© R.Chandler, The King in Yellow, 1938
Source: R.Chandler. The Simple Art of Murder (collection)
E-Text: Greylib .
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George Millar, night auditor at the Canton Hotel, was a dapper wiry little man, with a soft deep voice like a torch singer's. He kept it low, but his eyes were sharp and angry, as he said into the PBX mouthpiece: "I'm very sorry. It won't happen again. I'll send up at once."
He tore off the headpiece, dropped it on the keys of the switchboard and marched swiftly from behind the pebbled screen and out into the entrance lobby. It was past one and the Carlton was two thirds residential. In the main lobby, down three shallow steps, lamps were dimmed and the night porter had finished tidying up. The place was deserted-a wide space of dim furniture, rich carpet. Faintly in the distance a radio sounded. Millar went down the steps and walked quickly towards the sound, turned through an archway and looked at a man stretched out on a pale green davenport and what looked like all the loose cushions in the hotel. He lay on his side dreamy-eyed and listened to the radio two yards away from him.
Millar barked: "Hey, you! Are you the house dick here or the house cat?"
Steve Grayce turned his head slowly and looked at Millar. He was a long black-haired man, about twenty-eight, with deep-set silent eyes and a rather gentle mouth. He jerked a thumb at the radio and smiled. "King Leopardi, George. Hear that trumpet tone. Smooth as an angel's wing, boy."
"Swell! Goon back upstairs and get him out of the corridor!"
Steve Grayce looked shocked. "What-again? I thought I had those birds put to bed long ago." He swung his feet to the floor and stood up. He was at least a foot taller than Millar.
"Well, Eight-sixteen says no. Eight-sixteen says he's out in the hall with two of his stooges. He's dressed in yellow satin shorts and a trombone and he and his pals are putting on a jam session. And one of those hustlers Quillan registered in Eighteleven is out there truckin' for them. Now get on to it, Steve-and this time make it stick."
Steve Grayce smiled wryly. He said: "Leopardi doesn't belong here anyway. Can I use chloroform or just my blackjack?"
He stepped long legs over the pale-green carpet, through the arch and across the main lobby to the single elevator that was open and lighted. He slid the doors shut and ran it up to Eight, stopped it roughly and stepped out into the corridor.
The noise hit him like a sudden wind. The walls echoed with it. Half a dozen doors were open and angry guests in night robes stood in them peering.
"It's O.K. folks," Steve Grayce said rapidly. "This is absolutely the last act. Just relax."
He rounded a corner and the hot music almost took him off his feet. Three men were lined up against the wall, near an open door from which light streamed. The middle one, the one with the trombone, was six feet tall, powerful and graceful, with a hairline mustache. His face was flushed and his eyes had an alcoholic glitter. He wore yellow satin shorts with large initials embroidered in black on the left leg-nothing more. His torso was tanned and naked.
The two with him were in pajamas, the usual halfway-goodlooking band boys, both drunk, but not staggering drunk. One jittered madly on a clarinet and the other on a tenor saxophone.
Back and forth in front of them, strutting, trucking, preening herself like a magpie, arching her arms and her eyebrows, bending her fingers back until the carmine nails almost touched her arms, a metallic blonde swayed and went to town on the music. Her voice was a throaty screech, without melody, as false as her eyebrows and as sharp as her nails. She wore highheeled slippers and black pajamas with a long purple sash.
Steve Grayce stopped dead and made a sharp downward motion with his hand. "Wrap it up!" he snapped. "Can it.. Put it on ice. Take it away and bury it. The show's out. Scram, now-scram!"
King Leopardi took the trombone from his lips and bellowed: "Fanfare to a house dick!"
The three drunks blew a stuttering note that shook the walls. The girl laughed foolishly and kicked out. Her slipper caught Steve Grayce in the chest. He picked it out of the air, jumped towards the girl and took hold of her wrist.
"Tough, eh?" he grinned. "I'll take you first."
"Get him!" Leopardi yelled. "Sock him low! Dance the gumheel on his neck!"
Steve swept the girl off her feet, tucked her under his arm and ran. He carried her as easily as a parcel. She tried to kick his legs. He laughed and shot a glance through a lighted doorway. A man's brown brogues lay under a bureau. He went on past that to a second lighted doorway, slammed through and kicked the door shut, turned far enough to twist the tabbed key in the lock. Almost at once a fist hit the door. He paid no attention to it.
He pushed the girl along the short passage past the bathroom, and let her go. She reeled away from him and put her back to the bureau, panting, her eyes furious. A lock of damp golddipped hair swung down over one eye. She shook her head violently and bared her teeth.
"How would you like to get vagged, sister?"
"Go to hell!" she spit out. "The King's a friend of mine, see? You better keep your paws off me, copper."
"You run the circuit with the boys?"
She spat at him again.
"How'd you know they'd be here?"
Another girl was sprawled across the bed, her head to the wall, tousled black hair over a white face. There was a tear in the leg of her pajamas. She lay limp and groaned.
Steve said harshly: "Oh, oh, the torn-pajama act. It flops here, sister, it flops hard. Now listen, you kids. You can go to bed and stay till morning or you can take the bounce. Make up your minds."
The black-haired girl groaned. The blonde said: "You get out of my room, you damned gum-heel!"
She reached behind her and threw a hand mirror. Steve ducked. The mirror slammed against the wall and fell without breaking. The black-haired girl rolled over on the bed and said wearily: "Oh lay off. I'm sick."
She lay with her eyes closed, the lids fluttering.
The blonde swiveled her hips across the room to a desk by the window, poured herself a full half-glass of Scotch in a water glass and gurgled it down before Steve could get to her. She choked violently, dropped the glass and went down on her hands and knees.
Steve said grimly: "That's the one that kicks you in the face, sister."
The girl crouched, shaking her head. She gagged once, lifted the carmine nails to paw at her mouth. She tried to get up, and her foot skidded out from under her and she fell down on her side and went fast asleep.
Steve sighed, went over and shut the window and fastened it. He rolled the black-haired girl over and straightened her on the bed and got the bedclothes from under her, tucked a pillow under her head. He picked the blonde bodily off the floor and dumped her on the bed and covered both girls to the chin. He opened the transom, switched off the ceiling light and unlocked the door. He relocked it from the outside, with a master key on a chain.
"Hotel business," he said under his breath. "Phooey."
The corridor was empty now. One lighted door still stood open. Its number was 815, two doors from the room the girls were in. Trombone music came from it softly-but not softly enough for 1:25 AM.
Steve Grayce turned into the room, crowded the door shut with his shoulder and went along past the bathroom. King Leopardi was alone in the room.
The bandleader was sprawled out in an easy chair, with a tall misted glass at his elbow. He swung the trombone in a tight circle as he played it and the lights danced in the horn.
Steve lit a cigarette, blew a plume of smoke and stared through it at Leopardi with a queer, half-admiring, half-contemptuous expression.
He said softly: "Lights out, yellow-pants. You play a sweet trumpet and your trombone don't hurt either. But we can't use it here. I already told you that once. Lay off. Put that thing away."
Leopardi smiled nastily and blew a stuttering raspberry that sounded like a devil laughing.
"Says you," he sneered. "Leopardi does what he likes, where he likes, when he likes. Nobody's stopped him yet, gum-shoe. Take the air."
Steve hunched his shoulders and went close to the tall dark man. He said patiently: "Put that bazooka down, big-stuff. People are trying to sleep. They're funny that way. You're a great guy on a band shell. Everywhere else you're just a guy with a lot of jack and a personal reputation that stinks from here to Miami and back. I've got a job to do and I'm doing it. Blow that thing again and I'll wrap it around your neck."
Leopardi lowered the trombone and took a long drink from the glass at his elbow. His eyes glinted nastily. He lifted the trombone to his lips again, filled his lungs with air and blew a blast that rocked the walls. Then he stood up very suddenly and smoothly and smashed the instrument down on Steve's head.
"I never did like house peepers," he sneered. "They smell like public toilets."
Steve took a short step back and shook his head. He leered, slid forward on one foot and smacked Leopardi open-handed. The blow looked light, but Leopardi reeled all the way across the room and sprawled at the foot of the bed, sitting on the floor, his right arm draped in an open suitcase.
For a moment neither man moved. Then Steve kicked the trombone away from him and squashed his cigarette in a glass tray. His black eyes were empty but his mouth grinned whitely.
"If you want trouble," he said, "I come from where they make it."
Leopardi smiled, thinly, tautly, and his right hand came up out of the suitcase with a gun in it. His thumb snicked the safety catch. He held the gun steady, pointing.
"Make some with this," he said, and fired.
The bitter roar of the gun seemed a tremendous sound in the closed room. The bureau mirror splintered and glass flew. A sliver cut Steve's cheek like a razor blade. Blood oozed in a small narrow line on his skin.
He left his feet in a dive. His right shoulder crushed against Leopardi's bare chest and his left hand brushed the gun away from him, under the bed. He rolled swiftly to his right and came up on his knees spinning.
He said thickly, harshly: "You picked the wrong gee, brother."
He swarmed on Leopardi and dragged him to his feet by his hair, by main strength. Leopardi yelled and hit him twice on the jaw and Steve grinned and kept his left hand twisted in the bandleader's long sleek black hair. He turned his hand and the head twisted with it and Leopardi's third punch landed on Steve's shoulder. Steve took hold of the wrist behind the punch and twisted that and the bandleader went down on his knees yowling. Steve lifted him by the hair again, let go of his wrist and punched him three times in the stomach, short terrific jabs. He let go of the hair then as he sank the fourth punch almost to his wrist.
Leopardi sagged blindly to his knees and vomited.
Steve stepped away from him and went into the bathroom and got a towel off the rack. He threw it at Leopardi, jerkád the open suitcase onto the bed and started throwing things into it.
Leopardi wiped his face and got to his feet still gagging. He swayed, braced himself on the end of the bureau. He was white as a sheet.
Steve Grayce said: "Get dressed, Leopardi. Or go out the way you are. It's all one to me.
Leopardi stumbled into the bathroom, pawing the wall like a blind man
Millar stood very still behind the desk as the elevator opened. His face was white and scared and his cropped black mustache was a smudge across his upper lip. Leopardi came out of the elevator first, a muffler around his neck, a lightweight coat tossed over his arm, a hat tilted on his head. He walked stiffly, bent forward a little, his eyes vacant. His face had a greenish pallor.
Steve Grayce stepped out behind him carrying a suitcase, and Carl, the night porter, came last with two more suitcases and two instrument cases in black leather. Steve marched over to the desk and said harshly: "Mr. Leopardi's bill-if any. He's checking out."
Millar goggled at him across the marble desk. "I-I don't think, Steve-"
"O.K. I thought not."
Leopardi smiled very thinly and unpleasantly and walked out through the brass-edged swing doors the porter held open for him. There were two nighthawk cabs in the line. One of them came to life and pulled up to the canopy and the porter loaded Leopardi's stuff into it. Leopardi got into the cab and leaned forward to put his head to the open window. He said slowly and thickly: "I'm sorry for you, gum-heel. I mean sorry."
Steve Grayce stepped back and looked at him woodenly. The cab moved off down the street, rounded a corner and was gone. Steve turned on his heel, took a quarter from his pocket and tossed it up in the air. He slapped it into the night porter's hand.
"From the King," he said. "Keep it to show your grandchildren."
He went back into the hotel, got into the elevator without looking at Millar, shot it up to Eight again and went along the corridor, master-keyed his way into Leopardj's room. He relocked it from the inside, pulled the bed out from the wall and went in behind it. He got a .32 automatic off the carpet, put it in his pocket and prowled the floor with his eyes looking for the ejected shell. He found it against the wastebasket, reached to pick it up, and stayed bent over, staring into the basket. His mouth tightened. He picked up the shell and dropped it absently into his pocket, then reached a questing finger into the basket and lifted out a torn scrap of paper on which a piece of newsprint had been pasted. Then he picked up the basket, pushed the bed back against the wall and dumped the contents of the basket out on it.
From the trash of torn papers and matches he separated a number of pieces with newsprint pasted to them. He went over to the desk with them and sat down. A few minutes later he had the torn scraps put together like a jigsaw puzzle and could read the message that had been made by cutting words and letters from magazines and pasting them on a sheet.
TEN GRAND BY TH U RS DAY NI GHT, LEO PAR DI. DAY AFTER YOU OPEN AT T HE CL U B SHAL OTTE. OR EL SE-CURTAINS. FROM HER BROTHER.
Steve Grayce said: "Huh." He scooped the torn pieces into a hotel envelope, put that in his inside breast pocket and lit a cigarette. "The guy had guts," he said. "I'll grant him that-and his trumpet."
He locked the room, listened a moment in the now silent corridor, then went along to the room occupied by the two girls. He knocked softly and put his ear to the panel. A chair squeaked and feet came towards the door.
"What is it?" The girl's voice was cool, wide awake. It was not the blonde's voice.
"The house man. Can I speak to you a minute?"
"You're speaking to me."
"Without the door between, lady."
"You've got the passkey. Help yourself." The steps went away. He unlocked the door with his master key, stepped quietly inside, and shut jt. There was a dim light in a lamp with a shirred shade on the desk. On the bed the blonde snored heavily, one hand clutched in her briiliant metallic hair. The black-haired girl sat in the chair by the window, her legs crossed at right angles like a man's and stared at Steve emptily.
He went close to her and pointed to the long tear in her pajama leg. He said softly: "You're not sick. You were not drunk. That tear was done a long time ago. What's the racket? A shakedown on the King?"
The girl stared at him coolly, puffed at a cigarette and said nothing.
"He checked out," Steve said. "Nothing doing in that direction now, sister." He watched her like a hawk, his black eyes hard and steady on her face.
"Aw, you house dicks make me sick!" the girl said with sudden anger. She surged to her feet and went past him into the bathroom, shut and locked the door.
Steve shrugged and felt the pulse of the girl asleep in the bed-a thumpy, draggy pulse, a liquor pulse.
"Poor damn hustlers," he said under his breath.
He looked at a large purple bag that lay on the bureau, lifted it idly and let it fall. His face stiffened again. The bag made a heavy sound on the glass top, as if there were a lump of lead inside it. He snapped it open quickly and plunged a hand in. His fingers touched the cold metal of a gun. He opened the bag wide and stared down into it at a small .25 automatic. A scrap of white paper caught his eye. He fished it out and held it to the light-a rent receipt with a name and address. He stuffed it into his pocket, closed the bag and was standing by the window when the girl came out of the bathroom.
"Hell, are you still haunting me?" she snapped. "You know what happens to hotel dicks that master-key their way into ladies' bedrooms at night?"
Steve said loosely: "Yeah. They get in trouble. They might even get shot at."
The girl's face became set, but her eyes crawled sideways and looked at the purple bag. Steve looked at her. "Know Leopardi in Frisco?" he asked. "He hasn't played here in two years. Then he was just a trumpet player in Vane Utigore's band-a cheap outfit."
The girl curled her lip, went past him and sat down by the window again. Her face was white, stiff. She said dully: "Blossom did. That's Blossom on the bed."
"Know he was coming to this hotel tonight?"
"What makes it your business?"
"I can't figure him coming here at all," Steve said. "This is a quiet place. So I can't figure anybody coming here to put the bite on him."
"Go somewhere else and figure. I need sleep."
Steve said: "Good night, sweetheart-and keep your door locked."
A thin man with thin blond hair and thin face was standing by the desk, tapping on the marble with thin fingers. Millar was still behind the desk and he still looked white and scared. The thin man wore a dark gray suit with a scarf inside the collar of the coat. He had a look of having just got up. He turned seagreen eyes slowly on Steve as he got out of the elevator, waited for him to come up to the desk and throw a tabbed key on it.
Steve said: "Leopardi's key, George. There's a busted mirror in his room and the carpet has his dinner on it-mostly Scotch." He turned to the thin man.
"You want to see me, Mr. Peters?"
"What happened, Grayce?" The thin man had a tight voice that expected to be lied to.
"Leopardi and two of his boys were on Eight, the rest of the gang on Five. The bunch on Five went to bed. A couple of obvious hustlers managed to get themselves registered just two rooms from Leopardi. They managed to contact him and everybody was having a lot of nice noisy fun out in the hall. I could only stop it by getting a little tough."
"There's blood on your cheek," Peters said coldly. "Wipe it off."
Steve scratched at his cheek with a handkerchief. The thin thread of blood had dried. "I got the girls tucked away in their room," he said. "The two stooges took the hint and holed up, but Leopardi still thought the guests wanted to hear trombone music. I threatened to wrap it around his neck and he beaned me with it. I slapped him open-handed and he pulled a gun and took a shot at me. Here's the gun."
He took the .32 automatic out of his pocket and laid it on the desk. He put the used shell beside it. "So I beat some sense into him and threw him out," he added.
Peters tapped on the marble. "Your usual tact seems to have been well in evidence."
Steve stared at him. "He shot at me," he repeated quietly. "With a gun. This gun. I'm tender to bullets. He missed, but suppose he hadn't? I like my stomach the way it is, with just one way in and one way out."
Peters narrowed his tawny eyebrows. He said very politely: "We have you down on the payroll here as a nightclerk, because we don't like the name house detective. But neither night clerks nor house detectives put guests out of the hotel without consulting me. Not ever, Mr. Grayce."
Steve said: "The guy shot at me, pal. With a gun. Catch on? I don't have to take that without a kickback, do I?" His face was a little white.
Peters said: "Another point for your consideration. The controlling interest in this hotel is owned by Mr. Halsey G. Walters. Mr. Walters also owns the Club Shalotte, where King Leopardi is opening on Wednesday night. And that, Mr. Grayce, is why Leopardi was good enough to give us his business. Can you think of anything else I should like to say to you?"
"Yeah. I'm canned," Steve said mirthlessly.
"Very correct, Mr. Grayce. Good-night, Mr. Grayce."
The thin blond man moved to the elevator and the night porter took him up.
Steve looked at Millar.
"Jumbo Walters, huh?" he said softly. "A tough, smart guy. Much too smart to think this dump and the Club Shalotte belong to the same sort of customers. Did Peters write Leopardi to come here?"
"I guess he did, Steve." Millar's voice was low and gloomy.
"Then why wasn't he put in a tower suite with a private balcony to dance on, at twenty-eight bucks a day? Why was he put on a medium-priced transient floor? And why did Quillan let those girls get so close to him?"
Millar pulled at his black mustache. "Tight with money-as well as with Scotch, I suppose. As to the girls, I don't know."
Steve slapped the counter open-handed. "Well, I'm canned, for not letting a drunken heel make a parlor house and a shooting gallery out of the eighth floor. Nuts! Well, I'll miss the joint at that."
"I'll miss you too, Steve," Millar said gently. "But not for a week. I take a week off starting tomorrow. My brother has a cabin at Crestline."
"Didn't know you had a brother," Steve said absently. He opened and closed his fist on the marble desk top.
"He doesn't come into town much. A big guy. Used to be a fighter."
Steve nodded and straightened from the counter. "Well, I might as well finish out the night," he said. "On my back. Put this gun away somewhere, George."
He grinned coldly and walked away, down the steps into the dim main lobby and across to the room where the radio was. He punched the pillows into shape on the pale green davenport, then suddenly reached into his pocket and took out the scrap of white paper he had lifted from the black-haired girl's purple handbag. It was a receipt for a week's rent, to a Miss Marilyn Delorme, Apt. 211, Ridgeland Apartments, 118 Court Street.
He tucked it into his wallet and stood staring at the silent radio. "Steve, I think you got another job," he said under his breath. "Something about this set-up smells."
He slipped into a closetlike phone both in the corner of the room, dropped a nickel and dialed an all-night radio station. He had to dial four times before he got a clear line to the Owl Program announcer.
"How's to play King Leopardi's record of 'Solitude' again?" he asked him.
"Got a lot of requests piled up. Played it twice already. Who's calling?"
"Steve Grayce, night man at the Carlton Hotel."
"Oh, a sober guy on his job. For you, pal, anything."
Steve went back to the davenport, snapped the radio on and lay down on his back, with his hands clasped behind his head.
Ten minutes later the high, piercingly sweet trumpet notes of King Leopardi came softly from the radio, muted almost to a whisper, and sustaining E above high C for an almost incredible period of time.
"Shucks," Steve grumbled, when the record ended. "A guy that can play like that-maybe I was too tough with him."
Court Street was old town, wop town, crook town, arty town. It lay across the top of Bunker Hill and you could find anything there from down-at-heels ex-Greenwich-villagers to crooks on the lam, from ladies of anybody's evening to County Relief clients brawling with haggard landladies in grand old houses with scrolled porches, parquetry floors, and immense sweeping banisters of white oak, mahogany and Circassian walnut.
It had been a nice place once, had Bunker Hill, and from the days of its niceness there still remained the funny little funicular railway, called the Angel's Flight, which crawled up and down a yellow clay bank from Hill Street. It was afternoon when Steve Grayce got off the car at the top, its only passenger. He walked along in the sun, a tall, wide-shouldered, rangylooking man in a well-cut blue suit.
He turned west at Court and began to read the numbers. The one he wanted was two from the corner, across the street from a red brick funeral parlor with a sign in gold over it: Paolo Perrugini Funeral Home. A swarthy iron-gray Italian in a cutaway coat stood in front of the curtained door of the red brick building, smoking a cigar and waiting for somebody to die.
One-eighteen was a three-storied frame apartment house. It had a glass door, well masked by a dirty net curtain, a hall runner eighteen inches wide, dim doors with numbers painted on them with dim-paint, a staircase halfway back. Brass stair rods glittered in the dimness of the hallway.
Steve Grayce went up the stairs and prowled back to the front. Apartment 211, Miss Marilyn Delorme, was on the right, a front apartment. He tapped lightly on the wood, waited, tapped again. Nothing moved beyond the silent door, or in the hallway. Behind another door across the hall somebody coughed and kept on coughing.
Standing there in the half-light Steve Grayce wondered why he had come. Miss Delorme had carried a gun. Leopardi had received some kind of a threat letter and torn it up and thrown it away. Miss Delorme had checked out of the Carlton about an hour after Steve told her Leopardi was gone. Even at that-
He took out a leather keyholder and studied the lock of the door. It looked as if it would listen to reason. He tried a pick on it, snicked the bolt back and stepped softly into the room. He shut the door, but the pick wouldn't lock it.
The room was dim with drawn shades across two front windows. The air smelled of face powder. There was light-painted furniture, a pull-down double bed which was pulled down but had been made up. There was a magazine on it, a glass tray full of cigarette butts, a pint bottle half full of whiskey, and a glass on a chair beside the bed. Two pillows had been used for a back rest and were still crushed in the middle.
On the dresser there was a composition toilet set, neither cheap nor expensive, a comb with black hair in it, a tray of manicuring stuff, plenty of spilled powder-in the bathroom, nothing. In a closet behind the bed a lot of clothes and two suitcases. The shoes were all one size.
Steve stood beside the bed and pinched his chin. "Blossom, the spitting blonde, doesn't live here," he said under his breath. "Just Marilyn the torn-pants brunette."
He went back to the dresser and pulled drawers out. In the bottom drawer, under the piece of wall paper that lined it, he found a box of .25 copper-nickel automatic shells. He poked at the butts in the ash tray. All had lipstick on them. He pinched his chin again, then feathered the air with the palm of his hand, like an oarsman with a scull.
"Bunk," he said softly. "Wasting your time, Stevie."
He walked over to the door and reached for the knob, then turned back to the bed and lifted it by the footrail.
Miss MarIlyn Delorme was in.
She lay on her side on the floor under the bed, long legs scissored out as if in running. One mule was on, one off. Garters and skin showed at the tops of her stockings, and a blue rose on something pink. She wore a square-necked, shortsleeved dress that was not too clean. Her neck above the dress was blotched with purple bruises.
Her face was a dark plum color, her eyes had the faint stale glitter of death, and her mouth was open so far that it foreshortened her face. She was colder than ice, and still quite limp. She had been dead two or three hours at least, six hours at most.
The purple bag was beside her, gaping like her mouth. Steve didn't touch any of the stuff that had been emptied out on the floor. There was no gun and there were no papers.
He let the bed down over her again, then made the rounds of the apartment, wiping everything he had touched and a lot of things he couldn't remember whether he had touched or not.
He listened at the door and stepped out. The hall was still empty. The man behind the opposite door still coughed. Steve went down the stairs, looked at the mailboxes and went back along the lower hall to a door.
Behind this door a chair creaked monotonously. He knocked and a woman's sharp voice called out. Steve opened the door with his handkerchief and stepped in.
In the middle of the room a woman rocked in an old Boston rocker, her body in the slack boneless attitude of exhaustion. She had a mud-colored face, stringy hair, gray cotton stockings-everything a Bunker Hill landlady should have. She looked at Steve with the interested eye of a dead goldfish.
"Are you the manager?"
The woman stopped rocking, screamed, "Hi, Jake! Company!" at the top of her voice, and started rocking again.
An icebox door thudded shut behind a partly open inner door and a very big man came into the room carrying a can of beer. He had a doughy mooncalf face, a tuft of fuzz on top of an otherwise bald head, a thick brutal neck and chin, and brown pig eyes about as expressionless as the woman's. He needed a shave-had needed one the day before-and his collarless shirt gaped over a big hard hairy chest. He wore scarlet suspenders with large gilt buckles on them.
He held the can of beer out to the woman. She clawed it out of his hand and said bitterly: "I'm so tired I ain't got no sense."
The man said: "Yah. You ain't done the halls so good at that."
The woman snarled: "I done 'em as good as I aim to." She sucked the beer thirstily.
Steve looked at the man and said: "Manager?"
"Yah. 'S me. Jake Stoyanoff. Two hun'erd eighty-six stripped, and still plenty tough."
Steve said: "Who lives in Two-eleven?"
The big man leaned forward a little from the waist and snapped his suspenders. Nothing changed in his eyes. The skin along his big jaw may have tightened a little. "A dame," he said.
"Go on-ask me," the big man said. He stuck his hand out and lifted a cigar off the edge of a stained-wood table. The cigar was burning unevenly and it smelled as if somebody had set fire to the doormat. He pushed it into his mouth with a hard, thrusting motion, as if he expected his mouth wouldn't want it to go in.
"I'm asking you," Steve said.
"Ask me out in the kitchen," the big man drawled.
He turned and held the door open. Steve went past him.
The big man kicked the door shut against the squeak of the rocking chair, opened up the icebox and got out two cans of beer. He opened them and handed one to Steve.
Steve drank some of the beer, put the can down on the sink, got a brand-new card out of his wallet-a business card printed that morning. He handed it to the man.
The man read it, put it down on the sink, picked it up and read it again. "One of them guys," he growled over his beer. "What's she pulled this time?"
Steve shrugged and said: "I guess it's the usual. The tornpajama act. Only there's a kickback this time."
"How come? You handling it, huh? Must be a nice cozy one."
Steve nodded. The big man blew smoke from his mouth. "Go ahead and handle it," he said.
"You don't mind a pinch here?"
The big man laughed heartily. "Nuts to you, brother," he said pleasantly enough. "You're a private dick. So it's a hush. O.K. Go out and hush it. And if it was a pinch-that bothers me like a quart of milk. Go into your act. Take all the room you want. Cops don't bother Jake Stoyanoff."
Steve stared at the man. He didn't say anything. The big man talked it up some more, seemed to get more interested. "Besides," he went on, making motions with the cigar, "I'm softhearted. I never turn up a dame. I never put a frill in the middle." He finished his beer and threw the can in a basket under the sink, and pushed his hand out in front of him, revolving the large thumb slowly against the next two fingers. "Unless there's some of that," he added.
Steve said softly: "You've got big hands. You could have done it."
"Huh?" His small brown leathery eyes got silent and stared. Steve said: "Yeah. You might be clean. But with those hands the cops'd go round and round with you just the same."
The big man moved a little to his left, away from the sink. He let his right hand hang down at his side, loosely. His mouth got so tight that the cigar almost touched his nose.
"What's the beef, huh?" he barked. "What you shovin' at me, guy? What-"
"Cut it," Steve drawled. "She's been croaked. Strangled. Upstairs, on the floor under her bed. About midmorning, I'd say. Big hands did it-hands like yours."
The big man did a nice job of getting the gun off his hip. It arrived so suddenly that it seemed to have grown in his hand and been there all the time.
Steve frowned at the gun and didn't move. The big man looked him over. "You're tough," he said. "I been in the ring long enough to size up a guy's meat. You're plenty hard, boy. But you ain't as hard as lead. Talk it up fast."
"I knocked at her door. No answer. The lock was a pushover. I went in. I almost missed her because the bed was pulled down and she had been sitting on it, reading a magazine. There was no sign of struggle. I lifted the bed just before I left-and there she was. Very dead, Mr. Stoyanoff. Put the gat away. Cops don't bother you, you said a minute ago."
The big man whispered: "Yes and no. They don't make me happy neither. I get a bump once'n a while. Mostly a Dutch. You said something about my hands, mister."
Steve shook his head. "That was a gag," he said. "Her neck has nail marks. You bite your nails down close. You're clean."
The big man didn't look at his fingers. He was very pale. There was sweat on his lower lips, in the black stubble of his beard. He was still leaning forward, still motionless, when there was a knocking beyond the kitchen door, the door from the living room to the hallway. The creaking chair stopped and the woman's sharp voice screamed: "Hi, Jake! Company!"
The big man cocked his head. "That old slut wouldn't climb off'n her fanny if the house caught fire," he said thickly.
He stepped to the door and slipped through it, locking it behind him.
Steve ranged the kitchen swiftly with his eyes. There was a small high window beyond the sink, a trap low down for a garbage pail and parcels, but no other door. He reached for his card Stoyanoff had left lying on the drainboard and slipped it back into his pocket. Then he took a short-barreled Detective Special out of his left breast pocket where he wore it nose down, as in a holster.
He had got that far when the shots roared beyond the wall-muffled a little, but still loud-four of them blended in a blast of sound.
Steve stepped back and hit the kitchen door with his leg out straight. It held and jarred him to the top of his head and in his hip joint. He swore, took the whole width of the kitchen and slammed into it with his left shoulder. It gave this time. He pitched into the living room. The mud-faced woman sat leaning forward in her rocker, her head to one side and a lock of mousy hair smeared down over her bony forehead.
"Backfire, huh?" she said stupidly. "Sounded kinda close. Musta been in the alley."
Steve jumped across the room, yanked the outer door open and plunged out into the hall.
The big man was still on his feet, a dozen feet down the hallway, in the direction of a screen door that opened flush on an alley. He was clawing at the wall. His gun lay at his feet. His left knee buckled and he went down on it.
A door was flung open and a hard-looking woman peered out, and instantly slammed her door shut again. A radio suddenly gained in volume beyond her door.
The big man got up off his left knee and the leg shook violently inside his trousers. He went down on both knees and got the gun into his hand and began to crawl towards the screen door. Then, suddenly he went down flat on his face and tried to crawl that way, grinding his face into the narrow hail runner.
Then he stopped crawling and stopped moving altogether. His body went limp and the hand holding the gun opened and the gun rolled out of it.
Steve hit the screen door and was out in the alley. A gray sedan was speeding towards the far end of it. He stopped, steadied himself and brought his gun up level, and the sedan whisked out of sight around the corner.
A man boiled out of another apartment house across the alley. Steve ran on, gesticulating back at him and pointing ahead. As he ran he slipped the gun back into his pocket. When he reached the end of the alley, the gray sedan was out of sight. Steve skidded around the wall onto the sidewalk, slowed to a walk and then stopped.
Half a block down a man finished parking a car, got out and went across the sidewalk to a lunchroom. Steve watched him go in, then straightened his hat and walked along the wall to the lunchroom.
He went in, sat at the counter and ordered coffee. In a little while there were sirens.
Steve drank his coffee, asked for another cup and drank that. He lit a cigarette and walked down the long hill to Fifth, across to Hill, back to the foot of the Angel's Flight, and got his convertible out of a parking lot.
He drove out west, beyond Vermont, to the small hotel where he had taken a room that morning.
Bill Dockery, floor manager of the Club Shalotte, teetered on his heels and yawned in the unlighted entrance to the dining room. It was a dead hour for business, late cocktail time, too early for dinner, and much too early for the real business of the club, which was high-class gambling.
Dockery was a handsome mug in a midnight-blue dinner jacket and a maroon carnation. He had a two-inch forehead under black lacquer hair, good features a little on the heavy side, alert brown eyes and very long curly eyelashes which he liked to let down over his eyes, to fool troublesome drunks into taking a swing at him.
The entrance door of the foyer was opened by the uniformed dooman and Steve Grayce came in.
Dockery said, "Ho, hum," tapped his teeth and leaned his weight forward. He walked across the lobby slowly to meet the guest. Steve stood just inside the doors and ranged his eyes over the high foyer walled with milky glass, lighted softly from behind. Molded in the glass were etchings of sailing ships, beasts of the jungle, Siamese pagodas, temples of Yucatan. The doors were square frames of chromium, like photo frames. The Club Shalotte had all the class there was, and the mutter of voices from the bar lounge on the left was not noisy. The faint Spanish music behind the voices was delicate as a carved fan.
Dockery came up and leaned his sleek head forward an inch. "May I help you?"
"King Leopardi around?"
Dockery leaned back again. He looked less interested. "The bandleader? He opens tomorrow night."
"I thought he might be around-rehearsing or something."
"Friend of his?"
"I know him. I'm not job-hunting, and I'm not a song plugger if that's what you mean."
Dockery teetered on his heels. He was tone-deaf and Leopardi meant no more to him than a bag of peanuts. He half smiled. "He was in the bar lounge a while ago." He pointed with his square rock-like chin. Steve Grayce went into the bar lounge.
It was about a third full, warm and comfortable and not too dark nor too light. The little Spanish orchestra was in an archway, playing with muted strings small seductive melodies that were more like memories than sounds. There was no dance floor. There was a long bar with comfortable seats, and there were small round composition-top tables, not too close together. A wall seat ran around three sides of the room. Waiters flitted among the tables like moths.
Steve Grayce saw Leopardi in the far corner, with a girl. There was an empty table on each side of him. The girl was a knockout.
She looked tall and her hair was the color of a brush fire seen through a dust cloud. On it, at the ultimate rakish angle, she wore a black velvet double-pointed beret with two artificial butterflies made of polka-dotted feathers and fastened on with tall silver pins. Her dress was burgundy-red wool and the blue fox draped over one shoulder was at least two feet wide. Her eyes were large, smoke-blue, and looked bored. She slowly turned a small glass on the table top with a gloved left hand.
Leopardi faced her, leaning forward, talking. His shoulders looked very big in a shaggy, cream-colored sports coat. Above the neck of it his hair made a point on his brown neck. He laughed across the table as Steve came up and his laugh had a confident, sneering sound.
Steve stopped, then moved behind the next table. The movement caught Leopardi's eye. His head turned, he looked annoyed, and then his eyes got very wide and brilliant and his whole body turned slowly, like a mechanical toy.
Leopardi put both his rather small well-shaped hands down on the table, on either side of a highball glass. He smiled. Then he pushed his chair back and stood up. He put one finger up and touched his hairline mustache, with theatrical delicacy. Then he said drawlingly, but distinctly: "You son of a bitch!"
A man at a nearby table turned his head and scowled. A waiter who had started to come over stopped in his tracks, then faded back among the tables. The girl looked at Steve Grayce and then leaned back against the cushions of the wall seat and moistened the end of one bare finger on her right hand and smoothed a chestnut eyebrow.
Steve stood quite still. There was a sudden high flush on his cheekbones. He said softly: "You left something at the hotel last night. I think you ought to do something about it. Here."
He reached a folded paper out of his pocket and held it out. Leopardi took it, still smiling, opened it and read it. It was a sheet of yellow paper with torn pieces of white paper pasted on it. Leopardi crumpled the sheet and let it drop at his feet.
He took a smooth step towards Steve and repeated more loudly: "You son of a bitch!"
The man who had first looked around stood up sharply and turned. He said clearly: "I don't like that sort of language in front of my wife."
Without even looking at the man Leopardi said: "To hell with you and your wife."
The man's face got a dusky red. The woman with him stood up and grabbed a bag and a coat and walked away. After a moment's indecision the man followed her. Everybody in the place was staring now. The waiter who had faded back among the tables went through the doorway into the entrance foyer, walking very quickly.
Leopardi took another, longer step and slammed Steve Grayce on the jaw. Steve rolled with the punch and stepped back and put his hand down on another table and upset a glass. He turned to apologize to the couple at the table. Leopardi jumped forward very fast and hit him behind the ear.
Dockery came through the doorway, split two waiters like a banana skin and started down the room showing all his teeth.
Steve gagged a little and ducked away. He turned and said thickly: "Wait a minute, you fool-.that isn't all of it-there's-"
Leopardi closed in fast and smashed him full on the mouth. Blood oozed from Steve's lip and crawled down the line at the corner of his mouth and glistened on his chin. The girl with the red hair reached for her bag, white-faced with anger, and started to get up from behind her table.
Leopardi turned abruptly on his heel and walked away. Dockery put out a hand to stop him. Leopardi brushed it aside and went on, went out of the lounge.
The tall red-haired girl put her bag down on the table again and dropped her handkerchief on the floor. She looked at Steve quietly, spoke quietly. "Wipe the blood off your chin before it drips on your shirt." She had a soft, husky voice with a trill in it.
Dockery came up harsh-faced, took Steve by the arm and put weight on the arm. "All right, you! Let's go!"
Steve stood quite still, his feet planted, staring at the girl. He dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief. He half smiled. Dockery couldn't move him an inch. Dockery dropped his hand, signaled two waiters and they jumped behind Steve, but didn't touch him.
Steve felt his lip carefully and looked at the blood on his handkerchief. He turned to the people at the table behind him and said: "I'm terribly sorry. I lost my balance."
The girl whose drink he had spilled was mopping her dress with a small fringed napkin. She smiled up at him and said: "It wasn't your fault."
The two waiters suddenly grabbed Steve's arms from behind. Dockery shook his head and they let go again. Dockery said tightly: "You hit him?"
"You say anything to make him hit you?"
The girl at the corner table bent down to get her fallen handkerchief. It took her quite a time. She finally got it and slid into the corner behind the table again. She spoke coldly.
"Quite right, Bill. It was just some more of the King's sweet way with his public."
Dockery said "Huh?" and swiveled his head on his thick hard neck. Then he grinned and looked back at Steve.
Steve said grimly: "He gave me three good punches, one from behind, without a return. You look pretty hard. See can you do it."
Dockery measured him with his eyes. He said evenly: "You win. I couldn't . . . Beat it!" he added sharply to the waiters. They went away. Dockery sniffed his carnation, and said quietly: "We don't go for brawls in here." He smiled at the girl again and went away, saying a word here and there at the tables. He went out through the foyer doors.
Steve tapped his lip, put his handkerchief in his pocket and stood searching the floor with his eyes.
The red-haired girl said calmly: "I think I have what you want-in my handkerchief. Won't you sit down?"
Her voice had a remembered quality, as if he had heard it before.
He sat down opposite her, in the chair where Leopardi had been sitting.
The red-haired girl said: "The drink's on me. I was with him."
Steve said, "Coke with a dash of bitters," to the waiter.
The waiter said: "Madame?"
"Brandy and soda. Light on the brandy, please." The waiter bowed and drifted away. The girl said amusedly: "Coke with a dash of bitters. That's what I love about Hollywood. You meet so many neurotics."
Steve stared into her eyes and said softly: "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."
"I don't believe a word of it. Have you known the King long?"
"I met him last night. I didn't get along with him."
"I sort of noticed that." She laughed. She had a rich low laugh, too.
"Give me that paper, lady."
"Oh, one of these impatient men. Plenty of time." The handkerchief with the crumpled yellow sheet inside it was clasped tightly in her gloved hand. Her middle right finger played with an eyebrow. "You're not in pictures, are you?"
"Same here, Me, I'm too tall. The beautiful men have to wear stilts in order to clasp me to their bosoms."
The waiter set the drinks down in front of them, made a grace note in the air with his napkin and went away.
Steve said quietly, stubbornly: "Give me that paper, lady."
"I don't like that 'lady' stuff. It sounds like cop to me."
"I don't know your name."
"I don't know yours. Where did you meet Leopardi?" Steve sighed. The music from the little Spanish orchestra had a melancholy minor sound now and the muffled clicking of gourds dominated it.
Steve listened to it with his head on one side. He said: "The E string is a half-tone flat. Rather cute effect."
The girl stared at him with new interest. "I'd never have noticed that," she said. "And I'm supposed to be a pretty good singer. But you haven't answered my question."
He said slowly: "Last night I was house dick at the Carlton Hotel. They called me night clerk, but house dick was what I was. Leopardi stayed there and cut up too rough. I threw him out and got canned."
The girl said: "Ah. I begin to get the idea. He was being the King and you were being-if I might guess-a pretty tough order of house detective."
"Something like that. Now will you please-"
"You still haven't told me your name."
He reached for his wallet, took one of the brand-new cards out of it and passed it across the table. He sipped his drink while she read it.
"A nice name," she said slowly. "But not a very good address. And Private investigator is bad. It should have been Investigations, very small, in the lower left-hand corner."
"They'll be small enough," Steve grinned. "Now will you please-"
She reached suddenly across the table and dropped the crumpled ball of paper in his hand.
"Of course I haven't read it-and of course I'd like to. You do give me that much credit, I hope"-she looked at the card again, and added-Steve. Yes, and your office should be in a Georgian or very modernistic building in the Sunset Eighties. Suite Something-or-other. And your clothes should be very jazzy. Very jazzy indeed, Steve. To be inconspicuous in this town is to be a busted flush."
He grinned at her. His deep-set black eyes had lights in them. She put the card away in her bag, gave her fur piece a yank, and drank about half of her drink. "I have to go." She signaled the waiter and paid the check. The waiter went away and she stood up.
Steve said sharply: "Sit down."
She stared at him wonderingly. Then she sat down again and leaned against the wall, still staring at him. Steve leaned across the table, asked "How well do you know Leopardi?"
"Off and on for years. If it's any of your business. Don't go masterful on me, for God's sake. I loathe masterful men. I once sang for him, but not for long. You can't just sing for Leopardi-if you get what I mean."
"You were having a drink with him."
She nodded slightly and shrugged. "He opens here tomorrow night. He was trying to talk me into singing for him again. I said no, but I may have to, for a week or two anyway. The man who owns the Club Shalotte also owns my contract-and the radio station where I work a good deal."
"Jumbo Walters," Steve said. "They say he's tough but square. I never met him, but I'd like to. After all I've got a living to get. Here."
He reached back across the table and dropped the crumpled paper. "The name was-"
Steve repeated it lingeringly. "I like it. I like your singing too. I've heard a lot of it. You don't oversell a song, like most of these high-money torchers." His eyes glistened.
The girl spread the paper on the table and read it slowly, without expression. Then she said quietly: "Who tore it up?"
"Leopardi, I guess. The pieces were in his wastebasket last night. I put them together, after he was gone. The guy has guts-or else he gets these things so often they don't register any more."
"Or else he thought it was a gag." She looked across the table levelly, then folded the paper and handed it back.
"Maybe. But if he's the kind of guy I hear he is-one of them is going to be on the level and the guy behind it is going to do more than just shake him down."
Dolores Chiozza said: "He's the kind of guy you hear he is."
"It wouldn't be hard for a woman to get to him then-would it-a woman with a gun?"
She went on staring at him. "No. And everybody would give her a big hand, if you ask me. If I were you, I'd just forget the whole thing. If he wants protection-Walters can throw more around him than the police. If he doesn't-who cares? I don't. I'm damn sure I don't."
"You're kind of tough yourself, Miss Chiozza-over some things."
She said nothing. Her face was a little white and more than a little hard.
Steve finished his drink, pushed his chair back and reached for his hat. He stood up. "Thank you very much for the drink, Miss Chiozza. Now that I've met you I'll look forward all the more to hearing you sing again."
"You're damn formal all of a sudden," she said.
He grinned. "So long, Dolores."
"So long, Steve. Good luck-in the sleuth racket. If I hear of anything-"
He turned and walked among the tables out of the bar lounge.
In the crisp fall evening the lights of Hollywood and Los Angeles winked at him. Searchlight beams probed the cloudless sky as if searching for bombing-planes.
Steve got his convertible out of the parking lot and drove it east along Sunset. At Sunset and Fairfax he bought an evening paper and pulled over to the curb to look through it. There was nothing in the paper about 118 Court Street.
He drove on and ate dinner at the little coffee shop beside his hotel and went to a movie. When he came out he bought a Home Edition of the Tribune, a morning sheet. They were in that-both of them.
Police thought Jake Stoyanoff might have strangled the girl, but she had not been attacked. She was described as a stenographer, unemployed at the moment. There was no picture of her. There was a picture of Stoyanoff that looked like a touchedup police photo. Police were looking for a man who had been talking to Stoyanoff just before he was shot. Several people said he was a tall man in a dark suit. That was all the description the police got-or gave out.
Steve grinned sourly, stopped at the coffee shop for a goodnight cup of coffee and then went up to his room. It was a few minutes to eleven o'clock. As he unlocked his door the telephone started to ring.
He shut the door and stood in the darkness remembering where the phone was. Then he walked straight to it, catlike in the dark room, sat in an easy chair and reached the phone up from the lower shelf of a small table. He held the one-piece to his ear and said: "Hello."
"Is this Steve?" It was a rich, husky voice, low, vibrant. It held a note of strain.
"Yeah, this is Steve. I can hear you. I know who you are."
There was a faint dry laugh. "You'll make a detective after all. And it seems I'm to give you your first case. Will you come over to my place at once? It's Twenty-fourtwelve Renfrew-North, there isn't any South-just haifa block below Fountain. It's a sort of bungalow court. My house is the last in line, at the back."
Steve said: "Yes. Sure. What's the matter?"
There was a pause. A horn blared in the street outside the hotel. A wave of white light went across the ceiling from some car rounding the corner uphill. The low voice said very slowly: "Leopardi. I can't get rid of him. He's-he's passed out in my bedroom." Then a tinny laugh that didn't go with the voice at all.
Steve held the phone so tight his hand ached. His teeth clicked in the darkness. He said flatly, in a dull, brittle voice: "Yeah. It'll cost you twenty bucks."
"Of course. Hurry, please."
He hung up, sat there in the dark room breathing hard. He pushed his hat back on his head, then yanked it forward again with a vicious jerk and laughed out loud. "Hell," he said, "That kind of a dame."
Twenty-four-twelve Renfrew was not strictly a bungalow court. It was a staggered row of six bungalows, all facing the same way, but so-arranged that no two of their front entrances overlooked each other. There was a brick wall at the back and beyond the brick wall a church. There was a long smooth lawn, moon-silvered.
The door was up two steps, with lanterns on each side and an iron-work grill over the peep hole. This opened to his knock and a girl's face looked out, a small oval face with a Cupid'sbow mouth, arched and plucked eyebrows, wavy brown hair. The eyes were like two fresh and shiny chestnuts.
Steve dropped a cigarette and put his foot on it. "Miss Chiozza. She's expecting me. Steve Grayce."
"Miss Chiozza has retired, sir," the girl said with a halfinsolent twist to her lips.
"Break it up, kid. You heard me, I'm expected."
The wicket slammed shut. He waited, scowling back along the narrow moonlit lawn towards the street. O.K. So it was like that-well, twenty bucks was worth a ride in the moonlight anyway.
The lock clicked and the door opened wide. Steve went past the maid into a warm cheerful room, old-fashioned with chintz. The lamps were neither old nor new and there were enough of them-in the right places. There was a hearth behind a paneled copper screen, a davenport close to it, a bar-top radio in the corner.
The maid said stiffly: "I'm sorry, sir. Miss Chiozza forgot to tell me. Please have a chair." The voice was soft, and it might be cagey. The girl went off down the room-short skirts, sheer silk stockings, and four-inch spike heels.
Steve sat down and held his hat on his knee and scowled at the wall. A swing door creaked shut. He got a cigarette out and rolled it between his fingers and then deliberately squeezed it to a shapeless flatness of white paper and ragged tobacco. He threw it away from him, at the fire screen.
Dolores Chiozza came towards him. She wore green velvet lounging pajamas with a long gold-fringed sash. She spun the end of the sash as if she might be going to throw a loop with it. She smiled a slight artificial smile. Her face had a clean scrubbed look and her eyelids were bluish and they twitched.
Steve stood up and watched the green morocco slippers peep out under the pajamas as she walked. When she was close to him he lifted his eyes to her face and said dully: "Hello."
She looked at him very steadily, then spoke in a high, carrying voice. "I know it's late, but I knew you were used to being up all night. So I thought what we had to talk over-Won't you sit down?"
She turned her head very slightly, seemed to be listening for something.
Steve said: "I never go to bed before two. Quite all right."
She went over and pushed a bell beside the hearth. After a moment the maid came through the arch.
"Bring some ice cubes, Agatha. Then go along home. It's getting pretty late."
"Yes'm." The girl disappeared.
There was a silence then that almost howled till the tall girl took a cigarette absently out of a box, put it between her lips and Steve struck a match clumsily on his shoe. She pushed the end of the cigarette into the flame and her smoke-blue eyes were very steady on his black ones. She shook her head very slightly.
The maid came back with a copper ice bucket. She pulled a low Indian-brass tray-table between them before the davenport, put the ice bucket on it, then a siphon, glasses and spoons, and a triangular bottle that looked like good Scotch had come in it except that it was covered with silver filigree work and fitted with a stopper.
Dolores Chiozza said, "Will you mix a drink?" in a formal voice.
He mixed two drinks, stirred them, handed her one. She sipped it, shook her head. "Too light," she said. He put more whiskey in it and handed it back. She said, "Better," and leaned back against the corner of the davenport.
The maid came into the room again. She had a small rakish red hat on her wavy brown hair and was wearing a gray coat trimmed with nice fur. She carried a black brocade bag that could have cleaned out a fair-sized icebox. She said: "Good night, Miss Dolores."
"Good night, Agatha."
The girl went out the front door, closed it softly. Her heels clicked down the walk. A car door opened and shut distantly and a motor started. Its sound soon dwindled away. It was a very quiet neighborhood.
Steve put his drink down on the brass tray and looked levelly at the tall girl, said harshly: "That means she's out of the way?"
"Yes. She goes home in her own car. She drives me home from the studio in mine-when I go to the studio, which I did tonight. I don't like to drive a car myself."
"Well, what are you waiting for?"
The red-haired girl looked steadily at the paneled fire screen and the unlit log fire behind it. A muscle twitched in her cheek.
After a moment she said: "Funny that I called you instead of Walters. He'd have protected me better than you can. Only he wouldn't have believed me. I thought perhaps you would. I didn't invite Leopardi here. So far as I know-we two are the only people in the world who know he's here."
Something in her voice jerked Steve upright.
She took a small crisp handkerchief from the breast pocket of the green velvet pajama-suit, dropped it on the floor, picked it up swiftly and pressed it against her mouth. Suddenly, without making a sound, she began to shake like a leaf.
Steve said swiftly: "What the hell-I can handle that heel in my hip pocket. I did last night-and last night he had a gun and took a shot at me."
Her head turned. Her eyes were very wide and staring. "But it couldn't have been my gun," she said in a dead voice.
"Huh? Of course not-what-?"
"It's my gun tonight," she said and stared at him. "You said a woman could get to him with a gun very easily."
He just stared at her. His face was white now and he made a vague sound in his throat.
"He's not drunk, Steve," she said gently. "He's dead. In yellow pajamas-in my bed. With my gun in his hand. You didn't think he was just drunk-did you, Steve?"
He stood up in a swift lunge, then became absolutely motionless, staring down at her. He moved his tongue on his lips and after a long time he formed words with it. "Let's go look at him," he said in a hushed voice.
The room was at the back of the house to the left. The girl took a key out of her pocket and unlocked the door. There was a low light on a table, and the venetian blinds were drawn. Steve went in past her silently, on cat feet.
Leopardi lay squarely in the middle of the bed, a large smooth silent man, waxy and artificial in death. Even his mustache looked phony. His half-open eyes, sightless as marbles, looked as if they had never seen. He lay on his back, on the sheet, and the bedclothes were thrown over the foot of the bed.
The King wore yellow silk pajamas, the slip-on kind, with a turned collar. They were loose and thin. Over his breast they were dark with blood that had seeped into the silk as if into blotting-paper. There was a little blood on his bare brown neck.
Steve stared at him and said tonelessly: "The King in Yellow. I read a book with that title once. He liked yellow, I guess. I packed some of his stuff last night. And he wasn't yellow either. Guys like him usually are-or are they?"
The girl went over to the corner and sat down in a slipper chair and looked at the floor. It was a nice room, as modernistic as the living room was casual. It had a chenille rug, cafā-aulait color, severely angled furniture in inlaid wood, and a trick dresser with a mirror for a top, a kneehole and drawers like a desk. It had a box mirror above and a semi-cylindrical frosted wall light set above the mirror, In the corner there was a glass table with a crystal greyhound on top of it, and a lamp with the deepest drum shade Steve had ever seen.
He stopped looking at all this and looked at Leopardi again. He pulled the King's pajamas up gently and examined the wound. It was directly over the heart and the skin was scorched and mottled there. There was not so very much blood. He had died in a fraction of a second.
A small Mauser automatic lay cuddled in his right hand, on top of the bed's second pillow.
"That's artistic," Steve said and pointed. "Yeah, that's a nice touch. Typical contact wound, I guess. He even pulled his pajama shirt up. I've heard they do that. A Mauser seven-sixthree about. Sure it's your gun?"
"Yes." She kept on looking at the floor. "It was in a desk in the living room-not loaded. But there were shells. I don't know why. Somebody gave it to me once. I didn't even know how to load it."
Steve smiled. Her eyes lifted suddenly and she saw his smile and shuddered. "I don't expect anybody to believe that," she said. "We may as well call the police, I suppose."
Steve nodded absently, put a cigarette in his mouth and flipped it up and down with his lips that were still puffy from Leopardi's punch. He lit a match on his thumbnail, puffed a small plume of smoke and said quietly: "No cops. Not yet. Just tell it.'
The red-haired girl said: "I sing at KFQc, you know. Three nights a week-on a quarter-hour automobile program. This was one of the nights. Agatha and I got home-oh, close to half-past ten. At the door I remembered there was no fizzwater in the house, so I sent her back to the liquor store three blocks away, and came in alone. There was a queer smell in the house. I don't know what it was. As if several men had been in here, somehow. When I came in the bedroom-he was exactly as he is now. I saw the gun and I went and looked and then I knew I was sunk. I didn't know what to do. Even if the police cleared me, everywhere I went from now on-"
Steve said sharply: "He got in here-how?"
"I don't know."
"I locked the door. Then I undressed-with that on my bed. I went into the bathroom to shower and collect my brains, if any. I locked the door when I left the room and took the key. Agatha was back then, but I don't think she saw me. Well, I took the shower and it braced me up a bit. Then I had a drink and then I came in here and called you."
She stopped and moistened the end of a finger and smoothed the end of her left eyebrow with it. "That's all, Steve-absolutely all."
"Domestic help can be pretty nosy. This Agatha's nosier than most-or I miss my guess." He walked over to the door and looked at the lock. "I bet there are three or four keys in the house that knock this over." He went to the windows and felt the catches, looked down at the screens through the glass. He said over his shoulder, casually: "Was the King in love with you?"
Her voice was sharp, almost angry. "He never was in love with any woman. A couple of years back in San Francisco, when I was with his band for a while, there was some slapsilly publicity about us. Nothing to it. It's been revived here in the hand-outs to the press, to build up his opening. I was telling him this afternoon I wouldn't stand for it, that I wouldn't be linked with him in anybody's mind. His private life was filthy. It reeked. Everybody in the business knows that. And it's not a business where daisies grow very often."
Steve said: "Yours was the only bedroom he couldn't make?"
The girl flushed to the roots of her dusky red hair.
"That sounds lousy," he said. "But I have to figure the angles. That's about true, isn't it?"
"Yes-I suppose so. I wouldn't say the only one."
"Go on out in the other room and buy yourself a drink."
She stood up and looked at him squarely across the bed. "I didn't kill him, Steve. I didn't let him into this house tonight. I didn't know he was coming here, or had any reason to come here. Believe that or not. But something about this is wrong. Leopardi was the last man in the world to take his lovely life himself."
Steve said: "He didn't, angel. Go buy that drink. He was murdered. The whole thing is a frame-to get a cover-up from Jumbo Walters. Go on out."
He stood silent, motionless, until sounds he heard from the living room told him she was out there. Then he took out his handkerchief and loosened the gun from Leopardi's right hand and wiped it over carefully on the outside, broke out the magazine and wiped that off, spilled out all the shells and wiped every one, ejected the one in the breech and wiped that. He reloaded the gun and put it back in Leopardi's dead hand and closed his fingers around it and pushed his index finger against the trigger. Then he let the hand fall naturally back on the bed.
He pawed through the bedclothes and found an ejected shell and wiped that off, put it back where he had found it. He put the handkerchief to his nose, sniffed it wryly, went around the bed to a clothes closet and opened the door.
"Careless of your clothes, boy," he said softly.
The rough cream-colored coat hung in there, on a hook, over dark gray slacks with a lizard-skin belt. A yellow satin shirt and a wine-colored tie dangled alongside. A handkerchief to match the tie flowed loosely four inches from the breast pocket of the coat. On the floor lay a pair of gazelle-leather nutmegbrown sports shoes, and socks without garters. And there were yellow satin shorts with heavy black initials on them lying close by.
Steve felt carefully in the gray slacks and got out a leather keyholder. He left the room, went along the cross-hall and into the kitchen. It had a solid door, a good spring lock with a key stuck in it. He took it out and tried keys from the bunch in the keyholder, found none that fitted, put the other key back and went into the living room. He opened the front door, went outside and shut it again without looking at the girl huddled in a corner of the davenport. He tried keys in the lock, finally found the right one. He let himself back into the house, returned to the bedroom and put the keyholder back in the pocket of the gray slacks again. Then he went to the living room.
The girl was still huddled motionless, staring at him.
He put his back to the mantel and puffed at cigarette. "Agatha with you all the time at the studio?"
She nodded. "I suppose so. So he had a key. That was what you were doing, wasn't it?"
"Yes. Had Agatha long?"
"About a year."
"She steal from you? Small stuff, I mean?"
Dolores Chiozza shrugged wearily. "What does it matter? Most of them do. A little face cream or powder, a handkerchief, a pair of stockings once in a while. Yes, I think she stole from me. They look on that sort of thing as more or less legitimate."
"Not the nice ones, angel."
"Well-the hours were a little trying, I work at night, often get home very late. She's a dresser as well as a maid."
"Anything else about her? She use cocaine or weed. Hit the bottle? Ever have laughing fits?"
"I don't think so. What has she got to do with it, Steve?"
"Lady, she sold somebody a key to your apartment. That's obvious. You didn't give him one, the landlord wouldn't give him one, but Agatha had one. Check?"
Her eyes had a stricken look. Her mouth trembled a little, not much. A drink was untasted at her elbow. Steve bent over and drank some of it.
She said slowly: "We're wasting time, Steve. We have to call the police. There's nothing anybody can do. I'm done for as a nice person, even if not as a lady at large. They'll think it was a lovers' quarrel and I shot him and that's that. If I could convince them I didn't, then he shot himself in my bed, and I'm still ruined. So I might as well make up my mind to face the music."
Steve said softly: "Watch this. My mother used to do it."
He put a finger to his mouth, bent down and touched her lips at the same spot with the same finger. He smiled, said: "We'll go to Walters-or you will. He'll pick his cops and the ones he picks won't go screaming through the night with reporters sitting in their laps. They'll sneak in quiet, like process servers. Walters can handle this. That was what was counted on. Me, I'm going to collect Agatha. Because I want a description of the guy she sold that key to-and I want it fast. And by the way, you owe me twenty bucks for coming over here. Don't let that slip your memory."
The tall girl stood up, smiling. "You're a kick, you are," she said. "What makes you so sure he was murdered?"
"He's not wearing his own pajamas. His have his initials on them. I packed his stuff last night-before I threw him out of the Canton, Get dressed, angel-and get me Agatha's address."
He went into the bedroom and pulled a sheet over Leopardi's body, held it a moment above the still, waxen face before letting it fall.
"So long, guy," he said gently. "You were a louse-but you sure had music in you."
It was a small frame house on Brighton Avenue near Jefferson, in a block of small frame houses, all old-fashioned, with front porches. This one had a narrow concrete walk which the moon made whiter than it was.
Steve mounted the steps and looked at the light-edged shade of the wide front window. He knocked. There were shuffling steps and a woman opened the door and looked at him through the hooked screen-a dumpy elderly woman with frizzled gray hair. Her body was shapeless in a wrapper and her feet slithered in loose slippers. A man with a polished bald head and milky eyes sat in a wicker chair beside a table. He held his hands in his lap and twisted the knuckles aimlessly. He didn't look towards the door.
Steve said: "I'm from Miss Chiozza. Are you Agatha's mother?"
The woman said dully: "I reckon. But she ain't home, mister." The man in the chair got a handkerchief from somewhere and blew his nose. He snickered darkly.
Steve said: "Miss Chiozza's not feeling so well tonight. She was hoping Agatha would come back and stay the night with her."
The milky-eyed man snickered again, sharply. The woman said: "We dunno where she is. She don't come home. Pa'n me waits up for her to come home. She stays out till we're sick."
The old man snapped in a reedy voice: "She'll stay out till the cops get her one of these times."
"Pa's half blind," the woman said. "Makes him kinda mean. Won't you step in?"
Steve shook his head and turned his hat around in his hands like a bashful cowpuncher in a horse opera. "I've got to find her," he said. "Where would she go?"
"Out drinkin' liquor with cheap spenders," Pa cackled. "Pantywaists with silk handkerchiefs 'stead of neckties. If I had eyes, I'd strap her till she dropped." He grabbed the arms of his chair and the muscles knotted on the backs of his hands. Then he began to cry. Tears welled from his milky eyes and started through the white stubble on his cheeks, The woman went across and took the handkerchief out of his fist and wiped his face with it, Then she blew her nose on it and came back to the door.
"Might be anywhere," she said to Steve, "This is a big town, mister, I dunno where at to say."
Steve said dully: "I'll call back. If she comes in, will you hang onto her, What's your phone number?"
"What's the phone number, Pa?" the woman called back over her shoulder.
"I ain't sayin'," Pa snorted.
The woman said: "I remember now. South Two-four-fivefour. Call any time. Pa'n me ain't got nothing to do."
Steve thanked her and went back down the white walk to the street and along the walk half a block to where he had left his car. He glanced idly across the way and started to get into his car, then stopped moving suddenly with his hand gripping the car door. He let go of that, took three steps sideways and stood looking across the street tight-mouthed.
All the houses in the block were much the same, but the one opposite had a FOR RENT placard stuck in the front window and a real-estate sign spiked into the small patch of front lawn. The house itself looked neglected, utterly empty, but in its little driveway stood a small neat black coupe.
Steve said under his breath: "Hunch. Play it up, Stevie."
He walked almost delicately across the wide dusty street, his hand touching the hard metal of the gun in his pocket, and came up behind the little car, stood and listened. He moved silently along its left side, glanced back across the street, then looked in the car's open left-front window.
The girl sat almost as if driving, except that her head was tipped a little too much into the corner. The little red hat was still on her head, the gray coat, trimmed with fur, still around her body. In the reflected moonlight her mouth was strained open. Her tongue stuck out. And her chestnut eyes stared at the roof of the car.
Steve didn't touch her. He didn't have to touch her to look any closer to know there would be heavy bruises on her neck.
"Tough on women, these guys," he muttered.
The girl's big black brocade bag lay on the seat beside her, gaping open like her mouth-like Miss Marilyn Delorme's mouth, and Miss Marilyn Delorme's purple bag.
"Yeah-tough on women."
He backed away till he stood under a small palm tree by the entrance to the driveway. The street was as empty and deserted as a closed theater, He crossed silently to his car, got into it and drove away.
Nothing to it. A girl coming home alone late at night, stuck up and strangled a few doors from her own home by some tough guy. Very simple. The first prowl car that cruised that block-if the boys were half awake-would take a look the minute they spotted the FOR RENT sign. Steve tramped hard on the throttle and went away from there.
At Washington and Figueroa he went into an all-night drugstore and pulled shut the door of the phone booth at the back. He dropped his nickel and dialed the number of police headquarters.
He asked for the desk and said: "Write this down, will you, sergeant? Brighton Avenue, thirty-two-hundred block, west side, in driveway of empty house. Got that much?"
"Yeah. So what?"
"Car with dead woman in it," Steve said, and hung up.
Quillan, head day clerk and assistant manager of the Carlton Hotel, was on night duty, because Millar, the night auditor, was off for a week. It was half-past one and things were dead and Quilian was bored. He had done everything there was to do long ago, because he had been a hotel man for twenty years and there was nothing to it.
The night porter had finished cleaning up and was in his room beside the elevator bank. One elevator was lighted and open, as usual. The main lobby had been tidied up and the lights had been properly dimmed. Everything was exactly as usual.
Quillan was a rather short, rather thickset man with clear bright toadlike eyes that seemed to hold a friendly expression without really having any expression at all. He had pale sandy hair and not much of it. His pale hands were clasped in front of him on the marble top of the desk. He was just the right height to put his weight on the desk without looking as if he were sprawling. He was looking at the wall across the entrance lobby, but he wasn't seeing it, He was half asleep, even though his eyes were wide open, and if the night porter struck a match behind his door, Quillan would know it and bang on his bell.
The brass-trimmed swing doors at the street entrance pushed open and Steve Grayce came in, a summer-weight coat turned up around his neck, his hat yanked low and a cigarette wisping smoke at the corner of his mouth. He looked very casual, very alert, and very much at ease. He strolled over to the desk and rapped on it.
"Wake up!" he snorted.
Quillan moved his eyes an inch and said: "All outside rooms with bath. But positively no parties on the eighth floor. Hiyah, Steve. So you finally got the axe. And for the wrong thing. That's life."
Steve said: "O.K. Have you got a new night man here?"
"Don't need one, Steve. Never did, in my opinion."
"You'll need one as long as old hotel men like you register floozies on the same corridor with people like Leopardi."
Quillan half closed his eyes and then opened them to where they had been before. He said indifferently: "Not me, pal. But anybody can make a mistake. Millar's really an accountant-not a desk man."
Steve leaned back and his face became very still. The smoke almost hung at the tip of his cigarette. His eyes were like black glass now. He smiled a little dishonestly.
"And why was Leopardj put in an eight-dollar room on Eight instead of in a tower suite at twenty-eight per?"
Quillan smiled back at him. "I didn't register Leopardi, old sock. There were reservations in. I supposed they were what he wanted. Some guys don't spend. Any other questions, Mr. Grayce?"
"Yeah. Was Eight-fourteen empty last night?"
"It was on change, so it was empty. Something about the plumbing. Proceed,"
"Who marked it on change?"
Quillan's bright fathomless eyes turned and became curiously fixed. He didn't answer.
Steve said: "Here's why. Leopardi was in Eight-fifteen and the two girls in Eight-eleven. Just Eight-thirteen between. A lad with a passkey could have gone into Eight-thirteen and turned both the bolt locks on the communicating doors. Then, if the folks in the two other rooms had done the same thing on their side, they'd have a suite set up."
"So what?" Quillan asked. "We got chiseled out of eight bucks, eh? Well, it happens, in better hotels than this." His eyes looked sleepy now.
Steve said: "Millar could have done that. But hell, it doesn't make sense. Miliar's not that kind of a guy. Risk a job for a buck tip-phooey. Millar's no dollar pimp."
Quillan said: "All right, policeman. Tell me what's really on your mind."
"One of the girls in Eight-eleven had a gun. Leopardi got a threat letter yesterday-I don't know where or how. It didn't faze him, though. He tore it up. That's how I know. I collected the pieces from his basket. I suppose Leopardi's boys all checked out of here."
"Of course. They went to the Normandy."
"Call the Normandy, and ask to speak to Leopardi. If he's there, he'll still be at the bottle. Probably with a gang."
"Why?" Quillan asked gently.
"Because you're a nice guy. If Leopardi answers-just hang up." Steve paused and pinched his chin hard. "If he went out, try to find out where."
Quillan straightened, gave Steve another long quiet look and went behind the pebbled-glass screen. Steve stood very still, listening, one hand clenched at his side, the other tapping noiselessly on the marble desk.
In about three minutes Quilian came back and leaned on the desk again and said: "Not there. Party going on in his suite-they sold him a big one-and sounds loud. I talked to a guy who was fairly sober. He said Leopardi got a call around ten-some girl. He went out preening himself, as the fellow says. Hinting about a very juicy date. The guy was just lit enough to hand me all this."
Steve said: "You're a real pal. I hate not to tell you the rest. Well, I liked working here. Not much work at that."
He started towards the entrance doors again. Quillan let him get his hand on the brass handle before he called out. Steve turned and came back slowly.
Quillan said: "I heard Leopardi took a shot at you. I don't think it was noticed. It wasn't reported down here. And I don't think Peters fully realized that until he saw the mirror in Eightfifteen. If you care to come back, Steve-"
Steve shook his head. "Thanks for the thought."
"And hearing about that shot," Quillan added, "made me remember something. Two years ago a girl shot herself in Eightfifteen."
Steve straightened his back so sharply that he almost jumped. "What girl?"
Quillan looked surprised. "I don't know. I don't remember her real name. Some girl who had been kicked around all she could stand and wanted to die in a clean bed-alone."
Steve reached across and took hold of Quillan's arm. "The hotel files," he rasped. "The clippings, whatever there was in the papers will be in them. I want to see those clippings."
Quilian stared at him for a long moment. Then he said: "Whatever game you're playing, kid-you're playing it damn close to your vest. I will say that for you. And me bored stiff with a night to kill."
He reached along the desk and thumped the call bell. The door of the night porter's room opened and the porter came across the entrance lobby. He nodded and smiled at Steve.
Quillan said: "Take the board, Carl. I'll be in Mr. Peters' office for a little while."
He went to the safe and got keys out of it.
The cabin was high up on the side of the mountain, against a thick growth of digger pine, oak and incense cedar. It was solidly built, with a stone chimney, shingled all over and heavily braced against the slope of the hill. By daylight the roof was green and the sides dark reddish brown and the window frames and draw curtains red. In the uncanny brightness of an allnight mid-October moon in the mountains, it stood out sharply in every detail, except color.
It was at the end of a road, a quarter of a mile from any other cabin. Steve rounded the bend towards it without lights, at five in the morning. He stopped his car at once, when he was sure it was the right cabin, got out and walked soundlessly along the side of the gravel road, on a carpet of wild iris.
On the road level there was a rough pine board garage, and from this a path went up to the cabin porch. The garage was unlocked. Steve swung the door open carefully, groped in past the dark bulk of a car and felt the top of the radiator. It was still warmish. He got a small flash out of his pocket and played it over the car. A gray sedan, dusty, the gas gauge low. He snapped the flash off, shut the garage door carefully and slipped into place the piece of wood that served for a hasp. Then he climbed the path to the house.
There was light behind the drawn red curtains. The porch was high and juniper logs were piled on it, with the bark still on them. The front door had a thumb latch and a rustic door handle above.
He went up, neither too softly nor too noisily, lifted his hand, sighed deep in his throat, and knocked, His hand touched the butt of the gun in the inside pocket of his coat, once, then came away empty.
A chair creaked and steps padded across the floor and a voice called out softly: "What is it?" Millar's voice.
Steve put his lips close to the wood and said: "This is Steve, George. You up already?"
The key turned, and the door opened. George Millar, the dapper night auditor of the Canton House, didn't look dapper now. He was dressed in old trousers and a thick blue sweater with a roll collar. His feet were in ribbed wool socks and fleecelined slippers. His clipped black mustache was a curved smudge across his pale face. Two electric bulbs burned in their sockets in a low beam across the room, below the slope of the high roof. A table lamp was lit and its shade was tilted to throw light on a big Morris chair with a leather seat and back-cushion. A fire burned lazily in a heap of soft ash on the big open hearth.
Millar said in his low, husky voice: "Hell's sake, Steve. Glad to see you. How'd you find us anyway? Come on in, guy."
Steve stepped through the door and Millar locked it. "City habit," he said grinning. "Nobody locks anything in the mountains. Have a chair. Warm your toes. Cold out at this tune of night."
Steve said: "Yeah, Plenty cold."
He sat down in the Morris chair and put his hat and coat on the end of the solid wood table behind it. He leaned forward and held his hands out to the fire.
Millar said: "How the hell did you find us, Steve?"
Steve didn't look at him. He said quietly: "Not so easy at that. You told me last night your brother had a cabin up here-remember? So I had nothing to do, so I thought I'd drive up and bum some breakfast. The guy in the inn at Crestline didn't know who had cabins where. His trade is with people passing through. I rang up a garage man and he didn't know any Millar cabin. Then I saw a light come on down the street in a coal-and-wood yard and a little guy who is forest ranger and deputy sheriff and wood-and-gas dealer and half a dozen other things was getting his car out to go down to San Bernardino for some tank gas. A very smart little guy. The minute I said your brother had been a fighter he wised up. So here I am."
Millar pawed at his mustache. Bedsprings creaked at the back of the cabin somewhere. "Sure, he still goes under his fighting name-Gaff Talley. I'll get him up and we'll have some coffee. I guess you and me are both in the same boat. Used to working at night and can't sleep. I haven't been to bed at all."
Steve looked at him slowly and looked away. A burly voice behind them said: "Gaff is up. Who's your pal, George?"
Steve stood up casually and turned. He looked at the man's hands first. He couldn't help himself. They were large hands, well kept as to cleanliness, but coarse and ugly. One knuckle had been broken badly. He was a big man with reddish hair. He wore a sloppy bathrobe over outing-flannel pajamas. He had a leathery expressionless face, scarred over the cheekbones. There were fine white scars over his eyebrows and at the corners of his mouth. His nose was spread and thick. His whole face looked as if it had caught a lot of gloves. His eyes alone looked vaguely like Millar's eyes.
Millar said: "Steve Grayce. Night man at the hotel-until last night." His grin was a little vague.
Gaff Talley came over and shook hands. "Glad to meet you," he said. "I'll get some duds on and we'll scrape a breakfast off the shelves. I slept enough. George ain't slept any, the poor sap."
He went back across the room towards the door through which he'd come. He stopped there and leaned on an old phonograph, put his big hand down behind a pile of records in paper envelopes. He stayed just like that, without moving.
Millar said: "Any luck on a job, Steve? Or did you try yet?"
"Yeah. In a way. I guess I'm a sap, but I'm going to have a shot at the private-agency racket. Not much in it unless I can land some publicity." He shrugged. Then he said very quietly: "King Leopardi's been bumped off."
Millar's mouth snapped wide open. He stayed like that for almost a minute-perfectly still, with his mouth open. Gaff Tailey leaned against the wall and stared without showing anything in his face. Millar finally said: "Bumped off? Where? Don't tell me-"
"Not in the hotel, George. Too bad, wasn't it? In a girl's apartment. Nice girl too. She didn't entice him there. The old suicide gag-only it won't work. And the girl is my client."
Miliar didn't move. Neither did the big man. Steve leaned his shoulders against the stone mantel. He said softly: "I went out to the Club Shalotte this afternoon to apologize to Leopardi. Silly idea, because I didn't owe him an apology. There was a girl there in the bar lounge with him. He took three socks at me and left. The girl didn't like that. We got rather clubby. Had a drink together. Then late tonight-last night-she called me up and said Leopardi was over at her place and-he was drunk and she couldn't get rid of him. I went there. Only he wasn't drunk. He was dead, in her bed, in yellow pajamas."
The big man lifted his left hand and roughed back his hair. Millar leaned slowly against the edge of the table, as if he were afraid the edge might be sharp enough to cut him. His mouth twitched under the clipped black mustache.
He said huskily: "That's lousy."
The big man said: "Well, for cryin' into a milk bottle."
Steve said: "Only they weren't Leopardi's pajamas. His had initials on them-big black initials. And his were satin, not silk. And although he had a gun in his hand-this girl's gun by the way-he didn't shoot himself in the heart. The cops will determine that. Maybe you birds never heard of the Lund test, with paraffin wax, to find out who did or didn't fire a gun recently. The kill ought to have been pulled in the hotel last night, in Room Eight-fifteen. I spoiled that by heaving him out on his neck before that black-haired girl in Eight-eleven could get to him. Didn't I, George?"
Millar said: "I guess you did-if I know what you're talking about."
Steve said slowly: "I think you know what I'm talking about, George. It would have been a kind of poetic justice if King Leopardi had been knocked off in Room Eight-fifteen. Because that was the room where a girl shot herself two years ago. A girl who registered as Mary Smith-but whose usual name was Eve Talley. And whose real name was Eve Millar."
The big man leaned heavily on the victrola and said thickly: "Maybe I ain't woke up yet. That sounds like it might grow up to be a dirty crack, We had a sister named Eve that shot herself in the Carlton. So what?"
Steve smiled a little crookedly. He said: "Listen, George. You told me Quillan registered those girls in Eight-eleven. You did. You told me Leopardi registered on Eight, instead of in a good suite, because he was tight. He wasn't tight. He just didn't care where he was put, as long as female company was handy. And you saw to that. You planned the whole thing, George. You even got Peters to write Leopardi at the Raleigh in Frisco and ask him to use the Carlton when he came down-because the same man owned it who owned the Club Shalotte. As if a guy like Jumbo Walters would care where a bandleader registered,"
Miliar's face was dead white, expressionless. His voice cracked. "Steve-for God's sake, Steve, what are you tailking about? How the hell could I-"
"Sorry, kid. I liked working with you. I liked you a lot. I guess I still like you. But I don't like people who strangle women-or people who smear women in order to cover up a revenge murder."
His hand shot up-and stopped. The big man said: "Take it easy-and look at this one."
Gaff's hand had come up from behind the pile of records. A Colt .45 was in it. He said between his teeth: "I always thought house dicks were just a bunch of cheap grafters. I guess I missed out on you. You got a few brains. Hell, I bet you even run out to One-eighteen Court Street. Right?"
Steve let his hand fall empty and looked straight at the big Colt. "Right. I saw the girl-dead-with your fingers marked into her neck. They can measure those, fella. Killing Dolores Chiozza's maid the same way was a mistake. They'll match up the two sets of marks, find out that your black-haired gun girl was at the Carlton last night, and piece the whole story together. With the information they get at the hotel they can't miss. I give you two weeks, if you beat it quick. And I mean quick."
Millar licked his dry lips and said softly: "There's no hurry, Steve. No hurry at all. Our job is done. Maybe not the best way, maybe not the nicest way, but it wasn't a nice job. And Leopardi was the worst kind of a louse. We loved our sister, and he made a tramp out of her. She was a wide-eyed kid that fell for a flashy greaseball, and the greaseball went up in the world and threw her out on her ear for a red-headed torcher who was more his kind. He threw her out and broke her heart and she killed herself,"
Steve said harshly: "Yeah-and what were you doing all that time-manicuring your nails?"
"We weren't around when it happened. It took us a little time to find out the why of it."
Steve said: "So that was worth killing four people for, was it? And as for Dolores Chiozza, she wouldn't have wiped her feet on Leopardi-then, or any time since. But you had to put her in the middle too, with your rotten little revenge murder. You make me sick, George. Tell your big tough brother to get on with his murder party."
The big man grinned and said: "Nuff talk, George. See has he a gat-and don't get behind him or in front of him. This bean-shooter goes on through."
Steve stared at the big man's .45. His face was hard as white bone. There was a thin cold sneer on his lips and his eyes were cold and dark.
Millar moved softly in his fleece-lined slippers. He came around the end of the table and went close to Steve's side and reached out a hand to tap his pockets. He stepped back and pointed: "In there."
Steve said softly: "I must be nuts. I could have taken you then, George."
Gaff Talley barked: "Stand away from him."
He walked solidly across the room and put the big Colt against Steve's stomach hard. He reached up with his left hand and worked the Detective Special from the inside breast pocket. His eyes were sharp on Steve's eyes. He held Steve's gun out behind him. "Take this, George."
Millar took the gun and went over beyond the big table again and stood at the far corner of it. Gaff Talley backed away from Steve.
"You're through, wise guy," he said. "You got to know that. There's only two ways outa these mountains and we gotta have time. And maybe you didn't tell nobody. See?"
Steve stood like a rock, his face white, a twisted half-smile working at the corners of his lips. He stared hard at the big man's gun and his stare was faintly puzzled.
Millar said: "Does it have to be that way, Gaff?" His voice was a croak now, without tone, without its usual pleasant huskiness.
Steve turned his head a little and looked at Millar. "Sure it has, George. You're just a couple of cheap hoodlums after all. A couple of nasty-minded sadists playing at being revengers of wronged girlhood. Hillbilly stuff. And right this minute you're practically cold meat-cold, rotten meat."
Gaff Talley laughed and cocked the big revolver with his thumb. "Say your prayers, guy," he jeered.
Steve said grimly: "What makes you think you're going to bump me off with that thing? No shells in it, strangler. Better try to take me the way you handle women-with your hands."
The big man's eyes flicked down, clouded. Then he roared with laughter. "Geez, the dust on that one must be a foot thick," he chuckled. "Watch."
He pointed the big gun at the floor and squeezed the trigger. The firing pin clicked dryly-on an empty chamber. The big man's face convulsed.
For a short moment nobody moved. Then Gaff turned slowly on the balls of his feet and looked at his brother. He said almost gently: "You, George?"
Milar licked his lips and gulped. He had to move his mouth in and out before he could speak.
"Me. Gaff. I was standing by the window when Steve got out of his car down the road, I saw him go into the garage. I knew the car would still be warm. There's been enough killing, Gaff. Too much. So I took the shells out of your gun."
Millar's thumb moved back the hammer on the Detective Special. Gaff's eyes bulged. He stared fascinated at the snubnosed gun. Then he lunged violently towards it, flailing with the empty Colt. Millar braced himself and stood very still and said dimly, like an old man: "Goodbye, Gaff."
The gun jumped three times in his small neat hand. Smoke curled lazily from its muzzle. A piece of burned log fell over in the fireplace.
Gaff Talley smiled queerly and stooped and stood perfectly still. The gun dropped at his feet. He put his big heavy hands against his stomach, said slowly, thickly: " 'S all right, kid. 'S all right, I guess . . . I guess I .
His voice trailed off and his legs began to twist under him. Steve took three long quick silent steps, and slammed Millar hard on the angle of the jaw. The big man was still falling-as slowly as a tree falls.
Millar spun across the room and crashed against the end wall and a blue-and-white plate fell off the plate-molding and broke. The gun sailed from his fingers. Steve dived for it and came up with it. Millar crouched and watched his brother.
Gaff Talley bent his head to the floor and braced his hands and then lay down quietly, on his stomach, like a man who was very tired. He made no sound of any kind.
Daylight showed at the windows, around the red glass-curtains. The piece of broken log smoked against the side of the hearth and the rest of the fire was a heap of soft gray ash with a glow at its heart.
Steve said dully: "You saved my life, George-or at least you saved a lot of shooting. I took the chance because what I wanted was evidence. Step over there to the desk and write it all out and sign it."
Millar said: "Is he dead?"
"He's dead, George. You killed him. Write that too."
Millar said quietly: "It's funny. I wanted to finish Leopardi myself, with my own hands, when he was at the top, when he had the farthest to fall. Just finish him and then take what came. But Gaff was the guy who wanted it done cute. Gaff, the tough mug who never had any education and never dodged a punch in his life, wanted to do it smart and figure angles. Well, maybe that's why he owned property, like that apartment house on Court Street that Jake Stoyanoff managed for him. I don't know how he got to Dolores Chiozza's maid. It doesn't matter much, does it?"
Steve said: "Go and write it. You were the one called Leopardi up and pretended to be the girl, huh?"
Millar said: "Yes. I'll write it all down, Steve. I'll sign it and then you'll let me go-just for an hour. Won't you, Steve? Just an hour's start. That's not much to ask of an old friend, is it, Steve?"
Millar smiled. It was a small, frail, ghostly smile. Steve bent beside the big sprawled man and felt his neck artery. He looked up, said: "Quite dead ... Yes, you get an hour's start, George-if you write it all out."
Millar walked softly over to a tall oak highboy desk, studded with tarnished brass nails. He opened the flap and sat down and reached for a pen. He unscrewed the top from a bottle of ink and began to write in his neat, clear accountant's handwriting.
Steve Grayce sat down in front of the fire and lit a cigarette and stared at the ashes. He held the gun with his left hand on his knee. Outside the cabin, birds began to sing. lnside there was no sound but the scratching pen.
The sun was well up when Steve left the cabin, locked it up, walked down the steep path and along the narrow gravel road to his car. The garage was empty now. The gray sedan was gone. Smoke from another cabin floated lazily above the pines and oaks half a mile away. He started his car, drove it around a bend, past two old boxcars that had been converted into cabins, then on to a main road with a stripe down the middle and so up the hill to Crestline.
He parked on the main street before the Rim-of-the-World Inn, had a cup of coffee at the counter, then shut himself in a phone booth at the back of the empty lounge. He had the long distance operator get Jumbo Walters' number in Los Angeles, then called the owner of the Club Shalotte.
A voice said silkily: "This is Mr. Walters' residence."
"Steve Grayce. Put him on, if you please."
"One moment, please." A click, another voice, not so smooth and much harder. "Yeah?"
"Steve Grayce. I want to speak to Mr. Walters."
"Sorry. I don't seem to know you. It's a little early, amigo. What's your business?"
"Did he go to Miss Chiozza's place?"
"Oh." A pause. "The shamus. I get it. Hold the line, pal."
Another voice now-lazy, with the faintest color of Irish in it. "You can talk, son. This is Walters."
"I'm Steve Grayce. I'm the man-"
"I know all about that, son. The lady is O.K., by the way. I think she's asleep upstairs. Go on."
"I'm at Crestline-top of the Arrowhead grade. Two men murdered Leopardi. One was George Millar, night auditor at the Canton Hotel. The other his brother, an ex-fighter named Gaff Talley. Talley's dead-shot by his brother. Millar got away-but he left me a full confession signed, detailed, complete."
Walters said slowly: "You're a fast worker, son-unless you're just plain crazy. Better come in here fast. Why did they do it?"
"They had a sister."
Walters repeated quietly: "They had a sister ... What about this fellow that got away? We don't want some hick sheriff or publicity-hungry county attorney to get ideas-"
Steve broke in quietly: "I don't think you'll have to worry about that, Mr. Walters. I think I know where he's gone."
He ate breakfast at the inn, not because he was hungry, but because he was weak. He got into his car again and started down the long smooth grade from Crestline to San Bernardino, a broad paved boulevard skirting the edge of a sheer drop into the deep valley. There were places where the road went close to the edge, white guard-fences alongside.
Two miles below Crestline was the place. The road made a sharp turn around a shoulder of the mountain. Cars were parked on the gravel off the pavement-several private cars, an official car, and a wrecking car. The white fence was broken through and men stood around the broken place looking down.
Eight hundred feet below, what was left of a gray sedan lay silent and crumpled in the morning sunshine.
© Aerius, 2004