The Distance: A Crime Novel Introducing Billy Nicholsby Eddie Muller, Leonard Gardner (Introduction)
Morris White is a Sous Chef at a first-rate Philadelphia French restaurant. All he wants is to leave behind his past -- the poor neighborhood and petty crime he knew as a kid -- and open his own restaurant. His dream comes one step closer to reality when the affair he's having with Vicky Ward heats up. Not only is she the manager of the restaurant, but she comes from money and a privileged background. The only thing that could stop them from turning their dream into a reality, is Morris's half-brother, Vince Kammer, who is about to get out of Graterford Prison.
Vince may have done the time, but the crime is far from behind him. Soon poor Morris is stuck in the middle. His job is in jeopardy, his new relationship is in jeopardy, his dream is in jeopardy, all because he's finding it harder and harder to escape his hometown roots, which, unlike the crisp, bright white linens of the restaurant, are black as hell and dark as night.
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Something was seriously wrong. I tipped to that as soon as the door to Gig Liardi's flat cracked opened. Gig's fighter, Hack Escalante, peered through the gap, eyes rimmed red and puffy. When he saw who it was, he stepped back and let me in. Hack had been crying, and still hadn't managed to pull himself together.
"Where's Gig?" I asked. Loud enough, but a little shaky.
Hack turned away and pointed. My gut went into free-fall when I saw the blood smeared across his knuckles. Whenever I wrote about Hack's hands, I called them paws or mitts. Bunched into fifteen-inch fists, they'd cracked the bones of half a dozen opponents. From ringside I'd heard Johnny Hubbard's rib snap when Hack nailed him with a short hook above the liver.
Hack was pointing to the floor. Gig was lying between the chesterfield and the coffee table. He wasn't down there looking for dropped change.
"I think he's dead," Hack said.
I knelt and shook Gig's shoulder. I'd stared into my father's lifeless face, lying on the wet pavement, seconds after he'd died. Gig's eyes had the same dry, absent look.
"What the hell happened?" I pulled back from the body, arms at my sides, fighting the shakes that were coming on strong. Gig had phoned not more than thirty minutes before, begging me to drop by. Had something big to run past me. Probably another spiel on how he wanted to make Hack with Joe Louis, bring the fight to San Francisco, and pull the biggest gate in California history. His voice was practically ringing in my ear.
"I hit him." Hack gazed at his mitts again, like he couldn't believe they belonged to him.
The blinds were open. It was dark. Acrossthe alley, I could see right into another flat that was all lit up. Some woman ambled down a narrow hallway, past the bright kitchen. I stepped around Hack and yanked the blinds shut.
"Jesus Christ Almighty, why'd you hit him?"
"I don't know. We were talkin' about the New York trip and he started in about a dream he had: he's holding up this big belt with jewels all over it and he's saying that I'd won the title, and then I said, 'How come you're holding the belt if I won the fight?'"
Hack started gulping for air and gasping out little yips and chokes. "And -- an -- an -- that set him off and he starts tellin' me that I wouldn't have nothin' if it wasn't for him and that no -- nobody's gonna cut him outta the picture -- not Jacobs, not nobody."
His face twisted up. I knew there was more.
"Claire -- he started talking about Claire. He called her, he called her, he called -- "
Hack put fists up in front of his face, like he was taking a flurry. All of a sudden he's down on his knees, gripping the legs of my trousers.
"He hit his head when he fell back. On the table. It was so quick! What am I gonna do? They'll put me in jail. Take me away from my family! I got babies!"
Hack tried to pull Gig up. "Guys get up when I hit 'em harder than that. Why can't he get back up? Get up! Get up!" Gig's head just dangled.
When Hack was sixteen his father, Mario, threw him out of the house. He didn't want a boxer for a son. Hack met Gig Liardi at the Young Men's Institute on Oak Street. I was there -- 1934. Liardi circled the big raw kid like a snake, then sidled up and swallowed him whole. Gig was a spent lightweight contender with a chip on his shoulder. A chip the size of Alcatraz. Beautiful right cross with nothing behind it. Couldn't bust a grape. But he knew prizefighting and was fishing for a kid he could bring along. Hack had lived with him for three years in this dank North Beach flat, in a room just down the hall. That was before Hack met and married Claire McKenna, before she wedged herself between them and changed everything.
"I'm scared," Hack cried into Gig's dead chest. "I'm scared." He kept repeating it over and over.
"Hack, get up. C'mon."
"I never wanted to hurt nobody. Never. Why'd this hafta happen?"
"Where'd he hit his head?"
Hack turned loose of Gig, stood up, staggered, and pointed to the edge of the coffee table. There was a slight crack, and some wood splinters. Looking closer I thought I could see a bit of blood and some hair. I took the display handkerchief from my suit pocket and wiped off the edge of the table.
"Move his head," I told Hack.
Hack cradled Gig's head in his massive hands and lifted it to the side. The gentle maneuver knotted up my stomach. This boy should never have been a fighter. Now he was a killer.
There was no blood that I could see on the floor. Gig had fallen on his side and his head had lodged awkwardly between the floor and the chesterfield. Any blood had stayed in his mouth. Must have been some kind of internal hemorrhage, or maybe his neck snapped. Didn't matter. Hack hit Gig. Gig died. That's the way one story ended and that's the way a whole other one began.
"How'd you get here, Hack?"
"Drove." He snuffed his nose and brushed the back of his hand across his face.
My heart was hammering. I looked around the room, stalling while I thought about what would happen to Hack now. The kid's life had barely started, and in seconds here it was in the dumper. I tried to act calm. I was, after all, the Answer Man. The guy they always called in a pinch. Billy will know what to do. What I did was wad my handkerchief so Gig's blood was buried deep in the folds. Then I retraced the few steps I'd taken since entering the place, swabbing my prints from the doorknob, the tabletop...
"Anybody know you're here?" I asked.
Hack turned his watery eyes my way, as though seeing me for the first time. He shook his head.
"Not even your wife?" I wiped off the floor beside Gig's head, where I'd set my hand while crouching down. I rubbed the damp palm print into a smudge.
"I don't know," the kid muttered. "No, I don't think so."
It was my job to know everything about everybody in the fight fraternity, and what I knew about Gig Liardi was that he wouldn't be missed. Not to say that he deserved this. Nobody deserved this.
"What are you doing?" Hack asked, a note of dim hope in his voice.
"Doing you a favor," I huffed. Under my breath, so he couldn't hear, I added, "Returning a favor. A big one."
We drove from North Beach out to the far western reaches of Golden Gate Park. When we hadn't seen lights on the road for fifteen minutes, we got out. I carried Gig's suitcase, which I'd had Hack stuff with a bunch of Gig's traveling clothes. I wrapped the handkerchief around the grip. Hack had the shovel. Gloves were pointless for him. None of Gig's could possibly fit.
The fog was so thick you couldn't see the moon and the only sound was Hack's grunting and the incessant scrape of metal in the earth.
He wouldn't let me dig. He was the muscle, after all. I was just a sportswriter, albeit Mr. Boxing. I was supposed to be the watchdog. In my pocket, I nervously juggled the rosary beads I always carried with me. With nothing better than a half-assed shovel he grabbed out of Gig's basement, Hack dug the hole in about forty minutes. To a normal person, this would have a been a brutally exhausting ordeal. To Hack, it was like training. Don't think, just run. Don't think, just hurt the bag. Don't think, just dig.
In the time it took to excavate Gig's final resting place, I had plenty of chances to turn back, play it straight, do the law-abiding thing. Put myself, once again, at a safe remove. I knew why I was doing it. Hell, covering up for the naïve fighter was more premeditated than the sudden punch that accidentally ended Gig's life. Hack, for his part, didn't have a clue as to why his fate was so important to me, or why I'd shown an extra interest in his career, ever since he was a raw amateur.
I wondered if the truth would ever come out between us.
Hack went back to the car and hauled Gig out of the trunk. He was partially wrapped in a greasy blanket taken from his basement. With Gig slung over his shoulder, Hack trudged back into the thickets.
You're different, the world is different, after you bury those close to you. I'd felt the change when I stepped away from my father's grave, then my mother's, ten years later. It's bad enough when you inter them legit. For a few minutes, it seems the world is going to come apart, split down the middle. Then the hardness seeps in, to cover the dread.
My insides shook when a shovelful of dirt smacked Gig's face. I could only imagine what Hack was feeling, obliterating the guy who brought him all this way, who taught him how to deal it out.
But it was too late now. We'd decided there was no choice. Hack kept on shoveling.
Then, like that, Gig was gone.
It was almost one in the morning. I had Hack drop me on Taraval, so I could catch an "L" car. It wasn't smart to have him drive me home; somebody might see us together. When I looked at Hack's face in the glare of passing headlights, I couldn't imagine what was going through his mind. He was a simple guy, but I'd always felt there was something different about him. Something innocent and sad. He had all the tools to be a great fighter, the power, the stamina, the courage -- but I could never believe it when I saw him climb in a ring. He didn't belong in this world.
"You don't know anything, Hack. Don't say a word about this to anybody, all right?"
He turned to me, his face caked with dried sweat and dirt. He nodded.
"Gig was working for that roofing company, right? They'll report him missing. When they go to his place, they'll find his suitcase and some clothes gone, and figure he left suddenly on a trip. Then they'll come to me, ask me what I know, and I'll handle it from there. Remember, you don't know anything. Anybody asks any questions, you just say 'I don't know,' and act like it's all a big surprise to you."
We sat quietly for a minute.
"How come you're doing this?" Hack finally asked. "You could have just walked out, or called the cops or something."
"Never mind. 'Why' doesn't really matter now, does it? Try not to think about it."
The headlight of a streetcar was approaching, making its long climb up the avenues from the beach. I got out to catch it, leaving Hack staring into space.
He'd never been stopped in any professional fight, never been off his feet. But slumped behind the wheel of his car, he didn't look like a guy ready to go the distance.
Copyright © 2002 by Eddie Muller
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Dark as Night is a searing, gripping, dark, funny, twisted, -did I mention dark - noir piece of fiction. This guy seems to know what the hell he is doing and we get to benefit by reading this work of noir genius. If you wanted to be a writer, you'd want to write like this.