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Payoff In Blood by Roy Lopez
The car came closer --- and Judd made a dive for his gun.
Noir

Payoff In Blood

by Roy Lopez

15 Story Detective | Aug. 1950 | Vol. 3, No. 2 THE RED FILE | Oct. 7, 2018 | Vol. 13 No. 47

Judd planned on winding up the double-cross caper with an even trade: he'd take Laurette and the loot — Tony ... the grave.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Tony Marko Was Out

Judd Kamler stared over the rim of his newspaper at the girl who paced the living room floor with long cat-like strides. Judd’s gray eyes were bleak.

“What the devil is the matter with you?”

Laurette whirled on him.

“Why should anything be the matter?”

Something sure as hell is. You’ve been wound up like a two-buck watch for the last few days.”

Laurette didn’t answer. The soft curves of her full, rounded figured like quicksilver beneath the red-panelled black crepe hostess gown. His wife’s pantherish beauty could still do things to Judd even after these six years of virtual isolation, with only Laurette for company. But her present attack of the fidgets really bothered him.

He watched her pour in inch of whiskey into her half-empty highball and drain the glass.

He said, “You’re not worrying about Tony, are you, angel?”

She banged the empty glass hollowly on the table.

“Sure I’m worried. Anybody but a dope like you would be too.”

“Take it easy,” he said. “Tony couldn’t find us in a million years.”

“But if he did — “

“Forget it. He can’t. We’ve moved a half a dozen times these past six years. We’ve covered our tracks every step of the way. Who cares if he’s out? He wouldn’t even know where to start looking.”

Laurette glared at him and reached for the bottle again. Her nervousness began to get through to Judd. For the first time doubts began to stir in his own mind. He thought he had hidden his tracks so that Tony could never find him. But how could he be sure?

It was not a pleasant thing to think about. Six years ago he and Tony Marko had pulled a payroll job back East. The caper had blown up in their faces. The guard had shot Tony in the leg, anchored him there for the cops to grab. Judd had finished the deal, taking a cool hundred thousand plus away with him. But he had killed the guard in doing it.

The outcome had had its good points. Laurette had been Tony’s girl, but she had weighed Judd’s hundred grand against the prospect of starving while she waited for Tony, and the hundred grand had won out.

All during her trial she and Judd had watched the papers, wondering if Tony would sing. He hadn’t. Apparently he was willing to ride the rap alone on the chance that Judd would protect his share of the take.

Judd had smiled about that at the time, when it became apparent how Tony’s mind was working. Tony was still a kid then. He probably really expected Judd to stick by him, keep his fifty thousand all packed up in cellophane and ready to hand over whenever Tony slipped his bonds.

Instead, Judd had spent those six years carefully cutting off every possible trail that could ever lead Tony Marko to him. He had married Tony’s girl and taken Tony’s fifty thousand with him, and he had no intention of ever letting Tony get a look at either of them again. He and Laurette had holed up in Chi, in Mobile, in Dallas. Now they were in California, in a lonely mountain house far above the tiny village of Esperanza.

And Tony Marko was out. With a game leg, the newspaper had said. The guard’s bullet had done a permanent job.

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Chapter 2

The Angry Night

THE angry night wind whirled around the top of the mountain and rattled one of the living room windows like a dog worrying a bone. Judd swore at it under his breath and put down his paper. He crossed the room and threw the window open, working to jam a piece of cardboard back between the loose frame and the sash.

A sound reached his ears and he froze. He knew without turning that Laurette had heard it too.

The car was already half way up the tortuous mountain road. Judd could practically pinpoint it by the sound of the laboring motor, fighting against the steep grade and the corkscrew turns. There were few houses below this one, and none above. Judd listened, his heart rumbling in his thick bull-like chest.

He strained to hear, to read the message the gusts of wind were carrying up to him. Laurette was standing close now and for once the heady perfume she wore meant nothing to him. He was listening to that car motor, listening and figuring.

It would be passing the canyon house three miles below about now. That was the last house short of Judd’s. He waited for the motor to die. It kept coming, slowly, steadily.

Laurette’s gasp at his shoulder was tight and strangled.

“He’s a stranger, Judd! He shifted to second! He doesn’t know the road!”

The back of Judd’s neck began to ache. He and Laurette often laughed at how easily they could tell whether the few cars that climbed the dangerously narrow road were driven by natives, just by following the sound of the motors echoing back and forth between the mountains.

But Judd was not laughing tonight. He remembered how he too had been frightened at first by the deep canyons which gaped at either side of the road. It had been months before he had dared make the drive in anything but second and low.

The motor he was listening to now was telling him something, as clearly as if it could speak. It was telling him that the driver of that car had never driven this road before.

“It’s Tony,” Laurette whispered. “I know it is.”

“Damn it, it can’t be Tony! There’s no way he could trace us, no way at all!”

She didn’t seem to have heard him. He stared down into the canyon again, saw a shaft of light move hesitantly across the face of the opposite mountain and disappear. The motor whined on, louder now.

“It’s somebody from the village,” Judd said. “It must be. Get away from the window so he won’t think we’re watching for anything.”

“Stop giving me orders, Judd. I — “

“Get away from that window!”

Laurette flopped defiantly on to the couch and crossed her legs. Her pale blue eyes, hard and bright beneath her soft chestnut hair, met Judd’s. He sat down and picked up his newspaper again but it lay flat and unnoticed in his lap.

Minutes passed. The car came closer, its motor protesting. Another shaft of light flared in the front window as the automobile turned the final curve, slowed down.

Judd made a dive for the big table, yanked out his gun.

The car motor coughed into silence. The door opened and closed. Feet shuffled on gravel, then footsteps sounded hollowly on the wooden stairs leading up to the porch.

The tightness at the base of Judd’s neck spread into his shoulders, down his back. He stared at Laurette horrified, not daring to believe what he heard.

A heavy step, then a lighter one. Heavy. Light. A man climbing the porch stairs, one step at a time.

A man with a game leg.

Judd clutched the gun in his coat pocket and watched the door, fascinated. He counted the steps as though hypnotized, the two sounds for each step. Then an uneven scraping on the porch.

The rasp of the buzzer set a million tiny needles in motion, jabbing at every inch of Judd’s big frame. He walked slowly to the door, his hand in his coat pocket. The doorknob was wet as he turned it.

“Hello, Judd,” Tony Marko said.

He wasn’t the way Judd remembered him. He had been a big, happy blond kid when Judd had picked him up. He had owned a smile that paid off, a smile which had worked miracles on the jury that had tried him. The smile was still there today, but it was an imitation now. It was as though somebody had taken an impression of Tony Marko’s face as it used to be, and then chiseled a copy of it out of unpolished marble.

“Hello, kid.” Judd’s mouth felt crammed with gauze. “Come on in.”

He saw Tony’s eyes travel to Laurette. The girl’s lips showed dark red on a face drained of color.

“It’s been a long time, beautiful,” Tony mocked. He limped into the room, the game leg stiff and useless, and sank heavily into Judd’s chair.

“Drink, Tony?” Judd said.

“Why not?”

He made the highball in the glass Laurette had been using. Laurette didn’t notice. She and Tony were staring at each other. He saw Laurette’s mouth working as though she were trying to think of something to say.

“How did you find us?” Judd asked casually.

Tony accepted the highball and sipped it. He seemed completely at ease.

“You didn’t cover your tracks as clean as you thought,” he said. “I didn’t have too much trouble.”

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Chapter 3

Tony Demands His Cut

Judd stiffened. He had expected Tony to have some definite answer rigged up. Instead Tony was dodging the question.

“We were planning to contact you, kid,” Judd said. “Soon as you had been out a little while. We just didn’t want to stick out necks out too soon so the cops would get a lead on us. That wouldn’t have helped anybody.”

“Sure,” Tony said. “I know.”

“How did you get out so soon?” Laurette found her voice.

“Soft-hearted parole board,” Tony said. “And the witnesses, bless ‘em all, who saw it was Judd who killed the guard, not me.”

“Maybe there’s more to it,” Judd said thinly. “Maybe they sprung you so they could follow you and see what happened.”

“Don’t worry. Nobody followed me here. I didn’t sweat out those six years just so I could turn my fifty grand back to the cops. I’m not dumb, you know.” He looked up and his smile vanished. “I’ll take that fifty now, Judd.”

Judd saw Laurette watching him. The gun was a hard, reassuring lump in his pocket. But he couldn’t kill Tony. Not yet. It was still possible that the kid had tracked him down to put the finger on him. There still might be police breathing down his neck, no matter what Tony said. He had to stall, try to find out more.

It never occurred to him to give Tony his share and forget about it. He couldn’t afford to. Laurette was in his blood now and Laurette cost money. There wasn’t much of Judd’s own fifty thousand left after these six years. With Tony’s split gone, Laurette would vanish, too.

“It’ll take time, kid,” he said.

“How come?” There was steel in Tony’s voice.

“You can’t pull that kind of money out of a hat, at a moment’s notice. Some of it’s in the bank down in Esperanza, most of it is in Los Angeles banks. I can get it, sure, but I can’t pull every cent all at once. That would be a skull play for both of us.”

“The real skull play,” Tony said, “would be for you not to get that dough all at once. I told you a minute ago that I hadn’t led to cops to you. That don’t mean I can’t change my mind if you get any ideas about crossing me.”

“Who’s talking about crossing anybody? I’m just trying to explain — “

“Suppose I do a little explaining, chum. Everybody back East knows I didn’t kill the guard. The murder charge is still wide open. Up to now I haven’t tied you in because I wanted my cut. But if I don’t get it. … “ He snapped his fingers. “You’re through. Really through.”

Judd swallowed. Laurette was watching him too and he tried to avoid her eyes.

“All right,” he said finally. “I’ll get as much as I can tomorrow. I can drive down to L.A. in the morning and pull some of it. Maybe not the whole fifty at one time — “

“Make it close to fifty. Six years is all the waiting I intend to do.”

Judd nodded. “Where are you staying? Down in Esperanza?”

“That’s right.”

“Where?”

“What difference does it make? I don’t mind driving back up here for a haul like this.”

Judd smiled grimly. “Those five-hundred foot drops don’t seem to bother you much.”

“I can handle the road. Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s still no good. I’d rather bring the stuff to your place. The fewer cars come up that road and stop here, the better.”

Laurette said, “You’re crazy, Judd. It’s just as dangerous for you to be seen too much in town.”

“What’s the address?” Judd broke in.

Tony shrugged.

“It’s a rooming house at Thirty-Seven Obispo Street. My flat is number five. What time will you be there?”

“Let’s say eleven tomorrow night. Okay?”

Tony pulled himself to his feet. “Okay,” he said. “Nice to know you protected my slice for me, Judd. I figured I could count on you.”

He hobbled out without looking back. His game leg banged unevenly on the outside stairs, then the car pulled cautiously away for the tortuous drive back into the valley.

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Chapter 4

The Stall

As the sound dimmed Laurette whirled on Judd.

“What’s the idea of the stall?” she demanded. “What’s with that story about the money being in banks? You’ve got every cent that’s left right here in this house.”

“Tony doesn’t know that.”

“I still say it stinks. The guy served your time for you and kept you clean.”

Judd’s hand tightened around her arm and twisted. Laurette glared at him and bit her lip.

“Whose side are you on, beautiful?” he muttered. “I thought you had smartened up by now. Or maybe your memory’s short. Maybe you’re forgetting that when I picked that kid up, he was nothing but a garage mechanic pulling down a lousy twenty bucks a week.”

“Six years in the stir — “

“It’s still cheap for what he stands to get. I’m not holding out on him. I’ll take him the dough tomorrow. But I’ve got to protect myself too. If I had given him the stuff tonight, he could have taken it back to town, sent the cops up after me and beat it. Think I’m nuts?”

Laurette squirmed out of his grasp and went upstairs. Judd watched her thoughtfully. It was a full hour before he followed her. There were a lot of things he had to think about.

One of the most important was the question of how Tony had trailed them. And Judd was pretty sure he knew the answer to that. It was why he had taken the trouble to get Tony’s address in town. Maybe Laurette had known before where Tony would be holed up. Now Judd knew it too.

A fog settled over the mountain top during the night and the next morning broke damp and sticky. Just before lunch Laurette said, “I’ll be going down into town this afternoon.”

“What for?”

“I have an appointment at the beauty parlor.”

Judd thought back. It was just three days ago that she had been to the beauty parlor last. She probably thought he wouldn’t remember.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll drive you down.”

Laurette hesitated.

“I don’t mind going alone.”

“Forget it. I’ve got some things to do in town anyway. We’ll go together.”

She left it there. After lunch Judd drove down through the fog bank which clung to the mountain like damp wool. He dropped Laurette at the beauty parlor and said, “What time will you be ready?”

“Couple of hours.”

Judd was practically certain now. Her calmness was forced, too forced.

“Pick me up at four thirty.”

He nodded and drove off. He turned right at the next corner, right again, and parked. He walked two blocks, keeping an eye out for Laurette, and found himself on Obispo Street.

Thirty-seven looked like any of a dozen other rooming houses spotted about the village. Judd walked past the doorway and looked in. He saw nobody. Most people living in a place like that would be out to work this time of day. He mashed out his cigarette, glanced up and down the narrow street again and ducked inside.

He paused in the entryway, listening. Somebody had a radio tuned in to a soap opera in one of the first-floor rooms. It was the only sound he heard.

He found room number five at the top of the stairs, but he passed it without knocking. Instead, he tried the one unnumbered door in the hallway. It was a linen closet. He slipped inside and waited. The soap opera from the downstairs flat was a mumble which rose and fell indistinctly. But Judd could still hear it. The doors and walls seemed to be paper thin.

He didn’t have long to wait. Twelve minutes after he arrived, light footsteps clicked hurriedly up the stairs. There was a sharp rap at number five Judd waited till the door opened, then he risked a look.

The girl was Laurette, but she didn’t notice him. She was too busy throwing her arms around Tony Marko and crying, “Tony, darling!”

Tony said, “It’s been a long time, baby,” and drew her inside. The door clicked shut.

Anger coursed inside of Judd like molten metal. He crept to the door and listened, his hands wadded into iron fists in his pockets. He could hear Tony and Laurette as clearly as if he were in the room himself, and after a few minutes all of his own questions had been answered.

“I was wondering if you would be able to get away today,” Tony said.

“Don’t worry,” Laurette laughed. “I’ve got Judd wrapped up tight. He’s still crazy about me.”

“I can understand that, baby. Has he caught on yet that you were the one who tipped me off where to find him?”

“He hasn’t said anything about it.” The laughter went out of her voice. “But I think he does know, Tony. He was so sure you’d never get a lead. He’s bound to figure it that way.”

“Don’t let him scare you,” Tony said. “He won’t be on your neck any more, once I’ve got my cut.”

Judd wanted to tear the door off its hinges and smash it over Tony Marko’s head. He fought to keep still so he wouldn’t miss anything.

“You can’t trust him,” Laurette said. “He lied about the money being in banks. He’s got it in the house, what’s left of it.”

Tony muttered something. Laurette rushed on, “You can’t trust him, darling. If he comes here tonight, he won’t bring the money with him. He’ll be planning to kill you.”

And then Judd heard what he was waiting for.

Tony said: “He won’t kill me. And he won’t bother either of us again after today. By eleven o’clock tonight, Judd Kaniler will be dead.”

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Chapter 5

The kid was doing him a favor

Judd didn’t wait any longer. He had his answer now, and he knew that if he staved there another minute he’d break the door down and blow his top. The stakes were too high for a move like that. He was ahead of Tony now, way ahead of him. It would be simple to handle the deal from here on.

He got out of the neighborhood, being careful to avoid any streets which could be seen from Tony’s window. He went back to the car and sat there, thinking, planning.

Serve Laurette right if he snuffed her out the same time as Tony. But it wasn’t the way Judd planned to play it. He still wanted Laurette around, even if she had ratted on him. And the strange thing was, he knew she would stick with him once Tony was out of the picture. He knew her after six long years, knew her money-crazy mind inside out. With Tony gone and Judd still holding over fifty thousand in cash, she’d stick. Judd was positive.

Tony was the only one to worry about. Tony had said Judd wouldn’t be alive to keep that appointment at his flat at eleven that night. That meant he’d be coming up to Judd’s place on the mountain some time earlier in the evening, on some pretext or other. A killing in that remote spot might not be discovered for weeks.

Judd smiled grimly. The kid was doing him a favor.

He picked Laurette up in front of the beauty parlor and pretended not to notice how nervous she was on the long drive back up the mountain. He made the run in high, and for once Laurette was too pre-occupied to be scared of the hairpin turns and the sharp drops. She chain smoked, staring straight ahead and saying nothing.

After dinner Laurette said, “What time will you be going down into Esperanza to see Tony?”

“I don’t know,” Judd said easily. “Ten-thirty maybe. That would give me plenty of time.”

The girl made herself a stiff drink and turned on the radio. Judd said, “Cut it off, angel.”

“Why? They got some good shows on tonight.”

“Turn it off and keep it off. I feel like reading.”

He could see her watching him, trying to figure if he was on to what was coming. He ignored her glance and pretended to read a magazine. He wanted no radio, no conversation — nothing which could prevent his hearing any car which climbed the mountain. The window which had been rattling the night before was thrown wide open tonight.

Laurette set up a card table and tried to concentrate on solitaire. Judd watched her make a dozen misplays but he said nothing. The ashtray she was using filled up in no time with red-tipped cigarettes, mashed out with only a half inch smoked away.

He was watching her when he heard the car. He saw her grow rigid, and the card she was holding dropped to the table top. Judd remained motionless. The car was moving in second gear, somewhere in the canyons below. Then the motor died and the silence of the night closed in again.

Judd frowned slightly. That could have been someone turning in at the house three miles below. He couldn’t be sure. He held his breath, straining to hear. He heard nothing.

It was five minutes past nine.

“For Pete’s sake!” Laurette burst out. “Can’t I have some radio now?”

He shook his head. Laurette shuffled the deck of cards on the table and went back to the kitchen for another drink.

The clock dragged to nine-thirty, then ten. Judd began to tighten up, the way he used to do before a big job. He wanted to have a drink himself but he held off. The chips were down tonight. And Tony Marko no dope.

If the blasted kid would only show! Judd was ready for him. His gun was in his pocket again, and he was set for anything Tony could throw at him. But there had been no more cars since the one which had died out into silence miles below …

A gasp of bad air ripped from Judd’s straining lungs. He had heard the noise from outside the house. And at the same instant he knew what was happening. The other car had been Tony’s. Tony had finished his trip on foot. He was outside now. Outside this house. Maybe his gun was leveled at Judd right this minute, through a window … .

Judd rose to his feet and moved as quickly as he dared toward the cellar door.

Laurette glanced at him sharply and he mumbled, “Don’t like the way the furnace is going.”

He wondered at every step if he’d hear the crash of a shot, and he swore at himself for not figuring Tony’s plan.

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Chapter 6

You Killed Him

He reached the cellar door and exhaled sharply. He closed it behind him and felt his way down, not daring to turn on the light. But he didn’t go all the way into the cellar itself. He climbed the opposite stairs and opened the slanting doors to the clear star-filled night outside. His right hand was damp around the cold handle of his gun.

He waited, then leaped out and crouched in the shadows, letting the door drop noiselessly into place behind him. No telling where Tony Marko was now. Somewhere out here in the darkness, sure. But where?

Carefully he moved forward, hugging the wall. He strained his eyes at the clumps of flowering shrubs which rustled gently in the wind. Any of them could conceal a man, a man who had waited six years and traveled two thousand miles to kill him.

He ducked around the corner and flattened himself against the house. The stone facing was cold at his back and his lungs ached again. Slowly he crept on, waiting, searching … .

Then it happened. A figure appeared suddenly around the corner of the garage, a tall figure silhouetted against the gray night.

Tony Marko.

There was a strangled cry. Judd’s gun coughed the night’s stillness. Tony staggered back and sprawled into a shapeless heap against the back of the garage. Four bullets smashed into the body of Tony Marko. And when the mountains had swallowed up the noise, Tony Marko was dead.

The back door flew open and Laurette rushed out. Her eyes glowed wildly in the darkness.

“You killed him!” she screamed. “You killed him!”

Judd’s throat was hot and dry. He grabbed the girl and shook her like an animal.

“Snap out of it,” Judd shouted. “It’s over now.”

Laurette was going to pieces and Judd knew there was no time to lose. Somebody might have heard those shots down in the canyon. He dropped the gun in his pocket and swung hard with his free hand. His fist cracked against Laurette’s jaw and she immediately went limp in his arms.

Working fast, Judd dragged her into the garage and dumped her into the front seat. He threw Tony Marko’s body into the back. Laurette would stay out long enough for him to get half way down the mountain and throw what was left of Tony into a canyon. It might be months before the corpse would be discovered and maybe by then it would be too late for any positive identification. Laurette could be handled when she came to. If she couldn’t — then she could always be taken care of the same way Tony had been.

Judd hurried into the house long enough to grab the remainder of the original hundred thousand. He tossed it in the car, leaped in himself and kicked his motor into life. He was glad he had always made a habit of garaging his car backwards so that he could head out in a hurry in any emergency.

Laurette Scathed heavily at his side as he roared out of the driveway and started down the mountain. For the first time he felt safe. Tony was dead. The last person outside of Laurette who could ever finger him for that killing back East was out of the way. He still had the money, and even more important than that, he still had Laurette … .

His face blanched as he realized he was moving too fast. There was a curve ahead, the first hairpin turn with a vertical drop into nowhere. Judd’s feet slammed the brake pedal.

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Chapter 7

A Wide, Black Pool

Nothing happened. The car bowled forward, gaining more and more speed by the second.

Suddenly Judd’s whole body went limp with horror. His feet pumped impotently at a brake which was not there. He grabbed at the emergency. It was a loose piece of metal in his hand. The brakes had been gimicked.

In one blinding instant Judd realized what had happened. Tony hadn’t come up that mountain to shoot him. Tony had been a garage mechanic when Judd had picked him up. He had a weapon even better than a gun, for a man who was planning to drive a car down the mountain to keep an eleven o’clock appointment. He and Laurette would wait for the crash to tell them Judd was dead, then they’d grab the money and escape in Tony’s own car.

Judd’s face was a mask of terror. He tried to jam the gears into second but it was too late. He wrenched at the wheel as the curve drew closer. Laurette groaned and rolled over against him.

The tires squealed and gave. Judd screamed.

The canyon yawned beneath him like a wide, black pool — a pool which had no bottom.

THE END


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