A Long Line of Dead Men Page 1

Author: Lawrence Block

Series: Matthew Scudder #12

Genres: Mystery


It must have been around nine o'clock when the old man stood up and tapped his spoon against the bowl of his water glass. Conversations died around him. He waited until he had full silence, then took another long moment to scan the room. He took a small sip of water from the glass he'd been tapping, set it on the table in front of him, and placed his hands palm-down on either side of the glass.

Standing as he did, with his angular frame tilted forward, his thin beak of a nose jutting out, his white hair swept straight back and combed down flat, his pale blue eyes magnified by thick lenses, he put Lewis Hildebrand in mind of a figure carved on the prow of a Viking ship. Some great idealized bird of prey, scanning the horizon, seeing for miles and miles, for years and years.

"Gentlemen," he said. "Friends." He paused, and again worked the room's four tables with his eyes. "My brothers," he said.

He let the phrase echo, then leavened the solemnity with a quick smile. "But how could we be brothers? You range in age from twenty-two to thirty-three, while I have somehow contrived to be eighty-five years old. I could be the grandfather of the oldest man here. But tonight you join me as part of something that stretches across years, across centuries. And we shall indeed leave this room as brothers."

Did he pause for a sip of water? Let's suppose that he did. And then he reached into a pocket of his suit jacket and drew out a piece of paper.

"I have something to read to you," he announced. "It won't take long. It's a list of names. Thirty names." He cleared his throat, then tilted his head to peer at his list through the lower portion of his bifocal lenses.

"Douglas Atwood," he said. "Raymond Andrew White. Lyman Baldridge. John Peter Garrity. Paul Goldenberg. John Mercer…"

I've made up the names. There's no record of the list, nor did Lewis Hildebrand recall any of the names the old man intoned. It was his impression that most of them were English or Scotch-Irish, with a couple of Jews, a few Irish, a handful that would have been Dutch or German. The names were not in alphabetical order, nor was there any evident scheme to them; he was to learn later that the old man had read their names in the order of their death. The first name read- not Douglas Atwood, although I've called him that- was the first man to die.

Listening to the old man, hearing the names echo against the room's wood-paneled walls like clods of earth falling on a coffin lid, Lewis Hildebrand had found himself moved almost to tears. He felt as though the earth had opened at his feet and he was gazing into an infinite void. There was a pause of some length after the reading of the final name, and it seemed to him that time itself had stopped, that the stillness would stretch on forever.

The old man broke it. He took a Zippo lighter from his breast pocket, flipped its cap, spun its wheel. He lit a corner of the sheet of paper and held it by its opposite end while it burned. When the flame had largely consumed the paper, he laid what remained in an ashtray and waited until it was ashes.

"You will not hear those names again," he told them. "They are gone now, gone to wherever the dead go. Their chapter has closed. Ours has just begun."

He was still holding the Zippo, and he held it up, lit it, and snapped it shut. "This is the fourth day of May," he said, "in the year 1961. When I first sat with the thirty men whose names I've read to you, it was the third of May and the year was 1899. The Spanish-American War had ended just ten months ago. I myself was twenty-three years old, just a year older than the youngest of you. I had not fought in the war, although there were men in the room who had. And there was one man who had served with Zachary Taylor in the war with Mexico. He was seventy-eight years old, if I remember correctly, and I sat and listened to him read the names of thirty men of whom I'd never heard. And I watched him burn those names, but of course he did so by putting a wooden match to the list. There were no Zippo lighters that day. And that gentleman- I could tell you his name but I won't, I spoke it for the last time a few minutes ago- that gentleman was twenty or twenty-five when he saw another old man set another list of names afire, and that would have been when? The early 1840s, I would suppose. Did they have wooden matches then? I don't believe they did. There would have been a fire on the hearth, and I suppose the fellow- and I couldn't tell you his name if I wanted to- I suppose he dropped the list into the fire.

"I don't know the date of that meeting, or where it took place. My first meeting, as I said, was in 1899, and there were thirty-one of us in a private dining room on the second floor of John Durlach's restaurant on Union Square. It's long gone, and so's the building that housed it; the site's occupied now by Klein's Department Store. When Durlach's closed we tried a different restaurant each year until we settled on Ben Zeller's steak house. We were there for years, and then there was a change in ownership twenty years ago and we weren't happy. We came here to Cunningham's and we've been here ever since. Last year there were two of us. This year there are thirty-one."

And where was Matthew Scudder on the fourth day of May in the Year of Our Lord 1961?

I might have been at Cunningham's. Not in one of the private dining rooms with the old man and his thirty new brothers, but standing at the bar or seated in the main dining room, or at a table in the smaller grill room that Vince Mahaffey liked. I'd have been twenty-two, with less than two weeks until my twenty-third birthday. Six months had passed since I cast my first vote. (They hadn't yet lowered the voting age to eighteen.) I voted for Kennedy. So, apparently, did a great many tombstones and empty lots in Cook County, Illinois, and he won by a nose.

I was still single, although I had already met the girl I would soon marry, and eventually divorce. I wasn't long out of the Police Academy, and they'd assigned me to a Brooklyn precinct and teamed me up with Mahaffey, figuring I'd learn something from him. He taught me plenty, some of it stuff they didn't much want me to know.

Cunningham's was Mahaffey's kind of place, with a lot of dark hand-rubbed wood and red leather and polished brass, tobacco smoke hanging in the air and hard booze in most of the glasses. There was a decent variety of beef and seafood dishes on the menu, but I think I must have had the same meal every time I went there- a shrimp cocktail, a thick sirloin, a baked potato with sour cream. Pie for dessert, pecan or apple, and a cup of coffee strong enough to skate on. And booze, of course. A martini to start, ice-cold and bone-dry and straight up with a twist, and a brandy after to settle the stomach. And then a little whiskey to clear the head.

Mahaffey taught me how to eat well on a patrolman's salary. "When a dollar bill floats down from the skies and happens to land in your outstretched hand," he said, "close your fingers around it, and praise the Lord." A fair amount of dollars rained down on us, and we had a lot of good meals together. More of them would have been at Cunningham's but for its location. It was in Chelsea, at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Twenty-third Street, and we were across the river in Brooklyn, just five minutes away from Peter Luger's. You could have the same meal there, in pretty much the same atmosphere.

You still can, but Cunningham's is gone. Back in the early seventies they served their last steak. Somebody bought the building and knocked it down to put up a twenty-two-story apartment house. For a few years after I made detective I was stationed at the Sixth Precinct in Greenwich Village, about a mile from Cunningham's. I guess I got there once or twice a month during those years. But by the time they closed the place I had turned in my gold shield and moved to a small hotel room on West Fifty-seventh Street. I spent most of my time at Jimmy Armstrong's saloon around the corner. I had my meals there, met my friends there, transacted business at my regular table at the back, and did my share of serious drinking. So I never even noticed when Cunningham's Steak House, est. 1918, closed the doors and turned off the lights. Sometime after the fact I guess somebody must have told me, and I suppose the news called for a drink. Almost everything did, those days.

But let's get back to Cunningham's, and back to the first Thursday in May of 1961. The old man- but why keep calling him that? His name was Homer Champney, and he was telling them about beginnings.

"We are a club of thirty-one," he said. "I've told you that my membership dates back to the last year of the last century, and that the man who spoke at my first meeting was born eight years after the War of 1812. And who spoke at his first meeting? And when did the first group of thirty-one assemble and vow to convene annually until only one of their number was left alive?

"I don't know. No one knows. There are vague references to clubs of thirty-one in various arcane histories down through the centuries. My own research suggests that the first club of thirty-one was an offshoot of Freemasonry over four hundred years ago, but it is arguable on the basis of a section in the Code of Hammurabi that a club of thirty-one had been established in ancient Babylonia, and that another, or perhaps a branch of the same one, existed among the Essene Jews at the time of Christ. One source indicates that Mozart was a member of such a club, and similar rumors have surfaced involving Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, and Dr. Samuel Johnson. There's no way of knowing how many clubs have sprung up over the years, and how many chains have maintained their continuity across the generations.

"The structure is simple enough. Thirty-one men of honorable character pledge themselves to assemble annually on the first Thursday in May. They take food and drink, they report on the changes the year has brought to their lives, and they note with reverence the passing of those members claimed by death. Each year we read the names of the dead.

"When there is one man left of the thirty-one, he does as I have done. He finds thirty ideal candidates for membership and brings them all together on an appointed evening. He reads, as I have read to you, the names of his thirty departed brothers. He burns the list of names, closing one chapter, opening another.

"And so we go on, my brothers. We go on."

According to Lewis Hildebrand, the most memorable thing about Homer Champney was his intensity. He had retired years before that night in '61, had sold the small manufacturing firm he'd founded and was evidently quite comfortably fixed. But he had started out in sales, and Hildebrand had no trouble believing he'd been a successful salesman. Something made you hang on every word he spoke, and the longer he talked the more fervent he became, and the more you wanted to hear what he had to say.

"You are not well acquainted with one another," he told them. "Perhaps you knew one or two of the people in this room before tonight. There might even be as many as three or four you count as friends. Prior friendships aside, it is unlikely that much of your lifelong social circle will be found in this room. Because this organization, this structure, is not concerned with friendship in the usual sense. It is not about social interaction or mutual advantage. We are not here to trade stock tips or sell each other insurance. We are closely yoked, my brothers, but we walk a very narrow path toward an extremely specific goal. We mark one another's progress on the long march to the grave.

"The demands of membership are small. There are no monthly meetings to attend, no committees on which to serve. There's no membership card to carry, no dues to pay beyond your proportionate share of the cost of the annual dinner. Your only commitment, and I ask that you be utterly committed to it, is your annual attendance on the first Thursday in May.

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