Written by John H. Dromey
Illustration by L. A. Spooner
In keeping with his tough guy reputation, Bertram spoke out of the side of his mouth. The opposite corner of the big man’s cavernous maw was occupied by an oversized cheroot. The pungent effluents from his cheap cigar could easily have fumigated a pig sty with enough noxious fumes left over to turn the head of a lovesick skunk.
In lieu of holding my nose, I took in sporadic gulps of the rancid air by mouth—strictly as needed for survival—while I waited to hear what Bertram had in mind. Since the man already had an army of henchmen at his disposal, why did he need the services of a lowly gumshoe like me? Was his tobacco induced smokescreen a diversion of some kind or simply an outward display of a deep-seated contempt for underlings? Either way, I hoped he wouldn’t offer me some shady deal that stank to high heaven. I was breathless with anticipation.
“I want you to deliver a package for me,” the man said. “Did you bring your own transportation, as requested?”
“Yes, sir,” I responded. I was being obsequious, but I didn’t want him to think I was a complete pushover. “How about half of my fee in advance?”
The big shot hoodlum nodded his head and slid an envelope across his desk.
I could hardly wait to get out of Bertram’s office, but there was still one unanswered question. “Where’s the package?”
“It’ll be waiting for you by the curb,” he said, “along with directions on where to go.” He took a couple of puffs on his panatela, or whatever that smoldering monstrosity was called, and then he flicked his hand toward me as a sign of dismissal.
I wasted no time getting to the exit. Although they’d patted me down thoroughly when I first arrived, Bertram’s bodyguards were totally indifferent to my crossing the lobby in the opposite direction.
I felt exposed when I stepped out of the building. I’d left my fully-loaded six-shooter in the glovebox of my borrowed car. Some PIs suggest keeping the chamber under the hammer empty. Not me. My idea of impossible odds is being attacked by more than half a dozen thugs at the same time.
With that possibility in mind, I try to stay alert and pay attention to my surroundings.
The pale-complexioned yegg who’d been lurking near the entrance when I arrived was still there, but otherwise the scenery had improved significantly in the form of a dazzling dame. She sauntered my way.
We eyed each other carefully. The doll had one raised eyebrow. I didn’t have a mirror, but I suspect my expression was equally quizzical.
“I’m looking for a shamus,” she said.
“You found one,” I told her. “Liam Murphy at your service.”
“Where’s your car?” she asked.
I pointed to a nearby coupé.
If possible, her puzzlement increased. “I thought you drove a jalopy.”
“I usually do, but how would you know that?”
“Bertie told me. Why the switcheroo?”
“My heap will get me around town all right,” I said, “but it would be next to useless for a long haul. Are you the package?”
“No, silly. It’s in my purse.”
“And where am I to take it?”
“It’s a secret. I’ll tell you later.”
“I told you my name. What do I call you? Madame X?”
“Absolutely not! I’m a Miss.”
“I doubt that,” I said.
“I’ll bet you’re a hit with most members of the opposite sex. Maybe I should call you Slugger.”
“Please don’t. If you must know, my name is Brenda.”
My quotient of wisecracks was running out fast. For a few heartbeats I just stood there with a silly grin on my face. It wasn’t exactly a staring contest, but her eyes widened with surprise. I only realized how distracted I was by my new acquaintance when something hit me from behind.
The erstwhile loitering yegg was on the move. He elbowed me out of his way and made a grab for Brenda’s handbag. She held on for dear life. That brought the would-be thief to a grinding halt. He was hunched over in a desperate tug-of-war for Brenda’s prized possession. The back of his neck was an easy target, so I rabbit punched him as hard as I could.
The booster temporarily lost all interest in feminine fashion accessories and slumped to the sidewalk. I didn’t know if he’d ever be able to get up again.
I hustled Brenda over to the coupé and into the passenger seat. I got behind the wheel, started the engine, and took off so fast the rear wheels spun. Burning rubber seemed like a good idea and the smell was less obnoxious than Bertram’s cigar.
“Look behind us and tell me what our assailant is doing,” I said without taking my eyes off the road.
Brenda half turned and said, “I don’t see him.”
“Drat! He recovered fast. Are you sure he isn’t staggering down the street?”
“Nope. He’s out of sight. Maybe he darted into a building.”
“Or was carried there,” I said. “Let’s hope not.”
I didn’t answer.
My passenger mulled over what I’d said, or hadn’t said, and drew her own conclusion. “Oh, I get it. Bertram owns the closest building and his men might rough the poor fellow up even more than you did.”
“Something like that,” I said, but it was a bald-faced lie.
Bertram had his finger on the pulse of the city. He had the mayor under one thumb and the chief of police under the other. In effect, Bertram’s tentacles and the body politic were inextricably intertwined. He had a stranglehold on the city’s budget and he took the lion’s share of any ill-gotten gains acquired by criminals.
Why would a two-bit burglar come out of the shadows and attempt a confrontational strong-arm crime in broad daylight? I could think of only one reason. Bertram himself must have sanctioned the attempted theft.
Was I being tested? Unlikely. Bertram already knew what I was capable of, or thought he did. Otherwise, why hire me in the first place? Was I being used as a stooge? Possibly. But to what end? I didn’t plan to stay around long enough to find out.
I stepped on the gas. “Where to?”
“Take the old highway out of town,” Brenda said.
“That leads into the desert.”
“Yes, but there’s a big city at the other end. That’s where we’re going.”
“Dare I ask what’s waiting for us there?”
“Fame and fortune, I hope,” she said, holding up her right hand with her fingers crossed.
I hoped she was right, but I was more concerned with finding a safe sanctuary until I figured out what was going on.
— ♦♦♦ —
We almost reached the open road through the desert without further incident, but not quite. The last intersection on the connecting stretch of highway was with a tree-lined cross-street that had a clearly-visible stop sign posted near the bottom of a steep incline. The coupé and I had the right of way. I breathed a sigh of relief, but then from the corner of my eye I saw a city truck barreling down the hill on what I could only describe as a collision course. There was no sound of squealing brakes and not a peep out of the horn. The driver had no intention of yielding.
It was too late for me to stop. I stomped on the accelerator and the coupé shot forward like a jackrabbit goosed by a cactus.
Brenda let out a little yelp as she was pressed back into the seat cushion.
A miss is as good as a mile, but that’s small comfort when the difference between making a clean getaway and getting squashed like a bug is measured in fractions of an inch.
“That was no accident,” I said.
“Of course it wasn’t. The truck didn’t hit us.”
I couldn’t tell whether Brenda was incredibly naïve or trying to put on a brave face.
After putting a number of miles between us and Bertram’s burg, I stopped the car long enough to take my revolver out of the glove box. I placed the holster so it was hidden under my shirt, held in place by the waistband of my trousers. I’d have preferred using a shoulder holster, but it was shirtsleeve weather. In my business, a concealed weapon helps maintain the element of surprise. I’d already been caught off-guard twice in one day. Three’s a charm? Not when your life’s at stake.
“Expecting more trouble?” Brenda asked.
“It’s best to be prepared.”
— ♦♦♦ —
What were the odds of my encountering two honest-to-Pete damsels in distress in a single day? Probably about the same as finding a lush who was willing to turn down a free drink. I was tempted to drive right on past the woman who was leaning on the fender of a gray sedan with its hood propped open.
Brenda made up my mind for me. “We have to stop!” she said, raising her voice to make herself heard over the air rushing in through the open windows of the coupé.
I tapped on the brake and rolled to a complete stop well short of the stalled auto.
“Stay in the car,” I told Brenda.
After I got out, I stood shielded from view by the open door just long enough to draw my revolver and hold it out of sight behind my upper thigh. I approached the vehicle with caution.
“What seems to be the trouble?” I asked when I got within a few paces of the front bumper.
“The radiator hose came loose and the engine overheated.”
A plausible enough answer, but her delivery seemed a bit off. Maybe she’d rehearsed the line a few times too many. The stranded motorist sure didn’t look like a shade tree mechanic. She was wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a long-sleeved dress with a hem that brushed the tops of her sensible shoes. She was well protected from the sun. Truth to tell, she could have been waiting a long time for me to show up.
“When did it happen?” I asked.
“Just before you got here.”
That was one lie too many. There was no steam escaping from beneath the hood and there were no signs of dampness under the car.
She must have sensed my doubt somehow. “Get him, Jeff!” she yelled.
A goon popped up from behind the car and pointed his gun at me. I returned the favor.
There was no time to squeeze the trigger. I contracted my index finger as fast as I could. That jerky motion pulled my aim a little to the left. My slug caught the thug in his right arm instead of hitting him dead center. The result was satisfactory, though. He dropped his weapon and clutched his wounded arm. All of the fight had gone out of him.
Not so with his female companion. She fumbled with a purse she’d pulled out of the folds of her dress.
“Drop it,” I told her.
“Or what? You wouldn’t shoot a woman, would you?”
“You tell me. I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot an assassin, and that’s all I see in front of me right now.”
She thought it over and made the right decision. She tossed her handbag so it landed at my feet.
“What do you think’s in there?” Brenda asked. My ears were still ringing from the gunshot, so I hadn’t heard her approach.
“I suspect she has a firearm. Why don’t you see for yourself?”
I was right.
— ♦♦♦ —
The perpetrators of the ambuscade were not at all talkative. I suspected they’d been hired by Bertram, but had no proof. I kept their firearms, but after warning them to keep moving in the direction their car was pointed, I let them go.
I turned to Brenda for some answers. “Is Bertram trying to dump you?”
“No, we get along just fine.”
“Well if he’s not trying to harm you, then what is it you have that he wants?”
Apparently, my interrogation skills needed to be honed. I decided to abandon subtlety in favor of a direct approach. “What’s in your purse? What exactly is the package, anyway?”
“It’s a demonstration record of my singing. No instrumentation. Just my voice.”
“Is it any good?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t heard a playback yet.”
“Has Bertram heard it?”
“No, but he doesn’t need to. He was there during the recording session.”
“Could the record have been switched somehow?”
“No siree! I’ve kept it with me every minute. It’s been in my possession each and every second since it was completed.”
I was running out of questions, but I decided to give it one more try. “Did anything unusual happen during the session?”
“No interruptions of any kind?”
“Well, Bertie took time out for a private conversation with one of his associates, but that’s not at all unusual for him.”
“Where’d he do his talking?”
“In the recording booth. It was soundproof. He had me and the sound guy step outside. They talked for less than a minute.”
“One more question,” I said. “And please think hard before you answer. Did the sound engineer turn off the microphone during that conversation?”
Brenda wrinkled her brow as she concentrated. Then her facial muscles relaxed and her mouth opened slightly. She slowly shook her head.
That was all I needed to know. Something incriminating had been said and recorded. Bertram tried to destroy the evidence without jeopardizing his relationship with Brenda. He’d arranged for the attempted robbery. When that failed, he’d ordered a city employee to keep us from leaving town. Strike two. As a last resort, Bertram had called in reinforcements from the big city.
I shared my suspicions with Brenda.
“What should we do?” she asked.
“Your sugar daddy isn’t the only one with big city connections. I know an honest copper there who’ll take the recording off our hands. He can pass it along to the right people. Afterward, we’d need to lay low until the dust settles.”
“Okay, I guess. What about my singing?”
“There are plenty of places where you can audition,” I assured her. “If your voice is any good, you’ll find work.”
“But I get nervous when I sing in front of people,” she said. “That’s why I needed the demo record. Bertie paid handsomely for it, and I can’t afford to get a replacement.”
That reminded me I hadn’t checked the envelope yet to see how much Bertram had paid me to be his stooge. Should I offer Brenda a share? Nope, I decided. Surely I’d done enough for her already.
On the other hand, giving the wannabe chanteuse some encouraging words as a parting gift wouldn’t cost me anything extra.
“You’re easy on the eyes, Brenda,” I told her. “If your singing career doesn’t pan out, you can always get a job at the five-and-dime and wait to be discovered by one of those moving-picture guys.”
“Confession” by Micah Castle