Homicide at the 5 & 10 by Stewart Toland
Noir

Homicide at the 5 & 10

by Stewart Toland

Ten Detective Aces | Nov. 1945 | Vol. 11, No. 4 THE RED FILE | Jan. 15, 2017 | Vol. 1 No. 2 Casefile No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aef94

The cost of Terry Grey's Japanese dagger had come high in battlefield blood. But though Terry brought it back to a hometown dime store, the second fee that sinister souvenir demanded was equally deadly dear.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Where Is Saucy?

Terry Grey counted the new gold bars on his sleeve once again, four of them nestling close above his left wrist. Clean and shiny they were, and each one a passport to six months of hell. Two years overseas, and now he was back. He took the curved Japanese dagger out of its wrappings, laid it, bright and terrible across his knees. This was the blade that had been meant for him. Yet he’d lived to bring it home to Saucy Fields, because his own knife had been quicker.

He closed his eyes. He wouldn’t think about that now, he would think of red-haired Saucy Fields, with her dimples and her twinkling eyes and her red, red lips that promised to marry him when the world was sane again.

The taxi stopped. Terry slung a bill at the driver and jumped out without even looking. That’s how he happened to be left alone in front of the jagged chimney and the black, broken lumber that had once been a home. Terry ran up the weed-crowded walk where two years ago flowers had grown. But there was no use stopping and staring and letting this new fear freeze him cold.

He raced across the memory of a lawn to the house next door, a neat little white house where the Keslins used to live. It was Mrs. Keslin who answered the pounding.

“Why, Terry Grey, you’re back!”

“Tell me about the fire, tell me about Saucy. Is she all right?”

Mrs. Keslin frowned. “You mean Saucy didn’t write you? But perhaps it’s no wonder. She was in the hospital a month, and about out of her mind with grief ever since. Her father died in the fire. She’s an orphan now and a pauper at that. Mr. Fields didn’t believe in banks you know, everything he had burned up.”

“Saucy was in the hospital. Why?”

“Because she was burned, too. Her hand was the worst. They thought at first she’d lose her left hand, but they say it’ll be all right in time. Won’t you come in and sit down, you look terribly tired? How was it in the Pacific?”

“Where is Saucy now, where does she live?”

“At the Y, I believe. She works in the five and ten. It’s about the only job she could get with her hand still bandaged and all. She couldn’t type or model or be a nurse, but she can hand out rouge and lipstick and make change. They’re so hard up for help. Terry!” Mrs. Keslin screamed after the flying figure. “Terry Grey, you haven’t told me one word about the Pacific!”

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Chapter 2

No Admittance

The five and dime was crowded. Women seethed through the swinging doors, stood six deep around the candy counter, and about as thick at the cosmetics. And there was a woman screaming here, too. Almost as loudly as Mrs. Keslin had screamed, only the words weren’t the same. They were quick and wild with hysteria:

“I laid it down for just a minute! It was in a brown box. It’s worth three hundred dollars!”

“I’m sorry, madam, we can’t be responsible for lost articles.”

“Lost? It was stolen! That girl stole it!”

There wasn’t a sound in all the store. No one asked for candy, no one went out the doors. They just stood like lumps of putty staring at the accusing finger, at the red-haired girl it pointed to. The breath whooshed out of Terry Grey’s lungs. He had come home to Saucy Fields, the one he loved, and to the man standing beside her, Pat Munsen, the one he hated.

Munsen was tall and thin, so thin the bones stuck out on his cheeks like the twin crossbars to giant T’s. There were sunken, dark circles under his eyes, and he looked like death. None of it was necessary. He’d gone on a hunger strike when the draft was first announced. He hadn’t had a square meal since, just enough to keep him alive. He’d been quite proud about it, boasting to all the boys they could go out and march and crawl and die, but he’d stay home and live.

And he had. He was a walking skeleton, but he was home and alive. A lot of Terry Grey’s friends weren’t. Pat Munsen smiled and patted the lady customer on the shoulder. He had on yellow suede gloves. There was a brown coat over his arm and a brown fedora.

“Now, madam. I’m sure there’s some mistake. I’m assistant manager; perhaps you’d explain it to me. Just what was it that was lost?”

“Stolen. It was stolen, young man! My family heirloom teapot, three hundred dollars it’s worth. I was taking it down to the antique show. I stopped in to buy some lipstick, and laid the box on the counter. This girl just a minute after took a lot of boxes from here and went through that door. When I turned around my teapot box was gone. She took it, I tell you! She took it and ran away with it!”

“But I didn’t run away, I came back!” Saucy was so white, so very white. There were tears in her eyes.

Pat Munsen frowned. “Where were you going with the boxes, Miss Fields?”

“Up to the stockroom. I’d just brought them down and they were the wrong kind. They were all lipstick when we needed rouge. So I took them back up and got the rouge. I never once touched her old teapot or even saw it!”

The lady customer bounced, as though she had been a rubber ball she bounced. The two red spots in her cheeks grew redder.

“I want the police, I want my teapot!”

She grabbed at the counter, started throwing things. A bottle of perfume crashed on the floor. Another hit the edge of the counter, splashed on Pat Munsen’s neatly turned vest, left a dark, wet stain.

“See here! Lady, stop that!” The man who pushed through the crowd was short and fat, and had two eyes bright as parrots. “I’m Mr. Lighman, manager of the store. Madam, if you will just be quiet a minute!”

She was, as quiet as a woman can be crying into her handkerchief. Mr. Lighman frowned.

“What is this, Munsen?”

“The lady has lost a silver teapot. She thinks Miss Fields took it upstairs with some boxes of stock.”

“Did you?”

“No, sir.” Saucy was very sure, very defiant.

“Go bring the boxes back, let the lady look for himself.”

Saucy Fields left the counter, her chin high, her eyes black with anger. The crowd parted to let her through. Terry could see the door she was heading toward. It was closed. There was no admittance on it, and a fire axe shackled to the wall beside it. Saucy was almost there. Once on the other side of that door she would be alone. Terry had waited two years to be alone with Saucy; he wasn’t going to wait any longer. He slid quietly along the edge of the crowd, closer and closer to the door swinging shut behind Saucy Fields.

Then that mad, fool woman was screaming again. “Go after her! Don’t let her go alone! She’ll hide my teapot, and we’ll never see it!”

For a minute all eyes had turned back to the hysterical customer. No one saw Terry Grey grab the door and pull it open. But the woman did. Oh, she couldn’t miss that, the door opening, and Terry Grey sneaking through with the Japanese dagger still cold and bright and forgotten in his hand.

“Merciful heavens, look at that knife!”

Look they did. A whole store full of people, to make it quite plain to the police afterwards that a young soldier, a sergeant with brown hair and a white scar across the back of his neck, went inside the No Admittance door carrying a dagger. The same dagger found by the bodies not five minutes later.

The stair well was dark. Dark, narrow, very steep, and filled with smells, cabbage and onions and boiling soup. A thousand nauseous whiffs of a thousand ancient meals hung there in that locked passage. Terry took the stairs three at a time. Still there was no sign of Saucy. On the top landing there were four black doors and a white-faced time clock. For just a moment Terry hesitated, which way?

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Chapter 3

Four Minutes

Suddenly there were feet on the stairs below. Mr. Lighman’s old, high voice, “Snap the bolt on that door, Munsen, and stay on guard. I’ll go to the safe and get my gun. We’ll stop that soldier going any harm with that knife of his. “The idea of the Army letting a boy wander around loose with a weapon like that! I don’t know what the world is coming to!”

The world was falling, at least Terry Grey’s was. He had turned quickly toward the nearest door. He didn’t see the pencil lying on the floor. It rolled under his foot, sent him flying back down those dark, steep stairs. It was strange how lie wasn’t frightened; it was all too quick, too unreal. He remembered noticing the time, five of two. He remembered how Mr. Lighman screamed. And that was all.

It was the pain in his head that bothered him most when he awoke. The pain in his heart and the aching in his arms. Then it was his heart. The way it wouldn’t beat, the way he couldn’t breathe. For he was looking at Mr. Lighman crumpled by the door at the foot of the stairs. They were all three there, at least their bodies were, for Mr. Lighman was dead.

He had to be dead. There was blood all over him, and on the walls and floor. And Pat Munsen was lying in the blood, with the Japanese dagger still sticking into his side.

Terry Grey crawled up the stairs. He couldn’t stand upright, not with the nausea, and he couldn’t stay back there. Not with the screeching on the other side of the door.

“Look at the blood! Look at the blood seeping over the sill!” As though it were an exclamation point, the fire axe bit a piece out of the center panel, then another and another. Finally Terry reached the top landing with its three doors and the clock. It was just then one minute to two.

Only four minutes had passed. Four minutes to bathe his hands in red. The screaming was louder and the pounding. It had to be murder; there were too many blows for an accident. He could see the blood on his hands.

The door beside him opened. Saucy Fields was standing there with her boxes and with the wonder of a smile just dawning on her lips. The distant pounding of the axe stopped. A man’s voice cut through the silence:

“Shut the store and call the police! That crazy soldier has killed Mr. Lighman and Mr. Munsen!”

The smile twisted into agony.

“No! No, Terry! No!” When she fainted, Saucy Fields’ eyes were on Terry Grey’s red-streaked hands.

The soldier darted into the stockroom, he ran now with fleet, cunning feet. There wasn’t time to stop and think, he had to get away. He had to hide before those feet pounding on the stairs caught up with him.

The stockroom was cold, and as poorly lighted as the stairs. It was a huge cavern laced with a maze of narrow passages between boxlike shelves on either side, hundreds and hundreds of shelves higher than a man’s head, filled with china and toys and nameless cartons. There was yet another smell in here, like a clear, sharp cloud, the odor of mothballs.

Terry Grey ran to the very back of the room, to a red exit sign. He was clear out on the fire escape when he saw the police below. So he didn’t go down and he didn’t go up. He went back, back into the dismal shadows and the cold, tart smell of mothballs.

There were people in the stockroom now, stealthy, whispering people coming closer and closer. He climbed one of the sets of shelves, carefully, slowly, past dozens and dozens of china cups. One or two rattled. It was like thunder in his ear. But he reached the top and slid in that small, dark space between the ceiling and the shelves.

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Chapter 4

Blood On His Hands

For an hour men searched. They threw caution away and cursed. They brought flashlights and looked into every corner. One even suggested they hunt on top of the shelf cabinets as well as in them.

“In that little crack? No man could squeeze in there.”

So they left it alone. They didn’t know what a man could learn on a battlefield. They didn’t know what a man could do with another’s blood on his hands.

It was worse after the searchers left. Much worse. Because then he could think, he could remember, all those loud, vengeful voices:

“That girl called him Terry. Find out what soldier she knows by the name of Terry, and plaster his pictures in all the papers. We’ll find him, someone will turn him in.”

“The Munsen guy’s going to live. The doc says the knife just grazed his ribs, so it’s only one murder we’ve got against this Terry.”

“You can hang as high for one as you can for two.”

“What ever made the dope do it?”

“There was something about a silver teapot being stolen.”

“Hell, no, that damn fool woman found it where she left it, on the Notions counter.”

Words. Beating through the silence. Pounding on a man’s brain. Words tumbling in a kaleidoscope of horror, and always coming back the same, “You can hang a man as high for one, as two.”

Terry Grey lay there, hour after hour, until it was night. He saw the windows at the far end of the stockroom grow grey, then black and white again when the movie across the street lighted its twinkling sign.

That’s where he ought to be, out there at the movies with Saucy. Only he was in here, going crazy, wondering why he had killed a man he didn’t know, and only tried to kill the man he hated. Perhaps hate wasn’t the word, perhaps contempt would be better. Contempt and fear that somehow Pat might get Saucy away from him. Two years was a long time to remember a guy you didn’t see.

Only she had seen him, with blood on his hands.

Terry Grey buried his face in his arms. And he kept rubbing his hands on the ball of excelsior he’d picked off the floor. The blood was gone from his fingers long ago, but he could still feel it.

Pretty soon he’d have to surrender to the police. It was the only thing he could do. He’d thought it all over here alone with himself in the dark. There would be no more peace for him, not ever again. Not with Mr. Lighman’s scream growing louder and louder in his ears.

Terry wondered which scream it was this one echoing over and over. Was it that first scream when Terry began falling, or was it another scream when Mr. Lighman died?

That was the odd part. Terry couldn’t remember, he couldn’t remember using the knife and he thought he ought to. It wasn’t easy pushing a knife in and out of a human body. He knew. That was how he got the damn dagger in the beginning, only that was war and this was murder.

If only he could prove he hadn’t done it! He didn’t care about the rest of the world. He just wanted to prove it to himself, and to Saucy Fields.

Terry Grey climbed down from his high roost; soft as a cat he hunted for the stockroom door. He’d have to be careful, there’d be a watchman, somewhere about there’d be an old man with a flashlight and keys and a gun. That was a chance Terry had to take. He had to get to the hall again and look at those stairs. He wanted to see what a man could do in four minutes of time.

Terry had a couple of books of matches in his pockets. They helped find the door, they also showed him the place where the candles were stored, long ones and short ones, altar candles and table candles and birthday candles. He chose an altar candle in a red glass jar, because that way there’d be no drip. There also was very little light. Just a halo about his hand, and all that dark, silent store crowding down about him.

The clock said twenty after eleven. Terry looked at it close to be sure, then ran down the stairs as fast, as softly as he could. He stood there in the dark at the bottom and lit the candle again. The blood was brown now. The jagged holes in the door black.

He cut at the air, over and over he slashed with the knife that wasn’t in his hand. Then he ran back up the stairs, careful to keep on the soft, padded part of them. He held the candle close to the white-faced clock, twenty-three minutes past eleven. So there had been time. Someone could have come down, killed, and gone back up again. It would have been possible, but it would have been so dose. Too close.

How could anyone on the spur of the moment discover that dagger and use it to such advantage! It couldn’t be. Minds didn’t work that fast. Besides there was no motive. It had to be Terry Grey. He leaned low over the candle and his shadow was a giant touching him on the shoulder. The first cut had been an accident, slicing into Mr. Lighman as Terry fell, and the rest madness. Terry had drawn blood. With the smell of it in his nostrils he had gone crazy, like a wild animal in the jungle. That was the way it must have been. There was nothing left except to say good-by to Saucy Fields.

He tried all the doors. The first was the girls’ cloak room, the second the kitchens, and the third was the office, a large windowless room with several desks in it, a wired cage, and an old- fashioned safe. There was a telephone on the desk beside the safe, and a telephone book.

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Chapter 5

The Ten Thousand Dollars

The voice at the Y was young, impersonal until he asked for Miss Fields. It hesitated for just a minute. “Who’s calling?”

Terry knew there was danger here. He could feel it coming over the wire, the guarded way the girl spoke, that long moment when she hadn’t spoken at all.

“I said, who’s calling?”

“Tell her it’s an old friend of her father’s. A Mr. Beanie.” Beanie was a dog Terry had owned once in the long ago when he was a little boy and Saucy a little girl. Saucy would remember, she had cried as hard as Terry the day old Beanie died.

“Hello, Mr. Beanie?” She was breathless. Her voice was so soft and warm, it was something a man could dream of, as he had dreamed of it for two years.

“Hello, Saucy, I want to say good-bye.”

“But you can’t! You’ve only just home.”

“I know. It’s terrible, because things will never again be the same.”

That was when she forgot herself.

“No, Terry! They say you killed him, but I know you didn’t. You couldn’t have!”

“I don’t know, Saucy. I don’t know!”

“But I do. You see, I love you.”

For a moment he thought they’d been cut off, then he knew she was waiting. He could hear little sounds, tiny, moaning sounds like maybe she was crying.

“Thank you, honey, but love isn’t enough. You saw the blood on my hands. It was my knife.”

“But you didn’t take the money. It couldn’t be that there were two separate deliveries going on there that day. That would be stretching coincidence too far. The murder must have been because of the robbery. Pat had his back to the landing while he fastened the bolt on the door. Mr. Lighman was the only one who really saw the robber. He was killed and Pat only stunned.

“The police have it all figured out, only they say it’s you who took the ten thousand dollars. How could you? You’d never been there before. You couldn’t have known that the safe was open and no one was in the office. You wouldn’t even have known where the office was.”

“Wait a minute, Saucy! Wait a minute!” He was whispering now. He could hear his heart beating in the earphone. “Tell that to me again. What ten thousand are you talking of?”

“Why the ten thousand dollars that was in the safe at noon today and wasn’t at two o’clock.”

Terry whistled. There was no sound but there were the puckered lips and the air swishing. It blew the candle out. Terry swore. He had used up one book of matches. Where in hell was the other? He found it in his left hip pocket, dumped it, along with a handful of papers, on the desk. The match burned down to his fingers. He lit another and another. Still he stared.

Those papers he had taken out of his pocket. They were brown, little, slim circular bands with numbers on the top of each. $10,00.00. He picked them up, one by one. Close over the desk like he was, he could smell them. Perfume.

They were the sweetest sight, this was the sweetest smell in all the world to him. This smell of murder.

There was just the slightest of sounds, a whoosh and an infinitesimal squeek. Terry whirled to see the door groove shut. There was a little man in front of it, a little man with a very big gun.

“Saucy!” Terry shouted, because there was so little time, and no more need for silence. “Were you near the door in the stockroom? Could you see, did anyone come in just before you went out and met me on the landing?”

“No, Terry, no one came in and no one went in the locker room. There was a whole bunch of girls in there waiting for the two o’clock bell. No one went in the kitchen. No one went into the office or they would have been there still, because there’s only one way out of the office, back onto the landing and down the stairs with the people watching: through the holes the fire axe cut. Don’t you see, that’s why the police are so sure it’s you, that’s why you must hide!”

“Listen, Saucy, listen and don’t ever forget. If I should die in the next few minutes,” he looked at that gun coming closer and closer, “if I should never see you again, you can know I didn’t kill Mr. Lighman. I wasn’t sure before; I thought I might have done it when I was out of my head, because you see I’ve been trained to kill. The government has spent months, day after day it has been pounded into my soul. Kill or be killed.

“Yes, I’ve been taught to kill. But I’ve never been trained to steal. Conscious or unconscious, I wouldn’t steal. Yet there are money bands in my pocket, empty money bands. I’ve been framed, Saucy, and it’s wonderful. I know now I didn’t kill Mr. Lighman. That ten thousands dollars has given me back my honor. The fright is gone, Saucy, and the fight is just beginning.”

Terry Grey grabbed hold of the telephone cord, swung the earphone in a sudden, vicious arc and conked the little gent on the top of his head. It was sudden. It caught the watchman quite unprepared, quite before he could press his finger down on that shiny trigger. He dropped his gun, his lantern, and the keys and crumpled up on top of them. Terry hid the unconscious old gent behind one of the desks, then sat down in a swivel chair facing the door.

The police would be there any minute, because of course they had been listening on the phone. They wouldn’t be so dumb as not to tap Saucy’s wire. They’d trace the call to the dime store.

The cops came noisily. First there were the sirens loud enough to make a deaf man scream. Then there was the efficiency, orders here, orders there. At the last, two cops coming up the stairs toward the light. They had guns, and so had Terry Grey.

“Hello.” He smiled. “You took rather longer to get here than I thought.”

“What’s the idea, Grey? Who do you think you are? Put that toy pistol down before you get hurt.”

“It isn’t a toy, and I won’t be the only one to get hurt. If you look, you’ll see a sharpshooter’s medal on my chest.”

“So what? We’re two and you’re one. The store’s lousy with cops.”

“All looking for ten thousand dollars. Suppose I tell you where it probably is?”

“Probably!” It was a sneer. “As if you didn’t know!”

“I don’t, I’m only guessing now.” He held out his left sleeve, showed those four cushioned bars. “Look, that’s two years overseas. Don’t you think it ought to give me a chance to be heard?”

The police chief hesitated. He leaned close and looked deep into Terry Grey’s steady eyes. There was no blinking, no wavering and no fear. The captain holstered his gun, sat on the edge of the desk.

“O.K. We’ll listen.”

“Perhaps first you’d better smell.” Terry took out the brown paper bands with their printing, with their faint, sweet trace of perfume.

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Chapter 6

The First Step On Your Way To The Chair

The store opened at nine as usual. Only instead of early business being slow, women thronged the store, buying this and that, but mostly passing the door with its jagged holes. They could even see the blood under the edge of it. It was something to savor and go home and talk about. And to read the morning paper again, where it showed Terry Grey being taken into custody by the police.

There was a picture of Saucy, and a picture of the woman of the teapot, and a picture of poor Mr. Lighman. There was also a picture of the ten paper bands from the money that was stolen. The money hadn’t been found yet, but the paper said it would be. The police know sure enough how to make a man talk.

The clerks in the store were pretty much upset. First there was Saucy who hadn’t stayed away like she ought, but came to brazen it out. Then there was Mr. Munsen looking weaker and thinner than ever and walking extra slow. Whenever anyone spoke to him he smiled: “Well, the show must go on. Mr. Lighman would want it that way.”

But mostly Mr. Munsen sat in Mr. Lighman’s chair. You could see he didn’t feel too good. It was five after four when he closed the safe in the office and said good-by to the girls over their books.

“I guess I’ll call it quits. This wound in my side bothers me more than I thought it would.”

He walked out the door slowly. The girls shook their heads as they heard him go miserably down the stairs. Twice on the way down he stopped and turned. When he got to the bottom he stopped again. Only now he didn’t look so tired, and there was a screwdriver in his hand.

Quickly he peered through the jagged door, he looked up at the empty landing. Then he flicked the screwdriver under the edge of the carpeting on the first step. It came up quite easily. Underneath were a lot of pretty green bills. He gathered them quickly, stuffed them into his coat pocket. When the last came up, there was some fresh sawdust under it. A small square of the bare wood step fell out. It wasn’t such a big hole, yet there was room enough for the gun poking through and a pair of black, remorseless eyes,

“0.K., Munsen, you can put your hands up now.”

Pat Munsen whirled out the door just as a police whistle shrilled. Just as the janitor’s supply closet door under the stairs opened, and out stepped the police captain and Terry Grey.

Munsen tried to run, but there was no place to go. Plainclothes men materialized out of the crowd, hemming him in, a thick black circle of men with guns.

Terry shook his bead. “You had already stolen it, hadn’t you, Pat? You were on your way out with your hat and your gloves and your coat. Only that woman made a fuss about her teapot, and I came along with my knife, and Mr. Lighman said he was going to the safe for his gun. You couldn’t have him go to the safe, could you? Not with all that money still on you. Not with me there so handy to take the blame. So you killed him.”

Terry laughed, bitterly, sadly. “That could have been enough, only you had to be so sure to blame it on me so you planted the money bands in my pocket. If you hadn’t, even I wouldn’t have known whether I killed him or not. Those bands were in your pocket when the teapot lady threw perfume all over your vest. Remember? It was the perfume smell that persuaded the police to give me a break. They pretended to arrest me, to give you your chance. All day we’ve waited for you to come for your money.”

“But how could you know? I hammered the nails back so well with the handle of the dagger. No one could know!”

“How could we help but know? There had only been four minutes. One of those minutes I had been falling downstairs. One of those minutes I had been crawling upstairs. The two in between were too busy for you to go anywhere. It takes time to kill a man, then lie down in his blood and stick the knife in your own side. The last took courage. It’s too bad you didn’t have the judgment to use it in better fields.

“We knew you had no time. We knew the hospital attaches found no money on you, so we looked for a hiding place close at hand. What better thing for your purpose than the cushioned stair treads? The first step on your way to the chair.”

~ The End ~

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