- McGee’s Mad Dash
- Screwball McGee Is On The Loose
- Still At Large
- You Murdering Rat
- Only Thinking of Her
- Sitting On Your Brains Again
- The Pit
- The Sawbones and the Mouthpiece
- Incontrovertible Facts As The Law Would See Them
- A Desperate Gamble
- You’re Covered, McGee!
- That Irish Imbecile Wiggles Out of the Last Walk
McGee’s Mad Dash
There was a low hedge along one side of the Mainwaring estate, dividing the landscaped lawn from the gravelled driveway. In McGee’s mad dash toward his parked car, he forgot this hedge. But he remembered it when thorny branches clawed at his wet pants legs and tangled with the bottom of his raincoat. He tripped, went over the low hedge in a helpless dive and landed on his face on the wet gravel.
The corpse of Jonathan Mainwaring bounced out of his arms, skidded grotesquely, and brought up against the back wheel of McGee’s coupé.
McGee scrambled up, cursing breathlessly. Behind him, Hilda Mainwaring was still leaning out the window, screaming in high-pitched yelps of anguished terror. Other voices, probably awakened servants, were taking up the clamor. Lights popped on along the storm-swept street and somewhere unpleasantly close, a police whistle bleated shrilly.
With panic clawing at his nerves, McGee scooped up the lifeless body, shoved it into the car and squirmed under the wheel beside it. The motor snarled and the coupé hurled wet gravel at the night and exploded down the drive like a frightened deer.
McGee caught one glimpse of a beat policeman lumbering up from the corner of Maple Street, waving his gun and blasting his whistle. Then he was clawing the coupé’s wheel, skidding wildly to the right and screaming off down the dark suburban street. In the rear view mirror, McGee could see the bluecoat’s gun come down and wink at him redly, but no lead touched the coupé and another screaming turn blotted out even that sight.
The corpse of Jonathan Mainwaring suddenly bobbed forward and slumped against McGee’s shoulder. McGee swore hoarsely and shoved it back with his right hand. When he brought that hand back to the wheel, it was darkly wet and sticky.
McGee made a gagging sound deep in his throat and scrubbed the bloody hand against his wet raincoat. His eyes were muddy, his bony angular face tight and shiny from the rain and the tension of taut nerves and muscles. Rain drummed steadily on the car’s metal roof and the windshield wipers squeaked monotonously, louder and more nerve-wracking than the endless sucking whine of the tires on the wet pavement.
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Screwball McGee Is On The Loose
But louder than all these sounds was the mournful, sobbing wail of squad cars ripping through the night, converging on the neighborhood McGee was desperately fleeing.
McGee could easily imagine the radio call that was sending them to the hunt.
“Pick up Samuel McGee, age thirty-one, private detective, believed to have shot and killed the broker, Jonathan Mainwaring, at the latter’s home tonight, afterward fleeing with the corpse of his victim….”
“Here we go again!” McGee growled bitterly, talking aloud to his reflection in the windshield. “Screwball McGee is on the loose. Get your guns, boys. The Mad Irishman has another case.”
Trouble, it seemed, simply hovered around waiting for an opportunity to drop with hobnailed boots onto McGee’s defenseless neck. Every case he got was worse than the ones before and every one put him that much closer to the day when the profane and bitter Inspector Paul Eldritch would make good his threat to see McGee headed either for the chair or life on the rock pile.
It wasn’t that Private Detective Sam McGee sought trouble. He fled from it with a whole-souled craving for peace and quiet. But some devilish fate seemed to doom him to a life of crazy cases and hair-breadth escapes. McGee swore earnestly that if he took the job of discovering who stole the sugar lumps at the Presbyterian Missionary Tea, it would turn into a wholesale massacre the moment he appeared.
That was simply the way his luck ran — and this latest uninvited fracas was a climax that dimmed the insanity of anything he had ever previously encountered. But this one was his own fault.
The louder screech of a siren clawed into McGee’s thoughts. A squad car was headed toward him on the cross street ahead and there was no time to turn around and get out of sight. McGee took the only other alternative.
He slammed on the brakes, went into a looping, skidding slide and straightened in time to dive into a private driveway between two darkened houses. A moment later, sitting with the lights out and the motor idling, McGee saw the squad car flash meteorically past on the street behind.
When sight and sound of the radio car had died away, McGee backed into the street and headed toward the feverish glow of the city lights in the dripping sky ahead. Using side streets and alleys, McGee managed to avoid any more close shaves before he had circled the downtown section and drawn up at the rear of a small, square, dark building.
He got out, leaving the motor running, and hammered on the back door. Presently the door opened, spilling orange light around the silhouette of a small, knotty little man.
“Okay, smart apple!” the little man growled. “Beat it. This ain’t no. . . . Hey, Sam, I didn’t recognize you. Come on in and — “
“Can’t, Jake,” McGee said hoarsely. “Are you all alone?”
The small man grinned wolfishly.
“You should ask. You think I do any entertainin’ in a joint like this?”
McGee bent close and began to whisper earnestly. The small man started violently, flapping his hands in negation.
“Good tripe, Sam, you know what they’d do to me if I did. No! Not even for a friend like you, Sam, would I — “
It took McGee ten solid minutes of impassioned oratory before he won his point. Finally the small man sighed, swore bitterly, and tagged behind McGee out to the waiting coupé.
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Still At Large
Between them they got the body of Jonathan Mainwaring out and hauled it into the building. McGee came out a few moments later, alone, and got back into the coupé. He was breathing more easily, now, and color was coming back into his face. Before driving off, he reached down and snapped on the radio. The voice of a rapid-fire news commentator faded in as the tubes warmed.
” — Mrs. Mainwaring was alone in her room when she heard the sounds of gunshots from her husband’s den downstairs. Running down the stairway, she saw her husband lying on the rug before his desk, the front of his dressing gown smeared with blood. Bending over him, gun in hand, was Samuel McGee, a private detective who has frequently been under police fire over his methods of operation. Mrs. Mainwaring positively identified McGee, whom she says has visited her husband several times recently on some mysterious business.
“At the sight of Mrs. Mainwaring, McGee snatched up the broker’s body and fled with it, racing out through an open French window onto the terrace and getting away in his car. Neither Mrs. Mainwaring nor the police can offer any explanation of the mystery or the reason for the shooting. It is not even known for certain that Jonathan Mainwaring is dead, although his wife is sure that what she glimpsed so briefly was his lifeless corpse. McGee is still at large, but the object of an intensive police man-hunt. Stay tuned to this station for further developments in the myst — “
McGee,swore harshly and snapped off the radio. He backed the coupé, swung around and headed south, following dark, twisting streets deep into the maze of warehouses and factories that hovered close to the railroad switch yards. Angling through this district, he came at last to a short, quiet street lined with modest bungalows.
Driving down this street, McGee swung off and parked the coupé in the dark driveway of a warehouse a block away. Then he returned on foot, and swung in at the third bungalow from the corner.
The place was small and neat and dark. No lights showed anywhere in the little house nor in the houses on either side. McGee went around the bungalow to the garage in the rear and squinted in through the dark window. Enough light filtered in from the distant street light to show that there was no car inside. McGee grunted in satisfaction, backed into the shrubbery close by and made himself as comfortable as possible on the wet ground.
An aching hour dragged by and McGee was slowly crazy with the inactivity and the endless dropping of rain when the headlights of a car bounced down the street and turned into the drive.
McGee tensed, shrinking deeper into the concealing shrubbery. He got a heavy .45 caliber automatic out of its holster under his left arm and tucked it into the pocket of his raincoat, keeping his right hand tight on the butt.
The car growled slowly up to the garage and stopped. A big, beefy man got out, hunched against the rain, and stood briefly in the beams of the headlights, fumbling with a padlock on the garage doors. The garage doors swung back, cutting off McGee’s view, and the car snarled its way inside. McGee slipped out of concealment, went around the doors in a running crouch and into the garage.
When the big man shut off lights and motor and started to get out of his car, he backed right into the solid menace of McGee’s gun. He stiffened, standing frozen with one foot on the concrete floor and the other still on the running board.
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You Murdering Rat
McGee could see the white blob of the man’s big face swimming around slowly, trying to identify the man behind him. The private detective could feel an almost imperceptible quiver run up the gun to his own taut nerves, a telegraphed warning of big muscles setting themselves for explosive action.
“Don’t do it, Paul,” McGee said flatly, through his teeth. “I’m messed up so badly now that a little more can’t matter. Come out the rest of the way slow and easy.”
“You!” Homicide Inspector Paul Eldritch’s voice sounded thick and strangled. “You won’t get away with this!”
“I am getting away with it,” McGee snapped as his fumbling left hand found and snatched the big detective’s gun. “You can relax, now. All I want is to talk a few minutes while you listen. I knew you’d be home about midnight, even with your family away on a visit, so I came here and waited for you.”
“You murdering rat!” Eldritch spat furiously. “This is one trick you won’t wiggle out of. This time you’ll fit the chair and there won’t be any ifs or ands about it. We’ve got the town sewed up so tight you’ll be nabbed the minute you — “
“I haven’t been so far,” McGee interrupted dryly. “And for the record, I didn’t kill Jonathan Mainwaring.”
“Then he is dead?”
“You’ll get the answer to that one when I’m ready to give it. Nobody’s tried to — to make any trouble for Mrs. Mainwaring yet, have they?”
“Trouble?” Eldritch bellowed. ‘Nobody but you, you — you snake. Seeing you shoot down her poor, defenseless husband and then snatch his body — “
“I didn’t shoot him!” McGee raged. “And she didn’t even see him shot. All she saw was a poor, dumb Irishman sticking his neck out, to save her’ life.”
“Listen, Sam,” Eldritch’s tone grew wheedling. “What’s this all about anyhow? Why’d you go there in the first place ? What have you done with that man’s body? You got some screwball idea in your noggin, I suppose, but it’s the kind of an idea’ll get you burned, sure as guns!”
“It might, at that,” McGee agreed soberly. “Listen, Paul, while I tell you what happened. You won’t believe it, but listen anyhow. Ten days ago, Jonathan Mainwaring hired me to guard him from attempted murder — “
“Who’d he think was gonna knock him off?” Eldritch barked.
“Hilda Mainwaring — his wife.”
“Wh-a-at? Why you low-down … . Trying to throw the blame on that poor, grieving — “
“Shut up!” McGee snarled harshly. “I’m only telling you what he told me. His wife talked him into taking out a half-million-dollar paid-up life insurance policy two weeks ago. She argued that it was the only safe investment with conditions the way they are today and Mainwaring did it. The half-million was and is payable to his wife. Mainwaring didn’t think anything of that until, a few days later, he accidentally opened some of his wife’s mail and found it was all answers to her inquiries about steamship tickets and chinchilla coats and Pierce Arrow cars and the like. When he handed the letters to her, she denied knowing anything about them or ever making the inquiries.”
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Only Thinking of Her
Eldritch growled something unintelligible.
“Go on, scum,” he spat then. “Mainwaring was a rabbity little Homer Feep kind of guy, outside of business hours, but he loved his wife. He tried to shut out his suspicions, but they wouldn’t shut. Then, to top it, a man calls him at his office and says to tell Mrs. Mainwaring she can get a special bargain on some jewelry she was pricing. Mainwaring carried the word home and again his wife denied ever hearing of the firm or the jewelry.”
“You mean,” Eldritch said heavily, “she got him to take out insurance for half a million slugs and then started getting set to spend it before she whittled him off?”
“That’s how it looked. Mainwaring was scared and sick, but he wouldn’t go to the police. Instead, he came to me, begging not for protection for himself but for me to figure some way to break up the scheme before his wife got into trouble. He still was thinking only of her.”
“So what did you do?”
“Investigated a little,” McGee shrugged. “It sounded crazy and after I saw Hilda Mainwaring, I was sure it was a sour pie. You’ve seen her. She’s one of the sweetest, finest little ladies on earth. Nobody could imagine her as a killer. At least I couldn’t and I told Mainwaring so. I tried to quit and he raised the ante to keep me on. I stuck a few more days, with no signs of trouble, and went out there tonight to tell him I was all washed up.”
“So,” Eldritch broke in, “you got to arguing and he called you some names and maybe made a pass at you so you grabbed out your rod — “
“Don’t be an ass,” McGee snarled. I got there and followed him into his den to talk. He stepped in first and some guy outside opened up through the window. At least two shots got Mainwaring and knocked him back into me. Before I could untangle and snatch my own gun, the guy had vanished. Then Mrs. Mainwaring appeared and like a flash, I saw the whole dirty frameup. So I snatched — “
“Like a flash,” Eldritch growled sarcastically. “You and your flashes. Of all the phony gags I ever heard — “
“All right,” McGee rapped suddenly. “The devil with you. I didn’t figure you’d hear me out. I’m going to play it my own way and let you eat dirt when its over. So long, sucker.”
“Wait, Sam!” Eldritch caught at McGee’s arm, swinging him back. “Look, I’m sorry I butted in. Go on and spill the rest.”
“Okay. Here’s the way the whole thing came to me. Somebody on the outside put a bug in Mrs. Mainwaring’s ear about the insurance. They sold her such a bill of goods that she sold her husband, figuring it was the right thing. When he took out the insurance, that set the stage. After that, this outsider went ahead with phony inquiries to big firms, using Mrs. Mainwaring’s name and fixing it so the answers would get to her husband, apparently by accident.”
“But, why? Why? It don’t make a bit of sense, Sam.”
“Why? You ape, to make Mainwaring suspect his wife and go to the police, that’s why. He’d go to you and you’d do just what I did — snoop around, tell him he was crazy and forget the whole thing. Then he’d really get killed and you’d say ‘Ah-ha’ and pull her in.”
Eldritch sank onto the running board, holding his head.
“So we pull her in and who collects any insurance?” he groaned. “You know darn well insurance companies won’t pay off if the beneficiary’s supposed to have bumped the policy holder, you dope.”
“Sure. But it wouldn’t take you more than a few days at the most to run into a stone wall on your investigation. You couldn’t pin anything on her because there’d be nothing to pin. You’d let her go and she’d collect the insurance.”
“So what?” Eldritch growled belligerently.
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Sitting On Your Brains Again
McGee snorted, as if in derision at Eldritch’s ignorance.
“So whoever’s behind the scheme,” he said, “forces her to hand over the money, telling her he has proof she killed her husband, and making the frame look so good that it scares her into doing as he says. Then he kills her, making it look like suicide, and leaving a fake suicide note confessing the murder of her husband. Maybe he even burns up a pile of dollar bills and says in the note that her conscience nagged her until she destroyed the blood money. That would close the case forever. Murder solved, guilty party punished and money accounted for. The real killer would be absolutely in the clear, with half a million to spend as he pleased and nobody to trip him up.”
“That,” Eldritch gusted, “is absolutely the most outlandish pipe dream I ever heard. You’ve done a whale of a lot of talking but you still don’t give any reason for beating it off with Mainwaring’s corpse.”
“You’re sitting on your brains again,” McGee said wearily. “Look, sonny boy. Without the corpse you can’t prove death, can you? All right, and until you can prove Mainwaring’s death, the insurance company won’t pay off. So I’m standing between somebody and a half-million take, and Mrs. Mainwaring’s in the clear. The killer had a good scheme, but I made it back-fire. Sure Mainwaring’s dead — as dead as your imagination — but nobody’ll know it officially until the guy who killed him is dead or behind bars. You want to make something of it?”
Eldritch tugged at his thinning hair.
“When I think how peaceful crime was before you opened shop!” he mumbled. “So who’s behind this carnival of murder you got so beautifully doped out, Screwball? How you gonna trip the murderer?”
“It’s between three men,” McGee said thoughtfully. “When I walked into the murder tonight, I got a flash of this idea and worked by instinct when I snatched the body. Most of this I reconstructed afterward when I had time to think. At first it was simply that nobody had any other reason to kill Mainwaring. He was such a harmless, likable little guy, with no enemies and his business completely on the square. That was why I jumped to this idea of why he was killed. Then, thinking back, I figured who might be behind it.
“For one, there’s a fellow named Ashley, the insurance agent who wrote the policy. He’d insured Hilda Mainwaring before and was a frequent caller there. Then there’s Lofting, Mainwaring’s lawyer, who was an old family friend and the guy she jilted to marry Mainwaring. The third possibility is Luger, the family doctor. When Mainwaring first came to me, he’d been doing some nosing and had found out that either Luger or Lofting suggested the insurance. He thought Ashley, the agent, hadn’t been brought in until afterward, though nobody’s in a better spot to plan such a deal than the guy who sold the policy.”
“All right,” Eldritch said briskly, getting to his feet. “You maybe got something, at that, Mac. I’ll put men to work on all three of ‘em right away. You hand in Mainwaring’s body and I’ll call off the hounds. Of course, you’ll have to sit in jail for a couple of days but if this works out like you got it doped. I’ll see you get clear.”
“Oh, no,” McGee cried violently. “You don’t slap my pants in any jail-house while you investigate. The guy behind this will be too clever to leave holes, and I’ll wind up behind the usual eight ball. There’s only one way to get the killer. I keep the body of Mainwaring and use it to smoke out the guilty rat. He’ll be desperate to get his hands on that corpse.”
“You crazy mick!” Eldritch bawled furiously. “You play ball my way or I’ll send you over if it’s the last thing I do! Either come down with me now or I’ll have a ‘shoot-to-kill’ broadcast on you and put every reserve cop in town on — “
“I was afraid you’d be stubborn.”
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Sam McGee sighed regretfully.
His left fist balled and came up from his side. Eldritch heard the sharp rustle of McGee’s raincoat as the blow started. He tried to dodge and succeeded only in ramming his big square jaw straight into the punch. He sighed explosively and went down in a heap.
McGee rummaged around the garage, found a coil of clothesline rope and used it effectively. Finally he gagged the inspector and rolled his limp form into a corner.
“A fine cop you are,” McGee snorted at the deaf ears. “You forgot to tell me I was under arrest.”
He climbed into the inspector’s small sedan, kicked over the motor and backed out the driveway into the street. Ten minutes of tortuous driving along twisted streets brought him to the south edge of the city. He turned onto a small, rutted country road and drove steadily until the road ended suddenly at the edge of a cavernous pit.
McGee got out and stood for a moment, staring down into the pit. It had stopped raining, now, and the lightening sky reflected on the gleam of water far below. Off to one side, the headlights caught the gaunt framework of a steam shovel and the towering bulk of sifting screens.
This was a clay pit, the only one of its kind in that part of the country, from which a local pottery manufacturer dug a peculiar shade of red clay for the making of vases and lamps. It was deserted at this hour of the night, with not even a watchman on duty.
McGee stood for a moment, staring grimly down at the blackness of the pit. Then he gingerly let himself over the edge, slid down the greasy clay slope for a few yards and scrambled back up. When he reached the top, he was a mess. His pants legs and raincoat were liberally smeared with red clay and his feet were merely shapeless blobs of the same substance.
McGee spent twenty minutes cleaning himself off, removing the worst of the accumulation. Then he got back into Eldritch’s car and drove rapidly back into the city.
He stopped presently beside a white house, set back from a wide street. A small illuminated sign on the lawn bore the name “J. L. Luger, M. D.” There were lights on in the house, despite the lateness of the hour, and a big sedan was parked in the driveway.
McGee hesitated, scowling. Finally he shifted his gun back to his side pocket, went up over the lawn and rang the bell.
Presently a light came on overhead. The door opened, framing a chubby man with a black Vandyke beard and gold-rimmed spectacles. He stared at McGee’s gaunt, mud-smeared figure and his lips tightened.
“You Doc Luger?” McGee growled.
“I am. What is wrong? An accident, perhaps?”
“Not yet, Doc,” McGee said grimly. “But any minute, now, if you don’t behave. Scram along inside and don’t beef.”
He jammed his gun into the chubby man’s paunch and pushed. The pressure of the gun and McGee’s menacing attitude drove the bearded man backward. McGee followed him into a white-trimmed entry hall, kicked the door shut with one muddy heel, and jerked his head toward a lighted doorway down the hall.
“In there. Doc. And don’t get any ideas. This thing goes bang and somebody gets hurt every time.”
“What — what’s the meaning of this intrusion, sir?” Luger found his voice. “Put that weapon down or I shall call the police.”
“What’s wrong, John?” A slim, immaculate, gray-haired man suddenly appeared in the hall doorway, his eyes widening at the sight of McGee and the gun. “Shall I call for help?”
“Go ahead,” McGee suggested gently, moving the gun. “Try it, friend.”
He jerked his head toward Luger.
“Who’s this monkey, Doc?”
“I,” the slim man said frigidly, “am Cyrus Lofting, attorney-at-law. I demand to know the meaning of this outrage!”
“Lofting!” McGee’s breath gusted out and a grin tugged at his wide lips, “This is just perfect. Inside, you two, and don’t crowd to see who gets shot. If you behave, nobody will.”
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The Sawbones and the Mouthpiece
He forced the two furious men ahead of him, into a comfortable, book-lined den, slapped a careless hand over their pockets, then nudged them down into chairs. McGee himself took a stand in the center of the floor, gun in hand, face twisted in an ugly snarl.
“The sawbones and the mouthpiece. This is fine.” His lips twisted in a crooked grin. “You want to see Mainwaring again?”
He shot that question out suddenly, harshly, studying them narrowly. Both men started violently and wariness came into their eyes.
“Yeah, I’m Sam McGee, if that’s what you’re thinking. Screwball McGee — Eight Ball McGee. The only guy in this whole town who knows where Mainwaring is right this minute.”
“Wh-where is he?” Dr. Luger choked, bending forward. “Is he badly hurt? What have you done with him? I’ve got to see him. He may need medical — “
“Anything he needs,” McGee cut in flatly, “I’ll give him. If you want to see Jonathan Mainwaring again, start digging.”
“Digging?” Lofting echoed blankly. “Digging — deep into the bankroll, shyster. I’ve got Mainwaring and I’m keeping him until some of his pals want to see him bad enough to dig up twenty-five grand.”
“You — you scoundrel!” Lofting burst out furiously. “Don’t you realize that kidnaping is a capital offense? You’ll go to the chair for this!”
“Just remember that,” — McGee grinned nastily — “when you get any ideas about tricking me. I can’t fry any browner for knocking off a couple of dopes who got in my way. Are you going to play ball?”
“It’s murder!” Luger cried hoarsely. “Jonathan was wounded. He may die for want of medical aid.”
“If you love him so,” McGee sneered, “buy him back and get to work, Doc. It’s all up to you.”
“But we can’t raise twenty-five thousand dollars in a minute!”
“That’s okay.” McGee shrugged expansively. “I’ll give you until noon tomorrow. If you spill to the cops or try to cross me, you’ll never see Mainwaring again. I got him at a place where nobody’ll ever find him — dead or alive. You raise the dough and I’ll phone you at noon tomorrow and tell you where to leave it. Now sit tight and behave yourselves. I’m leaving and you’d better not try to stop me.”
He stood in the doorway a moment, studying their furious faces. Then, with a mocking salute, he spun around and ran out of the house. No one followed or tried to stop him.
Ten minutes later, McGee drew up in front of an imposing apartment building. It was the type using an automatic elevator and at this hour, the lobby was deserted. McGee barged boldly in, consulted the directory, then took the stairs to the third floor. At the door of three-ten he leaned on the button and waited, hearing the muted whine of the buzzer inside.
After several minutes he heard shuffling steps beyond the panels and the door slid open, to frame a heavyeyed man in striped pajamas and blue dressing gown. The man’s sleepy eyes slid over McGee and down to the gun in his hand. Abruptly the sleepiness vanished, replaced by startled fear.
“You Ashley, the insurance peddler?” McGee growled.
“Y-yes, I’m — “
“Then inside, lug. I want to talk to you.”
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Incontrovertible Facts As The Law Would See Them
Driving the scared salesman backward, McGee slammed the door and jerked his head at a chair.
“I’ll make this short and sweet, guy. You know what happened to Mainwaring tonight, don’t you? Okay, I’m Sam McGee.”
He waited, watching Ashley’s eyes flick over his mud-smeared clothing.
“You know who I am and you know I’m tough and desperate. I got me a new wrinkle and I need you to help me play it, see. I’ve got Mainwaring in a safe place and he ain’t too badly knocked around. If he gets fixed up soon enough, he might live. If he lives, your company doesn’t have to pay out half a million bucks in cold cash. If he kicks off, you’re stuck. So how much is it worth to keep your trap shut and buy him back, all in one piece?”
“I — I — “ Ashley wet his lips, swallowed noisily, and tried again. “I don’t — I mean, I never heard of such a thing. You want the Pinnacle Insurance Company to pay ransom for one of their policy holders to keep him from being killed?”
“Right,” McGee barked crisply. “You pay twenty-five grand or you pay half a million. Make up your minds — but make ‘em up fast. If anybody beefs to the law about this, Mainwaring dies and your outfit has to pay. I’ll give you until noon tomorrow to work it out. I’ll phone you here, at noon. If you want to save four hundred and seventy-five grand, it’s your only chance.”
“I — I’ll talk it over with them,” Ashley said.
“Don’t strain a tonsil doing it,” McGee growled, and turned to the door. “Remember, one phony play anywhere along the line and Mainwaring is all through. I get the same chair if I’m caught, whether he lives or dies, so I’ve got nothing to lose.”
He went out, slamming the door.
In the sticky, ink-black darkness that preceded dawn, McGee crouched in the mud beside the little supply shanty on the edge of the red clay pit. His gun was in his hand and every nerve in his body was wire-tight with a tension that put an aching sickness in the pit of his stomach.
This was the payoff. He had stuck his neck out to the limit, now. If his scheme failed, it was the electric chair for Sam McGee, and no fooling about it.
He had Jonathan Mainwaring’s body and he had attempted extortion. Whatever his motive, those were the incontrovertible facts as the law would see them.
And from those facts, a jury could deduce only one answer — “We find the defendant, Samuel McGee, guilty as charged!”
Suddenly the tension flowed out of McGee’s body, leaving him cold and ready. Somewhere, off in the near darkness, a faint splash had betrayed an incautious footstep. Someone was coming, walking quietly through the night.
His scheme was working! But so much still depended on the soundness of McGee’s guesses — and it was all crazy guesswork.
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A Desperate Gamble
Quietly McGee stood up close to the wall, waiting. Now that he was listening in the right direction, he heard other tiny sounds. The figure was coming closer, closer.
Without warning it was there — a blacker blackness at the door of the shanty. McGee could hear muted breathing, then the soft scrape of metal against wood. He tensed himself, lifted the gun and leaped at the dark figure.
He slammed into a thick, muscular body. There was a quick grunt of surprise and the body jerked furiously. McGee felt the cold hardness of a gun and slapped it away with his left hand, an instant before its flaming thunder split the night. Cursing, McGee wrestled with his unknown victim, slipping and splashing through the rain-soaked clay. He was clinging to the man’s gun hand, fighting to keep the gun from exploding again, and his adversary was clinging with equal desperation to McGee’s gun. Neither spoke a word beyond grunted profanity.
Suddenly McGee’s foot slipped and he started skidding. The movement help jerked his own gun hand free. He fell onto the body before him and slammed the barrel of his gun at a spot where he figured the head would be. It connected with a solid, satisfying thock. The squirming body went limp and McGee fell on it. This time he used his free hand to locate the unseen head and struck it again, hard enough to insure a long period of inactivity.
Then, grunting and panting, McGee kicked open the shack door and dragged his victim inside. With the door shut, he struck a cautious match and stared at the blank face of the man he had jumped. A gasping curse rushed out of his lungs.
He was staring at a square, reddish, totally unfamiliar face. For a moment, a sick sense of failure flooded McGee. He had banked his life on a desperate gamble and had failed.
Suddenly he lit another match and fumbled at the stranger’s pocket, turning out a sheaf of papers and a small, black case. He looked inside the case and the sickness went out of his nerves.
It bore the card with the name, “Martin Eckson, Insurance Investigator.” McGee got up suddenly, blowing out the match.
“One down and two to go,” he whispered softly. “The killer had better be one of those two, or … “
He started to turn away and swung his face full into the beam of an electric torch that suddenly flamed at him from the doorway. He had left the shack door ajar when he dragged the insurance investigator inside and this other man had slipped up to it without a betraying sound.
The flash beam caught McGee flatfooted. He blinked at it for a dazed moment while a man’s voice, harsh and scratchy with tension, cried:
“There you are, you murdering kidnaper!”
The words were still coming from the unseen lips when the gun went off. It flamed behind the light and something like a padded hammer slammed into McGee’s shoulder and spun him around. He felt his own gun go flying across the shack, then he was sinking down onto his knees, scrabbling for it with his left hand.
The man with the flashlight came leaping forward and crashed into him, sending lances of pain through McGee’s wounded shoulder. He went over backward, using his knees and his left hand to fight off the kicking, clawing fury of the attack. He was weak and dizzy from the wound, but he managed to get leverage for his knees and force the other man back so that he could swing a solid punch with his left hand.
The punch connected and the flashlight went rolling across the floor. McGee reared up, following his advantage, and punched again. The man grunted and rolled away from him.
A face flopped into the wash of the light and McGee’s breath caught as he saw the unmistakable dark Vandyke beard of Dr. J. L. Luger, the Mainwaring’s personal physician.
Luger still held the nickel-plated pistol with which he had shot McGee, but he was dopey from the blows, and slow getting up. McGee reared forward and punched again. The doctor went out for keeps.
“That ties it,” McGee panted, struggling to his feet and using the flashlight to find his own gun. “Now for the payoff.”
Weak and dizzy, he struggled across the shack and stumbled out into the darkness. He had taken two steps across the wet clay when his knees suddenly gave out and he went down.
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You’re Covered, McGee!
He was still pitching forward when bright lights stabbed out from all sides, pinning him pitilessly in their glare. McGee knew the lights were on him and that men were pounding forward, but all he could do was sit tn the mud and sob harshly. Then machine-guns in the hands of the sharply halting men were on him.
“You’re covered, McGee!” It was Inspector Eldritch’s voice, lashing at him out of the darkness. “One move and you’ll be blasted! Throw away your gun.”
McGee moved weakly and the gun tumbled into the mud. Then Eldritch and half a dozen of his men in plain clothes, followed by uniformed officers were swarming over and around him, covering him with machine-guns and pistols and automatic rifles as Eldritch slapped at his clothing.
“You crazy Irishman, you’ve really fixed yourself now!” shouted Eldritch. “I almost believed your insane yarn back there until you knocked me out. Then, when I came to and worked myself loose, I found out about your going to Mainwaring’s friends with a ransom demand and — “
“Sitting — on your — brains,” McGee gasped, then he managed a twisted grin. “You dope, I — “
“Hey, Inspector!” One of the uniformed men was racing back from an inspection of the shack.
“Mainwaring ain’t there, but two other guys are — Doc Luger and an investigator named Eckson from Pinnacle Insurance.”
“Luger?” Eldritch whirled, staring at McGee’s grinning face through narrowed eyes. “Irish, what’s behind this, anyhow? What was Luger doing out — “
“Who called you?” McGee cut in, recovering some of his strength. “Lofting, the lawyer, wasn’t it?”
“Of course it was,” Eldritch snapped. “He’s right here with us now. Luger fell for your scheme and wanted to raise the money to save Mainwaring. Lofting did the right thing, though. He came straight to the police and told the whole story.”
“That’s right, McGee,” Lofting himself snapped pushing his white face into the circle of light. “You ought to know better than to expect an attorney, sworn to uphold the law, to play along with your schemes.”
“You dope,” McGee growled, grinning at Eldritch. “Lofting’s the guy who shot Mainwaring. I got a good look at him as he fired through the window but I didn’t know who he was, then. Later, when I went around calling, I saw him and recognized him instantly as the killer I’d seen shooting lead into Mainwaring.”
“That’s a lie!” Lofting yelled furiously, his face contorted with rage. “You were out of sight in the hall — “ He stopped short, catching at the words, staring wildly around at the circle of gaping faces.
“That was what McGee himself told me, tonight,” he creaked hoarsely. “He said he’d been out in the hall so he couldn’t see the killer. He — “
McGee laughed harshly.
“That won’t buy you anything in court, Paul, but it points the way. You can see he’s the guilty rat, Inspector, and with that to go on you’ll be able to dig up evidence enough to burn him. Of course I didn’t get a look at the killer, or I wouldn’t have gone out on a limb like I did tonight. I had to smoke him out the hard way — and I did.”
“But — but Luger and that detective — “ Eldritch cried, bewildered.
“My brains,” McGee said modestly. “I called on all three suspects with a wild yarn. But I first came out here and daubed myself with red clay. It’s the only red clay in this section and I took good care to parade around where they’d notice it. I could just see their eyes glitter when they spotted my ‘carelessness.’ This would make a good hide-out, so each one figured I had Mainwaring hidden out here at the clay pit. I wanted them to think that so their reactions would betray the guilty one. But I made it definite that any police interference would get Mainwaring killed.
“Ashley and Doc Luger both wanted Mainwaring found alive, if possible, so they kept away from the police. Luger showed the most nerve by coming out alone to try to,’rescue’ his friend. Ashley brought in a clever insurance detective. But Lofting, here, didn’t want Mainwaring found alive. All he wanted was his corpse located, to establish evidence of death so the insurance money would be paid. So Lofting went straight to the cops — and wrote his ticket to the chair.”
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That Irish Imbecile Wiggles Out of the Last Walk
Eldritch clenched his fists and looked at the sky.
“By heck,” he groaned. “By heck, he’s done it again. I get that Irish imbecile ticketed for the last walk and he wiggles out of … Watch him!”
Lofting, taking advantage of momentary inattention, was whirling away in a desperate bid for freedom. He kneed one bluecoat, butted another, and sprang out of the light.
A policeman off to one side raised his tommy-gun. It stuttered for a second and something heavy and limp went crashing down into the deep clay pit to land with a splash far below. There were no further sounds of movement.
Eldritch mopped his forehead.
“Oh, well. That’s the only kind of a trial where you can’t fix the jury. Listen, you Screwball, where is Mainwaring’s body? We’ve torn the town apart tonight — “
McGee laughed. “You always said the only friend I had in town was Jake, the morgue keeper, Paul. Jake was a real friend, tonight. He helped me undress Mainwaring’s corpse, ticketed it as a floater out of the river, and stuck it in the John Doe cooler at the police morgue.”
~ The End ~