CHAPTER Three – One for Dave
There's something about a copper's.38 Positive that spells authority. Two.38's are twice as nasty. Moreover, I didn't have any drag in Venice. Hollywood is my territory, and my private detective badge is no good outside the city limits. I was a cooked goose and I knew it.
"Sure, boys," I said. "Sure I'll drop my gat." I let it fall and held out my mitts for the nippers.
One of the bulls bolstered his heater, reached into his handcuff sheath for a pair of bracelets. This reduced the odds, but not too much. I was still in an ugly jackpot.
I yelled»: "Look out! Ballantyne's going to shoot!"«
The second cop had quick reflexes. He pivoted toward Bernie, ready for fireworks. When he realised the undersized producer didn't have a gun, he wheeled back to me, cursing at the top of his adenoids. That was when I kicked his.38 out of his clutch. The weapon went skittering.
He dived after it, which was a serious error on his part. I tripped him as he plunged; sent him skidding on his profile. He collected a nostril full of splinters and loudly called on heaven to witness that he'd been stabbed.
Meanwhile I swung a hell-roaring haymaker at his partner's prow. The punch connected, which made two brass buttoned heroes down on the deck. I tensed my thews and sinews, uncoiled myself, and cleared the counter in one fell swoop. Now I was on the midway of the amusement pier, hemmed in by extras and grips and a miscellaneous movie mob.
Dames squalled and guys tried to hang the grab on me. I lowered my noggin, bucked the line, rammed three carpenters and an electrician floundering on their backs. Directly opposite the baseball target concession there was a high, circular tower thrusting its spire upward like an overgrown totem pole. It even looked like a totem pole, its exterior decorated by a big spiral serpent of papier mache and plaster of paris.
The head and face of this giant dragon formed the tower's exit at pier-floor level, its vast mouth open and framed by red-painted fangs. The serpentine body coiled upward around the tall structure, with its massive tail forming a sort of spire at the distant top. Away up there you could lamp a sort of platform all guarded by wooden railings.
Down on the pier, alongside the dragon's exit mouth, there was an entrance flanked by a ticket booth. A sign above the little booth said: VIEW THE SHORE-LINE FROM THE HIGHEST SPOT IN VENICE IOc Escalator (Moving Stairway)
SLIDE DOWN THE BIGGEST
THRILL ON THE WEST COAST
A wild hunch sneaked up my back. I plunged toward the tower entrance, catapulted past the ticket wicket, gained the escalator. Behind me a roscoe sneezed: «Ka-Chow!» and a red hot hornet buzzed past my ear. That would be the cops having a spot of target practice at my expense. I bent low, blipped onto the moving stairs, felt myself being lifted-but not fast enough to suit me. I started running upward.
The first leg of the escalator ended on a little landing. You stepped off, walked onto the next flight which ascended in the reverse direction; a zig-zag effect. This was repeated twice more; then you were on the very top platform, away to hell and gone up in the air, with nothing but a wooden guard rail between you and a sheer drop to the ocean on one side or the pier on the other. The view was terrific.
I wasn't very interested in it, though; at least not the water. In fact, the breaking waves could have been made of Vat 69 and I wouldn't have liked them from that high up. To dive into the drink from such a height would make toothpicks of every bone in your skeleton.
The thought gave me goose pimples big enough to hang pictures on. I turned, stared down at the pier and the crowds milling around the escalator entrance. I could look straight into the baseball concession across the midway; piped Maizie Murdock's crumpled remnants and Bernie Ballantyne holding Vala DuValle in his embrace, trying to soothe her. Cromwell stood to one side, peering toward the base of the tower straight under me.
The people down there were chattering, pointing; but I didn't lamp any trace of the two cops. I thought I knew why. Above the clattery racket of the machinery that worked the moving stairway I heard thumping footfalls getting closer. Those bulls were on their way up to nab me. Both of them.
I breathed a relieved sigh as I doped this out. It meant a break for my side, because the dizzy numbskuls had neglected to post a guard at the lower exit-the mouth of the stucco dragon. My whole future hinged on that omission.
To my right, up on the top platform, there was a maw-like orifice resembling the entrance to a dark tunnel. The tunnel itself slanted downward at a steep pitch, curving spirally, lined with smooth wooden corduroy strips that were polished to a gloss from friction. This tunnel was the interior of the serpentine dragon that wound itself around the tower from spire to foundation. It was a giant slide, the kind where you sit on a chunk of carpet, give yourself a push, and go circling downward at a thundering clip.
I selected a rug sample from the pile at the slide entrance. I adjusted it, settled myself on it and cast off with my fingers crossed. Whammo! My dizzy descent was something I'll keep dreaming about from now on.
Around and around, down and down I went, with gravity pulling me and centrifugal force slamming me sidewise against the chute's hardwood-strip walls. All the breath leaked out of my bellows, and I felt my optics popping like two grapes being squeezed.
The inventor of that maniac contraption had saved an extra thrill for the last third of the journey. Here the spiral pitch increased its rate of drop; you hit a slight hump and then felt the whole tunnel floor going out from under your hip pockets. Blam! I landed in an awkward sprawl, and now I was circling toward the base at ninety miles a minute. A horrible idea gnawed at me. Suppose one of the wooden corduroy strips came loose and skewered me. "Nix!" I moaned. "Not that!"
And then my wild ride ended. I was at pier level, and I shot out of the dragon's mouth like a shell from a cannon. My glims were full of tears and my elbows full of abrasion blisters from friction contact. I landed ker-thump on a mattress placed strategically for the purpose. It felt as if somebody had stuffed it with discarded horseshoes.
I staggered to my pins. Nobody tabbed me. Everyone was hanging the focus on the tower entrance nearby, where those flatfeet had gone up the escalator after me. I spun on my heel and started to run.
My jalopy was parked on the street that ended at the landward front of the pier. I reached it, piled in, kicked the starter a savage wallop. Somebody spotted me as my cylinders came to life. "There he is-!"
I snarled: "You mean there he goes," and stoked my boiler with ethyl. Three minutes later I was careening through Venice under forced draft.
I ditched my bucket in Ocean Park because I knew there would be a radio bleat out for me in short order. I didn't want a lot of prowl cars on the sniff for me, looking for a vee-eight coupe and its contents. A public bus was my best bet; and as luck would have it, a big Pacific Electric red job was just getting ready to pull out. I boarded it, slipped the driver my fare, and sat down in a rear seat, bushed.
The ride back to town gave me time to get my mental cogwheels functioning. Busting loose from those Venice bluecoats had been a screwball move, maybe; but I craved freedom in copious quantities. It was the only way I could hope to haul myself out of this mess I was in; pin Maizie Murdock's murder where it belonged. Of course I was on the lam now; and by powdering I had made myself look guilty. Even so, I was better off than if I'd been languishing in a seashore Bastille. You can't do any detecting in a cell.
Moreover, had I meekly submitted to the bulls, they'd have closed the case and thrown away the key. With all that false testimony against me, I wouldn't have had the chance of a hailstone in the hot place.
As it was, I dropped off the bus in Hollywood around noon, cocked and primed for action. There were several angles I wanted to investigate, and first on the list was the deceased Murdock quail's background; her recent activities. Whenever there's a homicide, there's also a motive. Find that motive and you can commence narrowing down your field of suspects.
To start with, though, I needed a spare roscoe; mine had been confiscated on the amusement pier and I feel practically naked if my armpit rig is empty. Besides, my nerves were frazzled around the fringes and the only thing that would mend them in a hurry was a good stiff prescription of Scotch broth. There was an extra rod in my stash, plus a cellarette full of Vat 69. So I decided to go home-provided the coast was clear.
I took a taxi, had it ferry me twice around the block until I was satisfied no local coppers were lurking about the apartment entrance. Then I sneaked in through the basement garage and took the automatic elevator up to my floor; unlocked the door of my igloo and ankled over the threshold. Whereupon a familiar voice said: "Welcome home, wise guy."
It was my friend Dave Donaldson of the homicide squad, and he had me covered with his cannon.
I whirled, hung the stupefied glimpse on his beefy features.
He leered complacently. "I figured you'd show up here so I staked out and made myself comfortable."
"That's breaking and entering," I said.
"Not when I've got a John Doe warrant it isn't. This is an official visit, bud. Can you guess why?"
I said wearily: "Yeah. You're collaborating with those Venice numbskulls. I'm pinched."
He made admiring noises with his mouth. "You sure do catch on quick, don't you? Let's take a little journey down to headquarters. Maybe I'll even let you get in touch with some shyster before I send you back to the beach."
"Damn the beach," I said. "Also the sons who're trying to fasten a frame on my elbows."
"Ah. So it's a frame. It always is." He waggled his rodney reprovingly. "I wish killers would sing a different tune once in a while, just to break the monotony. I get tired of that one. It stinks."
"So it stinks." I dredged a gasper from a crumpled pack on the table, set fire to it. "So I'm not a killer. Have a jolt of skee while I tell you the score."
"I'll take the skee but I won't believe anything you warble. And don't try to slip a mickey in my glass or I'll bend this gat around your ears."
I put an injured expression on my mush as I poured him the snort and handed it to him. I downed a double dollop myself and said: "You know I wouldn't feed you a mickey. I wish I'd thought of it, though. It's a swell idea."
"About the kill," he prompted me. "Why'd you do it?"
"I don't know-yet."
"Whale feathers," he said. "I got a full report over the teletype. Fifty-'leven extras say you had the baseball in your fist just before the blonde bim got bopped. Roy Cromwell says it. So does Bernie Ballantyne. What more do you want?"
"Another drink," I said, and had it. "And a chance to prove they're cock-eyed liars."
"About you having the ball?"
I shook my head. "No. That part's true enough."
"Then what are they lying about?"
"Me throwing it at Maizie. I didn't."
"Well, who did?" he persisted.
"You already asked me. I told you I don't know-yet."
He looked bland. "You could guess, couldn't you?"
"Sure, but what good would it do me? Quit being clever. You know you're just needling me, trying to make me say something damaging. You're not as coy as you think you are." An inch of dew remained in the bottle. I killed it.
"A fine thing," Dave sounded aggrieved. "You didn't even offer to share it with me." His tone hardened. "If you're so innocent you must have somebody in mind as a candidate. Come on, name him."
"Okay, I'll name two. Cromwell and Ballantyne."
He chuckled sourly. "That's what I thought you'd say."
"They accuse you, so you accuse them. Boy, are you corny!"
I got sore. "Look, I've good reasons for pointing the finger their way. Want to listen?"
"I suppose it won't cost me anything. Speak your piece."
"Well, Cromwell jobbed me into tossing those first few baseballs. And he stood directly behind me when the murder pill zipped past my ear to bash the blonde chick."
Dave rubbed his chin bristles. "All right. By a long stretch of the imagination we'll say he had opportunity, although everybody around him claims he didn't throw anything. Skipping lightly over that, what would be his motive? What did he have against Maizie Murdock to make him want to kill her?"
"I don't know-yet."
"Get a new phrase. That one's tiresome," he said. "Now let's consider your case against Ballantyne."
I shrugged. "The same setup. He was behind me when the death ball was heaved."
"Possibly. He's engaged to his star, Vala DuValle. He thinks she's being blackmailed. He hired me to look into it. He hinted he'd like to croak the blackmailer."
"Aha. And maybe Maizie Murdock-"
I nodded. "Could be. Suppose he found out Maizie was bleeding the DuValle cutie? Suppose he carried out his croakery hint? It adds up."
"But why did he then try to pin the job on you?"
I had the answer ready. "Jealousy. I was with Vala DuValle one night in a dice joint that got raided."
"What were you doing? Trying to beat his time?"
"Hell, no. And later he got over his peeve, or pretended to. But he may have been laying for me, waiting for a chance to sink the harpoon in me."
Dave stood up, yawned. "Finished, Sherlock?"
"I've told you all I know, yes."
"Then let's go to the gow. You're still under arrest. Frankly I don't believe a word you've told me."
I goggled at him. "You mean you intend to hand me to those brainless wonders in Venice? Me, your best friend?"
"Yeh." He lowered his voice confidentially. "I even pinched my own grandmother one time for robbing a blind man. All my family are heels, including me. Stick out your fins for the nippers and be quick about it."
I reached in my pocket for a coffin nail. At the same instant, my front door opened a crack and a roscoe stuttered: Ka-Pow! behind me. The blast was bad enough but the slug's nearness was worse. It scorched a blister on my left ear as it went by; and then Dave Donaldson clapped a hand to his noggin, lurched drunkenly and fell down. Gore commenced leaking from his furrowed scalp.