First Come, First Killed by D. A. Kyle
Amateur Sleuth

First Come, First Killed

by D. A. Kyle

Smashing Detective | Sept. 1951 | Vol. 1, No. 3 THE RED FILE | May 7, 2017 | Vol. 3 No. 10 Casefile No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aef01

Paul Corey, real estate agent and eager detective, is hot on the case when a skeleton in the basement of the old house attracts more corpses and seekers of the hidden bank loot.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

A Wreck with an Acre of Jungle

The ramshackle house, battered by years of inattention, was hidden in high brush and tangled young trees. The porch had sagged and the window glass had disappeared and the roof, luxuriant with moss, was rotted in spots.

“This?” Micheline Moore said incredulously, sweeping her arm in the direction of the house, “this is what you expect to sell?”

Paul Corey pinched his lower lip with thumb and forefinger and studied the building. His grey eyes held a trace of disappointment.

“It’s certainly a wreck, Mich,” he admitted; “it’s an acre of jungle with a ruin in the middle.” His fingers moved upward and pinched the bridge of his long nose. “But not hopeless; it’s a good piece of land. The house can be fixed and the lake is convenient. It’ll cost money for improvements, but that’s why the price is so cheap.”

They pushed their way through the bushes and climbed on the porch.

“The lumber’s good, Mich,” Corey said and kicked the planking heavily.

Micheline stepped through the doorway and Corey followed her, his hair, not quite six feet from the soles of his feet, brushing the top of the frame. Inside the bare rooms were scattered with refuse from past picnickers and tramps.

“It’s not too bad,” Micheline said, encouraged by their examination; “a woman’s imagination could accomplish wonders.”

Corey twisted his lean frame through a maze of broken furniture. “Let’s look at the foundation.” He tried to open the cellar door but it was wedged fast by a sprung board. He pulled and pounded and labored until he had managed to open it several inches. Using a stout piece of lumber he inserted it in the crack and pried the door free.

They went down the rickety stairs.

The cellar was completely dark; no windows nor holes let in the daylight. He turned on the flashlight he had taken from his pocket and shone it over the dusty concrete floor and walls.

Micheline said uneasily, “It’s creepy here.”

The remnants of a packing case leaned against the corner of the cellar. Corey pulled the warped wood away from the wall. The sides, cracked and curling into thin strips, collapsed at his feet. A cloud of dust billowed around them, then slowly cleared.

Micheline screamed, weakly but earnestly.

The dust-dimmed rays of the flashlight were reflected by a white skull.

The unexpected discovery combined with Micheline’s cry made Corey juggle the light nervously in his hand. It took him several minutes of shaky conversation with her before he recovered his poise enough to step closer, spraying the beam around the floor. Micheline glued herself up against him, twining her fingers in his suit.

“Don’t be frightened, Mich,” Corey said dully, preoccupied with his examination. The skull had its customary grin weirdly altered by the lack of its two front teeth. Ribs of the skeleton stuck up sharply in the air, but the rest of the bones were hidden by the dirt and debris.

“I—I’m—n—not,” Micheline stammered. “Paul! Let’s—get out of here!”

“Hmm,” he replied, paying no attention to her. A glint of metal appeared under his delicate probing and he extracted a tarnished cigarette case. Just underneath an elaborate “Kid” engraved on the lid was a hole, the thickness of a finger, punched through the metal. He shifted the flashlight from the case back to the skeleton. One of the lower ribs had been splintered halfway down its curved length.

Micheline had silently watched his flashlight focus on the cigarette case and the bones. “Bullet hole?” she quavered.

“I think so,” Corey answered. He turned around with difficulty, hampered by her tight embrace. “We’ll go back to town now. The police have to be notified; we can come back with them again after we have lunch.”

“Lunch, ugh!” Micheline said and shivered.

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Chapter 2

Ah, fame!

Paul Corey had the evening newspaper spread out on his desk and was cutting a strip from the front page with a pair of shears when George Jackson entered the room.

“More stuff for the scrapbook, Paul?” Jackson asked cheerfully as he dropped into the leather armchair and stretched his legs. “I just tossed my paper in my office on the way by.” He was tall and thin with jet-black hair and about Corey’s age. “I see they call you ‘real estate broker and noted private detective’.”

“Ah, fame!” Corey said sarcastically.

“You gave the newspapers something to smack their lips over. Did you mean it? Do you really think it was a murder?”

“Well, George,” Corey said in an ominous whisper, “you’re my closest friend. I’ll tell you the truth. That newspaper story quoted me—one hundred percent accurately.”

“You think the hole in the cigarette case was a bullet hole? You think the rib was smashed by a bullet? Why?”

“Because that’s what it looked like.” Corey laid the story he had clipped on a dictionary and pushed the rest of the paper into the basket.

“With women it’s intuition,” Jackson snorted, “but with detectives it’s deduction.”

“Not only do I believe what I said,” Corey added, filling a pipe from a humidor on his desk, “but I’m going to try to solve it.”

“What!”

“You heard me … Where’s that pretty little joint receptionist of ours?”

“Mich,” Jackson replied with a boyish grin, “is spending the rest of the afternoon in a beauty parlor. She says she’s getting rid of the smell of death … Now what’s this about solving your so-called murder?”

“That corpse has been there for about four or five years. The police are going to check all missing persons in the area along about that time. While they’re doing the obvious thing, I’m going to be reading.”

“Reading?”

“All the old newspapers of that period; if there’s anything which I might consider a lead, I’ll follow it up.”

Jackson leaned forward, spread his arms on the edge of the desk with fingers interlocked and put his chin on his hands.

“May I point out,” he said patiently, “your financial status? A mild word for it would be: critical money, of which you haven’t, goes out for business and personal expenses, which you have. Real estate and insurance puts food in your mouth, not the detecting profession. This property—this property with the corpse—it was supposed to be a quick deal with fifty percent commission. It was supposed to be the windfall which would keep the wolf away for a couple of weeks.”

“I know, I know. I’ll sell it. I’m not worried.”

“That’s right,” Jackson agreed ironically, “you let me do all the worrying for you. Now if I were a great big successful lawyer, like I hope to be, I’d give you twenty cents a day so you wouldn’t starve and let you detect all you wanted.”

“Now, George,” Corey laughed. “When that bungalow development starts clicking—”

“Sure, Paul, sure,” Jackson interrupted mockingly.

The telephone rang. Corey picked it up and spoke into the mouthpiece: “Paul Corey speaking… Yes, Mr. Thompson… It’s for sale, of course, but the police are conducting an investigation at the moment and it may not be available for several days… No, I’m afraid I’m going out to supper now… Suppose I call you in a day or so? … Fine… Goodbye.” Corey wrote the man’s name and address on his memorandum pad.

“Am I developing moronic qualities,” Jackson asked caustically, “or did you really give a prospective buyer for the cemetery in the wilderness the brusheroo?”

“I did,” Corey replied, coldly serious. “I’m going to poke around that spot tomorrow and the customer can cool his heels until I’m good and ready.”

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Chapter 3

Another Murder

Automobiles of various sizes and shapes, including state and city police cars, were scattered around the entrance to the property late the following morning when Corey arrived. He left his own car parked on the shoulder of the macadam road and started up the path, which was becoming well trampled.

Close to the house he was stopped by a state trooper who demanded, “What d’ya want?”

He told the trooper who he was and was waved on.

In front of the house, milling around in the bushes, was a small mob of people. Blue-uniformed policemen were mingled with gray-uniformed troopers.

Two men in white came up the path behind Corey and entered the house. Corey followed them.

Inside were more people. A loudmouthed newspaper reporter was discussing the murder with his photographer. Corey squeezed behind them and reached Police Detective Fleer.

Corey tapped Fleer on the shoulder and started to say, “What’s—?” when he saw the body lying on the floor. There was blood all over the man’s shirtfront. The two men in white, who had placed a stretcher on the floor, rolled the body on the canvas and threw a blanket over it.

“Well?” Fleer said, staring at Corey.

Corey said, “Another murder?”

“Looks that way, don’t it?” he answered impatiently.

“What’s it all about?”

Fleer pointed a warped finger at Police Chief Wittenberg. “Go ask him; I’m busy.”

Wittenberg was wiping his forehead with a damp handkerchief when he noticed Corey and nodded a greeting.

His reply to the question was polite but bored: “A detail working on yesterday’s discovery came out here this morning to search the grounds and discovered this second body. The corpse was fresh; the killing must have taken place about four o’clock this morning. Three slugs from a small caliber pistol hit him in the chest and two more have been found in the walls. The weapon is missing.”

He put the limp handkerchief back in his hip pocket. “According to the identification, the man was Elio Smith, 41, and lived at Maple Corners, about eight miles out on the Blakeston City road.”

Corey was jotting down words in a leather notebook.

Wittenberg frowned. “Keep your nose out of this, Paul,” he warned. “Your license doesn’t entitle you to mix yourself into strictly police work. These murders are no business of yours.”

“I know, Chief,” Corey agreed soothingly. He kept his pencil poised above the pad. “I’m not planning to interfere. My files might produce something of help to you. What about these murders?—Do you have any leads?”

“No,” Wittenberg replied and added, as Corey thanked him and moved away, “Remember, don’t louse up our investigations!”

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Chapter 4

A Bank Robbery and a Gun Battle

Micheline Moore came into the office and said, “Give me a cigarette, please, Paul.” He looked up from the desk piled high with manila folders, handed her a cigarette, and studied her as he held the flickering lighter. Her reddish hair was immaculately arranged and her dress was gayer than usual.

“My first cigarette since lunch,” she said and blew out a thin stream of smoke. “Find anything yet in those newspaper clippings?”

“Nothing definite … My, you look attractive today.”

“Thank you, sir … What do you hope to find?”

“I’m picking out anything unusual which happened within the year of that first death. For a city of our size that’s not difficult. There may be a clue to the unraveling of that crime.”

“What about the second murder? Are they connected?”

“They must be.”

“So if you solve one — you solve the other?”

“Something like that.”

“Find any possibilities?” Micheline leaned over the desk and read the headlines of five clippings laid side by side on the desk blotter. She listed them aloud: “Unsolved slaying, dragnet for bank robbers, another unsolved slaying, a mysterious suicide, and a missing man believed kidnapped. Which one do you like the best?”

“The dragnet and the missing man. The missing man can be easily checked but the dragnet for the bank robbers is almost too difficult to follow up.”

He picked up the story he had rested his forefinger on and alternating his glance from it to her face recited: “Five and a half years ago a bank across the state line was robbed by three masked men. They engaged in a gun battle with the guard, but they jumped into a car, which was driven by a fourth bandit and escaped with $19,000. One of the bandits was reported wounded and the guard was killed. Their car was found deserted a mile from the bank, indicating they had switched to one or more other cars. The state and local police here were alerted, but no trace of them has ever been found.”

Micheline was excited. “Do you think the skeleton might belong to one of the gang?”

“It’s very possible; if the wounded bandit died, the others would have had to dump his body in an isolated place, where its discovery wouldn’t point the direction of their flight,”

“How can you identify the skeleton as one of them?” Micheline asked. Her forgotten cigarette burned her fingers and she jumped, dropping it. She picked it up and snuffed it out.

“I don’t think I can,” Corey replied and put the clipping back on the blotter. “I’ve already checked with Chief Wittenberg and he informs me that no description was ever given of the men which could be checked with the skeleton. Nor can the half dozen bullet slags and cigarette case be traced.”

“So that means you’re licked?”

“No, not at all,” Corey smiled at her. “We’ve got a good lead, Mich. Wittenberg is going to check on Elio Smith, the second victim. If he has a criminal record, be might very well be another member of that holdup gang.”

Micheline was puzzled. She bit a fingertip, noticed the lipstick she had smeared on it and rubbed it with a piece of tissue she produced from nowhere.

She said, “But why would he come back after all those years? And who shot him—and why?”

Corey stood up and yawned. “If I could answer all those questions, Mich,” he said gently, “I could solve the case.” He folded some blank paper and stuck the sheets in his pocket. “I’m going down to the public library now, Mich, and do some reading. I’ll call every half hour for any messages.”

He put on his hat. “Could be I’ll find some very interesting information,” he said mysteriously and winked at her.

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Chapter 5

The Fellow Who Was Killed Five Years Ago

George Jackson pulled a wooden chair up next to Corey and whispered, “Mich said you were here. Don’t you know what time it is? Aren’t you going to eat supper?”

Corey said, “Hello, George.” He looked at his watch and began rearranging the bound volumes of newspapers. “Let’s eat together. I’ve got a couple of theories I’d like you to hear.”

The librarian coughed and gave them a pleasantly remonstrant look. They put the huge books away and walked out in the silence of exaggerated caution.

On the street Corey said rhetorically, “You know about my bank robbers? I’ve been reading the personal news columns all afternoon and I’ve a list of hundreds of people who moved into town or the suburbs within six months after that robbery. I believe that one or more of those people might be part of that gang.”

“You do?” Jackson was incredulous.

“Yes. My reasoning is simple: The two homicides are connected; at least three people are involved. The rapidity with which today’s murder followed yesterday’s discovery indicates that the murderer and his victim live in this vicinity. The skeleton must not be a local man or he would have been identified before this time. The second corpse was that of a man who moved here from an unknown place just three months after the bank holdup. Assuming the three persons involved are related, then the murderer now at large was originally not a local resident. It’s logical to believe that he settled down sometime within six months after the robbery.”

“But why should they all pick this town to live in?”

“Because there’s something which ties them here.”

“Do you know what?”

“The bank loot. I think it’s been lost or hidden and the man with the front teeth missing — the fellow who was killed five years ago — is the key to the location of $19,000.”

“I think I see.” Jackson hesitated a moment, gathering his thoughts. “The bandits escape and on their way, in this town, one of them is killed. His death coincides with the disappearance of the money and they come back here to live, hoping that some day they may find it. Is that right?”

“More or less … A more detailed explanation, and therefore more liable to be erroneous, would picture the toothless man as the wounded bandit. The gang stops outside town and tries to patch him up. Something happens during the night by which they become separated. The wounded man hides the money and crawls off and dies alone. The rest of the gang know he couldn’t have left them, so they figure out what has happened to him and drift back later to settle down here and search for his body and the money. I find the body, which they easily recognize by the missing teeth or cigarette case, and last night they converge on the spot. An argument develops and one of them is killed. Thus—the second body.”

Jackson shook his head in admiration. “Beautiful deduction, Paul — if true. Now if you were to apply some of that brain power to my law work or your real estate business—”

Corey’s snort interrupted him. “All right, let’s not go into that.” He squeezed Jackson’s arm with firm fingers. “You know, if I could break this case there might be some reward money stuffed away in some cubbyhole.”

“A lovely thought. What do you intend to do about this theory of yours?”

“The murderer, as I said, is conceivably one of those who moved into town shortly after the robbery. My list of residents for that time is my list of suspects.”

“How accurate can it be?”

“Very accurate. The newspaper checks all real estate transactions for its personal columns. This is no shot in the dark; this is a mathematical probability.”

“So now you start investigating several hundred people?”

“No,” Corey drawled, pulling his eyebrows into a tight vee over the bridge of his nose. “I investigate only one man.”

“One man!” Jackson exploded in excitement. “Who?”

Corey curled his lips with self-satisfied humor. “You were present when I received that phone call offering to buy the property. The name of the man who called is on my list. It’s easy to see why he was anxious to get the property for himself.”

Corey became grimly serious. “Mr. Walter Thompson is going to have a visitor—tonight.”

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Chapter 6

The Prospective Buyer

Walter Thompson’s home was on a respectable residential street. Corey walked up the concrete sidewalk, which ran to the front porch between neatly trimmed grass, and punched the bell button. An exceedingly attractive woman opened the door and admitted him after he had introduced himself. She was smartly dressed in inexpensive clothes with a large spray of gold leaves with red stones fastened near one shoulder.

“Sit down, Mr. Corey,” she said, leading him into the small living room. “I’ll call my husband.” She went out and he heard her footsteps going up the stairs.

Several minutes later he heard heavier footsteps coming down. A middle-aged man with the build of a wrestler entered the room. His eyes were closely set and darkly piercing, imbedded in a fat face, and his thick hair was black.

“Yes,” he said hoarsely.

“My name is Corey; you called me concerning a piece of land which you’re interested in.”

“Yes.”

“Well … Are you interested?”

“Yes,” said the hoarse voice.

Corey pulled out his notebook and thumbed to a place.

“Would you like to see me at my office?” Corey asked. “Or shall we talk business here?” He paused and added cautiously, “I hope all this publicity about murders hasn’t bothered you?”

“No,” the man said and remained immovable in the middle of the room. “I’ll talk business with you tomorrow afternoon.”

Corey suddenly showed agitation by slamming shut his notebook.

“The police,” Corey said with careful politeness, “were interested in your phone call to me. I don’t want them to bother a client of mine; can you give me an alibi for yourself as to where you were at the time of the most recent murder—between three and five this morning?”

Thompson’s rough face was impassive. “Yes,” he answered in his rasping tone. “I was at my business as manager of the Midnight Club. Every minute can be accounted for until five in the morning.” He moved no muscles; his face remained stoic and his eyes piercing.

“Thank you, Mr. Thompson,” Corey said, squirming slightly under the cold gaze. “I expect to see you tomorrow afternoon at my office.” He rocked himself to his feet. “Well,” he said lamely, “thank you for your time. It’s a fine piece of property, you know.” Without a word Thompson the door at his back.

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Chapter 7

Expecting Another Corpse

The automobile turned off the highway and entered the side road, headlight beams slashing their way across the trunks of trees. Corey drove slower, weaving gently with the curves.

“It doesn’t seem reasonable,” Jackson repeated. His long thin body was jackknifed on the leather seat beside Corey, head tipped back on the top of the cushion. “It’s too dark. We’ll never discover anything tonight; let’s search the property tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow may be too late,” Corey said. One hand held the wheel, the other an unlit pipe.

“Expecting another corpse?” Jackson cracked.

“Don’t joke, George. It’s impossible. With $19,000 loose and two of the original bandits still at large anything is apt to happen.”

“Still believe your bank holdup theory? You haven’t produced one fact to prove it yet”

“Two murders and that Thompson character are enough for me.”

“And he’s also got a perfect alibi.”

Corey made no reply. He watched the road unfolding in front of them and changed from driving to parking lights.

“You might say,” Jackson pointed out, “that you’ve made absolutely no progress. And I don’t see how wandering around out here in the darkness is going to help any.”

The automobile swerved into a clearing and stopped. Corey turned off the parking lights. “I think someone else may be out here. Catch him and we’ve got a key to the solution.”

They climbed from the car and started cautiously up the path toward the house. Every few steps they would pause to listen and without light their advance was slow and tedious.

Nearly twenty minutes had passed before they had worked their way through the brush and around the house. Mist was damp against their cheeks.

“Listen!” Jackson warned.

After several minutes of fruitless listening, they inched ahead. They almost stumbled over another man. He jumped at them and all three fell to the ground. Before they could grasp him firmly he had dodged away and disappeared into the bushes.

They floundered after him, following the noise he was making. The noise suddenly ceased and though they waited patiently there was complete silence. They became aware of a faint whispering; the mist was turning into a light rain.

“We’ve had our one chance,” Corey said bitterly. “Let’s go back and see Micheline.” Jackson cracked his knuckles in irritation.

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Chapter 8

The Man

A small sign next to the highway said simply in green neon script: Club Midnight. Corey slammed the car into a space in the parking lot and stalked to the entrance with Jackson behind him.

Inside, there were about thirty people seated, talking and drinking while the orchestra had an intermission. They found Micheline at a small table in the corner. Jackson pulled up a third chair and they both sat down.

She looked at their glum faces and asked, “You found nothing?”

“Worse than that,” Jackson replied. “We stumbled over another man and then let him get away.” He examined his hands. “Paul and I are dirty. Will you order something for us, Mich? We’ll be right back.”

Two scotch and sodas were awaiting them when they returned. They sipped in silence while Micheline reported the results of her assignment:

Thompson had been visiting with the customers, moving his big body from table to table, for the past hour. He hadn’t been out of her sight more than ten minutes at a time. Ten minutes before they had arrived he had disappeared into his office with a mustached man. No suspicious characters had been observed; nothing had happened.

“Well,” said Jackson, “this has been a singularly profitless evening.”

At that moment a man appeared around the corner of the cloakroom, crossed the dance floor and, wiping dirt from his cheek with a handkerchief, entered the men’s rest room.

Corey and Jackson looked knowingly at each other. “Let’s take a closer look at him,” Corey said. They both arose from the table.

The man was brushing his trousers with his hands when they entered. He was nearly forty, tall, thin-faced and not very husky. He started to wash his hands.

Corey said, “How did you make out?”

The man jerked his head up, startled.

“Did you find anything?” Corey persisted, keeping his tone casual.

The man said, “Whaddaya mean?” He held his hands motionless over the washbasin.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” Corey said. “We want to know how you made out with the search.”

“What’s it to you?” The man hesitated. “I don’t tell nobody but my boss.” He started drying his half-washed hands.

“Its all right —” Corey began, but the man pushed his way between them and scurried out the door. They didn’t try to stop him.

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Chapter 9

Mr. Thompson’s Wife

On their way back to the table they noticed him talking to a waiter. They sat down and watched the waiter lead him to another table against the far wall. The members of the orchestra filed across their line of vision to reassemble on the bandstand.

“Did you see that man earlier tonight?” Corey asked Micheline and masked his pointing finger with a menu.

“No …” she answered. “I might mention that he’s sitting at another man’s table.” She checked a penciled diagram on a paper napkin. “It’s the table of the man with the mustache who went in the office of Thompson.”

Corey shut his eyes and rubbed his long nose between his forefingers. Jackson asked. “Is that Thompson?”

Corey opened his eyes and watched Thompson standing in front of his office door surveying the room. “Yes,” Corey and Micheline said simultaneously. Thompson saw the man who had just come in and walked over to sit down at his table. They talked with friendly gestures.

Corey stood up. “Come on, George,” he said and sauntered toward Thompson and his companion. The orchestra began a fast foxtrot.

Thompson saw them coming and got to his feet. He smiled, stuck out his hand and said, “Good evening, Mr. Corey. I’m pleased to have you here this evening.” The hoarseness in his voice emphasized the warm, befriending tone. Corey introduced Jackson.

“Sit down, gentlemen,” Thompson urged, capturing two more chairs with huge hands. “This is Mr. Baxter,” he said, indicating his companion. “Mr. Baker owns a private taxi company and is quite well-known with our patrons.” Thompson was effusively benevolent.

Corey got directly to the point. “We are interested in learning the reason for certain activities by Mr. Baker this evening.”

Thompson showed white teeth in an apparently sincere smile. “I know just what you mean, gentlemen. Mr. Baker has told me about his adventure at your piece of property, Mr. Corey.” He included Jackson in the conversation by a nod. “Evidently it was you two who he bumped into.”

Corey and Jackson unsuccessfully trying to conceal surprise.

“A Mr. Webster, a stranger in town, hired him to search the property for a heavy metal box. He looked for several hours until you tripped over him. He was frightened—the murders, of course—and he came back here to report his failure to Mr. Webster.”

Corey said, “Where is Mr. Webster?”

Thompson held his smile. “He’s left.”

Baker got up abruptly and said, “I’m in the phone book if you want me; I gotta go.” He walked hurriedly from the room.

Thompson said, “Mr. Baker is an honest man; you can believe him. Is there anything else I might help you with?”

“Perhaps,” Corey said. He got to his feet, with his hands on the table. “Do you know Mr. Webster?”

“Slightly.” Thompson scraped back his chair and got up. “He introduced himself and asked me to recommend a man to do an unusual errand for him. I suggested Mr. Baker.”

“Does he have a mustache?”

“Yes.”

“We’d like you to step over to our table, Mr. Thompson,” Corey said. “I think you can be of some help.” Jackson now was also standing. “George, will you lead the way?”

Corey introduced Micheline and then asked, “Did the mustached man come out of Mr. Thompson’s office, Mich?”

Micheline was disturbed. “N—no.

“Can you be mistaken?”

“No. Of course not.”

Corey looked directly into Thompson’s face, which was close to his. “Shall we discuss this in your office, Mr. Thompson?”

Thompson smiled again, a trifle ironically. “Certainly, Mr. Corey.” He turned and the three of them followed him.

The door shutting behind them stifled the orchestra into a faraway murmur. Their feet sunk into the Oriental rug. Thompson indicated the lushly upholstered furniture with an invitation to sit down, but they all remained standing.

“Mr. Webster,” Thompson stated, jerking his head toward another door, “left by the back way not more than five minutes ago.”

Corey probed the modernistic office with his eyes. A faint odor of perfume was noticeable in the air. From an ash tray on the massive desk a thin plume of smoke wavered upward. Corey moved to the ashtray; a cigarette had burned down to the lipstick mark at its tip, leaving an inch-long uncrumbled ash.

Corey snapped his fingers and shot a rapid question at Thompson: “Did your wife leave with him?”

All the pleasantness evaporated from the stocky man. His eyes narrowed in his hardened fat face. “No,” he said. The sinister, eerie quality had returned to his hoarse voice.

“Did they go to your home?” Corey was matching stare for stare.

“No,” was the rasping reply.

“One of them,” Corey said coldly, “is going to be murdered tonight; either way will be unfortunate for your wife.”

“I can handle my own affairs,” Thompson growled, his eyes glittering.

Corey shook his head. “It’s too late, Thompson; either you lead us to her now, or you may never see her again.”

For a moment Thompson leaned forward with his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists, then he shrugged, walked to a closet and took out an overcoat.

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Chapter 10

One of the Gang

There was light in the front room of Thompson’s house when Corey parked the car. The four of them approached the front door quietly, passing a new black sedan in the driveway. Jackson took the key Thompson gave him as Corey pulled the gun from his shoulder holster.

They all stood on the steps waiting for Jackson to open the door noiselessly. As the door swung back they heard the sharp report of a pistol fired inside. Corey sprang through the door, his own gun ready in front of him.

A woman backed into him and he said, “Drop it!” when he saw the gun in her hand. She sucked in a brief cry, startled, and tried to twist her gun at him. He hit her wrist with the barrel of his own automatic, knocking the weapon from her hands. Thompson pinned her arms to her sides as Jackson picked up the gun.

“Be good, darling,” Thompson said huskily. The woman was his wife.

On the other side of the room, draped over an armchair next to the fireplace, was a man’s body. Corey examined him with rapid sureness and twisted him into a sitting position in the chair.

“Wounded,” he said. “Nothing very serious.”

Thompson, crushing his wife helplessly to him with one hand, picked up a telephone with the other. Jackson, holding the gun by the barrel with nervous fingers, watched him cautiously. The big man, with his wife sulking at his side, first ordered an ambulance, then the police. Micheline leaned against the wall and looked ill.

Corey was trying to bring the injured man to consciousness. The pockmarked face was extremely pale underneath the thin graying hair.

“That’s Webster,” Thompson said, having finished with his calls. “All right, Corey; what’s my wife been up to?”

Corey waited until Thompson and his wife were seated on the divan before he replied. He folded his arms, still holding his automatic. “I don’t know it all; she or Webster can fill it in later.” He stared at her and related the story of the bank robbery, with his theories of the missing $19,000.

“When you called, Thompson,” Corey added, “I figured you as one of the gang.”

“She asked me to call,” he explained and looked at her. “She said she had an idea for buying the property and building a lowdown night club to be called Bucket of Blood or something like that and cashing in on the publicity. And I took the damn witch serious—me playing a chump for five years.” He gave his wife a rough, unloving hug. “Tell me, Corey, where does she fit in?”

“She was one of the gang.” Corey looked at the woman. “You were the driver, weren’t you? Everyone assumed, I suppose, that the driver of the getaway car was a man; I was fooled too.”

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Chapter 11

The Driver

Thompson slapped her across the cheek so hard that her head was snapped back. “Talk!” he commanded. She uttered a string of bitter, vulgar words. He grabbed her wrist in one of his hands and began twisting.

“Talk!” he insisted.

“Yes!” she hissed, glaring at him with hatred. “Yes, I was the driver. That’s why I married you on condition we would live in this jerk town. I wanted to look for the missing money and have security too. If I’d found it, I would have deserted you fast.” She spat out some more invective.

He gave her wrist a painful jerk and she began talking more rapidly: “We were to meet that evening on the other side of town at Maple Corners. I was in one car with the Kid, and Webster and Smith were in another car. The Kid had some bullets in him and was dying so I drove into town to get some bandages. I left him in the underbrush and when I came back he and the money were gone.

“I met the other two and told them what happened. We searched the area that night and never found any trace of the Kid or the money. We split up then, because we were afraid of capture, and decided to come back later and search.

“We met several times after that and never found a thing. Finally I figured I’d settle down near the place and keep looking. So did Smith, but I never knew it until today. I thought I’d find it after a few months.”

“So you and Smith were camped around the scene hoping to find the pot of gold,” Corey said, “but where was Webster?”

“He was drafted and I never taw him again until tonight. He read the newspaper stories in the city papers and came back to try again. He must have met Smith that night and killed him in an argument. And then tonight we met accidentally at the club and came here to talk. He threatened to kill me, too, but I was faster.”

“But not fast enough,” Corey said dryly. He looked at Webster. “Lies!” the man said weakly.

“When did you get into town?” Corey asked.

“This morning.”

“What part of the body was the Kid shot?”

“Shot bad. Clean through his right shoulder — out his chest.”

Corey shifted his glance back to hers. “So you killed Smith and tried to kill Webster?” he mused. “I can guess why. Want to tell us?”

She lost her sullen look, grew frightened.

“You weren’t hanging around here for five years because you wanted to find the money,” Corey said “You had the money all the time — probably still have all of it — just waiting for a chance to leave. But you couldn’t leave, could you? You knew Smith was here still searching; when the body was reported found, you and he went out to hunt for the money that night. But you knew the money wasn’t there — you were only faking. You were really planning to kill him should he accuse you of murdering the Kid. He accused you, so you killed him.”

Her face had become colorless.

“When Webster showed up tonight you decided to kill him also and finish off the last threat to your peace of mind. Then no one could suspect you had made $19,000 as an accomplice in a bank robbery that you murdered the rest.”

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Chapter 12

A Body Full of Slugs

The siren of a police car was approaching in the distance. “You even killed the Kid.” She tried to deny it, but her mouth could form no words.

“You had to stay around and find the Kid’s body because you shot him several times and he crawled away with a body full of slugs. He’d dropped the money and you hid it, but when you went to find him and run the car, with his body, into the lake he had vanished in the night. So for years you’ve tried to dispose of the evidence that would have sent the rest of the gang gunning for you—constantly afraid from day to day that someone else would find the body. When I found the skeleton and called it murder you decided you had to kill off your friends before they killed you.

The loud wailing of the siren began to die as a car screeched to a halt in front of the house.

“The police will knock the truth out of you,” Corey said, listening to the footsteps coming up the walk. “I hope they find your loot, too; a little reward money can keep the bill collectors off my neck for a few pleasant weeks while I try to sell that private graveyard of yours.”

~ The End ~

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