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Authors: Brett Halliday

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In a Deadly Vein

BOOK: In a Deadly Vein
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Brett Halliday

In a Deadly Vein

 

Originally published in 1943 as
Murder Wears A Mummer’s Mask

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

MICHAEL SHAYNE said, “So this is what we’ve waited a week to see.” He stood in the doorway of the historic Teller House in Central City, and let his eyes roam pleasurably over the scene.

“I told you it would be worth coming all the way to Colorado to see.” Phyllis stood on tiptoe trying to see over the heads of the crowd swarming over walks and street.

By mid-afternoon of opening day of the annual Play Festival, Central City was beginning to look like the hell-roaring town it would become by nightfall. Since early morning tourists and natives and first-nighters from Denver had been streaming into the ancient mining village wedged between the steep walls of a gulch high in the Rockies—a town built more than sixty years before by rugged pioneers in a ravine so narrow that the creek flowing along the bottom had to be flumed over with stout boards to make space for the business district.

For a pleasant, dreamy week Michael and Phyllis had watched the old town slowly stretch itself and come to life again. Vacationing in the high country had been perfect, with July nights icy, and long, lazy, sunny days for hiking into the mountains pockmarked with tunnels and scarred with placer mines which had produced tons of gold in the Sixties.

A rising tide of excitation was rushing toward a climax of frenzied activity today. Ghost stores were refurbished and opened; small shops that barely eked out an existence eleven months of the year glistened with fresh paint, and counters were replenished with merchandise. All week, miners had been drifting in from the hills, getting their whiskers trimmed and donning new overalls for the Festival. Two deserted buildings on Main Street were transformed into gambling casinos to re-create the spirit of the Sixties and to raise money for charity.

Up and down the steep walls of Eureka Gulch the shuttered homes built by pioneers were opened by new owners who would keep open house during the three weeks of the Festival, and since early morning progressive cocktail parties were the order of the day.

Shayne nodded to his eager young wife. “I’m beginning to believe you, Phyl. Your idea for a vacation in the Rockies wasn’t bad.” He caught her arm and they moved into the gay throng drifting down Eureka Street. Crossing at the corner, they passed old structures which had once been important business buildings, but were now in ill repair and vacant.

Heavy black clouds hung above jagged western peaks, blotting out the sun, but failing to dampen the holiday spirit of the throng. Streaks of lightning forked through the lowering clouds, and the roar of thunder was added to the noise of feet tramping on boardwalks, and the hubbub of talk and laughter. A stiff breeze swept through the narrow canyon, bending the boughs of stately spruce and quaking aspens on the canyon walls.

“Oh, I hope it won’t rain and spoil everything,” Phyllis cried. She clung to her hat with one hand and to Shayne’s arm with the other.

Shayne chuckled. “It would take more than rain to spoil their fun. If it rains everybody out of the streets there’s enough room to open up in some of these old buildings.”

“But the streets would be all muddy—and slippery,” she protested. “I think it would be a shame.”

“We can’t complain, angel,” he answered. “We’ve had a good week up here. It has to rain sometimes, you know.”

“Oh, it has been fun! I was thrilled to meet some of the actors and actresses. Why, they’re just like other people. I’d always imagined they would be snooty.” She laughed gaily as the wind whipped her short skirt.

Shayne pulled his hat tighter on his red head and looked up at the darkened sky. An ominous black cloud appeared to hang lower than the gray film. It moved in the high wind, growing larger momently.

“Looks like we’re going to get it,” he said, “and quick.”

“There’s no use trying to hurry,” Phyllis laughed. “That is, unless everybody hurries.”

Raindrops suddenly spattered in the street, a forerunner of the deluge that sent the crowd scurrying for shelter. Michael and Phyllis were swept along by mass movement into a huge and well-stocked general store, the largest and only modern establishment in the town.

Pushing their way through the double doors, Phyllis shivered from the icy wetness of her suit, but her dark eyes sparkled as they flashed around the walls and occasionally glimpsed a gaily bedecked counter through an opening between the throng of shelter seekers.

“I’ve been planning to lure you in here,” she said, “ever since I saw the marvelous display of Indian blankets in the window.”

Shayne took out his wallet and handed her a sheaf of bills. “Here, go pick out a blanket and wrap it around you. You’re all wet.”

“But—I want you to help me select one, Michael,” she urged.

“Not me,” he said emphatically. “I wouldn’t tackle that mob for forty Indian blankets.”

He grinned and watched her eel her way through, murmuring apologies, then turned to stare through the plate-glass window. Rain fell in wind-driven sheets. The steep street and gutters were a rushing torrent. People were still pushing through the doors, and on the boardwalk women laughed and squealed and shivered as male escorts urged them along.

While the last of them were pressing into the store, Shayne stood on feet planted wide apart, knobby hands thrust deep into trousers pockets, his coarse red brows drawn down in a straight line over slitted gray eyes. Something within him responded to the elemental fury of the mountain storm. He felt alive and vibrant. A week in the high country had dispelled the lethargy which had slowly crept over him at sea-level Florida.

A sardonic smile twitched his wide mouth. His big hands drew up into fists in his pockets. He felt a strong urge to get back into harness—to drive himself hard, as the wind drove the sheets of rain from a cloudburst.

Even as he watched, the wind appeared to swoop low and pick up the rain-sheet to pour it back into the clouds to be dropped somewhere else. Only a misty spray was left and bright sunlight filtered through. The torrent in street and gutters slowly subsided.

As he turned from the window, his gaze brushed the face of a man standing alone in the angle of the walls. He was watching eager buyers at the counters, and there was a caustic smile on his thin lips.

Something told Shayne he should recognize that smile. The man was of medium height, solidly built. A quiet gray business suit was tailored to emphasize his height. His eyes were very blue and still, with a hard opacity. He was not more than fifty, but his hair was a clean, glistening white, cut rather long and parted in the middle. His features were finely sculptured, almost ascetic.

Shayne worried the lobe of his left ear, his gray eyes brooding across the room for a long moment. Abruptly, he strode over to the man and said, “Hello, Two-Deck. You want to be careful of this clean air. Your lungs aren’t used to it.”

Two-Deck Bryant turned his head slowly. His cold eyes studied the tall redhead without a flicker of recognition. He said, “You’re one up on me,” in a mellow, reflective voice.

Shayne grinned. “Last time we met you were dealing seconds in Harry’s Casino at Atlantic Beach.”

A frown ruffled the gambler’s smooth brow. He mused, “That would be eight years ago.”

Shayne nodded. “I was with World-Wide.”

Bryant said, negligently, “Don’t expect me to remember every two-bit dick I run across.”

The hollows in Shayne’s cheeks deepened. “What are you doing out here?”

“Lucius Beebe and me, we’re hell on drama,” Bryant replied.

“No hard feelings.” Shayne shrugged. “I’m not working.”

Bryant’s brow smoothed. “Not that I’m hot, Shamus.”

“Glad to hear it,” Shayne told him. “I was afraid my vacation was going to be spoiled.” He turned to look for Phyllis.

“Nice graft these yokels have here,” Bryant murmured confidentially. He moved a step closer to Shayne. “Three ninety-five blankets from Brooklyn marked twenty bucks and stamped genuine Navajo. Maybe you and me could take some lessons.”

Shayne’s nostrils flared. “Is this stuff junk?”

“Nothing but. I saw them unpacking it yesterday out of boxes shipped from New York.”

Shayne saw Phyllis fingering a rug with a garish Indian design. Anger burned in his eyes. He asked, “Any of those packing boxes still around?”

“Sure. In the back.”

Shayne stalked toward his wife. A large man had come up to wait on her and was pointing out the fine workmanship of the blankets. Hulking shoulders dwarfed a lean waist and thin legs. His eyes were black beneath black brows that met across the bridge of his nose. High cheek bones, a beaked nose, and blunt chin looked as though they might have been rudely chiseled with a miner’s drill and single-jack. His shirt sleeves were rolled above the elbows, revealing hairy forearms. There was a dominant air of uncouth strength about him that was out of place behind a store counter.

“Yes, ma’am,” he was assuring Phyllis. “Right off the Navajo Reservation. I make a trip through New Mexico every summer and buy direct from the Indians.” Phyllis’s face glowed with enthusiasm when she looked up at her husband. “Only eighteen dollars, Michael. It’d make a grand lap robe for the car, and I’ve always wanted a real Indian blanket.”

Shayne said, “Nix.”

The big man insisted, “That’s dirt cheap, Mister. I reckon you don’t know anything about Indian stuff.”

Shayne snorted, “An Indian named Moe Ginsberg in the Bronx?”

The man’s heavy brows came down threateningly over his eyes. “Don’t say anything like that in here.”

Phyllis was staring at her husband in hurt astonishment when, behind them, a soft western drawl inquired, “Trouble, Jasper?”

Customers were edging closer, attracted by the scene. The storekeeper spoke in a harsh tone, “This man’s a trouble-maker, Sheriff. Claiming my rugs aren’t real Indian stuff.”

Shayne turned his head and looked into a pair of steady gray eyes level with his own. The sheriff wore a broad-brimmed hat and there was a lean, tough look about him. His face was burned the color of old leather by the Colorado sun, and laugh crinkles radiated from the corners of eyes which had the far-seeing expression of one accustomed to the vast distances of the west.

He studied the detective soberly for a moment, then said, “There’s no call to make a fuss, Mr. Shayne. Mr. Windrow don’t want to sell you something you won’t be satisfied with.”

Shayne was on the verge of arguing with the sheriff when a large woman who had detached herself from the crowd walked up and said, “I’ve been waiting until you were free, Mr. Windrow. I’m determined to take several of your lovely Indian things back to New York with me. I’ll be the envy of everyone when they find out I picked them up for a song.”

Her voice was a pleasant contralto, and her figure was corseted and gowned to deceptive trimness. Turning away, Shayne glanced at her suspiciously. Although middle-aged, her smile and voice had effervescent charm.

Sheriff Fleming was urging Shayne toward the door. He said, “That was Miss Moore, one of the actresses come out from New York for the Festival.”

Phyllis clung to Shayne’s arm, her faced clouded with dismay. Shayne growled, “She acted like a shill to me.”

The sheriff stopped when they reached the door and said firmly, “Now, I want you to get this straight, Mr. Shayne. No hard feelings, but you were wrong about Jasper’s Indian stuff.”

“You mean they aren’t cheap imitations shipped from factories in the East?”

“No, sirree. I’ll take my oath on it. Jasper is tight-fisted and he drives a hard bargain, but nothing crooked.”

Shayne asked, “How about those packing cases in the back from New York?”

“Jasper made a trip back east and bought a lot of stuff to sell during the Festival, all right, but none of it was Indian stuff. He gets that off the Reservation, like he said.”

Shayne’s face was a mask of disgust at himself, and anger at Two-Deck Bryant for roping him in like that. He stepped inside the store again and looked around, but Bryant had disappeared.

He said, angrily. “So, I’m dumb enough to fall for a plant, and I can’t open my big mouth without putting my foot in it.” He started back to the blanket counter.

Phyllis caught up with him and grabbed his arm. “What are you going to do, Michael?” she asked in alarm.

Shayne laughed shortly. “Apologize to Mr. Windrow. Then I’m going to start looking for a gentleman known in all the best gutters as Two-Deck Bryant.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

AT 7:30 THE SUN had sunk far below the mountain ramparts westward and the soft haze of twilight cloaked the rugged contours with illusive beauty. Eureka Street was barricaded to vehicular traffic in front of the hotel and the opera house, and the area was jammed with first-nighters in full evening attire—among them celebrities from every state in the nation—and with gay spectators. There was a generous background of natives in old-fashioned garb, the clanking of spurs on heavy boots, cowboys in full regalia, and miners in clean blue jeans.

The Teller House dining-room and the bar were filled to capacity and the din of merriment rose by the moment.

Somewhat uncomfortable in his dinner jacket, Shayne mopped his brow as he worked his way to the bar with Phyllis clinging close beside him. Over the heads of other bar pressers, he caught the eye of a perspiring waiter and held up two fingers, which, after a week at the hotel, sufficed as an order for straight cognac. There was constant good-natured jostling in the barroom, famous for its legendary “Face on the Barroom Floor,” and no one minded when Shayne reached out a long arm to take a tray from the bartender.

As he turned away, a voice exploded beside him: “Mike Shayne! All dressed up like an undertaker.” Holding the tray high, Shayne ducked his head down and saw a ruddy face near his shoulder. Blue eyes twinkled up at him and a wide smile showed two gold front teeth. His snub nose was generously freckled and a straw hat was tipped back on his bullet-like head.

Shayne said, “By God, if it isn’t Pat Casey. How’d you leave Broadway?”

“Still kicking when I left but I doubt it’ll survive my absence,” Casey told him.

Carefully lowering the tray, Shayne handed Phyllis a glass of cognac and placed the second in Casey’s outstretched hand. He signaled for a third, then explained, “My wife dragged me out here for a vacation. Phyl, Pat’s an old sidekick of mine. A blooming Dutchman by the name of him.”

Casey’s round blue eyes grew rounder. He held out his hand to the slender, smiling girl with lustrous dark hair framing an oval face, who looked not a day over sixteen in her white fur jacket and flowing evening gown.

Casey dragged his gaze away from Phyllis’s loveliness and glared up into Shayne’s amused eyes. “’Tis not true,” he vowed. “By the Saints, Mike, if she can stand your ugly mug, think what’s waiting for a handsome lad like myself.”

“It’s the glamour of being a private op,” Shayne chuckled. “You still on the force in the big town?”

“I’m on special assignment.” Casey lowered his voice to a hoarse rumble though he could not have been overheard had he shouted. “An old pal of yours.” He jerked his head toward the crowded room and complained, “I need a megaphone to tell my secrets in here.”

The bartender shouted, “Hey, redhead!”

Shayne reached for his glass and said, “Let’s find a place to sit down.”

Casey let Shayne’s big frame force a path into the lobby and to a room in the rear. He took Phyllis’s arm and said, “I’m not believing it yet.”

Her eyes were level with his. She smiled into them and murmured, “Confidentially, Pat Casey, I married Michael because he has such interesting friends.” They followed Shayne into a small room with tables. The windows overlooked a patio. Few of the tables were occupied at this late hour and it was comparatively quiet. Shayne drew out a chair for Phyllis and said to Casey, “So, they’re trying to make a detective out of you. I read about New York’s crime wave. Now I know the reason.”

Phyllis intervened before Casey could think of a sufficiently scathing reply. She leaned forward and whispered, “Isn’t that Nora Carson sitting alone near the window? One of the actresses, Mike. We met her a couple of days ago.”

Shayne turned to look at a girl in an orchid evening gown with a black velvet cape partly covering her bare shoulders. She was eating an ice, glancing anxiously at her wrist-watch.

He nodded affirmatively. As he turned back, he stopped to stare at an aged, whiskered face pressed against the window pane and peering into the diningroom with intent absorption.

“Get a load of that,” he muttered. “Looks like the Spirit of ’49. They certainly go in for background at these Festivals.”

A canvas coat was buttoned tightly about the old man’s neck, and a sheepskin-lined collar was turned up to frame his head. He wore a floppy felt hat, and sharp black eyes contrasted strangely with the white stubble on his face.

“Poor old man,” Phyllis whispered. “Do you suppose he’s hungry? The way he’s staring in—”

A scream knifed through the small room. The face at the window disappeared. Nora Carson sprang to her feet. The table overturned, crashing dishes and cutlery to the floor.

She ran to the window and tried frantically to open it, crying, “Father! Don’t go away. Father—please!” The window was stuck tight. Hysterically she pounded on the pane with a small fist, but the old man did not reappear.

Shayne’s face was bleak as he strode toward the girl, but before he reached her she ran past him into the crowded lobby, holding up her long skirt and pleading, “Let me through. Please let me through.” Her slender body pressed futilely at the packed crowd.

Muttering an oath, Shayne lunged after her. He barked, “Come on,” dropped his left shoulder like a battering ram and drove forward, clearing a path to the door. Sobbing wildly, Nora Carson caught hold of his coat and was carried along.

Outside, he stopped and grasped the actress’s arm. She was trembling and sobs welled up from her smooth throat. Her eyes were glazed and vacant when he shook her.

“The man at the window—is he the one you’re trying to catch?”

“Yes—oh, yes! That was my father. Did you see him?”

“I saw him,” Shayne answered. He strode toward the side of the hotel, asking none of the questions that came to his mind. “If he wants to avoid you, he’s had plenty of time to get lost in this crowd while we were getting through the lobby.”

“He wouldn’t—oh, I don’t know!” Her voice fell despondently. They reached the west side of the hotel and looked back toward the patio outside the window, but there was no one there. “I must have sounded insane,” Nora Carson moaned. “But it was my father. I haven’t seen him for ten years, but I know. And he recognized me, too. I could tell.”

Shayne indicated the crowded street hopelessly. “There’s not much you can do right now to find him if he’s trying to avoid you.”

Her eyes were blue, wide-spaced and candid. They met his without faltering. Her chin was softly firm, but her lips trembled uncontrollably. A mass of bright blond hair had tumbled into loose curls about her face and neck.

In a low voice, she said, “I don’t know why Dad would run away from me like that. I know it was he,” she reiterated with conviction. “He has hardly changed at all in ten years.”

Shayne cupped his hand under her elbow to steady her. “Aren’t you jumping to conclusions when you say he recognized you? He might not have changed much, but you were just a little girl ten years ago.”

“But he did recognize me,” she cried. “I could see it in his eyes. And my picture was in the local paper two weeks ago,” she went on. “There was a story about him and how I’ve been looking for him everywhere. He must have seen the picture and read about me.”

“Why hasn’t he looked you up sooner—and why come peering in the window at you?”

She shook her head wonderingly. “I don’t know,” she faltered. “Any more than I can understand why he ran away when he saw me.” She drew in a deep breath and really looked at Shayne for the first time. “I remember you now. You’re Michael Shayne, a detective, aren’t you?”

Shayne nodded.

“Won’t you help me find him? He’s a miner, you see. That’s the reason I let them print that story in the paper. We used to live in Telluride. He ran away from—Mother and me in nineteen thirty-two. We never heard a word from him, and when Mother died I advertised in newspapers in all the mining towns.”

“Why did he leave home?”

“He couldn’t find work, and—well, Mother nagged at him all the time. Oh, I didn’t blame him for going off, but if I could find him now—help him—”

Shayne said, “I’ll be glad to do what I can. Suppose we get together after the play.”

For several minutes he had been conscious of a flow of movement across the street and up a steep, unused road separating the Masonic Hall from an old livery stable. A large and excited group was gathering near the top of the blind street where it ended abruptly against another building.

He saw Nora Carson staring up at the gathering, her face drained of color, and he caught a snatch of conversation from a man hurrying past, “… some old miner, they say.”

Nora Carson drew her arm from Shayne’s hand and started across the street. Shayne followed and again took her arm to help her climb the rocky slope in her dainty, high-heeled slippers.

When they reached the circle of curiously silent people at the end of the narrow passage between the buildings, Shayne stopped and stood on tiptoe to see over the heads of the crowd.

He said quietly, “You’d better go back, Miss Carson.”

Her agonized eyes studied his face. “Is it—?”

Shayne nodded. “It looks as though there has been an accident, and I’m afraid it’s the man who peered through the window.”

The young actress said steadily, “Help me to get to him.”

Shayne spoke to those in front of him and they parted. A single dim light from the street below threw faint illumination on two men kneeling beside a still body. One of the men stood up as Shayne and Nora Carson reached the inner edge of the circle.

“This is bad business,” the man muttered. “Murder.”

Nora Carson swayed to her knees beside the murdered man. Between sobs she spoke close to his battered ear. Her words were unintelligible, soft, crooning sounds, like a mother comforting an injured child.

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