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Killers from the Keys
Brett Halliday Killers from the Keys
Michael Shayne came into his office breezily at three o’clock that afternoon. He had enjoyed a long and pleasant luncheon, and with no pressing cases on hand, he was in a buoyant and carefree mood as he tossed his hat on a hook near the door and grinned expansively at his secretary who was typing primly behind a low railing across the anteroom.
She continued typing primly without even a glance in his direction. Her profile was toward him, and there was a look of intense concentration on her face as she continued to type rapidly, although now her fingers appeared to strike the keys with more savagery than primness.
Shayne took two steps across the room toward her, his carefree expression changing to a slow frown. He stopped and sniffed the air questioningly. Then he said, “My God, angel, where’d you get that perfume?”
Lucy Hamilton stopped typing. She turned her head slowly and said, “It’s Black Sin, Michael, Im ported from Paris.” Her voice lifted impishly as she accented the first syllable. “Costs fifty dollars fer just one ounce if you’re intrested.”
Shayne sniffed the air again, ostentatiously this time, like a hound dog on the scent, pivoting his head slowly so that his uptilted nose pointed directly at the closed door marked PRIVATE.
“Black Sin, huh? Why’d you stash her away inside my office?”
“Because there’s an air-conditioner in there.” Lucy’s soft voice was a feline purr. “Don’t let her keep you too long, Michael, because you have another client coming at three-thirty and it’ll take a while to air it out.”
“Another client?” He lifted ragged red eyebrows. “I just go out for a quick lunch, and all at once…”
“You just go out for a three-hour drinking bout,” Lucy corrected him, “and suddenly we’re deluged with clients. The next one sounded nice over the telephone, and in a terrible state of nerves.” She glanced down at a pad beside her typewriter. “A Mrs. Steve Renshaw from Chicago, Illinois.”
“And the one inside? Does she bathe in Black Sin?”
“I’ve no doubt she wallows in it at least,” said Lucy, adding savagely, “or any other color that happens to be handy.”
The right side of Shayne’s mouth quirked upward. “I take it you don’t approve of her. Or is it her case you don’t approve of?”
“I know nothing about her case. She’s saving that for a personal interview. If I didn’t have definite orders never to turn away an unknown client…”
Shayne started toward the closed door, saying defensively, “Well, you never know…”
“You certainly don’t… not around this office.”
Shayne opened the door wondering what on earth could have brought that tone of vicious anger into Lucy’s normally gentle voice. He understood when he crossed the threshold, and he hastily pulled the door tightly shut behind him.
She was slouched back in his swivel chair behind his desk with her feet up on it wearing a pair of battered teen-age loafers, and she was the most brazenly provocative hunk of jailbait the redhead had ever seen. She had a half-burned cigarette in her left hand and a paper cup in her right holding a couple of inches of bourbon which she had poured from the uncorked bottle sitting on the desk beside her.
He guessed she was maybe eighteen, and she was wearing more makeup in bright daylight than he had ever seen applied to any floozie in a dim-lit night club. She wore a peasant skirt that fell away from womanly thighs above bare knees, and a flimsy blouse that left her shoulders and a goodly portion of obviously unfettered breasts completely bare. She had a wide, full-lipped mouth that was heavily and inexpertly smeared with scarlet, a lot of mascara and violet eyeshadow that failed to take your attention away from big, bold black eyes, and the entire impression was one of lusty, wanton, and youthful sexuality that gloried in its youth and the effect she knew she had on most men.
She gave him a welcoming smile as he stood rooted there, which changed from sultry sensuality to a gamin-like grin as she lifted the paper cup high in a mock salute: “Hope you don’t mind me grabbin’ a free sample. I seen this desk drawer open and the bottle sittin’ there. Some kinda foreign likker, ain’t it?” She tossed the last of it off with a practiced swig and scarcely grimaced as the full-strength slug went smoothly down her throat.
Shayne said grimly, “It’s cognac and I do mind teenage delinquents drinking out of my bottle. Put the cork back in and put it back in the drawer. Then get out of my chair.”
“Gee! You are sure enough tough, ain’t you, Mike Shayne?” She smiled happily and put the cork back in the bottle, swung her bare legs off his desk and stood up sinuously, leaning forward to replace the bottle in the bottom drawer and give him a good chance for an unobstructed view of the deep trench between her heavy breasts.
Shayne looked and then shrugged wearily as she glanced up at him from that position with sly calculation in her bold eyes. He stalked around the desk to his vacated chair, and she swung her hips provocatively to a nearby chair into which she plopped, veering her legs wide and leaning forward with elbows on knees to prop her chin in both hands with a frankly admiring look on her face.
“What’d you mean by that crack about teen-age delinquents?”
Shayne glanced at the intercom button to Lucy’s desk and saw that it was open. He asked, “How old are you?”
She giggled throatily. Coming from her youthful and red-smeared mouth, it had an obscene sound. “Plenty old enough. I been old enough,” she confided, “since I been big enough, an’ anybody down on the Keys’ll tell you the Piney girls got big fast.”
In a measured tone, Shayne told her, “You’ve got just two minutes before I throw you and your stinking perfume out of my office. What do you want?”
“You don’t like my perfume?” Chagrin mingled with anger in her voice. “I can tell you right now, Mister, that it’s Black Sin an’…”
“It’s im ported from Paris and costs fifty bucks a throw,” Shayne interrupted her. “Is your name Piney?”
“Esther Piney. Say, you are a sure-enough smart detective,” she marveled. “How’d you ever know…?”
Shayne held a big hand out and looked at his wrist-watch. “Thirty seconds gone.”
“Huh? Oh, two minutes, huh? But look, I gotta case for you, Mr. Shayne.”
“What sort of case?”
“A detectin’ case, that’s what. I want you should find a man for me.”
“I think you could manage that without any help from me.”
“Gee, Mr. Shayne.” She bridled happily at the compliment. “I mean a special man, see? He’s disappeared right here in Miami. He’s the real sweetest man I ever met and I want him back.”
“Doesn’t he know where to find you?”
“Oh, he knows that, all right. I reckon you don’t recognize me, but I’m Sloe Burn.”
Shayne blinked and said, “Come again.”
“Sloe Burn.” She seemed childishly disappointed that he didn’t react. “You spell it, S-L-O-E, see, but you pronounce it Slow. Catch on? That’s the way they bill me at the Bright Spot. You know it? Out on the Trail west of town.”
Shayne said, “I know it by reputation. You one of the strippers?”
“Well, I do a coupla strips between numbers, but I’m a dancer mostly. Me’n Ralphie, from down on the Keys. We worked up this dance together, see, an’ we got top billin’ already in two months.”
“Your dance partner has run out on you and you want me to find him?”
“Ralphie? Gawd, no. He wouldn’t run out. Why, if it wasn’t for me… No, it ain’t like that atall. There’s this fellow, see, been comin’ to the Club most every night. Us girls work the floor, you know, an’ he’s a real sport. Scads of money, an’ real sweet like I say. He went for me big right off. Poor Freddie.” Her voice softened so it was almost maternal. “He swears the only real lovin’ he ever had from a woman in his whole life is from me. And him a married man, too. Think of that. He let it slip once about havin’ two kids back home. You know what I think, Mr. Shayne? Shucks, do I hafta call you Mister? Mike’s a lot cuter.”
“What do you think, Miss Piney?” Shayne was amused and interested in the swamp-girl’s complete ingenuousness in spite of himself.
“I think he’s hidin’ out down here from his wife,” she announced triumphantly. “Lotsa little things. Him always actin’ scared an’ lookin’ back over his shoulder. And that funny mustache… you can’t tell me he ain’t just grown it recent… ’way he keeps fingering it all the time. I think maybe she’s got detectives after him an’ he’s scared they’ll catch up with him. That’s why he talks crazy when he’s drinkin’ about us running off together to some island where there’d just be the two of us… all alone on this island he’s dreamed up.”’
She stopped to catch her breath and Shayne asked with a grin, “You’d like that?”
“Well, not the island part, maybe,” she admitted with a candid smile of her own. “But, to go off with him, sure. To South America, maybe, or somewheres… if he’s really got all the money he keeps hintin’ he’s got.”
“So,” said Shayne patiently, “you’ve lost a rich sugar-daddy and want me to get him back for you.”
“It ain’t like that at all. He’s real sweet an’ I’m scared for him. If you just knew Freddie, you’d see what I mean. Somebody else’ll just roll him. Me, I never did. Hundred bucks is the most he ever give me at one time, an’ I never even asked for that. But he’s just like a babe in the woods here in Miami. You know the kinda woman’ll get her hooks into him.”
“How old is your Freddie?”
“Fred Tucker, he says his name is. Pretty old. Forty, I guess maybe. Tall an’ thin an’ sort of stooped. And all the time scared of his own shadow. Honest-to-God, Mike, I just shiver when I think of him wanderin’ around Miami with nobody to look after him atall.”
“And with all that money loose in his pockets,” Shayne suggested.
“Yeh. That, too. How loose in his pockets it is, though, I wouldn’t know. He keeps talkin’ big about having a lot stashed away.”
“Maybe he’s on the lam,” suggested Shayne. “Pulled some sort of caper.”
“Freddie?” She laughed scornfully. “Not him. Not ever him. That’s what scares me, like I say. Not only the women, but tough hoods, too, that might get onto his trail. Like them two at the Club the other night…” She cut herself off suddenly, sucking her lower lip in between her teeth and looking absurdly naive and innocent.
“What about them?”
“Well, I thought first maybe they was detectives that his wife had sicked after him. They looked like I figured Private Eyes would look, but that was before I met you an’ now I don’t know. But there was these two that come in the Club an’ they had a pitcher that looked somethin’ like Freddie before he’d growed that mustache. An’ they showed it to the bartender there an’ slipped him a fin, I reckon, an’ he told ’em to talk to me. And so they did. But I didn’t like their looks, and I swore up and down that I never saw nobody in the Club looked like the pitcher they showed. One was big an’ tough and mean-lookin’ and the other was thin an’ sorta sad… dressed up in a black suit like a preacher. But they got no change outta me.
“So that’s why I’m scared for Freddie an’ want you should find him before they do. They asked all sortsa questions about this man I claimed I didn’t know, an’ knew all the time was Freddie. Like did he spend much money an’ had he ever flashed a big roll. An’ what fancy hotel he stayed at and all like that. Fancy hotels!” she added scornfully. “Not Freddie. That’s another reason why I think he’s duckin’ his wife maybe. He stays in cheap motels, and never very long in the same one. So, would you find him for me quick, Mike, an’ tell him not to come back to the Club to see me on account those goons might be back watchin’ for him?”
As she spoke she gave him a dazzling smile and reached forward to lift a large, black leather bag from beside his desk where she had evidently placed it when she entered. “It ain’t that I can’t pay you cash,” she explained as she opened it and groped inside. “Because I can. But maybe you’re like some other men an’ feel like I got somethin’ better’n cash to pay off with. Mostly it makes me mad when they say things like that to me, but you know what, Mike?”
Shayne glanced at the open intercom button on his desk and said gravely, “No, what, Miss Piney?”
She had extracted a wad of bills and was unfolding them thoughtfully. Without looking up, she told him, “If you was to say that to me, Mike, it wouldn’t make me mad. But if you want cash on the barrel-head…”
She separated five twenties from the other bills and held them loosely in her hand.
He shook his head. “Keep your money, Miss Piney. I’m sure you earned it the hard way.”
“It ain’t so hard. Like I say, there’s always suckers around. You come around an’ catch my dance at the Bright Spot. Like it says on the billing: Do a fast burn with Sloe Burn. You won’t be sorry you passed up this here little bitty ole cash money.” She composedly returned the bills to her purse.
Shayne pushed back his chair and stood up, studying his watch. “You’ve had a lot more than the two minutes I promised you. Maybe I will catch your dance some night.”
“And you’ll find Freddie, huh?”
Shayne shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s a little out of my line. If he’s the sort of man who can turn his back on your manifest charms, who am I to drag him back into your orbit?”
For a moment the girl from the Keys seemed utterly nonplussed. She got to her feet slowly and stammered, “You’re not gonna find Freddie for me?”
Shayne said firmly, “Nope.” He rounded the corner of his desk and took her by the arm. “This way out. I have another appointment.”
She jerked away from him angrily, then pushed her body hard against his and said in a voice that throbbed with sexual invitation, “You ain’t never seen me dance, Mister.”
He looked down at her without moving, and wrinkled his nose in disgust at the hot waves of perfumed air that roiled up between them. “Change your brand of perfume before you get so close to a man.”
Childish fury blazed in her lustrous, black eyes, and without the slightest warning her left hand swung up with fingers clawed to rake the side of his face with sharp nails.
He caught her wrist before she reached the target, and swung her away from him violently. “Get out before I turn you over my knee and spank you.”
She stood very still, quivering with wrath and with a dazed, hurt look on her overpainted young face.
Then she spat, “Don’t you ever come near me or I’ll have Ralphie cut you up in little pieces.” She swung away and marched out as disdainfully as she could in her scuffed loafers, and Shayne followed her to the door of his inner office and leaned against the frame as she stamped past Lucy without a glance at her and slammed through the outer door.
“Do a fast burn with Sloe Burn,” chanted Lucy with her gaze fixed on the closed door through which Miss Esther Piney had disappeared. Then she said, “Oh, Michael!” and began laughing helplessly.
He didn’t join in her merriment. He said sternly, “Control yourself and get in here with a deodorizer or something. Next time you close up an oversexed swamp-cat in my office I’m going fishing for a week.”
Michael Shayne’s next visitor was also a female who wanted to hire him to locate a missing man for her, but there the resemblance ended.
Mrs. Renshaw from Illinois was a cool, poised woman in her late thirties, beautifully groomed from the top of smoothly waved platinum hair to the tips of smart spike-heeled shoes. Her features had a chiseled sort of fragility about them, and her blue eyes were almost opaque with an impression of on-the-surface coloration; yet with all her outward trappings of sophisticated assurance, Shayne received an immediate impression of tremendous inner tension the moment Lucy ushered her into his office.
He stood up gravely and repeated, “Mrs. Renshaw,” and moved around his desk to move the chair recently vacated by Sloe Burn so that it faced him more directly, and took her cool, long-fingered hand in his after she stripped off one white, openwork glove and offered her hand to him.
The sudden, convulsive pressure of her fingers on his confirmed the impression that she was a seething mass of raw nerves behind her calm facade. Standing close in front of him with shoulders resolutely back and firm chin tilted slightly so that her eyes looked directly into his, she said with clipped mid-western directness: “You don’t know what a relief this is, Mr. Shayne. I’ve so dreaded coming to your office. But now, I’m glad I found the courage to come.”
Shayne put his other big hand over hers in his palm and pressed it warmly. He said, “Private detectives are pretty much like other professional people, Mrs. Renshaw, despite popular fiction and television.”
She lowered straw-colored lashes over her blue eyes, and the intense rigidity went away from her posture. Her fingers relaxed their convulsive grip on his, and he released her hand and went back to his chair while she seated herself on the edge of hers and folded her hands carefully in her lap.
With a faint smile she said, “I don’t read much popular fiction and almost never watch TV. No, Mr. Shayne. My dread arose from a recent personal experience that has been quite… horrible.”
Shayne said, “Tell me about it if you wish. I know most of my competitors in Miami, and if one of them has gotten out of line…”
“Oh, no. Not in Miami. In Chicago. But I had better start at the beginning, hadn’t I?”
Shayne settled back in his swivel chair and got out a pack of cigarettes. He held the pack toward her with lifted eyebrows and she shook her head a fraction of an inch and said, “I don’t smoke, thanks.”
“I will, if you don’t mind.” Shayne lit a cigarette and asked, “What is the beginning?”
“It’s my husband, Steve, Mr. Shayne. He’s in Miami and in terrible danger. If I could only find him… get him to face up to it and come home and seek the protection of the law which he fully deserves…” Her face went to pieces suddenly and she lowered her head and sobbed convulsively while her hands writhed together in her lap.
“My husband isn’t a bad man. Steve’s weak, perhaps… but not bad. He didn’t really do anything so terribly wrong. Nothing that he should be punished for.” She lifted her head abruptly and looked at him with tears streaming down her cheeks. “He didn’t do anything wrong at all. Just got in with the wrong crowd and gambled more than he could afford… and then when those crooked gamblers had won all his cash, it was they who urged him to gamble on credit. He told me all about it, Mr. Shayne. Poor Stevie! He actually thought they were being kind-hearted and generous to him… giving him a chance to win back what he’d lost.
“It wasn’t until he was in ’way over his head that he finally realized how cleverly they had trapped him. They cut off his credit suddenly and demanded payment. My husband isn’t a wealthy man, Mr. Shayne, but he has a fine position of trust with a Savings and Loan Association, and they callously suggested he could get the money there if he couldn’t raise it elsewhere.
“That he could steal it.” She spat the word out with venomous contempt. “You can imagine what that did to a man like Steve. Honestly, Mr. Shayne, he’s one of the most honest and upright men who ever lived. He was flabbergasted at first. He laughed at them. He simply couldn’t believe they were serious. But they warned him that they were. They threatened reprisals… not only physical danger to him, but they threatened his family also. Me and our two children. They warned him that if he went to the police for protection none of us would ever be safe again.
“It was the Syndicate, you see. Perhaps you don’t realize how things are in Chicago. Crime and gambling and all that is completely organized. They have a regular army of what they call ‘enforcers’ and they are actually above the law in Chicago. Most people don’t realize it, but it’s as bad as it ever was back in the Capone days.”
Shayne nodded slowly, his trenched face bleak. “I have a pretty good idea how things are in Chicago. We’ve managed to avoid that sort of thing in Miami, but it’s a constant struggle to keep the Syndicate from getting a foothold. So your husband told you this, Mrs. Renshaw?”
“About three weeks ago. We sat up and talked most of the night. I blame myself for what happened. Steve wanted me to take the children and get out of town fast. I have relatives in California where I could have gone. He thought he could throw them off the track and join me later. But I was a fool, Mr. Shayne. A self-righteous, trusting, goddamned fool!
“I shamed Stevie into staying in Chicago and facing it out. I couldn’t believe that the local police weren’t capable of protecting us. It seemed utterly insane to me for us to run away and hide from underworld forces, no matter how well organized they were. I urged Steve to defy them to do their worst. And they did. The very next day, Mr. Shayne.”
Mrs. Renshaw dropped her eyes and her voice dropped to a whisper. “We have a lovely daughter twelve years old. She was coming home from school when a car drove past on a street corner and a container of acid was thrown at her and two friends who were walking home together. It burned… one side of Marcia’s face badly, and spattered her two innocent companions. That’s the sort of fiends he has against him, Mr. Shayne. How can you fight that? What can a decent person do?”
Shayne shifted in his chair and avoided her gaze. He said, “I get the picture, Mrs. Renshaw. What did your husband do?”
“He disappeared. Without telling me he was going. I would have gone with him. I would have taken our children and disappeared with him, but I’d failed him before and he didn’t trust me again. He left me a note explaining what he was doing… that if he left his job and simply vanished, he thought they’d give up and leave him alone. Because if he no longer had his job, you see, there was no way they could hope to force him to pay the gambling debt, and he was convinced they would see reason and leave us alone thereafter.”
“Was he right?” asked Shayne grimly.
“In a way. We haven’t been molested since. Though I’m convinced our house is continually watched, and I suspect the Syndicate has a tap on our telephone. That’s why… when Steve telephoned me from Miami three days ago… I cut him off fast. Even so, he had time to tell me they had trailed him here and he was remaining in hiding in hourly danger of his life. You must find him for me, Mr. Shayne, before they do. Before the Syndicate’s murderous ‘enforcers’ locate him. I can convince him to go to the police for protection. I know I can. Steve will listen to me. He’s like a frightened little boy. He just isn’t thinking straight. He’s no match for them. He’s had no experience in this sort of thing. He can’t go on this way.”
“You didn’t tell the police about his call?”
“He made me promise not to. He’s utterly terrified of what the Syndicate will do if we dare go to the police.”
“What did he tell you?” demanded Shayne sharply.
“Simply that he is using the name of Fred Tucker down here. He would have said more but I… I’m afraid I cut him off because I’m afraid our telephone is tapped.
“Well, first I went to a private detective in Chicago to solicit professional assistance. I felt so inadequate to come down here alone and attempt to find Steve, and thought I needed the advice and aid of someone who knew about such matters. I know how corrupt the city police are in Chicago, but I thought a private detective would be different. Still, I thought such a man might decline to help me find Steve if he knew he was bucking the Syndicate by doing so, and before I consulted him I decided that I would not tell him the truth.
“I didn’t know anything about how to find a reliable detective in Chicago, of course, nor did I know anyone I could ask, and so I picked the name of a detective agency at random out of the yellow pages. He advertised that divorce cases were his specialty, with a line about tracing ‘erring spouses’… and I had already decided that was how I should represent myself… as a wife whose husband had deserted her.
“I confess I was appalled by the appearance and manners of the man when I met him in his office, but he did appear competent and didn’t ask too many probing questions, and assured me that he had many contacts in Miami which would make it a very simple matter to locate my husband.
“I’m convinced now, Mr. Shayne, that he has connections in the underworld and that he somehow put two and two together and realized that my erring spouse was really the man on whose head the Syndicate has put a price. I think that was why he was eager to take my case and didn’t even demand a retainer in advance… just travelling expenses. A lot of little things happened on the trip down that made me suspicious of him. He’s not a nice man, Mr. Shayne. He frightens me, and now I’m terrified that he will find Steve before the police do.”
“What is his name?”
“Baron McTige, he calls himself. He is uncouth and ruthless, and, I’m convinced, utterly amoral and predatory.” She paused, and Shayne saw her hands clenching themselves together in her lap. “We flew down together, you see, because I insisted on coming with him even though he insisted he could handle the matter alone. And when we arrived yesterday he… he made the most outrageous proposals to me, Mr. Shayne, and revealed his true colors for the first time. I… discharged him from the case, though he had the audacity to sneer at me and inform me that I had a legal obligation to pay him whatever fee he wished to demand after he found Steve. And he’s here in the city now, tracking him down, Mr. Shayne, for the sole purpose, I’m sure, of fingering him to the Syndicate, if he succeeds.”
“Who suggested you come to me?”
“No one. Well, that is… it is funny, really, but McTige actually gave me your name. It was on the plane coming down and I suggested that perhaps he should get in touch on arrival with a competent local detective who would know more about where to look for Steven. This was while he was still trying to keep in my good graces, and he said that if we should decide we needed help that one of the best detectives in the country had an office in Miami, and he mentioned your name. And this morning in desperation I did make some inquiries among local people and discovered how well-known and respected you are… and I just made up my mind to come to you and lay my problem in your lap. Please, Mr. Shayne, you will help me, won’t you?”
“I’ll try,” promised Shayne. “Describe your husband.”
“Steve is forty-two,” said Mrs. Renshaw precisely. “And he looks just about that age. Weight one hundred fifty-six; height five feet ten inches, and he walks with a little bit of a stoop which, curiously, gives one the impression that he is taller than he actually is. Clean-shaven, brown eyes, and brown hair that is getting a little skimpy in front.” As she gave the physical description one had the impression that each word was memorized and was being repeated by rote.
“Do you have a picture of him?”
“Baron McTige has two, which I foolishly gave him. He refused to return them to me yesterday when I told him I no longer wished him to look for Steve.”
“What about personal habits? What sort of places would your husband be likely to frequent?”
“I simply can’t imagine, Mr. Shayne. Actually, Steve is very shy and retiring. Particularly with women. He had absolutely no vices… outside of gambling.” She broke off, biting her lower lip. “He’s very retiring, and modest in his spending habits. Dresses ultra-conservatively, and just detests spending money on clothes for himself. Why, I’ve actually had to drag him down to a store to replace a forty-dollar suit that had grown shabby after two years wear. I just don’t know,” she said slowly. “I guess I just don’t know very much about Steve, do I, Mr. Shayne?”
“Was your husband attractive to women?” Shayne asked bluntly.
“In a nice sort of way. I always thought he aroused their maternal instincts.” She paused a moment, then added uneasily, “Particularly in younger women. I could never really understand Steve’s attraction for them. But there was a sort of gallantry about him that was somehow pathetic, I guess. Something that had to do with a father fixation, perhaps. If I were a psychoanalyst perhaps I could give you a Freudian term for it.”
Shayne said dubiously, “None of this is very helpful, Mrs. Renshaw. If your husband does follow the behavior pattern you anticipate, he can easily make himself indistinguishable from a hundred thousand other retired, or semi-retired, tourists in Miami.”
“I know,” she murmured with downcast eyes. “That’s what I pointed out to Baron McTige. But he seemed so positive he’d be able to manage.” She lifted blue eyes which appeared to have gained new depths since she had entered his office.
“They say you can accomplish anything in Miami, Mr. Shayne. Please help me find Steve before the Syndicate does. About your fee, Mr. Shayne. From the very beginning I felt there was something peculiar about Baron McTige waiving a retainer. I feel I should have sensed the fact that he had personal reasons for taking the case. So, under the circumstances,” she told him with a wan smile, “I’d feel very much better about everything if you’ll permit me to pay you a substantial retainer.”
Shayne said, “I’ll be completely frank with you, Mrs. Renshaw. I’m not a knight on a white charger, but I do detest and abhor the Syndicate and will do anything in my power to keep it from gaining a foothold in Miami. Frankly, I’m delighted to have a chance to get in their way, and my fee will depend entirely on how things work out. Leave your Miami address with my secretary, and I’ll be in touch with you tomorrow at the latest.”
She said, “I do thank you, Mr. Shayne,” and got to her feet slowly. She looked less outwardly composed now, but curiously stronger and more assured than when she had entered the room.
Her blue eyes were misty as she held out both hands to him impulsively and said, “I do hope you know how much better I feel. I’m not alone any more. It’s been so horrible… the aloneness… since Stevie went away. But now… you will find him, won’t you? And the children will have their father back and… things will be just as they were before this nightmare happened to us.”
Shayne squeezed her hands tightly and said, “I sincerely hope so, Mrs. Renshaw. I’ll get right to work on it.”
He stood by his desk and watched her walk out with her shoulders held back proudly and a gallant lift to her head, and he wondered what sort of man Steve Renshaw really was, and whether finding Steve would solve any problem or not.
He heard a murmur of voices in the outer office, and then the closing of the door, and Lucy Hamilton came hurrying in, her eyes bright with interest and undisguised curiosity.
“I got every word of it down, Michael. How can such a coincidence happen?”
He shook his head gravely. “You know my theory, angel… that nothing is really coincidence. Look far enough and you’ll always find a basic cause and effect.”
“And you don’t call this a coincidence? That two women whom you have never heard of before… and who have never heard of each other… turn up here within an hour of each other asking you to find the same man for them?” Lucy looked at him incredulously.
“Cause and effect,” said Shayne serenely. “If we dig deep enough we’ll dispose of coincidence. Now then, why do you suppose Sloe Burn picked me out to solve her problem?”
“That’s easy. She told me before you got here when I asked who referred her to you. ‘Whah Mis tuh Shayne is the best de tective in town, hain’t he? Eve’ybody says so. That’s why she came to you.”
“There you are.” Shayne spread out his hands. “And Mrs. Renshaw came for the same reason… because this McTige character gave me a high recommendation. Where’s your coincidence now?”
Lucy said softly, “You have an insufferable ego, Michael Shayne,” but she was smiling in response to his grin as she spoke.
He said abruptly, “See if Will Gentry’s in, angel.”
“And…?” She paused in the doorway looking over her shoulder at him.
“Tell him to stay in for fifteen minutes. I’ll be over.”
Miami’s Chief of police, Will Gentry, was in a relaxed and genial mood when he greeted Shayne in his office at police headquarters a short time later. He was chewing on the soggy butt of one of his favorite, evil-smelling cigars, and it was near the end of a day that had been comparatively crime-free, and there were no pressing cases to keep Gentry away from a quiet evening at home with his family.
“What’s with you, Mike?” He waved a beefy hand at the redhead. “And your beautiful secretary?”
“Lucy sends her greetings.” Shayne settled his rangy body in a straight chair beside the chief’s desk, and lit a cigarette. “That’s a mighty smug look you got on your face, Will.”
Gentry lowered rumpled lids over his eyes and held them closed for a moment. Then he rolled the lids back up like miniature Venetian bunds, and warned his visitor, “If you’re the bearer of bad tidings, just turn around and go out quietly, Mike. Clients pay you to handle their troubles for them, not to dump them onto the department.”
“I’m not dumping anything. Not yet. Just want to know what you intend to do about foreign guns walking the streets of Miami planning a kill.”
Chief Gentry sat very still behind his desk. Then he took the soggy cigar butt out of his mouth and looked at it as if surprised to find it there. In a deceptively mild tone, he said, “First I heard about it. What sort of guns would you be referring to, Mike?”
“Syndicate boys. From Chicago. Two of them to be exact. Moving in here as though they have reason to expect the same sort of protection from your men that they buy in their home-town.”
Chief Gentry clamped his teeth back over the cigar. His ruddy complexion deepened a trifle and his voice became less mild:
“Have you any information about Syndicate payoffs in Miami?”
“Not directly. But I hate to see them get started here, Will. Let them pull one job and get away with it… and next thing the whole mob will be moving in.”
“Give it to me, Mike.”
“All right. I’ve got it pretty straight that a couple of Syndicate enforcers are in Miami on the trail of a scared little guy who ran out on a gambling debt in Chicago. Goddamn it, Will, he came to Miami because he thought this town was closed up tight and he’d be safe here.” To get under the chief’s skin, Shayne injected a note of righteous indignation into his voice that made Gentry wince. “This was after the goons splashed his young daughter with acid on a street corner in broad daylight while she was walking home from school.”
Shayne leaned forward and clenched his fist on Gentry’s desk, his eyes and voice hard. “That’s the sort of thing that’ll be making headlines in Miami if we don’t stop it fast.”
“One isolated case, Mike. You can’t make a Syndicate invasion out of that.”
“But you’ve spent years putting the fear of God into them,” Shayne reminded him harshly. “The word’s been out to stay away from Miami. What’s changed that suddenly? Why has the Syndicate decided it’s safe to send a couple of boys into your territory to do a job now?”
Chief Gentry reacted exactly as long experience had taught Shayne that he would. He snatched the cigar butt from his mouth and glared at it balefully, then flung it angrily at a spittoon in the corner.
“If you’re intimating, that we’re opening up… it’s a lie. The lid’s on just as tight as ever, Mike.”
“Prove it,” Shayne challenged wolfishly. “Stop them before they get started. You know that’s the only way to handle a grass-fire.”
“Sure I know it. And even if you are sitting there egging me on to pulling your chestnuts out of the fire for you, I’ll do it just to keep Miami clean. Who are these two characters you’re talking about?”
“Hell, you don’t expect me to provide names and complete descriptions do you? All I know is they’re here… walking the streets openly and ready to gun down this scared little citizen who thought he’d get protection by coming here.”
“If he wants protection why hasn’t he come to us?” thundered Gentry.
“He’s afraid to,” said Shayne sadly. “Living in Chicago, you know what sort of opinion he has of the police.”
“Then what can I do?”
“Pick those two goons up.” Shayne pounded the desk with his fist. “Put the fear of God in them so they’ll never come back to Miami. You’ve got a couple thousand men walking the streets, and you’ve got a pretty complete file of all the known Syndicate hoods on the Chicago payroll. Get the word out. Hell, if your men are half as efficient as I think they are, they’ll have that pair hogtied in twelve hours.”
Again, his carefully calculated blarney had exactly the effect Shayne hoped to produce in his old friend.
“Don’t worry about my men,” he growled in a mollified tone. “But what have we got to go on? We can’t go around shaking down every tourist from Illinois walking the streets.”
“I’ve got a vague description of them, and within a few hours I can probably give you more details. Take this down for a start: One is big and tough and mean-looking. I know that’s not much,” Shayne defended himself hastily as Gentry snorted, “but coupled with a description of his partner they make an ill-assorted pair that might mean something to your goon-squad. The other is thin and sorta sad… wears a black suit like a preacher.”
Will Gentry jotted down this meager information and grunted noncommittally, pressed a button on his desk and said into the intercom, “Send Jackson in.” He took a fresh cigar from the center drawer and rolled it under his nose, sniffing disdainfully, then bit one end off and put fire to it.
A young, intelligent-looking man with a balding head entered through a side door and stood quietly at attention beside his desk.
Gentry billowed out a cloud of noxious smoke and said, “You know Mike Shayne, Jackson.”
“Yes, sir.” Jackson glanced across the desk at the redhead and nodded slightly.
“He’s got word that a couple of Syndicate enforcers are in town from Chicago to do a job on a guy that ran out on a gambling debt. Here’s the only description our brilliant Shamus can give us, but he figures you’re smart enough to go through the files and get a make on them.” He handed Jackson the sheet of paper on which he had scrawled the information Sloe Burn had given Shayne about the two men who had been in the Bright Spot looking for her Freddie. “Think you can?”
“It’s pretty vague, sir.”
“Do what you can. And get out a departmental memo. Every known hood from the Midwest to be pulled in fast and grilled. Throw a charge at any one with any hint of Syndicate connections.”
“We keep a pretty close file, Chief,” Jackson began diffidently, “and I don’t recall…”
“I don’t care what you recall. Keep a closer track. If the Syndicate thinks it can send hired gunmen to Miami, it’s up to us to show them different. Get going.”
Jackson said, “Right away,” and faded out through the side door.
“Now then, Mike,” Gentry said heavily. “Give me the whole story. If you really want to protect your client, you know we’re in a position to do a hell of a lot better job of that than you are.”
“I wish it was that easy, Will,” Shayne told him honestly. “I’d put him right into your hands for protective custody if I could… even though it meant violating a confidence by doing so. All I know is what his wife told me this afternoon. His name is Renshaw and he phoned her three days ago from Miami saying he was in hiding here under the assumed name of Fred Tucker.”
He went on to give Gentry the gist of what Mrs. Renshaw had told him, holding back only the information he had received from the young dancer from the Florida Keys. In telling it, he managed to give the impression that the vague descriptions he had given Gentry had come from Renshaw’s wife, and he ended by spreading his hands wide and saying honestly, “That’s everything the woman could tell me, Will. You can see why I came to you for help.”
“You always do, don’t you?” Gentry’s good humor had returned. “How else would you collect those fat fees you’ve been banking for years?”
Shayne shook his head sadly. “I don’t see a fat fee in this one.”
“So that’s why you toss it in my lap,” Gentry contradicted himself cheerfully. Then he became businesslike again. “You got any leads at all where this Renshaw is hiding out?”
Shayne hesitated, wondering suddenly just how honest he was in stating he didn’t see any fat fee in the case. How much, actually, did he believe of Sloe Burn’s story about her Freddie Tucker who was loaded with money to the extent of proposing that they take off for some deserted island together? According to Mrs. Renshaw, her husband must be pretty well strapped; yet Sloe Burn had lightly tossed off the statement that Fred Tucker had given her a hundred dollars on occasion. There was some discrepancy here, and yet… it almost had to be the same Fred Tucker.
He told Gentry, “His wife swears that he didn’t give her a single clue over the telephone that would help locate him,” and salved his conscience for withholding the entire truth by telling himself that he was likely to learn a lot more by going around to the Bright Spot by himself than by having a squad of police officers descend on the place and start asking questions.
Oddly enough, Will Gentry himself encouraged this decision a moment later by saying reflectively, “You’ve changed, Mike.”
“In what way?”
“A few years ago,” rumbled Gentry, “you wouldn’t have been sitting in my office on your dead ass waiting for me to handle a thing like this for you. You always boasted that you had your own ways and methods for getting information or locating a missing man in the city, and you laughed at me because I had to go by the rules and stay within legal limits.”
“I was younger then,” Shayne parried uncomfortably.
“Nuts. You were hungrier.” Gentry regarded him benevolently over the smouldering end of his cigar. “I had more respect for you then, goddamit. You weren’t afraid to stick your neck out, and by God, you did get results with your methods that I couldn’t get with all the manpower I had under me. You’re worried about this little Renshaw getting gunned down by a couple of Chicago hoods, but you aren’t worried enough, by God, to…”
He was interrupted by a buzz from his intercom. He glanced at a lighted button and pressed a switch and said, “Yeh, Jackson?”
A voice said metallically: “A quick run-through, Chief, turns up a known Syndicate killer in Chicago two years ago who had the monicker of The Preacher because he looked like one and always wore a black suit when he was working. Last heard of he was paired up with Little Joe Hoffman, but that was before Little Joe got sticky fingers and took it on the lam from the mob. Last we had on him, he was making book on the Beach.”
“Yeh, I know about Hoffman,” grunted Gentry into the grilled mouthpiece. “Keep on looking, Jackson.” He flipped the switch and told Shayne irritably, “If your man is an old pal of Little Joe’s, it could be there’s a lead. But that’s out of my jurisdiction. We chased Little Joe the hell out of Miami when he tried to settle here, and he’s stayed pretty well on the other side of Biscayne Bay ever since. Painter isn’t so hard to please, and half his dicks go around with their hands out most of the time.”
Shayne got to his feet slowly. “Yeh. If it is The Preacher on a job, it could be he’d look up an old pal to help him line things up at this end. So, thanks for everything, Will,” he ended off-handedly. “We’ll be in touch, huh?”
Will Gentry said, “Sure, Mike,” and settled back placidly in his chair with a quizzical expression on his beefy face as the rangy redhead sauntered out.
Five years ago, he told himself, he’d have hated to be in Little Joe Hoffman’s shoes right now. But today, he didn’t know. Had Michael Shayne changed so much in those years of increasing prosperity and in light of the increasing public respect that was accorded him? Well, men did change and grow soft. But who in hell would ever have thought that Mike Shayne…?
Gentry broke off his cogitations abruptly and got up and clamped a hat on his head. It was the end of a day and he was getting older too, and a couple of Syndicate mobsters were no personal affair of his.
The late afternoon sun was a vivid orange ball hanging low above the horizon behind him as Michael Shayne drove eastward across the Causeway. It cast shimmering lights on the placidly blue surface of Biscayne Bay, and touched the fringed tops of palm trees lining the shore in front of him with a faintly golden glow.
He drove with the late afternoon traffic at a moderate speed, big hands lightly on the wheel, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, with eyes slitted to exclude the smoke spiralling upward past them.
There was a look of preoccupation on his face, of inner questioning, which deepened the trenches in his cheeks and tightened the firm line of his jaw. Was Will Gentry right, he wondered. Was he getting soft and complacent? Had Mike Shayne turned into a fat-cat during these recent years, more preoccupied with cases that offered a big fee than in fighting injustice and corruption?
He didn’t want to think so. And yet…? Life could be very pleasant in semi-tropical Miami. A man could drift pleasantly with the tide of sunfilled days and moonlit nights, lulled into complacency by the Lotus Song of the tropics.
Well… he straightened behind the wheel, squared his wide shoulders aggressively as he rolled down the long curve off the Causeway onto Fifth Street. Here was a chance to find out just how soft he had become. If there was an acid-throwing Syndicate killer from Chicago strolling the streets of Miami in search of a victim, he represented a challenge that should stir any man out of his shell of complacency.
Shayne spat his cigarette out the open window and swung the big sedan off to the right, southward on the Peninsula, away from the luxury hotels and swanky Lincoln Avenue toward a rowdier and lustier section of the Beach which he had once known intimately.
Things were changed now, he noted as he drove slowly, looking for remembered landmarks. New and smarter apartment buildings had replaced many of the rundown rooming houses that had formerly lined this street, and yet the overall impression remained much the same. There were dingy bars and glittering souvenir shops, unkempt winos in shady doorways, and over-young and over-painted girls in over-tight dresses parading their wares on the streets as before.
He hadn’t consciously decided what his destination was, but instinct or a hidden memory came to his aid when he reached a certain corner, and he braked hard and swung to the left without quite knowing why he did so.
Then his gaze picked up a sidewalk sign half a block ahead, and suddenly he was oriented again like a homing pigeon. He squeezed into a parking spot at the curb just beyond the ancient sign that said Pirelli’s Bar, stalked back and pushed through the swinging doors into the hazy, smoke-laden atmosphere of a bar-room that smelled as though it hadn’t been aired out in all the years since he had last been inside.
He couldn’t recall whether it was the same bartender or not, but the ferret-eyed man in the dirty apron had buck teeth and a receding jaw, and fitted into the background as though he had been specifically designed by nature to tend bar at Pirelli’s.
The four men who sat on bar stools in front of him also had the look of habitues from years back. The one nearest Shayne had an aggressively young and flat-featured face and wore a tight-waisted silk jacket of black and white stripes with the shoulders padded so heavily that they were wider than Shayne’s. Beyond him was a thin-faced elderly man wearing a conservative summer suit and a neat bow tie, with the undefinable, shifty aura of a pervert clinging to him.
Beyond that couple, with one empty stool intervening, were a pair of blank-faced young hoods whose main source of income was most likely the rolling of drunks in alleyways behind bars like Pirelli’s. Behind them, one of the four booths along the wall was occupied by a very young girl and a very drunken middle-aged man whose shabby suit was mussed as though he had slept in it for several nights and whose face wore a two-day growth of beard.
Shayne stopped just inside the swinging doors and stood flat-footed while he mentally catalogued the occupants of the barroom. If there had been any conversation going on before his entrance, it had died to silence before he was well inside. As though all were actuated by the same string in the hands of a puppeteer, all seven heads swiveled slowly in his direction.
The same expression was discernible on all the faces in varying degrees. It was not actively antagonistic, but it certainly was not welcoming. There was a suggestion of bored interest, of withheld individual judgment until the alien newcomer did or said something to place himself more clearly in their personal frames of reference.
Shayne walked to the end of the bar and leaned both elbows on it. The bartender shuffled toward him and asked in a nasal whine, “What’ll it be, Mister?”
“Is Pirelli around?”
“Naw. The boss ain’t been in today.”
“Know where I might find him?”
Shayne said evenly, “I am.”
“Friend of his?” The bartender shifted his eyes away from Shayne’s hard gaze and aimlessly swiped at the bar in front of the detective with a dirty towel.
Shayne slapped him with his open palm. The sound of flesh against flesh was loud in the silence. He staggered back under the impact with one hand going to his cheek, and there was a collective, sibilant, indrawn sigh from the other six people in the room.
Shayne didn’t shift his gaze from the bartender, nor raise his voice. He asked again, “Where is Pirelli?”
The bartender took his hand away from his cheek and looked at it curiously as though he expected it to carry the imprint of Shayne’s hand. Then his ferrety eyes grew hot and he sidled away, pressing close to the bar and groping beneath it.
Shayne said, “Don’t try it, punk. Just tell me where to find Pirelli, and stay as healthy as you are.”
The man hesitated. He ducked his chin and glanced sideways and upward at Shayne with a little drool of saliva showing on his lips. Then he turned his head to look at the four men who sat on stools at the bar. Their faces were stony and they looked directly to the front and gave him no encouragement. He turned back and licked the spittle from his lips and said querulously, “Ain’t no need for you to get tough, Mister. Think you can walk in here an’…”
“Ask a civil question and get a civil reply,” Shayne interrupted him.
“I dunno where he is. Might be in later an’ might not.”
Shayne said, “If you’d told me that in the first place, it would have made things easier. I’ll buy a drink,” he went on abruptly. “Pour yourself a double, and if you’ve got any cognac around this dump I’ll drink one with you just to show there’s no hard feelings.” He got out his wallet and slid a five-dollar bill on the bar as he spoke.
The bartender hesitated momentarily. You could almost see him making up his mind. There was an inner need to assert himself and efface the insult to his manhood in front of his friends which fought a losing fight with the craven fear that possessed him. Offered the very slightest of face-saving gestures, he grabbed at it weakly. “Make it a round for the bar, huh, an’ we’ll call it even.”
Shayne said, “Fair enough,” making his voice amiable, but carefully keeping all contempt out of it. He got out a pack of cigarettes and lit one while the bartender hurried to replenish the others’ drinks, ostentatiously poured himself a double slug and, without meeting Shayne’s eyes, set a dusty bottle of cognac and an empty shot-glass in front of him.
“Reason I want to find Pirelli,” said Shayne in a clear and reasonable tone, “is because I thought he’d know if Little Joe Hoffman is operating around this part of town.” He poured cognac to the brim and lifted the shot-glass to his lips. “I’ve been out of touch for a long time.” He pushed back a dollar bill and some change the bartender put in front of him.
“Little Joe? I ain’t seen him around for months.” The bartender was now effusively anxious to please. “Any you guys know?” He turned to look at the others.
There was a slow shaking of heads and a low murmur of negatives. They were drinking the liquor Shayne had paid for, and they were willing to go along with the bartender if that was the way he wanted it, but they weren’t warming up to Shayne.
Shayne swallowed his drink slowly and set the empty glass down. He said, “I want to see Hoffman tonight,” speaking to the bartender, but loudly enough for the others to hear him clearly. “Tell Pirelli that when he comes in. Ask him to pass the word around. And you’ll be doing Hoffman a favor if you do the same. I’ll be at the Bright Spot in Miami later on tonight. Hoffman will be doing himself a favor if he looks me up there. Pass that word around, huh?”
“Who should I tell Pirelli was in?” asked the bartender anxiously.
Shayne laughed. “I have been out of touch too long. Tell him Mike Shayne. And tell Little Joe the same thing. The Bright Spot tonight.” He dropped his cigarette to the floor and ground it out with his toe, turned his back and walked out into the fading sunlight.
His next stop on the Beach was farther north on Collins in front of an imposing new office building. He entered the lobby and looked at the directory, then went up in an elevator to the Fourth floor. He went down the corridor to a door with frosted glass which carried the legend: MASON and BURNS. Investment Counselors.
A wry grin twitched his lips as he read the words. Light showed behind the frosted glass. He pushed the door open onto a spacious reception room with wall-to-wall carpeting and at least a dozen chairs ranged along each wall opposite each other. They were all vacant at this hour, but at the end of the room a blonde receptionist sat erect behind her desk and surveyed him with interest.
He surveyed her with equal interest as he went toward her across the thick carpet. She had sculptured features and a disdainful red mouth and a big bust that pushed out toward him above the top of her desk. She murmured, “Something I can do for you?” making her eyes round and welcoming and her voice dulcet.
Shayne grinned and said, “Lots of things, I bet, but right this minute I’d like to see Mr. Mason.”
She lowered long, dark lashes and looked at a pad in front of her. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Tell Mason it’s Michael Shayne.”
She glanced up at him dubiously, and then turned her head to speak into a microphone on a stand beside her. “A Mr. Michael Shayne to see you, Mr. Mason.”
A disembodied voice came from somewhere. “Send him in.”
She indicated a closed door marked PRIVATE to the right of her desk. “Go right in, Mr. Shayne.”
Shayne crossed to the door and opened it. A trim, alert, athletic-figured man wearing a light brown business suit and a black four-in-hand tie stood up behind the bare desk in the center of the room. His face had a wide smile that showed strong white teeth. In a cultured voice, he exclaimed, “It’s good to see you, Mike. You don’t get around this side of the Bay very much these days.”
Shayne said, “Not much. Petey Painter doesn’t run up a flag of welcome for me.”
“Painter!” Mason dismissed the Beach Chief of Detectives with a shrug. “Stand a drink?” He turned toward an elaborate bar. “Cognac, isn’t it?”
Shayne said, “I just had a drink,” and added after a perceptible pause, “Thanks. Is Little Joe Hoffman still making book?”
“Little Joe… Hoffman?” Mason turned back with lifted eyebrows. His voice hardened. “Making book, Shamus? What a peculiar question to ask me.”
Shayne leaned forward and put both hands flat on the desk. He growled, “I haven’t time to trade jokes. Get the word out to Little Joe that he’s in trouble if he doesn’t look me up tonight. At the Bright Spot in Miami, between, say, ten and twelve.”
“Really, Mike?” There was well-bred amusement on Mason’s face. “I should get the word out?”
“Just to keep things smooth. It would be bad for business if one of your boys got knocked over.”
“See here, Shayne. If you’re threatening me…”
“Not threatening… just telling you. I’ll be expecting Hoffman to look me up at the Bright Spot tonight. If he’s not on your payroll, it’s not your worry whether he does or not.”
He went out of the office without looking back, winked happily at the receptionist as he passed her, and went on to his final stop of the day, Miami Beach Police Headquarters.
In the squadroom of the Detective Division, he went up to the sergeant on duty behind the desk, lifting a hand in response to greetings from three or four of the dicks lounging about the room.
“Hank Madison around, Sarge?”
“Hi, Shamus. Long time no see. Hank? I think he’s off this week.” The sergeant ran a thumb down the duty roster. “Yeh. Till Friday.”
“Who would be collecting bookie payoffs in his place?” Shayne asked the question with placid casualness, as though anticipating an equally casual answer, but loudly enough for all the men in the room to hear him.
The sergeant’s eyes twinkled, but he shook his head sternly and said, “You know you’re off-base, Mike. No payoffs here on the Beach. No bookies either,” he added as an afterthought.
Someone snickered behind Shayne. He snorted, “Tell that to Peter Painter and maybe he’ll believe you.”
“Tell what to Peter Painter?” an incisive voice snapped in the sudden silence behind him.
Shayne turned slowly, resting one elbow on the counter, and grinned at the slight, dapper figure of the Beach’s Chief of Detectives who stood in an open doorway on his right. “I didn’t know you were in, Chief. I would have come direct to you with my problem if I had.”
“What is your problem, Shayne?” Peter Painter was an aggressively small man with a wispy black mustache and flashing black eyes.
“I want to get word to one of your bookies operating here on the Beach,” Shayne explained. “Figured this was the best place to come. Any of your boys see Little Joe Hoffman this evening…”
That was as far as he got before his words penetrated Painter’s consciousness. “Bookies? Here on the Beach!” He raised himself on tiptoe in rage. “I’ll have you know, Shayne…”
“I know, I know,” Shayne waved a big hand good-naturedly. He turned to look at the frozen faces of the detectives in the room. “But if any of you do happen to run into Little Joe or any of his pals, pass the word that Mike Shayne wants to see him at the Bright Spot in Miami tonight.”
“See here, Shayne.” Peter Painter bounced forward on the toes of his small feet and stood directly in front of the rangy redhead with his black eyes glittering upward at the detective’s impassive face. “There’s not a man on my force who wouldn’t arrest any known bookie on sight. If you’re intimating that there’s any liaison between this office and any bookmaking establishment, I dare you to prove it and charge you with libel.”
Shayne said, “I’m not intimating anything. Just making an announcement where I thought it might do some good.” He turned aside and brushed past Painter. “The Bright Spot tonight, boys. Then I won’t have to come around here tomorrow looking for Little Joe myself and maybe upset some applecarts.”
He walked out of the Detectives’ room and down a long corridor with long strides, pausing near the entrance to get a dime from his pocket and enter a telephone booth.
He dialed his office number and when Lucy Hamilton answered, he began apologetically, “Hi, angel. I just called to say…”
“Oh, Michael.” Her voice sounded choked, curiously close to hysteria, but whether from anger, fear, or laughter he couldn’t tell. “I’m so glad you called,” she hurried on. “There’s a fellow Eye here to see you. From Chicago. His name is Baron McTige and one of the things he keeps telling me is that… well… that Private Eyes in Chicago don’t have such pretty secretaries. You’d better come, Michael.
When Shayne burst into his office five minutes later, the scene that met his eyes was so ludicrous that he would have burst out laughing if the expression on his secretary’s face hadn’t prevented him from doing so.
Lucy Hamilton was in her typist’s chair pressed back against the farther wall and cowering back as far as she could get from the beefy figure of a man who was balanced precariously on the low railing, leaning as close to Lucy as he could get without falling off, gesticulating with a stubby-fingered left hand while his head was tossed back and he laughed raucously at some witticism of his own.
Lucy’s eyes widened and she jumped to her feet as Shayne appeared in the doorway. The man who had her helplessly cornered stopped laughing with his mouth wide open and turned his head slowly, grabbing at her typewriter with his left hand to pull his thick body upright on the railing.
Lucy said quickly, “This is Mr. McTige, Michael. One of Chicago’s foremost Eyes.” Her lips twisted over the word and her voice capitalized it. Without pausing, she went on rapidly, “He’s been telling me the most fascinating things about the way a Private Eye operates in a big city, and it makes us seem just too provincial for words down here in this little old hick town.”
“Aw, I wouldn’t say that,” protested McTige magnanimously. He slid off the railing and stood up to face Shayne, a youngish man about five feet nine inches tall who would tip the scales at two hundred and twenty pounds at the very least. His face was very red and suety-fat, with moist, blubbery lips and a receding hairline that gave him a curiously naked and babyish appearance. He wore an offensively garish sport shirt of virulent yellows and greens, without a jacket, and thick, crepe-soled brogans that had not been designed for tropical wear.
“You got something right here in this office that beats anything we got in Chi, like I been telling Lucy. Hi-ya, Mike.” He held out a thick, short-fingered hand with dirty fingernails. “You got quite a rep around the country, you know that? I always wondered why you didn’t come up into the big-time… like New York or Chi, you know? But if I could cozy it up down here like you got it, I’m telling you right now you might have some competition.”
Shayne took his hand briefly and dropped it. He looked over the Chicagoan’s head and asked Lucy, “Is Mr. McTige making a business or social call?”
“Call me Baron, Mike.” He laughed blusteringly. “As one Eye to another, huh, there’s no call for formality. I just dropped in, see, to size you up and decide whether to let you in on a good thing or not.”
“Here’s Mr. McTige’s card, Michael,” Lucy said hastily, thrusting a large square of white pasteboard at him. “He’s been explaining to me how it pays to advertise.”
Shayne took the card and looked at it in awe. In the exact center was a large, wide-open human eye staring malevolently up at Shayne. Across the top in heavy black lettering was the legend: WE-NEVER-SLEEP DETECTIVE AGENCY. On the left in slightly smaller type, it stated: “Divorce Evidence Our Specialty.” And on the other side of the centerpiece was proclaimed: “Erring Spouses Traced Confidentially.” Below, in the same size lettering as the top were the words: “BARON MCTIGE, Prop.” And beneath that was a street address and telephone number.
“Got a lot of punch, huh?” said McTige complacently as he took a short, black cigar from his breast pocket and clamped his teeth over the end. He struck a match and drew fire into it lustily, looked for an ashtray on Lucy’s desk and saw none, dropped the burning stick on the floor and stepped on it. “I got lotsa competition in the big town. Ten guys hustling after every divorce case comes along. If you don’t get out and hustle for your share, you’ll never make it. See what I mean?” He took the cigar from his mouth and pointed it at the card which Shayne still held in his hand.
Shayne said, “I see what you mean. The tempo is a little slower in Miami.” He tossed the card into a waste-basket the other side of the railing and said crisply, “Now that you’ve sized me up, what have you decided about letting me in on your good thing?”
“Ha-ha. That was just a manner of speaking, Mike. Before you ever walked in that door I knew for sure you were right down my alley. You know why?” He winked broadly and nudged Shayne in the ribs. “You got what it takes to keep a secretary like Lucy around, you sure enough got what it takes for Baron McTige to hook up with you.”
Shayne said mildly, “Believe it or not, she can type, too.” He grinned past the man at Lucy who stuck out her tongue at him, took McTige firmly by the arm and led him toward the door of his inner office. “We’ll be more private in here.”
“Sure, if you like it private, Mike.” McTige laughed loudly and glanced back over his shoulder. “For my ownself I wouldn’t mind if Lucy wants to come and take dictation. She can sit on my knee, if you got no extra chair for her.”
Shayne was holding the door open and he gave the detective a little shove into the room and pulled the door firmly shut behind him.
Quite undisconcerted, the proprietor of the WE-NEVER-SLEEP DETECTIVE AGENCY thrust both hands into the patch pockets of his tweed jacket and strolled across the room on the good carpeting, pursing his blubbery lips around the black cigar and nodding approvingly at the decor of the inner office. “You got it fixed up real nice, Mike. The little woman’s touch, huh? Lucy let you keep a bottle around?”
Shayne went behind the desk and sat down. He placed both palms flat on the oak surface in front of him, and said harshly, “Come to the point, McTige.”
“Huh?” He turned, looking surprised and disappointed. “I just wondered could I get a drink here.”
Shayne said, “I’m particular whom I drink with.”
“Now, look here…” McTige blustered, but Shayne cut him off coldly without raising his voice:
“If you’ve got business to discuss with me, start discussing it. If you haven’t… get out.”
“Well, say now…” There was a look of childish consternation on McTige’s face. “I come in here all friendly-like and offer to cut you in on the hottest damn thing you’ll have dumped in your lap in a month of Sundays, and you start right off making tough. What kind of way is that for one Eye to treat another?” He sounded genuinely injured and his face had a sullen droop to it like a small child who feels he has been unjustly reprimanded.
Shayne compressed his lips firmly, and then said, “You’ve been doing a lot of talking without saying anything.”
“All right, so you think I’m shooting off my mouth,” said McTige belligerently. “How’d you like to pick up five grand for a few hours work?”
“I’d like it fine. What sort of work?”
“Something that ought to be easy as falling off a log for Mike Shayne if half the things they say about you are true. All I want you to do is find a rabbit for me that’s hiding out from his wife.”
“And that’s worth five grand to her?”
“There’s a hell of a lot of property involved.” McTige hitched up a chair and sat down. “Papers that got to be signed or a big deal won’t go through. Take my word for it, Mike, there’s five thousand bucks in cold cash for you if you turn this rabbit up fast.”
“Who is he and what leads have you got?”
“It don’t matter who he is… best you don’t know that… he’s using a phoney monicker here. Fred Tucker. I got a picture of him here.” McTige reached inside his jacket and drew out a 3x5 glossy print of a man and dropped it face up on Shayne’s desk. “Hells bells, if I had any good lead you think I’d be here cutting you in? They say Miami’s your town, Mike. If I was in Chi, now, I wouldn’t be asking help from no one. You’d be coming to me, most-like.”
“You expect me to go out with this picture and find the man in a few hours?” demanded Shayne incredulously.
“You know you got contacts, Mike. Pigeons all over that can start asking questions around. Like, f’rinstance at the real hotspots where a gink with lotsa money burning his pockets and all the time in the world on his hands might drift into.”
“Places like the Bright Spot?” asked Shayne harshly.
McTige goggled at him and his mouth opened so the half-smoked cigar almost fell out. He caught it between his teeth hastily, and said in an admiring voice, “Now that’s pulling a real fast one out of the bag. How’d you come to glom onto that right off?”
“Don’t you remember,” said Shayne sardonically, “Miami’s my town, McTige. What does the Bright Spot mean to you?”
“Nothing much,” averred the Chicago detective hastily. “One of the joints I been covering the last two days. There’s a young kid dancer out there I’d like to cover a little closer,” he went on with a confidential leer. “Maybe you could start on her and get some place… knowing the town like you do.”
Michael Shayne got up from his swivel chair with a preoccupied air, went around to the water cooler behind him and took out two paper cups which he nested together. He filled the inner one with ice water, carefully nested two more together and went back to place them on the desk in front of him and sit in his chair again.
While Baron McTige watched with open interest, he opened the bottom right-hand drawer and lifted out the cognac bottle Sloe Burn had tapped a couple of hours previously.
McTige lumbered to his feet, licking his lips, as Shayne uncorked the bottle and poured amber liquid into the empty paper cup. Moving toward the water cooler, McTige said happily, “Now you’re cooking with gas, Mike. Whyn’t you break out that bottle sooner?”
He took a paper cup from the container and came back to Shayne’s side, holding it out eagerly.
The anticipatory look on his face faded to one of complete bewilderment as Shayne firmly recorked the bottle and returned it to the drawer.
Shayne leaned back comfortably in his chair and took a generous swallow of cognac and reminded the detective sardonically, “I told you I’m particular whom I drink with.”
“Yeh, but…” McTige looked down at the empty cup in his hand with a bemused expression, and then back at Shayne. “You and me are in business together,” he reminded the redhead defensively.
Shayne shook his head and took another sip of cognac, smacking his lips in what he hoped was a gratuitously offensive manner.
“You’re mistaken, McTige.”
“About us being in business together.”
“You don’t wanta pick up five grand fast?” demanded the Chicago Eye incredulously.
“I like money as well as any man. But that’s pretty heavy sugar for just locating a man in a civil case. It smells bad.”
“All money smells the same to me.”
“I imagine it does.” Shayne’s voice became harsh and peremptory. “Level with me, McTige. What’s your real reason for wanting to locate Fred Tucker fast?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Mike.” He hesitated and looked down at the empty cup in his hand and at the corked bottle in the drawer beside Shayne. Shayne finished off his own drink and took a sip of ice water, blandly disregarding the hopeful look on McTige’s face.
“It’s like this, see.” He set the empty cup on the desk and moved back to settle his bulky body in the chair again. “This rabbit’s in trouble, Mike. Like I say, there’s a big hunk of money involved, an’ there’s crooks on the other side of the fence that’ll stop at nothing to prevent him going back to his wife and signing them papers. Not even murder. That’s why he’s hiding out. He’s scared to show his face, Mike, and he’s got a right to be. They got hired guns lookin’ for him right now.”
“Like The Preacher?” asked Shayne sardonically.
Again, as when he had mentioned the Bright Spot, McTige’s mouth fell open widely. This time the cigar dropped out and fell to the rug with a soggy plop. McTige squinted down at it and put his crepe-soled shoe over the smouldering end and crushed it into the rug. He closed his mouth and swallowed hard, and stammered, “What’s that? About a preacher?”
“I dunno what you mean.”
“You’re a liar, McTige. And you stink from the word go.”
“Now, you look here…” blustered McTige, but Shayne cut him off fast:
“You look here while I do the talking. I know who your rabbit is and what he’s hiding from. I know you’re fronting for the Syndicate, and I hate the guts of any man who plays ball with them.”
“Wait a minute, Mike. You got me all wrong.” McTige’s blustering tone changed to a wail. “There ain’t no Syndicate mixed up in this deal.”
“I say there is.”
“But look,” pleaded McTige. “How-come you think you know so much more’n I do? Here you sit in Miami and I come in to you all nice an’ friendly with a clean deal. Cash on the barrel-head and no strings attached. And you start talking about the Syndicate. I just don’t get it.”
“Were you in the Bright Spot with The Preacher the other night looking for Fred Tucker?”
“I dropped in the joint like I said,” McTige conceded doggedly. “I don’t know about a preacher. I don’t get that angle.”
“I think you do. You’ve got a client who came to you in good faith and you sold her out for dirty money.” Shayne’s eyes glared across the desk bleakly, and his voice was harshly uncompromising:
“Miami is my town, McTige, and I don’t like it cluttered up with Syndicate killers or big-mouthed crooks flashing private badges. Get out of my office and get out of town.”
“I’ll get out of your stinking office, all right,” McTige shouted wildly. “But I’ll stick around Miami as long as I damn well please… and without asking your permission either.” He swung his burly body toward the door, but Shayne stopped him by saying coldly, “Pick up your cigar-butt from my rug before you leave.”
“Wha-at?” He turned his head, panting like a maddened bull.
“Your cigar-butt.” Shayne pointed to it on the floor. “I don’t live in a pig-sty, even if you do.”
“I’ll be double god-damned…” McTige snarled through clenched teeth, hunched his shoulders and started for the door.
Shayne was in front of him before he took two steps. McTige plowed to a stop and doubled his right fist and cocked it back behind his hip.
Shayne’s fists remained unclenched, but his eyes were bleak and his lips drew away from his teeth slightly. He said, “Pick it up, McTige.”
Baron McTige wilted slowly. He blinked his eyes and mumbled something indistinguishable, and turned to pick up the crushed cigar. He dropped it into an ashtray on Shayne’s desk, and then lumbered past the rigid redhead with face averted and eyes downcast.
Shayne watched the door slam shut behind him, and then went back to his desk and sat down. He was pouring more cognac in the two nested cups when the door swung open violently and Lucy whirled inside. She exclaimed, “Why didn’t you hit him, Michael? He was the most awful lout…”
Shayne grinned and waggled his forefinger at her. “A man of great perception, I thought.”
“Michael Shayne!” She stamped her foot angrily. “If I ever told you some of the things he said…”
“He knows a beautiful secretary when he sees one. Come on and admit you were secretly flattered.”
“By that… oaf?”
“All right,” said Shayne pleasantly. “Come out and have dinner with me, and I’ll flatter you.”
“And then deposit me safely at home and slip off to the Bright Spot without me.”
“Why, no,” said Shayne, studying her approvingly. “You’re a big girl now. You’re invited, angel, and don’t blame me if you don’t like what you see.”
The Pink Flamingo Motel was situated a little distance off The Tamiami Trail on the western outskirts of the sprawling city. It had been constructed in the late Forties when land prices were soaring and building supplies were again available after the long period of war shortages, and the city seemed to be inevitably spreading westward.
Somehow, though, the westward expansion had stopped short of the tract of land on which the motel was built, and there was an expanse of uninhabited, unattractive, palmetto-covered land between it and the garish lights of newer and more attractive motels and roadside spots that clustered along the Trail closer in that marked the real western gateway to the city.
Thus, inevitably, standing isolated and sadly alone, the Pink Flamingo was passed up by the majority of tourists arriving from the West Coast, and its meager clientele consisted of those who turned off at the sagging roadside sign in the hope of finding cheaper accommodations than would be available farther on, and a nightly smattering of local residents attracted by its isolation and absence of bright lights, seeking a discreet rendezvous with illicit love where no questions would be asked and the likelihood of embarrassing encounters with acquaintances would be reduced to a minimum. These latter, of course, invariably arrived to take possession of their cabins after darkness had fallen, so that during daylight hours the grounds were likely to be almost completely deserted.
The man who sat alone in cabin number 3 liked it this way. He had changed his address five times since arriving in Miami three weeks ago, gravitating each time downward to cheaper and less populated living quarters. It wasn’t that Steven Shephard lacked the funds to stay wherever he wished in the city that is notorious for its high-priced living accommodations. Any one of the luxury hotels along Miami Beach’s oceanfront would have gladly welcomed Shephard as a guest to remain as long as he wished.
He liked the Pink Flamingo Motel. It suited him perfectly. Now, as he sat despondently on the edge of a rumpled bed in one drab cabin and watched daylight disappear outside the dirty windowpane across the room, he wondered fuzzily if he would ever get up the courage and the energy to leave the welcoming arms of the Pink Flamingo. Because he did feel oddly welcome there. There was a depressing aura about the place that fitted his mood perfectly.
It took him warmly and comfortably into its embrace each night when he returned from one of his increasingly less frequent jaunts into the city’s night-life. With a bottle of whiskey to nibble on (Steven Shephard was not really a drinking man) and with a noisy refrigerator stocked with the simplest of food supplies, a man could comfortably doze away the hot, silent days without recourse to thinking, staying just drunk enough to stifle any active pangs of conscience, and to blank out the fears and the questions that arose when he let himself peer into the uncharted future.
Steven Shephard was a man of about forty. Slightly over medium height, perhaps a little less than medium weight, with light brown hair that receded from both temples. He wore a neatly trimmed mustache and neatly pressed gray slacks and fresh white shirt that he had put on at noon that day after showering, and a neat bow tie.
There were no lines of great character on his face. He looked like a man who had made few decisions in his life, who had drifted somewhat aimlessly but probably pleasantly along middle-class and orderly avenues of existence, not asking or demanding much from life, and therefore suffering few disappointments.
In the open closet beyond the end of the bed, a conservative sport jacket and a light tan summer suit hung neatly on hangers. Beneath them was a somewhat scuffed, brown suitcase and a pair of dark blue bedroom slippers. A pair of brown and white striped cotton pajamas and a black rayon bathrobe were hung on a hook from the closet door and completed all of his wardrobe that was visible.
On the top of a cheap bureau under the window and directly across from where he sat was an almost-empty bottle of expensive bourbon and a small framed photograph of a woman and two small children. The woman was about thirty, pleasant-faced but unsmiling. Her expression wasn’t exactly grim, but there was more than a hint of severity about the tightness of her mouth, the chiseled placidity of her unremarkable features.
Steven Shephard shifted his disinterested gaze from the windowpane that was darkening with gathering dusk to the photograph beneath it. His gaze remained disinterested while it rested on the picture, but he said aloud, moodily, “Bitch.” He appeared pleased with the sound of the spoken word, and a faint smile congratulated himself for his audacity in saying it aloud.
He touched his lips with the tip of his tongue and spoke aloud again, almost wonderingly and certainly with an intonation of pleasurable surprise: “You’re a bitch, Emily. You always were a bitch, and always will be. A well-bred one, of course.” His voice insisted that he was determined to be completely honest even in the aloneness of the cabin where only he himself could hear his voice.
He dropped his gaze from the photograph to the floor between his knees and thought about the young girl dancer at the Bright Spot.
His hands clenched slowly into fists on the bed beside him, and his eyeballs became moist and humid. Strange, atavistic roilings were in his bloodstream. There was a warmth in his loins which slowly spread over his body and took unholy possession of him. He would see her again tonight. For two nights he had stubbornly remained closeted in his cabin, denying the newly-discovered demands of the flesh, drinking sufficient whiskey, hour after hour, to blur the insistent knowledge within him that this was for him: that he, Steven Shephard, after thirty years of carefully-regulated, according-to-the-book, safe-and-sane and socially-correct sexual attitudes, had thrown all this aside and succumbed (happily, by God, and with a youthful fervor that Emily had never known he possessed) to the allure of quivering young flesh that nakedly and unashamedly sought lust for the sheer sake of lust, that traded sweat and torment and passion for sexual release and for nothing else, that knew no other reason for living and sought no other reason.
Shephard heard a scraping sound outside the window and jerked his head up angrily to glare at the, now, opaque glass. That would be Peterson, the motel manager. He was always snooping at the windows. As soon as darkness came, he began his stealthy rounds. Normally, Shephard didn’t mind being spied upon. Alone in the cabin, he had little to hide from Peterson’s pruriently peering eyes. But now, with his heart pounding and with the clear image of Sloe Burn’s lasciviously nubile body searing across his mind, he felt ashamed and trapped, as though the man outside his window had discovered him committing an unmanly and erotic act on his own body.
He stood up and squared his shoulders, walked a trifle unsteadily to the door and jerked it open. The afterglow of twilight lingered in the sky and, as he had suspected, Peterson rounded the corner of his cabin from the windowed side, and shuffled toward him.
The motel manager was a small, gnomelike man, with a bushy-haired head that was too large for the rest of him, and wizened features and humid eyes that refused to meet another man’s gaze directly. He always held his over-sized head cocked slightly on one side which gave him a sly look of cunning.
He said, “Evening, Mr. Tucker,” Coming to an uneasy halt a couple of feet from the figure in the open doorway. “Everything okay?”
Shephard said, “You ought to know, Peterson. Couldn’t you tell by peeking in my window?”
“Now see here now,” protested Peterson with a righteous whine in his voice. “You have absolutely no right to make a statement like that, Mr. Tucker. It’s untrue and uncalled-for and downright libelous. I’m making my evening rounds, as usual, to see everything’s quiet and shipshape. Is it my fault if you leave your shade up so’s anyone can see in your room?”
“You know as well as I do that the shade is broken and won’t come down. I complained about it the first day I was here.”
“Well, now, I don’t recollect that, Mr. Tucker. I sure don’t. I’ll have a man around to tend to it first thing in the morning.”
“That’s what you promised me a week ago.”
“Slipped my mind, I guess.” Peterson shook his head and rubbed his jaw reflectively. “So many little things breaking down all the time here. I keep telling the owners and telling them we got to keep things in better shape if we want to attract the right sort of people, but they’re so tight they hate to spend a nickel on maintenance. Aside from the window shade, you’re cozy and comfortable, huh? Hardly even go out at all, do you?”
His voice had an intimate sort of buddy-buddy quality to it that hinted he was aware of all Shephard’s secrets; it offered soothing assurance that the guest in No. 3 had nothing to fear from him,… and it discreetly invited further confidences any time Shephard felt the need for human companionship.
Shephard said, “I’m comfortable enough,” and stepped back surlily to close the door in Peterson’s face. The interior of the cabin was quite dim by this time, and he pressed the wall switch to light the room with a yellowish glow from the low-wattage bulb in the ceiling.
He was trembling with a listless sort of anger as he crossed to the dresser and slopped half an inch of whiskey into the bottom of a water glass. He turned the tap and ran water on top of the whiskey, wondering disinterestedly why the manager irritated him so.
He took a long swallow of the heavily-watered whiskey and enjoyed the faint warmth of it as it trickled down into his stomach.
He had just found out in these past few weeks what mighty fine stuff whiskey was. Before that he had always confined his drinking to parties because that was the only socially acceptable way to drink, and invariably he had drunk too much and made a fool out of himself and suffered the joint hells of a hangover and Emily’s sharp tongue the next day for his disgraceful conduct.
But this slow and carefully spaced solitary drinking was something very different, and he was as pleased with himself for discovering the process as though he had achieved a tremendous scientific breakthrough of some sort.
About an ounce every two hours was the ticket. You started early in the morning when you first woke up, and you got that soothing warmth in your stomach that brought on a sort of torpid indifference to the fact that it was another day. So you closed your eyes and dozed for awhile, and dreamed meaningless little dreams, mostly about when you were a little boy.
And then you aroused yourself enough to eat something, maybe. An egg or a piece of cheese and a slice of bread. And then you drank another ounce and dozed some more, and the day went on in a kind of pleasant blur that kept reality at bay and wafted you along to the enveloping darkness of another night.
This would be his last drink in the cabin until he came home later. Much later, he told himself, with restrained gladness. Midnight or three o’clock in the morning, or whenever he damn well pleased. And he must remember to bring another bottle back when he did come because there was only about one more drink left in the bottom of this one and he couldn’t face the thought of going out in the daylight tomorrow to buy another.
He seated himself carefully again on the side of the bed, hunched forward a little with shoulders stooped and both hands nursing the glass. A sedate, nondescript sort of man, and to see him sitting there, sipping pleasurably at the nauseatingly warm and slightly alcoholic drink no one in the world could possibly have guessed that he had two hundred thousand dollars worth of United States bills in his possession.
The bright spot was a large, square, ugly, one-story, stucco building squatting all by itself in the middle of a two-acre palmetto-fringed clearing about half a mile from the Trail and just outside the city limits of Miami.
It got its name from a ten-foot revolving disc of burnished brass mounted on a wooden tower a hundred feet above the ground and lighted at night by two spotlights so that it reflected a dazzling brilliance and was a landmark that could be seen for miles. It was approached by a narrow, twisting road through the surrounding palmetto hummocks, which debouched onto a large parking area capable of accommodating the same number of automobiles as the number of persons who could be squeezed inside the building. This was necessary because at least ninety percent of the patrons who visited the Bright Spot came alone in their cars. It was not a place that encouraged couples or foursomes, and the continuous floor-show from 8:00 P.M. until closing time had not been designed for mutual enjoyment either by mixed couples or even by a group of men friends out for a convivial evening on the town.
The Bright Spot offered a show that was calculated to arouse guilt feelings inside any male who sat through it. It was badly and simply revolting to most women. So men mostly came to the Bright Spot alone, furtively ashamed to be there and thankful for the extremely dim lighting inside which made it next to impossible for them to be recognized even if their best friends happened to be seated at the next table.
The management had planned it that way, and exploited the situation by providing enough B-girls so no man had to remain alone any longer than he wanted to. These girls were of two definite types, to appeal to the inward needs of two sorts of men who came there.
There was a covey of blatantly under-dressed and over-painted young girls, as close to the age of consent as the management was able to hire, whose bare, perfumed flesh was openly for sale and no bones about it. In the smoke-shrouded darkness of the big dining room with only a colored spotlight on the raised platform at one end where strippers did their bumps and grinds and monotonously removed their clothing, sweaty bodies could be glued together for long periods without attracting attention, saliva could be expertly traded between hot mouths and trysts arranged by panted words, and a man didn’t have to bother pretending he had come there for any other reason.
Indeed, in the small, almost entirely enclosed booths lining two walls of the room, which always had a large RESERVED sign on the table when unoccupied which could be removed only by slipping a five to the headwaiter, such trysts were frequently consummated without having to leave the premises. This feat was accomplished by only the most expert of the girls, and their services drew a premium price from men who were in the know and liked their sex served to them in that manner.
Then there was a second type of female employee who appealed to a different kind of patron. These were not as numerous as their young companions, but they had proved to be a distinct drawing card at the Bright Spot over a long period of time. They were older and more experienced courtesans who used every artifice of restrained make-up and careful grooming to appear to be exactly what they were not.
With them, a man who liked to pretend and believe that he was irresistible to otherwise chaste women was allowed to carry on this pretense to his heart’s content. In fact, he was encouraged to do so. This second group did not openly solicit the attention of men. They sat discreetly alone at tables and booths throughout the room, pensively toying with tall drinks, with demurely downcast eyes, yet clearly telegraphing a message to every male within eyesight: Poor, lonely me. Here I sit, deserted by some brute of a man, ashamed to lift my eyes to the depraved exhibition going on across the room, and yet… and yet, vaguely stirred by it nevertheless. Because I am a woman. Deep down inside, I’m all woman, yearning for a mate. Aching to be seduced and taken by some male who can answer the deep and primitive impulses that stir within me.
In that hot-blooded atmosphere these women were not allowed to sit alone very long. The world is full of men who fondly believe themselves to be Great Lovers and will not pass up any opportunity to prove it. A moderately attractive and half-way modest appearing woman sitting alone in a joint like the Bright Spot is like waving a red flag in front of an enraged bull.
And so the Bright Spot had proved itself a hugely successful operation and was crowded every night of the week with moderate spenders while many of the luxury sucker traps on the Beach were complaining that they couldn’t meet their overhead.
Thus, at nine o’clock on this night, more than half the tables and booths in the big, semi-dark room were occupied. A five-piece combo (one of three that would alternate throughout the evening) was beating out a slow, corny piece, while the stripper on stage was sinuously taking off her clothes, one lingering garment at a time, to the muted beat of the music which would build almost imperceptibly to a throbbing crescendo at the finale when the statuesque artist would stand briefly revealed in the colored spotlight completely nude (except for three pink rosettes that were glued onto her body not too firmly and might, just might, drop from their moorings in the last moment before the light was switched off).
It was early, yet, in the evening, and the minute quantity of alcohol in each drink served had not brought about any general degree of rowdy drunkenness among the early diners such as would be evidenced a few hours later.
At a small table in the corner beyond the spotlighted platform, the featured dance team of the evening were having an acrid argument.
“Don’t you go tryin’ to tell me where to get off, Ralph Billiter. I worked this act up and you know it. If I was to walk off tomorrow, where’d you be.”
“That’s what I’m always telling you, Essie. That’s why you got to get yourself smart an’ quit fooling around on the floor with men between numbers.” Sloe Burn’s companion at the table was as young as she, and muscular. He had tousled hair and a broad, sullen, unintelligent face. He was hunched toward her with heavy forearms on the table, big hands clenched angrily as he glared at her.
She leaned back and puffed contemptuously on a cigarette without inhaling it. “I don’t fool around with men. I get paid for drinkin’ with them, just like the other girls do. You know they pay good money to get me to set at their table.”
“You do more’n just drink at the table with that old goat you’re so sweet on.”
“What if I do? I ain’t your woman, Ralph Billiter.”
He snarled, “Like hell you ain’t. You bin my woman since you first laid with me in the swamp back uh your pappy’s barn.”
“We was just kids then. Freddie’s different, Ralphie.” A softer, yearning note came into Sloe Burn’s voice. “He’s real polite an’ scared, an’ he treats me like I was his own daughter, sort of. Not really, I guess,” she hurried on, looking slightly horrified by what she had said. “I don’t mean he’s the kind… you know… to do with his own girl what he does with me… but it is sort of like that! He’s got respect for me, Ralphie, an’ a lot of money too,” she added naively, taking the cigarette from her mouth and pushing the tip of her tongue out to wet her red lips.
“How you know that for a fact?” Ralph challenged her. “How much real money you done seen?”
“He gimme a hunderd-dollar bill twice, didn’t he?”
“That ain’t money.” Ralph spat the word out angrily. “You know how you and me figgered it when we run off up here to Miami. We was gonna make it big. We got the chance, I’m tellin’ you, if you just don’t go an’ spoil it. Our dance is going over bigger every night. We gonna get us a real bigtime manager an’ get us booked up north in Noo York an’ places like that. That’s where the real cash money is. Don’t you be messing it up just when we’re about to get goin’.”
“How’m I messing it up?” she asked innocently.
“You know how.” One of his big hands shot out and caught her wrist in a crushing grip. “I’ll kill you some night, you keep it up. I’ll just pure kill you, Essie. I’ll get to thinkin’ about you an’ that old man, and my guts’ll twist up in a knot and I’ll purely stick that conch shell right in your white belly an’ twist it good.” He was breathing heavily, half out of his chair and leaning over the table.
She slapped his face with her free hand. It wasn’t a dainty, feminine slap. It was a hefty, infuriated wallop, with tempered muscles behind it, and a lot of solid young weight. He grunted, more with surprise than hurt, and released her wrist.
She sat erect and glared up into his scowling face. “You listen to me, Ralphie Boy. Any big talk of killin’, just don’t forget a conch shell’ll slide into your belly just as easy as mine. Aw, let’s cut it out,” she broke out crossly. “We’re a team, Ralph, you and me. If Freddie don’t come across with a wad of money right quick, sure I’ll quit him. Why not? But you ain’t got no cause to be jealous. If you ain’t gettin’ enough…”
“How big a wad?” demanded Ralph sullenly, settling back into his chair.
“Big enough so we can make that trip to New York or wherever, and make it right. So’s they’ll sit up and take notice when we hit town. Anyhow,” she ended dispiritedly, “he ain’t been around for a couple of nights. Not since those two men was looking for him. I reckon maybe they found him, so what’re you gripin’ about?”
Ralph’s mouth fell open when he heard the words precisely spoken just behind him. He twisted his chair around slowly as Sloe Burn exclaimed delightedly, “Freddie. We was just talking about you. Ralph an’ me. Ralph Billiter. My dancin’ partner. I don’t know you met him or not.”
Steven Shephard said, “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.” He smiled thinly and held out his hand. Ralph got up and mumbled something and took the other’s fingers and dropped them quickly and shambled away to the rear of the stage.
Shephard looked after him admiringly. “Really a magnificent specimen.” He staggered only slightly as he turned Ralph’s chair back and sat in it. “I’ve meant to ask you, Miss Piney.” He fingered his mustache nervously. “Watching you two dance together… uh… makes me wonder.”
“He’s just a boy I’ve knew from down on the Keys when we was both kids,” she told him with a toss of her head. “I been worried about you, Freddie. When you didn’t come back a-tall after them two men was in lookin’ for you, I got scared they maybe found you.”
He blinked near-sighted eyes at her. “What two men, Miss Piney?”
“Right after you was here last time. They scared me. Real tough an’ asking all sortsa questions. But they didn’t get no change outta me, Freddie.”
“Two men?” He compressed his lips tightly. “Yes, I’ve… I’ve been thinking… could we have a drink, Miss Piney?”
“Why not? You got the money to pay, aintcha?” She turned and snapped her fingers and a waiter materialized from out of the semi-darkness. “Bourbon on the rocks for me. Scotch an’ water for my friend,” she ordered.
“Yes, I… have money to pay.” Steven Shephard smiled happily as he got out his wallet. He carelessly took out a twenty-dollar bill and placed it on the table between them. It had been less than two hours since his last drink and he was floating nicely, but he felt he needed reinforcements for what he was about to say. He seized his glass when it came and took two gulps of the liquid which was even weaker than the drinks he made for himself in the motel.
He said, “We did talk about going away together. To some distant place. Perhaps you doubted my sincerity, Miss Piney. I beg you not to. I… uh… will you go away with me?”
“That takes money,” Sloe Burn told him coldly. “Lots of money, Freddie.”
“I have lots of money.” He stated the fact flatly and precisely. “More than you ever saw or dreamed of seeing. And if there are men in Miami looking for me…”
“Gee, oh, God, Freddie!” She was looking past him into the hazy dimness. “Talk about the devil! There they come now. To this table. You gotta get out quick.”
She kicked back her chair and flashed around to his side and caught his arm and tugged him desperately upward. “You come with me.”
With her arm around his waist, she half-pulled and half-carried him past the end of the platform where the stripper was at long last getting down to bare skin, and into the wings where Ralph was standing in a position where he’d been able to watch their table.
“Take him out back an’ help him get away, Ralphie. I don’t know where he’s staying…”
“Pink Flamingo,” mumbled Shephard, dazed and frightened, and leaning on Ralph’s strong right arm.
“I’ll go back an’ string them guys along.” Sloe Burn paused to give Ralph a hard look. “Take care of Freddie, you hear. I got somethin’ real important to tell you.”
She whirled away from them and ran back onto the floor where the spotlight had just been turned off as two of the rosettes dropped from the stripper’s body.
She drew in a deep breath and slowed to a walk, thrusting her breasts out and stepping mincingly so her buttocks did a slow roll with each step.
There was no one at her table when she returned to it, and she seated herself composedly and gathered up the change the waiter had left from Freddie’s twenty. As soon as the spotlight came on again for the next number, she was pretty sure the mean-looking younger man and the sad-looking older one in the black suit would be sitting down with her to ask questions.
Back-stage, Ralph Billiter looked down contemptuously at the frightened man clinging to him and demanded, “Whatsa matter, huh? What’re you running from?”
“Two men… looking for me… I guess,” panted Shephard. “Miss Piney was telling me about them being here the other night, and then… they showed up just now. If you can show me how to get out the back way and around to my car in the parking lot…”
“Sure.” Ralph tucked Shephard’s arm in his and led him back to a wooden door opening out into the night behind the squat building. “What they want with you, you reckon?” he asked interestedly.
“They want my money,” Shephard chattered. “That’s what they’re after. But it’s my money.” He took a deep breath of the night air and sought to draw his arm away from Ralph’s. “I’m all right now, and I thank you. I’ve watched you dance with Miss Piney, and I’ve wanted to tell you how good I think the two of you are together. Please thank her for me and tell her that I will try to contact her later tonight. Assure her, if you will be so kind, that I really meant what I said tonight.”
Ralph Billiter kept his grip on Shephard’s arm and tightened his fingers bruisingly on the Midwesterner’s flesh. “I’ll walk you around to your car… be sure you get away all right. The Pink Flamingo, huh? Ain’t that just a piece down the road?”
“Yes. It’s a motel.” Shephard did not protest further as Ralph guided him along a path beside the building leading to the brightly lighted parking area. The young man’s muscular strength was reassuring, and Shephard clung to him thankfully.
“You got the money there?”
“All the money you been talkin’ about. That you been tellin’ Essie you’d give to her was she to go off with you.” There was a sudden throbbing note of anger in Ralph’s voice that penetrated the alcoholic haze surrounding Shephard, and at the corner of the building, just before they reached the lighted area, he paused again, uncertainly.
“I have the utmost respect for Miss Piney,” he said in a high-pitched, quavering voice.
“I know,” said Ralph brutally. “You been sleepin’ with her an’ you like it.” His big hand slid up Shephard’s arm to his shoulder and he shook the slighter man vigorously. “Where’s yore parkin’ ticket?”
“Right here.” His teeth chattered and his hand trembled as he got the numbered ticket from his pocket.
Ralph took it out of his hand and marched him forward into the floodlighted area. The attendant was returning to the canopied entrance from parking a car, and Ralph intercepted him with the ticket. “We’re leavin’. What kinda car you got?” he demanded of his companion.
“It’s a dark tan Chevrolet.”
The attendant looked at the number on the ticket and went away. Ralph pulled Shephard back against the building and they waited until the dark tan Chevrolet came around from the lot and pulled up in front of them. Ralph gave him a little shove around in front of the car, and Shephard circled it to get in the driver’s seat. As he settled himself behind the wheel, Ralph opened the other door and slid in beside him. “Drive on to yore motel,” he ordered between clenched teeth. “I gotta hankerin’ to see all this here money you been promisin’ Essie. She’s my woman, Mister, and don’t you forget it.”
Shephard said, “I’ll ask you to get out right now. I have no intention…”
“Drive on outta here,” said Ralph. His big hand came out of his pants pocket with a conch shell in it that had been laboriously sharpened to a needle-like point. He slid it carelessly across his lap so the tip touched Shephard’s side. “This here’s what we call a persuader down on the Keys where I come from. You want it in yore guts, or you gonna drive on?”
Shephard looked down at the vicious shell in fascination. “That’s what you and Miss Piney use in your dance, isn’t it? They look terribly dangerous to me on stage.”
Ralph grinned and moved his hand slightly. The tip of the shell went through the fabric of Shephard’s coat and into his flesh just beneath the rib-cage. He gasped with pain and shrank back against his side of the car, and Ralph said again, “Drive on outta here.”
Shephard put the light sedan in gear and drove around in a circle to the exit. Ralph settled his hulking body more comfortably in the seat beside him and spoke in a voice that was chilling in its casual and irresponsible menace, “Killin’ a man ain’t nothing to me, Mister. I’d done it before this except Essie kept on sayin’, ‘Wait an’ lessee does he really have all that money he claims to have.’ You reckon she ever had any thought of goin’ off with an old goat like you?” Ralph laughed jeeringly. “Hell, ever’ time she come back from layin’ with you we laughed an’ laughed about how you was in bed.”
“I don’t wish to discuss Miss Piney with you.”
“We’ll discuss her, awright. She’s my woman, like I told you, an’ any money she gets outta you belongs rightly to me. These here men that’re chasin’ you, now. Just who might they be?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t.” Shephard slowed the light sedan as they neared the intersection to the well-travelled Trail. “If you’ll get out here,” he said hopefully, “I’ll give you all the money I’ve got, and I promise you I won’t ever come back to see Miss Piney again.” He pulled off to the side and looked at Ralph hopefully. “I assure you I didn’t realize she was your… ah… woman.” He gulped sadly. “She was so young and I thought she liked me.”
“How much money you got?” demanded Ralph truculently.
Shephard squirmed in the car seat to remain as far removed from the needle-sharp conch shell as possible, and got a thick wallet from his hip pocket. He opened it and took out a sheaf of bills which he pressed into Ralph’s hand. “There’s several hundred there, I think. You can see it’s all I’ve got.” He displayed the empty wallet. “Will you please get out, now, and let me go on? I promise you I’ll leave Miami immediately and never see Miss Piney again.”
Ralph riffled the bills contemptuously. “A few hundred bucks? You gotta do better’n that, Mister. All this big talk you been givin’ Essie about going off to some island an’ livin’ the rest of yore lives.” He laughed harshly. “Drive on to that motel of yours an’ dig out the rest of it.”
“But I tell you that’s all I’ve got left. I’ve been spending a great deal…”
“Nuts to that.” Ralph moved the conch shell menacingly close again. “You think I’m a pure fool to swallow a story like that? How you gonna get outta town tonight if you got no money left? Drive on, goddamit, and we’ll take a look in yore cabin. I gotta get back for our dance act.”
Shephard trembled in an agony of fear and dispiritedly pulled onto the highway in the direction of the Pink Flamingo. Ralph Billiter was something completely outside the orbit of his experience. There was a cold and predatory sort of ruthlessness about him that shocked Steven Shephard to the very core of his civilized being.
Neither of them spoke again on the short drive down the Trail to the motel turn-off. Then he tried once more to divert the young man from his purpose.
“I tell you it’s a sheer waste of time to search my cabin for more money. If I did have any, I wouldn’t leave it there with that manager sneaking around and peering in the windows all the time.”
“Keep on drivin’,” said Ralph implacably. “Could be it ain’t in the cabin like you say. But you’ll tell me awright when we get there an’ settle down cozy. ’Cause you know what, Mister? This here little ol’ conch shell ain’t tasted no fresh blood for a long time now. An’ it gets a-thirstin’ and a-throbbin’, an’ I can feel it in my hand just achin’ to get inside yore hot guts an’ let the blood run out. So you’ll tell me, Mister. I got no never-mind about that.”
There was a nightmarish quality to the situation that made it all seem completely unreal to Steve Shephard as he guided the sedan down the winding road to the motel. This couldn’t be happening to him. Not after all his careful planning, the months of preparation and the agony of indecision that had culminated in that final moment of triumph which had led him down the long road southward to this sordid and unglorious ending.
Yet it was happening to him. It was real. And this was the end of the trail. He knew it with awful certainty as they reached the end of the road and the arc of cabins was in front of them. He let the car roll up to a halt in front of No. 3, and he shivered uncontrollably as he cut off the motor.
There was silence all about them suddenly. There was a light over the motel office, and several of the cabins were lighted. But Shephard knew there was no help there. There was no help for him anywhere. Ralph’s big hand held him firmly by the wrist, and he offered no resistance as they got out of the car and went to the door of the cabin together.
Ralph pushed him roughly inside and switched on the overhead light. His lips curled in a sneer as he looked about the drab interior of the room.
“Been spendin’ a lot of money have you?” he jeered. “Not on this place, you ain’t. So, where you keepin’ it all, Mister? I figger on cuttin’ you up good if you don’t tell me quick where is it at.”
Shephard stood in the middle of the room with his back toward his tormenter. The sound of an approaching car came through the open door, and Ralph pulled it shut firmly.
With his back still turned and without moving, Shephard said slowly and sadly, “All right. You’re welcome to it. Little good it’s done me.”
His shoulders were slumped in utter defeat and he took two shambling steps forward to open the refrigerator door. He stooped and reached inside to get a long loaf of French bread, and he straightened up, clutching it to his breast convulsively.
He turned slowly, and there were tears trickling down his cheeks. He held the loaf of bread out toward Ralph Billiter and said, “Take it. And leave me alone.”
Ralph looked at the loaf of bread in complete and moronic puzzlement. “What kinda foolishment is this here? I didn’t come for no hunk of bread, Mister.”
Steven Shephard looked down sadly at the loaf of bread in his outstretched hands. He turned it slowly so a slit all along the bottom of the loaf was apparent, and the glazed look of resignation on his face suddenly changed to one of fierce hatred. He twisted the long loaf in his hands, breaking it apart and revealing that it was hollowed out and stuffed solidly with greenbacks which fluttered in the air as he threw both ends of the loaf toward the ceiling.
“There it is! Beautiful green stuff!” The words escaped him with pent-up shrillness and he threw his head back and began to laugh hysterically, maniacally.
Ralph Billiter said, “My Gawd A’mighty!” and dropped to his knees, grabbing up handfuls of the bills and staring at them, dropping those and scrabbling about the floor to gather more handfuls.
Steven Shephard stood beside the refrigerator with his head thrown back and kept on laughing shrilly and thinly.
The cabin door burst open behind Ralph on his hands and knees practically wallowing in the green harvest.
Baron McTige was in front, and a tall man wearing a black suit was right behind him. They plowed to a stop just inside the door, and Steven Shephard stopped laughing.
He threw out his arms and said, “Welcome, gentlemen. Help yourselves. There’s plenty for all.”
It was no great surprise to Michael Shayne when Timothy Rourke slouched up to their table just after the dinner dishes had been cleared away and the waiter was serving coffee and ponies of cognac in lieu of dessert. The Silver Crescent was one of Shayne’s favorite spots for a leisurely dinner when he and his secretary had a slack evening, and the reporter had an instinct for turning up after food was out of the way and the more serious business of drinking was about to begin.
Tall and emaciated, and wearing a shabby, unpressed suit, Rourke put his hand on the back of Lucy’s chair and gazed down at her fondly. “You get more beautiful every day, honey. When are you going to get tired of waiting for Mike to pop the question, and start making other dates? I’m always available, you know.”
“Sit down, Tim.” Shayne jerked his head at the waiter. “A bourbon on the rocks. You’ll have to take your place in line, Tim. Lucy’s spare time is already spoken for. Tell him about your latest conquest, angel.”
She laughed softly with genuine amusement as Rourke sat down between them. “He was funny, Michael. Stop glowering about him.”
“There’s this fellow Eye from Chicago,” Shayne explained acidly. “He was practically wallowing all over Lucy when I just happened in to my office this afternoon and broke it up. That reminds me, Tim. Have you heard any rumors that the Syndicate figures it’s safe to send an Enforcer to Miami to do a job?”
Timothy Rourke shook his head. “Have you?” he countered blandly.
“What’s the story, Mike?” The reporter’s bony fingers trembled as he slopped a little water from Shayne’s glass into the bourbon and ice cubes the waiter set before him but his deep-set eyes were bright with awakened interest.
“No story yet.” Shayne emptied his pony of cognac into the cup of hot coffee in front of him and took an appreciative sip. “After Lucy and I take in the show at the Bright Spot, I may have something for you.”
“The Bright Spot?” Rourke choked over his drink and rolled his eyes at Lucy. “You’re taking her to that den of iniquity? Now look, Mike…”
“Oh, Tim” she broke in impatiently. “I’m a big girl now. You’re always encouraging Michael to keep me wrapped up in swaddling clothes.”
“What’s so special about the Bright Spot?” Shayne demanded impatiently.
“In the first place, she’ll be the only decent woman in the place. But that’s okay as long as she’s with you. Oh, hell, Mike! I realize Lucy won’t be particularly shocked by the spectacle of fair young maidens being debauched all over the joint. But they got a new dance team there that’s setting the town on its ears. This, I don’t think Lucy will go for… and I can tell you, young lady,” he went on fiercely to Lucy, “this isn’t any question of swaddling clothes. It’s plain commonsense for you to stay away from an exhibition like that.”
“Like getting a fast burn with Sloe Burn?” she asked innocently.
He threw up his hands in disgust. “My God, Mike! Don’t tell me you’ve been there.”
“Last week. Listen. Those two uninhibited kids from the swamp country have got something that does queer things to civilized people.” He shook his head determinedly. “I’m serious. You know I’m all in favor of light-hearted sex, sin and such. But their dance act goes deeper than that. It’s elemental lust spelled out right there on the stage in front of you. It’s goddam frightening,” he went on strongly. “Sure, we’ve all got these obscure impulses deep inside us. But centuries of civilization have taught us it’s safer to keep them hidden away deep inside. When you see them coming up to the surface all around you… when you feel yourself erotically fascinated and sinking down into the same abyss… it just ain’t healthy.”
Michael Shayne’s face showed honest puzzlement. “Are they really that good?”
“That good… or that bad,” Rourke assured him somberly. “You remember the motion picture, Fantasia? The primeval slime. The tortured writhings and gropings in obscene depths that symbolized primordial life. All right. That was beautifully and intelligently done. You were fascinated and obscurely repelled, but you weren’t revolted. It’s dangerous to be fascinated and revolted. That’s what I felt at the Bright Spot. And that’s what I saw on the faces of people all around me.”
“How do a couple of illiterate kids from the Keys manage to convey what you’re describing?” Shayne asked, puzzled more than ever by his friend’s vehemence.
“Because you feel it’s actually what is inside of them,” he replied flatly. “They’ve still got the stench of the swamp’s effluvia in their nostrils. They’re closer akin to the waddling crocodiles and the slithering water moccasins that you know were their childhood playmates than they are to civilized human beings. Their sex-play on stage is brutal and sadistic and… bestial. That’s the word I want. And the hell of it is, you find yourself responding to the savage rhythms they create. Hell, it isn’t sex- play that they give you,” he went on angrily. “It’s the primordial lust of male for female… female for male.”
Rourke paused to toss off his drink, his thin face flushed and his eyes feverishly bright.
“I went around the next day to talk to both of them off-stage, thinking there might be a story I could do. Because I, like you, wondered how a couple of illiterate kids from the Keys had managed to work up an act like that. And they hadn’t. That’s the answer. They don’t even know they’re doing it. It isn’t planned for effect at all. Purely unconscious. Off-stage, Sloe Burn is a self-conscious sexy brat with over-developed physical charms and a childishly irresponsible sort of amorality. She chews gum and giggles happily if you compliment her on the dance. Her partner is a loutish moron with muscles.” Rourke shook his head slowly and lapsed into brooding silence.
Shayne glanced across the table at his brown-eyed secretary, and lifted his ragged red eyebrows. “Still want to go with me, angel?”
She lifted a firm chin. “More than ever. If you insist on going. I want to be right there beside you, Michael, if something like that is going on.”
Rourke groaned loudly. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said.”
Shayne’s gaze was fixed on Lucy’s face. “I heard you, Tim. Lucy’s just too young and innocent for any of it to penetrate. Why don’t you stick around here with Tim, angel?” He glanced at his watch. “I’m expecting someone to meet me there around ten o’clock.”
“Little Joe Hoffman?” Rourke inquired with interest.
“How’d you hear about that?”
“I’ve got some lines out around town. I thought he was keeping his nose clean these days… particularly on this side of the Bay.”
“That’s what I want him to tell me,” Shayne growled. He beckoned to a waiter for the check and added with assumed casualness, “You two have fun, and see she gets home by midnight, Tim.”
She said sweetly, “I’m sure Tim has other plans, Michael.” She pushed back her chair and stood up. “Meet you in the foyer in a couple of minutes.”
Rourke grinned and turned his head to watch her thread her way between the tables toward the rest-room. “You’re not going to get rid of her tonight, Mike. So I’ll tag along if you don’t mind a threesome.”
Shayne said, “I was going to ask you. So if I get diverted at the Bright Spot, you look after her.”
“Sure.” Rourke nodded soberly and they both got up and strolled toward the foyer together to wait for Lucy to join them.
When they arrived at the Bright Spot, the large parking lot was already at least three-quarters full. Shayne stopped in front of the canopied entrance where an attendant waited to take his car, and got a numbered parking ticket from him. The three of them went into a brightly lighted entrance hall with a hat-check cubicle on the left and a service bar at the right. There were no stools at the bar, and no loungers, only three white-jacketed waiters with trays for drinks to take inside.
At the end of the hall was an archway opening into the large dim-lit room with a stripper working under a spotlight at the far end of it. A burly, impassive-faced man wearing a tuxedo stood in the archway as they approached. The sight of Lucy Hamilton between the two men didn’t bring a welcoming smile to his face, but he turned and snapped his fingers for a captain. Shayne stopped beside him, peering into the dark interior. “We’ll take a booth,” he said, “and I’m expecting another man to join us. The name is Shayne.”
“Yes, Mr. Shayne.” From the other’s tone he didn’t know whether he or his name had been recognized. The maitre d’ went on smoothly, “I’m sorry all the booths are reserved. A nice table for four…” He turned to the captain who came hurrying up.
Shayne said, “One of the booths is reserved for us.” He took Lucy firmly by the arm and pushed past the tuxedoed figure toward one of half a dozen vacant booths on the right-hand side of the room.
The captain followed them hurriedly, saying, “All the booths are taken, sir. I’m sorry, but…”
Shayne stopped in front of one that had a large RESERVED sign on the table. He helped Lucy sit down, picked up the cardboard sign and handed it to the captain. He said placidly, “The name is Shayne. Squeeze in, Tim. Don’t forget the name, Captain. I’m expecting someone to join us. And if Sloe Burn isn’t busy at the moment, tell her to come around and we’ll buy her a drink.”
The captain hesitated, half-confused and half-belligerent. He glanced over his shoulder at the maitre d’ and received a curt nod from that individual. He said stiffly, “Miss Burn is due on stage in ten minutes. I’m afraid you have to wait until after her dance.”
Shayne said, “Give her the message anyway. Tell her Mike Shayne.” He sat down beside Lucy where he could look out through the narrow aperture and see the stage clearly. The stripper had got down to a garter-belt and brassiere, and she was leaning over sideways displaying a lot of extremely well-fleshed buttocks as she unsnapped the top of a black net stocking. He let his gaze drift over the rest of the room as his eyes became slightly adjusted to the dim light, and advised Lucy cheerfully, “Keep your eyes on the platform, angel, and it won’t be too hard to take.”
He squeezed her left hand reassuringly on the padded seat beside him, and told the white-jacketed waiter in the doorway, “Two cognacs with water on the side, and a bourbon and water. And don’t mix any of them. I like to see what I’m paying for in a dump like this.”
The waiter made a notation on his pad and went away. Lucy asked in a small voice, “What do men see in that, Michael?”
Shayne said indifferently, “A lot of smooth, white flesh.” He nodded toward Tim Rourke who was peering around his side of the partition. “Ask Tim.”
“I’m not watching the stripper,” protested Rourke. “I’m voyeuring. My God, there’s one couple three tables away…”
Shayne increased his pressure on Lucy’s hand. “I didn’t want you to come.”
“I can stand it. After all, a woman likes to know what really interests men.”
The waiter came with a tray to serve their drinks. Immediately behind him was a short, thin man with a beak-like nose and very heavy black eyebrows that made an almost solid line between his eyes. He wore a yellow and green plaid sport coat. He looked genuinely harassed and worried, and he spoke excitedly in a high-pitched voice:
“Jeez, Mr. Shayne, am I glad to see you. I just got the word a little while ago and I hurried right over because I didn’t want you to think I wouldn’t be more than pleased to say hello again. You know. It’s been a long time, huh? So, how’re tricks?”
Shayne said, “Sit down, Joe. You know Tim Rourke… of the News.”
“Yeh, sure. That is, well, I heard of him plenty. Hi-ya, Tim.” He slid down into the booth beside the reporter, and Shayne went on smoothly, “And this is my secretary. Little Joe Hoffman, Lucy. I appreciate your coming, Joe.”
“No trouble at all. Glad to oblige any time. Nothing to drink for me, thanks,” he told the waiter who stood by with empty tray.
Shayne said, “I want a straight answer to a straight question, Joe.”
“Sure, Mike. You know me.”
“Where’s The Preacher?”
“What’s that, Mike?” Little Joe Hoffman seemed completely taken off balance by the question. He wrinkled his forehead and his brows met solidly over the bridge of his prominent nose. “I guess I don’t follow you.”
“The Preacher,” Shayne repeated patiently. “Your pal from back in Chicago before you ducked out on the Syndicate. I know he’s in Miami, and I know what he’s here for. So give him a message from me.”
“But wait a minute, Mike. I don’t get you. The Preacher, sure. We were teamed up for awhile in Chi. But here in Miami? Unh-uh, Mike. You got your wires crossed.” He shook his head solemnly from one side to the other. “I can’t get a message to him, Mike.”
“Why not? Even if he hasn’t looked you up, you know whom he would go to for help on a job here.”
“Why not, the man asks me?” Little Joe screwed up his face and looked in amazement from Rourke to Lucy. “Because The Preacher’s dead, that’s why.”
“Don’t lie to me, Joe.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you, Mike.” The little man with the big nose was almost crying. “He’s dead, that’s what. Six months ago. Sure. Eight months maybe. I and some of the boys chipped in for flowers.”
Outside the booth the five-man combo was beating it up to a frenzy while the stripper went into her finale. Inside the booth was flat silence.
It was interrupted by Sloe Burn’s sudden appearance in the opening. “Mister Shayne! They told me you was here. I’m scared something bad’s happened to Freddie. Ralph, too, maybe. It’s right on time for our dance number and he ain’t back yet. I don’t know what’s happened.”
Shayne got to his feet and caught the distracted girl by the wrist. “Tell me about it.”
“Freddie was here tonight… about an hour ago. And them two other men came… the ones I tol’ you about. I slipped Freddie out back fast an’ told Ralphie to take him back home. Then I come back to my table, but they never showed up no more. So I guess maybe they did see him, and maybe went out and caught Ralphie taking him away or somethin’. I just don’t know. He said the Pink Flamingo, so I called there awhile ago an’ the man said there wasn’t no Fred Tucker there… an’ never was registered there. So I’m bad scared.”
Shayne said over his shoulder to Rourke, “Take Lucy home, Tim.”
He was on his way as he finished speaking.
The Pink Flamingo Motel was less than two miles from the Bright Spot, and Shayne remembered having seen the sign on the highway pointing off to it. When he arrived minutes later, there were not more than ten cars parked in front of cabins, indicating occupancy. Only three cabins showed lights inside. In the exact center of the half-moon of cabins was a red neon light that said OFFICE, and the word VACANCY beneath it.
Shayne braked to a fast stop in front of the light and jumped out. Inside was a small room with a breast-high counter across it. There was a man behind the counter with bushy hair and a wizened face. His eyes looked slyly evasive as he held his head cocked slightly on one side with only the top of his shoulders showing above the counter. Shayne strode up to him and demanded, “Where is Fred Tucker?”
“Tucker? Why you asking?” The eyes glittered with more than ordinary interest and the manager’s tongue flicked out to wet his thin lips.
“Police business.” Shayne made his voice harsh and authoritative. He flipped open his wallet to flash his private license, and Peterson glanced down at it and then slyly upward to Shayne’s face. “Number Three.”
Shayne started to turn, paused to demand over his shoulder, “Why did you deny he was here over the phone half an hour ago.”
“Because he asked me to when he checked in.” Peterson made his voice a servile whine. “No law against that, is there, if a man wants privacy?”
Shayne went outside and glanced at the numbers on the cabin doors. No. 9 was next to the office on the right, and No. 8 beyond it. Shayne strode around the arc to Number 3. A late model, light sedan stood in front of the cabin. Light streamed out through an unshaded window. Shayne knocked loudly on the door.
He twisted the knob when there was no response. The door opened and he stepped over the threshold and saw the body of a man lying on the floor at the foot of the bed. He wore a white shirt and dark trousers, and lay face down in a pool of blood. The back of his head was smashed in like an eggshell. A blood-smeared whiskey bottle lay on the floor a couple of feet from his head.
Shayne’s experienced first glance told him the man couldn’t possibly still be alive, but he instinctively leaped forward and knelt beside the body. He touched his shoulders first, and then put his knuckles against the flesh of his cheek. There was body warmth still beneath the surface, but not the warmth of life. The man had been dead for half an hour perhaps.
Shayne sank back on his haunches and looked down broodingly at the corpse. He looked to be above medium height, and thin for his age. His dark brown hair was matted with blood in the back. Shayne didn’t attempt to move the man’s head so he could see his features clearly, but without doing so it was plainly evident that he was clean-shaven.
Where then, was the newly-grown mustache that Sloe Burn had mentioned as a characteristic of her Freddie?
Still kneeling beside the body, Shayne patted both hip pockets without finding a wallet, and wormed his hand successively into each side pants pocket and found them empty. He got to his feet slowly and looked about the room without seeing a discarded jacket. There was a light tan summer suit on a hanger inside the open closet beyond the end of the bed, with a closed brown suitcase sitting beneath it.
His brooding gaze went on around the room and was arrested by a framed photograph on the bureau. It was a picture of Mrs. Renshaw and two small children. A younger Mrs. Renshaw than the woman who had visited his office that afternoon, but unmistakably the same woman. He studied it for a long moment, and then turned his head slowly to look all about the rest of the room.
There was no sign of a struggle. The faucet dripped monotonously in a sink in the far corner, and there was a two-burner gas plate on an oilcloth-covered table to the right of it, and on the left the door of a refrigerator stood open. It was an old refrigerator, and the open door was causing it to run loudly. From where he stood, Shayne could see a carton of eggs and a bottle of milk on the top shelf. Below were two avocados and a quarter pound of butter in a chipped saucer, and there were half a dozen oranges on the bottom.
On the floor, halfway between the dead man and the refrigerator, were the two halves of a long loaf of French bread that had been roughly torn apart.
Outside, Shayne heard a car start up and pull away hastily. He strode to the open door and stepped out. The car had come from behind the arc of cabins, and it swung around the side of No. 1 as he stood there, and into the winding road leading out to the Trail.
Shayne watched its taillights disappear among the palmettos, and then stalked back to the motel office. It was empty when he entered this time. There was a bell on the counter with a card in front of it that said, “Ring for Manager.” Shayne hit the top of it sharply with his palm three times, and it made a loud, pinging noise, but nothing else happened.
There was a hinged wooden flap at the end of the counter. Shayne lifted it and went around behind where there was a telephone on a shelf. He lifted the receiver and dialed Chief Will Gentry’s home telephone number.
The chief, himself, answered.
“Mike Shayne, Will. Got a pencil?”
“I’m at the Pink Flamingo Motel… off the Trail, west.”
After a pause, Gentry said, “And…?”
“I’ve got a dead man in Cabin Number Three. The occupant of the cabin is registered as Fred Tucker, Will.”
“Hell. That goddamned Syndicate…?”
Shayne said, “Maybe. But it doesn’t look like a Syndicate kill. Also… there’s a couple other things.” He sighed unhappily. “I thought you’d want to look at it yourself, Will.”
“Stay right there.”
“Of course. Don’t I always when I turn up a body for you? See you.”
Shayne hung up the telephone. He hesitated and then opened a door leading into a corridor behind the office. It was lighted by a ceiling bulb, and he followed it back to a door opening into what was evidently the manager’s living quarters. The room was lighted, and Shayne stood in the doorway without entering. There was an open suitcase on the bed with some shirts and underwear in it, which looked as though it had been abandoned by the owner in his haste to get away. The top bureau drawer sagged open, and from where Shayne stood he could see it was empty.
He turned away from the open door and followed the corridor back to a rear exit with a carport. It was empty now, and tire tracks through the sand led around the rear of the cabins. Shayne pulled the door shut behind him and trudged through the sand, following the tracks around to the side of Cabin No. 1, where they circled to join the paved road leading out through the palmetto hummocks to the main highway. He stopped at this point, convinced that the car he had seen round the row of cabins and disappear had been driven by the bushy-haired motel manager.
The wail of a siren came faintly through the night from the Tamiami Trail, and then it lingered away to silence as the patrol car turned off on the side road toward the motel.
Shayne turned and walked slowly back to No. 3. He stood outside the open door, his rangy figure bathed in the light from inside as a radio car came up fast from the palmettos and braked to a stop in front of him. A uniformed policeman leaped out of the far side of the car and came around through the headlights toward him. The driver got out more slowly.
The first officer was young and appeared excited. He stopped in front of Shayne and asked truculently, “You report a murder?”
Shayne jerked his head toward the open door and said, “Inside.”
The driver was older and more phlegmatic. He said, “Hold it, Johnny,” as the other started to rush inside the cabin. He stopped beside the redhead, sighing gustily. “Mike Shayne, huh? We got it over the radio. Don’t mess anything up, son,” he advised his younger partner mildly. “Leave that for the dicks.”
“I just wanted to see for sure.” Johnny stood outside the door peering inside curiously.
“If Mike Shayne says there’s a stiff, there’s pretty sure to be a stiff. In fact it’s a pretty good bet there’ll always be a stiff where this guy turns up. That right, Shamus?”
Shayne said, “Somebody has to find your bodies for you.”
“Sure. Or make ’em for us? Ha-ha.” The officer told his younger colleague, “If you’re through gawkin’, Johnny-boy, get on the radio and confirm it. What’s his name and who killed him?” he asked Shayne offhandedly.
“The cabin is rented by a Fred Tucker,” Shayne told him. “Don’t bother taking any notes. I’ll tell the rest of it to Will Gentry when he gets here.”
“What makes you think the chief will bother with this one personally?”
Shayne said, “Because I asked him to.” He got out a cigarette and lit it, and he could hear Johnny talking excitedly behind him on the two-way radio in the police car. Then they heard the distant wail of sirens on the Trail eastward again, and Shayne said good-naturedly, “Homicide will be here to take over from you in a few minutes. Here’s a tip. I think the motel manager took off in his car just before I phoned in. If you want to play it smart, check the office and see if I’m right… so you can feed it to the dicks when they get here.”
“Sure. Thanks.” He lumbered away, and Shayne stood where he was, lazily drawing smoke into his lungs and exhaling blue vapor, only half conscious of the wail of approaching sirens, seeking to adjust his thoughts and the meager information in his possession into some sort of order that would make sense to Gentry on his arrival.
Suddenly they were there, one car after another, and the Pink Flamingo Motel was the scene of bustling, floodlighted, official activity.
First there was a squad-car with a Homicide Lieutenant and three plainclothesmen, and an ambulance behind them and another car with the technical crew, and not too many minutes later, Will Gentry in his unmarked car with an officer behind the wheel.
Michael Shayne had drawn back unobtrusively from No. 3 while the others went bustling inside. The lieutenant in charge seemed unaware of the redhead’s presence while he put his technicians to work inside the cabin and sent others around the motel knocking on doors and getting statements from the various occupants, most of whom were registered under false names and frightened out of their wits by the possibility of publicity, and all of whom swore they knew nothing at all about Cabin No. 3 or what had happened there.
Shayne came forward slowly when Gentry got out of his car and conferred with the lieutenant. Gentry saw him. He exchanged a final word with the lieutenant and then turned to Shayne with his solid jaw set squarely. “All right, Mike. What have we got?”
“I don’t know. I swear I don’t. Not even if the dead guy is my man.”
“You said Fred Tucker.”
“I said the cabin he got dead in is rented to a man who registered under the name of Fred Tucker. When you get back to Headquarters do a fast check on The Preacher. Little Joe Hoffman told me flatly this evening that The Preacher has been dead for six months.”
“Little Joe could be lying.” Gentry got out a black cigar and thrust it aggressively between his teeth.
“Could be. Somehow I doubt it. What’s the Loot got out of the death scene this far?”
“Not too much. No identification on the body. Been dead about forty minutes. And there’s those two halves of a hollowed-out loaf of bread, Mike. What’d you make of it?”
“Hollowed-out… loaf of bread?” Shayne asked in surprise.
Gentry had been watching him closely for a reaction. He relaxed a trifle and put the flame of a match to his cigar. “All right, maybe you didn’t case the joint before you phoned in. Lieutenant Yager said they were lying on the floor with the cut-out sides down so you couldn’t tell it wasn’t a complete loaf if you didn’t pick the pieces up and look. But the inside had all been cut out of it, Mike. And what do you reckon?”
“At this point I’m not trying to reckon,” Shayne told him honestly.
“There were three hundred-dollar bills still jammed up in one end of the loaf. Sort of like there’d been a lot more hidden inside there and someone missed those three.”
While Shayne was digesting this bit of information, another car came up hurriedly and Timothy Rourke jumped out of it. “I sent Lucy home okay, Mike. What goes on here?”
Will Gentry said, “Mike’s just about to tell me. Go ahead, Mike. How’d you get here?”
“From the Bright Spot. I got a tip that this Renshaw, from Chicago that I told you about this afternoon, has been hanging around the Bright Spot seeing a dancer there. So Lucy and Tim and I dropped in to see the show. The girl told us that Fred Tucker, the name Renshaw is using here, had been in earlier, and ducked out when those two goons showed up… the ones I described to you. He told her he was staying at the Pink Flamingo, so I came here fast. That guy was inside the cabin just as he is now.”
“How is he now?” interjected Rourke.
“Dead thirty minutes to an hour.” Gentry told him.
“Is it Renshaw, Mike?”
“I’ve never seen the guy… nor a picture of him. In general details he fits the description his wife gave me this afternoon.” Since Mrs. Renshaw had not mentioned a mustache, this statement was true enough, and Shayne didn’t amplify it.
“Yager tells me the manager appears to have ducked out. Did you see him, Mike?”
“He was in the office when I got here.” Shayne gave him a description of the manager, and briefly related how he had come to No. 3 and found the dead man, and seen a car take off fast from behind the cabins… which might have been the manager.
Gentry said, “We’ll get out a pick-up,” and strode away to talk to the lieutenant.
“You don’t think the stiff is Tucker, Mike? Or Renshaw, if that’s his real name.”
Shayne said flatly, “I don’t know what to think yet. No identification on the body that I could find. Let’s see what the boys have made out of it.”
He and Rourke went together to the floodlighted front of the cabin where the technicians were reporting their findings to Lieutenant Yager.
“… one set of prints all over the cabin from the past few days don’t match the dead man’s prints. Same prints on the death bottle, with some fresh blurred ones on the neck… probably made by the killer… that can’t be identified. No wallet or identification of any kind on the body.”
Yager said, “Might as well get him to the morgue,” and they all moved back out of the way while two ambulance attendants went inside with a stretcher and emerged a few minutes later with a sheet-swathed body on top of it. Gentry stopped them as they moved to the back of the ambulance, and said gruffly, “Let’s have a look.”
They had turned the corpse over on its back, and when the sheet was pulled down under the bright light, the man’s thin and sallow face showed unmarred by the savage blows that had crushed the back of his head. They had wiped the blood from his face and his eyes were peacefully closed. There was a somber look of sadness on the flaccid features that brought sharply to Shayne’s memory Sloe Burn’s words that afternoon: “… the other was thin an’ sorta sad… dressed up in a black suit like a preacher… ” and he asked sharply, “Is there a matching suit coat or jacket in the cabin to match those dark trousers?”
“Just one light suit hanging in the closet as it came from the cleaners,” a young officer told him.
“Mean something to you, Mike?” Gentry rolled an unlighted cigar from one corner of his mouth to another, motioning for the body to be placed in the ambulance.
“It might. That description I gave you this afternoon… one of the two men who were looking for Tucker at the Bright Spot tonight… remember it?”
“Except it can’t be The Preacher if Little Joe Hoffman was squaring with us. Mind if Tim and I look inside, Will?”
“Go ahead. Before we seal it up.” Gentry and Yager turned away toward the motel office where a couple of men were checking the records and going through the missing manager’s living quarters.
Shayne and Rourke stepped inside the cabin and the detective said, “He was lying face down in that blood with the back of his head bashed in, and a bloody whiskey bottle beside him. The refrigerator door was standing open as it is now, and the only other thing that isn’t here now is two halves of a long loaf of French bread lying on the floor right there. Gentry tells me the loaf had been hollowed out with maybe a wad of money stashed inside. They found three hundred-dollar bills still crammed in one end.”
Timothy Rourke stood beside him with his hands thrust deep into trouser pockets, his tall thin body hunched forward and his nose seeming to sniff the air while his deep-set eyes roved slowly about the room, taking in everything there was to see, and coming to rest finally on the framed photograph on the bureau.
Watching him carefully, as he had often before watched the reporter view a murder scene, Shayne thought he noted a sudden intensification of interest in the glittering eyes as they studied the photograph.
“That’s Renshaw’s wife, all right,” he told Rourke. “Makes the Fred Tucker alias pretty certain. Same woman was in my office this afternoon.”
Rourke glanced over his shoulder at a plainclothesman standing just outside, and said, “Nice looking pair of kids. It always gets your goat, goddamit, when you think about the wives and the innocent kids left behind…” He paused in his generalization to turn on Shayne abruptly as he appeared to do a double-take. “You said three hundred-dollar bills stuffed inside a loaf of bread?”
“I didn’t see them myself. The loaf was broken in half and was lying on the floor. You know how I never touch anything at a murder scene until the cops get here,” he went on righteously.
“About an eight-buck a day room,” muttered Rourke. He slouched forward, stepping over the pool of drying blood, and leaned over the bureau, peering out through the dirty pane of glass at the darkened window in the next cabin about ten feet away. “Was anybody in Number Two when it happened?”
“I don’t think so. No car in front.” Shayne moved to one side slightly, to more effectually block the interior of the cabin from the detective’s view outside.
The reporter continued to lean forward and peer out the window, and now his hands were out of his pockets and were hidden from Shayne’s view in front of him. Long association with Rourke on many cases in the past gave Shayne an instinctive warning that the reporter was up to something which he didn’t want discussed in front of the police.
The look of bland satisfaction on Rourke’s face when he turned back, and the fact that all three front buttons of his jacket were tightly fastened were all Shayne needed to verify his suspicion, and it didn’t really require a fleeting glance at the bare top of the bureau to tell him that Rourke was boldly walking off with the photograph that had been there.
“I guess there’s nothing here for us,” Rourke made his voice dissatisfied as he reached Shayne’s side. “Let’s get out and let ’em lock it up.”
They stepped out with a nod to the detective who was on duty outside, and saw Gentry coming toward them from the office.
“Any dope I can print on the missing manager that might help you find him?” Rourke asked loudly.
“Some you can print and some maybe you better not,” Gentry told them. “Name seems to be Peterson, and one of my men remembers a couple of Peeping Tom complaints from out here the past two months. So our man’s got a photographic darkroom fixed up in the back with pictures that look like they’ve been snapped through the windows of these cabins at night. Camera with infra-red attachment that caught poor devils when they thought they were safe in the dark inside. That could be his reason for taking off… if he had reason to believe something had happened in Number Three to bring the police around.”
Shayne said honestly, “Could be, Will. I didn’t know Tucker’s cabin number when I got here, and I asked at the office. Told him it was police business to get it out of him fast.”
“Impersonating an officer,” grunted Gentry sourly. “Some day, by God, Mike…”
“On the other hand,” argued Shayne, “unless he had some idea what I was going to find in Tucker’s cabin why would he anticipate a police investigation?”
“Who ever knows why a guy with a guilty conscience suddenly takes it on the lam? This dancer friend of Tucker’s or Renshaw’s at the Bright Spot, Mike. I think you better come along and we’ll have a talk with her.”
“Sure, you go on with him,” urged Rourke. “I got to get back to the paper and file a story.”
“What about Mrs. Renshaw and getting an identification?” asked Shayne as Rourke shambled away toward his car with his arms clasped tightly across his chest.
“You think she can identify the dead man as her husband?”
“I doubt it,” said Shayne honestly. “Your fingerprint boys say he isn’t the man who’s been occupying the cabin. But there are a lot of things we don’t know about this setup, and a positive denial from Mrs. Renshaw would be something.”
“All right. Let’s get her down to the morgue to take a look. Where is she?”
“Uh…” Shayne scowled and snapped his fingers. “I don’t know, Will,” he confessed. “I had Lucy take down her Miami address when she left my office.”
“Call Lucy and find out. She’ll remember, won’t she?”
“Oh, she’ll remember all right.” Shayne turned back. “I’ll telephone her right now from the office.”
In the motel office, a detective put the telephone up on the counter for Shayne, and he dialed Lucy Hamilton’s apartment. He stood and let the telephone ring seven times before dropping the instrument back and going out to tell Gentry disconsolately, “Lucy doesn’t answer, Will. I don’t know how to get hold of Mrs. Renshaw.”
“Hell of a detective you turned out to be.” Gentry ostentatiously looked at his watch. “Where is Lucy this time of night?”
“She was at the Bright Spot with me,” Shayne explained patiently, “with Tim Rourke. When I found out there might be trouble here, I took off fast, and told Tim to see she got home. You heard him when he turned up.”
“As I recall it, he said, ‘I sent Lucy home okay.’ So, where is she?”
“How do I know?” Shayne pretended elaborate nonchalance though he was secretly worried. “I imagine Tim put her in a cab. She might have decided to stop off any one of a dozen places on her way home. I haven’t got any strings on her, Will.”
“You should have,” grunted Gentry. “All right. Let’s see what we can find out at the Bright Spot.” He turned to his chauffeured car, but Shayne caught him by the arm and suggested,
“Why don’t you ride with me and have your driver follow us a few minutes later? The kind of dive that is, they’re not going to spread out the red carpet for the chief of police.”
“It’s outside my jurisdiction,” snapped Gentry. “Besides, I don’t want a red carpet… just information.”
“Which you’re a hell of a lot more likely to get if you roll up unobtrusively with me, instead of in an official car.”
Gentry said ungraciously, “I think I’m being rooked somehow,” but he told his driver, “I’m riding over to the Bright Spot with Mr. Shayne. Give us about ten minutes, and then park in front and wait for me.”
The driver nodded and saluted. Will Gentry walked back with the redhead and got into the front seat of the sedan that was still parked directly in front of the motel office. Shayne settled his rangy body under the wheel beside the chief and started the motor.
The parking lot at the Bright Spot appeared completely full as they pulled up in front of the entrance, and the same parking attendant who had taken care of Shayne’s car a short time previously came around to his side and shook his head firmly as the redhead cut off his motor and started to get out.
He said, “I’m sorry, sir, but we’re full. If you’d like to come back in about an hour…”
From the man’s manner, Shayne couldn’t tell whether he was telling the truth or whether he had been advised that Shayne was not welcome at the club any more that night.
He unlatched the door and pushed it against the man’s body and slid out from under the wheel, and said flatly, “We’re staying. If you’ve got no parking space, leave it here until someone pulls out.”
“I can’t do that, sir,” the attendant protested. “You’ll have to drive away…”
Shayne started around the front of the car past him, and the attendant made the mistake of grabbing his arm and trying to pull him back. Shayne swung with the pressure and hit him behind the ear with his right fist. The parking attendant went backward and to the ground.
On the other side of the car, Gentry said happily, “So this is the way you roll up unobtrusively, Mike, and get the red carpet treatment. Next time I’ll try it my own way.”
Shayne strode around the front of his car and took Gentry firmly by the arm and led him under the canopy. The doorman pretended not to see them. He said grimly, “Let’s find out whether that was meant specially for us or not.”
They found out immediately. Inside the lighted hallway, the same burly tuxedoed man who had met Shayne before came hurriedly toward them as soon as he saw them in the doorway. He blocked their way and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Shayne. Your party has already left.”
Shayne said, “But I’m back.” He saw two other tough-looking bouncers hurrying down the hall to flank the first one, and was conscious that Will Gentry had withdrawn slightly and stood to one side to dissociate himself with him, and he said flatly, “This isn’t a raid… yet. I don’t care what sort of exhibition you’re putting on inside. I came to talk to Sloe Burn. Send her out here or I’ll go in and find her.”
The man in the center of the trio said smoothly, “Miss Piney is indisposed. Just go away quietly, Shayne, and…”
Shayne hit him in the mouth with his left fist. He swung his right at the same time, and the second man ducked and caught it on his forehead. It jarred him off balance, and Shayne swung to his left in time to see a blackjack in the hand of the third man arcing viciously toward his head. He ducked his chin and hunched his left shoulder high and caught the leaded leather with stunning force on the upper muscle of his arm.
Then Will Gentry’s voice spoke in a conversational level behind him. “That’s enough, boys. Send Sloe Burn out here.”
Shayne turned and blinked uncertainly at Will Gentry who stood flatfooted and unruffled with a Police Positive in his hand.
His eyes were wild with rage, and he panted, “Let me handle this, Will. By God, I’ll…”
“Stand back, Mike.” Gentry remained completely in control of the situation and appeared to be enjoying it. His gun menaced the trio impartially, and he told them, “You may be outside city limits, but I can have a hundred men surrounding this dump within ten minutes. Do we talk to your dancer or don’t we?”
A new figure appeared in an open doorway beside the service bar and said coldly, “All right, you punks have caused enough trouble. Get back inside where you know how to take care of yourselves.” He was tall and urbane and unsmiling and he wore a conservative business suit. He went on earnestly to Will Gentry:
“I’m sorry the boys didn’t recognize you, Chief. They’ll be more polite next time. On the other hand, you’ll have to admit they had a certain amount of provocation… considering the company you keep. They had orders, you see, to throw this shamus out on his ear if he showed up around here again.”
Shayne growled a throaty epithet and started toward the owner of the Bright Spot with big fists clenched menacingly, but Gentry waved him back with his revolver and said sharply, “This time I’m handling things, Mike. We want to talk to Sloe Burn,” he went on. “About a homicide.”
“I’d like to talk to her myself,” the tall man told him angrily. “She and her dance partner have both ducked out and left me holding the bag with a couple hundred people inside who came to see them dance. That was right after Shayne was here and she talked to him the first time.”
“Where can I find her?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you, Chief. They just disappeared. I’ve got a man at her place, but she hasn’t showed.”
“What’s the address?”
“Southwest Third Street.” He gave the address. “If she’s in trouble with the law,” he went on slowly, “I want no part of her. Minute she shows her face around here again, I’ll notify your office.”
Gentry holstered his gun and said shortly, “See that you do if you want to stay in business. Come along, Mike.” He turned his back and trudged stolidly toward the outer door.
Shayne hesitated briefly, and then followed him out. His sedan stood in front of the canopy where he had left it. Directly behind was Chief Gentry’s longer and heavier car with his driver at the wheel. The parking attendant was not in evidence at the moment.
Coming up behind Gentry, Shayne said, “I didn’t know you packed a gun, Will. Thought you’d cut out that kid stuff years ago.”
“It wasn’t kid stuff tonight. Those mugs would have taken you… oh, for God’s sake, Mike, when will you learn you can’t win by bulling in with your fists alone?”
“I’ve done all right this far.”
“You’ve done all right?” Gentry’s tone mocked him. Then he put a hand on his arm and his voice became more friendly. “Like tonight, Mike? Where have you got us on this thing?” He held up a broad hand to stop Shayne’s protest.
“Wait a minute and think it over. You were holding out on me this afternoon, and I know damned well you were. I knew it this afternoon, but what the hell? You’ve pulled rabbits out of your hat before, but this time where are the rabbits? We’ve got an unidentified dead man who may be named Renshaw… passing as Fred Tucker in Miami while he hides out from syndicate hoodlums… but which I doubt. You managed to scare off the motel manager who could have identified him, and you don’t know where to locate his wife who could do likewise.
“And you don’t know where your secretary is, who is the only person in Miami with the wife’s address. And you come out here throwing your weight around earlier in the evening, and so Sloe Burn and her dance partner take a runout powder, and nobody knows where they are. And if I hadn’t been packing a gun inside there… kid stuff or not… by God you’d be tossed out on your ear right now with all hell sapped out of you. All right. You take it from here. I’ll, by God, take it from here my own way.”
He turned and strode toward his car, and Michael Shayne stood alone helplessly and watched him go.
It took Shayne ten minutes to drive to Lucy Hamilton’s apartment building near the Bay in the Northeast section of Miami. In the small entryway his face was deeply trenched with worry as he buzzed his customary signal on her button. The trenches deepened while he waited for her to press the button in her second-floor apartment that would release the front-door lock. When it didn’t come, he got out his key-ring and found the key she had given him long ago for such an emergency, and unlocked the outer door. As he went up the stairs, he selected the other key that opened her apartment, and had it ready in his hand when he reached her door.
It opened onto a dark and silent apartment. He flipped the light switch beside the door and strode in, stopped just inside the long and pleasantly furnished sitting room for a comprehensive look.
He had stopped by the apartment to pick up Lucy for dinner some four hours previously, and they had had one drink together before going out.
The sitting room was now exactly as he remembered they had left it. The cognac bottle and an empty wineglass beside it on the low coffee table. Farther over, a tumbler half-full of water and melted ice cubes; Lucy’s own glass with the dregs of her drink on the nearer side of the table, and lying over the back of a chair where he remembered her tossing it as they went out, was a light wrap which she had decided she didn’t need at the last moment.
With this evidence that Lucy had not been back to her apartment after she went out with him, Shayne strode across the room to the telephone and dialled a number.
A curt voice said, “City desk,” and he said, “Tim Rourke.”
He waited, listening to the background clatter of teletype machines and typewriters, until his friend’s voice came over the wire. “Rourke.”
“Tim. I’m at Lucy’s place and she hasn’t come home yet.”
Timothy Rourke chuckled evilly. “I’ve been warning you for a long time, Mike… you better marry the gal if you want her to stay home waiting for you. Listen. You know that picture I grabbed in Tucker’s cabin…?”
“I’m worried about Lucy,” Shayne cut in. “I thought you were going to see her home.”
“I put her in a cab at the Bright Spot,” Rourke defended himself. “Maybe she decided it was too early and stopped off some place. About that picture… come on down and I’ll show you something.”
“You didn’t get the number of Lucy’s cab… the driver’s name or anything?”
“For Chrissake, Mike! When did you ever take the number of a cab or the driver’s name? Act your age.”
Shayne slammed the telephone down in a burst of futile rage. He knew Tim was right, and that added to his rage. It was foolish to worry about Lucy. She had been making her way around in Miami in cabs for a good many years, and there were dozens of reasonable explanations for her not being home yet. A lot of his anger was directed at himself for neglecting to get Mrs. Renshaw’s local address that afternoon. Will Gentry had been perfectly right in bawling him out at the Bright Spot for having got things in a mess.
He turned away from the telephone with a shrug of his wide shoulders, crossed the room to pour cognac into the wine-glass nearly to the brim.
No matter how many reasonable explanations there were for Lucy’s absence, he was worried, damn it. She knew he was working on a case. She knew his hurried departure from the Bright Spot meant that things were breaking. She knew he might need her for something at any moment. It wasn’t like her to make herself unavailable.
Too many people were missing at the same time, he told himself angrily as he tossed off the drink. Sloe Burn and her dancing partner… probably Fred Tucker, or Renshaw (if his hunch was right about the dead man), and Mrs. Renshaw and Lucy… and he didn’t even know where to look for Baron McTige, he realized dismally.
He emptied the glass and set it down, took one last look around the room, and then strode back to the telephone table and scrawled a note on the pad beside the instrument:
“Check with me or Tim or Will Gentry the minute you come in.” He signed it and carried the pad back with him to drop it on the floor inside the door where Lucy couldn’t possibly fail to see it as she entered. Then he hurried out and down the stairs to his car.
Timothy Rourke was at his desk in the City Room, tapping out copy with one finger on his battered typewriter when Shayne came up to him. The reporter swivelled around in his chair, deep-set eyes gleaming happily. “This time, 7 hit the jackpot, Mike. I knew there was something damned familiar about that picture on the bureau in the Pink Flamingo cabin. Thanks, by the way, for helping to cover up for me when I snatched it. Gentry’s going to be plenty sore at both of us.”
“Not at me. I didn’t do anything.”
“You knew I was grabbing it. Thanks anyhow. Look here, Mike,” Rourke exulted. He turned back to his desk and hunted through some clippings, came up with a newspaper reproduction of the same photograph of Mrs. Renshaw and the two children that had been in Tucker’s cabin.
Only, under the newspaper cut there was a caption that read: “Wife of Illinois Embezzler Distraught and Disbelieving.”
Shayne took the clipping from him with a baffled frown, and swiftly scanned the story, date-lined Springfield, Illinois:
“Mrs. Steven Shephard, pictured above with her two children in a photograph taken during happier days, declared today that she did not believe her husband guilty of the crime of which he is accused.
“Steven simply could not have stolen that money,” she insisted tearfully, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “There is some dreadful mistake. I know there must be. Steven was a loving husband and a devoted father. He has lived an exemplary life in this community for twenty years, and it is utterly absurd to think he is capable of such an act. Someone else must be responsible, and I fear that Steven is the victim of foul play because he may have tried to prevent it.”
The quote from Mrs. Shephard ended there, and the newspaper story went on to briefly rehash the known facts in the case.
Steven Shephard, it appeared, had been an officer and a trusted cashier of a Mutual Savings and Loan Association in Springfield, Illinois, for the past twenty years. A Sunday School teacher and a Boy Scout leader, he had been universally respected by a wide circle of friends and associates, and had been known as a man with no vices, and no bad habits. He owned his own modest home, mortgage-free, paid his bills promptly on the tenth of each month, and over the years had built up a substantial savings account in the Mutual Association with which he was associated.
And then, approximately three weeks ago, Steven Shephard had disappeared and $200,000.00 of the mutual funds had disappeared with him.
Auditors going over the books reported evidence that the theft was the result of careful planning and preparation for at least one year prior to Shephard’s disappearance. During that period, it appeared, he had been secretly diverting cash deposits into his own hands by falsifying the daily records, until a cash reserve of United States currency totalling exactly $200,000.00 was in his possession.
Then Steven Shephard had walked away from his office and his home, leaving no trace behind him. There were indications that he had fled westward, and the account stated that he was being actively sought in Southern California and Mexico at the time of the writing, which was one week previous.
Shayne’s gray eyes were bleak as he put the clipping down. He muttered, “So she really fed me a story, and I swallowed it, hook-line-and-sinker.”
“Want to tell me about it now, Mike?” Rourke asked eagerly.
“Not for publication.” Shayne gave him a wry smile and lit a cigarette. “She told me her name was Mrs. Renshaw when she came to my office this afternoon to retain me to find her husband. From Chicago, where her husband, Steven… she was smart enough to use his first name so she wouldn’t make any slips,” he interpolated, “… had run out on a Syndicate gambling debt and was supposedly hiding in Miami to avoid their vengeance.
“She made it sound real good, Tim. So good that I was sympathetic as hell.”
“Smart woman,” Rourke said admiringly. “She knew Mike Shayne would be a pushover for a story like that. That why you were checking The Preacher out with Joe Hoffman?”
Shayne nodded moodily. “From another source, I got a description of a man on his tail who sounded like The Preacher. Sheer coincidence, I guess… since it appears The Preacher has been dead six months, and the Syndicate isn’t interested in her husband after all.”
“This guy you thought was The Preacher. Could he be the dead man?”
“Could be,” Shayne conceded morosely. “Goddamn it, this knocks everything into a cocked hat… though a lot of things do make more sense this way than they did before. Have you given this to Will, Tim?”
“Hell, no. Let him read about it in the paper tomorrow morning. I’m just about through with my story.”
Shayne said, “No soap, Tim.” He leaned forward and picked up the photograph of Mrs. Shephard and the newspaper clipping he’d just read. “Will gets these right now.”
“For Chrissake, Mike! Let him do his own deducing. Won’t be the first time you and I held out information.”
“Not this time,” Shayne said firmly. He got to his feet, shaking his head sternly as Rourke tried to protest further.
“I helped you walk off with this picture, Tim. It changes everything, and I’m taking it to Will right now. He can check fingerprints and find out who was who in that cabin tonight. Then maybe we can start adding things up. Go ahead and write your story. You’re still ahead of the pack on it. But Will gets this in the meantime.”
He turned and went out of the City Room fast, and Rourke sank back to his desk with a sour look on his face, and went back to typing his story for the early edition of the News.
Chief Will Gentry wasn’t at Police Headquarters when Shayne got there. The chief had not been in his office, Shayne was told, since leaving for home late in the afternoon. Neither had Lieutenant Yager come back from a Homicide call to the Pink Flamingo Motel. Shayne went out slowly, still carrying Mrs. Shephard’s photograph and the newspaper clipping. He was sure that Gentry had been headed for his office when he left the Bright Spot, but with a two-way radio in his car, Yager might have intercepted him with a message. That indicated that some sort of break might have occurred in the Pink Flamingo killing.
Acutely conscious of the important information in his possession and feeling guilty about helping Rourke unearth it without Gentry’s knowledge, Shayne paused indecisively outside the building in front of his parked car. If it weren’t for his worry about Lucy, he knew he would wait right there and wait for Gentry to return so he could turn the information over to him.
But he was worried about Lucy… and the fact that she was his only means of contacting Mrs. Shephard.
He made up his mind abruptly and got in his car and drove down Flagler Street to park in front of his office building. The night operator took him up to his floor, and Shayne had his key out as he approached his office door.
He switched on the anteroom light, and wrinkled his nose when he discovered that the heavy scent of Sloe Burn’s perfume still lingered in the outer office.
Crossing swiftly to Lucy’s desk, he opened the center drawer and took out the daily record where she kept notes of his appointments and phone calls on the chance that she might have entered Mrs. Shephard’s address under the name she had given them.
She had. There was the notation: “Mrs. Renshaw, 3:30,” and beneath it: “Room 334, Corondao Arms.” Beneath that, Lucy had efficiently entered a local telephone number.
Shayne closed the drawer and lifted Lucy’s phone to dial the number. He got the hotel operator and asked for extension 334. After a short wait, she told him brightly that the room did not answer.
Shayne hung up and glared sourly across the empty and silent anteroom. Then he tried Lucy’s number and let the phone ring four times before slamming the receiver down.
He lit a cigarette and strode into his private office to drink a short slug directly from the cognac bottle. Then he called his own apartment hotel and the night clerk assured him there had been no calls for him that evening. He took another swallow of cognac, but it didn’t really taste very good. He lowered one hip to the edge of his desk and tugged at his left earlobe angrily and stared out the window and down at the slow-moving headlights on Flagler Street below.
Where in hell was everybody all at once? As a final effort, he dialled the News and got Tim Rourke.
The reporter was still irritated because Shayne had taken his dope on the absconding Shephard to Gentry, and he told him shortly that Lucy had not called him, and that he was headed for home and bed… and why didn’t Shayne do the same.
Shayne told him another place he could go that was reputedly hotter than Miami, and hung up.
Then he stood up and went out decisively.
The Coronado Arms Hotel was a modest structure in the Northeast section of the city a few blocks from the bayfront. There was wall-to-wall carpeting and potted palms and sturdily upholstered chairs in the lobby, and a scattering of middle-aged, middle-income guests as Shayne strode through it toward the elevators without pausing at the desk.
An elderly man and a middle-aged woman got off in front of him on the third floor. Both appeared to be pleasantly tipsy, and they didn’t look married to Shayne’s worldly gaze. With their arms tightly about each other’s waists, they turned to the right down a wide, high-ceilinged corridor, and Shayne followed an arrow pointing to the left below the numbers: 300–340.
He stopped in front of a door marked 334 and knocked. He expected no reply, and received none. The corridor was vacant, and there was no one to observe him as he got out a well-filled keyring and studied the hotel lock. He tried three keys unsuccessfully before his fourth choice unlocked the door.
He stepped in and turned on the light and pulled the door shut behind him. It was an impersonal and cheerless hotel room, with neatly made twin beds and no outward indications of occupancy. He walked in slowly, noting an open closet door on the right with a neat travelling case on the floor, a pair of bedroom slippers and of spike-heeled shoes beside it. On hangers were a woman’s light coat, a dark tweed suit, and a serviceable wool robe.
He walked around the end of the first bed, and between the two to a telephone on a table. Beside the telephone lay a message from the hotel operator. It carried the number, 334, and the time of receipt, 9:22 P.M. The message said: “Please call Mr. McTige. Ext 826,” with a Miami telephone number.
Michael Shayne stood staring down at it and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Leaving it beside the telephone was exactly the sort of thing anyone is likely to do when returning to a hotel room with a message that requires an immediate call.
He lifted the receiver and asked for the number written on the message. The phone rang twice before a man’s voice said, “Yardley Hotel. Good evening.”
Shayne said, “Good evening,” and hung up. He turned and hurried out of the room, turning out the light and closing the door firmly behind him.
Outside the revolving doors, he walked unhurriedly along the sidewalk to his parked car and got in.
The Yardley was an older more run-down hotel in an older more run-down section of the city. It took Shayne ten minutes to reach it from the Coronado Arms.
The lobby floor was tiled and the furniture was rattan but there were identical potted palms to those in the Coronado Arms. Again, Shayne walked through the lobby briskly as though he belonged there, got in an elevator and went up to the 8th floor alone. There were transoms over all the doors along the corridor, and a bright light showed behind No. 826 when he stopped in front of it.
Again, he knocked, but this time he waited a much longer time for a response that was not forthcoming. He knocked more loudly, and waited another long minute before resorting to his keyring again.
This time, the first key he selected did the trick. He walked in to a brightly lighted, empty room. This one was larger than Mrs. Shephard’s, and looked a lot more lived in. The spreads on both twin beds were pushed back and rumpled, the pillows balled up and showing depressions where they had been lain upon. A pair of discarded socks lay on the floor behind one of the beds, and room-service tray stood on a low table near the door. It held an ice bucket and two large bottles of Club Soda. One was open and almost empty, the other uncapped.
Tossed over a chair near the low table was a rumpled black suit coat with the side pockets turned inside out. From where he stood just inside the door, it looked very much to Shayne as though it might match the dark pants on the corpse he had found at the Pink Flamingo.
The telephone table between the two beds held a large chinaware ashtray that was overflowing with cigarette butts, ashes, and the short ends of two well-chewed cigars, and the stale air in the room was redolent with the stench of burned tobacco. On each side of the ashtray stood an empty highball glass.
Shayne’s bleak gaze slowly wandered over everything in the room while he stood there without moving. Only after he had mentally catalogued everything to be seen, did he move forward and go around the foot of the first rumpled bed.
He stopped there and stared down at Baron McTige’s body lying between the two beds where it couldn’t be seen from the doorway. He lay on his side, and his right cheek rested in a pool of blood that had seeped around a conch shell that was firmly embedded in his left temple. He was dressed exactly as he had been in Shayne’s office that afternoon, and the yellow and green sport shirt on his dead body managed to appear more offensively vulgar than it had when it covered the man’s animal vitality.
In death, his suety-fat face with the blubbery lips and receding hairline was more obscenely babyish than in life. Indeed, he had the look of a bloated and overgrown foetus as he lay between the two beds with his knees drawn up tightly against his chest and his arms hugging them.
Clutched tightly between the fisted fingers of his right hand was a $1,000 bill.
Michael Shayne stood for a long sixty seconds looking down at the dead man. Then he backed slowly around the end of the bed and sat down near the head of it, draped a handkerchief over his hand, stretched out a long arm to pick up the telephone.
Just as he put his hand on it, it rang loudly in the deathlike silence of the room. His hand jerked back instinctively as though the sound were the whirring of a rattlesnake. It rang again and he picked it up, settling the big knuckle of his right forefinger tightly between his teeth to blur his voice a trifle.
He said, “Yeh?” into the mouthpiece.
Mrs. Shephard’s voice came over the wire, the tone anxious but the words precisely enunciated, “Is that Mr. McTige?”
“This is Mrs. Renshaw. I… have been trying to reach you ever since I got your message.”
“Where’re you now?” grunted Shayne.
“I… is this really Mr. McTige? Your voice doesn’t sound like his.”
“’Smee awright,” Shayne averred. “Where’re you at?”
“I don’t believe…” There was a long pause laden with suspicious doubt. And then she simply hung up.
Shayne did likewise. He used the handkerchief draped over his left hand to mop sweat from his corrugated brow. Then he carefully covered his palm with it again, and again reached to pick up the telephone.
As though this were a signal that activated the buzzer, it rang once more just as he touched it.
He put his forefinger back between his teeth and said, “Yeh?” again.
He almost dropped the instrument when the well-recognized voice of his secretary came over the wire.
“This is Mrs. Steven Shephard speaking, Mr. McTige. Or Mrs. Renshaw, if you prefer.” Lucy Hamilton was forming her words precisely and clearly, and her voice vibrated with strain. “Do you hear me, Mr. McTige?”
Shayne growled between set teeth, “I hear you.”
“I understand you are holding a large sum of money for me… which you obtained from my husband?”
“I want you to bring it to me at once. I will be waiting for you at the Dolphin Bar. That is on the north bank of the Miami River between Sixth and Seventh streets. I will expect you with the money immediately.”
“Sure. Right away.” Shayne heard a decisive click of the receiver at the other end, and he dropped his instrument back into place.
He was really sweating by this time. He mopped his face slowly, staring across the room with baffled gray eyes. What in the name of God did this mean?
Had Lucy recognized his voice over the telephone? He didn’t think so, yet he couldn’t be certain. If she had recognized it, wouldn’t she have given him some sign? Surely… unless? Unless she was making the call under duress. Where she could be overheard and had to choose her words carefully.
He shook his red head slowly from side to side in utter bafflement and then grabbed the phone and lifted it swiftly to forestall another possible ring.
He gave the switchboard operator the number for the Homicide department, and when a voice answered, “Homicide. Sergeant Getts…” he broke in fast:
“Reporting a corpse in room eight-two-six the Yardley Hotel.”
He slammed the receiver down and rolled off the bed to his feet, strode to the door and pulled it open with his handkerchiefed left hand, rubbed his fingerprints off the outside knob while pulling it shut, and then long-legged it down the hall to a red light marking the stairway.
He plunged down one flight and rang for an elevator, was fortunate enough to get a down car a moment later, and strode briskly through the lobby and out onto the street without looking to right or left.
He was settling himself behind the steering wheel of his sedan when a prowl car slid past him and into the curb in front of the hotel.
He waited until two uniformed men jumped out and trotted inside before putting his car in gear and driving past, headed for the bar on the riverfront to keep a dead man’s rendezvous with his own secretary.
The Dolphin Bar on the riverfront was old and dark and smelly. It was frequented mostly by the crews of small fishing boats tied up at the docks nearby, and it smelled of fish and sweat from the work-stained clothing of these men; native Crackers, all of them, mostly recruited from the Keys where fishing for a living was the natural way of life.
Lucy Hamilton forced a faint smile onto her trembling lips as she clicked the receiver back into place on the wall telephone at the end of the bar. She turned to the sullen-faced young man standing directly behind her and assured him, “He’s bringing the money right away.”
“He better.” Ralph Billiter’s close-set eyes glittered meanly. “You take it real easy when he comes. One wrong word outta you, an’ you know what’ll happen.”
Lucy said simply, “I know.” She winced as he took her upper right arm roughly and turned her back to the rear booth where they had been sitting before she made the call. He pushed her in against the wall facing the front, and settled his body solidly beside her.
There was a shot-glass of whiskey in front of him, and a beer chaser beside it. It was his fifth since they had come to the bar, and he was showing the effects of the drinks in his increasing aggressiveness.
“I still got that li’l ole persuader right here handy, an’ if he tries to pull a gun like last time or anything like that it’ll be just too bad for you. You know what I mean.”
Lucy said, “I know what you mean,” without attempting to repress a shudder. She knew all about the needle-sharp conch shell in his left hand coat pocket, and hadn’t the faintest doubt that he would use it fatally on the slightest provocation. He had been dangerous enough when he returned to the Bright Spot, enraged but sober after having had a fortune snatched out of his hands. Now, inflamed by liquor and by the aroused hope of getting his hands on the money again, she knew instinctively that he would kill without compunction if anything happened to thwart him.
So what would happen when Michael walked in, instead of Baron McTige whom he expected? What could she do to warn Michael?
Waves of fear swept nauseatingly over her as she sat beside Ralph, crammed up against the wall by his heavy body, waiting for Michael Shayne to come.
She was positive it was Shayne’s voice that had answered McTige’s telephone, though she knew he was trying to disguise it. But it had taken her so utterly by surprise. And she had her speech completely memorized before she picked up the receiver. She had simply, helplessly, repeated the words by rote with Ralph pressed threateningly against her and her sure knowledge that death was clasped in the palm of his hand if she said one word wrong.
Michael knew it was she who had called, of course. He couldn’t have failed to recognize her voice over the wire. Not after all these years and all the telephone conversations they had had together. So what would Michael think or suspect? What would he do?”
“It ain’t none of his business you an’ me are here friendly-like,” Ralph said angrily. “None of his business what you do with the money. He said it was yourn, an’ he’d see you got it. Him holdin’ a gun on me like he was…” His voice trailed off sullenly and he tossed off the contents of the shot-glass, slammed it down hard on the wooden table to attract the attention of a waiter for a refill.
“It’s none of his business at all, Ralph,” Lucy placated him. “I’m sure he’ll give it to me all right.”
“He better. Kinda soft on you, ain’t he?”
“Baron McTige?” Lucy couldn’t hide her astonishment.
“That’s the way I figgered it in the cabin when him an’ his pal started fightin’ over it. Like you and him had planned to get hold of the money together. So if he’s got ideas like that when he comes here, you change his mind quick… you hear?”
“Of course I will,” Lucy said faintly. All this time she had been staring fixedly over the low wall of the booth in front of her at the swinging doors in front, dreading to see Michael Shayne push them open, and yet thinking she couldn’t stand it another minute unless he did.
Now she saw a tall, rangy figure shamble through and her heart missed a couple of beats.
It was Michael Shayne, but only his best friend or his secretary would have recognized him. He wore a sloppy canvas fisherman’s hat rammed down over one eye to cover his red hair, and had a streak of black grease on his face. His shirt was open-throated and tieless, with a shabby corduroy jacket buttoned over it that was at least two sizes too small for him and left his wrists dangling out of the sleeves.
In this costume, he fitted perfectly into the Dolphin background and was indistinguishable from a dozen habituees of the place clustered at the bar, and no one accorded him more than a passing glance as he bellied up to the bar and ordered beer on draught.
He put down a dollar bill to pay for the beer, and leaned one elbow on the bar, looking slowly down the length of it and the men drinking there, then shifted his gaze aside to the row of booths, and suddenly he was looking directly into Lucy’s eyes, separated by a distance of about thirty feet.
The waiter had put a fresh drink in front of Ralph Billiter and he was toying with it, looking down at the table with a sulky frown.
Lucy kept her chin lifted, and met Shayne’s gaze squarely. She realized he could have no idea who her companion in the booth was, but some of the icy fear went out of her and she relaxed a trifle when she saw her employer’s right eyelid come down in a slow and unmistakable wink for her. She fluttered her own eyelids down when she saw Shayne gather up his change and pocket it, swallow some of his beer, and then begin weaving his way slowly back toward the rear of the room, simulating a slight degree of drunkenness as he passed behind the other drinking men.
“Ain’t nobody puttin’ nothing over on me,” Ralph declared hotly. “I got there first and seen the money first. Rightly, it’s mine, by Christ onna cross. How long you reckon it’ll take him to get here?”
“Not very long. Maybe he didn’t have the money right there in his room when I called, and had to pick it up.” Lucy’s fascinated gaze swivelled slowly, marking Shayne’s progress toward them. Not more than four feet separated the booths from the bar, and by the time Shayne reached the end he would be less than ten feet from them.
Lucy raised her voice a trifle and put her right hand on Ralph’s muscular forearm. “You’re not going to do anything when he comes, are you?”
“Not if he don’t start nothin’, I won’t.” Ralph shook her arm off impatiently and raised his hand to run fingers through his tousled hair while he glared over the low wall of the booth toward the front of the saloon as though he dared Baron McTige to come in and start anything with him.
Michael Shayne had reached the end of the bar nearest their booth and stood slouched, now, with his back to the bar and both elbows behind him supporting his body. He had his stein of beer in his right hand, and he allowed his lower jaw to droop to give his grease-smeared face a look of blank stupidity.
“That conch shell of yours really frightens me terribly.” Lucy made her voice as loud as she dared without looking at Shayne, and tried to project it toward him so he might hear over the thick babble of voices in the background. “It’s really more dangerous for fighting than a knife, isn’t it?”
“It works real good, you bet. An’ there ain’t no law ag’in carrying a conch shell in yore pocket. That’s why we’uns down on the Keys like ’em better’n a knife.”
Shayne’s eyes were hooded, his face bleakly impassive, and Lucy didn’t know whether he could hear a word she and Ralph were saying or not.
She still didn’t have the faintest idea what she could do to resolve the impasse, and she didn’t see what Michael Shayne could do either.
Ralph emptied his sixth glass of whiskey down his throat, and put both big hands around his beer mug to lift it to his mouth.
Shayne straightened his body at the bar and hiccoughed loudly, and lurched away to reach out a hand and steady himself by grasping the partition of the booth in which they were seated.
He swayed there as though on rubbery legs, and grinned admiringly at Lucy Hamilton. “Hi-yah, doll,” he said thickly. “You know somepin?”
Ralph set his mug down on the table and glared belligerently at the tall stranger. “Get lost, Mister.”
“He’s drunk, Ralph.” Lucy put her hand on his forearm again, the arm that was attached to the hand which could dive into his coat pocket instantly to bring out the wickedly sharpened shell.
“Ain’t drunk either.” Shayne wagged his head from side to side solemnly. “Not too drunk to know a purty piece when I see one. How’s about it, Sister? Lookin’ for a little fun?”
Ralph set his teeth grimly and jutted his jaw and glared at Shayne. “She’ll get all the fun she wants with me, Mister.”
“Young punk like you?” Shayne waved his stein grandiosely. “Why’n’t you let the lady decide, huh?”
“By God, Mister, I’m tellin’ you…” Ralph half rose menacingly, and Shayne swayed back on his heels and laughed.
“Tell yuh what. I’ll fight yuh for her. Fair an’ square, huh? If you got the guts… a punk like you.”
“By God, Mister, I’ll fight you. Any time an’ any place.” Ralph’s voice rose loudly, and the babble of voices at the bar was stilled as heads craned in their direction.
Shayne threw half a mug of beer in Ralph’s face.
The two bartenders moved quickly and efficiently behind the bar. The one toward the front turned to lift a telephone from the counter and dial the police. The other one stooped and got the heavy end of a sawed-off billiard cue from beneath the bar and started back.
Ralph Billiter sputtered and bellowed with rage when the beer struck his face. He lumbered up in the narrow confine of the booth and shoved the table away from him, his big hand diving into his side pocket for the natural fighting weapon of a Florida Cracker from the Keys.
Shayne was poised on the balls of his feet with his right fist cocked and ready by the time Ralph stood fully erect. He moved in lightly, and swung his fist with the full weight of his body behind it as he moved.
It connected solidly with the side of Ralph’s jaw, driving him back into Lucy’s lap as she screamed.
Her scream was a warning to Shayne of danger from behind, but it came a split second too late.
The bartender had ducked under the end of the bar, and his two-foot length of weighted wood was already describing a vicious swinging arc as Shayne spun toward him.
It struck the redhead low on the side of the neck just above the collarbone, and he continued his spin like a pole-axed steer, crashing into the wall at the end of the bar and sliding full-length to the floor.
Lucy was fighting her way up from under the slack weight of Ralph’s body, and the bartender surveyed the scene dispassionately for a moment before turning back to the other occupants of the saloon and saying wearily, “Just sit tight everybody. We’ll let the cops clean this mess up for us.”
When Michael Shayne swam back to consciousness, he was lying flat on his back on the bar-room floor with his head pillowed in Lucy’s lap and with her tears streaming down into his face.
He opened his eyes and looked up at her face just a few inches above his and twisted his mouth in a crooked grin. “It’s okay, angel. I’ll live… I think.”
He winced painfully as he turned his head a trifle, then he flattened both hands out on the floor and forced his body up to a sitting position.
A wave of dizziness swept over him, and he closed his eyes momentarily. When he opened them he saw a burly uniformed figure standing at his feet looking down at him composedly. Lucy still sat on the floor beside him with her head bowed and sobbing gently. He touched her shoulder and said urgently, “It’s all right, Lucy. Let’s get out of here.”
He looked up at the officer and held up his hand, “Give me a lift, huh?”
The policeman took his hand and helped pull him to his feet, asking disbelievingly, “Is it a fact what she says… that you’re Mike Shayne?”
Lucy got up shakily to stand beside him, blinking back her tears and cutting in angrily, “Of course it’s true.” She stamped her foot. “Don’t just stand there like an oaf. Arrest that man who clubbed him from behind.”
Shayne looked past the cop into the booth where Lucy and Ralph had been sitting. Another policeman leaned over Ralph and was trying to pull him up. The younger man was still only half-conscious, with head lolling back and eyes closed.
Shayne turned his head slowly and looked toward the front of the room. All of the customers had mysteriously vanished, leaving only the two bartenders who stood behind the mahogany and surveyed the scene with stony gravity.
Shayne patted Lucy’s shoulder and said, “The bartender got me, huh? Don’t blame him, angel.” He told the officer, “We’re perfectly content to let it lie without preferring any charges.”
“He says it was you started the ruckus.” The policeman jerked his thumb back at the bartender. “Says this couple was sitting here having a quiet drink when you barged in and threw a mug of beer in his face. How about that?”
“I tried to tell you,” said Lucy angrily. “I’m Michael Shayne’s secretary, and he probably saved my life. That hoodlum was threatening to kill me with a conch shell in his pocket.”
The other policeman had Ralph Billiter sitting up at the table, slumped forward and still dazed and half-conscious. He was efficiently shaking him down, and he came up with the sharpened conch shell which he held up for his partner to see. “He’s loaded all right, like the lady says. I heard of these things, but it’s the first one I ever did see.”
“It’s a beaut,” the first officer agreed. “All right, Shayne. Let’s straighten this out at headquarters. Put the cuffs on that one,” he ordered his companion, “soon as you get him on his feet. You got a car here, Shayne?”
“All right. I’ll ride along with you. Bring your man in, Baxter, soon as you can drag him out.”
He turned and stalked toward the door, and Shayne took Lucy’s arm and led her behind him. As they passed the two bartenders, the one who had slugged Shayne said with gruff cordiality, “Drop back some time, huh, and have a cognac on the house? If I’d known who you was…”
Shayne said, “I’ll wash my face next time.” He and Lucy went out through the swinging doors where the cop was leaning inside a patrol car at the curb, talking into his microphone.
Suddenly, hysterically, as the night air struck her, Lucy turned and buried her face against Shayne’s chest, and sobbed out almost incoherently, “Oh, God, Michael! I’ve been so frightened. It’s been like a nightmare. I’ve got to tell you…”
He shook her gently and led her to his car parked in front of the prowl car. “Save all the explanations until we get to headquarters. Will Gentry is going to want to hear it too, and there’s no use going over it twice.”
“I was such a fool, Michael. I walked right into it, thinking I was being so smart and helpful.”
“Relax now and save it till later.” Shayne put her in the front seat and turned to the officer who was coming up behind him. “You want me to drive?”
“Sure. I’ll get in the back.” There was belligerent respect tinged with awe in his voice as he opened the door and got in. “My God, I never thought I’d see Mike Shayne laid out on the floor like that. That’s why I couldn’t hardly believe the lady when she said who you was.”
Shayne said, “I hardly believed it myself when I first opened my eyes.” He put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.
“Where did you get that awful costume so fast, Michael?” Lucy asked in a subdued voice. “It was such a short time after you answered McTige’s phone.”
“Passed a bum on the street and gave him ten bucks for his hat and coat. I didn’t want to cause too much notice when I walked into the Dolphin. But let’s save all this for Gentry,” he counseled her. “God knows I want to know what you’ve been up to, but I want this officer to be able to swear to Gentry that we didn’t fix up our stories on the way in.”
Miami’s chief of police sat solidly behind his desk and glared at the couple when they were ushered into his office. “What have you two been up to now? My God, Mike, what do you think you’re impersonating?”
Shayne looked down at the dirty, undersized corduroy jacket he was wearing as though he just recalled he had it on. He shrugged out of it and let it drop to the floor, squaring his wide shoulders in relief. He said, “You’d better get a stenographer in to take it all down, Will. I’m waiting to hear Lucy’s story myself. But before we get started… do you know about McTige yet?”
“What do you know about him?” demanded Gentry suspiciously.
“I know he’s dead, Will. I phoned in the report.”
“You phoned it in,” fumed Gentry, “Anonymously. And then ducked out before the cops got there. That’s enough for me to lift your license, and by God…”
Shayne held up a big hand, “The stenographer, Will. I want this down in black and white if I’m going to lose my license over it.”
He pulled up a chair and settled Lucy in it while Gentry pushed a button on his desk and growled, “Send Richardson in.” Shayne drew another chair close to Lucy’s and sat beside her, getting himself a cigarette lit while a young, smooth-faced plainclothesman came in and settled himself at a desk in the corner with a shorthand notebook open.
Shayne settled back and took a long drag on his cigarette and said evenly: “A brief statement from Michael Shayne. I went to my office after you left me at the Bright Spot, Will, and found Mrs. Renshaw’s address in Lucy’s notes. Her hotel room was empty when I entered it, but I found a telephone message beside her bed that she was to call McTige at the Yardley Hotel. I went there, and entered his room and found his dead body. Before I could report it, his phone rang and I answered. It was Mrs. Renshaw. She seemed to immediately realize it wasn’t McTige speaking, and hung up.
“A moment later the phone rang again. It was Lucy Hamilton, calling McTige. She gave her name as Mrs. Renshaw and instructed me to meet her at the Dolphin Bar with ‘the money’ at once. I had a feeling she had recognized my voice, and was carrying on her end of the conversation under duress. I went there and found Lucy seated in a booth with a man I had never seen before, but who looked dangerous to me. I played drunk and manoeuvered him far enough away from Lucy so I could slug him, and I got slugged from behind by the bartender. That’s all I know. Lucy, you take it from the time I dashed out of the Bright Spot leaving you and Tim behind.”
Lucy Hamilton said in a small voice, “It’s all going to sound terribly confused, because it’s still all very confusing to me. All right, Michael. Tim and I went right out behind you and Tim told the doorman I wanted a cab. He said there’d probably be one any minute discharging passengers, and he got Tim’s car for him while I waited. Tim refused to go off and leave me there until a cab came. It seemed a long wait, but probably wasn’t more than ten minutes. The minute a cab pulled in, Tim jumped in his car and took off. I got into the cab, and just as we were pulling away I saw a woman hurrying, almost running, around the side of the club from the rear. I recognized her under the floodlight as Mrs. Renshaw… the woman who came to our office today and begged Michael to find her husband in Miami before the Syndicate found him and killed him.”
She hesitated a moment, and turned her head to explain to Shayne: “I knew you’d gone off looking for her husband… the man Sloe Burn called Fred Tucker… and I jumped out of the cab and went over and intercepted Mrs. Renshaw just as she was starting in the front door. She recognized me from this afternoon at the office, and she was terribly distraught. She said she’d had a phone call from the Chicago detective, Baron McTige, saying that her husband was at the Bright Spot hiding in Sloe Burn’s dressing room.
“She had been back to the dressing room where Sloe Burn angrily denied the accusation and went into a rage and chased her out the back way. She wanted to know what I was doing there, and I didn’t know what to tell her. I knew that Sloe Burn had just sent you off to a motel looking for Mr. Renshaw, and I wondered if maybe that was a ruse to get you away, and that he was hiding in Sloe Burn’s dressing room.
“Anyhow, I told Mrs. Renshaw that we were checking out the same rumor that he was at the Bright Spot, and I suggested that she wait there in front while I went back to see if I could find him.
“She seemed awfully thankful, and worried about her husband, and I left her there and went back around the side of the building to the stage-door. There was an old man there and he asked me what I wanted and I just started to say that Mrs. Renshaw said… and suddenly there was this hulking brute of a crazy man that came from somewhere and grabbed me and pulled me away. He was babbling all kinds of things and I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said Essie had told him I was hanging around, and he knew my name wasn’t Renshaw anyhow, but Mrs. Shephard, and why was I pretending I thought my husband was there, and why did I care.
“He was all excited and I thought he was drunk, but later I decided he wasn’t. But he had this conch shell with a long sharp point that he kept brandishing in my face and threatening me with, and I kept trying to tell him that I wasn’t Mrs. Renshaw or Shephard either one, and to prove it I told him to come around in front with me and I’d show him Mrs. Renshaw waiting for me.
“So he finally did, holding onto me tight and keeping that sharp shell in his hand pressed up against my side and threatening to cut me with it if I tried to get away.
“And when we got around in front, she wasn’t there. Mrs. Renshaw just wasn’t there. And Ralph asked the doorman… because that was his name, I found out… Ralph Billiter… he’s Sloe Burn’s dancing partner, Michael… from the Keys… where they grow up from babies learning to use those sharpened conch shells instead of knives to fight with… and kill each other, too, the way he talked about it… well, he asked the doorman if there was any woman waiting and where she had gone, and he denied it… the doorman, I mean… and so then Ralph was convinced I’d lied to him and I was Mrs. Shephard… and he wouldn’t have it any different.
“And I’d never even heard of any Mrs. Shephard, and I told him so, and he kept calling me a liar with a lot of four-letter words mixed in, and asking where was the money and where was Baron McTige. I didn’t understand anything about it, or what to do. He just seemed frothing at the mouth crazy, and he waved that conch shell around and kept saying how he’d purely love to cut my throat with it and would except he knew I could get the money from McTige and that’s what he wanted me to do.
“I thought it would settle things if I could get hold of Mr. McTige and have him tell that crazy boy that I wasn’t Mrs. Renshaw or Mrs. Shephard, or whatever, and I offered to call him at his hotel and ask him to come out, but he got suspicious and said, ‘Oh, no you don’t. Not out here, you don’t. We’ll go some place I pick out and you can call him from there.’
“So he dragged me around back to where he had his car parked, still holding that shell up against me all the time, and he made me get in and he drove off, and I kept asking him what he meant by calling me Mrs. Shephard, and what money was he talking about, and then it came out in little bits and pieces which I didn’t understand and still don’t, but maybe it’ll make sense to you.”
Lucy Hamilton paused in her long recital to look anxiously at Shayne. “Does any of this make any sense at all to you, Michael?”
He nodded grimly. “Some of it. Go on and tell us what Ralph told you.”
“You know Sloe Burn told us Fred Tucker had been there and the two men came looking for him… Baron McTige was one of them, I think, Michael… and how she’d slipped him out the back and had Ralph take him away to the Pink Flamingo?”
Shayne nodded when she paused, and she took a deep breath and went on: “Well, Ralph did, I guess. Drive to the motel with him. And when they got there, he claims Fred Tucker offered him a whole fortune in money to take back to Sloe Burn, and there was something about it being hidden in a loaf of bread and Tucker gave it to him, and then those two men came in… the ones Sloe Burn described to us, Michael… and they saw the money and there was a big fight over it, I guess, during which Tucker… or Renshaw… or Shephard, as Ralph insisted was his real name… ducked out of the motel and got away.
“And McTige had a gun and the preacher-looking one got knocked down and hit his head on the leg of the refrigerator and got knocked unconscious, and then McTige told Ralph he was a detective from Chicago and that Tucker’s name was really Shephard, who had stolen the money from his wife and McTige was going to keep it and give it back to her. And he chased Ralph off with his gun, and Ralph had to walk back through the palmettos to the Bright Spot, and with him getting it thoroughly set in his mind that I was Mrs. Shephard, he said I had to call Baron McTige and make him bring the money to me… and then he was going to take it for himself. Except that he did have some other lovely ideas about how we might go off together and share the money… a whole hundred thousand dollars, he kept repeating, and so he drove to the Dolphin Bar and I tried to call Baron McTige from there.
“I tried his number three times without any answer… and the fourth time I called, you answered the phone, Michael. Ralph was standing right over me with that pointed shell in my side, listening to every word I said, and I had to go on and pretend I was talking to Mr. McTige even when I knew it was you after the first word you spoke.”
Lucy Hamilton stopped speaking suddenly, and the stenographer’s pencil ceased racing over his notebook.
Will Gentry was leaning back in his chair studying the tips of his blunt fingers which he had arched together in front of him, and when Lucy was finished, he sighed deeply and asked Shayne, “Any of this mean anything to you, Mike?”
“Some of it. If Ralph Billiter was telling Lucy the truth, it’s the first indication we’ve had of what happened at the Pink Flamingo before I got there. The money in the loaf of bread seems to tie in all right.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Gentry agreed mildly. “And it might, just possibly, tie in with the identity of the dead man, too.”
“Have you identified him, Will?” Shayne asked eagerly.
“Oh, sure. We stodgy police do have our own methods of turning up certain odd bits of information now and then.” He paused and got a cigar out of his pocket and sniffed it happily before biting off the end.
Shayne said resignedly. “All right. Who is he?”
“Name of Brannigan. We’ve got his fingerprints on file. Investigator for the Nationwide Bonding Company. Does that mean anything to you, Mike?”
Michael Shayne hesitated before answering the chief’s question. Then he replied carefully, “Not really. But if we put our heads together and add things up, we might make it mean something. Know what Brannigan was working on?”
“We have no idea. He’s the Miami representative for his company, but he hasn’t asked us for any help or information recently.”
Shayne said, “It could be the Steven Shephard case from Illinois.”
“Shephard?” Gentry’s voice was grim. “What might the Steven Shephard case from Illinois be, Mike?”
Shayne reached in his hip pocket and took out the photograph of Mrs. Shephard and her two children which he had removed from the frame so it would be easier to carry. With it, he had the folded newspaper clipping he had preempted from Rourke.
He held the picture out to Gentry and said, “This was on the bureau in the Pink Flamingo. Remember it?”
“What are you doing with it?”
Shayne was unfolding the clipping, and he spread it out in front of him, running his finger swiftly down the lines of newsprint.
“Tim Rourke thought it had a familiar look,” he mumbled. “So he took it back to his office to check it out. And sure enough it did check. And here’s our tie-up with Brannigan, Will.” He read aloud from the clipping: “It is stated that the loss is completely covered by a bond on Shephard issued by the Nationwide Bonding Company, and that depositors need have no fear…”
“Tim Rourke thought it looked familiar,” snarled Gentry. “Why didn’t he tell us? What in hell has been going on… give me that clipping, Mike!”
Shayne passed it over to him. “Tim and I did try to tell you as soon as he discovered he was right. I came straight to headquarters looking for you, Will, but you hadn’t got back yet. Then I went to my office for Mrs. Renshaw’s address, and have been on the go ever since.”
Will Gentry wasn’t listening to him. He was reading the story of Shephard’s embezzlement with a darkening scowl on his ruddy face.
“What is it about somebody named Shephard, Michael?” asked Lucy. “Why did Ralph insist that was my real name?”
“Because he thought you were the woman who told us she was Mrs. Renshaw. Her name is really Shephard, and her husband isn’t running away from Syndicate killers. He’s on the lam with two hundred thousand dollars of stolen money.”
“All right, Mike.” Gentry refolded the clipping carefully. “Where is the money?”
“According to the story Ralph Billiter told Lucy, McTige has it. Or had it,” he amended hastily. “All I’ve seen is one thousand-dollar bill clutched tightly in his dead hand.”
“Ralph said one hundred thousand, Michael,” Lucy reminded him hastily. “He seemed very positive about the amount. Kept repeating it. Said it was more money that he’d ever ‘knowed’ there was in the whole world.”
“Maybe Shephard had split it in half,” Shayne suggested to Gentry. “Hid one half in the hollowed out loaf of bread, and the other somewhere else.”
There was a knock on the door, and the patrolman they had left at the bar with Ralph stuck his head inside. “We got that conch happy guy out here, Chief. Want us to book him or what?”
“Take him next door, Baxter. He’s got a lot of talking to do.” Chief Gentry stood up slowly. “And you get out, Mike. From now on, I’ll do the talking. And if I find out, by God, that you’ve held out on me in any particular because you knew there was a couple hundred grand floating around that you wanted to get your hands on… you’ll be through in Miami, Mike. And you’ll never get another license anywhere in the United States.”
Shayne said coldly, “Fair enough, Will.” He got to his feet and pulled Lucy up with him. “Want Lucy and me to wait until our statements are typed so we can sign them?”
“No, get out. Take Lucy home and lock her up. And you stay put, young lady. Don’t move a foot out of your apartment until you hear from me. If Billiter doesn’t confirm every word of your story…”
“Come on, angel,” Shayne interrupted, drawing her toward the door. “Now that we’ve practically solved the case and tossed it in his lap, let’s see if Will can finish it up without any more help from us.”
“Shouldn’t we stay to hear what Ralph says? Did he kill the man in the motel?”
“If he did, Will can get it out of him without any help from me. If you told the truth, it’s a cinch he didn’t kill Baron McTige.” He was hurrying her down the corridor.
“I did tell the truth, Michael.” Lucy tried to pull her arm away. “If you and Chief Gentry are going to doubt my word, I think I have a right to stay here…”
“You heard what Will said. That was a direct order. I’m taking you home, angel, and you’re going to stay home until we get a couple of messy murders cleared up.”
“All right,” Lucy Hamilton said meekly. “Heaven knows, I was just trying to help you do your job out at the Bright Spot. And heaven knows,” she added more forcibly, “I’ll be glad to get home and lock the door behind me.”
“That’s just where we’re going,” Shayne assured her, leading her out a side door to his car. “After we make one stop to check up on one little thing.”
“What’s that, Michael?” Lucy moved over to press against him as he got under the wheel.
“The doorman at the Bright Spot.” Shayne put the heavy sedan in gear and pulled away from police headquarters into a street almost empty of traffic at this hour. “The way you told it to Will, you left Mrs. Shephard… let’s call her by her real name… in front of the club waiting for you while you went back to try and see Sloe Burn yourself. And when you came back with Ralph to prove you weren’t Mrs. Shephard, she had disappeared. And the doorman denied there had ever been a woman waiting there for you to come back. Is that right?”
“That’s just the way it happened, Michael. That’s why Ralph was sure I was lying and that I was Mrs. Shephard.”
“None of the rest of it would have happened if the doorman had told the truth.”
“Of course not. That’s what really convinced Ralph. I still don’t know why the doorman lied. He saw us there together.”
Shayne said, “That’s what we’re going to find out.” He turned south into Miami Avenue, headed toward the Tamiami Trail.
It was just a little before midnight when they reached the Bright Spot again. The same parking attendant came up shaking his head when they stopped in front of the canopied entrance, and the same doorman stood back under the canopy and watched with supreme disinterest as they were told, “We’re full up, Mister. If you wanta come back in abouta hour…”
Shayne turned off the ignition and shook his red head. He unlatched the door and pushed it against the attendant, and reminded him, “You tried to pull that on me once before tonight.”
The man recognized him, then, and stepped out of the way hastily without protesting further. Shayne went around to Lucy’s side and opened the door. He helped her out with his hand on her elbow, led her up to the doorman and asked her, “Is this the fellow?”
“Yes,” she declared positively. “He’s the one who lied when Ralph asked him about Mrs. Shephard whom I left standing here waiting for me.”
“How about it, bud?” Shayne’s voice was harsh. “You heard the lady. Ever see her before?”
The doorman had a sallow face and pinched eyes. He blinked and looked nervously away from Shayne over his shoulder at the entrance, but this time no tuxedoed bouncer showed up to help him. “I dunno,” he muttered. “People coming and going all night. How’m I expected to remember…”
“You remember all right.” Shayne slammed his left hand onto the man’s shoulder and slapped him hard with his other hand. “Out of all the people that were here tonight, there weren’t very many ladies. When Miss Hamilton came back from the stage-door with Ralph Billiter, why did you tell him she hadn’t left another lady waiting in front when she went back?”
“Because I got paid to, that’s why,” the doorman whined. “Twenny bucks, she gave me, to say I hadn’t never seen her.”
Shayne’s heavy fingers tightened crushingly on the frightened man’s shoulder. “Tell us all of it.”
“That’s all. She stood here while this lady went back. And she said would I get her car for her while she waited. She give me her ticket and I had her car brought around. Just when it got here she saw Sloe Burn go streaking by in her car from where it was parked in the back where all the performers park. She jumped like she was shot and shoved a twenny-dollar bill in my hand, and says, ‘I ain’t been here at all tonight. Don’t tell nobody you saw me.’
“Then she takes off like a bat out of hell right behind Sloe Burn. And I swear honest to God, Mister, I ain’t seen neither of ’em since. Another thing, Mister, I’m telling you I don’t want no messing around with Ralph Billiter nor that Sloe Burn. Them conch shells they carry all the time! I’d rather face up to a razor. So when he come and asked me, I just didn’t want no part of it.”
Shayne released him with a shove that sent him sprawling back through the open door. He led Lucy back to the car and slammed the door when she was inside, stalked around to the other side where the attendant was discreetly keeping out of sight.
Lucy sighed as he drove away, and said in a small voice, “So you found out I was telling the truth, Michael. What else did you accomplish?”
“Not much,” he admitted. “Except the small pleasure of slapping the truth out of that punk. So now you are going home, and let’s hope Will Gentry hasn’t sent around for you yet.”
At her apartment building, Shayne got out and went in with her, explaining, “I need a drink and I want to call Tim. Then I’ll get out of your way.”
“You needn’t sound so defensive about it,” she told him merrily as she unlocked the outer door and preceded him inside. “You can have two drinks if you want… and make two telephone calls.”
When she opened her own door and turned on the light, the first thing she saw was the telephone pad with his message where he had left it lying on the floor. She picked it up and read it, then suddenly turned and crumpled against him. “Oh, Michael. I was so damned scared.”
“So was I.” He held her tightly, looking down at the top of her smooth brown head just beneath his lips, and thinking how very dear Lucy Hamilton was to him.
Her telephone started ringing as his arms slowly tightened around her taut body. She said, “Oh, damn!” and moved out of his arms to answer it.
He chuckled and went to the coffee table to pour himself a drink, listening unashamedly to her end of the telephone conversation.
“Oh, Tim. I just this moment got in. I know Michael was worried, but I doubt that you were. Yes, he’s right here. He was just going to call you, believe it or not.” She turned and extended the telephone toward him, saying unnecessarily, “It’s Tim.”
Shayne took a sip of cognac and put the instrument to his ear and said, “Yeh?”
“Mike. Have you got the word on McTige? Your fellow Eye from Chicago?”
Shayne said placidly, “I’m ’way ahead of you on him. I found the guy.”
“You what? Oh, hell, I might’ve known. An anonymous telephone call they said. All right. Trump this one too. Go on and tell me you found Shephard also.”
“Shephard?” Shayne didn’t try to keep the astonishment out of his voice.
“I just got the flash from headquarters and I’m on my way out.”
“About two miles west of the Bright Spot on the Trail. He got it just like McTige, Mike. A conch shell into his temple.”
Shayne said, “I’ll see you,” and pronged the instrument. He turned, tossing off the rest of the cognac, and met Lucy’s anxious eyes.
“Shephard is dead, too. That makes three in one evening, angel. Two of them with a conch shell, according to Tim. Put the chain on your door.” He was on his way out as he finished.
Shayne had no trouble locating the murder scene. Driving west on Tamiami Trail, he saw a collection of headlights and several flashing red lights of police cars in a cluster on the right side of the highway leading through the Everglades to Florida’s west coast, and he slowed down to pull off the pavement behind the other parked cars.
Walking forward, he passed Timothy Rourke’s shabby old sedan and Will Gentry’s official car, and beyond there was a culvert with a tall, lone pine standing as a sentinel just beyond it. The Trail was built on about four feet of fill at this point. Beyond the culvert there was a group of men standing around in a circle about the corpse of Steven Shephard brilliantly lighted by spotlights focussed on it from two police cars parked on the edge of the pavement above.
Shayne stopped and looked down at the macabre, floodlighted, midnight scene. The dead man lay on his back. He wore a conservative sport jacket and white shirt with a neat bow tie beneath his chin. His brown hair was thinning in front, and his upper lip wore the mustache Sloe Burn had described to Shayne that afternoon. From this distance and this angle, Shayne could see no wound that had caused Shephard’s death. Beyond the body near the base of the lone pine, Timothy Rourke and a detective sergeant were kneeling beside a hole in the soft loam, about a foot deep and a couple of feet square.
Will Gentry was one of half a dozen men standing about the body and looking down at it. While Shayne hesitated above them on the edge of the pavement, Gentry waved a beefy hand at the body and said something, and turned to plod up the slope. He saw the redhead standing above him, waiting, and his square face tightened impassively as he came level with Shayne. He said, “You got anything to add to what you’ve already told me, Mike?”
Shayne shook his head. “Is that Shephard?”
“I guess. Have to check his fingerprints to be positive, but Rourke says he fits a newspaper picture. He’s got a motel and a rental car receipt in his pocket in the name of Fred Tucker.”
“How long ago, Will?” Shayne pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit one.
“Couple of hours, maybe. There’s a stab wound in his temple that looks like it would fit the conch shell sticking in McTige’s head… a twin to the one Ralph Billiter had in his coat pocket and threatened Lucy with.”
“What did you get out of Billiter, Will? Did he confirm Lucy’s story?”
“Mostly. He’s a nasty piece of business, and his biggest gripe is that he feels he’s been done out of a big piece of money that he somehow thinks he should have.”
Will Gentry paused, studying Shayne with shrewd, tired eyes. “Are you holding out on me, Mike? Remember, we’ve got three dead ones already tonight.”
Shayne said earnestly: “Will, I didn’t even hold out on you this afternoon. I swallowed Mrs. Renshaw’s story about the Syndicate, hook-line-and-sinker.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Hell, you probably already know how I threw my weight around on the Beach looking for Little Joe Hoffman in order to get a line on a Syndicate killer who’s already been dead for months.”
“I heard about that. And you know what I figure, Mike?”
“No. What do you figure?”
“That it’s just the kind of stunt you might have pulled if you knew who Shephard was all the time and how much money he was worth. Just to throw me off the track,” Gentry spelled it out bitterly, “so I’d do your work for you and give you a chance to either get your hands on the money… or at least collect the reward.”
Shayne said evenly, “You’re going to regret that after you think it over. Tell me one thing, Will.” He gripped the chief’s arm urgently as Gentry started to turn away.
“When you questioned Ralph Billiter about the Pink Flamingo. What actually happened in that motel room?”
“He still claims it was about the same as Lucy got it from him… without a shred of proof, of course. There was a hundred grand in that loaf of bread and he was gathering it up in handfuls off the floor when the two men walked in… McTige and Brannigan, it looks like. In the excitement, Shephard ran out, and McTige took possession of the money at gunpoint after slugging Brannigan who fell and got knocked unconscious by hitting his head. He swears the guy was alive on the floor, but passed out, when he and McTige left. And the whiskey bottle was still standing on the bureau. McTige wasn’t wearing any jacket, and he stripped the black coat off Brannigan to fill the big side pockets with bills. That’s Ralph’s story. Believe as much of it as you like.”
“Yeh,” Shayne said slowly, “so that accounts for one hundred grand. How about the other half of Shephard’s loot?”
“Hasn’t Will told you?” Tim Rourke came panting up the slope in time to hear the question. “From down there it looks like he had the rest of it buried under that tree, and stopped by to dig it up. There was somebody with him or somebody saw him, and that’s when he got the conch shell treatment.”
“Is that right, Will?”
Gentry said gruffly, “It looks like he dug something up with his hands just before he was killed. Who knows whether it was money or not?”
“There’s the clear imprint of a briefcase in the bottom of the hole,” said Rourke defensively. “It looks plain enough to me.”
“All right,” said Gentry bitterly, “what else about the case looks plain enough to you. Where’s that dancer?” he roared suddenly. “Sloe Burn? They tell me she handles one of those sharp conch shells in her dance like she was born with it. She’s the one I want.”
“Is that right, Tim? Do they use conch shells in their dance?”
“Sure. That’s part of the act. One of the things that gets the audience. You think, by God, they’ll surely rip each other to pieces on the stage before sex saves the day.”
“You interviewed them, Tim,” Shayne put in quickly, before Gentry could stalk away. “You know exactly where they come from?”
“Little town of Manachee. Somewhere down on the Keys.”
“Hear that, Will? She’s just a dumb child for all her sophisticated front. Where else would she know to run if she wants to dodge the law? She’s like an animal… and she thinks like an animal. Whether she did any of these killings or not, she knows damned well she’s in bad trouble… and down on the Keys a few killings aren’t regarded too seriously.”
“Manachee?” Gentry rubbed his blunt jaw thoughtfully, then nodded and strode back fast to his car.
“Now then!” Shayne grabbed Rourke’s arm as soon as Gentry was out of hearing. “Fill me in on the rest of things fast. Were you with the cops in McTige’s room?”
“Sure. I got there with Yager.”
“What did they make out of it?”
Rourke shrugged elaborately. “There wasn’t much for them. Brannigan’s fingerprints were on one highball glass and a few other places that indicated he’d been a guest, drinking with McTige. The inference being that McTige contacted Brannigan here in Miami to help him locate Shephard… same as he contacted you later on, after Brannigan had failed.
“There was that conch shell driven in through the poor bastard’s temple. I guess you saw that yourself, if you found him dead. The switchboard reported several incoming calls for McTige by a woman prior to the discovery of his body,” Rourke went on reflectively. “The way I got it, a couple of those calls were taken in McTige’s room not very long before the cops were tipped off he was dead.”
Shayne said, “That was me, Tim. One of them was from Mrs. Shephard… the other from Lucy. What about Mrs. Shephard? Have they located her?”
“I don’t think so. Hell, Mike, you know how it is with a reporter,” Rourke ended disconsolately. “I sniff around at the edges and pick up a bit here and there. You think Sloe Burn knocked both of them off with her little conch shell?” he added eagerly.
Shayne said, “I don’t know. I do have a strong hunch Will Gentry will pick her up in Manachee, because I’d bet a fair amount of money that’s where she’s hightailed it back to.”
“With two hundred thousand bucks in nice green bills? The way I get it around the edges, McTige had half of it that he’d grabbed from Shephard in the motel room. Then, if Shephard dug the rest of it up from under the tree here in a briefcase… but how’d she know to meet him here?”
“I think he asked for it,” Shayne told him. “I think the poor frightened damned fool phoned her at the Bright Spot after giving up half his money at the Pink Flamingo, and invited her to go off and share a desert island with him on the other half. That’s what I think happened, Tim. Come on. Let’s get going.” He grabbed his friend’s arm and led him at a trot past the line of official cars toward his own sedan parked at the end.
“What’s the rush?” protested Rourke. “You gave Gentry the dope on Manachee. He’ll already have that covered by the law down there. It’s a long drive, and by the time we get there…”
“We’re not going to Manachee.” Shayne released his arm at the front of his car, shoving him toward the left and striding around the other side to jerk the door open at the driver’s seat.
Rourke got in quickly without any more questions. He had seen Shayne in moods like this before, and had profited by going along and seeing what happened.
He leaned back against the cushion and got a cigarette going while Shayne made a fast U-Turn and headed back toward Miami twenty miles above the speed limit.
“All right,” said the reporter quietly. “So, we’re not going to Manachee. Then where in hell are we going?”
“To the airport. Before Will gets the same idea.”
Rourke said, “Fine. You know some plane that’s taking off for a desert island about this time?”
Shayne was leaning over the steering wheel, concentrating on his driving. “I don’t know their schedule of departures for desert islands,” he admitted. “Wish I did. But there must be something taking off at this time of night for somewhere.”
“There usually is,” Rourke grunted sourly. “From Miami International.”
Shayne said vaguely, “I don’t think it much matters where.” They were back across the river now, and in Miami’s northeast section. The bright lights of one of the world’s busiest airports were directly ahead of them, and Shayne braked hard to make the turn-off and swing around in front of the administration building.
He left it parked at the curb where it said NO PARKING, and leaped out and hurried inside the vast waiting room with Rourke at his heels.
They found her sitting demurely alone on one of the benches in the Trans-World section. She had her nice white gloves on her hands that were folded quietly in her lap, and there were two neat travelling cases on the floor on each side of her. She looked up at Michael Shayne with a pathetically weary smile as he planted himself solidly in front of her, and her gaze strayed past him to a large electric clock behind the Trans-World counter.
She said in her precise, Mid-western voice, “I suppose you’ve come to say you’ve found my husband, Mr. Shayne. It really doesn’t matter now. My plane is leaving in ten minutes.”
Shayne said gently, “You’re not going anywhere, Mrs. Shephard.” He looked down at the two travelling bags on either side of her, and asked, “Which one has the two hundred thousand dollars? Or, have you divided it up the way your husband did?”
She stood up and said quietly, “Does it matter, Mr. Shayne? Poor Steven didn’t get much more enjoyment out of it than I am going to.”
Lucy Hamilton asked practically, “But why did Sloe Burn hit that poor man with a whiskey bottle in the Pink Flamingo? That’s what I don’t understand. What did she gain by it?”
Shayne grinned at her from his end of the sofa in her apartment where he was enjoying a final cognac before going home for a well-earned rest after a pretty hectic evening.
“Sloe Burn isn’t exactly the type to stop and calculate whether she’s going to gain something or not by busting a guy with a whiskey bottle. She was just disappointed and upset and angry, that’s all. After McTige and Brannigan didn’t show up at her table in the Bright Spot when she came back after hurrying Shephard out the back, she realized he might be in danger… and his money, too, which was much more important to Sloe Burn… she went to the Pink Flamingo to see what was going on.
“And there was Brannigan alone in the room and just coming to his senses, and Shephard had vanished and Brannigan told her about the money she had just missed out on. Her reaction was perfectly in character. She didn’t have a conch shell handy, so she sloughed him with the first thing she could get her hands on.”
“Do you think she meant to hurt Shephard when she drove out to meet him on the trail and help him dig up the rest of the money?”
“I’m inclined to think not, and from the report Gentry got from the sheriff in Manachee, she swears she planned to help him dig up the money and go off with him. To a desert island, or what-have-you?” Shayne grinned over the rim of his glass at his secretary on the other end of the sofa. “Would you go off to a desert island with me, angel, if I had a hundred grand?”
She said truthfully, “I’d go off to any kind of an island with you any time, Michael, if I had to buy the tickets myself. And you know that without asking.” Her eyes twinkled at him to contradict the seriousness of her voice, and she offered an objection to his first answer:
“She did take her horrible sharpened conch shell along with her when she went to meet Shephard after he telephoned.”
“Just like you’d take your lipstick along to an assignation,” Shayne said easily.
“I don’t go to assignations, Michael.”
“Well, if you did go to an assignation. What I mean is…”
“I know what you mean,” Lucy said indignantly. “I just don’t like the way you phrase it. And that’s when Mrs. Shephard followed her from the Bright Spot and left me on the spot with Ralph… and she found them digging up the money together, and fought Sloe Burn over the conch shell and killed her husband with it.”
“Right. But she only got half the money, and she felt she deserved it all. She figured the conch shell might work as well a second time… and so she went after McTige.”
“Michael!” said Lucy suddenly. “There’s a bad discrepancy in your recapitulation of all this. Don’t you remember saying that Mrs. Shephard telephoned McTige’s room just before I reached you there. Why would she telephone him if she had already killed him?”
Shayne said, “Like almost every murderer, that’s where she made her one fatal mistake. It made me suspicious when she immediately knew it wasn’t McTige speaking over the telephone. I disguised my voice, as you know, and his voice couldn’t be very familiar to her. Yet, she knew at once it wasn’t he, and hung up. The reason she knew, of course, was because she had already killed him… and she was phoning his hotel room to establish an alibi for herself. She didn’t expect his room to answer, and wanted to leave a message to prove she had been trying to return his call. When I answered, she was flustered and hung up at once.” He finished his cognac and set the glass down on the low table in front of him.
There was a brief silence and then Lucy said in a small voice, “You’re not really a very good detective, Michael.”
“Admitted. But do we have to…?”
“Because if you were,” she interrupted determinedly, “you would have asked me how I got Baron McTige’s telephone number so I knew where to call him tonight.”
Shayne chuckled deep in his throat as he stood up. He moved over to Lucy’s end of the couch and leaned down to put both hands tightly on her shoulders. “Sometimes it’s best not to ask too many questions, angel.”
He leaned farther down and put his mouth over hers before she could say anything else.