A Cold-Weather Clue
It was unseasonably cold for October. The chill had reddened Vance Corey's oversized nose and ears, and his tall, spare frame shivered frequently within the thin folds of his topcoat. He eyed enviously the heavy ulster draping the short, rotund form of his partner. Mose McCluskey would be wearing a heavy ulster—the heel!
Corey made queer, sniffling noises with his nose, and glanced at his watch. Eight p.m. Four more hours of moping. Four more long hours of prowling around a down-at-heel business section. Phooie!
Corey presently grated: "Say, Mose, how about guzzling a cup of jamok? I got chills."
Mose McCluskey, comfortable in his heavy ulster, snickered. His round, florid face assumed an expression of mock commiseration.
"I sympathize with you," he said. "I really do. But according to the rules and regulations …" He paused abruptly as several muffled reports sounded.
The detectives looked questioningly at each other.
"Auto backfire?" said McCluskey. Corey shrugged his shoulders. Their eyes swept the fronts of the small shops lining each side of the street. Mostly pawnshops and men's cheap clothing stores. Nothing unusual was evident.
They were about to continue their strolling when a shout drew their attention to a patrolman fifty paces ahead. The officer was facing one of the shops, his service pistol ready.
"Drop it!" cried the patrolman to someone within the entrance of the place, a small pawnshop. The next instant his gun barked, and he lunged forward to disappear into the shop. The two detectives broke into a full run, unlimbering their service pistols.
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As they approached the pawnshop's entrance a fusillade sounded within—then silence. The door was wide and the interior dimly lit. With trigger finger tense, Corey bent low and dashed inside. McCluskey followed suit.
Just within the door Corey stopped, a lurid curse on his lips. His narrowed eyes gleamed savagely as they darted about the room. Not a thing moved in the semi-darkness.
"Damn!" breathed McCluskey, now at his elbow. They both looked at two crumpled forms sprawled motionless at their feet. McCluskey bent forward.
"Both goners," he rasped the next moment. "Donnelly through the left eye, the old Jew with at least three in the chest."
Corey was about to speak when a faint, distant squeak tensed their fingers. Somewhere a door was being opened cautiously. Corey immediately placed the sound as coming from the rear. He hurdled the still forms on the floor and raced in that direction.
The rear door was reached through a small stockroom. Corey swore lustily as he nearly lost his footing near the door, which was open. A glance downward showed his path strewn with rings and other trinkets of jewelry. The bandit-killer had dropped his loot in flight. The thought catapulted Corey through the door and into a dingy little court.
Corey halted and looked about him. The court was boxed on three sides by a high board fence, on the fourth by the wall of a neighboring building. At first glance the court seemed empty, but on closer scrutiny of its shadowy confines Corey flung up his pistol. Climbing the fence at his right was a man.
"Halt!" shouted Corey, but his quarry squirmed to the fence top. Corey fired, then cursed. He had been a fraction of a second too late. The fugitive had dropped out of sight on the other side of the fence.
Corey sprang toward the fence, McCluskey at his heels. Corey's tall form shot to the fence top and over. He alighted in a narrow areaway between two apartment buildings. A faint blur moved at the far end of the areaway. Corey ran hard toward the blur. Behind him, puffing and muttering invectives, McCluskey dropped from the fence top and waddled in his wake at a surprising speed.
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Corey's pistol spoke twice. But he knew he had missed. The next instant the blur darted from the areaway into Cocaine Alley. A hundred yards in length, narrow and unpaved and unlighted. Cocaine Alley was a notorious spot in a disreputable district.
As Corey turned into Cocaine Alley the killer was but fifty paces ahead and more clearly discernible. At that instant the fugitive made a flinging motion with his right arm. A faint clunk came to Corey's ears and his long, lean legs began to work like pistons. The killer had discarded his gun.
But before Corey could appreciably close the distance between himself and his quarry, the man swerved to his left and vanished into the shadows of a row of small, ramshackle cottages.
When Corey reached the spot where the man had vanished he halted and peered into the gloom. He stood before a wretched little dwelling. There was no sign of the killer. He sped to the rear of the cottage. No one there, either. He returned to the front to meet a barrage of questions. McCluskey, wheezing like a winded truck horse, had arrived on the scene.
"Nail him? Where is he? Ugh! Didn't lose him?"
Corey searched his vocabulary for a choice oath, found none and spat in deep disgust.
"He's ducked into this joint, or I miss my guess," he said, jerking a thumb toward the cottage. "Sammy Mondell's scatter."
McCluskey grimaced. The abode of Sammy Mondell, self-styled King of Cocaine Alley, was well known as a favorite hangout of dope peddlers—human vultures who profited from the sale of illicit narcotics to unfortunate addicts but wisely shied from using the stuff themselves.
"You take the back," Corey barked suddenly. "I'll take the front. If the mug's in there, maybe we can flush him."
As McCluskey started for the rear Corey approached the cottage's front door, pistol ready in hand. He tried the knob. The door was unlocked. He opened it and entered.
He found himself in a well-lighted, sparsely furnished room. Three men were within the room, seated about a table in the room center and apparently engrossed in piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. They studiously ignored the presence of their visitor.
Corey's shrewd eyes swept the trio. A tall, lanky, swart-featured man in shirt sleeves he knew as Sammy Mondell. Across from Mondell sat hunched in his chair "Mugsy" Lawton, small, slender and rat-faced. The third man was Louis Mink, short, stocky, pleasant featured behind horned-rimmed eyeglasses that lent him a harmless look. Corey eyed Mink hard. He knew the harmless looking one as a petty grifter with a burning ambition to become an underworld big shot.
Corey grinned as he noted Mink fumble in placing a puzzle piece in place. At that moment McCluskey came lunging into the room from the rear. Corey snapped at the trio at the table:
"Hey, you mugs! A little attention."
The trio stared casually in the direction of the detectives, their faces expressionless. Corey chortled harshly.
"Anybody besides us come in here during the past couple of minutes?" he brusquely demanded.
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There was a brief silence, then Sammy Mondell said softly: "No." And simultaneously the three resumed their puzzle piecing. McCluskey muttered an oath and started toward the men, but Corey caught his sleeve and unobtrusively pulled him toward the door. McCluskey found himself led from the cottage and, with mingled puzzlement and anger, heard Corey call out to those within as he closed the door, "Sorry to have annoyed you boys."
The cottage door closed, McCluskey growled: "Say, what the hell's your game? Why not run them mugs in and put the screws to them? They'll spill their guts quick."
Corey shook his head. "They ain't cokies—they are tough babies." He paused, then added unexpectedly: "Anyway, I know who the guilty character is. So shut up and follow me."
Corey led the now thoroughly baffled McCluskey to the spot where he had seen the killer discard his gun in flight. After a brief search they discovered a Colt .45 automatic pistol beside a garbage can. Corey realized that the gun's striking the can had caused the clunk he had heard.
McCluskey started to pick the gun up but Corey stayed his hand. "Leave it be, Mose. It's undoubtedly empty and I want it left there."
McCluskey grumbled: "Damn! You're acting like one of them guys you read about in stories. What's up your sleeve?"
"Follow me," said Corey for the second time. And grinned. McCluskey consigned his partner's soul to the Devil and reluctantly followed.
Corey didn't go far. Only to a large ash heap beyond the garbage can. Behind this they crouched, quite safe from discovery by anyone passing along Cocaine Alley.
"Who you expecting?" said McCluskey irritably. "The mug who threw away that gun?"
"Know who it'll be?"
"Yeah. Louie Mink."
McCluskey swore. "Then why the hell didn't you nab the rat in Mondell's joint? He'll mope plenty fast now."
"He won't mope," replied Corey. "At least I'm betting he don't. Could have nailed him in the cottage, but we ain't got no evidence that he's the killer. Remember, it's quite certain that only Donnelly and the old Jew saw the killer—and they can't witness anything now. Besides, there ain't no fingerprints on that automatic over there."
"How do you know that?"
"Louie Mink had a pair of gloves in his lap when I saw him last."
McCluskey sighed deeply. "One of us is nuts. Me, I'd a-nabbed that Mink character and looked into his mind down at Headquarters."
"No go," said Corey. "Mink is hard people. He wouldn't talk—especially on himself. I'm betting heavy on this gun angle. He'll show—wait and see."
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But Louie Mink didn't show during the following hour, nor did anyone else. McCluskey took to growling softly. Corey could sympathize with him. Their crouching positions behind the ash heap were muscle cramping and the cold was growing intense as the night deepened. Doubt of the worth of his strategy began to assail Corey.
Then it happened. The crunching of approaching feet sounded. The figures of the two detectives tensed and their hands tightened about the butts of their service pistols. Cautiously Corey peered over the top of the ash heap. The figure of a man was silhouetted against the gloom near the garbage can.
The next instant Corey straightened from his crouch. He sprang catlike toward the man by the can.
"Put 'em up. Mink—high!"
The man whirled with a startled oath, the dim moonlight revealing a bespectacled, hate-contorted face. It was Louie Mink. As his hands raised slowly skyward his right hand made a sudden, snapping motion. Corey ducked, barely avoiding being struck squarely in the face with a heavy-calibered automatic pistol, then closed with Mink as he was rushed. They tussled violently for a moment, then Mink suddenly slumped to the ground to lay an inert heap. McCluskey had tapped him rather ungently with the butt of his service pistol.
Straightening his disarrayed attire, Corey eyed the fallen man grimly and said:
"He'll burn sure, now. That gun of his will clinch matters when the ballistic experts get in their work."
McCluskey grunted. "Yeah, but what's got me stumped is how you figured this rat as the killer right off the bat."
Corey chuckled. "Wasn't hard. When I barged into Mondell's scatter I was certain that the killer would be the last man who had entered before me. Well, I found out quickly who that man was. It was Mink. I noted that he was having much difficulty in fitting a piece of jigsaw puzzle into its proper place. He wasn't drunk or unusually nervous, either. He just couldn't see plain. There was steam on his glasses. He had come out of the cold night into the warmth of the cottage's interior and his glasses steamed up instantly. They hadn't time to uncloud before I barged in."
McCluskey grunted again. He looked down at the fallen killer, who was stirring slightly with the slow return of consciousness.
"He'll burn, all right," said McCluskey heavily. "Steamed glasses and all—even if that won't help a couple of widows and a swarm of kids."
~ The End ~