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They cut the kid off at the corner, driving his motorbike into the curb and spilling him across the sidewalk into the brick wall of an apartment building. Two of them came out of the back seat of the old sedan that had skidded to a stop, their shoulder-length hair flying, bell-bottoms flopping-one in a leather vest and no shirt had a short, tape-wrapped billy and the other in a tie-dye T-shirt sported a double length of bicycle chain ready to whip into the head of the groggy short-haired kid in striped top and jeans on the sidewalk.
What they didn't figure on was me being in the doorway and when I stepped out and smashed the tie-dye slob with the chain, his face seemed to explode into a bloody mess, and he backflipped to the pavement and slid under the car he'd just left.
The other one stopped the swing of the billy halfway down and tried to turn on me instead, and all I could think of was who the hell these chintzy little shits thought they were with their scruffy beards and spindly needle-pocked limbs, taking on an old tiger. I broke billy boy's arm between the wrist and elbow, took half his teeth out, snapped his jaw loose from its hinges, and sent the bastard's balls on a trip way up inside him with one beautiful place kick, landing him halfway out in the gutter.
That was when the blond-Afro-haired kid driving the heap suddenly unfroze and jammed his foot down on the gas. The car screeched forward over the one under the wheels, making a wild cracking that went squishy at the high point of its bump, and the vehicle lurched on, leaving the crumpled figure in tie-dye to die like a fish on a deck, flopping twice before becoming another ¬statistic.
Leave it to New York, I thought.
One lousy day back in the city and the fun was starting all over again. One day away from the sun and pure white sand and back to scarlet-splashed concrete and an early fall already turning cold and a fat woman standing in a puddle of spilled groceries screaming her lungs out at the mess she'd walked onto.
A half block away, the would-be getaway car didn't make the squeeze between a double-parked truck and an oncoming bus and accordioned into a tangle of shrieking man and metal. For only two deep breaths a stunned, hushed silence held sway while the whole city seemed to pause in shock. Then the sounds of terror ended, and all returned to noise and normal.
This was the city, after all.
This was New York.
The lanky, narrow-faced, sharp-eyed character sitting across from me in Captain Pat Chambers' desk chair wore a lightweight blue suit and darker blue tie and might have been a young exec on Wall Street. He was instead an assistant district attorney named Vance Traynor, who had a cocky, smart-assy manner that meant we'd tangle sooner or later.
I'd gone down to Florida to recover from a knife blade that had opened my side like somebody wanted to slip in there and hide. I felt okay but not in the mood to tangle, not even with this petty bureaucrat.
The windows were black with night. I'd been cooling my heels at Central Headquarters for hours. Pat had humored me by sharing the files on the three assailants-the dead driver was one Timothy Haver, 25, the tie-dye-kid-turned-speed-bump was Herman Felton, 26, and the billy-club boy was Norman Brix, 24.
“Thought you might like to know who you killed,” Pat had said, which wasn't fair-two had gotten themselves killed, and as far as I knew, the other one was still breathing.
Anyway, I'd given two statements already, and now I was getting my official moment with one of the big boys. Swell.
Pat was standing just behind the seated D.A.'s man, leaning against some file cabinets wearing a hooded expression that said he would rather be anywhere else. A mousy bespectacled stenog was taking everything down.
“I suppose sooner or later,” Traynor said, in a radio announcer's voice that would serve him well in the political arena, “I had to meet up with the great Mike Hammer.”
That didn't deserve a response so I didn't give him one. I'd already laid the facts out for him. Now he was just fucking with me.
“I am supposed to believe that this was a mere coincidence,” Traynor said, eyes slitted to cuts, “that a man with your background, your . . . abilities . . . happened to be there. To save the day.”
“Mighty Mouse was out of town,” I said.
“So were you, till this morning. You get in slightly before noon, and without even stopping by your office, you go directly to pick something up from a client. That's your story.”
“It's not a story. I was doing business by phone while I was away. I was just following up back in Manhattan.”
The eyes fluttered wide, then slitted narrow again. “One of the two corpses had needle tracks, Mr. Hammer. So does the hospitalized assailant.”
“Junkies robbing somebody-who'da thunk it?”
He was shaking his head. “Any way you spin it, Mr. Hammer, that puts drugs on the table. And weren't you in Florida because you got knifed when Junior Evello's boys took you on outside Dewey Wong's on East Fifty-eighth?”
“That's a rumor. That's nothing that got on any police blotter.”
Pat was staring at his file cabinets, like he was wishing he could crawl in one of the drawers.
“No,” Traynor admitted. “But for a rumor, it has a certain weight, considering that two of Evello's top boys have not been seen since that night.”
“Maybe they went on vacation, too.”
“The permanent kind, right, Mr. Hammer? Let's leave it a rumor. Let's call it hypothetical-why would two of Evello's boys jump you outside a Chinese restaurant?”
I thought about trying a fortune-cookie gag, but instead said simply, “Junior thinks I was responsible for his late uncle's death, a lot of years ago.”
“Does it matter?”
He was too young to deserve a weight-of-the-world sigh like the one he expelled. “The Evello Family still controls narcotics in this town. And you have a long history with them-didn't you once upon a time cost them a major load of heroin?”
I shifted in the hard chair. “If you want to talk old times, buddy, send the stenog home and we'll have a beer somewhere. But if you want something on the record, I have no knowledge that this afternoon's incident has anything at all to do with the Evello mob or narcotics or anything except a couple of junkies needing fix money, taking down a guy who might have some cash on him.”
He sucked in air. Then he let it out, saying, “You just happened to be on the scene.”
“It's what we call in the business a coincidence.”
“Do you believe in coincidences, Mr. Hammer?”
His smile was thin but nasty. “Young Billy Blue was just lucky you were there.”
That was the kid on the motorbike I'd helped out.
“He was lucky,” I said. “The punks weren't.”
Traynor tasted his tongue. He didn't seem to like the flavor. “You happen to be there, and two guys get pulverized, and another is so badly beaten, he's in critical condition at Bellevue. At least you didn't shoot anybody.”
“It's early yet.”
Traynor grunted in obvious disgust. “Judging by your attitude, I would say the things I've heard about you from my associates are true.”
“Your luck can't last forever, Mr. Hammer.”
“No. But I've outlasted five D.A.'s since I set up shop. And I don't bother even keeping track of the assistants.”
He rose, shoving Pat's chair back till its wheels collided with the wall. “I'm taking you at your word, Mr. Hammer, only because Captain Chambers vouches for you. But I'm going on record-if you get involved with this thing, your operating license and your gun permit will only be the first things to go. Clear?”
“It begins and ends here,” I said.
Pat waited until the young assistant district attorney had taken his leave, then reclaimed his chair and nodded to dismiss the stenographer. She went out, and he flipped the tops off a pair of plastic coffee cups and handed me one.
He said, “You make new friends every day, don't you, Mike?”
He shook his head. “After all these years, and you're still a ¬pisser.”
Captains of Homicide Division can lay off-key intonations onto the most abrupt sentences. I couldn't quite figure his mood, so took a taste of the coffee and shrugged. “Don't sweat it, Pat. There were witnesses to everything.”
He turned around and gave me a long, direct stare. “Buddy . . . I've asked you before. Two armed guys and a getaway driver, and you're the one standing? Where do you buy your luck?”
“Maybe theirs just ran out.”
His expression was glazed. “You were the primary cause of two kids getting killed. Doesn't that even get to you-a little?”
I felt my face go hard and flat. “Kids, hell. They were punks-middle-twenties punks with a sweet list of arrests and convictions.”
“You could have stopped it and held them there,” he said, eyebrow arching. “You had a gun, didn't you?”
“Yeah, my .45, which means I could have shot them, too. I wasn't trying to kill anybody. I was just trying to stop a kid from getting hurt. Not pulling my rod, shit, I thought I was doing them a favor.” I took another pull of the coffee. “Maybe I did at that.”
“Nothing bothers you, does it?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Not much anymore. Take a look around this town-it's that great big handbasket you heard so much about, headed to hell.”
He grunted a laugh. “After all the bad guys you shot, you'd think it would be paradise.”
I scowled at my supposed best pal. “Jesus, I just don't know what you're so bugged about. Those pricks could have killed that kid, if I hadn't stepped in.”
Pat made a wry face. “I'm not talking about what happened today. I'm talking about you, Mike. There was a time when things used to bother you. Now . . .” He shook his head glumly. “. . . there's no reaction at all. It's like nothing happened. What are you, dead ¬inside?”
I frowned. Shrugged. “Okay, so it bothers me. Satisfied?”
His analytical mind bit right through my words. “Oh, you're bothered, all right. Just not about the two young men squashed to tomato sauce, or the other you put in the hospital needing an exploratory operation so the docs can find his nuts again.”
I folded my arms. Stuck my chin out. “That's right, chum. I am bothered, but I'm bothered about the kid on the motorbike. He was a working stiff, holding down an after-school job, right?” Pat had filled me in before the assistant D.A. took over. “No arrest rec¬ord, all character references good, yet there he was, about to be ripped off by lowlifes who want the rest of the world to subsidize their drug habit.”
He held his hands up in surrender. “It's a crazy damn world, Mike. No argument. We live in one, they live in another.”
“Or am I wrong? Was that kid Billy Blue just another user or dealer or . . . Come on, Pat, spell it out. You talked to the kid, I didn't.”
Pat shrugged again. “Like you said, he was on a job. A messenger boy.”
Now the Homicide detective had to think for a moment. Was I just curious? Or was I curious because I was going to wade into this mess? Like I wasn't already hip deep.
Finally Pat said, “Special delivery of a certain antibiotic to a midtown doctor.” He caught the way I was looking at him and gave me a negative sign. “No narcotics. We checked it out. Nothing in the package but capsules to be taken orally.”
“Does Billy know why they attacked him?”
“No. But he has a guess.”
Pat sipped his coffee and put his cup down. “The young man had just been paid two weeks' salary-a hundred and sixty bucks in cash.”
“And that's enough for any freak to take a crack at. We have an autopsy report on the punks, or is it too early?”
Again he waited a few seconds, then gave me a tired grimace and said, “The one you left alive, and the driver of the car, were shooting H. The other had two dozen pills in his pocket.”
“Not Bufferin, I'd guess.”
I frowned, sat forward. “How'd the creeps know the kid had that kind of dough on him?”
“All three assailants reside, or resided, within three blocks of Dorchester Medical College. Everybody at Dorchester gets paid the same day twice a month, usually right after lunch. Apparently it's common knowledge. The Blue kid must've looked like an easy target.”
“What about the one in the hospital? What does he have to say for himself?”
Pat's twisted smile had no humor in it at all. “He won't be saying anything for a long while, Mike. You made damn sure of that. They had to wire his jaws shut, he's in shock and going through withdrawal. The prognosis is that he'll probably live, but the doc I spoke to wouldn't bet on it. He's skinny, malnourished, and has hepatitis.”
“We'll ask Jerry Lewis to do a telethon.”
Pat didn't laugh at that. No sense of humor tonight. He said, “The damage you did won't kill him, but he's liable to check out during withdrawal. See, kiddo . . . your luck is still holding.”
I felt my upper lip curl all on its own. “Screw his withdrawal. I couldn't care less what happens to that kind of human garbage. Those fucking drugheads are all the same, scumbags, all of 'em, and the gutter's too good for them. Hell, if I'd known what I do now, when this went down, I'd have knocked his ass under the car, too.”
Pat's expression had turned grim. “Mike . . .”
“It's a sour world. Don't make it worse.”
I put both shoulders into a shrug. “Sure.”
“These kids aren't born drug addicts. They're not 'scumbags' when they take their first breath. They have families, mothers and fathers who love them. . . .”
“Christ, you're self-righteous today. Listen to you!”
“I'm not saying anybody started out bad. And the predators who get these kids hooked, they're the ones whose throats I'd really like to get my hands around. But you've seen the horror pictures, right, Pat? Once a vampire sticks his fangs in an innocent, that innocent turns into the next vampire, looking for a victim.”
“You really think it's that simple, don't you?”
“I didn't say it was simple. I didn't say it wasn't tragic. But I see a vampire, buddy, I'm putting a forty-five-caliber stake through his goddamn heart.”
His eyes were like quarters. “And I'm supposed to believe you're not getting involved in this?”
“I am involved! But . . . I made my contribution to society for today. I took two, maybe three junkie thieves off the streets, and that's enough. For today, anyway.”
He was looking at me like I was the one out of a horror show. “Then lay off, Van Helsing. You got no counts against you right now. In fact, you come up smelling of roses for performing a public service. Even that old sedan was hot. The parents of those 'scumbags' aren't preferring any charges. Hell, they're glad to get their darlings out of their hair.”
“What happened to the mothers and fathers who loved them you were crowing about?”
Suddenly Pat looked very tired. “Mike-as a friend. I'm asking you-lay off.”
I gave him the innocent face. “Lay off from what?”
“From what you're thinking of, damnit! You have your back up about something and I can smell it all the way across the room.”
“I wish you'd tell me what it is, then.”
His eyes narrowed, his expression grew grave. “Think about it a little bit. Maybe it will come to you.”
“Sure. I'll do that.” I reached for my hat and eased out of the chair, stretched, yawned. Little man had a busy day. “Think our budding assistant D.A. got everything he wants?”
“He'll be overjoyed, we'll all be overjoyed, if you just get your ass out of here.”
“My pleasure, buddy,” I told him. “Feel like hitting the Blue Ribbon for supper?”
He gave me a “you gotta be kidding” expression, but it melted, and the cop became a friend again. “What's the special tonight?”
“Beats me, but I could dig some of that crazy knockwurst.”
Pat leaned back in his chair. He even found a chuckle for me. “You buying?”
“Then you're on.”
And we went out for a late dinner, leaving our conversation behind.
Anybody who walked into my office would have a hard time figuring out who it belonged to. Back in the old Hackard Building, it had been a cluttered, lovely mess. But they were giving the old landmark a major overhaul, and I'd had to move to new digs, maybe temporarily, maybe not. Anyway, now the address was classy, the view scenic if you liked towering Manhattan tombstones, with a doorman who after six months still looked at me like I didn't ¬belong.
Velda had added decorating to her secretarial duties, keeping the place rugged enough to maintain my occupational image without scaring off the more timid clients. The outer office was inviting, furnishings modern but not metal, nice lush dark wood and a couch with dark leather padding. Wood panels bore framed newspaper stories about her boss and various sharpshooting plaques I'd racked up, and even a couple of civic awards from groups not afraid to endorse my brand of rough justice.
She was still the teaser, though. In her own area outside my private office she had installed an antique but functional desk, at which she could be seen when my inner office door was open, so I could take in both of those lovely, disconcerting legs crossing and uncrossing down in the desk's well.
And if that wasn't enough of an invitation, she'd smile over her Smith Corona and inhale deeply so the tight jersey tops she always wore would swell out with an open challenge to give her more breathing room.
Wide shoulders, deep, dark tresses falling in a pageboy that fashion had long since left behind, yet still the most beautiful hairstyle of all. A tall woman, with dark almond-shaped eyes, rich with mystery, and a lush red-lipsticked mouth that made a guy consider doing the kinds of things that get you arrested in some states. . . .
Morning sun was slanting through the blinds and throwing horizontal patterns on the hardwood floor as I stepped into my new, modern suite of offices, and closed the door behind me. “Hello, kitten.”
Her teeth flashed in a smile so white, the sunlight seemed to bounce off and get brighter. She stood behind her desk and reached out to take my hands in hers.
“Mike, you bastard,” she said, and held her mouth up for a fiery little office kiss. Then she tugged me back to my favorite sitting spot on the edge of her desk.
“'Mike, you bastard' . . . what kind of welcome is that?”
Her pout was a phony. “You could have stopped by when you got back. You didn't even call me last night. You were home, weren't you?”
“Not till fairly late. I got caught up in something.”
She frowned. “Yeah, I know. Pat called me. He can call me, but you couldn't take the time?”
“Listen, last night when I got back, I hit the rack and was asleep before I could turn out the light. I'm not a kid anymore, you know. You're up on what happened?”
She nodded crisply. “I read about it in the evening papers, and this morning the coverage was more detailed, but still with plenty of lines to read between. . . .” She tucked her lower lip between her teeth, waited a moment, and said, “Pretty nasty scene?”
“Nasty enough.” I shrugged. “Could have been worse.”
“This Billy Blue-he's apparently a nice kid, and those punks were out to tear him up.”
Her head cocked in that RCA-Victor-dog fashion, only she was no dog. “What were you doing there, Mike?”
“Hey, just delivering that report to Klein. I'd just come out of his damn building. I was on my way up here.”
She sighed, shook her head, and all that auburn hair shimmered. “Oh, Mike, how do you always manage to get involved in these crazy scrapes?”
“Like the man said-just lucky I guess.”
Velda gave that a little laugh, which was more than it deserved, then looked into my eyes. “Good vacation?”
“Plenty of sun, caught some fish, got my paperwork done, and managed to locate Klein's missing shipment by telephone.”
“The private eye's best weapon.” Now her eyes got narrow. “Get laid?”
“What a question.”
“So answer me.”
I shifted on my desk perch. “Number one, it's none of your damn business.”
“And number two?”
“Number two, let's just say I didn't have any decent offers, and number three, maybe I didn't feel like it.”
“I'll ignore number two, and politely pretend number three can be taken seriously.”
“Hell,” I said, “I was saving it all up for you.”
“That I won't ignore.” She kissed me again, lightly, then ran her hand gently down my side. “How's the wound?”
“Healed, but still sore. Hurts like a son of a bitch when I sneeze.”
“So don't sneeze. But I bet you feel better than the two guys who jumped you outside Dewey Wong's.”
“I don't know, doll. When you're dead and buried, like those clowns, nothing much hurts. Even in a landfill.”
She was stroking my hand now. “That little brannigan yesterday, that didn't do you any good either, did it?”
“That's what some people are afraid of, I think.” She gave me an odd look of resignation. “Was that dustup the end of something, or the beginning?”
“You and Pat can throw a lot of curve balls, sugar. What's with you two?”
She shook her head. “We've known you too long, maybe. Way ahead of you-like a dog who brings in the newspaper before his master even realizes he wants to read it.”
I said it before, but this time out loud: “Baby, you're no dog.”
She smiled impishly, reached over, picked up a folder from the desk, and handed it to me.
“A rundown on those kids.”
I gaped at her. “You been working on this already?”
“Think of it as the newspaper you didn't realize you wanted to read yet.”
“Oh yeah, where's my pipe and slippers?”
She slapped me gently on the leg.
“Kitten, I appreciate the effort, but I went over the police reports and Pat filled me in a little. Do we really need to dig into this thing?”
“How about where Billy Blue is concerned?”
“According to Pat, he's clean.”
Velda nodded, looking at me thoughtfully. “He seems to be, but I found a store owner in his neighborhood who had seen him talking to two of his future assailants-Felton and Brix. It looked like an argument, but he couldn't be sure.” “What are you, a witch? How'd you find this stuff out so fast?”
Her smile said she liked the implied compliment, witch remark or not. “I been working the phone. Private eye's best weapon, remember?”
“Naw. A good secretary, that's a private eye's best weapon. Who's the beat cop in the area?”
“Officer named Sherman-you can thank Pat for that tidbit. Sherman knew the players in your little melodrama yesterday, including Haver, the driver? But Officer Sherman never saw all four together. He gave the Blue kid a clean bill, but said the others were all just biding time before jail or an O.D. Real hardcases for their age. Haver had just beaten up his mother the day before. She doesn't even want to go to his funeral.”
“There's a picture Norman Rockwell could paint.”
She frowned thoughtfully. “But, Mike, it was a shop teacher in the high school Billy Blue goes to who put me onto something. Mr. Lang thinks both Brix and Felton were hustling narcotics to some of the kids. With Billy working in the hospital, they might have seen a potential source in the boy-tried to make a supplier out of him.”
I nodded. Smart cookie, my Velda. “You check at Dorchester Medical College?”
“I haven't had time.” She nodded toward the phone and the fat directory on her blotter. “I could only let my fingers do so much walking. . . . Anyway, I thought you might like to poke around yourself.”
I flipped the folder open and gave a slow scan to the four pages inside-four life histories with pertinent remarks contained on one page apiece. Idly, I wondered how many pages it would take to summarize my own life. Of course, just the fatalities I'd racked up would rate more than four.
I said, “Now I know what Pat meant.”
“Why he told me to lay off, I mean. These boys have interesting records. Interesting ties.”
She was studying me warily. “Are you going to? Lay off, I mean?”
I gave her a big ugly grin. “If you thought I would, baby, then you wouldn't have bothered with the legwork.”
“Fingerwork,” she said, holding up pretty red-nailed digits. “All that means is, I know what you're going to want before you do.”
“You're a good little doggie after all, honey.”
“Then why don't you pet me?”
She leaned toward me, half rising, and I leaned toward her, and I was half rising myself, though I was still perched there. My fingers started in the softness of her hair, touched their way down over the firm slope of her breasts and slipped lower till nestled snugly against her flat belly. In this position, that was as far as I could reach. I stopped, cupped her face in my hands, and kissed her again.
When I pushed her back, she said, “That was mean.”
“You asked me to,” I reminded her.
“I meant stopping,” she said.
I got off her desk and stood there and straightened my tie and said, “Just trying to maintain a little office decorum.”
She was laughing and pointing at me. “What's that, our new hat rack?”
I said, “I told you I was saving it all up for you,” then I covered myself with my porkpie hat and went back out into the hall. I could still hear her laughing behind the glass of the door as I headed off to find out just what it was I'd gotten myself into, playing Mighty Mouse for a kid called Billy Blue.