Authors: Louis Trimble
COULD SHE KEEP HER SECRETS TO THE GRAVE?
When Special Investigator Jeff McKeon was called hurriedly back to the Puget City DA’s office, it marked the end of a beautiful vacation and the abrupt beginning of an ugly frame. For while Jeff’s back had been turned, his political enemies had been busy laying plans to give him a permanent vacation—in jail.
This time they had the DA on their side, for the evidence seemed quite foolproof. Jeff, they convincingly demonstrated, was the new front-man for the Syndicate’s big push into town.
And when Jeff realized he had to tackle the Syndicate itself to disprove that, he knew that his fate now lay in the fickle hands of THE DUCHESS OF SKID ROW—a gal who had every reason to wish him dead.
It looked as if all his underworld enemies had become fast friends.
Sometimes even a good DA has to sacrifice a friend for the job.
She had the body for the movies—but not the Hollywood kind.
His mind was like a one-way street and he drove down it like an armored tank.
A small-time operator with some-big-time ideas.
When she received the man she hated, she met him stripped for action.
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had asked me, I’d have said that being pulled out of the California desert sunshine and dropped into the drizzle of Puget City in November was no way to end a vacation.
But I wasn’t asked. I was told.
., I was warm and contented in the little off-the-road adobe shack Griselda Cletis and I had rented. At 10:05
. a telegram was delivered by special messenger from Barstow.
Griselda read the telegram over my shoulder. She kneaded my upper arm with those strong fingers that already had me covered with bruises. She said, “Damn! Can’t he leave you alone?”
I said, “Sometimes he’s human. It must be something important.”
The telegram read:
TAKE FIRST PLANE STOP REPORT IMMEDIATELY ON ARRIVAL STOP THIS MEANS NOW STOP LECLERC.
Robert LeClerc was District Attorney of Puget County. He was also my boss. The wire was typical of him. In ten carefully chosen words he had managed to shatter the first vacation I’d had in over a year.
• • •
Jets are fabulous pieces of machinery. I caught one at the Los Angeles International Airport at 1
. I was dumped off in Seattle where I caught a local flight for Puget City.
The County-City Tower clock was booming out 4
. as I went through the door with “ROBERT LECLERC, District Attorney,” painted on the panel in gold leaf.
I got a scowl of welcome from Stephanie Bartlett, the DA’s secretary. She had a dictating machine earpiece over her right ear and was busy giving her electric typewriter a workout. She stopped typing long enough to thumb me toward the DA’s private office.
I didn’t even stop to admire the unbelievable Bartlett bosom. I rapped on the DA’s door, turned the knob, and walked in.
I had been gone eight weeks, six on a job with the Los Angeles police, and two on an unpaid vacation. I couldn’t see that much had changed. The DA’s desk was still covered with paper cartons of coffee. He was a very neat man. His desk top held nothing else except the cartons, a telephone, and his tape dictating machine.
I said, “Whoever heard of breaking off a vacation in the middle of the week?” I would have said more but I became aware of a man sitting in shadow beyond the desk.
He occupied the VIP chair as if he belonged in it. His name was Ritter, Captain Orval Ritter, Puget City Police. He was chewing a thick cigar and hating me with his eyes.
Eight weeks ago, he couldn’t have bought standing room in the DA’s office.
I said, “What’s he doing here, sir?”
The DA said to Ritter, “You know Jeff McKeon, my special investigator, Captain.” His tone was sarcastic. When he spoke that way, I looked for trouble.
Ritter had small eyes and a large, red-veined nose with a hard trap mouth pursed under it. The eyes kept on hating me. The mouth barely cracked open as he said, “I know McKeon.” He pronounced my name “McKee-ohn” instead of “McQu-uhn” because he knew it annoyed me.
I ignored him and looked at the DA.
He gulped coffee from a carton and belched dyspeptically. “Captain Ritter wants me to suspend you pending an investigation. I convinced him you had a right to be heard first. That’s why I had you come home.”
“What am I to be investigated for, sir?”
Ritter took the cigar out of his mouth. He said, “I told you he’d pull that crap.”
I continued to look at the DA. He said, “About a month ago, a rumor started that the California Combine is trying to make a comeback here.”
“Trying, hell!” Ritter said. “It’s ready for business.”
I said, “What does that have to do with my being investigated?”
“Captain Ritter claims to have evidence linking you with the Combine, Jeff.” His voice reflected no opinion of me or of Ritter.
He drank more coffee. “According to the Captain, you made contact with the Combine when you first went to Los Angeles eight weeks ago. You told them what our weak points are so they could know the best way to get back into power.”
I turned to Ritter. “Captain, three years ago I proved to you that three of your men were taking pay-offs. Instead of being grateful for having help in cleaning up the Racket Squad, you got mad. You’ve nursed that until it’s turned into blind hate.”
Ritter’s face got redder than usual, but that was the only reaction I got from him. He said, “That’s quite a speech, McKeon.”
“There’s more. I spent six weeks working with the Los Angeles police to nail that smuggling outfit that’s been operating between our two harbors. I went south at their request. I didn’t go down to talk to hoods.”
Ritter got up. He threw the soggy butt of his cigar in the DA’s wastebasket. He wiped his hand across the back of his mouth. He was big—almost as tall as I and carrying thirty more pounds in the shoulders. Edging fifty, he was still tough and hard and he still liked to use his horny fists.
He said, “How I feel about you has nothing to do with the evidence I have, McKeon. My feelings have nothing to do with the proof that you contacted the Combine in L. A. and made a deal with them.”
“Let me see that proof, Captain,” I said.
“You’ll see it—when you come up for a hearing,” he said.
I turned to the DA. “Can he hold back evidence when he makes a charge like that?”
“In this case he can, Jeff. While you were gone, Ritter was made head of the I Squad. He claims that to release the evidence now would be detrimental to the I Squad’s investigation into the Combine’s activities.”
The I Squad was Puget City’s latest effort at curbing crime. We’d taken our cue from the larger cities and set up an undercover outfit only six months ago. It was composed of smart men who had never been openly associated with local police work. And it had been run by Captain Clancy, a man who understood the special needs of men who had to work on their own, to think beyond the bounds of the book. But about the time I’d gone south, Clancy had taken sick leave.
I wondered what political maneuver had made Ritter the head in Clancy’s place. There was no police Captain with less imagination, with less understanding of the special nature of I Squad work, than Ritter.
I said, “I’m sorry to hear that. The I Squad boys were doing some good work.”
Ritter’s face turned redder. He took a deep breath and lifted one fist. We stared at one another long enough to count to a hundred backwards. Maybe he did. He dropped his fist and started around me for the door. His eyes met mine again. Triumph shone in them, and blotted out the hate.
He left the door open behind him.
I shut it after giving Stephanie a quick glance. She was still typing from the dictating machine. I went back to the DA.
“Ritter isn’t wasting all this sweat just to get even with me.”
The DA rubbed his thin nose with the side of a tobacco-stained finger. “When the voters elected us to clean up the town and the county, we surprised a lot of people by doing just that. And we hurt a lot of them too.”
“Are you trying to tell me that Ritter belongs with those councilmen and cops we sent to the pen? Because I don’t believe it. When he was a rookie, he flattened his imagination along with his feet, but he didn’t pick up the habit of taking pay-offs.”
“Ritter’s honest enough. I wasn’t talking about him. I was talking about the people we swept out of the corners when we cleaned up. Some of them are just waiting to get back into business. They know they won’t as long as we’re around.”
He paused long enough to drink more coffee. “But in a way Ritter is in it too, Jeff. He hates us because we gave him a black mark when we exposed the men working for him. He has that kind of mind. We didn’t do our job by the book, so we did it wrong.”
“In other words, if someone fakes evidence to frame me, to make me look bad so the department—you—will be discredited, Ritter won’t put that evidence under a microscope?”
“That’s the way it is,” the DA said. He sounded so positive that I knew he had more to tell me.
“I first heard the rumor about you yesterday. I had a little snooping done. I didn’t find out much—Ritter’s nursing the evidence he has.”
He paused and watched me light a cigaret. “But I got this much,” he said. “The tip that you’re connected with the Combine came from two sources: an anonymous letter to Ritter, and a telephone call to the I Squad man he has on the case. They both said about the same thing. They connected you and the Combine.”
“Who has Ritter got on the case?”
“Johnny Itsuko. He’s been handling the entire investigation ever since the first rumble a couple of weeks ago.”
“That’s the only good news I’ve heard since I get here. I introduced Johnny to his wife, and I got him out of that gym where he was teaching judo and onto the I Squad.”
The DA said slowly, “It takes a lot of evidence to turn a man like Itsuko against a friend, Jeff.” He paused to open a fresh carton of coffee. “But Ritter acts pretty sure of himself. There just might be a lot of evidence.”
“Do you believe I’d sell out to the Combine?”
“No.” He paused again. “Jeff, don’t bull your way through this job. Watch your step. Ritter is waiting for any kind of excuse to force me to suspend you, to get a public hearing that will make us all look bad. You know what that would do to the effectiveness of this department.”
“And if it comes to a showdown, I’d have to sacrifice you before Ritter could make his accusations. To keep the department intact, I’d sacrifice anyone.”
“I know the rules, sir,” I said.
I got up and walked out.
Stephanie stopped her typing as I shut the DA’s door. She took the earpiece from her ear and laid it beside her typewriter. She made a half-turn toward me and pulled back her shoulders.
It was the usual obvious gesture to call my attention to the fabulous frontage she had under her fuzzy green sweater. I had tried to date her for almost a year but the best I had been able to do was a drink after work now and then. Mostly it was my own fault. In my line of work, there isn’t much time for night dates.
Even in the few times we had been together, I managed to learn that her frontage was her most prized possession. No amount of flattery ever seemed too much. Now I widened my eyes and looked hard where she wanted me to look.
She smiled slowly at me and preened herself. She said, “Don’t you wish you knew?”
“Someday, babydoll, I’ll make it my business to find out.”
Stephanie stretched. “Why wait for someday? Why not tonight? A sort of ‘welcome home’ party.”
“Tonight I have business.” I saw her start to frown and I leaned over to kiss the red mark the earpiece had left on her skin. “You know how it is.”
She jerked her head aside. “I’m tired of waiting for the big moment when you aren’t busy. Tonight, eight o’clock, my apartment,” she said firmly.
“Be reasonable, babydoll. You won’t get any fun out of tagging around with me.”
“Why won’t I?” she demanded. “You’ll be on department business, won’t you? I work for the DA too, you know. I’ve done a few jobs for him myself.”
“Not the kind of jobs I have to do. Mine get a little rough sometimes.”
She threw out her sweater a little more. “I don’t come packed in cotton wool,” she said acidly.
“I’d be disappointed if that was cotton wool.”
“Maybe you can find out,” Stephanie said bluntly. “Or do you plan on working all night?”
I gave in. It wasn’t hard to do. I said, “All right. Eight o’clock at your apartment.”
I picked up her telephone and handed it to her. “Dial the I Squad’s private extension, will you? Ask for Johnny Itsuko.”
She dialed. I leaned over and got my ear close to the receiver. A deep voice said, “City Advisory Board.”
Stephanie asked for Johnny Itsuko. She said it was important that the DA speak with him. The voice said, “Hang up. I’ll call you back.”
She hung up. The phone rang almost immediately. Stephanie answered it. The same deep voice said, “The man you want is a file clerk in the Real Estate Records room.”
She hung up again. She said, “How careful can you get!”
I said, “Not a dozen people in the city know the identity of more than a third of the I Squad men. They won’t be able to keep under cover forever, of course, but while they do, they can raise hell with the local crooks.”
She said, “Men and their games!”
“Maybe so. But it’s a smart game. Johnny has business in the Records room. So he gets himself hired as a file clerk. Then he can check out his information and no one gets suspicious.”
“I suppose so,” Stephanie said absently. She was looking down at the front of her sweater.
I left her deep in self-admiration and loped down the hall to the elevators. I rode to the third floor and went through big glass doors into the Real Estate Records room. Here all real estate transactions, building permits, bids on public property, and the like were kept in great head-high banks of files. They formed long alleys broken by two narrow cross aisles. Going into them always made me feel as if I should have taken along a guide.
I went around the counter and down the near cross aisle. I glanced down each alley until I spotted Johnny Itsuko. He was some distance away, standing in front of an open file drawer. He looked my way and scowled.
in my best and only Japanese. That usually brought a grin from him, and a stream of incomprehensible language. But today he wasn’t having any games. Not with McKeon.
He said in a flat voice, “Get away from me, Jeff. Do you want to mess everything up?”
“Okay, but I want to talk to you.”
He glanced over his shoulder toward the cross aisle behind us as if he expected to see someone watching him. He looked back at me and his expression was thoughtful. He had one hand buried in the file drawer. He kept it there.
Then his eyes lifted and went past me. His expression changed. It turned ugly and hard. It hit me like one of his judo chops to the side of my neck.
He said quickly, in a low voice, “Give me a bad time, Jeff.”
I realized that Johnny’s ugly look was an act. And it was his script. If this was the way he wanted to play it, my job was to go along. Later I could find out why.