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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

THE MURDER TRICK

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RGL e-Book Cover 2017

A POP STEVENS STORY



First published in Operator #5, May 1934
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version date: 2017-11-30
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

Only the original raw text of this book is in the public domain.
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Operator #5, May 1934, with "The Murder Trick"



The little Federal agent kept his eyes on the gun-muzzle and cleared his throat. "You can't win against Uncle Sam," he said, "and killing me won't save you—" But the Big Fellow had won every trick so far, and he smiled slowly as his finger tightened on the trigger...



THE little man who called himself Joseph Black waited with his hand on the knob of the office door till the tiny quiver along his spine should stop. Once he went in there could be no retreat; he would have to go ahead with the plan. If there was a slip-up—his lips tightened under the drooping gray mustache—there would be a lurid red finis scrawled across the bottom of his page. His gray eyes narrowed as he checked the scheme for the hundredth time. There were some big holes in it, and there was no way of plugging them. But it was too late to turn back now.

The fifteenth floor corridor of the Layton Building was deserted except for this slender, gray-overcoated figure. The hall went on about twenty feet to his left, then ended in a blank wall. This was the corner office, facing Maiden Lane, and on its door, innocent appearing gilt letters said:


A. HAMPTON ANDREWS
Investments


There was nothing to show that this office was any different from the hundreds of others in the skyscraper, but it had taken Black fifteen months to secure this address—and the blank piece of white cardboard in his pocket that was torn across, half of it missing. So far the little man had held winning cards in the game of life and death he was playing, but the hand wasn't finished yet, and it was the last trick, the odd trick, that would count.

Joseph Black whistled a tuneless trio of low notes. The door of 1511, to his right, moved minutely and a slit of light showed along the jamb. The little man opened the door of 1510 and walked in.

Directly before him, parallel to the corridor and six feet long, was a partition. It looked like quartered oak, but near the floor it was chipped. Joseph Black's scalp tingled as he saw that rusted steel showed beneath the enamel. To his left a door, somehow blind-looking for its lack of either knob or keyhole, shut off the anteroom, and on the right the ominous partition angled out to the corridor wall.

The slide that covered a little wicket in the long section of the partition skidded up. The face it disclosed was an expressionless mask in which two eyes were black pinpoints, and the mouth a straight, cruel slash across clammy-white skin.

"Joseph Black. To see Mr. Andrews."

"Andrews ain't in."

"I have a card from Daniels, in Denver." The little man spoke mildly, almost timorously.

"Fork it over."

The caller passed the torn cardboard through the little window. A hand came up and twitched it from him, a hand that had uncannily long fingers and pointed, over-manicured nails. The slide banged down and the little man was filled with the squirming uneasiness that comes from a sense of unseen, watching eyes. He waited. After awhile the door on the left opened and the owner of the face at the wicket said, "Okay. You can come in."

He was thin, not much taller than Joseph Black, his double-breasted coat was wasp-waisted and he wore gray spats over patent leather shoes.

The gray-haired man started through, but the fellow in the door blocked him momentarily. The long fingers flitted with a gentle but firm pressure down his sides, up under his armpits, along his sleeves. Before Black quite realized he was being frisked his way was clear. A big voice boomed from across the room. "Come in and sit down."


ANDREWS bulked huge behind his massive desk, the window behind him silhouetting the spread of his big shoulders, his heavy jowled head. He rumbled, "Okay, Tony," and the pasty-faced man padded out through a second door that would take him into the space behind the steel partition.

The thick rug was soft to Black's feet as he crossed the room. He perched on the edge of a chair at the end of the desk. His eyes flitted over the glass surface, saw a bronze ash-tray, two torn pieces of white cardboard laid together so that their uneven edges matched exactly, and a larger card about the size of a sheet of notepaper. If there was anything on that file-card it was on the turned-down face. At the end of the desk away from him there was a square package, neatly wrapped in white paper and tied with red string. When he saw that his pale eyes clung to it and he quivered inwardly, but his face retained its expression of almost vacuous mildness.

Andrews' eyes were steel-hard as he studied the little man. The rounded smoothness of his voice filled the room, dominated it. "There it is," he said, nodding at the package. "Twenty-five ounces of cocaine and twenty-five ounces of heroin." He might have said "five pounds of sugar" for all the excitement there was in his voice.

The little man felt a dryness in his throat. This was too easy; there was something wrong. But he put his hand into his breast pocket calmly enough and brought out a wallet. He counted out five crisp bills on the desk and said, "Five thousand dollars. That's right, isn't it?"

Andrews rose, his big hand resting on the package. The other rose too. His right hand reached out for the package. Instead of giving it to him Andrews flicked the file-card over and shoved it toward the little man. "There's something for you to look at."

The room was suddenly cold. The man in gray stared at the card, but he didn't touch it. There was a snapshot pasted on it, his picture. There were words typed beside the picture. They danced around, but he finally managed to focus on them:


Malcolm (Pop) Stevens.
Special Agent,
Narcotic Squad,
Department of Justice.


His left hand jerked spasmodically across the window, and the hat in it dropped from his fingers. A voice grated, "Up with 'em, Fed! Reach!" He twisted around as his arms shot up and saw a black automatic steady in long fingers, saw Tony's eyes burning behind narrowed lids.


A THICK-SET man in a brown derby who had been standing on the corner of Maiden Lane and Layton Street for half an hour saw a gray hat jerk across an open window on the fifteenth floor of the Layton building's tall facade. He lifted his own hat and waved it, then shot across scurrying traffic to the skyscraper's gaping maw.

The door of Room 1511 crashed open and four hard-faced men ran out. There were guns in their hands. One dashed to the elevator bank. The others clustered around the entrance to Room 1510.

"Locked!" someone grunted, and the long corridor reverberated with pounding sound. Doors opened along the hall, scared faces peered out and dodged back. One of the blue-jowled men shouted, "Open up or I'll shoot the lock out!" The other two moved each side the door, ready to leap in, and the speaker's gat leveled at the bronze plate under the knob. The door opened.

Andrews filled the opening. One of his hands was on the doorknob and the other swung loosely at his side, empty. His eyes flickered over the weapons in the men's hands, then fastened on the face of the one who had been about to shoot out the lock. "What's all this?" he asked quietly.

The man said, "We're Federal officers—Department of Justice. We're going in." A gold badge gleamed in his free hand for an instant, then dropped back into the side-pocket of his coat.

Andrews arched shaggy eyebrows. "Where's your warrant?"

"Hell? We don't need a search warrant. One of our men is in there and you've just sold him narcotics. Stand aside!"

The big man did not move. "There is nobody in there except my clerks."

"You lie! We saw Pop Stevens go in and he hasn't come out. He signaled to us that you were hooked. Out of the way or we'll shoot."

Andrews shook his head. His lips smiled but his eyes were hard. "No you won't. That would be murder. There was a man in here who did a lot of wild talking and I had him thrown out. You may have seen him come in, but you didn't see him go."

The D. J. man's face was purple. His mouth opened and closed. Andrews continued speaking softly. "How do I know you are officers? Your badges may be faked. I have cash in my office and negotiable securities. If you are Federal men you know that you have no right to demand entrance to my rooms unless you have a warrant. My men are armed and are entitled to protect my life and property. If you try to force your way in they will shoot you down."

The government men's feet shuffled, uncomfortably. Andrews was on a firm foundation, legally. They were morally certain Pop Stevens was inside but they had no proof. If they rushed the door they would be butchered from behind the fortress Andrews had made of his office, and they could not help Pop. They might, in fact, sign his death warrant. From the door they could see that the wicket was open a scant inch and that the muzzle of a .45 showed in the opening. In the side partition there was a round hole and light glinted from a Tommy-gun barrel.

The chief of the party gulped. "All right. We're tied up in red tape and you know it. But we're staying right here. There isn't any other way out of your place and if Stevens is still in there you have to bring him out through this door."

Andrews' thick lips moved again in his icy smile. "I hope you enjoy your wait." Then he shut the door on them, and the lock clicked.

In the narrow room behind the partition Tony let the slide drop and stuck his S & W on a little shelf underneath the wicket. He scratched covertly at a nostril with one long finger nail. He took a little white paper out of his vest pocket, did something with it, and straightened. Color was back in his face and his hand didn't shake any more. A short fat man came from around the corner where the Tommy-gun was, and Andrews came in through the door from the big office.

There was a desk in here, and three filing cabinets, side by side, the usual erection of green enameled drawers piled on top of one another. Andrews looked at them and grunted, "Get him out Tony. We didn't have to stick him in there, but I thought I might have to let them come in and look around."

Tony jerked at a brass handle near the bottom. Nothing happened. He pulled at another, a third. The whole front of the set of drawers swung out on a hinge at one side.

At the bottom of the camouflaged closet was the little man. His back was jammed against one side, his knees were almost to his chin and his toes were curled up against the other wall of the cabinet. He was bound and gagged, his eyes were closed and his face looked black.

Fat pulled the gag away from Steven's mouth. His eyes opened and he tried to sit up.

Andrews boomed, "Going to behave, Stevens?"

Pop's mouth worked. Then he said, "I know when I have no chance."

"Take the ropes off him."


POP staggered as he followed Andrews into the big room. His chest hurt and he couldn't see very clearly. He almost fell into the chair where he had sat before, when he had thought the game was going his way. The other took the armchair at the desk. "I need a smoke," Stevens said. His hand went to the side pocket of his coat and came out with a black cigarette case, but Andrews shoved a fat cigar across the desk.

"Smoke this." He lit it for Pop, lit one for himself. Then he smiled, briefly, around his cigar and said, "The law makes it hard for you fellows."

Stevens' voice was still husky. "But we get there just the same."

Andrews sneered, "Looks like it."

"How far are you? You have me in here and I can't get out unless you let me. But what are you going to do about it? The boys will stay outside till the Statue of Liberty grows whiskers. If you kill me you can't bury me in your office and you dare not take my body out through the corridor. You can't keep me here forever, and you can't work from here any more. I haven't anything on you, you didn't sell me any narcotics. Better let me go and we'll start all over again."

Andrews blew a ring and watched it float away. Then he drawled, "You know too much and you're in my way."

"If you say the word I'll get you two hours free for your getaway. The boys will do that on my say so. You're through anyway. It's the United States Government you're playing against and the cards are stacked against you. You can't win."

The other shook his head. "I've played that game five years now and I've won every trick. I have agents in every big city and none of them know who I am. Their messengers have never seen me. Half of their identification cards and the orders are mailed to me at a post office box, changed every day. Tony or Fat pass the stuff out, the runners never get further than the little window."

"I got in to you," Stevens pointed out.

"Because I knew who you were. You're clever. Too damn clever. If you didn't get in you'd keep coming up. I didn't want to keep worrying about you. I had to handle you myself, handle you right." He laughed shortly. "Malcolm 'Pop' Stevens is through."

The heavy tones were final, and the conversation died. Two columns of cigar smoke eddied in the current from an open window. It grew dark in the room. From the street below there was a surge of traffic-sound that lasted half an hour and then died away. Downtown New York had emptied itself. After six-thirty Maiden Lane is as deserted as Main Street at midnight.

After a long while a telephone shrilled in the next room. Andrews blocked his third cigar in the ash-tray and pressed a button under the rim of his desk. Tony came in and said through move-less lips, "They're still outside."

Andrews ignored that. "Who called, Fat?"

Tony nodded. "He was tailed but the dick was a dumb cluck. Even Fat ditched him quick, but there was a guy and a skirt he had to wait for till they got out. Everything's set now. We'd better hurry though, the cleaners start at seven-thirty."

"Get the rope."

Tony went out and came back quickly with a coil of rope in his hand. Andrews told Pop to stand up. He took one end of the rope from Tony, passed it around Steven's body, under his arm-pits and knotted it in front of his chest.


IT was very dark in the room now. Tony went to the window, leaned out, and whistled. From outside there was another whistle. Andrews motioned to the little man to get up on the window sill. Tony dropped the coil of rope on the floor. Andrews took hold of the strands about three feet from where it was tied to Pop. He looped it around his right wrist and his big fists tightened. Tony grasped the rope too, just behind his boss.

Andrews said, "Over with you, Stevens. If you make any noise we'll let you drop."

The Federal man sat down on the window-sill and let his feet hang outside. He turned over, grasped the edge of the sill with his hands, and let himself slide out. He was over the edge. The rope tightened around his chest and the knot made an aching spot on his chest. He fended himself away from the rough brick with his hands and feet and fought to keep himself from looking down.

The wall jerked up in front of Pop. He started swinging sickeningly, and grabbed at the bricks. There was nothing to take hold of, but the swinging stopped. The stone sidewalk was pulling him down to it. A broad white stone on the wall came up in front of him. His feet lost stones at which they had been scraping. They pawed frantically and struck glass. A hand clamped about his ankle, pulled his foot inward as he jerked down, and set it on something level. His other foot found the sill. Fat helped him climb in through the window.

Enough illumination to see by came in from the light sky. Fat said. "Listen, Stevens, this gun's got garlic-dipped slugs in it. That's Tony's idea. You know how those sniffers get. I don't want to have to use them on you. The other way's quicker, and cleaner." Desks, a long table, typewriters, looked lonesome in the dimness. "Untie that knot." The roughness of the rope hurt Pop's fingers where they had scraped against brick. Fat whistled and the line snaked out of the window.

Andrews' man put his hand with the gun into his side pocket. He stood close to Pop and Stevens felt the gun against his side. "Come on, let's get going."

There was nobody in the fourteenth floor corridor. They went along it to a door with a red light over it that said "Exit." "We walk down," Fat sighed. When the door closed behind them he took the gun out of his pocket.

A taxi was parked in front of the side entrance by which they went out. They got into it and it started, turned uptown, without a word from Fat.

When they reached Eighth Street the little man spoke for the first time. "I need a smoke."

"Gees, I do too. But I ain't got no butts."

"I have, in the side pocket of my jacket nearest you."

Fat reached his hand into the pocket and got the black cigarette case out. He handed it to Pop, who opened it and took two cigarettes out. He put one in his mouth and handed the other to the fellow who was holding the gun on him.

"Gees," Fat said. "This ciggy is good. Peps you up."

"I have them made special. They have a lot of caffeine in them, the drug in strong coffee that keeps you awake. I use them when I'm on an all-night job."

"Yeah? That's a good stunt. Listen, can I have them after—" He hesitated.

"After you're through with me?" Stevens shrugged. "I don't suppose I shall have much to say about that."

"Aw hell." The other's tone was injured. "I ain't never rolled a stiff yet."

"Well, if you feel that way, I hereby will them to you."


LIGHT and shadow flashed in at the taxi windows. They were running slowly. Lafayette Street was dead. Fourteenth Street was a blaze of yellow and red light and a roar of strident noise. They stopped for a red light and Pop looked longingly at the traffic cop, but Fat's gun pushed harder into his side. They turned up Fourth Avenue.

Pop Stevens threw his cigarette on the floor and stepped on it. "Listen," he said. "If the driver should happen to smack another car and I could get away, there would be a couple of grand waiting for you and him at a place I can name."

Fat shook his head. "Naw, I can't do it. I was only a dip when the big guy got hold of me. He made a man of me. I can't double on him." His tone was reproachful. "Besides, a stiff can't spend money, and that's what I'd be before he got through."

There was dark carnival on upper Seventh Avenue. The cab crossed Central Bridge and turned into Sedgwick Avenue. On the left was a board wall along the railroad tracks, while on the right vacant lots rose high from a flagged sidewalk. A black sedan was parked against the right-hand curb; there was mud on its license plate and it had a big black trunk on its luggage carrier.

The taxi drew along the sedan and stopped. At Fat's command Pop got out. The back door of the sedan opened and Stevens climbed in with the other right behind him.

Tony was in the driver's seat. Garages slipped by on one side, then the green lights of a police station, and more garages. High Bridge loomed, and the soaring arch of Washington Bridge leaped over them. There were only trees each side of the street now. Tony's right hand dipped into a vest pocket, came out with a paper in it. Fat said sharply, "Not now, Tony. You know what the boss said, not when you're working."

Tony whimpered, "I'm all shot. One sniff won't hurt."

"Stevens here has some cigs that'll straighten you out." Pop got out the cigarette case, opened it, and held it out to Fat, who took two cigarettes from the full row on the side of the case that was toward him, stuck one between Tony's lips and one between his own.

Tony lit his from the lighter on the dash board. "This butt stinks," he said.

Fat answered pleasantly, "You stink yourself." He flicked a light on a wood match and lit his own cigarette and the one Pop had taken. Then he exclaimed, "Gees, this one does taste different."

"Some of them are a little strong," Stevens spoke evenly, "But they're better than the mild ones."

There was a sharp, sweetish smell in the car, like sugar burning. All the windows were closed and it was stuffy inside. The Federal man's head was up against the glass where a little cold current came around the sash. Trees and bushes moved by outside and there was nobody on the narrow sidewalk.

Fat yawned. He said thickly, "Gees, I'm getting sleepy."

Tony's head dropped forward, then jerked up again. The car jerked, and the fat man's head dropped over on Pop's shoulder. His eyes were closed. The gun slipped out of his hand and down on the seat. Stevens didn't move. When the sedan swerved again and didn't straighten the little man jumped up, leaned over Tony's shoulder, and shut off the gas lever. He took hold of the steering wheel and ran the car up along the curb. The tires made a rubbing sound and the auto stopped. The driver was slumped in his seat,—sound asleep.

The gray little man said mildly, "Gosh! I forgot to tell them that the cigarettes in that side of the case had opium in them. Now what do you know about that?"

He picked up Fat's gun, opened the door and threw it out into the bushes. Then he climbed over the back of the seat and took one gun out of Tony's pocket and another from a shoulder-holster. He thought a moment, put the one back in the holster and the other in his own pocket. He took five folded white papers out of the sleeping man's vest pocket, and opened one of them. There was some powder inside, white and glittery. Some of it floated away on his breath, it was so light. "The pure stuff," he said softly. He refolded the paper, put all five decks in his pocket, and got out of the car, leaving the door open.


IT didn't take long to revive in the cold air. Fat woke up first. He looked around him dazedly and sat up. He put a shaking hand into the space where Pop Stevens had been as if he couldn't believe that he was really gone. Then full comprehension dawned on his round face. He chuckled. "Doped, by all that's holy. Gees, that Stevens is a slick guy!" The grin faded from his face and a furtive fear grew in his eyes. He leaned over and shook Tony's shoulder roughly, "Wake up!"

The fellow gagged, choked. He twisted around in his seat. "Wha' the—!"

"Wake up! That Fed's doped us and scrammed."

Fat waited till Tony stopped for breath, then said quietly, "Yeah. But that ain't going to help us with the boss. He'll blast us for this. I'd lam it if I didn't know he'd put the thumb on me damn quick."

Tony spat. His hand was digging into his vest pocket. "The hell with the boss! He was going to handle that guy himself, and then he sends him out with us for the bump-off—Hey! The skunk's frisked all my snow!" His voice shrilled hysterically. "I'll skin him alive!"

"Hell! You'll never lay hands on him again. What are we going to tell the boss? He's waiting for our phone call."

Little muscles twitched in Tony's cheeks and he scratched spasmodically at his nose. The sedative effect of the opium had worn off quickly and he was frantic for cocaine.

"I don't know what you're going to tell him and I don't care." The words were a thin scream. "I've got to get a sniff!"

His companion was nervously placating. "All right, all right. We'll shoot right over to Gus's on Jerome Avenue and get you a deck."

"Like hell we will! Gus cuts the junk ten ways. I'm going up to the boss's house and get some straight stuff."

There was sheer panic in Fat's voice. "Gees, Tony, you can't do that. He'll cut the liver out of you for coming up there without orders."

But Tony was beyond reason. Gears clashed savagely as the car leaped into swift speed. Fat was thrown back heavily into the seat and he stayed there, licking white lips and staring fearfully at the blurred scene outside.

To the south, the lights of New York glowed in the night sky. West, and nearer, a lesser luminance showed where Yonkers sprawled on its hills. But on Sprain Ridge there was velvet night. Suddenly the shrill rasping of crickets was cut short and a black sedan hurtled up the dirt road, lurched, skidded to a halt. The front door flung open. Tony slid out and clung for a moment to the side of the car. A twitching tremor held his body helpless and he scratched spasmodically at his nostril. The other door opened.

"Listen, Tony," Fat whined. "Remember what he did to Murillo. It ain't too late. I know a place in White Plains—"

Tony's head snapped around and his white teeth showed in a snarl. The sound that came from him was inhuman, but its thin menace struck Fat dumb. The drug-starved man shoved himself away from the car, thrust through an opening in the hedge, and was lurching up the path to a dark, low house. Fat hesitated, then lumbered after him, but by that time Tony was a twisted black mass against the pale door. There was a rapping of loud knuckles on wood, and a window opened.

"Who is it?" Andrews' voice boomed.

"Tony! Open the door."

"I told you to telephone me."

"Phone, hell! Open up!" There was a loud rattling of the doorknob.

The door opened. Tony swung in with it, but he snatched at the doorpost and pulled himself back. There was no light behind Andrews and he was a huge dark shadow in the blue moonlight except for the white of collar and shirt.

"What do you mean by coming here?" The query was a slow, cold threat.

Tony screeched, "I want some snow! I got to have snow!" His hand jerked shut, twitched open. He clawed at Andrews. "Gimme snow."

Crack!

Andrews' fist hung suspended in the air at the end of his curved arm. Tony catapulted from the doorpost. His shoulder hit the ground first, then his body crashed and sprawled twitching across the gravel of the path. Andrews face was a mask as he turned to the other man, his eyes black marbles. "What's this about?"

"The dick swiped his coke and he's crazy mad for it."

The man in the doorway repeated, slowly, "Stevens stole his coke. That means he got away from you. What happened?"

Fat's face was colorless. "He gave us doped cigarettes."


THE muscles in Andrews' cheeks did not move, but two white spots appeared each side the outcurve of his nostrils. The fat man cringed into himself and his hand came up in front of his dipped head, palm out. From the ground there was a spurt of flame and the sharp bang of a gun. The missed bullet thudded into wood. Andrews leaped and his heels came down on the sprawled black heap. There was a crunching sound, and agonized groans. Andrews stamped on a white hand that held a gun, and it was pulp. He bent and straightened. A limp, crumpled body hung from his outstretched arm. His other hand fisted, rose, slugged down. There were thudding sounds, and after awhile there was silence. Andrews let the thing drop, and what had been Tony was a shapeless blotch against gravel gleaming silver in cold moonlight.

Andrews wasn't even breathing hard. "Two miles down the hill there's a bridge over a pond. This road goes there. Take him there and drop him in. Then come back here."

Fat got Tony on his shoulder somehow and staggered to the sedan. The back door jammed when he tried to close it, and he had to shove Tony's foot out of the way. Then there was the burring sound of the starter and the car moved away.

Andrews turned back to the door. At the upper corner of the frame a black mark showed against the white. He took a knife out of his pocket, opened it, and reached up to dig the bullet out. His other hand went up to brace him.

A gray voice said, "That's right. Keep them up just that way."

Andrews came around slowly, but his arms stayed over his head. The little man stood in front of a bush, his gray hair uncovered and rumpled. There was a black smudge of dirt across his face, but the gun was steady in his hand, and there was a grim smile under his gray mustache.

Pop Stevens said, "That ride was a little longer than you intended. I can't say I enjoyed the last half of the trip, there was even less room in that trunk than in your closet. But it was worth it. You won't beat a murder rap."

Andrews said. "Would ten grand interest you?"

"Not a hundred."

"Well what next?"

"We'll put cuffs on you and wait for Fat."

Andrews grimaced. "Looks like your trick, game, and rubber."

Pop sighed. "It's that last, odd trick that counts, Andrews. And this time your cards were all red. I think the government will give the local boys a break. It'll be murder!"


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
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