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I DIDN'T WANT to come back to New York.
Nothing was there for me anymore. After a year, I almost had the city out of my system. No nostalgia, no sense of loss, no reluctance at having abandoned a place that had been so much a part of my life.
All I felt was annoyance at having to return to a town I had flushed away in one wild firefight-a firefight that nobody but me remembered.
Even before I'd left, so-called progress had squeezed out the great old neighborhood spots, leaving sad relics behind that had become sophisticated corrals for the idiotic “in” crowd. When they tore down the old Blue Ribbon Restaurant on West Forty-fourth Street, it was the beginning of the end. Why the hell ever go back?
Only a call from Pat Chambers could have changed my mind-the captain of Homicide who had hounded and helped me over a bloodstained career that had made the tabloids thrive and the Powers That Be apoplectic.
Pat's voice had been friendly, but not questioning, almost as if he understood why I chose to disappear, and that it was all right with him.
The Ocean View Motel had two floors of rooms and half a dozen cabins. I had one of the latter and was in the midst of an afternoon nap when the phone rang. It didn't surprise me he'd got the number somehow. Nobody had been informed of where I was because I wanted nobody to know, not even my best friend, which is what Pat was.
But a good New York cop can find anybody, if he wants to badly enough.
“Mike, Bill Doolan is dead. They're having services for him tomorrow night at eight at McCormick's Funeral Home.”
It was as if a year hadn't passed at all.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“He shot himself.”
“. . . You sure?”
“I'm sure.” He knew I wouldn't question him any further, so added, “He was dying of cancer. The big-pain part was coming up just ahead, and he decided to bypass it.”
Outside palm trees riffled in the wind. Beyond, blue endless ocean rippled under a butterscotch sun. No palms in Manhattan. The ocean there was endless, too, only gray, and the sun was blotted out by skyscraper tombstones.
“There's an afternoon flight out of here tomorrow around three,” I said with a sigh. “I should get in about supper time.”
“Cutting it a little close.”
“Don't want a minute more in that town than I have to.”
“So when did you start to hate New York?”
“When the medic yanked me out of a nice warm womb,” I said, “and slapped my tiny ass.”
“And you been trying to find your way back into one ever since.”
“No shit.” I paused, trying to fit details of the city back in my mind. “The Pub still open?”
“Get a reservation.”
“Nothing changes with you.”
“Still telling me what to do.”
“So do it,” I said, and hung up, and for a minute just lay there. Finally, I said, “Damn,” and hauled my behind off the bed.
The soft-pac suitcase was still in a corner of the closet and it didn't take me more than five minutes to lay out what I needed. One thing good about late spring-it packed easily. The three medicine vials went into a side pocket with the worn address book and I zipped the bag shut.
When I looked at myself in the mirror, I could only shake my head. It had been twelve months since I had worn a tie, and my suit jacket was loose around my waist, but dropping eighteen pounds will do that. There was no flab at all now, which was good, but the minimal exercise I was allowed hadn't done much for muscle tissue.
I knelt to get the oiled and loaded .45 and its shoulder rig out of the box under the closet floorboard, but then stood up quickly, like I'd almost touched something hot. The old days were gone now and it could stay where it was.
The weather forecast said it was raining in New York, so I packed the trench coat and got my hat out of the plastic bag, the last of God knew how many Stetson porkpies I'd bought over the years-a nice new feel to the gray felt. I snapped the brim into place, rolling the edge until I had it just right-that was one thing I still had. Nobody could wear hats anymore, but I had that down.
Then I took the porkpie off and carried it in my hand. Down here among the sun and palms and sand, a felt hat was a little too much.
Bag in my left hand, hat in my right, I walked over to the main building and called Marty out of the pool, where he was clowning around with two well-tanned beauties, a blonde and brunette, who spent the weekends working as mates on a headboat out of Key West.
The big ex-Marine motel manager with the white crewcut and dark tan stood there dripping, looking at me in my city clothes as he held back a grin in that well-grooved, blue-eyed face.
“Where are you going?” He nodded toward the bikinis. “There's one for you. Betty or Veronica. Take your pick.”
“Not in the mood.”
He grunted a laugh. “Still carrying the torch for that secretary of yours?”
I gave a look that said cool it.
Then I said, “I'll be gone a few days.”
“I had a feeling,” he said. He seemed to be considering bringing up the subject of my secretary again, but apparently thought better of it.
“Tomorrow the doc will be stopping by,” I said. “Just tell him I feel fine, that I'll be taking it easy, and not to have a cow over it.”
A frown flashed across Marty's face. “He's gonna be pissed off, pal . . . and you know how he gets.”
I nodded toward the pool. “Loan him your extra girl . . . Look, man, I'm going to a funeral. It's an old, old friend, and something I have to do.”
He nodded. No grin. Eyes slitted. “One question, Mike.”
“You gonna attend a funeral or are you gonna cause one?”
I just looked at him.
“Damnit, Mike, I'm serious . . .”
I waved it off. “No action this time, Marty. Strictly a pallbearer.”
“Yeah, but whose?” His shrug was one of resignation. “Okay, I guess I'll believe you. You been here a year and haven't killed anybody yet, and that must be a record.” A sigh accompanied a second shrug. “Shit, I'll just keep your cabin locked up and hope you don't come back in a body bag. What about your car?”
“I'll leave it at the airport.”
“Any idea when you'll be heading back?”
“Like I said-a few days. I'll call ahead of time. When Buzz comes in tonight, cancel that fishing trip.”
“Sure thing.” He let a long moment go by, then asked me with a frown, “Who knew where to get a hold of you down here?”
“I told you before, Marty-I left word with nobody. But the caller was a cop. He's a damn good friend and probably knew where I was all along.”
“Really. Probably tracked me right from the beginning, which would've been hard but not impossible. I wasn't in good enough shape to lay a decent cover down.”
His eyes widened. “But if your cop pal could find you, so could somebody else . . .”
I waved that off, too. “Forget it. Nobody's on my tail. I am very old news.”
“Mike . . .”
“I told you before, Marty-they went down, I went down. It's all evened out. Nobody wants to start that crap all over again. Like Capone said, 'It ain't good business.'”
“Do I need to take on extra security precautions down here?”
“No. I won't be hiding in New York. If somebody wants to settle a score, that's where they'll do it. Anybody who wants to find me? Can.”
But Marty looked worried. His war was a long time ago, and he was used to a life of sun and fun and boats and bikinis.
“They might follow you back, Mike, before settling that score. In Manhattan, you'll have your cop buddies around you. They're all badges and guns, and who the hell wants to take on that combo?”
“Marty, you got one hell of an imagination. It's not like I registered here under my own name.”
“Bullshit. Do me one favor-when you're finished burying your friend, and whoever else the fuck you bury-sneak back down here, really make it on the sly, okay? Bullets flying might discourage return visits by guests.”
“Pal, I'm an old pro at that sort of stuff. Now get back in the pool and play with your pussycats.”
He grinned and waved goodbye and jumped back in the pool. Those two dolls together didn't add up to his age, but he was a bigger kid than they ever were. Still, he'd got me thinking.
So I went back to the cabin, got the .45 and speed rig out of their hiding place, and stuffed the holstered gun in the soft-pac between my underwear and shirts.
When you went to Florida, you took your fishing rod. For Manhattan, a rod of a different kind was called for.
I picked up the Piedmont flight at Key West and watched as the Florida Keys passed by under the wing. This time of year, traffic was light. The winter tourists had packed their gear and made the yearly trek north to escape the clean heat and humidity of summer to broil in their own sweat and the clamminess of those big cities where the graffiti grew.
At Miami I got a direct flight to New York and watched the ocean with its little toy boats until the coastline came into view again with its cities that thickened the farther north we got. At one time I would have felt like I was coming back to something alive, something vital, and would have had a drink in anticipation of hitting the Big Apple.
But it wasn't like that at all. At dusk from fifteen thousand feet, it was all fireflies and Christmas tree bulbs, winking and blinking; wormy lines of a million car lights on endless paths to nowhere, just keeping that big octopus down there in motion.
We landed at LaGuardia and I took my damn time getting down to the baggage claim. I didn't want that hot spot behind my ribs to begin kicking up again. When I had my bag, I walked out to the taxi stand, my fellow passengers long gone, and after a thirty-second wait got into a taxi and told the guy to take me to the Pub on East Fifty-seventh Street.
Now it was the city's turn to pass in review and it did a lousy job. Nothing had changed. No sudden sense of déjà vu-the smells were the same, the noise still grating, the people out there looking and waiting but never seeing anything at all. If they did, they sure as hell didn't let anyone know about it.
Going over the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, the sounds and smells brought the city up closer and I was almost ready to crawl back into it by the time my cab turned off the East Side Highway. A few drops of rain splattered on the cab's windshield and I put my hat on. Up here it didn't feel out of place.
At the curb in front of the Pub, I passed a twenty and a five over the seat and told the driver to keep the change. For a second I caught his eye in the rearview mirror, a bald black guy with a graying beard that had a big blossoming smile in its midst as he said, “You been away, Mike?”
That's New York. The first native you see puts a finger right on you, as if he were your best buddy, and it almost makes you want to revamp your negative thinking.
I grinned back at him. “Why, you miss me?”
“Never see you at the jazz clubs anymore.”
“I had to lay back a while.”
“Yeah, yeah-there was something in the papers. You and that Bonetti kid. They clip you bad, Mike?”
I shrugged. “One in the side that went right through, and another that fragged my ass. A piece is still in there.”
“Yeah, man.” He shook his head. “I got one like that in Korea. Worked itself all the way down my leg and came out the back of my friggin' knee. That stuff travels. You take care, Mike.”
“Sure, man,” I said, and got out of the cab.
And there was Pat Chambers, a big rangy guy with gray eyes, an off-the-rack suit, and a mouth twisted in that soft cop grin he gets when the suspect drops it all down on tape and the case is closed on his end. He held out his hand and I took it.
“Welcome home, friend,” he said.
“It was a fast year,” I told him. “How have you been?”
“Still a captain. I think I'm glued in there.”
“Too bad. Inspector Chambers has a nice ring.”
“Not holding my breath. Hungry?”
“Starving. I skipped eating on the plane-a TV dinner at thirty thousand feet, I don't need. I hope those Irishers still know how to serve up the corned beef.”
“Best in New York. Hell, you ought to know, Mike-you discovered the place.”
I nodded, dropping back into the past again. All I did was follow the boys from Dublin who served out their apprenticeships at P.J. Gallagher's and opened up their own spot in real Irish-American tradition. And now their corned beef was a tradition all its own.
The supper crowd was three deep at the bar with all the happy noises that come when the Dow Jones is up and a few drinks are down. I waved at the bartenders, got a wink back, and followed Pat to the booth in the restaurant section.
When we were seated, Pat said, “You drinking anything?”
“Yeah. A Miller will go good.”
“You mean with the corned beef special?”
He looked up at the waiter. “I'll have the same.” He leaned back then, waited a moment, and asked, “How you feeling, Mike?”
“Fine-another few months and I'll be off the medication. I'm not running any footraces, but I managed to stay in shape.”
“I don't mean that way.”
His eyes were searching me now, friendly, curious, but still searching.
“Why, Pat? You think I might have an attitude problem?”
“Don't you always?”
After a moment, I said, “Not anymore.”
“I asked you how you're feeling, Mike.”
“And I said fine. Hell, man. I've been shot before.”
“Yeah, and you've crawled off to recuperate before. But it never took you this long to show your face again.”
“Maybe I'm getting older,” I told him. “Why, did you miss me?”
“Yeah. Like an amputated leg that you keep trying to scratch.”
The corned beef and beer came then, thick slabs of meat steaming on top of a huge baked potato, the beer foaming down the iced mug. We hoisted our glasses in a silent toast, gulped down half the contents, and got to the main course.
I let Pat take his time getting back to the questions again. They were all the same ones I had asked myself, but this time I had to give an answer.
“Why didn't you ever contact me, Mike?”
“I meant to, pal, I really did, but there was no urgency.”
“Come on,” he said softly.
When I looked up he was still watching me in that strange way. The expression was exactly the same as the one he had worn the last night he saw me in the hospital. It was my ninth day in the place, I was up and around, but still hurting like hell. Sleep hadn't helped any either . . .
. . . my head still full of the wild banging of handguns and the crazy booming of shotguns, echoing across the pier, flame belching right past my face and even though I didn't feel the impact of the slugs that took me down I could remember the numbness and the slow drifting away that began to smother me. The face was there, too, blood smeared across the Bonetti kid's mouth, tight in a mad grin as he poked the barrel of his .357 against my forehead and said, “Die, you bastard,” as he started to squeeze the trigger but he shouldn't have taken the time to say it because the .45 in my fist went off and his finger couldn't make the squeeze because the brain that should have sent it signals shut off like a switch as Bonetti's head came apart in crimson chunks like a target-range watermelon.
And now, a year later, I sat in a familiar restaurant with my best buddy and my pulse rate had almost doubled and my breath was caught in my throat.
“I got tired, Pat,” I said. “I got tired of the whole goddamn mess.”
“That kid was a fucking psycho killer. But he did us a favor, losing his cool-or maybe you did us the favor by goading him into that play. Shit. We wiped out damn near half the Bonetti family that night.”
“And what good did it do, Pat? Twice the volume of drugs has come into the States since.”
“But apparently not the Bonettis doing it,” he said with a shrug. “That still leaves five families. Used to be six, till you squeezed the Evello bunch out, ten years ago. Anyway, that's ancient history.”
I took another pull at the beer. “Sure. And all the assholes who want to get noodled up on poppy juice make it profitable for 'em. More power to the pricks.”
“No. No attitude problem for you.”
This time I finished off the beer and put the mug down. I waved for a refill and the waiter took the empty away. “I'm just plain tired of the game, Pat. I haven't got an attitude problem. I haven't got an attitude. Period.”
The gray eyes turned placid. He smiled just a little. “Good.”
I frowned at him. “And before you ask, let me tell you something. I haven't lost my nerve. It's just that it's finally occurred to me that tilting at windmills doesn't matter a damn in this lousy life. Let somebody else do the dirty work-like you cops, for instance.”
“I been waiting years to hear this. Don't stop now.”
“I have stopped. I'm not in it anymore. I haven't got the slightest faintest fucking desire to get wrapped up in that bundle of bullshit again. I've done it, it's past me, I'm retired.”
For a full minute Pat went on eating, then nodded sagely. “And maybe it's for the best.”
It was his tone of voice that made me ask, “What're you not saying?”
His eyes came back to mine. “Right now there's relative peace on the streets. After you wiped out young Bonetti, everybody thought the old man would try to lay a hit on you, and if it didn't take, you'd come roaring back at him with one of those wild-ass shoot-outs that you were so damn famous for. Hell, that's why we kept you under wraps in the hospital . . . until you slipped out on your own.”
“Don't lay any blame on the uniforms guarding me-I'm still not that easy to babysit.”
“I didn't. I don't.”
“So what's Papa Bonetti think about it now?” My second beer came and I sipped the head off it. “Is there still a contract out for this old dog?”
“Not to our knowledge.” He shrugged. “We took out so many of his men, and you killed his son-Alberto's a broken man. Sitting out his final years at his Long Island estate, and at that old social club. He's out of the business.”
“Okay, so maybe he's not as retired as he says. I mean, somebody's distributing the stuff.”
“But not the Bonetti family.”
“Far as we know, they aren't major players in narcotics. They may still have some fingers in the racket, but their strong suits are loansharking and gambling. On the other hand, I don't think Alberto Bonetti's losing sleep over evening the score with Mike Hammer.”
“You sound sure of that.”
“I am. We went through some back channels and put the question to him. As far as he's concerned, the incident is closed. His boy Sal was a hothead who aimed higher than he could reach. The kid's dead, his pop's staying under the radar, maybe retired, maybe not. Either way, any more shooting would be bad all around.”
I paraphrased the Capone quote I'd shared with Marty: “Lousy for business.”
“And it would make our current administration very uneasy, as well.”
“I'll bet,” I said sourly.
We both went back to our corned beef, the noise around us building up as the bar crowd made its way back to the tables. It was a scratchy sound now, an irritant. I had been away from it too long, much too long, and a scene I once found comforting only annoyed. They sounded like a bunch of damn kids at a ball game, and Pat and I tried to cover it with our own grown-up conversation.
But there comes a time when the small talk fades and all you do is sit there looking at each other, wondering how to work up to the main event.
I said, “What happened to Doolan, Pat?”
His frown had a ragged edge to it, as if he didn't like the way it was going to sound. “I told you. He killed himself.”
He lifted a palm, like he was swearing in at court. “That's what I thought when I first saw the report. Doolan was never the suicide type.”
“Damn well told. There's no way you're going to make me believe that.”
The gray eyes had a weariness now. “Suicide isn't really the right word, Mike.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
Pat sat back. “Physically healthy men who can't cope, and just plain give up and shoot themselves-that's suicide.”
“So a week ago Doolan had a final report from his doctor. He had a terminal cancer, and was about to go into the final stage. At best, he had about three months to live, and it was going to be a rough downhill ride all the way. He'd wanted to know the truth and the doctor pulled no punches-each day the pain would be worse and there was no way they could stop it.”
I knew where Pat was headed.
He went on: “When the doctor confirmed what Doolan suspected, he went home and began putting his affairs in order. Got his will out of a lockbox and laid it out on his desk. His granddaughter gets most everything-the beach house, his insurance, and two fairly expensive paintings he'd bought years ago.”
“Doolan buying paintings?”
“Don't laugh, Mike. Their value had gone up many times since their purchase.”
“Who else was on his list?”
“The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and a small bequest to an old buddy in a nursing home in Albany. From his desk, he called a cemetery on the Island and bought a short plot out there, and left a note to that effect attached to the will. It was dated the same day he died.”
“No. It was in his own handwriting and signed. No doubt about it being authentic.”
“He did this on the day he died. And he left no other note?”
“No, Mike. But he shot himself, all right.”
“Shot himself. And suicide isn't the right word?”
“Let's say it was deliberate self-destruction. Self-administered euthanasia.” His shrug conveyed sorrow. “He was cutting out while he still had control.”
Knowing old Doolan the way I did, it was hard to accept, yet on the surface that sounded reasonable enough. When a guy hits eighty, a dirty death is something he sure wouldn't want. Still . . . Doolan? Damn.
“How'd he do it, Pat?”
“With his own .38 revolver. He shot himself in the heart.”
I looked up at him quizzically. “Old cops usually swallow the muzzle, pal.”
“There are exceptions. He was one.”
“You checked his hands.”
“Sure. Doc did a paraffin test on him right there. He fired the gun, all right. Powder and flash burns right on his shirt. No unusual angle to the bullet entry. It would be easy enough to do. We even have a time for the shot. A little old lady heard it. She didn't know what it was at first, but got pretty damn suspicious. Her window opened right onto the air shaft from Doolan's, and she knew he was an old-timer cop.”
“She the one who called in?”
“Uh-huh. And she placed the time right on the nose. The M.E. had an easy case on this one.”
“How long had Doolan been dead before a car got there?”
“Maybe fifteen minutes.” Pat knew what I was going to ask next and beat me to it: “The door was locked. First cops on the scene kicked it open.”
“What about the street? Anybody see or hear anything?”
“Nothing. At ten-thirty at night, it's pretty quiet around there. Not like it's crawling with potential witnesses.”
“There's a news vendor on the corner.”
“I know. And he'd closed down a half hour before.”
I shut my eyes and let it run through my mind. Finally I said, “Any doubts, Pat?”
He shook his head. “I wish there were.”
“It just doesn't sound like old Doolan,” I insisted.
“Mike . . . it is old Doolan we're talking about. Not the fireball we knew back in the early days. Not the guy that mentored us both, right after the war. When you get up there in years, hell, you change. He changed. You know that.”
How could I argue about that? Hadn't I got older, and changed?
But I did argue: “No,” I said flatly, “I don't know that. I admit the logic is there, Pat. But it still doesn't sit right.”
“Hell, man. Cut me a goddamn break. I put everybody on it-we blitzed every angle we could before the day was out. Any real enemies Doolan had died a hell of a long time ago. He wasn't involved with any police matters, his circle of friends was small and of long duration. He was well-liked in the neighborhood, occasionally took part in civic affairs . . .”
“Attended meetings when it concerned neighborhood problems or renovation. Things like that.”
“He would go to departmental retirement parties sometimes-I figure for him that was a big night out.”
“What about his granddaughter?”
His wife and daughter were deceased; the one granddaughter was the only relative I knew of.
Pat said, “She still lives upstate with that slob she married. They got in town a couple hours ahead of you.”
“Nothing there either?”
“Zilch. The grandson-in-law hasn't missed a day at work all year. Staying sober is probably killing him. If he gets drunk and beats up on Anna one more time, he goes up for a year. The judge really laid on him last time.”
“She ought to dump that bum,” I said.
“Right now she thinks she loves him. You know, old Doolan beat that kid's ass couple years back-Doolan in his seventies, the guy in his late twenties or early thirties. Funny as hell.”
“So there's a suspect already.”
He winced at that, and his eyes seemed tired now. “I told you, Mike, I've covered all the angles, including that one. There's not a reason in the world to label it anything except suicide.”
I nodded, knowing that Pat was certain of his facts, but still reluctant to admit Doolan would renege on his ethical standards and take his own life. Hell, drugs could wipe any pain out right until he died, and Doolan had kissed death often enough not to be afraid of her.
“Take me through it, Pat,” I said.
“Mike, imagine how many times I've-”
“One more time.”
He sighed. “We got the call, the squad car responded, the officer broke the door down, went back to Doolan's study, flipped on the light, and saw the body-”
“Hold it. The place was dark?”
“Sure. But that's not unusual. You remember how Doolan was. Whenever he had a problem, he'd sit there in the dark listening to that classical music. And he had a problem, all right. That's what he was doing-thinking out a problem . . . a problem he finally solved with a single shot. And before you ask, the music tape was still going when the officer entered. At that point it was about three quarters completed.”
“How long was the tape?”
“Ninety minutes.” He let me drift over the picture, then added, “Convinced?”
I shrugged. “I keep forgetting the first lesson Doolan ever taught us.”
“Don't get emotionally involved with your cases.”
Pat snorted. “Yeah, well, that's a lesson you didn't learn so good, did you?”
I grinned at him, but there was nothing funny in it. “Must've dozed off in class that day, Pat.”
His eyes locked with mine. “You're satisfied with what I told you?”
“Absolutely, buddy,” I said. “There's no disputing the facts at all. Everything points to a suicide. But are you satisfied, Pat?”
“Yes,” he said. His eyes were hard, his chin jutted. “I'm satisfied.” Then the eyes hooded and the chin lowered, and he let out a deep breath and shook his head. “But you're not, are you, Mike? Not really?”
“Buddy,” I told him, “I'm not doubting you at all. It's just that I feel highly pissed off at Doolan for pulling a stunt like that.”
If he pulled a stunt like that.
“He wasn't Doolan,” Pat said resignedly. “He was an old man, Mike.”
I was older. I was jaded. I had changed. I was tired. I was retired. But I was still Mike Hammer.
“Bother you if I look into it myself?” I asked Pat.
“Nope.” He let out a sigh that must have started yesterday. “I knew you were going to. No matter what I said. Just tell me why.”
“So I can be convinced-like you.”
“Fine,” he said. “Be my guest.” He slapped the tabletop. “Now . . . let's go give the old boy a proper send-off.”
And that was the real question, wasn't it?
Had somebody already given Doolan a send-off?