Sin In Their Blood
This page formatted 2007 Munsey's.
Ex-fighter, ex-cop, ex-private detective. Home after fighting in Korea, he wanted quiet—but a killer had other plans for him.
He and Matt had been partners before the war. Was now a professional blackmailer.
Sensual blonde Matt had gone with before the Army. Was now tied up with Loughlin. Matt couldn't see the combo.
Pint-sized eccentric. Had a queer hobby which Loughlin used as a source of information for his blackmail racket.
Matt moved into her house to keep tabs on her— wound up falling for her. Was somehow tied up with the killer.
Hired Matt to find the murderer of his sister. Paid him a large retainer—but Matt wasn't sure Saxton was on the level.
It was almost 10 a.m. and starting to warm up as I walked slowly down the main street, stopping every few minutes to rest my light bag. It's the kind of a street you think about a lot when you're out of town... and then return and wonder why the hell you ever looked forward to seeing it again. I took in the skyscrapers, the movie houses, the gin mills, the bookie joints that passed as cigar stores, the radio-station tower that disappeared into the blue sky, a modern monument to nothing. I watched the people hurrying by, the crowded restaurants and orangeade stands, the heavy traffic—and I knew the street didn't mean a thing to me any more. I suppose in the hospital I'd thought about it so often because it had been a dream then, a symbol of living. Now, as I looked up and down the busy street— this street that had been a big part of my life—all I could think was, where had I got it? In what bar or eating place or movie had somebody breathed deeply and given me the damn bug?
There were lots of places I could have gone to but I didn't have anyplace to go to, so I dropped into the Baker, the best hotel in town. I had less than seventy bucks and this was strictly a lush spot, but after eleven months of hospital beds, I wanted a little luxury for a few nights. As I walked across the impressive lobby, Abe Berg, the house dick, came toward me like a wobbly tank. Abe was a rough joker, once he got his mitts on you. He'd been a professional wrestler and his face had been stepped on a couple of times—and put together again carelessly. Some guys get by on their size, or rough talk—Abe got by on his face. He said in a shrill voice, “Matt Ranzino! You big bastard, heard you were the hero of that mess in Korea!”
“I was there,” I said, turning my head to avoid his breath as we pumped hands.
“On a case here?” Abe asked, then being a real bright detective he noticed my bag, added, “Staying here? I can get you the professional rate—40 per cent off.”
“I'm on nothing. Just got into town. Thought I'd put up here for a few days.”
“I'll fix you up with the desk.”
He banged me on the shoulder with one of his meat-hooks, and I thought I was going to fall over. I let go of his hand, stepped back out of his reach as he said, “Boy, you look in top shape. Whatcha weigh?”
“Two hundred... and five and a half ounces.”
“And hard as that old brick house,” he said, trying to slap me in the guts with his heavy left hand. I pushed that aside, said, “Take it slow, Abe, I... eh... ate a minute ago.”
“Sure. Stop in my office for a hooker?”
We went over to the desk clerk, who looked as though he just had the cellophane unwrapped from him. Abe introduced me as a buddy-buddy and whispered something into the clerk's ear and it must have been good—I only had to pay three bucks for a room and bath. I wanted to go up and lay down for a while, but Abe wanted to talk. He told the clerk, “Matt here was the toughest private dick in town.”
“Well, well,” the clerk said in a deadpan voice that must be an occupational disease with hotel clerks.
“He was a rough cookie. Say, every time I see this Humphrey Bogart doing his stuff in the movies I say to myself, them Hollywood jokers ought to get Matt Ranzino on the screen and really see a rough clown in action.”
“The house-dick business so bad you've become a publicity agent, too?” I asked Abe, and the clerk chuckled at this corn.
“It's the truth, ain't no stuff,” Abe said as I picked up my bag. We walked over to the elevator and he asked casually, “What you going to do, Matt, get your license again?”
“I don't know. Going to take it easy for a time.”
“Heard about your partner, Harry Loughlin? He's in the big money.” Abe said it as though the words tasted bad. “So I heard. What kind of agency he got?”
“You going in with him again?”
Abe gave me a horrible leer that was a gold-tooth smile. “Good! Listen what Harry's doing is... well, I ain't for talking about it, but it stinks. Really stinks big, Matt.”
“Harry's the lad to think up a fast hustle,” I said, moving into the elevator.
“A hustle is a hustle but this...” Abe shook his big head. “This is real crummy, worse than a two-bit pimp, or a—”
“See you around, Abe,” I said, motioning at the elevator operator.
There was a bellhop waiting at the room and I had to give him half a buck for unlocking the door. But he tossed the change on the bed, said, “You don't have to give me nothing, Mr. Ranzino. I was coming from school when you busted that drunken driver's jaw and...”
“Take the change.”
“No, sir. They had a hell of a nerve busting you from the force just because he was the mayor's cousin.”
“The mayor's family can never be a drunk,” I said. That was all only five years ago, now it seemed like another lifetime.
“I followed all your cases in the papers after that, felt I was reading about a friend. I mean, because I was in on that first thing. My name is Jim, Mr. Ranzino, and I'm no movie-happy jerk, but if you should open your own agency again, I'd like a job as office boy. Anything to learn the business. I'm small but tough as...”
“Ask Abe to tell you the secrets of the trade.”
“That ape, thinks he's funny giving you a grip-of-iron handshake. He told me all he knows in two minutes. I'm serious Mr...'”
“Don't know exactly what I'm going to do,” I said, “but I'll keep you in mind, Jim.”
His face showed the let-down at the brush-off, but he said thanks a million and went out. I locked the door, opened my shirt, stretched out on the bed. It was a big, soft bed, a big room. I wasn't tired and I couldn't sleep. I wondered why I'd ever come back to this town. Pops was dead, I had no one. And Abe and this Korea hero crap. And this dizzy kid—must be almost 17 or 18, army-bait unless he was lucky enough to be a moron.
I lay there, lazily wondering what to do—being out of a hospital was a little like getting out of stir. One thing, I'd have to find a room, give my change of address to the government as soon as possible. If my monthly check was held up too long, I'd be in a bad way.
I'd look around out at the beach—be the best place to live. Air wasn't too damp. Get me a cheap room there tomorrow—hell with this big bed.
I turned over and saw my wristwatch. It was after eleven and I went to the neat adjoining bath and washed out a clean glass thoroughly, was downing one of my multi-vitamin pills I had to take three times a day, when the phone rang.
“Hear you just got into town, Matt.” It was the smooth, almost purring voice of my former partner— and as unpleasant sounding as ever. Harry must really be a wheel, for obviously although he hated him—or said he did—Abe had phoned him the minute I went up to my room.
I asked, “What's new, Harry?” to be polite.
“Plenty cooking. You feeling okay, Matt?”
“That's swell. Must of had yourself a time with those nurses, coming to your bed and throwing it at you all the...”
“What's on your mind, Harry?”
“Why Matt, this is the first time I've talked to you in a year. Get the cigarettes I sent you every month?”
“That's odd, I sure sent them. Had Flo take care of it. Say Matt, like to make a little real talkie with you. How about dropping over to my office after lunch? Say about one-thirty?”
“See you then, Matt boy. Got a deal cooking at lunch, otherwise I'd break bread with you. I'm in suite 2111, the Grace Building. See you.”
I said okay and hung up. Harry was so smooth and full of crap it was comical... the way he told me he was in touch with Flo, and that my office jive. But I didn't give a damn about Flo or the office.
It was almost noon and I was hungry. As I crossed the lobby Abe pretended to read a paper and didn't notice me.
I walked down Main Street and all the eating places were full and I wanted to avoid crowds. Long as I was splurging, I dropped into The Glass Stem, one of the more expensive bars in town. The bar was crowded but most of the booths were empty. I took a booth, told the waiter, “Glass of milk and a lettuce and tomato sandwich on whole wheat toast.”
He had fish-eyes and a skinny face and he almost looked pop-eyed as he asked, “You say milk or beer?”
“Milk. Still serve that, don't you?”
“Make sure it's fresh.”
“Won't serve it if it isn't.” He turned toward the bar and called out, “Bob, we-got any fresh milk?”
The barkeep nodded.
A fat, hard face peered out of the booth in front of me, repeated, “Milk?” It was Tops Anderson, a big-time goon, and when his drunken, bloodshot eyes got me in focus, he grinned, said, “Well for—Jesus—Matt Ranzino!”
He got to his feet and I saw he'd put on weight the last year. He held out a pudgy hand and I shook it and he sat down opposite me, said, “Can't say you're a sight for sore eyes, but I always did like you. When you get back in town?”
“Bill!” Tops yelled. A lean young kid of about 20, with cool eyes and the cocky manner of a jerk who thinks he owns the world because he packs a gun, stood up in the next booth. He joined us, walking in a practiced, cat-like way. Tops said, “Bill, meet Matt Ranzino, one of the toughest dicks out. And say it with a 'D.'”
We touched hands; the kid had no use for dicks.
Tops went into the army hero pitch and when the waiter brought my milk, Tops said, “Forget that cow piss, bring us three ryes.”
I took the milk, said I wasn't drinking.
“What's the matter, used to lap it up. You don't want to drink with me?”
“I'm on the wagon,” I said, sipping my milk.
The snooty punk grinned and Tops shook his head. “You've changed. And things've changed since you been away, Matt. I own most of the juke boxes in town.”
“All of them,” the gunman added. He had an odd way of talking, biting off each word as though talking bored him.
I didn't say anything, went to work on my sandwich.
“Yeah, I cornea long ways since that time you sent me up.” Tops turned to Bill. “Matt's the only copper ever got me.”
“When was that?” the punk asked, to make conversation.
“Three, four years ago. I don't know, maybe longer. I was working for... never mind who. I was just a rough bastard, bouncing guys. Tossed some nut out of this bar and he landed wrong, got a concussion or something. So the dope is silly enough to sue and I got to throw out the process server too. He returns with a dick—Matt. I go for the both of 'em and Matt here breaks my lower plate with the fastest left hook I ever seen.”
The hood looked me over again, buttered up Tops with, “Beat you to the punch, boss?”
The waiter brought two drinks and Tops took his down in one gulp while Bill toyed with his. The kid didn't look like the type that ever let himself get drunk. Tops burst out laughing. “Hell of it was, I've beat some rugged raps, but I couldn't square this simple assault charge. I did three months. Matt, you sure got a kick in your hands.”
I finished my sandwich and milk, wondered if it was then I'd got it. But the doc had said it would have been during a strain, and Tops had been easy, he was one of those wild-swinging brawlers. And that had been too long ago—the bug would have died in my lungs before Korea.
“Yeah, Matt packs a kayo. 'Course, you kind of took advantage of me. If I'd have known you was a pug.... I was a handy-andy with a blackjack... then. Bill, you're looking at a guy who could have been heavyweight champ of the world, maybe. Hey Matt, you know Pops died while you was away?”
“Pops and his boys. Bill, make sense turning down a ring career to become a cop? And Matt was real good at it, too.”
“Dopey,” Bill said to his whiskey.
“I was just an amateur,” I said.
“Another crazy racket, fighting for medals,” Tops said. He lit a fresh cigar, handed me one. I shook my head and he dug in his pocket, came out with a pack of cigarettes. I shook my head again and his eyes got a little bright. “You don't want to smoke my cigars?”
“I don't smoke much, any more.”
“Yeah?” Tops squinted at me. “I might of been a great boxer myself, if I had the chance,” Tops said, his voice getting nasty. “It's a fact, Matt's the only guy ever flattened me, and I been in some rough brawls. Do any fighting in the army?”
“Not that kind.” I started to get up. Tops reached across the table and pushed me down with one hand— didn't push me hard, but still a push.
“What's the hurry?”
“Got an appointment.”
“I want to talk over old times.”
“Some other time,” I said, reaching into my pocket for change.
Tops said, “Your money's no good here, on me.”
“That's okay,” I said, leaving a dime and a nickel for a tip.
Bill said, “What a spendthrift!”
Tops roared with laughter, swept the change off the table. “Leave that for the busboy. Hey, Bill, know something, this Wop don't like our company.”
“Don't call me a Wop,” I said, and immediately wished I'd shut up.
Tops said in a mocking voice, “Sorry. See, he don't like us, don't like me calling him a Wop. Fancy Dago, ain't he?” His voice was loud and people were staring at us. The waiter was whispering nervously to the manager.
I said, “Forget it, Tops, you're drunk and I've places to go.”
“So I'm drunk! Know what I want to talk to you about, what I been thinking about sitting here, looking at your ugly kisser? I never liked you socking me around. Nobody ever done that to me, you got me with a Sunday punch. Know what, let's you and me see who's the roughest chum right now?”
“Some other time, I just ate,” I said, getting up. Tops got to his feet fast, for a guy in his condition. The punk got up quickly too, glanced around, said something to Tops who growled, “Naw, he ain't a copper no more. Hit the wrong slob and got hisself busted.” His eyes didn't leave me as he talked and now he asked, “We settle this right here, or should we go into the alley?”
I had the ball—was stuck with it! Tops was too stupid drunk to argue with. I knew the alley. I shrugged. “Let's go into the alley, I don't want to break any tables and property, knocking you around. Remember, you're starting this... and better take your plates out, no sense my busting them... again.”
The tough talk didn't work. “Damn right I'm starting it, going to kick the living slop out of you,” Tops said as we started for the kitchen door. This Bill pretended to brush against me and I shoved him aside, said, “Relax, punk, I'm clean.”
We walked through the kitchen, which was empty except for a short-order cook in dirty shirtsleeves, who stared at us with surprise. We stepped out into the alley and as Tops took off his coat and handed it to the punk... I ran like mad. Tops was too drunk to run and I knew the kid wouldn't be any trouble.
Nothing followed me—except Tops' astonished and deep laughter. The alley came out on a busy side street, as I knew it would, and I slowed down. I told the nearest cabbie to drive me to the park. I'd never run from anybody before, but I didn't feel bad, in fact I didn't feel anything. I was breathing hard and when I took my pulse it seemed too fast. I leaned back against the seat, shut my eyes, and waited for my heart to stop pounding.
I sat on a park bench for awhile, wondering what that short sprint had done to my left lung... the one they had once talked of collapsing. It was the first time I'd run, or even walked fast, in almost a year, and my throat felt a little raw from breathing too fast. I'd have to see Max, get a gun permit. Coming back to town was a mistake—there were too many characters like Tops around, waiting to take a poke at me. You return to your “home town” not because it's a good or bad town, but for no reason except it's “home town.” Well, that was for the birds, if I wanted to stay alive I'd have to get out of town—but fast. The next time there might not be an alley and a beating would kill me.
I sat in the park till one, then took a bus to the Grace Building, which was a swank office building not far from the bar I'd been in. Suite 2111 had AMERICA! AMERICA! Inc. printed on the door in small silver letters and the office was a lush affair—the walls of knotted blond pine, fancy leather chairs, thick rug, and pictures of Washington, Truman, and MacArthur on the walls in modern copper frames. The receptionist was a dull-looking, thin woman who told me, “Mr. Loughlin is busy. Take a seat, please.”
I sat down and in a few minutes a creep came out of an office and told the woman, “I'll be back by two, Miss O'Brien.” This frantic looked to be about thirty, was small and slight, and had thick glasses on a pimply face that seemed too big for the rest of his head. He wore a dark blue suit, a white shirt with a starched collar, and a dark black tie. His hair was a violent orange-red, and the only thing missing on him was a strait jacket.
Miss O'Brien said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Austin,” and Mr. Austin actually backed out of the office, his eyes, distorted by the powerful glasses, giving me a clumsy once-over. He sure looked like a nut or a hophead who needed a shot in a big hurry.
I glanced through several magazines I'd never heard of before, all of them full of super-patriotic junk, eager to explain what had gone wrong in Korea, and all of them had an article either called, “What MUST Be Done,” or, “Wake Up, America!” I tossed the magazines back on the end tables next to the smart brown leather couch I was sitting on. I knew damn well Harry was alone, giving me the waiting treatment to show his importance. I was about to ask the receptionist if she had the daily paper, so I could start looking for a room, when the door opened and I smelled the perfume before I heard, “Matt!” and she threw herself on my lap, her red mouth over mine. I pushed Flo aside, and jumped up, said, “Damn it, don't kiss me!”
The months hadn't hurt Flo. She still had the fluffy blond hair, the sensuous mouth, and her chic dress proved beyond any doubt she had a full figure and wasn't wearing a bra. Her firm full breasts seemed to be held at the nipples, like two jack-in-the-boxes, waiting to spring over the low-cut dress. But I really wasn't looking at her fleshy bosom or the long shapely legs and the bit of round thigh that showed as she sprawled on the couch—I was only watching that over-red mouth, afraid of it. I'd thought a lot about Flo... she'd been the logical candidate to give me the bug: Flo and her sloppy soul kisses, ramming her sharp darting tongue down my throat.
Flo bounded to her feet as Miss O'Brien watched with respect and disapproval, hugged me, and fortunately her mouth only reached my shoulder, smearing my shirt. She was wearing high platforms—her lips used to come about halfway up my chest, she got her kicks biting the hair there. She said, in the gushy way she had of talking, “Ah, Matt, Matt, it's so damn good to see you! How you, honey?” She pushed me away, looked me over with delight. “You still look so... oh... rough and big. Matt, I've missed you so goddamn much.”
“I can see that,” I said, glancing at the silver fox scarf, the rings and bracelets—all real stones. Flo spent a lot of time dressing herself, and if her taste was a little on the loud side, she never wore cheap stuff. It used to amaze me how she spent hours dressing—to be able to undress in seconds.
She giggled. “Hell, Matt, I had to do something, or go to work—for peanuts. It don't mean a thing, you're the only stud for me. You know that. Why the very sight of you sent a hot...”
There was a cough from Miss O'Brien and Flo muttered a female word under her breath—which was the last thing you'd think about the faded Miss O'Brien. Flo whispered, “Hon, I'll wait downstairs. Be in the yellow Packard roadster—it's mine. And don't pay no mind to whatever Harry tells you, you know where you really stand with me—and any time.”
“Well... I don't know how long I'll be with Harry....”
“Hon, I'll wait.”
Miss O'Brien said crisply, “Mr. Loughlin will see you now.”
Flo winked, said, “Don't forget, I'll be waiting.”
The receptionist began, “Mr. Loughlin is waiting...
I pushed Flo away, my hand touching a lot of soft cool skin and Flo looked at Miss O'Brien and repeated the four-letter word—loudly—and the woman blushed a deep red as she buzzed the door for me.
I went through a small room, a kind of foyer, lined with big metal filing cabinets, the fireproof expensive ones, with a thick lock on each cabinet. There was also a desk with a bronze nameplate: Thatcher Austin, Jr.
The creep came complete. On the wall behind the desk there was a small American flag with a scale model sub-machine gun hung under it. It was a good model and I was about to stop and examine it, when Harry opened the door of his office.
He hadn't changed: wiry, dapper, the thin-featured face all clean-shaven and with a trace of powder and nice smelling after-shave lotion. He had the same small hands, soft and well manicured, as always. Sometimes when he was on a real good binge, he'd paint his nails a mild pink.
“You big thug, you look fine!”
I said, “That's what everybody has been trying to sell me.”
He sat down behind his big metal and dark mahogany desk and I sat on one of these ultra-modern chairs that's supposedly molded to the shape of your behind. After the first few seconds, it was comfortable.
Harry said, “That wound and the hospital didn't do you any harm, you look fit. Those nurses as tail-happy as the jokes go?”
“Stop it.” Harry, knew more dirty jokes than any man alive, or maybe dead. And all of them funny—to a high-school kid.
“But you do look fine. I don't know, expected you to limp in with half an arm. Never did get that wound business straight—where were you hit?”
“In the head. Forget the wound and the war. What did you want to see me about?”
Harry gave me a small grin, examined his nails. “Same thing you wanted to see me about—get us both straight. Thought we might start off by getting things settled. Righto?”
“You're talking.” The “righto” was a new word for Harry.
He pressed a button and the bottom drawer of his desk gently slid open. He fumbled around with some papers—a few of our old letterheads—tossed them on the desk. “That's all that remains of our old agency.”
He waited for me to say something, then added, “Got a hundred and twenty bucks for the office furniture, but we owed that much in back rent, phone. Have it all itemized if you care to see it.”
“Take your word.”
Harry filled a straight-grained pipe and lit it. He puffed on the pipe greedily, watching me. He was smoking something that smelled like a mixture of sugar and Under The Arm No. 5. The whole pipe idea must have been part of Harry's new “executive” look. Finally he said, “What I'm saying, Matt, is, you're not a partner in this new set-up I have. But that doesn't mean you're not in. Want to work for me? Hundred a week to start.”
“You mean you expect to get a slice of this deal? It's all mine, you want a job, okay, but no partnership.” His voice grew shrill like it always did when he was angry.
“You can have it—all of it.”
He looked at me like I was bulling him, then leaned back in his red leather chair, sent out a big cloud of smoke that stunk up the room. I thought how odd it was that a weak character like Harry, a bag of bones, knowing almost the same people I did, going the same places, never got the bug. And with all my muscles, I had to get it.
“Matt, you're not sore about anything?”
“This job is a snap and...”
“I'm not going to work—for a while.”
“Just my pension. Rising prices are cutting it to hell, but I'll manage.”
Harry sucked on his pipe again, studied me. “There's one more thing—Flo. I took over while you...”
“You can have her too, along with the letterheads.”
“Matt, you've changed.”
“Flo fits in with my plans. I like a stupid girl, just a plain stupid one, not one of these educated stupid broads that drive you nuts with their complexes. Flo is...”
I stood up. “So long, Harry. I got to get some sleep.”
“Wait a minute. Sit down. I canceled two appointments so we could chat. Matt, I'll level with you, I have a gold mine here, but I need somebody I can trust to work with me. Give you a hundred and fifty a week, and it's no work. Sit down, let me show you something.” He took a four-page printed newsletter from the top of his desk, handed it to me. I read the first paragraph which had some hooey about “inside trends in America.” Across the top in big red letters was printed, CONFIDENTIAL! Destroy This After Reading!
Harry said, “I write that. Got a guy at the printers who goes over it for mistakes, does a polish job.”
“What is it?”
“Costs fifty bucks a year to subscribe to my newsletter, and I got over 1,800 suckers. Send it to them registered mail—big deal. Was going to charge them thirty dollars, then I thought of the registered-mail angle, added twenty to pay the postage. Impresses the hell out of 'em.”
“Out of who?”
“Businessmen. And if they don't subscribe, or let us screen their employees—for from five hundred to a grand, depending upon the number of workers—why then I smear them in the newsletter. It's surefire.... I can put a small concern out of business within three issues of my newsletter.”
“Screen their employees for what?” I asked, tossing the newsletter back on the desk.
“For Reds, or anybody they want to call a troublemaker. I don't care, I'll screen anybody for anything— long as there's a bundle of that green stuff on the line.. Hell, Matt, this makes the old strike-breaking racket look like small time...”
“I never went in for fink work.”
“Maybe being in the hospital you don't know it, but the whole atmosphere of America has changed. Everybody is scared stiff. There's a magic word—red. Hint that anybody is a Communist and their goose is cooked. Got to be very careful what you think and read these days. Notice those files in the other room? They're worth a million bucks to me, and I'm not just blowing off. Last year I stumbled on a joker called Thatcher Austin, a fanatic on the...”
“I saw him.”
Harry grinned—he'd even straightened out his teeth. “Something for the books, isn't he? Comes from one of the old blue-blood families—minor key society stuff. Except they been stony since way back to the '29 crash. Thatcher was never exactly all there....”
“He looks it.”
“Convinced himself the crash was all part of a revolution started by Al Smith, Roosevelt, and Stalin to make his family poor. He was nutty. So his folks found him a hobby, what they call mental therapy. He started reading all the papers and mags, including the union stuff and left newspapers, filed the names of everybody mentioned there. Tells me for fifteen years he used to work ten and twelve hours a day at it. Realize what that's worth under the McCarran Law? I've a file as good as the FBI's! And the Austin name comes in handy when contacting the big shots. It's a cinch— when we screen a plant or an office, even a school or church, all we do is cheek their employees against our files. Half hour's work and the big shots think I'm a regular Sherlock Holmes because I tell them Joe Blow, their elevator operator, attended a meeting for Roosevelt back in 1937, or something Joe Blow don't even remember himself.”
“What does buster need you for? What's his cut?”
Harry laughed and relit his pipe. “You won't believe this but all that jerk gets is sixty a week, his own desk, 'and a bright badge saying he's an honorary Deputy Police Chief. He's happy, and works like a bastard. But I've only scratched the field, Matt; with these files I can cover the country, no telling how big we can get... if I can find somebody I can trust. Be like old times, Matt, we were always a smart team.”
“I want to forget old times,” I said. “And I'm tired.”
Harry waved his hand, as if pushing me away. “I'll be the front man, make the speeches at the businessmen's luncheons, all that bunko. I'm good at it, know how to scare them crazy. You'd run the office, follow up my leads. It's a dream, no danger or rough stuff... and how the dough rolls in.”
“Legalized blackmail,” I said, thinking it was time for one of my vitamin pills.
Harry shrugged. “I didn't make the laws. All I know is it's legal, patriotic, and pays off. People are scared, worse than during Prohibition. Hell, now people are scared to even look at a sunset any more—it's red. Matt, you interested?”
“Nope.” I got to my feet again. “So long, Harry, have fun.” As I left the office I heard him say, “You dumb-ox, I'm offering you real dough for no work and...”
When I got downstairs and out on the sidewalk, a horn wailed and I saw, Flo behind the wheel of a sleek roadster. As I got in she asked, “You find an apartment yet, or shall we go to a hotel?”
“I'm going to the High Street police station.”
“Aw Matt, honey, you're sore about me taking up with Harry? I told you he doesn't...”
“I'm not steamed about anything, and stop climbing all over me. People are watching us.”
“Then let's go to a hotel. I know a...”
“Stop it, Flo. Things have changed—we're done.” She put her face next to mine and I twisted away from that mouth, asked, “Baby, you going to drive me to the police station, or do I walk?”
She moved away, started the car. “What's changed? If you're not sore, I mean, what else could I do, get a job in the five and ten or.... God, Matt, you weren't wounded there?”
“No. But I've been... eh... sick—and I didn't get a dose either. Look, baby, I've been away more than a year, and it's all over for us.”
“Who knows the way of these things? It just is,” I said, sounding like advice to the lovelorn.
She drove expertly through the heavy afternoon traffic. “Aw, Matt, I been looking forward to your coming back. Harry's no good. Sometimes I think he gets more delight out of teasing me, slapping me around, than going with me. You know how I tick, Matt, I got to have a real man.”
“You shouldn't have any trouble finding one.”
“I thought I had you.” Flo sighed. “I don't know, Matt, we should have married and settled down, and by this time I'd be fat and sloppy and with a house full of kids. Now I'm all mixed up. I have money—Harry's good that way, likes to see me dress flashy, the jewels, this car—but it all doesn't add up to anything. Things seem empty. All I think of is how good we had it. Maybe not much real dough, but we were made for each other.”
I don't know if it was smelling her, or hearing her talk and remembering—or what, but I was beginning to run a little temperature. Which was funny, because Flo and I were never romantic, merely good between the sheets.
The idea of kissing her, being with her, made me cold with fear and I said, “Cut the chatter, baby. That's over, forget us.”
“Just like that, two lousy words, forget us, and you think I can get you out of my system? It ain't like that, Matt. We could start over again, I'll give up the car and ice, or if you want, I'll stay with Harry, take his dough and see you till you get started and ready to...”
“You've become quite a gal.”
“You're the one to decide what I'll do,” she said, drawing up in front of this old run-down brick building that was the High Street precinct, parking beside the NO-PARKING sign. “Merely said that, Matt, to show you how much I need you. I'm desperate for a guy like you. Know how hard up I am? Even let that bedbug, Thatcher, have a piece now and then—for comic relief. Ought to see him, he's something, strictly a weirdie.”
“I bet. Aren't you playing close to home? If Harry found...?”
“Who the hell do you think makes me go with that nitwit!” Flo said savagely.
That figured, I didn't think the tin badge would be quite enough to hold the creep. I got out of the car. “Sorry, Flo, but I have my own troubles.”
She said, “Matt, look at me, I've been feeling... dirty... for months. Just seeing you makes me feel all fresh, and wanting you so damn much I have a pain in my guts.”
“Take some Turns,” I said like a dope and she began to cry. I reached in and squeezed her hand. “Didn't mean the corny crack, Flo. You're as pretty as ever and all that but... I can't explain it, baby, but it's over for us. Has to be that way. I don't want to hurt you but that's...”
She bent down and kissed my hand and I yanked it away, said, “Goodbye, Flo.”
“No, we'll talk some more about this. Matt, there isn't any other chick?”
“Nothing like that, it's merely that...”
“Then we'll talk more about us.”
“Maybe.” I waved and walked into the station, looking at the lipstick and spit on the back of my hand, wondering what it would show under a microscope. The desk sergeant was a cop I didn't know and I asked. “Captain Max Daniels in?”
He glanced at me with mild interest and picked up the phone. I asked, “Where's the can?”
He pointed toward a door I should have seen and I went in and washed off her spit, carefully washed my face and hands with strong soap. I was taking out one of my pills when I heard Max's hoarse, “Where is he?” and then he came barging into the John, slapped me twice on the back with his right—knocking the pill out of my hand—and threw a left at my shoulder. I stepped inside the punch and pushed him away, said, “Still carrying your left too low.”
We shook hands like mad and Max said, “You old miserable unbathed bastard, it's great to see you!”
He'd changed a little—his hair was graying along the edges and his face was fatter. But his clothes were still crumpled, he still didn't know how to shave—there were little patches of stubble on his face—and of course there was a big dent where I'd broken his nose.
He gave me the old double slap on the back again, asked, “What we standing here for? Come into my office—not that it looks any better than this craphouse.”
Max's office was a plain room with a battered and butt-burned desk, two chairs—one of them with a broken back—and on his desk were framed snapshots of his fat wife and the two little girls. On one of the green walls there was a small picture of Max in a fighting pose, cut out of the papers when he'd won the Golden Gloves heavyweight title. Max had been riding the gravy train as police department boxing champ for several years till I came along and beat his brains out. It was the start of a real friendship.
Max bent down to get his pint out—why do they always keep it in the bottom drawer? The top would be more convenient—and I said, “Not for me.”
He kicked the drawer shut, tilted his chair, the good one, against the wall. “Matt, I've missed your ugly puss. Going into the agency racket again? You want, I can get you back on the force, being a vet of two wars and all that. Hell, you're only 33, still retire before you're 50.”
“You mean retire to one of these two-bit night watchmen or messenger jobs so I could live on my pension?”
Max sent an oyster of spit into the tin wastebasket. “Going to get your license again?”
I stared at the wastebasket. Max? I'd never thought of that, could be.
He asked, “What's the matter?”
“What's your plans, champ?”
“To do a lot of nothing. Get a quiet room on the ocean front, take care of myself.”
Max looked at me with troubled eyes, rocked his chair. “Matt, what's wrong? You talk like a washed-up old man. You're still a kid, and you used to be tough as...”
“That's it, Maxie... used to be. They took all the toughness out of me in Korea, and in the hospital. I lay there for months, sweating out dying, losing a lung, fighting with them not to cut away my ribs... give me air.... I don't know, Maxie, I've always had confidence in myself, in my body, but now... I have to treat myself like I was made of delicate glass from now on. I can't risk...”
“What crap! I was in touch with the docs at the hospital; all you have is a scar on your lungs. Why half the people in the world have a scar on their lungs, had TB at some time and never even knew it. For all I know, maybe I have. And I heard about your running out on that goon Tops Anderson today. For Christsakes, what's happened, Matt, lost your grip?”
“Could be. Now I have to figure things like this: if I swing on a Tops, get into a brawl, I might open the scar again, really fix my wagon. Another thing, the docs said I probably got the germ in my lung before Korea—everybody has the germs inside them. So when I look at a Tops, or even you, I keep wondering if this is where I got it, if this bastard is the one who...”
“You've turned soft, sound like a dizzy hypochondriac. Why two years ago you would have slapped Tops loose from his teeth for even looking at you wrong!”
“That was two years ago. Max, why do we make such a big deal of being tough? All we see on the screen, the radio or TV is some joker bragging how tough and rugged he is. I didn't have much to think about in the hospital, so I figured out toughness. It's for the birds. Unless a guy is ready to take a stand—and that means ready to die—on anything, even getting called a louse or a SOB, then being tough is all a bluff, being a coward. And if you're really tough, ready to kill or be killed over a hard look—then you're stupid.”
“Sweet God, you talk like you're half dead, a...”
“That's what I am, half dead. And I don't give a damn about anything but seeing I don't become all dead. That's why I'm here—besides wanting to see you again —want you to do me a favor—get me a pistol permit.”
“Your hands are the best weapons you'll ever have. What you need a rod for?”
“You want me to make it formal? As a citizen I'm asking for a gun permit for protection. From time to time I'm going to run into other slap-happy characters like Tops, guys I once slugged, and this running is tough on my lungs. With a rod I could bluff my way...”
I stopped, for Max's fat face was twisted up as though he was going to cry. He shook his head sadly. “What's wrong with you? Running!... And you know I can't give you a permit on those grounds. Also you damn well know there's no point in packing a rod unless you're going to use it. That'd be great, getting sent up for knocking off a slob like Tops because you're scared to...”
“You won't get me the permit?” .
“Okay. I'll make application for one at police headquarters, anyway.” I stood up. “Say hello to Libby and the kids....”
Max got to his feet. “Wait a minute, can't we talk? For crying out loud, we're old friends and...”
“Sure we are, always will be friends. Only we each have to play things the way we see them. I...”
His phone rang and he waved a big hand at me, snapped at the receiver, “Yeah?... When? Headquarters... the bastards! 241 Hilldale Drive... Beatrice Wilson... Mrs. Get me a car, right away!” He slammed the receiver down, told me, “Got a juicy murder in my precinct. Come over with me.”
I glanced at my watch. It was almost three. “No, time for me to take my afternoon nap. I'll see you some...”
“Nap?” Max growled, grabbing his hat and then my arm, rushing me toward the door. “We can talk while in the car. What the hell, maybe the sight of a stiff will get you in harness again.'”
I didn't want to waste energy wrestling Max. I turned my head away from his, wanted to tell him I'd done my share of killing recently, seen too many bodies—mass murder. But I didn't say a word, and we picked up a young cop and jumped into the car waiting at the curb.
Max put the siren on and started cutting through traffic. The cop asked, “What's up, Captain?”
“Found a dame out on Hilldale Drive with her head bashed in.”
“Hilldale?” the cop repeated. “Ritzy neighborhood. What is it, robbery?”
“How the hell do I know? I got a phone, not a crystal ball!”
Max raced through the streets—although he was careful to slow down at the crossings when we didn't have the light—and within a few minutes he pulled up in front of a fairly new brick house—one of these expensive picture-window jobs set back on a well-kept lawn. There were several radio cars there and a cop keeping back a curious crowd of housewives and kids.
The cop next to me muttered, “Headquarters already here.”
We went inside and a fat cop pointed up a short flight of stairs. We rushed up and I said, “Take it slow, Maxie,” and we came into a large bedroom full of detectives and cops. The fingerprint men and photographers were already busy.
It was a nice bedroom, with pink drapes and candy-striped wallpaper. The bed had been slept in, the sheets were mussed, a dressing table and a couple of chairs were overturned and the dressing mirror smashed. The corpse lay on the bed, clothed in a blue silk negligee, a good deal of her naked, dead body showing—it had been a fairly interesting body, firm thighs. She was lying on her back and from what I could see, she'd been average pretty, maybe cute, for a dame in her late thirties. The back of her head was smashed in, her thick blonde hair messy with matted blood. A little metal table lamp lying near the head had evidently been the skull-cracker.
One of the detectives was standing by the bed, apparently measuring the setup with his eyes. He started to take off his coat, then, his eye catching something red, suddenly dropped to the floor on his hands and knees and peered under the bed. But it was only a pair of fuzzy red bedroom slippers. I guess he was disappointed.
Looking at the woman, I thought it had been years since I'd seen a dead white woman... but I'd seen so many yellow and brown dead women. In death, as in life,, they all looked the same except for the color of their skin. There was a joke that went something like that, Harry would know it. The only difference was this woman had died in her lush bedroom, the others I'd seen—you found dead yellow women along the roads, in the bombed and burned-out huts, or in the grotesque positions of those frozen to death. There'd been the one without any...
I was starting to feel uneasy again and I went into the adjoining bathroom, with its black tile and striped shower curtain and took my pill, cupping my hand under the faucet for water.
I came back into the room and stood around, and a guy from homicide talked to Max who seemed more interested in learning why headquarters had been notified before the local precinct. The homicide man said, “Who knows why? The maid, a Mrs. Florence Samuels, came in at noon. Thought Mrs. Wilson was out, started her work downstairs. When she came up here to clean, she found the body—looked up headquarters in the phone book.”
“Funny she didn't just ask the operator for the cops,” Max said. “And how come she starts at noon?”
“Seems Henry Wilson, husband of the victim, has been missing for a couple days. Mrs. Wilson was up late, worrying, and the maid didn't go home till after eleven. Claims Mrs. Wilson told her not to come in till noon on account of working late.”
“What's with the missing husband?”
“We haven't anything on him, yet. Evidently they had some kind of fuss, and he returned last night and knocked her off. Neighbors says the light was on all night in the bedroom, and they heard the sounds of a man arguing with Mrs. Wilson.”
Max said, “That doesn't mean it was the husband, could have been another John who...”
“One moment, sir!” a voice boomed and this heavy-set joker who had been sitting in one corner of the room, holding his head in his hands, came over. “I won't have you talking about my sister like that. There wasn't any man in her life except her husband. She was my sister, not a tart. And why must she be left half exposed like this?” He stooped to straighten out her robe and Max yanked him up hard, said, “Cut that! Who the hell are you?”
“Her brother,” the headquarters man said. “Mr. William Saxton, III.” He said it like he had big dough.
Saxton's meaty face broke into tears as he told Max, “Excuse me, I didn't mean to hinder you. It's simply that this... has been more than a terrible shock, the impossible thing one never expects to happen to his own. Poor Beatrice, I...” He burst into quiet sobs.
Max said, “Sure, this is tough on you, Mr. Saxton, a hell of a strain, but I want some info—and now. Where's Henry Wilson?”
“He couldn't have done this. Good Lord, he and Beatrice had a beautiful life, seven years of happiness and devotion, wonderful...”
“Nobody said he did it,” Max cut in. “Where is he?”
“I don't know where Henry is. I spent all day yesterday looking for him. Simply vanished two days ago— Friday night after he left the office—with two thousand dollars of the firm's money. Henry and I are partners in the manufacture...”
I wasn't interested in Max's or Saxton's troubles and the woman's limp dead arm reminded me of the arm of a guy in the hospital whose lung had suddenly collapsed on him during the night—his dead arm was hanging from the bed in the morning... like the woman's. I'd missed my nap and felt tired, and it was time for my milk.
I went downstairs and there was a swinging door leading into the kitchen, only the damn thing was warped and I had to put my shoulder to it before it opened. The maid was a thin, dark-skinned colored woman, maybe fifty, maybe older. She had a towel wrapped around her hair, was wearing a plain house dress, her stockings too big for bony legs that disappeared into a pair of old slippers. It was pretty unusual for a person to bother looking up the police number in a phone book when calling in a murder.
She was cleaning the gas stove and two young cops were sitting at the white kitchen table, smoking. One of them said, “Come on, Aunty, make us a cup of coffee. Got any doughnuts handy?”
“I'll Aunty you!” the maid told them in a high voice. “Get out of my kitchen!” ..
“Don't get tough, you old bag,” the cop said. “You may be in our kitchen soon—we do a special hose job on shines. All I'm asking is for a cup of Java and...”
“Shines! You have your filthy nerve! And don't you call me a bag, don't even speak to me! Sitting there so big, cluttering up my place and all because you got a badge, a...”
“Watch it,” the second cop said, “or you'll get that fresh mouth of yours slapped shut. Make us some coffee!”
“I'll make you some lye first!” the woman said, on the verge of tears.
“You're asking for a boot in the ass,” the first cop said. “Now get that...”
I said, “Captain Daniels didn't bring you here for coffee, or to be hanging around the kitchen.”
The two of them looked me over, trying to figure who I was, if I was from headquarters. They both crushed their cigarettes on the kitchen table and shuffled out.
The maid took a rag and wiped the table, muttering, “Pigs!”
I sat down and she said, “What do you want? Ain't no murder been done in my kitchen—stay upstairs where you belong!”
“I wonder if I could get a glass of milk, Miss Samuels?”
She looked at me for a moment, then said, “At least you got enough manners to call me Miss. And it's Mrs.”
She took a container of milk out of the big spotless icebox, poured me a glass. I sipped it slowly so as not to chill my guts. She asked, “You a detective?”
“The detectives are upstairs.”
“Hump! lot of good they'll do. Even if they find the killer—lot of good that will do. They won't touch him.”
“If they find him, they'll take care of him,” I said, thinking how sure she was it was a “him,” wondering why she had hesitated before phoning the police.
“They usually do. Cops like convictions.”
She grunted, turned on me and said fiercely, “They'll do nothing, not a mumbling thing—you'll see!”
I finished my milk and wondered if I could leave, go back to my hotel and get my nap. Waiting around the house would only get me a ride back to town, and more of Max's pep talk.
Mrs. Samuels kept puttering around the stove, mumbling, “Them asking me all sorts of fool questions. As though I wanted Miss Beatrice to die. Or hinting Mr. Henry murdered his wife. Like asking the earth if it killed a seed. Say that to say this, wasn't a sweeter, more lovey-dovey couple than them two. Fine people, good to work for. Woman keep her dignity working for them. Why I wouldn't do nothing to...”
“Yeah. Well, thanks for the milk,” I said, getting up. The door wasn't stuck from the kitchen side.
My timing was lousy. I was crossing the hallway when Max and this Saxton came down the stairs. Max said, “Matt, have something for you.” And I didn't like the happy note in his hoarse voice.
Saxton said, in a selling voice, “I understand you are a crackerjack private detective.”
“If you mean I come with corn—yeah.” They didn't get my little joke. “I used to be a private dick.”
“Listen, Matt,” Max cut in, “Mr. Saxton mentioned he was so anxious to clean up the death of his sister, he was going to hire a private investigator to help us. Of course I thought of you.”
I almost laughed in Max's puss. That private investigator stuff, and a copper likes to have a private dick around a case the same way a rat loves to have a kitten around. But Max was going to rehabilitate me—as though the hospital hadn't tried enough of that.
“I can't take a case, I'm not licensed,” I began.
But Saxton boomed, “I know, and I want you to start at once—this very second! Suppose I don't hire you as a detective but as a... eh... secretary? I want everything possible done on this... case. The smallest detail investigated. I'm willing to pay you fifty dollars a day, starting as of this minute.”
“Be wasting your dough,” I told him. “Been over a year since I've worked and...”
“Fine! Fine! I like that—honesty, a rare quality,” Saxton said.
“And you couldn't find a better man. Matt was tops in his field,” Max said, giving me the eye.
I didn't say anything and Saxton said, “I don't expect miracles, but thorough work. Now Mr.... eh...?”
“Ranzino,” Max said.
“Are you working for me, Mr. Ranzino?”
“Well...” I was far from flush and even if I worked two days it meant a hundred—almost a month's pension. And this joker was too eager to give me his dough.
“Take it, Matt,” Max said, giving me the double pat on the back that annoyed me. “Wouldn't ask you unless I thought you could help.”
“Okay,” I said. “But you know in front where I stand, I'm rusty and...” I was about, to add, “And not too well,” but Saxton boomed, “I understand,” and shook my hand. He had a big hand and a powerful grasp. “I'll give you a retainer. Hundred do?”
I nodded and he pulled out a checkbook, looked around for a table, then pushed the kitchen door open with one finger and we all went in and he sat down and wrote me a check.
I waved it to let the ink dry and Max said, “Now let's go down to the station and talk. Start from the beginning and see what we end up with.”
I said I'd stay there and Saxton told me to keep in touch with him and I said I would and they went out. I pocketed the check and the maid asked, “You a detective now?”
“Seems so.” I went out and tried the kitchen door again. It was still stuck. For a man his age—or any age—Saxton was damn strong... or I was weaker than I thought.
Outside, I took a fairly deep breath and looked around for the nearest bus. I walked to the corner, noting the fine houses on the block, thinking of that old fine about the rich and poor having one thing in common—death. I felt tired and hailed a cruising cab— now that I was in the dough.
In my room I undressed to my underwear and went to bed. It took me some time to fall asleep. I thought of Harry and how the nance in him was coming out more and more. I could see it after being away all this time. Flo got hooked up with the wrong guy this trip—even for the car and the money. And having to sleep with the creep as a topper. It was a crazy scared world I'd returned to—frightened worse than the world of the hospital. There it was simple: either you lived or you died. Here... nothing added up. And I was the silliest joker of them all—getting fifty bucks a day for a case I didn't give a damn about, didn't intend to do any work on. Maybe that maid was right when she said nothing would be done—maybe she had me in mind, ..without knowing it.
But Saxton was crazier—he was paying me. And Max, the Big Brother, helping me rook Saxton.
But I didn't feel bad about the rooking. I didn't feel anything, one way or another, except tired.
I awoke early and felt pretty good—I'd had over twelve hours shut-eye. I took a warm shower, examined my body in the mirror as I dried myself. This was my second day out of the hospital and I was still alive. After a big breakfast I dropped in at Saxton's bank, identified myself with my VA papers, cashed the check. Mrs. Wilson's murder was in the morning headlines and the teller looked at Saxton's signature, said, “Hard to believe Mrs. Wilson is dead.”
“She had an account here, saw her a few times. But Mr. Wilson came in every day. He's a swell guy. You know what I mean, real friendly, even though he's a big manufacturer. Papers are crazy, hinting he did it.”
“Never tell what makes a guy murder.”
“But not Mr. Wilson—never heard Henry raise his voice. He and I are members of the same Masonic Lodge. I know him pretty well. There isn't a nicer guy. Ask anybody.”
“Haven't time,” I said, counting the ten tens and walking away.
I stopped at the VA office and after waiting awhile saw a snooty young doctor named Kent, who told me, “Report here every two months for a check-up. Of course if you should feel sick, raise a fever, spit blood, have a bad cold, get in touch with us immediately.”
“Want to look me over now?”
“Why? Only 24 hours since you were released from the hospital. Feel all right?”
“Good as I can,” I said. He had a folder on me the hospital must have sent along and he thumbed through this, then stopped and read a page and looked up at me with puzzled eyes. So he knew. I didn't give too much of a damn about that. Being called a coward never worried me much—didn't mean a thing now. No one had ever exactly called me that. Still it was in his eyes. But what the hell did he know, sitting here in his comfortable office? Probably had a bum heart or a doc his age would be in the army.
When I left him it was only eleven and I started to look about for a room, but decided I ought to see Max, find out what was new on the great case.
Max gave me the double slap on the back before I could pull away, asked. “Dig up anything?”
“Plenty. Henry Wilson was a swell guy.”
Max raised his eyes. “Was?”
“Slip of the tongue,” I said casually. Max had missed some gray hairs under his chin this morning. “What's new on the murder?”
“Not a damn thing. We'll pick up Wilson soon—wired every police department in the country, checking airlines and trains. Can't figure the motive. From all the dope we can turn up, they were a happily married couple, both active in civic organizations, country club. Far as we can dig, he wasn't skirt-chasing.”
“What do you know about him?”
“Not too much. No record. He and Beatrice Saxton met in college. He was drafted in 1942, wounded in Africa, discharged in '44. They married then. He was born down South, doesn't seem to have any relations. All we can find out is he's one of these clean-living boys: played penny-ante poker and good bridge, worked out at the “Y” regularly, did the golf course under a hundred, stuff like that. Saxton took him into his chair business—Saxton seems to have liked the guy from the start—and Wilson was good, built the business up to where it is now. He had money—made about fifteen grand a year—position, a pretty wife, was well thought of. Lovely, isn't it?”
“Where was he wounded—in the head?”
“Checked that. Bullet almost cut his leg off, but it healed up okay. The maid's alibi checks. As for the corpse, can't find any enemies or boyfriends. Of course we're still looking into that.”
“How's his nibs, Saxton, stand up?” I asked.
“A little too anxious, but strictly a pillar-of-the-community character. Big joiner, member of the Chamber of Commerce, Lions, Rotary, Elks, comes from an old family. They were orphaned when he was 20, and he took care of his sister. Worked hard, sent her through college. Loved her and, as I said, liked Henry. This is going to be a tough one to crack.”
“Where was Saxton Sunday night?”
“Take it easy, his being anxious don't mean a thing— he spent the night with his girlfriend. A bachelor, but he's been keeping a Madeline Moore out at White Beach. He came there for supper Sunday, they killed a bottle, and went to sleep. He left her Monday morning at eight, drove to the factory.” Max wrote an address on a slip of paper, gave it to me. “Here's her address if you want to check. What have you been doing?”
Max looked hurt. “Aw, Matt, snap out of it. You're taking the guy's money and...”
“I do my best work when I'm sleeping.” I stood up. “Check with you if I learn anything. Know where I can find a room—around the beach?”
“Saxton was asking about you this morning. At least drop over to see him. He's at the factory.”
As I was waiting for a bus on the corner, a big car passed and the guy at the wheel turned to stare at me for a split second, his sharp face full of hate. I vaguely remembered him as a junky I once had pinched and roughed up, although the arrest hadn't held. I went to the nearest hockshop and bought a pigskin shoulder holster. I wore it over my heart and when I buttoned my coat. An experienced eye could plainly see the outline. It wasn't a bad bluff.
The Saxton Chair Company, Inc., was a modest three-story factory, a squat old brick building that seemed humming with activity. It was time for a pill and I dropped into an empty bar across the street from the factory, ordered a glass of stout. The barkeep was a fat old man, busy reading the papers. He was reading about the murder and I asked, “A juicy killing—ever see this Henry Wilson?”
“You bet. Regular guy. Dropped in here every afternoon for a cocktail. Why he was in Friday—day they say he disappeared. Didn't seem to have a care in the world. Say, even the workers in the factory liked him. Salt of the earth, no airs, or bossy ways about him. Why he won the baseball pool here one day last summer and spent it buying drinks on the house.”
“Saxton the same?”
The barkeep screwed up his fat face. “That do-gooder! He tried to have my license revoked when I opened—didn't want his workers drinking. Know what he is, one of these babies that talks dry but knocks off a bottle at home. Always shooting off his mouth in public about the evils of drink, but I can spot a rummy and... He a friend of yours?”
“Nope. I'm merely passing through.”
The old man studied my face, his eyes worried. “You're a dick! Sure, I remember you... when I was tending bar at the Silver Spoon on 4th Street. Sure, you once flattened two guys who were acting loud and wrong. Now listen, this is my own joint and everything is run according to the rule. Quiet joint, no fights or dancing, never sell to minors or...
“Stop running yourself down. I used to be a dick— I'm nothing now.”
He hesitated, then returned to his paper and I finished my stout and went across the street to the factory. The girl at the switchboard asked my name and what I wanted and I said, “Tell Mr. Saxton his secretary is here to see him,” and she stared at me as though I was crazy.
Saxton's office was large, plainly furnished, everything looking as though it had been there for years. He slipped me the iron handshake again, asked, “Found anything, Mr. Ranzino?”
“Nothing the police don't know.”
“I imagine these things take time. I simply can't believe Henry would do this. Lord, he was like a brother to me. The police are so sure he did it... yet... I don't think he could. Although, frankly, he's been a bit upset the last few weeks. Once told me he and Bea were having a little family trouble. And I think he was gambling or something.”
“You mean the two grand that's missing?”
“Yes, and several times in the past month he borrowed from me—ten and twenty dollars. Really nothing for a man of his income. And I'm sure his fight with Beatrice was just one of those things. If Henry would only show up—I can't understand it.”
Saxton looked at me as if I should understand it, so to do something I made with the talk. “You have a partnership will—where the surviving partner gets the entire business in case of the death of the other partner?”
“I believe we have,” Saxton boomed. “That's the usual procedure in a partnership, although according to law, we're incorporated.”
“How about his insurance and bank accounts—all in order?”
Saxton nodded. “Far as I know. Of course we can't open his vault box, or make much of an investigation, till Henry returns.”
“Mrs. Wilson—have any money of her own?”
“No. Oh, maybe a few hundred dollars.”
I couldn't think of any more silly questions, so I sat there, waiting, and Saxton waited and after a moment I got to my feet and he asked, “Care to look around his office? Right through that door.”
I went into the adjoining office, which was about the same size as Saxton's, but painted a canary yellow, had several paintings on the wall—abstract stuff—and a red leather couch with a magazine rack beside it. The chairs were red-webbed leather and the desk was some sort of ebony wood and very modern. There was the usual framed picture of his wife on the desk, a picture taken several years ago, and she had a good face, not beautiful or flashy, but warm and attractive. I banged a few drawers loudly—for Saxton's benefit. There couldn't be anything in the office, the cops had been over it.
There was a closet with a raincoat hanging in it and an old pair of rubbers. Another door opened on a small bathroom. There was a hanging bookshelf above the John and I grinned—this Henry loved his comforts. The books were a couple of best-sellers and one titled, A Study of Geometric Planes and Angles. It was a worn book and I wondered why a guy would read that in the can and when I opened it, a large folded paper fell out. It was a deed to a cabin up on Arrow Mountain, dated two months ago.
I pocketed it—couldn't be possible the cops were that sloppy—returned to Saxton's office. He was leaning back in his chair, dictating a letter into a machine. I stood there, waiting. On his desk, among the morning mail, I saw a copy of America! America!
Saxton turned off the machine and I pointed to the newsletter. “That any good? My former partner runs it—Harry Loughlin.”
Saxton looked at me with new interest. “Oh. Heard him speak—energetic chap. I was one of his first subscribers. Henry was against it, but if we ever wanted to get in on defense contracts, had to be on the safe side. Finished with the office?”
I dropped the deed on his desk. He read it, his big face showing mild surprise. “Henry never mentioned this. Sometimes went hunting, but I'm surprised he never said anything about buying a cabin.”
I beat him to the question. “Want me to look the cabin over? Arrow is about fifty miles from here.”
“Think it would be worthwhile?”
“Never tell what may be a lead. I haven't a car.”
“You can take mine.” He handed me the keys and told somebody over the interphone I'd be down. He said, “I won't need the car before five, you'll be back by then. Probably a wild goose chase... but.”
He said it all very nicely—not too much of a straight face. He tried to break my hand again as we shook and I left. He had a heavy Caddy, about three years old, but well kept. I hadn't driven a car in too many months and it felt good to be behind all that smooth steady power. The roads were empty and I made it in an hour. It took me another twenty minutes to locate the cabin. A kid in a gas station pointing it out to me, said, “You buy it? Heard it was sold months ago.”
“Anybody living there?”
“No. You didn't buy it?”
It was a new cabin, made of logs or imitation logs, and set off by itself up on a wooded rise. I parked the car and walked up the slope, puffing a little. There were dark-blue burlap curtains over the window, but nothing moved. I was a fine target for anybody in the cabin, but I had a pretty good idea whoever was in there wasn't in any shape to do much shooting, or anything else.
I knocked, to be polite, and there wasn't any answer. I waited till I had my breath back again, took my pulse which surprised me by being normal, and tried the door.
It didn't feel like much of a lock. I put my shoulder to it twice.
There was an overturned chair, and the straight legs of a man—a man hanging from the rafter by a clothesline. The place had a slight stink and I judged Henry Wilson had been, dead for two days, or longer. Some field mice scampered away from the remains of a loaf of bread and some moldy meat on the table. There was an open fountain pen lying there, several crumpled sheets of paper—none of them with any writing. Wilson stared down at me with the vacant look of the dead. He had on an open white shirt, and the pants of a business suit. The coat was flung on a bed in the corner. Wilson was built like a welterweight, slight but compact, seemed on the handsome side. I saw a key inside the door, tried the windows—they were easy to open and shut. I put my handkerchief back in my pocket, didn't touch anything else.
I went back down the hill, drove to the gas station, called Max. He said he'd be right out. It was a little after one and I drove back to the cabin, walked up the hill slowly, watching my breathing—I didn't puff much —remembered it was time for my pill. I went to the sink and found the water off. There was a small valve under the sink, but I didn't turn it on, swallowed the pill dry. I'd had a lot of experience lately swallowing pills—wet or dry.
I sat on the doorstep and it hardly seemed any time at all before I heard the lonely wail of sirens and Max and Saxton and half the police department were charging up the slope. They all were puffing.
A doc cut Wilson down and said he'd died sometime Sunday morning, and Saxton looked thoroughly upset. Max actually shook my hand, gave me a line about a job well done and Saxton thanked me, gave me another check for a hundred for “excellent work.” I protested—lightly—that he'd already paid me for the two days I'd put in, but he shook his head and sat down and stared at the floor.
While everybody was gassing about the suicide and the case being closed, and being busy-busy, I said goodbye, or maybe I didn't bother, and got a ride back to town in a radio car. I didn't blame Max too much, he had a solution, an answer that fitted, why should he look for more work? Of course actually Saxton had killed his sister and brother-in-law; the only reason he hired me was to make damn sure the cops found the body.
Maybe I should have told Max about the water being off—not that it was conclusive proof of anything, still it could be enough for a starter, a real investigation. But what would that get me? I didn't give a damn about the case, who killed who, didn't want to get on it in the first place. Max was happy, so was Saxton, and I had two hundred bucks and was tired.
I slept most of my way back to town and it was only 3 p.m. and I decided I'd had my afternoon nap. I took a bus out to White Beach to look for a room. There weren't many VACANCY signs out, and what rooms were for rent were either about the size of a phone booth or must have been built of uranium and priced accordingly. But it was sunny and it felt good to walk along the beach, near the ocean.
By five I was ready to give up and go back to town when I passed a cottage and the number stuck in my mind. I got it after a moment—this was the house of Saxton's girlfriend, his alibi, Madeline Moore. I dug through my pockets, found the address Max had given me, and my memory was right. More out of curiosity to see what a clown like Saxton went for, I rang the bell.
I was surprised. A tall girl with a strong figure opened the door. Her face was good-natured rather than pretty, with large, frank eyes, a big heavy mouth, and a lot of dark hair that reached her shoulders. She was wearing short woolen socks, sandals, and a skirt and a blouse she must have put on in the dark. There wasn't a trace of make-up on her face—not that it would have helped things much, yet it was a face I liked.
For a moment we didn't speak, while I quickly ran my eyes over her body—as a guy does to every girl, and she did the same to me... but slower. Then she said, “Oh damn, another dick! I spent all day yesterday telling you guys all I know. And then it was the reporters. Why don't you leave me alone?” Her voice was throaty and for some reason excited me.
“I'm looking for a room. Do you...?”
“Bullshit, you've got detective written all over your pan, and those big shoulders.”
“I used to be a cop, but I'm not now. Honestly, I'm looking for a room.”
“My, isn't it simply a ginger-dandy coincidence you just happened to stop at my place! You see a VACANCY sign around here?”
“On the level—I was on the case as a sort of private eye, hired by Saxton but now that...”
“What's he doing, checking up on me?” she asked, her eyes still roaming over my body, measuring my shoulders—embarrassing me.
“Look, the case is over, they found Wilson's body and I...”
Her eyes looked shocked. “His body? Mr. Wilson dead?”
“Suicide—they say. Now...”
“Gee, he was a nice guy. Well, I guess he must have done it, but you'd never think it, looking at him. Never raised his voice or...”
“Anyway, I was down here looking for a room and... your address stuck in my mind.”
“This isn't a rooming house. Mr. Wilson dead...?”
“You know of any rooms? Cheap ones? I'm on a pension, and not very well. Have to rest. I was hurt in Korea and...”
Something in her face changed, I don't know exactly what, but she almost seemed as if she was going to weep. “Come in, Mr....”
“Matt Ranzino, Miss Moore.”
“Mrs. Moore. You see... my... my husband was killed at Taegu. Here...” We were in a small living room furnished with the kind of stuff you pay a few bucks down and another couple of bucks a week for. She opened a thick leather-bound book and showed me a small black-bordered picture of a cocky corporal. The book was one of these regimental history things. I was surprised they had them out so fast—usually takes a few years before they're issued. But a quick buck will always find an eager-beaver. The guy was wearing a tank helmet, looked handsome and big—about twenty-two. Madeline's head was near mine and I realized she couldn't be much more than that herself—a big kid.
A big kid with the faint odor of whiskey on her big breath.
Staring at the picture for a long moment, she said, “We were jobbed. Hardly had more than a few months of marriage. Then... Tell me about Korea, if you want to talk about it.”
“Those yellow savages! What did they do to you boys?”
“They gave us a rough time, when I was there. But let's forget the war,” I added, afraid she was getting ready to cry on my shoulder. “Let's get back to now— do you know of a room?”
“I've an extra bedroom here. Been thinking of renting it out but... I... eh... never got around to it. I wanted a girl, but the hell with it.”
She never got around to it because Saxton didn't want anybody else in the house. If she would take me in, she must be washed up with Saxton. But if she wasn't.... I didn't want to get into any messy deal. I said, “That's right, would look odd having a male roomer in this small cottage. Best I...”
“Forget that. I gave up worrying what the neighbors thought a long, long time ago. You want a room—take a look at this.”
We went through the kitchen and into a fairly large bedroom with a big double bed, a chest of drawers, and a small table-bookcase beside the bed. The sun was streaming in past the red polka-dot curtains and the whole room had a sort of homy atmosphere—something my hotel room lacked. I said, “How much you asking for...?”
“Whatever you want to pay. I'm so far behind on my mortgage payments, it won't make much difference.”
“Well...” I wanted to say six bucks, but I knew that was too cheap. “Eight a week be okay?”
“You have a room, Matt. And call me Madeline, using last names is silly. You can use the kitchen any time you feel like cooking. Guess the bed will be big enough for you. You've got some pair of shoulders up there.”
“Worked in a warehouse when I was a kid, got the shoulders juggling trunks.”
“Biggest I ever saw,” she said, and ran her hands over my shoulders, felt of the muscles in my arm, poked her finger against my stomach. It was the first time I'd let a girl so... so brazenly feel me up, and I felt like blushing, and then like laughing.
“I like a man to be a man. A...”
“And a woman to be a woman?” I asked. This kid was really something—or she was drunk.
“All right, stop making like clever. Sure, a woman to be a woman. But a man should be big and hard. Billy— my husband—he used to hang around muscle beach, did acrobatics. Gee, hard to think a lousy little hunk of lead could kill all that man. Want a drink?”
“No, thanks.” I took out my wallet. “Here's two-weeks rent.”
She took the sixteen bucks, and I said I'd be back in an hour or so with my suitcase, and she went into her bedroom—which was furnished about the same as mine, didn't even have a dressing table, and took a key out of her pocketbook, said, “Most times I forget to lock the door, but here's your key. And if the front door is locked, back door is always open.”
I said thanks and tried not to laugh. I took the bus back to the hotel, checked out, and was looking around for Abe to see if he could get the desk to cash my check, but he was out to supper. On second thought I figured it would be a mistake to let him know too much of my business. I had a light supper and two glasses of milk, and got to the cottage at about seven. There was a burly joker sitting in a battered car parked near the house and he gave me the eye, but I couldn't recall ever having seen him before, told myself I'd have to get over the jittery feeling every time some big ape looked at me.
Madeline wasn't home and I hung up my few things, wrote the Finance Office and told them where to send my checks. I'd had a big day and was pretty tired, but figured I should mail the letter at once.
The stars were just coming out and the air was clean and cool and I left the mailbox and walked along the beach, kicking up the sand with my big feet. It reminded me of machine-gun bullets ripping up the ground. Tomorrow, I thought, I'll get a lot of sun, and some swimming wouldn't hurt.
I was watching the Pacific, thinking of Korea on the other end of the water, when I heard footsteps in back of me and as I turned I was tackled from behind and went sprawling on the sand. I felt like I'd been hit by a ton. My breath shot out of me with a terrifying ssssish! I tried to turn over and then I saw this burly guy jump in the air and land on my chest... and I could picture my lungs collapsing.
I went limp, fighting for breath, afraid to move and this goon was half astride me, cursing and punching, working his knee toward my groin. His blows didn't hurt much, except for one I stopped with my eye, and I kept rolling my head from side to side, trying to escape the punches. But it didn't work, there wasn't enough space.
There wasn't much point in lying there getting crushed to death while he found out he'd made a mistake, unless this was robbery—which I doubted—so I got my left hand over his mouth and nose and pushed. He went backwards a bit and I raised my shoulders and hips off the sand and slugged him in the belly.
His grunt was loud in the quiet of the beach and he dropped his hands to his stomach and rolled off. I sat up and got a solid left cross on his big jaw and he fell on his side—out cold. I jumped up and looked around to see if anybody was with him, but the beach was empty, just the lights of the cottages across the road. The guy was still out and I felt of my chest, surprised it was still there, took a deep breath. I was puffing and sweating, but otherwise okay. I sat down in the sand again, watching him and resting. My right eye was swollen and there was a small taste of blood on my mouth. For a moment the blood gave me a hell of a fright—I was sure I'd hemorrhaged. I ran my tongue over my lips and felt the cut there and nearly cried with relief.
“Bully-boy started to stir and I opened my coat and sat so the moonlight played on my shoulder holster. I got to my feet and when he started to sit up, I slapped him sharply across the forehead and he tried to kick me and fell over backwards. He was just a big fat soggy slob. He lay there, staring up at me with angry eyes and I knew that slap had left him dizzy. I asked, “What's your story, fat boy? Why the rough and tumble play? Got me mixed up with some other guy?”
“I know who you are.” He rubbed his jaw, touched his stomach. “Jesus, you hit hard.”
“Talk or I'll give you a real going-over. Who the hell are you?” I was sure rusty, I hadn't even frisked him.
“Stay away from Madeline!”
“What? Why, you dummy, I'm only rooming at her house. I'm not...”
“Stay away from her!”
“I never saw her till a few hours ago. I'm not cutting in on your time or...”
“Ain't no time, I'm her brother.”
I touched my holster. “Get up.”
“I warn you....”
He scrambled to his feet and I looked him over closely in the moonlight and could see the resemblance—the same careless features. I dropped my hand, “Listen Madeline's brother, you got something awful wrong. Told you I never saw her till this afternoon. I was looking for a room and she rented me one. That's all.”
He sighed, worked his jaw, then said, “That's what she said. How come you picked her house?”
“I was-working for Saxton—on the Wilson murders— remembered Madeline's address when I came down here for a room.”
He spit out a glob of blood, straightened his suit and tie. “That lousy bastard, whatcha working for him for?”
“For a hundred bucks. What's your angle in all this, blubber?”
“Hell, let's sit down, I feel shaky, like there's a hole in my stomach. Never even saw that punch to the jaw,” he said, and I followed him across the sand, to a bench.
“A licking; as though I haven't got enough troubles. Got plenty of my own troubles and I got to watch Mady too. She's a good kid, only people don't understand her. She's been hitting the bottle. Don't like that, but I can't blame her too much. She's had a rough time.”
He lit a cigarette, offered me one. I shook my head. I didn't mind listening to his family troubles, I was curious about Madeline.
He said, “I'm Joe, the oldest one, Joe Shelley. Then there's Pete—a few years older than Mady, and her. I was almost a man, about fifteen, when she was born, and I always been looking out for her... you know how it is with kid sisters.”
“I never had none.”
“Pop died two months before she was born—heart attack. Ma died when Mady was ten. Me and the Wife raised her, and Pete. I've been like a father to her.”
“Okay, Pop, so what?”
“Mady's... a good kid, but with a lot of spirit, and that gets her in trouble because guys don't understand it.”
“What kind of spirit—besides the bottled ones?”
“Independence. She's on this equality for women line like some people get religion. See how it was, in Pop's will he left some insurance to see Pete through college, but none for Mady. Suppose she resented that, especially since Pete lit out East when he graduated. Then, Mady was just finishing high school at the end of the last war. Got an after-hours job in one of the plane factories. Did something with the wires on the wings. She's pretty good with her hands and made fine money. She quit school. I was against that but she thought she had a solid future in the plant. But after the war all the women workers were fired and that made her boiling. Just like they wouldn't make her a foreman because she was a woman, even though she knew more about the work than her foreman and...”
“Where does Billy come in?”
“Another tough break Mady got. They started going together back in '45, both about eighteen then. Tell you, I never thought much of him—one of these muscle-happy kids. But they hit if off, a little wild, but in a clean way—you know. Wanted to get married. But first he thought he'd be drafted so they should wait. Then when the war was over his folks wanted him to finish college before marrying. They waited four years, finally married, and a few months later he was taken in the army, killed in Korea. Poor boy was killed a long way from home. Mady sort of went to pieces, turned to the bottle. Along about then she met this louse, Saxton.”
“She was working in his factory, clerking in the stock department. After awhile she went in to see Saxton, the big boss, asked to be promoted, that she could do the same work as the men, get the same salary. She wasn't drinking much then, it was only a few months after Billy died and she was taking it out in hard work. She...”
“Know Wilson, too?”
“Sure, just as one of the bosses, but Saxton got interested in her. Mady's kind of outspoken about things... and some guys mistake that for being loose. She ain't. I think she really went for Saxton for a time. Of course lot of people might think it's wrong for a girl to be living with a man like that, maybe it is. But then it was wrong for Mady to lose her husband after a couple months of marriage too, wasn't it?”
“Me and the wife thought it was okay, even though Saxton was twice her age. He was single, an important man, looked like what Mady needed. We thought in time they might even get married. That important man! He put her on the bottle, kept her liquored up, treating her like a... a kept woman.”
“You slug him too?”
Joe shook his head, a little sadly. “Wished I had. I went to see him couple months back. Mady wants to live with the guy, well, she's over twenty-one, and that's her business. And Mady isn't the kind you can tell anything. But when she quit work, slobbered around the house, tanked up all day, with him doling out the rent and food money, well, I had a talk with him. He was nasty and right after that—three days after to be exact —my own trouble started. Haven't any proof, but I feel sure Saxton is mixed up in it somehow.”
“You in a jam?”
“I'm a postman.”
“Thousands of guys take exams to get in that kind of a jam.”
“Look, Franzinb, I.....”
“Ranzino, and call me Matt.”
“Matt, I been carrying mail for nearly twenty years, it's all I know. You never get rich and it's no job for a guy with ambition, but I like it. People on my route are my friends. Why, for Christmas they gave me.... Look, three days after I see Saxton and almost get told out of his office, I get a telegram from a Harry Loughlin who runs an outfit called America! America! I go down there and he tells me he knows I was a union delegate in '48, talked about the postmen going out on strike for more pay. He says that makes me a Red, he's going to report me to the loyalty board. I told him...”
“They can't do anything to you for being a union man.”
“Hell, they can't!” Joe said, his voice coming alive. “It's against the law for postal workers to strike—I was going to have everybody call in sick—-and anyway, in these hearings most times you don't even know what the charges are against you, even who informed. And this Loughlin outfit is powerful. I begged him to leave me alone, my wife has a bad heart and if I lose my job, what else can I do? Besides, what did I do wrong? Cost of living was going up, everybody else was getting a raise so why not the post...?”
Joe shook his head. “No. But he has me over a barrel. I got to prove what a 150% American I am by buying some big books on American history. The set costs a grand and I shell out a hundred a month—almost half what I make, and with prices so high, taxes...”
“You're in a real swindle,” I said. A grand for a set of books—Harry was playing a big-time con game. “But it doesn't pay to give in to blackmail.”
“Better than losing my job. This Loughlin is a shrewd sharpie, a...”
“I know all about him. He'll bleed you to death, then toss you to the wolves.”
“I don't know which way to turn. Already hocked my car, my TV set. I can't even tell the wife, it would worry her sick.”
“Many other post office men in the same jam?” I asked, getting up.
“Who knows? Any civil service guy is a wide open sucker for this racket.” Joe stood up, rubbed his jaw. “You wounded in the hand?”
“Feels like you had a silver plate in your fist. Look, Matt, I'm sorry I made a mistake about you, and try to keep Mady off the bottle.”
“I'm only rooming there—don't involve me in anything. I came down here for a rest.”
“Well, do what you can,” he said, hopefully.
I said I'd see him around and walked back to the cottage. The living-room light was on and Mady was sitting in the one big chair, looking at some snapshots of her husband, the thick outfit history book open on her lap. She had a fifth of rye on the table beside her, a glass, and a pitcher of water, and one look at her eyes and I knew she was loaded. It was expensive rye—bonded Canadian stuff. When she saw me she asked, “Want a shot, Matt? Where you get the eye?”
“Guy claims he socked me—by mistake. And I don't want a drink.”
“So you don't want a drink—more for me. Thought you weren't a cop... why you carrying a gun?”
My coat was open, the holster showing. “That's empty.”
“Then why do you wear it?”
“Keep myself warm.”
She shrugged. “You don't want a drink... good night, roomer.”
“Good night.” I started for my room and she called out, “Hey, Matt, you know—I like the solid way you walk.”
I kept walking. If that was an invitation to anything, I wasn't buying. I undressed, went to the bathroom to wash. Mady seemed to be dozing in her chair.
A cold towel helped the eye. It was turning purple but the towel reduced the swelling. It wasn't going to be too bad.
When I hit the bed I couldn't sleep, even though I was tired. For one thing I could see the light in the living room and that annoyed me. I thought about this poor slob Joe, never asking for much, and the rooking Harry was giving him. Harry would be all right if he didn't push all the time. He never left a single stone unturned—especially if there was a fast buck under the stone.
When I did fall into a light sleep I dreamed I was sitting in the Wilson kitchen again and there was a close-up of the maid yelling at me over and over, “They'll do nothing, not a mumbling thing— you'll see!” And I kept telling her not to shout and asking why nothing would be done and when I woke up I had a head-sweat. The house was quiet, but the light was still on in the living room.
I reached over and got my T-shirt, wiped my head dry, then lay there, wondering what the maid had meant. She must have known Saxton did the killings, maybe that's why she hesitated before phoning the cops. But that didn't make sense, she seemed angry at the killing, so why should she protect Saxton, if that's what she was doing?
I tried not to think of the colored maid or the killing or Saxton or Joe—tried to get some sleep. I got up and shut my door but I could still see the light outline the door through the cracks, and after awhile I put on my slippers, straightened my pajamas and went into the living room.
She was out cold and I was about to turn out the light, but then she'd wake up later and fall over something in the darkness and wake me anyway, so I put an arm around her shoulders, pulled her to her feet. She was a heavy kid.
Mady opened her eyes, blinked a few times, then slobbered, “Hello... big shoulders... big wonderful shoulders.”
“Go to bed.”
She tried to nod and put an arm around me and I walked her to her room without too much trouble, put her on the bed. I didn't undress her and if she had to go to the John, that was her business. I put her legs on the bed and she stared up at me with that serious-comic look drunks have and I laughed at her and she smiled and sat up, said, “Matt, you're so ugly you're handsome.”
I sat down on the bed, tried to push her back into the pillow as I said, “Why don't you go to sleep?” She felt nice to push.
“Sleep. Egg... eggnog.”
“Listen,” she said, trying hard to collect her thoughts, her big lips struggling with the words. “Listen, I'm drunk.”
“You sure are.”
“Listen, please get me a glass of milk and three eggs. Three.” She held up three fingers, one at a time. “And sugar. Tomorrow, no hangover, see? My secret remedy.”
And I don't know what it was: either the warmth in her drunken voice did things to me; maybe I felt sorry for her; or maybe it was because this was the first time I was with a girl in a long long time—a girl I knew I couldn't have picked up the bugs from. When she tried to sit up again, her big eyes staring at me, I took her in my arms and we kissed awkwardly. I could sure feel those heavy lips working, taste the rye on her breath. She pulled away and I, couldn't tell if she had enjoyed the kiss, or even knew I'd kissed her. But those lips felt hot and wonderful and it was fine to hold a girl in my arms. She said, “I'm tired,” and fell back on the pillow.
“Still want that milk concoction?”
She nodded, her eyes shut.
I went into the kitchen, broke three eggs into a glass of milk, added a spoonful of sugar. It was a slimy mess.
I sat on her bed again, pulled her up—her eyes had a hard time making me out. “What's the matter?” she asked.
“Here's your milk—the secret weapon,” I said, holding her up with one arm behind her back, putting the glass of milk to her mouth with the other hand. She took a long gulp and began to cough and choke. I slapped her on the back and she neatly spit out a mouthful of the mess—all over me.
I jumped up, spilling the rest of the glass over myself. Mady fell back on the bed, looked away from me, embarrassed, mumbled she was very sorry... and passed out!
My pajamas were damp and cold, smelled like a dairy truck. I cursed her, almost yanking the switch off the wall as I snapped out the lights, and went to the bathroom. I removed my pajama top, washed myself. As I dropped my wet pants, there was a gentle knock on the front door.
I stood there, waiting, not sure I'd heard right, and then the knock sounded again, louder.-1 walked through the dark living room and looked out the window.
Saxton was standing there. I was nude and thought the expression on his face would be worth the risk of a draft.
When he knocked again, I yanked the door open.
The moonlight hit me and I felt like a strip-tease artist facing the final spot. Saxton's thick mouth actually dropped open as he said, “What the devil...?” There wasn't any boom in his voice now.
The cool night air was chilling me, but I asked in a matter-of-fact voice, “What's on your mind, Willie?”
We stared at each other for a moment, his glance resting on my black eye, then he said softly, “You work too hard at your job, Ranzino. The case is solved, closed.”
“After a fashion.”
“What do you mean, after a fashion?”
“Exactly what you said, the case is over. I'm not working for you any longer. Any other questions, Willie Saxton, the third?”
“You're rather peppy tonight. Weren't like that yesterday, or this...”
“I delivered, you got what you paid for—a body. Now if you want me to do some more work on the case... I can think of a few angles that haven't been touched.”
He didn't say anything, merely stared at me, and I was getting cold. I said, “Good night, Willie,” and shut the door and he boomed, “You tell Madeline to call me in the morning!”
I stood behind the door, shivering a little and he knocked again, said, “Matt, open the door, want to talk to you.”
When I opened the door he said, “No hard feelings. You know, all's fair in love and war and gal-chasing.” He held out his hand.
I wasn't completely fooled, only I thought he was going to swing on me and I was watching his feet as I shook hands. My left was faster than his any time. I should have watched his shoulders—this strong ox suddenly yanked on my hand and I went sailing past him, off the steps, on my shoulders and face in the cold damp grass. It took me a moment to get my bearings and Saxton walked by, chuckling, said, “A little something to go with that eye.”
I'm a damn fool, I thought. Playing hero, lying out here like a fallen statue. Cold grass will fix me, but fast.
When my head stopped spinning, I dashed back into the house. I tried to wipe the green grass stain from my shoulders, and shoved a thermometer iii my chattering mouth as I put on long woolen underwear and climbed into bed, waiting for the cold to come. I didn't have any temperature, but I was too worried to be angry at Saxton. I was mad at myself for being a prize patsy, risking my health by sticking my fool nose in other people's business.
I turned off the table light and lay there, worried stiff and when I opened my eyes again it was daylight and 8 a.m.
I dressed without washing and was on the bus to town in ten minutes flat. I was at the VA shortly after nine, waiting for Doc Kent. He asked, “What's the matter? That's a right colorful eye you're sporting.”
“Got into a fight yesterday—case of mistaken identity, on the other guy's part, but I got a pounding around the chest. And later in the night I was walking around the house in the nude and... eh... there was an open door and I was in a draft for quite a long time.” I realized how stupid it all sounded.
Kent looked at me as though I was making it all up. “Coughing?”
He stuck a thermometer in my mouth, took my pulse. Then he read the thermometer, said, “Normal. So is your pulse. What was wrong?”
“Well, nothing was wrong, but, after all that I thought...?”
“Thought what? How do you feel?”
“Okay, I guess... But I...”
“Then what are you running to me for? Get this Ranzino, I know all about your case—interested me so I made a point of studying it. I'm here to help you, but don't make a pest of yourself. Remember, there's nothing wrong with you now—you've had TB. While this office is always open to you, there's no need of running here every time you take a fast breath or...”
“Okay, Doc, cut the lecture. Sorry I disturbed you.”
“It isn't a question of disturbing me. Frankly, you're as big and healthy as a horse. While I wouldn't advise you to go in for marathon running at the moment, or anything that places an abnormal strain on your body, there isn't a damn thing wrong with you. If you'll simply regain confidence in yourself, in your body and...”
“So long, Doc, you should use slides with your talks,” I said, walking out of his office. I cashed Saxton's check and the teller said, “See they solved the murder. Can't believe Mr. Wilson would do something like that, but got to hand it to the police—fast work!”
“They been great since Buck Rogers joined the force.”
“Hopalong Cassidy,” I said, counting the money on the way out. I felt better on the bus back to White Beach, felt I really must be getting healthy if I didn't show anything after last night. Of course I didn't pay any attention to the doc's pep line about me being well, normal, that was a standard pitch.
By half past ten I was back in my room, undressed, and in bed, resting as I read the morning papers. Wilson's suicide was all over the headlines but I only read the comics and the sports page. After a while I heard Mady get up, the flush of water in the bathroom, and then she was in the kitchen and in my doorway. She had a light red housecoat on and looked fresh for a babe who must be well hung over. There was a kind of Mona Lisa, cat-like expression on her face, the large mouth forming a real smile as she said, “Good morning, lazy. Where'd you get the papers?”
“I've been up and into town and back. Didn't you hear me?”
“I could sleep through an air raid, especially when I'm sleeping off a gutful.”
“What time did you wake up Sunday, morning or afternoon?”
She stared at me, her eyes suspicious. “Why?”
“Forget it, the detective in me slips out now—and then. Seen the papers?” I spread the front page out for her and she sat on the edge of the bed, read the headlines.
“Doesn't seem possible. Mr. Wilson was always so lively and gay—nothing phony about him. And here he murdered his wife and killed himself. I can't believe it.”
“Neither can I. Did Wilson and Saxton get along okay?”
“Far as I knew. Mr. Saxton always spoke highly of him and...”
“Mister Saxton?” I grinned and she threw the papers down, asked, “Why the cross-examination? I told the cops everything I...”
“You're right, no point in talking about a dead case. Skip it. You look very pretty.”
“Do I? Didn't I look pretty yesterday?”
“Not as pretty as you do now.”
She stared at me, an amused expression on her face, then she giggled like a kid. “Did I give you that shiner?”
She stood up. “Tell you what I will give you, roomer, a whopping breakfast—on the house. A deal?”
“You've sold me.”
She went back to the kitchen and I put on the blue army robe I'd swiped from the hospital, the only thing about the hospital I'd liked. She had orange juice on the table, was whipping up some eggs. I sat down and she said, “You're lucky that I have eggs. Way prices are, nobody has to worry about dieting.”
She gave me some whole-wheat toast to butter and I went to work. She put the eggs in the frying pan, said, “We make a cozy little scene. By the way, I gather I was potted last night. How did I get to bed?”
“I walked you there.”
“That explains my dream—I dreamed you were making love to me.”
“Why don't you stop it?”
“Those double-meaning cracks, the sexy chatter. You don't have to prove anything to me I...”
“Who the hell's proving anything?” she asked, voice high with anger. “You men and your lousy conceit! Let a man tell a girl she has a nice shape, that he dreamed he was laying her... he's supposed to be manly. But if a woman says that, she isn't being womanly, only a slut! That's bull—”
“And you don't have to prove how tough you are either,” I added.
She strode over to the table and I watched the graceful movements of her body under the robe as she walked. “Will you stop telling me I have to prove anything to you! And if I want to be tough—hard as any man—what about it?”
“Look, baby, don't give me a pitch on women's rights. I agree with you, but...”
“Cork the tough talk, it's...”
“Maybe I like to talk tough,” she said.
“Okay, okay, but in some things women aren't the equal of men, or men the equal of women. For instance, you have more vulnerable parts to your body than I have. But more desirable parts.”
“Cut the coy bunk. The average man is as soft as a woman, is tough only because he assumes he's tough, born to believe it, or he packs a gun or a knife or...”
“Why don't you stop talking like a dope?” I asked. “Maybe I'm nuts, but America is becoming tough-punchy. In the movies a guy can't romance a gal without slapping her around; in the so-called comic books, violence is a big laugh. Even kids—little ones—go around packing toy guns. Toughness has become a... a... a virtue, like honesty. When we going back to normal? Think of peace and love between people, stop trying so hard to be a nation of Humphrey Bogarts!”
“Who puts on the tough act—you men! You big big heroes going off to war, to glory and adventure, while we're supposed to stay home and keep the home fires burning. Let me tell you something: you give us the worst end of the stick! It's tougher staying here, sick with worry and fear. When you men die, your life is over but we're the ones who have to go on living broken lonely lives, or...”
I stood up and shook her. “Damn it, stop all this talk about glory and war! You think we were playing a game over in Korea? It was dirty, brutal, the worst lousy nightmare I.... Stop talking about it!”
We stood like that for a moment, my hands on her shoulders, excited by her nearness, and then I took her in my arms and kissed her—above the mouth, I didn't want to give her any bugs—but she moved her lips over mine in a hard, complete kiss. Then she began to struggle and I held her and she said, “Take your arms away! You think because I talk and joke about it, that I'm easy, a push-over...!”
“Mady will you stop all this silly talk? If you were deaf and dumb, never opened your trap, I'd want you. I know this is quick, but what's the point of delaying anything? Can't you see we're alike as can be? Both hurt by the war, both trying hard to get hold of something once more, both adrift. We're past the candy and flowers, the dates, all the normal stuff... we're too late for that.”
She stared at me with wet eyes, then burst into tears. I hugged her tightly, aware of the softness of her body, as she whispered in my ear, “Oh, Matt, I do like you... and it has to work. I don't know, nobody... understands me. I've only had two men in my life, Billy and Saxton. With Saxton I was always humiliated, made to feel I...”
“Forget it, I'm not Saxton.”
“I know, darling, I know,” she said, and covered my face with little kisses that drove me crazy. “You're honest and true, real, like my Billy. He....”
“Cut that too. This is all new, for both of us, starting from now. I'm nobody but Matt Ranzino, like nobody else and.... Honey, don't you think we're talking too much?”
It was early in the afternoon when we finally got around to the eggs and orange juice. I was too happy to worry about my lungs, whether all the wonderful energy I'd used up with her would hurt me. And although I didn't know why, could hardly believe it, I had a deep sense of peace and relaxation being with Madeline. She wasn't just another girl to me. Okay, I didn't believe it either, but that was it.
After we ate we went back to bed and when I was lying there, full of that happy tired feeling, she told me about Saxton.
This goon didn't know what he had in Mady—could think of her only as an easy lay, treated her like a whore... although she must have offered him a sincere love... at the start. As she whispered, “At first I liked him, he was older, steady, and I didn't have anybody to turn to. I wasn't a romantic kid, didn't think of it as love, but... we could have been good friends. Then... he made me feel dirty. It's a horrible feeling to feel ashamed of yourself. He saw me only when he wanted me, had me quit my job because he knew I'd be dependent upon him.... Would toss me a few bucks now and then, send out a couple of bottles before he'd come, so I'd be liquored up. He sent those bottles last night.”
“He was here. I threw him out,” I lied.
“He came here? I'm glad you threw him out. I don't know what came over me, why I stood it. I must have been crazy. When the murder happened, the police and the reporters bothering me made me snap out of it. I told him we were through. It all sounds so.... wrong and stupid... now, but it seemed so easy to take a few drinks and forget everything. When things became too clear, all I had to do was reach for a bottle—reality went down with the chaser. But that's over. I'll find a job, get back into the routine of living again. I'll get off the bottle...”
“Sure you will, honey, you're a long ways from being a rummy,” I said, trying to make it sound true.
“Matt, don't leave me. What I mean: I don't know if marriage is for us, but if it isn't, don't leave me for a long time. I need you. Need you to... to lean on, feel I have something worth living for... to...”
“Don't talk about it. You and me both, we'll lean all over each other,” I told her.
We slept for a while and once I remember telling her about my being a physical instructor in World War II, volunteering for Korea because I wanted to see action... told her about the Korea I knew, before the Chinese came in, before the great battles and retreats. Somehow, it was good to get it all off my chest, tell her about the leveled villages—villages which hadn't been much to start with—the burned and frozen bodies, about the almost naked people facing the fierce winter, living in caves like animals. How you saw an entire area burned black by a jelly-gasoline bomb, and American boys splattered over a rice paddy.
I tried to explain what it felt like to be surrounded on all sides by people hating you—the very people we were fighting for—without them ever asking us in. Like in all wars, it was the civilians who got the worst deal. I managed to even tell her about the time I was on the side of... of... that hill, the rice paddies below us laid out so neat, like a draftsman had cut up the ground. And then these people came struggling along the road toward us, blurry figures in white.
I was scared stiff they were infiltrating guerillas... we'd been told again and again not to take any chances.... I yelled at them.... Maybe I didn't yell loud enough, maybe they didn't hear me... and in any case they couldn't understand me. Finally I opened up with the sub-machine gun. Later, when we advanced, I passed them... two old women, a very old man with a feathery white beard and a crazy square black formal hat, and a couple of kids, a boy and a girl not over ten or eleven. I stared at their dead bullet-torn bodies and my insides turned over.
I kept thinking: I've shot down women and kids! Maybe the air boys never saw what their bombs did, but this was what I'd done. I kept brooding about it, told myself it was all an accident... but I kept seeing those dead bodies. Fighting was one thing, but kids and women.... Afterwards, when we dug in, I blacked out and three days later I came to in a Tokyo hospital, started to run the fever that puzzled the hell out of the docs—till finally the bug showed up in my sputum.
I told Mady about the doc telling me we all have the germ in us, I'd probably picked it up before the army, but under the strain of combat, the bug had eaten into my lung. She wept as I talked and I didn't tell her what the psychiatrist said at the VA hospital in the States... that I'd willed the sickness—any sickness—on myself to get out of battle. Battle was a story-book word to him, an army-manual expression—he didn't know it meant killing women and kids. I didn't tell Mady about this because I wasn't sure I really believed it myself.
It was nearly three when we got up, drank a lot of milk and ate cookies, took a shower together, like kids, and I said, “Mady, you're so tall and beautiful.”
“I'm tall, but not really pretty.”
“You are to me.”
“Honestly, you're the most beautiful girl in the world to me,” I told her and we kissed under the stream of water, and then as we were drying each other with rough towels she turned my head and I saw the two of us in the bathroom mirror and she laughed, “Matt, did you ever see a homelier couple!”
“Never! That's why we each think the other is so good-looking.”
“Matt, you are... well, beautiful.” .
I burst out laughing and she said, “I mean it, you're a lot of man. Where did you get that build... those wonderful impossible shoulders?”
“I'm soft now. Should have seen me before.”
“You're lean and hard and big... like a fighter. When I was a kid I stole a picture of Max Baer from my brother Pete... was mad about his muscles.”
“I used to be a pug. Pops stopped all that. Tell you about him some day.”
“Naw. I don't remember my folks. Pops was a funny old bum. Let's skip the talk... the crackers and milk didn't do a thing for me. I'm hungry enough to eat this towel.”
“But I do love your body. I'd like to take a picture of you in the nude—just as you are now.”
I laughed and kissed her. She was a wonderful kid. I said, “That's a very womanly idea,” and she laughed till she cried.... Happy warm laughter and the warmth went deep inside me. For the first time in a year I felt at ease... happy.
Mady cooked a light snack as I dressed. I took one of my pills—and my pulse and heartbeat were steady and normal, despite all the excitement I'd been through with Mady. After we ate I told her I was going into town and she asked, “Why?”
“I'm getting curious about... things. That's a good sign for me. I used to make big dough as a private dick, maybe I'll make it again. We need money.”
“I have to find a job. I'll look this afternoon while...”
“Why?” Mady asked, her eyes two warning signals.
I kissed her. “Okay, honey, you go out and be womanly and work yourself, to the bone, if you wish.” I glanced at my watch. “I'll be back about five.”
“If I'm not home, you'll know I'm out job-hunting. What do you want for supper?”
“Steak.” I put ten bucks on the table. “A big thick juicy steak... if ten bucks will buy one these days.”
We kissed again and I left and there was a bus nearing the corner and without thinking I sprinted toward it... and scared hell out of myself. But after I stopped puffing and huffing, I seemed okay.
I dropped in to see Max. He looked worried, had for—gotten to shave half his chin. I asked, “What's cooking? You look bad—developing a conscience?”
“A what? Where'd you get the shiner?”
“Forget that. Wilson murders troubling you?”
He picked at his teeth with a fingernail, said over his fingers, “That's history. My kids have a cold, kept me up all night with their coughing. Why, the Wilson case worrying you?”
“Not exactly, but Saxton gets in my hair lately. I'm living with his girl.”
Max stared at me for a thoughtful moment, laughed, slapped me that double pat on the back. “I knew you'd snap back. Now you're talking like the old Matt. Saw this Madeline when we questioned her, looks like...”
“Never mind what she looks like, this is serious with me.”
Max raised his heavy eyebrows. “Quick work, love at...”
“Forget my romance. What about Saxton?”
“Look, Matt, you've been a cop long enough to know we don't go looking for extra work. There's things about the Wilson job that might be re-examined—what case doesn't have bugs? But then it was a clean case, solved fast, looks good in the papers, on my record. And nobody hurt. That's the picture.”
“You're getting old, Max.”
He fidgeted around in his chair. “I'm not in love with Saxton's girl.”
Max sighed. “Hell, Matt, I've no reason to go off on a goose chase.”
“You know that suicide in the cabin was phony. Wilson hadn't lived there—the water was off.”
Max sighed again and lumbered over to the file cabinet, took out a folder. He leafed through it for a moment, said, “Wrong, Matt. According to the report, it was on.”
I grinned. “That proves I'm right.”
“I told you I didn't get much shut-eye last night. What the hell does it prove?”
“That Saxton is the killer. After I found the body, while I was waiting for you, I wanted a drink of water... time to take my vitamin pill and...” I stopped and looked at my watch. “I'm a pill behind now,” I said, shoveling a pill down my mouth and reaching for the water flask on his desk.
Max yelled, “Hey, that water hasn't been changed since the last election. Get water in the can.”
I swallowed the pill, cleared my throat. “The point is, up in the cabin when I wanted to get a drink I found the water shut.”
“You want me to go to court on that evidence? Maybe Wilson shut it off before he hung himself.... Hell, I'll act, but get me something.”
“It fits, Saxton came in with you—and in the excitement must have noticed the water was off and turned it on. It was something he overlooked. Also, that ham baloney about me finding the deed—you know that's a plant on his part.”
“What's his motive?”
He had me there. “I don't know. Except Saxton's a... a... I can't put it into the right words, but he's no good. He had a swell girl in Mady but he went out of his way to treat her like a two-bit whore.”
“Told you, I'm not in love with his girl. Make you happy, slug him.”
“Okay, bright boy, while we're talking of motives, what was Wilson's? You checked, everybody in town said they were a fine happy couple, everything to live for. Where's the motive there?”
“Don't talk stupid. Who knows what really goes on between a man and a wife? They can look happy and still be hating each other's guts. Maybe Wilson blew his top? Who knows? He's dead, so is his wife, we'll never get the answer. Go ahead, Matt, find me something I can dig my teeth into and I'll bite.”
I told him what he could dig his teeth into and he laughed, said I was the old Matt again, and I told him to go to hell and headed for the door. He came after me with that surprising speed Max can put on when he wants to.
“Easy, Matt. I'm a cop with too many cases as it is. The Wilson case was a soft touch, maybe too soft, but I haven't time to dig deeper without a damn good reason. Saxton is a big apple in the community and I'm too old to start pounding a beat again. That's movie stuff. But I'll do what I can to help, if you want to work.”
“What's the address of the Wilson maid?”
“What's she got to do with it?” he asked, looking through the file again.
“I don't know—yet,” I said as Max wrote her address on a piece of paper. I pocketed it and Max said, “Stick to loving the girl—it's more fun. Keep in touch with me, boy.”
I said I would and went out.
I took a bus to the “colored” section of town. This was several square blocks of old houses, mostly tenements, a few new houses, and a lot of stores and bars, some new and flashy, most of them crummy-looking despite their bright neon signs. At one time this had been a fairly swank residential neighborhood, then the swells had moved to another section of town—as the city expanded—and Irish immigrants had moved in, then the Jews and the Italians—I'd lived there when I was a kid for a while. Later a few factories had been built and Negroes moved in.
Mrs. Samuels lived in a two-story wooden frame house and, when I rang, a little brown-skin kid opened the door and immediately yelled for her mother... a tall, dark woman who couldn't have been thirty and already had a worn look about her. When I asked for Mrs. Samuels she looked at me suspiciously, glanced at my eye, said, “She rooms here, but she ain't in. Out looking for a job.”
“When's the best time to get her in?”
“I don't know—she comes and goes.”
I knew what she was thinking. “Look, I'm not a bill collector or a cop. I'm a friend of Mrs. Samuels and it's important I see her. Tell her I'll be back in the morning, and I want her to wait for me.”
“Who shall I say called?”
“She doesn't know my name.”
“Thought you was her friend?”
“I am, after a fashion. You know the name of everybody you're friendly with? I only met Mrs. Samuels once—when she was working for the Wilsons. Tell her Matt Ranzino called. Name won't mean a thing to her, but tell her to wait for me in the morning. If she misses a day's work, I'll make it up to her. Got that?”
“You just told me—I can hear. I'll tell her.”
“Thank you. I'll be back tomorrow—before noon.”
I walked back to the bus stop. I was lucky when I was a cop—I was never assigned to this district like most rookies. It's a tough beat for any cop—white or colored. Whenever the brass or city hall wants to swell the records, they order a round-up in “dark town.” Since this happens most of the time, there's no love between the cops and the people—not that there ever really is in any section of town. Then, of course, you have some cops who are raised on hating Negroes, try to make history down there—and usually end up dead.
It was a little after five when I reached the house and I was tired and hungry. I'd forgotten all about my afternoon nap. Mady was sitting in the living room and I could smell the whiskey before I saw her. She wasn't tanked, merely high. She said, “Hello, darling,” and grinned at me weakly.
I kissed her lightly, tasting the whiskey. “Supper ready?”
“Gee, Matt, I forgot all about that.”
There was a heel of last night's bottle left and I poured that down the sink and she said, “You're angry with me.”
“What if I am? I hate a liquor-head and I can't stand you drinking—it shows you're unhappy about something. What's the matter?”
“Joe. I'm sorry I forgot about the steak. Go and get one now, still time to make a fine supper and...”
“What's wrong with your brother?”
“How do you know he's my brother?”
I touched my sore eye. “We met yesterday. What's up?”
“He's stony. Last night Ruthie, that's his wife, or do you know that too? She had a fainting spell last night and he had to get a doc. No money. He's in some kind of swindle, won't talk about it. Thinks I have Billy's insurance. Only I haven't.”
“Spend it?” She didn't look like the kind that could have gone through ten grand in a year—certainly hadn't spent any of it on clothes.
“He never took out any insurance. I didn't want him to. I don't know why, but insurance seemed to...to be an omen that he wouldn't return,” she added gently.
Billy the cocky jerk, not even bothering about free insurance! I didn't believe Mady's “I didn't want him to” bunk. I asked, “What's Joe going to do?”
“Wish I knew. He always used to brag about his job not being much but at least he had security and now.... I gave him what money I had. Told him to wire Pete, our younger brother, for a touch. I'm sorry, Matt, but I felt too low and beat down, I took a drink to relax and...”
“And it's always the next drink that's the relaxer. Okay, go out and get us some supper,” I said, giving her another ten. “Can you make it to the store?”
“Oh, I'm not drunk. Air will do me good.”
She put on an old jacket and I stood at the window and watched this tall, gawky girl walk down the street, trying to hold herself in, walk steadily. There was something drab about her; she wore clothes the way you throw a towel around yourself as you rush from the shower to the phone. She was the type to grow fat and thick, maybe have a floppy Hitler-should-have-them-as-tonsils bosom. Yet, although my eyes called me a liar, she was beautiful, even voluptuous to me. It was almost funny—with Flo and the other sharp chicks I'd been fooled by their beauty, and it took me time to realize they didn't have much else, that beauty alone is empty as a gaudy paper bag. But with this clumsy kid I first went for her honesty, her warmth—and then suddenly realized she was a beauty. Maybe this is what they call love, I told myself, only one thing has to go— the bottle. A lush drives me wild.
I stood there, thinking about Joe and how he probably had my ten bucks and what a poor slob he was, when I got a cute idea. I went to the phone and changed my mind. Harry was the kind of sharpie who might have his phones tapped and I didn't want the call traced here. Somehow his even knowing about Mady would dirty her. I went down to the corner drugstore and dialed, wondering if he'd be in at this hour. A whining voice said, “America! America!”
It was the creep. “Amen. Harry in?”
“This is personal.”
“Who is this?”
“Mind your own damn business and put Harry on.”
“I will hang up unless you tell me who is calling.”
“Tell him Matt is calling. And be very careful, Thatcher, I've got my eye on you—lots of people are watching you,” I added, knowing it would worry a backward joker like him.
“What do you mean?” There was a pause, then Harry's smooth voice asked, “Hello? Matt?”
“Harry, I'm in a small jam. Can you lend me a hundred?” It tickled me to take some of Joe's dough away from Harry and give it back to Joe.
“Want to work for me, Matt?”
“I only want to put the bite on you.”
“Sorry. Be more than glad to give you the dough, Matt, but the way you act, don't know if you're on the bum or not... might as well put my foot down before you make this a habit. You understand, chum. Now, if you want to work, I'll advance you...”
I cursed him and he giggled like a school girl—it always pleased him to be called certain names. It was an unfortunate giggle—for him—it gave me a real bang-bang idea.
I went back to the house and called Joe, told him to park in front of the house at seven sharp, I wanted to talk to him.
“Tell you then. Don't let Mady know you're parked,” I said. It wasn't impossible Harry was tapping Joe's phone too. You worry about a phone tap and you can go crazy. I said, “You might be able to stop paying off the mutual... eh... friend of ours.”
He said, “Oh,” then, “I'll be there, Matt.”
Mady returned with bags of food and a lot of talk. Some people try to pull themselves together when high by chattering. She was complaining about the high prices of food and I sat in the big chair in the living room and watched her moving about in the kitchen. I felt tired, missed my afternoon nap. I must have dozed off, for the next thing I knew she was shaking me, telling me supper was on.
She wasn't a bad cook—although it's hard to spoil steak—and we ate and she asked, “You find out what you wanted to in town?”
“Nope,” I said, weighing how much to tell her. If Saxton got wind of what I had in mind, he'd kill anybody who was in the know.
She was waiting for me to go on, so I said, “1 suggested to the cops—to my buddy Max—that the Wilson murders ought to be checked over again. He didn't think so.”
“What do you mean, checked over again?”
“As you said, Henry Wilson wasn't the type to kill his wife. I merely thought there were a few angles might be looked into... just to be sure,” I said carefully.
“Well, I still can't believe he did that horrible crime. Why won't the police look into it?”
“Because it's all wrapped in a neat package and they don't want to bother untying the pink ribbons. Too busy with parking tickets.”
“Seems to me if you have ideas about a crime, the police...”
“When a man becomes a cop he changes. They say a criminal is outside the law. Well, a cop is worse off, he's outside everything. He's either hated or sluffed off by the public. Any law enforcement officer is nothing but a human blackjack... and even if a sap is a tool, it's hardly anything you have any love for, or real use.”
“Like a gun...”
“Don't interrupt the professor. No, a gun can be a thing of beauty, a lot of fun at target practice, but a blackjack... you can only use it as a club, and it's always ugly. That's the way a cop gets. His job is so big —if all the laws were enforced—and he knows he's hated, so he does only what he can do the easiest and best in the hours he has. Guess that isn't too clear.”
“Well, look at it this way, what I was asking Max involved extra work on his part. Because of the bull and red tape thrown at him, a good cop isn't concerned about justice, but only about closing a case. I don't mean Max would frame an innocent man, although some incompetent cops would, but unless he can see a clear angle.... Here, maybe this will show how a cop's mind works. When Max and I were detectives, we went to a bar one night where some guy claimed a sixteen-year-old whore had rolled him for ten bucks. According to his story, he had picked her up at this Skid-Row bar, gone to her room and given her a half a buck. He had a roll of two hundred bucks on him. While he was sleeping, she took a tenspot.”
“Cheap bastard,” Mady said.
“Exactly what Max said. He was taking advantage of this kid, even if she was peddling it. We'd have to send the girl up to a reform school for whoring, only if we added theft, she'd go to a tougher place. Max looked at the guy and asked, 'Sure you want to press charges against this girl?' And the guy was full of righteousness and said no little bitch could roll him and all that. So Max said, 'Then I hereby arrest you for statutory rape, since this girl is under eighteen.' The guy got a year in the can. That was Max's way of helping the girl, punishing the jerky mug. But it never occurred to him to slap the guy in the mouth, let the kid off.”
“Could have given her another chance.”
“That only works out in the movies. A kid whores only because she's hungry. You don't give her a new shuffle unless you figure a way for her to work and eat. A cop can't change all that. He figures that in a reform school she'll be out of his way, and at least eating regular.”
Mady shivered. “It's the city, too many people live too close, lack decent houses. You ever have any desire to live in the country?”
“The country is as crooked as the city, has all the same vices, only maybe in different shape. And the quiet gives me the jitters—it's too loud. I like being around things, see something happening all the time.”
Mady shook her head. “It's money.”
“Everything's money,” I said brightly.
“But the city is all money, and that causes people to go wrong. You know when you wake up every morning it will cost you a couple of bucks just to be alive. You have to be on the make all the time—for dough—in the city and that scares me. Why, each day before I get out of bed I know it will cost me about three bucks that day for rent, couple dimes to have my dress cleaned, underthings laundered. I must spend two bits for carfare, and even if I eat home, I have to spend at least a buck-fifty for even a scrimpy meal. In the city it costs all the time.”
“And in the country they live on air?”
“Am I talking too much?”
I laughed. “No.”
Mady smiled. “Sometimes how I love to gab! To get to the country that's what I want. A place not too isolated but where we could walk around in wrinkled clothes, pull up our food from the garden, go fishing and hunting. Where, if I feel like it, I can wake up and say, 'Today I don't have to worry about making a dime, I can live around my house, eat and walk and breath— and all for free!' None of that city drive and strain— once you get your house paid for.”
“Living in the country is okay,” I said, “for a weekend now and then. But how about all the other days when you go nuts for lack of something to do? Why I get a bang out of just walking down the main drag, being a part of the crowd, even if I haven't got a place to go. You're practically in the country now, got a backyard here, why don't you raise a garden if you go for that?”
“Isn't the same, got to make money here all the time. Say, I do go surf-casting, catch me a couple fish now and then. Ever try that?”
She began counting on her long fingers. “Be the end of the high tide about... 4 a.m. I'll set the alarm. We wear boots—I have several pair around—take a thermos of hot coffee and stand on the edge of the ocean and cast—let the tide take our bait out. First we dig a couple clams for bait—but that's hard. I'll buy some tonight. It's great fun and by daybreak we'll have enough fish for a whopping breakfast, and hungry as... Let's do it tomorrow morning!”
“Well... I never was one for getting up early,” I began. “And standing in water isn't the best...”
“Oh please, Matt. It's such fun.”
She had all the eagerness of a school kid, a wonderful change from the loose, lush look. If I didn't get wet, couldn't do me much harm. “Sure, set the alarm. Now let me help with the dishes and...”
An auto horn sounded outside. The red clock on the kitchen wall said seven. “I have a... eh... kind of business appointment. Be back soon—about a half hour.”
“The Wilson killings?”
“Not exactly—new angle I'm exploring.”
“Don't be long. I'll take care of the dishes. Have some ironing to do. Went through your stuff and washed some shirts and underwear for you. See how domestic I can be?”
“It's frightening. Trying to trap me into marrying you?” I asked with a corny smirk.
“Now that you mention it, I might at that,” Mady said gently.
I stared at her as the horn sounded again and we both smiled. I suddenly realized I'd proposed for the first time in my life—and been accepted. And I liked the idea!
“We'll talk about that some more... maybe soon,” I said, slipping my coat on as I made for the door.
Joe had a light old roadster that hardly seemed big enough for his bulky figure. And when I climbed in beside him I expected the tires to explode. He said, “Let's make this snappy, my wife is sick. What about our mutual friend?”
“He's getting in my hair, via Mady. You worry, she worries and hits the bottle, and I don't like that.”
He grunted, said, “Damn, so it's like that between you and Mady! One, two, three stuff! I warned you...”
“I like you, Joe, so before you run your big mouth, let me tell you it's no jump and run stuff with us. Mady and I have a lot in common, and we'll hit it off.”
“You damn well better. I'm warning you, Matt—I won't see Mady ending up as a tramp. Not only because she's my sister, but somehow it would make Billy's dying in vain and...”
“That's a cracked crock of slop,” I said. “Everybody dies in vain. Once you're dead you're out of it. And whether your death made a better or worse world doesn't make your corpse taste any better or worse to the worms eating it.”
“I don't like that kind of talk. After all, our boys who died...”
“Died because of some old men who didn't know how to make the world run right, played checkers with the other guys' lives. A coffin can hide a fool or a hero. The idea is to stay alive, watch, the show. But let's not get off on that. The only way you can shake Harry Loughlin off your back is to tell him to go to hell.”
“And lose my job? That's a great solution.”
“Other ways of telling him to lay off. You can fight blackmail with blackmail. Harry has a king-size skeleton in his closet.”
“Yeah? How do you know?”
“Used to be his partner couple years back. We had a detective agency.”
Joe was silent for a moment. “I don't like this. You claim you picked out Mady's place—just like that. Then it turns out you worked for Saxton. Now you're Harry Loughlin's partner. You...?”
“Was his partner.”
I laughed. “You been to too many movies. Let me straighten you out—I'm only interested in you because it will help Mady. You want to keep paying Harry off— fine. Only don't come whining to us everytime he socks your pocketbook.” I started to open the door and he said, “Wait a minute,” as I knew he would. “What do you want me to do?”
“Harry has a bit of pansy in him and these days a man will do anything to keep that quiet.”
“Doesn't look queer to me.”
“He isn't—all the way. But it's in him, probably come out in the open when he's older. Works that way with some of them. Point is, I know he has his fag moments. Framing a guy as a pansy is about the lowest—and easiest—form of blackmail. First, is there anybody else in the P.O. he's after, a young kid, or anybody else who would be willing to work with us? Somebody we can really trust?”
“What do you mean trust? I don't want to get mixed up in nothing shady.”
“Listen, chances are 99.99% Harry won't run to the cops. Never do in this type of swindle. By trust I mean I don't want to run from one blackmail into another. Got anybody we can use?”
Joe thought for a moment, grunted, “No.”
“Then we'll have to do it ourselves, although you're too old and ugly for queer-bait. Listen to me carefully: tomorrow morning you call Harry, make sure you speak to him personally. Tell him you've been thinking things over, that you know of a slew of P.O. guys that are in the same boat as you—were in favor of that stuff about going on strike—be careful you don't go into any details. All you want to do is talk this over with Harry, but not on the phone. Just tell him enough to get him interested. Understand?”
“You want to meet him some place for lunch. Tell him you can't take off time, so it must be a bar around the P.O. What we need is a place where you're known, but Harry isn't. Any place where you drop in regular for beers?”
“There's a joint two blocks from the Post Office. But I don't get...”
“You arrange to meet Harry there. You have a few beers with him, string him along. Give him a line about what's in it for you if you stool on the other and...”
“If you think I'll stool on...”
“Shut up and listen. You don't mention any names, merely hint you have something to sell, ask Harry what it's worth. See, you want to make a deal. Give him some stuff that you want a statement from him clearing you of any subversive leanings... and a grand in cash. He'll counter with a lower offer. Whatever deal he offers, you tell him you have to think it over, will call him later in the day. The important thing is that when Harry comes in you either introduce him to the bartender as your friend, or talk loud... anything so the bartender notices you. Then...”
“This is all over my head. Why should I...?”
“For Christsakes, listen. As soon as Harry leaves, you have a beer with the barkeep, make some crack about Harry being a fag. That's for protection, in case things go wrong. You call...”
“I'm not interested in this,” Joe said.
“Some of the dough Mady gave you today is mine, so get interested. You call Harry later, agree to meet him in the evening, about seven, in some lonely spot in the park. Since we can't get anybody else in on the deal, I'll be there—hiding with a camera, infra-red film and a flash. Means I can take pictures without being noticed. When Harry comes, you have to get him on your lap for a second.”
“What? What the hell you saying?”
“Either you sit down before he does and pull him down on your lap, or if you can't work that, pick him up—he's small—place him on your lap. I'll get the picture. Then you push him off, slug him, make a hell of a scene about he was trying to kiss you. Harry may be armed, but I doubt it. If anything like that happens, I'll step in and help you. Now if a cop should come along, you insist Harry tried to kiss you—but don't press charges. What will probably happen is, Harry will realize he's been framed and run like a rabbit.”
Joe shivered. “No. I want no part of that—it's dirty.”
“It sure is. But once we send, Harry a print of the picture, he'll never bother you again. No, you'll take the print to him, tell him that's the deal—he lays off you and you forget the pix. That's better.”
“I couldn't do anything like that. I'd feel... like... like a queer myself.”
“You want to keep paying off the bastard?”
“Harry's playing the rat—we're fighting fire with fire.”
“Suppose something goes wrong? What if he arrests me? It'd make me look like a nance.”
“That's a chance we take but it's almost a sure thing he...”
“We take? I take!”
“We. It's a thousand to one he won't go to the cops. I know, Harry framed a joker like that once. Look, if worst comes to worst I'll testify in court he is a pansy. And I can get other proof. Hell, what if you are taking a chance? I'm only doing this to get you straight, so Mady and I can have a little peace. Okay?”
He didn't answer and finally I said, “He's killing your wife with his crummy blackmail and you...”
“All right, all right!” he blurted out. “I'll do it. And God forgive me.”
“You call me at the house tomorrow, about three. I'll have the camera, and we'll go to whatever park you pick to meet him.” I went over things again, to be sure he didn't screw up—Harry was too sharp to make even a small mistake. Joe didn't like it—neither did I—but I knew he'd go through with it.
When I came back into the house, Mady was ironing in the kitchen. For some silly reason it made me feel good to see her ironing my shirts. She asked, “Finish your business? Was she pretty?”
“Sure. She was a corn blonde. Want to take a walk? I'm tired but I could use fresh air.”
She turned the iron off. “I'd love to walk. Next week it will be your turn to iron and wash.”
“It'll be what?”
“You heard me. No reason a man shouldn't do his part of the housework. Wait till I get a sweater.”
I could picture myself behind an iron or washboard.
We walked along the beach, holding hands like school kids, and I really felt tired. She knew all about shells and seaweed, pointed out the spot where we'd go surf-fishing in the morning. I said, “Best I go home and pound my ear. I've had a big day—for me—and it won't be easy to get up early.”
In the house she returned to her ironing and I took my pill, got into my pajamas, asked, “I have a problem —where do we sleep, in my bed or yours?”
“Mine, of course. The landlady always has the softest bed in the house.”
I kissed her good-night and dropped off to sleep as soon as I hit the sheets. The next thing I knew she was shaking me. I awoke with a start and she was sitting up in the dark stillness beside me. The room was full of early morning cold and I yawned, asked, “Time to go fishing?”
“No,” she said. “Hell with that. It's time for something else,” and pulled my head down into the wonderful warm firmness of her breasts.
It was nearly noon when I was outside Mrs. Samuels' house. When I rang the bell she answered the door, said, “So you're the one who called. Yes, I remember you.”
“Glad of that.”
“You're late,” she said impatiently. “I've no time to wait around and gossip. I have to look for work.”
We went into the only free room in the house—outside of the John—the community kitchen, and as we sat down I asked, “Anybody around? What I have to say is strictly private.”
“Everybody is where a body should be, working or calling for their kids at school. Or calling for some white woman's kids.”
“I'll pay you for the day you've lost,” I cut in. “Now...”
“What kind of policeman are you? Paying for my time.”
“I'm not a cop. I'm... a... a friend. I need your help.”
“I want to know William Saxton's reasons for killing the Wilsons.”
She stared at me for what seemed a long time, her dark brown face rigid as a mask. Only her eyes moved, or seemed to move as they cut through me. Finally she said, “You're not a cop?”
“No. I used to be and.... Look, I know he killed them, and I think you do too—knew it when you took your time calling the police. Tell me why he did it and I can send him up. I think you want that, too.”
“Don't be foolish, son. You'll never send Mr. Saxton up, not in this town. My, listen to me, even now I call him mister!”
“Why not? You said that once before, in the Wilson kitchen, that's why I'm here.”
She didn't answer. We sat there for a moment, the quiet of the kitchen heavy upon us, broken only by the ticking of an old wall clock. I sat there, waiting, smelling the stale odors of recent meals, as she decided whether to trust me or not. She asked, “You hate Sax-ton real bad?”
“It isn't hate. I'm fed up with his kind, that's all.”
Her eyes studied mine and I tried not to look away, began counting the wrinkles around her eyes. I said, “Why not tell me what you know, Mrs. Samuels, let me decide if I can convict Saxton?”
She said softly, “You keep calling me Mrs. Maybe you will do something. It was a lynching.... Henry Wilson was a colored man.”
“What?” I must have shouted my surprise, the kitchen filled with the sound, echoed it.
“I shouldn't have told you, you act like it was a crime,” she said.
“It's... it's something I never thought of. You sure of this?”
“Sure I'm sure, sure as can be. Henry was one of these very light ones, more white in him than colored. See him around whites and you'd never think of him being colored. But see him around Negroes and you just naturally knows he's colored. Henry was passing. Well, that was his little red wagon and he was pulling it. I don't blame nobody for trying to escape. Me, I'm too dark to run from that old jim-crow bird. So I tries to live the best I can. More our folks stood up for themselves, we'd...”
“Take it slow. Henry ever tell you this?”
“'Course not! But I knew. And he knew I knew. There was nothing to tell or talk about.”
“You think his wife...?”
“Miss Beatrice knew. I kept house for the Saxtons since 1938. She was in college then, but she came home weekends. This was the old house over on Ridge Street. She lived there with Mr. Saxton. Henry Wilson was in the same college too, working his way through, and she took a real liking to him. Started bringing him over for supper. Miss Beatrice was in love, you can tell when a gal is in love. Of course, soon as I laid eyes on Henry, I knew.”
“You tell her?”
“What was there to tell? You think being colored meant he was no good or...?”
“I didn't mean that. They were in school—what happened?”
“One day she come home all sick, in bed for near two weeks. And after that day Henry don't come around no more. I knows what happen all right, he told her about hisself. Her soul hurt. Even old doc say he can't find no reason why she sick.”
“When was this?”
“About nineteen hundred and forty—in the Spring. Then I hear Henry go away during summer, get hisself work in another town. Never even send her a card. All time Miss Beatrice is full of misery, nervous. Mr. Sax-ton worried about her, keep sending her to doctors. No doc can help lovesickness.”
The old woman stopped, as if lost in thought. She pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes, lit one without offering me any. “School start in Fall and Miss Beatrice begin phone him every day. Then, weeks go by, Henry come over to the house once again. Late in the evening and they thought I'd gone on home. But I was dozing in the kitchen, waiting for some bread dough to rise. Want to bake that night. I hear Miss Beatrice cry and she say, 'What you mean it won't work out? Why don't you give me the chance to decide that, to try it? Henry, don't put me out your life.... I'll go to pieces.' I heard that, then they both crying and kissing, make up.”
“That's what you heard—those exact words?” I asked, thinking she'd have to have some memory.
She looked at me angrily. “You think I'm a liar? That's what I hear, I never forget it. I like Miss Beatrice, she good... for a white woman. And I sit in the kitchen, think, 'Best they marry before she moons herself to death. He can pass and anyway, being colored ain't no disease.' Well, all rest of that year and the next they see each other like before and Miss Beatrice all fine and glowing again. Way I hear it, they going to wait till Henry graduates, then get married. Mr. Saxton, he likes Henry, all for it.”
She got up, knocked the ashes from her cigarette into the sink, sat down again. “Henry never graduate—war come. He drafted. Miss Beatrice almost crazy again. Mr. Saxton he so busy making money he didn't notice it much, but that girl sure nervous. Next I hear Mr. Henry is wounded and coming home and Miss Beatrice tell me she glad, she has him again. He wasn't wounded bad and soon he's out of the army and they marry. Saxton take Henry into the factory and I hear he do very good. Soon they move into the new house, Mr. Saxton, he gets himself an apartment. I go with them. Things run smooth as silk. Then about three-four months ago the letter come. This....”
“Mr. Henry got hisself elected to some committee, and his picture in the paper. One night he comes in all upset. I got good ears and they whisper but I hear plain: the letter is from some cracker doctor down in Georgia where Mr. Henry was born, say he recognize him and want money. He and Miss Beatrice discuss what they should do. That's all.”
“That's all? What happened after that, did they pay?”
She shook her head. “No. They say they going to wait till they hear again. Mr. Henry has no folks and he say he don't believe doctor could recognize him— doc last seen him when he was a young boy. They don't hear no more. That the end of it.”
“Where's the letter now?” I asked.
“Lost. One day he asks Miss Beatrice if she seen the letter, he can't find it. They look and she say not to worry, probably destroyed or lost, to forget it.”
“Any idea when that was—when the letter was missing?”
She sent out a cloud of smoke, pursed her thin lips as if thinking aloud. “I'd say about two months ago... week or two after they first get letter.”
I drummed on the white metal tabletop with my fingernails. It added up. Saxton got hold of the letter, started working on the murder at once. Two months ago was when he purchased the cabin—in Henry Wilson's name. I asked, “You remember the name of this place in Georgia, of the doctor?”
“Never did hear name of place. Doctor was called Snell, I think.”
“Snell. Sure about that?”
I stood up. “Thanks a lot, Mrs. Samuels. Think this is what I've been looking for. Don't tell anyone else about this. It's important to keep it a secret.”
“What you going to do?” she asked, her voice weary. She went over to the sink and held the cigarette under the dripping faucet, threw the butt into a paper bag full of garbage. “Suppose it all comes out, what good will it do? This town ain't too bad for colored, but it still ain't good. What town is? You think any jury convict big-shot Mr. Saxton for killing his sister and her Negro husband? Naw, he only get off. That be worse, his getting off. Why I never tell police anything.”
“Maybe he won't get off. You know the old saying, more than one way to skin a cat. Let me think about it. Did Saxton take a trip in the last two months? Go out of town for a couple of days?”
“Not that I know of. Always around.”
“Not even a business trip?”
“He ain't left town in years.”
“Okay. Remember, we never had this conversation.” I took out my wallet, removed a tenspot. “Here's for the time you lost and...”
“Put your money away, son,” she said gently, her voice full of dignity. “You think you can do some good? A jury will...”
“Forget about a jury. Forget everything and let me handle it. I think I can make the murders stick—on Saxton. Be around to see you again in a few days. The most important thing we can do to get Saxton—is keep quiet. Not a word of this, even to your son or...”
“Ain't got a son, or anybody else. I ain't talked about it before, why I talk now? What's your name again?”
“Ranzino. Matt Ranzino.”
“Funny sounding name. You Italian?”
“Yeah. Call me Matt, that isn't funny.”
“Good name. My husband named Mathew and he was a good man. Cook on a ship. Loved the water, even when he come back from a trip, we'd rent a boat and spend all day fishing, him telling me about places he been. He on a tanker that went down. Back in nineteen hundred and thirty-one. On a Thursday morning, right out in the goddamn Pacific. He drowned two thousand miles away from me. I never been same since....”
“Well—sorry to hear about it. I have to run. Sit tight till you hear from me again.”
I went out, took a cab to Max's place. I tried not to think of Saxton... there wasn't much to think about, except how rotten he was, from his heart. I thought about the old woman. Looking at her you'd never think she'd known love and romance. But she and her Mathew must have had something, the way she said it. Something like Mady and I should have.... I looked at my watch. It was nearly one and I had to be back by three to get Joe's call. I told the cabbie to drive me to a camera store I remembered.
I put down nearly all my cash—a hundred and twenty bucks—as a deposit on the rental of a candid camera, a developing kit, a flash attachment, and some infra-red film and bulbs. When I finally got to the precinct house, the desk sergeant told me Max was out to lunch. “Over at the Roma. Captain Daniels likes that Eyetie food—and so does his stomach.”
The Roma was an old restaurant, not much to look at, but real food and expensive. As I passed the big potted plants at the door and stepped inside, I walked smack into Tops Anderson and two loudly dressed hoods. Tops had just paid his tab. He was sober and gave me a big grin, then gave the hoods one of these catch-this-it's-going-to-be-good glances. The punks grinned slightly. They were both small and dapper, spent a lot of time on their clothes and slick brushed hair. Tops said, “Will you look what we have here, the Wop sprinter! Best alley runner in town.”
“Cut it,” I said looking for a place to put the camera down. If I busted it, I'd not only be out the deposit, but Joe's plans couldn't wait.
“What if I don't?” Tops said like a kid, moving behind me, blocking the door. “Ain't no alley here for you to do your Gone-with-the-wind act.”
The hoods showed their delight with this piece of sharp wit. I started for the nearest table, to put the camera case down, when Tops slapped me across the side of my face. It wasn't much of a slap, I was going away from it, and the cashier looked at the headwaiter who came over and one of the punks snarled something at him.
I put the camera down gently, picked up a napkin and started to wrap it around my right fist, when Tops said, “Guess you didn't run fast enough—not a bad black eye. I'm going to match it!” and he came at me. He was a brawler and came in wide open—I slipped the obvious right and crossed my left to his nose. It was the first solid punch I'd landed in a hell of a long time and it felt good... it broke his nose. Ducking under his left I split his eye open with a short right and his face was covered with blood. Tops stupidly raised both his hands to his bloody puss, as some women screamed, and I banged him in the guts so hard the food he'd just eaten came bursting out of his open, gasping mouth, as he went down. Only a little of it sprayed on me— good old Matt, the mess target!
The two punks stood there, undecided as to what their move was and I grabbed the first one, spun him around, got a grip on the bottom of his coat and split it up the back to the collar. The joker went as pale as if he'd been socked. I had to hit the other jerk, he was reaching for something. I jabbed him in the middle of his striped vest and he sat down.
Max, the waiters, and a few of the patrons came over. Max flashed his badge, assured everybody things were under control. He winked at me, said, “Clear case of assault and battery. I'll...”
“But...?” Max began.
“You want these clowns for anything special?” I asked, knowing they wouldn't be eating in the Roma if Max was looking for them.
“No. But if you...”
“Then forget it.” Tops was sitting on the floor, bent over, blood and vomit dripping from his mouth. The hood on the floor was pressing his stomach, about to get sick. The other punk was holding his torn coat about him like a girl caught undressed. I pushed the door open and Tops fell out backwards. Taking the sick punk by the collar, I lugged him outside, dropping him on Tops so his clothes would get dirty as they threw up over each other. Motioning for the busboy, I told him, “Clean up this mess,” and turning to the slob in the torn coat, I said, “Give him a fin for his trouble, and get your two jerky pals off the street. Tell Tops to stay out of my way—all the way out.”
The guy nodded and shoved a bill at the delighted busboy, then ran out, helped the other two into a flashy car parked at the curb. I picked up my camera and followed Max to his table. I ordered a glass of stout, brushed the few spots off my coat with a napkin, and holding my hands under the table, took my pulse. The ticker wasn't pounding too much.
Max said, “That's more like the old Matt who...”
“Stop it, I'm through with the rough and tumble act. Just a special lesson for Tops.” I knew Max was glad I hadn't pressed charges—Tops swung too much weight. Max hadn't even frisked the hoods—they probably had gun permits.
I sipped my stout and felt better, although I could feel the sweat running from my armpits. Max pointed at the camera case. “Taking pictures?”
“Hobby I picked up in the hospital. Part of my adjusting to civilian life.”
Max nibbled on a celery stalk. “Still pack the old wallop. Bet you could take most of the heavies in the ring today.”
“That's all I need.”
“When you getting your license again?”
“I don't know. Way taxes are, I'm better off living on my tax-proof pension. Maxie, know a good private dick down in Atlanta that I can use for some confidential work?”
“Anything I can put through an official request to the Atlanta police for? Be glad to...”
“Nope, this isn't anything for the cops. In fact, want you to forget you ever gave me the guy's name.”
I looked him in the eye and laughed. “My girl has a lost uncle down there, I'm tracing him.... in case he dies and leaves her a million.
Max shrugged and rubbed some whiskers he'd forgotten under his nose, then wrote a name and address down on a paper napkin, gave it to me, asked in a hoarse voice, “Anything else?”
“Aha. Where was Henry Wilson born?”
He threw his pencil on the table. “Why don't you lay off?” he asked wearily. I finished my drink, took a vitamin pill as he got up and used the phone on the cashier's desk. When he returned he said, “According to our records, he was born in Savannah, Georgia. Why?”
“Nothing. And thanks.” I stood up. “By the way, can you lend me fifty—till I get my pension check?”
“I'll have to go home. Libby has money. I only got twenty on me.”
“Twenty will do... for the time being.”
I thanked him for the two tens and went to the nearest bank and changed one bill into silver and found a phone booth. I called the dick in Atlanta, person to person, the coins ringing so many bells it sounded like a one-armed bandit paying off. This dick had a shrill voice, or it could have been the connection. I told him, “A friend, Captain Max Daniels, recommended you. Want you to put in a day or two getting some confidential info. There's a doctor someplace in Georgia named Snell. Probably lives and practices in some small country village. I want the name of that wide spot in the road, also the doc's present address. He's an old man and I have a hunch there's more than an even chance he died a few months ago. I want all the towns he ever practiced in, especially the towns he worked in about thirty years ago. Also want to know if there's a birth record of a Henry Wilson in any of these towns. He's about 29 or 33, don't know if he's colored or white. Also see if you can find any of Wilson's relatives—if he has any. All on the quiet. Got that?”
“Why, sure. That'll be fifty a day and expenses.”
“Okay, but don't run up too many days. And if you can get all the info in one day, I'll pay a hundred and fifty.”
“You got a deal. What address shall I send the dope to?”
“I'll phone you again in the morning.”
There was a moment of hesitation, then he asked, “When do I get a retainer?”
“I'm wiring you fifty at once.”
“I'll get started—soon as I get the fifty. You haven't told me your name?”
“It's Smith, John Smith. It's that kind of a case.”
“Get your money here—money don't know no name.”
I hung up and waited for the operator to tell me how many more quarters I had to drop in. There was little chance the guy would call Max and check—he wouldn't waste that long distance money on a hundred-buck case.
When I paid up, I got Harry Loughlin's home number from information and Flo's sexy voice said, “Hell-low?”
“Hello, baby. I....”
“Matt! Knew you'd call.” She said it so loudly, Harry couldn't have been home. He should be drinking with Joe.
“Look, I'm calling as a buddy-buddy. I need a hundred bucks for a few weeks. Can....?”
“Be on my horse and wherever you are in five, minutes, darling.”
I told her to meet me outside the telegraph office and I only had to wait a few minutes when she drove up in her roadster. I told her to park and soon as I got in, she threw her arms around me and. I kissed her hard on the cheek, fondled her breasts slightly, and she said, “Ah, honey!”
“Don't start that, this is only a loan. The romance is still out.” Her perfume smelled great and I wondered what it was called, wanted to buy Mady some. The kid never used perfume.
She opened her bag, took out a wallet stuffed with folding money. She tossed it in my lap. “Take two hundred, take it all. Matt, I...”
“Slow down,” I said, counting out five twenties. “Be back in a moment.” I went into Western Union and wired the guy seventy-five bucks and when I came out and got into the car, she asked, “Where to, hon?”
“The Lagoon.” This was a cheap bathing resort and amusement park not far from White Beach.
As she drove she kept playing with my thigh with her free hand and when I told her to cut it out, she asked, “Matt, when you going to stop teasing me?”
“Was I ever a tease? Romance is out. I told you that. Things are different since I came out of the hospital.”
“You told me that too. I'll wait... a little longer. Need any more cash?”
“Baby, don't be oversweet. No.”
When we reached the Lagoon I told her to stop in front of a small hotel and she asked, “You living in this dump?”
“Not exactly. I'm scratching around, trying to get located.”
“Matt, tell me true, there isn't another dame?” She leaned toward me.
“Stop that,” I said, watching her mouth.
She sat back. “Harry says he offered you...”
“I don't like Harry's work. Flo, what kind of perfume you using?”
“Like to give you a bottle, as interest, when I pay back the hundred.”-
“You know what I want you to give me, Matt.” She started for me again and I opened the door and slid out of the car.
“It's easier for me to give you the perfume. What's it called?”
“It's called, go to hell you two-timing son of a bitch!” she snapped and drove off.
I got a bus to White Beach, wondering how women knew these things so damn fast.
When I got to the cottage Mady was waiting and I kissed her, mumbled, “Baby, you don't need any perfume.”
“What?” She sniffed at me, said, “You've been around some chick using Heavenly Drops—ten bucks a dram, or some such fantastic price.”
I grinned. “All in line of duty—don't worry. Anybody call for me?”
“No. And you can't make me jealous. As you said, we're alike. Bet you never got along with a girl so well before?”
“That's so,” I said, hugging her and thinking how damn true it was. “Never cared for a girl before—except to sleep with—and I suppose that's how they felt about me. Always got restless with me. Had to keep themselves busy—refurnishing my place, or go on a clothes binge, or one even went in for a correspondence course—anything to keep them busy. Of course, they were all hit-and-jump affairs, only playing me for a meal ticket.”
“Not just for a meal ticket—with those shoulders. And why are women always looking for meal tickets? Don't men, too?”
“Men happen to be the breadwinners in our society.”
Mady gave me a mock sneer, “Balls.”
“Why don't you say 'Breasts'?”
“Don't you start making fun of me. Speaking of jobs, I've been out looking. I start Monday as cashier in a movie house near here. Forty a week—means about twenty-eight take home pay.”
“Yeah,” I said, which didn't mean anything. I didn't want her to start working so soon—we hardly had any time together. But the routine of a job might be what she needed.
I let go of her and walked into the kitchen, took a pill with a glass of water. She pointed to my skinned knuckles as I was holding the glass. “Must have been a tough gal you were out with.”
“Oh that—I stumbled on an old friend.”
“Matt, if it's none of my business, say so, but what are you up to? I'm just so afraid of you getting hurt, I mean...”
“Don't worry about me, I...”
“Don't give me any of that man talk—I do worry!” Mady said.
I sat on a kitchen chair, pulled her down on my lap. “Okay, you have a right to know, but one thing—I don't want you to repeat this to anybody.”
“I'm doing a little free detective work... I'm going to send Willie Saxton the Third to the gas chamber for killing his sister and brother-in-law.”
Mady jumped off my lap, stared at me bug-eyed. “Saxton?”
“You said yourself you didn't believe Henry Wilson was a murderer. It kind of narrows down to Saxton, doesn't it? That's why you have to keep this quiet.... Willie doesn't have a thing to lose by killing again.”
“Saxton?” Mady repeated, and shivered. “He's a louse, but I never thought of him as a killer. And he was here all Sunday night.”
“How do you know? Baby, when you're sleeping off one, you're out. You know that.”
“That's so, and I really tied one on that weekend.... That was only a few days ago and it seems like years. Are you sure he did it?”
“I've been sure all along.”
“Then why didn't you...?”
“I didn't give a damn before now... I've taken a great dislike to him, so exit Saxton the Third: justice shall triumph, praise the Lord and pass the gas chamber.”
Mady shuddered. “You seem almost happy about it.”
“I feel good. Like I smacked a guy down today who... well, I feel good about that too. The important thing is, I feel like working. As for Saxton, he means nothing more to me than stepping on a fly that's annoying us. Does he mean anything to you?”
“What kind of a crack is that?”
I stood up, took her hand. “It's just that you seem upset over my gunning for him.”
Mady squeezed my hand tightly. “Because he's mean and nasty... and now you say he's a killer. I'd snap my cap if anything happened to you.”
I kissed her, nibbled at her lips. “Don't worry about it—I can give Saxton lessons in how to be a nasty joker—if I want to. Now forget everything I told you... you think I'd let anything like Saxton spoil what we have?”
“No, you wouldn't,” she said, giving me a long, hard kiss. Then she pulled out of my arms, smiled, said, “There's work to be done. I'll make up the bed, you dust the living room.”
She took a dust cloth out of the closet and I went to work. It was after three and about ten minutes later the phone rang. It was Joe and he sounded jittery. He was parked around the corner and I told him I'd be right there. I put the camera away in my room, told Mady I was going out again. She said, “Saxton?”
“No—Some more free work, for a friend.”
“You're sure friendly. My rival with the stink-water?” .
“Wrong again—a man.”
“One you skinned your knuckles on?”
“My, my, you think I've only one friend in the world? It's your brother Joe.”
“What are you two cooking up?”
“A little money-saving scheme.”
Mady laughed, fine deep laughter that tickled me. “Watch out for Joe, those civil service characters are always thinking up some racket to make an extra buck. Where'd you get the camera?”
“Rented it. Joe and I are going to take dirty pictures,” I said, ducked her slap, and walked out of the house.
Joe had on his blue-gray postman's uniform and he looked as sloppy as in his regular suit. I sat beside him, asked, “How did things go?”
“Loughlin was sore about stalling him in the bar. I'm to meet him tonight in Seward Park at seven sharp.”
“Fine. Pick me up at the house at six-fifteen. You tell the barkeep about Harry being a pansy?”
Joe nodded, mumbled, “Jesus, I hate this! I know he's putting the screws on me, but there must be some other way of getting back at him.”
“What other way? Unless you want to stand up and fight his charges, and as you said, you'll lose your job.”
“I know, I'm doing what you told me.”
“Now the most important piece of business will be in the park. You walk with him till you reach this bench we pick out—and it has to be that bench. I'll be hiding nearby and you sit down first and...”
“You told me all that last night.”
“Unless we get a shot of him sitting on your lap, the whole deal is a bust. Soon as he hits your lap, start fighting. He'll grab your shoulder to keep from falling—that's the picture we want. Then you go into your act, calling him a...”
“I know what to do! Let's not keep talking about it.”
He was too nervous, so I said, “Go home and relax— take a couple of drinks. But don't get stiff on me.”
“What I need is sleep. Couldn't shut my eyes last night. Damn heavy delivery today, too. Lot of magazines and ads.”
“See you at six-fifteen, and be on time,” I said, opening the door. “I have to return to my dusting.”
He smiled for the first time. “Mady must really go for you. Dusting!”
I spent the rest of the afternoon fooling with the camera, to make sure I'd be able to work it in the dark. Mady wanted to know where Joe and I were going, was mad when I wouldn't tell her. She made supper and was off on a talking jag, maybe to get even with me. She kept telling me all the little things Billy did till I stopped it by talking about some of Flo's habits.
She was still angry when Joe honked his horn and as I left I told her, “Let's cut the past history from now on. Both of us. Billy doesn't mean a thing to us—or you— as of the first time we kissed. I don't expect you to brush his memory off in a few days, but I get awful jealous at the thought that any other man made you happy.”
“I'm sorry. I don't know why I keep talking about him—maybe it's a habit.”
“It's because we're not together enough. Another couple days and I'll change that.”
Joe was so jittery he stuttered as we drove to the park, locked the car, and found a bench. The bench was isolated and directly across the sidewalk from a large, head-high clump of bushes.
Joe left to meet Harry, walk him back to the trap. It was pretty, dark for so early in the evening and I stumbled around in the bushes till I made an opening, so I could shoot the bench clearly. I set up my camera and flash gun and waited. Judging by the stink, the bushes were a favorite urinal, and from the way the ground was littered—even in the dark—this particular spot was popular with lovers, although people would have to be ready to explode to forget the smell.
I checked the camera again, licked the flash bulb for better contact, made sure I had a few more bulbs ready in my pocket, listened to the night sounds of the insects and waited. About ten minutes later I saw Harry walking with that jaunty, stiff-legged, almost dancing walk of his. Joe was lumbering along as though trying to use his feet as little as possible.
Joe stopped at the bench, looked about like a ham actor, whispered, “This looks okay. Let's talk.”
“Righto,” Harry said. “I want to get this over with.”
Joe did it neater than I expected. As they both started to sit, Joe got his backside down first in a sliding motion that placed him under Harry. Harry landed in Joe's lap and Joe moved and Harry grabbed Joe's collar to keep from falling. It could be interpreted as a hug.
I squeezed the camera button and there was a split second flash that lit up the scene like a flare... I'd snafued everything! I'd put in a regular flash bulb instead of an infra-red one that wouldn't give any visible light. Or maybe I should have blamed it on the clerk in the camera store.
Joe started to say, “What do you think you're...?” as he had rehearsed and I don't know if he stopped because he realized things were wrong, or because Harry jumped off his lap like lightning, shrilled, “What the hell you pulling?”
Joe stood up, speechless, and Harry threw a punch at him. The blow didn't do anything to Joe, who seemed to shove rather than hit Harry. The push sent Harry on his back, in the bushes, and when he stood up he had a gun out, spun around, fired into the bushes. I hit the urine-soaked dirt like it was fudge and Harry fired again. It sounded like a .22, made a short bark that was lost in the sounds of the night. I heard Joe running, his heavy pounding footsteps louder than the clean sharp report of the gun.
I lay there, afraid to crawl and make any noise, Harry didn't pay any attention to Joe, but waited outside the bushes, the little lead thrower in his hand. He said hysterically, “Come out, you dirty son of a bitch: I'll kill you, I'll...!”
I tried to get the flash bulb loose and couldn't. I found a stone and threw it a few feet in the bushes. It was a corny trick, but at the noise Harry moved and I got to my feet as silently as I could. I stood there, hardly breathing, and Harry was still for a moment, then came toward me. As he passed the opening through which I'd been shooting the picture, I hit him. It was a straight right high on the head and it sent pain shooting up my arm as Harry crumpled to the sidewalk, out cold.
I moved my fingers—the bones weren't broken. I pulled Harry into the bushes, then walked—fast. Joe was waiting in his car and we took off like two thieves. I said, “That was my fault. Drive to the nearest police station, tell them Harry made 'improper' advances to you and...”
“No! I'm done with this, with any part of it! You and your crazy ideas!” His fat face was glistening with sweat.
“You dummy, don't you understand—things went wrong! The pix won't come out, we've nothing to show, to...”
“I'm done with this! Against it in the first place God, what a dirty mess!”
“The deal backfired, you know what will happen now?”
He didn't answer.
“We were going to surprise Harry—when the frame was complete. Now he knows what's up, he'll get you! Losing your job will be the smallest part of it... unless you go to the cops, act before Harry does.”
“I'm done, won't do a damn thing more. No!” He was bawling a little and I didn't argue. There was a fifty-fifty chance we'd scared the bejesus out of Harry and he'd leave Joe alone. But we also could have scared him enough to go all out for Joe. It was a mess.
We parked in front of the house and sat there for a while, waiting for Joe to stop crying. I told him to come in and he said no and I said, “Cut it, the game's over. Come in.”
Mady was listening to the radio and reading a magazine. She shut the radio off the moment she saw Joe's wet face. He sat down hard, held his head in his hands and really turned on the tears. I told her what happened and it took her a few minutes to understand what we had in mind, then she looked at me like I was something you stepped in on the street, asked, “Matt, how could you do a thing like that? Sink as low as... as... that?”
“You have to play a man's weaknesses as you find them. Now if Joe will only protect himself by going to the cops and...”
“And have the papers yell he was mixed up with a pansy!” Mady shouted.
“Want Joe to lose his job, or worse? Is that better, an out? One thing I never forgot in the ring—when the ref finishes his instructions he says, 'and protect yourself at all times.' Baby, that holds doubly true for everything in life. I was only doing this because Joe is a part of you—of us—and I want peace. Harry got in our hair, we had to comb him out—any way possible.”
“Why didn't you use a gun, it would have been cleaner!” Mady said.
“I would have—in a second—if we could have gotten away with it.”
She stared at me for a moment, shaking her head, then went over and knelt beside Joe, trying to comfort him. I was angry—with my own stupidity in not checking the bulb, and with Joe. But then I couldn't blame him—he was in a mess and scared, probably had never seen a gun before, except in the movies.
I went into the kitchen, drew the shades, set up my developing trays—maybe the regular flash hadn't been too strong for the infra-red film. I got everything ready, then turned out the lights and went to my room and took off my coat and tie, my ring, went to the bathroom and washed my hands. I was sweating a little and took my temperature, but it was normal. By leaving the lamp on in my room and the door of the kitchen partly open, enough light came in so I could see what I was doing without spoiling the film.
I'd just opened the roll of films, was taking out the negative, when the phone rang and a minute later Mady came in as I said, “Don't open the door!”
“What?” She snapped the light switch, flooding the kitchen. “What are you.... Oh.”
There was no point in cursing her, whatever chance I had of getting a picture was ruined—seemed as though that picture was never meant to be made anyway. She asked, “Did I spoil anything?”
“You're wanted on the phone.”
“Who is it?”
“A man. I don't know who.”
Joe was still sitting around like a living hangover and as I picked up the phone I wondered if Harry was smart enough to know where I lived. Or had he seen me in the park? Did he know I was living with Joe's sister?
Max's hoarse voice said, “Matt? Got news for you— Harry Loughlin jumped out of his office window. Few minutes ago.”
“Is he dead?”
“A 21-story fall isn't a tonic.”
“Any reason why he made like a bird?”
“Not that we know of. No notes or anything. Thought you'd want to know. I'm in his office now. I'm sure you're heartbroken.”
“Maxie, I couldn't care less.”
He laughed. “Me too. Didn't think he had the guts for a high dive. Has he any relations?”
“Never told me of any. No reason for the suicide? Harry wasn't the one to knock himself off.” Joe jumped from his chair, his face dead-white as he heard my last words.
Max said, “One of those things. No doubt of it being suicide. Night elevator man says Harry came rushing in about twenty minutes ago, seemed sick. In fact the guy followed him into the office to ask if he wanted anything and he saw Harry take off his hat, look at him for a moment, then Harry said it was stuffy and he had a headache. Harry opened the window and went out—all with the same motion. Have another witness—a steno who was working late in the building across the courtyard. Well, send him a big wreath.”
“Nothing in his pockets to indicate why he jumped?”
“No. Usual junk.”
“Thanks for calling me, Max. See you in the morning.” I hung up and Joe and Mady were staring at me, Joe still pale, Mady's eyes big with fear. I grinned. “Every cloud has that well-known silver lining! Hell with the picture... friend Harry has splattered himself all over the sidewalk. Straight suicide and nothing to connect us with...”
“Oh God, I killed him!” Joe moaned.
“Shut up. The cops don't even know he saw you. Anyway, it was my idea.”
“I did it!” Joe said, his voice rising.
I went over and slapped him across his fat face, hard as I could. “Cut that slop, you fool! Harry's dead, good riddance. I didn't see you moaning so loud when he was killing your wife, when he bled you so you couldn't pay for her doctor? You were worrying so much you were getting everybody else sick.”
Joe rubbed his face—the red imprint of my hand on his pale skin, sat down heavily.
Mady gasped, “But this... this... Harry is dead!”
“Good. He won't blackmail any more poor slobs like Joe.”
She said slowly, “You really are... tough.” And burst into tears.
“I'm not tough, but I don't go for sloppy sentiment or dramatics, either. Look, you're sorry when you run over a puppy, but you don't feel a thing when crashing a snake. Harry was a rattler.” I turned to Joe. “And you, stop whining. Probably won't happen, but there's just a chance Harry could have told that creep he works with he was going to meet you. The creep might tell the cops, and they might check. I doubt if they'll do anything, it's plain suicide. But if they do talk to you, don't lose your head and don't lie. Your story is Harry was trying to sell you his hate sheet and you were thinking it over. You met him in the park at his suggestion, told him you weren't buying, and you parted friends. That's all you know. Understand?”
“Why don't you leave me alone? Yeah, I understand.”
“And don't tell anybody else about this—not even your wife. And stop acting like a mope, you got a tough load lifted off your back tonight.”
“Off or on my back?” Joe mumbled.
I went into the kitchen and cleaned up the chemicals, then went to bed. I was angry but didn't know who I was sore at. I couldn't really blame Joe, or Mady... they still didn't know how cheap a life was in our world.
To my surprise I fell asleep quickly and then I had a nightmare. I was back in Korea and down the empty road that ran by the hill where I was dug in, came these figures in white. It was very hot and I sweated and watched them through the sights of my sub-machine gun. And the redheaded beer driver from St. Louis, who had the side of his head completely blown off a few days later, telling me, “Maybe they ain't soldiers, but don't take no chances, Matt. Be careful, be careful as hell.” And then the stammer of the gun as it trembled in my hands... and I awoke, sweating. I grabbed my T-shirt from the chair, wiped my head dry. It was a dream I often had and the bark of the gun always awoke me.
I was thankful for that, glad I didn't dream about—seeing the bloody faces of the little girls, the boy, the women....
I couldn't hear any noise in the house or see a light and I lay back on my pillow, started to doze off, wondering if Mady was sleeping in the other bed, and why. I was just floating off to sleep when I saw this tall, white, ghost-like figure coming toward me... like the figures on the road, only taller and closer. I sat up and screamed and the figure rushed toward the bed and it was Mady in a white nightgown. Mady was sitting on the bed, asking, “What's wrong, Matt?”
“Nothing. A dream... I was back in Korea. How's Joe?”
“All right. He's gone home.” She slipped into bed and put her arms around me.
I asked, “How do you feel?”
“A little frightened... you're so hard, so... so... frightening hard.”
“Why? Because a louse dies and I don't cry? That's crap. I've seen too many people die to...”
“Don't,” she said, placing her hand over my mouth. “Don't talk like that, it makes me cold inside.”
I lay there, surrounded by the wonderful warmth of her, and she started to talk softly in the darkness but I fell asleep.
I awoke at nine and it was the start of a bright sunny day. I sat up and looked over at Mady and she was lying there with her eyes open and she looked like hell. I kissed her lightly. “What's the matter, been awake all night?”
I stretched and grinned. “How did we come out?” I asked, yawning.
“I don't know. Matt, last night... what happened... frightened me.”
“Forgot about Harry, he...”
“I never knew Harry.... I'm thinking of you. You can't live with that slogan.”
I yawned again and swallowed to get wide awake. “What slogan?”
“Protect yourself at all times. Life isn't a boxing match.”
“Well this is a new side, Mady the philosopher.”
“Matt, I'm serious, you sound like everybody in the world was trying to... to... fight each other.”
“Not fight, merely get a foothold on the other guy's back.”
She sat up, and I helped her prop a pillow behind her back. “How about us? Do you have to protect yourself from me, too?”
“Yes and no. Loving and having you love me is a kind of protection. Look, I've been living by that slogan long before I ever thought of becoming a fighter. Ever since I was old enough to be called a Wop or a Dago. Then it was Pops who kept drilling it into me.”
“He must have been a hard man.”
“Pops? No, he was soft. The only true friend I ever had—man friend. He was a little skinny guy in a worn gray suit, battered brown felt hat, no tie, and a torn dirty sweater. His face was leathery, his hair all gray. He was a wino and stunk most of the time. But he wasn't a lush. And if he had a tin ear, a busted nose, a cruel mouth... his eyes were fine, quiet peaceful eyes. Like your—a little.”
Mady said, “You sound like you were in love with him.”
“Lack of sleep makes you nasty. He was like a father to me.”
“I meant love him like a father. He adopt you?”
“Guess I adopted him. I was about seventeen then, a big tough kid, living with a second aunt. I weighed 185 and I figured I'd go into the ring, make the big money the heavies got. I was working as a shipping clerk and going to night school, taking all the civil service exams I could—I wanted a steady income.”
“With this big difference... I was hungry most of the time.”
“Really hungry? You look like the kind that will always get along,” she said.
“What's got into you?” I asked, lying down and pulling her on top of me. Under the cover I ran my hand over her leg and she said, “Slap me on the can, Matt. That's all I'd need—the he-man touch!”
“What is this?”
“I don't know... sorry... I'm jumpy,” she said, kissing me. She lay across my chest and after awhile said, “You were talking about this Pops.”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering what had come over her. “I went to a gym, began to work out. But I could only go between five and six in the afternoon, after work and before school. Pops was an old-time lightweight—he once fought Wolgast, and Leonard kayoed him when Pops was going out and Benny was starting up. Now, he was a porter at the gym, on the bum, doing anything to make a buck. But he knew boxing—knew it like few guys know it today. He wanted to be a manager, but every time he found a kid to manage, began to teach him, bring him along slow, the kid would get overanxious, leave Pops for the two-bit managers who rushed them into a lot of quick bouts. The kids made small change, took too many beatings, and were usually finished in a year or two. See, Pops never had a contract with them. That's the way he was, said if two men had to be bound together by law, they weren't worth being partners to start.”
“Then he didn't believe in that—protect yourself at all times,” Mady said to the hairs on my chest.
“Well... yeah, Pops sure didn't protect himself with his pugs. But then if a guy is going to rat, what will a contract get you but a lawsuit? Pops watched me working out, began to give me pointers. When I told him I wanted to be a pug he said, 'Why? It's a tough way to make a buck—the worst way.' So I asked him, 'You know an easy way to make the dollar?' That tickled him and he said he liked the way I moved about and if I wanted to, he'd be my manager. We shook hands on it. Every day for ten months I was at the gym and he coached me. During the winter he looked so bad I bought him a suit and an overcoat, told him it was old stuff my uncle was throwing away. And every payday I took him out for a decent supper.
“I was getting pretty good as a boxer and Pops thought I was ready for the amateurs. Had five fights, won them all by knockouts. They'd give me a watch for winning and after every fight we'd 'eat the watch,' as Pops called it... hock it for ten or fifteen bucks. In my sixth fight I got a small cut over my eye and Pops stopped it. I was sore, was beating the guy easily when he threw a lucky punch I didn't pull away from in time. Pops exploded at me. 'Anytime you get a cut eye— even if you're fighting Louis for the championship, I'll stop it! Hell with the fans and the sports writers, you can't buy eyes.' He used to hate the fans something awful.”
“Why?” Mady asked sleepily. “They support fighters.”
“Called them a pack of bloodthirsty animals, cowards scared to fight themselves, and a couple of fancy cuss words. Anyway, I fought this guy a month later.”
“And of course you won?”
“Stop riding me. Kayoed him in one round. When summer came and there wasn't any school, I got a job working nights and started training during the day, with pros, for experience. Big demand for heavies and all the chiseling managers tried to get me away from Pops, but he kept telling them I wasn't ready for money fights yet. I never double-crossed Pops, but I was getting impatient. Kind of frustrating, sparring with guys I knew I could beat, and reading about them getting five hundred or a grand a fight, and I hardly had coffee money. Then... it was a Tuesday. Guess I'll never forget that day. Got a letter in the morning that I was appointed a cop. That same...”
Mady sighed, got off my chest and nestled up to me.
“That same day a big-time heavy named Porky Sanders came into the gym on his way East for a fight with Louis. Louis later knocked him kicking in three rounds. Sanders' manager was a shrewd guy with a big in, and he was looking for sparring partners—ten bucks a round. Pops said no dice, and one of the hustlers hanging around said, 'Get old Pops turning dough down. What's the matter, your big boy made out of cut glass? Pops so high and mighty... and thrown out of his fleabag room two weeks ago. Ask Pops where he's been sleeping at nights, Matt? Right on the gym benches!”
“I told Sanders' manager I'd go three rounds, told Pops, 'Hell, might as well see how good I am—one way or the other.' Only time Pops and me had words. Well... Porky was a big name and at first I was too cautious, but when he floored me in the second round, I got mad. I outboxed him, floored him and had him hanging on the ropes, when his manager stopped it. Didn't want his boy cut up, spoil that big payday with Louis. Ranzino was the white-haired lad around the gym that day! As I was dressing and Pops was clucking over me like a mother hen, I told him about getting the cop job, but of course that was out... now. You know what Pops told me?”
Mady sighed, “What?”
“Why, he bawled hell out of me, told me to quit the ring and become a cop! Said I was a cinch to be police department champ, get myself a soft racket. When I argued, Pops shouted, 'Get out of this dirty racket—if you have the chance! Man shouldn't make his living beating people, taking punishment. And they all get their lumps... Louis, Zale, Robinson... they get punishment. The good ones just take less. Man only becomes a fighter because he can't make porkchops any other way. Get out of the game while you have the chance. It stinks! I know.'”
“Hell of it was, Sanders' manager offered Pops five grand for my contract, then offered me the dough when he learned we didn't have it in writing. When I insisted Pops was my manager, he offered the old man three grand for a half interest. I was tempted to take it... five grand and this guy could get me the right bouts. But I kept thinking Pops needed the dough worse than I did and if he could turn it down, so could I. So that was the end of my career as a pug—before it ever started.”
Mady's even breathing told me she was sleeping. I lay there and thought of the time I'd kayoed Max for the department championship a month after I was on the force. Pops had been right, about the soft details. I was made a plainclothes man, given desk jobs... all the time I wanted to train. I was a pretty honest cop, I only took a few bucks in graft—enough to give Pops fifteen a week. I added another ten out of my pay. Pops, that strange old man. Once we were having supper— we always ate together a couple times a week—and I asked how the mugs at the gym were. He winked at me, said, “Them dumb studs. They keep asking me, 'Pops, where's that good heavy you had, the speed kid with the punch?' And I don't say nothing and they laugh and say, wise-like, 'He ran out on ya, become a dumb bull. Old Pops lost hisself another boy.' I don't bother answering 'em, Matt, a because these jerks don't know at long last I've really found me a boy.”
He was a swell old bum and when I was busted from the force he was heartbroken, wouldn't take a dime till I convinced him I was making more as a private dick. In the army, this last time, I kept sending him his weekly dough. When he died—in his sleep—Max sent me the little packet of money orders they'd found in his crummy room. Never cashed a one, even though he was back to scuffling for eating money. I was in the hospital then and I lost all the dough in a crap game the day I got the packet. I almost wanted to lose... seemed to me the money was no good. If he'd used it for food he might have been still alive.
I stroked Mady's soft hair, ran my hands over her strong neck... she'd have liked Pops. Whenever I thought of him I also couldn't help but wonder how I would have made out with Louis, what it would have felt like being heavyweight champ of the world. Or would I now be a broken-down has-been, working as a bouncer in some dive?
I got up, took a pill and went to the bathroom and then back to bed. Mady slept till eleven.
It was a hot day and we took a quick dip in the Pacific—the water as cold as I expected it to be. Mady seemed to have snapped out of her mood. She was a good swimmer and I clowned around with my few strokes and worried about the cold. Then we dried ourselves and raced across the sand to the cottage and the hot coffee that was waiting. There was a small item in the papers about Harry's death. Joe called and still was jittery, but nobody had been to see him.
I took the camera and went down to the corner drugstore and put in a long distance call to Atlanta. My boy said, “Been waiting for you. Got all the answers—and in one day.”
“What'd you learn?”
“First, that there's another seventy-five bucks due me.”
“I'm good for it. I'll wire it to you immediately.”
“Sure, Mr. Smith. Or is it Brown or Jones this morning?”
“Stop playing and tell me what you have. Captain Daniels will vouch for me. I'll send the money at...”
“I have a better idea. Suppose you wire me the rest of the bundle, then call back? Even let you reverse the charges for prompt payment. Best you buy that, Smithie.”
“Okay, you great big believer in your fellow man.”
“Says on a buck, In God We Trust, and that's good enough for me. Be waiting. Don't be too long, I have a big day ahead of me here.” He hung up and I was sore but I couldn't blame him. Besides, I didn't want him calling Max.
I took the bus to town, returned the camera and got my deposit. I almost patted the dumb clerk for giving me the wrong bulb—he'd done us a favor. I wired the dick another seventy-five, and having a few hours to kill, I dropped in to see Max. His face looked too neat, he must have taken a store shave. He said, “Flo was in, looking for you. Kept nagging me for your address.”
“Bet she wants to cry on my shoulder because poor Harry is gone.”
Max grinned. “She slings some fine stuff. Man be kind of tempted to try it—even a happily married man like me.”
“You wouldn't have to try very hard with Flo.”
“I know,” Max said sadly. “The tough part would be shaking her off.” He bit into a cigar and shook his head, all in one impossible motion. “Man goes after a new woman like she was something unknown, all the time expecting to find it different. Think women go after it the same way?”
“Why don't you ask Libby?”
Max laughed. “I can see that—she still blushes when I pinch her ass. Speaking of ass, Flo said to call her at Harry's office.”
“Anything new on Harry?”
“What can be new on a suicide? That jerky office boy he has—had—a Mr. Austin—was ranting about the Reds must have pushed him out the window, but that's crazy. You think Harry was on the stuff and his junk told him to jump? Sometimes his eyes looked as watery as a hophead's.”
“Maybe. Always was on the verge of blowing his top —last night he did it. Always nervous.”
“You mean he was always jumpy!” Max said, roaring with laughter.
“Television is calling you, Max. Maybe I'll see Flo, maybe not. If she calls, just say you told me.” I went out and stopped for a glass of milk and took another pill, then walked slowly over to the Grace Building. Flo couldn't know anything, but it was best I see her.
The bag of bones at the reception desk was red-eyed and there was a wreath of flowers on the office desk with some small black lettering across it. Harry would have been astonished that anybody cried for him.
She said, “We're closed today due to the death of....”
“Miss Florence Daisy Mae Adler.”
She tossed her head, asked, “Who's calling?”
She announced me over the phone, then buzzed the door. As I opened it, the creep came out of what had been Harry's office, and solemnly ushered me in. Or he could have been playing guard. He had on a dark suit and a black tie and didn't look any more dismal than usual. The jerk had his honorary tin cop's badge pinned to his vest, for some reason.
Flo was sitting behind Harry's desk, a cigarette pasted to her sultry red lips. There wasn't anything funereal about her, or the dress that seemed cut down to her belly button. She said, “Matt baby! Take a seat, I have much talk for... us.”
I sat in one of the new chairs that felt like you'd fallen into a bucket—at first. Thatcher blinked and didn't sit down. “Miss Adler,” he said, “I don't think it's proper to discuss business so soon after Mr. Loughlin's tragic death. Couldn't this wait?”
“Oh, shut up,” Flo said. “And beat it!”
Austin looked as though he was going to whimper, but took a walk. When he was gone Flo flashed a happy smile at me. “How do you like the set-up? I'm boss here now.”
“Harry had some old judgments against him, so he kept his stock—75%—in my name. Now it's all mine.”
I stared at her. “Harry did that?”
“Come, Flo, Harry wasn't that simple.”
She shrugged. “He was covered—had something on me, a real tough rap that.... No sense telling you about it. Why do you think I stood for his being a louse?”
“For the car, the clothes.”
“That helped, but he had me against the wall. Oh, I had to make out a will in his favor, lot of other legal razzle-dazzle, but he didn't bother changing anything before he tried the wild blue yonder. That's something I can't figure. Harry wasn't the kind to...? Hell with it, and him. Matt, I want you as a partner.”
“Harry was knocking down a clear twenty grand a year, and he was only starting. I'll give you ten— that's a good shake. And if we're together, we have all the twenty.”
“Baby, I don't want any part of this outfit.”
Flo shrugged again and everything was like jelly. “I don't know what it's all about, but it's big dough, from the back pocket. Matt, I need you to operate. Need a strong man to run things.”
“What's the matter with the creep?”
“Him? You kidding? Look, this racket is all a bluff. I need a hard guy who can walk a tight-rope, drive hard... and know when to pull in his horns. Harry always used to say, a good libel suit would ruin him. In short, I need a tough guy with common sense. That's you. My God, Matt, we'll live big, plenty of jack coming in for a few hours' work, time to travel and...”
“Look, honey, we're done, I told you that.”
“You have another girl, I know it. That's okay. I still want you. Let me hang around long enough.... I'll take my chances. You'll be a part...”
There was a knock on the door and Thatcher came in, holding a file card. He whispered something into Flo's ear, his eyes trying hard not to travel down into her dress. She said, “Oh, for God's sake, shut up, you!”
“But it's true,” he said loudly, waving the card before her. “In 1946 a Matt Ranzino signed a petition to the governor, asking that the use of tear gas be outlawed in strikes and...”
He was bending over the desk, his can within reaching distance. I gave him a little goose and as he jumped and turned to look at me, I slapped his thin face. He and his glasses went sailing across the room. As he picked himself up, I got up and took the card out of his hand. Tearing it into little pieces, I told him, “Don't stick your nose into my business, junior.”
“But that proves,” he began, as he put his glasses back on, “that...”
“It proves what it says, I signed a petition. Now get out of here.”
He turned to Flo. “We can't hire anybody who...”
She waved him away, crushed her cigarette in a fancy bronze ashtray shaped like a nude woman—probably one of Harry's pet possessions. “You heard the man— get out.”
When he left, I asked, “The creep own much stock?”
“Naw, he's just an employee. I can fire him any time.”
“That's an idea. By the way, what's the time?” I asked, nodding toward the tiny diamond-studded watch on her wrist. It was a corny way of getting out of there, but it was time to call Atlanta.
Flo held up her hand so I could see it was two-twenty. “Don't rush off, Matt.”
“Then think it over. It's important, for both of us.”
“I told you I don't...”
“You don't lose nothing by thinking it over. Let's talk again, tomorrow. Okay?”
“I'll think about it.” I waved and Flo blew a kiss at me as I went out.
I dropped into the first phone booth I passed, called Max, asked if he'd ever heard of Flo being wanted for anything, or in a jam.
“Not that I know of,” Max said. “I'll check if you want. What's up?”
“Nothing. But check.” I hung up and called my expensive buddy in Atlanta, reversing the charges. He said he'd received the money, and in a few short sentences told me what I wanted to know.
I took a cab out to Mrs. Samuels' and we had another little talk. “Can you leave town?”
“Do I have to?” she asked.
“I don't know. Be better if you do. Could you move to L.A. or Harlem, get lost there? I know it's a lot to ask and if you can't, why...”
“Why is it a lot to ask? Haven't anything to hold me here.”
She shook her head. “I'm nearly 62, all my kin has died. Had two boys but they never growed up, never reached twelve. Lost one at childbirth... hospital didn't want no colored. Other, got sick when he was eleven... one of these flu epidemics. Guess can't blame that on his being colored. Maybe I'll go to L.A. Sick of this old town anyway.”
“I have some savings.”
“Listen carefully, then forget what I'm telling you. I'm going to see that Saxton gets the works. I don't want you to return if you should read about the case, even if it says they're looking for you. And we never talked about this. Get that?”
“Now, in case they should bring you back to testify, you never had an idea Henry Wilson was colored. They'll cross-examine you pretty hard on the witness stand, but you must stick to your story. And don't worry about perjury. After all, you haven't any proof Henry was passing. It's merely an idea of yours. From now on you must think Henry was white.”
“All right... but he wasn't.”
“You just think he wasn't. Tell me, in all good faith, could you swear in court that Henry wasn't white?”
“Shucks, I'm sure... pretty sure... he was passing. I can tell. What you got in mind to do?”
I was afraid to tell her, you never know when and why a person will talk. I said curtly, “You're wrong, I have definite proof he was white.”
“Well... if you say...”
“You see, you're really not absolutely positive. The thing to do is convince yourself—from now on—that he was white. I can't tell you what I'm going to do—less you know, better off you are. Understand, I don't mean I don't trust you, but I can't have anybody else in on this. It's my play.”
“I believe you.”
“And if you ever do get on the witness stand, you left town to look for work and you never even suspected Henry of being colored. Chances are you won't be called back, but if you are...”
“I only saw you that one time out at the house and I'm surprised anybody should think Mister Henry wasn't white.”
I grinned. “Fine. And don't write to anyone, not even me, telling them where you are. You have to disappear.”
“Who'm I going to write to? Got a few friends I see in church, that's all. Just Sunday friends.”
I stood up. “How soon you leaving?”
“Tonight. Haven't much to pack. When you work as a maid you don't have no real home. The house you work in is a sort of home, only it isn't. This... this is merely a room.”
We shook hands. I said, “Good-bye, Florence. You're quite a woman.”
“You look mean and nasty, but you're a good white man, Matt. I hope we win.”
“We'll sure give it a good try.”
At the door she asked, “You really got proof Henry was white?”
I winked at her, put a finger across my lips... like a kid.
When I reached the bungalow Mady gave me a big kiss, asked, “Everything all right about... this Harry?”
“Sure. Forget it.”
“We got a gift.” She pointed to two bottles of bonded rye on the table. “Liquor-store kid brought them. Said Saxton called and had them sent over.”
I examined the seals, the bottoms of the bottles. “Don't seem to have been tampered with. Wouldn't put it past that bastard to send you poisoned rye—although that would be too obvious.”
“Think he's going to visit us?”
“No. Probably doing it to annoy me, keep you lushing it up.”
“I'm not a lush. How are you doing with Saxton?”
“Don't know yet.”
She said, “Don't be so clam-mouth about it. What are your plans?”
“Tell you when it's done.”
“Why? Because I'm a woman? Maybe I can help you and here you...”
“I'm tired, baby, don't start that woman line. I don't tell you because you're not a dick. Hell, I haven't told Joe, either. Being a detective, despite the movies, isn't a game; it's a business, a trade.”
“I think you ought to let me try and help you. After all, suppose you were a... a butcher. You'd talk your problems over with me, even though I don't know a lamb shoulder from a hole in the ground.”
“Okay, okay, I can trip Saxton if I locate a certain letter he has. That's it.”
“A letter? This letter will prove he murdered the-Wilsons?”
“No, that's easy to prove. You're not much as an alibi. Then there's the water in the cabin, that was off. And if Max digs a little, he'll find a lot of other things that won't check. But the letter... will make the murder rap stick.”
“I don't get it,” Mady said. “What's in this letter that...?”
“I'm not too sure myself. And forget I ever said anything about a letter. All I have to do now is figure how to get it.”
She thought for a moment. “He sent those bottles, suppose I call him now, say I want to see him. While I'm stalling him, you can look his apartment over.”
“Look, hon, Saxton is a killer—a little off his balance probably—but a killer all the same. I don't want you dead.”
“I can handle him.”
I laughed and kissed her big mouth. “That's what I mean about the layman not knowing what he's talking about. But your idea might work. Maybe he is coming out. After supper I'll leave the house, watch outside. If Saxton should come, I'll flatten him, search him. Can always say I was jealous, and he won't know I hit him to search him. Can't let him know I know about the letter. It either has to be on him, or in his apartment.”—
“Or in a safe-deposit vault?”
I kissed her again. “Then I'm screwed.”
We had supper and listened to the radio for a while and Mady complained about my never taking her dancing and I said maybe next week. And how did I know she loved to dance? At eight I left the house and took a plant in the corner drugstore. Sitting in the phone booth, I could see the front of the cottage down the block. The movies ought to show more of the routine work of a detective, like the dull hours you spend watching a house. I sat there for about a half an hour and the druggist looked at me suspiciously, so I dialed Max's home, talked to Libby for a while, then Max got on the phone. I put in another nickel, asked if he'd found anything about Flo.
“Nothing certain. Remember Slip MacCarthy?”
“Guess he was a year or two before your time. Slick con man. We knew he took a sucker for ten grand, using, the old horse-wire gag. We knew and couldn't do a thing—the sucker never pressed charges. Flo was in on that.”
“How? You know how she gabs—never mentioned it to me.”
“She was a kid then, working in a fancy call house. You knew she worked in one for a while?” There seemed to be that nasty delight in Max's voice that all men get when talking about whores.
“I knew. So what?”
“Slip took a fancy to her, kept her for a time. He was one of these old school con men, smooth, polished, big front. His specialty was the horse-wire con. He'd have a buddy, and a store fixed up as a telegraph office... the supposedly crooked telegraph employee giving them the track winners before the bookies got it. You know how it works—they still pull that ancient gag now and then, even these days.”
“I know. Where does Flo fit in?”
“Slip latched on to a sucker, let him win a few bucks —the old come-on, then took him to the cleaners. In this case they put the finishing touch on the mark by having Slip put a bag of chicken blood in his mouth. He let the mark sock him, fell down hard, played dead, blood flowing from his mouth. Old stuff again. Scares the sucker so bad he'll never talk about it, keeps a million miles from the cops... thinks he's a murderer.”
“You still haven't told me about Flo?”
Max laughed. “She was bait for the mark, and of course in on the 'kill,' only they forgot to tell her it was a fake. Slip must have been tired of her and saved her cut by not telling her, skipping town. Technically, she thinks she's a party to a murder.”
“Slip still alive?”
“He's doing five to ten in a Federal pen out in Kansas. That what you want to know?”
I said thanks and hung up. The operator was asking for another jit. I sat there for another half hour and Saxton didn't show. The druggist was looking at me again, so I took a walk around the cottage. There was a little chill in the air and I knocked on the back window, told Mady to give me a shot of rye. It was the first drink I'd had in a long time and it warmed my guts, felt good. Mady said, “Does rye always put that contented smile on your face?” and laughed.
“Don't let the bottle get too good to you—leave the stuff alone. It gives you a silly expression,” I said, giving her the glass back. She slammed the window and I went back to my prowling.
I sat on the back steps for another hour and nothing happened. I called for another shot; it was really chilly. I walked around some more, then sat on the back steps again, thought about Flo. Harry had sure played her for a fall guy. Poor Flo, if she'd been born plain, or ugly, she would have had a happier life.
A couple of times I heard a car stop, or people walking near by, but it always turned out to be some neighbors coming home.
By midnight I was chilled to the bone and afraid I was getting a cold. I decided Saxton wasn't coming out. I went in through the kitchen door, stopped in the bathroom to take my temperature. It was normal. There was a light in the living room, but Mady didn't call out to me. I figured she was asleep.
I was right... she was sleeping off a load in the big chair—the big history book about Billy's outfit open on her lap, the remains of a bottle on the floor beside the chair. I tried to slap her out of it but all she did was open her eyes, say in that loose way a drunk talks, “You got no right... right... no... order me about. Tell me not to drink. I... I... can... handle it. I...” Then she passed out again.
I have a blind spot about drunks. Don't know why— maybe I need a couple of sessions on the couch. I was so damn mad at her I picked her up and carried her into the bathroom, and she was heavy as hell. I stood her up in the tub, under the shower, but she kept slipping. I got her balanced against the wall for a moment, ran back into the living room and got the thick military history book. Jamming that against the tub and the side of her legs, I had Mady nicely balanced... sleeping standing up. I pulled the curtains and held my arms around them—in case she fell—and turned on the cold water.
For a moment nothing happened, then there was a gasp, a choked cry, and a scream. I grabbed her, turned off the water. I lifted her out of the tub, her clothes sticking to her body, her hair wet and stringy—she looked awful.
Mady sobered up fast, began to cuss me, her voice very clear, her eyes getting angry bright. She came at me, punched me a few times before I pinned her arms down. “What the hell's the idea?” she asked loudly.
“The idea is simply that I don't want you getting loaded and sentimental sloppy every time you smell a cork. I...”,
“You don't! What do you think I am, a pet dog you own and can order around!”
“Get your clothes off before you catch a cold.”
“Suppose I want to get a cold?”
“Stop talking like a child,” I said. “Look, Mady, we'll hit it off swell, and I want us to, but it has to be you and me—not the bottle makes three. You know I can't stand seeing you drunk. It means.... Aren't you happy with me?”
“Yes... only... Matt, sometimes I feel like a total stranger to you. As though you'd withdrawn into that tough shell of yours. Last night you were so... hard... and now, out there, when I gave you the drink, you barked at me not to take a shot like I was your servant. Matt, sometimes I feel you don't need me.”
“Don't think that—ever. I need you badly,” I said, kissing her. I took off her wet clothes and rubbed her down with a big towel and she didn't talk, then she said, “I didn't mean to get high, but I felt so... so... alone and lost when you barked at me, that I...”
“Honey, I was working, watching for Saxton. There wasn't any time for sweet talk.”
“I know but... I took a few to relax me and then...”
“You started mooning over Billy's picture,” I added.
“What else have I to turn to when I feel you don't want...?” For the first time she saw the soggy book at the bottom of the tub, colored inks streaking out of it.
“The book!” she sobbed. “You've ruined it!”
I grabbed her shoulders as she bent to pick it up. “That's right—it's ruined. Now you have nobody to lean on but me. I want it that way, because I haven't anybody but you and all we need is each other!”
“Matt... Matt, don't be so tough... so hard,” Mady said, crying.
I slid my hands off her shoulders, her skin so fresh and cool, as I hugged her, whispered, “Baby, I'm not tough, and I don't want to be. I'm not hard, but you're all I have and I'll hold on to you with everything I've got.”
We kissed each other hungrily, her big lips exciting demanding, as they fiercely covered mine. As we started for the bedroom, I thought I heard a noise at the front door. I told Mady to go to bed and I turned off the lights and went over to the living-room window. There wasn't anything to see. I tried the door and it was locked. Probably the wind rattling the door.
Mady was calling softly and as I passed her chair, I picked up the bottle arid took a quick swig—to cool off this time—and started to undress.
It was a lousy morning, cold, raining on and off. We stayed in bed till ten, when Joe rang the bell. He was in a good mood, didn't even look with disapproval at Mady and me running around in pajamas. His wife, Ruthie, was feeling fine, wanted us over for Sunday dinner. He had coffee with us, drove me downtown.
In his struggle-buggy he told me, “Matt, I'm sorry about the way I acted the other night... running away, crying. I was a jerk. I still don't like what we did but...”
“But when you play with crap some gets on your hands.”
“Yes. Guess we couldn't help it.”
I said, “We could have if you had a decent union, or whatever you postmen have, to go to bat for you, point out you didn't do anything wrong. That's the big IF. A shake racket is only successful when people are afraid to tell the blackmailer to hump off.”
“I still feel a little guilty about Harry's death, but I suppose that will wear off in time.”
I wanted to laugh. Joe was a comic, his “little guilty” was like being a “little pregnant.” We made small talk till I told him to let me off at the Grace Building and when he looked at me big-eyed, I said, “I'm going up to Harry's old office. See you and Ruthie tomorrow.”
Thatcher Austin came running out of the building, looking more crazy than usual. Soon as he hit the sidewalk he stopped, looked around wildly, then walked down the street as fast as he could. Joe said, “I know that guy—Mr. Austin.”
“How do you know him?”
“Lives on my route. A sort of Communist.”
“What?” I asked, laughing.
“What's the big joke? I shouldn't go around calling people's politics these days, but a postman can tell how and what a guy thinks—by the mail he receives. Austin now he gets lots of radical papers and magazines, even some from abroad. Along with a lot of jerky flag-waving rags. Always have a heavy load of mail for him.”
I told Joe about the creep and he was shocked. “Always thought he was a little nervous, but a quiet guy like that... behind this crummy stuff. Doesn't seem possible.”
“Just stay away from him,” I said, getting out of the car. As I took the elevator to Flo's office I had an idea to play for laughs—I'd accuse the creep of being Red on the basis of the mail he received. Of course he used the left publications for his files... but it was an amusing angle.
There was a new receptionist—a young redhead with a gay loose mouth and the wrong kind of clothes—lot of frilly stuff that made her look like a worn Christmas tree.
When she buzzed me into Flo's office I asked, “Why the welcome change out there?”
“Got fed up with that snippy-looking bitch. Glad you've come, Matt, I got troubles. Supposed to have the newsletter to the printers tomorrow and I don't know what to write. Had a run-in with Thatcher after you left yesterday. Fired him too. He got so mad he took some of the files with him. Said he burned them to spite me.”
“You can have him arrested,” I suggested.
“Hell with that. Little bastard just was in here,-all sorry, begging me to take him back... wants me to marry him. I told him off. Matt, I'll up your cut to...”
“I'm not your boy,” I said, thinking that in no time Flo would run this racket into the ground, which was where it belonged, deep underground.
“Please, Matt, for a favor. Take it for a few months—set me straight.
“Flo, I'm not giving you any straight-from-the-shoulder sermon, but this is a wrong racket. One of these days people are going to get sore at you... run you out of town... if they don't shoot you first.”
“What's a good racket?”
“I don't know, but you have to draw the line some place, and you're way over the line. You have a bundle put aside, get more when you sell Harry's stuff. Why don't you forget this dirt, forget this town? Start over in some other town? You can still have that house full of kids.”
She began to cry, spoiling her make-up, as she said, “You crummy bastard, what is this, a new kind of brush-off? A pat on the shoulder and sweet advice in my ear while you boot my can? I don't want your...”
“Slip MacCarthy will be out of the pen soon.”
She did a double-take that would have looked good on the screen, whispered, “What did you say?”
“Slip never died. And Harry knew it. Slip pulled an old gag to quiet the sucker—and jobbed you out of your cut—played dead with a sack of chicken blood in his mouth.”
“Harry, that louse!” Flo yelled. “You sure of this?”
“Ask Max. Slip is doing a stretch in a Federal pen. See, that's the kind of a rat Harry was, but it isn't for you. Get out while you can.”
“Stow the do-gooder act. There's a lot of easy dough floating around. I'm going to pick it up.”
“Have fun,” I said, heading for the door. “Send you the hundred I owe you soon as I can.”
She told me to tear it up into little pieces and shove it —up my sleeve. As I opened the door she said, “Matt, I won't ask you again. I'm offering you a swell set-up, for the taking.”
“Here's another piece of free advice—don't put any more dough into this—you'll fold soon.”
I left her cursing me.
Downstairs I wondered if Saxton worked Saturdays. I called his factory and when a girl asked who was calling, I hesitated, finally gave her my name. There wasn't any harm.
“Mr. Saxton is in his usual Saturday labor-management conference. Can you call later, or can he call you?”
“Can I reach him about three?”
“Oh yes, he'll be here all afternoon.”
“It's not important, a personal call. I'll phone later, or maybe Monday.”
I was out at Saxton's apartment by one. He lived in a modest four-story house, one apartment to a floor. Looked expensive. You had to buzz an apartment to open the hall door and I rang his first, several times, in case he had a maid. Then as I was wondering which apartment was the top floor, to buzz that to get into the house, a voice behind me said, “Mr. Ranzino!”
I jumped and spun around. But it wasn't Saxton. It was Doc Kent. He asked, “Looking for me?”
“Why... eh... no. You live here?”
“Have a room with some friends—on the third floor. How are you feeling?”
“Fine—I guess. Haven't given my health much thought recently. Fact is, should be taking a nap now,” I said, a little astonished to realize it was the truth.
“Glad to hear that,” he said, unlocking the door. I said, “People I was looking for are out. I'll leave a note in their mail box.”
I walked in with him as he said again he was pleased I felt all right. He went into the tiny self-service elevator and I stood by the mailboxes. Doc Kent living there could be a break—good or bad. I walked up the two nights to Saxton's apartment, tried my skeleton keys. His lock wasn't much. I was inside within five minutes.
He had four large rooms all furnished in strict magazine style, showing no imagination but lots of dough. His maid had been there, the place was clean, the bed made. I walked around and suddenly fell flat on my face, bruising my shin. I sat up and rubbed my leg, stuck my hand in my pocket to find my bottle of vitamin pills unbroken. Swallowing a pill, I saw what made Saxton so strong—he was a barbell man. I'd tripped over a big ugly barbell lying near the couch. There were a couple of smaller dumbbells around and as I stood up I almost felt sorry for Saxton: there was something pathetic about this middle-aged skull exercising like mad in the privacy of his lonely apartment. And what did he need the muscles for? Confidence?
I spent two hours going over the apartment, checking as thoroughly as I could. I didn't find the letter. I went over the place again to be sure everything looked as though it hadn't been touched, then left.
I took a bus to the center of town, then another out to the beach. It was muggy and hot now, the sun battling to come out. There were even a few sunbathers on the beach. Mady was sitting on the front steps like a kid. She said, “Waiting for you, so we can take a walk. Want to go fishing? Tide will be changing soon.”
She locked the door and we started walking along the edge of the beach. Mady said, “Saxton sent me—us —another two bottles. How long do you think he'll keep this up?”
“I want you to call him—he's still at the factory. Tell him you must see him tonight... about nine. Say the cops have been questioning you about whether you might have been doped last Sunday night when he was with you. That should bring him running.”
“What do I do when he gets to the cottage—beside scream:
“I'll be outside, like last night. I'll stiffen him, search him before he comes to. I didn't find the letter in his apartment, so let's hope he's carrying it around.”
“And what happens after he comes to?”
“Depends on what I find. If the letter is... eh... I'll take him to Max, charge Saxton with the murders.” We passed a dress shop and I walked Mady across the boardwalk, stopped in front of the window. “Soon as I get my license, start working again, going to buy you some clothes. You're tall, should be able to wear any...”
“Isn't that sweet of my great big mans! Listen, I dress to please myself, not for you.”
“You dress like you were something tossed into the corner of the room. I'll buy you some dresses and you only wear them when I'm around.”
“Would you like me to buy you some shirts?”
“Sure.” I grinned at her, the dizzy kid.
She squeezed my hand. “I'll get myself some clothes —out of my own money, when I start working Monday. You want to buy me something to wear—make it a mink.”
“Maybe I will... one of these days.”
“And I'll throw it right in your face. Imagine walking around with two or three grand on your back. I'd be afraid to move or brush up against anything. What you can buy me right now is a soda.”
“My little child bride,” I said, walking her into a luncheonette. “You have the hips for it, but don't ever get fat on me—I hate sloppy women.”
“And I can't stand stout men.”
We had our sodas and then she called Saxton. He wanted her to tell him exactly what had happened— over the phone—but she told him to come to the cottage. Said I was going to town and she'd be alone.
Then she bought an ice-cream cone and we walked on. Any minute I expected her to start skipping or play jacks.
After supper I washed the dishes and she poured a drink out of one of the fifths Saxton had sent on Friday. Mady sat at the kitchen table, watching me, nibbling at the drink. I didn't say a word.
We sat around for a while, listened to the radio, and she had a second drink—a small one spiked with a lot of ginger-ale—and waited for me to say something. But I didn't pay her any mind.
At eight I put on my coat, told her, “I'm going outside. Look, if by any chance things go wrong, I mean if I should miss Saxton and he comes to the house... well... stall him. I'll look in on you every few minutes.”
“That's wonderful! Don't miss him, big-shoulders. Maybe I ought to have the bottle handy... so I can sock him?”
“Stop baiting me. And leave the bottle alone. Listen to the radio, or read the headlines and frighten yourself.”
“Make a better scene if he found me darning your socks.”
I kissed her, whispered, “Be good,” and left. I sat in the drugstore phone booth for a few minutes and the druggist looked at me as if asking, “What is this, a habit?”
At eight-twenty I walked back to the house. She still had the bottle out and a full glass. I didn't know if it was the same drink or not. I was a little annoyed and after circling the house, I stood by the side window, watching her. I stood there for several minutes... when I heard a soft step... behind me.
I didn't turn around or move... there was a gun in my back.
Saxton said, “Her phone call.... That was stupid on your part. Easy to figure.”
“Guess it was.”
“But we should have a talk—in my apartment. My car is around the corner. Start walking and don't try anything brave.”
He jabbed the gun in my back again and it felt like an automatic. There wasn't a chance of tapping on the window, and what good would that have done? Mady would have come to the window and then we'd both be in the soup. As it was, she didn't expect Saxton for another half hour and, with the bottle beside her, she'd probably be crocked by then.
I walked. Saxton was at my side, but a little behind me. He said, “You searched my apartment today.”
“I'm sure rusty.”
“I read a good deal, have my books in a certain order... you put them back wrong.”
When we reached his car he opened the door and I got in. He said, “Keep your hands up, on top of your head,” and he ran around the back and got in beside me. The street was empty and anyway it was too dark for people to notice us.
He held the gun on his lap, in his left hand, pointing at my side, started the car. He was cute—hadn't made any mistakes—yet.
He drove toward town, watching me in the windshield. I asked if I could put my hands down and he said, “Certainly. Place them flat on top of your thighs.”
“What do you read—detective stories?”
“And keep still.”
When we reached his place, he told me to open the door and step out, and pushed over in the seat and got out after me. I walked ahead of him and he held the gun in my back with his left hand and reached around me and unlocked the door. We walked up to his apartment. I suppose he was afraid we'd meet somebody in the elevator.
We didn't see a soul in the hallway.
He went through the same routine unlocking his door, then switched on the light, grunted for me to step inside.
He made his first mistake closing the door—he should have kicked it shut with his foot. Instead, he made a half turn to close it, leaving me at his side instead of in front of him. I pivoted on my left foot and slammed his chin with my right. It was a tough punch, I felt it right up to my shoulder.
Saxton pitched to the floor.
I picked up the gun, locked the door. His feet were trembling a little—a sign he was still out. I went through his pockets. The letter was in his wallet. I put the wallet back.
The letter was written in neat, dignified, thin strokes —like an old model used in a penmanship lesson. Old Doc Snell probably never saw a typewriter in his life. The Doc came right to the point... told Henry Wilson he'd recognized his picture as a baby he'd brought into the world, that he hadn't been paid for his services and needed the money, to “please send me via airmail, five hundred dollars ($500) in cash, at once, or I shall be forced to go to the courts and the papers.”
The Doc was a real amateur... five hundred bucks!
Saxton was starting to groan, but it would be a lot of seconds before he knew what was happening. I tore the letter into little pieces, ran to the bathroom and flushed them down the John.
When I came back, Saxton was sitting up, his eyes still glassy, rubbing the side of his jaw. There was some bloody spit at the ends of his mouth.
I told him to get up.
He got to his feet slowly, shook his head several times, then glared at me. I waved the gun. “Sweet little .38. Ever use it?”
“I have a permit.”
“Good for you. Now, as you said, we'll have a bit of talk. Sit down on the couch. And be careful, I'm lousy with marksman's medals.”
He sat down and I backed away toward a chair and the next thing I knew I was falling backwards—I'd tripped over one of his damn barbells again.
He was still too dizzy to be fast, but he came charging at me. I landed flat on my back and I pointed the gun at him through my legs and he stopped short. “Sit down and be smart,” I yelled, getting up. “You shouldn't be tossing weights around at your age—strain on the heart.”
“Ranzino, what's your game?” he asked. I sat down facing him, brushed off my trousers.
“My game is... I don't like you.”
“I don't give a fat damn what you like!”
“Saxton, your big mistake was in not minding your own business. Fact is, the world is in a mess because everybody is sticking their snoot in other people's business. I...”
“Then why don't you mind your own business?”
“I did. But you... well... you kept spoiling things for me. Like the way you treated Mady—that kept annoying me. Other little things. Of course I knew all along you killed your sister and Henry, and I didn't do a thing about it because it wasn't my...”
“That's a lie! The police know Henry killed poor Beatrice, then took his own miserable life,” Saxton boomed.
“Stop it. I'm the guy you hired to find the planted deed, the body, remember? It was so...”
“You'll get a chance to talk to the police soon—in a few minutes. The police haven't really dug into the Wilson case. There's that water you turned on while we were in the cabin, and if they really work at it, they can trace the rope to you, lot of other things. The odds are always against a perfect crime, because the more you plan, the more chances you have to make a mistake. Then too, you're only one man, while the cops can put twenty or thirty trained men on a case... they always find everything you've overlooked.”
He sneered. “You're angry because of Mady. Everybody in town knows I was fond of Henry, loved my sister.”
“Sure. They also knew Henry and Beatrice Wilson were a happy couple, swell people. Were you jealous of their happiness?”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“And Mady, were you jealous of her spirit? Is there some kind of crazy urge in you that makes you crush everything that's free and happy?”
“Really, Mr. Ranzino, you're talking like an ass.”
I laughed at him. “We're under control now, got the slick veneer and polish back on again, hey? I've done a lot of thinking about you, Willie, as to what makes you tick. Way I figure you with Mady is this: you were having what you call an illicit relationship with her. That's a sin, and therefore you had to see her unhappy, crushed, as a sort of punishment. Just as you probably felt uneasy about the affair, never really enjoyed it. The great god Willie Saxton the Third!”
“I think you'd better leave.”
“And be impolite? You brought me here—at the point of a gun. That will sound interesting on the witness stand.”
“Only your word against mine—the word of a busted cop.”
“I can also testify Mady sleeps soundly, when potted, so your alibi isn't worth repeating. And a little routine checking will probably show she was doped last Sunday night, too.”
“I thought you were so fond of her, yet you're willing to smear her name in the papers.”
“Can that slop—she's already been smeared by you as your alibi. And that good-name junk went out with your ideas. But let's get back to the Wilsons—you'll get the gas chamber for that. Although you might plead insanity and spend the rest of your life in a padded cell, which is where you belong. If I were...”
Saxton sat up. “Mr. Ranzino, I don't know what the hell you are talking about. If you're trying to scare me, I'm merely amused. And if this is a shakedown, you're wasting time. I shall protest to the police, have both you and Madeline arrested for blackmail.”
“Listen to you. How do you sound?” I asked softly, motioning toward the phone with the gun. “Call the cops.”
He sat there, staring at me for a moment. Then he relaxed, took out a handkerchief and wiped the blood from his mouth. He said, “You hit hard—for a tubercular. You see I've done a little checking too.”
I didn't say anything, but the very sound of the word made my heart pound. After a long moment he asked, “Let's get this over. What do you want?”
“To convict you—get you out of my hair for good. Too many of your kind in the world these days. Everywhere I turn I see the smug, self-righteous, self-appointed...” I stopped. There wasn't any point in making a speech. “About the Wilsons...”
“Good Lord, Ranzino, what possible motive could I have for killing them!” he said angrily. It nearly sounded real.
“A motive good enough for a jury is that you got full control of the factory by knocking off Henry. You killed Beatrice to make Henry's suicide stand up, look good, and also being her brother and only relation, you get her share of the factory and her money. Want to buy that?”
“Sure, but it makes a little sense. A jury could understand it better than your real motive... you knew Henry Wilson had some Negro blood in him. That shocked the hell out of your bigoted mind. Why, here you had a Negro in your family, your brother-in-law was the guy you were telling the Rastus and change-your-luck jokes about!”
For a split second his fat face went white, then the color crept back and he said smoothly, “You must be crazy.”
“One of us sure is. Couple months ago a doctor tried to shake Henry down for five yards and you learned about it—probably by snooping around Henry's desk, you're the type. To your way of thinking Henry couldn't have committed a worse crime—a Negro daring to marry your sister. So you decided to do Beatrice a big favor, kill Henry. You took your time, went over all details. Had a lucky break with Mady—a ready-made lush, a ready-made alibi. You bought the cabin in Henry's name—and a little concentrated digging will prove that. You took two grand—petty stuff—to make it look like Henry was in some kind of mess. That was the only truly smart move you made, two grand wasn't big enough to make the cops suspicious, it fitted in. I suppose it wasn't much trouble getting Henry up to the cabin Friday, was it?”
Saxton smiled. “This is a fascinating story, do you take dope?”
“Wait, it gets better. There you tied Henry up, probably had a hard time resisting the urge to give him a going-over. But you had something better in mind, a personal lynching. There must have been a sweet one-way conversation between you two up in the cabin. But when you told Beatrice about the 'horrible thing' you'd learned—on Sunday night—she shocked hell out of you by saying she'd known all the time, didn't care. In fact she told you to mind your business, leave them alone. You were ready to explode with anger, you smashed her head in with the lamp.”
“Did I? Why you let your imagination run...?”
“You didn't plan to kill Beatrice, it was a crime of passion, of intense anger, as the books say. You drove back to the cabin, hung Henry, then raced out to White Beach. All told, less than five hours passed, and there you were, in bed, when Mady woke up.”
“I was in bed with that... all night,” Saxton said with a big forced smile. “Now if you're done raving, I'll...”
“Know something,” I said, calmly. “The druggist across the street forgot to turn off a gas burner, returned to his store in the middle of the night. He left at 4 a.m., says he saw you come back to the cottage then.”
“That's a damn lie! He couldn't have....” Saxton's face actually got waxy—like a corpse's.
I laughed. “Maybe it's a lie, maybe it isn't. Merely want to convince you how thin your story is, how nobody can cover all the angles—for sure. You'd have to be awfully lucky, even if you didn't make any mistakes. Once the cops start working, they'll dig up a hundred things you never counted on.”
He was silent for a few minutes, sitting back against the couch as though exhausted, then he asked in a hoarse whisper, “How much do you want?”
“Got much cash on you?”
“A few hundred. The banks are shut, but on Monday I'll give... ten thousand. Or do you,, want a check right now?”
“A check? Willie, do I look that simple?”
“I swear on Monday, soon as the banks open, I'll give you ten thousand dollars.”
“You hold your life cheap,” I said, torturing him like a bastard, but enjoying it.
“Fifteen—that's all I can raise.”
“No, it isn't. You got Henry's insurance, via Beatrice's death, and hers, if she had any.”
“That will take months. Look, I can raise twenty thousand, and that's my final offer.”
“You're not in any position to make a final offer. How you got that couple of hundred? And pull out your wallet slowly.”
“In twenties and tens and fives,” he said, taking out his wallet.
“Throw over a hundred and sixty bucks. Just drop—the dough on the floor—near me.”
He counted out five twenties, two fives, and five tens, leaned over and tossed them on the floor. The bills made dizzy circles till they hit. I picked them up with my left hand, looked to see if-they were marked, then shoved them in my pocket.
Saxton said, “I'll get the rest Monday. By noon I'll...”
“There isn't any rest.”
“I don't understand. You said...?”
“I'm not shaking you down, Willie. This represents about what I spent—getting the goods on you. I'm turning you in!”
His sullen mouth dropped open, and a stupid expression covered his face for a second, then he burst out laughing—real roaring laughter. When he finished, he snapped, “You idiot, you don't get a dime now! I detest scandal, but it won't ruin me, and I'd rather that than paying you off for the rest of my life. Have me arrested! There isn't a jury that will convict me for killing a nigger who tricked my sister. And there's nothing to pin poor Beatrice's killing on me. Why I can claim I killed Henry in revenge!” His voice grew more confident. “I'm a big man in this town, people will sympathize with me... important people. I killed a nigger who tricked my sister into marriage and then murdered her... it will be better than any unwritten law! You can't touch me. But to avoid the headlines, I'll give you five thousand to forget it.”
“Back on the pay-off kick, again? I don't want money.”
“Then call the police! Henry murdered Beatrice when she discovered he was a nigger, and I killed him when he told me that. I might even plead self-defense—he tried to kill me too.”
The odd part was, Saxton sounded as though he believed this hog-wash he was inventing. I said, “Know where that yarn will land you—in the loony bin, if you beat the death rap.”
“Why I'll be a hero, no jury would...”
“You just might get away with it, Willie, if you could prove Henry was colored, considering you'd get a blue-ribbon jury with all the trimmings. Only what makes you think Henry Wilson was colored?”
“Come, Ranzino, you just said...”
“I never said nothing. I never knew Henry—the only one time I saw him he was dead. But lots of people in town knew him well, played cards and golf with him, did business with him, liked him. They'll call you crazy when you say he was colored...”
He glanced at his wallet, opened it. I asked, “Looking for something?”
He tore at the wallet with frantic fingers, then looked at me and asked in a rasping whisper, “Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
“Goddamn it, Ranzino... where is it?”
“In little pieces, floating in the sewer—with the other garbage. I took it when I flattened you at the door. Might as well tell you what I spent that hundred odd bucks for—you're paying for it. Doc Snell is dead. I was pretty sure of that since he only sent one letter, let the deal drop. He was a very old man and he died in a drunken sleep three days after he mailed the letter. Guess you know that, too, probably tried to get in touch with him. Henry Wilson was born 'out of wedlock,' to use a silly term, he hadn't any relations. Also, in the one-store-wide-spot-in-the-road where he was born, they never bothered with birth certificates for colored kids or poor whites. So it boils down to this, there's only one person in the world who knows about that letter— me. And if you call me to the witness stand, I'll act as astonished as anybody else. From here on in, I don't know what you're talking about.”
“How much do you want?” Saxton asked shrilly.
“Not a cent. I only want to see your kind get the works—for once. Now we'll call the cops.” We both stood up and he said, “Please, Ranzino, I'll give you big money...” and lunged at me.
I was watching his pigeon-toed feet and I caught him with a left hook that knocked him down. It was a stupid move on his part. He sat on the floor for a moment, shaking his head, then got to his feet slowly. “You win,” he said.
He rubbed the side of his face, I'd hit him too high to do any real damage. I slipped the gun in my pocket. I was afraid he'd try to make me shoot him—then I'd be in a spot—and I could handle him easily with my fists.
He shook his head several times, muttered, “I can't think straight—everything is fuzzy. Before you call the police, can I douse my head under the shower?”
“Sure. Only don't try anything super-clever; this isn't your racket.”
I followed him into the bathroom. He brushed the shower curtains aside with one hand, turned on the cold water. It ran on his head and part of his collar. I stood several feet behind him, in case he tried yanking off the curtain, throwing it around me.
Bent over the tub, Saxton was a comical figure—his broad fleshy can facing me, water splashing on his head, over his clothes. He shut the water off, reached over toward the towel rack beside the tub, came up with a towel... and one of those old big .45s.
For a split second I had to admire him, he'd found a new place to park a gun. His eyes were cold and over-bright as he advanced toward me, his dripping wet face giving him an insane look. He growled, “Keep your hands up high. You Wop scum, thinking you could match your lousy brains with mine. Turn around!”
I turned, and there's always that horrible second of waiting when you know you're going to get conked... wondering if it will be the barrel of the gun or the butt... will your brains be splattered.... But I couldn't make a play—with a .45 even a slug in the shoulder will knock you flat, maybe take off your arm. He was too close to miss or.... I heard the faint swish the gun made through the air. A flash of terribly bright pain swept over me and then I was drowning in heavy mushy darkness.
I must have been out a long time. When I came to I thought I was still up in the clouds... I was naked and hanging from the doorway by my wrists, which were roped to pipes some place on the bathroom wall. I was standing on the floor but Saxton had pushed heavy barbells in front and in back of my ankles, anchoring my feet. I stood there, as though crucified while Saxton took off his coat and shirt, exposing his heavy muscle-bound arms. I pulled at my wrists and only succeeded in burning them with the ropes. Things were still fuzzy from the sock on the head and the entire back of my skull seemed miles away. I mumbled, “You must be a Scoutmaster, Willie, you're good at tying knots... and nooses. Bet you're a whiz at camping and...”
He stood in front of me and started slugging me in the stomach and chest.
Willie didn't know how to hit, thought muscles meant power. His blows weren't love-taps, but except for knocking the air out of me, he wasn't doing much damage. I forced myself to pee on his floor—a bladder full of urine can burst under a punch and then you're in real trouble.
The sight of me relieving myself seemed to drive him into a spurt of wild punching that left him puffing after a few seconds, and he stopped, dropped his hands and glared at me. I gasped, “What you doing, you crazy son of a bitch?”
“You're going to have a hemorrhage, and die, Ranzino. Look very natural, for a person suffering from T.B.,” he said, breathing hard”.
“Won't go, you'll never get away with this,” I said, the words sounding odd because my mouth was open like a fish's, eating air.
“I'll chance it. This is something else I planned... in advance. Even though you haven't much confidence in plans, I...”
“Don't be a fool, Saxton, Mady will miss me, call the cops, tell them...”
“Madeline is drunk right this moment. We both saw her at the bottle. I've arranged everything, you'll be found dead in the street... of natural causes.”
“You must know as well I do, that I have to kill you, Ranzino. There's no choice, for me,” Saxton said, coming at me with his big arms out like a bear. He put them around my chest and began to squeeze.
The pressure on my ribs was unbearable, and all I could think about was the delicate X-ray pictures of my lung—the left one with the scar on it. I tried to wiggle out of his hold and almost wrenched my arms out of their sockets. I managed to pull a leg out from between the barbells, ripping my skin off my ankle. I brought my knee up but missed his groin. I caught him inside the thigh—high—up and he let go and staggered away, bent over.
I thrashed about wildly but couldn't get my spread-eagled arms loose, and finally I just hung there, exhausted. Saxton straightened, up, said coldly, “Unfortunately I can't hit your face, don't want you marked.”
“You've already marked me... with that clout on the head,” I mumbled wondering why I talked.
“When you had your hemorrhage, you fell and struck your head on the curb. I shall leave your body in the proper position.” Saxton suddenly grabbed my free leg with his left hand and hit me in the gut with his right. Without knowing it, he got in a lot of leverage, and I thought his fist would come through my back. I must have passed out. When I came to he had my foot anchored again and was beating a steady blow of clumsy punches on my chest and stomach.
He was sweating and huffing like a bull, and he stopped and got more rope and tied my feet down. Then he opened the bathroom window behind me, and all the living-room windows, and sat down to rest.
I suppose I could have yelled, maybe I tried, maybe I didn't, knowing he'd only put a gag in my mouth. I hung there limply and a draft of cool damp air went through the room, chilled my body.
Saxton gave me an evil grin and I knew the draft was on purpose.... Willie knew what he was doing! Back in the hospital they used to leave us in beds on the open roof in the middle of the winter, all bundled in blankets, woolen caps on our heads. Just our faces exposed. They had the blankets pinned down, in case we fell asleep and twisted out of the blankets. The orderly used to crack, “Keep under cover, fellows, in this cold you'll be a corpse within an hour and you'll keep so well... I wouldn't even know you're dead for two days.” The orderly thought his sense of humor was part of building up our morale. But we were careful to keep bundled up.
It wasn't that cold in Saxton's apartment, but I knew I couldn't last more than a couple of hours in this draft.
He rested for what seemed hours, then got up flexed his shoulders, and squeezed past me, through the doorway, and into the bathroom. As an afterthought he socked me in the kidneys and the pain made me scream. Only a cotton-dry sound came out of my lips.
Saxton untied one wrist, bent my arm behind my back and held me up as he untied the other... tied my arms together behind my back. My arms were numb, no longer a part of me, and I couldn't have lifted them if I wanted to... and I couldn't think clearly enough to want to do anything.
I heard a grunt, then a sort of whistle as Saxton took a deep breath and lifted my 200 pounds off the floor and let me slide into the clammy-cold tub. He turned on the shower and a stream of cold water cleared my head.... I could hear a funny sound and it took me a minute to realize it was my teeth chattering. He yanked the shower curtains off and that damn draft of air hit my wet body like a shroud.
Saxton sat on the John and lit a cigarette. He pulled his wristwatch out of his pocket, said, calmly, “Only ten-thirty. By three in the morning you'll be ready to dump in the street.”
I opened my mouth and told him to go to hell—but I'm not sure any words came out. He sat there, watching me, that satisfied gleam in his eyes. When he finished his butt, he thumbed it at me, I didn't feel it, I suppose the water put it out.
The room was beginning to swim before my eyes when he turned the water off, pulled me out of the tub and hung me up again. As from a great distance I felt his blows and I must have blacked out.
When I came to, I was back in the tub, under the water once more. I knew I was delirious and so numb I couldn't feel the cold water. I passed out again.
I remember being strung up once more... dimly aware of the blows... and then I was in the tub, the water beating down on me. Saxton was sitting on the commode looking at his watch.
Suddenly he jumped up, went to the bathroom door.
Through the fog I heard it... a knock on the door. I tried to yell, to get loose. As though gazing at the world through a hazy film, I saw Saxton get his gun. I made one last effort to scream, but only muffled inhuman sounds came out.
As Saxton stepped out of the bathroom, there was a flash at the window and the gun spun out of his hand. He grabbed the hand with his left hand and both were bloody. Then I saw Max coming through the window, gun in hand. The Marines to the rescue!
Things happened fast, or maybe I blacked out again. I opened my eyes to see the bathroom full of cops and Mady was bending over me, her face a strange mask, and somebody had untied my hands. I seemed to float through the air—I was being carried—and then I was on a bed and they were piling blankets on me.
The room grew foggy and then somebody was fooling with my lips and Mady's anxious face came into focus. I couldn't hear the words but her lips were forming, “Drink some brandy.”
The brandy roared down my guts like a welcome fire. I whispered, “I thought... you... you'd be crocked...”
She said, “Aw, Matt, I can control that. I waited for a while... then called your friend... Max...”
At least I thought she said that. I also wondered if I was dead and this was all a dream. I motioned for her to bend closer and when I tried to talk she put her fingers on my mouth. I wrenched my head away, worked my lips, asked... “You... tell him.... about... letter?”
She shook her head.
I kissed her fingers and she gave me more brandy and I rested for a moment, told her, “Get Max.” The brandy was doing great.
She faded from view and the room was very bright, then it went black. In the darkness I could hear Max saying, “Matt? Matt?”
I opened my eyes, and after a while I made out Max's ugly face, only at the moment he looked like Mr. America to me. I said, “There's a VA doctor... Kent... lives in the building.... Get him.”
“Don't worry. Got an ambulance coming...”
Talking was a great tiring effort. I dimly heard Max bark an order at a cop and Mady came into view again, her face wet with tears, her big lips working. She put her hands under the blankets, rubbed my cold body. I could just about feel them. I let myself go into the pillow, seemed to drift out of the room like a boat slipping its mooring. I came to hearing Doc Kent saying, “Far as I can tell, he's all right. Lucky he's so strong. I've given him penicillin. Keep him covered and let him sleep. Mustn't be moved.”
I felt much stronger, talking was easier. I said, “Hello, Doc. He was trying to get the bugs working again. Did he?” I could even hear my own words.
“Forget about the bugs. You've had a terrific beating, maybe a slight concussion, and a thorough chill. Rest for a few days and then we'll know for sure. But I feel certain the worst you'll have is a few stitches in your hard head.”
“Still the same old pep-throwing Doc.”
Max asked, “Can I talk to him, Dr. Kent?”
“Not too long.”
Max come into view, leading Saxton, who had a bandage around his right hand. Max must have smacked him, his nose was swollen and a little bloody too. Max asked, “What's this all about, Matt?”
I gathered my strength, said—with the energy running out of me like air from a balloon—“He told me he killed Henry and Beatrice Wilson... to get control of the business. Tried to make me... me... hemorrhage and die... when he found out I knew the... the truth about him...”
“That's a dirty lie!” Saxton yelled. “He was trying to blackmail me! You'll find money in his pockets!”
I was busy collecting my strength again as I heard Max say, “Only found a hundred and eighty bucks on him, that's not blackmail dough. You're in a jam, Saxton, better come clean.”
“I'd advise you to take care in talking to me, I have influence in this city, Captain,” Saxton said.
I managed to get my right hand out of the covers, let it hang down the side of the bed. I had all the strength I could summon—for then. I heard Max say, “Don't threaten me, Saxton. I can send you up for trying to kill Matt.”
“He got sick, I was trying to revive him under the shower when he took sick, fell in the tub and...”
I said, “Saxton,” and let my voice fall as I mumbled to myself. Again, I said, “Saxton,” pretty loud.
He looked at Max and took a step nearer me. Asked, “What is it, Matt, you want to tell the truth, tell them I didn't do any harm to you—or anybody else?”
I motioned with my head, and for a moment I was afraid I didn't have enough strength left.
“You want to confess, Ranzino?” Saxton asked, and the nut sounded like he meant it. As he put his face down near mine, I turned on the bed, bringing my right fist up from the floor. It wasn't much of a punch, it only cut his eye a little, and about kayoed me.
He started to club me with his fists, when Max jumped in and knocked Saxton down with an overhand right that must have broken his jaw. As I drifted off into the darkness I kept thinking, poor Max, never learn to hold his left higher.
I guess I was out for a few minutes, for when I opened my eyes again, Saxton was standing, blood streaming from both ends of his mouth, saying something—it's tough to understand a guy with a broken jaw.
I said, as loud as I could, “I'll swear on any witness stand he told me he killed the Wilsons... when he thought I was dying!”
“Wilson was a nigger! I had the right to kill him!” Saxton suddenly screamed. I don't know how he managed to open his mouth, but his voice sounded inhuman.
“A nigger!” he screamed again.
Max looked shocked, glanced at Doc Kent, who nodded. I couldn't hear what else Saxton was screaming, didn't want to hear that horrible sound. I said, “You haven't the right to kill anybody.”
Maybe I didn't say it, for all I could hear was Max's hoarse voice bellowing, “Tell 'em to bring up a strait jacket—we got a madman here!”
Keeping my eyes open was an effort. I finally got them open as they led Saxton away. I tried to sit up but couldn't make it. Saxton turned and glared at me with an expression of solid hate. His jaw was already out of shape, blood was running all over his shirt. He gave me an awful look. I didn't mind. I winked at him. I wanted to laugh in his bloody face, but Doc Kent was suddenly bending over me, pushing my shoulders back into the bed. “That's enough. Lie down and keep quiet. Want me to give you something to make you sleep?”
I tried to shake my head. Sleeping wouldn't be the slightest trouble. It was keeping awake that was rugged.
Closing my eyes I started to drift off. As from another room I heard Mady say, “I'll cover his shoulders. Aren't they wonderful, Doc? Hasn't he got the biggest shoulders you ever saw?”
I knew Doc Kent must be staring at Mady, thinking she was a dizzy kid with her talk about big shoulders, but then what did a Doc Kent know about a real woman? He probably wanted his women to be like tame little lapdogs.... Mady would frighten him straight through the ceiling.
I fell into a wonderful lazy sleep to the sound of her loud voice. Even if she was a dizzy kid, it was damn good knowing she'd be there when I awoke.