One of Those Grim Routine Assignments
It seemed like just one more of those grim routine assignments that had to be sweated out. Five minutes after he had walked into the living room of the cheap mountain-lake cottage, sleazy and reeking with the odor of stale fried grease, Joe Levering knew he had drawn a complete dud.
One Jake Grunderpest, a Detroit hackie, had fought off three stick-up men to save the jewelry of his passenger. And said passenger had turned out to save the newest Hollywood glamour-puss being spotlighted for stardom. Levering’s sheet had discovered Jake had an ever-loving spouse living less than fifty miles from the home city. So it had been a hot jolting ride in one of the paper’s broken-down coupes up to this Godforsaken neck of the woods for a human interest story. What did Mrs. Grunderpest think of her Jake now, Mrs. Grunderpest thought the same as ever.
“That no-good louse! Something smells there. He wouldn’t have the nerve to slap down a starved cockroach was it stealing the food off his table! Aside from that he’s too lazy to. That louse!”
“But the actress gave him a thousand dollar reward,” Levering reminded her wearily, trying to blow up tome kind of copy out of it. “A thousand dollars, Mrs. Grunderpest!”
She rocked, unimpressed, her thick hips threatening to split the skintight bright green slacks with every backward motion of the creaky chair.
“So, a thousand! That bum, he won’t have it ten days! I know him. Any time he had two bills to rub together, he went on a bat. That bum!”
Levering closed his notebook with a snap. Maybe he had been a damned fool to try to become a newspaper man. There had been a lot of legwork when he had been on investigator for that private eye, and sometimes you got your skull dented up; but there had been some excitement.
The woman ceased rocking to crane her fat neck and peer out the end window of the room. Her eyes had flicked that way repeatedly to the cottage some fifty feet down the lake front.
“New people moved in there. ‘Bout two weeks ago. A redhead and a man. But he ain’t her husband; you can’t tell me that. Every night he goes out to the garage to sleep. Something fishy there. She don’t want to be neighborly either. Don’t talk to no one. Something fishy.”
Mrs. Grunderpest lifted her glass of tepid beer.
Levering wasn’t interested in the local gossip. He made a dying attempt. There must be some angle.
“Why did Jake leave home, Mrs. Grunderpest? Incompatibility or perhaps — “
“Incompatibility my eye! And he didn’t leave. I threw him out, the bum.”
Her attention swivelled to the place down the lake front again.
“She ain’t a real redhead either, that one down there. From my upstairs porch I can see through the trees into her bedroom window. I seen her dyeing it.”
She touched her own brassy-blonde tinted-up hair. “She has a man come to visit her sometimes at night too.”
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Lochinvar — A Crazy Name For A Dog
Levering lunged at that opening. He had to bring back something to that slave-driver on the city desk.
“Suppose Jake used that thousand smackers, Mrs. Grunderpest, to pay you a visit? Suppose he walked in this door asking for forgiveness and — “
Mrs. Grunderpest’s horselike jaw shot out.
“I’d smack him down with the heaviest thing handy, then kick him down the front steps,” she came back promptly. “That bum! … It’s a real swell that comes to see her though. Flashy dresser with big rings an’ all. I think it’s a love nest over there.”
She inclined her head toward the other house the front of which projected from the intervening woods just enough to be in sight.
“But her gentleman friend sure has a swell jallopy.”
“Hope I can get mine up that hill,” Levering said as he moved out onto the porch with its rusting screens. He eyed the rocky sharp incline up from the lake of the narrow rutted private road that came down midway between the two camps.
“The gentleman friend, he don’t bring his all the way down here,” rambled on Mrs. Grunderpest. “Leaves it up there where you turn off from the main road. But I was out for a walk one night and I saw it. What a classy job! Whew! All creamy white leather inside. It reminded you of a bed.”
Mrs. Grunderpest cocked one eyebrow archly. “He’d left his hat in it. That was white too.”
“How nice,” chirped Levering, starting his rangy frame gingerly down the rotting steps. “Well, Mrs. Grunderpest, I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“No bother, at all, mister. Things get pretty dull down here. If them folks next door there was a bit friendlier why — oh, there’s their dog!”
She pointed down the line. A goldenbrown spaniel had come to the edge of the other porch, attracted by their voices.
“Lochinvar! Now ain’t that a crazy name for a little dog like that?”
Levering came around so fast his heel skidded on the greasy-damp wood of the step. He had to clutch at the open screen door.
“Wh-what? Mrs. Grunderpest, throw that one in again, slowly, please.”
“Why I just said the dog’s name was Lochinvar. I — “
“Lochinvar … Holy sweet Pete!” breathed Levering.
Lochinvar, Giggles Brownell’s dog. Giggles Brownell, the harum-scarum night club showgirl who’d run off with Norry Frone, husband of the Tirndel heiresses, a couple of weeks ago to provide one of the town’s juiciest scandals. And the “gentleman friend” with the white hat and car with white leather interior … .That would be Whitey Grannick, big-time gambler and gambling king of the city. Grannick who believed white was lucky for him and always had plenty of it around him or on him. Grannick who bad been briefly married to Giggles Brownell a year ago, then separated. His brain tabbed off the items summed them up like an adding machine.
It was a little over a year ago that Whitey had cleaned up a hundred grand at the track one afternoon on a nag named Lochinvar. He had made Giggles a gift of the prize spaniel which had been named in honor of the horse. That clinched it beyond any doubt. Levering tried to keep bis face composed as he realized he hod tripped over a real story. He had found the love-nest hideout of Giggles Brownell and Norry Frone … .
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A Pretty Little Plaything
As he moved toward the other place, Lochinvar came galloping floppey-pawed-over to greet him. Levering rubbed his neck. Nothing to fear there; They were a friendly breed, those spaniels. He buttoned the rumpled double-breasted suit around his large frame, handcombed unruly black hair, and took the steps. It was a bungalow, flimsy, with flecking paint, a shabby hole for the usually bespangled Giggles Brownell. The sound of his knock seemed to rattle around inside the place. When he tried the knob, the door opened.
A living room ran across the front of the place. Cheap furniture. Worn grass-style rug. He sang out and got just that hollow emptiness. He poked his head into the same kitchen, then tried the two doors giving off the rear of the main room. Both were bedrooms, scantily furnished. In the corner one, a woman’s toilet articles and a mass of beauty preparations made a hodge-podge mass on the dressing table. A diaphanous black negligee flung over a chair. He returned to the living room, tapping the side of his nose.
The spaniel wanted to play. It kept cutting in circles, almost upsetting the rickety little stand that held the telephone. He walked around, firing up a cigarette. There was something damned strange about the picture. Then, just as he was passing the birch-topped table in the center of the room, a tiny shaft of light speared up against his eyeball. He looked down and caught the refraction from an upturned vanity mirror in a partially opened drawer of the table. When he edged the drawer wider, he went rigid the way a man would coming on a coiled snake in the grist. Beside the mirror was an ugly blue-black Police Positive.
“Pretty little plaything — “
He hooked it out by the trigger guard and went over and dropped down on the divan at the end of the room. The cannon didn’t fit into the picture either. He whistled off key. The spaniel looked at him as if he were a bum sport and went into the kitchen.
There was another foul note, Whitey dropping around the way Mrs. Grunderpest said. Sure, Whitey had smiled suavely and shrugged his flesh-padded shoulders when Giggles hit the trail with Frone. But along the Main Stem, Whitey was known as a bod character to take a runout powder on. There was that time Easy Al Kass had been found m a vacant lot with a lot of lead in him. The cops couldn’t pin it on Whitey Grannick, but the boys in the know had whispered that Kass had welched and … .
Outside brakes squealed like a patient having a tooth yanked. Levering whipped around in time to see Giggles Brownell poke a shapely calf from a little sedan and then come bouncing over the half-bald lawn. Her usual blue-blonde hair was dyed red all right. But he’d seen the pert laughing-eyed face with the lush promising mouth and high-bosomed torso around the night spots too many times to be fooled. Without thinking about it, he pushed the gun between the end cushion and the divan arm.
“Hello.” She stood in the doorway, buoyant, smiling, not at all taken aback to find him there. “You’re a newspaper man.”
He realized then she had seen the name on his car just up the road. He said, “Yeah,” and “I found the door open so — “
“I’m Mrs. Carson. I can’t imagine what you’d want to see me about. We’re just down here on our honeymoon and — “
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Where’s Norry Frone?
It WAS Levering’s turn to cut her off.
“Cut it, Giggles. I saw your act too many times at the Sphinx Club. You couldn’t fool me if you put on burnt cork and came out in a bedsheet. Where’s Frone?”
Her smile was knocked kicking as if somebody had suddenly pulled a corpse in by the hair. “Frone?” she got out, the name coming awkwardly from lips twisted as they fought for control. “I’m Mrs. Carson, I said — “
“Cut it, Giggles! Mr. Wise Guy knows the lay.”
Levering’s eyes ran around to the kitchen door where the voice came from. Two hundred and twenty pounds of Dummy Carno leaned out of it, beefy hunk of flap-chinned face thrust Levering’s way. Down by the right leg of his pin-stripe blue suit dangled the automatic he held. A silencer extended from the nose of it. Levering recognized him. The Dummy was Whitey Grannick’s bodyguard. The guy with the one-track mind, they said. And only Whitey could put that mind on its track. But when Whitey did, nothing this side of Hell could side track or derail it.
“What do you want here, snoop?” The Dummy said in that stupidity-thickened emotion-lacking voice, advancing into the room. He walked stiffly, heavily, with no motion of the shoulders. And yet, soundlessly.
Levering was doing some swift thinking. They, she and The Dummy, had come in the car together. Seen his Press car. The Dummy had dropped off and soft-footed it in the back way. But it was peculiar that The Dummy, Whitey Grannick’s bodyguard, should be here, living right with — Then he remembered what Mrs. Grunderpest said about the guy who slept in the garage. That would be The Dummy.
Levering shrugged easily and answered him. You didn’t keep a guy like The Dummy waiting too long. He got suspicious.
“Just working on a tip Giggles and the boy-friend were out here. So I looked in. Where’s Norry Frone?”
The Dummy waved Giggles silent when she started to speak. He was about ten feet away and his eyes like wet stewed prunes hung on Levering as if they were on a desert and nobody else within miles.
“Tip, huh? Yeah? — Well, Frone ain’t around right now.”
“All right — Well, if you haven’t got any statement to make. Giggles, I’ll be rolling along.” He made a quarter turn, put out one foot.
And The Dummy had shifted over to block him with a crab-walking movement. “Seems to me I seen you somewheres before — Seems like I remember you as a private eye. Yeah — Maybe you ain’t going no-wheres.”
“I’m a reporter,” Levering said evenly. “Keep me here and The Globe will have the police beating a path in here so fast you’ll — “
It was the worst thing he could have said.
Something that might have been fear sparked once in The Dummy’s dark wet globs of eyes. Then he snapped the automatic up, and then down in a chopping motion across Levering’s head. It wasn’t enough to knock him cold; it wasn’t meant to. He rocked backward and jack-knifed down onto the divan. Through the swirling mists he saw The Dummy step back and put the gun on the table, heard vaguely words coming from The Dummy’s voice about maybe a good working over would teach the punk to forget anything he’d found out.
Levering wasn’t taking it lying down. He came off the divan and tried to make spongy knees behave and throw a punch. The Dummy let him have a handful of knuckles below the belt, down close to the groin. The Dummy’s left hook to the jaw deadened some of the nausea. Levering reeled sideward and caught at a chair. He managed to hit The Dummy with his free hand once. Carno spat onto the grass rug and kicked the supporting chair away from Levering.
“Don’t, Dummy!” Giggles yelled hoarsely.
“Shut up,” Carno said and let big Levering have a roundhouse right over the ear.
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The Frozen Horror Smearing the Showgirl’s Face
The reporter was lifted half across the end of the divan and flopped down on it, tasting the salt of blood in his mouth. A bell was ringing like mad inside his skull. He felt so loosened up that if he tried to stand he might come apart like a broken piece of machinery. But he had it then. They were afraid of something. That was why Carno was making him into raw meat, the chopped variety. The puzzle pieces all flowed together very suddenly in a neat perfect pattern.
The Dummy was the bird Mrs. Grunderpest took for the husband. There was no other. And Whitey Grannick slipped in, leaving his identifying white hat and car back up the line lest he be recognized. Why? Because there was no Norry Frone here. And Frone wasn’t here because he was dead! That was it. Whitey Grannick who always settled with any guy who tried to take anything from him. Frone had. Whitey had settled.
Levering pulled his face in a nasty smile.
“So Norry Frone is dead, eh … Whitey fixed him, eh — “
It was beautiful to watch. That expression of frozen horror smearing the showgirl’s face. The gulp The Dummy took and then the placating breath-sucking smile he sort of pushed up his face, almost manually. The slow “Is-the-bird-nuts?” shaking motion of his head. Friendliness and sweat bubbled out all over him.
“Gees, what give you that idea, chum? — Say, I lost my head. I didn’t mean to smack you around like that. I — “
Levering got himself sitting up.
“You’re lying in your teeth, Dummy.”
He made his second mistake. He put his left hand into his pocket for cigarets.
It was as swift as something flashed across a screen. Carno grabbed the automatic off the table and shot Levering through the upper loft arm, believing he had been going for a heater. The slug went right through the flesh and the back of the divan and thunked into the wall. There was numbness as Levering felt himself pinned against the back of the couch, then fierce stinging pain. And being shot made him remembered the gun tucked down beside the cushion. The silencer had stifled the report to a thin sneezing sound.
Giggles was calling Carno a stupid fool, a blunderer. And The Dummy had dropped the automatic back on the table and stood wiping his hands up and down on his thighs as if he wash them clean of the act. Levering sunk teeth in his lower lip and sat up and worked his right hand down. Then he had the Police Positive up and looking them right in the face … .
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A Nice Juicy Murder
“You don’t understand,” Giggles half sobbed again as Levering, stooped so he could get the receiver to his ear with the wounded left arm, waited for his call to the city to go through. He moved the gun muzzle back and forth negatively as if to tell her not to waste her breath.
He got through to the city desk and got Hopfer on the wire. He said he was out at Little Echo Lake. Hopfer cut in to tell him to forget Old Lady Grunderpest. They had learned the story out in Detroit was a staged job by some ham press agent. Levering tried to keep his voice calm as he did the interrupting.
“I got something bigger, Hopfer. A nice juicy murder! I’ve found Giggles Brownell out here. With Whitey Grannick’s bodyguard, Carno. Got that? They bumped Norry Frone, the guy the was running off with and — What’s that?”
“Lay off those reefers, Levering. The Missing Persons Bureau here just got word from the State Troopers. They found Frone on the Miles City road. He’d just been released by his kidnappers.”
“You heard me. We just finished checking with old Colonel Tirndel his father-in-law. The colonel admitted he’d had some ransom notes. Didn’t pay any attention and didn’t notify the authorities because they were in Frone’s handwriting and he thought it was a fake. Says he didn’t want that no-good so-and-so of a son-in-law back anyway.”
Levering sagged against the wall and let out a whoosh sound. Hopfer told him he’d better come in, if he was sober enough. Levering hung up weakly, dropping the gun down against his leg.
“They found Frone.”
He gave them the rest of it in a weary thinned-out voice.
Giggles jumped up and down, clapping her hands together like a schoolgirl.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you. See? The night Norry and I were to run away together, he disappeared. We didn’t know what had happened to him. Whitey said he owed money to some of the gambling crowd and might have been bumped off. See?”
“Like hell I do,” Levering said.
“Well, if he had, everybody — the police — they’d have thought Whitey had done it over me. So Whitey put me out here, hidden, so it would look as if I had gone away with Norry. Now do you see? So it would look as if nothing had happened to Norry! Now it’s all right, now he’s found. And I can go back to town to Whitey. We’re going back together again.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I found out I still love him … .There’s your story, Mr. Reporter!”
Levering said “Uh huh” and propelled himself to the door. The Dummy just stood in sort of a fateful weary posture, looking stupidly at the toes of his shoes. Levering dropped the gun on the steps and went up the line and climbed painfully into the coupe.
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The Dummy Was Closing For The Kill
The little road shot up sharply, over a hump, then screwed around in a big loop to the right to get around that long ledge of rock. It bowed back sharply, running parallel to the now unseen lake, to cut behind the little ridge. With one arm it was hard making those turns. He was just inching along and stalled once going up the next sharp rise. When he got going again there was a bumpety-bump sound that meant a flat. He got out and saw it was the right rear and cursed helplessly for a full minute. It was then the puffing Mrs. Grunderpest, holding her wrapped-up apron in one hand, came stumbling up around the curve. She called to him.
“Mr. Levering, you’ve got to — to go back to that house right away,” she heaved, so excited she didn’t even notice the blood on his left coat sleeves. “Something awful’s happened back there, I just know.”
She had just been walking by, she said, and happened to look in a window. The Dummy had a gun in the girl’s back and was walking her into the kitchen and to the doorway to the cellar stairs.
“They went down — “ She gulped.
“He came up — alone. Then he ran out the back door and up the other side of this hill.”
She pointed up at the ridge.
“You’ve just gotta come back and see what — “
Her beady eyes speared over his shoulder. Then she let out a strangled little squeak, dropped the thing in her apron, and ran back down the road.
Levering, squeezing his bullet-ripped arm against the pain, turned to look up the road past the front of the car. Sidling along against the heavy foliage, half seen, came Carno, The Dummy. In a flash, Levering got it. The Dummy had cut through the woods over the ridge, intending to get him as he crept out toward the main road. A quick jump from the trees onto the running board, the gun against the side of his head — Levering choked on a breath that wouldn’t come out. Only the flat tire had saved him.
Then he came alive and threw himself behind the car. A split second afterward that first bullet, followed by the sneezing cough of the gun, slapped off the side of the body. Levering’s foot struck something. A rock, anything to defend himself with. He ducked for it and saw what Mrs. Grunderpest had dropped, a sweet snub-snouted automatic. He had it in his hand as the next shot whanged at an angle across the top of the right rear fender. And some instinct sent Levering down and wriggling under the gas tank, bellying under the car itself.
Shuffling steps sounded softly on the earth. Believing him unarmed, The Dummy was closing for the kill. Then, peering under the righthand running board, Levering saw his feet moving past the forward wheel. Waited the length of a full breath and then fired. Carao’s howl pierced the crash of the gun explosion as his left ankle was shattered. Hie feet vanished as he went pitching backward. Levering wriggled head and shoulders out from under the running board, saw him sitting back in the undergrowth, still holding his gun. So Levering shot him very neatly through the right shoulder … .
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A One-Tracked Mind
Once again he was back in the bungalow living room waiting for his call to the city to be put through. Only this time Giggles Brownell was not there. Mrs. Grunderpest had guessed right. Levering had been down cellar. Giggles was down there with an ugly bullet hole in the back of her brain.
And now Mrs. Grunderpest was the female in the living room as she held the automatic very steadily on the slumped heap in the chair that was The Dummy. The Dummy had two welts rising on his face. It was where Levering had stroked him with that automatic barrel to loosen up his tongue.
“Whitey told me I was to bump her the moment we found out our boys had set Frone free,” was his stupid explanation when he loosened.
“Them was his orders. What could I do?”
The Dummy of the one-track mind.
There was a raucous squawk and buzz from the other end of the wire but still no connection. Levering found himself staring at that automatic of Mrs. Grunderpest’s with a perplexed frown. She read his thoughts and edged closer to whisper.
“Mr. Levering, don’t say nothing to anybody about me giving you this gun, please,” she begged. “It was Jake’s. He used to run a still up here and had it around … . That’s why he had to go to Detroit. He beat up three county cops who came snooping around. With his bare hands. Put two of ‘em in the hospital. My Jake’s got an awful temper. Gentle as a cat around the house though. So, Mr. Levering — “
Hopfer’s voice scratched in from the city desk at the other end, squawking about the reversed charges. Levering barked back.
“Listen closely, Hopfer, and get your best rewrite man warmed up. This time it is murder — because I got a corpse and a killer on my hands. Giggles Brownell is dead out here … . Shot by Dummy Carno on Whitey Grannick’s orders. How do I know? Carno told me so. That makes Grannick an accessory before the fact. It was his way of getting Norry Frone for stealing his girl.
“What? Don’t you see, sap? Grannick had Frone kidnapped. Sure. Then they made him write the ransom notes so he never would have any evidence he was being held by any one anywhere. See it now? Then they’d find the woman he’d run off with here, dead. And he would never be able to prove where he’d been. Whitey Grannick was going to hang Giggles’ body right around Frone’s neck. You never steal anything from Whitey —
“What? Sure, they probably got some of Frone’s clothing planted around the joint here. Why haven’t I looked? Hells bells, Hopfer, I don’t feel so good. Dummy Carno was throwing spitballs at me … .”
“That’s not news!” yapped Hopfer.
~ The End ~