on that memorial.”
“I’d have made a terrible priest. I wouldn’t even find a welcome diversion in molesting altar boys. And I can’t imagine myself kissing asses and counting dollars like my brother John. But can you guess the thought I’ve had? That I might have taken the road you took.”
“And become a cop?”
“Is the notion that outlandish?”
“When I was a little boy,” he said, “it seemed to me that a cop was a wonderful thing for a man to be. Standing there in a handsome uniform, directing traffic, helping children cross the street safely. Protecting us all from the bad guys.” He grinned. “The bad guys indeed. Little did I know. But there were lads on our block who did put on the blue uniform. One of them, Timothy Lunney was his name, he wasn’t so different from the rest of us. You wouldn’t have found it remarkable to hear he’d taken to robbing banks, or making collections for the shylocks.”
We talked some about what might have been, and just how much choice a person had. That last was something to think about, and we both took a few minutes to think about it, and let the silence stretch. Then he said, “And how about yourself?”
“You didn’t grow up knowing you’d become a cop.”
“No, not at all. I never really planned it. Then I took the entrance exam, which back then I’d have had to be a moron to fail, and then I was in the Academy, and, well, there I was.”
“Could you have gone the other way?”
“And drifted instead into a life of crime?” I thought about it. “I can’t point to any innate nobility of character that would have ruled it out,” I said. “But I have to say I never felt any pull in that direction.”
“There was a boy I grew up with in the Bronx,” I remembered, “and we lost track of each other completely when my family moved away. And then I ran into him a couple of times years later.”
“And he’d taken the other path.”
“He had,” I said. “He was no great success at it, but that’s where his life led him. I saw him once through a one-way mirror in a station house, and then lost track of him again. And then we caught up with each other some years later. It was before you and I got to know each other.”
“Were you still drinking?”
“No, but I wasn’t away from it long. Less than a year. Interesting, really, the things that happened to him.”
“Well,” he said, “don’t stop now.”
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?”
“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?”