Shake a Crooked Town

Shake a Crooked Town

Dan Marlowe

CHAPTER I

Clouds of steam in the hotel bathroom obscured the bright fall sunlight gleaming from the white-tiled walls. Inside the glassed-in shower compartment Johnny Killain spun the cold faucet wide open. He did a five-second jig beneath the icy cascade and bounded out onto the bath mat, trailing vapory mists. Vigorously, he attacked himself with a towel, sparing only a freshly healed scar below his ribs and a small, taped-on bandage high on his broad chest.

Arms, shoulders, neck, chest, and back fused into a massive, heavily-muscled torso. His waist was lean, his thighs solid. Both chest and thighs were ridged with old scars. Weather-bronzed, high-cheekboned features were dominated by a several-times-broken nose and a hard mouth. His eyes were more gray than blue, and tawny-yellow hair bristled damply above the craggy face.

He knotted the wet towel about his middle and strode barefooted out into a comfortable bed-sitting room. A series of impatient knocks at the door diverted him from the cabinet and the bourbon bottle toward which he had been heading. He opened the door and had a thick white envelope sealed with scotch tape thrust into his hand by a wavy-haired bellman with the face of a choir boy.

“It’s from Chet,” the bellboy announced.

“What the hell is it, Richie?” Johnny turned it over in his hand. Chet Rollins was the Hotel Duarte’s auditor.

Richie was already on his way down the corridor. “Chet said he’d call you,” he said over his shoulder and disappeared into the elevator.

Johnny hefted the package experimentally, then squeezed it. He shook it against his ear. Learning nothing, he shrugged and started to close the door. He had heard no sound out in the corridor but a man’s foot thrust over the sill prevented the door from closing. Johnny did a doubletake at sight of the of the foot and re-opened the door.

“Killain?” the man outside inquired, his eyes running idly over Johnny. “I see that it is.” His voice was harsh Not that we ever met.” He held out his hand. You fit your description.

Johnny made no move to take the hand. The man was chunky, with wide shoulders and thinning reddish hair. He had lumpy brows, a distinct pallor, and a badly scarred lower jaw that disfigured his entire face. “You make it a practice to barge up an’ jam your foot into a closin’ door, you’re odds on to wind up gimpy,” Johnny told him.

The stocky man smiled, stiffened facial scars working visibly. “The password is Toby Lowell,” he said.

Johnny stepped aside and the stocky man entered. Johnny closed the door, tossed the sealed white envelope on the bureau and went to the closet for a robe, pushing aside a row of blue-gray uniforms. Slipping into the robe, he studied his visitor’s short-sleeved sport shirt and worn-looking khaki pants. The man’s muscular left arm was crooked at the elbow in a way that suggested to Johnny a recent break. His lips were thin and pale and his brown eyes small and hot-looking. It was a wary, cynical face. “So what’s with Toby Lowell?” Johnny asked.

“I’m Carl Thompson, Killain.” The red-haired man’s voice had the rasp of authority plus an aggressive impatience, Johnny thought. “You and I worked for Lowell a few years back but not at the same time. I called him at the State Department and asked him if he knew anyone footloose and fancy free still thumbing his nose at regulations. He said he thought I’d find you here.”

“Sit down, Thompson.” Johnny gestured at a leather-covered armchair. “Drink?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Carl Thompson settled himself lightly in the chair with his hands on the arms. To Johnny the hands looked tense. “Before you start asking me what Toby looks like, in case you’re wondering if I know,” Thompson continued, “he looks like a whooping crane with St. Vitus’ Dance. His code name then was Pajarito. Little Bird. You were Manos. Short for Manos de Muerte. I was Carmesi.” A hand brushed at his thinning red hair before it dropped to the multiple-scarred jawline. The hot-looking little eyes seemed to smolder. “This was more recent.”

Johnny removed a bourbon bottle and two double-shot glasses from the cabinet against the wall. He applied the bottle to the glasses liberally. “Ice? Chaser?” he inquired, with a nod at the three-quarter-sized refrigerator in a corner. Thompson shook his head negatively and Johnny handed him a drink. The stocky man sipped at it. Johnny turned his own glass bottom up and hunched his shoulders against the bourbon’s impact. He set down the empty glass. “What’re you here to sell me, Thompson?”

“I knew you were the man as soon as I remembered your name,” Thompson said obliquely. “I used to hear Sam Kusserow tell about the time you got him out of Perpignan. Each time he told it Sam sounded surprised all over again.” The red-haired man sipped again at his drink. “You never knew it, but you did me a hell of a favor one time. You happen to recall a night you came down out of the hills at Bagneres-de-Luchon lugging a raggedy-assed young girl carrying an old shotgun weighed as much as she did?”

“Sure,” Johnny said, interested. “Just a kid. We were runnin’ shot-down pilots over the border into Spain. She was herdin’ sheep in the hills there an’ knew every blade of grass for fifty miles. Plenty guts, too. We’d run onto a patrol that night. What the hell was her name?”

“Micheline Laurent. I married her.”

“The hell you did.” Johnny couldn’t hide his surprise. “She looked about fourteen.”

“She was. She didn’t stay fourteen, though. I went back afterward.”

“You’re with the State Department?”

“A mug like me?” Thompson shook his head. “No. I just asked Toby as a favor to put me in touch with someone from the old days. Someone who could hold up his end.” He pointed with his still half-filled glass at Johnny’s robe. “What I saw before you put that robe on makes me think the old boy sent me to the right address. What kind of exercise do you get these days that puts a bandage on your chest and a fresh hole in your ribs?”

“I’m waitin’ for the sales talk, Thompson.”

Carl Thompson reached in a pocket with his free hand and tossed a glittering object across the room. Johnny caught it and looked down at part of a gold badge in his hand. It had been torn jaggedly through the center from top to bottom. The raised letters POL were on one line and immediately below were the letters CHI. “Guy laughed at me just before he ripped that up with his hands,” the red-haired man said huskily. “Then he ripped me up, too. Eight weeks in the hospital.” He fingered his disfigured face, his hand trembling.

“Ripped it up with his hands,” Johnny echoed thoughtfully. He balanced the half-badge on his palm. “Ripped it up with—” His voice died away as he snicked at the ragged edge with a thumbnail. He tested the edge experimentally with his thumbs, then turned it around to the smooth side. He flexed his wrists, secured the best finger grip he could manage on the remaining piece, and bore down. His hands crept down between his knees and beneath the robe his back arched. When his hands came up he looked down at the faint, wavy crease in the gold that was the only impression he had made on the badge. He tossed the badge back to Thompson. “I pass.”

“Not if you had a whole badge to start with.” Thompson sounded confident. His hot little eyes peered up at Johnny. “How’d you like to go after the guy that tore it up?”

“My mother didn’t raise any foolish children.”

“I’m serious, Killain.”

“So am I, man. Why should I? What the hell is all this? You were a police chief somewhere?”

“I was. And I will be again.” The tone was bleak. “Just as soon as I find someone to watch my back while I show the bastards who think they’re running the town what’s what. That’s where you come in.”

“Me? Say, you’re—” Johnny stared at the man in the chair. “Where’d this happen?”

“Upstate. Jefferson.”

“Jefferson,” Johnny repeated. He massaged a thumb gently. “That’s about—oh, seventy-five thousand population?”

“Call it a hundred. Little better, actually.”

Johnny kept his face expressionless. “So we’re supposed to trek up there an’ go up against whatever passes now for law an’ order in the place? Just the two of us?”

“You know there’s got to be a hell of a lot more to it than that,” Thompson said angrily. His face was flushed. “They think they’ve broken me. There’s a half-dozen people trying to run that town as a private preserve. I got in their way. I’ve got enough on them to hang them from the highest lampposts on the main street but I’ve got to be sure that I last long enough to be heard. I can prove what’s been going on in Jefferson. They know it. That’s why I look like this.”

“Where’s your wife now?” Johnny asked him.

For an instant Carl Thompson looked blank. “My wife? Over at the Taft, with me.” His face cleared. “Did you think I’d be crazy enough to leave her up there available to them while I went back and tipped over their applecart?”

“It makes you a little less crazy that you didn’t.” Johnny thought he had said it disarmingly but Carl Thompson burst up out of his chair and landed crouched forward on his toes. His chin was thrust forward pugnaciously and his small eyes glittered.

“You trying to needle me?” he demanded hoarsely. “I know what the odds are. I don’t give a damn. All I want is one good man at my back. I’ll pay the man’s price. That plain?”

“Plain enough,” Johnny agreed. This guy is rocky as the Catskills, he thought. From the look of him he couldn’t buy sugar for the coffees. “Plain’s I’m goin’ to be, Thompson. I’m not the man.”

“Why not?” the scarfaced man shot back belligerently.

“Because I say so, damn it! You know a better reason?”

Thompson brushed it aside. “Killain, I’ll pay you—”

“Knock it off, mister,” Johnny growled. Irritation bubbled within him. “I don’t even know you. Your troubles aren’t my troubles. I work here. I like it here. I’m no goddamn mercenary. I’m not signin’ up for any crusade. Any way you want to add it up the answer is still ‘no’.”

The stocky man’s heavy shoulders slumped at the point-blank refusal. Recovering, he attempted to pass it off jauntily but there was no resonance in his voice. “Man, man, I get so tired of seeing snake-eyes on the dice lately.” He struggled to right himself. His eyes swept around the room. “Maybe I should bring my wife over here,” he continued moodily.

“Maybe she’d be safer here. I have a feeling I’m being followed.”

By men in white coats, Johnny thought. He realized suddenly that if Thompson had a problem Thompson’s wife had a damned sight bigger one. He looked again at the red-haired man’s clothes. Despite the big talk of hiring a good man at the man’s price, it was a hundred to seven the poor devil was tapped out. “How long you in town for?” he asked cautiously.

“Today,” Thompson said. “Tomorrow, maybe. Just until I—” He didn’t try to complete the sentence.

Johnny walked to the bureau and removed a key from a clip on the band of the wrist watch lying on it. He tossed it to Thompson. “That’s for the room here. Bring the kid over. I’d kind of like to see her again. There’ll be no bill.”

Carl Thompson shoved the key briskly in a pocket. “I’ll send her over right away, Killain.” The impatience was back in his broken face and in his voice. He edged toward the door. “She’ll be right along. I’ve got to run now. Busy. Lot to do. You know how it is.” From the doorway he nodded jerkily and was gone.

Johnny removed the robe and returned it to the closet. He caught sight of his own expression in the bureau mirror as he came back and he had to smile. So Killain had rousted himself out of his own nest for a man who didn’t even take the trouble to say thank you? So Killain was a first-class jerk. Nothing new in that.

He sat down in the armchair and stretched out his legs. Just why in the hell he should suddenly feel sorry for someone named Carl Thompson acting as though he had the weight of the world’s prime vendetta on his mind—

Make that what’s left of his mind, Killain.

Still, if Toby Lowell had given him Johnny’s name—

Johnny found himself staring at the closed door. The more he thought of it the less it sounded like Toby Lowell. But how had Thompson found him if it hadn’t been through Toby?

He heaved himself to his feet reluctantly, the towel leaving the leather with a damp, sucking sound. At the bureau he found his cigarettes and lit one, considered the curling ash at its tip, and from a drawer dug out a long unused notebook and carried it to the bed. The telephone rang practically under his hand, surprising him. He cleared his throat as he picked up the receiver. “Yeah?”

“Rollins, downstairs,” the phone announced. “Stop off and give me a receipt on your way down.”

“Receipt?”

“For the envelope I sent up with Richie. Did you count it?”

“Count it?” Johnny asked. He continued hurriedly at the exasperated grunt at the other end of the line. “I had someone here, Chet. I haven’t even had a chance to look at it. What is it?”

“It’s the proceeds from a half-dozen previously uncashed payroll checks I pried out of you three months ago so I could close my books. I put it in the safe temporarily and you were supposed to pick it up. It must be nice to be so loaded you forget where your money’s gathering dust.”

“If you think I’d forgotten it you’re out of your simple mind, Chet. It’s just that workin’ the midnight-to-eight I don’t get much chance to throw it around. Let me stick it back in the box an’ one of these days I’ll S.O.S. you. Right now I don’t—”

“In another three months?” the auditor interrupted. “Our insurance doesn’t cover employees’ property, Johnny. I should never have had it here at all.” His tone changed. “How’s the chest?”

“Good as it ever was.” Johnny scowled at the wall. “Why in the hell I let Doc Randall con me into takin’ a month off I’ll never know. One lousy week an’ already I don’t know what to do with myself.”

“Doc’s still sore at you for leaving the hospital so soon.”

“Ahhh, I had to get out of that loony bin,” Johnny snorted. “A dozen years on the owl shift fixed me so I can’t sleep nights, an’ Grand Central was Tumbleweed Junction compared to that hospital room during the day.”

“You’d better stay out of his way,” Rollins warned. “And don’t forget to stop in and sign my receipt.” He hung up, and Johnny replaced his own receiver. He glanced at the envelope on the bureau. He’d have to find a place for that.

Conscious of the notebook in his hand, he remembered his interrupted errand. He plumped up a pillow on the bed, eased himself down on his back, picked up the telephone again and propped it on his chest. “Long distance, Edna,” he told the switchboard operator when she came on the line. “I’ll handle it and get you the charges.” He read off the five-figure extension when he was connected with his Washington number. He smoked two-thirds of his cigarette and spoke to three different people before he recognized Toby Lowell’s thin, reedy voice. “Killain, Toby. In New York. What rat-holes you watchin’ these days?”

“The labels change but the rats and the holes are remarkably similar,” Toby Lowell said. “What’s on your mind, Johnny?”

“Any good reason I should’ve been hearin’ your name taken in vain today?”

“None whatsoever.” The dry tone was emphatic.

“I thought so,” Johnny said with satisfaction. Swiftly he ran down the previous thirty minutes’ conversation for the benefit of the other man. “The guy must really have sluffed his mainsail, Toby,” he concluded.

“Now just a moment. I do know a Carl Thompson.” A distinct change had come over the dry voice. “I don’t understand this. What does the man who claims to be Thompson look like?”

“Medium height, heavy set, red hair goin’ thin, voice like a sergeant major on dress parade—”

“That’s Thompson, all right.”

“His face looks like he tied into the business end of a mule.”

“I don’t know anything about that. The part about him being chief in Jefferson is right enough, though. My endorsement of him played a part in his originally getting the post. Jefferson’s my home town. I can’t imagine what happened. I would have thought I’d have heard about something as apparently serious as this.”

“He claims he got squeezed in a power play. You don’t go for that?”

“I simply don’t know, Johnny. There’s no doubt of his— ah—mental condition?”

Johnny hesitated. “There’s no doubt he’s packin’ a whale of a grudge that’s got him tipped in the saddle. It’d take a better man than me to tell you if he’s really flipped.”

“You expect to see him again?”

“Oh sure.” Johnny grinned wryly into the phone. “Before I had the big picture I offered him an’ his wife the use of my room.”

“He and his wife,” Lowell repeated. There was a short silence before he continued. “I wish you’d have him call me, Johnny. I feel a bit responsible. Also, I’m curious. I recommended Carl for the position because he’d been with me overseas and seemed completely reliable. There have been Lowells in Jefferson since the War of 1812 and we take a civic interest. I should know more about this.”

“Okay, Toby. I’ll see if I can get him to call you.”

“What are you up to yourself these days? Do you ever see Dameron?”

Unconsciously Johnny’s free hand went to the bandage on his chest. “I’m just layin’ back clippin’ coupons. I see Joe once in a while. He’s the lieutenant in this precinct, you know.”

“I do know. Give him my best when you see him, will you? And thanks for calling, Johnny.”

Johnny replaced the receiver in the cradle slowly. After a moment he picked the phone up from his chest and returned it to the night table. He stretched out his legs lengthily. Well, he was in for it now. There was no graceful way to withdraw the invitation to Carl Thompson. He’d just have to keep an eye on Thompson and see to it that he got into no trouble around the Hotel Duarte. And it should only be for a couple of days at the most.

On the brighter side he had to admit he was looking forward to seeing Micheline Laurent—Micheline Thompson, rather—again. He wondered what the tough-fibered youngster he had known in those days would be like now.

He got up from the bed and dressed. He changed his mind three times about the tie to go with his lightweight tan suit. For late October it was unseasonably warm. He packed a small bag and called housekeeping to tell them to re-make his room.

He would throw the bag in the cloakroom downstairs and sometime after midnight take a key from the rack for an unoccupied room. Long service at the Duarte had its perquisites.

Bag in hand, he headed down the corridor to the elevator and the lobby. By ten o’clock that night he had been holding down the same stool in the Duarte bar for over three hours. He hadn’t seen or heard from either of the Thompsons and he was more than a little bored with his own company. He drank slowly lulled by the subdued hum of the out-of-season air-conditioning. He unhooked a heel from a bar stool rung and straightened his right leg as a muscle cramped in an over-muscled thigh. He supposed he should get up and move around. He stayed where he was.

This damn loafing around was for the birds, he decided moodily. He needed something to do beside acting as blotting paper for the Duarte’s bourbon. Doc Randall or no Doc Randall, he’d have Chet sign him back in for the first of the week. One little .28 slug in the chest wasn’t going to dry-dock Killain for another three weeks. What he needed—

“Hey, Johnny!” He looked up the bar to little Tommy Haines, the night bartender, hanging up the phone beside his cash register. “Marty says he’s got a call for you in the lobby.”

Johnny grunted acknowledgement and slid from the stool. He felt sluggish. Lethargic. It wasn’t the liquor; it was the inactivity. He was rusting up faster than a mothballed battleship.

He walked out through the dimly lit bar lounge, his bulky two hundred and forty pounds padding softly on the lounge carpet. In the lobby he took the phone pushed toward him at the front desk by Marty Seiden, the carrot-topped reservation clerk. “Yeah?”

“Mr. Killain?” The female voice was low-keyed. Johnny thought it had a touch of breathlessness. “Years ago you saved my life in the Gabon Pass south of Bagneres-de-Luchon when we were caught by a night patrol. Is it possible you’d remember?”

“Is it possible I could forget?” Johnny returned promptly. “You’re Mich—”

“Excuse me, please,” the low voice cut in. “I know you’re speaking from a public place. This is going to sound melodramatic but could you come down right away to Room 1047 in the Hotel Manhattan on Eighth Avenue?” He realized that the voice was pleading. “I’ve had myself driven down from upstate this evening to try to find my husband and keep him from making a bad mistake. You don’t know him but I’m sure he’s going to try to see you. It’s essential that I speak to you first. Please believe this is no domestic squabble. It’s serious. Most serious. Can you do me the favor of coming at once?”

Twice during the urgent, rapid-fire plea Johnny had opened his mouth, and twice closed it. “Sure,” he said finally. “1047? I’ll be right down.”

“I can’t possibly tell you how grateful I’ll be, Mr. Killain.”

Johnny stood by the desk a moment after he had pushed the phone back to Marty. Micheline Thompson had had herself driven down from upstate tonight? Well, Thompson had lied about Toby Lowell telling him where to find Johnny. What was so odd in his lying about his wife being with him?

Conscious of the bowtied, flip-talking Marty’s curious stare, Johnny turned away from the desk. Halfway through the foyer to Forty-Fifth Street he pulled up short. The recollection of Carl Thompson in Johnny’s room that afternoon had suddenly brought to mind a thick white envelope carelessly tossed onto the bureau and afterward forgotten.

Johnny retraced his steps and headed for the service elevator. No point at all in leaving that kind of temptation around in front of people.

In the sixth-floor corridor he remembered he’d given Thompson his key. At the door of 615 he removed an illegal brass passkey from his wallet and let himself in.

From the doorway he could see the bureau plainly. The thick white envelope was not there.

Carl Thompson was.

Sprawled beside the leather-covered armchair, the red-haired man lay hunched together, with a slender, bone-handled knife protruding starkly from his back. The portion of his face visible disclosed the grotesque mask of a man totally surprised by violent death.

Without moving a step inside Johnny examined the room carefully. As nearly as he could tell nothing appeared to have been disturbed. Except the envelope, he thought bitterly. Stupid to have left it there. Although there was always a chance in a thousand the housekeeper or the maid in straightening up the room had put it in a drawer.

This wasn’t the time to try to find out. Johnny knew he should call the police immediately. He knew just as well he wasn’t going to do it. They could wait thirty minutes while he walked down to the Manhattan. Some of the questions the police were going to ask required better answers than he had at the moment.

He backed out into the corridor and closed the door, listening for the click of the automatic lock. He returned the passkey to his wallet as with lengthened stride he hurried back to the elevator.

CHAPTER II

In the block and a half between the Duarte and the Manhattan Johnny revised his thinking about Carl Thompson. Crazy the man may have been, but it looked very much as though his angry statements of that afternoon had received the ultimate confirmation. Someone had seen to it that Thompson did no more talking.

The police were going to ask a lot of questions about the presence of Thompson’s body in Johnny’s room. John hoped that Micheline Thompson could supply some of the answers.

He entered the Manhattan’s Forty-Fifth Street entrance and inside detoured to the bell captain’s desk. “H’ya, boy,” he greeted Wink Litchfield, its paunchy, graying generalissimo. Litchfield was a Duarte alumnus. His right eye had a heavy lid that had earned him his nickname.

“H’ya, boy, yourself,” Wink returned. He surveyed Johnny with interest. “I heard you got yourself shot up chasin’ a broad. Times sure have changed. It was you had to use the gun when I knew you.”

“You’ll get old, too, one of these days,” Johnny told him. “What you got in 1047, Wink?”

The bell captain nodded as though at a private judgment confirmed. “A doll, naturally, or you wouldn’t be askin’. I was just up there. 1047’s a suite. The doll’s registered in, but a big-man-on-campus type is fieldin’ the bunts at the door.”

“He must be a big-big-man-on-campus if he’s got you hoppin’ the bells in person, Wink.”

“A very good man,” Litchfield agreed. “Deals in paper money only. From his looks I wouldn’t give him a yard start in a broken field but a good man on the financial fast draw. What’s with you and 1047?”

“What time did they check in?” Johnny sidestepped.

“You workin’ for Moscow now? I could look it up in the log, but say five-thirty. I know it was just before I started sendin’ the middle shift out to supper.” But Micheline Thompson had said on the phone that she had been driven down from Jefferson that evening, Johnny thought. What the hell was going on? “What’s with you and 1047, Johnny?” Wink repeated.

“I’m invited to the party.”

Apprehension showed in Litchfield’s face. “Now wait a minute,” he warned. “Trouble we can’t use around here. This isn’t the Duarte. No one’s gonna hold still for you thumpin’ around here freewheelin’ over an’ through people.”

“Remind me to call you the next time I need a character reference, Wink. I said I’m invited, damn it. Call her up.”

Litchfield reached for his telephone. He looked almost disappointed as he replaced it. “You’re expected,” he admitted grudgingly. “Anyway, I think I’ll take you up there myself. Just in case you somehow sandbagged me on this phone call.”

“Don’t you for God’s sake trust your own operators?”

“Not where you’re concerned, I don’t,” Wink Litchfield said flatly. “I know you, man.” He led the way to an elevator. On the tenth floor he preceded. Johnny around two right-hand turns to the suite entrance at the end of the long hallway. The door opened at once at his light tap. Johnny eyed the olive-skinned, dark-haired man who appeared in it. He was of medium height but solidly built. Despite horn-rimmed glasses, his slightly full face gave an impression of strength. His dark suit was flawlessly cut.

“Killain?” he inquired of Johnny. He opened the door wider. “Come on in.” He didn’t even look at Wink Litchfield. Johnny had a final glimpse of the bell captain’s disapproving face as the door separated them. “I’m Jim Daddario,” the solidly built man said over his shoulder as he led the way into the suite’s sitting-room. “I’m a friend of Mrs.—of the Thompsons.” He waved at two men getting to their feet. “Associates of mine. Jigger Kratz, Tommy Savino. Johnny Killain, boys.” He walked to a door at the right and knocked sharply. “Killain’s here, Micheline.”

Johnny nodded to Kratz and Savino. Jigger Kratz was a mountain of a man with surprising light blue eyes in a rugged face. Savino was much younger, and slim, dark, and handsome. The two men moved to the door with the barest acknowledgement of Johnny’s nod. “See you in about an hour, Jim,” Kratz rumbled to Daddario as they went out.

Johnny turned expectantly at the sound of an opening door. He stared frankly at the woman who entered the room. If Carl Thompson had looked like hard times, his wife looked like ready money. The puffed white sleeves of her not quite off-the-shoulder white satin cocktail sheath were of lace. So was the bouffant pompom adorning her dark hair. A sash of the same material as the dress artfully cinched her at the waist and descended to mid-thigh in wide-flaring scarves. Her shoes were of matching white satin and her only jewelry was a three-times-around pearl bracelet on her right wrist. At bosom, waist, thighs, and knees the white satin sheath was sleekly snug.

Beneath the white pompom and the dark hair her face was very nearly exotic. Clear ivory skin emphasized contrasting highlights of dusky rose. Her slim brows were plucked in a straight line. She had broad cheekbones, a strong nose, and a wide mouth boldly etched in vivid lipstick. It was not a beautiful face but it was strikingly attractive.

“You’re the scrawny-lookin’ little bit of tabasco I was up in the hills with?” Johnny demanded in disbelief.

“I am indeed.” She walked directly to him and took a big hand between both of hers. “Girls grow up. People change.” Her voice had a vibrant quality Johnny hadn’t noticed on the phone. She inspected his face critically and smiled as though she approved of what she saw. She turned to Daddario who, Johnny realized, had been standing to one side quietly sizing up the meeting. “This is the man, Jim, but for whom the life of Micheline Laurent would have been a brief, unhappy one.”

“You’re lucky he still measures up to what you remember,” Daddario commented. He fumbled in his breast pocket and removed a cigar. “Most of my early heroes were a hell of a letdown to me by the time I got my growth.”

Micheline Thompson’s dark eyes had returned to Johnny. “Even after all this time I still find it difficult to believe what I saw him do.” She appeared to rouse herself. “It was very good of you to come, Mr. Killain.” She released his hand and seated herself deftly in a straight-backed chair. The tightness of the sheath demanded deftness. Her back was to the room’s strongest light but Johnny could see shadows beneath the big dark eyes.

“What’s it all about?” he asked her.

She motioned him to a chair near hers. “Please sit down, Mr. Killain. I hardly know—”

“The name’s Johnny,” he said, sitting down. “You never used to call me Mr. Killain.” Across from him, Daddario seated himself on a chaise longue and methodically stripped cellophane from his cigar.

“I never knew your name,” she said earnestly. “Then you were always Manos, the bear that appeared and disappeared silently in the darkness.” She smiled, most attractively, he thought. “I like Johnny better. And I, of course, am Micheline.” The smile faded. “Forgive me if this sounds abrupt. I have no easy way to say it. My husband is—was— chief of police in the city of Jefferson in this state. He had been for some time.” The low voice wavered, then strengthened. “He lost the position recently when it was determined he had accepted money to overlook certain things. It came to light when he was absent from his post recovering from a cruel beating inflicted by someone unknown. My husband had been under treatment and had been making a difficult recovery. His removal from office was a severe setback to his mental condition. He has never since been rational on the subject of his removal. Despite precautions, day before yesterday he disappeared. I’m concerned that he will make a bad matter worse by attempting something foolhardy or even criminal against those he blames for his troubles.”

Johnny tested the sound of her voice in his ears. She appeared earnest and sincere. Her eyes rested upon him anxiously. “Carl—my husband—was a part of the operation we know during the war,” she continued. “He heard me speak of you many times. I thought he might try to enlist your aid in the desperate thing he hopes to do.”

“How would he find me? How did you find me yourself?” Johnny asked bluntly.

“Jim found you.” Johnny glanced at Daddario. The dark man flicked ash from his cigar, unheeding. A very quiet master of ceremonies, Johnny thought. He looked back at Micheline. “Jim is a good friend of Carl’s. Jim has been of much help. He is the president of the city council in Jefferson. He was able to hush things up when Carl—when it happened.”

“There’s no question in your mind about the truth of the charges brought against your husband?” Johnny asked her.

“Please.” Her hands, large for a woman’s, tightened in her lap. “There is no question. It was explained to me in detail.”

“Explained? How about proved?”

“Please,” she said again. “There is no doubt, Mr. Kill— Johnny.”

There was no mistaking the hopeless discouragement in her voice. He wondered uneasily what her reaction would be if she knew her husband at that moment lay dead on the floor of Johnny Killain’s room in the Hotel Duarte. He was conscious of Daddario’s enigmatic gaze above the wreath of his cigar smoke. Johnny rose to his feet. There were undercurrents here he didn’t understand, as well as two diametrically opposed stories. “You want me to call you if I hear from him?” he asked her.

“I would very much appreciate it.” She rose and walked with him to the door. Daddario leaned back on the chaise longue but followed them with his eyes. “Be careful that if Carl comes to see you he doesn’t talk you onto his side,” she said earnestly. “It’s a losing side but he can be most persuasive.” She gave him her hand, her touch cool. “I’m most grateful for your response to my call.” Unexpectedly, her hand in his tightened, gripped hard. The sudden pressure indicating emotion of some sort was belied by a practiced hostess-smile. “Merci, mon ami,” she said softly and closed the door behind him.

Johnny stood irresolute in the corridor. Was she trying to tell him something? They’d never been out of Daddario’s sight. He looked at the closed door. Was she a prisoner in that damned suite? Was Daddario forcing her to act a role in order to insure silence about Carl Thompson’s knowledge of Daddario’s political activities in Jefferson? Daddario had been able to “hush things up” when charges had been made against Thompson—

Johnny set himself in motion toward the elevator. He was still preoccupied on the way down. In the lobby he went directly to a phone booth. There was one thing he could do. Carl Thompson had said his wife had been with him at the Taft. If she had been, her story of having been driven down from Jefferson that night was a lie. At least part of the story was a lie anyway because they’d been checked in too early. But if she’d been with her husband that morning how else could her presence upstairs now telling a story so unfavorable to him be explained except by pressure?

He dialed the Taft. It didn’t take long to find out that there had been no Mr. and Mrs. Carl Thompson at the Taft that day or for several days past.

Johnny left the booth feeling frustrated. He had no alternative but to believe that Carl Thompson had tried to play him for a sucker. But why had Thompson been killed?

He pushed through the lobby revolving door and outside, on the neon-lighted near-midnight deserted sidewalk, he halted abruptly. Had his call to the Taft proved anything except that, as spooked as Carl Thompson had been, he hadn’t registered in his own name?

He was tempted to go back upstairs and take a fall out of Daddario. Two things stopped him. If Daddario actually was a family friend helping out in an emergency any commotion that Johnny caused would just intensify the shock Micheline Thompson faced when the news from the Duarte reached her. And, as far as Johnny himself was concerned, the smartest thing he could do would be to get back to the Duarte and get straightened away on the discovery of Carl Thompson’s body.

Without thinking, he had used the Manhattan Eighth Avenue exit. He turned right to Forty-Fifth Street. Around the corner, a man in a dark suit stood against the sheer wall of the hotel, his back to Johnny and his eyes glued on the Forty-Fifth Street exit. Across the street a horn blatted, short and then long. The watching man spun quickly to look at the horn-blowing car. Almost without a pause he continued to pivot until he was facing Johnny head on. He raised his arm and a thick-looking weapon glinted in his hand.

Instinct took Johnny to the sidewalk. He grunted as his knees hit the cement hard under the impact of his own weight. He rolled toward the curb and the shelter of illegally parked cars. Above his head he hear a muffled plop-plop and the whine of metal distressed by sharp contact with concrete. The lights of the marquee seemed all too bright.

The sound of running feet drummed in his ears. He snaked his way on hands and knees out into the street between cars. He was in time to see a sedan pull away from the opposite curb and roar west across Eighth Avenue against the light. He stood up warily. When nothing happened he brushed off his palms and the knees of his trousers. His knees were stinging and the trousers had huge rents in them. For the benefit of a rubberneck gazing curiously at him from the sidewalk, Johnny lifted his right leg and inspected the heel of his shoe as though wondering what had tripped him. The rubberneck walked away.

Johnny drew a long breath. A man with a silenced gun watching the Manhattan’s Forty-Fifth Street entrance for Killain’s exit? A man in a car across the street who recognized Killain unexpectedly turning the corner and warned his partner in time for him to get in a couple of shots? What in the hell was going on?

He examined again the torn-out knees of his trousers. A button was missing from his jacket and street dirt was ground into it. He was positive he’d never before seen the man who had shot at him. He was just as positive he’d know him the next time he saw him.

He set off grimly up the street, his knees twinging at every stride.

At the Duarte he walked into a lobby boiling over with blue-uniformed police and snap-brim-hatted detectives. He discovered that it somehow didn’t surprise him. Behind the front desk, Marty Seiden all but stood on his head in a wordless effort to catch Johnny’s eye. Had to play it straight, Johnny decided. Looking neither right nor left he headed for the elevators.

“Killain!” Johnny turned at the strident bark. A hatchet-faced, sallow-complexioned man with protruding eyes rushed up to him. “I want to talk to you, Killain.”

“So talk, Cuneo,” Johnny invited him. Ted Cuneo was a Detective First Class attached to the local precinct, and he and Johnny Killain had no use at all for each other. Johnny looked around the lobby and appeared to notice the herd of police for the first time. “What’s the matter? One of your boys lose a collar button?”

“You’ve got some explaining to do,” Cuneo said with evident satisfaction. “Upstairs,” he added, and barged onto an elevator.

“That’s for the paying customers,” Johnny said. He walked to the service elevator. “You types that run up the tax bills ride over here.”

“Just so we get there,” Cuneo sneered, following him.

“Where to?” Johnny asked him, a hand on the controls.

“Your room.”

“My

room?” Johnny pretended surprise. “That big nose of yours finally caught up with the still I’ve got up there?” Detective Ted Cuneo’s saturnine features flushed darkly. Johnny could see that it was only with an effort that he contained himself.

In the sixth-floor corridor the first thing Johnny set eyes on was Lieutenant Joseph Dameron’s impressive bulk. The lieutenant was emerging from Johnny’s room. Frosty gray eyes in an apple-cheeked broad face surveyed Johnny impassively. The close-cropped hair was iron-gray. “Well, well, well!” Johnny said softly. “Heap-big-frog-in-a-small-puddle himself. What the hell have I been up to that requires your august presence, Joe? You were just leaving? Don’t let me detain you.”

Without a word the lieutenant turned and re-entered the room. Johnny and Ted Cuneo followed. The first glance was enough to tell Johnny that the police had already been there long enough for Carl Thompson’s body to have been removed. Johnny’s lips tightened. He didn’t like what he was thinking.

Micheline Thompson didn’t look exactly the type to be any sort of prisoner of Jim Daddario. If, instead, she were an accomplice, her call to Johnny could have been contrived to get him out of the hotel before the police arrived. Had she and Daddario wanted to know if he had already spoken to Carl Thompson? Johnny wondered what turn the conversation might have taken if he had admitted it. The idea put Micheline Thompson in a different perspective.

Lieutenant Dameron turned from a brief conversation with the medical examiner, a lean-faced, clear-eyed man carrying a small black bag. Technicians still milled about the room. Johnny headed for his armchair. “When you boys get ready—” He broke off, whistled, and pointed at chalk marks on the floor. “Is that for real or are you guys practicin’?” He turned to the lieutenant. “Thompson? Someone used my place for a shootin’ gallery?” He made a sound of disgust at Dameron’s silence and turned again to the chair.

“Don’t sit down there!” A tall man with a black box on a cord around his neck dashed up. “I want more prints from that.” He grabbed Johnny’s arm as he went to sit down.

Johnny grabbed back, and the man whitened and cursed. “If it’s mine you want, take ’em off your arm, Jack,” Johnny advised him. “Keep your damn hands to yourself.”

“That’s enough of that,” Lieutenant Dameron said mildly. He shook his head at the tall man who had colored angrily. The lieutenant said nothing further until the last of the laboratory men had departed. Ted Cuneo closed the door behind them and stood with his back to it.

“Well?” Johnny demanded. “Did you come over here to sell me sweeps tickets?”

Lieutenant Dameron lit a filter cigarette. He sat down on the edge of the bed and studied his well-polished shoes. All his movements were leisurely. He looked like a man with all the time in the world. He exhaled a thin cloud of blue smoke in a diminishing stream before looking up at Johnny again. “What happened here?” he asked. His voice was quiet but the official steel lay close to the surface.

“How the hell do I know?” Johnny grumbled. “Was I here?”

The lieutenant’s hard gray eyes rested on the torn-out knees of Johnny’s trousers. The eyes moved up until they encountered the gap left by the missing button. They missed nothing of the street grime. “Since you weren’t here, just where were you?” he probed.

“Maybe I need a lawyer,” Johnny countered. “Maybe I shouldn’t even be tryin’ to answer your questions. Who was killed here, Joe?”

“You seem to think it was someone named Thompson. What happened to your knees?”

“Oh, those.” Johnny glanced down at them. “A guy just now unloaded on me up the street with a silenced gun. I was tryin’ to dig a foxhole in the sidewalk.” From the doorway Ted Cuneo snorted in patent disbelief. Johnny ignored him. “What’s it all about?” he continued to Dameron. “What bugged you enough to get you out on the street this time of night?” At the resulting silent stare Johnny rose to his feet and walked to the bedside telephone.

“Get away from that phone!” Detective Cuneo rapped at him. He took two steps into the room.

Johnny looked at him over his shoulder. “If I’m under arrest, boy scout, pull your gun an’ hope it works. Otherwise shut up.” He picked up the receiver. Cuneo glared at him and looked hopefully at Dameron. The lieutenant made no sign. “Hi, ma,” Johnny said into the phone. “What’s all the excitement?”

“Oh, Johnny, I’ve been trying to call you everywhere!’ The night switchboard operator’s voice pushed into an upper register. Sally Fontaine was a slim* brown-eyed girl with whom Johnny had a long-time, comfortable understanding. “I tried to get you at Mickey Tallant’s, at the apartment, at the poker game—” Her tone turned curious. “Say, how did you get rid of them so soon?”

“The constabulary? I didn’t. They’re breathin’ hard on the back of my neck. What happened?”

“Oh. One of the uniformed men said there’d been a phone call. The lieutenant and that man Cuneo were in the lead. Cuneo didn’t seem to want to believe Tommy Haines when Tommy told them you’d been in the bar for four hours until just ten minutes before they got here. Johnny, who was the—”

“Get me later, ma.” Johnny hung up and looked from Dameron on the bed to Cuneo at the door. “If four hours gets me an alibi he must’ve been killed just before you got here, right, boys? I always knew your pigeon service was the best, Joe, but are you wired right into the gunners now? The kid says you were here first.”

“The message to the stationhouse said ‘Tell Dameron there is a stiff in 615 at the Duarte’.” The lieutenant’s expression was bland. “Since I’ve been half-expecting a call like that for a long time, I thought I should take a look.” He stubbed out his cigarette without removing his eyes from Johnny. “Why would anyone line you up on the street with a silenced gun?”

“Was the man who was killed heavy-set, redheaded, with a badly scarred face?” Johnny asked innocently. He continued at Dameron’s grudging nod. “Then I can tell you. That was Carl Thompson of Jefferson, N.Y.” He told them Carl Thompson’s story, omitting only his prior discovery of the body. “The same people who scratched Thompson from the entries would be the only ones interested in addin’ me to the score. They don’t know how much he told me.”

Ted Cuneo made a loud br-r-acking noise. “What a pipe dream!” he jeered.

Johnny kept his attention on the lieutenant. “The phone call to the precinct was a little more of the same, Joe. If I got hung for Thompson, fine.”

“A phone call to me and an attempt to kill you right back-to-back?” Deep furrows etched themselves in Dameron’s ruddy forehead. “That’s too much of a good thing.”

“Maybe somebody got nervous. I’m tellin’ you that’s what happened. Get on your stick an’ find out why.”

“If it’s ‘why’ we’re talking about, why was Thompson killed?”

“For Christ’s sake, were you listenin’ to me? He was killed to keep him from goin’ on up to Jefferson an’ burnin’ down the barn over the heads of the outfit that gave him the goosin’.”

“You believed his story?”

“What the hell difference does it make if I believed it or not? He believed it. He was goin’ back there an’ shake that place to pieces. The people who ran him out knew it. They found him here an’ put a stop to it.”

Lieutenant Dameron frowned. “You expect me to believe that someone in Jefferson close to the policy-making level had this ex-police chief murdered?”

“What’s so hard to believe about it? They’d had him half-killed when they threw him out of office. It hadn’t shut him up.”

Ted Cuneo repeated the sound he had made previously. “A man of your talents ought to be able to come up with a better story than that when a dead man’s found on the floor of his room, Killain.”

Johnny rose suddenly from his chair. “All of a sudden I don’t like the tone of your voice, Cuneo.”

“I don’t give a damn what you don’t like!” the detective bristled. Twin pin-points of high color emblazoned his sallow complexion. “All of that lip-flapping of yours gives me a pain. If I ever heard a jerked-off story—”

Lieutenant Dameron slid from the bed and interposed himself between them as Johnny started forward. Johnny’s shoulder knocked him to one side. “Cut it!” Dameron ordered. “This isn’t the children’s hour. This idea of yours, Johnny. It just won’t hold—” He turned his head at a knock on the door. Cuneo shifted from his hands-raised, glowering regard of Johnny to look inquiringly at the lieutenant, who nodded. The detective opened the door. Over his shoulder Johnny could see Chet Rollins’ round face and gold-rimmed glasses.

The chubby auditor bustled into the room, unconscious of the tension. “They called me at home,” he said to Johnny. “Ed’s at a hotel supply convention in Philly.” Ed Carrolton was the Duarte’s manager. Rollins looked curiously at Dameron and Cuneo before glancing worriedly around the room. “You get him out? Hell of a thing for the hotel.”

“It didn’t do him much good, either,” Johnny said. He introduced the auditor to the others.

Rollins turned back to Johnny after the double handshake. “Nobody downstairs seemed to know who he was. Was he a friend of yours? Did he get killed trying to save your money? All the way over in the cab I kept thinking it mightn’t have happened if I hadn’t sent that damn envelope upstairs.”

“Money?” Cuneo asked alertly.

“Sure.” Chet Rollins looked surprised. “Wasn’t that how it happened?” He looked at Johnny. “It’s still here?”

“I haven’t had a chance to look.” Johnny could cheerfully have throttled the little auditor. He knew how this was going to look to Cuneo.

“I’d like to hear about this money,” the detective said unpleasantly.

“Well—” Rollins stared uncertainly from Cuneo to Johnny and back again. The atmosphere was beginning to get through to him. “I sent an envelope up to Johnny this afternoon by one of the bellboys. It contained wages I’d been holding for him in the safe.”

“Cash?” Cuneo demanded. Rollins nodded. “How much?”

“Nine hundred and thirty-nine dollars.” The auditor said it almost apologetically.

Cuneo stared. He turned abruptly to Johnny. “Is it here?” Johnny went to the bureau and opened and closed drawers. When he closed the last one he faced about silently. No words were necessary.

“Where was it when you last saw it?” Cuneo pressed him.

“On top of the bureau,” Johnny admitted reluctantly.

“A thousand bucks right on top of the—” Cuneo waggled his head in amazement. “And this Thompson was supposed to be cracked?” He looked at his superior. “I like the sound of this a hell of a lot better than that jazz we heard before. This poor bastard Thompson probably caught a hotel thief right in the act.” He swung back to Rollins. “Who’d you send up here with the money?”

“Richie Gordon, one of our regular boys.” Rollins said it defensively.

“Did he know what was in the envelope?”

“He could have.” Rollins looked unhappy. “He was in the outer office when I was talking to the bookkeeper about getting it out of the safe.”

“Better have a talk with this Gordon, Ted, and find out how much broadcasting he did about his errand,” Dameron said.

“Right,” Detective Cuneo said briskly. He looked at Johnny, solemnly tapped a finger to his forehead three times, and left the room.

“I’ll—I’d better check around downstairs,” Chet Rollins said uneasily. When no one said him nay he departed hurriedly.

“You guys are foulin’ off the pitch, Joe,” Johnny began as the room emptied. “This Richie Gordon’s a good kid.”

“Good kids talk, too.” Lieutenant Dameron plucked a loose thread from the sleeve of a tan suit very similar in color to Johnny’s. “How come we didn’t hear about this money before? Are you going to try to deny it makes more sense than what you were peddling?”

“The hell it does. I heard Thompson’s story right out of the horse’s mouth, Joe. You didn’t. All right, I forgot the envelope on the bureau an’ it’s gone. What I’m sayin’ is that if the money hadn’t been missing something else would have been gone. The closet would’ve been stripped if nothing else offered. Whoever did the job wanted it to look like a room robbery walked in on by Thompson.”

“You’ve been watching too many late, late shows. Be over at the station in the morning to sign a statement.” Lieutenant Dameron settled his expensive-looking dark brown fedora more firmly on his head and started from the room.

“Goddammit, Joe—” Johnny tramped to the door after him.

“In the morning,” the lieutenant repeated from the corridor. He marched off toward the elevator, his heels hitting heavily.

From the doorway Johnny watched him go. How in the hell was he going to let a little daylight into that thick skull? Why Joe Dameron couldn’t see something as plain as—

Down the hall Dameron strode past the corridor leading to the west wing. A dark figure leaped from it, behind the lieutenant’s broad back. The right arm swung viciously. Clubbed hard at the base of the neck, Dameron dropped heavily. His momentum pitched him forward on his face. His hat flew off and bounced away. He struggled to roll over. Above him the dark figure stood poised, glittering steel in the left hand. A woman’s silk stocking covered the head.

Johnny came down the corridor in all-out charge. The intent stocking-masked assailant whirled from its crouch at the sound of the bull-buffalo rush. Before the knife could be oriented to the new danger Johnny’s lowered shoulder blasted the man under the breastbone with tremendous force, up and off the floor into the wall. The man screamed as the stocking-mask slammed into the wall. He caromed off into Johnny’s reaching hands and Johnny dug in his heels in a sliding skid to halt his own headlong progress. He almost jumped into the air from the recoil of the force with which he smashed the man to the floor. The body hit hard with a soggy sound, bounced, and fell back as limply as a disjointed rag doll. The silk stocking was a flat wet smear.

“Jesus!” It was a breathy rasp from behind Johnny. The lieutenant knelt up on the floor with a .38 special in both hands trained steadily on the body on the floor. When it didn’t move Dameron spared a hand to rub the base of his neck. “Slip inside and call in on your phone,” he mumbled hoarsely to Johnny.

Lieutenant Joseph Dameron sat slumped in the depths of Johnny’s armchair, a drink in his hand. His red face looked shiny. He glanced at Johnny lying on the bed with his hands clasped loosely behind his head. “My damn neck feels like a truck ran over it,” he complained.

“Why the hell is it you get a carpet to fall on and I get the sidewalk?” Johnny inquired from the bed.

Dameron started to reply and then sat up straighter as the same lean-faced medical examiner Johnny had seen earlier entered the room. “Well, Frank?” the lieutenant asked.

“Why don’t you run a shuttle service over here?” the medical examiner demanded irritably. He set down his bag.

“What about that one in the hall, Frank?”

“Deceased. Violently. Neck broken. Back broken. Minor fractures. Lesions, contusions, and abrasions. Face about obliterated. Identification will have to be from his prints. This hotel running locomotives down its corridors?” No one answered him. He shrugged, picked up his bag and bounced it against his thigh. “Should I take a look at you, Lieutenant?”

“I’m all right, Frank,” Dameron said. “Thanks. Thanks just the same.” The medical examiner departed and the lieutenant raised his glass toward the bed. “Just like Europe, by God. Killain to the rescue in the nick of time. Where was the camera and the man with the megaphone?”

“I wish I’d had a camera to get the expression on your tomato puss when you came up for air,” Johnny said. He rolled up on an elbow and looked at the chair. “Like the time they cornered us in the cave outside Florence. You were the same ripe shade of kelly green when you found twenty cases of dynamite and realized the assorted loose lead they’d wafted at us had chipped a few splinters off the boxes.”

Lieutenant Dameron grunted and took a long pull at his drink. “Reminds me, I had a card from Jimmy Rogers,” he said when he put down his glass. “Before he left on vacation he told me the only reason he was still around was that you’d stepped in and taken a slug intended for him.”

“Then he told you a damn lie. Jimmy doesn’t need me to hold his end up an’ you know it.” Johnny leveled a finger at the chair. “You know that this guy out here thought it was me, don’t you, Joe?”

“Thought it was you?” Dameron’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you say that?”

Johnny bounded from the bed and went to the armchair. He placed his sleeve alongside Dameron’s. The material was different but the color was a match. “He thought it was me,” Johnny repeated. “That was my boy from up the street back to finish the job. He didn’t see your face till your hat fell off. From the back we’re a size except your most recent forty pounds is lard. I keep tellin’ you but you don’t listen: someone’s afraid of what Thompson might have told me.”

“Can you identify him?”

“With no face? The rest of him fits.”

“I can’t see it, Johnny. What’ll you bet his prints make him an inside worker?”

“A hotel thief who jumps a man right out in the open? Why did he go for you, Joe?”

Dameron hesitated. “I tell you I don’t believe it,” he said finally. “You’re—”

“Joe.” The lieutenant fell silent at the stark monosyllable. Johnny stared down at him. “You don’t believe it, or you won’t believe it? I already told you I talked to Toby Lowell today. Did you? Did you get another call beside the one that sent you over here? Are you holdin’ the lid on something?”

“You know me better than that. Where murder is concerned I keep the lid on for nobody.”

“Nobody?” Johnny asked him softly. “Nobody, Joe?”

The lieutenant surged to his feet impatiently. “Nobody. You’re trying to make an Everest out of an anthill.” He put down his glass and started for the door. “There’ll be an inquest on this, but it will only be a formality. You’ll have to keep yourself available, though. I’ll let you know when it comes up.” He walked rapidly from the room, closing the door.

Standing in the room’s center Johnny pounded a knuckled fist into the opposite palm in disgust. So he had to keep himself available, did he? The hell he did. The next time someone made a move from the darkness, or the rear, Johnny Killain was not going to be a sitting duck.

He went to the closet and changed clothes hurriedly. He counted his money and shook his head disparagingly. If he just hadn’t left that damn envelope lying out in the open he’d have been in good shape. He needed a fresh bankroll.

He put out the light and left the room.

CHAPTER III

Johnny went directly to the switchboard in the lobby. He looked at his watch as he approached it. Sally Fontaine’s face lighted up when she saw him but Johnny hurried to get in the first word. “Do me something, ma. It’s only an hour to daylight. Cut out of here an’ shoot over to the apartment. An’ listen. I’ve got a bag in the cloakroom. Tan, with no ticket on it. Take it with you. If anyone asks you when I leave here what this conversation was about steer him into left field. Anyone, y’hear? I’ll see you at the apartment in thirty minutes.”

“But Johnny, I’ll have to get someone to relieve—”

“Get Marty,” he cut her off. “He’s finished his transcript by this time. An’ hustle it up, ma. Tell ’em you got the gallopin’ wobblies an’ got to get home.” He walked away from her before she could protest again.

Out on the street he turned west as he had a few hours before. Quite a bit had taken place in those few hours. He walked lightly, out toward the curb. He watched the doorways. He watched his reflection in the windows across the street. No one stepped suddenly from a doorway. No one came up on him from behind. His eyes raked the street. Since the advent of Carl Thompson that afternoon someone was taking a sudden and unhealthy interest in Johnny Killain.

At Eighth Avenue he turned right and in the middle of the block saw the green-neoned outline of the crude boulder advertising Mickey Tallant’s Rollin’ Stone Tavern. The sky was streaked with gray and Johnny realized that the temperature had dropped considerably. New York in October wasn’t going to stay warm. He wondered if he had a coat at Sally’s apartment.

At the tavern, he pushed inside through a heavy plate-glass door and advanced on a red-faced Irishman behind the horseshoe bar. Mickey Tallant was a beefy man with short, thick arms and big-knuckled sledgehammers attached to the ends of them. He had no hair at all, a ravaged kewpie-doll face, and a cauliflower ear. A damp white towel encircled his ample girth. At sight of Johnny he reached behind him on the back bar for a bottle and then caught himself. “Even for you I’m not blowin’ my ticket, man. Whyn’t you get around before closin’? I’m just about to put up the shutters.” His voice was a surprising tenor.

“I don’t want a drink, Mick. You got any money?” The Irishman lifted his apron to get at his hip pocket. “Money,” Johnny said with emphasis.

“Oh. Okay.” The tavern owner turned and started to waddle up the duckboards to a door at the end of the bar marked OFFICE.

“An’ Mick, where can I get a coat?”

Mickey Tallant halted in his tracks. “For Christ’s sake, did your room burn up? You got more clothes ‘n the Salvation Army.”

“I don’t want to go back to the room.” Although he’d seen no sign of a watcher, Johnny reflected.

The Irishman nodded wisely. “Money, an’ a coat. You’re runnin’. From the cops? You belted one, maybe?”

Johnny shook his head. “I got a look at a hole card in a fresh game, Mick.”

“No kiddin’?” The tavern owner looked eager. “I could stick my old lady behind the mahogany here an’ go with you. Could be you’ll need someone knows how to throw a punch, man.”

“Then I’d rather have your old lady.”

“Is that so?” Mickey Tallant began indignantly, and foundered on Johnny’s grin. “What are you up to? Are you bein’ followed?”

“If I am it’s a good job. How about that coat?”

“You haven’t got a prayer. Coat sizes to include a twenty an’ a half inch neck an’ a fifty inch chest don’t grow on trees.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I’ve got a leather jacket out in back you could probably get into, though.”

Johnny looked at the beer barrel upper body of the man behind the bar. “Fetch it out with the geld, Mick.”

“Sure.” The Irishman was back in two minutes and handed Johnny an expensive-looking black leather jacket studded with silver trimmings.

Johnny looked at the gaudy ensemble. “You in your second childhood? Where’s the motorcycle goes with this thing?”

“I just happen to like it,” Mickey Tallant said placidly. “Don’t you let nothin’ happen to it. I paid a hundred forty fish for that jacket.”

“Then you’re out of your damn mind.” Johnny tried it on. It was a little short in the waist but the shoulders were all right. And it was fleece-lined and warm. He removed it and put his suit jacket back on. “Okay. You sold me. Where’s the lettuce?”

“In the jacket. I stuck it in an envelope.”

“Today I’m allergic to envelopes all of a sudden.” Johnny removed the envelope from the jacket and the money from the envelope and spread a sheaf of bills on the bar. “What the hell?” he said as he saw tens, twenties, and hundreds. “How much is here?”

“About three thousand. If you run short get on the phone—”

“Three thousand? You lunatic, all I need is about three hundred. Here—” Johnny tried to separate some of the bills.

Mickey Tallant caught his wrist. “Take it,” he said brusquely. “You don’t know what you’ll need. Jesus, I’d give a farm to be goin’ with you. I wouldn’t give a damn if it was to Australia.” He looked at Johnny hopefully. “All I’d need would be twenty minutes to get the old lady over here an’ I’d be on my way.” He wadded up the money and thrust it at Johnny.

“Man, you’re three-to-five to win the Poorhouse Derby in a pulled-up trot.”

“Shut up. I owe you a favor, an’ if I’ve got to stand around here listenin’ to my arteries harden at least I can finance a little action.”

Johnny put the roll in his pocket and raised his hand in a half salute. “Well, keep punchin’, Mick.”

“You

keep punchin’. An’ if you run into a buzzsaw you call the Mick.”

Johnny left the tavern with the silver-studded leather jacket on his arm. He walked over to Broadway and caught a south-bound cab to the apartment. Full dawn was not far away when he let himself in quietly. His eyes felt as though they had been sandpapered.

Sally was asleep sitting up in a living-room chair. She was in robe and slippers and Johnny’s bag lay open at her feet. Johnny picked her up and sat down in the chair with her on his lap. Her eyes flew open. “Johnny, why are your clothes in that bag? Are you going somewhere?” she began immediately.

“Not if anyone asks you, ma.”

“Does Dr. Randall know about it?” Her brown eyes probed at him. “You know he prescribed a rest. What—”

“I’m restin’, an’ I’m not married to Doc Randall. Have I got any clothes over here?”

“I’ll look. There’s pajamas, I know.”

“Pajamas I got no time for.” Johnny dropped his head and lipped at her neck. “Ever.”

“Stop it, Johnny.” He could feel the little shiver that rippled through her. The slim body moved uneasily on his knees. “I don’t think you ought to be going anyplace. You’re barely out—”

“You’re outvoted, ma, two forty to a hundred. Pounds. How about the clothes?”

She slid from his lap and caught sight of the jacket Johnny had dropped on a couch. “What in the world is that?” She picked it up, held it up by the shoulders an instant, and slipped it on over her robe. The bottom hit her at the knees and the sleeve-ends hid her hands completely. Johnny burst out laughing at the small-featured bright face above the huge jacket as she pirouetted before him. “What’s so funny? What is it, a disguise?”

“For you it would be, sure as hell.” Johnny rose and captured the jacket, swinging Sally off her feet and up into his arms. He carried her into the bedroom and stood her up in the center of the bed while he removed the jacket.

“I haven’t looked for your clothes,” she murmured as her robe followed the jacket.

“F-forget it.” He picked her up by the elbows and set her down on the floor. “Maybe I could use this.” He whisked her nightgown up around her shoulders.

“Johnny!” she cried out, her voice muffled as he pulled it over her head. He dropped the nightgown, boosted her slender whiteness aloft and tossed her onto the bed. Before she had bounced twice he was beside her. She snatched off a slipper and flailed away at him. “You—big—walrus!” she panted, and yelped as he inserted a finger in her ribs. “Johnny! No tickling!”

“Say somethin’ now, ma,” he said deeply as he tucked her down beneath his weight. “Say somethin’ now.”

A long-drawn, hissing inhalation was his only answer.

There was no further conversation in the bedroom.

Late afternoon sunlight bathed the Albany terminal as Johnny alighted stiffly from a Greyhound Scenicruiser. He had been awake for twenty-four hours, and he felt it. He could have gone straight on to Jefferson in the same bus but he had decided against it. No one should be looking for him in Jefferson, but if they were the bus terminal would be watched.

On the ride up he had dozed fitfully without getting any real rest and thought his way around in circles. The role of Micheline Thompson bothered him. The timing of her call to him and the call to the police bothered him. Was it possible she’d known all the time that her husband was already dead? Johnny didn’t like to think so.

Had she collaborated with Daddario to call him down to the Manhattan where he could be looked over at close range by Kratz and Savino who could then step down to the street to engineer the first attempt on Johnny’s life? The possibility left a bad taste in his mouth.

He remembered Micheline Laurent in the hands of a German corporal screaming a warning to Johnny Killain to save himself. Could such a girl sell out her husband? The answer should be in Jefferson, along with the people who seemed determined that Carl Thompson’s story should end with Johnny Killain.

In the terminal washroom he changed from his wrinkled suit to slacks, a wool shirt, and Mickey Tallant’s leather jacket. He had already felt the nip in the northern air. Back upstairs he asked directions and caught a local bus to Jefferson.

It bumped along interminably, stopping at everyone’s back door. When it finally descended a long hill Johnny could see the city in the valley below. Smoke poured from tall chimneys. There was industry in the valley. He left the bus a few blocks short of the business district and walked toward it slowly. It looked clean and had an air of liveliness although an occasional gaptoothed empty storefront indicated a worm or two in the local economic apple.

He bought a paper at a corner newsstand. He had already decided he didn’t want to stay at a hotel and he was in the process of folding the paper back to the classified section when the caption beneath a front page picture caught his eye. “Mayor Richard Lowell turns first shovelful of earth in groundbreaking ceremonies for new—”

It surprised him. Lowell. Mayor Richard Lowell. And Jefferson was Toby Lowell’s home town. Johnny looked closely at the picture of a big, openfaced hearty-looking man smiling into the camera, an expensive-looking shoe atop a silvered shovel. There was no resemblance that Johnny could see, but a man might go broke in a hurry bucking the odds on it’s being a coincidence.

Toby Lowell. Toby hadn’t said a word about a Richard Lowell. After Johnny’s Washington phone call, Toby Lowell had known where to find Carl Thompson. And someone had very definitely found Carl Thompson not so long afterward. Had Toby made a call to the man who had found Thompson? Had he made another to Dameron? Something certainly seemed to have frozen the lieutenant to his hotel thief theory.

Johnny took another look at the smiling face of the big man on the front page of the paper and put the paper under his arm. He turned off the main street and walked cross-town, away from the solid business district. As soon as he nested in someplace he intended to pay a call at City Hall. Mayor Richard Lowell might be able to contribute something to the picture.

In eight or ten blocks he had moved out of the banked lineup of stores. In the new neighborhood only an occasional corner grocery appeared among houses and apartments. A sign in a downstairs window across the street caught his eye. ROOMS. He crossed the street. It was close enough to downtown without being downtown. He climbed five stone steps fronting an old-fashioned Georgian house and rang the bell.

He had to ring it again before it was opened by a thin-faced woman with a mass of red hair loosely knotted atop her head. She wasn’t young but the hair looked natural, Johnny decided. She had on blue jeans and a man’s white shirt. She carried a dustmop in a work-reddened hand and shrewd blue eyes took Johnny in from head to foot. Her eyes came back to the silver-studded jacket and finally to his face. “I’d like to see a room,” he told her.

She let him in. “Construction worker?” she asked over her shoulder, leading the way through the front hall.

“I’ve done it,” Johnny said. He followed her up the front stairs. He noticed that if her face was sharply-angled her figure was not. She moved lightly, with grace.

He set down his bag with his suit draped over it in the room to which she took him. He walked to the bed and sank both hands into it, deeply. The mattress was all right, not too soft, firm without being rigid. The room had two windows and the light was good. The carpeting was worn. The furniture was just furniture. He turned and crossed the hall to the bathroom he had seen on his way in. He looked for an outlet for his electric shaver and tested the shower. Everything looked clean. He returned to the bedroom. “How much?” he asked her.

She had been standing leaning on her mop, her eyes following his inspection. “I allow no liquor in here,” she said. Her tone was matter-of-fact. “And positively no women.” The dust mop lifted itself from the floor and pointed itself in Johnny’s direction. “And if you think I’m talking just to hear myself talk you can think again.” Her glance brushed over by the leather jacket again. “Fifteen a week.”

“Twelve,” Johnny said.

“Twelve it is,” she said amiably. “I’m Mrs. Peterson.” She held out her hand.

Johnny gave her twelve dollars. “Johnny Killain,” he said before he thought. He shrugged mentally. It probably didn’t make too much difference. He took the paper from under his arm and showed her the picture on the front page. “I used to know a Lowell in Washington whose home town was Jefferson,” he said casually.

“Dick’s got a brother in Washington, but he’s a big shot in the State Department.” Mrs. Peterson’s intonation clearly expressed her belief that Johnny couldn’t be expected to know a big shot in the State Department. “Dick’s not the man Toby was, or their father, either. It’s probably just as well old Mr. Lowell passed on.”

“Actually I came up to visit your chief of police, Carl Thompson,” Johnny said.

“You must have been out of touch, Mr. Killain. Carl hasn’t been chief for four months. They ran him—” She hesitated. “I think he’s left town,” she finished lamely.

“That’s too bad. He told me once he’d put in a word for me around here if I thought I needed it.”

“A word from Carl Thompson in this town wouldn’t get you far.” The statement was positive.

“Yeah? Carl’s in trouble, huh? Sorry to hear it. I like Carl.”

“I like him, too.” Mrs. Peterson paused as if considering the admission. She sat down on the bed and lowered her hands to half-mast on the mop handle. “It’s kind of unfashionable to like him around here right now,” she confided. “I think he got a raw deal. Not that Carl was any angel. My husband was a sergeant under Carl and he used to tell me things sometimes—” She shook her head. “Charlie—my husband—was killed in a holdup stake-out three years ago.” Johnny nodded sympathetically as she continued. “This is a queer kind of town, as you’ll find out if you stay.”

“Oh, I guess every town’s got its dirty washing,” Johnny suggested.

Mrs. Peterson’s mouth drew down at the corners. “God help ’em if they’re as dirty as this place,” she said grimly. “The mayor shacked up with his girl friend for anyone to see who’s got eyes, the president of the city council throwing over his fiancee to chase after the ex-police chief’s wife, the biggest lawyer—”

“Thompson’s wife runs around? Hell, I thought they got along.”

“She seems to get along with anyone who wears pants.” Mrs. Peterson bit the words off viciously. She rose to her feet. “I talk too much. Stop off in the kitchen and I’ll find you a key.”

“Sure thing.” When the woman had gone Johnny mulled over her information. One bit he should be able to use. He dumped the contents of his bag into a drawer and a half of the bureau and descended the stairs. He found his way to the kitchen in back and his landlady handed him a front door key. “This fiancee of Jim Daddario’s,” he asked her. “Was her name Gilmore?”

“No,” she answered, surprised. “It was the assistant librarian, Jessamyn—” Her mouth snapped shut. “Daddario’s name wasn’t mentioned upstairs. You seem to know a lot for a stranger in town.”

“I don’t like him, either,” Johnny grinned.

“If you’re egging me on, you can have your twelve dollars and the back of my hand,” she warned him. “I can’t stand that man expecting everyone to kiss his foot. I remember him when—” Her mouth closed again, this time with finality. “I said it before. I talk too much.”

“Not for me,” Johnny said as an exit line, and departed. He ran down the front steps and headed downtown. It was no problem to locate his target. The Jefferson Public Library was a long, low, fieldstone building on an expanse of green lawn in the city square. Inside, Johnny walked to the central check-in desk. “The assistant librarian, Jessamyn—” He snapped his fingers at his forgetfulness.

“Miss Burger?” the girl behind the desk asked brightly. “I believe she’s in the rear.”

Despite his best effort to walk quietly Johnny’s footsteps echoed in the hushed atmosphere. Two or three people in the magazine room appeared to be the only seekers after knowledge. At the far end of the vaulted arch, so low it barely left room for a mezzanine, Johnny stopped at a table presided over by a gray-haired woman in a severely tailored suit. “Miss Burger?” he asked, instinctively throttling down his heavy voice.

The woman looked over her shoulder to an alcove behind her. “Jessie? Are you in there?” She spoke in a normal tone that to Johnny sounded distressingly loud.

“Up in the stacks,” a hidden voice replied.

“The stairway on your left,” the gray-haired woman said to Johnny. He climbed a short, spiraling flight of iron steps and moved tentatively down a narrow passage that bisected row upon row of shelved books. An unshaded light bulb at the far end drew him onward. In the last row a heavy work-table nearly blocked the right-hand passage. Armsful and boxes of books were dumped on it indiscriminately. Beyond the table a girl trotted up a short ladder and deposited books on the top shelf over her head. In the process her skirt ascended enough to reveal very good legs. “Miss Burger?” Johnny asked again.

“Yes, it is.” She turned on the ladder to look down at him. She had a pretty face, round, with dimples. Her hair was dark and fluffed out about her small head in a short bob curled at the ends. Johnny could see that despite the good figure, the dimples, and the round face, Jessamyn Burger was no longer a girl. He decided that maturity hadn’t hurt her a bit. “May I be of help?” she asked when he showed no sign of saying anything. She came down the ladder and reached for more books.

“Let me do that,” Johnny said. “Those boxes goin’ up there?” He hoisted one up to his shoulder. “Clear the gangplank.” From the top of the ladder he looked down at her. “Any place in particular?”

“Just push it to the rear of the top shelf, but you really shouldn’t. You might—”

“Nothin’ to it.” He tossed two more boxes of books aloft, made piles of the remaining loose ones and disposed of them in two more trips. “There,” he said, dusting off his hands.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling. “You’re certainly energetic, aren’t you? And strong.” Cool gray eyes took him in, lingering on his leather jacket. Her eyes left him at the sound of voices approaching in the outside corridor.

Two men in coveralls entered, a short, wiry man in the lead. He looked blank at sight of the empty table. “How in the hell—? Excuse me, Miss Burger. I hope you didn’t move those books yourself. I went to get Billy here to help with the boxes.”

“Help arrived from an unexpected source,” Jessamyn Burger said.

The wiry man glanced at Johnny. “He put ’em up there by himself? Naah, I packed those things myself. I know what they weighed.” He took another look at Johnny. “He really did?”

“He really did, Fred. Thanks just the same.”

Fred and his helper shuffled out. In the doorway, Fred turned for another look before he left.

“You know you’ve really spoiled his day,” Jessamyn Burger smiled. “I really do thank you, Mr.—?”

“Killain,” Johnny supplied. “Did you know Carl Thompson is dead, Miss Burger?”

Her smile vanished. “Dead? Where? When?”

“He was killed in my hotel room in New York. A thousand dollars of my money is missing. I’m tryin’ to get it back.”

“Wait,” she said quickly. “Wait. You’re going too fast for me. Carl Thompson killed? In your room? Why was he there?”

“Oh, he’d come lookin’ for help on some crazy scheme he’d cooked up,” Johnny said indifferently. “I didn’t pay too much attention. I came back to the room an’ found him dead an’ my money gone. He claimed he’d been tossed around by someone up here. I figured if the people he was afraid of gave him the big bounce they had my money. I want it back.”

“But why on earth come to me with such a—such a wild story!” Her expression was one of wide-eyed vacuity. “I simply don’t understand.”

“I met Jim Daddario a couple of blocks away from my place last night. I’m curious about him. I heard you could tell me about Jim Daddario.”

The wide-eyed expression had vanished as quickly as the smile had previously. “You really do have more than a fair share of nerve, don’t you, Mr. Killain?” Icicles sprinkled every syllable. “There is nothing I care to discuss with you, now or later.”

“Look at it this way—you know somethin’, I know somethin’,” Johnny suggested. He watched her full lips purse doubtfully. “I know you can’t talk to me here but how about dinner tonight? I wouldn’t be dressed like this.”

She looked at him as though unexpectedly seeing him in another dimension. “Really—” Even white teeth gnawed at her pouting lower lip. “I don’t know—I don’t see—are you sure you want to?”

He gave her a big smile. “You damn right I’m sure.”

“Well—” She appeared to be trying to get herself organized. “Would eight o’clock be too late?”

“Just tell me where I meet you,” Johnny said promptly.

“I think right at the restaurant would be best,” she said hurriedly. “Mollinson’s. The food’s quite good.”

“Mollinson’s at eight.” He smiled at her again. “Wear something pretty. Not that you need it.”

Down the spiraling stairway and out through the hushed main floor he carried in his mind the picture of Jessamyn Burger’s high booming color. The dinner would be no hardship.

CHAPTER IV

On the granite library steps Johnny stopped to light a cigarette. A heavy push from behind sent him reeling. The cigarette flew from his hand and he staggered down three or four steps before recovering his balance. Another stiff push nearly upset him again as he turned to see what had happened. He stared at a slim, dark, handsome-looking man standing on the step above him. The man grinned and pushed Johnny again, deliberately.

Belatedly, Johnny recognized the dark man as the one who had been in the Manhattan suite with Micheline Thompson and Jim Daddario. Savino. Tommy Savino. Had this little pimp followed him all the way up here from New York? If he had, it left Killain with plenty of egg on his face. “What’s the matter with you?” Johnny demanded at another push. Only the first one had moved him. Still smiling, Savino said nothing. He stepped down onto Johnny’s level as if to push again, changed his mind and swung his left hand. It caught Johnny on the ear, more of a slap than a punch, but it stung.

The man’s left arm started up again, and Johnny reached for it. He checked himself immediately. That’s what he wants, he told himself. He’s looking for trouble. This is his town.

He evaded the left hand with a head movement. Savino’s fixed smile took on a jeering aspect at Johnny’s checked grab for his arm. He kicked Johnny heavily in the right shin. A hot, glowing coal ignited in Johnny’s stomach. There was nothing openhanded about the right hand smash with which he hit Savino flush in the sneering mouth, knocking him flat on his back on the steps.

The dark man scrambled to his knees like a snarling wildcat, the corners of his mouth dribbling blood. His right hand darted to his left wrist. Johnny stepped in close and picked him up bodily. He carried Savino to a wall buttress and stood him up against it with a knee in his back to hold him there. Unhurriedly, Johnny worked the left arm around behind the struggling body and beneath the loose-flowing jacket sleeve found a knife holster strapped to the forearm.

Savino cursed luridly as Johnny removed a deadly-looking six-inch blade from the holster. He was disappointed to find no bone in the handle as there had been in the knife that had killed Carl Thompson. Johnny placed the blade against the stone buttress and applied pressure until it snapped off close to the hilt.

“Ye’re under arrest,” a voice rambled from behind him. “Both of you. Fightin’ in public.” Johnny turned. Sap in hand, a hulking patrolman stood watchfully, feet planted wide apart. Johnny removed his knee from Savino’s spine. The slim man whirled but the policeman spoke hastily. “None of that, now. We’ll settle it at the stationhouse. March on out to the curb.”

Johnny looked at the high, narrow, boxlike body of the vehicle pulled up out in front. It had two steps up from the back and no windows. A twenty-year-out-of-date Black Maria that appeared without being summoned. Here comes trouble, Killain, Johnny told himself. It looked as though Carl Thompson had known what he was talking about.

They walked through the rim of a gathering crowd to the police van. Johnny got in first and went at once to the front end and stood with his back to the wall. Savino followed him, and the patrolman lumbered on last. He looked at Johnny up in the front. “Sit down, you,” he said sharply, and turned to close and latch the van doors.

Johnny stayed where he was. The instant the staring faces of the people outside were shut out, Savino charged, the patrolman a stride behind. Johnny grabbed Savino and held him out at arm’s length, using him as a buffer against the sap in the policeman’s big hand. “Get him, Collins,” Savino grunted, writhing in Johnny’s hands. Johnny tightened his grip and Savino swore hoarsely. Behind him Patrolman Collins prowled ineffectually, trying to get at Johnny past the barrier of Savino’s body. Their heavy breathing filled the van.

A sharp left turn staggered them up against the wall. The van slowed and Collins smothered a remark under his breath. As it stopped he hung the sap back on his belt, opened the back doors and stepped down. Johnny half-threw Savino at the doors and he staggered out into a sunlit yard. Johnny followed cautiously and found himself in a hollow square of public buildings with thousands of windows looking down upon the open space. He relaxed for the first time in minutes. This kind of trouble didn’t usually come in the open and the sunlight.

The driver swung down off the front seat, a folded canvas stretcher under his arm. His stolid expression turned foolish at sight of all three of his passengers on their feet. He hurriedly stuffed the stretcher back inside the van.

Back entrance double-doors were spaced at regular intervals around the square. A blue light marked Police Headquarters. “Get inside,” Patrolman Collins said curtly. His hands were empty. A raging Savino almost sprinted to the door. Johnny moved quickly to keep him within reach. Savino might be allied with the police but he was still Johnny’s passport. The moment Johnny was maneuvered into laying a hand on the police rather than on Savino the situation would become a lot stickier.

He followed on Savino’s heels down a long, polished-stone corridor. Closed doors on both sides bore silver-lettered glass panels labeled City Engineer, City Clerk, City Health Department, City Council Meetingroom, City Tax Office. Savino’s pace outdistanced Collins and the van driver. A red neon arrow with the word POLICE beneath it pointed down a short flight of stairs. Savino ran down them with Johnny right behind him. They burst out into a brightly lighted room with a high desk behind which sat a hard-faced uniformed sergeant.

Johnny made it his business to beat Savino to the desk. “I want to prefer charges against this man,” he said. He tossed the broken knife up on the desk. “That thing had four more inches on it when I took it away from him.”

“I’ll prefer the goddamn charges,” Savino blurted thickly. His handsome features were pale with anger. Dried blood crusted a corner of his mouth. “Where’s Riley?” he demanded.

The sergeant nodded silently to an unmarked door at the rear of the room. Savino wheeled and walked to it, entering without knocking. The desk man glanced back at the stairs as Collins and the driver rattled down them. “I brought ’em in, Sarge,” Collins puffed. “Fightin’ on the street.” He pointed at Johnny. “He started it.”

“He’s preferring charges against Savino,” the sergeant said. His face was expressionless. He held up the broken knife. “Claims he took this away from him.”

“I didn’t see nothin’ like that,” Collins said. “First I saw this guy hit Savino in the mouth an’ flattened him.”

“Then why’d you arrest Savino?” Johnny asked him. “Just to give him a shot at me in the van?”

Cold blue eyes looked down on Johnny from behind the high desk. “I don’t see any marks on you,” the sergeant said. “Any witnesses to your story?”

“Three,” Johnny lied easily.

The blue eyes shifted to Collins who looked suddenly uneasy. “I’m tellin’ you what I saw, Sarge.” He bore down heavily on the personal pronoun. “I didn’t—”

He stopped as the door at the rear of the room behind which Savino had disappeared opened quickly. A big man in an impressive uniform filled the doorway. He was both tall and wide. There was barely enough room in the doorway to see Tommy Savino standing in the room behind him with a smirk on his face. Johnny looked at the scrambled egg motif on the big man’s uniform cap and the bulge of crumpled white shirt overflowing the belt buckle visible via the unbuttoned jacket. “What is it, McDonough?” the man in the doorway asked.

“Street fight, Chief,” the desk sergeant replied. “Collins brought—”

“Book that one,” the chief interrupted him, looking at Johnny for the first time. “I’ll talk to him later.”

McDonough held up the broken knife. “He’s preferring—”

“I said book him.” The chief left the doorway and headed for the stairs. Savino followed, grinning.

“I guess right about here is where I get to make my phone call,” Johnny said to Sergeant McDonough. The sergeant cut his eyes toward the stairs, Johnny saw that the chief had halted on the second step. It wasn’t likely this crew would let him make an outside phone call but they should be curious as to whom he wanted to make it.

There was no sound from the stairs. With no change of expression McDonough stood up behind the desk. He lifted a phone over the top of it and handed it down to Johnny, stand and all. “Make it snappy, pal,” he said.

One look explained the generosity. It wasn’t a dial phone. They could hear the name or the number he asked the operator to get for him and still have plenty of time to retrieve the phone before the connection could be made.

Johnny lifted the receiver. “Mayor Lowell’s office,” he said to the switchboard operator’s inquiry. Above his head Sergeant McDonough glanced quickly at the stairs.

“Break that up!” the chief barked.

McDonough yanked hard on the cord going over the top of his desk. Johnny had anticipated it. Nothing happened. The sergeant leaned down over the front of the desk. Johnny backed away as far as he could get but the cord wouldn’t let him get far enough. “Tell the mayor—” Johnny said to the new feminine voice on the line and paused to lower his head as. McDonough punched down at him. Instead of hitting him in the face the sergeant hit him in the forehead. It drove Johnny back a step but he retained his grip on the phone. “—that I’m a friend of his brother Toby’s an’ that your cops are givin’ me a hard time at headquarters. Tell him—” McDonough’s roundhouse right landed on Johnny’s cheekbone despite his effort to evade it. McDonough’s grunt was clearly audible. “Tell him to get down here,” Johnny said rapidly. He dropped to one knee to avoid McDonough’s follow-up smash. He bobbed up instantly, slapped the receiver into the cradle and threw the telephone over the desk, hard. It hit McDonough squarely in the chest. “Thanks for the use of your phone, Mac,” Johnny told him as the sergeant went backward into his chair with a crash.

Chief Riley was halfway toward the desk from the stairs. “Did he get that call through?” he demanded of no one in particular. He didn’t wait for an answer. Dark blood flared in the wide, moon face as he glared at Johnny. He looked big but he looked soft, too, Johnny thought. “We’ll fix your clock, mister,” the chief said to him harshly. “We know how to take care of wise guys around here. You won’t be so lucky the next time.” He half-turned to look back up the stairs at the sound of rapidly descending footsteps. “You’re going to find your umbrella’s got a hell of a leak in it.”

He stalked back into his office, slamming the door.

Mayor Richard Lowell clattered briskly down the stairs and into the room. He looked exactly like his picture, Johnny thought, except on a larger scale. The head was large and crested with a cockatoo-like white pompadour. It commanded instant attention. The strong face gave a lion-like appearance to the average-sized physique. “You called my office?” he demanded of Johnny and without waiting for an answer swung to the desk. “What about this, McDonough?”

The gray-faced sergeant climbed laboriously to his feet. He stood half-doubled over. “Wise—bastard—” he got out between his teeth. His breath whistled on the sibilants. “Hit me—with the phone—”

“I asked you what happened here.” The mayor glanced from McDonough to Johnny, his expression curious. “Was Riley here? Where is he now?”

Johnny pointed at the closed door. He realized for the first time that Tommy Savino had disappeared. Lowell started to say something, hesitated, took Johnny by the arm and led him to a corner. “Who are you?” he asked in an undertone. “What took place here?”

“I’d like to talk to you about it. Privately,” Johnny said.

“Why should you want to talk to me?” Lowell sounded suspicious. He had a rich, beautifully polished speaking voice. Every syllable was produced with a vocal flourish. “And what’s this business of your being a friend of Toby’s?”

“I talked to Toby yesterday afternoon.”

“You did?” Mayor Lowell kindled. “Did Toby send you up here?” His voice had risen; he lowered it immediately. “Did they find it out?”

“What kind of a town are you runnin’ here?” Johnny asked in his turn. “Or aren’t you runnin’ it at all? These guys like to had my ears nailed to the wall.”

Angry color invaded Richard Lowell’s patrician features. “I hope I’m running this town!” he blustered.

“I hope so, too, but some people don’t seem to have gotten the message. I was in town an hour an’ I was jumped on the street by a man named Savino. He an’ a cop with him had a wagon handy to roll me in here. I had trouble keepin’ ’em off me in the wagon.” Johnny fingered a rising lump on his left cheekbone. “I had more trouble gettin’ to talk to you. Is all that a part of the town you’re runnin’? An’ does Toby know about it?”

Without a word the mayor turned and strode to the door through which Chief Riley had exited. He went right on in without bothering to knock. He closed the door behind him. Johnny returned his attention to the desk. McDonough sat down, his blue eyes glaring down malevolently at Johnny, but he said nothing.

The silence lasted until the mayor rushed out of the chief’s office, banging the door behind him. Storm signals darkened his face. “We can talk upstairs,” he said curtly to Johnny.

Behind the desk McDonough rose to his feet again. He looked torn the closed door to the mayor. “Hold up a minute,” he protested. “Nobody’s told me what to do with the charge against—”

“The second thing you can do with it,” Richard Lowell interrupted him with a vicious clarity in the mellow voice, “is tear it up.” Without a backward glance he led the way to the stairs and Johnny followed him.

On the upper level they walked to the front of the building and a door marked OFFICE OF THE MAYOR. Inside, Lowell hurried past a brunette secretary who paused in her typing to look up at Johnny with interest. She was an extremely good-looking girl. Johnny wondered if it were she with whom the mayor was shacking up as charged by Mrs. Peterson. If so, Richard Lowell went up a couple of notches in Johnny’s estimation. The girl was a knockout.

In his private office, the mayor closed the door. It was elaborately furnished with heavy, old-fashioned pieces. “Sit down,” he said. His tone made it a command. He softened it at once. “Now for God’s sake catch me up on what’s going on around here. First of all, did Toby send you?”

“No.” Johnny could see the mayor’s disappointment in the blunt negative.

Disappointment was followed by renewed suspicion. “Then who are you? What are you doing here?”

“I’m tryin’ to retrieve a bankroll heisted from me.”

Richard Lowell sat down behind a wide oak desk. His expression was puzzled. “Isn’t that a matter for the police? I mean, why come to me?”

“You’re Toby’s brother. The corn hasn’t stopped poppin’ since I talked to Thompson. Somebody—”

“You talked to Carl Thompson?” The mayor had moved forward on the edge of his chair. “When?”

“Yesterday afternoon at my place.”

“Your—?” Richard Lowell slapped his forehead dramatically with an open palm. “Of course,” he exclaimed. “You’re Killain. Toby called me about you. I didn’t make the connection because he didn’t say you were coming.”

“He didn’t know it. After Thompson was killed—”

“How did it happen?” the mayor broke in eagerly. “I’ve had no details at all.”

“Knifed,” Johnny told him. “An’ twice last night someone tried to add me to the score.”

“You? Why?”

“Because Thompson talked to me?” Johnny asked his own question.

“I see,” Lowell said slowly. “Yes, I do see.”

“Why’d Toby call you?” Johnny asked casually.

“About Thompson, of course.” The mayor looked defensive. He folded his hands in his lap. “I suppose Carl damned me to you up, down, and sideways?”

“He never even mentioned your name,” Johnny said truthfully.

“Then he had a damn sight more forbearance than I’d have had in his place,” Lowell said grimly. “I’m the man who fired him. Under pressure,” he added hastily.

“An’ Toby didn’t like it?”

Richard Lowell smiled bleakly. “My brother has an unrealistic approach at times to the problems of municipal government in a city like Jefferson.”

“What’s your problem?”

“It’s a long story.” Lowell ran a hand nervously through his hair. He couldn’t have been more than fifty, Johnny thought, but the hair was snow white. “First I’d rather go into why you’re here.”

“I’m here because I’m a thousand dollar loser to the action in New York an’ because somebody tried twice to scrag me. It didn’t look to me like I was goin’ to get any answers I wanted at that end of the line.” He moved onto the offensive. “Why are you standin’ me off here, now? What are you afraid of?” He rose to his feet. “Tell your police department they’ll need more’n a wagon to bring me in the next time they take the notion.”

“It’s not my police department!”

“You sprung me from down there,” Johnny pointed out.

“A quid pro quo. Jack Riley—”

“It was your police department when Thompson was chief?” Johnny pressed him when Lowell hesitated. The mayor nodded reluctantly.

“Who submarined him?”

“I think you’d better come out to the house tonight,” Lowell decided. “I don’t like to talk here. I’m never sure—” His hand again made the sweeping gesture through his hair.

“You mean you think your own office could be bugged?”

“I’ve invited you to my home,” Lowell said stiffly.

“I’ve accepted,” Johnny said promptly. “Late, though. Say around ten. I’m havin’ dinner at eight. With Jessamyn Burger.” Richard Lowell’s mouth opened but no sound came forth. Johnny smiled at him. “Give my regards to Toby when you call him to report I hit the deck here.”

“I’m not—who said—” The mayor groped for a reply.

“See you at ten,” Johnny said. “And for Christ’s sake try to make a little more sense than you’re makin’ now, will you?”

He closed the door to the private office from the outside. The brunette secretary again looked up from her typing. Johnny walked over to her desk and looked down at her. “I hear your boss is shackin’ up with an unmarried female,” he said solemnly. “Is it you?”

Her mouth curved humorously. “No, it’s not.”

“Shame on him, then. Would it do me any good to put my name on the list?”

“I’m afraid not.” She raised her hand from the typewriter keys to show him an engagement ring. She was smiling openly.

“That’s the toughest decision I dropped today,” he told her. “Ten thousand thousand good wishes.”

Her eyes followed him all the way to the door.

Back at Mrs. Peterson’s his key let him into the front hallway and he started for the stairs. “Well! Whom have we here?” a fresh young voice inquired from behind him.

Johnny turned. A chubby teenager with schoolbooks under her arm was examining him from the living-room doorway. She had flaming red hair done up in a pony tail, a pert face, and a mouth heavily lipsticked in the latest version of a femme fatale. “I’m the new roomer,” Johnny said.

“Val just never tells me these things,” the girl announced dramatically. “I’m Jingle Peterson.” She put down the books and moved out into the hall to get a better look at him. All her movements were exaggerated. She eyed the silver-studded jacket with frank approval. “Cool, man. That skin’s really got the beat.” She ran a hand lightly over the jacket, her head tilted up to watch his face, her expression saucy.

“Pleased to meet you, Jingle,” Johnny acknowledged. “I’m Johnny. Who’s Val?”

“Val?” Her thinly plucked eyebrows rose. “My sainted mama. Mrs. Valerie Peterson. We won’t have any trouble with her.” She tapped a finger lightly on his chest. “Pleased to meet you, Johnny. Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?”

“What the hell would you do if I did?” he asked in amusement.

“Why, drink it, of course!” She fluttered her eyelashes at him. “What else does one do with a drink?”

“How old are you, Jingle?”

“Don’t you agree that chronological age has nothing at all to do with one’s maturity?” she asked rapidly in the manner of a well-rehearsed lesson.

“Fourteen?”

“Mercy! Do I look like a child?’

“Fifteen an’a half?”

She pouted at him. “I think you’re horrid. I’m ages older than that. If you can’t see—”

“Must’ve been sixteen last week,” he decided aloud. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the vote of confidence, Jingle, but don’t you think you deserve somethin’ better’n an old crock like me?”

“You’re not all that old,” she announced firmly. “You have an interesting face. Sort of grim. I think we’re going to be very good friends.” Her face lighted up suddenly. “Are you any good at algebra?”

“I’m the world’s worst.”

“Oh, well,” she sighed. “You can’t have everything.” She sailed grandly back into the living room and picked up her books. The eyelashes fluttered at him from the doorway. “See you later, large man. It’s been the most.”

“It sure has,” Johnny agreed. “Hey! Can you press a suit?”

“One dollar per each, satisfaction guaranteed or your money back,” she said briskly.

“Hot up your iron. I’ll bring it right down.” At the top of the stairs he encountered Mrs. Peterson, her dust mop exchanged for a broom. From her position it was obvious she had heard every word from the hallway below.

“Thanks for the way you handled that,” she said to Johnny when he went to pass by.

“You don’t want to get mad at the kid. She’s just testin’ her wings.”

“Her generation defeats me,” Valerie Peterson said darkly. Her hands opened and closed on the broom handle. “We thought about the same things when we were her age, God knows, but it’s their credo to proclaim it. I walk a tightrope trying to decide what’s talk and what isn’t.” Her eyes went down the stairs broodingly. “I guess I’ll have to give up this business before long. Right now she’s still afraid of my hairbrush but when the day comes that she isn’t—” She shrugged. “Well. This floor is off limits to her, incidentally. Our bedroom is downstairs.” Johnny nodded. “There was a man here asking questions about you just after you went out.”

“He say who he was?” Johnny asked quickly.

“He didn’t have to say. I was born and raised in this town. His name is Kratz. He has a used-car lot on the edge of town. He’s also mixed up in local politics.”

“What did he ask you, Mrs. Peterson?”

“Just who you were. He seemed surprised when I told him.” Maybe it had been a break at that, using his own name, Johnny reflected. Kratz had been trying to pick up the alias. With him using his own name it might slow them down a little wondering about his backing. They’d picked him up so fast there sure as hell wasn’t anything the matter with their liaison.

Valerie Peterson was watching his face. “I want no trouble here,” she warned him. “I know this Kratz. You mind what I say.” She walked away from him, down the stairs. In his room Johnny took down his suit from the closet and headed for the kitchen and Jingle.

CHAPTER V

Jessamyn Burger was both an attractive and comfortable dinner companion, Johnny decided. She had appeared in a conservative woolen suit firmly attached to a not-so-conservative figure. She had held up her end of the conversation, had laughed at his jokes, and had gradually turned serious when he described—still in a humorous vein—his encounter with Savino on the library steps and his reception at police headquarters. If she had heard the story before she was a good enough actress to disguise it.

“I think that you were luckier than you know,” she said quietly when he finished. “You’re a stranger in this town. You have no idea of the situation here.”

“There was one thing that bothered me,” Johnny admitted. “I’d been in town an hour when Savino tied into me at the library. I couldn’t figure how he got to me so fast. I think I know. He wasn’t tailin’ me. He was watchin’ you, an’ recognized me when I walked in.”

Her eyes widened. “Watching me? That’s the most ridiculous idea I ever—”

“What’s so ridiculous about it? You and Daddario were friends. You were in. Now you’re out. They might be havin’ second thoughts about what you learned about their business.”

“I learned nothing about their business, except what’s hearsay in the town anyway.” She said it firmly. “Jim and I were friends for years but we never discussed his political affairs on any but the most platitudinous level.” Her eyes were steady on Johnny’s. “We’re still friends. I’m positive Jim would never do anything to hurt me or implicate me in any way.”

“Not while things were goin’ his way,” Johnny argued. “Right now he’s a little shook up. I think he’s busy shorin’ up the timbers on his political cabin. You might know more than you think.” Jessamyn Burger shook her head decisively and Johnny changed the subject. “Speakin’ of hearsay in the town, I understand Dick Lowell has got himself an unofficial first lady.”

Her smile was unwilling. “For the length of time you’ve been in Jefferson you’ve certainly improved each shining hour. I don’t think that situation is quite the way you’d appraise it from surface appearances, though. The woman’s husband left her ten years ago but he’s a dog-in-the-manger type who won’t give her a divorce. She can’t get it without him dragging her name and Dick’s through every paper in the state. He’s threatened to do it. Dick can’t have that, so the status quo remains. It’s a sordid but not unusual situation.”

So it wasn’t Micheline Thompson with whom Dick Lowell was playing house, Johnny mused. He was surprised at the relief he felt at the news. If she had been involved it would almost have clinched her role in the Manhattan suite. Thinking of her recalled something else. He had called the number listed for Carl Thompson in the phone book before he had left Mrs. Peterson’s to meet Jessamyn, and had raised no one. He pushed back his chair and signaled the waiter for his check. “Excuse me a moment,” he said to Jessamyn. He placed a bill beside his plate.

He walked out to the men’s room and stepped into a phone booth just outside the door. He dialed the Carl Thompson number again and listened with a gathering frown as the phone rang and rang. He hung up and emerged from the booth thoughtfully. He wondered where Micheline Thompson was spending her time.

Back at the table he smiled down at Jessamyn Burger. “See you home, lady?”

“Oh, don’t bother. It’s out a little way. I’m—”

“Bother? I want to bother.” Her color bloomed at his inspection. “We’ll take a cab out an’ I’ll walk back. I need the exercise.”

“Well—” He gave her no chance to argue. On the sidewalk he took her arm while the restaurant doorman flagged down a taxi. “The address is 546 Circle Drive,” she said as one pulled in to the curb. Johnny gave the driver the address and settled down beside her. It was a quiet ride.

“I’m sorry I can’t invite you in for a drink,” she said when the cab pulled into a curving street lined, with apartment buildings. “As far as their librarian’s morals are concerned, Jefferson is a small town.”

“I’ll just walk you to the door,” Johnny said as the taxi stopped before a building shabbier than its neighbors. “I’d like to do this again when you can work me into your schedule.”

“I have no schedule,” she said before she thought. She smiled self-consciously. “I really should build myself up to you better than that, shouldn’t I?” He took her arm again up the broad cement walk. At the door she turned. “Thank you. I enjoyed it.”

He opened the door. “I’ll give you a ring,” he suggested. He stood on the step holding the door. “Is there any—” Over her shoulder as Jessamyn moved inside Johnny saw a shadow that materialized into Jigger Kratz and Tommy Savino standing there, waiting. Without even thinking about it Johnny stepped inside and closed the door.

At the expression on his face Jessamyn turned quickly. “Jigger!” she exclaimed in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

The big man stood with his hands jammed comfortably into his pockets, a cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth. “Jim wants you should call him, Jessie,” he said. His lips seemed not to move at all.

“If Jim wants to talk to me he knows my telephone number!” she replied spiritedly.

“It’d be a good idea if you called him, Jessie,” Kratz said patiently. He rocked slightly on his heels, perfectly relaxed. Beside him Savino was taut as a bowstring, Johnny thought. “Take care of it, will you? Goodnight.”

“Goodnight?” she echoed, surprised. “What—” She looked from the two men to Johnny and back again. Johnny had moved casually a few feet from the door at his back, out into the small lobby with its polished floor. “Now look, Jigger—”

Savino’s leash snapped. “Get inside!” he barked at her. He looked at Johnny with a dark, triumphant sneer. He circled to Johnny’s left with the short, graceful steps of a dancer.

“Jigger!” the girl cried out. “Stop him!”

The big man smiled. Savino rushed Johnny, throwing a long right-hand punch. Johnny blocked it easily. In close, the slender man darted the forked fingers of his left hand at Johnny’s eyes. Johnny caught the fingers and bent them back steadily upon the wrist. Savino went to his knees with a strangled sound.

“Give me a reason I shouldn’t break ’em, wise guy,” Johnny growled down at the ashen face. He moved to put Savino between himself and Kratz who had made no move at all. Savino scrambled on his knees turning with Johnny, his eyes bulging as he tried to relieve the pressure on his fingers. His free hand came up and clawed at Johnny’s hand. Johnny put a foot in Savino’s stomach and thrust explosively, letting go of the fingers. Savino skidded on his knees across the lobby floor and crashed into Kratz’s shins with a force that would have driven the average man backward. The big man never even missed a puff on his cigarette. “Try your luck?” Johnny invited him.

With no change of expression Kratz reached down and hooked thick fingers in Savino’s coat collar. He hauled him to his feet. “He was told not to do that,” he rumbled to Johnny. “That’s the only reason you’re gettin’ away with it.” He turned to the white-faced librarian. “You call Jim, Jessie.” He steered the reeling Savino through the door and was gone.

Jessamyn Burger drew a long breath as Johnny looked down at his right hand. Blood welled up on the back of it. “You’re hurt!” she said sharply.

“Just a scratch,” Johnny told her. He reached in his pocket for a handkerchief.

“You come inside and wash that out,” she ordered him. “That man’s fingernails could give you hydrophobia.”

“But you said—”

“I don’t care what I said.” High heels click-clacking, she led the way up three steps and along a dimly lighted aisle past a self-service elevator. At a door marked 2-A she stopped and removed a key from her handbag.

The drab exterior of the building and the small, cluttered lobby had left Johnny unprepared for the room into which she led him. Solid cherry paneling covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Vividly scarlet linoleum on the floor was partially covered by a huge oval rug braided in a concentric black-and-white pattern. An austere white brick chimney centered the farther wall. Below it the fireplace was an old-fashioned Franklin stove extending outward on a raised white brick hearth. Bronze andirons in front of it and bronze knobs and medallions on the stove itself relieved its jet black severity. At the side a bronze-hooped, cherrywood bucket contained white birch logs. A low cherrywood table to the left held an ivory lamp and a bowl of flowers, and to the right a high cherrywood buffet held a matching lamp and a trailing green fern. Halfway to the ceiling on the white bricks of the chimney a golden rooster crowed silently.

“I like this,” Johnny approved. He realized that every fiber of wood visible in the room was cherry.

“Thank you. I designed it myself.” She glanced around as though trying to see it critically with his eyes. “And paid for it myself. My well-meaning knowledgeable friends tell me it has no particular distinction or artistic merit, but I like it. I like nice things.” She returned her key to her handbag. “You can wash up behind that door on the right.”

Beyond the bathroom Johnny had a quick glimpse of a bedroom in frilly pinks and whites. He ran the cold water and stuck his hand under it. He heard the sound of her heels on the tile beside him and turned to look. “Duck your head,” she commanded, and opened the medicine closet door when he complied. She took down a bottle of Mercurochrome and a box of Band-aids. “You have the biggest hand,” she said in surprise, working on it. Her voice trailed off.

Back out in the cherrywood living room he raised the question that had been on his mind. “Those two seem to think you’re still on the home team the way they boss you around,” he said. He watched her face while appearing to smooth down the Band-aid on the back of his hand.

“I was kicked off the home team so long ago the bruises have nearly healed.” She said it with no real emphasis but it sounded sincere to his critical ear. “You’ll have to watch yourself with Savino,” she continued.

“He’s dropped a couple decisions today. He may go back into trainin’.”

She shook her head emphatically. “Not Savino. If he can’t do it from in front he’ll do it from behind.” She looked at him thoughtfully. “You’re very strong, aren’t you?”

“As strong as Kratz?

Her eyes darkened. “No one is as strong as Kratz.”

“He the boy who did the job on Thompson?”

Her face closed up. “I’m sure I have no idea.”

He’d touched the wrong button that time, Johnny decided.

He waved the bandaged hand at her. “Thanks, Jessie. For everything. I’ll give you a ring.”

Her features opened up again at his use of her name.

“I—I’d like that.”

“Just keep the line clear,” he told her cheerfully, and departed.

He walked back to town, detouring out into the street each time a corner building ran right out to the sidewalk.

He saw no sign of Savino, or of Kratz, either.

Johnny sat in Richard Lowell’s library as the white-maned mayor pushed a low, wheeled table alongside his chair. The table contained a brandy decanter, two pony glasses, and a cigar humidor. Lowell splashed brandy into each of the glasses and nudged one in Johnny’s direction. He picked up his own and drained it at a gulp, set down his glass and refilled it. He selected a cigar from the humidor and carried brandy and cigar to the unlighted fireplace. “Help yourself to a cigar,” he said as an afterthought. His back was to the room. He flung the crumpled cellophane from his cigar at the set logs in the fireplace with exaggerated force. To Johnny he looked as nervous as a cat on hot bricks.

Johnny chose a cigar and glanced around the tremendous room whose walls were book-lined two-thirds of the way to a ceiling he estimated at eighteen feet. The fireplace was large enough to roast an ox. “Who pays the heatin’ bills here?” he asked. “The city?”

Richard Lowell’s expression was concentrated as he rotated the tip of his cigar carefully in the flame of a silver lighter. “This is the Lowell House,” he said when he had the cigar going to his satisfaction. His manner indicated that that should be all the explanation necessary.

“The Richard Lowell House?”

The mayor made an impatient gesture with his cigar. “The Lowell House,” he repeated. “Built by my people shortly after 1800. There’ve been Lowells in Jefferson ever since. There’ve been Lowells in city, state, and federal government ever since.” He looked moodily around the huge room. “This place is an anachronism now. I let my housekeeper go. I live in three rooms and I take my meals out. I have no family.” He shook his head. “Lately I’ve begun to understand the problems of dynasties when the succession peters out. Toby never married at all. After me, I don’t know what becomes of the Lowell House.”

“But the Lowells run Jefferson?”

Lowell’s smile was bitter. “I can take you to places in town where you can get an argument on the point. Oh, they used to, all right.” He took down his pony glass from the mantel where he had placed it while he lit his cigar.

“Thompson was your man. You’re bein’ moved in on since he was dragged out of the saddle?”

“Very succinctly put, my friend. I am indeed being moved in on.”

“But you’re still the mayor.”

“The voting public still retains an affection for the name Lowell. As for the mayor’s rights, powers, and perquisites, they’re being whittled away every day.”

“By Daddario?”

“Jim would like to be mayor.” Richard Lowell shrugged. “Ten years ago I’d have called it impossible.”

“Riley is Daddario’s man?”

“He is, although he was approved by the city council, which is a nine-man board. The vote was five to nothing with four abstentions. It was an extremely slapdash affair. I had no candidate to put up against Riley. It was railroaded through.”

“If you still control four council votes you can’t be in such bad shape,” Johnny said.

“I controlled six at the beginning of this term,” Lowell said wryly. “Jim apparently is a better salesman than I am.” He drained off the balance of his brandy. “How was your dinner?”

“Fine an’ dandy, until I ran into Kratz an’ Savino afterward.” The mayor looked at him silently. “Savino threw another shoe. Kratz refereed. I don’t think we settled much.”

“I’m not sure that I would put too much stock in anything Miss Burger may have said during your—ah—conversation.”

The flexible speaking voice carefully picked its way. “If she said anything?”

“She didn’t say much,” Johnny admitted.

“It’s not surprising. Despite their emotional—ah—disengagement, I happen to know that Jim and she are still financially involved.”

“He’s payin’ her off to keep her shut up?”

“No, no,” Lowell said hurriedly. “A project or two they embarked upon together in—happier days.” He set down his empty glass. “I talked to Toby about you this evening. He was surprised to learn that you were here.”

“Pleasantly?”

The mayor’s smile was small and unwilling. “I didn’t ask. I was more interested in his opinion of you. I might say it does you credit. Would you be open to a proposition?”

“Just a minute. If Jack Riley is Daddario’s man how were you able to spring me from the lion’s den today?”

“They don’t buck me openly,” Lowell said. “Not yet, anyway. If I make a loud enough noise I get my way. Riley would like to cut me off at the knees but Jim’s the patient type. He remembers all those voters who revere the name Lowell. Now about that proposition—”

“You’re offerin’ me the job of Chief of Police?”

The mayor stared. “Hardly.”

“Why not? Sounds to me like you need one on your side.”

“You’re not being realistic, Killain. If I had the votes on the council to put you in as chief I’d have had the votes to keep Thompson on. Even though the type of charges that necessitated his removal did me as his sponsor no good at all with the independent members of the council.”

“I thought Toby was his sponsor.”

“Toby recommended him to me.” Irritation edged the mayor’s tone. “Toby has been above and beyond Jefferson for twenty years. I seem to have been delegated to fight the Lowell rear-guard action.”

“So I’m not gonna be police chief. What is it, then? President of the city council?”

The mayor’s smile was pained. “Really, Killain, you—”

“Tax assessor? Health inspector? Dog catcher?”

Richard Lowell flushed dully. “You know perfectly well I’m unable to offer you an official position of any kind.”

“But you’re offerin’ me a position.”

“Why—yes.” Lowell brightened. “You’re accepting?”

“It might help if I knew what it was.”

The mayor looked down at his half-consumed cigar and threw it backward into the fireplace. “You would—ah— assist me. In a number of ways. There are projects I’ve been unable to execute because of the lack of the right man.”

“Assistant to the Mayor,” Johnny said musingly.

Richard Lowell looked startled. “I’m afraid there would be no title,” he said hurriedly.

Johnny tired of the game. “So you’re hirin’ a bodyguard,” he said bluntly.

“Not at all, not at all!” Mayor Lowell said it vigorously. “I’ve no need of one.”

“Glad to hear it. Say, how do I get in touch with Micheline Thompson? I’ve called her apartment twice and nobody answers.”

The mayor appeared taken aback by the abrupt change in direction. “I’m sure I don’t—you say no one answers? The funeral, possibly—” He jammed his hands in his pockets to get them out of sight. Left to themselves they dry-washed each other nervously. “You have business with Mrs. Thompson?”

“Just a social call. I knew her in France.”

“You did?” Richard Lowell smiled uncertainly, sobered, then smiled again with an effort. “I had no idea—”

“I’ll catch her in the mornin’. She looked good when I talked to her an’ Daddario in New York. A lot different than—”

“Please.” Richard Lowell held up a hand. His tongue circled dry lips. “You talked to Jim Daddario in New York? In Mrs. Thompson’s presence?”

“Make it the other way around. I talked to her in his presence.”

“How—who made this arrangement?”

“She called me, reminded me of France, an’ asked me to come down an’ see her. I went. Just about that time somebody was gettin’ to her husband up in my room.”

“I’m extremely glad to have this information, Killain. I consider it highly significant that Jim was right in the neighborhood when Thompson was killed.” His voice took on added timbre. “You’ve already gathered, I’m sure, that it was because Jim was unable to control Thompson that he forced his removal.”

“Sure.” Johnny got to his feet. “Time to hit the road. If you ever get the dimensions of this job shaped up, give me a ring. An’ if you get the scent of my thousand bucks anywhere on the local breeze I’d likewise appreciate a call.”

“Certainly. Happy to help.” Richard Lowell looked as though he would have liked to prolong the conversation but had suddenly run out of material. “Ah—goodnight, Killain.”

“Goodnight. I’ll find my way out.” Johnny walked through the library door and the cavernous front hall. He turned around on the walk outside to look back at the house bulking large in the night, the massive central structure festooned with added wings. A glimmer of light from the library was the only break in the total expanse of darkness. One man living all alone in a house like that, Johnny thought.

The visit had strengthened a feeling Johnny had had that afternoon. Compared to the incisive, fast-acting Toby Lowell, Johnny knew that Dick Lowell was a bumbling incompetent. Unless his indecisiveness was an act—and Johnny could see no reason for such being the case—the mayor despite his bluffly hearty appearance was not much more than a hollow shell. In the city of Jefferson the Lowell blood was badly in need of an infusion of red corpuscles.

The Lowell House was three blocks from the business district. Johnny walked back, conscious of a pleasant lassitude. He hadn’t been in a bed in thirty-six hours but he didn’t feel tired. His nerve-ends seemed touched with quicksilver. He definitely was not in the mood for sleep. Restlessness clawed at him internally. His hand in his pocket closed on the thick wad of Mickey Tallant’s loan and seemed to give purpose to his stride. He crossed the street to a cab stand on a corner, put his head in the window of the first cab in line and spoke to the dozing driver. “Any action in town?”

The cabbie jerked awake and turned to look at him. He looked at length and whatever it was he saw in Johnny’s face it appeared to satisfy him. “What’s your game, chum?”

“Poker.”

“You like it strong?”

“So-so.”

“We could try Louie’s,” the driver mused aloud. “Although I heard there was a good game at Rudy’s earlier. That’s closer.”

“I can get in without an okay?”

The cabbie shrugged. “That’s up to Rudy. Tell him Chuckles brought you. Hop in.” Johnny got into the cab. They went a half-dozen blocks and pulled into the curb in front of a tavern with an illuminated beer ad in the window. The neon sign overhead was dark and Johnny realized it was after midnight. He handed the driver a bill. “Thanks, chum,” the driver said. “Play ’em up against your belly inside. It’s a bruisin’ game.”

Johnny pushed experimentally at the outside door which opened at his touch. Inside, a single subdued light behind the bar framed a bartender washing glasses. “Rudy,” Johnny said to his inquiring look.

The man nodded. His hands didn’t move from towel or glasses, but a door opened in the rear of the room and a short, stocky man entered. He walked up to Johnny, dark, liquid eyes contrasting oddly with a dark, hard face. “I’d like to take a riffle,” Johnny told him. “Chuckles, the cab driver, brought me around.”

“That’s a strike less on you,” Rudy said amiably. “I don’t know you, do I?” He pursed his lips at Johnny’s headshake. “You wearin’ any iron?”

“Not an ounce.”

“You mind if I check?”

“Help yourself.”

Rudy’s capable-looking hands went over Johnny in a light patting routine. “What’s your game?” he asked as he stepped back.

“Poker,” Johnny said for the second time.

“Can you stand it?”

Johnny took out Mickey Tallant’s roll and slapped it against his palm. “For a while, anyway.”

Rudy nodded. “Right this minute it’s a full game but somebody’ll get batted out an’ make a seat for you. Come on in.” He led the way to the door through which he had entered and opened it with a key. Johnny eyed it passing through. It was a thin door. Rudy wasn’t afraid of a police shoulder against it. His question about a possible gun indicated he was more concerned about a holdup man than he was about an undercover man fronting for a police raid.

The room inside surprised Johnny. It was much larger than he would have expected from the tavern out front. It was a complete gambling layout, wheels, dice tables, blackjack tables, even a chemin-de-fer birdcage. It was quiet in the room except at the dice table. Only one blackjack table was open and a single roulette wheel spun lazily for two bored-looking customers. “Everything but live clients,” Johnny commented.

“We do our real business on weekends,” Rudy said. He nodded toward a soft-hatted group of men around a green baize table under a brightly shining drop-light. “Leave your name with the dealer for the next seat an’ take a walk around.”

“Sure. How about a drink?”

“Sorry. The bar closes at midnight.” Rudy walked away.

In its own way the prohibition probably made sense, Johnny reflected. The wide-open gambling within forty feet of the main street could be fixed locally. Liquor was state-administered and could not.

He walked to the card table. Between hands he caught the green-eyeshaded dealer’s attention, circled the table swiftly with a finger, and then pointed at himself. The dealer nodded. Johnny stood and watched the game. There was no money on the table and he didn’t know the value of the chips but the quiet intensity of the game suggested that they didn’t represent nickels and dimes. The game was straight poker with no flourishes.

After a few moments he wandered over to the dice table and looked on. There was a younger, harder-looking crowd at the dice table. Noisier, too. Johnny pushed on to a blackjack table and exchanged a twenty dollar bill for dollar chips. He climbed up on a stool and won and lost with almost religious alternation until he looked around at a touch on his elbow. “Seat open,” Rudy said.

“Fine.” He counted out a thousand dollars of Mickey Tallant’s money and shoved the rest back in his pocket. He walked back to the poker table and slid into the vacant seat. The dealer shuffled and blended cards in a blurred whirr of celluloid and set them down on the table. “Game’s jackpots,” he said briskly to Johnny. “Five, twenty-five, and fifty. Passed pots stop at four. No limit on raises at any time. You can go to the banker at any time. Any questions?”

“Coffeehousin’ go?” Johnny asked him.

“Anything goes,” the dealer replied with emphasis. “You’re not among friends.”

Johnny pushed his thousand dollars toward the dealer. “Let ‘er rip.” He stacked up in front of him the twenty white chips, sixteen reds, and ten blues he received in return. He ran an appraising eye around the table. At five dollars for a white chip, twenty-five for a red, and fifty for a blue he could see a conservative twelve to fifteen thousand dollars in chips on the table. He drew his chair in a little tighter beneath him. His nostrils tested the familiar electricity in the air. He wished he had a cigar.

For thirty minutes he threw in hand after hand, sizing up the players in the game. He drew once to two pair after raising right behind the opener and driving everyone else out. The opener caught another pair and beat him. For the amount of money involved it was a looser game than he expected. Raises were frequent and there weren’t too many folded hands. Two or three calls were not unusual. There was only one man in the game playing as tight a game as himself, a gray-haired man with a weather-beaten face.

On a four-time passed pot the deal came up to the man in front of Johnny. Under the gun, Johnny looked at his cards singly as they came off the top of the deck. The first three were nines, and he stopped looking. “Pass,” he said when the cards had stopped falling.

“Open,” the man behind him said. He tossed in two blue chips.

“Raise it once,” the next man said. He threw in four blues.

“Stay.”

“Out.”

“Out.”

“Up again,” said the dealer confidently. One by one he dropped six blues onto the pile.

Johnny felt the finger of excitement on his spine. Three hundred to play. He picked up his hand and spread his cards. He hadn’t made any mistake. The three nines were there.

The next card was a king.

The last one was the fourth nine.

CHAPTER VI

“I’ll stay,” Johnny said.

“I’ll raise it again,” the opener said right behind him. His words tripped over themselves. His voice was taut.

The man who had raised originally frowned at his cards. He folded them, hesitated, opened them up for another look, and removed four blue chips from the diminished pile in front of him. “Stay,” he said.

“Stay,” the next man said. His eyes were upon the dealer who immediately confirmed his worst fears.

“Up once more,” the dealer said silkily. “Let’s make it a good one, boys.”

“Stay,” Johnny said. He pushed the last of his blue chips into the center of the table.

The opener debated. “Stay,” he said finally.

“Stay,” the original raiser said stubbornly.

“Stay,” the whipsawed man to the dealer’s right said resignedly.

“Cards, gentlemen?” the dealer inquired cheerfully.

“I’ll take one,” Johnny said. He lifted a corner of the card dealt him and looked at it. It was a ten.

“I’ll play these,” the opener announced. A straight or a flush, Johnny thought. He’s out of it.

“Two,” the man who had raised first said unhappily. The pat hand had obviously shaken him.

“One,” the next man said. “Make it the right one and I’ll burn up all your asses yet.”

The dealer set down the deck with a thump. “No cards to the dealer,” he said. “What does the opener do?”

The opener was staring at the chips in the pot. Johnny didn’t blame him. On a hundred dollar open five men had followed four raises to draw cards. With the ante money, there was over twenty-six hundred dollars in the pot already. “Opener checks,” he said huskily.

“Check,” said the man who had drawn two. He didn’t help his three of a kind, Johnny thought.

“I’ll bet,” said the man who had asked for the right card. He said it triumphantly, tossing two blues into the center of the pile of chips. A flush, Johnny thought. Probably ace-king or ace-queen high.

“I’ll raise,” the dealer said immediately. He’s not afraid of a flush, Johnny decided. Must be a pat full house. Or could he have stayed pat with four of a kind?

“I’ll raise it again,” Johnny said. The bet took all but two of his red chips. Four pairs of eyes were riveted on him. They hadn’t even realized he was in the hand. He could see each in his mind’s eye reconstructing his play. Under the gun, no open, no raises, one card draw. What the hell can he have?

The opener stared desperately around the table. He played with his chips but he knew he was beaten. Reluctantly he folded his cards and flung them into the discards.

Right behind them came the cards of the original raiser, the man who had drawn two cards. “Damn, damn, damn,” he said softly.

“Call,” said the man who had been so happy about his one card draw. He said it soberly.

“Try you one time,” the dealer said with an eye cocked at Johnny. He raised again.

Johnny took the balance of Mickey Tallant’s money from his pocket and laid it on the table. “Chips,” he said.

“Don’t hold up the game,” the opener said impatiently. “I’ll mark it. What’re you doin’?”

“Up again,” Johnny said.

The one card draw cursed and sailed his hand into the discards. The dealer studied Johnny. “Once more,” he said finally.

“And again,” Johnny said. Even if the man had fours he had to have jacks, queens, or aces to win. Johnny had had a king and a ten.

The dealer wet his lips. “One card draw,” he said slowly. “One card draw.” His hand hovered over his chips, retreated, advanced again. “One more time.”

“Back at you,” Johnny said.

“Call the man,” the dealer ordered himself. His grin was feeble. “I call.”

“Two pairs of nines,” Johnny said, and showed them.

“Wins,” the dealer said miserably. One by one he turned over three queens and two fours. Johnny stuffed Mickey Tallant’s money back in his pocket and raked in the pot. He was doing mental arithmetic in his head. Twenty-six hundred in there before the draw. Three men had thrown in three hundred each afterward, plus three head-to-head raises and a call. It had to be a forty-six or forty-eight hundred dollar pot. Of course thirteen hundred of it had been his own. Still a good day’s pay.

“Best pot in the last six months,” a voice said reflectively.

“Don’t deal me any more pat straights on four-time passed pots,” the opener said emphatically. He turned to Johnny. “You caught one?”

“Had ’em goin’ in,” Johnny told him.

“Man, man, you had to have brass-bound guts to play it that way.” He shook his head. “You sure as hell led all the little pigs right up to the trough,” he added grudgingly.

“Hell with the post mortems,” one of the noncombatants on the hand just past said briskly. “Deal the damn cards.”

In the next two hours Johnny won only three small pots but he drew cards only six times. He played ironclad poker. He had it now and he intended to get out of there with it. He threw in pairs, inside straights, double-ended straights, and fourflushes. He threw in two pairs unless he was the dealer or the man in front of the dealer. In the two hours he dropped a little ante money. That was all.

He had made up his mind to stay another thirty minutes and then to pack it in when he raised his eyes across the table and did a doubletake. Standing behind a player’s chair with his eyes fixed directly upon Johnny was Mayor Richard Lowell. Johnny half-rose, incredulous, from his chair. “Deal me out of this one,” he said harshly.

He circled the table and took Dick Lowell roughly by the arm and led him aside. “You crazy?” he demanded in an undertone. “How can a public official like you walk into a bustout joint like this?”

“I’ve got to talk to you, Killain.” The mayor’s jowls were silver-stubbled and his eyes red-rimmed. The corners of his mouth twitched.

Johnny hesitated. “Walk over to the door,” he said finally. He had to get this fool out of here. Back at the table he awaited the finish of the hand. “Cash me in,” he said briefly. He had to stuff money in three pockets. “See you later, boys,” he said to the glum faces around the table watching the big winner check out.

Rudy was at the door with Lowell. It seemed to Johnny that the gambling operator and the mayor studiously avoided looking at each other. Rudy opened the door with his key. “It’s a better game Saturdays,” he said. “Although I hear you should have no complaint with this one. Give us a return bout Saturday.”

“I just might do that.” Johnny took Lowell’s arm and hustled him outside. The bartender was gone but a man tipped up on a chair leaning back against a cigarette machine rose and let them out. On the street Johnny turned to Lowell. “Now what kind of an idiot’s trick was that, showin’ your face in there?”

“I had to talk to you.” The mayor’s words came with a rush. “After you left I got to thinking about what you’d said. Not being able to reach Mrs. Thompson, I mean. I tried to call her myself. When I couldn’t get an answer I went over there.” He gestured impatiently at Johnny’s look. “Yes, I know what time it was and I’m not drunk. There’s something going on I don’t understand. Anyway, I went to her apartment. She’s not there. No sign of her at all. The building superintendent said he hadn’t seen her for four days.”

“Four days?” Johnny echoed. Had Micheline Thompson been at the Taft with her husband after all? Johnny frowned at the dark, deserted street.

Beside him Richard Lowell drew a deep breath. “I want you to find her, Killain,” he said firmly.

“At three in the mornin’?” A thought occurred to Johnny. “How did you find me in the game here?”

“I called Daddario. He has a man on you.” The mayor said it as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“An’ I suppose the man is takin’ stenographic notes while we stand here blattin’ at each other?” Johnny said in disgust.

Richard Lowell paid no attention. “I want you to find Mrs. Thompson,” he repeated.

“Why didn’t you ask Daddario where she was? He was glued right to her when I saw them. If she’s under cover it’s a good bet he put her there.”

“I accused him of it. He denied it. Professed to be alarmed, as a matter of fact. I don’t doubt that he’d lie to me but I’d like to know why.” He tugged nervously at an earlobe. “I don’t like it. Daddario’s up to something. I’m damned if I’m going to stand flatfooted and let that—that mountebank jerk the rug from beneath me. I want to talk to Mrs. Thompson and I want you to find her.” For the first time there was a ring of authority in Lowell’s voice. “She undoubtedly knows something about Daddario’s movements in New York he doesn’t want disclosed. I want to know what it is. How long will it take you to find her?”

Johnny stared at him. “How the hell do I know? Right this second I don’t even know where to begin. An’ get it out of your noggin’ that I’m startin’ at three in the a.m. Daylight will be plenty soon enough.” He rode roughshod over the mayor’s voice as Lowell tried to interrupt. “Who’s Daddario got tailin’ me?”

“Probably one of Jack Riley’s men.”

“Is there an all-night telegraph office in town?”

Lowell nodded. “Two blocks north and a block east. Why?”

Johnny took him by the arm again. “Let’s go. It’s not every day I get a mayor as my bodyguard.” With a firm grip on the mayoral arm he towed Lowell along.

“Really, Killain, I—” The mayor subsided, evidently considering a struggle undignified. He walked along beside Johnny, hurrying to keep up with Johnny’s longer stride. At the Western Union office Johnny commandeered a table and dumped money from all his pockets upon it. Richard Lowell’s eyes widened. Johnny sorted bills swiftly and counted out Mickey Tallant’s original three thousand dollars. He made another bundle of the rest and counted again. He had thirty-two hundred dollars in the second bundle. He divided it in two, put half in his pocket, added the other half to the three thousand, and stepped up to the counter.

“Mind givin’ me a money order for this?” he inquired of the clerk, and pulled a telegraph blank toward himself. He thought a moment and printed swiftly. YOUR MONEY WAS IN ACTION AND HITS HARDER THAN YOU DO. He signed it, inserted Mickey Tallant’s name and the address of the Rollin’ Stone above it and laid it down beside the stacks of bills the clerk was counting. He counted three times before looking up at Johnny inquiringly.

“I make it forty-six hundred.”

“I make it the same.” He waited for his receipt and put it carefully in his wallet. Outside on the sidewalk again he looked at Richard Lowell. “Who’s Rudy payin’ off to run wide open like that?”

“I have no idea.” The mayor’s tone was indifferent.

“You’re the mayor, man. You don’t know what’s goin’ on in your own town?”

“We are not a reform administration,” Lowell said stiffly. “And I’ve already told you that my followers on the city council are in the minority.”

“The minority’s not in on the take?”

“What makes you think there is a take, as you call it?”

“For God’s sake, man, you think I was born yesterday?” Johnny demanded impatiently. “Are you in on this payoff yourself?”

Mayor Richard Lowell closed his mouth firmly. “Let me know when you find Mrs. Thompson, Killain.” He turned and started to walk away.

“Just a minute, buster.” Johnny caught him by the arm. “If I find her it could be because I’ll have my own reasons. Now what the hell are yours?”

Richard Lowell freed his arm with dignity. “I thought I’d already made that clear. I think she’s being coerced into something. I don’t trust Daddario and I don’t propose to stand still while he hunts for my head.” He stalked off up the street.

Johnny stood and watched him go. Could any reasonably honest politician afford to walk into a gambling joint the way Mayor Richard Lowell had done? And if there were two crooked politicians in this town wouldn’t they almost have to be working together? Of course they could have had a falling out—

He was ahead in one respect, Johnny decided. Dick Lowell at least had not shown a passionate desire to remove Johnny from the scene. Dick Lowell on the contrary seemed eager for help. If Micheline Thompson had actually been in New York with her husband then coercion was about the only way you could explain her Manhattan suite appearance with Daddario.

Coercion. Or collusion—

Johnny stirred himself. He had to get some sleep. The adrenalin-charged excitement of the card game was gone. He set out for Mrs. Peterson’s. He ought to call Sally in New York tomorrow, he mused. To find out if there were any developments at that end of the line. Find out, too, if a date had been set for that inquest. Joe Dameron could get a little sticky at Johnny’s non-appearance at that affair even if it was cut-and-dried.

He turned into the street leading to Mrs. Peterson’s, whistling tunelessly to himself. Maybe the whole thing would make more sense in the daylight. Perhaps he could—

Fifty feet from Mrs. Peterson’s Johnny’s quick eye saw a shadow across the street move soundlessly and blend with the deeper shadow of a tree trunk. Someone was watching the rooming house. There was only one reason anyone would be watching the rooming house. Conscious suddenly of the sound of his own footfalls in the pre-dawn quiet he repressed the instinctive urge to soften them. He swung on past the Petersons’ without a pause, never missing a beat in his tuneless whistle. In the middle of the next block he changed gears and crossed the street, the whistle gone, the footsteps quieted.

He came back down the quiet street as silently as a windblown leaf. In the middle of the block across from the Petersons’ there was no street light. If he hadn’t known the man was there Johnny might easily have gone past him. The silent shadow behind the tree with his eyes on the darkened rooming house heard or saw nothing until Johnny’s hands closed down from behind on his throat.

Johnny dug once with his thumbs, hard. The man in his hands went “Ur-r-kk!” and sagged. It would be the last sound he would make except with the greatest difficulty for two or three days. Then he would be able to whisper. Johnny picked him up and lugged him across the sidewalk onto the grass beyond, feeling the shoulder holster under his hands. He’d made no mistake. He dumped his burden and with silent ruthlessness stripped the wildly threshing man, tearing off handfuls of clothes. The belt snapped. The holster snapped. Johnny tore off the shoes and socks.

The naked man came up on his knees making gobbling noises. He was barely audible as he scuttled sideways to escape the unseen demon attacking him. He bounded to his feet and started to run. Johnny was able to fetch him one solid swat of the holster harness from behind before he sprinted across the lawns and disappeared between the houses.

Johnny made a little pile of the shredded clothing, making sure he had it all. He added belt, harness, shoes, and socks to it, bundled it all up and carried it across the street. He let himself in with his key. He was surprised to see Valerie Peterson, swathed shapelessly in a man’s bathrobe, standing in the hall in the dim night-light.

“There’s someone watching the house from across the street,” she said in a low tone. “I’ve been waiting up to tell—”

“You mean there was,” Johnny said. “Put on a light so I can get a look at this stuff.” She looked at the bundle under his arm. “Not out here. Somebody else might be watchin’.”

“Come out into the kitchen. The shades are drawn.” Johnny followed on her heels and pushed aside a plate of crackers and cheese to dump his booty on the oilcloth-covered table. He didn’t have far to look. In the wallet in the ragged trousers he found a badge clipped to a photograph. He showed it to Mrs. Peterson.

“Will Tolliver,” she said grimly. “One of Jack Riley’s hot young sparks. You’re up to your ears now, man. What happened? I didn’t hear a sound.”

“I got to his throat first.”

Her eyes gradually absorbed the totality of the strips of clothing on the table. She picked up a shoe. “My God, didn’t you leave him anything?”

“Buck naked,” Johnny said. “He won’t be back for a while. There’s somethin’ psychological about it, no clothes an’ unable to communicate. It does somethin’ to a man. The carabinieri in Italy are specialists at it. ‘Course they add a couple of refinements. Before they turn their man loose after thumbin’ his vocal chords they set up an obstacle course.

You’d be surprised how a man can tear himself up runnin’ a quarter mile in the dark. An’ the ever-lovin’ carabinieri ‘d rather do it to a woman.”

Despite the bulky bathrobe Valerie Peterson shivered. “I won’t ask you how you know,” she said dryly. She looked at him eyeing the crackers and cheese. “Would you like a beer?”

“I would, thanks,” he said promptly. She opened the refrigerator door as he swept the bundled clothing off onto the floor. The thump with which the holster hit the floor reminded him of something. He removed the police special and placed it on the table beside the wallet. “I’ll drop these in the nearest mailbox before I go upstairs,” he remarked to Mrs. Peterson. He wiped each carefully with his handkerchief and wrapped them in it. “I’ll burn the rest in your incinerator.”

Her eyes rested on him speculatively. “You think they don’t know where they sent him?”

“No sweat,” Johnny said. “Let them try to prove something.” Valerie Peterson sat down across the table from him. He looked up from his painstaking construction of a four-decker cracker-and-cheese monument to find her staring across at him, her chin in her hands. “I get it,” he said resignedly. “You’re thinkin’ of askin’ me to leave.”

“I’m thinking of it.” Her tone was level. “You didn’t tell me Carl Thompson was dead. And you’re getting an awful lot of attention for a stranger in town.” Her steady gaze took in his hands and shoulders and returned to his face. “You bother me. Without that silly looking jacket you’re different, but you come into town looking like something out of a comic strip—”

He waited until he was sure she wasn’t going to continue. “You figure Jim Daddario’s the wheel in this neck of the woods?” he asked her casually.

“Of course not.” She seemed surprised. “Dick Lowell runs this town.”

“You sure you’re up to date?”

“You think that because Thompson is out and Riley is in it makes Daddario top dog? I don’t think so. And anyway, they’ve never had any trouble getting along.”

“Sometimes a bug bites a man. Daddario might be plannin’ on movin’ up. How would Lowell like that?”

Valerie Peterson’s mouth pursed thoughtfully. “Knowing him, he wouldn’t like it.” Her steady gaze rested on Johnny’s face. “Are you hiring out to one side or the other?”

“I’m here on a little business of my own.”

“I don’t intend to have your business bringing trouble to my place,” she warned him. She pushed back from the table. “If it does—”

“See me then,” Johnny told her. He picked up his handkerchief-wrapped little package and walked to the door. “Be right back.”

Five minutes after he had dropped the revolver and wallet in the mailbox at the corner he was in bed, and thirty seconds after he was in bed he was asleep.

He came instantly awake in bright sunshine at a knock at the door. “Telephone, Johnny,” Jingle Peterson’s voice called.

He rolled out of bed and slid into his pants. He padded barefoot to the door, opened it, and thrust his head out. “Man or woman, Jingle?” he inquired.

“Woman. Like definitely, see?” She eyed his bare arms and shoulders. “”What big muscles you have, grandma,’ Little Red Ridinghood said to the wolf.”

“You should see the ones in my head.” Johnny returned to the chair beside his bed for an undershirt, pulled it on and, not bothering with shoes, brushed past Jingle and ran downstairs. He expected to hear Jessamyn Burger’s voice when he picked up the dangling receiver of the wall pay phone in the front hall. Micheline Thompson’s surprised him.

“Is this Johnny Killain?”

“Yeah. Hey!” he exclaimed. “Where are you? I been tryin’ to reach you.”

“I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to see you. I don’t know what you’re doing here. I think you’d better leave town.”

“Just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Johnny said rapidly. “Is someone standin’ right beside you while you’re reelin’ that off?”

He counted to five before she replied. “No,” she said.

“Someone’s listenin’ in on an extension?”

Again the hesitation. “You’re going to get yourself in a lot of trouble,” her voice said finally. It sounded flat, without emphasis. “You’d better listen to—”

“Micheline,” he broke in, “qu’est-ce que c’est que vous voulez dire? Quand—” The loud click of the broken connection in his ear cut him off. “Damn it all,” he said softly, and hung up the receiver. He stood looking blankly at the phone for an instant before turning to go back upstairs. Before he had taken three steps a sharp ring spun him around again. He had started for the telephone before he realized it was the front-door bell.

Tingle answered the door. There appeared to be no conversation as she was shunted aside by two uniformed police who barged right in. “Here!” Jingle said indignantly. “What do you think you’re doing?”

They paid no attention. The leader stopped at sight of Johnny. “That him?” he asked his companion.

“Yeah.”

The front man addressed Johnny directly. “Let’s take a little walk, pal.”

“Yeah? Whose invitation?” Through the small-paned window beside the front door Johnny could see the Black Maria at the curb and a third cop standing on the sidewalk.

“Our invitation. Let’s go.”

“You got a warrant?” Johnny wished he had his shoes on. He wasn’t going willingly in the police van, and a rough-house barefoot was like driving a racing car with a couple of cylinders missing.

The second man glanced at the wide-eyed Jingle taking it all in. “Take a walk, kid,” he said gruffly.

“This is my house!” the girl retorted. “Don’t you try to tell me what to do in my own house!”

Johnny laughed. The second man looked at him. “We don’t need a warrant for you to come along for a quiet little talk, now, do we?” he asked.

“You sure as hell do,” Johnny told him.

The leader spoke up again. “You could be making—”

“Get it out of your head I’m goin’ with you voluntarily,” Johnny interrupted. His voice was flat and hard. “Take it any damn place you please from there.”

The second man said something in an undertone to the leader. The man looked undecided, started to reply, shrugged, and strode to the wall phone. He dug out a dime from a handful of change and dialed.

“What’s the hard time for?” the second man asked injuredly. Johnny thought the question was asked to cover the rapid, low-voiced phone conversation. “You’d think someone was going to eat you.”

“Someone ate your ex-boss. Whose side were you on?”

The policeman’s face darkened but he was saved from the necessity of a reply by the first man’s turning away from the phone. “He’s coming over,” he announced to no one in particular.

“Good,” Johnny said briskly. “I’ll get dressed. I’d like to look my best for Chief Riley.” He walked to the stairs.

“Go with him, Charlie,” he heard from behind him. He didn’t know which of them had spoken. He heard the solid thump of boots on the stair treads behind him. When he was in his own room he went immediately to his shoes beside the bed. He slipped into socks and shoes, lacing and tying them carefully. He straightened and flexed his knees. He felt like a new man.

“Cigarette me, Jack,” he said expansively to the patrolman who had followed him into the room. It was the man who had made the phone call. His eyebrows climbed in surprise but he produced a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Johnny took one, lit it, winced at the before-breakfast taste, and sat down in the room’s only chair. The man in uniform eyed the bed, but it would have put him at a disadvantage since he wanted to keep between Johnny and the door. He stayed where he was.

They waited in silence.

CHAPTER VII

Chief of Police Jack Riley’s entrance into Johnny’s room was impressive. Johnny was reminded of a younger, heavier Dameron. Another twenty pounds might reduce him to fat-man status but he still carried himself well. Johnny looked at the heavy gold badge on the blue uniform jacket, a badge identical in appearance to the torn one Carl Thompson had showed him in the hotel room.

“All right, Stewart,” the chief said. “Take the van and the others on back.”

“A change of plans?” Johnny inquired when the patrolman had left the room.

Chief Riley was in no hurry to reply. Without moving from where he stood, he examined the room deliberately. In some intangible way his manner irked Johnny. The chief finally returned his heavy-lidded gaze to Johnny. “You’d better leave town, Killain.”

“Yeah?” The measured pompousness of the pronouncement raised Johnny’s hackles. “Like for what?”

“One of my men is in the hospital. I’m prepared to prove you led the gang that put him there. If I have to, that is. It might be a little less wearing all around if you just moved on.”

“This happen last night?”

“You know it happened last night.” Chief Riley’s heavy features darkened in remembrance.

“I happen to have a pretty good alibi for last night.”

“You have no alibi for last night that will do you the slightest good.” The chief rapped out the words. “Am I making myself clear?”

“You mean your man will identify me?”

“He will.” Chief Riley said it positively.

“Let’s go see him an’ give him a chance,” Johnny said, knowing Riley had no such intention. “I’ll bring my alibi along. Name of Lowell.”

The chief went red, white, and red again. Anger generated the color changes. “You’re nothing but a goddamned agitator, Killain. I told Jim in New York you were—”

“Go ahead,” Johnny said softly as the angry voice ran down suddenly. “You told Jim what in New York?” The chief’s hands clenched at his sides. “It’s mighty funny the attraction New York seemed to have for Jefferson’s officialdom the other day. Maybe you have an explanation for it?”

“The only thing I’ve got for you is a warning,” Chief Riley said between his teeth. “Be out of this town by noon or take the consequences.”

“Would you mind repeatin’ that?” Johnny asked him. “I’m not sure the tape recorder caught it the first time.” He laughed at the chief’s suspicious stare around the room.

At the laugh Riley went scarlet with rage. For a second, Johnny thought he was going to attack. If the thought had crossed his mind he quickly reconsidered. His voice shook. “Killain—”

Johnny gave him no time for threats or anything else. Moving swiftly, he crowded up against the chief who instinctively retreated. Johnny planted a heel deliberately on a well-shined toe and Riley flinched. “Drag it out’ve here, Riley,” Johnny said in a hard tone. He sank a casual elbow into the well-padded ribs and the chief gasped. “I’ve got you on tape now. You may have to roll over like a two-dollar whore for Daddario but I don’t. The whole damn crowd of you are chickenshit to me.” Under the sharp prodding of careless feet and elbows the chief stumbled backward to the door. He landed out in the hallway in demoralized retreat without Johnny ever having laid a hand on him.

From the doorway, Johnny saw Mrs. Peterson standing wide-eyed at one side. Riley saw her, too. He made a pathetic attempt at a dignified exit. He waved a finger at Johnny. “Killain, I—”

Johnny moved toward him. The chief angled hurriedly to the stairs. In mid-flight, he stopped and turned. “Remember what I said. I’ll—I’ll—“ His voice shook. He faced about and tramped heavily down the balance of the steps. The lower floor shook from the violence with which he slammed the front door on his way out.

Valerie Peterson shook her head soberly. “That was a foolish thing to do.”

“The hell it was,” Johnny disagreed. “He’s had me measured for a disappearin’ suit from the minute he laid eyes on me. He just made a mistake figurin’ I’d run the minute he swelled up his chest. Now he doesn’t know whether I had a recorder in the room or not. I’ll fix his wagon good now where it’ll hurt, with his boss. Where does Daddario hang out when he’s not dictatin’ legislation for the city council to rubber-stamp?”

“He has a real-estate office a block off Main on Beacon.” Mrs. Peterson wagged her head disapprovingly. “I’ll predict a building’s going to fall on you. It’s happened to better men in this town.”

“Better maybe, but not as lucky,” Johnny told her. “Beacon off Main. Right. Jimmy boy, break out the Sevres china. Two lumps. No cream, thank you.” He grinned at his landlady, did an exuberant little time step, and ran lightly down the stairs.

The real-estate office was larger than Johnny expected. From the sidewalk he could see a half-dozen desks behind a long counter. In one corner a private office with a frosted-glass door was partitioned off from the remaining floor space. There was no sign of Daddario. Two middle-aged women sprang to their feet from behind their desks as Johnny entered. “Yes, sir?” they chorused alertly. “Is there something—?”

A hand fell on Johnny’s shoulder before he could speak. “I’ll take care of it, girls,” Jigger Krata’s heavy voice said. Johnny shook off the hand as he turned. Kratz had been sitting in a chair to the right of the entrance where he could look at the customers before they could spot him. Johnny noticed that up close there was a yellowish cast to the big man’s eyes. Kratz studied him incuriously. “What’s your business here, Killain?”

“I’m here to talk to Daddario.” Johnny leaned back with his elbows on the counter top cluttered with maps, pictures, brochures, staplers, ballpoint pens and boxes of paper clips.

“Jim’s not here.” Kratz smiled a heavy-lipped smile, disclosing strong, gapped teeth.

“Maybe he’s in there.” Johnny nodded at the private office.

“You’re a little slow today, sonny,” Kratz said amiably. “To you he’s not here, period.” He sounded bored.

Johnny turned as if to look at the office again. His right hand closed on a stapler. “Get him out here, Kratz. Before I go in there after him.”

“You could be a little big for your britches, Killain.” Kratz’s voice was still mild. “This is a place of business and Jim’s a busy man. You’d better run along.”

“Yeah?” Johnny pivoted and threw the stapler at the frosted-glass door of the partitioned-off office. The panel shattered in a burst of glass fragments. Muffled shrieks rose from the women behind the counter as Kratz charged. Johnny nailed him with a good left to the body on the way in. It didn’t even slow him down. Arms like cable hawsers grappled with Johnny as they came together hard and thudded into the counter, half-sprawled along its top. Bracing his legs against Kratz’s efforts to force him off his feet, Johnny sank both hands out of sight in the thick-set body. Kratz growled wordlessly and redoubled his attempt to force Johnny backward over the counter.

“Jigger! JIGGER!” The harsh voice cut like a sword. Johnny and Kratz eased back from each other cautiously as Jim Daddario stood in the office doorway, his face black with anger. Glass crunched under his feet. His expression turned even more choleric when he recognized Johnny. “Get in here,” he snapped. “Both of you.”

He stood aside to let them in, closed the door and drew a yellow curtain that restored some semblance of privacy. “Boss,” Kratz began.

“Shut up!” Daddario barked. “How many times do I have to tell you I want no donnybrooks around here?” He glared at Johnny. “What the hell do you want?”

“A net over Riley,” Johnny said.

“Riley?” The full-faced man removed his glasses. He looked from Johnny to Kratz and back again. “What about Riley?”

“He was just over at where I’m stayin’,” Johnny said easily. “He gave me till noon to get out of town or else. I taped the whole conversation. I just mailed the tape to a friend of mine in New York. If he doesn’t hear from me every twenty-four hours he mails the tape on to a Washington address we both know.”

Daddario’s snapping black eyes slid off to Kratz. “Did you send him over there, Jigger?” he asked quietly.

“You know I never sent him no place you didn’t say to send him,” the big man protested. “I never sent him there.”

Jim Daddario reached for his phone. “Police Headquarters,” he grunted. A hand tapped idly on a corner of his desk. “Riley,” he said. “Jack? Jim.” His voice gathered force. “What the hell did you think you were doing threatening this man Killain?” Veins swelled in his temples as he listened. This man really had a temper, Johnny decided. “Don’t try to lie to me—he’s standing right here in front of me! He taped your whole goddamn foolish conversation.” Scratchy sounds issued from the phone. “I’ll do the damn thinking! You do what you’re told! And the next time I won’t just be telling you!” He banged up the receiver furiously.

“Too bad, Daddario,” Johnny needled him. “At least when you buy ’em they ought to stay bought.”

Jim Daddario never even looked at him. “Get over there before the blithering idiot has time to put a story together,” he said to Kratz. “I want to know why he did it. Shake him down to the holes in his socks.” Kratz glanced at Johnny. “I’ll handle this,” Daddario said impatiently. “Get going.”

“Nice, tight little army you’ve got,” Johnny said admiringly when Kratz had gone. “Rudy and his friends pay the private taxes that subsidize it?”

“You’ve got a big, fat lip, Killain,” the realtor said coldly. “Button it while you can.”

“You sound like a big, brave boy. Are you forgettin’ you sent your army off to the wars?”

“Killain, I’ve got a thousand things on my mind beside a two-bit slab of beef like you, but if you push me I could get around to you. As of now you’re excused. Get out.”

“I only got half what I came for, hotshot. Where’s Micheline Thompson?”

“I haven’t the faintest notion.”

Johnny reached across the desk and took him firmly by the tie. “Jack your brains up, wise guy. It’s time you learned a few manners.” Slowly and steadily he applied downward pressure on the tie until Daddario’s head was forced down to the desk top. His face turned scarlet. His hand darted suddenly to a desk drawer.

Johnny dropped his grip on the tie and picked up the desk. Daddario screamed as the rising desk trapped his hand in the drawer. His chair went over backward and he hung by his hand from the desk for an instant before Johnny dropped it on him. Drawers and papers cascaded in all directions as Daddario lay winded, panting.

Johnny started around the upside-down desk after him. A gobbling noise from the phone on the floor distracted him. He picked up the receiver. “Police, police, police!” he could hear one of the women in the outer office babbling. He dropped the receiver.

He bent down beside the hard-breathing realtor and spoke slowly and distinctly. “The next time I ask you something, wise guy, have the answer handy.”

He walked lightly past the shattered door into the outer office. At sight of him, the woman at the phone shrieked and threw it away from her. Johnny waved at her. At the door he looked back. Jim Daddario’s private office looked as if a tidal wave had rolled over it and Jim Daddario still lay amidst the debris.

Johnny touched off the kindling in the fireplace with a folded newspaper he used as a torch. Beside him, Jessamyn Burger watched as it alternately flared and dimmed until the birch logs began finally to crackle and sputter. Johnny sat back on his heels and looked up at her. “That appeal to your homemakin’ instinct?”

“Don’t make fun of me,” she said softly. She retreated to the nearer of the two chairs drawn up before the fire, but paused before she sat down. “Would you like a brandy to settle dinner?”

“If you have one, too.”

“I’m afraid I had too many cocktails. I feel—well, lightheaded.” She went to get his brandy and returned with a second glass with half as much in it. “I couldn’t resist.” She handed him his glass as he sat in one of the chairs and with an outstretched leg he barred her from the other.

“One chair this size is big enough for two people,” he told her.

She exaggerated the lift of her brows. “I can see you’re not the practical type. I’d crush my best dress.”

“Take it off.”

“Really, you’re—”

“Take it off, Jessie.”

She smiled, a slow, helpless smile. “Then stay right where you are,” she warned him, and disappeared behind the bedroom door.

Johnny sat and watched the firelight’s refractions from his brandy glass. He felt pleasantly relaxed. There was no sound from the bedroom. He sipped at his brandy. Jessamyn reappeared in the doorway and he set down his glass.

She had on a pale ivory negligee that nicely complemented her dark hair. Her pom-pomed mules had high heels and the heels contained clusters of rhinestones that twinkled brilliantly as she walked. She came directly to him and sat on the arm of his chair. Her face was calm and there was no coquettishness about her.

Johnny fingered a fold of the negligee. “No lace?” he asked her.

“No lace,” she agreed. “I’m practical, if you’re not. Most women have lingerie they’ve never worn. Not little Jessie.”

“If what you are is practical I just hope it never goes out of style, baby.” They could both hear the deepened timbre in his voice.

She reached up over his head and turned off the floor lamp that was the room’s only light except for the fire’s dancing shadows on the white hearth. She bent down over him and unbuttoned the collar of his sport shirt and then the rest of the shirt down to his belt. She tried to span his neck with her two warm hands. “Heavens!” she said softly. “What size is your shirt?”

“Tent size,” he said, and with an encircling arm swept her from the chair arm down into his lap. She snuggled down against him and he could feel the moist pressure of her lips against his throat.

He could hear her lengthy sigh as she stretched generously. “You know I was told not to see you again,” she murmured in his ear.

“Yeah? Lucky for me you don’t take orders. What was the reason supposed to be?”

“The questions you’d ask me.”

He increased the pressure of the arm around her until he heard the sibilant intake of her breath. “The answers to the questions I’m about to ask, little girl, you couldn’t print in a family newspaper.” He dropped his free hand firmly on a round thigh.

She stirred on his knees as her breathing quickened. “I’d entertain a motion to declare a moratorium on questions and answers,” she said huskily.

“You’ve got one,” he said promptly. He shifted the position of his hands and stood up with her in his arms.

“Wait!” she commanded. “Put me down.” He complied, knowing it was no last-minute retreat. “Sit down again,” she told him. She knelt and removed his shoes, straightened up and took his hand and tugged him to his feet again. She removed his shirt completely. Her hands went to his belt and he lifted his own to assist her. “Let me!” she said urgently. He dropped his hands.

She stripped him, moving like an ivory wraith in the light of the fire. He couldn’t see her face dearly, but he could hear her breathing. Her hands lingered on his arms, then on his shoulders and back. When her hands quieted his own moved rapidly. He picked her up again and felt her arms twine tightly about his neck.

In the bedroom he lowered her gently to the floor.

Through the open door only the faintest trace of the light from the fireplace’s leaping flames pursued them. Her hands went to the neckline of her negligee. He captured the hands.

“My turn,” he said. He dealt with the negligee, unhurriedly. He disposed of the gossamer nightgown that couldn’t have weighed more than an ounce and a half. He sat her down on the bed and removed the mules whose rhinestoned heels glittered even in the near-darkness.

Her hands came down upon his shoulders as he bent over her. She pulled mightily, and, overbalanced, he plunged forward upon her, his weight forcing her backward. Her smothered laughter was electric in its sexual excitement. Her resilient, perfumed flesh filled his nostrils.

The fire in his brain enfeebled the firelight on the walls.

Afterward, they lounged in the same chair before the dying fire renewed brandy glasses in hand. For a long time there was a minimum of conversation, but finally Jessamyn spoke after a preliminary clearing of her throat. “Goodness, I don’t know what’s happened to my voice, do you?”

“Yes. When you get—”

“Never mind,” she said hastily. “The time for conversation is before, not afterward.” She dropped her head on his shoulder. “Jim called me before you came over about what happened at his office. He was furious. You make it awfully hard for me to defend you.”

“Thanks for tryin’ but it shouldn’t be necessary,” Johnny said lazily. The air around him was pleasantly heady with the scent of woman and brandy. “Daddario can get rid of me in fifteen minutes. Less, if he makes up his mind.”

Her head came up from his shoulder. “He can? How?”

“By lettin’ me talk to Micheline Thompson.”

“Are you in love with her?” she pouted.

“I’ve seen her twice in better’n fifteen years,” he said truthfully.

“Well? What’s so important, then?”

“The first time was kind of special,” he explained. “I got wound up in this thing before I knew it, an’ I do mean wound up. I got a thousand dollar axe of my own to grind but if the kid’s in trouble I’d kind of like to straighten things out for her before I cut out of the deal.”

“You’re a great deal more likely to be pushed out. Why should you feel an urge to straighten things out, as you say?”

“I can tell you but I don’t know if you’ll understand. A few thousand nights ago the kid an’ I were caught in a real downdraft. By some very unpleasant people, who had their hands on her first. She was only fourteen but she knew what to expect, still she did her best to warn me so I could get out. I don’t forget that kind of thing. If she needs a hand, I’m it.”

“Very noble, I’m sure.” He could feel her eyes upon him. “But are you sure it’s worth it? Woman is an adaptable animal. She—Micheline, I mean—might have made adjustments of which you have no idea.”

“So let her tell me. Herself.”

She tried a new tack. “What makes you think it’s Jim who is keeping her from talking to you?”

“Because he never let us out from under his eye in New York. An’ because of what I can see goin’ on in this town.”

“Such as?”

“I figure Jim Daddario an’ Dick Lowell are milkin’ this place dry. I figure you know it, too. Know it an’ participate in it. When you cut Daddario loose emotionally you still retained a financial rootin’ interest, didn’t you?”

“You’re very—blunt,” she said slowly. “Yet oddly delicate, too. We both know that it was Jim who cut me loose. He expects to go on to bigger things politically. He decided that I didn’t have the qualifications to ‘grow’ with him.” Johnny could hear the bitterness in her voice.

“But he shut you up about what you knew by cuttin’ you in on the take. You couldn’t live like this on what you take home from the library.” He waited for her to speak.

“I’m not underpaid there. And I have no extraordinary expenses.” Her voice was low. “Of course you realize you’re only repeating what the townspeople have been saying right along. It used to hurt, but I’ve developed an immunity.”

“Look, Jessie, if that’s your story, good luck to you. I think there’s somethin’ you’ve forgotten, though. Jim Daddario hasn’t forgotten it. He was in New York when Carl Thompson was killed. When the dirt starts comin’ out from under the rug he could wind up charged with murder.”

“Jim would never do a thing like that.” Jessamyn said it confidently.

“Can you say the same for the people around him?” He waited but she was silent. “If he gets charged as an accessory, even, don’t you end up as a tail on the kite?”

“You’re just trying to talk me into something.” She sat up straight on his knees, trying to see his face. “Aren’t you? What is it you expect me to say? Or do?”

“Tell me where I can find Micheline Thompson.”

“But I don’t know!” She said it just a shade too quickly, Johnny thought. “Even if all you say should be true, which it isn’t by any means, what makes you think Jim would confide in me?”

“Maybe because—”

“And don’t say it’s because he feels he can trust me.” Her words were staccato. “He jilted me, remember?” He could hear a distinct swallowing sound as her throat worked. “Jim Daddario trusts no one.”

“An’ he has a real blast furnace of a temper,” Johnny suggested.

“Yes, he does,” she said before she thought. Her voice tightened as if she resented the inference. “But he’s not a killer.”

“Did he throw you over because he was takin’ up with Micheline?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Her tone was sharp. “Why do you ask that?”

“I’ve heard it mentioned.”

“People will say anything.” An audible sniff conveyed her impression of people. “Next you’ll be saying Jim had Thompson killed so he could marry the widow.”

“You think people aren’t sayin’ that, too?”

“It’s doubly ridiculous. Jim Daddario is a hard-headed, practical politician. He and I might have known each other a little too well. The—bloom rubbed off. We split up. But Jim did a lot for me, and I’m grateful.”

“Suppose that some of the things you knew should all of a sudden be an anchor around the neck of this hard-headed politician? What would he do then, Jessie?”

“You’re just trying to upset me!” She bounced up from his knees. “And I’m not going to let you.” Her voice softened. “We had a nice evening. Don’t spoil it.”

“I wouldn’t think of spoilin’ it, baby.” He reached out and patted a plump hip. “I’m lookin’ forward to others.”

“Do you say that to all the girls?”

He stood up from the chair and stretched mightily. “Only to the ones who combine enthusiasm with their know-how.” He reached out a casual arm and pulled her up against him. “You’re all right, kid. More bounce to the ounce.”

She freed herself gently. “It’s getting late. I won’t turn on the light in the hall when I let you out. Goodnight, Johnny.”

“Goodnight, Jessie.” At the door he gave her arm a silent squeeze and walked quietly down the dimly lighted hallway.

He found that he wasn’t surprised to discover Valerie Peterson waiting up for him when he let himself in with his key. “She rose from the chair in which she had been doing sentry duty, still swathed in the man’s bathrobe he had seen previously. She wasted no time on preliminaries. “I’m sorry to have to say this but I’m—”

“You’re goin’ to have to ask me to remove my high-voltage carcass from the premises,” Johnny finished for her.

“You’re right. I am. I’m not saying right this minute or even tomorrow, but I wish you’d look for another place.”

Johnny shrugged. “You’re the doctor. Any particular pressure on you to have me move out?”

“No. It’s just that there’s too much lightning playing around your head. I’ve got a daughter to raise and a living to make. I can’t afford to be in the middle on something like this.” Her eyes on his were steady. “Personally, I rather like you, but I know trouble ahead when I see it. I don’t want any.”

“It’s your house,” Johnny agreed. “I’ll find a berth tomorrow.” He headed for the stairs.

Her voice stopped him. “You had a telephone message just a few minutes ago.” Johnny turned to her, his interest fired. “A man named Rudy said to be sure to let you know the big fish were biting.”

“Oh. That. Yeah.” Johnny’s interest died. He found it replaced at once by a flicker of something else. His hand closed lightly on the roll of bills in his pocket. He glanced at his wrist watch. Why not sit in for a couple of hours? The game was a soft touch. “Maybe I’ll take a look.”

“You’re a gambler, among other things?”

He looked at Mrs. Peterson’s disapproving face. “You know Rudy?”

“Everyone knows Rudy and all the rest like him.” She said it with distaste. ‘That’s what’s the matter with this town. It was bad enough when Girl Thompson was running it like a business. A dirty business, but a business. Now it’s an out-and-out racket and someone’s going to get hurt. Dick Lowell should be ashamed of himself.”

“What can he do about it?” Johnny asked her.

“If he slept in his own bed nights Daddario never would have been able to undermine him on the council and get control.” Mrs. Peterson’s voice was sharp. “He’s not a Lowell. He’s a weakling.”

“Yeah,” Johnny said vaguely. “Well, maybe he’s got a problem or two of his own.” He started for the front door. “I’ll clear out tomorrow. Sorry to have bothered you.”

He thought she was going to speak again, but she stood and watched him silently as he let himself out.

CHAPTER VIII

Johnny awoke in the first rays of the sunrise with his stomach rumbling with hunger pains. He had been too disgusted to eat anything before going to bed five hours before.

He rolled over and lay on his back with his hands folded beneath his head. The trip to Rudy’s had been a disaster. The corners of his mouthy turned down at the remembrance. The sour taste was almost literal.

He had stepped into the game brash with confidence. In the first dozen hands he had run second three times and had pulled in his horns a little. He had won a small pot with three sevens and almost at once saw a full house top his smaller full. That had been painful, but not nearly so bad as the hand shortly after on which he had wagered briskly on a pat flush against a two-card draw. After two return raises Johnny had called and watched his opponent cheerfully lay down the ace, king, queen, nine, and five of spades. He always liked to draw to an ace, king, queen flush possibility, his opponent explained.

Johnny salvaged his few remaining chips and backed out of the game hurriedly. When they started filling flushes on two-card draws it obviously wasn’t his night. It had only taken him twenty-five minutes and fourteen hundred dollars to find it out.

“Murder,” Rudy said at the door, letting him out.

“First degree,” Johnny affirmed.

“You happen to know this Tolliver boy up in Emergency Hospital?” Rudy asked.

“Seems to me I’ve heard the name,” Johnny said carefully. “What happened to him?”

“I heard he run into a fence,” Rudy said dryly. He spat on the floor and scrubbed it out with his heel. So far as he was concerned, the conversation seemed to have ended.

Johnny tried to keep it moving. “You have to choose up sides in this town to get your umbrella for this game?” he asked.

“Never used to have to,” Rudy said heavily. He cleared his throat. “Never used to,” he repeated. “It’d better stay that way. I pay my dues to the lodge an’ all I ask is to be left alone.”

“They been comin’ at you lately from more’n one direction?”

“I pay my dues,” Rudy reiterated.

And that had been all. Rudy had refused to say another word, leaving Johnny to wonder why the subject of Tolliver had been brought up. Unless it was Rudy’s way of making the point that he knew what was going on around town.

Johnny had stopped at the Western Union office and wired Mickey Tallant for fresh funds and had trudged back to Mrs. Peterson’s wishing he had never left it.

He stretched lazily in bed, threw back the covers and sprang out. He dressed hurriedly in the room’s chill. Autumn was coming with a vengeance. In the bathroom across the hall, he splashed water noisily and chopped at his wet-down hair with his comb. Three or four eggs and a like number cups of coffee should put a brighter aspect on things. It usually did. He remembered mornings after nights at the card table-Back in his room he tossed the comb at the bureau and reached for Mickey Tallant’s leather jacket on the back of a chair. His hand became paralyzed in mid-movement. Jingle Peterson lay on her back in his bed, her red hair flying over the pillow, the covers demurely up to her chin.

Just for a second Johnny thought it was a put-up job, the presence of this decidedly under-age female. Just for a second. Until he saw the guileless face on the pillow. “You’re dressed!” she accused him.

He loomed up over her at the bedside. “Your mother will skin you alive,” he told her. “Your mother will—”

“My mother is sound asleep,” she informed him. “Aren’t you coming back to bed?”

He could never explain this to Mrs. Peterson, Johnny decided. He disposed of the covers in one tearing yank. “Hey!” Jingle protested, sitting up, her arms wrapped about herself. Her nightgown was plainly not her own, being six or eight inches too large in all dimensions. Johnny grabbed an ankle and hauled and she hit the floor rump first. “Oww!” she squealed. Shocked surprise was in the face. “What kind of a square are you, anyway?”

“Out,” Johnny said grimly. “On your feet and out.” She sat up straight in the middle of the floor, the picture of outraged indignation. “You unadulterated square,” she said bitterly. “I should have known you—”

He reached down for an arm and lifted her to her feet. She tried to hit him with her free hand and stumbled as she stepped on the trailing edge of the nightgown. A bare shoulder and a strawberry-tipped, pear-shaped little breast popped into view as the top portion sagged. Jingle grabbed at the billowing material.

“Out,” Johnny insisted. With her left arm in his grip he boosted her toward the door with a knee behind her, fending off her wild swings with his other hand. He heard her gasp as she went limp in his clutch and he looked over her shoulder at Valerie Peterson in the doorway.

“Look, Val,” the girl said immediately in a rapid recovery. “I can explain everything. I was just—”

Her mother didn’t even look at her. “Thanks,” she said to Johnny. “I’ll take over from here.” She reached for Jingle with her left hand. In her right was a hairbrush.

“No, no, no!” the girl exclaimed. She darted around behind Johnny who discreetly stepped out of the way. With the skill born of long practice, Valerie Peterson stepped in behind her daughter and took a firm grip on her left ear. “You’ve got to listen to me, Val! Val!”

“March!” Mrs. Peterson commanded, and the hairbrush spatted sharply against the fullest part of the nightgown. Jingle yelped and bounded into the air only to be hauled down by the grip on her ear. At the doorway there was another crisp smack, another yip, and another troutlike leap. The ballet was repeated at the head of the stairs and on every third step on the way down. Jingle and her mother disappeared from sight through the living-room door. But not from sound.

In seconds shrill, piercing yells drifted upward with metronomic regularity. Johnny snatched up his jacket and ran down the stairs. In the lower hall the girl’s howls were intensified; if he hadn’t seen the flatbacked brush in her mother’s hand he would have suspected something far more lethal.

Outside on the stone steps with the front door closed he could still hear her, although not as plainly. Miss Jingle Peterson left the neighborhood in small doubt as to her immediate circumstances.

Johnny shook his head in mute admiration for the audible testimony to Mrs. Peterson’s undiminished vigor, grinned slightly and set off up the street.

He sat opposite the richly polished outsized desk of Mayor Richard Lowell and considered the man behind it. Dick Lowell fidgeted under the inspection, shooting his cuffs nervously and sweeping back his white mane with quick-brushing motions of a flattened palm. His swivel chair creaked as he leaned forward in it to plant his elbows on the desk top. His eyes were bloodshot and his clean-shaven face looked haggard. “Killain, I—”

“You’re beltin’ at that brandy too much, Dickie,” Johnny— interrupted him.

“Don’t call me Dickie!” the mayor snapped back. He sat up straighter. “And as for the brandy, I believe I’m of age.”

“The dangerous age, maybe. When you up for re-election again, Your Honor?”

Richard Lowell winced at the question, Johnny’s ironic salutation passing unnoticed.

“Not till next year, fortunately.”

“Fortunately, indeed,” Johnny said. “A mayor who shows himself to the voters in wide open gamblin’ joints is on a downhill slide. A mayor who takes off his shoes at night in the company of a married woman is on a greased downhill slide.”

“So you heard about that, too.” Richard Lowell pushed back his chair. He looked at his well-manicured nails and buffed them on the lapel of his jacket. “That much at least is settled now.”

“Settled like how?” Johnny asked.

“She’s getting a divorce.” Dick Lowell said it somberly, with no trace of triumph. “Quietly. He’s finally agreed. It cost me—” He flung his arms wide and jumped nervously to his feet. “Never mind what it cost me. It’s worth it.” He began to pace up and down behind his desk in short, choppy strides. “Dorothy and I will be married after a decent interval. After I’m re-elected. People forget. In the meantime, I’ll be more—careful.” He stopped and looked at Johnny, the beautiful speaking voice picking up power and intensity. “I know I’ve slipped with the people, but I’ve got a year. In a year I can rebuild my image. All I need is a good issue to distract them, and I’ve got a dandy. I can kick off a campaign and in three weeks I’ll have everyone back who ever voted for me and a lot more beside. I’ll get up on a platform and lay it on the line: ‘Citizens of Jefferson—’”

“’—we must throw the rascals out,’“ Johnny cut in.

“Well, yes.” Lowell’s voice dropped from the rolling boom into which it had ascended. “Exactly.”

“An’ what happens if the rascals point a finger back at the man on the platform?”

“They have no proo—” Richard Lowell closed his lips tightly. “The voters will know whom to believe. I’m going to clean up this town. I’m going to clean it up one hundred per cent. I’ll start—”

“The last man I heard talkin’ like that wound up on a hotel-room floor with a knife in his back,” Johnny said softly.

Dick Lowell sat down suddenly. He swallowed visibly. “I’m not—they can’t intimidate me,” he said feebly.

Johnny looked at him. “They can’t? Congratulations, Your Honor.” His voice turned hard. “I haven’t found Micheline Thompson. Would you have any idea why?”

“I?” Lowell looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“Could it be that Micheline Thompson knows enough about Mayor Richard Lowell to warrant his keepin’ her out of sight, rather than Daddario?”

“You’re—you couldn’t be more wrong.” The mayor’s voice was shaky. “I desperately want to find her. She—she can be of the greatest assistance. You must find her.”

“How would it be if I looked in Dorothy’s apartment?”

“Dorothy?” Richard Lowell looked stunned. “You would accuse Dorothy of—of lending herself to such a deception?” He sounded outraged.

“I don’t know Dorothy,” Johnny pointed out. “I’m beginnin’ to know you.”

“Why don’t you ask Jessamyn Burger, your great and good friend?” Mayor Lowell thrust back with sudden viciousness.

“I already have. She claims Daddario never told her anything.”

The mayor’s snort was explosive. “That woman is no schoolgirl. I’m not saying she has to know where Micheline is but never believe she knows nothing about Jim’s activities. She’s a shrewd one.”

“She says the brushoff was complete.” Johnny watched the man behind the desk.

“I’ll never believe that.” Richard Lowell was emphatic. “For one thing, has she cut down on her scale of living?”

“I’ve been in her place. I wouldn’t say she’s equipped to run off Roman orgies three times a week. What’ve you got against her?”

“Her ambition. When she was the bright star in Daddario’s crown I was just something in their way. She never had a good word for me or about me. I don’t forget things like that.”

“How come Daddario cut her loose?”

“I’ve never been completely convinced that he has.” Dick Lowell scowled. “In politics you have to look beneath the surface. There was beginning to be some talk about their long ‘engagement.’ At a time when I was something less than discreet, myself, their separation gave them an opportunity to point a moralistic finger at me.”

“You don’t think you went all around Robin Hood’s barn to dredge that one up?”

“It’s a possibility,” Lowell insisted stubbornly. “I trust neither of them.”

“What was Carl Thompson doin’ for you when he was in the saddle in the chief’s office?”

The mayor was silent for a count of three. “Protecting my interests,” he said at length. He hurried on before Johnny could speak. “Not trusting Daddario, I needed to be kept informed.”

“I figured you an’ Daddario for partners.” Johnny made the statement in a deliberate manner.

“We—might have had an understanding. Once. That’s water over the dam. He’s out to get me. I intend to get him first.” Again richness of purpose firmed and deepened Lowell’s voice. “If I can count on your help you won’t be sorry, Killain.”

“The other day you thought this room might be bugged,” Johnny said. “How come you’re such a popoff now?”

Dick Lowell’s smile was tired. “There’s not much news in anything I’ve just said.” His eyes went uneasily to his telephone. “I’ve read somewhere that it’s possible to attach some sort of—ah—device to a phone so that not only phone conversations but all conversations in the room can be heard. Is it true?”

Johnny nodded. “It sure is.”

The mayor’s eyes were sick. “There was one private conversation here I’m almost sure—how would I find out?”

“If you’ve got a friend in the upper bracket of the local telephone office they could probably tell you.”

Lowell smiled bitterly. “Jessie Burger’s father was the manager of the local phone office before he died. She’s still very well acquainted there.” He drew a deep breath. “You haven’t said if I can count on you.”

Johnny rose to his feet. “You haven’t said what you need done, Lowell.” He waited for a moment. “Your program’s a little too vague for me right now. Brighten up the colors and try me again.” He turned to go.

“Killain, wait.” Lowell’s tone was urgent. “You won’t say anything to Toby? About—all this?” His eyes were pleading. “I intend to have it all straightened out shortly. Very shortly.”

“It’s your baby,” Johnny said indifferently. “Even at this distance removed, though, I doubt you’re kiddin’ Toby Lowell very much about what’s goin’ on here. What do you do if he decides to bounce up an’ look over the situation?”

“I run, not walk, to the nearest exit,” Lowell said with unexpected firmness. “But he won’t. He’s too busy to pay any attention to what’s going on in Jefferson.” Bitterness crept back into Richard Lowell’s voice. “You’ve heard of the senior citizen psych? That’s the Indian sign Toby has on me. He’s the eternal big brother who always knows best. We weaker vessels distress him.”

“Speakin’ of weaker vessels, I’ve got to run by the Western Union office. I got batted out in Rudy’s game last night.” Johnny paused as a thought occurred to him. “I got the impression Rudy doesn’t care too much for Jack Riley’s gendarmes.”

“Not many do.” The tone was acid.

“But they loved Carl Thompson’s?” Johnny moved to the door in the ensuing silence. “For a politician, Richard, you just don’t think fast enough on your feet.” There had still been no reply when he closed the office door from the outside.

At Western Union he picked up two thousand dollars and an accompanying telegram: CHECK TO THE ONE-CARD DRAWS YOU DUMMY. He grinned and started to crumple the yellow sheet. The New York dateline reminded him of some unfinished business. He found a phone booth in a drugstore, changed two dollars into silver, and called Sally at the apartment in New York.

“Johnny!” she exclaimed at the sound of his voice. “Where are you?”

“If anyone else is askin’ that question, ma, it might be better if you didn’t know. Joe Dameron been hauntin’ you?”

“Not Dameron. That man Cuneo.”

“Uh-huh. They set a date for the inquest yet?”

“I haven’t heard.”

“Find out, but don’t ask the direct question. They’d know where it came from. Did they identify the guy?”

“Marty said it was some small-time hood.”

“Local?”

“I guess. Marty didn’t say.”

“Find that out, too. I’ll call you in a day or two. If they spring an early date on the inquest an’ you need to get me in a hurry call the Mick. I’d tell you but you never could lie, ma.”

“Please stay out of trouble, Johnny. And come on home.”

He sat in the booth after he had deposited the amount the operator asked for and tried to figure it out. Something didn’t add up. Daddario had had his own muscle with him in New York that day, but a stranger had been hired for the payoff. Check that, Killain. The stranger had been hired for Killain but do you know he had been hired for Thompson, too? You’re damn right you don’t. Kratz or Savino could easily have done the job. Except that after the beating Thompson had taken in Jefferson how had either one of them been able to get that close to him in the hotel room?

Johnny sighed, fished a dime out of the remaining change, and called Jessamyn Burger.

The drawn drapes darkened the motel room despite the hint of late-afternoon sunlight behind them. On the bed beside him the woman spoke drowsily. “It’s been lovely, Johnny, but I’ve got to get back to town.”

He ran a questing palm over her sleek nudity. “The town’ll still be there if you get back an hour later, won’t it, Jess?”

She shivered at his touch and sat up. “No more. I want to shower.”

“We’ll shower together.” He slid from the bed and scooped her up in his arms.

“What—?” Her voice was startled. “Stop it,” she protested as he carried her into the bathroom. He turned on a single light over the dressing table outside and set her down in the shower stall. “Stop it, Johnny! It’s not—decent!”

His bulk effectively blocked the shower entrance when she tried to push past him. From a shelf he took down a wax-papered bathing cap and handed it to her. “Water’s goin’ on in ten seconds. Get that on your noggin if you want to keep your hair dry.”

“I want you to get out of here!” Her hands and arms were plastered about herself. The indirect light reflected softly from the white-tiled walls upon her full curves, warm ivory by contrast.

“Five seconds,” he said, and stepped inside and closed the glass door. His hand dropped on the shower faucet.

“No!” she exclaimed, but her hands were already hastily fitting the cap over her dark hair. “Johnny, no!” She gasped at the hissing rush of the chilly needle spray. “Oooh, it’s cold!”

It warmed at once. He let her soak a moment and picked up the soap from the dish. He took her firmly by a plump shoulder and soaped her completely from neck to ankles, his big hand gliding over her glistening flesh. She stood on first one foot and then the other and her protests died to murmured little half-sounds. He rinsed her off and soaped her again, slowly. This time her body gave itself up to the soaping hand like a flower turning up to the sun.

He rinsed her again and handed her the soap. She soaped him gravely, the hiss of the water the only sound. She kneaded his back and shoulders for a long time. The silence was electric by the time she finished. He turned off the shower, picked her up by the elbows and lifted her out onto the bath mat. “Dimples everywhere, by God,” he said huskily, enveloping her in a towel. She said nothing, made no sound. He could hear her breathing.

He patted her dry first, then scrubbed with the towel till the white skin turned rosy. She twisted and turned under the scouring towel but her feet never moved from the mat. Her eyes were so dark they seemed black.

He dried himself hurriedly as she exited like a sleepwalker. He found her in the bedroom beside her neatly laid out clothing on a chair. She had on panties and one stocking. She made a small sound deep in her throat as he drew her gently back against himself, spoon-fashion. He bent his head to breathe lightly upon the velvety junction of her neck and shoulder.

He removed the panties. He didn’t bother with the stocking.

It was well over an hour before they rose again and began to dress.

On the ride back to town she sat primly in her half of the hired car’s front seat. Her eyes rested on the road straight ahead. Five miles out from town she sighed and turned to look at him. “I suppose it’s time to return to reality,” she said wistfully. “Thanks for the trip to another planet.”

“Many happy returns,” Johnny said.

She smiled. “You know if you’d stop the yakking about Jim Daddario having horns and hooves I could get kind of used to you.”

“Why’d you suggest a little trip to the country when I called you today, Jess?”

Her smile faded. “I couldn’t have you parading up to my door in broad daylight and staying, now could I?” she asked lightly. “Wasn’t this cozy?”

“Very. I’m just wonderin’ where I got the idea you’re afraid to be seen with me in town.”

“That’s not true.” She said it angrily.

His hands lay relaxed on the wheel as the car rolled along between level green fields. “Kratz and Savino haven’t told you to stop seein’ me?”

“Who pays any attention to Kratz and Savino?” she asked defiantly. She refused to meet his eyes when he turned his bead.

“Jess, you’re the victim of a misplaced sense of loyalty.”

“No, I’m not. Really I’m not. You make me sound like a virtuous nitwit. I know what I’m doing. I’m not naive enough to think that a city like Jefferson is run under the articles of incorporation. On the other hand, the extent of the corruption you’re attributing to Jim simply isn’t true.”

“You’d like to believe that.” Johnny pulled a little further off the center of the road as the rear-view mirror showed a big sedan moving up rapidly behind them. He turned to look at her. “Do you? Are you sellin’ yourself a bill of goods, Jess?”

“I’m—” Her eyes flashed over his shoulder. “Look out!” she screamed.

His eyes darted back to the road. The sedan loomed up on his left, inches away and cornering him to the side of the road. He couldn’t take his eyes from the too-close fenders but he had the impression there were two people in it. He bore down on the horn and gripped the wheel. There was a long drawn out grinding of metal, twice repeated. The car shivered but Johnny held it straight. Clouds of dust boiled up from his right wheels on the shoulder. Instead of going for the brake he gave it more gas. The car leaped ahead, metal squealing as it freed itself. The sedan tried again but Johnny angled out into the center of the road. On a long curve he really gave it the gas and watched the sedan drop behind.

Coming out of the curve he saw a straight stretch ahead and no immediate traffic. Braking quickly, he slowed the car across the road. “Lock the doors behind me an’ don’t open ’em no matter what happens!” he said urgently. He jumped out and slammed the door.

The sedan had already squealed to a halt and started to turn as Johnny ran up the road toward it. With a screech of burning rubber it roared away before he could reach it.

He walked back slowly to his own car and a white-faced Jessamyn. He shook his head at the raw scrapes along the entire left side. “Boy, the man who rented me this is sure goin’ to have a few unkind words for me.” He climbed back in under the wheel and tried to meet her eyes. “Still feel the same way about your friends?”

She tried desperately to screw herself together under his regard. “You probably staged the whole thing yourself!”

“You don’t really think that, Jess. The boys were just givin’ you a warnin’.”

“Warning!” She shuddered. “We might have been killed!”

“No.” He shook his head. “It was just a warnin’. Look at the spot they picked. Perfectly flat. I probably could’ve run out through the field except you never know what you’ll sink a wheel in. A few miles back there was a two an’ a half foot ditch. If they’d meant business that’s where they’d have tried it. An’ if they’d meant business they wouldn’t have taken off when I stopped.”

“Take me home,” she said in a small voice. “I—take me home.”

The balance of the trip was completed in silence.

Jingle Peterson stepped out of the living-room doorway as Johnny passed through the lower hallway on his way to the stairs. “Val says I’ve got to apologize to you,” she said. She sounded subdued.

“Forget it,” Johnny said breezily. “Do me a favor, though.” He waited for her inquiring look. “Come around in a couple of years.”

Her smile was wan. “I must have seemed like a perfect fool.” Dark blood rushed into the round features.

“You were just rushin’ your fences a little.”

Her face screwed up until he was afraid she was going to cry. “I th-thought you’d despise m-me.”

“For what, for God’s sake? We both knew you were just kiddin’ around. It was kind of bad taste, though. That’s why your mother got hot.” He held out his hand. “No hard feelin’s?”

Her small one gripped his hard. “Oh, no.” She drew a long breath. “I’m so ashamed. And I was so afraid you’d come in and laugh and crack wise about Val spanking me.”

“Look—it never happened, see?”

“Oh, yes it did!” she said with more of her usual pertness. “Well, thanks.” She retreated inside.

At the top of the stairs Johnny found Valerie Peterson waiting for him. She came directly to the point. “If you haven’t found another place to stay yet, don’t bother.” She started down the stairs.

“Well, thanks,” Johnny said in unconscious imitation of Jingle.

“Thank yourself,” Valerie Peterson said over her shoulder.

Johnny stood staring down after her until she disappeared into the living room.

CHAPTER IX

Johnny raised his eyes from the green baize tabletop at a touch on the shoulder. He turned his head to find Rudy at his right. The competent-looking gambler bent down until his lips nearly brushed Johnny’s ear. “Fella to see you outside,” he muttered.

“Yeah. Sure. In a minute,” Johnny said absently, his eyes on the flow of the cards from the dealer’s hands. He had been in high-level, concentrated combat for six hours. He o picked up his hand, looked at an ill-assorted trey, six, eight, ten, and jack, and pitched them into the discards when the pot was opened in front of him.

He leaned back in his chair, rubbing the base of his neck. Successful poker is a game of very little chance in which stamina, patience, intuition, and the ability to concentrate to the exclusion of everything except the card table kept a man consistently on the right side of the ledger. Johnny had learned at an early age that in no other card game does luck play as small a part.

He looked down at a satisfying accumulation of chips in front of him. He had weathered an early dry spell by conservative tactics until the cards began to run his way. He was well aware that poor cards carry nowhere near the penalty in such a game as good cards that are not good enough. It had been a night of small hands, few raises, and air-tight, grinding poker in which he had managed to win a bit more than his share of the skimpy pots. It was a night in which running second two or three times on big pots could wipe I out the profits of hours of concentrated effort. It was not a I bad time to be called out of the game, he decided.

Johnny pushed back his chair. “Cash me in for now,” he said to the banker, and rose and stretched his cramped muscles. He remembered times when he had sat in a game from Friday to Monday and wound up with his feet in a pail of water to keep awake, but six or eight hours now left him tightened up physically and mentally. He counted his stacked chips, checked the banker’s count on the stack of crisp green bills and stuffed the folded wad in his pocket.

Rudy held him for a moment at the door. “I like the way you float with the current when you haven’t got ’em,” he said. “Also the way you make ’em pay to see ’em when you do. I thought maybe a little stronger bankroll would let you dig in the spurs a little deeper. How about it?”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “You’d bankroll me?”

“I like to keep a man of my own in the game,” Rudy explained. “I can’t be everywhere at once in here. You’d keep the game moving, watch out for sharpies, hold down the arguments, that kind of thing. I’ll pay you a flat two fifty a week or if you like your own game you can have twenty-five per cent of what you win. I stand the losses regardless.”

Johnny shook his head. “It’s a good offer, Rudy, but I like to pay my own.”

“Okay, okay,” Rudy shrugged, opening the door. “It’s open if you change your mind. Your man’s up the block around the corner. To the right.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Johnny had nearly forgotten why he had left the game. He stepped out on the street, shivering in the chill wind that had risen during his hours inside. He walked up the block, his trousers wind-whipped against his legs. He wondered what had brought Dick Lowell out on such a night. He turned the corner and lowered his head against the full force of the wind. Damn, winter surely came early in this country.

“Over here, Killain.”

Johnny came to a dead stop in the middle of the sidewalk. He looked at the parked car from which the voice had come and then hastily checked the store doorways behind him. It had not been Dick Lowell’s voice.

A car door slammed on the street side and a bulky figure emerged from behind it. “This is on the level, Killain,” Chief Riley said. “I know you won’t get in the car. Where can we talk?”

Johnny looked up and down the deserted street. He noticed that the chief was out of uniform. “What’s the matter with right here?” he asked warily.

“Fine with me,” Riley agreed. “Let’s just step into this doorway out of the damn wind.”

“Let’s just let me set up the housekeeping arrangements,” Johnny countered. In the doorway they stood so that Jack Riley’s broad back shielded Johnny from anyone passing by. “Did you just stop in yourself at the game and ask for me?”

“Yes.”

“No flies on that Rudy,” Johnny said. He explained about the job offer. “Lowell walks in an’ asks for me, you walk in an’ ask for me, so Rudy figures right away to hire himself someone close to the crown to add a little depth to his defenses.”

“What did Dick Lowell come to see you about?” Chief Riley demanded at once.

Johnny looked at him. “You came over here to ask me what Lowell wanted to see me about?”

“All right,” the chief said resignedly. His heavy features looked serious. “I’ve got a little proposition, Killain. I don’t have to like you to work with you. I’ve got a job for you.”

“Runnin’ a poker game?”

Riley ignored the interruption. “I don’t know what you’re doing here but I take back what I said earlier about your umbrella being no good. You’ve got Lowell leaning on me from one direction and Daddario from another, although I’ll be damned if I can see why. I’ll cut it short. I’ll pay you a thousand dollars to find someone for me.”

“In Madagascar?”

“Right in this town. I think.”

“The chief of police offers me a thousand bucks to find someone in his own home town,” Johnny murmured. “Forgive me if I sound a little confused. Who is it?” He anticipated the answer and was already prepared to disbelieve it.

“Micheline Thompson.” Johnny drew a breath but the chief held up a placating palm. “Wait a minute before you start in, Killain. It’s simpler than you think. I want to know where she is, but I can’t look for her and I can’t send anyone to look for her because I can’t trust anyone.”

“You’re just overflowin’ with trust in me, though.”

“If you run to Daddario with this I’ll deny it. He knows we don’t like each other, on top of which he don’t like you.”

Riley gestured impatiently. “I need action. In my book you’re a sonofabitch on wheels, but you get action.”

“Thanks for the double-edged testimonial. What are you tryin’ to do, submarine Daddario?”

“I’m taking care of Riley,” the chief said stolidly.

“How do I get paid if I take it on?” Johnny asked.

“C.O.D. with the accent on the O.D.”

“Put it up with Rudy,” Johnny told him. “To be released by a phone call from you.”

“That sounds all right,” Riley decided. “It will be there by nine in the morning.” He glanced around at the windswept street. “Remember, if you find her, tell me. No one else. And don’t come to headquarters. Call me. I’ll meet you somewhere.” He strode out to his car.

Johnny watched him drive off. Well, Killain? Daddario evidently tells his business to no one. It was a little incredible Riley wouldn’t know where Micheline Thompson was, but if it was true it wasn’t incredible that he couldn’t make a move to find her himself without Daddario finding out. If Rudy said the thousand was there in the morning it would be a pretty good indication that Riley was leveling.

He stepped out of the doorway and bucked the wind again on the way to Mrs. Peterson’s. Very shortly he was going to have to ask himself a question he’d been avoiding. He’d done a lot of talking about Micheline Thompson but he’d made no real effort to find her. And he knew why.

He was afraid of what he would find.

Jim Daddario might have a violent temper and have everyone in Jefferson tiptoeing around him, but Johnny didn’t see how Daddario could control an unacquiescent Micheline for this length of time. The girl he’d known years ago would have reduced Jim Daddario to one-inch strips and knitted a shawl with the pieces. Since she showed no sign of doing it, she almost had to be a part of the whole scheme. The whole dirty scheme.

Face to face with the idea, Johnny found he didn’t like it. If what he suspected were true, Micheline Thompson had almost as much to do with the violent death of her husband as though she’d used the knife on him herself. How could the girl he’d known wind up doublecrossing her own husband? But she’d said it herself: people change.

Let it go for tonight, he decided, grimacing in the stinging wind. Start fresh in the morning. It might look better.

He reached Mrs. Peterson’s, went upstairs quietly in the darkened house and went to bed and to sleep.

It looked no better in the morning. Dressing, he recalled the timing of the calls that got him out of the Duarte and the police in. It had been no accident. He had been suspicious then. If she weren’t a part of the whole thing only a gun in her back should have been able to persuade Micheline to make the call to Johnny.

He looked at his watch. Ten after eight. First breakfast and then he’d decide what to do. He slipped into Mickey Tallant’s jacket and clattered down the stairs. Jingle stepped out of the living-room doorway and looked at him appealingly. “Won’t you have breakfast with us?” she asked. “I’ll make you some eggs.” She had on an oversized apron and carried a spatula in her hand.

Johnny had his mouth open to refuse when he saw Mrs. Peterson nodding yes over the girl’s shoulder. He hesitated. He supposed this was part of the rehabilitation project, but he was in no mood to be held up by it. Every refusal that came to his mind sounded so ungracious that he finally nodded reluctantly. “Just bounce ’em once or twice off the stove, Jingle. I’m in a little bit of a rush.”

“How many?” she demanded eagerly. “Sunnyside up?”

“I’m ashamed to tell you how many.”

“Four,” Mrs. Peterson ruled, and the girl darted into the kitchen. Johnny removed the leather jacket. He caught Valerie Peterson’s eye as they moved together into the kitchen.

“You said somethin’ one time about the president of the city council runnin’ after the ex-police chief’s wife,” he said to her in a low tone with one eye on Jingle out of earshot at the stove. “Is it a fact or just some of the citizenry runnin’ off at the mouth?”

“It’s been freely spoken of,” Valerie Peterson said slowly, “but do you ever know?” She was silent as Jingle, in triumph, set down a mug of steaming black coffee and a plate of slightly scorched toast before Johnny. “Eggs coming up,” the girl said brightly, and returned to the stove.

“Up to a year ago I never would have believed it,” Mrs. Peterson continued. “I’m not sure that I do now. The little I saw of her she seemed pleasant enough, if not a ready mixer. And her little girl was darling.”

Johnny stared. “Little girl?”

“Surely.” Mrs. Peterson looked her surprise. “You didn’t know? She has a daughter in Jingle’s school, but a few grades back.”

Jingle placed a platter of eggs before Johnny. “Who has a daughter in my school, Val?”

“Mrs. Thompson, dear.”

“Oh, Genevieve Thompson.” Jingle looked at Johnny’s mug. “More coffee, Johnny?” She was already on her way to the stove and returned with the percolator. “Genevieve must be sick, Val,” she said as she poured. “She hasn’t been in school all week.”

Johnny strangled on a mouthful of toast and blew out a spray of crumbs. “Sorry,” he mumbled when he could speak. He grabbed up a fork and shoveled eggs and toast down indiscriminately. He burned his mouth on the coffee, winced, and pushed back his chair. “Thanks a million, Jingle. I’m good for a reference anytime. See you later.”

Valerie Peterson followed him out into the hall as he struggled back into the leather jacket. “What is it?” she asked quietly. “What upset you?”

“I been tryin’ to think of a reason Micheline would hold still for Daddario’s game,” Johnny said grimly. “If Daddario had his thumb on her kid wouldn’t that be a damn fine reason?”

“Oh, he wouldn’t,” she said immediately. She shook her head as Johnny’s eyes bored into hers. “I can’t say it with conviction, though. He might.”

“He did,” Johnny said flatly. “Nothin’ else makes sense. Listen, don’t breathe a word of this to anyone. Can I bring the kid back here? No, wait, that might not be such a good idea.” He snapped his fingers impatiently. “I’ll think of something.”

“You can’t do anything alone!” she protested as he started for the door. “You’d never reach Daddario. Kratz—”

“Kratz’ll have to take his chances. Here.” He stopped to take out his wallet and removed a slip of paper with Toby Lowell’s Washington phone number on it. “Call this guy an’ tell him Killain said to haul his ass up here while there’s still somethin’ left of this town. Stay on the line till you get him.” He was out the door while she was still studying the number. On the street he headed for the real-estate office. He was so sure of this thing it was sticking in his throat like the dry toast. Why in the hell hadn’t he seen it before? There had to be a reason Daddario could bull Micheline around.

At the real-estate office Johnny found the shades still drawn but the door open. “Where’s Daddario?” he demanded of the single woman occupant. The glass door panel had been replaced.

“Mr. Daddario seldom arrives before nine-thirty,” she said stiffly. From her expression, she all too obviously remembered him as the wild man of two days before.

Johnny wasted no further time on her. He looked up Jim Daddario’s address in the phone-booth directory. Then he walked into the street and waved his arms in circles. A block away, a cab in rank in front of a hotel responded to his semaphoring and rolled toward him. “212 Golden Hill Lane,” Johnny grunted, sliding into the back seat. He sat hunkered forward, his big hands knitting and unknitting. If his hunch was right, when he got his hands on Daddario—

The neighborhood of Golden Hill Lane upheld the name, he decided. On high ground, new apartment buildings flanked a park whose entrance was barred by a chain and a metal sign: PRIVATE—KEEP OUT. Johnny was reminded of Jessie Burger’s apartment. Reminded because the two neighborhoods were differentiated by more than twenty years in age and a million or two in money. It was the atmosphere, and Jim Daddario had decided his long-time girl friend couldn’t “grow” into his new style of living. The decision told nearly all he needed to know about the city council president.

The cab turned into an impressively deep horseshoe driveway in front of the largest apartment and stopped at a canopied entrance. Johnny got out and paid the driver, looking around at the evidences of comfortable living. If no bank presidents lived here it was probably because they couldn’t satisfy the rental agent as to their financial standing.

He had double-barreled evidence immediately that no one walked up and knocked on the door of Jim Daddario’s apartment. A doorman gave Johnny’s leather jacket a fishy eye of his way in. Right in the center of the miniature lobby with its deep-pile carpeting a slender blonde girl sat at a modernistic switchboard. She looked at Johnny inquiringly. “Daddario,” he said.

Her eyes took him in impersonally. “The name, please?”

“Killain.” An alias wouldn’t advance him any. And the woman at the real-estate office must have called.

The girl spoke into her mouthpiece in a low tone. She looked up at Johnny at once. “If you will wait just one moment, please, sir? The penthouse elevator will be right down.”

“Yeah, sure. Thanks.” It would be down with someone on it, Johnny thought. He wondered if Jigger Kratz performed as an in-residence bodyguard. And a penthouse, yet. With a private elevator. Dick Lowell didn’t live this well.

On a small raised terrace the gilded doors of two self-service elevators sat side by side. The one on the right opened noiselessly and Jigger Kratz stepped out. He walked out to the edge of the terrace and looked down at Johnny. His blunt features and flat-appearing eyes with the yellowish cast betrayed no special interest. “What’s your business with the boss?” he asked Johnny. He made no effort to hold his voice down.

“I’ll talk to him about it, Kratz.”

“Not today. You talk to me or you dry up an’ blow away.”

“You talk a good game, man,” Johnny goaded him. He wanted Kratz in motion.

The big man smiled his gap-toothed smile. “My name’s not Savino,” he rumbled. “Take off, Killain. While you can.”

Johnny took three fast steps toward the little flight of stairs. Jigger Kratz started down toward him. The instant the big man took his first step Johnny launched himself horizontally. His two hundred forty pounds viciously shoulder-blocked the ankle supporting Kratz’s weight. The big man’s forward momentum sent him up and over Johnny’s head. His startled grunt was still audible when he smashed down upon the lobby floor, barely missing the switchboard booth.

Johnny scrambled up from his hands and knees and headed for the penthouse elevator. His right shoulder tingled. After scything down Kratz it had plowed into the top step. Only Mickey Tallant’s leather jacket had saved him from a bad bruise or worse. He stepped aboard the elevator and punched the single button. As the doors closed he had a quick glimpse of the blonde girl leaning out over her booth staring down incredulously at Jigger Kratz on his knees shaking his head dazedly. His massive pinwheel had slowed the big man down only temporarily.

The elevator stopped so smoothly and the doors opened so soundlessly it was like watching a camera pan on a Hollywood luxury apartment. Johnny stepped out into more soft-carpeted self-indulgence. The furniture was new, angled, and blond. The pictures on the walls were bright daubs. Music came from somewhere to the right. Johnny followed the sound of it and came upon Jim Daddario at a desk, hunched over some papers. Beside him a hi-fi set played softly. At the sound of Johnny’s muffled footfall the politician spoke without looking around. “What did he want, Jigger?”

“He wanted to talk to you,” Johnny said.

His chair was not a swivel chair but Daddario whirled about as though it were. He looked at Johnny, looked behind him for Kratz, then back at Johnny again. “How the hell did you get up here?” he asked harshly.

“What’s so hard about it?” Johnny asked innocently. “I got on the elevator an’ pushed the button.” He removed the leather jacket. Very shortly he would need the unhampered use of arms and shoulders.

Daddario rose to his feet, slapping at the switch of the hi-fi. He settled his horn-rimmed glasses more firmly on the bridge of his nose. “Goddammit, if you’re not the biggest pest—!” he examined in exasperation. “What—”

He broke off to listen. They both heard Kratz the second he got off the elevator. No carpet could completely deaden that furious charge. Snorting through his nose, the big man plunged into the room. A sleeve was torn out of his jacket and his left ear was bleeding. He rushed Johnny without a word as Johnny set himself. Both launched right hand swings. Neither made any effort to duck or block the other’s punch. Both connected. Each was knocked back a pace, but only a pace. Both gathered themselves to swing again.

Daddario stepped hurriedly in between. “Here! You think I want my place busted up by you two elephants? Cut it—”

Jigger Kratz disposed of his employer with a contemptuous backhanded slap. Jim Daddario staggered backward on his heels until his head hit the wall with a solid tunking sound. His glasses popped off his nose and dropped floorward as his body followed. There was a distinct crunching sound as the glasses were demolished under his dead weight, then he sprawled on his face, out cold.

Kratz never even looked in his direction. Lips drawn back from his teeth, he circled Johnny slowly. “When I get finished with you, man, you’re gonna look like Thompson.” He tried to maneuver Johnny into a corner. “Every day of your life you look in a mirror you’re gonna remember Jigger Kratz. I’ll fix—”

Johnny rushed him, on the theory the big man was a lot more used to seeing them going away from him. Kratz stumbled backward as Johnny’s weight rebounded from him. He flung up his arms as he started to fall. Johnny nailed him with three solid shots on his way down to the floor, right-left-right. He thought the bones in his hands had splintered on the rough-hewn features. Kratz bounced to his feet like a rubber ball, blood pouring from a cut beneath one eye. Eyes aflame he charged again.

A long right-hand punch landed right on top of Johnny’s head and he felt his knees loosen. A sweeping left knocked him down. Kratz kicked him heavily twice before Johnny grabbed a leg and upset him. They rolled over and traded punches on their knees. They came up together and Kratz lowered his head and roared in like a billygoat. Johnny barely shouldered-blocked him to one side. Kratz missed the desk but went into and through the hi-fi. Johnny dived for him and they thrashed around in the fragments of expensive cabinet-wood, neither able to secure a handhold.

They rammed under the desk, Johnny momentarily on top. Wood screeched in protest and two legs collapsed. A flailing elbow hit Johnny in the eye as the desk sagged onto them. They kicked it out into the center of the room. It smashed down and dissolved like a house of cards. Jigger Kratz snatched up a broken-off desk leg and hit Johnny alongside the ear, knocking him over sideways. Johnny felt the ear puff up like a toadstool.

Adrenalin-charged anger powered him upright again. He took the next swing of the club on his shoulder, got his hands on it and wrenched it away, and with one savage smash fused Kratz’s mouth and teeth into a bloody smear. He dropped the desk leg and went for Kratz’s throat with both hands.

The big man bellowed hoarsely and rained blows on Johnny’s face. They rolled over and over, crushing the lightweight furniture in their path. Johnny held on grimly, his lungs on fire with the effort. He could feel Kratz’s blows weaken as the man heaved convulsively. Johnny redoubled his straining exertion, channeling every ounce of strength in his body into his hands. It was some time before he realized dimly that all movement beneath him had ceased.

He was so exhausted it took a distinct struggle to remove his hands from Kratz’s throat. His thumbs were imbedded a quarter inch. He pulled himself to his knees and the room swam in circles around him. Doggedly, he jerked himself upright and fought to remain there. The sound he had been hearing for some time was his own breath whistling raggedly in his throat. Blood ran from somewhere down into his left eye. He slapped at it, impatient to remove it.

He looked around at the wreckage in the room. The heavy bodies had made matchsticks of the furniture. Daddario lay on his face, still unconscious. Kratz lay on his back. Johnny looked more closely. He was still breathing.

Johnny forced himself into motion. His legs felt heavy as iron posts yet trembled violently. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so completely drained. He hauled himself through the apartment, opening doors, supporting himself with handholds on every solid-looking object. He stumbled into a bathroom and in the medicine cabinet mirror stared into a face he didn’t recognize. He pulled a towel from the rack and blotted off the face. He stared at the crimson imprint on the towel. The touch of the towel on his ear hurt so badly he looked in the mirror again. The ear was a blue-black puff-ball, and even as he looked it exploded and blood drained down his neck onto his collar. He wiped it off mechanically.

He took two cautious sips of water after rinsing his mouth and turned resolutely away. He knew his stomach would rebel at anything more. He felt a little better. Some of the iron-banded tightness had left his chest.

He resumed his search of the apartment, losing count of the rooms. Daddario hadn’t stinted himself in his living. And then Johnny opened one more door and stared at a small, pajama-clad, bright-haired pixie sitting up on the bed returning his stare with interest. She looked about twelve.

“You’ve been fighting,” she said in a clear, cool little voice. “Your mother’s going to be mad.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. He cleared his throat. It seemed to have a pound of cotton in it. “Where’s your mother?”

“Oh, she comes to see me afternoons.”

“Afternoons?” Johnny could taste his disappointment. Had all this been for nothing? “She’s not here?”

The bright head shook itself negatively. “I’m getting awful tired of seeing her only afternoons,” she confided.

He could see that she had Micheline’s features and he supposed that Micheline’s dark hair and Carl Thompson’s red thatch could combine to produce the taffy-colored halo on the bed. He remained in the doorway, afraid to move closer for fear his battered appearance would frighten the child, but aware he had to do something and do it quickly. “I knew your mother when she wasn’t much bigger than you are,” he said tentatively.

“Betcha you didn’t,” she said immediately, bright-eyed.

“Betcha I did, too.”

“You don’t even know my name!” she scoffed.

“Sure I do. You’re Genevieve Thompson. And your mother was Micheline Laurent when I knew her.” The taffy head bobbed in wondering agreement. “I think we’d better go and find your mother, Genevieve.”

She was immediately cool to the idea. “Mother said I should wait for her here.”

“But this is an emergency!” Johnny said desperately.

She shook her head, but not so decisively. “You do look like an emergency,” she decided. “Can I go back to school when we find my mother?”

“You bet your life you can,” he said fervently.

“And you won’t let her be mad at me for not doing what she says?” Johnny crossed his heart silently. “Okay, I’ll get dressed.”

“We don’t have time,” Johnny said swiftly. “Would it be all right if I carried you?”

“In my pajamas?” she inquired doubtfully.

“We’ll do you up in a blanket like an Indian maiden.” He advanced to the bed and bundled her up elaborately, picked her up and sat her on his arm. “There. Okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed. “I don’t like these people, anyway, but mother said I should pretend.”

Johnny was already walking out through the apartment. He pulled the girl’s blanket up like a hood before they reached the room in which the fight had taken place. The first glance showed Daddario and Kratz still on the floor and the uniformed doorman picking his way through the debris like a horror-stricken, long-legged crane. He whirled at the sound of Johnny’s approach. “Don’t make a move, Jack,” Johnny advised him. At sight of Johnny’s face the doorman backed off hastily.

“Who was that?” Genevieve inquired with interest, riding Johnny’s arm onto the elevator. “I couldn’t see. Was that one of the bad men?”

“I figure him for just mediocre bad,” Johnny said, and she giggled. He carried her through the deserted lobby and out through the front door under the canopy. A taxi was at the right and a man in a tan topcoat was just about to enter it. Johnny crossed the walk in three long strides and tapped him on the arm. “Emergency, Jack,” he said.

When the man turned his eyes were at the level of the girl’s blanketed figure. “What kind of—” He started to say, and his eyes came up to Johnny’s face. “Jesus!” he said involuntarily. “Take it.”

Johnny was already depositing Genevieve inside. “Thanks, Jack,” he said, and climbed in himself. “546 Circle Drive,” he said to the driver.

He leaned back and slowly released breath he seemed to have unconsciously been holding for a long time.

CHAPTER X

In the lobby of Jessamyn Burger’s apartment building Johnny lowered his blanket-wrapped burden to an overstuffed armchair and turned the chair so that its small occupant was hidden from casual view. “Now you wait here for me while I scout out the ground,” Johnny said to Genevieve.

“You won’t be gone long?” she queried with her first hint of timidity.

“I’ll be right back,” he promised. “Scout’s honor.”

Clear gray eyes looked up at him trustingly. “You should do something about your face. I have a hankie in my ‘jamas. Would you like to borrow it?”

“I’ve got one, thanks,” Johnny said hastily, and groped for it. “Quiet like a mouse for you now—right?”

“Comme la souris,”

she echoed sturdily. Johnny grinned, patted the taffy-colored halo, dabbed at the deeper of his welling facial cuts with the handkerchief, and left the lobby for the corridor and the door of 2-A.

“Who is it?” he heard in answer to his knock.

“Killain.”

The door opened three inches on a chain latch. Johnny looked in over it at Jessie Burger in a housecoat and dark glasses. “Dear God!” she exclaimed at the sight of him. The chain rattled loosely and the door opened wide. “Come in. Quickly.”

“You afraid of snow blindness?” Johnny asked as he stepped inside and she closed the door behind him. The chain latch was immediately restored. On a hunch he turned her around and removed the dark glasses. She ducked her head but not before he saw two savage-looking black eyes. The left side of her face was swollen. “Kratz?” he asked her.

“S-Savino.” Her face crumpled and she started to cry. “Everything you s-said about them is true. He t-talked his way in here last night and beat me up because I hadn’t s-stopped seeing you. They’re th-thugs, all of them. Jim, too. I h-hate them. Ask me anything. I’ll tell you the whole awful s-story.”

“Micheline?” he asked quietly.

“Tim has her little girl at his apartment so that he can control her. After the first telephone call from New York Jim knew he was in trouble. He forced the maid with whom Micheline had left the little girl to bring her to his place. He flew to New York and found Micheline at the Taft and made her call the maid and dismiss her. He threatened to keep her separated from her daughter if she didn’t do what he said. He was desperate. He’d built up—”

Johnny held up a hand. “I get most of the picture, but where’s Micheline?”

“I don’t know where she’s been staying. Jim wouldn’t let her stay at her own apartment. She comes to see her daughter every day.”

“I’ve got the kid outside,” Johnny said casually, watching her face.

It was seconds before she reacted. “The daughter? You have her with you? Outside where? Here?” The words tumbled out over each other. “Is that why you look like this? I thought they’d jumped you—for God’s sake, bring her in before Kratz or Savino happen along!” She flushed at his steady regard. “Listen, I may be no damn good, but on this you can trust me, I hope!”

“Be right back,” he said, and let himself out the door. He approached the silent chair in the lobby and watched apprehensive gray eyes brighten as he bent down and picked her up in her blanket cocoon. “Everything’s copacetic, sugar-foot,” he told her, hoisting her aloft.

“Is my mother here?” she asked eagerly.

“I’m goin’ to get her just as soon as we get you tucked in the sack.” Johnny ducked so the girl wouldn’t bump her head as he carried her into the apartment. Jessamyn, her dark glasses restored, slapped the chain latch back on the door. “Genevieve, this is a friend of ours, Miss Jessie.” He handed the blanketed small figure to Jessamyn.

“Let’s go in my room, dear,” the librarian said. Genevieve nodded shy acquiescence. On the way, Jessamyn looked over her shoulder at Johnny. “I’ve called a doctor in the next building about your face. He’ll be right over. You can let him in.”

“First I got to—” Johnny began, and paused at a rap at the door.

“There he is now.” Jessamyn disappeared into the bedroom. Johnny admitted the doctor and reluctantly submitted to his ministrations. He gave the accompanying questions short shrift. Jessamyn reappeared during the application of the last of five stitches distributed two, two, and one in three different locations. The doctor took his disapproving departure and Johnny sat up on the couch that had served as an operating table.

“I’m goin’ back to Daddario’s,” he said, reaching for his undershirt. He worked it on gently over his head.

“Your ear looks horrible,” Jessamyn said with .a little shudder. The import of his words reached her. “Jim’s? You can’t go back there! Kratz—”

“I saw Kratz. We split a hair or two. To make sure of gettin’ the kid out of there I had to leave without talkin’ to Daddario. He’s the only one can tell me where Micheline is.” Johnny stood up. His face felt as if it were on fire and his body ached. He looked at Jessamyn. “Tell me somethin’. Why would Riley offer me a thousand to find Micheline?”

“Riley? Jack Riley offered you—” She shook her head when she saw that he was serious. “I just don’t know. I’m not surprised Jim didn’t let him know, but why would Jack want to know?”

“He was in New York the day Thompson was killed,” Johnny suggested, watching her.

“Riley hires his troublemakers. Or he always has.”

Johnny grunted. “I don’t see how he could’ve knifed Thompson, anyway. None of those people should’ve been able to get within forty rods of Thompson, let alone close enough to shiv him.”

“You sound so—casual about it,” she protested.

He looked at his watch, paying her no attention. “Riley’s money should be up with Rudy by now if he was levelin’. What’s the name of that tavern that fronts for the gamblin’ joint?”

“The Gamecock.”

“I’ll look it up in the book. I’d like to know.”

“The number is Edison 7-9490.”

“Thanks.” He paused on his way to the phone. “How the hell would you know that off-hand?”

She refused to look at him. “I keep the books for that place. Both operations. The license is in my mother’s name.” Her voice was low. “In the beginning it seemed all right because Jim and I were going to be married. Afterward— well, I just couldn’t say ‘no’ to the money.”

“Not many can,” Johnny said. He went to the phone and dialed. “Rudy,” he said, and waited. “Rudy? Someone leave a thousand with you this mornin’ for—”

“Got it right here,” the gambler’s bass interrupted. “An’ lissen, Killain. No names, but I just had a guy here broadcastin’ he’s goin’ to lay you out in lavender when he catches up to you. Slim, dark job.”

Savino, Johnny thought. “It’d make my day complete to have him try it,” he said grimly. “Thanks, Rudy.” He replaced the phone and looked at Jessamyn. “When did this town go wrong?”

“About four years ago.” She said it tiredly. “It started just in a small way with Dick Lowell and Jim Daddario milking the gamblers. Girl Thompson managed it for them. Gradually it got bigger. Dick had needed money because of Dorothy Trent. Then he needed a lot of money. They set out to organize everything and in the process Jim saw that with Dick in trouble he could take over the whole thing for himself—”

“An’ because Thompson wouldn’t go along with the idea of derailin’ Lowell, Daddario had to get rid of him. Haven’t you asked yourself if he didn’t have to finish the job down in New York?”

“I’ve been afraid to.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “I’d be an accessory, wouldn’t I?” He couldn’t see her eyes behind the dark glasses but he could hear the tears in her voice. “I never thought there c-could be anything like murder—”

“We don’t know that he did it. Yet.” Johnny moved to the door. “Lock this thing behind me an’ don’t open it for anyone but me, understand?” He nodded at the bedroom. “Don’t let me down.”

“What do you think I am?” she flared, and subsided at once. “All right—I had it coming.” She sounded beaten down to her knees. “I promise nothing will happen to her. You can believe it or not.”

“If I didn’t believe it I wouldn’t leave her here. I’ll be back just as quick as I can make it.”

“Don’t—” He closed the door from the outside upon whatever she had been about to say.

He had to walk three blocks before he caught a cab. The cold wind bored at his stitched face. He speculated on the chance of Savino’s going back to Jessamyn’s. It didn’t seem likely. It should be the safest place in town for the child right now. If he hurried.

The blonde in the lobby of Daddario’s apartment remembered him. Her eyes widened. “The police are looking for you,” she said before she thought, and reached for a switch. Johnny stepped forward and caught her hand in his. “Let’s you ‘n me take a little ride upstairs,” he suggested.

“No!” She couldn’t take her eyes from his face.

He maneuvered her out from behind the switchboard and up the three carpeted steps to the penthouse elevator. “Daddario up there?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she whispered, shrinking into a corner. Johnny pushed the button and the elevator started up. “You let me out of here!” she cried in sudden panic. “You’ve got no right—”

“Who else?” His hard voice cut across hers. “Who else is up there?” he repeated when she stared at him blankly.

“Only Mrs. Thompson.”

“Only

Mrs. Thompson,” Johnny said. He rolled the irony on his tongue. He grinned at the shivering blond girl. “Well, now—who else do we need?” He felt rejuvenated.

The elevator came to its non-jarring stop and the doors slid open noiselessly. With her eyes on Johnny she didn’t see the room come into view behind her. At the hoarse masculine scream practically in her ear she leaped convulsively, her face saffron. She fainted in mid-air; Johnny had to lunge to catch her and lower her to the floor of the elevator cab.

He started out into the room and a woman’s voice froze him. “That’s to show you I’m not fooling, Jim. Where is she?”

Johnny thought he had never heard a feminine voice so metallically hard. He rushed off the elevator. In the corner of the room Jim Daddario cowered away from Micheline Thompson standing in front of him threatening him with a needle-like stiletto. His hands and arms sought to protect his face and neck, but a bright red line on his throat oozed down onto his white shirt. Neither of them noticed Johnny.

“I’ll ask you once more, Jim,” Micheline Thompson grated in the strange-sounding voice. Her face was like chalk. “Where is she?”

“I told you I don’t know!” the politician babbled. “She was gone when they brought me to. I didn’t see—don’t!” he screamed, and half fell trying to get away from the sudden movement of her arm. He slammed heavily into the wall, his mouth wide open and his eyes staring as the stiletto cut him again. “I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know!” he yelled.

“He honest-to-God doesn’t, Micheline,” Johnny said.

At the first syllable she whirled, catlike, the stiletto extended. She had to re-focus her eyes to take him in. Her arm dropped to her side as she recognized him. “He said you’d been here,” she said dully. “I didn’t believe him.” Behind her, Jim Daddario slumped floorward, easing himself down with his hands on the wall.

“Genevieve’s safe,” Johnny said quietly. “I took—”

She came toward him with a rush. “Where? Take me to her!”

“Easy,” Johnny soothed her. “She’s safe.” He glanced at the man on the floor. “What do we do with him?”

“You’re not just saying she’s safe?” she pleaded. “You didn’t tell me when you knew Carl was—” She failed to complete the sentence.

“I’ll take you right to her,” Johnny assured her.

“What happened to your face?” she began, and turned at a sound from the elevator. The blonde telephone operator wobbled uncertainly into the room. “Why, Esther!” Micheline exclaimed in surprise.

“I brought her up with me to keep her from makin’ a call,” Johnny explained.

“I thought he was going to k-kill you,” Esther said to Micheline in a dry voice. “He looked so—terrible.”

“Esther called me this morning and said all hell had broken loose here,” Micheline said to Johnny. “I didn’t trust Jim and I’d arranged with Esther to keep me posted.”

“I thought she was workin’ for him,” Johnny said with another look at the blonde who was staring in fascination at Daddario. He pointed with a thumb. “Did he kill Carl?”

“No!” Daddario blurted from the floor. He sat up, but made no move to get to his feet.

Johnny looked at Micheline. “He didn’t do it himself,” she said. “He was never out of my sight after he trapped me at the Taft. Which is to say I was never out of his.”

“I figured that knife job for Savino,” Johnny said. “All except—” He frowned and shook his head. “Well, what do we do? In this town we don’t call the police to come an’ get him.”

“Esther,” Micheline said. The telephone operator started. “Take the elevator down and go back to work. Keep everyone away that you can. If anyone persists, ring us here when they start up.” The girl nodded and departed. Micheline looked at Daddario and raised the stiletto she had concealed in a fold of her skirt while the blonde was in the room. The politician shrank away as she bent down over him. His lips made a bubbling sound as he tried to say something. She wiped the stiletto on his shirt and straightened up with a smile on her face. It was quite a smile, Johnny thought. “Tie him up,” she said. “Until I see my daughter unharmed I want to know where he is. For a week I have promised myself—”

“Yeah. Sure. I’ll tie him.” Johnny strode into a bedroom and stripped off the bedding. He tore a sheet into long strips and went back into the other room. “Is there any other way down from here?” he asked Micheline.

“We can walk down a flight and get the regular elevator.”

“Okay.” He reached in his pocket and tossed a heavy-bladed knife to Micheline. “Pull the penthouse elevator back up here. Pry open the little door you’ll see head-high at the front an’ take out the fuses. That’ll leave it hung at this floor. I’ll gag this monkey an’ that’ll leave him incommunicado here till we’re ready to come back an’ rack him up.” He prodded the politician with his toe. “Stretch out there, buster, an’ make it easy on yourself.”

He knelt and went to work.

Micheline returned and handed Johnny his knife. She stared down at his packaging job, her mouth a thin line. “I hoped you would turn stubborn when he had me call you and you tried to speak to me in French. I had nowhere to turn. With Genevieve in his hands I was—frantic.”

“How’d lie find you in New York?” Johnny asked, ramming a yard of sheet into Daddario’s mouth.

“Dick Lowell’s brother Toby called him from Washington and wanted to know why Carl was in your hotel room with some wild story. The girl in Dick’s office was on Jim’s private payroll and she at once called Jim. That was the first news either of them had had of Carl since he’d disappeared from Jefferson. Jim had Dick Lowell under control but he was deathly afraid that Toby Lowell would appear on the scene here before he could consolidate his new position. Jim, Kratz, and Savino flew to New York. Kratz hung around your hotel until he saw Carl and followed him back to the room we had at the Taft. When Carl went out, Daddario moved in on me. Then I learned he actually had Genevieve in his apartment, and I didn’t know what to do. I was sure he’d stop at nothing to protect his political position.”

“He’s at the end of the line now,” Johnny said, rising to his feet. “Call your girl an’ have her get us a cab.” He waited till she returned. “All set? Let’s go.”

She led the way to an exit sign and a flight of stairs beyond a door. On the landing she turned to look at him. “How did you come to force your way in here this morning?”

“I just found out for the first time you had a kid. It all of a sudden made sense to me that Daddario could push you around. I didn’t expect to find the little girl; I was just gonna bounce Daddario around till he told me where she was.” On the stairs he thought of something else. “How did Daddario find out Carl was dead?”

“I’m not sure. I think now that he knew it before he had me call you at the Duarte. Savino had come in shortly before and there had been an intense conversation that sounded almost like a quarrel. Then they all put their heads together and Jim came over to me and told me to make the call to you.”

“Yeah,” Johnny grunted. He held the door for her and she walked quickly to the elevator and pushed the button. “They didn’t know what your husband had told me. I didn’t let on to them, though, so I’m damned if I can see why they were spooked so bad they tried inside an hour to get me twice—” He thought about it on the way down in the elevator. In the lobby he stopped at the blond girl’s little switchboard booth. “If anything pops around here, call us at Edison 7-9490.”

“Surely.” She wrote it down. “I hope you find everything all right. Your cab’s outside.”

He was silent in the cab on the way over to Jessamyn’s, adding and subtracting in his mind. Beside him Micheline rode with her hands in her lap and he could see the whitened knuckles. It must have been a hell of a week for her. His thoughts returned to New York. “Was Riley at the Manhattan?” he asked her abruptly.

She looked surprised. “No. When I saw him he was—”

“Did he know that you saw him?” he pressed her.

“Of course. Why?”

“Nothin’, I guess,” he said vaguely. “For a minute there I just had a feelin’—ahh, I don’t know. He’s been hustlin’ me to find you for him an’ I can’t figure out why.”

“For him?”

Johnny nodded. “The only thing I could figure was that he was plannin’ to throw the switch on Daddario, but where would he get the nerve?” He looked out the window as the cab turned the corner. “Here we are.”

He could feel the tension in her as she waited for him to pay off the driver. She walked quickly beside him through the lobby and down to the door of 2-A. She stood with her hands knitted in the strap of her bag as Johnny identified himself to Jessamyn. When the door opened Jessamyn took one look at her face and pointed silently to the bedroom. Micheline flew to it and opened the door. “Hi, mommy,” they heard a drowsy young voice say. “Don’t you think it’s lots nicer here?” They had a single glimpse of Micheline’s radiant face before the door closed.

“I’m sick to think I helped to do that to her,” Jessamyn said in a low tone.

Johnny looked at her. She had dressed, but she still wore the dark glasses. “No one tried to get in?”

“Dick Lowell called on the phone,” she remembered. “He’s crazy to talk to you. Said he’d been calling all over town. I didn’t know what to say to him so I finally said you might come by here later. In case you wanted to call him.” A hand brushed absently at her swollen cheekbone. “He insisted that you call as soon as you get here.”

“He can wait,” Johnny grunted. “I’ve got to get these two under cover first.” He nodded at the bedroom, looked at his watch, and went over and tapped on the door. It opened in a moment and Micheline stood in it with her daughter in her arms.

“Mommy’s been crying,” Genevieve announced in her clear voice, “and she won’t tell me why.”

“That’s enough out of you, young lady,” her mother said with an attempt at briskness. “We don’t tell family secrets, remember?”

“I think we ought to get goin’,” Johnny said to her.

She nodded. “My place?”

“I’m afraid of it. I’ve got a better idea. We’ll—” He held up a warning hand as he heard the loud knock upon the apartment door. “Don’t come out,” he said hurriedly, and closed the door. Jessamyn was looking at him inquiringly. “See who it is, Jess.”

“Who is it?” she called through the door.

“Dick Lowell,” came the muffled reply.

“Let him in,” Johnny said resignedly. “I’ll get rid of him.”

Jessamyn opened the door. Mayor Lowell strolled in, beaming expansively. He looked fresh and jaunty. “Things are looking up,” he announced to Johnny. “Wonderful job you did on Kratz. Wonderful. Why didn’t you call me?”

“I just this minute got in here,” Johnny lied.

The mayor was talking, not listening. “Without Kratz to shore him up,” he bubbled on, “I can call a little different tune with Daddario. I’ll bet you in a day or two I’ll be able—”

“Toby called me last night,” Johnny inserted.

A cloud passed over the sun. “Toby?”

“Said he’s comin’ up. He’s a little shook at not hearin’ from you about—I quote—the march of events.”

“It sounds like him. He can’t come now.” Alarm vibrated in the mellow voice. “I’m just on the verge of straightening everything out. In two or three days—he simply can’t come now!” He said it defiantly.

“I couldn’t talk him out of it,” Johnny shrugged.

Mayor Richard Lowell circled dry lips with the tip of his tongue. “I’d better get down to the office. I’d—you’ll come with me?” His tone was pleading.

What a weathervane the man was, Johnny thought. Whether his affair with the Trent woman had eroded his backbone or whether there had never been a backbone to begin with was a moot point. “I’ll make it a little later,” he said. “The doc says I got to lie down a couple hours an’ let these stitches set.”

“Oh. Well—you’ll come soon? Maybe we can think of something. If only Toby weren’t such a busybody. I must think of a way to—you haven’t found Micheline?” he asked sharply.

Johnny could see Jessamyn’s involuntary movement. He hoped Lowell hadn’t seen it. “I thought she might have been behind the door Kratz was in front of, but she wasn’t,” he said.

“It’s too bad,” the mayor regretted. Reminded of Kratz, he cheered up. “Incredible that you should have been able to handle him. My secretary told me the ambulance driver said he was still unconscious upon arrival at the hospital. When I think of the verbal abuse I’ve taken from that—that musclebound oaf I could—well, I must run. Come as soon as you can. We must think of something that will smooth it over for Toby.”

“Give him a minute an’ then run out there an’ make sure he really goes,” Johnny said in a low tone to Jessamyn behind the white-maned mayor’s departing back. “An’ bring back a cab.”

She nodded and went out. Johnny returned to the bedroom and opened the door. Micheline spoke before he could. “Johnny, why can’t we go home? I must get Genevieve some clothes.”

“The lid’s not on yet,” he argued. “You want to stick your neck back in the noose? I got a place I think is safe. Stay under cover a few more hours. Toby Lowell should be on his way by now an’ if he’s half the man he used to be things are due to begin fallin’ back into shape around here.”

“But—” She pulled herself up. “You’re right. I shouldn’t argue with you. If it hadn’t been for you—”

“Fix the little lady up in her blanket again,” Johnny interrupted her. “I’ll carry her.” He walked out to the cherry-paneled living room and listened at the door for Jessamyn’s tap-tap-tap.

“He’s gone,” she reported when he let her in. “He had a cab waiting. I’ve got one out there for you.”

“Fine.” He looked to the bedroom and then back at her. “When we go you better not hang around here. Somebody’s liable to put two an’ two together. Go down to the library.”

“With my eyes like this! Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Get out of this place. It’s only got one door,” he insisted. “Stay out in the bright sunshine. I’m not foolin’. This thing may not be over yet.”

She shook her head firmly. “I have appearances to keep up as far as my job is concerned, you know. I can’t appear in public like this.”

He abandoned the argument and went to the bedroom. Genevieve stood on the bed, once again in her blanket cocoon. Johnny picked her up and her arms went around his neck. Micheline followed him back out into the other room. “Thank you,” she said gravely to Jessamyn.

“Be careful,” Johnny warned her as they left the apartment. She nodded silently. At the outer door Johnny spoke to Micheline. “Let’s make this fast. The less you’re seen in the daylight the better I’ll like it.”

They went down the cement to the cab at a fast walk. Johnny handed the girl in to Micheline and climbed in and slammed the door. “The Gamecock,” he said to the cab driver.

CHAPTER XI

“This is close enough,” Johnny called to the taxi driver when they were within half a block of the tavern. He turned to Micheline as the cab swung into the curb. “Wait for me here. I think the boy who runs this place is ready to change horses. It’ll make a perfect cover until things quiet down.”

“You won’t be long?” she asked. “Being in the open on the street like this makes me—concerned.” She glanced at the child quietly watching the passersby.

“The way I’ll put it to him he’ll give me a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ in about thirty seconds,” Johnny promised. “An’ after I get you two salted down in there I’m goin’ to get in touch with Riley. I think he’s another one about ready to change horses.” He opened the door and prepared to step out on the sidewalk.

“Be careful with that man,” she warned. The planes of her striking features were all highlights and shadows as she looked up at him through the open door. He thought that she had lost weight since the first night he had seen her. “Jack Riley is much changed,” she continued earnestly. “When I saw him in New York with Dick Lowell he had assumed an arrogance I never saw in Jefferson.”

“Yeah? Well, he’s had a couple bumps lately that maybe reduced his hat size.” He closed the car door. “Hang on,” he said through the partly opened window, and started up the street toward the Gamecock.

A dozen yards from the cab the import of her remark struck him. He hesitated, half turned to go back, and then reversed himself. He strode rapidly up the street. Time enough later for the other. Right now he had to get those two off the street.

He entered the tavern and tried to adjust his eyes to the dimness of the interior. When he could see, he noticed that all the booth lights were out and that only a single shirt-sleeved customer stood at the bar. The Gamecock evidently did little business in the daylight hours. So much the better.

There was no one in sight behind the bar. “Rudy around?” Johnny asked the shirtsleeved man and saw in the same instant in the back-bar mirror that the man was Rudy himself. “What the hell, man?” he said in surprise. “You workin’ the front as well as the back?” Rudy turned his head to look at him but said nothing. “Listen,” Johnny hurried on, “you look to me like a man who knows which side his bread’s buttered on. We both know there’s goin’ to be some changes in this town. Do me a favor now an’ I’ll see to it you’re not out in the cold when it comes time—”

He stopped abruptly in his sales talk. Several things had impressed him simultaneously: the complete immobility of the gambler’s dark face, the almost hushed quiet in the tavern’s poorly lighted recesses, the near-rigidity of Rudy’s position at the bar. Johnny backed swiftly to the door.

“That’s far enough, Killain!” Johnny halted in his tracks as Tommy Savino rose from a crouching position behind the bar, a small automatic level in his hand. Johnny’s heart sank as Jim Daddario stood up at the opposite end of the bar and walked around it. “Over here with your friend,” Savino said with a sneering grin, motioning with the automatic.

Johnny slowly approached the bar alongside the wooden-faced Rudy and stood with his back to it. They were standing in the room’s best light which came through the half-drawn drapes at the front window. Daddario approached them as Savino covered them with the automatic. Johnny saw that a silk scarf had been wound around his neck and throat Without a word the politician walked up to Rudy and punched him heavily in the mouth. “That’ll teach you to even think about crossing me,” he said angrily.

Rudy’s body slammed back into the bar, but he showed no sign of going down. He spat impassively but made no other move under the eye of the automatic. “He’s a big, brave man, Rudy,” Johnny jeered. His hand closed on a heavy ash tray on the bar. “You should have seen him an hour ago like I did.”

“I’ll get to you,” Daddario assured him.

Tommy Savino laughed as he angled out on the floor between Rudy and Johnny and the tavern’s front door, the automatic unwavering. “Did you think I wouldn’t go up to the penthouse because the elevator wasn’t running?” he mocked Johnny. “And it was so nice of you to leave your phone number with the telephone operator.”

“So I’m stupid,” Johnny said. He took a half step out from the bar, raised his arm, and threw the ash tray between the half-drawn drapes and through the tavern’s front window. The window vanished in a dull explosion of glass bursting out on the sidewalk. The automatic punctuated the noise with a sharp crack and Johnny felt a hot wind brush at his ear.

Jim Daddario rushed at Savino and knocked up his gun hand before he could fire again. “We’ve got to make him talk first!” he cried out. “Don’t you go off half-cocked again!”

Johnny drew a shallow breath. A girl like Micheline would know what to do when she saw that plate glass come flying out into the street. She’d stand not upon the order of her going. Anything was better than having—

The front door opened suddenly and Savino pivoted. Dick Lowell dashed in, his white hair flying and his face scarlet. “You fools!” he burst out at Savino and Daddario. “He had them outside in a cab. They just drove off!”

“How do you know?” Daddario pounced.

“I followed them over here!” Lowell shouted. “If it wasn’t for you idiots in another two minutes I’d have had—”

But Jim Daddario had recovered his wits. He silenced the mayor with a peremptory wave of his hand. “He’ll know where they went,” he said with a look at Johnny. “And he’ll tell us. Savino, take him inside. You go, too, Dick.” He glared at the silent Rudy. “You cover up on this. It’s your neck now. Tell ’em something fermented in the window and blew out the glass. Tell ’em anything. You let me down and I’ll personally see to it you never turn another trick on the east coast. Understand?” Rudy nodded and Daddario turned to the rest. “Hurry it up, everyone,” he said briskly. “Inside.”

Rudy opened the door and they entered the gambling room, Johnny in the lead with Savino’s gun trained on his back, then Lowell, and finally Daddario. Rudy flipped a light switch and cold fluorescent light flooded the dark, window-less room, exposing the canvas-covered roulette wheels and the bare green tables. Johnny pulled a stool out from a blackjack table and climbed up on it, careful that a wall was at his back. Rudy closed the door and they all distinctly heard the click of the lock in the silence.

“Has he got us locked in here?” Dick Lowell demanded. His voice was hysterically shrill.

“Don’t get yourself jerked off,” Savino advised him comfortably. “Jim’s got a key.” The slim, dark man sat at a table two removed from Johnny’s, far enough away so that Johnny couldn’t rush him, the gun loosely in his hand.

“Where’s your knife today, pigstabber?” Johnny gibed at him. Savino smiled unruffledly and touched his cloth-covered wrist. “That the one you used on Carl Thompson?” Johnny continued.

The smile disappeared. “He was dead when I found him, the no-good bastard,” he snarled, glaring.

“Yeah? How’d you get into the room?”

“A maid let me in, that’s how!”

“Too bad your boss never believed you,” Johnny needled. “You know he’s gonna toss you to the wolves when the hot breath is on the back of his neck?”

Savino flicked a glance at Jim Daddario and slid from his stool in a smoothly deadly suppleness. “You talk too damn much, Killain,” he said deliberately, stalking Johnny. “I’ll fix—”

“Back off there!” Daddario ordered peremptorily. “Can’t you see he just wants to get you within reach of his hands? I saw Kratz, if you didn’t.”

Savino hesitated but retreated reluctantly to his chair. Johnny turned his attention to Daddario. “How you gonna feel when you’re in the death cell as an accessory to a murder committed by that halfwit? You know what you should do?” He cut loose with a flood of rapid-fire Italian at Daddario.

Instantly suspicious, Savino was on his feet. “Talk English!” he hissed, and raised his gun hand as Johnny continued. “Damn you—!”

“Drop it!” Daddario roared. “I don’t know what he’s saying!” He glared right back at the dark man’s skepticism. “If he’s saying anything. Are you so stupid you can’t see he wants us at each other’s throats?” He spun on Johnny. “All I want to hear from you is where that cab went.”

“If that’s all you want, come on over an’ ask me,” Johnny said agreeably. “Or send him.” He looked at Savino, smiled, bit off a short Italian phrase, and spat on the floor.

Angry dark blood flooded the slim man’s features. “Well, make him talk!” he yelled at Daddario. “What the hell are you waiting for?”

“Sure, make me talk,” Johnny said. “Can’t you see your killer’s gettin’ nervous? He’ll be foamin’ at the mouth in a minute if you’re not careful. You want—” He fell silent as a key clicked in the door lock. Rudy stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “Hey, Rudy!” Johnny addressed him. “Where’s my thousand bucks Riley left for me?”

“He didn’t call me to release it,” Rudy said before he thought. As the sound of his words hung in the air he cut his eyes to Daddario staring at him.

“I’m gettin’ goddamned tired of—” Savino began.

“Shut up.” Daddario walked over and confronted an unhappy-looking Rudy. “What the hell is this about Riley and a thousand dollars?”

“If you don’t know I don’t,” Rudy retorted with a matching asperity. “He put up a thousand in cash for me to release to this big bastard when he called me.”

“For doing what?” Daddario bellowed.

“How the hell do I know?” Rudy bellowed right back. In a rage, Daddario swung a right-hand punch. In a matching rage, Rudy stepped inside it and drilled a short left that sat the politician down abruptly. He looked around, dazed, as Savino started up from his chair.

“Cut that out, damn you!” he shouted at the gambler. He took three or four steps in Rudy’s direction as that worthy turned warily to face him.

On his stool Johnny stood up and pulled off a shoe. With not an eye in the room on him he threw the shoe and hit the long fluorescent tube that ran the length of the room dead center.

There was a flash and a puff, and total darkness descended upon the room. The tinkling noise of small, falling glass particles was the only sound as the room seemed to hold its breath.

Johnny had already slid under his blackjack table and was crawling soundlessly in the direction in which he had marked Tommy Savino in the pitch black when Dick Lowell’s voice raised quaveringly. “Don’t anyone s-shoot!”

A scrambling sound to his right failed to distract Johnny. He wanted to reach Savino before the only man in the room with a gun had time to react. Instinct warned him of a presence immediately in front of him and he slowed. Was it the right man?

“Strike a match, someone!” Jim Daddario’s voice ordered suddenly from a corner.

“Strike your own damn match,” Rudy said sourly from the left. With those two placed Johnny took a deep breath and grabbed hard at the thighs of the man before him. There was a startled grunt as he lifted him and catapulted him hard to the floor. Johnny knew he had guessed right when he heard the thud of a metal object hitting the floor and skidding off until it brought up against a wall. He closed tightly with the thrashing body beneath his, knowing he had to immobilize Savino’s hands before he could get his knife from his sleeve holster.

“Who’s that?” Jim Daddario inquired anxiously. “Dick? Savino? Is that you?”

Johnny’s weight dropped amidships prevented more than a coughed grunt in return. He felt teeth in his wrist as he secured an arm with his left knee, and he backhanded the teeth briskly. Savino’s head hit the floor with a hollow thump but he fought on desperately. Johnny caught the other flailing arm and forced it backward. “How d’you like it, you woman-beater?” he growled, and Savino shrieked as Johnny applied more pressure. Deliberately he levered himself up and over the suddenly silent figure.

A droplight over a card table came on in a dazzling flare in the blackness. Silhouetted against it, Jim Daddario stood poised with the recovered automatic. “You,” he said hoarsely to Johnny, and aimed the gun. “Get up.”

Johnny got to his feet slowly. Tommy Savino did not. The dark man lay quiet, oddly crumpled. Mayor Richard Lowell crawled from beneath a nearby table, his eyes bulging. Johnny looked in vain for Rudy. The gambler had made it to the door in the dark and must have let himself out in the first burst of light.

“Good God!” Dick Lowell said in a horrified tone, and turned his eyes away. He was shaking as with a chill.

“What’s the matter, Richard?” Johnny asked him. “Carl Thompson didn’t bother you.”

The white-haired man looked as though he were going to be sick. “Thompson—different—” he got out finally.

“The only thing different was that he got it with a knife. Where’d you get the knife, Dick?”

“It was his knife—” Richard Lowell began, and stopped. The silence built up in the room. Jim Daddario’s arm dropped slowly to his side as he stared from the white-faced Lowell to Johnny.

“What the hell are you blathering about?” he demanded harshly. “Are you accusing him now? A minute ago it was—” His eyes flickered to the body on the floor with its neck awry.

“That’s when I wanted you chewin’ at each other’s asses,” Johnny said softly. “We knew better, didn’t we, Your Honor?” Richard Lowell swallowed visibly but stood mute. “It all fell into place twenty minutes ago when I heard he was in New York that day. After what you did to Thompson up here who in your crowd could get close enough to him to get a knife in his back? Only the man who had set him up here as the bagman before you muscled him out.”

“But him—” Daddario jerked a thumb at Lowell ”—a killer?” He snorted derisively. “Don’t make me laugh. I’ve cut off his water by inches in this town and all he’s done is whimper.”

“You tried to talk Thompson out of coming back up here, right?” Johnny prodded Dick Lowell.

The leonine features under the white hair had suddenly aged. “I told him he could do no good,” he said woodenly. “I told him he’d ruin us all. I offered to take care of him. He wouldn’t listen. He was wild. He threatened me.” He swallowed again, hard. “He’d been cleaning tar from the sole of his shoe with the knife when he let me in. He paced up and down the room making all kinds of crazy plans. I stood there and saw everything I’d ever hoped for going down the drain with that—that fanatic. He charged up and shoved his face into mine and slavered spittle in his ranting—he turned to pace again—I grabbed up the knife—you’d have done the same thing, Jim!” He flung out a hand in appeal. “He was insane!”

“Somebody was insane,” Jim Daddario said bleakly. “And here I was trying to hold the lid down on a volcano like this. Jigger told me he—” his eyes went to the floor ”—had done it because he had your—“ the eyes returned to Johnny ”— thousand. I was ready to turn him in if worse came to worst.” His still partly unbelieving gaze returned to Richard Lowell. “By God, I remember now I tried to call you up here from the New York hotel suite and nobody knew where you were.” He shook his head. “I never dreamed he’d go down there himself as a result of his brother’s call.”

“That’s only half of it.” Johnny moved a cautious step nearer to Jim Daddario. “He had company when he went. Jack Riley.”

Dark blood rushed into Daddario’s face. “Riley? My own man? Doublecrossing me?”

“Not right that minute. He was still your man. I imagine he went along to keep an eye on things, not knowing what else to do. But he knew where Lowell had been, and when he found out what happened to Thompson he thought he saw a chance to move up to Number One. With Lowell in his pocket, if he could dump you he figured he’d inherit the payoff here. Lowell and he didn’t know what Thompson had told me, so Riley hired himself some local talent in a hurry to take care of me an’ then he hustled Lowell out of town before he could be seen by any of your crowd.”

Johnny leveled a finger at the furious-looking politician. “But they’d been seen together by Micheline Thompson, before her husband was killed. Riley didn’t know it an’ Lowell didn’t tell him till they got back up here. They both wanted me to find her. Riley so that he could hold her as a witness over the mayor’s head.” He changed the direction of the pointing finger. “What would you have done if I’d found her for you, Lowell?”

“I’d have—I’d have convinced her she’d been in error in thinking she’d seen me,” Richard Lowell said faintly.

“The same way you convinced Thompson?” Daddario broke in. “Goddammit, what a mess! All I wanted was to keep the lid on the situation here and now you’ve—” He paused in disgust, thinking hard, then made a gesture of finality. “You’re done, Dick. I can’t save you. Nobody could. I don’t know if I can save myself.”

“You’ll save me,” Dick Lowell said irritably. “You’ll do it or I’ll swear you engineered the whole thing. This is my town and I’m not leaving it to you or any other jackal, understand?” His voice had risen childishly and cracked at the last word.

Johnny could see the hardening of Daddario’s features and the almost imperceptible swing of his gun hand. “Lowell, I’ve had enough of your vanity. When it’s compounded with murder—”

A thunderous knocking at the locked door interrupted him, a prolonged furious drumming on the wood. “Open up in there!” a bull-elephant voice blared.

Johnny had been estimating the distance between himself and Jim Daddario’s gun hand. At the sudden outbreak of sound Richard Lowell started violently. He backed away tugging at a jacket pocket. “You’re not selling me out!” he screamed. “You sent Rudy out to get someone to help you! I’ll show you—” His right hand emerged with the largest revolver Johnny had ever seen. Johnny went floorward as the wild-eyed man pulled the trigger five times, the large-caliber gun in the inexperienced hand jerking Lowell’s arm up convulsively at each shot. In the enclosed space the .45 sounded like a miniature cannon.

The wooden door went down with a tired screech of metal hinges as Jim Daddario doubled over with his arms wrapped around himself. Richard Lowell took one ashen-faced look at the broken down door and raised the revolver to his head and pulled the trigger. He was on his back on the floor before Jim Daddario finally lost his equilibrium and plunged forward on his face.

Johnny edged cautiously to his feet as a tall, skeleton-thin man in civilian clothes pushed through the uniformed men in the doorway. The tall man knelt swiftly beside Richard Lowell, feeling for a pulse. Almost at once he eased the wrist he had taken down to the floor again. “Dick,” he said gently, his sharp, homely features tight with concern. “Dick, you poor fool. It wasn’t worth it.”

Johnny approached, but remained silent while the kneeling man struggled for self-possession. He spoke finally into the quiet. “Sorry, Toby. I thought I had it under control.” Toby Lowell looked up and nodded, his lined face tired. “How’d you get here?” Johnny asked.

“The young lady tracked me down at Lowell House.” Johnny looked and saw Micheline Thompson in the rear of the uniformed group. From its center Jack Riley’s beefy figure emerged and strode up to join them. “From what she said, reinforcements seemed in order. I stopped for them.”

“We’ll take care of everything here, sir,” Chief Riley said quickly. He didn’t look at Johnny. He turned and started to beckon to the doorway.

“Just a goddamn minute.” Johnny caught the arm and spun the bulky-bodied chief about. His hand closed on the chief’s gold badge and he ripped it from Riley’s chest. It came free with half a yard of uniform attached. Johnny stripped off the cloth, centered the badge in his hands, and bore down. As they had in the hotel room that other day his hands crept down between his knees. They came up with the badge in two jagged pieces. Johnny slapped one of them into Jack Riley’s nerveless hand. “There’s your thirty pieces of silver, Jack.” He turned to Toby Lowell. “He’s resignin’.” He swung around to the red-faced chief. “Tell him, Riley.”

“I’m—resigning.” Jack Riley spoke with difficulty.

“You’ll have to put the pieces together again around here, Toby,” Johnny told him. “The merry-go-round broke down. In the cleanup you’ll run across the name Burger. Don’t bear down too hard.”

Toby Lowell nodded. “I’ll have to take some leave.” He spoke as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. “Obviously, I should have done it before. Will you be around for a few days?”

“I’ve got to get back to New York,” Johnny began, and turned as a small, warm hand slipped into his. He looked down at Micheline Thompson’s dark hair and the shadows beneath her luminous eyes. “Well, maybe for a few days,” he amended. “Till I get the stitches out.”

“How can I ever thank you, Johnny?” she asked quietly. “If you hadn’t thrown that stone—”

“Ash tray,” he corrected her. He transferred from his own hand to hers the remaining half of Jack Riley’s torn badge. “You can tell your grandchildren about it some day.”

He glanced once more about the room illuminated only by the single droplight at the gambling table. He looked at the canvas-covered roulette wheels, at the bodies on the floor, at the white-flaked bits of fluorescent tubing underfoot. He turned and caught Micheline Thompson’s eye.

Arm-in-arm he walked with her out to the street.

Here’s Killain, smooth as a ripsaw and gentle as a jackhammer, the happiest avalanche you’ll ever meet, who spends his quiet moments riding herd on the hoods and hopheads, the hard guys and devilish dolls of New York’s night side, just a knife’s throw from Times Square.

Trouble’s no stranger to Killain; when an out-of-town mob started making corpses in Johnny’s room, he began to get annoyed.

Then the boys tagged him for the big fall, and there was only one thing to do—find the brain and shake his molars loose!

So Killain came to racket-ruled Jefferson, and the boys were there to welcome him—with clubs, knives, guns, and enough hired muscle to carry off Grant’s Tomb.

When Killain kept coming, the boys turned mean.

They finally forced Killain to run… but they forgot to get out of his way!

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