Sam slumped in jeans and an undershirt on his brown leather couch, with Jamie 17 in his lap. The couch was the only piece of furniture left in the once-elegant living room. The state-of-the-art stereo system I remembered was gone, as were the VCR and large-screen TV. The funky Kosta Boda crystal had vanished with the wall of expensive Looney Tune production cels, including a tribute to Mel Blanc that had cost me $350. Anything of value had been sold for drug money. All that remained were a few droopy cartoon characters, including the bankruptcy lawyer.
“So how long have you been using?” I asked.
“Almost two years.”
“Heroin?” I still couldn’t believe it.
“A manly drug. Some coke, too, when I’m coming down.”
I shook my head, amazed that this schizzy personality belonged to the same person I called my best friend. How could I not have known? And could Sam be a killer, too?
“Look at your face. You had no idea, did you?” he asked.
“None at all. I feel so dumb.”
“Don’t. I hid it like a champ. Long-sleeved shirts all the time. I keep my jacket on, even in summer.”
“Here I thought you were just an uptight lawyer.”
He half smiled. “Hides the tracks. And the blood, if there’s spotting.”
It made sense. As did his thin build and volatile temper of late. What I used to think was playfulness now looked like arrested development. “But it’s crazy, it’s self-destructive-”
“I agree. Don’t start lecturing.”
“How did you work? How could you concentrate?”
“I’m not gonzo all the time. Most of the time I’m up, so up I can do anything. Fool anybody.”
“How much money have you blown?”
“A fucking fortune.”
“No, tell me exactly.”
He cleared his throat. “Well, I sold the mutual funds I told you about and I can’t afford South Beach. I stay home under the sun-lamp, it’s around here somewhere. There are no stocks anymore, I sold Microsoft right before it went through the roof. But I do have a crush on Bill Gates. Can you blame me?”
“So how much?”
“My whole draw, every month, and then some.” He closed his eyes briefly. “I’m overdrawn on my checking and I owe my left nut to AmEx. Plus I have four credit cards with cash advances to the hilt. One card I even stole, from one of my partners, who left it on the table after lunch.”
I bit my tongue. “Is heroin that expensive?”
“You get what you pay for. It’s gotten purer, more bang for the buck. I support Ramon’s habit, too, and some of his friends like to party.”
I put two and two together. “Are you stealing from the clients?”
“No more than any other lawyer.”
“Okay, not so you’d notice. I overbill for reimbursements, a little here, a little there. Charges you don’t need receipts for.” He brightened. “Although your scam with Consolidated Computer is fucking brilliant, Bennie. I never thought of inventing a client, then billing to it. That one’s the big lie, all right.”
My face felt hot, and I hadn’t even told him about my wardrobe renaissance. “How’d you keep this up, Sam?”
“The sham, the whole thing.”
“I can’t keep a secret? ‘Deduce You Say!’ 195-”
“Enough with the cartoons,” I said, impatient with his rap. “No more Looney Tunes. I don’t want to hear one more quotation out of that mouth. Got it?”
“What?” He blinked, incredulous. “You want me to quit, cold turkey?”
“You heard me.”
“I can’t do it, doc. I was born this way. It’s genetic, not a choice.”
“You were explaining how you could have a whole secret life.”
“It’s nothing new for me, Bennie, I get lots of practice. I’m gay, remember? How do you think I keep that shit afloat? I have my partners believing I screw anything with a pulse. I’m the envy of the Policy Committee.”
“So it’s brilliant lawyer by day, drug addict by night?”
He stroked Jamie 17. “That’s a naive question. You don’t contain heroin that way. Only in the beginning, then it starts containing you. It sneaks up on you, especially stuff this good. No, I’m a junkie full time. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.”
I was silent, waiting. He wanted to tell me something, unburden himself, I could feel it. Maybe his confession would be to murder.
“I’ve fixed in my office, in the parking garage, in the men’s room, even in the bathroom at bankruptcy court. I’ve gotten out of more meetings to boot than I can count.”
“How could they not know?”
“I’d say I have to make a call. What lawyer doesn’t have to make a call? Shit, when I was in the bathroom, I really would use the time, call either a connection or a client. I’d have a cell phone to my ear and a needle in my arm.”
“It must be a nightmare, Sam,” I said, hurt for him.
“It is. But you know what’s funny? I need another hit, right now, and I’d do anything-give,sell anything-for it.”
“Don’t say that. Heroin kills.” I was thinking of Bill.
“But it’s true, Bennie. If I had my car back, I’d be up there in a minute. Let ’em beat the shit out of me, but after I fix. Only after.”
“Is that why Mark gave you the money, the cash I saw in his checkbook?”
“Did you tell him why?”
“Of course not. I told him I was making investments for him. Some stock tips I got from a rich client. I told him I could double his money.”
“You conned him out of it? One of your oldest friends?”
Sam looked away, and neither of us said anything for a moment. Neither had to.
“Sam,” I asked, breaking the silence, “do you think Mark knew you were an addict, even though you didn’t tell him?”
“I’m not an addict, I’m chemically challenged.”
“Stop joking around. Mark made you his executor, so I would guess he didn’t know. What do you think?”
Sam looked chastened. “He made the will about three years ago, and I was fairly clean at the time. He could have suspected, but he never said anything. I fooled you, didn’t I, and you were always smarter than he was. Always.”
I took a deep breath. “Sam, did you kill Bill Kleeb, that kid I represented? The animal activist?”
“I found him dead of a heroin overdose. You didn’t have anything to do with that?”
“No, of course not. What is this? I didn’t kill anybody. I never would. The only violence I like is cartoon. Where you get blown up and show up in the next frame, with a Band-Aid, crisscrossed.” He made a tiny x with his index fingers. “Like a patch on a flat tire.”
“But the balloons on your desk, what are they for?”
“Honestly? I use them to tie off.”
“You mean your arm?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, my dick. Of course I mean my arm. And don’t look at me like that. I know somebody who shoots up there to hide his tracks. He’s a doctor.”
“Bill’s arm was tied with a pink balloon when I found him.”
“So?” Then it dawned on him. “That’swhy you think I did it?” He laughed, but it came out like a huff of stale air and disturbed Jamie 17. “I’m not the only junkie who uses balloons for other than their intended purpose.”
“Is that common, to use a balloon?”
“Anything that works is common.” He put a slim finger to his temple. “Let’s see, I’ve used a belt, a rubber band, a leather shoelace. Even an Herm`es tie. The one with the jugglers.”
“But it was just like the balloons on your desk. The same color.”
“You can buy them in Woolworth’s! You should see the sleazoids buying those balloons. None of them are making giraffes with them, believe me. I had nothing to do with any death.”
“But you were angry at Bill for protesting the AIDS vaccine.”
“I didn’t even know the kid! I wouldn’t kill him for that! I’d have to kill every Republican in sight.”
Still. My stomach was tense. “Where were you two nights ago?”
“Where I am every night. Getting high with Ramon, my little Speedy Gonzales.”
“ ‘Here Today, Gone Tamale.’ 195-Oh, who cares?”
“I mean it. I’m telling the truth.”
I looked at him, near collapse in the saggy middle of the couch. “Sam, did you kill Mark? For the fees?”
“No, Bennie, I told you I didn’t, that day in my office!”
“You also told me you didn’t need the money, and you’re a drug addict.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m guilty of every murder in the city!” He leaned forward urgently, seeming to summon all the strength in his body. “You don’t get it, Bennie. If you’re hooked, you need money now. This second, this instant. I don’t need money a year from now or whenever Mark’s will gets probated.”
“What about the time you’d bill, the income from that?”
“Too late. I need cash, cash, cash, cash, all the time. You don’t invoice for dope money,chica. ”
“With the trustee’s fee, every year-”
“I’m in no shape to manage a trust! I can’t even manage my own life!” His eyes glistened. “I didn’t kill Mark. I swear to God.”
I considered it. Was Sam lying or wasn’t he? He looked like he was in pain. He’d been my friend as long as I could remember. I couldn’t be sure, but I felt that I could trust him, for the moment. At least draw on his expertise to help figure out what had happened to Bill. So I told him the whole story, about how there were no tracks on Bill’s arm, and what Mrs. Zoeller had said. When it was over, I asked him what he thought.
“It sounds like a setup to me,” he said. “Though I’ll tell you this-the last person to believe you’re a junkie is your mother.”
“Or your best friend.”
He looked sad. “I really am sorry, Bennie. I never wanted to get you in trouble.”
“Does your mother know?”
“You think I want to kill her? She knows I’m gay, that’s enough.”
I thought of Sam’s lifestyle, a gay man, maybe even sharing needles, exchanging high-risk blood. “From the looks of it, I think it’s yourself you want to kill.”
Sam’s anguished eyes found mine, and he didn’t disagree.
Later, I bundled him into his bed, now a bare mattress with one of the most exclusive views in the city, overlooking Rittenhouse Square. Where the night table had been were pizza crusts, overflowing ashtrays, and other trash.
I set about cleaning the place while Sam fell into an exhausted sleep. Jamie 17 kept me company and I went from room to room sweeping and vacuuming, just as I had cleaned my own apartment after the cops searched it. I’d gone from relentless slob to white tornado in a matter of days and hated every minute of it.
As the night wore on and Sam woke up, the singing turned to persuading, then pleading, then yelling. I hugged him, ordered him food, and threw him into the mildewed shower as Jamie 17 scampered out of sight. Anything to get him through the night. I made him throw out all the drug paraphernalia from his hiding places; an array of bloody needles, spoons, and stuff he called his “works.” I turned the place upside down, with him screaming at me, crying, begging me to stop. But I didn’t listen and he finally gave in.
I lost track of time and at some point I called a drug hotline as Sam raved in the background. They walked me through it-sweats, shakes, and nausea-from wherever they were to wherever I was. At the other end of the phone line was a kind, knowing soul who stayed with me and Sam through the darkness, asking nothing but to help.
By the time dawn came around, Sam had slipped into the soundest sleep I’d ever seen, sounder than Jamie 17’s at his feet, right through two calls from Ramon. The waiter’s third call sounded panicky and it was clear it wasn’t love he wanted. I hung up the phone.
When dawn finally broke, I rose from my spot on the hardwood floor and stretched, looking out the window over the Square. Every muscle in my body ached, but the scene was beautiful, Sunday morning quiet. The streetlights were still on around the Square, glowing dimly in the hazy gray morning. The green wooden benches were empty, even of the homeless. To my left twinkled downtown Philly, but the Silver Bullet seemed far away, draped in the mist. On the right were the classy rowhouses south of the Square and the backstreet that used to be ours, at R amp; B. I thought of Mark, then Grady.
Grady. I wondered how he was. I looked at the phone, off the hook on the floor beside Sam and Jamie 17. It was a chance, but I wanted to talk to him. A fugitive needs her lawyer, doesn’t she? The dawn I left him was exactly like this one. How many days ago was that? The truth was, I missed him. I picked up the phone and dialed him at home.
“Wells residence,” breathed a woman’s voice, in a soft whisper.
It took me aback. I squeezed the receiver in my hand. His old girlfriend? Another woman?
“Hello?” said the woman. I could barely hear her.
Good-bye, I thought, and hung up.