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Authors: Louis Trimble

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BOOK: Blondes are Skin Deep
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8

I
HAD
to lower the car visor against the hard slanting sun that bounced off Puget Sound and against my windshield. I was glad to get in the shadow of the Oxnan. It was on the edge of the business district, the remnant of former prosperity surrounded by shabbiness. The town had grown away from the Oxnan and its neighborhood, leaving the area drab and dirty.

I found a parking place and locked the car. When I reached the dim lobby Peone was idling behind the switchboard talking to someone and Chimp was across the way, smoking his hellish cigar and strolling leisurely about. It all seemed deceptively placid.

I ignored Chimp, just as I was ignoring my episode with Nelle. I pushed that to the back of my mind; what I wanted right now was room to concentrate on another problem.

Peone left the switchboard as I started for the elevator.

“Mr. Hall is asleep,” he said.

“I’m not going to see Hall,” I said, keeping on toward the elevator.

“You can’t go upstairs without permission.” His voice was taking on that high bleat of nervousness again.

This guy was almost too much. He rubbed me like a wet diaper on a baby’s skin. “Chum,” I said, “keep your orders to yourself.”

I had the grillwork door of the elevator open and was half inside when a hand touched my shoulder. It was a light, feather-like touch but something about it brushed a warning across my nerves and I twisted sideways, swinging around.

The knife blade sighed against my suit coat, at the level of my ribs. If there was anything I feared it was a knife. Or a guy handling a knife. I could hear the faint tearing of cloth and I got a glimpse of Peone’s opaque eyes. The shock ran through me again. Peone was not only shiv happy, he was coked up.

I dropped a hand on his wrist before he could pull back and make another stab. I yanked and Peone, knife and all, came with me into the cage. I twisted on his thin, fragile-feeling wrist and the knife clattered to the floor. Now we were almost even.

His breath was rotten when it struck my face, he made no sound at all. I got him against the rear of the cage with a hip and closed the doors. I could see Chimp coming toward us, but not hurrying about it, and then I found the up buttons with my finger. When we were between the third and fourth floors, I pressed the emergency stop.

“Now,” I said and stepped back, freeing him.

He was sweating. His face was inches from mine. “No one is allowed …” he began absurdly, and made a ducking motion for the knife on the floor.

I had an unholy desire to destroy the foulness that he represented, to beat at it until it was gone forever. When he ducked I straightened him with an overhand slap. He flattened against the back of the cage and I kept slapping him—not hard, not as hard as I wanted to, but with enough force to throw his head from side to side, to bring spittle out to the corners of his thin mouth. His breathing got hoarse but he made no other sound.

I stopped and stepped back just a little. He dropped suddenly, going again for the knife. I let him get halfway down and then brought up my knee. It made a crunching sound against his face, throwing him backward. He hit the grillwork and bounced sideways.

He was out when he hit the floor, but one hand was still reaching for the knife. I was shaking when I bent and picked it up and dropped it through the side of the cage. I heard it tinkle far below and then there was silence.

The cage began to move of its own accord, downward. I let it go. When we reached the lobby I could see Chimp standing by the call button. When he slid back the doors I picked up Peone and threw him at Chimp’s feet. He lit with a soggy sound and lay still.

“That isn’t smart,” Chimp said in his soft voice. “He won’t like it.”

“I don’t like knives,” I said. My knee hurt where I had hit Peone with it. Reaction had left me shaking a little, but I felt better. I shut the doors on Chimp and pressed the button for five.

This was the first of the fancy floors, where the money stayed. Below five Hall had not redecorated and the rooms and hallways were as drab and ugly as the lobby. But from five on up it was like stepping into a different world, into a hotel fancier than anything else the town had to offer.

The door of 512 was in white, like Hall’s up higher, and there was a tiny number at one side. I rapped briskly.

There was a moment of silence, then the sound of footsteps. I said, “Room service.”

“I didn’t order anything.” It was Edna Loomis’ voice, I was certain.

“All right,” I said, “I’ll stand here and shout what I want to say.”

“It sounds like Mercer,” she answered. There was amusement in her voice.

The door came open. Edna Loomis was just like I remembered her, all gold and white and again wearing the golden negligee. The room behind her wasn’t as good a background as her own apartment, though. It was too subdued. “It
is
Mercer,” she said and let me in.

This was almost too easy, I thought. I went on past her. The room had no bed, which meant it was one of Hall’s

suites. Which meant, too, that she was laying out lots of cash for the privilege of staying here.

She seemed friendly enough. “Drink?” she said when she had shut the door.

“Whiskey,” I said. I watched her walk. “Where did you model?”

“New York,” she said without turning.

“Not here—on the coast?”

She was busy at a small bar, but she twisted her head long enough to look quizzically at me. Her arched eyebrows had risen a notch. “Why would I model here?”

“I thought maybe you met Nelle that way,” I said.

“I don’t know anyone named Nelle.”

She brought the drinks. I took mine. “Rich, beautiful, and intelligent,” I said. “Kiss it.”

She took the drink I held out, lifted it, and sipped. Handing it back, she sat down on the divan, drawing the glittering negligee around her legs. “Neither my lipstick nor my liquor is poison,” she said.

“I just wanted you to know that I’m intelligent, too,” I said. I tried the drink. It was strong.

“Now,” she said, when she had lighted one of her perfumed cigarets, “who is Nelle?”

“Johnny Doane’s sister. The woman who paid you ten thousand dollars yesterday.”

She blew out smoke with a soft whoosh of breath. Her eyes laughed at me through the smoke. “Someone gave
me
ten thousand dollars?”

“Someone gave you a lot more than that.”

She stretched her body, arching it against the back of the divan. I looked at her but not the way she expected me to. It wasn’t her fault; she had a magnificent body. I just couldn’t work up any enthusiasm. She leaned forward after a moment and picked up her drink, tipping it against mine.

“To bigger and better givers,” she mocked me.

I said sarcastically, “You are Edna Loomis.”

“Mrs. Edna Loomis,” she said.

“And you have a bank account of over one hundred thousand dollars.”

She shook her head, her lips parted with interest. “That
would
be nice!”

“And you added ten thousand to it yesterday—when you deposited a check given you by Nelle Doane.”

“No,” she said. She sounded as if she meant it. “Yesterday I was in Portland.”

I took another swallow of my drink. The liquor was good, very smooth. “You’ve been here over a week,” I said. “And in that time you haven’t left your room.”

“No,” she said again. “I came back this morning by plane.”

“In and out?”

“Any time I care to,” she said. “Why not?”

It wasn’t the place to explain Kane Hall’s spy system to her. “Don’t the police object to your running around like this?”

“Why should they?” she asked. She looked over her glass at me and laughed. “They didn’t bother me long. After all, I was just an acquaintance of Joe’s.”

It took me a moment to remember that Joe was Considine. By then it was too late to do more than look skeptical. I said, “And an acquaintance of Johnny Doane.”

“Through Joe,” she said. “At a party at his place.”

“Then you didn’t tell the cops that Johnny was visiting you around midnight the night of the murder?”

Her eyes were very wide. “Was he?” She shook her head a little, negatively. “I was at the theater that night. I’m sorry.”

Which put me right back where I had been. She had changed the alibi she offered me the first time I saw her. Probably, I thought, for the benefit of the police.

I said, “Someone is lying.”

“I’m not,” she said. She stood up, taking her empty glass across the room. I cupped a hand over mine; it was still half full.

“Your name,” I said, “is Edna Loomis?”

“It is.” She turned on me. “I said it was—and it is.”

I bent down and scratched thoughtfully at my ankle. Sometimes it helped me to think. “How did you manage to get into this hotel?” I asked.

“It was recommended to me. I like it.”

“The lobby is enough to scare anyone off.”

“I was warned about that.”

“By whom?”

“Is that any of your business?”

“Lady,” I said, “anything connected with your name is my business.”

She decided to show annoyance. She was good at it. Carrying her drink she flounced down on the couch. “I’m tired of having you throw my name at me. What’s wrong with it?”

I tossed the next one in casually. “It might belong to a murderer.”

There wasn’t enough reaction. She simply stared, her lips carefully apart. “You think that—of me?”

I said truthfully, “Right now I don’t think anything. I’m just trying to find something to think about.”

With a gesture of primness she drew the negligee more carefully about her legs and more tightly around her throat. She sipped at her highball as if it were a cocktail. The telephone rang and she had to get up; it spoiled the effect.

I said, as she walked across the room, “You’re the same Loomis who made a deal with Johnny Doane. It involves twenty-five thousand dollars.”

She put a hand on the phone and glanced back at me. “Were you hired to investigate me or find Johnny Doane?”

“Both,” I answered.

She lifted the phone. “Yes?”

She listened a moment. I tried watching her but she carefully put her back to me. “I don’t think I understand,” she said into the phone. “You must have the wrong party.”

I’ll bet.

“That’s perfectly all right,” she said and hung up. She came back to the divan. Her negligee was loose now; she had forgotten her most recent pose. “Some trouble over cleaning,” she explained to me.

“Sure,” I said. “Me. I’m taking a cleaning.”

“You could, you know, explain yourself.”

I should explain myself! “Why?” I asked. “I like an even trade.”

“I might be of some help to you,” she said.

“All right, start by telling me why you left Portland and came here.”

“I enjoy a change of scenery now and then,” she answered.

“It wouldn’t be because the heat was on?”

A faint smile worked the corners of her mouth. “You seem bent on involving me with the police.”

“And I shouldn’t?”

She stood up again. It wearied me. She had too much energy. This time she walked toward what I judged would be the bedroom door. “Give me a half hour,” she said. “I’ll meet you in the lobby and you can take me to dinner.”

“That’s nice of me,” I said. I sat where I was.

“I’m trying to help you.”

“I like this place,” I said. “It’s comfortable. The liquor is good. And I have no intention of being suckered out now that I’m in.”

She said, “I can make you get out.”

“You’re beautiful,” I said. “But not that beautiful.”

She walked on into the bedroom. I finished my drink, slowly, relishing it. I had set the glass down and was thinking about a cigaret when she came back. I wasn’t expecting it. I felt silly because I should have known what was coming. I looked into the barrel of a gun and it was no toy.

I got to my feet. “In half an hour,” I said, trying to sound pleasant about it.

“A half hour,” she said with equal pleasantness. “In the lobby.”

I went to the door, opened it, stepped into the hall, shut the door, and started down the hall with loud, slightly drunken-sounding footsteps. After about ten of them I stopped and did a quick sneak back to her door. I was in time to hear the night latch being clicked over and then the sound of the phone as she lifted it.

9

I
TOOK
a few quiet steps away from the door and made a break for the elevator. It was still where I had left it. I was glad it wasn’t as slow and ancient as it appeared. I hit the lobby in full stride and cut in the direction of the switchboard. Peone was there, obviously listening.

The board was at the end of the desk nearest me and there was an opening behind it that led into the lobby. I went through the opening and made a grab for Peone. When he tried to turn it was too late. I got one hand on his shoulder and with the other lifted the phone headpiece from him.

His face was bruised pretty badly but his eyes were just the same. I put a hand over them and pushed and he wobbled backward off balance. I got the earpiece of the phone in place.

I heard the husky voice of Edna Loomis. “He showed up, all right. He works fast.”

A man answered her. He had a quick, hurried voice that I could have picked out of any crowd. “Learn what you can. But be careful.”

“I’ll get it tonight,” she said.

I glanced toward Peone. He was behind the desk, some distance away, half crouched and glaring at me. Chimp was nowhere in sight.

The man’s voice said, “We’re about ready to wind it up.” Then the line went dead.

I dropped the headset and went into the lobby. Peone walked slowly back to the switchboard. Chimp came in from outside wiping something from his mouth and feeling for a cigar. I said, That Peone doesn’t like me.”

“He’ll never forget he doesn’t like you, either.”

I thought of Peone’s face. “I wouldn’t if anyone had ever messed me up that way.”

“No one ever did?”

“Not yet,” I said. “You going to try it?”

Chimp smiled. “Kane never told me to mess you up. When he does—I will.” His soft voice held its low level. All the emphasis was in his smile.

That was all I wanted to know. “I almost think you could,” I said.

“Peone will probably get to you first,” Chimp said casually.

I started back for the elevator, glancing at Peone. The hatred in his eyes was hot and naked. I wondered if I shouldn’t start carrying a gun.

“He shouldn’t be so touchy,” I told Chimp. Peone didn’t even blink. He made no move when I got into the elevator.

This time I went all the way up. Tien answered the door. “Kane up yet?”

“Yes,” she said, “and angry with you.” But she was smiling.

“Good,” I said. “I’m sore at him, too.” I went past her into the living room. Hall was sitting behind his desk, sipping tea. He glanced at me and nodded toward a chair. I sat down.

“What’s the beef?”

Hall said heavily, “Doesn’t the name Peone mean anything to you?”

I watched his upper lip curl over the rim of the teacup. “Should it?”

“He was on trial last year for carving a guy in a tavern,” Hall said. “He was acquitted that time.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

“He’s already done two stretches for the same thing,” Hall went on. His eyes flickered over my face and then returned to stare at his cup. “He gets coked up and he wants to carve somebody. Somebody he thinks has done him dirt. He can’t help it. He’s pathological.”

“I’m glad to know that,” I said. My throat was dry.

“Don’t forget it,” Hall said. “And when you want to go upstairs, phone for my permission. He was only doing the job I ordered him to do.”

“I was in a hurry,” I said. I could tell from Hall’s face that the trouble with Peone was the least of his worries. He was just using it as an opening gambit. I went on, “Where did you dig him up?”

Hall was brief; he was through with the subject. “Portland.”

“You inherited him from Considine?”

“Obviously.”

I said, “Then he was the one who tipped you about the hundred and fifty thousand. And this is his reward.”

“You might call it that.”

“Thanks for telling me,” I said. “I always did like to work for a man who was free with his information.”

Hall ignored that. “Did you learn anything from Edna Loomis?”

I was still waiting to find out what his beef was. This didn’t sound like it, though. I said, “Not very much.”

“You were up there long enough.”

“Did you ever try learning anything through a locked door?” I asked. I let the implication lie there. Hall could take it as he wished. I said, “You’ve had over a week to find out something. I had an hour, maybe. I should be the one to ask.”

“I explained why I took no interest in her,” Hall said.

I wondered why he lied when he was paying me good money to find out these things. I said, “No interest at all. Didn’t you get a report when she registered?”

“Naturally. Quist registered her and sent up a report.”

“Who registered since?” I asked.

“No one,” Hall said. “No one’s checked in or out.”

“And she’s stayed in her room all that time?”

“I said so before.”

Hall was getting annoyed. He disliked being questioned. “Who took her meals to her?”

“Quist and Peone.”

“Then they must have made some contact,” I said. “Did you ask them?”

“Quist described her. That meant nothing to me. Whenever they went in to bring her meals she was in the bedroom. She hasn’t been seen since she registered.”

Either Hall was lying or the boys downstairs were stringing him. That was a dangerous thing to do. I couldn’t see any percentage in it for them. But Edna Loomis claimed she had gone in and out at will. And she certainly seemed open enough. Otherwise she wouldn’t have made a date to meet me in the lobby.

I couldn’t see any point in continuing along this line. Neither of us was getting anywhere. I said to Hall again, “What’s your beef?’

He answered me by tossing over the evening paper. I spread it out and the headline hit me squarely. It was a
big
red banner streaming across the front page. It read: “PORTLAND MURDER SUSPECT BELIEVED IN CITY.” The story was two columns and the head over it stated that Johnny Doane, local detective, was supposed to be back in town.

“So?” I said.

“Johnny’s out to get me,” he said. “You’re in contact with his sister. If he hit town you’d know about it. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know,” I said.

“You broke in on a conversation between Johnny and this Loomis woman.”

“Sure,” I said. “He could have called from New York for all I knew. Anyway, that was less than ten minutes ago.”

“I don’t like to think you’re holding out, Nick.”

I began to feel temper working inside. First Hall lied to me and then he had the damned nerve to accuse me of holding, out. I said, keeping my voice quiet, “I got nothing out of Nelle. I said I’d work for you and I still am. I haven’t held out. I don’t know where Johnny is.”

Hall shrugged. His eyes were sharp, bothering me. I said, not so quietly this time, “And how did the papers get this tip? You know the cops wouldn’t release it.”

“From the Loomis woman maybe, if she’s in contact with him.”

“That’s no answer,” I said. “And you know it.” I got up. “Damn it, Kane, what are you trying to pull?”

“I want Johnny found,” he said. ‘He’s after me. I want him found fast.”

“Johnny’s not after you,” I said. “That isn’t his way.”

“He killed Considine. He hooked up with this Loomis woman. She got over a hundred thousand dollars somewhere. Then she moved in here. Now Johnny’s back in town. What else am I supposed to think?”

“That he’s playing it his own way,” I answered. “You’re not sure he killed Considine.”

“Peone is.”

I could see myself believing Les Peone. “I suppose,” I said, “he told you, too, that Johnny was trying to move in on you. Is that it?”

Hall nodded. He was still quiet, still calm. But I wasn’t. “That’s it,” he said. “Johnny saw a chance to take over the organization. He got Considine and he got the Loomis woman to work with him. If he gets me, he can move in,”

Maybe it was Kane Hall who sniffed coke instead of Peone. I said, “It would hardly be that easy. It would take more than a hundred grand to buy out the men who work for you. Chimp especially.”

“Chimp could be bought,” Hall said. “Any man can be bought.” His voice had that flatness of a man who thinks he is presenting irrefutable logic.

“Not for a small piece of a hundred thousand.”

“How about a piece of half a million?”

Hall was leading up to something again. I worked myself down to a simmer. “That’s nice dough,” I said caustically. “I can see Johnny having it.”

“You should read the paper,” Hall said, jabbing a finger at it.

So I read it. I hadn’t bothered with anything but the headline, but now I read the story. It was there, in the second paragraph. Maretta Considine, heiress to Considine’s estate valued at over a half-million dollars, was believed to be with Johnny Doane.

That one was still in the rumor stage to the papers and the police. But not to me. I swallowed the oversized lump that had lodged in my throat and looked at Hall. He had no more expression on his face than did the top of his desk.

“That doesn’t prove it.”

“It does to me, Nick. I want you to find Johnny.” I kept thinking about the tip and how it had got in the papers. I said, “Has he contacted you?”

“NO.”

“But still you’re sure he’s after you.”

“I said so.” He finished his tea and set the cup down gently. “I hired you to protect my interests. Drop everything else and get Johnny. That’s all.”

Carefully, controlling myself, I dug out my wallet and laid the two checks Tien had given me on the desk. I put the wallet back and my hand was shaking.

“This stinks,” I said bluntly. “You want me to drop everything and find Johnny. You want me to sign his death warrant—so he won’t be around to talk to the cops. You wanted me to investigate Edna Loomis, and then you clammed up on me. Now it’s Johnny, and all you do is sing a song about his being after you. The hell he is. You know Johnny better than that. Either tell me the truth, Kane, or I’m through with it.”

Hall said, “I’ve told you all I know, Nick.”

I said, “Take your dough and …”

I broke off as a flicker of movement caught the corner of my eye. Turning, I saw Tien standing in the doorway. She had a meat cleaver in one small hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “for the words I almost used.”

“You won’t hurt him,” Tien said, and her tone made it an order.

“No,” I said, “I won’t hurt him.”

“You’re excited, Nick,” Hall said.

“Sure, I’m excited. You cornered me into saying I’d work for you even if it meant turning against Johnny. I stuck with that. But now you aren’t giving him any chance at all. You want me to put on the squeeze and you’ve turned the cops loose on him. You’re not giving him even the break you’d give a lousy rat like Peone.”

“I turned the cops loose on Johnny?”

“You or your finks,” I said. “It’s all the same thing. To hell with it.”

I walked out. I was blind mad. I heard Hall lift his phone but the sound barely registered. I kept thinking about Hall and the incongruity of fragile Tien protecting him, and about Nelle. Nelle, the sweet and pure, offering herself so blatantly—for what? And Edna Loomis.

And Johnny Doane talking to her on the phone. I didn’t want to believe what it had sounded like. I didn’t want to believe what Hall claimed. That’s why I was crazy mad right then. I couldn’t help believing it.

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