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Authors: Brett Halliday

Tags: #detective, #hardboiled, #suspense, #private eye, #crime

Murder Spins the Wheel

BOOK: Murder Spins the Wheel
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Brett Halliday

Murder Spins the Wheel

 

 

1.

 

PEDRO SANCHEZ, A SLIGHT, narrow-chested youth, his sallow face studded with patches of acne, pressed against the smooth bole of a palm tree. He wore a black sports shirt, black slacks. The night was dark, without stars. His heart hammered as he searched the shadows, and he shivered slightly, although a necklace of perspiration beaded his upper lip.

He was supposed to be taking his time, but the extreme quiet was making him jumpy. Action he didn’t mind. He had been fighting all his life, in gyms and on street corners. But he had grown up in a big city, and the outdoors was mysterious to him, full of unknown dangers. He didn’t like this sneaking from tree to tree. He would rather walk openly up the driveway, the metal plates in his heels crunching on the gravel.

The big house on Normandy Isle, in upper Biscayne Bay between Miami and Miami Beach, belonged to Harry Bass. Sanchez had been imported from another town, in another state, but he knew that Bass was the big man in book-making and casino gambling in this part of the world, which automatically made him a bad man to fool around with. But everything had been worked out to the split second. By the time Bass discovered what had happened to him, Sanchez expected to be a thousand miles away, starting to enjoy the $10,000 that had been deposited in his account in the Liberty Savings Bank in St. Louis. For the first time in his life—he was twenty-two years old—he had a savings account. Most people didn’t realize, he was sure, that if you left $10,000 in savings-bank money alone, it would grow by four or five hundred a year. Not that he expected to leave it alone. He had plans.

Taking a deep breath, he moved quickly from the palm tree to an ornamental shrub. Now he could see the Cadillac on the graveled turnaround by the front entrance. It was too big, too black, too shiny, and Sanchez was pleased to think that before much longer it would be nothing but a twisted pile of junk.

He crept cautiously along the spongy turf at the edge of the driveway, bent low and keeping the Cadillac’s bulk between him and the lights of the house. Before leaving the protection of the last bush, he checked his pockets and crossed himself furtively. In a half crouch, he darted across the gravel, dropping to one knee beside the Cadillac’s front fender, and whipped a small metal canister, the size of a pack of cigarettes, out of his shirt pocket. A powerful magnet was welded to the top of the canister. Reaching underneath the car, he slapped the magnet against the bottom of the oil pan. A short length of light cable ran out from the canister, ending in another magnet. Sanchez attached this to the inside of the front wheel. The instant the wheel started its first revolution, the cable would tighten and snap, activating a timing mechanism inside the canister. Exactly three minutes later, Sanchez and the others had been assured, the incendiary material inside the canister would ignite, fuming upward into the motor. In ten seconds, the front of the car would be on fire.

Sanchez ran back to the nearest bush, where he wiped grease off his fingers onto his socks. He slid his hand inside his shirt and touched the butt of the .38, which he wore in a shoulder harness against his skin. He had been told it would be easy, and it had been easy. Now they had to wait till the man came out with the money. The waiting, Sanchez knew from experience, would be the hard part.

He made his way back to the fence, and to show that he was unimpressed by the rustlings and insect noises around him, he ignored the bushes and walked straight across the grass. Freeing the loose section of the fence, where they had cut the wires holding the tall cedar pickets together, he peered out carefully. Finding the street deserted, he stepped through, hooked the fence back together and angled briskly across the street. He slid behind the wheel of a fairly new Dodge sedan.

There were two other men in the sedan, and Sanchez no longer felt so vulnerable. If anything went wrong now, it would be somebody else’s fault.

He made a circle with thumb and forefinger. “Let’s hope the damn thing works.”

The big man in back said cheerfully, “If it don’t work, get up close to him, Pete, and I’ll shoot out a tire.”

“That’s a Caddy, man,” Sanchez replied. “If he sees us coming he’ll walk right away from us.”

The kid in front beside Sanchez lit a cigarette. He was calling the shots, he had organized everything and put up the capital, and to hear him talk, he was no stranger to the big time. It had a calming effect on Sanchez to see that his lighter flame was trembling.

“It’ll work,” the kid said, breathing out smoke. “It’s the same stuff they put in fire grenades in the Army. And don’t start shooting out tires, for God’s sake. Any other cars in the driveway?”

“No, just the Cad.”

They heard distant traffic noises, but this was a quiet part of town. They were parked on a short street, beginning at the Normandy Shores golf course and ending at the edge of the bay. After the kid finished his cigarette, sucking the smoke in hungrily, he started combing his hair. He jittered up and down and around, stretching his legs to ease the pull of his tight slacks, fingering his nose, checking the time, keeping the comb in motion. The more he twitched, the easier Sanchez felt. It stood to reason that the kid would be wondering how much he’d clear, and he was probably running over the list of the hundred and one things that could go wrong.

Sanchez hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. During that time he had picked up a nice tan and some terrific clothes. He was wearing a forty-dollar pair of shoes. If there was one thing Sanchez was a good judge of, it was shoes. The kid had been light-haired to start with, and after all the sun he had been out in, his eyebrows and lashes were so light they could hardly be seen at all. There were lines on his face that shouldn’t be there at his age, but he was still a good-looking guy. Sanchez, for example, had complexion trouble. People had always kept telling him it would begin to clear as soon as he turned twenty-one, but it seemed to be getting worse. And look at the kid—the smooth cheeks and forehead of a goddamn baby. It didn’t seem right. He always had all the dolls he could use, rich dolls with cars and suites at the best hotels. Sanchez was wondering, not for the first time, how come he let himself in for the headaches of a major stickup when there were so many easier ways to keep himself in those forty-dollar soft Italian shoes.

And then the kid’s nostrils flared, and Sanchez suddenly had the explanation: he was on junk!

Sanchez turned to check on the big placid man in the back seat, Pond, who was smoking a cheap cigar, completely relaxed.

“Oh, my,” Pond said easily. “The things people do to make a living.”

A car door slammed. The sound carried well in the night. A motor coughed softly and took hold.

The kid looked at Sanchez.

“That’s it,” Sanchez said, and switched on the ignition. “A sweet engine, the Cadillac.”

His wheels were already turned, ready to roll out. The kid craned forward beside him, steaming up the inside of the windshield, watching the Bass driveway. When Sanchez saw a flicker of headlights through the stockade fence, he eased away from the curb. The Dodge had an automatic transmission, which he didn’t like, and a slow pickup in second. He was afraid cornering would be a problem at high speed. After stealing the car in northeast Miami, he had discovered these faults too late, crossing the causeway. But if everything went according to plan they would keep within the speed limit, observe stop signs, and attract no attention.

The Cadillac turned onto the shore drive.

“How many with him?” the kid asked eagerly.

“Just the driver,” Sanchez said, making the turn smoothly. He checked lights and mirror: everything OK.

“Then maybe we can do it without shooting,” the kid said. “The driver—slug him so he stays slugged. But be careful with Bass. He won’t be carrying a gun. He’s an old man, for Christ’s sake. If the three of us can’t pick off his dough without blowing his head in we ought to go back to school.”

Now that the waiting was over he seemed calmer. He put his comb in his pocket and snapped on an eye-and-nose mask. Pond, in back, was now wearing a fake nose and a fake set of teeth. Sanchez was the only one who was going to be wearing his own face, but what did he care? Nobody knew him around here. He unbuttoned his shirt so he could get to the .38 in a hurry.

As the drive curved, the Cadillac began to pick up speed. Sanchez kept fifty feet of open space ahead of his front bumper.

“I figured we could handle up to four,” the kid said. “But just Bass and the driver, how can we lose?”

If he didn’t know, Sanchez didn’t intend to tell him. The incendiary canister had been set to go off in three minutes, and surely, he thought, the Cadillac had been in motion longer than that already. There was no sign of smoke or fire.

“Come on, come
on,”
he said, slapping the steering wheel.

Then a quick plume of smoke gushed out from the Cadillac’s side, seeming to come from directly beneath the driver. The brake lights flared. Sanchez rapidly overtook the other car, veering out to pass. The whole front end of the Cadillac was hidden in thick billows of smoke. The driver burst out of the front seat as the Dodge came abreast. He was a stocky Negro, with a powerful wrestler’s chest, wearing a black suit and a white linen cap.

Sanchez swung over onto the left shoulder and brought the Dodge to a halt. Something had just occurred to him. What if the Cadillac exploded? Nobody had mentioned that as a possibility. He was already out, brandishing a portable fire extinguisher and shouting incoherently to the Negro. He ran around the front of the Dodge, reaching the Cadillac as the Negro released the hood catch and the hood sprang up. A tongue of flame licked out through the smoke at them.

The extinguisher Sanchez was waving was a small spray can, designed for use against less serious fires than this one. “Where’s it coming from?” he shouted.

Shielding his face with one arm, he pressed the button on the top of the can and directed a powerful stream of carbon tetrachloride into the smoke. When the Negro leaned forward over the radiator, Sanchez brought the can up and around, keeping the button depressed, and sent the stream into the man’s eyes.

The Negro screamed thinly and staggered back. Sanchez stepped around him and clubbed him at the base of the skull with the short barrel of his .38. The screaming stopped. Sanchez slapped him hard with the side of the gun as he went down.

The smoke gushed upward, as though escaping under pressure, and there was a strong smell of burning oil and metal. The kid and Pond had had plenty of time to close in on Bass, but the gambler must have moved fast, starting the instant the other car pulled around him. As Sanchez started for the sidewalk, stepping over the unconscious Negro, a suitcase flew over the stone wall at the edge of the golf course. A bald-headed man in a Madras sports jacket scrambled after it, moving fast. Pond grabbed for his leg. From the top of the wall, Bass kicked out savagely, crushing Pond’s false nose against his real one. Pond spat out a mouthful of phony teeth, and went up and over. The kid was right behind him. He had his gun out. So there wasn’t going to be any shooting, Sanchez thought bitterly.

The wall was only five feet high, but there was nothing for the sharp toes of his shoes to dig into. He got over because he had to, but he scraped his shins and the gun gouged his chest. Smoke rolled over him, making him cough. As he dropped off the coping he heard a shot.

He landed badly. He was in dark shadow, which he didn’t want to leave. He hadn’t believed for a minute that Bass wouldn’t be carrying a gun when he was carrying that much money. It was three against one, but Bass had an advantage—every time anything moved, he would know it was an enemy.

Sighing, Sanchez took out his .38 and crawled away from the wall.

2.

 

MICHAEL SHAYNE, THE BIG redheaded private detective, came onto Normandy Isle from the Beach end. People in the gambling business are particular about what they say on the phone, and all Harry Bass had told him was that he wanted to see him. Shayne had done several routine jobs for Bass in the past, and had been paid well. Occasionally he spent a weekend duck-shooting at Harry’s lodge in North Carolina. Harry Bass broke the law every day of his life, but in Shayne’s opinion it was a hypocritical law, one that couldn’t be enforced, especially in a resort town. In any real showdown, Shayne and Bass both knew that they would end up on opposite sides, but that day might never come, and in the meantime, they were friends.

After crossing the Normandy Waterway, the drive began to curve. Suddenly Shayne jammed on his brakes. The road ahead was blocked by two cars. One, a long black Cadillac, seemed to be on fire.

Swerving far over, he stopped and jumped out. Both cars had their headlights on full, and at first glance he thought they had been abandoned. It was an odd scene—an empty street, empty sidewalks, two empty cars, one of them burning. Several long strides brought Shayne to the Cadillac. The hood was up. Thick white smoke was pouring out of the motor. He sniffed sharply. He couldn’t identify the smell. It was pungent and acrid, like the smell of burned gunpowder. There wasn’t much heat. The smoke seemed to originate somewhere underneath, perhaps in the oil pan.

His foot kicked against a portable fire extinguisher. He retrieved it and found the button controlling the spray. Before he could use it on the fire, he saw a man lying face down on the sidewalk. The back of his jacket was burning.

With a quick burst from the extinguisher, Shayne put out the flames. The man was a Negro, not big but solidly built. Shayne stooped to pull him farther from the burning car. His white cap fell off as Shayne lifted him. The back of his head was bleeding. Under his arm, the detective felt the strap of a gun harness.

He didn’t like this at all. Two cars meant a minimum of two people. Here was one of them. Where was the other? He didn’t recognize the Negro or either car, but Harry’s house was only a couple of minutes away and he knew there had to be some connection with the phone call from Harry twenty minutes earlier.

He was still bent over the unconscious Negro when he heard a grating noise behind him. He whirled. A big man with a grotesquely twisted nose dropped on him from the top of the wall. Shayne tried to twist out of the way but he tripped on the Negro and was carried to the sidewalk with the big man on top of him. He rolled, bringing one elbow up in his assailant’s face. The man grunted and slammed a fist the size of a small ham against the side of Shayne’s head.

Shayne’s reaction was instinctive. He rolled with the punch and lashed out with his foot at the big man’s middle. As his foot went home, air rushed out of the big man’s lungs, and Shayne knew he could take him.

Then a second man jumped off the wall, a suitcase in one hand and a gun in the other, and Shayne was clipped behind the ear with something much harder than a fist. The Cadillac’s headlights blurred and overlapped.

“OK,” a voice said urgently. “Cool him and let’s get out of here.”

Shayne grabbed upward through the blur and dazzle. His fingers closed on the big man’s shirt and dragged him down. He had no leverage, and for the moment there was no strength in his arms. He twisted his knuckles in the big man’s eye, to mark him so he would know him if he saw him again. The nose broke away altogether, and Shayne realized it was part of a broken mask.

“Let me,” another voice said with a sneer. “You don’t want to ruin those high-price shoes.”

Three of them, the redhead noted, and another small explosion went off inside his skull. His grip on the big man’s shirt front loosened. He was kicked twice more, and then they left him.

A door slammed. The noise echoed back and forth painfully inside Shayne’s head before dying away. He made himself roll on his side for a better look at the car: a gray Dodge sedan with Florida plates. Slowly and patiently, Shayne slid his hand inside the unconscious Negro’s jacket and tugged the gun out of his holster. But by the time he had it the tail lights of the Dodge were around the curve. The gun slipped away, and when he scrabbled after it he only succeeded in knocking it underneath the burning car.

The fire was now blazing with an intensity that brought Shayne to his feet. His mind was functioning in short bursts. He knew his way around these bay islands and it was possible that they didn’t. When they hit Normandy Drive, which way would they turn? Probably they would avoid Miami Beach, with its bottlenecks and its difficult traffic. They would turn right, crossing to North Bay Village on the 79th Street Causeway, then on into the Little River section of Northeast Miami. If he could force himself into motion and move fast, he might be able to catch them on the causeway.

He lurched against the Cadillac. The doorframe was hot against his hand. He careered away at a slanting angle. The pavement tilted violently, tilted again, and he brought up against his Buick. The door opened for him and the motor seemed to start by itself. Time was moving in jumps. In an instant he was doing fifty.

He straddled the double line between the two lanes until his head cleared. A slower car appeared in front of him. Without loss of speed he zoomed around it on a curve, his thumb on the hornbutton, trusting that if anybody was coming toward him they would have the sense to get out of his way. It was a chance he might not have taken before those knocks on the head. He was glad to see that his reflexes were working. When headlights flashed in front of him he slid back into his own lane without using his brakes.

At Normandy Drive he ran through a red light. The pain behind his eyes made it hard for him to see. The approaching headlights seemed much too bright and came straight at him, forcing him farther and farther toward the edge of the road.

It was better on the causeway. He built up his speed until he was doing seventy. The causeway straightened crossing Treasure Island and his speed kept climbing. Slower cars flashed past on his right, but he didn’t break his concentration. He was concerned with gauging gaps and distances. If one of the cars he was passing was a gray Dodge, he would find it out when he was across the bay.

He passed three cars in a bunch, cut back and touched his brakes as the lights of the mainland approached. At the end of the causeway he pulled over to let the cars behind him pass. He knew the odds were against him. He might have taken too long to get started. They might, after all, have had a reason for going into Miami Beach. And would he know the car when he saw it? The town was full of gray sedans.

At that moment it went by, one of the clump of three he had passed in his last reckless rush. There were only two men in it, one at the wheel and one in the back seat.

The man in back glanced at him as they passed. The eye Shayne had knuckled was red and swollen. The man was smiling happily, but the smile froze as he recognized Shayne.

Shayne blinked his directional signal and fell back into line, the second car behind the Dodge. His lips were drawn back in a savage grin. This was his town. His Buick had just come out of the garage with new valves and points, and everything tinkered up into racing condition. Unless the Dodge had a specially souped-up motor, he knew he had them.

They tried to hang him up on a red light at Biscayne Boulevard, but he bulled through, his horn going. When they took the curving ramp up to the North-South Express way, the Dodge leaned more than it should; probably there was something wrong with the front suspension. It came off the ramp too fast and barely recovered.

The big man shattered the rear window with a gun butt. Shayne dropped back, letting another car slip in ahead of him. He was watching for the buggy-whip aerial and markings of a police car. There were usually two or three patrolling this stretch. When he saw one across the divider, traveling north, he swung into the left-hand lane, honking his horn and snapping his headlights. They saw him, but they would have to go on a few miles, to the 79th Street connection, before they could turn. The Dodge was cutting in and out, doing eighty. Shayne stayed one or two cars back. The big man waited, on his knees behind the broken window, hoping for a shot.

When the lanes began to separate for the great 39th Street cloverleaf, one stream heading for the Julia Tuttle Causeway to Miami Beach, the other to the Airport Expressway, Shayne was not surprised to see the Dodge lean to the right, toward the airport. Shayne let it pull ahead, knowing he could come up with it again on the straightaway. He lost it for a moment. When he saw it again it had drifted to the left. The lean became more and more pronounced as the cloverleaf sharpened. The brake lights came on, too late, and the brakes grabbed unevenly. One wheel hit the low curb.

The Dodge stopped fighting the curve and plunged over a low embankment to another level, into a stream of traffic going the opposite way. Brakes and tires shrieked. Then came the inevitable rending crash.

Shayne was well past. He left his Buick on the approach to the 12th Avenue ramp, lights blinking, and worked his way back on foot along the divider, to see if there were any survivors. A siren screamed above on the Expressway. A crowd was beginning to gather when Shayne reached the wreck. By some miracle, it was only a one-car accident. The Dodge had rammed a concrete pillar, folding shut on the two men trapped inside. At some point the big man in the back seat had been jolted part way out the broken window, and the impact with the pillar had dragged him back in. He was beyond help. The concrete was slick with blood.

Shayne looked in at the driver. He was a boy in his early twenties, with a blotched complexion. He was skewered on the broken steering post.

Shayne went for his Buick. By the time he circled back to the scene the cops had arrived, including one he knew, a red-faced veteran named Squire. The redhead nodded to him.

“Anybody live through it?”

“God, no,” Squire said. “The one in front we’re going to have to take out with a can opener.”

“I suppose it’s a stolen car?” Shayne said casually.

Squire’s eyebrows rose. “Yeah. My partner spotted it right away. He’s a memory nut, thinks if he recovers enough stolen cars they’ll make him detective. Little does he know.” He fished out a cigarette. “You have anything to do with this, Mike?”

“I walked in on something out on the bay. I don’t know what, except that they didn’t want to be bothered. They got away from me there but I picked them up again on the causeway. Believe it or not, that’s all I know.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t believe you,” Squire told him. “As soon as we get an identification, if we do, we’d better talk about it some more.”

“Sure,” Shayne said. “I’ll call in.”

Squire started to say something, then nodded. “Make it tonight, though, will you? Don’t let it go till morning.”

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