Quantcast

Wade Miller's thriller Fatal Step, chapters 1-7

The beginning of a journey into San Diego darkness.

Fatal Step cover
  • Fatal Step cover

Chapter One

Monday, August 25. 9:15 p.m.

Max Thursday stood in the shadows and waited. The illuminated hands of his wrist watch crept closer to 9:30.

He was a big man, with wide shoulders and long legs. His weight wasn’t intended for six feet of height, but it was evenly distributed. Only his face hadn’t gotten its share. A prominent arched nose jutted from a lean countenance that was all planes and tight-skinned angles with no gentle fat. The face was impassive and stern.

A snap-brim hat covered most of his coarse black hair. The coat pockets of the brown tweed suit were baggy as if they carried his big fists much of the time.

Thursday decided against lighting a cigarette. No use attracting attention with a match flare. He didn’t know what he was getting into or whom he was supposed to meet — but the man’s voice over the telephone that afternoon had been scared, very scared.

He kept his blue eyes combing the amusement zone across B Street. An arched lath sign over the entrance spelled out JOYLAND in skinny capitals, Joyland covered nearly half of the downtown block between Front Street and First Avenue. It was a mushroom city of cheap amusement, a by-product of San Diego’s war industries. Joyland and a half-dozen centers like it dotted the city on both sides of Broadway, flaunting their Ferris wheels against staid office buildings, seeming to brag of elastic zoning ordinances. Peace had cut the amusement trade sharply, but marine rookies and navy boots and the high school crowd still spent enough quarters to keep Joyland open 10 hours out of every 24.

Thursday couldn’t find anything in particular to watch. Under its cobweb of wires with gaudy tattered pennants, Joyland was blatantly nondescript. At the corner of Front and B, an open-front lunch counter dispensed beer and soft drinks, hamburgers and foot-long hot dogs. Then the bright cave of a penny arcade showed its banks of coin machines like iron gnomes with binoculars. Above each stubby machine Thursday could read the sign: For Art Students Only!

At the First Avenue corner was the spinning Whirligig and a big metal pavilion of scooters. Most of the scooters were parked on the sidelines. There was a patchwork of smaller concessions between the corners — Seal-It-In-Plastic, a crossbow range, a tattoo artist. By the entrance arch was a surprisingly permanent-looking Oriental Bazaar.

Through the arch, in the asphalt center of the park, stood the Loop-o-Plane like two pivoting fists. Above everything towered the concentric girders and colored bulbs of the Ferris wheel. Its circling cabs coasted by fourth-floor windows on the brick backside of the Scroggs Building.

Thursday let out his breath and stepped off the curb. The hands of his watch had touched 9:30.

He walked slowly across B Street. Traffic was sparse. Nothing much happened in downtown San Diego on Monday night, as though the city were gathering its strength for the next weekend. An evening breeze from the harbor had dissipated the August heat. The tweed suit felt comfortable to his body. Under the thin JOYLAND letters, Thursday stopped for another look around. For all its carnival attire, the amusement park was practically deserted. Barkers leaned morosely on their brightly lit counters and searched for customers. The Whirligig and the Ferris wheel whirled in their different orbits but without passengers.

Two sailors and their girls paused indecisively on the sidewalk. Thursday glanced their way, wondering, but the quartet walked on, arguing about which movie to see.

Directly in front of him, the Loop-o-Plane was motionless. One red bulletshaped cab was at the loading ramp, doors invitingly open; its mate and counterweight swung emptily above it, 40 feet in the air.

Funland arcade (on which "Joyland" is based), on Broadway between Front and First Streets, downtown, c. 1988

Funland arcade (on which "Joyland" is based), on Broadway between Front and First Streets, downtown, c. 1988

Thursday sauntered casually toward the giant centrifuge. The voice, the scared voice that afternoon, had begged him to be on the Loop-o-Plane as soon after 9:30 as the ride started. The unidentified voice and the odd appointment had been childishly dramatic. The words—“It’s a matter of life or death, Mr. Thursday” — had been hackneyed. But the fear and excitement had been sincere. And despite the publicity he’d received from the Manila pearl recovery, Thursday’s new agency wasn’t so rushed that he could turn down business.

The woman in the blue-frame ticket booth smirked at him from behind the worn grill. She had a fat blank face and looked as if she’d been poured into the narrow booth.

“How much?” Thursday asked. He tried to picture a client in each nearby loiterer.

“Fifteen cents,” the woman wheezed, her voice touched with acid. “Just like the sign says.”

Thursday shoved a dollar bill through the grill. “One.”

The only likely people came up behind him, a man in a brown leather jacket and a redheaded girl in slacks, They were haggling about something to do but neither voice matched the frightened tones on the telephone.

The fat ticket woman eyed him suspiciously as he lingered over his change. “Anything wrong, mister?”

“My name is Thursday. Anybody leave a message for me here?” He watched her doughy circle of face. “It’s 9:30.” The face stayed as blank as before, then a scowl began creeping in from the edges. “What you trying to pull, huh?”

Thursday shrugged and turned away. The couple behind him stopped their waspish conversation and moved up to the window. The man, frowning distastefully, said, “Two, I guess.”

There was a youth in a yellow shirt by the gate. Thursday gave him a ticket, got a stub back, and walked up the short ramp to enter the metal cylinder.

“By yourself?” the attendant asked. Without waiting for an answer, he began a mumbled speech about holding onto the metal bar and keeping the safety belt buckled at all times.

The cab jolted as the man and his girl in slacks got into the rear half and sat down, their backs to Thursday. The girl was whispering insistently, “Now quit beefing, George. It’s gonna be fun.” The man kept icily silent.

The yellow shirt slammed the heavy wire door and bolted it. Then he ambled down the ramp to where an electrical control box crowned an iron post. Without looking at the Loop-o-Plane, he pulled the big toggle switch.

The great metal arm stirred, creaked, and began to swing slowly back and forth, pendulum-fashion. Thursday planted his feet solidly against the curved floor and waited for something to happen. Nothing did except that the machine picked up more speed. It lunged higher and higher, a giant swing, each back-and-forth movement cutting a greater arc toward the black sky.

Thursday snorted derisively. He might as well relax and get his 15 cents’ worth. The call had been a gag.

At the top of the forward swing there was nothing but night and stinging air in his eyes. On the sickening swoop back, Thursday could see the Front Street entrance to Joyland, a dumpy girl seated in the Guess-Your-Weight scales, and the rear end of the tunnel-like penny arcade, all through a crosshatch of wires and tired pennants.

Another swing.

A pair of marines were matching coins as they swaggered out of the arcade. The dumpy girl bounded down the steps from the scales, a cane clutched in one hand.

The bullet-shaped cab shot forward in a rush. The redhead behind Thursday let out a shriek of happy terror. This time the arm didn’t swing back. The cab hovered upside down at the top of the circle and then slid agonizingly over the brink into nothingness. As they rocketed down, the littered asphalt and the colored lights and the tar-paper roofs of the concessions merged in a gaudy blur.

Thursday took off his hat and crammed it between his legs. At the slow top of the second loop, he scanned the haphazard pattern of things 40 feet below. It seemed farther, hanging upside down by a safety belt and a metal bar. He looked across B Street, near where he had parked his car and loitered in the shadows. A slight man in a blue sweater was hurrying along the sidewalk. There was no traffic in sight but the man was glancing behind him nervously and then over at the Joyland concessions.

The cab nosed over for a second dive. The redhead in the other compartment had begun a series of short moans which rose to a crescendo as the Loop-o-Plane dove for earth.

At the top of the next loop, the man in the blue sweater was cutting across the street in a half-trot. He was heading for the Joyland entrance. Or the Oriental Bazaar or the crossbow gallery or the tattoo studio. Thursday couldn’t decide which. He wondered why he was wondering as he fell through space again.

The yellow-shirted attendant sadistically stopped the machine at the height of its next dizzying circle, letting the passengers dangle upside down while the bullet teetered uncertainly on its steel arm. The unseen girl behind Thursday was screaming, “Let me down! Let me down!”

The sound of a shot slashed sharply through the playful scream and the crash of bumpers in the scooter pavilion. Thursday twisted his body against the safety belt, trying to give the noise a source.

He caught a glimpse of the blue sweater. The little man was poised hesitantly on the curb on the Joyland side of B Street. He bent over as if he were about to sprint. Then the Loop-o-Plane lost its precarious balance and whirled madly down its ordained circle.

The cab slowed on the ascent again, and Thursday looked for the blue sweater shape. The little figure was easy to find. He hadn’t gone much farther, just a few steps toward the crossbow range. People were running toward him. His body pressed face down on the sidewalk, and one arm stuck out rigidly, pointing at the entrance of Joyland.

That was all Thursday saw before the Loop-o-Plane ground over the incline and plunged down again. The redhead was laughing and screaming for somebody to stop the machine.

Thursday added his own shout to the carnival racket. But he had seen the yellow-shirted attendant galloping toward the crowd clustering closely around the still figure on the sidewalk.

Chapter Two

Monday. August 25, 10:00 p.m.

Stein, the medical examiner, put slender fingers on the edge of the stretcher and pushed his kneeling body erect. He was a lithe and ageless little man with a dark birdlike face. He said, “Shot by a heavy caliber gun — a side arm. Probably .45. Shot in the back from some distance. The slug probably tore up his heart.”

Chinese and Japanese import shop, Fifth Avenue, downtown

Chinese and Japanese import shop, Fifth Avenue, downtown

As if to check his own statements he cocked his head at the sweater where he had cut through the blue wool to examine the wound. The body lay in a rack of canvas and aluminum tubing in the center of the long crossbow gallery. At one end of the room were four red-white-and-blue targets wired to thick blades of straw. At the other end was the elbow-high counter and the sliding wooden door that had been let down to keep out the curious after the proprietor had nervously allowed the police to bring the stretcher inside.

The proprietor was backed up against his counter and he said again, jerkily, “It’s okay, Lieutenant. I’m closed up for the night anyway — now. I don’t want any of that kind of business.” From the outside, through the big square of door came the buzz of the crowd on the sidewalk giving names, addresses and opinions to a police detective. Inside, the naked overhead bulbs of the crossbow range were merciless on the dead man in his shiny stretcher.

Lieutenant Clapp ignored the proprietor. He asked Stein, “Well, doc?”

Stein pursed his lips and dusted some of the sawdust flooring from his knees. “I said it. One slug from some distance.” “How far?”

“I’ll give it to you in feet and inches later.” The medic tucked his scalpel away in his bag.

“Say, from a car going down B Street to the curb where we found the boy? Fifty’ feet — that distance?” Austin Clapp lowered his ponderous head slightly, butting at facts. The chief of the San Diego homicide bureau was large and heavyset. His brown hair was liberally salted with gray, but the shrewd tanned face had few wrinkles of middle age.

Stein gave a grin too merry for the stuffy casket-shaped room. “Say what you like for the time being. Get the cadaver down to my place sometime in the next month and I’ll give you something definite. I can’t do neat work in a butcher shop.” His pointed toe kicked at the sawdust where a spot of blood had soaked redly.

“You’ll get him,” promised Clapp.

Stein stooped to crawl under the counter and exit through the half-door there. He paused in a crouch. “Whoever it was had quite an eye, ringing the bell the first shot like that.” “Right. Good night, Stein.” “I’ll see you shortly—don’t worry.” The half-door shut behind him.

Max Thursday was seated on the counter where it tunneled over the door. After Stein was out, he let his long legs swing back comfortably and idly thumbed the cord on a crossbow. He saw Clapp’s gray eyes probing at him and said, “You don’t find many crack shots anymore.” The police detective sauntered over and leaned heavy forearms on the counter between Thursday and the proprietor, who shuffled to one side. Clapp sighed. “Great way to start the week. Quiet Saturday night with a couple of minor knifings and then comes Monday with this dilly.” “They can’t all be one-two-three.”

“You know, that’s what I said as soon as I saw you walk up, Max.” Before the younger man could say anything, Clapp let his lips make a grin. “Don’t know the victim, huh?” “Nope.”

“Couldn’t be the guy who phoned you to meet him here?” “It could be. Have him say something and I’ll tell you for sure.”

There was a knock on the wood paneling by Clapp’s head and one of the ambulance men outside mumbled, “Can we take him away yet. Lieutenant?” “Keep your shirt on.” The homicide chief and Thursday looked at the dead face on the floor. The concession owner tried to keep his eyes other places.

It was a face with a smooth skin, almost the color of orange peel, and a soft round chin. The dark staring eyes were too large for the Oriental face and made the Cupid’s-bow mouth even smaller. Stiff black hair had been slicked back in a thick pompadour, possibly to add height to the small slim body. The boy wore a blue San Diego High School letterman sweater with one white stripe around the left arm. His beige corduroy trousers were stiff with newness.

Union-Tribune building, Second and Broadway, 1952

Union-Tribune building, Second and Broadway, 1952

“I don’t think he’s over 19 or 20,” the proprietor piped up in the silence. “I think it’s a shame —”

Clapp cut him off with a “Yeah.” He said to Thursday, “Big gun to use on a little fellow. What you carrying these days. Max?”

Thursday plucked his coat open casually. “Nothing.” Clapp nodded at the shirt where he’d expected to see a holster. “Didn’t the chief issue you a license to pack a .45?” “That’s right. But he didn’t issue anything that makes me carry it.”

“That’s right, too.” He straightened and looked into the frosty blue eyes. “Look here. Max — I’m just throwing routine questions at a routine witness. I haven’t forgotten how hard you took that mess last spring, but that was last spring. Tonight...”

Thursday hadn’t forgotten either. The memory of his manhunt had not faded, the hunt in which four persons had gone down before his blind fury. Three of them for keeps. Tonight was six long months since then — but he still didn’t dare trust himself with a gun. He said, “Okay. Didn’t mean to be touchy.”

A head bumped Thursday’s swinging legs and he pulled them aside. Swearing mildly. Crane came through the halfdoor and stood up. He slapped a leather notebook against his leg and announced to Clapp, “Nothing worth mentioning.” Despite the summer heat, lim Crane wore a double-breasted black suit that was getting shiny across the scat. He ran fingers through his shock of white hair and answered his chief s unspoken question, “That bunch outside is the usual bunch. Everybody with a different guess that adds up to no sale. Oh, I got a good long list of nothing here. Hi, Thursday.”

“Okay.” Clapp pointed an elbow at the body on the floor. “Shake him down, Jim.”

Crane got down on his knees by the stretcher. “Just a boy,” he commented. He saw the proprietor standing uneasily in the comer and asked, “Who’s that?”

“Mr. Ned Banks,” said Clapp. “Runs this place. He was kind enough to let us bring the body in out of the street.” Silently, the white-haired detective began rummaging through the pockets of the stiff corduroy trousers.

Clapp picked up the crossbow from Thursday’s lap. “Sure lucky you were on the whatchamacallit. That phone call this afternoon might have been in the way of a trap.”

“I thought of it,” Thursday admitted.

“Not that we know this Chinese kid is your scared voice,” the police lieutenant ruminated. “But if he had something to tell you and he’d seen too many movies, he might make just such a screwy appointment.”

Thursday shook his head. “Next you’ll be telling me that youngster had a two-timing wife. That’s all my business since I opened up shop — two cases, two evenings, 50 bucks. No — kids out of high school don’t hire agency men.”

“Yeah.” Clapp quit fiddling with the crossbow when the bowstring lashed across his thick thumb. With mock gingerness, he laid it back on Thursday’s lap. “And why call you? Why not us cops?”

“David Lee. 661 Fourth. That check out?” said Crane, raising his head. He held a worn imitation leather wallet in one gnarled hand.

“That’s the name, all right” The proprietor said suddenly, “He worked next door to me here. At the Oriental Bazaar. I didn’t know his name, but I’ve seen him around plenty of times. I make a point of noticing things.”

A tattoo being drawn

A tattoo being drawn

“Good. What else do you know about him, Mr. Banks?” Ned Banks peered out of his corner with some surprise. His old body was tall but stooped over to average height, his shoulders forward and sheltering his chest. His hair was a faint gray fringe around a tight-skinned skull that was ugly with dents and ridges. He wore spectacles with green plastic rims. The lenses were cheap and not strong enough; above them his forehead furrowed in a perpetual squint. Now, his face got a little more quizzical and petulant. “Nothing else, Lieutenant. I didn’t know him except to say hello to.”

“Here’s his bankroll,” said Crane, peering into the wallet. He gave a low whistle and drew a crisp $50 bill from the leather slot Further exploration brought up two crumpled $1 bills.

Clapp stiffed his hands in his pockets and half grinned at Thursday. “Lot of money for a kid to carry around. As much as you made in the last two weeks.” “I’ve been wrong before.” The big policeman strolled over to the shooting gallery man. “You’re the man who saw the whole thing, Mr. Banks. Now take it easy and tell us about it.” Banks pulled his misshapen brown sweater tighter around his shoulders. “Well, Lieutenant,” he said nervously -and cleared his throat. His voice was high but soft, with all the edges worn off. “Well, I was leaning on my counter—about here.” He put his leather-reinforced elbows in the correct position. “Business was slow like always on Monday and I was looking down the sidewalk wondering if I should close up. Then I saw the young fellow here start across B Street. I guess he was heading for his own place but it’s a daytime place—never open this time of night.”

“How did he come across the street? Anything funny there?” “No. He looked back over his shoulder a lot but I didn’t think much about that at the time. Then I noticed this small truck coming along down the street.”

“What kind of truck?”

“I don’t know, Lieutenant. Just one of those little trucks.” Banks looked troubled. He turned around and peered down at his targets, marshaling his memories. “All at once, I heard the shot — and the kid folded up on the curb right in front of me. The truck gunned on down the street, toward the harbor. I wasn’t looking at it enough then to really see where it went. I hopped out — ”

“Okay,” said Clapp. “I want to hear more about this truck. How about the driver? See anything of him?”

Banks squinted harder through his cheap glasses and drew one hand across the uneven top of his head. “Funny—now that you mention that. Lieutenant —” His eyes dropped to the still body under the bright lights.

Clapp said slowly, “I’d like to postpone all this, Mr. Banks, but...”

“That’s all right. I’m all right.”

“Now, what about this driver?”

Beneath the counter, Thursday heard somebody fumbling with the half-door. He put the crossbow aside and jumped down, getting his feet out of the way. He moved closer to where Clapp was scowling at the proprietor.

“What!” rang the police lieutenant’s voice.

“Looking at the kid and his blank expression reminded me what seemed so funny. The driver didn’t have any face.” Banks looked startled by his own words. He added hastily, “I mean. Lieutenant, his head was all wrapped up with white cloth. Like it was bandaged.’’

Chapter Three

Monday. August 25.10:15 p.m.

“That’s the stuff to give the troops,” a crisp voice said approvingly. An incisive voice, feminine only in pitch.

Coldly, Clapp watched the woman slide in through the opening under the counter. She managed to do it gracefully despite longer than average legs hobbled by a gray skirt. The policeman said, “Beat the pack to the kill again, huh?”

Merle Osborn brought her tall body erect with a wise smile. “The other gentlemen of the press were deep in their coffee cups. I lost the toss on this one.” She turned her flat-heeled shoes toward the body. “So that’s it!”

Union, Tribune-Sun, Journal, and Sentinel— those were San Diego’s four dailies and Merle Osborn handled the police beat for the Sentinel. She was one of the few women reporters who had not been dropped at war’s end. Her paper was the newest and noisiest in the city. Blacker headlines, riper adjectives, and overplayed crime stories “by Merle Osborn” were some of the Sentinel's biggest guns in its fight for circulation.

But the face that casually inspected every detail of the dead Chinese was neat-boned and might have been handsome had the owner bothered with makeup. A swipe of pink lipstick across the wide straight mouth she considered sufficient for a woman working in a man’s world. Her silky brown hair was skewered on a comb behind her head in the most practical manner she could conceive. The hazel eyes seemed too alert, too knowing, too round, possibly because she consistently forgot to darken the blonde eyebrows above them. Merle Osborn had dispossessed as much femininity as possible. Her severe suit of gray worsted was mussed but her figure needed no help. The form which might have been willowy was simply decisive.

Corner of Union and Ivy, looking west

Corner of Union and Ivy, looking west

Her bright gaze became detached from the body and lit on Max Thursday. “Hello, killer.”

Thursday curled a corner of his mouth for reply. He didn’t like Merle Osborn, her paper, or her strident copy. The boiling point in his antagonism had been reached with a Sunday feature in the Sentinel two weeks before. By Merle Osborn. She had garishly rehashed the months-old Manila pearl case, painting Max Thursday in glamorous colors as a licensed killer. The feature had appeared the day before he opened his new office in the Moulton Building.

“Oh,” Ned Banks murmured. “I didn’t hook up the names. You’re the Thursday who shot — ”

Merle Osborn laughed. “What’s this about a mummy driving the murder car?”

“I didn’t say that. Not at all,” Banks said hastily.

Clapp growled, “Keep out of this, Osborn. Well, then. Mr. Banks. The driver had his face bandaged. Big or small bandage?” “It looked pretty big to me, Lieutenant. It covered his whole head that I could see.”

“You saw his entire head — every side?”

“I mean all that I saw was covered. With white cloth — like he’d been hurt.”

Crane got up stiffly from beside the dead boy. He had the worn wallet and a few coins and several pieces of paper piled on his hand. “The works, Austin.” “Spread it out here on the counter,” suggested Clapp.

The white-haired detective laid the collection on the wood next to Thursday, who moved aside. Merle Osborn closed in to look over Clapp’s shoulder. Banks showed no interest in David Lee’s personal belongings; he stayed where he was, squinting everywhere but at the slit blue letterman sweater.

Crane unfolded a fresh pink piece of paper. “Invoice,” he announced in an inventory voice. “Daniels Novelty Company, San Francisco. Fifty Sphinxes, size B.”

“Sphinxes,” said Clapp unenthusiastically. He took the invoice himself. “Probably something to do with the bazaar.” He swung his head toward Banks. “That thing open now — the kid’s place?”

“No, Lieutenant.”

“How come? I thought these midways stayed open most of the night.”

“Most of us do. But like I said, that Chinese place is a daytime place.”

“Why would Lee be coming back here at 9:30.”

“I don’t remember seeing him around today at all, that I saw, Lieutenant I recollect there’s a girl who runs the place, too — besides him."

“Ticket stub,” Crane went on. “Probably from one of the joints in the park here. We can find out easy.”

Thursday leaned closer to the jagged half of a ticket. It was light blue and a large “ 15 cents” had been printed across its middle. No serial number. He slipped his hand into his coat pocket. Under his cigarettes he felt the ticket stub he still carried from the Loop-o-Plane ride. It felt the same size.

“But here’s something, anyway,” said Crane. He held up a comer of white paper that had been ripped from a larger sheet. “That’s the Lee kid’s own writing, I think. Looks like the signatures on his driver’s license and Social Security.”

The penciled writing on the comer of paper was small and neat and square. It read:

Leon Jagger

about 6 feet

gray hair

wide shoulders

lisps

Clapp mad clucking noises against the silence.

“Well, who’s Leon Jagger?” Merle Osborn’s abrupt voice demanded.

Clapp mused, rubbing his chin with a heavy hand, “Doesn’t look like it was torn off anything else. Looks like the kid wrote down a description of this Leon Jagger. Ever heard the name, Mr. Banks?”

Banks shook his head. Crane was digging at a thick packet in a side compartment of the wallet. He got out the fuzzy folded paper and spread it wide. It was an ink-smeared newspaper clipping.

The woman darted a look of sardonic amusement at Thursday. “That’s my story on you, Thursday,” she said jubilantly. “I’d say it broadened the outlook.”

Hai Wo Hong pharmacy/herb store, c. 1900

Hai Wo Hong pharmacy/herb store, c. 1900

Thursday took the clipping that Clapp handed him and put it down flat on the counter without looking at it. He tried to concentrate on holding his finger steady and not seeing the black type and the pictures. Q)ld impersonal police pictures of three dead bodies and a fourth picture — of a man who should have been dead but who stared blankly out of the news page between the bars of an insane asylum. Thursday’s work.

Clapp said, “I’m afraid thus settles who it was called you down here. Max.”

Thursday sucked in breath to clear his head. “Afraid so.” REAL LIFE SLEUTH SLAYS CRIME BOSSES. Beneath inches of headline and “by Merle Osborn” ran the overdramatized recapitulation of the Manila pearl case. How Thursday, down and out, had been drawn into the million-dollar conspiracy to find a kidnapped boy and how he had succeeded—but not until three dead bodies lay behind him. Columns of type about Max ‘Thursday, the implacable, the deadly. No word to betray the piecemeal nights since, the quick nerves, the nightmares of stiffened shapes falling toward him, constantly falling.

Private Cop Rubs Out... He turned to stare at the woman who had kept his memory fresh.

Merle Osborn was merry. “My moving fingers wrote, Thursday, and evidently won you a following,” she said. “So the late lamented called on you for help?”

“That hasn’t been proved,” Crane said.

“Hasn’t it? That story out of the wallet is the whole story. Obviously, the youngster here was up to something that required a killer. Why wouldn’t he call for the great Max Thursday?” Her round eyes locked with Thursday’s cold gaze. “But Mr. Banks’ mummy arrived here first, didn’t he?”

Clapp swore irritably. “I’ll do the figuring around here, Osborn. Don’t chatter yourself right off the premises.”

“Certainly, Lieutenant,” she said, unruffled. “But where’s my vote of thanks from Thursday for the business I’m bringing him?”

Thursday asked angrily, “You mean those side-of-the-mouth deals I’ve been offered because of you? ‘There’s a guy in my way and here’s a hundred if he won’t be anymore’ — that business?”

Her fingers flicked toward the center of the room. “I mean him.”

“He’s not mine.”

“He is now.”

Clapp narrowed his eyes at Crane and said, “Minus the palaver, what we got? Dead Chinese — name of David Lee. Too much money in his wallet. An old newspaper write-up about Thursday—”

Merle Osborn put in, “Not just any old write-up.”

Clapp didn’t listen. “A ticket stub of some sort. A bill for 50 sphinxes. A description of a guy we never heard of. And the kid’s shot down by a character with a bandaged face driving a small truck. A headache?” He snorted.

“Tong war,” the reporter suggested.

“Sure,” said Thursday. “Must be at least a million Chinese around named Leon Jagger. Very common.”

“Incidentally,” snapped Clapp, “that Jagger stuff isn’t for publication. Make sure.” The double blast only made Merle Osborn raise her nearly invisible eyebrows. “Let me know when, will you?”

“Check with me in about an hour and I’ll give you the word on what you can print. We may need all the breaks we can get on this one.” Clapp’s frown turned toward Ned Banks. “That goes for everyone.”

Banks said, “I know when to keep my mouth shut. Lieutenant. I —"

“Why are the police worried?” Merle Osborn asked cheerily. “Here’s the world’s finest private detective right where the blood’s flowing.”

“This isn’t my case,” Thursday said flatly.

“That may or may not be,” she said. The tilt of her body, hands on hips, was an obscure challenge. “But I’d say you were in clear up to your eyeballs.” “I’d say not.”

“Are you afraid of your reputation?”

“I don’t see any clients handy, sweetheart.”

Clapp said brusquely, “What I saw is that Max is the only lucky one of the bunch. He doesn’t have to stick around.” Thursday gave him a quick grateful glance and ducked his long body under the counter. “See you around, Clapp. Crane.” He didn’t realize how stagnant the crossbow gallery had been until he stood up on the sidewalk outside and felt the cool night air probe his narrow nostrils. A handful of people and their babble still clustered around the police ambulance at the curb. The faces that pivoted his way seemed exhilarated. A mumble said, “Hey, isn’t that one of the cops?”

Thursday turned away, still angry at Merle Osborn, still angry at his own nerves. Through the wooden front of the closed gallery he heard Clapp’s annoyed rumble. “Sphinxes!”

Chapter Four

Monday, August 25, 10:30 p.m.

There was a candy bar machine, slim and glassy, between Banks’ concession and the next door east. Thursday put in a coin and got a Hershey. As he stripped down paper and tinfoil, he tried to figure out why he should nearly lose his temper at Merle Osborn, who was doing her work and nothing more. Work in bad taste, but it was only what the Sentinel readers wanted, what the pack around the ambulance wanted.

His eye was trapped by the gaudy canvas sign over the crossbow gallery. Simply and badly drawn and splashed with loud colors, it portrayed a knight in full armor about to fire a crossbow across a meadow. His target was a curvy girl in a short low-cut tunic who bent over sniffing a big daisy.

Thursday snapped off a bit of chocolate, then laughed at himself. Aloud, he said, “All funny stuff.”

He started to cross B Street toward his car. At the curb, a parked and empty convertible coupe blocked his path. It was a brand-new Buick, maroon, glistening and loaded with every piece of extra equipment it could carry. Then Thursday saw on the windshield the sticker proclaiming it a Sentinel press car. Merle Osborn’s car.

He hovered beside the long automobile, curiously estimating how much money had been put into all the chrome gadgets. And why. Thursday decided the appearance the woman reporter ignored for herself, she very nearly worshipped on her car. His inspecting gaze stopped at a wind-wing.

The glass was slanted so that it held an ideal reflection of the lighted tattoo studio which nuzzled against the east wall of Ned Banks’ archery range. In the impromptu mirror, Thursday could see a man sitting on a wooden kitchen chair near the open front of the studio. The kitchen chair was tilted back against the wall and the stocky old man had his head leaning back, too, with an ear close to the partition.

Thursday about-faced slowly to look at the listening man. A white linen shirt stretched taut across his barrel chest and under his thick chin was a black oilcloth bow tie. His stained khaki trousers and web belt were obviously military surplus.

The old tattoo man glanced out suddenly and saw the blue eyes glinting from the curb. Then he let the front legs of the chair come slowly down to rest on the cement floor.

Thursday dropped the crisp ball of candy wrapper and sauntered across the sidewalk toward him. “Police investigations are private affairs,” he said levelly.

“I wasn’t listening to a thing. Just thinking,” said the man. He didn’t seem so aged close up, but there was a weary air to his well-preserved body that told the truth. His high box forehead was topped by ringlets of faded hair that weren’t white or gray but had just lost whatever color it had once had.

“You always do your head work right against that wall?” said Thursday. There was a framed parchment decorated with India ink scrolls at the rear of the shop. The name on it was James D. Grogan. “You’re Grogan?”

“That’s right, mister.” His whole face was tired. Cheeks sagged and pulled down the corners of the mouth. His eyes looked as if they’d seen more than they wanted to. What hadn’t been shaved away of Grogan’s sparse beard showed reddish. The sleeves of the dean white shirt were rolled high and the revealed arms were powerful.

Thursday tried to make something of the other’s expression. “Seems as good a place to sit as any, I suppose.”

Grogan shrugged. “Suits me. The .22’s used to bother me some, but now the crossbows are in there the last couple months, I don’t mind the noise any. Nice and quiet.”

The simplicity of the tattoo parlor was almost stark. Hesitantly, Thursday stepped inside. He could still hear Clapp letting him know he didn’t have to stick around. He also heard his own voice rattling off the next logical question. “You live here, too?”

“Uh-huh.” By Thursday’s elbow was an ancient glass showcase with curling photos of the stock tattoo designs, skulls, serpents entwining daggers, service insignia, dancing girls — all whorly in black and red and blue. Among the furniture at the back of the concession he saw a sagging army cot and a chest of drawers with an electric hot plate. Grogan followed his eyes and said, “What you want all this again for, anyway? I gave all I know to the white-haired fellow.” Grogan asked as if he didn’t care one way or another. “You see it happen?” “Huh-uh.”

“How come? It was practically in front of you.”

“I was in the back of my pitch, doing a job of work.” Idly, Thursday went to the rear of the tattoo studio. A gleaming straight-edge razor lay open on the brown-blanketed cot. Other equipment was grouped around it: a murky sterilizer of alcohol-immersed needles, a roll of gauze, merthiolate in a spray bottle, wooden medical spatulas, Vaseline, inks.

On a stool by the head of the bunk sat a mechanical phonograph; a bulky scarred box, the most permanent-appearing object in the shop.

Grogan was quietly behind him. Only when Thursday picked up one of the two phonograph records on the player did the old man clear his throat uneasily.

Thursday looked at both sides of the grooved disk. It was flexible and black with no label. “What is it?” he asked.

“Emma Calve,” said Grogan. He took the record lovingly from Thursday’s hand and put it back on the machine. “Sempre Libre.” He cranked the handle a few times and set the felt turntable whirling.

The disk spun clean and black and fresh. But the music grinding out through the tom cloth front of the phonograph was tinny and the soprano tones were thin and pointed. The record was uncracked but an unmistakable tick sounded dock-like through the aria.

At Thursday’s puzzled frown, the old man lifted off the needle arm and stopped the turntable. Stiffly, he said, “It’s old — don’t let the shiny outsides fool you. Calve cut that at the turn of the century. When my original record began to wear down I had it retranscribed, crack and all. I’ve had it done a dozen times.”

Thursday waved at the array on the blanket, the gauze roll in particular. “You leave that out all the time?”

Grogan came off the defensive. Once again, he didn’t care. “I was working on a sailor when the accident happened out front He shoved off before I was finished. I figured maybe he’ll be back.”

“He shoved off with an unfinished tattoo?”

“A drunk swabby might do anything. What do you do when a couple of shots sound off in your street?”

“I go look, Grogan. And you...”

“I sit still.” Thursday searched for deception in the tired eyes and found nothing at all. “I figure live and let live. Don’t trouble trouble and it won’t trouble you.” But Grogan had troubled to listen. Suddenly, Thursday grinned at the sagging face. The advice fit, all right. He didn’t have any business detouring because he caught an old carnival man eavesdropping on the concession next door. If Grogan were holding something back, he belonged to Clapp. Clapp had four hundred thousand taxpaying clients. Thursday had none. He said, “Take it easy. Dad. That’s what I got to learn to do.”

James Grogan didn’t say good-bye. He was winding the phonograph again. As Thursday stepped out onto the gray sidewalk, the faded tones of the famous soprano began tinkling once more.

The white-jacketed ambulance men were bending at the rear of their machine, shoving the shiny loaded stretcher home. Merle Osborn’s convertible had gone. A black sedan swerved around the Front Street corner and it looked like Clapp and Crane in the front seat. Above Joyland, the sparkling Ferris wheel turned and turned.

Chapter Five

Tuesday, August 26, 12:45 a.m.

Max Thursday stood at his bed room window, watching the disorder of ship lights down on the black harbor and automatically counting the regular flash of the airplane beacon at North Island. His home was half of a white stucco duplex on the corner of Union and Ivy, in the heart of the Italian fishing colony , and midway up the sloping hill from the bay to Balboa Park. Down on the flats that had been dredged from the water, the white and blue landing-strip lights of Lindbergh Field winked in dutiful rhythm.

He wondered again why he didn’t go to bed. He had checked his budget three times. He had called the switchboard service which took over his office phone when he was out. No, no calls, Mr. Thursday. He crushed out his cigarette and let it drop to its fellows in the wastebasket by the bureau.

No calls. Two clients in two weeks was an unstretchable $50. Some time ago be had gotten a little of the Manila pearl reward. But the bulk of it was still tied up in the Philippines with two insurance companies — one British, one Chinese. All he had gotten for months were forms to fill out, followed by silence.

Abruptly, Thursday turned and left the dark bedroom. He was still fully dressed except for his loosened necktie and the tweed coat hung in his closet. From the long plank-and-brick bookcase in the living room he seized a book at random. Cabell’s Figures of Earth. He dropped into the green depths of the lone overstuffed chair and opened the novel to the first page.

He was partway down the opening paragraph when he heard the car stop at the corner. He could hear someone, probably the driver, say, “ Thank you.” Then there was the slam of a door, followed by another, and the growling of gears and engine.as the car drove off.

Thursday began to read determinedly. He looked up from the page again, frowning. Someone had gotten out of a taxi at the comer and paid the driver off, a certain indication that the person had been headed for one of the houses near the intersection of Union and Ivy.

But none of the house doors had opened or closed.

He heaved his long body out of the clinging chair and walked softly to his own front door, listening. A switch engine puffing along the tracks four blocks below was the only interference with the midnight calm. Thursday threw the door open.

The uphill block was ringed around with fishnets left to dry overnight in the gutter. A man was walking with bouncy steps down the Ivy Street slope, coming toward the general direction of the bay. The street light hung motionless over the bright deserted intersection. Thursday started to push the door to, smiling over his tease curiosity, when the voice said, “Just stand right there.”

Thursday froze, one hand on the doorknob, the other fingering his place in the book.

A girl separated from the shadows beyond the low slab porch, her eyes narrowed against the rectangle of light from the doorway. It took Thursday a startled moment to realize that she, like the dead boy this evening, was Chinese. Her intent face, drawing closer, was smooth and ivory colored with only a dash of lemon tint. The oval eyes far from either side of her small nose gave the only Oriental cast to her features. The rest of her was completely westernized. The small mouth’s natural red had been brightened and enlarged with lipstick. Her hair was thick and black but parted in the center and fluffed out over her ears like puffs of locomotive smoke.

Max Thursday kept his body rigid and said a slow “Hello.”

The Chinese girl stepped up onto the cement porch. Her small body wore a reversible trench coat that was buttoned down the front. Over one shoulder was slung a big brown leather purse, briefcase size, and she kept her right hand plunged deep into it as it hung by her hip.

“Have your hands out where I can see them,” she said in a low shallow voice.

“You got the wrong guy.” But Thursday let Figures of Earth fall and linked his fingers in front of his belt buckle.

“No. Say something.” Her face was faintly drawn, as if she were being dragged along helpless but in a direction she intended to go.

“How about ‘Simple Simon started something’?” Thursday asked deliberately. The oval Oriental face wasn’t completely emotionless. It loosened slightly in disappointment. The tall man pressed, “I told you you had the wrong guy, Miss Lee.”

“ Then how—” She tightened up again. “I expected you’d be clever.” She shook her head without moving her gaze, denying any plans he might have.

“I just guess pretty good.” “Can you guess what I have in my purse?”

“If I couldn’t I wouldn’t be standing here.” He tried an easy smile. “Why don’t you come in? I’ll be glad to —” “That your car?” She tilted her head toward the curb where he had parked his gray Oldsmobile sedan.

“Yeah. Why?”

“He wants to talk to you. Come out and close the door quietly behind you. Not too fast.”

He grinned some more, trying to kid her out of it. “Way too late. I’m home for the evening. If you’ll come in, I can tell you everything I know in five minutes. Believe me, everything.”

Her teeth clenched over a hissing noise. The Chinese girl brought her hand up out of the big purse. Huge over her ivory fingers was an old model .38 revolver and its pitted barrel pointed unwaveringly at Thursday’s stomach.

He gave a statement to her intent face slowly and clearly. “look, Miss I.ee, I’m not your man. Sure, I’m tall. My shoulders are broad. But my hair isn’t gray — yet — and I don’t lisp and my name isn’t Leon Jagger.” It didn’t register. She said, “He wants to see you. Don’t stall about getting your coat or anything else. Just close that door.” He asked himself how much of her and the gun was bluff. Then he saw the slim finger strain around the trigger. The hammer of the .38 drawing back was his answer. Quickly, Thursday said, “I can’t say no to a lady.”

He came out and pulled the door shut behind him. She waited until he was behind the wheel of the Oldsmobile with both hands in view before she slipped into the back seat.

Thursday twisted his neck and found the revolver muzzle still staring at him, close beneath his hair line. “Your party, kid. Any particular place you’d like to go?”

“Start the car downtown. I’ll give you directions.” Under the darkening roof of the car her slant eyes had a faint hot gleam.

He began to make a sour suggestion but the half-moon sight bumped his ear coldly. He stepped on the starter.

Chapter Six

Tuesday, August 26, 1:15 a.m.

The gold letters on the store windows read Song Lee — Far Eastern Herbs.

It was a small neat store, sandwiched between a secondhand furniture dealer and a barbershop. The windows were dark, like everything else in the neighborhood. South down Fourth Avenue a filling station glowed lonely on Market Street and north the clean sky was filled with downtown buildings, blacker than the night.

Thursday entered the herb store at the girl’s command, wondering if they were the only two awake in the whole quiet city. The door was unlocked. As she came in behind him, she turned the night latch.

Straight ahead seemed to be the right direction; he kept walking that way, guided by silver gleams of showcases on both sides. Occasionally on the paper-lined shelves was the shallow roundness of a petri dish containing samples of odd-shaped roots or flakes of bark. The scent of incense lay thickly on the air, a cloying sweetness Thursday didn’t care for.

He stopped by a doublepan balance on the end of one display case and the Chinese girl brushed warily by him in the darkness. She had put the gun out of sight but she kept her shoulder purse pointed his way. He heard the sound of a heavy drape being pushed aside on runners and then a square of white light cut the gloom.

The girl was standing at the bottom of a flight of naked wooden stairs that extended up beyond his line of vision. She moved her purse slightly and said, “Up.”

The door at the top of the steps opened into an apartment living room. Thursday was glad to escape the incense cloud. Evidently, it was only a part of the business atmosphere. And on this second floor the air was warmer to his coatless body.

He looked around the room at the strange compound of East and West. The walls were bare except of one narrow delicate hanging. A corner niche held an exquisite idol he didn’t recognize as one of those manufactured for the tourist trade. The carpet was smoothly napless, the color earth. In this setting the divan and two straight chairs were gross intruders and the telephone seemed a misshapen black animal.

“Welcome to my house, Mr. Thursday,” said a whisper of a voice. But it was a deliberate voice despite its softness. Thursday swung to face the man who had padded into the room.

“You have the advantage," he said dryly.

The old (Chinese showed the shiny top of his head in a slight bow. White mandarin robes flowed from his narrow shoulders to the floor.

“He didn’t want to come. Father,” the girl said. She was behind Thursday, her voice still ready to break in two.

“Thank you for changing your mind, sir.”

Thursday’s mouth curved bitterly. “I didn’t change my mind. I just don’t argue with a gun. What’s the angle? The weather’s nice and I’m informal but I don’t run around all night in my shirt.”

The Chinese clucked his tongue gently. “I deplore my daughter’s tendency to impetuosity. The modern influence, Mr. Thursday. It corrupts. My name is Song Lee. And I fear Nancy has not introduced herself properly.”

The skin of Song Lee’s tan-colored face was coarse and lined. Only his bald head was fresh and new looking above the wisps of white eyebrows. He seemed more Oriental than either of his children, but Thursday put this down to the silken robes and the falling in of his cheeks, which emphasized the broad flatness of his nose.

Nancy Lee said sullenly, “You told me to bring him.” Her hand remained in her purse.

“But politely.”

Thursday looked from one expressionless face to the other. He could find nothing to decipher, no sincerity to judge. He said, “Her manners were excellent. Except for the .38. So don’t worry about —”

“Please seat yourself, sir.” In Song Lee’s whisper, it was more command than invitation. “You don’t get it,” said Thursday. The old man regarded him with black bead eyes. “I’m about to walk out of here, which I generally do standing up. You can work out the etiquette after I’m gone, Mr. Lee, but I still don’t see being dragged out of my house at gu npoint.” He pivoted to face the girl leaning against the door.

“So,” said Song Lee and the detective heard his dry palms rubbing together. Nancy didn’t move. “I discovered the weapon missing after you left, Nancy. You must give it to Mr. Thursday.”

“Father, he may—”

The old man said two words in Chinese, crisply. Nancy came away from the door and she handed the .38 to Thursday, most foremost. Her eyes didn’t lift above his waist.

He took the pistol. “I’m sorry I haven’t anything to tell you about your son David, Mr. Lee. Your daughter here may have some wild ideas about who or what I am, but the fact is I just happened to be around at a bad time tonight. If lieutenant Clapp has been here, and I suppose he has, you know as much as I do.” “Please seat yourself,” Song Lee said again. “I intended to ask more than that, Mr. Thursday.”

Thursday raised an eyebrow, then sat down on the divan where he could watch Nancy without turning his head too far to one side. He put the revolver in his lap and idly played with it between his hands. It was an old-fashioned Enfield, square and functional.

The Chinese glided to a hard wooden chair and arranged his white robes carefully. Thursday had the feeling the old man longed to cross his legs under him. Song Lee murmured, “David thought highly of you, sir.” “He didn’t know me. I never saw him before tonight. If you’re going to ask about that Sentinel story in his wallet, I can’t tell you the why of that either, Mr. Lee.”

The Chinese fingered among the sparse white hairs that dropped over his evenly full lips. “The newspaper clipping which Lieutenant Clapp showed me —”

“No.” Thursday stood up swiftly and the revolver bounced on the divan cushions. He said flatly, “I’m not for hire. Not on that basis. If this small talk’s leading up to my knocking over somebody so you can avenge the family honor — you’ve got another thing coming.”

“The newspaper was mistaken, Mr. Thursday?”

“The facts were right as far as they went. But my gun isn’t open to propositions.”

Song Lee sighed and rearranged the heavy silk about his knees. “Again we have offended you, Mr. Thursday.” He inclined his head in apology.

Thursday laughed shortly and bowed in return. “We’re not thinking on the same level, Mr. Lee.”

“You are right in one respect. To my house, honor is everything. But there is no honor in revenge. I believe, as when Lieutenant Clapp spoke of justice, that my son’s murderer will be punished. By the state, but more so by his own inner spirit. As the man has brought dishonor upon his own head by killing, that can matter only to him.”

Then Nancy was in the center of the room, her dark eyes liquid. “How can you sit there and talk that way, Father?” she burst out. “Dave’s dead — he’s never coming back! You sit there and say the man who killed him doesn’t matter! How?” Suddenly she fell to her knees and buried her face in the old man’s lap. Her shoulders curved into a defeated shaking line.

Song Lee considered his daughter with sad eyes, clasping his fingers over his chest so that they wouldn’t touch her. He looked up at his guest. “Forgive this family scene, M r. Thursday. David and Nancy were twin children. The breaking of their spiritual bond has disrupted her sense of dignity. And she has been reared in your American schools, which fail to cover the emotions.” He was looking at Thursday but the detective was sure he was talking to the sobbing girl. “True grief is more than tears. Yet my daughter has the right to berate me. David was my last male child. His death should have stopped my heart. I am ashamed that it did not do so.”

'Hie ancient Chinese closed his eyes and rocked his body gently forward and back on the hard wooden chair. Thursday shifted uncomfortably and finally sat down on the divan again.

When Song Lee opened his eyes and spoke, his voice was again the calm and dispassionate whisper. “Go wash your eyes, Nancy.” His fingers brushed her sleek hair, as she rose and silently left the room.

Thursday said, “Mr. Lee, maybe it’s not my suggestion to make, but you’d better keep your daughter home for a while — till she cools down. She’s liable to get in trouble.”

The other man bowed in agreement. “It shall be as you suggest. The dead are dead and the only importance is that they have died honorably.” Song Lee’s stiff face wrinkled further as he leaned forward in his chair. “In your business, can you establish that fact?”

The change of pace took Thursday by surprise. He was fingering the cold revolver muzzle on the cushion beside him. He shoved it away and said slowly, “In my business you can do most anything. But what is it you want?”

“Perhaps a paper, something written to prove that David was not involved in wrongdoing. I wish only to be certain that I can hold my head erect and that my last son died through no evil of his own. I do not ask for much, Mr. Thursday—only a paper signed by someone who knows the truth, which I could show to my few friends. That truth would spread.”

The detective gnawed at his lip. “Does that mean you’re afraid Dave was up to something?”

“I must know. I must know that David acted in innocence.” “You should know that without asking me. Why do you have any doubt about it, Mr. Lee?”

Song Lee said regretfully, “My son was a hero worshipper. A follower. Always he was seeking something without himself— never did he have the inner satisfaction of the whole man. But David was good.”

“All right, then that explains why he was carrying that story about me. And why he called on me for help instead of the cops this afternoon. What else?” Song Lee contemplated his long fragile fingers. “There is another reason why David should be reluctant to summon the police.” The words were wrenched from the old lowered face. “My son was once sent to Anthony Home. Reform school, Mr. Thursday.”

“Reason?”

“It was gambling—he was still in high school. As I have said, David admired any strength in others. His particular hero then was a man named [.arson Tarrant.”

Thursday whistled softy. “He wasn’t choosy, was he?” “Do you know Mr. Tarrant?”

“Of him. Nothing’s been proved except that he’s a big operator around town. Owns most of the poker houses and maybe a lot more. You think he got his hooks into your son again?” Song Lee raised his bleak countenance. “I know nothing. I merely fear. I wish you to lift this doubt from me.”

Thursday frowned doubtfully. “The kind of proof you want is tough to go after, Mr. Lee. If Tarrant is mixed in with murder, he won’t be talking.” “If it is a question of money —”

“It’s always a question of money. I eat a lot and I charge high. But you’re saying Tarrant is the only stone to look under and these affairs usually don’t come charted that nicely. There’s always other rocks beneath the surface. Example — tonight someone suggested tong war.”

Song Lee smiled for the first time and it was gently scornful. “The world is changing, sir. David was not even a member of the Association. 'Die man you would seek is somewhere outside my family’s circle of life — an interloper.”

“Such as Leon Jagger?” “David never mentioned such a person to either my daughter or me. Perhaps his boyish sense of secrecy —”

“You see?” Thursday spread his hands. “It goes off in all directions. Always perhaps.” He got to his feet again, hoping the old man would understand without questions.

Song Lee was no longer smiling. His face began to solidify in hopeless lines. “You will not sell me your talents, Mr. Thursday?”

“A murder investigation is no job for a private detective, Mr. Lee, no matter what the movies say. That’s what guys like Clapp are for and he’ll do a good job.” Immediately, he sensed that wasn’t enough for the mourning stony face. His inept voice tried to explain. “You see, Larson Tarrant might be a dead lead. Which might mean the only man who could prove your son’s innocence is the man who shot him down. I’m not the right guy for this case, Mr. Lee. Put it down to personal reasons, but I don’t dare get mixed up in a murder case again. It might be the last time all over —”

But Song Lee did not understand about the last time. He did not understand a young man refusing help to an old man. 'The talk about “might be” meant nothing. He said, “My son’s name must be cleared.” His face contorted suddenly, like the cracking of fried mud. “It is vastly important to me, Mr. Thursday!” Thursday’s hand held the doorknob. It was wet from his palm. His mind argued: see Larson Tarrant. It might be that easy. If the trail led on to a bandaged killer — well, that would be tomorrow or next month and perhaps this time he wouldn’t feel the frenzy of the hunt. This time would be different.

Thursday said softly, “You win. You’ve hired yourself an agency. I’ll talk to Tarrant.” Song Lee’s rigid shoulders sagged gratefully. “I know you will not fail. My blessings go with you.” He bowed formally from the waist without rising.

“Try to think of any other angles and I’ll let you know how I come out.”

Nancy said, “I’ll show you down.” She had returned to the living room quietly, her oval face composed.

Thursday looked back once, from the head of the stairs. David Lee’s father still sat stiffly on the chair hut his eyes were closed and his colorless lips moved silently. He was praying.

At the doorway of the dark herb store, Thursday halted and asked the girl, “Anything to add?” She held out a pale hand. “The gun.”

“It’s upstairs on the divan— between a couple of cushions. My tip is to put it hack under your father’s counter where you found it. Let it keep rusting. It never does any good.”

“I’ll decide. I’m old enough to decide.”

He sighed wearily. “Okay. I hope you live to learn. You and your brother ran that Oriental Bazaar together. That right?” “Yes.”

“Remember, I’m working for you, too.”

She added sullenly, “My father’s the real owner of the shop. He put up the money after Dave and I got out of high school two years ago. Anything else?” Thursday peered at her. “Nancy, what did he know? Or what had he done? Who’d want to kill your brother?”

Her face tilted toward his.

“I don’t know. But I hope I find him first.”

Across the murky width of Fourth Avenue, a patch of shadow shifted. Thursday brought his head up abruptly. But the small man who lurched out of the darkness clutched the lamppost and bent drunkenly toward the gutter.

She closed the door without replying. From the sidewalk he watched her slight shadow walking swiftly toward the rear of the store, toward her upstairs home where the revolver was. He shrugged off his premonitions as he climbed into the sedan. He took the six .38 shells out of his pocket and tossed them in the glove compartment.

Chapter Seven

Tuesday. August 26, 9:00 a.m.

Clapp said grimly, “So Old Man Lee wants more revenge than the city cops can give him.”

He slouched behind the desk in his cubbyhole office and disinterestedly penciled a line of tiny question marks along the bottom of the green blotter. Thursday lounged against the window sill, his back to the police headquarters patio and its sun-warmed flagstones and flower beds.

“My client wants his son’s name cleared. It’ll end there.” “Uh-huh. That’s what you say now. But this is a murder case you’re flirting with, Thursday. What’ll you do if you get backed into a corner? Shoot your way out?”

“I’m staying out of comers.” Clapp pursed his mouth. “Okay. I’m not going to ride you if you’re so positive that’s the way it is. I give the lees a clean bill of health, by the way. Tarrant get mentioned?”

“That’s what I dropped down to ask about.”

“I couldn’t find anything out loud.” Clapp reached the edge of the blotter and tossed the pencil resignedly into a drawer. “I called I arson in. Got Ulaine Tarrant, that’s his wife, instead — just before you showed up. She’s the pocketbook of the Tarrant crowd, you know.”

“I didn’t,” said Thursday. “What’s the story?”

“No story. She used to be Ulaine Broachworth. Time was when the Broachworths were aristocracy around these parts. Larson Tarrant never was anything but a slick shoestring gambler. Ulaine was just a kid when they eloped. She got the Broachworth money, anyway.”

“That’s a switch.” Thursday found a cigarette left in his pack and lit up.

“No switch for Ulaine — she’ll always get the money. The happy pair run a card syndicate around town. Draw poker, naturally.”

“Ever had any trouble with them?”

“They lick their own wounds. And they’ve got good connections. But a lot of hard guys from LA. have drifted in lately and the whisper I get is that Ulaine paid their train fare.” “Who they ganging up on?” “I won’t know till the war starts.”

“Where’s the connection with Dave Lee?”

“Friend, you’re welcome to find a connection.” Clapp stretched. “How much sleep did you get last night?”

“Enough. Why?”

“Make sure you’re hitting on all four. Come on.” Clapp held the door open and motioned the tall detective into the hall. The chaste corridor was cool and dim after the morning brightness of the homicide chief s office. Few and recessed skylights gave churchly illumination.

“What you got in mind, Clapp?”

“You see the Sentinel this morning?”

“I take the Union."

“You should get it for your scrapbook.” Clapp glanced over his shoulder at the door of the press room by the headquarters entrance. “Osborn went hog wild as usual. Just a second.”

They were passing a traffic division. The police lieutenant pushed inside and came out holding a newspaper at arm’s length.

Thursday unfolded it, scanned scareheads. “She put you on the spot?”

“No more than ever. Maybe I’m getting old.”

The headlines of the Sentinel were big and black. So was Merle Osborn’s by-line. Thursday read the story quickly. The murder of David Lee she had termed the Mummy Killing. “One bald old witness thinks he saw a guy with a bandaged face and we get that!” Clapp growled. There was a high school graduation picture of Nancy Lee dubbed Sphinx Girl. “You know why? They got in a crate of incense burners shaped like sphinxes yesterday afternoon and she was decorating a window with them.” Clapp folded the paper savagely. “You can guess what it says about you.” “I can guess. Osborn is aching for me to shoot up the town again. To her I’m hot enough copy for a bonus.”

“The D.A. called up this morning to find out if I’d booked you yet.” The big man looked at Thursday seriously. “That’s why I want you to keep your hands in your pockets, Max. You’re getting bad press.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Thursday said. “The guy I feel sorry for is Song Lee. Osborn didn’t leave much of his kid’s reputation.” The news story had made much of Dave Lee’s reform school record. According to the Sentinel, there was no doubt that he had met death through further criminal activities.

Clapp slapped the folded paper viciously across his hand and took it back into the traffic division. The two men walked on, their shoe heels knocking echoes from the tile floor. The policeman muttered, “I suppose Osborn has to eat like the rest of us, but I don’t feel very tolerant this morning. I don’t like gilding murder. I don’t like what it does to a certain type of mind — phony confessions, even attempts at imitation. You know and I know, Max, just how fake the gilding is. Killing can’t be pretty.” Thursday tossed his cigarette through a window. His throat felt dry. “Yeah. I know.”

Clapp gave him a quick glance and didn’t say any more. They shoved through the steel doors that separated police headquarters from the city jail. A prisoner in ragged dungarees stopped scrubbing to let them pass. Thursday said suddenly, “How much do police reporters make anyway?” “Forty bucks a week, maybe.”

“Uh-huh.” After a few steps, “How does a 40-buck-a-week reporter get a new Buick with all the trimmings?”

Clapp shrugged. “How does she afford to live at the Portola Arms? Maybe Osborn knows a fellow.”

“Her? She probably takes in laundry. Where we going, anyway?”

“You’ll see. On that subject, there wasn’t anybody connected with Joyland named Leon Jagger. Nobody somehow. Somebody gave Dave Lee 50 bucks to be on the lookout for him.”

“I got that far. But who gave him the 50? And what made the Chinese kid worth killing?” They turned and started down a flight of cement steps.

“The simplest answer is that Dave Lee found lagger. And Jagger didn’t want to be found.” “Okay. But there’s nothing on Jagger here. Maybe he’s from out of town. Maybe he doesn’t have a record. I’m batting a thousand with maybes.”

“The kid had something or he wouldn’t have called for help.” Thursday sniffed the dampness of the basement level as the stairs ended. Here was another shorter corridor, lit by fluorescent ceiling lights. The smell of antiseptic was sickening in the moist air.

“First time I’ve ever been down here,” he commented slowly. “There’s only one reason for visiting the morgue I can think of.”

Clapp headed for the swinging chrome doors at the end of the tunnel. “What do you make of Banks’ story about Bandagehead?”

“Why should he lie about it?”

“I think he mistook something else for a bandage, myself. Plenty of people saw the pickup truck Dave Lee was shot from. Jim even found a couple more who think they saw a wrapped-up face.” Clapp shook his had. “But I’d hate to get them on a witness stand.”

“Why not a bandage?” Thursday argued.

“Why? Why would any smart killer wear something as easy to spot as a big white mask?” Thursday pulled on the other man’s arm, halting him. “You’re off your feed. There’s some sense there. A small disguise alters a man enough so he can move in separate circles. But a complete mask crosses up all recognition. That’s what the killer would have to wear if he was known by the bunch at Joyland.” Clapp grinned. “Who’s off what feed? I told you Jagger wasn’t known by name or looks at that fun strip. And you’re overlooking the obvious. Dave Lee was on the run when he was shot. There’s nothing to show the killer intended to shoot him at Joyland. Where’s your argument?” He held back a shiny door and waved Thursday inside.

“Nowhere,” Thursday agreed ruefully.

The spacious room was all tile and white walls. Sunlight streamed in through fairground-level windows in the opposite wall. In the exact center of the floor was a metal operating table, encircled by shallow gutters. Low over it hovered a bulky battery of fluorescent light tubes.

A uniformed policeman rose stiffly from a straight chair tilted against the wall. “All quiet. Lieutenant.”

“Fine, Bryan.” Clapp wandered forward and rested hand lightly on the operating table. Beneath the white sheet a form bulked grotesquely. “Autopsy room, Max.” He nodded at the sheeted outline. “Dave Lee. It turned out to be a .38 that hit him. Not a .45. But a gang of people own .38s, too.”

Thursday nodded. The old revolver Nancy Lee had pointed at his stomach the night before had been a .38. He tried to make his tone light “What’s your point, Clapp? Or are you trying to make me break down and confess?”

“I got a point,” said Clapp grimly. “look around.”

Thursday’s eyes darted after the lieutenant’s thick forefinger. The middle window of the three at ground level. The pane was broken. On the immaculate tiles beneath it lay gleaming shards of glass.

Clapp said, “Somebody tried to break in here early this morning.”

“I knew the housing shortage was bad,” said Thursday, his eyes narrow at the smashed window.

“Save the gags, Thursday. Osborn will be funny enough for both of us when she gets hold of this. Bryan here heard the glass break but he wasn’t in time to catch the prowler. All he could see was the tail end of a pickup truck, leaving in a big hurry.” Clapp’s steely gaze swung to the policeman. “That right?”

“That’s right,” Bryan admitted. “I fired a couple rounds but I didn’t hit anything. Light was bad.”

Clapp turned back to Thursday. “Somebody driving a pickup truck shot Dave Lee last night. Somebody driving a pickup truck tried to break into the autopsy room this morning. The only body here was Dave Lee’s.” “But why —” Thursday began slowly.

Clapp nodded his head. “That’s the question I’ve been asking myself all morning. Why would anybody want to steal a body?”

Next week: A visit to the Tarrants'.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad
Close

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader