If that had been one of Danny's nights at Poogan's, I might never have met Helen Leich Bierman Watling, the twice-widowed mother of Jason Bierman. I'd have thought of calling her at her hotel, and I might have looked at my watch and decided it was too late for a phone call. If I'd failed to find a working pay phone, intending to call when I got home, I'd have been that much more likely to decide it was too late and let it go until morning.
By then I'd have heard from Ira Wentworth (of Wentworth & McLaren) and a call to a dotty old lady from Wisconsin would no longer have ranked high on my list of priorities. In any event, I'd have had to call her by nine that morning, because that was when she was leaving to catch an eleven-A.M. flight to Milwaukee, the airport of choice for those living in Oconomowoc.
But Mother Blue's is on Amsterdam in the Nineties, just a few minutes from the Colonial Inn, late the Paraldehyde Arms. I didn't even call, I just walked there, and a clerk who looked too well-scrubbed for the rest of the lobby confirmed that Mrs. Watling was a guest of the hotel. I picked up a house phone and he put through a call to her room.
I said, "Mrs. Watling, my name's Matthew Scudder, I'm a private detective. I'd like to talk with you about your son."
"Oh, my," she said. "You people really come out of the woodwork, don't you?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I guess you smell money," she said. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm afraid I can't possibly afford the fees you charge."
And she rang off.
"I think we got cut off," I told the clerk. "Could you put me through again?"
When she picked up I said, "Mrs. Watling, you couldn't hire me if you wanted to. I already have a client, and I happen to believe your son is in fact innocent, that he was set up and killed by a man as yet unidentified. I'm downstairs in the lobby, I walked over here to talk to you, but if you hang up on me again I'll go home, and you can go to hell."
I said all that in one breath, wanting to get the words in before she broke the connection, and maybe that's why my finish was a little more forceful than I'd intended. For a moment I thought she had in fact hung up, because I didn't hear anything from her, and then she said, "Oh, dear. I finally act in an assertive manner, after being so namby-pamby ever since I got to this city, and I guess I picked the wrong man to hang up on. Are you still there?"
"Do you want to come up here?"
NO VISITORS ALLOWED IN ROOMS, a sign announced. "I don't think I can," I said. "There seems to be a rule against it."
"Do you suppose they think I'm a prostitute? Well, it doesn't matter, there's no room for two people in here anyway. There's not really room for one. This is the worst excuse for a hotel I've ever seen in my whole life, let alone stayed in, and they're charging me ninety-five dollars a night, and tax is extra. And people tell me it's a bargain!"
Welcome to New York, I thought.
"I'll have to get dressed," she said, "but it won't take me a minute, and then I'll be right down."
It was more than a minute, but no more than five, before she emerged from the elevator, wearing a beige pantsuit and a bright yellow blouse. "I'm dressed all wrong for New York," she said. "You don't have to tell me."
"I wasn't going to."
"Well, I am, and I know it, but I'm not going to run out and buy a lot of black clothes just so I can fit in. And I don't think I would fit in even if I did."
I wasn't inclined to argue the point. She looked like a suburban Midwestern matron, her light brown hair carefully styled, her lipstick neatly applied, her wrinkles the kind they call laugh lines. She wasn't the stereotypical mother I'd envisioned, but she seemed to fit the role she'd fashioned for herself, or found forced upon her- the mother determined to salvage a dead son's good name.
Except it wasn't all that good a name to start with, she told me, after we had settled into a corner booth at the Ninety-sixth Street equivalent of the Morning Star, or the Salonika. "Nothing ever really worked out for Jason," she said. "His father was about the handsomest boy in our high school class, and the most fun. But fun was all he cared about, and fun meant drinking, and drinking meant… well, he took off when Jason was four years old. I never heard from him, and I was told I could divorce him in absentia, or have him declared legally dead after seven years. But I didn't know that I wanted to do that, either of those things, and then I didn't have to, because he turned a car over somewhere in California and there was a card in his wallet of who to notify in the event he died, which he did."
Jason didn't do well in school, she said, and then when she remarried he didn't get along with his stepfather, who was, she had to admit it, a hard man to get along with. And Jason sort of drifted, and he wasn't too good at staying out of trouble, but he was never what you'd call bad. There was nothing hurtful about him, nothing mean-spirited. They said he'd been arrested for sneaking under a subway turnstile, and she could imagine him doing that, or even shoplifting from a supermarket or department store, but what they'd said he'd done…
I told her how I was investigating from the other direction, trying to find someone with a motive specific to the Hollanders. If I could find some common element, someone in her son's life who was in any way linked to Byrne and Susan Hollander, then I might be able to connect the dots.
She thought it over while she spread butter on her toasted bran muffin ("one thing that's definitely better in New York, I'll grant you that") and took a little bite. She sipped some iced tea, ate more of the muffin, drank more of the tea, and looked up at me and shook her head.
"I just don't know who he did or didn't know," she said. "He would call me just about once a week, he was good about that. He called collect, of course. I told him to, he didn't have the money to pay for his calls. In fact I helped him out a little, I sent a money order every few weeks. I didn't send checks because it was almost impossible for him to find a place that would cash a personal check on an out-of-state bank, and of course he didn't have a bank account of his own to deposit it into. He didn't have anything."
Except, she said, he was beginning to find himself, to get his feet planted. Not to take charge of his life, that made him sound a little more capable than he had yet become, but at least to play an active role in his own life instead of watching passively as it unfolded before him.
"He was working," she said. "Three hours a day, Monday through Friday, delivering lunches for a delicatessen. They paid him in cash at the end of his shift each day, and it wasn't very much, but he got tips, too. And he worked nights, too, making deliveries for a package store."
I didn't know the term, and she said, "Don't you call it that? A store that sells packaged goods. Beverages, alcoholic beverages. What do you call it?"
"A liquor store."
"Well, that's New York for you," she said. "I guess we're more discreet in the Midwest, or maybe just more namby-pamby. We call them package stores. Now you didn't know that, and I didn't know there was anything else to call them, so I guess we both learned something, didn't we?"
Jason's life didn't sound like much, she knew. A couple of part-time subsistence jobs hardly amounted to a budding career. But when you knew him and where he'd come from, well, you could see that he was on the right track.
"The last time he got in trouble," she said, "they had him see a counselor, and I have to give New York credit for this, because Jason said the man helped him see things a little more clearly. How he was just getting in his own way time and time again, and how it didn't have to be that way. And from that point on, his life began to improve."
Some specifics might have helped. The name of the social worker, for instance, who might have known the names of some of the other people in Jason Bierman's new life. It would have been nice to know the names and locations of his occasional employers; she knew only that the deli was in Manhattan, which didn't narrow it down much. The package store ("or liquor store, I'll have to remember to call it that") might have been anywhere.
She finished her bran muffin and iced tea, and I decided I'd had as much of my coffee as I wanted. I picked up the check, and she took a wallet from her purse and asked how much her share came to. I said it was on me. She insisted she'd be happy to pay, and I told her to forget it. "You're a visitor," I said. "Next time I'm in Wisconsin, I'll let you pick up the tab."
"Well, that's very nice of you," she said. "And after I just about accused you of trying to drum up some high-priced business!" But she'd had audiences with several private detectives, she said, and one told her to go home, that she was wasting her time, and the others wanted substantial advances before they would undertake to do a thing.
"Two men asked for two thousand dollars, and one wanted twenty-five hundred," she said. "And there was another man who asked for two or three thousand, I can't remember which, and I said that was much too high, and he said, well, how about a thousand? And I hemmed and hawed, and he said if I gave him five hundred he could get started. And it came to me that he wanted whatever I could give him, and he probably wouldn't do a thing once he had the money in his hand."
I told her she was probably right. She apologized again, unnecessarily, and asked if I thought she should stay in New York. She was supposed to fly home in the morning but she supposed she could stick around for a few more days.
I told her there was no need. I gave her one of my cards and made sure I had her address and phone number written down correctly. And I walked her back to her hotel, even though she told me not to bother. I waited until she had collected her key from the desk and boarded the elevator, then went outside and looked for a taxi.
When I walked in the door, Elaine told me Ira Wentworth had called twice. He wouldn't say what it was about, just that I should call him as soon as I got in.
I tried his number and a nasal-voiced male said, "Squad room, this is Acker." I gave my name and said I was returning Detective Wentworth's call.
"He's not in," Acker said, "but I know he wants to talk to you. Will you be staying put for the next ten minutes?"
"I'm not going anywhere. He's got the number, but let me give it to you again."
He repeated it back to me and rang off, and I realized I'd missed my chance to ask the number of the precinct. I picked up the phone and had my finger on the redial button but didn't push it.
I had a feeling I knew which precinct it was.
I put the phone down while I checked my notebook, picked it up again, and tried a number I'd tried before, with no success. It rang once, twice, and then somebody answered but didn't speak.
I said, "Ira Wentworth?"
The voice I'd heard once before, on my machine, said, "Who the hell is this?"
Half an hour later the doorman called upstairs to announce a Mr. Wentworth. I said to send him up, and was waiting in the hall when he got off the elevator. He was in his late thirties, tall and broad-shouldered, with a square jaw and a high forehead. His dark hair was combed straight back.
He said his name and I said mine, and we shook hands. "I made a couple of phone calls," he said. "You were on the job yourself."