This Side Up by John Ladd
Amateur Sleuth

This Side Up

by John Ladd

Smashing Detective Stories | Sept. 1951 | Vol. 1, No. 3 THE RED FILE | Feb. 12, 2017 | Vol. 1 No. 4 Casefile No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aef03

There’s no glamour in crime, particularly when a sixteen-year-old kid turns bank-bandit and killer. A true story of a boy whom no one ever love …

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Chapter 1

First Farmers Bank

The long, sleek limousine rolled slowly to a halt in front of the First Farmers Bank of New Albany, Indiana. The liveried negro chauffeur started to turn off the ignition when a sharp, thin voice from the rear seat froze his hand.

“Leave her running, George.”

“Y-yes, suh!”

“Get out and go into the bank—slowly! I’ll be right in back of you. Understand?”

“Yes, suh. I—I understand.” George’s face was a little pale as he got out of the car and walked slowly, as directed, through the door of the bank. Though there was a cool breeze, sweat beaded his forehead.

Behind him the expensive car disgorged incongruously a stocky kid, not over sixteen, his cheap checked suit tightly buttoned and his cap peaked down to shade his face. Both his hands dug deep in the pockets of his coat.

There were few passersby on Main Street that afternoon in 1948, and they paid no attention to the chauffeur or the youth who followed him. Within the bank, the tellers were beginning to lounge. It was near closing time. The bank guard leaned his elbow contemplatively on the grilled window behind which Henry Green was counting his money. Mr. Smythe, gray-haired president of the bank, placed a paperweight carefully on the report he had been reading, and got up from behind his desk. He had an appointment to play golf.

Horton, the guard, turned as he heard the bank door open. George, the chauffeur, entered.

“Hello, George,” grinned Horton. “You almost didn’t make it; bank’s getting ready to close.” Everyone knew George. He chauffeured for Mr. Jones, owner of the big steel mill over in Louisville, just across the river.

But George didn’t answer with his usual ready smile. His face was rigid, imploring; he moved forward stiffly as though propelled irresistibly from behind.

“What’s wrong?” demanded the guard in surprise. Then: “Hey!”

The stocky kid had swung suddenly into view. The cap was low over his eyes. A gun thrust forward in his hand. “Up with your hands, you blankety-blank so-and-so!” he said in a high, bleak voice. “If you make a move, I’ll drill you, so help me.”

Horton’s fingers dropped away from his holster; his arms lifted slowly.

“And the rest of you,” snarled the kid. “Stand still and shut up. Where’s Smythe, the president of this bank?”

Mr. Smythe stood at his desk. He held himself carefully. “I’m Mr. Smythe,” he said; “if you think you can hold up this bank you’re—”

“Shut up! Turn around and open that safe in back of you.”

“Look here, you can’t—”

“Open that safe.”

Smythe braced himself. “I won’t,” he said.

The kid fired. Sharp sound filled the bank. Smythe jerked forward, staggered and fell headlong.

Horton gasped, dropped his right arm swiftly in a desperate attempt for his gun. The kid swerved; sound again blasted the walls. The guard’s fingers uncurled, and the half-drawn gun dropped with a clatter to the floor. He followed it, shuddered and lay still.

But even as the reverberation of gunfire echoed from the marble, a new sound blasted with insistent clamor. The urgent shout of the alarm bell.

The kid shoved his gun at the frightened teller. “You lousy son,” he screamed. “You asked for it.” A single shot pierced the stridency of the alarm. Henry Green, his foot still on the buzzer, crumpled out of sight.

The kid backed toward the door, the smoking pistol covering his retreat. “You!” he stabbed at George. “Get the hell out there into the car. And no funny work. Understand?”

“I—I understand.” Ashen-faced, the breath sobbing in his lungs, the chauffeur stumbled out into the light.

The gunman waited until he heard him open the car door. Then he spun around, raced for the limousine, flung himself into the back seat “Drive like hell! I’ll tell you where to go.”

Behind him was a shambles: three dead men, panic and the senseless clangor of the alarm.

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Chapter 2

We Gotta Get The Facts, Sister

Al Aronson, ace reporter of the Louisville Courier-Journal, bent over the dying man. It was hard to hear his words. His chest swathed in bandages to hide the gaping wound and keep the ebbing life within a little longer, rose and fell in labored spasms.

The hospital nurse said: “You two will have to be brief; talking isn’t good for him.”

Lt. Dave Hunt of the New Albany police said gruffly: “We gotta get the facts, sister. Go ahead, Al. See if you can make out what he’s saying.”

Al bent even closer. His voice was gentle, sympathetic. “This is tough on you, George, but it’s important. Do you think you’ll be able to tell me the story?”

The wounded man opened his eyes, tried to gather his strength. “I’ve got to, Mr. Aronson,” he whispered. “The killer—he’s only a kid—but he’s killed four men and—”

“Three, George.”

A sad smile flitted over the Negro’s drawn face. “Four, Mr. Aronson,” he corrected. “I know I’m through. But—I was waiting over in Louisville to pick up my boss when this kid puts a gun to me, an’ makes me drive him over the bridge to New Albany. When we came to the bank—”

A shudder coursed through the dying man. He shut his eyes.

“Save your strength,” said Aronson. “We know that part; what happened after?”

“That kid was mad—mean mad when we got back in the car. I’ve heard cursing before, but never like that. He was filthy-mouthed. Cursed the men he’d killed, cursed the alarm system, cursed me. And in between curses he kept directing me—turn down First Street, then into Cranberry, left on Lake.”

Aronson nodded. “Knew the town, eh, George?”

“Yes, suh. He sure did. I was scared silly, but I tried ta fool him. Kept making mistakes, twisted wrong, tried to get him in front of the police station. I expected to smash the car and yell for help, but—”

“He knew better,” Aronson interjected softly.

George stared up at the reporter, his face sweating with the memory.

“Knew every twist an’ turn like he’d lived here all his life. Pushed his gun in my back, swore he’d blow me ta hell. Landed me in an alley on the riverfront where no one was. Got out, turned, pointed that gun at me, said with a nasty grin: ‘Only one way ta keep your mouth shut,’ and pulled the trigger. Next thing I know, I’m here and—”

He was going to die. George knew it as well as Al Aronson, Lt. Hunt, the nurse, the doctors, and everybody.

Poor fellow, thought Aronson. No use trying to tell him he’s going to be better.

Aloud he said: “What did he look like, George?”

“A heavy, tough kid — ‘bout seventeen, I’d say — and ‘bout five eight or nine. Wore a checked, tight suit o’ that loud green, and a cap. Couldn’t see much of his face; had his cap down too far; but he was full o’ pimples. Had a tough kid’s voice; the filthiest I ever did hear.”

Aronson straightened wearily. “That’s fine, George. Now, unless Lt. Hunt wants to ask you some more, just relax.”

Hunt set his jaw. “Just a couple o’ questions, George. In the first place—”

The chauffeur seemed to slump underneath the bedclothes. His eyes were fixed on Hunt, but they were blank.

“Save your question, Hunt,” said Aronson. “George will never answer it.”

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Chapter 3

Hunches

Lt. Hunt chewed angrily on his cigar. “Stop trying to ride me, Aronson,” he exploded. “I’m telling you for the last time that killer was no local kid. I know every last hoodlum in town, and this punk doesn’t fit in. He’s an outsider.”

Aronson leaned forward earnestly. “But,” he protested, “you heard George say that kid knew the back alleys here better than he did.”

“So what? He could of come here a day before and studied the place. Why, for instance, would a local boy have to go over to Louisville to grab a car and bring it all the way here? Does that make sense?”

“It does sound screwy.” Aronson admitted.

“Okay, then. And don’t you go writing articles in your paper to the contrary, if you want the run of this place, either.”

Al Aronson was riding his hunches, and the hunch of George, the dead chauffeur.

George had been sure the killer was a local boy. Yet Hunt was a damned good cop, and if he said that there wasn’t a hoodlum in New Albany who fit the description he was probably right.


Al Aronson disconsolately got into his car. He’d have to get back to the paper and write a story. Except it won’t be a story, he thought disgustedly. It’ll be a rehash:

KILLER STILL ON THE LOOSE. NO CLUES.

The newspaperman in him revolted at the thought of dishing out yesterday’s warmed-over news.

Then an idea hit him! He heeled the car around in a screaming U-turn and went racing back to New Albany. He had an angle—not a very convincing one yet—but at least it explained how Lt. Hunt and the chauffeur could both be right. Maybe the kid had once lived in town, but had moved.

Pulling up at the first gas station, Aronson went into a huddle with a telephone book, and came out with the names and addresses of the six moving companies in town.

He started making the rounds, interviewing the driver of every moving van. They listened to his description; then shook their heads. “Sorry, Buddy. If I ever saw him, I don’t remember.”

Aronson began to feel his job was futile. There was so little to go on. But he wouldn’t give up. Then—he struck pay dirt!

A mover named Davis said, “A mean kid, dark haired, pimples? A real low-down mean kid? Yeah, I remember him, all right; I’ll never forget the dirty little rat.”

“When did you move him?” Al asked.

“Must have been about a year ago. But I remember him good. Frankie Benson was his moniker. I moved him and his old man. The kid said he’d help me with a crate—a big crate—kind of a piano crate, but no piano in it. When we had it up, he let go his end. Near busted my back. He started cussing me. Filthiest mouth I ever heard. I grabbed the punk and almost slugged him. Then I remembered he was just a kid, so I let him go. And when I turned around, he threw a hammer at me. Lucky his aim wasn’t too good. It missed my head, but near tore off my ear; here, I’ll show you the scar. They had to put three stitches in it, I woulda torn him apart if I got my hands on him, but he ran away, and I never saw him again.”

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Chapter 4

But What Could I Do?

Three hours later Al Aronson made his way down a dirty, ramshackle street in Louisville, to the address Davis had given him. He surveyed the paint-peeled, two room structure in the small, littered yard.

I should have gotten Hunt to come along, he thought. Wish I at least had a gun with me. Well, here goes.

He crossed the street, now growing dark, and peered into the unlit front room. No one there. He made his way to the back of the house. Through a rear window he saw a stoop-shouldered, gray-haired man puttering around a stove. Apparently Frankie wasn’t at home.

Aronson knocked on the door and introduced himself to Mr. Benson. He started telling the story, just the way it happened, carefully watching the old man’s face. Before the reporter was halfway through, the man suddenly burst out, “Don’t tell me no more; I don’t want to hear it It’s him, all right. I knew something like this would happen. Four men killed! Oh, my God! It’s my fault, I guess. He was bad all the way through, but what could I do?” The man’s voice was taking on a hysterical note.

The newspaperman helped the shaking old man to a chair; tried to quiet him. “All right, Mr. Benson, why don’t you tell me the whole thing?”

And then the floodgates opened. Benson poured out his story in a rush of words, as though something stored within him for years had now reached the bursting point.

It wasn’t a particularly new story—not much different from dozens Aronson had written about— except its fateful climax. It was the story of a kid reared in the slums— a mother who died when the child was very young, and who hadn’t cared what happened to him before that.

A father who worked out of town, and saw him only a couple of hours on weekends. Frankie Benson had lived in the streets, almost like a wild animal, prowling back alleys for food, hanging around pool halls, bullying the smaller animals of the jungle he lived in and running from the larger ones; rejected and scorned by the decent elements of society, and nursing an ever-growing hatred. He had stolen, gone to reform school, and come out all the worse.

“At first I thought he was just wild, like kids get sometimes,” the old man said hoarsely. “But then, when he was only thirteen, he started stealing. That’s when I knew he was bad. And I knew then that he’d end up rotten, that something like this would happen.”

Condemned at thirteen. Al thought bitterly. The kid never had a chance!

His mind flashed back on his own boyhood. Thirteen—that was the year he was confirmed. He recalled that day in the synagogue— the joy and the warmth of it, surrounded by loving parents, relatives, friends, teachers.

A kid needs people to love him, he said to himself. People rooting for him. Frankie never had anybody on his side.

“He used to hit me,” Benson went on in a voice that was now half sobbing. “His own father. I was afraid even to talk to him. I’d ask him to do something, he’d knock me down. Once when he was out in the box I yelled for him to come in to eat. He nearly choked me to death — said he’d kill me if I ever bothered him when he was busy with the box.”

Aronson leaned over and said softly, “What box, Mr. Benson?”

“It was a piano crate, I don’t know where he got it; he brought it home one day, years ago. He fixed it up and would stay in it. Sometimes almost a whole day. Like he was hiding from the world. It used to be sort of a game, I think — like most kids would use a tent. But then he’d shut himself in and hide. I don’t know from what.”

“Where’s the box now?”

“I shipped it out, like he told me.”

Aronson leaned forward. “When did he tell you? When did you ship it? Where did you ship it?”

The old man thought for a moment. “Day before yesterday. That musta been the day those men were killed. He gave me some money, and said I should ship the crate to Knoxville. No address, just Railway Express, in Knoxville. He said I’d better do it the next day, or he’d take care of me. So that’s what I did. I sent it to Knoxville.”

“Have you seen Frankie since?”

“No.”

“Do you have a receipt for the box?”

“Yes. I’ll get it.” Benson reached into a drawer in the kitchen table, brought out a couple of scraps of paper. He gave the receipt to Aronson, and then stood studying a dirty piece of notepaper in his hand. “I found this on the table that night, after he told me about sending the box. I—I didn’t know what he meant then.”

Aronson took the note from his fingers, and read the child-like scrawl. Stop me, please, before I do it again.

The old man looked entreatingly at the reporter. “Before he does it again! Oh, stop him! Stop him!”

Aronson’s lips tightened. He took the receipt and headed for the door. “I’ll try.”

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Chapter 5

I’ll Kill You! I’ll Kill You!

In the quiet of the darkened warehouse, Lt. Hunt flashed his light along the rows of high-piled crates, trunks and boxes.

“I must be crazy,” he said to Al Aronson, “letting you drag me out of bed to chase an old piano crate down to Knoxville. It would be different if he had gotten away with the bank robbery—maybe he’d have the dough in the crate. But he didn’t get a dime. We could have had the Knoxville police pick him up whenever he calls for the box. I don’t know what you expect to find inside of it, or what the big hurry is?”

“Not so loud,” whispered Aronson. “The warehouseman said it would be somewhere in this corner.”

“What are you whispering for?” the Lieutenant demanded.

“We don’t want to warn the kid we’re coming.”

“What makes you think the kid is here in the warehouse? How could he get in? It’s locked and guarded.”

“He’s in the piano crate; he was shipped in it from Louisville.”

“You’re crazy’”

“You’ll see. Flash your light around.”

The circle of yellow light moved slowly down the row until it came to one larger than the rest.

“The piano crate!” Al said. He checked the markings on the box. “This is it, all right.” Then he pointed to a series of round holes bored in the side of the box.

“Just as I thought,” he whispered. “Air holes.”

Hunt swore under his breath; drew his gun.

Al called out, “Okay, Frankie, we’ve got you covered. Come on out of the box.”

No answer.

Aronson motioned for Hunt to take cover. He himself stepped behind a large trunk, said loudly, “Okay, Hunt, let’s roll this lousy crate over on its side.”

Two shots splintered holes in the box. A hysterical voice called, “Stay away from me, you lousy bums. I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”

“Be sensible, Kid,” the reporter called. “You can’t hit us because you can’t see us. But we can fill that box of yours full of lead; we can put more holes in it than a sieve. Come on out and give yourself up.”

An obscene curse was the only answer, and a third shot crashed wood and spanged into a metal drum. “Show him we mean business, Lieutenant,” Al said.

The detective fired a shot through the upper corner of the box.

“Next one goes right through the middle,” Aronson called out “What do you say, Frankie?”

There was a moment of silence, then a muffled sob, and the side of the case swung slowly back on its hinges.

Frankie Benson came out with his hands raised, crying. “Why did I do it?” he sobbed over mid over again. “Tell me why I did it. Why?”

Lieutenant Hunt examined the piano crate; said, “Hey, AJ, he really had this thing rigged up—a Pullman bunk, three pistols, water bottles, cans of food — and straps to hold everything in place. You ought to get a photographer down here. It will make a swell picture. You’ve got a great story—the story of the year.”

But Al Aronson was staring at the sniveling kid in front of him, still sobbing, “Why did I do it? Why? Why? Why?” The sneering, ruthless killer who had coldly murdered four men without the slightest compunction was now just a scared, pimply-faced 16-year-old boy, all mixed up.

And Al knew that the story he would write, the story that would command banner headlines on the front page, would not really be the main story. The important story was the one that would answer Frankie Benson’s plaintive entreaty—”Why?”

And that, Al thought sadly, was an answer he didn’t know—a story that would never be written.

~ The End ~

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