CHAPTER VI – The Gambler
My hacker romped on his throttle. "Wanna race?"
"Will it do any good?" I said.
"Hang onto your upper plate and we'll see," he advised me. And then he started doing some of the fanciest driving this side of the Indianapolis Speedway. We took the next corner on squealing skins, whammed north, careened to the left at the following intersection, and went rocketing westward like a comet with turpentine on its tail. The speedometer needle crept around to the notch above sixty, hung there a while, and began climbing. Night wind screeched around our flapping fenders and the rear treads commenced to smoke.
The prowl car stayed with us.
"What time is it?" the cabby asked me.
I braced myself, tried to hang the focus on my strap watch. "Not quite nine o'clock. Does it matter?"
"Yah," he said, narrowly missing a pedestrian on a crosswalk. The pedestrian emitted an anguished wail, jumped like a kangaroo, and disappeared down an open manhole. "Yah. There's a street the water wagon always flushes around this time o'night. For another ten bucks I could maybe have a idea."
"The ten's yours," I said. "I don't think you'll ever live to spend it, though."
He offered me odds of two to one, sent the cab catapulting around another corner and gripped his wheel hard. Dead ahead I lamped a block where the asphalt was black and shiny from a recent wetting. We barrelled onto this slippery stretch and made a sudden left turn into a narrow alley. Don't ask me how we pulled a bull's-eye; for the life of me I don't know. I bounced on the back seat like a pea in a dry pod; felt the cab's rear end slewing slaunchwise. Hitting the mouth of that alley was like a palsied man threading a darning needle with a hunk of two-inch rope; it just couldn't be done.
We did it.
The prowl chariot blammed into the wet block and tried to make the same maneuver. Goggling backward, I saw it skid out of control and spin like a pinwheel. It made three complete revolutions, while the cops inside it screamed their tonsils to tatters. Then there was a thundering crash, and a geyser of water fountained upward from a busted fireplug.
My cabby slackened speed as we emerged from the far end of the alley. "Them bulls probably needed a bath, anyhow," he remarked. "Now where you wanna go, bud?"
"To a hospital," I said weakly. "For a nervous breakdown."
He made clucking noises. "Doctors won't do no good for what ails you, Hawkshaw. What you need is a snifter." He passed me a depleted pint. It was rotgut rye, but I drained it and it tasted like nectar. Presently my grey matter started functioning again. I was almost back to normal.
I started counting on my fingers adding up what I knew concerning the things that had happened since Maizie Murdock's murder. Both Roy Cromwell and the little Ballantyne blister had attempted to frame me; and yet, as the score stood now, neither of them looked guilty of the actual kill.
Okay. Could it have been some unknown character in the mob of extras and technical crew? Some guy who'd had a personal beef against Maizie and saw a chance to knock her off? If so, I was sunk. Hunted by the law, how could I hope to ferret information regarding the hundred and fifty or more guys and wrens who had been on that amusement pier?
And besides, the cops weren't the only ones gunning for me. There was that anonymous citizen who had fired a shot through the doorway of my stash, missing me and nicking Dave Donaldson; Until now, I'd almost forgotten this incident in the excitement of ensuing events. In fact, I'd paid very little attention to the matter from the outset-largely because of the spot it put me in.
True, the shot had given me a chance to make a getaway from Dave. But it had also made him think I was the trigger guy; and this had deepened my jackpot to such an extent that I hadn't attempted to rationalise it. In fact, for a while I'd thought maybe the bullet had actually been meant for Dave, fired by a misguided friend trying to do me a favour.
Now, though, I realised it could be viewed from a different angle. Suppose I had been the intended target of that slug? Suppose the gunsel's aim had been bad, so that he missed me and hit Donaldson instead?
This new line of reasoning led me to something else». Suppose the baseball that conked Maizie Murdoch had likewise been meant for me?» It certainly had come close enough to my noggin. Maizie could have been just an innocent bystander, bashed by accident; the same as Dave Donaldson, later, was also accidentally nicked. In his case it was a.32 pill; in Maizie's, a baseball. That was the only difference. Everything else meshed into an identical pattern.
And the.32 pill had come from my own roscoe, the one I had dropped on the Venice amusement pier.
So now I was back on the same old merry-go-round. Cromwell could have picked up my gat. Or Bernie Ballantyne. Either of them could have pitched the lethal baseball at the Murdock cupcake, too, hitting her instead of me. Which one of them was the guy that thirsted to render me into a corpse?
Cromwell didn't seem logical; he had no reason to hate my clockworks as far as I knew. In fact, he was in my debt for the favour I'd done him, the night I took Vala DuValle off his hands in that night club raid.
The DuValle chick didn't fit the picture, either. I'd never done anything to earn her enmity; and besides, she was too fragile and dainty to heave a ball hard enough to burst a skull. She didn't have the muscles.
But Bernie Ballantyne-
"What the-!" I said harshly.
The hacker looked back at me. "You feeling bad, friend?"
"Plenty bad. I just thought of a guy who believed I was making a play for his sweetie. He pretended to get over it, later; but maybe he still packed a secret grudge."
"You dicks must have a lot of fun doping things out."
"This one isn't funny," I rasped. "The guy tried to bean me with a baseball. He missed, and it croaked a she-male. Whereupon he framed me for the kill."
"You're sure of that?"
I said: "Reasonably sure. I know a way to check it."
I gave him Vala DuValle's address this side of Beverly. "If I can make this bozo's sweetie talk, I may be able to cinch the thing. She can tell me if he was still sore at me."
"Suppose she don't wanna talk, though? No Jane likes to put her boy friend in the grease."
"She'll talk," I blew on my mitts. "She'll talk or I'll bat the bicuspids out of her."
It wasn't late enough at night for a flunky to give me such a frigid gander. I had thumbed the DuValle quail's doorbell and waited easily three minutes before I thumbed it again. Now this liveried butler opened up and squinted at me as if I'd been something you'd find under a rock.
"Miss DuValle?" he said to my polite query. "Sorry, my good man."
"You're sorry for what?"
"Really, it's nine-thirty-"
I said: "Yeah, Pacific War Time. I asked for Miss DuValle."
"She has retired."
"Then trot her out of retirement. I want her."
He drew himself up, haughtily. "See here."
"When you say that to me, say see here, sir." I grabbed him by his boiled dickey. "How long has it been since you got poked on the trumpet?"
"Why… er… never." Then he added: "Sir."
I said: "You've missed an experience," and educated him with my knuckles. He fell down, moaning that his nose was broken. Oddly enough, he was right.
Leaping lightly over his reclining form, I ankled toward an ornate marble staircase and chased myself up to the second floor at a brisk trot. The crash of the butler's fall and his piteous moans had preceded me, however, serving as a sort of storm warning. When I reached Vala DuValle's room, she was already at the door.
"Remember me, Toots?" I said.
"The same, and pardon my warty exterior for barging in this way. It's impolite but necessary."
"You beast!" she said.
I tried to look hurt. "That's no way to talk. In the first place, it's inhospitable, and in the second place, they don't write that sort of dialogue any more. Too mid-Victorian."
"Get out," she put her teeth together and talked through them. "Get out before I call the police."
"I'll call them myself when the time comes," I said. "Right now I crave information."
"Not from me. I don't associate with killers."
I debated whether to deal her a smack on the puss or try a little strategy first. I tossed a mental coin and strategy won. "I'm not a killer, hon," I made my voice humble.
She peeled back her pomegranate lips. "Liar."
"I'm levelling, honest I am. Give me a chance and I'll prove it. I'm trying to save my neck."
"Why should I care about your neck?"
"Maybe you shouldn't, but it's the only one I've got, and it fits all my collars." I unlimbered my nicest smile, meanwhile fishing for an angle. As my hacker had remarked, no Jane likes to put her boy friend in the grease; therefore I might not get very far if I came right out and asked this brunette doll about Bernie Ballantyne still being sore at me. If I told her I suspected Bernie himself of being the guilty guy, she would congeal like frozen parsnips.
The thing to do was to sneak up on her, do some verbal sparring until she dropped her guard. Then maybe I'd find out if Bernie hated me so much he would pitch a baseball at me and bean somebody else by mistake. I might learn if he was the one who had picked up my roscoe on the amusement pier, later trying to plug me with it but nicking Donaldson instead.
But what was the best approach? All of a sudden a hunch nipped me. "Look, babe. You know that trouble you've been having?"
"The thing Ballantyne asked you about and made you weep," I said. "The same thing he hired me to investigate. Don't hold out on me. I'm hep to the setup."
"You're t»-»talking riddles."
"Yeah. It's a riddle when a cute little frail like you gets worried and draws a lot of dough out of her bank account for no logical reason. It's a shakedown riddle."
She sucked in a ragged breath; turned four shades of pale; backed toward her dressing table. "You unspeakable rat!" A cut glass perfume bottle was on the dresser. She picked it up, hurled it at me.
She tossed it with all her heft, which was nothing to boast about. It wabbled through the air almost lazily. I didn't even bother to duck; I just fielded it instead, caught it with a casual left duke. "This stuff is expensive," I reproached her. "It shouldn't be wasted on private snoops." I put it back where she got it.
Her angelic pan contorted darkly. Then she flurried into me, kicking and scratching and panting.
I said: "So you want to fight," and pinioned her. Every time she broke loose I grabbed her arms again. Presently she subsided, whimpering. I let her go; apologised for the bruises and contusions on her elbows and upper arms. "I guess I just don't know my own strength," I said, but I was thinking of something else-and still planning my battle strategy.
"Get out," she whispered.
"Not yet, kitten. I've got to know about that blackmailing."
"As if you didn't!"
I cocked an eyebrow. "Sure, I know you're being bled. Bernie knows it, too."
"You… t»-»told him?"
"He told me," I said. "He hired me to look into it."
Her short laugh had an uneven quality, like cloth being ripped. "What irony!"
"You mean him hiring me when he was jealous of me?"
"You know what I mean."
I said: "Maybe I'm extra stupid tonight. Skip it. About the shakedown geetus you've been paying. What was it based on?"
"Keep it up," she grunted. "Keep right on playing dumb."
"Was it somebody that piped you coming down from upstairs in Pedro Criqui's joint with Roy Cromwell?"
She gave me a sullen, silent stare.
I said: "Did this party threaten to squeal to Bernie Ballantyne, which would have scuttled your engagement? Was that why you paid hush money?"
Her map was a defiant mask. She didn't answer me.
"Look," I said. "I've had a chinfest with Pedro Criqui. He's told me the whole story."
"About how you refused to stay in that room with a wolf like Cromwell. You know, hon, in many respects you're a naive dope."
She looked baffled. "I don't understand."
"It's very simple," I said. "Somebody put the nibble on you by threatening to tell Bernie you were seen coming from a tryst with your director. But why did you pay this shakedown when you were innocent?"
She fell into the trap; admitted she was being bled. "I had to pay. I was innocent, yes; but who'd believe me?"
"Pedro Criqui would have been happy to clear you. You could have got him to explain how you didn't stay upstairs more than a couple of minutes."
Puzzlement came into her widened glimmers. "That's queer advice, coming from you."
"Not at all. I was hired to help you, remember? And I'm trying to do my job-meanwhile helping myself at the same time. I want to get you out of your blackmail jam and myself out of the homicide jackpot."
"But-but I th-thought you-"
"Never mind what you thought," I said gently. "The point is, we want to finger the blackmailer. Right?"
"I think I know him," I said. Which was a lie.
She stiffened. "Wh»-»who?"
"I've done a lot of checking,." I told her. "I've eliminated all the possible shakedown suspects except one."
"Wh»-»who?" she repeated tautly.
I said: "Roy Cromwell himself."
"No! That's not-why, that's insane!"
"On the contrary, it makes sense."
She stared at me. "Roy wouldn't do a thing like that. He-he makes as much money as I do. He's the highest paid director on the Paravox lot. Why should he-?"
"Look," I said. "He makes big geetus but he gambles it away. Pedro Criqui told me how rotten Cromwell's dice luck has been. I figure the guy lost so much lettuce he got desperate. He decided to use you for a soft touch. He squired you around, jockeyed you into a sour spot and then shoved the needle in you."
This was just a lot of sheep-dip as far as I was concerned. I didn't mean a word of it, actually; but it sounded plausible, and I was trying to gain the Jane's confidence.
She fell for it, too. "The filthy, rotten heel!"
"Yeah. And to make it worse, he shoved you off on me when the joint was raided. That got Bernie Ballantyne sore at me. I guess he still is, hunh?"
"Well, a»-»a little," she admitted. "Although he got over it, pretty much."
I said: "The hell he did. He even tried to frame me for the Murdock filly's murder."
"Oh-h-h, no! I mean he really thinks you k»-»killed her. He's sincere about it."
"Maybe you're right," I shrugged. "It doesn't matter much." I turned toward the door. "I'll beat the rap, one way or another. In fact, I'm going out to do that very thing right away. Be seeing you, Babe."
"Wait," she said. She came close to me, stood on tiptoe and put her hands on my shoulders. She kissed me. It was a sisterly kiss. "That's for setting me straight on a lot of things," she whispered shyly.
I ankled down to my taxi with my yap still tingling from the warm contact of her lips.