Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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GUITERREZ was perched precariously on a high stool in front of the restaurant's main cooking range. His tall chef's hat was pushed down over one eye, and his face was creased into an expression of grimly fierce concentration. He was stirring the contents of a big aluminum kettle with a wooden spoon a good two feet long. He made each movement with as much care as an artist painting a masterpiece.
There were other people in the kitchen, quite a lot of them. Busboys and pantrymen and assistant chefs and dishwashers. They walked softly and talked in whispers and gave Guiterrez a wide berth. The old master was mean enough normally, but when he was cooking he was awful.
He looked up now suddenly and yelled: "Who the hell opened that back door?"
"I did," said Max Latin.
Guiterrez teetered on his stool, glowering. "You, you crook! Are you still running around loose? What's the matter with our police force, anyway? They hardly ever pinch you anymore. Have you bribed them all?"
"Nearly," Latin admitted. He was a tall man, lean and dark and trim-looking. He had greenish eyes that tipped a little, catlike, at the corners, and an expression of blandly cynical self- assurance. "What's that you're cooking?"
"Gumbo," said Guiterrez. "Gumbo Guiterrez."
"Is it on the menu tonight?"
"It is not. It's too good for my lousy customers. It's for the waiters and kitchen help exclusively."
DICK, the headwaiter, came in through the metal-faced swing door that separated the kitchen from the main dining room. He was a wizened little man, and he was wearing an apron that was large enough to furnish cover for three people his size.
"Listen, lamebrain," he said to Guiterrez. "Why don't you get down off that stool and act like you had some sense?"
"Go away," said Guiterrez. He ladled up a spoonful of the kettle's contents and sipped at it and then muttered to himself threateningly. He took a very small pinch of spice out of one of the cans on the shelf above the range and dropped it into the kettle. He stirred with fanatical care, still muttering.
"Look," said Dick. "I've got a special steak coming up. A five-dollar number. You're supposed to be watching it."
"Shut up!" Guiterrez screamed. "I am composing Gumbo Guiterrez! It's a work of genius! Nothing must interfere with my concentration!"
"The steak is for Mr. Saltonwaite," said Dick.
"Go to hell! Take Mr. Saltonwaite with you!"
"He's a good customer," said Dick.
Guiterrez turned around slowly. "How many times must I tell you that this restaurant doesn't have any good customers? They are all pigs."
"Well, they've come to the right place then," said Dick. He picked up a butcher knife and began to play mumblety-peg on the wooden top of the steak table. "Hello, Latin. Who's that droopy- looking dope behind you?"
Latin looked over his shoulder. "What's your name?"
"Boston," said the man. "That's what everybody calls me, I guess."
He was standing close against the back door with his shoulders hunched up close against his skinny neck, as though he were trying to take up as little room as possible. He had a draggled brownish mustache, and his lips trembled in a timidly apologetic smile under it. His eyes were a weak wavering blue. He was wearing an old suit coat fastened up the front with safety pins and overalls with canvas patches on the knees. He needed a shave and his face was dirty and his hair stuck up in clumps through the holes in his shapeless hat.
"I bet they call you worse than that sometimes," Dick observed. "Where'd you pick it up, Latin?"
"I found him out in the alley," Latin said. "He was trying to dig some food out of the restaurant garbage cans. He's hungry. Can you fix him up something decent to eat?"
Guiterrez turned his head. "Is that true, bum? Are you hungry?"
Boston nodded quickly. "Yes, sir. I guess I'm pretty hungry."
"Could you eat a lot?"
"Yes, sir. I sure could, I guess."
"I've got just the thing for you," said Guiterrez. "Nels! Put a setup there at the end of the steam table. Coffee and salad—and a steak knife."
"And a what?" Dick demanded. "Listen, stupid, are you going to give this old rummy Mr. Saltonwaite's special steak?"
"Yes," said Guiterrez, getting down off the stool and heading for the steak broiler. He pulled the door down and peered inside. "It'll be ready in a minute. Nels, hurry with that setup. Bum, go over and wash your hands and face at that sink there." He seized a long-handled fork and prodded at the sizzling steak in the broiler.
"What'll I tell Mr. Saltonwaite?" Dick asked.
"Tell him to go home. Tell him I don't like him."
"You don't even know him," Dick said.
"I don't like him anyway," Guiterrez answered. He slammed the door of the broiler and turned around and yelled: "Get out!"
"O.K.," Dick said. "I'm going. But Mr. Saltonwaite will raise hell." He pushed the swing door open and went into the front of the restaurant.
GUITERREZ opened the broiler and prodded the steak again, and it spattered back at him lusciously. One of the busboys rattled plates and cutlery at the end of the steam table. Boston, his face gleaming and his ragged hair slicked back, sat down there and moistened his lips in anticipation.
Dick poked the door open. "I told you," he said. "Here he is."
Saltonwaite thrust past him and into the kitchen. He was skinny and stooped and bald, with a little pot-belly like a half- inflated balloon. He still had a napkin tucked into the top of the vest of his neat blue business suit. His wrinkled face was flushed with rage.
"What's this?" he demanded shrilly. "What's this, Guiterrez? Where's my steak?"
"It isn't yours anymore," said Guiterrez. "It belongs to the bum."
Saltonwaite waved his pipe-stem arms. "I ordered that steak specially! You can't do this to me, Guiterrez!"
"Oh, yes I can," said Guiterrez. He proved it by hooking the steak out of the broiler with the fork and carrying it, still spattering, across the kitchen and plopping it down on the plate in front of Boston. "Eat it."
Boston gulped. "If it belongs to this gentleman here, I wouldn't wanta—"
Guiterrez leaned over him. "Eat—that—steak!"
"Yes, sir," said Boston, frightened. He cut hurriedly into the steak.
Saltonwaite licked his thin lips, watching. "This is a crime, Guiterrez! This is outright theft!"
"Sue me," Guiterrez invited.
"My steak," Saltonwaite mourned. "My beautiful, beautiful steak that was specially ordered...." He lifted his head and sniffed alertly. "What's that I smell?"
"If it's bad, it's probably yourself," Guiterrez told him.
"Oh, no," said Saltonwaite, sniffing again. "I think... I know! It's gumbo! Yes, it is! It's cooking right here in this kettle!"
"Get away from there!" Guiterrez shouted. "Leave that alone! That's not on the menu! It's not for the customers!"
"I want some," said Saltonwaite, leaning greedily over the kettle.
"You can't have any! Get out of here!"
"No," said Saltonwaite stubbornly. "I want some of this gumbo."
"Dick," said Guiterrez in a dangerous voice. "Hand me that butcher knife."
Saltonwaite looked around with a desperately cunning gleam in his eyes. Suddenly he snatched a canister from the shelf over the range and held it tilted just over the kettle.
Guiterrez screamed like a man in agony. "Don't! Stop it! That's sugar! Don't pour it in the gumbo, or you'll ruin it!"
"I want some gumbo," said Saltonwaite, wiggling the canister warningly. "Do I get some?"
"Yes!" said Guiterrez. "Get that sugar away from it!"
"I want a lot," Saltonwaite bargained. "Two big bowls."
"Yes!" Guiterrez promised. "Yes, yes, yes!"
SALTONWAITE put the canister back on the shelf and patted his hands together in a dignified, scholarly way. "Please see that I am served at once. And remember—two full bowls." He strutted back through the swing door.
"You see?" Guiterrez said accusingly to Latin. "You see the kind of customers you have in your damned restaurant? I won't work here any longer! Don't argue with me! I'm through! I quit! I resign!"
"Write me a letter," Latin invited.
He pushed the metal door open and went into the front room of the restaurant, and it was like entering the violent ward of an asylum. Even this early all the closely placed tables were crowded with customers who were voraciously intent on their food. They ate whatever was put before them whether they had ordered it or not. They didn't care. They had no reason to. All the food Guiterrez served was superb. He was really almost as good a chef as he claimed to be.
Besides its food, the restaurant certainly had no other attractions. It was bare and dingy and crowded and noisier than a street fair on Saturday night. A mangy horde of waiters banged and slammed around and swore at each other and the customers. The cash register clanged and a jukebox shrieked in agony from one corner.
Guiterrez wasn't posing. He hated his customers. When he cooked something he wanted to sit and savor it and congratulate himself. He didn't want to sell it. He was an artist. He tried to make the place as uncomfortable as possible in the hopes his fans would get discouraged and stay away. They didn't.
Latin was used to the uproar, and he sat down in his special booth, the last one of the line against the wall near the kitchen door.
Dick came back from serving Saltonwaite his gumbo and stopped beside Latin's table. "That screwball in the kitchen gets nuttier every day," he observed. "One of these days they're gonna haul him off to the funny house and let him bake mud pies for the rest of his career. What do you want to eat?"
"Brandy," said Latin.
Dick took a bottle and a glass from somewhere under his voluminous apron. "Oh, I knew that." The bottle was a fresh one, and he tore the foil off the cork with his teeth and spat it on the floor. "This stuff has gone up. It costs seventeen-fifty a fifth now, so don't go splashing it around." He pulled out the cork, still using his teeth, and put the bottle and the glass down in front of Latin. "Don't you want anything else though?"
"Not now," said Latin. "Save me some of that gumbo."
"I'll put a bowl in my pocket," Dick promised. He went back into the kitchen.
"PARDON me," said a gently smooth voice. "If you please. Pardon me."
"All right," said Latin, looking up. "What for?"
"For disturbing you. If you please, may I sit down?"
"Go ahead," Latin said.
The man slid into the seat on the other side of the table and sat there smiling at Latin in a courteously pleased way. He was tall and broad-shouldered and very tanned. He was so handsome he didn't look quite real. His eyes were a deeply limpid brown. He had a thin close-clipped mustache and perfectly waved black hair. He wore a tan gabardine suit and a tan shirt and a darker tan tie. They had all cost money—a lot of it.
"I am Count Fidestine Fiolo," he said. "You are Max Latin, the private inquiry agent, are you not? I am indeed very happy to meet you."
"Thanks," said Latin.
Dick came out of the kitchen and leaned over the high back of the booth. "You sure pick up some crummy characters, Latin," he observed critically. "Where'd you find this study in brown?"
"Never mind," said Latin. "Bring another glass."
Dick produced one from under his apron. "Remember what that brandy costs. Guiterrez says if you don't stop puttin' away so much, you'll have to switch to a cheaper brand. You're runnin' the joint in the red." He went back into the kitchen again.
"Have some brandy?" Latin asked.
Count Fiolo smiled charmingly. "You are so kind. Thank you, I will." He watched. Latin pour the brandy. "Are you an honest man, Mr. Latin?"
"No," Latin answered.
"Are you dishonest? I mean, actively so?"
"Yes," said Latin.
"Ah," said Count Fiolo in a pleased way. "Then we can talk as equals. I, too, am dishonest. Very dishonest. Is that hard for you to believe?"
"No," Latin admitted.
"Good!" said Count Fiolo. "We understand each other already. I wish to hire you to undertake a highly confidential task for me."
"Go ahead," said Latin, pouring himself another glass of brandy.
"All right. Have you ever heard of a man named, most unpleasantly, Ebenezer Zachary?"
"He was the president of the Planet Iron Foundry—also the sole owner."
"Was?" Latin repeated.
"Yes. He's dead, I'm happy to say. He took a long time to assume that status. I was getting most impatient. He had six strokes and still refused to die like any decent person would. I was seriously considering poisoning him when the seventh finished him. He left two sons."
"So?" said Latin idly.
"Yes. Unfortunately. Their names are Mars and Jupiter. Ebenezer made a hobby of astronomy—hence the peculiar names. Mars Zachary has a daughter named Hester—an only daughter."
"Oh," said Latin.
COUNT FIOLO nodded eagerly. "You are beginning to understand already, eh? Ah, you are very clever. The Planet Iron Foundry is an enormous business. It is worth two or three million dollars."
"The plot being," said Latin, "that you marry the granddaughter and wind up with the iron foundry."
"Correct," said Count Fiolo. "Only it is not quite that simple, I assure you. Else I would not be here, much as I enjoy your company—and the brandy."
Latin poured him another drink.
"Thank you," said Count Fiolo. "You are very kind. There are two obstacles in the way of my—ah—happiness. One of them is Hester, the granddaughter's physical appearance. She has pimples, buck-teeth, and halitosis. It is really a dangerous undertaking to kiss her. But that isn't all. She is also flat- breasted and bowlegged. Frankly, the thought of marrying her appalls me. I give you my word that the prospect of it gives me nightmares and I have to drink a great deal of brandy to compose myself."
Latin poured him a drink.
"Thank you so much," said Count Fiolo. "We understand each other."
"Not yet, we don't," said Latin. "What do you expect me to do about Hester? Are you trying to hire me as a substitute?"
"No," said Count Fiolo regretfully. "No, I'm afraid that wouldn't be practical. I will have to bear that burden alone. It will be awful—but three million dollars—No, there's another matter I wish you to look into. Would you mind murdering a man—I mean, of course, as a last resort?"
"Not if the price is right," said Latin.
Count Fiolo waved his hand. "That will be taken care of, I assure you. I will be very generous with my wife's money as soon as I get it. And that's the trouble. There might be a delay before I could get it. Months, even years. That would be terrible, would it not?"
"Oh, yes," said Latin. "And you piling into bed with Hester and her halitosis night after night—"
"Please!" Count Fiolo begged, shuddering. "I cannot even bear the mention without.... Ah, yes. Some more brandy. You are so kind. As I was saying, there are two obstacles. One is Hester, and the other is Jupiter Zachary. He is Hester's uncle. Ebenezer Zachary left his whole estate jointly to his two sons with the proviso that they were not to separate it or divide it but were to run it and share it equally."
"That sounds all right," said Latin.
"No," said Fiolo. "Oh, no. Because Jupiter Zachary is what is commonly known as a stinker. He hates everybody and everybody hates him, when they can find him. Just now, they can't."
"Can't find him?" Latin asked.
"He has disappeared. That is nothing unusual. He often does. He gets mad and goes away, and then pretty soon he gets hungry and comes back home again. You see, Ebenezer Zachary kept absolute control of all his money. He gave each of his sons twenty-five dollars a week and that is all. He made them work twelve hours a day, six days a week, in the foundry to get that. He wouldn't allow them to get any other jobs. If they tried it, he would bring pressure on their employer and get them fired. He hated them and they hated him and each other, too."
"A nice family," Latin commented.
"No," Count Fiolo contradicted. "Definitely, no. But that is aside from the point. Ebenezer left his property to them jointly. If either one dies, all of it goes to the other. If either one should go away, the remaining one can run things as he pleases. But if they are both here, then both have an equal say about everything."
"That would be bad?" Latin hazarded.
"But, yes," said Count Fiolo. "They cannot get along with each other at all. They do not even speak. Whatever one wanted, the other would vote against. Remember, neither can take one cent out of the profits of the foundry without the consent of the other."
"It would be a good thing then if brother Jupiter kept right on being hard to find?"
"I must be certain he does," said Count Fiolo earnestly. "I cannot risk marrying"—he drew a deep breath—"Hester unless I have that assurance. Will you find Jupiter and make sure he doesn't come back?"
"I'll give it a ring," Latin agreed.
Count Fiolo smiled and nodded. "Then it is all settled and we are in agreement. I will expect to hear from you at the earliest possible moment. Haste is vital, I assure you. I will have a great deal of difficulty delaying the wedding much longer. You can get in touch with me at the Copa Negra Club."
"Don't hurry away," said Latin. "There's a little matter of finances. We won't strike a bargain on the whole deal until I see what I can see, but let's talk about a retainer now."
"But of course!" said Count Fiolo enthusiastically. "How stupid of me! Would a thousand dollars be enough?"
"Yes," said Latin.
"I will write you a check."
"No," said Latin.
"I will give you my note."
"No," said Latin.
"I can give you fifty-three dollars and fifteen cents in cash."
"Now you're talking," said Latin.
Count Fiolo sighed. Reluctantly he produced a handsomely embossed leather wallet and took all the bills out of it. He found two nickels and five pennies in his change pocket and stacked them neatly on top of the bills.
"That's the down payment," Latin informed him. "I'll be around for some more by-and-by."
"You are so considerate," said Count Fiolo.
"Oh, yes," Latin agreed. "By the way, are you sure you can handle Hester's papa—Mars Zachary—even if Jupiter Zachary stays out of sight?"
Count Fiolo smiled. "Certainly. He is very fond of me, indeed." Fiolo pointed to the money on the table. "Besides, I am giving him bridge lessons."
Latin nodded. "I'll bet you are."
"He is so stupid," said Count Fiolo, shrugging, "that it is not even necessary for me to cheat—very much. Good night, Mr. Latin. It was such a pleasure dealing with you."
"Good night," said Latin absently.
Count Fiolo went away, and Latin sat still and relaxed in the booth, staring absently at nothing, frowning a little. After a while he held the brandy bottle up against the light to see how much there was left in it and then poured himself a carefully small drink.
"Yes?" said Latin.
Saltonwaite was standing beside the booth, staring down at him accusingly. He had both hands folded proudly and protectively over his small potbelly, and he was still wearing his napkin. He cleared his throat with a sharp little bark and said: "I saw you conferring with that fortune-hunting gigolo just now. What did he want?"
"Some of my brandy," Latin answered. "Do you know him?"
"I regret to say that I do. I was careful not to let him see me because he always either insults me or tries to borrow money from me or both. I disapprove of his manners and morals and appearance and intention to marry Miss Hester Zachary."
"You should tell him about it."
"I have. It has very little effect. You are Max Latin, and you call yourself a private inquiry agent, and you are the undercover owner of this restaurant."
"Well, how do I do," said Latin. "I'm glad to know me."
"This is not a matter for levity, as you will find if you proceed any further with any schemes you may have hatched up with Count Fiolo. At one time or another you've been arrested for almost every crime in the calendar, but you've never been convicted of anything."
"A man is innocent until he is proven guilty," Latin said righteously.
"I doubt if that maxim applies to you," said Saltonwaite. "I doubt it very greatly. You haven't been convicted because you're very clever, but this is the place to stop. I am an attorney, and I drew up Ebenezer Zachary's will. I warn you, it's puncture- proof. And I warn you further that if you and Count Fiolo make any attempt to alter it or change its effect you'll both be sorry. This will is going to be executed exactly as it was written. If you try to tamper with it in any way, it will be my very pleasant duty to see that you go to prison for a suitably long term."
"I'll think it over," Latin said. "Maybe I can work up a fright if I give myself time enough."
SALTONWAITE pointed a rigid bony finger. "You will find that I am a very relentless man."
"Do you want to relentless some more gumbo?" Dick asked, coming out of the kitchen with a bowl of it in his hand.
"Yes!" Saltonwaite snapped. "Carry it more carefully! Stop shaking it like that! Don't let it get cool!"
He followed Dick away, hovering over him and the gumbo as anxiously as a mother hen with a lone chick. Guiterrez came out of the kitchen and leaned his arms on the back of the booth and stared down glumly and silently at Latin.
"Do your feet hurt?" Latin inquired.
"Look, Latin," said Guiterrez. "I don't mind minor crimes like robbery and blackmail and stuff, but murder is an entirely different kettle of fish."
Latin turned around and jerked back the moth-eaten drape against the wall at the end of the booth, revealing the shiny bright circle of a microphone. He snapped the slide switch on the cord above it.
"You're not supposed to listen in on that unless I signal you. I put that in there to get evidence in case I needed the testimony of some witnesses. I didn't rig it up just for your entertainment."
"Don't avoid the issue," Guiterrez ordered. "What about this Count Fiolo? Are you going to knock that poor Jupiter gent off like he wants you to?"
"For fifty dollars?" Latin scoffed. "Do you think I'm crazy?"
"No," said Guiterrez. "But you'll have me that way before long. Just supposing Jupiter should have a fatal accident any day now. What then?"
"Why, I'd have an alibi."
"What?" Guiterrez asked.
"At the very time the accident happens, I will be sitting right in this booth having a brandy. You'll testify to that."
Guiterrez drew a deep breath. "Do you know what happens to people who swear to phoney alibis in a murder case? They get put in jail for a long, long time."
"We have a very nice penitentiary in this state," Latin told him. "All the modern conveniences. You'll like it."
The swing door squeaked a little, and Boston put his head through the opening timidly. He looked around and saw Latin and Guiterrez and edged himself through the door.
"I'm all done now, and I guess I better be goin' along. I sure thank you, Mr. Guiterrez, for the meal. And you, too, Mr.—Mr.—"
"Latin," said Latin.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, too. I sure wish I could ask another little favor of you."
"What, bum?" Guiterrez demanded.
"Well, that gumbo," said Boston apologetically. "That sure smells mighty fine. I reckon it'd taste pretty good to a fella that was hungry."
"Are you still hungry, bum?" Guiterrez asked incredulously.
"Me? No, sir. Oh, no. I just thought it'd be awful nice if you'd give me a little of that gumbo to take along to Jupe."
"To who?" Guiterrez said.
"To Jupe," Boston repeated. "To my pal, Jupiter. That's his name."
LATIN was taking a drink. His hand jerked, and some of the brandy slopped on the table. Latin wiped it up carefully with his napkin.
"Jupiter," he said casually. "That's a name you don't hear very often. Is there any more to it?"
"Huh?" said Boston. "Oh, I dunno. He says his first name is Jupiter, so I call him Jupe because he's my pal. I'm pretty worried about Jupe. I guess he don't feel very good about now."
"Why not?" Latin asked.
"Well, he went out stemming—panhandling—downtown and somebody gave him four bits, and he bought four tins of canned heat and got himself in quite a stew."
"Why, that's terrible," said Latin. "That's awful. Certainly we'll give you some gumbo to take to Jupe. In fact, I'll go with you when you take it. I'm afraid Jupe might be seriously ill, and we want to see that he gets—the best of care."
"I'm beginning to feel a little sick myself," said Guiterrez faintly. "Latin, now please...."
"Get me the telephone," Latin ordered.
Guiterrez sighed and went away, dragging his heels.
"Well, now," said Boston hesitantly. "It ain't necessary to take any trouble, Mr. Latin. Jupe won't be honest-to-God sick. He'll just have a hangover. He drinks canned heat all the time. It don't seem to hurt him none."
"You never can tell," Latin observed. "Where is he now?"
"Down in our little packing-box shack by the railroad cut south of town."
Guiterrez came back carrying a portable telephone. "Latin," he said pleadingly. "Now listen—"
"Go put some gumbo in a milk bottle," Latin told him, plugging the telephone in at a switch under the microphone. "Save some for yourself."
"I don't think I'm very hungry anymore," said Guiterrez.
Latin dialed a number. The line clicked after the first ring, and a voice boomed joyously in his ear. "Hello, there! Happy's All-Night Garage! Snappy service—any time, anywhere!"
"This is Latin, Happy."
"Latin, my boy! Hooray! It's good to hear your voice! You're feeling fine, I hope?"
"Very fine," said Latin. "I want a car, Happy. One you wouldn't recognize if someone should happen to show it to you."
"Ah-ha! Dirty work, hey? That's the old pepper, Latin! I hadn't heard from you for so long I was afraid you'd turned honest on me. Why, this is the best news I've heard since Hirohito got the hives! I've got just the thing for you, my boy. A new Buick coupe registered in the name of Elmer Quinwipple. Do you know who Elmer Quinwipple is?"
"No," Latin admitted.
"Neither do I! You know why? Because there ain't any such person! I'll send it right over!"
THE coupe fled silently across the slender span of a concrete bridge. On the other side, Latin pulled off the highway and slowed down. Gravel spattered under the fenders, and the car rocked smoothly over the washboard roughness of the road shoulder.
"About here, I guess," said Boston. "This'll be fine."
Latin put on the brakes and stopped. He switched off the bright swath of the headlights and got out. The wind was chill and thick with the promise of fog, and he turned up the collar of his light topcoat.
Boston came around the front of the car, admiring it. "Ain't never ridden in a car like this before. Sure nice. Mighty pretty, too."
"I'll tell Mr. Quinwipple you liked it," Latin said. "Have you got the gumbo?"
"Sure. Right here. Maybe—maybe I better run along ahead and just sort of prepare Jupe for your comin'."
"Why?" Latin asked.
"Well, Jupe's funny. He's got kind of a mean disposition. He's likely to sort of rear up and sass people, especially when he's got a hangover. Oh, he's got a good heart. Fine fella, Jupe is—educated, too. But he's a mite short-tempered. I think maybe he was disappointed in love or something."
"Or something," Latin agreed. "Don't worry. He'll like me. Everybody says I have a charming personality. Which way do we go?"
"Well—there's a path right beside that bridge apron. But I'd feel better if you'd let me tell Jupe you was comin' first, so he won't go heavin' rocks at us like he did the last time I brought a fella home. You could sort of sit on the bridge railing and look at the view. It's mighty pretty, Mr. Latin."
They were on the first lift of the hills, and the city spread below them in a deep semicircle following the line of the bay, like an incredibly garish, brilliantly colored blanket. The red and green and blue of neon light painted the whole sweep of the sky with their smeared colors. Automobile headlights scuttled and jumped and jittered like lively bugs. Traffic noise was a low hum that rose and fell a little in its minor key.
"I sure like that view," said Boston. "It makes a fella think—"
A siren began to keen, thin and very faint. Instantly another sounded, closer, and then another and another and another until there was no distinguishing their individual voices. They screamed without pause—on and on and on until the night began to pulsate with their warning.
"What's that?" Boston asked shakily.
"Air raid," said Latin.
Below them, the city was answering the command of the sirens. It began to black out in sections, working from the outskirts inward. The lights that formed the small squares that were blocks snapped off, and the city drew in on itself protectively. The little headlight bugs stopped scuttling around and disappeared. The neon faded thinner and thinner and was gone.
The sirens stopped. Their echoes carried a little, and then there was no sound anywhere.
"Oh, gee," Boston said in an awed whisper.
There was no city now. It was hidden, waiting.
"I never seen anything like that before," said Boston. "It's kinda scary, ain't it?"
Latin cleared his throat. "Let's go."
"Huh?" said Boston. "What?"
"Business as usual," said Latin.
THE white loom of the bridge apron felt cold and smooth under his palm, and he groped downward with his foot until he located the slant of the path. It was rough with little footholds like steps kicked in it.
Latin went downward carefully, bracing himself against the cement abutment, and the night seemed to grow darker and colder around him. He reached the bottom, and gravel from a railroad bed rolled loosely under his feet.
Boston's feet thumped beside him. "Say, about that air raid. Hadn't we better sort of—sort of hide?"
"We're as safe here as anywhere else," Latin told him. "Probably safer. Which way?"
"There's a little ravine up this way."
He was a vague shambling shadow, and Latin followed him along the slick parallel gleam of railroad tracks.
"About here," said Boston.
Latin felt brush rake lightly at the skirts of his topcoat, and his feet sank a little in soft ground. The sides of the ravine were steep and high, and it was like walking in a very deep, crooked trench.
"Right beyond this bend," said Boston. "Jupe! Hey there, Jupe!" His voice echoed emptily. "He ain't showin' no light nor nothin'. I guess maybe them sirens scared him, although he really ain't a guy that scares very easy. Oh, Jupe!"
Latin could make out the faint outline of a shack pushed in against the bank swaybacked and shapeless, not much larger than a good-sized packing case.
Wood creaked and scraped against hard earth as Boston tugged at a panel that served as a door. Stiflingly thick, warm air moved against Latin's face.
"Come in," Boston said. "Watch your head. I guess Jupe ain't here. I guess maybe he went to panhandle some dough for some more canned heat."
Latin struck a match, shading it very carefully with his palms. The shadows swerved and danced along stained bare walls, swept in quick flicks across the low ceiling. The light touched the edge of a ragged pile of blankets.
"Why, there he is," said Boston. "He ain't even woke up yet. He musta got more canned heat than I thought, I guess. Hey, Jupe! Wake up!"
Latin stepped closer, still holding the shaded match. The man was sprawled on his back on top of the blankets, and the match flame reflected in twin glitters from his open unmoving eyes.
"Why, say—," said Boston, and then gulped.
Latin raised the match high for a quick calculating look around the bare room and then blew it out. He was carrying a .38 Colt Police Positive in a shoulder holster under his suit coat, and he took the gun out now and held it poised in his right hand, listening tensely.
"Say, Mr. Latin—," Boston whispered. "Jupe looked to me like he—he—"
"He's dead," said Latin.
Boston made a noise breathing. "Oh, gee. It don't seem hardly possible canned heat—I mean, he drinks it all the time, and it never did this before."
"It didn't do it this time," Latin answered. "Somebody stuck him with an ice pick."
"Did you see that little red mark—like a big period—on his forehead just above his right eye? An ice pick did that. Somebody drove it right through his skull into his brain. If you've got a strong arm that's an easy way to kill a person."
"Oh," said Boston numbly. "An ice pick in his head.... Stickin' in.... Oh! I'm gonna—gonna be sick—"
"Quit that!" Latin said sharply. "You go and report his death. Do it right now. Here's a nickel. Go to the nearest telephone and call the police and tell them it's murder."
"I'm scared, Mr. Latin. I guess I'm so scared. I'm paralyzed. I don't wanta go out there in the dark, and there's an air raid on and a fella with an ice pick—"
"You stay here. I'll go."
"No!" Boston said quickly. "Not with—Oh, no! Couldn't we just—stay together?"
"No. Go on. Get going."
"I—I don't think—"
"Hurry!" Latin ordered.
"Oh, I'll hurry," Boston mumbled. "I'll run so fast—"
HE stumbled over the doorstep, and then his feet beat a raggedly thudding tattoo down the ravine. Latin waited until the echoes died, standing still, listening with his head tilted in concentration.
After a long time, he dropped the Police Positive into his overcoat pocket. He groped his way blindly across the room toward the pile of blankets and knelt down beside it and struck a match.
The dead man's face looked yellow, waxily drawn. He could have been almost any age—young or old or in the middle. He was thin and not very tall, and his eyes were a pale blue shot with red veins. He was wearing a ragged blue serge suit and tennis shoes with holes in the toes.
Latin began to search him, working very expertly and rapidly. He turned up a beer can opener, a spool of thread, a jackknife with a broken handle, and a limp sack of cigarette tobacco. The match burned his fingers, and he dropped it, swearing to himself in a whisper.
He waited for a moment, listening, and then struck another match. He hit paydirt this time. The inside pocket of the dead man's coat was fastened shut with two big safety pins. Latin loosened them and pulled out a limp dog-eared wallet. In it he found a driver's license, an identification card, a draft registration, all made out in the name of Jupiter Zachary.
Latin blew out the match and put the wallet carefully in his own pocket. Lighting another match, he continued his search. He could find nothing else at all on the dead man that would serve to identify him.
He put the last match out and started to get up, and then he froze that way, half-crouched, his head turned toward the gray- black oblong that marked the door. Very slowly he slid his hand into his coat pocket and brought out the revolver.
The seconds dragged, lengthening interminably. Latin straightened up and made the door in two catlike steps. He slid out into the fresh coldness of the night, flattened himself against the wall of the shack.
Gravel rolled and rattled out on the roadbed, and then a blurred voice suddenly split the deep silence, shouting jubilantly:
"Oh, she'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes!
Too-ot! Toot! Choo-choo!
She'll be coming 'round the—"
The voice dropped to a hoarse grumble. "Now where the hell is that ravine? Right here somewhere...."
More gravel rolled, and brush crackled. The hoarse voice swore feelingly and then shouted: "Jupe! Boston! Where are you?"
"Who's there?" said Latin.
"Huh?" said the hoarse voice. "I'm here, that's who. What you doin' here? You ain't Jupe nor Boston. Show a light."
Latin didn't obey. He cocked his revolver instead. The small cold click carried plainly in the stillness.
There was a quick little rustle in the air and then a tock next to Latin's ear. One of the boards in back of him vibrated just slightly.
Latin fired instantly. The powder made an orange flare against the night, and the echoes rolled deafeningly and redoubled as Latin fired again, shooting low at what he guessed was the center of the ravine.
The echoes drummed and faded away. Latin waited, revolver poised in his hand. There was no further sound, no movement, until faraway and faint the hoarse voice shouted: "Oh, she'll be driving six white horses—"
The voice faded eerily and was gone.
Latin swore to himself in a bitter monotone. He struck a match and looked at the wall of the shack. An ice pick was sticking in a board about six inches from where Latin's head had been. It was just an ordinary ice pick, the kind given away as an advertisement, and on its yellow wooden handle were the words: "Acme Ice Company—We'll Cool You Off."
"Yes, indeed," said Latin thoughtfully.
He dropped the match and crushed it under his foot. He left the ice pick where it was and felt his way carefully down the ravine to the railroad tracks. He waited for a while there, but he could hear nothing and see nothing, and finally he blundered along the cut until he located the bottom of the steep path he and Boston had come down.
He climbed laboriously up to the highway. There was no light anywhere, and the fog had crept in over the city like a vague white veil. The Buick was still parked on the shoulder. Latin walked back across the bridge and headed for the city.
HE had gone about a hundred and fifty yards when he heard the putter of a motor behind him. He stopped then, looking back, holding the revolver concealed under the front of his topcoat. Two vaguely blue slitted lights came out of the night.
"Hey, chum," said a voice. "You ain't supposed to be walkin' around in the open durin' a blackout."
Latin could see the car now. It was about the height of a wheelbarrow and no more than twice as long. It had no top. Two soldiers were sitting in the front seat—one driving and the other holding a rifle upright between his knees.
"I know," Latin said. "But this is very important."
"A matter of life and death, I don't doubt," said the soldier- driver glumly.
"Of death, anyway," Latin said. "I have to get back to the city at once. Give me a lift, will you?"
"It's against regulations," said the driver.
"So it's against regulations!" said the other soldier. "So now you want to get a promotion, I suppose? So now you're gonna be a general, huh? Maybe this bird is a fifth columnist or a parachute trooper or somewhat. We oughta ride him with us so we can watch him. Get in the backseat, chum."
Latin climbed in and sat down on the hard seat. The jeep started off with a sudden jump.
"Watch what you're doin', dummy," the soldier with the rifle said.
"The clutch slips," the driver informed him.
"So sure it slips! If it didn't you'd tear it out by the roots. And drive on the pavement!"
"It don't make no difference to this buggy where it drives."
"It makes a difference to me, though! You want I should get all my teeth shook loose?" The soldier looked over his shoulder at Latin. "We only patrol this road as far as the city limits. You'll have to get off there."
"O.K.," said Latin. "Thanks."
"You know," said the driver, "I figure this ain't a raid at all. I figure this is one of them armed reconnaissance flights, where the guys go prowlin' around to see what they can see."
"Oh, you got the dope, huh?" said the other one. "I suppose Hitler or Hirohito wrote you a letter?"
"I got brains."
"Since when? And keep on the pavement I told you!"
"Who's givin' orders?"
"I am! You want a bat with the butt of this rifle?"
A siren croaked somewhere ahead of them and then caught its breath and cut loose with a full-throated wail. Seconds later others joined it, and the whole night screamed with their sound. They stopped as suddenly as they had begun.
"One minute," said the driver. "All clear."
Lights began to pop up, and motors churned and roared as traffic started again.
"This is where we drop you, chum," said the soldier with the rifle. "The city limits are right ahead. You can catch a streetcar at the end of the line nearby."
"We should look at his identification papers," the driver suggested.
"So I suppose he wouldn't have fake ones if he was a spy? Anyway, I can tell he ain't, on account of I'm a spy expert. I can smell 'em."
"What do they smell like?"
The jeep pulled up at the side of the road, and Latin got out.
"Thanks, boys. If you ever get down to Carbon Street, stop in at Guiterrez's place and have a free meal."
"What?" said the driver quickly. "What was that?"
"A free meal," said Latin. "I'm in the Reserve, and I may be called up any time now, but if I'm not there just tell Dick, the headwaiter, that Latin sent you."
"Well, man!" said the soldier with the rifle enthusiastically. "Well, hell, now! Thanks, chum!"
LATIN came up the street and turned into the little alley that led back alongside the restaurant. His shadow danced jaggedly ahead of him in the dimness, and then a voice said: "Latin."
Latin spun around and dropped on one knee, jerking his revolver out of his coat pocket.
"Tish and tosh," said the voice. "You're getting jumpy, Latin. I told you your conscience would catch up on you one of these fine days."
Latin stood up slowly, and Inspector Walters, Homicide, strolled out of the shadows. Walters was tall and gaunt and ugly, and twenty years of jousting with murderers of one kind and another had left him with an acid-stomach condition and practically no faith in human nature.
"You have a permit for that revolver among your souvenirs somewhere, no doubt?" he asked.
"Yes," Latin said. "Do you want to see it?"
"No. It would just make me sad. I'd like to have a short chat with you, if you can spare me a few moments."
"Come on," Latin invited.
They went in through the kitchen door of the restaurant. Guiterrez was perched on his high stool again, but he was turned the other way now, with his back to the range, his chin propped glumly in his hands. When he saw Latin with Walters he made a choking noise in his throat, and his face took on a sickly greenish color.
Latin winked at him and shook his head slightly.
"Uh!" Guiterrez gasped, making a valiant effort to recover himself. "One bum is all I feed a night, Latin. You'll have to take this one to a soup kitchen."
"There'll come a day," said Walters, nodding at him meaningly and following Latin through the swing door and into the main part of the restaurant.
The blackout apparently hadn't had any effect. The place was just as crowded and even noisier, if possible, than it had been an hour before. Dick appeared beside Latin's booth as soon as he and Walters had seated themselves. He produced the brandy bottle from under his apron and put it and one glass on the table.
"Have some?" Latin asked Walters.
"You bet he won't," Dick seconded. "This is a strictly high- class joint. We don't serve cops. You better eat something pretty soon, Latin."
"Bring me some gumbo."
"Nope," said Dick. "Guiterrez threw it out. He said it brought him bad luck tonight."
"Tell him to make some more."
"I'll tell him," Dick said, heading for the kitchen. "If you hear an explosion, it won't be a bomb. It'll be Guiterrez saying no."
WALTERS leaned back, sighing. "I like this place. It reminds me of a zoo. Now here's a little matter I'd like to take up with you, Latin. There was an unidentified bum—known only as Jupe—murdered tonight in a little shack in a ravine back of the railroad cut on Highway 44 north of town. He was stuck fatally with an ice pick."
"I know," said Latin. "I found him."
"Why?" asked Walters.
Latin looked at him over the brandy glass. "What?"
"Why?" said Walters patiently. "Why did you find this bum?"
"I found his pal, an old guy named Boston, digging around in the garbage cans out in the alley tonight. Guiterrez gave the old guy a meal. Then Boston said he had a friend that was sick out in the shack, so I gave him some food and took him out there."
"Why?" said Walters.
Latin shrugged. "Just charity. I thought maybe Boston's pal might be really sick, and I wanted to help him if he was."
"No," said Walters judicially. "No, I don't think we can use that one. Think up another."
"It's the absolute truth. You can ask Guiterrez or Dick or anybody around here."
"I can," said Walters, "but I'm not going to. I should waste my time."
"How did you know about the murder?"
"Not from you reporting it, you can bet. Your pal Boston got himself pecked on the head with a blunt instrument and knocked six ways for Sunday. He was picked up and brought into an emergency first-aid station north of town, and he had quite a tale to tell about ice picks and stuff. He also said you were a nice fellow, so that knock on the head must have addled his brains. What were you prowling around with those two bums for, Latin?"
"I don't like your attitude," Latin told him. "It was charity, like I said. I'm practically full of the milk of human kindness."
"You're full of brandy and baloney. Do you know who killed that bum?"
"Do you plan on finding out?"
"Are you going to tell me when you do?"
Walters got up. "All right, little man. But just remember that I know something about you that no one else does."
"I know the reason why you never get convicted of any of these things you're pinched for. It's very simple. It's because you aren't guilty. You bend the law around like a pretzel, but you never quite break it. Taken all in all, you're generally almost honest."
"You spread that rumor around," said Latin, "and I'll sue you for slander."
"Latin," said Walters, "do you hear a little crackling sound under your feet? That's the ice you're walking on. It's getting awfully thin. You have something for me tomorrow, or it's going to break and let you down into some very, very cold water. I'm not fooling either."
"Good night, now," said Latin.
Walters nodded. "Tomorrow. Don't forget it, or you'll have a worse headache than that brandy is going to give you."
He went toward the front of the restaurant, and Dick appeared beside the booth carrying the portable telephone.
"Somebody wants to talk to you. Don't ask me why."
LATIN plugged in the switch and lifted the telephone off its stand. "Latin speaking."
"Say, Mr. Latin, this here is Boston. You remember me, I guess, don't you?"
"Fairly well," said Latin. "What happened to you?"
"Well, it was sure funny. I come up that there little path by the bridge, and there was a fella lookin' inside your car. He had the door open, and he was kinda half inside and half out, and he was singin'. I swear he was, Mr. Latin. He was singin' about somebody comin' around a mountain."
"I heard him," said Latin. "What did you do?"
"Well, I snuck up on him and hollered real fierce, 'Get out of that car!' figurin' to scare him."
"Did it?" Latin asked.
"Not so's you'd notice. He come at me like a mountain cat and hit me about seven times in the head with something awful hard and knocked me down and stomped me a few times."
"Then what?" Latin inquired.
"Well, I guess he went away. I was kinda unconscious, and he wasn't there when I got up. I started staggerin' back toward town, and one of these firebomb-watchers seen me and picked me up and brought me to this here first-aid station in a schoolhouse. They won't let me out of here, Mr. Latin."
"Well, they say I maybe got a concussion, and I got to lie down and be quiet. I guess I'll have to do that, Mr. Latin. Looks like they mean what they say. I'm sure sorry about all this, Mr. Latin. I hope that singin' fella didn't steal nothin' out of your car."
"No, he didn't. Everything's all right. You just relax, Boston. I'll come around and see how you are tomorrow."
"You will?" Boston asked eagerly. "You'll sure enough do that, Mr. Latin?"
"I'm mighty thankful.... Say, that nurse is takin' the telephone away—"
The line snapped and then began to hum emptily as the connection was broken. Latin depressed the breaker bar, let it up again, and dialed a number.
"Hello, there!" Happy's voice bellowed. "Happy's All-Night Garage! Service with a smile—anywhere, any time!"
"This is Elmer Quinwipple."
"Who?" said Happy. "Oh, yes! And I hope you're joyful and all in one piece, Mr. Quinwipple! What can I do for you, my good sir?"
"I left my car parked out on Highway 44 near the bridge across the railroad cut. Will you run out and get it when you're not busy?"
"Yes, indeedy! Right away, if not sooner! Will you be wanting it again tonight, my dear Mr. Quinwipple?"
"No," said Latin. "I thought I might give a fellow a ride in it, but he was sort of—called away unexpectedly. Thanks, Happy."
Latin hung up and reached for the brandy bottle. He held it very carefully over his glass and tilted it, but nothing poured out.
"Another seventeen fifty shot to hell," Dick observed, appearing with an enormous china bowl cupped in both his hands. "Say, you don't suppose Guiterrez is sick or something, do you? He didn't even throw any dishes on the floor when I asked him to make this. He just said something about giving the condemned man anything he wanted to eat for his last meal. What was he talking about?"
"I hope I don't know," said Latin.
THE Copa Negra Club was on the second floor of a downtown building over a cut-rate clothing store, but anyone who didn't know that would never have guessed it was there. No sign advertised it, and its windows had been painted black on the inside so that no light could escape. Its entrance was a narrow colonial-type door with a dim blue light burning chastely over it.
Latin hammered the polished brass knocker, and the door opened instantly and swiftly. An English-style butler complete with sideburns and a swallowtail coat bowed and stepped back and bowed again.
"Please come in, sir."
The hall was small and thickly carpeted with lights tilted up against the dark-paneled walls to make the ceiling appear higher.
"Your coat, sir," said the butler. "Your hat."
Latin gave them to him, and the butler passed them along to a girl in a neat black maid's uniform and got back a brass check which he handed to Latin.
"The elevator, sir."
He pressed a button, and one of the panels slid back and revealed an elevator lined with chrome and black glistening leather. Another girl in a maid's uniform was waiting in it, and she curtsied neatly when Latin entered. The elevator rose smoothly and stopped without the faintest jar, and the door slid open.
A man in an expensively tailored dinner coat bowed impressively low in front of Latin. "A very good evening to you, sir. May I show you to a table?"
"Is Count Fiolo here?" Latin asked.
The other man stopped looking pleased. "We got a very special stairs to throw process servers down. Are you one?"
"Not just now," said Latin. "I'm—"
"My dear Mr. Latin!" said another voice. "This is such a great surprise and such a very great pleasure!"
"Is it?" said Latin blankly. "Who are you?"
The man was no more than five feet tall, and he looked as round and soft as a butterball. He, too, was wearing a dinner coat, and he teetered up and down on his toes and beamed and made pleased chuckling noises.
"But don't you remember? I am Andriev. I am the personal friend of the great Señor Guiterrez. Ah, many times I have eaten the deliciousness of his supreme food. You make me so happy by coming here. You shall have our very, very best. I, Andriev, promise it personally."
"I came to meet Count Fiolo."
"Yes, indeed! The Count is entertaining friends this evening. It is an occasion, you understand." Andriev winked and smirked at him confidentially. "It is to celebrate his coming marriage. His campaign is successful. It is settled. The girl is incredibly rich, but the face—" Andriev closed his eyes and shivered realistically. "The Count is very brave. I, Andriev, would not have the courage. This way, please, Mr. Latin."
He led the way along a hall and through an arched doorway into the main dining room. It was enormous. Tables were banked in endless tiers around the black polished square of a dance floor. An orchestra gleamed and purred out stately jazz, and the dancers, all bare shoulders and bald heads, twirled solemnly counterclockwise. There were no jitterbugs present. It was all as impressive and high-toned as an embassy ball and Latin, always alert to such matters, decided that the prices would be pretty impressive, too.
Andriev headed around the top of the banked tiers and was starting down the wide, deeply carpeted steps that descended to the dance floor when Latin tapped him on the shoulder.
"Does he come here often?" he asked, pointing.
"Mr. Saltonwaite?" Andriev said. "Oh, yes. He comes for the Squab Andriev, which is really beautiful beyond dreams. I confess to you, Mr. Latin, that it is actually Squab Guiterrez. The great Guiterrez gave me permission to use his recipe, and the success has been colossal. I live in constant gratitude."
Saltonwaite was sitting all alone at his table, a somber and preoccupied figure against the gayety around him. He was holding a squab in both hands and gnawing away as though his life depended on it. It couldn't have been more than two hours since he had filled up on Guiterrez's gumbo, but that wasn't cramping his style any now.
"He must have taken some exercise recently to work up that appetite," Latin observed. "Do you know how long he's been here?"
Andriev snapped his fingers imperiously. "Pierre!"
A waiter jumped to attention in front of them.
"That one," said Andriev. "Saltonwaite. How long has he been here, Pierre?"
"A half hour, sir."
"O.K.," said Latin thoughtfully. "Thanks."
ANDRIEV led the way on down the stairs and turned in at the first tier of tables. Count Fiolo jumped up from a table that held the place of honor on a direct line across from the bandstand.
"But Mr. Latin! My dear friend! I am gratified beyond words!"
He was wearing a navy blue tuxedo, and he filled it out as exquisitely as a tailor's dummy. He looked incredibly handsome and virile and dashing, and there were at least ten women at tables nearby who couldn't keep their eyes off him. He shook Latin's hand. He beamed at him. He patted him on the shoulder proudly.
"You are so kind to honor me. And now I want to present you to my betrothed. My very own loved one, this is Mr. Max Latin, with whom I have a basis of mutual understanding and trust. Mr. Latin, this is my heart, my life. This is my glamorous future—Miss Hester Zachary."
"Oh, you," said Hester Zachary. "Now, Count, you shouldn't say those extravagant things."
"Say them?" Count Fiolo echoed. "I shout them from the housetops! I call all the world to witness the beauty I have captured!"
"Oh, you," said Hester Zachary, simpering. "I'm awfully pleased to meet you, Mr. Latin."
She was wearing, of all things, a formal gown without any shoulders straps. Latin looked twice to make sure, and it was really so. Her nose was shining brightly and her eyes boggled out in a deliriously happy daze and she did have halitosis. Her hair was pulled up on one side and down on the other.
"Is she not wonderful?" Count Fiolo demanded.
"Yes, indeed," said Latin soberly.
"Oh, you," said Hester. "You men. Mr. Latin, I want you to meet my mama and papa."
"My dear, dear parents-to-be," Count Fiolo expanded. "Mrs. and Mr. Mars Zachary."
"Charmed," said Mrs. Zachary. She was small and scrawny, and in spite of that she looked like her corset was too tight. Hester had inherited her buck-teeth and her shiny nose from the distaff side.
"Are you in society?" Mars Zachary asked.
"Mr. Latin is a member of the city's most exclusive inner circle!" said Count Fiolo. "He is indeed well known."
"Yes," Latin admitted. "I have quite a record."
"We're going to get into society," said Mars Zachary. He was middle-sized and vaguely limp-looking. His hair swirled in a sticky cowlick on the top of his head, like an Indian's headdress. He had a broodingly sour expression and a manner that was furtive and defiant at the same time. He looked like he wasn't very sure he was enjoying himself.
"Don't say that," said Mrs. Zachary.
"Say what?" asked Mars.
"That we're going into society."
"Why not? Aren't we?"
"Don't argue, Mars. Will you join us, Mr. Latin?"
"Well, I don't know," said Latin. "I hadn't intended—"
Andriev saved him. He came bustling up, all smiles, and said: "My dear Count, you really must excuse me if I intrude myself. I am so honored that Mr. Latin has visited us. I took the liberty to mention it to my employer. Will you excuse yourself from this charming group and step this way with me for a moment, Mr. Latin? Will you be so kind?"
"Why, yes," said Latin. He nodded to the Zacharys. "I have a little business to attend to. I'll see you later, Count."
"Yes, indeed," said Fiolo, slightly less enthusiastic.
Andriev led the way around the dance floor and back past the long gleaming bar and knocked twice on a narrow door almost hidden by a thick blue drape that swept gracefully down from the ceiling. There was no answer to the knock, and Andriev said smoothly: "Step right in, please, Mr. Latin."
He opened the door, and Latin entered a square dark-paneled room that had no windows and was furnished only with a very small spindle-legged desk and two straight-backed chairs. The door closed softly behind him.
"Hi, Latin," said the woman behind the desk.
"Well, I'll be damned," said Latin with feeling.
"Don't boast about it. How are you, kid?"
"Surprised," said Latin.
THE woman laughed. She was fat, but there wasn't anything soft about her. She was as square and solid as a block of concrete. She was wearing a tailored gray suit, and she had gray hair. There was a diamond on her left hand the size of a dime, and it was a real one. Her features were regular enough, but they'd seen some service. She winked one slightly bloodshot eye at Latin.
"How do you like my new business?"
"You don't own this dive, do you, Rosie?"
"Rosemary, if you please. Rosemary McClure Fitzgerald. Me and my partners own it, yes."
"Who are your partners?"
"About half the people in the city hall," said Rosie blandly. "I've learned a thing or two, in my time, that comes in handy when you want partners. How do you like the tony atmosphere I dreamed up? I tell you, we got strictly class here, kid. I lay it on with a trowel, and the old bald-headed bats you saw outside love it so they practically drool every time one of my waiters bows to 'em. You know I had to enroll them waiters in an etiquette school? It's a fact. It cost me fifty dollars apiece to get them learned to talk through their noses."
"It was worth it," said Latin.
"Sure. I got the idea from learning my girls to act like little ladies. Was that a job! Sit down, Latin. You and me are going to have a powwow. Still drink this?"
She produced a bottle from under the desk and turned it so Latin could read the label.
"You bet," said Latin.
Rosie found some glasses in the desk drawer. "You're an expensive cuss. This costs about a dollar a drink, you know that? Here."
"Thanks," said Latin. "You've had a little fender and bodywork done on yourself, too, haven't you?"
"Hell, I been hammered by every massager in town. Look, Latin, are you my pal?"
"For fun or for money?" Latin asked.
"Yes and no," said Latin. "Make me an offer."
"All right. I'm holdin' the baby for Count Fiolo."
"How is that?" Latin inquired.
"Like this. He comes from the same neck of the woods as Andriev, one of them countries around Poland. He got out with nothing but a spare pair of pants when Hitler came in. So he came over here and sort of dragged along the bottom giving old dames bridge lessons and such. He ran into Andriev and started to hang out here. He ran up quite a bill and bounced a few checks, so I decided to give him the brush-off. Have another drink."
"Thanks," said Latin.
"But I didn't," said Rosie. "Because I discovered that about half the dames that were my tea-dance customers were comin' here on the off-chance he'd ask them for a dance. I mean, the guy slays women and no joke. So I thought I'd get my money back, and I kept him around here while I looked up a good prospect. I found what I figured was a swell one. You just met her."
"I remember," said Latin, taking a drink.
"Did you ever see the like?" Rosie said, shaking her head. "Sometimes I'd even feel sorry for Fiolo if he wasn't such a rat. What did you and he hatch up at your restaurant tonight?"
"How did you know he saw me there?" Latin asked.
Rosie said: "I've advanced him five thousand dollars. I've got his notes five for one. That baby is worth twenty-five thousand smackers to me. I keep an eye on him, and when he starts having conferences with a sharpshooter like you I begin to get the quivers. What's the gag?"
LATIN looked into his brandy glass thoughtfully for a moment and then shrugged. "He's afraid Jupiter Zachary will show up and keep Mars Zachary from drawing any dough out of the Planet Iron Foundry to give to his daughter to give to Fiolo."
"Yeah. He's been itching over that. I tell him the dame will get the dough sooner or later anyway, but that don't comfort him much. He says if he is going to live with that face he has to have cash compensation right now and all the time. That will is really a heller."
"Fiolo said the property was left to the brothers jointly."
"Yeah. I got a copy out of the probate records and had my lawyers look at it. They say they never saw the likes. Saltonwaite drew it up. Do you know him?"
Latin nodded. "Yes."
"He put everything in that will but the kitchen sink. My lawyers doubt if that joint stuff is legal in a bequest, but it's so foxed up they think it would take ten years to break it. The will itself provides a whopping sum to pay Saltonwaite to fight for it if anyone tries to contest it. I think that's the reason for the funny stuff. He figured that joint stuff would make it so damned unhandy for the brothers—hating each other like they do—that sooner or later one of them would take a ring at busting the will, and then Saltonwaite would cut himself a real nice piece of cake. Did you ever see him cut a piece of cake or anything else, by the way? My God, that man can eat!"
"I noticed," said Latin absently. He had just gotten an idea, and his eyes were narrowed and greenish-looking in the dim light.
"This joint stuff," said Rosie. "I wish I'd known about that before I got Fiolo tangled up with Hester. Look, Latin, I'm starched shirt and very ritz now, and I can't afford rough stuff or to have my name knocked around in the papers. Fiolo is sure to beef on that twenty-five thousand dollars, although it's reasonable enough. I took a long chance. I'll give you fifty percent of all above five thousand you can collect on his notes to me."
Latin looked at her. "You've made a deal, Rosie."
"Jupiter Zachary is the boy to look out for—Mars is just dumb, but from what I hear, Jupiter is meaner than hell."
"Don't worry about Jupiter," Latin advised.
"I'm not. That's your job. Go away now, Latin. I don't want to know what you're going to do next. I have en—"
The lights went out. They didn't flicker or give any warning. They just went out all at once.
"Another air raid?" Latin asked.
"Hell, no," said Rosie. "We don't worry about air raids. I got this place blacked out like a tomb. Some dope pulled the main switch in the basement."
"My God!" Latin exclaimed suddenly.
HE whirled around and slammed into the wall and bounced back. He found the door on his second try, jerked it open. The club was a vast black cavern with voices rising in an indignant querying babble and the orchestra still banging along slightly off- key.
Latin dove headlong into a man who grunted and said: "Here, now. No panic. Bad form, you know."
Latin pushed him away, bumped into the bar. He got his bearings and ran blindly along the edge of the dance floor until he stepped on something soft that ripped and a woman threw her arms around him and screamed in his ear.
Several other women screamed, too. The orchestra petered out with a few brassy wails.
Latin got the arms loose from his neck and pushed. He hit a railing and pinwheeled over it.
Latin climbed up over another railing and then a third. He paused tensely there, breathing hard.
"Saltonwaite!" he called. "Saltonwaite!"
There was no answer, and Latin knew he was no more than a couple of yards from Saltonwaite's table. After a second he struck a match. Saltonwaite was still sitting at the table, and he was still holding the remains of the squab in his hands. His mouth was greasy from the last bite that he had taken and that he would never taste. The yellow handle of an Acme ice pick stuck out straight from his skinny chest just over his heart.
Latin dropped the match one way and jumped the other way, drawing the Police Positive from his shoulder holster. There were people moving and swearing and screaming all around him in the darkness. He felt along the railing and found the main stairway by falling down three steps. He kept right on going down.
"Now, Hester," said Mars Zachary's voice suddenly, close to him. "Stop it."
Hester shrieked like a lost soul. Latin grabbed out in the darkness and got her by one bare bony shoulder.
"Where's the Count?" he demanded.
"He's gone!" Hester shrieked. "I kissed him and he ran awa-ay. He said he wasn't coming back—"
"Mr. Latin!" Andriev's voice wailed. "Mr. Latin, what are you doing, please?"
Latin let go of Hester and reached out blindly and got him by the throat. "Where's the back door—quick?"
"Across the d-dance floor to the right of the b-bandstand. What is the m—"
Latin put his head down and charged across the dance floor like a one-man flying wedge, leaving a profanely howling, threshing wake behind him. He tripped, got up again and went through an invisible doorway. He hit the third step down, kept his feet by a miracle of balance, and kept on going.
HE went through the outside door without even knowing it was there. Wind was suddenly fresh and cold in his face, and his heels clicked hard on rough paving. He whirled to his right and saw faint light from the street outlining the alley mouth. A quick shadowy figure was running that way, dodging and twisting.
Latin jerked his revolver out and fired, shooting high. "Stop!" he yelled.
The shadowy figure put on a fresh burst of speed, and then a voice in front of it said calmly: "That'll be far enough, son. Hold it."
The shadowy figure stopped, and its arm flipped up and down again, incredibly fast. All in the same split second there was the sharp rip of tearing cloth and the bursting flare of a revolver report. The shadowy figure bounced backwards and then went down in a sprawling heap.
Latin walked forward cautiously. "Walters."
"What the hell," said Walters. "This monkey heaved an ice pick at me—pinned my coat right to the wall. I ripped it getting loose. This coat cost me fifty-three dollars."
Latin knelt down by the sprawled figure. "Things like that wouldn't happen if you minded your own business and quit following me around."
"I'm minding my business when I follow you around, and don't forget it. Who is this ice-pick expert?"
"He's the boy who killed that bum down by the railroad cut tonight, then tried the ice-pick trick on me. He also just finished off a lawyer by the name of Saltonwaite."
"What's all this?"
Latin said: "It's all about a joint called the Planet Iron Foundry, which is worth a lot of money these days. It was owned by a man named Ebenezer Zachary. He had two sons who didn't like him or each other, either. The old boy had some strokes and got sort of dotty in the bean and evidently came down with an attack of the regrets. He let Saltonwaite persuade him that the thing to do was to bring his boys together by forcing them to cooperate in running the foundry. Saltonwaite drew up a will that was supposed to arrange that, and it was really a lulu.
"You see, Saltonwaite had his eye on the profits of the iron foundry. He knew the two sons, Mars and Jupiter Zachary, wouldn't cooperate for love or money, and he had all the legal strings tied up so fancily that he was in the driver's seat. The boys would have to use him as their mutual go-between and interlocutor, and that would be very nice for Mr. Saltonwaite."
"Jupiter!" said Walters suddenly. "Jupe! Was that bum who was killed in the railroad cut Jupiter Zachary?"
"No. This bum lying here is, and he's good and dead. You nailed him right in the ticker. You see, Jupiter was just as smart as Saltonwaite and a lot tougher. He dreamed up a very nasty little scheme that would put him right on top of the heap and give him a chance to stamp on his brother's fingers. He picked out an old bum by the name of Boston and stabbed the poor guy. Boston resembled Jupiter, and Jupiter put all his identification papers in Boston's pocket so Boston's body would be identified as his. I don't think that was Jupiter's first job of murder, by any means. He's too expert with ice picks to be a beginner."
"Identification papers?" Walters said. "Let's talk about them for a minute. There weren't any identification papers on that bum in the railroad cut. Where are they?"
LATIN nodded toward the sprawled body. "I'll bet they're in Jupiter's pocket."
"I'll bet they are, too," said Walters. "Because you just now put 'em there."
"Did you see me?"
"No," Walters admitted glumly.
"Then don't be so suspicious. Jupiter knew how dumb his brother is and how anxious he is to get some big dough so his women-folks can make a splurge. He knew Mars would jump at the chance to identify the murdered bum's body as Jupiter so he'd have a free hand at collecting the foundry's profits. Then, some fine day, Jupiter would walk up and tap his brother on the shoulder."
"Oh-oh," said Walters.
"Yes. From then on, Jupiter would sit back somewhere out of sight and collect ninety-nine percent of the profits while Mars did all the work. It was slick and quick, and if it didn't work, why, there was just an old bum dead, and who would give a damn? Not Jupiter, you can bet. Give him time to cover up, and you could never have proved that murder on him in fifty years. But his scheme went all haywire when Saltonwaite saw him at my joint. Saltonwaite knew him, but he didn't give the faintest sign of it. Saltonwaite is a slippery old devil, and he knew there was dirty work going on. Now he had Jupiter in the same crack that Jupiter had Mars."
"Hell's fire," said Walters. "What a bunch of cold-blooded babies."
"And how. Jupiter had to go on with it. He mentioned his own name to me, trying to build up his murdered-bum plant, and I sat in on the game a lot quicker than he expected. He couldn't figure me out at first. He thought maybe I was really just interested in feeding a sick bum."
"Little did he know you," said Inspector Walters.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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