Claret-Amerson Diamond Caper

 

Anne K. Edwards

 

 

 

I was sitting at the bar in the Turnabout watching Kira do her bump and grind, relaxing when this character come stumbling up. He leaned on the stool beside me and seemed to have difficulty breathing. “You know Joe Keeper?” he asked. In the dim lighting, I couldn’t make out his face, but he was a shortie.

“That’s me,” I told him. “Office hours is nine to five.”

I reached past him for a pickle. Mac is one of the few barkeeps to set out free eats for his customers. Nothing fancy, but it helps keep steadies coming. Today, he had added something new--potato salad with a stack of plastic plates and forks. The bowl sat on a bed of ice cubes. It was his wife’s idea, or so he said.

“I want to hire you,” the shortie said. “I’m Harry Dunninger. Work at Karthus Jewels.” He sagged a bit into his wrinkled coat, then struggled onto the stool, looking at me kind of hopeful like.

I figured him for a drunk. “What’s that to me?”

“You take the case?” he wheezed.

I shrugged. “Why not. Two hundred dollars a day and expenses.” I wasn’t doing nothing else.

He pulled out a crumpled bunch of bills and dumped them on the counter, all the time sagging lower on his stool. His other hand gripped the bar. “Here,” he pushed the money toward me. “Just got paid.” A shudder swept his body. “If it’s more, see my wife at Forty-four North Blaine.”

“What am I supposed to do for all this loot?” I counted happily. It’d show Kira a good time for a few nights.

“Find out who killed me,” he gasped. His hand let go of the counter and he fell forward. Yep. Right into Mac’s salad. He lay face down as if he was eating his fill.

For a second I didn’t realize what had happened. “Hey!” I nudged him. “You can’t sleep here.”

Mac came down the counter. He gave Harry a shove. “Get the hell outta my salad!”

Harry slumped backward off the stool and landed on the floor. The bowl of salad followed. It shattered in a mess around him.

Kira screamed. The band stopped dead. Yeh. I know, cliche time. At first, everybody seemed stunned. Then they began scrambling in different directions.

Mac leaned over the bar and I hunkered down over Harry. I pulled back his coat and saw the stain on his shirt. “Better get the cops, Mac. He’s got a hole in him.”

“Shit! And in my tater salad. Why’d he come in here to kick off?” Mac lifted out the bar phone, grumbling as he dialed. I dropped a napkin over Harry’s face. His open eyes staring up through the clinging potatoes on his face made me want to laugh.

“The cops’re coming.” Mac slapped the receiver down. “Jeez! I guess we better not let anybody else leave.” He turned to Grinner, his mountainous bouncer. “Go stand by the door. Don’t let anybody in or out ‘til the cops get here.”

They arrived with sirens wailing and screeching tires. Leading the pack was Marty Schlummel. He gave his men terse instructions and they spread out.

Marty listened to mine and Mac’s stories in glum silence. We repeated ourselves several times, trying to answer his questions. Methodical by nature, he disliked sloppy murders. And this mess had to be one of the sloppiest he’d seen in his long career. It was for me.

“We aren’t getting much out of this bunch,” he muttered as he watched the covered figure on the stretcher being loaded into the ambulance with the coroner standing beside it.

“Marty, the guy was walking dead when he came in,” I was irritated at being detained.

He chewed his cigar, eying Mac as he complained about his salad. With a grunt he said, “You stay in town.” Mumbling in disgust, he departed, taking his men with him. Late night murders were not his favorite pasttime.

Mac closed the bar for the night. “I suppose you know this is gonna give me a lot of publicity.” He grinned. “And a lot of new business.”

I knew what he meant--people would want to see where the poor stiff fell and hear Mac’s fancied up version. Humans are a morbid lot.

The street was nearly empty, except for a few cars looking for parking spots. I shoved my hands into my pockets and plodded along. Harry’d hired me to find his killer and I didn’t have the foggiest notion where to begin.

On a hunch I stopped at a telephone booth. The phone book was a torn, smelly mess of sticky pages. I pried the D’s apart and found the number I wanted.

The receiver was picked up on the first ring. “Mrs. Dunninger?”

“Yes. Who’s this?” Her voice was rough, crackling over the line.

“I’m a friend of Harry’s.”

She laughed. “Friend? Of Harry’s? That nitwit never had no friends.”

“Have the police been in touch with you?” I hoped I wouldn’t be the guy to give her the news.

“Yes. They were here a few minutes ago.” She knew. And didn’t care. That poor little guy. She must be a bitch. Her voice broke over my thoughts. “What the hell do you want?”

“I’d like to talk to you.”

She hesitated. “Now?”

“Yes. Harry hired me to do a job.”

I heard her catch her breath. I had her. She was curious. “Come then. Make it fast. I wanna get to bed.” The receiver clicked before I could say another word.

I grabbed a stray cab cruising for late fares. The back seat was enclosed and, like everything else in the city, smelled of humanity. The cabbie hunched over his wheel as if his only thought was to get me to my destination. I hadn’t failed to spot the thirty-eight on the seat beside him. Poor sap. He had one of those bulletproof inserts fitted from seat top to roof. What about the back of the seat? I never heard of one of them stopping a bullet.

He let me out in front of a grimy brick building. The neighborhood was one of those borderline areas that are liveable today, slums tomorrow. Harry hadn’t lived very well.

Half the bulbs were burned out in the hall. I damned near missed the top of the steps and fell onto the landing. Stale cooking odors and cheap cigar smoke saturated the air. It was like late Monday nights at the Turnabout. I found two oh two and banged on the door. It creaked slowly open under my pounding and I got an eyeful.

Harry’s old lady lay in a puddle of red goo the color of rotten ketchup. The apartment looked as if it had thrown up its contents. Obscene snowballs of stuffing were strewn about. Books and smashed glass littered the floor. The killer had done a thorough job. I wondered what he’d been hunting.

Using the dead woman’s phone, I called Marty Schlummel. Judging by his tone, he wasn’t thrilled to hear from me. “What the hell you bothering me about now? Can’t you let me at least get home?”

“You ain’t gonna like this, but Harry’s wife’s dead. I just got here and, Gawd, what a mess.”

“Damn!” he exploded. “I just left her.”

“You didn’t do it, did you?”

“You sumovabitch! You wait there!” He jammed the phone down. He’d be cussin’ for an hour. Marty wasn’t one of those smart-assed teevee cops. He was a real, hard-working stiff who, same as everybody else, had a home and kids he wanted to see before they grew up. And here I was piling it on. For a minute I felt guilty, but I had no choice. I didn’t want to lose my license.

Harry’s homelife couldn’t have been much. His wife obviously was no housekeeper. The place was dusty and beer bottles were dumped everywhere. One empty held a smouldering Sinclair butt. I looked at Mrs. Dunninger’s painted mouth. The butt was clean. She’d had company. Had the killer known I’d called and didn’t want her talking to me? The murder weapon, a kitchen knife, lay beside her. She hadn’t cared that Harry was dead, but somebody had cared that she was alive.

The siren sounded outside followed by slamming doors and hurrying feet on the stairs. Marty rushed into the room and stopped short. The two men following, collided with his back. “What the hell was she mixed up in?” He stared at the bloody floor.

“I don’t know, but I suspect it’s the same as her husband.”

“Why did you want to see her?” he shot at me suspiciously. “Think she could tell you who killed her old man?”

I studied his greying hair. “You need a hair cut, Marty,” I remarked. “Why do you think I wanted to see her? Harry hires me and dies in the same breath and she’s the next logical link. Somebody didn’t want me talking to the lady.”

“The killer must be a strong brute,” he muttered. “She was knifed a couple of times. Drove the blade all the way in.” Then he glared at me again. “Did you muck around in this?” He nodded at the scattered wreckage.

“No. I ain’t touched nothing except the phone. I just stood where you are and took it in. Place all tore up. And unless you intend to hold me, I’m going home. You know where I’ll be.”

“Scram.” Muttering about his working hours, he slammed the door. A nosy neighbor stuck his head out his door. I shoved my foot in it before he could change his mind.

“Cops talk to you?”

He was a little old guy, frightened by the commotion. I gave him my sternest glare.

“Yes.” He had a quavery voice and peered nearsightedly up and down the hall.

“Did you see or hear anything?” I demanded.

“What?” He once more attempted to shut his door.

“I said, did you see or hear anything? Were there any strange noises?”

“Well, she, that Mrs. Dunninger, yelled once. I figured it was her and another one of her men friends having a fight.”

“She had a lot of men friends, did she?”

“Yes. Especially when her old man was working. Poor sucker.” He got more expansive as he talked. Plainly, he liked an interested audience. “I used to see them, you know. She treated that poor guy like dirt. He finally left her. Last month, I think. Anyhow, I didn’t see him around no more.”

“Did you see anyone here in the last hour?”

“Only a tall guy, wearing a hat and black coat. He’s been coming around for weeks.”

“Did you see his face?” I pressed for something, anything.

“Only one side. He had a dark mark, like dirt on his face.” The old man finally got curious. “Say, did something happen to her?”

“The worst.” I withdrew my foot from his doorway. “Thanks.”

“The cops didn’t tell me that.” I heard him mumble. “Ask a lot of fool questions, but don’t tell nobody nothing.” He closed his door.

Once out of the building’s smelly atmosphere, I appreciated my first breath of fumefilled night air. A good sleep lured me homeward. Tomorrow would be soon enough to begin again. Kira would be waiting.

Her and I understand each other. We keep our freedom, the only way to live. I’m not about to step into that marrying trap again and she knows it. She’s been there too. And as for love, who needs it? We have a good physical thing and that’s enough.

* * *

Karthus Jewels was one of those joints with a grand front, high prices, and poor quality stuff. I knew the type. They sold a lot of junk on credit and charged the limit in interest. Their sales people were pushy types that would work on their own mothers for a ten-cent commission. Once I’d gotten Kira a watch in a joint like Karthus. It ran three weeks, then stopped. Mac’s brother took it apart and found the insides had come loose. There wasn’t anything to fix.

A tall, ugly broad came toward me. “Can I help you, Sir?” She grinned all over herself. She sure had a lot of teeth.

“Naw, I’m just looking around.” I wanted to see who was working in the store. Her long black frizzled hair resembled something I’d seen on a late night horror show. Must be the style. I guessed she was trying for the buck. I knew it wasn’t me. I ain’t the type. My nose is too big, has a hook on it. I got a blackened tooth that died from a fight I got into as a kid. My eyes is little and close set and my head is funny shaped. Kira says my low hair line makes me look like an ape.

The ugly chick moved away. She had a walk like a goose. Her tail waggled from side to side as if her two hind cheeks were fighting each other.

While I was staring at her behind, a narrow-chested baldy dashed out of the back into a side office. Pretending to examine pocket watches, I moved closer to the counter to listen through the open door.

“I tell you, it’s gone! The safe’s empty! The Claret-Amerson Diamond is gone! You know what Drakoff will say? He won’t like it.” His voice was shrill, like a scared girl.

An unseen person answered him. “Calm down, Mervin. Who worked on it? Harry?”

Wouldn’t you know, the runt had to be a Mervin.

“Of course. Who else could do the job?” He squeaked.

Since the door was ajar, I took a chance and stepped inside. The two men started at my intrusion.

“What the hell do you want?” The man behind the beat-up desk demanded, getting to his feet. Since he was assuming authority, I figured he must be the store manager.

“Just wanted to see who you were. You know, of course, Dunninger’s dead.” I spoke casually, watching for their reaction

They looked as if I’d handed them a live bomb. And it was ticking. For a split second they stood, staring at me with their mouths open. Then the runt’s legs gave out and he dropped onto a nearby chair. He put his hands over his face, scared silly.

Swallowing hard, Mervin’s boss managed. “How do you know?”

“I was with him. And I found his old lady. Dead, too. Now I learn some diamond’s missing. Want to talk about it?”

“No. Damn you. It ain’t your affair.” He hit the desk with the flat of his hand.

“Well, then I’ll tell the police what I heard here and--” I started away.

That broke the ice. “Just a minute,” he said. “Why would the police be interested in us? We didn’t--”

“You aren’t going to play dumb, are you?” I asked in an aggrieved tone. “I wasn’t born yesterday and neither were the police. Harry worked for you and he’s dead. His old lady too. Now, you got a missing stone. What conclusions would you draw if you was me?”

He let his breath out slowly. “How did you get involved?” A muscle twitched in his bony cheek.

“Dunninger hired me to find out who killed him.” I waited.

“Would you work for me? We’ve got to find that diamond!” Fear flickered across his face.

“If I solve Harry’s case, then I’ll work for you. If they conflict, I’ll have to stick with Harry. I took his dough.” There was no sense in discussing my reasons with this character. He wouldn’t understand.

“Okay, okay. We don’t have a choice. The stone is a large one, big as a hen’s egg. Harry was resetting it for the owner.” I wondered if that was the cause of his fear.

“Who’s that?”

“Mrs. Irma Dessner.”

“Why did she want it reset?” I watched his eyes. The runt, Mervin, was watching him, too. He wiped tearstreaks from his face. His body trembled as unused sobs pushed upward. The two of them were hiding something.

“Mrs. Dessner wanted a more stylish setting so she could sell the stone. Our insurance agent’ll kill us for losing it.” He was near panic. “We took out a special policy on the stone.”

“Who’s Drakoff?” I dropped the question casually.

“You don’t have to worry about him,” he said, but his ashen face told me otherwise. His hands shook.

“C’mon. Give. You’re scared to death of him. Who is he?”

He shook his head, refusing to discuss the man whose name caused such terror.

Another question occurred to me. “Where was Harry living the last month?”

“With his wife. Where else?” he said in astonishment.

“Nah. I got the word he moved out on her.” I transferred my attention to Mervin who fidgeted. Plainly, he knew. “Well?” I asked, impatient to get out of there.

“Tell him if you know.” His boss growled.

“At the Chandler.” He suppressed a sob.

It appeared Harry had stolen the stone and been killed. The killer hadn’t gotten it and thought Mrs. Dunninger had it or knew where it was. Whether or not she did, he’d killed her, too.

After I left that junk shop, I put in a call to an old pal who’d served time because he was a jewel collector. You know what I mean--his collection was hot. He’d always had a thing for diamonds that weren’t his.

He answered on the first ring.

“Hi, Carl. How you doing?”

He knew my voice. “Joe Keeper! Long time. What d’you want?”

“I need info that’s right up your alley. About the Claret-Amerson diamond.”

“What about it?” His tone was instantly wary.

“It’s been stolen and two people are dead.”

He grunted, “Ain’t heard. Living up to its reputation. Stone’s got a bloody past and it’s not a particularly good one. Flawed.”

“What’s that?”

“If it’s recut, it’ll shatter. Don’t know who’d want to chance it.”

“If you hear any gab on it, let me know.”

“Sure,” he agreed and hung up.

A passing cabbie took me to the Chandler. The aging building had no distinct personality. Where large windows had been, only small holes remained inset in newer brickwork. Heavy metal screens set behind the chipped glass doors. The place had seen better days.

The clerk resented being disturbed. “Yeh?” he asked glumly. His bald head glistened with sweat that dribbled down his stubbled cheeks.

“Did Harry Dunninger live here?” I tried to sound like one of the guys in blue.

He saw through my act. “Yes. So what’s it to you?” he demanded.

“I want to see his room.”

“The cops already been here. They didn’t find nothin’. They said not to let anybody in. Got it taped up.”

I knew what he meant. But they weren’t searching for a stone. I pulled out a twenty. “This get me in?”

He snatched it with greedy fingers. It disappeared into his grubby pocket. The shirt had his last six meals on it. “Yeh.” He tossed me a key. “Cops ask me, you took it and I dunno nothing.”

“You want to come? Make sure I don’t steal anything?” I asked sarcastically.

He shook his head. As I started for the elevator, he said loudly. “The ‘vator don’t work.”

I turned on him. “You mean I got to--”

He leered. “Yeh. Five flights.”

Cussing his birth, I climbed the stairs. They hadn’t been cleaned in years. The paint was peeling off cracked plaster and patches were missing in the ceiling. I was gaspin’ for breath when I hit the fifth floor. Guess I wasn’t in such great shape.

Harry’s room was the second door on the left.

I was putting the key in the lock when somebody hit me from behind. Slow in fading, I remember voices, a man and a woman, and the heavy, cloying stink of Amber Mist. Same junk Kira wears when she wants to pick a fight.

The woman said, “I didn’t want him hurt.”

The man’s voice grated on my ears. “He ain’t.”

She was in a hurry. “Find the stone and let’s get out of here.”

“Give me a chance.” He sounded like he had a cold.

It was the last thing I heard.

When I regained consciousness, I lay face down with a mouthful of green fuzz from the rug. It took a few minutes to clear the fog out of my brain. I’d been out for about an hour. Unsteady on my feet, I hung on the door frame looking into Harry’s room. It was a mess.

There was a body on the floor. Like a broken doll, his head twisted at an unnatural angle. I checked for a pulse. None. His neck had been snapped.

He’d been a tall, skinny dude with a dark birthmark on his left cheek and a mop of bushy black hair. His mouth sneered at death. I poked around the room, but found no diamond. I went through his pockets. Nothing.

The nearest phone was in the lobby. Huffing, I dug out fifteen cents and called the cops. Marty hated me by now.

Our brief exchange was heated. I hung up on him as he raved about his problems. As our relationship extended back to his rookie days, I knew we’d be friends when he cooled down. I turned back to the clerk. “How come you gave me the key to a room with a dead man in it?”

“Dead man?” he echoed stupidly.

“Yeh, dead! Who’s he?” I thought about slugging him for those stairs.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t know anybody died up there.”

I believed him. A body could lay for five years and he’d never venture upstairs.

“What does Drakoff look like? Got a scar?”

He shook his head. “Drakoff? I don’t know nobody with that name. Only scar I know is Judd Frazier. Birthmark on his left cheek.”

“Judd Frazier? How come he was in Dunninger’s room?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. He lives in two fifteen.”

Frazier had been a gigolo, deriving his income from rich, older dames like Mrs. Dessner.

I tapped the desk. Frazier’s room was my next stop. “I called the cops,” I told the clerk. “When they get here, tell them I don’t know who did it. I got conked on the head. I’ll check in with them later.”

He looked longingly toward the rear exit. I knew he’d had trouble with police before. But he wouldn’t run. They’d only suspect he’d done the murder.

“Gimme the key to Frazier’s room.” I stuck out my hand.

He hesitated.

“Give!” I glared at him.

He mumbled something about the cops and handed me the key.

I trudged up the stairs again, rubbing my sore head. I was getting tired of finding bodies. Live people are bad enough, but dead...

Fortunately, the second floor wasn’t a bad climb. Frazier’s room was at the end of the crummy hall. After several tries with the bent key, I managed to get the door open. There wasn’t much to see. Frazier had little to show for having lived.

The room was untouched. Apparently, the killer hadn’t bothered to search it. He must be certain Frazier hadn’t had the stone. I snooped through the dead man’s few possessions. He’d been a man with expensive tastes. A small bundle of letters tied with a sad looking, red ribbon were tucked away in a jacket pocket. I scanned a couple. Other than being indiscreet, Mrs. Dessner was a bore. What had attracted Frazier to her? Money? The letters weren’t going to tell Marty Schlummel who killed Judd Frazier.

As I came down the last flight of steps, I heard Marty’s voice. He was haranguing the clerk at the desk for giving me the key to Frazier’s room.

“I dunno nothing. Nothing,” The man denied. He wouldn’t have admitted to being at the Chandler at that moment.

“I ought to book you.” Marty threatened him.

“What for? I ain’t done nothing. You ain’t gonna railroad me. I was watching teevee. He come in and took the key. I ain’t gonna argue with nobody. ‘Sides you didn’t say I couldn’t let nobody in Frazier’s room.”

Marty made a face at his stubbornness and turned on me. “I ought to run you in. Damn it, Joe. Why can’t you keep your nose out of this? Every time you get involved in a case, I got bodies up to my butt.”

I let him spend some of his anger. It isn’t good to keep it bottled up. “Just lucky, I guess. I see you didn’t get anything out of him.” I nodded at the clerk.

“He says you took the key. That right?”

“More or less. Cost me twenty.” I grinned. Marty’d hassle him for that.

“What do you know about Frazier?” He asked tiredly.

“Not much. Ain’t much to see in his room. Some letters, but they don’t say who killed him.”

“You figure you done our work for us? We might as well go home.” Marty got sarcastic.

I shrugged. “You seen the body? Broken neck. Killer must be a real bull.”

“How does Frazier fit in?”

“He’s in Dunninger’s room. That’s for starters.”

“What were you doing in Dunninger’s room?”

“I never made it. I got knocked on the head. Hurts like hell, too. I heard a man and a woman talking before I passed out.”

“Who were they?”

“I should know? I didn’t see them. They were looking for something.”

He grunted and looked thoughful.

“I’ll be in touch.” I headed for the door.

He was standing, staring at the back. I think he believed the intruder who conked me, came in through that door while the clerk was holed up in his room, watching teevee.

I hailed a passing cabbie. He talked nonstop, not noticing that I didn’t answer. He went on about the fights, his wife, and the weather. It was a long, hot ride.

We finally reached LaSalle Street. The Dessner home was a big sprawley place, all white with a red tiled roof. Snotty statues cavorting on the huge lawn didn’t add much. Hedges and trees surrounded the place. The long drive arced in a wide swing to the front door. All it needed was a doorman.

I clambered out and paid the driver. He studied the tip, scowled, and pulled away with a screech of tires. Next time he’d keep quiet.

It took me a minute to find the bell. It was buried among ridges and lumps in the woodwork. Musical chimes pingponged somewhere in the house.

Reminiscent of a thirties flick, the butler answered. He wore a proper, snooty expression. “Yass?” Plainly, I was intruding.

“I want to see Mrs. Dessner.”

“Mrs. Dessner is not at home, Sir.” I could see it pained him to be polite.

“Look you, I’m not fooling around. Tell her, she sees me or I go to the cops and she can see them.” Her car was parked out front. At least, I thought that long low green job would be hers.

“Will you wait?” He shut the door in my face. I looked around. Not a place to my taste. The gingerbread witch’s house painted over would have resembled it.

The butler returned. “Mrs. Dessner will receive you in the morning room.” He shut the door and led me through a maze. Not being up on gracious living, I wouldn’t know one room from another, but each one was jammed with furniture.

He ushered me into a room walled with windows where plants vied for the sunlight. Mrs. Dessner turned toward me with a coy smile. On a twenty-year-old, it would’ve been right but on a dame in her fifties--well... Short and dumpy, she wore gray streaks in a bad dye job. Too much makeup. Her mouth looked like somebody stabbed her. It didn’t match her bloodshot blue eyes.

“What did you want to see me about?” Her voice was velvet, sexy. And that damned Amber Mist. I knew she’d been at the Chandler when Frazier’d been killed.

“Name’s Keeper. I’ve got some bad news for you. You wanna sit down?”

She sat and assumed a perplexed expression. “Well?” she pouted.

I let her have it straight. “Frazier’s dead.”

She stiffened slightly. Her face tightened and she lost all pretense. “What’s that to me?” she asked indifferently.

We exchanged deadpan expressions. “I’m the guy you had conked on the head at the Chandler.”

“You get out of here! Get out!” Her voice rose to a soprano level as she jumped out of her chair.

I didn’t move, just waited for the dramatics to end. “When you’re finished,” I said.

She slapped me. It stung some, but I let it pass. I ain’t a woman knocker. “Are you done?” I got sarcastic.

If looks could kill, I’d have been dead right there. “What do you want? Money?”

I shook my head. “Information. Harry Dunninger hired me to find out who killed him. Your stone’s missing and you were in his room at the Chandler. A third body turned up there. You’re the common link in three deaths. If I put it together, the cops will too.”

The fight went out of her. She sat heavily on a ruffled chair. Tears filled her eyes as she looked up at me. The defenseless bit was as phony as the tough dame routine.

“I don’t know who killed Judd. I wasn’t at the Chandler.” She cried into a hanky she pulled from her sleeve.

“Yes, you were,” I corrected her. “You left a trail a mile wide behind. I can testify I heard your voice and that cheap perfume you wear was pretty strong. Got a good whiff before I passed out.” I took a deep breath. “You were hunting your diamond. And the man with you-- If he killed Frazier, you’re either a witness or an accessory. Think about it.” I pressured her. “Freedom or the rest of your life in jail.”

She twisted the hanky into a ball. “I wasn’t there,” she said. “If you have any more questions, see my attorney.” She drew herself up and flounced out of the room.

After a few seconds of silent contemplation, I let myself out a side door. I came around a corner and saw a swimming pool anybody’d want to own. A tall, blond, muscle-bound character clambered out. He was huge. No wonder she hadn’t cried for Frazier. This must be his replacement.

He saw me. “Who’re you?” he asked in a familiar, harsh whisper.

“Joe Keeper. Who’re you?”

“None of your business.” He looked down at me. Well over six, six, I guessed. “What do you want?” he demanded hoarsely.

“Talk to you.” I allowed myself a smile. “Nice to see you again.”

“Never met you.” He toweled off his thick arms.

“Yeh, you did. At the Chandler.”

His eyes widened, then he set his jaw. “I said--” He whispered menacingly.

I cut him off. “Yeh, I know. But you better talk to me. Did you kill Dunninger, his wife, or Judd Frazier?”

He returned my stare. Deadest eyes I ever saw. Then I saw why he whispered. Some time in the past, he’d badly injured his throat. The ugly scar extended up the side of his face.

“No.” His knuckles whitened as he twisted the towel. “I didn’t. I hardly knew Frazier.”

“You’re his successor, ain’t you?” I dared.

A dull roar escaped his throat as he lunged at me. I jumped out of his way and yanked ole Bessie out of her holster. That stopped him cold. “You dirty bastard.” His face twisted into a mask of rage. “She’s my mother. I’ll kill you for that.”

Mrs. Dessner came out of the house. For a dumpy dame she moved fast. “Shut up, you fool. Shut up!” she yelled.

He drew back, the intensity of his anger visible in every line of his taut body.

I put my pistol away, waiting. “Well,” I said into the following silence. “I saw him at the Chandler, too.”

She paled as she clutched her son’s arm. “No,” she said. “He didn’t kill anyone.”

“Shut up, Ma.” He withdrew from her grasp. He watched me, his face mean. “We wnt to the Chandler to find Ma’s diamond. Bailey, at Karthus, called and told us it was stolen. Ma’s near broke. The house is being sold for taxes. That stone is her last possession of value. I knocked you out and we searched Dunninger’s room. Frazier showed up and demanded a share for his silence. I told him to go to hell. He said he knew it was an insurance rip-off and would tell the cops unless we cut him in. I socked him and we left.” His throat worked laboriously as he spoke.

“It won’t wash. Somebody killed Frazier. I was out cold. You could’ve done it. His neck’s broke.”

“I didn’t do it,” he denied grimly. I heard him, but I wouldn’t have bet money on his innocence.

“The cops’ll have to be convinced,” I told him. “And that’ll take some doing.”

What they’d tell the cops was their problem. I needed time to think so I walked back to town. I dropped in on Marty at the justice building.

“What’re you doing here?” he asked. “Find another body?”

I lit a cigar I filched from his box, then sat on his desk and leaned toward him. “Let’s tell each other stories, Marty,” I suggested.

He grimaced, then sighed. “Sure. I figured you’d be around sooner or later.”

I blew smoke. “You got something on a cat called Drakoff? I need him.”

“You wanna trade, eh? Suppose I just book you for interfering with a police investigation?” Marty was sure he had the upper hand.

“Your predecessor, Al Coplan, tried that one and got his wrist slapped,” I told him. “Check with him and see.”

“All right,” he growled and pressed a buzzer. “Get me the file on Drakoff,” he told the anonymous voice that answered, then looked at me. “How does he fit into this mess?”

“Marty, I don’t know. I’m grabbing straws. The people at the Chandler were Irma Dessner and her son. But,” I warned him, “I’m not sure they killed Frazier. They were hunting a missing diamond that Dunninger was working on. It belonged to the old lady.” I knew he’d pull them in. That evened up the bang on the head they’d given me.

He nodded. What I told him must have agreed with his own information.

When the thick folder was delivered, Marty thumbed through it. My boy was a busy one. “What’re you after?” he asked, flipping the pages.

“ID, an address. He done time?”

“Yeh. But he died last year at Rentonville Mental Institute.”

“Kids? A son?”

“Two. Owned a house at Four Levee Street, but it was sold.” He passed the folder to me.

I glanced through it. There wasn’t anything for me in that file. I got to my feet and put out my cigar. “Thanks.” I felt his eyes on my back as I went out.

The air remained warm. I could smell rain. Summer showers are my favorite. I never outgrew splashing in puddles. Kira thinks I’m nuts.

I walked several blocks trying to put things together. If Harry’d taken the stone, where was it? Why did he take it? I headed back to Karthus Jewels.

It was near lunch time. Mervin saw me coming and tried to make himself invisible. But I motioned to the tall, ugly broad. “Lunch?” I jerked my thumb toward the door.

She squealed with delight. Men weren’t plentiful in her life. Her skirt was too tight and too damned short. But I wasn’t hunting for pleasure.

Over beer and ham sammiches, we got acquainted. She began giggling coyly after her fourth beer. I questioned her about herself and her friends, slowly leading up to the shop. She was eager to talk, to keep me with her.

“Oh, sure, Harry talked a bit. He was so unhappy, poor man. I felt so sorry for him. I mean, if I had a wife like that Lydia--well, you know. She used to come into the store all the time for money. The day before he died, she came in. I heard her telling him that for twenty thousand dollars he could have his freedom. Of course, you know, I wasn’t eavesdropping, but the door was open and I had--”

I patted her hand. “Yeh, sure.” I ordered another round of beers. “Did Harry have any gal friends? I’m trying to clear up his death and need to talk to anyone who might have information.”

“Well.” She got cute. It didn’t look right on her. But... “He and I were sort of--well, you know.”

“Oh.” I let it out softly. She considered Harry a catch if his wife let him go. Funny though, she wasn’t mourning her loss. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to find someone he told me about. Drakoff?”

“Drakoff?” She played with the name and the foam on her fifth beer. “Well, I heard that name somewhere. Let me think.” She screwed up her face in the effort. “Yeh. Mervin mentioned him. Drakoff come into see him and Bailey.” Her eyes widened. “Big. like a football player. Looks mean as hell, too. I think he’s the insurance agent.”

“Did he have a scar?”

She put away that beer and giggled sloppily. “Nope.” She almost fell off her chair.

Drakoff was in insurance. That explained their reticence to talk. He probably held the policy himself. Wouldn’t like eating the paper.

If I had things straight, Harry took the stone to sell to pay off his wife. That explained its disappearance. Question was, what had Harry done with it?

After lunch I decided to retrace my steps. I returned to see Lydia Dunninger’s neighbor. He’d given me the information about her last visitor. Frazier. Fool. Two women. Got burnt good.

The old guy was slow in answering. Traces of sleep remained on his lined face.

He wasn’t glad to see me. “What do you want now?” He demanded.

“Just a few more questions. On the night Mrs. Dunninger died, did she have any other visitors?” I knew I was reaching.

He looked a little vague. “Uh-hum. But I guess he musta left before that other one got there. He was a big guy. Blond. Built like a bull. Seen him through the door when I looked out.”

“Did he have a scar on his face or throat?” It sounded like Dessner.

The old man shook his head. “Nope.”

That blew my theory to hell. It wasn’t Dessner. “You’re sure?”

“Yep.” He nodded.

I thanked him and drifted back down to the street. A second visit to the Chandler might yield fresh information. The walk did me good. It cleared some of the cobwebs. I banged on the desk for the clerk. He didn’t answer.

I went around the desk intending to lift the keys to Harry’s room. A pair of legs tripped me. They belonged to the clerk. Somebody had stuffed him into the lower shelf of the desk.

I bent down to take a look. His eyes bulged and his tongue protruded from his blue face. A black tie cut into his throat. I felt sorry for the slob.

The key ring let me into his room. He’d been a garbage collector. Newspapers were piled to the ceiling in corners. There were boxes of rags and papers piled haphazardly. The only thing I found of interest was a small clipping on the floor near the door. It was an obit notice on one Charles Drakoff, con man, burglar, extortionist, and robber. He’d died in Rentonville at age sixty four, leaving behind two sons. No wife was mentioned. The sons weren’t named. He wasn’t important in death.

I dropped the clipping. Marty would want it for his investigation. I called him, again using the lobby telephone. If bodies kept turning up, I was going to send the city a bill for expenses.

I decided against searching Harry’s room again. I’d given it the once over when I found Frazier and found nothing. Those stairs weren’t worth it. I waited for Marty and his corps of technicians. When he arrived, he was steaming. He started right in on me.

“What is it with you? How is it every time there’s a killing, you turn up? You smell blood or something?”

I let him get it off his chest. He was under pressure from superiors and the newspapers. When he finally spluttered to a halt, I ventured, “That all?”

“All? All? No, it isn’t all! I want what you know and I want it now! No more teasers.” His face crimsoned as he stormed at me.

“You better cool off. Your blood pressure’s gonna be outta sight. You know more’n I do. You’ve got lab reports and all I’ve got are hunches. I don’t have anything but corpses, a missing diamond, and an idea. I wish I could help, but I’m running blind.” I started for the door.

He stopped me. “Just a minute. Do you know who’d want him dead?” He nodded toward the desk clerk’s body.

“Same guy killed Frazier, I’d guess.”

“Still think Dessner’s a possible?”

“Maybe. Did you talk to them?”

“A little. Their attorney told him and his ma to keep quiet, unless we put a charge on them. He figured we ain’t got enough circumstantial.” Marty ran his hand wearily through his hair.

“You done with me?”

“For the time being. Keep yourself available.”

I knew what my next stop would be. The dead files at the City Daily contained items on forgotten pieces of history. Perhaps I could find a clue to the present in the past.

I had a brief discussion with Toddie Carruthers, an editor I’d helped once. He let me use the readers and microfilm files. After what seemed hours of staring at blurry print, I found one small, fuzzy photo of Drakoff, his wife and two sons. The younger boy had a scar running up the front of his throat. The wife was short and dumpy with a pretty face. I’d seen her recently, but she was older. Drakoff had gone nuts during his trial and wound up at Rentonville.

I returned to the world of the living with a sigh of satisfaction. I was certain I knew the killer. I indulged myself in a huge lunch, then grabbed a cab. The driver dropped me at the Dessner residence. Mrs. Dessner opened the door to my ring. Her eyes were red, puffy from crying. “What do you want now?” she sniffled at me.

“This ain’t a social call,” I told her. “I come to see you about your husband.”

She shivered, but held her ground. “He’s dead.”

“Yeh, I know. So’s Drakoff.”

She flinched at the name. “I don’t know--”

“Do I have to go to the Hall of Records?”

“No...no.” She retreated, sniffling into her hanky. Women’s tears bug me. I tried to ignore them. “Perhaps, you’d better come in.” She stood aside.

I followed her into a small room furnished very modernly. You know, chrome and glass. We sat on dinky white chairs facing each other. She offered me a drink. I declined. Finally, she quit beating around the bush and got to the point.

“How did you find out I was married to Charles Drakoff?” she asked.

“I saw you in an old photo. You have two sons. Cal is here and took Dessner’s name. Where’s the other one?”

“Ben never lived with us. He hated me. When I divorced his father, he ran away. He went to live with his father’s sister, Megan. I...she hated me, too.” She stared out the window as if remembering. “He said he’d never forgive me. I guess he didn’t.”

“Where is he now?”

“In town. Cal saw him. I haven’t. He works as an insurance salesman.” She shuddered as a lone sob broke from her lips. “Cal said he was fired last month. He kept money his clients gave him. He’s just like his father--no good.” She spoke the last word as if it explained everything.

I got to my feet. “The police have the letters you wrote Frazier. Was he blackmailing you?”

She considered the question, dabbing at her eyes. “He only threatened to. He knew Cal would be embarrassed if he was exposed as Drakoff’s son. He’s engaged to Cleo Ames, a lovely girl from a prominent family.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Dessner. I’ll see myself out.” To my surprise I found the door without getting lost. As I closed it behind me, I heard the sound of renewed weeping.

I walked several blocks. The neighborhood stretched into older, more cluttered sections where worn-out houses occupied weedy lots. Levee Street unwound like a long, narrow ribbon down to the river. The numbering didn’t make sense, but I found number four. It was boarded up. I tried to imagine the people who lived there as the Drakoff family. After a few minutes I started away and ran into an old lady standing on the walk in front of the house next door. “You want something?” she demanded, her nose quivering. She’d scented prospective game.

“Just looking for an old friend. Named Charley Drakoff. Lived over there, I think.” I played dumb.

“Oh, him.” She spit on the grass. “He went crazy and got put away. His kids was nutsy too.”

“What?” I tried to sound startled.

“Ah.” She made a face. “His older kid pushed the younger one downstairs on a tricycle. When I heard his ma yell, I ran over. Boy, a real mess. Blood all over. The kid cut his throat on something. I thought he was gonna die. And that other kid, you know--the older one. He was just standing and grinning at what he’d done. I heard him say he guessed he’d taught Callie a lesson. His ma moved out a few months later. I saw him, I think it was Ben, the other day. Out here. He did just like you, standing and staring at that ole house. Then he just went away,” she rattled on. I finally thanked her and hurried off. Things were gnawing at me. I decided to head for home and Kira.

The next morning I felt better and picked up where I’d left off. I directed my steps to Karthus Jewels. Too late! It was a smoking wreck when I arrived. I tromped over unwound hoses and got wet feet in streaming water. Traffic was halted and people milled around. Ambulances loaded three covered stretchers. I stared at them sadly. They weren’t going to the hospital for any treatment. I was aware of a vague sorrow for the fat broad. She didn’t deserve to go like that.

Fire Chief Miles stalked about holding his hat. His eyes were reddened from smoke. “What happened?” I managed to make myself heard above the noise.

“Hello, Joe. Somebody didn’t like that store. Blew the whole inside out. But I think they were shot first.” He gestured wearily toward the departing ambulances. “Who’d do a vicious thing like that? Robbery ain’t what it used to be.”

“Silencer, you think?”

“Yeh. Last night. And from the smell, I’d say the killer dumped a whole truck load of gasoline before he fired it. Must’ve used a timer to set it off.”

I meandered through the mess talking to firemen and spectators. Nobody saw anything. Too hot to go into the burned out hulk. Didn’t try. Cops can’t tell a good guy from a looter at times. I didn’t argue. I went back to the Turnabout.

Kira was rehearsing her kooch dance. The early comers were looking but not seeing. Me, I always enjoyed her. But I had something else on my mind.

Mac was glum. Almost surly. I heard somebody ragging him about his wife’s crystal bowl getting busted. She was one to make an issue of everything. There’d be no more free potato salad at the bar.

I turned my concentration to Ben Drakoff. He had to be somewhere. Was he in hiding after this last murder or was he still hunting that diamond? “Mac, can I use your phone?”

“Sure. Fifteen cents.” He stuck out his hand. “Bar phone’s out of order again.”

“Scrooge.” I gave him fifteen pennies. He glared at me and jerked his head toward the kitchen even though I knew where it was.

The place smelled of fried and boiled onions. Now I understood why everything he served tasted like onions.

The phone was greasy. I wiped my dialing finger on my sleeve. When I asked for Marty Schlummel, I could taste onions. That’d cut any conversation short.

“Marty?”

“Yes,” he answered slowly.

“I keep coming back to Ben Drakoff. Have you found him yet?”

“Naw. We’re looking. He’s not in sight.”

“If you get him, would you let me know? I got a few questions for him.”

“Yeh. Keep in touch.” I heard the click at the other end. If Ben was in town, they’d net him.

I played with my beer, going over Harry’s death. And those that followed. No one knw where that damned diamond was. All that killing by a killer nobody saw. There was something screwy about that. How can a man always be invisible?

I caught Mac’s mood. “You know, Mac, I thought I had it all solved. But all I got is a bunch of corpses and no killer.”

He wasn’t listening. “You ain’t got no trouble until you marry my wife,” he grumbled. “Been bitching at me to get her another bowl. Took hours to get all the pieces cleaned up. Junky crystal broke all over. Was even some in the dead guy’s coat. When they picked him up, left a trail to the door. And that ice--”

I only half listened to his carping. I’d seen the mess. At last, I decided to try one last time. A stray cabbie took me to the Dessner home. Instead of thanking me for the tip, he scowled and wheeled away indignantly. Shrugging, I strolled around the back for another look at that swimming pool. A pretty little doll lounged on more than she was wearing. She eyed me like I was a bug.

“Are you looking for someone?” Her tone was polite, and veddy, veddy upper crust.

“Cal,” I said, gaping. She wasn’t hard to look at.

“He’s not here.” She didn’t volunteer anything.

“Where’s he?”

“Oh, somewhere at the university.”

“What’s he doing there?” He wasn’t the college boy type.

“He teaches. Theater or something like that. Why do you want him?”

“I wanna talk to him.” I headed for the school. The walk would do me good.

The campus sprawled over several blocks. the buildings had names, but all looked alike. After wandering through several, I found Dessner’s den at the end of the campus in an old brickpile. He was in his office, a paper-cluttered closet with books covering the desk and chairs. He looked up at me and grated, “What the hell you want now?”

I felt the menace in him. He was mean, ugly mean. I touched Bessie for reassurance. “Where were you this morning?” I sniffed audibly. A pile of clothes heaped in a corner gave off gasoline fumes.

He stiffened. “I was here.”

“C’mon. You know when I mean. Before dawn.”

“What is this about?” he demanded, getting to his feet. His eyes were hard. His scar was red, raw looking.

I brought out Bessie. “Sit down. Over there,” I ordered, motioning him into a chair. “Now tell me why.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His blue eyes glazed over. He wrapped his long, thick fingers around the wooden arms till his knuckles turned white. The wood groaned under the tension. The scar throbbed, livid.

One of the few times in my life I’ve known fear. A bullet wouldn’t stop him if he lunged at me. I decided to try a bluff. “You tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine. I know where the stone is.”

The arm came off the chair in his hand. He held it as if unaware, staring through me.

“He’s dead,” he said suddenly.

“I don’t follow you. Who’s dead?”

His bullet head swiveled around to the lone window. “Ben.”

That explained why he hadn’t been found. “When?”

“Six months ago. I shot him and buried him in mother’s rose bed.” His free hand rubbed his scar. “I had to get even. I set up an identity for him. Moonlighted as an insurance salesman, lived at a hotel. Dead, he was of some use to me.”

For a moment, his eyes cleared of madness. He’d set Ben Drakoff up as the killer. Clever. I knew why Bailey and Mervin had feared their insurance agent.

He continued. “Mother didn’t punish him for pushing me. He thought it was funny. He laughed.” Cal heaved himself out of the chair, pacing, unaware of me for a minute. I kept Bessie ready. “I hated her for that. And her stinginess. She makes me beg for money. Ask nicely and I’ll give you what you want. I’m not a dog! I’m a man! Now she understands. Now she knows!” he ranted.

“When did you kill Frazier?” I hadn’t figured that one out.

“I told Mother to wait in the hall, that I wanted to talk to him alone. We found him snooping in Dunninger’s room. He wanted the diamond.”

His mother knew he’d killed Frazier. She’d be indicted as an accomplice when Schlummel picked him up.

“Killing him was easy. He didn’t struggle much.” Those huge hands twitched restlessly as if remembering. He took out a Sinclair.

“How long were you at Mrs. Dunninger’s the night you killed her?”

“I climbed up the fire escape and in the kitchen window. It was open. She told me to get out. I grabbed a knife and shut her up.”

“You should’ve known she didn’t have it.”

“He didn’t have it. She didn't either. I looked everywhere in her dump.” He blew smoke. “I figured he might’ve given it to her.”

“How come you didn’t have a scar when you went to see her?”

He grunted and looked down at me. “I covered it with makeup. That’s the advantage of live stage work. Whenever I was Ben, I covered it.”

“You voice?” I wondered how he managed that.

“They didn’t know me as Cal. Thought I had a cold.”

“Did you kill the desk clerk because he knew you?”

“Naw, but he was guessing. He called me at home. I got rid of all the witnesses that had seen me as Ben. Those jerks at the jewelry store just stood there while I pumped bullets into them.”

He showed no sign of remorse. “Why did you kill them? They’d never have talked. They didn’t know anything. They were too scared of you.” I remembered Mervin’s tears. And the fat dame. I didn’t even know her name.

“I don’t take chances. I took care of all the loose ends.” He lost his clarity as he crushed out his smoking stub. “The stone is mine. I’m going to get away from Mother. And Cleo. I’m not marrying a woman like Mother.” With unexpected violence, he hurled the ashtray to the floor. “I killed them all. They wouldn’t give me the diamond.” He lifted his gaze to me. I read death in those cold eyes. “Where is the diamond?” he demanded grimly, his fingers doing my death dance. I could see him measuring me. And Bessie.

“You won’t like the truth. No one has it. It’s lost.”

“Where is it?” He was intent on one fact only.

Whether or not I told him, I’d die. It was a certainty. I waved Bessie warningly in his face. “Sit down,” I spat the words at him.

He glared at me, his throat working. “Where is it?”

“Oh, what the hell. It’s in the garbage.”

He stared at me. “Garbage?” he repeated stupidly.

“Yeh. Harry dropped it in the potato salad when he died. It got swept into the garbage with the broken glass.”

For a split second he stood there. I never saw him coming. I heard Bessie discharge as he sent me flying. I landed in front of the desk, hard. For some time I lay on the floor trying to get my wind back, thankful to be alive.

I knew where Dessner was headed. I grabbed up his phone to call Marty. I hoped it would be the last time. My whole body was going to be one gorgeous bruise. Kira’d love that.

* * *

A day later, someone banged on my office door. It was Marty. “Why’d you lock the door?” he asked innocently, smirking at my pain. I was stiff from the top of my head down. My ribs were taped and the damned stuff itched. I’m allergic to adhesive tape. It always gives me a good rash.

“If you’ve come to gloat--” I began.

“Nah. Just wanted to tell you, we got him. Right where you said he’d be. Took six men to bring him in. He’s a tough sucker. Had a hole in his left arm.”

“Bessie,” I mumbled. “When he jumped me.”

“I don’t understand why he was yelling and throwing garbage around. Scared the hell out of the workers down there. He’s a real looney. How did you know where he’d be anyhow?” Marty peered at me suspiciously.

“A lucky guess. You’ll find his brother, Ben, in his ma’s rose bed. He was the first.”

Marty pursed his lips. “Where’s the stone?”

“Can’t fool you, can I””

He shook his head. “I’m waiting.”

“All right. He was looking for that diamond. When Harry died, he dropped it in the mess he made when he fell off the stool.”

Marty’s jaw dropped. He stared at me. I couldn’t blame him. I knew if he didn’t buy it, nobody else would. He slammed the door on his way out. Eight people died for a hunk of quartz. Maybe it was better if it stayed where it was. I wasn’t going to hunt for it.

I went down to the Turnabout to watch Kira dance. She was pretty sore about the last few days and I wanted to make up with her. It’d be nice to get back to normal.

 


Author Bio

Anne K. Edwards lives in southern Pennsylvania on a small farm where her sporadic efforts at writing finally turned into an occupation. She's happy to announce her latest book, Death On Delivery, will soon be published as an ebook by Twilight Times Books.

Ms. Edwards recently accepted a position as an editor with Twilight Times Books. She also has short stories published on the Internet. As a member of Pennwriters, she credits the critique group she joined through them as helping her getting published.

Her hobbies include horses and cats.

 

 


 

 

"Claret-Amerson Diamond Caper" Copyright © 2003 Anne K. Edwards. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 07-30-03.

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