Murder Mustn't Miss

Robert Sidney Bowen

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EText from pulpgen.com

Popular Detective , September, 1947

Private Investigator Chet Lacey takes the case of a lovely suspected murderess, and makes photographs point the clues!

IT WAS a lovely spring day, and when she walked into the office of Chester Lacey, Private Investigator, which is me, everything seemed even more lovely. She looked and walked just like that. And with all the physical formations to boot. I won't waste words other than to say she was a little spun gold bundle any guy would love to take home to show mother. Secretly I hoped she hadn't come to see me about getting a divorce from the big brute, because I don't handle that sort of trade. And I definitely wanted to see more of this baby. Much more!

“Mr. Lacey, I want to pay you for some advice.”

Just like that. Even before I was able to crack the greeting smile, and get up out of my chair. As she said it she took a hundred dollar note from her purse and placed it on my desk blotter. And lastly she sat down in my client's chair. Nothing retiring about that young lady, and it sounded a sour note. I looked at the money, but didn't touch it. Then I looked at her.

“I'll give you one hundred dollars of advice, if I can,” I said. “And if I can't, you're still out a hundred bucks. If that suits you, start telling me.”

Very blunt? So what? She was very, very lovely, but I know a whole lot of very lovely, lovely dames. Besides, I didn't like the way she took over as though that was that. However, she nodded that the deal was okay by her.

“I am Mrs. Carleton,” she said with a little twisted smile. “Mrs. Roger Stevens Carleton.”

Bingo! It was interesting right from scratch! Roger Stevens Carleton had been one of those so-called Boy Wonders on the wheat exchange some years back, and the cash he had piled up had really formed a pile. Since then he had dabbled in this and that in our fair city, and gone right on collecting the coin of the realm. I knew him only by reputation as a nice enough fellow, but very sharp in a business way. That his lovely young wife was in my office should be taken as some kind of a compliment for the Lacey.

“Yes, Mrs. Carleton?” I murmured, and gave her just the right smile.

She seemed to think things over a moment before continuing.

“It is common knowledge among our friends, and even to the press,” she said slowly, “that I have wanted a divorce from my husband for quite some time. It is also known that he has refused to give me one, and that I have not a single ground on which to file suit. Now—”

I LIFTED a hand, to stop her, and then let her watch me pick up her century note, fold it, and slip it into my pocket.

“Sorry, but I don't handle divorce cases,” I said. “In fact, I don't even give advice on them!”

Her chin came up and her eyes flashed, and I knew then what they mean about angry women being even more desirable.

“I am not here about a divorce, Mr. Lacey!” she said tight lipped. “And as you have accepted my money, kindly be good enough to let me tell my story!”

She came very close to getting her hundred dollars shoved down her milky white throat. But it was in my pocket so I shoved the urge aside. I just nodded and gave her the steady calm eye.

“What I have just told you was background, so that you can better understand the position I find myself in,” she said. “An hour ago, Mr. Lacey, I returned to our home from a shopping trip to find my husband on the living room floor—dead! There was a gun close by him, and my first reaction was that he had committed suicide. I was so stunned by shock that I did not realize what I was doing. I rushed to his side, and without thinking picked up the gun. And it was right then that it happened!”

That last postponed a couple of questions I had ready.

“What happened?” I asked.

The peaches and cream in her face had paled out. She shivered violently, and dug her upper little white teeth into her lower ruby lip. I had to wait several seconds.

“The murderer took a flashlight picture of me through the open French windows,” she said. “A picture of me bending over my dead husband with the murder gun in my hand! I didn't actually realize for several seconds what had happened. And then it was too late. The murderer had taken his picture and disappeared completely in the grounds. I haven't called the police. And, naturally, I don't want to do so. At any rate, I want your advice first.”

She got the first part of my advice in the form of a question.

“Do you know Harold Starke?”

“The lawyer? Yes.”

“The very best in the business,” I nodded. “My advice is for you to retain him at once. That's the only chance you stand—if any.”

That last jolted her. She looked, and was, a very scared lady.

“You mean—” she said, and stopped there.

“No cop, or a jury, would believe that story,” I told her bluntly. “It's just too fantastic.”

“But, it's true!” she fairly hurled the words across the desk at me. “Besides, I haven't told you all of it!”

I lifted my brows as a sign for her to go ahead and tell me the rest of it. She hesitated a moment, and then really threw a high hard one.

“Mr. Lacey, I will pay you twenty-five thousand dollars to catch the man who took that picture, and prove that he murdered my husband. And I can help you right now by telling you who he was!”

Twenty-five thousand smackers, and my bank balance being what it was at the moment!

“Go ahead and help me then,” I said.

“His name is Jordon Hatch,” she said. “He used to be manager of one of my husband's companies. Both Hatch and my husband were camera fiends, and as a result Hatch was often at our house as a guest. He was young, and very nice, and I became quite fond of him. But he misunderstood my fondness, and became much too attentive. I had to speak to my husband, and—and now I'm terribly sorry that I didn't try to work it out some way, myself.”

“Your husband hit the roof?” I said, and held back the grin.

“He did,” she affirmed. “And Hatch several times! There was a terrible scene that very night when Hatch came out. My husband was like a madman. I was terribly frightened, and helpless to stop him. He fired Hatch on the spot, literally kicked him out of the house, and threatened all manner of things if Hatch didn't leave town at once, and not come back. Knowing that my husband was powerful enough to do most anything, Hatch acted on his advice at once. At least I imagine he did because I never saw or heard of him again. And that was a good five years ago.”

“Servants,” I said, as the Lacey brain started sifting thoughts. “Any around the night of the fight? And what about today?”

“Today there were none,” she said. “We were to leave tomorrow for our mountain lodge, and they have all been sent on ahead to get it ready. At that other time, I don't know. The only one who has been with us that long is Mrs. Jones, our cook. Whether she was there that night, and heard, I could not say. I . . . Mr. Lacey, you will take the case and catch Hatch, won't you? If I go to the police goodness knows what will happen!”

SHE stopped and fumbled for words. And before I could say anything she found them.

“Oddly enough, I did think of calling the police at first,” she said. “Then I remembered once hearing my husband speak very highly of your ability to solve things. I decided to speak to you first. I hope I haven't done the wrong thing.”

The lady had me! The cops instead of me? Perish the thought! But I didn't have the chance to comment on whether she'd done right or wrong. She beat me by pulling the second surprise of the day. She dipped a hand into her purse, took something out, and placed it on the desk. It was a gun! A dinky little .22 a well built man could almost carry behind his ear.

“That's the gun he used to shoot my husband,” she said. Then as hysteria started her voice up the scale, she cried, “What mad impulse made me pick it up so he could take that picture? He must have known. He must have known a woman would do a thing like that!”

I grinned, shrugged, and looked at the gun. But I didn't touch it.

“Yours?” I asked, looking at her.

She shivered violently again, and shook her head.

“Heavens, no!” she gasped. “I'm mortally afraid of guns. I wouldn't own one for the world. But I put my fingerprints on it when I picked it up. Isn't that the way police convict people? By the finger prints on guns? I thought if mine . . .”

She let the rest trail off, and looked at me like a little girl mutely pleading for the great big beautiful doll in the store window. I got my gaze away from her eyes, and forced myself to look down at the gun. I started to count slowly to ten, but by the time I got to eight I had made the decision. A decision for the Lacey to stick his neck out a mile farther than he had ever done before. I picked up the desk pen and held it out.

“The retainer will be half of the amount you mentioned,” I said.

She made a little noise that was probably of joy, took the pen and slipped her other hand into her purse. She unfolded the little checkbook, spread the ink in the proper places, and gave the result to me. I blotted it, and slipped it into the same pocket with her century note. Then I pointed at the gun.

“Take that, and go home,” I said. “When you get there phone the police and report the murder of your husband. When—”

“But—”

“Do as I say, or take back your check!” I cut her off. “As soon as you've called the police, call me. I'll get out there just as soon as the cops do. They won't like it, but you can tell them you've retained me to help solve the crime. Tell the police what you told me. Except about the flash picture. Never mind that part. Just say you came home, saw your husband, and picked up the gun without thinking. Now, your shopping trip. What stores did you go to? What did you buy? I will want to check your alibi, too!”

She didn't like that, and for the briefest of seconds I thought her eyes rested on my pocket containing her check. Then she gave a little sigh, and gave me all the dope. I took notes so she'd know I wasn't kidding.

“But, the police, Mr. Lacey!” she finished in a desperate appeal. “That'll mean those horrid newspaper people!”

“Those horrid newspaper people don't count!” I stopped her. “What counts with you is whether or not you're going to sit in the electric chair! Now, take this gun and go home. I'll wait right here for your call!”

She struggled with that for the length of time it would take you to bat an eyelash. Then she picked up the gun, dumped it into her purse, and left. About twenty minutes later I was brought out of a very unpleasant thought trance by the jangle of my phone. It wasn't Mrs. Carleton at the other end of the wire. It was some guy, and his voice was well muffled.

“Lacey? Get your nose out of that Carleton dame's mess, and fast! Two killings don't mean a thing to me!”

The click at the other end told me he had hung up.

I HAD certainly made an understatement when I'd told Mrs. Carleton that the cops wouldn't like my being called in. Sol Bierman, Chief of Homicide, and an old pal of mine, was burned to a crisp when I walked into the Carleton mansion a few seconds after him and his boys. As a matter of fact, it was touch and go with Sol to boot me out or let me stay. I guess our long cat and dog friendship finally tipped the scales in my favor.

But I was very emphatically warned to just look, and listen, and shut up. I did all three, and, frankly, when the usual questioning got underway, I wished more and more I hadn't come at all. In fact, had never seen the lovely Mrs. Carleton. Bierman never was anybody's dope, and he wasn't being one then. Yes, brother, I sweated a lot wondering if he was smelling a rat, and I was that rat!

Anyway, Mrs. Carleton held up her end. She told her story in a quiet, controlled voice. And just enough turned away so that she didn't have to look at the dead Mr. Carleton on the floor. He was flat on his back, arms and legs thrown out. And the bullet had caught him dead center between the eyes. The eyes were open, and maybe it was the funny look death can give to the eyes, but for me they seemed to hold a stunned surprise in them.

I thought Bierman would swallow the hunk of gum he was chewing when she explained about picking up the gun in her stunned state. But he held himself in check and took the gun she gave him, and put it in his pocket with hardly a glance.

Then while he was asking where she'd been, and so forth, I casually strolled about the living room. It was a cozy little place, just a few square feet smaller than Madison Square Garden. The French windows she had told me about were open, and I gave them a careful looking over.

As a matter of fact, it was while I was inspecting those French windows there was a hullabaloo in the front hall. I spun around just in time to see a big wavy-haired, heman type come charging into the living room with one of Sol's cops hanging onto his arm. The lad shook off the cop in nothing flat and went right to the lady's side.

“I came as fast as I could, Ginny, but what—Good heavens!”

Wavy hair had spotted the corpse. His big blue eyes went wide, and his blocking back jaw dropped.

“What's the matter with Roger?” he wanted to know a split second later.

“He's dead!” Bierman snapped. “And who the devil are you?”

Wavy hair started to scowl, and maybe get tough. But he suddenly seemed to change his mind.

“I'm Kerry Drake, the painter,” he said. “Mrs. Carleton phoned me and said something dreadful had happened, and would I come right over. Ginny darling, what on earth?”

The last was to her, of course, and was she the cute little blushing bride. I wanted to step over and kick in her pearly white teeth, but I didn't. I let Bierman give her the dirty look, and the business.

“Did you call anybody else, Mrs. Carleton?” he asked in his very special acid sweet voice.

She went even redder, and looked like she was going to cry. Drake put a protecting arm about her shoulders, and glowered defiance at the whole wide world.

“I'm sorry, Inspector,” she said. “But, Kerry—Mr. Drake has been a close friend of ours for years. I just wanted him here, that's all.”

Bierman shot me a look I could take any way I wanted, and then went on with his questioning as though Drake was up on the roof. No special questions. I could tell he was simply waiting for the police medic to get through. I was waiting for the medic to get through myself. He did at the end of some ten minutes. Bierman's questioning eyes were on him the instant he straightened up from the corpse.

“Eleven o'clock,” he said. “Maybe ten minutes either way. I can give it to you on the nose later.”

Bierman nodded, and made a motion to indicate that the stiff was all his. Then Sol looked Drake straight in the eye and asked the obvious question. Wavy hair laughed and gave his answer fast.

“I've been in my studio all morning,” he said. “My man and two models can swear to that. But why should you think I—”

The look Bierman gave him stopped the rest. Why should Bierman think he had gunned Carleton? That was a laugh! The rushing in, the strong arm about her shoulders, and the wavy hair and all made it a perfect picture for even the dumbest cop on Sol's force. It was well known the lady wanted a divorce and couldn't get one!

Well, there were a few more words tossed about, and then what I hoped would happen, happened. I mean, Bierman did not take Mrs. Carleton down and toss her in the cooler. But, he told her to stay put, and I knew that he would post one of his men to make sure she did. But just so long as he didn't stick her in jail it was okay by me. With her there my own plan of action wouldn't stand a chance.

EVENTUALLY it was time for the party to break up. I worked things right and got close enough to her to give with the parting word while everybody else was out of ear shot.

“You'll be hearing from Hatch,” I said. “The instant you do, get in touch with me. The very instant, remember!”

She nodded that she caught it and moved away. So did I move away. Outside to my car. I was behind the wheel when Bierman came over to me. He was grinning, but not with those ice cube eyes of his.

“What do you think, Chester?” he asked.

None of the “Chet” stuff with him when he meant business. I shrugged and made a gesture with one hand.

“I could enjoy busting that big boy's alibi,” I said. “What do you think?”

“That there is a very bad smell back in there,” he said with a thumb over his shoulder. “I only hope, Chester, that you didn't light any smudge pots for smoke screens!”

I drove away from the late Roger Stevens Carleton's dump a very sober guy. Sol Bierman would crack down on his own mother for less! So Lord protect me if the things I thought were wrong, and the things I planned to do turned out wrong, too!

I spent the rest of the day working the Lacey brain hard. I also made a few phone calls, got off a couple of wires, and made a short tour of our leading stores. By then it was a day as far as I was concerned.

The way I figured it the next move was up to the one who pulled the trigger of that camera flashlight bulb. Of course I could have dropped down to Police Headquarters and tried to get Sol Bierman's angle on the thing. But knowing Sol, I would probably wind up giving him my angle on it. So I steered clear, enjoyed a movie for part of the evening, and went to my apartment, and to bed at a respectable hour.

The next move was made early the following morning. I hadn't been in my office five minutes, and was dumping the last of the daily trash mail into the basket, when the phone rang. It was the lovely Mrs. Carleton. Something important had happened, and would I come out right away. I said I would and did.

On the way out I thought I was tailed by another car. I wasn't sure, and I was in too much of a hurry to make sure. And just for the record, I wasn't worried, either. Anyway, not very much. In my business you get all kinds of threats over the phone. Some that are definitely meant, too.

Well, as I went up the steps to the front door I noted that I was being tabbed by the lad Bierman had left on guard. He was behind a tree. I let him stay there and jabbed the bell. She answered seconds later, and my it was a beautiful morning! Indeed a lady worth shooting her husband to get!

She greeted me with words and a smile and led me into a sort of breakfast room, I guess you'd call it. Or maybe the word is solarium. Anyway, there was a table with coffee and the usual morning fixings. She didn't offer me a cup. She got right down to business.

The business was a good sized envelope mailed in the city at eleven o'clock the night before. Inside was a quick photo proof. It wasn't a very good shot, but it was clear enough for the things I wanted to see.

Yup, it was a picture of the lady bending over her dead husband. And in her right hand was the little dinky .22 she had toted down to my office and toted back home again. All in all the picture would make any jury do a whole lot of heavy thinking, even though she did have her skirt hiked just a shade too high as she sat in the witness chair.

I guess I looked at that photo proof for five full minutes without saying a word. Then still silent I got up and walked over into the living room. Holding the photo this way and that I sighted on the French windows. When I had I satisfied myself on a couple of things I turned to her.

“Anything else?” I asked. “Any note?”

SHE nodded, took the photo from me, and turned it over. I had to blush a little, but a lot of things had been on my mind. And still were. Anyway, on the back somebody had printed in pencil.

Answer your phone at nine-thirty sharp, tomorrow morning!

I looked at my watch and saw that it was then nine twenty-five.

“You've an extension to that?” I asked, and pointed at the phone in the corner.

“Four,” she told me. “Two upstairs, one in the kitchen, and one in the hall.”

“You answer this one,” I said. “I'll listen from the hall. Agree to anything he says. Understand? Agree to anything he says!”

“Of course,” she said. Then laying one hand lightly on my arm, “I'm terribly frightened, Mr. Lacey. I mean about Inspector Bierman. He's— You will catch Hatch, won't you? I mean—”

Whatever she meant she didn't say. At that instant the phone rang about three minutes ahead of time. I made the hall phone in nothing flat. And by leaning back I could see her at the living-room phone. That was a break for me because I was able to take my receiver off at the exact instant she took her's off. In short, no extra suspicious click for the person at the other end to hear. It was the same muffled voice that had told me to step out of the picture, or else.

“You get the picture?” he opened with. And when she said she had, he went on, “Okay, listen, because I'll say this only once. You're paying for the negative of that picture in installments, see? So much each time. This time it's five thousand, cash. Small bills. I know the cops are watching your place, but you can go to the bank okay. Do that, if you haven't got it around. Put it in an envelope, and seal it. Then drive out to the second bridge on the old Hawthorne Turnpike and—”

“The police!” she cut in on him. “They may follow me!”

“Let them!” he snapped. “But don't let them see you toss the envelope over the second bridge. Drive close to the wall. You can do that. Five o'clock would be good. And don't miss. Somebody else might like a proof of that picture. Good bye!”

He hung up, she hung up, and so did I. She was white as a summer cloud when I rejoined her, and if I had had time I maybe would have suggested that we both have a drink. But I didn't have time so I simply told her to be sure and follow orders, and that I would get in touch with her later. Maybe not until evening.

She certainly didn't want me to leave so soon. She was a scared kid, and I could tell there were a couple of hundred things she wanted to ask me. I checked them, though, with the Lacey cheek pat and smile technique, and made my exit. On the way down the drive I waved at Bierman's boy hiding behind the tree, and then wished I hadn't. No percentage in getting every cop sore at you.

Well, I put in a few very, very busy hours, and along about four o'clock I was communing with myself under the second bridge of the old Hawthorne Turnpike. Not exactly communing, though. It was my turn to be a very a worried person.

Everything had gone fine so far. That was just the trouble. In my business it's only the finish that counts. What happens in between is more or less routine, or make it up as you go along. But the finish? Your life against somebody else's life. And as I had dealt the cards for the next play, the certain somebody else was going to be given first crack at my life.

No, not exactly communing with myself. Checking over detail by detail, and praying more than a little. No, I wasn't in the water under the bridge. The river that was once there had dried up years ago. It was now just a rocky, scrub growth filled gully where you could hide a couple of companies of infantry without any trouble at all.

Of course, I had ditched my car a couple of miles back and walked the rest of the way. As I'm not the walking type that was severe strain on the Lacey in itself. But it was only the beginning of much, much worse.

From my vantage spot I could see anything that came sailing over the bridge railing. And I also had a good view of where any object would drop into the gully. In short, I couldn't miss spotting anybody picking up that object, even in the dark.

HOWEVER, all the early spring insects and things in the world had also picked that same spot. And as it approached five o'clock, and the light faded, the confounded insects whistled up all their cousins, and their uncles, and their aunts. Added to that, I couldn't smoke, and I had neglected to bring along a comforting pocket flask. It was definitely a very hard way to earn twenty-five thousand bucks!

Well, just about on the dot of five I heard a car come along the road above. It didn't slacken speed as it went rumbling over the bridge. But before it was across I was watching a plain white envelope slip- slide down through the air into the gully. It disappeared in the bushes about fifty feet from where I crouched.

So far, so good. But a minute later I heard another car, and as its engine droned louder and louder I held, my breath and crossed all my fingers. One of Bierman's men tailing Mrs. Carleton, of course, but had he seen her toss out the envelope?

I really sweated for the next five or ten seconds, and then finally let the cramped air out of my lungs in a sigh of blessed relief. The second car didn't slow down either. It kept right on rumbling across the old bridge, and went away.

Well, that was that! And, now, what next?

By half past five I was really sweating, and training my gun on every blade of grass that moved, or seemed to move. By six o'clock it was pretty dark, and I had to rely on my ears more than my eyes. And that certainly didn't help any.

It was the perfect opportunity for my imagination to go off on a fling. And it did! By six-fifteen I was hearing a herd of elephants charging down that dried-up stream bed. That and a few other imaginative items that sent the lumps of lead in my stomach churning faster and faster.

And then, suddenly, it happened! And happened exactly opposite to the way I had planned it. Yes, I had planned it for the money collector to know that I was there waiting. Planned it for him to ease up and get first crack at me. But with me knowing it! What crossed things up was that I didn't see or hear him. I just went flat as it seemed like the bridge had dropped down on me.

And flat is right, too. My gun flew from my hand, my face was pushed six inches into the stony dirt, and all the fire works ever exploded went off in my brain. Once I was hit by a beer truck, but that was a love tap compared to what nailed me in that brush filled river bed.

By the luckiest break of my life, though, I did not pass out. And by an equally lucky break the person that fell on me slipped, and rolled off just a bit. Instinct, I guess, made me roll to the other side. Anyway, I got one leg clear, and I brought up that knee with everything I had. It struck where it hurts a lot, and the gurgled scream that followed it instantly did a lot toward putting out the exploding fireworks in my skull.

I rolled even more and got both arms free. Twice I drove both fists into hard but yielding muscle. It was like hitting the side of a ship. The guy grunted, and just as I was pushing up onto my knees I got a clip over the left ear that felt like my head was being torn from my neck.

As a matter of fact, it completely paralyzed me down to my toes for a moment. And that moment was more than enough for the other guy. He was a lunging black shadow, and suddenly my face was down into the dirt again. But not the rest of me.

My back was arched, and I arched it more, and twisted violently at the same time. It threw him off but his clawing nails drew white pain down my face. Through the swirling red fog I heard my own voice let out a yell.

Throwing out both hands I managed to catch one of his arms. In the same movement I came up on one foot. That last saved my life. Dark as it was I still saw the rock he held in his other hand. I ducked just in time, and the rock hit me a glancing but stunning blow on the side of my leg. Had I not been up on one foot I would never have seen him bashing with that rock. It would have simply caved in my skull, and that would have been that.

It didn't, though, and I was able to duck under his next effort to bring that rock down. Duck under his arm and dive for the faintly shining thing on the ground that was my gun. I got it into my fist, and rolled over on my back in practically one movement.

He thought that was his chance. He was on his knees, rock in his upraised hand, and falling toward me. It wasn't his chance, it was mine. I put three bullets into his head and body before his dead carcass slumped down on me.

AT NINE-THIRTY that night I jabbed the bell button at the Carleton mansion. Bierman's boy was off to the side in the shadows, but I made out that I didn't even know he was there. I didn't care. I was too battered, and bruised to care how many cops were spying on me. All I wanted was in. And I got it a moment later when she answered the door.

When she saw it was me her face certainly was something to watch. But I didn't waste time watching. I just pushed in past her and shut the door myself. Then as her face continued to do tricks I took her arm, and led her into the living room. There I faced her.

“All right, Mrs. Carleton,” I said quietly, “I'll take your check for the rest of that twenty-five thousand right now. Make it out, please!”

She looked at me, and gaped at me, and tried to speak. But the words just wouldn't seem to come. Then as I just kept looking at her she went over to a little desk, and wrote out the check. I took it and put it into my pocket. Then I pushed her into a chair and took something out of my pocket. It was the negative of the flash light picture. I tossed it into her lap.

“That's what you paid me twenty-five thousand for, and there it is,” I said. “And, by the way, Hatch is dead!”

She looked down at the negative and recoiled as though it was a striking snake. Then she looked wildly at me. I laughed, but didn't put any mirth into it.

“Jordon Hatch is dead,” I said. “But he died three years ago on a Pacific island, called Saipan. But the guy you wanted me to think was Hatch is dead, too. His name is Kerry Drake. And he won't be playing house with you any more!”

Every drop of blood went out of her face, and a sickly yellow green came seeping into it. She looked at me, and through me. And all the time worked her lips silently. Eventually they formed sounds that I could understand.

“What—what are you talking about?”

I leaned forward and stuck my face a little closer to hers.

“The plot that seemed so perfect to you and Drake!” I snapped. “But was actually full of holes to anybody with half a brain. Who drummed it up, anyway? You or Drake?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. But that didn't change the picture. When she opened her eyes I was still there.

“You're—you're mad!” she snapped at me.

“Mad isn't the word, sister!” I grated at her. “I'm sore enough to knock your pretty face right out from between those ears! I just don't like women who shoot their husbands, and then hire me to get killed proving they didn't!”

“That's a lie!” she screamed. “A lie! I never—”

“You did, and shut up!” I cut her off hard.

“A lie!” she went on screaming. “I was out shopping, and when I came home—”

“Rats!” I interrupted. “I checked! You were in one shop until quarter of eleven. And in another between eleven-fifteen and eleven-thirty. In both you made certain you were seen, and known by sales clerks. The missing half hour you used to come home and shoot your husband. When—”

“A lie!” she managed to get in.

“When you'd shot him,” I talked right over her, “you rigged up his camera. On that window sill there. There's marks of the tape you used to hold it in place. You ran a wire from the shutter trigger to your hand. That just shows in the picture you took. The one you showed me. Then you took the camera and dropped it off at Drake's place. I checked, and a neighbor remembers your car driving into his place about eleven forty-five. That was of course right after you'd let yourself be seen in another store. Then you came to my office, and—”

Tears were streaming down her face, and she was washing her hands like crazy.

“Stop! Stop! It isn't true! Kerry Drake shot my husband.”

“He didn't!” I said. “His alibi was perfect. It couldn't be broken. He was at his place at the time of the murder. Part of the plan. No suspicion would be attached to him at the time of the murder! So you came to me, and I had a hunch I could see through you, sister, like a sheet of glass. Scared of guns, eh? You didn't handle the one you showed me that way. And, sister, a person scared blue by guns wouldn't have picked one up, even by accident. So I decided to play along. To figure out the angles—and get paid for it!”

I STOPPED for breath, but she didn't take advantage of the pause. “A screwy, crazy cockeyed plan that only a couple of nitwits like you and that Drake could think up!” I presently bit off at her. “You kill your husband, and take a picture of yourself holding the gun. Then you come to me with the Hatch story. When you leave, Drake threatens me over the phone. Supposed to be Hatch, of course. He develops the negative and sends you a print.

“You call me, and I'm there when he phones. So I'm dumb, see? I'm supposed to nail him as he collects the money. But what was really to happen was that I was to be put out of the picture—for keeps.

“Then what? Then you could go to the cops with the picture story, and say that I told you not to tell them because I wanted to catch Hatch. But poor Lacey was killed by this Hatch, and his body found. That would, of course, clear you of your husband's killing. And Drake has already been cleared. Beautiful! The cops would travel in circles for years hunting for some Hatch guy who killed your husband and me. But, it didn't work!”

“Please! Please! I'll give you any amount you want!”

“Your twenty-five thousand is enough!” I snarled. “Next time—which there won't be—remember they've got records in Washington of everybody who served in the war. You said Hatch was young, so I figured he'd been in service. He was, and got killed. Next time, too, tell your boy friend not to leave a camera and developing stuff around his place where people can find it. Like I found the stuff at his place an hour ago. Yeah, next time—”

I stopped, and shook my head.

“But there isn't going to be any next time for you,” I said very even and slow. “Nope! You're going to fry, sister, from that spun gold hair all the way down to your tootsies!”

She looked at me, and somehow she seemed doubly beautiful. Then a hideous expression blotted all out. She screamed hoarsely, and flung herself at me, fingernails clawing. I slapped her hard twice to help her along with the faint.

And when she fell back into her chair I walked slowly over to the phone, still a rather scared and very much worried guy. There was still the toughest part of all. Calling Sol Bierman, and getting myself and recent actions all squared away with him—if such a miracle could be worked!

P.S. I shall love Sol till I die! He plucked all of my tail feathers slowly one by one, but at least he didn't pluck my license to operate!