Page 22

I stood there, letting it all come at me, taking in what I could of it. I don't want to make too much of this. I was not Saul of Tarsus, knocked off his horse en route to Damascus, nor was I AA's founder wrapped up in his famous white-light experience. All I did was remember-or imagine, or both-a whole slew of things one right after the other.

It couldn't have taken much time. Seconds, I would think. Dreams are like that, I understand, extending over far less of the sleeper's time than it would require to recount them. At the end there was just the candle-the soft glow of it, the smell of the burning wax and wick.

I had to sit down again and think about what I'd just experienced. Then I had to walk around for a while, going over every frame in my memory like an assassination buff poring over the Zapruder film.

I couldn't blink it away or shrug it off. I knew something I hadn't known before.


"The first night I went to Whitfield's place," I told Elaine. "TJ was over for dinner, we were watching the fights together-"

"In Spanish. I remember."

"-and Whitfield called. And I went over there and talked with him."


"And I remembered something," I said, and paused. After a long moment she asked me if I was planning on sharing it with her.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I guess I'm still sorting it out. And trying to think of a way to say it that won't sound ridiculous."

"Why worry about that? There's nobody here but us chickens."

There could have been. We were in her shop on Ninth Avenue, surrounded by the artwork and furnishings she dealt in. Anyone could have rung the bell and been buzzed in to look at the pictures and perhaps buy something, possibly one of the chairs we were sitting on. But it was a quiet afternoon, and for now we were alone and undisturbed.

I said, "There was no liquor on his breath."

"Whitfield, you're talking about."


"You don't mean at the end, when he drank the poison and died. You mean the night you first met him."

"Well, I'd met him before. I'd worked for the man. But yes, I'm talking about the night I went to his apartment. He'd told me on the phone that he'd received a death threat from Will, and I went over there to suggest ways he might go about protecting himself."

"And there was no liquor on his breath."

"None. You know how it is with me. I'm a sober alcoholic, I can damn near smell a drink on the other side of a concrete wall. If I'm on a crowded elevator and the little guy in the far corner had a thimbleful of something alcoholic earlier in the day, I smell it as surely as if I just walked into a brewery. It doesn't bother me, it doesn't make me wish I were drinking or that the other person weren't, but I could no more fail to notice it than if somebody turned out the lights."

"I remember when I had the chocolate."

"The chocolate… oh, with the liquid center."

She nodded. "Monica and I were visiting this friend of hers who was recovering from a mastectomy, and she passed around these chocolates someone had given her. And I got piggy, because these were very good chocolates, and I had four of them, and the last one had a cherry-brandy filling. And I had it half swallowed before I realized what it was, and then I swallowed the rest of it, because what was I going to do, spit it out? That's what you'd have done, you'd have had reason to, but I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just a person who doesn't drink, so it wouldn't kill me to swallow it."

"And it didn't make you take off all your clothes."

"It didn't have any effect whatsoever, as far as I know. There couldn't have been very much brandy involved. There was a cherry in there, too, so that didn't leave much room for brandy." She shrugged. "Then I came home and gave you a kiss and you looked as startled as I've ever seen you."

"It took me by surprise."

"I thought you were going to sing me a chorus of 'Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine.' "

"I don't even know the tune."

"Do you want me to hum a little? But we're straying from the subject. The point is you're super aware of the smell of booze and you didn't smell it on Adrian Whitfield. Could it be, Holmes, that the man hadn't been drinking?"

"But he said he had."


"It was a funny conversation," I recalled. "He started out by announcing that he didn't drink, and that got my attention because he was uncapping the scotch bottle even as he said it. Then he qualified it by saying he didn't drink the way he used to, and that he pretty much limited himself to one drink a day."

"That would be enough for anybody," she said, "if you had a big enough glass."

"For some of us," I said, "you'd need a bathtub. Anyway, he went on to say that this particular day had been an exception, what with the letter from Will, and that he'd had a drink when he left the office and another when he got home to his apartment."

"And you didn't smell them on his breath."


"If he brushed his teeth-"

"Wouldn't matter. I'd still smell the alcohol."

"You're right, he'd just wind up smelling like crиme de menthe. I notice alcohol on people's breath, too, because I don't drink. But I'm nowhere near as aware of it as you are."

"All the years I drank," I said, "I never once smelled alcohol on anybody's breath, and it hardly ever occurred to me that anyone could smell it on mine. Jesus, I must have gone around smelling of it all the time."

"I kind of liked it."


"But I like it better this way," she said, and kissed me. After a few minutes she went back to her chair and said, "Whew. If we were not in a semi-public place-"

"I know."

"Where anyone could ring the bell at any moment, even though no one has in the longest time-" She heaved a sigh. "What do you think it means?"

"I think we're still hot for each other," I said, "after all these years."

"Well, I know that. I mean the booze that wasn't on Whitfield's breath, which is uncannily like the dog that didn't bark in the nighttime, isn't it? What do you make of it?"

"I don't know."

"You're sure you noticed it at the time? Noticed the absence of it, I mean, and the contradiction between what he said and what you observed. It wasn't just something your imagination supplied when you were lighting candles and cursing the darkness?"

"I'm positive," I said. "I thought of it at the time, and then I just plain forgot about it because there were too many far more important things to think about. Here was a man sentenced to death by a killer who'd built up a pretty impressive track record. He wanted me to help him figure out a way to stay alive. That had more of a claim on my attention than the presence or absence of booze on his breath."

"Of course."

"I smelled the scotch when he opened the bottle and poured the drink. And it struck me that I hadn't smelled it on his breath when he let me into the apartment. We shook hands, our faces weren't all that far apart. I'd have smelled it if it had been there to smell."

"If the man hadn't been drinking," she wondered, "why would he say he had?"

"I have no idea."

"I could understand if it was the other way around. People do that all the time, especially if they think the person they're talking to might have a judgment on the subject. He knew you didn't drink so he might assume you disapprove of others drinking. But you don't, do you?"

"Only when they throw up on my shoes."

"Maybe he wanted to impress you with the gravity of the situation. 'I'm not much of a drinker, I never have more than one a day, but this creep with the poisoned pen has me so rattled I've had a few already and I'm about to have another.' "

" 'And then I'll stop, because stress or not I'm no rummy.' I thought of that."


"Why would he think he needed to do that? He just got a death threat from a guy with maximum credibility. Will's been all over the front pages for weeks, and so far he's batting a thousand. And here you've got Adrian Whitfield, a worldly man, certainly, and one professionally accustomed to the company of criminals, but all the same a far cry from a daredevil."

"You wouldn't mistake him for Evel Knievel."

"You wouldn't," I said, "because when all is said and done he's a lawyer in a three-piece suit, and the chances he takes tend not to be physical in nature. Of course he's going to take a letter from Will seriously. He doesn't have to prove it to me by pretending to have had drinks earlier."

"You don't suppose…"


"Could he have been a closet teetotaler?"


"You said he poured a drink in front of you. Are you sure he actually drank it?"

I thought about it. "Yes," I said.

"You saw him drink it."

"Not in a single swallow, but yes."

"And it was whiskey?"

"It came out of a scotch bottle," I said, "and I got a whiff of it when he poured it. It smelled like booze. In fact it smelled like a single-malt scotch, which is what it claimed to be on the label."

"And you saw him drink it, and you smelled it on his breath."

"Yes to the first part. Did I smell it on his breath afterward? I don't remember one way or the other. I didn't have occasion to notice."

"You mean he didn't kiss you goodnight?"

"Not on the first date," I said.

"Well, shame on him," she said. "I kissed you goodnight, on our first date. I can even remember what you had on your breath."

"You can, huh?"

"Whiskey," she said. "And moi"

"What a memory."

"Well, it was memorable, you old bear. No, what I was getting at, I know there are people who drink but try to hide it. And I wondered if there might also be people who don't drink, and try to hide that."


"I don't know. Why does anybody do anything?"

"I've often wondered." I thought about it. "A lot of us maintain our anonymity to one degree or another. There's a longstanding tradition against going public about being a member of AA, though lately that's getting honored in the breach."

"I know. All these Hollywood types go straight from Betty Ford to Barbara Walters."

"They're not supposed to do that," I said, "but it's your own business to what extent you stay anonymous in your private life. I don't tell casual acquaintances unless I have a reason. And if I'm at a business meeting and the other fellow orders a drink, I'll just order a Coke. I won't issue an explanation."

"And if he asks if you drink?"

"Sometimes I'll say 'Not today,' something like that. Or, 'It's a little early for me,' if I'm feeling particularly devious. But I can't imagine pouring a drink and pretending to drink it, or keeping colored water in a scotch bottle." I remembered something. "Anyway," I said, "there were the liquor store records, the deliveries he'd had over the past months. They confirmed that he was just what he claimed to be, a guy who had one drink a day on the average."