Authors: Dan J. Marlowe
THE SHEETS WERE GLEAMING BLACK SILK
but the rest of the bedroom was pure white. Killain blinked at the brightness, bounced on the bed experimentally, and began shedding clothes. “We’ve discussed murder and larceny,” he said. “Let’s get to the serious stuff.”
“You are the damnedest—” the blonde spluttered.
She flicked a switch, a motor purred, and the venetian blinds closed. Darkness rushed in on the white room. Another click, and rows of tiny lights came on all around the baseboard. A third click, and Johnny looked up to see himself reflected in a glowing ceiling mirror.
“I supply mood and technique, not calisthenics,” the blonde purred, slipping out of her dress.
“Damned if you don’t,” Killain said. He laughed and reached out for her.
“Well, let’s get these wagons rollin’,” he said.
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ILLAIN STEPPED BRISKLY FROM THE NARROW
service elevator into the after-midnight half-darkness of the Hotel Duarte’s main lobby. He took in the lean, slope-shouldered man in the Burberry topcoat standing by the registration desk and flipping through a stack of mail Vic Barnes, the night front-desk man, had handed him. Then, from his bell-captain’s desk between the passenger elevators, Johnny glanced out through the foyer’s glass doors to the chill rain drenching Forty-fifth Street. A cab was pulled in to the curb, and Paul Sassella was jockeying airplane luggage from its trunk. Johnny was barely in time to hold the door as the stocky Swiss entered the lobby loaded down with bags. Paul was Johnny’s right-hand man on the night shift.
The man in the expensive topcoat turned around as he heard Paul set the bags down behind him. “Supposed to be summer when I got back here,” he said accusingly. His harsh voice echoed in the hushed lobby.
“Calendar says it’s summer,” Paul replied mildly.
“Damn the calendar. My bones say it’s not.” The lean man returned to his mail, his temples silvered in the desk light. A finely meshed network of wrinkles crosshatched his sharp features, and dark pouches bagged prominently beneath his eyes. A facial tic fluttered his left eyelid at irregular intervals. Johnny watched the worn, haggardly weary face as an envelope was separated from the pile, held up to the light and squinted at.
“Zurich this time?” Paul inquired into the little silence.
“Not Zurich.” The worn-looking man grimaced as though at a bad taste. “Langnau. And Mumpf. Dickering for a high-grade lot of movements.” He stuffed the single envelope into a topcoat pocket and turned again to look at Paul. The metallic voice rose jeeringly. “How come you’re not behind a desk on the Wilhelmstrasse, chasing the almighty dollar with the rest of your no-good compatriots?”
“For business you need the hard head. Mine is soft,” Paul said placidly.
“A soft-headed Swiss? They don’t make any. For a franc or a hundred thousand, they’re a bunch of wheelers and dealers.” The balance of the mail was slapped together on the marbled counter. “Once I had a hard head myself. Lately I’ve begun to wonder.” The lean man passed a hand tiredly over his eyes. “I didn’t used to mind these night flights like this.” He looked at Vic behind the desk. “I’m expecting someone.” Vic nodded. Vic was a sturdy, middle-aged man in a clerk’s black alpaca jacket. His thinning hair was combed straight back from a high forehead, and his round, cheerful features appeared glossily waxed, emphasizing his high color.
“Ungodly hour, but it can’t be helped,” the worn-looking man continued. He looked at Paul. “I know the kitchen’s closed, but could you find me a sandwich after you’ve dumped that stuff upstairs? And a pot of coffee?”
The stolid Paul nodded. “Take me a few minutes.”
“Just so I get the rumble out of my belly before I sack in. I’ll leave the door open in case I’m in the shower. And shoot my company right on up, will you?” He crossed the lobby to the nearer elevator, and Paul stooped for the bags.
Behind Johnny his phone rang, and he reached for it. “Bell captain, Killain.”
“Tommy’s got trouble in the bar, Johnny.” Urgency strained the night telephone operator’s soft voice. “He just called me.”
“Okay, ma,” Johnny replied soothingly. The operator, Sally Fontaine, was a slender, brown-eyed sprite whose quick smile had the happy faculty of fusing ordinary features into pleasing winsomeness. Johnny spent a considerable amount of his time in provoking the appearance of Sally’s smile. “What’cha doin’ in the mornin’?”
“Darning my socks. Will you get in there? Tommy sounded worried.”
“Tommy’s always—” Johnny shrugged as Sally broke the connection on him. He propelled his bulk across the lobby floor to the swinging doors beneath the stairs that led to the mezzanine. He pushed through them in time to see the pint-sized bartender, Tommy Haines, back quietly away as, across the bar from him, a burly arm was raised threateningly from amidst a tight little knot of men.
Johnny’s pale eyes narrowed. His high-cheekboned, weather-bronzed craggy features went taut and hard beneath his rough, blond hair. He moved forward swiftly, his long-striding shuffle a muted whisper on the lounge carpet. From behind the group he deftly turned a shoulder and eased himself into the bar between the arm-raiser and his intended target. “You happen to have a spare quart of ginger ale, Tommy?” he asked lightly.
Heads turned in unison. Flushed, irate faces stared blankly at his snug-fitting bell captain’s uniform. The silence lasted only an instant. “—’t th’ hell out’ve m’ way,” the scarlet-faced arm-raiser grunted sullenly at Johnny. “—show thish stupid—” He tried to glare around Johnny at the man Johnny’s body was shielding.
“Sure tiling,” Johnny said without looking around, and stayed where he was.
, damn it!” The man put a beefy palm against Johnny’s shoulder and shoved. He looked surprised when nothing happened. In the back-bar mirror, Johnny watched appraisingly as the arm tensed itself to shove again. The man hesitated as bloodshot eyes focused upon Johnny’s several-times-broken nose and the surplus of chest and shoulders beneath the twenty-and-a-half-inch neck. He snorted loudly, and drew back his arm. Johnny turned smoothly, reached in for a firm hand-hold on the belligerent’s belt buckle and jerked upward. The man’s heels came six inches off the floor. His arms thrashed in furious balancing movements, and his upper body weight tilted him slowly backward until he was counterbalanced by the hard pressure of Johnny’s knuckles in his middle. The scarlet face first purpled, then drained to a dirty gray.
Johnny glanced over his shoulder to a noncombatant on the rim of the staring group. “Almost closin’,” he said conversationally. “How about one for the road, an’ a fresh start tomorrow?” He gently set the man dangling at the end of his arm back upon the floor, and the man grabbed for the edge of the bar with both hands.
mine for the road,” a voice said suddenly. “And, if the rest of these guys haven’t, they’re on their own.” Deliberately the speaker detached himself from the group and moved down the bar.
The knot of men around Johnny dissolved as though taut strings had been cut. In slow motion, they drifted away from him. Tommy sprang into action, and the register ding-dinged merrily. The lounge quieted after the muffled, shamefaced good-nights.
Tommy came back from the register nervously wiping his hands on his apron. “Man!” he exclaimed feelingly. “Friends, mind you, and in another second they’d have been all over the floor. Sometimes this sauce I pour—” He shook his head dubiously. “Thanks, big man. I couldn’t have handled it without a bungstarter.” He slapped a double jigger down on the bar and dexterously raised and lowered the bourbon bottle over it.
“First tonight,” Johnny acknowledged, and tossed it off. He shook his head as Tommy held up the bottle again inquiringly. “Work’s the curse of the drinkin’ class, boy.” He nodded in response to Tommy’s bottle salute, and returned to the lobby in time to see Paul Sassella’s entrance from the foyer with a napkin-covered tray. The well-dressed couple at the desk with Vic registered in the same glance.
“Oh, Paul,” Vic called. “That for Ten-twenty-six? So are Miss Philips and Mr. Faulkner here,” he continued at Paul’s affirmative nod. “And Paul—Sixteen-oh-four just called down for her car. Stop off and convince her what time of night it is, will you?”
Johnny barely repressed a smile. 1604 was Miss Loretta Gorman, an elderly spinster given to positive opinions and erratic impulses. Eccentric was the word for 1604. She would listen to the calm, level-headed Paul sometimes when none of the rest of the staff could get through to her. At the thought Johnny stepped forward and relieved Paul of the tray. “I’ll take this up along with his visitors,” Johnny said. “You get Miss Loretta straightened out. I don’t want her startin’ in on me on that phone tonight.”
“Sure,” Paul agreed amiably, and took the second elevator. The couple at the desk followed Johnny onto the first car, and he examined them from the corner of his eye as they passed behind him.
Mr. Faulkner was a slim, tense, worried-looking man, immaculately dressed. Despite the lateness of the hour, he appeared freshly shaven. He wore heavy horn-rimmed glasses that helped to strengthen a sensitive, mobile face. His sleek dark hair was parted with exactitude, his nose was delicately shaped, and his mouth was small and prim. The two-hundred-dollar suit Mr. Faulkner wore was a little too much of a good thing, Johnny decided. It came very close to effacing Mr. Faulkner.
The girl was a fish from another rain barrel. No clothes would ever succeed in effacing Miss Philips. She was a striking redhead, the highlights auburn and the burnished mass a deep, coppery tone. She wasn’t tall, but even a side-of-the-eye inspection of the softly rounded expansiveness displayed with assurance in a trim suit brought the expression
to Johnny’s mind. A tree-ripened peach, he thought. Her features were serviceable without detracting at all from her more spectacular assets, blooming with health and lightly dusted with golden freckles.
“I hope this isn’t a mistake, Gloria,” Faulkner remarked petulantly as the elevator rose. Johnny thought that if the piping voice were pitched three notes higher it would be a whine.
“If there’s been a mistake, it’s not mine,” the girl said coolly. “I wonder if Claude can say the same.” She glanced at Johnny as Faulkner would have spoken again, and he remained silent. Johnny anchored the cab and led the way down the corridor to 1026. The importer’s door was ajar, and Johnny knocked and entered, skirting the bags scattered on the floor.
“What is it?” the importer’s voice called through the open bathroom door.
“Food,” Johnny announced. “An’ visitors.” He moved forward to deposit the tray on a small table. From the bathroom he thought the importer said something he couldn’t hear clearly. The sound of the gunshot took Johnny completely by surprise. He whirled, then reversed the movement of his arms as the coffeepot on the tray skidded wildly.
Gloria Philips reached the bathroom door first, but Johnny was a short stride behind. With the tray still in his hands he looked down over the girl’s shoulder at the loosely sprawled body in the pale blue dressing gown. A black automatic lay beside an outstretched clawlike hand, and a widening scarlet pool crept over the white tile. A powder-burned hole indented a silvered temple.
Johnny pivoted again at a strangled sound from behind him. Mr. Faulkner sagged against the door frame, white-lipped and shaken as he peered down owlishly at the body on the floor.
“Snap out of it, Ernest,” the girl said quietly. “Call the police.” She moved around Johnny out into the bedroom, and he could see no change in her expression at all.
Ernest Faulkner wrenched himself forcibly from the doorway and tottered inside to the telephone.
• • •
Seventy-five minutes later, Johnny finished telling his version of the story to Detective James Rogers in the mezzanine lounge. Since he had known Rogers for some time, the telling went quickly. The slender, sandy-haired detective tapped his notebook thoughtfully in the palm of his hand when Johnny had finished. “No chance of it being anything but suicide, Johnny?”
“I heard him,” Johnny said positively. “Just before he pulled the trigger. I was closer to the bathroom door than either of the other two. You can wrap it up, Jimmy.” He looked at the notebook. “Who’s this Faulkner?”
“The deceased’s lawyer.”
“An’ the girl?”
“Secretary to the U.S. representative of a Swiss manufacturer from whom the importer had been buying.”
“A business call? At this hour of the mornin’?”
“So the lawyer claims.” Detective Rogers shrugged. “I told him to be over at the precinct house in the morning at ten and get it on the record. Not that it really matters. You’ll have to come over, too, to sign a statement.” He slapped the notebook against his palm with an air of finality and pushed it into a jacket pocket. His glance at Johnny was sardonic. “Why don’t you rename this place Hacienda Dolorosa or something appropriate? We’ve taken more stiffs out the back door here than from any hospital the same size.”
“If you can’t boost it, don’t knock it,” Johnny told him as they walked to the stairs. He accelerated at sight of Paul beckoning to him from below. “See you in the mornin’, Jimmy,” Johnny said, and ran down the stairs.
“Phone call for you at the desk,” Paul informed him.
“Okay. You call Dominic an’ Steve?”
“They’re on the way in now.”
“Put ‘em on the elevators when they get here. Keep yourself available. A thing like this makes a lot of extra legwork.” He crossed to the desk and picked up the dangling phone. “Killain.”
The receiver gave him the first eight bars of
, off-key. “Come on over, Johnny,” the phone said in his ear.
“You stripped your gears, man? At three in the mornin’ you better bait that hook a little.”
The heavy voice sounded surprised. “You don’t usually need much excuse to cut out of there. This is Dameron. Come on over. You’d be surprised at the bait I’ve got.”
Dameron was Lieutenant Joseph Dameron of the New York City Police Department, and Detective James Rogers’ immediate superior. “I know who it is, Joe,” Johnny said patiently. “No one but you could scramble sharps an’ flats in
like that. You don’t need to see me tonight just because a permanent leaked his brains out on the bathroom tile with a thirty-eight.”
The voice in his ear sharpened. “My people there?”
“Come an’ gone. Jimmy’s got us booked for ten
. at your emporium. That’s not why you called?”
“It’s not. Come on over. I’m at the office.”
“You must’ve anyways raided a stag to brisk you up like this at this hour. You reviewin’ the evidence?”
“Skip the comedy, Johnny. A friend of yours is here. And never mind asking who it is. I’ve told you three times how to find out. Too bad you don’t have any curiosity.” The click of the broken connection sounded in Johnny’s ear, and he grinned sheepishly as he hung up. He knew that Dameron had been perfectly safe in hanging up the phone, and he knew that Dameron knew it, too. He went to look for Paul.