CHAPTER VII – The Force of Gravity
At the nearest public phone I made three calls. First I dialled Roy Cromwell's stash, asked a sleepy servant if the director was home. The answer was yes, so I hung up. I didn't want to gab with the guy; I just craved to make sure he was on deck for the blowoff.
Next I rang Bernie Ballantyne, got him on the line. "Bernie? Dan Turner talking."
"You murderous louse! How dare you call me?"
"Keep your shirt on, small fry," I said. "I thought maybe you'd like to know I've solved a mystery for you."
"The one you paid me to ferret out. I know who's been blackmailing Vala DuValle."
"You-wh – what?"
I said: "Yeah. Roy Cromwell. He needed a wad of scratch for his gambling debts, so he lured her into a compromising situation. She was strictly innocent, understand; but it looked bad on the surface. Then he put the bite on her."
Again I was delivering a load of hogwash, maliciously, with a deliberate purpose. The quarrelsome little Paravox mogul stewed and sizzled audibly at the other end of the wire. "Do you actually mean to tell me-?"
"I've got the goods on him," I lied. "And I know something else, too. I know who picked up my gat on the Venice pier. Chew on that a while." I rang off.
Then, finally, I dialled police headquarters and asked for homicide.
"Is Lieutenant Donaldson there or did he go home to sulk over his skinned scalp?"
"He's here with a bandage that makes him look like a Hindu. Whoever you are, I wouldn't advise you to talk to him unless it's pretty important," the desk sergeant said. "He's meaner than six sick skunks."
"Put him on. This is plenty important." I waited. "Hi, Dave. Guess who."
He tabbed my voice; blew his top. "You! Well, I'm a son-"
"Hold it. I've cracked that Venice kill and I need you. But quick. There's a pinch to be pulled."
"Yeh. With you as the party of the first part." He softened his tone and I heard him mumbling to somebody.
I said: "Never mind trying to trace this call. It's a public phone and I could be long gone before you sent a squad car after me-if I wanted to play that way. I don't, though."
"All right, be tough. You'll sing a different tune when you meet me at Roy Cromwell's igloo and I hand you Maizie Murdock's murderer."
Dave repressed a strangled bellow. "Say that again!"
"I want you to meet me pronto at Roy Cromwell's wikiup. The killer will be there."
"Meaning yourself, huh?"
"No," I said patiently. "Meaning the character who pitched a baseball at my conk in an attempt to knock me off, but missed me and chilled the Murdock gazelle instead. The same one who fired a slug at me in my apartment dump, missed me again and nicked a notch in your noggin."
"When did you dream that up?"
"A while ago. Good-bye now. I'm on my way to Cromwell's. Be seeing you there." I disconnected and barged back to my cab.
The hacker said: "You look happy. What's brewin'?"
"An explosion," I told him. "Know how you make gunpowder?"
"No. I buy mine ready-made."
I said: "You pour in all the ingredients and stir them. If you stir long enough-"
"Oh-oh. You been stirrin' the ingredients, hunh?"
I nodded; gave him the Cromwell bozo's address. "Let's ramble. The kettle is starting to boil."
Cromwell's rambling Spanish hacienda was pasted against the side of a hill north of Hollywood Boulevard, just off one of the canyon drives.
We parked a block away and I hoofed the rest of the distance; reached the director's driveway just as a sedan slid to a halt at the curb. Dave Donaldson erupted from the sedan with a bandage around his cranium and two plainclothes minions flanking him.
The plainclothes minions had their roscoes out. Dave spotted me in the shadows. "There he is! Grab him! I didn't think he'd have nerve enough to show up. Freeze, Hawkshaw. This time we take no chances with you."
"You don't have to," I said softly, and allowed the flatties to fan me for my rod. When they took it, I added: "Be careful how you handle that heater, chums. It's the one that creased your superior officer."
Dave snatched it. "So this is what you shot me with."
"Well, then, whose gat is it?"
"Aha. So you confess."
I said: "It's the one those Venice coppers made me drop down on the amusement pier when they tried to collar me. Later the actual killer glommed it, brought it back to Hollywood and blasted from my doorway."
"Still sticking to that malarkey, eh?"
"Sure, because it's the truth. Are you going to stand jawing at me all night or can we go indoors for the payoff?"
Dave lifted a lip. "This is the payoff. Handcuff him, men."
They nippered me, and this time I stood still for it. It was the third time I'd been taken in custody that day and I was much too weary to argue. I merely said: "Don't blame me when the case blows up in your kisser. The next kill will be your fault. Think it over."
"What next kill?" Donaldson demanded suspiciously.
"Right here in Cromwell's shanty. I sicced Bernie Ballantyne onto him a while ago, by phone. Judging by the lights in the igloo and that chariot parked across the street, Cromwell's got a visitor this instant."
Dave cleared his throat and spat. "Listen, wisenheimer. If you're pulling a swift one-"
"Use your own judgment," I said indifferently. "I've done my part. It's your picnic now."
He hesitated; seemed to realise I was levelling. "Come along with me," he growled. "But the bracelets stay on you." He turned to his underlings. "You guys wait here."
He snarled: "Quiet," and tugged me toward the director's portal. "Shall I ring?" he whispered to me.
"No. Try the knob."
He did. "It's locked."
"I've got master keys in my pocket. Fish them out and get to work with them. I can't with these manacles."
He frisked me for the keys, found one that operated the doorlatch. "Now what?"
"Inside, fast. And no noise." I took the lead, moving silently. We came to an inside door that stood slightly ajar. Dim light glowed around it and low voices sounded in the room.
Roy Cromwell was panting: "All right. I admit I was the blackmailer. I needed cash. Desperately. I-"
You could have maced me senseless with an ostrich feather as I heard the guy's confession. My phoney accusations against him had turned out to be straight goods; he really was the extortionist! I'd fired a blind shot in the dark and scored the screwiest bull's-eye of my crazy career.
Another voice husked hysterically: "You scum. You pulled an unspeakable trick like that and caused me to commit murder. But you're going to pay."
"No-please-don't point that g – gun at me-"
This was my cue for action. I slugged the door wide open so hard it nearly came loose from its moorings; went leaping across the threshold with Dave Donaldson roaring in my wake. I yodeled: «"Drop it, Vala Du-Valle."«
The diminutive brunette cupcake had been aiming a tiny heater at Roy Cromwell, who cowered in a far corner like a weasel in a trap. But now she swung around, hung the glassy focus on me, tabbed Donaldson's cannon making faces at her.
"Oh-h-h…" she whimpered faintly, and let her roscoe clatter on the floor. "You… you…"
"Yeah," I said regretfully, remembering the kiss she'd slipped me not long ago. "Me, hon. Just in time to keep you from another croaking; and to hear you confess the Maizie Murdock bump. I'm sorry, baby. I mean that."
Her map was like a mask made of putty. "How… did you… how did you… suspect…?"
"Your arms," I said. "They gave you away."
Donaldson yipped: "Hey, wait a minute. What's this about her arms? They look okay to me. Only they aren't hefty enough to uncork a baseball pitch that could brain a Jane."
"I know it," I said.
I stared moodily at Vala. "You thought I was the blackmailer, didn't you, kitten?"
"I'd made a crack in Bernie Ballantyne's ante-room; something about carrying tales to him if it paid me enough dividends. Since you were already being shaken down, that made you think I was the mug who was putting the bite on you."
"Y-yes," her voice was dull, lifeless.
I said: "You decided to croak me. You tried to with that baseball, but cooled Maizie Murdock by mistake. When everybody called me guilty you let it ride, thereby keeping your own skirts clean while still putting me in a coffin. Correct?"
"Y-yes." She didn't seem to know any other word.
"Then I escaped," I said. "You picked up my automatic; tried to blast me with it, later, at my apartment drop. Again your aim was lousy. You nicked Lieutenant Donaldson."
"Y-yes," she sounded like a victrola with a busted record.
I said: "Well, that's about all of it. Except your arms."
"Wh-what about them?"
"I called on you, hoping to get the deadwood on Bernie Ballantyne. At that time I had him tabbed as the guilty guy. But suddenly I noticed the bruises and scrapes on your elbows. I tumbled to the truth."
"How?" she whispered.
"I've got the same brand of bruises myself," I told her. "And I remembered where I'd collected them. The rest was easy. I spoke of Roy Cromwell being the blackmailer, figuring you would try to cream him the same as you'd tried to bump me. Which you did; and we caught you."
She blinked at me foggily. "The bruises…?"
"From the giant slide," I said. "Whamming down the spiral tunnel was where you got your arms hurt. Just before the murder, you rode the escalator to the observation tower on top of that amusement pier contraption.
"The view platform looked directly down on the baseball concession. You threw a ball at me from up there and gravity gave it murder-speed."
"Y-yes," she was back at that again.
I said: "As soon as you pitched the pill, you slid down through the spiral dragon. This landed you on the pier in plenty of time to establish an apparent alibi. You said you had just come out of your dressing room. Nobody doubted you."
From behind me, a new voice spoke: high, piping, reedy. It belonged to Bernie Ballantyne, who'd arrived to hear the payoff. Now he took Vala in his arms.
"I'll hire the best lawyers in the world to defend you, darling," he said. Then he glared at Cromwell. "You're fired, you chiseling rat. If you ever work in Hollywood again, it'll be over my dead body."
He was a good prophet. The DuValle cutie got off with a life sentence and Roy Cromwell got blackballed out of the galloping snapshots.
And Dave Donaldson actually paid dough out of his own pocket to have my jalopy brought back to me from where I'd ditched it in Ocean Park.