Start With A Corpse by Larry Holden
Hardboiled PI

Start With A Corpse

by Larry Holden

Mammoth Mystery | Jan. 1946 | Vol. 2, No. 1 THE RED FILE | May 21, 2017 | Vol. 3 No. 11 Casefile No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aef8a

Why was it that no one wanted it known just whom the Rutherford girl had killed?

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

My Daughter Killed A Man Last Night

He looked like one of those Men of Distinction you see in the whiskey ads, but he was worried and it showed around his eyes and in the creases that ran from his nose to the corners of his mouth, even if it didn’t show in his voice. That has something to do with breeding and background, I’m told. I wouldn’t know.

“Mr. Keogh,” he said in a flat voice, “I have reason to believe my daughter killed a man last night. You were recommended to me by an associate as resourceful and discreet, and I want you to—”

I stood and reached for my hat.

“No,” I said.

“I tell you—”

I shook my head. “I said no, and I’m getting out of here before you tell the test of it, because you’ll only be sorry you spilled it, and you’ll get to worrying what I’d do about it, and I think you have enough on your mind.

And that goes for me too, in I started for the door, but he me again. He was a whale of a desk slapper.

“Mr. Keogh,” he said harshly, “if my daughter has committed a crime, I shall be the first to insist she stand trial for it. I will not attempt to hide it from the police. I will not …”

He went on for quite a while in this civic-minded strain, but it drew me back to the chair beside the desk, even if I wasn’t convinced.

“You know, Mr. Rutherford,” I said when he ran down, “ this wouldn’t sound so much like the speech you gave the Kiwanis boys last week If you had called the police before you got me in. Maybe I’m fat and forty and look dumb, but I’m sales-proof. Why didn’t you call the police?”

“Because, man, I’m not sure! I merely said I had reason—

“Okay, okay. Who’d she shoot?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did it happen?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wow! Maybe you know how or why it happened?”

“No.”

“Brother,” I said, “you don’t want a detective, you want a crystal gazer. Didn’t she spill anything?”

“My daughter is in no condition to talk. She was hysterical when she came in at five this morning, and the doctor I summoned said she is temporarily deranged because of shock.” He had a tight rein on himself, but it was too tight and his hands were beginning to shake. “But there was blood on her dress—and not her own blood— and there was a fired revolver in her purse. That’s all I know.”

He closed his eyes and his hands lay limply on the desk before him. I felt sorry for him, but not too sorry, because I didn’t trust him. I still thought he was trying to get me to pull back the neck his daughter didn’t have sense enough not to stick out.

“And where do I come in?” I asked, just to be talking.

He took a deep breath. “Somewhere, perhaps, a man is lying dead with six bullets in him. I want you to find that man before the police do.”

“And then?”

“I want you to protect my daughter’s interests.”

I stood up again and this time put my hat on. “Ah hell,” I said, “maybe you didn’t hear me the first time.”

But he went right on talking in a monotone, as if I hadn’t spoken at all. “I want you to find anything that can be used in her defense if she goes to trial. I want you to get there first because the police won’t be interested in defending a—a murderer, and they will overlook the things that may save her life.”

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Chapter 2

Blue Chip

I took my hat off again. It was an old hat and could stand it.

“Why are you so sure they’ll connect her with it at all?” I asked.

“Because she went out last night wearing a sable cape and returned without it.”

“And if it hadn’t been for the cape, would you still have called me?”

You could have cut throats with the look he gave me, but he didn’t answer. We were finished playing games and now it was take it or leave it, so I took it.

“I’m going to soak you for this.” I gave it to him straight. “I’ll cost you five grand, win, lose or draw, in advance—and I still don’t like it.”

“Cash or check?” he snapped.

“Cash.”

He unlocked the top drawer of his desk and counted out five bills from an envelope. I didn’t hold them up to the light.

“And now,” he said in that frigidaire voice of his, “I think we’ve wasted enough time.”

“Right. Let’s take a look at that dress and the gun.”

“They’re upstairs in my room.” As my eyebrows went up, he added sharply, “I didn’t want the doctor to see them, damn it!”

As we stepped into the hall, a young man who looked like the sort of son Men of Distinction usually have, came clattering down the stairs whistling a little blues song. He couldn’t have been very blue, for he greeted his father with a big, lopsided grin.

“Hi, Dad,” he said. “Sorry about rolling in stinko at six ayem. It must have been that wild oat I ate last night.”

“That’s all right, son. You’d better get your breakfast.”

The kid made a face and put his hand to his stomach, but he clattered on by and turned into a room that could have been a kitchen.

“Is he wise?” I asked.

“He knows nothing about it. I’ve postponed telling him, until … I didn’t want to upset him. He’s in charge of the purchasing department.” There was a strong note of pride in his voice. “As you probably know, I control the North American Distilling Company.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I looked you up before I came.”

He went the rest of the way to his room, and he opened a closet and dragged out a white evening gown that was cut simply enough not to have cost more than two or three hundred. Right down the front was a big brown smear, as if someone had tried to grab her and had slid off. He unwrapped a cheap, nickel-plated .38 from a handkerchief and handed it to me, still in the handkerchief.

“Somebody got it, all right,” I said. “You can’t fire all six unless you fire straight up in the air, and that blood didn’t come from a bird. Let’s see her purse.”

He handed me a little jewelled thing that must have been a bargain at Tiffany’s, and I emptied it on the bed.

Among the usual woman stuff was a blue poker chip and seventeen nickels. I picked up the chip. It had a scotch terrier embossed in the center of it.

“That’s her lucky piece,” he said. “She always carries it. I don’t see—”

“Why is it her lucky piece?”

“She won rather a large amount of money gambling one night. She kept the chip out of her winnings.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. Where does one usually gamble? At a gambling house, I suppose.” He didn’t sound like a loving father. He just sounded bitter.

I let it pass and said, “Here’s a funny thing. A girl doesn’t deck herself in all these pretties just to go for a walk all alone in the park. Who was the guy?”

“Carroll Dennis, controller at the distillery. He didn’t come home with her. He was not at home when I called.”

“Why would she want to shoot him?”

That seemed to surprise him. “Shoot him! Good God, man, they were engaged to be married.”

“There are worse motives.”

He said good “God, man” a couple more times, but the idea seemed to shake him up. While he was getting used to it, I picked up a pair of white satin evening slippers and gave them a going over, inside and out. Aside from a green smear that peeled right off, there was nothing except an I. Miller label, and I couldn’t hold that against them.

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Chapter 3

Hopheads

The scream came with the intensity of a calliope. I was bending over, putting the shoes back on the floor, and gave my head a ringing crack against the mahogany highboy, but old man Rutherford seemed to know all about it, for he turned and galloped down the hall like an arthritic stork.

I was right behind him when he pranced into the room at the head of the stairs.

If deranged meant screwy, his daughter had it; she looked nutty enough to feed a family of squirrels. A rawboned nurse was struggling to get her back to bed but wasn’t getting very far, because the girl’s not having any clothes on didn’t make her any easier to handle.

But suddenly she stopped writhing and with graceful movements of her arms began to sing, “Come to me my melancholy baby, cuddle up and don’t be blue, all your fears … .” She hung on fears for a quavering instant before her face snapped into a mask of pure terror. She wrenched herself away from the nurse and leaped under the covers and lay there trembling so hard you could hear it. Then she passed out. The nurse, breathing hard, arranged her comfortably on the pillows.

I stepped quickly to the bed and looked her arms over for pinpricks. There was one on the right arm, high up, that the doctor must have given her, but I didn’t have time for much more, for Rutherford grabbed me by the shoulder and butted and pushed me across the room.

“You leave your hands off her!” he shouted furiously. He looked as if he were going to hit me, but most of that was because I had barged in and saw his daughter naked.

I don’t like being pushed around so I gave it to him as rough as I could. “I’ve seen hopheads act like that, and I wanted to be sure.”

That cured the parental ire. “Hopheads!” he gasped.

Then the nurse lit into me and yelled if I didn’t know the difference between a poor girl who was suffering from shock, at least she did and so did the doctor, and Rutherford started waving his fingers under my nose, so I said, “Nuts! Let’s get on the phone. I got some calls.”

He followed me downstairs, still yapping his head off, but I paid no attention. I scooped up the phone and started calling all the cab companies in the book, because if she came home by taxi maybe they could tell us where they picked her up, and that would be something to go on. I didn’t expect to get very far, and I didn’t; they had to check with their night drivers, so I said I’d call them back. I had Rutherford try to get Carroll Dennis again, but there was no answer. He looked discouraged.

“We’re not getting anywhere,” he said desperately. “I’m paying …”

“Yeah, and you’ll get your money’s worth before we’re finished. Where’d they go last night?”

“They went to dinner. I don’t know where.”

“Where’d they usually go?”

He shook his head helplessly and made a few motions with his hands.

So I said, “Okay. Did they have anything to say before they left that might be a hint?”

He wrestled with that for awhile and at last got it down. “She came into the room and said ‘Heil Hitler. I’m strictly from hunger, but I know a coal pile where we can really stoke up.’” He looked anxiously at me, “Is that any help?”

His eyes kept going to his wristwatch, and he kept trying not to look.

“There ain’t no such place,” I told him, “Not these days. Wait a minute! I take that back. The smorgasbord place out on the highway, the Stockholm, or something like that. And it’s close enough.”

“I’ll get my car.”

I said, “No. I’m going alone.”

A stubborn look, came in his face and he said quietly, “I’m going with you.”

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Chapter 4

That Shipment Of Rum

I’m kind of pig-headed and I might have argued it out, but young Rutherford stuck his head in the doorway and said, “Hi, Dad. I’m leaving now. Can I drive you anywhere?”

Rutherford said, “Well … ” and looked at me.

I shrugged. “We’ll drive down and get my jalopy. He can take us.”

He took us. We didn’t say much on the way.

The old man broke the silence once and said mildly, “You should call Tommy and tell him why you weren’t at the apartment last night.”

“I told him last evening, Dad. I wanted to talk to you about that shipment of rum we’re taking in today. I called you last night, but you weren’t in. Now here’s what I wanted—”

“Later, son.”

And that was all. Young Rutherford whistled his little blues tune, and if I’d had my zither I would have accompanied him. I hate rides with three in a roadster, unless the fourth is blonde and on my lap.

As we got out at my garage, Rutherford said in mild reproof, “You should have your car cleaned, son. It’s like a sandpit underfoot.”

Young Rutherford flashed his grin. “Today, Dad. A promise. I’ll be up for dinner tonight. Right?”

“Yes, son.” Very affectionate.

And that should show you what interesting people you meet in my profession.

We drew a bull’s eye at the Stockholm. I gave them a quick flash of my badge that didn’t say Police, and they were very helpful. Yes, Miss Rutherford had been in last night. They knew her very well, they were glad to say. Was there any trouble? They were glad there wasn’t. Yes, of course, the waiter. He’d be free in a moment, if the gentlemen wouldn’t mind … . Too glad to be of assistance. Too glad.

The waiter was Swedish and sounded it, but you’ll have to use your imagination because I’m no good in the dialects. He stood up very straight with his hands at the seams of his pants and made his report in that singsong the Swedes have.

“Miss Rutherford and her escort had table three. They first had smorgasbord. Then the young lady ordered frog legs with …

“That’s the cook’s department. What’d they talk about?”

“I did not overhear, sir. The young lady was very gay, but the young man was sad. He did not smile. There was not much conversation during dinner. Just before they left she seemed to be urging the young man to go somewhere with her. She said, heads we do, tails we don’t. Then she tossed something in the air like a coin and said, heads.”

I pulled out the blue chip. It was the same on both sides.

“Was this what she tossed?” I asked and flipped it like a coin for him. With people like that, you have to keep it simple.

He stood stiffly at attention and watched it. He didn’t bat an eyelash. “I couldn’t say, sir,” he said after he had given it all the attention he seemed to think I expected. “I wasn’t watching very closely. Is that all, sir?”

“That’s all, Sergeant. I’ll recommend you for promotion at reveille.”

He turned on his heel and marched out. He didn’t salute.

I stopped in the phone booth in the lobby and called the cab companies again. Four of them hadn’t carried Miss Rutherford last night, but would be glad to do so in the future and guaranteed fast, prompt service. The others hadn’t contacted their night drivers and where could they contact me?

“I’ll contact you,” I said. “Thanks.”

I made for the car and Rutherford stuck to me like tar to a fender.

“We’ll chase down that blue chip,” I told him. “It’s a cinch that’s what she was flipping, so it must have been on her mind. She wouldn’t toss her compact, and it wasn’t any of the seventeen nickels or the waiter would have said so. Why seventeen?”

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Chapter 5

Buy A Fish For A Quacking Cat

There were a lot of roll-em-and-weep joints along the highway, but all of them didn’t go in for the kind of swank that went with blue chips and ladies in sable wraps. Four that I knew of between here and Trenton—the Midway, the Coq d’Or, the Black and White and McMahon’s. Of course it might not have been any of these, but it sounded reasonable, and I couldn’t see anyone driving thirty miles to the city just to watch a little man rake in your dough when the wheel stopped. Not with the gas shortage.

We hit the Midway first and bellied up to the bar for a rye apiece. The barkeep was bored and sloppy and didn’t seem to care if he hit the glasses or not.

Rutherford’s eyes snapped, but before he could open his mouth I said quickly, “Quiet this time of day.”

The barkeep said, “Yeah. Chaser?” While he fumbled around with the glasses, a white cat jumped up on the stool beside me, looked into my face and said “Quack,” then it said “Quack” again. I looked at the barkeep and he was grinning.

“Everybody jumps when she says that.” He was friendly now. “It’s her throat. She’s been like that ever since she tangled with the fox terrier down the way. She wants you to buy her a fish. They’re a dime.”

I spun a dime on the bar and he came up with a fish a little bigger than a minnow. He saw the way I looked.

“It ain’t every day you can buy a fish for a quacking cat,” he said defensively, then he grinned. “It’s the boss’s idea, but it’s still a riffle. Hell, for a dime she ought to lay an egg, too.”

We finished our drinks and I tossed the blue chip on the bar. He picked it up and looked at both sides, then looked at me.

“What’s that for?”

“A blue chip. Worth ten bucks.”

“Not to me, it ain’t. Ours have a monogram and you can’t spend them over the bar. The drinks are a buck.”

Now if you had had a Sears Roebuck badge and a Dick Tracy education you could have done better than that, but I’m fat and forty and try to get by the easy way and sometimes I get careless, like with the chip. I should have known right away a joint called the Black and White would have a scotch terrier on their chips, and I should have known, after the way he acted, the bar-keep’d call them up with a tip-off. Maybe I’ve lived too long, even, in cash.

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Chapter 6

A Knockout

We skipped the Coq d’Or and went straight to the Black and White, but they were waiting for us—a committee of two. The barkeep wasn’t behind the bar when we walked in; he was at the end, talking to a tall thin man with a face you could use to peel potatoes. They jumped us when we walked past. The barkeep handed me one on the side the head, then while I was still groggy he grabbed me by the back of the neck and rush me toward the open door. Just before he heaved, I reached back for his wrist and rolled forward. He dived straight over my head and took up a couple feet of the oyster shell driveway with his face.

I let him have a couple high on the cheek as he scrambled to his feet, then kicked his legs from under him and put a rabbit on the back of his neck that laid him down for good.

I sprinted back into the bar, but I could have saved my legs, for the old man was doing all right. Skinny was backed into the corner of the bar and the wall and was holding his wrist and howling and trying to duck each time Rutherford jabbed at him with his fountain pen. I pushed the old man aside and slammed the guy in the belly, then put everything I had right on the button. His head hit the wall like a tom-tom and he slid down and sat on the floor with his head on his chest. He was strictly a punk. I reached down and jerked the pen point out of his wrist and handed it back to Rutherford.

“Here’s your nib, pop,” I said. “You ought to go home.”

He shook his head stubbornly, so I gave him the phone numbers of the cab companies and told him to call up again.

I dragged the barkeep back into the room and sloshed him with water. His face looked like what happens to your leg when you slide into third base. I slapped him a few times and he came around.

“Look,” I said, “maybe you needed the exercise, but otherwise I don’t get it.”

“Nuts to you, snoop,” he said.

He gingerly patted his face with the towel I handed him from the bar, and looked at the blood as if he didn’t believe it.

“Pal,” I told him, “I don’t know what your angle is, but we’re looking for the old guy’s daughter. He thinks she eloped but he ain’t sure, and he doesn’t want to call up Missing Persons if she’s going to turn up with orange blossoms from Hoboken, because the newspapers’ll go haw haw and he’s a big executive and lost his sense of humor when he was promoted. Now if you still want to box, just get up and we’ll go a few more rounds.”

He said “Crisake!” and went behind the bar and poured two drinks. “What’d she look like?” he asked.

“Tall, blonde, white evening dress, sable cape, a knockout.”

He kept nodding as I spoke. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, “But I didn’t see her when she first come in. She didn’t show at the bar till late. She’d picked up a couple C’s on the wheel and must have been celebrating inside, because she had a heluva bag on. She was with two guys and kept calling one of them Fred, which wasn’t his name. It looked like she was supposed to know this other guy, not Fred, but she didn’t, and the guys got a laugh out of that. Then she started yelling for clams, but we don’t serve sea fish, but this other guy, the one without a name, said he knew a place and they went out. And if you could have seen them carry her out, she wasn’t doing no eloping. She’s in some guy’s apartment, sleeping it off.”

“Seems as if. What’d these two guys look like?”

“Hell, guys in a tuxedo lode alike to me. Dames dress different. It’s like a uniform, the guys.”

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Chapter 7

Seventeen Nickels

I didn’t get my hunch until old man Rutherford came back from the phone with that funny look on his face and said there was nothing doing from the cab companies. It was like turning a corner and meeting a friend. I threw the whisky down and didn’t even taste it.

“Thanks, pal,” I said to the barkeep, and grabbed Rutherford’s arm and hustled him out.

A hundred yards down the highway, I swung the jalopy into the old shore road and opened it up. About a half hour in I took the north prong of the fork and kept the pedal down. This stretch, when it hit the shore, was pretty desolate since the hurricane cleaned out most of the summer shacks, but there was a little joint out there, hardly bigger than a dog wagon, that used to get quite a play from the sea food lovers. The new highway had turned that trade south.

The joint was still there, but it had that barren look an unlived-in place gets. I cleaned a peephole on the window and peered in. There was a lot of dust, but there was a tiny bar with some plates on it and a half empty whiskey bottle, and on the shelf behind it in front of the mirror was another bottle of whiskey, a small keg and a telephone. In the left corner was a jukebox. It looked screwy, but I knew I was right.

“The seventeen nickels,” I said.

I turned away from the window and started trotting down the road that led to what used to be a fishing village. The fishermen’s shacks had gone with the wind, and the big weighing-in house was all that was left. For a road to a deserted village, this one had a lot of tire marks, and a lot of them from heavy trucks.

The old man was doing his best to keep up with me, but I was running pretty hard, because I wanted to get it over.

If the body hadn’t been there I actually would have been disappointed; but it was, lying on its face close to the water, and beyond it in the dry sand was something that looked like a dog, stretched out and sleeping. I turned the corpse over. He had taken one of the six shots through the hand, as if he had put his arm up to protect himself. The other five were in the face and chest, and it wasn’t a picture I’d want to carry around in a locket. I heard a stifled gasp behind me and looked up into the old man’s ashy face.

“It’s Dennis,” he moaned. His chest jerked a couple of times. He was going to be sick.

“Take a look at it,” I said savagely, “Take a damn good look.”

I strode over to the sable cape that looked like a dog, and as I bent over, something went Slap!, and I dived for the sand. It went Slap, Slap again, and I guess the only thing that saved me was that the guy was shooting downhill from the dunes and I was lying flat. But the old man was standing and at the next slap, he twisted around and fell. I had mine out by this time and sent a few quick ones at the rim of the dunes that must have sounded dangerous, for after a few minutes I heard a car roaring away but fast. By the time I had floundered to the top of the dunes there was nothing there but a road that curved out of sight almost immediately in the scrub pine.

I ran back to the old man. He had got it in the shoulder, but it wasn’t too bad, and after I tore up his shirt and wound it around, it stopped bleeding. I helped him up, and with a little assistance he could walk.

“A drink’ll fix you up till we get a doctor,” I told him.

I kicked in the flimsy door of the clam joint and propped him against the bar before I went around back.

“Whiskey?” I said, “Or some of this stuff in the keg, whatever it is?” Something Spanish was burnt into the wood.

“It’s rum, and furthermore it’s smuggled. There aren’t any revenue stamps on it. Give me some whiskey.”

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Chapter 8

A Good Deep Breath Of The Clean Fresh Air

I got the cops on the phone and told them about the body and the old man being shot and I was taking him home. I put down the phone slowly. They had told me someone had just called up about the body. This case was beginning to stink.

They were at the house when we got there, and so was young Rutherford, for his car was parked at the side. It was dinner time, and later than I thought. They were all in the big living room that overlooked the garden. The two detectives were talking together at the window, and young Rutherford was leafing through a magazine, whistling his little blues song. He looked up and grinned.

“That’s a pretty tune,” I said, “Let’s see, it goes, ‘Come to me my melancholy baby, cuddle up and don’t be blue.’ I heard your sister sing it this morning. Now what could there be about a little tune like that that’d scare the pants off her?”

He stopped turning pages and his grin froze.

“And what about that body at the shore, and the seaweed on her white shoe and all that sand in your car today—the car she drove home, and you had to come by taxi”—the old man jumped when I said that “—and pretend you were drunk, just so you could explain your car being here. Or did you want to keep an eye on her just in case she hadn’t been too drunk to see you shoot Dennis? How did you feel when she escaped in your car and left you stranded? You planned that for her, didn’t you?”

He was trying to sneer, but his face wouldn’t stay put because the muscles were making movements of their own. I gave it to him as hard as I could before he could get himself together.

“It’ll be easy to prove,” I said. “We’ll just get her fingerprints from the wheel and call in the cabbie who drove you up. And Dennis got his because he started asking pointed questions about the smuggled rum you were selling to the distillery’s bottling plant. There must have been some pretty funny looking endorsements on those checks that came back from non-existent companies, and to an auditor that must have been as suspicious as hell. You kept your smuggled rum in that weighing house in the old fishing village, didn’t you? It’ll be easy to prove, anyway. There must have been a nice piece of change in that for you—the difference between what you paid for it and what the distillery paid, because there’s no tax on smuggled rum.

“While we’re getting the prints from your car, we’ll look up those checks and let you explain them. And we’ll get the barkeep from the Black and White to identify you as the guy who wasn’t Fred.

“Boy, you’re a dilly. You tried to frame your sister for murder, and tried to cut down your old man and me at the shore, and all in twenty-four hours … Look out! ”

I sprang for the desk. He had a gun under the magazine and the bullets ripped up the floor. The barrage that followed came from the two dicks at the window, and they tore him to pieces, for there was a hell of a lot of blood—all he had, it looked. But the madhouse didn’t stop there.

The shots started her off again and there was one shriek after another from upstairs, then a scramble on the stairs and she came charging into the room, still stark naked, her eyes rolled up in her head, her hair flying. She must have been as blind as a bat, for she ran smack into the wall and knocked herself out. One of the dicks gladly helped the nurse roll her up in a blanket and carry her out.

I turned to the old man and said, “Well, there’s your five grand worth. But tell me’ something. When you found out from the cab company it was your son they carried, what were you going to do—let your daughter fry, or just have her stuck in the nut house as a homicidal maniac?”

He worked his mouth like a goldfish, took a tottering step toward me and reeled and fell across a chair and slid to the floor. I looked at the other dick and he shook his head and made a face.

I put on my hat and walked out of the house. I stood for a minute on the porch and took a good deep breath of the clean fresh air as if I had never tasted anything like it before.

~ The End ~

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