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Footsteps slapped the sidewalk behind me, pounding, running hard. A voice piped shrilly: “Pat—Pat, wait!”
There was excitement in the call. A touch of hysteria. I turned and saw a kid slamming toward me through the dusk, a kid of fourteen or fifteen. He wore dirty corduroy slacks, a baggy grey sweater and scuffed shoes. His sandy hair needed combing, and when he came closer I noticed streaks on his grimy face. As if he’d been crying.
It wasn’t like Lester Harcourt to cry. At least I had never seen him do it, and I’d known him a long time.
His pals didn’t call him Lester, they called him Butch or got punched in the jaw. He was that kind. A pretty tough little monkey.
He didn’t look tough now, though. He grabbed at my arm, and I thought I saw panic in his eyes.
“Pat!” he gulped. “Pat—” He gulped again.
I wasn’t interested in his panic. I wasn’t interested in anybody named Harcourt, period. He should have known that. There are some things you just don’t get over, and what his sister had done to me was one of them.
“Scram, punk,” I said.
He wouldn’t let go of my sleeve. “Pat, gee, listen!”
“Scram, I told you.” I didn’t like to look at his eyes. They were blue, like Barbara’s. They reminded me of her. Too much. And I didn’t want to be reminded of Barbara. I’d been more than two long years trying to forget her. And failing.
“Pat, you got to listen,” he said. That was the trouble with him. Persistent. Maybe because he liked me. Some kids are that way about cops. Hero-worship stuff. He choked: “It’s pop.”
“What about him?”
“He’s d-dead, Pat.”
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The Kid Had Really Told The Truth
That stopped me cold. I’d never had anything against old Aaron Harcourt. He was a nice enough guy, as music teachers go. A little impractical, maybe. But he’d managed to bring up his two motherless kids on what he earned giving violin lessons. You had to respect him for that.
I looked at Lester. “How’d it happen? Heart?”
“He … he was murdered, Pat.”
“It’s true, Pat. I found him on the floor when I got home off my paper route just now. There’s blood on his head, and—and—”
I started walking. Fast. Not toward my apartment house just a few doors down the street, but the other way. The kid kept pace with me. I said: “Did you phone a doctor?”
“No. What good’s a doctor? He’s dead, Pat. I … felt him. His pulse, I mean. Then I came after you. I knew you’d be coming home from headquarters about now, and … you being a detective sergeant and all, I … I thought…
“Okay, okay,” I said. Then as we reached the corner: “What about your sister? Wasn’t she home?”
“No. I guess she already left for Moon Garden. She works out there now. Singing with Al Carlin’s orc.”
“Yeah, so I heard.”
“I wish she’d married you instead of Rudy.”
I stopped at the far curb.
“Lay off, punk.”
I didn’t even want to hear Rudy Ferranti’s name mentioned.
“Now shut up and come on. Quit needling me.”
We turned the corner and headed for his house, a shabby little cottage on a seedy lot in the middle of the block. I still couldn’t bring myself to believe his old man had been murdered. Nobody would have any motive for killing an inoffensive violin teacher. The kid had been reading too many detective stories. Or maybe this was his idea of a practical joke.
I walked into the bungalow’s living room and saw Aaron Harcourt’s body sprawled on the floor, face down, the back of his head crushed in from a series of blows. Harcourt was all through giving music lessons. The kid had really told the truth.
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A Terrific Struggle
I went through the motions of putting my finger on the artery in his neck. I knew there’d be no pulse-beats. He was still warm, though. He hadn’t been dead too long. I crossed the room, picked up the phone, and called headquarters. “Pat Whitney talking,” I said. I reported the kill, gave the address, and was told to sit tight; the homicide boys would be right over with a tech squad. I rang off. Then I looked around.
Even as upset as it was, the room was familiar. I remembered all the times I’d been in it in the old days, starting away back when we were all kids in grammar school: Barbara, the skinny, leggy tomboy. Al Carlin the studious one, wanting to be a musician. Me with my mind set on a blue-serge uniform and a badge. And Ferranti the flashy, wiry hellion who swiped oranges and bananas from his father’s fruit stand—and shared his loot with the rest of us. Whatever deviltry we got into, Ferranti was usually the one who started it.
I remembered another day I had come here, my first day as a probationary patrolman, showing off my shiny new shield, full of pride because I was finally on the force, a rookie cop. Strutting to make an impression on Barbara, who was no longer a leggy tomboy.
I remembered how beautiful she had been that day, remembered how bright her eyes had been, remembered the soft golden sheen of her hair. That was the week Al Carlin got his first professional job with an orchestra. And it was the week Rudy Ferranti had come around flashing a thick roll of bills he’d won in a crap game. Almost a thousand dollars. Maybe I sensed, even then, what he would do to me later. What he and Barbara would do to me.
This very living room was where I’d asked Barbara to marry me. It was where she had said yes and held out her finger for the ring that had cost me two months’ pay. And it was where her father had told me, just a day before the scheduled wedding, that she’d eloped with Rudy Ferranti instead.
So now I was back again. And Barbara’s father was dead in a room that had been torn apart as if by a cyclone. The old man must have put up a terrific struggle before his killer battered him down. The worn rug was bunched, a rocking chair overturned. There was sheet music scattered all over. Ornaments and pictures had been knocked off a desk in a far corner. The place was a shambles.
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A Genuine Enamieri
I picked up a double cabinet photoholder in a hinged leather frame. The girl was Barbara in her white graduation gown, her first formal. The tall, studious-looking kid with the glasses was Al Carlin. The wiry, swarthy one was Ferranti. The big hulking guy with the lantern jaw and stupid expression was me.
I hurled it across the room. It landed near an open violin case that stuck out from under a window drape. The violin case caught my eye. It was a special kind, foreign-made and pretty old. I recognized it and turned to the Harcourt kid, who’d been watching me and not saying anything.
“Where’s the fiddle that belongs in this?” I asked him.
His eyes widened. “Gosh, it’s gone, isn’t it?”
“Seems to be. Take a look around.”
He prowled the room, then the rest of the house. He came back pretty quick. “I can’t find it, Pat. The one he gave lessons with, that’s in the hall closet. But this one—” He screwed up his face. “Any time pop took it out to play it, he always put it back in the case.”
I remembered the violin Aaron Harcourt had kept in this special case: an instrument he’d never allowed even his own kids to touch. Now and then, on some particular occasion, he would play it himself—but only rarely, and then to the accompaniment of a lecture as to its history.
“A genuine Enamieri,” he would tell you dreamily. “A real one. Listen to the singing tone. The mellowness. The warmth. Andrea Enamieri, he was one of the great violin makers of Cremona. A pupil of the master Nicolo Amati.
“Yes, Enamieri and the more famous Antonio Stradavari were fellow-students. Together they learned their art. Today the public knows a good deal about Strad violins, but very little about Enamieri instruments. A pity, too, because in my opinion Enamieri was the better artisan.”
He would look at you, waiting for you to say that this fiddle of his must be mighty valuable. Then he would sadly shake his head.
“Valuable to me, yes. But to professional collectors, no. Because the Enamieri signature is not inside.” He would hold it up so you could look through the f-shaped holes on each side of the bridge.
“Some time in its career it must have had an accident. The original back, with the signature on the inner surface, must have been splintered. It was replaced with this strip of lighter-colored wood. An excellent repair job, you understand. The tone is unimpaired.
“But that Enamieri signature would have made the difference between a violin worth perhaps a hundred thousand dollars and a concert fiddle you could buy for a thousand. If I were willing to sell for that price. Which I am not.”
Lester blinked at me. “Pat, you think somebody murdered pop for that fiddle?”
“It’s a theory.”
The kid’s lower lip trembled. “Pat, I got to tell you this. I don’t want you to think I’m a stool, but—well, I got to tell you. Promise you won’t think that I’m just a blabbermouth, Pat?”
“What do you care what I think?”
“Aw, Pat,” he said. His voice wasn’t steady. “Don’t hold it against me because sis married that Ferranti guy. It wasn’t my fault she was a damned fool.”
“Lay off,” I snapped. “I told you I didn’t want you to mention him to me. I meant it.”
“Sure, Pat, okay. Only—well, I wish you wouldn’t be sore at me for something sis did.”
“I’m not. I’m not sore at anybody.”
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Out Of Its Case
He knew better, of course. He knew I was lying when I said I wasn’t sore. Kids are smarter than you give them credit for. He knew it was eating my heart out because Barbara had married Ferranti. He just didn’t know how to put his sympathy into words.
“Pat, look,” he said. “I got to mention Rudy to you. Just this once. And I’m not ratting. Only after all, it’s my pop that’s been killed. That makes it different.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“Well, things ain’t been going so good with sis and Rudy. All that talk of his about being in the chips, that was a lot of baloney. That was why he and sis came back here to live with Pop and me a couple of months ago. He was busted. Every cent he got his hands on, he dropped it on the ponies. Or dice.”
He scraped the worn rug with the scuffed toe of his shoe.
“Rudy wanted pop to sell that fiddle and lend him the money he’d get out of it. He kept telling pop he could take the dough and run it into a real bankroll in a hot crap game he knew about. Pop wouldn’t do it, though. You remember how pop was.”
The kid’s voice choked a little and his eyes went to his old man’s body. “Maybe he would have for sis, but not for Rudy. So he kept saying no. Rudy got pretty sore a couple times. He got nasty.”
“Loud-talk nasty. Then sis went to see Al Carlin and landed a job singing with his band, out at Moon Garden. She said if Rudy wouldn’t work and earn her a living, it looked like she’d have to do it herself. Rudy didn’t like that too much. He spends most of his time out there watching to see that nobody don’t make no passes at her. He blamed it all on pop because he wouldn’t sell that violin. And now it’s gone.
“I’m just telling you what I know.” He was tough again but it was only a cover-up. His lower lip was still trembling. “You make the guesses. You’re the copper.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll make the guesses.”
To start with, not too many people had known about old Harcourt’s Enamieri. That narrowed the field down to his few intimate friends—and his immediate family.
In the second place, an ordinary thief wouldn’t steal the violin out of its case, he’d take the whole works. But an insider might leave the case behind, closed and latched, hoping the theft wouldn’t be discovered right away. Figuring it wouldn’t come to light until the next time Harcourt went to take the fiddle out and play it.
Okay. Now suppose the old man walked in, caught the guy taking the instrument from its plush-lined container, recognized him and jumped him. And got killed doing it.
It all meshed with what Lester Harcourt said about Rudy Ferranti. I went over to the phone, picked up the directory, leafed through it, located the number of the Moon Garden dance joint, and made the call.
“Al Carlin,” I said.
Presently Carlin came on the line, his voice modulated and studious as ever. I told him it was Pat Whitney calling and he sounded glad to hear from me. Glad, and a little surprised. I congratulated him on having a dance band of his own and said: “Is Ferranti out there, Al?”
He chuckled. “He’s always here when Barbara’s on the job. You want to talk to him?”
“Not on the phone,” I said. “In person. Be seeing you.”
I rang off and said to Lester: “I’m going to pick up a taxi and go after him. You stay here until the homicide boys come. Tell them where I went.”
I went as far as the door. Then I said over my shoulder: “When the guys from headquarters get here, better tell them I want a squad car sent after me.”
“Okay, Pat.” His voice was sullen.
“And you can come along if they’ll bring you,” I added. After all, it was only natural he’d want to be around when his father’s killer was nabbed.
He turned then. “Thanks, Pat,” he said.
His eyes still reminded me of his sister’s. I went out of the house and didn’t look back.
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Where’d You Get The Fiddle?
Moon Garden was on the edge of town, just inside the city limits but a good mile beyond where the subdivision housing developments stopped. It was a rambling, ramshackle eyesore that masked its shabbiness with neon signs, including a big pale neon moon over the flat roof. The only thing that put it a cut above a juke joint was Al Carlin’s eight-piece orchestra.
I could hear the band braying something brassy as I headed toward the entrance. After two years I was going to see Barbara again. And I was going to put handcuffs on the guy who had taken her away from me. I was going to arrest him. For murder.
It was going to hit Barbara hard, learning her old man had been killed. It would hurt worse, knowing her husband had done it. Knowing she was married to a murderer. She must have loved him or she wouldn’t have eloped with him.
Now she was going to lose him to the electric chair. Well, that was her tough luck. She wouldn’t get any sympathy out of me. In a little while she would find out what it meant to have your dreams smashed.
I went inside. The place smelled like a pesthole. Tobacco smoke and the reek of stale beer eddied in the dim purple light, with brighter lights centering on the bandstand at the far end of the long narrow room. Along one side was a bar. The other side had booths and tables. All occupied.
A lot of teenagers were cutting up on the dance floor to the savage rhythm of Al Carlin’s crew.
Carlin stood downstage front, facing the orchestra, his back to the dancers. He gave the tempo and fiddled at the same time. Now and then he used his violin bow as a baton.
He looked tall and tailored in his tux, and presently when the number was over he turned and gave the clapping crowd a nice studious smile, his glasses reflecting the colored footlights and his violin held in front of him, the bridge side turned in to his lean middle.
The back of the instrument was smooth dark wood— except for a blond streak in the center. An insert strip the color of honey. The color of Barbara’s hair.
I felt a sudden tightness in my throat. Then I shoved forward and found the door that led backstage. I came to the wings of the bandstand. I said loudly: “Al.”
Carlin glanced my way, saw me and came to me. “You got out here pretty fast, Pat. Still looking for Rudy?”
“I don’t know,” I said. My voice didn’t sound like mine. My finger shook when I pointed with it. “Where’d you get that fiddle, Al?”
“This?” He twirled it. “Why? Do you recognize it? You ought to. It was Pop Harcourt’s.”
“I didn’t ask you that. I asked you where you got it.”
He frowned a little. He didn’t seem to like my tone of voice. “Is that you talking, Pat? Or is it your badge?”
“Just answer my question,” I said. “Where’d you get the fiddle? Tell me and tell me quick.”
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I Believe You
He lifted a shoulder. “I bought it. From Rudy. He finally talked old man Harcourt into selling it.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“Sure. I gave him three hundred for it. Three one-hundred-dollar bills. Why?”
Then his eyes narrowed behind the glasses. “Hey, wait a minute, Pat. Are you trying to tell me there was something phony about the deal?”
“Something very phony,” I said. “Where can I find Ferranti?” Suddenly I felt tired, knowing what was ahead of me, knowing what I had to do.
“In Barbara’s dressing room. It’s intermission time right now, and he’ll be in there with her.”
“Show me the way,” I said.
He led me along a narrow hallway that needed ventilating. We came to a closed door and I shoved him aside. I opened the door without knocking first.
Barbara was sitting in front of her dressing table, touching up her makeup. Her hair was the color of honey and her face was the wistful little-girl face that had been haunting me these past two years.
A trifle more mature, maybe. And there were tired lines around her eyes, I thought. But aside from that she’d hardly changed at all.
Neither had Ferranti. Those swarthy, wiry ones never change. I saw him turn around, fast, and stare at me as I came in.
Ferranti said: “Whitney!” and Barbara said: “Pat!” and I waved them both quiet. They looked at me. Barbara steadily and Rudy shiftily.
I said: “Your dad’s dead, Babs.”
Her makeup was suddenly splotchy against cheeks that had gone white. “Pat—”
“He was murdered,” I said.
She started to get up off the bench in front of the dressing table but didn’t quite make it. She sank down again. She was trying to say something, but no words came.
He was killed for his violin,” I said. I wasn’t enjoying this. Maybe I should have enjoyed it, but I didn’t. I said:
“What would you think if I told you your husband killed him?”
Rudy jumped at me. He was fast on his feet. He always had been. He was fast with his tongue, too. He called me a name.
I sidestepped him and hit him in the belly. He gasped and went backward. He wouldn’t try that again for a while. I raised my voice and said: “Al, come in here.”
Carlin walked into the dressing room. He had the Enamieri in his hands. He went past me and shoved the instrument at Ferranti, “Take this and give me my money back, you creep.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Rudy said. He wouldn’t touch the violin.
“What money? Where the hell did you get that fiddle?”
“You know where I got it. You sold it to me.”
“That’s a lie!” Rudy yelled.
“I paid you three hundred-dollar bills.” Carlin looked at me. “Why don’t you search him, Pat?”
I did just that. I found the three bills in the side pocket of Ferranti’s coat.
Ferranti said: “It’s a frame, a lousy stinking frame. I don’t know anything about—”
The denial seemed to choke him. He scuttled to Barbara.
“Don’t let them do this to me, hon. They’re railroading me. Hon, I didn’t bump your old man. I don’t know anything about it. I swear I don’t.”
“I believe you,” she said.
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To Pinch Rudy
So she believed him. But that wouldn’t keep him out of the electric chair.
There was something else I was thinking about, something even bigger. Maybe when Barbara was a widow I might have another chance.
In time maybe I could mend some of those dreams she’d smashed for me when she married Rudy Ferranti. I got out my handcuffs. The guy cringed.
And Barbara looked at him again the way she had never looked at me. It was something protective, something you couldn’t put into words. She knew him for what he was.
A cheap flash.
That was why she married him.
It was why she’d stick to him no matter what happened. Because he needed her. It had taken me a long time, but now I knew.
And I knew I wouldn’t send him to the chair. I could, and I’d love it. But I wouldn’t.
Because I realized he wasn’t guilty. I’d realized this for quite a while. I turned, took the Enamieri away from Al Carlin and snapped the handcuffs on him.
Al choked and stiffened and rattled the cuffs. His eyes were hot and angry behind the glasses he wore.
“What the hell is this, Pat, a gag? I didn’t kill pop—”
“Yes, you did,” I said. “And it was the fiddle that tripped you.”
“Now wait, Pat.”
“Look,” I said. “You’re one of the few who knew pop owned an Enamieri. I think you were the thief he caught stealing it.”
“You’re nuts. I’m making plenty of money. Why should I steal a fiddle I could afford to buy? Besides, the kind of music I play these days, I don’t need an expensive violin.”
“I thought of that,” I said. “But you used to be in love with Barbara, same as I was. And you hated the idea of her being hooked to a louse like Rudy. I think you stole the Enamieri to plant it on Rudy, so he’d be accused. So Barbara would be disgusted with him and maybe divorce him.”
I was guessing, of course. But I must have been pretty close to the mark. Carlin’s expression told me that.
I said: “But pop caught you in the act. You had to kill him. So then I think you decided your original scheme would still work. Only better. Now you could frame Rudy for murder as well as theft. All you had to do was to slip three bills in the side pocket of his coat—where, incidentally, a guy never carries that kind of money loose. And then deliberately show off the Enamieri where I’d see it and recognize it. You’d say Rudy sold it to you, and you would have him nailed to the cross.”
“He did sell it to me.”
I said: “No, you slipped up on your logic there, Al. Whatever else Rudy may be, he’s smart. If he had murdered pop while stealing the violin, he would have ditched it. The dumbest killer in the world would have brains enough to realize that the fiddle was the one thing that would link him to the murder. His first instinct would be to get rid of it. Selling it to you was the one thing Rudy wouldn’t have done. He’d be putting himself in the electric chair for a lousy three hundred dollars. It wasn’t plausible. You were trying to frame him. I saw that right away.”
“Can you make it stick?” he asked me. Not blustering. He really wanted to know.
I told him I thought I could. And I meant it.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll take a plea.”
He wouldn’t look at Barbara and Rudy when he said it. But I did. For the first time in two years I could look at them without hate.
“Better start for home, you two,” I said. I was thinking there would be funeral arrangements to make. Details to be taken care of. “And—I’m sorry about pop.”
Barbara said softly: “Thanks, Pat.” Just the two words. But they covered a lot of things. She and her husband went out.
Presently a squad car of homicide guys came to take Al Carlin off my hands. They brought Lester Harcourt with them.
After they took Al away he said: “But, Pat, I … I thought you were going to pinch Rudy.”
“I almost did. I almost made that mistake.” He would never know how big a mistake I had come near making.
“Skip it, Butch.” He got it. I’d called him Butch.
I put my arm around his shoulder. “Come on, Butch. I’ll take you home.”
~ The End ~