Private detective Curt Cannon has lost his wife, his license, and his will to live, and now all he wants is to crawl into the bottom of a bottle and wait to die. He’s in the middle of a bender when Peter D’Allessio finds him and begs him to help get his addict son off the needle. Unwilling to be distracted from his own self-loathing, Curt tells Peter off. Dejected, the little old man is stepping out the doorway when two bullets tear through the air, leaving him dead on the floor of a fetid dive.
Curt wants nothing to do with this rotten case, but the mystery has him by the throat and won’t let go. To bring the dead man justice, he’ll have to climb out of the gutter and remember what it means to be a detective.
The story that introduced Curt Cannon, “Die Hard” is as gritty as mysteries come. Along with the five other stories in this remarkable collection, it’s a testament to the limitless talent of Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Ed McBain.
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I Like 'Em Tough
By Ed McBain
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1958 Ed McBain
All rights reserved.
The bar was the kind of dimly lit outhouse you find in any run-down neighborhood, except that it was a little more ragged around the edges. There were blue and white streamers crowding the ceiling, arranged in a criss-cross pattern strung up in celebration of some local hero's return a long time ago. The mirror behind the bar was cracked, and it lifted one half of my face higher than the other. A little to the right of the bar was a door with a sign that cutely said, Little Boys. The odor seeping through the woodwork wasn't half as cute.
A few stumblebums were spilled over the tables in the joint like a troupe of marionettes with cut strings. I was the only guy standing besides the bartender, and if events followed their customary pattern, I wouldn't be standing long. That's the beauty of a perpetual bender. You know just when you've had all that you can hold, and you go on from there.
I lifted the shot glass from the bar, and went on from there. When I put the glass down, he was standing by my elbow, a hopeful expression on his face.
"Mr. Cannon?" he asked.
He was a little man with a little voice, one of the many stamped from the mold, one of those subway-strappers. He had a round face with a long nose that tried its damnedest to peer into his mouth. His lips were thin and narrow, and his eyes were carrying luggage, heavy luggage.
"Yeah," I said, "I'm Cannon."
He hesitated, looking over his shoulder, and then fastened two pale blue eyes on my face. "I ... I understand you're a private detective," he said.
I turned my back to him and studied the empty shot glass. "You understand wrong, mister," I said.
"I need help," he went on, "for my son. My son."
"I'm not a detective," I told him, my voice rising slightly. I signaled for the bartender, and he nodded at me from the other end of the bar. The small man moved closer to me.
"My son," he said. "He's an addict."
"That's too bad," I told him, my voice tired.
"I want you to stop them, the ones who made him that way, the ones who keep giving him that ... that ... filth!"
"You're asking me to stop the tide, mister," I said. "I couldn't do that if I wanted to. And I don't want to. Leave me alone, will you?"
"Please," he said. "I ..."
"Look, mister, I'm not interested. Shove off. Blow."
His eyes slitted, and for just one moment the small man became a big man, an outraged man. "What kind of person are you, anyway?" he asked. His voice was thin and tight. "I need your help. I come to you for help. I need you, do you understand?"
The effort seemed to weaken him. He slumped against the bar, pulling a soiled handkerchief from his hip pocket and wiping it across his forehead.
"I can't help you," I said, my voice a little gentler. I was wondering what the hell was keeping the bartender. "I'm not a private detective any more. My license has been revoked, understand? I can't practice in this state any more."
He stared at me, his head making little nodding movements. When I'd finished speaking, he said, "My son doesn't know about licenses. He knows only the needle. To take the needle away, you don't need a fancy piece of paper."
"No," I agreed. "You need a hell of a lot more than that."
"You'll help me then?"
He seemed astonished. He opened his hands and his eyes simultaneously and asked, "But why? Why not? Why can't ..."
I banged my glass on the bar and yelled, "Hey, bartender, what the hell are you doing, fermenting it?" I turned to face the little man fully then, and my voice was very low when I spoke. "Mister," I said, "you're wasting your time. I'm not interested, don't you see? Not in your son, or anybody's son. Not even in my own mother's son. Please understand and just leave me alone. Go back to your nice little apartment and get the hell out of this cruddy dive. Just go. Do me a favor. Go."
All color drained out of his face. His head pulled in like a turtle's and he murmured, "It's no use, then. No use." He turned and headed for the door just as the bartender ambled over.
"Give me another of the same," I said. I didn't watch the little man leave. I watched the bartender instead, and I watched the way the whisky spilled from the neck of the bottle over the lip of the glass.
The pistol shots were rapid and short. Two in a row. Two short cracks like the beat of a stick against a snare drum rim. I lifted my head and turned it toward the door just in time to see the small man reach out for the door-jamb. He fell against his own hand and began dropping toward the floor slowly, like a blob of butter sliding down a knife. A streak of crimson followed his body down the length of the jamb, and then he collapsed on the floor in a lifeless little ball.
I ran over to the door and threw it wide. The street outside was dark, covered with a filmy rain slick, dimly lighted by a solitary lamppost on the corner. I could hear the staccato click of heels running against asphalt, dying out against the blackness of the city.
I turned back to the small man. The bartender was already leaning over him. "You know him?" he asked.
"Looks to me like you knew him."
I reached up and grabbed the front of the bartender's shirt, twisting it in my fist. "I said I don't know him. Just remember that. When the cops crawl out of the woodwork, just remember I never saw this guy in my life." I pulled his face down to mine. "Remember?"
"I'll remember," he said.
"Good. Go mix a Pink Lady or something." I shoved him away from me and he walked back to the bar, a sulky look on his face.
I felt for a pulse, knowing damn well I wouldn't find one. I took out the small man's wallet then, and found a driver's license made out to Peter D'Allessio. I memorized his address, then put the license back into the wallet. I turned the plastic leaves, saw several pictures of a nice-looking kid with a prominent nose and light-colored eyes. D'Allessio's son, I figured. The addict. He didn't look like an addict. He had a full face and a big smile spread over it. His teeth were strong and even. I snapped the wallet shut and put it back into D'Allessio's pocket, even though he wouldn't be needing anything in that wallet again.
I passed the bartender and went straight to the phone. I dropped a dime in and then dialed the big O for Operator.
"Your call, please," she said in a crisp voice.
"Give me the police."
"Do you wish to report a crime?"
"No, a strawberry festival."
"For Pete's sake, get me the police."
I sat in the booth until a tired voice said, "Twelfth Precinct, Cassidy."
"I want to report a murder."
His voice got businesslike. "Where?"
I told him.
"Did you witness it?"
"No. I saw the guy die, but I didn't see who did it."
"May I have your name, sir?"
"No," I said, and hung up.
That was that. My hands were washed. I left the booth and walked straight out of the bar, not looking down at D'Allessio. It was dark in the street, and I hesitated for a moment; wondering where to go now, wondering what to do next. Another bar? Sure, why not? I started walking, and I could hear the moan of the police sirens in the distance as they closed in on the remains of a little man who'd had a big problem.
She found me at my hotel the next morning.
I was lying there with the sheet pulled over my face when the knock sounded on the door.
"Who is it?" I called, the effort starting the little hammers going inside my head. I tried sitting up.
"You don't know me."
"What do you want, then?"
"I want to talk to you."
I shrugged and called, "It should be open. Walk in."
She stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. She was small and dark, with her hair pulled tight against the side of her face and caught in a pony tail at the back of her neck. Her face was a narrow oval that framed deep brown eyes and a straight nose. Her lips were well shaped. She wore a white blouse open at the throat, revealing the firm, subtle rise of the young breasts that filled out the blouse.
"Mr. Cannon?" she asked.
"What do you want?"
"I want to talk to you about Jerry D'Allessio."
"Did I say something wrong?"
"Sister, call off the hounds. First the old man and now ..."
She moved across the room and stopped near the bed. "Was Mr. D'Allessio ... did he contact you, too?"
"He did. He did that."
"He's dead. You know he's dead?"
"They did it, Mr. Cannon. They knew he was trying to do something about Jerry. They wanted to shut him up."
"They shut him up fine," I said. I rubbed a hand over the bristle on my chin. "Listen, who's giving me free publicity? Who's parking you people on my doorstep? I'm curious."
Her eyes were serious when she answered, "Everybody knows about you, Mr. Cannon."
"Then you also know I'm no longer practicing. I'm out of business. We held the clearance sale a long while back."
"You're talking about your wife, aren't you?"
It startled me. It startled the hell out of me because she said it so calmly and because it split a raw wound wide open.
"I think you'd better get the hell out of here," I said.
"It's no secret, so there's nothing to hide," she went on. "It was in all the papers."
"Are you leaving or do you get kicked out on your can?"
Her eyes leveled on mine, and she said, "Don't play it hard, Cannon. I don't scare."
"So your wife was playing around," she said sharply. "So what? You should live in our neighborhood. The wives who don't play around are either crippled or dead."
"I don't want to talk about it," I said. I was beginning to tense up. I was beginning to want to smash things.
"He deserved everything you gave him," she said. "He deserved the beating."
"Thanks. The police didn't quite see it your way."
"You shouldn't have used the end of a forty-five. You should have ..."
"Little girl," I said, "blow. I don't like rehashing dead cases."
"You died with the case, brave man," she said. "You died when they snatched your license."
"What'd you expect? A gold star?" She was standing close to the bed now, her lips skinned back. "What makes a private eye think he's got rights an ordinary citizen hasn't? Assault with a deadly weapon, wasn't it?"
"She was a tramp," I blurted, "and he was a punk. I should have killed him. I should have killed the louse. I should have ..."
She was taunting me now, her hands on her hips, her chest thrust out. "You couldn't kill a corpse," she said. "You couldn't ..."
I lashed out with the open palm of my right hand, catching her on the side of her jaw. The blow knocked her halfway across the room, but she came back like a wildcat, leaping onto the bed, her fingernails raking the length of my arm.
I was sore. I was good and sore. She was something to smash, and she had started it all. She was wriggling and squirming under my grip. She kicked out and her skirt rode up over her thighs, exposing a cool white expanse of flesh. The sheet slid down over my knees and I threw her flat on her back and rammed my lips against hers, hard. My hands fumbled with her blouse and then gradually her lips came alive under mine and she stopped struggling.
She'd brought it all back, every bit of it. She'd brought back the picture of Toni with her blonde hair cascading down her back, her laughing mouth, her deep eyes, green like a jungle glade. Four months of marriage, and then Parker. I should have used the business end on him. I should have squeezed the trigger and kept squeezing until he was just a dirty smear on the rug.
I was trembling with fury now, and I took it out on her. She moaned softly, her arms tight around my neck, yielding to me, her eyes smoky, her lips swollen. She screamed, and the scream was loud in the sun-filtered room. She screamed again and again, and I wanted to scream with her.
And then it was quiet, and she lay back against the pillows, her face flushed, her skirt crumpled around her thighs.
"Will you find Jerry?" she said at last.
"I'll think about it."
"What does that mean?"
"Just what it sounded like. I'll think about it."
"All right." She pulled her skirt, down and then stood up, smoothing out her hair. "I'll go. I'll go while you think."
She walked toward the door and turned with her hand on the knob.
"Think hard, Cannon," she said.
Then she was gone.
I thought of her and of the fury that had been her body, and she got all mixed up with Toni in my mind. I began to tremble again, the way I always did when I thought of Toni and that night long ago. In my own goddam bedroom, like a two-bit floozie with some bum she'd picked up, his, hands roaming over her skin, his mouth buried in her throat, his ...
I slammed my fist into the open palm of my other hand.
This was no good. It was over and done with. They'd dropped charges, but the police felt I wasn't worthy of keeping a license.
Where were they now? Mexico for the divorce, and then where? Who cares, I told myself, who cares about it?
I knew who cared.
The guy who bathed every night in enough alcohol to float the Missouri. Straight down the gullet, eating a hole in my stomach, but never eating away the scar on my heart.
I rubbed my face with my hand, trying to blot out the memories. The girl hadn't helped. She hadn't helped at all. She'd made it only worse, the way they all did, all of them after Toni. I found a half-dead soldier in the drawer of the night stand and I poured a stiff one.
I wondered what D'Allessio was addicted to.
Forget it, I said to myself. Who cares?
I took another drink, and I thought of the kid again, and then I took another. And another. Things were getting nice and fuzzy, and a little bit warm. The pain was going away, and I felt a big-brother feeling for a kid I'd never met, a kid who bore a cross just like mine. Except his cross had thorns, and they probably stuck into his arms at four-hour intervals.
I got up and put on my jacket, and I headed for the address that had been on Peter D'Allessio's driver's license.
The address I'd memorized belonged to a gray building that poked at the sky like a blackened finger. A blonde sat on the front stoop, rocking a baby carriage. She looked me over when I started up the steps, her face showing disappointment.
I didn't smile. I knew what I looked like, but I didn't give a damn. She took me in for another minute, her gaze shifting from my bloodshot eyes to the stubble on my chin. Her eyes passed over my rumpled suit, and then she turned back to rocking the carriage with a vengeance.
I lit a match in the hallway and found D'Allessio on a mailbox whose front had been pushed in. Three-B, the box said. I started up the steps, holding my breath against the stale odors that crawled out of the woodwork.
On the third floor, I stopped in front of 3B and knocked on the door.
I listened as a pair of bare feet shuffled to the doorway. The door swung wide, and a thin girl in a faded wrapper stood silhouetted against the sunlight that streamed through the window at the other end of the kitchen.
"Well," she said, "who are you?"
"Curt Cannon. Who are you?"
She smiled the oldest smile in the world and said, "What difference does it make? Who sent you up?"
"Where's Jerry D'Allessio?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Hopped to the ears, probably. Who cares?"
"I care. Who are you, baby?"
"Let's say I'm his cousin Marie. Why do you want him?"
"Does he live here?"
"Yeah, him and the old man. 'Cept the old man is dead, and Jerry never comes home. You ain't a cop, are you?" She looked at me hard.
"No, you couldn't be a cop."
"No, I couldn't. Where does Jerry usually hang out?"
"Wherever there's H, you'll find Jerry. Sniff out the hoss, and you'll find Jerry standing there with his spoon. You could use a shave, you know."
She looked at me again and said, "You might look for Claire Blaney. Later. She knows Jerry."
"A small, dark girl?"
"Small? Dark? Oh, you're thinking of Edith Rossi. No, I mean Claire. She's something else."
"How do you mean?"
"Edith and Jerry were engaged."
"Yeah, no more."
"Were you ever engaged to a junkie, mister? It's no picnic. Maybe Edith got tired of the things she had to do to get money for him. Maybe she had it right up to here."
"Why does she want to help him, then?"
For a moment, the hard mask dropped from the girl's face, and there was almost a tenderness about her tired eyes. "She remembers, I guess. She remembers sometimes what Jerry used to be like. I guess that's it."
"Thanks," I said. "Thanks for the information."
"Hey, you leaving?"
"Ain't you stayin' for the ball?"
"We could build a real ball, mister. Just shave, that's all."
I looked at her, my face expressionless. "Thanks," I said. "The beard keeps me warm."
I left her standing in the doorway, a puzzled look on her face. When I reached the street, I glanced down at the blonde. She didn't look up this time. I walked past her and headed for the nearest candy store. I squeezed up to the counter and ordered an egg cream.
A pimply faced clerk nodded and began mixing it, going very light on the milk. He shoved it across the counter at me and I tasted it. I wasn't used to egg creams.
"What's the matter?" he asked. "No good?"
"Fine," I said. I looked at him hard and added, "The monkey don't like it, that's all."
"Yeah. Weighs fifteen pounds, that goddam monkey, and he's scratching away at my shoulder."
Excerpted from I Like 'Em Tough by Ed McBain. Copyright © 1958 Ed McBain. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Dead Men Don't Dream,
Now Die In It,
Good and Dead,
The Death of Me,
Deadlier Than the Mail,
About the Author,