Murder Buys A Hat

Edward Ronns

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Thrilling Detective , July 1942

 

Rookie Crown Gets the Lowdown on a “Suicide” When Georgie Puts Her Wits to Work for Him!

THE call about the suicide came in at nine in the evening and, on our way over to the Judson Hotel, Sullivan gave me a last admonitory lecture. He sat beside me in the Headquarters sedan, resting his massive jaw on the head of his hickory walking stick. His battered hat was jammed down over his gray hair and his fat little face was smug and superior. His voice was acrid.

“I dislike rookie detectives,” he said. “They're always getting underfoot, asking fool questions, and they fumble the ball every time it comes their way. They mess up clues, ask leading questions at the wrong time, and generally cramp my style. I'm only taking you because Commissioner Crown asked me to break you in. But don't expect favors from me because you're his son. I'd as soon break you for a mistake as the next one.”

I tried to be polite.

“I'm not asking for any favors, Sullivan,” I said.

“You won't get any,” he snapped.

He was extra nasty with me, leaning over backward to avoid favoritism; I didn't object, but the problem was getting in my hair. Even though the whole department kept riding me for quitting college to join the force under the Old Man, I had managed to take it without losing my temper. But it was a strain.

We turned the corner into Thompson Street and I said:

“You think because I was a wild kid in school that I couldn't be of use to the force. You're wrong. Take this call we're on now, this Mrs. Athens who's just jumped from a ten-story window. I know Tony Athens and I met his wife once or twice. Athens is a gambler and a heel and his wife always was on the make. Neither got more than he deserved when they married. But I'll bet you a fifty that Mrs. Athens didn't jump from the tenth floor, as the manager says. It was murder.”

Sullivan kept his jaw on the head of his hickory stick.

“Ordinary detectives don't have fifty bucks to bet,” he said dryly.

“Make it ten,” I suggested.

“Sold, rookie,” he snapped. “Sight unseen. If you say it's murder, then it must be suicide. And when you pay me the ten, remember I said you were a fresh kid and needed your ears batted down.”

I grinned and was quiet the rest of the way.

There was a little cluster of curious people on the sidewalk outside the Judson Hotel. A couple of bluecoats cleared an aisle for us to the lobby doors when we stepped from the sedan.

IHOPED the pounding of my heart wasn't making my ears red. I saw Georgie Free almost at once. She was behind the cigar counter, rolling dice on the green felt board. She looked as smart and bright as a new dime.

I left Sullivan talking to the manager and went over to the cigar stand.

“Hello, Georgie,” I said.

“Hello, Bill. It's been a long time.”

“Sure.” I felt uncomfortable. “I guess I recognize a brush-off when I get one.”

Georgie's blue eyes were sober.

“But Bill—you're such a dope. Just because I went out with Tony Athens a couple of times—”

“And just because he gave you a five-carat rock to wear on your finger—”

“He didn't give it to me! He wanted me to keep it for him.”

“That was three weeks ago. You're still wearing it.”

Georgie looked annoyed.

“He just wouldn't take it back.”

“You could have mailed it to him,” I said sarcastically. “I know how it would pain you to throw it at his handsome mug when he crosses the lobby here.”

“Bill, this is no time to talk about that. But I wouldn't have seen him again, only you didn't come around anymore—”

Now I knew my ears were red. I started to grin at her and something prodded me painfully in the small of my back. It was the point of Sullivan's hickory stick.

Detective Crown,” he said heavily, and his gray eyes bored into mine. “Would it be too much to remind you that you are not here to chat with this attractive young lady, but to investigate the suicide of Mrs. Athens?”

Georgie grinned and patted my hand.

“Run along and do some detecting, Bill. I'll see you later.”

There was nothing I could do. Sullivan turned on his heel and limped across the lobby and I followed him. Still, it seemed to me that the birds were singing and that this might turn out to be a very fine evening indeed. Georgie always managed to make me feel exhilarated.

THERE didn't seem to be anything in it. The body of Mrs. Athens was a pitiful sight. She lay crumpled at the foot of a dim, narrow airshaft, and the ten-story fall had done the expected to her blond beauty. It bothered me to look at her; but Sullivan was cool and efficient.

He turned to the hotel manager.

“You're the one who phoned Headquarters?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Who found the body?”

“Mr. Athens. His wife didn't live here, you know. She came into the lobby about thirty minutes ago and went right up to his room. About fifteen minutes later Mr. Athens telephoned the desk, asking if I had seen his wife. I told him she hadn't come downstairs, and he hung up. Then a moment later he called again and told me what had happened.”

Sullivan rubbed his lower lip with a blunt forefinger.

“Athens is still upstairs in his rooms?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let's go up.”

ATHENS' suite was quietly and tastefully furnished, although the chambermaid apparently hadn't cleaned up yet. The windows were the French type reaching from ceiling to floor, and the one in the living room was open. A breeze stirred the gauzy curtains.

I stood at the window and looked down the airshaft to the still, crumpled body lying in a slab of light from an open basement door. While I watched a couple of men from the medical examiner's office came out with a stretcher.

Tony Athens was talking to Sullivan when I turned back to the room. His voice was smooth, not excited, with just the proper touch of respect in it.

“I was alone in the bathroom, shaving, when my wife came in. As a matter of fact, I never even saw her. If I had even guessed what she had in mind—”

He shuddered delicately. His hair was too black and too smooth, and his eyes were small and dark and seemed derisive when they settled on me. His gray pinstripe suit had been imported.

“Didn't your wife make any noise when she jumped?” I asked.

“No. We talked through the bathroom door about our pending divorce, and she insisted she wouldn't go through with it. She—” He coughed softly into his smooth gambler's hand. “She didn't want me to leave her.”

“I guess that's because you were so good to her,” I said.

Athens' eyes hardened, glittering like ice in moonlight.

“If you coppers think you've got anything on me for this, you're crazy. I was in the bathroom shaving and she was in here in the living room talking hysterically. I never heard her jump or open a window. All I knew was she had stopped talking and I had a chance to finish my shave. When I came in here she was gone, and I became worried.

“I didn't take her suicide threats seriously, but you know how it is with women. So I went out into the hall and looked down the stairs; I asked the elevator boy, and he hadn't taken her down. Then I went back to my rooms and happened to look out the window—and I saw her.”

I kept my eyes on Sullivan to see what he thought of the yarn. His square face was heavy with sympathy.

“It sounds reasonable, Athens. If you'll come with me to sign a statement of your testimony—”

“I don't have to sign anything! I've told you how it was. Am I responsible if a dame goes screwy and jumps? I couldn't help it, could I?”

“You always were a lady killer,” I said. “I don't suppose you gave her a nudge to help her on her way?”

Tony Athens' black eyes shone like pieces of jet glass.

“I'm warning you, flatfoot—”

“Shut up, Crown,” Sullivan said throatily. He actually apologized to Athens. “You must excuse young Crown. He's just been promoted to the detective division and is anxious to make good. Put it down to youthful enthusiasm and forget it.”

I started to say something, then realized I would only be opening my mouth to put my foot in it, so I turned and stalked into the bathroom. There was a safety razor on the green glazed washstand and droplets of water stood around it. I felt the towels on the rack, and one was still damp. I was disappointed.

GEORGIE was downstairs in the lobby, waiting for me when I came down alone. She was no longer on duty. She was sitting on a huge couch, and her tiny figure looked lost on it. She was wearing a new brown straw bonnet with a wisp of veil that made her look prettier than ever.

I sank down beside her with a sigh.

“Sullivan is still up there with Athens, but it seems a suicide, all right. But would I like to pin something on that Athens! I don't like his looks or the act he puts on.”

Georgie smiled demurely.

“You mean you really are jealous of him, Bill?”

“Of course I'm jealous,” I admitted.

Georgie took off her new straw hat and considered it fondly. Her wide blue eyes had a thoughtful, dreamy look.

“Bill,” she said softly, “you're having a hard time of it, aren't you? I mean, your father being the Police Commissioner and all that—”

“I'm getting along,” I said warily.

“But it would be nice if you could put one over on Sullivan and prove him wrong on this suicide, wouldn't it?”

“It would be nice and I'd gain ten bucks.”

Georgie relaxed, her eyes still dreamy.

“I'll tell you what, Bill. Mrs. Athens did not commit suicide.”

“No?”

“No. She was murdered.”

“What makes you think so?”

“It would just suit me if it were murder,” Georgie said. “Just think, if it is and you solve the case—”

“Just like a woman. Because you want it to be murder, then it is murder, eh?”

“Sure,” said Georgie brightly. She stood up, and the top of her head just grazed my chin. “Let's sit down somewhere alone, Bill. There are a lot of odd angles about this suicide that don't make sense.”

We found a secluded spot near the windows that suited me perfectly.

“What sort of things?”

“About an hour ago,” Georgie began, “before anything happened, Tony Athens telephoned down here from his room and asked me for his ring. He was excited and his voice seemed strained. He said he was coming right downstairs for the ring, yet he never showed up. Why?”

“Maybe his wife came in then.”

“No, she arrived a little later.” Georgie frowned prettily. “Anyway, I waited awhile and then I sent Sammy, the elevator boy, upstairs to see what was keeping him. Sammy said nobody was in the Athens suite.”

“Athens explained that. He said he went out to look for his wife when she disappeared.”

“Oh. Well, why should Tony suddenly want his ring back?”

I FOLDED my arms. “I'm too much of a gentleman to suggest that perhaps he'd thought it over and decided a thousand-dollar rock was a little too much.”

“You're improving, detective. Look again. Last night Tony Athens had money to burn. Yet this evening he sounded so desperate for ready cash that he asked for his ring back. The only reason I can think of for his sudden action is that he was broke.

I was still wary, but I admitted it sounded good.

Georgie rushed on:

“Well, the only reason he needed money was that he's been gambling up in his room all afternoon and needed the ring to pay off his losses.”

“So what?” I asked. “Everybody knows that Athens is a gambler.”

“Obviously he wasn't playing solitaire. So someone else was in that room!” Georgie finished triumphantly.

I was startled, all right.

“You mean, whoever was gambling with Athens was in the room when Mrs. Athens jumped?”

“Of course. Someone witnessed the whole affair. It's got to be like that.”

“Athens says he was alone,” I argued. “He may be lying, of course, but how are we to find out who was in his suite with him if he denies it, and if the other party refuses to come forward?”

“You're the detective, Bill.” Georgie's blue eyes glinted happily. “First chance we get let's go up to Athens' suite and look around for ourselves.”

“Right,” I nodded.

Our chance came sooner than expected.

Sergeant Sullivan and Tony Athens came downstairs ten minutes later, in time to interrupt a heavy reconciliation scene between Georgie and me. Sullivan detached himself from the gambler's immaculate figure and limped toward me. He wore his battered gray hat again, and I stood up as he approached.

Newspaper photographers were snapping Athens. He looked smug.

“Well, Detective Crown,” Sullivan said, “have you completed your investigations?”

“Not quite,” I said.

“Then wipe the lipstick off your face. And there's a little matter of ten dollars due me—”

“Maybe you're satisfied,” I told him; “but I'm not. I'm sticking around for awhile.”

Sullivan's mouth twitched in what he may have thought was a grin. “Suit yourself.”

He went away, leaning on his hickory stick, and took Tony Athens through the street door with him. I gave them five minutes, then Georgie went for the elevator while I used my badge to get a passkey from the hotel manager.

It didn't seem too hopeful. Even if I'd had fingerprint apparatus and discovered strange prints, that wouldn't have proved anything. I roamed about the deserted suite without any particular plan in mind, searching Athens' desk for possible I.O.U.'s while Georgie merely sat in a deep leather chair and looked cute. At the end of ten minutes I was ready to give up.

“Even if there was somebody in here,” I said helplessly, “how are we going to find out who it was?” Georgie crossed silken legs and smiled sweetly.

“It was Mr. Lockham,” she said.

“Who?”

“Mr. Gerald T. Lockham. He lives here in the hotel on the ninth floor. He's the witness we want.”

I COULD have kissed her, she looked so darned sweet and innocent of gray matter.

“I suppose you read that from the writing on the walls,” I said snappishly.

“No, Bill.” She stood up. “I know it was Mr. Lockham from these things.” She pointed to three articles in the room: an ashtray full of cigar butts, Belvedere Longs; a heavily indented leather chair drawn up to a bridge table; and a bottle of Kelsey's Five-Star Scotch.

“Tony Athens only smokes cigarettes, not cigars,” she explained. “So we're looking for a man who smokes Belvedere Longs. Well, I operate the cigar stand, and there are quite a few men who smoke that brand. But look at the chair. Somebody heavy dented that leather cushion. And then there's the bottle of Kelsey's. Only one man in this hotel is fat, smokes Belvederes and drinks Kelsey's. That's Lockham.”

She grinned at me and stood on tiptoe to kiss the edge of my jaw.

“Don't take it so hard, Bill, just because I surprise you with some brainwork.”

“You should write fiction,” I said.

Georgie walked restlessly up and down the long living room. My nerves were on edge, wondering when Athens would return.

“All right, so you've pulled a rabbit named Gerald T. Lockham out of your new straw hat,” I said. “Athens did have company, probably gambling with Lockham. But if Lockham is innocent of Mrs. Athens' death, and knows something about it, why hasn't he shown up? And if Athens is innocent, why should he lie about Lockham's presence here and claim he was alone.” I turned to the door. “I'm going down and have a chat with your genie.”

Georgie settled herself in a chair again. I wasn't gone long. Five minutes satisfied me that Lockham wasn't home. I checked up and found pajamas like balloons, a box of Belvedere Longs and an empty bottle of Kelsey's in a table drawer. I knew then that Georgie was right in her deductions. I went back upstairs.

Before I could say anything, Georgie murmured:

“Mr. Lockham wasn't there.”

“No,” I began, “but—”

“Of course not,” she nodded. “And there's a very good reason why Lockham hasn't shown up.”

“I suppose Lockham is dead, too,” I jeered.

“Exactly, Bill.”

I sank slowly into a chair and stared at her.

“No,” I whispered, “you can't do this to me.”

“Don't be silly. While you were gone I looked around some more. Come over to the doorway and examine the floor. Tell me what you see.”

A strange excitement glinted in her eyes. I got up and examined the waxed floor in the foyer. Sure enough, there were two long irregular scratches in the wax that had left a faintly dirty trail. I straightened, and a little chill danced up and down my spine.

“Somebody was dragged out of here and his heels scraped the floor,” I said grimly.

GEORGIE darted over to Athens' desk.

“Here's something else, Bill. The chambermaid didn't make up this suite yet—I guess Athens didn't want his game disturbed this afternoon—so you can see there's a little dust on everything. The inkwell, the blotter—see?”

I nodded.

Georgie went on:

“Now look at this paper knife. Could you kill somebody with it?”

It was shiny, heavy and sharp enough. I nodded again.

“One more thing.” Georgie's eyes were dancing. “There's an afternoon Record here that doesn't look like it's been read, but the inside section is missing.”

“All right, Sherlock,” I said. “Let me do it this time. You think Athens killed Lockham with this paper knife, used half the newspaper to clean up the knife—which left it nice and shiny while the rest of the things are still dusty—then he dragged Lockham out of this suite because Lockham was too heavy for Athens to carry. Is that it?”

She patted my cheek. “I'm proud of you, Bill.”

“Sure,” I said sourly. “I show promise, don't I?”

Georgie was silent, watching me as if she expected me to pull a rabbit out of my ear. Finally she said:

“Well, what are you waiting for? Aren't you going to arrest Athens for murdering his wife and Mr. Lockham?”

“Look, kitten, everything we got so far is pure guesswork. There's not one thing we could use as concrete evidence.”

“Then let's find out where Athens stowed Lockham's body,” she said, as simply as suggesting a walk around the block. “Will that be proof enough?”

“Proof for us, yes. It'll show we're on the track.”

Georgie's eyes became thoughtful again.

“Athens couldn't have hidden the body very far. After all, he had to carry it or drag it, and any moment he could have been discovered. It should be hidden nearby.”

We left Athens' apartment. Georgie was waiting for my passkey at a linen closet down the hall. It occurred to me that she was taking this whole business as a game and hadn't the slightest notion of the danger attached to it. I came up to her and opened the closet door, but we drew a blank. It was just filled with folded linen.

THERE were two others down the hall, and we tried them with equal results. I looked at the fire-escape.

“We're one floor below the roof?” I asked.

Georgie nodded.

We went up the fire tower. It was a cool night, with a clear sky and enough starlight to show us the way. From far below came the sound of traffic, a muted hum. I took Georgie's hand as we stepped onto the graveled roof.

There wasn't much to obstruct our view. The parapet cast long narrow shadows around the edges of the roof and at one end, standing on low trestles, was the watertank. There were deep shadows here. I headed in that direction, my shoes crunching on the gravel. Georgie tripped along behind me, holding her precious straw bonnet on her head against the breeze that swept the roof.

We were almost stumbling on top of it before I saw it. The body was crammed between the narrow trestles so that only the feet, clad in heavy expensive cordovans, were showing. I moved Georgie behind me and used my pocket flash on the dead man.

I saw just enough of him to make certain he was heavy and stout and that there was a knife wound in his back.

“Is that your Mr. Lockham?” I asked Georgie quietly.

“Y-yes.” She looked frightened. “And to think we practically conjured him out of thin air!”

I steered her toward the fire door and said firmly:

“What you're going to do now, young lady, is to go downstairs, take a cab and drive straight home, lock your bedroom door and go to sleep. I'll see you in the morning.”

“But Bill—”

“Don't argue, kitten. This is no longer a game. The only way we can convict Athens now is to catch him trying to remove this corpse. He'll try it tonight, and I'm going to be here waiting for him when he does.”

Georgie looked doubtful—for once.

“But why should he? He wouldn't take such an awful risk.”

“Yes, he will,” I said; and I felt pleased for the chance to explain something to her for a change. “He must move the body before it's discovered. He'll probably send for his trunk on some pretext and ship the body out of town and bury it somewhere in the country. Why shouldn't he risk it? Nobody suspects there's been even one murder—let alone two.

“Lockham hasn't entered into the case at all, so far as the police are concerned. Nobody suspects a second corpse, and Athens thinks he's safe enough. But he must get rid of it tonight. And the only way we can get convincing proof of his guilt is to catch him with a corpse on his hands.”

Georgie protested weakly: “But the danger, Bill—”

“I've got a gun,” I assured her.

She started to argue, but I managed to maneuver her toward the fire door. She was just saying that she refused to miss any of the excitement when I suddenly clapped a hand over her mouth and cut off her words. She was too surprised to struggle.

“Be quiet and follow me,” I whispered. “Somebody's coming up the fire stairs.”

I took my hand from across her mouth and pulled her around the fire door and squeezed against the wall, scarcely breathing.

We were none too soon. Light suddenly flattened out on the gravel roof as the heavy door was opened. At first it was just a long slit of yellow streaming into the night, then it widened into a slab of brightness. A man's silhouette flitted across it, the fire door thudded softly as it swung shut, then there was just the silent starlight around us.

Georgie sighed softly. I moved away from her and reached for the gun on my hip. There was nothing to be seen on the broad, flat expanse of roof. For a moment I was panicky, wondering if I was being stalked instead of the stalker. Then a shadow detached itself from the deep gloom around the water tower and moved back to the fire door.

THE shadow seemed grotesque and misshapen, not human, until I realized it was that of a man doubled over with a burden on his back. I knew what the burden was, and my heart started pounding like a kettledrum.

I pressed back against the wall of the fire tower until the footsteps were almost at the door. Then I stepped forward and rapped harshly:

“All right, Athens! Put it down and get your hands up!”

I was too confident. He straightened, and seemed to push himself toward me in two sections, dividing himself. In the split second before I ducked I realized he had thrown Lockham's body at my legs, rolling it off his shoulders so that it crashed against me and staggered me off balance.

My gun crashed wildly, flaming at the stars. Georgie screamed. I left my feet in a long dive and hit Tony Athens in the midsection.

He had a gun and he was as wiry and slippery as an eel, wriggling out from under me. His breath panted in my face. He managed to club me across the cheek with his gun barrel, and when my grip relaxed momentarily he staggered toward the fire door.

He got it open just in time to crash headlong into Sergeant Sullivan's squat figure. Both went down in a tangle of arms and legs. I came to my feet and stood aside for a moment, enjoying the spectacle of Tony Athens' fist sinking deep into Sullivan's stomach.

I took my time, picking a moment when Athens' head was in the clear, and then carefully smacked the butt of my gun behind his ear. He folded up like a house of cards.

“Are you all right, Sergeant?” I asked. I acted solicitous as I helped him to his feet.

He puffed and grunted and felt his face.

“You were a little slow, weren't you?” he growled.

“Remember, Sergeant, I'm just a beginner.”

His gray eyes slid to Lockham's body and widened. “What goes on here?”

“Well,” I said, “I just caught Tony Athens red-handed.” I told him who Gerald T. Lockham was. “Tony Athens killed him, and I found the body and decided to wait until Tony got a chance to move it; then I jumped him.”

He looked somewhat surprised.

“Well and well. The commissioner told me to keep an eye on you. He said you couldn't take care of yourself. When I heard the shots I thought he was right, but I dunno. You seem to have done a good job. What's it all about?”

“When Tony comes to, he'll probably tell you he was gambling with Lockham and lost his shirt. Lockham probably pressed him for immediate cash. They quarreled and he drove a knife into Lockham's back. Mrs. Athens unfortunately arrived in time to witness it. She hated Tony's guts and now she had something on him that would fry him. So there was nothing for Tony to do but push his wife out the window, drag Lockham's body up here until he could conveniently remove it, and call the cops to say how unfortunate it was for his wife to have committed suicide.”

SULLIVAN breathed heavily.

“And how did you figure all this out about Lockham?”

“You can read it all in my report, Sergeant,” I said. “After we settle a little matter of ten dollars that's due me.”

I had the money in my pocket when I remembered Georgie, and for a moment my heart turned to a lump of ice. I ducked around the fire tower and heard her sobbing. She was sitting on the roof parapet, a tiny forlorn little figure, holding her new hat in her hand.

I grabbed her and gasped:

“For Pete's sake, are you hurt?”

“N-no.”

“Then why the tears?”

She showed me her new straw hat.

“When Tony Athens fired at you,” she said, “his bullet knocked my hat off my head, and in the excitement I stepped on it. Now it's ruined—and it cost ten dollars.” I took her tear-streaked face in my hands and kissed her.

“It's all right, kitten, I'll buy you another.”

She smiled tearfully. “You'll be buying me lots of things from now on.”

I swallowed. “You mean—”

“Exactly what I said, Bill, dear. I'm going to marry you.”

I didn't argue with her. I could see where any ambitious detective would consider Georgie a fine asset.