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.”