Raymond Chandler
Bay City Blues
(1938)


© R.Chandler, Bay City Blues, 1938

Source: R.Chandler. Trouble Is My Business (collection)

E-Text: Greylib .


Contents

1. CINDERELLA SUICIDE

2. MURDER ON THE CUFF

3. GENTLEMAN OF THE PRESS

4. REDHEADED WOMAN

5. MY DEAD NEIGHBOR

6. I GET MY GUN BACK

7. BIG CHIN

8. NEEDLE-PUSHER

9. A GUY WITH GUTS


 

ONE

CINDERELLA SUICIDE

 

It must have been Friday because the fish smell from the Mansion House coffee-shop next door was strong enough to build a garage on. Apart from that it was a nice warm day in spring, the tail of the afternoon, and there hadn't been any business in a week. I had my heels in the groove on my desk and was sunning my ankles in a wedge of sunlight when the phone rang. I took my hat off it and made a yawning sound into the mouthpiece.

A voice said: "I heard that. You oughta be ashamed of yourself, Johnny Dalmas. Ever hear of the Austrian case?"

It was Violets M'Gee, a homicide dick in the sheriff's office and a very nice guy except for one bad habit-passing me cases where I got tossed around and didn't make enough money to buy a secondhand corset.

"No."

"One of those things down at the beach-Bay City. I hear the little burg went sour again the last time they elected themselves a mayor, but the sheriff lives down there and we like to be nice. We ain't tramped on it. They say the gambling boys put up thirty grand campaign money, so now you get a racing form with the bill of fare in the hash houses."

I yawned again.

"I heard that, too," M'Gee barked, "If you ain't interested I'll just bite my other thumbnail and let the whole thing go. The guy's got a little dough to spend, he says."

"What guy?"

"This Matson, the guy that found the stiff."

"What stiff?"

"You don't know nothing about the Austrian case, huh?"

"Didn't I say I didn't?"

"You air t done nothing but yawn and say 'What.' Okay. We'll just iet the poor guy get bumped off and City Homicide can worry about that one, now he's up here in town."

"This Matson? Who's going to bump him off?"

"Well, if he knew that, he wouldn't want to hire no shamus to find out, would he? And him in your own racket until they bust him a while back and now he can't go out hardly, on account of these guys with guns are bothering him."

"Come on over," I said. "My left arm is getting tired."

"I'm on duty."

"I was just going down to the drugstore for a quart of V.0. Scotch."

"That's me you hear knocking on the door," M'Gee said.

 

He arrived in less than half an hour-a large, pleasant-faced man with silvery hair and a dimpled chin and a tiny little mouth made to kiss babies with. He wore a well-pressed blue suit, polished square-toed shoes, and an elk's tooth on a gold chain hung across his stomach.

He sat down carefully, the way a fat man sits down, and unscrewed the top of the whisky bottle and sniffed it carefully, to make sure I hadn't refilled a good bottle with ninety-eight cent hooch, the way they do in the bars. Then he poured himself a big drink and rolled some of it around on his tongue and pawed my office with his eyes.

"No wonder you sit around waiting for jobs," he said. "You gotta have front these days."

"You could spare me a little," I said. "What about this Matson and this Austrian case?"

M'Gee finished his drink and poured another, not so large. He watched me play with a cigarette.

"A monoxide Dutch," he said. "A blond him named Austrian, wife of a doctor down at Bay City. A guy that runs around all night keeping movie hams from having pink elephants for breakfast. So the frill went around on her own. The night she croaked herself she was over to Vance Conned's club on the bluff north of there. Know it?"

"Yeah. It used to be a beach club, with a nice private beach down below and the swellest legs in Hollywood in front of the cabanas. She went there to play roulette, huh?"

"Well, if we had any gambling joints in this county," M'Gee said, "I'd say the Club Conned would be one of them and there would be roulette. Say she played roulette. They tell me she had more personal games she played with Conned, but say she played roulette on the side. She loses, which is what roulette is for. That night she loses her shirt and she gets sore and throws a wingding all over the house. Conned gets her into his private room and pages the doc, her husband, through the Physicians' Exchange. So then the doe-"

"Wait a minute," I said. "Don't tell me all this was in evidence-not with the gambling syndicate we would have in this county, if we had a gambling syndicate."

M'Gee looked at me pityingly. "My wife's got a kid brother works on a throw-away paper down there. They didn't have no inquest. Well, the doe steams over to Conned's joint and pokes his wife in the arm with a needle to quiet her down. But he can't take her home on account of he has a babe case in Brentwood Heights. So Vance Conned gets his personal car out and takes her home and meantime the doe has called up his office nurse and asked her to go over to the house and see that his wifeis all right. Which is all done, and Conned goes back to his chips and the nurse sees her in bed and leaves, and the maid goes back to bed. This is maybe midnight, or just a little after.

"Well, along about 2 A.M. this Harry Matson happens by. He's running a night-watchman service down there and that night he's out making rounds himself. On the street where Austrian lives he hears a car engine running in a dark garage, and he goes in to investigate. He finds the blond frail on the floor on her back, in peekaboo pajamas and slippers, with soot from the exhaust all over her hair."

M'Gee paused to sip a little more whisky and stare around my office again. I watched the last of the sunlight sneak over my windowsill and drop into the dark slit of the alley.

"So what does the chump do?" M'Gee said, wiping his lips on a silk handkerchief. "He decides the bim is dead, which maybe she is, but you can't always be sure in a gas case, what with this new methylene-blue treatment-"

"For God's sake," I said. "What does he do?"

"He don't call no law," M'Gee said sternly. "He kills the car motor and douses his flash and beats it home to where he lives a few blocks away. He pages the doe from there and after a while they're both back at the garage. The doe says she's dead. He sends Matson in at a side door to call the local chief of police personal, at his home. Which Matson does, and after a while the chief buzzes over with a couple of stooges, and a little while after them the body snatcher from the undertaker, whose turn it is to be deputy coroner that week. They cart the stiff away and some lab man takes a blood sample and says it's full of monoxide. The coroner gives a release and the dame is cremated and the case is closed."

"Well, what's the matter with it?" I asked.

M'Gee finished his second drink and thought about having a third. He decided to have a cigar first. I didn't have any cigars and that annoyed him slightly, but he lit one of his own.

"I'm just a cop," he said, blinking at me calmly through the smoke. "I wouldn't know. All I know is, this Matson got bust loose from his licence and run out of town and he's scared."

"The hell with it," I said. "The last time I muscled into a small-town setup I got a fractured skull. How do I contact Matson?"

"I give him your number. He'll contact you."

"How well do you know him?"

"Well enough to give him your name," M'Gee said. "Of course, if anything comes up I should look into-"

"Sure," I said. "I'll put it on your desk. Bourbon or rye?"

"Go to hell," M'Gee said. "Scotch."

"What does Matson look like?"

"He's medium heavy, five-seven, one-seventy, gray hair."

He had another short, quick drink and left.

I sat there for an hour and smoked too many cigarettes. It got dark and my throat felt dry. Nobody called me up. I went over and switched the lights on, washed my hands, tucked away a small drink and locked the bottle up. It was time to eat.

I had my hat on and was going through the door when the Green Feather messenger boy came along the hallway looking at numbers. He wanted mine. I signed for a small irregularshaped parcel done up in the kind of flimsy yellowish paper laundries use. I put the parcel on my desk and cut the string. Inside there was tissue paper and an envelope with a sheet of paper and a flat key in it. The note began abruptly:

 

A friend in the sheriff's office gave me your name as a man I could trust. I have been a heel and am in a jam and all I want now is to get clear. Please come after dark to 524 Tennyson Arms Apartments, Harvard near Sixth, and use key to enter if I am out. Look out for Pat Reel, the manager, as I don't trust him. Please put the slipper in a safe place and keep it clean. P.S. They call him Violets, I never knew why.

I knew why. It was because he chewed violet-scented breath purifiers. The note was unsigned. It sounded a little jittery to me. I unwound the tissue paper. It contained a green velvet pump, size about 4A lined with white kid. The name Verschoyle was stamped in flowing gold script on the white kid insole. On the side a number was written very small in indelible ink- S465-where a size number would be, but I knew it wasn't a size number because Verschoyle, Inc., on Cherokee Street in Hollywood made only custom shoes from individual lasts, and theatrical footwear and riding boots.

I leaned back and lit a cigarette and thought about it for a while. Finally I reached for the phone book and looked up the number of Verschoyle, Inc., and dialed it. The phone rang several times before a chirpy voice said: "Hello? Yes?"

"Verschoyle-in person," I said. "This is Peters, Identification Bureau." I didn't say what identification bureau.

"Oh, Mr. Verschoyle has gone home. We're closed, you know. We close at five-thirty. I'm Mr. Pringle, the bookkeeper. Is there anything-"

"Yeah. We got a couple of your shoes in some stolen goods. The mark is S-Four-Six-Five. That mean anything to you?"

"Oh yes, of course. That's a last number. Shall I look it up for you?"

"By all means," I said.

He was back in no time at all. "Oh yes, indeed, that is Mrs. Leland Austrian's number. Seven-thirty-six Altair Street, Bay City. We made all her shoes. Very sad. Yes. About two months ago we made her two pairs of emerald velvet pumps."

"What do you mean, sad?"

"Oh, she's dead, you know. Committed suicide."

"The hell you say. Two pairs of pumps, huh?"

"Oh yes, both the same you know. People often order delicate colors in pairs like that. You know a spot or stain of any kind-and they might be made to match a certain dress-"

"Well, thanks a lot and take care of yourself," I said, and gave the phone back to him.

I picked up the slipper again and looked it over carefully. It hadn't been worn. There was no sign of rubbing on the buffed leather of the thin sole. I wondered what Harry Matson was doing with it. I put it in my office safe and went out to dinner.

 

TWO

MURDER ON THE CUFF

The Tennyson Arms was an old-fashioned dump, about eight stories high, faced with dark red brick. It had a wide center court with palm trees and a concrete fountain and some prissylooking flower beds. Lanterns hung beside the Gothic door and the lobby inside was paved with red plush. It was large and empty except for a bored canary in a gilt cage the size of a barrel. It looked like the sort of apartment house where widows would live on the life insurance-not very young widows. The elevator was the self-operating kind that opens both doors automatically when it stops.

I walked along the narrow maroon carpet of the fifth-floor hallway and didn't see anybody, hear anybody, or smell anybody's cooking. The place was as quiet as a minister's study. Apartment 524 must have opened on the center court because a stained-glass window was right beside its door. I knocked, not loud, and nobody came to the door so I used the flat key and went in, and shut the door behind me.

A mirror glistened in a wall bed across the room. Two windows in the same wall as the entrance door were shut and dark drapes were drawn half across them, but enough light from some apartment across the court drifted in to show the dark bulk of heavy, overstuffed furniture, ten years out of date, and the shine of two brass doorknobs. I went over to the windows and pulled the drapes closed, then used my pocket flash to find my way back to the door. The light switch there set off a big cluster of flame-colored candles in the ceiling fixture. They made the room look like a funeral-chapel annex. I put the light on in a red standing lamp, doused the ceiling light and started to give the place the camera eye.

In the narrow dressing room behind the wall bed there was a built-in bureau with a black brush and comb on it and gray hairs in the comb. There was a can of talcum, a flashlight, a crumpled man's handkerchief, a pad of writing paper, a bank pen and a bottle of ink on a blotter-about what one suitcase would hold in the drawers. The shirts had been bought in a Bay City men's furnishing store. There was a dark gray suit on a hanger and a pair of black brogues on the floor. In the bathroom there was a safety razor, a tube of brushless cream, some blades, three bamboo toothbrushes in a glass, a few other odds and ends. On the porcelain toilet tank there was a book bound in red cloth-Dorsey's Why We Behave Like Human Beings. It was marked at page 116 by a rubber band. I had it open and was reading about the Evolution of Earth, Life and Sex when the phone started to ring in the living room.

I snicked off the bathroom light and padded across the carpet to the davenport. The phone was on a stand at one end. It kept on ringing and a horn tooted outside in the street, as if answering it. When it had rung eight times I shrugged and reached for it.

"Pat? Pat Reel?" the voice said.

I didn't know how Pat Reel would talk. I grunted. The voice at the other end was hard and hoarse at the same time. It sounded like a tough-guy voice.

"Pat?"

"Sure," I said.

There was silence. It hadn't gone over. Then the voice said: "This is Harry Matson. Sorry as all hell I can't make it back tonight. Just one of those things. That bother you much?"

"Sure," I said.

"What's that?"

"Sure."

"Is 'sure' all the words you know, for God's sake?"

"I'm a Greek."

The voice laughed. It seemed pleased with itself.

I said: "What kind of toothbrushes do you use, Harry?"

"Huh?"

This was a startled explosion of breath-not so pleased now.

"Toothbrushes-the little dinguses some people brush their teeth with. What kind do you use?"

"Aw, go to hell."

"Meet you on the step," I said.

The voice got mad now. "Listen, smart monkey! You ain't pulling nothin', see? We got your name, we got your number, and we got a place to put you if you don't keep your nose clean, see? And Harry don't live there any more, ha, ha."

"You picked him off, huh?"

"I'll say we picked him off. What do you think we done, took him to a picture show?"

"That's bad," I said. "The boss won't like that."

I hung up in his face and put the phone down on the table at the end of the davenport and rubbed the back of my neck. I took the door key out of my pocket and polished it on my handkerchief and laid it down carefully on the table. I got up and walked across to one of the windows and pulled the drapes aside far enough to look out into the court. Across its palmdotted oblong, on the same floor level I was on, a bald-headed man sat in the middle of a room under a hard, bright light, and didn't move a muscle. He didn't look like a spy.

I let the drapes fall together again and settled my hat on my head and went over and put the lamp out. I put my pocket flash down on the floor and palmed my handkerchief on the doorknob and quietly opened the door.

Braced to the door frame by eight hooked fingers, all but one of which were white as wax, there hung what was left of a man.

He had eyes an eighth of an inch deep, china-blue, wide open. They looked at me but they didn't see me. He had coarse gray hair on which the smeared blood looked purple. One of his temples was a pulp, and the tracery of blood from it reached clear to the point of his chin. The one straining finger that wasn't white had been pounded to shreds as far as the second joint. Sharp splinters of bone stuck out of the mangled flesh. Something that might once have been a fingernail looked now like a ragged splinter of glass.

The man wore a brown suit with patch pockets, three of them. They had been torn off and hung at odd angles showing the dark alpaca lining beneath.

He breathed with a faraway unimportant sound, like distant footfalls on dead leaves. His mouth was strained open like a fish's mouth, and blood bubbled from it. Behind him the hallway was empty as a new-dug grave.

Rubber heels squeaked suddenly on the bare space of wood beside the hall runner. The man's straining fingers slipped from the door frame and his body started to wind up on his legs. The legs couldn't hold it. They scissored and the body turned in mid-air, like a swimmer in a wave, and then jumped at me.

I clamped my teeth hard and spread my feet and caught him from behind, after his torso had made a half turn. He weighed enough for two men. I took a step back and nearly went down, took two more and then I had his dragging heels clear of the doorway. I let him down on his side as slowly as I could, crouched over him panting. After a second I straightened, went over to the door and shut and locked it. Then I switched the ceiling light on and started for the telephone.

He' died before I reached it. I heard the rattle, the spent sigh, then silence. An outfiung hand, the good one, twitched once and the fingers spread out slowly into a loose curve and stayed like that. I went back and felt his carotid artery, digging my fingers in hard. Not a flicker of a pulse. I got a small steel mirror out of my wallet and held it against his open mouth for a long minute. There was no trace of mist on it when I took it away. Harry Matson had come home from his ride.

A key tickled at the outside of the door lock and I moved fast. I was in the bathroom when the door opened, with a gun in my hand and my eyes to the crack of the bathroom door.

This one came in quickly, the way a wise cat goes through a swing door. His eyes flicked up at the ceiling lights, then down at the floor. After that they didn't move at all. All his big body didn't move a muscle. He just stood and looked.

He was a big man in an unbuttoned overcoat, as if he had just come in or was just going out. He had a gray felt hat on the back of a thick creamy-white head. He had the heavy black eyebrows and broad pink face of a boss politician, and his mouth looked as if it usually had the smile-but not now. His face was all bone and his mouth jiggled a half-smoked cigar along his lips with a sucking noise.

He put a bunch of keys back in his pocket and said "God!" very softly, over and over again. Then he took a step forward and went down beside the dead man with a slow, clumsy motion. He put large fingers into the man's neck, took them away again, shook his head, looked slowly around the room. He looked at the bathroom door behind which I was hiding, but nothing changed in his eyes.

"Fresh dead," he said, a little louder. "Beat to a pulp."

He straightened up slowly and rocked on his heels. He didn't like the ceiling light any better than I had. He put the standing lamp on and switched the ceiling light off, rocked on his heels some more. His shadow crawled up the end wall, started across the ceiling, paused and dropped back again. He worked the cigar around in his mouth, dug a match out of his pocket and relit the butt carefully, turning it around and around in the flame. When he blew the match out he put it in his pocket. He did all this without once taking his eyes off the dead man on the floor.

He moved sideways over to the davenport and let himself down on the end of it. The springs squeaked dismally. He reached for the phone without looking at it, eyes still on the dead man.

He had the phone in his hand when it started to ring again. That jarred him. His eyes rolled and his elbows jerked against the sides of his thick overcoated body. Then he grinned very carefully and lifted the phone off the cradle and said in a rich, fruity voice: "HelloYeah, this is Pat."

I heard a dry, inarticulate croaking noise on the wire, and I saw Pat Reel's face slowly congest with blood until it was the color of fresh beef liver. His big hand shook the phone savagely.

"So it's Mister Big Chin!" he blared. "Well, listen here, saphead, you know something? Your stiff is right here on my carpet, that's where he is. . . . How did he get here? How the hell would I know? Ask me, you croaked him here, and lemme tell you something. It's costing you plenty, see, plenty. No murder on the cuff in my house. I spot a guy for you and you knock him off in my lap, damn you! I'll take a grand and not a cent less, and you come and get what's here and I mean get it, see?"

There was more croaking on the wire. Pat Reel listened. His eyes got almost sleepy and the purple died out of his face. He said more steadily: "Okay. Okay. I was only kidding. . . . Call me in half an hour downstairs."

He put down the phone and stood up. He didn't look towards the bathroom door, he didn't look anywhere. He began to whistle. Then he scratched his chin and took a step towards the door, stopped to scratch his chin again. He didn't know there was anybody in the apartment, he didn't know there wasn't anybody in the apartment-an4 he didn't have a gun. He took another step towards the door. Big Chin had told him something and the idea was to get out. He took a third step, then he changed his mind.

"Aw hell," he said out loud. "That screwy mug." Then his eyes ranged round the apartment swiftly. "Tryin' to kid me, huh?"

His hand raised to the chain switch. Suddenly he let it fall and knelt beside the dead man again. He moved the body a little, rolling it without effort on the carpet, and put his face down close to squint at the spot where the head had lain. Pat Reel shook his head in displeasure, got to his feet and put his hands under the dead man's armpits. He threw a glance over his shoulder at the dark bathroom and started to back towards me, dragging the body, grunting, the cigar butt still clamped in his mouth. His creamy-white hair glistened cleanly in the lamplight.

He was still bent over with his big legs spraddled when I stepped out behind him. He may have heard me at the last second but it didn't matter. I had shifted the gun to my left hand and I had a small pocket sap in my right. I laid the sap against the side of his head, just behind his right ear, and I laid it as though I loved it.

Pat Reel collapsed forward across the sprawled body he was dragging, his head down between the dead man's legs. His hat rolled gently off to the side. He didn't move. I stepped past him to the door and left.

 

THREE

GENTLEMAN OF THE PRESS

Over on Western Avenue I found a phone booth and called the sheriff's office. Violets M'Gee was still there, just ready to go home.

I said: "What was the name of your kid brother-in-law that works on the throw-away paper down at Bay City?"

"Kincaid. They call him Dolly Kincaid. A little feller."

"Where would he be about now?"

"He hangs around the city hall. Think he's got a police beat. Why?"

"I saw Matson," I said. "Do you know where he's staying?"

"Naw. He just called me on the phone. What you think of him?"

"I'll do what I can for him. Will you be home tonight?"

"I don't know why not. Why?"

I didn't tell him why. I got into my car and pointed it towards Bay City. I got down there about nine. The police department was half a dozen rooms in a city hall that belonged in the hookworm-and-Bible belt. I pushed past a knot of smoothies into an open doorway where there was light and a counter. There was a PBX board in the corner and a uniformed man behind it.

I put an arm on the counter and a plainclothes man with his coat off and an under-arm holster looking the size of a wooden leg against his ribs took one eye off his paper and said, "Yeah?" and bonged a spittoon without moving his head more than an inch.

I said: "I'm looking for a fellow named Dolly Kincaid."

"Out to eat. I'm holdin' down his beat," he said in a solid, unemotional voice.

"Thanks. You got a pressroom here?"

"Yeah. Got a toilet, too. %Vanta see?"

"Take it easy," I said. "I'm not trying to get fresh with your town."

He bonged the spittoon again. "Pressroom's down the hall. Nobody in it. Dolly's due back, if he don't get drowned in a pop bottle."

A small-boned, delicate-faced young man with a pink complexion and innocent eyes strolled into the room with a halfeaten hamburger sandwich in his left hand. His hat, which looked like a reporters hat in a movie, was smashed on the back of his small blond head. His shirt collar was unbuttoned at the neck and his tie was pulled to one side. The ends of it hung out over his coat. The only thing the matter with him for a movie newshawk was that he wasn't drunk. He said casually: "Anything stirring, boys?"

The big black-haired plainclothes man bonged his private spittoon again and said: "I hear the mayor changed his underpants, but it's just a rumor."

The small young man smiled mechanically and turned away. The cop said: "This guy wants to see you, Dolly."

Kincaid munched his hamburger and looked at me hopefully. I said: "I'm a friend of Violets'. Where can we talk?"

"Let's go into the pressroom," he said. The black-haired cop studied me as we went out. He had a look in his eyes as if he wanted to pick a fight with somebody, and he thought I would do.

We went along the hail towards the back and turned into a room with a long, bare, scarred table, three or four wooden chairs and a lot of newspapers on the floor. There were two telephones on one end of the table, and a flyblown framed picture in the exact center of each wall-Washington, Lincoln, Horace Greeley, and the other one somebody I didn't recognize. Kincaid shut the door and sat on one end of the table and swung his leg and bit into the last of his sandwich.

I said: "I'm John Dalmas, a private dick from L.A. How's to take a ride over to Seven thirty-six Altair Street and tell me what you know about the Austrian case? Maybe you better call M'Gee up and get him to introduce us." I pushed a card at him.

The pink young man slid down off the table very rapidly and stuffed the card into his pocket without looking at it and spoke close to my ear. "Hold it."

Then he walked softly over to the framed picture of Horace Greeley and lifted it off the wall and pressed on a square of paint behind it. The paint gave-it was painted over fabric. Kincaid looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I nodded. He hung the picture back on the wall and came back to me. "Mike," he said under his breath. "Of course I don't know who listens or when, or even whether the damn thing still works."

"Horace Greeley would have loved it," I said.

"Yeah. The beat's pretty dead tonight. I guess I could go out. Al De Spain will cover for me anyway." He was talking loud now.

"The big black-haired cop?"

"Yeah."

"What makes him sore?"

"He's been reduced to acting patrolman. He ain't even working tonight. Just hangs around and he's so tough it would take the whole damn police force to throw him out."

I looked towards the microphone and raised my eyebrows.

"That's okay," Kincaid said. "I gotta feed 'em something to chew on."

He went over to a dirty washbowl in the corner and washed his hands on a scrap of lava soap and dried them on his pocket handkerchief. He was just putting the handkerchief away when the door opened. A small, middle-aged, gray-haired man stood in it, looking at us expressionlessly.

Dolly Kincaid said: "Evening, Chief, anything I can do for you?"

The chief looked at me silently and without pleasure. He had sea-green eyes, a tight, stubborn mouth, a ferret-shaped nose, and an unhealthy skin. He didn't look big enough to be a cop. He nodded very slightly and said: "Who's your friend?"

"He's a friend of my brother-in-law. He's a private dick from L.A. Let's see-" Kincaid gripped desperately in his pocket for my card. He didn't even remember my name.

The chief said sharply: "What's that? A private detective? What's your business here?"

"I didn't say I was here on business," I told him.

"Glad to hear it," he said. "Very glad to hear it. Good night." He opened the door and went out quickly and snapped it shut behind him.

"Chief Anders-one swell guy," Kincaid said loudly. "They don't come any better." He was looking at me like a scared rabbit.

"They never have," I said just as loudly. "In Bay City."

I thought for a moment he was going to faint, but he didn't. We went out in the front of the city hall and got into my car and drove away.

I stopped the car on Altair Street across the way from the residence of Dr. Leland Austrian. The night was windless and there was a little fog under the moon. A faint pleasant smell of brackish water and kelp came up the side of the bluff from the beach. Small riding lights pinpointed the yacht harbor and the shimmering lines of three piers. Quite far out to sea a bigmasted fishing barge had lights strung between its masts and from the mastheads down to the bow and stern. Other things than fishing probably happened on it.

Altair Street in that block was a dead-end, cut off by a tall, ornamental iron fence that walled a big estate. The houses were on the inland side of the street only, on eighty- or hundredfoot lots, well spaced. On the seaward side there was a narrow sidewalk and a low wall, beyond which the bluff dropped almost straight down.

Dolly Kincaid was pressed back into the corner of the seat, the red tip of a cigarette glowing at intervals in front of his small blurred face. The Austrian house was dark except for a small light over the embrasure in which the front door was set. It was stucco, with a wall across the front yard, iron gates, the garage outside the wall. A cement walk went from a side door of the garage to a side door of the house. There was a bronze plate set into the wall beside the gates and I knew it would read Leland M. Austrian, M.D.

"All right," I said. "Now what was the matter with the Austrian case?"

"Nothing was the matter with it," Kincaid said slowly. "Except you're going to get me in a jam."

"Why?"

"Somebody must have heard you mention Austrian's address over that mike. That's why Chief Anders came in to look at you."

"De Spain might have figured me for a dick-just on looks. He might have tipped him off."

"No. De Spain hates the chief's guts. Hell, he was a detective lieutenant up to a week ago. Anders don't want the Austrian case monkeyed with. He wouldn't let us write it up."

"Swell press you got in Bay City."

"We got a swell climate-and the press is a bunch of stooges."

"Okay," I said. "You got a brother-in-law who's a homicide dick in the sheriff's office. All the L.A. papers but one are strong for the sheriff. This town is where he lives, though, and like a lot of other guys he don't keep his own yard clean. So you're scared, huh?"

Dolly Kincaid threw his cigarette out of the window. I watched it fall in a small red arc and lie faintly pink on the narrow sidewalk. I leaned forward and pressed on the starter button. "Excuse it, please," I said. "I won't bother you any more."

I meshed the gears and the car crawled forward a couple of yards before Kincaid leaned over and jerked the parking brake on. "I'm not yellow," he said sharply. "What do you wanta know?"

I cut the motor again and leaned back with my hands on the wheel. "First off, why did Matson lose his licence. He's my client."

"Oh-Matson. They said he tried to put the bite on Dr. Austrian. And they not only took his licence, they run him out of town. A couple of guys with guns shoved him into a car one night and roughed him around and told him to skip the burg or else. He reported it down at headquarters and you could have heard them laugh for blocks. But I don't think it was cops."

"Do you know anybody called Big Chin?"

Dolly Kincaid thought. "No. The mayor's driver, a goof called Moss Lorenz, has a chin you could balance a piano on. But I never heard him called Big Chin. He used to work for Vance Conned. Ever hear of Conned?"

"I'm all caught up on that angle," I said. "Then if this Conned wanted to bump somebody off that was bothering him, and especially somebody that had made a little trouble here in Bay City, this Lorenz would be just the guy. Because the mayor would have to cover for him-up to a point, anyway."

Dolly Kincaid said, "Bump who off?" and his voice was suddenly thick and tense.

"They didn't only run Matson out of town," I told him. "They traced him to an apartment house in L.A. and some guy called Big Chin gave him the works. Matson must have been working still on whatever it was he was working on."

"Geez," Dolly Kincaid whispered. "I didn't get a word on that."

"The L.A. cops neither-when I left. Did you know Matson?"

"A little. Not well."

"Would you call him honest?"

"Well, as honest as-well, yeah, I guess he was all right. Geez, bumped off, huh?"

"As honest as a private dick usually is?" I said.

He giggled, from sudden strain and nervousness and shock-very little from amusement. A car turned into the end of the street and stopped by the curb and its lights went out. Nobody got out.

"How about Dr. Austrian," I said. "Where was he when his wife was murdered?"

Dolly Kincaid jumped. "Jeepers, who said she was murdered?" he gasped.

"I think Matson was trying to say so. But he was trying to get paid for not saying it even harder than he was trying to say it. Either way would have got him disliked, but his way got him chilled with a piece of lead pipe. My hunch is that Conned would have that done because he would not like to have anybody make the pay sign at him, except in the way of legitimate graft. But on the other hand it would be a little better for Conned's club to have Dr. Austrian murder his wife than for her to do a Dutch on account of losing all her dough at Conned's roulette tables. Maybe not a lot better, but some better. So I can't figure why Conned would have Matson bumped off for talking about murder. I figure he could have been talking about something else as well."

"Does all this figuring ever get you anywhere?" Dolly Kincaid asked politely.

"No. It's just something to do while I'm patting the cold cream into my face at night. Now about this lab man that made the blood sample. Who was he?"

Kincaid lit another cigarette and looked down the block at the car that had stopped in front of the end house. Its lights had gone on again now and it was moving forward slowly.

"A guy named Greb," he said. "He has a small place in the Physicians and Surgeons Building and works for the doctors."

"Not official, huh?"

"No, but they don't run to lab men down here. And the undertakers all take turns being coroner for a week, so what the hell. The chief handles it the way he likes."

"Why would he want to handle it at all?"

"I guess maybe he might get orders from the mayor, who might get a hint from the gambling boys that Vance Conned works for, or from Vance Conned direct. Conned might not like his bosses to know he was mixed up with a dead frill in a way to make a kickback on the club."

"Right," I said. "That guy down the block don't know where he lives."

The car was still crawling forward along the curb. Its lights were out again, but it was still moving.

"And while I'm still healthy," Dolly Kincaid said, "you might as well know that Doe Austrian's office nurse used to be Matson's wife. She's a redheaded man-eater with no looks but a lot of outside curve."

"I like a well-crowded stocking myself," I said. "Get out of that door and in the back of the car and lie down and make it fast."

"Geez-"

"Do what I say!" I snapped. "Fast!"

The door on the right clicked open and the little man slid out like a wisp of smoke. The door clicked shut. I heard the rear door open and sneaked a look back and saw a dark shape haunched on the floor of the car. I slid over to the right side myself and opened the door again and stepped out on the narrow sidewalk that ran along the rim of the bluff.

The other car was close now. Its lights flared up again and I ducked. The lights swerved so that they swept my car, then swerved back and the car stopped opposite and went quietly dark. It was a small black coupé. Nothing happened for a minute, then its left door opened and a chunky man stepped out and started to stroll over towards my side of the side-paved street. I took my gun from under my arm and tucked it in my belt and buttoned the bottom button of my coat. Then I walked around the rear end of my car to meet him.

He stopped dead when he saw me. His hands hung empty at his sides. There was a cigar in his mouth. "Police," he said briefly. His right hand shaded back slowly towards his right hip. "Nice night ain't it?"

"Swell," I said. "A little foggy, but I like fog. It softens the air up and-"

He cut in on me sharply: "Where's the other guy?"

"Huh?"

"Don't kid me, stranger. I saw a cigarette on the right side of your car."

"That was me," I said. "I didn't know it was against the law to smoke on the right side of a car."

"Oh, a smart monkey. Who are you and what's your business here?" His heavy, greasy face reflected the sifted light in the soft misty air.

"The name's O'Brien," I said. "Just down from San Mateo on a little pleasure trip."

His hand was very close to his hip now. "I'll look at your driver's licence," he said. He came close enough to reach it, if we both stretched out our arms to each other.

"I'll look at what gives you the right to look at it," I said.

His right hand made an abrupt movement. Mine flicked the gun out of my belt and pointed it at his stomach. His hand stopped as though it had been frozen in a block of ice.

"Maybe you're a stick-up," I said. "It's still being done with nickel badges."

He stood there, paralyzed, hardly breathing. He said thickly: "Got a licence for that heater?"

"Every day in the week," I said. "Let's see your badge and I'll put it away. You don't wear the buzzer where you sit down, do you?"

He stood for another frozen minute. Then he looked along the block as if he hoped another car might arrive. Behind me, in the back of my car, there was a soft, sibilant breathing. I didn't know whether the chunky man heard it or not. His own breathing was heavy enough to iron a shirt with.

"Aw, quit your kiddin'," he snarled out with sudden ferocity. "You're nothin' but a lousy two-bit shamus from L.A."

"I upped the rate," I said. "I get thirty cents now."

"Go to hell. We don't want you nosin' around here, see. This time I'm just tellin' you."

He turned on his heel and walked back to his coupé and put a foot on the running board. His thick neck turned slowly and his greasy skin showed again. "Go to hell," he said, "before we send you there in a basket."

"So long, Greasy-Puss," I said. "Nice to have met you with your pants down."

He slammed into his car, started it with a jerk and lurched it around. He was gone down the block in a flash.

I jumped into mine and was only a block behind him when he made the stop for Arguello Boulevard. He turned right. I turned left. Dolly Kincaid came up and put his chin on the back of the seat beside my shoulder.

"Know who that was?" he croaked. "That was Trigger Weems, the chief's right bower. He might have shot you."

"Fanny Brice might have had a pug nose," I said. "It was that close."

I rode around a few blocks and stopped to let him get in beside me. "Where's your car?" I said.

He took his crumpled reporter's hat off and smacked it on his knee and put it back on again. "Why, down at the city hall. In the police yard."

"Too bad," I said. "You'll have to take the bus to L.A. You ought to spend a night with your sister once in a while. Especially tonight."

 

FOUR

REDHEADED WOMAN

The road twisted, dipped, soared along the flank of the foothills, a scatter of lights to the northwest and a carpet of them to the south. The three piers seemed remote from this point, thin pencils of light laid out on a pad of black velvet. There was fog in the canyons and a smell of wild growth, but no fog on the high ground between the canyons.

I swung past a small, dim service station, closed up for the night, down into another wide canyon, up past half a mile of expensive wire fence walling in some invisible estate. Then the scattered houses got still more scattered along the hills and the air smelled strongly of the sea. I turned left past a house with a round white turret and drove out between the only electroliers in miles to a big stucco building on a point above the coast highway. Light leaked from draped windows and along an arched stucco colonnade, and shone dimly on a thick cluster of cars parked in diagonal slots around an oval lawn.

This was the Club Conried. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do there, but it seemed to be one of the places where I had to go. Dr. Austrian was still wandering in unknown parts of the town visiting unnamed patients. The Physicians' Exchange said he usually called in about eleven. It was now about ten-fifteen.

I parked in a vacant slot and walked along the arched colonnade. A six-foot-six Negro, in the uniform of a comic-opera South American field marshal, opened one half of a wide grilled door from the inside and said: "Card, please, suh."

I tucked a dollar's worth of folding money into his lilac-colored palm. Enormous ebony knuckles closed over it like a dragline over a bucketful of gravel. His other hand picked a piece of lint off my left shoulder and left a metal tag down behind my show handkerchief in the outside breast pocket of my jacket.

"New floor boss kinda tough," he whispered. "I thank you, suh."

"You mean sucker," I said, and went in past him.

The lobby-they called it a foyer-looked like an MGM set for a night club in the Broadway Melody of 1980. Under the artificial light, it looked as if it had cost about a million dollars and took up enough space for a polo field. The carpet didn't quite tickle my ankles. At the back there was a chromium gangway like a ship's gangway going up to the dining-room entrance, and at the top of this a chubby Italian captain of waiters stood with a set smile and a two-inch satin stripe on his pants and a bunch of gold-plated menus under his arm.

There was a free-arched stairway with banisters like whiteenameled sleigh rails. This would go up to the second-floor gambling rooms. The ceiling had stars in it and they twinkled. Beside the bar entrance, which was dark and vaguely purple, like a half-remembered nightmare, there was a huge round mirror set back in a white tunnel with an Egyptian headdress over the top of it. In front of this a lady in green was preening her metallic blond hair. Her evening gown was cut so low at the back that she was wearing a black beauty patch on her lumbar muscle, about an inch below where her pants would have been, if she had been wearing any pants.

A check girl in peach-bloom pajamas with small black dragons on them came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes as black and shiny and expressionless as the toes of patent-leather pumps. I gave her a quarter and kept my hat. A cigarette girl with a tray the size of a five-pound candy box came down the gangway. She wore feathers in her hair, enough clothes to hide behind a three-cent stamp, and one of her long, beautiful, naked legs was gilded and the other was silvered. She had the cold, disdainful expression of a dame who is dated so far ahead that she would haveto think twice before accepting a knockdown to a maharajab with a basket of rubies under his arm.

I went into the soft purple twilight of the bar. Glasses tinkled gently. There were quiet voices, chords on a piano off in a corner, and a pansy tenor singing "My Little Buckeroo" as confidentially as a bartender mixing a Mickey Finn. Little by little the purple light got to be something I could see by. The bar was fairly full but not crowded. A man laughed off-key and the pianist expressed his annoyance by doing an Eddie Duchin ripple down the keyboard with his thumbnail.

I spotted an empty table and went and sat behind it, against the cushioned wall. The light grew still brighter for me. I could even see the buckeroo singer now. He had wavy red hair that looked hennaed. The girl at the table next to me had red hair too. It was parted in the middle and strained back as if she hated it. She had large, dark, hungry eyes, awkward features and no make-up except a mouth that glared like a neon sign. Her street suit had too-wide shoulders, too-flaring lapels. An orange undersweater snuggled her neck and there was a blackand-orange quill in her Robin Hood hat, crooked on the back of her head. She smiled at me and her teeth were as thin and sharp as a pauper's Christmas. I didn't smile back.

She emptied her glass and rattled it on the tabletop. A waiter in a neat mess jacket slipped out of nowhere and stood in front of me.

"Scotch and soda," the girl snapped. She had a hard, angular voice with a liquor slur in it.

The waiter looked at her, barely moved his chin and looked back at me. I said: "Bacardi and grenadine."

He went away. The girl said: "That'll make you sicky, big boy."

I didn't look at her. "So you don't want to play," she said loosely. I lit a cigarette and blew a ring in the soft purplish air. "Go chase yourself," the girl said. "I could pick up a dozen gorillas like you on every block on Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood Boulevard, my foot. A lot of bit players out of work and fish-faced blondes trying to shake a hangover out of their teeth."

"Who said anything about Hollywood Boulevard?" I asked.

"You did. Nobody but a guy from Hollywood Boulevard wouldn't talk back to a girl that insulted him civilly."

A man and a girl at a nearby table turned their heads and stared. The man gave me a short, sympathetic grin. "That goes for you, too," the girl said to him.

"You didn't insult me yet," he said.

"Nature beat me to it, handsome."

The waiter came back with the drinks. He gave me mine first. The girl said loudly: "I guess you're not used to waiting on ladies."

The waiter gave her her Scotch and soda. "I beg your pardon, madam," he said in an icy tone.

"Sure. Come around sometime and I'll give you a manicure, if I can borrow a hoe. Boy friend's paying the ticket on this."

The waiter looked at me. I gave him a bill and a lift of my right shoulder. He made change, took his tip, and faded off among the tables.

The girl picked her drink up and came over to my table. She put her elbows on the table and cupped her chin in her hands. "Well, well, a spender," she said. "I didn't know they made them any more. How do you like me?"

"I'm thinking it over," I said. "Keep your voice down or they'll throw you out."

"I doubt it," she said, "As long as I don't break any mirrors. Besides, me and their boss are like that." She held up two fingers close together. "That is we would be if I could meet him." She laughed tinnily, drank a little of her drink. "Where've I seen you around?"

"Most anywhere."

"Where've you seen me?"

"Hundreds of places."

"Yes," she said. "Just like that. A girl can't hang on to her individuality any more."

"She can't get it back out of a bottle," I said.

"The heck you say. I could name you plenty of big names that go to sleep with a bottle in each hand. And have to get pushed in the arm so they won't wake up yelling."

"Yeah?" I said. "Movie soaks, huh?"

"Yeah. I work for a guy that pushes them in the arm-at ten bucks a push. Sometimes twenty-five or fifty."

"Sounds like a nice racket," I said.

"If it lasts. You think it'll last?"

"You can always go to Palm Springs when they run you out of here."

"Who's going to run who out of where?"

"I don't know," I said. "What were we talking about?"

She had red hair. She was not good-looking, but she had curves. And she worked for a man who pushed people in the arm. I licked my lips.

A big dark man came through the entrance door and stood just inside it, waiting for his eyes to get used to the light. Then he started to look the place over without haste. His glance traveled to the table where I was sitting. He leaned his big body forward and started to walk our way.

"Oh, oh," the girl said. "The bouncer. Can you take it?"

I didn't answer. She stroked her colorless cheek with a strong pale hand and leered at me. The man at the piano struck some chords and began to whine about "We Can Still Dream, Can't We?"

The big, dark man stopped with his hand on the chair across the table from me. He pulled his eyes off the girl and smiled at me. She was the one he had been looking at. She was the one he had come down the room to get near. But I was the one he looked at from now on. His hair was smooth and dark and shiny above cold gray eyes and eyebrows that looked as if they were penciled, and a handsome actorish mouth and a nose that had been broken but well set. He spoke liplessly.

"Haven't seen you around for some time-or is my memory bad?"

"I don't know," I said. "What are you trying to remember?"

"Your name, doe."

I said: "Quit trying. We never met." I fished the metal tag out of my breast pocket and tossed it down. "Here's my ticket in from the drum major on the wicket." I got a card out of my wallet and tossed that down. "Here's my name, age, height, weight, scars if any, and how many times convicted. And my business is to see Conried."

He ignored the tag and read the card twice, turned it over and looked at the back, then looked at the front again, hooked an arm over the chairback and gave me a mealy smile. He didn't look at the girl then or ever. He racked the card edge across the tabletop and made a faint squeak, like a very young mouse. The girl stared at the ceiling and pretended to yawn.

He said dryly: "So you're one of those guys. So sorry. Mr. Conned had to go north on a little business trip. Caught an early plane."

The girl said: "That must have been his stand-in I saw this afternoon at Sunset and Vine, in a gray Cord sedan."

He didn't look at her. He smiled faintly. "Mr. Conned doesn't have a gray Cord sedan."

The girl said: "Don't let him kid you. I bet he's upstairs crooking a roulette wheel right this minute."

The dark man didn't look at her. His not looking at her was more emphatic than if he had slapped her face. I saw hen whiten a little, very slowly, and stay white.

I said: "He's not here, he's not here. Thanks for listening. Maybe some other time."

"Oh sure. But we don't use any private eyes in here. So sorry."

"Say that 'so sorry' again and I'll scream. So help me," the red-haired girl said.

The black-haired man put my card in the casual outer pocket of his dinner jacket. He pushed his chair back and stood up.

"You know how it is," he said. "So-"

The girl cackled and threw her drink in his face.

The dark man stepped back jarringly and swept a crisp white handkerchief from his pocket. He mopped his face swiftly, shaking his head. When he lowered the handkerchief there was a big soaked spot on his shirt, limp above the black pearl stud. His collar was a ruin.

"So sorry," the girl said. "Thought you were a spittoon."

He dropped his hand and his teeth glinted edgily. "Get her out," he purred. "Get her out fast."

He turned and walked off very quickly among the tables, holding his handkerchief against his mouth. Two waiters in mess jackets came up close and stood looking at us. Everybody in the place was looking at us.

"Round one," the girl said. "A little slow. Both fighters were cautious."

"I'd hate to be with you when you'd take a chance," I said.

Her head jerked. In that queer purple light the extreme whiteness of hen face seemed to leap at me. Even her rouged lips had a drained look. Her hand went up to her mouth, stiff and clawlike. She coughed dryly like a consumptive and reached for my glass. She gulped the bacardi and grenadine down in bubbling swallows. Then she began to shake. She reached for her bag and pushed it over the edge of the table to the floor. It fell open and some stuff came out. A gilt-metal cigarette case slid under my chair. I had to get up and move the chair to reach it. One of the waiters was behind me.

"Can I help?" he asked suavely.

I was stooped over when the glass the girl had drunk from rolled over the edge of the table and hit the floor beside my hand. I picked up the cigarette case, looked at it casually, and saw that a hand-tinted photo of a big-boned, dark man decorated the front of it. I put it back in her bag and took hold of the girl's arm and the waiter who had spoken to me slid around and took her other arm. She looked at us blankly, moving her head from side to side as if trying to limber up a stiff neck.

"Mama's about to pass out," she croaked, and we started down the room with her. She put hen feet out crazily, threw her weight from one side to the other as if trying to upset us. The waiter swore steadily to himself in a monotonous whisper. We came out of the purple light into the bright lobby.

"Ladies' Room," the waiter grunted, and pointed with his chin at a door which looked like the side entrance to the Taj Mahal. "There's a colored heavyweight in there can handle anything."

"Nuts to the Ladies' Room," the girl said nastily. "And leggo of my arm, steward. Boy friend's all the transportation I need."

"He's not your boy friend, madam. He don't even know you."

"Beat it, wop. You're either too polite or not polite enough. Beat it before I lose my culture and bong you."

"Okay," I told him. "I'll set her out to cool. She come in alone?"

"I couldn't think of any reason why not," he said, and stepped away. The captain of waiters came halfway down his gangplank and stood glowering, and the vision at the checkroom looked as bored as the referee of a four-round opener.

I pushed my new friend out into the cold, misty air, walked hen along the colonnade and felt her body come controlled and steady on my arm.

"You're a nice guy," she said dully. "I played that about as smooth as a handful of tacks. You're a nice guy, mister. I didn't think I'd ever get out of there alive."

"Why?"

"I had a wrong idea about making some money. Forget it. Let it lay with all the other wrong ideas I've been having all my life. Do I get a ride? I came in a cab."

"Sure. Do I get told your name?"

"Helen Matson," she said.

I didn't get any kick out of that now. I had guessed it long ago.

She still leaned on me a little as we walked down the strip of paved road past the parked cans. When we came to mine I unlocked it and held the door for hen and she climbed in and fell back in the corner with her head on the cushion.

I shut the door and then I opened it again and said: "Would you tell me something else? Who's that mug on the cigarette case you carry? Seems to me I've seen him somewhere."

She opened her eyes. "An old sweet," she said, "that wore out. He-" Her eyes widened and hen mouth snapped open and I barely heard the faint rustle behind me as something hard dug into my back and a muffled voice said: "Hold it, buddy. This is a heist."

Then a naval gun went off in my ear and my head was a large pink firework exploding into the vault of the sky and scattering and falling slow and pale, and then dank, into the waves. Blackness ate me up.

 

FIVE

MY DEAD NEIGHBOR

I smelled of gin. Not just casually, as if I had taken a few drinks, but as if the Pacific Ocean was pure gin and I had been swimming in it with my clothes on. The gin was on my hair, on my eyebrows, on my face and under my chin on my shirt. My coat was off and I was lying flat on somebody's carpet and I was looking up at a framed photograph on the end of a plaster mantel. The frame was some kind of grained wood and the photo was intended to be arty, with a highlight on a long, thin, unhappy face, but all the highlight did was make the face look just that-long and thin and unhappy under some kind of flat, pale hair that might have been paint on a dried skull. There was writing across the corner of the photo behind the glass, but I couldn't read that.

I reached up and pressed the side of my head and I could feel a shoot of pain clear to the soles of my feet. I groaned and made a grunt out of the groan, from professional pride, and then I rolled over slowly and carefully and looked at the foot of a pulled-down twin wall bed. The other twin was still up in the wall with a flourish of design painted on the enameled wood. When I rolled, a gin bottle rolled off my chest and hit the floor. It was water-white, empty. I thought there couldn't have been that much gin in just one bottle.

I got my knees under me and stayed on all fours for a while, sniffing like a dog who can't finish his dinner and yet hates to leave it. I moved my head around on my neck. It hurt. I moved it some more and it still hurt, so I got up on my feet and discovered that I didn't have any shoes on.

It seemed like a nice apartment, not too cheap and not too expensive-the usual furniture, the usual drum lamp, the usual durable carpet. On the bed, which was down, a girl was lying, clothed in a pair of tan silk stockings. There were deep scratches that had bled and there was a thick bath towel across her middle, wadded up almost into a roll. Her eyes were open. The red hair that had been parted and strained back as if she hated it was still that way. But she didn't hate it any more.

She was dead.

Above and inside hen left breast there was a scorched place the size of the palm of a man's hand, and in the middle of that there was a thimbleful of blazed blood. Blood had run down her side, but it had dried now.

I saw clothes on a davenport, mostly hers, but including my coat. There were shoes on the floor-mine and hers. I went over, stepping on the balls of my feet as though on very thin ice, and picked up my coat and felt through the pockets. They still held everything I could remember having put in them. The holster that was still strapped around my body was empty, of course. I put my shoes and coat on, pushed the empty holster around under my arm and went over to the bed and lifted the heavy bath towel. A gun fell out of it-my gun. I wiped some blood off the barrel, sniffed the muzzle for no reason at all, and quietly put the gun back under my arm.

Heavy feet came along the corridor outside the apartment door and stopped. There was a mutter of voices, then somebody knocked, a quick, hard, impatient rapping. I looked at the door and wondered how long it would fe before they tried it, and if the spring lock would be set so they could walk in, and if it wasn't set how long it would take to get the manager up with a passkey if he wasn't there already. I was still wondering when a hand tried the door. It was locked.

That was very funny. I almost laughed out loud.

I stepped over to another door and glanced into a bathroom. There were two wash rugs on the floor, a bath mat folded neatly over the edge of the tub, a pebbled glass window above it. I eased the bathroom door shut quietly and stood on the edge of the bathtub and pushed up the lower sash of the bathroom window. I put my head out and looked down about six floors to the darkness of a side street lined with trees. To do this I had to look out through a slot formed by two short blank walls, hardly more than an air shaft The windows were in pairs, all in the same end wall opposite the open end of the slot. I leaned farther out and decided I could make the next window if I tried. I wondered if it was unlocked, and if it would do me any good, and if I'd have time before they could get the door open.

Behind me, beyond the closed bathroom door, the pounding was a little louder and harder and a voice was growling out: "Open it up or we'll bust it in."

That didn't mean anything. That was just routine cop stuff. They wouldn't break it down because they could get a key, and kicking that kind of door in without a fire axe is a lot of work and tough on the feet.

I shut the lower half of the window and pulled down the upper half and took a towel off the rack. Then I opened the bathroom door again and my eyes were looking straight at the face in the photo frame on the mantel. I had to read the inscription on that photo before I left. I went over and scanned it while the pounding on the door went on angrily. The inscription said-With all my love-Leland.

That made a sap out of Dr. Austrian, without anything else. I grabbed the photo and went back into the bathroom and shut the door again. Then I shoved the photo under the dirty towels and linen in the cupboard under the bathroom closet. It would take them a little while to find it, if they were good cops. If we were in Bay City, they probably wouldn't find it at all. I didn't know of any reason why we should be in Bay City, except that Helen Matson would very likely live there and the air outside the bathroom window seemed to be beach air.

I squeezed out through the upper half of the window with the towel in my hand and swung my body across to the next window, holding on to the sash of the one I had left. I could reach just far enough to push the next window up, if it was unlocked. It wasn't unlocked. I swung my foot and kicked the glass in just over the catch. It made a noise that ought to have been heard a mile. The distant pounding went on monotonously.

I wrapped the towel around my left hand and stretched my arms for all they had in them and shoved my hand in through the broken place and turned the window catch. Then I swung over to the other sill and reached back to push up the window I had come out of. They could have the fingerprints. I didn't expect to be able to prove I hadn't been in Helen Matson's apartment. All I wanted was a chance to prove how I had got there.

I looked down at the street. A man was getting into a car. He didn't even look up at me. No light had gone on in the apartment I was breaking into. I got the window down and climbed in. There was a lot of broken glass in the bathtub. I got down to the floor and switched the light on and picked the glass out of the bathtub and wrapped it in my towel and hid it. I used somebody else's towel to wipe off the sill and the edge of the bathtub where I'd stood. Then I took my gun out and opened the bathroom door.

This was a larger apartment. The room I was looking at had twin beds with pink dust covers. They were made up nicely and they were empty. Beyond the bedroom there was a living room. All the windows were shut and the place had a close, dusty smell. I lit a floor lamp, then I ran a finger along the arm of a chain and looked at dust On-it. There was an armchair radio, a book rack built like a hod, abig bookcase full of novels with the jackets still on them, a dank wood highboy with a siphon and a decanter of liquor on it, and four striped glasses upside down. I sniffed the liquor, which was Scotch, and used a little of it. It made my head feel worse but it made me feel better.

I left the light on and went back to the bedroom and poked into bureau and closets. There were male clothes in one closet, tailor-made, and the name written on the label by the tailor was George Talbot. George's clothes looked a little small for me. I tried the bureau and found a pair of pajamas I thought would do. The closet gave me a bathrobe and slippers. I stripped to the skin.

When I came out of the shower I smelled only faintly of gin. There was no noise or pounding going on anywhere now, so I knew they were in Helen Matson's apartment with their little pieces of chalk and string. I put Mr. Talbot's pajamas and slippers and bathrobe on, used some of Mr. Talbot's tonic on my hair and his brush and comb to tidy up. I hoped Mr. and Mrs. Talbot were having a good time wherever they were and that they would not have to hurry home.

I went back to the living room, used some more Talbot Scotch and lit one of his cigarettes. Then I unlocked the entrance door. A man coughed close by in the hall. I opened the door and leaned against the jamb and looked out. A uniformed man was leaning against the opposite wall-a smallish, blond, sharpeyed man. His blue trousers were edged like a knife and he looked neat, clean, competent and nosy.

I yawned and said: "What goes on, officer?"

He stared at me with sharp reddish-brown eyes flecked with gold, a colon you seldom see with blond hair. "A little trouble next door to you. Hear anything?" His voice was mildly sarcastic.

"The carrot-top?" I said. "Haw, haw. Just the usual biggame hunt. Drink?"

The cop went on with his careful stare. Then he called down the hallway: "Hey, Al!"

A man stepped out of an open door. He was about six feet, weighed around two hundred, and he had coarse black hair and deep-set expressionless eyes. It was Al De Spain whom I had met that evening at Bay City headquarters.

He came down the hall without haste. The uniformed cop said: "Here's the guy lives next door."

De Spain came close to me and looked into my eyes. His own held no more expression than pieces of black slate. He spoke almost softly.

"Name?"

"George Talbot," I said. I didn't quite squeak.

"Hear any noises? I mean, before we got here?"

"Oh, a brawl, I guess. Around midnight. That's nothing new in there." I jerked a thumb towards the dead girl's apartment.

"That so? Acquainted with the dame?"

"No. Doubt if I'd want to know her."

"You won't have to," De Spain said. "She's croaked."

He put a big, hard hand against my chest and pushed me back very gently through the door into the apartment. He kept his hand against my chest and his eyes flicked down sharply to the side pockets of the bathrobe, then back to my face again. When he had me eight feet from the door he said over his shoulder: "Come in and shut the door, Shorty."

Shorty came and shut the door, small, sharp eyes gleaming. "Quite a gag," De Spain said, very casually. "Put a gun on him, Shorty."

Shorty flicked his black belt holster open and had a police gun in his hand like lightning. He licked his lips. "Oh boy," he said softly. "Oh boy." He snapped his handcuff holder open and half drew the cuffs out. "How'd you know, Al?"

"Know what?" De Spain kept his eyes on my eyes. He spoke to me gently. "What was you goin' to do-go down and buy a paper?"

"Yah," Shorty said. "He's the killer, sure. He come in through the bathroom window and put on clothes belonging to the guy that lives here. The folks are away. Look at the dust. No windows open. Dead air in the place."

De Spain said softly: "Shorty's a scientific cop. Don't let him get you down. He's got to be wrong some day."

I said: "What for is he in uniform, if he's so hot?"

Shorty reddened, De Spain said: "Find his clothes, Shorty. And his gun. And make it fast. This is our pinch, if we make it fast."

"You ain't detailed on the case even," Shorty said.

"What can I lose?"

"I can lose this here uniform."

"Take a chance, boy. That lug Reed next door couldn't catch a moth in a shoe box."

Shorty scuttled into the bedroom. De Spain and I stood motionless, except that he took his hand off my chest and dropped it to his side. "Don't tell me," he drawled. "Just let me guess."

We heard Shorty fussing around opening doors. Then we heard a yelp like a terrier's yelp when he smells a rathole. Shorty came back into the room with my gun in his right hand and my wallet in his left. He held the gun by the fore sight, with a handkerchief. "The gat's been fired," he said. "And this guy ain't called Talbot."

De Spain didn't turn his head on change expression. He smiled at me thinly, moving only the extreme corners of his wide, rather brutal mouth.

"You don't say," he said. "You don't say." He pushed me away from him with a hand as hard as a piece of tool steel. "Get dressed, sweetheart-and don't fuss with your necktie. Places want us to go to them."

 

SIX

I GET MY GUN BACK

We went out of the apartment and along the hall. Light still came from the open door of Helen Matson's apartment. Two men with a basket stood outside it smoking. There was a sound of wrangling voices inside the dead woman's place.

We went around a bend of the hall and started down the stairs, floor after floor, until we came out in the lobby. Half a dozen people stood around bug-eyed-three women in bathrobes, a bald-headed man with a green eyeshade, like a city editor, two more who hung back in the shadows. Another uniformed man walked up and down just inside the front door, whistling under his breath. We went out past him. He looked completely uninterested. A knot of people clustered on the sidewalk outside.

De Spain said: "This is a big night in our little town."

We walked along to a black sedan that had no police insignia on it and De Spain slid in behind the wheel and motioned me to get in beside him. Shorty got in the back. He'd had his gun back in his holster long since, but he left the flap unbuttoned, and kept his hand close to it.

De Spain put the car into motion with a jerk that threw me back against the cushions. We made the nearest corner on two wheels, going east. A big black car with twin red spotlights was only half a block away and coming fast as we made the turn.

De Spain spat out of the window and drawled: "That's the chief. He'll be late for his own funeral. Boy, did we skin his nose on this one."

Shorty said disgustedly from the back seat: "Yeah-for a thirty-day lay-off."

De Spain said: "Keep that mush of yours in low and you might get back on Homicide."

"I'd rather wean buttons and cat," Shorty said.

De Spain drove the car hard for ten blocks, then slowed a little. Shorty said: "This ain't the way to headquarters."

De Spain said: "Don't be an ass."

He let the car slow to a crawl, turned it left into a quiet, dank, residential street lined with coniferous trees and small exact houses set back from small exact lawns. He braked the car gently, coasted it oven to the curb and switched the motor off. Then he threw an arm over the back of the seat and turned to look at the small "sharp-eyed" uniformed man.

"You think this guy plugged her, Shorty?"

"His gun went off."

"Get that big flash outa the pocket and look at the back of his head."

Shorty snorted, fussed around in the back of the car, and then metal clicked and the blinding white beam of a large belltopped flashlight sprayed over my head. I heard the little man's close breathing. He reached out and pressed the sore place on the back of my head. I yelped. The light went off and the blackness of the dark Street jumped at us again.

Shorty said: "I guess he was sapped."

De Spain said without emotion: "So was the girl. It didn't show much but it's there. She was sapped so she could have hen clothes pulled off and be clawed up before she was shot, so the scratches would bleed and look like you know what. Then she was shot with a bath towel around the gun. Nobody heard the shot. Who reported it, Shorty?"

"How the hell would I know? A guy called up two-three minutes before you came into the Hall, while Reed was still looking for a cameraman. A guy with a thick voice, the operator said."

"Okay. If you done it, Shorty, how would you get out of there?"

"I'd walk out," Shorty said. "Why not? Hey," he banked at me, "why didn't you?"

I said: "I have to have my little secrets."

De Spain said tonelessly: "You wouldn't climb across no air shaft, would you, Shorty? You wouldn't crash into the next apartment and pretend to be the guy that lived there, would you? And you wouldn't call no law and tell them to take it up there in high and they'd catch the killer, would you?"

"Hell," Shorty said, "this guy call up? No, I wouldn't do any of them things."

"Neither did the killer," De Spain said, "except the last one, He called up."

"Them sex fiends do funny things," Shorty said. "This guy could have had help and the other guy tried to put him in the middle after knocking him out with a sap."

De Spain laughed harshly. "Hello, sex fiend," he said, and poked mc in the ribs with a finger as hard as a gun barrel. "Look at us saps, just sitting here and throwing our jobs away-that is, the one of us that has a job-and arguing it out when you, the guy that knows all the answers, ain't told us a damn thing. We don't even know who the dame was."

"A redhead I picked up in the bar of the Club Conned," I said. "No, she picked me up."

"No name or anything?"

"No. She was tight, I helped hen out into the air and she asked me to take her away from there and while I was putting her into my car somebody sapped mc. I came to on the floor of the apartment and the girl was dead."

De Spain said: "What was you doing in the bar of the Club Conned?"

"Getting my hair cut," I said. "What do you do in a bar? This redhead was tight and seemed scared about something and she threw a drink in the floor boss's face. I felt a little sorry for her."

"I always feel sorry for a redhead, too," De Spain said. "This guy that sapped you must have been an elephant, if he carried you up to that apartment."

I said: "Have you ever been sapped?"

"No," De Spain said. "Have you, Shorty?"

Shorty said he had never been sapped either. He said it unpleasantly.

"All right," I said. "It's like an alcohol drunk. I probably came to in the car and the fellow would have a gun and that would keep me quiet. He would walk mc up to the apartment with the girl. The girl may have known him. And when he had me up there he would sap me again and I wouldn't remember anything that happened in between the two sappings."

"I've heard of it," De Spain said. "But I never believed it."

"Well, it's true," I said. "It's got to be true. Because I don't remember and the guy couldn't have carried mc up there without help."

"I could," De Spain said. "I've carried heavier guys than you.',

"All right," I said. "He carried mc up. Now what do we do?"

Shorty said: "I don't get why he went to all that trouble."

"Sapping a guy ain't trouble," De Spain said. "Pass oven that heater and wallet."

Shorty hesitated, then passed them over. De Spain smelled the gun and dropped it carelessly into his side pocket, the one next to mc. He flipped the wallet open and held it down under the dashlight and then put it away. He started the car, turned it in the middle of the block, and shot back up Arguello Boulevard, turned east on that and pulled up in front of a liquor store with a red neon sign. The place was wide open, even at that hour of the night.

De Spain said over his shoulder: "Run inside and phone the desk, Shorty. Tell the sarge we got a hot lead and we're on our way to pick up a suspect in the Brayton Avenue killing. Tell him to tell the chief his shirt is out."

Shorty got out of the car, slammed the rear door, started to say something, then walked fast across the sidewalk into the store.

De Spain jerked the car into motion and hit forty in the first block. He laughed deep down in his chest. He made it fifty in the next block and then began to turn in and out of streets and finally he pulled to a stop again under a pepper tree outside a schoolhouse.

I got the gun when he reached forward for the parking brake. He laughed dryly and spat out of the open window.

"Okay," he said. "That's why I put it there. I talked to Violets M'Gee. That kid reporter called me up from L.A. They've found Matson. They're sweating some apartment house guy right now."

I slid away from him over to my corner of the car and held the gun loosely between my knees. "We're outside the limits of Bay City, copper," I told him. "What did M'Gce say?"

"He said he gave you a lead to Matson, but he didn't know whether you had contacted him or not. This apartment house guy-I didn't hear his name-was trying to dump a stiff in the alley when a couple of pnowlics jumped him. M'Gce said if you had contacted Matson and heard his story you would be down here getting in a jam, and would likely wake up sapped beside some stiff."

"I didn't contact Matson," I said.

I could feel De Spain staring at me under his dark craggy brows. "But you're down here in a jam," he said.

I got a cigarette out of my pocket with my left hand and lit it with the dash lighten. I kept my right hand on the gun. I said: "I got the idea you were on the way out down here. That you weren't even detailed on this killing. Now you've taken a prisoner across the city line. What does that make you?"

"A bucket of mud-unless I deliycr something good."

"That's what I am," I said. "I guess we ought to team up and break these three killings."

"Three?"

"Yeah. Helen Matson, Harry Matson and Doc Austrian's wife. They all go together."

"I ditched Shorty," De Spain said quietly, "because he's a little guy and the chief likes little guys and Shorty can put the blame on me. Where do we start?"

"We might start by finding a man named Grcb who runs a laboratory in the Physicians and Surgeons Building. I think he turned in a phony report on the Austrian death. Suppose they put out an alarm for you?"

"They use the L.A. air. They won't use that to pick up one of their own cops."

He leaned forward and started the can again.

"You might give mc my wallet," I said. "So I can put this gun away."

He laughed harshly and gave it to me.

 

SEVEN

BIG CHIN

The lab man lived on Ninth Street, on the wrong side of town. The house was a shapeless frame bungalow. A large dusty hydrangea bush and some small undernourished plants along the path looked like the work of a man who had spent his life trying to make something out of nothing.

De Spain doused the lights as we glided up front and said: "Whistle, if you need help. If any cops should crowd us, skin oven to Tenth and I'll circle the block and pick you up. I don't think they will, though. All they're thinking of tonight is that dame on Brayton Avenue."

I looked up and down the quiet block, walked across the street in foggy moonlight and up the walk to the house. The front door was set at night angles to the street in a front projection that looked like a room which had been added as an afterthought to the nest of the house. I pushed a bell and heard it ring somewhere in the back. No answer. I rang it twice more and tried the front door. It was locked.

I went down off the little porch and around the north side of the house towards a small garage on the back lot. Its doors were shut and locked with a padlock you could break with a strong breath. I bent over and shot my pocket flash under the loose doors. The wheels of a car showed. I went back to the front door of the house and knocked this time-plenty loud.

The window in the front room creaked and came down slowly from the top, about halfway. There was a shade pulled down behind the window and dankness behind the shade. A thick, hoarse voice said: "Yeah?"

"Mr. Greb?"

"Yeah."

"I'd like to speak to you-on important business."

"I gotta get my sleep, mister. Come back tomorrow."

The voice didn't sound like the voice of a laboratory technician. It sounded like a voice I had heard over the telephone once, a long time ago, early in the evening at the Tennyson Arms Apartments.

I said: "Well, I'll come to your office then, Mr. Greb. What's the address again?"

The voice didn't speak for a moment. Then it said: "Aw, go on, beat it before I come out there and paste you one."

"That's no way to get business, Mr. Gneb," I said. "Are you sure you couldn't give mc just a few moments, now you're up?"

"Pipe down. You'll wake the wife. She's sick. If I gotta come out there-"

"Good night, Mr. Cncb," I said.

I went back down the walk in the soft, foggy moonlight. When I got across to the far side of the dark parked car I said: "It's a two-man job. Some tough guy is in there. I think it's the man I heard called Big Chin over the phone in L.A."

"Gecz. The guy that killed Matson, huh?" De Spain came over to my side of the car and stuck his head out and spat clear oven a fireplug that must have been eight feet away. I didn't say anything.

De Spain said: "If this guy you call Big Chin is Moss Lorcnz, I'll know him. We might get in. On maybe we walk ourselves into some hot lead."

"Just like the coppers do on the radio," I said.

"You scared?"

"Me?" I said. "Sure I'm scared. The car's in the garage, so either he's got Grcb in there and is trying to make up his mind what to do with him-"

"If it's Moss Lorenz, he don't have a mind," De Spain growled. "That guy is screwy except in two places-behind a gun and behind the wheel of a car."

"And behind a piece of lead pipe," I said. "What I was saying was, Greb might be out without his can and this Big Chin-"

De Spain bent over to look at the clock on the dash. "My guess would be he's skipped. He'd be home by now. He's got a tip to scram out of some trouble."

"Will you go in there on won't you?" I snapped. "Who would tip him?"

"Whoever fixed him in the fist place, if he was fixed." De Spain clicked the door open and slid out of the car, stood looking oven it across the street. He opened his coat and loosened the gun in his shoulder clip. "Maybe I could kid him," he said. "Keep your hands showing and empty. It's our best chance."

We went back across the street and up the walk, up on the porch. De Spain leaned on the bell.

The voice came growling at us again from the half-open window, behind the frayed dank green shade.

"Yeah?"

"Hello, Moss," De Spain said.

"Huh?"

"This is Al De Spain, Moss. I'm in on the play."

Silence-a long, murderous silence. Then the thick, hoarse voice said: "Who's that with you?"

"A pal from L.A. He's okay." More silence, then, "What's the angle?"

"You alone in there?"

"Except for a dame. She can't hear you."

"Where's Gneb?"

"Yeah-where is he? What's the angle, copper? Snap it up!"

De Spain spoke as calmly as though he had been at home in an armchair, beside the radio. "We're workin' for the same guy, Moss."

"Haw, haw," Big Chin said.

"Matson's been found dead in L.A., and those city dicks have already connected him with the Austrian dame. We gotta step fast. The big shot's up north alibi-ing himself, but what does that do for us?"

The voice said, "Aw, baloney," but there was a note of doubt it. ~

"It looks like a stink," De Spain said. "Come on, open up. You can see we don't have anything to hold on you."

"By the time I got around to the door you would have," Big Chin said.

"You ain't that yellow," De Spain sneered.

The shade rustled at the window as if a hand had let go of it and the sash moved up into place. My hand started up.

De Spain growled: "Don't be a sap. This guy is our case. We want him all in one piece."

Faint steps sounded inside the house. A lock turned in the front door and it opened and a figure stood there, shadowed, a big Colt in his hand. Big Chin was a good name for him. His big, broad jaw stuck out from his face like a cowcatcher. He was a bigger man than De Spain-a good deal bigger.

"Snap it up," he said, and started to move back.

De Spain, his hands hanging loose and empty, palms turned out, took a quiet step forward on his left foot and kicked Big Chin in the groin-just like that-without the slightest hesitation, and against a gun.

Big Chin was still fighting-inside himself-when we got our guns out. His right hand was fighting to press the trigger and hold the gun up. His sense of pain was fighting down everything else but the desire to double up and yell. That internal struggle of his wasted a split second and he had neither shot nor yelled when we slammed him. De Spain hit him on the head and I hit him on the night wrist. I wanted to hit his chin-it fascinated me-but his wrist was nearest the gun. The gun dropped and Big Chin dropped, almost as suddenly, then plunged forward against us. We caught and held him and his breath blew hot and rank in our faces, then his knees went to pieces and we fell into the hallway on top of him.

De Spain grunted and struggled to his feet and shut the door. Then he rolled the big, groaning, half-conscious man over and dragged his hands behind him and snapped cuffs on his wrists.

We went down the hall. There was a dim light in the room to the left, from a small table lamp with a newspaper over it. De Spain lifted the paper off and we looked at the woman on the bed. At least he hadn't murdered her. She lay in sleazy pajamas with her eyes wide open and staring and half mad with fear. Mouth, wrists, ankles and knees were taped and the ends of thick wads of cotton stuck out of her ears. A vague bubbling sound came from behind the slab of two-inch adhesive that plastered her mouth shut. De Spain bent the lampshade a little. Her face was mottled. She had bleached hair, dark at the roots, and a thin, scraped look about the bones of her face.

De Spain said: "I'm a police officer. Arc you Mrs. Greb?"

The woman jerked and stared at him agonizingly. I pulled the cotton out of hen ears and said: "Try again."

"Are you Mrs. Greb?"

She nodded.

De Spain took hold of the tape at the side of her mouth. Hen eyes winced and he jerked it hard and capped a hand down oven hen mouth at once. He stood there, bending over, the tape in his left hand-a big, dark, dead-pan copper who didn't seem to have any more nerves than a cement mixer.

"Promise not to scream?" he said.

The woman forced a nod and he took his hand away. "Where's Greb?" he asked.

He pulled the rest of the tape off her.

She swallowed and took hold of hen forehead with her rednailed hand and shook hen head. "I don't know. He hasn't been home."

"What talk was there when the gorilla came in?"

"There wasn't any," she said dully, "The bell rang and I opened the door and he walked in and grabbed mc. Then the big brute tied me up and asked me where my husband was and I said I didn't know and he slapped my face a few times, but after a while he seemed to believe me. He asked mc why my husband didn't have the car and I said he always walked to work and never took the car. Then he just sat in the conner and didn't move or speak. He didn't even smoke."

"Did he use the telephone?" De Spain asked.

"No."

"You ever seen him before?"

"No."

"Get dressed," De Spain said. "You gotta find some friends you can go to for the rest of the night."

She stared at him and sat up slowly on the bed and rumpled her hair. Then hen mouth opened and De Spain clapped his hand over it again, hard.

"Hold it," he said sharply. "Nothing's happened to him that we know of. But I guess you wouldn't be too damn surprised if it did.

The woman pushed his hand away and stood up off the bed and walked around it to a bureau and took out a pint of whisky. She unscrewed the top and drank from the bottle. "Yeah," she said in a strong, coarse voice. "What would you do, if you had to soap a bunch of doctors for every nickel you made and there was damn few nickels to be made at that?" She took another drink.

De Spain said: "I might switch blood samples."

The woman stared at him blankly. He looked at mc and shrugged. "Maybe it's happy powder," he said. "Maybe he peddles a little of that. It must be damn little, to go by how he lives." He looked around the room contemptuously. "Get dressed, lady."

We went out of the room and shut the door. De Spain bent down oven Big Chin, lying on his back and half on his side on the floor. The big man groaned steadily with his mouth open, neither completely out nor fully aware of what was going on around him. De Spain, still bending down in the dim light he'd put on in the hall, looked at the piece of adhesive in the palm of his hand and laughed suddenly. He slammed the tape hard over Big Chin's mouth.

"Think we can make him walk?" he asked. "I'd hate like hell to have to carry him."

"I don't know," I said. "I'm just the swampcn on this route. Walk to where?"

"Up in the hills where it's quiet and the birds sing," De Spain said grimly.

I sat on the running board of the car with the big bell-shaped flashlight hanging down between my knees. The light wasn't too good, but it seemed to be good enough for what De Spain was doing to Big Chin. A roofed reservoir was just above us and the ground sloped away from that into a deep canyon. There were two hilltop houses about half a mile away, both dark, with a glisten of moonlight on their stucco walls. It was cold up there in the hills, but the air was clean and the stars were like pieces of polished chromium. The light haze over Bay City seemed to be fan off, as if in another county, but it was only a fast ten-minute drive.

De Spain had his coat off. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up and his wrists and his big hairless arms looked enormous in the faint hard light. His coat lay on the ground between him and Big Chin. His gun holster lay on the coat, with the gun in the holster, and the butt towards Big Chin. The coat was a little to one side so that between De Spain and Big Chin there was a small space of scuffed moonlit gravel. The gun was to Big Chin's right and to De Spain's left

After a long silence thick with breathing De Spain said: "Try again." He spoke casually, as if he were talking to a man playing a pinball game.

Big Chin's face was a mass of blood. I couldn't see it as red, but I had put the flash on it a time or two and I knew it was there. His hands were free and what the kick in the groin had done to him was long ago, on the far side of oceans of pain. He made a croaking noise and turned his left hip suddenly against De Spain and went down on his right knee and lunged for the gun.

De Spain kicked him in the face.

Big Chin rolled back on the gravel and clawed at his face with both hands and a wailing sound came through his fingers. De Spain stepped over and kicked him on the ankle. Big Chin howled. De Spain stepped back to his original position beyond the coat and the holstered gun. Big Chin rolled a little and came up on his knees and shook his head. Big dank drops fell from his face to the gravelly ground. He got up to his feet slowly and stayed hunched over a little.

De Spain said: "Come on up. You're a tough guy. You got Vance Conned behind you and he's got the syndicate behind him. You maybe got Chief Anders behind you. I'm a lousy flatfoot with a ticket to nowhere in my pants. Come up. Let's put on a show."

Big Chin shot out in a diving lunge for the gun. His hand touched the butt but only slewed it around. De Spain came down hard on the hand with his heel and screwed his heel. Big Chin yelled. De Spain jumped back and said wearily: "You ain't overmatched, are you, sweetheart?"

I said thickly: "For God's sake, why don't you let him talk?"

"He don't want to talk," De Spain said. "He ain't the talking kind. He's a tough guy."

"Well, let's shoot the poor devil then."

"Not a chance. I'm not that kind of cop. Hey, Moss, this guy thinks I'm just one of those sadistic cops that has to smack a head with a piece of lead pipe every so often to keep from getting nervous indigestion. You ain't going to let him think that, arc you? This is a square fight. You got mc shaded twenty pounds and look where the gun is."

Big Chin mumbled: "Suppose I got it. Your pal would blast me."

"Not a chance. Come on, big boy. Just once more. You got a lot of stuff left."

Big Chin got up on his feet again. He got up so slowly that he seemed like a man climbing up a wall. He swayed and wiped blood off his face with his hand. My head ached. I felt sick at my stomach.

Big Chin swung his right foot very suddenly. It looked like something for a fraction of a second, then De Spain picked the foot out of the air and stepped back, pulled on it. He held the leg taut and the big bruiser swayed on his other foot trying to hold his balance.

De Spain said conversationally: "That was okay when I did it because you had plenty of gun in your mitt and I didn't have any gun and you didn't figure on mc taking a chance like that. Now you see how wrong the play is in this spot."

He twisted the foot quickly, with both hands. Big Chin's body seemed to leap into the air and dive sideways, and his shoulder and face smashed into the ground, but De Spain held on to the foot. He kept on turning it. Big Chin began to thresh around on the ground and make harsh animal sounds, half stifled in the gravel. De Spain gave the foot a sudden hard wrench. Big Chin screamed like a dozen sheets tearing.

De Spain lunged forward and stepped on the ankle of Big Chin's other foot. He put his weight against the foot he held in his hands and spread Big Chin's legs. Big Chin tried to gasp and yell at the same time and made a sound something like a very large and very old dog banking.

De Spain said: "Guys get paid money for what I'm doing. Not nickels-neal dough. I oughta look into it."

Big Chin yelled: "Lemme up! I'll talk! I'll talk!"

De Spain spread the legs some more. He did something to the foot and Big Chin suddenly went limp. It was like a sea lion fainting. It staggered De Spain and he reeled to one side as the leg smacked the ground. Then he reached a handkerchief out of his pocket and slowly mopped his face and hands.

"Soft," he said. "Too much beer. The guy looked healthy. Maybe it's always having his fanny under a wheel."

"And his hand under a gun," I said.

"That's an idea," De Spain said. "We don't want to lose him his self-respect."

He stepped oven and kicked Big Chin in the ribs. After the third kick there was a grunt and a glistening where the blankness of Big Chin's eyelids had been.

"Get up," De Spain said. "I ain't goin' to hurt you no more."

Big Chin got up. It took him a whole minute to get up. His mouth-what was left of it-was strained wide open. It made me think of another man's mouth and I stopped having pity for him. He pawed the air with his hands, looking for something to lean against.

De Spain said: "My pal here says you're soft without a gun in your hand. I wouldn't want a strong guy like you to be soft. Help yourself to my gat." He kicked the holster lightly so that it slid off the coat and close to Big Chin's foot. Big Chin bowed his shoulders to look down at it. He couldn't bend his neck any more.

"I'll talk," he grunted.

"Nobody asked you to talk. I asked you to get that gun in your hand. Don't make me cave you in again to make you do it. See-the gun in your hand."

Big Chin staggered down to his knees and his hand folded slowly over the butt of the gun. De Spain watched without moving a muscle.

"Attaboy. Now you got a gun. Now you're tough again. Now you can bump off some more women. Pull it outa the clip."

Very slowly, with what seemed to be enormous effort, Big Chin drew the gun out of the holster and knelt there with it dangling down between his legs.

"What, ain't you going to bump anybody off?" De Spain taunted hini.

Big Chin dropped the gun out of his hand and sobbed.

"Hey, you!" De Spain banked. "Put that gun back where you got it, I want that gun clean, like I always keep it myself."

Big Chin's hand fumbled for the gun and got hold of it and slowly pushed it home in the leather sheath. The effort took all his remaining strength. He fell flat on his face oven the holster.

De Spain lifted him by an arm and rolled him over on his back and picked the holster up off the ground. He rubbed the butt of the gun with his hand and strapped the holster around his chest. Then he picked up his coat and put it on.

"Now we'll let him spill his guts," he said. "I don't believe in makin' a guy talk when he don't want to talk. Got a cigarette?"

I reached a pack out of my pocket with my left hand and shook a cigarette loose and held the pack out. I clicked the big flash on and held it on the projecting cigarette and on his big fingers as they came forward to take it.

"I don't need that," he said. He fumbled for a match and struck it and drew smoke slowly into his lungs. I doused the flash again. De Spain looked down the hill towards the sea and the curve of the shore and the lighted piers. "Kind of nice up here," he added.

"Cold," I said. "Even in summer. I could use a drink."

"Me too," De Spain said. "Only I can't work on the stuff."

 

EIGHT

NEEDLE-PUSHER

De Spain stopped the car in front of the Physicians and Surgeons Building and looked up at a lighted window on the sixth floor. The building was designed in a series of radiating wings so that all the offices had an outside exposure.

"Good grief," De Spain said. "He's up there right now. That guy don't never sleep at all, I guess. Take a look at that heap down the line."

I got up and walked down in front of the dark drugstore that flanked the lobby entrance of the building on one side. There was a long black sedan parked diagonally and correctly in one of the ruled spaces, as though it had been high noon instead of almost three in the morning. The sedan had a doctor's emblem beside the front license plate, the staff of Hippocrates and the serpents twisted around it. I put my flash into the car and read part of the name on the license holder and snapped the light off again. I went back to De Spain.

"Check," I said. "How did you know that was his window and what would he be doing here at this time of night?"

"Loading up his little needles," he said. "I've watched the guy some is how I know."

"Watched him why?"

He looked at mc and said nothing. Then he looked back over his shoulder into the back part of the car. "How you doin', pal?"

A thick sound that might be trying to be a voice came from under a rug on the floor of the car. "He likes riding," De Spain said. "All these hard guys like riding around in cans. Okay. I'll tuck the heap in the alley and we'll go up."

He slid around the corner of the building without lights and the car sound died in the moonlit darkness. Across the street a row of enormous eucalyptus trees fringed a set of public tennis courts. The smell of kelp came up along the boulevard from the ocean.

De Spain came back around the corner of the building and we went up to the locked lobby door and knocked on the heavy plate glass. Far back there was light from an open elevator beyond a big bronze mailbox. An old man came out of the elevator and along the corridor to the door and stood looking out at us with keys in his hand. De Spain held up his police shield. The old man squinted at it and unlocked the door and locked it after us without saying a word. He went back along the hall to the elevator and rearranged the homemade cushion on the stool and moved his false teeth around with his tongue and said: "What you want?"

He had a long gray face that grumbled even when it didn't say anything. His trousers were frayed at the cuffs and one of his heelworn black shoes contained an obvious bunion. His blue uniform coat fitted him the way a stall fits a horse.

De Spain said: "Doc Austrian is upstairs, ain't he?"

"I wouldn't be surprised."

"I ain't trying to surprise you," De Spain said. "I'd have worn my pink tights."

"Yeah, he's up there," the old man said sourly.

"What time you last see Greb, the laboratory man on Four?"

"Didn't see him."

"What time you come on, Pop?"

"Seven."

"Okay. Take us up to Six."

The old man whooshed the doors shut and rode us up slowly and gingerly and whooshed the doors open again and sat like a piece of gray driftwood carved to look like a man.

De Spain reached up and lifted down the passkey that hung over the old man's head.

"Hey, you can't do that," the old man said.

"Who says I can't?"

The old man shook his head angrily, said nothing.

"How old are you, Pop?" De Spain said.

"Goin' on sixty."

"Goin' on sixty hell. You're a good juicy seventy. How come you got an elevator licence?"

The old man didn't say anything. He clicked his false teeth. "That's better," De Spain said. "Just keep the old trap buttoned that way and everything will be wicky-wacky. Take hen down, Pop."

We got out of the elevator and it dropped quietly in the enclosed shaft and De Spain stood looking down the hallway, jiggling the loose passkey on the ring. "Now listen," he said. "His suite is at the end, four rooms. There's a reception room made out of an office cut in half to make two reception rooms for adjoining suites. Out of that there's a narrow hall inside the wall of this hall, a couple small rooms and the doc's room. Got that?"

"Yeah," I said. "What did you plan to do-burgle it?"

"I kept an eye on the guy for a while, after his wife died."

"Too bad you didn't keep an eye on the redheaded office nurse," I said. "The one that got bumped off tonight."

He looked at me slowly, out of his deep black eyes, out of his dead-pan face.

"Maybe I did," he said. "As much as I had a chance."

"Hell, you didn't even know her name," I said, and stared at him. "I had to tell you."

He thought that over. "Well, seeing her in a white office uniform and seeing her naked and dead on a bed is kind of different, I guess."

"Sure," I said, and kept on looking at him.

"Okay. Now-you knock at the doc's office, which is the third door from the end, and when he opens up I'll sneak in at the reception room and come along inside and get an earful of whatever he says."

"It sounds all right," I said. "But I don't feel lucky."

We went down the corridor. The doors were solid wood and well fitted and no light showed behind any of them. I put my ear against the one De Spain indicated and heard faint movement inside. I nodded to De Spain down at the end of the hail. He fitted the passkey slowly into the lock and I rapped hard on the door and saw him go in out of the tail of my eye. The door shut behind him almost at once. I rapped on my door again.

It opened almost suddenly then, and a tall man was standing about a foot away from me with the ceiling light glinting on his pale sand-colored hair. He was in his shirtsleeves and he held a flat leather case in his hand. He was rail-thin, with dun eyebrows and unhappy eyes. He had beautiful hands, long and slim, with square but not blunt fingertips. The nails were highly polished and cut very close.

I said: "Dr. Austrian?"

He nodded. His Adam's apple moved vaguely in his lean throat.

"This is a funny hour for me to come calling," I said, "but you're a hard man to catch up with. I'm a private detective from Los Angeles. I have a client named Harry Matson."

He was either not startled or so used to hiding his feelings that it didn't make any difference. His Adam's apple moved around again and his hand moved the leather case he was holding, and he looked at it in a puzzled sort of way and then stepped back.

"I have no time to talk to you now," he said. "Come back tomorrow."

"That's what Greb told me," I said.

He got a jolt out of that. He didn't scream on fall down in a fit but I could see it jarred him. "Come in," he said thickly.

I went in and he shut the door. There was a desk that seemed to be made of black glass. The chains were chromium tubing with rough wool upholstery. The door to the next room was half open and the room was dark. I could see the stretched white sheet on an examination table and the stinnuplike things at the foot of it. I didn't hear any sound from that direction.

On top of the black glass desk a clean towel was laid out and on the towel a dozen on so hypodermic syringes lay with needles separate. There was an electric sterilizing cabinet on the wall and inside there must have been another dozen needles and syringes. The juice was turned on. I went over and looked at the thing while the tall, nail-thin man walked around behind his desk and sat down.

"That's a lot of needles working," I said, and pulled one of the chairs near the desk.

"What's your business with mc?" His voice was still thick.

"Maybe I could do you some good about your wife's death," I said.

"That's very kind of you," he said calmly. "What kind of good?"

"I might be able to tell you who murdered her," I said.

His teeth glinted in a queer, unnatural half-smile. Then he shrugged and when he spoke his voice was no more dramatic than if we had been discussing the weather. "That would be kind of you. I had thought she committed suicide. The coroner and the police seemed to agree with me. But of course a private detective-"

"Greb didn't think so," I said, without any particular attempt at the truth. "The lab man who switched a sample of your wife's blood for a sample from a real monoxide case."

He stared at me levelly, out of deep, sad, remote eyes under the dun-colored eyebrows. "You haven't seen Grcb," he said, almost with an inner amusement. "I happen to know he went East this noon. His father died in Ohio." He got up and went to the electric sterilizer and looked at his strap watch and then switched the juice off. He came back to the desk then and opened a flat box of cigarettes and put one in his mouth and pushed the box across the desk. I reached and took one. I half glanced at the dark examination room, but I saw nothing that I hadn't seen the last time I looked at it.

"That's funny," I said. "His wife didn't know that. Big Chin didn't know it. He was sitting there with her all tied up on the bed tonight, waiting for Grcb to come back home, so he could bump him off."

Dr. Austrian looked at mc vaguely now. He pawed around on his desk for a match and then opened a side drawer and took out a small white-handled automatic, and held it on the flat of his hand. Then he tossed a packet of matches at me with his other hand.

"You won't need the gun," I said. "This is a business talk which I'm going to show you it will pay to keep a business talk."

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and dropped it on the desk. "I don't smoke," he said. "That was just what one might call the necessary gesture. I'm glad to hear I won't need the gun. But I'd rather be holding it and not need it than be needing it and not hold it. Now, who is Big Chin, and what else important have you to say before I call the police?"

"Let mc tell you," I said. "That's what I'm here for. Your wife played a lot of roulette at Vance Conned's club and lost the money you made with your little needles almost as fast as you made it. There's some talk she was going around with Conned in an intimate way also. You maybe didn't care about that, being out all night and too busy to bother being much of a husband to her. But you probably did care about the money, because you were risking a lot to get it. I'll come to that later.

"On the night your wife died she got hysterical oven at Conried's and you were sent for and went over and needled her in the arm to quiet hen. Conned took her home. You phoned your office nurse, Helen Matson-Matson's ex-wife-to go into your house and see if she was all right. Then later on Matson found hen dead under the car in the garage and got hold of you, and you got hold of the chief of police, and there was a hush put on it that would have made a Southern senator sound like a deaf mute asking for a second plate of mush. But Matson, the first guy on the scene, had something. He didn't have any luck trying to peddle it to you, because you in your quiet way have a lot of guts. And perhaps your friend, Chief Anders, told you it wasn't evidence. So Matson tried to put the bite on Conned, figuring that if the case got opened up before the tough grand jury that's sitting now it would all bounce back on Conned's gambling joint, and he would be closed up tighter than a frozen piston, and the people behind him might get sore at him and take his polo ponies away from him.

"So Conned didn't like that idea and he told a mug named Moss Lorenz, the mayor's chauffeur now but formerly a strongarm for Conned-he's the fellow I called Big Chin-to take cane of Matson. And Matson lost his licence and was run out of Bay City. But he had his own brand of guts too, and he holed up in an apartment house in L.A. and kept on trying. The apartment house manager got wise to him somehow-I don't know how but the L.A. police will find out-and put him on the spot, and tonight Big Chin went up to town and bumped Matson off."

I stopped talking and looked at the thin, tall man. Nothing had changed in his face. His eyes flicked a couple of times and he turned the gun over on his hand. The office was very silent. I listened for breathing from the next room but I didn't hear anything.

"Matson is dead?" Dr. Austrian said very slowly. "I hope you don't think I had anything to do with that." His face glistened a little.

"Well, I don't know," I said. "Greb was the weak link in your setup and somebody got him to leave town today-fast- before Matson was killed, if it was at noon. And probably somebody gave him money, because I saw where he lived and it didn't look like the home of a fellow who was taking in any dough."

Dr. Austrian said very swiftly. "Conned, damn him! He called me up early this morning and told me to get Greb out of town. I gave him the money to go, but-" he stopped talking and looked mad at himself and then looked down at the gun again.

"But you didn't know what was up. I believe you, Doc. I really do. Put 'that gun down, won't you, just for a little while?"

"Go on," he said tensely. "Go on with your story."

"Okay," I said. "There's plenty more. First off the L.A. police have found Matson's body but they won't be down here before tomorrow; first, because it's too late, and second, because when they put the story together they won't want to bust the case. The Club Conned is within the L.A. city limits and the grand jury I was telling you about would just love that. They'll get Moss Lorenz and Moss will cop a plea and take a few years up in Quentin. That's the way those things are handled when the law wants to handle them. Next point is how I know what Big Chin did. He told us. A pal and I went around to see Greb and Big Chin was squatting there in the dark with Mrs. Greb all taped up on the bed and we took him. We took him up in the hills and gave him the boot and he talked. I felt kind of sorry for the poor guy. Two murders and he didn't even get paid."

"Two murders?" Dr. Austrian said queerly.

"I'll get to that after a while. Now you see where you stand. In a little while you are going to tell me who murdered your wife. And the funny thing is I am not going to believe you."

"My God!" he whispered. "My God!" He pointed the gun at mc and immediately dropped it again, before I had time to start dodging.

"I'm a miracle man," I said. "I'm the great American detective-unpaid. I never talked to Matson, although he was trying to hire me. Now I'm going to tell you what he had on you, and how your wife was murdered, and why you didn't do it. All from a pinch of dust, just like the Vienna police."

He was not amused. He sighed between still lips and his face was old and gray and drawn under the pale sand-colored hair that painted his bony skull.

"Matson had a green velvet slipper on you," I said. "It was made for your wife by Vcrschoyle of Hollywood-custom-made, with her last number on it. It was brand-new and had never been worn. They made her two pairs exactly the same. She had it on one of her feet when Matson found her. And you know where he found her-on the floor of a garage to get to which she had to go along a concrete path from a side door of the house. So she couldn't have walked in that slipper. So she was carried. So she was murdered. Whoever put the slippers on her got one that had been worn and one that had not. And Matson spotted it and swiped the slipper. And when you sent him into the house to phone the chief you sneaked up and got the other worn slipper and put it on her bare foot. You knew Matson must have swiped that slipper. I don't know whether you told anybody or not. Okay?"

He moved his head half an inch downward. He shivered slightly, but the hand holding the bone-handled automatic didn't shiver.

"This is how she was murdered. Grcb was dangerous to somebody, which proves she did not die of monoxide poisoning. She was dead when she was put under the car. She died of morphine. That's guessing. I admit, but it's a swell guess, because that would be the only way to kill her which would force you to cover up for the killer. And it was easy, to somebody who had the morphine and got a chance to use it. All they had to do was give her a second fatal dose in the same spot where you had shot hen earlier in the evening. Then you came home and found her dead. And you had to cover up because you knew how she had died and you couldn't have that come out. You're in the morphine business."

He smiled now. The smile hung at the corners of his mouth like cobwebs in the corners of an old ceiling. He didn't even know it was there. "You interest me," he said. "I am going to kill you, I think, but you interest me."

I pointed to the electric sterilizer. "There arc a couple dozen medicos like you around Hollywood-needle-pushers. They run around at night with leather cases full of loaded hypodermics. They keep dopes and drunks from going screwy-for a while. Once in a while onc.of them becomes an addict and then there's trouble. Maybe most of the people you fix up would land in the hoosegow or the psycho ward, if you didn't take cane of them. It's a cinch they would lose their jobs, if they have jobs. And some of them have pretty big jobs. But it's dangerous because any sorehead can stick the Feds onto you and once they start checking your patients they'll find one that will talk. You try to protect yourself. Part of the way by not getting all of your dope through legitimate channels. I'd say Conned got some of it for you, and that was why you had to let him take your wife and your money."

Dr. Austrian said almost politely: "You don't hold very much back, do you?"

"Why should I? This is just a man-to-man talk. I can't prove any of it. That slipper Matson stole is good for a buildup, but it wouldn't be worth a nickel in court. And any defense attorney would make a monkey out of a little squirt like this Greb, even if they ever brought him back to testify. But it might cost you a lot of money to keep your medical licence."

"So it would be better for me to give you pant of it now. Is that it?" he asked softly.

"No. Keep your money to buy life insurance. I have one more point to make. Will you admit, just man to man, that you killed your wife?"

"Yes," he said. He said it simply and directly, as though I had asked him if he had a cigarette.

"I thought you would," I said. "But you don't have to. You see the party that did kill your wife, because your wife was wasting money somebody else could have fun spending, also knew what Matson knew and was trying to shake Conned down herself. So she got bumped off-last night, on Brayton Avenue, and you don't have to cover up for hen any more. I saw your photo on her mantel-With all my love-Leland-and I hid it. But you don't have to cover up for her any more. Helen Matson is dead."

I went sideways out of the chair as the gun went off. I had kidded myself by this time that he wouldn't try to shoot mc, but there must have been part of me that wasn't sold on the idea. The chair tipped over and I was on my hands and knees on the floor, and then another much louder gun went off from the dark room with the examination table in it.

De Spain stepped through the door with the smoking police gun in his big right hand. "Boy, was that a shot," he said, and stood there grinning.

I came up on my feet and looked across the desk. Dr. Austrian sat there perfectly still, holding his night hand with his left, shaking it gently. There was no gun in his hand. I looked along the floor and saw it at the corner of the desk.

"Geez, I didn't even hit him," De Spain said. "All I hit was the gun."

"That's perfectly lovely," I said. "Suppose all he had hit was my head?"

De Spain looked at me levelly and the grin left his face. "You put him through it, I will say that for you," he growled. "But what was the idea of holding out on me on that green-slipper angle?"

"I got tired of being your stooge," I said. "I wanted a little play out of my own hand."

"How much of it was true?"

"Matson had the slipper. It must have meant something. Now that I've made it up I think it's all true."

Dr. Austrian got up slowly out of his chair and De Spain swung the gun on him. The thin, haggard man shook his head slowly and walked over to the wall and leaned against it.

"I killed her," he said in a dead voice to nobody at all. "Not Helen. I killed hen. Call the police."

De Spain's face twisted and he stooped down and picked up the gun with the bone handle and dropped it into his pocket. He put his police gun back under his arm and sat down at the desk and pulled the phone towards him.

"Watch me get Chief of Homicide out of this," he drawled.

 

NINE

A GUY WITH GUTS

The little chief of police came in springily, with his hat on the back of his head and his hands in the pockets of a thin dank overcoat. There was something in the right-hand overcoat pocket that he was holding on to, something large and heavy. There were two plainclothes men behind him and one of them was Wccms, the chunky fat-faced man who had followed me over to Altair Street. Shorty, the uniformed cop we had ditched on Arguello Boulevard, brought up the rear.

Chief Anders stopped a little way inside the door and smiled at me unpleasantly. "So you've had a lot of fun in our town, I hear. Put the cuffs on him, Wccms."

The fat-faced man stepped around him and pulled handcuffs out of his left hip pocket. "Nice to meet you again-with your pants down," he told me in an oily voice.

De Spain leaned against the wall beyond the door of the examination room. He rolled a match across his lips and stared silently. Dr. Austrian was in his desk chain again, holding his head in his hands, staring at the polished black top of the desk and the towel of hypodermic needles and the small black perpetual calendar and the pen set and the hero doodads that were on the desk. His face was stone pale and he sat without moving, without even seeming to breathe.

De Spain said: "Don't be in too much of a hurry, Chief. This lad has friends in L.A. who are working on the Matson kill night now. And that kid reporter has a brother-in-law who is a cop. You didn't know that."

The chief made a vague motion with his chin. "Wait a minute, Weems." He turned to De Spain. "You mean they know in town that Helen Matson has been murdered?"

Dr. Austrian's face jerked up, haggard and drawn. Then he dropped it into his hands and covered his whole face with his long fingers.

De Spain said: "I meant Harry Matson, Chief. He was bumped off in L.A. tonight-last night-now-by Moss Loncnz."

The chief seemed to pull his thin lips back into his mouth, almost out of sight. He spoke with them like that. "How do you know that?"

"The shamus and me picked off Moss. He was hiding out in the house of a man named Greb, the lab man who did a job on the Austrian death. He was hiding there because it looked like somebody was going to open up the Austrian case wide enough for the mayor to think it was a new boulevard and come out with a bunch of flowers and make a speech. That is, if Greb and the Matsons didn't get took care of. It seems the Matsons were workin' together, in spite of being divorced, shaking Conried down, and Conried put the pencil on them."

The chief turned his head and snarled at his stooges. "Get out in the hall and wait."

The plainclothes man I didn't know opened the door and went out, and after a slight hesitation Weems followed him. Shorty had his hand on the door when De Spain said: "I want Shorty to stay. Shorty's a decent cop-not like them two vice squad grafters you been sleepin' with lately."

Shorty let go of the door and went and leaned against the wall and smiled behind his hand. The chief's face colored. "Who detailed you to the Brayton Avenue death?" he barked.

"I detailed myself, Chief. I was in the dicks' room a minute or so after the call come in and I went over with Reed. He picked Shorty up too. Shorty and me was both off duty."

De Spain grinned, a hard, lazy grin that was neither amused nor triumphant. It was just a grin.

The chief jerked a gun out of his overcoat pocket. It was a foot long, a regular hogleg, but he seemed to know how to hold it. He said tightly: "Where's Lonenz?"

"He's hid. We got him all ready for you. I had to bruise him a little, but he talked. That right, shamus?"

I said: "He says something that might be yes or no, but he makes the sounds in the right places."

"That's the way I like to hear a guy talk," De Spain said. "You oughtn't to be wasting your strength on that homicide stuff, Chief. And them toy dicks you run around with don't know nothing about police work except to go through apartment houses and shake down all the women that live alone. Now, you give me back my job and eight men and I'll show you some homicide work."

The chief looked down at his big gun and then he looked at Dr. Austrian's bowed head. "So he killed his wife," he said softly. "I knew there was a chance of it, but I didn't believe it."

"Don't believe it now," I said. "Helen Matson killed her. Dr. Austrian knows that. He covered up for her, and you covered up for him, and he's still willing to cover up for her. Love is like that with some people. And this is some town, Chief, where a gal can commit a murder, get her friends and the police to coven it, and then start out to blackmail the very people that kept her out of trouble."

The chief bit his lip. His eyes were nasty, but he was thinking-thinking hand. "No wonder she got rubbed out," he said quietly. "Lorenz-"

I said: "Take a minute to think. Lorenz didn't kill Helen Matson. He said he did, but De Spain beat him up to the point where he would have confessed shooting McKinley."

De Spain straightened from the wall. He had both hands lazily in the pockets of his suit coat. He kept them there. He stood straight on wide-planted feet, a wick of black hair showing under the side of his hat.

"Huh?" he said almost gently. "What was that?"

I said: "Lorenz didn't kill Helen Matson for several reasons. It was too fussy a job for his type of mind. He'd have knocked her off and let hen lay. Second, he didn't know Greb was leaving town, tipped off by Dr. Austrian who was tipped off, in turn, by Vance Conned, who is now up north providing himself with all the necessary alibis. And if Lonenz didn't know that much, he didn't know anything about Helen Matson. Especially as Helen Matson had never really got to Conned at all. She had just tried to. She told mc that and she was drunk enough to be telling the truth. So Conned wouldn't have taken the silly risk of having her knocked off in her own apartment by the sort of man anybody would remember seeing if they saw him anywhere near that apartment. Knocking off Matson up in L.A. was something else again. That was way off the home grounds."

The chief said tightly: "The Club Conned is in L.A."

"Legally," I admitted. "But by position and clientele it's just outside Bay City. It's part of Bay City-and it helps to run Bay City."

Shorty said: "That ain't no way to talk to the chief."

"Let him alone," the chief said. "It's so long since I heard a guy think I didn't know they did it any more."

I said: "Ask De Spain who killed Helen Matson."

De Spain laughed harshly. He said: "Sure. I killed her."

Dr. Austrian lifted his face off his hands and turned his head slowly and looked at De Spain. His face was as dead, as expressionless as the big dead-pan copper's. Then he reached over and opened the night-hand drawer of his desk. Shorty flipped his gun out and said: "Hold it, Doe."

Dr. Austrian shrugged and quietly took a wide-mouthed bottle with a glass stopper out of the drawer. He loosened the stopper and held the bottle close to his nose. "Just smelling salts," he said dully.

Shorty relaxed and dropped the gun to his side. The chief stared at me and chewed his lip. De Spain stared at nothing, at nobody. He grinned loosely, kept on grinning.

I said: "He thinks I'm kidding. You think I'm kidding. I'm not kidding. He knew Helen-well enough to give hen a gilt cigarette case with his photo on it. I saw it. It was a small hand-tinted photo and not very good and I had only seen him once. She told mc it was an old sweet that wore out. Afterwards it came back to me who that photo was. But he concealed the fact that he knew her and he didn't act very much like a copper tonight, in a lot of ways. He didn't get me out of a jam and run around with me in order to be nice. He did it to find out what I knew before I was put under the lamps down at headquarters. He didn't beat Lorenz half to death just in order to make Lorcnz tell the truth. He did it to make Lorcnz tell anything De Spain wanted him to tell, including confessing to the murder of the Matson girl whom Lorenz probably didn't even know.

"Who called up headquarters and tipped the boys about the murder? De Spain. Who walked in there immediately afterwards and horned in on the investigation? De Spain. Who scratched the girl's body up in a fit of jealous rage because she had ditched him for a better prospect? De Spain. Who still has blood and cuticle under the nails of his night hand which a good police chemist can do a lot with? De Spain. Take a look. I took several."

The chief turned his head very slowly, as if it were on a pivot. He whistled and the door opened and the other men came back into the room. De Spain didn't move. The grin stayed on his face, carved there, a meaningless hollow grin that meant and looked as if it would never go away again.

He said quietly: "And you the guy I thought was my pal. Well, you have some wild ideas, shamus. I will say that for you."

The chief said sharply: "It doesn't make sense. If De Spain did kill her, then he was the one who tried to put you in a frame and the one that got you out of it. How come?"

I said: "Listen. You can find out if De Spain knew the girl and how well. You can find out how much of his time tonight is not accounted for and make him account for it. You can find out if there is blood and cuticle under his nails and, within limits, whether it is or could be the girl's blood and the girl's skin. And whether it was there before De Spain hit Moss Lorenz, before he hit anybody. And he didn't scratch Lorenz. That's all you need and all you can use-except a confession. And I don't think you'll get that.

"As to the frame, I would say De Spain followed the girl over to the Club Conned, or knew she had gone there and went oven himself. He saw her come out with me and he saw me put her in my car. That made him mad. He sapped me and the girl was too scared not to help him get me to her apartment and up into it. I don't remember any of that. It would be nice if I did, but I don't. They got me up there somehow, and they had a fight, and De Spain knocked her out and then he deliberately murdered her. He had some clumsy idea of making it look like a rape murder and making mc the fall guy. Then he beat it, turned in an alarm, horned in on the investigation, and I got out of the apartment before I was caught there.

"He realized by this time that he had done a foolish thing. He knew I was a private dick from L.A., that I had talked to Dolly Kincaid, and from the girl he probably knew that I had gone to see Conned. And he may easily have known I was interested in the Austrian case. Okay. He turned a foolish play into a smart one by stringing along with me on the investigation I was trying to make, helping me on it, getting my story, and then finding himself another and much better fall guy for the murder of the Matson girl."

De Spain said tonelessly: "I'm goin' to start climbing on this guy in a minute, Chief. Okay?"

The chief said: "Just a minute. What made you suspect De Spain at all?"

"The blood and skin under his nails, and the brutal way he handled Lorenz, and the fact that the girl told mc he had been hen sweet and he pretended not to know who she was. What the hell more would I want?"

De Spain said: "This."

He shot from his pocket with the white-handled gun he had taken from Dr. Austrian. Shooting from the pocket takes a lot of practice of a kind cops don't get. The slug went a foot over my head and I sat down on the floor and Dr. Austrian stood up very quickly and swung his right hand into De Spain's face, the hand that held the wide-mouthed brown bottle. A colorless liquid splashed into his eyes and smoked down his face. Any other man would have screamed. De Spain pawed the air with his left hand and the gun in his pocket banged three times more and Dr. Austrian fell sideways across the end of the desk and then collapsed to the floor, out of range. The gun went on banging.

The other men in the room had all dropped to their knees. The chief jerked his hogleg up and shot De Spain twice in the body. Once would have been enough with that gun. De Spain's body twisted in the air and hit the floor like a safe. The chief went over and knelt beside him and looked at him silently. He stood up and came back around the desk, then went back and stooped over Dr. Austrian.

"This one's alive," he snapped. "Get on the phone, Weems." The chunky, fat-faced man went around the far side of the desk and scooped the telephone towards him and started to dial. There was a sharp smell of acid and scorched flesh in the air, a nasty smell. We were standing up again now, and the little police chief was looking at me bleakly.

"He oughtn't to have shot at you," he said. "You couldn't have proved a- thing. We wouldn't have let you."

I didn't say anything. Weems put the phone down and looked at Dr. Austrian again.

"I think he's croaked," he said, from behind the desk.

The chief kept on looking at me. "You take some awful chances, Mn. Dalmas. I don't know what your game is, but I hope you like your chips."

"I'm satisfied," I said. "I'd like to have had a chance to talk to my client before he was bumped off, but I guess I've done all I could for him. The hell of it is I liked De Spain. He had all the guts they ever made."

The chief said: "If you want to know about guts, try being a small-town chief of police some day."

I said: "Yeah. Tell somebody to tie a handkerchief around De Spain's night hand, Chief. You kind of need the evidence yourself now."

A siren wailed distantly on Arguello Boulevard. The sound came faintly through the closed windows, like a coyote howling in the hills.

 


© Aerius, 2004


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