Authors: Dan J. Marlowe
but the bullet tore a piece out of the building where Killain’s head had been.
Killain was already down, rolling himself sideways and into the gutter. He came up between the parked cars in a catlike rush, but the gunman was gone in the crowd.
Things like that make a man think. This must be connected with the lunatic who had come raving to Johnny’s room with talk of rousting the mobs from an upstate town—the nut who was now thoroughly dead on Johnny’s carpet.
Obviously, the mob was worried that he knew too much. Clearly, Killain had troubles.
His mind was still churning when he opened the door to his room and found the place bulging with cops.
He grinned at the official faces. “Found a body in here, huh?” he asked innocently.
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LOUDS OF STEAM
in the hotel bathroom obscured the bright fall sunlight gleaming from the white-tiled walls. Inside the glassed-in shower compartment Johnny Killain spun the cold faucet wide open. He did a five-second jig beneath the icy cascade and bounded out onto the bath mat, trailing vapory mists. Vigorously, he attacked himself with a towel, sparing only a freshly healed scar below his ribs and a small, taped-on bandage high on his broad chest.
Arms, shoulders, neck, chest, and back fused into a massive, heavily-muscled torso. His waist was lean, his thighs solid. Both chest and thighs were ridged with old scars. Weather-bronzed, high-cheekboned features were dominated by a several-times-broken nose and a hard mouth. His eyes were more gray than blue, and tawny-yellow hair bristled damply above the craggy face.
He knotted the wet towel about his middle and strode barefooted out into a comfortable bed-sitting room. A series of impatient knocks at the door diverted him from the cabinet and the bourbon bottle toward which he had been heading. He opened the door and had a thick white envelope sealed with scotch tape thrust into his hand by a wavy-haired bell-man with the face of a choir boy.
“It’s from Chet,” the bellboy announced.
“What the hell is it, Richie?” Johnny turned it over in his hand. Chet Rollins was the Hotel Duarte’s auditor.
Richie was already on his way down the corridor. “Chet said he’d call you,” he said over his shoulder and disappeared into the elevator.
Johnny hefted the package experimentally, then squeezed it. He shook it against his ear. Learning nothing, he shrugged and started to close the door. He had heard no sound out in the corridor but a man’s foot thrust over the sill prevented the door from closing. Johnny did a doubletake at sight of the foot and re-opened the door.
“Killain?” the man outside inquired, his eyes running rapidly over Johnny. “I see that it is.” His voice was harsh. “Not that we ever met.” He held out his hand. “You fit your description.”
Johnny made no move to take the hand. The man was chunky, with wide shoulders and thinning reddish hair. He had lumpy brows, a distinct pallor, and a badly scarred lower jaw that disfigured his entire face. “You make it a practice to barge up an’ jam your foot into a closin’ door, you’re odds on to wind up gimpy,” Johnny told him.
The stocky man smiled, stiffened facial scars working visibly. “The password is Toby Lowell,” he said.
Johnny stepped aside and the stocky man entered. Johnny closed the door, tossed the sealed white envelope on the bureau and went to the closet for a robe, pushing aside a row of blue-gray uniforms. Slipping into the robe, he studied his visitor’s short-sleeved sport shirt and worn-looking khaki pants. The man’s muscular left arm was crooked at the elbow in a way that suggested to Johnny a recent break. His lips were thin and pale and his brown eyes small and hot-looking. It was a wary, cynical face. “So what’s with Toby Lowell?” Johnny asked.
“I’m Carl Thompson, Killain.” The redhaired man’s voice had the rasp of authority plus an aggressive impatience, Johnny thought. “You and I worked for Lowell a few years back but not at the same time. I called him at the State Department and asked him if he knew anyone footloose and fancy free still thumbing his nose at regulations. He said he thought I’d find you here.”
“Sit down, Thompson.” Johnny gestured at a leather-covered armchair. “Drink?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Carl Thompson settled himself lightly in the chair with his hands on the arms. To Johnny the hands looked tense. “Before you start asking me what Toby looks like, in case you’re wondering if I know,” Thompson continued, “he looks like a whooping crane with St. Vitus’ Dance. His code name then was Pajarito. Little Bird. You were Manos. Short for Manos de Muerte. I was Carmesi.” A hand brushed at his thinning red hair before it dropped to the multiple-scarred jawline. The hot-looking little eyes seemed to smolder. “This was more recent.”
Johnny removed a bourbon bottle and two double-shot glasses from the cabinet against the wall. He applied the bottle to the glasses liberally. “Ice? Chaser?” he inquired, with a nod at the three-quarter-sized refrigerator in a corner. Thompson shook his head negatively and Johnny handed him a drink. The stocky man sipped at it. Johnny turned his own glass bottom up and hunched his shoulders against the bourbon’s impact. He set down the empty glass. “What’re you here to sell me, Thompson?”
“I knew you were the man as soon as I remembered your name,” Thompson said obliquely. “I used to hear Sam Kusserow tell about the time you got him out of Perpignan. Each time he told it Sam sounded surprised all over again.” The redhaired man sipped again at his drink. “You never knew it, but you did me a hell of a favor one time. You happen to recall a night you came down out of the hills at Bagnères-de-Luchon lugging a raggedy-assed young girl carrying an old shotgun weighed as much as she did?”
“Sure,” Johnny said, interested. “Just a kid. We were runnin’ shot-down pilots over the border into Spain. She was herdin’ sheep in the hills there an’ knew every blade of grass for fifty miles. Plenty guts, too. We’d run onto a patrol that night. What the hell was her name?”
“Micheline Laurent. I married her.”
“The hell you did.” Johnny couldn’t hide his surprise. “She looked about fourteen.”
“She was. She didn’t stay fourteen, though. I went back afterward.”
“You’re with the State Department?”
“A mug like me?” Thompson shook his head. “No. I just asked Toby as a favor to put me in touch with someone from the old days. Someone who could hold up his end.” He pointed with his still half-filled glass at Johnny’s robe. “What I saw before you put that robe on makes me think the old boy sent me to the right address. What kind of exercise do you get these days that puts a bandage on your chest and a fresh hole in your ribs?”
“I’m waitin’ for the sales talk, Thompson.”
Carl Thompson reached in a pocket with his free hand and tossed a glittering object across the room. Johnny caught it and looked down at part of a gold badge in his hand. It had been torn jaggedly through the center from top to bottom. The raised letters POL were on one line and immediately below were the letters CHI. “Guy laughed at me just before he ripped that up with his hands,” the redhaired man said huskily. “Then he ripped me up, too. Eight weeks in the hospital.” He fingered his disfigured face, his hand trembling.
“Ripped it up with his hands,” Johnny echoed thoughtfully. He balanced the half-badge on his palm. “Ripped it up with—” His voice died away as he snicked at the ragged edge with a thumbnail. He tested the edge experimentally with his thumbs, then turned it around to the smooth side. He flexed his wrists, secured the best finger grip he could manage on the remaining piece, and bore down. His hands crept down between his knees and beneath the robe his back arched. When his hands came up he looked down at the faint, wavy crease in the gold that was the only impression he had made on the badge. He tossed the badge back to Thompson. “I pass.”
“Not if you had a whole badge to start with.” Thompson sounded confident. His hot little eyes peered up at Johnny. “How’d you like to go after the guy that tore it up?”
“My mother didn’t raise any foolish children.”
“I’m serious, Killain.”
“So am I, man. Why should I? What the hell is all this? You were a police chief somewhere?”
“I was. And I will be again.” The tone was bleak. “Just as soon as I find someone to watch my back while I show the bastards who think they’re running the town what’s what. That’s where you come in.”
“Me? Say, you’re—” Johnny stared at the man in the chair. “Where’d this happen?”
“Jefferson,” Johnny repeated. He massaged a thumb gently. “That’s about—oh, seventy-five thousand population?”
“Call it a hundred. Little better, actually.”
Johnny kept his face expressionless. “So we’re supposed to trek up there an’ go up against whatever passes now for law an’ order in the place? Just the two of us?”
“You know there’s got to be a hell of a lot more to it than that,” Thompson said angrily. His face was flushed. “They think they’ve broken me. There’s a half-dozen people trying to run that town as a private preserve. I got in their way. I’ve got enough on them to hang them from the highest lampposts on the main street but I’ve got to be sure that I last long enough to be heard. I can
what’s been going on in Jefferson. They know it. That’s why I look like this.”
“Where’s your wife now?” Johnny asked him.
For an instant Carl Thompson looked blank. “My wife? Over at the Taft, with me.” His face cleared. “Did you think I’d be crazy enough to leave her up there available to them while I went back and tipped over their applecart?”
“It makes you a little less crazy that you didn’t.” Johnny thought he had said it disarmingly but Carl Thompson burst up out of his chair and landed crouched forward on his toes. His chin was thrust forward pugnaciously and his small eyes glittered.
“You trying to needle me?” he demanded hoarsely. “I know what the odds are. I don’t give a damn. All I want is one good man at my back. I’ll pay the man’s price. That plain?”
“Plain enough,” Johnny agreed. This guy is rocky as the Catskills, he thought. From the look of him he couldn’t buy sugar for the coffees. “Plain’s I’m goin’ to be, Thompson. I’m not the man.”
“Why not?” the scarfaced man shot back belligerently.
“Because I say so, damn it! You know a better reason?”
Thompson brushed it aside. “Killain, I’ll pay you—”
“Knock it off, mister,” Johnny growled. Irritation bubbled within him. “I don’t even know you. Your troubles aren’t my troubles. I work here. I like it here. I’m no goddamn mercenary. I’m not signin’ up for any crusade. Any way you want to add it up the answer is still ‘no’.”
The stocky man’s heavy shoulders slumped at the pointblank refusal. Recovering, he attempted to pass it off jauntily but there was no resonance in his voice. “Man, man, I get so tired of seeing snake-eyes on the dice lately.” He struggled to right himself. His eyes swept around the room. “Maybe I should bring my wife over here,” he continued moodily. “Maybe she’d be safer here. I have a feeling I’m being followed.”
By men in white coats, Johnny thought. He realized suddenly that if Thompson had a problem Thompson’s wife had a damned sight bigger one. He looked again at the redhaired man’s clothes. Despite the big talk of hiring a good man at the man’s price, it was a hundred to seven the poor devil was tapped out. “How long you in town for?” he asked cautiously.
“Today,” Thompson said. “Tomorrow, maybe. Just until I—” He didn’t try to complete the sentence.
Johnny walked to the bureau and removed a key from a clip on the band of the wrist watch lying on it. He tossed it to Thompson. “That’s for the room here. Bring the kid over. I’d kind of like to see her again. There’ll be no bill.”
Carl Thompson shoved the key briskly in a pocket. “I’ll send her over right away, Killain.” The impatience was back in his broken face and in his voice. He edged toward the door. “She’ll be right along. I’ve got to run now. Busy. Lot to do. You know how it is.” From the doorway he nodded jerkily and was gone.
Johnny removed the robe and returned it to the closet. He caught sight of his own expression in the bureau mirror as he came back and he had to smile. So Killain had rousted himself out of his own nest for a man who didn’t even take the trouble to say thank you? So Killain was a first-class jerk. Nothing new in that.
He sat down in the armchair and stretched out his legs. Just why in the hell he should suddenly feel sorry for someone named Carl Thompson acting as though he had the weight of the world’s prime vendetta on his mind—
Make that what’s left of his mind, Killain.
Still, if Toby Lowell had given him Johnny’s name—
Johnny found himself staring at the closed door. The more he thought of it the less it sounded like Toby Lowell. But how had Thompson found him if it hadn’t been through Toby?
He heaved himself to his feet reluctantly, the towel leaving the leather with a damp, sucking sound. At the bureau he found his cigarettes and lit one, considered the curling ash at its tip, and from a drawer dug out a long unused notebook and carried it to the bed. The telephone rang practically under his hand, surprising him. He cleared his throat as he picked up the receiver. “Yeah?”
“Rollins, downstairs,” the phone announced. “Stop off and give me a receipt on your way down.”
“For the enevelope I sent up with Richie. Did you count it?”
“Count it?” Johnny asked. He continued hurriedly at the exasperated grunt at the other end of the line. “I had someone here, Chet. I haven’t even had a chance to look at it. What is it?”
“It’s the proceeds from a half-dozen previously uncashed payroll checks I pried out of you three months ago so I could close my books. I put it in the safe temporarily and you were supposed to pick it up. It must be nice to be so loaded you forget where your money’s gathering dust.”
“If you think I’d forgotten it you’re out of your simple mind, Chet. It’s just that workin’ the midnight-to-eight I don’t get much chance to throw it around. Let me stick it back in the box an’ one of these days I’ll S.O.S. you. Right now I don’t—”
“In another three months?” the auditor interrupted. “Our insurance doesn’t cover employees’ property, Johnny. I should never have had it here at all.” His tone changed. “How’s the chest?”
“Good as it ever was.” Johnny scowled at the wall. “Why in the hell I let Doc Randall con me into takin’ a month off I’ll never know. One lousy week an’ already I don’t know what to do with myself.”
“Doc’s still sore at you for leaving the hospital so soon.”
“Ahhh, I had to get out of that loony bin,” Johnny snorted. “A dozen years on the owl shift fixed me so I can’t sleep nights, an’ Grand Central was Tumbleweed Junction compared to that hospital room during the day.”
“You’d better stay out of his way,” Rollins warned. “And don’t forget to stop in and sign my receipt.” He hung up, and Johnny replaced his own receiver. He glanced at the envelope on the bureau. He’d have to find a place for that.