All the Flowers are Dying
by Lawrence Block
Morrow, 2005
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Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One


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When I got there, Joe Durkin was already holding down a corner table and working on a drink -- vodka on the rocks, from the looks of it. I took in the room and listened to the hum of conversation at the bar, and I guess some of what I was feeling must have found its way to my face, because the first thing Joe asked me was if I was all right. I said I was fine, and why?

"Because you look like you saw a ghost," he said.

"Be funny if I didn't," I said. "The room is full of them."

"A little new for ghosts, isn't it? How long have they been open, two years?"

"Closer to three."

"Time flies," he said, "whether you're having fun or not. Jake's Place, whoever Jake is. You got a history with him?"

"I don't know who he is. I had a history with the place before it was his."

"Jimmy Armstrong's."

"That's right."

"He died, didn't he? Was that before or after 9/11?"

That's our watershed; everything in our lives is before or after that date. "After," I said, "by five or six months. He left the place to a nephew, who tried running it for a few months and then decided it wasn't the life he wanted for himself. So I guess he sold it to Jake, whoever Jake is."

"Whoever Jake is," he said, "he puts a good meal on the table. You know what they've got here? You can get an Irish breakfast all day long."

"What's that, a cigarette and a six-pack?"

"Very funny. You must know what an Irish breakfast is, a sophisticated guy like yourself."

I nodded. "It's the cardiac special, right? Bacon and eggs and sausage."

"And grilled tomato."

"Ah, health food."

"And black pudding," he said, "which is hard to find. You know what you want? Because I'll have the Irish breakfast."

I told the waitress I'd have the same, and a cup of coffee. Joe said one vodka was enough, but she could bring him a beer. Something Irish, to go with the breakfast, but not Guinness. She suggested a Harp, and he said that would be fine.

I've known Joe for twenty years, though I don't know that ours is an intimate friendship. He's spent those years as a detective at Midtown North, working out of the old stationhouse on West Fifty-fourth Street, and we'd developed a working relationship over time. I went to him for favors, and returned them, sometimes in cash, sometimes in kind. Now and then he steered a client my way. There were times when our relations had been strained; my close friendship with a career criminal never sat well with him, while his attitude after one vodka too many didn't make me relish his company. But we'd been around long enough to know how to make it work, overlooking what we didn't like to look at and staying close but not too close.

Around the time our food arrived, he told me he'd put in his papers. I said he'd been threatening to do so for years, and he said he'd had everything filled out and ready to go a few years ago, and then the towers came down. "That was no time to retire," he said. "Although guys did, and how could you blame 'em? They lost their heart for the job. Me, I'd already lost my heart for it. Shoveling shit against the tide, all we ever do. Right then, though, I managed to convince myself I was needed."

"I can imagine."

"So I stayed three years longer than I intended, and if I did anything useful in those three years I can't remember what it was. Anyway, I'm done. Today's what, Wednesday? A week from Friday's my last day. So all I have to do now is figure out what the hell to do with the rest of my life."

Which was why he'd asked me to meet him for dinner, in a room full of ghosts.


It had been over thirty years since I put in my papers and retired from the NYPD, and shortly thereafter I'd retired as well from my role as husband and father, and moved from a comfortable suburban house in Syosset to a monastic little room at the Hotel Northwestern. I didn't spend much time in that room; Jimmy Armstrong's saloon, around the corner on Ninth between Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth, served as a combination of living room and office for me. I met clients there, I ate meals there, and what social life I had was centered there. I drank there, too, day in and day out, because that's what I did back then.

I kept it up for as long as I could. Then I put the plug in the jug, as the old-timers say, and began spending my idle hours not at Jimmy's joint but two blocks north of there, in the basement of St. Paul the Apostle. And in other church basements and storefronts, where I looked for something to put in the empty places alcohol used to fill.

Somewhere along the way, Jimmy lost his lease and moved half a block south and a long block west, to the corner of Fifty-seventh and Tenth. I'd kept my distance from the old place after I sobered up, and I avoided the new one for a while as well. It never did become a hangout, but Elaine and I would drop in for a meal from time to time. Jimmy always served good food, and the kitchen stayed open late, which made it a good choice after an evening at the theater or Lincoln Center.

I'd been to the service, at a funeral parlor on West Forty-fourth, where someone played a favorite song of his. It was "Last Call," by Dave Van Ronk, and I'd first heard it when Billie Keegan played it for me after a long night of whiskey ...

Excerpted from All the Flowers are Dying by Lawrence Block. Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Block. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.