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NORBERT DAVIS

YOU CAN DIE ANY DAY

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First published in Dime Detective Magazine, December 1942

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-01-27
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Dime Detective Magazine, December 1942, with "You Can Die Any Day"



TABLE OF CONTENTS



CHAPTER I. — UNEXPECTED GUEST

IT was ten o'clock in the morning, and Guiterrez was sitting on the high stool behind the check desk in the restaurant kitchen chewing the end of a pencil and spitting out the splinters with explosive disapproval. The floor around the stool was littered with crumpled paper. Two busboys were cleaning silverware, and the pastry chef and the fry cook were playing gin rummy on the metal cover of the steam table.

Dick, the headwaiter, came in through the swing door from the front of the restaurant. He was wrapping himself up in an apron the general size and proportions of a parachute. He wound it around his skinny waist three times and tied the cords in two elaborate bow-knots.

"Hi, crackpot," he said to Guiterrez. "What's with you?"

"I'm thinking up today's specials," Guiterrez snarled. "Get the hell out of my kitchen, or I'll kill you."

"Guess who's out front?" Dick invited, ignoring the threat.

Guiterrez merely glared at him.

"It's Latin," said Dick.

Guiterrez said: "I don't care if it's.... Who?"

Dick nodded confirmingly. "It's Latin. And he ain't in uniform, either."

Guiterrez got down off the stool. "I think we better look into this matter."

They went through the swing door into the main room of the restaurant. It was empty now, chairs stacked neatly on the close- packed tables. Morning sunlight coming through the plate-glass windows and doors at the front glistened on the freshly swabbed floor.

Latin's special booth was the last one in the row against the west wall, and Guiterrez and Dick stopped beside it and looked down at him.

"Hello, Latin," Guiterrez said. "Long time no see."

Latin didn't look up or answer. There was a bottle of brandy in front of him, and he poured himself a drink and sipped it slowly, staring down at the tabletop. He was a thin man, a little better than medium height, with eyes that were a smooth, cold green. He usually had an air of jaunty self-confidence, but it was missing now. He looked glumly disconsolate.

"You got a leave?" Guiterrez asked. "You on furlough?"

"No," said Latin.

"Are you A.W.O.L.?" Dick inquired.

"No."

"Come on, Latin," Guiterrez said. "You remember. You're in the Army now. You're even an officer. You didn't desert, did you?"

"No," Latin answered absently. "I was discharged."

"The hell you cry!" Dick exclaimed. "I didn't know the war was over!"

"Latin," said Guiterrez, "did you get dishonorably discharged? Did they catch you playin' one of your usual snide tricks on somebody? Did you cheat at cards or shoot somebody in the back or something?"

"No," said Latin. "They found out I was color-blind."

"Color-blind!" Guiterrez repeated, astonished.

"Yes."

"I always did think you had a funny taste in ties," Dick observed, "but I never figured you couldn't help it. How come they didn't spot you when they inducted you? Didn't they give you an examination for color-blindness?"

"Yes. I memorized the charts."

"What?" Guiterrez said blankly.

Latin sighed. "They test you with charts full of colored dots. If your vision is normal, some of the dots form figures and letters. The charts are numbered. I got hold of a set and got a guy with normal vision to tell me what was on each one. Then I memorized them. I got one hundred percent perfect in the examination."

Guiterrez shook his head slowly. "You would figure out an angle. How'd they catch you?"

"They had different colored slips for different orders at the training camp. I got some of them mixed up a few times, and one of the doctors got suspicious. He sprang a new chart on me all of a sudden. I didn't do so well."

"Why didn't you bribe the doc?" Dick asked.

"Don't think I didn't try. I offered him this whole restaurant—lock, stock and cash—with you two thrown in, and he just laughed."

Dick nodded slowly. "Yeah. Them Army guys is sometimes funny that way. But what do they care whether or not you're color- blind? You can tell a Jap when you see one, can't you?"

Latin sipped his drink. "Yes, but they have different colored blinkers, signals, flags, even parachutes. Each one means something special. You might get in a jam if you couldn't tell what."

"Ummm," said Guiterrez thoughtfully. "I tell you—you could change your name and try some other doc that was usin' the old charts."

Latin looked up at him. "Got any ideas as to how I'd change my fingerprints?"

"Oh," said Guiterrez. "Yeah. There's that, ain't there?" He lifted the brandy bottle and measured the height of the liquor in it. "And it's time for you to get some breakfast in you, too. Now you're here, you got to get to work, Latin. This here doghouse restaurant has been losin' money so fast it makes me dizzy. Everybody eats too much, and I'm telling you the prices for food would make you turn green."

"Raise the prices for meals," Latin suggested indifferently.

"So!" Guiterrez shouted. "You want to be a war profiteer, is that it? Well, the hell with you! You get out and cheat somebody out of some dough so I can pay the bills by the tenth of the month, like the law says. And stay out of jail while you do it, for once! You ain't gonna use none of the restaurant dough to bail yourself out! Now sit there and shut up while I cook you a ham omelette like you wouldn't believe was possible!"

He slapped violently through the door back into the kitchen. Somebody started to tap on the plate-glass panel of the front door.

Dick said: "These early birds give me the worms." He strolled to the front of the restaurant and shouted: "No! We ain't open yet! Go away! Go home if you got one!"

A faint, muffled voice shouted back at him.

"You hear me!" Dick said. "Go home!"

Latin started to pour himself another brandy and then thought better of it and lit a cigarette instead.

"These dames," Dick muttered. "This one acts either nutty or drunk or both." He raised his voice angrily. "Beat it! Scram! We're closed!"

The tapping on the glass grew louder.

"Quit it!" Dick ordered. "You'll bust the door, you dope!" The bolt rattled as he unfastened it. "Now listen, lady. You lay off that glass and get—ow!"

High heels tapped emphatically, and then a woman stopped beside Latin's booth.


"YOU'RE Max Latin, aren't you?" she demanded breathlessly. "Aren't you?"

"Yes," said Latin.

Dick came up behind her. "She kicked me right in the shin! Is that right, lady? You think that's polite?"

"Oh, go away!" said the woman. "For goodness' sake, I wouldn't have kicked you if you hadn't tried to stop me from coming in! Is this man really Max Latin?"

"Yup," said Dick. "And there's only one like him—we certainly hope. Now you've seen him you can go home happy, can't you?"

"Well, I certainly can't!" She plumped herself down in the booth in the seat across from Latin. "I was just surprised, that's all. I mean he doesn't look very ugly or criminal or desperate or anything like that, does he?"

"I don't know," said Dick. "Do you, Latin?"

"Every other Tuesday," said Latin. He nodded politely at the woman. "Come back then."

"What?" said the woman blankly. She was plump and short, and her brown eyes sparkled with a sort of eager, devouring interest. She was dressed in a brown tailored suit that had cost a couple of hundred dollars with or without a priority. She looked like she would organize a committee and vote on important matters at the drop of a hat. She bubbled, there was no other word for it, with enthusiasm. "Tuesday? I can't. That's Defense School night.... Oh, you're joking. You mustn't be hurt by what I said about you being ugly. After all the newspaper stories about you being in jail and accused of crimes all the time, I naturally expected.... I mean, you look refined!"

"Them's fightin' words," said Dick. "Watch out he don't bop you with that bottle."

"Bottle?" she repeated, looking at it. "Oh, are you drinking this early in the morning, Mr. Latin? That really isn't good for you, you know. Don't you think I'd just better put it aside for a little while...."

Guiterrez came out of the kitchen carrying a platter with a fluffy yellow omelette on it.

"Now, who the hell is this?" he demanded. "Dick, I told you I don't want no customers kickin' around here before one o'clock."

The woman switched around to beam at him. "Oh, you're Mr. Guiterrez, aren't you? I've heard so much about you. Always so lovably gruff and with a heart of gold and such a wonderful cook!"

Guiterrez gaped at her. "Who, me?"

"Lovable," Dick whispered, stunned. "Heart of gold."

"And such a beautiful omelette!" the woman exclaimed. "The very sight of it makes me hungry. Can you cook me one just like it?"

Guiterrez made choking noises. "Yes, I can! But, by God, I'm not going to! This is my extra-special, triple de luxe edition, cooked personally by me, Guiterrez, to keep Latin from seeing little green men from drinking too much brandy in the morning. I positively don't hand it out to customers—and particularly dames."


LATIN was smiling in spite of himself. "Go cook her one," he ordered.

"I will like hell!" Guiterrez snarled. "I quit! You hear that, Latin! Phooey on you! I'm through! I resign!"

"Cook her an omelette first," Latin said.

"Now that's the way it goes," Guiterrez shouted. "You ain't here more than five minutes before you start drivin' me nuts! I'm gonna sue the Army! Phooey!" He slammed back into the kitchen again.

Dick produced napkins and silverware and a cup of coffee for Latin. "Have you got a name, lady?" he asked the woman patiently.

"Oh dear, yes!" she said. "Isn't that stupid of me? I was so interested in all of you that I forgot to introduce myself. Mr. Latin, I'm Mrs. Gregory Farmer. Have you ever heard of me—or rather, of my husband?"

Latin shook his head, chewing on the omelette.

Mrs. Farmer edged closer, looking very earnest. "He's a manufacturer, Mr. Latin. He makes plastics, and he's awfully clever and successful at it. He has a factory just outside of town. The company he owns is called the Bay City Chemical Products. It's a big factory. Surely you've seen it?"

Latin shook his head again.

Guiterrez came out of the kitchen with another omelette. "I was savin' this for myself, but I suppose you don't mind takin' the food right out of my mouth. Here!"

Dick produced another cup of coffee.

Mrs. Farmer tried a mouthful of the omelette. "Oh! Oh, my! This is divine! I'm so glad I decided to consult you, Mr. Latin. You've made me feel much better already."

"That ain't Latin," Guiterrez told her. "That's my extra- special, triple de luxe omelette."

"Don't let us keep you two from your work," Latin said.

"So now he insults us!" Guiterrez said to Dick.

Dick curled his upper lip. "As if we'd want to listen to anything he had to say!"

Guiterrez went into the kitchen, and Dick strolled up to the front of the restaurant.

"You wanted to consult me?" Latin said to Mrs. Farmer.

She nodded eagerly. "Yes, Mr. Latin, you wouldn't hesitate to kill a person, would you?"

"Depends on who he is," said Latin, "and on how long you want me to hesitate."

"But that's so wrong! Oh, that's a terrible attitude for you to take!"

"Nope," said Latin. "I know lots of people who need killing."

"Oh, but think of the suffering you inflict. And think of the moral side of the question! Wouldn't you much rather do good than evil?"

"No," said Latin.

Mrs. Farmer looked hurt and really incredulous. "You—you like to act in an unlawful way?"

"Sure," said Latin.

"But suppose someone came in and offered you a chance to do something fine and noble and honest. What would you do, then?"

"Throw them out," said Latin. "And go on eating this omelette."

"Oh!" said Mrs. Farmer breathlessly. "But—but I'm willing to pay you."

"That's a horse of another color," said Latin. "I'll even be honest for pay—if it's enough. What do you want me to do?"

"Well—if there were a person—a horrible, unscrupulous person—who was menacing the happiness and the very life of a person you loved, what would you do?"

Latin pointed an imaginary gun and said: "Bing."

"Shoot them?" Mrs. Farmer gasped, horrified. "Oh, but no! You couldn't!"

"Oh, yes I could. What's his name and where does he live and what's he worth to you dead?"

"It—it's a woman!"

Latin shrugged. "Then the price is much cheaper. If he was a guy, he might shoot back at me."

"Mr. Latin!" said Mrs. Farmer. "Please! You're just going at this all wrong. You must let me explain!"

"Go ahead," Latin invited.

Mrs. Farmer drew a deep breath. "Mr. Latin, I love my husband. He's just the most wonderful, dear person in the world. He's suffering terribly, and I want you to help him."

"Help him suffer?" Latin asked.

"No! Please be serious! This—this is the most serious and vital thing in my life. He is my life! And we've always been divinely happy. And now he can't sleep and he can't eat and he's so wan and pale and worried all the time. It—it breaks my heart, Mr. Latin!"

"What's the matter with him?" Latin inquired.

"It's that woman and her awful paper! Just dinging and dinging at him every day and saying nasty, insulting things and calling him a traitor and a fifth columnist and an obstructionist and a slacker and a war profiteer and—and—"

"That's enough," said Latin. "That would even make me lose a little sleep—providing it was true."

"It's not true! It's just all lies!"


"LET'S see," Latin said thoughtfully. "So far we've got a dame and a paper. Is it a newspaper?"

"Well—yes. I suppose you could call it that. It comes out weekly, and it's called Defend Our World."

"Is it published here? I never heard of it."

"Their editorial offices are on the fourth floor at 411 Court Street. It's just a little office. The paper circulates among defense workers in the war factories all through this district. It has departments about each factory with gossip and personals and all that. I don't think it has any general circulation—on newsstands or anything, I mean."

"And the dame owns it?"

"I don't know. She's the editor. Her name is Gertrude Glenn, and she's a horrible, messy, sloppy sort of a person. She has dyed hair."

"That's bad," Latin agreed. "Why does she pick on your husband?"

"I don't know, but she's got to stop it, because it isn't fair!"

"Why does she claim he's a fifth columnist and whatnot?"

"Because his factory isn't producing the capacity it has been assigned by the government. I don't know much about that part of it, but the factory makes all kinds of plastic articles that they substitute for metal because it's lighter and cheaper."

"But not enough of them?"

"It isn't Gregory's fault!" Mrs. Farmer wailed. "He works so hard and such long hours, and he worries so! He can't get the materials that he needs. They're all on priority, and they have to be assigned to each factory in just the quantities needed, and there are delays and delays and bickering, and Gregory just nearly goes mad! And then that woman says it's all his fault and that he's doing it on purpose to hold up the war effort and help Hitler!"

"Is he?" asked Latin.

Mrs. Farmer's eyes brimmed over. "Oh, Mr. Latin!"

"All right, all right," said Latin quickly. "He isn't. In fact, I know he's a fine fellow and a great patriot. What do you want me to do about it?"

"I want you to make her stop! I want you to make her leave Gregory alone before he—he gets so desperate he does himself some harm. It's awful, Mr. Latin! Sometimes I think he might—might—"

"Might," Latin finished, nodding. "How do you figure I'm going to stop this Glenn doll?"

"Well—," said Mrs. Farmer, swallowing hard. "Gregory is a marvelous and wonderful man, and his life is being ruined, and—and you would be accomplishing something—"

"Fine and noble," Latin agreed. "But how?"

Mrs. Farmer sat up straight. "You make her stop, that's all! I tried to talk to her, and she was just nasty and sneering and superior. I—I don't even care if you hurt her! I don't! Gregory means everything in this world to me, and I'm not going to have him treated that way!" She opened her big patent leather purse. "There! That's all I could save out of my household money. Will it be enough?"

Latin didn't attempt to count the crumpled bills. "I think so," he said.

Mrs. Farmer got up out of the booth. "Oh, and here's my card. You—you'll call me?"

"Yes," said Latin.

"And—and be firm with her, won't you? I mean, really firm."

"All right," said Latin.

"Good-bye, Mr. Latin. It was a pleasure to meet you. I'd read so much about you, but I never thought—Well—good- bye."

"Good-bye," said Latin.


CHAPTER II — REVENGE!

DICK let her out of the front of the restaurant, and Guiterrez came in from the kitchen and leaned over the back of the booth. Latin was straightening out the bills Mrs. Farmer had given him, and Guiterrez watched, moving his lips silently as he counted.

"Whee!" he said, when Latin was finished.

Latin looked up at him. "Twelve hundred bucks," he said slowly. "She saved this out of her household money. She must be a lot smarter at buying food than you are."

"So now you're calling me a crook!" Guiterrez snarled. "O.K., then. Hand over some of that dough so I can meet the payroll around here."

"Maybe I can use it to grow some more," Latin said, putting his bills in his pocket. "Dick, bring me the telephone."

Dick came over carrying the portable telephone, and Latin plugged it in at the concealed switch behind the drape that covered the wall at the end of the booth.

"Now look, Latin," said Guiterrez. "Fun is fun, but you ain't going to try to chisel that poor dame, are you? After all, she's tryin' to help her husband out of a jam, and even if she is maybe a little silly, she's a nice, decent sort of a doll."

"Run away and play house," Latin said, dialing a number.

"I wonder how you sleep nights!" Guiterrez exploded. "There'll come a day! You wait! You'll see! One of these times you get put in jail, you ain't never gonna get out again! And will I laugh! Ha, ha, ha!"

"Go away," said Latin absently.

A voice in the telephone said: "Good morning. This is the Daily Blade."

"Let me speak to Les Blaine."

"Who is calling, please?"

"This is his wife's boyfriend."

There were two sharp clicks, and then a voice said angrily: "Why, damn you, if you think this is funny, you wait until I lay my hands—"

"Hi, Les," said Latin. "This is Max Latin."

"You're a damned liar. Latin is a lieutenant with the motorized infantry at Fort Crail."

"Not anymore, he isn't," Latin denied.

"Latin! What's the matter? You didn't go and try any of your chiseling...."

"No!" Latin snarled.

"Oh. Well... I mean, what's the trouble, pal?"

"They found out I was color-blind."

"Oh, hell! After all the trouble you took? Well, couldn't you slip somebody a small bill...."

"I tried," said Latin.

"I'm sorry, kid. But honestly I can't do anything for you with the Medical Corps...."

"That's O.K., Les. I'll think of something. In the meantime, what can you tell me about a paper called Defend Our World?"

"Why?"

"I'm after some dough, of course. Do you want to tell me, or shall I ask somewhere else?"

"Don't be so huffy. I'll tell you, but—but she's a hell of a nice gal, Latin."

"Who is?"

"Gertie Glenn. She edits the sheet."

"Do you know her?" Latin asked.

"Sure. She used to work for the Blade. Did sob-sister and fashion stuff."

"Did she get fired?" Latin inquired.

"Yup."

"For what?"

"Sleeping too late."

"With whom?"

"Aw, Latin. She really is nice. She's a big, sloppy gal, and she's honest, just lazy. They warned her about fifty times, but she never could turn up less than two hours late. She likes her sleep. So they finally had to give her the bounce. Then she picked up this defense paper. She's doing all right from what I hear."

"Does she scare easy?"

Les Blaine laughed. "You've got the wrong number, kid. Gertie would just laugh if Superman and Boris Karloff came and gibbered at her as a duet. You can't scare her. She's got a sense of humor."

"I'll be seeing you, Les," said Latin. He depressed the breaker bar on the telephone and stared thoughtfully at the stained ceiling for a moment. Finally he dialed another number.


THE receiver buzzed once, and then a voice chortled cheerfully: "Hello! Hello! This is Happy's Twenty-four-Hour Garage! Service any time, anywhere! How can I serve you, friend?"

"This is Latin, Happy."

There was a long pause, and then Happy said cautiously: "Beg pardon, friend. What was that you said?"

"This is Max Latin."

"Latin! Lieutenant Latin! Well, throw me down and stomp on my face!"

"Not Lieutenant anymore, Happy."

"Hell's fire, Latin! You didn't let 'em catch you, did you? You don't mean to tell me that after you dodged the police for ten years, you'd let a bunch of Army rumdumbs put the old who's-that on you? You ain't going to get shot at sunrise or anything, are you, Latin?"

"I hope not," said Latin. "But you never can tell. Listen, Happy, I'd like to get in touch with those two birds who were indicted for that torch-torture murder six months back. I want them to do a little job with me."

"Oh, no," said Happy unhappily. "Not them two."

"Yeah."

"No, Latin. Them two are very uncivilized. Honest, you wouldn't like 'em at all."

"A hundred bucks apiece," said Latin. "For one little job that won't take an hour."

"Latin," said Happy, "them two ain't nice people. I give you my word. You know how they are, don't you?"

"That's why I want them."

"I don't like this, Latin. I advise you against it."

"Send them over," Latin ordered. "Send that black Buick coupe over, too. Get them here as fast as you can."

"Oh, Latin," said Happy. "Oh, my! I hope you ain't gonna be as sorry as I think you're gonna be."


LATIN sat and waited for an hour. He used up a full package of cigarettes and finally drank the rest of his bottle of brandy. He decided he would have some more cigarettes and some more brandy, too, and he opened his mouth to shout for some and then closed it again.

"How do you do?" said the young man who was watching him from over the top of the next booth.

"All right," said Latin.

The young man smiled at him. He could—and did—smile very nicely. He had incredibly regular teeth and a thin, pencil-line black mustache and a tan that spelled a lot of money, or Palm Beach, or perhaps both. He was wearing a hat with a feather in it and a belted, swingback suit with padded shoulders. He came off his perch and slid into the seat opposite Latin.

"You're Max Latin, aren't you?" he asked. "I think it's thrilling to meet you, and I'm doubly flattered that you asked for us."

"Where's the rest of us?" Latin asked.

"Oh, you mean Raymond? He's in the kitchen, of course. You see, we weren't sure about you. I mean, that horrible grand jury indicted us for some stupid murder or other, and we just can't take any chances.... My name is René, by the way."

"How do you do, René?" Latin said soberly.

"It's such a pleasure to know you.... Oh, here's Raymond now.... Raymond, I know you didn't find anything in the kitchen that was at all suspicious, and I've been having a very nice chat with Mr. Latin.... May I present Raymond, Mr. Latin?"

"How do you do, Raymond?" said Latin.

Raymond was small and sleek and blond. He looked exactly like René except that his mustache was light and the feather in his hat was a different color.

"No cops," said Raymond. "No hide-outs."

"That's nice," said René. "I was sure we wouldn't have to deal with that sort of thing—not with a person of Mr. Latin's integrity."

"A dictaphone," said Raymond.

"Oh, dear," said René. "Not really."

Latin had both his hands spread flat on the table. "Behind the drape," he said, jerking his head toward the end of the booth. "I use it for evidence when I need witnesses. It's not turned on now—I don't think."

"You look, Raymond," René said.

Raymond leaned over and pulled the drape aside. The microphone of the dictaphone made a bright, metallic circle. There was a slide switch on the cord above it, and Raymond tested it with his thumb, snapping his nail against the microphone and listening expertly.

"It's off now," he said. "It was off while we were talking."

"Well, of course it was," said René. "Mr. Latin trusts us, and we trust Mr. Latin. There was a price mentioned for our services, Mr. Latin. It was two hundred dollars."

Latin smiled thinly. "It's in my wallet."

"Of course," said René. "And you carry your wallet in your—inside pocket of your coat, don't you?"

"My God," said Latin.

René smiled at him. "You won't mind, I'm sure, if Raymond extracts it from your coat?"

"Oh yes, I will," said Latin flatly.

"Of course," said René. "Surely. We haven't had the good fortune to deal with men of your caliber lately. That grand jury.... Really so annoying.... It's just a formality, Mr. Latin, but may we see the money?"

Moving very slowly and carefully, Latin took out his wallet and counted out twenty ten-dollar bills. He had four left—in his wallet. René and Raymond watched him put them back in the bill pocket.

"Yes," said René thoughtfully.

"Yes," Latin echoed. "Are you going to sign up for me or agin me?"

René laughed musically. "For you, of course. You mustn't be suspicious of us, Mr. Latin. We are very loyal—indeed."

"Indeed, you'd better be," said Latin.

"How can we serve you?" René asked.

"Sure," said Raymond. "Name it."

"A small piece of change for you boys," said Latin. "I want a girl scared, and badly. She doesn't scare easy. She's a newspaper girl and sort of tough-like. Her name is Gertrude Glenn, and she runs a newspaper on the fourth floor at 411 Court Street."

René looked at Raymond and laughed.

"What's funny?" Latin demanded.

"Nothing," said René. "Really. It's awfully quick and easy money, that's all."

"Wait until you earn it."

"Surely," said René. "If we take it, we'll earn it. We don't cheat. How badly do you want her hurt?"

"Not at all," said Latin.

"Oh, now," said René. "We've been so delightfully open and aboveboard about all this, and it's your restaurant and your dictaphone...."

"I'm going with you."

"Oh, dear," said René.

"No," said Raymond.

Latin pulled the stacked bills toward him.

René laughed, delighted. "Of course, Mr. Latin. You're going with us, and you're the—ah—boss. You want this dear girl frightened. We will certainly do our best."

"No shooting," said Latin. "No knives."

René looked shocked. "Why, of course not."


CHAPTER III — SINISTER INTERVIEW

THE building at 411 Court Street had housed a bank on its ground floor in its better days, but now the bank's premises were occupied by a bicycle repair shop, which might have been a sign of the trend of the times. The building was constructed of red brick, four-stories high, and it had an air of battered but grim defiance of the elements and the years.

Latin rolled the Buick coupe into the graveled parking lot beside it, and Raymond got out of the car immediately and headed back through the lot.

"Hey!" said Latin. "Not that way."

"It's all right, really," said René. "He'll meet us upstairs in Miss Glenn's office."

Latin got out of the coupe. "Do you always go in places that way? One in the back and one in the front?"

René nodded. "We find it so much more convenient."

He and Latin went around to the front of the building and into a narrow, tiled lobby that had formerly been the foyer of the bank. There was one elevator, and the operator was sitting on a stool beside it picking his teeth disconsolately with a match. He was an old man dressed in baggy blue coveralls.

"Goin' up?" he asked, sighing.

Latin nodded. "Four, please."

"Ain't nothin' up there but that there durned newspaper for defense workers."

"O.K.," said Latin, getting in the elevator.

"They don't want to buy nothin'," said the operator.

"Up," said Latin.

The operator sighed and got off his stool. He closed the elevator door with a clang, and the cage wheezed slowly upward, trembling as though it had palsy. It stopped a foot short of the floor, and the operator opened the door.

"You'll just get throwed out, but I ain't gonna wait for you."

He slammed the door behind them, and René and Latin went down the dim, straight corridor toward the double frosted-glass doors facing them. One of the doors bore the legend:


DEFEND OUR WORLD

and the other:

EDITORIAL OFFICES—ENTER


Latin opened that door, and he and René stepped into a long narrow office with a long table piled high with newspapers against one wall and a straight bench against the opposite one. There was a railing at the back, and behind it a very small, thin girl with thick, horn-rimmed spectacles was pounding frantically on a typewriter. A man was sitting on the bench with a newspaper in front of his face.

"Oh, Raymond," said René. "You should be more careful. That newspaper is upside down."

Raymond folded the paper and dropped it on the floor. "It's lousy any way you look at it," he said. "There's just the two dames here. This one and the one in the office in back. There's no interoffice speaker. The one in back buzzes the one in front when she wants her. There are no other occupied offices on this floor."


THE small girl had stopped typing and was staring at the three of them with her mouth slightly open. "Is—is there anything you wanted?" she asked in a faint voice.

"Yes," said René, going through the gate in the railing. "Isn't it nice of you to ask? What's your name, my dear?"

"It's—it's Lucy. What do you want?"

"We want to interview your employer. It's most important, Lucy."

Lucy started to edge out of her chair. "I'll tell her...."

"No, you won't," said René, smiling. "We're going to give her a lovely surprise."

"You can't—go in."

René chucked her under the chin. "Now, Lucy."

"She's going to scream," said Raymond. "You'd better choke her a little bit."

"Oh, no," said René. "That wouldn't be nice. And Lucy is going to cooperate with us, aren't you, Lucy?"

Lucy made little wordless noises.

"Of course," said René. "Now just get up, my dear. And open the door of the private office. Right there. That's it, my dear. And just step in ahead of me...."

Latin slid in through the doorway behind them into a huge, square, barren office with a big desk in the middle of it and papers and parts of papers and snipped out articles spread all over the floor. There was a scummy jar of paste on top of the desk, and the woman behind it was stirring it absently with the eraser end of a lead pencil.

"Beat it, Lucy," she said, without looking up. "I'm thinking."

"May we watch you?" René asked. "It'll be so interesting for us. We've never seen anyone think."

The woman's head jerked up, and a lock of her metallically yellow hair fell over one eye. She was big, but she was gracefully big, and not fat. She was wearing a green dress that had spots on it that weren't all put there by the pattern-maker. Her arms were bare, and they were firm and rounded and faintly tanned. Her eyes were narrowed and brown and humorously tolerant, and she had a peaches-and-cream complexion that she hadn't bought in a beauty shop.

She smiled slowly and calmly and then nodded and said: "Hi, chums."

Lucy said: "Miss Glenn, I—I tried to keep them out, but—but—"

"It's O.K., kid," said Gertrude Glenn. "Who's the end man for this minstrel show, boys?"

"The name is Latin," Latin said. "Max Latin."

"I've seen it," said Gertrude Glenn. "In police records. What can I do for you, chiseler?"

"Miss Glenn!" Lucy broke in breathlessly. "The other two! When I saw them together—I recognized.... They're the torch murderers!"

Gertrude Glenn looked from René to Raymond and then back again. She wasn't smiling now.

"They are!" Lucy babbled. "Their pictures were in all the papers! They're the ones who b-burned that old lady's feet to make her tell them where she had hidden her money!"

"Yeah," said Gertrude Glenn slowly.

Lucy gulped. "And when she wouldn't tell them, they threw gasoline on her and s-set fire to her!"

"Just a newspaper exaggeration," said René pleasantly. "It was a case of mistaken identity. We were acquitted at once, you know."

"You wouldn't have liked the old doll, anyway," said Raymond. "She kept parrots and poodles."

"Or so you've been told," said René.

Raymond nodded. "Sure."

Gertrude Glenn's face had paled slightly. "I don't like this, Latin. What did you bring these two here for?"

"To take a look at you," said Latin.

"It's been a pleasure, too," said René.

"What do you want?" Gertrude Glenn demanded.

Latin said: "Lay off Gregory Farmer. Entirely off. Don't mention him again in your paper."

Gertrude Glenn didn't show any surprise, but her full lips thinned just slightly. "And if I do mention him?"

René sat down on the corner of the desk, swinging one leg gracefully. There was a snap, and he was holding a burning match between his thumb and forefinger. He stared at Gertrude Glenn over the flame, smiling. When the match had burned down near his fingers, he dropped the end into the paste pot, and it went out with a sputtering hiss. A thin spiral of smoke curled upward.

"Get it?" Raymond asked.

Gertrude Glenn nodded stiffly.

"Remember it," said Latin.

"Oh, I'll remember it," said Gertrude Glenn.

"Let's go, boys," said Latin.

"You and I will," said René. "Raymond will stay here for just a second."

"No funny business," said Latin.

"Oh, dear me, no," said René. "You heard what Mr. Latin said, Raymond."

"I got ears," said Raymond.


RENÉ and Latin went out through the front office and down the corridor to the elevator. Latin rang the bell, and the grill opened at once.

"I told you I wasn't gonna wait," said the operator, "but I did. I knew you'd get throwed right out. That Miss Glenn is a mighty handsome woman and nice, too, but she can sure be hard- boiled. Did she take a poke at you?"

"No," said Latin. Then he added thoughtfully: "Not yet."

"She's very interesting," said René. "I'll be looking forward to any further business dealings with her."

"Don't get ideas, son," Latin said flatly. "This is where you two bow out. Just remember that I'm not an old lady and that I keep gadgets around that bite a little deeper than poodles or parrots."

"Mr. Latin," said René. "Please. You can rely on us. We are much too clever to want trouble with you."

They walked out of the building and around to the parking lot. Raymond was sitting in the Buick coupe, waiting for them.

Latin said: "I'll leave you here. Take the Buick back to Happy's Garage and leave it there."

"Good-bye, Mr. Latin," said René. "Thank you for calling us. It has been a very great pleasure to meet you. Hasn't it, Raymond?"

Raymond yawned. "Oh, sure."

René slid under the wheel, and the Buick rolled smoothly out of the parking lot and down the street. Latin stood staring after it for a second and then shrugged his shoulders with an uneasy little jerk and started along the street the other way, looking for a taxi.


WHEN Latin came into the restaurant through the back door, Guiterrez was sitting on his stool behind the check desk again. He had chewed his original pencil completely up and was well started on a second. The discarded paper under the desk resembled a lopsided snow drift.

"Look here, Latin," he said belligerently. "Just hold still for a moment while I give you some facts."

"All right," said Latin. "What?"

"Them two guys that come here. That René and Raymond. Them torch murderers. Them two fellas is awful. They made a bonfire of that poor old dame. I don't mind so much them other crumbs you pal around. Even cops I can take in small doses. But at torch murderers, I draw the line. I'd as soon have Hitler and Hirohito kicking around my kitchen."

"They won't bother you anymore."

"That's what you say, and this time you better not be lying. I tell you, with them guys and me it is strictly nix. They give me the creepies. And say, there's a guy that's called you sixty-five times in the last half hour."

Dick came into the kitchen. "He's at it again, too. He sure sounds like he's in pain. Where'll you take it, Latin?"

"In the booth," said Latin.

He went into the empty front room of the restaurant and sat down in his booth. Dick brought the portable telephone, and Latin plugged it in.

"Yes?" he said.

The voice on the wire was high-pitched and almost incoherent with frantic anger. "Now you're not going to stall me off any longer! I want to talk to Max Latin!"

"You are," said Latin.

"What? Is this Max Latin? Well, what in God's name do you think you're doing?"

"Wasting my time," said Latin. "Good-bye."

"Wait! Latin! Don't you dare hang up on me! This is Gregory Farmer!"

"Never heard of you," said Latin.

"Oh, yes you have! There's no use lying! My wife confessed to me that she hired you to frighten Gertrude Glenn! Oh, she's a fool and a simpleton and an interfering busybody, and you're nothing less than a criminal! I'm going to have you arrested!"

"Go ahead," said Latin amiably.

"Oh, for God's sake, Latin! Will you listen to reason for a moment? My wife and you, between the two of you, have just made a complete mess of everything!"

"Is that so?" said Latin, mildly interested. "How?"

"I had everything arranged until you blundered into it with your stupid threats of force! You fool, don't you understand that I'm a respectable businessman? I suppose you've never dealt with anyone like that!"

"Oh, you'd be surprised," said Latin. "But what's the beef?"

Farmer made gulping sounds that were audible even over the telephone. "I will not stand for any such activities as you've been engaging in! I want you to drop the case! Get out! Leave it alone! Just forget it!"

"I couldn't do that," Latin said. "My conscience would bother me. I've been retained."

Farmer shouted: "You've been retained! You—you— Can't you see the horrible position this puts me in? As though I would countenance the use of threats of force against a woman! As though I would hire murderers.... Oh, this is ghastly!"

"Well, of course," said Latin, "if you really don't want me to handle the case, I could bow out if I were compensated for all my time and thought...."

"Compensated!"

"Bribed, I mean," Latin explained.

"Why, you—you incredibly insolent.... Oh, all right! All—right! How much?"

"A thousand dollars would make me very happy."

"What! A thousand dollars!"

"Or even two," said Latin.


FARMER made hoarse, breathing sounds over the telephone. "One thousand! It's agreed. You're to leave this business alone—completely alone! You're not to meddle in it in any way! You're not to communicate with my wife! Do you understand all that?"

"Sure. Get the thousand in hundred dollar bills. Take the numbers down if it'll make you happy. Put the bills in a plain envelope and send it by messenger to the restaurant here. Have the messenger give it to my headwaiter. His name is Dick."

"How well you arrange these matters!"

"I've had practice," Latin assured him. "There's a tag on my offer. I want you to answer two questions. How did you find out about your wife hiring me?"

"Through Gertrude Glenn, of course! She called me up and told me just what you'd done and just what she was going to do about it."

"Is that so?" said Latin. "And what was she going to do about it?"

"You'll find out," said Farmer grimly.

"Probably," Latin agreed. "And now, how did you arrange to have her stop picking at you before I stepped into the picture? You said you had."

"I don't know whether it applies anymore or not! I arranged it in the obvious and honest manner—a way that would never occur to you. I've succeeded in getting a supply of the materials I needed. Now I can meet the production schedule the government has assigned me, and naturally there won't be any reason for Miss Glenn to criticize me anymore. That is, unless you have succeeded in making her so angry that she will do it anyway."

"Yeah," said Latin absently. "How did you arrange to get a supply of those materials?"

"That's none of your damned business!" The line cracked sharply as Farmer hung up.

Dick was leaning against the back of the booth. "Did I hear something about a thousand dollars?"

Latin nodded absently, scratching his ear.

"I got to hand it to you, Latin," said Dick. "I sometimes think I am a little on the immoral side myself, but you pass me so fast it gives me chilblains. It's a pleasure to watch you work. After this day's labor, I think you better prime yourself with a bit of brandy." He took a bottle and a glass from under his apron and put them down on the table.

"I'm not through yet," said Latin. He took out his billfold and withdrew the card Mrs. Farmer had given him. It had a telephone number on it, and he dialed the number.

The phone at the other end rang twice, and then a coldly formal voice said: "This is the Gregory Farmer residence."

"May I speak to Mrs. Farmer, please?" Latin asked.

"Mrs. Farmer is indisposed."

"Just tell her that Max Latin is calling. I think she'll want to talk to me."

"One moment, please."


THERE was a long pause, and then Mrs. Farmer gasped in a choked, thick voice: "Oh, Mr. Latin! Oh, dear!"

"Hello, Mrs. Farmer," Latin said. "Is there something the trouble?"

"Oh! Mr. Latin, Gregory is just furious at me! He n-never talked to me like that in all the years we've been married! He swore!"

"I can't imagine it," said Latin. "Why would he act in such a wicked way?"

"He said I had s-spoiled everything he had arranged about—about that Gertrude Glenn. He said he was going to increase his pro-production at the factory and she wouldn't have s-said those things about him anymore, but now perhaps she w- would because you had made her so angry! Mr. Latin, what will I do? You don't—don't think Gregory will leave me, do you?"

"No," said Latin judicially.

"Oh, if he did, I'd just die! I'd just die! I just couldn't stand living without Gregory!"

"Did he tell you how he was going to increase his production?"

"What? Oh, Mr. Latin, how can you talk about things like that when my whole marriage is at stake? Of course he didn't tell me! He knows I don't understand about business. All I do is just make him happy and give him a perfect, comfortable home and—and now maybe he won't even want me to!"

"Don't be downhearted," Latin advised. "I'm on your side, you know."

"No! No, no! Please, Mr. Latin! Don't do anything more! Don't say anything to Gregory! Oh, please!"

"All right, Mrs. Farmer," Latin said, with a little sigh. "Forget it. And good luck."

He hung up.

Dick was still leaning against the side of the booth. "Why didn't you put the bite on her—make her pay you for quitting like you did the old man?"

Latin shrugged. "I'm slipping."

Dick nodded. "She is a nice dame. I bet she clucks around after that husband of hers like a mother hen. Yeah, I guess we can get along without any more of her dough. It's too much like stealing pennies from a blind man."

The telephone buzzed.

Latin picked it up and said: "Latin speaking."

"This is Happy, Latin. My God, get over here, right away! Quick!"

"Sure, Happy," Latin said. "Hold everything. I'm on my way." He dropped the telephone back on its cradle and jerked his head at Dick. "Go out and whistle for Dude's cab. If he isn't at the stand, nail another cab if you have to roll in the street in front of it. Hurry!"

Dick took one startled look at his face and ran for the front door.

"Guiterrez!" Latin yelled.

Guiterrez poked his head through the swing door. "Now what the hell...."

"Get me a gun," Latin said. "Right now."

Guiterrez disappeared instantly.

Dick came back to the booth. "Dude's on his way."

Guiterrez popped through the swing door. He was carrying a flat Colt .32 automatic and an extra magazine in one hand and a pink slip of paper in the other.

"Here. Here's the license for it."

Latin slid out of the booth. He dropped the magazine and the license in his left-hand coat pocket and the gun in his right.

"Your hat," said Dick, handing it to him. "What is it, Latin?"

"Happy's having trouble."

"It's them two damned torch murderers!" Guiterrez shouted. "I told you! I warned you!"

Latin was headed for the front of the restaurant.

"Latin!" Guiterrez said, his voice suddenly shaky. "Be careful, will you please, you damned fool? Don't tackle them two birds—"

Latin slammed the restaurant door behind him just as a battered green cab rolled up at the curb. The driver had a long, exotically bent nose and a grin that showed that all of his upper front teeth were missing.

"Hi, keed!" he greeted. "Hey, how's my old Army gettin' along—"

"No time, Dude," Latin said, ducking into the backseat. "High- flag it. And burn some rubber. Happy's Garage."

"Hold your hat, baby," said Dude.


CHAPTER IV — INVISIBLE KILLER

HAPPY'S GARAGE was in the commercial district at the lower end of Flandin Street. There were no houses along these blocks, except a few stray tenements that hadn't yet been crowded out. Warehouses and machine shops and bottling plants lined up in long, dreary rows with the vacant lots between them grown high with dried, soot-heavy weeds. The air rumbled and thundered uneasily with the roar of trucks and the constant pound- pound of heavy machinery.

"Park in front across the street," Latin said. "And keep awake. I might want to go away fast."

"Yeah man," said Dude amiably.

He swung around in a U-turn and nosed the cab in against the curb. Latin got out and walked quickly across the street. Happy's Garage was a narrow, low building constructed of whitewashed bricks with soot streaked down from its eaves like jagged black icicles.

Latin walked down the cement ramp into the long, shadowy interior. The air was heavy with the odor of gas fumes and the sharp, thin smell of auto paint. There was no one in sight anywhere.

"Happy!" Latin called.

Happy came out through the whitewashed door at one side. He was short and very round, and he wore a pair of white coveralls with the name "Happy" stitched across the chest in red tape. His plump face was a sickly yellow now, and his blue eyes looked round and wide and worried.

He didn't say anything. He beckoned silently with his forefinger and indicated the whitewashed door. Latin followed him through it into a little cubbyhole of an office furnished only with an old desk, a water cooler, and a couch that had once been the backseat of an automobile.

René was sitting on the couch. He wasn't wearing his hat, and his smooth hair was rumpled stickily. He was bent forward, holding both hands on his abdomen, staring at the floor between his neat shoes. He looked up at Latin and smiled in a painful, strained grimace. There was blood on his teeth. He looked down again at the floor. He was breathing in short gasps.

Latin looked at Happy. Happy punched himself once in the stomach and once in the chest with his thumb and then held up two fingers and shrugged meaningly.

"Did you call a doctor?" Latin asked.

René grunted and then said thickly: "No. No doctor."

Happy formed words silently with his lips. "No use."

Latin drew a deep breath. "What happened?"

"I was under a car in the back end," Happy said. "I hear these shots, but I don't think nothing of it. They got a lot of new kid truck drivers around here who like to pull the spark and blast their engines and play like they're a machine gun or a dive bomber or something. Then the Buick rolls in the garage and smacks a parked car, and this one gets out of it."

"Where's Raymond?"

Happy took a piece of wastepaper from his hip pocket and wiped his forehead. "He got one right between the eyes. I parked the Buick in the back of the garage. He's in it yet."

"Can you talk, René?" Latin inquired softly.

René bent a little further forward. "Caught us just as I was—turning into the garage. Not close to us. Didn't see anyone. Several shots—very close together." He looked up at Latin, his eyes horribly dilated. "Oh, isn't this disgusting!"

He leaned forward and kept on leaning until he fell off the couch. Latin and Happy both jumped to catch him, but he slid limply through their hands and rolled on his side on the floor, his eyes wide open and staring. Latin knelt beside him and felt his pulse.

"Dead," he said, standing up.

"He's been dead for twenty minutes," said Happy. "He just now found it out. Hell, he was hit twice right dead center. The guy that shot 'em was usin' a rifle, Latin. The bullets went clear though the Buick end-for-end. I can't patch holes like that, and besides, the upholstery is full of blood and brains."


LATIN took out the folded bills he had gotten from Mrs. Farmer and put them on the desk. "Better run the car out in the country and set fire to it. I'm certainly cleaning up money fast on this deal. I should have paid some attention to what you said."

"Well, hell," said Happy. "I ain't always so smart about these matters."

"Can you get rid of these two?"

"Yeah. I'll dump 'em somewhere. They can't trace the Buick back to me. Even if they do, I can prove I rented it out. I'll cover you."

"I won't forget it," said Latin.

"What was the deal?" Happy asked. "What did you want these birds for? Like I said, they ain't civilized. They really did set fire to that old dame, you know. They got off because there was six women on the jury. René and Raymond could look real sweet and mild and innocent if they wanted, and the dames figured such nice, well-bred boys wouldn't commit such a horrible crime. It ain't the first time they got off on that gag, either."

Latin said slowly: "There's a little blat of a newspaper giving the hotfoot to a guy, and his wife wanted me to throw a scare into the editor. The editor is a woman. I figured René and Raymond would really give her a fright and without getting rough about it. I didn't want to push her around or anything."

"Did they scare her?" Happy inquired.

Latin jerked his head to indicate René's body. "It doesn't look much like it, does it?"

Happy blinked. "You don't mean you think the dame—the editor—took this whack at 'em?"

"I think she had a finger in the pie. I must be getting soft in the head. I botched this whole thing. I had plenty of warning, too. I was told she didn't scare and that she could be plenty tough—so I went right ahead anyway. I couldn't wait to investigate. I had to poke my neck out."

"You better pull it in again," said Happy. "You better sign a non-aggression pact with this editor."

Latin nodded absently. "Yeah."

Happy was watching him. "What's on your mind, Latin?"

"The more I think about this, the more I think I stepped into something speedy. I believe I'll just look around a bit here and there."

"I'd make it there, if I was you," said Happy. "I'd make it a long ways away from here."

Latin pointed toward René. "How soon can you get rid of this and the other?"

"Couple hours, unless you don't want 'em found. If you want 'em dumped in the bay, I got to wait until night."

"I think they'd better be found. Clean up things as soon as you can, because if I make any slips somebody might come around to see you. Did those shots raise any commotion around here?"

"Naw. Like I said, there's so much backfiring and pounding and noise on the street it would take an invasion to make people notice anything. I mean, maybe they might look out the front door or something, but they wouldn't be very curious. I didn't see nobody prowling around."

"O.K. I'll see you later. Thanks, Happy."

"Service with a smile," said Happy, winking.


LATIN went out of the office and up the ramp to the garage entrance. Dude was sitting in his taxi across the street, watching, and Latin flipped a hand at him reassuringly. He waited for a truck to rumble past and then started across toward the taxi.

He was in the middle of the paving when the first bullet knocked his hat off and the second went past his face so close that he could feel the hot sinister breath of its passage. He dropped on his knees and then sprawled flat on his face. Another bullet drove a long gouge in the asphalt beside him, and a fourth hit six inches closer to him and screamed away in a ricochet.

Latin rolled frantically, threshing his arms and legs. He hit the curb and heaved up to his hands and knees. Another bullet made a leaden-silvery smear on the sidewalk in front of him. Latin lunged head-down for the garage door, and just before he got there a bullet hit one of the end bricks and crumbled it into dust.

Latin dove into the gloom of the garage. Happy's face was a pale, scared circle staring at him.

"My G-God, Latin," said Happy.

Latin moved sideways until he was in the shelter of the thick brick wall. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his face. His hands were shaking.

"Talk about your nerve!" said Happy, getting control of himself. "That guy just lay there and waited after he blew at René and Raymond. He wanted to see was we gonna call the cops or rouse the neighborhood or something. When we didn't, he just blasted at you. You don't claim a dame would play tricks like that, do you, Latin?"

"No," said Latin. He coughed and swallowed hard. "No. Whoever it was didn't know me. They weren't sure it was me when I arrived. But they knew you'd call me, and when the taxi waited and I stayed quite a while and no one else came...."

"Blooie-blooie," Happy finished. "Well, where is that guy hangin' out is what I want to know? I don't want him takin' potshots at me."

"I didn't even hear the shots," said Latin.

"You was busy, pal. I heard 'em. They was a little muffled, but they was there. Hey, your taxi driver is gone."

"I wouldn't wonder," said Latin.

He moved closer to the door and peered out cautiously. Apparently the shots had caused no excitement. Two heavy trucks thundered past, and then a man came out of the lock shop across the street and looked both ways, squinting under his palm. He saw Latin and called: "Hey! Did you hear some shots?"

"No," said Latin.

"It was them damned trucks again," said the man. "Them kid drivers do it on purpose. I'm gettin' tired of it. I'm gonna complain to the police, that's what."

He went back in his shop and slammed the door. Feet made a little shuffling sound at the back of the garage. Latin jumped sideways and ducked behind the hood of a parked car. Happy dodged back inside his office.

Latin waited, breathing silently through his open mouth. He had the Colt .32 balanced in his right hand, ready for a snapshot.

"Hey, Latin," Dude said.

Latin rose slowly from behind the car. "You'd better yip a little sooner next time. I'm nervous."

"Ha!" said Dude. "Are you nervous! I never see such a fancy dance as you just did in the street. Say, do you know what that was?"

"I had an idea that was someone shooting at me."

"Oh, sure," said Dude. "I mean you know what they was shootin' with?"

Happy came cautiously out of his office. He was carrying a sawed-off shotgun under his arm, and he sighed with relief when he saw Dude.

"What were they shooting with?" Latin asked.

"An Army rifle. I recognized the sound right away. Only this wasn't no Springfield. This was one of them new Garands. Automatic-like. Just pull the trigger and aim, only this bird didn't aim good."

"Pretty good, I think," Latin contradicted.

"Naw. He shoots at your head. That's bad when you're shootin' at over a hundred yards at an angle and the other guy is movin'. If it hadda been me, I woulda shot at your belly, and I woulda hit it, too."

"Do you know where he was?" Latin demanded.

"Sure. I spot him right away. He is upstairs in that empty warehouse down by the corner. He shoots down over the roof of the next building. I don't want to argue with this baby, but I think I maybe better get a look at him to see who he is—in case you wanta know—so I bust down the alley and circle around. He moves too fast, though. He's gone. But I catch a kid that sees him, and this kid says he is a tall guy with dark glasses and a golf bag. The rifle is in the golf bag, I bet. Anyway, this guy drives a black Ford coupe that is nice and shiny. The kid naturally don't get the license number, but there it is for what it's worth."

"Thanks, Dude," said Latin.

"Is this party a friend of yours, Latin?"

"No," said Latin.

"Then you better hunt him up and sort of have a word or two with him."

"I had that in mind," said Latin. "I guess it's safe to move out now, if the guy is gone. Come on, Dude. I'll be seeing you, Happy."

"I hope so, Latin," said Happy. "I sure hope you'll be seeing me when we meet the next time and that I won't just be seeing you—on a slab."


THE restaurant was open for business now and there were quite a few customers—nearly all of them men—seated at the crowded tables, eating and arguing noisily. Latin came in through the front door and stopped at the cashier's desk. He took a fifty-cent piece out of his pocket and rapped twice with it on the top of the glass counter.

Dick appeared at his elbow. "What, chum?"

"Get these people out of here," said Latin.

"Hey, listen!" Dick protested. "These guys is all vice presidents and stooges like that—the ones that can afford to take a long lunch and pay for it. They're good customers."

"Get them out," Latin said. "And lock the doors. We may be having some trouble pretty quick. Dude's out in back. Tell Guiterrez to feed him."

Dick shrugged. "O.K., mastermind."

Latin went back and sat down in his booth. He paid no attention to Dick's maneuvers or the protests of the partially fed customers. He was still sitting there, staring blankly at the empty table in front of him, when Guiterrez and Dick stopped beside the booth.

"Latin," said Guiterrez. "Dude tells me that somebody took a whack at you with a rifle."

"Dude talks too much," said Latin.

"Sure," Guiterrez agreed. "But what about them two torch butchers—René and Raymond?"

"Kaput," said Latin. "They got liquidated."

"Same guy?" Dick asked.

"Yeah."

"Who?" Guiterrez inquired.

"It's funny," said Latin. "I know his name as well as I do my own. It's right on the tip of my tongue, but I just can't think of it at the moment."

"Now don't get nasty," said Guiterrez. "I was only asking. Do you know they still got a police department in this town?"

"So what?" said Latin.

"So a pal of yours was in to look you over. Inspector Walters from Homicide."

Latin looked up quickly. "When?"

"One seventeen to one forty-one," said Dick.

"Did you tell him I wasn't here?"

"He didn't ask," said Guiterrez. "He looked. He knows you wasn't here."

"Hell," said Latin. "That shoots it. I thought I had an alibi for about that time if I needed it. Dick, go bring me the telephone."

Guiterrez said slowly: "Latin, I been thinking."

"Do tell," said Latin.

"You're sure sharp these days. I mean, I been thinking about this rifle-shooting business. I can't think of nobody who would take a crack at you—and miss. If they knew you at all, they'd know you'd never stand still for that. If they shot at you, they'd make damned sure they hit you someplace fatal. They'd know that if they missed you'd hunt 'em down if it took you fifty years, on account of you're so damned mean."

"Why don't you go bake a cake?" Latin asked.

"All right. But I figure it must be somebody that's cracked or some stranger in town. Now there's a clue for you."

"Goody-goody," said Latin sourly. "I'll put it under my pillow and sleep on it. Scram."

"I sure wish you'd stayed in the Army," said Guiterrez, going back into the kitchen.


DICK brought the telephone. "There's a guy on the wire here, Latin. He talks like he's been eating soap. Do you want to speak to him, or shall I cut him off at the switch?"

"I'll talk to him." Latin plugged in the telephone and lifted the mouthpiece from its cradle. "Yes? This is Max Latin speaking."

"Ah, Mr. Latin." The voice was sonorous and smooth, and its owner rolled out his syllables as though he were tasting each one and enjoying it. "My name is Preston—Jasper Preston."

"I believe you," said Latin.

"I'd like very much to talk to you, Mr. Latin. My office is at 540 Court Street. Drop around."

"Why?" Latin asked. "I'm busy now."

"Not nearly as busy as you will be if you don't come and see me."

"Oh," said Latin. "I get it. Could you tell me what it is you want to talk about?"

"About a newspaper called Defend Our World."

"That's a coincidence," Latin remarked. "I was just thinking about the paper. What connection have you with it?"

"I own it."

"Well," said Latin, "that's news. You said your name was Preston? Do you do anything else besides own Defend Our World?"

"Of course, Mr. Latin. It is only one of my minor interests. I am a priorities promoter."

"A what?" Latin inquired.

"A priorities promoter. I advise people—businessmen and manufacturers—who find it difficult to obtain strategically scarce goods or commodities. I'm an expert on rationing and such matters."

"I'll come over and see you," Latin promised.

"I'd advise it—and soon. Good-bye, Mr. Latin."

Latin put the telephone down and nodded at Dick in a surprised and thoughtful way. "Get me the directory."

Dick brought it to him, and Latin thumbed through the leaves until he located the number he wanted. He picked up the telephone and dialed. After a moment a polite voice said: "This is the Bay City Chemical Products."

"May I speak to Mr. Gregory Farmer, please?" Latin asked.

There was a click, and then another voice said: "This is the main office."

"May I speak to Gregory Farmer?" Latin repeated.

There was another click, and then a third voice said: "This is Mr. Farmer's secretary. May I help you?"

"I'd like to talk to Mr. Farmer. This is Max Latin speaking."

"Mr. Farmer is on an inspection tour of the plant just now. He'll be in shortly. Will you call again?"

"Wait a minute," said Latin. "Maybe you can help me. Mr. Farmer has had some recent business dealings with a man named Jasper Preston, hasn't he?"

"No, he hasn't," said the voice instantly.

"Thanks," said Latin. He replaced the telephone and winked at Dick. "I think maybe we've got something."

"What?" Dick asked skeptically.

"Suppose there was a newspaper that circulated among defense plants and defense workers. Now naturally, just in the course of events, you'd put in something now and then about how things were going. No figures, of course. Just in general. Some plant was doing all right—some plant not so good. In fact, if you wanted to, you could needle a plant owner plenty about how he was running things—especially if he wasn't producing the amount he was supposed to be. And you'd want to if you owned the newspaper and were a priorities juggler. In fact, if you needled the guy enough you might give him the idea that he'd better come around and see you about getting the proper amount of raw materials."

Dick shook his head. "Nobody could promise to get you raw materials if there ain't enough to go around."

"You could promise," Latin contradicted.

"It don't seem to me that would be honest," said Dick.

Latin nodded. "I think you've got something there. Keep your eye out for a guy with an envelope. I'm going to drop down to Court Street and prowl around a bit."

"Don't walk across any rifle ranges," Dick advised.


CHAPTER V — MAN-TRAP

THE building at 540 Court Street was in much better shape than the one further up the street that housed Defend Our World. It was larger, and it had an air of dignified prosperity, and the elevator attendant was a brisk young man in a snappy blue uniform. He jumped to attention when Latin appeared and said: "May I help you, sir?"

"I was looking for Jasper Preston," Latin said.

The attendant bowed. "Step right in."

He took Latin up to the third floor, opened the door with impressive courtesy, and said: "It's Number 203. First door on your left."

"Thanks," said Latin.

The door he had indicated had nothing on it except the numeral itself—not even a name. Latin opened it and went into a very small, very neatly furnished office with appropriately blended deep green drapes and carpet. There was a blonde girl behind the shiny desk in the corner. She had a very frank, very pleasant smile.

"May I help you, sir?" she asked.

Latin nodded. "My name is Latin. I wanted to see Mr. Jasper Preston."

"Certainly. Wait just one moment, please."

She went through a door at the side and then came back out again almost immediately.

"He'll see you now, Mr. Latin. Step right in, please."

Latin walked slowly into another office. It was as small and as nicely furnished as the outer one. A man with red, smooth hair and very nice teeth sat behind the big, flat desk facing the door. He indicated the leather-cushioned chair in front of the desk and said: "Won't you sit down, Mr. Latin?"

The door into the outer office closed behind Latin, and he sat down cautiously in the chair.

"It was nice of you to drop in," said the red-haired man.

"Yeah," said Latin absently. He drew a deep breath and then smiled suddenly. "Say, I've got an important phone call to make. I just remembered it this moment. It's rather private, or I'd call from here. But it'll only take me a second. If you'll just excuse me, I'll be right back...."

He got up out of the chair and started for the door.

"The door is locked," said the red-haired man. "And you're not going anywhere. Sit down."


LATIN sat down again, looking disgusted. "It's getting so you can't turn around anymore, without falling over a fed."

"My name is Brighton," said the red-haired man. "And I'm from the Department of Justice. But I'm very interested in finding out how you knew that."

Latin shrugged. "The elevator operator and the secretary looked a little too good to be true, and you don't look like Preston sounds over the telephone. When you've been around about so long, you get so you can smell copper. You're no cop from this neck of the woods, and you look smart, so I figured you'd be some sort of a federal man."

"Good observation," said Brighton. "Suppose you tell me now why you wanted to see Preston."

"Oh, I just thought he might have a job for me."

"Doing what?"

"This and that and the other."

"Did he contact you? Did he ask you to come here?"

Latin looked surprised. "No."

"Where did you hear about him?"

"From a fella named Smith I met in a bar."

"Thanks for your help," said Brighton sarcastically. "You might find it would pay you to be a little more cooperative." He looked over Latin's shoulder at the door into the outer office. "Yes?"

The blonde girl came in and put several sheets of paper on his desk and went out again quietly.

"Pardon me for a second," Brighton said, reading the writing on the papers. He looked up after a moment. "This is quite interesting. Like to hear it?"

"Oh, sure," said Latin amiably.

Brighton read slowly aloud. "'Max Latin. Holds a license as a private detective but calls himself a private inquiry agent. Has a very shady reputation, which he uses as a business asset to attract clients who wish services of doubtful legality. Operates from a place called Guiterrez's Restaurant, which he owns and uses as a headquarters. This man is a very shrewd operator with an extensive knowledge of the law.'"

"I hardly recognize myself," said Latin.

Brighton read from another page: "'Max Latin. Criminal Record. He has been arrested for murder, first and second degree, manslaughter, blackmail, perjury and subornation of perjury, compounding a felony, bribery, intimidation of a witness, conspiracy to defraud, and maintaining a public nuisance.'"

"That last one was a bum rap," said Latin.

Brighton read on: "'He was not convicted of these nor of any other crimes. The cases were usually dismissed for lack of evidence. It is the Department's opinion that the dismissals and the other acquittals were justified. Latin was not guilty of any of the crimes charged against him.'"

Latin sat up with a jerk. "What?"

Brighton ignored him. "'Latin operates in an unorthodox and unethical manner and carries on a constant feud with the police and the district attorney, and it is our opinion that he thinks it is good publicity to get arrested from time to time in order to get his name in the papers.'"

"Say!" said Latin indignantly. "I'm going to sue somebody in a minute! That's nothing but a dirty lie. I spend all my time committing crimes, but I'm just so smart they can't catch me."

Brighton nodded gravely. "This is just an opinion—unofficial. We investigated you quite some time ago." He turned the last page, read it silently, and then looked up at Latin. "Why aren't you in uniform and with your military unit?"

"I'm taking a vacation," Latin answered.

"Yes?" said Brighton.


THE blonde girl came in as quietly as before and laid another slip of paper on the desk and went out again.

Brighton read from the paper and then smiled slightly. "So you tried to trick the Army Medical Corps into believing you weren't color-blind?"

Latin sighed. "I wish I had your sources of information. You certainly find out things fast. And how do you know that girl is coming in when she does?"

"A trick," said Brighton. "It's done with mirrors. Why did you come to see Preston?"

"I told you. Just drumming up business."

Brighton nodded at him seriously. "Don't play games with us, Latin. You won't get your name in the papers, but you will get put in jail. And if we put you there—you'll stay."

"I'll be careful," said Latin. "I wouldn't—"

A loud and angry voice sounded suddenly in the outer office: "Don't you lie to me, young lady! I know damned good and well he's here! And I'm going to see him!"

Brighton pressed a black button beside the desk blotter.

"Young lady!" shouted the angry voice. "You get out of the way! I'm going in—"

Another masculine voice said something in a smooth murmur.

"What?" said the angry voice. "Who are you to ask who I am, and where did you come from? What?... F.B.I.! Well, why didn't you say so? I'm Inspector Walters of Homicide, and this is my bailiwick, so don't wave that badge at me!"

The second voice murmured again.

"I want to see Max Latin!" said Inspector Walters. "That's who I want to see! I know he's in here! I've got as much jurisdiction as you have!... It's none of your business why I want to see him!... What! Can't! Who says I can't see him? Hey! Quit that! Let go of me! You can't do this—"

A door slammed heavily, and then there was silence.

"Do you know him?" Brighton asked.

"Inspector Walters?" Latin asked. "Oh, sure. He's an old friend of mine."

"He didn't sound very friendly."

"He's got indigestion," said Latin. "He gets upset very easily. I hope your men don't hurt him—fatally. By the way, where is Preston? In jail?"

"No," said Brighton. "He's at large—temporarily. I think he must have the same sort of instinct you have. We've had the girl outside and the elevator operator and a couple of other special agents planted in the building for the last week. Preston doesn't use his office much—except as a headquarters. He circulates around a lot. He was here for a while today, but something made him suspicious. He told the girl he was going to the washroom down the hall, and he did, because the elevator operator was watching him. But he kept on going. He went out the window and down the fire escape. We'll pick him up in a few hours."

"What do you want him for?" Latin asked.

"He says he is a priorities promoter. He claims he can obtain rationed or restricted goods in any quantity if you pay him a twenty-five percent commission. If he can do that, we want to know where he gets them. If he can't, we want to know why he's saying he can."

Latin shook his head. "It's quite a problem."

"We'll find the answer," said Brighton, without any doubt in his voice. "And Preston, too. And you—if you've been dealing with him."

"I haven't," said Latin. "Never saw the man in my life. That's the truth. Can I go home now, please?"

"Yes," said Brighton. "I'll be seeing you again."

"Not if I see you first," said Latin.

He went out of the private office and nodded politely to the blonde girl.

"I've been dismissed," he told her.

She smiled at him. "I'm glad."

"Me, too," said Latin.

HE went out into the hall. The elevator was waiting for him.

"You've got a system around these parts," he said to the attendant.

"Oh, yes," said the attendant. "Do you like it?"

"No," said Latin. "Did you poke Inspector Walters in the snoot before you threw him out—I hope?"

"It wasn't necessary," said the attendant. He closed the elevator grill and took Latin down to the first floor.

Latin went to the front door and looked out into the street cautiously. Inspector Walters was standing on the curb directly across from the building, waiting with a sort of grim malignance.

Latin went back to the elevator again. "Is there any other way I can get out of here?"

"Yes," said the attendant. "Through that door and downstairs into the basement. You'll see the door into the alley right opposite the stairway."

"Thanks," Latin said.

He went through the door and down a dim flight of stairs. Sunlight gleamed through a wide doorway ahead of him, and Latin crossed the basement to it and went up a cement runway to the alley.

"Hello, you rat," said Inspector Walters. He was a gaunt man with a lined, hard-bitten face and a sourly cynical expression. "I knew if I let you see me in front, you'd run out the back. You're under arrest."

"For what?" Latin inquired.

"For murder. What do you think of that?"

"I think it's terrible. Will anything I say be used against me?"

"You're damned right it will."

"I just wanted to know," said Latin. "Who did I murder this time?"

"A couple of guys by the name of René and Raymond Jones, Potter, Carlson, Benson and what-have-you."

"Are they a vaudeville team?" Latin asked.

"No. But they're a team—a nasty one."

"How do you know I murdered them?"

Walters came up and punched Latin in the chest with his forefinger. "I know your tricks. These two guys were wrapped up in a big piece of paper and dumped in front of a dog-food factory on the South Side. That sounds like one of your stunts."

"You flatter me," said Latin.

Walters punched him in the chest again, harder. "Who murdered those two rats, Latin?"

"I thought you were going to pinch me for it."

"I am—unless you tell me who did it."

Latin pulled at the lobe of his ear thoughtfully. "I've got sort of an idea.... How would you like to take a walk with me?"

"I wouldn't. My feet hurt."

"It's only a block or so," said Latin. "Come on. Maybe we'll stir something up for you."

"Where are we going?"

"To buy a newspaper."

"Why?" Walters demanded.

"I can read," Latin said. "Even if you can't. Are you coming?"

"I wish to hell you'd stayed in the Army," said Walters bitterly. "I had a little peace and quiet while you were gone."


CHAPTER VI — SNAKE IN THE GRASS

WHEN Latin and Walters came into the narrow lobby of the building at 411 Court Street, the old man in the baggy blue coveralls was still on duty at the elevator. He sighed gloomily and nodded at Latin.

"You're sure as hell persistent, ain't you?"

"What?" Walters barked sharply. "Has this man been here before?"

The old man blinked at him mildly. "Says what?"

"You heard me! Has this man been here before?"

"Which man?"

"This one!"

"What's his name?"

Walters leaned over him dangerously. "Are you going to answer my question?"

"No," said the old man. "Are you gonna ride in my elevator or ain't you?"

"Get in!" Walters snarled, shoving Latin into the elevator and getting in after him.

The old man closed the door and worked the control lever. The elevator went upward, wheezing and trembling. It stopped at the fourth floor.

"How do you know where we wanted to go?" Walters snapped.

"I can read minds," said the old man. "Providin' the other guy's got one for me to read. I couldn't do much with you in that line. Get out of my elevator."

Walters got out, hauling Latin after him. "I'll have you fired for your smartcracks, you old fool!"

"The hell you will," said the old man. "I own the building." He slammed the door in Walters's face.

Walters made seething noises in his throat and then suddenly turned on Latin. "Well! What are we standing here for? Where are we going?"

"This way," said Latin mildly.

They went down the hall to the double frosted-glass doors and through them into the outer office of Defend Our World. The small girl in the horn-rimmed glasses was shaking her head with reluctant firmness at the tall man who was leaning over her desk.

"You can't see her," she said.

The tall man gestured in a harassed way. "But I've got to see her! I want to apologize! I want to explain the circumstances to her! Good God, she can't just condemn me unheard like this! Why, I even brought my wife along. She's waiting in the car outside. She's going to apologize!"

The small girl kept right on shaking her head. "Miss Glenn doesn't want to see you. She told me not to let you—" The small girl caught sight of Latin, and instantly she opened her mouth and shrieked at the top of her voice: "Miss Glenn! Miss Glenn! He's here again!"


THE door of the inner office burst open, and Gertrude Glenn appeared. Her full lips were tightened grimly, and she was carrying a dime store butcher knife with a shiny blade a foot long in one capable hand.

The tall man started toward her. "Miss Glenn, please! You've got to let me explain—"

The small girl shrilled: "Shall I call the police, Miss Glenn? Shall I?"

Gertrude Glenn waved them aside, glaring at Latin. "Well? What do you want now?"

"This is Inspector Walters of the Homicide detail," Latin told her quickly.

Gertrude Glenn smiled without humor. "You sure pal around with funny people, kid."

"Miss Glenn," said the tall man. "Won't you please listen to me for a moment? It was all my wife's doings. She'll tell you so herself. She's waiting out in my car. She's—"

"Shall I call the police, Miss Glenn?" the small girl asked anxiously.

Walters had reached the boiling point. "Shut up!" he yelled. "All of you! Now what's going on here? Why did that girl start screaming when she saw Latin?"

"Latin!" the tall man echoed. "Is this Max Latin? I've been looking for him! I'll show him—"

"Back off," said Walters flatly. "Who are you?"

"My name is Gregory Farmer!" The tall man's voice was choked with fury. He was so mad he was shaking.

He was very thin and stooped, with deeply creased lines in his face. His hair was a dingy gray, and the skin on his face looked yellowish and unhealthy. "My wife hired Latin to threaten Gertrude Glenn! He brought a couple of murderers up here and threatened to torture her!"

"Well, well!" said Walters, beaming in sudden triumph. "You're Gertrude Glenn, huh? Did Latin bring a couple of guys up here and threaten you?"

"I've got some news for you," Latin said.

"You shut up," Walters shouted.

"You shut up," Gertrude Glenn advised. "This is my office. What's your news, Latin?"

Latin said: "There's a guy by the name of Preston who has an office a block down on Court Street."

Gertrude Glenn nodded. "Sure. I know Jasper."

"The F.B.I. is swarming over his joint like bees right now. They want him—but bad."

Gertrude Glenn watched him narrowly. "What's that to me?"

"The F.B.I. is going to find out that he owns this paper, and when they do they'll be right over to see you."

"No, they won't. Because he doesn't own it."

"What?" Gregory Farmer exclaimed. "What's that? He doesn't own your paper?"

Gertrude Glenn shook her head. "No. He advanced me some money to get it started, and I gave him a note and a mortgage on my car and clothes and life insurance and everything else to secure it. But the paper's mine. He hasn't anything to do with it."

"He doesn't own...," Gregory Farmer said incoherently. "Why, he told me he owned it and that if I didn't pay him.... I mean, I don't understand...."

"Neither do I," said Gertrude Glenn. "What are you talking about, anyway?"


LATIN was smiling. "I had an idea you weren't the type to mix in a racket like Jasper's. He was using your paper as a threat and a lever to force manufacturers to hire him as an agent to buy rationed materials for them. That's why the F.B.I. is after him. I don't know whether he could actually obtain the materials through black-market operators and ration bootleggers, or whether he just shook dough out of the manufacturers by promising to get the goods and threatening to have you slam the guys in your paper if they didn't come across. In either case, the F.B.I. will snatch him."

"He's lucky if they do it before I lay hands on him," said Gertrude Glenn.

Latin nodded at Gregory Farmer. "You paid Preston to get you some materials, didn't you?"

"No!" Gregory Farmer shouted furiously. "You mind your own business, damn you! You promised you wouldn't meddle in my affairs any further!"

"You promised something, too."

"I sent you that envelope! Now you keep your word!"

"My God!" said Latin, suddenly remembering. "Let me use that telephone!"

Without waiting for permission, he leaned over and grabbed the telephone from under the small girl's nose and dialed the number of the restaurant.

Guiterrez answered at once. "This dump is closed. Don't ask me why, because I don't know. It's just another bright idea thought up by the crackpot crook that owns the place."

"Open up for business," Latin ordered. "Right now."

"Oh, it's you," said Guiterrez. "Well, just why in hell was we closed?"

"Because somebody was looking for me," said Latin. "With a rifle. I didn't want him walking in an' popping bullets around among the customers. He's sort of wild on the aim."

"He could shoot all my customers and see if I care. Dick says there is a guy wants to get in touch with you very badly. You're to call this guy at Vestor 8-3435 and ask for Dunstead. Dick says this guy talks like he had been eating soap and that you'd know who he meant."

"Good!" Latin exclaimed. "Swell! Tell Dick to watch for an envelope. Open up the restaurant right now."

He broke the connection and dialed Vestor 8-3435. The telephone at the other end rang several times before a voice answered very cautiously: "Hello?"

"Is Mr. Dunstead there?"

"Who wants him?"

"This is Max Latin."

"Oh." The voice smoothed out into the oily tones of Jasper Preston. "I'm going to make you and that damned client of yours damned sorry for this little trick you pulled on me."

"What client?" Latin asked. "What trick?"

"Gregory Farmer. He turned me in to the F.B.I."

"He's not my client," Latin said, turning to stare at Gregory Farmer curiously. "Are you sure he's the one who turned you in?"

"You bet, I'm sure. And he's going to be sorry."

"How would you like me to take the heat off you?" Latin inquired.

"How?" Preston said skeptically. "You can't bribe or scare the F.B.I."

"I've got connections in Washington. I can have them pulled off the case, but it will cost you plenty."

"I'm not stupid enough to shell out on any song and dance like that—without knowing a whole lot more about it."

"O.K.," said Latin. "I'll give you proof. Come over to the restaurant tonight about nine. Bring some dough."

"I'll be there."

Latin broke the connection and nodded to Gertrude Glenn. "What is Preston's office phone number?"

"Tucker 6-5212," she said.

"Say, what are you up to?" Walters demanded.

"Wait a minute," Latin said absently, dialing the Tucker number.

"Hello?" said the pleasant feminine voice.

"I want to speak to Mr. Brighton. This is Max Latin."

"One moment, please."

Brighton said: "Hello, Latin. What do you want?"

"Jasper Preston just called me up and hired me."

"To do what?"

"Run you out of town."

"That's very interesting," said Brighton. "When are you going to start?"

"Never," Latin told him. "Preston will be at the restaurant at nine o'clock tonight."

"So will we. Thanks, Latin."

Latin put the telephone down. "Get the idea?" he asked Walters cheerfully.

"What a dirty double-crosser you are," said Walters.

"I don't cut corners in front of the F.B.I.," said Latin. "They're not as dumb as ordinary cops." He pointed his finger at Gregory Farmer. "So you're the one that started this little fandango by reporting Preston to the F.B.I."

Gregory Farmer nodded. "Yes, I did."

"Then what was all that you told me about getting more materials from somewhere?"

"That was to keep you from prying into my affairs."

Latin nodded. "Fair enough. There's just one other thing I'd like to know. Are you actually—"


CHAPTER VII — PHONEY DEATH

THE whole building shivered suddenly. From outside there was a hollow, heavy thunder of sound as ominous as a bomb blast. Window glass tinkled, and faint excited shouts came from the street.

"What the hell—," said Walters.

Latin turned on Gregory Farmer. "Didn't you say your wife was waiting outside—"

"My wife!" Farmer shouted incoherently. "That Preston! He called me up at the factory and threatened...."

He jumped for the door with Latin right behind him. They ran down the hall together, and Gertrude Glenn and Inspector Walters crowded out of the office and came after them. Ahead of them, the elevator grill was just closing.

"Hold it!" Latin yelled.

The old man opened the door again. "I knew you'd be out in a hurry. Miss Glenn, if you're gonna stick somebody with that knife, will you kindly wait until you get 'em outside my building first?"

Gertrude Glenn and Walters and Gregory Farmer were in the elevator now, and Latin slammed the grill shut and then reached over the old man's shoulder and pulled the operating switch over as far as it would go. The elevator dropped like a plummet.

"Hey!" the old man protested, jiggling the switch frantically. "You wanta bust my neck and my elevator—" The hydraulic brake caught, and the elevator slowed and shuddered and stopped at the street floor with a wracking jar-Latin jerked the grill open. "Where's your car?"

Gregory Farmer didn't answer. He ran through the lobby and out the front door and round the walk toward the side of the building. At the entrance of the parking lot, he stopped short and made a little moaning sound. Latin and Walters and Gertrude Glenn paused beside him.

A milling group of people shouted and gestured around the twisted, smoking ruin of an automobile. Broken glass glittered on the gravel.

"My wife!" Gregory Farmer moaned. "She was in the car! That Preston—"

He ran forward, shoving spectators heedlessly out of his way, and the other three followed him. Farmer was trying frantically to see into the steaming, tangled mass inside the car.

"My wife! She—she—"

"Gregory! Gregory, dear!"

Farmer spun around, his mouth open. Mrs. Farmer was coming toward them across the lot.

"Gregory, dear!" she repeated. "You were so long I went across the street to get a soft drink. Something happened to the car. It just blew up."

Farmer stared at her, his eyes horribly dilated.

"Gregory!" said Mrs. Farmer. "What's the matter, dear? I'm all right."

"That's what's the matter," said Latin.


THE spectators circled them in a pushing, peering crowd, trying to hear and see, excited by the tensity of the group.

Walters got hold of Latin by the lapels of his coat. "I'm tired of playing shill for your one-man band. You start talking and make some sense. What's this all about?"

"Let go," said Latin, batting his hand away. "I've still got a couple of questions I have to know the answers to."

He nodded to Gertrude Glenn. "Is Farmer short on his production schedule at his factory?"

"Why, I don't know," she answered blankly.

"Haven't you been calling him names in your paper because he hasn't been fulfilling his defense orders?"

"No," said Gertrude Glenn.

"Why, she's lying!" Mrs. Farmer exclaimed. "She's been printing terrible things about Gregory!"

"Did you ever read any of those terrible things?" Latin asked her.

"No," said Mrs. Farmer. "Gregory told me about them."

"Yes," said Latin. "Gregory has been telling lots of things to people lately for one reason and another. He wasn't worried about his factory, because it's getting along fine. He wasn't worried about being called names, because nobody was calling him names. He was worried about Gertrude Glenn." Latin nodded at her. "How long have you known him?"

"Three or four months. I wrote up his factory in the paper. I met him at that time."

"Seen much of him since?"

Gertrude Glenn hesitated for a second and then shrugged. "He's been pestering hell out of me. Calls up or comes around a couple of times a day."

"Has he been making any progress?" Latin asked.

Gertrude Glenn jiggled the butcher knife warningly. "Don't crack wise about me. I don't play around with married men, and I've told him so six hundred times."

"That was why he was worried," said Latin. "He wasn't going to get anywhere with you as long as he was married. He couldn't divorce his wife because he had no reason to. He knew she wouldn't divorce him. So he decided to become a widower." Latin pointed to the wrecked automobile. "He almost did."

"That's a filthy lie!" Gregory Farmer shouted.

"Nope," said Latin. "You planted a time bomb in your car and told you wife to wait in it. It's lucky for her she got thirsty."

"Gregory," said Mrs. Farmer faintly.

"Don't believe him!" Farmer yelled at her.

"You had it planned nicely," said Latin. "You had to provide the police with a suspect for your wife's murder. That was Preston. He contacted you in the course of his priorities' racket. You turned him over to the F.B.I. You knew he'd make threats against you. He runs off at the mouth a lot. You were going to claim he murdered your wife trying to get you. You thought he owned Defend Our World, and you intended to put pressure on Gertrude Glenn by threatening to turn her over to the F.B.I. if she wasn't more cordial. That's why you were willing to do anything to keep me from prying into the business. You didn't want me messing up your plans."


FARMER shook his fists. "Young man, I'll have you arrested for criminal slander!"

"Wait until I get through," Latin advised. "You shot René and Raymond and tried for me. Your factory is on Bellevue Avenue near Flandin. When Gertrude Glenn called you up and told you about René and Raymond and me, you beat it right over to Flandin and laid for us. You called me from some hot dog stand or drugstore near there while you were waiting. You were crazy mad because you thought I'd queered you permanently with Gertrude Glenn and because you thought I might have found out something I would tell your wife. The only thing I don't know is how you knew where to find us."

"I told him," said Gertrude Glenn, staring at Farmer with a sort of horrified revulsion.

"How did you know?" Latin demanded.

"Raymond told me—after you and René had left. He asked me for a date."

Latin stared incredulously. "A date?"

"Yes. He said he had money and a brand-new car, and how would I like to go somewhere? I said he'd probably stolen the car, and he said he hadn't either—that it was rented from Happy's Garage on Flandin Street, and I could call up and ask if I didn't believe it. When I called up Farmer, I was plenty burned up, and I told him all about it."

"That rat," said Latin. "Well anyway, that's how Farmer knew where to catch us. He shouldn't have used a Garand rifle, though. They're hard to get hold of now. But if you owned a defense plant, you could easily steal one from one of the soldiers who were guarding the plant."

Farmer's gaunt face was dark with congested blood. He spun around and dove into the crowd. The spectators split away from him for a startled second and then closed in again. Farmer went down under a dozen writhing bodies. Walters yelled angrily and jumped on top of the pile.

"Gregory," Mrs. Farmer whimpered unbelievingly. She swayed and then crumpled down on the gravel in a neat, limp heap.

Gertrude Glenn knelt down beside her and lifted her head gently. "Don't you think you've done enough dirty work for one day?" she snapped at Latin.

"Yes," Latin admitted. "I think I'll go home now."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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