Chapter 1 of A Drop of the Hard Stuff

Continue reading A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF which hits bookstores on May 12th. Missed the Prologue? Start reading here.


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?”

© 2011 by Lawrence Block

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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. Learn more at

Mulholland Books will publish A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF on May 12, 2011.