Authors: Brett Halliday
Tags: #detective, #mystery, #murder, #private eye, #crime, #suspense, #hardboiled
“You will excuse me?” Hilda was on her feet and moving away from them before Shayne could reply.
Then he said flatly, “My office hours are nine to five. Make an appointment with Miss Hamilton.”
“This is off the record, Shayne. I need professional advice.”
“Do you invite your doctor to a party to get a free prescription from him?” Shayne’s face remained expressionless, but his voice was intentionally insolent.
“See here, Shayne.” Henderson stopped and controlled himself with obvious effort. He smiled thinly and his voice became placating. “I understand, of course, and I’ll be happy to pay your fee for any professional advice you give me. What is your regular charge for a consultation?”
Shayne drained his glass and said, “I think another sidecar will cover it.” He stood up and Henderson stepped aside, followed close behind him to the bar where the waiter smilingly emptied the contents of the shaker into Shayne’s outheld glass.
Saul Henderson murmured, “This way, if you don’t mind,” and went to a closed door beyond the bar which he opened and held for the detective to walk past him.
Beyond the door was a small den, efficiently equipped with a desk, portable typewriter on a wheeled stand, and filing cabinets.
Shayne went in and set his cocktail glass on the desk. He got out a cigarette and lit it while his host closed the door and sat down in front of the desk with a deep sigh. Shayne looked down at him quizzically, then pulled up a straight chair and also sat down.
“Let me say first, Mr. Shayne, that it’s like providence, having you here to talk to. I had a curious feeling that fate was taking a hand when your reporter friend called me out of the blue this morning. It came to me like a flash that you were exactly the man for me to confide in.”
Shayne took a deep drag on his cigarette and waited.
“I have to talk to someone. I don’t know why I didn’t think of you earlier. I did consider going to a private detective, but I hesitated because… well, the feeling one has about private detectives.”
“What sort of feeling does one have about private detectives?”
“I’m saying it badly. You’re not in that general category at all, of course. Now that I’ve met you socially I have no hesitancy to… to coin a phrase…” He laughed deprecatingly. “… to bare my soul to you. Everything about you bears out the impression I’ve got from reading newspaper accounts of your exploits.”
Shayne said placidly, “I’m glad I passed inspection.” He drank half his sidecar and set the glass down. “Shall we skip the pleasantries and get down to business?”
“It’s just that I… it’s so difficult to know where to begin.”
“Try the beginning.”
“Yes… well… I’m frightened, Mr. Shayne. In deathly fear for my life. Two attempts have been made to murder me in the last few days.” His voice quavered. “I need… protection.”
“Go to the police. That’s their job.”
“Naturally, I have been to the police. I reported each attempt on my life immediately. They made a cursory investigation of course, and then came up with the bright idea that they could have both been accidents. Wholly coincidental, of course, that the two attempts occurred within three days of each other.”
“Could they have been accidents?”
“Either one of them
Shayne emptied his glass and twirled it about reflectively by its long stem. “Tell me about them.”
“The first was last Monday. At dusk when I was driving home for dinner. I was just turning in my driveway when I heard the crack of a shot and a bullet embedded itself in the seat upholstery not more than an inch from my right shoulder.”
“You didn’t see anyone?”
“Naturally not. It was beginning dusk and I simply stepped on the gas and roared up the drive. I hurried inside and called the police to report it. A couple of stupid detectives came around eventually. They dug the bullet out and made some wild guesses about distance and muzzle velocity and so forth, and then said probably it was just some juvenile delinquent firing a rifle wildly into the air.”
“And the second one?”
“Yesterday afternoon. I had a Chriscraft twenty-footer in my boathouse which I often took out alone for a spin on a calm day. I thoroughly enjoy heading directly out to sea and being alone with the salt sea spray and the sun and the roar of a powerful motor in my ears. Yesterday afternoon I was at least four miles out when the motor exploded. There was a terrific roar and a blinding flash of flame and everything went up in pieces. The entire hull was torn apart and it sank in a matter of minutes. Luckily I escaped injury and was able to leap overboard into the water. I’m a very poor swimmer and could not possibly have remained afloat more than a few minutes, so whoever planned it had the expectation that if the explosion did not kill me I would almost surely drown.”
“But you didn’t.”
“But I didn’t. By an absolute miracle there was a fishing boat not more than five hundred yards away. The only craft within miles of me. They rescued me and brought me in safely.”
“And the police think that was an accident too?”
“They insist that it
have been easily enough. A spark from the engine igniting the gasoline tank. I explained it wasn’t that
of explosion. That it was definitely a bomb of some sort. But I haven’t any proof. Just my own positive impression of what happened. And there’s no chance of recovering the boat to ever find out what caused it.”
“But coupled with the bullet on Monday you’re convinced that someone is out to get you?”
Shayne shrugged his wide shoulders. “Not convinced. I certainly agree that the law of probabilities is being stretched pretty thin if we accept them both as coincidences. What does Petey Painter think?” he ended blandly.
“Painter!” Saul Henderson spat out the word as though he had bitten into a worm. “I talked to him all right. Insisted that he see me when they tried to put me off with an inspector or something. Well, you know Peter Painter better than I do. Strutting little nincompoop. He sat in his office and smirked and gloated. He knows, of course, that he’s one of the first men on the Beach slated to go when the Reform Administration takes over after the next election. His department is riddled with graft, and people are sick and tired of the highhanded way he runs things. You know yourself that Miami Beach has become a haven for well-known crooks. They’re infiltrating our businesses, crowding decent citizens off the streets. Oh, Painter sees the handwriting on the wall all right. It was perfectly evident from my interview with him.”
“And he knows you’re to be candidate for mayor on the ticket opposing the present administration?”
“It isn’t definite yet. I haven’t been offered the nomination.”
“But it’s generally known that you will be,” Shayne pressed him.
“It’s fairly common knowledge, yes.” Henderson compressed his thin lips and frowned across the desk at the redhead. “I hesitate to accuse him of lack of diligence in investigating the attempts on my life for political reasons,” he said sonorously. “But I can’t help feeling that Peter Painter wouldn’t have been at all unhappy if either of them had succeeded. Nor do I believe he intends to stir himself one bit to prevent further attempts.
“I demanded round-the-clock police protection,” he went on bitterly, “and he blandly refused. Had the audacity to sit there in his office and inform me that his men had more important duties to perform than the prevention of murder. I laughed in his face, Mr. Shayne, and asked him to please name those more important duties. Were they too busy collecting graft, I asked him. Or seeing to it that the gambling dens and whorehouses operated smoothly from dark to dawn without interference. We had quite a session,” he ended feelingly, “and that’s why I feel I need your help.”
“I can see why you might,” Shayne agreed dryly. He leaned forward to mash out his cigarette butt, lifted his empty glass hopefully. “I seem to have run out of my consultation fee.”
Henderson took the glass and got up with a wintry smile. “I’ll have to do something about that.”
Shayne leaned back and watched him go out the door with bleak eyes. For the first time in his life, the redhead had a warmly fraternal feeling for Peter Painter. Even without benefit of Shayne’s private knowledge of Henderson’s real character, the cocky little detective chief was right on the ball this time. And this was one time Shayne had no intention of getting into the act on the opposite side from Painter. Help Henderson stay alive so he could be elected mayor of Miami Beach? God forbid!
Nothing of this showed on Shayne’s face when his host re-entered with a brimming glass for him. Shayne accepted it with a grunt that might be construed as thanks, and took a careful sip while Henderson settled himself back into his chair.
Then he asked abruptly, “Who’s gunning for you, Henderson?”
He drew in a deep breath and held it for a long time. Then he expelled it unhappily and said, “So far as I know I haven’t an enemy in the world. That’s what makes all this so utterly fantastic. Throughout my entire life I’ve tried to be guided by the Golden Rule, and until day before yesterday I felt that I had succeeded. I’ve searched the innermost recesses of my soul and I just can’t come up with anything or anybody who might have a motive for harming me.”
Shayne refrained from asking him how he thought Muriel Graham felt about his treatment of her. Instead, he said, “What about a profit motive? You’re a fairly wealthy man, I believe.”
“I am, yes. But there’s nothing there. I have no relatives to inherit my own money, and my stepdaughter received half of her mother’s fortune which I hold in trust for her until she comes of age in a couple of years. No one would benefit financially by my death.”
“In that case, I don’t see what the hell I can do for you,” Shayne told him bluntly. “If some nut is determined to knock you off, all the police protection in the world won’t keep it from happening. Much as I dislike agreeing with Painter, I have to do it in this case. If you haven’t anything concrete to work on, you’ll just have to sit back and wait on the hot seat for the next time.” Shayne grinned wolfishly as he spoke, and there wasn’t the slightest trace of pity in his voice,
“Yes… I… I see your point. And that’s why I’m so glad to have this opportunity for a private discussion. There is one thing I haven’t told you, Mr. Shayne. One thing I didn’t tell Painter and couldn’t possibly tell him. But I feel I can confide in you. This talk has given me the utmost confidence that you are a man of discretion and honor. I told you in the beginning I was going to bare my soul to you. I know it must have sounded bombastic at the time, but I meant it seriously, Mr. Shayne. I meant it from the bottom of my heart.
“There is this letter, Mr. Shayne. I received it this morning from New York.” He reached down and pulled open a drawer of the desk, lifted out a red and white striped envelope which he looked down at with fear and loathing.
“I almost threw it away at the time. When you read it you’ll understand why. I still don’t believe a word of it,” he went on forcibly. “It is still utterly inconceivable to me how it came to be written. There cannot possibly be a word of truth in the filthy thing. And yet… and yet… after what happened yesterday I just don’t know. I just—don’t—know,” he repeated slowly and fearfully.
“Here.” He held it across the desk to Shayne as though it were a time bomb about to explode. “You’ll have to read it for yourself. There’s no other way. But as God is my judge, I swear there is no reason on earth why my stepdaughter should wish me dead.”
Shayne took the airmail envelope and looked at it. The address was a penciled scrawl:
Mr. Saul Henderson, Palm Tree Drive, Miami Beach, Fla.
It was postmarked New York the previous day.
Shayne opened the flap and took out a single sheet of folded cheap paper. The message was penciled in the same handwriting as the address:
This is a friendly warning to say that your stepdaughter is going around offering fifty Grand to get you bumped off. I ain’t a killer an turned her down cold but other guys wont. Watch your step.
Shayne sat looking down at the note for a long time after he finished reading it. No matter what she had promised Paul Winterbottom, her fiancé, she hadn’t wasted any time getting in touch with the criminal element in the big city.
He carefully refolded the single sheet into its original creases and replaced it in the envelope. He dropped it on the desk in front of him and looked up to meet Henderson’s tortured eyes. He said, “You didn’t show this to Painter?”
“How could I? My God, Shayne! Don’t you understand? My own stepdaughter threatening me. Don’t you see what a field day Painter would have with that? What political capital he could make out of it? Even though it’s base calumny without a word of truth in it, if even a rumor of it leaked out to a newspaper I’d be finished in Miami Beach.”
“Still,” said Shayne reasonably, “if you expected Painter to take the attempts against your life seriously and give you protection, you’d have to show him this.”
Henderson said fervently, “I’d rather die.”
Shayne shrugged and said, “Maybe that’s just what you’re going to do.” He leaned back and lit a cigarette, studying his host out of low-lidded eyes.
“Tell me about your stepdaughter. Muriel Graham? Is that her name?”
“Muriel, yes. A sweet and wonderful girl. Like my own daughter, Shayne. I always think of her that way. And I think she loves me as a father. Her mother was quite ill for years as you may know, and Muriel and I were extremely close.”
You don’t know that I know
close, Shayne said to himself sardonically, but aloud, he asked, “So what’s this about her trying to get a hired gun to kill you?”
Shayne. I simply don’t believe it. Not for a moment. There’s some ghastly mistake. Someone passing herself off as Muriel. A case of mistaken identity. I just don’t know. I haven’t been able to think straight since reading that letter.”