It’s just another deadly Monday

 

 

Publicity For The Corpse

C.S. Montanye

Johnny Castle, sports writer, seeks an interview with a South American Lightweight wonder—and finds a murder mystery that all but knocks him out for the count before the final solution bell rings!

A Complete Crime Mystery Novelete

Thrilling Detective, December, 1944

CHAPTER I. KID FROM RIO

THE Brazilian flag was full of flutters, the waiting room jammed, when we reached the La Guardia Airport that morning. Cameramen, newshawks, the socially prominent, the socially deficient, and a flock of the morbidly curious, who had read some of “Tip” McCabe’s advance hype, were on hand to get a flash of Alfredo Sanchez and party. The folks from Rio were flying in from California and due at any minute.

Somebody in authority took a peek at my press card and nodded. So I started shoving Ellie Horton through the jam, angling for the front row and the big doors leading to the ramp and the cement walk outside. Ellie, a sob sister on the Orbit—the same sheet that paid me off for the sports page stuff I dreamed up—didn’t seem to mind being pushed around. In fact, Ellie was slightly excited.

“Looks like we’ve made it in time, Johnny.”

“See if you can locate McCabe,” I suggested.

But there wasn’t a sign of the big shot Garden matchmaker and pugilistic power anywhere.

Tip McCabe had spread the word around that “Young Juan” Rico, a lightweight sensation in the Good Neighbor country to the South, was the hardest hitting, fastest piece of boxing machinery that he had ever rolled a bloodshot optic at.

For months Tip had been trying to get the kid from Rio to come North so he could match him with the present champ of the lightweight division and have ’em hanging from the Garden rafters. It seemed that Rico cuddled comfortably under the wing of Alfredo Sanchez, millionaire coffee planter and amateur sportsman. Sanchez finally had succumbed to McCabe’s wires and letters and was bringing the little leather-pusher to Manhattan—via Hollywood.

However, Rico was not the main draw at the airport. A babe tagged Bonita Lores happened to be the flypaper. She, the Betty Grable of the banana districts, had already been photographically publicized through the country.

In her daguerreotypes, dark-eyed, glamorous and somewhat scantily attired, the tropic tomato had been a photogenic sensation.

But there was a drawback. Bonita had been spoken for and from all present accounts happened to be the none-other fiancée of the rich mocha-and java king Mr. Sanchez himself!

I KNEW the stop-over in California had been a brief pause in which the gal had been screen-tested for New Era Pictures. Tested and not found wanting. She had signed for a couple of films a year and, it appeared, all the Hollywoodenheads had gone in the tank for her with the greatest of ease and pleasure.

Ellie, leaning against me, had come down to write a piece about Senorita Pulchritude. My assignment was to get a slant at Rico and give my public a general impression of a first-hand gander.

A loudspeaker began to blare and at the same moment I spotted a couple of familiar-looking guys in the mob. One was Dewey Lorch, the other, a Lou Candell. Added together they didn’t spell mother!

These two boys, I happened to know, were notorious grifters, clippers and common felons who had been mixed in various rackets and were more than well-acquainted with the interior of some of our biggest and best jail-houses. A couple of tough hoodlums who wouldn’t stop at anything short of murder and, in fact, wouldn’t pause there if there was plenty of dough on the line.

Finding them in the airport crowd was the same as discovering a pair of roaches in a bowl of consommé!

Just to make sure I passed out a second glance. No mistake. I couldn’t miss Lorch’s strange, parchment-wrinkled pan, his deep-set, lazy eyes or prominent, bony jaw. Or the well-groomed Lou Candell whose round, flat face was a study in vapid stupidity. It was a coin’s spin as to which of the two was the worse. And no matter whether it came up heads or tails you were bound to lose!

“Johnny!” Ellie poked me in the ribs, “The plane—it’s coasting in!”

Outside, the queen of the air circled gracefully over the field. In the summer sun it looked like a huge gray gull. It swooped lower, circled again, then set its landing gear gently down and taxied in toward the ramp.

The crowd began to mill. The next instant a little fellow with a dime’s worth of cigar in his puss elbowed up and gave me a nudge. It was McCabe, in the flesh.

“Hello, Castle,” Tip said. “What are you waiting for? Follow me, pal!” Doing a Notre Dame plunge for goal, he yelped, “One side! Leave us through!”

Outside, passengers were already alighting from the big ship. McCabe, bright-eyed and Irish, stood poised and waiting. I could hear Ellie breathing faster, her breath coming in little gulps. More passengers, and then the people responsible for the Brazilian flag and the excitement.

Alfredo Sanchez got out first. The coffee magnate was as wide as he was tall. A light tan edition of Mr. Five-by-Five. His chins were so popular they had gone into a second edition. He wore a wrinkled white suit, a Panama dicer, and a diamond ring on one pudgy finger sparkled like a quart of grape when he stretched out the fin to shake hands with McCabe.

“Well, how do you like this?” Tip gurgled a minute late. “The bloke don’t speak no English!”

Next to alight was a smug-faced man, with a typical May-I-have-your-hat-sir air to him. He was Harry Babbitt, Sanchez’ valet. I didn’t like his looks. Too sleek and obsequious, for entire comfort.

Following the valet, the lightweight sensation of the monkey country slid into view.

I STABBED a glance at Juan Rico and wondered what door be had run into. The kid from Rio sported a black eye, a cut mouth and a large blue bruise on his right cheek. He was slim, wiry, midnight dark as to hair and eyes, and dead-panned. He stood slightly behind Senor Sanchez while all eyes focused on the plane’s door.

All Bonita Lores needed was a fanfare as she climbed languorously down to the ground.

One look was enough to notify anyone that photos and descriptive matter hadn’t been exaggerated. Sanchez’s fiancée was distinctly a dish.

She featured the unusual combination of raven-black hair and gray eyes. Funny eyes for a South American gal. Her skin was as flawless as her figure, and that was more exciting than anything that had ever walked down a Winter Garden runway.

“Only one drool to a customer,” Ellie whispered maliciously. “Push your eyes back in place, Johnny, and let me pass.”

She clucked for Jake, the lens-and shutter expert we had brought along with us. I edged over to Tip McCord to get a line on what he was talking to Sanchez about.

Babbitt, the super-smooth valet, was doing a good job as interpreter, but there were too many people around. Tip felt crowded and said so.

“Look, Castle,” he said to me. “This here is no place for interviews. These folks are staying at the Wilshire. Grab a cab and follow us up. I’ll tell the rest of the newspaper boys.”

Thirty minutes later I was in Sanchez’s suite. It was on the fourth floor of the glittering Hotel Wilshire on Central Park South. I found out that the caffeine producer, Harry Babbitt, and Rico occupied the rooms. Bonita Lores had an apartment of her own farther down the hall.

Sanchez, via Tip, was doing it in style. One entire side of the living room consisted of bottled goods and glasses. There was more Scotch there than I’d seen around for months. The newspaper bunch started in and went to work on it. I got Young Rico aside and put on my quiz show.

He spoke pretty fair English. I asked him about the black eye and the taped mouth.

“I fall downstairs—in the dark,” he said, and smiled.

I pumped him for an article and wandered back to Ellie. She had finished her routine with the charming Bonita and was standing in line.

“Coming back to the office, Johnny?” she said.

I looked thoughtfully across at the Lores number. She was planted near a bay window, with Sanchez beside her. The sun gave her hair a polished sheen. Her softly-curved lips looked like a couple of scarlet flowers. “I’ll stick around for a while,” I said.

“But she’s engaged,” Elite cautioned. “And you know the Latin temperament. When they make a cutting remark the knife goes with it!”

A little while later McCabe threw a speech. It was a build-up for Rico. Tip reeled off the kid’s record south of the Equator. It was impressive, even if it didn’t mean much in Manhattan. While it was going on Rico ducked behind a set of curtains closing the living room off from an alcove.

“Gents,” McCabe wound up, “I’ve arranged for you to get a look at Young Rico in fighting form. Camera guys, come up closer. All right, draw them curtains.”

The portieres whisked back. Rico, in purple trunks and ring shoes, stood in front of a portable punching bag. He got Tip’s nod and went to work on the bouncing leather.

Rico did look good. Lean and hard, he was not too muscled up. He was fast with his hands and feet. The bag workout was routine, but it was the way he did it that impressed. Cameras snapped nil over the place. Flash bulbs exploded.

There didn’t seem much of a chance to cut in on the glamorous Bonita. She was still staked out beside the fat boy with the wrinkled white suit and the duplicate chins. So I hoisted one more and decided to trek back to the office and write my piece.

I shook hands with Sanchez. His mitt in mine felt like a damp sponge in a warm bathtub. He didn’t know what I said, but he smiled. I smiled and turned to the senorita.

But the beautiful Bonita wasn’t there.

She didn’t seem to be anywhere in the room. I wove a way to the door, went through the foyer and out to the corridor. When I reached it, I was in time to see Miss Lores heading for her own suite. But before she made it there was an interruption.

One of the elevators had come up and stopped.

Out of it emerged the two guys from the waiting room at the airport—Lorch and Candell. Both glommed the pretty senorita and put on the stop.

“Just a minute!” Dewey Lorch ordered her. “Not so fast. We want to talk to you!”

CHAPTER II. SUCKER

BONITA LORES froze. I could hear her smothered exclamation.

She looked from one to the other. When she spoke her voice was unsteady and the delightful slur she gave the American language was conspicuous by its absence.

“What is it?” she asked sibilantly. Candell spotted me the next second and pitched a signal to his partner. Both pulled books out of their pockets.

“What goes on?” I asked.

With a sharp little breath Bonita wheeled around to me.

“These men, senor! I do not know them and—”

“All we want is her autograph.” Lorch said belligerently. “Any poison in that?”

“Yeah, just her autograph,” Lou Candell chimed in.

I looked from Lorch’s strange, crinkled face to Candell’s moon-shaped pan. Then I caught the appeal in the gray eyes of the girl and decided to make their business my business.

“Go on—scram!” I ordered. “Beat it before I call the house dick!”

“You keep your big nose out of this!” Lorch said, “I know you, Castle!”

“By the same token, I’m acquainted with you.” I pressed the bell for an elevator, “Air!” I said to Lorch and Candell briefly, when the lift arrived. “Make it rapid!”

They didn’t argue. They put their little books away and filed into the cage. The corridor was a better place when they had gone.

“Thank you, senor.” The slur was back again, flavoring each word, but I saw she was still a trifle shaken, frightened. “You were nice to make them go away.”

“It’s okay, honey. Think nothing of it. You don’t know ’em or,” I added, “do you?”

She shook her ebon head. “I never saw them before in my whole life!”

It sounded truthful. I wondered what Lorch and Candell had in mind. One thing was sure. They hadn’t gone to the airport as part of any welcoming committee. Likewise, they hadn’t come up to the Wilshire for an autograph.

They were definitely on the earn. But how? In what way? Bonita said she didn’t know them. They knew her. They had wanted to lean on her ear. What for?

I let it go and saw Bonita as far as her door. “Just in case they decide to stop around again,” I said, feeling for a card and a pencil, “you’d better have a copy of my phone number.”

I scratched off both phones, office and apartment. She put the card in her bag. The gray eyes came up level with mine. A pair of swell orbs, deep and dreamy, with more appeal and urge than the business end of a tommy-gun.

“Thank you again, senor.”

Back at my desk, it took three typewritten pages on Young Juan Rico and a half a dozen nips from a bottom drawer flask before I could untangle myself from the eyes and lips of the South American Bonfire . . . .

Tip McCabe didn’t waste any time. He matched Rico for a slap at the prevailing lightweight champ. That was a smart little guy named Artie Borden. Artie had won himself the crown the hard way. A veteran, who knew the book. I figured the fifteen round bout was a natural for a capacity house.

A couple of days passed.

Then Beth Wheaton, one of the switchboard operators, saw me when I was heading for my desk and waved a red flag. Beth shoved a memo in my face. It was from Bonita Lores. It said I was to call her up at the Wilshire.

“Lores?” Beth sniffed. “The dame who’s been getting all the free photography?”

“Pick up the chips,” I said. “You win.” She sniffed again. “Flying kind of high, ain’t you? I mean, I read how this doll’s movie-contracted and matrimonially inclined. Where do you fit in?”

“Ask Phil Baker,” I said. “Maybe you’ll get sixty-four bucks back.”

“It don’t sound regular to me, brother.” Beth remarked.

“Jingle the Wilshire for me. I’ll take it on the desk phone. And don’t bother to listen in. This will be strictly in Spanish.”

A couple of minutes later Bonita’s tantalizing tone drifted over the wire.

“Mr. Castle? I wonder if you will do me a favor.”

“Name it!”

“Would you take me to dinner tonight?”

SHE had to repeat it before I was sure it wasn’t a gag. I told her I’d be only too happy. She said seven-thirty in the lobby of the hotel, and rang off.

“Lucky stiff!” Beth’s voice intruded. I hung up. Somehow Beth’s last word echoed unpleasantly in memory. “Stiff!” It didn’t sound good. Besides, stiffs were never lucky.

Bonita was waiting in one of the cozy, dimly-lighted little rooms off the Wilshire’s lobby. It was exactly seven-thirty. She wore a cool, summery something that didn’t hide any of the curves or contours. It made a perfect foil for the inky-black hair and the kindergarten complexion.

Instead of nylon she wore liquid stockings. But how she ever got her shapely stems in the bottle I couldn’t figure. The same deep, dreamy look was in her gray eyes when she slipped her slender, lacquer-tipped fingers into mine.

“Where’s Alf?” was my first, and most natural query.

“Senor Sanchez?” She laughed softly. “He and Juan are at a dinner. Senor McCabe is giving it.”

I remembered. Tip was throwing a meal at the Uptown A. C. for the trade. I’d had an invitation, but had passed it principally because it was too hot to sit in a boiled shirt and listen to a lot of windy, ungrammatical speeches.

I was glad now I hadn’t gone. “Ready?” I asked Bonnie.

I took her up to the Ardmore Roof. Class and quality, quiet and refinement. None of the Broadway tribe to cut in. The setting was a sort of open-air garden, the sky was the roof, and the stars were out in quantity.

Bonita took a look around and nodded approval.

“I like it here, senor.”

“Look, pet,” I said. “Drop the ‘senor.’ I’m Johnny to you and you’re Bonnie to me from now on. Right?”

“Of course.”

She took a sherry to match my Martini. I didn’t hurry her. Whatever she had on her mind had to break without pressure. I asked a few questions about Rio. She told me about her home town and nothing much happened until the jellied soup came in.

“Those two men,” she said then, and her voice went down a pitch. “The ones who were in the hall the other day. Remember?”

“Sure. What about them?”

“The thin one—the one with the funny face—he has telephoned me twice. He says he wants to see me.”

She meant Lorch. “Did he say about what?” I asked.

“No. But he said it was important. That I would be in lots of trouble if I didn’t talk to him.”

“What kind of trouble?”

That was no good. She didn’t know. Apparently, Dewey had buzzed her and laid on the threat. Bonita explained that Lorch knew about the Uptown Club’s dinner, and that Bonita would have the evening to herself.

“He said,” she went on, “I was to come to an address tonight at half-past ten. That if I didn’t come I would be sorry tomorrow.”

I thought that one over.

“You’ve got the address?” I asked. She nodded and I thought some more.

“Okay,” I said. “If he wants to see you, maybe you’d better go. Find out what the angle is.

I’ll go along, too—just to keep it regular and in order.”

Bonita flashed me a look of gratitude. Her eyes widened.

“That is what I was going to ask if you would do for me, senor Johnny! You must be a mind-reader.”

At my suggestion she passed me the instructions she had received over the phone. Ten-thirty at a number in the Seventies, West Side. I put the paper in my pocket and got the conversation around to another topic.

I was just as curious as she was. Lorch and Candell must have an in somewhere. But what was it7 What did they want, and on what basis did they throw out the threats?

Halfpast ten on the nose our taxi docked before an ordinary six-story apartment house on a semi-respectable side-street. Once the neighborhood had been fairly aristocratic. Lately, the old-fashioned brownstone houses had gone the way of .that type of real estate and become boarding establishments.

I knew that a lot of chiselers and strongarm gentry were making that part of town their headquarters. For a minute I wished I had a gun in my pocket.

BUT it was too late to go back to my place for the artillery. So I guided Bonnie through a vestibule and into the main ball of the building. There was a list of the tenants on a chart wired to the self-service elevator’s grille. I checked and found “D. Lorch” was “Apt. 511.”

The elevator, as if it had eyes, stopped at Floor Number Five. I rolled the door open and hunted for 5B. It wasn’t hard to find. Around a bend in the corridor on the south side of the place. A pencil of light lay along the crack of the door. I pushed the bell and breathed in the fragrance of Bonita’s uncovered head.

“Yeah?”

The door jerked open. Lorch, in his shirt-sleeves, looked out. A cigarette dangled from one corner of his mouth. The wrinkled face went as black as Bonnie’s tresses when he saw me.

“What do you want, Castle?” he demanded.

“Nothing. I brought Miss Lores up as per directions. Being a stranger in town you couldn’t expect her to come alone.”

His lazy eyes flickered from me to the girl. I thought he was about to slam the door in our faces. Instead, with a change of expression, he pulled it wider.

“Come in.”

The room we were ushered into was a typically furnished apartment. Grand Rapids with a vengeance. Dime store objets d’art. Dusty curtains at the windows where the shades were drawn. Musty, cigarette-tainted air.

And Dewey Lorch, leering at us!

Bonita seemed to step closer to me instinctively. I watched Lorch as he sidled around to shut the door. There was a dark mouth of a hall beside me. I looked at that, too.

“I came here,” Bonita said, and her voice trembled a little. “I want to know what you wish. Why have you telephoned me? Why have you threatened me?”

Lorch kept eyeing me without replying. Finally, he seemed to listen to what the girl said to him.

“Just a minute,” he said then. “One thing at a time, babe. I didn’t expect you would be bringing company with you. I don’t like company—this kind. I don’t want him listening in and—”

“Get ’em up!” Candell ordered, from the rear. He added the jam of steel to a point between my shoulders as a special persuader. “Up—high!”

Bonita gasped. I followed instructions quickly. Candell’s left hand patted over me in a deft frisk.

“No cannon, Dewey,” he said.

“Take him in the other room.” Lorch spoke out the corner of his mouth. “Shut the door and keep him there until I finish with the dame!”

“Come on; sucker. Step!” The rod pressed in a bit harder.

“Sucker” was right. I’d asked for it, walked into it with open eyes. That didn’t make me feel any better. Being ordered around like some darb without the ordinary quantity of gray matter! Being shown up in front of Bonita Lores’ agitated gaze as a moron!

They were toughies. I knew their record. I knew how far they would go, but I didn’t think about that then. A white-hot flare of anger blazed up like tinder catching a spark. Instead of going forward I used a heel in a quick, savage backward lunge.

I felt a crack as it collided with bone. Candell let out a yelp of pain. The gun shifted, dropped away from my shoulders. Before he could get it in firing position again I spun around with the speed of a crazy top and used both hands.

One grabbed Candell’s throat. The other prisoned his pistol wrist.

My right hand felt out a length of windpipe. I closed it off. My left hand twisted Candell’s arm over and back. Lesson One in Jap bone-breaking methods. He screamed like a hurt pup. The .38 he had been hanging onto slammed to the floor.

That was what I wanted.

I put a knee in the pit of Lou’s stomach and threw him off. Then I went after the gun. Everything so far had worked for me. The only trouble was I had temporarily forgotten Lorch.

I heard Bonita’s warning cry. It came a split second before I scooped up Candell’s derringer.

Lorch had picked up an imitation handpainted vase. Before I could get the gun pointed I saw him lift the vase with both hands and take aim.

Bonita tried to grab Lorch, from the rear, but wasn’t quick enough, She didn’t even spoil his shot.

Lorch heaved. I saw the vase coming, tried to duck, but didn’t quite make it.

The big missile caught me between the left temple and shoulder. If he had thrown a truck at me it couldn’t have been more effective.

I quit cold, as a lot of deep, rushing blackness closed in on me!

CHAPTER III. CRIMSON SPLASHED

A HAND kept shaking me. Not a friendly, gentle hand, either, but a rough, compelling grip on my shoulder that had no consideration for the lovely dream I had been dreaming.

Simultaneously, a voice began to penetrate the fog.

“Come on now, wake up!” it said. “You’re all right! Just a thump on the head. Come on, open them eyes!”

I did and looked hazily into the weatherbeaten countenance of one of Commissioner Valentine’s employees.

The big cop grinned. “That’s better. Here, take a drink of this.”

It was ordinary water in an ordinary glass. Not too cool, but wet enough I sloshed some around in my mouth, emptied it in a convenient flower pot and sat up straighter.

Pieces of the vase Lorch had mowed me down with were all over the floor. The impact had laid me across the threshold of the dark hall, face down on a couple of yards of mangy carpet. There was a buzzing in my ear, a sort of pseudo-paralysis on the left side of my neck.

I got up groggily, bobbed into the living room and flopped down on a sofa. Except for the bluecoat and me the apartment was apparently empty. I glanced up at him. What was he doing there? How had he got in?

“I’m Hagen,” he explained, reading my mind. “We were up Riverside Drive when I got this call in the prowl car. We came right down. What’s it all about?”

Call? I gazed at him stupidly, my mind beginning to click again. If anyone had phoned Headquarters it must have been Bonita. I thought that over massaging my stiff neck.

Bonnie! Oddly, I felt a little relieved. If she had been able to put a message through to the police it meant she must be all right.

“It’s nothing, Hagen.” I tried to make it sound pleasant. “Just a friendly argument—with a dame. She played rough and . . . No complaint.”

He cocked an eye at me. “Who are you?”

“Castle, the Orbit.” I showed him my identification card. “Nice of you to drop around. I guess Helen got worried and thought maybe she’d hurt me.” I flexed my arms and tried to smile. “I’m okay. All in one piece.”

“Helen who?”

“The gal friend—Lorch, Helen Lorch,” I told him as glibly as possible. “Have a drink on me, Officer.” I fished five bucks from my leather and passed it over. “Have two drinks.”

Hagen rubbed his chin. Being a good policeman he wanted to get his teeth in something—all four of them. But the finif and the casual way I tried to make the situation appear, was plenty of herring. Red, good. Hagen shook his head and sighed.

“Okay, if that’s the way you want it, mister. Leaving or staying?”

“Sticking around. Maybe she’ll come back and apologize. Good-night, Officer. Thanks. Next time I see the commissioner I’ll speak a word for you.”

“Hmmm!” Hagen grunted, stopping to make a notation in his official book and then flat-footing out.

I went in the bathroom and ran cold water in the basin. I sopped a towel in it, wrung it out and made a cold compress. That helped. In the kitchen I found a can of beer in the refrigerator. That didn’t do any harm, either. Then I got a cigarette going and went back to the couch.

The problem was fairly easy. When Lorch had knocked me out he had got scared. Scared enough to gather Candell and Bonita and duck in a hurry. The call to Headquarters indicated that Bonita had left them, or that they had let her go. I felt better every minute.

There wasn’t a telephone in the apartment. But there was a cheap, flat-top desk. I sat down in front of it and thumbed through the contents of the drawers. A couple of letters looked fairly interesting, so I stuck them in my pocket. Then, after a glance at the bedroom, I turned off the lights and left.

A telephone booth in a corner drug store was ready and waiting when I went in. I dialed the Wilshire. The operator on duty listened to what I had to say, rang the Lores suite and reported there was no answer.

“Connect me with senor Sanchez,” I said next.

Harry Babbitt answered. The valet’s smug voice came over the wire.

“This is Castle,” I explained. “I’m trying to get in touch with Senorita Lores. Her rooms don’t answer. Do you know anything about her?”

“No, sir, I don’t.”

I dropped it there and went hack to my own place.

TRYING again at nine the next morning chalked up a better result. Bonnie answered as soon as her phone tinkled.

“Johnny,” I said. I hoped she got the happy note in my voice. “I’ve been worried. Are you all right?”

“I am all right, senor.”

The way she said it, her tear, and the “senor” business, were like a clout on the chin. I could feel the freeze over the wire.

“I want to see you, honey,” I said. “How about lunch?”

“I am sorry, senor. I shall be busy today.”

“Wait a minute. What’s wrong?” The brush-off didn’t set well. Something was as phony as the system I talked over. “You stay where you are. I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

That did it.

“Senor! I told you I am busy. I cannot see you! You will waste your time coming here. I mean that!”

She hung up before I could add anything further. I laid the telephone back on its cradle and went out to breakfast.

So Dewey Lorch had put a muzzle on her, had he? The switch made it figure that way. Fair weather last night, snow and sleet this morning.

What did Lorch have on the gal? Something important, if he could shut her up. And he had shut her up. I cast around for a reason, for some hint of an answer, but couldn’t guess. Finally, I decided to let it go.

After all, it wasn’t any of my affair. I had wanted to help, had got conked for my trouble, and sidetracked by the babe in the bargain . . . .

Two days passed.

The Young Rico-Artie Borden fracas papers had been drawn up and signed. The fisticuffs were set for Labor Day at one of the ball parks. Already the advance ticket sale promised to break records. Rico had gone up to Jack Gavitty’s camp near White Plains, to get an edge. Nothing further concerning the glamorous exile from Rio had developed and, at the Orbit, Beth Wheaton had laid off the puns.

A couple of times I had considered going tip to Apt. 5B and kicking Dewey Lorch’s teeth in. Just as an even-up. But each time I shrugged the notion aside. Why tangle with a dead issue?

Only it wasn’t defunct.

It must have been around two o’clock that Wednesday A.M. when Don Ameche’s invention disturbed my heavy slumbers. The telephone in the front room of my suite kept ringing and ringing. It was one of those hot, humid nights.

Airless and airtight.

I finally stumbled in and stopped the jangle. “Hello? What the—”

“Johnny!” Bonnie’s voice, terse and vibrant, was more of a wake-up than a pail of cold water. “Johnny! Can you come over to the hotel— quick!”

“What is it? What’s happened?”

“Alfredo! I can’t talk more! I think something’s happened to him! Oh, hurry~ please!”

The Wilshire was quiet and deserted when a night-hawking clock-ark dropped me at its marquee. A sleepy-eyed elevator runner took me to the proper floor. I went past the spot where the Lorch-Candell combination had put the stop on the senorita that other morning. I went on to Bonnie’s front door, tapped and got immediate service.

“Come in, Johnny!”

She wore lounging pajamas with a sort of bolero coat. They were a vivid green silk. The big gray eyes were wide and frightened. The red lips trembled. So did the hand that reached out and seized my arm. I forgot all about the brush-off!

“What about Sanchez?” I asked quickly. “I think something’s happened to him! Harry telephoned me a minute before I called you. Harry—Babbitt. He says he heard a noise in Alfredo’s rooms. He says it sounded like someone was fighting. Then he heard a thud. He—Harry says he was afraid to go in. He wanted to know what to do!”

“Come on!” I said.

I LED the way straight to the Sanchez suite. The door was unlocked, a light on in the foyer. I almost fell over Babbitt when I went in. The super-smooth valet wore a dressing gown, pajamas and a complexion a shade whiter than skimmed milk.

“He’s in there!” Babbitt said in a husky voice, when we were in the living room. He pointed a shaky finger in the general direction of a small hall that led away from the alcove where Rico had gone through his bag-punching routine for the press. “In there!”

“Stay here while I look,” I directed Bonita. The little hall ended at the door of the senor’s bedroom. It was half open. No light came out except the shine of the stars at the three raised windows. I fumbled around until I located the wall switch. I clicked that on and immediately was affected with abrupt and sudden mal de mer.

Gazing at the victims of foul play was no novelty to me. Neither was murder. I had run into it several times in the past. But to find the fat, rich Senor Sanchez with the entire back of his head cared in, and the bed on which he lay a welter of crimson, was somewhat nauseating.

I left the light and backed out in a hurry, shutting the door after me.

In the living room, Babbitt licked his lips like a thirsty dog that had just been watered. Bonnie, stiff and tense, watched me come in, the gray eyes full of questions.

“Johnny! Is he—”

I nodded and went on to the telephone. No use wasting time answering questions. I knew the Wilshire outfit wouldn’t like it—calling the cops before they were notified—but that wasn’t any brake.

“Police Headquarters—hurry it up,” I said to the drowsy plug-swinger downstairs. Then, a minute or two later, “Headquarters? Connect me with Homicide!”

CHAPTER IV. MULLIN CALLS

MY OLD arch-friend, Captain Fred Mullin, Homicide’s head man, together with Detectives Larry Hartley and Ed Wheeler, put in an appearance while I was still trying to calm the excited Bonita.

Mullin, who had gained prominence by a strong-arm, slug-’em-first and question-them-later system, didn’t seem happy because of my call. Mullin had no sense of humor, nothing except a head resting between a pair of ears, two colorless eyes, a set of hand-sewn features and a stocky figure that would have made a swell model for an October ale keg.

Followed by his two straight men, Mullin, after locking the door of the suite, hotfooted it to the Sanchez bedroom.

He came back, his jaws set. His dislike for me stuck out like a flag at an auction. The feeling was mutual. Once, I had got in a jam with the captain because I’d printed a piece about him in the Orbit which wasn’t entirely flattering. It was when Mullin had been cracking down on back-alley dice games and letting the big gamboliers continue to ride, unquestioned, in their coach-and-fours.

I had given it a humorous slant and the laugh had been on Freddie for ten days thereafter. Mullin had never forgiven me. “Who found the body?” he barked.

“I did.” I smiled, adding, “Another one, Captain. Amazing the business I dig up for you.”

Hartley came back and used the telephone. Meanwhile, the hotel clerk had got wind of the Law’s arrival and the house detective and manager were at the locked door, working out their knuckles.

Hartley took care of them while Mullin went to work on Bonita Lores and Babbitt. The medical examiner yawned a way in sometime later and, after I had been given permission to contact the Orbit’s city desk, Mullin said I could go home.

“But no further, Castle!” he warned. “I don’t like the way you’re continually turning up murders. Sooner or later I’m going to tie one on you—for keeps.”

“I’ll bet you tell that to all the ghouls!” I drawled.

He threw me a sneer and Wheeler unlocked the door for me.

I went down the corridor and parked in Bonita’s rooms. I was worried about the dark-haired, gray-eyed tidbit from the coffee country. Worried that she might spill about Lurch and Candell and tie me into the Sanchez bump.

All Mullin had to do was consult Department records and find out that I had handed my right name to Patrolman Hagen several nights previous. And in Lorch’s apartment!

I lit a cigarette and did a lot of thinking. Mullin couldn’t hold Bonita as anything except a witness. It didn’t argue that she had dealt Alfredo’s death card. From what I had seen it had taken more power than the little lovely possessed to crack Sanchez’s skull.

Who? Maybe Babbitt. Or Rico? I threw that one away. Rico was up at Jack Gavitty’s and that let him out. Maybe Dewey Lorch? Lurch had heaved a vase at me, almost making a tunnel of my head. The Sanchez thing was about the same caliber. It could, I decided, very easily be Lorch.

Motive? That stuck me. I was still trying to figure it out when I heard Larry Hartley at the corridor door.

“No trouble at all, Senorita,” the big ape was saying. “A pleasure. Now don’t you worry about anything. It’s going Io be all right. You get a good sleep and forget it.”

“Sleep!” Bonnie said under her breath. I stepped out of eye-range when the door opened. I didn’t want Hartley to see me there. Bonnie shut the door, turned the key, and let her lips part when I stepped back into view.

I put a warning finger over my mouth. I listened at the door until Larry’s Number Twelve footfalls faded out down the corridor,

“Poor Alfredo!” Tears brimmed in Bonita’s gray eyes.

“Who did it?” I said.

She sank down on a chair, shaking her head. “I don’t know, Johnny. That man—the captain—he told Harry he was arresting him! He has arrested Harry for Alfredo’s murder! Why should he do that? Why should Harry have killed Alfredo?”

“I don’t know. Did he?”

SHE drew a breath. An uneven, rasping little breath.

“Alfredo was his friend. Harry liked him. Harry would do anything for Senor Sanchez.”

I shrugged. “Maybe he did! Let it go.” I got up and went around to her chair. “What I want to know is what happened the other morning when I called you. When you ‘senored’ me and hung up?”

“I couldn’t help it. He—they—”

“Told you to give me the chill? Don’t you think it’s the proper spot to do a little talking? I took a nasty bang on the head for you. Remember?”

She stretched out a hand and touched my arm. Her eyes were still tragic. Perhaps it wasn’t the right moment to use the spurs. But I wanted to know. I had to know.

“What have they got on you?” I persisted. “They know—something. A secret!”

“And you can’t tell me?”

“Not now! Johnny, I can’t—really!”

“It must be important.” I reached for a cigarette. “A real clam if you’re afraid to spill to a friend. Maybe I have a slight idea of the picture.” When she looked at me inquiringly, I said, “You’re not a real Brazilian.”

I heard her smothered exclamation.

“I figured it the first day,” I said. “That delightful accent of yours. It slipped slightly, when you met Lorch and Candell. When you got scared. It’s done the same thing several times since.” I laughed. “The real article doesn’t do that.”

“I’m half Brazilian,” she said defensively. “My mother was born in Brazil.”

“And you hail from Brooklyn?”

She shook her dark head. “From this city. I went to Rio two years ago. To visit some relatives. I got a job there. I stayed. Then I met Alfredo.”

“What’s your right name?”

“Bonita Lawson.”

“And all this hooks up with Lorch’s threat?” I said slowly.

She nodded. “Yes.”

“You can’t—and won’t—tell me how?”

“No.”

“But you can tell me this.” I mashed the cigarette out. “’The other night, when we went up to cull on your vase-hurling friends, you phoned the police after they left the apartment?”

The gray eyes looked into mine. “The first chance I had, Johnny! I was so worried about you! It was all my fault. I had to.”

“Thanks,” I said, and got up.

There wasn’t anything else to gab about. So I said good night and ducked out without letting the cop Mullin had stationed at the doorway of the suite occupied by the late Mr. Sanchez, notice me.

The Bonita angle was a little clearer. I wondered what the good-looking senorita’s secret was. I made up my mind to find out in the not too distant future. I was still mulling it over when I hit the pad, in my own bedroom, and grabbed four hours of oblivion.

Next morning I took all the metropolitan newspapers into my favorite cafeteria. The Orbit, with the story I had phoned in from the Wilshire, was the only one that mentioned me as finding the murdered South American, Not a line, not a credit in any of the other sheets.

Captain Mullin had studiously avoided using my name when he had given the story to the press.

It was a little after ten o’clock then. I left the papers for the next customer, paid my coffee-and-cake fee and headed down to the office.

Wheaton flagged me as I went in. Beth looked excited.

“You’ve got company!” Her voice was full of caution. “He’s been waiting ten minutes.”

“Don’t tell me. Let me guess.”

She didn’t. “It’s Captain Mullin from Headquarters!” she said. “He looks sore enough to snap on the cuffs, Johnny. Don’t forget to do something for me before you go. Tell me what prison so I can send my tear-stained notes to you.”

THE captain occupied a chair beside my desk. He didn’t seem particularly happy. He champed on three-quarters of a cigar, looking at the confusion around him with faint interest. His expression changed when I barged up.

“Good morning, Captain,” I said brightly.

“What’s good about it?” Mullin’s colorless eyes roamed over me. “What are you so cheerful about?”

“The fact you very carefully kept me out of the Sanchez items. Thoughtful of you, Mullin. So you’ve got the valet under lock and key? That’s a mistake. Babbitt didn’t do it.”

“Yeah? How do you know?”

I shrugged. “Intuition, probably. That sensitive sixth sense you wouldn’t know anything about. What’s on your mind?”

I sat down and waited. Mullin cleared his throat. He dropped his cold weed in a cuspidor and rubbed his lantern jaw.

“You’re right, Castle.” His tone changed. “Mebbe it’s the valet, mebbe not. Anyway, I haven’t got enough on Babbitt to make it stick. The first good lip he gets will throw it out the window. No motive—no prints—nothing.”

“Only suspicion because he happened to be in the suite. No good.”

“That’s what I’m telling you.” He looked hurt. “And you want some advice? You want to know if I’ve dug anything? You’re willing to bury the hatchet—not in me—and come around to see what I’ve got up my sleeve besides the two freckles near my elbow. Fair enough. I don’t know anything.”

Mullin blinked. “You’ve been seeing a lot of that dame Sanchez was engaged to. You’ve been around there plenty. You’ve got an idea. You must have.”

It was a spot for a secret gloat. Captain Fred Mullin, frankly stumped, calling on me for assistance. I began to love every minute of it. He knew it, too.

“Look, Castle,” he said. “I’ll tell you something I turned up. It’s confidential. You know Benny Radmann?”

“The bookie?”

“That’s right. Well, day before yesterday this Harry Babbitt laid six grand at three-to-one on Rico to win the Borden mill. The dough’s in Radmann’s safe right now.”

Tch, tch! Gambling! Captain, I’m surprised.”

“Where does the Lores gal fit?” he growled.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. This is one time I can’t offer you a clue. I don’t know who smeared the senor. To be candid, I don’t care—too much. It’s your own private little headache so make the best of it.”

“Punk!” Mullin grated, “Wait’ll you ask me a favor. See how much cooperation you get!”

“Hmm!” I leaned back in my chair and grinned amiably. “You’d give your right eye, and throw in a leg to make it even, to find me mixed in this thing. Mixed enough so you could slap me into the clink like you did Babbitt.”

He got up.

“You don’t know anything?”

“From nothing, Captain dear. Sorry. Be seeing you around town.”

He waddled away without further comment. A second later the telephone on my desk rang.

“What did you do to him, Johnny?” Beth cooed. “He came in like a lion and he went out like a lamb, six red points a pound! Ain’t you ashamed—kicking the law around?”

CHAPTER V. GREEN MOUSE

WHAT Mullin had divulged concerning the six-thousand-dollar bet Harry Babbitt had placed on Young Juan Rico didn’t seem unduly significant. It might have been Sanchez’s dough. I toyed with the information for a minute or two, then shrugged it off.

What I had said to the captain about not being too interested in the identity of the party who had cracked the coffee planter’s skull was more or less true. What I wanted to find out was the hold Dewey Lorch had on Bonita Lores-Lawson.

I wanted to learn that for two good reasons. One, because of the bump on the head Lorch had presented me with. Two, for the reason that I had been in on the thing from the day Bonnie had flown in from California. I wanted to follow through. I didn’t like leaving loose ends around, untied, unexplained.

But how?

How, with Bonita muzzled? How, with not a thing in the world to hang on either Lorch or Candell? And how, without any definite lead, anything to go on?

The making of a great metropolitan newspaper revolved about me. The presses rumbled. War news poured in from every capital in the world. All was activity, hustle and speed. And I sat there like a bum on a log, thinking about a girl with gray eyes, a punk with a funny, crinkle-skinned pan and another slug with a round, moony mush.

I had a little work to do. A squib about Artie Borden, down in Asbury Park, running off his roadwork on the beach. I reached in an inner pocket for a pencil and pulled out some other stuff with it.

Two letters. Not addressed to me, but to Dewey Lorch! The correspondence I had lifted from the desk in Apt. 5B because it was faintly interesting at the time. I’d forgotten about them.

The first letter was from the Peerless Dry Cleaners on Amsterdam Avenue—“Your Suit Will Suit If We Clean It.” The note was a dun for six bucks Lorch had owed for three months. Would he please pay, and so forth?

I threw that in the trash and took the enclosure out of the second envelope.

This was better. It said:

 

Dear Dew:

I was talking to Patsy Kline yesterday. He says he’s interested. He’s got a building in back of the Green Mouse that’s a natural for your purpose. Make a swell card and dice room. Private entrance, etc. Used to be a stable, but now a garage.

Why don’t you stop in and see Patsy? Let me know how you make out.

Yours truly, Ray Gordon

P.S. I’m writing on account of never being able to get you on the telephone.

I read it over. Patsy Kline. Green Mouse. That wasn’t as tough as it sounded on the surface.

A telephone directory turned up both.

Patrick Kline was listed at an address off Greenwich Street, on the fringe of the village. The Green Mouse, an eatery, was under the G’s at the same phone number, the same address. . . .

It was after eight that evening when I got out of the subway at Sheridan Square and walked south. Carmody Street, a sliver between two avenues, ran crookedly east and west. It was a typical Greenwich Village alley old as time and just as drab and dusty.

The war had brought popularity flock to the Village haunts, the cafes and creeps, the better places. They were all making coin as was any place on the thirteen-mile island that had a liquor license and served food that tasted like food.

The Green Mouse, in a two-story ancient brick edifice, slouched at the end of the alley. It boasted a doorman. His job seemed to be to tell the patrons there was a thirty-five cent parking lot two streets away. He didn’t have to tell me so I went on in, left my headgear in the charge of a peroxide-tinted little chick who gave me a soiled cardboard number and a toothpaste smile.

“New around here, aren’t you?” she inquired. “The paint’s still wet, honey.”

I put the hat check in my pocket and passed into the bar.

It was jammed. The military, the boys who sailed the Seven Seas, civilians, weary war workers trying to snatch an hour’s fun out of a day that had kept them at high tension and top speed.

My secret mission to the Green Mouse was to get a gander at the building in the rear, the one Lorch’s correspondent had mentioned in the purloined note. The letter was postmarked ten days previous. By this time Dewey Lorch and Lou Candell might be in business there.

I HAD a wine-cooler. I sipped it slowly, keeping a weather eye for anyone I might know. They were all unfamiliar faces around me.

Time passed.

Back in the restaurant part of the Mouse I ordered a large cannibal sandwich—raw chopped beef, raw chopped onion. An hour dragged by. I had about decided it was time to slip out and take a peek at the place that was once a stable, but which at present kept all horsepower under hoods, when I saw Dewey Lorch come in.

He wore a light blue Palm Beach suit, no hat and white buck sports shoes. He strolled into the bar and bought himself a beer. I noticed him give the clock over the pyramid of glasses frequent glances. Just to make sure he wouldn’t lamp me through the open doorway of the restaurant section, I hid my features behind a much thumbed menu.

Lorch finished his beer and walked past the main chow division. Over the top of the menu I saw him open a door in the rear, pass through and close it after him.

“Anything else, sir?”

“My check,” I told the waiter. I waited for change, left a tip on his brass dish, got my hat from Blondie and slipped her fifteen cents.

“Stop in again sometime,” she suggested. “I’ll do that.”

She smiled. I smiled. Then I tried to give a passable imitation of a gent who knew where he was going, opened the door Leech had opened, stepped out and into a cobbled court and clicked the door shut behind me.

It took a minute or more for my eyes to get accustomed to the gloom.

Then I saw the ex-stable directly across the courtyard, toward the rear. A high board fence enclosed the yard. Garbage cans stood in a tier to the left. A sleek gray cat, with a strong stomach, was making its selection. It flattened its ears as I went by, and spat at me.

No lights were visible in the garage. It was designed for four cars. Each had an individual overhead steel door. An outside flight of stairs on the east side led up to the floor above. Over that I noticed another series of dark windows.

The end overhead door was halfway up, with an empty space for a car beyond. I walked in on the cement floor, breathed faint gas and oil fumes, and discovered a door at the end of a work bench. It was unlocked. I eased the china knob over, pushed the door open a little and saw a second flight of stairs.

I listened.

It was hard to hear anything. Echoes from the other building made a noisy monotone. Grumble of voices, clatter of dishes in the kitchen, the metallic grind of some electrically propelled machine—a dishwasher possibly, or a ventilator— made a constant rumble.

I felt to make sure the automatic I had brought along was still with me. It was. So I went up the stairs warily, taking time and wondering if this was as screwy as crashing Lorch’s apartment had been that other night.

A narrow hall led away from the top of the staircase.

No lights visible from outside, but a glow over the transoms of three doors along the aisle. I listened again, catching some conversation that came from the first lighted transom, sharply to my right.

“There’s not much business until the theaters empty out,” one voice said. “You drop in from eleven-thirty on and you get plenty of action.”

“It’s a gold-mine,” another voice said. “The cops leave you alone and Patsy’s particular about who he sends over.”

“I’ll stick around and see what the play is tonight,” a third voice said. “If it looks good I’ll wire my partner to come on.”

That wasn’t getting me anything.

None of the voices had belonged to Lorch. I walked on down the hall. I hadn’t any set plan in mind. I had just an idea I wanted to meet Dewey Lorch and make him talk. An automatic made a swell vocal stimulant. I was determined to get to the bottom of the shut-up he and Lou Candell had put on Bonita.

There were two doors, facing each other, at the end of the narrow corridor. Two doors and two dark rooms. I was turning to wander back, when I stopped moving.

SOME people were coming up the outside stairs. I could hear them talking. Simultaneously, the door of one of the lighted rooms across from me began to open. Someone was about to come out in the hall.

I faded back into the murk of the shadowy room whose open door I stood beside. With my foot I eased the door gently shut. Starlight came in through a high window. It showed me a table and chairs, a buffet, a horsehair couch, a connecting serving room and, to the right, the slinky drape of a cretonne curtain.

I pushed that aside. Behind it was a cubicle used for storing empty bottles, trays. The next minute I heard Dewey Lorch, not a half a dozen feet away, speaking.

“I’m in here, Abe. You wait around downstairs. He ought to be back any time.”

“I hear a car now,” someone answered him from further down the hall.

“See if it’s Lou. See if he needs any help.” The door I had shut creaked open. A click turned on wall lights. It came half a second after I had shoved the cretonne curtain aside and stepped in behind it.

Through a hole in the drape I had a moth’s eye view of Lorch. He took his Palm Beach suit over to the buffet. There were a lot of bottles and glasses there. Lorch looked the assortment over and poured himself a drink.

After that he opened a drawer, took out a gun and sat down with it at the end of the table.

Two minutes at least ticked away before I knew what it was all about. Footsteps came down the hall. The swish of clothing rubbing against a wall outside. Then I heard Lou Candell’s flat, uninteresting voice, saying:

“Inside, folks. Make yourself to home.” I moved my eye from Lorch to the door. Through it came three people. Young Juan Rico, natty and sullen-faced, black eyes dangerous and his lips curved in a sneer. Lou Candell was behind him, and beside Bonita Lores. Candell in slacks and a hound’s tooth sports jacket that made no impression on me.

I looked hard and long at the pretty Bonita. Fear was in her face again, etched there indelibly and accented by the terror in her wide-eyed gaze. Her coral lips were parted and the slim hand belonging to the arm Candell gripped, shook like dancing leaves on a breeze-stirred tree.

“Any trouble?” Lorch asked.

“Nope.” There was a modest note in Candell’s admission. “They were both right where you said they’d be—at that funeral parlor. I had to wait a half hour for them to come out. Ray was a big help. He eased them over to the car. He sat in the back with them while I drove ’em down. Not a hitch anywhere.”

Lorch grinned. “Shut the door. I crave conversation with the little guy!”

CHAPTER VI. SKELETONS RATTLE

RICO’S burning gaze shifted from Dewey Lorch’s taunting grin to the rod on the table before the man. Bonita sank down in a chair. Candell took up a position a foot or so away, his hand deep in his sports coat pocket.

“What do you want?” Rico snapped. Anger didn’t make his English too understandable.

“You!” Lorch laughed. “Smart little operator, aren’t you? Running around, fracturing skulls and thinking you can get away with it!”

I felt my ears go up. That was news! Rico didn’t give me much time to analyze it. He ripped out a string of Spanish curses.

“Don’t blow yourself out,” Lorch advised, lazily. “I’ll do the talking—you listen. You killed Sanchez. Your gal friend over there said she saw you last night at the hotel—saw you in Sanchez’s rooms! But she didn’t tell the cops that, and I think I know why.”

Rico swung around to Bonita. The girl had covered her face with her hands. He gnarled something at her in his mother tongue and the hands came away from the beautiful face.

“They made me tell them, Juan!” She was crying. “They know everything!”

Lou Candell chuckled. “You bet we know everything. Tell them about Gavitty, Dew.”

“I phoned Jack,” Lorch continued. “Just to make sure. Gavitty said you copped a sneak out last night at ten-thirty. Okay. You rubbed Sanchez because you’re in love with this dame, because the fat gay was getting wise to it and had knocked you around plenty. Remember the day you blew in at the airport? With the shiner and the cut lip? That wasn’t done with mirrors—it was Sanchez’s big fists!”

Some of Rico’s rage melted. I saw him move his shoulders, as if what Lorch was saying was too much to buck.

“What do you want?” he asked, throatily.

“Now you’re being sensible, bud. Sit down.”

“I’ll stand.”

“Anyway you like. But pay attention. We’re not coppers, so we don’t care who you kill after hours. That’s no gravy off our vests. But you’ve got to be taught a lesson. You’ve got to be taught that it costs money to be a murderer and walk around free.”

“I haven’t got money,” Rico answered. “Don’t hand me that line, monkey! You gave Sanchez’s valet a wad to bet on you. You promised him half the profits if he kept his trap shut about seeing you last night. He’s out, by the way. The cops unlocked him a couple of hours ago”

“How do you know?”

“We’ve got a private wire to headquarters,” Lorch said, with another short laugh. “Didn’t Lou tell you we know everything?”

“How much?” the fighter said shortly. I waited with Rico for the amount. Dewey Lorch’s parchmentlike face wrinkled until it looked like a local road map. He pulled down the lobe of his left ear and pulled air through his teeth.

“Ten G’s for a starter,” he said. “Your end of the first purse, win, lose or draw, will leave you plenty even after Morgenthau gets his cut. It’s cheap, kid. Much better than sizzling on sparks. What do you say?”

Rico’s answer was surprising to say the least. He put it into action rather than words. With one sinuous, forward lunge he grabbed the gun from the end of the table, snaring it before Lorch could get his chair back on an even keel!

Rico ripped out another oath and slapped a left hook to the Lorch button. Dewey’s chair tipped over backward and Lorch rolled out on the floor.

Rico aimed a kick at the man’s head, an instant before Candell began to move. Lou’s gun slid into his hand. But before he could use it Rico winged him in the shoulder with as nice a piece of shooting as I had seen outside a Coney Island gallery.

The little lightweight angled the shot from the vicinity of his knee and Candell thumped against the wall, grabbing for his holed shoulder.

Bonita screamed, jumped up and ran toward the drape of the cretonne curtain behind which I stood, my own gat in firing position.

CANDELL’S wound was in his left shoulder. It didn’t affect his right hand noticeably. That came up, his rod leveling ominously. Before Rico could shoot again Candell started squeezing the trigger.

One—two—three—four shots, so fast they sounded almost like one! At pointblank range he couldn’t miss—and didn’t. Rico’s slender figure twitched as each slug ripped into him. For sixty seconds he stood with his hands up and out, as if he were in the ring looking for an opening.

Then, as if his legs had been disconnected at the knees, he folded and pitched face-down, caroming off the edge of the table like a bag of damp sawdust.

Lorch got up. He remembered to brush himself off.

“Get the dame!” he yelped. “We’re getting out of here!”

Candell, blood coming out from under his cuff and trickling down the back of his left hand, made a bee-line for Bonita. I swept the length of cretonne aside and put in an Act Three climax appearance.

“All right, boys! Stand where you are and don’t make a move!”

“Johnny!” Bonita gasped.

Her own symmetrical gams partially gave way, and incautiously, I caught my foot in the edge of the rug. It threw me slightly off balance and gave the eagle-eyed Candell his opportunity. I struck the framework of the door as Candell’s heater barked venomously. Lead whined past my face, so close I could almost feel the heat of it.

My shot got him in the leg. He chucked the gun at me. I ducked that better than I had the vase. But there was still Lorch—Dewey Lorch coming head-on in my direction.

The gun jammed, as guns sometimes do in the movies at critical moments. I didn’t even have time to reverse it and use the butt before he leaped at me.

We went down, wrapped around and around in the cretonne curtain like a pair of mummies. Only not so still. Lorch’s frantic hands clawed at my throat. There was plenty of power in his fingers. Steel-like, pistonlike fingers, searching and grabbing for vulnerable spots.

Hazily I saw his dried-out pan, criss-crossed with the non-effaceable wrinkles, swimming before me. I felt his breath—hot, fetid. I tried to roll him, but he was too smart for that old stevedore trick. He spread his legs wider, making them a vise over me and began hammering my head up and down on the floor.

That was fun.

With every bump more colored lights than shone on Broadway made a rainbow around me. The pain was agonizing. I wondered how many cracks it would take before my head split in half.

Then a shadow came between the wall lights and Lorch’s contorted face. Bonnie. Bonita, with one of the loose guns in the room, bludgeoning Lorch! It was a welcome intervention, doubly so because he stopped banging my skull and grabbed one of her trim, liquid-stockinged ankles. He jerked at it as I squirmed partially out from under, got an arm around his neck and a thumb at the corner of his most convenient eyeball.

I squeezed, and that did it!

Lorch let go of Bonita. He let go of me. He reached up to push his eye back in place and the blaze from Rio shoved me the gun. I jammed it over Lorch’s palpitating heart, shook my head to clear it and got up, dragging him with me by the lapels of the pretty blue Palm Beach jacket.

“Hey! What goes on? What is all this?” The door had opened and through the knot of interested spectators in the hall a large patrolman had elbowed his way in. Not my old friend Hagen, but a bird of the same plumage. Just to make it even for the vase he had laid me low with, I hit Lorch with the butt of the gun—an accurate, spiteful smack an inch above his left ear. That made me feel a lot better.

I dropped the gun to the table and turned to the bluecoat. He was busy counting corpses, one, anyway.

“Look, friend,” I managed to say. “You don’t understand all this, but Fred Mullin, down at your recreation center, will. Be a pal and give him a buzz. Tell him Johnny Castle’s up here with the solution to his most recent murder mystery. If he says how come, tell him it’s the salmon in me— struggling to get upstream!”

I WENT uptown in a taxi with Bonita Lawson alias Lores.

“All this for nothing,” she said. “It will come out in the papers anyway.”

“The power of the press, babe. The moral is don’t hide skeletons in your closets. Give them to the bone drive.”

She shivered, looking at the sailing summer moon. I waited until we crossed Twenty-Third Street, still going north.

“My picture career, my contract—everything ruined now!” she cried softly.

“Not necessarily. Pistol packin’ mamas are having a vogue at the moment. While we’re talking about the cinema, you can answer a question or two. Information, please. I have a faint idea that what Lorch had on you blends in with the fillum industry. Or doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Give, honey. What was the threat?”

“To tell everybody—New Era Pictures, principally—not only that I was a phony Brazilian, but that my dad, Marty Lawson, is doing a twenty-year stretch for forgery in one of the prisons where Lorch spent some time!”

So that was it!

I patted her softly rounded arm. “Cheer up. Even that isn’t going to stop you.

Don’t you know Hollywood lives and breathes on picture stars’ private scandals? You’ll go on to be a big sensation, no matter if you hail from Rio or East Fracture, Dakota, either one. This publicity will be a shot in the arm. Wait and see. And when your old man gets out of stir you can be smart and write all the checks for him.”

Four more streets and I saw a familiar corner. I told the driver to slow, and reached for the door.

“Johnny! When—”

She got out in front of the Wilshire. In the chine of the street lamps she looked like an angel. A little worn around the wings, but pulse-quickening, anyway.

“Be hungry around one tomorrow,” I told her, “and I’ll take you out to lunch!”

Satan Drives the Bus

Satan Drives the Bus

By Wyatt Blassingame

Ace Detective Magazine
October 1936

Death collects the fares when—
Satan Drives the Bus

 ALLEN SARGENT was grateful for the girl across the aisle. He didn’t like to ride buses and with the storm blowing so that headlights seemed beaten back upon themselves this trip from Minneapolis to Duluth gave promise of being particularly unpleasant. The girl across the aisle had chestnut-colored hair that curled close to a well-shaped head, wide intelligent eyes and a mouth that was made for smiling. With her to look at the trip might not be so bad.

The rest of the passengers didn’t offer much. Sargent looked them over, making a game of guessing their professions. All the lights were out in the bus except the dim overhead one, but somehow the shadows seemed to sharply outline the characters behind them.

In the front seat on the left was a short, bald- headed man who chewed an unlighted cigar and beamed pleasantly at nothing. “A salesman,” Sargent thought. “Probably deals in flour or linoleum.”

Behind the salesman sat a faded, middle-aged, poorly dressed woman who stared vacantly ahead. A country woman who started working in the fields when she was six and has been tending babies since she was sixteen, was his guess.

Behind her sat a blonde, hard-faced woman. Sargent had smelled liquor when she got on the bus, and when she spoke to the driver, calling him “Baby,” her voice had been too loud.

In the next seat was a big, hardboiled looking man who had a scar across the right cheek from ear to mouth. “He’s tough enough to be a gangster,” Sargent thought. “And still—” There was something furtive, something gruesome about the way the man’s eyes shifted, peering at the persons around him, then out into the storm. “He’s frightened,” Sargent told himself, “but he doesn’t look like a man who would know the meaning of physical terror.”

On the back seat a Negro sat alone.

Behind the priest was the oddest looking individual on the bus. Sargent could only see the back of the man’s head now, but he remembered the face. It wasn’t an easy one to forget. Framed in wild shaggy hair that fell almost to the graying and mangy beard, was a thin, wrinkled face with a beak of a nose below insane eyes. There was a vacant seat behind him and then the one in which Sargent sat. No one else was aboard except the driver.

As Sargent started to turn to the girl again, the lean, bearded man jumped into the aisle, twisting in an effort to face everybody. His voice was thin and terrible, the voice of a man insane. “It’s death! Death and sin! They are riding with us, and they shall strike; they shall kill us all because someone here has sinned against God and man!”

Everyone looked toward the man in the aisle, stunned by his sudden outburst, and for a moment there was no sound except the wind and the rain against the windows, the hum of the tires and motor. The driver glanced at the rearview mirror but the lurching of the bus made him center his attention on the road.

“It’s death! Death and sin!” the man screamed again. His eyes were hot flames. Saliva drooled from one corner of his mouth. “They are riding this bus with us and they shall kill us all. Someone here has sinned against God!”

“Well, who the hell hasn’t?” inquired the blonde. The man behind her had crouched deep into his seat and despite the shadows Sargent could see the curious way in which the scar twitched on his cheek. Once more he had the impression that this man, despite his bulk and toughness, was afraid.

THE bus began to slow down. The driver turned slightly and said, “Sit down, old man. What’s biting you?”

“Fiends!” the man screamed. “You laugh at me. You call me an old man. And you!” he leaned suddenly toward the blonde and she jerked back in her seat. “You daughter of shame, you shall know the fires of hell soon. You brag that we have all sinned. Yes, but death and sin ride incarnate here. You shall die with them. We shall all die with them because someone has sinned more than you are capable of.”

“Sit down, old man, you’re drunk,” the driver said. The bus had almost stopped now.

The salesman said: “Keep driving. I’ll take care of him all right.”

The driver hesitated. He was already late. “Okay,” he said. The bus began to pick up speed again.

The priest was smiling, a little self-conscious as most persons are when someone else begins to carry their own professions to an extreme. “How do you know that sin and death are on this bus?” he asked.

The man turned to him, eyes wild. “Know!” he cried. “I know because God has told me. I know in the same way that I know we shall all die unless we escape from the sinner.”

“Why can’t this sinner guy confess to the father and let him make it all right with God?” the blonde said. “There ain’t no need of troublin’ us all with it.”

“Confession will save his soul,” the bearded man said. “But not his life. Nor yours! Nor anyone’s!” He screamed the words, flinging his arms wide so that the gesture included the whole group.

The Negro on the back seat said, “Lawd Gawd. Lawd Gawd, lemme out dis bus. My feets too good not to use ’em now.” The salesman laughed; the girl across the aisle from Sargent smiled slightly, but her eyes were on the madman. The fellow in front of her shrank deeper into the shadows; the scar on his face was livid now and fear showed in his eyes.

“We will all die because someone—” The madman’s voice broke suddenly. He lunged toward the girl across from Sargent, stuck his face close to hers. “Are you guilty?” he screamed. “Are you—?”

Allen Sargent was already on his feet. He caught the gaunt man’s shoulder, jerked him around. “Listen,” he said quietly, “you can get off this bus if you want, or you can ride and keep quiet.” And almost gently he tossed the maniac back into his seat where he slunk, gazing with red, insane eyes at the man above him.

“Thanks,” the driver said. The bus began to move more rapidly. The sound of the storm beating against it grew louder.

Sargent stepped back and sat down beside the girl. He had been wanting to talk to her and here was a chance. “I’d better sit with you,” he said. “That nut seems to have you picked out as the friend of sin and death.”

“Thank you for taking him away.” When she smiled Sargent knew that he liked this girl a hell of a lot. “I’m really not as bad a woman as he seems to think.”

They talked for five minutes. In that time Sargent learned that her name was Jane Brownfield and she was a librarian in Duluth, and that her eyes, when looked at closely, were the prettiest he had ever seen although in the shadows he couldn’t make out their color. “I’m going to be in Duluth for some time,” he said. “I hadn’t planned on it, but now it seems necessary, and if—”

The crazy man was suddenly in the aisle again, shouting: “Death and sin. Death and sin!” His voice boomed through the bus, drowning out the sound of the wind and the rain.

“We shall all die!”

And death struck while he stood there, long arms raised, beard jerking.

The salesman was on his feet, leaning backward as though his spine were being snapped. Both hands tore at his throat and from his wide-open mouth vomited a scream of agony and terror. His wide eyes were bulging, his whole face contorted, the pink cheeks gone purple. He reeled two steps down the aisle, striking seats and bouncing off.

The scream went high and thin until, like a too tight wire, it snapped. The man went backward and lay still, his horrible face staring up into that of Allen Sargent.

THERE was a motionless, frozen chaos in the bus. The driver had stopped and stood at the head of the aisle as though unable to move. The passengers were motionless in their seats, looking down at the man whom they all knew, instinctively, to be dead. Even the madman was sitting down, quiet. And because of the silence within the bus the sounds of the storm came louder. Sargent could hear the rain slashing against the windows and on the roof, could feel the giant shoulder of the wind shaking the bus.

The driver came down the aisle, stiff-kneed. His face gray, he leaned over the salesman, put his hand on the man’s heart. Slowly he stood up. “He’s dead!”

Abruptly the Negro in the back began to moan. “Oh Gawd, oh Gawd! Hit’ll kill us all lak the gentman said. Hit’ll kill us all.”

Jane Brownfield’s hands caught Sargent by the wrist and held on tight, but she did not speak.

The maniac stood up violently. “Death and sin!” he screamed. “I told you they were here with us because someone has sinned unspeakably!”

“Lawd Gawd,” the Negro moaned. “Don’t strike dis pore nigger down. I’se stold and I’se lied and I’se sorry and I don’t wanta die.” His voice rose in a wail.

Allen Sargent said: “Shut up. Somebody in this bus is probably going to die all right.” He made a short gesture toward the man on the floor. “Somebody in this bus killed him and the police shouldn’t have much trouble finding out who.”

The drab-faced country woman spoke for the first time. “It won’t be me, but—”

“Let’s get started,” the driver said. “We’ll stop at Perry Corners and telephone Minneapolis. The police can get here in an hour.”

“Sin and death! We shall all die!” the maniac screamed. The rain hammered insanely against the windows.

“You mean us all gotta wait for de poolice?” the Negro asked. “I ain’t killed nobody. All you gentemans know dat. I gotta—”

“You got to see the cops with the rest of us,” the driver said. He turned toward the wheel.

The Negro said: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to wait for the cops.” Everyone looked at him because of the sudden change in his voice. He was standing erect at the rear of the bus, a blue steel automatic in his hand. “When you get me to Duluth the rest of you can see all the cops in town. But we’re not stopping before then.”

The driver said: “Why you damned—” and stopped. “Hell,” he finished softly, “you’re no nigger.”

“Right. I’m Pete Meadows. They’re looking for me in Minneapolis because of a couple of bank robberies. I don’t know who killed that man in the aisle. I didn’t, but I’m not waiting for any cops. Now get started driving.”

“A-all right.” His face pale with fear, the driver went back to the wheel. The bus began to move through the night again. Pete Meadows stood in the rear. The gun was in his coat pocket, but the outline of it was plainly visible.

The scar-faced man turned in his seat. His square, hard mouth was contemptuous as he looked at the gunman. “So you’re Pete Meadows,” he said, and snorted. But as he faced front again he noticed the dead man on the floor. Abruptly the scar was livid along his cheek and twitching with terror.

“Sin and death!” the madman screamed. “We shall all die because of the sin that rides this bus. And you!”—he stabbed a lean finger toward the gunman—“you shall die with the others and your soul shall burn in hell!”

“Sit down,” Meadows said. “Sit down and shut up.”

The countrywoman got on her knees in the seat, leaning over the back of it towards Meadows. “Mister, can’t I get off down here ’bout five mile? My old man’ll be drunk, and the kids—”

“You can ride back from Duluth,” Meadows said. “Sit down.”

“But I—” She stopped. In the pale glow of the overhead bulb her face was a gruesome white. Her mouth was wide-open though she made no sound. Her hands came up slowly toward her throat.

“Sin and death!” the madman chanted. “We shall all die!”

THE countrywoman stepped into the aisle. Slowly she began to arch backward. Her face was turning purple now, the eyes rolling up. And all at once she began to scream and her hands ripped at her throat until the wrinkled skin tore and blood ran down in streams. She staggered down the aisle, shrieking. The bus lurched and raced on through the night, flinging the woman from side to side. Then her foot struck that of the dead man in the aisle and she fell headlong. The scream snapped off.

“It’s another one,” the scar-faced man said huskily. “That’s two that have died without any reason and—”

“They die because someone here has sinned irredeemably,” the madman cried. “We shall all die.”

The blonde got on her knees in the seat. Beneath its thick coat of paint her face was yellow with fright. “It’s comin’ right down the aisle toward me,” she said frantically. “I don’t know what the crazy man is talkin’ about, but if somebody here’s done somethin’ I—I wish they’d tell that priest. I don’t wanta die! I don’t wanta die!”

“Confess and save your souls,” the madman shrieked. “It is too late to save the body.”

The priest was pale, but there was courage in his round face. “I shall be glad to hear confession if anyone wishes to make it.”

Jane Brownfield was clutching Sargent’s hand. “What’s happening?” she whispered. “What is it? I can’t understand.”

Sargent said: “I don’t know. But it won’t happen to you.” He turned to face Meadows who stood motionless at the rear of the bus, hand on his gun.

“Listen, we’ve got to find out what’s happening here before it kills us all. Why don’t you skip the bus, let the rest of us stop at the first telephone and call the police?”

The gunman shook his head. “I’d be in a hell of a fix, out here in the woods. I’ve got things arranged in Duluth and I’m going there.”

“It’s coming down the aisle toward me!” the blonde shouted. “It’ll kill me next. I’m gonna get off!”

“You’re going to sit where you are,” Meadows said.

The bus hustled on through the night, and the storm beat black and furious at the windows. It was as though the bus were part of another world, part of the storm itself howling through the darkness.

Sargent turned in his seat, his hands tight clenched on the arm as he judged the distance to the gunman. A full two yards and he would have to move sideways into the aisle first. There wasn’t a chance of making it.

Jane Brownfield caught his arm and pulled him close to her. “You can’t,” she whispered. “He’d kill you.”

“I’ll wait for a chance. Don’t worry, I’ll get him.” He tried to make his voice natural but there was a queer tightness to the muscles of his throat.

“That’s not the man I’m afraid of,” she whispered. “It’s the way those others have died, the way they scream and their faces turn purple. It’s that crazy man shouting about sin and death as though they were persons here with us. How did he know that man and woman were going to die?”

“Perhaps he knew because he was going to kill them.”

“But why? How?”

“He’s insane. Maybe that’s reason enough.”

“But how did he do it?” Her voice was getting thin, fearful. “We were all looking at him. He couldn’t have done it. He couldn’t! And yet—”

“Steady,” Sargent said. “Steady.” But inside his own body he could feel the cold fingers of terror. His eyes kept coming back to the pair of corpses that bounced and jiggled horribly with the swaying of the bus. Both lay, their backs arched, faces turned up so that the purple bloated skin showed plainly. The mouths were still open, twisted by agony and fear.

WHAT had killed this man and woman? And why? There had been no connection between them. They had never seen one another before tonight. Why did this madman chant about sin and death? And where would death strike next?

Sargent’s jaw set until muscle bulged the tan skin. His gray eyes slitted. Suppose something happened to the girl beside him. Suppose she suddenly began to scream and stood up, ripping the blood from her throat while the skin turned purple? Suppose it happened to her—or to him—as it had to the others, without warning?

The blonde was sobbing now. “It’s coming down the aisle toward me. I’ll be next. I’ll be next.” She rocked back and forth in her seat. Across from her the maniac sat with his feet in the aisle. The priest also was turned to face the other passengers. His face was pale, but courageous. The man with the scar was huddled deep in the shadows but Sargent could see his eyes constantly turning to the bodies in the aisle. “It’s odd he should be so afraid of them,” Sargent thought, “and so contemptuous of that murderer and bank robber behind us.”

Pete Meadows said suddenly: “Driver, what’ll happen if we pass this next station without stopping?”

“I—I don’t know. They’ll probably telephone ahead to find out what’s the trouble.”

The gunman hesitated, then his charcoaled lips pulled tight. “All right,” he said. “You’ll stop and get off and stretch like you generally do. I’ve ridden this bus before. But you won’t go in the station and nobody else is getting off.”

No one answered except the black fury of the wind and the rain. The bus roared on steadily. The maniac began to mumble to himself. Saliva drooled across his lips to mingle with his beard. Five minutes passed before the bus swung to one side of the road and stopped near a small store and filling station.

The driver stood up and faced Meadows. “What—what do you want me to do now?”

“Step out and stretch,” Meadows said. “I saw you do it in the rain once before and you’ll do it again tonight. But keep close to the bus like you did the time before so you won’t get wet. Then after a minute or so climb back in and let’s get started.”

“Yes, sir.” The driver’s hand shook on the door handle as he turned it, then stepped out.

The maniac jumped to his feet, screaming, eyes aflame. “I will ride this bus no longer with death and sin! I leave you all to destruction!”

“Sit down before I shoot you.”

“Shoot, Child of the Devil! Shoot! But I shall not stay to be destroyed as Sodom was destroyed; to be cut down by the plagues of Egypt. Shoot!” His voice was a shrill scream, his arms wide flung.

THE gunman tensed forward, automatic outlining his coat pocket. Sargent knew the things that were in his mind then. If the crazy man kept shouting he would attract the attention of the persons inside the store; if he were shot there would be the sound of the pistol.

“Listen,” Meadows said, “if I let you off this bus will you give me your word of honor”—his face twitched as he added—“as a man of God, not to mention what is happening here?”

The man’s face contorted. “Why should I tell? God will strike you down. I shall keep silent.”

“Well, get the hell out of here!”

The big scar-faced man and the blonde were standing up now, talking at once, terror in their eyes. “It’s coming down the aisle. It’ll get me next,” the blonde kept saying. The big man was pleading to be allowed to go.

Meadows said: “Shut up, both of you. That guy was nuts and I let him off because he was too crazy to keep in here. But if either of you get off, it’ll be with a bullet in your back.”

The priest said quietly: “There is some strange death riding with us. You understand that by keeping these persons here you may be responsible for their murders.”

“That’ll be just too bad, but I can’t help it. If they get off they’ll be responsible for my murder.”

Sargent was tense against the seat’s edge, his narrowed eyes watching the gunman. If he would come one step closer—

The driver climbed aboard and got in his seat. The bus lurched forward. “Sit down, all of you,” Meadows said. He stepped farther back and Sargent knew there was no chance to get to him without being killed.

Sargent turned to look at the girl beside him. Her face was drawn, but when she met his eyes, she smiled. He said, “Good girl. I don’t think Meadows wants to harm any of us and we’ll ride on safely.”

“It’s not Pete Meadows I’m afraid of. It’s that other thing—the thing that kills without any reason or warning. It’s what that crazy man said about us all dying. And somehow I feel—”

Sargent caught her hands. “Let’s not talk about it. You’ll only get more frightened than ever.”

“But I want to talk about it. I have to! I’m not going to get hysterical, but I can’t sit here waiting for that death to come to me, and not even think about it. Isn’t there something we can do?”

“It’s not going to hurt you,” Sargent said. His muscles were drawn so hard they ached, his eyes narrowed, fierce. “If I only knew who, or what—”

“Perhaps it was the crazy man and now that he’s gone nobody else will be killed. But somehow I feel that—that it’s going to come to all of us. I keep remembering what he said, that we are all going to die.”

It was then Sargent noticed for the first time the speed with which the bus was moving. The rain was as thick across the windows as ever but the sound of it was drowned by the roar of the motor and the whine of the tires. Abruptly the machine lurched to one side and began to bounce violently.

Pete Meadows yelled: “Damn it! Where are you going? Are you mad? Slow down! You’re off the highway!”

And in answer the driver began to laugh, a loud, rolling, furious laughter. Sargent jerked forward, feeling the hairs lift along the back of his neck. The girl clutched at his hand.

For the laughter ahead was that of a madman! It was worse. It was laughter from hell.

“Slow down, before—” And then it happened.

The bus stopped as though a giant hand had caught and twisted it sideways. Sargent was flung hard against the seat ahead of him, smashed down to the floor. He saw Pete Meadows plunge headlong in the aisle, the gun bouncing from his hand. He heard the jagged scream of the blonde and the guttural shout of the scar-faced man.

Then the hellish laughter flooded through the bus again and for a moment there was no sound except it and the beat of the wind and the rain.

THE second that followed seemed ages long to Sargent, the things that happened simultaneously seemed each separate and distinct like white-hot irons burning their pictures into his brain.

He saw the man whom he had thought was the driver standing at the front of the bus facing them—and that man was hell itself! His face was triangular like that of the devil, his eyebrows V- shaped and red, his ears pointed. And from his mouth rolled the laughter that was like that of devils rejoicing over tortured souls.

In that same instant Pete Meadows came to his knees in the aisle, saw the man at the front of the bus, cursed, and dived for his gun. The man did not stop laughing. The blonde was screaming insanely, the scar-faced man gibbering thick, terrified nonsense. The priest had been knocked to his knees in the aisle and crouched there. Jane Brownfield was half on the seat, half off, both hands holding to Sargent’s arm.

Meadows got his fingers on the gun and started straightening. The man with the face of hell kept laughing, his head thrown back, eyes flaming.

Meadows’ gun came up, stopped, wavered. The muscles around his mouth began to quiver. His eyes opened so wide in his blackened face that only the whites were showing. Then the gun clattered in the aisle and he had both hands at his throat, tearing it, ripping the flesh away in long gouges. His back began to arch and he was screaming. The cry had no beginning but was born full-throated and horrible, drowning out the laughter, the wind and rain, driving every sound out of existence except its own terror and agony.

Then the man fell backward among the other bodies and the scream was gone. Through the bus rolled again the sound of devil laughter, the hiss and mutter of the storm.

Sargent got slowly to his feet, pushed the girl behind him and held her there. The blonde’s cries had become a low, choked sobbing as she stared at the man in the front of the bus. The scar-faced fellow was panting heavily, crouched in his seat, his eyes wide with an unholy fear. Even in that brief glance Sargent knew that it was not death this man feared; it was something beyond and more horrible than death.

The hellish laughter drooled to an end. The flame-colored eyes swept over them. The man chanted: “You shall all die. All of you. Are you prepared?” His gaze fastened on the blonde.

“No!” she screamed. “I don’t wanta die. I don’t—”

“You’re going to die,” the creature said. “Is there anything you want to say first?”

It was Sargent who answered. Horror was like raw steel in his chest. His brain felt crushed and he had to force it to action. Twice he had made abortive movements toward the thing at the front of the bus, and twice he had stopped. If It could kill Pete Meadows as It had done, without even ceasing to laugh, without moving its hands, there was certainly no chance of reaching It in a wild rush down the aisle. “It’s a man. Deformed, hideous, but It’s a man,” Sargent had kept telling himself.

So now he spoke to It, hardly recognizing his own voice. “Why do you have to kill us? Why do you have to kill this girl first?”

The man laughed again, low and terribly. “I am Death,” he said. “I have come for all of you because one of you is most guilty.”

“You’re crazy.”

The man paid no attention but looked at the blonde again. “Is there anything you want to say before you die, anything that will make death easier?”

“Yes.” She was barely able to speak. “I—I want to confess to that priest. I ain’t never been religious, but if I’m—” she choked.

“You have two minutes,” the man said. “You may save your soul, but not your body.”

She stood up, staggered, but caught at the seat top. Somehow she crossed the aisle to the priest and kneeled in front of him. Under the beat of the wind and the rain Sargent could hear the low mutter of her voice as she spoke.

JANE BROWNFIELD was not crying, but her labored breathing, the way in which she fought back hysteria was audible. Sargent put his left hand on hers, squeezed it. Then he leaned forward in his seat, tense. If the devil-faced man would take his eyes off them for one second, would glance at the girl kneeling close in front of him, then would come his chance.

But the man didn’t. He stood there, laughing softly, never looking at the girl but always watching the passengers with eyes like red flame. Outside, the demons of rain and wind beat against the bus, shaking it with their fury.

Abruptly the man said: “Your two minutes are up. You die.”

Sargent tensed forward for the moment when he would look down to kill the blonde. That would be his chance to rush. Not much of one, but the best he could hope for.

And then terror beyond bearing struck him. It was as if fear were some material object which had suddenly been crammed into him until his entire body was splitting from the pressure. He tried to cry out, but his throat was clogged with fear, and fear had crushed his lungs against one another with awful pain.

For the man had never glanced toward the blonde, had never taken his eyes from the other passengers and had made no movement. But with the words “You die,” the girl screamed and lunged to her feet. Her face was already turning purple, her back curved like a drawn bow as she clawed at her throat and staggered into the aisle. Her shriek ripped through the bus, banged against the windows—and cut short as she fell.

Jane Brownfield made a short, moaning cry. “How—? He can’t— He’s not human!”

Sargent was too sick and hopeless to answer. He had been so certain that the devil-faced man would bend over the girl to kill her, that he would have a chance to attack. But the man had not even glanced at her. It was impossible for him to have killed her. And yet—she had died horribly as the others had.

“It’s your turn, Scarface,” the man said. “If you want to confess for the sake of your soul, do it. You have two minutes.”

The big man stood up, the scar livid and twitching along his cheek. Even now he did not seem afraid of death but of the weird manner in which it was coming and of something beyond death. “Yes, I want to confess.” He went and knelt before the priest.

Once more that long and awful period of waiting began. The sound of the man’s voice, low and mumbling, the beat of the storm, the sound of his own heart and husky breathing.

Jane Brownfield took Sargent’s hand, pulled him around to face her. There were tears in her eyes but her voice was almost steady. “He’ll kill one of us next. We’ve only two minutes.”

Sargent did not answer. He leaned and kissed her. Then abruptly he was sitting straight, his hands fierce around hers. “You’re not going to die!” he whispered. “I’ll get you out of this. I’ll get us both out. I’ve got to, now.”

“Your time’s up. You die,” the man said in the front of the bus. And in the same moment the scar- faced fellow began to scream.

JANE put her face hard against Sargent’s chest. He kept his arms around her, and though neither of them looked, they could hear the big man’s feet staggering blindly, hear the tremendous agony of his shriek, and they could vision the purpling face, the gory throat as he ripped at it. There came the thud of the body and the scream cut short.

“All right, mister. It’s your turn.”

Sargent pushed the girl away and stood up quickly. “I want to confess before I die.”

The devil-faced man said: “To hell with this confession business. I’m getting tired of it.” His eyes were on the girl now, hot and lustful.

“A man’s last wish,” Sargent said huskily. “You’ve got to let me.” He stepped quickly down the aisle.

“Let him have his way,” the priest said.

The man hesitated, said: “Get it over with.” He was watching the girl and the red flame of his eyes burned brighter.

Sargent went down on one knee in the aisle. The priest said: “Both of your knees, my son.”

“Like this?” Sargent’s movement was almost too swift for the eye to follow. His right fist came up from the floor as he straightened. With one hundred and seventy pounds behind them the knuckles landed on the priest’s jaw, raising him completely out of his seat and snapping him backward. And in the same motion Sargent turned and dived for the devil-faced man.

It wasn’t much of a fight, but as Sargent got up from the unconscious body Jane began to jerk at his arm. “Why did you hit the priest?” she cried. “And look at him—his face is purple! He’s dead!”

“Of course he’s dead. He had the blow gun in his mouth and when I cracked his chin he got one of his own darts in him. At least I’d be willing to bet that’s what happened. It had to be either the make-believe priest or the devil-faced man killing these folks and it wasn’t the devil-faced fellow. We both watched and made sure of that. Now that I’ve got through beating his makeup off, you can see he’s the lunatic death-and-sin guy who got off the bus when it stopped. He probably knocked the driver on the head, put on his coat and hat and climbed in when nobody was looking.”

“But why did the priest—? Why would he kill anybody?”

“I don’t know who that fellow is—or was. But it’s a cinch he was no priest. And what the reason behind the whole thing is I can’t exactly say, but when the police find out who everybody is, they’ll figure out the motive without much trouble. They’ll probably persuade this devil-faced-lunatic to tell them, after we drive the bus on to the next town.”

A blinding glare of light at police headquarters and the threat of a rubber hose that was never used

made the man who had disguised himself first as a lunatic, then as the devil, talk readily enough. Standing back in the shadowed darkness of the room, Sargent listened. He could scarcely see the police standing around him, but he was aware of them.

“I didn’t kill anybody,” the man said. “All of you must remember that. It was Pete, the fellow dressed like a priest, who killed them.”

“Why did he kill them?” the police lieutenant asked. “Start at the first.”

“All right,” the man said. “I’ll tell. But I didn’t kill them. Pete killed them. It was because he had to get O’Neil—the one with the scar.”

“Start at the first,” the lieutenant said again.

The man took a deep breath. “It was started in South America eight years ago,” he said. “Pete and O’Neil and I were back in the Chaco together. We found some ruins there. And in one of them was a ruby, the size of an egg. It was enough to make us all rich. But O’Neil double-crossed us. He stole the ruby and the boat, leaving us in a swamp. We would have died—we almost did—but some Indians found us. It took five years to get away from them and make the coast. It took three more years to find O’Neil. We learned he still had the ruby, but he was a killer and we were afraid of him. It was Pete’s idea to frighten him into telling us where the ruby was. Pete knew how superstitious he was. He was worse than a nigger. So we set out to scare him. We pulled spiritualist tricks on him. We hounded him. He thought us both dead and he started seeing ghosts. He heard moans at night and all that sort of thing. He tried to run away, but we followed him. He was still running when we pulled this last trick on him on the bus.”

“And did he tell where the ruby was when he confessed?” It was the lieutenant’s voice out of the dark.

“Yeah. I know he did because Pete wouldn’ta killed him if he hadn’t. But Pete didn’t tell me— and Pete—”

“Pete,” the lieutenant said, “is in the same shape you’ll be in after the executioner finishes with you.”

Later Sargent repeated the story to the girl. “All very simple,” he said, leaning down and kissing her. “But I don’t think we’ll ride a bus on our honeymoon.”

Never Say No to a Killer by Clifton Adams

Never Say No to a Killer

Clifton Adams

CHAPTER ONE

THE ROCK WAS about the size of a man’s head. A beautiful rock, about twenty pounds of it, and somehow I had to get over to it. The minute I saw it I knew that rock was just the thing I needed. This is going to take some doing, I thought, but I have to get my hands on that rock.

Gorgan yelled, “Get the lead out, Surratt! This ain’t no goddamn picnic!”

Gorgan was one of the prison guards, a red-faced, hairy-armed anthropoid, sadist by instinct, moron by breeding. His lips curled in a grin and he lifted his Winchester 30-30 and pointed it straight at my chest. There was nothing in the world he would like better than an excuse to kill me. He had had his eye on me for a long time.

You sonofabitch, I thought, if you knew what was good for you, you would pull that trigger right now, because five minutes from now it’s going to be too late!

But not now. Right now I was going to be the model prisoner, I was going to dig into that stinking, smoking asphalt and I was going to let Gorgan enjoy himself. In the meantime I had to get to that rock.

There were fourteen of us out there, twelve prisoners and two guards. We were right out in the middle of God’s nowhere. Somebody had got the bright idea that the prison needed an air strip, a place where the State dignitaries could set their planes down. So that’s what we were doing out there, building the air strip.

We were about three miles from the prison, four miles from the main highway, and about six miles from the prison town of Beaker. Hard against the prison, to the south, there was a big oil refinery, so we had to get on the other side of the refinery to build the air strip. The only reason we were left out there with just two guards was we were trustees. Pounding scorching asphalt ten hours a day, under a hundred degree sun, was supposed to be a privilege.

Well, I was going to kick their privilege right in the face!

But first I had to get to that rock. It was about twenty feet from us, over by the edge of the asphalt strip, so I began working my big wooden smoother over in that direction. Gorgan, feeling that he had got a hook in me, was reluctant to let it go. He moved over to the edge of the strip, that 30-30 still aimed at my heart.

“Get the lead out, Surratt! This ain’t no goddamn picnic!”

One dump truck had emptied its load near the end of the strip and was now headed back toward Beaker. Another truck was just beginning to tilt its bed. This would be the last truck we’d see for at least an hour—which was fine, just the way I wanted it. But I had to work fast now. I had to get things started before that truck driver finished unloading.

I lifted my head for just an instant, just long enough to get the complete picture in my mind. The other prisoners were slightly ahead of me, with their heavy smoothers, tampers, rakes, wading ankle deep in that steaming black slush. The other guard, a kid of about twenty-three, was over by the water keg having himself a smoke. I heard the dump truck’s winch growl, the bed tilted sharply and the black mass poured into a smoking pile on the ground.

The time had come.

I looked at that rock; I looked at it harder than I ever looked at anything in my life. I could almost feel that 30-30 of Gorgan’s and knew that he still had it pointed at me. There was absolutely no telling what an idiot like Gorgan would do at a time like this. This was the most dangerous moment. The rest of it was planned—right at this moment, John Venci was waiting for me in Beaker. Five years I had worked on this, and it was perfect—all but this particular instant. I had to drop my smoother; I had to bend down and pick up that rock; and I had to do it while looking right into the muzzle of that Winchester.

I prayed that Gorgan’s neolithic brain was working. If his brain worked, I was all right. If he simply reacted, like an animal, then I was sunk. That trigger finger would twitch and I would never know what hit me.

It was a calculated risk. I had to take it.

I kept staring at that rock. I had to slip the clutch before I started. I had to somehow make contact with that apelike mentality of Gorgan’s, and the best way to do it was through curiosity. I stared at that rock as though it were the great-grandfather of all the rocks in the world. I grunted, as though in amazement. Then I dropped the smoother. I bent down and took the rocks in my hands.

“Surratt! Goddamn you, I told you once… 1”

I held the rock tenderly. I held it as though it were pure gold. I had gotten away with it! I had aroused the ape’s curiosity!

“Mr. Gorgan,” I said, never taking my eyes off that rock, “this is the damnedest thing I ever saw!”

“You bastard!” he snarled, “put that thing down and pick up that smoother! Or maybe you want to know what a 30-30 slug in the guts feels like!”

I had him hooked. I could feel it. He was looking at that rock and not paying so much attention to his rifle.

“Look at this, Mr. Gorgan!” I said. “What do you make of this?”

He was hooked, all right! He forgot for a moment that he hated me. The ape thought he had found something. Something valuable, maybe, or anyway something very curious. He moved toward me, his flat, red face jutting forward.

His forehead wrinkled perplexedly, almost as though he were in pain. “What the hell! It’s just a rock!”

“But look at this, Mr. Gorgan!” I pointed to a place on the rock—a place where there was nothing. Gorgan came closer. He saw nothing.

At that instant I think Gorgan knew he was as good as dead. I could see it in those animal-like little eyes.

That was when I brought the rock up with all the strength I had in my two arms. It cracked the point of Gorgan’s chin and I heard his jawbone snap under the impact.

He didn’t make a sound. He dropped his rifle and started to fall.

It was very fast and clean. I felt the strength of ten men as I watched him sprawl out with his face in the hot asphalt. “Good-by, Gorgan,” I thought. Then I picked up his rifle and shot him.

The other guard, the twenty-three-year-old kid, was still over by the water keg. He looked as though the sky had fallen. I started to yell and tell him to leave his rifle alone and he wouldn’t get hurt, but I saw in an instant that it would only be a waste of breath.

He was a born hero, that kid. You could read it in every outraged line of his face. He made a dive for his rifle which was leaning against the water keg, but by that time I had made up my mind about heroes. He fired a quick one, a wild one, the slug missing me by a full fifty feet, and then I got the center of his chest in my sights and pulled the trigger. He jerked back, as though he had been hit in the gut with a hammer, and then he fell sprawling, a dead hero.

The truck driver was next. He was a smart boy and he certainly was no hero. I yelled for him to get out of the cab and he got out, fast, his hands in the air.

“Just stay there, just the way you are,” I said, and he nodded eagerly.

The other prisoners hadn’t done a thing. They stood there like dumb cattle, too exhausted to make a move or a sound. The hell with them, I thought, and jogged over to the water keg and picked up the dead hero’s rifle.

I called to the truck driver: “Start getting out of your clothes, and be quick about it!”

I skinned out of my dungaree prison jacket and trousers and got into the truck driver’s blue work shirt and khaki pants. I felt like a new man.

“Do you have a watch?” I said.

He held out his arm, offering me his wrist watch.

“Mister,” he said tightly, “you want the watch, take it.”

I laughed at him. “That’s considerate of you, but all I want is the time.”

It was eleven-fifty, which was just about perfect. Noon is the dullest time of day—comes twelve o’clock and everybody knocks off for lunch, even cops. Even prison officials and truck drivers. That was how I knew that no more trucks would be coming to the air strip until the noon hour was over. If anybody wanted to spread the alarm, they would have to walk clear to the refinery, or to the highway which would give me plenty of time to make my contact with John Venci in Beaker.

“Don’t get any cute ideas,” I said, “about slamming this truck into gear and getting away from me.”

His face was very pale. “Mister, do I look like a fool?” I laughed. “No, you don’t. I’d say you’re a very wise man.”

CHAPTER TWO

IT WENT LIKE clockwork. It couldn’t have been more than twelve-fifteen when I parked the truck in an alley, behind a Beaker lumber yard.

I had been in the town before, but towns change over a period of five years, and it took a few minutes to get my bearings. To me the town was as exciting as Manhattan. Five years! I got out of the truck and stood there breathing in the air, smelling the smells. Who would ever believe that a man could gorge himself on thin, pure air!

I could do it. I drank it in like some fabulous gourmet tasting a really great wine for the first time, better than anything I had ever tasted before. It was freedom.

I was almost drunk with the realization that I was actually free. I walked away from the truck, and the dirty sidewalks of that dirty little town couldn’t have felt better if they had been strewn with Persian carpets.

I noticed a clock in a jewelry store window, and that brought me back to the business at hand. I had almost finished with my part in the escape, and now it was up to John Venci. I didn’t let myself consider the possibility that Venci wouldn’t hold up his end of the bargain. He just had to be there, that’s all there was to it. If he wasn’t, then it was the end of Roy Surratt, and that was one thing I didn’t let myself think about.

I quickened my pace and reached the end of Main Street where there was a service station—that was the first check point. Up ahead was a car. It was a new one and it was in the right place. I felt like laughing when I saw that car. It was all I could do to keep from running.

Then the roof fell in. I got even with the car and saw that it wasn’t Venci at all, it was a woman. She just sat there, looking straight ahead. I felt as though somebody had opened my veins and drained out all my strength.

Where the hell was Venci! This was the place. I knew it was. But where the hell was he! I walked past the car and the woman didn’t make a move. I could feel panic’s cold hand on the back of my neck.

I walked to the end of the block and looked back. The car and the woman were still there, and there was still no sign of John Venci.

Get a good hold, Surratt, I told myself, because it’s a long way down if you fall! I might as well face it; Venci wasn’t there, and he wasn’t going to come. Maybe something had gone wrong at his end, or maybe he had simply decided that the risk was too great and had forgotten it. From now on I was on my own, and the odds were a million to one that I would never get out of Beaker alive.

Venci I would take care of later, if I lived that long. Right now there was no time for anger. There was no time for anything except trying to think of a way to get out of this death trap before the alarm sounded. I thought of the freight yards, hitch hiking, stealing a car, and gave them all up immediately. Then I turned and headed back toward town, and I looked at that parked car again.

I knew what I was going to do.

I was going to take that car, woman and all. If the going got rough, she would be my hostage.

I walked around to the driver’s side of the car, jerked the door open and said, “Lady, if you enjoy living, just don’t make a sound.”

I ducked my head inside. She looked at me for just a moment, then said, “You must be Roy Surratt.”

I stared at her. “What?”

“I said you must be Roy Surratt. I’m Dorris.”

I just looked at her.

“Dorris Venci,” she said shortly. “John Venci is my husband. Now will you please get in the back seat; there are some clothes back there for you.”

She was no raving beauty, but there was something about her that got you. I said, “Mrs. Venci, you just about gave me heart failure. What happened to John?”

She frowned impatiently. “Later. Do you want to get in the back seat or don’t you?”

I opened the door and got in the back seat. Laid out beside me was a complete set of street clothes. “Change as quickly as possible,” she said. “I’ll let you know if anyone comes.”

I started peeling down without a second invitation. “While I’m doing this,” I said, “will you tell me what this is all about?”

“John is sick,” she said flatly, “so I came in his place.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

She said nothing.

“All right, I was just asking,” I said. “Where do we go from here?”

“That depends on what we hear on the radio. If it seems safe we’ll go all the way to the city where—where we have made plans for you. If anything comes up I’ll have to drop you off with some people I know.”

I looked out the back window; the street was deserted. I said, “I’m a little out of practice with ties. Have you got a mirror?”

She got one out of her bag and held it up. What I saw was a sun-browned man of thirty-four, dark hair, regular features. He was no matinee idol, but he wasn’t bad looking, either.

“Do you want me to drive?” I asked.

“Yes, that might be better.”

I got out of the back seat and into the front, under the wheel. She said, “Was there much trouble?”

“No trouble at all,” I said. “It went like clockwork. But we’d better get out of here pretty quick because in about thirty minutes hell’s going to break loose.”

Dorris Venci said, “It doesn’t seem possible that an escape could be brought off with no trouble at all.”

“Well, there were two guards. I had to kill them.”

She looked at me. “That’s nice,” she said. “I’m glad there wasn’t any trouble.”

“I tell you it’s all right, Mrs. Venci. It will be at least thirty minutes before anybody finds out about it. There’s nobody out there but a few prisoners and a truck driver. By the time the news gets out, we’ll be a long way from Beaker. Everything was planned and everything went just the way I wanted it.”

She said, “Do you know how to find State Highway 61?”

“Sure.”

“All right, if you are through congratulating yourself, perhaps we can get started.”

I laughed. “Whatever you say, Mrs. Venci.”

We got out of town and on the highway with no trouble at all. I kept looking at myself in the rear view mirror; I couldn’t get enough of looking at myself in a tie and clean white shirt. I had killed Gorgan; I had made my escape; and now I was behind the wheel of a sleek new automobile.

I didn’t know the radio was on until it suddenly blared out: “GREENLEAF CALLING CAR 2021”

That is all there was to it.

“What was that?” I said.

“The radio is tuned to the State Highway Patrol frequency,” Dorris Venci said. “Car 202 is beyond our range; that’s why we couldn’t hear the reply.”

“But we can hear the Patrol headquarters. Is that right?”

“Yes. When news of your escape reaches the prison officials they will notify the Patrol.”

“And the Patrol will notify us.”

“If we are still within range.”

That short wave radio made a great impression on me. Why, with a thing like this working for him, a man could get away with murder! They’d never catch him. Then I thought: What are you thinking about, Surratt? You are getting away with murder, right this minute!

I looked at Dorris Venci, really looked at her, for the first time. Until now I had been much too busy with myself to pay attention to anything else, but now that it looked like clear sailing I turned my attention to John Venci’s wife.

My first impression of her had been pretty accurate. She was good looking, but certainly no raving beauty. She was a pretty good sized girl, maybe five-six, with a rather prominent bone structure. She had a good figure, too—maybe not one to stop traffic, but plenty good enough. All a man could reasonably ask for in a woman.

Her eyes were what stopped you. I decided. They were large and dark and very clear. Looking into her eyes was like looking into a pair of beautifully polished Zeiss lenses; they gave you a feeling of great depth and emptiness.

She could have been thirty five or twenty-five—sometimes it is hard to tell about big girls. The longer I looked at her the more beautiful she seemed to get, but I put that down to my being locked away from women for five years.

I hadn’t even known that Venci had a wife, but there were a lot of things about Venci that I didn’t know. Our acquaintance, although it had been very satisfactory, had been a brief one. An obscure gambling law had landed him in the State penitentiary for a short stretch, and for a few days we had been cell mates. We hadn’t dwelt on personalities at all—only ideas; so it wasn’t surprising that he had failed to mention Dorris.

“What time is it?” I asked.

She looked at her watch. “A quarter of one.”

“It won’t be long now. I’d like to see that warden’s face when he gets the news. What did I tell you? Nobody but a handful of convicts know I’ve escaped.”

The radio made a liar out of me. We were moving out of line-of-sight broadcast range, but not so far out that we couldn’t hear Patrol headquarters when the news broke. Both of us listened intently for several minutes as my description was given: a description of the truck driver’s clothes that I was supposed to be wearing, a description of the truck I was supposed to be driving.

I laughed. “What a shock they would get if they could see their escaped convict now, decked out in an oxford gray suit, driving a new Lincoln, a beautiful woman beside him.”

“That’s enough of that,” she said. “We have a long way to go before you are safe.”

“All right, but could you tell me just where we are going?”

“To Lake City, if there are no complications. You will be safe there for a while.”

“Lake City suits me fine. By the way, it occurs to me that I haven’t thanked you for everything you’ve done.”

“Don’t bother,” she said, looking straight ahead. “This isn’t a free ride. You’ll be expected to earn your passage when we get to Lake City.”

I would earn my passage, all right. I had known that from the first; it didn’t bother me—John Venci’s work was my kind of work, and we’d get along.

That started me thinking about Venci, and the way we had arranged this escape almost a year ago. It had been a beautiful set-up, as absolutely perfect as a circle. We had started with a basic truth which held that the actual prison break was the least important detail of a successful escape. With a little care, any moron could crash out of prison—he could stay on his good behavior, become a trustee and simply walk away, if that’s all there was to it.

But there was a lot more to it than that. Those first few hours, those first two or three hours after the initial crash-out—they were the hours that killed you. You had to have help, that was the main thing, and without it you were beat before you started. “The initial break,” Venci had told me, “will be up to you. Nine months and I’ll be out of this place; I’ll be in a position to help you, but I’m not going to try anything as crude as smuggling you a gun, is that clear?”

“Perfectly.”

“Nine months you’ll have to think about it, make it good.”

“I could do it tomorrow. I could crash out of this rock pile and make it as far as Beaker before they knew what hit them.”

“Nevertheless, you will wait the nine months if you really mean business, if you have the brains I think you have.”

He was completely humorless, John Venci—or I had thought so at the time. He was small, lean, extremely intense, and he had a brain that was as immaculate and keen as a scalpel. When John Venci took a liking to a man it made all the difference in the world; you were suddenly somebody to be reckoned with, you amounted to something. No con dared cross you after the word got around that John Venci had taken a liking to you—it was the best thing that could happen, and it had happened to me. On the other hand, the worst thing that could happen to a man was to get Venci down on you, and the cons knew that too.

Almost from the first we had hit it off, which may sound strange. John Venci was old enough to be my father. He was the master of his calling, which was crime. His organization had a thousand brains and two thousand arms—arms that could reach anywhere, grab anything. “I don’t get it,” I had said once, “a man like you, a gambling rap’s nothing. Why did you stand still for it? Why did you allow yourself to be put away for a stretch, even a short one?”

Paper-thin lids had dropped over his intense eyes, and he had smiled with no more expression than a razor gash in a piece of leather. “Suppose,” he said, “that a very religious man feels the overpowering need for meditation, for reconsecration of his flagging spirit, where does he go?” I said, “A monastery, I suppose.”

“Exactly,” he had answered. “Well, I came to prison.”

That was John Venci. A purist, a theorist, a perfectionist in crime. John Venci had intelligence and imagination—and I think he was slightly mad.

I wanted to talk about escape, and Venci would deliver a lecture on abstract theories of vengeance. I had believed in them. Our personal philosophies gave us common ground from the very beginning. No longer was I a nobody. No longer was I just another punk who had blundered on his first bank job.

“This is amazing!” Venci had said.

I said, “I fail to see anything amazing in the fact that I have teamed to read and am capable of thought.”

“Nevertheless, it is amazing! Materialism makes an intriguing theory, but how many people have the guts to believe it, actually believe in it, right to the bottoms of their bleak little souls? How many have you known?”

“Not many, I guess.”

“Do you know why? It knocks their crutches from under them, that’s why. They simply don’t have what it takes to purge themselves of their fantastic little guilts….”

Then he had stopped, his eyes alive, and he had interrupted himself calmly: “I have in mind a certain… project. A rather audacious project, I might say, even for me. It will take a good deal of thought… as well as action. Strange, until now I had not envisioned another actor in this—particular little drama x)f mine…” He had studied me bleakly, in sober concentration. “Yes,” he had said finally, “I think I could use you, Roy Surratt.”

“I can’t do you much good if I stay in this cell the rest of my life.”

“No…. Do you have a specific plan in mind?”

“Yes. You’ll be out of here in nine months. In nine months I’ll be ready. I’ll be the best prisoner they ever saw; I’ll be the darling of every screw in the yard; I’ll endear myself to every goddamn contract guard that comes within ass-kissing distance of me. I’ll make myself Warden’s pet even if it makes me vomit. In short, ill be a trustee, and the initial crash will be a cinch. After the break I’ll make it into Beaker under my own steam, and I’ll somehow arrange it so that the alarm doesn’t get out immediately. Forty-five minutes or an hour, I’ll need that much start at least, and I’ll get it.”

He said nothing, so I went on. “All right, we assume, then, that I can make the break and reach Beaker before a general alarm goes out. The town of Beaker, that’s where I must have help. I must have a getaway car, and not a hot one, either. I must have a complete outfit of clothes, some money, some escape routes planned in case the unforeseeable should happen. That’s the way it has to be if I’m to get out of that town alive.”

“Yes…. It can be arranged.”

“Fine. Now for the details for your end of it. First, a contact point. And a time for the contact. Noon is the best time, so we’ll make it between twelve noon and one o’clock. Now the place. I used to know the town pretty well—let’s see, at the north end of Main Street there is a big service station, just before you get to the railroad tracks. That’s a good place, easy to spot. Now west of that service station there is a quiet residential street, as I remember, which should be all right. The second block to the right of that station, midway in the second block, between twelve noon arid one o’clock, is that all right for the time and place of contact?”

“You make it sound pretty simple.”

“It will be simple. I’ll keep it as simple as it humanly possible. After I work on this thing for nine months it will be perfect—all I want to know is do you go for it?”

Only a moment’s hesitation, then positively: “I go for it. I’ll see to it myself, but only for one day a week, over a three month span from the day they release me.”

“That’s fair enough, make it Friday. Friday’s the best day, it’s always the most hectic, and if there is a shortage of guards it will be on Friday, just before the week end.”

For one long moment he had said nothing. At last he murmured, “Yes… Yes, it sounds all right.” Then, with no warning at all, he stepped forward and hit me in the mouth with his fist.

The suddeness of the attack stunned me. I reeled back and crashed against the bars of the cell. “Goddamnit,” John Venci hissed under his breath, “fight!”

Then I got it. In case of an assisted escape, the cops always suspected the escapee’s friends, and John Venci was merely striking off such a possibility. The entire cell block seemed to know the instant the first blow was struck. At the top of his lungs, John Venci yelled, “You sonofabitch!” Then he grabbed up a stook and hurled it at me, and the place burst into bedlam as every con in the block began rattling bars and yelling. All right! I thought. All right, there’s no sense doing a thing half way! We might as well make it look good!

My mouth was pouring blood, and I’d caught one of Venci’s shoe heels under my left eye. He kept digging in as though his very life was at stake, cursing and yelling like a crazy man, as savage as a lion. But it was no match. He was tough, all right, and vicious, but I had weight and youth on my side, and every time I knocked him crashing against the bars I thought: Jesus, I hope those goddamn guards break it up before I kill him!

So that was John Venci, as I knew him. He played it to the hilt, and by his rules only the winner ever walked away. After the brawl, after the guards finally got tired clubbing us, after their legs wearied from kicking us, they finally dragged us off to the hole.

I don’t know what John Venci thought about during his stay in solitary, probably it didn’t bother him at all.

What I thought about was that escape. I nursed my two splintered ribs and tried to breathe as lightly as possible, and thought of that dazzling day nine months in the future when I would crash out of this hell hole for good. And when I did, somebody was going to pay for those two splintered ribs.

Still, the thing that fascinated me most through those endless days of darkness was the fact that I never doubted John Venci. When the time came, he would be there, and I never doubted it for a second. I understood that it was not going to be a free ride, and that I would have to “earn” my passage, as Dorris Venci had put it.

That was fine with me; I had never cared for free rides anyway.

CHAPTER THREE

WE HIT TOWN about nine o’clock that night, Dorris Venci and I, and quite a town it was, too. It was like a fairyland, all that color, the dancing lights, garish show windows, the buildings.

I was completely delighted. “This is the most wonderful thing I ever saw,” I said.

Dorris Venci said, “Turn left at the next corner. I’ll tell you where to go from there.”

I was afraid she was going to take me away from the lights. I felt like a child who had been allowed to watch a carousel for a moment and then jerked away. “Where are we going?” I said.

“Stop here,” Dorris said.

“Here on the corner?”

“Yes. The Tower Hotel is just across the street. Go to the desk and tell the clerk you are William O’Connor from Dallas; he has your reservation.”

“This is going to be a little rich for me at first, but I hope to get used to it. What do you do while William O’Connor checks in?”

“Take the car around to the hotel garage. Stay in your apartment; I’ll want to talk to you later.”

“All right, but shouldn’t I have some luggage or something. It’s going to look pretty fishy walking into a hotel like that without any luggage.”

“That’s been taken care of,” she said. “The luggage is already in your apartment.”

She thought of everything. Well, almost everything. I got out of the car, and then turned back again. “I hate to bring this up,” I said, “but could you let me have a dollar?”

She frowned. “Why?”

“Unless hotels have changed a lot in five years, the boy who shows me to my room is going to expect more than handshakes and fond wishes.”

It wasn’t good for a laugh, or even a smile. She got a five dollar bill out of her bag and handed it to me. I hadn’t thought much about it until now, but she was in a pretty sour mood and had been ever since I had known her. I headed for the lobby.

“Mr. O’Connor…” The desk clerk frowned, thumbing through his reservation file. “Oh yes, Mr. O’Connor, here we are.” He smiled, suddenly glad to see me. He motioned to a bellhop and said, “821 for Mr. O’Connor. Your luggage is already in your apartment, sir; hope you enjoy your stay.”

“I’m sure I will.” I smiled and tried to keep my dirty hands and grimy fingernails hidden in my pockets.

The so-called apartment was nothing special, but it was certainly better than a prison cell. I gave the bellhop the five and he took it as though it were a debt long overdue.

“Would there be anything else, sir?”

“No, thank you; that’s all I can afford.”

I got the fish eye for an instant, just before he slipped out the door. Well, I thought, it has been a busy day. It has been the most wonderful day of my life. I owed John Venci plenty, for what he had done for me this day, and I didn’t mean to forget it. He could have anything he wanted out of Roy Surratt, all he had to do was ask.

I opened the bedroom closet and there were two leather suitcases with the initials W. O. C. stamped in gold letters near the handles. I opened them up and there was more haberdashery.

I was standing at the window looking out at the city and all those exciting, dazzling lights, when there was a knock at the door. It was Dorris Venci.

“I was just looking at the city,” I said. “You have no idea how beautiful it is to me. Look at the way those lights shimmer, they never stand still. A painter would have a hell of a time getting a thing like that on canvas.”

Dorris Venci frowned. “What are you talking about?”

I laughed. “Nothing, I guess. It’s just that there are a lot of sights and smells and sounds and experiences that I haven’t been exposed to for a long time. I’ll get over it.”

“I hope it’s soon. Is the apartment all right?”

“The apartment is fine, but I’m not sure I understand all you’re doing for me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all this and expect to pay for it, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to when all I expected was a lift out of Beaker.” Dorris looked at me, then moved across the room and sat on the edge of an uncomfortable sofa. “By the way,” I said, “when do I get to see your husband? He’s not too sick to talk, is he?”

Without a flick of an eyelash, she said, “My husband is dead.”

I wasn’t sure that I had heard her correctly. “What did you say?”

“My husband is dead. He was murdered a week ago.”

This news stunned me. After all that had happened, after all that he had done for me, I simply couldn’t believe that John Venci was dead. But it was no joke—a person didn’t joke while looking at you the way Dorris Venci was looking at me. John Venci was dead. It was a fact that I had to get used to.

“I think I’ll sit down,” I said. Now I knew why she had that soured-on-the-world look.

I took a chair on the other side of the small coffee table and looked at Dorris Venci. “Your husband was quite a man, Mrs. Venci,” I said. “I didn’t know him long enough to know whether I liked him or not, but I did admire him. There are very few people in this world who share that particular distinction.”

“Just how well did you know my husband, Mr. Surratt?”

“Not very well, as I told you. He was in my cell three days and then they separated us. Oh, I knew who he was, all right. He was the boss of Lake City.”

She smiled, completely without humor. “Would you tell me what you and my husband talked about in prison?”

“A lot of things: both of us had a great admiration for realists, the only real philosophers of modern times. Do you think philosophy a strange subject for a prison discussion? Well, it isn’t. A man has to think in prison—work and think—that’s about all he has time for. The bad thing about it is that there are so very few people in prisons who are capable of thinking. We spoke about the freedom of the individual.”

“I see. The freedom of the individual to do as he pleases.”

“The freedom of the individual to do as he pleases, providing he has the necessary strength.”

“Yes, there is a difference, isn’t there. Tell me, Mr. Surratt, if you had all the money you could ever want, how would you live out your later years?”

“Probably I would retire and concentrate on killing all the people I didn’t like.”

“That,” she said, “is what my husband did.”

I sat there for a full thirty seconds without making a move.

She was completely serious. Her face was set and her eyes were as cold as gunsteel. This, I thought, is the wildest thing I ever heard of in my life… but I believed it. So now I knew why John Venci had bothered to spring me—he had foreseen the possibility of his own murder and had wanted a man on his side that he could trust.

But I was too late. Venci was dead.

After a moment she said, “Mr. Surratt, did it ever occur to you, while you were in prison, that my husband might not keep his part of the escape bargain?”

“Never. After that fight of ours I never saw him again, but I never stopped believing. You know why? Because your husband needed me as much as I needed him. For what reason, I didn’t know at the time; I just knew we needed each other. He wanted a man he could trust right up to the brink of death, and that was me, because we had the same kind of brains.

“I understand some things now. You just said that your husband had set out to dispose of his enemies—that can be dangerous business, very dangerous, with the kind of enemies John Venci had. He was afraid his enemies would try to kill him before he killed them, and he wanted me around to see that it didn’t happen.”

Mrs. Venci said, “You are wrong again, Mr. Surratt. John Venci was afraid of no one or no thing.” She stood up, suddenly. “I’m not sure that I need your help, after all, Mr. Surratt.”

I believe she would have walked out of the room if I hadn’t crossed in front of her. “All right,” I said, “I’m wrong. But how about setting me right?”

“I’m not sure I can trust you.”

“If you can’t trust me, whom can you trust?”

Yes, who could she trust? Not many people would be capable or willing to pick up John Venci’s fight, against John Venci’s enemies. “Very well,” she said, after a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll think about it. I’ll contact you tomorrow.”

“Just a minute,” I said. “Do you happen to know a beauty operator you can trust?” Her eyebrows came up just a little. “I want my hairline changed,” I said, “and my hair bleached. I also want a pair of horn-rimmed glasses with plain lenses.”

“That can be arranged,” she said, “if it proves necessary.” She went out.

We hadn’t mentioned money, but I was thinking money all the time. I was thinking of all that money John Venci had made. It was Dorris’s money now. And she wasn’t a bad looking woman, either. Oh, no, I thought, she’s not going to get rid of me now!

CHAPTER FOUR

THE FIRST THING I did the next morning was take a shower. A shower six times a day, I thought, every damn day until I get the stench of that prison out of my body and soul.

At last I got out of the shower and walked naked and dripping into the sitting room and called room service. “I’d like to order breakfast,” I said. “A large pot of coffee and a New York cut steak, sauted in butter.”

There was one thing that Dorris Venci had forgotten when she outfitted me and that was a razor. I called the bell captain and told him to hustle me a razor, and then I went back to the bathroom and showered all over again.

In the light of this new day, I could accept the death of my benefactor with calmness. John Venci was dead and there was nothing I could do about it, so I accepted it. The situation wasn’t exactly as I had planned it, but I had to make the best of it. And that was exactly what I intended to do.

I had finished the steak and eggs and was working on the orange juice and coffee when the telephone rang. It was Dorris.

“You’re moving,” she said.

“Is that so?”

“This is the address. 2209 North Hampton. Come to apartment 7.”

“Is that all I need to know?”

“Yes.” She hung up.

It was about ten o’clock when I got to the North Hampton address. It was a run-of-the-mill apartment building and not very fancy, certainly not as fancy as the Tower Hotel. I found apartment 7 on the first floor and knocked. There was no answer. I tried the door and it was unlocked, so I walked in.

It was a dark, dank-smelling place; sitting room, bedroom and bath—the same setup I’d had at the hotel. I raised the shades to let in some light, then took an armchair to wait. Maybe five minutes went by, then the door opened and Dorris came in.

“You’re prompt,” she said. “That’s something.”

“What’s the idea of moving me to a place like this? It smells of mice and empty bean cans.”

“Is it worse than the place you had yesterday?”

It was almost impossible to believe that I had been a convict only yesterday, that I had been wading ankle-deep in stinking asphalt, taking all kinds of crap from sadistic idiots like the late Mr. Gorgan. This place wasn’t so bad after all.

Dorris had a large bundle in one arm and a newspaper under the other. She handed me the newspaper and went into the kitchen with the other stuff.

“You made the front page,” she said.

“So I see.”

“You’re on the radio, too.”

“I’ll bet you anything in the world they’re already calling me the Mad Dog killer. And Gorgan will be made out a hero. But he’ll be a dead one; you can bet your sweet life on that!”

Dorris stepped into the kitchen doorway. “You say that as though you enjoyed killing him.”

“I enjoyed killing Gorgan. It was about the most exhilarating experience of my life just watching the sonofabitch die.”

She stood there for a minute, then went back in the kitchen. She was busy doing something, but I was too satisfied and full of good food to get up and see what it was. I read part of the escape story, but it was the usual crap.

Dorris said, “Remember what I told you when I brought you to Lake City, that you would have to earn your passage?”

“I remember.”

She came into the room this time and stood there in front of me, looking at me. “The time has come,” she said. “I want you to kill a man.”

I wasn’t in the least surprised. I had known all along that the man who pulled the trigger on John Venci was going to get killed, and probably by me. It was in Dorris Venci’s eyes every time she mentioned her husband’s name.

“I’m in debt to you,” I said. “I was in debt to your husband, too. A lot of things have been said about Roy Surratt, but nobody ever accused him of welshing on a debt. Whom do you want killed?”

She stared at me for a full half minute. “Until I let you in my car yesterday,” she said quietly, “My husband was the only completely evil man I ever knew. But you’re just like him; you’re enough like him to be the son he never had.”

This jarred me a bit, since I had been going under the assumption that Dorris Venci had loved her husband. But I was beginning to learn that she was the kind of woman who said and did some pretty erratic things, things that you had to take in stride.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said. “By my rules it would be a great honor being John Venci’s son. But let’s get something straight, just for the record. This person you want killed, he’s the one who murdered your husband, or had it done, isn’t he? That being the case, you must have loved your husband very much, in spite of this thing that obsessed him, this thing you call ‘evil’. Or maybe because of it. You don’t have to answer, because it is written all over you; you loved him. What I want to know is why do you look down your nose at me if I’m so much like the husband you loved?”

She just stared at me with those Zeiss lens eyes of hers. I didn’t like being stared at like that; it was about time to take Dorris Venci down a peg or two.

“You know,” I said, “I’ve got a funny feeling about you, Mrs. Venci. You brought up the subject of evil just a minute ago, and still you were in love with a man like John Venci. Now a situation like that makes for some interesting theorizing. Apparently you have a perfectly normal and conventional loathing for evil, but a look at the record will show that you are obviously attracted by it, too. Wouldn’t you say this is an interesting contradiction?”

I smiled, enjoying myself. She wasn’t so damn snooty now, and there was a difference in the way she stared at me.

“Interesting,” I said, “still these contradictions are encountered every day. Sane-mad, pro-anti, they’re all separated by the thinnest thread. One kind of fanaticism can be exchanged for another.”

She stood there rigid and icy. “Roy Surratt!” she sneered. “Murderer, thief, blasphemer. You’re a fine one to talk about fanaticism.”

“Tell me something, just one more thing. I’d like to know why a woman who loathes evil would marry a man like John Venci.”

I stared into the empty depth of those empty eyes and knew that she was frightened. She almost frightened me, the way she looked.

I had started the thing as a gag because she had made me sore. There I was offering to kill a man, just for her, because she wanted him killed. I was going to do it, and what did she do? She had stood there looking down her nose at me, looking at me as though I’d been something the dog had dragged in on her clean carpet, and that made me burn!

That was when I had started probing. We’ll see about this superior business, I thought. I’ll stick pins in her, and keep sticking pins in her until I hit a nerve, and then we’ll just open her up and see what makes this bitch tick. I was getting pretty tired of people looking down their noses at me.

Now she just stood there, staring.

What the hell have I got on my hands? I thought. Christ, she gave me the willies, standing there like a piece of ice statuary, those eyes of hers fixed on me.

You’d better figure it out, I thought, and pretty fast too, because she looks like she’s about ready to blow up in your face. Oh, she looked cool enough, she looked icy, but a bomb looks cool too until you move up closer and hear the timing mechanism ticking away the seconds, and then you know you’d better find the fuse and disarm it, and not take all day about it, either.

I took a step toward her and she backed away, like a shadow backing away, and those eyes never looked at anything but my eyes. By God, I thought, I’m going to stop sticking pins in people, especially broads.

And that was when I pegged her.

Suddenly all the pieces fell into place, and I grinned. I had Dorris Venci pegged now, sure as hell!

I said, “What’s wrong with you, Mrs. Venci?”

She didn’t make a sound.

I took a step forward and she moved back until her back was against the wall. You could almost hear the scream in her eyes. I knew her little secret now, and it had been the simplest thing in the world, once I got the scent of it.

All I had to do was ask myself what kind of woman was it that would go for John Venci, really go for him, not love him, necessarily? That was where I had been thrown off—confusing love with something else. Once I got back on the right track, the answer was simple. John Venci had been a tough boy; he had had a good, hard tough brain. Tough! So any woman who went for John Venci had to be a glutton for punishment. And that was the answer.

There was nothing new or unique about it; masochism is as old as Adam.

I said, “You look upset, Mrs. Venci. Why don’t you sit down and take it easy for a minute.”

She said, “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!”

“Gods don’t die, Mrs. Venci,” I said, “really they don’t.”

She made a small, thin sound—thinner than a spider’s thread, harder than iron, and I grabbed her. I grabbed one shoulder and jerked her around, then I caught her wrist, twisting it behind her, and threw a hammer-lock on her. Her mouth snapped open and that thin little sound came out again as I put my back into it. I applied the pressure. I jerked up on her arm and jammed her clinched fist against the base of her skull.

She was very strong for a woman, and it was no easy matter keeping the hammer-lock on her. She fought like a tigeress, hissing, cursing, clawing, and then she tramped down on my instep with the point of her French heel and I damn near tore her arm off at the shoulder.

“Don’t!” she said, her voice sounding like it was being squeezed through a sieve. “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!…” Then it trailed off and she began shuddering.

I had her hard against the wall now and she suddenly turned to jelly in my hands. She had no more strength or resistance than a pile of quivering flesh. I was completely fascinated with this transformation. Of course, I had heard about masochism, but this was the first time I ever walked up to it and looked it in the face.

When I put my back into that hammer-lock it was just like throwing a switch that set off a blast furnace. I could feel lust surge through her like a thousand volt shock. She gasped and closed her eyes and mashed herself against me, making little whimpering sounds, sounds like a whipped dog makes, a dog that is so completely broken that it is afraid to yelp.

I could have had her. There is absolutely no doubt about that; I could have had her but the phenomenon itself so completely fascinated me that I almost forgot for a while what it meant. But it crossed my mind, all right, you can bet your life on it. It wasn’t because I didn’t think of it that nothing happened.

It simply wouldn’t be the smart thing to do—it would indicate that I needed her more than she needed me, and that would not do. I let her go.

She couldn’t believe it. She stared at me, waiting, her breathing very shallow and rapid, and at last she realized that I was not following through. There was horror in her eyes. She leaned against the wall, she pressed her face to the wall, biting her lower lip as great tears spilled down her cheeks.

I said, “We learn something every day, don’t we Mrs. Venci? Today we learned who’s boss, isn’t that right?”

I took her arm again. “Isn’t that right?”

She nodded. Quickly, eagerly, the instant I touched her.

“All right,” I said. “You’d better relax; we’ve still got some business to talk over, remember?”

I went to the kitchen and had a glass of water. I thought: I hope she never finds out what that cost me!

I began to calm down, slowly. I rested against the kitchen sink and had another glass of water and after a while I felt pretty good, pretty proud of myself.

Yes sir, I thought, things are looking up. They certainly are! I had possessed her as completely as if I had laid her; I was boss now!

CHAPTER FIVE

I CAME INTO THE sitting room and she was on the sofa, crumpled on the sofa like a discarded plaster manikin. “How about a glass of water?” I said.

She made no sound. The best thing to do, I decided, was let her alone until she pulled herself together. You think your nerves and glands took a beating, Surratt, I thought. Think what it must have done to hers! So I took a chair in the corner of the room and waited. I was in no hurry.

It gave me time to think, and I needed some time to think. Things were happening fast. It was about time to look a-round and see just where I was.

I had an angle now. I had a woman who was scared to death of her own abnormalities, who tried to cover them up, hide them, call them by strange names. A woman like that added up to an angle that a man could really get his fingers into. That was quite a beginning, considering that this was only my second day out of prison.

But it was only the beginning. An idea had been nibbling at the edge of my brain. Dorris had mentioned that her husband had set out to dispose of his enemies…. Now there was an angle to my liking, because John Venci had been much too polished to try anything as crude as murder. There was not much satisfaction in murder, it was too sudden—no, it would have been something else, it would have been something long-drawn-out and filled with anguish, the most exquisite anguish, I was sure, that it was possible to devise.

And that, of course, would be mental anguish.

Long-drawn-out and filled with anguish, that much fit perfectly, but how would the end eventually be achieved?

Then I had it. Venci had been nothing if not logical-self-destruction would have been his aim! Suicide!

I was on the right track now, I could feel it. Great mental anguish culminated by suicide—that would have appealed to John Venci. So the only thing left was the method with which he would achieve this end. One word came to my mind automatically—Blackmail.

That was it! Venci had set out to blackmail his enemies, and that meant that he must have gone to fantastic lengths to gather evidence against them.

I grinned, feeling like a million dollars. All I had to do was get my hands on that evidence, and I had just the key to turn the lock! I had Dorris Venci! When I get through with this town, I thought, they’ll think they’ve been hit by a hurricane!

I went over to the sofa and shook Dorris. “Okay,” I said, “you ready to talk?”

She shuddered.

“Look,” I said, “I’m not sure how we got off on this tangent, but I know one thing, it’s time to get back on schedule. Go in the bathroom and wash your face or something.”

When I was a kid I used to go out on the golf course and find golf balls. Just for the hell of it I would cut the golf balls open, cut deep into them, and the tightly-wound little bands of rubber would snap and writhe like something going crazy. The golf ball would go all to pieces right there in your hand. That’s what Dorris reminded me of: she looked like she would go all to pieces any minute.

But she got up and went to the bathroom. After a while she came back and I was surprised to see that she was almost normal.

I said, “You were saying something about my killing somebody…”

She glanced at me, her old icy self again. “I—I’m afraid I have changed my mind. I don’t believe I need you, after all, Mr. Surratt.”

“Like hell you don’t need me,” I said. “What do I have to do to convince you? You don’t want to go through that act again, do you?”

That did it. She closed her eyes for a moment, her hands clenched hard, then she sank to the sofa.

“That’s better,” I said. “We understand each other, Dorris; I think we understand each other perfectly. We could make a hell of a pair, you and me, but it’s going to take some cooperation from both of us.”

“What is it you want?” she said tightly.

“Right now I want to get back where we left off.”

“It isn’t important now.”

“It was important a few minutes ago, so it still is. You wanted somebody killed. I want to know who and I want to know why.”

She knew I wasn’t kidding. She glanced at roe, then away. She put her hands in her lap and stared at them. “His name,” she said at last, “is Alex Burton.”

I whistled in surprise. “Alex Burton, the ex-governor of the state?”

She nodded, and I said, “Well, this is very interesting. Suppose you begin at the beginning.” Then, before she could speak, I said, “Wait just a minute. I’ve been working on a hypothesis, and I want you to tell me if it’s right.”

So I told her my idea, the way I had it figured out. Her eyes widened when I began describing the scheme of blackmail and suicide.

“How did you know that!”

“It was just a guess,” I said, “but a pretty sure one. Anyway, we can skip that part of it since I’m already familiar with it. Let’s get down to the reasons for killing an ex-governor. Is he the one who killed your husband?”

She wanted to just sit there and say nothing, but she knew better than that. “… No,” she said finally. “That is, I don’t know, I’m not sure.”

“Then why?”

“… Alex Burton wants to kill me.”

I thought that one over,, letting the picture take shape. “Uh-huh,” I said, “that could make sense. Your husband was turning the screw on Burton. What he wanted was the dossier that Venci had gathered on him, some irrefutable evidence that would ruin Burton for good, especially in politics. So now Burton is trying to kill you, which means that he didn’t get that dossier after all, which means that you have a pretty good idea where it is, or what’s in it. Is that the way it is?”

She nodded, heavily.

“Where do you live?”

Only a moment’s hesitation this time. She was beginning to come around, she was beginning to realize that I meant business. “208 Hunters Drive,” she said flatly.

I gave the cab dispatcher the address and hung up. “Mrs. Venci,” I said, “you can stop worrying about Alex Burton; I know how to take care of bastards like him. But I think we ought to have an understanding—there’s going to be a fee.”

She had recovered from her attack of female pride. Given time to think it over, even Dorris Venci could see that her chances of living were practically nil if Alex Burton wanted her dead—that is, unless I took care of Burton first. She said, “AH right… I’m willing to pay.”

“You don’t understand me,” I said. “I want money, but not your money, not John Venci’s money. I want that dossier that your husband collected on his enemies.”

She stared hard at her hands. “And what… do I get in return?”

“I told you, Mrs. Venci. I’ll kill Burton before he kills you. You know you’ll never be safe as long as you have those documents in your possession; actually, I’m doing you a favor by taking them.”

Then she looked at me, and smiled the smallest, bitterest smile I ever saw. “I thought it would be so simple,” she said, “when I helped you escape from prison. You would kill Alex Burton; I would give you a certain amount of money; and then you would leave the city and I would never see you again—that’s the way I had planned it.”

“Things are never as simple as they seem at first glance, Mrs. Venci. We’d better go now, the taxi’s waiting.”

“Wait a minute,” she said, in a way that made me turn and look at her. “I agree to your… proposition, but under two conditions. The first is that I am never to see you again, after you come into possession of the documents.”

“That’s fair enough. What’s the second condition?”

“You don’t get the documents until after the… transaction has been completed.”

I laughed. “Mrs. Venci, I was not born yesterday, not even the day before yesterday. This is strictly a pay-in-advance job we’re talking about. Now, before we go,” I said, “I want the answer to one question: Why did you take me out of the hotel and put me in this crummy apartment?”

She stood up, taking her lump gracefully enough about the advance payment. She said quietly, “Patricia Kelso lives just across the hall from you; she is Alex Burton’s secretary.”

“Is that supposed to help get me within killing distance of the ex-governor?”

“Where his secretary is, Alex Burton is not far behind.”

I grinned. “Mrs. Venci,” I said, “you have simplified things considerably. I apologize for some of the things I’ve been thinking about you.”

CHAPTER SIX

“ELLEN,” DORRIS Venci said, “show Mr. O’Connor to the library, will you, please?” Then, to me, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Sure,” I said, watching her walk stiffly to a large spiral stairway, then up the stairway, then out of sight.

Ellen, a grim, long-faced woman of about forty-five, said, “This way, Mr. O’Connor,” and I followed her over the wide expanse of reddish carpeting, down a few steps, around some corners, and finally she opened a heavy mahogany door and stepped to one side. “Thank you,” I said, walking into the library. The maid closed the door and vanished like yesterday’s dreams.

It was a hell of a place, this place where the maestro had lived. Note it carefully, I thought, because this is the way you are going to live, Surratt. The king is dead—long live the king!

I stood there and tried to soak it up, the luxury of that room. The floor was of old oak, and a huge, thick carpet.

But there were other things on the wall, things to make a man’s head swim, if he could even vaguely estimate their worth. For one thing there was a fantastically delicate Chinese tapestry, and there were paintings that I absolutely could not believe, would not believe to be originals, until I had inspected them closely. There was a large boating scene that I recognized as a Turner. On another wall there was an El Greco—an EL Greco, mind you!

That paintings so floored me that I forgot for a moment how fantastic it was finding them here in John Venci’s library. But, when I did think about it, the answer was obvious. Paintings like that simply weren’t for sale, not at any price. Possibly the Turner could have been bought—but not that El Greco, not in a hundred years! Those things were museum pieces, strictly!

The obvious implication just about bowled me over, By God, I thought, he stole those things! John Vend stole them! The pure audacity of the thing struck me as being hilariously funny. I sank into a chair and felt the laughter coming up from my bowels! I lay back and howled.

The door opened, Dorris came into the room carrying a small steel strongbox, and I was still laughing. “What’s so funny?”

“Those pictures,” I said, trying to choke it down. “Pictures?” She glanced at the paintings. “They never struck me as amusing.”

I was off again. “How… How long,” I said, “have those paintings been here?”

“Why, for years.”

“Did your husband keep this room locked? He didn’t receive visitors in here, did he?”

“Of course he did; this was his favorite room. Now will you tell me why you’re laughing?”

I said, “No. It would be a shame to spoil a joke as priceless as this one.” In my mind I could see John Venci receiving governors, senators, bigshot politicians, all of them here in this room. I could see the cigar-chewing apes gaping about the room, seeing but uncomprehending, their brains as solid as concrete. I could appreciate the razor-sharp humor, the subtle, bitter hilarity that John Venci must have experienced as he watched their stupid faces. It was more than a wonderful, fantastic joke, it had been a source of fuel for the ego; it had been a day-by-day replenishment of confidence, for every time an oaf stared dumbly at those paintings, Venci’s superiority was made brazenly obvious.

I stopped laughing and took the strongbox from Dorris. I could feel the transfer of power, John Venci’s power becoming mine. It’s more than a strongbox, I thought, it’s the world, and I’ve got it right in my hands. It is power over others and strength for myself, and, I’ve got it right in my hands!

“Is everything here?” I said.

“Yes.”

“Then you won’t mind if I look for myself; will you?”

She handed me the key and I opened the box. I was disappointed at first; there didn’t seem to be much to it. The strongbox was arranged like a miniature filing cabinet and everything was very neat and orderly. The name on the first index card was Allen, George W.

I looked at Dorris. “Do you know a George W. Allen?”

“He is an insurance broker.”

I skipped the material on Mr. Allen and turned up the next index card. “Karl Johnson Applewhite,” I said.

“President of the First National Bank.”

That was more like it!

The next name was Alex Burton, and the next one was somebody named Colter, who Dorris said was merely a superintendent of one of the city schools. There were twenty index cards and I went through them quickly, having Dorris give me a quick rundown on each name. Some of the names I didn’t have to ask about, they were known all over the state and even the nation. Some of the names meant absolutely nothing to me. A United States Senator or a down-at-the-heels school teacher, it had made no difference to John Venci. An enemy was an enemy, an old wound never healed. He had gone after the little ones just as relentlessly as he had the big ones.

And he had hooked them all. I didn’t realize how completely he had hooked them until I started going through the material on a man named Kelton.

Kelton had been a pretty important boy. He had been a district attorney with one foot practically in the Governor’s Mansion before John Venci had cut him down. It seems that the DA. had somehow failed to summon an important witness in an important murder trial. The day after the trial the D.A. made a deposit of five thousand dollars and traded his Chevrolet in on a new Cadillac. Mr. Kelton had lost a murder trial, but obviously he had gained in other ways, and the proof was in the strongbox. A signed affidavit by the spurned witness, cancelled checks, bills of sale, plus a detailed account of Kelton’s financial condition ten years back from the trial. As if that wasn’t enough, there was also an affair with a certain young lady of doubtful reputation, to say the least, and this was backed up with photostats of hotel registers, actual photographs, bills of sale from various jewelry stores, clothing emporiums and even a liquor store. All this together with another signed affidavit from the young lady herself. Every bit of evidence was strong almost to the point of ridiculousness, and any one bit would have brought him crashing from his political heights, and many of them would have landed him long prison terms.

Mr. Kelton was cooked. He had known that he was cooked. First his wife had divorced him, then there were rumors of grand jury investigations. The rest of it was spelled out in a newspaper clipping, also included in the material on Kelton. The headline was: D.A. KILLED IN FREAK AUTOMOBILE ACCIDENT.

It didn’t come right out and say that it had been suicide, but that wasn’t important: John Venci had known.

All in all there were four names that I couldn’t use at all because Venci had already finished them off. One was killed in another “freak” automobile accident, another took too many sleeping pills, and the third, who didn’t have the guts to kill himself, was suddenly discovered to have played a leading role in a seven-year-old murder and drew life in the State penitentiary.

Quickly, I ran down some of the other material, especially the material that John Venci had gathered on Alex Burton. Most of the stuff on the ex-governor was in photostatic form, photostats of bills of sale, cancelled checks, deposit slips, and even photostats of Burton’s income tax forms for five years back. The upshot of the evidence was that Burton had made himself a killing running well into six figures the four year stretch he had put in at the State Capitol. It was rock-hard, iron-bound evidence that could put Burton so far back in prison that they’d have to pump air to him.

It was incredible, it was almost more than I could believe, but it was there, it sure was!

Dorris Venci said, “Are you satisfied?”

“Perfectly. It’s pretty hard to swallow all at once, it’s something I’ll have to chew on for a while before I can digest it. But I’m satisfied, all right, in spades.”

“… And Alex Burton,” she asked flatly.

It was almost a shame to kill a man like that when I had all that evidence on him—still, he had proved that he was dangerous. He sure had proved it to John Venci. Yes, I thought, the only smart way to handle it is to kill Burton. There were still plenty of fish left, and I had plenty of bait.

I said, “You can stop worrying about Burton, Mrs. Venci.”

“I hope you realize it won’t be easy.”

“Please relax,” I said. “Just keep out of sight for a day or two; I won’t let him kill you.”

But she wasn’t so sure about that.

I said, “Look, Mrs. Venci, I’m no amateur, this is no punk kid trying to work up his guts to stick up an oil station, this is a professional, a well trained professional playing for big stakes. I’m not underrating Burton—a man with his record has to be pretty smart, but I’ve handled smart boys before, and I can do it again. So take it easy.”

I was half afraid that she would let her natural female instability lead her into some unpredictable action that would ruin everything. I was sorry now that I had got rough with her. She still knew things, she was still Mrs. John Venci, and I could use her on my side.

“Good by,” she said.

“Oh… Yes, I guess I’ve been here long enough. But before I go, is there anything you want to tell me, about Burton, I mean?”

“… No. You said you could handle it.”

“So I did. Well, I’ll be going.”

She rang for the maid. We stood there looking at each other, and after a moment she said, “I really mean good-by. Don’t ever try to see me again, ever.”

Not until I got back to my apartment did I remember Dorris had brought a package with her that morning. The package was still in the kitchen where she had left it, partly unwrapped. I opened it up and the first thing I saw was a nicely blued, but not new, “police special” .38 caliber revolver. There was also a box of ammunition. But the thing that caught my eye was the money. There was a package of fives, a package of tens and a package of twenties, every bill brand new and crisp and green.

I counted it out and it came to five hundred on the nose.

Well, I thought, this is very nice. This is very nice of you, Mrs. Venci. You may be a little mixed up sexually, but what’s an aberration or so among friends—you’ve got your nice side, too. Yes sir, you sure have!

I pocketed the money and went out to find the biggest goddamn steak in Lake City.

CHAPTER SEVEN

I WAS AT THE mail box in the hallway next morning when she came out of her apartment. She was just about the handsomest girl I ever saw, this Pat Kelso, this secretary of Alex Burton’s that Dorris Venci had hinted was something more than a secretary. She walked like Royalty: chin up, erect, every step sure and solid.

“Good morning,” I said.

She smiled faintly. “Good morning.”

“Pardon me, but could you tell me what time the postman comes around? I’m new to this neighborhood.” Then I added, “I just moved in yesterday, down the hall. Apartment seven.”

I thought maybe she would say something about our being neighbors, but she didn’t. “I believe the postman comes later,” she said, “around ten.” Then she nodded pleasantly, smiled that faint smile again, and walked out of the building.

I went to the door and watched her walk to the curb where a taxi was waiting. Pat Kelso. The name stuck with me, and the vision stuck with me. This girl is class, I told myself. How did she ever get mixed up with a bastard like Burton?

Then I remembered that most people didn’t know Burton as I now knew him. After all, he was a very wealthy and powerful and respected man in the state. He was a bigshot; he was an ex-governor. Maybe that’s the kind of guy girls with class went for. I watched her as she got into the cab. Pat Kelso, I thought, I think we ought to get better acquainted.

The telephone was ringing when I got back to the apartment. Words jumped out at me when I picked up the receiver, frightened words coming fast and making no sense at all. It was Dorris Venci and she was scared.

“Hold it, Mrs. Venci,” I said. “Now what’s the trouble.”

“A man tried to kill me!”

“Who? When?”

“I don’t know who, just a man, one of Alex Burton’s men, it could have been anybody. But he isn’t important, Alex Burton is the important one. Have… have you done…”

“Not yet,” I said. “After all it’s only been a few hours; I’ve got to have a little time to figure something out.”

“Something’s got to be done!”

“It sure has,” I said. “You’ve got to get hold of yourself. Now calm down and tell me what happened.”

“I told you, a man tried to kill me! It was last night, this morning, rather, about two o’clock. I woke up and there he was in my room; he had a gun!”

“Hold on. How did he get in your room. You had the house locked, didn’t you?”

“Yes, the house was locked, but there’s latticework and vines on the north side, and he must have used that to climb up to the second floor. He broke a window—rather cut the window, a small hole near the lock—that was how he got in.”

“I see. Then what happened.”

“I woke up and there he was. He had a gun pointed right at me!”

I said, “I don’t get it. If he went to that trouble and had a gun pointed at you, why didn’t he kill you?”

“He tried, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. He fired once but I had thrown myself off the bed. Luckily, before he could find me in the dark, Ellen began knocking on my door, making an awful noise, and I guess that’s what frightened him away.”

“You mean he just knocked off the job and left? I’d hate to hire a man like that.”

“I told you that Ellen was making a lot of noise, and, besides, she had a gun. She finally got the door open and fired once. Of course the killer couldn’t see who it was; he fired once more in the darkness and left.”

“How did he get out of the house?”

“He jumped from my window, my bedroom window.”

“Then there’s one hell of a sore hoodlum somewhere in Lake City this morning, taking a drop like that. But it’s over now. The main thing is for you to calm down and be quiet, and keep Ellen quiet too. I’ll think of something.”

“Soon!”

“All right, soon.”

“Today! Tonight at the latest!”

“All right, I said I would take care of it. Calm down.”

“There’s one more thing,” she said. “My safe was open, the wall safe upstairs where the strongbox was kept.”

I whistled. “That was close; I got that stuff just in time. And you are right about Burton, the bastard is entirely too persistent. Well, he won’t be so persistent this time tomorrow. Just think about that and try to get some sleep.”

I hung up.

That goddamn Burton, I thought, he’s going to ruin things good if I don’t stop him. When a politician gets in so deep that he starts playing with murder, that was the time to do one of two things: either back off fast and get out of the blast area when the explosion comes, or close in fast and try to get at the fuse.

There was one thing I was sure of—I wasn’t backing away. I had my hands on a million dollars worth of blackmail material. So Burton had to go, and fast. Soon as he found out that Dorris no longer had the evidence, he’d come after me. Somehow he would find out about me. That’s the only trouble with blackmailing—sooner or later you run into a guy like Burton, a guy who won’t give.

So, right on the spot, I made up my mind about Burton. I was going to kill him today, or tonight—anyway, within the next twelve hours—if it was humanly possible. But it wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t know a thing about his personal habits, except he was somehow tied up with his secretary, Pat Kelso. That was the angle I would have to use, it was the only angle I had.

The only thing to do was begin at the beginning and try to find out something about Pat Kelso. I had a look at the door across the hall, the door to Pat Kelso’s apartment, hoping that it would be unlocked, but of course it wasn’t. That didn’t stop me for long.

I went back and looked at my own door and smiled a little when I saw that it was equipped with an ordinary spring-operated night latch. In my kitchen I found a cheap paring knife, a flexible, stainless steel affair that was practically made to order.

I made sure that the hallway was empty, then went to work on Miss Kelso’s night latch. The blade went in easily. I bent the knife toward the door and forced the point down the sloping shoulder of the spring bolt. When the point of the knife reached the leading edge of the bolt, I bent the blade the other way and the stronger tension of the steel blade snapped the spring-actuated bolt back into the latch body and the door was open. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me.

The apartment was much like mine but neater. It was almost mannish in its neatness and simplicity.

I walked into the bedroom and this too was neat and simple: tweed at the windows, fruitwood furniture which was not expensive but too expensive to belong to the apartment. I started going through a chest of drawers and found nothing but lingerie, but there was a silver-framed photograph on top of the chest that interested me. It was a man of about fifty-five or so, a square-jawed, blunt-featured man with bristling gray hair, and a rather grim mouth that was bent determinedly up at the corners in something that might pass as a smile. Just for the hell of it I took the picture out of the frame, and there on the back scrawled in bold, blunt letters, was: “For Pat, with all my love, Alex.”

It was strange, the way that picture affected me. Until that moment Alex Burton had been an abstraction, an inanimate obstacle that had been placed in my path and which had to be removed. Now it was different. The longer I looked at that picture, the more I hated the man it represented, and I didn’t know exactly why, except that I resented the presence of that picture and its implications. I simply couldn’t see a girl like Pat Kelso with a man like Burton. I thought of the girl I had seen at the mail box, then I looked at the picture, and I looked at the bed in Pat Kelso’s room, and the three of them came together in my mind.

With that picture in my hand, I thought: You sonofabitch, you lousy sonofabitch! without even knowing what I was angry about.

At last I put the picture back in the frame. I made myself settle down. I got out of that bedroom.

Stop it, Surratt! What kind of insanity is this, anyway, getting yourself steamed up just because another secretary decides it’s more convenient to sleep with the boss than look for another job? She’s just another broad, Surratt, and a broad you hardly even know, at that. So forget her. Think about the job at hand—that ought to keep you busy.

It was good advice. And I took it. When a man starts thinking with his glands instead of his brain he’s sunk, and I realized that I had been doing exactly that. I had been too damn long without a woman. After all, I was human, I was a man. Any other man would react the same way, I thought, after five years of celibacy.

I was convinced.

“It is perfectly normal and completely glandular,” I said aloud.

I went back to the sitting room and got into action with the telephone directory. In the white pages I found Burton, and then I moved down to Burton Finance and Loans, and dialed the number. After a moment a blatantly nasal voice bleated: “Burtonfinanceandloans!”

“I want to talk to Miss Kelso. Pat Kelso.”

“Sorrynooneherebythatname!”

I hung up and moved down to Burton Manufacturing and Construction Company. This time the voice was pleasant and professionally precise.

I said, “I want to talk to Miss Kelso.”

“Miss Kelso is on the other line, sir. Would you like to…”

I hung up.

Now I had a starting place.

CHAPTER EIGHT

THE FIRST THING I did was rent a black Chevrolet sedan from a U-drive-it place which I found in the telephone directory. Then I started looking for the Burton Manufacturing and Construction Company.

It turned out to be a sprawling brick building, and several smaller buildings, south of the city in the factory district. I circled the place slowly, looking it over, and finally found a parking place in front of the main building where the office workers would come out. Then I settled down to wait.

This was the tedious way of getting at Burton, but it was the only way. One thing I was sure of, I wasn’t going to stalk the lion in his lair, I wasn’t going to elbow my way through hired bodyguards, hoodlums and flunkies to get at him—I was going to let Alex Burton come to me. I hoped he would come to me today, but if he didn’t, I could wait. I was going to sit here and wait for Pat Kelso to come out of that building, and then I was going to follow her to the end of the line.

Sooner or later it would lead me to Burton. More than that, it would lead me to Burton when he was most vulnerable. I knew these men like Alex Burton, these bigshots who like to throw their weight around but deep inside are scared in their guts. Because they are scared they hire themselves a pair of hotshots from Chicago, or Detroit, or some place, and they place armed guards and electric fences around their homes, and they tell themselves they are safe. No matter how many enemies they make, they are safe. Or so they think.

But they are vulnerable. There are situations in which they have to stand on their own feet, naked and alone.

With women, they are vulnerable. I never heard of one, no matter how great a coward he was, who prepared himself for a lady’s bedroom by flanking himself with bodyguards.

Oh, yes, they were vulnerable, all right, if you only waited.

I waited.

Noon came and only a scattering of people came out of the building. I went on waiting. The afternoon crawled by and my stomach growled for food and my throat was dry, but I didn’t dare leave that car. There was always a chance that Pat would leave for some reason, or that Burton would pick her up, and I wanted to be on hand if anything like that happened.

But nothing happened. There was a big parking area behind the main building and I watched the single exit like a hawk… still, nothing happened. Then, around four o’clock a squadron of taxi cabs began lining up in front of the building and I knew the time of waiting was about over. Soon I would know if today would be the day, or if I would have to do it again.

Another fifteen minutes passed. A ridiculously long, black limousine slipped into the street and moved like a huge shadow between the files of parked traffic. The back seat was empty. As the limousine slid past me and turned into the entrance gate of the company parking lot I studied the driver. He was in full livery, a beefy, flat-faced kid of about twenty-three or four with punk written all over him. He yelled something to one of the parking attendants, then drove on around to the back of the building and out of sight. I turned my attention back to the main entrance of the building, where the office workers would soon be coming out.

I almost missed that limousine as it slipped out of the parking lot and headed up the street in the opposite direction. If it hadn’t been so big and black I would have missed it altogether—but it was pretty hard to miss a thing that big. I turned my head just in time to see that there was somebody in the back seat this time. All I could see was the passenger’s head, but that was enough. The passenger was Pat Kelso.

v Well, I thought, slamming the Chevy into gear, Miss Kelso believes in traveling first class, I’ll say that for her. I pulled out in the middle of the street and finally got the Chevy headed in the direction the limousine was going.

The limousine headed right toward the heart of town, me in the Chevy about a block behind. No use sticking too close, there wasn’t much chance losing an automobile as big as that one. We hit a four lane expressway and everything was clear sailing—I breathed a little faster when we crossed North Hampton and kept on going. It meant Pat Kelso wasn’t going home; that meant that Burton had sent his limousine to pick her up and now she was going to meet him. Surratt, I thought, this is your lucky day.

The University Club was right in the middle of town, a red brick and white limestone monstrosity. Just beyond the main entrance to the club there was a drive-in entrance with a sign over it: UNIVERSITY CLUB GARAGE. MEMBERS ONLY. Directly in front of the main entrance there were two sidewalk signs which read: NO PARKING. NO STANDING. The curb between the two signs was painted red and there was white stenciled lettering standing boldly against that red background. NO PARKING AT ANY TIME. The punk chauffeur blandly ignored the garage, the sidewalk no-parking signs, the red curb and white lettering, and parked the limousine against the curb.

A uniformed doorman burst out of the University Club and had the limousine door open almost immediately. He showed his teeth, he grinned, he bowed, he helped Pat Kelso out of the limousine as though he were assisting a very aged and crippled queen, and finally, after he had done his job to perfection, he stood, head bowed, looking heart-broken because there was no other way he could help her.

It was really quite a show. I only glimpsed it as I eased the Chevrolet up the street, but I got the idea.

I circled the block two times and finally found an open space and slipped the Chevy in next to a parking meter. Five o’clock.

I got out of the Chevy and strolled down to a cigar store next to the University Club garage. That limousine was still there in the no parking zone. The punk was out stretching his legs. He took a swipe or two at the gleaming hood with a dust cloth, then went over to one of the sidewalk signs and leaned on it insolently, dragging on a cigarette.

He was some boy, that chauffeur, cocky as a Marine. A cop strolled by, making a great business of not seeing the limousine in the no parking zone, which was no easy feat. The punk grinned. He looked as though he had just pulled the Brink’s robbery single handed.

I strolled back up the street to a bootblack stand that I had noticed.

“Shine ’em up, mister?”

“Sure.”

From my perch on the shine bench I could still see the limousine and the chauffeur. The boy went to work on my shoes, and I scanned the front page of the paper for something on the prison escape story, but nothing was there. On page eight there was a quarter column quoting the warden as saying I didn’t have a chance. They knew all my old contacts, all my friends, and it was just a matter of time before I would have to get in touch with them. The police had several leads that were too hot for publication—which is what they always said when they knew absolutely nothing.

I read the escape story through and felt fine. My old contacts were a thousand miles from Lake City. As for friends, I hadn’t any. Roy Surratt against the world, I liked it that way. Not even John Venci had been a friend. I had admired his brain. He had dazzled me with criminal theory and his tremendous knowledge of criminal philosophy. I had been greatly impressed with his logical approach to crime, for, until I met John Venci, I had believed that I was the only modern criminal in existence who had actually developed a workable, livable criminal philosophy based entirely on logic.

I had been wrong. John Venci had worked it out before me.

“There you are, sir!” the shine boy said.

I gave him a dollar and said, “Keep the change.”

“Yes sir! Thank you, sir!” He grinned, pocketed the money, gave my shoes a couple of extra licks just to show he was doing a good job.

I went out on the sidewalk, glanced toward the limousine. The punk had shifted over to the other no-parking sign and was busy leering at the white-collar girls waiting at the corner bus stop. I walked over to him and said, “Say, that’s quite an automobile you’ve got here. I was just noticing it.”

“Look, bo,” the amateur Bogart said from the corner of his mouth, “I got no time to stand here an’ chew the rag with every farmer come by. You better move on.”

“I just want to…”

“I ain’t interested,” he said, “Now move on before I get annoyed.”

Why, you simian sonofabitch, I thought, you make one move in my direction, just one single move, and you’ll be till sundown gathering your teeth off the sidewalk. I stood there for a full thirty seconds, almost hoping that he would start something.

All he did was sweat. He didn’t know what to do. The comic books don’t tell you what to do in a case like that. I flicked a small ash from his whipcord jacket, then he blinked as I jabbed my forefinger into his solar plexus and fanned my thumb like a Hollywood gunfighter. “I enjoyed the chat, Humphrey. Maybe I’ll run into you again, sometime.”

I walked to the cigar store and looked back. The punk seemed a bit disturbed. He tried leaning on the no-parking sign, but it wasn’t the same as it had been before. Finally he gave it up and got back in the limousine.

I moved up the street, pausing at store windows, killing all the time I could. How long was Burton and his secretary going to stay in that club, anyway? Were they just having cocktails, or were they staying for dinner, or what? I sure couldn’t wait for them on the sidewalk and burn Burton down when they came out, although the pure audacity of that fleeting thought did appeal to my sense of the bizarre. No, I thought, this has got to be fast and it has got to be bold, but not that bold!

Finally, I saw them cross the sidewalk. Alex Burton, a little heavier than I would have guessed from that photograph, a little softer looking. Pat Kelso had one arm in Burton’s and she was smiling at whatever Burton was saying. She was absolutely the most beautiful woman I ever saw. And it wasn’t only because I had been five years without a woman!

CHAPTER NINE

I WAS IN THE Chevy and had the motor going by the time Burton and his secretary got themselves settled in the limousine. I slipped in behind them, about three cars back, when they came past me. The punk tooled the black job through the heavy traffic as though he were behind the controls of a Patton tank, stopping for red lights only when it pleased him, and I had a hell of a time keeping him in sight until finally he slipped back on the expressway. Then I closed the gap.

I had no idea where we were going, except that we were headed away from the city, going north. Maybe, I thought, Burton has a house out here somewhere. If that’s the case, I’m sunk. I sure wasn’t going to have any luck getting close to Burton on his home field.

Then my heart swelled just a little as the limousine turned off the expressway. I hung back as far as possible, thinking, now we’ll find out. The limousine turned again, off a paved street onto a graveled road. When I reached the corner in the Chevy, I grinned. This was more like it. The cards were falling in my direction.

There was a brick pillar on the turn-off. On the pillar there was a bronze plaque with raised lettering: CREST-VIEW CLUB. MEMBERS ONLY.

A formal stand of cypress shielded the Crestview Club from the paved street, and a stone wall jealously guarded it on the side of the graveled road. I cruised by at a normal speed after the limousine had turned in, and right away I realized that this place was out of the question. There were two uniformed attendants at the big wrought iron entrance gate, and farther down, at the end of the stone wall, there was another attendant, or guard. This goddamn place, I thought, is only slightly less guarded than Fort Knox! Which could mean just one thing—there was gambling going on inside, big-money gambling, and the management was taking no chances on a heist.

It looked like a fine place, just the kind of club Alex Burton would belong to, and a hell of a place to crash. I had seen enough to know that it couldn’t be crashed, not by one man, anyway, so I drove on until I came to a dirt section line road, then circled the entire section and came back on the paved street to the brick pillar.

The club was out.

As long as Burton stayed in that place I couldn’t reach him with a .37 millimeter cannon. But the night wasn’t over yet.

I nosed the Chevy off the pavement onto the club crossroad, but in the opposite direction. This end of the road was not graveled, since it apparently led to nowhere. I traveled for maybe a quarter mile between heavy stands of trees, then turned the car around and headed toward the pavement, facing the paved street and the club. About a hundred yards from the street I pulled the Chevy on a rutted shoulder, in the long shadows, and stopped.

I would wait. I would wait and watch that road, and when the limousine came out I would follow it right to the end of the line. There was no sense beating my brains out on something I couldn’t whip, it was much easier to wait. Sooner or later I would find an opening. Sooner or later Burton would relax.

I checked the .38 that Dorris Venci had left for me. I checked the double action mechanism, the cylinder rotating mechanism, and the firing pin. I took five cartridges from the sealed box, wiped the cartridges carefully with my handkerchief and slipped them into the cylinder. I rotated the cylinder until the one empty chamber was in firing position and I eased the hammer down on it. The extra cartridges I dropped into my coat pocket; the .38 went into my waistband where it was convenient and stood little chance of becoming fouled with lint.

I waited.

Dusk became darkness, and I could see the misty lights of the club.

Seven, eight, nine o’clock.

I waited.

Nine, ten, ten-thirty. I had no watch but I could hear those out-of-tune electronic chimes banging out each quarter hour, so I knew what time it was, although I tried not to listen.

Eleven o’clock, eleven-fifteen.

I checked the .38 again just to give my hands something to do. Eleven-thirty. I saw the limousine turn off the graveled road and onto the highway. If my chance was coming tonight, it would be soon. I waited until the limousine had passed, then switched my lights on and followed.

After all the tailing and waiting and hoping, it seemed anti-climatic that the actual business of killing Burton should be so easy. Once more we took the expressway to town, and then the limousine turned west on North Hampton Street and I thought: By God, I’ve been doing all this tail chasing for nothing! We were headed right back where I started from. The apartment building.

I switched off my lights and coasted to the curb about a block behind the limousine. I saw Burton and Pat Kelso get out of the car, and I saw the chauffeur standing there holding the door open for them. Burton and his secretary started up to walk to the front entrance. I headed for the limousine.

I stuck my head in the door and said, “Whataya know, Humphrey? I had a feeling we might meet again sometime.”

At first he just looked surprised. Then he recognized me and began to get mad. I guess he had been thinking about our chat in front of the University Club. He had it all planned out in his mind just how he was going to tell me off if he ever saw me again, but before he could say anything I stuck the .38 in his face. I put it right under his nose where he could smell the gun oil and steel.

“What the hell is this!”

“Nothing yet,” I said, getting into the back seat. “Just stay where you are. Don’t move or make a sound.”

“By God, if you think…!”

I jammed the muzzle into his throat and he almost fainted. “Listen to me, punk, and listen good! I want you to sit there like a goddamn statue. You move one muscle and I’ll blow the roof of your mouth through your skull!”

He could be a very smart boy when it suited him. He didn’t move a muscle. He sat just like a statue. I leaned over the back of the seat, moving the muzzle of the .38 until it was pressing against the base of his skull, then I patted him down. He wore a .38 automatic in a shoulder holster, just like in the movies. His only trouble was that automatic might as well have been a chocolate bar, for all the good it had done him. He hadn’t even made a move in its direction.

I never cared for automatics. There are too many things to go wrong with them. I shoved it in my coat pocket, then reached back with one hand and pulled down the folding jump seat by the door.

“If it’s money,” he said tightly, “I ain’t got any.”

“It isn’t money,” I said.

“What is it, then? For God’s sake, what is it?”

“All right, Humphrey,” I said, “I’ll tell you what it is. I’m going to kill your boss. When he come out of that apartment building, you’re going to just sit there behind the wheel and say nothing and do nothing. Is that clear?”

“Kill Mr. Burton? Why?”

“I’ve got my reasons, Humphrey.”

“For Christ’s sake, Mr. Burton’s the finest guy in the world! Why in the world would you want to kill him?”

“He’s so goddamn nice, why does he dress his chauffeur in a .38?”

“Jeez, for protection!”

I laughed. “A fine lot of protection he’s going to get out of you, Humphrey. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you didn’t lose your job over this.”

He was sweating plenty. I kept grinding the muzzle of my revolver into the back of his neck and I could see the nervous sweat oozing out on his face.

“Jeez, won’t you take that thing out of my neck!”

“Sorry, Humphrey, it’s necessary. It’s a reminder of what will happen to you if you should feel any hero impulse coming on.”

He sat very still and quiet for several minutes, and so did I. After a while I heard a soft hiss, a bare whisper of a hiss, and then I recognized it as the vacuum stop on the apartment building’s front door. Then a figure grew out of the darkness, heading toward the limousine.

“Remember, Humphrey.”

He whimpered a little. A very small whimper.

Then suddenly the night was alive with noise. The twin air horns on that limousine exploded a steady stream of sound into the darkness. I jerked my pistol out of Humphrey’s neck and clubbed him with the barrel. I hit him again and again, and finally the noise of the horns stopped as abruptly as it had begun. I jumped out of the car and almost ran over Burton.

“Listen,” I said, jamming the revolver hard into his gut, “you make one sound and you’re dead! You understand that?”

“What… What’s going on here! Where’s Robert!”

“If Robert’s your chauffeur he’s nursing a fractured skull. Now get in under the wheel and do it quick!”

“No!” His eyes were wild. He was completely panic stricken. He tried to shove himself away from me, and I knew immediately that it would have to be done here and now.

To muffle the sound I jammed the muzzle hard into his soft stomach—still the noise sounded like a TNT plant going up when I pulled the trigger. Burton’s mouth flew open. He started clawing at his middle, but that action was pure reflex. Alex Burton had died almost instantly.

His body was a hell of a thing to handle. He had weighed almost two hundred pounds and there didn’t seem to be any place to grab hold. However, I did manage to get him in the back seat and close the door. Then I got under the wheel of the limousine, after shoving Humphrey down to the floorboards, and got away from there. It seemed incredible to me that the street wasn’t filled with people—horns blasting, guns exploding!

The noise, I guess, hadn’t been nearly as loud as it had seemed to me, but it had been plenty loud enough.

For a moment all I could think of was getting away from that neighborhood as fast as possible, but soon I began to settle down. The excitement and wildness, the exhilaration born of sudden violence, began to cool in my brain and I thought: Hold it, Surratt! This is no time to risk a reckless driving charge, not with a dead man in the car, an ex-governor at that! Maybe a dead ex-governor and a dead chauffeur as well.

Traffic was pretty thin on the side streets at that time of night, and I kept going south and east, not knowing where I was going, but knowing that I had to get that limousine and the bodies as far away from the apartment as possible. Pretty soon we were, in the factory district again, not far from Burton’s own plant, and I decided that this would be as good a place as any. This part of town was drab, dead and lifeless at this time of night; the buildings standing gaunt and empty-eyed. I turned into a narrow brick paved street, a private one-way street that would be jammed in the daytime with trucks loading and unloading at one of the factories, but now it was empty.

I stopped the limousine and listened. There was no sound at all in the immediate neighborhood. Only then did I examine the chauffeur. He was dead.

With my handkerchief I wiped the steering wheel, the dash, the doors, the windows, everything I might have touched. Then I wiped Humphrey’s automatic and left it on the front seat—I had no use for automatics, and it wouldn’t have been smart to keep it if I had.

I had one good look at Burton before I left. He didn’t look like much. His mouth was open, as though he were trying to yell, and his eyes were open, very wide. He looked like the most surprised bastard in the world.

I felt pretty good.

It had come off very nicely. The one man in Lake City who had had the power and brains to buck John Venci was dead. It was clear sailing now; the single danger had been eliminated. I said aloud, “Sweet dreams, boys,” and walked away.

I turned west and saw a bar at the end of the block. Up ahead, in the middle of the next block there was an all night eating place—I went in and ordered a glass of milk and a piece of pie. Later I called a taxi, and when he arrived I gave the driver an address down town. Downtown I took another cab and went to an address south-east, and from there I took still another cab to within a couple of blocks of my apartment. It took some time, but it would be worth it when the cops went to work.

It was about one o’clock when I finally walked into my apartment. I had company. It was Dorris Venci.

I said, “Well, for a woman who never wanted to see me again, you pop up in some pretty strange places.”

“I had to know!” she said quickly. “Did you…?”

“I did.”

“… Oh.”

I closed the door, walked into the room and dropped into a chair. She sat on the sofa with her hands clasped in her lap, every muscle in her body as rigid as steel. “Are… Are you sure?” she said nervously.

“I give you my personal guarantee; you can stop worrying about Burton’s hoodlums coming in your windows and you can stop worrying about being killed.

“Relax, now. You’re going to fly all to pieces one of these days if you don’t learn how to relax.” I was tired. It had been a very successful day, but it had also been a wearing one. “Why don’t you go home,” I said, “and try to get some sleep?”

She stared at her hands. “Yes… I suppose I should.”

But she didn’t move.

“Well,” I said, “you might as well come out with it.”

“What?”

“You didn’t come here just to find out about Burton. All you had to do was lift the phone; I would have told you. No, you came here because you’ve got something on your mind, so what is it?”

She looked at me. “Don’t you know?”

Suddenly I wasn’t as tired as I thought I was. Still, there was caution in the back of my brain and it kept nudging me.

“Yes,” she said flatly, “You know. And John. The only two people in the world who knew, or guessed, or could… satisfy… this awful sickness in my soul.”

“It’s not as monstrous as you think,” I said. “Matter of fact, it is fairly common.”

More than anything in the world she wanted to run. She wanted to run from the apartment, from me, from herself most of all, but she couldn’t move.

I knew what the end of this was going to be. I didn’t know if it was smart, and at that moment I didn’t care, but the longer I looked at Dorris Venci the more desirable she became. She was really a hell of a woman, especially at a time like this.

I stared at her and could think of nothing else. The vision of Pat Kelso was swept from my brain completely and a bright blue flame took its place. I grabbed her arm, just below the wrist joint, and began to squeeze. I dug my fingers in the most sensitive area, between the two flexon tendons, and applied sharp pressure to the median nerve.

Her reaction was instant and violent. The shock went through her, shook her. She came off the couch and threw herself at me. “Now! Now!”

CHAPTER TEN

THE NEWSPAPERS made a hell of a racket about the Burton killing. I had expected headlines, and maybe even a front page editorial, but I hadn’t expected anything like what really happened. For a whole week there was nothing but Alex Burton.

According to newspaper editorialists and radio commentators, St. Francis of Assisi had been an outright scoundrel, compared to Alex Burton. A feature story on Burton’s life ran to twelve installments. Preachers made him a martyr, used him as a subject for a number of sermons. A song writer composed something called Alex Burton, Friend Of The Common Man. A citizens’ committee was formed and issued an ultimatum to the police department: get Alex Burton’s murderer, or else!

The craziest thing about the whole affair, though, was that every man, woman and child in Lake City believed every word they read or heard concerning the late Alex Burton. They thought of him as a kindly man who loved children, headed charity organizations, gave Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets to the needy; they thought of him as a tower of righteousness and strength. They thought of him as being on just one small step below God Himself!

Not only after his death, which might be explained as emotional hysteria, but they had believed it while he was alive! They had begged him to run for a second term as Governor—this thieving, knavish, pompous bastard who had robbed them blind during his political lifetime, had bled the State white, had committed every crime in the book, including murder, and I had the evidence to prove it! It was incredible that a man could have duped so many people so thoroughly, but Alex Burton had managed it.

All in all, it rather amused me. This hullabaloo was the most damaging comment imaginable on the intellect of the common herd. John Venci, too, would have appreciated a joke like this.

From John Venci’s strongbox I selected the name of Parker King, a wealthy state senator, to go to work on. Politicians are easier to convince than most men; they have more to be afraid of. So Senator King seemed an excellent prospect. At the same time, as I looked into King’s background, there was Dorris Venci who had to reckoned with. The task was not unpleasant, not in the least, so long as we kept it purely biological. And, too, there was Pat Kelso.

For me, Pat completed the circle. King promised the prospect of violence that I had to have to feel alive. Dorris offered biological satisfaction which I needed to keep my brain honed to the necessary sharpness. Pat Kelso… she was everything else.

I went after her.

“Why, hello there!”

I had tried several things since Burton’s funeral: A few words at the mailbox, brief, senseless conversations in the hallway of our apartment building. Those tactics hadn’t got me anywhere, so I had come right out to the Burton factory where she still worked.

It was quitting time and she had come out with all the other office workers this time. No chauffeur to pick her up in a limousine and whisk her off to the University Club. Burton’s death had brought Pat Kelso down in the world somewhat, but it hadn’t brought her off her queenly bearing.

I said, “Remember me? I’m your neighbor. William O’Connor from across the hall.”

“… Oh, yes,” smiling faintly. “I didn’t know you worked here, Mr. O’Connor.”

I laughed. “I don’t work here, I just came out to see a friend who does. Charlie Burkett, in Advertising. Maybe you know him.”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t.” We were standing on the sidewalk in front of the building, the white-collar parade going past on either side.

“Miss Kelso,” I said, and she paused for a moment, half turning. “I was just thinking, Miss Kelso, I’m going back to the apartment myself.”

No smile this time. “I’m sorry, Mr. O’Connor, I’d rather….”

She left it hanging, nodded, then walked on by herself. Well, by God, I thought, this kind of thing has got to stop! I’m getting pretty goddamn tired of women looking at me like I was something pickled in formaldehyde. I followed her.

I said, “All right, I didn’t come out here to see a friend, and I never knew a Charlie Burkett.”

Anyway, it stopped her, it surprised her. “I beg your pardon?”

“Miss Kelso,” I said, “don’t you think it’s about time you joined the Living?”

She frowned, “Really, Mr. O’Connor, I don’t know…”

“Yes, you do,” I said. “I’ve tried just about everything in the book to get to know you better, and finally I tried this; you know it.”

People were staring at us, and that bothered her. I took her arm and helped her into a waiting taxi, then got in beside her. I said to the driver, “The Lake Hotel,” then settled back and looked at her.

She was not afraid, merely curious. “You are very persuasive person, Mr. O’Connor,” she said dryly.

“Yes, I can be persuasive if the occasion calls for it.”

Unsmiling, she looked at me, strangely, as though she was seeing me for the first time. She said, “What did you mean when you said it was time I joined the Living?”

“It’s pretty obvious to an interested observer. You haven’t been anywhere, seen anybody, you haven’t even smiled since Alex Burton was killed.”

She looked as though I had slapped her. “Relax,” I said. It seemed that I was always telling women to relax. “It’s not exactly a secret, is it, that Alex Burton and his secretary were…”

“I’ll thank you,” she hissed, “to keep out of my life, Mr. O’Connor!”

I shrugged.

“And I’m not going to the Lake Hotel with you, or anywhere else! I’m going home!”

“I had hoped I wouldn’t have to bring this up,” I said, “but you leave me no alternative. It’s a little awkward for me; for a while I thought about telling it to the police, but then I thought what the hell, there’s no use spoiling a nice girl’s life.” I grinned. “You are a nice girl, aren’t you, Miss Kelso?”

She didn’t know what I was getting at, but she was doing some pretty fast guessing, and she didn’t like it. I said, “It was pure accident, understand, that I happened to see Burton entering your apartment just about the time he was killed, according to the police coroner. After all, we are neighbors, and a person does get curious about his neighbors sometimes. Of course, at the time, I thought you would tell the police yourself—but I understand now that it would have placed you in an—unfavorable light, so I really don’t blame you. Still, it is information that the police might…”

“What do you want!” she said hoarsely.

“Want?” Lord, she was beautiful! Her eyes blazed with anger and every inch of her was alive.

“My wants are very simple,” I said. “I’m a lonely guy in a strange town. I want a bottle of good wine, a good meal, and a beautiful girl to keep me company—the most natural desires in the world.”

She said one word, under her breath, and not a very nice word at that.

I laughed. “You won’t believe this, but I almost never make a good impression on people. That has always seemed unfair, because I’m a lovable guy when you get to know me.”

“I’ll bet!”

I liked this. I had a feeling that under that mask of hers was something very exciting. Then the cab stopped and I was surprised to see that we were already in the heart of town, at the Lake Hotel.

“Fine!” I paid the driver, assisted her from the cab.

Pat seemed to know her way around so I said, “The choice is up to you. There must be a good saloon somewhere in this place.” The decor in the African Room was extremely modern and angular and not much to my taste, but it was better than anything I had seen for five years so I didn’t complain.

I looked at Pat when the waiter arrived and she said, “Martini, five-to-one.”

I looked at the waiter and he nodded that he had the order. I said, “Bourbon on the rocks,” and he went away.

We said nothing until the drinks arrived and the waiter went away again. Then she looked at me, angrily. “Now I want to know the reason for all this!”

“I told you, I was lonely.”

“I don’t feel like jokes. What is it you want?”

“I told you what I wanted. Maybe it’s strange, but it’s the truth.”

“Understand one thing,” she said tightly. “I don’t have to stand for this… this caveman performance of yours. I have friends…”

“Have you?” I said. “Alex Burton had people in debt to him and might have called them friends, but they don’t count now.”

Color crept high in her face. “I must have been insane,” she said, “when I allowed you to drag me into that taxi. I thought… I don’t know what I thought. But I know one thing, I’ve had enough.” She stood up.

I said, “Sit down!”

She didn’t move.

I came half out of my chair. “Listen to me!” I said. “You try to leave this room and I’ll cause the goddamnedest scene you ever saw! I’ll tie you up with the Burton murder and get your name in headlines if I have to print the papers myself! Now sit down!”

She dropped as though she had been shot.

“That’s better. Now drink your Martini and calm down a little.”

She glared at me, then downed the drink angrily. The well-trained waiter was right at my elbow, ready to pick up the empty glass. “Another of the same,” I said, “for the lady.”

We sat in absolute silence until the drink arrived. I hadn’t meant for it to be like this at all, I had meant for it to be a nice, smooth operation carried off in a civilized manner. But, goddamnit, people simply would not allow me to be civilized.

Jesus, I thought, I don’t enjoy this sort of thing; I’m no goddamn sadist. A certain amount of violence, sure; like a good fighter, I needed a certain amount of violence to keep my reflexes in condition.

The waiter came and went away again, and still we sat there in silence. But she didn’t look quite as angry now. I could almost see her taking control of her emotions, and some of the fire went out of her eyes, and she sat there for a long while, studying me coldly, calmly.

“Well,” I said at last, “what do you see?”

“… I’m not sure.”

“Believe me,” I said, “I didn’t enjoy that little scene. I hadn’t meant for it to be that way at all. Now, have you calmed down a little?”

“… Yes.”

“Fine. Finish your martini, then if you still want to walk out, I won’t try to stop you. Is that fair enough?”

“Mr. O’Connor,” she said coldly, “I want to ask you once more. What do you want from me?”

I sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong here, I honestly don’t. We speak the same language, don’t we, the American language? I’ve told you three times, it’s a universal plot: boy meets girl, the oldest plot in the world. My methods were unorthodox, I admit it, and perhaps they were all wrong, I admit that too, but believe me, that’s all there is to it. To put it bluntly, I saw you, I wanted you, I went after you. Do I make myself clear?”

“Things you want… Do you always go after them like this?”

“That depends on the situation and the value of the object desired.”

“I see.” Her hand was perfectly steady as she lifted the martini to her Ups. “Do your methods work?” she asked, her gaze lowered.

“Yes,” I said, “my methods usually work. Not always, of course; nothing is perfect. But ninety per cent of the time, yes, they work.”

“See something you want, take it,” she said.

“You amaze me,” I said. “Yes, that sums up my philosophy pretty well. It is simple, direct, completely honest.”

She lifted her gaze to stare at me. “Honest?”

She was interested now; at least, she was curious, and this pleased me. I said, “Of course. The strong take from the weak. They always have and always shall. That is the first law of Nature, and what could be more honest than Nature?

“That sounds pretty pat for a philosophy.”

“Of course it’s pat, because it is simple, and honesty is a straight line between the question and the answer.”

“It sounds like a negative philosophy, at the very least.”

“Negative? That depends on one’s definition of good and evil. But first philosophy itself must be defined. ‘Philosophy,’ said a certain Frenchman, ‘is the pursuit of pleasure.’ What could be more sensible? Now, how do you achieve this philosophic pleasure? Pleasure is brought about through the fulfillment of personal ambition, the acquisition of wealth or power, or the titillation of our senses and appetites.”

She sat there for a moment, still staring very soberly at my face. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to bore you.”

“… I’m not exactly bored,” she said, after a moment. “I have a question.”

“Shoot.”

“Who is the Frenchman you admire so much and love to quote?”

I laughed. “I was afraid you would ask that—please don’t allow his reputation to obscure his logic. His name was the Marquis de Sade.”

“Where did he die, this hero of yours, this Marquis de Sade?”

“… In a madhouse, I believe.”

She smiled thinly. “That’s some philosophy you’ve adopted, Mr. O’Connor!”

I could have carried my argument forward and perhaps made a point or two, but I was no longer interested in abstract criminal theory. It had served its purpose for the present, it had got Pat Kelso curious as to just what the hell kind of guy I was, anyway.

Then she jarred me. “I met a man once,” she said, “who had ideas much the same as yours. His name was Venci. John Venci, I believe.”

“Venci?”

How much did she know? How much was she guessing?

I said, “I don’t believe I know the name. Who is he?”

“He is dead,” she said flatly. “He was a gangster and very powerful, but now he is dead.”

“… I see.” Then I said, “I find this interesting—you and a gangster, I mean. You don’t seem to go together. How did you meet?”

“Through a… friend.”

“Alex Burton?”

That was the sensitive nerve. Something happened to her, especially to her eyes, when his name was mentioned. I said, “All right, it isn’t important, we’ll forget it.” I noticed that her glass was empty again, and I remembered that I had made a promise and would have to keep it. Pat Kelso was no person to be held by chains alone; there had to be something stronger than that: curiosity, hate, fear. But some attraction had to be there, and it had to be a good deal stronger than mere intimidation. There came a time, after the first show of force, when a trainer had to take a dog off a leash and see if he would heel of his own accord.

The waiter was there again, ready to pick up the glass. I said, “It’s up to you. Do you still want to go home?”

For a moment I thought she was going to say yes. She glanced at me, surprised at first, then suddenly she amazed me by laughing. “I don’t think I ever saw a man so sure of himself!”

“Does that mean you’ll have dinner with me?”

“… Yes. I believe it does.”

I felt like a million dollars. I was beginning to live, actually beginning to enjoy myself for the first time since I crashed off that prison work gang. We left the Lake Hotel and went to a place called Moranis, an old Colonial mansion—rather, what looked like an old Colonial mansion. The owner himself hustled forward when he saw who we were, looking mildly shocked and grieved, and I guessed that this was one of the places that Burton and Pat had favored while Burton had still been alive. This suited me fine; it amused me to walk in and take over where the late ex-governor had left off, right down to his girl and favorite restaurant.

“Miss Kelso,” the owner said gravely, “I can not tell you how very pleased to…”

“To see me back again?” Pat laughed and patted his hand. “Angelo, you know I could not live in Lake City and not visit the famous Morani! Angelo, this is Mr. O’Connor, an old friend, and we are starved. Do be a dear, will you, and tell Mario we are here.”

Angelo Morani shook my hand, but his heart wasn’t in it. After we were seated I said, “Who’s Mario?”

“The chef, of course.”

“Oh, I see. The minute we come in the chef drops everything and takes our order personally. Who are we supposed to be, anyway, visiting royalty?”

She smiled. “They remember me as Alex Burton’s… friend. I’m not kidding myself; the reflected glory won’t last long, but as long as it does last I can’t see why I shouldn’t take advantage of it, do you?”

For just a moment I reached across the table and took her hand. “You’re quite a riddle,” I said. “A few minutes ago you turned pale every time I mentioned Burton, now you’re taking it in stride.”

“Maybe I’ve come, at last, to join the Living, as you advised.”

“You won’t be sorry. Burton had his day in this town, but, believe me, I’ll have mine too. And soon. Pat I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I’m going to turn this town upside down and shake it till its teeth rattle—so help me, within a few months nobody’ll remember Alex Burton ever lived!”

She looked at me, steadily. “When you say it like that, I can almost believe you will do it.”

“I’ll do it, all right. I’ll…”

I looked up and the chef, a great, red-faced man with bristling mustaches and lively eyes, stood beaming down on Pat.

“Miss Kelso!”

“Mario, it’s wonderful to see you again!”

“Thank you!” he said, obviously not annoyed at being called from his kitchen. “Now!” he beamed. “For dinner, what shall it be? But wait, let Mario do it! A great surprise, what do you say to that?”

“I think it’s wonderful. You do that, Mario, a surprise for two.”

I said, “Tell me something.” And she looked straight through me, waiting. “Tell me,” I said, “why you decided not to walk out on me.”

“Credit it to momentary insanity.”

I laughed. “All right, now tell me something else, about you, Pat Kelso.”

A full minute went by before she said a thing. Then, at last, when she did speak, her voice was surprisingly calm and pleasant. “There isn’t much to tell; my family was poor but proud, as they say. My father sent me to the best schools, although it plunged him into bankruptcy, and I failed to live up to his expectations by marrying well-to-do, so… I began looking for a job.”

“That’s how you met Burton?”

“… Yes.”

“One thing I would like to know. Were you in love with him?”

I thought she wasn’t going to answer at all this time. But finally she looked at me with a forthrightness that was stunning. “I’ll say this one time, just one time, and then well never speak of Alex Burton again.”

“That’s fair enough.”

“No, I don’t think I loved him,” she said flatly. “But I adored him. He was the kindest, gentlest, most generous man I have ever known. When I was with him he made me feel that I belonged to another world. The world my family had once belonged to, long ago.”

That stopped me for a moment. I had only to look in her eyes to know that she actually believed it, what she had said about Burton.

Great God! I thought, what a politician he must have been! That thieving bastard, that robber of the poor, that murderer who could look a girl like Pat in the eye and convince her that he was kind, gentle, generous—a saint, practically! I felt the laughter bubbling in my throat but didn’t dare let it come out. What a joke this was!

But she would never know. Not from me. I had the good sense to see that nothing I could say would change it—it would only make her hate me—so I said nothing. I accepted it.

After all, what difference did it make now? Alex Burton was dead.

Then I began getting a hunch about Pat Kelso. I began to wonder if it had been Burton’s gentleness, kindness, that had really drawn her to him. I wondered if it couldn’t have been his “generosity” that had really hooked her…

I saw the wine waiter headed in our direction and I said quickly, “I told you once I was going to shake this town till its teeth rattled. And I will. A lot of loose change is going to fall from a lot of pockets—how’d you like to be standing in just the right place to catch some of it?”

She smiled, mostly with her eyes.

“You amaze me, Mr. O’Connor. I’d like very much to be standing there when the money starts to fall.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

IT WAS CALLED the Marlow Building, a relatively new and modern building in downtown Lake City. I walked in and studied the building directory for a moment, then headed for the elevator. The elevator starter, a uniformed girl of about twenty-four, held the car when she saw me coming.

“Going up, sir?”

“I sure am!”

Yes sir, there was no doubt about it. I was on my way and the sky was the limit. The elevator doors came together with a whisper, shutting out the marble-floored lobby, the small exclusive shops. It’s quite a building, all right, I thought, and it must cost Parker King a pretty penny to keep a suite of office in it. A man with a very tall stack of blue chips. That was Mr. King, Senator Parker Everest King.

I felt nine feet tall when I stepped out of the elevator on the fourteenth floor. This was one of those buildings that had no thirteenth floor—ten, eleven, twelve, fourteen. But it was still the thirteenth floor, no matter what they called it, and Parker King was going to find it plenty unlucky; you could bet your life on that.

I walked left from the elevator and there were eight doors, all in a line, all with frosted glass panels, all with the lettering on them: THE P. E. KING COMPANY CONTRACTORS. I opened the first door and went in.

The receptionist, an attractive, businesslike woman of about forty-two or three, said, “May I help you, sir?”

“Yes, I’d like to see Mr. King.”

“I see. Mr. King has a very full morning, sir, I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly disturb him just now. May I have your name, sir, and the nature of your business?”

“William O’Connor, which won’t mean anything to him. The business is… confidential.”

“I see,” she said, writing it down: William O’Connor, no appointment, confidential business. She took the note and went into another office.

She returned. “I’m sorry, Mr. O’Connor, but Mr. King’s morning schedule is completely filled. Perhaps if you could come again tomorrow, or call…”

“I’m afraid that will be impossible,” I said.

I took an envelope from my inside coat pocket, selected one of several photostats that had been in it, and put the other photostats back in my pocket. I borrowed the receptionist’s fountain pen and wrote across the face of the photostat: This will give you an idea how confidential my business is. O’Connor.

I said, “Will you please give this to Mr. King?”

She didn’t like the, idea of disturbing the Great Man again, but that hocus-pocus with the photostat had looked pretty important and she didn’t want to miss any bets. The receptionist gave the envelope to the other girl, and the girl took it into the other office, and after a moment she came back, spoke to the receptionist, both of them looking at me.

“Mr. King will see you, Mr. O’Connor,” the receptionist said.

“Thank you.”

“This way, sir,” the other girl, the secretary, said.

I followed her out of the front office, through the other office, and through the doors of the sanctum sanctorum itself.

Parker King was waiting, and he was angry. He stuck the opened envelope under my nose and said, “What the hell’s the meaning of this!”

“I thought it was perfectly obvious.” I said. “It’s blackmail.”

That stopped him. He was a good looking guy about forty, well tanned, well dressed, well fed, and no doubt well satisfied, until I had stepped in with that photostat and knocked the wind out of him. There is some sort of perversity in most humans that makes it impossible for them to call a spade a spade, no matter how obvious it is.

“Blackmail,” I said. “There’s no use chasing out tails and wasting time. You have in your hand a photostatic copy of some very important and confidential documents, made from originals which are in my possession, though not on my person, naturally. To get down to cases, you will notice that there is a cancelled check, made out to cash and signed by you, in the amount of thirty-five hundred dollars. And here is a photostat of the county commissioner’s bank statement —please note the deposit date of May Third, the day after you wrote the check; the entry is a deposit of thirty-five hundred dollars. Strangely enough, here is a photostat from the commissioner’s office records which shows that your firm was awarded a large turnpike construction contract on the very day the check was written, despite the fact that there were seven bids lower than the one your firm submitted.

“How am I doing, Mr. King? Is the picture beginning to form? Well, I’m not through yet, there’s still the clincher, there’s the photostat of a memo you made dated May First —can you read it, Mr. King? You’re damn right you can. It says, ‘See Anderson 11 A.M. 5-3 re turnpike deal’. It’s a note made in your own hand, on the memo pad that’s on your desk right now. Well, King, how does it look? Have I got you or haven’t I?”

He looked gutshot and sick, but there was still some fight in him. “You punk,” he said hoarsely, “Do you know who you’re talking to! Do you know what the penalty for blackmail is in this state!”

I knew who I was talking to, all right. I took a step forward and pushed him against his desk. “Do I know who I’m talking to?” I said. “Now there’s an idiotic question— I know more about you than your own mother could ever guess. I know you for the thieving sonofabitch you really are, King, and that’s not just guessing; I’ve got the proof. Sure, you’re a state senator, which bothers me not at all. You’re a state senator who has a pretty good chance of becoming Governor someday, if you keep your nose clean, and that’s exactly the reason you’re going to do as I say, because you want to be Governor, and because you haven’t got the guts to do anything else. Oh, I know who I’m talking to, all right. You think I’d be damn fool enough to approach someone with a deal like this unless I knew him?”

I let him go and he almost fell.

“What… what do you want!”

“Money, of course.”

“And what… do I get for it?”

“I am not an unreasonable man, Mr. King. Get in and get out, that’s my motto. I’m here to sell you the originals of those photostatic copies you have in your hand—my price is twenty thousand dollars.”

“What!”

“Twenty thousand dollars,” I said. “Think of it, that’s not so expensive for complete protection. You’ll be buying the original documents, remember that, not the copies. You won’t have to worry about my milking you year after year. One price buys everything, a clean bill of health. Anyway, what are you hollering about? You made more than twenty thousand out of that contract deal with Commissioner Anderson.”

His face was gray. “I won’t pay it!”

This was just reflex. His morale had taken a beating and he had to make a show of resistance for his own benefit.

“All right,” I said.

That surprised him.

“What?”

“I said all right, I can’t force you to buy something you don’t want. All I can do is take the documents to the proper authorities and see that they get the proper publicity. You know, maybe I had you figured wrong, King. I figured your political life was worth at least twenty thousand; I had it figured all along that you would consider it a bargain at that price. Well, I guess I was wrong.”

He looked a hundred years old. “… Ten thousand,” he said finally.

I hooked a chair with my foot, pulled it up and sat down. “I have nothing important to do,” I said. “I can wait. If you want to play it cute, it’s all right with me.”

He put his hands to his face and for one horrible moment I was afraid he was going to cry. But he got hold of himself. He wiped his forehead with a crisp white linen handkerchief, then tucked the handkerchief back into his chest pocket, very neatly.

It didn’t take long. “… All right. Twenty thousand. Now where are the originals.”

This was more like it. “I told you I didn’t have them on me. But I’ll have them this afternoon, say one o’clock.”

He nodded heavily.

“At the Central Bus Station,” I said. “I’ll have the papers and you have the money, in small bills, nothing over a twenty. One o’clock will give you plenty of time to arrange it at the bank.”

I stood up, smiled. “Mr. King, it’s been a great pleasure to do business with a man of your intelligence.”

The girl in the second office, the secretary, smiled as I came out of King’s office. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it, sir?” she said.

“It sure is that! It’s a beautiful day!”

But it was only the beginning. Let’s see now, I thought, floating down the corridor toward the elevators. Let’s see, King buys one bill of goods for twenty thousand, and there must be at least enough material in his files for four more sales. Four times twenty thousand… five times twenty thousand, counting the present deal, came to an even hundred thousand. One hundred thousand beautiful dollars, that’s what Parker King was worth to me if I handled it right! If I didn’t push him too hard or too fast. One hundred thousand dollars!

Still, that was only the beginning!

In John Venci’s strongbox there were at least fifteen names that should be worth plenty. Conservatively, there were at least ten names that should be worth as much as King. But let’s be super-conservative, let’s say they’re worth only half as much as King… let’s see, that would be five times one hundred thousand dollars, that was what John Venci’s strongbox was worth to me!

And this was the land of money that John Venci had passed up for the sake of revenge! With Venci it figured. He’d had all the money he could use; he could afford to be a theorist. A man like that could afford to kick a million bucks in the face if he felt like it, but not me.

Not Roy Surratt.

No sir, there was a time to be practical, and this was it. After I had milked this thing for all it was worth, maybe I too could afford to retire to a private monastery and contemplate the philosophic truths of crime. But not now. By God, I was just beginning to live, and I was going to enjoy it!

CHAPTER TWELVE

AT EXACTLY ONE o’clock Parker King walked into the Central Bus Station. His face was mask-like, his eyes tired and expressionless. He carried a thick leather briefcase and looked more like a European diplomat headed for the United Nations Assembly than a state senator on his way to pay twenty thousand dollars worth of blackmail.

I was at the lunch counter having a sandwich when he came in.

He looked like he needed a sandwich. And plenty of milk and sun and lots of rest. Parker King looked like a man who was very close to a nervous breakdown.

“The papers,” he said huskily. “For God’s sake, if anyone should see me here, that alone would be enough to make them suspect something. A bus station!”

I took the papers from my inside coat pocket and gave them to him. Nervously, he glanced at them, then sagged with relief when he saw that everything was there. “There’s just one thing,” he said. “I don’t want to see you again, ever, understand?”

“I understand.”

He sat the briefcase down and started to go, and I said, “Just a minute, I’ll go outside with you and carry the briefcase. You had it in your hand when you came in. We don’t want somebody to think you forgot your briefcase and I was trying to get away with it, do you?”

“I… hadn’t thought of that.”

“You should set aside an hour every day,” I said, “just for thinking. You’d be surprised how much trouble you can avoid through a little thinking. Well, I’m ready.”

I picked up the briefcase and we went out together, as though we were buddies, or anyway business acquaintances. When we got to the sidewalk I said, “I don’t suppose I need to ask what’s in this briefcase.”

He looked at me, hard, then turned and motioned to a taxi starter. I grinned. Yes sir, this had been a hell of a day!

At five o’clock that afternoon I was back in front of the Burton Manufacturing and Construction Company watching the flow of white-collar workers as they crowded out of the building. I called out when I saw Pat.

Her eyes widened when she saw the car. It was a Lincoln, just like the one Dorris Venci had, only this one was black and brand new. She crossed through a line of waiting taxis to where I was parked.

“Where on earth did you get that?”

“Just drove it off the show room floor. Get in.”

“Well….” She shook her head, surprise still in her eyes. I got out then, went around the car and opened the door for her. She turned and stepped inside. After I went around and got under the wheel again, she said, “Are you sure you just drove this off the floor?”

“Look at the indicated mileage; exactly twenty-seven miles. What do you think I did, steal it?”

“I must admit the possibility crossed my mind.”

“I can afford an automobile like this. Remember what I said last night about turning this town upside down and shaking it?”

“… Yes.”

“And you said you’d like to be standing in the right place when the money started to fall?”

“I… might have said something to that effect; I can’t be sure.”

“You can be sure about one thing,” I said. “Look in the back seat.”

She turned her head and made a small sound when she saw the package. It was a hell of a fancy package, a big flat box wrapped in black and silver striped paper, tied with a black and silver ribbon.

“What is it?”

“It’s for you,” I said. “This is the day money started to fall, and you were standing in the right place.”

She didn’t touch the package; she was still a little stunned, and that amused me. “I think I called you a peasant last night,” she said after a moment. “It looks as though I’ll have to take back those words.”

I grinned. “You want to open it now, or wait?”

“Where are we going?”

“To my apartment,” I said. “This is a day worth remembering, this is a day to celebrate. I bought some wine, and had a caterer get the place in shape and prepare some snacks. How does it sound?”

“… Interesting. Unusual, I must say, but interesting.”

“We’ll wait, then, with the package. All right?” She nodded, and I switched on the Lincoln and moved it through the crowded traffic. We had traveled six or seven blocks and she hadn’t said a word.

Then: “I don’t suppose you want to tell me where your sudden riches came from… I know it’s none of my business.”

“It’s simple. I had something to sell and found a man who wanted to buy; the very soul of commerce, the life blood of capitalism, the age-old law of supply and demand. Look,” I said, “I got off on the wrong foot with you; I admit it. I got a little rough, but actually I’m not a rough guy at all. Believe me, everything is fine.”

“Forget it.”

I parked the Lincoln in one of the garages behind the apartment building and Pat and I used the rear entrance to get to my place. I had the package under my arm, anxious to see her face when she opened it. This will thaw her out, I thought. If she doesn’t react positively to the stimulus of this package, then I’ve wasted a hell of a lot of time studying the science of human motivation!

“Here we are,” I said, putting the key in the lock. I had opened the door, just a little, just a crack, when I saw Dorris Venci there in my apartment! I had just started to shove the door all the way open and step inside for Pat to enter, when I saw her sitting there, motionless, those Zeiss-lens eyes focused emptily on my face. I closed the door, fast.

“Look,” I said, “I just happened to think of something. Something I forgot to do. Will you do me a favor, will you go in your own apartment for a few minutes, powder your nose or something, until I get everything just right? I don’t know about you, but this is a big day for me, and I want to be absolutely sure that everything is right. Will you humor me?”

An eyebrow lifted the slightest bit, that was all. “Of course,” she said.

She gave me her key and I opened the door to her own apartment. “Just a few minutes,” I said heartily, “this isn’t going to take long.”

Alone, I stood there in the hallway thinking: Christ, I hope she didn’t see Dorris in there! She would recognize her sure as hell and pretty soon she would start putting things together. Pat Kelso was no dummy. She wasn’t just another piece of gorgeous sex machinery; she had a brain.

I took a deep breath, feeling the anger flow over me, feeling it in my guts, in my muscles, in my brain. I gave myself a few seconds to calm down, then shoved the door open and went in.

I had forgotten about the caterer. She was a short, fat German woman of about fifty, very neat and businesslike in a starched white dress, gleaming white shoes, a small heart-shaped light blue apron. She looked perfectly antiseptic and sterile and happy.

“Oh, Mr. O’Connor,” she beamed, “I believe everything is in order. Everything, just as you ordered it. Smoked turkey, baked ham, a shrimp bowl, mushroom salad. The sweetbreads are in the chafing dish, sir, over the warmer, and the wine is in the refrigerator ready to be iced.”

“Thank you,” I said, “everything looks fine.” Dorris Venci sat as though she were hypnotized, saying nothing. I paid the woman from the caterer’s, made a deposit on the dishes and told her she could go.

I turned to Dorris and said, “I’m getting pretty goddamn tired of your walking into my place like this. To be perfectly honest, I’m getting tired of you. Can’t you see I had something of my own arranged here?”

She turned those eyes on me, and only then did I see how washed out she looked. Her face had aged ten years in the past two weeks.

“You… haven’t called,” she said flatly. “I… haven’t heard from you in several days.”

“Listen to me,” I said, “we’d better get something straight, and right now. You have no hold on me at all; the minute you turned over your husband’s strongbox, it was over. You didn’t buy a damn thing. Is that clear?”

Suddenly she put her hands to her face, covering her face.

“Now what’s wrong with you?”

“I wish I were dead!” Her voice came muffled through her hands. “I wish I had the courage to end it!”

“Great God!” I groaned, “don’t go into that act. I couldn’t stomach it. Look here, you’re a good looking woman, there are plenty of men who would go for you in a big way. Stop seeing yourself as so damned abnormal. You know what’s really wrong with you? Not your abnormality, but your fear of it. You’re a starving woman, surrounded with food, and you haven’t got the guts to admit you’re hungry. You can’t go on pretending that your husband took advantage of you, or that I did. You wanted it, and you know you did, desperately.”

“No!” It was almost like a small scream.

“Then why did you come here?”

“I… I love you….”

I laughed. “That’s what I thought you would say. You don’t love me, but you do need me. Or think you do. Just the way you needed John Venci. He was the only man in the world for you, almost a god, simply because he knew about you, and you didn’t have to tell him. As long as you didn’t have to admit it to yourself, you could go on pretending that you were normal, whatever that means.

“Well,” I said, “I’m going to tell you one more thing. You’re going to wind up in a nuthouse, and soon, if you don’t snap out of it. You don’t have your husband now. And you don’t have me, either, because I’m tired of you. What you ought to do is go down to the docks and pick up a gorilla that would really know how to treat you.”

“No!”

“All right. If you’d rather have the nuthouse.”

She took her hands from her face and sat there shuddering. She was looking into the future and seeing nothing but darkness. “Well,” I said, “I tried to tell you, but you won’t listen. Now you’ve got to get out of here.”

“… Roy.” It was barely a whisper. “Please… don’t send me away!”

“I told you I’m through with you. I told you what’s wrong with you and what you need to set you right. That’s all I can do.”

I took her arm and pulled her out of the chair. I guided her to the door, made sure that the hallway was clear and shoved her out.

I was through with Dorris Venci.

I’ve made that clear, I thought, even to her. I’m through with her. If she wants to kill herself, that’s fine with me. If she winds up in a nuthouse, that’s fine too, I just don’t give a damn what happens to her. But she had better keep away from me!

I got myself calmed down, finally. I went to the bathroom and rinsed my face with cold water and felt a little better. Crazy damn woman!

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“HOW DO YOU like it?”

“It’s beautiful! It’s positively beautiful!”

“Come on in the bedroom and look at yourself in the mirror.”

“Really, you shouldn’t have done this! It’s much too expensive!”

“That’s nonsense. All good things come expensive, I learned that long ago, while dishwashing my way through college.”

It really was a hell of a coat. To be perfectly truthful, it was much more coat than I had figured on at first, but the minute I saw ft I knew that nothing else would do. It was a French import, a Balmain, with an exterior of oyster white nylon velvet which is absolutely the most decadent material ever created by the hand of man, and it was completely lined with natural wild mink. The fantastic extravagance of lining a coat with wild mink had completely fascinated the more bizarre aspect of my nature. When they first showed it to me I had burst into laughter. How many Frenchmen would go without shoes this winter, how many Parisian bellies would be empty—and who gave a damn? “That coat,”” I had told the sales girl, “is absolutely the god-damnedest, most decadent example of a completely lost civilization that I have ever seen—and I’ll take it!”

Pat hugged the coat around her and studied herself from all angles in the bedroom mirror. She had the kind of poise that could not be taught, it was the result of a long purebred bloodline and nothing else. She was class, every inch of her, and that coat was just for her.

“It comes off pretty well,” I said. “If there are any changes you want on it, the shop it came from will take care of it.”

“I wouldn’t have it touched!” she said. “Not for anything in the world! It’s just perfect… but it frightens me when I think what it must have cost!”

It had cost damn near as much as the Lincoln, but it was worth it, every penny. I said, “From now on we don’t consider price tags, we don’t even look at them. Now how about some wine?”

“… All right.”

She kept posing, turning, staring at herself in the mirror. Strangely, she hadn’t smiled, not once. From the time she opened the package she had registered a good many emotions, but she hadn’t smiled. She had wrapped the coat around her, tightly, hugged herself in it, almost as though she were trying to lose herself in the sheer luxury of it. There was a bright ecstasy in her eyes as she burrowed deeper and deeper into the incredible softness of the fur, and for a moment I imagined that she was trying to hide, that she was receding into the soft, secure folds of fur.

I had learned some things about Pat Kelso, and I understood a little of what she must have felt at that moment. At one time the Kelsos had had everything. They were an old family, and very proud, but unfortunately the ability to make money had not grown with their great pride. Pat’s father had been forced into bankruptcy, and later, suicide. It must have been quite a comedown for this girl of beauty and breeding. And I could appreciate how she must have felt, smothering herself in a four thousand dollar Paris coat, returning to the past for a moment, in that symbol of lost glory.

I understood. I was pleased.

I had found her Achilles heel, as I had found Dorris Venci’s. Now I knew to what frequency Pat Kelso vibrated, and I could control her as surely as an audio oscillator could control the wave form in an amplifier.

Yes sir, I thought, in this world a man must be audacious. With audacity and brains, there’s nothing a man can not do.

Nothing!

“This is absolutely the most beautiful coat I ever saw!” she said.

“If you can tear yourself away from that mirror for a minute we’ll get on with the serious business of tasting the wine.”

“What wine can possibly be as important as this beautiful coat!”

“This wine. I went to a lot of trouble finding it, and there are damn few bottles left in the world.”

She glanced around as I broke the wires on the neck and very gently began nudging the cork back and forth to loosen it. When it came out with the familiar pop, she said, “Oh. Champagne.”

“My dear lady, it’s more than Champagne, much more than that. It’s a life blood, it’s the very last of the truly great Ambonnay’s.”

Age had robbed the wine of nothing, which is more of a rarity than the casual wine sipper might think. It hit the bottom of the glass with plenty of life, it’s wonderful bouquet as delicate as moonlight. I handed a half filled tulip glass to Pat and she sipped, still trying to sneak glances at the mirror.

“Ummm. Good.”

“Good!” I was actually becoming impatient with her. “If you were anybody else,” I said, “anybody else in the world, and I had just handed you a glass of this nectar and you had taken a distracted sip and mumbled ‘ummm, good’ do you know what I would do?”

“That’s a bit involved, but what would you do?”

“I would throw you the hell out of my apartment.”

“But only if I were anybody else in the world?”

“Yes.”

“Then I needn’t worry.” And she smiled, strangely. But it was the first smile of the day and my impatience dissolved. “Okay,” I grinned, “the wine is ummm, good, and if you’d like to swig it from the neck of the bottle, that’s all right with me. This is no day to get bogged down in a lousy bottle of wine.”

I was in a rosy mood again. There’s nothing like a really significant conquest to put spice and zest in this business of living.

I said, “How about some food? I’ll put a plate together for you and you can get it in front of the mirror.”

She laughed softly. “Thank you just the same. But a girl simply doesn’t fall heir to a coat like this every day of her life. I’m much too excited for food… do you mind?”

“Not at all. This is my day not to mind anything, this is my day to indulge in sweetness and light, even if it chokes me. But I do get hungry once in a while. It’s the peasant in me, no doubt.”

She laughed again, and it was a fine sound. Nodding at the table, she said, “Please don’t let me stop you.”

“From this day forward nothing will ever stop me.”

I helped myself to the iced shrimp and Russian dressing. Then some white meat topped with a thin slice of ham; and finally some hot sweetbreads. Pat simply couldn’t stay away from that mirror.

I laughed and she looked around.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. Not a thing in the world!”

“You’re awfully satisfied with yourself today, aren’t you?”

“I sure am,” I said. “It’s been a wonderful day, and it’s only beginning.” When I finished eating I went into the kitchen and iced down another bottle of wine. She had finally torn herself away from the mirror.

“Don’t you want to tell me about it, this wonderful day of yours?”

“Some other time,” I said, “but not today.” I refilled the glasses from the new bottle and she sat beside me on the couch. Every so often when I was near her it would hit me, and it hit me now… I looked at her and felt my insides go to buttermilk. Great God, I thought, she’s beautiful.

She sat there looking at me, very seriously now; then suddenly she surprised me by smiling. “What is it?” I said.

“It just occurred to me that I know absolutely nothing about you. I don’t even know what you are called—is it William, or Will, or Bill….”

“It’s Roy,” I said without thinking, forgetting for a moment that Dorris Venci had changed my name for me. Then I remembered and said, “It’s what my mother used to call me.

“Roy,” she smiled. “Roy, and your name is William O’Connor. Well, I suppose that’s consistent enough, for you.”

“The explanation would bore you,” I said.

“But what about you?” she said, almost absently, as though she wasn’t really interested at all but considered it polite to ask. “You must have a history of some kind, a background, a past. Or would that bore me, too?”

“Probably,” I said. “I started with an empty belly and a high intelligence quotient, and now I don’t have the empty belly.”

She smiled, faintly. “Isn’t that over simplifying it just a bit?”

“This is a pretty simple world when you get right down to it. When I was a kid I learned to grab fast when we were lucky enough to have food on the table. It took me several years to realize that everyone was grabbing for something, always, and the only trick in getting what you wanted was in grabbing just a little faster than the others.”

“And that is the rule you live by?”

“That is my rule.”

I guess she knew it was going to happen, from the way I was staring at her. After all, you don’t give a girl a coat like the one I had given her just because you liked the way she set her hair. I made a grab for her but she already had her guard up and had pushed herself down to the other end of the couch. She tried to get up but I grabbed again and this time I got her.

I was amazed at the strength in those smooth, firm arms of hers. She didn’t make a sound; there was no hint of panic in her eyes, but I had a hell of a time pulling her down with me just the same. But I did it, finally. I got her shoulders pinned against the back of the couch, I threw my weight against her and got both her arms in my hands and she was completely helpless. She knew she was helpless and stopped the fight.

She looked at me with perfect calm. “… Now what?” she said.

“See something you want, grab it. I told you that was my rule.”

“… I see. All right, you’ve grabbed, now where do you go from here? Really, I’m curious about this rule of yours, I want to know if you can really make it work.”

Don’t you worry about that, I thought. I’ll make it work, all right. Then I forced her head back and mashed my mouth to hers.

It was like kissing a statue, a cold, marble statue. That was one thing I hadn’t been prepared for. I’d been prepared for a fight, for a lot of insane gab, for tears, even, but certainly not anything like this. I felt the iciness of that kiss deep in my guts. It made my skin crawl.

I let her go. I couldn’t have released her faster if I had suddenly discovered that I had been kissing a corpse. That is what it had been like, kissing a corpse.

Then she laughed, softly. “You see, Roy, it’s just as I thought. Your rule doesn’t always work, does it? Some things you can grab, but woman—they’re different. You don’t grab women, you draw them to you gently, very gently. And it takes time, too. That’s a rule you should adopt; never rush a lady.”

For one time in my life I didn’t have an answer. I could still taste the iciness of her lips.

She didn’t seem to be angry. She seemed more amused than anything. And then she leaned toward me and pressed her mouth on mine, very lightly, and the coldness was gone. She was warm again, and beautiful, and I wanted her like hell. But this time I didn’t grab.

“That’s better,” she said huskily. “That’s much better.”

I said, “For me this is a new technique. It’s going to take some getting used to.”

And she smiled.

“You know something?” I said.

“What?”

“You are positively the goddamnedest woman I ever saw, bar none. You change colors faster than a chameleon. Put you in fire and you don’t burn.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

I let her enjoy thinking that she was an enigma. But she was no enigma to me I could open her up and watch the wheels go round. I knew what made her tick; I knew to what frequency she was tuned. All I had to do was look at her in that coat and I knew who was the real boss. It was quite possible that deep in her soul she hated my guts—a possibility that bothered me not at all. I could afford a new Lincoln and a Balmain coat, both the same day—that was the important thing. That was the hook I had in her.

Maybe she was right, maybe grabbing wasn’t the best way to get what you wanted every time. Make her come to me, that was the best, the most satisfying answer. And I knew exactly how to go about it. Thanks to my very good friend, Mr. John Venci.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

HIS NAME WAS Stephen S. Calvart. That was about all I knew about him, except that he was a textbook publisher and had made a considerable fortune by bribing a number of small-time school officials. S. S. Calvart, just a name, the fourth name from the last in John Venci’s list of people he didn’t like, to be exact, and I had selected it more or less at random out of all the other names.

The Calvart Publishing Company was located on the east side, the seamy side of the city, and the building was a sprawling, crumbling red brick affair that was even more rundown than the neighboring brick heaps that leaned against it.

I parked the Lincoln in the alley behind the building, learned from the elevator operator that the publisher’s office was on the fourth and top floor; so that is where I went.

Calvart, it turned out, was an easy man to get to, not at all like King. I smiled at the receptionist, told her that my name was O’Connor, and that I represented the fourth school district and that I wanted to talk to Mr. Calvart about a new edition of history texts for the elementary grades.

That was the magic word: “new edition.” In a matter of a few minutes I had progressed all the way to the head man himself. Yes sir, I thought, this is a place that knows how to treat a customer. Walk in and mention a deal and you get the red carpet treatment, no questions asked.

Calvart was on the phone when I came into his office. He waved with a cigar and motioned to a chair. I made myself comfortable and tried to size him up. He was a big man, two hundred pounds at least, and looked more like an ex-hod carrier trying to get used to wearing three hundred dollar suits than a publisher of school textbooks. He didn’t look like a man who got where he was by paying scrupulous attention to the rules of the game.

“Now look, Davis,” he was saying into the phone, “you’ve been using that damn elementary social studies three years now. How do you expect kids to keep up with things in this fast movin’ world if you handicap them three years right at the beginnin’? What the hell, those texts are outdated and you know it. Now look, I don’t want to tell you-how to run your business, but I think we’d be smart….” He listened for a minute, then said, “Yeah, all right, but you work on the school boards down there, and the PTA bunch. Sure, Dave, I’ll take care of you, don’t I always?”

He hung up and turned to me with no change of expression or tone of voice. “O’Connor you say. From the fourth district. I thought Paul Schriver was runnin’ things down there.”

“Maybe he is,” I said. “I don’t even know where the fourth district is.”

He was vaguely surprised but certainly not shocked. He took a few seconds to relight his dead cigar. His eyes were absolutely expressionless and looked hard enough to cut glass. In all that two hundred and more pounds there was not an ounce of imagination. Facts were his stock in trade, not imagination.

After a moment he said, “I see.” And he did see. He had added his facts and knew that I was a man with an angle. “All right, O’Connor, now that you are here, what do you want?”

“Money. Twenty thousand dollars, to be exact, and before you start pushing the button on that intercom box you’d better take a look at what I’m selling.”

I pitched a photostat on his desk and Calvart looked at it quietly, still without expression. It was an affidavit, signed and witnessed, concerning a payoff between Calvart and a member of the state school commission, a man by the name of Longly. There was enough dynamite in that single piece of paper to blow Calvart right out of the publishing business for good, and he knew it.

Its effect on him was exactly the opposite of what I had expected. He actually seemed relieved, now that he had all the facts, now that he knew precisely why I had come and what I wanted. He seemed to relax as he studied the photostat, he even smiled, very faintly.

“Very interesting,” he said, not looking at me. “Very interesting indeed, if you should also have in your possession the original from which this copy was made.”

“I have it, all right, but not in my possession right now.”

“… Your caution is understandable,” he said dryly. He began to look pained as he continued to study the document before him. “Sam Longly,” he said. “Sam has been my friend for a good many years. Why, I was the one who got him a place on the school commission. It is difficult—extremely difficult to believe that Sam would deliberately destroy himself, and me, in such a manner.” Then he looked directly at me. “But the evidence is irrefutable, isn’t it, O’Connor?”

“It sure as hell is. Now let’s stop this horsing around and get down to business. Is the original of that photostat worth twenty thousand to you or isn’t it?”

He closed his eyes for a moment, as though in thought.

“… Yes,” he said. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”

“You’re sure it is. One book contract can make you another twenty grand and a lot more, but if that paper should get into the wrong hands there would be no more contracts, and you know it.”

“Believe me,” he said quietly, “I am quite aware of this document’s importance to myself, and I have already told you that it is worth twenty thousand dollars to me. However, I do not carry that kind of money with me… certain arrangements must be made.”

This was almost too easy to be real. It was all I could do to keep from grinning—twenty thousand dollars just for the asking! Jesus, I thought, what a hell of a thing this is that John Venci lined up for me!

Now Calvart was studying the tip of his smoldering cigar. “I am not a man to fight the inevitable,” he said.

Calvart opened his eyes and looked at me for one long moment with his old hardness. “The details,” he said flatly. “I suppose you have them planned.”

“Down to the last split second. You’ll have the rest of the day to raise the money. Tonight, at eight o’clock exactly, I’ll meet you in the Central bus station and we’ll make the swap.”

He nodded.

I felt like a million dollars. I was half drunk with the excitement and the knowledge of my power, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing right in Stephen S. Calvart’s fat face. Yes sir, this was one hell of a world!

I started to get up, but Calvart was up before me, surprisingly fast for a man his size. He came around his desk, and then, without a hint of warning, a ham-sized hand snapped out, grabbed the front of my shirt and jerked me half out of the chair.

“You lissen to me!” he rasped. “You lissen to me, you cheap sonofabitch, and you lissen good!”

I was too startled to make a move. I hung there like some ridiculous scarecrow from the end of his huge arm. I felt an angry heat rush to my face, swell my throat, but there wasn’t a thing I could do but hang there. Calvart’s self-control had vanished in an explosion of rage. That smooth, professor-like speech of his had suddenly reverted to character.

“You lousy gutter rat!” he grated. “I ought to kill you right here, right where you’re sittin’, and if you say one word, make one sound, I’ll do it! You just lissen to me and get one thing straight; I’m not goin’ to be your goddamn patsy, O’Connor. You got me by the tenders this time, but don’t think you can keep milkin’ me; don’t think you can gouge me again; I don’t care what you dig up against me. You just keep one thing in mind, O’Connor. You try a thing like this again, and you’re dead. I don’t care if I burn for it, you’re dead!”

Then he let go and I fell back in the chair.

I sat there, every muscle in my body quivering. It had been a long time since a man had talked to Roy Surratt like that—the last one had been Gorgan, the prison guard. And Gorgan was dead. I sat there rigid with anger, feeling rage claw at my guts like a tiger. If I had that .38 I would have killed him on the spot, I would have put three hard ones right in the middle of his fat gut.

But I didn’t have the .38 with me and there was nothing I could do. Not now. He simply was too big to handle without a gun, so I had to take it, anything he wanted to dish out. Like he had said, I had him by the tenders, I had him where it hurt, but he couldn’t afford to get too damn tough about it as long as I held on.

“All right,” he said tightly, in a voice that sounded like it was being squeezed through a needle’s eye. “Get out of here.”

“… The bus station. You aren’t going to forget our date, are you, Mr. Calvart?”

“I won’t forget a thing, not a single, goddamn thing, O’Connor, and that is one thing in this world that you can depend on.” Then he put his foot on the chair, straightened his leg suddenly, with a kick, and the chair shot half across the room with me in it. “Now get out of my sight,” he said hoarsely, “before I really get mad and break your lousy neck!”

I got out. I saw everything through a red haze of rage; my bones felt brittle; my muscles ached; my nerves seemed to lay on the top of my skin. But I got out, somehow. “All right,” I kept thinking, “all right you fat sonofabitch, we’ll see who’s so tough before this day is over!” I walked out of Calvart’s office and through the outer offices and past the pale faces and the curious faces of Calvart’s underlings, and then I rode the crawling elevator down to the Lincoln. I sat there for a long time.

All I could do was sit there and try not to be sick, try to sweat it out until the poison rage had done its work. I tried to think of Gorgan and the way he had looked when I killed him, and that helped a little, but not much.

I don’t know how much time it took, but finally I felt myself begin to relax, my nerves began to settle back beneath the skin, the red rage began to lift.

Maybe another ten minutes passed. I took out my handkerchief, wiped my face, my hands, then I switched on the Lincoln and got out of there.

Stephen S. Calvart’s future was settled.

The first thing I did when I got back to the apartment was get the .38. I cleaned it carefully, checked the firing mechanism, oiled it, took the cartridges and wiped them carefully and replaced them.

Then the phone rang. It was Dorris Venci.

“Look, Dorris,” I said wearily, “I thought we had an understanding. No more phone calls, no more biology lessons. Now what the hell do I have to do to make you realize that we’re through?”

“… Roy!” Her voice had that high pitched twang to it, like a violin string ready to snap. “Roy, I can’t take it! I simply can’t take it any longer!”

“Oh for Christ’s sake!” I groaned.

“Roy, I mean it! I simply can’t take it!”

I had no answer. What could you say to a crazy dame like that?

“… Roy!”

“What is it?”

“… Roy, won’t you… I mean, can’t I see you, talk to you….”

“Absolutely not,” I said, beginning to get mad, beginning to be sorry that our trails had ever crossed. “I told you we were through. I meant it.”

There was ringing silence on the line.

“Dorris.”

“… Yes.”

“Dorris, did you hear me?”

“… Yes, I heard you.”

And then she hung up. I stood there with the receiver to my ear, wondering what could be going on in that twisted brain of hers, and finally I shrugged and put the receiver on the hook. She was nuts, just plain nuts, and if I never heard from her again that was going to be fine with me.

The poison of my anger again spread through me like an overflow of adrenalin into my blood stream. I thought: you better enjoy what’s left of this day, Mr. Cohort. You better grab all the throats you want to grab. You better throw all the weight you want to throw, because your time is running out faster than you think.

But not before I got the twenty thousand.

Pretty soon I’d have the world by the tail; I’d crack it like a muleskinner wielding a snakewhip. I’d wriggle my finger and Pat Kelso would jump through hoops.

That last thought pleased me. She was quite a girl, Pat. She was just the girl for me and no other would do.

She would be mine.

I went back to the front room and sat. I held the .38 in my hand and waited. But pretty soon I’d had all the sitting and waiting I could take. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. Pat was working, and the only other person I knew was Dorris, and I sure didn’t want to see her.

At last I did what most lonely and lost people in a strange city do, I went to a movie. It was a double feature and I sat there dumbly, feeling the comfort of the .38 in my waistband and thinking with pleasure how Calvart would look when I pulled it on him.

Maybe this isn’t going to be smart, I thought. Maybe I ought to forget my personal feelings and hold the hammer over Calvart for another twenty thousand or so. But the publisher was a tough nut—it would seem that most of Venci’s enemies were tough nuts—and there is only one way to handle a tough nut—crack it.

For a while I thought maybe I’d go out and pick Pat up at the factory, but finally I dropped the idea. Don’t let it get to be routine, Surratt. Don’t let her take you for granted. Let her wonder what’s going on for a while, and then knock her eye out with another brand new bankroll. That will bring her around. Yes sir, if I know the first thing about women, that will bring her around, all right.

I killed an hour after the film walking and thumbing through magazines at a news stand, and another hour over dinner, and by that time it was almost eight o’clock. I headed for the bus station.

Calvart was late. I was at the lunch counter having a cup of coffee and the clock over the ticket windows said five after eight; and still Calvart hadn’t showed. But I wasn’t worried. He would show. As he had said, I had him by the tenders, and he would come around because there was nothing else for him to do.

It was exactly seven minutes past eight when I saw him. He came in with a group of people unloading from a Chicago bus, looking bigger than life-size, and angry and mean. But he had the money—there was a scarred leather briefcase under his arm—and that was the important thing. I stood up and waved. I thought, start walking, you sonofabitch. This is the last leg of your last mile!

He came over and sat on the stool next to me, putting the briefcase in front of him. “Well,” I smiled, “you’re a bit late, Mr. Calvart, but I’ll forgive you this time.”

“It’s the last time, O’Connor. You better remember that,” he growled.

“Of course, of course.”

“Well,” he said sharply, “there is an exchange, I believe. Let’s get it over with.”

“Nothing could be more to my liking, Mr. Calvart.” I handed him an envelope. “Here you are, sir, delivered as promised.”

He ripped the envelope open and made sure that everything was there. He didn’t get up to leave, as I had expected. He sat there glaring at me with those flat, unimaginative eyes. I reached for the briefcase. “It would look better,” I said, “if we walked out together.”

“All right.”

That surprised me too. For a man with his temper, he was taking this mighty coolly. He stood up when I stood up, and we walked away from the counter and through the big waiting room toward the wall of doors. We went through the wall of doors and I imagined that the night air held a smell of electricity, a feel of excitement, but I knew that it was only the excitement and electricity within myself.

This, I thought, is where the fun begins. This is where I show him the gun, this is where I march him across the street to where the Lincoln is parked. Yes sir, I thought, smiling right in his face, this is the beginning of the end, Mr. Calvart!

That was when the man in the bright plaid sports coat stepped up beside me. He was a tall shambling man with a long bony face and a hooked nose. I had never seen him before in my life, but he said, “All right, O’Connor, just take it easy. We’re going to walk across the loading ramps, over to that parking lot in the middle of the block, and we’re going to do it nice and easy and without any noise, understand?”

His right hand was in his coat pocket. He moved it just enough to let me feel the muzzle of an automatic.

I looked at Calvart and he was smiling.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

THERE WERE PEOPLE all around us, redcaps, travelers, soldiers, sailors, all of them harried and peevish as they looked for their luggage or the next bus for Dallas, and not one of them as much as glanced at us. I felt a bloody knife of fear twisting in my groin. In a mob like this a man could be shot dead and these stupid cattle would never realize what happened. The man in the sports coat knew it and smiled thinly.

“March, O’Connor!”

I marched. Calvart, who had moved to the other end of the ramp just in case I forced a shooting play on the spot, now ambled toward us at the end of the ramp.

“Everything all right, Max?”

“Everything’s fine, Mr. Calvart. He come along nice and peaceful, like a baby. See, he ain’t givin’ us no trouble at all.”

“That’s nice,” Calvart smiled. “All right, hold him up just a minute and I’ll get the Buick.”

“What the hell is this?” I said tightly.

“Quiet,” Max crooned softly. “Nice and quiet, O’Connor,” nudging me in the ribs with the automatic.

“You sonofabitch,” I said, “You’ll be eating that .45 before this night is over!”

But he only smiled. I was scared and he knew it.

Max and I stayed right where we were and Calvart went on ahead to the parking lot. After a few seconds he came out in a black Buick sedan and pulled up at the curb. I didn’t have to have the situation drawn out for me, I knew that I was as good as dead if I ever got into that car. Calvart was a tough boy and sometime during the day he had decided that he wasn’t going to pay blackmail, and the only way to stop it was with a bullet.

Good as dead. That dagger of fear kept stabbing in my groin. I had to get to my .38. I somehow had to knock Max’s automatic away for a moment, just a moment, and then I would kill the sonofabitch and take care of Calvart later.

But how? The muzzle of that .45 was in my ribs, hard and cold, and it didn’t waver. I couldn’t very well holler cop, even if there had been a cop handy, and Calvart must have guessed that much.

“Start walking,” Max said.

This, I thought, is the only chance I’ll ever get. I’ve got to take the chance that Max won’t shoot in a situation like this.

But Max was there ahead of me. “Just a minute,” he said. Then, with an expert hand, he snapped my .38 from my waistband and slipped it into his left-hand coat pocket, that .45 of his never moving from its position just below my heart. “Now walk,” he said.

I walked, feeling the sweat popping out of my face, feeling my knees go to mush, feeling the blossom of fear grow as cold as ice in my stomach. Calvart had the back door open when we got to the Buick. Max shoved me inside.

And no one noticed a thing. Out of all those dozens of people milling around the bus station, not a single one of them noticed that a man was being set up for murder right under their noses! Calvart turned around and smiled as Max shoved me over to the far side of the car and then got in beside me. His .45 was out now, in his hand, and it looked ugly and black and as big as a cannon.

“All set, Mr. Calvart. Turn left on Mallart Avenue. Follow it all the way out of town, out by the brick yards. Anywhere out there will do.”

“Whatever you say, Max,” Calvart said, smiling at me. Then he eased the car into gear, slipping into the stream of southbound traffic.

Jump him, I thought, it’s the only chance you have. Somehow you’ve got to get that .45 away from him while Calvart is busy at the wheel!

I couldn’t do it. My guts had gone to buttermilk. I tensed my shoulders, readied for the lunge, but when the time came I simply couldn’t force myself to act. I couldn’t throw myself into the muzzle of that automatic.

Now or later! I told myself savagely. What’s the difference? Calvart’s got it planned, he’s going to kill you. The least you can do is make a fight of it while you can!

But panic had me in a grip of iron, held me immobilized, helpless, and all I could do was sit there and sweat.

About three blocks from the bus station Calvart turned left on what I guessed was Mallart Avenue. It’s a one-way road for me, I thought emptily. I underestimated Calvart… I made the fatal mistake of underestimating an enemy and for that bit of stupidity I’m going to die. They’ll find me tomorrow, or the next day, in some gutter, and the cops will fingerprint the body and identify it as Roy Surratt, and the investigation would stop right there.

That dagger of fear that stabbed in my stomach there began to stir an anger. A great, unreasoning, savage anger, not at Calvart, and certainly not at Max who was just a hired hand brought in for an hour or so to do a job of work. The anger was at myself. You deserve everything you’re going to get! I thought savagely. Roy Surratt, criminal philosopher, realistic genius, perfectionist. Well, you slipped, Surratt, and perfectionists don’t slip, and because of that little piece of idiocy you’re going to get exactly what you deserve; you’re going to get a well placed .45 slug in the back of the head; you’re going to get your brains spattered all over some lousy brick yard just because you failed, this one time, to scrupulously practice what you preach!

The anger helped some, but not much. I was sick with fear, paralyzed with it, and I began to wish that the mild, cool-eyed killer sitting across from me would go ahead with it and pull the trigger. The waiting was the thing that got me. I was afraid I’d go all to pieces if it lasted much longer. Already my hands were shaking. A small muscle in my threat started to quiver, a nervous ripple flowed over my shoulders and down my back, and a great, yawning emptiness opened in my belly. Great God, I thought helplessly, I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!

And Max, the hired hand, smiled blandly and held his automatic close to my heart. Calvart slipped the big, quiet car through the streets and the brightness and garishness of the city passed behind us.

At last the pavement ended and the city was just a glare against the lowhanging clouds. There were no buildings at all out here, and very few houses, and the land was also empty, nothing but ragged and torn hills of red clay, brick clay, standing gaunt and almost black in the moonlight. When we came onto the end of the road Calvart braked the Buick and eased onto a deep-rutted, sparsely graveled road, and Max said:

“Anywhere along here will do.”

“We’ll go on over the next rise,” Calvart said.

Max shrugged slightly. A job was a job and he didn’t bother himself with the details.

I tried desperately to stop the sickish quivering in my stomach. I tried to pull myself together enough to jump into the muzzle of that .45… but I couldn’t do it. I simply couldn’t force myself to move.

The road was rough and Calvart was taking it easy, crawling along in second gear. Finally we topped a small rise and I could see the squat black forms of the brickyards in the distance.

“Right here,” Max said.

“Just a little farther,” Calvart said. “There’s no use taking chances.”

Just a little farther! I knew just how it would happen… Calvart wouldn’t want his car bloodied up if he could help it; they would stop and shove me out, and they would let me run a step or two and Max would apply the careful, gentle trigger squeeze and the door would slam. That would be the end.

The end. I had the horrible feeling that I was going to cry.

That was when Calvart hit the rock.

It was just over the rise and the headlight beams must have shot over it, and I guess that’s the reason Calvart didn’t see it until it was too late. It was a good sized rock, maybe a foot thick, and maybe it had fallen off a truck or maybe it had just washed loose from the clay embankment and had rolled down onto the road; but where it came from isn’t important. It was there and that is the important thing.

Calvart hit it with his right front wheel and the Buick lurched suddenly. Max had to make a grab for the back of the front seat to keep from falling to the floorboards, and Calvart himself was cursing and trying to get the car straightened out on the road. Just what I did at that instant is not clear in my mind, but I acted on instinct, I’m sure of that, pure animal instinct, there was nothing planned about it.

The instant the Buick lurched to the left, the instant Max made his grab for the front seat I forgot about my sickness and my fear. I was on Max like a tiger. Grabbing at his gunhand, I drove my knee in his crotch and heard the wind go out of him. I slashed the edge of my hand across Max’s wrist and the bone snapped, but a small thing like a broken wrist meant nothing to Max at that moment because he didn’t live long enough to suffer from the pain.

I caught the automatic before it hit the floorboards. I jammed the muzzle into Max’s throat, into the soft part between the breast bone and the adams apple and pulled the trigger.

He never knew what hit him. The slug tore right through his spinal column, almost taking his head off his shoulders.

In the meantime Calvart had to let go of the wheel and had let the Buick go into a ditch and we were stalled, Calvart himself was trying to get over the back of the driver’s seat, trying to grab the gun away from me. He never had a chance. I shoved him back against the steering wheel, then got on my knees and shot him three times right in the middle of his fat stomach. He jerked and quivered like some enormous jellyfish, and his mouth flew open, working soundlessly. That was the way he died.

I heard a voice saying, “You sonofabitch! You lousy sonofabitch!” I knew it was my voice, but it didn’t seem to be coming from my throat, it seemed to be coming from everywhere, and it was high-pitched and taut and almost screaming. At last I jerked the front door open and gave Calvart a shove, and he hit the ground with the mushy sound of an overripe melon.

I was breathing very hard and couldn’t seem to get enough air into my lungs. I concentrated for several minutes on pulling myself together and watching the blood soak into the thick floor mat around Max’s severed head. Then I got out of the car and began to feel better. Calvart was dead. Max was dead. But I was alive!

I said it aloud. “Alive!” I said it several times, and then I walked around the Buick and looked at Calvart. Only then did I fully realize what had happened, and I felt fine! I felt exactly the way I had the day I killed Gorgan, only better. Much better!

Then I remembered the papers that I’d sold him. I got down in the ditch with him and took them out of his pocket. Then I looked through the briefcase in the front seat and there was nothing in it but bundles of newspaper cut to the size of banknotes, but not even that could smother my elation. Money was the easiest thing in the world to come by, but a man had to stay alive to enjoy it.

That’s something you should have thought of, Calvart, before you arranged this little party tonight!

The back seat of the Buick was a mess, and I didn’t make it any better by dragging Max out of it. But I had to use the Buick to get back to Lake City and it wouldn’t be especially smart to have it loaded down with corpses.

I dumped Max in the ditch on top of Calvart. Tomorrow they would find them, maybe, and there would be a hell of a noise, but there was very little they could do about it. Who would ever tie a thing like this to Roy Surratt?

It occurred to me that I might as well give the police a motive for the murders, any kind of motive except blackmail, so I went back to the ditch and began looking for wallets. This last was a profitable decision, as it turned out. Calvart, was carrying almost six hundred, and Max a little over four hundred, probably an advance on the job he was supposed to do. I laughed aloud as I counted it, almost a thousand dollars. Not bad, not bad at all fox a night’s work, even though it was a little out of my line.

I pocketed the money, took Max’s watch and Calvart’s watch and diamond ring. No sir, not a bad night’s work at all, everything considered!

I switched on the Buick, got it turned around, and headed back toward Lake City.

I parked the Buick on the outskirts of the city and caught a bus downtown. From there I drove the Lincoln to the apartment.

I was over the shakes now. I couldn’t imagine how I could have been scared at all. One thing I was sure of—I’d never be scared again. Audacity, Surratt, that’s the tiling to remember. Audacity and brains—they make a combination that can’t be beat!

I felt fight headed, almost drunk. I was a giant among men and the twenty thousand dollars I’d lost didn’t bother me at all. Money, I reminded myself again, is nothing.

While downtown I had picked up a morning paper, but I hadn’t looked at it yet. The Burton killing had slipped out of the headlines, and it was too early for the Calvart murder, so I dropped the folded paper on a table, went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of milk.

It was still early, no more than ten o’clock. I’d get myself cleaned up. This had been quite a night… it called for a celebration. So I’d just go over to Pat’s apartment….

That was when I saw it. I walked back in the front room and glanced at the paper and there it was—in black headlines just below the fold.

WIFE OF JOHN VENCI FOUND DEAD. CORONER SAYS SUICIDE

So Dorris had done it.

The first thing I felt was a sense of relief. Well, by God, I thought, I’m glad she had the guts to go through with it. I’m glad to have her off my neck!

She had shot herself, using a little .22 automatic, and it had been a neat, workmanlike job, according to the paper. One bullet in the temple. Well, I thought, that’s the end of that. It’s just as well that she had ended it this way, for she would have ended up in a nut ward sooner or later if she hadn’t.

Then I thought of something that shook me. I thought: Wait a minute, Surratt. Dorris was pretty sore at you this morning when you brushed her off. Could that have had anything to do with her suicide? Could she have been sore enough to have left some incriminating evidence behind?

Jesus! I thought, that’s something to think about, all right!

It was possible, I decided, just possible that Dorris had taken this big step because of me. If that was the way it had happened, it meant trouble. It very well could mean the end of Roy Surratt! What if she had left a note behind? What if she had talked to somebody—the district attorney, for instance—before taking the bottomless plunge to oblivion?

It shook me. I devoured every word concerning the suicide, and then I went through it again very carefully to see if I could read anything between the lines.

I could find nothing, feel nothing, sense nothing that might implicate me in the affair. It had happened around four in the afternoon, according to the newspaper. The maid was out of the house at the time. Dorris had simply gone to her room, locked herself in and shot herself with that toy automatic. The reporter quoted the maid as saying that Mrs. Venci had not been herself since her husband was killed, and it was implied that grief had been the driving motive behind the act of self-destruction.

It was perfectly simple. The same story about the grief-stricken widow is printed every day, someplace or other…. It is so simple, I thought, that the whole thing stinks. Dorris Venci had been incapable of doing a thing simple and cleanly—I knew that better than any person alive.

Any person alive…

My experience with Stephen Calvart had made me acutely aware of the importance of staying alive. A man had to use his brain; and that is exactly what I did. If this thing was going to turn out to be more than a simple suicide, I had to know about it, and fast.

The first thing I did was pick up the phone and call Dorris’s number. That maid, that sour faced maid of Dorris’s, she was the one who might be able to straighten me out. Finding the maid at the Venci house tonight was a longshot chance, and this wasn’t the night for longshots to come in. I let the phone ring at least a dozen times and finally hung up.

What had been that maid’s name, anyway. Ethel? Edith? Ellen? That was it, Ellen, but I had no idea what her last name was or where she might be.

But the police would know. The idea of going to the police for information amused me. I grinned, feeling a bit of the old excitement and elation return as I dialed the operator and got the number.

“Hello,” I said soberly, “may I speak to the officer in charge of the Venci case?”

“Who’s callin’, please?”

“My name is Robert Manley. You see, I just got the news not more than two hours, ago, in this evening’s paper, the Lake City Journal-Times, and I came just as fast as I could, but you see there was some sort of mix-up at the bus station, I missed my connection at Midburg, and that’s the reason…”

“Hold on a minute, will you! Now what’s this about the Venci case?”

“That’s what I was telling you, officer. You see my Aunt Ellen has been in Mrs. Venci’s employ all these years and…”

“Will you please try to calm down, sir. Your Aunt Ellen, you said. Do you mean Ellen Foster, the Venci maid?”

“Yes, of course, Aunt Ellen Foster. You see I live in Midburg, and Aunt Ellen is my aunt. My, that is a ridiculous statement, isn’t it, officer, but I’m so upset, really, and Aunt Ellen was so devoted to Mrs. Venci…”

“Please, sir,” the voice said wearily, “just what is it you’re trying to say?”

“Why I want to know where my Aunt Ellen is, of course! I called the Venci residence, but of course she wasn’t there, what with that awful…”

“All right, all right!” he almost growled. “Just hold on a minute.”

I held on, grinning.

“Here it is,” he said after a moment. “The investigating officer lists Mrs. Foster’s present address as 1214 Stanley Road, a boarding house there, I believe.”

“And the phone number, officer. I feel that I simply must call my aunt right away or…”

“Jackson 4-1952.”

“Thank you, officer, thank you very much!”

He groaned and hung up.

Yes sir, if you want information on police matters, then go to the police! Very obliging people, the police. I don’t know what I would do without them! Still grinning, I hung up and after a few seconds dialed Jackson 4-1952.

“Hello…” A toneless voice, peevish and edged with bitterness.

“Mrs. Foster?”

She admitted grudgingly that she was Mrs. Foster and that she had been Mrs. Venci’s maid, then I identified myself as Captain Barlow of the police and that didn’t do anything to sweeten her mood.

“Sir,” she snapped, “I have nothing more to say about that horrible… accident. I told the police all I know, everything.”

“Everything, Mrs. Foster?”

Now her tone was indignant, but she didn’t seem to think it strange that a police officer would do his questioning over a telephone, and at this time of night. “Sir,” she snapped, biting into the word, “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean!”

“No offense at all, Mrs. Foster,” I said soothingly, “and we realize that you have been through a lot, the shock and all. Of course we have your statement in our files, but I would appreciate it very much if you would tell it to me again, in your own words.”

“Is this absolutely necessary, Captain? Really, I was most thorough in my report to the police a mere few hours ago. Couldn’t it wait until tomorrow, at least.”

“I’m afraid not, Mrs. Foster,” I said patiently. “This is an imposition on you, we realize it, and that is exactly the reason we decided not to call in person at this hour. I do hope you understand, Mrs. Foster, that police business must necessarily seem rather unusual at times to the citizen, but I assure you…”

“All right, Captain,” she relented. “I have been aroused and awakened, and now please let us be as brief as possible. Actually, I do not see that I can add to my original statement… however, it was around three this afternoon when Mrs. Venci called me upstairs and asked about the shopping. As it happens, I was just going out to do the day’s shopping, but she asked me to wait. She was writing a letter, she said. She wanted to finish the letter and have me mail it on the way to the market.”

My heart missed a beat. The news story had not mentioned a letter.

“… Mrs. Foster,” I said, “did you mail this letter, as Mrs. Venci asked you to do?”

“Of course. It’s all in my original statement.”

“Yes,” I said, feeling my muscles begin to tighten. “Yes, of course.”

“It’s rather interesting,” she admitted grudgingly, “that you should call at this particular time, Captain. This afternoon your policemen were extremely curious about that letter, although I couldn’t imagine why—and still can’t, for that matter. They seemed anxious to know to whom the letter was addressed. I tried and tried to remember, but the name simply wouldn’t come to me. Then, just as you called, a few moments ago, the strangest thing happened. The name came to me, Captain.”

I heard myself saying, It did, Mrs. Foster?”

“Yes. I remember glancing at the envelope, just to be sure that it was properly addressed for mailing. Keaslo. I feel quite sure that was the name.”

It rang no bell. The name of Keaslo meant absolutely nothing to me. I took a long, deep breath. Maybe I was getting myself worked up over nothing. I said, “How about the first name or the address? Do you remember them.”

“No, I’m afraid not, Captain. After all, it was just a glance, a mere precaution.”

“I understand, Mrs. Foster. But about the address, was it local or out of town delivery? Can you remember that?”

There was a moment of silence. Then, “Why, I believe it was a local address, one here in Lake City. But of course I can’t be certain.”

“… Yes.” I heard a curious pounding, and then realized that it was my heart knocking against my ribs. “Yes, I understand. Well, probably it means nothing at all, Mrs. Foster. Thank you very much for your co-operation.”

“I should have called the police in any event, Captain,” she said. “After my remembering the name, I mean.”

“Oh, you needn’t do that,” I said quickly. “After all, I do have the information now, I mean, and…” I didn’t go on. I could feel her hanging there in a sort of thoughtful vacuum. Mrs. Foster, is something wrong?”

“… No, nothing is wrong, I was just thinking. Captain, I have the feeling that the letter was addressed to a woman. I don’t remember the first name at all, but it is my impression that it was a woman’s name.”

“A woman’s name?”

… And then it hit me!

Keaslo. Kelso. They were similar—too much so to bear the weight of mere coincidence. “Mrs. Foster,” I said quickly, “I want you to give this serious thought. I want you to test your faculties of recall to the utmost. This woman’s name, this name on the letter that you don’t remember, was it Patricia?”

There was only an instant’s hesitation. “Why, Captain, I do believe it was!”

I covered the mouthpiece and whistled softly. “Thank you, Mrs. Foster, thank you very much!”

“Is that all, Captain?” She sounded disappointed now, as though she wanted to keep talking. But that memory of hers was getting a little too good. I wanted it to stop right where it was.

I said, “That is all, Mrs. Foster. Good night.” And I hung up.

So Dorris Venci had written a letter to Pat; and then, being assured that the letter would be mailed, she had put a bullet in her temple. An interesting situation, to say the very least.

I dropped to a chair and sat there thinking about it for minutes. A breath of the breeze drifted into the front room and across my face—the night air seemed to hold an exceptional chill for that time of year.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

THINGS LIKE THIS, I thought, are the things that can kill you. But how could I have predicted the actions of an eccentric mind like Dorris’s? How could anyone have predicted them? Anybody else, acting on the same impulse, would have mailed the incriminating letter to the district attorney, or the police department, or maybe even to a newspaper or a citizens committee. But not Dorris. Oh no, she had to send the evidence directly to Pat, overlooking the scores of simpler and more direct possibilities.

I wondered about that for a long while. What had been her motive? Jealousy? Hatred? Shame? Probably an equal amount of all three. If her aim had been to destroy me completely she needed only to point a finger of accusation in my direction—the cops would have taken care of the rest. They would have identified me and that would have been the end of Roy Surratt.

It was bad enough as it was. If Pat got hold of that letter I was as good as dead. The way she had felt about Alex Burton, maybe she would try to kill me herself…

And then I relaxed. I could even smile. This, I thought, is where brains and audacity pay off, because Pat will never see the letter. She will never know that I stood behind the gun that fired the bullet that killed her Alex, because I am going to intercept that letter.

I was going to be at the mail box the next morning when the postman arrived, and I was going to get that letter, even if I had to kill somebody else; and that would be the last of my troubles from Dorris Venci.

I felt fine once again. After a moment I picked up the phone and called Pat. The receiver came off the hook almost immediately.

“This is your neighbor,” I said.

“Well! I was beginning to wonder if I’d hear from you.”

“I’ve been busy. It’s been quite a day—to tell the truth, I’ll be just as happy if I never have another one like it.”

“It couldn’t have been too bad,” she said. “You sound pretty pleased with yourself.” Then she laughed. “I’ll buy ou a drink—unless you’re still pouting, that is.”

“I never pout,” I said. “It’s stupid. If you don’t get what you want the first time around it simply means your technique is all wrong, so you change techniques.”

She laughed again and hung up.

When I stepped into her apartment a few minutes later, it hit me all over again. By God, I thought, she’s beautiful, truly beautiful!

I hope you like scotch,” she said. “It’s all I have.”

“Scotch will do.”

She was all wrapped up in a pale blue quilted house coat, looking about fifteen years younger than she actually was. She sat on the tweedy couch with her legs folded back, and there was a closed book in her hand and she was smiling.

“Make yourself at home,” she said, and then unfolded slowly, lazily, stood up and walked to the kitchen. There was no doubt about it, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever known or seen.

She came out of the kitchen with two drinks in old fashioned glasses.

She laughed and handed me my drink. The book was put back in its place on the bookshelf, and Pat sat beside me on the couch. We sipped our drinks. I didn’t care for scotch, but I drank it, trying not to stare at her, reminding myself not to grab.

And I didn’t grab. I liked it this way, just the way we were. I liked to hear her talk; I liked just being with her and looking at her. Christ, I thought, I didn’t realize how exhausted I really am! This day had drained me completely, emotionally and physically, and all I wanted to do was sit still and let my muscles sag and look at Pat and think of nothing. Nothing important, anyway—such as that letter, or Calvart lying out there in a ditch on the brickyard road.

Then Pat stopped talking and looked at me. “Is there something wrong?” I said.

“No, I was just wondering about you. When you came in you looked so… vigorous. Now you look a hundred years old.”

“Thank you, ma’am, for those kind words.”

“You know what I mean,” she said. “You look as though you had been fighting the entire world single-handed.”

“Baby, I don’t suppose you’ll ever know just how good a guess you just made. But it’s nothing, really. I’m just beat, that’s all.”

She let it drop. Not one woman in ten million would have let it drop there, but Pat did. She merely shrugged, and then began talking about the scotch that we were drinking and how long she had had it. I lay back on the couch and smiled at her, and I wanted her more than I had ever wanted any woman in my life, but I didn’t touch her, I didn’t as much as lift a finger. When she was ready she would let me know.

I turned my thoughts inward as she talked, and I thought what a hell of a pair we could make, Pat and I. Soon I would move out of the lousy apartment building and take her with me, and I would rent the biggest damn suite in the best hotel in Lake City, and we’d start living the way people like us ought to live.

But first she had to come to me. She had to say, “Please take me with you,” and then I would take her. All I needed was patience.

She was a queer one, though. She didn’t ask questions —not many, anyway. She seemed to have no ambition. She had loved Alex Burton, but she seemed to have forgotten him completely—but, then, it was hard to tell about a woman like her, what she was thinking, what she really wanted. That coat, for instance. She had been as giddy as a bobby-soxer when I had given it to her, but now she seemed to have forgotten that, too.

I don’t know just how long I sat there, thinking of nothing in particular, and of everything in general. I thought of all my yesterdays as they might have been; all my tomorrows as I, with my own two hands, my brain and my guts, would make them. Several minutes must have passed before I realized that I was listening to nothing but silence.

I looked at Pat and she suddenly smiled. “You are tired, aren’t you? I don’t believe you heard a word I’ve been saying.”

“Was it important?”

She laughed softly. “What kind of a question is that? A lady’s words are always important. To herself, at least.” Then she reached out a hand and touched my hair. I liked that very much. “Perhaps,” she said, “you should go to bed and get some sleep.”

“I like it here, just the two of us.”

“All right. But you must promise to keep up your end of the conversation.”

I grinned at her. “That sounds reasonable, shall we discuss religion, politics, or the weather?”

“What’s wrong with O’Connor as a subject of conversation. Do you realize that I know absolutely nothing about you, except that you once worked your way through some college or other?”

It was my turn to laugh. “That’s a sore spot with me. I just don’t like work, I guess.”

“… What do you like, Mr. O’Connor.”

That name kept throwing me. I couldn’t get used to it— and, too, it reminded me of Dorris Venci who had given the name to me, and thinking of Dorris reminded me of that letter that I had to intercept, and it all got to be a vicious circle, or a net that had fallen around me, and I wondered if I would ever truly get completely out of it.

“What do I like?” I said. “Well, I like you, I think.”

“Now there is a left-handed sort of compliment, if I ever heard one!”

“I didn’t mean it to be.”

“Anyway,” she said, “you must like other things. Money, perhaps.”

“Money… of course I like the things that can be done with money, but I don’t have much respect for it as such. Money is the easiest thing in the world to come by, if you know the secret and practice it.”

“Well, I am sure that a great many people would love to have the secret. Would you mind telling me what it is?”

“It’s all right there in that book,” I said, “the one you were reading. Nietzche proved with crushing finality that the only civilization capable of enduring is one in which the strong are not penalized for taking from the weak. This particular civilization in which we are living calls it robbery, extortion, piracy, and a lot of other things.”

She leaned her head to one side, smiling quizzically. “And do you approve of these particular methods of obtaining money?”

“Let us just say that as a philosophy, Nietzsche’s can be a very tough one to logically argue down. However, I wasn’t going to bring up this subject, was I?”

“You didn’t bring it up, I did, and I find it very interesting.” he wasn’t smiling now, she looked extremely sober. Like a little girl who had just been told that some day she must die. Once again she touched my hair, and I felt the soothing effect of her hand. There was a satisfaction and pleasure in having her reach out, of her own accord, and touch me. This is the way it would be when the time came… only more so. “Tell me,” she said, “what else do you believe?”

“What else do I believe? Well, I believe in strength. And I believe that man should believe in himself.”

“You must be terribly bright,” she said, in a lighter vein now, smiling. “You must have read a horrible lot of books in order to have developed so many positive opinions.”

“As a matter of fact,” I said, “you are right. I have read a great many books, during recent years especially. And I have an intelligence quotient of one hundred and forty-nine, which isn’t bad when you consider that one hundred and forty-five is usually considered a genius rating.”

She laughed suddenly, with surprising merriment. “Coming from anyone else,” she said, “such a statement would tag the guy as an insufferable braggart.”

“I wasn’t bragging, I was merely stating a fact.”

“I know,” she said, “and that is one of the things about you that amazes me.”

“However,” I said, “I don’t believe that a man of ability should underrate himself.”

Once again she laughed. “I can believe that! I certainly can!”

We sat there for quite a long time. And at last she said, “I’m going to have to put you out before long; I’m still a working girl, you know.”

I said, “You don’t have to be. All you have to do is say the word and you can have anything you want. Anything.”

“This is rather unlike you, isn’t it? I didn’t think you asked for things. I thought you took what you wanted.”

“This is my new technique, remember?”

This time she didn’t smile. “… Yes. I remember.” Then she said, “You frighten me at times… did you know that?”

“No. I don’t mean to. Why do I frighten you?”

“You’re so sure of yourself. You have such absolute confidence in your own power to get the things you want.”

“That’s the way I am; when I say something, I mean it. Remember what I said that night about turning this town upside down and shaking it, and you said you would like to be around when the money started falling?”

“… I was only joking.”

I wasn’t joking. Before long I’ll hold this town in my own two hands. I’ll make it sit up and talk just the way I want it to talk, like a ventriloquist operating a wooden dummy. Don’t ask me how I’m going to do it, just believe me when I say it’s going to happen.”

She looked at me for one long moment. “Yes… I can believe you.”

“You haven’t asked any questions,” I said, “and I appreciate that.”

“It isn’t because I haven’t wondered. I wouldn’t have been human, not to have wondered.”

“But you didn’t ask, that’s the important thing. That’s the way well keep it.” I took her hand, just her hand and held it. “That coat I gave you,” I said. “That was nothing. You can have a closet full of coats exactly like it, if you want them. That Lincoln that surprised you so… you can have a fleet of them, one for every day in the week, if you feel like it. That is the way I am going to shake this town. That’s the way the money is going to fall when I really start moving.”

She said nothing, but there was a brightness in her eyes, a strangeness, when I glanced at her and she didn’t know that I was looking.

“Think about it,” I said.

“… Yes. I’ll think about it.”

I had her hooked. I could feel it. This was her chance to stop being a working girl and really become somebody. Yes sir, beyond a doubt she was hooked.

Still, it wasn’t the time to start grabbing. Instead I let go of her hand and stood up. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yes,” she said, “tomorrow.”

Let her think it over. Let her dwell on that fleet of Lincolns and that closet full of Balmain coats. I smiled and walked out of the apartment.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

THAT NIGHT I slept like the dead.

I awoke slowly the next morning. I lay in bed and let consciousness creep gently, quietly into my brain, and at last I opened my eyes and saw that the sun was high, I had forgotten to draw the blinds and my drab, cramped bedroom was obscenely bright.

The first thing I thought of was Pat. Maybe I had been dreaming about her, I don’t remember, but the first thing I thought of was the brightness of her eyes and the way she had looked at me the night before, and I thought pleasantly: Sure as hell, I’ve got her hooked.

Then I remembered Calvart.

Ah, yes, Mr. Stephen S. Calvart, and a very tough boy he had been, too. But a dead one now. So I forgot about Calvart.

I padded into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, ran some hot water and began to shave. What I needed was some coffee, but there wasn’t any coffee in the apartment, and if there had been it wouldn’t have done me much good because I made lousy coffee. But all that would be changed before long. Pat would soon be making my coffee in the mornings.

That thought cheered me. I began to whistle as I lathered my face. I had a feeling that this was going to be a fine day, that this was going to be the day the cards started falling on my side of the table. First Burton, and then Calvart, both of them tough boys, but now they were dead and I could forget them. Surely, I told myself, that list of Venci’s doesn’t contain any more names that would prove as tough as Burton and Calvart. Surely my luck is due to change!

Not until that moment did I remember the letter.

Christ, what time was it anyway? I didn’t have a watch, and there wasn’t a clock in the place, but I remembered Pat saying that the postman usually showed up around ten o’clock.

I finished shaving and got out to that mail box as fast as possible. The house porter came around and said it was only after nine and the postman hadn’t been around yet. I breathed easier.

It was almost an hour later that the postman finally showed up. From down the hall I heard the familiar rattle of keys the minute he stepped into the building, and I was there at the mail box almost before he was.

“Good morning,” I said pleasantly.

“Mornin’,” he said, not looking up. He unlocked the boxes, began sorting out a small bundle of letters, dropping the envelopes into the individual slots.

“Name?” he said.

“What?”… not understanding at first what he meant.

“Your name,” he said, still not looking at me, still busy at sorting the envelopes. “You got any mail, you might as well take it now. Before I lock up the boxes.”

“Oh, My name’s O’Connor, but I’m not expecting any mail. Fact is I’m here to pick up Miss Kelso’s mail for her. She asked me to. That’s all right, isn’t it?”

He shrugged. “Sure, it’s all right, I guess, if Miss Kelso had any mail to pick up. But she don’t.”

I felt my insides shrink. “You must be mistaken,” I said, forcing a laugh, forcing myself to remain outwardly calm. “You see Miss Kelso was expecting this letter; she was quite certain that it would be in this morning’s mail, and she wanted me to pick it up for her. Maybe you overlooked it.”

“Didn’t overlook it,” he said, completely uninterested. “Everything for this address was in that bundle. Nothin’ for Miss Kelso.”

My scalp began to prickle. You sonofabitch, I thought savagely, if you’re holding out on me I’ll leave you dead right here in the hallway! So help me I’ll strangle you if you don’t come across with that letter!

He dropped some magazines on the table and began locking the boxes.

I made myself calm down. In spite of his self-assurance he must have overlooked that letter! He must have! Then he shouldered his leather mailbag, nodded and started to go.

“Please!” I said quickly, licking my lips. “I know this might sound crazy to you, but that letter is very important—to Miss Kelso. You see, well, I promised I’d get it for her, and naturally I don’t want to disappoint her. I’d be very grateful if you’d look again, just to be sure. Would you do that, please?”

He said nothing. He went on thumbing through the bundles of envelopes, and I felt a sick emptiness in the pit of my stomach as bundle after bundle was dropped back into the bottom of the bag.

“Isn’t it there?” I asked. “It’s there somewhere, isn’t it? It got misplaced?”

He finished with another bundle, the last one, and once again shouldered the bag. “Nope. Just like I told you the first time, there’s nothin’ here for Miss Kelso.”

That letter simply had to be there! I said: “How about another delivery? Is it possible that the letter would be delivered later in the day?”

“Not unless it’s special delivery.”

By God, I thought, that would really cook me, if that letter turned out to be special delivery. But surely Ellen Foster would have noticed a thing like that—sure she would —so I immediately ruled out the possibility of special delivery.

The postman gave me one look, a sort of fishy look, then turned and went out of the building. It was all I could do to keep from yelling at him and making him go through his bag all over again. That letter just had to be there somewhere!

But it wasn’t. If that letter had fallen into the wrong hands, I was good as dead, and I didn’t want to admit it.

What I had to do was think. This was no time for breastbeating and wailing. I stood there staring at the mail box, that empty mail box, and made myself calm down. There was one thing I had to do; I had to systematically figure out what had happened to that letter.

Now that letter was mailed around four o’clock yesterday afternoon… that’s the starting point. There was just a chance that the letter wasn’t picked up at all yesterday. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be delivered until tomorrow, since there was only one-a-day delivery service at this address. Maybe that’s what happened, I thought. And I began to feel better.

But only for an instant. Oh, no, I thought, that letter was picked up all right. If it hadn’t been, the police would have intercepted it right on the spot.

That left two possibilities, two possible explanations as to why the letter hadn’t arrived here this morning: either it had been lost, or it had been intercepted at the main mail distribution point.

Then I thought: what are the odds on getting a letter lost in the mails? A million to one? Two million to one? The post office is a damned efficient organization; they just don’t lose letters, especially on local delivery, often enough to make it a possibility.

That left only one answer, the answer that I had been trying to dodge, the answer that I was afraid of. The letter had been intercepted by the police. I didn’t know how, but it had happened!

I had promised myself that I would never be afraid again… but I was afraid now.

It was a miracle that I was still alive! The miracle was that this apartment building hadn’t been swarming with cops long before now! By God, I thought, I’ve got to get out of here! I’ve got to move faster than I ever moved in my life!

That was when I started running.

I suppose I was running for my apartment, but I can’t be sure about anything that happened for the next few minutes. Panic had seized me and for that instant had complete control of me, but instinct alone had probably turned me toward my apartment. That’s where my money was. That’s where my gun was—the equipment of survival.

Once I recognized the fact that the letter had been intercepted, I knew instantly just the way it must have happened. It had started with that maid, Ellen Foster, who had suddenly become so proud of her memory. After thinking it over, she must have realized that the name on the letter hadn’t been Keaslo at all, but Kelso, and she had probably called the cops about it.

But it couldn’t have happened last night. It could only have happened this morning, and not early this morning, either, and that was the only thing that saved me this long. That and a legal complication that naturally arises when you fool with the U. S. Mail. The cops, after they had intercepted the letter, probably had gone after Pat’s permission to open it and act on the information in it. That small time lapse had saved me. It had given the postman time to make his regular delivery and arouse my suspicions.

If the cops had just held up that postman I would have been cooked hours ago. Blue suits and badges would have filled my apartment before I’d even got out of bed.

All this went through my mind as I ran down the hallway of that apartment building. In a matter of seconds the whole story was there, full grown, in front of me.

But the situation was bad enough as it was. Sooner or later the cops would be here. In a matter of minutes, probably, or even seconds. Surely, they would know the contents of Dorris Venci’s letter by this time, the news that Roy Surratt, Alex Burton’s murderer, was at large in Lake City. I didn’t dare think of the number of police cars that must be converging on this point at this minute, this second.

Where I was going from the apartment I didn’t know. I just knew instinctively that I had to get there first, I had to get the gun, the money, the keys to the Lincoln. I didn’t have enough of a future to plan on… the future, after I had picked up the essentials, would have to take care of itself.

I was about six or eight quick running steps from the mailbox, right at the rear entrance of the apartment building, when I heard the first siren.

The sound froze me.

I forgot about the apartment. I forgot, gun, money, keys, everything. All I could think about was getting away from there as fast as possible. I hit the rear entrance of the apartment building, with a force that almost took the door off the hinges. I ran past the garage stall where the Lincoln was parked… that sleek, beautiful, powerful Lincoln that I’d never be able to use again, not even if I had remembered the keys. They would be looking for that Lincoln, they would be looking for any kind of car, so I didn’t even give it a second glance.

I ran around the row of brick garage stalls, clawed my way through a hedge fence and broke into the open alley behind the apartment building. I had no time to wonder where I was going from here. The first siren was getting louder now, much louder, and others were beginning to join the screeching chorus. I only knew that I had to keep running until I could no longer hear the sirens, and then maybe I could stop for a moment and think.

I darted across the alley and plowed through another hedge fence, and there on the other side of the fence was another string of second rate apartment buildings, much like the one I had lived in. I ran blindly, headed nowhere in particular, just running in panic. It was like a nightmare, the harder I ran the closer the sirens got. I circled the apartment buildings and crossed the street which placed me a block away from where I had started. A woman coming out of a drugstore stopped to watch, but I ducked behind another building at the end of the block and didn’t see her again.

I began to thing about Dorris Venci as I ran. Goddamn that warped brain of hers!

But it was too late for regrets. Too late for anything but running, so I ran.

I stopped in a doorway and tried to get my breath, but the sound of those sirens wouldn’t let me rest. Every goddamned car on the force must be answering this call! I thought. Well, who could blame them? It’s not every day that you get a chance to pick up Roy Surratt, defenseless and alone, the way he is now!

But I kept telling myself: You’ve got to stop this running! It’s idiotic, all this running when you don’t even know where you’re going! It only attracts attention.

When the prowl car went past, sirens screaming, four or five people came out of a supermarket to see what was going on. I joined them.

“Land sakes!” a woman was saying. “Where are the fire trucks?”

“It’s not a fire,” a young guy in a white apron said. “It’s a police car, I just saw it go by.”

“Well, I never heard the likes! What do you suppose…”

I was afraid they would notice how out of breath I was. I eased to the edge of the group and into another doorway. Now what are you going to do, Surratt? You’re the genius. The perfectionist. The criminal philosopher. You’re the one who talks so much about the use of brains and audacity. Well, let’s see you get out of this one, if you’re so goddamn smart!

That little pep talk did me more good than anything that could possibly have happened; it stilled the panic; it gave me time to think.

All right, I thought savagely, I’ll get out of this yet! How about that little business with Calvart? I’d never be in a spot tighter than that one if I lived to be a thousand!

I felt a little better. I didn’t feel so much like a pile of quivering mush. What I needed right now was a friend. A good, strong friend like John Venci… but Venci was dead. I didn’t have a friend, I didn’t even have an acquaintance that I could go to for help.

It was Roy Surratt against the world.

By now the people who had come out of the supermarket had gone back in, or had drifted away. I stood there in the doorway wondering what the hell I was going to do. I had to get out of this neighborhood somehow, and fast, but I had no idea how I was going to manage it until I saw the young punk, the kid in the white apron, come out of the supermarket loaded down with two paper bags full of groceries. There was a Ford sedan at the curb in front of the supermarket, and that’s where he was heading.

“Just a minute, Joe, I’ll get that door for you.”

I looked around to see where the voice was coming from, and saw the woman coming out of the market carrying another, smaller, bag. She was about forty years old and looked like a typical middleclass housewife. She opened the luggage compartment and the kid dumped the groceries inside.

“Thanks, Mrs. Rider. That canned stuff sure is heavy.”

The woman said something and the kid went back to the supermarket. Mrs. Rider stood there for a minute, frowning and listening to the sirens, then she closed the trunk lid that the punk had forgotten and went around to the driver’s side of the car. I stepped out of the doorway and walked over to the Ford.

“There’s been no accident, Mrs. Rider,” I said.

Startled, she snapped her head around and stared at me. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said there’s been no accident. Those police cars you hear, they’re looking for me, Mrs. Rider.” I didn’t have a gun to freeze her into silence, and I didn’t want her to start screaming… not until I was close enough to choke it off, at least. So I spoke gently, quietly, hoping that she would understand her position and be sensible about it.

I opened the door on the driver’s side and said, “I don’t want to hurt you, Mrs. Rider. That’s the last thing in the world I want….” But it was no use. I could see the scream coming up in her throat.

I had to act fast. I jumped inside and hit her. I knocked the scream out of her before it ever became a sound. Her head snapped back and she fell against the door on the other side of the car. I grabbed her and stuffed her down to the floorboards.

She was out cold.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

IN THE GLOVE compartment I found an eight inch crescent wrench and a state road map. The wrench I slipped into my right hand pocket, the map I spread out on my lap and studied for four or five minutes trying to decide on the best escape route out of Lake City.

There were several ways to get out of the city, but the best and quickest way was a superhighway leading south of the city. Just outside the city limits there was an elaborate traffic circle that would take you off in about any direction you wanted, and I decided this would be my best bet. My big problem was getting to that traffic circle before the cops set up a roadblock.

I stuffed the road map back into the glove compartment and then pulled Mrs. Rider up onto the seat and slapped her a couple of times to bring her out of it. She wasn’t really hurt, although she might have trouble chewing on the left side of her jaw for a few days. She was suffering from shock more than anything. The slapping took care of that.

“… Stop that!”

“That’s more like it,” I grinned. I had slipped over on the passenger’s side of the car and put her under the wheel, and now I had my hand in my coat pocket, holding the crescent wrench like a gun.

“Mrs. Rider,” I said quietly, “I don’t want to be forced to use this gun. Now you’re not going to make me use the gun, are you?”

That scared her plenty, and I knew I had her in the palm of my hand. “Please… please put it away!”

“It’s just a precaution, Mrs. Rider; a man in my position can’t afford to take chances.”

“What… are you going to do!”

“I’ve got to get out of Lake City, and I’ve got to do it fast. You’re going to help me, Mrs. Rider. You are going to drive just where I tell you to drive, and as long as you do that you won’t be hurt.”

“I’m… I’m so nervous… I don’t think I can drive.”

“Sure you can, Mrs. Rider. All you have to do is keep thinking about this gun in my pocket. You keep thinking about this gun, and what will happen to you if anything goes wrong, and I’m sure everything will be fine. Now start the car.”

She was nervous, all right, but she started the car. She was thoroughly convinced that I had a gun on her, and would kill her, and she was more than eager to do anything I said.

I directed her west, through the outskirts of Lake City, and then we hit the four lane highway and headed south and I stopped worrying about Mrs. Rider. But I worried about those cops, plenty.

Those cops with their short wave radios, and their teletype machines, and their identification experts. What I needed was a short wave radio, one like Dorris Venci had had in her Lincoln. If I had a radio like that, I’d know if the cops were already busy setting up roadblocks or if they were still fooling around that apartment house trying to flush me out of some hole.

But I didn’t have a radio and I didn’t know a damn thing. All I could do was hope.

Then I glanced at the Ford’s speedometer and it was nosing up toward 60, and I said sharply, “Watch your speed!”

She winced as though I had slapped her again, but she jumped off that accelerator. “Please!” she said, almost sobbing. “You know how nervous I am!”

“And you know how cops are about speed laws. If we get jumped for speeding, Mrs. Rider, I’ll be forced to conclude that you did it on purpose and act accordingly. That’s something you might think over whenever you see that speedometer indicate more than 45.”

“I just didn’t notice!” she whined. “I had no idea of attracting the police!”

“I assure you,” I told her, “that such an idea would be a most dangerous one.”

Several minutes went by. We said nothing. There wasn’t a cop in sight, anywhere. After a while I got to thinking, maybe it’s going to work! Maybe I got the jump on them enough to make it work!

Then, at that moment when I should have been thinking “cops” and nothing but “cops,” I found myself thinking about Pat.

That’s all over now, I thought. Even before it got started, it’s over. And I felt a kind of emptiness that I had never known before. By now she probably knew all about me. By now she would know that I had killed Alex Burton, and she was probably hating my guts like she had never hated anything before.

Strangely, that was my only regret at that moment. All around me were the cops, I was just a short jump ahead of violent death and I knew it… what’s more, I had just seen my beautiful million dollar blackmail scheme go down the sewer… still, all I could think of was that Pat was hating my guts.

I didn’t know if I loved her… or even if I was capable of love; but all the same the emptiness was there, cold and swollen inside me. Then I caught myself toying with a dangerous idea, much more dangerous than the one I had warned Mrs. Rider about. I caught myself thinking: If I could just see her and talk to her maybe I could get it straightened out. After all, she has nothing to go on but Dorris’s letter; so it’s my word against Dorris’s word. And Dorris Venci, I reminded myself, had never given her a Balmain coat, and I had. That should make a difference about whose word she would take, if I knew anything at all about women.

I had seen Pat’s eyes, that night when she had stood staring at herself in my mirror, all wrapped up in the fantastic luxury of that coat. I remembered that night and seriously doubted that my past, my prison record, would bother her a great deal.

Then Mrs. Rider made a small surprised sound and the car began to slow down.

I snapped out of it. I slammed the door on my subconscious.

“What are you doing!”

“… Up ahead,” she said shakily, licking her lips nervously. “The traffic…”

I saw it then, and my heart hammered against my ribs about three times and then seemed to stop. About three or four hundred yards down the highway traffic was beginning to pile up… and nobody had to tell me what that meant.

The police had got a jump ahead of me. They had already set up a roadblock!

I could feel my world going to pieces right under my feet. Jesus! I thought, what am I going to do now!

But this time I held panic off with both hands. This is only the beginning, I reminded myself. This is a bad spot, but there are going to be plenty of bad spots before you get out of this mess, so you might as well learn to take them.

I grabbed the steering wheel and pulled with everything I had.

Mrs. Rider screamed. I thought the Ford was coming apart as we hit the raised concrete island that divided the four lane highway, but we got across it somehow. I heard tires screech like ripping canvas as the stream of northbound traffic tried to jam into the outside lane to keep from broadsiding us.

I didn’t give a damn about the traffic. I yelled at Mrs. Rider: “Floorboard it!”

Now I was perfectly cool and she was the nervous wreck. But when I made a move toward my right pocket she made a tight, squealing little sound and jammed the accelerator to the floor.

“Goddamnit,” I yelled, “take the steering wheel!”

Half scared to death, she took the wheel from me and the car heeled dangerously as she fought to get it under control. She finally got it straightened out without once taking her foot from the accelerator.

I looked back and saw that all the traffic far behind us was now crowding over to the outside lane. That meant that the cops had seen us trying to escape the roadblock. They had opened up with the sirens and were getting ready to come after us.

Well, let them come! Now that the action had started I was perfectly calm. I glimpsed the flashing red light on top of the police car, but we had a good jump on them. They weren’t nearly close enough to start shooting, and I didn’t intend for them to get that close.

“Faster!” I shouted.

“I… I can’t go any faster! The car won’t go any faster!” Her voice was a high-pitched whine, almost like a siren. This, I thought, will be a day shell never forget! This will be a day she can tell her grandchildren about—if she’s smart and stays alive long enough to have any grandchildren.

I studied the road ahead for a moment, watching the city rushing toward us. I looked back at the cops and saw that they were closing some ground, but not enough to catch us for a while. At last I glanced at Mrs. Rider’s white face.

“How well do you know this town?”

She worked her mouth but the words simply wouldn’t come out.

I said, “I want you to take the next through street to the right, heading right for the heart of town. You understand me?”

She nodded, blinking her eyes rapidly. Goddamn you, I thought, you better not start crying! Not while you’re driving this car! About five or six hundred yards up the highway she braked and bent the Ford hard to the right. She damn near rolled it—there was an eerie, floating sensation as both left wheels went up in the air.

However, this was Mrs. Rider’s lucky day. This was her day to stay alive, in spite of everything. She took that corner like a champ at the Indianapolis races.

My heart was in my throat. “Goddammit!” I started to yell, “this is no race you’re driving!” Then I changed my mind and said nothing. This was her lucky day, let her ride it out.

I looked back and couldn’t see the police car—but this was no permanent arrangement and I knew it. We were now in a part of Lake City that I had never seen before, a warehouse district with several big tractor and trailer jobs parked along the shoulders. I said, “Turn left, that next street up ahead.” I wanted to get off this through street before the cops made their turn from the highway. There was no use wondering where we went from there. The best plan in the world was no good now—I’d just have to make it up as I went along.

Still, I knew something had to be done, and fast. You simply don’t barrel through a place like Lake City at 60 miles an hour, with a cop car on your tail, without attracting some attention. The way things were now going, it was only a matter of time before the end came, and not much time at that.

Well… there was no time like the present.

“This will do,” I said.

She didn’t understand me, or maybe she was concentrating so hard on her driving that she didn’t hear.

“Stop the car!” I said. And this time she understood. She shot a panic stricken glance at me and began breaking to a stop.

“Now get out,” I said, reaching in front of her and opening the door. The car had barely come to a stop when I gave her a shove and that was the last I saw of Mrs. Rider. The longer I kept her with me the higher the odds became that sooner or later she would do something crazy and I would have to kill her. I wondered if Mrs. Rider appreciated the favor I’d done her. Probably she was worrying more about the groceries in the luggage compartment—that’s the way women’s minds seem to work.

I forgot about Mrs. Rider completely. I’d lost the cops for a few minutes, but only for a very few minutes. Already they would have radioed for help and in a very short time this part of Lake City was going to be swarming with police.

Strangely enough, I was perfectly cool now, my mind operating with the clean precision of an electronic calculator. This car, like its owner, had now become more of a liability than an asset—the big problem right now was getting it off my hands. But the cops would find it sure if I just parked it and got out; then they would know that I had to be in the immediate neighborhood.

By now I was about four blocks from where I’d dumped Mrs. Rider, and ahead of me there was a sign:

RED BALL GARAGE

DAY AND NIGHT WRECKER SERVICE WE FIX FLATS.

I turned the Ford into the big open doorway of the garage. When the motor died I could hear the sirens—more than one now. Then I noticed a black bag on the floorboards and picked it up. Inside there was a five dollar bill and some change—not much, but certainly better than nothing. Mrs. Rider, I thought with an almost hysterical gayety, don’t think I don’t appreciate this! I pocketed the money and felt an insane impulse to giggle.

I got out of the Ford and walked over to where a big man in grease stained coveralls had his head under the hood of a new De Soto.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

I SAID, “HOW long will it take to get a valve and ring job on this Ford?”

The mechanic took his head out of the De Soto. “Maybe tomorrow I can get started. Maybe this afternoon.”

“No hurry, no hurry at all,” I said pleasantly. “What I want is a good job. I don’t care how long it takes.”

He shrugged. “All right, tomorrow.” Then he screwed up his face, thoughtfully, listening. “Sounds like a fire out there,” he said, finally getting around to hearing the sirens.

I preferred to ignore the sirens for the present. “It will be all right to leave the Ford here in the garage, won’t it?”

“Sure…. Sure,” he said vaguely, still listening.

There were three or four of them now, and from what I could hear, they were moving toward the north, away from the warehouse district, still looking for that Ford.

Well, that suited me fine. I figured it would take a while before they got around to checking the garages, and by that time I hoped to be far away from this part of town; far away from Lake City. I got the mechanic to make out a ticket on the repairs he thought I wanted on the Ford, valve job, new rings, the works, and then I signed a phony name and got out of there. Yes sir, I thought, it’s going to take them a while to trace that Ford.

I walked out to the sidewalk and stood there listening, and the sound of the sirens was just a whisper now, just a hint of a scream in the distance. I felt secure for the moment, but I knew that wasn’t going to last. The odds against me were growing fast. The impulse to run, run blindly, was almost irresistible, but I put it down. If I had taken time to think at the beginning I would be in a much better position at this moment: I’d have a gun; I’d have a bankroll; I’d be in a position to help myself.

Well, there was no use crying about it now. I had to figure out a way to get out of here, far away, and I could allow nothing else to occupy my mind until that was settled.

I moved down the sidewalk, cautiously, but not too cautiously, not so cautiously as to attract attention. I kept my eyes open; I regarded everything that crossed my line of vision as a possible instrument of escape. Just stay calm, I kept telling myself, and something will show up, something always shows up to those who wait. Then I saw something and thought, this is it!

What I saw was a railroad track—not the main tracks but a spur line that served the warehouse district—and when I reached the end of the block, I saw the lineup of freight cars and flatcars pulled off on the siding, and a small fleet of big tractor-simi jobs loading, unloading, coming, going. It looked like a busy place, and up ahead there was an old fashioned coal burning switch engine, and that started me thinking.

A switch engine…. It must mean that the line of freight cars was being readied to leave Lake City. That’s just what’s going to happen, I thought. Those cars are going to be coupled together, that switch engine would move the whole string out to the main track where it would become a part of the outgoing freight train getting ready to pull out right at this moment.

And that was when I saw the cops. A big job pulled away from the track, and there on the other side of the truck was a black and white sedan, a red warning light on top, a long, waving, short wave antenna at the rear. A squad car, all right. I was old enough to know a squad car when I saw one!

Well, I thought, almost tempted to smile, they are a very efficient crew, these Lake City Police. First roadblocks, now they are searching freight cars, and no doubt they already had men working the bus stations, depots, and even the airfields.

Let them search. Let them get it out of their systems—I was just glad they had decided to do it now instead of a few minutes later, because in a few minutes I intended to be in one of those freight cars. I intended to punch myself a one way ticket to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, anywhere. I didn’t care where it was, just so the name wasn’t Lake City.

What I needed was breathing space, thinking time—and those cops were fixing it up very nicely. It didn’t occur to me that their searching the train at this particular time was a very close call; what occurred to me was that my luck must be changing. It must be changing! Surely they wouldn’t come back and search that train again, after having done it once….

Yes sir, the cards were beginning to fall!

I waited patiently, watching the activity at the tracks, and after a while I saw the cops, two of them, climb out of a box car and drive away.

As soon as the police car was out of sight I began walking toward the track. Not a detail did I miss, for details were what my future hinged on. Details could mean the difference between living and dying. So I noted carefully that there were eighteen cars, four of them flatcars, two refrigerated cars, and the others were ordinary red-painted box cars.

Those box cars are out, I thought immediately. They load those things and lock them tight before they are coupled with the train… and I sure didn’t want to find myself a prisoner in a box car. The refrigerated cars were out too. They offered the advantage of having ventilating and icing doors at the top, but too many people were apt to get curious about the contents of a refrigerated car, so that left only the flatcars, which didn’t seem very promising at first.

But that changed when I saw the two workmen stretching the big gray tarp over the tractors. They were bright red high-wheeled farm tractors, four of them anchored down with cables and pulleys on one of the flatcars, and now the workmen were stretching the big tarp over them so they would look nice and new when they got to wherever they were going.

It didn’t take the workmen long to get the tarp lashed down to everyone’s satisfaction. They dropped off the flatcar, got in a truck and drove away. Most of the trucks and workmen were gone now… it looked like the cars were loaded and ready to pull out.

Sure enough, the switch engine began backing up, the engineer leaning out the far side of the cab to get his signals from the brakeman.

Now! I thought. It’s now or never if you want to get out of Lake City alive! I broke into a jog, being careful to keep a box car between me and the brakeman. I swung up to the flatcar and squeezed under the edge of the tarp.

This was the dangerous time. This was a time for holding my breath and hoping that brakeman hadn’t seen me.

Apparently he hadn’t. Nobody yelled, nobody stuck his head under the tarp to see what the hell I was doing there, so apparently I had brought it off perfectly and nobody at all had seen me.

I breathed easier… everything was coming out just right. Of course this flatcar couldn’t be called first class travel, but it would do. Up ahead I could hear the cars coming together, coupling, with teeth-jarring rattles. And then the car directly ahead smashed into my flatcar and slammed me back against one of the tractors. One of the big lugs on the tractor’s rear wheel tore my coat as I grabbed for something to hold to—but that didn’t bother me. Nothing could bother me now. I was as good as out of Lake City! In spite of the police, in spite of their elaborate communication system and their road blocks! _.

At last the entire string of cars was coupled together and we began to move forward. We moved forward for maybe ten minutes, then stopped. Then we moved in reverse for a short distance, then forward again. I couldn’t see what was going on, but I knew that a certain amount of switching had to be done to get us on the right track.

I don’t know how many times we went forward, stopped, then went backward and finally forward again. It seemed like a long time, as I crouched there under the tarp in semi-darkness, being slammed against the steel of those tractors every time the engineer changed directions. Finally we stopped and this time we didn’t move again. I heard the switch engine break off and move away by itself. It won’t be long now, I thought. We’re on the right track, now all I have to do is wait.

I waited for what seemed like hours and nothing happened. Nothing at all. Every so often I could hear somebody crunch past on the cinders beside the track, and I died a little every time, and thought: What the hell am I going to do if it’s a railroad inspector and he sticks his head under this tarp, or the cops coming back for a second look! But they always went on, and after a while my heart would start beating normally again.

If only I had a gun, I kept thinking….

But I didn’t have a gun.

And what was holding up this string of cars? Why didn’t a train pick it up and get it moving?

I didn’t know the answer, and I didn’t dare stick my head under that tarp to try to find out. I crouched there, and the long minutes and hours crawled by, and at last I realized that the sun had moved from one side to the other on the tarp and that at least four or five hours must have gone by since I first swung onto this flatcar that I was now beginning to hate.

That was when I finally realized that that string of cars wasn’t going anywhere. Not today, anyway. Maybe not for a week, or even a month!

The realization came slowly, but probably it had been in the back of my mind all along and I had simply refused to look at it. But there was no getting around it now. I was stuck! I was on a train going nowhere!

At that moment I was utterly defeated. All I could think of was—this is the end of the line! The hand had been played out.

For several minutes, maybe longer, I wallowed in the muck and slime of self-pity—but finally I pulled myself out of that. By God, I told myself, I’ve got to get myself out of this!

But one thought kept hammering at me. Jesus, if I only had a gun! I was rapidly becoming a nut on the idea of not having a gun. What I needed right now was a friend like John Venci to give me a gun and a bankroll.

I might as well have wished for a platinum plated key to Fort Knox. No sir, I thought, it’s going to take more than wishing to get out of this, Surratt….

Then one word, one name crossed my mind…. Pat!

I hadn’t dared think of her until now. The minute that letter had been intercepted I made myself stop thinking about her. No matter what I had felt about her, or what she had felt about me, I had to accept the fact that Pat must now hate my guts because she knew that I had killed Alex Burton.

But now I started thinking in a new direction, almost another dimension.

The question I asked myself was: Did Pat actually know that I had killed Burton? All she had was the word of an unbalanced woman, to put it kindly, and was there any particular reason that she should take the word of a gangster’s wife against mine?

Jesus, I thought, the excitement of the idea beginning to grip me, I wonder if I actually could bring her around! I wonder if I could somehow make her believe that I had nothing to do with that Burton killing!

The fact was, I had very little choice in the matter. My position right now was much the same as it had been in prison. Lake City was my prison, all exits were locked to me, and to crash out successfully I simply had to have help… and Pat was the only possible person who might give it.

I could hear my every heartbeat as I crouched there by the tractors. If I bring this off, I thought, it will be the most audacious action of my career.

However, any debate on the matter would be purely academic, for Pat held my life in her hands. Either she would help me, or she wouldn’t. Either I would die, or I wouldn’t. Strangely enough I was perfectly calm as I considered the possibilities. The first thing I’ve got to do is get to a phone, I thought. I’ve got to contact Pat and I’ve got to give the most convincing performance of my life!

Beyond that point there was no sense making plans.

In the distance I could hear those out-of-tune electronic chimes banging out every quarter hour. The distance that those discordant sounds could cover was positively amazing, but at least they were functional. By paying attention to the chimes I now knew that it was five o’clock and that seven full hours had passed since the police cars had first started closing in on my apartment.

Only seven hours? It seemed like a lifetime ago!

Getting started was the tough part. I had begun to associate a feeling of security with this flatcar. I began to hate the thought of leaving it. I began to think what a nice thing it would be if I could curl up into a tight little knot and lie there in the quiet darkness and pretend that everything was going to work out fine, just the way it was, and it really wasn’t necessary to return to that jungle fury that lay on the other side of the tarp.

I lifted the tarp just a little and looked outside. Just as I had figured, the string of cars had been left on a siding. I looked out at an amazing network of steel tracks only slightly less complicated than the human nerve system, and beyond the tracks there were several sprawling redbrick buildings and a high wire fence. I had a look on the other side of the car and decided this would be my best bet. In this direction there were very few tracks. There was a maze of cattle pens and loading chutes. Most of the cattle pens were empty and there was no sign of unusual activity—certainly there were no cops in sight.

Well, I thought, I might as well take the plunge.

CHAPTER TWENTY

THE AFTERNOON papers were in a wire rack in front of a drugstore and I could read the headlines from half a block away.

KILLER LOOSE IN LAKE CITY.

I’d been almost an hour getting completely away from the freight yards, finding my way out of that maze of cattle pens and trying to watch out for cops at the same time. I had finally made it this far, maybe two or three blocks away from the yards, to that crummy, down-at-the-heel section of the city that always seems to thrive close to the tracks. I had made it this far with no trouble. Not a single pair of eyes had given me a second glance, and just as I was feeling that everything was going nicely, that headline hit me.

What really jarred me was the picture. I had never been news like this before—I wasn’t accustomed to seeing a three column cut of myself on the front page just below a black two inch screamer.

Are all these people blind! I thought. How can they look at me and fail to recognize me as the “killer”?

Then I looked at myself in a plate glass window and understood. The man I saw in the glass was not the best looking man in the world, and certainly not the neatest, but he was wearing a good suit, a tie, a shirt with a button-down collar. “Even I had trouble believing that the man who had sat for those prison mug shots in the paper could be the same man looking back at me from the plate glass window. Well, I’ll be damned! I felt an impulse to laugh.

But I put it down immediately.

A trained eye, a cop’s eye, would spot me in an instant… and the cops were the only ones who counted in this game of life and death that I was playing. Don’t forget that, Surratt. Don’t forget it for an instant!

I didn’t forget it, but I did feel a little better until a cop stepped onto the sidewalk about four doors down from where I was standing!

My heart stopped still. He was a big sonofabitch, two hundred at-least; he had just stepped out of a chili joint and still had a toothpick in his mouth. He wiped his mouth, then planted himself solidly in the middle of the sidewalk and glared hard at some point in the distance that seemed to anger him.

You stay just like that, I thought, easing into a doorway. You turn your head, you fix those steelball eyes of yours on my face, copper, and you’ll be the deadest sonofabitch in Lake City!

It was complete nonsense, of course, because I had no gun and I certainly couldn’t have handled a cop his size with my bare hands… but it made me feel a little better just thinking it. As I thought it I eased into the doorway. I reached behind me and opened a door. Make it look natural, I told myself, as I turned and stepped through the doorway into what seemed to be another hash house.

The last I saw of that cop he was still standing there in that same spot, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet, his gaze still fixed angrily on that uncertain point in the distance. Maybe his feet hurt. Maybe he was mad because the captain had passed him over for promotion. You just keep thinking about it, I thought, whatever it is.

I closed the door and began to breathe again.

There was a woman behind the counter who looked at me when I came in but all she saw was just another drifter, in a world of drifters, who might be worth the price of coffee and sinkers, but that was all. There were two customers at the counter having the house special, stew, but they were too busy eating to be curious.

I headed for the phone booth.

I was perfectly calm until I-dropped the coin in the slot and began to dial. That was when my insides began to crawl, that was when I fully realized how important these next few minutes or seconds could be to me. They could mean that I would either live or die—that’s how important they were! All Pat had to say was “no” and I was dead. Just as sure as she could point a pistol at my head and pull the trigger. She could kill me. I absolutely had to have her help or I was cooked, really cooked this time, and nobody was more aware of that fact than I.

Of course that wasn’t all I had to worry about. I had the cops to think of—all those cops with their elaborate organization. How much did they really know or could guess about me and Pat? Were they guessing enough to figure it would be a paying proposition to tap her telephone? If they were, I was still cooked. I might as well go back to the flatcar and wait for the end.

Those were a few of the things that went through my mind at that moment, but I kept dialing. There was nothing else to do.

I listened to the ringing at the other end. Once… twice… three times… I listened so hard that I began to imagine that I could hear someone breathing on the line. But that was not possible. If Pat were playing seriously with the cops, and they had her line tapped, I would know it. They would have an extension connected and would try to lift the receivers at the same exact instant, and a man on the other end could tell when two circuits were opened instead of one, if he only listened hard enough.

I kept telling myself that I could tell the difference, but every time that phone rang at the other end I became less and less sure of myself. Four times it rang… Five times….

Why didn’t she answer? If she was is the apartment, certainly she would have had plenty of time to get to the phone by now! It hadn’t occurred to me that she might not be in the apartment. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that she wouldn’t be there when I needed her!

Six times the phone rang…. Still no answer.

I wanted to hang up and get out of there. Every instinct told me that something was wrong—maybe the cops were holding things up for some reason. Maybe they were putting their tracer to work, or maybe they simply had got their equipment fouled somehow, but with every second that passed I felt it stronger and stronger. Something was wrong.

Then the receiver came off the hook. It was absolutely clean. Click, and it was off, and Pat’s voice was saying:

“… Hello?”

It was a strange thing, the way I felt at that moment. I forgot the cops, I forgot all fear for that instant, as Pat’s voice sounded in the receiver—a quiet voice, somehow soothing the ragged edges of my nerves. For the first time, I guess, I was beginning to realize how much I missed her, how much I needed her. Not just for the present, as a means of escape, but really needed her.

“Pat,” I said quickly, “don’t hang up! Please don’t hang up until I’ve explained something! It’s very important!”

I didn’t know how much the cops had worked on her; I didn’t know how many of the papers she had read or how much she had believed. I was taking no chances. I simply couldn’t let her hang up until I had a chance to convince her that I hadn’t killed Alex Burton.

“Pat, do you hear me!”

For one long moment she said nothing. I was afraid that she was going to hang up. I was afraid that she wasn’t going to give me a chance to talk her around… and there was nothing I could do to stop it. All she had to do was replace the receiver, refuse to talk to me….

At last she said, “The police were just here, they left just a few moments ago.” There was nothing soothing in her voice now. It was tightly drawn and rough with hate. “They’ll find you, and I hope it’s soon. It can’t be too soon to suit me!”

“Listen to me!” I said, the words coming as fast as I could talk. “Pat, you’ve simply got to listen to me! I know what the cops have been telling you, and I know what you’ve been reading in the papers, but those things simply aren’t true, not all of them anyway. You’ll listen to me, won’t you, for old times’ sake if for nothing else?”

She made no sound at all.

“Sure,” I rushed on, “my name is Roy Surratt, and once I killed a lousy sadist, a guard named Gorgan, but even that was in self-defense. I don’t care what the cops told you or what you read in the newspapers. I didn’t have anything to do with that Burton killing!”

This time she did make a small sound, a very small sound that meant absolutely nothing except possibly a kind of bitter interest had been aroused.

But I wasn’t getting anywhere. I could feel it. Maybe I was crazy about, her, but that didn’t mean that she had to feel the same toward me. Oh, no, I was thinking, this is no time to kid yourself about a thing like that, Surratt. The only real tie you ever had to her was money, money that could buy Lincolns and Paris coats. So don’t get the idea that soft soap will bring her around. Money, that’s the thing women understand!

“Now listen to me, please!” I said. “This is very important; my life depends on it. Maybe your future depends on it, too, Pat. I’m going to tell you the truth, the absolute truth, so will you listen?”

She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no, either. I had the feeling that she was holding her breath… waiting.

“All right,” I went on quickly, “do you remember what I said about giving this town a shaking? Well, that’s just what I did. I had it by the throat, I had the sweetest, most lucrative setup a man can imagine, but… Well, something went wrong. What I’m trying to say is this: I need help, but I’m ready to pay for it. I’m not asking you to take chances for the sake of friendship or anything like that. I’m ready to pay.”

But I was getting the uneasy feeling that she wasn’t even listening. Goddammit, I thought savagely, what have I got to do to make her listen to me! I could almost see her, standing there like a stone cold statue, as unfeeling and deaf as a statue. “Jesus!” I said, “won’t you please listen to me, Pat! Are you still thinking about Burton”; is that what’s bothering you?”

Still she said nothing.

“Look,” I said quickly, changing directions again, “you’re not going to believe anything Dorris Venci said, are you? Let me tell you something about Dorris Venci; she was nuts! Absolutely and completely nuts! Somehow she got the crazy idea that she loved me, and that’s the reason she wrote you the letter. I brushed her off and that burned her up. She wanted to hurt me, so she wrote you that letter full of lies.”

I tried to think of something to add, but I had said just about everything there was to say. I could feel the ground falling out from under me. I understood perfectly well that my story was full of holes, but I could have plugged the holes if only she had given me a chance.

I felt completely helpless. And then, at last, she spoke. Her voice sounded as though it were coming all the way from the moon.

“… What kind of help… do you want?”

I almost collapsed with relief. My heart began to pump again. “A gun,” I said, before she could change her mind. “A revolver if you can find one, but this is not my day to be particular, just so it’s a gun. And some cartridges to fit the gun. And a good road map of the state—a really good one, the kind they sell in drugstores for a dollar or so—and a car. I don’t care what kind of a car, just so it runs and isn’t hot.”

“… Is that all?”

Christ! I thought, what a woman she is! I ask for the sun and the moon and the stars, and she wants to know is that all! “Yes,” I said, “that’s quite all. With a car and a gun and a good map to tell me where they’re likely to throw up their roadblocks, a division of Marines couldn’t stop me!”

“… The map will be simple,” she said flatly. “I have a small automatic myself—.25 caliber, I believe it is—and some cartridges….”

I wasn’t exactly an amateur with a gun; you don’t have to have a cannon to stop a man, if you know how to shoot. “The automatic will do fine. What about the car?”

“I know a used car lot that will still be open. I’ve been shopping there for an inexpensive car for my own use—there shouldn’t be any trouble.”

Yes, I thought, with surprising bitterness, I suppose you will need a car of your own now. “The used car lot sounds right,” I said. “How long do you think it will take?”

“… An hour, perhaps. More important is the expense-it will take a good deal of money, most of my savings….”

I grinned and thought: By God, you were right all along, Surratt! Money’s the thing that brings them around! I tried to think of a figure that would sound impressive but not ridiculous. “Don’t you worry about the expense,” I said. “I told you I was ready to pay. Ten thousand dollars, that’s what it will be worth to you.”

“… Where shall I meet you?”

“Harrison at Fourth Street, down by the tracks.”

“In about an hour?”

“An hour will be perfect.”

Only then did she hang up.

How do you like that! I thought. You’ll never completely understand women, Surratt. You might as well admit it. One minute they’re cold as stone, the next minute they’re laying their necks on the block for you!

But Pat Kelso was quite a woman just the same. She was my kind of woman; she had just proved it. She was beautiful, she had class; and she didn’t let a few personal scruples stand in her Way when she saw a chance to pick up ten grand. But she was going to go right through the ceiling when she found out there was no ten grand!

Well, no matter how fast you try you can take just one step at a time, so I’d worry about that problem when I got to it. Very gently, I hung the receiver back on the hook, smiling.

At the counter I paid the waitress for the sandwich and coffee, had her put the sandwich in a bag and took it with me.

It was beginning to get dark outside—I was glad of that. Not that it made much difference. These people had lost the knack of seeing beyond their own noses, and not one out of ten thousand would have recognized me anyway. Cops —they were the only people to worry about.

So I was careful as I came out of the hash house and was glad to see that my blue suited friend down the block had plodded on his way. I noticed a springiness to my step that hadn’t been there before. It was almost as though a heavy weight had been removed from my shoulders, and the world was once more a tolerable place to live in.

I ate my sandwich in a fifteen cent movie house on Harrison Street. I kept my eyes on a neon lighted clock to one side of the screen and thought: Now Pat has the gun in her bag; now she has the cartridges; now she is putting on her coat—not the Balmain coat, just a plain one—to go to the drugstore; now she’s at the drugstore buying the map; now she’s on her way to the car lot….

It was almost as though I could actually see her. Forty-five minutes to go. Thirty minutes to go. Christ, don’t get into an argument with that car dealer! I thought. This is no time to haggle over prices. Pay the sonofabitch what he wants, but get the car!

Fifteen minutes to go.

I made myself sit there a few minutes longer. I was completely safe as long as I sat here in the darkness, but once I stepped out there on the street there was no way of knowing what would happen. No sense begging for trouble. Sit here and wait it out, that’s the thing.

Ten minutes to go.

Surely, I thought, she has the car by now. The car dealer knows her and there should be a minimum of red tape. An hour she had said. Well, I had waited fifty minutes and couldn’t take it any longer—I got up and walked out.

Outside the movie house there were the usual drifters, down-at-the-heel refugees from limbo, but no cops. Where are the cops, anyway? I thought. With a killer on the loose you’d think they’d have two cops on every corner. There wasn’t a cop anywhere, as far as I could see. Maybe this was the night of the Policemen’s Ball, or maybe they were too busy ogling prostitutes and shaking down bookies to bother with a mere killer. No matter what the reason, there were no cops in sight and that was the important thing. I stepped out onto the sidewalk and walked casually toward Fourth Street.

Fourth was a dark street, an ugly ditch that someone had plowed through a cement city and had forgotten to fill up. It wasn’t much to look at but it suited me fine. I turned the corner at Harrison and strolled about a quarter of the way down Fourth. The sun had died. While I had been in the movie house darkness had come down on the city.

Darkness was a good thing. It was just what I’d ordered. I stood in the doorway of a darkened pawn shop and waited for Pat to come with a new option on my contract with destiny.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

SHE HIT THE hour-mark right on the nose, as well as I could tell waiting there in the darkness. I saw a tan Ford pull up at the corner of Harrison and Fourth and I knew it was Pat; I could feel it. I could feel the elation bubbling up inside me. It’s all over but the yelling, I thought. Soon I’ll be out of this town for good.

I stepped out of the darkened doorway and waved and she saw me immediately. I felt like a million dollars. I could feel myself grinning. By God, I thought, not one man in ten thousand could bring off an escape-like this—but I will! I can feel it in my bones!

It wasn’t a new Ford, far from it, but it seemed to be running all right and that was the thing that mattered. I didn’t have it in mind to outrun the police—I was going to outsmart them! Pat turned onto Fourth and I was waiting at the curb. I was inside before she had braked to a complete stop.

“I certainly am glad to see you!” I said. “For the first time in my life I was close to admitting defeat.”

She glanced at me but said nothing, which didn’t surprise me. She seemed nervous, but who wouldn’t be nervous, considering the spot she had put herself on? But she was still the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and I had a crazy impulse to grab her right there, and to hell with everything else.

That was one impulse that I squashed in a hurry. Another day, I thought. Another day when I’ve gone into business somewhere else; and then I’ll really buy her that fleet of Lincolns; then we’ll really begin to live, the two of us.

She put the Ford in gear and said, “Where do you want to go?”

“Someplace where you can get a taxi without too much trouble. You’ve done your share, and a fine job it was too. The rest is up to me.”

“I know a place near Lincoln Avenue… will that be all right?”

“Lincoln Avenue is fine. How about the gun; you brought it, didn’t you?”

“It’s in my pocket. I’ll give it to you in a minute.”

Maybe I should have noticed that everything was not as it should have been. Maybe I should have noticed the flatness of her voice, the coldness of her beautiful face… but the fact is that I didn’t notice; I was too busy congratulating myself. I was too busy devouring the beauty of her face to notice the coldness. And when I finally did notice, it was too late.

I was hardly aware that she had braked the Ford and was pulling up to the curb. Then she looked at me and there was something in her eyes that made me look around.

“Say, I thought Lincoln Avenue was more to the west.”

“… It is,” she said.

Then I saw the gun. But it was much, much too late to do me any good. It was a small gun; it looked almost like a toy, even in her small hand.

It was no toy. A .25 caliber slug can be an awfully big piece of lead if you catch it in the right place. I stared at the gun, and the muzzle was looking me right in the belly, pointed right at the soft midsection just below the center of the rib cage, just about where my liver would be.

“What is this?” I said. Trying not to sweat so much, trying not to see what was perfectly obvious. “If this isn’t Lincoln Avenue, why did you stop?”

“Don’t you know?”

“No, I don’t know. And for Christ’s sake, don’t you know better than to point a gun at a person unless you mean to kill him?”

She almost smiled, but not quite.

Strangely, I was not scared. Certainly I was not so stupid that I did not recognize the situation for what it was. I had not convinced her of anything—that much was clear to me now. I had succeeded only in convincing myself that everything was going to be all right, because that was what I wanted to believe.

But not Pat. I hadn’t fooled her for a minute. She was just as sure as she had ever been that I had killed Alex Burton. When would I ever learn that it didn’t pay to underrate women!

Maybe I would never get a chance to learn—for Pat meant to kill me. There was no doubt about it. She didn’t mean for the electric chair to do it; she was going to do it herself.

Strangely, I was not afraid. I simply did not believe that a girl like Pat had the kind of guts it took to pull the trigger on another human being.

I made myself smile. I made myself think that it was some kind of fantastic joke. I made myself say quite calmly, “All right, you’ve got something on your mind. You might as well tell me about it now.”

For one tense moment I thought she actually was going to shoot. I shifted my glance quickly from the gun to her face and was shocked to see that she was no longer beautiful. The hand of hate had strained and drawn her face almost beyond recognition—oh, there was plenty of hate there, mere than enough to kill. But somehow I had the feeling that she was not going to pull the trigger.

I said, “Why don’t you give me that automatic? You look pretty silly, and you know you’re not going to use it.”

“… You killed him.” A voice without tone. A defeated voice, I thought. “The kindest, gentlest man I ever knew. The only man I ever loved. You killed him.”

“But I explained all that,” I said patiently. “When I talked to you. This crazy woman, this Dorris Venci, she wrote you that letter because she was mad at me. She knew how it was with you and Burton, a lot of people did. She knew that she could make you hate me if she could convince you that I had something to do with the Burton murder. That’s exactly the reason she wrote the letter. You’re much too sensible a girl to swallow a story like that.”

“Mrs. Venci didn’t even mention Alex Burton in her letter,” Pat said flatly.

That stunned me.

“What did you say!”

“Mrs. Venci made no mention of Alex Burton. She identified you as Roy Surratt, an escaped convict, and warned me to have nothing to do with you.”

“That was all she put in that letter!”

“That was all.”

Jesus! I thought, what an idiot I’ve been! “Look… You’ve got this figured all wrong. I can explain it; believe me, I can!”

“Can you, Mr. Surratt?”

No, I couldn’t. There was no way in the world to explain my way around a blunder as momentous as this one.

“Roy Surratt!” she said, staring right through me. “You actually believe, don’t you, that you are some kind of superior being on this earth. You don’t consider it necessary to answer to all us underlings for your actions, no matter what they may be. Roy Surratt! Master criminal! Philosopher!”

She laughed then, and it was not a pretty sound. “The gall of you! The audacity! How dare you behave as though you were the only person on earth possessed of the ability to think, to analyze, to define! Your enormous ego is your greatest weakness; did you know that? How could you have believed that you could kill a man like Alex Burton and get away with it?”

“Take it easy,” I said soothingly, watching that automatic. “Just take it easy, won’t you, and please remember that in this country a person, is innocent until proven guilty.”

“I know you are guilty,” she said tightly. “I think I’ve known it from the first moment I saw you.”

“That doesn’t make much sense, does it? After all, you did go out with me. You did accept that coat, and you did enjoy my company. Does that sound as though you suspected me of killing your friend.”

Suddenly she smiled, and it was like no smile I had ever seen before. “That incredible ego! You believe what you want to believe and nothing else. Couldn’t you see that the very sight of you made me sick!”

Just keep her talking, I thought. Sooner or later she will relax and I’ll grab that gun. Then we’ll see whether my ego’s a weakness! I said, “How about the night I gave you the coat. Are you telling me that was an act too?”

I’d hit her with something that time. The color drained from her face and for an instant I thought she was going to collapse. But she didn’t, and the automatic didn’t waver.

“… Yes,” she said quietly, almost whispered, ”… I wanted that coat. It represented something to me, it brought back memories of elegance, a way of life that I had once known.”

I kept pushing. “And you still maintain that you suspected me all along of killing Burton?”

“… I’m thinking of the first time we met outside the apartment,” she breathed, almost to herself. “In front of the factory office building, you were waiting there.”

“I remember.”

“You mentioned the night that Alex was killed. You noted the fact that Alex and I had been to the University Club and later the Crestview.”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“It was the first time I had been with Alex to either of those places. We… weren’t together much in public.”

“I’ll bet,” I said, still with a bit of bitterness, remembering a certain chafing dish, a certain bedroom and photograph that I had hated, even before I had known that it was of Alex Burton.

“How did you know,” she asked, “that Alex had taken me to those particular places on that particular night?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I read it in the paper.”

“It wasn’t in the paper. No one knew, just a few club members and the police—not the kind of people you would associate with. You followed us that night, that’s how you knew. You followed us, and after Alex left me at my apartment you killed him.”

She didn’t have to draw it any plainer than that. She had me pegged. She’d had me pegged from the very first. She had stuck to me, played, up to me, waiting for me to make a mistake!

Well, I’d made the mistake.

It was strange—but I didn’t seem to care. I didn’t feel smart any more. I didn’t feel like a Master Criminal. I didn’t feel like a wise guy, either, who knew all the answers. All I felt was the emptiness. ”… All right,” I said finally, “I killed him. Is that what you want to hear? He was a lousy, thieving, no-good bastard, and I killed him.”

That was when she shot me.

It was strange, but I didn’t hear the explosion. That little automatic was no more than a foot away and I didn’t even hear it. It was the shock, I suppose. The bullet went through me like a beam of light opening a path in the darkness. A very small piece of lead, not as large as your little finger. The impact knocked the breath out of me. I couldn’t move my head. The entire lower part of my body was numb. My spinal column must be shattered, I thought. I wonder what’s keeping me alive?

That was the last I remembered for a long, long while. Darkness closed in, and when I opened my eyes again it was in the white glare of a hospital room with cops standing around like angry statues, glaring down at me.

“What do you think?” someone asked.

And another voice said, “We can patch him up well enough to walk to the chair.”

And that was when I stopped worrying about myself; my end was certain. I was aboard a slow freight bound for oblivion, my body half dead, only my brain fully alive. It’s really too bad, I kept thinking. It’s really quite a shame that it has to end this way because we’d have made a hell of a pair, Pat and I.

I didn’t hate her. I no longer had the strength to support an emotion as violent as hate. The only thing left was a feeling of emptiness, a vague sort of incompleteness, a whispered fear that I had missed something somewhere along the line….

But it didn’t matter now.

Kill That Headline

Kill That Headline

Robert Leslie Bellem

From Romantic Detective Magazine

As a newspaperman, he couldn’t decently or ethically do anything about it. But as a man in love with the girl reporter, he had to make his move when she was threatened

DEFTLY-APPLIED rouge couldn’t mask the chalky pallor of her cheeks. Her mouth was a tremulous crimson blossom against deathly whiteness. She walked into the Morning Planet city-room unsteadily, like a person drunk—or drugged.

Ken Fitch, city editor on the night side, happened to glance up from the headline he was readying—a headline that would split the town wide open. Less than two hours ago he’d had a visit from Cokey Joe Breen, who had spilled the facts behind that headline—for a cash consideration. And now, seeing the blond girl approaching, Ken Fitch stiffened with surprise.

“Letha Starke!” he muttered.

She came falteringly toward the raised platform where his desk was situated—the dais from which he could keep a watchful eye on reporters, rewrite men, and copy-desk slaves under his charge. Pendant green-shaded incandescents sent reflected glints of light shining against the oncoming girl’s metallic yellow hair, revealing every perfectly-spaced wave of her artistic coiffure. Her lush curves were stressed by an expensive mink coat drawn tightly about her, so that each step she took revealed the bold, arrogant lines of her slinky figure.

“Ken———!” she whispered as she gained the platform.

He frowned. He didn’t get up from his chair. A swift, roving glance informed him that every masculine eye in the room was appraisingly fastened on his visitor. Her blatant beauty always did that to the men she encountered. Typewriters had ceased clattering; there was only the steady, spaced click of teletype printers to mar the admiring hush that had fallen over the night crew.

Confronting Ken Fitch, the girl’s back was turned to the others. Her pale blue eyes wavered to meet his gaze. “Ken———!” she whispered again, pleadingly.

He flushed, conscious of the knowing grins on the faces of his subordinates. “Well, Letha, what’s on your mind?” His tone pointedly lacked cordiality. He cast a look toward a desk at the far end of the room—Molly Kildare’s desk.

MOLLY KILDARE was petite, red-haired, wholesomely feminine and a crack reporter. Also, she was Ken Fitch’s fiancée; they were to be married next month. He didn’t like the idea of Molly seeing him talking to Letha Starke. Molly knew of his infatuation for Letha five years ago— an infatuation he had long since outgrown. Would Molly misunderstand this present meeting?

But she wasn’t paying any attention. She was pawing through a desk-drawer as if searching for mislaid notes. Apparently she hadn’t even noticed Letha Starke’s entrance into the city room. Ken was relieved.

Again he stared up into the blue eyes of the blonde girl. Irritated, he repeated: “What’s on your mind, Letha?”

“I’m in trouble, Ken. Ghastly trouble. I need you—desperately.”

His lips took on a wry twist. “So you’ve come back to me after five years. After giving me the frigid air. After taking me for my bankroll and then handing me the gate. Now you say you need me. Rather ironic, don’t you think?”

“You don’t understand, Ken. This is different. I’m not asking you to forgive me for what I did to you. That’s buried. I was a fool— and I learned my lesson. Too late. But now I’ve got nobody else to turn to. If you don’t help me, they’ll s-send me to the electric chair!”

He was startled. He crushed out his cigarette. “What do you mean by that?”

“Ken—I just killed a man.” She unfastened the fur coat and permitted it to fall open.

He choked back his sharp exclamation of surprise. She was wearing an evening gown of white satin that adhered like a caress to her lovely body. She was magnificently contoured. Her hips swelled lyrically against the clinging silk, and her snowy bosom was daringly revealed by deep- slashed décolletage. One shoulder-strap dangled, torn as if in some struggle. The front of the gown was splotched and spattered with reddish brown stains. He guessed their meaning before she spoke.

“Blood, Ken,” the yellow-haired girl whispered as she closed the coat about her.

He regained composure. “So you killed a man.”

“Yes. In my apartment. An hour ago.”

“Who was he?”

“I—I don’t know, Ken.”

“You don’t know? Then what the devil was he doing in your apartment?”

She reddened painfully. “I met him on a wild party this evening. He insisted on taking me home. I didn’t think he’d—”

“Wait a minute, Letha. You’re lying. I don’t believe you.”

“Oh, I know.” Her smile was rueful and forced, without mirth. “You don’t believe I’d ever sink low enough to invite a total stranger to my apartment. Well, Ken, you’re quite wrong. I was drunk. And I thought I didn’t care. The steps always lead downward—eventually. To the gutter.”

He scowled thoughtfully. “What about your pal DeWitt Ragan? I thought he was footing your bills?” Asking that, Ken casually covered the headline and the typewritten sheets on his desk— the story he’d been writing when Letha appeared. The story given to him by Cokey Joe Breen.

He didn’t want Letha to see that headline— because, oddly enough, it dealt with this very DeWitt Ragan now under discussion.

The blond girl said: “Ragan? He ditched me more than a month ago—the rat.”

THAT struck Ken as sardonically amusing. It was funny to hear her call anybody a rat for ditching her—considering how she herself had ditched Ken, more years ago than he cared to remember. He said: “So Ragan gave you the bum’s rush. And since then you’ve been entertaining strangers. And tonight you croaked one. Why?”

“He was a b-beast. I discovered I couldn’t bring myself to…let him maul me.”

“Hm-m-m. So what happened?”

“I tried to get him to leave quietly. But he got nasty. There was a struggle. I p-picked up a brass candlestick and hit him over the head….” Her knees seemed to grow wabbly under her. “Ken— Ken—you’ve got to help me get rid of that corpse; I d-don’t want to go to the chair!”

He came to a sudden decision. “Okay. I’ll see what can be done.” He scribbled some instructions to Biff McQuaide, his assistant; called McQuaide to the desk and left him in charge. Ken and the blonde girl walked toward the exit.

They had to pass Molly Kildare’s desk. Ken stopped for a moment while Letha swept onward. He leaned down over the petite red-haired girl.

“Be back in a little while, honeysweet. Wait for me.”

Molly’s eyes were deep violet pools of worry. “You’re going out with that Starke woman?”

He grinned and nodded. “Not jealous, are you?”

“N-no…” Molly’s adorably piquant face wore a troubled expression; her firm little bosom rose and fell swiftly, as if with inner tumult. She laid a hand gently on Ken’s arm. “No. I’m not jealous. But something tells me you’re walking into danger, Ken. Intuition—”

He brushed her lips tenderly with his mouth. “Don’t be foolish, sweetheart. I’ll be okay.” He went out.

Downstairs, Letha Starke had a taxi waiting. In the tonneau’s darkness she sat close to him, so that he could feel the warm, insinuating softness of her, impinging on his own muscular solidarity. There’d been a time, long ago, when his blood would have run faster at her nearness. His arm would have stolen around her waist in a crushing embrace; he would have buried his face in the perfectly-coifed masses of her yellow hair and then searched demandingly with his lips for her waiting, sensuous mouth….

But not now. That was irrevocably ended. He sat quietly, almost serenely. He paid no attention to her coquettish challenge.

She seemed to sense his indifference. “You hate me, don’t you, Ken?”

“No. I passed that stage, years ago.”

“Then why are you so cold to me?”

“Listen, Letha. I happen to be in love with someone else. The real thing this time. A girl named Molly Kildare. I’m going to marry her next month.”

“She’s the one you kissed, back in the office? The red-haired one?”

He smiled. “Yes. So you were watching?”

“I was. I couldn’t h-help it. She’s sweet, lovely. Oh, Ken—if only things had been different! If I hadn’t been such a silly, stupid fool, five years ago…!”

“Forget it,” he told her. “Ken—why are you so willing to help me now, if you don’t care anything about me?”

He shrugged. “Maybe because I’m a sentimentalist. Here we are at your place.” He helped her from the cab and paid the tariff.

THEY went upstairs to the second floor of the building. She unlocked her door and switched on the living-room’s lights.

“The c-corpse is in here….” she whispered. She took his arm and led him into her boudoir, clinging closely to him as they stepped over the threshold. She pointed to her mussed bed.

A man lay there, face upward; his glazed eyes staring blindly at the ceiling. His skull was crushed in. Blood and smeared brains stained the pillows.

Ken Fitch drew a sharp breath. “Good God—!” he rasped. “Cokey Joe Breen!”

And then something smashed down on his head, from behind. Something that thudded viciously against his temple as he wheeled around. Something that sent blasting fires of agony searing into his brain.

He pitched forward. The floor seemed to come up and strike him on the face.

Over the roaring in his ears he heard a man’s voice snarling: “Got the lousy snoop!” Then came Letha Starke’s callous, amused tinkle of laughter.

Ken struggled drunkenly to his knees, felt blood running down his cheek from the cut in his scalp where the blackjack had laid the flesh open. He blinked back his daze as he stared up into a man’s leering features.

“DeWitt Ragan…!” he mumbled thickly. His tuxedoed attacker, president of the Ragan Construction Company, snarled: “Right. And if you start anything, I’ll feed you another dose of the same.”

A surging seethe of fury entered Ken’s soul. He bounced to his feet as anger gave him new strength. He lunged at Ragan; bashed a knotted fist at the contractor’s snarling mouth. The blow connected solidly. Ragan’s gums spouted blood like squeezed sponges, and he spat out broken shards of teeth as he staggered back. Fitch followed him, battered at him—

Blam!

Another man had leaped into the room. He had a reversed automatic in his hand. He thudded it against Ken’s head savagely. And this time the lights went completely out for the newspaperman.

WHEN he opened his eyes, he was trussed to a chair in the living-room. DeWitt Ragan was bloodily grinning at him, his arm encircling Letha Starke’s supple waist. Over on the divan sat the man whose blow had stretched Ken Fitch unconscious. Ken recognized the fellow as Ragan’s chauffeur.

Ragan said: “You lousy sap! So you wanted to help Letha, eh? Too bad, sucker. Because I’m dealing the cards my way from now on.”

“Meaning—?”

“You know damned well what I mean. Cokey Joe Breen spilled his guts to you tonight about my city hall contract for the new bridge across East Bay. You figured to pin back my ears by running a scoop on the graft I’m getting.”

Ken blinked. “So you caught Breen and made him squeal.”

“He squealed, all right. And now he’s dead. Which is what you’ll be—unless you kill that story about me.”

Squirming against his fetters, Ken rasped: “Have another guess, Ragan. That story runs in tomorrow morning’s edition. You can’t stop it.”

“No. But you can. And you will.”

The newspaperman laughed shortly. “Go ahead and do your damnedest, you filthy crook. The minute you turn me loose and send he back to the Planet office, I’ll blast hell out of you. Not only for graft—but for murder.” He glanced significantly toward the boudoir, where Cokey Joe Breen’s body lay.

Ragan approached the chair. He raised his fist, smashed it to Ken’s jaw. He snarled: “Shut up!”

Ken shook his head jerkily to clear away the blur. Then he grinned again, “You think you can scare me by beating me up? Nuts, Ragan! You’re a bigger fool than I thought you were.”

The contractor’s scowl was savage with wrath. “Hero stuff. Maybe you won’t feel so brave when your red-haired girl friend ankles in here.”

Ken stiffened. A sudden icy shock trickled down his spine. “What—!”

“Yeah.” Ragan laughed triumphantly. “I phoned the Planet while you were knocked out. I imitated your voice. I talked to your sweetie. I asked her to come up here right away. She’s on her way now.”

Flooding, impotent rage churned in Ken Fitch’s heart. Molly Kildare—walking straight into a trap! Sweet, unsuspecting Molly—heading innocently into murderous danger! “You wouldn’t dare—!” he shouted.

Ragan’s lips peeled back from his broken teeth. “No? Guess again. I’ll bet that’s her now!” he added as a knock sounded on the door.

Ken twisted ineffectually against the ropes that held him. He raised his voice. “Molly—for God’s sake—run!” he shouted hoarsely.

But Ragan’s ape-like chauffeur had already launched himself at the door, jerked it open. He reached out, made a grab—and dragged Molly into the room.

The red-haired girl went white as she clawed at her captor. She saw Ken Fitch tied to the chair, and her violet eyes widened in terror. “Ken——!”

The chauffeur slapped her viciously across the mouth, his hard palm splatting like the report of a gun. “Button your kisser, babe!” he growled.

She staggered; then she renewed her struggles. She kicked at the thug; tried to pound his face with her tiny fists. He twined his fingers in her auburn hair; jerked her head far back. He struck her again; tried to carry her across the room.

She fought him like a tigress. His hand caught in the neck of her frock, ripping it from one shoulder. She wailed and tried to cover the flesh exposed under the torn material. Her attacker forced her to the divan and bounced her against the cushions. The hem of her skirt flew up past her stocking-tops. There was a flash of smooth, ivory skin.

Beaten, cowed, she crouched shivering on the sofa as the chauffeur pinned her wrists. He grunted: “Be good or I’ll sock you again, sister.”

LETHA STARKE interrupted. “No, you needn’t bother. I want that pleasure for myself. String her up to the chandelier.”

Ken Fitch’s throat went dry. “You damned fiends—you can’t get away with this!”

Ragan snarled: “Shut up, snoop. Don’t make me slug you unconscious. I want you to be awake—so you can see what’s happening.” He helped his chauffeur bind Molly’s wrists with a length of clothesline. Then they lifted her to the center of the room; fastened the rope to the overhead lighting-fixture.

The red-haired girl dangled there, moaning; her little feet barely touching the floor. Ragan took off his leather belt and handed it to Letha Starke. “Okay, kiddo. Have your fun.”

Letha stepped forward, prepared to lash Molly with the strap.

Ken Fitch shouted again. “No—for God’s sake—!”

The yellow-haired woman laughed; brought the leather belt swishing venomously in a circling arc. Splat! The belt stung into Molly’s smooth flesh, left a red weal on white, where its end touched her bare shoulder. Splat! Again the improvised whip licked out. Molly whimpered—

Ken roared: “Quit! Stop it! I’ll kill that damned story! I promise!”

But Molly Kildare’s voice halted his outcries. “No, Ken. Let them go ahead and whip me. If it’s something that should be printed—print it!” Her proud eyes swept the room. She faced Letha Starke. “Go ahead. Help yourself.”

Letha started to strike once more. But Ragan grabbed the strap. “Nix, kiddo. I’ve got a better scheme.”

“What do you mean?”

He untied the red-haired girl; carried her to the divan. Then he winked at his chauffeur. “All right, guy. I’ve been watching you. You’ve had your eye on this dish ever since she ankled in. Well—she’s yours!”

Helpless fury scalded Ken Fitch’s soul. “You rats—you lousy, stinking swine’! You can’t—you wouldn’t—”

Ragan slugged him in the mouth, silenced him. He tasted the salt tang of his own blood from split lips. Raging, struggling vainly against the cords that held him to the heavy chair, he saw the chauffeur go to the divan and lean over Molly’s cringing form….

She whimpered—once. Then the thug had her in his arms; glued his thick lips to her averted mouth.

Wildly Ken shouted: “Stop! I give in! I swear it! I’ll kill the story—I’ll do anything you say!” And this time Molly gave him no contradiction….

Ragan grunted: “Okay. Let up, Terry.” The chauffeur released Molly; growled sullen reluctance as he swung around.

RAGAN was at work on Ken’s bonds. He snarled: “Listen, Mister. I’m giving you this one chance. You’re going back to the Planet office. You’re going to destroy every bit of the stuff Cokey Joe Breen gave you. I’m sending Terry with you—in case you try any funny stuff. He’ll have a roscoe, and he hasn’t got any scruples about using it.”

Ken Fitch was desperately sparring for precious minutes. “Your gorilla won’t have to shoot me, Ragan. I give you my word I’ll destroy that story. Nobody knows about it except me. All I ask is that you let Molly go—”

The contractor said: “Nuts, boyfriend. The jane stays right here—until you come back with proof that you killed that headline. I’m giving you thirty minutes to get the job done. If you aren’t back here by then—well, something damned unpleasant will happen to your girl friend. Gargle that one.”

Ken stole a glance at Ragan’s wrist-watch; saw that he’d been away from his city-desk five minutes less than a full hour. His heart began to hammer against his chest. Five minutes to go…. It
seemed like a bleak eternity stretching out before him. He knew that he didn’t dare leave this apartment until that five minutes had snailed by….

Time! He had to gain it somehow. Ragan had already untied the ropes at his ankles; was now at work on his wrist-bonds. The contractor was working swiftly. Too swiftly.

And then Ken was free. He swayed to his feet. Ragan stood before him. Over by the door was Terry, the chauffeur—with his fist in his coat pocket and an ominous bulge that told of an automatic’s muzzle poking the cloth. Letha Starke hovered near the davenport, keeping guard over Molly….

“Get going!” Ragan rasped.

KEN FITCH took a wild, desperate chance. He tensed his sinews—and went smashing at the contractor like a stone from a catapult.

The move took Ragan by surprise; bowled him backward. Ken’s fist lashed out like pistons; impacted against his enemy’s jaw. He felt the jarring thud all the way to his own shoulders.

Ragan’s head snapped back as if hinged. He went down.

Letha Starke screamed a gutter oath. The chauffeur came slamming across the room, his gun drawn. He yelled: “Stand back, Miss Starke— I’ll plug him!”

Ken dived for the floor. He hit the carpet just beyond where Ragan had fallen. He grabbed for the unconscious contractor; used the man’s limp form for a shield. “Go ahead and shoot!” he panted. “You’ll kill your boss if you do!”

The thug’s finger relaxed its pressure on the trigger of the automatic. He darted sidewise, seeking a clear aim at the newspaperman. Ken rolled, keeping Ragan in front of him—

But he forgot Letha Starke. She darted in, flung herself on Ragan, dragged him aside. Ken was wholly exposed to the chauffeur’s weapon, now. He scrambled to his feet, zigzagging. With a blow of his fist he sent the blond woman sprawling. She went down in a flurry of white satin skirt; her chiffon legs kicked and thrashed as she landed.

The chauffeur jumped as Letha landed at his feet. He swerved around her. That was Ken’s chance. He sailed full at his antagonist before the man could again raise his gun to firing position.

They met with a thumping crash of flesh against flesh, brawn against brawn.

From the divan, Molly Kildare screamed: “Ken—look out! Ragan’s getting up!”

And then Fitch smashed his right fist square into the chauffeur’s mouth. The fellow sagged; went to his knees. The automatic dropped from his hand. Ken lashed out with his foot; kicked the thug brutally. The chauffeur doubled over, retching and holding his middle.

Whirling, Ken saw Ragan coming at him— with a gun.

It was too late to scoop up the chauffeur’s weapon. Too late to do anything—except brace himself for Ragan’s bullet. The contractor’s narrow eyes gleamed with murderous malice. He grated: “You asked for it—now take it!” He squeezed his trigger.

BUT even as his gun vomited flame, the apartment’s door crashed inward. A knot of uniformed men came thundering into the room. Ragan’s shot went wild; a slug screamed past Ken Fitch’s ear. And then the police were grappling with DeWitt Ragan, disarming him, handcuffing him. They jerked the fallen chauffeur to his feet, manacled him to his employer. And they lifted Letha Starke; pinioned her.

Ken Fitch saw his Planet assistant, Biff McQuaide, in the thick of things. He yelled: “Biff—thank God you got here before it was too late!”

McQuaide grinned. “You should have made it thirty minutes instead of an hour, from the looks of things.”

DeWitt Ragan was snarling, fighting his handcuffs. “What the hell—who—how—”

Ken’s eyes gleamed bale fully. “You aren’t quite smart enough, Ragan. In the first place, I knew Letha’s story was a lie. I knew it the minute she walked into the Planet city-room. I realized she was trying to trick me, trap me. That was obvious enough.”

The contractor stared. “You—you knew?”

“Yes. Letha said she’d killed a man, in a struggle. She showed me bloodstains on her dress. Okay. The blood was genuine. But there hadn’t been any struggle. Because her hair wasn’t mussed!”

Ragan stiffened.

Ken went on. “You heard me. Her coiffure was a work of art. Not a single wave was out of place. So I knew her yarn about a struggle was all phony. So was her torn dress. So was everything else she told me.

“I figured she was lying when she claimed you’d thrown her over. If she was so damned hard up that she had to entertain strangers, what was she doing with that expensive mink coat? Nothing added up right. So I guessed that she was trying to lure me into a trap.

“Who’d want to trap me? Nobody but you— on account of the story I was going to run about you. Well, I deliberately walked into your scheme, Ragan. Because I wanted to find out the truth about you. I wanted to make sure Cokey Joe Breen had handed me a right steer when he gave me that information about your grafting.

“I went haywire in just one detail. I didn’t expect you to conk me and lure Molly Kildare up here. You almost won out by doing that.

Almost—but not quite. Because when I left the Planet office I scribbled a note for McQuaide, my assistant. I instructed him to wait an hour—and then, if I hadn’t returned, he was to come to this apartment with a squad of cops.”

RAGAN wilted. “I’ll take a plea. They won’t fry me…” he drooled. “I’ve got influence….”

An officer jerked him toward the door. “Nuts, buddy. Get goin’.”

Slowly the room cleared. One bluecoat was left to stand guard over Cokey Joe Breen’s corpse in the adjoining boudoir. Ken Fitch slipped over to the divan; lifted Molly Kildare in his arms.

She clung to him fiercely. “Oh, Ken….” she whispered.

He kissed her. He said: “Let’s not wait until next month, honey-sweet. What do you say?”

She wrapped her soft arms around his neck and held up her mouth for another kiss. It was all the answer he needed.

Call me up Jack. But with better dialogue

I took hold of his outstretched arm and spun him around.

“What’s the matter, Jack? Don’t they make the aisles wide enough for your personality?”

He shook his arm loose and got tough. “Don’t get fancy, buster. I might loosen your jaw for you.”

“Ha, ha, ” I said. “You might play center field for the Yankees and hit a homerun with a broomstick.

He doubled his meaty fist.

“Darling, think of your manicure,” I told him.

He controlled his emotions. “Nuts to you, wise guy,” he sneered. “Some other time, when I have less on my mind.”

“Could there be less?’

“G’wan, beat it,” he snarled. “One more crack and you’ll need new bridgework.”

I grinned at him. “Call me up, Jack. But with better dialogue.”

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Death of a Dejected Editor

 

Death Of A Dejected Editor

Dennis Wiegand

Originally appeared in Smashing Detective, January 1956, Vol. 4, No. 4

Nicholas Nocturne was far too egotistic to take his own life — even in the spectacular way he died. Obviously, he had had a bit of help in falling out that window . . .

DETECTIVE Sergeant Ralph Oliver was quietly seething as he hustled Policewoman Sally Ryan along the crowded pavement. The heavy going against the flood of noontime traffic did nothing to ease his spirits.

“But I don’t get this, Buster,” Sally protested. “All the man said was ‘Let’s lamp the gams, sister’, I didn’t think people really said that. And the way he chewed on that cigar; and that derby hat! I think he was precious!”

“I should’ve dipped the lug,” said Oliver tersely.

“Well, after all,” said Sally, reasonably, “if you go night-clubbing at high noon and catch the floor show in rehearsal, can you blame the impresario for thinking you want a job in the chorus line?”

“Fifty-Seven Varieties!”

snorted Oliver. “What a corny name for a night spot! If I was back on the Vice Detail I’d padlock it just on the strength of that.”

Sally laughed lightly; bright blonde and built on almost over-ripely lush lines, she was accustomed to being mistaken for a showgirl or a hood’s moll. In fact, she did everything she could to encourage this common mistake, since she found it extremely useful to her career as a policewoman.

“Come on, Olly-Wolly,” she soothed him, “let’s give it up and find a nice little French restaurant for lunch. It’s a waste of time to try to make the rounds of the joints in the middle of the day.”

“But when else can we have a date?” he complained. “Both of us working nights like this?”

“Dig up a hot lead,” she advised, “and then request Lieutenant Corcoran to assign me to the case. We’ll do our dating on the job in some opium den. What could be cosier?”

“Corcoran,” said Oliver. “What’re you trying to do, spoil my appetite? If it wasn’t for that glorified file-clerk I’d be back on the Vice Squad knocking pimps around.”

“Now, now, Buster,” she chided. “After all, these hopheads blow up and give you a little action now and then. Anyhow, what you need is more practice using your brain instead of your brawn. You still don’t believe me when I tell you that you’re brainier than you are brawny . . . not that you aren’t cute, in a bulldozer sort of way.”

“I wish you’d stop parrotting Emmett Corcoran’s police college line of guff,” he said testily. “After all, there’s no getting away from the fact that . . .”

There was a sudden nauseous squelching sound and then a quick flurry in the crowd just ten paces ahead. Instinctively, Sgt. Oliver darted forward, dragging Sally with him. Within seconds he was palming his badge and thrusting stupefied pedestrians aside. Already several of the spectators were being sick in the gutters, and leaning against lamp-posts.

Somebody had taken a dive off a building. A good high one, judging by the sound he made in landing. Oliver chopped at a ghoulish smart-aleck youth with the edge of one hand. The kid squealed and clapped a hand to his numbed neck, and forgot about his souvenir collecting.

“Honest, copper,” protested Sally, “I didn’t do it. I gotta witness, I tell yuh; yer bustin’ me arm!”

Ralph Oliver relaxed the grip he had unconsciously locked on her arm. He spun her around and headed her toward the building entrance.

“Beat it, kid,” he ordered. “You don’t want to see this.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” she complained. “You’re forgetting that I’m a cop, too, and from a long line of cops . . . not the least important of whom is my father, Patrick A. Ryan, our beloved precinct commander.”

“Right now,” he said coldly, “I’m in command here. You go call your old man; this is a good two blocks inside his precinct.”

“Nuts!” she replied, snatching two folded newspapers from under the arm of a dumbfounded bystander. “These are being commandeered by the police,” she told him. She thrust the newspapers at Oliver.

“Here, you cover him up,” she advised. “It’ll give you something to do till the thinkers get here.”

IF ANYONE of the stunned spectators overheard this unseemly squabble between the police officers he must have considered it the effect of the shock. But as Sgt. Oliver efficiently maintained a tiny island of clear side-walk in a growing, pressing, heaving ocean of people, Sally went the rounds of the inner circle of spectators writing names and addresses into her notebook.

In an incredibly short time, summoned by a flood of telephone calls from the surrounding office buildings, the rising whine of a flotilla of police cars converged on the spot.

The crowd melted away from the curb side as the first of the squad cars and an ambulance pulled up. Even the smartly-uniformed Lieut. Emmett Corcoran, whose principal duties were personnel administration, had been lured from his desk in precinct headquarters by the address of the building from which the death leap had apparently been made.

Before higher brass from downtown police headquarters had arrived to take over command, Lieut. Corcoran managed to maneuver Oliver off the scene with an order to check the huge building for the springboard of the suicidal jump.

“He ought to know I’m not on duty,” growled Oliver, pressing his way through the mob blocking the entrance to the building.

“Never mind, Buster,” advised a voice from behind his broad, battering shoulders. “I’m still with you. My dear old childhood playmate, Emmett, didn’t see me.”

Sgt. Oliver grinned broadly and felt better about being dismissed from the scene so that Corcoran could hog the show when the headquarters men arrived to make a check on precinct handling. Apparently, he thought with satisfaction, the coldly efficient Lieut.

Corcoran still lacked a certain something. How an ungainly and ominous heap of newspapers lying on the sidewalk could distract the attention of even the most duty-bound policeman from Sally’s bright banner of blonde hair was hard to understand.

Locating the starting point of the fatal leap proved to be an easy matter, despite the vastness of the hive of offices. Sgt. Oliver found one of the staff of janitors waiting for him with the information that a window was apparently out on the 14th floor. The bank of thermostats in the basement, controlling the air conditioning system, had telegraphed that something drastic had happened to temperature and humidity control on the 14th floor.

That meant the offices of The Gasp Group, Inc., which occupied the entire 14th floor, explained the janitor as he rode up in the elevator with them.

Ralph Oliver didn’t have to be told that GASP! was a highly successful magazine based on reports of actual crimes, preferably murders heavily buttered with sex angles and liberally garnished with frank photography.

“Must be somebody busted a window in one of the offices along the front of the buildin’,” continued the janitor garrulously. “And that means one o’ the big shots. Like an executive editor, maybe.”

“Oh, brother,” breathed Sally fervidly, “won’t Daddy love to see what GASP! does with this story! He can’t stand that magazine because they jazz up the facts of a case too much; and they positively loathe him, because he refuses to talk to their reporters.”

“Oh, GASP! is just one o’ their string, Miss,” explained the janitor. “They got a whole flock’ o’ other magazines. They put out Murder Monthly, too. . . a real fav’rite o’ mine.”

THEY SWUNG through a wide double door, lettered from top to bottom with the names of magazines published by The Gasp Group, Inc. and entered a smartly modern reception room. A burly man with a shock of long, greying hair and a gone-to-seed moustache was waving a brief case under the pertly turned-up nose of a sleek and slender brunette.

“I tell you Mort,” she was protesting, “I know Nick had this luncheon appointment with you. After all, I marked it on his calendar myself. But he told me to cancel it a half hour ago; said something more important had come up and he didn’t want to be disturbed.”

“You could have called me, couldn’t you?” raged the man. “This guy Nocturne not only swipes my plots, but now he wastes my time. I ought to send him a bill for what I would have written if I hadn’t knocked off early to rush into town for this appointment.”

“I did call you, Mort,” the brunette placated him, “but you know how that rural line is out there. And by the time I did get through, your wife said you’d already left. I’m terribly sorry, Mort; but you know the great Nicholas Nocturne.”

“If you think you’ve got a beef,” she added bitterly, “just remember the raw deal he gave me.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” cut in Oliver, palming his badge, “but somebody’s just taken a dive out of one of the front windows on this floor. Who would it be? And who around here would be able to identify any of the guys who had one of the front offices?”

“Why, why . . . I don’t quite . . .,” fluttered the brunette. With a visible effort she drew herself together. “I’m Miss Slarr . . . Gretchen Slarr. I’m secretary to Nicholas Nocturne, executive editor of our fiction magazines in the detective field. He has a front office; in fact, I believe he’s the only one of the senior executives still in the building right now.”

“In his office, eh?” said Oliver. “Come on, let’s so see him. Which way?”

Gretchen Slarr swung her lithe shape from behind the kidney-shaped reception desk and led the way down a corridor which lay behind a plain, unmarked mahogany door. The irate man with the briefcase followed unobtrusively, although he seemed more interested in what was going to become of Sally Ryan than he was in what might have happened to Nicholas Nocturne.

“This is my office,” explained Miss Slarr, opening a door, “and that door leads to Mr. Nocturne’s office. I had just taken over the reception desk for a few moments for the regular girl. She had to . . .”

She hesitated, flustered. Then she said, almost plaintively, “Nick, I mean Mr. Nocturne, gave me strict orders not to disturb him. I’d rather you’d just go right in by yourself. After all, the police . . .”

But Sgt. Oliver already had the door to the executive editor’s private office open.

“Jackpot,” he said tersely. “Sally, call the transmitter and have them tell the boys downstairs to send the brain trust up here. You, Miss Slarr, get busy on that phone and get me somebody responsible who has a front office in the building across the street.”

Having arranged with the police radio transmitter to call the squad cars downstairs, Sally stood gingerly on the threshold of Nick Nocturne’s plushy private office. The janitor was peering eagerly over her shoulder.

“That window sure is busted out,” he commented. “Figured it would be. All these windows’re fastened shut so’s the air conditionin’ works right. On’y time they’re ever . . .”

“No other windows broken or open on the facade of this building,” said Oliver returning from his telephoning. “Talked to two lawyers and a doctor who have front offices in the building opposite.”

“Look,” Sally pointed out, “there’s his lunch on a tray. He didn’t eat it. Pathetic, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sgt. Oliver brushed the sentiment aside.

“Also very fishy,” Sally added. “Nothing so fishy about it,” said Oliver impatiently. “Guy’s going to take a high dive, he’s too nerved up to eat. Wish those bookworms’d get up here so we could go get some lunch.”

THE DETECTIVE strode impatiently out into the corridor to meet the ranking officers who’d conduct the routine investigation.

Gretchen Slarr sat behind her desk, ashen-faced and wilted; Sally turned to look at her just in time to catch the consoling pat on the back the bushy-haired character was giving her. He quickly withdrew his hand.

“I’m Mort Gage,” he told Sally. “I write for this outfit. Detective stories. But this is the first time I ever heard of a police detective taking his girl friend out on the job. It’s an angle I’ll have to try.”

Sally ignored him and gave the secretary a warm smile of womanly sympathy. Bearing down on the throaty, chorus-girl tone of voice she had found so useful in dredging up confidences in powder-rooms, she said, “He wasn’t such a bad guy, after all, was he? Guess that’s the way it is with that charming-heel type of guy. Know just how you feel, Honey. Go ahead and cry.”

Gretchen Slarr said nothing, which told Sally approximately what she had wanted to learn. She turned her attention to Mort Gage. “I’ve always wanted to meet a real, live writer,” she cooed huskily. “I’m just crazy about detective stories, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any of yours.”

“Must have,” said Gage; “couldn’t help it. I write more of ’em than any other guy in the world; just don’t use my name.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Sally sympathized.

The pale blue eyes, set deep in the wrinkles of the writer’s face, seemed to turn several shades darker.

“Might pick up some back copies of Murder Monthly,” he advised. “Almost anything under the name of Nick Nocturne will do.”

“That’s not fair, Mort!” cut in Gretchen, aroused. “You were paid a bonus for all that Nick Nocturne by-line stuff.”

“Not all,” he emphasized curtly. Sally’s more or less aimless probing of the world in which Nick Nocturne had lived and had his being was cut short by the arrival of Lieutenant Emmett Corcoran and a lieutenant from Headquarters together with an impressive entourage of harness and plainclothes officers.

“What’re you doing here, Sally?” said Emmett Corcoran in surprise.

The lieutenant from downtown shot him a peculiar glance which plainly said that he wondered how Corcoran, a notorious bluenose, had come to know this dish.

“Nobody’s been inside this room?” Corcoran asked her.

“Not since we’ve been here,” Sgt. Oliver affirmed.

“Right,” snapped Corcoran. “You’re relieved now, Sergeant; sorry your off-duty time was curtailed.”

The police cortege filed into the private office and fingerprint men flanked off, carefully sifting the room for fingerprints which it was almost certain would never figure in an investigation.

Ralph Oliver took his second dismissal from the limelight in good humor. What did it matter that the guy was a big shot and there’d be a flock of publicity? It was still just a dumb thing for any guy to do; and it didn’t provide a chance to trade punches with anybody.

WHEN HE and Sally were settled in a quiet corner of one of those expensive French restaurants where the food costs more than the overhead, Oliver’s eager digestive juices were promptly thwarted.

“Let’s just have an omelet,” suggested Sally. “They’re very good here, and we don’t have much time.”

“Hey,” he protested, “What gives? A doll like you comes in here and demurely orders nothing but a cheap little omelet, you know what’ll happen? They’ll call the cops and have us run in on suspicion.”

“Quit stalling around,” she ordered. “You know that Nocturne business is a phoney; we’ve got work to do.”

“Aw, Sally,” he complained, perusing the listed varieties of omelet on the menu, “there’s nothing in that business. Nothing you can put your finger on.”

“What you mean is there’s nothing you can put your fist on. The man who has a desk like that one doesn’t put his feet on it . . . nor does he eat his lunch off it.”

“And too many people have good reasons for not liking his guts,” agreed Oliver. “I intercepted two more out in the hall and sidetracked ’em into their own offices.”

“Come on, Buster,” coaxed the girl, “let’s give it a go, old boy.”

The elderly waiter, coming up to the table, raised his eyebrows in Gallic surprise.

“I’ve got better things to do with my time off,” grumbled Oliver. Then in French he’d picked up in the Rue Pigalle during the war, he ordered two cheese omelets. The waiter’s eyebrows stayed up all the way back to the kitchen.

While the fact of a crime may be detected by a flash of intuition, it isn’t often solved by anything except long, dreary routine questioning. So Sally Ryan and Sgt. Ralph Oliver drew up a schedule and divided it between them.

By the time they returned to precinct headquarters that night for briefing on a minor raid on a “tea parlor”, Sally had determined that Gunther Wade, distinguished publisher of The Gasp Group Inc., loved Nick Nocturne like a brother . . . like Cain did his brother Abel. Nick, it seemed, had an irritating habit of picking off and using up the most delicious of the new gift employees as fast as Wade hired them. Snatched them right out from under Wade himself, so to speak.

With equal subtlety, and even more flattery, Sally had wormed her way into the confidences of sleek, energetic Barton Trask, an associate editor of The Gasp Group, Inc.

“Sure Nick committed suicide,” he assured Sally. “Know why? He was dejected, that’s why. Everybody around here’s heard him crying for years that you can’t buy a good lead novel for twenty-five bucks nowadays.”

But the heavy irony told Sally what she wanted to know about Barton Trask—that and his caustic analysis of Nick Nocturne’s editorial mistakes and blunders. Trask, it seemed, knew just how to put Murder Monthly into the bigtime slick-paper field inside of six months . . . if only he had a free hand. It looked as if he had just that now.

Summing it up for her father, Sally pointed out: “It’s just too much to believe that, with so many people running around with motives for pushing Nocturne out a window, a guy like this Nick Nocturne would accommodate them by jumping out of his own accord.”

“Grant you that, Sally,” admitted Captain Patrick A. Ryan, disgustedly poking at a heap of the paper-work he detested. “Guys like that want to live just for spite. Never heard of a first-class heel killing himself for any reason.”

“Then why not give Ralph . . . Sgt. Oliver, I mean . . . a rain check on this narcotic deal?” she pursued. “It’s just a headquarters draft, anyhow. Strictly for the newspapers.”

“Two good reasons right there,” he said wryly. “Headquarters and the newspapers. Furthermore, this Nocturne business has a clean bill from both headquarters and Corcoran. I can’t order an investigation over their heads on nothing but a shrewd guess. Sorry, Honey.”

“Dismissed!” he ordered sharply, as an afterthought.

DR. CARSON UPDIKE, Deputy Medical Examiner, fiddled with a letter-opener. Squinting across his desk at Sgt. Oliver he absent-mindedly performed an autopsy on his desk blotter which apparently had succumbed to some suspicious coronary affliction.

“But in terms of the layman,” Oliver pressed, “what does all that mean, Doc?”

Updike obligingly translated his medical description of Nick Nocturne’s remains. “Boy, was that guy a mess!”

“I heard him land myself,” said Oliver slowly. “And I called on a flock of witnesses a policewoman on the scene had noted down. No question of his not having come from a long way up. But it struck me that there was hardly any blood. What I want to know is, why wasn’t there a lot smeared around?”

“Could be because there were only minor lesions of the skin,” sighed the bored and weary Medical Examiner.

“But I saw a couple of places where the skin was broken,” protested the detective. “Deep gashes.”

“I know,” conceded the doctor wearily, “Hide was pretty well torn up around the head.”

“Well?”’ said Oliver provocatively. There was a long silence.

“I’m not a detective,” replied the doctor, defensively. “But I’d like to have the address of the correspondence school that taught you.”

“Then the lack of blood could mean he was dead long before he hit the sidewalk?” queried Oliver eagerly.

“Otherwise he must have taken off from Mars and died of old age on the way down,” said the doctor. “Funny how great the power of suggestion is,” he mused. “There was another obvious point I overlooked . . .or, rather, chose to misinterpret under the strong suggestion of suicide.”

“You mean there was definite evidence of a cause of death other than the fall?” the detective pressed him.

“Not exactly,” demurred the Medical Examiner. “But there was this distinct groove in the skull . . . about an inch wide and three-quarters of an inch deep. Ran almost the full length of the skull from forehead to base. I just chalked it up to his having landed head first on one of the expansion joints between the blocks of the sidewalk, but . . .”

“But the tar joints have long since shrunk down below the level of the blocks!” Sgt. Oliver finished for him.

“Exactly,” agreed the medico. “When I first noticed that groove crushed into the skull, I could see those expansion joints sticking up fresh and new . . . just about right to make that impress.”

“I’m going over to check that sidewalk right now,” declared the sergeant.

“Don’t waste your time,” advised Updike, tossing a half dozen large, glossy photographs into the detective’s lap. “Here are the photos of the body in situ, and they show the sidewalk joints clearly.”

“I’ll take these with me, if you can spare ’em, Doc,” said Oliver briskly. “And give me a break on this, will you? Stall sending up a new report until morning, huh?”

“Young man,” said the Deputy M. E., “Do you think I’m in such a tearing rush to inform my superiors of what a bumbling nincompoop I am? I’ll spend the whole night confirming suspicions, if you like.”

Sergeant Ralph Oliver had just time for one more stop in downtown headquarters before reporting out at the precinct station. He almost ran up the dingy, echoing staircase to Fingerprint Identification Division.

“Look, Ralph,” he pleaded with one of the print experts, “I’m just a precinct bum and I can’t get an order for an overtime job, but I need a process on the prints on that lunch tray in the Nocturne office. You’ll be able to match ’em with a record, I think. Also check ’em against the prints you picked up elsewhere in Nocturne’s office. Bet you a twenty you find them on the back of one of those steel-pipe chairs.”

“Humh,” pondered the fingerprint man, studying a chart. “Chairs marked D, E, F, and G, that’d be. Okay. It’ll take about four hours of my time; but that figures out at five bucks an hour. You got a deal, brother.”

THE “TEA PARTY” the precinct narcotics detail broke up that night proved to be almost as memorable as the one once staged in Boston Harbor.

The punks were pretty far gone by the time the stakeout men signalled for the raid, and three of them had guns. In the wake of artillery cover provided by uniformed men, Sgt. Oliver conducted a lively infantry skirmish with bare fists through two bedrooms and the kitchen of the sleazy flat.

And in the squad car on the way back to the station, Sally had a brisk and decisive cat-fight in the rear seat of the police sedan with one of the two girls who had been in the flat.

Wearily, but contentedly, Oliver checked the car in at the garage where the bits of feminine apparel, tufts of long hair, and isolated buttons and dislodged snap-fasteners would be swept out of the back seat and the car would be prepared to go back on the prowl with the morning shift.

“Turned out pretty good at that,” he told Sally with satisfaction, when she emerged from the police matron’s office neatly and cleverly pinned, patched and painted back into presentable condition.

“That was strictly for the birds,” she said. “Or maybe for the birdbrains. Speaking about brains, what did you get on the Nocturne Case?”

He told her. Then she briefly outlined what she’d learned in the offices of The Gasp Group, Inc., including the fact that no witness could be found who had seen Nocturne leave his office by any exit save the window. Also that no one had seen anyone enter Nocturne’s office, including the man with the lunch tray.

“But that doesn’t mean a thing,” she concluded. “Obviously someone did bring that tray in. Oh, and one more thing. That Gretchen Slarr, who was getting the brushoff from Nocturne since her novelty wore down, admits that she didn’t see Nocturne after ten o’clock in the morning. She got the order to cancel Mort Gage’s appointment by telephone.”

“Telephone?” cut in Oliver. “Why telephone? I’d swear there was one of those interoffice squawk-boxes on his desk.”

“That’s Momma’s little boy!” she encouraged him. “There was and is; what’s more, the glamorous Gretchen was too flustered by her emotions to be sure whether the call came from an inside or outside line. The girl at the switchboard doesn’t remember the call, either.”

“Well, well,” said Oliver with satisfaction. “That seems to clear up one point. Too bad the Medical Examiner can’t be sure now as to just how long before he hit the pavement Nocturne was killed. That morgue cooler bollixed up the possibility of checking back by means of body temperature and degree of rigor. But it’s a cinch he wasn’t alive when that call was made.”

They checked out with the desk sergeant to go across the street to an all-night diner to sweat out the last two hours of their shift over coffee.

“But the pattern doesn’t add up to anything,” complained Oliver, moodily stirring his coffee and absently checking over the customers at the counter.

“Sure it does, Buster,” Sally pointed out. “It spells alibi. Somebody went to a tot of trouble to spell it out good and clear.”

“I get it,” said Oliver: “And naturally you’ve already checked his desk calendar to see who needed an alibi, because he was in Nocturne’s office—or had access to it—plus a more or less good reason for knocking him off.”

“Well, yes,” said Sally hesitantly, “but it was no good. It was Nocturne’s morning for laying out the dummy on Murder Monthly. The lead novel is usually tied in with current news interests as closely as possible. You know, with whatever is the crime sensation of the month. So they don’t make up the magazine as far in advance as most magazines of the type are. So that means two days a month when he can’t break the day with appointments, except maybe one or two very important ones.”

“Sure. Okay,” put in Oliver impatiently, “but none of the people with motives . . . at least none of those we’ve run across so far . . . could hope to build an alibi for the whole morning. And not one of them actually did have an ironclad out-for-lunch sign up at noon when the fake suicide was staged.”

“That’s right,” agreed Sally. “But there was an appointment for eleven o’clock pencilled on his calendar in his own handwriting, Gretchen claims. All it said was ‘Crkpt . . . there’.”

“Who’s this Mr. Crkpt? Sound like a Russian. Or a Balkan character of some sort.”

“Don’t let your imagination run away from you, Buster,” she chided. “This is a police examination . . . not a Congressional probe. Gretchen Slarr translated it. Says it refers to a very well known mechanical engineering consultant named Cyrus P. Ward. He thinks he can write detective stories. Turns out some very weird stuff, according to Gretchen; and Nick Nocturne always called him CrackPot. Claimed that’s what the initials C. P. stood for.”

“And that ‘there’ business,” cut in Oliver with a flash of inspiration, “obviously means in Ward’s office, instead of ‘here’, meaning Nocturne’s.”

“You’re cutting ice with a buzzsaw now, Buster,” the blonde assured him. “By the frozen acre, too.”

“Where’s this guy Ward’s office?” he demanded.

“No office, Darling. A laboratory, if you please,” she told him. “And brace yourself . . . it’s on the 17th floor of the building across the street from Nocturne’s office.”

“Oh, no!” he begged, in mock agony. “Not a mad scientist! Better even a bearded Balkan spy.

JUST THEN, one of the countermen caught Oliver’s attention. He was waving a telephone handset. “For you,” he called. “Take it in the booth.”

“Collect your gear,” he ordered when he returned from the telephone booth. “That was the desk. Said my boy, Ralph, downtown in Identification called up and said for me to come down and collect my double sawbuck.”

“Buster!” she cried. “You mean you’ve got him taped already?”

“Sure,” he said with an effort at modesty, “I had it figured as a hired killing. Just as soon, that is, as I had it figured as a killing. Characters like these editorial big-bugs don’t do their own killings.”

“I don’t know,” she said, slowly and doubtfully. “Seems to me I’d prefer even the mad scientist angle.”

“Come on, Honeybunny,” he urged, in expansive good humor. “Let’s go get this guy. Obviously it’s one of the regular hacks in the pay of some wise guy in that office. It was a pushover; all he does is go up to Nocturne’s office wearing a waiter’s white jacket and carrying a lunch tray.

Nobody’s going to notice him. He cuts into the private office when the Slarr babe ducks down the hall for a minute. Then he conks Nocturne with one of those modern chairs made out of chrome-plated gaspipe. Then he stalls off Gage with the phone call, not knowing about the interoffice gadget. Promptly on cue at the stroke of noon he gives the body the old heave-ho through the window.”

“Well done, Buster,” she gave in. “We’ll let it go at that . . . for now.”

AT DOWNTOWN headquarters they found a weary, hollow-eyed identification expert awaiting them with the file on a certain Algernon William Wright.

“He’s a petty hoodlum,” explained the print expert. “Works around cafes and bars, when working. Too dumb to wear gloves; too dumb for real dirty work.”

“Just the kind of punk an amateur crime-buyer would pick out,” said Oliver defensively.

“You’ll see for yourself,” said Ralph wearily. “Took it upon myself to put out a pick-up order for him. You can push these punks around about all you want; he’ll be here any time now. Here’s your twenty.”

“G’wan,” growled Oliver, thrusting back the proffered bill, “You trying to make me ashamed of myself? I’m cutting you in on the credit for this one, too.”

“I don’t buy this punk for big stuff,” affirmed the fingerprint man.”

“Those big shots might not know a killer when they see one . . . but little Algy knows he’s a punk.”

As if to illustrate the point, two huge policemen came in with a dried-up little man who had the furtive, terrified look of a rabbit who’d just ducked into a bear’s den to escape a dog.

With Sally watching him, Ralph Oliver couldn’t lay a fatherly hand of good counsel on the little hoodlum. But it wouldn’t have done any good, and it wasn’t necessary; the little guy ran off at the mouth both literally and figuratively.

“Honest,” he pleaded. “I didn’t know what the caper was till I read the papers. It ain’t clear even now; I jus’ know what I tol’ yuh.”

What he told them, over and over again, was that a distinguished-looking man . . . “a real gennulmun”. . . had approached him in the cafeteria where he worked.

The gentleman’s proposition was simple and involved only the simple and boyish crime of breaking a window. It was all a part of a joke he was playing on a friend. And, of course, these country club characters were always playing elaborate and expensive pranks on one another. All he had to do was bring up the lunch as an excuse to get up the service elevator and into the inner office corridors without being noticed.

He was to allow plenty of time to get into Nocturne’s office unseen. He was to leave the tray on the desk and smash out one of the windows at exactly noon, or as close to it as possible. Then get out unseen. It was a lead-pipe cinch and very clean, for the money.

“Okay,” conceded Sgt. Oliver finally, tiredly dragging on his coat again. He gave Sally a long speculative glance.

“Come on, Snow White,” he said. “Here we go to the mad scientist’s den.”

SALLY CALLED the precinct desk to check them out for the day’s duty and they took a cab uptown through the slowly awakening city streets. In the building opposite the shining modern structure which housed GASP! and its’ little brethren, Oliver easily found a janitor who was impressed by police badges.

The 17th Floor suite which accommodated the activities of Cyrus P. Wade Associates, Consulting Engineers, had a slightly old-fashioned and spartan air.

There was a barren, drafty waiting room furnished in heavy, practical golden oak, surrounded by a range of little private offices and drafting rooms, like monastery cells. Beyond that insulating partition of offices lay a large and lofty room fitted out with huge and heavy tables and ranged with a fantastic jungle of mechanical equipment. There were models of farm machinery and construction machinery. There were full-scale machines of doubtful purpose, in all stages of assembly.

“Mad scientist is right!” Sally gave a long, low whistle. “What a twisted brain this guy must have!”

“Makes plenty of sense to me,” countered Oliver. “Always did have a yen for machinery; wanted to be an engineer.”

“Well, read it to me,” demanded Sally.

“This is no longer an active firm, for one thing,” interpreted the detective. “Offices unused. Dust all over everything. Most of the models are for obsolete machines. This guy is either retired or just taking on a job now and then for the heck of it. Works alone. And there’s obviously . . .”

“What’s up?” Sally took note of the break in the commentary.

“Get a load of this thing!” he cried, enthusiastically patting a nondescript heap of joints and arms and beams. “This is it, kid! This is the answer! What a dope I’ve been!”

“Looks like a frozen nightmare,” said Sally disparagingly.

“This is an editor-ejector,” he proclaimed. “Saw one of these in action two summers ago. Guy came around to the farm where I was staying to demonstrate it.”

“What’s it do? Besides eject editors,” demanded Sally, suspicious of this new enthusiasm.

“It was built to fire heavy bales of hay from a truck right up into a hayloft;” the detective explained. “The thing’s uncanny. You set it for the weight of the bales, hook her up to an air compressor, load a bale of hay onto this sliding platform, take aim at the door of the hayloft and fire away.”

“What’s so good about that?” said Sally naively.

“Don’t you know what a job it is to haul hay up to a loft with a block and tackle?” he demanded. “Or what an expensive and clumsy rig an endless belt conveyor is?”

“No,” said Sally coolly. “I can’t say it ever came to my attention. But I can see where this gadget would come in mighty handy for flipping any old bodies you happen to have around over across the street into somebody else’s doorstep.”

“And for a guy who’s handy with a sliderule,” added Oliver, “it’s no trick at all to slap it down exactly where you want it. A million to one no one will notice the body hurtling across the street a dozen or more stories up. Just figure out the weight of the body, the distance, the trajectory. Just like aiming heavy artillery.”

“Very tidy and surprisingly small, too,” Sally pointed out. “What’s this thing?”

“Storage tank for that little electric compressor over there. Builds up enough air pressure that way,” explained the detective.

“But,” he added a little wistfully, “you don’t seem to be very much surprised.”

“No,” she admitted. “It was when that Barton Trask was kidding around about Nocturne’s being dejected and killing himself. The word, ‘deject’ is right out of Latin, and literally it means ‘to throw down’. I sort of started to think about the possibility that Nocturne didn’t jump down, but was thrown down.”

“It’s the way you look, I guess,” sighed Oliver. “Makes a guy forget you have a college education.”

IT TOOK well over an hour to convince Corcoran and the other powers-that-be that the death of Nicholas Nocturne was not a suicide. Then, with the full panoply of the ranking law, they called at the apartment of Cyrus P. Wade while that gentleman was finishing the late breakfast of a semi-retired bachelor.

“That’s ‘im!” shrilled Algernon William Wright. “That’s the gennulmun who got me inda this jam fer bustin’ that winder!”

Cyrus P. Wade was indeed a gentleman. He indulged in no undignified and unsportsmanlike denials and protestations; he knew when he was in the soup with both feet.

In his statement, given in a wry and cultivated tone of voice, he explained that the hobby of his declining years had been the writing of detective stories, written around various ingenious murder devices suggested by his years of experience as a topflight mechanical engineer.

“But Mr. Nocturne invariably rejected my manuscripts,” he explained. “And with an insulting little note that implied that my contrivances were impractical and the fancies of a lunatic. Then he would promptly adopt my idea and farm it out to some hack, or re-cast it himself.

“Finally I’d had enough of his ill-bred impertinence. He actually dared to laugh at the bale-gun idea when I embodied it in a narrative . . . although these machines are already patented and on the open market.”

“So you bought one and made an appointment to demonstrate it to him,” suggested Sgt. Oliver.

“Exactly,” said the old man with a triumphant smile. “Although I fear that I failed to convince him in the end, since it was unfortunately necessary to hit him over the head to get him onto the platform.”

“You had an appointment for lunch with someone in the building?” queried Sally Ryan, fighting against an overwhelming impulse toward sympathy for this well-mannered and charming killer.

“With a group of three old friends who have offices in the building, and with whom I regularly take luncheon,” he agreed.

“You know,” mused Oliver, “you’d have gotten away with it, more than likely, if you’d only chloroformed him so he’d be alive when he hit the pavement.”

“That was precisely one of the late Mr. Nocturne’s objections to my story,” said the old man. “Perhaps I should have paid greater heed to his advice.”