© R.Chandler, Killer in the Rain, 1935
Source: R.Chandler. Trouble Is My Business (collection)
E-Text: Greylib .
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We were sitting in a room at the Berglund. I was on the side of the bed, and Dravec was in the easy chair. It was my room.
Rain beat very hard against the windows. They were shut tight and it was hot in the room and I had a little fan going on the table. The breeze from it hit Dravec's face high up, lifted his heavy black hair, moved the longer bristles in the fat path of eyebrow that went across his face in a solid line. He looked like a bouncer who had come into money.
He showed me some of his gold teeth and said: "What you got on me?"
He said it importantly, as if anyone who knew anything would know quite a lot about him.
"Nothing," I said, "You're clean, as far as I know."
He lifted a large hairy hand and stared at it solidly for a minute.
"You don't get me. A feller named M'Gee sent me here. Violets M'Gee."
"Fine. How is Violets these days?" Violets M'Gee was a homicide dick in the sheriff's office.
He looked at his large hand and frowned. "No-you still don't get it. I got a job for you."
"I don't go out much any more," I said. "I'm getting kind of frail."
He looked around the room carefully, bluffing a bit, like a man not naturally observant.
"Maybe it's money," he said.
"Maybe it is," I said.
He had a belted suede raincoat on. He tore it open carelessly and got out a wallet that was not quite as big as a bale of hay. Currency stuck out of it at careless angles. When he slapped it down on his knee it made a fat sound that was pleasant to the ear. He shook money out of it, selected a few bills from the bunch, stuffed the rest back, dropped the wallet on the floor and let it lie, arranged five century notes like a light poker hand and put them under the base of the fan on the table.
That was a lot of work. It made him grunt.
"I got lots of sugar," he said.
"So I see. What do I do for that, if I get it?"
"You know me now, huh?"
"A little better."
I got an envelope out of an inside pocket and read to him aloud from some scribbling on the back.
"Dravec, Anton or Tony. Former Pittsburgh steelworker, truck guard, all-round muscle stiff. Made a wrong pass and got shut up. Left town, came West. Worked on an avocado ranch at El Seguro. Came up with a ranch of his own. Sat right on the dome when the El Seguro oil boom burst. Got rich. Lost a lot of it buying into other people's dusters. Still has enough. Serbian by birth, six feet, two hundred and forty, one daughter, never known to have had a wife. No police record of any consequence. None at all since Pittsburgh."
I lit a pipe.
"Jeeze," he said. "Where you promote all that?"
"Connections. What's the angle?"
He picked the wallet off the floor and moused around inside it with a couple of square fingers for a while, with his tongue sticking out between his thick lips. He finally got out a slim brown card and some crumpled slips of paper. He pushed them at me.
The card was in golf type, very delicately done. It said: "Mr. Harold Hardwicke Steiner," and very small in the corner, "Rare Books and De Luxe Editions." No address or phone number.
The white slips, three in number, were simple I 0 U's for a thousand dollars each, signed: "Carmen Dravec" in a sprawling, moronic handwriting.
I gave it all back to him and said: "Blackmail?"
He shook his head slowly and something gentle came into his face that hadn't been there before.
"It's my little girl-Carmen. This Steiner, he bothers her. She goes to his joint all the time, makes whoopee. He makes love to her, I guess. I don't like it."
I nodded. "How about the notes?"
"I don't care nothin' about the dough. She plays-games with him. The hell with that. She's what you call man-crazy. You go tell this Steiner to lay off Carmen. I break his neck with my hands. See?"
All this in a rush, with deep breathing. His eyes got small and round, and furious. His teeth almost chattered.
I said: "Why have me tell him? Why not tell him yourself?"
"Maybe I get mad and kill the-!" he yelled.
I picked a match out of my pocket and prodded the loose ash in the bowl of my pipe. I looked at him carefully for a moment, getting hold of an idea.
"Nerts, you're scared to," I told him.
Both fists came up. He held them shoulder high and shook them, great knots of bone and muscle. He lowered them slowly, heaved a deep honest sigh, and said: "Yeah. I'm scared to. I dunno how to handle her. All the time some new guy and all the time a punk. A while back I gave a guy called Joe Marty five grand to lay off her. She's still mad at me."
I stared at the window, watched the rain hit it, flatten out, and slide down in a thick wave, liked melted gelatin. It was too early in the fall for that kind of rain.
"Giving them sugar doesn't get you anywhere," I said. "You could be doing that all your life. So you figure you'd like to have me get rough with this one, Steiner."
"Tell him I break his neck!"
"I wouldn't bother," I said. "I know Steiner. I'd break his neck for you myself, if it would do any good."
He leaned forward and grabbed my hand. His eyes got childish. A gray tear floated in each of them.
"Listen, M'Gee says you're a good guy. I tell you something I ain't told nobody-ever. Carmen-she's not my kid at all. I just picked her up in Smoky, a little baby in the street. She didn't have nobody. I guess maybe I steal her, huh?"
"Sounds like it," I said, and had to fight to get my hand loose. I rubbed feeling back into it with the other one. The man had a grip that would crack a telephone pole.
"I go straight then," he said grimly, and yet tenderly. "I come out here and make good, She grows up. I love her."
I said: "Uh-huh. That's natural."
"You don't get me. I wanta marry her."
I stared at him.
"She gets older, get some sense. Maybe she marry me, huh?" His voice implored me, as if I had the settling of that.
"Ever ask her?"
"I'm scared to," he said humbly.
"She soft on Steiner, do you think?"
He nodded. "But that don't mean nothin'."
I could believe that. I got off the bed, threw a window up and let the rain hit my face for a minute.
"Let's get this straight," I said, lowering the window again and going back to the bed. "I can take Steiner off your back. That's easy. I just don't see what it buys you."
He grabbed for my hand again, but I was a little too quick for him this time.
"You came in here a little tough, flashing your wad," I said. "You're going out soft. Not from anything I've said. You knew it already. I'm not Dorothy Dix, and I'm only partly a prune. But I'll take Steiner off you, if you really want that."
He stood up clumsily, swung his hat and stared down at my feet.
"You take him off my back, like you said. He ain't her sort, anyway."
"It might hurt your back a little."
"That's okay. That's what it's for," he said.
He buttoned himself up, dumped his hat on his big shaggy head, and rolled on out. He shut the door carefully, as if he was going out of a sickroom.
I thought he was as crazy as a pair of waltzing mice, but I liked him.
I put his goldbacks in a safe place, mixed myself a long drink, and sat down in the chair that was still warm from him.
While I played with the drink I wondered if he had any idea what Steiner's racket was.
Steiner had a collection of rare and half-rare smut books which he loaned out as high as ten dollars a day-to the right people.
It rained all the next day. Late in the afternoon I sat parked in a blue Chrysler roadster, diagonally across the Boulevard from a narrow store front, over which a green neon sign in script letters said: "H. H. Steiner."
The rain splashed knee-high off the sidewalks, filled the gutters, and big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying little girls in silk stockings and cute little rubber boots across the bad places, with a lot of squeezing.
The rain drummed on the hood of the Chrysler, beat and tore at the taut material of the top, leaked in at the buttoned places, and made a pool on the floorboards for me to keep my feet in.
I had a big flask of Scotch with me. I used it often enough to keep interested.
Steiner did business, even in that weather; perhaps especially in that weather. Very nice cars stopped in front of his store, and very nice people dodged in, then dodged out again with wrapped parcels under their arms. Of course they could have been buying rare books and de luxe editions.
At five-thirty a pimply-faced kid in a leather windbreaker came out of the store and sloped up the side street at a fast trot. He came back with a neat cream-and-gray coupé. Steiner came out and got into the coupé. He wore a dark green leather raincoat, a cigarette in an amber holder, no hat. I couldn't see his glass eye at that distance but I knew he had one. The kid in the windbreaker held an umbrella over him across the sidewalk, then shut it up and handed it into the coupé.
Steiner drove west on the Boulevard. I drove west on the Boulevard. Past the business district, at Pepper Canyon, he turned north, and I tailed him easily from a block back. I was pretty sure he was going home, which was natural.
He left Pepper Drive and took a curving ribbon of wet cement called La Verne Terrace, climbed up it almost to the top. It was a narrow road with a high bank on one side and a few well-spaced cabinlike houses built down the steep slope on the other side. Their roofs were not much above road level. The front of them were masked by shrubs. Sodden trees dripped all over the landscape.
Steiner's hideaway had a square box hedge in front of it, more than window-high. The entrance was a sort of maze, and the house door was not visible from the road. Steiner put his gray-and-cream coupé in a small garage, locked up, went through the maze with his umbrella up, and light went on in the house.
While he was doing this I had passed him and gone to the top of the hill. I turned around there and went back and parked in front of the next house above his. It seemed to be closed up or empty, but had no signs on it. I went into a conference with my flask of Scotch, and then just sat.
At six-fifteen lights bobbed up the hill. It was quite dark by then. A car stopped in front of Steiner's hedge. A slim, tall girl in a slicker got out of it. Enough light filtered out through the hedge for me to see that she was dark-haired and possibly pretty. Voices drifted on the rain and a door shut. I got out of the Chrysler and strolled down the hill, put a pencil flash into the car. It was a dark maroon or brown Packard convertible. Its licence read to Carmen Dravec, 3596 Lucerne Avenue. I went back to my heap. A solid, slow-moving hour crawled by. No more cars came up or down the hill. It seemed to be a very quiet neighborhood. Then a single flash of hard white light leaked out of Steiner's house, like a flash of summer lightning. As the darkness fell again a thin tinkling scream trickled down the darkness and echoed faintly among the wet trees. I was out of the Chrysler and on my way before the last echo of it died.
There was no fear in the scream. It held the note of a halfpleasurable shock, an accent of drunkenness, and a touch of pure idiocy.
The Steiner mansion was perfectly silent when I hit the gap in the hedge, dodged around the elbow that masked the front door, and put my hand up to bang on the door.
At that exact moment, as if somebody had been waiting for it, three shots racketed close together behind the door. After that there was a long, harsh sigh, a soft thump, rapid steps, going away into the back of the house.
I wasted time hitting the door with my shoulder, without enough start. It threw me back like a kick from an army mule.
The door fronted on a narrow runway, like a small bridge that led from the banked road. There was no side porch, no way to get at the windows in a hurry. There was no way around to the back except through the house or up a long flight of wooden steps that went up to the back door from the alleylike street below. On these steps I now heard a clatter of feet.
That gave me the impulse and I hit the door again, from the feet up. It gave at the lock and I pitched down two steps into a big, dim, cluttered room. I didn't see much of what was in the room then. I wandered through to the back of the house.
I was pretty sure there was death in it.
A car throbbed in the street below as I reached the back porch. The car went away fast, without lights. That was that. I went back to the living room.
That room reached all the way across the front of the house and had a low, beamed ceiling, walls painted brown. Strips of tapestry hung all around the walls. Books filled low shelves. There was a thick, pinkish rug on which some light fell from two standing lamps with pale green shades. In the middle of the rug there was a big, low desk and a black chair with a yellow satin cushion at it. There were books all over the desk.
On a sort of dais near one end wall there was a teakwood chair with arms and a high back. A dark-haired girl was sitting in the chair, on a fringed red shawl.
She sat very straight, with her hands on the arms of the chair, her knees close together, her body stiffly erect, her chin level. Her eyes were wide open and mad and had no pupils.
She looked unconscious of what was going on, but she didn't have the pose of unconsciousness. She had a pose as if she was doing something very important and making a lot of it.
Out of her mouth came a tinny chuckling noise, which didn't change her expression or move her lips. She didn't seem to see me at all.
She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings, and apart from those she was stark naked.
I looked away from her to the other end of the room.
Steiner was on his back on the floor, just beyond the edge of the pink rug, and in front of a thing that looked like a small totem pole. It had a round open mouth in which the lens of a camera showed. The lens seemed to be aimed at the girl in the teakwood chair.
There was a flashbulb apparatus on the floor beside Steiner's outfiung hand in a loose silk sleeve. The cord of the flashbulb went behind the totem pole thing.
Steiner was wearing Chinese slippers with thick white felt soles. His legs were in black satin pajamas and the upper part of him in an embroidered Chinese coat. The front of it was mostly blood. His glass eye shone brightly and was the most lifelike thing about him. At a glance none of the three shots had missed.
The flashbulb was the sheet lightning I had seen leak out of the house and the half-giggling scream was the doped and naked girl's reaction to that. The three shots had been somebody else's idea of how the proceedings ought to be punctuated. Presumably the idea of the lad who had gone very fast down the back steps.
I could see something in his point of view. At that stage I thought it was a good idea to shut the front door and fasten it with the short chain that was on it. The lock had been spoiled by my violent entrance.
A couple of thin purple glasses stood on a red lacquer tray on one end of the desk. Also a potbellied flagon of something brown. The glasses smelled of ether and laudanum, a mixture I had never tried, but it seemed to fit the scene pretty well.
I found the girl's clothes on a divan in the corner, picked up a brown sleeved dress to begin with, and went over to her. She smelled of ether also, at a distance of several feet.
The tinny chuckling was still going on and a little froth was oozing down her chin. I slapped her face, not very hard. I didn't want to bring her out of whatever kind of trance she was in, into a screaming fit.
"Come on," I said brightly. "Let's be nice. Let's get dressed."
She said: "G-g-go-ta-hell," without any emotion that I could notice.
I slapped her a little more. She didn't mind the slaps, so I went to work getting the dress on her.
She didn't mind the dress either. She let me hold her arms up but she spread her fingers wide, as if that was very cute. It made me do a lot of finagling with the sleeves. I finally got the dress on. I got her stockings on, and her shoes, and then got her up on her feet.
"Let's take a little walk," I said. "Let's take a nice little walk."
We walked. Part of the time her earrings banged against my chest and part of the time we looked like a couple of adagio dancers doing the splits. We walked over to Steiner's body and back. She didn't pay any attention to Steiner and his bright glass eye.
She found it amusing that she couldn't walk and tried to tell me about it, but only bubbled. I put her arm on the divan while I wadded her underclothes up and shoved them into a deep pocket of my raincoat, put her handbag in my other deep pocket. I went through Steiner's desk and found a little blue notebook written in code that looked interesting. I put that in my pocket, too.
Then I tried to get at the back of the camera in the totem pole, to get the plate, but couldn't find the catch right away. I was getting nervous, and I figured I could build up a better excuse if I ran into the law when I came back later to look for it than for any reason I could give if caught there now.
I went back to the girl and got her slicker on her, nosed around to see if anything else of hers was there, wiped away a lot of fingerprints I probably hadn't made, and at least some of those Miss Dravec must have made. I opened the door and put out both the lamps.
I got my left arm around her again and we struggled out into the rain and piled into her Packard. I didn't like leaving my own bus there very well, but that had to be. Her keys were in her car. We drifted off down the hill.
Nothing happened on the way to Lucerne Avenue except that Carmen stopped bubbling and giggling and went to snoring. I couldn't keep her head off my shoulder. It was all I could do to keep it out of my lap. I had to drive rather slowly and it was a long way anyhow, clear over to the west edge of the city.
The Dravec home was a large old-fashioned brick house in large grounds with a wall around them. A gray composition driveway went through iron gates and up a slope past flower beds and lawns to a big front door with narrow leaded panels on each side of it. There was dim light behind the panels as if nobody much was home.
I pushed Carmen's head into the corner and shed her belongings in the seat, and got out.
A maid opened the door. She said Mr. Dravec wasn't in and she didn't know where he was. Downtown somewhere. She had a long, yellowish, gentle face, a long nose, no chin and large wet eyes. She looked like a nice old horse that had been turned out to pasture after long service, and as if she would do the right thing by Carmen.
I pointed into the Packard and growled: "Better get her to bed. She's lucky we don't throw her in the can-drivin' around with a tool like that on her."
She smiled sadly and I went away.
I had to walk five blocks in the rain before a narrow apartment house let me into its lobby to use a phone. Then I had to wait another twenty-five minutes for a taxi. While I waited I began to worry about what I hadn't completed.
I had yet to get the used plate out of Steiner's camera.
I paid the taxi off on Pepper Drive, in front of a house where there was company, and walked back up the curving hill of La Verne Terrace to Steiner's house behind its shrubbery.
Nothing looked any different. I went in through the gap in the hedge, pushed the door open gently, and smelled cigarette smoke.
It hadn't been there before. There had been a complicated set of smells, including the sharp memory of smokeless powder. But cigarette smoke hadn't stood out from the mixture.
I closed the door and slipped down on one knee and listened, holding my breath. I didn't hear anything but the sound of the rain on the roof. I tried throwing the beam of my pencil flash along the floor. Nobody shot at me.
I straightened up, found the dangling tassel of one of the lamps and made light in the room.
The first thing I noticed was that a couple of strips of tapestry were gone from the wall. I hadn't counted them, but the spaces where they had hung caught my eye.
Then I saw Steiner's body was gone from in front of the totem pole thing with the camera eye in its mouth. On the floor below, beyond the margin of the pink rug, somebody had spread down a rug over the place where Steiner's body had been. I didn't have to lift the rug to know why it had been put there.
I lit a cigarette and stood there in the middle of the dimly lighted room and thought about it. After a while I went to the camera in the totem pole. I found the catch this time. There wasn't any plate-holder in the camera.
My hand went towards the mulberry-colored phone on Steiner's low desk, but didn't take hold of it.
I crossed into the little hallway beyond the living room and poked into a fussy-looking bedroom that looked like a woman's room more than a man's. The bed had a long cover with a flounced edge. I lifted that and shot my flash under the bed.
Steiner wasn't under the bed. He wasn't anywhere in the house. Somebody had taken him away. He couldn't very well have gone by himself.
It wasn't the law, or somebody would have been there still. It was only an hour and a half since Carmen and I left the place. And there was none of the mess police photographers and fingerprint men would have made.
I went back to the living room, pushed the flashbulb apparatus around the back of the totem pole with my foot, switched off the lamp, left the house, got into my rain-soaked car and choked it to life.
It was all right with me if somebody wanted to keep the Steiner kill hush-hush for a while. It gave me a chance to find out whether I could tell it leaving Carmen Dravec and the nude photo angle out.
It was after ten when I got back to the Berglund and put my heap away and went upstairs to the apartment. I stood under a shower, then put pajamas on and mixed up a batch of hot grog. I looked at the phone a couple of times, thought about calling to see if Dravec was home yet, thought it might be a good idea to let him alone until the next day.
I filled a pipe and sat down with my hot grog and Steiner's little blue notebook. It was in code, but the arrangement of the entries and the indented leaves made it a list of names and addresses. There were over four hundred and fifty of them. If this was Steiner's sucker list, he had a gold mine-quite apart from the blackmail angles.
Any name on the list might be a prospect as the killer. I didn't envy the cops their job when it was handed to them.
I drank too much whisky trying to crack the code. About midnight I went to bed, and dreamed about a man in a Chinese coat with blood all over the front who chased a naked girl with long jade earrings while I tried to photograph the scene with a camera that didn't have any plate in it.
Violets M'Gee called me up in the morning, before I was dressed, but after I had seen the paper and not found anything about Steiner in it. His voice had the cheerful sound of a man who had slept well and didn't owe too much money.
"Well, how's the boy?" he began.
I said I was all right except that I was having a little trouble with my Third Reader. He laughed a little absently, and then his voice got too casual.
"This guy Dravec that I sent over to see you-done anything for him yet?"
"Too much rain," I answered, if that was an answer.
"Uh-huh. He seems to be a guy that things happen to. A car belongin' to him is washin' about in the surf off Lido fish pier."
I didn't say anything. I held the telephone very tightly.
"Yeah," M'Gee went on cheerfully. "A nice new Cad all messed up with sand and sea water. . . . Oh, I forgot. There's a guy inside it."
I let my breath out slowly, very slowly. "Dravec?" I whispered.
"Naw. A young kid. I ain't told Dravec yet. It's under the fedora. Wanta run down and look at it with me?"
I said I would like to do that.
"Snap it up. I'll be in my hutch," M'Gee told me and hung up.
Shaved, dressed and lightly breakfasted I was at the County Building in half an hour or so. I found M'Gee staring at a yellow wall and sitting at a little yellow desk on which there was nothing but M'Gee's hat and one of the M'Gee feet. He took both of them off the desk and we went down to the official parking lot and got into a small black sedan.
The rain had stopped during the night and the morning was all blue and gold. There was enough snap in the air to make life simple and sweet, if you didn't have too much on your mind. I had.
It was thirty miles to Lido, the first ten of them through city traffic. M'Gee made it in three-quarters of an hour. At the end of that time we skidded to a stop in front of a stucco arch beyond which a long black pier extended. I took my feet out of the floorboards and we got out.
There were a few cars and people in front of the arch. A motorcycle officer was keeping the people off the pier. M'Gee showed him a bronze star and we went out along the pier, into a loud smell that even two days' rain had failed to wash away.
"There she is-on the tug," M'Gee said.
A low black tug crouched off the end of the pier. Something large and green and nickeled was on its deck in front of the wheelhouse. Men stood around it.
We went down slimy steps to the deck of the tug.
M'Gee said hello to a deputy in green khaki and another man in plain clothes. The tug crew of three moved over to the wheelhouse, and set their backs against it, watching us.
We looked at the car. The front bumper was bent, and one headlight and the radiator shell. The paint and the nickel were scratched up by sand and the upholstery was sodden and black. Otherwise the car wasn't much the worse for wear. It was a big job in two tones of green, with a wine-colored stripe and trimming.
M'Gee and I looked into the front part of it. A slim, darkhaired kid who had been good-looking was draped around the steering post, with his head at a peculiar angle to the rest of his body. His face was bluish white. His eyes were a faint dull gleam under the lowered lids. His open mouth had sand in it. There were traces of blood on the side of his head which the sea water hadn't quite washed away.
M'Gee backed away slowly, made a noise in his throat and began to chew on a couple of the violet-scented breath purifiers that gave him his nickname.
"What's the story?" he asked quietly.
The uniformed deputy pointed up to the end of the pier. Dirty white railings made of two-by-fours had been broken through in a wide space and the broken wood showed up yellow and bright.
"Went through there. Must have hit pretty hard, too. The rain stopped early down here, about nine, and the broken wood is dry inside. That puts it after the rain stopped. That's all we know except she fell in plenty of water not to be banged up worse: at least half-tide, I'd say. That would be right after the rain stopped. She showed under the water when the boys came down to fish this morning. We got the tug to lift her out. Then we find the dead guy."
The other deputy scuffed at the deck with the toe of his shoe. M'Gee looked sideways at me with foxy little eyes. I looked blank and didn't say anything.
"Pretty drunk that lad," M'Gee said gently. "Showin' off all alone in the rain. I guess he must have been fond of driving. Yeah-pretty drunk."
"Drunk, hell," the plainclothes deputy said. "The hand throttle's set halfway down and the guy's been sapped on the side of the head. Ask me and I'll call it murder."
M'Gee looked at him politely, then at the uniformed man. "What you think?"
"It could be suicide, I guess. His neck's broke and he could have hurt his head in the fall. And his hand could have knocked the throttle down. I kind of like murder myself, though."
M'Gee nodded, said: "Frisked him? Know who he is?"
The two deputies looked at me, then at the tug crew.
"Okay. Save that part," M'Gee said. "I know who he is."
A small man with glasses and a tired face and a black bag came slowly along the pier and down the slimy steps. He picked out a fairly clean place on the deck and put his bag down. He took his hat off and rubbed the back of his neck and smiled wearily.
'Lo, Doc. There's your patient," M'Gee told him. "Took a dive off the pier last night. That's all we know now."
The medical examiner looked in at the dead man morosely. He fingered the head, moved it around a little, felt the man's ribs. He lifted one lax hand and stared at the fingernails. He let it fall, stepped back and picked his bag up again.
"About twelve hours," he said. "Broken neck, of course. I doubt if there's any water in him. Better get him out of there before he starts to get stiff on us. I'll tell you the rest when I get him on a table."
He nodded around, went back up the steps and along the pier. An ambulance was backing into position beside the stucco arch at the pier head.
The two deputies grunted and tugged to get the dead man out of the car and lay him down on the deck, on the side of the car away from the beach.
"Let's go," M'Gee told me. "That ends this part of the show." We said goodbye and M'Gee told the deputies to keep their chins buttoned until they heard from him. We went back along the pier and got into the small black sedan and drove back towards the city along a white highway washed clean by the rain, past low rolling hills of yellow-white sand terraced with moss. A few gulls wheeled and swooped over something in the surf. Far out to sea a couple of white yachts on the horizon looked as if they were suspended in the sky.
We laid a few miles behind us without saying anything to each other. Then M'Gee cocked his chin at me and said: "Got ideas?"
"Loosen up," I said. "I never saw the guy before. Who is he?"
"Hell, I thought you were going to tell me about it."
"Loosen up, Violets," I said.
He growled, shrugged, and we nearly went off the road into the loose sand.
"Dravec's chauffeur. A kid named Carl Owen. How do I know? We had him in the cooler a year ago on a Mann Act rap. He run Dravec's hotcha daughter off to Yuma. Dravec went after them and brought them back and had the guy heaved in the goldfish bowl. Then the girl gets to him, and next morning the old man steams downtown and begs the guy off. Says the kid meant to marry her, only she wouldn't. Then, by heck, the kid goes back to work for him and been there ever since. What you think of that?"
"It sounds just like Dravec," I said.
"Yeah-but the kid could have had a relapse."
M'Gee had silvery hair and a knobby chin and a little pouting mouth made to kiss babies with. I looked at his face sideways, and suddenly I got his idea. I laughed.
"You think maybe Dravec killed him?" I asked. "Why not? The kid makes another pass at the girl and Dravec cracks down at him too hard. He's a big guy and could break a neck easy. Then he's scared. He runs the car down to Lido in the rain and lets it slide off the end of the pier. Thinks it won't show. Maybe don't think at all. Just rattled."
"It's a kick in the pants," I said. "Then all he had to do was walk home thirty miles in the rain."
"Go on. Kid me."
"Dravec killed him, sure," I said. "But they were playing leapfrog. Dravec fell on him."
"Okay, pal. Some day you'll want to play with my catnip mouse."
"Listen, Violets," I said seriously. "If the kid was murdered-and you're not sure it's murder at all-it's not Dravec's kind of crime. He might kill a man in a temper-but he'd let him lay. He wouldn't go to all that fuss."
We shuttled back and forth across the road while M'Gee thought about that.
"What a pal," he complained. "I have me a swell theory and look what you done to it. I wish the hell I hadn't brought you. Hell with you. I'm goin' after Dravec just the same."
"Sure," I agreed. "You'd have to do that. But Dravec never killed that boy. He's too soft inside to cover up on it."
It was noon when we got back to town. I hadn't had any dinner but whisky the night before and very little breakfast that morning. I got off on the Boulevard and let M'Gee go on alone to see Dravec.
I was interested in what had happened to Carl Owen; but I wasn't interested in the thought that Dravec might have murdered him.
I ate lunch at a counter and looked casually at an early afternoon paper. I didn't expect to see anything about Steiner in it, and I didn't.
After lunch I walked along the Boulevard six blocks to have a look at Steiner's store.
It was a half-store frontage, the other half being occupied by a credit jeweler. The jeweler was standing in his entrance, a big, white-haired, black-eyed Jew with about nine carats of diamond on his hand. A faint, knowing smile curved his lips as I went past him into Steiner's.
A thick blue rug paved Steiner's from wall to wall. There were blue leather easy chairs with smoke stands beside them. A few sets of tooled leather books were put out on narrow tables. The rest of the stock was behind glass. A paneled partition with a single door in it cut off a back part of the store, and in the corner by this a woman sat behind a small desk with a hooded lamp on it.
She got up and came towards me, swinging lean thighs in a tight dress of some black material that didn't reflect any light. She was an ash-blonde, with greenish eyes under heavily mascaraed lashes. There were large jet buttons in the lobes of her ears; her hair waved back smoothly from behind them. Her fingernails were silvered.
She gave me what she thought was a smile of welcome, but what I thought was a grimace of strain.
"Was it something?"
I pulled my hat low over my eyes and fidgeted. I said: "Steiner?"
"He won't be in today. May I show you-"
"I'm selling," I said. "Something he's wanted for a long time."
The silvered fingernails touched the hair over one ear. "Oh, a salesman. . . . Well, you might come in tomorrow."
"He sick? I could go up to the house," I suggested hopefully. "He'd want to see what I have."
That jarred her. She had to fight for her breath for a minute. But her voice was smooth enough when it came.
"That-that wouldn't be any use. He's out of town today." I nodded, looked properly disappointed, touched my hat and started to turn away when the pimply-faced kid of the night before stuck his head through the door in the paneling. He went back as soon as he saw me, but not before I saw some loosely packed cases of books behind him on the floor of the back room.
The cases were small and open and packed any old way. A man in very new overalls was fussing with them. Some of Steiner's stock was being moved out.
I left the store and walked down to the corner, then back to the alley. Behind Steiner's stood a small black truck with wire sides. It didn't have any lettering on it. Boxes showed through the wire sides and, as I watched, the man in overalls came out with another one and heaved it up.
I went back to the Boulevard. Half a block on, a fresh-faced kid was reading a magazine in a parked Green Top. I showed him money and said: "Tail job?"
He looked me over, swung his door open, and stuck his magazine behind the rear-vision mirror.
"My meat, boss," he said brightly.
We went around to the end of the alley and waited beside a fireplug.
There were about a dozen boxes on the truck when the man in the very new overalls got up in front and gunned his motor. He went down the alley fast and turned left on the street at the end. My driver did the same. The truck went north to Garfield, then east. It went very fast and there was a lot of traffic on Garfield. My driver tailed from too far back.
I was telling him about that when the truck turned north off Garfield again. The street at which it turned was called Brittany. When we got to Brittany there wasn't any truck.
The fresh-faced kid who was driving me made comforting sounds through the glass panel of the cab and we went up Brittany at four miles an hour looking for the truck behind bushes. I refused to be comforted.
Brittany bore a little to the east two blocks up and met the next street, Randall Place, in a tongue of land on which there was a white apartment house with its front on Randall Place and its basement garage entrance on Brittany, a story lower. We were going past that and my driver was telling me the truck couldn't be very far away when I saw it in the garage.
We went around to the front of the apartment house and I got out and went into the lobby.
There was no switchboard. A desk was pushed back against the wall, as if it wasn't used any more. Above it names were on a panel of gilt mailboxes.
The name that went with Apartment 405 was Joseph Marty. Joe Marty was the name of the man who played with Carmen Dravec until her papa gave him five thousand dollars to go away and play with some other girl. It could be the same Joe Marty.
I went down steps and pushed through a door with a wired glass panel into the dimness of the garage. The man in the very new overalls was stacking boxes in the automatic elevator.
I stood near him and lit a cigarette and watched him. He didn't like it very well, but he didn't say anything. After a while I said: "Watch the weight, buddy. She's only tested for half a ton. Where's it goin'?"
"Marty, four-o-five," he said, and then looked as if he was sorry he had said it.
"Fine," I told him. "It looks like a nice lot of reading."
I went back up the steps and out of the building, got into my Green Top again.
We drove back downtown to the building where I have an office. I gave the driver too much money and he gave me a dirty card which I dropped into the brass spittoon beside the elevators.
Dravec was holding up the wall outside the door of my office.
After the rain, it was warm and bright but he still had the belted suede raincoat on. It was open down the front, as were his coat, and vest underneath. His tie was under one ear. His face looked like a mask of gray putty with a black stubble on the lower part of it.
He looked awful.
I unlocked the door and patted his shoulder and pushed him in and got him into a chair. He breathed hard but didn't say anything. I got a bottle of rye out of the desk and poured a couple of ponies. He drank both of them without a word. Then he slumped in the chair and blinked his eyes and groaned and took a square white envelope out of an inner pocket. He put it down on the desk top and held his big hairy hand over it.
"Tough about Carl," I said. "I was with M'Gee this morning."
He looked at me emptily. After a little while he said:
"Yeah. Carl was a good kid. I ain't told you about him much."
I waited, looking at the envelope under his hand. He looked down at it himself.
"I gotta let you see it," he mumbled. He pushed it slowly across the desk and lifted his hand off it as if with the movement he was giving up most everything that made life worth living. Two tears welled up in his eyes and slid down his unshaven cheeks.
I lifted the square envelope and looked at it. It was addressed to him at his house, in neat pen-and-ink printing, and bore a Special Delivery stamp. I opened it and looked at the shiny photograph that was inside.
Carmen Dravec sat in Steiner's teakwood chair, wearing her jade earrings. Her eyes looked crazier, if anything, than as I had seen them. I looked at the back of the photo, saw that it was blank, and put the thing face down on my desk.
"Tell me about it," I said carefully.
Dravec wiped the tears off his face with his sleeve, put his hands flat on the desk and stared down at the dirty nails. His fingers trembled on the desk.
"A guy called me," he said in a dead voice. "Ten grand for the plate and the prints. The deal's got to be closed tonight, or they give the stuff to some scandal sheet."
"That's a lot of hooey," I said. "A scandal sheet couldn't use it, except to back up a story. What's the story?"
He lifted his eyes slowly, as if they were very heavy. "That ain't all. The guy say there's a jam to it. I better come through fast, or I'd find my girl in the cooler."
"What's the story?" I asked again, filling my pipe. "What does Carmen say?"
He shook his big shaggy head. "I ain't asked her. I ain't got the heart. Poor little girl. No clothes on her. . . . No, I ain't got the heart. . . . You ain't done nothin' on Steiner yet, I guess."
"I didn't have to," I told him. "Somebody beat me to it." He stared at me open-mouthed, uncomprehending. It was obvious he knew nothing about the night before.
"Did Carmen go out at all last night?" I asked carelessly.
He was still staring with his mouth open, groping in his mind.
"No. She's sick. She's sick in bed when I get home. She don't go out at all. . . . What you mean-about Steiner?"
I reached for the bottle of rye and poured us each a drink. Then I lit my pipe.
"Steiner's dead," I said. "Somebody got tired of his tricks and shot him full of holes. Last night, in the rain."
"Jeeze," he said wonderingly. "You was there?"
I shook my head. "Not me. Carmen was there. That's the jam your man spoke of. She didn't do the shooting, of course."
Dravec's face got red and angry. He balled his fists. His breath made a harsh sound and a pulse beat visibly in the side of his neck.
"That ain't true! She's sick. She don't go out at all. She's sick in bed when I get home!"
"You told me that," I said. "That's not true. I brought Carmen home myself. The maid knows, only she's trying to be decent about it. Carmen was at Steiner's house and I was watching outside. A gun went off and someone ran away. I didn't see him. Carmen was too drunk to see him. That's why she's sick."
His eyes tried to focus on my face, but they were vague and empty, as if the light behind them had died. He took hold of the arms of the chair. His big knuckles strained and got white.
"She don't tell me," he whispered. "She don't tell me. Me, that would do anything for her." There was no emotion in his voice; just the dead exhaustion of despair.
He pushed his chair back a little. "I go get the dough," he said. "The ten grand. Maybe the guy don't talk."
Then he broke. His big rough head came down on the desk and sobs shook his whole body. I stood up and went around the desk and patted his shoulder, kept on patting it, not saying anything. After a while he lifted his face smeared with tears and grabbed for my hand.
"Jeeze, you're a good guy," he sobbed.
"You don't know the half of it."
I pulled my hand away from him and got a drink into his paw, helped him lift it and down it. Then I took the empty glass out of his hand and put it back on the desk. I sat down again.
"You've got to brace up," I told him grimly. "The law doesn't know about Steiner yet. I brought Carmen home and kept my mouth shut. I wanted to give you and Carmen a break. That puts me in a jam. You've got to do your part."
He nodded slowly, heavily. "Yeah, I do what you say- anything you say."
"Get the money," I said. "Have it ready for the call. I've got ideas and you may not have to use it. But it's no time to get foxy. . . . Get the money and sit tight and keep your mouth shut. Leave the rest to me. Can you do that?"
"Yeah," he said. "Jeeze, you're a good guy."
"Don't talk to Carmen," I said. "The less she remembers out of her drunk, the better. This picture-" I touched the back of the photo on the desk-"shows somebody was working with Steiner. We've got to get him and get him quick-even if it costs ten grand to do it."
He stood up slowly. "That's nothin'. That's just dough. I go get it now. Then I go home. You do it like you want to. Me, I do just like you say."
He grabbed for my hand again, shook it, and went slowly out of the office. I heard his heavy steps drag down the hall.
I drank a couple of drinks fast and mopped my face.
I drove my Chrysler slowly up La Verne Terrace towards Steiner's house.
In the daylight, I could see the steep drop of the hill and the flight of wooden steps down which the killer had made his escape. The street below was almost as narrow as an alley. Two small houses fronted on it, not very near Steiner's place. With the noise the rain had been making it was doubtful if anyone in them had paid much attention to the shots.
Steiner's looked peaceful under the afternoon sun. The unpainted shingles of the roof were still damp from the rain. The trees on the other side of the street had new leaves on them. There were no cars on the street.
Something moved behind the square growth of box hedge that screened Steiner's front door.
Carmen Dravec, in a green and white checkered coat and no hat, came out through the opening, stopped suddenly, looked at me wild-eyed, as if she hadn't heard the car. She went back quickly behind the hedge. I drove on and parked in front of the empty house.
I got out and walked back. In the sunlight it felt like an exposed and dangerous thing to do.
I went in through the hedge and the girl stood there very straight and silent against the half-open house door. One hand went slowly to her mouth, and her teeth bit at a funny-looking thumb that was like an extra finger. There were deep purpleblack smudges under her frightened eyes.
I pushed her back into the house without saying anything, shut the door. We stood looking at each other inside. She dropped her hand slowly and tried to smile. Then all expression went out of her white face and it looked as intelligent as the bottom of a shoe box.
I got gentleness into my voice and said: "Take it easy. I'm pals. Sit down in that chair by the desk. I'm a friend of your father's. Don't get panicky."
She went and sat down in the yellow cushion in the black chair at Steiner's desk.
The place looked decadent and off-color by daylight. It still stank of the ether.
Carmen licked the corners of her mouth with the tip of a whitish tongue. Her dark eyes were stupid and stunned rather than scared now. I rolled a cigarette around in my fingers and pushed some books out of the way to sit on the edge of the desk. I lit my cigarette, puffed it slowly for a moment, then asked: "What are you doing here?"
She picked at the material of her coat, didn't answer. I tried again.
"How much do you remember about last night?"
She answered that. "Remember what? I was sick last night-at home." Her voice was a cautious, throaty sound that only just reached my ears.
"Before that," I said. "Before I brought you home. Here."
A slow flush crept up her throat and her eyes widened. "You-you were the one?" she breathed, and began to chew on her funny thumb again.
"Yeah, I was the one. How much of it all stays with you?"
She said: "Are you the police?"
"No. I told you I was a friend of your father's."
"You're not the police?"
It finally registered. She let out a long sigh. "What-what do you want?"
"Who killed him?"
Her shoulders jerked in the checkered coat, but nothing changed much in her face. Her eyes slowly got furtive.
"Who-who else knows?"
"About Steiner? I don't know. Not the police, or someone would be here. Maybe Marty."
It was just a stab in the dark, but it got a sudden, sharp cry out of her.
We were both silent for a minute. I puffed on my cigarette and she chewed on her thumb.
"Don't get clever," I said. "Did Marty kill him?"
Her chin came down an inch. "Yes."
"Why did he do it?"
"I-I don't know," very dully.
"Seen much of him lately?"
Her hands clenched. "Just once or twice."
"Know where he lives?"
"Yes!" She spat it at me.
"What's the matter? I thought you liked Marty."
"I hate him!" she almost yelled.
"Then you'd like him for the spot," I said.
She was blank to that. I had to explain it. "I mean, are you willing to tell the police it was Marty?"
Sudden panic flamed in her eyes.
"If I kill the nude photo angle," I said soothingly.
That gave me a nasty feeling. If she had screeched, or turned white, or even keeled over, that would have been fairly natural. But she just giggled.
I began to hate the sight of her. Just looking at her made me feel dopey.
Her giggles went on, ran around the room like rats. They gradually got hysterical. I got off the desk, took a step towards her, and slapped her face.
"Just like last night," I said.
The giggling stopped at once and the thumb-chewing started again. She still didn't mind my slaps apparently. I sat on the end of the desk once more.
"You came here to look for the camera plate-for the birthday suit photo," I told her.
Her chin went up and down again.
"Too late. I looked for it last night. It was gone then. Probably Marty has it. You're not kidding me about Marty?"
She shook her head vigorously. She got out of the chair slowly. Her eyes were narrow and sloe-black and as shallow as an oyster shell.
"I'm going now," she said, as if we had been having a cup of tea.
She went over to the door and was reaching out to open it when a car came up the hill and stopped outside the house. Somebody got out of the car.
She turned and stared at me, horrified.
The door opened casually and a man looked in at us.
He was a hatchet-faced man in a brown suit and a black felt hat. The cuff of his left sleeve was folded under and pinned to the side of his coat with a big black safety pin.
He took his hat off, closed the door by pushing it with his shoulder, looked at Carmen with a nice smile. He had closecropped black hair and a bony skull. He fitted his clothes well, He didn't look tough.
"I'm Guy Slade," he said. "Excuse the casual entrance. The bell didn't work. Is Steiner around?"
He hadn't tried the bell. Carmen looked at him blankly, then at me, then back at Slade. She licked her lips but didn't say anything.
I said: "Steiner isn't here, Mr. Slade. We don't know just where he is.',
He nodded and touched his long chin with the brim of his hat.
"You friends of his?"
"We just dropped by for a book," I said, and gave him back his smile. "The door was half open. We knocked, then stepped inside. Just like you."
"I see," Slade said thoughtfully. "Very simple."
I didn't say anything. Carmen didn't say anything. She was staring fixedly at his empty sleeve.
"A book, eh?" Slade went on. The way he said it told me things. He knew about Steiner's racket, maybe.
I moved over towards the door. "Only you didn't knock," I said.
He smiled with faint embarrassment. "That's right. I ought to have knocked, Sorry."
"We'll trot along now," I said carelessly. I took hold of Carmen's arm.
"Any message-if Steiner comes back?" Slade asked softly.
"We won't bother you."
"That's too bad," he said, with too much meaning.
I let go of Carmen's arm and took a slow step away from her. Slade still had his hat in his hand. He didn't move. His deep-set eyes twinkled pleasantly.
I opened the door again.
Slade said: "The girl can go. But I'd like to talk to you a little."
I stared at him, trying to look very blank.
"Kidder, eh?" Slade said nicely.
Carmen made a sudden sound at my side and ran out through the door. In a moment I heard her steps going down the hill. I hadn't seen her car, but I guessed it was around somewhere.
I began to say: "What the hell-"
"Save it," Slade interrupted coldly. "There's something wrong here. I'll just find out what it is."
He began to walk around the room carelessly-too carelessly. He was frowning, not paying much attention to me. That made me thoughtful. I took a quick glance out of the window, but I couldn't see anything but the top of his car above the hedge.
Slade found the potbellied flagon and the two thin purple glasses on the desk. He sniffed at one of them. A disgusted smile wrinkled his thin lips.
"The lousy pimp," he said tonelessly.
He looked at the books on the desk, touched one or two of them, went on around the back of the desk and was in front of the totem pole thing. He stared at that. Then his eyes went down to the floor, to the thin rug that was over the place where Steiner's body had been. Slade moved the rug with his foot and suddenly tensed, staring down.
It was a good act-or else Slade had a nose I could have used in my business. I wasn't sure which-yet, but I was giving it a lot of thought.
He went slowly down to the floor on one knee. The desk partly hid him from me.
I slipped a gun out from under my arm and put both hands behind my body and leaned against the wall.
There was a sharp, swift exclamation, then Slade shot to his feet. His arm flashed up. A long, black Luger slid into it expertly. I didn't move. Slade held the Luger in long, pale fingers, not pointing it at me, not pointing it at anything in particular.
"Blood," he said quietly, grimly, his deep-set eyes black and hard now. "Blood on the floor there, under a rug. A lot of blood."
I grinned at him. "I noticed it," I said. "It's old blood. Dried blood."
He slid sideways into the black chair behind Steiner's desk and raked the telephone towards him by putting the Luger around it. He frowned at the telephone, then frowned at me.
"I think we'll have some law," he said.
Slade's eyes were narrow and as hard as jet. He didn't like my agreeing with him. The veneer had flaked off him, leaving a well-dressed hard boy with a Luger. Looking as if he could use it.
"Just who the hell are you?" he growled.
"A shamus. The name doesn't matter. The girl is my client. Steiner's been riding her with some blackmail dirt. We came to talk to him. He wasn't here."
"Just walk in, huh?"
"Correct. So what? Think we gunned Steiner, Mr. Slade?"
He smiled slightly, thinly, but said nothing.
"Or do you think Steiner gunned somebody and ran away?" I suggested.
Steiner didn't gun anybody," Slade said. "Steiner didn't have the guts of a sick cat."
I said: "You don't see anybody here, do you? Maybe Steiner had chicken for dinner, and liked to kill his chickens in the parlor."
"I don't get it. I don't get your game."
I grinned again. "Go ahead and call your friends downtown. Only you won't like the reaction you'll get."
He thought that over without moving a muscle. His lips went back against his teeth.
"Why not?" he asked finally, in a careful voice.
I said: "I know you, Mr. Slade. You run the Aladdin Club down on the Palisades. Flash gambling. Soft lights and evening clothes and a buffet supper on the side. You know Steiner well enough to walk into his house without knocking. Steiner's racket needed a little protection now and then. You could be that."
Slacle's finger tightened on the Luger, then relaxed. He put the Luger down on the desk, kept his fingers on it. His mouth became a hard white grimace.
"Somebody got to Steiner," he said softly, his voice and the expression on his face seeming to belong to two different people. "He didn't show at the store today. He didn't answer his phone. I came up to see about it."
"Glad to hear you didn't gun Steiner yourself," I said.
The Luger swept up again and made a target of my chest. I said:
"Put it down, Slade. You don't know enough to pop off yet. Not being bullet-proof is an idea I've had to get used to. Put it down. I'll tell you something-if you don't know it. Somebody moved Steiner's books out of his store today-the books he did his real business with."
Slade put his gun down on the desk for the second time. He leaned back and wrestled an amiable expression onto his face.
"I'm listening," he said.
"I think somebody got to Steiner too," I told him. "I think that blood is his blood. The books being moved out from Steiner's store gives us a reason for moving his body away from here. Somebody is taking over the racket and doesn't want Steiner found till he's all set. Whoever it was ought to have cleaned up the blood. He didn't."
Slade listened silently. The peaks of his eyebrows made sharp angles against the white skin of his indoor forehead.
I went on: "Killing Steiner to grab his racket was a dumb trick, and I'm not sure it happened that way. But I am sure that whoever took the books knows about it, and that the blonde down in the store is scared stiff about something."
"Any more?" Slade asked evenly.
"Not right now. There's a piece of scandal dope I want to trace. If I get it, I might tell you where. That will be your muscler in."
"Now would be better," Slade said. Then he drew his lips back against his teeth and whistled sharply, twice.
I jumped. A car door opened outside. There were steps.
I brought the gun around from behind my body. Slade's face convulsed and his hand snatched for the Luger that lay in front of him, fumbled at the butt.
I said: "Don't touch it!"
He came to his feet rigid, leaning over, his hand on the gun, but the gun not in his hand. I dodged past him into the hallway and turned as two men came into the room.
One had short red hair, a white, lined face, unsteady eyes. The other was an obvious pug; a good-looking boy except for a flattened nose and one ear as thick as a club steak.
Neither of the newcomers had a gun in sight. They stopped, stared.
I stood behind Slade in the doorway. Slade leaned over the desk in front of me, didn't stir.
The pug's mouth opened in a wide snarl, showing sharp, white teeth. The redhead looked shaky and scared.
Slade had plenty of guts. In a smooth, low, but very clear voice he said:
"This heel gunned Steiner, boys. Take him!"
The redhead took hold of his lower lip with his teeth and snatched for something under his left arm. He didn't get it. I was all set and braced. I shot him through the right shoulder, hating to do it. The gun made a lot of noise in the closed room. It seemed to me that it would be heard all over the city. The redhead went down on the floor and writhed and threshed about as if I had shot him in the belly.
The pug didn't move. He probably knew there wasn't enough speed in his arm. Slade grabbed his Luger up and started to whirl. I took a step and slammed him behind the ear. He sprawled forward over the desk and the Luger shot against a row of books.
Slade didn't hear me say: "I hate to hit a one-armed man from behind, Slack, And I'm not crazy about the show-off. You made me do it."
The pug grinned at me and said: "Okay, pal. What next?"
"I'd like to get out of here, if I can do it without any more shooting. Or I can stick around for some law. It's all one to me."
He thought it over calmly. The redhead was making moaning noises on the floor. Slade was very still.
The pug put his hands up slowly and clasped them behind his neck. He said coolly: "I don't know what it's all about, but I don't give a good----damn where you go or what you do when you get there. And this ain't my idea of a spot for a lead party. Drift!"
"Wise boy. You've more sense than your boss."
I edged around the desk, edged over towards the open door. The pug turned slowly, facing me, keeping his hands behind his neck. There was a wry but almost good-natured grin on his face.
I skinned through the door and made a fast break through the gap in the hedge and up the hill, half expecting lead to fly after me. None came.
I jumped into the Chrysler and chased it up over the brow of the hill and away from that neighborhood.
It was after five when I stopped opposite the apartment house on Randall Place. A few windows were lit up already and radios bleated discordantly on different programs. I rode the automatic elevator to the fourth floor. Apartment 405 was at the end of a long hall that was carpeted in green and paneled in ivory. A cool breeze blew through the hall from open doors to the fire escape.
There was a small ivory push button beside the door marked 405. I pushed it.
After a long time a man opened the door a foot or so. He was a long-legged, thin man with dark brown eyes in a very brown face. Wiry hair grew far back on his head, giving him a great deal of domed brown forehead. His brown eyes probed at me impersonally.
I said: "Steiner?"
Nothing in the man's face changed. He brought a cigarette from behind the door and put it slowly between tight brown lips. A puff of smoke came towards me, and behind it words in a cool, unhurried voice, without inflection. "You said what?"
"Steiner. Harold Hardwicke Steiner. The guy that has the books."
The man nodded. He considered my remark without haste. He glanced at the tip of his cigarette, said: "I think I know him, But he doesn't visit here. Who sent you?"
I smiled. He didn't like that. I said: "You're Marty?"
The brown face got harder. "So what? Got a grift-or just amusin' yourself?"
I moved my left foot casually, enough so that he couldn't slam the door.
"You got the books," I said. "I got the sucker list. How's to talk it over?"
Marty didn't shift his eyes from my face. His right hand went behind the panel of the door again, and his shoulder had a look as if he was making motions with a hand. There was a faint sound in the room behind him-very faint. A curtain ring clicked lightly on a rod.
Then he opened the door wide. "Why not? If you think you've got something," he said coolly.
I went past him into the room. It was a cheerful room, with good furniture and not too much of it. French windows in the end wall looked across a stone porch at the foothills, already getting purple in the dusk. Near the windows a door was shut. Another door in the same wall at the near end of the room had curtains drawn across it, on a brass rod below the lintel.
I sat down on a davenport against the wall in which there were no doors. Marty shut the door and walked sideways to a tall oak writing desk studded with square nails. A cedarwood cigar box with gilt hinges rested on the lowered leaf of the desk. Marty picked it up without taking his eyes off me, carried it to a low table beside an easy chair. He sat down in the easy chair.
I put my hat beside me and opened the top button of my coat and smiled at Marty.
"Well-I'm listening," he said.
He snubbed his cigarette out, lifted the lid of the cigar box and took out a couple of fat cigars.
"Cigar?" he suggested casually, and tossed one at me.
I reached for it and that made me a sap. Marty dropped the other cigar back into the box and came up very swiftly with a gun.
I looked at the gun politely. It was a black police Colt, a .38. I had no argument against it at the moment.
"Stand up a minute," Marty said. "Come forward just about two yards. You might grab a little air while you're doing that." His voice was elaborately casual.
I was mad inside, but I grinned at him. I said: "You're the second guy I've met today that thinks a gun in the hand means the world by the tail. Put it away, and let's talk."
Marty's eyebrows came together and he pushed his chin forward a little. His brown eyes were vaguely troubled.
We stared at each other. I didn't look at the pointed black slipper that showed under the curtains across the doorway to my left.
Marty was wearing a dark blue suit, a blue shirt and a black tie. His brown face looked somber above the dark colors. He said softly, in a lingering voice: "Don't get me wrong. I'm not a tough guy-just careful. I don't know hell's first thing about you. You might be a life-taker for all I know."
"You're not careful enough," I said. "The play with the books was lousy."
He drew a long breath and let it out silently. Then he leaned back and crossed his long legs and rested the Colt on his knee.
"Don't kid yourself I won't use this, if I have to. What's your story?"
"Tell your friend with the pointed shoes to come on in," I said. "She gets tired holding her breath."
Without turning his head Marty called out: "Come on in, Agnes."
The curtains over the door swung aside and the green-eyed blonde from Steiner's store joined us in the room. I wasn't very much surprised to see her there. She looked at me bitterly.
"I knew damn well you were trouble," she told me angrily. "I told Joe to watch his step."
"Save it," Marty snapped. "Joe's watchin' his step plenty. Put some light on so I can see to pop this guy, if it works out that way."
The blonde lit a large floor lamp with a square red shade. She sat down under it, in a big velours chair and held a fixed painful smile on her face. She was scared to the point of exhaustion.
I remembered the cigar I was holding and put it in my mouth. Marty's Colt was very steady on me while I got matches out and lit it.
I puffed smoke and said through the smoke: "The sucker list I spoke of is in code. So I can't read the names yet, but there's about five hundred of them. You got twelve boxes of books, say three hundred. There'll be that many more out on loan. Say five hundred altogether, just to be conservative. If it's a good active list and you could run it around all the books, that would be a quarter of a million rentals. Put the average rental low-say a dollar. That's too low, but say a dollar. That's a lot of money these days. Enough to spot a guy for."
The blonde yelped sharply: "You're crazy, if you-"
"Shut up!" Marty swore at her.
The blonde subsided and put her head back against the back of her chair. Her face was tortured with strain.
"It's no racket for bums," I went on telling them. "You've got to get confidence and keep it. Personally I think the blackmail angles are a mistake. I'm for shedding all that."
Marty's dark brown stare held coldly on my face. "You're a funny guy," he drawled smoothly. "Who's got this lovely racket?"
"You have," I said. "Almost."
Marty didn't say anything.
"You shot Steiner to get it," I said. "Last night in the rain. It was good shooting weather. The trouble is, he wasn't alone when it happened. Either you didn't see that, or you got scared. You ran out. But you had nerve enough to come back and hide the body somewhere-so you could tidy up on the books before the case broke."
The blonde made one strangled sound and then turned her face and stared at the wall. Her silvered fingernails dug into her palms. Her teeth bit her lip tightly.
Marty didn't bat an eye. He didn't move and the Colt didn't move in his hand. His brown face was as hard as a piece of carved wood.
"Boy, you take chances," he said softly, at last. "It's lucky as all hell for you I didn't kill Steiner."
I grinned at him, without much cheer. "You might step off for it just the same," I said.
Marty's voice was a dry rustle of sound. "Think you've got me framed for it?"
"There's somebody who'll tell it that way." Marty swore then. "That-damned little-! She would- just that-damn her!"
I didn't say anything. I let him chew on it. His face cleared slowly, and he put the Colt down on the table, kept his hand near it.
"You don't sound like chisel as I know chisel," he said slowly, his eyes a tight shine between dark narrowed lids. "And I don't see any coppers here. What's your angle?"
I drew on my cigar and watched his gun hand. "The plate that was in Steiner's camera. All the prints that have been made. Right here and right now. You've got it-because that's the only way you could have known who was there last night."
Marty turned his head slightly to look at Agnes. Her face was still to the wall and her fingernails were still spearing her palms. Marty looked back at me.
"You're cold as a night watchman's feet on that one, guy," he told me.
I shook my head. "No. You're a sap to stall, Marty. You can be pegged for the kill easy. It's a natural. If the girl has to tell her story, the pictures won't matter. But she don't want to tell it."
"You a shamus?" he asked.
"How'd you get to me?"
"I was working on Steiner. He's been working on Dravec. Dravec leaks money. You had some of it. I tailed the books here from Steiner's store. The rest was easy when I had the girl's story."
"She say I gunned Steiner?"
I nodded. "But she could be mistaken."
Marty sighed. "She hates my guts," he said. "I gave her the gate. I got paid to do it, but I'd have done it anyway. She's too screwy for me."
I said: "Get the pictures, Marty."
He stood up slowly, looked down at the Colt, put it in his side pocket. His hand moved slowly up to his breast pocket.
Somebody rang the door buzzer and kept on ringing it.
Marty didn't like that. His lower lip went in under his teeth and his eyebrows drew down at the corners. His whole face got mean.
The buzzer kept on buzzing.
The blonde stood up quickly. Nerve tension made her face old and ugly.
Watching me, Marty jerked a small drawer open in the tall desk and got a small, white-handled automatic out of it. He held it out to the blonde. She went to him and took it gingerly, not liking it.
"Sit down next to the shamus," he rasped. "Hold the gun on him. If he gets funny, feed him a few."
The blonde sat down on the davenport about three feet from me, on the side away from the door. She lined the gun on my leg. I didn't like the jerky look in her green eyes.
The door buzzer stopped and somebody started a quick, light, impatient rapping on the panel. Marty went across and opened the door. He slid his right hand into his coat pocket and opened the door with his left hand, threw it open quickly.
Carmen Dravec pushed him back into the room with the muzzle of a small revolver against his brown face.
Marty backed away from her smoothly, lightly. His mouth was open and an expression of panic was on his face. He knew Carmen pretty well.
Carmen shut the door, then bored ahead with her little gun. She didn't look at anyone but Marty, didn't seem to see anything but Marty. Her face had a dopey look.
The blonde shivered the full length of her body and swung the white-handled automatic up and towards Carmen. I shot my hand out and grabbed her hand, closed my fingers down over it quickly, thumbed the safety to the on position, and held it there. There was a short tussle, which neither Marty nor Carmen paid any attention to. Then I had the gun.
The blonde breathed deeply and stared at Carmen Dravec. Carmen looked at Marty with doped eyes and said: "I want my pictures."
Marty swallowed and tried to smile at her. He said: "Sure, kid, sure," in a small, flat voice that wasn't like the voice he had used in talking to me.
Carmen looked almost as crazy as she had looked in Steiner's chair. But she had control of her voice and muscles this time. She said: "You shot Hal Steiner."
"Wait a minute, Carmen!" I yelped.
Carmen didn't turn her head. The blonde came to life with a rush, ducked her head at me as if she was going to butt me, and sank her teeth in my right hand, the one that had her gun in it.
I yelped some more. Nobody minded that either.
Marty said: "Listen, kid, I didn't-"
The blonde took her teeth out of my hand and spat my own blood at me. Then she threw herself at my leg and tried to bite that. I cracked her lightly on the head with the barrel of the gun and tried to stand up. She rolled down my legs and wrapped her arms around my ankles. I fell back on the davenport again. The blonde was strong with the madness of fear.
Marty grabbed for Carmen's gun with his left hand, missed. The little revolver made a dull, heavy sound that was not loud. A bullet missed Marty and broke glass in one of the foldedback french windows.
Marty stood perfectly still again. He looked as if all his muscles had gone back on him.
"Duck and knock her off her feet, you damn' fool!" I yelled at him.
Then I hit the blonde on the side of the head again, much harder, and she rolled off my feet. I got loose and slid away from her.
Marty and Carmen were still facing each other like a couple of images.
Something very large and heavy hit the outside of the door and the panel split diagonally from top to bottom.
That brought Marty to life. He jerked the Colt out of his pocket andjumped back. I snapped a shot at his right shoulder and missed, not wanting to hurt him much. The heavy thing hit the door again with a crash that seemed to shake the whole building.
I dropped the little automatic and got my own gun loose as Dravec came in with the smashed door.
He was wild-eyed, raging drunk, berserk. His big arms were flailing. His eyes were glaring and bloodshot and there was froth on his lips.
He hit me very hard on the side of the head without even looking at me. I fell against the wall, between the end of the davenport and the broken door.
I was shaking my head and trying to get level again when Marty began to shoot.
Something lifted Dravec's coat away from his body behind, as if a slug had gone clean through him. He stumbled, straightened immediately, charged like a bull.
I lined my gun and shot Marty through the body. It shook him, but the Colt in his hand continued to leap and roar. Then Dravec was between us and Carmen was knocked out of the way like a dead leaf and there was nothing more that anybody could do about it.
Marty's bullets couldn't stop Dravec. Nothing could. If he had been dead, he would still have got Marty.
He got him by the throat as Marty threw his empty gun in the big man's face. It bounced off like a rubber ball. Marty yelled shrilly, and Dravec took him by the throat and lifted him clean off his feet.
For an instant Marty's brown hands fought for a hold on the big man's wrists. Something cracked sharply, and Marty's hands fell away limply. There was another, duller crack. Just before Dravec let go of Marty's neck I saw that Marty's face was a purple-black color. I remembered, almost casually, that men whose necks are broken sometimes swallow their tongues before they die.
Then Marty fell down in the corner and Dravec started to back away from him. He backed like a man losing his balance, not able to keep his feet under his center of gravity. He took four clumsy backward steps like that. Then his big body tipped over backwards and he fell on his back on the floor with his arms flung out wide.
Blood came out of his mouth. His eyes strained upwards as if to see through a fog.
Carmen Dravec went down beside him and began to wail like a frightened animal.
There was noise outside in the hall, but nobody showed at the open door. Too much casual lead had been flipped around.
I went quickly over to Marty and leaned over him and got my hand into his breast pocket. I got out a thick, square envelope that had something stiff and hard in it I straightened up with it and turned.
Far off the wall of a siren sounded faintly on the evening air, seemed to be getting louder. A white-faced man peeped cautiously in through the doorway. I knelt down beside Dravec.
He tried to say something, but I couldn't hear the words. Then the strained look went out of his eyes and they were aloof and indifferent like the eyes of a man looking at something a long way off, across a wide plain.
Carmen said stonily: "He was drunk. He made me tell him where I was going. I didn't know he followed me."
"You wouldn't," I said emptily.
I stood up again and broke the envelope open. There were a few prints in it and a glass negative. I dropped the plate on the floor and ground it to pieces with my heel. I began to tear up the prints and let the pieces flutter down out of my hands.
"They'll print plenty of photos of you now, girlie," I said. "But they won't print this one."
"I didn't know he was following me," she said again, and began to chew on her thumb.
The siren was loud outside the building now. It died to a penetrating drone and then stopped altogether, just about the time I finished tearing up the prints.
I stood still in the middle of the room and wondered why I had taken the trouble. It didn't matter any more now.
Leaning his elbow on the end of the big walnut table in Inspector Isham's office, and holding a burning cigarette idly between his fingers, Guy Slade said, without looking at me:
"Thanks for putting me on the pan, shamus. I like to see the boys at Headquarters once in a while." He crinkled the corners of his eyes in an unpleasant smile.
I was sitting at the long side of the table across from Isham. Isham was lanky and gray and wore nose glasses. He didn't look, act or talk copper. Violets M'Gee and a merry-eyed Irish dick named Grinnell were in a couple of round-backed chairs against a glass-topped partition wall that cut part of the office off into a reception room.
I said to Slade: "I figured you found that blood a little too soon. I guess I was wrong. My apologies, Mr. Slade."
"Yeah. That makes it just like it never happened." He stood up, picked a malacca cane and one glove off the table. "That all for me, Inspector?"
"That's all tonight, Slade." Isham's voice was dry, cool, sardonic.
Slade caught the crook of his cane over his wrist to open the door. He smiled around before he strolled out. The last thing his eyes rested on was probably the back of my neck, but I wasn't looking at him.
Isham said: "I don't have to tell you how a police department looks at that kind of a cover-up on a murder."
I sighed. "Gunfire," I said. "A dead man on the floor. A naked, doped girl in a chair not knowing what had happened. A killer I couldn't have caught and you couldn't have caught-then. Behind all this a poor old roughneck that was breaking his heart trying to do the right thing in a miserable spot. Go ahead-stick it into me. I'm not sorry."
Isham waved all that aside. "Who did kill Steiner?"
"The blonde girl will tell you."
"I want you to tell me."
I shrugged. "If you want me to guess-Dravec's driver, Carl Owen."
Isham didn't look too surprised. Violets M'Gee grunted loudly.
"What makes you think so?" Isham asked.
"I thought for a while it could be Marty, partly because the girl said so. But that doesn't mean anything. She didn't know, and jumped at the chance to stick a knife into Marty. And she's a type that doesn't let loose of an idea very easily. But Marty didn't act like a killer. And a man as cool as Marty wouldn't have run out that way. I hadn't even banged on the door when the killer started to scram.
"Of course I thought of Slade, too. But Slade's not quite the type either. He packs two gunmen around with him, and they'd have made some kind of a fight of it. And Slade seemed genuinely surprised when he found the blood on the floor this afternoon. Slade was in with Steiner and keeping tabs on him, but he didn't kill him, didn't have any reason to kill him, and wouldn't have killed him that way, in front of a witness, if he had a reason.
"But Carl Owen would. He was in love with the girl once, probably never got over it. He had chances to spy on her, find out where she went and what she did. He lay for Steiner, got in the back way, saw the nude photo stunt and blew his top. He let Steiner have it. Then the panic got him and he just ran."
"Ran all the way to Lido pier, and then off the end of that," Isham said dryly. "Aren't you forgetting that the Owen boy had a sap wound on the side of his head?"
I said: "No. And I'm not forgetting that somehow or other Marty knew what was on that camera plate-or nearly enough to make him go in and get it and then hide a body in Steiner's garage to give him room."
lsham said: "Get Agnes Laurel in here, Grinnell."
Grinnell heaved up out of his chair and strolled the length of the office, disappeared through a door.
Violets M'Gee said: "Baby, are you a pal!"
I didn't look at him. Isham pulled the loose skin in front of his Adam's apple and looked down at the fingernails of his other hand.
Grinnell came back with the blonde. Her hair was untidy above the collar of her coat. She had taken the jet buttons out of her ears. She looked tired but she didn't look scared any more. She let herself down slowly into the chair at the end of the table where Slade had sat, folded her hands with the silvered nails in front of her.
Isham said quietly: "All right, Miss Laurel. We'd like to hear from you now."
The girl looked down at her folded hands and talked without hesitation, in a quiet, even voice.
"I've known Joe Marty about three months. He made friends with me because I was working for Steiner, I guess. I thought it was because he liked me. I told him all I knew about Steiner. He already knew a little. He had been spending money he had got from Carmen Dravec's father, but it was gone and he was down to nickels and dimes, ready for something else. He decided Steiner needed a partner and he was watching him to see if he had any tough friends in the background.
"Last night he was in his car down on the street back of Steiner's house. He heard the shots, saw the kid tear down the steps, jump into a big sedan and take it on the lam. Joe chased him. Halfway to the beach, he caught him and ran him off the road. The kid came up with a gun, but his nerve was bad and Joe sapped him down. While he was out Joe went through him and found out who he was. When he came around Joe played copper and the kid broke and gave him the story. While Joe was wondering what to do about it the kid came to life and knocked him off the car and scrammed again. He drove like a crazy guy and Joe let him go. He went back to Steiner's house. I guess you know the rest. When Joe had the plate developed and saw what he had he went for a quick touch so we could get out of town before the law found Steiner. We were going to take some of Steiner's books and set up shop in another city."
Agnes Laurel stopped talking. Isham tapped with his fingers, said: "Marty told you everything, didn't he?"
"Sure he didn't murder this Carl Owen?"
"I wasn't there. Joe didn't act like he'd killed anybody."
Isham nodded. "That's all for now, Miss Laurel. We'll want all that in writing. We'll have to hold you, of course."
The girl stood up. Grinnell took her out. She went out without looking at anyone.
Isham said: "Marty couldn't have known Carl Owen was dead. But he was sure he'd try to hide out. By the time we got to him Marty would have collected from Dravec and moved on. I think the girl's story sounds reasonable."
Nobody said anything. After a moment Isham said to me: "You made one bad mistake. You shouldn't have mentioned Marty to the girl until you were sure he was your man. That got two people killed quite unnecessarily."
I said: "Uh-huh. Maybe I better go back and do it over again."
"Don't get tough."
"I'm not tough. I was working for Dravec and trying to save him from a little heartbreak. I didn't know the girl was as screwy as all that, or that Dravec would have a brainstorm. I wanted the pictures. I didn't care a lot about trash like Steiner or Joe Marty and his girl friend, and still don't."
"Okay. Okay," Isham said impatiently. "I don't need you any more tonight. You'll probably be panned plenty at the inquest."
He stood up and I stood up. He held out his hand.
"But that will do you a hell of a lot more good than harm," he added dryly.
I shook hands with him and went out. M'Gee came out after me. We rode down in the elevator together without speaking to each other. When we got outside the building M'Gee went around to the right side of my Chrysler and got into it.
"Got any liquor at your dump?"
"Plenty," I said.
"Let's go get some of it."
I started the car and drove west along First Street, through a long echoing tunnel. When we were out of that, M'Gee said: "Next time I send you a client I won't expect you to snitch on him, boy."
We went on through the quiet evening to the Berglund. I felt tired and old and not much use to anybody.
© Aerius, 2004