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Authors: Edward D. Hoch

City of Brass (4 page)

BOOK: City of Brass

But it was surprising to me in my innocence. I always thought of promiscuous women as the other ones, the ones I did not know. All unmarried girls were virgins to my mind, and I still remembered the shocked surprise I’d felt in high school when the cute blonde kid down the street had left school three months before graduation to have her illegitimate baby in some private hospital fifty miles away. I’d never seen her again, and I’d spent endless weeks afterward speculating on which of my classmates had been guilty of the deed. Some years later I learned that any one of six boys could have been responsible, and that only added to the sense of shock.

And it was somewhat the same feeling that was inside me now—not that I’d really known Cathy Clark that well, because of course I hadn’t. But, maybe, it was just that somehow she reminded me of that lost blonde girl from my youth. Lost, and never found again.

“You think the killer will turn up here?” I asked. “You think it was one of her boy friends?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice carrying a trace of that eternal pessimism that seemed the lot of all true policemen. “Maybe a boy, maybe a jealous girl, maybe a wandering hobo no one will ever see again. Sometimes, as hard as we try, these things stay unsolved.”

Simon Ark murmured something I didn’t catch, and Quinn gave him an odd look. He put the pipe in his mouth for a thoughtful moment, then removed it and asked, “What did you say your name was?”

Simon scowled and told him. “Ark. Simon Ark, sir.”

“Simon Ark. You knew the girl too?”

“I never met her.”

“You people from New York?” His policeman’s suspicions were being awakened now. “You come all the way up to see this girl you hardly know?”

“Did I say we were from New York?”

“You talk like New Yorkers. Not Mr. Ark, maybe, but you sure do. I like to study people’s speech habits. Mr. Ark here is foreign, though I’d guess he’s been in this country a long time.”

“A long time,” Simon agreed with a smile.

George Quinn leaned back against the wall, chewing thoughtfully on the pipe stem. “Baine City is an odd place. We like visitors, especially New York visitors. We appreciate your interest in this poor dead girl. We’re friendly—you can see that. But all the same …”

“All the same what?” I asked.

“All the same, don’t go playin’ detective or anything like that. I get paid to catch murderers—you don’t.”

“You get paid whether you catch them or not.”

There was a tiny flicker of steel in his eyes. “I’ll get the man who killed Cathy Clark,” he said quietly, and I knew he meant it. The face behind the pipe relaxed quickly into the familiar smile and he slid back the folding doors. “Anyway, thanks for listening to me,” he concluded. “Sorry to take up your time.”

“Not at all,” Simon said. I followed him back into the room with the casket and the jumbled mountains of flowers. He paused for a moment and I thought he might be praying. Then we left the place and walked across the street to a little triangle of green that was a park.

“It’s a city,” I said.

“A city,” Simon nodded. “We must stay, my friend, and look beneath the surface of this city. It has a heart, if only a brass one.”

“You think Wilber knows something about her death?”

“A possibility. But I think it is time we visited your friend, Henry Mahon. …”

We found him in front of the house, strangely puttering with his rose bushes. It seemed an odd action for a man who had just lost his sister-in-law. He looked up as I parked our rented car, and I thought I saw a flicker of uncertainty on his face.

“Hello, Hank,” I said, leading Simon up the easily spaced steps.

“I told you there was nothing for us to do,” he said. Then, “I see you brought Simon Ark.” He made it a statement, not a question, and I wondered how he could be so sure. Simon’s face was anything but well known, and I’d told Mahon I was having trouble locating him. And yet he knew this was Simon. Had somebody called to tip him off? His wife, or Quinn or even Wilber? Anything was possible, I supposed.

“We were out to the University,” I said. “We talked with Professor Wilber. He seems a nice sort.”

Mahon grunted. “I understand you were at the funeral home too.” Apparently it had been his wife who’d called him.

“We stopped by,” I admitted. “After all, I did know her in a way.” I wondered why I was bothering to apologize to him.

“Come in,” he said suddenly, his manner changing in an unaccountable way. “How about a drink?”

We agreed, and I flopped into the same chair I’d occupied on my last visit. The house hadn’t changed much, actually, though I noticed that a small framed picture of Mahon and Jean was missing now from its place of honor on the coffee table. The drink tasted good after the day we’d spent in laboratories and funeral homes, and I for one was willing to devote the rest of Sunday afternoon to investigating the rest of the bottle.

Mahon, too, seemed intent on being the perfect host, producing a large poster from somewhere for our inspection. “How do you like it?” he asked. “I had two thousand of ’em printed up.”

It was a gaudy thing, done in black, yellow and fluorescent red, bouncing its vivid message out at you with uncompromising fury: GIVE! DOLLARS FOR SCHOLARS!

“That headline was my idea,” he said proudly. “Like it?”

I grunted something meant to be affirmative. “How’s the drive going?”

“Well, hell, considering the time of the year and everything, not too bad at all. You know, people are up at their summer cottages and stuff—they don’t like to be bothered with fund raisers. Some of them don’t even have phones and I have to write them if I can track them down.”

“Do you approach Baine Brass on something like this?”

“Well, not officially, though of course I sent a letter to Foster Baine. He graduated from the place back in ’40, you know. Granddad was still alive then, throwing his money around like he had an endless supply—and maybe he had. Foster Baine has the whole works now, at a fairly young age, and I suppose he’s doing a good enough job. You know, this is an odd city in a way. I can’t think of another place in the country with a population as big as ours that is so completely dominated by one industry—one single company. Baine City and the University and our largest theatre are all named after the original Baine. The family is the social leader, the business leader, the cultural leader. When the city needs a new hospital, or a park for the kids, the mayor just calls up Foster Baine or his wife, and there’s usually a fat check in the morning mail. And a fine spread in the following morning’s newspaper. That’s life in Baine City, and I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with it.”

“There was something wrong with it,” I reminded him. “Something in Professor Wilber’s laboratory.”

He sighed and sipped his drink. “You’re really persistent, aren’t you? All right, I’ll tell you everything I know—but I warn you, it isn’t much. The whole thing was Cathy’s doing, really. She came to me in May—nearly two months ago—with a story of being in Wilber’s lab one day and glancing through some of his secret notes. She told me, or rather she didn’t tell me, what it was all about—though she hinted that he was going against orders and doing some basic research in a forbidden field. We were both afraid that the news might break just at the start of my fund-raising activities.”

Simon Ark cleared his throat to give warning of an impending interruption. “The good Professor Wilber led us to believe that women were never allowed in his laboratory.”

I nodded in agreement. “Something about being afraid the apes would attack them.”

Mahon snorted. “I think that Wilber’s really nuts. Anyway, all I know is what she told me. And now she’s dead.”

“You think Wilber had a hand in it?”

“I don’t really know what to think,” he said. “I’m baffled. I can only suppose she took up with a bad crowd—those hotrodders from the end of town.”

“Do you know any of their names?” Simon asked.

“No … Zenny was one of them. Zenny something. There were others too. She seemed to think she was learning about life or something, hanging around with that wild crowd. At times she even talked about writing a book on sociology, but I don’t think she was ever serious. Jean couldn’t do a thing with her.”

Quite suddenly Simon Ark was on his feet, thanking Mahon for the drink and making it obvious he wanted to leave. It was an odd action for him, but I had no choice but to follow. I shook hands with Mahon and assured him I’d be talking with him.

“Are you staying for the funeral Tuesday?” he asked.

I hesitated, not knowing what Simon had in mind. “We may, though I should be back at Neptune Tuesday morning. I’ll see.”

We went back to the car, and Mahon went back to his flowers. I headed in the general direction of the hotel, waiting for Simon to say something, but for a long time he was silent. Finally he said, “I think this situation is worth looking into further.”

“You want to stay?”

“I think so. Until tomorrow, at least.”

“Well, maybe I can get you a room at the hotel. What are you going to do?”

He thought about it. “Two fields must be investigated a bit. The University and the hotrodders. Do you have any preference?”

“Look, Simon, it’s like Quinn said—we’re not detectives. Why not stay out of it? There’s nothing here to interest you. No witchcraft or ghosts or anything.”

“Still …”

“You want to stay. All right, we stay, but just overnight. I’ve got no reason to stick around for the funeral of a girl I hardly knew. But if you’re going to do any sneaking around you can do it on your own.”

Our route had taken us back toward the funeral parlor, and I swung the car around the grassy triangle to see what might be going on.

“Interesting,” Simon said.

“What? Did I miss something?”

“Professor Kane Wilber, just going in. Since he said he didn’t know her it’s interesting that he should leave his work to come here.”

“Maybe he wanted to make sure.”

“Perhaps,” Simon mused. “Please leave me off at the next corner. I will probably see you at the hotel later tonight.”

There was no talking to him when he got in one of those moods. I dropped him off as he’d requested and circled the block to the hotel. But my curiosity got the better of me. I parked the rented car and went back around the corner on foot.

Simon was easy to spot, even with the late afternoon’s sun in my eyes. Tall and black against the brighter colors of summer foliage, he was a man apart. I watched a moment and saw the door of the funeral home open. It was indeed Professor Wilber, and now he was leaving, walking with a quick firm pace back in the direction of the campus. Simon waited silently and then fell into step about a block behind him.

Well, where did that leave me? Should I go take in a movie or pick up one of the competition’s books to read in my hotel room? I certainly wasn’t going to fall in line behind Simon and add to this crazy procession. The door of the funeral parlor opened once more and a young fellow, maybe nineteen or twenty, came out. He was well dressed, more or less, but even the clothes seemed somehow uncomfortable. I could make a good guess that this was one of Cathy’s hotrod friends, possibly even the one named Zenny. Anyway, he was heading my way, and I figured I had nothing to lose. “Hi, Zenny,” I said, making it friendly. He twisted around at the sound of the name, going into a modified fighting crouch.

“Whoreyou?” Like that. All one word. It sounded like a dirty word.

“A friend of Cathy’s. She told me about you.”

“Cathysdead. I seen her.” Was he sorry or just resigned?

“Could I come with you a ways, Zenny? Just to talk?”

“You a cop.” He made it a statement, not a question. And he made it obvious he didn’t like cops.

“No, I’m a book publisher. From New York.”

“Huh! New York.”

“Some people like it, Zenny. Mind if I call you Zenny?”

“Call me anything you like.” He seemed resigned to my presence now, and he’d settled into a slower speech pattern.

“You were a friend of Cathy Clark?”

“I knew her. She wasn’t one of these damn stuck-up college kids who think they’re too good for you. She came around with the gang. She was lots of fun.

“What kind of fun, Zenny?”

“You must be a cop. Go get lost.”

“She must have been two or three years older than you. Why did she hang around with a crowd of young toughs when she probably could have had her pick of the college crowd?”

“Damn!” he snorted, his face reddening. “You get lost, mister, or I’m goin’ to flatten you, cop or no cop. I was just as good to Cathy as any damned college bastard.”

I was silent for a moment, trying to decide on the best course of action. “Look,” I said finally, “I’m no cop, I told you. I want to talk about Cathy, to meet some of her friends.”

“Quinn’s already talked about Cathy. You know Quinn, don’t you?”

“I know Quinn, but that still doesn’t make me a cop. I know the mayor of New York but I’m no politician. Besides, Quinn seems like a good enough guy for a cop.”

He snorted and fumbled for a crumpled pack of cigarettes. “There are no good cops. If they were good they wouldn’t be cops.” He seemed ill at ease in the suit jacket and I figured he was anxious to get back to wearing his regular clothes, whatever they might be—probably blue jeans and a soiled sweatshirt.

“What’s the matter with Quinn?”

“Oh, he’s always suckin’ around. One time about a year ago, when Cathy first started hangin’ around with our crowd, he comes stormin’ in one night to rescue her or somethin’. I guess he thought there was goin’ to be a gang rape. She told him off good, I guess. You know, he went for her himself.”

“Quinn?” He’d told us at the funeral parlor he never knew her personally. I turned that thought over in my mind but said nothing.

“Sure Quinn. Who you think I’m talking about? Hell, you’re nowhere. Get lost, mister. There’s the gang waitin’ for me.” He left my side and darted off toward a battered blue Ford that looked to be seven or eight years old. A dark girl in sweater and tight jeans stood by the door waiting for him, and there was another couple inside.

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