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Dashiell Hammett
1894-1961

   

Death on Pine Street

by Dashiell Hammett



   
 

A plump maid with bold green eyes and a loose, full-lipped mouth led me up two flights of steps and into an elaborately furnished boudoir, where a woman in black sat at a window. She was a thin woman of a little more than thirty, this murdered man's widow, and her face was white and haggard.

“You are from the Continental Detective Agency?” she asked before I was two steps inside the room.

“Yes.”

“I want you to find my husband's murderer.” Her voice was shrill, and her dark eyes had wild lights in them. “The police have done nothing. Four days, and they have done nothing. They say it was a robber, but they haven't found him. They haven't found anything!”

“But, Mrs. Gilmore,” I began, not exactly tickled to death with this explosion, “you must —”

“I know! I know!” she broke in. “But they have done nothing, I tell you—nothing. I don't believe they've made the slightest effort. I don't believe they want to find h—him!”

“Him?” I asked, because she had started to say her. “You think it was a man?”

She bit her lip and looked away from me, out of the window to where San Francisco Bay, the distance making toys of its boats, was blue under the early afternoon sun.

“I don't know,” she said hesitantly; “it might have —”

Her face spun toward me — a twitching face — and it seemed impossible that anyone could talk so fast, hurl words out so rapidly one after the other.

“I'll tell you. You can judge for yourself. Bernard wasn't faithful to me. There was a woman who calls herself Cara Kenbrook. She wasn't the first. But I learned about her last month. We quarrelled. Bernard promised to give her up. Maybe he didn't. But if he did, I wouldn't put it past her — a woman like that would do anything — anything. And down in my heart I really believe she did it!”

“And you think the police don't want to arrest her?”

“I didn't mean exactly that. I'm all unstrung, and likely to say anything. Bernard was mixed up in politics, you know; and if the police found, or thought, that politics had anything to do with his death, they might — I don't know just what I mean. I'm a nervous, broken woman, and full of crazy notions.” She stretched a thin hand out to me. “Straighten this tangle out for me! Find the person who killed Bernard!”

I nodded with empty assurance, still not any too pleased with my client.

“Do you know this Kenbrook woman?” I asked.

“I've seen her on the street, and that's enough to know what sort of person she is!”

“Did you tell the police about her?”

“No-o.” She looked out of the window again, and then, as I waited, she added, defensively:

“The police detectives who came to see me acted as if they thought I might have killed Bernard. I was afraid to tell them that I had cause for jealousy. Maybe I shouldn't have kept quiet about that woman, but I didn't think she had done it until afterward, when the police failed to find the murderer. Then I began to think she had done it; but I couldn't make myself go to the police and tell them that I had withheld information. I knew what they'd think. So I — You can twist it around so it'll look as if I hadn't known about the woman, can't you?”

“Possibly. Now as I understand it, your husband was shot on Pine Street, between Leavenworth and Jones, at about three o'clock Tuesday morning. That right?”

“Yes.”

“Where was he going?”

“Coming home, I suppose; but I don't know where he had been. Nobody knows. The police haven't found out, if they have tried. He told me Monday evening that he had a business engagement. He was a building contractor, you know. He went out at about half-past eleven, saying he would probably be gone four or five hours.”

“Wasn't that an unusual hour to be keeping a business engagement?”

“Not for Bernard. He often had men come to the house at midnight.”

“Can you make any guess at all where he was going that night?”

She shook her head with emphasis.

“No. I knew nothing at all about his business affairs, and even the men in his office don't seem to know where he went that night.”

That wasn't unlikely. Most of the B. F. Gilmore Construction Company's work had been on city and state contracts, and it isn't altogether unheard-of for secret conferences to go with that kind of work. Your politician-contractor doesn't always move in the open.

“How about enemies?” I asked.

“I don't know anybody that hated him enough to kill him.”

“Where does this Kenbrook woman live, do you know?”

“Yes — in the Garford Apartments on Bush Street.”

“Nothing you've forgotten to tell me, is there?” I asked, stressing the me a little.

“No, I've told you everything I know — every single thing.”

Walking over to California Street, I shook down my memory for what I had heard here and there of Bernard Gilmore. I could remember a few things — the opposition papers had been in the habit of exposing him every election year — but none of them got me anywhere. I had known him by sight: a boisterous, red-faced man who had hammered his way up from hod-carrier to the ownership of a half-million-dollar business and a pretty place in politics. 'A roughneck with a manicure,' somebody had called him; a man with a lot of enemies and more friends; a big, good-natured, hard-hitting rowdy.

Odds and ends of a dozen graft scandals in which he had been mixed up, without anybody ever really getting anything on him, flitted through my head as I rode downtown on the too-small outside seat of a cable car. Then there had been some talk of a bootlegging syndicate of which he was supposed to be the head...

I left the car at Kearny Street and walked over to the Hall of Justice. In the detectives' assembly-room I found O'Gar, the detective-sergeant in charge of the Homicide Detail: a squat man of fifty who went in for wide-brimmed hats of the movie-sheriff sort, but whose little blue eyes and bullet-head weren't handicapped by the trick headgear.

“I want some dope on the Gilmore killing,” I told him.

“So do I,” he came back. “But if you'll come along I'll tell you what little I know while I'm eating. I ain't had lunch yet.”

Safe from eavesdroppers in the clatter of a Sutter Street lunchroom, the detective-sergeant leaned over his clam chowder and told me what he knew about the murder, which wasn't much.

“One of the boys, Kelly, was walking his beat early Tuesday morning, coming down the Jones Street hill from California Street to Pine. It was about three o'clock — no fog or nothing — a clear night. Kelly's within maybe twenty feet of Pine Street when he hears a shot. He whisks around the corner, and there's a man dying on the north sidewalk of Pine Street, halfway between Jones and Leavenworth. Nobody else is in sight. Kelly runs up to the man and finds it's Gilmore. Gilmore dies before he can say a word. The doctors say he was knocked down and then shot; because there's a bruise on his forehead, and the bullet slanted upward in his chest. See what I mean? He was lying on his back when the bullet hit him, with his feet pointing toward the gun it came from. It was a thirty-eight.”

“Any money on him?”

O'Gar fed himself two spoons of chowder and nodded.

“Six hundred smacks, a coupla diamonds, and a watch. Nothing touched.”

“What was he doing on Pine Street at that time in the morning?”

“Damned if I know, brother. Chances are he was going home, but we can't find out where he'd been. Don't even know what direction he was walking in when he was knocked over. He was lying across the sidewalk with his feet to the curb; but that don't mean nothing — he could of turned around three or four times after he was hit.”

“All apartment buildings in that block, aren't there?”

“Uh-huh. There's an alley or two running off from the south side; but Kelly says he could see the mouths of both alleys when the shot was fired — before he turned the corner — and nobody got away through them.”

“Reckon somebody who lives in that block did the shooting?” I asked.

O'Gar tilted his bowl, scooped up the last drops of the chowder, put them in his mouth, and grunted.

“Maybe. But we got nothing to show that Gilmore knew anybody in that block.”

“Many people gather around afterward?”

“A few. There's always people on the street to come running if anything happens. But Kelly says there wasn't anybody that looked wrong — just the ordinary night crowd. The boys gave the neighbourhood a combing, but didn't turn up anything.”

“Any cars around?”

“Kelly says there wasn't, that he didn't see any, and couldn't of missed seeing it if there'd been one.”

“What do you think?” I asked.

He got to his feet, glaring at me.

“I don't think,” he said disagreeably; “I'm a police detective.”

I knew by that that somebody had been panning him for not finding the murderer.

“I have a line on a woman,” I told him. “Want to come along and talk to her with me?”

“I want to,” he growled, “but I can't. I got to be in court this afternoon.”

In the vestibule of the Garford Apartments, I pressed the button tagged Miss Cara Kenbrook several times before the door clicked open. Then I mounted a flight of stairs and walked down a hall to her door. It was opened presently by a tall girl of twenty-three or—four in a black and white crepe dress.

“Miss Cara Kenbrook?”

“Yes.”

I gave her a card — one of those that tell the truth about me.

“I'd like to ask you a few questions; may I come in?”

“Do.”

Languidly she stepped aside for me to enter, closed the door behind me, and led me back into a living room that was littered with newspapers, cigarettes in all stages of consumption from unlighted freshness to cold ash, and miscellaneous articles of feminine clothing. She made room for me on a chair by dumping off a pair of pink silk stockings and a hat, and herself sat on some magazines that occupied another chair.

“I'm interested in Bernard Gilmore's death,” I said, watching her face.

It wasn't a beautiful face, although it should have been. Everything was there — perfect features; smooth, white skin; big, almost enormous, brown eyes — but the eyes were dead-dull, and the face was as empty of expression as a china doorknob, and what I said didn't change it.

“Bernard Gilmore,” she said without interest. “Oh, yes.”

“You and he were pretty close friends, weren't you?” I asked, puzzled by her blankness.

“We had been — yes.”

“What do you mean by had been?”

She pushed back a lock of her short-cut brown hair with a lazy hand.

“I gave him the air last week,” she said casually, as if speaking of something that had happened years ago.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Last week—Monday, I think — a week before he was killed.”

“Was that the time when you broke off with him?”

“Yes.”

“Have a row, or part friends?”

“Not exactly either. I just told him that I was through with him.”

“How did he take it?”

“It didn't break his heart. I guess he'd heard the same thing before.”

“Where were you the night he was killed?”

“At the Coffee Cup, eating and dancing with friends until about one o'clock. Then I came home and went to bed.”

“Why did you split with Gilmore?”

“Couldn't stand his wife.”

“Huh?”

“She was a nuisance.” This without the faintest glint of either annoyance or humour. “She came here one night and raised a racket; so I told Bernie that if he couldn't keep her away from me he'd have to find another playmate.”

“Have you any idea who might have killed him?” I asked.

“Not unless it was his wife — these excitable women always do silly things.”

“If you had given her husband up, what reason would she have for killing him, do you think?”

“I'm sure I don't know,” she replied with complete indifference. “But I'm not the only girl that Bernie ever looked at.”

“Think there were others, do you? Know anything, or are you just guessing?”

“I don't know any names,” she said, “but I'm not just guessing.”

I let that go at that and switched back to Mrs. Gilmore, wondering if this girl could be full of dope.

“What happened the night his wife came here?”

“Nothing but that. She followed Bernie here, rang the bell, rushed past me when I opened the door, and began to cry and call Bernie names. Then she started on me, and I told him that if he didn't take her away I'd hurt her, so he took her home.”

Admitting I was licked for the time, I got up and moved to the door. I couldn't do anything with this baby just now. I didn't think she was telling the whole truth, but on the other hand it wasn't reasonable to believe that anybody would lie so woodenly — with so little effort to be plausible.

“I may be back later,” I said as she let me out.

“All right.”

Her manner didn't even suggest that she hoped I wouldn't.

From this unsatisfactory interview I went to the scene of the killing, only a few blocks away, to get a look at the neighbourhood. I found the block just as I had remembered it and as O'Gar had described it: lined on both sides by apartment buildings, with two blind alleys — one of which was dignified with a name, Touchard Street — running from the south side.

The murder was four days old; I didn't waste any time snooping around the vicinity; but, after strolling the length of the block, boarded a Hyde Street car, transferred at California Street, and went up to see Mrs. Gilmore again. I was curious to know why she hadn't told me about her call on Cara Kenbrook.

The same plump maid who had admitted me earlier in the afternoon opened the door.

“Mrs. Gilmore is not at home,” she said. “But I think she'll be back in half an hour or so.”

“I'll wait,” I decided.

The maid took me into the library, an immense room on the second floor, with barely enough books in it to give it that name. She switched on a light — the windows were too heavily curtained to let in much daylight — crossed to the door, stopped, moved over to straighten some books on a shelf, and looked at me with a half-questioning, half-inviting look in her green eyes, started for the door again, and halted.

By that time I knew she wanted to say something, and needed encouragement. I leaned back in my chair and grinned at her, and decided I had made a mistake—the smile into which her slack lips curved held more coquetry than anything else. She came over to me, walking with an exaggerated swing of the hips, and stood close in front of me.

“What's on your mind?” I asked.

“Suppose — suppose a person knew something that nobody else knew; what would it be worth to them?”

“That,” I stalled, “would depend on how valuable it was.”

“Suppose I knew who killed the boss?” She bent her face close down to mine, and spoke in a husky whisper. “What would that be worth?”

“The newspapers say that one of Gilmore's clubs has offered a thousand-dollar reward. You'd get that.”

Her green eyes went greedy, and then suspicious.

“If you didn't.”

I shrugged. I knew she'd go through with it — whatever it was — now; so I didn't even explain to her that the Continental doesn't touch rewards, and doesn't let its hired men touch them.

“I'll give you my word,” I said; “but you'll have to use your own judgment about trusting me.”

She licked her lips.

“You're a good fellow, I guess. I wouldn't tell the police, because I know they'd beat me out of the money. But you look like I can trust you.” She leered into my face. “I used to have a gentleman friend who was the very image of you, and he was the grandest —”

“Better speak your piece before somebody comes in,” I suggested.

She shot a look at the door, cleared her throat, licked her loose mouth again, and dropped on one knee beside my chair.

“I was coming home late Monday night — the night the boss was killed — and was standing in the shadows saying good night to my friend, when the boss came out of the house and walked down the street. And he had hardly got to the corner, when she — Mrs. Gilmore — came out, and went down the street after him. Not trying to catch up with him, you understand; but following him. What do you think of that?”

“What do you think of it?”

“I think that she finally woke up to the fact that all of her Bernie's dates didn't have anything to do with the building business.”

“Do you know that they didn't?”

“Do I know it? I knew that man! He liked 'em — liked 'em all.” She smiled into my face, a smile that suggested all evil. “I found that out soon after I first came here.”

“Do you know when Mrs. Gilmore came back that night — what time?”

“Yes,” she said, “at half-past three.”

“Sure?”

“Absolutely! After I got undressed I got a blanket and sat at the head of the front stairs. My room's in the rear of the top floor. I wanted to see if they came home together, and if there was a fight. After she came in alone I went back to my room, and it was just twenty-five minutes to four then. I looked at my alarm clock.”

“Did you see her when she came in?”

“Just the top of her head and shoulders when she turned toward her room at the landing.”

“What's your name?” I asked.

“Lina Best.”

“All right, Lina,” I told her. “If this is the goods I'll see that you collect on it. Keep your eyes open, and if anything else turns up you can get in touch with me at the Continental office. Now you'd better beat it, so nobody will know we've had our heads together.”

Alone in the library, I cocked an eye at the ceiling and considered the information Lina Best had given me. But I soon gave that up — no use trying to guess at things that will work out for themselves in a while. I found a book, and spent the next half-hour reading about a sweet young she—chump and a big strong he—chump and all their troubles.

Then Mrs. Gilmore came in, apparently straight from the street.

I got up and closed the door behind her, while she watched me with wide eyes.

“Mrs. Gilmore,” I said, when I faced her again, “why didn't you tell me that you followed your husband the night he was killed?”

“That's a lie!” she cried; but there was no truth in her voice. “That's a lie!”

“Don't you think you're making a mistake?” I urged. “Don't you think you'd better tell me the whole thing?”

She opened her mouth, but only a dry sobbing sound came out; and she began to sway with a hysterical rocking motion, the fingers of one black-gloved hand plucking at her lower lip, twisting and pulling it.

I stepped to her side and set her down in the chair I had been sitting in, making foolish clucking sounds — meant to soothe her — with my tongue. A disagreeable ten minutes — and gradually she pulled herself together; her eyes lost their glassiness, and she stopped clawing at her mouth.

“I did follow him.” It was a hoarse whisper, barely audible.

Then she was out of the chair, kneeling, with arms held up to me, and her voice was a thin scream.

“But I didn't kill him! I didn't! Please believe that I didn't!”

I picked her up and put her back in the chair.

“I didn't say you did. Just tell me what did happen.”

“I didn't believe him when he said he had a business engagement,” she moaned. “I didn't trust him. He had lied to me before. I followed him to see if he went to that woman's rooms.”

“Did he?”

“No. He went into an apartment house on Pine Street, in the block where he was killed. I don't know exactly which house it was — I was too far behind him to make sure. But I saw him go up the steps and into one — near the middle of the block.”

“And then what did you do?”

“I waited, hiding in a dark doorway across the street. I knew the woman's apartment was on Bush Street, but I thought she might have moved, or be meeting him here. I waited a long time, shivering and trembling. It was chilly and I was frightened — afraid somebody would come into the vestibule where I was. But I made myself stay. I wanted to see if he came out alone, or if that woman came out. I had a right to do it — he had deceived me before.

“It was terrible, horrible — crouching there in the dark—cold and scared. Then — it must have been about half-past two — I couldn't stand it any longer. I decided to telephone the woman's apartment' and find out if she was home. I went down to an all-night lunchroom on Ellis Street and called her up.”

“Was she home?”

“No! I tried for fifteen minutes, or maybe longer, but nobody answered the phone. So I knew she was in that Pine Street building.”

“And what did you do then?”

“I went back there, determined to wait until he came out. I walked up Jones Street. When I was between Bush and Pine I heard a shot. I thought it was a noise made by an automobile then, but now I know that it was the shot that killed Bernie.

“When I reached the corner of Pine and Jones, I could see a policeman bending over Bernie on the sidewalk, and I saw people gathering around. I didn't know then that it was Bernie lying on the sidewalk. In the dark and at that distance I couldn't even see whether it was a man or a woman.

“I was afraid that Bernard would come out to see what was going on, or look out of a window, and discover me; so I didn't go down that way. I was afraid to stay in the neighbourhood now, for fear the police would ask me what I was doing loitering in the street at three in the morning — and have it come out that I had been following my husband. So I kept on walking up Jones Street, to California, and then straight home.”

“And then what?” I led her on.

“Then I went to bed. I didn't go to sleep — lay there worrying over Bernie; but still not thinking it was he I had seen lying in the street. At nine o'clock that morning two police detectives came and told me Bernie had been killed. They questioned me so sharply that I was afraid to tell them the whole truth. If they had known I had reason for being jealous, and had followed my husband that night, they would have accused me of shooting him. And what could I have done? Everybody would have thought me guilty.

“So I didn't say anything about the woman. I thought they'd find the murderer, and then everything would be all right. I didn't think she had done it then, or I would have told you the whole thing the first time you were here. But four days went by without the police finding the murderer, and I began to think they suspected me! It was terrible! I couldn't go to them and confess that I had lied to them, and I was sure that the woman had killed him and that the police had failed to suspect her because I hadn't told them about her.

“So I employed you. But I was afraid to tell even you the whole truth. I thought that if I just told you there had been another woman and who she was, you could do the rest without having to know that I had followed Bernie that night. I was afraid you would think I had killed him, and would turn me over to the police if I told you everything. And now you do believe it! And you'll have me arrested! And they'll hang me! I know it! I know it!”

She began to rock crazily from side to side in her chair.

“Sh-h-h,” I soothed her. “You're not arrested yet. Sh-h-h.”

I didn't know what to make of her story. The trouble with these nervous, hysterical women is that you can't possibly tell when they're lying and when telling the truth unless you have outside evidence — half of the time they themselves don't know.

“When you heard the shot,” I went on when she had quieted down a bit, “you were walking north on Jones, between Bush and Pine? You could see the corner of Pine and Jones?”

“Yes — clearly.”

“See anybody?”

“No — not until I reached the corner and looked down Pine Street. Then I saw a policeman bending over Bernie, and two men walking toward them.”

“Where were the two men?”

“On Pine Street east of Jones. They didn't have hats on — as if they had come out of a house when they heard the shot.”

“Any automobiles in sight either before or after you heard the shot?”

“I didn't see or hear any.”

“I have some more questions, Mrs. Gilmore,” I said, “but I'm in a hurry now. Please don't go out until you hear from me again.”

“I won't,” she promised, “but —”

I didn't have any answers for anybody's questions, so I ducked my head and left the library.

Near the street door Lina Best appeared out of a shadow, her eyes bright and inquisitive.

“Stick around,” I said without any meaning at all, stepped around her, and went on out into the street.

I returned then to the Garford Apartments, walking, because I had a lot of things to arrange in my mind before I faced Cara Kenbrook again. And, even though I walked slowly, they weren't all exactly filed in alphabetical order when I got there. She had changed the black and white dress for a plushlike gown of bright green, but her empty doll's face hadn't changed.

“Some more questions,” I explained when she opened the door.

She admitted me without word or gesture, and led me back into the room where we had talked before.

“Miss Kenbrook,” I asked, standing beside the chair, she had offered me, “why did you tell me you were home in bed when Gilmore was killed?”

“Because it's so.” Without the flicker of a lash.

“And you wouldn't answer the doorbell?”

I had to twist the facts to make my point. Mrs. Gilmore had phoned, but I couldn't afford to give this girl a chance to shunt the blame for her failure to answer off on central.

She hesitated for a split second.

“No — because I didn't hear it.”

One cool article, this baby! I couldn't figure her. I didn't know then, and I don't know now, whether she was the owner of the world's best poker face or was just naturally stupid. But whichever she was, she was thoroughly and completely it!

I stopped trying to guess and got on with my probing.

“And you wouldn't answer the phone either?”

“It didn't ring — or not enough to awaken me.”

I chuckled — an artificial chuckle — because central could have been ringing the wrong number. However...

“Miss Kenbrook,” I lied, “your phone rang at two-thirty and at two-forty that morning. And your doorbell rang almost continually from about two-fifty until after three.”

“Perhaps,” she said, “but I wonder who'd be trying to get me at that hour.”

“You didn't hear either?”

“No.”

“But you were here?”

“Yes — who was it?” carelessly.

“Get your hat,” I bluffed, “and I'll show them to you down at headquarters.”

She glanced down at the green gown and walked toward an open bedroom door.

“I suppose I'd better get a cloak, too,” she said.

“Yes,” I advised her, “and bring your toothbrush.”

She turned around then and looked at me, and for a moment it seemed that some sort of expression — surprise, maybe — was about to come into her big brown eyes; but none actually came. The eyes stayed dull and empty.

“You mean you're arresting me?”

“Not exactly. But if you stick to your story about being home in bed at three o'clock last Tuesday morning, I can promise you you will be arrested. If I were you I'd think up another story.”

She left the doorway slowly and came back into the room, as far as a chair that stood between us, put her hands on its back, and leaned over it to look at me. For perhaps a minute neither of us spoke — just stood there staring at each other, while I tried to keep my face as expressionless as hers.

“Do you really think,” she asked at last, “that I wasn't here when Bernie was killed?”

“I'm a busy man, Miss Kenbrook.” I put all the certainty I could fake into my voice. “If you want to stick to your funny story, it's all right with me. But please don't expect me to stand here and argue about it. Get your hat and cloak.”

She shrugged, and came around the chair on which she had been leaning.

“I suppose you do know something,” she said, sitting down. “Well, it's tough on Stan, but women and children first.”

My ears twitched at the name Stan, but I didn't interrupt her.

“I was in the Coffee Cup until one o'clock,” she was saying, her voice still flat and emotionless. “And I did come home afterward. I'd been drinking vino all evening, and it always makes me blue. So after I came home I got to worrying over things. Since Bernie and I split, finances haven't been so good. I took stock that night — or morning — and found only four dollars in my purse. The rent was due, and the world looked damned blue.

“Half-lit on dago wine as I was, I decided to run over and see Stan, tell him all my troubles, and make a touch. Stan is a good egg and he's always willing to go the limit for me. Sober, I wouldn't have gone to see him at three in the morning; but it seemed a perfectly sensible thing to do at the time.

“It's only a few minutes' walk from here to Stan's. I went down Bush Street to Leavenworth, and up Leavenworth to Pine. I was in the middle of that last block when Bernie was shot — I heard it. And when I turned the corner into Pine Street I saw a copper bending over a man on the pavement right in front of Stan's. I hesitated for a couple of minutes, standing in the shadow of a pole, until three or four men had gathered around the man on the sidewalk. Then I went over.

“It was Bernie. And just as I got there I heard the copper tell one of the men that he had been shot. It was an awful shock to me. You know how things like that will hit you!”

I nodded, though God knows there was nothing in this girl's face, manner, or voice to suggest shock. She might have been talking about the weather.

“Dumbfounded, not knowing what to do,” she went on, “I didn't even stop. I went on, passing as close to Bernie as I am to you now, and rang Stan's bell. He let me in. He had been half-undressed when I rang. His rooms are in the rear of the building, and he hadn't heard the shot, he said. He didn't know Bernie had been killed until I told him. It sort of knocked the wind out of him. He said Bernie had been there — in Stan's rooms — since midnight, and had just left.

“Stan asked me what I was doing there, and I told him my tale of woe. That was the first time Stan knew that Bernie and I were so thick. I met Bernie through Stan, but Stan didn't know we had got so chummy.

“Stan was worried for fear it would come out that Bernie had been to see him that night, because it would make a lot of trouble for him — some sort of shady deal they had on, I guess. So he didn't go out to see Bernie. That's about all there is to it. I got some money from Stan, and stayed in his rooms until the police had cleared out of the neighbourhood; because neither of us wanted to get mixed up in anything. Then I came home. That's straight — on the level.”

“Why didn't you get this off your chest before?” I demanded, knowing the answer.

It came.

“I was afraid. Suppose I told about Bernie throwing me down, and said I was close to him — a block or so away — when he was killed, and was half-full of vino? The first thing everybody would have said was that I had shot him! I'd lie about it still if I thought you'd believe me.”

“So Bernie was the one who broke off, and not you?”

“Oh, yes,” she said lightly.

I lit a Fatima and breathed smoke in silence for a while, and the girl sat placidly watching me.

Here I had two women — neither normal. Mrs. Gilmore was hysterical, abnormally nervous. This girl was dull, subnormal. One was the dead man's wife; the other his mistress; and each with reason for believing she had been thrown down for the other. Liars, both; and both finally confessing that they had been near the scene of the crime at the time of the crime, though neither admitted seeing the other. Both, by their own accounts, had been at that time even further from normal than usual — Mrs. Gilmore filled with jealousy; Cara Kenbrook, half-drunk.

What was the answer? Either could have killed Gilmore; but hardly both — unless they had formed some sort of crazy partnership, and in that event —

Suddenly all the facts I had gathered — true and false — clicked together in my head. I had the answer — the one simple, satisfying answer!

I grinned at the girl, and set about filling in the gaps in my solution.

“Who is Stan?” I asked.

“Stanley Tennant — he has something to do with the city.”

Stanley Tennant. I knew him by reputation, a —

A key rattled in the hall door.

The hall door opened and closed, and a man's footsteps came toward the open doorway of the room in which we were. A tall, broad-shouldered man in tweeds filled the doorway — a ruddy-faced man of thirty-five or so, whose appearance of athletic blond wholesomeness was marred by close-set eyes of an indistinct blue.

Seeing me, he stopped — a step inside the room.

“Hello, Stan!” the girl said lightly. “This gentleman is from the Continental Detective Agency. I've just emptied myself to him about Bernie. Tried to stall him at first, but it was no good.”

The man's vague eyes switched back and forth between the girl and me. Around the pale irises his eyeballs were pink.

He straightened his shoulders and smiled too jovially.

“And what conclusion have you come to?” he inquired.

The girl answered for me.

“I've already had my invitation to take a ride.”

Tennant bent forward. With an unbroken swing of his arms, he swept a chair up from the floor into my face. Not much force behind it, but quick.

I went back against the wall, fending off the chair with both arms — threw it aside — and looked into the muzzle of a nickeled revolver.

A table drawer stood open — the drawer from which he had grabbed the gun while I was busy with the chair. The revolver, I noticed, was of .38 calibre.

“Now” — his voice was thick, like a drunk's — “turn around.”

I turned my back to him, felt a hand moving over my body, and my gun was taken away.

“All right,” he said, and I faced him again.

He stepped back to the girl's side, still holding the nickel-plated revolver on me. My own gun wasn't in sight — in his pocket perhaps. He was breathing noisily, and his eyeballs had gone from pink to red. His face, too, was red, with veins bulging in the forehead.

“You know me?” he snapped.

“Yes, I know you. You're Stanley Tennant, assistant city engineer, and your record is none too lovely.” I chattered away on the theory that conversation is always somehow to the advantage of the man who is looking into the gun. “You're supposed to be the lad who supplied the regiment of well-trained witnesses who turned last year's investigation of graft charges against the engineer's office into a comedy. Yes, Mr. Tennant, I know you. You're the answer to why Gilmore was so lucky in landing city contracts with bids only a few dollars beneath his competitors. Yes, Mr. Tennant, I know you. You're the bright boy who —”

I had a lot more to tell him, but he cut me off.

“That will do out of you!” he yelled. “Unless you want me to knock a corner off your head with this gun.”

Then he addressed the girl, not taking his eyes from me.

“Get up, Cara.”

She got out of her chair and stood beside him. His gun was in his right hand, and that side was toward her. He moved around to the other side.

The fingers of his left hand hooked themselves inside the girl's green gown where it was cut low over the swell of her breasts. His gun never wavered from me. He jerked his left hand, ripping her gown down to the waistline.

“He did that, Cara,” Tennant said.

She nodded.

His fingers slid inside the flesh-coloured undergarment that was now exposed, and he tore that as he had torn the gown.

“He did that.”

She nodded again.

His bloodshot eyes darted little measuring glances at her face — swift glances that never kept his eyes from me for the flash of time I would have needed to tie into him.

Then — eyes and gun on me — he smashed his left fist into the girl's blank white face.

One whimper — low and not drawn out — came from her as she went down in a huddle against the wall. Her face —w ell, there wasn't much change in it. She looked dumbly up at Tennant from where she had fallen.

“He did that,” Tennant was saying.

She nodded, got up from the floor, and returned to her chair.

“Here's our story.” The man talked rapidly, his eyes alert on me. “Gilmore was never in my rooms in his life, Cara, and neither were you. The night he was killed you were home shortly after one o'clock, and stayed here. You were sick — probably from the wine you had been drinking — and called a doctor. His name is Howard. I'll see that he's fixed. He got here at two-thirty and stayed until three-thirty.

“Today, this gumshoe, learning that you had been intimate with Gilmore, came here to question you. He knew you hadn't killed Gilmore, but he made certain suggestions to you — you can play them up as strong as you like; maybe say that he's been annoying you for months — and when you turned him down he threatened to frame you.

“You refused to have anything to do with him, and he grabbed you, tearing your clothes, and bruising your face when you resisted. I happened to come along then, having an engagement with you, and heard you scream. Your front door was unlocked, so I rushed in, pulled this fellow away, and disarmed him. Then we held him until the police — whom we will phone for — came. Got that?”

“Yes, Stan.”

“Good! Now listen: When the police get here this fellow will spill all he knows of course, and the chances are that all three of us will be taken in. That's why I want you to know what's what right now. I ought to have enough pull to get you and me out on bail tonight, or, if worse comes to worst, to see that my lawyer gets to me tonight — so I can arrange for the witnesses we'll need. Also I ought to be able to fix it so our little fat friend will be held for a day or two, and not allowed to see anybody until late tomorrow — which will give us a good start on him. I don't know how much he knows, but between your story and the stories of a couple of other smart little ladies I have in mind, I'll fix him up with a rep that will keep any jury in the world from ever believing him about anything.”

“How do you like that?” he asked me, triumphantly.

“You big clown,” I laughed at him, “I think it's funny!”

But I didn't really think so. In spite of what I thought I knew about Gilmore's murder — in spite of my simple, satisfactory solution — something was crawling up my back, my knees felt jerky, and my hands were wet with sweat. I had had people try to frame me before — no detective stays in the business long without having it happen — but I had never got used to it. There's a peculiar deadliness about the thing — especially if you know how erratic juries can be — that makes your flesh crawl, no matter how safe your judgment tells you you are.

“Phone the police,” Tennant told the girl, “and for God's sake keep your story straight!”

As he tried to impress that necessity on the girl his eyes left me.

I was perhaps five feet from him and his level gun.

A jump — not straight at him — off to one side — put me close.

The gun roared under my arm. I was surprised not to feel the bullet. It seemed that he must have hit me.

There wasn't a second shot.

I looped my right fist over as I jumped. It landed when I landed. It took him too high—up on the cheek-bone — but it rocked him back a couple of steps.

I didn't know what had happened to his gun. It wasn't in his hand any more. I didn't stop to look for it. I was busy, crowding him back — not letting him set himself — staying close to him — driving at him with both hands.

He was a head taller than I, and had longer arms, but he wasn't any heavier or stronger. I suppose he hit me now and then as I hammered him across the room. He must have. But I didn't feel anything.

I worked him into a corner. Jammed him back in a corner with his legs cramped under him — which didn't give him much leverage to hit from. I got my left arm around his body, holding him where I wanted him. And I began to throw my right fist into him.

I liked that. His belly was flabby, and it got softer every time I hit it. I hit it often.

He was chopping at my face, but by digging my nose into his chest and holding it there I kept my beauty from being altogether ruined. Meanwhile I threw my right fist into him.

Then I became aware that Cara Kenbrook was moving around behind me; and I remembered the revolver that had fallen somewhere when I had charged Tennant. I didn't like that; but there was nothing I could do about it — except put more weight in my punches. My own gun, I thought, was in one of his pockets. But neither of us had time to hunt for it now.

Tennant's knees sagged the next time I hit him.

Once more, I said to myself, and then I'll step back, let him have one on the button, and watch him fall.

But I didn't get that far.

Something that I knew was the missing revolver struck me on the top of the head. An ineffectual blow — not clean enough to stun me — but it took the steam out of my punches.

Another.

They weren't hard; these taps, but to hurt a skull with a hunk of metal you don't have to hit it hard.

I tried to twist away from the next bump, and failed. Not only failed, but let Tennant wiggle away from me.

That was the end.

I wheeled on the girl just in time to take another rap on the head, and then one of Tennant's fists took me over the ear.

I went clown in one of those falls that get pugs called quitters — my eyes were open, my mind was alive, but my legs and arms wouldn't lift me up from the floor.

Tennant took my own gun out of a pocket, and with it held on me, sat down in a Morris chair, to gasp for the air I had pounded out of him. The girl sat in another chair; and I, finding I could manage it, sat up in the middle of the floor and looked at them.

Tennant spoke, still panting.

“This is fine — all the signs of a struggle we need to make our story good!”

“If they don't believe you were in a fight,” I suggested sourly, pressing my aching head with both hands, “you can strip and show them your little tummy.”

“And you can show them this!”

He leaned down and split my lip with a punch that spread me on my back.

Anger brought my legs to life. I got up on them. Tennant moved around behind the Morris chair. My black gun was steady in his hand.

“Go easy,” he warned me. “My story will work if I have to kill you — maybe work better.”

That was sense. I stood still.

“Phone the police, Cara,” he ordered.

She went out of the room, closing the door behind her; and all I could hear of her talk was a broken murmur.

Ten minutes later three uniformed policemen arrived. All three knew Tennant, and they treated him with respect. Tennant reeled off the story he and the girl had cooked up, with a few changes to take care of the shot that had been fired from the nickeled gun and our rough-house. She nodded her head vigorously whenever a policeman looked at her. Tennant turned both guns over to the white-haired sergeant in charge.

I didn't argue, didn't deny anything, but told the sergeant:

“I'm working with Detective Sergeant O'Gar on a job. I want to talk to him over the phone and then I want you to take all three of us down to the detective bureau.”

Tennant objected to that, of course; not because he expected to gain anything, but on the off-chance that he might. The white-haired sergeant looked from one of us to the other in puzzlement. Me, with my skinned face and split lip; Tennant, with a red lump under one eye where my first wallop had landed; and the girl, with most of the clothes above the waistline ripped off and a bruised cheek.

“It has a queer look, this thing,” the sergeant decided aloud, “and I shouldn't wonder but what the detective bureau was the place for the lot of you.”

One of the policemen went into the hall with me, and I got O'Gar on the phone at his home. It was nearly ten o'clock by now, and he was preparing for bed.

“Cleaning up the Gilmore murder,” I told him. “Meet me at the Hall. Will you get hold of Kelly, the patrolman who found Gilmore, and bring him down there? I want him to look at some people.”

“I will that,” O'Gar promised, and I hung up.

The “wagon” in which the three policemen had answered Cara Kenbrook's call carried us down to the Hall of Justice, where we all went into the captain of detectives' office. McTighe, a lieutenant, was on duty.

I knew McTighe, and we were on pretty good terms, but I wasn't an influence in local politics, and Tennant was. I don't mean that McTighe would have knowingly helped Tennant frame me; but with me stacked up against the assistant city engineer, I knew who would get the benefit of any doubt there might be.

My head was thumping and roaring just now, with knots all over it where the girl had beaned me. I sat down, kept quiet, and nursed my head while Tennant and Cara Kenbrook, with a lot of details that they had not wasted on the uniformed men, told their tale and showed their injuries.

Tennant was talking — describing the terrible scene that had met his eyes when, drawn by the girl's screams, he had rushed into her apartment — when O'Gar came into the office. He recognised Tennant with a lifted eyebrow, and came over to sit beside me.

“What the hell is all this?” he muttered.

“A lovely mess,” I whispered back. “Listen — in that nickel gun on the desk there's an empty shell. Get it for me.”

He scratched his head doubtfully, listened to the next few words of Tennant's yarn, glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, and then went over to the desk and picked up the revolver.

McTighe looked at him — a sharp, questioning look.

“Something on the Gilmore killing,” the detective-sergeant said, breaking the gun.

The lieutenant started to speak, changed his mind, and O'Gar brought the shell over and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said, putting it in my pocket. “Now listen to my friend there. It's a good act, if you like it.”

Tennant was winding up his history.

“... Naturally a man who tried a thing like that on an unprotected woman would be yellow, so it wasn't very hard to handle him after I got his gun away from him. I hit him a couple of times, and he quit — begging me to stop, getting down on his knees. Then we called the police.”

McTighe looked at me with eyes that were cold and hard. Tennant had made a believer of him, and not only of him — the police-sergeant and his two men were glowering at me. I suspected that even O'Gar — with whom I had been through a dozen storms — would have been half-convinced if the engineer hadn't added the neat touches about my kneeling.

“Well, what have you got to say?” McTighe challenged me in a tone which suggested that it didn't make much difference what I said.

“I've got nothing to say about this dream,” I said shortly. “I'm interested in the Gilmore murder — not in this stuff.” I turned to O'Gar. “Is the patrolman here?”

The detective-sergeant went to the door, and called: “Oh, Kelly!”

Kelly came in — a big, straight-standing man, with iron-gray hair and an intelligent fat face.

“You found Gilmore's body?” I asked.

“I did.”

I pointed at Cara Kenbrook.

“Ever see her before?”

His gray eyes studied her carefully.

“Not that I remember,” he answered.

“Did she come up the street while you were looking at Gilmore, and go into the house he was lying in front of?”

“She did not.”

I took out the empty shell O'Gar had got for me, and chucked it down on the desk in front of the patrolman.

“Kelly,” I asked, “why did you kill Gilmore?”

Kelly's right hand went under his coat-tail at his hip.

I jumped for him.

Somebody grabbed me by the neck. Somebody else piled on my back. McTighe aimed a big fist at my face, but it missed. My legs had been suddenly kicked from under me, and I went down hard with men all over me.

When I was yanked to my feet again, big Kelly stood straight up by the desk, weighing his service revolver in his hand. His clear eyes met mine, and he laid the weapon on the desk. Then he unfastened his shield and put it with the gun.

“It was an accident,” he said simply.

By this time the birds who had been manhandling me woke up to the fact that maybe they were missing part of the play — that maybe I wasn't a maniac. Hands dropped off me, and presently everybody was listening to Kelly.

He told his story with unhurried evenness, his eyes never wavering or clouding. A deliberate man, though unlucky.

“I was walkin' my beat that night, an' as I turned the corner of Jones into Pine I saw a man jump back from the steps of a buildin' into the vestibule. A burglar, I thought, an' cat-footed it down there. It was a dark vestibule, an' deep, an' I saw somethin' that looked like a man in it, but I wasn't sure.

'“Come out o' there!' I called, but there was no answer. I took my gun in my hand an' started up the steps. I saw him move just then, comin' out. An' then my foot slipped. It was worn smooth, the bottom step, an' my foot slipped. I fell forward, the gun went off, an' the bullet hit him. He had come out a ways by then, an' when the bullet hit him he toppled over frontwise, tumblin' clown the steps onto the sidewalk.

“When I looked at him I saw it was Gilmore. I knew him to say 'howdy' to, an' he knew me — which is why he must o' ducked out of sight when he saw me comin' around the corner. He didn't want me to see him comin' out of a buildin' where I knew Mr. Tennant lived, I suppose, thinkin' I'd put two an' two together, an' maybe talk.

“I don't say that I did the right thing by lyin', but it didn't hurt anybody. It was an accident, but he was a man with a lot of friends up in high places, an' — accident or no — I stood a good chance of bein' broke, an' maybe sent over for a while. So I told my story the way you people know it. I couldn't say I'd seen anything suspicious without maybe puttin' the blame on some innocent party, an' I didn't want that. I'd made up my mind that if anybody was arrested for the murder, an' things looked bad for them, I'd come out an' say I'd done it. Home, you'll find a confession all written out — written out in case somethin' happened to me — so nobody else'd ever be blamed. “That's why I had to say I'd never seen the lady here. I did see her — saw her go into the buildin' that night — the buildin' Gilmore had come out of. But I couldn't say so without makin' it look bad for her; so I lied. I could have thought up a better story if I'd had more time, I don't doubt, but I had to think quick. Anyways, I'm glad it's all over.”

KELLY AND the other uniformed policeman had left the office, which now held McTighe, O'Gar, Cara Kenbrook, Tennant, and me. Tennant had crossed to my side, and was apologising.

“I hope you'll let me square myself for this evening's work. But you know how it is when somebody you care for is in a jam. I'd have killed you if I had thought it would help Cara — on the level. Why didn't you tell us that you didn't suspect her?”

“But I did suspect the pair of you,” I said. “It looked as if Kelly had to be the guilty one; but you people carried on so much that I began to feel doubtful. For a while it was funny — you thinking she had done it, and she thinking you had, though I suppose each had sworn to his or her innocence. But after a time it stopped being funny. You carried it too far.”

“How did you rap to Kelly?” O'Gar, at my shoulder, asked.

“Miss Kenbrook was walking north on Leavenworth — and was halfway between Bush and Pine — when the shot was fired. She saw nobody, no cars, until she rounded the corner. Mrs. Gilmore, walking north on Jones, was about the same distance away when she heard the shot, and she saw nobody until she reached Pine Street. If Kelly had been telling the truth, she would have seen him on Jones Street. He said he didn't turn the corner until after the shot was fired.

“Either of the women could have killed Gilmore, but hardly both; and I doubted that either could have shot him and got away without running into Kelly or the other. Suppose both of them were telling the truth — what then? Kelly must have been lying! He was the logical suspect anyway — the nearest known person to the murdered man when the shot was fired.

“To back all this up, he had let Miss Kenbrook go into the apartment building at three in the morning, in front of which a man had just been killed, without questioning her or mentioning her in his report. That looked as if he knew who had done the killing. So I took a chance with the empty-shell trick, it being a good bet that he would have thrown his away, and would think that —”

McTighe's heavy voice interrupted my explanation.

“How about this assault charge?” he asked, and had the decency to avoid my eye when I turned toward him with the others.

Tennant cleared his throat.

“Er—ah — in view of the way things have turned out, and knowing that Miss Kenbrook doesn't want the disagreeable publicity that would accompany an affair of this sort, why, I'd suggest that we drop the whole thing.” He smiled brightly from McTighe to me. “You know nothing has gone on the records yet.”

“Make the big heap play his hand out,” O'Gar growled in my ear. “Don't let him drop it.”

“Of course if Miss Kenbrook doesn't want to press the charge,” McTighe was saying, watching me out of the tail of his eye, “I suppose —”

“If everybody understands that the whole thing was a plant,” I said, “and if the policemen who heard the story are brought in here now and told by Tennant and Miss Kenbrook that it was all a lie — then I'm willing to let it go at that. Otherwise, I won't stand for a hush-up.”

“You're a damned fool!” O'Gar whispered. “Put the screws on them!”

But I shook my head. I didn't see any sense in making a lot of trouble for myself just to make some for somebody else — and suppose Tennant proved his story...

So the policemen were found, and brought into the office again, and told the truth.

And presently Tennant, the girl, and I were walking together like three old friends through the corridors toward the door, Tennant still asking me to let him make amends for the evening's work.

“You've got to let me do something!” he insisted. “It's only right!”

His hand dipped into his coat, and came out with a thick billfold.

“Here,” he said, “let me —”

We were going, at that happy moment, down the stone vestibule steps that lead to Kearny Street — six or seven steps there are.

“No,” I said, “let me —”

He was on the next to the top step, when I reached up and let go.

He settled in a rather limp pile at the bottom.

Leaving his empty-faced lady love to watch over him, I strolled up through Portsmouth Square toward a restaurant where the steaks come thick.

 
           

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Last updated:
February 20, 2004
   
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