The basement of the flower store was chill with dampness; the naked light-bulb above the work table glaring harshly, piled up huge, crouching shadows in the corners, police coat buttons.
It glinted on Detective Clint Fleming pushed his brown felt hat farther back on his crinkly black hair and contemplated the body at his feet. Then he turned and swung sharp eyes at the group huddled behind him.
“I suppose,” he said wearily, “none of you know anything about this—”
Three heads shook quickly, involuntarily.
Clint Fleming glanced down again at the body of the slender young man. A florist’s knife—the kind used for trimming flowers—was in his chest, in the center of a crimson splash on his white shirtfront. Only the green enameled handle was visible. The head and shoulders were part way under the worktable, and the thin little coroner was complaining bitterly as he crawled out, stood up and brushed off his knees.
“Why,” he asked no one, “do corpses always get themselves in such awkward positions?”
He picked up his worn satchel, clapped his hat on his head, and said briskly, “I’ll send my report around as usual. Fellow’s been dead about ten hours.”
Clint Fleming nodded absently, and nudged the gilt letters that lay in confusion on the cement floor with the toe of his shoe. In his hand he held the letter U he had picked from the dead man’s fingers. The pigeonholed box that had held the letters lay overturned, empty. A cluster of M’s were scattered near the lifeless hand.
“Okay, cover him up,” Detective Fleming jerked over his shoulder to one of the blue-coated officers. Then he turned back to the silent three.
The redhead was crying soundlessly into her handkerchief.
“All right,” he said, “let’s get down to cases. Tell me again what happened.”
The girl spoke. Her name was Pat Murray; she was new in the store, learning the flower business. She had discovered the body of Fred Jensen that morning when she had come down to the basement to bring up some vases.
“Who called the police?” Clint asked.
The tall, sallow young man on the girl’s right answered. “I did. I’m Jack Unger. I deliver the orders. Pat came screaming up the stairs—”
“Unger,” Clint repeated. He glanced down at the paper letter in his hand and his gray eyes narrowed.
The young man flushed. “Just because that letter was—” he moistened dry lips— “in Fred’s hand, it doesn’t mean—”
“Damn it,” Clint interrupted sharply, “it means something! Why would he have picked out a U? You use these letters to print out sentiments on ribbons, don’t you? For funeral pieces?”
At his last words the girl squeezed her blue eyes shut, pressed the back of her hand against her mouth. Her slim shoulders trembled under her smock. Jack Unger touched her arm lightly and she drew away.
“It’ll be all right, Pat,” he said softly.
She did not answer.
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The man on her left spoke for the first time. He was short and stocky,, his black eyes antagonistic.
“Listen, Mister,” he told Clint, “Pat’s had about all she can stand. We don’t know any more than we told you.”
Clint looked at him. A brief smile flickered on his lips. Then he shrugged. “Sure,” he said kindly, “but somebody has to ask questions. The Chief has plopped this case in my lap. It’s up to me.”
Clint thought: this being a detective isn’t so hot. Nobody likes you —they’re afraid if they do you’ll turn around and pin a murder rap on them.
He glanced at Pat and she looked hastily away. Any other time, under the right circumstances, a girl like that would smile if a fellow’s eyes showed that he thought— Clint broke off his thoughts. He hadn’t missed the look that crossed her face when Unger touched her arm. Or the fact that the paper U in his hand was the second letter of her last name. It was also the second letter of murder.
Had Fred Jenson been trying to spell cut something?
“Where’s the boss?” Clint asked suddenly. “Who is the Davies this store is named after?” He looked a question at the stocky, dark man.
“My name’s Herb Martin. Thomas Davies owns the store. He’s usually here, but he’s been home the past few days. Heart trouble.”
“He’s been notified?”
The man nodded. “He said the police are welcome to come out and he’ll tell them what he knows.” Clint made a wry face. “Helpful people rarely know anything of use,” he observed. He started to walk toward the stairs that led up into the shop.
“I wouldn’t take any sudden trips, if I were you,” he told them. Then, with his hand on the wooden banister, he stopped. He took r deep breath of the damp air.
He turned to Pat Murray and asked slowly, “Isn’t that lilacs I smell?”
She nodded and pointed to a large table that stood against a gloom-shrouded wall. “They’re over there. We have more upstairs.”
Clint pursed his lips. His words, when he brought them out, were careful. “Last week I tried to buy some lilacs—I was told that the season has been over for a half a month. How come you still have them?”
The girl started to speak, but Herb Martin interrupted with,
“So we’re lucky? So what difference does that make?”
“None at all—I suppose,” Cliff told him slowly. Then he leaned forward and his words were chill, “You know,” he said, “I don’t think I’m going to like you. And if I were you—I wouldn’t make me positive of it.”
Then he looked past the man. “You can have the body taken away,” he told one of the officers.
He went on up the stairs.
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Tom Davies seemed more than anxious to help and he sat in a deep leather chair, his bread face puckered into a frown of worry, his fingers picking at the front of his dressing gown. His false teeth flashed whitely when he spoke.
“A terrible thing,” he said. “A terrible thing, really. Fred was a nice boy. Why anyone should—”
“He had no enemies?”
Tom Davies’ eyebrows drew down. “I don’t want to say anything that will put blame—but, well, he and Tack Unger were both interested in Pat.”
“And she preferred Jensen?”
The man nodded. “I don’t think Jack would have—”
“What about Herb Martin?”
“Ob, he’s all right. Bit of a temper, but—”
Clint sighed. “You think Unger did it?”
Davies stiffened. “I didn’t say that! In fact—” his eyes narrowed— “this would be just the sort of thing Mike Slone would have wanted to happen. He—” He broke off.
“Well, Slone has the flower shop on the next corner. He’s been fighting me for years. Plenty tough customer. Lately he’s been making threats.”
Davies waved a vague hand. “Says I ruin his business.”
Clint murmured deep in his throat. Then he stood up. “I’ll go around and see him.” He put out his hand. Davies took it, gripped it tightly.
“I’m going to try to get down to the shop tomorrow,” the florist said. “Let me know if you find out anything.”
Clint grinned crookedly at him. “You’ll know,” he promised.
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Clint parked his car at the curb, and went o the door of “Davies Flowers” and rapped on the glass. Pat came to let him in. She was alone.
“How come you didn’t go home?” Fleming wanted to know.
She smiled thinly at him. “I’d rather work—it keeps my mind busy. There are a lot of orders to get out. Phone orders.” She jerked her red head at the crowd clustered outside the plate glass windows. “Would they love to come in and stare.” “Probably you can open the store tomorrow,” Clint told her. “But, where is everybody?”
“Herb is out having lunch; Jack is delivering.”
“Look,” Clint asked, “mind if I talk to you?”
She shook her head and walked back to the counter on which she had been working. She picked up a snapdragon spike and with deft fingers stripped off the leaves.
Clint watched her until she had finished the bunch. Then she took the coppery blossoms, put them in a water-filled vase. Her hands stopped as Clint asked slowly, “Was Fred Jensen in love with you?”
She stood a moment, her red lip caught in her teeth, then she answered, “Yes, I guess he was. I liked him—that was all.”
“And Jack Unger?”
She turned to him then. “Mr. Davies said that Jack killed Fred because of me?” she demanded.
Clint lifted one shoulder. “Could be.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said hotly. “Simmer down—nobody’s accusing him. You like him, huh?”
Pat tossed her head. “No,” she said flatly.
“He’s been trying to change your mind—and Fred didn’t like that?”
“Well—” she began, then her voice trailed off. Nervously she picked up a glass bottle, unscrewed the cap, poured two white pellets into her palm and dropped them into the vase that held the snapdragons.
“What’s that?” Clint asked curiously.
“Aspirin. It makes them last longer.”
“As long as three weeks?” Clint’s words were quick. “Or more?”
The girl looked startled. “I don’t know—” she faltered.
Clint leaned toward her, over the counter. “Doesn’t it strike you strange that you have flowers out of season when no one else has?” He pointed to a bowl of yellow roses in the window. “How long have they been there?”
Pat followed his motion. “Well, they’re pretty expensive; they haven’t sold.”
“About three and a half weeks.” Clint looked thoughtful. “See you later, chick,” he said abruptly, “I’m going down the street.”
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U In Murder
Mike Sloan’s store was called “The Patio.” It was smaller than Davies’ flower shop. A small, pasty-faced man came around the counter as Clint entered.
“Can I help you?” he began.
“You Mike Slone?”
The man bobbed his head. “That’s right.”
“Detective Fleming,” Clint said. “Investigating the murder of Fred Jensen. Did you know him?”
Mike Slone swallowed hastily. “Yes, I’d seen him around. Poor boy. I heard—”
Clint leaned against a glass case, dug in his pocket, pulled out a crushed package of cigarettes, selected one and lit it. He blew out a cloud of blue smoke and asked, “Know anything about him?”
Slone shook his head hastily. “Seemed like a bright boy. Lots of times I wished he was working for me—but I don’t know anything that would help you.”
Clint dragged on his cigarette.
“Davies says you’ve threatened him.”
The little man’s pale blue eyes widened. “I may have done some talking, but I didn’t mean anything by it, honest! He does a good business, and I guess sometimes I get jealous.”
Clint looked thoughtful. “I see.” He shrugged, then, “Well, thanks. I’ll be going—”
Clint left the store, got into his car. His eyes were narrowed, speculative. That gilt U—where did it fit? U for Unger, U in Murray, U in murder … .
He steered his coupe through the traffic over to the West side where Jensen had lived. It was a red- bricked rooming house with a sign, “To Let” in a lower, dirt-smeared window.
The landlady leaned on her broom and waved him crossly up the stairs when he asked Jensen’s room number. He’d sent Wilson and the fingerprint gang over earlier.
Wilson opened the door at Clint’s knock. He grinned at the detective. “Though you’d be showing up soon.” Fleming glanced quickly around. “What you find?”
Wilson spread wide hands. “Everything—and nothing.” He waved a hand at the disorder of opened bureau drawers, clothes scattered on the floor, the bed ripped apart. “Place was like this when we came. The door had been forced. Somebody was powerfully anxious to find something—”
Clint scarcely heard him, for he had walked a few steps, stooped and picked up a half dozen yellow pencils from the floor. He whistled a thin thread of a tune from between set teeth as he studied them. All the points were well worn down. There were teeth marks at the eraser ends.
“Seems,” he observed half to himself, “that our friend Mr. Jensen did a powerful lot of writing lately. Wonder what?”
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The next afternoon Clint Fleming was exactly where he had been the day before—nowhere near a solution. He’d been to see the a solution. He’d been to see the chief —which did nothing for his ego, as Chief Cummings had said he’d better start showing some action, or else. And the “or else” had been punctuated by the slam of a big fist on the top of a desk … .
He walked into the Davies’ flower store and Pat looked up from some violets she was stemming and came over to him. She looked better today —prettier, if possible. Some color had flowed back into her cheeks; her eyes had lost that reddened look.
“Hello there,” Clint said. He smiled, and Pat smiled back. This was more like it— “Your boss in?” he asked.
The girl nodded, motioned with her red-curled head toward the balcony that ran half way around the inside of the store.
“He’s up in his office.” She rested quick fingers on his arm. “Have you found out anything?” she asked worriedly. Clint shook his head, and glanced past her to where Herb Martin and Jack Unger were standing. Neither smiled, and Herb’s eyes were chill as they met Clint’s In Unger’s, Clint saw sudden jealousy flare. Strangely, Clint wanted to grin—both those men were jealous of him! Of course, it was no wonder when a girl looked like Pat. …
“See you later, chick,” he told her softly.
He turned and almost tripped over a flat, wood-slatted crate of roses that lay on the floor behind him. The roses were yellow-red and wrapped tightly in waxed paper. He bent and touched one of the buds with a forefinger—the flowers almost looked artificial.
Then, behind him, someone snapped, “Keep your hands off those flowers!”
He whirled and stared into the narrowed eyes of Herb Martin.
“Why so touchy, Martin?” he asked quietly.
The man’s fist curled. “Roses cost money and I don’t want a dumb cop spoiling them—”
Clint studied him coolly, then deliberately he bent down, broke off a bud and put it in his buttonhole. He gave it a final pat.
“So?” he suggested.
Martin teetered close, his face dark with anger. Then, with an effort he kept his voice quiet. Over his shoulder he said, “Pat, fix Mr. Fleming a gardenia—he wants a boutonniere.”
“Thanks, I already have one,” Clint told him, and turned and went up the stairs that led to Davies’ office.
Davies was behind his desk. “Hello, Mr. Fleming,” he said. He pulled worriedly at his chin.
Clint sat down in a straight-backed chair. “Now,” he began, “have you any idea why Jensen was here, alone, last night? Who closed the store?” Davies leaned back. “He did. I talked to Unger and Martin. They, and Miss Murray left the same time. Fred was going to clean up some things in the basement before he went home. I—” He broke off and stared at the rose in Fleming’s buttonhole. “Where did you get the Talisman?”
Clint grinned. “It’s one of yours.” Davies seemed to be waiting for him to say more. Finally he asked slowly, “Martin give it to you?” “No—I took it. Why?”
Davies laughed falsely. “Martin’s very fussy about the roses. They’re sort of his department—” He tapped on his desk top with a pencil.
Clint’s eyes were narrowed, watching him. “Yeah,” he said absently. Then he got to his feet. “Well, I’ll be shoving. See you around, Davies.” He went down the stairs and stopped at the counter where Pat was making the wired violets into a corsage. Her fingers were stained from the maidenhair fern.
He kept his voice low, and for her ears. “Look,” he said. “Take care of yourself—”
Her eyes widened. “Why—what’s the matter?”
He shrugged briefly. “I don’t know, but there’s plenty. Sometimes I get feelings—and I have one now.” He glanced around the shop. “The answer’s here someplace, if only I could find it—”
Abruptly he drew an order pad toward him and scribbled a number on it. He creased the sheet carefully and dropped it into Pat’s smock pocket. “This is just in case. If you hear anything, or see anything you think I ought to know about—call me.
He caught Martin watching him, so he bent his head to the rose in his lapel. He took a deep sniff.
“This,” he said, “at least smells good—”
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A bell was ringing someplace. For a long time Fleming lay in his bed, his eyes closed, hoping it would go away.
It didn’t. Finally, with a sigh, he opened his eyes and reached for the alarm clock. His hand stopped half way through the motion—the room was dark. It was still night.
He sat up suddenly, awake now. He scooped the telephone receiver from its cradle on the nightstand.
“Hello?” he said sharply.
A voice blurred at the other end. An excited voice; a voice shrill. Clint broke into the words.
“Take it easy—I can’t understand you.”
“This is Clint Fleming, isn’t it?” the voice wanted to know. He recognized it, then.
“Oh, it’s you, Pat,” he said quickly. “What’s wrong?”
“Clint—I’ve found out something!”
“Yes? What? Where are you?”
“I’m down at the store. I came back tonight. After you said you thought the answer was here, I decided to look around—”
“Well, I got to thinking about those Talisman roses. There’s something funny about those crates. I never—”
Clint cut her off. “And what did you find?”
“I—” she began.
There was no answer. Clint’s hand grew clammy on the receiver. He listened—the phone was dead.
“Pat!” he shouted. Still the fear-starting silence.
In one motion he had dropped the phone and was reaching for his clothes. There was only one reason why Pat didn’t answer—and that reason sent the blood from his face, leaving him white-lipped, trembling.
He waited only long enough to pick up his gun.
As Clint Fleming careened his coupe through the deserted streets he suddenly reached up and felt at his buttonhole. The rose was gone; he had lost it someplace.
Mentally he damned himself—he’d had the answer on his lapel and never realized it! But what was the connection ?
He screeched his car to a stop in front of the darkened flower shop, then he thought of calling the chief. But there wasn’t time for that now —not with Pat in danger.
He didn’t expect the front door to be unlocked, but it was. It swung open under his hand and he walked into the store, his gun fisted.
“Pat!” he called. “Where are you?”
His voice echoed back at him, there was no other sound. Just the quiet, cool air, heavy with the scent of flowers.
He walked softly to the basement door, opened it a crack. A light glimmered up from below, and he heard, now, a feverish rustling. Cautiously he started down the wooden
stairs. The third step creaked under his weight, and abruptly the light winked out.
That was all—no sound, just the darkness rushing in.
Clint stood where he was, poised, listening for the rasp of a foot, anything. There was nothing.
He inched his wry forward, and again the stairs protested.
Then, shattering the quiet, splitting the darkness, a gun spoke! Clint heard the bullet ricochet from the cement wall scarcely a foot from his head. But now he knew the direction, now he had a target for his gun.
He pulled the trigger twice, but his aim was wrong. Again the orange flame blossomed, and this time the slug was closer. Too close.
He plunged down into the darkness, firing as he went, aiming a little to the left of the last flash.
There was a sharp cry that slipped down scale into a moan—he hadn’t missed that time! He felt for the light switch at the foot of the stairs, flicked it. The shadows fled.
To the left, by a wooden crate, a man was sprawled. Fleming walked to him, turned him over.
A trickle of blood seeped out of his hair where Clint’s bullet had grazed him.
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Clint looked at the crate. It was the same one he had seen earlier, only now the waxed-paper-wrapped bundles of roses lay scattered on the cement. He stooped, picked up a bunch. The buds were open—but not naturally—they had been forced open. The very center of the roses were missing. And then Clint saw the little pile of white-powder-filled capsules by Martin’s hand.
The detective whistled softly. “Dope,” he murmured. “So that’s the answer—they were smuggling dope in the roses. …”
But that would have to wait. Right now he had something more important to worry about—Pat was still missing.
He turned, went up the stairs, calling her name, searching the office. If she’s here, he thought, she’d answer—if she could.
But there was no sign of the girl— she had disappeared completely.
He was just passing the counter, on his way back downstairs, when his foot caught on something. He reached down and felt it. It was a string—no, it was a ribbon, a long streamer that unwound from the big spool on the counter as he pulled at it.
Where was the other end? He tugged, the ribbon did not give. He hadn’t been able to find the switch that worked the fluorescent lights, so now he struck a match.
The ribbon curled away into the gloom, toward the side of the store. Gathering it in his hand he followed it. It stopped at the crack of a small, narrow door.
Then he knew. Pat was inside—in the refrigerator! He jerked open the door. The chill, icy air struck him as he went inside. He groped on the floor. His fingers overturned a vase, sent it crashing. Then he touched a shoulder, a face, soft hair.
He didn’t breathe as he bent over the girl—was she alive? She was, she stirred slightly and moaned. The other end of the ribbon spool was twisted in her fingers.
He picked her up gently, whispering her name incoherently, and carried her out into the store. He laid her down. He thought savagely. Where is that damn switch—I have to see!
This time he found it, and the fluorescence flooded the room. In its soft glow he studied her face anxiously. Then he took a deep breath. She was going to be all right. Just knocked out.
Her eyes fluttered open and she struggled to sit up. Then she clung to him, sobbing.
“It’s all right, darling,” he soothed. “The roses—” she began brokenly.
“It’s all over. I know about them. Martin’s down in the basement, unconscious.”
“Hush, darling.” He helped her to her feet. “You all right now?”
She nodded, swaying a little.
Clint turned and went to the wall phone. He dialed a number, spoke briefly to the chief. Then he hung up and dialed another number. When a voice answered he said, “Davies— come on down, I’ve found your murderer.”
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The cops were already there when the storeowner came hurrying in. His broad face was tense, and he looked as if he had fallen into his clothes.
He went to where Clint was standing, talking to the chief.
“Who did it?” he demanded. “Was it Unger?”
Fleming shook his head slowly. “Davies, did you know that Martin was in the dope smuggling business?”
The man’s eyes widened and his face paled. “No—” he managed. “You mean, here, in my store?”
Clint nodded. “Yes. That was why he didn’t let anyone touch certain crates of roses but himself—”
“And Fred Jensen must have discovered it,” Davies cut in. “And that was why he killed him.”
The detective shook his head slowly. “That may have been one of the reasons why Jensen had to die—but not the only one. Martin told me before they took him to the hospital. Jensen had discovered a formula for preserving fresh flowers. There’s thousands in such a discovery—”
“Yes. Jensen wanted to patent his formula, which was his right. For that, and because he was getting suspicious—he had to die.”
Davies shook his head bewilderedly. “To think that Martin killed Jensen—”
A faint, hard smile flickered at Fleming’s mouth.
“But he didn’t—”
“You said—well, who did then?” Davies exploded.
Clint’s voice was very quiet. “You did, Davies!”
“You’re insane!” The man backed away.
“You’re the one who’s insane,” the detective said relentlessly. “Martin didn’t know actually who killed Jensen any more than I did—until I began to add things up. The flowers lasting longer in your store than anywhere else. The fact that Jensen’s room was searched. That damn U in Jensen’s fingers—I finally tumbled to the fact that the poor kid had been trying to spell out something … and ‘formula’ is about the only word with a u in it that would fit into the picture.
“You wanted the discovery yourself, didn’t you, Davies? You pictured yourself cornering the flower market—”
“It’s a lie!” Davies cut in shrilly. Fleming went on savagely, as if he hadn’t heard. “You didn’t even trust Martin, so you did it yourself—and tried to pin it on Unger. Failing that, you would have let Martin die for the murder you committed. He’ll get plenty on the dope charge—but you, you’re going to get the chair!”
On his last words, Davies lunged at Clint, his short arms flailing. It was almost pitiful, the ease with which Clint’s rock-hard fist arced up and caught him on the point of his soft jaw.
He sagged to the floor without a sound, and disappeared under a wave of blue-coated backs.
Fleming rubbed skinned knuckles and walked to where Pat was standing, white-faced, her hand to her throat.
He put out an arm and drew her to him. She stared up at him with wide eyes. “How did you know for sure, Clint?” she whispered shakily.
He grinned and kissed her on the tip of her tilted nose. “There was one little thing that really set me thinking—those pencils I found in Jensen’s room. They were all badly chewed. And then I saw Davies playing with a chewed pencil. I knew it wasn’t his, that he had picked it up someplace— It might have been coincidence—but it started me thinking.”
“But how did you know it wasn’t Davies’?”
Fleming laughed deep in his throat. “A guy with false teeth doesn’t go around biting on pencils, does he?”
Then he looked at Pat a long moment. “How good are you at making bridal bouquets?” he asked suddenly.
“Because I got a feeling we’re going to be needing one.”
~ The End ~