Andrew Mullaney has the money to get to Aqueduct Racetrack, but nothing to bet once he gets there. It’s a tragedy, because today he’s got a sure thing: a filly named Jawbone who’s guaranteed to win. Desperate, Andrew asks every hood he knows to spot him fifty bucks, tapping chess hustlers, pool sharks, and hoodlums of every stripe, until, finally, he asks the wrong man—who responds by tossing Andrew out the door and down a flight of stairs. For this degenerate gambler, life is hard . . . and it’s about to get a hell of a lot harder.
When a gleaming black Cadillac pulls up in front of him, and a man hops out wielding a Luger and telling him to get in the car, Andrew has no choice but to say yes. Little does he know, he’s just stepped into the adventure of a lifetime, and by the end of it, he’ll be rich, dead, or something far, far worse.
A suspenseful, humorous yarn perfect for fans of Prizzi’s Honor or Analyze This, A Horse’s Head is one of the wildest New York stories ever written. From legendary Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Ed McBain, every page is a laugh-out-loud delight.
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A Horse's Head
By Ed McBain
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1967 Ed McBain
All rights reserved.
He came tumbling down the stairs head over heels cursing as his skull collided with each angled joining of riser and tread, wincing whenever a new step rushed up to meet him, and thinking all the while How dare he do this to me, a good old friend like me?
He was a lanky man of thirty-nine, needing a haircut, wearing a rumpled brown suit and a raincoat that had once been white, falling down the stairs with all the grace of a loose bundle of sticks, lurching and hurtling and banging every bone in his body. Oh you will pay for this, he thought, you will most certainly pay for this.
"And estay out!" a voice called from the top of the steps.
He could not believe he had reached the landing, everything still hurt as much as it had while he was falling. He got up and dusted off first the knees of his trousers and then the sleeves of his raincoat and then he picked up his battered fedora, which had preceded him down the staircase with perhaps even less grace, and rubbed the elbow of his coat across the hat and then set it on his head at what he assumed was a jaunty angle. It was while he was putting on his hat that he discovered his forehead was bleeding, which was really no small wonder, considering the number of steps he had hit on his descent. He thought it supremely rude of the proprietor of the place, a Puerto Rican gentleman named Hijo, which meant son (and he could guess son of what), to have thrown him down the stairs simply because he'd asked for a fifty-dollar loan. He wished he had half the money he had spent in Hijo's place over the past ten years, make that a quarter of the money, and then to be hustled out the door and hurled down the stairs. You'll pay for this, Hijo, he thought, and stuck out his tongue to wet the handkerchief, and then wiped at the blood, and then walked out into the daylight.
It was a rare spring day, April flaunting herself like a naked whore. Hello, April, he thought cheerily and then winced and felt his backside, certain he'd broken something. You dirty rat, Hijo, he thought, sounding like James Cagney in his mind, I'll get you for this, you dirty rat, and smiled. Oh it was a lovely day. Oh all the sweet young girls of New York were out in their summer dresses, having shucked their girdles and other restricting garments, wiggling along the avenue, prancing along as though having been led into the paddock to be ogled by horsebettors of all ages, Andrew Mullaney himself included.
Except, of course, that he himself had not been able to borrow fifty dollars from Hijo, son of, and whereas he had the twenty cents necessary for the purchase of a subway token to take him out to the Big Bold Beautiful Big A, he did not have the wherewithal to bet once he got there, great horseplayer that he was. The terrible pity about not having been able to raise the fifty was that Mullaney had received from a somewhat disreputable uptown dice player a tip on the fourth race, a filly named Jawbone who was supposed to be a hands-down winner. The disreputable dice player was a charter member of the Cosa Nostra, so it could be assumed that his information had come, if not directly from the horse's mouth, at least directly from the mouth of someone intimate with the horse's mouth. All of which left Mullaney out in the cold because the only thing you can do with a hot tip is play it. Nor can you tell anyone else how hot the tip is lest it suddenly cool; there's nothing so fickle as a parimutuel board. So Mullaney wasn't feeling particularly cheerful about his inability to raise the money. He had tried a faggot he knew in the Village, fellow who ran a jewelry store and from whom he had once bought a ring for Irene. The faggot had said No dice, Andy, business has been off, I don't know what it is, I'm designing the stuff same as I always did, maybe people are beginning to lose their good taste. Well, Mullaney said, I don't understand how anyone could pass this beautiful display of yours in the window without wanting to come in and buy up the whole sparkling lot, to which the faggot blushed, but did not give him the fifty dollars.
So Mullaney had gone uptown to Forty-second Street where there was a chess parlor and where he knew several of the chess hustlers there. Chess hustlers were usually very decent fellows, though usually broke as well. Still, there was no harm trying. He saw only one chess hustler he knew, a fellow named Archibald, whom everyone called Harry. Harry explained that he would have been only too delighted to give Mullaney fifty dollars if he had fifty dollars. But the chess-hustling business was very bad these days, what with smart-assed youngsters from the High School of Science coming downtown and playing amateurs for free, so what could he do? Mullaney sympathized and then suggested that he play his knight to queen four, thereby trapping Black's rook, for which Harry thanked him — then played the knight and lost it.
So that was when Mullaney went downtown again to Fourteenth Street, and asked Hijo as nice as could be for fifty tiny little dollar bills, and Hijo threw him down the steps, Oh you dirty rat, I'll get you for this, he thought, feeling like James Cagney again. Under the influence, he winked at a nineteen-year-old girl and said, "Hello, Sweetie," as she went by in a huff, and then shrugged and thought what a beautiful day it was anyway, even if you had a hot nag named Jawbone, itching to be bet, and couldn't raise the money from any of your so-called friends, especially Hijo at whose poolhall he had spent perhaps a hundred thousand dollars in the past year, well at least a hundred dollars anyway. And whom he had taught to speak English, though it hadn't helped much when Hijo tossed him down the stairs, "And estay out!" he had yelled, reverting to type, you can take a boy out of Vega Baja.
The thought of Jawbone waiting to be bet, and the Biblical association with Samson made him think again of his own aching ass and the way he had bounced along on each of those thirty-seven steps, more than that even, he had stopped counting after he hit his forehead on number thirty-eight, one more and he could have made a Hitchcock movie. He was beginning to discover all sorts of little aches and bruises now that he was out in the warm spring sunshine. If I only had some hospitalization insurance, he thought, I could collect on it, and then put the money down on Jawbone. The trouble is they take a long time to pay off on those hospitalization bets, and besides I don't have any insurance. What I do have is twenty cents in my pocket, I wonder if anybody I know will be out at the track. I can risk the twenty cents and take the ride out, there's sure to be somebody there I know. I can stand outside the entrance — bound to run into somebody out there — and explain that this is really a sizzler of a tip, build it up a little, say I got it from the owner of a big stable down in Kentucky, instead of a small dice player with family connections, maybe promote the price of admission plus a small stake besides. It might be worth the risk. Fifty bucks or so on the nose of a horse which on the morning line was twenty to one, that's a thousand bucks, even if the odds don't climb, which they usually do on a longshot.
He was standing on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Fourth Avenue, trying to decide whether he should buy himself a couple of candy bars or a token instead, when the black Cadillac limousine pulled to the curb. He backed away from the curb at once because he had the sudden feeling that this was the President of the United States pulling up, that the doors would open and a few Secret Service men would emerge, and then the President himself would step out and go across the street to S. Klein, Always on the Square, to buy himself a ten-gallon hat that was on sale, maybe several ten-gallon hats to give away to Persian ministers of state. He was convinced this would be the President. He was very surprised when only a gentleman with a beard got out of the car, even though the gentleman looked like someone in very high diplomatic circles, not the President of course, and not even an American diplomat, but nonetheless a very bigwig indeed. Mullaney stepped aside to give the bearded gentleman room to pass, but the gentleman stopped alongside him instead and said directly into his right ear, "Get in the car."
For a moment, Mullaney thought he had also somehow injured his hearing on the trip down from the poolhall, but the bearded gentleman repeated the words again, "Get in the car," with a foreign accent Mullaney could not place. Only this time he pushed something into Mullaney's side, and Mullaney knew it wasn't a pipe. He had once been held up in Harlem after a crap game, and he knew the feel of a revolver against his ribs, and whereas this probably wasn't an American-make gun, considering who was holding it, it nonetheless had the feel of a very hefty weapon that could put several holes in a fellow if he wasn't too careful. So Mullaney said, "As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about getting into that car, sir," and immediately got in. The man with the beard got in after him and closed the door. The driver pulled the big machine away from the curb.
"Take me out to Aqueduct," Mullaney said jokingly, "and then you may have the rest of the afternoon off," but no one laughed.
"What kind of pistol is that?" Mullaney asked conversationally.
"It's a Luger. Shut up."
"Are you a spy?"
"I'd like to know where we're going," Mullaney demanded.
"We're going to Kennedy International Airport," the man with the beard said.
"I'd rather go to Aqueduct," Mullaney said. "In fact, if you're interested in parlaying fifty bucks into a small fortune ..."
"Shut up," the man said.
"You speak English very well for a spy," Mullaney said.
"He thinks we're spies," the man with the beard said to the driver, who was bald.
"Ha!" the driver said.
"Everyone thinks everyone is a spy," the man with the beard said.
"Ha!" the driver said again.
"Why are we going to Kennedy?" Mullaney asked.
"To put you on a plane to Rome," the man with the beard said.
They were heading through the Midtown Tunnel now, certainly enough on their way to the Long Island parkways and Kennedy Airport. First you, Hijo, you dirty rat, Mullaney thought, and then your two friends. This is Andrew Mullaney you're fooling around with here, what do you think?
"Do you know who I am?" he asked.
"I mean, you don't think I'm somebody else, do you?"
"We don't know who you are, and we don't think you're somebody else."
"My point is, I think you gentlemen are making a mistake of some kind ..."
"There is no mistake."
"... in that I'm Andrew Mullaney, and not whoever you think I am."
"We don't care who you are."
"My uncle is a judge," Mullaney lied.
"Ha!" the driver said.
It occurred to Mullaney that perhaps this was all some sort of elaborate joke perpetrated by one of his many friends about town. Knowing he was desperate for a little cash, they had got together to pretend they would not lend him the money, and then had hired a pair of Actors Equity members and a Carey Cadillac to take him out to Aqueduct (wasn't the race track, after all, on the way to Kennedy?), whereupon they would let him out of the car, shout April Fool! and present him with perhaps five hundred dollars in crisp new bills to lay on Jawbone's nose. The theory had possibilities, in spite of the fact that this was April fourteenth, some two weeks past All Fools' Day. But then, some of his friends couldn't even give you the right time of day, so how were they to know the exact date? He was beginning to enjoy the joke. He sat back against the cushioned seat.
"I think you guys should know," he said, going along with the gag, "that I don't have a passport with me."
"You don't?" the driver said.
"That's right," he said, thinking Got you, huh, Baldy? "Not only don't I have one with me, but I don't have one at all because I've never been outside of these United States."
"You won't need a passport," the man with the beard said.
"Then suppose you tell me how I'm going to get into Italy without a passport?"
"In a coffin," the man with the beard said, and somehow all the fun went out of everything right then.
The stonecutter's establishment was adjacent to the cemetery.
An angry April wind, absent in Manhattan, sent eddies of lingering fallen leaves across a gravel path leading to a clapboard building. The path was lined with marble headpieces, some of them blank, some of them chiseled, one of them announcing in large letters across its black marble face IN LOVING MEMORY OF MARTIN CALLAHAN, LOVING HUSBAND, FATHER, GRANDFATHER, 1896–1967, Mullaney shuddered at the thought.
They had parked the limousine behind what appeared to be a bigger black hearse than Abraham Feinstein had been blessed with at his funeral. Feinstein had been the king of the. Bronx blackjack players; Mullaney would always remember his funeral fondly. He wanted to tell the bearded gentleman that it wasn't really necessary to provide anything as ostentatious as Feinstein's funeral had been; Mullaney was, after all, just a simple horse-player. A plain pine box would suffice, a small headstone stating simply: MULLANEY. But the bearded gentleman again prodded him with the Luger and urged him along the gravel path to the cottage that was the stonecutter's office. Three men were waiting inside. One was obviously the owner of the establishment because he asked, as soon as they entered, whether any of them would care for a bit of schnapps. The bearded gentleman said No, they had business to attend to, there was no time for schnapps when business was at hand. The other two men who had been in the office when they arrived looked at Mullaney and one of them said, "Gouda, this is not the corpse."
"I know," the bearded gentleman answered. So he is Gouda, Mullaney thought, and winced when Gouda said, "But he will make a fine substitute corpse."
"Where is the original corpse?" the other man said. He was wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches on the sleeves. He looked very much like a country squire from Wales.
"The original corpse jumped out of the car on Fourteenth Street," Gouda said. He was a man of excellent wit, Mullaney decided, even though his brown eyes were set rather too close to his nose. "O'Brien, there is no problem," he continued. "This gentleman will make a fine corpse."
O'Brien, who was the man with the leather elbow patches, studied Mullaney with too morbid interest. Mullaney, deciding this was the time to voice his own sentiments on the subject, said, "Gentlemen, I don't think I will make a fine corpse."
"You will make a fine corpse," Gouda insisted.
"Seriously, gentlemen," he said, "I can think of a hundred other people who would make finer corpses. I can, in fact, think of three people I contacted only today on a small financial matter who would make excellent corpses indeed."
"He's too tall," O'Brien said.
"That's right, I'm too tall," Mullaney agreed. "Besides, my uncle is a judge."
"Would anyone care for some schnapps?" the stonecutter said.
The third man who had been present when they arrived had so far said nothing. He sat on a corner of the stonecutter's desk, nattily dressed in a dark-blue suit, his silk-rep tie held by a tiny tietack, the letter K in gold. He kept staring at Mullaney, but he said nothing. Mullaney reasoned immediately that he was the Boss.
"What do you think, Boss?" O'Brien said, turning to him.
"He'll do," K said.
He spoke in a very low voice, all bosses speak in low voices. All bosses look like K, Mullaney thought, small and dapper and narrow as a stiletto, with an initial tietack, and cold blue eyes and hair going slightly thin, combed to the side over the encroaching baldness, all bosses look exactly like K.
"Suppose his uncle really is a judge?" O'Brien said.
"His uncle is not a judge," K said.
"He looks as if his uncle could be a judge or at least an alderman."
"That's right," Mullaney said.
"In fact, how do we know he himself isn't a judge or an alderman or an off-duty detective?"
"That's right," Mullaney said, "how do you know?"
"Do you realize what kind of trouble we'll be in if we've accidentally picked up somebody important?"
"Yes, consider that," Mullaney said.
Excerpted from A Horse's Head by Ed McBain. Copyright © 1967 Ed McBain. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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