The Killing Man
Some days hang over Manhattan like a huge pair of unseen pincers, slowly squeezing the city until you can hardly breathe. A low growl of thunder echoed up the cavern of Fifth Avenue and I looked up to where the sky started at the seventy-first floor of the Empire State Building. I could smell the rain. It was the kind that hung above the orderly piles of concrete until it was soaked with dust and debris and when it came down it wasn't rain at all, but the sweat of the city.
When I reached my corner I crossed against the light and ducked into the ground-level arcade of my office building. It wasn't often that I bothered coming in at all on Saturday, but the client couldn't make it any other time except noon today, and from what Velda had told me, he was representing some pretty big interests.
Two others were waiting for the elevator, one an architect in the penthouse suite and the other a delivery boy from the deli down the street. Both of them looked bored and edgy. The day had gotten to them, too. When the elevator arrived, we got in, I punched my button and rode it up to the eighth floor.
On an ordinary day the corridor would have been filled with the early lunch crowd, but now the emptiness gave the place an eerie feeling, as though I were a trespasser and hidden eyes were watching me. Except that I was the only one there and the single sign of life was the light behind my office door.
I turned the knob, pushed it open and just stood there a second because something was wrong, sure as hell wrong, and the total silence was as loud as a wild scream. I had the .45 in my hand, crouched and edged to one side, listening, waiting, watching.
Velda wasn't at her desk. Her pocketbook sat there and a paper cup of coffee had spilled over and stained the sheaf of papers before dripping to the floor. And I didn't have to move far before I saw her body crumpled up against the wall, half her face a mass of clotted blood that seeped from under her hair.
The door to my office was partially open and there was somebody still in there, sitting at my desk, part of his arm clearly visible. I couldn't play it smart. I had to explode and rammed through the door in a blind fury ready to blow somebody into a death full of bloody, flying parts . . . then stopped, my breath caught in my throat, because it had already been done.
The guy sitting there had been taped to my chair, his body immobilized. The wide splash of adhesive tape across his mouth had immobilized his voice too, but all the horror that had happened was still there in his glazed, dead eyes that stared at hands whose fingertips had been amputated at the first knuckle and lay in neat order on the desktop. A dozen knife slashes had cut open the skin of his face and chest and his clothes were a sodden mass of congealed blood.
But the thing that killed him was the note spike I had kept my expense receipts on. Somebody had slipped them all off the six-inch steel nail, positioned it squarely in the middle of the guy's forehead and pounded it home with the bronze paperweight that held my folders down. And the killer left a note, but I didn't stop to read it.
Velda's pulse was weak, but it was there, and when I lifted her hair there was a huge hematoma above her ear, the skin split wide from the vicious swelling of it. Her breathing was shallow and her vital signs weren't good at all. I grabbed her coat off the rack, draped it around her, stood up and forced the rage to leave me, then found the number in my phone book and dialed it.
The nurse said, 'Dr. Reedey's office.'
'Meg, this is Mike Hammer,' I told her. 'Burke in?'
'Listen, call an ambulance and get a stretcher up here right away and get Burke to come up
'No. She was attacked. Somebody tried to smash her skull.'
While she dialed she said, 'Don't move her. I'll send the doctor right up. Keep her warm and . . .' I hung up in midsentence.
Pat Chambers wasn't at home, but his message service said he could be reached at his office. The sergeant at the switchboard answered, took my name, put me through and when Pat said, 'Captain Chambers,' I told him to get to my office with a body bag. I wasn't about to waste time with explanations while Velda could be dying right beside me.
I was helpless, unable to do anything except kneel there, hold her hand and speak to her. Her skin was clammy and her pulse was getting weaker. The frustration I felt was the kind you get in a dream when you can't run fast enough to get away from some terror that is chasing you. And now I had to stay here and watch Velda slip away from life while some bastard was out there getting farther and farther away all the time.
There were hands around my shoulders that yanked me back away from her and Burke said, 'Come on, Mike, let me get to her.'
I almost swung on him before I realized who he was and when he saw my face he said, 'You all right?'
After a moment I said, 'I'm all right,' and moved back out of the way.
Burke Reedey was a doctor who had come out of the slaughter of Vietnam with all the expertise needed to handle an emergency like this. He and his nurse moved swiftly and the helpless feeling I'd had before abated and I moved the desk to give him room, trying not to listen to their comments. There was something in their tone of voice that had a desperate edge to it. Almost on cue the ambulance attendants arrived, visibly glad to see a doctor there ahead of them, and carefully they got Velda onto the stretcher and out of the office, Burke going with them.
All that time Meg had very carefully steered me to one side, obscuring my vision purposely, realizing what was going through my mind, and when they had left she handed me a glass of water and offered me a capsule from a plastic container.
I shook my head. 'Thanks, but I don't need anything.'
She put the cap back on the container. 'What happened, Mike?'
'I don't know yet.' I pointed to the door of my office. 'Go look in there,'
A worried look touched her eyes and she walked to the door and opened it. I didn't think old-time nurses could gasp like that. Her hand went to her mouth and I saw her head shake in horror. 'Mike . . . you didn't mention . . .'
'He's dead. Velda wasn't. The cops will take care of that one.'
She backed away from the door, turned and looked at me. 'That's the first . . . deliberate murder . . . I've ever seen.' Slowly, very slowly, her eyes widened.
I shook my head. 'No, I didn't do it. Whoever hit Velda did that too.'
The relief in her expression was plain. 'Do you know why?'
'Right after I spoke to you.' I nodded toward the door. 'Why don't you go back to the office. I'll take care of things here.'
'The doctor thought I should look after you.'
'I'm okay. If I weren't I'd tell you. The cops will want to speak to both you and Burke later but there's no use of you getting all tied up with them now.'
I nodded. 'Just stay with Velda, will you?'
'As soon as the doctor calls I'll check in with you.'
When she left I walked over to the miniature bar by the window and picked up a glass. Hell, this was no time to take a drink. I put the glass back and went into my office.
The dead guy was still looking at his mutilated hands, seemingly ignoring the spike driven into his skull until the ornamental base of it indented his skin. The glaze over his eyes seemed thicker.
For the first time I looked at the note on my desk, the large capital letters printed almost triumphantly across a sheet of my letterhead under the logo. It read, YOU DIE FOR KILLING ME. Beneath it, in deliberately fine handwriting, was the signature,
I heard the front door open and Pat shouted my name. I called back, 'In here, Pat.'