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She Woke to Darkness
Brett Halliday She Woke to Darkness
In each of the twenty-four published adventures of Michael Shayne, the stories have necessarily come to you second-hand-written in third person by me from Mike’s notes and from talks with him after the case was ended.
Thus, all descriptions of people involved, all the dialogue, incidents and bits of action, were channelled to my readers through me from Shayne’s memory after the case was closed.
This may have been all for the best. I think it is quite true that later events do affect one’s precise memory of what has gone before, causing one’s subconscious to suppress certain things that may have been misinterpreted at the time, and to twist the memory of one’s thoughts and actions to make them appear a little more prescient than they may have actually been.
As I say, this may have been all for the best. By going back and retelling a case to me after it was ended, Michael Shayne may well have subconsciously interpolated story values that were not actually inherent in the events as they progressed. True objectivity and absolute honesty of detail do not always make for good storytelling.
This case is different. This story happened to me, Brett Halliday. For once, the truth was no stranger than fiction.
I’ve enjoyed putting it down on paper, now that it’s all over and I’m still alive to do the telling, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as the previous cases in which I was a mere onlooker.
It all began Thursday evening, April 23rd, 1953. I was spending a week in New York, seeing publishers and meeting old friends, and I had timed my visit to coincide with the annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards Dinner given by the Mystery Writers of America, of which I have been a member for many years.
The dinner is held each year in the grand ballroom of the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York, bringing together several hundred mystery writers from all over the country who meet with distinguished fans and guests to honor the Father of the modern Detective Story. Ceramic busts of Poe (known as “Edgars”) are presented to winners of awards in the various mystery fields for the preceding year, and everyone has a few drinks and there’s much shop-talk.
The bar was already well-crowded when I went in. Since I had been away from New York for many years, most of the people were strangers, with here and there the familiar face of a friend I had known in MWA from years ago. There were Ed Radin, Bruno Fischer, Clayton Rawson and Veronica Parker Johns, also Helen Reilly, the Grande Dame of the mystery field, who had just been elected the president of the Mystery Writers, and her four charming daughters (two already successful mystery authors on their own); there were editors like Frank Taylor of Dell, Cecil Goldbeck of Coward-McCann, Harry Maule of Random House, and many others, none of whom are important to this story.
I went up to the bar for a brandy, and looked down the seating list for my own name. I had been placed at table Seven, with my old friend David Raffelock from Denver, Robert Arthur, who was slated to receive an Edgar for his radio program, and Dorothy Cecil, whose novels I had long admired and whom I had always wished to meet.
When I reached the dining room, they and their wives were all circulating around the table, introducing themselves to each other. I said, “Hi,” to the Raffelocks, congratulated Bob Arthur on the Edgar he was receiving, and then began looking around for Dorothy Cecil.
She had already seated herself quietly at the table.
As soon as I saw her sitting alone, with her head slightly tilted and a faint smile on her lips, I knew she had to be the author of SERGEANT DEATH and TREASON FOR TWO-both favorites of mine. She had intelligent gray eyes, a wide, smooth forehead and soft brown hair brushed down over the temples. I suppose she was in her early thirties but there was a glint of gray in the brown hair, and it pleased me greatly to notice that she made no effort at all to brush it so the gray would be concealed.
All this is unimportant except that it leads up inevitably to what happened later. I might not have gone out with Elsie Murray later if I had not sat beside Dorothy Cecil at dinner.
I don’t know. That’s probably beclouding the issue. I did sit beside Miss Cecil, and I did go out with Elsie.
Dorothy Cecil was looking at me as I stood there. I went to her at once. “I’m Brett Halliday. Do you mind if I sit here?”
She smiled and said, “I recognized that black eye-patch from pictures I’ve seen. I’d love to have you sit beside me.”
She had a low, vibrant voice. I looked at her squarely and said, “My, God! SERGEANT DEATH! Soporific candles made from the rendered fat of newborn babies.”
Her face lit up and her eyes twinkled happily. “Don’t tell me you’ve actually read my books?”
“Every one I could get hold of. Which I’ll bet is more than you can say of mine.”
She cupped her chin in her left palm and looked thoughtful. “THE PRIVATE PRACTICE OF MICHAEL SHAYNE. Was that the first?”
So, then we were off. On the favorite topic of all authors-our own books. She had read most of the Shaynes, and discussed them intelligently. But Bob Arthur sat on her right and he talked to her for a time while dinner was being served. I discussed old Denver friends with Raffelock. But all the time I was acutely conscious of Dorothy Cecil on the other side of me. I was alone in New York, and the night lay ahead. So far as I could judge she was alone at the Poe dinner also.
There was no more than that. Just the delightful possibility of further acquaintance with a charming woman. Nothing one would try to force. Something that might happen if the Gods were good.
The conversation became general and we were waiting for dessert when I was able to talk with Dorothy privately again. I saw waiters serving drinks to diners at other tables and tried to catch the eye of one, but failed. Somehow I never have achieved the technique of catching a busy waiter’s eye. So I pushed back my chair and told Dorothy I was going out to the bar to fetch a drink and would she like one?
She said, “Bring me a cognac in honor of Mike,” and my hunch grew stronger that the Gods were going to be kind.
But by the time I returned with my drinks, table-hopping had begun. Dorothy’s seat was vacant when I set her glass down, and I’d hardly seated myself when Dick Carroll of Gold Medal came by and dragged me over to his table to meet a couple of girls in the editorial department. While I was there I saw Dorothy come back to her chair and take one sip of the cognac I’d brought her, and then she was up enthusiastically talking to some man I didn’t know and going away with him to meet someone at his table. And that’s the way it went on for the next couple of hours while the Edgar winners got their trophies.
Dorothy Cecil, I realized dismally as I tried to keep track of her in the crowd, was simply too popular a person for an outsider like myself to hope to get much of her time. One of the finest craftsmen in the mystery field, she was being passed from one table to another whenever I saw her. So, I gave up trying.
Again, I’m afraid I’m saying all this badly. Making a great deal more out of it than it deserves. But it is what I recall most vividly of the evening. I still think Dorothy Cecil and I might well have had a pleasant evening together if so many other people hadn’t intervened. As it was, I felt a rather galling sense of disappointment when the stage show was over and I drifted out to the bar again with two or three hundred others. It was only a little past eleven o’clock, and a lonely hotel room waited for me. I knew I could attach myself without too much trouble to many of the small groups that were congregating and planning where to go for further drinks, but somehow I was not in the mood for that.
I had no way of knowing I was going to meet a girl named Elsie Murray, but I realize I was definitely ready for her when it did happen.
There was a lot of jostling around and coming and going at the bar. I knew less than a third of the people there, and was feeling lonely when Fred Dannay came up end shook hands and asked me when I was going to submit another short story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s annual contest.
I grinned and reminded him that he and Manny Lee turned down my last effort, and asked if the other half of Ellery Queen was there.
He said three of Manny’s seven children were sick and he hadn’t been able to make it. Neither had George Harmon Coxe who was in Panama for a few days. “And I don’t know what happened to John Dickson Carr,” he added.
“That’s easy,” a voice snickered behind me. “He couldn’t decide whether to come as Harper’s guest as John Dickson Carr; or as Morrow’s guest in the person of Carter Dickson.”
I turned and saw it was Avery Birk speaking. He’s one of my less favorite competitors, bald and pudgy, with a porcine face and small eyes set too close together. He’s the sort who’s always patting the girls on their fannies and making snickeringly suggestive remarks, and his writing is atrocious. You probably know his character, Johnny Danger, the private eye who beds every blonde he meets within five minutes of being introduced. A compensation, I’ve always believed, for the author’s manifest inability to bed any dame, blonde, brunette or bald-headed.
Avery insisted on pumping my hand and buying me a drink, and Fred Dannay eased away and I was lonely again. Avery asked me how my books were selling in hard covers and I told him, “Lousy,” and he nodded wisely and said I’d never learned to put enough sex in my books. His were selling over ten thousand copies in the first editions, he went on, and he had an offer from one of the houses doing original soft-cover books of a $15,000 advance for a book if he would guarantee them at least five hot sex scenes.
I knew he was probably selling about three thousand copies in hard covers, and might possibly have been offered $2,500 for a soft-cover original, so I shrugged and drank his drink and turned back to the bar away from him to be lonely some more.
I was pouring my third drink of cognac from the bottle I’d had the bartender leave in front of me when I heard a low voice on my left saying, “I’ll bet you it’s the guy that writes Mike Shayne. Uh… can’t think of his name just now, but that’s him all right.”
The speaker was jammed up close beside me on my left side. My patch is on that eye and I couldn’t see who it was. I kept looking straight ahead and pretended not to hear, but there’s no author in the world who wouldn’t have listened.
A second voice, beyond the first speaker, replied scornfully, making no effort to keep his voice low: “You mean Brett Halliday? Maybe it is. Who could care less?”
“Sh-h-h, Lew. Maybe you don’t like his stuff, but he’s one of the real old-timers.”
“That’s just it. His stuff is old hat. My God, I bet I outsell him four to one and I’ve only been writing three years!”
I poured my drink down and then turned deliberately to look at the pair who were discussing me.
The lad next to me had a fresh, round face and ingenuous blue eyes. His corn-colored hair was cut short. He caught my eye as I turned, and a flush spread over his face. He said eagerly, “You are Brett Halliday, aren’t you? I’m Jimmie Mason, a new member. I’ve only had a couple of shorts published, but I’m working on a novel now.”
I shook hands with him. He had pudgy fingers but they pressed hard on mine. I said, “Good luck, Jimmie, but it’s a tough racket.”
“I don’t see anything tough about it,” a voice sneered from beyond him. “What with reprints and all, any hack writer who’s got brains enough to know what the public wants can pick up ten or fifteen grand a year without half trying. Know what Matthew Blood got for his last twenty-five cent original?”
I looked past Jimmie Mason at a dark, thin, angry face. He had a mustache that reminded me of Peter Painter’s in Miami Beach. Wavy black hair was parted carefully in the middle, and he wore a little red and white polka dot bow tie. I never saw a person I instinctively disliked more, and more easily at first sight.
Of course, I should be honest enough to admit his attitude toward my writing wasn’t exactly calculated to make me love him. In eighteen years I’ve learned pretty well to laugh off criticism of my books, but it had taken me a good many years of hard work to reach the point where my income was over ten thousand a year, and it didn’t sit too well to be told by a young punk that any hack writer could do it without half trying.
I said, “No. And I’m not particularly interested what Blood got for a slop-bucketful of sex and sadism.”
“Cut it out, Lew,” begged Mason. “You’ve had one too many drinks. This is Lew Recker, Mr. Halliday,” he went on hastily. “He writes suspense novels. You know… THE WRITHING WORM. It got swell reviews.”
“I doubt if he ever reads anything except his own stuff,” Recker put in. “And, God! What a bore that must be.”
I set my glass down slowly on the bar. I know my face was stony, and I’ve been told my one eye gets a peculiar fixed glare when I’m really angry. At that moment I was really angry. I work damned hard on my books. I try to make each one individual and, with the varied material Mike Shayne’s cases provide, I think I succeed. If I wasn’t so particular, I could do four books a year and double my income. So now I was in a mood to start something.
Jimmie Mason looked frightened and tried to push in front of me. I put my left hand on his shoulder and shoved him back from the bar. Then I felt a hand gripping my right shoulder hard, and heard a cool voice saying urgently, “Brett! I want you to meet someone.”
I recognized Millicent Jane’s voice. Millicent has always been one of my favorite people. She not only writes extremely well, but she is poised and lovely and clever.
How much Millicent had seen or sensed of what was going on between Lew Recker and me, I don’t know. But the interruption was opportune enough, and I set my teeth together hard and turned to see Millicent smiling coolly and holding the arm of a girl wearing a simple, black crepe dress. And she had pleasant, intelligent features, dark brown ringlets on her head and one of the most kissable mouths I’ve ever looked at.
I said, “Hi, Millicent. I’ll buy a drink,” but she shook her head and stepped back a little and said in her rich voice, “I’ll take a rain-check on it, Brett. This is Elsie Murray, who’s here as a guest tonight and she’s been dying to meet you all evening. Why don’t you buy her a drink?”
I said, “I will,” and “Hello, Elsie. Why should you be dying to meet a has-been like me? I’m not Matthew Blood, you know.”
She said, “I know.” She was tall for a girl. Five-eight, I’d guess, and she held herself erect as though she were proud of her height. “I know all about you, Mr. Halliday. I’ve read every book you ever wrote. Not
only that, but I actually went to the trouble of getting them all together and reading them in the order in which they were written, from DIVIDEND ON DEATH right through to ONE NIGHT WITH NORA.”
She didn’t say it gushingly, but with a quiet sincerity that made it sound real. She moved up to the bar beside me and I looked down at the clean neck-line beneath the upswept brown curls, at the pleasant fullness of her body that was just right for her height. I took in a deep breath and she smelled good. No perfume that I could discern. Just a clean female fragrance that made me want to press my face against her hair and inhale it. Or against the back of her neck. Or her lips.
Sure, that’s what I thought of the first moment as I looked down at her-fleetingly and without forming conscious thoughts on the subject. At the same time, I was saying jokingly, “That must have been quite a job… with Dell bringing out the old reprints right along with the new ones.” I nodded to a hovering waiter and as he stepped closer she said, “Can I have a drink of cognac? It would be silly to drink anything else with Brett Halliday, wouldn’t it?”
I let out a deep, satisfied breath as the waiter brought her glass. Everything had righted itself suddenly, and the evening was no longer a total loss. Avery Birk was still bellied up to the bar at the other side of Elsie, but even the smirk on his fat face as he looked at her didn’t bother me. I even forgot all about Lew Recker on my left as Elsie looked at me gravely.
“That’s when I got started collecting your books so I could go through them in order,” she told me. “When it reached the point where one book I’d buy on the newsstand had Michael Shayne married to Phyllis and so very happy; and in the next one I’d find him flirting with a secretary named Lucy Hamilton; and then in the next he’d just be meeting Phyllis Brighton for the first time when she was afraid she’d murder her own mother.” She shook her head in dismay. “It was terribly confusing.”
She had violet eyes, I guess. If there is any such thing as violet eyes. Maybe a deep, deep blue with lavender shadings. Her eyebrows were heavy and straight and unplucked. I guessed she was in her mid-twenties. She didn’t look virginal, but she looked-How do you say it? Virtuous? No, that’s too stern. Chaste? Too prim. Perhaps the word I want is fastidious. She didn’t look untouched or untouchable, but a man would take it slow with her and let her lead the way. You had a feeling she wouldn’t be coy about leading if she once decided that was what she wanted to do.
But she would do the deciding.
That was okay with me. I learned long ago that sex is pretty dull and uninteresting unless it is completely mutual between man and woman.
She had a drink of straight cognac and didn’t bother to wash it down with anything. She didn’t gulp it, but she didn’t make any great pretense of inhaling the bouquet in preference to drinking it down.
And we talked some, mostly about my books. She wanted to know all about Michael Shayne-whether there really was a private detective whom I’d patterned him after, or whether the whole series was just a figment of my imagination.
When I assured her there really was a Michael Shayne, and all I actually did in my books was to fictionize his cases, she nodded happily and said: “I felt sure of it all along. He’s so real that you just know he can’t be made up. Not like… oh, that freak of Van Dine’s. The one who said ‘comin’ and ‘goin’.”
“Philo Vance,” I supplied.
“U-m-m. Even the name is patently fictitious. Characters like that remain so exactly the same book after book, year after year. They never develop.”
I grinned and shrugged. “Writers like Van Dine have it easier than I. They control their characters. Mike Shayne makes his own decisions, and all I can do is record them for posterity. Speaking of private detectives,” I went on, aware of the way Avery Birk continued to look at her from the other side, “are you acquainted with one named Johnny Danger?”
She was looking sideways at me and fiddling with her empty glass. Her fingers tightened on the glass and the curving line of her full lips became straight and rigid. She said in a low voice, “I know Avery Birk is right behind me. Don’t force me to put my opinion of his books into words he might hear.”
I laughed aloud and reached for the bottle to pour us each another drink. As I set the bottle down, I caught the bartender’s eye and made a gesture to indicate I wanted my bill. As we both lifted our glasses, I said, “It might be fun to go some place where we could discuss Johnny Danger without insulting his creator.”
“I’m sure it would be fun,” she agreed simply. “That is… my God! I’m not monopolizing you, am I? I know there are hundreds of people here who must want to talk with you. When I saw your name on the guest list this evening, I was just dying to come to your table and introduce myself. But there were so many important people there…” Her voice trailed off and she raised her glass to drink half the cognac. “Wasn’t that Dorothy Cecil you were sitting beside at dinner?”
I nodded. “On my right.”
“She’s… very attractive. And don’t you love her books?”
“They’re all right.” I’m afraid I said it gruffly. The crowd in the barroom had thinned down considerably, not more than twenty-five or thirty people remaining as the hour approached midnight. Some of them I knew casually, though most were strangers. “Do you have a coat checked?”
“Just a light jacket.” She opened a black suede purse and fumbled in it, brought out a numbered check which she handed to me when I held out my hand for it.
We both drained our glasses and I glanced at the bar check, put some bills on it and turned away. She slid her arm into mine as we crossed to the checkroom. Walking beside me, the top of her head was just below the level of my eyes. Her arm squeezed mine with pleasant possessiveness.
I retrieved my hat and her jacket which proved to be a black satin cape lined with scarlet satin. I slid it over her shoulders and as we went out to the street I asked casually, “Where would you like to go? I’m from Miami, you know.”
She hesitated just a moment before saying, “What about my place? By the grace of God, there’s a bottle of brandy. And we can talk.”
I told her it sounded just right. I held up a finger to the hotel doorman and he had no trouble snagging a taxi at that late hour.
We got in and she gave the driver an address in the East Thirties. She had moved close to the other side when she got in and sat there demurely as the taxi pulled away. I sat not too close to her and got out cigarettes. I shook one loose and held out the pack and she took it. I put one between my own lips and struck a match. She leaned close to get a light, and her face was serene and beautiful in the little flare as she sucked in flame. Her hand had touched mine to steady the match, and she didn’t take her hand away while I got a light also. I blew the match out and lowered my lips to touch the back of her hand. Her fingers tightened spasmodically on mine, and then she drew away to her own side of the back seat and I relaxed against the rear cushion. I drew in a deep lungful of smoke and exhaled it, told her, “You haven’t told me
anything about yourself at all. You’re not a member of MWA?”
“No. Just a sort of hanger-on. Don’t worry. You’ll probably hear the entire story of my life if the bottle of brandy holds out.”
That sounded all right to me. Her right hand was lying on the seat between us and I put mine over it. Her fingers relaxed under mine and we rode that way to the address she had given.
I paid off the taxi in front of a small, neat brick apartment building east of the Third Avenue El. Elsie went in front of me up a short flight of steps and into a small entryway with mail boxes lining both sides. She took a key from her purse to open the inner door, and we went down a short hall to a self-service elevator in the rear. It was waiting and when we got in she pressed the button for the third floor. It went up smoothly and I held the door for her to get out. She led the way to an apartment which she unlocked. She switched on a hall light just inside. Directly in front of us there was the open door of a small kitchenette. The bathroom was just to the right with a bedroom at the end of the hall beyond with a living room on the left.
Elsie turned in the hallway and smiled diffidently and said “Welcome.”
Her lips were curved and inviting and I put my hands on her shoulders and kissed her. She came against me without constraint, not pushing her lips or body, but not exactly withholding either.
It was a pleasant, welcoming sort of kiss that promised more and better ones later, and I let her go without protest when she drew herself back gently after a moment. She stepped aside to turn on a floor lamp in the square living room, then slipped off her cape and said, “Make yourself comfortable while I see about the brandy.”
The living room was pleasantly furnished in a haphazard and Bohemian sort of way. There was a comfortably shabby low couch against one wall, a couple of deep chairs with reading lamps and smoking stands beside them. One wall was lined with built-in bookshelves crammed with books.
A metal typewriter desk stood in one corner with an open portable on it, and there was a litter of crumpled manuscript sheets on the floor, a box of bond paper beside it and a pile of typed sheets on the other side.
There were front windows that looked down on 38th Street, and side windows for cross ventilation. Wherever there was available wall space, there were framed and unframed paintings and sketches. Some abstract oils, some realistic water colors and pastels.
I heard Elsie moving about the kitchenette while I stepped over to the bookshelves to glance at the contents. The books were a helter-skelter jumble of modern novels, well-worn classics, works on psychology and anthropology, and volumes by some of the more liberal modern thinkers.
I was pleased and touched to see a complete set of my books in their original bindings on the top shelf. Elsie hadn’t been kidding about her interest in my work. Not a reprint among them. I had thought I was the only person in the world who possessed such a set.
I was standing there glancing over the old titles when Elsie came in with a tray which she set on a low glass table in front of the sofa. It held a full bottle of Monnet, two four-ounce wine glasses, two tall crystal goblets with ice cubes, and a squat, cut-glass pitcher of water.
She smiled as she set the tray down, and said, “I’ve always assumed that authors drink exactly what they give their characters in books. If you prefer soda… or even whiskey… I’ve got it.”
I shook my head and assured her, “No. Mike has taught me his drinking habits. That’s perfect.”
She sat on the sofa and started pouring cognac in the two wine glasses. I told her, “This is really an interesting place you’ve got. Are the pictures yours?”
“Oh, no. I did try dabbling with water colors once, but nothing came of it. I can’t take credit for a single bit of this,” she went on a trifle ruefully. “I’m just sub-letting from friends. Everything you see belongs to them.”
“Except about twenty-four volumes I noticed on the top bookshelf.” I sat beside her and reached for a glass.
She blushed slightly and said, “As a matter of strict truth two of those belong to the Johnsons. They had three or four of your books, and two of them were ones I hadn’t been able to get to complete my set.”
“The Johnsons?” I paused with the drink halfway to my mouth. “You wouldn’t mean Ryerson?”
“That’s right.” Her face lighted happily. “I remember now that Johnnie said he’d met you at some MWA meeting. Do you know Lois, too? She illustrated one of his books a few years ago.”
“Yes. She’s a sweet girl.”
Elsie lifted her glass in a sort of salute and we both drank the straight cognac and then washed it down with a sip of ice water.
I leaned back and relaxed and lit cigarettes for both of us, nodded toward the typewriter in the corner and asked, “Do you write?”
“Yes. That is… no. Not really. I’m trying to. In fact,” she said gravely, “prepare yourself to be disillusioned. I seduced you up here under false pretenses.”
“You mean it wasn’t just my masculine charm… my masterful technique?”
“Not altogether.” She leaned close to draw her fingertips across my cheek. “Though I won’t deny there was that, too. But when I persuaded Miss Jane to introduce me, I had only one thought. A very carefully planned campaign. To get you up here and ply you with brandy and whatever sex appeal I possess to induce you to read a half-finished manuscript and tell me what the devil to do with it.”
I leaned back and grinned and said, “Go ahead and ply me.”
“I am,” she said defiantly. “Don’t you feel plied?”
I said cautiously, “The brandy is very good.”
She leaned toward me again, her face turned and pressing against the back of the sofa, her eyes dancing with excitement that was at least partially sexual.
I moved closer to her and her eyes remained wide open and inviting me. Her lips parted slightly and they trembled. She said, “Darling,” in a husky, shaking voice, and I kissed her.
It was a long kiss, and we were both shaky when it ended. She moved a little so her shoulder touched mine companionably, reached for her glass and asked, “Now do you feel plied?”
“Most satisfactorily.” I drained my glass and lit another cigarette. “You promised me the story of your life, too.”
“That will come later. After I’ve had a few more drinks. Aren’t you going to say you’re just dying to read my book?”
“Is it a mystery?”
She hesitated, biting her underlip. “Sort of. I guess I hope it will be what they call a suspense novel these days.”
“Like THE WRITHING WORM?” I asked, trying to keep the venom out of my voice.
“Oh! Do you know Lew’s work?”
“No. I ran into him at the bar tonight and he gave me a lecture on how the modern mystery novel should be written.”
“That sounds like Lew,” she said indulgently.
“Let’s talk about you and your book.”
“I’ve only fifty-some pages done.” She hesitated thoughtfully. “I’m stuck at that point, you see.” Then in a sudden burst of confidence, she hurried on.
“Actually, I’m afraid I’m discovering I’m not really a writer after all. Up to this point I’ve been fictionizing a real situation. One that happened to me. It is a mystery, and a darned good one,” she went on defiantly. “An unsolved case that I thought up an ending for and decided I could make a book out of. But I can’t think of a middle part. The first fifty pages were easy because I was dealing with real facts. But now I don’t know how to go on. I thought maybe, if you read it, you could advise me.”
I poured myself some more cognac. Elsie still had some in her glass. She was leaning back comfortably, her face hopeful. I wanted to kiss her again, but I’ve met enough budding authors to realize she would have to get the book off her mind before we could hope to move on to more interesting matters.
I said, “Let me get this straight. You started out with an incident that actually happened to you. You’ve written that much of it, and now that you’ve reached the end of your real facts, you can’t dream up an ending.”
“I do have an ending. A good one. But I know a book should be at least two hundred pages long and I can’t think how to stretch it out.”
“What sort of situation have you got?”
She hesitated a moment, a faint tinge of pink flushed her cheeks. “I’d much rather have you read it than try to discuss it openly with you. I’d be too horribly embarrassed because… well, it wasn’t a very nice experience. Quite horrible, in fact. I’ve changed all the names in my story, of course, and the physical descriptions of the people involved, so it doesn’t seem so personal when you read it all typed out.”
“Have you shown it to anyone else?”
“Just one friend. He’s a writer, too, and it seems different when one is a professional. So much more impersonal.” She paused and the color came into her cheeks again. “Please don’t think I’m awful while you’re reading it. I did try to put things down as honestly as I could. A writer has to, doesn’t he?”
I poured both of us more cognac. I was beginning to get restless. Here we were alone and time was passing. Discussing a manuscript wasn’t my idea of the best way of killing the night. But she was so wrapped up in her own personal problem that I knew it was going to be difficult to change the subject.
Nevertheless, I tried.
While she was sipping her fresh drink, I said: “I’ll be most interested in reading your story first thing in the morning. I’ll be better able to judge it intelligently if I know a little more about you as a person. You’re not married?”
“But not a virgin?” I made my voice light and didn’t look directly at her as I spoke.
“No.” Her answer was slow but direct. “Is that important?”
I shrugged. “Probably not, except as an indication of the sort of person you are. Completely repressed females generally don’t make very good writers. What do you read?”
Her face lit up. “Everything. That is, I did when I was younger. Proust and Joyce. Hemingway and Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. Lately I’ve been concentrating more on the better mysteries and suspense novels. Yours, of course, and there’s a woman writer named Helen McCloy whom I like. Do you know her books?”
“Very well. Do you have a job?”
“Not now. Until a couple of months ago I worked as a secretary in an importing house. Then I decided I wanted to try and write this book and I had a little money saved up, so I quit my job and moved into this less expensive apartment when the Johnsons offered to sublet it while they were in Maine. I’ve got money enough for a couple more months, but if I don’t have the book finished by then I guess I’ll have to go back to work.”
“Perhaps I can help you get it finished,” I told her heartily. “Right now… why don’t you kiss me?”
She said, “I’d like that,” and came toward me on the sofa. This time there wasn’t any question about her response. Her lips were soft and wet, and they spread apart like the petals of a flower. Her arms went around me, and I drew her close so the full length of her body was against me.
And then the telephone rang!
I would have let the damned thing ring forever. I tried to hold my lips on hers, to make her feel the telephone was the least important thing in the world right then, but she twisted away from me, drew herself up, breathing hard. With an apologetic smile at me, she crossed the room to pick up the shrilling instrument.
I settled back to catch my own breath and sip some more brandy. I didn’t listen to her carefully. I actually tried not to listen at all, but I was sore at the interruption and was inwardly cursing the person at the other end.
I heard Elsie say, “Yes,” and then, indignantly, “No. Of course not. Whatever gave you that idea?”
Her back was toward me, and she straightened and stiffened as she listened some more.
“But he’s not,” she said angrily. “He dropped me off after promising to read my script tomorrow if I send it to him… and I’m up here working like the devil to get it in shape for him to read it.”
She listened again for a moment, then said emphatically: “No. I tell you I’m working. Good night.”
She put the telephone down hard and stood for a moment, her back still toward me.
I got up and when she turned slowly, I saw everything was finished for that night. Her face was set in stiff lines and there was a perfunctory sort of smile on her lips. “I’m sorry, Brett. I…”
I went across the room to take her in my arms, but it was no good. She let me kiss her, but she was far away from me. Her body was tense, and I didn’t know whether it was anger or fright. She moved her mouth away from mine to say, “You’d better go, darling. Really, I’m sorry as hell, but… if you still want to read my script…?”
I was sorry, too. I told her so, and lied like a gentleman by saying of course I still wanted to read her script.
She smiled wanly and said maybe I’d call her as soon as I’d read it.
I promised I would, and she moved out of my arms and around the typewriter desk where she picked up a large manila envelope. She turned, and said, “I’ll give you the original copy. It hasn’t been revised or corrected, but I’ve been working some on the carbon copy and it would take too long to gather it all up and straighten it out.”
I had the impression then that she was scared to death, and wanted to get me out of there fast. Since I didn’t particularly wish to encounter a jealous boy-friend, I told her that would be fine and what number should I call after I’d read it.
She grabbed up a pencil and wrote a number on the brown envelope and shoved it into my hands. I was getting the bum’s rush for sure, but I didn’t argue about it.
She moved around me fast to pick up my hat, and I went to the door and opened it.
She followed me swiftly and flung her arms around my neck and pulled my head down for a fast, hard kiss, and then whispered, “Sorry, Brett,” and there were tears in her eyes.
I grinned and said, “There’ll always be another time, honey. You come to my place next time where we can really talk.”
She nodded and smiled with the tears still shining in her eyes, then pulled the door shut and I went to the elevator and down.
The street outside was deserted at that hour, and I turned left and walked up to Third where I didn’t wait more than three minutes before flagging an empty taxi. I told the driver the Berkshire Hotel on Fifty-Second, and settled back morosely against the cushion with Elsie Murray’s manuscript in my lap.
There was no doorman on duty and the lobby of the Berkshire was deserted when I went in. I walked straight past the desk without looking at it, got in a waiting elevator and went up to my floor.
I had my key with me, and unlocked the door of my suite, went in and tossed the envelope on a table while I stripped off my coat and went into the bathroom to run a glass of cold water.
There was half a fifth of cognac on the coffee table in the sitting room, and I poured out a stiff slug to put on top of Elsie’s Monnet before going to bed.
With the glass in my hand and a lighted cigarette between my lips, I sat down and idly opened the envelope. I took out the sheaf of typed pages and glanced at them.
There was a title page with capital letters in the center:
SHE WOKE TO DARKNESS
by Enid Morgan (pseudonym)
I turned to the first page and saw it was neatly typed on light-weight paper. I took a sip of cognac and started reading Elsie’s unfinished manuscript.
She Woke to Darkness
Aline Ferris woke to darkness and to fear. For a long, shuddering moment she lay still, fighting her way through blind panic.
She knew instantly that she lay in a strange bed in a strange room. She didn’t know whether she was alone or not. But she did know that if she had a bed-companion he would almost certainly be a stranger.
Her mouth was dry and her tongue seemed paralyzed. Pain throbbed in her temples even as she lay quietly on her back, and she dreaded to move her head. She was partially clothed, and there was a damp pillow under her head. Her legs were cold from thighs to unshod toes.
Her arms lay stiff and straight beside her, hands clenched into fists that drove sharp fingernails into her palms. She willed herself to relax them slowly. First the right and then the left. With sickening fear she spread the fingers of her right hand flat on the sheet and forced them to move the short distance to the edge of the mattress. Then the other hand. Slowly, her heart pounding with fear of what she might encounter. A foot, two feet, and then, with sharp gratitude, she stretched her arm full length and knew she lay alone on the double bed.
She became aware of faint light in the room, and turned her eyes slightly. It came dimly through a narrow oblong high on the wall to the left of the bed, and she recognized it as a translucent transom above a door. That definitely meant a hotel room to Aline.
Summoning all her strength and courage, she turned on her right side and groped out with her left hand. Her fingers touched a bedside table, moved on to encounter an ashtray and then the base of a lamp, then upward to a dangling brass chain.
She closed her eyes tightly against the anticipated glare before pulling the chain, but the light penetrated her lids like a flash of lightning. She quickly buried her face in the pillow, fighting back nausea; and the dull pain throbbing in her temples became sledgehammer blows.
Moaning and clutching the pillow she lay still until the tortuous spasm subsided, then slowly lifted her head, waited a while until her eyes were accustomed to the light against her lids. Cautiously, she opened her eyes and looked distastefully at her surroundings.
The room was like thousands of impersonal hotel bedrooms. Middle-class, she guessed. There was an overstuffed chair covered with flowered chintz, another straight-backed chair near the door, the conventional chest of drawers, and a dressing table with mirror and bench near the window.
Aline ran one hand down her body. The nylon slip was twisted around her hips, and she lifted herself slightly to straighten it. Then she sat up slowly, clenched hands pressing tightly against throbbing temples.
Her silk print dress was draped on one arm of the overstuffed chair, and a crumpled pair of nylon panties lay on the floor, halfway between bed and chair. Beside the bed her alligator pumps were placed neatly side by side with toes pointing outward. There was no luggage and no other article of clothing visible.
Aline gritted her teeth against returning nausea and looked down at herself with loathing. Her left stocking was twisted and baggy, but still rolled above the knee on a round garter. The other was coiled around her slim ankle.
Something peculiar about the left stocking caught her attention. She blinked her glazed eyes at it, reached down fearfully and extracted a green paper folded lengthwise four times and inserted beneath the roll above her knee.
She unfolded it wonderingly, smoothed it out between her fingers, squinting in an effort to focus her aching eyes.
A two-dollar bill! But what on earth…?
For a long time she had difficulty comprehending the significance of the bill. Then she suddenly understood! Anger swept over her, mingling with loathing and self-pity.
A two-dollar whore!
That’s what she had become. Racking sobs tore at her chest and rose in stifling knots to her throat. The cheapest sort of drunken floosie. Staggering up to a hotel room with a man who figured it was worth two bucks when he left her. Two filthy bucks, by God!
Her tears came at last. Hot tears that streamed down her cheeks and eased the knots in her throat. She blindly tore the offending bill into narrow strips, then crossways into tiny bits and flung them over the bed.
Her sobbing changed to hysterical laughter. Good enough for her! It was exactly what she deserved! Oh, God in heaven! How could she have allowed it to happen again? After being so careful. So very, very careful for the past month… since the last time.
Again the tears flowed, gently yet copiously, tears of self-pity, relaxing her body and easing the throbbing pain in her temples.
She didn’t know where she was or what time it was or how she had got there or who the man was who had paid her the final insult of slipping a two-dollar bill into her stocking.
She didn’t know anything. Try as she would, she could not remember anything after that third martini at Bart’s party. Always, in the past, there had been some vagrant memories of the things that happened during her alcoholic blackouts. Vague, disconnected and unreliable, but with a certain pattern and meaning if one worked hard at putting them together.
This time, there was nothing.
Aline wiped her eyes with the top sheet and sank back against the damp pillow, determined to go back step by step and recall everything she could from the moment she had decided to attend Bart’s party.
Let’s see. She had decided to accept Bart’s invitation at the last minute. About eight o’clock, she guessed. After all sorts of stern resolves not ever to trust herself at a drinking party again.
But she had been practicing self-control for a whole month. She was sure she could stop in time. It seemed absurd to pass up a good party just because she was afraid she wouldn’t stop drinking before she lost control.
After that horrible last time, she couldn’t possibly make the same mistake. She knew, now, that she was different from other people who drank. Her body reacted differently. Probably something to do with basic metabolism, or an allergy.
For a full month she had been checking her alcoholic intake to see exactly how she was affected by certain amounts under varying conditions. In the past it had happened because she hadn’t recognized the danger signals in time. It hadn’t worried her… not in the beginning. She would sometimes take one or two beyond her capacity and have a slight mental lapse. A few minutes or half-hour, perhaps, and then she’d be conscious again. She’d be nauseated, of course, and have to run to somebody’s bathroom, but that would be the end of it. Something to joke about with the others and dismiss from her mind.
Until a month ago!
That night had taught her a much-needed lesson. She still cringed and wanted to vomit every time she let herself remember it, which was not often. A month had glossed the horror over as scar tissue covers an open wound. Even though the experience was the most horrible that any fairly decent girl could suffer, it had happened, and she was still Aline Ferris, and that was that.
Nothing like that would ever happen again. She had learned her lesson. She could go to Bart’s party if she decided she wanted to. There was no real reason why she shouldn’t.
Just to test herself, she had mixed a light rye and water as she moved restlessly about her small apartment. She was bored with being alone, bored with the prospect of going out to dinner alone, and overwhelmingly bored with the heartsick loneliness of the past month.
The first drink had reassured her and told her exactly what she needed to know. There was a gentle glow which she recognized and welcomed. That’s what a drink should do to a normal person… relax the body and tranquilize the mind. Nothing wrong about that. Just be sure the effect was gradual and recognize one’s limits.
She had felt certain that her mistake in the past had been to take too much alcohol into her system too swiftly. She had not allowed time enough between drinks for each to have its normal effect before piling another on top of it. But now that she knew all about spacing her drinks and calculating the effect of each one before taking another, she was just as safe as anybody.
To make a final test before deciding she could safely trust herself at Bart’s party, she poured another rye and water. Slightly stronger this time, but still a moderate drink.
Her sense of certitude and well-being had increased. One didn’t have to worry if one watched one’s self and remained alert for the danger signals.
That was the most important thing, she thought contentedly as she went into her small dressing room to sit before the mirror and inspect her face. Until a month ago, she had not dreamed there was a danger line. From now on, she would be on guard against it.
Her mirror had reflected flushed cheeks and glowing eyes. She powdered her face lightly and rouged her lips, ran a comb through her hair and patted it into place. She had showered earlier, just after getting home from the office, and wore only her slip, panties and bra.
Turning from the mirror, she kicked off scuffed mules and got clean stockings from a drawer. God, she felt good after her self-imposed penance. Bart always gave good parties. He hadn’t said who’d be there tonight, but some of the gang, certainly. They would be glad to welcome her back into circulation. Some of them knew what had happened last time at Betty Elaine’s party. Well, not exactly everything, but enough to guess at the rest. And they would help her tonight. They were good kids. They didn’t like to see a girl like Aline make a complete fool of herself.
She slipped on her alligator pumps and chose the gold and blue print dress. It set off her slim waist and nice hips, and the heart-shaped neckline was flattering.
She hadn’t bothered to telephone that she had changed her mind and decided to attend the party. It didn’t matter. There would be a dozen or more anyway, with others dropping in later or leaving early.
She took one more short rye before going out. Just enough to give her that final lift that made an evening in New York so challenging and exciting to a girl who had been sedately reared in the mid-west.
Yes. It would have been about eight-thirty when she reached Bart’s apartment in the Village. She remembered paying the taxi fare and waiting impatiently while the driver made change for a five. It was eight-thirty. There had been a clock across the street above the entrance to a cellar restaurant. She had left the taxi driver the silver, and put the four bills in the small alligator handbag and gone up the steps…
Her handbag! Where was it?
Aline Ferris sat upright and looked wildly around the hotel bedroom. It was nowhere in sight. She dragged herself from the bed and waveringly made her way to the chest of drawers, frantically opened each one to find it empty. She searched the closet and looked under the bed without result. She opened the bathroom door.
Light from the bedside table spilled through the doorway onto the body of a man sprawled on the bathroom floor. His head was near the door, inches from Aline’s stockinged feet, and there was blood on the white tiles.
That was the first chapter of Elsie Murray’s manuscript. I laid it aside and tossed off the rest of my cognac, thinking about Elsie and what she had told me about the script.
She did write pretty well for a beginner. With a lot of emotional intensity and feeling. Of course, the trouble in evaluating her as a writer came from the fact that I knew she was writing about an actual situation. If she had told me the truth back in her apartment, this whole thing had happened to her. She was Aline Ferris who had waked up in a strange hotel room and found a corpse in the bathroom.
I got up and paced back and forth while I wondered about Elsie. She had talked about the story as though it were an unsolved mystery. It was an intriguing situation for a book. If she had a good solution for it and could keep up the pace of the first chapter, it could well turn into a damned fine mystery.
But that was her trouble, of course. As she, herself, recognized. Almost anyone can describe interestingly something they have experienced personally. But without experience and a lot of solid craftsmanship, it’s very difficult to create situations and characters. She probably never would be able to finish the book.
But perhaps I could help her. I told myself it would be fun trying. It would be interesting to discuss the script with her, and find out exactly how closely she resembled the Aline Ferris in her story.
If she was a gal who passed out on her third martini and developed nympho tendencies… that made it all the more interesting.
I glanced at my watch and saw it was almost two o’clock. I remembered how she had kissed me just before her telephone rang, and mentally added up the number of drinks she had tossed off during the evening. It was more than three, that was a cinch. But she certainly hadn’t been even close to passing out with me.
Or… had she? How could one be certain? The way she described herself in the story, it was much more a mental blackout than a physical one that overtook her.
Maybe she had been on the verge of passing out while I was there. It was an interesting speculation.
I caught myself glancing down at the manila envelope with her telephone number penciled on it. She’d hardly be asleep yet, I thought. She’d be lying awake wondering if I had started to read her script, frightened to death that I’d think it horrible, yet very sure in her own mind that it was a masterpiece and that I’d recognize it as such.
It wasn’t difficult to convince myself that I really owed it to Elsie’s peace of mind to telephone her and say I thought the first chapter extremely good. I could do that honestly, and I knew I might have reservations if I waited to read more.
I went into my bedroom and gave the Murray Hill number to the hotel operator.
I heard Elsie’s telephone ring twice before there was a click and a man’s voice said, “Hello.”
I replaced my receiver very quietly without answering. I sat there on the side of the bed looking down at the instrument and thinking hard.
I could be mistaken.
But I didn’t think I was mistaken. I’ve worked with and around cops enough years to recognize the official sound of a policeman’s voice.
What was a cop doing in Elsie Murray’s apartment? Answering her telephone at two o’clock in the morning?
Of course, there had been that other telephone call which had made her so anxious to get rid of me. Maybe her jealous boy-friend was a dick. But why did he answer her phone instead of letting her do the honors?
I began to sweat a little as I sat there thinking it over. I’ve got too much imagination, of course. And I’ve worked around the police and criminals so much that I’m overly conscious of what can happen in this modern world of ours. The average man just doesn’t think about such things. He reads about murders and rapes in the paper, but they are always happening to someone else. It simply doesn’t occur to him that anything of that nature could ever come close to him.
I’ve noticed that time and again when covering a case with Mike Shayne. A man’s wife goes out for the evening, for instance, leaving him home with the kiddies. He goes to sleep at ten o’clock, expecting her back later, and wakes up in the morning to discover she hasn’t returned.
Does he get frightened and call the police at once? Not your normal, average American citizen. He doesn’t want to make himself conspicuous. He thinks the police would laugh at him for worrying. He thinks of a dozen plausible explanations for his wife’s absence. And deep down inside him is the positive assurance that nothing can possibly have happened to his wife. So he sends the kids to school and goes off to work, and it isn’t until that night or maybe even the next day that he allows himself to become worried enough to call the Missing Persons Bureau. By that time, she’s probably been stiff in the morgue for twenty-four hours.
If anything had happened at Elsie Murray’s apartment that had brought the police in, I wanted to know about it. I had Elsie’s lipstick on my mouth, and my fingerprints were in her place. A dozen or more people had seen us leave the banquet together.
The first chapter of her manuscript had something to do with my feeling, I suppose. Reading that, and knowing that she was depicting herself in Aline Ferris.
I didn’t like it at all, but I didn’t see what I could do. I couldn’t afford to call police headquarters and ask if something had happened to Elsie. If anything had, I’d be mixed up in it soon enough without volunteering any information. I reminded myself that I wasn’t in Miami now, and the name of Brett Halliday simply didn’t swing any weight in New York.
I got up and walked around the room and thought about it, and went back into the sitting room for another small drink. A very small one this time.
I thought of Ed Radin while I was drinking it. That was my answer. Edward P. Radin has been called the dean of true crime writers. For many years he has been covering the New York crime beat, reporting and writing up the more sensational murders for national magazines and for books that are considered classics in their field. He was on a first-name basis with most of the important homicide officials in the city, and it would be a simple matter for him to check for me.
I’ve known Ed for years, and knew I could trust him implicitly to keep my name out of things as long as it was decently possible.
And I had his number in my address book.
I got my book out and thumbed through it as I went back into the bedroom. It was an old number that Ed had given me years before, but he’s the steady sort of family man who stays put, and I was hopeful he hadn’t moved.
I gave it to the operator and waited. This time the phone at the other end rang eight times before a gruffly sleepy voice answered. I didn’t recognize it, and asked, “Is that Ed Radin?”
“Yes. Who’s calling?”
“Brett Halliday, Ed.”
There was a slight pause, then Ed said wearily, “Oh, yeh. What’s up, Brett?”
“I don’t know, but I’m a little worried about something and you can do me a hell of a big favor if you will.”
“Sure.” He was wide awake now, and affable as always. “Shoot.”
“It’s this. Do you know anyone at headquarters you can call to ask if there’s anything wrong at a certain apartment on East Thirty-Eighth Street? Without explaining that I asked you to do it?”
“U-m-m. Yes. I can do that, if it’s important. Give it all to me, Brett.”
“Got a pencil?”
I gave him the address. “The apartment’s on the third floor. Three-C, I think. It’s in the name of Ryerson Johnson, but is being sublet at present by a girl named Elsie Murray.”
“Hold it, Brett. I know Johnny Johnson. Has something happened…?”
“The Johnsons are away. In Maine, I think. It’s Elsie Murray I’m worried about.”
“Isn’t she the gal who was at the banquet tonight?”
“That’s the one. Look, Ed, I’ll give it to you straight, so you’ll know what you’re getting into. I met Elsie at the bar of the Henry Hudson tonight. We had a few drinks and went up to her place for a couple. She had part of a book manuscript she wanted me to read, and I brought it back to my hotel about an hour ago. I read one chapter and decided to phone her. A man answered her phone and I hung up. I can’t swear to it, but if I know anything about the breed, it was a cop’s voice. Can you check it?”
“Give me about ten minutes. Where can I reach you?”
I gave him my telephone number and room extension. Then I hung up. Ed Radin hadn’t laughed at my request. He’s like me. He’s been around enough not to laugh off possibilities.
I felt a lot better. If everything was all right, that was fine. If there was trouble, I’d be alerted in advance and have time to figure out just where I stood.
I wandered back into my sitting room, sat down and picked up Elsie’s manuscript again. I began riffling through the typewritten pages, reading a line or a paragraph or a page here and there to see what it was all about.
It was about what I’d expected, though really quite well written for an amateur. The dead man Aline found at the end of the first chapter was a complete stranger to her with no identification on his body. In a panic of fear that she has murdered him, she gets out of the hotel room without anyone seeing her.
Then she starts back-tracking, trying to find out what happened at the party after she passed out, who the dead man is and (of course) who killed him.
There were three male characters mixed up in the events of the evening, and from one after another, Aline had found out various things that occurred after she passed out. From my hasty look at the story, it appeared that Aline had been quite a girl with the men, and that, too, seemed to me to add up pretty well to an analysis of Elsie Murray. Finally, a disgruntled wife gets after her for stealing a husband, and the hell of it was that Aline didn’t know whether it was true or not.
That’s the point at which Elsie had stopped writing, admitting to me that she didn’t know how to finish it.
My telephone rang. I hurried in and it was Ed Radin. His voice was husky with excitement as he said hurriedly, “You hit it on the head, Brett, and it isn’t good. Elsie Murray is dead. Strangled. Within the past hour or so.”
So somebody else had finished it. Elsie’s story was ended.
I said, “She was alive when I left her, Ed.”
“I believe you. But its still a tough spot. Can you prove she was?”
“No. But they can’t prove she wasn’t.”
“Can you prove what time you left her? What time you reached your hotel?”
“Not a chance,” I said helplessly. “I didn’t meet a soul I know. I didn’t even glance at the desk clerk when I came in. The elevator boy may remember bringing me up, but there’s no reason for him to remember the time. I’ve been sitting here alone sipping a drink and reading her manuscript.”
“All right. Here’s what I advise,” said Ed rapidly. “Sit tight and say nothing. They’ll probably be around to you soon enough. If they don’t, by any chance, wait until you see a morning paper with the story in it, and then call in fast. Tell them the truth except for having telephoned me. Everything else, but for God’s sake keep that back. I’m going over to the apartment now to get the whole story. Chances are, I’ll be able to drop in on you and give you all the dope before they reach you. Don’t leave your room. Just go along normally until something breaks that pulls you into it.”
He hung up abruptly. I followed suit more slowly. So, this was it. After writing murder stories for fifteen years, I was suddenly in the middle of one up to my neck. I thought fleetingly about all the innocent guys I’d written about, caught in just such a set of circumstances and fighting desperately to prove their innocence. Now I knew how it felt to be trapped. The angry sense of futility. The outraged desire to proclaim my innocence and be believed.
I realized that every move I made from now on, every word I spoke, would be viewed with suspicion. I must do nothing to indicate that I was aware of what had happened to Elsie because Ed was covering for me and I’d get him in a hell of a jam if the truth ever came out.
I went back to the sitting room thinking deeply. There were the two telephone calls I had made through the hotel switchboard. There would be a record of those two calls. But they were both local, and I didn’t think the numbers would be available to the police. They would want to know about them anyway. All right, I’d tell the simple truth about the first call. That I had read a chapter of Elsie’s script and decided to phone her. When a man answered, I did the natural thing at that hour when you find another man is with a girl. I hung up.
I’d have to think of some explanation for my call to Ed Radin. That is, if the hotel did keep track of local numbers. Ed would know about that. We’d work something out together.
But the switchboard did keep track of long distance calls. That, I knew. And I wanted to make one fast.
I couldn’t afford to do anything to draw attention to me. Even going down in the elevator to a pay phone booth just off the lobby might well be noticed at that hour in a small, quiet hotel like the Berkshire.
But I had to make that call right away.
I checked the silver in my pocket and found I had only a couple of dimes. But that was all right. I could reverse the charges on this call.
Before leaving the room, I took off the black eye-patch I normally wear over my left eye. It is damnably noticeable, and removing it is a very practical method of disguise. I should explain that I wear it because of a boyhood injury to one eye which left me with a perfectly good eyeball but practically no sight in that eye. There is just enough vision so the eye strains to see if left uncovered, and I get bad headaches. I can and do leave the patch off for a few hours at a time with no bad effects. If I were seen going down to the pay phone without the patch on, the chances were I wouldn’t be recognized.
I went out into the corridor and down the rear stairs. I was on the third floor, and saw no one as I went down. Luckily, the stairs at the Berkshire end in a hallway at the rear of the lobby that leads into the dining room and The Five Hundred Room, and the phone booths are located at the end of that corridor. I went directly to them without having to pass through the lobby, and pulled a door shut behind me.
I used a dime, dialed operator, and put in a collect call to Miami, Florida.
I was tense and keyed-up as I waited. The call went through very fast, and I exhaled a vast sigh of relief when I heard a familiar voice answer at the other end. I heard the operator say she had a collect call from Brett Halliday in New York and would he accept the charges.
Michael Shayne said he would, and she said. “Go ahead, please.”
Mike said, “What the hell, Brett?” and I said, “How fast can you catch a plane to New York?”
“Pretty fast, I guess. Why?”
“I’ve got a case for you.”
“I’ve got a case, Brett.” Mike’s voice was patient and reasoning. “Remember the Rathbone thing I told you about?”
“Lucy can cover you on that. I mean it, Mike. When does the next plane leave?”
“About four, I believe. You in some kind of jam?”
I said, “It’s bad.” Then I gave it to him straight down the line. All of it, from meeting Elsie at the bar to Ed Radin’s phone call.
“Don’t miss the four o’clock plane,” I ended urgently. “That’ll put you in about eight. Come straight to the Berkshire. You know. On Fifty-Second…”
“I know,” he growled, and I remembered he had stayed at the hotel himself a year or two previous while ending a case. “You sit tight and listen to Ed Radin. Best not admit you called me to come. We’ll say I had planned to meet you there all long. And listen, Brett. From what you told me about the girl’s manuscript I suggest you go through it pretty carefully while you’re waiting for the law to catch up with you. If she has put herself in the story as you think, it should give us a good line on her character and background. See you soon,” and he hung up.
I went out of the booth and along the corridor and up the stairs again without meeting anyone. I felt a hell of a lot better after bolting my door behind me. Michael Shayne is a name that does swing some weight in New York, even if Brett Halliday doesn’t.
I lit a cigarette and poured a short drink and got out a pencil and sat down again with Elsie’s typescript.
Reading the rest of it was going to be different. Now I knew the girl was dead, and the book would never be completed. Knowing it was basically a true story it suddenly seemed to me that the motive for her murder must be concealed somewhere in the typewritten pages.
I turned to chapter two of Elsie Murray’s manuscript and began to read.
Aline didn’t faint at sight of the dead man. She swayed sideways against the door frame and closed her eyes tightly. She kept them closed, and tottered backward until her legs encountered the edge of the bed.
She sat down and let her eyes open. The back of the man’s head was toward her and she couldn’t see his features. There was a tiny round bald spot in the thinning brown hair. She stared at the bald spot in growing panic, and knew he was a complete stranger. He wore a light tropical suit.
Aline made her eyes stay open, but they kept sliding away from the body. She fought against utter retching misery and tried to force her thoughts into a coherent pattern.
She looked down fearfully at her hands and wrinkled white slip, but saw no sign of blood. She didn’t know yet how the man had been killed. She didn’t know who he was. She didn’t know…
God, oh God! Oh, God.
She buried her face in her hands and sank sideways on the bed and sobbed again, convulsively. When the tears stopped, she was physically exhausted, but her mind was alert and she knew what she had to do.
Get out of that room for one thing, and trust in God that no one had seen her and recognized her coming in. But before that she must make certain there was nothing left behind that would point to her.
The only thing missing was her handbag. The only place she hadn’t searched was the bathroom. She couldn’t. But she knew she had to.
The drive of utter desperation brings a queer sort of strength sometimes. She sat up and took her hands from her face. She reached down with shaking fingers, pulled up the stocking that was loose around her ankle and rolled it above the knee. She picked up her discarded panties and stepped into them with a feeling of repugnance, smoothed her slip and then pulled the print dress over her head.
She kept her eyes carefully averted from the open bathroom door as she went to the mirror and looked unhappily at her disordered hair, her ravaged and tear-stained face, and wished desperately for a comb and compact. Her purse! If she could find it in the bathroom…
She couldn’t waste time now. She stepped into her pumps and walked steadily to the bathroom door. She didn’t look at the body until she found the light switch and clicked it.
She studied the man’s left profile. His face was pallid and waxlike, curiously pinched and shrunken. He was clean-shaven, between thirty and forty years of age, and in death his features gave the unpleasant impression of feral cunning. She would never know, she told herself dully, whether that look had come with death or had been there when she came to the hotel room with him.
The cause of death was now clearly evident. There was a great, gaping wound in his throat that had been inflicted by a very sharp knife or a razor.
She jerked her gaze away and searched the room from the doorway. The tub was empty, and the only two possible places where her bag might be concealed were the closed medicine cabinet and the floor space covered by his body. By holding tightly to the doorframe and leaning inward, Aline was able to open the cabinet. It was empty.
Almost, then, she gave up the search. But the instinct of self-preservation was alive in her, and strength surged up from some depth of her being which made it possible for her to reach down with both hands, get a firm grip on the back of the dead man’s coat between the shoulderblades and drag his body over the sill and into the bedroom.
There was no purse in sight. Only a curious half-outline of his body, where blood had crept along the floor and congealed on the tiles.
But he had pockets, and Aline knew she must go through them. The bag was small enough to fit in a man’s outer jacket pocket. Besides, she had to do everything she could to discover his identity before leaving him. If she could learn who he was… if she could start backtracking through the night at once… before the police started… it was barely possible she might be able to destroy all traces that would point to her as his companion at the death scene.
There was a book of matches in his left side pocket, and a few loose coins in the right. The inner jacket pocket yielded nothing. She knelt beside him with averted face and forced her hand into each of his four trouser pockets, half turning his body to do it.
There was nothing. No keys and no wallet. Not a scrap of paper to identify him.
He had come out of the unknown, a stranger to her… and now he would be a stranger forever.
And she? She had become a stranger to herself. Somehow she must go on living… forever haunted by the fear that she might have killed him.
Not that! She couldn’t kill. The last few minutes had proved that she was capable of much she would not have believed possible. But not murder… Besides, if she had murdered him during a blackout, how had she disposed of the murder weapon? And the missing handbag?
Of course, it was possible she had left the bag somewhere or lost it along the way before reaching the hotel room. But the murder weapon had been in the room. And now it wasn’t. Wouldn’t the police accept that fact as evidence that another person had been in the room while she was blacked out?
They wouldn’t. For they would never know, as she did, that the knife was not in the room when she woke. The police would have only her word that she hadn’t wakened to find it clutched in her hand, and then disposed of it.
She must be very careful from this point on. She must take nothing for granted. Nothing! Once it was known that she had been the dead man’s companion, every single word she spoke would be suspect.
How could she prove, for instance, that she had actually blacked out and didn’t know what had happened? There was no proof. Only her word. And to give the lie to that would be the testimony of the hotel clerk, the bell-boy and elevator operator who had doubtless seen her come in. Because when she had blacked out like this in the past, there was practically no outward evidence. Even her closest friends were never quite sure. They had laughed about it in the past, and she had laughed with them. Her coordination was scarcely impaired at all. She had been told that there was a slight thickness in her speech, but no more than in most persons after several cocktails.
Anyone who did not know her intimately and who had seen her last night would swear on the witness stand that she might have been a little tight, but certainly in full possession of her faculties.
The dead man must have believed that. He would have had no way of knowing the truth Even the murderer must have been unaware that she was unconscious when the murder was committed.
Why, then, had he gone away leaving her alive to bear witness against him? Of course if he had arrived at the scene after she fell into a coma on the bed, he would know he had nothing to fear from her.
She dragged her thoughts back from useless speculations. The important thing now was to destroy all evidence she had been in the room, and then leave the hotel without being seen.
She stripped the case from one of the pillows and methodically wiped fingerprints from every surface she might have touched. Then she went to the mirror to smooth her hair as best she could with shaking fingers.
At the door, she hesitated, realizing that she was probably destroying the murderer’s fingerprints as well. But what else could she do? She wiped the knob clean and turned it cautiously, inching the door open, and testing the outer knob. It was on the night-latch. The murderer had simply walked out and pulled it shut.
She paused, an instant, undecided whether to wipe the outer knob clean, then suddenly scrubbed it as hard as she could.
Holding the outer knob with the pillow case, she hesitated again, gathering all her strength and courage before stepping out and closing the door. That was the irrevocable step. Once she closed the door she was locked away from her last chance to call the police, tell them the simple truth, and hope they would believe her.
For a moment she was desperately tempted to do that. Wasn’t it what any innocent, law-abiding person would do? Wasn’t running away practically an admission of guilt?
Probably it was. She didn’t care. She couldn’t face it. This way, she had a chance. The other way? Who would believe her story, she asked herself scornfully.
She closed the door firmly with the pillowslip covering her hand, and stood for a moment memorizing the room number, 318. She would have to wait until she was outside to learn the name of the hotel.
She turned and went left toward a small red bulb illuminating a sign that said STAIRS. There was a door which she opened, and, with the cunning of the hunted, she took the upward flight of stairs. She remembered reading a book where a suspect had been trapped by walking down a flight instead of up. When he took the elevator from the floor below, the detective had known instantly that he had walked down one flight, and promptly arrested him. The author of the book had pointed out that in panic one invariably takes the easier path, and that if he had walked up instead of down he would never have been suspected.
So Aline walked up. Not one flight. Not just two flights, but three. That put her on the sixth floor and should be as safe as any. She wadded up the pillowslip as she climbed and dropped it in a dark corner on the fifth floor landing.
The sixth-floor corridor was dimly lit and deserted. She walked down it with her heart thumping, past closed doors behind which human beings slept in peace. Some of them snored, and the sound came faintly through open transoms.
She found double elevator doors and pressed the DOWN button. She had not the slightest idea what hour of the night it was, but was sure it was much too late for a respectable woman to be leaving a hotel with no wrap and no make-up, no handbag and her hair in disorder.
Anyone who saw her would think only one thing. Well, let them. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin defiantly when the elevator cables began creaking to bring the car up. She was a floosie, she reminded herself bitterly. A two-dollar whore. So why should she be ashamed or even annoyed if an elevator man and desk clerk took her for a call girl going home from some guest’s room after a late party?
The elevator stopped and the door slid open. The operator was a wizened and aged Negro man wearing a blue uniform with scarlet piping. So far as Aline could tell, he didn’t look at her when she stepped inside.
The door closed and they descended to a small lobby lighted with only two floor lamps. Aline stepped from the car with her chin still high, and her heels clacked on the bare floor toward the safety of a revolving door. She glanced at the desk, but the clerk was not there. A big clock on the wall pointed to 2:50.
Aline went through the revolving door and out onto a deserted sidewalk where a breeze cooled her hot cheeks. She looked at the sign above the hotel. It read, HOTEL HALCYON.
She would remember that, and she would remember a room number. She had not the vaguest idea what part of the city she was in. There were smart apartment houses here, and small specialty shops. She walked toward the nearest corner and discovered she was on Madison Avenue, far uptown from her normal haunts.
Looking up and down the Avenue she saw the welcome UNOCCUPIED lights of a roving taxi going south. She waved it to the curb, and before getting in she said:
“I’ll have to warn you, driver, that I don’t have any money with me. I lost my bag. If you’re willing to drive me to my place on East Twenty-Sixth Street, I’ll be glad to have you come in with me while I get some money to pay you.”
“Hop in, Lady,” he said wearily. “Where’d we all be in this world if none of us never trusted nobody else?” He opened the door, and when Aline got in he pulled away on the almost deserted avenue, leaning back to continue confidentially:
“Take it from me, that’s one of the troubles with this city. New York! Nobody speaks to a man on the street. Nobody’s got a helping hand for them that’s in trouble. Man can die right on a busy street and you’ll see the crowds hurrying by and turning their faces like they’re scared they’ll get contaminated.”
Aline Ferris leaned back against the cushion and closed her eyes and let the driver ramble on. She was really getting good at this business, she congratulated herself. Back there, when she started to get into the cab, it had just come out subconsciously. She hadn’t planned it. But in a flash she had realized that a driver might recall the peculiar circumstances-picking up a penniless female fare, at three-thirty in the morning less than a block from a hotel where a murder had been committed that night, and he would have her address in his logbook.
So she had given him Doris’ address-East 26th Street, — instead of her own. She could borrow money from Doris, and talking with Doris would be a good place to start going back. Doris had been at Bart’s party. She and Jim Cochran had been necking at the bar when Aline allowed the third and fatal martini to be poured into her glass. Doris was the perfect solution to her problem and it had come to her with no planning or forethought whatever. Stopping in to borrow taxi fare was the perfect excuse for waking Doris and having a heart-to-heart talk without waiting until morning.
She broke into the driver’s monologue and gave him Doris’ street number, then relaxed until they reached it.
Doris had what New York calls a “garden apartment” in an old remodeled brownstone, and it was reached by stairs leading down from the sidewalk. When the cab stopped, Aline stepped out and said to the driver, “Wouldn’t you like to come with me to be sure I don’t run out on you?”
“If you wanta run, lady, you run,” he answered broodingly. “Ninety cents on the meter ain’t going to break nobody.”
Aline went down the short flight of steps and rang the bell. It was dark inside, and she kept her finger on the bell for a long time and nothing happened. Then a light showed in the rear, and presently a window beside the door was opened a trifle and Doris’ frightened voice asked, “Who is it?”
“It’s Aline Ferris. I lost my bag and haven’t a penny to pay my taxi fare. I want to borrow a couple of dollars.”
“Aline!” There was an odd breathlessness in Doris’ voice, and she hesitated a moment. Then she said effusively, “Of course, darling. Wait right there until I get my purse. Sure two dollars will be enough?”
“Plenty. The fare’s only ninety, but I want to give him a good tip because he was nice and trusted me.”
“Just a second.” Doris left the window, but, curiously, no more lights were turned on inside. She was back in a moment and thrust the bills through the open window. “You better hurry on home for a few winks, and I’ll be dying to hear all about it tomorrow. Darling, who was that character you were smooching with such abandon just before you left the party?”
“How about inviting me in for a drink now so we can talk?”
“Honestly, darling, I’m dead.” Doris stifled an elaborate yawn and started to close the window. “See you tomorrow.”
Aline said all right and thoughtfully climbed up the stairs. She handed the driver the bills and asked him for half a dollar in return.
She let him drive away because she wanted him to list this as her address. As she stepped back onto the sidewalk, she recognized Ralph’s familiar Mercury convertible parked just beyond Doris’ entrance.
Dull anger tore at her. That was it. That was why Doris was determined to get rid of her. Ralph and Doris!
She went down the stairs again and put her finger firmly on the bell. The dim light was still on in the rear, and Aline didn’t have to wait so long this time. There was a rustle of movement inside, and the window near the door opened cautiously.
“Aline?” Doris sounded frightened and a little angry. “I told you I was too tired and sleepy…”
“I want to come in and talk to you,” Aline broke in firmly. “Unlock the door.”
“I shan’t. You must be drunk.”
“I’m cold stone sober,” Aline said flatly, “which is probably more than you are. I sent the taxi on and I’m coming in to talk to you.”
“You’re not! Go away. I won’t let you in.”
“I’ll stand here and ring your bell until you do, if it takes the rest of the night.”
“Ring it, then. Go ahead and ring it.” Doris’ voice rose hysterically. “I’m going back to sleep.” She closed the window with a thud.
Aline compressed her lips and put her finger on the bell and held it there. She couldn’t hear the bell ringing, but knew that it was. She couldn’t hear anything else, either, and the dim light in the rear went out, but she could imagine with grim amusement the frightened and whispered colloquy that must be going on in Aline’s bedroom.
Ralph and Doris!
“What are we going to do, Ralph?”
“Damn it, why didn’t you let her in and give her a drink and get rid of her?”
“I was afraid to. Suppose she’d insisted on coming into the bedroom for something? Besides, I thought she’d go on home. What are we going to do? I can’t stand that bell going on and on.”
Well, it was going on and on, Aline told herself angrily. On and on and on until Doris opened the door and let her in.
Was there any other way out of the apartment for Ralph? She didn’t think so. Possibly a rear window. But she vaguely recalled that the bedroom was jammed close to the brick wall of another building, and she didn’t believe there was room for him to squeeze through.
Why didn’t they just give up and let her in and face it out? After all, she didn’t have any real strings on Ralph. He could sleep with anyone he desired. She wasn’t jealous. She was just mad. And terribly frightened by what had happened, and determined to talk to Doris at once and learn as much as she could about events at the party after she had blacked out.
Doris would be able to tell her a lot. Ralph, too, if she could convince him that she didn’t care if he was with Doris and that all she wanted to find out was what had happened at Bart’s tonight. She recalled what Doris had said a few minutes ago.
“Who was that man you were smooching so hard just before you left the party?”
Aline didn’t remember any special man nor any special smooching. There had just been the regular gang around before she drank that third martini. Just the normal, light-hearted kisses and laughing innuendos.
Could it have been the dead man in the bathroom? If he had come to the party after she blacked out, and if she had gone for him the way Doris implied, then that might be the answer, or, at least, part of the answer.
She did do that sort of thing sometimes, Aline thought ruefully, as her right forefinger grew numb from determined pressure on the bell. Usually with strange men, and always when she was blacked out. Alcohol stripped away all her civilized inhibitions and released animal instincts that demanded sex. Curiously she always seemed to pick men who would be repulsive to her in her sane moments. Like the dead man. She shuddered involuntarily. He was one she wouldn’t have given a second glance when she was sober.
Would Doris never come to the door? She had to. I should have told her in the beginning that I knew Ralph was in there, thought Aline. Then they would have realized that nothing would be gained by keeping me out. I should have made her understand that I didn’t care a hoot in hell about Ralph. I can’t tell her why I want to know about tonight, of course. I can’t admit I was completely blacked out and don’t know anything at all that happened. I can’t admit that to anyone. Not yet. Not until I learn a lot more than I know now.
When a bright light came on in the living room, Aline took her finger off the bell. She heard the door-latch being released, and then the door opened.
“All right,” Doris said. “I give up. Come on in and stop that infernal racket.”
Doris was a short, plump blonde with rounded features that normally wore an all-embracing smile for the world to see. Now, her eyes were stormy, her full lips compressed with anger. She wore a blue robe belted tightly around her waist, and pink satin mules.
Aline stepped inside and said swiftly, “I’m sorry, Doris. Truly I am. But I had to talk to you. Look, if you’ve got a man in your bedroom, don’t mind me. I’m not on the vice squad, and God knows I’m not interested in your morals.”
Color flamed in Doris’ cheeks. “What a horrible thing to say. What ever made you think that?”
Aline shrugged and looked around the small, disordered sitting room. “I couldn’t think of any other reason why you kept me locked out.”
“I told you I’ve got a hangover and am dying for sleep,” wailed Doris. “Can’t you wait till morning?”
“No. This can’t wait.” Aline twisted her hands and her eyes were forlorn. “I’m frightened. I did it again tonight at Bart’s. Sort of. Passed out, you know. Not completely, but there are a few blank spots. I want to know everything I did. Was I pretty awful towards the end?”
Doris sighed and sat down at one end of the shabby studio couch and motioned Aline to a chair nearby. “Not too awful, I guess,” she said judicially. “How much do you remember? Having the fight with Ralph?”
Aline looked at her sharply, wondering whether Doris suspected that she knew Ralph was in the bedroom listening. Or didn’t she realize that Aline had recognized his car parked outside?
After carefully considering several responses, Aline said weakly, “A fight with Ralph? What did we fight about? I don’t remember it at all.”
“About you and Dirk, I guess.” Doris’ voice was barbed. “You certainly remember Dirk being there.”
Oh, yes. Aline remembered Dirk, big and blond and boyishly handsome. It was the first time she had seen him at a party without his wife. She remembered sitting on a window seat with him, a little removed from the others, who milled around with drinks in their hands. She recalled Dirk’s twisted smile as he explained that he was a misunderstood husband who needed comforting. So, she had comforted him a little. It hadn’t been anything important. Pleasant at the time, but not important. Dirk kissed easily and well, and his big hands were gentle and knowing in their caresses.
She said, wonderingly, “Why would Ralph want to fight with me about Dirk? He doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Doris shrugged. “You’d better ask Ralph that. I’m sure I don’t know why he’d be upset.”
Anger stirred in Aline and her eyes narrowed. “All right,” she said viciously. “I will ask him, since you suggest it.” She came to her feet in one lithe movement and swung out through the hall leading to the closed bedroom door before Doris could stop her.
With a choked cry of protest, Doris ran after her, caught her just as she started to turn the doorknob. She twined her fingers in Aline’s brown curls and jerked her back before she could open the door, sobbing hysterically.
“You stay out of there. You’re crazy. I won’t let you…”
Aline twisted around and slapped the pudgy, tear-wet face resoundingly. Doris released her hair and fell backward against the wall, her lips working in and out soundlessly, her eyes round with fear and surprise.
The bedroom door opened. Fully dressed and completely unruffled, Ralph smiled quizzically and said in his quiet, rich voice:
“Now, now, girls. Mustn’t fight over me. I’m really not worth it, you know.”
Aline faced him, stiffly erect and her eyes filled with scorn. She said bitingly, “I couldn’t agree more. Why don’t you come in and be cozy instead of skulking in the bedroom?”
Ralph smiled at her. He had dark wavy hair and the blandly handsome features of a man of small intellect. He said smoothly, “Just doing the gentlemanly thing, my dear Aline. Now you’ve discovered our little secret, we will be cozy.”
Doris was still leaning against the wall, sobbing. Ralph went over and put an arm around her shaking shoulders, drew her close and kissed her lips, then turned her to follow Aline who had stalked back to the living room.
Ralph soothed Doris: “Don’t take it so hard, my sweet. I’ve told you over and over that Aline has no reason in the world to care what you and I do together. Isn’t that right, Aline dear?”
“Perfectly right.” She sat stiffly erect in her chair and watched Ralph lead Doris to the couch and settle her beside him with a protecting arm around her shoulder and her face snuggled against his chest.
How could she ever have been taken in by him, Aline wondered bitterly? How could she have thought him charming and sophisticated?
“So why,” she demanded, “did you give one little damn what Dirk and I did at Bart’s party?”
“But I didn’t,” he protested. “What on earth gave you that idea? Were you so tight you don’t remember?”
“All right, so I was tight. Doris told me that you and I fought about Dirk.”
“Dear Doris,” he murmured, smiling down at the blonde head against his chest. “She invariably gets things wrong. I told her I wasn’t in the least concerned about whom you played around with. You started the ruckus, you know.”
“No, I don’t know,” she snapped. “I’ve admitted I was tight. I’m just trying to make some sense out of what happened at Bart’s. When did I leave the party? Where did I go?”
“Oh, oh.” Ralph’s tone was smug, knowing. “You mean you pulled another of your famous blackouts?”
“Not exactly. Not like last time.” Did Doris know all about last time, she wondered? She knew about it, of course, but she was aware that Ralph was the man Aline had waked up in bed with the next morning? Aline didn’t think so. But Doris might have heard rumors… might have guessed the truth.
“I was drunk,” Aline went on candidly. “I vaguely remember all sorts of things. Like our fight, but I haven’t the foggiest idea how it began… or ended.”
“Then I shan’t disillusion you,” Ralph told her heartily. He was making like a big brother now. “It really wasn’t important and you’re better off not remembering too much. What else comes through?” he ended with a sharpened note in his voice.
“There was some man,” Aline faltered. “Someone I’d never seen before.”
“There was, indeed. A Mr. Torn, wasn’t it? Didn’t I hear him being introduced as Vincent Torn?”
“I don’t know. Describe him.”
Ralph chuckled. “After all, my dear Aline, who should be better able to describe him than you?”
“But I tell you there are gaps.”
Ralph shrugged his broad shoulders. “He wasn’t the type who lends himself to description. Mediocre, that’s it. Nondescript. What you can see in a fellow like that…” He shook his head sadly over the vagaries of women.
“Did I leave the party with him?” Aline asked fearfully.
“I’m not sure, but I’m positive you did if you were able to drag him away.” Ralph put two fingers under Doris’ chin and lifted her face. “Did you see Aline leave, sweet?”
“I thought she went with you.” Doris’ voice was husky. She cleared her throat and added, “You both disappeared about the same time.”
“But you can’t be positive?” Aline asked her.
“No, but I asked two or three people and they told me not to worry about you… that Ralph could be trusted to take good care of you,” Doris gave a short, harsh laugh.
Ralph smiled indulgently. “Which I could be, of course, if I had escorted you home, Aline. But I left the party alone, while you were still there. You can ask Bart,” he went on swiftly. “He argued about my leaving so early. I couldn’t tell him that you and I,” he gave Doris a squeeze, “had plans for later on.”
“But we didn’t,” Doris protested. She sat erect, and her eyes were round and guileless. “I was never so surprised in my life when you turned up on my doorstep.”
“As if you hadn’t known I was coming… and arrayed yourself in your most beguiling negligee. And I loved you for it.” He bent his head and kissed Doris tenderly on the lips. Her arms went around his neck.
Aline stood up. “I’ll leave you two lovebirds now,” she said in a thin voice. “Sorry I interrupted, but I did want to get a line on last evening.”
“Oh, no.” Ralph hastily released Doris and came to his feet. “It’s almost daylight. I have to consider Doris’ reputation and not stay too late. My car’s parked just outside. I’ll run you home.”
“You needn’t bother,” Aline said stiffly, turning to the door. “I can walk.”
“No bother at all. I’m sure Doris wishes we’d both go and let her get her beauty sleep.”
He was directly behind Aline as she stepped out, and for a brief moment she felt a chill sense of fear course up her spine. It was silly, of course. She knew it was silly. But she wished desperately that Doris would call him back.
Ralph closed the door firmly and took Aline’s arm to help her up the stairs, muttering in a low voice, “Thank God for small favors. I thought I was never going to be able to break away from that empty-headed little fool.”
“A fine thing to say about a girl,” Aline retorted. “Particularly after you’ve just spent the night with her.”
“Exactly the time one would say it about Doris,” he told her cheerfully. They reached the street level and he led her toward his parked convertible.
“What did you say about me after that last time?”
“The truth, of course. Not all the truth,” he amended hastily, opening the door for Aline. “No one in the world knows anything about that night except that you passed out and I took you home and tucked you in.” He patted her hand, closed the door, and went round to the other side to slide under the wheel.
As Aline settled back against the cushion she felt something hard against her right hip. Twisting around slightly, she put her hand down to discover a small leather handbag wedged between the seat cushion and the back.
It had a familiar shape and feel as she drew it half way out. Covertly she glanced down at it in the light from a street lamp and shuddered. It was her own alligator bag. The one she had carried to Bart’s last night. The one that had been missing from the hotel room. The one she had searched for so zealously.
Ralph had turned on the ignition. He was pressing the starter button, his eyes on the road. The motor whirred and took life.
“How did my handbag get here, Ralph?” Aline scarcely recognized her own fear-distorted voice. “In your car… slipped down behind the cushion.”
“May have been there for days,” he said genially, rolling forward on the empty street. “Let’s see. I drove you home from the office last Wednesday.”
“This is the bag I had at Bart’s party tonight,” she told him in a flat voice.
“Oh?” He hesitated, glancing aside at her tight face and wetting his lips with the tip of his tongue. “Then you were blacked out, weren’t you? I wondered. It’s so hard to tell with you. Don’t you remember anything at all about my taking you home?”
“But you told Doris you left alone. That I was still there when you left.”
“Pride, my dear. I didn’t want to confess to her that you kicked me out after we got to your place. She’d have felt she was second choice. Which she was, of course. You must have left your bag when you got out, and I didn’t notice it.”
“Ralph! You’ve got to tell me. What did happen. Did you drive me home?”
“Right to your doorstep,” he assured her cheerfully. “You were sweet enough in the car, but you turned nasty as hell when I suggested coming up. I didn’t know just how tight you were,” he went on thoughtfully. “That other time you blacked out you were glad enough to have my company. So, I thought you knew what you were doing and wanted to be alone as you said. I don’t like street scenes, damn it. And I knew Doris would be receptive.”
“And you left me standing outside?” Aline asked in a shaky voice.
“You were going up the steps to the door when I drove away.”
“Without my handbag?” She shuddered. “And without my keys? I couldn’t have got in the front door. What did I do? My God, Ralph, what do you suppose I did?”
Ralph had been driving east on 26th. Now, he turned north and pulled to the curb in front of the canopied entrance to a six-story apartment building. “You went back to the party, maybe… or called someone up,” he suggested. “Where were you when you came to this time?”
“I’m not going to tell you,” she said defiantly.
“No reason why you should,” he agreed. He cut his motor and leaned past her to open the door on her side. “Be sure you’ve got your key this time. I’ll sit right here until you go inside.”
“Please, Ralph.” Aline put a trembling hand on his arm. “Come up with me. I’m frightened. I’ve got to talk. Try to figure out what happened. Don’t you see that without my bag I didn’t have taxi fare? Not even a dime to telephone with. I was locked out here on the street, and then what?”
“You poor kid.” Ralph lifted her hand from his arm and kissed it. “Of course I’ll come up with you. Might as well make a night of it now.” He slid along the cushion and got out on her side of the car, went up the short flight of stone steps with her, and through swinging doors to an entry-way lined with mail boxes.
Aline took a leather key-holder from her purse. Beside the lock on the inner door there was a bell with a brass plate beneath it that read SUPERINTENDENT.
Ralph gestured to it and said, “Perhaps you rang the super and he let you in last night. That would be the normal thing. It wasn’t terribly late”
“How late?” She put a key in the lock and turned it, opened the door onto a small, attractive lobby with two self-service elevators at the rear.
“About midnight,” Ralph told her on the way to the elevators. One was waiting and he opened the door and followed her in. Aline pressed the button for the fourth floor and it began to rise easily. She stood silent, waiting for him to go on.
“I stopped at a bar for a couple of drinks after leaving you,” Ralph continued, “to give Doris time to break away from the party and get home. I got to her place about twelve-thirty. So it couldn’t have been past midnight when I left you.”
The elevator stopped and they went down a short length of carpeted hallway to a door which she unlocked. She went in ahead of him to turn on a light in the living room, took a quick look about and shook her head despairingly.
“I don’t believe I was back here after the party at all. It’s exactly the way I remember leaving it.” She went toward the small dressing alcove off the bathroom, saying, “I know I look like the wrath of God. Make yourself a drink while I fix my face a little and comb my hair.” She went in and closed the door.
Ralph went to the low, glass-topped bar in front of the studio couch, opened it and took out a flagon of rye and a large shot glass. He filled it and settled back on the couch, his face bland and uncommunicative as he waited for Aline to return.
It took her ten minutes. Her features were still tight and ravaged, but rouge and powder and a hairbrush had done much to improve her appearance. She sat down beside him, shook her head and shuddered when he lifted his glass and gestured toward its mate with the dregs of a drink she had left before leaving for Bart’s party.
“Not for me,” she said flatly. “Never again. I swear it. What do you think could have happened after you left me here without a key?”
“I still think the normal thing would have been for you to ring the superintendent.” He glanced at the speaking tube near the door. “Why not call him and find out, if it’ll set your mind at rest?”
“And wake him up at this time to ask him that?” she protested. “He’d think I’d lost my mind. Besides, if I did come up, I didn’t stay.”
“I gather,” said Ralph drily, “that you didn’t stay. However, it would be a starting point if you’re determined to backtrack. Up here, you could have telephoned anyone you liked without dimes. Go ahead and buzz him on the speaking tube. What are janitors for?”
“I’d be ashamed to ask him. If he didn’t think I was crazy, then he’d know I was too drunk to know what I did.”
“All right, then,” said Ralph amiably, “I’ll buzz him, and talk to him on the speaking tube.” He hesitated a moment, then added reflectively. “Better still, to save you embarrassment, I’ll telephone him, and let him think it’s an outside call. I’ll say I’m a friend who knows you came home about midnight without a key and am worried. I’ll ask if he let you in, and that won’t give anything away. Know his number?”
“No. But it’s listed under ‘Superintendent’ in the black book there on the telephone stand.” She started to get up, but Ralph caught her arm.
“You just sit here nice and comfy. I’ll find it.” He went to the telephone and flipped the pages of her private listing, dialed the number and waited.
The phone rang a long time before a sleepy voice demanded: “Yeh? Who you calling?”
“Are you the superintendent at the Maidstone?”
“Yeh. What you want?”
“I’m a friend of Miss Aline Ferris in Apartment 4-F. We’ve just discovered that she left her handbag with her keys here when she went home about midnight, and we’re a little worried. Her phone doesn’t answer. Did she ring you about midnight to let her in?”
“No. Haven’t see Miss Ferris for days.” He slammed the receiver down hard.
Ralph replaced his receiver and turned to Aline. “That’s not the answer. Let’s see, now.” He crossed over and sat down beside her and stretched his long legs out comfortably. “There you were about midnight on your own doorstep and operating under your own power, but actually passed out mentally. You had no key and no money to telephone. I had driven away thinking you were safely inside. What happened then?”
“Oh, I don’t know… I don’t know,” Aline cried out. “But I’ve just got to find out.”
“U-m-m. It would be lots easier to figure out if I knew where you were when you finally came to. Didn’t you ask anyone how you got there?”
“There wasn’t anyone to ask,” she told him. “I was alone. It doesn’t matter exactly where. In a hotel room, if that helps any. But how did I get there?” Her voice was shrill, close to hysteria.
“Take it easy,” Ralph said calmly. “There are dozens of possible explanations. Let’s reason it out together. From the way you acted last time, I know you’re outwardly rational when you’re passed out, but… less inhibited than when you’re sober, let us say. The real you takes charge of your body. You remain perfectly logical and self-possessed. Now: What would you have done under those same circumstances if you had been sober?”
“I… don’t know. Get the superintendent to let me in, probably.”
“But we know you didn’t do that. And I’m not sure you would have tried. Remember your aversion to waking him just a few minutes ago? You were ashamed to let him know you were so drunk you didn’t remember. In your condition at midnight some part of your mind realized that you were damned tight, and you didn’t want him to see you like that. So, what?”
Aline’s face brightened and she caught Ralph’s wrist in a tight grasp. “I know! The cocktail lounge just down the street. It stays open until four, and I often drop in for a drink after work. The night bartender knows me, and I wouldn’t have minded at all going in and telling him I’d mislaid my bag and needed a dime for the telephone. I’ve left enough in tips, goodness knows. He wouldn’t think anything of it. I must have gone there.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Ralph agreed. He smiled genially and put a big hand over hers.
“But whom did I call… if I did telephone?”
“First thing to find out is whether you made any call at all. It’s possible he might have seen you dialing… or helped you look up a number. He’d remember an incident like that.” Ralph swung to his feet and glanced at his watch. “It’s not quite four. What’s the name of the joint?”
“Gosh, I… I don’t know. I’ve been in dozens of times, but I guess I just never noticed.”
“We can go down and ask him, if you really want to try and clear this up.”
“You go, Ralph,” she said impulsively. “Please. His name is Joe. Just ask him if Miss Ferris was in to use the telephone. Please, Ralph. I just don’t feel up to it.”
“Sure. You must be shot. Why don’t you slip into something more comfortable, and I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
She said, “You’re sweet,” and was suddenly listless. She stood up and let him kiss her, then drew away when he tried to become more ardent. “Ring my bell and I’ll let you in.”
“Not jealous of Doris, are you?” he asked, smiling.
“No. I don’t think so. I’m just not at my best tonight.” She watched him go out, then sank down on the couch and buried her throbbing head in her hands.
“Dear God,” she moaned softly, “let me get out of this. Just this one time, please help me. I’ve learned my lesson tonight. I swear I have. I’ll never, never, take another drink as long as I live.”
Once more, tears of self-pity wet her face. She was stretched out on the couch, still sobbing, fifteen minutes later when her buzzer sounded. She dragged herself up and pressed the button that released the catch on the door to the building downstairs.
She was standing in the open doorway of her apartment, dabbing at reddened eyes with a cool, damp washcloth, when Ralph stepped from the elevator. He frowned unhappily when he saw that she had not changed into a negligee in his absence, but nodded as he approached, saying, “We hit it on the head, darling. I caught Joe just as he was closing the joint, and he said that’s exactly what you did.”
Aline stepped back to let him enter, her breathing tremulous and irregular. “Then I did go there to telephone?”
“That’s right. Joe remembered right away. Said you sort of acted strange when you came in just after midnight. Said you walked straight enough, but your eyes had a glassy look he’d seen often enough when people were passed out.” Ralph took her hand and led her to the couch where they sat down and he linked his arm in hers as he continued:
“Joe said you walked right up to him and told him you had lost your purse and needed a dime to telephone. He didn’t care about the dime, but he was a little worried. Thought you ought to go home in your condition, and told you so. But you blazed away at him and said you could take care of yourself, and what you needed was a man. You told him to give you the dime and stop his yapping.” He paused, squeezed her arm, and looked down at her for approval.
Aline’s face was pale and her voice was sick with shame as she breathed, “How awful! I’ll never be able to look him in the face again. I can’t believe I’d say such things.” She drew her arm from his and leaned away from him.
Ralph poured himself another drink, crossed his legs, and settled back against the cushions. “You toss off a lot of inhibitions when you get that way, my sweet. Like the other time with me. God, if you could just remember…”
“Don’t… please,” Aline pleaded, her cheeks scarlet. “Maybe I’m just a two-dollar whore at heart, but don’t rub it in. Tell me what else Joe said.”
“Well, he gave you the dime and you went to the telephone book and looked up a number. When you found it, you asked him if he had a pencil and would he write it down for you. You know, the phone booth is across the room and I guess you were afraid you’d forget it before you could dial it.”
“Did he write it down?” She asked fearfully.
“Yes. On one of the business cards advertising the place. You called it out to him, went over and took the card, then went back to the booth and closed the door.”
Aline nerved herself to ask, “Does Joe remember the number?”
“No. He thought it was a Butterfield number, but wasn’t positive. He says you stayed in the booth awhile, then came out and marched out without saying a word or even looking at him. And that’s all Joe knows.”
Aline was quiet for a moment, racking her tortured mind for a glimpse of remembrance that would not come. “If I only knew who I called,” she moaned.
“At least we know you didn’t call me,” Ralph said ruefully. “Even though you wanted a man, you had given me to understand quite clearly that I wasn’t the one you wanted. Try to think of someone else,” he went on calmly, glancing aside at her with lowered lids, “whom you felt a yen for when you were sober, but didn’t quite have the nerve to approach.”
“I can’t think,” she murmured, and then her voice rose angrily as she declared, “The hell of it is that I’m not the bitch I seem to become when I’m drunk. So how do I know what man I had a yen for? If Joe had only remembered that number!”
“Well,” said Ralph smugly, “it just happens that I’m not so bad when it comes to playing detective. I bought Joe a drink for his trouble, and over-tipped him, so you needn’t bother to give him back his dime. Then I went over to the phone booth and looked around inside. I found this lying on the floor.”
Ralph dramatically handed her a crumpled business card which he had taken from his pocket. Scrawled on the back, in pencil, were the letters BU, followed by five digits.
“I can’t swear that’s the number you called,” he pointed out judicially, “but I think it is. You didn’t have a handbag to put it in, and no pockets in your dress. You probably just crumpled it up and threw it on the floor after you’d reached your party.”
Aline took the card. Her eyes were round and frightened as she repeated the numbers aloud, and her head moved slowly from side to side. “It doesn’t sound even remotely familiar,” she told him. “Does it to you?”
“No. But I don’t know all your men friends. Sure you can’t remember?”
“I haven’t even the ghost of an idea,” she acknowledged, absently turning the card over and over with her fingers. “But isn’t there some way to get a person’s name from a number? Doesn’t the Telephone Company have a cross index… or something?”
“Of course. But I don’t think they give out information like that, as a rule, unless it’s requested by the police.” He finished his drink, put an arm around her and nuzzled his lips against her ear. “How about forgetting the whole thing for tonight? Let’s go to bed and get a couple of hours sleep. Everything will be bright and rosy tomorrow.”
“Ralph… don’t!” Her voice lashed out at him She struggled against his embrace, broke free and pushed him away. Then, seeing the strange expression on his face she managed a wan smile and said, “You’ve been sweet to try and help me, Ralph, and you have helped a lot. Now I know, at least, that I didn’t just pick up some complete stranger on the street at midnight. I feel more decent knowing that I looked up a number and telephoned.”
“Sure,” he said in a soothing tone. “And after you’ve had a good sleep, maybe you’ll remember a name to fit the number.” He stood up. “Okay, sweet. If you want to be alone, far be it from me to intrude. Bye now.” He turned and strode out.
My doorbell buzzed just as I reached that point in Elsie’s manuscript. The sound rasped angrily in the utter silence of the hotel room, and I must have jumped a foot.
The cops, I thought. Here it is, Mr. Halliday. Gird up your loins and prepare for one of those interrogations you’ve described in your books so often. The innocent hero striving desperately to convince the cynical and brutal bluecoats that he is innocent.
I laid Elsie’s manuscript down unhappily, wishing to God they’d given me time to finish reading it, went to the door and opened it.
In all my life I’ve never seen such a welcome sight as Ed Radin’s broad face wearing a friendly grin. I wrung his hand hard and pulled him inside and demanded, “How bad is it, Ed? What did you find out?”
“It’s pretty bad, Brett.” He shook his head and moved his solid body across to the brandy glass and bottle. He poured himself a moderate drink, downed it, and sat down wearily. “I just came from the apartment. She was strangled in the sitting room, fully clothed and no evidence of much struggle. Probably no sex angle. They think she had been drinking with the guy and he went crazy mad when she turned down his advances. Two kinds of cigarettes in the ashtray, fingerprints on the cognac glass. Yours, you think?” He regarded me steadily.
“Probably. Unless she washed out my glass before she admitted the killer. Anything else?”
“Not much. No one on the premises heard anything. Police went there on an anonymous telephone tip saying there was a dead woman in that apartment. Shortly after they found her, there was a phone call but when a cop answered, the caller hung up. They theorize that was the killer checking to see if they’d found her okay.”
“It was my call,” I told him wearily. “I phoned for the exact reason I told you. I’d read the first chapter of her script and I thought I’d call back. You know how amateur writers are. They can hardly hold their water while someone is reading their stuff.”
“I know,” he said stolidly, “but not many cops do. So, why didn’t you identify yourself to the cop?”
“Would you have?” I asked hotly. “Hell, Ed. It was about two o’clock in the morning. I call the gal and a man answers. Wouldn’t you discreetly hang up?”
“Probably,” he admitted as stolidly as before, “but I’m just asking the questions the cops are going to ask you. You’ve got a few hours, I guess, to get the answers ready. Soon as the morning papers are out, someone who saw you leave the banquet with Elsie will phone the information in. The rest is routine.”
“I don’t need to fix any answers,” I told him. “The truth will have to do.”
He said, “Fine,” and I knew he meant it. Ed Radin is strictly an honorable guy, and I knew he’d stretched a point very fine when he withheld the information that I had tipped him off to check Elsie.
He settled back and lit a cigarette and closed his eyes lightly and said, “Go back over it for me, Brett. Everything. From the moment you met Elsie until you phoned me.”
I went back over it. Every bit of it. Every word and inflection that had passed between us. Every kiss and every tiny bit of sex play. It was easy to tell a friend exactly how I had felt about Elsie, how I thought she felt about me… just what passed between us. I realized as I talked that it was going to be more difficult to tell the police the same things, much more difficult to make them understand. Ed was my friend, and he is a writer, too. He knows how things like that happen to a man, and that nothing I told him gave me any motive for murdering her. But that was because he knew me, and understood the sort of girl Elsie had been.
He opened his eyes and nodded approvingly when I told him about the phone call to Mike Shayne in Miami and that Mike would be arriving about eight.
“Good. But you’ve got to be careful they don’t find out you telephoned Shayne to come. Remember, you’re playing it that you didn’t know a thing about it all this time. You didn’t contact me and I haven’t seen you.”
“I thought of that. We’ll say Mike had planned all along to meet me here this morning for the weekend. He’ll play along.”
“It should be okay,” Ed decided, “if they don’t get suspicious and start checking. No reason why they should if they believe your story. I’ve a strong hunch,” he added tiredly, “that you’re going to need Shayne in your corner. They’ll have you for a suspect, and won’t look too hard for another one. With Shayne to work on it, we’ll get the truth… if he’s half as good as you make him out in your books.”
“He’s better,” I told him. “Mike is always making me cut out some of the good stuff because he’s so modest.”
“I’ve wanted to meet that redhead for a long time.” Ed Radin yawned and poured himself another careful drink of brandy. “You got any ideas of your own?”
I shook my head. “I just met the girl tonight. I’ve only got one crazy thought at the moment, and that’s her manuscript. What did you and the police think of it?”
“I was coming to that,” Ed said quietly. He glanced at the thick sheaf of typewritten pages beside me. “That it?”
I nodded. “The original copy. The carbon copy was there in her place.”
He shook his head. “No long piece like that. I helped them inventory her desk. Three short stories. Two unfinished stories, five and eleven pages, a batch of notes with ideas for characters and situations. That was all.” He spread out his hands and studied me soberly.
“But this is around fifty pages,” I protested. “She had this in a manila envelope, and said she’d been working on the carbon copy. I was getting the bum’s rush, you see, after the telephone call. As I said, I had a strong impression she was afraid the caller might be on his way up even though she’d told him she was working and he shouldn’t, and she wanted to get rid of me fast. The carbon copy must be there, Ed.”
“Then the killer took it.” I got up and began to pace the floor excitedly. “That’s it, Ed. That’s the motive for Elsie’s murder. I’ve read most of the script now, and she admitted to me that it is a thinly fictionized account of something that actually took place… that all the facts are true, only names and descriptions changed. It’s a mystery story, you see. A girl blanks out from too much liquor and wakes up with a dead man. One of the oldest cliches in the business, but this time I think it happened. And to Elsie. The story deals with the girl’s attempts to find out who did kill the man, in order to prove that she didn’t. We know it is Elsie’s own story… and if the killer knew she was writing it, and perhaps had inadvertently written down the truth without quite knowing it was the truth… and if he knew she planned to show the script to me… mightn’t he have killed her and stolen the script to keep me from seeing it?”
“But you have a copy,” Ed pointed out.
“Suppose he didn’t know that? Think back to the telephone conversation I overheard in her place. She said something like: ‘He’s not here. He dropped me after I promised to send him my script tomorrow and I’m getting it ready for him to see it.’ Don’t you see, Ed? She used that as an excuse to keep him from coming up. They were talking about me, damn it. Someone who saw her leave the Henry Hudson with me… or who had been told she did so. When she told him she was going to give it to me to read tomorrow, she signed her death warrant. He had to stop her… if what I think is true and the solution of another murder is concealed in these pages in the shape of fiction.”
Ed Radin was definitely interested. He eyed the typewritten sheets speculatively. “You think the proof of another murder is there?”
“I’m guessing,” I admitted. “I haven’t finished it. But it must be there. If you and Mike and I go over it carefully, we should be able to spot some clue I think Elsie herself hadn’t even spotted. If she had, she certainly wouldn’t have let the guy in to murder her tonight.”
“It’s an interesting thought,” Ed muttered, “and it’s a logical reason for the other copy being missing. But you’ll have to turn it over to the cops, Brett. It’s evidence in a murder case. You can’t hold it back for Shayne to work on.”
“At least I can finish reading it before they come to me.”
“You can do that… and tell them you have. But you’ll have to give it to them.” He looked at his watch and muttered, “Damn it. You’ve got me so interested I’d like to spend a couple of hours with Elsie’s manuscript myself. But I’ve got to check down at the Precinct…” He paused thoughtfully, then leaned forward and picked up one of the typewritten sheets.
It was a good clean copy as I’ve said, neatly typed on lightweight paper. Not onion skin, but about 12-pound stuff.
He nodded happily and said, “I’ve got an idea, Brett. I believe it’ll work. There’s an outfit that calls itself The Overnight Duplication Service. Ever hear of them?”
I shook my head.
“They have some process for photographing manuscripts. Make a specialty of it. Five cents a page for as many duplicate pages as you want, and guarantee to turn out any ordinary job in a few hours. They boast they work around the clock, and the only thing is: the original has to be a solid black impression on fairly thin paper to duplicate well. This fits the bill. Let me call them and see. They’ve done a lot of work for me.”
He got up and hurried into the bedroom, searched for a number and started to call it, paused, returned the phone, and came back shaking his head. “That wouldn’t be so good. The police will check the switchboard for calls from this room just as routine. You’d have no earthly explanation for rushing out to get this duplicated unless you knew Elsie was dead and thought it might contain a clue for Shayne to work on.
“Here’s the address.” He wrote it down. It was a number on West 45th. “It’s in the ground floor of a small hotel,” he went on. “Some of them live there. The boss, I guess. If you still think the script is important after you finish reading it, take it down and have them knock off a copy. Leave the copy with them for me to pick up later. Bring this copy back and hand it over to the law when they come. And you’d better pray to God there is a motive in the script and we can find it.
“I’ve simply got to run. Don’t be surprised if I turn up with the cops in the morning. Don’t lie about anything except having seen and talked to me tonight. Good luck.” He shook hands hard and went out the door.
I sat down and picked up Elsie’s manuscript again. It meant a lot more to me now that I’d learned the carbon was missing from her apartment. It had to be important. It had to be the motive for her murder.
I began reading again with intense absorption.
When Aline Ferris next awoke, sunlight streamed in the window, but the fear of last night remained strong and agonizing-the almost unbearable fear of the unknown.
She closed her eyes against the bright sunlight and tried to make her conscious mind quiescent, to break through to the subconscious which knew what she had to know.
Her telephone call from the cocktail lounge was the jumping-off place. That had been done without her conscious knowledge. It was the one thing she now knew she had done while blanked out. She had the number in her mind, memorized from the night before. She repeated the five digits over and over again silently, like an incantation to break down the barrier between conscious and subconscious. If she tried not to think about the numbers, not to recall consciously a name connected with them! Then, perhaps, the name would come.
It was there, in the hidden recesses of her mind. The knowledge of everything was there. It had to be. If she could only bring it forth…
She couldn’t. It wouldn’t come. The effort was exhausting. After a time, she ceased trying and opened her eyes.
The clock on the table beside the bed said 9:30. She moistened her lips, lifted herself on one elbow and reached for the telephone extension beside the clock, and called her office number.
Margie’s cheerful voice answered. Aline kept her own voice dull and flat when she said, “Hello, Margie. This is Aline.”
“Hi.” Margie lowered her voice to an elaborately confidential tone as she added, “Miss Prescott just went through. She asked if you were in.”
“I’m not,” Aline told her. “I’m out. Tell her I’ve got an abscessed tooth. Tell her any damned thing, Margie. I simply can’t make it today.”
“Horrible,” Aline groaned. “Fix it for me?”
“Will do. And you’d better get right over to the dentist. I’ll explain to Miss Prescott. Bye now.”
Aline hung up and sank back against the pillows. Her nerves were edgy and she felt physically exhausted. But it was impossible to relax, so she dragged herself from the bed and tottered into the tiny kitchenette. She gulped a large glass of cold orange juice, then put on a kettle of water for coffee. After measuring the coffee into the drip pot, she went resolutely to the front door. There was no use postponing it any longer. Sooner or later, she would have to read the morning newspaper. She opened the door and picked it up.
Her hands trembled as she spread it out on the couch. There were no screaming headlines… nothing at all on the front page about the murdered man. She really hadn’t expected to find anything there. By the time she reached page three, the kettle whistled and she got up to pour the water in the pot.
Returning, she went through the paper to the last page without finding any reference to a dead man having been found in an uptown hotel room.
There was no reason to expect the story to break so soon, she told herself as she sipped her first cup of black coffee. In fact, it would be strange if the body were discovered before mid-morning when a hotel maid might logically let herself in. So it would likely be late afternoon before she could learn anything definite about him.
A cigarette with her second cup of coffee helped a lot. Her mind began to function again, and her thoughts turned back to Bart’s party… back to the real beginning. Whomever she had telephoned at midnight must have been someone who was on her mind at the moment. Someone she felt she could turn to at that time of night while she was locked out of her apartment.
There was no use denying to herself that men were her first interest when she was blacked out. There was too much evidence from too many sources. So, the person must have been a man to whom she was strongly attracted. Someone she wanted to be with. All right. There was Dirk. She remembered their little necking party before she passed out. It had been pleasant enough, and rather gay. The usual sort of thing when the gang got together. But what had happened to cause a fight between her and Ralph over Dirk’s attentions?
No, she decided, it couldn’t have been Dirk. Nor any of the others with whom she was familiar at Bart’s party. Because the telephone number was strange to her.
The man had to be someone she met after she blacked out. A man whose name she knew, but whose number she had had to look up and ask Joe to write down for her when she went to the bar.
She frowned and bit at her lower lip. Both Doris and Ralph had mentioned a strange man with whom she had been smooching. Ralph had described him vaguely. Mediocre… nondescript. That description might easily fit the dead man! And Ralph had given the man a name. What was it? An unusual sort of name. Thorn? No…
Torn! Vincent Torn! That was it!
Aline put out her cigarette and went for a third cup of coffee. Her heart pounded painfully as she considered a possibility. A distinct possibility, one she could check without too much trouble. She could telephone him, and if he answered, he al least wouldn’t be the dead man. That would eliminate one possibility.
And if he didn’t answer? Well, that wouldn’t mean much either way. He would likely be at his office, if he had an office.
She was returning with the coffee when she abruptly realized that she could check her hunch by looking up Torn’s name in the telephone book. If he was listed… if his number was the one Ralph had brought back from the bar… then she would know it was he whom she had called. If not, she would at least know she was on the wrong track.
Her trembling hand slopped coffee into the saucer as she put it down and hurried to the directory. She turned the pages feverishly, and found his name.
Vincent Torn’s telephone number tallied with the one she now knew so well. The number Joe had written on the card.
Aline sank back on the day-bed and tried to piece together the few facts she had learned about her movements last night. She must have reached Torn by phone, and made an appointment, because she hadn’t asked Joe for another dime. She had gone directly outside to wait.
Since she had no money for a taxi, she must have met Torn outside the bar and gone to the hotel room with him. She shuddered violently, but braced herself against self-loathing. She had to face facts. It was exactly the sort of thing her body was likely to do once the conscious mind ceased directing its movements.
What now? By lifting the phone and dialing she might settle one more thing… whether Vincent Torn was alive or lying dead in the hotel room. In her own mind she now felt positive that he was the dead man. She reminded herself again that failure to get an answer would prove nothing. And what if someone else answered? Mrs. Vincent Torn… or a daughter… or a maid? She could hang up, of course, or pretend some other reason and ask for Mr. Torn.
She had to try. Not knowing was agonizing beyond endurance. If she could establish the fact that Torn had not returned home last night, she would know. And that would be the real beginning of her search for the hidden truth. Her search for the real killer in order to clear herself.
Also, there was the matter of time before the police came to question her. Once the body was found and identified it would be a routine matter for them to learn that he had been at Bart’s party and that a girl named Aline Ferris had made a big play for him. A girl who would answer the description of the one who had checked into the hotel with him after midnight.
If the man was Torn! That was the crux of it now.
Aline steeled herself for the attempt, lifted the receiver and swiftly dialed the number.
A man’s voice answered immediately, and Aline’s heart leaped into her throat.
“He isn’t in.” The voice sounded disappointed, brusque. “Can I take a message?”
“No. That is, do you expect him soon?”
“God knows.” There was a note of dry amusement now. “He hasn’t been in all night, and I haven’t the faintest idea when he’ll show up.”
“Any message?” the voice persisted.
“No, thank you. I’ll try later.”
She was about to hang up when the voice said with interest and sudden urgency, “See here, isn’t this Aline Ferris?”
She gasped, “No,” and hung up. She stood by the telephone, trembling and white, trying to collect her thoughts.
The dead man was Vincent Torn! She was sure of that now. But who was the man who had answered Torn’s telephone? What did he know about her… about Aline Ferris… that had caused him to ask that last question?
Had he recognized her voice? Was he someone she knew? Or was it merely someone who knew Torn had gone out at midnight to meet a girl named Aline Ferris and hadn’t returned home?
She went back to the couch and buried her face in her hands. What came next? In her own mind she had established the identity of the hotel-room corpse. What would a detective do next?
Detectives. The police! She suddenly felt physically weak, and she couldn’t think straight. She needed food, a bath, and she had to get into some decent clothes. If they came and caught her looking like this!
She stripped off her pajamas on the way to the bathroom, took a quick shower, brushed the hangover taste from her mouth with toothpaste and put on stockings and underclothes. Before putting on make-up and a dress, she poached two eggs and made toast which she ate with a final cup of coffee.
Ten minutes later she was studying her face in the mirror, and it seemed incredible that she could have been the jaded, terrified person who had fled from a murder scene only a few hours ago. The bath and the food and a careful toilet had erased all outer signs of her hangover and steadied her nerves.
Back in the living room, she settled herself on the couch and took up the back-tracking again where she had left off.
A detective, she decided, would look for someone who had a motive, and an opportunity.
Who could have known that she and Vincent Torn were together in that hotel room? Had he been the sort of man who often took girls to hotels, and was he in the habit of frequenting the Halcyon?
That might be one angle. If someone were looking for an opportunity to murder him, it might have seemed a good time to commit the crime.
There were other possibilities, of course. Suppose Torn had been murdered only because of her? Through jealousy because she had gone there with him? By someone who had followed them to the hotel and traced them to the room?
The two-dollar bill thrust into the top of her stocking might be a clue pointing in that direction, the act of a jealous lover who had discovered her with Torn and murdered him in a burst of passion.
But she had no real lovers, jealous or otherwise. There had been passing affairs… nothing more. And they were over and done with. Ralph was the latest, but that could scarcely be called an affair. There was just that one night which she didn’t even remember. And Ralph certainly didn’t seem to be the jealous type. Only last night he had consoled himself with Doris after she, Aline, had refused to let him come in with her. Besides, he had driven away thinking she was going straight up to her own apartment. He hadn’t known about the call she made to Torn until he talked to the bartender much later.
There was no one else in her life who could possibly care enough about whom she slept with to commit murder.
No. It had to be someone in Torn’s own life. That, or pure accident. A prowler, who entered the room by chance, who was discovered by Torn and who killed him in the ensuing struggle. That would explain the absence of Torn’s wallet. But it hardly explained the two-dollar bill. What chance prowler would pause after murder to add that macabre touch?
It always came back to Torn himself. To his personal character and associates. And she knew absolutely nothing about him. He was merely a name to her. The name of a nondescript man who had evidently possessed enough sexual attraction for her to phone him at midnight and go to a hotel room with him.
Who would know about him? Neither Ralph nor Doris knew who he was. Ralph had mentioned hearing him introduced at the party, and had difficulty recalling his name.
Bart, of course. He was the host and must have invited Torn. Did she dare ask Bart about him? Would Bart wonder why she wanted to know? Would he suspect something?
Certainly not until he learned that Torn was dead and how he died. Then he would recall that Aline had asked about him. But it wouldn’t matter then. Sooner or later the police were sure to piece together the events of the evening and place her in the death room at the correct time.
She got up decisively and called Bart’s number. The phone rang several times before his lazy, cultivated voice drawled, “Hello.”
“Bart. How are you this morning?”
“Excruciating, my love. Simply excruciating. Tell me, why do I give parties? All sorts of rowdy people come and drink my liquor and make love to my girls and have a perfectly lovely time, and all I get out of it is a lousy hangover. By the way, how are you feeling this morning, Aline?”
“I have felt worse,” she told him as lightly as she could manage. “I think,” she added doubtfully, “though I really can’t remember when.”
Bart laughed indulgently. “But you did have a wonderful time. Don’t try to deny that.”
“It was a lovely party,” she assured him. “So many… interesting people. Some I’d never met before.”
“And some I hope I never meet again,” he told her dolefully. “What sort of dank rocks do they spring from under when word gets around that I’m throwing a whindig?”
She chuckled, then said archly, “I hope you don’t include Vincent in that group.”
“Vincent? Was there actually a Vincent? Ah, yes. It all comes back to me now. Shame on you. What has that gauche fellow got that I haven’t?”
“I… rather liked him,” she said delicately.
“And made it quite evident, my love. Yes, indeed. None of us doubted that your intentions toward him were strictly dishonorable. Tell me, frankly, how was it?”
Aline’s cheeks flamed and she strove to keep her voice casual. “Didn’t you know? Ralph brought me home. All perfectly safe and proper.”
“I never knew any homecoming with Ralph to be safe and proper,” he chuckled. “And I didn’t know he snatched you away at the last. You and the Vincent slug disappeared about the same time, and I confess I had shameful thoughts about you two.”
“You can forget them,” she told him lightly, “and that’s really why I’m calling. Who is Vincent Torn, Bart? Where does he live?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea, my love. Gerry dragged him along. Gerry Howard, you know.”
“No. I don’t believe I do.”
“Writing chap. Books and things like that. I thought you knew Gerry. I have his phone number if you want to call up and pump him.”
“I’d like to, Bart.”
“Just a minute until I find my book. But why in the name of sweet Jesus an entrancing trollop like you wants to track down a specimen like Vincent Torn is utterly beyond my feeble comprehension. Hold it a minute.”
Aline waited with the receiver at her ear. In a moment Bart’s voice came through again.
“Here it is.” And he repeated a Butterfield number which was etched on Aline’s memory from the preceding evening.
She thanked Bart for the help, and hung up.
So it must have been Gerry Howard who had answered when she tried to call Torn. A “writing chap,” according to Bart. They had the same telephone number.
Her buzzer from the lobby entrance sounded as she turned away from the phone. Her heart beat violently against her ribs as she walked to the small entrance and lifted the mouthpiece. The police? Could they have traced her so quickly?
She said, “Yes?” and a man’s voice responded formally, “Miss Aline Ferris?”
“You probably don’t remember me, but I met you last night at Bart’s party. Gerry Howard. May I see you?”
She said helplessly, “I… guess so,” and pressed the button that would admit him to the building.
What could he want with her? What did he know about last night? A thousand questions tore at her mind while she waited at the door listening for the elevator to stop at her floor. When she heard footsteps in the corridor, she turned the knob slowly and opened the door.
Gerry Howard was slender and dark and dapper. He wore a loose tweed jacket and fawn-colored slacks and a tan sports shirt, and was bareheaded. There was a knowing smile on his face as he approached Aline. Something like a smirk, yet not exactly that. A smile that shared understanding with her, that said without words: You and I know things that are hidden from ordinary mortals. We know them because we are kindred souls, because we are numbered among the initiates.
The implication of his expression repelled Aline, yet frightened and fascinated her. She stood aside as he entered, then closed the door. He paused close beside her, appraising her sexually, with his eyes, nodded his sleek black head approvingly and pursed his thin lips.
He said, “I must have been pretty tight last night. God forgive me, I asked Vinnie what the hell he saw in you when he raved about his new conquest. Now I see, damn it. I was a fool not to see it last night.”
He moved against her abruptly, pinning her against the door, his chest against her breasts, his pelvic bone pressed to hers. He was no taller than she, and his eyes were level with hers, his pouting lips brazenly waiting a quarter of an inch from her mouth.
Aline Ferris wriggled aside and slapped him hard on the left cheek. She was panting violently, and her response was purely automatic.
His expression changed to one of speculation when she slapped him. His lips parted and the tip of his tongue flicked out to move from left to right. He nodded and said dispassionately:
“Much, much too good for Vinnie. He’d never know what to do with a hellcat like you. I shall put you in my next book.”
He turned away from her with seeming lack of interest, strolled over to the couch and dropped down on it. A single lock of black hair fell aslant his forehead, giving him a rakish look, and Aline had a feeling that he had carefully trained it to lie there.
She went over to a chair across the room from him and sat down. “What do you want here?” she demanded angrily.
He looked at her with speculative amusement. “Do I have to say it in four-letter words?”
“No. But I don’t even know you.”
“Does that make a difference?”
“It didn’t make much last night with Vinnie.”
“Vinnie who? What are you talking about?”
“This is like a slice of dialogue from a particularly bad soap opera,” he said wearily. “The writer has so many pages to fill before the climax of a scene, and so his characters spar along page after page. Let’s not you and me spar.”
“I was not sparring,” Aline responded with spirit. “You’re a total stranger and you ring my bell and demand entrance to my apartment and then start insulting me.”
“Insulting you?” he asked with a slow grin. “Is any woman ever really insulted when a male tells her she is sexually desirable?”
“It depends on the male,” she told him tartly.
He leaned back and lazily got a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, took one out and lighted it, then calmly spun the matchstick on the rug.
“Where’s Vincent?” The two words lashed out at her like the angry crack of a whip.
“Vincent who?” she lashed back.
“My buddy. The lad you hogtied and lashed to the mast last night at Bart’s party. Come off it, woman,” he went on impatiently. “What did you do with him?”
“What makes you think I did anything with him?”
He shook his head sadly. “Here we go again. This isn’t a soap opera. Vinnie Torn. Haven’t got him stashed around here, have you?”
“Uh-huh. I didn’t think so, else you wouldn’t have telephoned him a little while ago. It was you on the phone?” he challenged, pointing his cigarette at her as though he levelled a lethal weapon at her breast.
“How did you know?” Aline’s voice faltered slightly.
“Your voice for one thing. It is good, you know. One of the best things about you. Sexy and intimate. Besides, there has been no other woman in Vinnie’s life for months. What have you done with him?”
“Now, you’re sparring,” she accused angrily. “I don’t know what happened to your precious Vinnie. Last time I saw him was at Bart’s party.”
“I happen to know,” he said slowly and emphatically, “that you and he slipped out together. He told me not to look for him home until late… that you and he had plans, for a few hours. But… where is he now?”
“I don’t know,” she confessed miserably. “That’s why I telephoned to ask for him. If you want to know the exact truth,” she went on angrily, determined not to let her voice break again, “I passed out cold at Bart’s party. I don’t know what happened.”
He eyed her speculatively under sweeping black lashes. “Where were you when you finally came to?”
“That’s not anyone’s business,” she told him defiantly.
“Perhaps not. But Vinnie is my business. I’ve been looking after him for years and I intend to keep on doing so. Where did you leave him? In what condition?”
“I told you the last time I saw him was at the party when I left.”
“And I know you’re lying. You and he left together. See here! You say you passed out. How do you know who you left with or what you did?”
“I’ve done some checking this morning. A man named Ralph Barnes brought me home. You can ask him if you like.”
“I suppose he’d lie for you if you asked him to,” Gerry said with indifference. “I happen to know this much: Vinnie took me aside at the party a little before midnight and said he was taking you with him. And not to worry if he didn’t get back to our place until quite late. When I got home about an hour later, he wasn’t in. He hasn’t come in yet… or phoned or anything. So what am I supposed to think?”
“I don’t care what you think,” she snapped.
He grinned with mocking arrogance. “I could make you care.” He got up and moved across the room, leaned over her and gazed into her eyes with what she realized he must consider hypnotic intensity.
Aline had never felt less susceptible to hypnotism. She glared back into his eyes and said, “Get out of my apartment before I call the police.”
He continued to lean over her and his expression did not change. It was as though he had not heard her. She felt a strange dizziness coming over her, and closed her eyes suddenly. She kept them closed while he pressed his lips hard against hers.
Gerry Howard withdrew his lips quickly, crossed the room to the door and went out.
Aline didn’t open her eyes until she heard the door close behind him. She felt dazed and bewildered, and the familiar room looked unfamiliar. She got up and went to the couch and slumped down on it, pressed her hands over her eyes and tried to put Gerry Howard out of her thoughts.
What now? What could she do next?
While she was debating that question her telephone rang. She jumped, startled by the sound. Then she steeled herself to answer it, trying to steady the beat of her heart as she lifted the receiver.
“Hello,” she breathed into the mouthpiece.
A woman’s angry voice answered, strident, and speaking fast as though she had keyed herself up to the task:
“Aline! This is Ina Dreer and I’m warning you to stay away from Dirk after this. Do you hear me? Stay away from him. If he’s with you now, you can tell him it’s me calling and he’d better get out of there fast if he ever expects to come home again.”
“Whatever are you talking about, Ina?” asked Aline, aghast. “Why would Dirk be here?”
“If he shows up, you send him packing. Hear me?”
“I hear you,” said Aline coldly. “But nothing you’ve said makes any sense. I have no reason to expect Dirk here.”
“Oh, no? Well, when he flung away from me an hour ago he said he’d see you any damned time he wanted to and what could I do to stop him? You slut, you!” Ina’s voice sprayed venom. “Keeping him out all hours and then sending him back to me so nasty-drunk I have to clean up his vomit. Let me tell you a thing or two right now. If you think for one minute…”
“But I didn’t,” Aline broke in determinedly.
“Keep him out all hours. I’ve never been out with Dirk in my life.”
“That’s what he said, too,” shrilled Ina. “But don’t think I didn’t do some checking up last night when he didn’t come home from Bart’s party where he slipped off by himself. I’ve got some friends, too, you know. And they told me plenty. I know well enough where he was… and why you didn’t answer your phone all last night. I suppose you precious two lay up in bed together and laughed and laughed while it rang… while I tore my heart out trying to call him. Well, you listen to me, Miss Bitch! Dirk’s my husband. He’s never done such a thing to me before, and he never will again if I have to castrate him. How’d you like that? You tell him I said so and to come home!”
Ina Dreer was sobbing hysterically when she hung up.
Aline replaced the receiver with shaking hands. Her legs felt rubbery and there was a churning in her stomach. What a mess it all was! Somehow, the problem of the dead man wasn’t nearly so acute, now, as this new development.
Poor, dear Dirk. Just because he had kissed her a couple of times at the party. Just because he had sought a little human sympathy and understanding. How could this horrid accusation be built on so small a foundation? It hadn’t meant anything. Really it hadn’t. Just a little amorous dalliance between good friends.
Then a frightening realization came to her: That’s the way she remembered it. Up to the third martini. Up to the point she had blacked out.
Again she flung herself on the couch, this time because she felt too weak to stand.
What had happened after that? How much of Ina’s hysterical accusation was true? Why had she and Ralph fought over the way she and Dirk were carrying on, as Doris had said?
Dirk, and the stranger named Vincent Torn!
What in the name of God had she done after that third martini?
Aline was still lying face down on the couch fifteen minutes later when there was a knock on her door. She rolled over dazedly and sat up.
The knock was repeated. It wasn’t exactly a furtive knock, but it sounded hesitant. As though the person standing outside weren’t exactly sure whether it was the right door or not, or whether Aline would welcome his or her presence.
She pulled herself to her feet and went to the door and opened it. The sight of the big, blond Viking standing there, with boyishly tousled hair and a wistful, wishful sort of smile on his lips brought a sudden smarting to Aline’s eyes.
She whispered, “Dirk! My God, Dirk! What are you doing here? Ina just telephoned. She’s terribly upset.”
He said, “I know. I’m horribly sorry, my dear. Everything seems to have gotten itself in pretty much of a tangle.” He hesitated momentarily. “May I come in? Or would you rather I went away and never came back?”
Aline laughed shakily. “Please do come in.” She held the door open wide for him. “After what Ina suspects about last night, nothing that happens now can matter very much.
“I know exactly what you mean.” His eyes were bloodshot and his suit looked as though he had slept in the gutter in it. He entered her living room and sat down heavily. “I’m in an apologetic mood this morning,” he confessed unhappily. “If I owe you one… or many… please consider them as being very humbly offered.”
“I’m not at all sure that you owe me any.” Aline closed the door and turned to look down at him curiously. “Before we go into any of that, how the dickens did you get up to my apartment without buzzing me from outside?”
“I used your key.” He looked surprised and opened his clenched palm to show her a flat key. “An extra you had last night. Don’t you remember giving it to me at Bart’s?”
Aline shook her head slowly, sinking down onto the couch opposite him. “I’m sorry, Dirk,” she said wearily. “I don’t remember. Did I really?”
“Dear God!” Dirk spread out his hands piously. “Don’t tell me you forget things too?”
“I’m afraid I lost a lot of last night.”
“Oh, no! I’d depended on you. Didn’t I come up here after the party as you asked me to?”
“I don’t know,” Aline confessed miserably. “You see, I passed out, too. Honestly, Dirk, I don’t remember a single thing after my third martini.” She hesitated, biting her underlip in embarrassment. “What the hell?” she burst out angrily. “We won’t get anywhere beating around the bush. I remember you making love to me. Not too much, but nicely. But I didn’t know I gave you my key.”
“Then you passed out before I did,” Dirk said lugubriously.
“And I’d depended on you to put me straight on what happened.” He paused to take a deep breath, and went on rapidly, “I came to in my own place about four o’clock this morning with Ina in hysterics and accusing me of having spent the night with you. Seems she’d phoned around and had been told that you and I had sort of made some passes at each other at the party. I indignantly denied everything, but when I found your key in my pocket, I thought of course this is where I’d been all the time. If I didn’t come here, where the devil did I go?”
“I’m sure you weren’t here. Or, if you were, you were here alone.”
“When did you get in?” he asked unhappily.
Aline hesitated. A dreadful and horrible doubt was beginning to take possession of her mind. “How much do you remember about Bart’s party?” she demanded.
Dirk shrugged. “Dimly, right up to the last. You deserted me, you know. For some other man. A chap I’d never met before. Most unattractive, I thought him. But you whispered to me that it would be much safer for us both, there among people who knew us, if you pretended to be interested in someone else. You promised me faithfully,” he added sadly, “that you would get rid of him and be waiting for me here. Then you disappeared, and I lost track of just what happened. I naturally supposed I had come here.”
“You don’t remember anything after the party broke up?” demanded Aline.
“Nothing. It remains a complete blank. I couldn’t admit that to Ina, of course,” he went on hurriedly. “I made up a long story for her benefit about meeting a couple of strange men in a bar and drinking with them. Not that she believed me. She’s convinced I was here with you, and her conviction strengthened my own. Where were you if not here?”
Aline Ferris hesitated before answering him, biting her underlip uncertainly. She wanted terribly to confide in Dirk. To pour out every horrible detail to him and to beg for his advice. Did she dare to do it?
Could he be mixed up in it, too, somehow? The thought was utterly fantastic, but she couldn’t put it wholly away from her. She evidently had given him her extra key last night and invited him to come up after the party even though she didn’t remember doing so. With that incentive, and in a state of drunkenness, could he possibly have followed her… seen her meet Vincent Torn outside the cocktail lounge?
She shuddered violently and avoided his eyes, saying miserably, “I’m in a terrible mess, Dirk. I don’t know what to do, where to turn. I wish you had come here last night. If you only had! And stayed with me. I’d be almost willing to have Ina know about it, if it were only true.”
Dirk settled back in his chair and studied her downcast face with troubled eyes. “Tell me about it, Aline. Perhaps I can help. God knows, I’ll try.”
“I… I… all right, Dirk,” she burst out. “I think I’ll have to. I feel as though I’ll go mad if I don’t talk to someone. You say I passed out first at the party… that you remember another man whom I played up to in order to keep the others from suspecting the truth about us. Do you remember his name?”
“I don’t believe I heard it. He was a complete stranger to me. I know I was quite jealous of him, but kept telling myself you didn’t mean it really and were just doing it for camouflage.”
“Does the name Vincent Torn mean anything to you?”
He shook his head wearily. “Afraid not.”
She drew in a deep breath and told him swiftly: “It will by this time tomorrow after you read the paper. He’s dead, Dirk. Lying alone in a hotel room where I went with him, God help me. I don’t know why I did it,” she cried out wildly. “Don’t ask me why. I don’t even know the man. Consciously, I mean. I’m not aware of ever having seen him until I woke up early this morning in a hotel room with his dead body the only other occupant.”
“Are you serious, Aline? How did the man die?”
“I don’t know,” she confessed piteously. “That is, I do know how, of course. He was murdered, Dirk. With a knife. There was blood all over. But I didn’t do it!” Her voice rose, hysterical and shrill. “I couldn’t have. Don’t you see? Even though I was unconscious at the time it happened. There was no knife there in the room. Nothing that could possibly have done it to him.”
Dirk’s face was pale, his eyes deeply troubled. He said gently, “I think you had better tell me all about it. Every single thing. This sounds very serious.”
“Serious?” With an effort she choked off wild laughter. “That’s one of the understatements of all times. Any moment now, the police will be here accusing me of his murder. And I can’t possibly prove I didn’t do it. This is the way it happened, Dirk.”
She paused and asked uncertainly, “Would you like a drink before I start?”
Dirk shook his blond head decidedly. “I’m afraid there’s already been much too much drinking. We both need clear heads to cope with this.”
Aline sat very erect and began her story in a small, tight voice. She omitted nothing, or at least, tried to omit nothing. Not even the horrible detail about the two-dollar bill tucked in her stocking and her own reaction on discovering it there.
Dirk did not speak once or move while she went rapidly over every incident that had occurred after she awakened in the hotel room. His face was gravely concerned and he sat well back on the sofa, long legs stretched out in front of him, eyes narrowed and brooding down at the tips of his shoes.
“So I just don’t know what to think,” Aline ended despairingly after quoting his wife’s virulent words over the telephone. “That was the first time I knew you and I had gotten serious about each other last night.”
“And the thought immediately sprang into your mind,” he told her morosely, “that I might be the one who killed your friend.”
“I… I…,” she faltered and was silent.
“And the fact is, Aline, that neither of us can possibly say it wasn’t I who did it.” Dirk’s voice was controlled and dispassionate. “It seems quite possible. I was jealous of the man, you know. I’ve admitted that. Suppose I did see you leave with him? Suppose I drove here a short time later, feeling fully confident that you would get rid of him and be waiting for me as you had promised; and as I passed the cocktail lounge down the street I saw you waiting outside and get in a car with him?”
Dirk paused and his full lips twisted painfully. “How can I truthfully say what I might or might not have done under those circumstances? How can any man know? I don’t believe any man has ever truthfully known himself. It takes a psychoanalyst years to dig beneath the surface of any one human being and know what really lies beneath.”
“Do you mean that, Dirk? Do you think…?”
“How do I know what to think?” he demanded somberly. “You admit that the most obvious motive for Torn’s death is sexual jealousy. Yet you were forced to discard that because you didn’t believe any man cared enough about you to be jealous. But I loved you last night, Aline, in my fashion. Who can possibly know or judge what happened to my reasoning faculties last night when alcohol took possession of me? Who knows what savage, atavistic traits came up from far beneath the surface? Of course, I don’t believe it for a moment. How can I? What civilized man could believe such a thing about himself? On the other hand, how can I possibly be sure?”
“Oh God, Dirk!” she sobbed, throwing herself forward on her knees before him and pressing her face into his lap. “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to face every possibility as calmly as possible and then go on from there,” he told her sternly. “Hysterics won’t help. There’s nothing definite, yet, to connect you with Torn or the hotel room except the telephone call you made to him at midnight. In other words, though many persons seem to suspect you left the party with Torn, you know you didn’t. You can prove that. Ralph Barnes drove you home and left you here. But for the accident of having left your bag and keys in his car, I’d like to think you would have come right upstairs and waited for me.”
“But I didn’t,” she said tearfully. “As soon as the police learn that I telephoned Mr. Torn, they’ll know I met him and went to the hotel with him.”
“They’ll suspect it strongly,” he agreed. “Not only that, Aline, they’ll also suspect strongly that I may have followed you there, gained access to the room somehow, and killed Torn in a jealous rage. With no knowledge or proof as to where I was at the time, I’m wide open to any sort of accusation.”
“What are we going to do?” Aline sank back on her haunches and looked up into his face appealingly. “It’s all my fault, you see. Whether you did or didn’t do anything. My untamed sexiness when I get tight. First, leading you on and making an assignation with you, and then faithlessly switching my desire to Vincent Torn whom I didn’t even know from Adam. I deserve anything that happens to me.”
“We’re going to see that nothing happens,” he said sternly. Then he sighed and added wistfully, “If we could only prove we spent the four hours from midnight onward here together. That would solve everything… for both of us.”
“No one can prove we didn’t,” she said hopefully.
He shook his head. “Except Ralph Barnes with his knowledge of your telephone call. If you’d only foreseen this, and gone to the bar yourself to inquire. Then we’d be quite safe. The bartender doesn’t know who you phoned, and there’d be no reason for him to come forward with information about the matter.”
“It’s too late to think about that now. Ralph does know. He even knows the number I called. As soon as he learns that Mr. Torn is dead, he’ll check the number and then he’ll know.”
“That’s true.” Dirk was frowning thoughtfully. He cleared his throat and said, “Please tell me honestly, Aline. Ralph goes for you in a big way, doesn’t he?”
Aline hesitated before replying. She wanted desperately to be honest with Dirk. It was easy, somehow. She said thoughtfully, “Just about as big as Ralph is capable of going for any woman. You know how he is.” She was thinking about Doris as she spoke. How Ralph had turned to her so easily last night… and then turned away from her back to Aline just as easily this morning. “He’s completely amoral. Like any tomcat prowling the back alleys.”
“I know,” said Dirk rapidly, “but he does like you, and I gather his ego was severely wounded when you sent him away last night. You didn’t tell him anything about Torn?” he asked urgently. “He has no idea at all that the midnight telephone call you made may involve you in a murder case as a suspect?”
“No!” Aline shuddered. “I told him nothing. I didn’t dare. You’re the only person who knows, Dirk.”
“If he did know how important that telephone call is to you,” pointed out Dirk, “isn’t it quite possible he would be willing to remain quiet about it? As a favor to you?”
“I don’t know,” said Aline doubtfully. “Just at this moment, Ralph isn’t in a mood to do me any favors.”
“But he could be put into such a mood without too much trouble,” said Dirk. He rose and strode across the living room, his face grave and deeply troubled. “You and I are both caught in the same sort of trap,” he told her despondently. “Without knowing what we did last night, neither of us can possibly prove we had no hand in Vincent Torn’s death. Once the police get onto the affair and dig into what happened at Bart’s party, we’ll be equally suspect. Don’t you see how perfect it would be for us both if we could alibi each other by swearing we were here in your place together from midnight until four o’clock?”
“It’s the perfect solution,” she agreed. “And no one could ever prove otherwise if I hadn’t made the telephone call to Mr. Torn.”
“About which no one can give evidence except Ralph Barnes.” Dirk strode to her side and took her arm firmly in his grasp. “If I know anything at all about Ralph, you should have no real difficulty persuading him to remain quiet about that. He needn’t actually lie when the police question him. He need only tell the truth about bringing you home from Bart’s and dropping you here. If he doesn’t mention the telephone call, the police will never know you didn’t come directly upstairs to spend the next few hours with me.”
“Wait a minute,” she faltered. “When you speak of persuading Ralph… you know what he will expect in payment?”
Dirk nodded gravely, his eyes holding hers. “I can easily guess. But, remember your danger, Aline. And the position I’m in myself.” His voice was deep-throated and strong. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret later, but think it over very carefully before you decide either way.”
Aline nodded and drew in a deep breath. “Don’t forget about Doris,” she warned him. “She knows I was out on the street at four o’clock without my purse and with no key to my apartment.”
“I think Doris will play along. She isn’t the sort who’d want to make trouble for you. She doesn’t know about the phone call, of course, and has no reason to suspect you were with Torn. You might even tell her that you and I were together, but ask her not to tell Ralph.
“And, of course, Ralph mustn’t know we’re going to tell the police we were together. He knows we weren’t. And he mustn’t know he’s providing me with an alibi at the same time, or he’d probably balk. But if he thinks he’s simply doing you a favor by keeping you out of a nasty mess, I hardly think he’ll refuse.”
“I don’t think he will, either,” agreed Aline breathlessly. “It is the right thing, isn’t it? Since I do know I’m completely innocent but have no way of proving it.”
“Innocent persons have been convicted before this,” Dirk reminded her gravely. “I think I’d better run along now and try to pacify Ina. You’d better have a talk with Ralph right away.”
“I will,” Aline promised, moving with him to the door. “You’ll never understand how much good it’s done me just to be able to talk with you, Dirk.”
“I think I do know.” He smiled wearily. “Remember, I’m in the same boat. Call me about Ralph?”
Aline told him she would. As he hesitated in the doorway, she rose impulsively on her toes and touched her lips lightly to his.
Then he was gone and she was alone in the apartment. She felt almost light-hearted now. It was going to be all right. If she could persuade Ralph not to tell the police about her midnight phone call, no one could possibly prove she hadn’t been with Dirk during the time Vincent Torn was being murdered.
That was the end of Elsie Murray’s manuscript. I laid it aside with an empty feeling of regret. If she had only gone on a little further!
But here was enough, it seemed to me, to provide a definite motive for her own murder. If the events in her story had happened (as she assured me they had) substantially as related by her, it seemed to me that at least one of her characters had a perfect reason for wanting the manuscript suppressed.
Poor silly Elsie! From the way she wrote about Dirk, it appeared that she was wholly unaware how cleverly he had used her in setting up an alibi for himself while pretending to provide her with one.
It is one of the classic gimmicks in detective fiction, of course, and I recognized it instantly.
But who was the man she called Dirk in her script? That was the burning question. She had told me that she had carefully changed all names and physical descriptions of the people involved, but it shouldn’t be too difficult, I thought, to identify him once one learned more about the girl herself and her associates.
The important thing was to get a duplicate copy made before the police came and impounded the one I had.
I looked at the slip of paper on which Ed Radin had written the address of the duplicating firm. It was a low number on West 45th Street. My watch said it was five o’clock. I slid Elsie’s manuscript back into its manila envelope, put on my hat and a light topcoat. With the envelope inside my coat and held through the cloth with my right hand in my coat pocket, no one would notice that I was carrying anything as I left the hotel.
I didn’t try to get out without being seen. I went down in the elevator, stepped out into the lobby briskly and nodded to the clerk at the desk just as though it was my regular custom to take a five A.M. constitutional. I went out onto 52nd Street and turned left to Madison Avenue, took off my eyepatch as I left the hotel and put it in my pocket.
I waited at the deserted corner only a matter of minutes before a cruising cab pulled in to the curb. I told the driver to drop me at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 45th, and he looked puzzled but didn’t ask any questions.
When he dropped me there, I walked west along 45th, taking the envelope from under my coat as I did so.
The address was a small hotel such as that particular district is dotted with. A clerk was dozing at the desk, and he yawned when I asked for the Overnight Duplicating Service, motioned to a corridor leading to the left off the rear of the lobby and said, “I think there’s someone working now. If they don’t answer the door I can call them.”
I went along the corridor to a door with a sign on it, and the word ENTER beneath.
Inside was a tiny reception hall with a waist-high shelf separating it from two rooms. One door was closed, but the other was open and the room was lighted. I could hear movement inside but couldn’t see anyone, and I called, “Anybody home?”
A man’s voice answered, “Be right with you.”
He came out in a moment, shirt-sleeved and weary-faced. I put the manuscript on the shelf and told him, “I’m a friend of Ed Radin, and he asked me to bring this by for him. A particular rush job. Can you knock out one copy fast for him?”
“For Ed Radin, I can and will. Let me look at it and try one sheet and I’ll tell you exactly how long it’ll take.” He opened the envelope and took out a sheet, looked at it with a nod of approval and said, “Ought to go through all right. Just a moment.” He stepped inside the lighted room and went to the rear out of my sight, and was back within a minute with the original sheet and a duplicate of it on good heavy paper in blue ink.
I glanced at it and saw it was perfectly legible, and said, “My God, that is fast.”
He nodded absently and riffled through the sheets, glancing at the final page number. “Only fifty-six pages,” he muttered. “You want to wait?”
He shrugged. “Fifteen or twenty minutes.”
I said, “I’d like a cup of coffee. Any place open around?”
“There’s a Childs’ on Sixth Avenue a little way up.”
I thanked him and went out and over to Sixth Avenue, putting my eyepatch on again. I found the restaurant almost deserted, ordered scrambled eggs with crisp bacon and coffee, and when the order came I made a fuss about the bacon not being crisp enough, and sent it back for more cooking. That, with my eyepatch and the earliness of the hour would impress my presence on the waitress, I thought, if the police did question me about my early morning stroll from the hotel. I left her a fifty-cent tip to further catch her attention, went back to the place on 45th, removing my patch again before entering.,
The duplicate was ready when I got there. I asked him how much and he told me two-eighty and I paid him, taking the original script and telling him, “Ed Radin will be in to pick up the duplicate copy later. Will you hold it here for him?”
He said he’d be glad to, and I went out, walked up Fifth Avenue to 52nd and east to the Berkshire, replacing my eyepatch and slipping the large envelope inside my coat again.
It wasn’t quite six o’clock when I reentered my suite. I laid the manila envelope on the coffee table, dropped my hat on top of it. Then I poured out a big slug of cognac and carried it in to the bedroom where I stretched out without undressing. I drank it straight down and left the light on while I smoked one cigarette and reviewed my situation as dispassionately as I could.
I wasn’t frightened or particularly worried. I simply couldn’t believe I was really a murder suspect. True, I was the last person known to have seen Elsie Murray before her death, and I had absolutely no proof that she had been alive when I left her apartment. There would be plenty of tough questioning I knew, and plenty of official suspicion. But all I had to do was tell the simple truth and stick with it. They couldn’t prove I was lying, because I wouldn’t lie. Except about the telephone calls to Radin and Shayne, and my trip to the duplicating place. And even if they did dig out the truth about those, they weren’t particularly damning. They were exactly what an innocent man would have done (what an innocent man had done, I corrected myself).
No. I wasn’t squirming or frightened. I found myself looking forward with interest toward the police interrogation that was to come, speculating on the questions that would be asked and mentally framing the answers I would make.
As a writer I couldn’t help appreciating the opportunity I was going to have to watch an actual homicide case develop from the inside. Not only would I see and hear the cops at work, but I would actually experience much of what I’d had to imagine in the past while writing about such cases.
I realized and admitted frankly to myself, that having Ed Radin and Michael Shayne on my side made a great big hell of a difference about the way I felt. Without those two to back me up, I might well have been frightened. But I had absolute faith in Shayne’s ability to solve any case presented to him. He had never failed in the past, and this time it was his best friend in trouble.
I didn’t know anything about Ed Radin’s abilities as a detective, but I did know he was almost universally liked and respected by the New York homicide men, and his vouching for my character and integrity would carry a lot of weight. At least, I wouldn’t get any undue pushing round such as might happen to another poor devil in my position and without my friends.
I put out my cigarette and turned out the light, closed my eyes and began mentally going back over Elsie’s script step by step. It seemed almost certain that she, herself, had been unaware that what she had written was a threat to anyone. Else she wouldn’t have dared write it in the first place with the thought of publication in mind. And if she had put it down on paper, she certainly would not have allowed the person whose safety was threatened to read it.
No. It seemed obvious that Elsie had no idea who the killer was in her story. That’s why she had given up writing it. She had said she had a fictional solution worked out, but no idea what the real truth was.
Yet, I was convinced the truth was hidden there in her typescript. One of the characters involved with Aline Ferris in the earlier affair had murdered the man she called Vincent Torn. And now he had murdered Elsie and stolen a copy of the script from her apartment to prevent her from showing it to me.
Dirk, of course, was the obvious suspect. In fact, he seemed to me the only real possibility among the four involved.
I tried to put Dirk out of my mind, pretending for the moment that this was wholly fictional and thus the most obvious suspect should be eliminated.
That left Bart, Ralph, Doris and Gerry. Well, Ina, too. Dirk’s wife. Though it was difficult to see what possible motive she could have for killing Vincent Torn. There was nothing to indicate she even knew the man. If the motive for Torn’s death had been jealousy, that certainly left Ina Dreer out.
And also Doris. Unless, by chance, Doris had secretly been in love with Torn. But she was alibied by Ralph. Just as he was alibied by her. Almost exactly the same sort of situation as existed between Aline and Dirk.
In that case… if it were a manufactured alibi… Ralph was a possibility. The presence of Aline’s bag in his car was highly suspicious. Of course, he had glibly explained how it came there, but was that explanation the true one?
Could Ralph have driven Aline to the Halcyon Hotel… followed by Torn? Could not Torn have discovered them together and been killed by Ralph in an ensuing fight?
No. We knew Ralph had left her on her doorstep as he claimed. The telephone call to Torn proved she had gone into the cocktail lounge and borrowed a dime from the bartender after Ralph dropped her.
It all began to get hazy and tenuous when I reached that point in my speculations. I kept coming back to Dirk, and the clever manner in which he had induced Aline to provide him with an alibi while leading her to believe he was doing her a favor by providing her with one.
Once we found out the true identity of the man whom Elsie called Dirk, I felt we’d be well on the way to the solution of two murders.
So I rolled over and went to sleep.
At eight-forty in the morning, a taxicab deposited a tall, rangy redheaded man at the door of the Berkshire hotel. He carried a small, zippered overnight bag and wore a light tan Palm Beach suit and a creamy Panama tilted back on his forehead. He strode in briskly, waving aside the doorman who reached for his bag, went to the desk and said, “Brett Halliday?” to the clerk.
The clerk looked at him speculatively and said, “Oh yes, Halliday.” He cleared his throat rather loudly, glanced beyond the redhead at a man wearing a gray business suit who was conversing in low tones with the Bell Captain. He said, “One moment,” and stepped behind a partition to the switchboard, and the man in the gray suit sauntered up beside the desk and said quietly, “Were you asking for Halliday?”
The rangy man turned slowly to look at him. He saw a pleasant face with a strong jaw and alert blue eyes. He asked curtly, “What’s your interest?”
The man opened his wallet and displayed a badge. He said, “Detective Grayson from the Precinct. You a friend of Halliday?”
The redhead nodded, his gray eyes narrowing slightly. “From Miami, Florida. Michael Shayne.”
The clerk had returned to his position behind the desk, and he leaned forward eagerly as Shayne gave his name. “I thought I recognized you from your last trip, Mr. Shayne.” He said to the New York detective: “You know… this is Michael Shayne. The detective…”
Grayson nodded. He said flatly, “I know. Want to come along up, Shayne?”
“Sure. But what the hell is this?” protested the redhead. “Is Brett in some kind of trouble?”
“They’ll tell you all about it upstairs.” Grayson led the way to a waiting elevator and they went up. They got out and went down the corridor to the open door of a hotel suite. Three men were in the sitting room. They all turned to look as Grayson said from the doorway, “Here’s a friend of Halliday’s just got in from Miami. Name of Michael Shayne.”
All three of the men were dressed conservatively in dark suits. “Dick” was stamped unmistakably on the faces of two of them. The third was a solidly built man. A pleased smile lighted his face as he hurried forward with outstretched hand. “Mike Shayne! You couldn’t have turned up at a better time. You any idea where Brett is?”
Shayne said, “My plane landed less than an hour ago. Halliday was expecting me to join him here this morning. Why are the cops interested?”
“We’ll do the talking, Ed,” the larger and older of the two plainclothesmen interposed. He had a lined face that was weary from lack of sleep. He introduced himself to Shayne without offering his hand. “I’m Peters, of the Precinct Squad. I’m carrying the case. This is Lieutenant Hogan from Homicide.”
“And I’m Ed Radin,” the first speaker interposed. “An old friend of Halliday trying to help out. I remember him telling me a couple of days ago that you were flying up for the weekend, and he promised to fix it for me to meet you.”
Shayne caught the nuance of anxiety in his tone and was instantly alerted to play along with the falsehood Radin had just told. He said, “You write too, don’t you? True crime stuff?”
“You and Ed can go into all that later on after you’ve answered a few questions,” said Peters impatiently. “Remember you’re sitting this one out on sufferance, Ed. Now, Shayne. Where’s Halliday hiding?” The three words came out like bullets.
Shayne looked astonished. “Hiding? What the hell from?”
“You claim you don’t know?”
“I don’t know one damned thing about any of this,” protested Shayne vehemently. “I flew up this morning to join Halliday for the weekend. He knew I was coming, and I expected him to be here waiting. That’s all I know. Now: What’s happened?”
“Not much,” said Peters pleasantly. “Looks as though he killed a dame last night and has taken it on the lam. You any ideas where he might try hiding?”
“Killed a dame?” echoed the redhead. “Brett Halliday? You must be crazy.”
“Maybe,” said Peters imperturbably. “We’ve got a dead woman and our only suspect is missing. You add it up.”
“I will,” said Shayne angrily. He turned to Ed Radin. “What’s the dope on all this?”
“It’s a long story,” Radin evaded. “Essentially, Brett’s the last person known to have seen the dead girl… and now he’s inexplicably missing when they come to question him. I’d like to give you the whole story,” he went on earnestly, “and see what you make of it. You must know him better than anyone else in the world, and we’re lucky you’re here to help out. Don’t you think so, Lieutenant?” he asked the tall officer from Homicide who hadn’t spoken yet.
“Oh, sure,” Hogan said sarcastically. “I’ve read some of those books about you, Shayne. Make one of your famous passes and give us Elsie Murray’s murderer, and we’ll all go home and get some sleep.”
A muscle twitched in Shayne’s jaw at the lieutenant’s sneering tone. He shrugged wide shoulders and deliberately walked across the room to a low table holding an almost empty bottle of cognac. “Anybody mind if I have a drink of Brett’s liquor?”
“Don’t touch the bottle or anything in the room,” said Peters sharply. “We haven’t fingerprinted anything yet.”
“Let’s get out some place where we can talk,” said Ed Radin wearily from behind him. “You don’t need us, do you?” he asked Peters.
“Hell no. You two smart lads go ahead and solve our case for us. In the meantime, if either of you are hiding Halliday, you’d better keep him damn well hid.”
“We’ll do that,” said Shayne angrily. He strode to the door and picked up his bag where he had dropped it, went out into the corridor followed by Radin.
Neither of them said anything until they reached the elevator. Then Radin removed his hat, rubbed his hand over his head wearily and said, “They’re not bad… for cops. They don’t know Brett personally, and damn it! he didn’t help matters by running out before they got to him.”
The elevator stopped and they got in. Downstairs, Shayne registered and gave his bag to a bellboy to take up to the room assigned to him while Radin waited silently. “Dining room’s through here,” the New York crime writer suggested. “How about food while we talk?”
“And drink,” said Shayne. He followed Radin through a small rear lobby into a cheerful dining room where a few early risers were at the white-covered tables. The captain led them to a secluded corner, but shook his head dolefully when Shayne told him, “I’ll start with a double slug of cognac. Monnet, if you’ve got it.”
“Sorry, sir, but that’s impossible. The bar is not open so early.”
“Wait a minute,” Shayne detained him as he started to turn away. “They must have something in the kitchen for a thirsty man. Cooking sherry, maybe?” He grinned widely. “In a coffee cup will be fine.”
He lifted his cupped hands from the table and a wadded bill lay on the white cloth. It disappeared and the captain turned away, saying briskly, “I will send a waiter for your order.”
Shayne settled back and lighted a cigarette, said quietly, “It’s sort of funny about Brett telling you two days ago that he expected me today.”
“It would be funnier,” said Radin morosely, “if he had told me that. I keep getting in deeper and deeper covering up for him,” he burst out. “If they ever learn the truth, I’ll be sunk in New York so far as any inside tracks are concerned.”
Shayne studied his face for a long moment, and knew he liked and trusted the man. He said, “We’ll have to see they don’t learn the truth. You know that Brett phoned me last night?”
Radin nodded. “He called me first. Later, he told me he’d called you and that you were flying up. He and I should have come clean right in the beginning,” he went on moodily. “It would have been much better if we hadn’t started covering up. But we didn’t know how bad it was at first… and he had that damned manuscript he wanted a chance to read before the cops grabbed it as possible evidence. I was fool enough to play along in the beginning, and now I’m in so deep I can’t get out from under.”
A waiter came to the table with a tray bearing a single coffee cup on a saucer. He deftly set it in front of Shayne, opened a sugar bowl and offered a pitcher of cream to the detective, his face blandly expressionless. Shayne lowered his head and sniffed the contents of the cup, told the man, “I’ll take it black, thanks,” and then he and Radin gave their breakfast orders. Shayne gulped half the contents of the cup as the waiter turned away, breathed a deep sigh of satisfaction and settled back to light a cigarette.
“Brett didn’t tell me much on the telephone. Just that he’d been with some girl, and she was murdered after he left her place. Fill me in.”
Ed Radin nodded and began at the beginning when he had been wakened from sound sleep by a telephone call from Brett Halliday asking him to check what had happened at Elsie Murray’s apartment.
He continued with a factual account of going there to observe the police investigation into her death, his subsequent brief visit with Halliday in the upstairs hotel suite, and how he had left him there to finish reading Elsie’s manuscript before taking it to be duplicated.
“And I don’t know whether he got the script to them for duplication or not,” he ended uneasily while the waiter placed their breakfast orders before them.
“I went home from the precinct about four-thirty to catch a few winks, and was back before eight when they got a telephone call from a man named Avery Birk who had read the early paper and reported that he had seen the dead girl leave the Henry Hudson Hotel about midnight with a mystery writer named Brett Halliday who was visiting in New York from Miami.
“I had to play that up to the hilt, of course, by telling them at once that I knew Brett quite well, and even knew the hotel he was staying at in the city. They let me come along… and there was no Brett when we got here. Door was locked. Bed was mussed as though he’d lain on it. Not a trace of Elsie’s manuscript in the room. Best information they could get from the clerk and elevator operator is that Brett went out quite openly about five o’clock. None of them noticed, though whether he was carrying a script or not. The operator thinks he came back about an hour later, but can’t swear to it. No one saw him after that. If he did come back, why did he go out again? Where to? I had impressed on him that it was vitally important he make absolutely no move to indicate to the police that he knew anything was wrong. That he wait calmly for them to find him… or for him to read about Elsie himself and volunteer to call them.”
“Isn’t it possible he’s still downtown waiting to get the script duplicated?”
“I hope not,” groaned Radin. “If he is and they find it out, it’ll throw everything haywire. I told him to use my name at the duplicators.”
“Why not telephone them now?” suggested Shayne.
“Sure. I’d better. I was wanting an excuse to get to a phone when you showed up.” Radin got up hastily and crossed the dining room to the telephone booths outside.
He returned in a few minutes and nodded as he reseated himself opposite Shayne. “I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. He did bring the script in a little after five o’clock. He picked it up half an hour later, leaving the duplicate copy for me. It’s there now. Where the devil did he vanish to at six o’clock in the morning? If he did come back to the hotel as the elevator operator thinks…” Radin paused uncertainly, shaking his head.
Shayne finished wolfing down his breakfast and poured himself a second cup of coffee. “Not being a writer myself, I’m afraid I don’t fully understand the significance you and Brett seem to place on the girl’s manuscript. Didn’t you say it was just a story she was writing?”
“This thing of Elsie Murray’s was much more. She told Brett that everything in it was actually true, that it had happened to her, and she had just changed the names and descriptions of the characters involved. And the carbon was missing from her apartment when the police got there, you know. It’s a funny damned thing for a murderer to steal… an unfinished manuscript. And there was the phone call just before Brett left her in which she told someone she planned to show it to him today. None of that is conclusive, but it could be the motive behind her death.”
“Brett probably decided he had spotted the clue in the manuscript,” Shayne said. “And like the damned impulsive fool he is, rushed out to grab the murderer himself before I got here to help him.”
“If he did spot the clue correctly…?” said Ed Radin.
“Then we may well have another murder on our hands already,” said Michael Shayne grimly. “Brett’s a nice guy and a hell of a competent writer, but he isn’t exactly the type I’d choose to confront a killer single-handed. Finish your breakfast and let’s take a look at the manuscript. If we can find what Brett thought he found, we may know where to start looking for him.”
Less than an hour later the two men were settled comfortably in Ed Radin’s cluttered office on Butcher’s Row in New York’s lower west side with the duplicated copy of Elsie Murray’s manuscript between them.
The duplicating office had been able to shed no light on Halliday’s disappearance. He had left with the original manuscript under his arm about six o’clock, and that was all they knew.
Radin began reading the manuscript first, laying the pages on the table between them for Shayne to pick up as he finished each one.
Both read in absorbed silence, Radin stopping occasionally to make a penciled note, Shayne plowing through the script a little more slowly, making no comment until he turned down the final page with a sigh and a shrug of his broad shoulders.
Having finished it ten minutes earlier, Radin was going through the drawers of a green metal filing cabinet beyond the battered desk that held his typewriter. He had taken a bottle of whiskey from the top drawer and set it on the table, and when Shayne sighed and turned down the final sheet, he turned to gesture to the bottle and say, “Help yourself, Shayne. There are paper cups by the water cooler.”
Shayne said, “Thanks,” and got up as Radin turned back to continue busily searching his file.
The redhead fitted two paper cups together and poured the inner one half full of whiskey, filled it to the brim with cold water and returned to his chair, frowning at Radin’s back and sipping the mixture slowly.
A few minutes later, Radin turned with several newspaper clippings in his hand, an expression of excitement on his face.
“This is what I was looking for,” said Radin triumphantly, waving the clips and reseating himself. “I had a nagging feeling of familiarity about it all the time I was reading the script. These clips are from the Times three months ago. I didn’t follow up the story because there was never anything to follow up, but I always file away case clippings on the chance it will be solved later.”
He cleared his throat and read a headline: “UNIDENTIFIED BODY FOUND IN HOTEL. WOMAN SOUGHT.”
“I remember the whole thing, so I won’t waste time reading it all to you,” he interpolated. “It does tie right in to Elsie’s story. The hotel maid in the Beloit on 23rd Street found the body at ten A.M. He was lying fully clothed on the floor with his head beaten in. Blood in the bathroom looked as though he’d been killed there and dragged out. No papers. No identification. He had registered with a woman about one A.M. under the name of… let’s see.” Radin consulted the clipping.
“Mr. and Mrs. Robert Pell of Greenwich, Connecticut. No street address. No luggage. They paid cash for the room. Woman was described by clerk as medium height and sort of dark. Under thirty and nice-looking. She appeared tight but able to navigate. No one saw her leave the hotel, but she had disappeared when the body was found. That’s all in the first clipping.”
Ed Radin laid it aside with satisfaction. “Does it begin to add up?”
“Wait a minute,” objected Shayne. “Your clipping says the Beloit Hotel on 23rd Street. The script calls it the Halcyon on upper Madison. And Elsie Murray had her man’s throat slashed. This one was slugged to death. Yet she told Halliday that her story was factual except for changing names and descriptions of the people involved.”
“I’d say it is still factual,” argued Radin. “Naturally, she’d change the name and location of the hotel. And the actual manner of the man’s death. A knife or a blunt instrument? That isn’t a change of fact. Not really. You’ve got to realize she hoped to have this story published, and she couldn’t afford to describe the scene so definitely that readers would remember the case from their newspapers.”
“How will we know how much else she may have changed to suit herself?”
“We won’t, for sure. But I’d guess she changed only the facts that appeared in the newspaper accounts. My interpretation of what she told Brett would be that she used the truth wherever it was possible without pointing the finger at her or any other real person. Let’s go on with it and see. Here’s the next day’s follow-up.”
He smoothed the second clipping out and glanced down it, nodding slowly:
“The body was identified that afternoon by the man’s room-mate, Alfred Hayes, who read a description and checked on it because his friend was missing. A man named Elbert Green. Shipping clerk in a publishing house. Unmarried, thirty-five and a quiet, studious type. Green and Hayes had been to a party the preceding evening… name of host considerately not mentioned… and Hayes told the police he was under the impression that Green might have left the party with one of the female guests, identity unknown to him (he claims).
“There isn’t much more on it,” Radin ended dolefully. “The principals weren’t important and nothing sensational developed. The next story simply says that police interrogated all the guests at the party and were given the name of one girl who several of them thought might have left with the murdered man. But she was able to produce an alibi in the person of another man who had actually driven her home, and that was that. Doesn’t say so here,” Radin went on, “but you can be sure the cops tried to get her identified by the people at the Beloit and failed. That doesn’t mean much either way, but with nothing more to go on, they’d have to drop her.”
He paused and laid the clippings aside. “What do you make of it?”
“I’d still think,” said Shayne, “it was just a jump-off for a purely fictional story except for one thing.”
“Her murder last night and the missing manuscript?”
“Exactly. That may be important. If Elsie Murray was the mystery woman in Elbert Green’s death, and if she wrote it up pretty much as it happened to her…” Shayne paused to frown and take a drink of his watered whiskey.
“That’s the crux,” said Radin emphatically. “Elsie’s death just as she was presumably on the eve of showing her script to Brett… a professional mystery writer who might come on an unpleasant truth which had eluded Elsie… that, and now Brett’s own disappearance. Those are two tangibles we can’t disregard.”
“We need a lot more information about Elsie herself,” said Shayne decisively, “and about all the people involved in the investigation of Elbert Green’s death three months ago. The room-mate, for instance. She describes him as an author. Was he? How close is her physical description of him to what he was?”
“It doesn’t say in the paper,” Ed Radin admitted. “I can follow that line up with my pipelines into the police files. Shall I mention the possibility that it may tie in with Elsie’s death?”
“I don’t see how you can unless you give them this script to read for themselves. Think you want to do that?”
“I don’t see how in hell I can without telling the whole story of how Brett came by it and how I advised him last night to sit tight and not stick his neck out. It’s a mess,” Radin ended ruefully.
“Not too much of one. Hell, if I know cops they wouldn’t have the brains to see anything in the script anyhow. If you’d given them Brett last night, they’d be spending all their time trying to sweat something out of him right now and the script would be disregarded. As it is, we can work on it.”
“If they were trying to sweat something out of him, we’d at least know he was alive and safe. Goddamn it, Mike! I wish to God…”
“No regrets,” said Shayne savagely, draining off his drink and swinging to his feet. “Never waste time on regrets. Maybe you did make a mistake. All right.” His voice was hard, the lines in his rugged face deepening to trenches as he glared down at the despondent writer. “Everybody makes mistakes. The man who’s worth a damn is the one who goes forward from each mistake he makes. Never look back. Right now, we’ve got to find Brett Halliday. Get off your dead butt and let’s move. You take the police angle on the Green case. I’ll pick up the Murray angle myself. If we can pull any threads of the two together, we may have something to work on. Will two hours be enough for you?”
The driving urgency in the redhead’s voice automatically brought Radin to his feet. He saw it for himself now. What Halliday had tried to describe in his accounts of Michael Shayne’s past cases. There was something in the man that wouldn’t let him fail. It was much more than conscious determination. Something from deep within that drove him on and on in the face of the most impossible odds. At this moment, with his best friend probably dead or in danger of death and with the man before him who might well be responsible for it, Michael Shayne wasted no moment nor one iota of energy on recriminations. When things went wrong, you picked up the pieces and went on.
Between his teeth, Ed Radin responded grimly, “Two hours will be plenty for me. Shall I meet you here?”
“Yes. We’ll leave the script and maybe it’ll mean more to us when we get back.” Michael Shayne grinned briefly and held out his hand.
“Don’t worry too much about Brett.” His voice was warm now, assured and vibrant. “I’ve known that guy for fifteen years and I’m not going to worry. We’ve got other things to do. Let’s roll. Where do I start getting background on Elsie Murray?”
“Gosh, I hardly know. The police hadn’t picked up much by this morning.”
“What about her job?”
“I don’t think she had one. I believe she told Brett she’d quit work a couple of months ago when she moved into the Johnson apartment and started writing this book. I’ve seen her around MWA meetings recently, but I don’t know any particular friends.”
“What about the fellow who turned Brett in this morning?”
“Avery Birk?” Ed Radin brightened. “He’d be one to ask. He’s hot on the tail of every gal who shows up at MWA without an escort carrying a sap. He wouldn’t get to first base with a girl like Elsie, but God how he would have tried. Seeing a perfect stranger like Brett walk off with her last night must have soured him plenty.”
“So he calls the cops quick when he hears about her,” agreed Shayne. “Where do I find him?”
“Some place in the Village, I think. I’ll call MWA headquarters and ask for his address.”
Radin turned to his telephone and dialed a number. He asked a question after identifying himself, and scribbled down the reply after waiting little over a minute. He handed the notation to Shayne, saying, “No telephone, but you’ll likely find him in this time of morning.”
Shayne pocketed it and they went out of the office together.
A congenitally frustrated Lothario, Avery Birk was feeling exceedingly well pleased with himself on this particular morning. He lay on his back on a wrinkled and soiled sheet covering a double bed on the third floor of a Village walk-up and contemplated the florid and erotic painting that covered the entire ceiling of the bedroom while he made little sucking sounds of satisfaction with thick lips and briefly considered the pleasures of sex.
Avery Birk never failed to find voluptuous pleasure in contemplating the painting over his bed. It reminded him of the one complete and undiluted sexual triumph in his life. The artist had been a horsy female from the midwest who was, if possible, even more sexually frustrated than he. He had met her, luckily, only a few days after her arrival in New York from some village in Indiana where she had spent forty-two drab years waiting for her widowed mother to die and leave her a small legacy with which she could storm the artistic citadels of New York.
A barren virgin, and bewildered by the wonder of it all, Avery Birk was the first male person in New York to appreciate her potentialities and to invite her to be seduced.
She showed her appreciation by living with him for two weeks and then committing suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol. During those two weeks she painted the mural above the bed where she had first discovered sexual pleasure.
This morning Avery was contemplating one of the shadowy nudes above him and thinking with pleasure how much she resembled Elsie Murray. A large part of the pleasure flowed from the degrading perversion being practiced by the nude. Elsie had been revolted by the painting the one time Avery had cunningly plied her with enough strongly spiked drinks to overcome her natural aversion of him and get her into his apartment.
She had insulted him, by God, right here in his own bedroom when he tried to induce her to lie down just for a little rest.
All right. So she’d made her bed and he hoped she liked it. Walking out of the banquet with that one-eyed bastard, Brett Halliday, last night. Where was she this morning? Dead, by God, and good enough for her.
It had been disgusting, that’s what. Utterly disgusting to see how she fawned on the guy. What did he have that all the others in MWA who have tried to make her didn’t have? It wasn’t only himself, Avery told himself with sly pleasure. There had been plenty others to whom she’d given the brush-off. She was too good for all of them, though she’d never had a story published in her life.
Until Halliday came along. Who in hell was Halliday? Just a guy from out of town who’d written a few bad mystery novels. Really a has-been. Still trying to ride along on the hard-boiled stuff that had gone out of favor with the old Black Mask.
God! He must be almost forty, Avery Birk ruminated. Maybe that was one explanation for a girl like Elsie taking up with him. A man of that age couldn’t be very dangerous. With him, a girl might have her cake and eat it, too. That’s why she picked on him in the first place when there were so many younger and more virile men around to choose from.
A loud knocking on the outer door interrupted Avery’s pleased musings. He scowled and lumbered out of bed, stood for a moment in faded cerise pajamas before going into the small stuffy living room to open the door.
It would be the cops. They’d said for him to stay home and they’d be around to get a statement from him though he’d insisted over the phone he knew absolutely nothing about the case except that he’d seen the two of them go out together.
He supposed he should have dressed more formally for their visit, but what did it matter? He was a writer, wasn’t he? A Bohemian. He had to live up to the Village’s reputation. The police expected this sort of thing. They’d suspect he wasn’t a real author if they found him all spruced up like a businessman.
In his bare feet and with tousled hair, Avery Birk pulled the door open and was confronted by a tall man with a deeply lined face and wearing a Palm Beach suit and Panama hat.
At least they had sent a detective to interview him, not some dumb cluck in uniform with no understanding of the artistic temperament.
He stepped aside and said, “Come on in. I’m sort of hung over this morning, so I hope you’ll take me as I am.”
“That’s all right,” said Shayne curtly. “I just want a little information.” He wrinkled his nose against the stench of stale cigarette butts, the musty, almost fetid odor of a small apartment whose windows were seldom opened and where fresh air was regarded as unwholesome.
“I can’t tell you very much,” said Avery importantly. “Just what I reported over the telephone. Here. Sit down.” He pulled a pair of slacks and a sweated undershirt from the room’s only chair, and padded backward to a sofa covered with a garish pseudo-Navajo blanket. “Care for a drink? I think there’s some gin. And I know there’s a jug of muscatel.”
Shayne said, “Thanks, no. We want everything you know about Elsie Murray.”
“It isn’t much. I used to see her around. She was one of those girls who longed to be a writer but didn’t have much talent. They hang around us professionals. You get used to it when you’re well-known.” He yawned and smiled lasciviously. “It’s pleasant at first. Feeds one’s ego. Then you have to beat them off with a broom and they get to be a frightful bore.”
“Where was she from?” demanded Shayne impatiently. “Who were her folks? What was her background?”
“Christ, I don’t really know. Did she have folks… a background? One gets to thinking, you know, that girls like Elsie just spring out from under a rock. Sort of parthenogenesis, if that’s the word I want.”
“All right.” Shayne concealed his rising irritation as best he could. “So you don’t really know anything about her. Tell me about last night. You claim you saw her leave with a man named Brett Halliday.”
“That’s right. A fellow from out of town who horned in on our annual banquet. Oh, he had a right to be there, I guess. I believe he is a writer of sorts, though not a really big name in the field. Wears a black eyepatch, though they do say there’s nothing wrong with his eye and he simply does it to attract attention. That type.”
“We know all about Halliday,” said Shayne impatiently. “We want information about Elsie Murray.”
“Have they arrested Halliday?” asked Birk eagerly. “Does he deny being on the make for her all evening and buying the poor kid more drinks than she could handle? She does pass out sometimes, they say, and I presume…”
“Who says she passes out sometimes?” demanded Shayne sharply.
“I don’t know. I’ve heard it around. It was perfectly disgusting,” Birk went on warmly, “to see a guy like Halliday working his wiles on a nice girl like that. When he finally persuaded her to leave with him, I thought, ‘Oh, oh! Watch your step with that old goat, Elsie’.”
“We’re not interested in what you thought. Just facts,” snapped Shayne. “Who would be able to tell us more about Elsie?”
“Now you’re asking really intimate questions,” protested Birk with an assumption of coyness. “It wouldn’t be quite gentlemanly for me to answer, I think.”
Shayne stood up. He moved two steps across the room and his face was set in hard lines. “I haven’t time to waste here. Where can I get the information I want?”
“I’m a citizen and I have my rights. You can’t go around…”
“The hell I can’t,” snarled Shayne. His open right hand struck Birk’s cheek loudly, slewed the heavy figure sideways on the sofa. “Start talking.”
Avery Birk slunk away from him appalled at this show of violence. “I’ll report you,” he sputtered. “You can’t get away…” His voice ended in a high-pitched gurgle as Shayne leaned over and fastened the fingers of his left hand in the pajama collar and twisted it. He heaved Birk up to a sitting position and slapped him again.
“Stop playing games.” His voice was low and hard and his eyes were frighteningly cold. “Where do I go to find out more about Elsie Murray?”
Avery Birk wriggled desperately in his grasp, and tears of mortification ran down his cheeks. “Never in my life,” he sputtered, “Never in my whole life…”
Shayne took a backward step and jerked him upright. He stood with right fist poised, a foot from Birk’s face. “You’ve got just two seconds to give me a name before I knock all your teeth down your throat so you’ll never speak again.”
He meant it! Avery Birk knew he meant it. This was the most terrible injustice he had ever encountered. They should be thanking him instead of knocking him around. He was a hero, wasn’t he? If he hadn’t told them about Brett Halliday…
He swayed back weakly and mumbled, “Try Lew Recker. He knew her best, I guess. He claimed they were sleeping together, though you never can tell about Lew. He’s always boasting…”
Shayne dropped him disgustedly on the sofa where he cowered, covering his wet and bruised face with both hands.
Shayne got out a pencil and wrote down the name. “Address?”
Birk gave it to him. An apartment building on Madison in the forties.
He didn’t hear Shayne go out. All he heard was the loud slam of the door behind the redhead, and he lay there weeping quietly and wondering in bewilderment why he was never appreciated… why things like this were always happening to him.
When Shayne reached the address, it was apparent that Lew Recker was much more commercially successful as a writer than his colleague in the Village. Either that, or he had independent means to help out.
It was a pleasant residential hotel, complete with doorman, nicely appointed lobby with dining room and cocktail lounge on one side. A fresh-skinned girl was at the switchboard, doubling as desk clerk and Information, and she looked doubtful, glancing up at the clock when Shayne asked for Mr. Recker.
“I don’t like to disturb him so early. Not before noon unless it’s extremely important.”
“It’s extremely important,” Shayne assured her.
She remained doubtful. “Would you mind saying what it is? He does have a vile temper when he’s disturbed in the morning.” She smiled briefly and confidentially at the redhead. “Claims he’s writing, you know, and that I shatter his mood. Frankly, I think he probably sleeps most of the morning.”
Shayne returned her smile, but said sternly, “This is police business. Give me his room number, if you wish, and I’ll be happy to do the disturbing myself. No reason he should know you gave it to me,” he added.
She said, “I’d as soon he didn’t know. It’s five-eighteen.”
Shayne thanked her and went to a bank of three elevators at the rear. A smartly uniformed lad took him up to the fifth floor, said, “Down the corridor to your left, sir,” when Shayne mentioned the number.
The detective from Miami went down a well-carpeted hall to a door near the end. He stopped in front of it and faintly heard the tapping of a typewriter from inside. He found no button by the door, so he rapped loudly.
The typing continued without interruption. He grimaced and knocked more loudly.
There was still no result though he knew the occupant of the room must hear him easily. He pounded on the door with his fists, and then called loudly, “Open up, Recker.”
That stopped the typewriter. The door was jerked open violently a moment later and Shayne was confronted by a dark, slender, angry young man of about thirty. His black hair was rumpled and he wore a back velvet smoking jacket with crimson lapels over gaudily striped pajamas and was barefooted.
“What in Christ’s world ails you?” he demanded. “Can’t a man have privacy in his own place? Go away!”
He tried to slam the door shut but Shayne had his big foot in the way. He said calmly, “I want to ask you a couple of questions about Elsie Murray.”
“Elsie Murray?” Lew Recker’s thin face twitched with scornful anger. “You come up here and pound on my door and utterly destroy a creative mood to ask me about Elsie. What about her? She’s a fair lay. That’s all I know. Now will you please get your big foot the hell out of my doorway before I phone downstairs to have you thrown out?”
“No,” said Shayne placidly. “I’m coming in, Recker. That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to know about Elsie, though it may help a little. Speaking from personal experience, were you?”
He moved forward implacably as he spoke, and Lew Recker was forced to step back or be trampled on.
He stepped backward, snarling, “You can ask plenty others besides me. Who are you and what do you want?”
“I’m a detective,” Shayne said blandly, “and I want all the information I can get about Elsie. She was murdered last night, you know?”
“I didn’t know,” raged Recker. “Wait a minute. What the hell did you say?” Incredulity replaced the anger in his voice. “Murdered?”
“Uh-huh.” Shayne took off his hat and looked around the room. It was small and orderly, with double windows overlooking the avenue. A metal typewriter desk stood directly in front of the windows, with an expensive “posture” office chair pulled away from it. There was a love-seat slipcovered in deep maroon along one wall, two comfortable chairs in a matching shade of lighter red.
“That’s a hell of a note,” Lew Recker said. There was no real shock or horror in his voice, more a note of personal affront. “How did it happen? When?”
“In her own apartment. Where were you from two to four o’clock this morning?” He sank into one of the comfortable chairs and crossed his long legs.
“Me? I’m not a suspect, I hope.”
“Every man who knew her is a suspect at the moment,” Shayne told him.
Lew Recker laughed a little raggedly. “That gives you plenty of ground to cover. You’d better get a whole squad of dicks out asking questions.”
“That’s not the way I heard it. You’re supposed to be the only one.”
“Nuts! Where’d you hear a thing like that?” Recker closed the door and crossed to the sofa, seated himself carefully and arranged the crimson lapels of his velvet jacket so a goodly expanse of pajama top showed.
“Your friend Avery Birk told me.” Shayne had a cigarette out and was lighting it. He watched Recker’s face keenly past the match flame.
The upper lip with its tiny black mustache that reminded Shayne unpleasantly of Peter Painter’s lifted in a sneer.
“That toad! Just because Elsie was too fastidious to go to that crummy joint of his. He rationalized his failure to make her by pretending to himself that she was unavailable to any man.”
“Except you,” Shayne said pleasantly.
Lew Recker shrugged, and a smirk replaced his sneer. “Well, yes. Even Birk could hardly rationalize that far.”
“All right,” said Shayne. “Where were you between two and four this morning?”
“Right here in my own bed.”
“Any proof of that?”
Recker hesitated the proper interval. He dropped his eyes and murmured, “That’s a leading question.”
“I don’t think I will,” Recker said complacently. “I’m not arrested or charged with any crime, am I?”
“Not yet,” growled Shayne. “But it can happen if you hold out evidence in a homicide.”
“I’m not holding out evidence in a homicide. What earthly proof do you have that my whereabouts have a single thing to do with Elsie’s death?”
“Were you at a banquet last night?”
Recker nodded. “The annual Poe Dinner of the Mystery Writers of America. Sure. I was there. Along with Elsie and several hundred others.”
“You a mystery writer?”
“Not exactly, I trust. I joined the organization for fun and games and to give them the support of my name. I write Novels of Suspense.” His voice supplied the capital letters.
“See here,” he went on suddenly, sitting erect and pointing a forefinger at Shayne while his thin dark face twitched with excitement. “Check up on an out-of-town writer named Brett Halliday. He writes those lousy books about a dumb redheaded private eye in Miami. He was really making a play for Elsie last night. Drunk as a coot and being obnoxious all over the place. Throwing his weight around until Elsie must have thought he was someone important. I can’t swear he persuaded her to leave with him, but he was working at it hard. Lots of us at the bar noticed it and were disgusted, and some of them must have seen them leave.”
Shayne nodded, his face blank. “I’ll check on that. Can you give me any other leads?”
“I’m afraid not.” Lew Recker shook his head thoughtfully.
“Tell me about Elsie herself.” Shayne leaned back comfortably and expelled blue smoke. “We often find the vital clue in a murder in the character of the victim. What sort of girl was she?”
“A familiar enough type in New York.” Recker shrugged. “You might almost say a prototype. Girl from the country comes to big city as a secretary and gets in on the fringe of writing and publishing. Meets a few writers and artists and is dazzled by a new sense of freedom. Becomes daringly sophisticated very swiftly. Good-looking enough and with the right sort of figure to be invited out to parties where the liquor flows freely. You know. Not really a party girl, but… susceptible. There are thousands like her. Ready for a good time when it’s offered.”
“I understand she was trying to be a writer herself?”
Recker snorted disparagingly. “Who isn’t? It looks so simple. You just sit at a typewriter and put down words and editors pay you for them. Sure. She gave up her job a couple months ago and settled down to write the Great American Novel.”
“What kind of job did she have?”
“Secretary or file clerk in some importing house, I think,” Recker said indifferently. “She had a pretty nice place about ten blocks down the street from here at the time, but she gave it up to sublet a smaller place on Thirty-Eighth when the writing bug bit her.
“And I can’t help blaming myself for that,” Recker went on soberly. “I’m afraid I encouraged her more than her slight talent justified. I read some of her short junk, and you know how it is. You haven’t the heart to tell a girl like that that her stuff stinks. You should, of course. Kindest thing to do in the long run. But you just don’t. You try to be kind, and that’s a mistake. First thing you know, she’s taken your generalities seriously and decides to give up everything for her Art. And she spells it with a capital A.” He paused to smile condescendingly. “Well, the kids have to get it out of their systems, I guess. They’ll never know for sure until they try that they’re really cut out to be call girls instead of novelists.”
“Where did Elsie live before she moved to the smaller place?”
Recker gave him the name of an apartment building lower down on Madison Avenue. “You haven’t told me how she died… anything about it.”
Shayne said, “Haven’t you seen a paper this morning?”
“Heavens no! I never look at a paper until I’ve finished my early writing stint and had lunch.”
“Or turned on a radio for the news?” Shayne persisted.
A look of pain crossed Lew Recker’s face. “I wouldn’t have a radio in the place. The news? My God! Who’s interested in a world that’s intent on self-destruction? One can withdraw to typewriter and find peace if not certitude. Are you through trying to trip me up by getting me to admit I already knew about Elsie?”
“For the moment,” Shayne said indifferently. “You mentioned Elsie going around to parties and drinking. A lot?”
“Plenty to remove small-town inhibitions.”
“Did she handle it all right?”
“Mostly. Sometimes she’d go overboard, I guess, and have to be helped home.”
“That ever happen when you were with her?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Recker sniggered unpleasantly. “From what I heard around, she was really hot stuff when she actually passed out.”
“Around?” asked Shayne.
Recker wrinkled his forehead and looked at Shayne inquiringly. “What do you mean?”
“From what you heard around,” Shayne stressed. “From whom in particular?”
“I don’t recall any names. If I did I certainly wouldn’t repeat gossip about my friends.”
“You intimated in the beginning that Elsie was a pushover,” persisted Shayne. “Exactly who did the pushing?”
“I intimated no such thing.” Recker sat up very straight and brushed his thumbnail across his thin mustache in a gesture of righteous indignation. “She was basically a fine sweet girl who believed in equality among the sexes and in a girl’s right to have an affair if it pleased her to do so. I meant nothing derogatory about Elsie. For God’s sake, do you dicks have to go digging up filth about a dead girl?”
“If it helps catch her killer,” Shayne said unemotionally. “About her drinking, again. You mentioned her being at the bar with this Miami writer last night. Was she drunk?”
“N-n-o-o. He was plenty soused, and forcing drinks down her throat. She had a way of not showing it much when she was actually passed out, but if you knew her well you could tell. I’d say she was fairly sober last night. Another thing is: You haven’t told me this, but you can’t blame me for deducing that the Halliday character maybe killed her in a drunken rage when she resisted his advances. If so, you can be certain, she wasn’t too tight… because she wouldn’t have resisted if she had been.”
Shayne shrugged and got up. His big hands itched to take the neck of the self-important writer and wring it thoroughly, but he resisted the impulse. Most of his two hours were up, and he was eager to compare notes with Ed Radin.
Lew Recker got up and followed him toward the door, saying eagerly:
“I do hope you feel I haven’t been uncooperative. I’ve honestly tried to give you every relevant fact without dragging the names of innocent people into the mire of a murder investigation. A gentleman owes a certain duty to his friends, I think. Perhaps a cop doesn’t see it that way, but I’m not a cop, thank God.”
Shayne paused to say disgustedly, “When we decide we need further names from you, we’ll be around… and we’ll get them. In the meantime…”
A telephone rang shrilly in the room, interrupting him. Recker turned aside to a small table with a wood inlay top and a silk fringe hanging down all around it. He stooped and pulled the instrument from a shelf behind the fringe and said, “Hello,” while Shayne waited with his hand on the doorknob.
Recker said, “Yes, this is he.” He listened a moment and a puzzled look spread over his face.
“Certainly, I’m home,” he snapped, “and I expect to remain here the rest of the morning, but I don’t see why I need to be bothered again. After all, goddamnit, my morning’s creative work has already been ruined by one of your men asking silly questions, and I simply don’t see why…”
Shayne moved back swiftly. A big hand shot out to wring the receiver from Recker’s hand, and he stooped to replace it on its prongs behind the silk fringe.
When he straightened, Lew Recker had stepped back and was surveying him intently, his thin face white with fear and sudden anger.
“You’re not a cop!” he burst out. “That was a Detective Peters who’s in charge of the investigation. You’re a damned impostor. You… By God! I get it now.” He was trembling with indignation. “You’re the dick Halliday is always writing books about. Mike Shayne. Redheaded and tough.” His voice shook with rage. “How-come you’re stooging up here for him? That was mighty fast work, wasn’t it? Did he wire you he was planning a murder and needed your help to frame someone else so he wouldn’t be caught for it? Wait till I tell the real police that you came here impersonating an officer. That’s a criminal offense in New York if you don’t happen to know it.”
Shayne grinned happily at the outraged man. “I told you I was a detective, bud. That’s all. I am. Want to see my license?”
“You had no right to come here and pump me. It’ll take more than you to get your precious friend out of this one. You tell Brett Halliday for me…”
Shayne snorted disgustedly and went out the door. He didn’t know where Peters had telephoned from, but he knew it would be just as well if he were gone from the premises by the time the precinct detective arrived.
Ed Radin was seated at his desk disgustedly drumming slender fingertips against the bare wooden surface when Michael Shayne returned. He shook his head and shrugged when the detective arched ragged red brows inquiringly at him.
“Not much luck, damn it. Those police files are supposed to be closed, of course, but I can generally get access to them. None of the right guys were on duty this morning, so I didn’t get to first base. Late this afternoon will be the best I can do. How’d you make out with Avery Birk?”
Shayne grimaced and crossed to the filing cabinet where the whiskey bottle still stood. “What a lug! Is he really a writer?” He carried the bottle to the water cooler, fitted two cups together and half-filled them, diluted the whiskey with cold water and turned to replace the bottle.
“He writes,” said Radin. “There’s quite a difference between the two, though he does sell to the cheaper markets. I guess he is pretty much of a bastard, though I don’t know him well. You get anything from him?”
“One name.” Shayne sat down and crossed his long legs. “Lew Recker. Birk claims Elsie Murray was his mistress.”
“That’s not hard to believe, though mistress is not exactly the word I’d use for one of Recker’s women. To me,” Radin added, “the word implies some degree of faithfulness on both sides. If Lew was sleeping with Elsie, you can be sure he was hopping into other beds at the same time.”
Shayne nodded thoughtfully. “He goes to some trouble to give that impression.”
“You saw him?”
“I saw him,” Shayne said grimly. “He was at the banquet last night and saw Brett at the bar with Elsie, though he doesn’t claim he saw them leave together.” He paused a moment to take a sip, and a reminiscent grin spread over his rugged face. He imitated Recker’s voice: “Check up on an out-of-town writer named Brett Halliday. He writes those lousy books about a dumb redheaded private eye in Miami.”
Radin laughed gleefully. “Lew Recker said that to you?”
“That and more. He appears to hate Brett’s guts, and has the greatest contempt for his books. And for me.”
“Lew has the greatest contempt for any writer more successful than he. I gather he didn’t recognize you.”
“Not at first. I introduced myself as a detective and he assumed I was local. He did catch on at the last. Only real piece of information I got from him was about Elsie passing out sometimes from too many drinks and getting very loose in her morals when she did so.”
“Exactly like Aline Ferris in her story,” Radin pointed out.
Shayne nodded. “Which makes it look as though her manuscript was based on fact. Damn it, Ed, we’ve got to check further into the unsolved murder of Elbert Green three months ago. If we can find other points of resemblance, we’ll know better where we’re going. Late this afternoon may be too late for Brett. That is, I’m assuming he hasn’t turned up yet.”
“He hasn’t,” said Radin moodily. “I checked by phone just before you came in. I did get this,” he went on slowly. “Ran into one of the detectives who covered the Green case and he remembered it somewhat. Not any names for sure, but he sort of inclines to believe the one woman who was questioned might have been named Elsie Murray.”
“Somehow, I’m beginning to be sure of it.”
“So am I. One thing he was positive about… the questioning of her was fairly routine. They didn’t have anything to go on except rumors from a couple of people that she had played up to Green at the party and might have left with him. When her escort alibied her on that, they dropped it. Though they did show her picture at the hotel without getting a yes or no identification.”
“That indicates,” said Shayne, “that she was successful in putting over the deal with Ralph suggested to her by Dirk. She certainly must have persuaded Ralph to forget her phone call to Torn at midnight, otherwise the police wouldn’t have let up on her so easily.”
“Definitely,” agreed Radin. “If they’d known that one fact, they’d still be questioning her. And don’t forget that when Dirk fixed it up for her, he was fixing himself an alibi at the same time. The telephone call would have ruined his story of spending those hours with her.”
“I’m not forgetting that,” Shayne told him grimly. He drained his whiskey and water and crumpled up the paper cups. “Damn it, Ed! We’ve got to stop speculating and get some facts to chew on. We have one name out of the Green case so far. His room-mate. What was it?”
“That’s it. Does the clipping give the address where he and Green lived together?”
“Probably.” Ed Radin picked up the clippings from his desk and looked at the second one. He read off a street address and told Shayne, “That’s pretty far up town. A good residential neighborhood.”
Shayne made a note of the address. “Hayes has probably moved since his friend’s death, but I may get a lead on him there. One other possibility is the bar from which Aline Ferris is supposed to have made her midnight call. The bartender might recall something important that happened after her phone call.”
“How can you hope to locate the right bar?”
“I have Elsie Murray’s former address. The place she was living when Elbert Green was murdered. Your friend Recker gave me that. Assuming that the whole thing happened to Elsie much as she wrote it, I can check the bars near her old address and see if anyone knows her and recalls the incident.”
He arose decisively as he spoke. “You want to come along?”
“That’s more in your province. Can’t I do more by staying as close as possible to developments in the present investigation? Halliday may contact me.”
“Let’s hope so,” agreed Shayne. “How can we keep in touch if something breaks?”
“Tell you what. Let’s both check in every hour on the hour at the MWA office, or oftener if we have something important. I’ll give the executive secretary a ring so she’ll be alerted to take messages.”
Radin lifted his phone and dialed it, said, “Dorothy? Ed Radin speaking. Look, I want you to… “
He paused abruptly as though he had been interrupted, listened for a long moment while a look of incredulity and then of intense anxiety spread over his face.
He nodded emphatically and said, “It’s probably damned important, Dorothy, and thank you for passing it on. I’m working with the police on the case, and Mike Shayne is in town from Miami working with me to clear Halliday.”
He paused a moment, said with a grin: “That’s right. Michael Shayne in person. We’re separating now, and will be calling in to you from time to time to leave messages for each other. Can do?”
He listened again, nodded and said, “Swell. I knew we could count on you.”
He hung up and turned, shaking his head in puzzlement. “You figure this one out. Dorothy just heard a report that the police are looking for Halliday to question him about Elsie’s death. She immediately recalled that she was awakened at home about seven o’clock this morning by a man who said he was George Harmon Coxe, wanting her to tell him where Brett was staying in New York. George Coxe,” Radin went on flatly, “is a past president of MWA, a hell of a swell guy and a good friend of Brett’s. Naturally, Dorothy had no hesitancy about giving him the name of Brett’s hotel and room number, which she happened to remember.”
“Might mean something.” Shayne frowned. “Could this Coxe have been tangled up with Elsie?”
“Whether he could or couldn’t,” said Radin grimly, “is very much beside the point. George Harmon Coxe wasn’t in New York last night, though Dorothy was too sleepy last night to think of it. Both Dorothy and I know positively that he’s in Panama. That phone call was a phony, Mike. And it was made by someone inside MWA… who knew Dorothy’s home telephone number and enough about things to use a highly respected name like Coxe’s to get the information he wanted.”
“He’s one. Avery Birk. Fifty others, of course, who were around last night.”
“Give it to the police.”
“Dorothy has already done that.”
“Good. What’s the number where I can reach her?”
Radin gave it to him and Shayne jotted it down. Again, they left the building together.
Michael Shayne’s first stop was at Elsie Murray’s former address on Madison Avenue. He paid off his taxi, went up a short flight of stone steps and through swinging doors to a small entry exactly like the one described in Elsie’s script. Beside the lock on the inner door was the bell she had mentioned with the brass plate beneath bearing the word SUPERINTENDENT.
Shayne exhaled a sigh of satisfaction and went back out. So far, so good. The script appeared to be more and more factual all the time. He stood on the sidewalk and looked up and down the avenue. A few doors away on his right was a canopy with the words RESTAURANT — BAR. There was nothing on his left to indicate a drinking establishment.
Shayne went to the canopy and entered a long cool room with a bar on one side and small tables ranged against the wall. In the rear was a square space with a dozen or more dining tables. A few of the tables were occupied at this early lunch hour, and half a dozen of the bar stools were filled.
He walked down the bar to the other end, found a telephone book chained there, and the phone booth was across the room. Again, Elsie’s description was perfectly accurate.
A genial-faced and paunchy bartender came up to Shayne, and the redhead said, “Cognac. Martel or Monnet if you have it.”
“We’ve got Martel. Drink or pony?”
“A double drink, please. A little ice water on the side.” There was a second bartender at the front end of the bar serving the drinkers congregated there. He was tall and young, with a completely bald head.
When Shayne’s drink came, he asked, “Either of you fellows been working here long?”
“Don’t know what you call long, Mister. Six months for me, and Jack down there has been around a couple of years.”
“Good enough.” Shayne put a five-dollar bill on the counter and said, “I wonder if either of you remember a girl named Elsie Murray who used to drop in quite often a few months ago. Lived right down the street.”
“Say! That’s real funny. We was talking about her just a little while ago. Read in the paper about her getting killed last night. Damn shame. She was real nice except when she’d had one too many which wasn’t often.”
“Who is we?” asked Shayne.
“Come again.” The bartender frowned his puzzlement.
“You said we were talking about Miss Murray just awhile ago. Who were you talking with?”
“Jack… that’s the man up front, and…” The paunchy bartender leaned closer and lowered his voice discreetly. “And the young lady sitting right back of you. She used to come in sometimes with Miss Murray a few months back… before she quit coming all of a sudden. We was talking about how funny that was.”
Shayne took a long, slow drink of straight cognac, rolling it gratefully around in his mouth to wash out the taste of Radin’s whiskey, and asked patiently:
“Who quit coming in suddenly? The young lady behind me or Miss Murray?”
“Miss Murray. We never knew why, but then we heard she’d moved away from where she lived right down the street. What’s your angle, Mister?”
“I’m working on the case.” Shayne turned on his bar stool slowly to glance along the row of tables against the wall behind him.
There was a threesome of giggling shopgirls, a middle-aged couple intently absorbed with martinis and themselves, and a young woman seated alone on a bench against the wall facing Shayne across a table for two.
She sat very erect with her shoulders squared against the wall behind her which made her look quite tall, and the effect was heightened by an upswept hair-do which showed off the clean lines of a somewhat thin neck above a severely plain white blouse and tailored gray suit.
There was something of a haughty look about her face, with a nose that was a trifle too long and too sharp, and a short upper lip that drew away slightly from upper teeth. She was looking directly towards Shayne as his casual gaze slid down the row of tables and stopped to survey her. She didn’t avert her eyes as they met his, but continued to look calmly through him as though he didn’t exist. A thin-stemmed cocktail glass stood on the table in front of her, half-full of a yellowish liquid that looked like a side-car.
Shayne considered her gravely for a moment, then continued around in a full circle to face the bartender again. He asked quietly, “You don’t happen to know her name?”
“No, sir. I don’t believe I ever heard it mentioned. You’re not the cops?”
“Private,” Shayne told him. He drank more cognac and took a sip of ice water, asked, “Can you remember if either you or Jack were on the late closing shift about three months ago?”
“That’d be Jack. He always worked the last shift until two weeks ago when he got hitched. Now he’s got something better to do at home than hang around here till four in the morning shooing out drunks.” The bartender chortled meaningfully. “So he traded off with one of the day men. What was it you wanted, Mister?”
“A word with Jack if I can have it.” Shayne pushed the bill across the counter. “Keep that for your help. What’s the young lady at the table behind me drinking?”
“Say, thanks.” The bill went into his pocket. “That’s a stinger she’s got.”
Shayne said, “Why don’t you ask Jack to bring a fresh one, and a pony of Martel for me to her table?”
“Coming right up.” The bartender bustled to the front of the bar to confer with his colleague, and Shayne finished his double brandy. He lit a cigarette and slid off the stool, crossed to the girl’s table and pulled out the vacant chair in front of her, asking, “Do you mind if I sit here and buy you a drink?”
Her upper lip curled away from her teeth a trifle more than when it was in repose. She said, “Sorry, but I didn’t come in for a pick-up.”
Shayne said, “I know,” settling himself in the chair. “You came in to talk about Elsie Murray. So did I. So, let’s talk.”
“Elsie?” Surprise and fear slid briefly into her cool blue eyes. She really looked at him now, with intense interest. “I don’t know you at all.”
“You didn’t know all Elsie’s friends, did you?”
“Of course not. I didn’t really know her well.”
“Well enough to come around here and discuss her with the bartender when you read about her murder.”
She finished her cocktail and shrugged elaborately. “That doesn’t mean anything.” She put her hands flat on the table as though to get up.
Shayne leaned forward and put one big restraining palm over the back of one of hers. “I’ve ordered you a fresh stinger. I want to talk about Elsie.”
She hesitated, compressing her lips and looking down at his hand covering hers on the table. “Are you another of her boy-friends?” Her voice was icy, but it trembled a trifle.
Shayne shook his red head. “I never met the girl. But a friend of mine was in her apartment last night just before she died and I’m trying to help him out.” He withdrew his hand as the tall bald-headed bartender came up to their table with a tray.
He looked at Shayne with interest as he placed the glasses in front of them, and said, “You were asking about Miss Murray that got killed last night?”
Shayne said, “Yes,” and leaned back in his chair to look up at the waiter. Another five-dollar bill lay on the table. “Were you on duty here from midnight to closing about three months ago?”
“I would’ve been, sure. Always worked that shift until lately.”
“And you knew Elsie Murray by sight?” Shayne persisted.
“Yeh. Nice girl. She mostly dropped in alone late for a nightcap. Lived in that apartment right down the street.”
“I know. Do you remember one night around midnight when she came in pretty tight and borrowed a dime from you to make a phone call because she’d lost her purse and hadn’t any change?”
A slight movement from the girl across the table drew Shayne’s attention to her. Her eyes were rounded and thoughtful, no longer so cool a blue as they had been. Her mouth was open slightly in a small O and she was frowning intently.
Shayne swung his gaze back to Jack when the bartender said flatly, “I don’t recollect anything like that ever happening.”
“Wait a minute. I’m sure it did happen,” Shayne said just as flatly. “Maybe this will jog your memory. You advised her to go on home instead of telephoning, and she got sore and told you to mind your own business and give her the dime. So you did. And she looked up a telephone number here in the directory and read it out to you while you wrote it down for her. Now do you remember?”
“I sure would if it’d happened that way. But it didn’t. None of it.” Jack met Shayne’s gaze steadily with his jaw outthrust a bit.
Shayne said harshly, “Why are you lying about it, Jack?”
“Lying? Why should I?”
“That,” said Shayne, “is what I want to know. This is a murder investigation, you know.”
“I don’t care what it is,” blustered the bartender. “You can’t come, in here pushing me around. I tell you it never happened that way.”
“And I say it did.” Shayne stood slowly to face the man. Faces from the bar were turned in their direction curiously as their voices carried over the light hum of conversation. The lines in Shayne’s cheeks deepened as he said flatly, “I want the truth from you. And I particularly want to know why you’re lying about something that happened three months ago.”
Jack wet his lips indecisively. He glanced away from Shayne at the faces at the bar and at his paunchy colleague behind it, then back to the redhead to say angrily, “I won’t take that sort of talk from no one. One more crack like that will get you thrown out on your ear.” He turned on his heel and stalked away defiantly.
Shayne sat down, thoughtfully crumpled the bill that still lay on the table and replaced it in his pocket.
The girl across from him looked puzzled and worried. She leaned closer and asked in a low, troubled voice: “What is it about a telephone call Elsie made three months ago? Why it is important and why would he lie about it?”
“The lying part is most important,” Shayne told her grimly. “Until that happened, I wasn’t sure whether the call meant anything or not. Now I do know.” He lifted his pony of brandy to sip from it abstractedly.
The girl remained leaning forward tensely. “You say it happened one night when Elsie had lost her purse?”
Shayne nodded. “Mislaid it, at least. She had been to a party,” he went on swiftly, “and left her purse in a man’s car when he brought her home quite tight. Not only all her money, but the keys to her apartment were in the purse. So she dropped in here and borrowed a dime from Jack to telephone someone. Did you know her at that time, and do you know anything about the incident?”
The girl sank back against the wall and the fingers of one hand curled tightly about the stem of her glass. “I knew her when she was living down the street.” Her voice was steady and throbbed with something that sounded like gladness or relief to Shayne.
“Three months ago. I think it must have been the night Elsie passed out at a party and was questioned the next day by the police about the death of a man with whom she was suspected of having left the party and registered in a hotel room.”
“What makes you think it was that particular night?” Shayne kept his voice low, but it cut like a whip-lash.
“Isn’t it a natural assumption?” She looked at him in surprise. “Elsie was murdered last night, and you say you’re trying to help out a friend who may be suspected. So you come in here asking questions about a phone call she made three months ago. Wouldn’t you expect anyone of even normal intelligence to think there must be some connection between the two murders?”
“She proved she had nothing to do with the first one.”
“Did she?” Her upper lip curled disdainfully again.
“She was questioned by the police and produced an alibi they had to accept.”
“Is that what happened?” Her voice was light. “I never knew the exact truth. Except that she was questioned, and later moved very suddenly from her apartment down the street. And stopped coming in here altogether after that night. Who provided her so conveniently with an alibi for that night?”
“I hoped you could tell me that.”
“Sorry. I really didn’t know much about the affair.” She lifted her stinger glass and drank from it.
“Nevertheless,” said Shayne grimly, “you’re the first person I’ve contacted who had any connection with the unsolved murder of Elbert Green three months ago, and I’ve got a lot of questions to ask.”
“Do you think Elsie did it… and was killed last night for revenge or something?”
“I don’t think anything yet. See here, I’m a detective, Miss…?” Shayne hesitated.
“Stevens,” she told him promptly. “Estelle Stevens. I’d be awfully glad to help you, but really I must hurry along to keep an appointment.” She finished her cocktail and stood up as she spoke.
Shayne stood up with her and put a detaining hand on her arm. “This is a lot more important than any appointments you may have. Give me five minutes…”
“I’m really sorry but I haven’t a minute to spare.” She was all patrician hauteur now. She tried to move away, looking icily down at his hand on her arm.
His grip tightened and his voice became angry. “This isn’t a game, damn it. Sit down here…”
He was interrupted by a husky Irish brogue at his elbow: “This man giving you trouble, Miss?”
Shayne jerked his head around to see a burly enforcer of New York’s ordinances standing flat-footed beside him. A few paces back, the bald-headed bartender stood with venomous triumph glittering in his eyes. A complete hush had fallen over the cocktail lounge, and all eyes were interestedly taking in the tableau at the rear.
“Thank you, Officer.” Estelle Stevens spoke swiftly and nervously. “Yes. He is giving me trouble. He’s an utter stranger who insisted on sitting with me and detaining me from an important appointment. If I could just be allowed to go along now…?”
“Now wait a minute,” said the bluecoat officiously. “If you wanta make a complaint…”
“But I don’t,” she cried. “I simply want to be left alone.”
“Besides all that, Captain,” said Jack stepping up beside the policeman, “I’ll swear out a complaint if you want. Like I told you in the beginning, this bozo come in here and started asking questions and causing trouble and then…”
“I’m sure you understand, Officer,” said Estelle nervously, twisting her arm from Shayne’s grasp and sidling toward the door. “I simply want to be left alone. And I do thank you for your assistance.”
She tripped out gaily and Shayne turned angrily to the uniformed man; drawing him aside and turning his back on the bald-headed bartender to display his Florida credentials as a private investigator and explain hurriedly:
“From Miami, but I’m working on a local case. That woman is an important witness and must be followed. Let’s get on her tail fast.”
The cop hesitated, narrowing his eyes at Shayne’s face. “Are you Mike Shayne?”
“I’m Mike Shayne.” The redhead moved him toward the door, continuing swiftly: “Get smart and you might get promoted off your beat. You can check with Lieutenant Hogan of Homicide later. But right now we can’t afford to lose that woman.”
The policeman hesitated uncertainly, moved by the urgency of Shayne’s manner and obviously impressed by the name of Lieutenant Hogan, but not yet quite certain whether he was being sold a bill of goods or not.
Jack, the bartender, intervened at exactly the right moment to make up the officer’s mind for him. He stepped in front of the two as though to bar their exit. “I don’t know what kinda story this bozo handed you,” he said threateningly, “but you’re a fool if you believe a word of it. If you don’t lock him up…”
“A fool, am I?” grated the policeman, shoving him aside with his left shoulder. “Out of my way before you’re clinked for obstructing justice.”
They hurried out onto the sidewalk together, and Shayne breathed a sigh of relief when he sighted Estelle’s tall, slender figure hurrying northward on the avenue a full block away.
“There she is, Officer.” He pointed ahead and started walking unhurriedly in the same direction. “I think I know where she’s headed, so we needn’t get closer unless she changes her mind.”
“I got to know about this,” the uniformed man said sternly. “Maybe this is on the up and up and maybe not. What was it you mentioned about Hogan of Homicide?”
“He’s working on the case with Precinct Detective Peters,” Shayne explained. “Elsie Murray who was strangled last night.” They strode along side by side, keeping a block between them and the hurrying figure of Estelle. “I flew up from Miami this morning to look into the case for a friend of hers,” Shayne went on evenly, “and I’ve been working on this angle while your men are following up a local lead.
“The bald-headed bartender back there is mixed up in it somehow. What sort of story did he hand you? And what’s your name, by the way? I’d like to tell Hogan how intelligently you cooperated with me.”
“Grady, it is.” The Irish brogue deepened under Shayne’s commendation. “Baldy, back there? I was passing by when he hurried out and said there was some trouble inside. A drunk molesting a young lady.”
“He should be watched,” Shayne said sternly. “I know you’re not a detective, but I can clearly see you’ve got the makings of one. How’s for it if I tail the girl and you go back to keep an eye on Jack? Or aren’t you allowed to leave your beat for something like that?”
Completely won over by Michael Shayne’s blarney, Officer Grady said proudly, “That’s what we’re on beat for, of course. To take action in any emergency as seems fitting. It’s in the rule-book. I’ll tell the sergeant when I phone in next. What would you suspect Baldy of being up to?”
“Tipping someone off that I’ve caught him in his lie and they’d better do something about it. If you’re back there quickly, you might earn a detective rating for this. Stick with him, and report direct to Hogan if he does anything suspicious.”
“Right you are.” Grady swung a beefy hand In a half-salute, swung on his heel and hurried back toward the barroom. Shayne moved up his pace somewhat to close the gap between Estelle and himself to half a block.
She was walking fast along the uncrowded avenue, not looking back at all, evidently certain in her own mind that Shayne was still being detained by Grady.
As Shayne had anticipated, Estelle continued northward about ten blocks before turning into Lew Recker’s hotel. He slowed his pace and sauntered on, allowing her plenty of time to pass through the lobby before turning in himself. There was an older woman at the desk this time, and she glanced at him incuriously as he went directly to the elevators at the rear. One came down a moment later, and the detective was taken up to the 5th floor. He turned to his left and went to Recker’s door. He listened for a moment, but could hear nothing from within. He tried the knob and found it locked, then knocked lightly.
After a few moments, Lew Recker’s voice came suspiciously from the other side of the locked door. “Yes? Who is it?”
Shayne said, “Special Delivery letter,” hoping it wasn’t the custom of this hotel to telephone up first before making a delivery. Evidently it wasn’t, because the knob turned and the door opened a narrow crack.
Shayne moved against it with his shoulder, shoving Recker back as he stepped inside.
Estelle Stevens faced him across the room in front of the typewriter desk. Her face was pale and frightened as she gasped out: “That’s the man, Lew. The one I was telling you about.”
“I thought I recognized your description,” said Recker angrily, confronting Shayne with glittering eyes. “I know all about him, Estelle. He’s an impostor who forced his way in here earlier to question me about Elsie, pretending he was a cop. There’s probably a warrant out for his arrest right now. So you’d better beat it while you can,” he flung at Shayne venomously.
The redhead grinned happily and heeled the door shut, moving back to stand with his back to it. “On the contrary, bud. We three are going to have a nice cozy talk about Elsie Murray… and about another friend of yours who was murdered three months ago. Elbert Green.”
Estelle stiffened and her upper lip drew back from her teeth when she heard the name. Lew Recker merely grunted angrily and moved back toward the telephone stand. “I’ll tell the police anything they want to know.”
He leaned down to reach for the phone, but Shayne moved swiftly and flung him backward across the room toward Estelle. “You’re talking to me. And now. One more yap from you will get your face spoiled.
“Listen to me carefully, you two,” he went on fast and rough. “This isn’t a game you’re playing. Two people are dead already, and maybe a third. I know things the police don’t know, and you know things I’ve got to know.
“Don’t be a childish fool,” he went on harshly to Recker who had sunk into a chair and was nervously rubbing his face with a handkerchief. “If you talked to Detective Peters after I left this morning, you know I’m perfectly legitimate even if I am private from Florida. He may have told you I have no official standing in New York and no authority to ask questions, but this is my authority right now.” He doubled a big fist and shoved it menacingly under Recker’s nose. “Start talking.”
“I don’t know…” Recker stopped and swallowed hard. He looked up plaintively at Estelle and asked her, “Do you know what the man wants, dear? You were just telling me how you met him in some cocktail lounge…?”
“The one Elsie Murray used to go to when she lived down the avenue,” Shayne cut in fast. “The one she went into for the last time around twelve o’clock the night Elbert Green was murdered… after she had passed out at a party she attended with you two. Does that jog your memory?”
Lew Recker’s face presented a curiously contrasting interplay of emotions. There was comprehension, and fear, and honest puzzlement.
He wet his lips and said, “Elbert Green? I do remember that name vaguely.” He looked at Estelle appealingly. “Wasn’t he the fellow the police questioned Elsie about the next day after he was found dead in some hotel?”
Her face was cold and restrained now. She said, “I guess so, Lew. They came around to see me, too. But I didn’t know anything except she had smooched with him when she was tight.”
“But what’s his death got to do with Elsie now?” protested Recker to Shayne. “She was completely exonerated at the time. As I recall it she had a perfect alibi which satisfied the police.”
Shayne nodded grimly. “An alibi I’m going to bust wide open with a little help from you two and maybe some others who were involved at the time. There’s a small matter of a telephone call she made to Green that night which the police never heard about. Why did the bartender lie to me about that?” He swung on Estelle with the question.
“I have no idea,” she said thinly. “If he did lie to you. I heard you accuse him of doing that, but I’m sure I know nothing about it.”
“I’m not so sure,” Shayne told her grimly. “Can you prove you didn’t go there this morning after you heard about Elsie’s death to bribe him to lie about it?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because you realized that her death would inevitably open up the old investigation again and the police might eventually get around to asking Jack the same question I asked him. Isn’t that why you sent her there?” he flung at Lew Recker.
“I didn’t send her there. First thing I knew of all this was a few minutes ago when she came in frightened to say she’d been insulted by a redheaded drunk. Isn’t that the truth, Estelle?”
She nodded, tight-lipped. “I just happened to drop in for a cocktail before lunch. I’d read about Elsie and so had the bartenders who used to know her. We talked about how awful it was, that’s all. Then you insisted on sitting at my table, and accusing Jack of lying about some telephone call. And that’s all I know about any of it.”
Shayne paused a moment. He was at a distinct disadvantage in not knowing how to connect these two up with the persons Elsie had described in her script. He didn’t know positively, of course, that either of them was the original for any of her characters. But he had a strong hunch that at least one of the couple before him would turn out to be either Ralph or Dirk or Doris or Ina or Bart. If he could guess the true identity of either and throw his knowledge of their involvement in Green’s murder at them, they might possibly break down and start giving him the information he needed.
Elsie had, of course, described Green’s roommate almost exactly as Lew Recker. Yet she had told Halliday she had changed the physical descriptions of all her characters, and also, from Radin’s newspaper clippings he knew the roommate’s name was actually Alfred Hayes.
Dirk, Ralph, or Bart?
“You’re not married, I take it?” he asked Recker abruptly.
“Hell, no. What’s that got to do…?”
“What kind of a car do you drive?”
“I’ve got a Chrysler right now, if that helps solve your case.” Lew Recker was over his first fright now. He was reverting to the suavely sardonic man-of-the-world pose he had adopted with Shayne earlier.
“I think maybe it does,” Shayne said thoughtfully. “Is it the same car you drove Elsie home in the night Green was murdered?”
Recker’s mouth gaped open in utter consternation and fear. His eyes goggled at Shayne and he stammered weakly, “I… I don’t know…”
“Cut it out,” Shayne said wearily. “You know it’s all down in the police records. You told them you drove Elsie home from the party and left her at her door. You also told them that you went on from there to Estelle’s place and visited with her for a few hours, drinking and making a little innocent love to her while Elbert Green was getting himself killed in the Beloit Hotel… and that was your alibi.”
“It was true, too,” flared Estelle. “If he’d needed an alibi. Which he didn’t. Why should Lew have killed anybody?”
“I don’t know,” Shayne confessed. “The police never did establish a motive for Green’s death. But they also were never able to establish the identity of the woman who registered at the hotel with Green that night. I think I can.”
“And who do you think it was, master-mind?” Recker had recovered his sneering poise now.
“Elsie, of course. As you very well know. As you knew very well at the time. You perjured yourself, and that happens to be a felony in New York.”
“Perjured myself? When and how?” His voice was airy.
“When you gave the police your story of the evening.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I certainly did not perjure myself. I believe I can prove I answered every question truthfully.”
“That’s quibbling. Let’s say, then, that you withheld important evidence. You may have told your story accurately up to the point where Elsie turned up at Estelle’s apartment and broke up the thing you were having. But you left that part out. And so did you, Estelle, when the police questioned you.”
“Lew and I agreed to say nothing about it,” she faltered. “We both liked Elsie and knew she could have had nothing to do with that man’s death. Wouldn’t you do as much for a friend you knew was innocent?”
“How could you know she was innocent?”
“Anyone who knew Elsie would know.” Estelle spread out her hands nervously. “Lew and I felt sorry for her and knew it would sound awfully suspicious to the police if they learned she didn’t know what she had been doing or where she’d been during those four hours. They never would have believed she hadn’t gone to the hotel with Mr. Green.”
“I agree with you there,” said Shayne. “Are you going to claim now that you didn’t know she was the woman who registered with Green as Mr. and Mrs. Pell?”
“I’m still sure she wasn’t,” said Estelle spiritedly. “Even passed out, Elsie wouldn’t do a loathsome thing like that.”
“All this is beside the point,” put in Recker. “Stop discussing it with him, darling. He has no official standing at all. If the police want to ask us any questions, we’ll answer them.”
“You’ll answer me… and fast,” Shayne told him harshly. “From what Estelle has just said, I gather you didn’t tell even her about the midnight phone call Elsie made to Green.”
“Telephone call! Telephone call! What telephone call?” demanded Recker irritably. “It’s the first I heard of it. Who says she made such a call?”
“Why? Where did you get such an idea?” Recker’s voice rose shrilly.
“Let’s just say I have private sources of information, I do know she called Green from the bar down the street after borrowing a dime from Jack, the bartender.”
“But he denied it,” Estelle reminded him swiftly. “I heard him myself.”
“He’ll change his story and admit the truth when the pressure goes on.” Shayne spoke directly to Recker. “No matter how much money you or Elsie paid him to remain quiet, he’ll not stay bought when the Homicide boys start pounding. So you may as well start admitting the truth right now.”
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Recker stubbornly.
Shayne leaned forward and slapped him hard. The force of the open-handed blow knocked him sprawling on the floor.
Estelle screamed and came at the redhead with contorted face and fingers curved into claws. All trace of patrician hauteur had departed. Invectives spewed from her lips when Shayne caught both wrists in one hand and swung her aside to hold her helpless while he glared down at Recker.
“I want one name from you two. A name and an address. Who is the man who completed Elsie’s fake alibi for that night by claiming he was in her apartment with her during the time we all know she was with Green?”
Lew Recker lay on his side on the floor, tears of mortification and rage spilling from his eyes. “I don’t know who you mean. I swear I don’t know… “
Shayne released Estelle, flinging her back and away from him so she collided with the typewriter desk before the window. He took one step forward to tower over the prone man, swinging his right foot back and grating, “You know, all right. The married man whom Elsie played up to at the party before she turned her attention to Elbert Green. You and she quarrelled about him early in the evening. Give me his name or so help me sweet Jesus I’ll kick your face into a pulp none of your women will ever recognize again.”
Recker writhed away on the floor from the menacing foot, stark panic in his eyes, “No,” he moaned. “For God’s sake, no.”
“Tell him, Lew,” sobbed Estelle from behind Shayne. “Why shouldn’t you tell him? He will kick you if you don’t. He’s capable of anything. Can’t you see he’s raving mad with some sort of obsession? He means David Jenson, of course. I don’t know why it’s important, but let him go take out his madness on Dave.”
“All right,” flared Recker despairingly, scrambling away on hands and knees. “I don’t know why Jenson is important. He’s just another one of the men Elsie liked to kiss when she was tight.”
“He’s also the man,” Shayne grated, “who backed up the lie you told for Elsie that night. David Jenson. Where does he live?”
“A long way uptown,” said Recker sullenly, getting to his feet and holding a handkerchief against his reddened cheek. “His address is in the telephone book.”
“Is he a writer, too?”
“Of sorts,” said Recker indifferently. “He does radio scripts, I think.”
“A member of your mystery writers organization?”
“I believe he is, though he doesn’t come around to meetings much.”
“Was he at the banquet last night?”
“I didn’t see him if he was. Of course, there was a frightful mob. See here,” continued Recker querulously, “what is all this about a mysterious telephone call Elsie is supposed to have made three months ago, and Dave Jenson? I simply don’t get any of it.”
“You’re lying in your teeth,” Shayne told him. “There’s nothing mysterious about the phone call, as you well know. Elsie made it and met Green that night. Both you and Jenson know that. You covered up for her at the time… and now she’s dead. Get Jenson’s telephone number,” he went on harshly. “You’re going to call him and tell him exactly what I tell you to say.”
Lew Recker shrugged with an elaborate attempt at nonchalance and went to the telephone stand. He took out the Manhattan directory and thumbed through it, wetting his lips and turning to ask, “What do you want me to tell Dave if he’s home?”
“Tell him this.” Shayne moved forward to stand beside Recker. “That he’s to come here at once. That the alibi you and he fixed up for Elsie Murray on Green’s death three months ago is blowing up in your faces since her death last night and things look bad. Insist that he come here immediately. One single word of warning from you to him about what he’s walking into will get you the goddamnedest beating you ever wrote about in any of your lousy books.”
Lew Recker fearfully wet his lips again as he glanced back at the telephone book. Shayne leaned over his shoulder to check the number, and watched carefully while Recker dialed it. He stood ominously close with right fist doubled while Recker waited for an answer, and then said:
“Is that you, Lucy? Lew Recker. Is Dave there?” He turned his head to nod at Shayne, waited another few moments and then drew in a deep breath to say rapidly:
“Lew Recker, Dave. I suppose you know about Elsie Murray last night?”
He listened for a long moment, then broke in impatiently: “Let’s not discuss it over the phone. Come down to my place at once, Dave. It’s damned important. We’ve got to decide what to do. The police have been here and they’re digging into the old Green affair. Remember?”
He listened again, nodding his head slowly. “That’s right. They seem to think there’s a connection. I’ve got to talk with you quickly. Right. I’ll be right here waiting.”
He replaced the receiver and asked sullenly, “Was that what you wanted?”
“Exactly.” Shayne’s voice was uncompromising. “Go pour us a drink if you’ve got one in the joint while I make a call of my own.”
He took the receiver and dialed the MWA number while Recker stepped back and spoke briefly to Estelle and the two of them went out through a side door.
A woman’s voice answered the telephone and Shayne asked, “Is this Dorothy Gardiner?”
“Yes. Who is it?”
“Michael Shayne. Ed Radin and I…”
“Oh, Mr. Shayne. I’ve been sitting here beside the telephone waiting for you to call. They’ve found Brett Halliday. Ed just called in. He’s alive but unconscious and hurt badly, I’m afraid.”
Shayne said, “Where is Brett?”
“At some hospital, I think,” Miss Gardiner told him. “Ed called in a few minutes ago from the Berkshire Hotel. You’re to call him there at room three-oh-five.”
Shayne said, “Thanks. I’ll be at this number another half hour or so if anything comes up.” He looked down at Recker’s number on the dial of the phone and gave it to her, then replaced the receiver and hurriedly looked up the Berkshire number. He dialed it and asked for 305, and a gruff voice answered.
He asked for Radin and waited a moment until Ed’s voice came over. He said, “Mike Shayne, Ed. I just talked to Miss Gardiner.”
“They think Brett will recover,” Radin told him. “He’s unconscious and they rushed him to the Lenox Hill hospital for X-rays. May be concussion. He was supposed to be dead,” the crime writer went on angrily, “in this room right down the corridor from his suite. He was evidently slugged unconscious and then dragged down here and left bound and gagged with strips torn from a sheet. He evidently came to his senses enough to roll off the bed and knock the telephone off the bed table. The operator noticed it and sent a boy up. There was a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door, but they opened up and found Brett unconscious on the floor.
“What else have you got?” Shayne asked evenly when Radin paused for breath.
“Too damned little. This room was rented at six-thirty this morning by a man who registered as Alan Dexter from Waco, Texas. He explained to the clerk that he’d just arrived by plane and his baggage had been held up. He paid cash for the room and requested one on the third floor with some vague sort of explanation about a phobia he had. It’s a slack time and there were several vacancies, so he managed to get three-oh-five near Brett. That’s all of it.”
“Hell, it’s like it always is. No one paid particular attention. He was well-dressed and medium all over. Desk clerk thinks he could identify him but isn’t at all sure.”
“I think we’ll be able to give him a chance to do that within an hour or so,” Shayne said crisply. “I’m here at Lew Recker’s apartment waiting for a visitor who should be able to clean things up for us. Where’ll you be?”
“Up to the hospital to check on Brett first. What has Lew to do with it, Mike?”
Shayne heard a clink of glasses behind him and turned his head to see his unwilling host re-enter the room with a tray of drinkables. He said loudly into the phone:
“Recker has enough to do with it that I’m going to beat his goddamned brains out if Brett doesn’t come out of it all right. He’s Ralph, Ed. And I’ve got Doris here, too.”
“Ralph and Doris?” Ed Radin’s voice was excited now. “You’re moving fast. Shall I call you from the hospital?”
“Please. The moment you know anything.” Shayne hung up and turned with a scowl to the couple who were standing side by side at the rear of the room, looking at him with frightened speculation.
“You heard me, Recker,” Shayne said grimly, moving toward them. “On account of the lie you told the police three months ago, Elsie Murray is dead and my best friend may be at any moment. Think that over while we’re waiting for Jenson to show up.”
He went deliberately to the low table where Recker had placed the tray containing an ice bucket, whiskey and glasses. He put three cubes of ice in a tall glass, filled it two-thirds full of whiskey and swirled the cubes slowly while Recker demanded in a shocked voice:
“Brett Halliday? He’s hurt?”
“Badly.” Shayne took a drink of whiskey, glaring over the top of his glass at Recker.
“What did you mean by saying I’m Ralph?” Recker asked weakly.
“And that someone named Doris was here?” put in Estelle. “I told you my name is Estelle Stevens.”
“It’s an idiosyncrasy of mine,” Shayne told them. “I get cryptic as all hell when I’m working on a case. I refer to my suspects by names I feel they should have instead of their real names.”
“Suspects?” Recker sounded half-shocked and half-amused. “Estelle and myself?”
“Someone murdered Elsie Murray last night. And someone tried to murder Brett Halliday early this morning because he knew too much.” Michael Shayne took a deep draught of the iced liquor. “I’m narrowing it down,” he went on quietly, “and neither of you, by God, is in the clear. Have a drink, you two,” he went on conversationally, “while I make another phone call.”
He turned toward the telephone, hesitated and asked Estelle, “What’s the name of the bar where I met you?”
“The Durbin.” She spelled it out for him while Lew Recker, his face tight and expressionless, carefully began mixing highballs for the two of them.
Shayne looked up the Durbin in the book and dialed the number. When a voice answered, he said, “I’d like to speak to Officer Grady, please.”
“Grady?” The voice sounded doubtful.
“The cop from the beat. If he happens to be around.”
“Oh, him? Hold it a minute.”
Shayne held it until Grady’s voice came over the wire, “Yeah? Who’s calling?”
“Mike Shayne. Keeping an eye on our friend all right?”
“You bet.” The bluecoat lowered his voice. “Nothing happened yet. It’s the lunch hour rush and he’s stepping lively pouring drinks.”
Shayne said, “I want him over here.” He gave Recker’s address and apartment number. “Can you handle it or should I call Headquarters to send a detective around?”
“I can handle it okay.” Grady hesitated, then went on doubtfully, “If it’s not a pinch, how’d it be if I wait fifteen or twenty minutes? Things’re beginning to slack off now, and he’s due to be off duty shortly. That way’ll be easier, if there’s no big rush.”
“No rush at all,” Shayne told him. “I’ll trust you to bring him along as soon as he’s free.” He hung up and moved back to the tray to pick up his drink with a preoccupied look on his face.
Recker and Estelle had been conferring together in low voices while he was telephoning, and Recker now demanded defiantly:
“Isn’t it about time you quit being so mysterious and told us what’s on your mind? You bust in here without any explanation at all, make all sorts of vague accusations with nothing to back them up. Haven’t we any rights at all?”
“You’ll both get exactly what’s coming to you,” Shayne promised him. He began pacing up and down the room, taking short sips of his drink, his brow furrowed in thought.
“How soon will your friend be here?”
“Dave Jenson? Any time now. If he took a subway down.”
Shayne nodded, pausing to study the room with narrowed eyes. “I’m going to assume that you’re as interested as I am in getting the goods on Elsie’s killer.”
“Naturally I am.” Lew Recker spoke strongly. “I simply can’t see Dave in that connection. My God, he’s…”
Shayne made a swift gesture with his open hand. “No matter what sort of person Dave Jenson is, I strongly suspect he’s a double murderer. Keep that in mind while I go on.
“His first reaction when he arrives is going to be very important. I want him to do some talking before he realizes there’s anyone else here. Even Estelle. I want you to lead him on, Recker. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Act scared as you did over the phone and tell him the police have been here questioning you about the Elbert Green murder. Remind him of the way you helped cover up for Elsie on the telephone call, and…”
“But I didn’t,” protested Recker between clenched teeth. “I’ve told you again and again I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“And I still say you’re a liar. You play this my way or else.” Shayne strode through the side door off the living room and found himself in a hallway leading directly into a small kitchenette, with a bedroom opening off on the left.
He turned back and beckoned to Estelle, saying, “You and I will step in here when Jenson comes. We’ll leave the door ajar so we can hear everything, and I’ll be watching you, Recker. Put your door on the latch right now, so you can stand back here in my sight while you call for him to come in. Stay there in my sight while you talk to him. If you make one gesture to warn him I’m here it’ll be too damned bad for you.”
“I won’t do anything like that,” protested Recker weakly. “Why in the name of God should I? If Dave has done anything, I certainly have no reason to protect him.”
He went forward as he spoke, opened his front door and pressed the button that took it off the night-latch. He closed it again, and Estelle came over submissively to stand next to Michael Shayne at the side door. She was trembling and her voice shook a trifle as she asked him, “Couldn’t I just go now? I’ve told you everything I know. I don’t see why I have to stay.”
“Because I don’t know yet how much you’ve told me is truth and how much isn’t.” Shayne put his hand on her arm and stiffened as the soft thud of footsteps sounded in the carpeted hallway outside. “That may be Jenson now. Do your stuff, Recker.”
He drew her back through the doorway, holding her arm in a firm grip. Leaving the door partially ajar, he stood where he could watch his host through the opening.
There was a knock on the door, and Recker glanced aside nervously to be sure Shayne and Estelle were invisible to anyone entering the room, then called out loudly, “Come in.”
Shayne heard the outer door open, and a pleasing baritone voice exclaimed, “Lew! What’s this about Elsie and the police?”
Recker stood where he was. “You heard what happened to her last night?”
“Of course. She got her foolish neck twisted just as she’s been begging to have done for years. What’s that to do with you and me?”
“I don’t know. The police seem to think her murder goes back somehow to that other thing three months ago. When a man named Green was murdered.”
For a moment there was no response from David Jenson. Shayne would have given a great deal to have been able to watch his face at the moment, but it was best, he thought, to remain concealed as long as possible.
“Green?” the newcomer finally said in an oddly altered voice. “I thought that was what you said over the telephone. But why, Lew? She was completely in the clear on that, as you know.”
“The cops don’t seem to think so.” Recker’s voice shook slightly. “They’re trying to tear down her alibi for that night… trying to prove, I guess, that she went to the hotel with him and did it.”
“But that’s impossible! You took her home that night, practically passed out, and… well damn it, maybe you never did know this, Lew. I don’t suppose the police told you at the time. No reason why they should. They were damned decent about not giving it to the papers, and Lucy never did find out. But I know she had nothing to do with Green because I was in her apartment with her all the time.”
“I didn’t know that.” Watching Lew Recker carefully through the half-open side door, Shayne was convinced the writer hadn’t known this fact. He made a hopeful gesture, now, and said, “All you have to do then is to remind the police of that and convince them they’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“But how did they get started on this line?” demanded Jensen’s voice in a tone of genuine puzzlement. “They’ve got your testimony and mine in the old records.”
“Don’t ask me why any cops thinks what he thinks or does what he does. There’s something,” went on Recker unwillingly, “about a telephone call Elsie is supposed to have made that night.”
“A telephone call?”
Recker nodded, tight-lipped. “I don’t know where the idea came from but they’re trying to prove she went to some barroom near her place that night and telephoned Elbert Green to come and pick her up outside the place.”
“But that’s impossible! She didn’t go out to any barroom while I was with her. And I don’t believe she had time to do it before I got there.”
“I don’t believe it either,” said Recker nervously. “I’m just telling you what the police are saying.”
“Where could they have got hold of that idea?” The smooth baritone voice was lower now, with an ominous note concealed beneath the outward suavity. The visitor was moving forward into the room.
“How do I know?” burst out Recker defensively. “It’s the first I ever heard of it.”
“Are you sure of that, Lew? Sure you didn’t hand them that bit of gratuitous information?”
“How could I when I didn’t even know about it? Damn it, Dave! Are you suggesting she did make such a call?”
“I’m suggesting nothing.” Jensen’s voice was soft again. It came from a position near Recker, just beyond Shayne’s line of vision. “It occurred to me it was the sort of thing you might have dreamed up to save your own skin. After all, we know that you and I both perjured ourselves to save Elsie’s skin that night. We both know she had no idea in the world where she was or what happened after she left the party.”
Lew Recker wet his lips and cast an anxious, sidelong glance at Shayne beyond the door.
“I don’t know any such thing. No matter what you did, I didn’t perjure myself.”
“Come off it, Lew. Just between us girls, I know all about her turning up at Estelle’s place at four o’clock after being passed out cold for several hours. You didn’t tell the cops that.”
“N-no,” Recker stammered. “I didn’t see any reason to. I felt sorry for her.”
“Yeh?” David Jenson jeered. His voice cold and thick with jealous hatred. “It also gave you a hold over her, didn’t it? You know damn well she despised you after the first time you took advantage of her when she was tight, and that hurt your lousy ego. So you made a deal with her. You’d help alibi her for Green’s death if she’d let you into her bed when you demanded entry.”
“No! It wasn’t like that.” Beads of sweat were appearing on Lew Recker’s forehead. Close beside him, Michael Shayne felt Estelle trembling violently. His fingers tightened warningly on her arm. He wanted nothing to interrupt the conversation that was taking place in the other room.
Unfortunately, an interruption did occur at that moment. Lew Recker’s telephone began ringing, and with an apologetic, sidelong glance toward the redheaded detective, the writer moved forward to answer it.
Shayne heard him lift the receiver and say, “Hello?” and after a brief moment his voice came more loudly, “Michael Shayne? Wait just a moment. I don’t know… “
With an exclamation of angry impatience, Shayne released his grip on Estelle’s arm and strode forward into the living room. David Jenson whirled about in the center of the rug to stare at him in utter consternation, and Shayne had a momentary glimpse of a big blond man with a smoothly boyish face and light blue eyes that were round and big and seemed to stand out from the flesh.
Shayne tramped past him without a second glance, to Lew Recker who held the telephone out to him wordlessly. Shayne took it and snapped, “Yes?” into the instrument, heard Ed Radin’s voice come over clearly:
“Mike! We’re at the hospital and Brett will pull through. X-rays show no fracture. He won’t be conscious for twelve hours or so, but is otherwise okay.”
“Swell. You want to come down here for the windup?”
“You mean that, Mike?” Radin’s voice was eager. “Lieutenant Hogan is with me. He’s been wondering what the devil you’re up to?”
“Just tell the Lieutenant,” said Shayne happily, “that I’m about to make one of my famous passes and give him Elsie Murray’s murderer. After that, he can go home and get some sleep.”
“Yeh?” Ed Radin sounded doubtful. “You mean it, Mike?”
“I mean it. Come on down to Lew Recker’s place. You know the address?”
“On Madison. Sure. In about ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes will be fine.” Shayne replaced the receiver and turned slowly to survey the room.
Estelle Stevens had come in behind him, and she and Recker stood close together near the side door, their arms tightly around each other’s waist.
In front of them, standing solid and spread-legged on the rug with an angry scowl on his face was David Jenson. The man whom Elsie had called “Dirk” in her script. He wore fawn-colored slacks and a light tan sport jacket and looked like a sophomore football tackle.
He whirled about to face Michael Shayne and demanded, “What kind of hocus-pocus is this? Who are you to be eavesdropping on a private conversation?”
“The name is Shayne. Michael Shayne. A friend of Brett Halliday from Miami, if that’s news to you.”
“And who the hell is Brett Halliday?” blustered Jenson.
“I thought you were a member of the mystery writers too.”
“Oh? That Halliday? I’ve heard his name though I don’t believe I ever met him.”
“Perhaps not socially,” said Shayne. “Weren’t you at the banquet last night?”
“No.” Jensen’s voice was harsher than seemed necessary. “I never attend those affairs.”
Shayne shrugged. “Who told you Elsie Murray was taking Halliday home with her?”
“No one.” Jensen’s attitude became wary. “Not that I would have cared.”
“No? Not even if you’d known she intended to show him the unfinished manuscript she was writing?”
“Not even if I’d known that,” gibed Jenson. “Why should I have minded?”
“Because,” said Shayne savagely, “once any intelligent person read her script and tied it into the Elbert Green murder case and started checking back, you were definitely left out on a limb without the trace of an alibi.”
“Nuts! What makes you think I needed an alibi?”
“Elsie’s script made me think so.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t think you do either.”
“He doesn’t, Dave,” put in Lew Recker eagerly. “He’s just a private Shamus from Miami who’s horning in here in a last-ditch attempt to save Brett Halliday’s neck. Only God knows what he thinks he means by referring to a manuscript of Elsie’s. Personally, I don’t believe there ever was such a thing.”
“Don’t you, Lew?” Shayne asked the question quietly.
“No. She never talked to me about it. And I’m sure that if she’d had an unfinished script she needed advice on she would have shown it to me first of all.”
“What about Jenson?”
Recker looked surprised. “What about him? He writes a little, but no one would go to him for advice I should think.” He didn’t add, “not if I were available” but his tone and demeanor did.
“Yet I think it quite likely Elsie did just that. She was murdered,” Shayne added deliberately, “to prevent her from showing the manuscript to Halliday. And an attempt was made to murder him when the killer discovered he had gotten to her too late… that she had already passed on one copy of the incriminating document to Halliday.”
“I simply don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the big blond man with an air of honest bewilderment.
“Don’t you? It mostly revolves around a telephone call.” Shayne paused as a loud and authoritative knock sounded on Recker’s door. “And I think the man is just outside who can clear up the entire matter for us.”
He strode past David Jenson to the door, jerked it open but found Ed Radin and Lieutenant Hogan standing outside instead of Grady and the bartender whom he had expected.
He said, “Oh. It’s you,” without trying to hide his disappointment. “Come on in.” He held the door wide. “We’re not quite a quorum yet, but I hope we will be very soon.”
Radin stood back to let the Homicide officer enter first, telling Shayne in a low voice, “Brett is absolutely okay. He’ll be conscious by five or six this afternoon and able to tell us what happened.”
Shayne nodded. “I almost know already.” He turned away from Radin, told Hogan, “I don’t know whether you’ve met any of these people or not. Detective Peters had a talk with Mr. Recker this morning, I think. Lew Recker,” he added sardonically with a wave of his hand. “An author, one of Elsie Murray’s lovers, and one of the persons who provided her with an alibi for the murder of a man named Elbert Green about three months ago.”
The Lieutenant nodded noncommittally. “We finally got onto that tieup and we’ve been checking all the testimony in that case.”
“Then,” said Shayne, “you’ll know all about Estelle Stevens and David Jenson.” He waved his hand again. “It was Jenson, you know, who backed up the alibi Recker gave Elsie.”
“I know,” said Hogan flatly. “According to Ed Radin, you’re trying to prove Miss Murray’s death last night sprang out of the Green murder.”
“I’m going to prove it,” said Shayne confidently. “In providing an alibi for her, one of the three parties involved also made an alibi for himself. Once I break hers down, his goes kaput too. That’s why Elsie was murdered.”
“Fair enough.” Lieutenant Hogan shrugged irritably. “Quit being cryptic about it and tell us something we don’t already know.”
“One thing you never found out while investigating the Green murder,” Shayne told him, “was that Elsie Murray reached her apartment house that midnight not only completely passed out, but also without her purse containing her keys and money. She couldn’t get in the front door, and she hadn’t even a dime with which to call a friend.”
“Wait a minute,” said David Jenson, stepping forward fast. “If you have been going over the testimony, Lieutenant, you’ll recall that point was mentioned. Elsie had given me her extra key at the party, and I followed Lew Recker’s car to her place. I was right behind them when he let her out, and I had her extra key which gave us entrance.”
“That may be the testimony,” said Shayne savagely, “but it isn’t the truth. Miss Murray was left on her own doorstep without a key, Lieutenant. She hesitated to waken the superintendent in her condition, and went down the street instead to the nearest bar where she was known to make a telephone call.”
He paused dramatically, then added, “She did make her call. To a man named Elbert Green. Asking him to come by and pick her up in front of the place.”
“Prove that statement.” Lew Recker was breathing heavily. “I challenge you to do so.”
“I intend to. My proof will be here in a moment. Green picked her up and they drove to the Beloit Hotel and registered as man and wife,” he went on conversationally to Lieutenant Hogan. “You can take it from there. It’s my theory that she was followed to the Beloit by a jealous suitor who later got into their room and killed Green. He then made himself an alibi for the night by pretending to alibi her.
“And here comes the proof I promised you,” he added with a sigh of relief as another knock sounded on the door. “Open it up, Ed.”
Ed Radin, who had remained standing close to the door did as Shayne requested. This time it was uniformed officer, Grady, and Jack, the bald-headed bartender from the Durbin.
Grady drew himself up and saluted smartly when he saw the Homicide Lieutenant, and Shayne introduced them: “This is one of your smarter harness bulls, Lieutenant. If anyone gets a promotion out of this, I think it should be Grady. Now Jack,” he went on sharply to the bartender. “You can see the jig is up. Lying won’t get you anywhere now. Point out which person in this room paid you to say, if you were asked, that Elsie Murray did not come in your place and borrow a dime from you to make a phone call the night Elbert Green was murdered.”
“He did.” The bald-headed bartender’s face was pale and he stood stiffly erect with a long forefinger pointed accusingly at David Jenson. “The next day after it happened, he came in and beat around the bush some and ended up by offering me a thousand dollars if I’d promise I wouldn’t tell the police that Miss Murray had made a call from our place the night before.”
“You knew it was in connection with a murder,” said Lieutenant Hogan sternly.
“I realized that, yes sir.”
“And you must know that withholding evidence is a crime in New York.”
“I suppose it is, yes, sir.”
“Then why did you agree to do it?” roared the Lieutenant. “You’ll be lucky, by God, if we don’t pull your license for this.”
“I don’t think so, sir.” The bartender was respectful but unfrightened.
“Why not?” thundered Hogan. “You admit you took a bribe to suppress relevant evidence in a murder investigation.”
“I admitted nothing of the kind, sir.” Jack retained his calm. “I admitted I took a thousand dollars from this gentleman…” Again he pointed directly at David Jenson. “…at his insistence, sir. To not tell the police if I was asked that Miss Murray had made a phone call from our place the preceding midnight.”
“What sort of quibbling is that? Suppression of evidence…!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Jack smugly. “I saw nothing wrong in what I did. Suppose, sir,” he went on before the Lieutenant could explode again, “right here and now I was to offer you a thousand dollars if you’d promise me faithfully you wouldn’t tell my wife you’d caught me in bed with another woman this afternoon. Would it be a crime for you to accept the money?”
“Not necessarily. Because I haven’t caught you doing that.”
“Exactly, sir. And Miss Murray didn’t make any such telephone call as this gentleman paid me not to tell the police about.” Jack paused and shrugged elaborately. “He offered me the money, you see, to simply tell the truth. Why shouldn’t I have taken it? Was that a crime?”
“Wait a minute,” said Shayne harshly. “Are you trying to tell us Miss Murray didn’t come in at midnight and borrow a dime from you to make her call to the man who was subsequently murdered?”
“I don’t know how I could say it any plainer, sir,” sighed Jack. “I not only say that’s the truth, but I’ll swear to it on a stack of Bibles ten feet high.”
“Then why,” demanded Shayne, “did you tell Mr. Recker here,” he turned to point to Lew Recker, “just before you closed up that morning, that Miss Murray had made such a call?”
“I didn’t do no such thing,” said Jack earnestly. “I never saw this one before, so help me God.” He paused to draw in a deep breath and then addressed himself plaintively to Lieutenant Hogan: “God knows, Commissioner, I’m sorry if what I did was wrong. But it seemed all right to me. I was just getting paid to tell the truth, and I couldn’t see anything wrong in that.”
“Hold everything,” said Ed Radin authoritatively, moving forward past Lieutenant Hogan to confront the others. “We happen to know you’re lying,” he told the bartender. “We have Elsie Murray’s word for it that she did make such a call.
“I’m sorry, Mike,” he went on swiftly to Shayne. “I decided it was best to turn our copy of Elsie’s script over to the Lieutenant. He’s read it and knows as much as we do about it.”
“Your copy?” The words were torn from deep in Lew Recker’s throat. “There were only two copies.”
“And you think you destroyed both of them, don’t you?” Michael Shayne moved in fast and grabbed the writer as he whirled to make an attempt to rush for the windows overlooking Madison Avenue.
“You slipped up, bud!” He whirled Recker back roughly, sending him flat on the floor in front of the others. “Elsie’s manuscript had you worried, and rightly. If the investigation into Green’s death was ever reopened, you knew it was inevitable that some smart dick would eventually get around to questioning Jack here about that non-existent telephone call and would learn the truth. That would finish you. They’d learn there had been no such call. That you had lied about it wholly and completely to poor Elsie Murray who trusted you to go out that night to question Jack.
“And once they learned you had lied to her about that,” he went on harshly, “the cops would have kept digging until they got the truth. You dropped her in front of her apartment that midnight,” he went on inexorably, “jealous as hell because she wouldn’t let you come up with her. You drove on half a block or so and stopped to see whom she was meeting. What man she preferred to you. And you saw Elbert Green drive up right behind you and pick her up.
“And you followed them in your car to the Beloit. You managed somehow to discover the number of their room and you went up. You killed Green in a jealous rage, and you added the crowning touch by slipping a folded two-dollar bill into the top of Elsie’s stocking before you hurried away to meet Estelle and establish an alibi for yourself.”
“No!” screamed Lew Recker, rising on one elbow to glare up at the redhead. “How do you know about the two-dollar bill? How does anybody know…?”
“He’s all yours, Lieutenant,” Shayne said disgustedly, turning away from the prostrate writer before his worse instincts overcame his better judgement and he swung his foot as he had threatened to do a little earlier. “Don’t be too tough on David Jenson, though he did bribe Jack to tell the truth. He was in a pretty tough spot himself, not knowing where the hell he’d been that evening and whether or not he had murdered Green. Let’s all have a drink of Recker’s whiskey,” he added, “and if any of us pass out we’ll understand exactly how David Jenson felt the next morning when he woke up with Elsie’s extra key in his pocket.”
That was the end of it. The hospital doctors were right and I did come out of my coma that same afternoon. With no permanent damage to anything except my pride.
What a hell of a mess I’d made out of my opportunity to watch the unfolding of a murder case from the inside out! Lying gagged and unconscious in a hotel room just down the corridor from my suite while Ed Radin and Mike Shayne solved the case for me!
Lew Recker had signed a full confession by the time I came to in the hospital. He was the writer Elsie had showed her manuscript to, of course, being convinced in her own mind that he couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with Green’s death and thinking it quite safe to show it to him. All because of his clever lie to her about the telephone call she hadn’t made to Green.
It was Recker, of course, who had telephoned Elsie while I was with her that night, and who had been told by her that she planned to let me see the script the next day.
After strangling Elsie, he looked around her apartment for the manuscript, but found only the carbon copy there. Knowing there couldn’t be a carbon without an original, he correctly deduced that Elsie had lied to him over the phone and that the original must already be in my possession.
Not knowing how to reach me in New York, Recker went through hell for a couple of hours until he hit upon the device of calling Dorothy Gardiner and using the name of George Coxe to get the name of my hotel and room number.
After checking in on the same floor under an assumed name, Recker came to my room with the same blackjack that had killed Elbert Green and rang my buzzer.
I can verify this part of his confession. I had dropped off to sleep fully dressed only a short time before, and was dazed and groggy when I heard the buzzer and stumbled to the door. I opened it and vaguely saw the figure of a man standing there, and felt something hit me a terrific wallop.
And that was all I did know.
The only thing that saved my life at that moment (Recker admitted in his confession) was the fact that Elsie’s script lay on the table still in its original envelope underneath my hat. He knew I had come in late after drinking a good deal, and assumed I had simply tossed the envelope down without reading it and dropped into bed.
If I hadn’t read it, I was no danger to him. All he had to do was destroy this second copy to be safe.
But he couldn’t be absolutely positive I hadn’t read it, or enough of it to come up with the truth if I recovered later. So he didn’t want to leave me there in my own room where I’d be discovered quickly, yet he had a certain aversion to committing another cold-blooded murder unless it was necessary.
He solved the problem by dragging my unconscious body down the short length of corridor to his own room, binding and gagging me and leaving a DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door.
That way, he felt I was safely immobilized for the time being at least while he sat tight to see what happened. Later, he could have returned at his leisure to finish me off if that course seemed indicated.
But Mike Shayne got to him before he decided that was necessary, so I’m still alive to tell the story.
Next time I attend a mystery writers’ banquet in New York, I shall take Mike along as a bodyguard. And when I meet an attractive and sensuous female at the bar I’ll turn her over to Mike and run like hell.
That’s his forte-definitely not mine.