© R.Chandler, The Curtain, 1936
Source: R.Chandler. Trouble Is My Business (collection)
E-Text: Greylib .
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
The first time I ever saw Larry Batzel he was drunk outside Sardi's in a secondhand Rolls-Royce. There was a tall blonde with him who had eyes you wouldn't forget. I helped her argue him out from under the wheel so that she could drive.
The second time I saw him he didn't have any Rolls-Royce or any blonde or any job in pictures. All he had was the jitters and a suit that needed pressing. He remembered me. He was that kind of drunk.
I bought him enough drinks to do him some good and gave him half my cigarettes. I used to see him from time to time "between pictures." I got to lending him money. I don't know just why. He was a big, handsome brute with eyes like a cow and something innocent and honest in them. Something I don't get much of in my business.
The funny part was he had been a liquor runner for a pretty hard mob before Repeal. He never got anywhere in pictures, and after a while I didn't see him around any more.
Then one day out of the clear blue I got a check for all he owed me and a note that he was working on the tables- gambling not dining-at the Dardanella Club, and to come out and look him up. So I knew he was back in the rackets.
I didn't go to see him, but I found out somehow or other that Joe Mesarvey owned the place, and that Joe Mesarvey was married to the blonde with the eyes, the one Larry Batzel had been with in the Rolls that time. I still didn't go out there.
Then very early one morning there was a dim figure standing by my bed, between me and the windows. The blinds had been pulled down. That must have been what wakened me. The figure was large and had a gun.
I rolled over and rubbed my eyes.
"Okay," I said sourly. "There's twelve bucks in my pants and my wrist watch cost twenty-seven fifty. You couldn't get anything on that."
The figure went over to the window and pulled a blind aside an inch and looked down at the street. When he turned again I saw that it was Larry Batzel.
His face was drawn and tired and he needed a shave. He had dinner clothes on still and a dark double-breasted overcoat with a dwarf rose drooping in the lapel.
He sat down and held the gun on his knee for a moment before he put it away, with a puzzled frown, as if he didn't know how it got into his hand.
"You're going to drive me to Berdoo," he said. "I've got to get out of town. They've put the pencil on me."
"Okay," I said. "Tell me about it."
I sat up and felt the carpet with my toes and lit a cigarette. It was a little after five-thirty.
"I jimmied your lock with a piece of celluloid," he said. "You ought to use your night latch once in a while. I wasn't sure which was your flop and I didn't want to rouse the house."
"Try the mailboxes next time," I said. "But go ahead. You're not drunk, are you?"
"I'd like to be, but I've got to get away first. I'm just rattled. I'm not so tough as I used to be. You read about the O'Mara disappearance of course."
"Listen, anyway. If I keep talking I won't blow up. I don't think I'm spotted here."
"One drink won't hurt either of us," I said. "The Scotch is on the table there."
He poured a couple of drinks quickly and handed me one. I put on a bathrobe and slippers. The glass rattled against his teeth when he drank.
He put his empty glass down and held his hands tight together.
"I used to know Dud O'Mara pretty well. We used to run stuff together down from Hueneme Point. We even carried the torch for the same girl. She's married to Joe Mesarvey now. Dud married five million dollars. He married General Dade Winslow's rickety-rackety divorcée daughter."
"I know all that," I said.
"Yeah. Just listen. She picked him out of a speak, just like I'd pick up a cafeteria tray. But he didn't like the life. I guess he used to see Mona. He got wise Joe Mesarvey and Lash Yeager had a hot car racket on the side. They knocked him off."
"The hell they did," I said. "Have another drink."
"No. Just listen. There's just two points. The night O'Mara pulled down the curtain-no, the night the papers got it- Mona Mesarvey disappeared too. Only she didn't. They hid her out in a shack a couple of miles beyond Realito in the orange belt. Next door to a garage run by a heel named Art Huck, a hot car drop. I found out. I trailed Joe there."
"What made it your business?" I asked.
"I'm still soft on her. I'm telling you this because you were pretty swell to me once. You can make something of it after I blow. They hid her out there so it would look as if Dud had blown with her. Naturally the cops were not too dumb to see Joe after the disappearance. But they didn't find Mona. They have a system on disappearances and they play the system."
He got up and went over to the window again, looked through the side of the blind.
"There's a blue sedan down there I think I've seen before," he said. "But maybe not. There's a lot like it."
He sat down again. I didn't speak.
"This place beyond Realito is on the first side road north from the Foothill Boulevard. You can't miss it. It stands all alone, the garage and the house next door. There's an old cyanide plant up above there. I'm telling you this-"
"That's point one," I said. "What was the second point?"
"The punk that used to drive for Lash Yeager lit out a couple of weeks back and went East. I lent him fifty bucks. He was broke. He told me Yeager was out to the Winslow estate the night Dud O'Mara disappeared."
I stared at him. "It's interesting, Larry. But not enough to break eggs over. After all we do have a police department."
"Yeah. Add this. I got drunk last night and told Yeager what I knew. Then I quit the job at the Dardanella. So somebody shot at me outside where I live when I got home. I've been on the dodge ever since. Now, will you drive me to Berdoo?"
I stood up. It was May but I felt cold. Larry Batzel looked cold, even with his overcoat on.
"Absolutely," I said. "But take it easy. Later will be much safer than now. Have another drink. You don't know they knocked O'Mara off."
"If he found out about the hot car racket, with Mona married to Joe Mesarvey, they'd have to knock him off. He was that kind of guy."
I stood up and went towards the bathroom. Larry went over to the window again.
"It's still there," he said over his shoulder. "You might get shot at riding with me."
"I'd hate that," I said.
"You're a good sort of heel, Carmady. It's going to rain. I'd hate like hell to be buried in the rain, wouldn't you?"
"You talk too damn much," I said, and went into the bathroom.
It was the last time I ever spoke to him.
I heard him moving around while I was shaving, but not after I got under the shower, of course. When I came out he was gone. I padded over and looked into the kitchenette. He wasn't in there. I grabbed a bathrobe and peeked out into the hail. It was empty except for a milkman starting down the back stairs with his wiry tray of bottles, and the fresh folded papers leaning against the shut doors.
"Hey," I called out to the milkman, "did a guy just come out of here and go by you?"
He looked back at me from the corner of the wall and opened his mouth to answer. He was a nice-looking boy with fine large white teeth. I remember his teeth well, because I was looking at them when I heard the shots.
They were not very near or very far. Out back of the apartment house, by the garages, or in the alley, I thought. There were two quick, hard shots and then the riveting machine. A burst of five or six, all a good chopper should ever need. Then the roar of the car going away.
The milkman shut his mouth as if a winch controlled it. His eyes were huge and empty looking at me. Then he very carefully set his bottles down on the top step and leaned against the wall.
"That sounded like shots," he said.
All this took a couple of seconds and felt like half an hour. I went back into my place and threw clothes on, grabbed odds and ends off the bureau, barged out into the hall. It was still empty, even of the milkman. A siren was dying somewhere near. A bald head with a hangover under it poked out of a door and made a snuffling noise.
I went down the back stairs.
There were two or three people out in the lower hail. I went out back. The garages were in two rows facing each other across a cement space, then two more at the end, leaving a space to go out to the alley. A couple of kids were coming over a fence three houses away.
Larry Batzel lay on his face, with his hat a yard away from his head, and one hand flung out to within a foot of a big black automatic. His ankles were crossed, as if he had spun as he fell. Blood was thick on the side of his face, on his blond hair, especially on his neck. It was also thick on the cement yard.
Two radio cops and the milk driver and a man in a brown sweater and bibless overalls were bending over him. The man in overalls was our janitor.
I went up to them, about the same time the two kids from over the fence hit the yard. The milk driver looked at me with a queer, strained expression. One of the cops straightened up and said: "Either of you guys know him? He's still got half his face."
He wasn't talking to me. The milk driver shook his head and kept on looking at me from the corner of his eyes. The janitor said: "He ain't a tenant here. He might of been a visitor. Kind of early for visitors, though, ain't it?"
"He's got party clothes on. You know your flophouse better'n I do," the cop said heavily. He got out a notebook.
The other cop straightened up too and shook his head and went towards the house, with the janitor trotting beside him.
The cop with the notebook jerked a thumb at me and said harshly: "You was here first after these two guys. Anything from you?"
I looked at the milkman. Larry Batzel wouldn't care, and a man has a living to earn. It wasn't a story for a prowl car anyway.
"I just heard the shots and came running," I said.
The cop took that for an answer. The milk driver looked up at the lowering gray sky and said nothing.
After a while I got back into my apartment and finished my dressing. When I picked my hat up off the window table by the Scotch bottle there was -a small rosebud lying on a piece of scrawled paper.
The note said: "You're a good guy, but I think I'll go it alone. Give the rose to Mona, if you ever should get a chance. Larry."
I put those things in my wallet, and braced myself with a drink.
About three o'clock that afternoon I stood in the main hallway of the Winslow place and waited for the butler to come back. I had spent most of the day not going near my office or apartment, and not meeting any homicide men. It was only a question of time until I had to come through, but I wanted to see General Dade Winslow first. He was hard to see.
Oil paintings hung all around me, mostly portraits. There were a couple of statues and several suits of time-darkened armor on pedestals of dark wood. High over the huge marble fieplace hung two bullet-torn-or moth-eaten-cavalry pennants crossed in a glass case, and below them the painted likeness of a thin, spry-looking man with a black beard and mustachios and full regimentals of about the time of the Mexican War. This might be General Dade Winslow's father. The general himself, though pretty ancient, couldn't be quite that old.
Then the butler came back and said General Winslow was in the orchid house and would I follow him, please.
We went out of the french doors at the back and across the lawns to a big glass pavilion well beyond the garages. The butler opened the door into a sort of vestibule and shut it when I was inside, and it was already hot. Then he opened the inner door and it was really hot.
The air steamed. The walls and ceiling of the greenhouse dripped. In the half light enormous tropical plants spread their blooms and branches all over the place, and the smell of them was almost as overpowering as the smell of boiling alcohol.
The butler, who was old and thin and very straight and whitehaired, held branches of the plants back for me to pass, and we came to an opening in the middle of the place. A large reddish Turkish rug was spread down on the hexagonal flagstones. In the middle of the rug, in a wheel chair, a very old man sat with a traveling rug around his body and watched us come.
Nothing lived in his face but the eyes. Black eyes, deep-set, shining, untouchable. The rest of his face was the leaden mask of death, sunken temples, a sharp nose, outward-turning ear lobes, a mouth that was a thin white slit. He was wrapped partly in a reddish and very shabby bathrobe and partly in the rug. His hands had purple fingernails and were clasped loosely, motionless on the rug. He had a few scattered wisps of white hair on his skull.
The butler said: "This is Mr. Carmady, General."
The old man stared at me. After a while a sharp, shrewish voice said: "Place a chair for Mr. Carmady."
The butler dragged a wicker chair out and I sat down. I put my hat on the floor. The butler picked it up.
"Brandy," the general said. "How do you like your brandy, sir?"
"Any way at all," I said.
He snorted. The butler went away. The general stared at me with his unblinking eyes. He snorted again.
"I always take champagne with mine," he said. "A third of a glass of brandy under the champagne, and the champagne as cold as Valley Forge. Colder, if you can get it colder."
A noise that might have been a chuckle came out of him.
"Not that I was at Valley Forge," he said. "Not quite that bad. You may smoke, sir."
I thanked him and said I was tired of smoking for a while. I got a handkerchief out and mopped my face.
"Take your coat off, sir. Dud always did. Orchids require heat, Mr. Carmady-like sick old men."
I took my coat off, a raincoat I had brought along. It looked like rain. Larry Batzel had said it was going to rain.
"Dud is my son-in-law. Dudley O'Mara. I believe you had something to tell me about him."
"Just hearsay," I said. "I wouldn't want to go into it, unless I had your O.K., General Winslow."
The basilisk eyes stared at me. "You are a private detective. You want to be paid, I suppose."
"I'm in that line of business," I said. "But that doesn't mean I have to be paid for every breath I draw. It's just something I heard. You might like to pass it on yourself to the Missing Persons Bureau."
"I see," he said quietly. "A scandal of some sort."
The butler came back before I could answer. He wheeled a tea wagon in through the jungle, set it at my elbow and mixed me a brandy and soda. He went away.
I sipped the drink. "It seems there was a girl," I said. "He knew her before he knew your daughter. She's married to a racketeer now. It seems-"
"I've heard all that," he said. "I don't give a damn. What I want to know is where he is and if he's all right. If he's happy."
I stared at him popeyed. After a moment I said weakly: "Maybe I could find the girl, or the boys downtown could, with what I could tell them."
He plucked at the edge of his rug and moved his head about an inch. I think he was nodding. Then he said very slowly: "Probably I'm talking too much for my health, but I want to make something clear. I'm a cripple. I have two ruined legs and half my lower belly. I don't eat much or sleep much. I'm a bore to myself and a damn nuisance to everybody else. So I miss Dud. He used to spend a lot of time with me. Why, God only knows."
"Well-" I began.
"Shut up. You're a young man to me, so I can be rude to you. Dud left without saying goodbye to me. That wasn't like him. He drove his car away one evening and nobody has heard from him since. If he got tired of my fool daughter and her brat, if he wanted some other woman, that's all right. He got a brainstorm and left without saying goodbye to me, and now he's sorry. That's why I don't hear from him. Find him and tell him I understand. That's all-unless he needs money. If he does, he can have all he wants."
His leaden cheeks almost had a,pink tinge now. His black eyes were brighter, if possible. He leaned back very slowly and closed his eyes.
I drank a lot of my drink in one long swallow, I said: "Suppose he's in a jam. Say, on account of the girl's husband. This Joe Mesarvey."
He opened his eyes and winked. "Not an O'Mara," he said. "It's the other fellow would be in a jam."
"Okay. Shall I just pass on to the Bureau where I heard this girl was?"
"Certainly not. They've done nothing. Let them go on doing it. Find him yourself. I'll pay you a thousand dollars-even if you only have to walk across the street. Tell him everything is all right here. The old man's doing fine and sends his love. That's all."
I couldn't tell him. Suddenly I couldn't tell him anything Larry Batzel had told me, or what had happened to Larry, or anything about it. I finished my drink and stood up and put my coat back on. I said: "That's too much money for the job, General Winslow. We can talk about that later. Have I your authority to represent you in my own way?"
He pressed a bell on his wheel chair. "Just tell him," he said. "I want to know he's all right and I want him to know I'm all right. That's all-unless he needs money. Now you'll have to excuse me. I'm tired."
He closed his eyes. I went back through the jungle and the butler met me at the door with my hat.
I breathed in some cool air and said: "The general wants me to see Mrs. O'Mara."
This room had a white carpet from wall to wall. Ivory drapes of immense height lay tumbled casually on the white carpet inside the many windows. The windows stared towards the dark foothills, and the air beyond the glass was dark too. It hadn't started to rain yet, but there was a feeling of pressure in the atmosphere.
Mrs. O'Mara was stretched out on a white chaise longue with both her slippers off and her feet in the net stockings they don't wear any more. She was tall and dark, with a sulky mouth. Handsome, but this side of beautiful.
She said: "What in the world can I do for you? It's all known. Too damn known. Except that I don't know you, do I?"
"Well, hardly," I said. "I'm just a private copper in a small way of business."
She reached for a glass I hadn't noticed but would have looked for in a moment, on account of her way of talking and the fact she had her slippers off. She drank languidly, flashing a ring.
"I met him in a speakeasy," she said with a sharp laugh. "A very handsome bootlegger, with thick curly hair and an Irish grin. So I married him. Out of boredom. As for him, the bootlegging business was even then uncertain-if there were no other attractions."
She waited for me to say there were, but not as if she cared a lot whether I came through. I just said: "You didn't see him leave on the day he disappeared?"
"No. I seldom saw him leave, or come back. It was like that." She drank some more of her drink,
"Huh," I grunted. "But, of course, you didn't quarrel." They never do,
"There are so many ways of quarreling, Mr. Carmady."
"Yeah. I like your saying that. Of course you knew about the girl."
"I'm glad I'm being properly frank to an old family detective. Yes, I knew about the girl." She curled a tendril of inky hair behind her ear.
"Did you know about her before he disappeared?" I asked politely.
"You're pretty direct, aren't you? Connections, as they say. I'm an old speak fancier. Or didn't you know that?"
"Did you know the bunch at the Dardanella?"
"I've been there." She didn't look startled, or even surprised. "In fact I practically lived there for a week. That's where I met Dudley O'Mara."
"Yeah. Your father married pretty late in life, didn't he?"
I watched color fade in her cheeks. I wanted her mad, but there was nothing doing. She smiled and the color came back and she rang a push bell on a cord down in the swansdown cushions of the chaise longue.
"Very late," she said, "if it's any of your business."
"It's not," I said.
A coy-looking maid came in and mixed a couple of drinks at a side table. She gave one to Mrs. O'Mara, put one down beside me. She went away again, showing a nice pair of legs under a short skirt.
Mrs. O'Mara watched the door shut and then said: "The whole thing has got Father into a mood. I wish Dud would wire or write or something."
I said slowly: "He's an old, old man, crippled, half buried already. One thin thread of interest held him to life. The thread snapped and nobody gives a damn. He tries to act as if he didn't give a damn himself. I don't call that a mood. I call that a pretty swell display of intestinal fortitude."
"Gallant," she said, and her eyes were daggers. "But you haven't touched your drink."
"I have to go," I said. "Thanks all the same."
She held a slim, tinted hand out and I went over and touched it. The thunder burst suddenly behind the hills and she jumped. A gust of air shook the windows.
I went down a tiled staircase to the hallway and the butler appeared out of a shadow and opened the door for me.
I looked down a succession of terraces decorated with flower beds and imported trees. At the bottom a high metal railing with gilded spearheads and a six-foot hedge inside. A sunken driveway crawled down to the main gates and a lodge inside them.
Beyond the estate the hill sloped down to the city and the old oil wells of La Brea, now partly a park, partly a deserted stretch of fenced-in wild land. Some of the wooden derricks still stood. These had made the wealth of the Winslow family and then the family had run away from them up the hill, far enough to get away from the smell of the sumps, not too far for them to look out of the front windows and see what made them rich.
I walked down brick steps between the terraced lawns. On one of them a dark-haired, pale-faced kid of ten or eleven was throwing darts at a target hung on a tree. I went along near him.
"You young O'Mara?" I asked.
He leaned against a stone bench with four darts in his hand and looked at me with cold, slaty eyes, old eyes.
"I'm Dade Winslow Trevillyan," he said grimly.
"Oh, then Dudley O'Mara's not your dad."
"Of course not." His voice was full of scorn. "Who are you?"
"I'm a detective. I'm going to find your-I mean, Mr. O'Mara."
That didn't bring us any closer. Detectives were nothing to him. The thunder was tumbling about in the hills like a bunch of elephants playing tag. I had another idea.
"Bet you can't put four out of five into the gold at thirty feet."
He livened up sharply. "With these?"
"How much you bet?" he snapped.
"Oh, a dollar."
He ran to the target and cleaned darts off it, came back and took a stance by the bench.
"That's not thirty feet," I said.
He gave me a sour look and went a few feet behind the bench. I grinned, then I stopped grinning.
His small hand darted so swiftly I could hardly follow it. Five darts hung in the gold center of the target in less than that made seconds. He stared at me triumphantly.
"Gosh, you're pretty good, Master Trevillyan," I grunted, and got my dollar out.
His small hand snapped at it like a trout taking the fly. He had it out of sight like a flash.
"That's nothing," he chuckled. "You ought to see me on our target range back of the garages. Want to go over there and bet some more?"
I looked back up the hill and saw part of a low white building backed up to a bank,
"Well, not today," I said. "Next time I visit here maybe. So Dud O'Mara is not your dad. If I find him anyway, will it be all right with you?"
He shrugged his thin, sharp shoulders in a maroon sweater. "Sure. But what can you do the police can't do?"
"It's a thought," I said, and left him.
I went on down the brick walk to the bottom of the lawns and along inside the hedge towards the gatehouse. I could see glimpses of the street through the hedge. When I was halfway to the lodge I saw the blue sedan outside. It was a small neat car, low-slung, very clean, lighter than a police car, but about the same size. Over beyond it I could see my roadster waiting under the pepper tree.
I stood looking at the sedan through the hedge. I could see the drift of somebody's cigarette smoke against the windshield inside the car. I turned my back to the lodge and looked up the hill. The Trevillyan kid had gone somewhere out of sight, to salt his dollar down maybe, though a dollar shouldn't have meant much to him.
I bent over and unsheathed the 7.65 Luger I was wearing that day and stuck it nose-down inside my left sock, inside my shoe. I could walk that way, if I didn't walk too fast. I went on to the gates.
They kept them locked and nobody got in without identification from the house. The lodge keeper, a big husky with a gun under his arm, came out and let me through a small postern at the side of the gates. I stood talking to him through the bars for a minute, watching the sedan,
It looked all right. There seemed to be two men in it. It was about a hundred feet along in the shadow of the high wall on the other side. It was a very narrow street, without sidewalks. I didn't have far to go to my roadster.
I walked a little stiffly across the dark pavement and got in, grabbed quickly down into a small compartment in the front part of the seat where I kept a spare gun. It was a police Colt. I slid it inside my under-arm holster and started the car.
I eased the brake off and pulled away. Suddenly the rain let go in big splashing drops and the sky was as black as Carrie Nation's bonnet. Not so black but that I saw the sedan wheel away from the curb behind me.
I started the windshield wiper and built up to forty miles an hour in a hurry. I had gone about eight blocks when they gave me the siren. That fooled me. It was a quiet street, deadly quiet. I slowed down and pulled over to the curb. The sedan slid up beside me and I was looking at the black snout of a submachine gun over the sill of the rear door.
Behind it a narrow face with reddened eyes, a fixed mouth. A voice above the sound of the rain and the windshield wiper and the noise of the two motors said: "Get in here with us. Be nice, if you know what I mean."
They were not cops. It didn't matter now. I shut off the ignition, dropped my car keys on the floor and got out on the running board. The man behind the wheel of the sedan didn't look at me. The one behind kicked a door open and slid away along the seat, holding the tommy gun nicely.
I got into the sedan.
"Okay, Louie. The frisk."
The driver came out from under his wheel and got behind me. He got the Colt from under my arm, tapped my hips and pockets, my belt line.
"Clean," he said, and got back into the front of the car.
The man with the tommy reached forward with his left hand and took my Colt from the driver, then lowered the tommy to the floor of the car and draped a brown rug over it. He leaned back in the corner again, smooth and relaxed, holding the Colt on his knee.
"Okay, Louie. Now let's ride."
We rode-idly, gently, the rain drumming on the roof and streaming down the windows on one side. We wound along curving hill streets, among estates that covered acres, whose houses were distant clusters of wet gables beyond blurred trees.
A tang of cigarette smoke floated under my nose and the redeyed man said: "What did he tell you?"
"Little enough," I said. "That Mona blew town the night the papers got it. Old Winslow knew it already."
"He wouldn't have to dig very deep for that," Red-eyes said. "The buttons didn't. What else?"
"He said he'd been shot at. He wanted me to ride him out of town. At the last moment he ran off alone. I don't know why."
"Loosen up, peeper," Red-eyes said dryly. "It's your only way out."
"That's all there is," I said, and looked out of the window at the driving rain.
"You on the case for the old guy?"
"No. He's tight."
Red-eyes laughed. The gun in my shoe felt heavy and unsteady, and very far away. I said: "That might be all there is to know about O'Mara."
The man in the front seat turned his head a little and growled: "Where the hell did you say that street was?"
"Top of Beverly Glen, stupid. Mulholland Drive." "Oh, that. Jeeze, that ain't paved worth a damn." "We'll pave it with the peeper," Red-eyes said. The estates thinned out and scrub oak took possession of the hillsides.
"You ain't a bad guy," Red-eyes said. "You're just tight, like the old man. Don't you get the idea? We want to know everything he said, so we'll know whether we got to blot you or no."
"Go to hell," I said. "You wouldn't believe me anyway."
"Try us. This is just a job to us. We just do it and pass on."
"It must be nice work," I said. "While it lasts."
"You'll crack wise once too often, guy."
"I did-long ago, while you were still in Reform School. I'm still getting myself disliked."
Red-eyes laughed again. There seemed to be very little bluster about him.
"Far as we know you're clean with the law. Didn't make no cracks this morning. That right?"
"If I say yes, you can blot me right now. Okay."
"How about a grand pin money and forget the whole thing?"
"You wouldn't believe that either."
"Yeah, we would. Here's the idea. We do the job and pass on. We're an organization. But you live here, you got goodwill and a business. You'd play ball."
"Sure," I said. "I'd play ball."
"We don't," Red-eyes said softly, "never knock off a legit. Bad for the trade."
He leaned back in the corner, the gun on his right knee, and reached into an inner pocket. He spread a large tan wallet on his knee and fished two bills out of it, slid them folded along the seat. The wallet went back into his pocket.
"Yours," he said gravely. "You won't last twenty-four hours if you slip your cable."
I picked the bills up. Two five hundreds. I tucked them in my vest. "Right," I said. "I wouldn't be a legit any more then, would I?"
"Think that over, dick."
We grinned at each other, a couple of nice lads getting along in a harsh, unfriendly world. Then Red-eyes turned his head sharply.
"Okay, Louie, Forget the Mulholland stuff. Pull up."
The car was halfway up a long bleak twist of hill. The rain drove in gray curtains down the slope. There was no ceiling, no horizon. I could see a quarter of a mile and I could see nothing outside our car that lived.
The driver edged over to the side of the bank and shut his motor off. He lit a cigarette and draped an arm on the back seat.
He smiled at me. He had a nice smile-like an alligator. "We'll have a drink on it," Red-eyes said. "I wish I could make me a grand that easy. Just tyin' my nose to my chin."
"You ain't got no chin," Louie said, and went on smiling. Red-eyes put the Colt down on the seat and drew a flat halfpint out of his side pocket. It looked like good stuff, green stamp, bottled in bond. He unscrewed the top with his teeth, sniffed at the liquor and smacked his lips.
"No Crow McGee in this," he said. "This is the company spread. Tilt her."
He reached along the seat and gave me the bottle. I could have had his wrist, but there was Louie, and I was too far from my ankle.
I breathed shallowly from the top of my lungs and held the bottle near my lips, sniffed carefully. Behind the charred smell of the bourbon there was something else, very faint, a fruity odor that would have meant nothing to me in another place. Suddenly and for no reason at all I remembered something Larry Batzel had said, something like: "East of Realito, towards the mountains, near the old cyanide plant." Cyanide. That was the word.
There was a swift tightness in my temples as I put the bottle to my mouth. I could feel my skin crawling, and the air was suddenly cold on it. I held the bottle high up around the liquor level and took a long gurgling drag at it. Very hearty and relaxing. About half a teaspoonful went into my mouth and none of that stayed there.
I coughed sharply and lurched forward gagging. Red-eyes laughed.
"Don't say you're sick from just one drink, pal."
I dropped the bottle and sagged far down in the seat, gagging violently. My legs slid way to the left, the left one underneath. I sprawled down on top of them, my arms limp. I had the gun.
I shot him under my left arm, almost without looking. He never touched the Colt except to knock it off the seat. The one shot was enough. I heard him lurch. I snapped a shot upward towards where Louie would be.
Louie wasn't there. He was down behind the front seat. He was silent. The whole car, the whole landscape was silent. Even the rain seemed for a moment to be utterly silent rain.
I still didn't have time to look at Red-eyes, but he wasn't doing anything. I dropped the Luger and yanked the tommy gun out from under the rug, got my left hand on the front grip, got it set against my shoulder low down. Louie hadn't made a sound.
"Listen, Louie," I said softly, "I've got the stutter gun. How's about it?"
A shot came through the seat, a shot that Louie knew wasn't going to do any good. It starred a frame of unbreakable glass. There was more silence. Louie said thickly: "I got a pineapple here. Want it?"
"Pull the pin and hold it," I said. "It will take care of both of us."
"Hell!" Louie said violently. "Is he croaked? I ain't got no pineapple."
I looked at Red-eyes then. He looked very comfortable in the corner of the seat, leaning back. He seemed to have three eyes, one of them redder even than the other two. For under-arm shooting that was something to be almost bashful about. It was too good.
"Yeah, Louie, he's croaked," I said. "How do we get together?"
I could hear his hard breathing now, and the rain had stopped being silent. "Get out of the heap," he growled. "I'll blow."
"You get out, Louie. I'll blow."
"Jeeze, I can't walk home from here, pal."
"You won't have to, Louie. I'll send a car for you."
"Jeeze, I ain't done nothing. All I done was drive."
"Then reckless driving will be the charge, Louie. You can fix that-you and your organization. Get out before I uncork this popgun."
A door latch clicked and feet thumped on the running board, then on the roadway. I straightened up suddenly with the chopper. Louie was in the road in the rain, his hands empty and the alligator smile still on his face.
I got out past the dead man's neatly shod feet, got my Colt and the Luger off the floor, laid the heavy twelve-pound tommy gun back on the car floor. I got handcuffs off my hip, motioned to Louie. He turned around sulkily and put his hands behind him.
"You got nothing on me," he complained. "I got protection."
I clicked the cuffs on him and went over him for guns, much more carefully than he had gone over me. He had one besides the one he had left in the car.
I dragged Red-eyes out of the car and let him arrange himself on the wet roadway. He began to bleed again, but he was quite dead. Louie eyed him bitterly.
"He was a smart guy," he said. "Different. He liked tricks. Hello, smart guy."
I got my handcuff key out and unlocked one cuff, dragged it down and locked it to the dead man's lifted wrist.
Louie's eyes got round and horrified and at last his smile went away.
"Jeeze," he whined. "Holy-! Jeeze. You ain't going to leave me like this, pal?"
"Goodbye, Louie," I said. "That was a friend of mine you cut down this morning."
"Holy-!" Louie whined.
I got into the sedan and started it, drove on to a place where I could turn, drove back down the hill past him. He stood stiffly as a scorched tree, his face as white as snow, with the dead man at his feet, one linked hand reaching up to Louie's hand. There was the horror of a thousand nightmares in his eyes.
I left him there in the rain.
It was getting dark early. I left the sedan a couple of blocks from my own car and locked it up, put the keys in the oil strainer. I walked back to my roadster and drove downtown.
I called the homicide detail from a phone booth, asked for a man named Grinnell, told him quickly what had happened and where to find Louie and the sedan. I told him I thought they were the thugs that machine-gunned Larry Batzel. I didn't tell him anything about Dud O'Mara.
"Nice work," Grinnell said in a queer voice. "But you better come in fast. There's a tag out for you, account of what some milk driver phoned in an hour ago."
"I'm all in," I said. "I've got to eat. Keep me off the air and I'll come in after a while."
"You better come in, boy. I'm sorry, but you better."
"Well, okay," I said.
I hung up and left the neighborhood without hanging around. I had to break it now. I had to, or get broken myself.
I had a meal down near the Plaza and started for Realito.
At about eight o'clock two yellow vapor lamps glowed high up in the rain and a dim stencil sign strung across the highway read: "Welcome to Realito."
Frame houses on the main street, a sudden knot of stores, the lights of the corner drugstore behind fogged glass, a flyingcluster of cars in front of a tiny movie palace, and a dark bank on another corner, with a knot of men standing in front of it in the rain. That was Realito. I went on. Empty fields closed in again.
This was past the orange country; nothing but the empty fields and the crouched foothills, and the rain.
It was a smart mile, more like three, before I spotted a side road and a faint light on it, as if from behind drawn blinds in a house. Just at that moment my left front tire let go with an angry hiss. That was cute. Then the right rear let go the same way.
I stopped almost exactly at the intersection. Very cute indeed. I got out, turned my raincoat up a little higher, unshipped a flash, and looked at a flock of heavy galvanized tacks with heads as big as dimes. The flat shiny butt of one of them blinked at me from my tire.
Two flats and one spare. I tucked my chin down and started towards the faint light up the side road.
It was the place all right. The light came from the tilted skylight on the garage roof. Big double doors in front were shut tight, but light showed at the cracks, strong white light. I tossed the beam of the flash up and read: "Art Huck-Auto Repairs and Refinishing."
Beyond the garage a house sat back from the muddy road behind a thin clump of trees. That had light too. I saw a small buttoned-up coupé in front of the wooden porch.
The first thing was the tires, if it could be worked, and they didn't know me. It was a wet night for walking.
I snapped the flash out and rapped on the doors with it. The light inside went out. I stood there licking rain off my upper lip, the flash in my left hand, my right inside my coat. I had the Luger back under my arm again.
A voice spoke through the door, and didn't sound pleased.
"What you want? Who are you?"
"Open up," I said. "I've got two flat tires on the highway and only one spare. I need help."
"We're closed up, mister. Realito's a mile west of here."
I started to kick the door. There was swearing inside, then another, much softer voice.
"A wise guy, huh? Open up, Art."
A bolt squealed and half of the door sagged inward. I snapped the flash again and it hit a gaunt face. Then an arm swept and knocked it out of my hand. A gun had just peeked at me from the flailing hand.
I dropped low, felt around for the flash and was still. I just didn't pull a gun.
"Kill the spot, mister. Guys get hurt that way."
The flash was burning down in the mud. I snapped it off, stood up with it. Light went on inside the garage, outlined a tall man in coveralls. He backed inward and his gun held on me.
"Come on in and shut the door."
I did that. "Tacks all over the end of your street," I said. "I thought you wanted the business."
"Ain't you got any sense? A bank job was pulled at Realito this afternoon."
"I'm a stranger here," I said, remembering the knot of men in front of the bank in the rain.
"Okay, okay. Well there was and the punks are hid out somewhere in the hills, they say. You stepped on their tacks, huh?"
"So it seems." I looked at the other man in the garage.
He was short, heavy-set, with a cool brown face and cool brown eyes. He wore a belted raincoat of brown leather. His brown hat had the usual rakish tilt and was dry. His hands were in his pockets and he looked bored.
There was a hot sweetish smell of pyroxylin paint on the air. A big sedan over in the corner had a paint gun lying on its fender. It was a Buick, almost new. It didn't need the paint it was getting.
The man in coveralls tucked his gun out of sight through a flap in the side of his clothes. He looked at the brown man. The brown man looked at me and said gently: "Where you from, stranger?"
"Seattle," I said.
"Going west-to the big city?" He had a soft voice, soft and dry, like the rustle of well-worn leather.
"Yes. How far is it?"
"About forty miles. Seems farther in this weather. Come the long way, didn't you? By Tahoe and Lone Pine?"
"Not Tahoe," I said. "Reno and Carson City."
"Still the long way." A fleeting smile touched the brown lips.
"Take a jack and get his flats, Art."
"Now, listen, Lash-" the man in the coveralls growled, and stopped as though his throat had been cut from ear to ear.
I could have sworn that he shivered. There was dead silence. The brown man didn't move a muscle. Something looked out of his eyes, and then his eyes lowered, almost shyly. His voice was the same soft, dry rustle of sound.
"Take two jacks, Art. He's got two flats."
The gaunt man swallowed. Then he went over to a corner and put a coat on, and a cap. He grabbed up a socket wrench and a handjack and wheeled a dolly jack over to the doors.
"Back on the highway, is it?" he asked me almost tenderly.
"Yeah. You can use the spare for one spot, if you're busy," I said.
"He's not busy," the brown man said and looked at his fingernails.
Art went out with his tools. The door shut again. I looked at the Buick. I didn't look at Lash Yeager. I knew it was Lash Yeager. There wouldn't be two men called Lash that came to that garage. I didn't look at him because I would be looking across the sprawled body of Larry Batzel, and it would show in my face. For a moment, anyway.
He glanced towards the Buick himself. "Just a panel job to start with," he drawled. "But the guy that owns it has dough and his driver needed a few bucks. You know the racket."
"Sure," I said.
The minutes passed on tiptoe. Long, sluggish minutes. Then feet crunched outside and the door was pushed open. The light hit pencils of rain and made silver wires of them. Art trundled two muddy flats in sulkily, kicked the door shut, let one of the flats fall on its side. The rain and fresh air had given him his nerve back. He looked at me savagely.
"Seattle," he snarled. "Seattle, my eye!"
The brown man lit a cigarette as if he hadn't heard. Art peeled his coat off and yanked my tire up on a rim spreader, tore it loose viciously, had the tube out and cold-patched in nothing flat. He strode scowling over to the wall near me and grabbed an air hose, let enough air into the tube to give it body, and hefted it in both hands to dip it in a washtub of water.
I was a sap, but their teamwork was very good. Neither had looked at the other since Art came back with my tires.
Art tossed the air-stiffened tube up casually, caught it with both hands wide, looked it over sourly beside the washtub of water, took one short easy step and slammed it down over my head and shoulders.
He jumped behind me in a flash, leaned his weight down on the rubber, dragged it tight against my chest and arms. I could move my hands, but I couldn't get near my gun.
The brown man brought his right hand out of his pocket and tossed a wrapped cylinder of nickels up and down on his palm as he stepped lithely across the floor.
I heaved back hard, then suddenly threw all my weight forward. Just as suddenly Art let go of the tube, and kneed me from behind.
I sprawled, but I never knew when I reached the floor. The fist with the weighted tube of nickels met me in midflight. Perfectly timed, perfectly weighted, and with my own weight to help it out.
I went out like a puff of dust in a draft.
It seemed there was a woman and she was sitting beside a lamp. Light shone on my face, so I shut my eyes again and tried to look at her through my eyelashes. She was so platinumed that her head shone like a silver fruit bowl.
She wore a green traveling dress with a mannish cut to it and a broad white collar falling over the lapels. A sharp-angled glossy bag stood at her feet. She was smoking, and a drink was tall and pale at her elbow.
I opened my eye wider and said: "Hello there."
Her eyes were the eyes I remembered, outside Sardi's in a secondhand Rolls-Royce. Very blue eyes, very soft and lovely. Not the eyes of a hustler around the fast money boys.
"How do you feel?" Her voice was soft and lovely too.
"Great," I said. "Except somebody built a filling station on my jaw."
"What did you expect, Mr. Carmady? Orchids?"
"So you know my name."
"You slept well. They had plenty of time to go through your pockets. They did everything but embalm you."
"Right," I said.
I could move a little, not very much. My wrists were behind my back, handcuffed. There was a little poetic justice in that. From the cuffs a cord ran to my ankles, and tied them, and then dropped down out of sight over the end of the davenport and was tied somewhere else. I was almost as helpless as if I had been screwed up in a coffin.
"What time is it?"
She looked sideways down at her wrist, beyond the spiral of her cigarette smoke.
"Ten-seventeen. Got a date?"
"Is this the house next the garage? Where are the boys- digging a grave?"
"You wouldn't care, Carmady. They'll be back."
"Unless you have the key to these bracelets you might spare me a little of that drink."
She rose all in one piece and came over to me, with the tall amber glass in her hand. She bent over me. Her breath was delicate. I gulped from the glass craning my neck up.
"I hope they don't hurt you," she said distantly, stepping back. "I hate killing."
"And you Joe Mesarvey's wife. Shame on you. Gimme some more of the hooch."
She gave me some more. Blood began to move in my stiffened body.
"I kind of like you," she said. "Even if your face does look like a collision mat."
"Make the most of it," I said. "It won't last long even this good."
She looked around swiftly and seemed to listen. One of the two doors was ajar. She looked towards that. Her face seemed pale. But the sounds were only the rain.
She sat down by the lamp again.
"Why did you come here and stick your neck out?" she asked slowly, looking at the floor.
The carpet was made of red and tan squares. There were bright green pine trees on the wallpaper and the curtains were blue. The furniture, what I could see of it, looked as if it came from one of those places that advertise on bus benches.
"I had a rose for you," I said. "From Larry Batzel."
She lifted something off the table and twirled it slowly, the dwarf rose he had left for her.
"I got it," she said quietly. "There was a note, but they didn't show me that. Was it for me?"
"No, for me. He left it on my-table before he went out and got shot."
Her face fell apart like something you see in a nightmare. Her mouth and eyes were black hollows. She didn't make a sound. And after a moment her face settled back into the same calmly beautiful lines.
"They didn't tell me that either," she said softly.
"He got shot," I said carefully, "because he found out what Joe and Lash Yeager did to Dud O'Mara. Bumped him off."
That one didn't faze her at all. "Joe didn't do anything to Dud O'Mara," she said quietly. "I haven't seen Dud in two years. That was just newspaper hooey, about me seeing him."
"It wasn't in the papers," I said.
"Well, it was hooey wherever it was. Joe is in Chicago. He went yesterday by plane to sell out. If the deal goes through, Lash and I are to follow him. Joe is no killer."
I stared at her.
Her eyes got haunted again. "Is Larry-is he-?"
"He's dead," I said. "It was a professional job, with a tommy gun. I didn't mean they did it personally."
She took hold of her lip and held it for a moment tight between her teeth. I could hear her slow, hard breathing. She jammed her cigarette in an ashtray and stood up.
"Joe didn't do it!" she stormed. "I know damn well he didn't. He-" She stopped cold, glared at me, touched her hair, then suddenly yanked it off. It was a wig. Underneath her own hair was short like a boy's, and streaked yellow and whitish brown, with darker tints at the roots. It couldn't make her ugly.
I managed a sort of laugh. "You just came out here to molt, didn't you, Silver-Wig? And I thought they were hiding you out-so it would look as if you had skipped with Dud O'Mara."
She kept on staring at me. As if she hadn't heard a word I said. Then she strode over to a wall mirror and put the wig back on, straightened it, turned and faced me.
"Joe didn't kill anybody," she said again, in a low, tight voice. "He's a heel-but not that kind of heel. He doesn't know anything more about where Dud O'Mara went than I do. And I don't know anything."
"He just got tired of the rich lady and scrammed," I said dully.
She stood near me now, her white fingers down at her sides, shining in the lamplight. Her head above me was almost in shadow. The rain drummed and my jaw felt large and hot and the nerve along the jawbone ached, ached.
"Lash has the only car that was here," she said softly. "Can you walk to Realito, if I cut the ropes?"
"Sure. Then what?"
"I've never been mixed up in a murder. I won't now. I won't ever."
She went out of the room very quickly, and came back with a long kitchen knife and sawed the cord that tied my ankles, pulled it off, cut the place where it was tied to the handcuffs. She stopped once to listen, but it was just the rain again.
I rolled up to a sitting position and stood up. My feet were numb, but that would pass. I could walk. I could run, if I had to.
"Lash has the key of the cuffs," she said dully.
"Let's go," I said. "Got a gun?"
"No. I'm not going. You beat it. He may be back any minute. They were just moving stuff out of the garage."
I went over close to her. "You're going to stay here after turning me loose? Wait for that killer? You're nuts. Come on, Silver-Wig, you're going with me."
"Suppose," I said, "he did kill O'Mara? Then he also killed Larry. It's got to be that way."
"Joe never killed anybody," she almost snarled at me.
"Well, suppose Yeager did."
"You're lying, Carmady. Just to scare me. Get out. I'm not afraid of Lash Yeager. I'm his boss's wife."
"Joe Mesarvey is a handful of mush," I snarled back. "The only time a girl like you goes for a wrong gee is when he's a handful of mush. Let's drift."
"Get out!" she said hoarsely.
"Okay." I turned away from her and went through the door.
She almost ran past me into the hallway and opened the front door, looked out into the black wetness. She motioned me forward.
"Goodbye," she whispered. "I hope you find Dud. I hope you find who killed Larry. But it wasn't Joe."
I stepped close to her, almost pushed her against the wall with my body.
"You're still crazy, Silver-Wig. Goodbye."
She raised her hands quickly and put them on my face. Cold hands, icy cold. She kissed me swiftly on the mouth with cold lips.
"Beat it, strong guy. I'll be seeing you some more. Maybe in heaven."
I went through the door and down the dark slithery wooden steps of the porch, across gravel to the round grass plot and the clump of thin trees. I came past them to the roadway, went back along it towards Foothill Boulevard. The rain touched my face with fingers of ice that were no colder than her fingers.
The curtained roadster stood just where I had left it, leaned over, the left front axle on the tarred shoulder of the highway. My spare and one stripped rim were thrown in the ditch.
They had probably searched it, but I still hoped. I crawled in backwards and banged my head on the steering post and rolled over to get the manacled hands into my little secret gun pocket. They touched the barrel. It was still there.
I got it out, got myself out of the car, got hold of the gun by the right end and looked it over.
I held it light against my back to protect it a little from the rain and started back towards the house.
I was halfway there when he came back. His lights turning quickly off the highway almost caught me. I flopped into the ditch and put my nose in the mud and prayed.
The car hummed past. I heard the wet rasp of its tires shouldering the gravel in front of the house. The motor died and lights went off. The door slammed. I didn't hear the house door shut, but I caught a feeble fringe of light through the trees as it opened.
I got up on my feet and went on. I came up beside the car, a small coupé, rather old. The gun was down at my side, pulled around my hip as far as the cuffs would let it come.
The coupé was empty. Water gurgled in the radiator. I listened and heard nothing from the house. No loud voices, no quarrel. Only the heavy bong-bong-bong of the raindrops hitting the elbows at the bottom of rain gutters.
Yeager was in the house. She had let me go and Yeager was in there with her. Probably she wouldn't tell him anything. She would just stand and look at him. She was his boss's wife. That would scare Yeager to death.
He wouldn't stay long, but he wouldn't leave her behind, alive or dead. He would be on his way and take her with him. What happened to her later on was something else.
All I had to do was wait for him to come out. I didn't do it.
I shifted the gun into my left hand and leaned down to scoop up some gravel. I threw it against the front window. It was a weak effort. Very little even reached the glass.
I ran back behind the coupé and got its door open and saw the keys in the ignition lock. I crouched down on the running board, holding on to the door post.
The house had already gone dark, but that was all. There wasn't any sound from it. No soap. Yeager was too cagy.
I reached it with my foot and found the starter, then strained back with one hand and turned the ignition key. The warm motor caught at once, throbbed gently against the pounding rain.
I got back to the ground and slid along to the rear of the car, crouched down.
The sound of the motor got him. He couldn't be left there without a car.
A darkened window slid up an inch, only some shifting of light on the glass showing it moved. Flame spouted from it, the racket of three quick shots. Glass broke in the coupé.
I screamed and let the scream die into a gurgling groan. I was getting good at that sort of thing. I let the groan die in a choked gasp. I was through, finished. He had got me. Nice shooting, Yeager.
Inside the house a man laughed. Then silence again, except for the rain and the quietly throbbing motor of the coupé.
Then the house door inched open. A figure showed in it. She came out on the porch, stiffly, the white showing at her collar, the wig showing a little but not so much. She came down the steps like a wooden woman. I saw Yeager crouched behind her.
She started across the gravel. Her voice said slowly, without any tone at all:
"I can't see a thing, Lash. The windows are all misted."
She jerked a little, as if a gun had prodded her, and came on. Yeager didn't speak. I could see him now past her shoulder, his hat, part of his face. But no kind of a shot for a man with cuffs on his wrists.
She stopped again, and her voice was suddenly horrified.
"He's behind the wheel!" she yelled. "Slumped over!"
He fell for it. He knocked her to one side and started to blast again. More glass jumped around. A bullet hit a tree on my side of the car. A cricket whined somewhere. The motor kept right on humming.
He was iow, crouched against the black, his face a grayness without form that seemed to come back very slowly after the glare of the shots. His own fire had blinded him too-for a second. That was enough.
I shot him four times, straining the pulsing Colt against my ribs.
He tried to turn and the gun slipped away from his hand. He half snatched for it in the air, before both his hands suddenly went against his stomach and stayed there. He sat down on the wet gravel and his harsh panting dominated every other sound of the wet night.
I watched him lie down on his side, very slowly, without taking his hands away from his stomach. The panting stopped.
It seemed like an age before Silver-Wig called out to me. Then she was beside me, grabbing my arm.
"Shut the motor off!" I yelled at her. "And get the key of these damn irons out of his pocket."
"You d-darn fool," she babbled. "W-what did you come back for?"
Captain Al Root of the Missing Persons Bureau swung in his chair and looked at the sunny window. This was another day, and the rain had stopped long since.
He said gruffly: "You're making a lot of mistakes, brother. Dud O'Mara just pulled down the curtain. None of those people knocked him off. The Batzel killing had nothing to do with it. They've got Mesarvey in Chicago and he looks clean. The Heeb you anchored to the dead guy don't even know who they were pulling the job for. Our boys asked him enough to be sure of that."
"I'll bet they did," I said. "I've been in the same bucket all night and I couldn't tell them much either."
He looked at me slowly, with large, bleak, tired eyes. "Killing Yeager was all right, I guess. And the chopper. In the circumstances. Besides I'm not homicide. I couldn't link any of that to O'Mara-unless you could."
I could, but I hadn't. Not yet. "No," I said. "I guess not." I stuffed and lit my pipe. After a sleepless night it tasted better,
"That all that's worrying you?"
"I wondered why you didn't find the girl, at Realito. It couldn't have been very hard-for you."
"We just didn't. We should have. I admit it. We didn't. Anything else?"
I blew smoke across his desk. "I'm looking for O'Mara because the general told me to. It wasn't any use my telling him you would do everything that could be done. He could afford a man with all his time on it. I suppose you resent that."
He wasn't amused. "Not at all, if he wants to waste money. The people that resent you are behind a door marked Homicide Bureau."
He planted his feet with a slap and elbowed his desk.
"O'Mara had fifteen grand in his clothes. That's a lot of jack but O'Mara would be the boy to have it. So he could take it out and have his old pals see him with it. Only they wouldn't think it was fifteen grand of real dough. His wife says it was. Now with any other guy but an ex-legger in the gravy that might indicate an intention to disappear. But not O'Mara. He packed it all the time."
He bit a cigar and put a match to it. He waved a large finger. "See?"
I said I saw.
"Okay. O'Mara had fifteen grand, and a guy that pulls down the curtain can keep it down only so long as his wad lasts. Fifteen grand is a good wad. I might disappear myself, if I had that much. But after it's gone we get him. He cashes a check, lays down a marker, hits a hotel or store for credit, gives a reference, writes a letter or gets one. He's in a new town and he's got a new name, but he's got the same old appetite. He has to get back into the fiscal system one way or another. A guy can't have friends everywhere, and if he had, they wouldn't all stay clammed forever. Would they?"
"No, they wouldn't," I said.
"He went far," Roof said. "But the fifteen grand was all the preparation he made. No baggage, no boat or rail or plane reservation, no taxi or private rental hack to a point out of town. That's all checked. His own car was found a dozen blocks from where he lived. But that means nothing. He knew people who would ferry him several hundred miles and keep quiet about it, even in the face of a reward. Here, but not everywhere. Not new friends."
"But you'll get him," I said.
"When he gets hungry."
"That could take a year or two. General Winslow may not live a year. That is a matter of sentiment, not whether you have an open file when you retire."
"You attend to the sentiment, brother." His eyes moved and bushy reddish eyebrows moved with them. He didn't like me. Nobody did, in the police department, that day.
"I'd like to," I said and stood up. "Maybe I'd go pretty far to attend to that sentiment."
"Sure," Roof said, suddenly thoughtful. "Well, Winslow is a big man. Anything I can do let me know."
"You could find out who had Larry Batzel gunned," I said. "Even if there isn't any connection."
"We'll do that. Glad to," he guffawed and flicked ash all over his desk. "You just knock off the guys who can talk and we'll do the rest. We like to work that way."
"It was self-defense," I growled. "I couldn't help myself."
"Sure. Take the air, brother. I'm busy."
But his large bleak eyes twinkled at me as I went out.
The morning was all blue and gold and the birds in the ornamental trees of the Winslow estate were crazy with song after the rain.
The gatekeeper let me in through the postern and I walked up the driveway and along the top terrace to the huge carved Italian front door. Before I rang the bell I looked down the hill and saw the Trevillyan kid sitting on his stone bench with his head cupped in his hands, staring at nothing.
I went down the brick path to him. "No darts today, son?"
He looked up at me with his lean, slaty, sunken eyes.
"No. Did you find him?"
"Your dad? No, sonny, not yet."
He jerked his head. His nostrils flared angrily. "He's not my dad I told you. And don't talk to me as if I was four years old. My dad he's-he's in Florida or somewhere."
"Well, I haven't found him yet, whoever's dad he is," I said.
"Who smacked your jaw?" he asked, staring at me.
"Oh, a fellow with a roll of nickels in his hand."
"Yeah. That's as good as brass knuckles. Try it sometime, but not on me," I grinned.
"You won't find him," he said bitterly, staring at my jaw. "Him, I mean. My mother's husband."
"I bet I do."
"How much you bet?"
"More money than even you've got in your pants."
He kicked viciously at the edge of a red brick in the walk. His voice was still sulky, but more smooth. His eyes speculated.
"Want to bet on something else? C'mon over to the range. I bet you a dollar I can knock down eight out of ten pipes in ten shots."
I looked back towards the house. Nobody seemed impatient to receive me.
"Well," I said, "we'll have to make it snappy. Let's go."
We went along the side of the house under the windows. The orchid green-house showed over the tops of some bushy trees far back. A man in neat whipcord was polishing the chromium on a big car in front of the garages. We went past there to the low white building against the bank.
The boy took a key out and unlocked the door and we went into close air that still held traces of cordite fumes. The boy clicked a spring lock on the door.
"Me first," he snapped.
The place looked something like a small beach shooting gallery. There was a counter with a .22 repeating rifle on it and a long, slim target pistol. Both well oiled but dusty. About thirty feet beyond the counter was a waist-high, solid-looking partition across the building, and behind that a simple layout of clay pipes and ducks and two round white targets marked off with black rings and stained by lead bullets.
The clay pipes ran in an even line across the middle, and there was a big skylight, and a row of hooded overhead lights.
The boy pulled a cord on the wall and a thick canvas blind slid across the skylight. He turned on the hooded lights and then the place really looked like a beach shooting gallery.
He picked up the .22 rifle and loaded it quickly from a cardboard box of shells, .22 shorts.
"A dollar I get eight out of ten pipes?"
"Blast away," I said, and put my money on the counter.
He took aim almost casually, fired too fast, showing off. He missed three pipes. It was pretty fancy shooting at that. He threw the rifle down on the counter.
"Gee, go set up some more. Let's not count that one. I wasn't set."
"You don't aim to lose any money, do you, son? Go set 'em up yourself. It's your range."
His narrow face got angry and his voice got shrill. "You do it! I've got to relax, see. I've got to relax."
I shrugged at him, lifted a flap in the counter and went along the whitewashed side wall, squeezed past the end of the low partition. The boy clicked his reloaded rifle shut behind me.
"Put that down," I growled back at him. "Never touch a gun when there's anyone in front of you."
He put it down, looking hurt.
I bent down and grabbed a handful of clay pipes out of the sawdust in a big wooden box on the floor. I shook the yellow grains of wood off them and started to straighten up.
I stopped with my hat above the barrier, just the top of my hat. I never knew why I stopped. Blind instinct.
The .22 cracked and the lead bullet bonged into the target in front of my head. My hat stirred lazily on my head, as though a blackbird had swooped at it during the nesting season.
A nice kid. He was full of tricks, like Red-eyes. I dropped the pipes and took hold of my hat by the brim, lifted it straight up off my head a few inches. The gun cracked again. Another metallic bong on the target.
I let myself fall heavily to the wooden flooring, among the pipes.
A door opened and shut. That was all. Nothing else. The hard glare from the hooded lights beat down on me. The sun peeked in at the edges of the skylight blind. There were two bright new splashes on the nearest target, and there were four small round holes in my hat, two and two, on each side.
I crawled to the end of the barrier and peeked around it. The boy was gone. I could see the small muzzles of the two guns on the counter.
I stood up and went back along the wall, switched the lights off, turned the knob of the spring lock and went out. The Winslow chauffeur whistled at his polish job around in front of the garages.
I crushed my hat in my hand and went back along the side of the house, looking for the kid. I didn't see him. I rang the front door bell.
I asked for Mrs. O'Mara. I didn't let the butler take my hat.
She was in an oyster-white something, with white fur at the cuffs and collar and around the bottom. A breakfast table on wheels was pushed to one side of her chair and she was flicking ashes among the silver.
The coy-looking maid with the nice legs came and took the table out and shut the tall white door. I sat down.
Mrs. O'Mara leaned her head back against a cushion and looked tired. The line of her throat was distant, cold. She stared at me with a cool, hard look, in which there was plenty of dislike.
"You seemed rather human yesterday," she said. "But I see you are just a brute like the rest of them. Just a brutal cop."
"I came to ask you about Lash Yeager," I said.
She didn't even pretend to be amused. "And why should you think of asking me?"
"Well-if you lived a week at the Dardanella Club-" I waved my crunched-together hat.
She looked at her cigarette fixedly. "Well, I did meet him, I believe. I remember the rather unusual name."
"They all have names like that, those animals," I said. "It seems that Larry Batzel-I guess you read in your paper about him too-was a friend of Dud O'Mara's once. I didn't tell you about him yesterday. Maybe that was a mistake."
A pulse began to throb in her throat. She said softly: "I have a suspicion you are about to become very insolent, that I may even have to have you thrown out."
"Not before I've said my piece," I said. "It seems that Mr. Yeager's driver-they have drivers as well as unusual names, those animals-told Larry Batzel that Mr. Yeager was out this way the night O'Mara disappeared."
The old army blood had to be good for something in her. She didn't move a muscle. She just froze solid.
I got up and took the cigarette from between her frozen fingers and killed it in a white jade ashtray. I laid my hat carefully on her white satin knee. I sat down again.
Her eyes moved after a while. They moved down and looked at the hat. Her face flushed very slowly, in two vivid patches over the cheekbones. She fought around with her tongue and lips.
"I know," I said. "It's not much of a hat. I'm not making you a present of it. But just look at the bullet holes in it once."
Her hand became alive and snatched at the hat. Her eyes became flames.
She spread the crown out, looked at the holes, and shuddered.
"Yeager?" she asked, very faintly. It was a wisp of a voice, an old voice.
I said very slowly: "Yeager wouldn't use a .22 target rifle, Mrs. O'Mara."
The flame died in her eyes. They were pools of darkness much emptier than darkness.
"You're his mother," I said. "What do you want to do about it?"
"Merciful God! Dade! He ... shot at you!"
"Twice," I said.
"But why?Oh, why?"
"You think I'm a wise guy, Mrs. O'Mara. Just another hardeyed boy from the other side of the tracks. It would be easy in this spot, if I was. But I'm not that at all, really. Do I have to tell why he shot at me!"
She didn't speak. She nodded slowly. Her face was a mask now.
"I'd say he probably can't help it," I said. "He didn't want me to find his stepfather, for one thing. Then he's a little lad that likes money. That seems small, but it's part of the picture. He almost lost a dollar to me on his shooting. It seems small, but he lives in a small world. Most of all, of course, he's a crazy little sadist with an itchy trigger finger."
"How dare you!" she flared. It didn't mean anything. She forgot it herself instantly.
"How dare I? I do dare. Let's not bother figuring why he shot at me. I'm not the first, am I? You wouldn't have known what I was talking about, you wouldn't have assumed he did it on purpose."
She didn't move or speak. I took a deep breath.
"So let's talk about why he shot Dud O'Mara," I said. If I thought she would yell even this time, I fooled myself. The old man in the orchid house had put more into her than her tallness and her dark hair and her reckless eyes.
She pulled her lips back and tried to lick them, and it made her look like a scared little girl, for a second. The lines of her cheeks sharpened and her hand went up like an artificial hand moved by wires and took hold of the white fur at her throat and pulled it tight and squeezed it until her knuckles looked like bleached bone. Then she just stared at me.
Then my hat slid off her knee on to the floor, without her moving. The sound it made falling was one of the loudest sounds I had ever heard.
"Money," she said in a dry croak. "Of course you want money."
"How much money do I want?"
"Fifteen thousand dollars."
I nodded, stiff-necked as a floorwalker trying to see with his back.
"That would be about right. That would be the established retainer. That would be about what he had in his pockets and what Yeager got for getting rid of him."
"You're too-damned smart," she said horribly. "I could kill you myself and like it."
I tried to grin. "That's right. Smart and without a feeling in the world. It happened something like this. The boy got O'Mara where he got me, by the same simple ruse. I don't think it was a plan. He hated his stepfather, but he wouldn't exactly plan to kill him."
"He hated him," she said.
"So they're in the little shooting gallery and O'Mara is dead on the floor, behind the barrier, out of sight. The shots, of course, meant nothing there. And very little blood, with a head shot, small caliber. So the boy goes out and locks the door and hides. But after a while he has to tell somebody. He has to. He tells you. You're his mother. You're the one to tell."
"Yes," she breathed. "He did just that." Her eyes had stopped hating me.
"You think about calling it an accident, which is okay, except for one thing. The boy's not a normal boy, and you know it. The general knows it, the servants know. There must be other people that know it. And the law, dumb as you think they are, are pretty smart with subnormal types. They get to handle so many of them. And I think he would have talked. I think, after a while, he would even have bragged."
"Go on," she said.
"You wouldn't risk that," I said. "Not for your son and not for the sick old man in the orchid house. You'd do any awful criminal callous thing rather than risk that. You did it. You knew Yeager and you hired him to get rid of the body. That's all-except that hiding the girl, Mona Mesarvey, helped to make it look like a deliberate disappearance."
"He took him away after dark, in Dud's own car," she said hollowly.
I reached down and picked my hat off the floor. "How about the servants?"
"Norris knows. The butler. He'd die on the rack before he told."
"Yeah. Now you know why Larry Batzel was knocked off and why I was taken for a ride, don't you?"
"Blackmail," she said. "It hadn't come yet, but I was waiting for it. I would have paid anything, and he would know that."
"Bit by bit, year by year, there was a quarter of a millon in it for him, easy. I don't think Joe Mesarvey was in it at all. I know the girl wasn't."
She didn't say anything. She just kept her eyes on my face.
"Why in hell," I groaned, "didn't you take the guns away from him?"
"He's worse than you think. That would have started something worse. I'm-I'm almost afraid of him myself."
"Take him away," I said. From here. From the old man. He's young enough to be cured, by the right handling. Take him to Europe. Far away. Take him now. It would kill the general out of hand to know his blood was in that."
She got up draggingly and dragged herself across to the windows. She stood motionless, almost blending into the heavy white drapes. Her hands hung at her sides, very motionless also. After a while she turned and walked past me. When she was behind me she caught her breath and sobbed just once.
"It was very vile. It was the vilest thing I ever heard of. Yet I would do it again. Father would not have done it. He would have spoken right out. It would, as you say, have killed him."
"Take him away," I pounded on. "He's hiding out there now. He thinks he got me. He's hiding somewhere like an animal. Get him. He can't help it."
"I offered you money," she said, still behind me. "That's nasty. I wasn't in love with Dudley O'Mara. That's nasty too. I can't thank you. I don't know what to say."
"Forget it," I said. "I'm just an old workhorse. Put your work on the boy."
"I promise. Goodbye, Mr. Carmady."
We didn't shake hands. I went back down the stairs and the butler was at the front door as usual. Nothing in his face but politeness.
"You will not want to see the general today, sir?"
"Not today, Norris."
I didn't see the boy outside. I went through the postern and got into my rented Ford and drove on down the hill, past where the old oil wells were.
Around some of them, not visible from the street, there were still sumps in which waste water lay and festered with a scum of oil on top. They would be ten or twelve feet deep, maybe more. There would be dark things in them. Perhaps in one of them- I was glad I had killed Yeager.
On the way back downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of drinks. They didn't do me any good.
All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.
© Aerius, 2004