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Survival . . . ZERO!

To Jack and Peggy McKenna

With thanks for the many happy returns

CHAPTER 1

They had left him for dead in the middle of a pool of blood in his own bedroom, his belly slit open like gaping barn doors, the hilt of the knife wedged against his sternum. But the only trouble was that he had stayed alive somehow, his life pumping out, managing to knock the telephone off the little table and dial me. Now he was looking up at me with seconds left and all he could do was force out the words, 'Mike ... there wasn't no reason.'

I didn't try to fake him out He knew what was happening. I said, 'Who, Lippy?'

His lips fought to frame the sentence. 'Nobody I ... not the kind... .No reason, Mike. No reason.'

And then Lippy Sullivan died painfully but quickly.

I went out in the hallway of the shabby brownstone rooming house and walked up to the front apartment that had SUPER scrawled across the top panels in faded white paint and gave it a rap with the toe of my shoe. Inside, somebody swore hoarsely and a chair scraped across bare wood. Two locks and a bolt rasped in their sockets and the door cracked open on a safety chain.

The fat-faced guy with the beery breath squinted up at me in the light from behind him, then his eyes narrowed, not liking what he saw. 'Yeah?'

'You got a phone, buddy?'

'What if I do?'

'You can let me use it.'

'Drop dead.' He started to close the door, but I already had my foot in the crack.

I said, 'Open up.'

For a second his jowls seemed to sag, then he got his beer courage back up again. 'You a cop? Let's see your badge.'

'I'll show you more than a badge in a minute.'

This time he didn't try smart-mouthing me. I let him close the door, slide the chain off, then pushed in past

him. The room was a homegrown garbage collection, but I found the phone behind a pile of empty six-pack cartons, dialed my number and a solid Brooklyn voice said, 'Homicide South, Sergeant Woods.'

'Captain Chambers in? This is Mike Hammer.'

Behind me a beer can popped open and the fat guy slid onto a chair.

When the phone was picked up I said, 'Hi, Pat. I got a stiff for you.'

Softly, Pat muttered, 'Damn, Mike ...'

'Hell,' I told him, 'I didn't do it.'

'Okay, give me the details.'

I gave him the address on West Forty-sixth, Lippy's full name and told him the rest could wait. I didn't want the guy behind me getting an earful and Pat got the message. He told me a squad car was on the way and he'd be right behind it. I hung up and lit a butt.

It was an election year and all the new brooms were waiting to sweep clean. The old ones were looking to sweep cleaner. It was another murder now, a nice, messy, newspaper-type murder and both sides would love to make me a target. I'd been in everybody's hair just too damn long, I guess.

When I turned around the fat guy was sweating. The empty beer can had joined the others on the table beside him.

'Who's ... the stiff?'

'A tenant named Lippy Sullivan.'

'Who'd want to kill him?'

I shoved my hat back and walked over to where he was sitting and let him look at the funny grin I knew I was wearing. 'He have anybody in with him tonight?'

'Listen, Mister . ..'

'Just answer me.'

'I didn't hear nothin'.'

'How long you been here?' I said.

'All night. I been sitting here all night and I didn't hear nothin'.'

I let the grin go a little bigger and the grin wasn't pretty at all. 'You better be right,' I told him. 'Now sit here some more and think about things and maybe something might come back to you.'

He gave me a jerky nod, reached for another beer and watched me leave. I went back to Lippy's room, nudged the door open and stepped inside again. Somebody was going to give me hell for not calling an ambulance, but I

had seen too many dead men to be bothered taking a call away from somebody who might really need it.

Death was having a peculiar effect on the body. In just a few minutes it had released the premature aging and all the worry had relaxed from his face. I said softly, 'Adios, Lippy,' then took a good look at the room. Not that there was much to see. There were hundreds more just like it in the neighborhood, cheap one-room fleabags with a bed, some assorted pieces of furniture and a two-burner gas range on top of a secondhand dresser in one corner. The only thing that looked new was an inexpensive daybed against the far wall and from the way the mattress sagged on the brass four-poster I could see why he'd needed it.

I used a handkerchief, pulled out the dresser drawers, and fingered through the odds and ends that made up Lippy's wardrobe. Nothing was neat or orderly, but that was Lippy, all right. Just another guy alone who didn't give a damn about having ironed socks and shorts. The closet held a single wrinkled suit, some work clothes carelessly tossed onto hooks, two pairs of worn shoes and an old Army raincoat. I patted the pockets down. One pair of pants held three singles and a lunch ticket. There was nothing else.

Outside I heard the whine of a siren coming closer, then cut out when the squad car reached the building. I went over and elbowed the door open. Two uniformed cops came in properly geared for action. I said, 'Over here.' Another car pulled up and I heard a door slam. Pat hadn't wasted any time.

The lab technicians had dusted, photographed and taken the body away. All that was left of Lippy was a chalked outline on the floor beside the sticky damp sawdust that had soaked up his blood. I walked over and sat on the couch and waited until Pat slumped wearily into a chair that looked as tired as he was.

Finally Pat said, 'You ready now, Mike?'

I nodded.

'Want me to take notes?' Pat asked.

'You'll get the report in the morning. Let's make it real official.'

'We'd better. I know people who'd like to burn your ass for anything at all. They might even make it on this one. So let's hear the story. Once more, from the top.'

'Lippy . .. Lipton Sullivan,' I said. 'We went to school together. He dropped out at the ninth grade and we met

up again in the Army for a while. No record I know of. Just a hard-luck character who couldn't make it in this world. Two years ago I got him a job checking out groceries in a wholesale warehouse.'

'See him often?'

'Only once since then. We had a couple of drinks together. He insisted on buying. Nice guy, but a born loser.'

Pat rubbed his hand across his eyes before looking up. 'Heavy drinker?'

'Nope. He rarely touched the stuff.'

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