When the Sacred Ginmill Closes Page 1

Author: Lawrence Block

Series: Matthew Scudder #6

Genres: Mystery

Of poetry and poses And each man knows he'll be alone When the sacred ginmill closes.


Chapter 1

The windows at Morrissey's were painted black. The blast was loud enough and close enough to rattle them. It chopped off conversation in midsyllable, froze a waiter in midstride, making of him a statue with a tray of drinks on his shoulder and one foot in the air. The great round noise died out like dust settling, and for a long moment afterward the room remained hushed, as if with respect.

Someone said, "Jesus Christ," and a lot of people let out the breath they'd been holding. At our table, Bobby Ruslander reached for a cigarette and said, "Sounded like a bomb."

Skip Devoe said, "Cherry bomb."

"Is that all?"

"It's enough," Skip said. "Cherry bomb's major ordnance. Same charge had a metal casing instead of a paper wrapper, you'd have a weapon instead of a toy. You light one of those little mothers and forget to let go of it, you're gonna have to learn to do a lot of basic things left-handed."

"Sounded like more than a firecracker," Bobby insisted. "Like dynamite or a grenade or something. Sounded like fucking World War Three, if you want to know."

"Get the actor," Skip said affectionately. "Don't you love this guy? Fighting it out in the trenches, storming the windswept hills, slogging through the mud. Bobby Ruslander, battle-scarred veteran of a thousand campaigns."

"You mean bottle-scarred," somebody said.

"Fucking actor," Skip said, reaching to rumple Bobby's hair. " 'Hark I hear the cannon's roar.' You know that joke?"

"I told you the joke."

" 'Hark I hear the cannon's roar.' When'd you ever hear a shot fired in anger? Last time they had a war," he said, "Bobby brought a note from his shrink. 'Dear Uncle Sam, Please excuse Bobby's absence, bullets make him crazy.' "

"My old man's idea," Bobby said.

"But you tried to talk him out of it. 'Gimmie a gun,' you said. 'I wanna serve my country.' "

Bobby laughed. He had one arm around his girl and picked up his drink with his free hand. He said, "All I said was it sounded like dynamite to me."

Skip shook his head. "Dynamite's different. They're all different, different kinds of a bang. Dynamite's like one loud note, and a flatter sound than a cherry bomb. They all make a different sound. Grenade's completely different, it's like a chord."

"The lost chord," somebody said, and somebody else said, "Listen to this, it's poetry."

"I was going to call my joint Horseshoes & Hand Grenades," Skip said. "You know what they say, coming close don't count outside of horseshoes and hand grenades."

"It's a good name," Billie Keegan said.

"My partner hated it," Skip said. "Fucking Kasabian, he said it didn't sound like a saloon, sounded like some kind of candy-ass boutique, some store in SoHo sells toys for private-school kids. I don't know, though. Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, I still like the sound of it."

"Horseshit and Hand Jobs," somebody said.

"Maybe Kasabian was right, if that's what everybody woulda wound up calling it." To Bobby he said, "You want to talk about the different sounds they make, you should hear a mortar. Someday get Kasabian to tell you about the mortar. It's a hell of a story."

"I'll do that."

"Horseshoes & Hand Grenades," Skip said. "That's what we shoulda called the joint."

Instead he and his partner had called their place Miss Kitty's. Most people assumed a reference to "Gunsmoke," but their inspiration had been a whorehouse in Saigon. I did most of my own drinking at Jimmy Armstrong's, on Ninth Avenue between Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth. Miss Kitty's was on Ninth just below Fifty-sixth, and it was a little larger and more boisterous than I liked. I stayed away from it on the weekends, but late on a weekday night when the crowd thinned down and the noise level dropped, it wasn't a bad place to be.

I'd been in there earlier that night. I had gone first to Armstrong's, and around two-thirty there were only four of us left- Billie Keegan behind the bar and I in front of it and a couple of nurses who were pretty far gone on Black Russians. Billie locked up and the nurses staggered off into the night and the two of us went down to Miss Kitty's, and a little before four Skip closed up, too, and a handful of us went on down to Morrissey's.

Morrissey's wouldn't close until nine or ten in the morning. The legal closing hour for bars in the city of New York is 4:00 A.M., an hour earlier on Saturday nights, but Morrissey's was an illegal establishment and was thus not bound by regulations of that sort. It was one flight up from street level in one of a block of four-story brick houses on Fifty-first Street between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues. About a third of the houses on the block were abandoned, their windows boarded up or broken, some of their entrances closed off with concrete block.

The Morrissey brothers owned their building. It couldn't have cost them much. They lived in the upper two stories, let out the ground floor to an Irish amateur theater group, and sold beer and whiskey after hours on the second floor. They had removed all of the interior walls on the second floor to create a large open space. They'd stripped one wall to the brick, scraped and sanded and urethaned the wide pine floors, installed some soft lighting and decorated the walls with some framed Aer Lingus posters and a copy of Pearse's 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic ("Irishmen and Irishwomen, in the name of God and of the dead generations…). There was a small service bar along one wall, and there were twenty or thirty square tables with butcher-block tops.

We sat at two tables pushed together. Skip Devoe was there, and Billie Keegan, the night bartender at Armstrong's. And Bobby Ruslander, and Bobby's girl for the evening, a sleepy-eyed redhead named Helen. And a fellow named Eddie Grillo who tended bar at an Italian restaurant in the West Forties, and another fellow named Vince who was a sound technician or something like that at CBS Television.

I was drinking bourbon, and it must have been either Jack Daniel's or Early Times, as those were the only brands the Morrisseys stocked. They also carried three or four scotches, Canadian Club, and one brand each of gin and vodka. Two beers, Bud and Heineken. A Cognac and a couple of odd cordials. Kahlъa, I suppose, because a lot of people were drinking Black Russians that year. Three brands of Irish whiskey, Bushmill's and Jameson and one called Power's, which nobody ever seemed to order but to which the Morrissey brothers were partial. You'd have thought they'd carry Irish beer, Guinness at least, but Tim Pat Morrissey had told me once that he didn't fancy the bottled Guinness, that it was awful stuff, that he only liked the draft stout and only on the other side of the Atlantic.

They were big men, the Morrisseys, with broad high foreheads and full rust-colored beards. They wore black trousers and highly polished black brogans and white shirts with the sleeves rolled to the elbow, and they wore white butcher's aprons that covered them to their knees. The waiter, a slim, clean-shaven youth, wore the same outfit, but on him it looked like a costume. I think he may have been a cousin. I think he'd have had to have been some sort of blood kin to work there.

They were open seven days a week, from around 2:00 A.M. to nine or ten. They charged three dollars for a drink, which was higher than the bars but reasonable compared to most after-hour joints, and they poured a good drink. Beer was two dollars. They would mix most of the common drinks, but it was no place to order a pousse-cafй.

I don't think the police ever gave the Morrisseys a hard time. While there was no neon sign out front, the place wasn't the best-kept secret in the neighborhood. The cops knew it was there, and that particular evening I noticed a couple of patrolmen from Midtown North and a detective I'd known years back in Brooklyn. There were two black men in the room and I recognized both of them; one I'd seen at ringside at a lot of fights, while his companion was a state senator. I'm sure the Morrissey brothers paid money to stay open, but they had some strong connections beyond the money they paid, ties to the local political clubhouse.

They didn't water the booze and they poured a good drink. Wasn't that as much of a character reference as any man needed?

OUTSIDE, another cherry bomb exploded. It was farther off, a block or two away, and it didn't slam the door shut on any conversations. At our table, the CBS guy complained that they were rushing the season. He said, "The Fourth isn't until Friday, right? Today's what, the first?"

"It's been the second for the past two hours."

"So that's still two days. What's the hurry?"

"They get these fucking fireworks and they get the itch," Bobby Ruslander said. "You know who's the worst? The fucking chinks. For a while there I was seein' this girl, she lived down near Chinatown. You'd get Roman candles in the middle of the night, you'd get cherry bombs, anything. Not just July, any time of the year. Comes to firecrackers, they're all little kids down there."

"My partner wanted to call the joint Little Saigon," Skip said. "I told him, John, for Christ's sake, people're gonna think it's a Chinese restaurant, you're gonna get family groups from Rego Park ordering moo goo gai pan and two from Column B. He said what the hell's Chinese about Saigon? I told him, I said, John, you know that and I know that, but when it comes to the people from Rego Park, John, to them a slope is a slope and it all adds up to moo goo gai pan."

Billie said, "What about the people in Park Slope?"

"What about the people in Park Slope?" Skip frowned, thinking it over. "The people in Park Slope," he said. "Fuck the people in Park Slope."

Bobby Ruslander's girl Helen said, very seriously, that she had an aunt in Park Slope. Skip looked at her. I picked up my glass. It was empty, and I looked around for the beardless waiter or one of the brothers.

So I was looking at the door when it flew open. The brother who kept the door downstairs stumbled through it and careened into a table. Drinks spilled and a chair tipped over.

Two men burst into the room behind him. One was about five-nine, the other a couple inches shorter. Both were thin. Both wore blue jeans and tennis sneakers. The taller one had on a baseball jacket, the shorter one a royal-blue nylon windbreaker. Both had billed baseball caps on their heads and blood-red kerchiefs knotted around their faces, forming triangular wedges that hid their mouths and cheeks.

Each had a gun in his hand. One had a snub-nosed revolver, the other a long-barreled automatic. The one with the automatic raised it and fired two shots into the stamped-tin ceiling. It didn't sound like a cherry bomb or a hand grenade, either.

They got in and out in a hurry. One went behind the bar and emerged with the Garcia y Vega cigar box where Tim Pat kept the night's receipts. There was a glass jar on top of the bar with a hand-lettered sign soliciting contributions for the families of IRA men imprisoned in the North of Ireland, and he scooped the bills out of it, leaving the silver.

While he was doing this, the taller man held a gun on the Morrisseys and had them turn out their pockets. He took the cash from their wallets and a roll of bills from Tim Pat. The shorter man set down the cigar box for a moment and went to the back of the room, removing a framed Aer Lingus poster of the Cliffs of Moher from the wall to expose a locked cupboard. He shot the lock off and withdrew a metal strongbox, tucked it unopened under his arm, went back to pick up the cigar box again, and ducked out the door and raced down the stairs.

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